And Other Stories
By ETHEL M. DELL
Author of "Rosa Mundi," "The Bars of Iron," "The Keeper of the Door," "The Knave of Diamonds," "The Obstacle Race," "The Rocks of Valpre," "The Way of an Eagle," etc.
The Odds Without Prejudice Her Own Free Will The Consolation Prize Her Freedom Death's Property The Sacrifice
Other Books By Ethel M. Dell
* * * * *
"If he comes my way, I'll shoot him!" said Dot Burton, her blue eyes gleaming in her boyish, tanned face. "I'm not such a bad shot, am I, Jack?"
"Not so bad," said Jack, kindly. "But don't shoot at sight, or p'r'aps you'll shoot a policeman—which might be awkward for us both!"
"As if I should be such an idiot as that!" protested Dot. "I wasn't born yesterday, anyhow."
"No?" said Jack. "Somehow you look as if you were."
"Don't you be a donkey, Jack!" said his young sister, with an impudent snap of the fingers under his nose. "Being ten years older than I am doesn't qualify you for that superior pose. You're only a man, you know, after all."
"Buckskin Bill is only a man, but he's a pretty tough proposition," said Burton, with a frown.
She smoothed the frown away with caressing fingers. "I know. That's why I'd like to shoot him. But he's sure to be caught now, isn't he? They've got him in a trap. He'll never wriggle through with Fletcher Hill to outwit him. You said yourself that with him on the job the odds were dead against him."
"Oh, I know. So they are. But he's such a wily devil. Well, I'd better be going." Jack Burton arose with the deliberate movements of a heavy man. "I'm sick of this business, Dot. If it weren't for you, I believe I'd chuck it all and go into business in a town."
"Oh, darling! How silly!" protested Dot. "What a good thing I came out when I did! Things seem to be at a rather low ebb with you. But cheer up! What's a few head of cattle when all's said and done? When once this rascal is laid by the heels, you'll make up quicker than you know. Of course you will. Don't let yourself get downhearted! What is the good?"
He smiled a little. There was something heartening in the girl's slim activity of pose apart from her words. She looked indomitable. He pulled her to him and kissed her.
"Well, take care of yourself, Dot! You won't be frightened? You needn't be. He won't come your way. Hill has sworn solemnly to keep an extra guard in this direction. He may call around himself before the day is over. It wouldn't surprise me. Don't shoot him if he does! At least, give him a feed first!"
"Oh, really, Jack!" the girl protested. "I shall be cross with you before long. You'd better go quick before it comes on."
She put her arms around his neck and gave him a tight hug. Her sunburnt face was pressed to his. "Now, you won't do anything silly?" she urged him, softly. "I don't like parting with you in this mood. I wish I were coming too."
"Rubbish! Rubbish!" he said. "You stay at home, little shepherdess, and look after the lambs! I won't be late back. Mind you are civil to Fletcher Hill if he turns up! He'll be a magistrate one of these days if he plays his cards well."
"If he catches the biggest cattle-thief in Australia?" suggested Dot, screwing her face into a very boyish grimace. "I wouldn't care to get promotion for that job, if I were a man. But I'll be vastly polite to him if he turns up. You've never seen me doing the pretty, have you? But I can—awfully well—when I try."
Her brother laughed. "Oh, don't be too pretty, my child! It's a dangerous game. Good-bye! Don't go far away!"
"My dear man! As if I should have time!" ejaculated Dot.
She gave him another squeeze and let him go.
There were a great many things to be done that day, things which a mere ignorant male would never have dreamt of. There was bread to be baked, an evening meal to be prepared, countless household duties waiting to be done, and work enough in Jack's wardrobe alone to keep an ordinary woman busy for a week. Poor Jack! He was not a great hand at needlework. She had been shocked at the state in which she had found him. But she had not shirked her responsibilities. And more than ever was she glad now that she had come to him. For he needed her in a moral sense as well. She was too much of a "new chum" to help him in any very active sense outside the homestead at present. But he needed a good deal of moral backing just at that moment. She had come to him straight from England, and full of enthusiasm. He had hewn his own way and begun to enjoy prosperity. But she had arrived to find that prosperity temporarily checked. A gang of cattle-thieves were making serious depredations among his stock.
The police were hot on the trail, and it was believed that the gang had been split up, but so far no notable captures had been made. Buckskin Bill, the leader, was still at large, and while this remained the case there could be no security for any one. Every farmer in the district was keen on the chase, expecting to fall a victim.
And—there was no doubt about it—Buckskin Bill was in a very tight corner. Inspector Hill had the matter in hand, and he was not a man to be lightly baffled. Jack regarded him with wholehearted admiration. But somehow Dot, the new arrival, felt curiously prejudiced against him. She wanted Buckskin Bill to be caught, but she could not help hoping that this astute Inspector of Police would not be his captor. She was sure from Jack's description that she would not like the man, and as she went about her work she earnestly hoped that he would not come her way, at least in her brother's absence.
She was busy indoors during the whole of the morning. As midday approached the heat became intense. Jack usually returned for a meal at noon, but she was not expecting him that day. He had joined the chase, and had taken with him every available man. She might have felt lonely if she had not been so engrossed. As it was, she hummed cheerily to herself as she went to and fro. There were so many things to think about, and it was such an interesting world in which she found herself.
In the early afternoon she went out to feed a few motherless lambs that her brother had placed in her charge. She stood in the shelter of a great barn with the little things clustering around her, while Robin, the old black hound, lay watching and snapping at the flies. Miles and miles of pasture stretched around her, broken here and there by thick scrub and occasional groups of blue gum trees.
The hot glare of the afternoon sun made the eyes ache, and she was glad when her task was over. When she stood up at length she was feeling a little giddy, and she leaned for a moment against the barn wall to steady herself. A rank growth of grass grew all about her feet, and as she stood there gazing rather dizzily downwards she saw a ripple pass along it close to the building.
Any but a "new chum" would have known the meaning of that small disturbance, for there was no breath of air to cause it. Any but a "new chum," being quite defenceless, would have beaten instant and swift retreat.
But Dot Burton in her inexperience had no thought of evil. She was only curious. She forgot her weariness, and bent down to watch the moving grass.
At the same moment Robin suddenly raised his head and looked keenly in the direction of the farm, with a growl. The girl barely heard him, so interested was she. She even stooped and parted the tall grass with her hands when unexpectedly it ceased to move.
The next instant she started back with a wild cry of horror. For it was as if the grass itself had suddenly come to malignant life under her hands. A shape—long, thin, vividly green—rose up before her, and swayed with an angry hiss.
Her cry seemed to galvanize Robin into action, for he sprang up fiercely barking, but his attention was not directed towards her. He leapt instead towards the house, yelling resentment as he went. And in a flash the green evil struck at the bare brown arm!
Dot shrieked again, shrieked like a demented creature, and in a moment, with hands flung wide, she was fleeing across the sun-baked yard.
She reached the open door immediately behind Robin, and sprang in headlong. Robin had ceased to bark, and was fawning at the feet of a man who had evidently just entered. He was bent down over the dog, fondling him with one hand. In the other something bright gleamed, and as he straightened himself the girl saw that it was a revolver; but she was too agitated to take much note of the fact.
She burst in upon him in breathless, horrified distress. "I've been bitten!" she cried to him. "Bitten by a snake!"
"Where?" he said.
He had her by the arm in a second and was pushing up the loose holland sleeve. Later she marvelled at his promptitude, his instant intuition. At the moment she was too terrified, too near collapse, to notice any of these things.
He pushed her down upon a chair and knelt beside her. She found herself staring down at a shock of straw-coloured hair, while the owner of it sucked and sucked with an almost brutal force at a place in the crook of her arm that felt as if a red-hot needle had been plunged into it. She could feel the drawing of his teeth against her flesh. It was a sensation almost more horrible than the actual snake-bite had been.
Twice he turned his head and spat into the hearth, and she saw that his face was smooth and young, the colour of sun-baked brick.
At last he looked up at her with the most extraordinarily blue eyes she had ever seen, and said, with a kindly twinkle in them, "I don't think you'll die this time, missis."
She looked from him to her arm. The bite showed no more than the sting of a nettle, but around it was the deep impress of his teeth. Certainly he had done his task thoroughly.
The kettle was singing over the fire. He got to his feet and patted Robin on the head. "Let's wash it," he said. "Is there a basin handy?"
Dot sat in her chair, feeling rather weak. He fetched a bowl and set it on a chair by her side. He poured water into it from the kettle.
She looked up at him rather apprehensively. "I needn't scald it, need I?"
He smiled down at her in instant reassurance, a vivid smile that warmed her fear-chilled heart. His teeth were white and regular, like the teeth of a young wild animal.
"There's some cold water somewhere, isn't there?" he said.
She told him where to find it, and he cooled the steaming water to a temperature that she could endure without flinching. Then he made her rest her arm in it.
