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Title: The Emu's Head Author: Carlton Dawe * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1900191h.html Language: English Date first posted: February 2019 Most recent update: February 2019 This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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Chapter 1. - At The Sign Op The “Emu’s Head”
Chapter 2. - A Daughter Of The Tap-Room
Chapter 3. - A Fatal Moment
Chapter 4. - The Arrival Of Cousin Edith
Chapter 5. - A New Experience
Chapter 6. - Introspection
Chapter 7. - I Love You
Chapter 8. - The Robbery
Chapter 9. - The Result
Chapter 10. - Mr. Logan’s Solicitude
Chapter 11. - Delilah
Chapter 12. - Husband And Wife
Chapter 13. - Gone!
Chapter 14. - The Redemption Of Kitty
Chapter 15. - Delilah Pays
Chapter 16. - The Cipher
Chapter 17. - Morgan’s Last Jaunt
Chapter 18. - Hall’s Plant
Chapter 19. - Into The Great Beyond
Chapter 20. - Which Concludes The Chronicle
It was a wild night in mid-July. The wind howled through the great streets with indescribable fury, driving the drenching rain with unexampled force into the faces of all belated wanderers. The gas-lamps flared dismally in the cheerless scene; no passing cab nor vehicle of any description enlivened the monotony of the patter-patter of the great drops, or the hoarse screamings of the wind; all windows were securely fastened, and blinds snugly drawn, so that if any light pervaded a chamber no ray of it could escape out into the awful night. Scarcely a human being was to be seen. Even the midnight prowlers had sought protection from the cruel storm, owning the presence of a fiend more pitiless than themselves. The city of Melbourne was given up to darkness and the tempest.
As George Vincent, hurrying from the neighbourhood of the Carlton Gardens, entered Stephen Street, or, as it is now called, Exhibition Street, and beheld the long stretch of dim gas-lamps before him he thought he had never gazed upon a more melancholy scene, and, with something like a feeling of awe, plunged into it. He felt like one of those heroes of fairy lore who make strange journeys into wild and fearful lands; for is there not something awe inspiring in a silent, sleeping city? Like a brave knight, however, he charged the dreadful passage, and a determined struggle ensued between him and the angry elements. Great Boreas! how the night roared, how the rain hissed as it pelted down upon him! Whew! Was ever such a night for gods or men? His umbrella was blown to pieces in a twinkling, and it seemed as though a hundred fiends were trying to drag the great-coat from his back. But, failing in their endeavours, they, being mischievous imps, blew it up ’round his legs, so that before he had gone many yards he was wet through to the knees. This not being in accordance with his idea of the fitness of things, he looked about him for a temporary shelter. Just here Little Lonsdale Street crosses Stephen Street and continues its narrow way westward, so that when he emerged upon the former thoroughfare he took half-a-dozen quick paces up it and thus gained a moment’s respite from the drenching storm.
As he stood listening to the furious wind which went screaming by, and watching the great drops pelt down upon an adjacent lamp, he was suddenly startled from his reverie by hearing a noise which certainly seemed more of the earth than heaven. Knowing, however, the reputation of the quarter thereabouts, he doubted not but that it was merely another drunken brawl—a thing which concerned him not; and so once more he began to contemplate his friend the lamp, wondering how long the great drops would take to beat in its quivering panes.
There was no mistaking the sound this time. It came down the dim thoroughfare on a great burst of wind, shrieking as it passed away into the night. In a moment the young man had quitted his shelter and was bounding up the street, towards the spot whence the voice had issued. About fifty yards up he struck a narrow lane on his right, a black, grim-looking passage in which a solitary lamp flared dismally, thus accentuating the surrounding darkness. Here he stood still a moment, straining his eyes and ears.
There was no doubt of it now. In the feeble glare of the light, full thirty yards up the lane, he distinguished the outlines of several figures, and, guessing that murder was at work, he bounded forward with the cry of “Police!” Those dim figures were immediately seen to stand upright, then turn about, and, like the evil spirits that they were, disappear into the darkness.
George Vincent looked about him in amazement, and had he been living in any but this most enlightened age he would, undoubtedly, have believed himself the sport of some strange hallucination, for, as far as he could see, there was no trace of the beings whom he had most certainly seen. Then there was the cry, too. Surely no immortal had ever shrieked for the police: one never couples the two. And yet he had distinctly heard that cry. He peered intently into the darkness, for like all such places the lane was badly lighted—it needs all our gas to keep good the respectable—but he could see nothing. There was an offensive odour about the place, however, which did not escape him, and this, coupled with the dangerous reputation of the locality, impressed him with the advisability of retiring while he possessed a sound skin. And this admirable thought he was about to put into execution when he heard a groan issue from the darkness to the left of him. In a few strides he had reached the spot, and, stooping low, discovered a man stretched out on his back. His first thought was to shout loudly for help, but fearing that he might bring an undesirable crowd about him, he took the man’s hand in his and asked him what was the matter.
“Who are you?” asked the man, starting up with a piteous moan.
“They’ve murdered me,” groaned the poor wretch in a weak, terrified tone. “Take me down the lane—anywhere—anywhere out of this! They’ll be at me again in a minute.”
Vincent, thinking this an excellent idea, prepared to lift the man in his arms, but the poor fellow’s groans stopped any such charitable intentions.
“No, no,” he sobbed, “no—I couldn’t stand it. Drag me. Send for the police, quick. It was Flash Jim that did it, curse him. But,” added the man with a ghastly sort of chuckle, “he didn’t get it, he didn’t get it.”
This exertion brought on a severe fit of coughing, which almost precipitated him upon that journey from which no traveller returns; but after he had successfully repulsed the attempt to hurry him into eternity, Vincent seized him beneath the arms and dragged him down the lane towards the street. He, however, had not accomplished more than half the distance before the injured one began to groan so loudly that the Good Samaritan was forced to stop through pity. Propping him up against the wall, the young man interrogated him once more as to his condition.
“I’m clean done for,” gasped the man. “They’ve cooked me this time.”
“Where are you hurt? Let me see what I can do for you.”
“I am hurt all over. You can do nothing.”
“Then let me run for help.”
“No, no—for God’s sake don’t leave me—don’t, or they’d be on me again and get it after all.”
“Very well then. I will stand by you till assistance arrives. The police are sure to be along presently.”
“D—the police,” said the dying man faintly.
“As you please,” said George, smiling in spite of his surroundings. “Yet, if I mistake not, you called for them just now?”
“Yes, yes, of course—but that was only to frighten Jim; because I hate ’em as much as he does. If I hadn’t done that he’d a-murdered me, the dog, and got it as safe as eggs.”
“Got it,” repeated the young man, his interest aroused in this indefinite statement, for “it” must have been of considerable importance to incite men to murder, “got what?”
“Look here, mate, you ain’t a trap?”
“Nor a D?”
“You’ll swear to it?”
“I will. I am merely a private citizen. I was on my way home, but, stepping up the street to escape the rain, I heard your cry—and here I am.”
“You are too late, mate.”
“Don’t say that. You may not be as badly injured as you imagine. If I could only get you out of this—”
“No, no—don’t leave me,” exclaimed the man piteously. “Don’t, if you’re a Christian. Jim’s a devil, he is, and would be on me in a second; but the cur won’t come with you here. Curse the rain,” he went on, shaking his fist at the dark sky, “why don’t it stop? As if it wasn’t bad enough for a man to die, without getting wet to the skin. Look here, mate, I don’t know who you are, but you seem straight enough, and if you’ll stand by me I’ll make your fortune. I couldn’t make my own because I couldn’t read the infernal thing, but it’s there all the same; and old Ben, before he set out on his last job, gave it to me; and Flash Jim knew I had it, but I swore I hadn’t; and to-night, like a fool, I showed it—showed it, after keeping it dark all these years—and that’s why they have done for me, curse them, curse them!”
Vincent listened to this strange talk, fully believing the man was wandering in his mind.
“I wish you would let me get some help,” he said; “or else allow me to move you.”
“No, no,” replied the man, in a low, husky voice, so low, indeed, that the young fellow had to bend over him to catch the words, “I couldn’t stand being moved. They’ve cut me somewhere about the neck, and I should choke if you touched me. But don’t be in a hurry, mate. I shall be gone in a minute, and then you can kick me down the gutter if you like. Tell me, are you rich?”
“I am anything but that.”
“That’s good to begin with,” whispered the dying man huskily. “It’s a fortune, you see, and it’ll be the making of a poor man. ‘Take it, Billy,’ said old Ben, ‘and guard it well. If I go first it’s yours, if you go it’s mine.’ That’s what old Ben said to me, mate, and you see I’ve stuck to it ever since. Just put your hand in my breast pocket, will you?” The young man did as he was bidden and extracted a pocket-book therefrom, which he held before the eyes of the dying man. “Yes, yes, the fortune’s there. But not a word to the traps, mind, not a word to the traps.”
Vincent slipped the book into one of his own pockets, and just at that moment a couple of lanterns flashed in the entrance to the lane.
“Help!” shouted the young man.
“Who is it?” whispered the dying man, “the traps?”
“Not a word, mind, not a word.”
“What’s the matter here?” asked one of the policemen as the two rushed up.
“Murder, eh?” They turned their lanterns full on the figure which Vincent had propped against the wall, and he saw a man of about fifty years of age, respectably dressed, though the clothes were now disarranged and dirty, and sodden with rain. It was a well-cut face he saw, and one which might have been handsome before age and dissipation had set their marks on it; but it was livid and ghastly now, and as he watched he saw the haggard eyes look up into the light with a defiant glance. Then the jaw dropped: the man was dead.
One of the constables here ran off for a stretcher, and while he was gone Vincent told the other that which we have already narrated, though he forgot to mention aught concerning the dead man’s pocket-book. The constable then explained that it would be necessary for him to re-state his story in the presence of the inspector, and the young man, nothing loth, accompanied the two officers when they bore away the body.
In the presence of the inspector and the two policemen George Vincent repeated his narrative; told minutely how he stood watching the lamp, how he heard the cry, how he rushed up and saw the figures hurry off; but, strange to relate, he again forgot to mention the dead man’s gift.
Mr. George Vincent, whom we have already had the pleasure of introducing, though under anything but conventional circumstances, was the only son of Mr. Samuel Horatio Vincent, a gentleman who at one time owned a considerable reputation as an architect in the city of Melbourne; but like too many gentlemen who enjoy fair reputations, Mr. Vincent was inclined to presume, and for such presumption he was fated to pay dearly. As a cat may be killed with care—and we believe no one will attempt to dispute this statement—so may a man’s reputation perish by indulgence. Being a person of illimitable ideas, which he ever strove to indulge to the top of their bent, Mr. Vincent soon found that the consequences attached to such large notions were like the notions themselves—infinite. A fine house in South Yarra, in which he entertained royally, horses, carriages, servants,—all these needed money. It was the same old story. Mr. Vincent got the money and the Jews his property. It was rather a come-down for this estimable family, but luckily, before the final catastrophe, the two daughters married fairly well, so that there were only husband and wife, with the boy George, then a lad of seventeen, to provide for. From South Yarra these three migrated to the wilds of Prahran, and though Master George experienced much sorrow in leaving the grammar school for an office, he was yet old enough to know that there was no gainsaying necessity.
Mr. Vincent, however, instead of regarding his fall as the dire calamity his friends insisted upon making it, looked upon it as a positive godsend, one of those blessings which come in the guise of curses, for it relieved him of innumerable embarrassments, and allowed him to dabble in matters more congenial to his tastes. As he had lost through speculation, while neglecting his own trade, to speculation he turned, resolved to win back fame and fortune or—or go bankrupt again if he could get the chance. Consequently he promoted banks, building societies, mining companies, irrigation schemes—in fact, there was no company of any importance in which Mr. Samuel Horatio Vincent had not his little finger. People quite believed that he was well on the way to fortune once more—for there is no way of making a fortune equal to that of handling other people’s money—but before that belief was wholly realised, Mr. Samuel Horatio Vincent gave up the ghost. Indeed, when they came to reckon up his personalty, his sole fortune consisted of one hundred and seventy-five pounds. Nevertheless, the good man had built up a considerable reputation, and if his premature demise did not quite paralyse the money market, it was known to affect several tradesmen in the neighbourhood of Prahran.
George was in his twenty-third year when his father died, and when we meet him, five years after, he was still in the same dingy office, slaving away for a stipend of three pounds a week, which, as far as he could see, was likely to remain at that figure for some time to come; for his master, Mr. Bash, was one of those good people who always think more of the spiritual than the material welfare of a man. Perhaps he might one day rise to three pounds ten; perhaps again he might recede. When man depends for subsistence on the caprices of his fellow man, he must live in constant terror of the worst. Whenever he approached Mr. Bash on the subject of a rise, that good man seized the opportunity of delivering a homily on the follies of youth and the evil of luxurious living, and when the young man somewhat flippantly replied that he should like to have the chance of living luxuriously, Mr. Bash answered, with a look of horror, that it would profit him nothing if he gained the whole world, and lost his everlasting soul.
And so he went back to his desk, and wondered if he were doomed to pass the rest of his life in this deadly dull routine. Was he for ever to be shut in by four walls, taking stock and casting up accounts? Never! And he chewed his pen till his teeth ached. But the grim walls still surrounded him, and the ponderous ledgers grinned at him as they sat on their dingy shelves. “Ha, ha,” they seemed to say, “you belong to us, you belong to us. You may fret and you may fume, but escape us you never shall.” Intolerable! Better be a counter-jumper at once. One may have to measure calico all one’s life, truly, but it must be a pleasure to measure calico for some people. And when your customer is young and chatty, and she turns up those pretty eyes of hers and asks you how much a yard, do you not feel your fingers tremble so that you cut her off a good three inches too much? Believe me, my brothers, there is something extremely fascinating in the life of a counter-jumper. At least, so George Vincent thought. To him there was something fascinating in everything but clerkship, for such a business gives a man no chance. A counter-jumper may save up till he purchases a little shop of his own; then see how handy a wife comes in. But what use can the poor clerk make of his better half? Not that George contemplated matrimony—oh, dear no! Though once he had crossed Brander’s Ferry with a young girl whose beauty had impressed him not a little. He had thought much of her soft eyes and fair face, more, in fact, than he would admit even to himself; and when, some three weeks after, he met her on the public crossing, he thought she was an old friend and raised his hat, but she, blushing vividly, hurried on with averted face. That was the last George saw of his divinity, and though for a long time after, whenever he thought of matrimony, he used to conjure up those sweet eyes and that fair face, he had now almost forgotten the lady’s existence.
Sometimes he used to think he would not mind grinding away at his desk if there were only something to hope for; but the eternal getting up and going to business, summer and winter, in rain or shine, with no hope of improvement or advancement, nothing to which he might look forward in all the years that were to come—this, this was the thing which angered him beyond endurance. Could any life be worse than that of clerkship? Was it a fit occupation for a full-grown, able-bodied man; a man who had ambition and hopes, and whose hands used to itch for something weightier than a pen? He sighed for the vanished Ballarats and the warlike stockades. He would have welcomed any change, from gold-digging to fighting. And yet he could not see how he was to avoid that fatal pen, those grinning ledgers. He grew peevish, irritable, almost misanthropic; and it is certain he developed a turn for sarcasm and cynicism which was not becoming in one so young. He had no friends, that is no intimates, and though people liked him well enough, they always sneered at his imaginary grievances, which, coming to his knowledge, was never known to sweeten his disposition. And thus he lived, and thus he thought, and in this frame of mind was he when that adventure befell him which opens this chronicle.
As he left the police quarters he made hurriedly for his hotel (having long since tired of boarding houses), pressing his hand every now and again to his pocket to feel if the murdered man’s gift were still there. It is true he was all aglow to know what that pocket-book contained, and yet, as became one who had gained a reputation for cynicism, he slackened his pace at different intervals with an exclamation of annoyance, for in spite of himself his heart and legs would run away with him. It was now about three o’clock in the morning. The rain had ceased falling, and the broken clouds scampered like mad things across the face of a sickly moon. Here and there he beheld a crouching figure slink away in the darkness, and a policeman at the corner bade him a cheery goodnight, but beyond that the city lay as quiet as a dead thing. At the corner of Bourke and Russell Streets he stood for a moment at the coffee-stall to imbibe a cup of that warm, if somewhat thick, liquid, which masquerades as the berry of Mocha, for he was thoroughly wet and cold. He did not imagine, though, that the little man who came up and ordered a similar drink had followed him every step from the police barracks. The coffee finished, Vincent hurried on to his hotel, which he entered by means of a latch-key, closing the door behind him. The little man before mentioned watched this proceeding from the other side of the street, and then, apparently satisfied, returned whence he had come.
Vincent had, in the meantime, clambered to his room, and though absolutely burning to know what the dead man’s book contained, he yet withdrew it leisurely from his pocket and carefully began to undress. This proceeding he almost dawdled over, wet as he was, for he was of a curious temperament and really loved to sting his impatience. But it is in the nature of things that they shall end, so, notwithstanding his obstruction, the feat of undressing was at length accomplished, and, seizing the book, he jumped into bed. Placing his candle on the table beside him, he began to examine the curiosity from the outside. It was a pocket-book without leaves—one of those little flat receptacles which fold over like a book, in which men carry their cards, letters, or bank-notes if they have any. It was rather old and dilapidated, though it had once been of blue satin embroidered with a spray of flowers; but what colour it might now be called, or what flowers the embroidery was supposed to represent, no man might say. It was encircled with a piece of dirty string, and this, with much precision, Mr. Vincent untied. Then he calmly scrutinised the twine till his impatience almost choked him, and he was at length constrained to open the book itself, the inside of which was of frayed red silk, and in one corner bore the two letters W. J.
The first article he extracted was an old newspaper account of the death of Ben Hall, with these words underlined, perhaps by W. J.’s own hand. “Hall’s last exploit will be too fresh in the minds of our readers to need recapitulation, but it is a singular thing that none of his gang should have known what became of the vast treasure he took from the Mount Marong Escort.”
Mr. Vincent pricked up his ears as he read these words, and sitting up in bed began to show a little more interest in the little old pocket-book. Paper after paper he turned out, but they proved of no consequence, being scraps of Ben Hall’s doings, three or four mysteriously worded advertisements which had evidently been inserted in the agony column of some newspaper, a letter from “your pal Jim,” and an old telegram addressed to one Williams, which contained three words, the meaning of which was quite beyond Mr. George Vincent’s comprehension. This was all. It must be confessed, a feeling of the most acute disappointment took hold of him. He uttered something very like an oath and crushed the little book in his hand, preparatory to hurling it into the grate. As he did so, however, he thought he felt some paper crumble beneath his hands, and carefully straightening out the little article again, he found this thought to be perfectly correct. In a moment he had torn the lining asunder, and there, sure enough, was a piece of soiled yellow paper. With something very like a thrill of expectation, though he would not have owned to it, he cautiously unfolded the crumpled curiosity. It was stained with age, dirty with finger-marks, and sadly frayed at the edges; indeed, its whole form bore eloquent testimony to having weathered many a stormy period. Yet it was none of these things which riveted his attention. He saw the following curious arrangement of letters:
This, to be sure, looked a very formidable thing, and for the moment he thought he had stumbled upon some ancient writing; but, quickly catching the first idea, he, with the aid of a pencil and a piece of paper, soon had, as it were, the letters on their feet. Then he read them over, first one way and then the other, full twenty times. He formed words easily enough, and thought he had the answer in his head quite half-a-dozen times; but the words were so disjointed that he could make neither head nor tail of them. Yet he firmly believed that he had stumbled on a cipher which, the key once being found, would enable him to bid a long adieu to goose quills and grinning ledgers. He, moreover, had no doubt that it referred to the plant of Hall’s—perhaps this very Mount Marong Escort—and he understood now the terror and anger of the dying man, who, knowing its value was yet unable to realise it. For years, no doubt, he had carried this scrap of paper about with him, puzzling over its contents, yet afraid to take anyone into his confidence. A fortune in his hands, perhaps, and he knew it. Construct those forty-two letters into the proper words, and he might have the secret which would make him rich for life. Yet he had failed to do so, and that paper which he had guarded with his life had at last been the means of his death; for that it was to secure this writing Flash Jim had murdered him, Vincent doubted not.
As the young fellow lay back on his pillow thinking it all out, he pictured Hall and his gang sticking up the Mount Marong Escort, which he knew had been a rich prize; and then that wily one, who so soon after met a violent end, stealing away and burying the greater part of the treasure against a rainy day. And he thought again of the letters, and the good news they might tell if he could only put them together; and he took up the small piece of paper for the twenty-first time, intending to re-peruse it, when his candle suddenly spluttered and went out. For a long time he lay staring up into the darkness, picturing it with imaginary scenes from the life of the late lamented Mr. Benjamin Hall: and even when he fell asleep, he dreamt all night of letters in cipher and the Mount Marong Escort.
The diggings at Dead Man’s Flat had been in full swing for close on five months, and during that time hundreds upon hundreds of men had come and gone, some departing with their pockets full of the precious metal, others poorer than when they arrived. This is the fate which clings to all such places—nay, is it not the fate of every phase of life? The man in the hole a few feet from you may find a deposit which will make him rich for life, while you work day after day, barely gaining enough to keep the breath in your body. This is the sort of fate which, cur-like, worries poor humanity. The rich man’s horses splash the poor man’s ragged coat; the shop windows gleam none the less temptingly because countless hungry eyes glare in upon them; the rich feed none the less sumptuously because the thousands starve. This, again, is the fate which it seems necessary the children of men should suffer.
There were rich and poor at Dead Man’s Flat, as there are in every community, but there was this difference—the rich man never splashed the poor, never flaunted his riches, which, somehow, made poverty endurable. Indeed, it would have been somewhat difficult to say who were the rich and poor of that busy place, for no one but the men themselves knew their own monetary value. A large felt hat, a pair of big boots (if you could afford them), coarse trousers, and a Crimean shirt, and you had the millionaire or beggar of Dead Man’s Flat—though it would be ten to one the beggar was the sprucer of the two. This, however, as most of us may know from personal experience, is a state of things not confined to any particular locality.
At one time it was thought a new Ballarat or Bendigo had been discovered in this grimly-named place, and men rushed from all parts of the country to participate in the hunt for the yellow metal. Clerks flung aside their pens, barristers their briefs, and even clergymen their prayer-books. The ships in port were deserted by their crews; there they lay upon the waters month after month, with never a soul to man them, in spite of the bribe of high wages. The British squadron lost every man it allowed to step on shore, and numerous stories were told of the blue-jackets letting themselves over the side in the darkness, and, spurning the danger from sharks, strike out for the promised land; even the upright guardians of the law cast aside their helmets and batons for the slouch hat and the pick and shovel. Oh, they were mad days, when every man, woman, and child had the gold fever fierce upon them; when the pick and shovel were the only implements worth owning, and when he who had no wealth but that of health and courage, set out on his long tramp to the El Dorado. They were strange times, too, and men went about with their lives in their hands; for, what with the convict blood and the blackguardism of California, things were not always too carefully regulated in those mixed masses of humanity. Yet they were man-making epochs, too, and to them Australia owes that sturdy self-reliance which is so conspicuous in her sons. Accustomed to a life of adventure, and inured to hardships consequent upon the opening up of a new country, they have none of those effeminate qualms which the more ancient nations so assiduously cultivate. Their fathers roughed it before them, and they too have had their share of toil. They have the man’s strength with the disdain of trivialities; will take the best that comes and hope for better luck in the future. These men will stand firm in a crisis—ay, and fight, too, when their country needs them.
Dead Man’s Flat was now an irregular mass of white canvas tents, dotted here and there with a more substantial hut of bark, while away on the top of the hill, surrounded by a strong fence of saplings, stood a large slab and zinc building, which was used as court-house, police barracks, and hospital. Here the diggers had to come to get their “miner’s right,” or license, before they were allowed to peg out a claim, or, in other words, to work; for without that government certificate a man was liable to have his claim “jumped” at any moment, his hoardings confiscated, and himself fined. At the foot of the hill above-mentioned a great creek pursued its irregular course, supplying the miners with plenty of water for their pans and cradles, and like the roar of thunder afar off was the noise of those rocking cradles when the whole camp was in full swing.
To the right of this creek, and stretching away for many miles in the distance, was the rich plain of Dead Man’s Flat—rich in two ways; first, because of its alluvial deposits, and secondly, on account of its well-grassed and well-shrubbed surface. This second reason, however, was of little moment to the thousands who swarmed the diggings. They cared not how many sheep and cattle it would raise, or how much good corn might bend its graceful head to every breeze. They had come to work for gold, and to the gold-digger there is no colour but yellow. So they clung to the banks of the great creek and hollowed them out for miles, till one looking at them from a distance saw nothing but thousands of little mounds. Yet to thread those little hillocks, even in broad day, was a work of no small danger and difficulty, for every mound represented a hole from six to twelve feet deep, and often more, which any false step might precipitate you into, much to the danger of life and limb. To attempt such an undertaking at night was proportionately serious, though the less honest of this mixed community had many a time blessed the darkness and the danger of the road; and , many an upright man had trudged off to his claim in the morning only to find that it had been worked out during the night, and that whatever gold it might have yielded had gone into the pockets of another. But honesty, unlike justice, is not always blind. It was rarely robbed a second time, being quick to perceive how much more profitable it was to work out the hole before it left it for the night.
This, however, was but one of the lesser trials to which the good were subjected, for the righteous have many grievous burdens to bear in this world of ours. It was not only that a man had first to find the gold, but it was invariably a greater bother to him, once he had found it, than the want of it had hitherto proved; for if it once became known that he had such and such a sum in his possession, the rascals of the community (and you will find them hanging to the skirts of all classes) at once made it their object to relieve him, in one way or another, of his burden. A revolver in his belt by day, a revolver beneath his head at night. In fact it might be said that he ate, slept, and worked with a revolver in one hand.
Now such a life might be termed exceedingly exciting, and it undoubtedly was, but it was an excitement of which a man might easily tire. It was better to get rid of the cursed stuff than live in a perpetual torment, and if the digger were a sociable fellow he would make tracks for the nearest grog shanty, and flaunt his riches like a king. There was nothing mean about the digger of those days either. The gold was easily won and easily spent, and he would treat a bar-full of loafers to the best of wine, and then play skittles with quart bottles of champagne in the place of ninepins. They were indeed flourishing times for the genial Boniface, and many a man who is now rolling in riches has good cause to think kindly of the grog shanty his father kept in the early days. The digger, like the proverbial sailor, was generous to a fault. “Here,” he would say, “a dozen of your best champagne, and take it out of that,” and to the smiling landlord he would toss a bag of gold-dust which would pay for the wine full twenty times. And whenever a theatrical company appeared at that out-of-the way spot, they were sure of a golden welcome, for the diggers would throw bags of gold-dust at their favourite performers in lieu of bouquets. But after all there is nothing strange in this. The system is still adhered to in many theatres, only the gold is now become solid, and people are more polite—they do not heave their gold like diggers, they present it like gentlemen. One night, so the story goes, a company playing at Dead Man’s Flat put up the tragedy of Hamlet but that sombre piece not proving to the taste of the audience, they rebelled when it was half through, stopped the performance, and unanimously demanded a song and dance. And when Hamlet, the Ghost, and Ophelia did a breakdown, the little bags of precious dust flew in a shower upon the stage, proving that all concerned were, or should have been, satisfied.
Oh, yes, there was much fun even on Dead Man’s Flat, for there were some jovial boys among that miscellaneous crowd. True the fun was not always dignified nor the humour superfine, but it made men happy, lightened their irksome burdens, and kept them in touch with the human world. It was a bad thing, that gold-fever, worse than many people imagine, and to free men from it, even for an hour, was an inestimable boon But are we ever free of it, and need we go up the country to Dead Man’s Flat to see it? Methinks any great modern city can show more of this most hideous of diseases in one day than such insignificant places as Dead Man’s Flat can in a lifetime.
The town, proper, of Dead Man’s Flat lay about a mile from the centre of the diggings, though the latter really stretched from the town full five miles down the creek. Some years before the opening of our narrative there had been a Rush in this part of the country, and this township of which we speak was left as a memento of it. It was the usual one-street village with half-a-dozen public-houses, a couple of weatherboard chapels, and sundry other habitations of slabs, zinc, or weather-boards, with here and there an ugly box of German brick. These were all left standing after the first Rush, and when the diggers forsook the place these inelegant edifices fell into general neglect. It was a dull look-out for Dead Man’s Flat in those days, and the inhabitants who had known it for the few weeks in which it had flourished, were never tired of singing the glories of the happy past. It was like the Greeks of the present time reviewing the days of old, or the modern Roman contemplating the fact that his townsmen were once the masters of the world—at least, this is how it would have appeared to the old inhabitants, though to the ordinary observer it may have suggested no such thoughts.
Dead Man’s Flat, however, struggled on in obscurity for many years, till one day a new vitality was infused into its almost lifeless body. A party of fossickers, after vainly seeking fortune among the ruins of the old diggings, which were above the town, went further down the creek and there struck the rich alluvial deposits, the fame of which was soon to bring thousands of eager workers from all parts of the country. Then the light of joy was once more seen in the eyes of the old inhabitants, and in a fortnight the population rose from one hundred and sixty to ten thousand. Coaches and traps rattled into the old town every hour of the day, and those who had been rich enough to ride reported that hundreds more were tramping in their wake. Oh, there was some life in the old place then, the house of mourning was changed to one of revelry. A dozen new buildings went up every day, and though they might not have been as durable or picturesque as a Norman tower, they certainly added to the extent and variety of the city.
But of all the jolly places in Dead Man’s Flat, the saloon of the Emu’s Head was the jolliest, and to this cheerful rendezvous the diggers trooped of a night to drink, smoke, and yarn, and, if they felt so inclined, gamble away their hard-earned gold. Mr. Peter Logan, the worthy gentleman who ruled this abode of Bacchus, had no objection. He had a nice little room there at the back of the bar, nice and quiet-like, and he would even take a hand himself, if the gentlemen had no objection. At first the gentlemen had none, but when Mr. Logan invariably rose with their little bags of gold bulging out his pockets, they grew suspicious, and at last decided that they would no more admit him to their play, telling him that he was much too clever for them. At this Mr. Logan laughed good-humouredly, confessed they didn’t know much about cards, and then asked them if they had any orders to give. A more fastidious person than the rotund Boniface might have felt and shown annoyance at these covert reflections on his honour, but your good landlord never quarrels with your good patron; besides, Mr. Logan’s patrons would have taken him up, if he had made himself objectionable, and tossed him from the room without a moment’s hesitation.
Mr. Peter Logan, at the time our chronicle opens, was between forty and fifty years of age, fat, red of face, with that hard look about the mouth which comes of a hard life. He was, however, or had been, a man of some presence, and though he may never have been distinctly handsome, he yet bore traces of past good looks. But Mr. Logan, like many more unfortunates, had run to fat. The friends of our boyhood, the sweethearts of our callow days—where and what are they now? He, poor fellow, has developed an enormous waist, and grunts like a hog when he stoops to lace up those confounded boots; while she, poor thing, her delicate profile gone beneath a shapeless growth, pants and fumes as she struggles to encircle with a twenty-two inch stay a good thirty inches of solid flesh, not counting the hips—which have expanded enormously. Such is the fate to which the decently covered youth may look forward. Her arms are plump now, her breast full; she is a picture-girl. But wait till she is married a few years. Yet, no, no! We cannot even bear to contemplate the cold-blooded, heartless ways of that inexorable tyrant—Time.
Mr. Logan had certainly run to fat, though why he should have done so he could not tell you, because, as he would explain, as a boy he was nothing better than a skeleton. This is one of the little weaknesses of all stout people. They are eternally cramming down your throat that, once on a time, they were mere shadows of men and women. I never meet my friend Jones without he complains bitterly of his lot. “And yet,” he wails, “there was a time when I was as thin as a lath, and had an arm like a candle.” Poor old Jones! I never yet called on Mrs. Robinson, who turns the scale at fifteen stone, without hearing her remark, in a casual sort of way, that she wore an eighteen-inch corset on the day of her marriage. Now it is my private opinion that she and Jones were always inclined to obesity, and I likewise believe that Mr. Logan was doomed from birth to carry more than his just portion of flesh, for I never met anyone who ever knew him when he wasn’t “stoutish.” Anyway, as he stands in the far corner of his bar to-night, his shirt-sleeves rolled up to his fat elbows, no collar on his fat neck (Mr. Logan never wore a collar—he hadn’t room for one), and a big cigar stuck in his mouth, which he occasionally withdraws from that sweet receptacle with his left hand, the third finger of which is missing, though the other three are profusely bedecked with jewels, he looks the strangest mixture of man and beast that one could wish to see. How he ever induced that dashing woman over yonder to marry him is a thing none of his patrons can comprehend. But that by the way. At present he is deep in conversation with a somewhat shaggy-looking individual, who every now and again sweeps the saloon with a quick glance from a pair of hard black eyes.
The fun, however, continues with undiminished vigour; songs are sung, jokes cracked, and occasionally some inebriate lurches into the middle of the floor and begins a step-dance, which is invariably wound up by a breakdown of the right sort; for someone, equally drunk, unexpectedly launches into him, and both go sprawling to the floor. Others, the more dashing of the assembly, fellows who tidy themselves up before they come out for the night, who have lady mothers and sisters in different part of the country, or who, perchance, were somebodies away in England, once on a time (for all classes and conditions meet on the Australian gold-fields), these, I say, lounge over the bar, making violent love to the pretty landlady. But she takes their pleasantries good-naturedly, laughs when they laugh; though she brings them sharply up if they attempt undue familiarities. But they all like her, and will put up with anything she says or does, for is she not singularly attractive, and does not the poet tell us that beauty will draw men by a single hair? And she is decidedly pretty, or, rather, handsome. There is not another woman like her in the place, and if you were to question the diggers they would declare to a man that she was the finest woman they had ever set eyes on. And she was the sort of woman for whom such men might be expected to possess unbounded admiration. Tall and strong; a figure as firm and upright as an athlete’s; yet splendidly symmetrical—a woman all over. A clear fresh face, dark but wonderfully sweet; a full mouth, capable of the sweetest and most contemptuous of expressions; two great brown burning eyes. Such was Mrs. Catherine Logan, or, as she was familiarly termed (behind her back), “Kitty of the Emu’s Head”—for such was the title of a ballad which some poetic digger had penned in her honour.
How such a woman had ever condescended to link her life with Mr. Peter Logan was, as we have said, the greatest puzzle to her numerous admirers; and more than one drunken man had put the question to her, only to be snapped at for his pains, and laughed at by his companions. Logan was not a half-bad sort of fellow, everybody admitted that, and if he was fat and coarse-looking, that was merely a misfortune which might befall any man; yet there was something indescribable about him which made the match seem ludicrous, and no one could look at husband and wife without wondering how the two ever came together. Woman’s perversity, they supposed. No one yet had ever been able to account for the ways of the sex; and they could no more understand this union than the ordinary person can understand why the delicately-nurtured young lady should be depraved enough to elope with her groom.
The dandies of the diggings swarm about her to-night as usual; they open the bottles for her, and beg to be allowed to come behind the bar and wash up the glasses, but to all these entreaties she turns a deaf ear, nor does she seem to know that they are paying her the most extravagant compliments. She seems pre-occupied, ill at ease, and every moment she can spare from her duties her eyes flash towards the door. She evidently expects someone, and presently that expectation is gratified. The door swings back and a young man enters the saloon. The woman’s eyes emit a glad light, and her hand trembles so that the neck of the bottle rings on the rim of the tumbler.
The young man, in the meantime, after passing a word or two here and there with some acquaintances, makes his way towards the bar and smilingly acknowledges the handsome landlady’s salutation.
“So you have come?” she said. “I thought we were never going to see any more of you.”
“Why,” he laughed, “it is only four days since I was here last.”
“Four days,” she repeated reproachfully, turning the full strength of her wonderful eyes upon him.
“You see,” he went on a little confusedly, “after a hard day’s work a fellow naturally requires a little rest, and I do work down on the Flat there, and no mistake.”
“If you cared to come,” she replied, “you would not make these excuses.”
He laughed a little oddly. “Of course I care. Why shouldn’t I?”
“Why should you?” There was a suddenness about this question which made it almost embarrassing.
“To see you,” he answered boldly.
She looked at him with a peculiar, earnest expression; a quick, piercing look, as though she would read every page of his heart.
“George,” she said sadly, yet half-savagely too, “you should never trifle with a woman,”
“I am not trifling,” he replied. “If I did not come to see you, pray tell me what was the attraction?”
“How should I know?”
“You do not suppose it was Logan?” he laughed.
“No, Mr. Vincent, I do not.” She too laughed as she spoke, and turned away with a quivering smile about the corners of her pretty mouth; but as she looked down into his handsome face, those starving eyes of hers devoured his every feature.
Mr. Vincent, for he it was whom we last saw studying the murdered man’s cipher in bed, turned his back upon the bar, lit his pipe and began to look about him. He is three years older now than he was on the night of that memorable storm in Melbourne. He has flung aside the pen for independence and the open air. No longer the slave of a dingy desk, the sport of grinning ledgers, he now roams the country at his own sweet will, and though he finds the life extremely hard at times, he yet resolutely rejects the temptation to take up his perch once more on the top of an office stool. He has determined to see what fate may have in store for him, and though he feels that the pen will inevitably fall into his hand, and that he shall end his days dozing over ledgers, he tries to forget that there is any age but youth, or that the trade of clerkship exists except as a nightmare in his own imagination.
It is a good two years since he cast aside the “inky cloak” to go into the country, for from the night when he first tried to unravel Hall’s cipher his office became worse than a dungeon. It was stifling, unbearable; and one day he jumped from his stool, flung his pen at the shelves of grinning ledgers, put on his hat and walked out. Since then he had endured much, seen much, and if his heart ever upbraided him for his rashness, his determination trampled the softer feeling out. And so when the Rush broke out at Dead Man’s Flat, he shouldered his swag and moved on with the tide; and this is why we find him to-night in the bar of the “Emu’s Head.” His new life, however unsuccessful it may have been from a social or monetary point of view, was a great success physically. His usually pale face was now splendidly bronzed, his eyes and brain were clear, his frame strong. Those fingers which used to itch for something more formidable than a pen, were now broad and hard as leather, and when he took you by the hand in his hearty way, you felt them twine round your own like strips of supple steel.
