THE MOVING FINGER
"The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on; nor all your piety and wit Shall lore it back to cancel half a line, Nor all your tears wash out a word of it."
METHUEN & CO. 36 ESSEX STREET, W.C. LONDON 1895
A Trotting Christmas Eve at Warwingie Lost! The Loss of the "Vanity" Dick Stanesby's Hutkeeper The Yanyilla Steeplechase A Digger's Christmas
"Hi—hey—hold up there, mare, will you? What did you say, mister? A light? Yes. That 's Trotting Cob, that is. The missus 'll give us a cup of tea, but that's about all. Devil fly away with the mare. What is it? Something white in the road? Water by ——. Thank the Lord, they Ve had plenty of rain this year. But they do say there's a ghost hereabouts—a Trotting Cob, with a man in white on him? Lord, no, that's an old woman's tale. But the girl—she walks—she walks they say, and mighty good reason—too—if all tales be true. Hosses always shy here if they Ve at all skittish. Got that letter, Jack, and the tobacco? That's right! Rum, isn't it, to get all your news of the world at dead of night? Reg'ler as clockwork we pass—a little after one, and the coach from Deniliquin she passes an hour or so earlier.
"Anybody else? Well, no, not as a rule. It's the stock route? you see, between Hay and Deniliquin, so there's bound to be stock on the way; but sheep, bless you! they travel six miles a day, and cattle they ain't so much faster, so we brings 'em all the news. The Company has stables here, and feed, and we change horses. The old man and old woman keep it, with a boy or two. Mighty dull for the old woman, I should think, with on'y the ghost to keep her company. She was her cousin or her aunt or somethin', the ghost was, and, Lord, women is fools an' no mistake." It was July, and the winter rains had just fallen, so that the plains, contrary to custom, were a regular sea of mud.
The wheels sank axle deep in it. The horses floundered through it in the darkness, and every now and then the lamps were reflected in a big pool of shallow water. The wind blew keen and cold, but the coach was full inside and out, and so, though it was pitch dark, I kept my seat by the driver.
A light gleamed up out of the darkness.
"Trotting Cob!" said he, and discoursed upon it till he pulled up his horses on their haunches exactly opposite a wide-open door, where the lamplight displayed a rudely-laid table and a bright fire, which seemed hospitably to beckon us in. The whole place was as wide awake as if it were noon instead of midnight.
Ten minutes' stay, and we were off again into the darkness, and then I prevailed upon the driver to tell me the tale of Trotting Cob. He told it in his own way. He interlarded his speech with strange oaths. He stopped often to swear at the road, to correct the horses, and he was emphatic in his opinions on the foolishness of women, so I must e'en do as he did, and tell the tale of Trotting Cob in my own way.
A flat world—possibly to English eyes an uninteresting, desolate, dreary world; but to those who knew and loved them, they had a weird charm, all their own, those dull, gray plains that stretched away mile after mile till it seemed the horizon, unbroken by hill or tree, must be the end of the world. Trotting Cob was Murwidgee then, Murwidgee Waterhole, where all the stock stopped and watered; but from the slab hut, which was the only dwelling for miles, no waterhole was visible; the creek was simply a huge crack in the earth, and at the bottom, twenty feet below the level of the plain, was the water-hole. One waterhole in summer, and in winter a whole chain of them, but the creek seldom if ever flowed, except in a very wet season. It was a permanent waterhole—Murwidgee, fed by springs, and the white cockatoos and screaming corellas came there and bathed in its waters, and the black swans, and the wild duck, and teal rested there on their way south, when summer had laid his iron hand on the northern plains.
The reeds and rushes made a pleasant green patch in the creek bed, and once there had been several tall white gums; but old Durham had cut them down years ago, when first he settled there, and so from the hut door, though almost close upon the creek, it was not visible, and there was presented to the eye an unbroken expanse of salt bush. It was unbroken but for the mirage that quivered in the dry, hot air. The lake of shining water, with the ferns and trees reflected in it, was but a phantasy, and the girl who leaned idly against the door-post of the hut knew it. Still she looked at it wistfully—it had been so hot, so cruelly hot, this burning January day, and in all the wide plain that stretched away for miles on every side there was not a particle of shade; even the creek ran north and south, so that the hot sun sought out every nook and corner, and the bark-roofed hut, with its few tumble-down outbuildings, was uncompromisingly hot, desolate, and ugly.
Old Durham called himself a squatter, and gave out that his wife, with the help of her granddaughter Nellie, kept an accommodation-house. Forty years ago the times were wild, and what did it matter. Convict and thief the squatters round called him, and his grandsons, in their opinion, were the most accomplished cattle-duffers in all the country round, and as for the accommodation-house—well, if the old woman did go in for sly grog-selling, the police were a long way off, and it was no business of anybody's. And Nellie Durham was a pretty girl, a little simple perhaps, but still sweetly pretty, with those wistful blue eyes, fringed with dark lashes, that looked out at you so earnestly, and the wealth of fair hair. So dainty and so pretty—the coarse cotton gown was quite forgotten, and in those times, when women of any sort were scarce, many a man turned out of his way just to speak a word or two to Mother Durham's granddaughter.
She sat down on the door-step now, and resting her elbows on her knees, and her chin in her hands, looked out across the plain. The sun was just setting—a fiery, glowing sun, that sent long, level beams right across the plains, till they reached her hair, and turned it to living gold, and went on and penetrated the gloom of the hut beyond.
It was very bare, the hut, just as bare as it could possibly be; but three men bent eagerly over the rough-hewn table, while an old woman, worn and wrinkled and haggard, and yet in whose face might still be traced a ghastly resemblance to the pretty girl outside, laid out on the table a much-thumbed, dirty pack of cards.
"Cut them, Bill. Drat you! what 'd you do that for, George? You know you ain't never lucky—you oughter let Bill do it. No—no—no luck. Two, three, nine o' spades, 'tis ill luck all through."
"Well, let Bill do it, Gran," said George with an oath, as he flung down the cards, and they were picked up and shuffled, and cut again and again; the old woman shook her head solemnly.
"'Tis bad luck the night," she said, "bad, bad luck. Don't you touch Macartney's mob, or you 'll rue it. There's death some-wheres, but it doesn't point to none o' you."
"Macartney probably," said another man, who was leaning against the slab wall, and intently watching the girl in the doorway. "Come, Gran, don't be croaking; if the cards ain't lucky, put 'em away till they are."
He looked cleaner and smarter than the other three—Nellie's brothers, who were young fellows, little over twenty. They were good-looking, strapping fellows, but the sweet simplicity in her face was in theirs loutish stupidity, and their companion stood out beside them, though probably he was nearly twice their age, as cast in a very different mould. He was dressed as they were, in riding-breeches and shirt, but the shirt was clean, his black hair and beard were neatly trimmed, the sash round his waist was new and neatly folded, and the pistols therein were bright and well kept. Gentleman Jim, the Durhams called him; as Gentleman Jim he was known to the police throughout all the length and breadth of New South Wales. What he had been once no man knew, though evidently he was a man of some little culture and education; what he was now was patent to every man—escaped convict, bushranger, cattle-duffer—even a murder now and again, it was whispered, came not amiss to Gentleman Jim. It was an evil face, with the handsome dark eyes set too closely together, and when there is evil in a man's face at forty, there is surely little hope for him; but bad as it was, to Nellie Durham it was the one face in the world. Cattle-duffing—it hardly seemed a sin to her. Ever since she could remember, her grandfather, and her father, and when he died, her brothers, had driven off a few head of cattle from the mobs that passed, and she in her simplicity hardly realized the heinousness of the offence; and for the rest, she simply believed nothing against her hero. He had been cruelly ill-treated, cruelly ill-used, but she understood him—she loved him, she believed in him, in the blind unreasoning way a woman, be she old or young, rich or poor, wise or foolish, gentle or simple, does believe in the man she loves. And the old grandmother saw, and shook her head. She did not mind cattle-duffing—it was but levying a fair toll on the rich squatter as he passed. Sly grog-selling was hardly a crime; so few people passed it would have been waste of money to take out a licence, more especially since there was no one to ask whether they had one or not. But Gentleman Jim, whom the boys had taken to bringing home with them of late, was another matter altogether, and she looked on anxiously when she saw the impression he had made on her son's pretty daughter.
"I dunno," she said, anxiously to her husband, "whether the gal's all there; sometimes I think she ain't, but anyhow, she's sweet and pretty an' loving, an' he's an out-an'-out scamp, drat him!"
But the old man would not interfere. He was a little afraid of Gentleman Jim; besides he was useful to him—he was getting old, and the grandsons were not much help; they took after their mother, and privately old Durham thought his son's wife had been more than half a fool, so he encouraged Gentleman Jim; and now came information that Macartney would be camping here to-morrow with a mob ready for the southern market, and here was the man again. The cards too prophesied disaster, shuffle them as she would.
Gentleman Jim swore at the cards and at the old woman in no measured terms, and then he laughed, and gathered them up in his hands.
"Here, Nell, Nell!—the cards are clean against us, your Gran says—come and cut, like a good girl."
Nellie rose willingly enough, but the old woman said scornfully, "Nell, Nell, she ain't got no luck at all. Three times I tried her fortune, and three times it came, 'tears, tears, tears'—never naught else for Nell but tears."