"That'll comfort it," he said. "Now, have you got any spirits in the house?"
"I don't drink spirits," she said quickly.
He smiled again. "No? But you must this time—just to complete the cure. Tell me where to find them!"
His smile was certainly magnetic, for she told him without further protest.
When he brought the spirits, she looked at him for the first time with active interest.
"I suppose you are Inspector Hill," she said.
He was pouring whisky into a glass. He gave her a sidelong glance. "Now that's a very clever guess," he said. "What put you on to that?"
She smiled, mainly because he had meant her to smile. "I've been half expecting you all day," she said.
He looked down at her more fully as he finished his task. "That's very interesting," he said. "Who told you to expect me?"
"My brother—Jack Burton," she explained.
"Oh! Jack Burton is your brother, is he?" He contemplated her thoughtfully for a second or two. "Well, I seem to have turned up at the right moment," he said.
"Yes." She leaned forward with flushed face upraised. "And I haven't said 'Thank you' yet. I'm so grateful to you. I can't tell you how grateful."
"Don't!" he said. "Don't! Drink this instead! Drink to the lucky chance that sent me your way! I'm proud to have been of use to you."
She took the glass unwillingly. "I'm sure I shall hate it."
"It's the best antidote to snake-poison out," he said. "I swear it won't upset you. If it makes you sleepy, well, you're in the right place and safe enough."
She liked his utterance of the last words. They had a genuine ring. "But, if I drink, so must you!" she said. "And eat, too! Jack said I was to give you a meal if you came."
He smiled again, a large, humorous smile. "That's the kindest thing Jack Burton has ever done," he said, with warm approval. "I'll join you with pleasure, missis. This man-trapping business is hungry work for all of us."
Dot frowned a little. It did not please her to be reminded of his mission. Her former prejudice began to revive within her, his kindness notwithstanding.
"I don't like the thought of it myself," she told him abruptly. "But, of course, I'm only a 'new chum.'"
"What?" he said, pausing in the act of pouring himself out a drink. "That sounds as if you want that scoundrel Bill to get away."
She coloured in some confusion under his look. How could she expect to make a policeman understand? "No—no!" she said, with vehemence. "I'm not quite so soft as that. I'd shoot him myself if he came my way. But I hate to think of a dozen men all on the track of one. It really isn't fair."
He laughed, but without superiority. "And yet you'd swell the odds? Do you call that fair?"
Dot paused to collect her arguments. It seemed that possibly even this machine of justice carried a small fragment of sympathy in his soul. Certainly he was not the judicial automaton she had expected him to be.
"It's like this," she said. "I'd shoot him if he came my way because he has done us a lot of mischief, and I want to stop it. But I'd do it squarely. I wouldn't do it when he wasn't looking. And I wouldn't—ever—make it my profession to hunt down criminals and even employ black men to help. I think that's hateful. I couldn't live that way. I'd be above it."
"I see." He lifted his glass to her in a silent toast, and drank a deep draught. "Then if you chanced to know where he was, I take it you'd just settle him yourself, if you could. But you wouldn't in any case give him away to the police. Is that your point of view?"
"It isn't unreasonable, is it?" she said, with a touch of eagerness. "I mean, if you weren't what you are, wouldn't you do the same?"
"I don't know," he said, smiling at her whimsically. "You see, being what I am handicaps me rather. I haven't much time for working out nice problems."
Dot leaned back again. He had disappointed her. But she could not neglect her duty on that account. She took her arm out of the water and dried it. Then she arose.
"How does it feel?" he said.
"Oh, only a little stiff," she answered, turning away. "Now I am going to get you something to eat. Sit down, won't you?"
Her tone was distant, but he did not seem to notice any change. He thanked her and sat down, facing the open door. Robin sat pressed against his knee. It was evident that the dog entertained no doubts regarding the visitor. Having passed him as respectable, he accepted him without reserve.
This fact presently occurred to Dot as she waited upon her visitor, and, since it was not her nature to prolong an uncomfortable situation, she broke the silence to comment upon it.
"He doesn't take to everyone at sight," she said.
"No?" She saw again that frank, disarming smile. "You see, missis, I know the ways of animals, and a very useful sort of knowledge I've found it."
"I wonder why you call me missis," she said. "I'm Jack's sister, not his wife."
He looked up at her. "But you're the boss of the establishment, I take it?"
She smiled also half against her will. "I'm rather new at present. But no doubt I shall learn."
"And then you'll go and boss some one else?" he suggested.
She coloured a little. "No. I shall stick to Jack," she said, with decision.
"Lucky Jack!" he said. "But you're quite right. There's no one good enough for you around here. We're a low breed mostly."
"I didn't mean that!" she protested, in quick distress. "I never thought that!"
"I know," he said. "I know. But you've sort of felt it all the same. Me, for instance!" His intensely blue eyes challenged her suddenly. "Haven't you said to yourself, 'That man may be up to local standard, but he's made of shocking crude material'? Straight now! Haven't you?"
She hesitated, her face burning under his direct look. "Do you—do you really want to know what I think?" she said.
"I do." There was something uncompromising in the brief rejoinder, yet somehow she did not find him formidable.
She answered him without difficulty in spite of her embarrassment. "I think, then, that it isn't you yourself at all that I feel like that about. It's just your profession."
"Ah!" He began to smile again. "Once live down that, and I might be possible. Is that it?"
She nodded, still flushed, yet curiously not uneasy. "Something like that. Why can't you be a farmer like Jack?"
"I wish I were," he said, unexpectedly.
"Why?" The word slipped out almost in spite of her, but she felt she must have an answer.
He answered her with his eyes full on her. "Because I'd like to lead the sort of life you would approve of," he said. "I've a notion it would be worth while."
She turned aside from his look. "It's only a matter of opinion, of course," she said.
"Is it?" he said. He turned his attention to the meal before him, and ate rapidly for a few moments while he considered the matter. At length: "Yes," he said. "I suppose you're right. Anyhow, you don't feel drawn that way. You won't feel a bit pleased if Buckskin Bill gets caught by the police this journey after this?"
Dot shook her head. "I don't think a man ought to be tracked down like a wild beast," she said, resolutely.
The blue eyes that watched her kindled a little. He finished what was on his plate and pushed it from him.
"I'm greatly obliged to you," he said, "for your hospitality. I needed it—badly enough. You'll thank Jack for me, won't you? I must be going now. But there's just one thing I'd like to say to you first."
He got up and stood before her. It was impossible not to admire his splendid height and breadth of chest. He could have lifted her easily with one hand. And yet, strangely, though she felt his power he did not make her aware of her own weakness.
She looked up at him. "Yes? What is it?"
"Just this, Miss Burton," he said, and somehow he lingered over the name in a fashion that made it sound musical in her ears. "I'd like to strike a bargain with you—because you've made a sort of impression on me. I'm not meaning any impertinence. You know that?"
"Go on!" she whispered, almost inaudibly.
He went on, bending slightly towards her. "The odds are dead against Buckskin Bill escaping, but—he may escape. If he does, will you—the next time I come to see you—treat me—without prejudice?"
He also was almost whispering as he uttered the last words.
She drew a sharp breath and looked at him. "You—you—are going to let him go?" she said, incredulously.
He did not answer. His eyes were drawing hers with a magnetism she could not resist. And they thrilled her—they thrilled her!
"The odds are dead against him," he said again, after a moment. "Is it—a bargain?"
Her heart gave a queer little jerk within her. She stood motionless for a space. Then, with a little quivering smile, she very, very slowly gave him her hand.
He took it into his great brown one, and though his touch was wholly gentle she felt the force of the man throbbing behind it, and it seemed to surge all around and within her.
He stood for a second as if irresolute or uncertain how to treat her. Then, with a wordless sound that needed no interpretation, he pushed back the sleeve from the place whence he had sucked the poison. It showed only a little red now. He bent very low until his lips pressed it again. Then for one burning moment they neither moved nor breathed.
The next thing that Dot realized was the passing of his great figure through the doorway out of her sight. She saw him don his slouch hat as he went.
* * * * *
She cleared the table again and sat down to her work. But somehow all energy had gone from her. A great lassitude hung upon her. Perhaps it was caused by the heat, or possibly by the whisky he had made her drink. There was no resisting it. It pressed her down like a physical weight. She gave herself up to it at last, and leaning back in her chair like a tired child she slept.
Robin lay at her feet. The afternoon crawled away. Like the enchanted princess of old, she reclined in a slumber so deep that life itself seemed to be suspended.
The sun began to slant towards the west, and the pastures took on a golden look. The lambs gambolled together with shrill bleatings. But Dot Burton slept on in her chair, a faint smile on her face of innocence. Though she could not have been dreaming in so deep a repose, her last thought ere she slept must have held happiness. Her serenity lay like a tender veil upon her.
It was drawing towards evening when Robin suddenly raised his head again with a deep growl. There came the sound of footsteps through the open door. The girl stirred and slowly awoke.