He turned hastily round. The landlady was in her place again.
“You were dreaming?”
“Yes. What was it about?”
“Why, you, of course.”
“Oh, of course. But I have something to tell you. My cousin Edith is coming up to-morrow.”
“Is she indeed? And who is cousin Edith?”
“Don’t be flippant, George. Cousin Edith is an orphan—the child of my mother’s sister.”
“Oh! Is she pretty?”
“Pretty! That’s all you men think of.”
“How could I think of anything else?” he said, looking up into her face.
She blushed, but answered quietly, “Yes, I should say she would grow very pretty.”
“Is she a baby?” he asked with a comical look of consternation.
“No,” she laughed, “not quite. She was fifteen or sixteen when I last saw her, and that’s nearly five years ago. Dear me, how the time flies. How old I must be getting.”
Mr. Vincent could not ignore such a palpable invitation, so looking her straight in the eyes he said something which made her flush and tremble all over.
“Go along,” she said. “I know you don’t mean a word of it.”
“I swear to you—” he began.
“Hush, George,” she said earnestly, “you should not fill a woman’s heart with words you do not mean.”
“Well then,” he said, trying to laugh it off, for he had seen how seriously the woman had taken his banter, “we’ll say I was only joking. Come now, tell me more of cousin Edith.”
“No. I shall be jealous of her.”
“But am I not your devoted slave? You do not doubt my allegiance to your majesty’s person? Look at Logan, how he scowls at me. I believe he would take me on if he thought he could give me a licking. How do, Pete?” he cried as he caught the landlord’s eye at that moment. “Poor old chap, he looks a bit off colour,” he continued, turning to the wife.
“I think he has been a little upset these last few days.”
“That won’t do,” said the young man, laughing. “He’ll be losing some of his superfluous if he doesn’t watch it. Who’s the friend?”
“I don’t know. Smith he calls him, but whether that’s his real name or not, I know no more than you.”
“It’s a safe one, any way. I don’t think much of his looks.”
“No; he is not a beauty. He came here two days ago and claimed immediate friendship with Pete, At first my husband seemed a little flurried over his arrival, but soon they were chatting away with apparent pleasure and interest. Ever since then they have been as thick as thieves.”
“Pete doesn’t seem to be very particular.”
A look of unutterable disgust curled itself round her pouting lips, but she said nothing. Vincent, thinking he trod upon dangerous ground, got off with no little alacrity.
“Come,” he said abruptly, “tell me some more about cousin Edith.”
“I have nothing to tell you beyond the fact that her mother has just died, that I am her nearest relation, and that she is coming to me.”
“Do you think she will like this sort of life?”
“I should think not. She was brought up very genteelly, I believe. Her father was a civil servant, or something of that sort. Mother used to say that they lived in very good style once.”
“I’m afraid she won’t like this place.”
“Then she must lump it,” said Mrs. Logan flippantly, and bounded away to attend to the wants of a noisy customer.
“Poor child,” thought George, thinking of the cousin Edith, “if she has been brought up like a lady, what a hell to come to.” And turning, he surveyed the crowded saloon with his first feeling of repugnance. After all, he had lost much in quitting the ways of civilised men and women, and though he flirted hard with the handsome landlady, for he admired her greatly both as a woman and a beautiful creature, he yet confessed to himself that she was scarcely a proper guardian for a delicately nurtured girl, nor was the “Emu’s Head” a house into which he would have cared to see anyone enter whom he respected. Still, it was no affair of his, and it was deuced good of Kitty to give the luckless girl a shelter. Besides, the girl might not be so fastidious as he imagined, and might revel in the vulgar pomp and glitter of the place, the admiration of the dandy diggers. She would be married in a month—or gone to the dogs.
Here his further ruminations came to a sudden and ungallant close, for he speedily lost all thought of the girl in listening to a dozen diggers, who, all speaking at once, were discussing the origin of the name Dead Man’s Flat.
“It took its name,” one of the men was saying in a loud, authoritative tone, like one who knows all about it, “from Dead Man’s Creek, the creek what runs through this here diggins.”
George smiled as he listened, for the gentleman who was holding forth with such authority was his mate, Phil Thomas, an honest enough fellow in every respect and an excellent worker, but too fond of company and the social glass ever to be aught but a rolling-stone.
“And how was that?” asked one, evidently a new arrival.
“Well,” said Phil, twisting his pipe from one corner of his mouth to the other, “it happened before the first rush, you see, which was a good twelve year ago, and came about in this way. A party of prospectors discovered the body of a man about half a mile up the creek, and it was while they were a diggin’ of his grave that they turned up a nugget weighing close on two pound. That was the beginning of the first rush, mates, and that’s how the place got to be called Dead Man’s Flat.”
“Nothing of the sort,” exclaimed an old fellow who had just come up in time to hear this speech, “that’s nothing like it, Phil.”
“Well, Tommy,” answered the worthy Phil, “I bow to you, old boy, but I stick to my own story.”
“You’d stick to anything you laid your hands on,” replied the old man sourly “But I’ve lived here off and on for the last fifteen year, and we, at least, called this place Dead Man’s Flat for an entirely different reason.”
“Then let us hear your version, Tommy. It isn’t a matter of much consequence, any way.”
“Then let me tell you,” said the old fellow seating himself, while the crowd about him increased, and even the landlord and his companion drew a little nearer, all eyes and ears, “that it was called Dead Man’s Flat because it was here a party of bushmen strung up Jack Morgan—one of Ben Hall’s early pals. And I’ll tell you how it was, too. Morgan was a desperate, bloodthirsty fellow, and he actually had the ordacity to stick up, single-handed, half-a-dozen bushmen. Now some bushmen is pretty tough in their ways, and one of ’em, instead of obeying Jack’s cry to throw his hands up, drew his revolver; but, before he could shoot, Jack downed him like a dingo. This raised the other fellows’ blood. They rushed at Morgan, and before he had time to say his prayers the rope was round his neck and he was swinging from a branch of the big gum what’s standing by the road to this very day. And that’s why we called the place Dead Man’s Flat,” added the old man emphatically, “for we left Morgan swinging till the crows had done their duty.”
“Well, we won’t quarrel about how it got its name,” said the man Phil. “But were you really one of the bushmen who lynched Jack Morgan?”
“I were,” said Tommy, “and any one of us would have been a match for him—or Ben Hall either,” the old man added defiantly.
“Did Hall’s gang infest these parts?” asked Vincent, interested in spite of himself.
“Ay, that they did,” said old Tommy, “once or twice. Don’t you know that it was only three mile from this very town that they stuck up the Mount Marong Escort?”
“The Mount Marong Escort!” involuntarily exclaimed the young fellow. Then he looked about him with a smile of apology, and wondered if people would understand his exclamation. Of course not; how foolish of him! Yet, when he encountered the eyes of Mr. Peter Logan, who with his companion, Smith, had advanced to within easy earshot of the old man, he saw something so strange in them that he regretted not having kept his tongue between his teeth.
“Yes, the Mount Marong Escort,” repeated the old fellow, “and a tidy haul it was. Over six thousand ounces of gold, gentlemen—twenty-five thousand pound, if it was a penny. That’s the way Ben Hall and his gang did bushranging in those days.” There was a ring of pride in the old fellow’s voice as he spoke, and he surveyed the listening assembly with a look which plainly asked the question, What do you think of that?
“That must have set them up for life, once they got clear away with it?” It was Vincent who spoke, his voice quivering, notwithstanding his seeming indifference.
“That’s just it,” said the old fellow; “did they get away with it? The gang never got anything but a few hundred pounds between them, because when they were broke up, and Ben himself killed, they said that it was believed that he and his lieutenant, Billy Jackson, had planted it somewhere.”
George immediately bethought him of the letters W. J. in the murdered man’s pocket book, and he also recollected that the man had repeated some of “Old Ben’s” words; old Ben, of course, being no other than this same Ben Hall.
“And was this Billy Jackson killed with Hall?”
“No. He, with Flash Jim, Snaky Steve, and one or two others, escaped. They fetched him up, though, near the Queensland border—somewhere on the Darling, What became of Jim Regan, or Flash Jim, as they used to call him, nobody knows but I guess he’s gone under long ago.”
“Then it must have been within the last three years, for three years ago, this winter, Flash Jim and another murdered Billy Jackson in Little Lonsdale Street, Melbourne.”
“How do you know that?” It was Logan who asked the question, suddenly, almost fiercely.
“Because,” said George, turning to answer him, “I—I—knew the fellow who ran to his assistance!”
“Was it you?”
“Well, yes, it was.” All eyes were instantly turned on Vincent, who, it must be confessed, bore himself with no little modesty, considering the greatness which was thus thrust upon him; for to have been mixed up in any way with Hall or his gang was to become, in the eyes of the diggers, a person of consequence.
“But come, mate,” said old Tommy, who did not like the interest centred in anyone but himself, “How did you know it was Billy Jackson?”
“I did not know till this moment. He spoke of Flash Jim; he said Flash Jim had done it. He called himself Billy; he also spoke of ‘Old Ben.’ ”
“That’s him, sure enough,” cried Tommy. “Killed by his own pals.”
“Did he tell you why Flash Jim had murdered him?” It was Logan who spoke.
Vincent glanced up at him, and was startled by the strange look in the man’s face. It was paler than he had ever noticed it before, and there was an eagerness in the eyes which gave to them a singularly inhuman expression. The whole story trembled on the young man’s tongue, but that one sharp glance at the landlord restrained him—he knew not why.
“No,” he replied, “the man died when the police came up.” Logan and his friend Smith exchanged a series of deep meaning looks which did not altogether escape Vincent’s prying eyes, for he was wide awake now, and, fearful lest he had said too much, thought once more of the cipher which had lain so long neglected in the bottom of his trunk.
“Well, that’s a mighty queer story you tell, mate,” said the old man, Tommy, rising and preparing to go, “and I shouldn’t be surprised if Stephen Jones wasn’t the one who helped Jim Regan to do away with Billy; for Snaky Steve, as they used to call him, was notorious for his villainy. I wonder what old Ben would say if he heard the yarn. Fancy a man’s pals turning on him like that; but it’s just what Stephen Jones would have done. Poor old Billy—he was the best of the crowd. It’s a pity he didn’t give you the secret, though. There’s thousands of pounds lying hid somewhere within twenty miles of this place, or I’m a Dutchman.”
“Perhaps Jackson did not know the secret; in fact, he could not have known it, or he would never have left the gold lying idle.”
“That’s so. Ben was a mighty ’cute ’un. Good-night, gentlemen; good-night,” and the old fellow wobbled off.
“Now then, gentlemen,” cried Logan, “time’s up, please.” Then, beckoning Vincent to him, he said, “we’ll have a glass together when they’re gone. Will you join us, Sam?” This to the gentleman who rejoiced in the honest patronymic of Smith. Mr. Smith said he would be delighted, and then the crowd began to file out, the man Phil singing a charming panegyric on the late lamented Mr. Benjamin Hall, the last verse of which ran as follows:
“Now Ben he was as nice a man
As one could wish to see,
And would have graced a silken rope
And dangled handsomely!
But fate ordained the rifle’s roar,
Should prove his parting knell,
And so he robs on earth no more,
But bails them up in h—, h—, h—!
But bails them up in h—!”
George made his way into the private parlour at the back of the bar, and was immediately joined by Mr. Smith, who at once began to ask him sundry commonplace questions in reference to the diggings.
“You’re a stranger, eh?” asked the young fellow.
“Yes,” said the man with a queer smile, “that is, not altogether, though it’s many years since I passed through this district.”
“Before the first rush?”
“Yes. You see, I come from the New South Wales side.”
“This was rather an out-of-the-way place to fetch in those days, wasn’t it?”
“Well it was, rather—but I had to pass through on my way to the Mount Marong Gold-fields.”
“So, you were at Mount Marong?”
“Oh, yes,” replied the man with just a little hesitation.
“When Hall stuck-up the escort?”
“Yes, sir. Some of my hard-earned dust, that I was sending across to the missis in Sydney, was among the swag. Oh, he was a terrible fellow, was Ben Hall.”
“Who’s talking about Ben Hall?” asked Mr. Logan, entering at that moment with a bottle of whiskey and some glasses, “Who’s taking old Ben’s name in vain?” And then, with a broad grin, he sang the last two lines of the exquisite stanza which concluded the preceding chapter; while Mr. Smith, who seemed immensely tickled by the relation of Ben’s doings in the nether world, pronounced the final word with wonderful verve.
“This gentleman was telling me,” said Vincent, when the hilarity had somewhat subsided, “that he was at Mount Marong when Hall stuck-up the escort.”
“No, were you, Sammy?” asked the landlord, a broad smile illumining his fat face, “were you though?”
“I was,” said Mr. Smith, “and what’s more, Peter, I sent my savings by that particular escort.”
“That was a bit of bad luck,” said Logan with a grin, “a bit of awful bad luck. Say when, Mr. Vincent,” he added, pouring out the whiskey.
“Thank you,” said George.
“Lord, man,” laughed the landlord, “that’s not half a tumbler. You wouldn’t have done for Forest Creek, I can tell you.”
“Nor Mount Marong either,” added Mr. Smith.
“Talking about Mount Marong,” exclaimed the landlord, as though the mention of that name had brought back to him a sudden recollection of the place, “that was a queer sort of yarn you told to-night.”
“Very pe-culiar,” added Mr. Smith, dipping his ugly face deep into his tumbler.
“What, you mean that about the murder of Billy Jackson in Little Lonsdale Street?”
“Yes. I suppose it was Jackson?” queried the landlord.
“I guess as much,” replied the young man, “especially after what old Tommy has told us to-night.”
“Tommy’s a gibbering old jackass,” cried Logan impetuously, “and knows no more of Ben Hall than a cuckoo. Why,” he continued in an aggrieved and personal tone as he handed round a box of cigars, “if you’d listen to him he’d make Hall out a regular hero, when in reality he was the most infernal scoundrel that ever took to the bush.”
“He was,” repeated Mr. Smith with a slow shake of his head, “he was a sad blackguard, was Ben.
“ ‘And so he robs on earth no more,
But bails them up in—’ ”
“Hero!” exclaimed the landlord, cutting short this vocal outburst, “he hadn’t the decency of a common pickpocket.”
“One does not expect decency in a bushranger,” said Vincent with a smile.
“Well, perhaps not,” replied Logan in a gentler tone, “but I can’t bear to think that even a bushranger should turn on a pal.”
“Nor me,” said Mr. Smith, “nor me.”
“That’s right enough,” said George; “but in what way did Hall turn on his pals?”
“Did you ever hear how they stuck-up the Mount Marong Escort?” asked the landlord.
“I can’t say that I have. All I know of Hall has been picked up in the most casual manner.”
“Well,” replied the worthy Boniface, “I guess I’m getting on twenty years older than you, and I remember the occurrence as though it was only yesterday.”
“And me,” said Mr. Smith, stealing a swift glance at his companion, “and me.”
“It happened not five miles down the creek,” continued the landlord. “We’ll walk there one Sunday if you like, and I’ll show you the very spot.” George said he would go with pleasure, and Mr. Smith also expressed a desire to make one of the party declaring it would be quite an interesting event. The landlord smiled, and continued. “It was usual for the Escort to leave Mount Marong at the beginning of every month, but previous to the setting out of this one, the turn-over at the diggings had been enormous, and this, it is believed, came to Hall’s knowledge. So he got his gang together, and when the Escort came up they blazed away at it like a set of devils. Five troopers were killed outright, and three more dangerously wounded; two of Hall’s fellows dropped with bullets in them, and even old Ben himself had a bit of his cheek shot away.”
“No, his ear, Peter,” contradicted Mr. Smith.
“Yes, Sammy, I believe you’re right, though it’s so long ago since I read of the affair that I’ve almost forgotten it. But all the same, might I enquire who’s telling this story, you or me?”
“Oh, I thought you were,” said Mr. Logan sarcastically. “Well,” he continued, “the bushrangers got the gold, over six thousand ounces, and how much do you think that thief Hall gave to the gang?”
“I couldn’t say.”
“Of course not,” exclaimed Mr. Smith hurriedly, “nor you neither, Peter.”
“I can’t say for certain,” replied Mr. Logan, with a slight embarrassment, which he endeavoured to hide by pulling furiously at his cigar, “but I know what I read, Sammy.”
“Of course,” said Mr. Smith, “you naturally would. Here’s to you, old pal,” and he drank a health to the genial Peter. But the look which passed between them did not altogether escape Mr. Vincent. He had suddenly grown extremely suspicious of these two men, and watched them closely. Interest in everything that concerned the outlaw, Hall, once more revived, and he was anxious to again peruse the cipher he had despised so long. Moreover, he had not forgotten the strange look in Logan’s face that night, when he told of the murder in Melbourne; besides which, he remembered the story Kitty had related of her husband’s strange behaviour on the occasion of Smith’s first appearance at the “Emu’s Head.” These things he ran rapidly over in his mind, thinking less favourably of Logan and his friend as he did so. Who they were he had not the remotest idea, but that they were what they would seem to be, he doubted.
“You were speaking of the division Hall made of the booty,” said Vincent, ejecting huge clouds of smoke from his mouth, which, like a veil, partially screened his somewhat anxious face.
“Was I?” asked the landlord, trying to look unconscious of any such intention.
“Of course you was, Peter,” said Mr. Smith.
“Oh, of course,” replied Logan, smiling affably. “I remember reading a full account of it at the time. They said he only gave the members of his gang a hundred quid a piece. Is that what you would call honour among thieves?”
“No, Peter, it is not,” said Mr. Smith, shaking his head sadly.
“Do you mean to say he kept the rest?” asked Vincent.
“Every blessed farthing.”
“But it was a wonder his gang allowed him.”
“They were afraid of him.”
“And what is he supposed to have done with all that gold?”
“Hid it—planted it,” exclaimed the landlord fiercely, “that’s what he done with it.”
It was strange how the worthy host came out with his vulgarisms when excited.
“But he could not very well hide such a quantity of gold without some sort of aid? May he not have taken it away with him?”
“Not he—because he was shot soon after, over the border there,” and he waved his hand towards the New South Wales side.
“Did you ever hear what became of the rest of his gang?”
“No,” said the landlord, a little nervously, “no, I can’t say that I did. But I suppose that was Billy Jackson you saw that night in Melbourne.”
“No doubt. He said a certain Flash Jim had done it. Who was this Flash Jim?”
Logan was too busy pulling at his cigar to reply, but Mr. Smith answered for him.
“Flash Jim was the gentleman of the gang. He wasn’t much of a fighting man, and didn’t particularly care for the smell of powder, or the sight of a trooper, but they say he used to do all Ben’s spying; go into the towns and do the gentleman, you know; pick up all the information he could, and keep the gang well posted with the movements of the police.”
“I suppose he was brave enough to attack an unarmed man?”
Smith laughed curiously, and Logan took a long pull at his tumbler.
“I daresay he would have preferred a mate even then,” said Smith with a cheerful chuckle.
“He had one the night he murdered Jackson, for I saw two men.”
“Did you?” Messrs. Logan and Smith put the question at the same moment.
“Would you know ’em again?” asked the landord,
“Bless you, no. I only saw their figures in the distance—caught a glimpse of them as they dashed away under a lamp.”
“It was a pity you didn’t see their faces.”
“It was,” repeated Mr. Smith. “Such rascals deserve no mercy.”
“They’ll chum with Jack Ketch before long, never fear.”
Mr. Smith shook his head as though thoroughly convinced that sooner or later they would come to a violent end.
“But this man,” said the landlord, returning to the subject of the murder, “didn’t he say anything before he died?”
“Oh, yes, he said a great deal.”
They both leant forward eagerly.
“A great deal about this Flash Jim—whom he stigmatised as a coward of the first water.”
“Did he now?” laughed Mr. Smith.
Logan took another drink, seeming moody and pre-occupied.
“Is that all he did?” he asked somewhat sullenly.
“Well, he did talk some rubbish about a fortune, which went in at one ear and out the other. He died as the police came up.”
“Now, if he had only told you how to find that fortune?” suggested Logan with an insinuating smile.
“If he had,” replied the young man, “I should not be here now. Besides, if it really was Hall’s lieutenant, is it likely he would have let a fortune lie idle?”
“But he couldn’t have known where it was.”
“Then how could he have told me?”
“Of course,” said Mr. Smith, looking hard at the landlord, “it stands to reason that if Billy Jackson had known where Ben’s plant was, he would have unearthed it long ago; and if he didn’t know, how could he possibly tell this gentleman?”
“It’s my opinion,” continued Mr. Smith impressively, “that Hall never had no plant; or if he had his own friends must have collared it years ago.” And having thus delivered himself, he solemnly struck a match and proceeded to re-light his cigar.
“That’s my own opinion, Sammy,” said the landlord.
“And mine,” echoed Vincent.
“What’s that?” asked Kitty, entering at that moment with the books and the money.
“Nothing that you would understand, old girl,” said Logan with a smile.
“If it’s within range of your intellect, it’s not beyond the reach of mine,” she replied,
“Bray-vo!” said Mr. Smith. “You’ve got your match there, Peter.”
“She doesn’t mean it,” replied Logan. “You’ve got to let them talk a bit, you know, to make up for their other deficiencies.”
“Deficiencies,” echoed his wife, “I’d like to know where you’d be if I didn’t look after you?”
“In quod,” suggested Smith with a chuckle,
“Perhaps,” he said. “Anyway, Kit,” he continued, “you’re the Queen of Dead Man’s Flat, ain’t you? and you know I worship the very ground you tread on?”
“You’re drunk,” she cried disdainfully, the blood rushing to her face.
“Not drunk, Kit,” he laughed, “but hoping to be, my girl, hoping to be,” and lifting his glass he drained it with a gesture of bravado.
Mr. Smith chuckled and likewise took a lengthened dip into his tumbler,
“I think I shall be toddling,” said Vincent, rising. He had no wish to participate in the family brawl. He felt extremely sorry for her, for he knew the man’s coarseness was a constant shock to her more sensitive nature. And yet it was what she might have expected from such a union, though how it ever came about was none the less a puzzle to him.
“What, so soon?” asked the landlord.
“Well, you know, I have a good mile to tramp.”
“Of course. I had quite forgotten that. Why don’t you come into the town to live? Why not put up here with us?”
“Too far from work, Pete. Good-night.”
“Good-night. Oh, Kitty, would you mind seeing Mr. Vincent to the door?”
She nodded acquiescence to the suggestion.
“Pray don’t let me trouble you, Mrs. Logan,” began the young fellow.
“It’s no trouble,” she said, looking straight into his eyes. Then, without another word, they quitted the room together.
As soon as the door had closed upon them, Messrs. Logan and Smith stared significantly at each other for the space of twelve seconds. Then Mr. Smith broke the silence.
“It’s him,” he whispered, emphasising the objective case.
“Sure enough,” answered Logan, in the tone of a stage conspirator.
“I wonder if old Billy gave him the paper?”
“Devil a doubt.”
“But he can’t have read it, Peter?”
“I think not. He’s pretty green.”
“Perhaps not so green as we imagine; perhaps old Billy said a sight more than he would have us believe. Anyway, he can’t suspect that—”
“No. But I’ll tell you what, mate,” a low, hard look came into Logan’s fat face as he spoke, “we must get that paper.
“We must,” repeated Mr. Smith, putting his shaggy brows together and peering from under them with his glittering eyes. “And that young fellow’s got it.”
“We must be friends with him, Sammy.”
“Yes. Now, if we could only get the missis—” suggested Mr. Smith with a knowing leer.
“You think he’s gone there, eh?”
“You hit it first pop. But she’s a pretty hard girl to drive, isn’t she?”
“A devil, mate, a she-cat, that’s what she is. Get her back up and she wouldn’t stop at putting a bullet through you.”
“Well, we must wait. It’s not the first time we have had to do it. A fortune like this is worth both waiting and working for. Twenty thousand pound if it’s a penny.”
“Yes, Sammy,” said Mr. Logan, in a thoughtful sort of way, “twenty thousand pound. Ten thousand each, and America. What do you think of it, old pal?”
“It makes my mouth water. But the missis?”
“Wait,” said Mr. Logan impressively. A look of confidence wreathed Mr. Smith’s face into an ugly smile. Then the two worthies pledged each other in silence.
* * * * * * * * *
In the meantime George and Kitty were wending their way through the dark passage which led to the front door, he stumbling, she speaking no word; though he could tell by the short gasps which ever and anon rose from her throat that she was strangely excited. On he stumbled, however, and in stretching forth his hands to grope his way, his right hand accidentally encountered hers.
“I had better lead the way,” she said, and her hand tightened in his. It was a firm hand, strong and yet well-covered, and as her palm pressed his he felt it burn.
“You seem a bit upset,” he said. “You are not yourself to-night.”
“Do you think so?” She laughed a low, hysterical little laugh.
“I do. What’s the matter?”
“What right have you to ask?” she said almost fiercely. “What do you care?”
“Of course I care. Aren’t we old friends?”
“Friends!” she laughed disdainfully “Yes, I suppose so.”
“Kitty,” he whispered, so low that it seemed like a soft sigh.
She stopped and took his hand in both of hers.
“Well?” she said.
He could not see her face, but he knew by the intense whisper, the hard way her breath came, the pressure on his hand, that she was more than a friend to him then. The next moment he had taken her in his arms and was kissing her passionately. “Oh, George, George,” she murmured reproachfully. And yet that was the happiest moment of her life, and as she nestled for that brief space on his breast she felt as though the heavens had opened to her.
But he, misunderstanding that tone, withdrew his arms from about her and stepped back.
“You are right,” he said, in a low, hurried voice. “I am an infernal scoundrel. Forgive me, won’t you?”
“Yes, yes.” And yet she would have given her soul to have felt his arms go round her again. But woman’s training forbids her to be aught but passive. If she advances she is bold; if of a modest and retiring nature, she is cold, and the last state is worse than the first. Still, being but human, though so much nearer the angels, how more than heroic is that self-restraint which, like a band of steel, confines the invisible forces!
Kitty, as we have seen, was not surrounded by the most precious of home influences, yet, years ago, before her mother died, she had known what it was to walk in the strictest path; and those whose early training has been pure, no matter how lowly, can never be wholly bad. Black they may be to the view, black even their deeds, but hidden away somewhere there is a white spot, which, if you only touch it, will sparkle like a star. There might have been some excuse for any falling away on her part at this particular moment, for her heart beat wildly and every pulse in her body throbbed to bursting point; yet that indescribable force which keeps a woman in her place held her back. At his request she would have thrown herself in his arms and wept her weakness on his breast, but she could not have thrust herself forward even though her heart broke at the restraint. And yet she was a woman of fierce impulse and strong passion, and one whom nobody would credit with the power of self-restraint. Bold, even, she was reckoned in the town, and many a story was told of her saucy answers to inebriate admirers, while one and all declared that she was a flaunting Tartar who wouldn’t think twice of putting a bullet through you. It may therefore be presumed that she did not get that unenviable reputation for nothing, though, no doubt, like most reputations, it was grossly exaggerated. Yet with it all, she trembled like a frightened child as she stood there beside him, and could not, though you promised her the world, have thrown her arms round his neck and said, “I love you.”
With a world of bewildering thoughts in her mind, and a very tempest of passion in her breast, she groped her way to the street door and opened it. He, slipping by her, stepped out upon the footpath. Looking up at her, for she stood high above him on the door-step, he took her hand to say good night, instead of speaking the words and hurrying on, no matter how abruptly.
“I am sorry I so far forgot myself,” he said penitently. “It was mean of me to take advantage thus. You will forgive me, won’t you?”
“You know I will,” she said. His hand lingered in hers—a fatal contact.
“We’ll be the same good friends?” he asked.
“Yes, yes. Always—always,” she sobbed hysterically, snatching her hand from him. “Now go—go!”
“Then you are angry with me?” he went on, startled at the passion in her voice, and blundering blindly as only a man can.
“I should be, but I cannot. There—go, go!” She held out her hand, which but a moment before she had so abruptly withdrawn; he caught it between his own and carried it to his lips.
“There,” he said, “let that be a truce between us.”
“Don’t you know,” she cried suddenly, fiercely—“don’t you know that I—Oh, George, George !” The cry sounded like a sob of rage and pain. And then the barrier fell down before her. Her arms went round his neck, she pressed his face passionately to her breast. Then, with a strange, shuddering gesture, she pushed him from her, and, without another word, slammed the door upon him.
There was a full house at the “Emu’s Head” on the following night, for it had been hinted abroad that Kitty’s cousin was coming; and sure enough at half-past eight that night Kitty led her into the bar and introduced her to her more intimate acquaintances, though there was one for whom she looked in vain. The girl remained only for about half an hour and then retired to rest, if she could, for it was a strange sight she saw; but during the whole of that evening Kitty kept her burning eyes on the door, and every time it swung back her heart gave a great thump. As the time flew on she grew peevish, irritable; snapped all who spoke to her, and served up whisky when she was asked for gin. Would he come, was he annoyed? She didn’t want his love, no, no! She had wrestled long with herself, last night, and her own good sense had pointed out to her that such love as they might know, was not the love for which she sighed. He would disdain her if he knew her thoughts, for that he did not love her, her own heart repeated with brutal persistency. True, he had taken her in his arms, he had kissed her with a fervour which was maddening, but he had repented of it the next moment. She needed no other proof than this to tell her her love was vain. No man repents having kissed the woman of his heart; rather is it a thought on which he lingers lovingly. Yet his kisses burnt all the same; the sting was on her lips but the honey had slid into her blood, poisoned, it is true, and hot as liquid fire, but the sweetness was there and it drove her mad.
The next night he came not, nor the next, but on the fourth evening the door swung back and in he walked. She saw him and trembled like one suddenly stricken with ague, but was able to compose herself before he reached the bar. He, too, felt a little flurried, for though he had begged and received her pardon, he knew there was that between them which must alter the friendly relations hitherto existing. Moreover, he was angry with himself for having given way to a moment of passion, and more angry still to think that in a wanton moment he might have wrecked this woman’s happiness. He was no egoist, neither was he blind. They had been good friends for a long time, and he knew that he possessed a warm corner in her heart; but he never thought of love, or if he did, it was but to chase it away the next moment. But now there had been that between them which had rent the veil asunder; he saw and was sorry. He would have given much to have been able to undo the past, to have taken her hand and looked into her eyes as he used to look; laugh up into her face and tell her that she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. He could never do those things again. That palm of hers would always burn for him, and he would see something in those eyes which no one else detected He silently vowed that he would go to the “Emu’s Head” no more, and for three days stuck tenaciously to his purpose. Then he began to reconsider his decision. It would look as though something had really happened if he continued to absent himself from his old friends. She might think he was afraid to meet her; she might account for his absence in a dozen ways, every one of which might be entirely wrong. Therefore he would let her see that he wished to forget certain things, and remember only that they were very good friends. So on the fourth day he went. But he felt rather queer as he walked up to her and held out his hand.
“Good evening, Mrs. Kitty.”
“Good evening, Mr. Vincent.”
But her palm tingled in his, and he caught a reproachful look in her great brown eyes.
“Where have you been so long?”
“My dear Mrs. Kitty,” he said lightly, “you seem to forget that I am a hardworking man.”
“Oh, yes, I understand. But surely that ought not to make one forget one’s friends?”
“I never forget my friends.”
“Then have I ceased to be one of them?”
“How can you, Mrs. Kitty?” he remonstrated.
“Oh, well,” she laughed, “I suppose I must forgive you. But I thought you might like to see my cousin if you did not wish to see me.”
“You know I am always glad to see you. But has your cousin arrived?”
“Yes, three days ago.”
“And how does she like Dead Man’s Flat?”
“Not much, poor child, I’m afraid. She’s getting a little over her bashfulness, however, so I suppose she’ll be a help to me in a week or so.”
“She has not been accustomed to this sort of thing?”
“No. I don’t believe she was ever in a public house before. A queer place to pull up at, isn’t it?”
“Well, frankly, it is.”
“Yes, I know it, and I’m sick of the whole business. But, hush—here she comes.” The glass door leading into the little parlour opened, and a young girl, some twenty years of age, advanced with a shy movement to Kitty’s side, her two big eyes sweeping the wide saloon with a charming diffidence. Her face was pale, but exquisitely fair and sweet; her hair, of a dull-gold colour, fluttered in little wayward wisps about her ears and forehead. Very slender she was, her black dress accentuating her slimness, but the figure was rounded and full, and wore a nameless grace which was, some thought, her most distinguishing feature. To Vincent she seemed so entirely out of her element in this rough place, that, had an angel swooped down from the ceiling, he would not have felt more astonished.
“This your cousin?” he exclaimed incredulously.
“Yes. Come here, Edith, and let me introduce you to an old friend. Mr. Vincent, this is my cousin, Miss Leslie.”
“Delighted, I am sure,” said Mr. Vincent, raising his soft felt hat, for he had not yet forgotten the ways of the civilised. The girl inclined her head very prettily, so prettily, indeed, that he involuntarily exclaimed within himself, “A lady, by Jove!” and he felt quite agitated at the presentation. Since he had abandoned the pen for the freedom of the bush and the gold-fields, he had not come in contact with too many ladies. Women, to be sure, abound everywhere, but one tires of them quicker, even, than one would of a rough male associate; whereas the refined woman is like the cut diamond—always beautiful. Kitty was a grand woman, upright and strong and beautifully symmetrical; but there was something too resolute in the poise of her head, too defiant in the brightness of her eyes, to make one think of her as most men like to think of women. There was antagonism there, and fight, too, and that is precisely what man does not want in woman. She should have every attribute which he has not, and if nature has not endowed her with the most amiable qualities of her sex, it would be worth her while to cultivate them. Boadicea and Semiramis are as shadows beside Helen and Cleopatra.
The girl now raised her face to Vincent’s and stole a look at him from out the corners of her great eyes, and he, seeing her really for the first time—for, hitherto, his eyes had wandered all over her person—exclaimed with a smile, “Why, Mrs. Logan, Miss Leslie and I are old friends.”
“Old friends,” repeated Kitty, “where then have you met before?”
“I have had the pleasure of meeting this lady twice. Do you remember, Miss Leslie?”
She looked at him and shook her head. “No, I can’t say I do.”
“Look at me again and think.” His heart began a gentle pit-a-pat. “I was dressed differently in those days.”
“I’m afraid you must think me awfully rude,” she said, “but indeed I don’t recollect you.”
“Shall I aid your memory?”
“If you can.”
“It was one hot summer’s day, between two and three years ago. The scene was Brander’s Ferry on the Yarra. You know it, I suppose?”
“Oh, yes—quite well.” He marked the sudden flush that shot across her pale face, and his own stupid heart gave a louder pat-pat. Kitty watched them both with a strange earnestness,
“It was a very hot day,” continued Vincent, “the wind blowing from the north. There were three people in the boat. Two young ladies and a young man.”
Where was the boatman?” asked Kitty.
“The young man didn’t see him, but he has every reason to believe that he was there somewhere. There was also a dog with the party, but he, disdaining the boat, swam across. Half way over, a puff of wind blew the young man’s hat into the stream, and had it not been for that dog, who nobly effected a rescue, it might have gone extremely ill with that hat.”
“And you are he?” exclaimed the girl.
“Whom do you mean, the young man or the dog?”
“Oh, the dog, of course,” said Kitty.
“I have not that honour,” he said with a smile. “I am only the young man.”
The girl turned her head aside and blushed still more, for she now remembered the incident quite well, and likewise recollected that both she and her companion had considered the young man’s glances particularly impertinent, and that they had laughed heartily at his mishap immediately upon landing.
“Quite interesting,” said Kitty gravely, noting with a sudden twinge how well he recollected each little incident. “And where did you meet the second time?”
“Do you remember?” he asked the girl. In truth she thought she did, but she would not say so. It would be too absurd to suppose that she should remember him. The man must hold a considerable opinion of himself. In reply to his query she blushed and shook her head.
“It was about a month after our first meeting. You were crossing Flinders Street from the railway station; you had on a white dress and carried a sunshade all laces and frills.”
“You are a close observer,” said Kitty with a strange smile.
“Well,” said he, “I merely wish to prove that this lady and I are old friends. “You had such a sunshade, Miss Leslie?”
“Yes,” she replied, “I believe I had.”
“I have never forgotten it,” he said.
“Nor its owner either?” suggested Kitty with an odd laugh.
“I could not possibly forget your cousin,” replied the young man. And in spite of the fairness of her skin and the colour of her hair, there was a certain facial resemblance between the cousins which almost justified the remark. Kitty laughed again and walked to the other end of the bar. The young girl looked somewhat embarrassed, and let her eyes wander everywhere but to his face. He, however, looked up into hers with that boldness which is so common in men, and the more he looked the more he admired. She had changed but little, truly; yet her form had taken a fuller shape, and her face, pale and saddened by sorrow, bore a sweet womanliness which the bright, girl face had lacked. Her neat black dress undoubtedly heightened the whiteness of her skin, but it likewise showed up to fullest advantage her wealth of rich hair, which shone like a mass of sunbeams about her face. Yes, thought Vincent as he gazed with enraptured eyes, this is a woman, a woman. And a new meaning of that wonderful word broke like an inspiration in upon him.
“How do you like Dead Man’s Flat?” he asked.
The big eyes came round to him—two great grey-blue eyes, full of a sad, sweet light. She smiled in an odd sort of way, showing a row of neat little teeth behind her red lips.
“I am not quite accustomed to it yet,” she replied.
“I doubt if you ever will be.”
“Oh, I hope I shall.”
“Of course I do. Am I not here to make myself useful? I’m afraid I’m awfully stupid, though.”
“I suppose you have never been in a bar before?”
“Oh, no,” she exclaimed with a slight shudder. “I—I—that is, I—” she stopped, blushed, smiled, and then looked as though; she would like to cry.
“Then you have never visited your cousin before?”
“No. She was brought up in the country and I in Melbourne. Neither have I seen her since she married—some five years ago. Is she not a beautiful woman?”
“She is such a grand, noble-looking creature. I always think she ought to be a queen—the sort of queens we read about, you know. I can picture her in fine gold-embroidered robes with a jewelled crown on her grand head. But, perhaps, queens don’t dress like that now-a-days, do they?”
“I’m sure I don’t know. I’ve seen pictures of Queen Victoria, but I must confess she doesn’t come quite up to the ideal.”
“Then you are not English?”
“No. I have never been out of this country.”