"Never mind, mother, better luck this time, eh, Nell?" and the girl took the cards, and smiled trustingly up into his face.
She cut the nine of spades, and the old woman groaned. "Disaster, sure as fate; let Macartney's mob alone, I tell you."
"Cut again, Nell."
She shuffled them carefully, the other four watching her with eager, anxious eyes, while the man at her side looked on with tolerant scorn. And then she cut—the ace of spades. Her grandmother threw up her hands. "Death, I tell you—death—death—death—an' no less."
Gentleman Jim struck the cards out of her hand roughly, and they went flying to all corners of the hut.
"Come outside, Nell—come down to the waterhole, it's cool there, and better fun than listening to an old woman's twaddle. The sun's down now. Come on."
She looked at her grandmother first, partly from habit, but the old woman was still wringing her hands over the danger foretold by the cards, and was blind for the moment to that right under her eyes. So Nellie followed him gladly, only too gladly, down the steep bank to the waterhole. He pushed her down somewhat roughly under the shadow of the western bank, and then flung himself down on the ground beside her, and put his head in her lap. With her little work-hardened hand, she smoothed back his black hair, and he looked up into her face.
"So you love me, Nellie?" he said, somewhat abruptly. "You be sure you love me?"
It was hardly a question, he was too certain of it, and no man should be certain of a woman's love.
She made no answer in words, but the pretty blue eyes smiled down at him so confidingly, that for a moment the man was smitten with remorse. What good would this love ever do her?
"You poor child!" he said. "You poor little girl. I believe you do. Don't do it, Nellie—don't be such a fool."
"Why?" she asked simply.
"Why? Because I shall do you no good."
"But I love you," she whimpered, "an' you won't harm me."
"No, by —— I won't." And for the moment perhaps he meant to keep his oath, for he half rose, as if there and then he would have left her. Perhaps it was too much to expect—all his companions feared him, the outside world hunted him, only this woman believed in him and loved him; and if it is a great thing to be loved, it is a still greater thing to be believed in and trusted. And so when she put her arms around him and drew him back he yielded.
"It is your own fault, Nell, your own fault—don't blame me."
"No," she said, satisfied because he had stayed. "I won't—never." Then she ran her fingers through his hair again.
"I saw a gray hair in the sunshine," she said.
"A gray hair—a dozen—a hundred. My life is calculated to raise a few gray hairs."
"Why? Why—once on the downward path you can't stop, my dear. However the path has led me to your arms, so common politeness should make me commend the road by which I came."
"You are always good."
"Good! great Heavens! No—only a silly girl would think that. Was I ever good? I'm sure I don't know. If I was a woman soon knocked it out of me."
"A woman! Did you love her?"
"Love her—of course I loved her."
"More 'n you do me?"
"More than I do you!—You're only a little girl—and she—she was a woman of thirty, and she just wound me round her fingers,—her!"
The tears gathered in the girl's eyes—only one thing her simple soul hungered after—she wanted this man's love—she wanted to be allowed to love him in return.
"She didn't love you like me," she said.
"She didn't love me at all, it was I loved her, the young fool. That's the way of the world. Come, Nell, don't cry—that s the bitterness of it. Where's the good of crying? Where's the good of loving me? I wasted all the love I had to give on a woman, who made a plaything of me—oh, about the time you were born I suppose. That's the way of the world, my dear; oh, you 'll learn as you grow older."
"Ben Fisher," said Nellie slowly—"Ben Fisher, Gran says, loves me, an' 'ud marry me. An' he's Macartney's boss man."
The man sprang to his feet and caught her roughly in his arms. He hurt her, but she did not mind; such fierce wooing was better than the indifference which had seemed to mark his manner before. His hot breath was on her face, and in his eyes was an angry gleam, but she read love there too, and was content.
"You, Nellie—you—do you want Ben Fisher? If you go to him—if you have any truck with him—I 'll kill you, Nell."
She closed her eyes and drooped her head on to his shoulder.
"Jes' so," she said, "you can."
"Nell, Nell," called her grandmother's voice from above. "Nell, you come up this minute. Drat the girl, where's she got to? You come along, miss, and help to get supper. There's the bread to set, for Macartney's mob 'll be here early to-morrow."
James Newton held the girl for a moment with a merciless hand.
"Nell, I 'll kill you."
She smiled at him through her tears, then stooped and kissed the hand that held her, and as he loosened his grasp, flew up the embankment and joined her grandmother.
Next day the Durham lads and Gentleman Jim had disappeared. It seemed a wonder in that flat open plain where they could disappear to, but the creek had many windings, and its bed was so wide and so far beneath the surface of the plain, there was ample room for men and horses to hide there.
About three in the afternoon, a lowing of cattle and cracking of stockwhips announced the arrival of Macartney's mob, and the beasts, wild with thirst, for the way had been long and hot, and the waters were dried up for miles back, rushed tumultously down into the waterhole, trampling one another in their eagerness to get to the water. The men could no nothing but look on helplessly, and finally Fisher, a tall young fellow with that sad look on his bearded face, which sometimes comes of much living alone, left the mob to his men, and flinging his reins on his horse's neck went towards the hut.
Nellie stood in the doorway, but when she saw who it was, mindful of her lover's fierce warning of the night before, she drew back into the hut, and the sadness on the man's face deepened, for Nellie Durham, the cattle-duffer's granddaughter, was the desire of his heart, and the light of his eyes, and Murwidgee Waterhole, when he had charge of the cattle, was on the main road to everywhere.
He dismounted and entered, and Mrs. Durham bustled up to him—eager to make amends for Nellie's want of cordiality.
"It's pleased I am to see ye, pleased, pleased," she said, "for 'tis lonesome hereabouts, now the boys is away down Port Philip way."
"Are the boys away?" he asked, watching Nellie, as in obedience to an imperious command from her grandmother, she began to set out a rough meal.
"Oh, ay—there 's on'y Nell an' grandfather, an' me, an' we're gettin' old. Oh, 't is lonesome for the girl whiles."
If it were, she did not seem to feel it, and she steadfastly refused all Fisher's timid advances. Farther away than ever he felt her to-day, and yet she had never looked so fair in his eyes.
He ate his meal slowly, answering the old woman in monosyllables, when she questioned him as to his camp for the night and his movements on the following day. Possibly he may have thought it unwise to take old Durham's wife into his confidence, but if so the men under him were not so reticent, and when they came in a few moments later, chatted freely on their preparations for the night, and half in jest roughly warned the old woman that the cattle must be let alone.
"None o' your larks now, old girl," said Fisher's principal aid. "We mounts guard turn an' turn about, an' the first livin' critter as comes anigh them beasts—the watch he shoots on sight."
"What's comin' anigh 'em?" asked the old woman scornfully. "There's me an' th' old man an' the girl here, an' nary a livin' thing else for miles. They do say," she added, dropping her voice, "the place is haunted. Jackson of Noogabbin was along here a month back, and he told me how the cattle broke camp all along o' the ghost. He seed 'un wi' his own eyes, a great white thing on a trottin' cob it was. Clean through the camp it rode moanin', moanin', an' the cattle just broke like mad."
"Oh, yes—I dessay," said the man, "and when them cattle were mustered, there was a matter o' fifty head missin', I 'll bet. Now if that ghost comes along my way I shall just put a bullet in him sure as my name's Ned Kirton. So there, old lady, put that in your pipe and smoke it. Come along, Nell, my girl—don't be so stingy with that liquor, the old woman 'll make us pay for it, you bet. Why, Nell, I ain't seen such a pretty pair o' eyes this many a long day. Give us just one—"
He had caught her roughly by the shoulder, and bent down to kiss her, but the girl drew back with a low cry that brought Fisher to her aid.
"Let her alone, Ned," he said with a muttered oath.
"Right you are, boss," laughed the other. "There 's a darned sight too much milk and water there for my taste; I like 'em with a spice o' the devil in 'em, I do. But if that 's your taste—well, fair's fair an' hands off, says I."
"It ain't much good, boss," said another man. "She's Gentleman Jim's gal, she is, and I shouldn't sleep easy if I so much as looked at her."
"Gentleman Jim," he repeated, and the bitterness in his heart none of his comrades guessed. "Gentleman Jim I heard of yesterday, somewhere about the head waters of the Murray—no danger from him."
Bill, being a cattle man, cleared his throat and his brain by a good string of oaths—resonant oaths worthy of a man from the back blocks—and then gave it as his opinion that Gentleman Jim's being seen among the ranges yesterday, was no guarantee that he would not be lifting cattle far on the plains to-day.
"Not our cattle," said Fisher grimly. "We set a watch, and the first thing—man or beast, or ghost—that comes down among the cattle, we shoot on sight. D'ye hear that, mother?" and he turned to the old woman, who merely shook her head and groaned.
"It's old I am—old—old—old. It isn't the likes o' us as 'll touch yer beasts."
And Nellie slipped outside the door, and looked wistfully and anxiously across the plain, at the cattle now peacefully grazing on the salt-bush, and at the mocking mirage in the far distance. Never before, it seemed to her, had so much fuss been made about the cattle. The ghost trick had stood them in good stead for some time, and now apparently these men saw through it.