She stretched up her arms with a sleepy movement, and then, as voices reached her, roused herself completely and got to her feet.
Her brother and another man—a tall, lantern-jawed stranger—were on the point of entering.
Jack led the way. "Halloa, Dot!" he said. "Have you seen anything of our man? He's broken cover in this direction in spite of us. You haven't shot him by any chance, I suppose?"
Dot looked from him to the man behind him.
"Inspector Hill," said Jack. "Eh? What's the matter?"
"Nothing—nothing!" said Dot. Yet she had gone back a step as if she had been struck. She held out her hand to the policeman. "How do you do? I—I—am very pleased to meet you. So you haven't caught him after all?"
Inspector Hill was looking at her keenly. He wore a sardonic expression, as of one who knows that he has been outwitted. "I have not, madam," he said. "Neither, I presume, have you?"
She shook her head, looking him straight in the face. "No, I haven't. I am afraid I have been asleep. Are you sure he passed this way?"
Her eyes were clear and candid as the eyes of a boy. Inspector Hill turned his own away.
"Yes. Quite sure," he said, with brevity.
"He's a slippery devil," declared Jack Burton. "Sit down, man! My sister is a 'new chum.' She probably wouldn't have known him from a man on the farm if she'd seen him. In fact, if you'd turned up here by yourself she might have shot you—on suspicion."
"I probably should," said Dot, coldly.
She did not like Inspector Hill, and her manner plainly said so.
At her brother's behest she set food before them, for they were hot and jaded after their fruitless day; but she left the duties of host entirely to him, and as soon as possible she went away with Robin to feed the lambs.
A wonderful glow lay upon the grasslands. It was as if she moved through a magic atmosphere upon which some enchantment had been laid. Since that wonderful sleep of hers all things seemed to have changed. Had it all been a dream? she asked herself. Then, shuddering, she turned up her sleeve to find that small red patch upon her arm.
She found it. It tingled to her touch. Yet she continued to finger it with a curious feeling that was almost awe. She thought it must be the memory of his kiss that made it throb so hard.
Some one came softly up behind her. An arm encircled her. She turned with the day-dream still in her eyes and saw her brother.
She pulled down her sleeve quickly, for though his face was kind, he seemed to look at her oddly, almost with suspicion.
"Had a quiet day?" he questioned, gently.
She leaned against his shoulder, feeling small and rather uncomfortable. "I—I was very busy all the morning," she said, evasively.
"And in the afternoon?" he said.
She nestled to him with a little coaxing movement. "In the afternoon," she told him softly, "I went to sleep."
"Yes?" he said.
"That's all," said Dot, lifting her face to kiss him.
He took her chin and held it while he looked long and searchingly into her eyes.
"Dot!" he said.
She made a little gesture of protest, but he held her still.
"Dot, tell me what has been happening!" he said.
She had begun to tremble. "I'll tell you," she said, "when Inspector Hill has gone."
"Tell me now!" he said.
But she shook her head with tightly compressed lips.
"You have seen the man!" he said.
Dot remained silent.
His face grew grim. "Dot! Shall I tell you what Hill said to me just now?"
"If you like," whispered Dot.
"He said, 'She has seen the man, and he has squared her. It's a way he has with the women. You'll find she won't give him away.'"
That stung, as it was meant to sting. She flinched under it. "I hate Inspector Hill!" she said, with vehemence.
He smiled a little. "I don't suppose that fact would upset him much. A good many people don't exactly love him. But look here, Dot! You're not a fool. At least, I hope not. You can't seriously wish to shield a thief. Only this morning you were going to shoot him!"
"Ah!" she said. And then suddenly she pulled up her sleeve and showed him the mark upon her arm. "But he has saved my life since then," she said.
"What?" said Jack. He caught her arm and looked at it. "You've had a snake-bite!" he said.
His eyes went back to her face. "Why didn't you tell me before? What kind of snake was it?"
She told him, shuddering. "A horrible green thing—green as the grass. I think it had some black marking on its back. I'm not sure. I didn't stop to see. I—oh, Jack!" She broke off in swift consternation. "There is a dead lamb!"
"Ah!" said Jack, and strode across to the barn where it lay, stark and lifeless in the shade in which it had taken refuge from the afternoon heat.
"Oh, Jack!" cried Dot, in distress. "What can have happened to it? Not—not that hateful snake?"
"Not much doubt as to that," said Jack, grimly. "No, don't look too close! It's not a pretty sight. And don't cry, child! What's the good?"
He drew her away, his arm around her, holding her closely, comforting her. "It might have been you," he said.
She lifted her wet face from his shoulder. "It was—it would have been—but for—"
"All right," he interrupted. "Don't say any more!"
* * * * *
He left her to recover herself and went back to Fletcher Hill, sardonically awaiting him.
"On a wrong scent this time," he said. "She's lost one of the lambs from snake-bite, and it's upset her. She's a 'new chum,' you know."
"I know," said Inspector Hill.
Jack Burton leaned upon the table and looked him in the eyes. "My sister is not a detective," he said, warningly. "Buckskin Bill has been one too many for us this time. The odds were dead against him, but he's slipped through. And I've a pretty firm notion he won't come back."
"So have I," said Inspector Hill, unmoved.
"And a blasted good job too!" said Jack Burton, forcibly.
A gleam of humour crossed the Inspector's face. He pulled out his pipe with a gesture that made for peace.
"If I were in your place," he said, "I daresay I'd say the same."
* * * * *
"It's time I set about making my own living," said Dot Burton.
She spoke resolutely, and her face was resolute also; its young lines were for the moment almost grim. She stood in the doorway of the stable, watching her brother rub down the animal he had just been riding. Behind her the rays of the Australian sun smote almost level, making of her fair hair a dazzling aureole of gold. The lashes of her blue eyes were tipped with gold also, but the brows above them were delicately dark. They were slightly drawn just then, as if she were considering a problem of considerable difficulty.
Jack Burton was frankly frowning over his task. It was quite evident that his sister's announcement was not a welcome one.
She continued after a moment, as he did not respond in words: "I am sure I could make a living, Jack. I'm not the 'new chum' I used to be, thanks to you. You've taught me a whole heap of things."
Jack glanced up for a second. "Aren't you happy here?" he said.
She eluded the question. "You've been awfully good to me, dear old boy. But really, you know, I think you've got burdens enough without me. In any case, it isn't fair that I should add to them."
Jack grunted. "It isn't fair that you should do more than half the work on the place and not be paid for it, you mean. You're quite right, it isn't."
"No, I don't mean that, Jack." Quite decidedly she contradicted him. "I don't mind work. I like to have my time filled. I love being useful. It isn't that at all. But all the same, you and Adela are quite complete without me. Before you were married it was different. I was necessary to you then. But I'm not now. And so—"
"Has Adela been saying that to you?"
Jack Burton straightened himself abruptly. His expression was almost fierce.
Dot laughed at sight of it. "No, Jack, no! Don't be so jumpy! Of course she hasn't. As if she would! She hasn't said a thing. But I know how she feels, and I should feel exactly the same in her place. Now do be sensible! You must see my point. I'm getting on, you know, Jack. I'm twenty-five. Just fancy! You've sheltered me quite long enough—too long, really. You must—you really must—let me go."
He was looking at her squarely. "I can't prevent your going," he said, gruffly. "But it won't be with my consent—ever—or my approval. You'll go against my will—dead against it."
"Jack—darling!" She went to him impulsively and took him by the shoulders. "Now that isn't reasonable of you. It really isn't. You've got to take that back."
He looked at her moodily. "I shan't take it back. I can't. I am dead against your going. I know this country. It's not a place for lone women. And you're not much more than a child, whatever you may say. It's rough, I tell you. And you"—he looked down upon her slender fairness—"you weren't made for rough things."
"Please don't be silly, Jack!" she broke in. "I'm quite as strong as the average woman and, I hope, as capable. I'm grown up, you silly man! I'm old—older than you are in some ways, even though you have been in the world ten years longer. Can't you see I want to stretch my wings?"
"Want to leave me?" he said, and put his arms suddenly about her. She nestled to him on the instant, lifting her face to kiss him.
"No, darling, no! Never in life! But—you must see—you must see"—her eyes filled with tears unexpectedly, and she laid her head upon his shoulder to hide them—"that I can't—live on you—for ever. It isn't fair—to you—or to Adela—or to—to—anyone else who might turn up."
"Ah!" he said. "Or to you either. We've no right to make a slave of you. I know that. Perhaps Adela hasn't altogether realized it."
"I've nothing—whatever—against Adela," Dot told him, rather shakily. "She has never been—other than kind. No, it is what I feel myself. I am not necessary to you or to Adela, and—in a way—I'm glad of it. I like to know you two are happy. I'm not a bit jealous, Jack, not a bit. It's just as it should be. But you'll have to let me go, dear. It's time I went. It's right that I should go. You mustn't try to hold me back."