“Nor I, so you see we are a couple of benighted Australians who know absolutely nothing about queens.”
“There are queens in all countries,” he said gravely. “There are queens whose crowns are of living gold,” he looked at her as he spoke, “whose sceptre is a glance, whose wish is law. They are the real queens of the earth; the others are mere paste-board images which men set up for their own benefit.”
“Still those images receive a world of adoration, and, since it has become part of their daily life, you may depend they believe it to be real. I often think I should like to go to Europe, but I know I never shall.”
“How do you know that?”
“It is such a long way off.”
“What is space in these days? We can send a message to London in less than half-an-hour; or a few weeks’ voyage in one of the big mail ships will find you steaming up the River Thames.”
“Yes, I know,” she said. “And yet it would be all the same to me if it were only a few days’ voyage.”
“You would like to see London, I suppose?”
“Oh, yes, and Rome and Venice and—But there—what’s the good of wishing? I’m at Dead Man’s Flat instead.”
“Yes,” he replied, “there is a difference.”
At that moment Kitty came up, and calling the girl aside sent her away on some errand. Then, turning to Vincent, said, “Well, what do you think of her?”
“She is a charming girl.”
“Pretty, isn’t she? Did you ever see such hair.”
“What do you think of her eyes?”
“Such is the general opinion.”
“Then Dead Man’s Flat is unanimous for once.”
“Too unanimous. I think I did wrong in bringing her here.”
“Well, I do not think it is altogether the place for one so—”
“I did not mean that,” she said with a short, hard laugh. “I meant that she will put me in the shade.”
“I hardly think so.”
“You are too beautiful to fear any woman.”
She flushed happily, but said, “You know you are talking nonsense.”
“Perhaps so, but I only say what I think. You at least know that I think you the handsomest woman I have ever seen.”
“That is why you have kept away for three whole days?”
She looked hard at him. “Precisely?”
“Was it not better that I should?”
“Of course. I was only joking. We made a couple of fools of ourselves, and were ashamed to meet each other, eh? But don’t stay away so long again, or I may suspect that you really did mean something.”
Her eyes went into his and she tried to smile, but her beautiful mouth quivered with unmistakable pain. He saw it all and read by the guilty beating of his own pulses the anguish she endured. Thinking, however, that it were better she understood him once for all, he said with a forced laugh, “You know, Mrs. Kitty, it was very weak and foolish of me, but I couldn’t help it, I really couldn’t help it. I believe I would have kissed your cook, Bridget, under similar circumstances.”
She flushed a deep, dark red, and if he had watched her hands he would have seen them opening and shutting convulsively. Her breast strained at the covering which confined it, and she made several attempts to speak before she seemed to find the power of utterance. Then she laughed a low, strange, excited laugh; a laugh full of passionate restraint, of disdain, reproach—of a thousand and one things, it seemed to him. He shrank back from her, feeling too despicable to look into her flashing eyes.
“You are complimentary, George, very. Bridget ought to feel flattered. I’m sure I do.”
“You are cruel, Mrs. Kitty.”
“Cruel!” she echoed, as though she wondered he could use the word.
“You know well enough what I mean.”
“I am glad I do, for it is painfully evident you do not know yourself.” And with a saucy laugh she quitted him and turned to a group of her admirers at the other end of the bar.
George took his glass over to one of the numerous small tables, sat down and filled his pipe, sitting, it so happened, facing the glass door through which Miss Leslie had disappeared. Now and again he looked towards Kitty and found her eyes upon him, but it was strange how many curious patterns he discovered in the curtains which adorned that little glass door, and how remarkably interesting he found them all. Of course he wasn’t looking for the fair cousin—he would have told you so himself; but even at the expiration of an hour he was loth to quit his study of those patterns. At last, feeling quite ashamed of himself, though he knew not why he should, he arose and bade Kitty goodnight.
“Have you been looking at a ghost?” she asked.
“Because you have sat there for nearly an hour staring as though you had seen a spirit.”
“Perhaps I have,” he said.
“I should advise you to go home and have a good night’s rest.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Kitty, I will. Goodnight.”
“Good-night.” For a moment her hot palm lingered in his, her wild eyes searching his face for something which she could not find. Then he turned and departed.
Once outside, with the clear sky above him and the night air blowing fresh on his heated face, he heaved a great sigh of relief and tried hard to think of anything but the “Emu’s Head” and its occupants; but try as he would he could not rid himself of the presence of two great eyes, eyes which danced before him like stars, which stole into his soul, illumining his whole being. But they were not those of Kitty.
The next night the town knew him not, and it must be confessed that more than one person at the “Emu’s Head” felt just a little disappointed. Had they known how Mr. Vincent had disappointed himself, they might have gained some consolation from that knowledge, but, being in ignorance, naturally imputed his absence to indifference. George, however, was far from being indifferent, and if the truth were told, it might be said that he had grown fearful of himself. Those great grey eyes had haunted him all through that night, and in the morning he felt that it would not be wise to look too closely into them yet awhile; and so he set about his daily toil with the fixed determination not to make a fool of himself, though it must be confessed he still thought too much of those eyes to take any keen pleasure in the hunt for gold. But the great temptation came when the evening drew in. His mate Phil, after tidying himself, proposed that they should walk as far as the township. No, he didn’t think he would; then he thought he might, and then he wasn’t quite sure; and not till the impatient Phil told him to hurry up, as he wanted to get back that night, did George finally reject the proposal. But all through the tedious hours his thoughts were over there in the bar of the “Emu’s Head,” and he spent a strangely uninteresting night in consequence.
When he awoke next morning his mind and heart had decided to work in unison, and that same evening, arrayed in his best attire, he presented himself at the popular rendezvous. Again he was successful in his endeavours to enter into conversation with Miss Leslie, and he looked longer into those wonderful eyes than was absolutely good for him. That night he walked home in a whirl, and had no idea that a mile was such a short distance.
The next three nights he passed in much the same way, and four consecutive appearances being so unusual an event with him, Kitty could not help broaching the subject.
“You have grown very fond of the town all at once,” she said.
“Oh,” replied Mr. Smith, who happened to overhear her, “towns get attractive sometimes, Mrs. Logan.”
“I didn’t ask for your opinion,” she answered sharply.
“Oh, didn’t you?” said that worthy with a leer. “I thought you did.”
Kitty turned on him with a very angry look, though what she might have said, for she thoroughly detested her husband’s friend, was luckily suppressed by the sudden appearance of her cousin. Mr. Smith, however, winked in a remarkably knowing manner towards the young girl, and then slouched off. Kitty looked from George to the girl, then back again. An ugly shade crossed her handsome face, and leaning forward to him, she said in a low, intense voice, “What is this, George?”
“Hush—nothing. Don’t put such an idea into the girl’s head.”
But that was the least happy night he had ever spent there. The girl, truly, was as charming as before, but whenever he looked from her face his eyes would wander to Kitty, and he saw her brow contracted like a thunder-cloud.
The next night he kept away from the place, but on the following day, which happened to be a Sunday, he was fortunate enough to meet Miss Leslie walking, and begged that he might be allowed to accompany her—a request which she unhesitatingly granted.
“I have been wanting to see the diggings ever since I came here,” she said. “My cousin promised to take me on Sunday, but some people came and we had to put it off. To-day she is not feeling well, and as I had no one to take me I had to come alone.”
“Then I may hope our meeting is not inopportune?”
“Oh, no. It is pleasant to have for a guide one who knows the place so well.”
“I think I may lay claim to that amount of knowledge,” he laughed. “Come, and I’ll show you all there is to be seen.”
They walked on together past groups of miners, who, dressed in their Sunday clothes, with their faces properly washed, sat or lounged smoking or chatting, for on the Sabbath a holy calm pervaded even the gold-fields; among countless canvas tents, over the hospital and police barracks, and then descended lower down the creek among the workings. He rocked a cradle for her, explained its use, and showed how the gold was caught and shaken to the bottom of the slide. And she, never having seen the like before, pronounced it all very wonderful, and asked a hundred simple questions in her own sweet way.
“But where is your claim, Mr. Vincent? You have not shown me it yet.”
“Come this way, then. Oh, please, do be careful!” as she slipped forward with a little scream. “Will you take my hand? This road is not quite so safe as a church.”
She laughed, and said she did not suppose it was; then slipped her tiny, neatly-gloved hand into his great brown paw. But it was surprising how safe she felt once that big hand had closed with a gentle firmness on her own; and he—well, he wondered what little warm thing he had nestling in his palm which made him feel such a hero. And he wondered also why he should tremble all over and feel such a blockhead when he tried to speak, and why a dozen attempts to say something interesting died soundless on his lips.
“Here we are,” he said, as they stopped before a hole about ten feet deep. “Phil (that’s my mate), Phil and I worked it out yesterday, and to-morrow we go further down the creek.”
She looked into it, and seeing nothing unusual about it, asked him if he had found much gold.
“No—only about an ounce.”
“I suppose some of the men are very lucky?”
“Indeed, yes, though there are many more with no luck at all. The men in that claim there,” pointing to the one next to his, “found one nugget weighing over twenty ounces. The men here,” pointing to a claim the other side, “only got three pennyweights. It is all a matter of luck.”
“You are not lucky, then?”
“I must not complain,” he said.
“Do you like mining?”
“Well,” he replied, “there is nothing in it to like—except when you strike a good patch. Otherwise it’s a rough, dirty, disagreeable business. Yet, do you know, I always fancy I’m much more of a man now than I was while I was quill-driving in Melbourne.”
“You were in an office there?”
“Yes, with Bash and Crumpet, big soft-goods people in Flinders Lane. Old Bash was one of those prayer-meeting fellows—a teetotaller, and everything that was hypocritical. He used to prophesy that I would go to the—dogs, and you see he has come pretty close to it.”
“But you will not remain a digger—surely?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Well, you see, the fact of the matter is—I’m haunted. Don’t start—it’s not a very grisly spectre. I am haunted by the ghost of a goose-quill, and I firmly believe that I shall—in spite of my strenuous endeavours to elude such a fate—I firmly believe that I shall end my days as a clerk.”
She laughed lightly. “Would that be such a terrible fate? Would it be as bad as this? You would at least be able to associate with ladies and gentlemen.”
“I own that would be a great inducement,” he said, “Yet, you must not think because we are rough in our ways and dress that we are all as depraved as our surroundings. There are, I assure you, plenty of gentlemen here among us. The men who found that twenty-ounce nugget yesterday were a clergyman and a lawyer. A queer pair to mate, eh? I worked myself for two weeks with a barrister when I first came here; but he jawed and drank instead of working, so I had to give him best. And, do you know, the fellow who has the very next tent to mine, Billy Green, we call him, is an English Honourable, which means, I believe, that he is the son of a lord.”
“And does he live in one of those little canvas tents?”
“Rather, and uses a pick and shovel like a navvy, and cooks his own dinner, too; and, for a ‘new chum’ doesn’t shape half badly at it, either.”
“And do you cook your meals?”
“I have to—unless I can coax old Phil into taking my turn.”
“Surely you cannot like such a life as this?”
“No, I do not; but I was brought up at the desk, and I hated it—or, rather, I was brought up with pretty big ideas. My father was very rich at one time, and he was a man who lived richly, if you understand what I mean. The result was that he came a smash.”
“He turned bankrupt, but, unfortunately, had not secured his future before so doing. I was taken from school and hurried into an office, and I’ve hated the sight of a pen ever since.”
They turned, as he spoke, from the uneven ground and entered the main road, their faces set for the town.
“Perhaps you would not hate it so much now.”
“Perhaps not. But I have hopes that I shall make my fortune here.” She smiled. “You smile,” he continued, “you would say that is the hope of every man on the diggings. No doubt it is; but my chance is better than theirs. I will tell you of it some day—if you will let me?”
His voice involuntarily softened, and he looked down into her eyes. She dropped them to the ground and murmured that she would be delighted; but it seemed to him that her step imperceptibly quickened. Anxious to re-assure her he fell back on the old stock question, “How do you like Dead Man’s Flat?” Only he asked her if it had improved on acquaintance.
“Oh, yes,” she replied, slightly embarrassed, “at least I think so. I am getting a little more used to it now. It did seem strange at first, but then, you know, I’m a town-bred girl and know absolutely nothing of the country.”
“Nor are you likely to know much of it through a residence here. These people are no more of the country than we. They are the more reckless of the townsmen, the adventurers of the nineteenth century. Do you intend making a long stay with Mrs. Logan?”
“As long as she will have me.”
“As long as she will have you?” he repeated.
“I have no other friend in the world,” she said in a low, choking voice, “at least, no one to whom I would care to go.”
“I am deeply sorry for you.”
She looked up into his eyes, her own filling with tears. “Thank you,” she said.
“Won’t you—would you deem it an impertinence if I were to ask you to tell me something about yourself?” He floundered so sincerely through this little speech that she could not be angry; besides, she was in no mood for anger.
“I have nothing to tell,” she replied frankly, “at least that would interest a stranger.”
“Am I a stranger?”
“Of course you are,” she answered with a smile.
“And yet I have known you for three years. You are very unkind, Miss Leslie.”
She smiled. “Three years? You mean a week.”
“Pardon me, but I mean exactly what I say. I have known you since we met that day on the Yarra. And besides, Kit—Mrs. Logan, told me about you before you came, though, of course, I had no idea who you would prove to be.”
“Did she tell you why I was coming?”
“She said that you had lost your mother, and that she was the only relative you had.”
“Yes, one might almost say that. When I wrote to her that mother was dead, she replied with a most beautiful letter imploring me to come to her. She is as generous as she is beautiful, Mr. Vincent, and I know I shall love her dearly when we get to understand each other better.”
“Did you see much of her before you came here?” We are afraid Mr. Vincent was asking a lot of unnecessary questions, but to him it was such a great delight to hear her low sweet voice that he would fain have had her talk for ever.
“No,” she replied. “Father did not care for my aunt’s husband, and Kitty was brought up in the country. I only saw her when she came to Melbourne on a visit. But I’m sure this tattle cannot interest you.”
“It does, immensely. Are her father and mother alive?”
“Her father is. He—he—” she blushed and looked a little confused, “he keeps an hotel at Ballarat.”
“It was there she met Logan, was it not?”
“Yes.” She answered his questions as though she seemed to think he had a right to put them, nor once deemed that they might possibly be an impertinence.
“Do you like him?”
“That is hardly a fair question.”
“No, it is not. Besides, you could not possibly like him.”
“You are good friends, are you not?”
“No—that is, I don’t know that we are bad friends.”
“He thinks most highly of you at all events. Even that dreadful Mr. Smith confesses that you are—No, I won’t tell you. It might make you vain”
“It’s exceedingly kind of Mr. Smith, and I’m very much obliged to him. I’m only sorry that I cannot return the compliment.”
“You do not like him then?”
“Candidly, no. But here we are at the town.” He stopped and held out his hand as he spoke.
“Thank you so much,” she exclaimed impulsively. “I have never enjoyed an excursion more.” Then, thinking he might possibly misconstrue her words, she murmured, blushing as she looked away, that she thought the diggings a most interesting sight. Vincent entirely concurred with her and asked her if she thought she would be walking that way next Sunday afternoon. Still looking away she replied that she did not know, and when they parted both felt an indescribable fluttering all over.
When the girl entered the private sitting-room of the “Emu’s Head,” she discovered her cousin Kitty at tea, and as a cup of that cheerful beverage is a thing no woman (more particularly in Australia) is likely to refuse, especially after an afternoon walk, she sat down at the table and proceeded to make sad havoc among the cakes and bread and butter.
“Well,” said Kitty, after watching her for some time with amazement, “where have you been, dear?”
“Over the camp.”
“The camp—by yourself?”
“I started by myself, but I luckily met Mr. Vincent,”
“And he was kind enough to show me everything.”
“Was he? Do you think him a good-looking man, Edith?”
“Very,” said the girl, earnestly, though her mouth was full of bread and butter. “And then he is a gentleman, Kitty, and treats one as though—” She stopped suddenly and looked up into her cousin’s face as though half afraid of what she had said.
“As though one were not a barmaid?” said Kitty, in a sudden, hard tone.
“Oh, dear!” exclaimed the girl, a pained look sweeping her pale face.
“You should never flatter yourself, my dear, because a man is civil to you. They think because we are publicans that we are all sinners of the deepest dye, and they begin with flattery. They will tell you that you are more beautiful than a goddess, that your eyes are stars, your lips sweeter than honey. They will fling their gold-dust at your feet, too, if they think it will pay them. Nothing for nothing is their motto, and if they say otherwise they lie, girl, lie always.” She started to her feet as she delivered these words, her face flushed a deep, dull red, her eyes ablaze with uncontrollable anger. “Let them say what they like,” she continued as she paced up and down, “let them grovel,and trample on them as they lie before you, but don’t believe them, that’s all.”
“But I have heard nothing that I should not believe,” faltered the girl, who was really terrified at her cousin’s inexplicable wrath.
“Then he didn’t make love to you, eh?”
“Oh, Kitty, how can you?” cried the girl. “You know I would not allow such a thing.”
“My dear child, I suppose you are a woman and have a woman’s feelings? You are pretty, you must know that. Do you think men are blind? Then you are a barmaid.” There was something cruel in the way she repeated that last word.
The girl shuddered. Yes, she was a barmaid. She had not thought she was, but, after all, what else was she? She received no wages, truly, but she worked for her living nevertheless; drew beer and opened bottles, and heard words which made her ears tingle. But she liked to think that she had not altogether lost caste—that she was still a lady. It stung her to be told that she was nothing but a barmaid; that all the men who treated her with such deference were laughing at her all the time; that she was, most probably, regarded as one who had sought the bar to allure; that she might be bought with gold dust—if the bag were big enough. The hot blood rushed to her face, turning it to a vivid crimson.
“If what you say is true,” she said, and her eyes sparkled with shame and indignation, “I will be a barmaid no longer.”
“I said nothing. Besides, what am I that I should abuse my own trade? I only know what they think; and why should you imagine that you will be an exception to the rule? Unfortunately for you, you are merely a woman like the rest of us. To-morrow it will be all over the place that you and Mr. Vincent were seen together.”
“But is that wrong?”
“My dear, this is a very uncharitable world, and you cannot be too careful. But Mr. Vincent, I think, is rather a good young man. He, of course, would treat you as a lady, and for your own reputation would not suggest that you should explore the camp with him again?”
Now this being precisely what Mr. Vincent had suggested, Edith hung down her head, the tell-tale blood dyeing even the roots of her hair.
“He did ask me if I would be going that way again, but I’m sure, oh, I’m sure he never meant any wrong by it.”
Kitty laughed a hard, ringing laugh. “Possibly, possibly. But have I not told you this is a very uncharitable world—especially to such as we?”
“Such as we!” repeated the girl in wonder. “Surely, surely you are jesting?”
“Perhaps I am. There, there, kiss me. You know I am your guardian now, and must protect you. Don’t, pray don’t think any more about it.”
The girl held up her face and Kitty caught her in her arms. Looking long and steadily into Edith’s delicate features she exclaimed, as if speaking to herself: “Yes, you are a lovely thing, a beautiful girl-flower. There, there, child,” she said as she kissed her, “go to your room and forget all about it.”
When the door closed behind the girl, Kitty sprang to the mirror which hung above the mantelpiece and studied her face intently. But after the soft girl-face of her cousin it looked hard—and a woman’s. Even her beautiful mouth had dropped about the corners, giving it a firm, an iron look; but, most horrible of all, the skin about her eyes was puffed and puckered. It was the first time she had ever caught a line on that smooth skin. With a passionate gesture and a heart-broken cry, she turned from the unflattering reflection.
“My God, I’m wrinkled!”
After the preceding interview with her cousin, Edith went straight to her room and was seen no more that night, neither did Kitty come to her. The next morning, however, she sought out that wilful queen and told her that after what had passed between them on the previous evening she would find a further attendance at the bar incompatible with her dignity, but that she would, by various household duties, try hard to compensate for her non-appearance in public. If, on the other hand, she was likely to prove an encumbrance, she begged to be allowed to depart, for she doubted not but that the education she had received would ensure her a livelihood.
“Let you go,” cried Kitty, taking her in her arms, for, like all impulsive beings, she was as tender as the dove in her milder moments, “let you go, indeed. Never! And don’t take any notice of what I say about the people here. I despise them more than you do. I’ve got an evil temper, Edie dear, and when it’s on me I’m sure I’m not responsible for my words or deeds. The fact of the matter is I’m a disappointed, soured old woman.”
“Old woman!” repeated the girl with a smile. The idea of this handsome creature, in all the glory of her first young-woman-hood, applying to herself such uncharitable epithets as “old” and “sour” seemed extremely ludicrous.
“Yes, my dear, old and wrinkled.”
“Old and wrinkled—you! Oh, Kitty, you are the most beautiful woman in the world.”
There was such evident sincerity in the girl’s tone that a momentary flush of happiness overspread the smiling Kitty’s face, and she looked a truly noble creature—as stately and grand as a dream-woman.
“They used to tell me so,” she said, “but that was before I was wrinkled, before I made a wreck of my life. It’s all one now though, isn’t it? Yet I would give all my beauty—beauty!” she echoed passionately, “what has it done for me? I would give it all, Edie dear, for half-a-dozen of your soft ways.”
“Oh, I am only a poor girl,” replied Edith, looking up into her cousin’s hot eyes, “you are a glorious woman, Kitty, grand and stately and noble.”
“No—not noble,” she said hastily. “You must not entertain such a foolish idea. I am proud and passionate, perhaps, but my pride and passion are anything but noble. I tell you I fear myself at times, because I know I have so much evil in me. If anyone did me a great wrong I would never forgive them—no, not if they went down on their knees and bathed my feet with tears. Is that noble? If you want further proof of the nobility of my soul,” she said, with a hard laugh, “look at my—husband.” It was with a palpable effort the word slipped from her lips.
“I am sure you wrong yourself,” replied the girl, twining her arms round Kitty’s neck. “You are noble, dear, and I shall continue to think so in spite of you.”
Kitty smiled sadly. “May you always think so, dear.”
“And you will let me love you, won’t you?” asked the girl, drawing her cousin’s proud mouth down to her own.
“God bless you, yes. Love me all you can—I need it.”
And the girl wondered at the two great burning drops which fell on her upturned face.
But she went near the bar no more, and in the discharge of her household duties soon regained that cheerfulness of mien which is so natural to the young. She and Kitty were the fondest of friends for the next week, and she grew more convinced each day that the one grand, noble woman in the world was her own large-hearted cousin.
During the whole of this week she had not once seen Mr. Vincent, and, for some absurd reason, no doubt, refrained from asking of him; and, by a singular coincidence, Kitty never broached the subject either. Yet it was not the lack of thinking of him which held Miss Edith’s tongue. On the contrary, she had thought a great deal of that amiable young man. In the first place he had treated her with the utmost courtesy, and that in itself is a thing which must, or should, command a woman’s sympathy, more especially when her lot is cast in strange places. Had she been a princess he could not have been more deferential, more considerate, and it was therefore only natural that he should have gone up a step or two in her estimation. Then, in the second place, he was so different from all the other men whom she had met at the bar of the “Emu’s Head”; so much more respectful—so much more gentlemanlike. Moreover, he was serious, and she liked serious men. Flippancy was a stranger to him; what he said or did he seemed to mean; he was thoroughly earnest. He had not told her that her eyes were stars, but she knew that he found something very attractive in their glow, and that he had watched her face, not as the vulgar sensualist, but with a deeper meaning, with a thinking look which went behind the skin. And then—yes, why should she deny it?—he was decidedly handsome. And what a fine strong figure he had; and didn’t his big hard hand seem made for one’s own to nestle in—for the protection of a weak little woman? And hadn’t he a soft, low voice which captured one’s confidence in a moment? And then—only to think of it!—he had actually remembered that absurd meeting in the ferry-boat, and—yes—she believed she had not quite forgotten it herself. And then she blushed and ran and looked at herself in the glass, and blushed the more at her own confusion.
But if Mr. George Vincent had not been fortunate enough to obtain an interview with, or a sight of, Miss Leslie, it was not for the want of trying. He had put in an appearance at the “Emu’s Head” every evening since that Sunday on which he had escorted Edith over the diggings, but to his infinite regret he caught not even a glimpse of her. This surprised him much, and he puzzled himself exceedingly in trying to comprehend her sudden and mysterious disappearance, but, as Kitty vouchsafed no voluntary explanation, he refrained from encroaching upon what he rightly or wrongly considered a delicate subject, Why he should have done so he might have been too modest to explain, even had you asked him, but that he did so is indisputable, and for three whole nights he curbed his curiosity. It is true Kitty was the same, and she was never so sweet and womanly as when face to face with him. He almost wished it were otherwise—not that he admired her less, but that he respected her more. On the fourth night, however, his curiosity triumphed over his discretion, and he asked what had become of the fair cousin.
“Why,” said Kitty, “do you mean to say you don’t know?”
“She’s not gone?” he asked hurriedly. Kitty’s mouth quivered strangely.
“What if she has?” she asked.
“Oh, nothing, of course. But it was very sudden, wasn’t it?”
“No, she has not gone,” said Kitty slowly.
“Where is she then?”
“Would you very much like to know?”
“Well, I don’t see that it really matters much,” he answered indifferently. “I had missed her you know, and naturally inquired.”
Logan’s wife looked at him as though she would read his inmost thoughts, and from the indifference of his mien gathered no little satisfaction.
“She is rather a strange girl, George, a proud one too in her own soft way. She objects to the bar.”
“I thought it would not suit her,” he said bluntly.
“Do you know, George, that is rather cruel of you?”
“My dear Mrs. Kitty, have I not said the same to you a hundred times?”
“It is nothing for me. I have been used to it. My father put me behind our own bar when I was fifteen—”
“Then he ought to be downright ashamed of himself,” said the young man hotly.
“So you must make allowances for my shortcomings.”
“I do not admit them, Mrs. Kitty. You are a brave, sweet woman, whose heart is as generous as your face is beautiful.”
Poor Kitty’s eyes sparkled with delight, but the next moment she turned from him, a shade having come across them. These were sweet words, and such as were bound to gladden a woman’s ear, but the heart could not accept them so joyfully, nor the brain forget their inspiration. He had told her she was beautiful, truly, but his tone was such as a man might use while eulogising a picture, a statue. Reverence, appreciation, great admiration for a surprising work—all were in his looks and tones, but they were the looks and tones of one who admired the masterpiece, the poise of the statue’s head, the curl of her beautiful lip, and being anything but a statue she resented this placid adoration. Through her blue veins coursed a blood as hot as fire, and in her heart was the heat of a furnace. This respectful homage, therefore, was not calculated to cool her fierce nature. One might liken it to a handful of dust thrown upon red-hot coals. Of a sudden the glow is dimmed, but the next moment the dust itself is consumed and the fire starts up afresh with sullen vigour. So was it with her, and she would turn away and try to smother the fire within, try as only a woman who feels strongly can; but it would break forth again, more lurid for the momentary suppression. Bound to one whom she most cordially detested, and now more than ever, she had conceived an affection for Vincent more blind than the night, more burning and impetuous than the wind which the great parched-up northlands drive down to the southern ocean. It is said that we all love once in a lifetime, but whether it shall be for good or ill comes not within the prophecy. Her love was certainly born in bitterness, and might pass away into the gloom of night. Nay, it would; for out of such a love what could there come but death?—not death of the body only, nay, not that at all, but of the heart. Sometimes she did not care, at others she wrung her hands with anguish and called on heaven to save her from herself—a piece of human folly at which the devil laughs till his sides ache. Each day she formed a thousand noble resolutions. She would cover her anguish with a smile and vow to preserve herself even against herself; but she could not see him approach without her tell-tale heart driving the blood to her face, nor listen to his low voice, nor look into his eyes, without feeling that one word from him would draw her soul from her.
For days, for weeks she led this wretched life, going about in her old defiant way with the unseen anguish in her breast; but all the same it was none the less terrible to bear, more terrible, perhaps, because it should not be. And yet it might so easily have been hallowed—sanctified by God and man. Had they only met in the long ago. . . . And so he came and went, evincing his admiration by many a little act and pretty speech—trifles which the poor woman hugged to her breast as though they had been jewels of inestimable value. Then came the episode in the passage, when, in a moment of frenzy, he forgot all and took her in his arms. For a moment she was unconscious, lost in a maddening whirl of indescribable joy. She felt his lips press hers, his heart beat against her heart, his strong arms press her till she gasped for breath. And then a cloud passed before the face of the moon and the darkness of death fell upon her world.
He had not meant it; he was sorry; would she forgive him? Oh, what a bitter mockery were these words! but she was a woman, and she must smile—and hope. Hope! For what had she to hope? At the best, dishonour—at the worst, neglect. And at the end of the road was the eternal into which she must plunge at last. And with it all, another fear had come—one against which the anguish of the past was as the morning mist which the sun dissolves into a memory. We may not possess the crown, but so that no rival gain it we are content to wait and hope; moreover, to us it always seems worthy of gracing a monarch’s temples, however insignificant it may appear to the rest of the world. And it is her mind we are endeavouring to picture; translating, as it were, her brain-scenes into words. It is not what others thought of Vincent that we stay to tell, but of how he appeared to and affected her. When we open our morning paper and read that Mary Smith has committed suicide because John Brown has taken on with Jenny Jones, we forget that the deceitful John, though he be only a clerk in a coal office, has seemed to poor Mary as good a man as ever won a young girl’s heart. How many are there, who contemptuously murmur “fool” as they scan the sad story, would have given such a humble being as Brown a second thought? Yet she could die for him. Of course we know that she was only a respectable grocer’s daughter, but she could not have been more of a woman had she been a queen. This, unquestionably, is a fearful reflection on the great ones of the earth—and I am often inclined to doubt that they are merely men and women, but think they must be masquerading gods!—yet, as far as we know, the capacity to love and hate is strewn broadcast by indiscriminate nature, and each little individual builds up a world of his own irrespective of the millions which buzz about him. Into this world of Kitty’s we have been trying to peep.
That she was jealous she would not confess, but that her nerves were agitated to a singular degree she did not endeavour to conceal. Fiery, impetuous, she had jumped at a conclusion as only women will, and had tortured herself bitterly in consequence. And all the while here was the innocent cause of her suffering hanging like a flower to her neck and entreating to be allowed to love her. Poor Kitty had her weaknesses like all flesh, but she had also the most excellent qualities; and when she looked down in her cousin’s soft eyes and kissed her full on the mouth, she would have sacrificed her life for honour or duty. Take her with the impulse strong upon her and you might fashion her into an angel or a fury, for, as we have said, she was a creature of impulse, and as such blew hot and cold. Yet she was well-meaning, and always tried hard to do the right thing, but her passions swayed her at will like the wind the breast of the ocean. She tried to forget that she had ever regarded Edith as a rival, and yet she welcomed with joy the suggestion that the girl should quit the bar. She had had a stormy scene with her husband, in which he denounced any such intention on Edith’s part, declaring she was one of the attractions of the place; but Kitty turned on him like a whirlwind, and from that moment he never broached the subject again.
“I thought she’d have put a bullet through me, Sam,” he said, as he related to Mr. Smith the incident. “Such a she-devil never was bred.”
“Well, Peter, old pal,” replied his companion, with a slightly mocking accent, “I never thought it would come to this—never, upon my soul. You—you bullied by a woman!”
“Curse her,” cried Logan, his fat cheeks quivering with passion, “I’ll give her something one of these days that will make her wish she had never been born.”
“Always see what use you can make of a thing before you chuck it away,” said Mr. Smith meaningly.
“Well, Sammy, what do you think?” The two gentlemen looked exceedingly knowing as they winked at each other across their tumblers.
Mr. George Vincent, though extremely gratified to hear of Edith’s refusal to any longer play the role of Hebe to the gods of Dead Man’s Flat, was not in the least surprised at the information. Indeed, it seemed only natural to him that she who had been reared in a refined atmosphere should find the saloon of the “Emu’s Head” anything but congenial to her tastes. Even the best regulated bars enjoy a freedom which is peculiar to themselves, and it may therefore easily be imagined that on some occasions, with such a reckless community, the “Emu’s Head” was not an abode in which a delicately nurtured and naturally refined woman would feel at home. He had wondered much what her thoughts of the place really were; he had even tried to pump her, as we have seen. That she had expressed neither approval nor disapproval was no surprise to him; and yet he wondered if by any chance she could have found entertainment in such a position. Now, however, he violently upbraided himself for such a thought. He was glad he was not mistaken in her. She was what she seemed, and the place would know her no more. He felt a proud man as he walked home that night, though he honoured the town no more that week.
When the Sunday came round, however, he dressed himself in his smartest clothes, gave his Sunday boots an extra polish, and sailed forth as spruce as any dandy who had ever trod the diggings. We have grown so accustomed to poke fun at ladies and their elaborate toilets, that we seem to overlook the fact that men are just as vain, and that though they have neither the grace nor beauty of the dearer creatures, they have an equal, perhaps a surpassing, presumption. Truly he has not those guardians of the mysteries—those frills and laces and flounces which tantalise one so—or masses of jewelled hair, or—or—but we need not attempt to describe the thousand and one charms which cling to woman like a part of her; but if you were to see Captain the Honourable Clarence Fitzputty dress for the Duchess of Ditchwater’s little dance, you would ever after hold your tongue about the vanity of the sex. George was not an honourable, neither was he a guardsman, neither did he dress for the Duchess of Ditchwater; but he who thinks pride is the sole prerogative of the rich and great (which it ought to be), labours under a strange delusion. There are moments in the most wretched of lives when the lord of creation asserts itself, and man, spreading his imaginary tail, becomes—a peacock.
Poor George wandered up and down the camp all that day, his eyes continually scanning the road, but the wished-for object never loomed in sight. He, however, would not abandon all hope till the last, and not until the evening drew in did he turn dejectedly towards his tent. To say the least of it, he was mightily disappointed. He quite believed that she would come, and feeling that he himself would have gone a thousand miles to meet her, he failed to understand why she had not been animated with somewhat similar desires. Then he assailed himself with a torrent of rude epithets, such as lout, fool, and others of a more pronounced character, and taking up the slice of mirror which did duty for a looking-glass, he carefully scrutinised his features one by one, the glass not being sufficiently comprehensive to take in the whole of his countenance at once. With a scowl on his face and a sigh in his throat, he turned from the unsatisfactory reflection. Of course she wouldn’t come; he knew it all along. How could such a girl look at a digger—a fellow who worked like a galley slave, and not always as cleanly. Bah! He was old enough to know better.
After having made a can of tea, he flung himself on his bunk, lit his pipe, and began to smoke hard. But presently the loneliness became intolerable, as it will to bachelors—at times. He felt that he needed a little companionship, and wished that even his mate Phil were with him so that they might talk, intellectually or otherwise. But Phil was one of those genial souls who loved above all things the glasses and the lasses, and every Saturday night he wended his way to the town with his week’s earnings, and was seen no more till the Monday morning, when he trudged back to work, empty in pocket, and sick in mind and body. He was usually very morose all that day, partly through shame, though more with anger, and would speak no word unless spoken to; and when his day’s work was over he would immediately seek his bunk, and sleep dead on till the next morning. Then the man awoke once more, and he would declare that he hoped the next drop of liquor he touched would choke him. But by Wednesday he was invariably free from all such morbid ideas, and when the Saturday came round again he would slink off to the town with the usual result.
But Vincent, in the meantime, having grown tired of his uncongenial self, put his hat on and sallied forth, thinking a walk in the cool air of the evening would wake him up a bit. And so, unwittingly, of course, he approached the town, and ere he was quite aware of his exact locality, he found himself entering its main street. For a moment he stood undecided; then argued thus within himself.—Since he had got thus far, he thought he might go in and give Kitty the time of the day, drink a glass with old Logan, and hear more about Ben Hall’s wonderful plant and the sticking-up of the Mount Marong Escort. That Hall had planted a treasure he doubted not, and that the cipher he held was the key to the situation George firmly believed. That both Logan and Smith knew more of this business than they pretended he likewise thought probable, but there was no way of making sure of his suspicions without disclosing his own secret. He now carried the paper about with him in his belt, and had pored over it for many a long hour. Words he arranged with comparative ease, but he had not discovered the system which made the whole perfectly intelligible. Moreover, this was a secret which, must be kept as dark as night, for not alone was it one which would excite the cupidity of many a prowling wretch, but the Government, should it come to its knowledge, would step in and most probably seize the whole. Now the Government is a tyrant whom we obey upon compulsion, and consequently we have not always that respect for it which it should command. If we can evade a tax, or smuggle through the Customs a box of cigars, we deem it devilish clever, by gad! and what is more, lose no tithe of our reputation for honesty. Therefore it is very probable that Mr. George Vincent, although he had not the slightest intention of taking the powers that be into his confidence, believed himself to be fully as honest as his neighbours, and we shall have to take him at his own valuation; for, after all, who should be better able to value a man than the man himself?”
It was quite dark when he approached the “Emu’s Head,” but being a familiar and always welcome guest, he went to the side door, and opened it without knocking. Inside, the hall lamp was not yet alight, but stumbling along he made for the little private parlour, where the host and his more intimate friends usually drank and smoked. As he approached the door he beheld Logan fast asleep in his chair, a bottle of whisky and a glass beside him. In his fat fingers he held a half-burnt cigar. A more horrid picture of vulgar sottishness Vincent thought he had never seen, and away his mind rushed to the grand, proud woman, who so perversely had linked herself to such a man.
He was about to awaken the sleeper when he saw the fat stomach rise and fall excitedly, and heard a strange sound escape the man’s lips. His eyes were immediately transferred to the landlord’s face, and to his astonishment he beheld the latter’s eyes wide open. At first George was considerably taken aback, but, regaining his composure, was preparing to smile a cheerful greeting, when the man lifted his left hand and shook its three fingers impressively.
“I’ll tell you what it is, Sammy,” drawled the sleeper, and though he stared hard at Vincent, he made no sign of recognition, “that young fellow has got the paper, and we must get it somehow. I tell you, Ben buried the gold here at Dead Man’s Flat, and it was old Billy himself who told me.” The fat hand clenched itself as though to lend a further emphasis to the words, then sank slowly to the man’s side; the muscles relaxed, the eyes closed, the sleeper’s breath became more regular. Vincent stole from the door, quivering with a new excitement. What he had just now heard was like the confirmation of his own hopes. The cipher had suggested to him the words—Dead Man’s Flat.