Two ideas she had firmly grasped. Ben Fisher was a man of his word, and Ben Fisher was a good shot.
Her brothers and her lover were down in the creek bed. One of the four would ride through the sleeping cattle to-night and that man would pay for his temerity with his life. The casual mention of her own name with that of the outlaw had sealed his fate. She was as sure of that as she was sure that the sun would set to-night in the west and would rise again to-morrow in the east. It did not occur to her simple soul to inquire the reason why; only she felt that it was so, and her heart was full of one passionate prayer, that the man who rode forth on that perilous errand should not be her lover. Her brothers were dear to her naturally, but her nearest and her dearest were as nothing when weighed in the scale with the love she bore this stranger. He must be saved at any cost—he must, he must. She walked slowly along with down-bent head, till she stood on the top of the bank overlooking the waterhole, and then, hearing footsteps behind her, looked up quickly to see Ben Fisher standing beside her.
"Nellie," he said awkwardly, "Nellie, I—I—mean did that brute hurt you?"
"What? Oh, Ned Kirton. Oh, it's no matter."
"It's dull here for you, Nell, out on the plains, isn't it?" he asked still more awkwardly.
If her heart was full of another man, his was full of a strong man's longing for her.
He saw her position, he knew her helplessness, he felt how much she stood in need of care and guardianship. If she would only give him the right to care for her. His very eagerness made him stupid and awkward, and she, looking up at him in the hot afternoon sunlight, read none of his thoughts, and only saw in him the man who held her lover's life in his hands and would mercilessly take it.
She answered his question sullenly with a shrug of her shoulders.
"But Nellie—oh, Nellie, Nellie—poor little girl, don't you see that—that—"
"What?" she asked, for even she, indifferent as she was, could not fail to see that the man was shaken by strong emotion. "I 'm all right."
"All right, with a devil like that after you, a brute who—Nellie, Nellie, for God's sake give me the right to take care of you."
She looked at him stupidly and then a light dawned on her.
"Do you mean Jim?" she said. "Why, Jim—" and for a moment a tender smile broke about her lips, and a light was in her eyes such as would never be there for the man beside her.
"Oh, Nellie," he groaned, "am I too late after all? I only want to take care of you, Nellie—only to take care of you."
He stepped forward and caught her hands, holding them fiercely as Jim Newton himself might have done.
"Nellie, if you won't let me do anything else, let me help you; for your own sake let me help you."
Clearly outlined they stood against the summer sky; if there should be anybody in the creek-bed, lurking among the rushes and scrub round the waterhole, they would be plainly visible to him. Their attitudes were significant, and their speech was inaudible. If Jim should be there, thought Nellie, and then dismissed the thought. Rash as he was, he would never be so foolhardy as that. And yet she might have noticed a slight movement among the reeds—might have remembered that Gentleman Jim found no companionship in her brothers, and would be pretty sure to find his way to the water-hole at any risk, if it were only to vary the monotony and to see how the land lay. And so after one vain effort to free her hands, she stood still and listened, while Fisher poured into her unwilling, uncomprehending ears the story of his love for her, and then, since that made no impression, he warned her again and again against Gentleman Jim. Foolishly warned her—for was ever woman yet warned against the man she loved. An angry gleam flashed into Nellie's eyes, and she stamped her feet and strove to draw away her hands again.
"I hate you—I hate you. He is good, I tell you—good—good—good! He loves me an'"—oh, the unanswerable argument all the world over—"I love him."
Fisher dropped her hands.
"Oh Nell! Nell! My God! it is too hard."
She looked at him wonderingly, and a dawning pity softened her face. It had never occurred to her that this man could feel any pain. She read it in his haggard face now, and because she was pitiful of all things she put her hand on his arm and said gently, "Poor Ben, I 'm sorry."
It was too much—Fisher had stood her coldness, had heeded not her anger—but the pretty, wistful face looking up so pitifully into his was too much for him. He could resist temptation no longer, he caught her in his arms and smothered her with kisses. Clearly it was marked against the sky, clearly the man crouching among the reeds saw it, and put his own interpretation upon it, and that one passionate embrace sealed Nellie Durham's fate. Well might the cards prophesy disaster and death, for as he slunk away back to his ambush a mile further down, with raging hate at his heart, he swore revenge against the girl who was trifling with him, swore it and meant to keep his oath.
Nellie with an inarticulate cry freed herself and ran towards the hut, and Fisher flung himself face downwards on the crisp dry salt-bush. He had lost everything now he realised, she would not even accord him pity.
And Nellie up at the hut was trying to make her grandmother understand that all chance of the ghost trick being played again with success was out of the question. Not only would it be a failure, but the man who rode through the cattle rode at the risk of his life. But the old woman could not or would not see it.
"Let 'un alone, Nell, let 'un alone—a parcel of women ain't wanted meddlin' wi' the men-folks' business."
"But, Gran—" the girl was wild with anxiety, and trembling with excitement, and the old woman shut her up sharply. She did not choose to hear any more about it, and turned a deaf ear on purpose. Like Nellie she too was of opinion that Gentleman Jim would play the ghost, and if—through no fault of hers—he came to grief, she felt she would not grieve unduly. Nellie's infatuation for him was undeniable, and with a good decent man like Ben Fisher ready to take her it was unpardonable. Nellie had always been soft and yielding to her, once this man were out of the way she would be so again, and the old woman had seen enough of the seamy side of life to desire better things for the helpless girl. So she turned a deaf ear to her anxious warnings; not by word or sign would she interfere. Let be, let be, it should be fate—it should be no doing of hers. Nellie gave up the struggle at last and taking up her favourite position on the doorstep, with her chin in her hands and her elbows on her knees, stared out moodily across the plains, seeking in her brain some way to help. It was not possible to go near them by daylight, the risk of detection was too great, she must wait till it was dark. Fisher crossed her path once, and for a moment a wild thought crossed her brain—to confide her trouble to him—to ask him to have mercy, but she dismissed it as soon as it was born. Betray her lover and then ask his rival to spare him! It was out of the question; she must find some other way. She thought and thought, till for very weariness she closed her eyes, and slept with her head against the door-post. The long level beams of the setting sun made a golden glory of her hair and seemed to be striving to smooth out the look of care and pain, which was already marked on the fair young face. Ben Fisher passed and paused.
"Pretty, ain't she?" said the old woman; "a dainty mossel for any man."
"Ay," said Fisher quietly, "ay," and passed on, wondering to himself, as many another man has done before him—why this girl was so priceless in his eyes—and why, seeing that she was so, he might not have her rather than this reckless outlaw, who would make her the toy of his idle hours, and when she became a burden to him throw her aside, like a worn-out horse or a dog he had no further use for.
He bit his lip and clenched his hands, and the men when he gave the orders for the night, muttered to one another that the boss meant business an' no mistake. "Ghost or no ghost. 'T wouldn't be much good anybody meddlin' wi' the cattle now. He was mighty struck on the gal, he was—but it didn't seem to be interfering wi' business nohow."
He was mighty struck on the girl, and his thoughts were so full of her that sleep seemed out of the question, so he took the first watch with Ned Kirton for his mate.
Out on the plains here, had they been quite certain of the honesty of the Durhams, one man would have been quite sufficient to mount guard, his duties being simply to ride round the cattle, and should any seem restless or inclined to roam to head them back again. Even as it was, two seemed an almost unnecessary waste of energy, more especially as the other men were camped close by, ready to spring to their feet at a moment's call.
It was a still, hot night; the moon, though not near full, still shed a sufficient light to distinguish everything quite plainly; the men's camp, the sleeping cattle, the hut and outbuildings a little to the left, so calm and peaceful.
Fisher, as he sat on his motionless horse, began to think one guard was more than enough, and to speculate as to whether he should not tell Kirton to go to sleep and leave the cattle to him. Sleep was not likely to come to him, he thought, with that haunting girl's face ever before his eyes. He turned his horse so that he should not see the hut, and then found himself riding round the camp, in order to bring it into view again.
"It's all right, boss," said Kirton, as he passed. "Things is as quiet as quiet. Ghosts ain't expected to walk before twelve though, are they?"
Fisher laughed. "No," he said, "but somehow I don't believe the ghost intends to trouble us after all. They 're scared at our preparations. I think one man 'll do after midnight."
He rode on a little way, when suddenly something induced him to turn his head, and he saw distinctly, in the moonlight, a white figure come out of the hut and make its way quickly in the direction of the creek. It was a woman's figure, with a kerchief across the head, but whether it was Nell or her grandmother he could not at that distance or in that light say.
He rode up to his mate quickly.
"There's some mischief brewing, Ned," he said, looking towards the figure, which had apparently changed its mind, and was now walking in a direction which would bring it to the banks of the creek, a little beyond the cattle camp. "You waken the boys quietly, and tell 'em to be on the look out, and I 'll follow the old woman and see if I can't circumvent her little tricks."
"It ain't the old woman," said Kirton, "it's the gal."
"You be hanged," said Fisher, who preferred Mrs. Durham should get the credit for any midnight escapades. "It's the old harridan herself, and I 'll keep my eye on her."