But Jack's arms had tightened about her. "I hate the thought of it," he said. "Give it up! Give it up, old girl—for my sake!"
She shook her head silently in his embrace.
He went on with less assurance. "If you wanted to get married it would be a different thing. I would never stand in the way of your marrying a decent man. If you must go, why don't you do that?"
She laughed rather tremulously. "You think every good woman ought to marry, don't you, Jack?"
"When there's a good man waiting for her, why not?" said Jack.
She lifted her head and looked at him. "I'm not going to marry Fletcher Hill, Jack," she said, with firmness.
Jack made a slight movement of impatience. "I never could see your objection to the man," he said.
She laughed again, drawing herself back from him. "But, Jack darling, a woman doesn't marry a man just because he's not objectionable, does she? I always said I wouldn't marry him, didn't I?"
"You might do a lot worse," said Jack.
"Of course I might—heaps worse. But that isn't the point. I think he's quite a good sort—in his own sardonic way. And he is a great friend of yours, too, isn't he? That fact would count vastly in his favour if I thought of marrying at all. But, you see—I don't."
"I call that uncommon hard on Fletcher," observed Jack.
She opened her blue eyes very wide. "My dear man, why?"
"After waiting for you all this time," he explained, suffering his arms to fall away from her.
She still gazed at him in astonishment. "Jack! But I never asked him to wait!"
He turned from her with a shrug of the shoulders. "No, but I did."
"You did? Jack, what can you mean?"
Jack stooped to feel one of his animal's hocks. He spoke without looking at her. "It's been my great wish—all this time. I've been deuced anxious about you often. Australia isn't the place for unprotected girls—at least, not out in the wilds. I've seen—more than enough of that. And you're no wiser than the rest. You lost your head once—over a rotter. You might again. Who knows?"
"Oh, really, Jack!" The girl's face flushed very deeply. She turned it aside instinctively, though he was not looking at her. But the colour died as quickly as it came, leaving her white and quivering.
She stood mutely struggling for self-control while Jack continued. "I know Fletcher. I know he's sound. He's a man who always gets what he wants. He wouldn't be a magistrate now if he didn't. And when I saw he wanted you, I made up my mind he should have you if I could possibly work it. I gave him my word I'd help him, and I begged him to wait a bit, to give you time to get over that other affair. He's been waiting—ever since."
Dot's hands clenched slowly. She spoke with a great effort. "Then he'd better stop waiting—at once, Jack, and marry someone else."
"He won't do that," said Jack. He stood up again abruptly and faced round upon her. "Look here, dear! Why can't you give in and marry him? He's such a good sort if you only get to know him well. You've always kept him at arm's length, haven't you? Well, let him come a bit nearer! You'll soon like him well enough to marry him. He'd make you happy, Dot. Take my word for it!"
She met his look bravely, though the distress still lingered in her eyes. "But, dear old Jack," she said, "no woman can possibly love at will."
"It would come afterwards," Jack said, with conviction. "I know it would. He's such a good chap. You've never done him justice. See, Dot girl! You're not happy. I know that. You want to stretch your wings, you say. Well, there's only one way of doing it, for you can't go out into the world—this world—alone. At least, you'll break my heart if you do. He's the only fellow anywhere near worthy of you. And he's been so awfully patient. Do give him his chance!"
He put his arm round her shoulders again, holding her very tenderly.
She yielded herself to him with a suppressed sob. "I'm sure it would be wrong, Jack," she said.
"Not a bit wrong!" Jack maintained, stoutly. "What have you been waiting for all this time? A myth, an illusion, that can never come true! You've no right to spoil your own life and someone else's as well for such a reason as that. I call that wrong—if you like."
She hid her face against him with a piteous gesture. "He—said he would come back, Jack."
Jack frowned over her bowed head even while he softly stroked it. "And if he had—do you think I would ever have let you go to him? A cattle thief, Dot! An outlaw!"
She clung to him trembling. "He saved my life—at the risk of his own," she whispered, almost inarticulately.
"Oh, I know—I know. He was that sort—brave enough, but a hopeless rotter." Jack's voice held a curious mixture of tenderness and contempt. "Women always fall in love with that sort of fellow," he said. "Heaven knows why. But you'd no right to lose your heart to him, little 'un. You knew—you always knew—he wasn't the man for you."
She clung to him in silence for a space, then lifted her face. "All right, Jack," she said.
He looked at her closely for a moment. "Come! It's only silly sentiment," he urged. "You can't feel bad about it after all this time. Why, child, it's five years!"
She laughed rather shakily. "I am a big fool, aren't I, Jack? Yet—somehow—do you know—I thought he meant to come back."
"Not he!" declared Jack. "Catch Buckskin Bill putting his head back into the noose when once he had got away! He's not quite so simple as that, my dear. He probably cleared out of Australia for good as soon as he got the chance. And a good thing, too!" he added, with emphasis. "He'd done mischief enough."
She raised her lips to his. "Thank you for not laughing at me, Jack," she said. "Don't—ever—tell Adela, will you? I'm sure she would."
He smiled a little. "Yes, I think she would. She'd say you were old enough to know better."
Dot nodded. "And very sensible, too. I am."
He patted her shoulder. "Good girl! Then that chapter is closed. And—you're going to give poor Fletcher his chance?"
She drew a sharp breath. "Oh, I don't know. I can't promise that. Don't—don't hustle me, Jack!"
He gave her a hard squeeze and let her go. "There, she shan't be teased by her horrid bully of a brother! She's going to play the game off her own bat, and I wish her luck with all my heart."
He turned to the job of feeding his horse, and Dot, after a few inconsequent remarks, sauntered away in the direction of the barn, "to be alone with herself," as she put it.
Adela Burton was laying the cloth for supper, and looking somewhat severe over the process. She was usually cheerful at that hour of the day, for it brought her husband back from his work and, thanks to Dot's ministrations, the evening was free from toil. It was seldom, indeed, that Adela bestirred herself to lay the cloth for any meal, for she maintained that it was better for a girl like Dot to have plenty to do at all times, and she herself preferred her needlework, at which she was an adept.
No one could have called her an idle woman, but she was eminently a selfish one. She followed her own bent, quite regardless of the desires and inclinations of anyone else. She was the hub of her world from her own point of view, and she was wholly incapable of recognizing any other. Most people realized this and, as is the way of humanity, took her at her own valuation, making allowances for her undoubted egotism. For she was comely and had a taking manner, never troubling herself unless her own personal convenience were threatened. She laughed a good deal, though her sense of humour was none of the finest, and she was far too practical to possess any imagination. In short, as she herself expressed it, she was sensible; and, being so, she had small sympathy with her sister-in-law's foolish sentimentalities, which she considered wholly out of place in the everyday life at the farm.
Not that Dot ever dreamed of confiding in her. She sheltered herself invariably behind a reserve so delicate as to be almost imperceptible to the elder woman's blunter susceptibilities. But she could not always hide the fineness of her inner feelings, and there were times when the two clashed in consequence. The occasions were rare, but Adela had come to know by experience that when they occurred, opposition on her part was of no avail. Dot was bound to have her way when her soul was stirred to battle for it, as on the day when she had refused to let Robin, the dog, be chained up when not on duty with the sheep. Adela had objected to his presence in the house, and Dot had firmly insisted upon it on the score that Robin had always been an inmate as the companion and protector of her lonely hours.
Adela had disputed the point with some energy, but she had been vanquished, and now, when Dot asserted herself, she seldom met with opposition from her sister-in-law. It was practically impossible that they should ever be fond of one another. They had nothing in common. Yet it was very seldom that Jack saw any signs of strain between them. They dwelt together without antagonism and without intimacy.
Nevertheless, Dot's announcement of her desire to go out into the world and hew a way for herself came as no surprise to him. He knew that she was restless and far from happy, knew that his marriage had unsettled her, albeit in a fashion he had not fathomed till their talk together. His young sister was very dear to him. She had been thrown upon his care years before when the death of their parents had left her dependent upon him. It had always been his wish to have her with him. His love for her was of a deep, almost maternal nature, and he hated the thought of parting with her. He had hoped that the companionship of Adela would have been a joy to her, and he was intensely disappointed that it had proved otherwise. His anxiety for her welfare had always been uppermost with him, and it hurt him somewhat when Adela laughed at his hopes and fears regarding the girl. It was the only point upon which his wife and he lacked sympathy.
Entering by way of the kitchen premises on that evening of his talk with Dot, he was surprised to find Adela fulfilling what had come to be regarded as Dot's duties. He looked around him questioningly as she emerged from the larder carrying a dish in one hand and a jug of milk in the other.
"Where's the little 'un?" he said.
It was his recognized pet name for Dot, but for some reason Adela had never approved of it. She frowned now at its utterance.
"Do you mean Dot? Oh, mooning about somewhere, I suppose. And leaving other people to do the work."
