This is the story of one man's soul.
The paths are stony and passion is blind,
And feet must bleed ere the light we find.
The cypher is writ on Life's mighty scroll,
And the Key is in each man's mind.
But who read aright, ye have won release,
Ye have touched the joy in the heart of Peace.
My story was suggested by a beautiful poem entitled "Loraine," which appears in a volume of verses by the late George Essex Evans, the Australian poet, entitled "The Secret Key," published by Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1906.
"O sweet is the dawn of Love's perfect spring,
When the white arms clasp and the soft lips cling."
THE blazing sun flung out its scorching rays from the cobalt sky, lighting up the billowy landscape with a flame of withering tire. The panting earth, riven and shrivelled, was brown and bare. The hardy gum and box trees drooped and wilted, the water courses had dried up, and the erstwhile picturesque little settlement of Glenbar Run had the appearance of having been swept by a thrice heated blast of a smelting furnace. Like most Australian settlements on the fringe of the Wilderness Glenbar Run, an outpost of civilisation, was a straggling hamlet composed of wooden shanties which might have been shaken up in a gigantic dice box and tumbled out on to the earth in higgledy-piggledy fashion. Hardy men from the old country had come here to tempt fortune and make their homes. They were all in the employ of the owner of the Run. There had been fat years and lean years. In the fat ones horses, sheep and cattle roamed the grass-green, well-watered plains, and brought wealth to their owners; then ensued a period when the heavens dried up, the parched earth turned brown and barren, while cattle and sheep perished by thousands, and their bones, bleached white in the pitiless heat, were scattered over the plains. There had been a two years' drought in the district of Glenbar, and the little handful of settlers bemoaned their fate, and were tempted to curse nature for her cruelty, forgetting the plenteous seasons when the trees put forth their green leaves, when the orchards were golden with ripening fruit, when the rich plains laughed into a harvest, and the cattle roamed knee deep in lush grass. The green years far out-numbered the brown ones, but when the brown ones came they spelt loss for all, ruin for some.
The earliest settlers in that wild region were the Prestons, descendants from hardy English stock, an ancient family who have written their names in something more stable than water. Emigrating from the old country their wandering feet came at last to this edge of the wilderness in a season when all was green, and the narrow meandering river flowed deep in its bed; there they pitched their tent, there they made their home; they sowed and reaped; their four-footed beasts increased and multiplied, and they waxed rich. They were followed in time by a family who boasted of their descent from the Scotch Gordons. The lure of Australia had drawn them from their native heath where the Scottish hills were barren, and life was hard, toil profitless.
Wide and rich as the district of Glenbar was the Prestons considered the Gordons intruders, and resented their settling there; a bitter feud arose between them, and lasted for many years. The Prestons, however, having made good their claims, did more than hold their own, and finally 'the Gordons retreated about forty miles further to the south-east, and founded the township of Gordonstown. But the feud continued between the two families until death claimed the old generation, and a new one began to consolidate that, which in the primitive days, their fathers had begun. The old feud seemed to have been forgotten and Harold Preston, Lord paramount of Glenbar Run, was the close friend of Oliver Gordon of Gordonstown. Harold was Australian born, but Gordon had come from the old country while still a young man and so they had been much together, though Gordon had spent some years in the South, Melbourne and Sydney, and it seemed as if the bond of friendship that knit them would remain unbroken during the span of their mortal lives.
Harold Preston's homestead was a congeries of irregular buildings, including a large and roomy frame house which served the purpose of a dwelling and office, and numerous out-buildings, which now gaped and yawned in the blistering heat, and, excepting the stables, were silent and deserted. It stood at the end of "Main Street," a street only in name, facing the plains that stretched away to the north-west where land and sky seemed to meet. In a roughly boarded room whose wooden walls were hung with guns, revolvers, spears and pouches, Harold sat at a paper-strewn table. The window frames were hung with matting to keep out the blinding sunlight; saddles and harness, spades, rakes and a miscellaneous assortment of other tools were scattered about the floor, while a large oil lamp swung from the wooden ceiling.