He slipped to the ground, tied his reins to the stirrup, and the old stock horse, understanding the situation, stood quietly, while his master quickly and quietly followed in the footsteps of the girl, for it was Nellie; he was sure of that when she came abreast of the camp. She was evidently terribly hurried, and hardly seemed to notice the men and cattle as she passed. In truth Nellie did not, for her grandmother had kept so careful an eye on her, she had been unable to leave the hut until she was asleep, and now it was so late, she dared not take the longer and safer way round by the windings of the creek, lest her lover should have already started on his perilous ride. Whether she thought the men would not notice her or whether she hardly cared if they did, Fisher never knew. She held a cloth closely over her head and never turned to the right or left, though he thought his footsteps must be clearly audible as he tramped in his long riding boots over the crisp dry salt-bush.
Truth to tell, Nellie heard nothing save the beating of her own heart. It was such a desperate venture, she was afraid of her grandmother, she was afraid of Ben Fisher, she was afraid even of the man she was trying to save, but most of all she was afraid of being too late, and so the poor child went on, her heart full of one passionate, unspoken prayer, that she might be in time to save him. It was little wonder then that she never turned her head, never heard the footsteps so close behind her. She reached the brink of the creek at length and peered into its depths, then turned and skirted along the top of the bank, Fisher following closely in her track.
They had gone but a little way when he saw, greatly to his astonishment, that the bank, instead of being a steep drop of about twenty feet, gently sloped like it did near the hut, and a track, half hidden by thick scrub, ran down the slope. Down this track the girl went swiftly, her skirts raising a little whirl of dust behind her. The man paused a moment, and by the light of the moon examined his pistols to see they were loaded, for he judged he was doing an unwise thing. Should there be men there, as he more than half suspected, there was no knowing what might happen; but still he never thought of turning back, that Nellie was there was more than sufficient reason he should follow. When he looked again he was startled to find she had vanished, and the measured sound of a horse's hoof-beats broke on his ear. At the same moment he saw the path took a turn in the scrub, and drawing out a pistol, ran down it. As he turned the corner, he came full on Nellie standing motionless in the moon-light; the covering had fallen from her head, and she was stretching out her arms to a mounted figure which was draped, horse and all, in a long white cloth which fell almost to the ground.
It flashed across the overseer that this was the "Trotting Cob," this was the ghost he had been warned against, and a very substantial, life-like ghost it was too. He wondered as he stood there that any man could be deceived.
The girl stood right in its path, right between the two men, and to move, the horseman must either ride over her or turn into the scrub.
He seemed inclined to do neither, but with an angry oath flung back the covering from his face.
"You, girl!" he said.
Then she burst out, half-sobbing, "Oh, Jim, Jim! I was afraid I 'd be too late. Oh, Jim, Gran wouldn't let—"
"Too late!" said the man; he spoke apparently with an effort, but in such grave, cultured tones that Fisher, who was a man of but little education, himself stood silent with wonder. "Too early, I think. I told you how it would be, Nell. I believed in you, Nell, so help me God, I did, but I saw you this afternoon with that man, and now you have betrayed me. You will have it then," and before Fisher could stop him or shield her, he had drawn a pistol from his belt and shot her in the breast. So close she was there was not a chance of missing, and she fell backwards and lay there in the dusty track, the pale moonlight lighting up her fair hair, and the dark stain widening, widening, on the bosom of her dress.
Fisher's first thought was for vengeance, but his hand shook and his shot flew wide, and the other man, apparently giving no heed to him, flung himself from his saddle on to the ground beside the girl.
"Oh, Nell, Nell, little girl, and I trusted you."
She put her little bloodstained hand on his arm, and smiled up into his face with such a world of love in the dying eyes, that Fisher looking on dared not for very pity mar her last moments by word or sigh.
Time enough when she was gone, for the two men to settle accounts.
"Jes' so," she gasped, her one idea strong in death; "I was—near, too late—don'—go—nigh the camp. Ben Fisher—will—shoot the ghost—on—sight."
Pity for the girl, dying misjudged by the hand she loved, impelled Fisher to speak.
How great had been his share in the tragedy he hardly as yet realized; that would come later.
"It wasn't her fault this afternoon," he said roughly; "it was mine, and this evening she never knew I followed her."
"Oh, my God—my little girl, my poor little girl."
He lifted her up in his arms and made a half effort to staunch the wound, but she was evidently dying fast—past all human aid.
"Nellie, Nellie, don't die, my darling—don't leave me; don't let me have this on my conscience. I love you, Nellie—you are all there is to live for. I love you."
"Better 'n her?" she gasped.
He looked down at her in wonder, then covered the white face with kisses.
"Better a thousand times—better than any woman that ever lived. Forgive me, Nell, forgive me."
She was going fast, but she understood him, and the man looking on saw peace and happiness on her face.
"I love you, Jim."
"There never was a daughter of Eve, but once ere the tale of her years be done, Shall know the scent of the Eden rose—but once beneath the sun! Though the years may bring her joy or pain, fame, sorrow, or sacrifice, The hour that brought her the scent of the Rose—she lived it in Paradise!"
The horse's hoof-beats kept time to the rhythm of the song. "The hour that brought her the scent of the Rose—she lived it in Paradise!"
"An' I guess," said the driver's voice—breaking in on my reverie—"that's about all there is to tell. Them's the lights of Wongonilla over there. The rest of the story—Lord bless you, it all 'us ended where the gal died. The men I guess did'nt feel much inclined for fighting after that. Anyhow I b'lieve Ben Fisher came back dazed like to camp an' told 'em what 'd happened. But though they scoured the country, Gentleman Jim got clean away. Fisher? Oh, he weren't no account after it, I b'lieve—gave him a sort a' shock, same as if he 'd killed her hisself. He was speared by the blacks on the Lachlan three years later, they say. He never took up with another gal. The other? Lord, yes—he did—Woa, mare, will you? She's a bit tired, you see—we 've come the pace. Yes, it was all along o' a woman Jim Newton was taken—wanted for a bushranging job, over on the Queensland border—that was fifteen years after. I 've heard my father tell the story. He was one of the troopers that took him, and it was a gal that sold him. Mighty set on her he was. She? Oh, she was gone on another man. A woman's only gone like that once in a way, ye see, an' then, Lord! she is a fool—same as Nellie Durham, an' she was a mighty fool all through, for Fisher was a decent sort of a chap—while the other fellow was an' out-an'-out blaggard. But ye see, if there's a ghost at all, it 's the gal that walks, though they call the place Trotting Cob, and Trotting Cob it'll be till the end of the chapter."
CHRISTMAS EVE AT WARWINGIE
It was a comfortable place, the wide verandah at Warwingie, a place much used by the Warners on all occasions, save during the heat of the day—but the long hot day was drawing to a close now. Slowly the sun was sinking over the forest-clad hills. The heat haze which had hung all day over the eastern outlet to the gully cleared, the faraway blue ranges grew more distinct, and the creeper-covered verandah was once more a pleasant place to lounge in. From the untidy, half-reclaimed garden, came the sound of children's voices, subdued by the distance, and the gentle lowing of the milkers in the stockyard behind the house. But no one came on to the verandah to disturb Tom Hollis and Bessie Warner, the eldest daughter of the house—perhaps they knew better—and yet these two did not seem to have much to say to each other. He leaned discontentedly against one of the posts, moodily staring out into the blue distance, and every now and again flicking his riding boot with his whip; but she looked happy enough as she swung herself slowly backwards and forwards in a rocking-chair, her hands clasped behind her head. Such a pretty girl, oh, such a pretty girl, she was—so dainty and pink and white. Her rosy lips were just parted in a smile; the long, level beams of the setting sun, falling on her through the passion vine, lingered lovingly in her golden hair, and made a delicate tracery as of fine lace work, on her pink gingham gown. Such a pretty picture she made, rocking slowly backwards and forwards, thought her companion, but he dared not say so. And then too it was so hot and so still it was hardly wonderful they were silent.
Silence seemed more in keeping with the quiet evening. They could not agree, and yet they could not quarrel openly. He brought his eyes back from the hills at length to the girl's fair face.
"Oh, Bessie," he said almost in a whisper, "oh, Bessie—"
"Now, Tom," she interrupted, "now, Tom, do be quiet; whatever is the good of going all over it again?"
"If you could only like me a little," he sighed miserably.
"Like you a little! I have liked you a good deal more than a little all my life—but there's where it is. I know you a great deal too well. I like you, oh yes, I believe I may say I love you quite as well even as my own brothers, but—marry you, no thank you. I have lived all my life up here at Warwingie, up among the hills, and I 'm just tired of the monotony of it. Nothing ever happens, nothing ever will happen, I suppose; it's most horribly unexciting; but anyhow I don't see I 'd better matters by going and living alone with you at Tuppoo, even if you 'd take me on such terms, which, of course, you wouldn't."
"You know I would," he said drearily.
"Don't be so foolish, Tom Hollis," said Bessie sharply, rocking away faster than ever. "You know you wouldn't do any such thing. You 'd despise yourself if you did. Why don't you despise me?—I'm sure I 'm showing myself in an extremely disagreeable light for your benefit."
"But I know you, you see. I know you so thoroughly," he said; "and I'd give—I'd give—"
"There, for goodness' sake, stop, and let's hear no more of it. I can't and won't marry you—it 'd be too slow. I don't want to live on the other side of the ranges all the rest of my life. If I 've got to live here at all, this is the nicest side, and I 've Lydia and the children for company, to say nothing of papa and the boys—besides, you 'll come over sometimes."