Jack promptly relieved her of her burden and set himself to help her with her task.
Adela was not ill-tempered as a rule. She smiled at him. "Good man, Jack! No one can say you're an idler, anyway. I've got rather a nice supper for you. I shouldn't wonder if Fletcher Hill turns up to share it. I hear he is on circuit at Trelevan."
"I heard it, too," said Jack. "He's practically sure to come."
"He's very persistent," said Adela. "Do you think he will ever win out?"
Jack nodded slowly. "I've never known him fail yet in anything he set his mind to—at least, only once. And that was a fluke."
"What sort of a fluke?" questioned Adela, who was frankly curious.
"When Buckskin Bill slipped through his fingers." Jack spoke thoughtfully. "That's the only time I ever knew him fail, and I'm not sure that it wasn't intentional then."
"Intentional!" Adela opened her eyes.
Jack smiled a little. "I don't say it was so. I only say it was possible. But never mind that! It's an old story, and the man got away, anyhow—disappeared, dropped out. Possibly he's dead. I hope he is. He did mischief enough in a short time."
"He set the whole district humming, didn't he?" said Adela. "They say all the women fell in love with him at sight. I wish I'd seen him."
Jack broke into a laugh. "You'd certainly have fallen a victim!"
She tossed her head. "I'm sure I shouldn't. I prefer respectable men. Shall we lay an extra plate in case Mr. Hill turns up?"
"No," said Jack. "Let him come unexpectedly!"
She gave him a shrewd look. "You think Dot will like that best?"
He nodded again. "Be careful! She's coming. Here's Robin!"
Robin came in, wagging his tail and smiling, and behind him came Dot. She moved slowly, as if dispirited. Jack's quick eyes instantly detected the fact that she had been shedding tears.
"You're too late, little 'un," he said, with kindly cheeriness. "The work is all done."
She looked from him to Adela. "I'm sorry I'm late," she said. "I'm afraid I forgot about supper."
"Oh, you're in love!" joked Adela. "You'll forget to come in at all one of these days."
The girl gave her a swift look, but said nothing, passing through with a weary step on her way to her own room.
Robin followed her closely, as one in her confidence; and Jack laid a quiet hand on his wife's arm.
"Don't laugh at her!" he said.
She stared at him. "Good gracious, Jack! What's the matter? I didn't mean anything."
"I know you didn't. But this thing is serious. If Fletcher Hill comes to-night, I believe she'll have him—that is, if she's let alone. But she won't if you twit her with it. It's touch and go."
Jack spoke with great earnestness. It was evident that the matter was one upon which he felt very strongly, and Adela shrugged a tolerant shoulder and yielded to his persuasion.
"I'll be as solemn as a judge," she promised. "The affair certainly has hung fire considerably. It would be a good thing to get it settled. But Fletcher Hill! Well, he wouldn't be my choice!"
"He's a fine man," asserted Jack.
"Oh, I've no doubt. But he's an animal with a nasty bite, or I am much mistaken. However, let Dot marry him by all means if she feels that way! It's certainly high time she married somebody."
She turned aside to put the teapot on the hob, humming inconsequently, and the subject dropped.
Jack went to his room to wash, and in a few minutes more they gathered round the supper-table with careless talk of the doings of the day.
It had always been Dot's favourite time, the supper-hour. In the old days before Jack's marriage she had looked forward to it throughout the day. The companionship of this beloved brother of hers had been the chief joy of her life.
But things were different now. It was her part to serve the meal, to clear the table, and to wash the dishes Jack and Adela were complete without her. Though they always welcomed her when the work was done, she knew that her society was wholly unessential, and she often prolonged her labours in the scullery that she might not intrude too soon upon them. She was no longer necessary to anyone—except to Robin the faithful, who followed her as her shadow. She had become Number Three, and she was lonely—she was lonely!
There came a sound of hoofs thudding over the pastures. Robin lifted his eyebrows and cocked his ears with a growl.
Dot barely glanced up from the saucepan she was cleaning; her lips tightened a little, that was all.
The hoofs drew rapidly nearer, dropping from a canter to a quick trot that ended in a clattering walk on the stones of the yard. Through the open window Dot heard the heavy thud of a man's feet as he jumped to the ground.
Then came Jack's voice upraised in greeting. "Hallo, Fletcher! Come in, man! Come in! Delighted to see you."
The voice that spoke in answer was short and clipped. Somehow it had an official sound. "Hallo, Jack! Good evening, Mrs. Burton! What! Alone?"
Jack laughed. "Dot's in the kitchen. Hi! little 'un! Bring some drinks!"
Robin was on his feet, uttering low, jerky barks. Dot put aside her saucepan and began to wash her hands. She did not hasten to obey Jack's call, but when she turned to collect glasses on a tray she was trembling and her breath came quickly, as if from violent exercise.
Nevertheless she did not hesitate, but went straight through to the little parlour, carrying her tray with the jingling glasses upon it.
Fletcher Hill was facing her as she entered, a tall man, tough and muscular, with black hair that was tinged with grey, and a long stubborn jaw that gave him an indomitable look. His lips were thin and very firm, with a sardonic twist that imparted a faintly supercilious expression. His eyes were dark, deep-set, and shrewd. He was a magistrate of some repute in the district, a position which he had attained by sheer unswerving hard work in the police force, in which for years he had been known as "Bloodhound Hill." A man of rigid ideas and stern justice, he had forced his way to the front, respected by all, but genuinely liked by only a very few.
Jack Burton had regarded him as a friend for years, but even Jack could not claim a very close intimacy with him. He merely understood the man's silences better than most. His words were very rarely of a confidential order.
He was emphatically not a man to attract any girl very readily, and Dot's attitude towards him had always been of a strictly impersonal nature. In fact, Jack himself did not know whether she really liked him or not. Yet had he set his heart upon seeing her safely married to him. There was no other man of his acquaintance to whom he would willingly have entrusted her. For Dot was very precious in his eyes. But to his mind Fletcher Hill was worthy of her, and he believed that she would be as safe in his care as in his own.
That Fletcher Hill had long cherished the silent ambition of winning her was a fact well known to him. Only once had they ever spoken on the subject, and then the words had been few and briefly uttered. But to Jack, who had taken the initiative in the matter, they had been more than sufficient to testify to the man's earnestness of purpose. From that day he had been heart and soul on Fletcher's side.
He wished he could have given him a hint that evening as he looked up to see the girl standing in the doorway; for Dot was so cold, so aloof in her welcome. He did not see what Hill saw at the first glance—that she was quivering from head to foot with nervous agitation.
She set down her tray and gave her hand to the visitor. "Doesn't Rupert want a drink?" she said.
Rupert was his horse, and his most dearly prized possession. Hill's rare smile showed for a moment at the question.
"Let him cool down a bit first," he said. "I am afraid I've ridden him rather hard."
She gave him a fleeting glance. "You have come from Trelevan?"
"Yes. I got there this afternoon. We left Wallacetown early this morning."
"Rode all the way?" questioned Jack.
"Yes, every inch. I wanted to see the Fortescue Gold Mine."
"Ah! There's a rough crowd there," said Jack. "They say all the uncaught criminals find their way to the Fortescue Gold Mine."
"Yes," said Hill.
"Is it true?" asked Adela, curiously.
"I am not in a position to say, madam." Hill's voice sounded sardonic.
"That means he doesn't know," explained Jack. "Look here, man! If you've ridden all the way from Wallacetown to-day you can't go back to Trelevan to-night. Your animal must be absolutely used up—if you are not."
"Oh, I think not. We are both tougher than that." Hill turned towards him. "Don't mix it too strong, Jack! I hardly ever touch it except under your roof."
"I am indeed honoured," laughed Jack. "But if you're going to spend the night you'll be able to sleep it off before you face your orderly in the morning."
"Do stay!" said Adela, hastening to follow up her husband's suggestion. "We should all like it. I hope you will."
Hill bowed towards her with stiff ceremony. "You are very kind, madam. But I don't like to give trouble, and I am expected back."
"By whom?" questioned Jack. "No one that counts, I'll swear. Your orderly won't break his heart if you take a night out. He'll probably do the same himself. And no one else will know. We'll let you leave as early as you like in the morning, but not before. Come, that's settled, isn't it? Go and get Rupert a shake-down, little 'un, and give him a decent feed with plenty of corn in it! No, let her, man; let her! She likes doing it, eh, Dot girl?"
"Yes, I like it," Dot said, and hurriedly disappeared before Hill could intervene.
Jack turned to his wife. "Now, missis! Go and make ready upstairs! It's only a little room, Fletcher, but it's snug. That's the way," as his wife followed Dot's example. "Now—quick, man! I want a word with you."
"Obviously," said the magistrate, dryly. "You needn't say it, thanks all the same. I'll leave that drink till—afterwards."
He straightened his tall figure with an instinctive bracing of the shoulders, and turned to the door.