Harold was a splendid specimen of a man who looked younger than his twenty-six years. He had a massive frame, muscular and well knit by the hard, open-air life he had led. He was a bushman by instinct and training, and the sun had tanned his skin to the colour of an Arab. Indeed his dark eyes, hair and moustache might have enabled him to pass for an Arab. Attired in a thin woollen shirt, belt, cord breeches and long boots, his arms bared to the shoulders, he looked like a man capable of bearing any hardship, one who would be dauntless in the face of danger. But now as he sat with a number of open letters before him, he seemed thoughtful and troubled. His elbow rested on the arm of his chair, his hand was pressed to his forehead. He was not alone. His manager, Jim Dawkins, who an hour ago had ridden in from Gordonstown with the mail bag, was reclining on a rickety couch, blowing clouds of smoke from a clay pipe. His large felt hat was flung carelessly on the floor, his shirt was wide open at the neck, and the exposed parts of his body were brick-brown. He was the product of a country and mode of life that demand brawn and exceptional powers of endurance. After his long ride in the scorching heat, he had been content to rest and remain silent for half an hour enjoying his pipe while his employer perused his letters.
At last he swung his feet off the couch, and sitting upright, spoke.
"Bad news; eh, boss?" Jim was a man of discernment; he used his eyes to good purpose.
"Yes, Jim. Couldn't be worse. This drought means ruin for me."
"Not as bad as that I hope, boss."
"Yes, Jim, ruin, absolute ruin," said Preston with a sigh. "The loss of fifty thousand sheep and cattle during the last two years, to say nothing of the failure of the crops, had nearly brought me to the end of my tether, and now the final blow has fallen."
Jim jumped to his feet, his great bulky frame heaved.
"God! What is it, boss?" he exclaimed.
For some moments the boss remained silent. His feelings had overcome him, but with an effort he recovered himself.
"Frampton & Heathcote, the solicitors in Melbourne, write to say that their client has instructed them to foreclose the mortgage on my property."
Jim Dawkins' tanned forehead puckered into a frown.
"Blarst 'em," he snapped ferociously.
"The drought has blasted us," the boss rejoined. "They'll flourish, but we shall go under. And this is the end of my toil and struggle." Then with a passionate outburst he pressed his hands to his head and cried: "My God, has nature no pity; will the rain never come?"
"Can nothing be done, boss?" asked Jim in a tone of despair, while his browned face took on an expression of deep concern.
"What is there to do? As you know the remnant of the live stock that I sent down to Melbourne three months ago were in such wretched condition that they only realised half of what I expected to get, and now I have nothing else to sell."
Jim thrust his great sunburnt hands deep into his breeches pockets, and paced up and down for some moments. He was a rugged, honest fellow, but his brain worked slowly though it worked well. Suddenly he swung round, and his blue eyes sparkled.
"Now look you 'ere, boss. I was on this Run in your old father's day, and I've seen ups and downs, but there has been more ups than downs. And you and me has seen ups and downs, but the ups had it till this hellish drought struck us. Now you've got to pull through somehow. I've been a saving chap as you know, and I've got something like a thousand quid stowed away in a Melbourne bank. That's yours, boss, every farthing of it if it's of any use."
Harold seized the hand of his faithful servant and wrung it. His voice was husky as he spoke.
"Jim, you are a white man," he said with visible emotion. "But unless rain comes to-morrow or the next day, or a month hence your thousand pounds would only go into the melting pot, and you, like myself, would be left penniless. No, my friend, I am not going to gamble with your bit which you've won by sweat and toil. I am still young, you are getting into years. This is a big country, and somewhere or other I must begin life over again, or go out and search for gold."
"And what of Miss Mary?" asked Jim with a touching tenderness.
"My God! Yes, what of her," gasped Harold as he reeled, fell into a chair and covered his face with his hands.
Jim Dawkins' face was a picture of distress. He had been a loyal and faithful servant to his master, and beneath his rough exterior beat a big heart. He laid a hand on Harold's shoulder.
"Now look here, boss. You ain't agoing to knock under if I can help it. You've got to take that bit of mine for the gal's sake. Maybe it's only a drop in the bucket, but in these droughty times even a drop's precious. If the rains come in the autumn you can stock the land again, and things will pan out all right, you bet."
Harold caught the hand in both of his and pressed it hard. His eyes were wet. The strong man's soul was stirred to its depths.
"Jim Dawkins," he said with a catch in his voice, "I wish you hadn't mentioned Miss Mary's name; it tempts me to take your savings—the savings of years—when all the time I know it is bound to go as the rest has gone unless God Almighty will open the sluice gates and let the rains fall. But the heavens are dried up, and the blistered land hasn't feed enough to keep a single sheep alive, nor moisture enough to grow a single ear of corn."
"But if the thousand would tide you over for another few months," urged Jim, "and if the rain comes then—"
"If—if—that mighty if. If one could make sure of the rain; if one could make sure of anything in this strange world—If!"