"I shan't," he said, sullenly, "I shan't. If you don't take me, I 'll not come here to be made a fool of. I shan't come again."
"Don't talk nonsense," she said calmly; "you will; you 'll forget all this rubbish, and be my own dear old Tom again. I should miss you so dreadfully if I didn't see you three or four times a week."
A gleam of hope Hashed into his sad brown eyes, and passionate words of love and tenderness trembled on his lips, but, for once in his love-making, he was wise, and turning, gazed silently down the gully again. She would miss him—very well then, she should; he would go away, and not come back for a month at least. The only fear was lest in the meantime some one else might not woo and win her. Those brothers of hers were always bringing some fellow to the house. However—
A bell inside rang furiously, and five boys and girls, ranging between the ages of twelve and three, came racing in from all corners of the garden. Bessie rose from her chair, and shook out her skirts.
"That's tea," she said; "you won't mind a nursery tea with the children, will you? Lydia and I always have it when papa's away. The Campbell girls are here too. Harry, you know, is very much in love with Dora, and, like a good sister, I 'm helping on the match. Aren't you coming?"
He had intended to decline, but she put her hand on his arm in the old familiar way, and he weakly gave in.
"Aren't you dull, all you women alone?" he asked.
"No, sir, of course not; besides, they 'll all be home to-morrow for Christmas."
"They 've at Kara, aren't they?"
"Yes, that bothering old Wilson always has a muster at the most inconvenient times. They want to be home, of course, so they Ve taken every man on the place to help. Dick, at the mature age of ten, is our sole male protector."
"They can be back to-morrow, though?"
"Oh, yes; they Ve bound to be here pretty early too. It's Christmas Day, you know—at least—. Why, what was that?"
She paused on the doorstep and listened.
"Some one coming into the yard," said Hollis. "They must have got away earlier than they expected."
A sharp cry—an exclamation of fear and terror, and men's voices raised, loud and peremptory.
"That's not—" began Bessie, but Hollis pushed past her into the house. It was a bush house built in the usual primitive style of bush architecture, with all the rooms opening one into the other and dispensing with passages altogether. The dining-room, a big sparsely furnished room, had doors both front and back, and looked on the yard behind as well as on the garden. The table was laid for a substantial tea. Mrs. Warner, Bessie's stepmother, a good-looking woman of thirty, was at the head of the table with the tea-pot in her hand, but the children had left their places and clustered round her; two other girls of sixteen and eighteen were clinging to one another in a corner, and two women servants, raw Irish emigrants, were peering curiously out into the yard, where half a dozen horses and men were now standing. The cook, an old assigned servant, had taken in the situation at once, had made for the dining-room followed by the other two, and was now sitting in the arm-chair, her apron over her head, beating the ground with her feet.
Hollis saw it all at a glance—the big dining-room, the frightened women, the silent children, the sunlit yard beyond, the horses hitched to the post and rail fence, the half dozen bearded blackguardly men, with pistols and knives in their belts—noted it all, even to the blue and white draped cradle in the corner of the room, and the motes dancing in the sunbeams that poured in through the end windows—noted it all, and looked down on the girl at his side.
"Oh, my God!" he muttered, "it's the Mopoke's gang, and—."
He was unarmed, but he looked round vaguely for a second. Two of the men stepped into the doorway and covered him with their pistols.
"Bail up, you ——-," said the shorter of the two, a man in a dirty red shirt and torn straw hat, who was evidently the leader of the party, "bail up; throw up your hands, or—," and he added such a string of vile oaths that Bessie, shuddering, covered her face with her hands. Hollis did not at once obey, and in a second a shot rang out and his right hand fell helpless at his side—shot through the wrist.
"If the gent prefers to keep 'em down, I 'm sure we 're alius ready to oblige," said the little man, with grim pleasantry, interlarding his speech with a variety of choice epithets. "Now then, mate, back you steps agin that wall—and Bill," to the other man, "you just let daylight in if he so much as stirs a finger."
Hollis leaned up against the wall, stunned for a moment, for the bullet had smashed one of the bones of his wrist, and torn a gaping wound from which the blood was trickling down his fingers on to the carpet, but with the armed bushranger in front of him he realized the utter hopelessness of his position. Help himself he could not, but he never thought of himself, he never thought even of the other helpless women and children; his heart had only room for one thought—Bessie, pretty dainty Bessie, the belle of the country side. How would she fare at the hands of ruffians like these? He would die for her gladly, gladly, but his death could be of no avail. The men had come in now, and he scanned them one by one, brutal, cruel, convict faces, sullen and lowering; the only one that showed signs of good humour was that of the leader of the band, and his good humour was the more terrible as it seemed to prove how certain he was of them and how utterly they were in his power.
"You will kindly all stand round the room, with your backs to the wall, so I can take a good look at you, an' you can impress my 'aughty features on your minds—kids an' all, back you go. I 'm sorry to inconvenience you, Mrs. Warner, but you must just let the babby cry a bit. I can't have you a-movin about a-obstructin' my men in the execution of their dooty."
The baby in the cradle had wakened up at the shot, had cried uneasily, and now not having been noticed was wailing pitifully, but its mother dared not move. She stood by the window, the two youngest children hanging on to her skirts, a strong-minded, capable woman, who had all her wits about her, but she too saw clearly they were caught in a trap. She looked across at Hollis, but he could only shake his head. There was nothing to be done, nothing.
A man stood on guard at each door, while the other four went through the house; they could hear them yelling and shouting to one another, pulling the furniture about, and every now and then firing off a shot in simple devilment, as if to show their prisoners that they had made sure of their prey and feared no interruption. The baby cried on, and the sunshine stole gradually up the wall; up and up it crept to the ceiling, and the clock ticked noisily on the mantelshelf—but there was no change, no hope for them. A crash of broken wood and glass told them that the bushrangers had found the store-room, and had made short work of bolts and bars. There were spirits stored there, brandy in plenty, as Bessie and her stepmother knew full well, and Hollis scanning their faces read clearly their thoughts—what chance would they have once these men began to drink! Ghastly stories of the bushranging days of Van Diemen's Land rose before him, of innocent children murdered, of helpless women, and a groan burst from his lips as he thought that the woman he loved was in the power of men like these.
Bessie started forward, though the man at the door pointed his pistol straight at her.
"Oh, Tom," she cried, "oh, Tom!"
"You go back," ordered the guard angrily.
"Don't be so hard," said Bessie, suddenly. "You've got us safe enough. What can a lot of women and a wounded man do against you? You look kind," she added, "do let me give baby to his mother, it's wearying to everybody to hear him crying like that, and let me bind up Mr. Hollis's hand, oh, please do."
Her voice trembled at first, but she gained courage as she went on. She looked the man straight in the face, and she was very pretty.
He told her so with a coarse oath that sent the shamed blood to her face, and then crossed the room and spoke to the other man.
They whispered for a moment, and then curtly told the woman they intended to hold Hollis surety for them. If any one attempted to escape, they would, they said, "take it out of his skin." Then one rejoined his comrades, while the other lolled against the doorpost, his pistol in his hand.
Lydia Warner crossed the room and gathered her baby in her arms, and Bessie stepped to Hollis's side.
"Oh, Tom," she whispered, "oh, Tom—" "Hush, dear, hush—here they come." They came trooping in with coarse jokes and rough horseplay, bearing with them spoils from Lydia Warner's well-filled storeroom, among them an unopened case of battle-axe brandy. This was the centre of attraction. For a moment even the man on guard craned his neck to watch, as the leader of the gang, the man they called the Mopoke, produced a chisel and a hammer and proceeded to open it.
Their prisoners took the opportunity to whisper together, Mrs. Warner joining her stepdaughter and Hollis.
"What can we do, Tom, oh, what can we do? They are beginning to drink now, and—"
"Slip away if you can, you and Bessie." "No, no, they will shoot you—besides, we can't."
Bessie was binding up his wrist, and Mrs. Warner, bending over it, seemed to be giving her advice. The bushrangers had opened the case and were knocking off the heads of the bottles and drinking the brandy out of tea-cups, but the Mopoke looked over his shoulder almost as if he had heard them, and briefly reminded them that he held Hollis responsible, and that if any of them "sneaked off" he 'd shoot Hollis "an' make no bones about it, for we ain't a-come here to be lagged."
"Nevertheless," muttered Hollis, "one of you must go—Bessie, I think. They'll be mad with drink soon, and once drink's in them there's no knowing what they 'll do to any of us—go, dear, go—"
"I can't, I can't." The girl's hands were trembling, as she bound her handkerchief round his wrist, and the tears were in her eyes. Creep away to safety and leave him to die—how could she!
He said again, "Go, Bessie, go, they'll never miss you; it's really our only chance—you don't know what they'll do by and by."
"Lydia, you go." Bessie slipped her hand into Hollis's uninjured one and held it tight. Even in his anxiety and misery he felt in her clasp, he read in her eyes, a something that had not been there half an hour ago. Oh, to be safe once more, to be free to woo and win her.
"I can't leave the children," said Mrs. Warner; "the Campbell girls are no good, and besides, Tom wants you to go, don't you, Tom?"