Jack watched him go with a smile that was not untinged with anxiety, and lifted his glass as the door closed.
"You've got the cards, old feller," he said. "May you play 'em well!"
Fletcher Hill stepped forth into the moonlit night and stood still. It had been a swift maneuvre on Jack's part, and it might have disconcerted a younger man and driven him into ill-considered action. But it was not this man's nature to act upon impulse. His caution was well known. It had been his safeguard in many a difficulty. It stood him in good stead now.
So for a space he remained, looking out over the widespread grasslands, his grim face oddly softened and made human. He was no longer an official, but a man, with feelings rendered all the keener for the habitual restraint with which he masked them.
He moved forward at length through the magic moonlight, guided by the sound of trampling hoofs in the building where Jack's horse was stabled. He reached the doorway, treading softly, and looked in.
Dot was in a stall with his mount Rupert—a powerful grey, beside which she looked even lighter and daintier than usual. The animal was nibbling carelessly at her arm while she filled the manger with hay. She was talking to him softly, and did not perceive Hill's presence. Robin, who sat waiting near the entrance, merely pricked his ears at his approach.
Some minutes passed. Fletcher stood like a sentinel against the doorpost. He might have been part of it for his immobility. The girl within continued to talk to the horse while she provided for his comfort, low words unintelligible to the silent watcher, till, as she finished her task, she suddenly threw her arms about the animal's neck and leaned her head against it.
"Oh, Rupert," she said, and there was a throb of passion in her words, "I wish—I wish you and I could go right away into the wilderness together and never—never come back!"
Rupert turned his head and actually licked her hair. He was a horse of understanding.
She uttered a little sobbing laugh and tenderly kissed his nose. "You're a dear, sympathetic boy! Who taught you to be, I wonder? Not your master, I'm sure! He's nothing but a steel machine all through!"
And then she turned to leave the stable and came upon Fletcher Hill, mutely awaiting her.
THE COAT OF MAIL
She gave a great start at sight of him, then quickly drew herself together.
"You have come to see if Rupert is all right for the night?" she said. "Go in and have a look at him."
But Fletcher made no movement to enter. He faced her with a certain rigidity. "No. I came to see you—alone."
She made a sharp movement that was almost a gesture of protest. Then she turned and drew the door softly shut behind her. Robin came and pressed close to her, as if he divined that she stood in need of some support. With her back to the closed door and the moonlight in her eyes, she stood before Fletcher Hill.
"What do you want to say to me?" she said.
He bent slightly towards her. "It is not a specially easy thing, Miss Burton," he said, "when I am more than half convinced that it is something you would rather not hear."
She met his look with unflinching steadiness. "I think life is made up of that sort of thing," she said. "It's like a great puzzle that never fits. I've been saying—unwelcome things—to-day, too."
She smiled, but her lips were quivering. The man's hands slowly clenched.
"That means you're unhappy," he said.
She nodded. "I've been telling Jack that I must get away—go and earn my own living somewhere. He won't hear of it."
"I can understand that," said Fletcher Hill. "I wouldn't—in his place."
She kept her eyes steadfastly raised to his. "Do you know what Jack wants me to do?" she said.
"Yes." Hill spoke briefly, almost sternly. "He wants you to marry me."
She nodded again. "Yes."
He held out his hand to her abruptly. "I want it, too," he said.
She made no movement towards him. "That is what you came to say?" she asked.
"Yes," said Hill.
He waited a moment; then, as she did not take his hand, bent with a certain mastery and took one of hers.
"I've wanted it for years," he said.
"Ah!" A little sound like a sob came with the words. She made as if she would withdraw her hand, but in the end—because he held it closely—she suffered him to keep it. She spoke with an effort. "I—think you ought to understand that—that—it is not my wish to marry at all. If—if Jack had stayed single, I—should have been content to live on here for always."
"Yes, I know," said Hill. "I saw that."
She went on tremulously. "I've always felt—that a woman ought to be able to manage alone. It's very kind of you to want to marry me. But—but I—I think I'm getting too old."
"Is that the only obstacle?" asked Hill.
She tried to laugh, but it ended in a sound of tears. She turned her face quickly aside. "I can't tell you—of any other," she said, with difficulty, "except—except—"
"Except that you don't like me much?" he suggested dryly. "Well, that doesn't surprise me."
"Oh, I didn't say that!" She choked back her tears and turned back to him. "Let's walk a little way together, shall we? I—I'll try and explain—just how I feel about things."
He moved at once to comply. They walked side by side over the close-cropped grass. Dot would have slipped her hand free, but still he kept it.
They had traversed some yards before she spoke again, and then her voice was low and studiously even.
"I can't pretend to you that there has never been anyone else. It wouldn't be right. You probably wouldn't believe me if I did."
"Oh, I gathered that a long time ago," Hill said.
"Yes, of course you did. You always see everything, don't you? It's your specialty."
"I don't go about with my eyes shut, certainly," said Hill.
"I'm glad of that," Dot said. "I would rather you knew about it. Only"—her voice quivered again—"I don't know how to tell you."
"You are sure you would rather I knew?" he said.
"Yes." She spoke with decision. "You've got to know if—if—" She broke off.
"If we are going to be married?" he suggested.
"Yes," whispered Dot.
Hill walked a few paces in silence. Then, unexpectedly, he drew the nervous little hand he held through his arm. "Well, you needn't tell me any more," he said. "I know the rest."
She started and stood still. There was quick fear in the look she threw him. "You mean Jack told you—"
"No, I don't," said Hill. "Jack has never yet told me anything I couldn't have told him ages before. I knew from the beginning. It was the fellow they called Buckskin Bill, wasn't it?"
She quivered from head to foot and was silent.
Hill went on ruthlessly. "First, by a stroke of luck, he saved you from death by snake-bite. He always had the luck on his side, that chap. I should have caught him but for that. I'd got him—I'd got him in the hollow of my hand. But you"—for the first time there was a streak of tenderness in his speech—"you were a new chum then—you held me up. Remember how you covered his retreat when we came up? Did you really think I didn't know?"
She uttered a sobbing laugh. "I was very frightened, too. I always was scared at the law."
Hill nodded. He also was grimly smiling.
"But you dared it. You'd have dared anything for him that day. He always got the women on his side."
She winced a little.
"It's true," he asserted. "I know what happened—as well as if I'd seen it. He made love to you in a very gallant, courteous fashion. I never saw Buckskin Bill, but I believe he was always courteous when he had time. And he promised to come back, didn't he—when he'd given up being a thief and a swindler and had turned his hand to an honest trade? All that—for your sake!... Yes, I thought so. But, my dear child, do you really imagine he meant it—after all these years?"
She looked at him with a piteous little smile. "He—he'd be worth having—if he did, wouldn't he?" she said.
"I wonder," said Hill.
He waited for a few moments, then laid his hand upon her shoulder with a touch that seemed to her as heavy as the hand of the law.
"I can't help thinking," he said, "that you'd find a plain man like myself more satisfactory to live with. It's for you to decide. Only—it seems a pity to waste your life waiting for someone who will never come."
She could not contradict him. The argument was too obvious. She longed to put that steady hand away from her, but she felt physically incapable of doing so. An odd powerlessness possessed her. She was as one caught in a trap.
Yet after a second or two she mustered strength to ask a question to which she had long desired an answer. "Did you ever hear any more of him?"
"Not for certain. I believe he left the country, but I don't know. Anyway, he found this district too hot to hold him, for he never broke cover in this direction again. I should have had him if he had."
Fletcher Hill spoke with a grim assurance. He was holding her before him, one hand on her shoulder, the other grasping hers. Abruptly he bent towards her.
"Come!" he said. "It's going to be 'Yes,' isn't it?"
She looked up at him with troubled eyes. Suddenly she shivered as if an icy blast had caught her. "Oh, I'm frightened!" she said. "I'm frightened!"
"Nonsense!" said Hill.
He drew her gently to him and held her. She was shaking from head to foot. She began to sob, hopelessly, like a lost child.
"Don't!" he said. "Don't! It's all right. I'll take care of you. I'll make you happy. I swear to God I'll make you happy!"
It was forcibly spoken, and it showed her more of the man's inner nature than she had ever seen before. Almost in spite of herself she was touched. She leaned against him, fighting her weakness.
"It isn't—fair to you," she murmured at last.
"That's my affair," said Hill.
She kept her face hidden from him, and he did not seek to raise it; but there was undoubted possession in the holding of his arms.
After a moment or two she spoke again. "What will you do if—if you find you're not—happy with me?"
"I'll take my chance of that," said Fletcher Hill. He added, under his breath, "I'll be good to you—in any case."
That moved her. She lifted her face impulsively. "You—you are much nicer than I thought you were," she said.
He bent to her. "It isn't very difficult to be that," he said, with a somewhat sardonic touch of humour. "I haven't a very high standard to beat, have I?"