"I tell yer, boss, it will come in the autumn as sure's death," persisted Jim. "I see signs—Hullo, here's a buggy coming up," as the sound of wheels and the hoof beats of a horse fell on his ears. He walked to the window, pulled aside the matting, letting in a flood of blinding light, and shading his eyes from the quivering, white heat-haze he saw a buggy being rapidly driven up "Main Street," and as it came to a stop at the homestead, he let the mat fall, and announced: "It's Miss Mary Gordon, and Mr Oliver Gordon."
HAROLD PRESTON sprang to his feet and hurried to the veranda, followed by Jim, as a handsome young man in a white duck suit was helping a young lady out of the buggy.
"By Jove!" cried Preston as he wrung the hand of each in turn, "you come like manna from heaven to me in the wilderness. But whatever has brought you up to this furnace?"
"Phew! What heat," exclaimed Oliver Gordon. "It's been like driving through the realms of Hades. But give us to drink or we perish. Here, Jim, haul that case out of the trap, then get the horse into the stable and rub him down. I've brought plenty of feed for him in the buggy."
The case was carried into Harold's room. It contained an assortment of bottles of spirits, wine and soda-water. Harold's old housekeeper Betsy was summoned and ordered to conduct Miss Gordon to the bedroom and provide her with the means of removing the white dust of the road from her garments and face.
When the two men were alone Harold turned to his friend, and again asked:
"What in the name of all that's wonderful has induced you to come up here in this blistering heat?"
"You may well ask! But I'm choking with dust; my mouth is like a fiery furnace; I must have a drink before I can talk." He produced a corkscrew from his pocket, opened the case, took out a bottle of brandy and some soda-water, while Harold produced glasses from his cupboard.
"Well, here's to you, old chap; and may God be merciful and send rain," said Oliver as he drained a tumbler of brandy and soda. "Ah, that's refreshing, hot as it is." He threw himself on to the couch, pulled out his pipe and rammed it full of tobacco, and as he puffed out a cloud of smoke said, "Now I begin to feel more like a respecting Christian. Upon my soul I think that drive from Gordonstown here in weather like this is about the limit. And I don't believe any other horse I have in my possession but the roan gelding would have stayed it. Forty odd miles in this heat is a staggerer."
"What! do you mean to say you've driven Kangaroo?"
"Why of course. Didn't you recognise him?"
"No, I was so surprised to see you and Mary I had no eyes for anything else."
"Dear old Kangaroo," mused Oliver. "Do you remember my riding him last year in the Gordonstown sweepstakes, and beating you on Charioteer by a head, and Charioteer was a beauty."
"Of course I do."
"And Charioteer was as good a bit of horse flesh as ever was bred. By the way, what's become of him?"
"I had to sell him," answered Harold with a lump in his throat.
"The devil you did. Why was that?"
"I wanted money, old chap, or you may bet your life I wouldn't have parted with him. There will be no more racing for me for some time to come, I'm afraid."
"Good God, are things as bad as that?" gasped Gordon.
"Yes. I'm broke."
At this announcement a peculiar expression came into Oliver Gordon's face, and he glanced at his friend out of the corners of his eyes.
"Don't make ghastly jokes, old fellow," he said with a little short laugh. "You broke! No—I—"
"I assure you it's no joke, my dear friend. I got a mail this morning from Frampton & Heathcote to say their client had instructed them to foreclose. I wonder who their mysterious client is."
"I wonder!" muttered the other, while his eyes seemed bent on vacancy.
"I wonder too. It's like hitting a man when he's down, eh?"
"Yes," assented Gordon still with the vacant expression.
"It isn't cricket, but it's business," said Preston with a disdainful shrug of his massive shoulders. "Business! Good Lord! Business to take advantage of your fellow-men to feather your own nest. When a fellow is hard up and he owes you money, crush him body and soul. Get your pound of flesh whether you kill him or not. That's smart business. The laws of business decree that you must have no bowels of compassion. The bond. The bond, that's the only thing to be considered. Let the bond-giver go to Hades and be damned. It's business. Well, thank heaven I'm not a business man in that sense. A man who can pay and won't should be made to pay; he who would but can't should be dealt with mercifully."
"It's everyone for himself, old chap, in this strangely constituted world," remarked Oliver as if for the sake of saying something.
"Let's change the subject," said Preston with a show of irritation. "You haven't told me yet the cause of this unexpected visit."