He nodded. It was true enough; he was wild with anxiety to get her away. He would risk his life gladly—thankfully lay it down, if only he could be assured that Bessie was across the ranges safe in the Commissioner's camp at Tin-pot Gully, and for the other women, their danger would be the same whether she went or stayed.
Bessie clasped his hand tighter and leaned her face against his arm for one brief second, while her stepmother went on.
"As soon as it's dark slip out, and I must try and keep them amused. Dora can sing a little and I can play. Go straight across the ranges, and if—and if—I mean, tell your father. Oh, Bessie dear, make haste."
She left them and joined the others, pausing a moment like a brave woman to speak to the leader of the band, and so give Bessie a chance of a last word with Hollis.
The sun had gone down now and darkness had fallen. The room was wrapped in gloom, and Bessie mechanically watched her stepmother draw down the blinds and light a couple of candles on the table, which, while they illuminated the circle of bushrangers, only threw into deeper darkness the corners of the room.
"You will go, dear," muttered Hollis, "if only for the sake of that plucky woman."
"I will do what you tell me," she whispered. "I can't bear to leave you, Tom; if they should find out they will kill you. Oh, Tom, Tom!"
"They won't find out," he said soothingly. "They haven't counted you, nor noticed you much yet. And Mrs. Warner is wonderfully plucky. You ought to try and save her and those girls. Bessie, you don't know what fiends those men can be."
"Yes I do," she said, and he felt her hand tremble; "that is why I don't want to anger them. They have made you responsible, and I 'm afraid—I 'm afraid to leave. Don't you think they 'll go in an hour or two—just take what they want and go?"
"No, I don't," he said. "They are in for a drinking bout now, and God knows what they'll do before it's ended. Darling, for your own sake—for the sake of the others, for my sake, even—you must risk it and get away if you can. We ought to have help before midnight."
"Bessie," said Mrs. Warner, "come and help me to put the two little ones to bed. Mr.—I beg his pardon—Captain Mopoke says he doesn't mind."
"None of your larks now, missis," said the Mopoke; "you jest mind what yer about, or I 'll let daylight into yer gallant defender there."
"That's the way," whispered Hollis tenderly; "go now—go, dear."
She lifted his hand to her breast in the obscurity, and stooping, laid her face against it.
"My darling," he said passionately, "God bless you, my darling; it will be all right, I know. And remember, dear—you won't be angry—remember, I have loved you so. I think I have always loved you, Bessie."
The men round the table were in high good humour, joking with each other and the two Irish servants, who were beginning to think that being "stuck up" was not so terrible after all, while the cook took her apron from her face and joined in the chaff. Hollis was thankful for it. It enabled him to say what he had to say unobserved, for even his guard, feeling sure of him, gave more heed to his comrades' sayings and doings. His broken wrist made him feel sick and faint, and it was only by a strong effort of will he kept his senses at all. If only he could see Bessie safe out of it!
"Go, dear," he whispered again, "go to Mrs. Warner."
"Tom," she whispered, her face still against his hand, "I love you, Tom. I did not know it this afternoon, but I do now. I love you, I love you."
"Bessie!" Mrs. Warner's voice sounded imperative. "Are you never coming?"
"God bless you, my darling!"
He pushed her gently from him, but at the bedroom door, where her stepmother stood waiting for her, she looked back into the dimly-lighted room. The light from the two candles shone on the bushrangers' faces, gleamed on the pistol barrels in their belts, on the dainty china, the glass, and the silver, but all the rest of the room was in gloom. She knew the other women were there, knew the children were there—they were dimly discernible in the corners. She could even see Hollis, but when she looked again the candles stretched out in long beams which reached her eyes and blinded her, and she turned to wipe away her tears.
"Now then, Bessie," said her stepmother, "go, dear—quick, quick. You'll never be missed in the dark, and I 'll light plenty of candles now, and dazzle the Mopoke. Go, Bessie, go."
There was no time for words. They were very fond of one another, those two—fonder than women in their position often are—and Lydia Warner drew her husband's daughter towards her and kissed her tenderly.
"Everything depends on you, Bessie," she said, with a break in her voice, and then she opened the long French window of her bedroom, and Bessie stepped outside, and the door was softly shut behind her.
It was very dark now, very dark indeed, and very still. Quite plainly she could hear the voices and laughter within, and she stood still on the verandah for a moment to collect her thoughts, and let her eyes get accustomed to the gloom. It was a perfect summer's night, hot and still—not a breath of wind stirred the leaves on the trees. Far away from the reed beds at the bottom of the gully came the mournful wail of the curlews, and the whimper of the dingoes rose over the ranges. Overhead in the velvety sky the stars hung low like points of gold. It was so peaceful, so calm this glorious summer's night, this eve of the great festival which should bring to all men good tidings of peace and joy. Could it possibly be that murder and rapine were abroad on such a night as this? Could it possibly be that those nearest and dearest to her were in deadly danger?
It was seven miles, at the very least, to Tin-pot Gully, or, as it was beginning to be called, Toroke—seven miles round by the road, though it was only three across the ranges. But then she did not know the way across the ranges, the bush was dense and close, there was no track, and she might easily be lost for a week there. The only alternative was the road, and it would take her two hours at least to walk, and what might not happen in two hours? She could dimly see the buildings in the yard now, the stable, the cowshed, her father's office, the men's hut, the post-and-rail fence of the stockyards beyond, with the bushrangers' horses hitched to it all in a row. It struck her forcibly how secure, how safe, they must have felt thus to have left their horses, their only means of escape, alone and unguarded. Should she let them go? Should she drive them away? And then another thought flashed into her mind. Why not make use of one of these horses? Whatever she did must be done quickly, and if only she could ride she might bring help in very little over the hour. In an hour not much harm could happen, surely. Surely they might spend their Christmas yet at Warwingie in peace and happiness. Her father would not return to find his home desolate, and Tom—Tom—but no, she dared not think of Tom. Only this afternoon she had laughed his love to scorn, and now there came back to her his face drawn with pain, but full of love and tenderness and thought for her—the sun-bronzed face with soft brown eyes, giving not one thought to himself, not one thought to the life he was risking for her sake. The danger was lest she should be heard. And then, if they shot him, as she most firmly believed they would, what would her life be worth. Not worth living, thought Bessie Warner, as she stole softly up to the horse nearest the slip panels that led out into the home paddock. She had not been born and bred in the bush for nothing, and if she could once get the horse out of the yard half her troubles would be over.
"Woa, horse," she said softly, putting out her hand and patting his neck, "woa, good horse;" but he started back to the utmost limit of his halter, and showed his fear so plainly that she shrunk back in terror lest the noise of his movements should bring out one of the gang. Trembling she took shelter inside the open stable door, her heart beating so hard it seemed to deafen her. The big chestnut settled down quietly again before she ventured out, and this time she picked out a little dark horse. There was a big, quiet-looking white beside him, but though he stretched out his nose to be patted she rejected him because of his colour. Even in the dim light he was clearly visible across the yard, and his absence would be noted at once, while possibly the darker horse would not be so soon missed. He was fairly quiet as she unfastened the reins, which were buckled round one of the rails in the fence. Then she paused with them in her hand, and the desperateness of the venture nearly overwhelmed her. The night seemed quite light to her now. The outlines of the house were plainly marked against the sky, and all the windows were brilliantly lighted up—evidently Lydia had promptly carried out her intentions. Then a child's cry, loud and shrill, broke on the air, and Bessie started. Woa, good horse, go softly now, for life and death hang on the next few moments. The beating of her own heart nearly choked her—her own light footsteps sounded in her ears like the march of a hundred men, and every moment she expected one of those long windows to open and the bushrangers to come rushing out, for not a regiment of cavalry, it seemed to her, could have made more noise than that solitary horse moving quietly behind her. She kept on the grass as much as possible, but it seemed an age before she had reached the slip-panels. They were down as the bushrangers had left them, and she looked back. No, it was impossible to distinguish anything in the yard. The horses even were one blurred mass; unless they inspected them closely her theft could not be detected. It was so still and so dark—never in her life had she been out at night alone before. The noises frightened her, and the silence was still more terrifying. The cry of the curlews was like a child in pain, and the deep, loud croak of a bullfrog from a water-hole close at hand seemed ominous of disaster. She shrank up close beside the dumb animal for companionship and gave another frightened glance back. Then she pulled herself together—this would never do. For Tom's sake, for Lydia's sake, for the children's sake, but most of all for Tom's sake, she must be brave and cool. If she would save them she must not give way to such vague imaginings. Surely she might venture to mount now. She led the horse up to one of the numerous logs that lay strewn about the paddock, and flinging the off-stirrup to the near side to form a rest for her right foot, she climbed on the log and prepared to mount. Often and often she had ridden so—a man's saddle presented no difficulties; but now to her dismay the horse started back in affright at the first touch of her woman's draperies. If he refused to carry her what should she do? Should she let the horse go? No, that would never do. She made another effort, and at last scrambled into the saddle, how she could not have told herself, but once there she kept her seat, for the black, though he plunged and snorted for a moment, soon settled down into a rough canter towards the main road.