It was not very lover-like. Perhaps, he feared to show her too much of his soul just then, lest he seem to be claiming more than she was prepared to offer. Perhaps that reserve of his which clothed him like a coat of mail was more than even he could break through. But so it was that then—just then, when the desire of his heart was actually within his grasp, he contented himself with taking a very little. He kissed her, indeed, though it was but a brief caress—over before her quivering lips could make return; nor did he seek to deter her as she withdrew herself from his arms.
She stood a moment, looking small and very forlorn. Then she turned to retrace her steps.
"Shall we go back?" she said.
He went back with her in silence till they reached the gate that led into the yard. Then for a second he grasped her arm, detaining her.
"It is—'Yes?'" he questioned.
She bent her head in acquiescence, not looking at him. "Yes," she said, in a whisper.
And Fletcher let her go.
THE LOST ROMANCE
Jack looked in vain for any sign of elation on his friend's face when he entered. He read nothing but grim determination. Dot's demeanour also was scarcely reassuring. She seemed afraid to lift her eyes.
"Isn't it nearly bed-time?" she murmured to Adela as she passed.
Adela looked at her with frank curiosity. There were no fine shades of feeling about Adela. She always went straight to the point—unless restrained by Jack.
"Oh, it's quite early yet," she said, wholly missing the appeal in the girl's low-spoken words. "What have you two been doing? Moonshining?"
Fletcher looked as contemptuous as his immobile countenance would allow, and sat down by his untouched drink without a word.
But it took more than a look to repress Adela. She laughed aloud. "Does that mean I am to draw my own conclusions, Mr. Hill? Would you like me to tell you what they are?"
"Not for my amusement," said Hill, dryly. "Where did you get this whisky from, Jack? I hope it's a legal brand."
"I hope it is," agreed Jack. "I don't know its origin. I got it through Harley. You know him? The manager of the Fortescue Gold Mine."
"Yes, I know him," said Hill. "He is retiring, and another fellow is taking his place."
"Retiring, is he? I thought he was the only person who could manage that crowd." Jack spoke with surprise.
Hill took out his pipe and began to fill it. "He's got beyond it. Too much running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. They need a younger man with more decision and resource—someone who can handle them without being afraid."
"Have they got such a man?" questioned Jack.
"They believe they have." Hill spoke thoughtfully. "He's a man from the West, who has done some tough work in the desert, but brought back more in the way of experience than gold. He's been working in the Fortescue Mine now for six months, a foreman for the past three. Harley tells me the men will follow him like sheep. But for myself, I'm not so sure of him."
"Not sure of him? What are you afraid of? Whisky-running?" asked Jack, with a twinkle.
There was no answering gleam of humour on Hill's face. "I never trust any man until I know him," he said. "He may be sound, or he may be a scoundrel. He's got to prove himself."
"You take a fatherly interest in that mine," observed Jack.
"I have a reason," said Fletcher Hill, briefly.
"Ah! Ever met Fortescue himself?"
"Once or twice," said Hill.
"Pretty badly hated, isn't he?" said Jack.
"By the blackguards, yes." Hill spoke with characteristic grimness. "He's none the worse for that."
"All the better, I should say," remarked Adela. "But what is he like? Is he an old man?"
"About my age," said Hill.
"I wish you'd give us an introduction to him," she said, with animation. "I've always wanted to see that mine. You'd like to, too, wouldn't you, Dot?"
Dot started a little. She had been sitting quite silent in the background.
"I expect it would be quite interesting," she said, as Hill looked towards her. "But perhaps it wouldn't be very easy to manage it."
"I could arrange it if you cared to go," said Hill.
"Could you? How kind of you! But it would mean spending the night at Trelevan, wouldn't it? I—I think we are too busy for that." Dot glanced at her brother in some uncertainty.
"Oh, it could be managed," said Jack, kindly. "Why not? You don't get much fun in life. If you want to see the mine, and Hill can arrange it, it shall be done."
"Thank you," said Dot.
Adela turned towards her. "My dear, do work up a little enthusiasm! You've sat like a mute ever since you came in. What's the matter?"
Dot was on her feet in a moment. This sort of baiting, good-natured though it was, was more than she could bear. "I've one or two jobs left in the kitchen," she said. "I'll go and attend to them—if no one minds."
She was gone with the words, Adela's ringing laugh pursuing her as she closed the door. She barely paused in the kitchen, but fled to her own room. She could not—no, she could not—face the laughter and congratulations that night.
She flung herself down upon her bed and lay there trembling like a terrified creature caught in a trap. Her brain was a whirl of bewildering emotions. She knew not which way to turn to escape the turmoil, or even if she were glad or sorry for the step she had taken. She wondered if Hill would tell Jack and Adela the moment her back was turned, and dreaded to hear the sound of her sister-in-law's footsteps outside her door.
But no one came, and after a time she grew calmer. After all, though in the end she had made her decision somewhat suddenly, it had not been an unconsidered one. Though she could not pretend to love Fletcher Hill, she had a sincere respect for him. He was solid, and she knew that her future would be safe in his hands. The past was past, and every day took her farther from it. Yet very deep down in her soul there still lurked the memory of that past. In the daytime she could put it from her, stifle it, crowd it out with a multitude of tasks; but at night in her dreams that memory would not always be denied. In her dreams the old vision returned—tender, mocking, elusive—a sunburnt face with eyes of vivid blue that looked into hers, smiling and confident with that confidence that is only possible between spirits that are akin. She would feel again the pressure of a man's lips on the hollow of her arm—that spot which still bore the tiny mark which once had been a snake-bite. He had come to her in her hour of need, and though he was a fugitive from justice, she would never forget his goodness, his readiness to serve her, his chivalry. And while in her waking hours she chid herself for her sentimentality, yet even so, she had not been able to force herself to cast her brief romance away.
Ah, well, she had done it now. The way was closed behind her. There could be no return. It was all so long ago. She had been little more than a child then, and now she was growing old. The time had come to face the realities of life, to put away the dreams. She believed that Fletcher Hill was a good man, and he had been very patient. She quivered a little at the thought of that patience of his. There was a cast-iron quality about it, a forcefulness, that made her wonder. Had she ever really met the man who dwelt within that coat of mail? Could there be some terrible revelation in store for her? Would she some day find that she had given herself to a being utterly alien to her in thought and impulse? He had shown her so little—so very little—of his soul.
Did he really love her, she wondered? Or had he merely determined to win her because it had been so hard a task? He was a man who revelled in overcoming difficulties, in asserting his grim mastery in the face of heavy odds. He was never deterred by circumstances, never turned back from any purpose upon the accomplishment of which he had set his mind. His subordinates were afraid to tell him of failure. She had heard it said that Bloodhound Hill could be a savage animal when roused.
There came a low sound at her door, the soft turning of the handle, Jack's voice whispered through the gloom.
"Are you asleep, little 'un?"
She started up on the bed. "Oh, Jack, come in, dear! Come in!"
He came to her, put his arms about her, and held her close. "Fletcher's been telling me," he whispered into her ear. "Adela's gone to bed. It's quite all right, little 'un, is it? You're not—sorry?"
She caught the anxiety in the words as she clung to him. "I—don't think so," she whispered back. "Only I—I'm rather frightened, Jack."
"There's no need, darling," said Jack, and kissed her very tenderly. "He's a good fellow—the best of fellows. He's sworn to me to make you happy."
She was trembling a little in his hold. "He—doesn't want to marry me yet, does he?" she asked, nervously.
He put a very gentle hand upon her head. "Don't funk the last fence, old girl!" he said, softly. "You'll like being married."
"Ah!" She was breathing quickly. "I am not so sure. And there's no getting back, is there, Jack? Oh, please, do ask him to wait a little while! I'm sure he will. He is very kind."
"He has waited five years already," Jack pointed out. "Don't you think that's almost long enough, dear?"
She put a hand to her throat, feeling as if there were some constriction there. "He has been speaking to you about it! He wants you to—to persuade me—to—to make me—"
"No, dear, no!" Jack spoke very gravely. "He wants you to please yourself. It is I who think that a long delay would be a mistake. Can't you be brave, Dot? Take what the gods send—and be thankful?"
She tried to laugh. "I'm an awful idiot, Jack. Yes, I will—I will be brave. After all, it isn't as if—as if I were really sacrificing anything, is it? And you're sure he's a good man, aren't you? You are sure he will never let me down?"
"I am quite sure," Jack said, firmly. "He is a fine man, Dot, and he will always set your happiness before his own."
She breathed a short sigh. "Thank you, Jack, I feel better. You're wonderfully good to me, dear old boy. Tell him—tell him I'll marry him as soon as ever I can get ready! I must get a few things together first, mustn't I?"
Jack laughed a little. "You look very nice in what you've got."
"Oh, don't be silly!" she said. "If I'm going to live at Wallacetown—Wallacetown, mind you, the smartest place this side of Sydney—I must be respectably clothed. I shall have to go to Trelevan, and see what I can find."