He made his way quietly along the passage to its further end, for from the parlour there, which was known as the ladies’ room, he had heard the sound of voices. On approaching, those voices grew more distinct, and he recognised the speakers as Edith and Mr. Smith. He thought this strange, he hardly knew why. Perhaps, because there was a certain tone, a ring, in their speech, which sounded stranger still, and which made him hesitate to enter boldly, for a horrible thought rushed in upon him—He might not be welcome! Advancing to the door, which was partly open, he peeped through and saw, for there was a lamp burning on the table, Mr. Smith with outstretched arms, while before him, her face in her hands, stood Edith. Vincent’s first fierce impulse was to rush in and seize the scoundrel, but his better sense mastered the strong desire. The man could not possibly harm her while he was by—and he should see. See what? He blushed long after at the very thought.
“Just one,” said Mr. Smith, coaxingly; “just one, my pretty.”
“How dare you?” cried the girl, looking up at him with a white, terrified face. “How dare you?”
“Just one, my pretty,” repeated the man. “It won’t take any of their colour, you know, and the next chap that comes along ’ll never know I’ve been there before him. I’ve had my eye on you ever since you came, pretty, and I love you—there!” He emphasised this momentous declaration with due importance.
The girl flushed crimson, then turned deathly white.
“Let me pass,” she gasped, “let me pass.”
“Give me one first—only one.” He made a step towards her, his arms still extended.
“Stand back,” she cried. “How dare you? Ah!” This exclamation was caused by the sudden appearance of Vincent in the doorway. Seeing the situation was rapidly developing an undesirable climax, he advanced with a savage bound. Seizing Smith by the collar, he swung him so violently backwards that that good man came with a fearful crash to the floor.
“You infernal scoundrel,” cried the young fellow hotly, as he stood with clenched hands over the prostrate form, “if you ever molest this lady again, I’ll break every bone in your infernal body. Now go, go—quick, or I may be tempted to kick you.” And as he raised his foot, as though to put the thought into execution, Mr. Smith crawled rapidly into the passage and disappeared without a word.
“I’m afraid the brute alarmed you,” said George, advancing to the girl, whose eyes swam with tears, and whose breast rose and fell tumultuously. “But pray compose yourself—you are quite safe now.”
“Oh thank you, thank you,” she sobbed.
“Don’t cry, Miss Leslie,” said he, feeling a queer sensation in his own throat. “He has gone, and will not dare to approach you again. If he does, I’ll—” What he was going to say would not, perhaps, be difficult to guess; but at that moment she, giving a great sob, staggered forward, and he, rushing to her assistance, left the sentence unfinished.
“You are ill?” he asked anxiously. “Has the scoundrel hurt you in any way?”
“No, no. But the shame of it, oh! the shame of it!” She buried her face in her hands and wept bitterly.
“I understand,” he said. “The man is a scoundrel, and I will have him watched. You will pardon me, Miss Leslie, but is this the—the first time?” he asked shyly.
“No,” she replied, with a shudder.
“Does Logan know?”
“Yes, I am sure he does.”
“And Kitty—Mrs. Logan?” he added, quickly correcting himself.
“No, she does not know. She would not permit it; but—”
“But this is no place for you.”
“You do not think I am ungrateful?” she asked, looking up through her tears.
“I am sure you are not. But have you no one else to whom you could go?”
“No one to whom I would go,” she answered quickly. “But I am fairly well educated, and could teach—I must teach. I could never live this dreadful life, Mr. Vincent. It would kill me.”
George looked down at her where she sat, her slender form bowed with anguish, her breast rising and falling as though every breath she drew came with a painful effort. The choking sensation returned to his own throat, and for a moment he trembled like the little woman before him. Then a great wave of love and pity swept suddenly in upon his soul. His brain reeled. He saw nothing, knew nothing, but her presence. In a moment he was on his knees beside her, and had taken her little white hand in a passionate grip.
“Miss Leslie—Edith, will you give me permission to protect you?”
She looked down into his earnest face, her great eyes starting at the thrilling question.
“What do you mean?” she muttered faintly.
“Will you be my wife?”
“Yes, my wife. I will protect you as you should be protected. I love you, dear, I love you.”
He sought to take her hands, but she repulsed him gently.
“You are sorry for me,” she said in a low, broken-hearted voice. “You pity me. It is good of you and I thank you.”
“I am sorry,” he said, as he returned her earnest look with a fervour which compelled her to drop her lashes, “and I pity you with all my heart. But I love you before all things, and if you will trust me I will try to make you happy. Don’t think because I am an outcast now that I have always been, or shall always be, one. I am not rich, dearest, but I am young and strong. I will work for you, I will give you a life’s devotion.”
“I should not value a man for his fortune,” she said, looking frankly into his eyes, “but I—” and then she stopped and began to blush and tremble so that it was with the greatest effort he restrained himself from taking her in his arms.
“You are not engaged?” was his eager query. “You are not mar—?”
“Then you do not care for me?” he asked despondently.
She looked down on him, a strange and wonderful light shining in her great eyes. He needed no other word of encouragement. In a moment his arms went round her waist and his lips met hers.
“Edith, Edith!” he cried passionately, as though he could find no other words.
“Dearest,” she whispered softly. Then she put her arms round his neck, and drawing his face to her kissed him of her own free will, thereby setting the seal upon their love.
And they sat long thus, for he would not rise from her feet, saying one always looked up to heaven; and she blushed and looked as happy as though she had never a care in the world. Then they talked long of the future, and told each other of their hopes and fears, while he even hinted vaguely of the mysterious cipher, though as yet he dared not give expression to all his hopes. Yet, vague as were his whispers, she took many pretty oaths to secrecy, and vowed to curb her woman’s curiosity till such time as her lord should be pleased to speak; and he, kissing her white hand, swore by the Holy Trinity that he loved her better than his own soul; and through their bodies the blood coursed joyously, and in their eyes was the light of heaven.
“You will live on here for a little while longer,” he said, “and in the meantime I will see what can be done. Kitty loves you dearly; she will guard you carefully.”
“Yes, yes—but she must not know.” Vincent hung down his head. He did not ask her why. There are some questions which should never be put.
“No,” he said, “we will keep it a secret till everything is ready.”
“That will scarcely be necessary now, George.”
He bounded angrily to his feet and Edith uttered a little scream. These young people had been imprudent enough to make love without first shutting the door, and upon turning their eyes in that direction they beheld Kitty standing on the threshold, a mocking smile upon her beautiful face.
“You, Mrs. Logan!” exclaimed the young man.
“Yes George, I. Why didn’t you shut the door, you stupid boy?”
“I—I never thought of it,” he said sheepishly.
“I suppose not. But what am I to understand from this situation?” she asked in a strange, quivering voice.
“That we love each other, Mrs. Kitty.”
“Love!” she echoed harshly, “are—are you sure?”
“Quite,” he said.
“And you, Edie?”
The girl flung herself on her cousin’s breast and sobbed aloud.
“There, there, child,” said Kitty, an indescribable quiver making her voice sound wonderfully sad, “don’t give way like that. Love, surely, is a thing of joy? But perhaps you cry because you are so happy? May you know no other tears.” Then leading the girl gently to the door she said, “Go to your room now, Edie dear. I am your guardian, you know, and have something to say to Mr. Vincent.”
And so the girl went, and when the door had closed upon her, Kitty and George stood face to face.
It would be difficult to describe the various emotions which thrilled the breasts of these two young people as they stood confronting each other. Love, envy, respect, fear—a formidable host—each one striving for supremacy. On her lips was a strange smile, in her eyes a new fire, on her brow the dark shadow of a storm.
“Well, George,” she said, her proud lips curling and quivering strangely as she spoke, “it has come to this, eh?”
“To what, Mrs. Logan?” he replied, looking exceedingly foolish and feeling deeply embarrassed.
“Mrs. Logan!” she repeated.
“Mrs. Kitty, then. Do you mean that I have been making love to Edith?”
“That is what I mean,” she said. “Tell me what you mean.”
“I believe I have found my happiness at last, Mrs. Kitty. I mean to marry her.”
“Then you do love her?”
“Are you—are you sure of this, George?”
“If I know my own heart,” he said.
“Has promised to be my wife. Strange how things come about, isn’t it? When I met her that day on the Yarra she set every pulse in my body throbbing, and now—”
“And now?” she cried.
“And now we are to become man and wife. Oh, Mrs. Kitty, when I think of it all, I can find no words to describe my happiness.”
His listener gave a great sob. “Have you no pity?” she moaned, “have you no pity?”
“Pity,” he echoed. “I don’t quite under— Good heavens, you are ill?”
He sprang forward as he spoke, for she had turned deathly pale and staggered back a step or two as though about to fall.
“No,” she gasped, “I am not ill—I—Oh, my God, my God!” and dropping in a chair she buried her face in her hands and sobbed as though her heart would break.
Seeing how he had blundered, he sprang to her, and laying a hand gently upon her shoulder said, being deeply moved, “Come, come, Kitty, you must not give way like this—indeed you must not. We have always been the truest and best of friends; let us—” But she had seized his hand and was covering it with tears and kisses.
“You must not do that,” he said, withdrawing it quickly, “indeed you must not do that.”
“No,” she cried, starting to her feet, “I am not a dog. Why should I? Oh,” she exclaimed turning to him with eyes that shone like fire through tears, “why am I not a man so that I could forget like men?”
“Kitty,” he said, “you are wrong. I do not forget—I never shall. Why should we not still be friends?”
“Friends,” she echoed almost fiercely, “what have I to do with friendship?—what have you? Yet it is as well we understand each other. Only, George, you should think twice before you break a woman’s heart.”
“Kitty,” he cried, “on my soul I could not wrong you. In a moment of madness I forgot myself, forgot that you could not—should not be mine. You are lovely, and, God knows, I am no saint. I loved you better than I thought.”
“Pray don’t excuse yourself,” she said coldly, the weak woman transforming herself by a touch into one of commendable dignity; “it is quite unnecessary. If I had been tottering on the verge of an abyss, I am exceedingly grateful to you for having so heroically saved me. Yet if for one moment you imagined that I was in danger, Mr. Vincent, I must confess to you that your fears were entirely groundless. Even a woman may look over a precipice without turning giddy; and a publican may not necessarily be abandoned.”
“You know you wrong me,” he exclaimed. “You are very cruel.”
Her proud lip curled scornfully. “My dear George,” she said, “we have evidently been labouring under some preposterous delusion. I think, with your permission, we will forget all about it.” And with a slight inclination of her defiant head she quitted the room.
Vincent, left alone, began to pace up and down excitedly. He was both bewildered and annoyed at the strange turn things had taken. That Kitty liked him he knew well, but that her affection had taken such deep root he had never possessed sufficient assurance to imagine. Then, too, her sudden change of front had startled him not a little. One minute she was in tears, the next, as cold and cutting as only a passionate woman can be when she calls in scorn and dignity to her aid. He could see her lip curl yet, hear her sharp, clear tones, and watch the fire smouldering in her eyes. He had expected a blazing forth; but she was proud in her own impetuous way, and strove hard to veil the grief which was so painfully apparent. How he cursed the folly which had urged him to that madman’s act! His pretty speeches and his compliments had hitherto been valued at their worth. She knew he liked her, that he, in fact, admired her greatly, but never till that fatal moment had he given her cause to imagine that he ever hoped to become anything nearer than a friend.
He turned from the room with a feeling of impending calamity upon him. The door of the little parlour was wide open as he passed, and he beheld Logan sitting in the self-same chair—indeed it seemed as though he had not stirred—his glass before him, a cigar in his mouth.
“Come in, Vincent,” he cried, as George stepped into the doorway; “come in and have a glass.”
“Thank you, I will.” The young fellow entered and helped himself to some whisky and water, feeling he needed a little stimulant. The landlord surveyed him through his strange little eyes with a look of singular penetration.
“Why don’t you sit down, man? One would think you had the rickets.”
They say it is a common failing of the inebriate to see his own weakness in others. Certain it is that Mr. Peter Logan fidgeted so excessively himself that he might be excused for imagining that everyone else had suddenly developed an exceeding love for St. Vitus.
“It’s rather later than I thought,” replied the young man. “I must be off.”
“Phil won’t be home yet, will he?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Then what’s your hurry? Has the young lady gone to bed?”
“I’m sure I don’t know. It was Mrs. Logan to whom I was speaking last.”
“Mrs. Logan,” he laughed. “Oh, I thought it was someone else.” He winked knowingly, screwing up his fat cheeks in a disgusting manner as he did so.
George felt as though he would like to give him a good shaking, but concealing his contempt, he said, “I may as well tell you, Logan, so that you’ll understand the reason of my future visits to this house. I am going to marry Miss Leslie.”
“Oh, are you? Sudden, isn’t it?”
“It was decided upon this evening.”
“You’ve done pretty well.”
“Yes. You won’t object to my coming here, I suppose?”
“My dear boy,” said Mr. Logan effusively, “you shall come here as often as you like. You shall stay here if you would like to. Yes, that’s a good idea. Why not come and live here?”
“I think it would be too far from the camp.”
“A mile,” said Mr. Logan contemptuously; “what’s that for a man of your build? When I was down to fifteen stone I could easily do my mile inside the quarter of an hour.”
“I can quite believe you; but I’m afraid I cannot entertain the thought at present,” and he turned to go.
“What a confounded hurry you’re in,” exclaimed the landlord irritably. “Why don’t you sit down, man, and have a chat?”
“No, thank you all the same. I must be getting along.”
“Why,” said Logan, with an excited laugh, “one would think you had a wife waiting for you—not that all wives are dying of love for their husbands. Take my seraph as an example. She’s got so high and mighty, so full of heavenly things, that she won’t condescend to look towards the earth—at least, not towards this portion of it,” he added, patting his manly bosom.
Vincent did not wonder at it, but he laughed in a queer sort of way. However, thinking the subject a rather delicate one, he refrained from expressing an opinion; bade the aggrieved husband a hurried good-night, and quitted the house.
Through the long, straggling street he passed, his mind filled with a world of strange sensations. Now it was of Edith he thought, of the sweet moments which had sped into hours almost before he was aware of their existence; of Kitty and her sudden transition from tears to scorn, and of what the result of all this strange business might be. Then, too, he thought much of the words which had issued so distinctly from the sleeping Logans lips, and his hand went instinctively to his side where he carried the bushranger’s cipher. He must work hard at this now, doubly hard, for there could be no longer any doubt of its being the key to Hall’s Plant; and, moreover, there was another who had agreed to share his life, and for her sake he must do well. Filled with this exhilarating thought he pressed rapidly forward, and about half-way between the camp and the town he beheld the figure of a man dart suddenly from the road and disappear behind some stunted bushes which grew by the wayside. With a quick movement Vincent uncased his revolver—for those were perilous times, and a man knew not at what moment he might be called upon to defend himself to the death—and with his finger on the trigger, and eyes and ears alert, he marched on. He was no coward, but he breathed a sigh of relief when he had passed the bushes in safety, having felt sure that the man had disappeared only the better to attack him. He little guessed that he was the last person in the world whom that individual would have cared to meet.
At last he reached his tent, and unbuckling the flap which answered the purpose of a door, stepped within. That his mate Phil had not yet returned, the padlocked screen bore ample witness, and, heaving a sigh at the thought of that man’s folly, he proceeded to strike a light. But while looking round in the darkness, he thought he saw the moonbeams enter through a crack in the canvas, and never having noticed such a flaw before, he struck the light with the intention of examining it. No sooner had the candle burnt up, however, than he uttered a great exclamation, for the tent was in a state of the wildest disorder. Over the floor, on the little table, and across the two bunks which he and Phil occupied, were scattered, in the most admired confusion, the whole contents of their two trunks—the trunks themselves, their locks wrenched asunder, were tossed, one in the other, in one corner. George stared for several moments at the wreckage around him with a look of amazement, then held the candle over where he had observed the streak of moonlight, and saw that a great hole had been slit in the canvas. Through this the robber had entered, and it, being at the back of the tent, had enabled him to enter and leave without encountering any chance observer.
Vincent sat down on his bunk, lit his pipe, and for fully half-an-hour sat smoking and staring moodily at the confusion, turning the thing over and over in his brain, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. Plunder, undoubtedly, must have been the object of this outrage, and yet it astonished him not a little to see so many useful articles of apparel lying about, apparently forgotten. A fastidious burglar, truly; one for whom the yellow dust only possessed any power of attraction. That no ordinary rogues had been at work the neglected clothing bore sufficient testimony; and of a sudden a new, overwhelming thought rushed in upon the young man. His mind reverted to the words which Logan had muttered in his sleep. With a cry, he sprang from his bed and began to gather up the scattered wardrobe. He found it complete in every detail—handkerchiefs, socks, collars, ties—everything was there but his papers.
“By Jove!” he cried, “it is as I thought. It’s not the gold they have been after, but Hall’s cipher.”
And indeed it looked like it, for not, as well as he could recollect, was there one article of apparel missing, though a large portfolio in which he kept his mother’s letters and sundry other papers, which were of no consequence to anyone but himself, was missing. Three little bags of gold-dust, which he had had in his box for some time, were also gone; but that fact occasioned no surprise. It is not likely that a thief will disdain gold, however much he may prefer paper. But the loss of the gold troubled Vincent little. If it had only been an ordinary theft, if the gold alone had been taken, he would have considered the success of the enterprise due to his own negligence, and would have vowed sundry oaths never to be thus caught napping again; but when he saw so many useful things lying about, thought of the disappearance of his papers and the great secret which he held, he could not believe the motive of the crime was anything but the gaining possession of that secret. Then he undid the belt which spanned his waist and from one of its little pouches withdrew the mystic cipher, even unfolding it to make sure that it was the real thing, He then bethought him of making another copy in case this one should be lost, but that intention was no sooner conceived than abandoned, for it would not do to have two copies of this precious paper in existence. He had intended doing a similar thing long ago, but he now saw how wise he had been in refraining from his first impulse. Had he carried out that thought the secret would now be in the possession of another—perhaps a dozen others, a dozen desperate men. His position would then have been an unenviable one, for it was a thousand to one they would have put him out of the way to save future trouble. Even as it was his security was none too good, for that he was suspected of being in possession of the secret there could no longer be any doubt. Then he began to think of all whom he knew on the diggings, of what he had said at different times; and he felt sorry that he had ever made any public statement in reference to the murder in Little Lonsdale Street. He remembered the peculiar looks of the landlord and Mr. Smith, and recollected well each incident of the subsequent interview when Mr. Logan told of the sticking-up of the Mount Marong Escort, told of it, too, in an aggrieved and personal tone. He had not thought much of it then, truly, and latterly a more tender subject had filled his heart and mind; but in the face of the present outrage, and with the recollection of the sleeping Logan’s words still ringing in his ears, he could not disconnect the “Emu’s Head” with this most impudent robbery. Who were Logan and Smith? He started as he asked himself the question, but rejected, as being too utterly foolish, the thought to which it gave birth. No; a girl like Kitty would have known all about him before she had trusted her life to his keeping. But who was this man Smith? Might he not be the associate of all the cut-throats in the camp? Nay, why shouldn’t he have been one of Hall’s gang? He had it—or at least he thought he had. Hall had stuck-up the Mount Marong Escort at Dead Man’s Flat. Now that escort carried between six and seven thousand ounces of gold, which, roughly speaking, would weigh nearly six hundred pounds—no insignificant weight. Consequently Hall, not being altogether a fool, and knowing that it would be impossible to travel with such a treasure, especially with men as wild and lawless as himself, decided to bury it. Therefore he must have buried it somewhere on or near Dead Man’s Flat. Indeed, had not George himself found those three words, though how he had done so he could not for the life of him recollect. Was not this then one excellent reason for explaining Smith’s presence? He had come there in the hope of finding the treasure. And yet this was but a poor explanation, for every man in the place had come with somewhat similar hopes. He, however, put the paper carefully back in his belt, thinking that he would take the first opportunity of studying it as he had never studied anything before, and then began to set the tent ship-shape.
While engaged in this unpleasant occupation he was startled by the sudden entrance of his mate, Phil Thomas. That worthy gentleman lurched into the little room as though he had been suddenly ejected from a catapult.
“Hold up,” cried Vincent, whom Mr. Phil, as he lurched towards his bed, stumbled against with much violence; “what the devil do you mean by knocking me about?”
“Beg pardon, mate. I guess I’ve got a drop too much aboard of me.” And, indeed, he looked as though he had, for not alone was he stupidly drunk, but he looked emaciated and wretchedly ill.
“The same old game,” said Vincent with a sarcastic laugh. “I wonder you are not ashamed of yourself.”
“I am, mate,” replied the man angrily. “I’m a dorg, that’s what I am. But if I ever go near that cursed town again, I hope I’ll drop down dead on the way.”
Vincent laughed incredulously. “My dear Phil, how often have you sworn ten times more fearful oaths than that? The fact of the matter is, you’re not man enough to drop the liquor.”
“Ain’t I though?” was the reply. “You’ll see if I ain’t this time.”
“Well, it’s quite time you dropped it, for it has done us a bad turn now.”
“How a bad turn, mate?”
“Are you so drunk that you can’t see? Somebody’s broken into the tent.”
“Broken in, mate?” echoed Phil, looking down on Vincent with big stupid eyes. “Where was you, then?”
“Over at Logan’s. When I came back I found the place turned topsy-turvy. They made a slit in the canvas there, and wrenched the boxes open with a pick.
Phil was off his bunk in a moment, the news seeming to have knocked him sober. Diving his hand into a certain corner of his trunk, he uttered a great cry.
“It’s gone, by Gord!”
“I had a little bag of the dust there, mate. It was for her—the old woman—for her and the little ’un.”
“Good heavens, man, do you mean to say you have a wife and child?”
“I have,” replied the man, bowing his head with shame. “Gord forgive me.”
“So say I, for you need it. I always knew you were a fool, Phil, but I never thought you were as bad as this.”
“No, I suppose not,” replied the man with a strange, excited laugh, “but you see I am. A dorg that wants kicking is a better man than me. I couldn’t stop my boozing, not me, even though they was kicked out into the street. And only the other day,” he went on mournfully, “I got a letter written in the little ’un’s own hand, Gord bless her—you ought to see her, mate; she’s a flower-kid, that’s what she is—and in this letter she said that she prayed night and morning for her dear father; that’s me, mate, me! And there was a little P.S. at the bottom in the old woman’s hand—But I can’t, no,” he cried, clapping his hands to his eyes, “I can’t. She was always like an angel; she didn’t upbraid me, mate, because—because I had always been such a good husband to her! But, you see, their landlord had threatened to turn them into the street.” The man seemed to bring forth this sentence with a violent effort—as though the words were choking him. Then, pressing his face in his hands, he sobbed aloud.
Vincent regarded him for several moments without speaking. Then he said, “I suppose you have nothing now?”
“Nothing, mate. I’m broke.”
“What do you intend to do?”
“Gord knows,” said Phil, sinking dejectedly on his rifled box. “I can do nothing.”
“What do you think of yourself?”
“Don’t ask me, mate. Let me forget, if I can, or I may go and blow my brains out. Poor Polly,” he moaned, “poor little ’un! I wonder what you’ll do.”
“Look here,” said Vincent, unable to torture the poor fellow any longer, “I’ve had three bags of my own stolen, but I’ve got a little left—up there at the house.” He jerked his hand towards the police barracks as he spoke. “Now, you’ve been a good mate to me, Phil, and have never, as far as I was concerned, gone back on your word. I want you to give me that word now and I’ll help you.”
“It’s yours,” said the man. “What is it?”
George looked steadily, into his pale, serious face. He saw the man was in earnest.
“It’s this, Phil. I’ll lend you the equivalent of your loss, if you’ll send it at once to your wife, and keep away from the drink for a month. If after that time you go back to it—we part company.”
Phil bounded to his feet with outstretched hand.
“It’s life you’ve given me, mate. My word is yours—you’ll see that I can keep it. I make no more promises, because a man breaks them as easily as he does an egg-shell. There’s my hand, mate; take it! Gord bless you!”
And Vincent never had cause to regret that bargain.
We will now retrace our steps to that portion of the road whereon George Vincent saw the figure of a man disappear behind the bushes; and after watching that figure crouch low among the leaves till even Vincent’s footsteps could no longer be heard, we shall, if we watch closely, see it stealthily rise, and take once more to the main road, its face turned to the town. Three times it goes through this little performance before it reaches the main street, and, curiously enough, always to avoid some belated pedestrians. Once in the town, however, it stalks boldly enough till it pulls up at the private door of the “Emu’s Head.” Here it produces a key from its pocket, quickly unlocks the door and, unobserved, enters. It makes directly for the little sitting-room in which we saw Vincent bid Mr. Logan good-night. The fat landlord is still there, his glass before him, his cigar, at which he pulls somewhat excitedly, still in his mouth. As his visitor enters he looks up and recognises Mr. Smith.
“Back, Sammy? I was getting a bit nervous about you. I kept him here as long as I could, but I’m hanged if he didn’t seem to sniff the business.”
Sammy shut and carefully locked the door.
“Pre—cautionary measures,” he smiled.
“Well?” said Logan eagerly.
“If you don’t mind I’ll take a little of this first.” Mr. Smith helped himself to a stiff nobbler of whisky and water.
“Well?” said Mr. Logan once more, only this time a trifle more eagerly.
“Can’t say as it is or not,” replied Mr. Smith facetiously; “but I’ve been there, Peter, old pal, and I found these bits of bags in my pockets when I left.” As he spoke he produced four little bags of gold-dust.
“Nothing else stick to you, Sammy?” enquired the eager landlord with a knowing leer.
“Yes, I believe it did. Now I wonder what it could have been? Oh, I know!” With a merry twinkle in his evil little eyes he put his hand up under his waistcoat and drew down a black portfolio, rather the worse for wear.
“Ah,” said Logan, “that looks good. But first let us see that it’s not in here.” And untying the little bags he pushed his fat fingers through the precious dust. “No,” he said, after examining the four of them, “there’s nothing here. It must be in the book. Hand it over, Sammy.”
Mr. Smith did as he was bidden, taking up a position by his companion’s side. With fat nervous fingers the estimable Logan untied the portfolio, and carefully extracted paper after paper. These he and his confederate scanned closely in every conceivable way, but to their unutterable disgust they found them to consist of letters and other papers totally unconnected with the object for which they searched.
“Curse it!” growled Mr. Smith, bringing his fist down on the table with a bang. “I’m blest if I ain’t gone and risked all this for nothing.”
“Wait a minute,” said Mr. Logan soothingly. “Let us try once more, Sammy, let us go through ’em all again.” This they did, only to experience another rebuff. Then the worthy landlord took out his knife and carefully cut the lining from the leather, but succeeded in bringing no secret to light.
“It’s no go,” groaned Mr. Smith despondently, “it’s not there. I don’t believe he’s got it neither, and what’s more, I don’t believe old Billy ever give it to him.”
“Don’t you be an ass,” said Mr. Logan disdainfully. “Billy gave it to him right enough, though what he has done with it is more than I can say. Anyway, Sammy, old pal, we’ve got to find it, don’t you see? You’re sure you brought all the papers you could lay your hands on?”
“What did I go for?” asked Mr. Smith scornfully, as though the very suggestion that he could not carry out so mean an undertaking were nothing less than an impertinence. “I tell you I opened both their boxes, and what’s more, I searched their clothes as well.”
“Then,” said the landlord, “if he has not lost it he must carry it on him. In his waist-belt most like.”
“Most like,” repeated Mr. Smith dolefully. That worthy man seemed terribly cut up at the sad and provoking turn of affairs.
The landlord took a long pull at his tumbler, his little eyes apparently staring into space. He was thinking. His companion looked on, wondering what stupendous thought was building itself up in that brain. Suddenly Logan spoke.
“I have it, Sammy.”
“No—not that. I mean I have an idea. We must get Mr. Vincent’s belt,”
“Any fool could think of that,” replied Mr. Smith contemptuously. “What I want to know is, how are we going to do it? Not that I’ve any love for him—” and Mr. Smith came out with a choice collection of very remarkable, if not superfine, epithets.
“No violence, Sammy. Remember, I’m a respectable married man—now, and I can’t have my good name mixed up with anything that is not distinctly proper.” Mr. Logan looked so exceedingly comical as he spoke that the worthy Smith grinned till his moustachios curled up to his little eyes.
“That’s just it, Peter,” said he, still grinning furiously, “you’re married, old pal; that’s just it.”
“Just what?” said Logan sharply, not liking the peculiar tone which his companion took. “What the devil are you driving at?”
“I mean a wife is useful, sometimes, Peter, old pal.”
Logan uttered a terrible oath. The man Smith was too horribly insinuating even for his coarse soul.
“Come,” he said savagely, “out with it. No humbug. What do you mean?”
“I mean what I’m tellin’ you, Peter. If you wasn’t so fat and lazy you’d have seen it yourself long ago. She’s dead-nuts on that young chap.”
“The jade,” hissed Logan, his fat cheeks drawing in in a puzzling manner, “I wonder if she is! The hussy! No wonder she’s no wife to me.”
“It’s very hard on you, Peter, old pal,” replied his companion with a sympathetic grin. “But that’s the way of women. They don’t think nothing of chucking their lawful spouses.”
“But he’s in love with the cousin—with Edith,” said Logan, having no wish to discuss so delicate a subject with such an indelicate companion.
“So much the better,” replied Mr. Smith with one of his exquisite leers. “Nothing like working with women, Jimmy—I beg your pardon, Peter—they’re so sly, so devilish cunning, old pal. And when you can get ’em jealous—outrage their feelin’s, as they call it—they’ll stick at nothing. I’ve heard you say the missis wouldn’t think twice of putting a bullet through a man. She’ll suit us down to the ground.”
“So you think you’ll work with her, Sammy, eh? You’d like to catch yourself, wouldn’t you? You don’t know that she’s the most obstinate, wilful hussy that was ever born.”
Mr. Smith smiled in his own peculiar way. “If she was the mother of Satan,” he said, “she’d do it.”
“Well,” said Logan, “there’s no harm in trying; and you always was pretty cunning—snaky-like—wasn’t you?”
“Look here,” said Mr. Smith, his black eyes gleaming angrily, “I don’t see the necessity for any personal compliments. We either sail in company or stand off on our own account. Whichever you like, Peter, old pal.”
“Don’t you get quite so touchy, Mr. Smith, or I might be telling you that I’ve kept you long enough. But that’s not my style, and you know it. The man who has once been my friend is always my friend.”
Mr. Smith laughed softly, or rather hissed softly, for his laugh partook more of the nature of a hiss than of any other human sound. He thought of sundry little incidents in Mr. Logan’s life which would considerably alter the complexion of this statement. But he also knew the nature of the man, and feared his savage Irish blood. The genial landlord’s brow contracted, his little eyes sank back till they shone like two beads surrounded by ridges of flesh. Mr. Smith had seen that look before. It was the black cloud which precedes the thunder and lightning. He thought it time to seek shelter.
“Well, Peter,” said he apologetically, “I’ve done all I can, old pal; but as we can do nothing more to-night, I propose that we toddle off to bed and sleep on it.”
So they drank another whisky and water, burnt the portfolio and its contents, and betook themselves to their respective chambers.
* * * * * * * * * *
And while all this was going on in the little room below, Edith slept, in her little room upstairs, in Elysium. At first she was surprised at the non-appearance of her cousin Kitty, for that young lady had been her bed-fellow since the second night of her arrival, but as her own heart was too full of a strange new gladness, her own brain too pre-occupied with her own sweet, exciting thoughts, she soon forgot such a trifling matter as Kitty’s absence and dropped off, as we have said, into Elysium. When she opened her eyes in the morning it was to gaze on the dingy room with its dingy wallpaper, but she never knew till that moment how very artistic the pattern of that dingy wall-paper really was; and when she opened her window and saw the sun rising like a blood-red ball through the morning haze, she thought the young day had never seemed so fresh. Her own pulses quickened, her body throbbed with the awakening day. She went hither and thither on the wings of a butterfly. She wondered if this were really the Dead Man’s Flat of yesterday.
Kitty did not show up that morning. Complaining of a bad headache she requested that she might not be disturbed on any account, a request, however, with which Edith might not have closely complied, had not Mr. Logan informed her at breakfast that he was about to go abroad on some important business, and that he should esteem it a great favour if she would mind the bar till he returned, or Kitty appeared. This seemed to her such a reasonable request that she could not very well refuse, so in spite of her prejudice to the profession she once more mounted guard over the beer-taps. It happened, however, that her post was not found trying in the least, for, beyond attending to the wants of a few habitual drunkards, there was little to do in the bar of a morning, all the men being hard at work down the creek.
About half-past twelve George came in, but being a privileged customer he entered the bar parlour through the private door. He then rang the bell like one who wishes to be served, and Edith, entering hastily, found herself immediately encompassed by a pair of strong arms. The situation, however, was one not calculated to cause her much consternation, and in the brief; intervals which he allowed her lips he gathered that she was wonderfully happy, that she had not repented of her promise, that she had not seen Mr. Smith that day, and that she was afraid of no one now.
“I wish I could say the same,” said he. “But why are you here, darling? I thought it was understood that you were not to serve in the bar?”
“So it is; but Kitty is ill this morning and Mr. Logan has gone out on business. He said there was no else in the house whom he could trust. Do you mind very much?”
“I do not like it, dear, but under such circumstances I suppose you could not very well refuse. However, you must object to it at night. Remember, darling, you are not alone in the world now.”
“Ah, no,” she said, clinging fondly to him, “I am not, thank God, and you don’t know how brave it makes me feel. I wouldn’t mind serving in any capacity now, for I’m sure I shouldn’t feel degraded.”
“No honest work should be degrading, my dear,” he said softly, for her simple words had touched him deeply, breathing as they did such loving trust in him; “though society has decreed that certain forms of labour shall be unsuited to all whom it calls ladies and gentlemen. Now, I am singular enough to despise all such laws when applied to me, but when applied to my wife that is to be, I heartily endorse them,” And he kissed her in the same spirit.
A wonderful thing this kissing. How much it may mean—or how little. Lip meets lip, and henceforth the world is inhabited by two persons only. Or he may kiss with false lips and her heart shall wither; or she may nestle in his arms, press her hot lips to his and steal his soul and bring him lower than the brutes. Or it may mean as much as the idle breeze which kisses the leaves of yonder tree—which is nothing. Yet even then it will grow to something—perhaps a hurricane—which is the offspring of the breeze. When the lips meet the eyes burn into each other like two suns. Yes, decidedly, the breeze will presently scorch like a simoom.
“You believe,” she said, “in the old saying, that a man who has been once a gentleman always remains so, but you are not prepared to admit that the argument will hold good with women?”
“Am I not?” he replied laughingly. “And pray who told you so? But I see, young lady, we are going to have some passages at arms by-and-by. Very well, Mrs. Vincent that is to be, I shall let you know all about that when I have once conducted you across the draw-bridge of my castle.”
“Have you many dungeons in that castle, George?” she laughed.
“Have I not? Deep down, a thousand feet below the moat, ha! ha!”
But here she slipped away from him to serve a noisy customer and his castle vanished into beer-bubbles.
Returning to his side (it is wonderful how these young people like to get their hands on each other), she asked rather suddenly what he had meant a little while ago by the suggestion that he was afraid of some one?”
“Ah, yes,” he exclaimed, “I had forgotten. You fill my brain so full that I have not room for another thought. It was this, dear: my tent was broken into last night, four bags of gold dust stolen and all my papers.” And he told her how it had come about. “I have been to the police,” he continued, “but they can hold out little hope—there are so many evil characters here, you know. No one was seen prowling about the tent, and, so far, the occurrence is shrouded in mystery.”
“Mystery, indeed. Poor George, to lose all that gold.”
“One bag belonged to Phil, and I am sorry, for his sake, that the robbers got away so easily. It, however, is not the loss of the gold which troubles me, but the disappearance of my papers.”
“Were they very valuable?”
“Not worth sixpence.”
She looked at him in a puzzled sort of way.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand you.”
“My dear,” he said, dropping his voice and looking stealthily out into the bar, “the papers have no monetary value, for they are only my mother’s letters, a few receipts and addresses; but I have a paper in my possession, Edith, which I believe to be worth twenty-five thousand pounds.”
“George!” she cried, as though she could not grasp the thought of such a stupendous sum.
“Hush!—not quite so loud. It is my secret, the secret of which I hinted to you the other day. On it I base my hopes of that fortune of which I spoke. It is in the form of a cipher, and was given to me by a man whom I once saved from some assassins in Melbourne—I will tell you the whole story one day. You have heard of Hall, the bush-ranger, have you not?”
“Yes, often since I have been here.”
“Then you have heard how he stuck-up the Mount Marong Escort, and how he stole between six and seven thousand ounces of gold?”
“Oh, yes. Mr. Logan often speaks of it.”
“Does he? Well, that paper of which I speak will, I believe, if deciphered correctly, enable me to find that treasure. Now no one knows for certain that I have this paper, but I am inclined to think that there are one or two who suspect as much.”
“Then it was to gain possession of it that they committed the robbery?”
“That is my firm belief, else why should they have carried off every scrap of paper on which they could lay their hands? An ordinary thief would not be bothered with such a lot of useless stuff, which might easily lead to his identification.”
“Do you suspect any one?”
“There are two men, dear, on whom I look with anything but favour, I must watch them well.”
“You will be careful, George?”
“But this cipher, dear; is it so very difficult?”
“I have found it so, though I have not really gone into it. It seems scarcely possible that a man like Hall could have invented a mathematical problem which would puzzle a Newton; therefore I think it will be simple enough, once we strike the right key, and I shall wonder then how I ever came to think it difficult.”
“I should very much like to see it.”
“So you shall. But, hush!—here comes Logan.” The landlord’s voice was at that moment heard outside in the passage. “Remember, Edith. Not a word to a living soul.”
“Not a whisper.”
She held up her face and he kissed her quickly, but not quickly enough to escape the sudden entrance of Mr. Logan.
“Ha, ha!” laughed that worthy man good-humouredly, “is that the way you do it, eh? Ha, ha!” he continued, rather unpleasantly, “go it while you’re young, my dears, go it while you’re young, for the night cometh when no man can work.” Edith blushed furiously and darted into the bar, while Vincent, resenting such flippancy, was about to make some sharp retort when the merry Boniface exclaimed, in a voice of great concern, “By the way, George, what’s this about the robbery at your place?”