It was not easy going on the run, and even when she reached the road it was not much better, for it was only a bush road, unreclaimed, full of stones and stumps and holes, while the heavy bush on either side made it so dark there was very little chance of seeing the danger. Lucky for the girl she was a good horsewoman. She kept urging her horse on, and he responded gallantly, but more than once he stumbled, and had she not had an excellent seat she must have fallen. But he picked himself up sturdily and pushed on. Good horse, brave horse, it can't be more than four miles now. On either side stood the tall trees dimly outlined against the dark sky, and the Southern Cross—the great constellation of Australasian skies—hung right in front of her. She caught sight of it the moment she turned into the road. It was there every night of the year of course, but looking straight at the golden stars it seemed to Bessie it had been sent to her this Christmas Eve to comfort and encourage her—a sign and a token that all would be well with her and hers.
Then she heard sounds of voices ahead and the gleam of a fire, and she drew rein smartly. No one would she trust, no one dared she trust, save the Commissioner at Toroke, and who would these people be camped by the roadside? The district had a bad name, the times were troubled, and a helpless woman might well be excused for pausing; but she had no time to waste, she must take all risks, and she brought her reins down smartly across her horse's neck, and he started forward at a gallop. There was a shout and a curse, and she saw three figures start up round the fire, and then she found bullocks rising up all round her, and knew that she had come on a bullock driver's camp. A regular volley of curses burst on her as she scattered the bullocks in all directions, but she dared not stop—how could she trust herself to men like these?—and faster and faster she urged her horse forward. He stumbled more than once in the rough roadway, but at last the sound of voices died away, and looking back the fire was but a bright speck in the darkness. On again, up a steep hill where for very pity's sake she must needs draw rein and let her horse pick his way carefully, up and up, till after what seemed interminable now she found herself on top of the ridge overlooking Tin-pot Gully. The gully was but a narrow cleft among the surrounding ranges, where in winter flowed a creek the banks of which had proved wonderfully rich in gold, and the rush had been proportionately great It had been a pretty creek a year ago, trickling down amidst ferns and creeper-covered rocks, and so lonely that only an occasional boundary rider in search of stray cattle had visited it; but now it was swarming with life, and was reduced to the dull dead level of an ordinary diggers' camp. The tall forest trees had been cut down, and only their blackened stumps were left; the dainty ferns and grasses and creepers had all disappeared before the pick and shovel, and rough windlasses, whips, and heaps of yellow earth marked the claims, while along the banks of the creek, now a mere muddy trickle, stood the implements of the diggers' craft, cradle and tub, and even here and there a puddling machine. The diggers' dwellings, tents and slab-huts, and mere mia-mias of bark and branches, were dotted up the hill-sides wherever they could get a foothold, and of course as close to their claims as possible. There was no method, no order; each man built how he pleased and where he pleased; even the main road wound in and out between the shafts, and its claims to be considered permanent were only just beginning to be recognized.
The Government camp was on a little flattened eminence, overlooking the embryo township. They were all alike, those police camps of early gold-fields days. The flagstaff from which floated the union jack, the emblem of law and order, was planted in such a position as to be plainly visible in the mining camp. Opposite it stood the Commissioner's tents, his office, his sitting-room, his bed tent, his clerk's tent, comfortable and even luxurious for that time and place, for they were as a rule floored with hard wood and lined with baize; just behind was the gold tent, over which the sentries stood guard day and night, and behind it again were the men's quarters and the horses' stables. Down the creek, men of every rank were gathered together from all quarters of the globe; the diggers' camp was untidy, frowsy, and unkempt, but here on the hill the Commissioner reigned, and law and order ruled supreme.
There was a blaze of light from the Miners' Arms—the tumbledown shanty, half of bark and half of canvas, where the diggers assembled every night—and a crowd of men were at the door lustily shouting the chorus of a sea-song. Here was help in plenty, but she dared not trust them, and galloped on across the creek, dry now in the middle of summer, and up the hill again towards the tents of the police camp, which gleamed white against the dark hillside. A sentry started up and challenged her as she passed the gold tent, but she paid no heed, and the next moment she had slipped off her horse and was standing panting and breathless in the open door of the Commissioner's tent. The light from the colza-oil lamps fell full on her white face, on her golden hair streaming over her shoulders, and on her dainty pink gown, somewhat torn and soiled now. Three young men were seated at the dinner-table, two of them in the uniform of Gold Commissioners—the braided undress coat of a cavalry officer—and all three sprang to their feet.
"Oh, Captain Cartwright," she panted, "they have—'stuck up' Warwingie, and they're going to shoot Tom Hollis."
But before she had time to explain, one man—she recognized him as the Commissioner from the Indigo Valley on the other side of the ranges—had forced on her a glass of wine, and while Captain Cartwright was shouting orders to his troopers, he drew from her the whole story.
"We 'll have to be careful, Cartwright," he said, when five minutes later they were riding over the ranges at the head of ten stalwart troopers. "It appears Hollis is surety for the lot, but he insisted on Bessie Warner making her escape at all risks. He is a plucky fellow, Hollis, but it was the only thing to do. If they 'd been let alone all night—well, when they're sober I wouldn't trust 'em, and when they 've drunk they 're fiends incarnate. Close up, men, close up a little to the right, sergeant, and we 'll dismount before we come to the stockyards."
They rode across the ranges, and it was not long before the house came into view, ablaze with light, and the troopers crept round it. Then, when they were all assembled, Captain Cartwright with his revolver in his hand stepped on to the verandah and pushed open the door, while Bright, the Commissioner from the Indigo, entered at the other side.
"Bail up, throw up your hands now, or I'll shoot every man jack of you."
It was nearly an hour and a half since Bessie had left, but the bushrangers were still round the table. The dainty china was all smashed and broken, and the men were throwing cups and glasses at one another in very wantonness. There was no one on guard now, and the women were huddled together terrified in one corner, while still against the wall leaned Hollis, exactly where Bessie had left him.
"Hurrah!" he shouted as his glance met the Commissioner's, and hardly had the word left his lips when the Mopoke turned, raised his pistol, and shot him right in the chest. He slipped to the floor with a great singing in his ears, and when he came back to consciousness again young Bright was standing over him holding a glass of brandy to his lips, and Mrs. Warner had her arm beneath his head.
"Better, old chap, eh?" said Bright, cheerily. "The Mopoke made a mistake this time, for Cartwright shot him like a dog, and the others will renew their acquaintance with her Majesty's jails."
"Bessie, Bessie, where is Bessie? If I can only live till she comes!"
"Of course you will. What nonsense Cartwright's going to bring her back with him."
"It's all up with me, old man," he gasped, "I know. But we 've come out much better than I expected, and—and—if I don't see—Bessie—you must tell her—it was worth it. Poor little Bessie, she said—she loved me—it was only a passing fancy—I hope—I think—"
His eyes closed wearily, and Bright touched Mrs. Warner's shoulder.
"Put a pillow under his head," he said, "and—oh, here's Miss Bessie."
No one asked how she had come so soon—only her stepmother silently resigned her place to her. Hollis seemed just conscious of her presence, but he was almost past speech, and they watched him silently. The doctor came, and shook his head.
"A very short time now," he said. Ten o'clock, eleven o'clock; the moon had risen over the hills, the midsummer moon, and all the garden was bathed in the white light. They had opened the windows and drawn up the blinds to give him more air, but it was very near now—very near indeed—only a matter of minutes. The clock on the mantelshelf struck midnight, and he opened his eyes. He could see through the open door right away down the gully, just as he had seen that afternoon.
"How lovely it is," he said.' "Bessie, kiss me, Bessie. I—was that twelve o'clock? It is Christmas Day then. I wish you many happy Christmases, Bessie. Darling—don't you grieve—it was worth it. Good-bye."
"Helm, old man, we 've lost the track!"
"Don't be a howling idiot, man. Lost! how could we be lost? Why, there's the track right ahead, and pretty fresh too."
But Anderson flung himself off his horse on to the dry crisp grass, and covered his face with his hands.
"I'll tell you," reiterated his mate, leaning forward in his saddle and shading his eyes, "I see hoof-marks quite plain. Why, they might have been made yesterday!"
"They were made yesterday," groaned the other, hopelessly. "Don't you see, my dear fellow, we made them ourselves."
Helm raised his head and swore a passionate oath, then sprang from his horse, stooped over the faint track, ran wildly along it for a few yards, turned back, and again cried out that the other was playing some ghastly joke off on him.
"It's too bad, Anderson, too bad. Get up, man, and don't be a fool. Come on, there 's very likely water on the other side of that ridge. You'll feel better after you've had a good drink."
"That's the ridge we passed last night, I tell you. Water—oh, yes, there's water there, but it's as salt as the sea."
"The salt-pan! No, by heaven, no, I won't believe that. That's miles behind us!"
"Nevertheless," said the other man, drearily, "it's the same old salt-pan. You 'll see it the moment we cross the ridge."
"Come on, then, come on. Don't sit groaning there: let's know the worst. I can't believe it, I won't believe it till I see for myself."
"The horses ought to have a spell if we're ever to get out of this," muttered Anderson; but he followed his companion's lead, mounted his tired horse, and rode slowly on after him towards the still distant ridge.