"You and Adela had better have a week off," said Jack, "and go while Fletcher is busy there. You'll see something of him in the evenings then."
"What about you?" she said, squeezing his arm.
"Oh, I shall be all right. I'm expecting Lawley in from the ranges. He'll help me. I've got to learn to do without you, eh, little 'un?" He held her to him again.
She clasped his neck. "It's your own doing, Jack; but I know it's for my good. You must let me come and help you sometimes—just for a holiday." Her voice trembled.
He kissed her again with great tenderness. "You'll come just whenever you feel like it, my dear," he said. "And God bless you!"
THE WAY TO HAPPINESS
On account of its comparative proximity to the gold mine, Trelevan, though of no great size, was a busy place. Dot had stayed at the hotel there with her brother on one or two occasions, but it was usually noisy and crowded, and, unlike Adela, she found little to amuse her in the type of men who thronged it. Fletcher Hill always stayed there when he came to Trelevan. The police court was close by, and it suited his purpose; but he mixed very little with his fellow-guests and was generally regarded as unapproachable—a mere judicial machine with whom very few troubled to make acquaintance.
Fletcher Hill in the role of a squire of dames was a situation that vastly tickled Adela's sense of humour. As she told Jack, it was going to be the funniest joke of her life.
Neither Hill nor his grave young fiancee seemed aware of any cause for mirth, but with Adela that was neither here nor there. She and Dot never had anything in common, and as for Fletcher Hill, he was the driest stick of a man she had ever met. But she was not going to be bored on that account. To give Adela her due, boredom was a malady from which she very rarely suffered.
She was in the best of spirits on the evening of their arrival at Trelevan. The rooms that Fletcher Hill had managed to secure for them led out of each other, and the smaller of them, Dot's looked out over the busiest part of the town. As Adela pointed out, this was an advantage of little value at night, and it could be shared in the daytime.
Dot said nothing. She was used to her sister-in-law's cheerful egotism, and Adela had never hesitated to invade her privacy if she felt so inclined. Her chief consolation was that Adela was a very sound sleeper, so that there was small chance of having her solitude disturbed at night.
She herself was not sleeping so well as usual just then. A great restlessness was upon her, and often she would pace to and fro like a caged thing for half the night. She was not actively unhappy, but a great weight seemed to oppress her—a sense of foreboding that was sometimes more than she could bear.
Fletcher Hill's calm countenance as he welcomed them upon their arrival reassured her somewhat. He was so perfectly self-controlled and steady in his demeanour. The very grasp of his hand conveyed confidence. She felt as if he did her good.
They dined together in the common dining-room, but at a separate table in a corner. There were many coming and going, and Adela was frankly interested in them all. As she said, it was so seldom that she had the chance of studying the human species in such variety. When the meal was over she good-naturedly settled herself in a secluded corner and commanded them to leave her.
"There's something in the shape of a glass-house at the back," she said. "I don't know if it can be called a conservatory. But anyhow I should think you might find a seat and solitude there, and that, I conclude, is what you most want. Anyhow, don't bother about me! I can amuse myself here for any length of time."
They took her at her word, though neither of them seemed in any hurry to depart. Dot lingered because the prospect of a tete-a-tete in a strange place, where she could not easily make her escape if she desired to do so, embarrassed her. And Hill waited, as his custom was, with a grim patience that somehow only served to increase her reluctance to be alone with him.
"Run along! It's getting late," Adela said at last. "Carry her off, Mr. Hill! You'll never get her to make the first move."
There was some significance in words and smile. Dot stiffened and turned sharply away.
Hill followed her, and outside the room she waited for him.
"Do you know the way?" she asked, without looking at him.
He took her by the arm, and again she had a wayward thought of the hand of the law. She knew now what it felt like to be marshalled by a policeman. She almost uttered a remark to that effect, but, glancing up at him, decided that it would be out of place. For the man's harsh features were so sternly set that she wondered if Adela's careless talk had aroused his anger.
She said nothing, therefore, and he led her to the retreat her sister-in-law had mentioned in unbroken silence. It was certainly not a very artistic corner. A few straggling plants in pots decorated it, but they looked neglected and shabby. Yet the thought went through her, it might have been a bower of delight had they been in the closer accord of lovers who desire naught but each other.
The place was deserted, lighted only by a high window that looked into a billiard-room. The window was closed, but the rattle of the balls and careless voices of the players came through the silence. A dusty bench was let into the wall below it.
"Do you like this place?" asked Fletcher Hill.
She glanced around her with a little nervous laugh. "It's as good as any other, isn't it?"
His hand still held her arm. He bent slightly, looking into her face. "I've been wanting to talk to you," he said.
"Have you?" She tried to meet his look, but failed. "What about?" she said, almost in a whisper.
He bent lower. "Dot, are you afraid of me?" he said.
That brought her eyes to his face with a jerk. "I—I—no—of course not!" she stammered, in confusion.
"Quite sure?" he said.
She collected herself with an effort. "Quite," she told him with decision, and met his gaze with something of a challenge in her own.
But he disconcerted her the next moment. She felt again the man's grim mastery behind the iron of his patience. "I want to talk to you," he said, "about our marriage."
"Ah!" It was scarcely more than a sharp intake of the breath, and as it escaped again Dot turned white to the lips. His close scrutiny became suddenly more than she could bear, and she turned sharply from him.
He kept his hand upon her arm, but he made no further effort to restrain her, merely waiting mutely for her to speak.
In the room behind them there came the smart knocking of the balls, and a voice cried, "By Jove, he's fluked again! It's the devil's own luck!"
Dot flinched a little. The careless voice jarred upon her. Her nerves were all on edge. Fletcher Hill's hand was like a steel trap, cold and firm and merciless. She longed to wrench herself free from it, yet felt too paralysed to move.
And still he waited, not urging her, yet by his very silence making her aware of a compulsion she could not hope to resist for long.
She turned to him at last in desperation. "What—have you to suggest?" she asked.
"I?" he said. "I shall be ready at the end of the week—if that will suit you."
She gazed at him blankly. "The end of the week! But of course not—of course not! You are joking!"
"No, I am serious," Fletcher said. "Sit down a minute and let me explain!"
Then, as she hesitated, he very gently put her down upon the seat under the closed window, and stood before her, blocking her in.
"I have been wanting this opportunity of talking to you," he said, "without Jack chipping in. He's a good fellow, and I know he is on my side. But I have a fancy for scoring off my own bat. Listen, Dot! I am not suggesting anything very preposterous. You have promised to marry me. Haven't you?"
"Yes," she whispered, breathlessly. "Yes."
"Yes," he repeated. "And the longer you have to think about it, the more scared you will get. My dear child, what is the point of spinning it out in this fashion? You are going through agonies of mind—for nothing. If I gave you back your freedom, you wouldn't be any happier, would you?"
She was silent.
"Would you?" he said again, and laid his hand upon her shoulder.
"I—don't think so," she said, faintly.
He took up her words again with magisterial emphasis. "You don't think so. Well, there is every reason to suppose you wouldn't. You weren't happy before, were you?"
She gripped her courage with immense effort. "I haven't been happy—since," she said.
He accepted the statement without an instant's discomfiture. "I know you haven't. I realized that the moment I saw you. You have been suffering the tortures of the damned because you're in a positive hell of indecision. Oh, I know all about it." His hand moved a little upon her shoulder; it almost seemed to caress her. "I haven't studied human nature all these years for nothing. I know you're in a perfect fever of doubt, and it'll go on till you're married. What's the good of it? Why torture yourself like this when the way to happiness lies straight before you? Are you hoping against hope that something may yet turn up to prevent our marriage? Would you be happy if it did? Answer me!"
But she shrank from answering, sitting with her hands clasped tightly before her and her eyes downcast like a prisoner awaiting sentence. "I don't know—what I want," she told him, miserably. "I feel—as if—whatever I do—will be wrong."
"That's just it," said Fletcher Hill, as if that were the very admission he had been waiting for. And then he did what for him was a very curious thing. He went down upon one knee on the dusty floor, bringing his face on a level with hers, clasping her tense hands between his own. "You don't trust yourself, and you won't trust me," he said. "Isn't that it? Or something like it?"
The official air had dropped from him like a garment. She looked at him doubtfully, almost as if she suspected him of trying to trick her. Then, reassured by something in the harsh countenance which his voice and words utterly failed to express, she leaned impulsively forward with a swift movement of surrender and laid her head against his shoulder.
"I'll do—whatever you wish," she said, in muffled tones. "I will trust you! I do trust you!"
He put his arm around her, for she was trembling, and held her so for a space in silence.
The voice in the billiard-room took up the tale. "That fellow's luck is positively prodigious. He can't help scoring—whatever he does. He'd dig gold out of an ash heap."
Someone laughed, and there came again the clash of the billiard-balls, followed in a second by a shout of applause.