“How did you know there was a robbery?” asked Vincent sharply.
“I’ve just been down the creek and saw your mate, Phil. Pretty serious, eh?”
“I think so.”
“It’s not pleasant,” said Mr. Logan sympathetically.
“No, it is not. But the next man who comes fossicking round my diggings, without my permission, will go off with a lump of lead in him—if he goes off at all,” added the young man savagely.
“I call it a thick slice of hard luck,” said Mr. Logan in the same sympathetic tone. “Phil tells me they bolted with your papers too. What on earth could they want with them?” This was thrown out in the form of a suggestion, but it received a very unsatisfactory reply.
“I don’t know—unless they thought I might have had some bank-notes among the papers.”
“Have you a clue of any kind?” enquired the landlord, taking off his coat and rolling up his shirt-sleeves.
“None whatever. But I’ve turned the police on.”
“Ah, we have a sad mob of blackguards on the Flat,” mused Mr. Logan, lighting a big cigar.’
“You’re right, we have. The police believe that one or two of Hall’s gang are here.” This was a chance-shot, a fabrication, in fact, but it made the worthy Logan start and swallow a mouthful of smoke.
“Is that so?” he said.
“You won’t let it go any further, Peter?”
“Not me. Lay the infernal rascals by the heels, say I. Hall’s gang, eh?” he repeated with a smile. “Then I guess we had better keep our pockets buttoned.” And with that he waddled into the bar to relieve Edith.
“I shall come round to-night,” George whispered to the girl.
“Do, dear,” and she was gone.
“Are you going to stay and have some dinner with us, George?” enquired the landlord, poking his ugly face into the room as Vincent was about to leave.
“I am sorry to say I shall have to go back to the camp with a few things for Phil.”
“But we shall see you to-night?” This with a knowing smile.
“I shall be round, certainly. But you must not expect me to drink with your friend, Smith.”
“Not I—I’ve done with him. He’s a drunken fool. I heard about that business with Edith. I’m glad you treated him as you did, George. Pity you didn’t give him a thumping as well. It would have done him no end of good, for he hasn’t the manners of a hog.” And, as George disappeared with a smile, Mr. Logan’s face might have been seen to contract, or at least that portion of it about his eyes, and he might at the same time have been heard to mutter, “Hall’s gang, eh? It’s time we got to work, Sammy, time we got to work, old pal.”
In the afternoon Kitty appeared, having passed through a night more wretched than any she had ever known. Her eyes were red and swollen, her cheeks puffed; indeed her whole face bore a look of indescribable misery. She returned her estimable husband’s salutations with a cold stare, and when he upbraided her for her unwifely spirit she told him to go and mind his own business. And away he went, thinking much of the strangeness which had come upon her, and wondering what quantity of truth the statement of Mr. Smith contained. That Kitty had liked George he was well aware, but that there was anything serious in that liking he never for one moment imagined, for to him she was a woman so proud that he did not fear she would condescend to stoop to any unworthy act. Yet he had determined to test her. Smith had asserted that a jealous woman would stop at nothing. Well, he would see. If her jealousy served his turn he might find it in his heart to forgive even her falseness. Yet, truth to tell, he did not glow with hope; though, knowing her impulsiveness, he did not doubt that once the idea got the mastery over her it would sweep away all opposition. If he could only corrupt her sufficiently he knew that victory was assured.
And all this time the object of his thoughts went on with her work, mute, unless it was to snap. That her thoughts were anywhere but with her beer-taps the least observant of her patrons could see; that there was some trouble in her heart, some pain-giving thought in her mind, all who took the trouble to look at her (and there are few men who would not have done so) felt assured. Consequently the inquiries respecting the state of her health were numerous, but these, instead of soothing her vanity, sounded like so many impertinences and but aggravated her the more, so that she was not a little relieved when Edith came to announce that tea was ready.
The young girl slipped an arm round her cousin’s waist and kissed her.
“I was afraid you were very ill, dear,” she said, “and I wanted so much to come to you. But do you know, Kitty, I was really afraid.”
“Were you really?”
“Was it not silly of me? But you are better now, dear?”
“Oh, yes. It was merely a headache.”
“Why did you not come to me last night?” asked the girl. “I had so much to tell you.”
“It was rather late when I went to bed. I was afraid of disturbing your—dreams.” The girl raised her cousin’s hand to her lips and kissed it. Kitty winced, and made a pretence of drawing it away, and yet she could not. So hand in hand they entered the little sitting-room, and Kitty, seating herself at the head of the table, began to pour out the tea.
“Now,” she cried, in a tone of affected gaiety, “tell me the news. All you were to have told me last night.”
“Well,” said the girl, blushing deeply, “George—that is, Mr. Vincent—”
“Oh, call him George,” laughed Kitty, coldly, “we all do.”
“George has asked me to marry him.”
Kitty winced again, the action making her spill some of the tea on the nice clean cloth, but she replied without raising her eyes, “And you, I presume, said ‘Yes’?”
The girl bowed her head.
For a moment or two there was a deep, oppressive silence between the two women.
Kitty stirred her tea quietly, staring into the cup as though it possessed some magnetic attraction.
“Well, I hope you will be happy,” she said at last. “George told me all about it last night. You think you like him?”
“Oh, Kitty, I love him, or I should never think of marrying him.”
“That, at least, is extremely satisfactory. But tell me, Edie dear—for you know I am both cousin and guardian, and must therefore take a practical view of the case—how does he propose to keep you?”
“I’m sure I don’t know,” replied the girl, looking quite crestfallen. “I never thought of that.”
“You can’t live on love, you know,” laughed Kitty coldly.
“He is strong—he can work,” began the girl.
“No doubt—but you don’t want to live in a canvas tent down the creek? I’m afraid you would find it even more trying than the bar. But there, I suppose George has a tidy little sum saved up?”
“He had some I know, but it was stolen last night.”
“Stolen! How was that?”
“Some robbers broke into his tent, rifled his box and carried off a lot of gold. But he doesn’t mind that, for he’ll be rich pres—” She pulled up quickly, remembering that she was stepping upon forbidden ground, and blushed. This sudden stoppage and confusion did not escape Mrs. Logan.
“How—rich? What do you mean by that?” she asked. But Edith only blushed more, looking more confused. “Is it a secret between you?” The girl bowed her head. “Oh, very well, then, don’t divulge it for the world.”
“You are not angry, dear? It was his wish.”
“Not I, indeed. Of what consequence is it to me one way or the other?”
Before Edith could reply, and to her inexpressible relief, a gentle tap was heard at the door and Mr. Logan entered, a winning smile on his fat face.
“May I be permitted to indulge in a little light refreshment?” he asked, pointing his fat forefinger at the teapot.
Kitty looked at him sullenly. Then she said, “You may, if you don’t mind putting on your coat.”
“Coat,” said Logan with a smile, “I’m much more comfortable as I am.”
“Well, upon my soul, Kit, you’re a cool one. No one would ever think that you had seen your father carving the Sunday dinner in his shirt-sleeves.”
“I had no authority over my father,” she said, the blood rushing in darker torrents to her already flushed face. “Besides, he was not a gentleman like you.”
“I shouldn’t think he was,” grinned her spouse. “Fancy old Tom being a gentleman. Oh, it’s too funny, Kit, it is really.” And, laughing heartily, the worthy landlord waddled off in the direction of the bar, returning a moment or two after with his coat on.
“There,” he said, “I suppose you think I’m a gentleman now?”
“Do you think I’m a fool?”
“I think she’s in a precious bad humour, don’t you, Edith?”
“She has been very unwell,” replied the girl.
“Poor old Kit. The diggings a bit too hard for you, eh? Well, when we’ve made our pile we’ll pack up, go down to Melbourne and buy a house at St. Kilda. Or, if you like, well take a trip to England. I’ve often thought I should like to take a run over and have a look at that blooming country. It would be mighty interesting to see the place which produced Dick Turpin and Jack Sheppard.”
“They are not the only great men it has produced,” said his wife severely.
“That’s true enough. There’s Blueskin, and Jonathan Wild, and Claude Duval—and heaps of ’em. Ah, take my word for it, England’s a great country.” And as if to further emphasise this statement he lifted the little cup to his lips, and solemnly swallowed its contents. At the same moment Edith caught his eye, and, acting on the suggestion which sparkled therein, rose and quitted the room.
For quite five minutes husband and wife sat without uttering a word, she evidently occupied with a series of none too agreeable thoughts, he alternately sipping the tea and watching her. Presently he spoke.
“When do the young people propose to marry?”
She looked blankly up from her reverie. He repeated the question.
“I don’t know,” she answered shortly.
“You know, he’s a lucky dog,” continued Mr. Logan with a soft chuckle, which might mean either of two things:—satisfaction at her tone and demeanour, or at the prospect of the youthful alliance—“an exceedingly lucky dog. Why, there’s not a man on the Flat who wouldn’t spread his gold-dust beneath her feet if she’d only look at him. And some of them have got it pretty thick in their pockets, too, I can tell you. I suppose she’s clean gone on him?”
“And he on her?”
“My pal Smith was, but then he always had a weakness for the women. Not that he’s any great chop in the beauty line; but I’m told they like ’em ugly.”
“Then you ought to be in great demand.”
“I didn’t say I wasn’t,” he replied with a knowing smile. “But you don’t expect a fellow to blow his own trumpet, do you? Modest is as modest does, Mrs. Logan.”
“And to what does all this modesty tend?” she asked coldly.
“ ’Gad, you’re as cutting as a hailstorm, Kit; but you’re a sensible woman for all that. Now what’s your candid opinion of this marriage?”
“My opinion,” she laughed a little excitedly. “What is it to do with me? If they have determined to marry, what earthly power can stop them?”
“Marriages have been stopped, you know,” suggested her husband in a low, meaning voice. “And, between ourselves, Kit, I think we ought to try and stop this one.”
“Why should we?” she asked, turning her searching eyes full on his face.
“My dear Kit, we can’t let the girl marry a pauper.”
She laughed oddly. “You have grown mightily interested all at once.”
“I am growing fond of the child. But is my interest in this business stronger than yours?”
“I’m afraid I do not quite understand you,” she said coldly, for there had been a certain insinuating ring in Mr. Logan’s voice which had not entirely escaped her.
“Ought it to be stronger?” he asked, this time with a frankness which was charming. “You are the girl’s cousin, guardian, only friend. You really must not allow her to throw herself away on a digger-chap—a fellow who hasn’t a pound-note to his name.”
“But he can work, and he will make money. Only this moment she told me some nonsense about his being on the road to fortune.”
“Not such nonsense either, Kit, take my word for it. It’s a fortune of twenty-five thousand pound. Once he gets it, the wedding’s a moral.”
“Well, and why not?” Her voice was cold and low, but her eyes belied her tone, and Mr. Logan, who was not ignorant of nature’s writings, read the lines quite easily.
“Because, Kit,” he said slowly, “I’m not altogether sure that Vincent would make the girl a proper husband. You see, his morals are a bit off, and the idea of entrusting one who has twined herself about my lonely heart”—here be looked reproachfully at his wife—“to a fellow of no moral principle, goes clean against the grain. Besides, Kit,” he asked with no little dignity, “how could I allow my wife’s cousin to go and live in a hut at the camp?”
“But since your wife’s cousin is a woman and her own mistress, I should like to know how you propose preventing her doing what she wishes?”
“If you wouldn’t mind trying to ask a question without sneering, I wouldn’t mind telling you a very effi—what’s that blooming word?—a very good way of doing it. In the first place, Vincent has no money.”
“Then it must also be granted that we cannot allow our dear cousin to mate herself with a pauper. The man who marries her must be able to keep her in a manner befitting her station.”
“What nonsense,” said his wife.
He smiled with his funny little eyes. “Will he think so? Will she?”
“But what about this fortune—this twenty-five thousand pounds? A man with such a sum as that, or even with the prospect of it, cannot very well be set down as a pauper.”
“Now that’s argument, Kitty,” said her husband admiringly, “that’s the head that won my heart in the old Bunyip days.” Kitty winced, as she always did at the mention of that fatal period. The word Bunyip referred to the name of her father’s hotel—a memory of the most painful nature.
“Ah, they were happy times, Kit,” he went on, perhaps not altogether unconscious of the irritation he caused her, “such times as I shall never see again. You were as sprightly as a kangaroo rat in those days, and had a face as bright and cheerful as a bit of new pewter. And look at you now. You’ve never got a pleasant word for me, and your face is as black and glum as a pot of stale porter. When I think of what you are to me, and what you were when we went away to Geelong for our honeymoon, I feel as though I could lie down and die.” And though Mr. Logan did not exactly suit the action to the word, he nevertheless blinked his eyes in the most remarkable manner, and wobbled on his seat like a sympathetic jelly-fish.
Kitty’s brows drew close together, and her beautiful full mouth curled up contemptuously. It was evident that she did not appreciate her husband’s eloquent outburst.
“You will be good enough to stop that drivel,” she said, “if you wish me to listen. Moreover, I have no wish to be reminded of what I am eternally striving to forget.”
“Well, you take it, Mrs. Logan. Anybody would think you wasn’t proud of the name you bore.”
She laughed disdainfully. “I ought to be.”
“Yes,” said he impressively, though his little eyes shone angrily through their ridges of fat, “you ought. It’s a good name and an honest one, and belonged to the kings of Ireland, too.”
“I never knew an Irish name that didn’t.”
“Nor I,” replied her husband with a laugh, “which is more than you can say for the English, anyway. But you were suggesting that George Vincent could not be poor with the almost certain prospect of getting twenty-five thousand pound. No more he could. But if by any chance he should lose that prospect?”
“Well, suppose he did?” Her voice quivered in spite of her determination.
“Not that I hope he will,” added Logan, “for you can easily overlook a man’s morals when he heaps twenty-five thousand pound beside ’em.”
“This is supposing he gets the fortune?”
“He’s sure to get it—unless he loses the paper,” the man added indifferently.
“The paper—what paper?”
“It’s a bit of paper written in cipher. It tells where the twenty-five thousand pound is hid.”
“You don’t mean Ben Hall’s Plant?”
“Yes, my girl, I believe that is what they call it. I wish I only had his chance. I’d settle ten thousand on you, Kit, that’s what I’d do, and you shouldn’t live with me, old girl, unless you liked. But of course, they’ll get it instead. George will pack up his swag and toddle off to Melbourne, buy a villa at the seaside—though I wouldn’t mind Collingwood Flat with such a girl—become a regular toff, and forget that there was ever such a place as Dead Man’s Flat.”
“Does he know you know he has this paper?”
Mr. Logan felt his blood thrill, but masking his delight answered indifferently, “Bless you no. He thinks we’re as green as he pretends to be.”
“Then how did you know it was in his possession?”
Peter was a little taken aback at this question, but cocking up his head like a dog, he said with a tantalising smile, “How do I know that he carries it in his waist-belt? Never you mind, my dear. It’s a secret between me and the little bird that brought it.” And with the same tantalising look on his face he wagged his head sagaciously, rose from his seat, and waddled from the room. Once outside the door, he stopped for a few moments listening intently, then going down on his knees, an elephantine movement, but one which he accomplished noiselessly, he peeped through the keyhole. One quick glance seemed sufficient. Arising with a look of intense satisfaction on his ugly face he waddled towards the bar, muttering, “The devil’s got her fast, we’ll have some fun by-and-by.”
For a long time after her worthy spouse had quitted the apartment Kitty sat with her cheek in her hand, a prey to a thousand racking thoughts. Her husband’s insinuations had found a ready entrance into her breast, whence they issued to her brain, blurring her sense of honour and self-respect. Now was she equal to any undertaking, no matter how despicable or daring; and now again the softer and purer side of her nature would uprise and drive back the legions of false and foul thoughts which encompassed her. Passionate and wilful by nature, ill-trained; brought up by a father more passionate and ill-trained than herself, it is not surprising that she should have been one whose life was a constant rebellion against restraint. Neither is the atmosphere of the bar-room one in which such natures imbibe humility, the meekness of the dove. Ever since she was old enough to be noticed she was praised for her beauty; as a woman, flattery rang incessantly in her ears; when she spoke it was to be obeyed, when her beautiful mouth curled in anger, men shrank back as they would from a scourge. But she was proud, proud as Lucifer; a vain and ignorant pride to be sure—devilish, obstinate as death. With proper training she would have been a grand and stately lady, one in whom all people would have seen that curious phenomenon known only to the initiated—the mark of noble birth. You see it in queens and their satellites, but never in the thousands of beautiful stars which illumine this earth with their glory. If ever there was a star-woman it was this daughter of the tap-room. Beautiful, inscrutable; like a star in brightness, indifference; but most like a star in her fire.
All the next morning Kitty went about with a strange haunted look in her eyes. Her husband’s veiled suggestions had found a ready road to her envious heart, and though at times her sense of honour shrank from subterfuge or deceit, her passionate nature revolted at the thought of a tame submission. To her it seemed no wrong that she should envy her cousin the love of this young man, for was she not loveless and more miserable than any woman beneath the sun? She was not a false woman; she had not sought him. He came bringing sunshine into her life, and she dreaded the threatening gloom. It was death to her, and who loves death so well that he will not part with it? Her sense, it is true, strove hard with her desire. She knew she had no right to look upon this young man; knew that her very hope, if gratified, would bear an everlasting anguish. And yet she could not help but look. How many of us, O my brothers and sisters, know nothing of this longing?
Once only Edith spoke to her that day, and when she kissed her lips she found them cold and hard. Glancing up into her cousin’s eyes she was terrified at the look she saw. If eyes can devour, and we have often read of them doing so, Kitty’s were certainly feasting gluttonously on the girl’s face. There was a look of wonder, of yearning, and trying-to-see. She held Edith’s head between her hands and stared into her face with an intenseness almost terrifying; every hair of that pretty head she took in, every feature, every curve. Then with an odd little laugh she turned aside, while the girl, more than fearful, hurried off to her room, convinced that her cousin had gone mad.
There was still another member of this strange household to whom the eccentricities of Mrs. Kitty seemed to afford no end of speculation. Mr. Logan watched her all through that morning with unremitting zeal, satisfied, yet furious. That his seeds of suggestion had not fallen on barren ground, his wife’s pre-occupied air and eccentricity of manner fully justified him in believing, which, though undoubtedly gratifying, was none the less exceedingly provoking, for to him it proved conclusively that her affections were lavished on another. Now Mr. Logan was not one of those whom we could call extremely fastidious, but even the most depraved of mortals have feelings, and sentiments too, when their own skin is in danger, and if this vulgar creature had ever loved anything it was himself. And if we go still further and admit that there is a universal similarity in human nature, we shall understand why he fumed so boisterously at the better half of himself turning its back, as it were, upon himself. In other words, the worthy landlord was jealous. He had taken this girl to his bosom (in a moment of weakness it is true), and once a man has done that sort of thing he cannot altogether forget what has been. He may hate her, despise her, wish her to the devil every hour of his life; but he can never forget that she is and has been a wife to him, and that fact alone will make her different from all other women. Now the excellent Boniface could do much to suit his ends, as we have seen, and shall see more; he would have objected to very little, by way of experiment, but that she should, virgin-like, lock herself against him while her whole soul yearned for another, was what no reputable husband could be expected to tolerate. Neither would he—he’d see them dashed first. I am afraid, though, that he did not confine himself to this simple epithet. At times the most desperate resolves whirled through his brain, and if only one or two of them had been put into execution it would have gone hard with Mr. George Vincent. But luckily for that young man, Mr. Logan had some solid reasons for not appearing himself upon the scene of any action which might lead to an investigation; besides which, was it not a much more clever and palatable thing to play off the woman against her lover? Once let the young man know what Kitty really was, and there would be no more to fear from him. And as the landlord watched his wife from out the corners of his little eyes, marked the gloom of her brow, the sullen light in her eyes, he felt as though he were indeed two persons, one half of him being full of hate, the other of joy.
In the afternoon Kitty went out alone, an unusual occurrence, and one which made poor Edith feel exceedingly miserable; but Mr. Logan, who watched his wife sail forth, went back to his cigar with a grim smile, and for the rest of that afternoon proved himself the jolliest landlord imaginable. He did not see her on her return, but when she appeared in the bar that night, he marked her altered looks and wondered much what she had done or was doing. In an aimless way she attended to her duties, acknowledged the many salutations with a stiff bow or a vacant look, and on more than one occasion astonished her interrogators by replying to their queries in a way they little expected. But about half-past eight Vincent entered. At his approach she began to tremble violently, and her pale face flushed crimson, but with one of those great efforts, of which only such natures as hers are capable, she repressed the strange quivering in her breast, gulped down the lump that rose in her throat.
“Ah, Mrs. Kitty,” he cried, extending his hand, his face aglow with life and hope, “how is the world using you?”
“Pretty much the same,” she said, looking into his happy face, and thinking she had never seen more fearless eyes, a more manly-looking man.
“And what may that be?”
“Not worth the trouble of talking about,” she said a little wearily. “But you look the picture of impudent health.”
“And I am impudent. Do you know, I carry my head like a drum-major and strut like a turkey-cock. When I walk the ground seems elastic, and there isn’t a man on the Flat I couldn’t knock out inside of five rounds.”
“You are light-headed, George.”
“Yes. I must be very careful or I shall go off like a balloon. But where is she?”
“You know.” He smiled in a sheepish sort of way, just like a big, overgrown boy. The corners of Kitty’s mouth dropped, but she nodded towards the private parlour and he disappeared with alacrity.
What her feelings were during the next two hours of courtship it might not be very difficult to imagine if we set ourselves the task. All through that period, which seemed like an eternity, she paced the limits of her bar mechanically, smiling, talking, working—yet, above all, thinking, thinking, till her poor brain reeled. And, as there are no limits to imagination, it may easily be conceived that the brain drove many a shudder in upon the heart, and that despair, like the upas, sprang up, a darksome growth. And during the whole of this time her worthy spouse, in his shirt-sleeves, lounged in his favourite corner of the bar, smoked strong cigars, and drank enormous quantities of rum. And his little eyes beamed like newly-polished beads, and his fat cheeks curled up about his eyes in the most singular manner, and his fat fingers, on which glistened three beautiful diamond rings of doubtful value, twined themselves lovingly around each other, or patted with brotherly solicitude the backs of his fat hands. An exceedingly sociable Boniface was Mr. Logan that night—one who would have stood his worst enemy a drink, or kissed his mother-in-law.
It must have been quite half-past ten, if not later, when Mr. Vincent emerged from the sacred precincts of the “private parlour” and appeared in the little snuggery at the back of the bar. His face was flushed, his eyes radiant with joy; indeed, so happy did he look that poor Kitty was forced to the subterfuge of wiping her mouth, in order to hide the quiver of her lips.
“Well,” she said, with a strange, excited little laugh, “is it still such a serious matter?”
“Still,” he repeated. “It’s more serious than ever.”
“And the happy day is fixed?”
“No—not exactly. The fact of the matter is this. As yet I’m scarcely in a position to set up housekeeping.”
“But you soon hope to be?” she asked naively.
“It will not be longer than I can help, you may be sure.”
“But is not gold-digging a very uncertain business, and may you not work for years without striking a patch?”
“I shall not.”
“You are not wanting in confidence.”
“I think I have a right to feel confident, Mrs. Kitty. I will tell you all about it some day—say when you come down to Melbourne to stay with Edith and me.”
“You are very kind.” Her beautiful mouth quivered painfully, and once more her handkerchief was brought into requisition.
“You say it as though you hardly meant it,” he said.
“Do I? What makes you think that?” Her eyes sought his full of fire and pain. He turned his face away, feeling quite embarrassed.
“I don’t know,” he said with an awkward laugh. “I suppose I’m a bit of a fool. But, by Jove! there goes eleven. I must be off, Mrs. Kitty.”
“Wait a moment,” she said, somewhat hastily, nervously; “you were not always in such a hurry. Besides, George, I want to drink success to your engagement.”
“Your wish is a command, Mrs. Kitty. You always were a queen, you know.”
“Yes,” she exclaimed bitterly, “of the tap-room. But you must give up paying those foolish compliments now—they may be misunderstood. Besides, George, if you only knew how bitter they taste, how sarcastic they sound, you would spare me. They are all very well from the others, they have neither taste nor sound then, but from you they are more than cruel.”
“I never meant that they should be so,” he said. “Believe me, I never meant that.”
“I know it, and that is why it pains me so. But go into the little parlour, the one you have just vacated—if you can tolerate it without a certain presence. I will be with you in a moment.”
Vincent passed out from the little room and entered again the chamber in which he had but lately dreamt away two of the sweetest hours he had ever known. Even now the memory of her presence seemed to fill the room with an indescribable sweetness, and he wafted a sigh to her and a silent prayer that all good spirits might protect her. Presently he was joined by Kitty, who bore on a tray two glasses of champagne and a half-empty bottle of the same sparkling wine. The tray she deposited carefully on the table, handed Vincent one of the glasses, and took the other one herself.
“Long life and happiness,” she said, raising the glass to her lips, though her hand shook slightly as she did so, “may you both know all imaginable joy,” and she tossed off the bubbling liquor.
“Thank you, Mrs. Kitty,” he said looking up into her face in his frank, strange way, “thank you a thousand times. May no cloud ever come to darken the glory of our friendship.” He raised his glass as he spoke.
“Stop!” she cried suddenly. “I—I—”
“What is the matter?”
She hid her confusion by pouring out another glass of wine. She put her teeth together and clenched the bottle till her finger tips seemed bursting; then looking into his face with a strangely pathetic smile she said:
“Stop—stop till I say Amen to that wish.”
He smiled and drained his glass; she did the same. He then took out his pipe and began filling it preparatory to his setting forth, and while he did so she sat watching him, her face almost ghastly in its terror, her eyes shining like two supernatural lights. Suddenly glancing up he caught that awful look of anguish, and asked her what she meant by staring at him in that uncanny fashion; but she only laughed nervously, being too frightened to speak.
All at once George gave a dreadful yawn.
“Pardon me, Mrs. Kitty,” he said as soon as he regained control of his jaws, “but I feel most infernally sleepy. I think I had better be up and going. Can’t understand it,” he continued, trying hard to stifle another tremendous yawn, “can’t for the life of me. So awfully sudden, too.” And leaning back on the sofa he re-commenced to yawn in a truly disgraceful manner.
“You must be very tired,” said Kitty. “Lie back and take a little nap. I’ll wake you before we close.” Saying which she took up the tray and glasses and disappeared.
George, looking up and finding her gone, attempted to rise from the sofa, but his knees refusing to bear him he fell back with a sigh. One feeble effort he made against the demon exhaustion, then closed his eyes and was soon breathing the loud, regular breath of the heavy sleeper.
With a noiseless tread, and a ghastly, haunted face, and eyes that shone with a fearful radiance, Kitty stole guiltily into the room, and with never a sound advanced to the couch on which her victim lay. He breathed hard, his chest rising and falling with a troubled motion, while his face had an unusual flush upon it. For a full minute she stood over him, the unenviable possessor of a world of maddening thoughts. Now her purpose cooled, now it flared up again like fire; now she hid her face in her hands with shame, and now the evil which was in her urged her on with many a taunt.
“It is a fair battle,” it whispered; “do—do!”
A dozen times she was on the point of relinquishing the struggle, a dozen times she turned her face to the door, as if to go; but again came the evil whisper and the jealous thoughts, and her eyes encountering his flushed face, her better purpose wavered.
“My darling, oh, my darling,” she muttered, and sinking to her knees beside him she pressed his head passionately to her breast and kissed him as though the whole world hung on his lips.
“Darling, darling,” she cooed, softly as a fond mother might to a sleeping babe, “I cannot part with you, oh, I cannot part with you, darling, darling.”
And the flush deepened on his face, and he put his arms about her neck, and drew her face down to him and kissed her, too, as though the whole world hung on her lips. And still in her paradise was the trail of the serpent, for amid his kisses he had muttered a name—not hers. With a shudder and a half-stifled moan she withdrew from his embrace and hid her face in her hands.
And then began that business which shrivelled every atom of her soul and made her feel sick with shame and guilt. Setting her quivering lips together, and trying to forget that every pulse throbbed “shame,” that every vein in her body ran cold with horror, she deliberately searched his pockets for that paper which was to bring him fortune and her despair. With trembling fingers, with fingers which stung whenever they came in contact with any sort of paper, she went deftly through with her despicable task, but to her horror and joy discovered no sign of the document. And all the while her victim slept soundly on, a frank, boyish smile playing round the corners of his mouth.
But she had not forgotten the secret so ingeniously disclosed by her husband, and having worked herself up to her present pitch of desperation, she knew that no greater degradation could befall her, no matter what she did. The iron came into her face, her beautiful mouth dropped, and with a sudden ferocity, and determination which had to be quickly executed lest it cooled, she turned to search his belt; and it so happened that the first little pouch she opened contained the treasure. Making sure that this scrap of yellow paper was the thing for which she had pledged her honour, she hastily slipped it into her bosom, re-arranged his attire, and then fled from the room.
Half an hour later George Vincent awoke with a sudden start, and for the moment seemed both surprised and confused at beholding Kitty before him.
“Where am I?” he asked, sitting up and staring round in a bewildered way. “You, Mrs. Kitty! Why, I thought I was in my bunk at the camp. How did I come here?”
“Well, that’s a pretty question to ask me,” she replied. “Have you been drinking very much to-day, George?”
“No—at least I have no recollection of so doing. And yet I feel as though I had,” he continued, passing his parched tongue over his burning lips. “My mouth’s as dry as dust.”
“A touch of the sun,” she said. “You had better go home and have a good night’s rest. No—don’t drink anything more to-night. You are much better without it.”
“I think I will follow your maternal advice,” he said with a laugh. “To tell you the truth, I feel quite done up. Hollo!” he exclaimed as he arose, “my knees seem precious weak. By Jove, I wonder if it is a touch of the sun?”
“I hope not, I daresay it is merely overwork and excitement.”
“My dear Mrs. Kitty, you surely don’t take me for a young lady, do you?” he cried, looking into her eyes with a frank and honest smile.
“I only wished to suggest a reason,” she stammered; but she could neither look into his face nor smile honestly. She felt as though she would never smile again.
“Well,” he said, “if it is sunstroke I hope you won’t let them keep me in that zinc shanty on the hill. I was in it the other day and it was hot enough there to kill a black fellow.”
“I can promise you the coolest room in the ‘Emu’s Head.’ ”
“Thank you,” he said, “that is you all over. It’s not for my sake, you know, that I dread the zinc hospital. It was quite good enough for me before, but now—”
“Yes, yes. I think, however, that you will find my suggestion the right one,” she answered coldly, as she lead the way into the passage.
“I believe you,” he replied, stamping his feet. “I feel stronger already.” By this time the door was reached and opened. “Good night, Mrs. Kitty.”
“Good night, George.”
A hearty grip of the hand, a grip that made her wince—it seemed so honest. For a moment she watched till his figure was lost in the darkness, then re-entered the house, closing and locking the door.
On the threshold of the room which she and Vincent had just vacated stood the podgy form of her husband, a wicked leer in his eye, a restlessness in his mien which was entirely foreign to his sluggish nature—at least most people would have thought so, though Mr. Peter Logan had seen some things which would have stirred the blood of the most phlegmatic Dutchman. He made way for his wife with an exaggerated bow, and as she entered the room shut the door quickly behind her.
“What did you do that for?” she asked, turning on him suspiciously.
“I want to have a little quiet talk with you, my dear.” He offered her a chair as he spoke—a piece of politeness which considerably startled her, not that he had never been polite, only of late he had been extremely remiss in the more delicate attentions.
“I cannot talk to-night—I am tired.”
“So am I,” and as if to prove the truth of this statement he stifled a huge yawn; “so am I, my dear,” he continued, “but business first and pleasure afterwards has always been my motto.”
“Well,” she said, seeing that he was in one of his jocular moods, and knowing how devilish they were, “what is it?” And with a very poor grace she sat herself in the chair which he had so politely proffered.
He laughed. “You seem a bit out of sorts, my dear.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, staring coldly at him.
“That’s it,” he grinned, “that’s what I call the reel thing. The devil himself couldn’t beat you at cheek.”
“If you only mean to insult me,” she cried, bounding to her feet.
“I have no such intention,” he replied. “I want to be friends again.”
Her lip curled scornfully. “That cannot be,” she said. “I do not wish it.”
“Yet you are my wife?”
She did not answer.
“Well,” he said, “we won’t quarrel over that. Let us be friends if we cannot be man and wife.”
“There is no reason why we should be enemies.”
“None at all. Kit; so tell me, my dear, how you succeeded to-night.”
“I—I don’t understand you.”
“I think you do.” There was a cunning look on his vulgar face which made her shudder.
“Oh! very well then, I do.” She threw herself back in the chair with a look of careless defiance.
“Look here, Kit, why is it we can’t try and sail smoothly, for a change?”
“I have no wish that we should not. You go your way, let me go mine, and we shall sail smoothly enough.”
“I have no doubt, but the arrangement is impracticable. How can a man who is a man let his wife steer her own course?”
She laughed a low, mocking laugh. “Really, I thought you had forgotten you have a wife.”
“No; but I don’t think I have remembered it too soon.”
She flushed painfully. “You are a scoundrel,” she exclaimed hotly.
“I know it,” answered her worthy spouse with an exquisite smile. “What are you?”
The question evoked such a horrible reply that she dared not give it utterance. Her proud defiant eyes fell before her husband’s malevolent scrutiny. What was she? False woman, false wife, false friend. Yet she had much of good in her in spite of all, and that quality seemed but to accentuate her distress. She grew hot and cold by turns, and had a sympathetic friend been near her at that moment she would have poured into his or her ears the whole history of her woes. This feeling comes to us all at times, and there are moments in almost every life when confession is absolutely necessary. Hence the great power of the Romish Church. It supplies a human necessity in the confessional; for the many are weak of spirit, and it is an inestimable boon to such that they may pour their sorrows into sympathetic ears.
Had Mr. Peter Logan been a sympathetic man, and had he only seized his golden opportunity, there is no knowing what happiness might not have been in store for him; but, unfortunately, he was cast in an entirely different mould, and had no more fine feeling than one of his own pint pots.
“You don’t answer me, Kit,” he continued in his tantalising way. “Well, well, perhaps it’s better not. I don’t suppose I could twist much good out of it whatever you said. If you like we’ll cry off. Only—only you must tell me how you succeeded.”
“I do not know what you mean, and I have nothing to tell you.”
He laughed roughly. “Don’t you think it’s time you dropped that tone? It riles a man when he knows all about your goings on. But there, there, I’m a peaceable man and of a forgiving nature. Give us the paper, Kit.”
“The paper?” she repeated, like one trying to grasp his meaning.
“Yes,” he said angrily, “the paper.”
“I don’t understand you.”
“Don’t lie, you faggot! I saw it all through the keyhole, kisses and all. Give us the paper.”
“I haven’t got it,” she cried stubbornly.
When she resolved to plunder Vincent of his secret she had also determined that no one else should profit by it, and it must be added to her credit that no thought of enriching herself, in a monetary sense, had pervaded her mind during the planning of the outrage. That it might keep him from the arms of her rival was all the recompense she asked; for she had dreamt that the time might quickly come when she should be able to proclaim her freedom to the world. Then he might—he might.
The thought humbled her dignity to the dust, but we doubt if there is not much more pleasure in humility, when congenial, than in any other state. Therefore she repeated stubbornly, “I haven’t got it, I tell you, and I wouldn’t give it to you if I had.”
“Look here,” said he, rising, his voice full of suppressed passion, his brow lowering like a thundercloud, “I have had about as much of your airs and tantrums as I intend to stand. You have treated me more like a dog than a man, and I’m about sick of it.”
She tossed her head scornfully, the anger darting in little flashes from her eyes. “As you please. It concerns me nothing what you say or do. If I treat you as a dog, it is because I think you deserving of no better treatment.”
“Yet you thought me good enough to marry.”
“Did I? I am not aware that I ever told you so. If I did I unhesitatingly withdraw the statement.”
“You married me anyway.”
“You answered my purpose; you took me from a home I detested. I went with the first man who asked me.”
“You’re a beauty, ain’t you?”
“Now let us understand each other once for all. There can be no mincing of matters between us now. You must go your way, I mine. Under those conditions only can we live beneath the same roof.”
“A mighty fine arrangement, no doubt, and one that would suit you admirably; but it won’t do for me, Kitty Logan. I’m the master here, you hussy, lover or no lover, and I’ll take good care that you shall know it too.” He took a step towards her with his two hands clenched, a ferocious look on his ugly face. “If you value your skin, you traitress, give me that paper. I’ve promised you ten thousand, haven’t I? It’s a bargain between you and me. We need let no one else into the secret. If the money won’t satisfy you, I’ll clear, I will upon my soul, and you shall never see my face again.” This inducement seeming to him of much importance, he emphasised it with due sincerity.
“I tell you I haven’t got the paper,” she said doggedly.
Mr. Logan growled out a terrible oath. “Why will you lie like that when I saw you search him?”
“I searched him I know,” she replied in the same defiant tone, “but I saw nothing relating to a treasure.”
“But you saw a piece of paper with some capital letters written on it which might have excited your curiosity?” he insinuated. “Come now, Kit, you’ve got the key of Ben’s Plant. Hand it over.”
“How did you know there was such a paper in existence?”
“Never you mind,” he growled. “I did know—that’s enough for you.”
“Hardly. I should like to know how you came by this secret. Mr. Vincent has never spoken of it. How then could you connect him with it?”
“What the devil’s that to do with you?” roared Logan furiously.
“Everything,” she answered calmly. “To have known that Mr. Vincent held this secret you must previously have known the man whom he found murdered in Little Lonsdale Street.”
Logan’s fat face grew ghastly and he stepped back a pace or two as though driven by an unseen blow; but, his natural ferocity and impudence coming quickly to his rescue, he pulled himself up, as it were, and with clenched hands swung forward as if to strike her.
“What I know or don’t know,” he hissed, “is nothing to you. If you take my advice you’ll go about with your eyes shut. It’s safest, wisest, best, you meddling fool. You’ve got a fortune in that paper, and I must have it.”
“First tell me how you knew there was such a paper, if you did not know the man, Billy Jackson?”
He laughed. “There was a woman once whose curiosity caused her to look back. You know what became of her? Don’t let your curiosity run away with your discretion. How I came to know the secret matters nothing to you.”