Out back beyond the Mulligan is No Man's Land. They had gone out to seek new country, crossed the Queensland border into South Australia, and now, old bushman as he was, Anderson had only the vaguest idea of their whereabouts. Ever since they started it had been the same trouble; the season had been exceptionally dry, and everywhere the waters were dried up. First one horse had died, then another, until at last they were reduced to only three; still they had pushed on, for the blacks told a tale of a magnificent waterhole where the water was permanent, and Anderson had a certain amount of faith in the unerring wisdom of the children of the soil where water was concerned. So he pushed on, hoping against hope, till the younger man, more fearful, perhaps more prudent, persuaded him to turn back. But it was too late. The weakest horse, the one they had used as a packhorse, gave in, and had to be left behind the first day of their return journey; and now, on the fourth, they had just made the terrible discovery they were going round on their own tracks. They had been so thankful—so hopeful—when they struck that track in the morning.
Anderson knew there was another party out better appointed than they were; these might be their tracks, and possibly they had water with them. They might even have come across water—and water—water—if only they had a little water. And so they had pushed on, eagerly, hopefully, till the terrible truth began to dawn on the older and more experienced bushman. The weather for the last two days had been dull and cloudy, they had not caught a glimpse of the sun, and hourly they had expected a thunderstorm, which would not only clear the air, but would supply them with the water they needed; but to-day the clouds had all cleared away, and the only effect of their presence had been that they had lost their bearings completely. Where and when they had lost them Anderson could not say even now, and he was loth at first to share his misgivings with his mate; but the sight of the ridge decided him. If they found, as he fully expected to, the salt-pan they had passed the night before on the other side, then most surely were they lost men—lost in a cruel thirsty land where no water was.
He pondered it over in his mind as he rode slowly after his companion. "There was no hope. There could possibly be no hope." Over and over again he said it to himself as a man who hardly realizes his own words—and then they topped the low ridge, and right at his feet lay the salt-pan glittering in the sun.
"Cruel—cruel—cruel!" Helm had flung himself face downwards on the hard ground now, and given way to a paroxysm of despair all the more bitter for his former hopefulness. Anderson looked down on him pityingly for a moment, as one who had no part in his trouble, then he looked away again. Save for the sunshine, it was exactly the same scene, the very same they had looked upon last night—there lay the glittering salt-pan, white as driven snow, above it the hard blue cloudless sky, and all around the dreary plain, broken only by the ridge on which they stood. And yet in different circumstances he might have admired the landscape, for it had a weird beauty all its own; miles and miles he could see in the clear bright atmosphere, far away to the other side of the wide lake, where a dark clump of trees or scrub was apparently raised in the sky high above the horizon. He knew it was only the effect of the mirage, another token, had he needed a token, that there was no moisture, no water, not the faintest chance of a drop of rain. And yet there had been some rain not so very long ago, for the mesembryanthemum growing in dark green patches close to the edge of the salt was all in flower, pink, and red, and brightest yellow, such gorgeous colouring; and by that strange association of ideas, for which who shall account, his thoughts flew back to the last Cup Day, and he saw again the Flemington racecourse, and heard in fancy the shouts of the people as the favourite passed the winning-post, On the ground in front of him were long lines of crows, perched in the stunted boxwood trees above his head, filling the air with their monotonous cawing. He laughed at the mockery of the thing. The other man raised his head.
"Old man, what is it? Is it possible that—"
What wild imaginings for the moment had passed through his brain he could not himself have told; but whatever his hopes might have been, they were gone the moment he looked in his mate's face.
"Man," he said, sharply, "are you mad?"
Anderson was sobered in a second.
"No," he said, bitterly, "but as far as I can see, it must come to that before we 've done."
"No, no, we won't give up hope yet. Is there no hope?"
Anderson sat down beside him, and pointed silently to the horses. If ever poor beasts were done, were at their last gasp, they were, as they stood there, their noses touching the ground. The bushman's slender equipment had been reduced to its scantiest proportions, and yet it seemed cruelty to force them to carry even those slender packs; even the canvas water-bags, dry as tinder now, hanging at their necks, were a heavy burden. Wiser than their masters they had crawled beneath the shade, scanty as it was, of the boxwood trees, and stood there patiently waiting—For what? For death and the pitiless crows patiently waiting overhead.
"Exactly," Helm answered his companion's unspoken thought, "but we can't sit and wait like that. Man, we must try to get out of this at any rate. We cant sit here and wait for the crows."
Anderson sighed heavily.
"What can we do?" he asked. "We must spell a bit. The horses are done. As it is I 'm afraid yours will have to be left and well have to go on foot. There must be water about somewhere, for look at the crows; but we can't find it, and we couldn't have searched more carefully."
"Why not shoot the old horse if he's no good? His blood might—"
"Nonsense, man. Aren't you bushman enough yet to know that drinking blood 's only the beginning of the end? Once we do that—"
"Well, after?" asked Helm.
But the other did not answer, for he, too, in his heart, was asking, "After?" And their lips were dry and parched, and their tongues swollen, and before them lay the salt-pan, with right in the centre a little gleam of dark blue water which mocked their misery. There was nothing for it but to lie down beneath the scanty shade and rest. They were too weary to push on, all their energy had departed, and Helm, lying on his back looking up at the patches of blue sky that peeped through the branches, said with a sigh,
"If we 're done for, I wish to heaven the end would come now. I can't stand the thought of—of—What's it like, old man? Is it very bad, do you think?"
"As bad as bad can be."
"And is there no hope?"
What could he say, this man who had lived in the bush all his life? What hope could he give, when practically his experience told him there was no hope—that if they would save themselves from needless pain they would turn their pistols against themselves and die there and at once. But the love of life is strong in us all, and the hope of life is as strong. How could they die, these strong men with life in every vein? No, no, surely it was impossible. An iguana scuttled across in front of them and Helm started up eagerly.
"There," he said, "there—and I never thought. Look at that beast. There must be water somewhere or how could he live."
"Yes, there's the bitterness of it. I know there's water about if only we could find it; but as we didn't find any when we had everything in our favour there's not much good in our wasting time looking now. After all I believe those beasts must live without, though they say they don't. No, old chap, our only hope lies in pushing on to the nearest water we know of."
"Then don't let us lie here wasting precious minutes. Every minute is of consequence; let's make a start. We must push on."
Push on! They had been pushing on ever since they left Yerlo station ten days ago, and this is what it had brought them to.
"It's no good wearing ourselves out in the heat of the day," said Anderson, "wait till evening and we'll do twice as much."
"South-east, I think. If we can only hold out we ought to fetch Gerring Gerring Water. As far as I know this must be Tamba salt lake, and if so—"
"Karinda's just to the north there."
"A hundred and twenty miles at the very least and not a drop of water the whole way. No, that's out of the question, old man; our only hope lies in reaching Gerring Gerring."
"And you don't see much probability of our doing that?"
"Well, we can try."
He felt a great pity, this older man, for the lad—he called him a lad for all his four-and-twenty years—doomed to die, nay, dying at this very moment, in the prime of his manhood. They could but try, he said over and over again, they could but try.
And then as they rested they fell to talking of other things—talked of their past lives and of their homes as neither, perhaps, had ever talked before.
"My old mother 'll miss me," said Charlie Helm with a sigh, "though Lord knows when she'll ever hear the truth of the matter."
"Umph, I don't know, but I guess if we do peg out, it'll be some considerable time before they can read the store account over us. Have you got any paper about you?"
"Not a scrap. We can leave a message on the salt though."
"It'll be blown away before to-morrow. Who do you want to write to? Your mother? That girl?"
Helm turned his face away. The man had no right to pry into his private concerns.
"Write to your mother, lad, write to your mother by all means. Mothers are made of different clay to other women; but don't you bother about the other. Women are all alike, take my word for it. It's out of sight out of mind with all of them. But write to your mother."
"Some one may pass this way," pondered the younger man, hardly heeding his words. "It's just worth trying," and he lay silent while Anderson talked on or rather thought aloud.
"It's of the boy I'm thinking," he said. "The poor helpless little one. He never throve since his mother died. She didn't go much on me, but the boy was everything to her though he was a cripple. Well—well—if I were only certain he was dead now it wouldn't be half so hard. He'd be better dead, I know, but I couldn't think it before; he was all I had, and the last time I saw him he put up his little hand—such a mite of a hand—and clutched his daddy's beard. He was all I had, how could I wish him dead? But now—now—my God!—if I were certain he was dead and it hadn't hurt much."
Helm sprang to his feet, and swore an oath.
"We're not going to die," he cried, "not as easily as all that. Come on, we have wasted enough precious time.
"Not till it's a little cooler. It's no good, I tell you, wearing ourselves out in the heat."
And Helm, seeing the advice was good, lay down again. Lay down and tried not to listen to the cawing of the crows, the only sound that broke the stillness—tried not to think of cool waters; not to think of a household down south; not to think of the girl who, notwithstanding his mate's cynical warning, filled all his thoughts. He dozed a little and dreamed, and wakened with a start and a strong feeling upon him that it had been something more than a dream, that some one had really called him, was calling him still. Was it his mother's voice, or that girl's, or was it Anderson's? Anderson was sleeping heavily, and strong man as he was, sobbing in his sleep. Helm stretched out a hand to awaken him and then paused. Why should he? What had he better to offer than these broken dreams?