“Perhaps not; but I should like to know who you are?”
“I am your husband. That should be enough for any honest woman.”
“It should be; yet a woman’s honesty cannot cover her husband’s guilt. I should like to know if you were in Little Lonsdale Street that night when Mr. Vincent drove the cowardly murderers away from their unarmed victim.”
“Look here,” said Logan in a low, strained voice, a fearfully cruel look on his flabby face, “I want no more of your talk, no more of your damned insinuations, and I’ll not stand ’em, d’ye hear, I’ll not stand another word. Give us the paper and you may go to the devil if you choose.”
“I tell you I have not the paper, and if I had I would not give it to you.”
“You wouldn’t, eh?” The hate in the man’s eyes shone out most dreadfully, and he panted like one who breathes with difficulty.
“No, I would not.” And very grand and beautiful she looked as she stood there defying him, her bold head thrown defiantly back, her proud lips curling contemptuously.
“Then take that!” he hissed, and drawing suddenly near he smote her a stinging blow on those proud lips with his open hand, cutting them on the teeth behind.
She staggered back like one thunderstruck, amazement on her face. For a moment she seemed almost paralysed, more with the wonder of the blow than the pain of it. But only for a moment. With a hoarse cry of passion and hate she seized a great lustre from off the mantelpiece and hurled it full at his face. But being fortunate enough to dodge it, he sprang at her before she could seize another missile and, catching her a vicious blow with his clenched fist, knocked her senseless.
“There,” he exclaimed savagely, as he knelt beside her and eagerly began to open the bosom of her dress, “I knew I should never get any good out of you till I had licked you. Pity I didn’t do it long ago. Ah!” he ejaculated triumphantly as he drew forth the mystic paper, “you hadn’t it, eh, you hussy, you hadn’t it? There, take that for your airs and your tantrums, and for all you’ve made me suffer, and if it ain’t good enough for you I’ll give you plenty more for the asking.” And with his open hand he smote her once more upon her bleeding mouth. She gave a long, low moaning cry and then lay still as death.
Mr. Logan arose to his feet with a look of the most intense satisfaction on his ugly face, turned out the light and quitted the apartment.
George, in the meantime, was plodding his way towards the camp, striving with all the power of his intellect to account for the strange sleep and the stranger sensations which he now felt in every pulse of his body. He knew he had drunk nothing in quantities sufficiently large to affect him thus, and he imagined that he must either have caught a touch of the sun, or that excitement and overwork had wrought this surprising effect. He, however, revived in a wonderful manner as he tramped along; his brain grew clearer, his limbs stronger. The sweet night air sang blithely round his ears, and opening his mouth he inhaled it as though it were a draught of some delicious wine. And as his weakness wore off so faded his interest in its cause, and his mind became engrossed with thoughts of the sweet girl of whom he dreamt every night. What innumerable fond things were whispered in each other’s ears that night it would become us not to say, merely for the gratification of excessive curiosity; but that they were very dear, and had wrought a great impression on the young man, there could be little doubt, for his blood began to glow as he conjured up the sweet scene, and in the sighings of the wind he thought he heard the murmur of her voice, and as the warm sweet breeze kissed his lips he shut his eyes and thought it was her breath.
Arriving at his tent he was greeted with a cheerful snore from his mate Phil; and here it may be said to that worthy’s credit that he had kept his oath like an angel, and that on no consideration could he be induced to partake of the flowing bowl. “No,” he would say with a decided shake of his head, “I have sworn off. If I touch it again I know I shall be a lost man. I promised my mate, George, don’t you see, and when I tell you that he saved the missis and the little ’un, you’ll understand that I mean to keep my word.” And even while his listeners laughed they admired him, for they knew he was a better man than the best among them.
George smiled as he heard that honest snore, for he felt exceedingly proud in having thus reclaimed one of the most abandoned; for though he was no saint himself, he was not one who allowed a vice to gain the upper hand. As he watched the sleeping form of his companion he felt a paternal thrill shoot through him. Some good had come out of things evil after all. The blessing had come in the guise of a curse, for what was the loss of the gold-dust in comparison with the well-being of this man? Phil was now one of the steadiest and tidiest members of this miscellaneous community, and though he was often the sport of the godless diggers, who mockingly called him the Reclaimed One, and the Brand plucked from the Burning, he yet had courage enough to tell them that he was reclaimed, that he had been plucked from the burning, and that he was d—d glad of it.
Vincent lit his candle, flung aside his coat and vest and undid his waist-belt, determining to have a good go at the puzzle before he turned in. To his horror, however, he could find no trace of it, and the knowledge that it was lost rushed in upon him like a frightful shock. The belt dropped from his hands and he uttered a great groan, while from out of the gloom in the far corner of the tent he thought he saw two great grey eyes fixed reproachfully on his own. Quickly picking up the belt, for hope is always with us, he once more went carefully through its several pouches, but to no purpose. There was no sign, no trace, no scrap of the precious document. What could it mean? He sprang to his feet and immediately searched his coat and vest, though he remembered well where he had last put the cipher. The search was a vain one, but he was not disappointed at its futility. Sitting down he tried hard to think what he could have done with it, or how he could by any chance have lost it. Then like a sudden inspiration came the thought that he had been drugged—drugged and robbed. He rose to his feet with a mighty oath, which made the man Phil start, as though he had been shot, and utter a truly terrifying snore. But he did not wake. He might have been sleeping off a week’s drunk, so far had he gone into the land of dreams.
Drugged, robbed! Vincent paced the narrow limits of his tent like one demented, then passed out into the night and continued his mad peregrinations before the entrance of that humble dwelling. Ruined, ruined! And he thought of the sweet girl over yonder in the town, whom he had bound to him by the most extravagant oaths. Procrastinator, madman, fool! He could find no epithet strong enough to condemn his folly; nor no phrase fierce enough to hurl against those who had wrought his downfall. Had Kitty then wilfully drugged him? Could she have been guilty of a crime so heinous? He could not, he would not believe it. He knew her fierce, passionate nature, but he had, notwithstanding a few mortal errors, always looked upon her as a proud woman, and pride could never stoop to practices so degrading. Besides, what object could she have had, being ignorant of his secret? That her husband had taken her into his confidence the young man never dreamt, knowing how little they loved each other. Again, what could the husband’s confidence be more than a suspicion, a thing so slight that the most daring might well stand and consider before he ventured to put it to the test? No, the thought was as degrading as it was ridiculous, and he begged her pardon over and over again. But for her husband he had a totally different feeling. He believed in his heart of hearts that that gentleman was one in whom the god of rogues had implanted the seeds of innumerable vices, and that they had flourished and borne much fruit in days that were, and would continue to flourish till time’s sweeping axe was laid to the parent root. Logan, in his opinion, was one of those creatures who will stop at nothing, and the thought that he had been robbed by that individual was one which he was perfectly willing to receive. How he had thus fallen asleep he had yet to discover; though he doubted not but that this outrage and the robbery at the camp, were planned by one and the same head. For a long time now he had entertained grave suspicions of the characters of Messrs, Logan and Smith, and he felt quite convinced that that eminent firm knew more of Ben Hall and Billy Jackson than was universally suspected. He called back to mind the night he told of the murder in Little Lonsdale Street; he recollected Logan’s eagerness and fierce denunciation of Hall, and these, with his personal knowledge of the man’s character, whispered a terrible secret. If Logan was the man he imagined him to be, the scoundrel Flash Jim was in close proximity to the gallows.
There was, however, one thought which gave him hope. If the cipher had defied him so long, the chances were that it would puzzle Logan longer, and in the meantime he must prepare some scheme by which he might regain possession of it. A little while ago he had congratulated himself on not having made A copy of those mystic letters; now he was as eager to censure himself for his carelessness. He might have learnt the letters, truly, but he was not certain that he had ever thought of such a thing, for hitherto the secret had seemed neither dangerous nor interesting. What he should do, or how set to work to retrieve his loss, he could not think; but he determined to make the best of a bad bargain, watch and wait, and if no other way presented itself call on the magic name of police—a word which, unless he was greatly mistaken, would have a dread significance for Messrs. Logan and Smith. And so he re-entered his primitive domicile, fastened the door-flap and turned in; but for hour after hour he lay listening to the melodious snoring of his mate Phil, constructing imaginary surprises for the obese Logan, and contemplating with pleasure and pain two great grey eyes.
But if this unhappy incident had thrown George Vincent into a fit of helpless, hopeless consternation, it would be a Herculean task to attempt to describe Kitty’s feelings when she regained consciousness in the darkened room. For a long time she lay stupefied, staring up into the darkness and seeing nothing. Where she was, or how she had come there, she could not imagine, but knowing that she was not in her own bed she lay quietly, trying hard to understand the why and the wherefore of the thing. Her body ached, her brain throbbed painfully, and on pressing her hand to her mouth her lips shot sharp pains all through her.
This was the real awakening. A few quivering heart-beats, a sudden flow of burning blood to her brain, and she remembered all. With a sigh she arose to her feet, knocking her head against the table as she did so, and, with a dumb, desperate pain at her heart, groped her way to her own room.
All through the rest of that horrible night she lay in a bed of agony. Now was it for her crime she writhed, now with rage and shame; but all through, ever uppermost, glared the awful fact that she had betrayed and robbed the man she loved before all things in earth or heaven, and that henceforth a pit had been sunk between them which neither he nor she should ever over-leap. A thousand times she told herself that she had never meant to wrong him, that hope alone had urged her to the deed; but, alas! this vain assertion brought little consolation, for now that her passion was grown more calm, and her hot pride humiliated, she saw too clearly how grievous her sin had been.
Of her thoughts of Logan it would, perhaps, be profitless to speak, for they were of a nature which showed her least angelic side; but when the day began to stream in through the crevices of the blinds, she sprang from her bed, and rushing over to the little mirror carried it to the window and surveyed her face with a look of horrible calmness. There was a dark circle beneath her right eye, a great lump having arisen just by the extremity of the eyebrow, while her beautiful mouth was cut and swollen to twice its usual size. With a hard laugh, metallic in its lack of humanity, she replaced the mirror on the little dressing-table and returned to her bed. But there was a light in those injured eyes which Mr. Logan would hardly have cared to see, a determination about that injured mouth which made it hard and ugly, if such a mouth could look ugly under the most disadvantageous of circumstances.
All that day she kept her bed in spite of the threats of her husband, who now assumed conscious airs of importance, and the cajolings of Edith. She was not well, she said, and she did not think that she would dress herself. Was she very ill? Oh, dear no! Just a little out of sorts. She had, during the night, dreamt a dreadful dream, and it had so frightened her that she had thrown herself out of the bed. Hurt? Well, a little, a slight disfigurement—she was afraid she could not show up under the circumstances. Would she (Edith) mind taking her place in the bar? It should be the last time she would ask her. And the girl said yes, and expressed her sorrow with words of such loving sympathy that the guilty Kitty writhed in her loneliness, and could not hate her, though she knew that she had come between her and her soul’s desire.
But as the day wore on, this wretched woman’s thoughts underwent a gradual change. She had wronged Vincent beyond any hope of atonement—at least, so she had thought. But now a new idea came like a cry from heaven. There is only one crime for which no reparation can be made on earth—the crime of murder. No penance, no prayers, no tears can restore the breath into the body of the dead. We have driven it forth and it has passed beyond us into the hands of fate. The deed is done, as we have said, and not being gods it is impossible that we should mend it. But for any other sin the law of fate is not so inexorable, and we may, by penance, catch the gleam of hope. And penance is penance, though we use the word in its unclerical sense, and it has nothing whatever to do with paternosters and flagellations.
That she had most cruelly wronged this man Vincent was made so evident to her in her calmer moments that she, always more impulsive than one of her sex should be, at once determined to work out her redemption, obliterate the wrong by an act of right. He would hate her, spurn her, she doubted not, and that in itself were worse than death; but she would go to him nevertheless and say, “See, it is I who wronged you. I have come to right that wrong—forgive and let me go.” And she would go from him and hide herself where no one should know her more.
Filled with this burning idea she arose as the evening drew in, and, concealing the injuries to her face very successfully by the artistic use of the contents of her toilette boxes, she descended into the bar.
“Ah, you have come,” said Edith, upon beholding her. “I am so glad. Are you better, dear?”
“Yes, oh, indeed yes. But you look tired, child?”
“I have been here all day. I feel a little faint.”
“Where is Mr. Logan?”
“He and Mr. Smith are in the private parlour. They have been there since the morning.”
“Yes, and writing.”
“They have pens, ink and paper there, and I saw several sheets covered with strange groups of letters.”
“So,” muttered Kitty beneath her breath. Then she asked somewhat eagerly, “Have they drunk much?”
“Yes. I think they are not quite sober,”
“So much the better,” was the reply, but whether Mrs. Kitty spoke to herself, or addressed her cousin, it would be difficult to say. “There, there, child,” she added, “run off to your room. You shall have no more work to-night. If George calls I will tell him you have had a hard day, and are very tired.”
“He will not call.”
“Oh! You have heard from him?” The tone was slightly suspicious.
“Yes.” But as the girl seemed in no confidential mood, Kitty refrained from any exhibition of curiosity. Indeed, it was a relief to know that he had no intention of coming, for she would not have cared to look into his face just then.
Edith crept off to her room, her face paler than usual, her spirits extremely depressed. That all was not right in this house she guessed intuitively, though the nature of the wrong she could not comprehend. That it would be murder, fire, or flood she may have had her doubts, but that it would prove equally destructive she firmly believed. Therefore she double-locked her door, and for further security stood her trunk up against it, and we shall be disclosing no secrets for which our honour may upbraid us when we say that a little sigh escaped her as she thought of a pair of strong, protecting arms.
Kitty, in the meantime, stalked moodily up and down the bar like a sullen lioness in her cage, her thoughts alternately reverting to the ignominious proceedings of the previous night, and to the council of war now being held by the reputable Logan, and the no less reputable Smith. Of what they thought, and spoke, and wrote, she guessed easily enough, and trembled lest they should read the cipher before she could put her plan into execution; but trusting to the natural dulness of her spouse—for he was only smart in that smart vulgarity, that wickedness which requires no brains—she strove hard to still the tumult in her breast, and with a grimness which was almost heroic bided her time.
Presently the bell of the private parlour rang, and, putting on a repentant and humble look, she hastened to obey the summons. Arriving at the door, she knocked gently and attempted to open it at the same time, but to her surprise found it locked.
“Never mind the door,” shouted Logan from within; “fetch us some more whisky, and look sharp about it,”
Kitty turned away with a scowl on her face, not having spoken a word. A few moments later she returned with two stiff glasses of whisky, and knocked again.
“What is it?” shouted her husband.
She heard little bursts of partly-smothered laughter, and a few words of hurried conversation. Then the door was opened by the worthy landlord, who greeted her with a broad grin.
“You, Kit,” he said. “I thought it was the girl.”
“She has gone to bed tired out.” Unheeding the grinning and impertinent stare of both her husband and the man Smith, she walked quietly over to the table and deposited the whisky thereon.
“What’s this?” cried Logan, holding up one of the glasses.
“Whisky,” she answered.
“How do I know it is?” he asked with an exasperating grin.
“Drink it and you will see.”
“No, thank you, Mrs. L. I have no particular wish to go to sleep at the present moment; because, you see, it isn’t safe where women are. You take this back, my dear, and bring me an unopened bottle.”
Without a word she took up the liquor and departed, though her pulse throbbed many a beat quicker, and the blood rushed up to her brain and turned her giddy. As she made her way back to the bar she heard the coarse laughter of the two men, but she only put her teeth together. The play was not finished yet.
“That’s something like a wife,” cried Logan admiringly, as she re-entered the room with an unopened bottle of whisky in her hand, “that’s what I call a dutiful spouse. What do you say, Sammy?”
Mr. Smith grinned stupidly, being the worse for drink, but made no reply.
“You think it was about time I took her in hand, eh, old pal?” continued Mr. Logan with a drunken leer at his boon companion. “Well, you know,” he went on sententiously, “a woman’s all the better for a little wholesome consideration. Being a creature of impulse, she must learn the virtue of restraint. They are like unbroken fillies, Sammy, they love to run wild; and yet I’ve heard it said they like to feel the curb, too, because they are wise enough to know that it’s for their own good.”
“The curb is good, Peter, even though it cuts the mouth.”
Logan laughed loudly at this coarse allusion to his wife’s swollen lips, and Mr. Smith hissed in his own peculiar way. Kitty turned hot and cold, and might have done some damage there and then had she the wherewithal; but controlling her anger with a great effort, she asked meekly if they had any further orders to give.
“There,” exclaimed Logan, proudly, “what do you think of that? Isn’t that a wife for you, isn’t that an obedient, civil wife? I tell you what it is, Sammy, there’s nothing a woman respects so much as a good licking.”
“Nor a man either,” replied the sapient Smith. “That’s the thing to make them mind their p’s and q’s.”
“Shall you want me any more?” asked Kitty, edging towards the door.
“No, my darling,” hiccuped Mr. Logan. “Only be a good girl, Kit, always be a good girl, or I shall have to spank you again, and remember, I have a good deal to pay off yet.” She bowed her head, and without a word departed, while he, turning to his companion with a smile of triumph, said, “I guess that licking has been the making of her, Sammy, old pal.”
“That’s as may be,” replied the ambiguous Samuel. “But I don’t trust ’em, Peter, and less than ever when they come the sucking-dove business. They’re bad, Peter, take ’em in a lump, and I never trusted a petticoat yet that I wasn’t sorry for it.”
Logan laughed. “I’ve scotched that devil anyway.”
“When devils are only scotched they grow strong again,” suggested the wily Smith, “But let us get on with this infernal puzzle. How old Ben could have taken the trouble to make up a fool of a thing like this gets over me. No wonder old Billy carried it about so long. He wouldn’t have made it out in a hundred years.”
“We don’t seem to be getting very near the solution ourselves,” suggested the worthy Boniface.
“That’s true,” remarked his companion, “but we’ve got the paper, Peter, and if we hadn’t muddled our heads with so much drink we’d have found out the answer long ago.”
“We’ll swear off after to-day.”
“Till we’ve read the puzzle,” added Mr. Smith quickly.
“Pre—cisely,” said Logan with a grin.
Then they replenished their glasses—by way of sealing their good resolutions—toasted each other on the fortune which had so suddenly fallen into their hands, lit two strong cigars—to help to clear their heads—then sat down, asking each other what that old fool Ben could have meant by drawing up such a fool of a puzzle.
And while all this was going on in the private parlour, Mrs. Kitty presided over her beer-taps with a silence and dignity quite depressing. Not a single smile broke over her solemn, sphinx-like face during the whole of that evening. She might have been a marble woman for all the life there seemed in her. Never had the habitues of the “Emu’s Head” seen their patron saint in such a cheerless mood, and though they crowded round the pewter-laden shrine as usual, and asked numerous sympathetic questions as to the contusion on her face and the swollen lips, she could find no word of comfort for them, not even a little smile. She had met with an accident, was all that she would say—a statement readily credited, for no one dreamt that Logan would have dared to touch her. Had some of her more ardent devotees known the facts of the case, they would have given that gentleman something to remember till the day of his death.
But at last the long hours came to an end, the house was cleared, the lights extinguished, and the inhabitants supposed to be in bed; and so they all were with the exception of Mrs. Kitty, Messrs. Logan and Smith. Those worthy men still sat over their whisky, wondering what that old fool Ben could have meant by drawing up such a fool of a puzzle; while Mrs. Kitty stood trembling in her doorway wondering if they would ever go to bed that night, and if the quantity of alcohol they had taken would prove sufficient to enable her to carry out her design.
At last the door of the little room was opened, and by the light which streamed into the dark passage, she saw the man Smith stagger forth.
“I’m going to bed,” he shouted. “If you prefer a chair, you’re welcome to it, Jimmy, old pal.”
“Jimmy!” She wondered if the word had really escaped her. To her it seemed as though she had shouted it at the top of her voice. Pressing her hand to her heart she strained her ears to listen.
“Ugh!” grunted the man, “the fat pig’s asleep already,” and as if in confirmation of this statement a resonant snore came buzzing along the passage. Mr. Smith emitted a low chuckle as he staggered off to his room, and presently the trembling listener heard him slam his door as if he intended to bring the house down.
Five, six, ten minutes she waited, her heart throbbing so loudly that it seemed to ring like the brazen voice of a bell. A century of doubt and fear she experienced in those few moments. And still she moved not, listening—listening, as though she expected something to happen. But beyond the numerous strange sounds which one hears of a night, which come from and go no-whither, and the occasional buzzing snore from the room below, there was nothing of which a determined and desperate woman might be afraid. With one hand pressed firmly on her heart, and a tightening of the lips which must let no sound escape them, she descended the half-dozen steps which led to the passage. Gliding softly along the thick oilcloth, for she was in her stockinged feet, she quickly reached the door of the little room, though she hung back for a moment in the darkness, counting her husband’s regular breathings. Her heart now began to beat faster and louder than ever, and a violent trembling assailed her, which at one time threatened destruction to her enterprise; but she pressed her two hands on her breast as though she would choke back the blood that set her in a whirl, bit her swollen lips till they bled afresh, and, with a determination born of despair, stepped into the doorway.
The lamp still burnt brightly, so that she was enabled to take in every feature of the room at a glance. Therefore her consternation was extreme when she beheld her husband sitting facing her, his eyes wide open. An exclamation rose to her lips, for she thought he saw her, but with a mighty effort she stifled it, remembering that he often slept with his eyes open. Yet it was no easy nor pleasant thing to stand there, look into those hideous eyes, and yet not speak. It was a full minute before she recovered the use of her faculties, and not till she had listened to his regular breathings, and marked the rise and fall of his expansive chest, could she quite believe that he was unconscious of her presence.
With a noiseless movement she glided into the room, her eyes wandering from his face to the table, which was littered with papers. With a rapid eye she scanned these papers for that frayed and yellow piece which she had sunk so low to gain, but to her disappointment she saw nothing but a few irregular letters here and there, plainly showing that the confederates had not gone to work with much method or zest. Yet she was not one who would allow herself to be thus easily beaten, and with a desperate look on her face, she stepped up to her husband’s chair and stared fiercely into his senseless eyes. No answering look broke from them, however. She might have been gazing into the glassy eyes of the dead. Indeed there was something supernatural about such a sight, and she shuddered in spite of her hate and determination.
But there was yet work to do, and with eyes glued fiercely to his, and lips closed hard so that no breath might betray her, she leant over him, and into his breast-pocket inserted her long, flexible fingers, extracting a piece of paper therefrom. This, however, not proving to be that for which she searched, again her fingers dipped into the recess, and this time she drew forth an old envelope. Opening it with fingers which shook in spite of her resolution, she beheld the little yellow slip lying snugly within. Her heart gave a great throb, almost forcing from her a sharp cry, and, lest her joy should be the means of her undoing, she made immediately for the door. Half way across the room, however, she was startled by hearing her husband cry, “Ah!” and, looking over her shoulder, stood petrified with fear, for he had partly risen from his chair; his eyes glared fiercely and his huge fist was raised as though in the act of striking. Thinking that she was discovered she was about to turn defiantly on him, when he sank back in his chair once more, the fist dropped helplessly to his side and he began to mutter vaguely. It was evident that Mr. Logan was not accustomed to undisturbed repose.
In a moment Kitty had quitted the apartment, and, stooping down to pick up her shoes, which she had deposited outside the room, she groped her way through the dark passage till she reached the street-door. Opening this as stealthily as any burglar, she passed out into the night. For a good two hundred yards she hurried on in her stockinged feet, then, sitting on a door-step, she swiftly slipped on her shoes and rushed off again in the direction of the camp.
It was with an exultant cry that she entered the open country. The night was dark, but there were many stars above, and somehow the darkness seemed a long way off. There was a beating at her breast, a throbbing in her brain, which gave her kinship with those celestial bodies, and she rushed on through the night as they through space—an immortal. She was about to make reparation, sue for forgiveness, right a great wrong, fill with joy the heart of him she loved, though it would break her own. And even amid her shame, and all the unknown horror of the future, she felt proud, and glad, and happy. Never till this hour had she known how grand it is to right a wrong, how sweet and heroic it is to feel truly humble. The thought of this restoration and of her supplication caused her more joy than had her fiercest, most passionate dreams of love. They would part for ever, she knew that, he to go his way, she hers; but even that thought left a less disagreeable flavour than her guilty dreams. There is a wondrous sweetness in martyrdom, despite the scoffing of the cynics, and in her present state of excitement this reparation sprang up like the flame of a religious enthusiasm. Nor sword nor stake would have made her falter now. Her purpose was fixed; immutable as the stars above her. Poor Kitty, thou shouldst have seen other times and other ways.
* * * * * * * * * *
In the meantime, Mr. George Vincent, little dreaming of the change which was now so imminent, for he had not seen those shadows which the poet tells us precede events, tossed restlessly in his bunk. For hour after hour he had turned and twisted on his wretched mattress, a prey to the most conflicting emotions; but, try as he would, he could not coax the sweet soother to his side. Then he lit his pipe and smoked long and steadily; then he tried to construct the letters in proper order, but the worst of that attempt was that he would never know when he had constructed them properly. Then he tried to think of Edith (though that required little trying), and of making his fortune without the aid of chance, though he liked not the idea over well. She, dear girl, would come to him when and how he pleased; but, loving her as he did, he could not drag her down to his own wretched level. That he would see the cipher again he scarcely hoped, for guessing who had it, and knowing well what it meant to such men, he looked upon his chances as extremely remote, though he had determined not yet to yield the day. Logan should be well watched: if he attempted to leave the place, Vincent was determined to set the police upon him. And if, in the meantime, the secret of the writing was discovered, he would take good care that they did not remove the treasure without molestation. For the rest, he must remain quiet; though he had some notion of accusing Logan to his face, and threatening him with the police, believing that such a threat would mean more than it usually does.
And as he lay constructing and re-constructing his imaginary lines of action, while his mate, Phil, snored away as complacently as though there were no such thing as trouble in the world, and the wind sighed mournfully round the corners of the tent, he was suddenly awakened to other thoughts than these by hearing a soft foot-fall outside. It stopped at the side of the tent, or close against his head, then slowly made its way to the entrance. Now he heard the hands going over the canvas searching for the flap, or door; and raising himself gently on one arm he drew his revolver from beneath his pillow and prepared himself to shoot, for that the intruder could be there with an honest purpose he never imagined. Presently he heard a scratching on the canvas; then one of the buckles was unfastened and an aperture made in the flap, and he beheld the outline of a face fill in the hole. Slowly, carefully he raised his revolver, and in another moment the intruder might have paid dearly for such rashness.
The whisper came only in time. At that word the revolver fell to his side.
“Yes—I want you.”
“In a moment.” Vincent was out of bed and had slipped on his clothes ere one could count a hundred. What could she want? Of course, it could only be to tell him one thing. Some calamity had befallen Edith!
He stepped out into the night and saw her standing by the far corner of the tent.
“What is it?” he asked excitedly. “Has anything happened to her?”
“No—not that I know of.”
“Then—then what in heaven’s name brings you out here at such a time?”
“I have come to ask you a favour.”
“Ask me?” he stammered. “I—I don’t quite understand.”
This, indeed, was getting serious. It is one thing to know that a woman is fond of you, but it is another to have that woman ever at your heels. Vincent, being a modest youth, grew somewhat flurried as he thought, and was both shocked and grieved to think that women could really do such things.
Kitty, however, gave him little time for further speculation. Throwing herself on her knees before him, she, bowing her head, said, “I have come to ask your forgiveness.”
“My forgiveness?” he cried. “But come, you must not kneel to me. You could do nothing which should need so humble a repentance.”
“I have done that,” she sobbed, “for which I scarcely dare hope for pardon; and as for repentance, if that would only blot out my shame, I would kneel for ever.”
A sudden thought struck him as he helped her to her feet.
“Kitty,” he exclaimed, pressing her hands excitedly, “it was not you—it was not you who—” He could not say the word, but she said it for him.
“Yes—it was I who robbed you.”
“Hear me, George, and know me for what I am. I deliberately planned the outrage; drugged you, robbed you. What do you think of me?”
“Oh!” he cried, stepping back as though her presence were pollution, “it’s horrible, horrible! And I had always thought you the grandest woman in the world.”
There was something in this last sentence which smote her aching heart, driving the bitter tears to her eyes. The grandest woman in the world! Only think of it! To be thus, even in the eyes of one man, is a position few women attain. What a friend was here if she had only known, if she had only known!
“My bitterest regret is the forfeiture of your respect. Forgive me, oh, forgive me!”
“With all my heart,” he said.
“God bless you, George!”
For a moment there was silence between them, her sobs alone keeping time with the wailing of the wind. Presently he spoke.
“Tell me,” he said, “what induced you to treat me so—you whom I loved so much? What had I ever done to you that you should have sought for this revenge?”
“Nothing, nothing. It was the evil which was in me, the jealousy, the despair. I wanted to prevent your marriage.”
“Why!” she echoed, with an hysterical moan, a heart-broken moan—a cry that went to the heart—“Why! Oh, my God! because I loved you better than my own soul.”
“Hush!” he cried, “you must not say that. You don’t know what it means.”
“Yes—yes; but I wanted you to know. Perhaps you will understand now why I did what I have done?”
“I am sorry for you,” he answered sadly, “but I shall never understand your motive. Neither she nor I had ever injured you in any way.”
“Never injured me!” she began, almost fiercely; then, stopping suddenly, answered gently, “No, no—of course not. It is I who have been mistaken all through, I who have been all to blame. Yet, believe me, I never meant that others should profit by your loss.”
“I would rather have spent my days in want than that you should have done this thing. God help you, Kitty, and forgive you as freely as I do.”
Kitty sobbed aloud as though her heart had broken.
“You will let the girl stay on a little, won’t you?” he asked. “I may strike gold at any moment, and then I will repay you for all your goodness.”
“Goodness! You are mocking me. But if I could sin, George, don’t think that I am wholly abandoned. I have had no peace of mind ever since that dreadful business. To-night I came not only to beg your forgiveness, but to atone for the past. Listen to me, George. I robbed you because I loved you; I now return what I stole because I love you still. Here is the paper—the cipher. Take it, and God be with you!” She pressed the cause of all their woe into his hand and turned to depart.
“Stay,” he cried. “What is this you have done?”
She told him all, even how her brutal husband had felled her to the ground.
“The marks are on me now,” she said, “but they no longer sting.”
“Did he dare?” exclaimed the young fellow, involuntarily clenching his fist.
“I thought I should have killed him,” she continued, unheeding the question; “but when I remembered your wrong, I knew I could bear my own.”
“But he is a desperate man. If he finds out that you have brought this to me—”
“He would kill me. Yes, I know it; but I don’t mind now.”
There was a tone of such utter melancholy in her voice that Vincent hesitated to break the silence.
“I suppose you have often wondered,” she said, as if reading his thoughts, “why I ever came to marry such a man. I often wonder myself, and think I must have been mad at the time. I know I hated home, for ours was a wretched life. I had no friends. Those for whom I cared at school were not allowed to associate with me after. And, when mother died, father took to drink, and sank, sank, till I was ashamed to go out in the streets, for people nudged each other as they looked at me, and I knew of what they were speaking. Then he came, and he seemed good enough in his own coarse way. But I had no love for him—never a grain. He released me from prison, and I was thankful.”
“Poor Mrs. Kitty. I am sorry, so sorry.”
“Don’t, don’t,” she moaned, “I cannot bear it. I have wrecked my life, and I know there is nothing for me this side of the grave. With other chances I might have been different, but I was beaten at the start.”
Vincent was greatly distressed at the passionate ring of anguish in her tones, but what could he do? The merest human kindness, under such conditions, might transform itself into that which could but deepen the wound; for Pain and Suffering are the twin brothers of Hope and Joy, and in the bosom of one is born the life of the other.
“And now what shall you do?” he asked at length.
“I must go back. I will take care of Edith till you come for her. Then I will go away.”
“I don’t know. The world is wide, and it doesn’t matter much where I pull up at last.”
“You must not talk like this; you shall not. If I find this treasure your fortune shall be my care.”
“Ah!” she cried, with a strange, pathetic outburst, “how was it possible for me to understand a man like you? I would give twenty years of my life never to have injured you.”
‘‘You have not injured me. It was a momentary wrong, that is all, which is over now, forgiven and forgotten. Without it I should never have known one-half of your nobility.”
“Nobility!” she echoed.
“Ay, nobility, heroism, grandeur. What you have done to-night has stamped you as one of the bravest of God’s brave creatures. It was an action needing more courage than men are called upon to show on the deadliest battle-field. We are friends, we must be friends.”
“And now we must think of the morrow. First of all, let me accompany you back to the town, and as we walk we will arrange our plans for the future. We are allies now, you know, and must present a threatening front to the common enemy.”
“Well, yes. Why should I seek to deny what I know to be true?”
“There is no reason. Good-night,”
“You will let me go with you?”
“Cannot you understand,” she cried, her voice full of the bitterest anguish, “that it will be better for me to go alone?”
“I beg your pardon.”
“After to-night,” she said in a tremulous voice, “we must blot out the entire past—forget that there has ever been aught between us which might make us regret that we had ever known each other. You may trust me now. I will guard Edith with my life; it shall be a part of my penance; and when the time comes for you to take her away, you shall say to me, ‘Well done’; and it shall be counted in my favour at the end.”
Sob after sob shook her frame, and the great tears glistened like diamonds as they chased each other down her cheeks.
“Don’t cry, Mrs. Kitty,” he said, feeling a great lump rising in his own throat, “don’t, there’s a good girl. I know you are a brave, true woman at heart, and now you see your way I am sure you will try hard to follow it.”
“Yes, yes—trust me, only trust me.”
“With my life,” he said.
There was a pause for a moment or two, and it was evident to him, as he watched the tumultuous rising and falling of her breast, that she was grappling with some sudden and exciting thought. Twice she turned from him as if to go, but each time swung round again and faced him. Her eyes shone like two great stars, and through her lips came the breath in little gasps.
With a quick movement she took his two hands in hers. “I feel,” she said, “that this parting will be entirely different from what we imagine. The thought, the presentiment—call it what you will—came to me just as I turned to go. It seemed as though a voice whispered in my ear, ‘To-morrow! Who knows where we may be, or what shall have befallen us?’ ”
“A fancy,” he said, though he felt partly awed by the melancholy of her tone.
“No doubt. And yet—and yet! George,” she cried almost imploringly, “will you, will you kiss me once more—just once more?” He drew back hesitant. “It will not be wronging her, and for us to-morrow may never dawn.”
He stooped and kissed her on the forehead as a father might his daughter.
“No, no,” she cried, “on the lips, on the lips.”
And he kissed her full on her hot and swollen mouth, and for a moment her brain whirled giddily, like one who is about to faint; then with a cry, half-sob, half-moan, she bounded from his side and disappeared into the night.
Mr. Peter Logan slept on in his easy armchair, his eyes wide open, his lips muttering vague words and phrases. Ever and anon great gasps rose from his massive throat, and his hands opened and shut convulsively. It was painfully evident that serenity was not the presiding genius of his slumber. Indeed, at the moment in which we revisit the little sitting-room, he was undergoing a fearful, though fanciful, experience. He dreamt that old Billy Jackson had come to him, his throat dripping blood, his clothes mud-bespattered and sodden with rain; had robbed him of the cipher and made off with the bags of gold slung over his shoulders, singing, the meanwhile, in a mocking voice which seemed to come from the gash in his throat, that exquisite stanza which had consigned the late lamented Mr. Benjamin Hall to the abode of the wicked. For a moment the dreamer stood choking with rage and terror, unable to move, glued to the spot by some invisible means. Then, of a sudden, the unseen manacles fell from his limbs and he darted after the mocking songster; but when he clutched those bags they melted like gossamer in his hands, and from the rent he made a torrent of blood spouted into his face, and all the while the hideous spectre chanted his horrible song. Wiping the blood from his eyes the dreamer rushed furiously upon the dreadful thing, when, lo and behold, in its place stood his wife, decked out in the white robes of the dead, a great gash in her throat from which the red blood gushed. Blood, blood! The world was full of blood. With a horrible shriek he awoke, trembling in every limb, the sweat starting from every pore in his body. Luckily the light had not yet burnt out, so that he was quickly re-assured as to the unsubstantiality of his vision. Sobered he was, too, or at least sufficiently sensible to know that the best thing he could do would be to get between the sheets as soon as possible.
It was a terrible dream, though, and as he arose, quivering to his heart’s core, he beheld the scattered papers on the table and instinctively dipped into his pocket for the cipher. Discovering it not, he stared about him like one amazed; then went rapidly through his pockets, but fruitlessly. He next proceeded to search amid the papers on the table, but with a like result.
“I’ve been robbed,” he cried with a terrible oath, “robbed!”
And if there was any man alive at that moment who felt an utter abhorrence of all dishonesty, it was Mr. Peter Logan.
With a hurried, though elephantine tread, he paced the little room, trying hard to think, for thinking came not easy to this worthy man even in his most idyllic periods, therefore we must not expect too much from him to-night; but the more he thought the more certain was he that Mr. Samuel Smith had plundered him, for his own ends. This raised his evil Irish blood to boiling pitch, and vowing death and destruction, if his surmises should prove correct, he made at once for the room of his perfidious associate. Rob a pal would he, the dog; a pal who had stood by him through thick and thin? He gasped, he trembled with rage. Such black ingratitude seemed to him the crown of baseness, and he was shocked beyond measure at man’s awful depravity.
With a wonderfully quiet step he approached his victim’s door and turned the handle softly, as though he had been used to such things. All was quiet, save for the melodious breathings of the estimable Smith, and Logan, knowing the lay of the room so well, advanced to the bed with a quick, noiseless step, and seized his boon companion by the throat.
With a dreadful scream the sleeping man awoke, but feeling the fierce grip on his throat, and being naturally confused by such a terrible awakening, he did little more than scream, thinking the devil had got him fast.
“Hand it over,” hissed the devil, “hand it over, I tell you, or I won’t leave a breath in your cursed body.”
This was truly no devil’s voice, or at least the voice of no supernatural devil, and Mr. Smith began to struggle desperately.
“Let me go,” he gasped, “let me go, you fool.”
“I’ll shake the life out of you first,” hissed the fool, and the great fingers pressed tighter round the throat.
“Jim—Jim—for God’s sake, old pal!”
But the word “pal” only added a fiercer resolve to those terrible fingers. They seemed to stiffen and grow sharp, pressing the throat’s apple right up into the mouth. Smith thought his time had come, knowing the nature of his assailant, and in a half-dazed, yet wholly furious state, he hit upwards with his clenched fist. In a moment the hands about his throat relaxed their awful grip, and his would-be murderer fell to the floor with a loud groan.
Hurriedly springing from his bed, upon which he had been lying in his clothes, Mr. Smith lit a candle and discovered Logan sitting on the floor, rolling from side to side in agony, his two hands pressed to the pit of his stomach; for upon that extensive portion of his person had the worthy Smith’s fist uprisen with wonderful effect.
“Oh, you cur,” moaned Logan as soon as he could find wind enough to sound his thought, “you cur, to hit a man below the belt.” This, at least, was the simple meaning of his words, though the expletives he indulged in would have made a bullock-driver sick with envy.
There was something entertaining in this man’s protest, at any rate there appeared so to his companion—for, in spite of his terror, Smith could not conceal the smile which played about his pale lips.
“You’re a nice one, you are, to talk about hitting a man below the belt. Why, you’d have murdered me in another minute.”
“That’s right,” said Logan, wagging his big head, “I would. I’d have done it, Sammy, if you hadn’t hit me that coward’s blow.”
“Coward’s blow,” repeated Smith with an ugly grin. “Well, that’s as may be, but I thank my stars I’m not your sort of cur, old pal.”
“Then hand over the paper,” said Logan, still pressing his stomach as though it pained him sorely. “The man who robs a pal is no mate for me.”
Again the wintry smile played round Smith’s pale lips.
“What’s the game, Peter?” The question was asked quietly enough, but there was a world of meaning in the man’s tone, the effect of which was not lost upon the worthy landlord.
“Game,” he growled, “I’ve lost Ben’s cipher, that’s the game, and you’ve got it.”
“Oh, indeed,” sneered Smith.
“Yes, ‘oh indeed,’ ” fumed Logan; “and it will be a bad game too unless you hand it over.”
“Come, Jimmy—I mean Peter,” said Mr. Smith, accentuating the name, “this sort of thing won’t do.”
“What do you mean?” asked Logan, rising to his feet with an effort.
“I mean that I am going to have half of Ben’s Plant—or know the reason why,” he added with a truly diabolical look.
“Oh,” said Logan with a grin, “you don’t believe I’ve lost it, eh?”
“I do not. And what’s more, old pal, I mean to have my share, so make your mind easy on that.”
“You’re a fool,” said Logan. “I tell you the thing’s gone. I hope I may swing before I’m three months older if it’s not the truth I’m telling you. It was in this pocket when I fell asleep in the chair. Now it’s gone, and if you haven’t taken it, who has?”
Smith began to look uneasy. There was a ring of truth in the landlord’s voice which convinced him against his will.
“If I could only believe you,” he said.
“It’s hard that a man should be doubted when it’s the gospel he’s speaking,” moaned Mr. Logan pathetically.
“Well, you know, Peter,” said his companion, softly yet impressively, “I’d like to believe you, but then you was always such a dreadful liar.”
Mr. Logan smiled. “Well,” he said, “I could never give you any points at that game, old pal, for I never believed a word you ever told me.”
“And yet you expect me to believe you?”
“It’s the truth whether you believe it or not.” And as Mr. Logan forgot to adorn this statement with strings of sacred and profane oaths, a thing he invariably did. when lying, his companion felt convinced that there was some shade of truth in the story.
“Then I suppose I must believe you,” he said; “so let us get to business. Have you thought of anyone but me who might have found the paper useful?”
“No—because Vincent wasn’t here. No one could have got it but you.”
“Not even the missis?”
“She wouldn’t dare. Besides—”
“My dear Peter, if I remember rightly, she refused to give up the paper on any consideration, and it was not till you had thumped her a bit that you succeeded in obtaining it?”
“Now why should she refuse to give it up?”
“Why—unless it was to benefit herself—or her lover?” he added between his teeth.
“Pre—cisely, Peter. I’m glad to see your brains isn’t yet run to fat.”
Mr. Logan acknowledged this compliment by no sign. Indeed, it might be doubtful whether he really heard it, so absorbed seemed he in thought.
“No,” said he at last, as though speaking to himself, “she’d never dare, never dare.”
“Peter, old pal, the ways of woman is pe—culiar. There’s no knowing what they won’t do or dare, and if I was you I’d go and pay her a visit—just t’ see how she’s getting along,” he added with a chuckle.
“The very thing,” cried Logan excitedly, turning towards the door. “Come with me.”
The two men left the room and crept quietly up the few stairs which led to Kitty’s bedroom, but great was Logan’s consternation when he saw the door wide open. Into the chamber he flew like a colossal fury, the estimable Smith at his heels, but no Kitty was to be found. The bed had not even been slept in that night.
“Gone!” gasped the landlord.
“So it seems.”
“Wait a minute.” He seized the candle and darted off.
“What is it?” cried his companion.
“She may be in with the girl.”
Presently there was a knocking and a sound of voices, and a minute later Logan re-appeared.
“No—she’s not there,” he said.
“Then she’s done it, sure enough. Let us go and have a look at the front door.”
They descended into the hall, and on examining the door found that every bolt was withdrawn, and that the door itself was shut only by the ordinary catch-lock, so that anyone, by simply turning the handle, could have opened it from the outside.
“Dangerous,” muttered Logan, “and so many rogues about.”
“Yes, ain’t it?” grinned his companion. “What do you think of it, Sammy?”
“It’s plain enough, ain’t it? She’s cleared off with the cipher to her lover.”
Logan uttered a terrible oath.
“If I knew it for certain,” he said, “it would be the last time she should play any man false.”
“Suppose we follow her,” suggested Mr. Smith in a low tone. “She may not have had much of a start, and we may overtake her. If not, we’re bound to meet her coming back.”
“Curse her!” hissed Logan.
“Well,” said Smith, “I never could see the use of women myself, even though they’ve cost me so much; though that, I reckon, was due to my own weakness. As I said before, mate, you take ’em in a lump and you’ll find that lump a mighty bad bargain. No good ever came out of ’em yet, and if I had my way I’d lock ’em up like the Turks do, or bowstring ’em—which is better.”
“I hope for her sake we shan’t meet her,” said Logan, “there will be the devil to pay if we do.” And he slipped from the side of his companion, saying he was going to get a hat.
Mr. Smith grinned; thought of the whisky bottle on the table inside, and then buttoned his coat up round his neck, feeling, under the circumstances, quite glad that he had been unable to undress himself that night. Thus, even inebriation has sometimes its advantages.
In a few moments the landlord reappeared, and, carefully closing the door behind them, the two men set out in the direction of the camp.
Logan was exceedingly morose during that journey, and to the chatter of his companion replied with rude monosyllables which, under less inspiriting circumstances, would have checked Mr. Smith’s exuberance; for that worthy man chirped, with a persistency quite aggravating to his sullen companion, that exquisite relation of the doings of the late lamented Mr. Benjamin Hall on the plains of Avernus.
“But fate ordained the rifle’s roar
Should prove his parting knell;
And so he robs on earth no more,
But bails them up in h—, h—, h—,
But bails them up in h—”
And the way that good man emphasised the last word of this rhyme showed what a warm interest he took in his future home. Perhaps he dreamt of some joyful excursions, in company with Mr Benjamin Hall, along the “night’s Plutonian shore.” Who shall say? Even the most depraved of us have our dreams. Certain it is that, like a true hero, Smith’s spirits rose at the thought of fighting, especially when he knew that it was not likely to cause him any injury. That Logan meant to be revenged he doubted not, and that was delightful in itself; but what that revenge would be, what form it would take, opened up a splendid vista of boundless possibility. He, too, had an old score to settle with the haughty Kitty, for, from the moment he had crossed the threshold of the “Emu’s Head,” she had treated him with systematic disdain, and though his skin was thicker than a woman’s, it was not so tough as an elephant’s.
When they reached the rather dilapidated bridge, which spanned the creek some quarter of a mile above the camp, Mr. Smith suggested a halt, remarking that this of all places would be the one where they were most likely to meet her, a remark which seemed to coincide with the landlord s own thoughts, for he was already resting against the railings of the bridge, staring sullenly down into the black water, which, swollen by the late rains, roared angrily as it dashed among the wooden piers.
They, however, had barely taken up their position when the sound of hurrying footsteps fell upon their ears, and instinctively the two men knelt in the shadow of the beams.
“It’s the missis,” whispered Smith.
Logan spoke not, but his companion heard him gasping for breath, and knew that he was fearfully excited.
On Kitty came at a great pace, her head down, as though she could no longer hold her face up to the stars, and it was not till she was within half-a-dozen yards of the two men that she became aware of their presence.
She started back with a little cry, but, recognising her husband, exclaimed:
“Yes, me. What are you doing out here?”
She noted the passion in his voice, but was not one to be cowed by a word, and so replied boldly:
“That is my business,” and started forward as though she would pass.
He pushed her back with a blow on the shoulder.
“Stay where you are,” he hissed, “or it will be the worse for you. Where have you been?”
“What is that to you?” she asked defiantly.
“You shall see presently,” he cried hoarsely. “You have been to your lover, woman.”
“It’s a lie,” she cried passionately “a wicked lie.”
“You deny then, that you have been to Vincent?”
“No, I do not.”
He laughed harshly. “I thought you wouldn’t have the impudence to brazen it out. You have given him the paper you stole from me?”
“I gave him the paper which was rightly his; I gave him the paper which you murdered Billy Jackson to get.”
A fearful oath escaped Logan’s lips, and it was as well night hid the ghastly look of rage on his face, for it was too terrible to behold. Smith shrank farther back against the bridge and wished himself well out of the business.
“You fool,” hissed the landlord in an intensely nervous voice, “you don’t know what you are saying.”
“Perhaps not,” she replied; “but I am not such a fool as you seem to think, Jim Regan!”
Logan sprang upon her with a savage cry and seized her by the arms close up to the shoulders, pressing his fingers into her soft flesh till she could have shrieked with the pain.
“Who told you that?” he cried,
“Then it is true—you are Flash Jim?”
“True or not,” he said in a low voice, which sounded like the snarling of a dog, “it would have been better for you if you had minded your own business.”
“This is my business,” she answered boldly enough, though her heart began to fail her; “let me go.”
He laughed derisively. “I’ll let you go, yes, but, by God, you shan’t come back!”
His voice was brutal, terrible; a voice of passion and infernal malice. Quickly drawing her to him he seized her by the throat, and in a moment had her on the ground, his knee upon her breast. She struggled wildly, fiercely; but Smith, seizing both her hands, rendered her powerless. Then she grew still, still, till there seemed no breath nor motion in her, and the murderers rested for a moment. Then, without a word, Logan seized her under the arms, his companion taking her feet, and together they carried her to the rails of the bridge. With a one, two, three—they swung her out into the darkness. There was a splash as her body struck the black water; then all was still save for the dirge-like melody the wild stream chanted.
The two men turned from the ghostly spot and fled away into the shadows of the night.
Totally unconscious of the tragedy which was being enacted within half a mile of him, George Vincent re-entered his tent, having paced before the door of that humble mansion for a good ten minutes after Kitty’s departure, turning and twisting the points of her extraordinary confession. That she should have been guilty of such a crime as that to which she had confessed, filled him with horror; yet in the face of her atonement that horror almost approached the verge of admiration, for to him there seemed something grand in such a strong nature. That, liking him so well—and by her own words he was bound to believe that she did—she could have committed a crime so despicable, seemed a thing contrary to his nature; but that having sinned, having sunk so low, having so cruelly outraged her pride and debased her dignity, she yet had courage enough to face the shameful penance, confess her fault with tears of her heart’s blood, with words whose shame made her poor ears burn and tingle, was to him, in spite of all her faults, proof positive of the innate nobility of her soul. It is one thing to be genuinely sorry—even the worst of us must feel compunction for our crimes—but it is another to heap the dust upon our head, array ourselves in the glaring robes of shame, and stand up for the world to see.
Entering the tent he struck a light and lit the candle, a proceeding which awakened the Brand plucked from the Burning.
“Hollo, mate,” he exclaimed, “what’s up?”
“I’m going to do a little work, old man. Do you think you could sleep with this burning?”
“Bless you, yes.” And as if to suit the action to the word he turned his back on Vincent and began to snore.
George laughed. “Very well,” he said, “you snore as much as you like, Phil, and don’t take any notice of me.”
“Is it a long job, mate?”
“I’m afraid it may be.”
“Can I be of any service?”
“No, thank you.”
The Reclaimed One answered with a snore, and Vincent set to work.
The first thing he did was to extract some note-paper from a book, and this, with a lead pencil, he placed beside the candle on his trunk, which he had stood upon one end the better to act its part of table. Then placing a low three-legged stool beside it, he sat carefully down, for one of the legs was a bit shaky, and with much deliberation brought out from the depths of his waistcoat pocket the mystic paper. This he unfolded slowly, breathing a silent prayer for light as he did so; but those terrifying letters stared out as blankly at him as they did on that memorable night three years ago. He read and re-read the writing a score of times in twenty different ways; across, up and down, at all sorts of angles, from top to bottom and vice versa; yet he could make nothing of it, nor, try as he would, could he remember how previously he had read the words, Dead Man’s Flat. In fact, so mystified did he become, that he grew doubtful if he really had read them, for he recollected well that he caught them in a glimpse, as it were, and that they had vanished as swiftly and mysteriously as they had come. Then he began to jot down the letters at odd intervals till he had both sides of one sheet of paper covered with figures. Yet he seemed no nearer the secret, for though he found himself constructing words with comparative ease, the letters which formed them were annexed so arbitrarily that they led to ultimate confusion.
The seconds ran into minutes, the minutes hours, and yet he plodded doggedly on, though it was with a feeling of despair. He grew to hate the sight of the paper; the cursed letters danced before him like so many will-o’-the wisps, and, had it not been for the sake of another, it is ten to one he would have torn that vexatious writing into a thousand pieces. His candle burnt low and spluttered; he arose and lit another, hoping the change would bring him luck, but instead of that it only annoyed him more, for it burnt vilely. At length he arose in despair, and lighting his pipe at that provoking stick of tallow, which he succeeded in doing after partly extinguishing it with an avalanche of ash, he stepped outside into the night and began to pace restlessly up and down.
It was no good, so ran his thoughts; he would never be able to discover the secret. Curse it! He hadn’t the brains of a kangaroo. Poor Edith. He was afraid she would have to rest contented with a humble hut, or fly at higher game. One thing was certain—the treasure was not for him. And yet, good heavens! a man like Ben Hall could never have invented a puzzle of the Captain Kidd order—as set down by Edgar Allan Poe in his story of the “Golden Beetle.” That was a staggerer, and showed the gallant pirate to be a man of much ingenuity and no little erudition—which he may have been. But one thing was certain, Ben Hall was not, so that his puzzle must be simple by comparison, A bushranger’s freak, that’s what it was. No doubt Ben had, as a happy, guileless boy, read of pirates and buried treasures galore, so that when he came to man’s estate, and had more gold than he knew exactly what to do with, he sought to emulate the doings of those worthy rovers. This cipher was the result, and it could not, it could not be anything but simple.
He knocked the ashes from his pipe and turned once more to the hut, but on the threshold stopped suddenly, a horrible doubt having crossed his mind. Suppose the thing were a fraud! For a moment he felt quite sick and giddy, and in that brief space entertained a series of truly harrowing thoughts. Yet only for a moment. There had been too many crimes committed for the possession of that paper to doubt its genuineness. No, it was true enough. It held a secret, a secret which must be his.
Once more he sat himself at his improvised table and began the dreary work, but he was not afraid of it this time, for he had convinced himself that it could not be such a terrible thing as he had previously been inclined to suppose. Now he despaired, now he hoped; yet when he seemed to have his hand on the thing, it slipped between his fingers. To make matters worse Phil here awoke, and, seeing his companion still poring over the papers, lit his pipe and began to smoke.
“Do you know what time it is, mate?” he asked.
“No—that is,” said Vincent, looking at his watch, “it’s half-past four.”
“Ain’t you going to turn in?”
“I don’t know.” And he set to work again, writing and muttering in an extraordinary manner.
Phil watched him in silence for a long time, a good-natured smile of pity on his rugged face.
“What is it, mate?” he asked at length.
“Confound you, dry up!” was the angry response, and the young fellow went on with his writings and his mutterings for a full minute longer, entirely oblivious of all around him. At last, looking up at the Reclaimed One, he said, “I beg your pardon, old man, but I had just caught an idea.”
“You’ve had a mighty long chase, mate.”
“Nothing like exercise, you know,” laughed the young man.
“I get all I want during the daytime,” said Mr. Phil. “But what’s it all about, mate?”
“It’s a sum, Phil, the answer of which I have been trying to work out.”
“You don’t mean to tell me that you’re keeping out of your warm bed for the sake of doing a sum?”
The Brand opened wide his big brown eyes.
“Well, I’m blowed,” he gasped, and sank back on his pillow with a sigh.
Vincent turned once more to the bewildering letters and worked on solidly for another half-hour. Then he began to wriggle nervously on his stool, his fingers trembled as the pencil flew over the paper, his breath came hard. Phil watched him curiously, eagerly. Certainly, by what that worthy remembered of arithmetic, he had never imagined there was anything in it half so entertaining. George, however, wholly unconscious of the interest he had awakened in his companion, sat staring fixedly at the paper. He had made a great discovery, or at least he thought he had. One thing was certain, he had formed all the letters into words, some of which were so familiar that he scarcely dared to credit his own eyes. Reading from left to right, beginning at the bottom and then continuing from the right-hand side of the fifth line, as though there were no break, and carrying out this plan with the lines above, he had, by taking every second letter, formed an incongruous series of words, which he at first thought was mere chance. But by the transposition of every second word also, and the insertion of a few marks of punctuation, the cipher became perfectly intelligible, and read as follows:
Step the letters. Morgan’s last jaunt. Dead Mans Flat.
For a while he looked at these words in a thoroughly bewildered way, wondering, trembling lest they should not be the correct answer. But recollecting all that he had heard concerning the Mount Marong Escort, his doubts flew like dust before the wind,
“Eureka!” he cried, bounding to his feet. “I’ve got it.”
“Got ’em you mean,” cried the Reclaimed One, sitting up. “What’s the matter now?”
George loooked round at his companion, feeling exceedingly embarrassed. So engrossed had he been with the study of this problem that he had entirely overlooked the fact that he was not alone. He wondered if he had betrayed his secret in any way, and turned a searching glance towards the worthy Brand, but the puzzled look in those big eyes showed clearly enough that his secret was safe in that direction.
“What is it, George?” repeated the man. “Anyone would think you had struck a big patch.”
Vincent laughed, a little oddly, his companion thought.
“I’ve found the answer to my sum.”
“Oh, lor, is that all! If I was you, mate, I’d take off my togs and tumble in for an hour or so. Sums are right enough in their way, I suppose, and good enough for schoolmasters, clerks and counterjumpers, but I never see’d the sum yet that could keep me two minutes out of my bunk. Take my advice, George, and turn in. You look that scared that if I didn’t know you I should think you had been on the drink for a week.”
Vincent laughed again, but, instead of following Phil’s parental advice, lit his pipe once more and stepped out into the cool night. Here he walked up and down till the grey light of the morning began to steal through the dark curtains of the east.
“Step the letters. Morgan’s last jaunt. Dead Man’s Flat.” The words rang in his ears, burnt themselves upon his brain. One moment he was bursting with hope, the next plunged deep in despair. Suppose this should not be the right reading? This horrid thought gave birth to a dozen others, all equally terrifying. He paced the few yards before his tent with the impetuosity of a madman, now muttering and now again stopping to interrogate the morning star. And yet, in the midst of all this doubt and fear, he felt a certain sense of security in the knowledge that he had worked out his answer in a systematic manner. Had the letters been merely set down at random, or did they contain another systematically arranged cipher, it were ten thousand to one that he would not have succeeded as he had. Now, if this were the correct answer, and there was no reason why it should not be, the gold was as good as his, for the understanding of the words presented little difficulty. “Step the letters. Morgan’s last jaunt”—undoubtedly meant that as there were forty-two letters in the cipher, you were to take that many steps, or paces, from Morgan’s Last Jaunt (wherever, or whatever, that was), which would bring you in the neighbourhood of the treasure. It would indeed have been less difficult had the writer only mentioned in which direction you should step; but that was in itself a mere nothing. George felt equal to taking up the earth for a good hundred yards around that mystic spot. But first, what was Morgan’s Last Jaunt? Was it the name of a place, or the name of a thing? This puzzled him not a little, for he never recollected hearing the expression. Yet, as the words plainly indicated, “Morgan’s Last Jaunt” was at “Dead Man’s Flat,” and as the sticking-up of the Mount Marong Escort was a matter of history, he felt that a little judicious questioning of the “old identities” would quickly clear up this point.
Nor was that all. Six thousand ounces of gold was a large sum, and would require, should it ever be found, secret and expeditious handling. Now, could one man undertake such a task? True, Ben Hall had buried it, or was supposed to have buried it, alone, but there was no proof of this; besides, when he was at Dead Man’s Flat it was a howling wilderness. Now thousands of men swarmed the Flat and its adjacent hills, and the police, mounted and on foot, patrolled the place day and night. Times were changed since Mr. Benjamin Hall paid his memorable visit to the then lonesome spot. One might have done anything with impunity in those days, for at that time there was no single habitation between Mount Marong and Gundalla, a distance of thirty-seven miles. Now there were numerous small townships along the route, for the fame of Dead Man’s Flat had spread far and wide, and to the skirts of every famous thing you will find smaller things hanging.
Really, how to secure this treasure once it was found seemed, at the first glance, almost as great a problem as the cipher itself; but George, being somewhat practical in spite of his emotional nature, thought it would be just as well to find the gold first: and since it might come to pass that he would have to share his secret with another, why not forestall time’s mandate by taking Phil into his confidence at once? That worthy one was on his best behaviour now; a Brand plucked from the Burning and quenched with tears of regret. Devoted heart and soul to Vincent, whom he looked upon as the saviour of his wife and child, the young fellow had experienced so many little tokens of his sincerity that he felt that he might trust him. Moreover, there was money to be gained (for he meant to reward him handsomely), money for his wife and child, and the young man knew that for their sakes alone Phil would keep his counsel and work like a slave.
He pushed back the flap of the tent and entered. Phil was sitting up in bed darning a sock.
“I’m afraid I have broken into your rest, Phil, old man.”
“Not in the least,” replied the Reclaimed One, pulling hard at his pipe. “Besides, it’s nearly getting-up time; and I’ve had this blessed job on hand for over a week. Ah, mate, one misses the old woman when it comes to darnin’, and sewin’ and washin’. But ain’t you goin’ to turn in a bit? I think you ought ‘er, you know. Sitting up all night over a bit of ‘rithmetic is foolishness, George, downright foolishness.”
“Suppose I could prove to you that it were not?”
“Then show me that it means L s. d.”
“Suppose I can?”
“Going in for schoolmasterin’?”
“Nor clerkin’, nor counter-jumperin’?”
“No, thank you. I’ve had enough of ledgers.”
“Then I take it all back, mate, though I still argue that the night is the time for a man to sleep.”
“Granted; but a man does not often get such a chance as this to keep him awake.”
“You’re mighty mysterious, mate. What is it?”
“Look here, Phil, can you keep a secret if I give you a thousand pounds for doing it?”
“I can keep a secret for nothing, if it’s yours, mate.”
“Thank you, Phil, but I have no intention of putting you to such a test. I think we understand each other, don’t we?”
“That’s so,” said Phil. “Leastways, I know you to be the best mate I ever struck.” And he returned to his darning, though it was evident by the way his needle wobbled that his hand had grown very shaky all of a sudden, or his eyes very dim.
“Then what I want, Phil, is a man who will help me, and keep my secret.”
“That’s me,” said Phil, looking up from his darning. “I ain’t forgot the missis, you know, nor the little ’un, and I’d like to show you that I mean what I say.” There was a ring of pathos and sincerity in the man’s rough voice which could not be mistaken. Vincent seized his hand and shook it warmly.
“I know I may trust you, Phil.”
“To the last drop of my blood.”
And Vincent knew he meant it.
“Then let me tell you,” continued the young fellow, “that the sum I have been working at all night was no ordinary arithmetical problem.”
“I thought you couldn’t have been such a fool.”
“Thanks for your good opinion. No: I have got beyond working like that for the love of the thing. I have been trying to find out the answer to this puzzle.”
Extracting the cipher from his pocket he handed it to his companion, who, after staring blankly at it for a few moments, returned it with a shake of his head.
“Well, what’s it all about?”
“It’s about a treasure which is secreted somewhere on Dead Man’s Flat.”
“What, that bit of letterin’ is? Now how did you find that out?”
“It was a tough job as you saw, but I believe I’ve got hold of the right reading.”
“And what is this treasure, mate?”
“Gold—heaps of it—thousands of pounds’ worth.”
“At Dead Man’s Flat?” asked Phil incredulously, his big eyes opening till he seemed all eyes.
“Yes, at Dead Man’s Flat.”
“Oh, it’s rot, you know,” said the Reclaimed One somewhat peevishly. “Look here, mate, you pull off your boots and tumble in for a couple of hours. You’ll feel ever so much better presently.”
George laughed loudly. “I’m all right, Phil. Haven’t even lost a shingle,” and he touched his forehead.
“Then who could have planted anything hereabouts?”
“Did you never hear of anyone making a big haul in these parts, many years ago?”
“Can’t say that I have—except,” he added, “Ben Hall.”
“Do you mean to say that you have found old Ben’s Plant?”
“Not quite, but I shall—if you’ll help me.”
“Help you, of course. But, mate, it ain’t a joke?”
“My share of it is not, and I think you’ll find a thousand yellow boys a joke of the right sort.”
“That’s so,” said the man, “that’s so. Polly shall have that new black silk, after all; and the little ’un, why I’ll bring her up like a lady. Your hand, mate; it’s a bargain,”
“You swear that you won’t betray me?”
“Before Gord!” exclaimed the man earnestly. “Trust me, that’s all. I’m no great hand at speechifying, George, but I know what I mean. Put it there, mate. You can trust me as you would yourself.”
Again the two men clasped hands, and with that silent oath their bond of comradeship was sealed. Then Vincent, sitting on Phil’s bed, related to that worthy all that he knew concerning the cipher, beginning with the murder in Little Lonsdale Street, and ending with that night’s mastery of the secret.
“Well,” said Phil, “it’s a mighty queer story, old man, and you’ve come out of it pretty slick. But I can’t understand how Logan should have tumbled to it.”
“You will when I tell you that I believe Logan to be no other than Flash Jim.”
“What! Jim Regan?”
“Precisely; and it was he, or his companion Smith, who broke into our place that night. They were in search of this little bit of paper.”
“I believe you’ve struck it. But who is Smith?”
“I cannot say for certain, but I believe him to be Stephen Jones.”
“Snaky Steve!—The cruellest of the gang.”
“Such is my belief. Now you understand why I wanted a mate in this business.
“We have a couple of desperate scoundrels to deal with.”
“That we have, and no mistake. But there’s the police—”
“Not till after we have found the Plant.”
“I understand. But we must keep our eyes skinned, matey. I’ll go over to the town this afternoon and buy a new pistol. I can tell you what it is, George: If those two men are really Regan and Jones, the sooner we get hold of old Ben’s Plant and clear, the better it will be for us.”
“You may depend that we cannot find the gold too soon for me.”
“No, I suppose not,” said the Reclaimed One with a knowing smile.
“But there’s something here I should like to speak to you about. Did you ever hear of ‘Morgan’s Last Jaunt’?”
“Morgan’s Last Jaunt?” he repeated. “Morgan’s la—Oh, you mean Morgan’s Jaunt?”
“Yes, Morgan’s Jaunt will do. What is it—where is it?
“Morgan’s Jaunt,” said Mr. Phil, slowly, “is the big white gum tree down on the Flat, where old Tommy and those bushmen he spoke of strung up Jack Morgan—one of Ben Hall’s beauties. You can see a part of the rope round the big bough yet,”
“Do you know this tree?”
‘‘Lord bless you, yes. It was pointed out to me the first Sunday I came here. It’s right alongside of the main road.”
“Is it far from here?”
“Under a mile, I should say.”
“Down the creek, of course?”
“Well, it’s about there we must search for the treasure. Now, Phil, having told you all I know, I think I’ll try and put in a couple of hours’ sleep. No work to-day, old man. We’ll go fossicking after breakfast.”
Phil smiled pleasantly to himself as he contemplated the hole in his sock; then held it up to the light with a disdainful look, which said quite plainly, “I shall soon have done with the likes of you;” and then, having a present use for it, he set to with renewed assiduity. George, his face to the wall, or what should have been the wall, slept peacefully on, dreaming of the Mount Marong Escort and a pair of soft, grey eyes; while from the frowning crests of the far-eastern hills the heralds of the day-god sprang with feet of fire.
It was quite ten o’clock when George awoke. Surprised to see the sunshine streaming strongly through the door, he sprang hurriedly from his bed, calling to Phil to get some breakfast ready, and while that worthy busied himself preparing the meal, the young fellow made a rapid toilet.
After breakfast, which consisted principally of strong tea and bread and butter, the two men set off down the creek, one carrying a tin dish, the other a pick and shovel—the usual complement of the digger. They were going “fossicking” down the creek, they said, in answer to numerous enquiries; and so they were, but it was for a “patch” which would have set the whole camp in a ferment could it only have known.
To reach the Flat proper, however, it was first necessary to cross the creek, and this could only be done, especially at anything like high water, which it was now on account of the recent rains, by means of the bridge. But there was no sign to tell them of the dastardly crime the dark night had lately witnessed, and so they passed over the spot full of hope and pleasant dreams. Turning away to the left, they then followed the course of the creek for about half-a-mile, but from that point struck off across the Flat to the Mount Marong Road, and after pursuing that uninteresting highway for another half-mile, pulled up beneath the indifferent shade of a big white gum tree.
“This is what the old hands used to call Morgan’s Jaunt,” said Phil, nodding towards the tree, “though the name’s gone out of date now, and you rarely hear it; but it was from that big bough, mate, that Jack Morgan took his Last Jaunt on earth. Look, there’s a bit of the rope he dangled on.”
He pointed to a great bough as he spoke, the lowest and largest of all, which shot out from the tree’s trunk in the direction of the road. This huge limb could not have been less than twenty feet from the ground, and, near that portion of it where its first branch grew, might still be seen, encircling the prong, as it were, a piece of black, rotten rope. This had been a grim jaunt indeed, and as the young man stood picturing the scene he wondered what wag had perpetrated such a ghastly joke.
“Well,” said he, turning to his companion, who with wide-open eyes was staring at the rope, and twisting his neck about in the most singular manner, “this is Morgan’s Jaunt right enough; but where is old Ben’s Plant?”
“Ay, where?” answered the Reclaimed One, rubbing his neck with the back of his hand. “Besides, mate,” he added, pointing in the direction of the camp, “we shall never be able to fossick round here without having the police down on us, not counting the prowlers, who are everywhere.”
“It is a bit open, Phil; but once we know where to look for the gold, trust me to get it away.”
Speaking thus, he fixed his back firmly against the tree, and then stepped forty-two paces in a northerly direction; but this brought him to a little rocky hill, or elevation, a few minutes’ examination of which proving conclusively that Ben had not hidden his treasure there. This was not an encouraging start, for if Vincent had been going to do as Ben did, this little elevation, back from the road as it was, and beyond the ken of the passer-by, would have been the place of places he would have chosen. Then he stepped forty-two paces eastward, but this landed him in a little gully along which countless diggers had passed with pick and shovel. Still he was not to be denied, and for quite an hour he and Phil swung pick and shovel in vain.
“No go,” said George, with a nervous little laugh. “Let us try to westward.” Shouldering their implements they turned about, but on looking up the gully beheld the well-known and equally well-detested form of Mr. Samuel Smith.
“Hallo,” cried Phil, “there’s Snaky Steve watching us. What’s he up to?”
“No good, you may depend.”
“Let us watch him.”
With that the two men began to mount the gully, at which Mr. Smith, seeing he was observed, at once proceeded to make himself scarce. When George and his companion reached the level ground, that amiable gentleman was nowhere to be seen.
“Gone like a spirit,” said Phil; “disappeared into the bosom of his father the devil.”
“Let us hope so. But come, we have yet two sides to try.”
They then retraced their steps to the big tree, and George again stepped the forty-two paces, this time to the westward; but here the opposition he had met in the north again encountered him, for the patch of rock extended in this direction to within a few yards of the roadway.
“Well,” said he, stopping a moment to wipe the perspiration from his forehead, “we have only one more main point, Phil. I’m afraid we shall have to trench round this old tree at a distance of from forty to fifty yards.”
“I wouldn’t mind that,” said Phil boldly, “if we were only sure of our ground. Though I’d like to know how you expect to be allowed to do the job?”
“Buy the land, of course.”
“Of course; but if I’m not mightily mistaken, mate, that road there ain’t fifty yards from this old gum, and I’d like to know,” he added somewhat severely, “how you’re going to buy the main road?”
“Well, let us measure it first and discuss our plans afterwards.” So saying, he once more planted his back against the tree, and again stepped the required number of paces, drawing up within a few yards of the road. The two men looked at each other blankly; Phil smiled in a silly sort of way, while George grew very nervous.
“I suppose this road was here when Hall stuck-up the Mount Marong Escort?” he asked.
“And long before then,”was the reply. “It was along this very road the Escort came, and it was from behind those very bushes,” he pointed to some trees and shrubs about half-a-mile away, “that Hall’s men fired on the troopers.”
“Then this is a most unlikely spot in which to bury a treasure. Let us try the different points of the compass.”
“Well,” said the Brand, as they walked despondently back to the tree, “it don’t seem to me the sort of place a cute ’un like Ben would bury anything in—unless it was a trooper,” he added jocularly. There was a grim humour about Mr, Phil which was vastly entertaining.
So they walked slowly back, Mr. Phil full of the ‘cuteness of Ben, and Mr. George just a little distressed and anxious. But all of a sudden Mr. Phil grew nervous too, and began to tremble strangely. He uttered no exclamation, but his breath came in quick gasps. And the reason? A brilliant idea had struck him; but as it was the first time on record such a misfortune had befallen him, he was afraid to speak of it. Yet when they regained the shade of the tree, he stood with his mouth wide open, staring up at the great bough and the bit of black rope.
“What are you looking at?” asked Vincent. “One would think you could see Morgan’s ghost.”
“I ain’t so sure that I can’t, mate,” was the reply, “for I can see an idea.”
“An idea,” laughed George.
“Ay. If you was to stand under this bit of rope and measure forty-two paces, where would it lead you?”
“It all depends on the direction.”
“There’s only one direction, mate,” and he pointed to the road.
“That’s it,” said Vincent, “it would lead me on the road.”
George stood under the spot where the bushranger had dangled, which was some five or six yards from the trunk of the tree, and then deliberately stepped the required number of paces, which carried him fair into the middle of the road.
“Well,” he laughed, “I’m afraid this won’t do. It’s not likely to be beneath the public highway, is it?”
George looked round quickly, surprised at the words and the serious tone; but he was even more surprised at the serious look in his companion’s face. The meaning of that look struck him in a moment, and with force too. Like an inspiration it came; strong as a blow. His breath came with a sudden leap to his throat.
“Why not,” he repeated, “yes, why not?”
“I’m glad you see it in that way, mate. If all I’ve heard of Ben Hall was true, it is the very place of places he would have chosen. What safer spot could be found than this? Of all the thousands who ever tramped this road, do you suppose one of them ever thought of a treasure beneath his feet?”
“I suppose not.”
“Why,” continued Phil, waxing warm, “the more I think of it the more cunning it strikes me, and, mind you, old Ben was a mighty cute ’un. It’s simple enough, to be sure, but it’s these simple things that upset a man’s calculations. He knew a thing or two, did Ben. You see, George, this is the main road between Mount Marong and Gundalla, and as such will always be kept in repair and safe from the picks and shovels of the builder and the fossicker.”
“It’s a capital idea,” said George.
“It’s just what Ben would have done, and you take my word for it, if this treasure is to be found anywhere, it’s here under our feet.” And as he spoke Mr. Phil stamped loudly on the dusty road.
“I have no wish to believe other than that, and can see no reason why I should. All that remains now is for us to prove the truth, or otherwise, of the idea. In the meantime, we must think out how best we may set to work. Have you any suggestion to make?”
“We might try and get a job road-making,” suggested Phil.
“Or pipe-laying, eh?” laughed his companion.
“I don’t see anything to laugh at, mate. If you can think of something better I shall be quite willing to see it out. One thing is certain; we can’t pull up the road, can we?”
“I suppose not. We should have the patrol down on us.”
“Patrol!” exclaimed Mr. Phil, “I should think so, and swag-men and mail-coaches, and the Lord knows what not. No, mate, we shall have to peg out a claim, as near to the road as they’ll allow us, and then drive under till we reach the plant.”
“Not a bad idea, Phil, but just a little too open—and laborious.”
“Then what do you suggest?”
“I suggest that we think the matter over till to-night. By that time we may have gathered a few ideas.”
“It strikes me we are sadly in need of them. But are you going into the town?”
“Would you mind getting me that pistol?”
“Ha, ha! You mean business, Phil?”
“You bet I do,” said Mr. Phil, grimly. “That thousand pounds is going into the bank in the missis’s name, and I’m going to bring up my little ’un like a lady.”
“That thousand shall be doubled, old fellow, and there’s my hand to the bargain.”
Phil looked at the young man in a glad, wondering sort of way. Then seizing his hand pressed it in a vice-like grip. “I wouldn’t take it, mate,” he said in a quivering voice, “if it wasn’t for them. But they’ll be happy, won’t they, and never fear the landlord any more, and the little ’un won’t go to bed cryin’ of hunger? If my life’s blood can pay you back, mate, it’s yours whenever you want it.”
“Let us be friends, Phil, that’s all.”
So they took up their prospecting implements and retraced their steps towards the camp, parting at the bridge, Phil to go back to his dreams and his darning, George to make his way to the “Emu’s Head.”
With a strange quiver at his heart, for which he could not account—having determined to meet Logan on the same familiar footing—the young fellow entered the well-known door, and from thence passed on to the little private parlour at the back of the bar. To him the house seemed strangely, almost oppressively, still, though, as it was then the quietest part of the day, the stillness might be somewhat accounted for. It surprised him, however, to hear no sound of voice nor tramp of foot. It was not a bit like the “Emu’s Head.”
He peeped through the partly-opened door into the bar, in the far corner of which he saw Edith sitting, her head thrown wearily back against the counter, her eyes half-closed, a strange, tired look upon her face. Whether she was asleep, or fainting, or dreaming, he could not say; but he was so startled at the sight of her white, sad face, that he could not suppress the cry which rose to his lips. Hearing him, she bounded to her feet.
“Ah, you have come, you have come!”
“Yes, darling,” he answered, drawing her into the little room as he spoke. “But you, you look ill?”
“I am not ill,” she said, “only tired, fatigued—and perhaps a little bit frightened.”
“Of nothing,” she said with a nervous laugh, nestling closer to him.
“What is the matter, dear? Is there anything I can do for you?”
“Be as you are,” she replied. “That is all I want.”
“I shall be always that, darling, never fear. But it is this house that affects you, is it not? You will never be happy here, Edith?”
“No,” she said, “I do not think I shall”
“Courage,” he whispered fondly, “your release may now be counted by hours.” And then he told her how he had read the puzzle, and how he hoped soon to lay his hands on the gold.
“But why do I find you here again?” he asked. “This is entirely against my agreement with your cousin.”
“Poor Kitty is not well to-day.”
“Have you seen her?”
“No; but I heard through Bridget.”
“He, too, is unwell. He sent to ask if I would mind looking after the place till he came down. Of course, I couldn’t refuse.”
“I suppose not, but I don’t like it, all the same. Never mind, darling. Keep up your courage for a little while longer. If all goes as I fondly hope, and, really, I do not see why it should not, the hour of your emancipation is very, very near.”
At that moment steps were heard outside in the passage, and George had only time to withdraw his hands from her shoulders when the burly Logan entered. Upon seeing Vincent he looked, for the moment, both surprised and nervous, but being a man of varied experience, he knew how to hide both, which he did, on this occasion, beneath a familiar grin.
“Ha, ha! At it again!” he cried in his pleasantest manner. “Well, as I said before, you must go it while you’re young, you know,” and he laughed again in his own familiar way. “Thank you, Edith,” he said, as he waddled into the bar, “I have come to relieve you.”
George led the girl out into the passage.
“You look faint,” he said. “Go and have some tea, and then lie down for a couple of hours.”
“Yes, I will. But did you notice how ghastly he looked?”
“Yes. I suppose he has been on the drink again, the scoundrel.”
“Heaven only knows. But I cannot, I cannot bear the sight of him.”
“No wonder. But courage, darling. It is only for a little while longer; and Kitty has promised to guard you with her life.”
What passed between them then we need not be too curious to know; but it is certain that the colour came back to her cheeks in a wonderful manner, and that when he stepped forth from the “Emu’s Head” he felt like a hero of fairy lore—capable of mighty deeds.
He, however, had no sooner cleared the town than he observed a series of great black clouds come rolling up sullenly from the west, sending the angry sun down in a chaos of whirling mist. That a storm was brewing was most apparent, for there was a low, monotonous hum in the rapidly darkening air which could only have been caused by some far-off elemental warfare. Knowing the extreme suddenness with which such storms descend, Vincent put his right foot foremost and sped rapidly onward. Yet, when he reached the bridge which spanned the creek, he stood for a moment to watch the setting of the sun. And a strange going down it was. Like some great, yet furious, spirit, the vast globe of fire sullenly withdrew behind its black-green curtains, through which it lowered lurid and awful. Yet down, down it went, its defiant beams darting forth and piercing those sombre forms with a momentary radiance, then instantly fading into nothingness. And still the clouds grew more intense, more black, pressing down, as it were, the sullen globe, which one moment asserted itself in a blaze of glory, then disappeared behind the earth. At the same moment a great streak of lightning darted across the world, and from out the bosom of the chaotic mass of cloud a groan went forth—a mighty peal of thunder. Vincent clung fast to the bridge, for the whole world seemed to be shaken by that angry roar. Then flash succeeded flash, the lightning treading a mazy whirl on its soft black carpet of cloud. So vivid was it that he stood bewildered, shading his eyes with his hand, his brain ringing with the noise of the thunder. Then a dozen great drops of rain fell pat-pat upon him, and not wishing to be washed away by the deluge which was sure to follow, he took to his heels, nor stopped till he reached the equivocal shelter of his tent.
And yet he need not have hurried himself, unless it were to escape the lightning. For two full hours the dangerous sparks flew hither and thither, lighting the premature darkness with a weird glory. And all this time the rain held off, or only fell in big solitary drops at odd intervals. It seemed as though the sheet of fire which hung continually in the heavens had sucked up all the moisture. But, as the lightning diminished, the darkness began to groan again, and the reverberations shook the world. Crash!—and then with a long-drawn roar, which seemed to gain strength and volume as on it sped, the peal ran shrieking across the globe. Such a blast shall the Archangel blow when he wakes the dead from their long sleep.
With the thunder came the rain, so vehemently that it seemed as though God had repented of his promise. In sheets it fell—hissing, roaring, drenching sheets. Time after time Vincent and his companion turned with anxious looks to the delicate roof above them, which, so far, had held nobly, though at what moment the wild water would burst through, no man might say.
“A bad night,” exclaimed Phil for the hundredth time, as though he had just been struck with a brilliant idea, “a devil of a night. Do you think she’ll hold?” This of the roof, to which he pointed with the candle in the intervals of lighting his pipe.
“I shouldn’t like to swear by her,” was the moody reply.
“No, nor me.”
Then there was silence between the two for several moments, both pulling steadily at their pipes and watching the roof with, anxious faces.
“Good lord!” exclaimed Phil as a sudden gust of wind brought on a vicious downpour which almost burst in the canvas, “that was a beauty, wasn’t it?”
“Another like that and away she’ll go,” said Vincent consolingly, referring to the drenched canvas. “We might turn in if it wasn’t for that most probable contingency.”
“Um!” grunted the Reclaimed One, “it’s a devil of a night and no mistake.”
Then silence fell upon them once more, and they sat in their bunks smoking as though their lives depended upon their consuming a certain quantity of the fragrant weed. Outside the wind howled like a legion of demons, and the rain came swish, swish against their frail canvas, making it quiver and creak ominously.
At last Phil broke the silence. He had evidently been thinking of his wife and child, for he said with a sigh, “Gord help the poor.”
“They need it mate, eh, when the landlord’s down on ’em, and the nights is like this?”
“Yes. But it’s strange how even the poorest can find a shelter.”
“That’s true. I daresay if you went through the camp now you wouldn’t find a soul stirring. Even the police’ll be under cover weather like this. You know,” added Mr. Phil knowingly, “a drop of toddy and a quiet game of cards.”
“The very thing,” cried Vincent bounding to his feet.
“No, not for me,” exclaimed the Reclaimed One hastily. “I’ve sworn off.”
George laughed. “I didn’t mean that, you old duffer. I mean that it’s the very night for us to take up the road.”
Phil leapt from his bunk with a mighty oath.
“So it is. By the Lord, a grand idea! There won’t be a soul abroad. The mail was due two hours ago; and as for the patrol—it’ll know better than come that far on such a night.”
“But suppose some new arrivals come along?”
“No fear—not this sort of weather.”
“But a vehicle—a waggon?”
“Waggons are driven by human beings, and human beings ain’t ducks,” said Mr. Phil facetiously. “Besides, if one does come along I’ll manage that business quick enough. Road’s dangerous—you understand?” This with a comprehensive wink. “I’m there to show them the way.”
“My dear Phil, you are a man of infinite resource.”
“Then don’t let us waste another moment.”
With that they proceeded to put on their big high boots and greatcoats, George slipping a flask of whisky and water in his pocket. Phil seized the pick and shovel, his companion the lantern and three extra candles, also two stout sacks, which they hoped would prove invaluable. Thus equipped the pair stepped out into the storm.
At first the wind howled so dreadfully and the rain descended in such torrents that they stood irresolute; but quickly picking up their bearings, in spite of the intense blackness of the night, they started forth, cautiously feeling their way; and through the dark, rain-drenched camp they went, now slipping, sprawling, and, I am ashamed to say, occasionally swearing like the proverbial trooper.
At last they reached the road which led to the bridge (for by a circuitous route had they advanced lest some too officious trooper should be doing his duty), and a few minutes after they trod that shaky structure, For a moment George stood to gaze down upon the roaring water, which foamed so that it looked grey in the darkness; but the restless Phil was immediately at his elbow and away they went once more. And all this time the rain came down as though it would never cease, blinding them with its fury, drenching them to the skin. Yet, in spite of the strenuous opposition of the elements, they plodded sturdily on, for when a strong man determines it shall go hard with him before he cries enough!
At last they reached the tree with the grimly humorous name, and once more stepping the forty-two paces, found themselves in the middle of the muddy road. Then George, to make quite certain of his bee line, stood Phil on the road while he once more retraced his steps to the tree. Here he again took up his position beneath the piece of rope, and from where he stood he could see the lantern dead before him, so, feeling certain that the direction was the true one, he hurriedly rejoined his mate.
“Out with the light, Phil, we don’t want the police down on us.” In a moment the lantern was extinguished, and George, seizing the shovel, began to clear away the mud.
“You stand back a bit, Phil,” he continued, “and keep your eyes and ears open. When I want a spell I’ll call you.” And Phil did as he was told, while Vincent worked on, oblivious of the pelting rain.
It was a task undertaken with every disadvantage, but, notwithstanding the storm and the darkness, George worked on like a veritable Trojan, and soon had the satisfaction of opening a trench quite two feet deep, some five feet wide, and between six and eight in length. Then he called Phil to his side, and that worthy, throwing off his sodden great-coat, jumped into the hole, and began to work away with superhuman energy.
Calling Vincent to him after a quarter of an hour’s hard work, he said, “I think we might try the light now.”
George bore the lantern up to the big tree for shelter, lit it and brought it back.
“Well,” said he in a nervous voice, as he handed his mate the light, “how does the ground feel?”
“We’re on it, mate, that’s how it feels,” cried Phil excitedly.
“You are sure?”
“As sure as a man can be. I’ve sunk too many holes in my day not to know what I’m talking about.” And with a grunt he dug the pick into the yielding earth.
George went back to his beat—which consisted of a promenade of about fifty yards on either side of his companion—in a perfect whirl of excitement. Every pulse within him seemed to beat in unison with the wild night, beat, beat, till at times he trembled on the verge of a delirium. What would be the result of this undertaking? A thousand times he asked himself this question, and a thousand times trembled to reply. And all the while the rain descended as though the flood gates of heaven had been thrown open; the wind howled dismally as it tore through the black night; he was drenched to the skin, and the mud clung to his big boots, turning them into huge mounds of earth. Yet he seemed to feel none of these inconveniences, for in the darkness there was light, and in the light a pair of soft grey eyes. He seemed to think only of her, and prized the treasure only because it would bring her to him. That sad, pale face of hers had haunted him of late; those wistful eyes with their appealing glances seemed to reproach him with a thousand mute utterances.
Presently he was recalled to the things of earth by hearing Phil hail him; but rushing over suddenly he discovered that that worthy merely wished to be relieved. Into the hole the young fellow immediately sprang and was both surprised and delighted to find that his companion had deepened the excavation by nearly three feet. With almost superhuman vigour Vincent again set to, and after descending another foot he began to work excitedly, for he had come across a piece of thick bark—a thing which could not have been found there if this part of the road had never been touched! But this surprise was almost immediately followed by a still greater one. Suddenly his pick struck against another object, sending the strangest sensation through every limb. It seemed as though the instrument had entered wood! For a moment he stood quite still, his heart thumping so that his sides could scarce contain it. Then of a sudden he fell down on his knees and began to scoop out the soil with his hands, and presently he laid bare a piece of partly-decayed wood. He could scarcely believe his eyes, credit his senses. He held the lantern close to the object he had unearthed, and there, sure enough, was a piece of wood bound with an iron band!
“It’s the gold boxes,” he cried aloud in his great joy, “hurrah!”
Phil, hearing the shout, ran up.
“What is it, mate?”
In a moment Phil was in the hole beside him. “So it is,” he said in an awed whisper, “it is, by the Lord!”
George, in the meantime, much too excited to speak, continued to shovel out the earth which surrounded the box, an undertaking requiring no little pains, as the light was an indifferent one, and he did not wish to destroy the boxes, which he guessed would be half rotten by this time. So, proceeding with the utmost caution, he at length removed a sufficient quantity of the earth to allow him to use his pick as a lever, which doing, he soon had the satisfaction of seeing a small square box arise. Stooping down he seized it with both hands, and though it was only some eighteen inches long by nine broad, it was so heavy that he had to exert himself to draw it out from its earthy bed. But drawn out it was and handed to Phil, who made some jocular allusion to its weight and then, like Oliver Twist, asked for more. And more was duly forthcoming, for the withdrawal of the first box had laid bare more of a similar size, all iron-bound and of the same weight, There were ten of them altogether, and their weight could not have been less than fifty pounds each; so that, reckoning each box to contain fifty pounds’ weight of gold, there could not have been less than five hundred pounds of that precious metal, the value of which would be, roughly speaking, between twenty and twenty-five thousand pounds sterling—a haul for the gods.
After digging about for some minutes in the vain hope of finding more, Vincent was constrained to confess that they had unearthed the whole of old Ben’s treasure; so leaping from the pit he hurriedly began to fill it in, while Mr. Phil busied himself removing the boxes to the foot of Morgan’s Jaunt. Here he mounted guard over the precious, if somewhat musty, collection, till his companion rejoined him.
“There,” exclaimed that young gentleman, as he loomed up out of the darkness, the pick and shovel on his shoulder, “the job’s done, and by the time the morning comes the rain will have washed away every trace of our undertaking. Now, Phil, old man, what do you say to Ben Hall’s Plant?”
“It seems almost too good to be true,” was the reply of the Reclaimed One. “I can hardly believe yet that it’s gold in all these boxes.”
“Well,” said Vincent a little startled, for the thought came home to him with a suddenness he did not appreciate, “I can’t say myself that it’s gold, old man, but we’ll soon see.” So taking up the pick he quickly prized one of the boxes open, discovering a stout canvas bag sealed with red wax. To break this seal and cut the binding was the work of a moment, and, by the flickering light of the lantern, they both saw that the bag was full of little nuggets of gold.
“That looks like the real thing,” said Vincent triumphantly.
“Ay,” was the awed response. “It’s a great fortune, mate.”
“It is, Phil; and a great weight too,” laughed the young fellow.
“I think we could put up with a weightier inconvenience,” suggested the Reclaimed One.
“I think so. But the next question is, how are we going to move it?”
Phil, ever imaginative, suggested a wheelbarrow; but George thought that that extremely useful, though perhaps undignified, vehicle, would scarcely be secret enough, and in turn suggested that they should make alternate journeys, a suggestion to which Mr. Phil immediately acquiesced. Luckily, by this time the rain was falling less heavily, and through a rift in the clouds could be seen the faint glimmer of a star.
Phil undertook the first journey, carrying, in one of the sacks George had brought, two of the boxes. He first of all tried three, but quickly coming to the conclusion that such a weight would only hinder him in the long run, he decided on the even number. He was quite half an hour on this journey, and during the whole of that time Vincent walked rapidly up and down beneath the gallows bough to keep up his circulation. That half-hour seemed to him the longest he had ever known, and he began to entertain doubts of Phil ever returning, but at the due expiration of that period the Reclaimed One stumbled back through the darkness reporting that all was well. Then he in turn loaded George in a similar manner, and away that worthy trudged, while the Brand, pulling vigorously at his pipe, began his sentry duty. Yet the half-hour that Vincent was away seemed to him an eternity, while to make matters worse he began to tremble and shiver so violently that he feared he had contracted some serious illness; indeed, when George returned he found the poor fellow in a most alarming state. A good pull at the whisky flask, however, produced a most surprising effect, and with a rather shaky laugh the redoubtable Phil declared he felt as well as ever. To this rash statement George paid little heed, and when poor Phil expressed a wish to go forth with another load, his companion made it known that they would journey together.
“But there will be two boxes left,” said Phil.
“We’ll put them in the bushes yonder, and I can come back for them after.”
“As you will,” was the reply. “To tell you the truth, mate, I feel a bit knocked up.” They then seized the boxes and carried them into the bit of scrub, some fifty yards away, and returning to the big tree took up the four that remained and set out on their journey.
To Vincent it seemed that those two boxes were laden with twice their imagined weight, while to poor Phil they seemed to outweigh a ton. Yet on he struggled gallantly, and though he fell twice, and had to rest several times, he persevered doggedly till the tent was reached. Then his strength gave way completely, and with a groan he fell to the floor. George, lighting a candle, was quickly by his side, and the whisky flask was again called into requisition. In a few moments Phil opened his big eyes in a wondering sort of way.
“Well,” he exclaimed, with a pathetic little laugh, “I’m as weak as a blessed kid.”
“The drenching has given you a severe cold. You must turn in now, old man, and try and get up a little warmth. You’ll be all right again in the morning.”
“I don’t believe,” chattered the poor fellow, “that I shall ever get warm again.”
“Trust me,” said the young man cheerfully, “I’ll see to that.” And he immediately proceeded to pull off his companion’s wet clothes, a proceeding which caused poor Phil no little amusement, though there was something very pathetic in his repetition of the phrase, “blessed kid.” George next rubbed him well with a coarse towel, and tucked him away in bed, telling him he would be as right as rain in the morning, though the poor fellow’s teeth continued to chatter horribly, and the great shivers which swept from his head to his feet fairly shook the bunk.
“Are you going back for the other boxes?” he asked.
“Yes; unless you would rather I remained with you.”
“No, no,” he chattered, “only I’m afraid you might get this d—d shivering on you. Give me my pistol there. Put it under my pillow. Leave the candle alight, like a good chap. I’ll watch till you come back.”
“You are sure you don’t mind me going?”
“Lord, no!” chattered the poor fellow. “What do you take me for?”
George then did as he was bidden; told the invalid to keep well covered up; gave him a final tuck-in, and then passed out into the night.
It was with a feeling of extreme nervousness that George turned his back upon the hut, nor was that feeling allayed when he beheld a figure slink from before him and disappear behind one of the tents hard by; but, laughing the foolish superstition down, he strode rapidly onward. Again he crossed the ricketty bridge, beneath which the flood-water roared and hissed like a thousand demons; then passed spectre-like across the Flat to Morgan’s Jaunt, and singularly lonely that gruesome spot seemed to him as he approached it, and he was not sure that he could not see the ghost of the departed bushranger dangling from the rotten rope. This pleased him not. He feared that he too might, in some inexplicable way, be suffering from excitement and the drenching he had received; and so, averting his face from the fatal bough, he made for the bushes where he had secreted the gold, discovered it, slung it upon his back, and immediately began his homeward journey.
Fortunately the rain had now ceased entirely, but the night was still very dark and the road over which he plodded was nothing better than a quagmire. Yet on he pushed with much determination, though he felt ill and weak, and seemed to bear the weight of the world upon his back. Now he slipped and staggered from side to side, and now he stumbled, as though intent upon measuring his length in the mud; yet on he pushed, resting at intervals, till the haven loomed in view. He was much surprised to see no gleam of light issue through the cracks of the flap, but supposed Phil had wished to go to sleep and so had blown out the candle. His surprise, however, gave way to an entirely different feeling when he discovered that the flap itself, which he had so carefully buckled, was undone.
With a heart that beat painfully, for terrifying were the suspicions which rushed in upon him, he hastily entered the tent. All there was dark and still. He stood listening for a moment—five—ten—but no sound reached his ears—only the low wailing of the wind as it swept through the air above. With a trembling hand he lit a match, and by its indistinct glare saw Phil lying, apparently asleep, and the figure of a man stretched out, face downwards, on the floor.
“Phil! Phil!” he cried hoarsely, “what’s this?”
A low groan from the bunk was the only reply: at the same moment the match went out. With fingers that trembled even more, he instantly struck another, and perceiving the candle on the floor, by the foot of the man, whom he immediately recognised, he seized and lit it. Holding this close to his mate’s face, he was horrified at its unearthly pallor.
“Phil! Phil!” he cried passionately, “speak, man, for God’s sake, speak!” And as he spoke he lifted the dying man’s head and poured a little stimulant down his throat. This had an almost instantaneous effect. The man’s pallid eyelids quivered convulsively, then presently opened wide. A ghastly smile flickered across his wan face, but he uttered no word.
“Can you speak to me, Phil? What does it mean? How did it come about?”
The pale lips moved as though they would answer, but only a low, sibillant sound escaped them. A flash of anger shot from those big, dull eyes: the poor fellow evidently wished to speak. George had recourse once more to the whisky, and after forcing a strong dose through those pale lips, the glazed eyes brightened with something like the old fire.
“I was half dozing when he entered,” the words came slowly and brokenly, as though each syllable cost a painful effort, “but I saw him and let him have it, though I wasn’t strong enough to keep him off. You see, that d—d shivering had made me as weak as a kitten.”
“Poor old Phil. Are you much hurt?”
“No, mate, not much—I’m only dying. You see, he knifed me here in the breast.”
George turned back the man’s shirt, which already bore a great crimson patch, and saw that the murderer’s knife had made a ragged wound in the poor fellow’s side. Phil saw the look of despair that mantled the young man’s face.
“It’s a bad one, ain’t it?” he said, with a sad smile. “But it don’t pain, mate; it’s quite dead.”
“Ay, as a door-nail. And I’m about cooked too, I guess, for I feel the same sort o’ coldness creepin’ up over my body. It will touch me sharp in a minute, and then it ‘ll be all over. But tell me, mate, what ‘ll become of the missis and the little ’un when the old man’s gone?”
Vincent took his cold hand and pressed it gently.
“They shall be my care,” he said, his voice and eyes full of tears, “They shall never want while I have bread.”
The dying man pressed his companion’s hand endearingly. The tears rushed in a torrent to his eyes, blurring the little light that was left them.
“Gord bless you, mate, for those good words. I ain’t afraid to go now, I ain’t afraid to go. I know I was always a fool, but I was never a downright bad ’un, was I? And I was true to you, wasn’t I? And I did keep my word, mate, didn’t I? And though they jeered at me and called me the Reclaimed One, I stuck to it like a man, didn’t I? You must tell the missis that—Poor, poor Polly! Tell her also that I wouldn’t have given her little finger for the best of ’em, and that I was going to be a new man if Gord had only given me another chance. And don’t forget to say she must have that black silk dress I promised to buy her when I came back from the diggings. I shan’t come back, mate, but tell her I thought of her, won’t you?”
Vincent pressed the cold hand in affirmation. He could not speak. The words would have choked him,
“And there’s the little ’un, too,” went on the poor fellow, in a low, fast-sinking voice; “tell her I meant to buy her that big doll we saw one day in George Street—and the silk dress—and the nice big pearl necklace with the gold clasps. Tell her—that—I” The rest was lost in his throat. George felt the head grow suddenly heavy, the body stiffen. Phil was dead.
Vincent could have cried aloud, so great was his anguish—had it not been for that other presence. In losing Phil he had lost his only friend. For three long months they had lived and worked together, and he had learned to admire his mate’s good qualities as well as condemn his bad ones. So it had all ended thus. A few hours ago he was a strong, hopeful man, full of good resolutions and thoughts as high as his quality of mind could soar. Now there could be nothing more on earth for him, except the narrow six feet which most of us may get. With the tears blurring his vision, the young man took a long, long look at those pale, calm features; then gently drew the blanket across the dead man’s face.
He now turned his attention to the individual on the floor, whom he had already recognised as the man Smith, and whom he thought quite dead; but turning him on his back, and discovering there was yet a little life left in the fellow, his charity forbade him to let it run out without an effort at preservation. He therefore treated him to a stiff dose of whisky and water, which, though it eventually brought the life back, very nearly extinguished it at the time. The man’s breath came in little hard gasps at first, then into a steady and more regular breathing. Presently he opened wide his eyes in a dazed manner, but the sight of the face above him quickly brought the light of consciousness into them.
“You?” he muttered, the word coming from his livid lips with a gasping effort. Vincent nodded affirmatively.
“You’ve got it, eh?”
“You mean Hall’s Plant?”
“Yes.” Again George nodded.
“Was the puzzle a hard one?” asked the man eagerly. Though evidently on the brink of the other world, with speech given to him for a moment or two before he was launched on the great journey, he seemed only to think of the treasure he had lost.
“I thought so at first,” was Vincent’s reply to his query, “but it seems to me now the simplest of things. You, however, should be thinking of something else. Have you anything to say? Can I do anything for you?”
“Yes, mate. Just sit there and tell me all about the Plant. There’s nothing else you can do for me. I’m as good as gone. Your mate got the pull on me a bit too quick. If that fat cur had only stood by we’d have done it like clockwork.”
“You mean Logan—as he calls himself?”
The man smiled in a ghastly way about the corners of his pale lips. “Yes, Flash Jim. He always was a cur, curse him. It was only because he was a gentleman, and useful as a spy, that old Ben had any truck with him. When we were about to stick-up the Mount Marong Escort he got so nervous that Ben wouldn’t trust him with a gun, the cur. Ah, how we chaffed him. ‘Jim Began,’ says Ben, ‘you’re a disgrace to this noble brotherhood. You haven’t the heart of a jelly-fish, and if you wasn’t such a dashed gentlemen, and such a favourite with the ladies—whom I wouldn’t offend for the world, God bless ’em—I’d string you up alongside of old Jack Morgan.’ Ah,” sighed the man plaintively, “he was a rum dog was old Ben.” His eyes remained closed during the recital of this incident he spoke as though speaking to himself, and George, knowing that the mind was wandering in the evil realms of the past, stood still and listened,
“It was a sad trick you played us, Ben, you thief,” continued the dying man, a momentary shade of anger flitting across his pallid features; “but when we knew that old Billy had the secret we couldn’t rest night nor day. Jim suggested it—he always did suggest everything, the cur!—but old Billy cheated us even in dying, and the young fellow got it after all.” Here he opened his eyes with a start and looked guiltily into the face above him.
“So it was you and Logan who murdered Jackson?”
The man smiled the same ghastly smile. “Well, we didn’t mean to hurt him, but he wouldn’t go shares. I—I—Just give us a drop more of that whisky, will you? This infernal weather is enough to freeze a man. I’m a bit sorry we hurt the woman though; but Jim always was brave with women—though the sight of a trooper—yet if she hadn’t been false—never—I—nev—” And so he rambled on, his talk growing more incoherent every second, till at last it resembled a low, scarce audible whisper. Vincent turned from him with a sigh, and when he looked again the man’s jaw had dropped. He, like his victim, had passed into the Great Beyond.
Hastily flinging off his wet clothes George next secreted the treasure beneath his bunk and then went forth to acquaint the authorities with the tragedy. Such tragedies, however, were not uncommon in those lawless days, and so quietly did the officers of justice set to work about the matter, and so little fuss did the occurrence seem to warrant, that George was put to no inconvenience. The bodies were hastily removed, and the few questions that were put eliciting the fact that the aggressor was no other than Stephen Jones, otherwise known to fame as Snaky Steve, the wonder at the tragedy grew less. They had a business-like way of conducting affairs at Dead Man’s Flat.
That George should sleep well through the remainder of that night was scarcely to be expected, but he nevertheless succeeded in snatching a few minutes here and there from the long hours. He was not afraid of ghosts, never having seen the like, but he often thought he could see his mate Phil lying over there in the empty berth, and he could have sworn that he heard him sigh at least a dozen times. Then the guardianship of the vast treasure plagued him sorely. If by any chance it should be known that he had so great a sum in his keeping, he doubted if his life would be worth an hour’s purchase; while last, though by no means least, there was Edith to fill his brain with further anxious thoughts. Smith’s words about the woman, for whom he expressed sorrow, perplexed him greatly, and had his business with the police not lasted so long he would there and then have betaken himself off to the “Emu’s Head”; but fearing to alarm her, he decided to await the morning.
Never were the first grey shades of day welcomed more by invalid than they were by him that morning, and as soon as there was light enough for him to dress by, he sprang from his bunk and hastily donned his clothes.
It was something to feel that the long, dangerous night was passed and that day was come once more; and it was with a feeling of inexpressible relief that he stepped outside into the early light. But this feeling of gladness was of short duration. He had not been many minutes contemplating the early sunrise before his attention was drawn to a little processsion which slowly approached him. It consisted of a horse and cart—upon the front-board of which was perched a young gentleman smoking a short clay pipe—and two mounted troopers. The police rode close together, and seemed just a little more serious than is the wont of that callous brood, which made George imagine that there was something exceptional in or about that cart, in spite of the seeming nonchalance of its driver.
“Well, Jack,” he shouted to the nearest trooper, as the cavalcade came abreast of him, “what’s the matter now?”
The procession halted and George advanced.
“It’s murder,” said the trooper pointing to the cart.
George stepped up to the vehicle and looked in. What he saw was the outline of a human figure stretched beneath a piece of coarse canvas. He drew back with a start.
“Who is it?”
The young trooper brought his horse to the side of the dray and lifted the covering from the face. Vincent, leaning forward, uttered a great cry, for the face he looked upon was Kitty’s, but oh, so dreadfully changed, so altered.
“Where—where did you find her?”
“About four miles down the creek.”
“And you think it’s murder?”
“Devil a doubt of it. Here, look,” and he pulled the covering back still further, “here are the finger-marks about her throat—as plain as though they had been pressed in putty. And, you see, the third finger of the left hand is missing. If there is any man at Dead Man’s Flat with such a hand I wouldn’t care to be in his shoes.” And with a smile which might have meant anything he re-covered that once lovely face and the sad procession passed on.
George stood staring after it, utterly bewildered. Kitty murdered—the queenly, beautiful Kitty! It was too horrible. Yet, as the trooper had said, there could be no doubt of that. Here was a tragedy, indeed! It then was she to whom Smith alluded when he expressed sorrow for the woman. Her husband, jealous and furious at the trick she had played him, had sought this revenge; but, in his manner of doing it, had betrayed himself completely, for there must have been hundreds of people on the diggings who knew that the third finger of Mr. Peter Logan’s left hand was missing.
And yet there was danger in his apprehension too. Should he tell the story of the cipher, what trouble might not arise through police officiousness? The tale would then become public property, and George himself would be subjected to the strictest surveillance, the treasure confiscated, and the girl of his heart as far beyond his reach as ever.
Now, this is a selfish world, and humanity a singularly selfish product, as it could scarcely help being. Self very naturally comes foremost in all considerations, and Mr. Vincent was no exception to this universal rule. His life seemed so inseparably bound up with Ediths that the mere idea of parting with her made him feel ready to rebel against the whole world. Moreover, he had battled long in poverty and wretchedness, and he had no intention of losing his chance of happiness if he could preserve it. Though virtue may be its own reward, it is usually of such a trivial nature that men ignore it. Indeed, the market value of that excellent article is deplorably low.
Vincent was not one to linger, having once made up his mind. He breakfasted hastily from some cold meat; got a fellow to look after the tent during his absence, and then set out for the town.
It was not much after seven when he pulled up at the “Emu’s Head,” but early as it was the place was already opened, and Edith, with a duster in one hand and a brush in the other, met him in the passage.
“George,” she cried. “You—so early!”
“Yes, dear, I have come to take you away. This is no fit place for you. Drop that infernal brush.” And as he spoke he took that inoffensive article from her and savagely threw it to the far end of the passage.
“What is the matter, George? You look quite pale and excited.”
“Do I? Well, I will tell you presently. In the meantime, darling, go to your room and get ready to come with me.”
“But I cannot leave the place like this,” she cried. “Kitty is away somewhere, and I must wait till she comes back.”
“I don’t think she will come back,” he said.
“What do you mean?” asked the girl eagerly. “Is anything the matter?”
“Yes, darling, much, much. You shall know all presently. By the way, is Logan in?”
“I think so.”
“Then go, dear. In five minutes I shall expect you.”
She hesitated for a moment, then, blushing, said:
“Ought I to go like this?”
“Won’t you trust me?”
“Ah, forgive me,” she cried, the tears rushing to her eyes. Her arms went round his neck and she pressed her sweet mouth to his. The next moment she was gone.
With a quick step Vincent turned to Logan’s room, and reaching the door knocked loudly thereon.
“Who’s there?” asked the landlord in a quivering voice.
“What do you want?”
“I have come to tell you that they have discovered your wife’s body.”
“What! Has she made away with herself?”
“The police believe she has been murdered.”
“Indeed. And what reason have they for believing so?”
“There are certain proofs which cannot be doubted.”
Vincent heard him gasp in spite of the door between them. “Is that all?”
“It is enough,” said George slowly, and with due emphasis. “The man who murdered her had the third finger of his left hand missing.”
“How—how do you know that?”
“Because the marks are on her throat. The police may be here at any moment.”
Logan never answered, but Vincent heard him mutter beneath his breath, and he also thought he heard him sink to the floor. But, having done all that he intended, the young fellow turned from the room and took up his stand in the passage, where, a few minutes later, he was joined by Edith.
“Where do we go?” she asked.
“I will take you round to the Bank,” he paid, “The new manager was a school chum of mine, and I daresay he’ll be glad to see me. He doesn’t know I’m down to this, but he wasn’t a bad sort of fellow. Then,” he continued softly, the sudden sweetness of his voice making her quiver, “if—if you wouldn’t mind doing it at a registry-office—or—or in a private room.” He stopped, embarrassed, gazing down into her dear eyes with an imploring look. She met his beseeching glance with a loving, trustful look; a sweet pink flush spread itself over her delicate face.
“It shall be as you wish,” she said, and hid her burning face on his breast. He drew her tightly to him, kissing her fondly.
“Darling, darling,” was all that he could say.
And so they went forth from the precincts of the “Emu’s Head,” and that was the last time Edith ever crossed its threshold.
His friend the banker received his old schoolfellow with open arms, and insisted upon George quitting the camp at once.
“We have plenty of room for you here,” he said cheerily, “and here you shall be married this very day. Go you back to the camp and bring on all your baggage: Maggie, my dear”—this to his wife, a pleasant-looking little woman—“you’ll look after Miss Leslie, won’t you? I’ll go at once and hunt up a parson.” And he immediately quitted the room on matrimonial thoughts intent. George, however, was after him, and before he reached the door placed a hand upon his shoulder.
“Just one moment, Frank,” he said. “I have something to tell you.” And taking the banker aside he told him in a few brief words the more salient points of this our chronicle of Dead Man’s Flat.
“So you have found Hall’s Plant, eh? Well, what a surprising story. By Jove, you’re a lucky dog.”
“Undoubtedly.” But George was thinking of a greater treasure than that which the bushranger had hidden.
That same afternoon, after George had visited the camp and brought away his treasure, he and Edith were united in the bonds of wedlock by a gentleman who droned the solemn and beautiful service with a delightful Scotch accent. The place was the neat little drawing-room of the banker, the witnesses, the banker and his pleasant-faced wife. Edith had put on a soft white dress especially for the occasion, and if she wasn’t the sweetest little woman a man ever pledged himself to cherish and protect, Mr. George Vincent was no judge of feminine beauty.
But while all this was going on in one part of the town, a detachment of half-a-dozen police marched up to the “Emu’s Head,” which they immediately entered, as though their mode of procedure had already been agreed upon. One, stepping into the bar, took up a position against the door, where he stood stolidly staring at the gentlemen who were then indulging in the agreeable process of refreshing the inner man; two others made for the back part of the establishment, while the chief of the three that remained called the individual who was behind the bar and requested, in somewhat peremptory tones, to be conducted to Mr. Logan.
“Mr. Logan is in his room, sir,” said the man. “He has been there all day. What’s he wanted for?”
“That’s none of your business,” was the Inspector’s reply, keeping up the official reputation for politeness. “Where’s his room?”
“The second one on the left.”
The officers advanced to the room in question and the Inspector knocked loudly upon the door, but received no answer. Twice, three times he knocked, with a like result. Then he cried out, “Open, in the name of the law.” But receiving no reply to this, he turned to his companions. “Break down the door, men.”
In a moment one of the burliest banged his huge shoulder against the frail partition, and back it flew into a thousand splinters. Into the room the officers rushed en masse, expecting opposition, but they encountered instead the lifeless body of the landlord. It was stretched out on its face on the floor, and though a loaded revolver was found beside it, there was no trace of murder or suicide. In fact, Flash Jim, as he had once been called—in the days of which we have not written—being fat and weak of heart, had died through the stoppage of the heart’s action, consequent upon the obese nature of his body and the fright and excitement through which he had lately gone.
George and Edith have now a charming villa at St. Kilda, and live in very agreeable style, doubly so to him, for has he not the loveliest wife in the place (ask him) and two perfectly beautiful children? Moreover, he is no longer haunted by the ghost of a pen, and no more he dreads the sight of a ponderous ledger. These are little things at which he often laughs now, for has he not, by judicious speculation, doubled the treasure he found at Dead Man’s Flat? As soon as the children are big enough to undertake the journey, he intends to set out on a lengthened trip to Europe, for he has not forgotten the old aspirations of one who is now dearer to him than life. In the meantime, as if to prepare them for the great sea journey, he sails them daily in his little yacht, or strolls with them along the sand, and has even been known to build castles and dabble in sand pies—though what this last proceeding has to do with their initiation into the mysteries of sea life, no one knows but himself.
And in all these gentle wanderings they are invariably accompanied by a tall, handsome girl of some fourteen summers, whose great brown eyes are as full of honesty as one of the nobler animal’s. We saw such eyes before, once before, and they belonged to a man who died away up at Dead Man’s Flat; and when we inform you that this stately young lady’s name is Miss Amelia Thomas, you may possibly connect her with the “little ’un” of whom the unfortunate Phil seemed so proud. George, true to his promise, had sought the wife of his late companion—sought and found her dead. Poverty and ill-health had proved too strong for her, and she succumbed, leaving her child to the tender mercies of the world. That child he, discovering, took back with him to his own home. Ever since then she has been to them as a daughter; and if you only had time to make her better acquaintance, you would be charmed with her culture and her grace, her sweet voice, her great earnest eyes, and above all by that devotion which she bears for her new father and mother.
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