"Yes. She informed me yesterday when I happened to meet her at the Pioneer Club that she must see you on an urgent and pressing matter, and that she intended to ride over here to-day. I urged the madness of so long a ride in weather like this, and offered to drive her in the buggy. She protested. I insisted, so here we are."
"You're a brick, Oliver. But what's the urgent and pressing matter?"
"Don't ask me. Mary doesn't take me into her confidence," answered his friend with something very like a sneer. "She's a Gordon and has got a will of her own. A Gordon can give a mule points in stubbornness."
"Don't forget that you are a Gordon, old fellow."
"By the Lord Harry I don't and won't," exclaimed Oliver with what seemed unnecessary vehemence, and a look of fierceness as if some memory of an old wrong had been suddenly revived. The eyes of the men met, Harold's spoke of the astonishment he felt at his friend's outburst. Before he could make any reply the door opened and Mary entered.
"You dear, plucky little woman, to risk coming to this fiery furnace," cried Harold with admiration as he placed a chair for her.
"Risk! there is no risk," answered Mary with a sweet girlish laugh. "Besides, I've come on a most important errand that would admit of no delay."
"Yes, so Oliver tells me; an urgent and pressing matter, he says. Pray don't keep me in suspense. What is it? 'Urgent and pressing' sounds rather alarming."
"You will have to nurse your curiosity," she answered with a smile, "until such time as—well until I've cooled down and an opportunity occurs." Her sparkling brown eyes were fixed on Oliver's face, as if looking for signs.
"Oh, if I'm de trop," he snapped irritably, "I—"
"No you won't, Mr Hoighty-toighty," she chided pleasantly. "You'll stop where you are. What I've got to tell Harold is in the first instance for his ears alone. But it will keep for a little while; in the meantime one of you give me a bottle of soda-water. I'm choking."
Oliver made no movement, he had stretched himself on the couch, but there was fire in, his eyes as he replied with ill-concealed irritation:
"You command, I obey of course." He laughed, but it lacked the soul of true laughter. "I'm only the tertium quid, that is the one too many."
"Now don't be a snarly bow-wow," replied the girl with an entrancing smile, her eyes dancing with good humour.
"No, I'm only the silly poodle," he said acidly. "Harold's top dog; lucky beggar."
"Now no wrangling," exclaimed Harold as he filled a glass with soda-water and handed it to Mary, who took it, and with a glance of approval at each of the men drank a deep draught, and sighed gratefully. She was a picture of womanly beauty. Her fawn-brown eyes, her healthy pink and white complexion, her wealth of brown-gold hair shimmering in the sunlight that filtered through the screened windows, were points calculated to arouse the enthusiasm and stir the blood of the dullest of men. Whilst allied to this physical attractiveness was a quick wittedness, a keen intelligence, not to speak of a self-possessed manner and a certain masterfulness that commanded respect. Mary Gordon was Australian born, she came of good stock on both sides, and the free open life of the bush had developed in her the highest qualities of womanhood and self-dependence. Her mother was a Miss Howard, a lineal descendant of the Howards of England. Oliver Gordon was her kinsman by consanquinity although they were only distantly related, but they regarded themselves as cousins. At one time there had been some girl and boy love passages between her and Oliver, but Harold Preston had won her heart, and Oliver had remained the chum of both, although at the time he bitterly reproached Mary for "throwing him over."
"Well, this is a scorched-up, blighted spot," she said as she leaned back in her chair and fanned herself with her handkerchief. "It's bad enough in Gordonstown, but occasionally heavy rain and thunderstorms freshen us up, and keep the temperature comparatively cool."
"It has scorched and blighted me," said Preston thoughtfully, "and to-day I have learnt that I am ruined."
Mary searched his face with a keen glance, and placing a hand on each of the arms of the chair she leaned forward, and in an eager tone said:
"Bosh! Don't talk about being ruined, Harold. A man of your resource and energy and splendid youth is not likely to go under. You've got to fight. You are too optimistic to be easily knocked out."
"It's true, Mary, my dear, all the same," he answered sadly. "This two years' drought has beggared me, and to-day I have received a letter from Frampton & Heathcote informing me that their client intends to foreclose on the mortgage. That spells utter and absolute ruin for me."
Mary sat straight up and stared at him with a pondering and thoughtful expression that made her look years older.
"Foreclose on the mortgage," she echoed.
"Who is their client?"
"Ah, that I don't know. I was recommended to the solicitors, who told me they had certain money of a client to invest, but the client did not want to be known nominally. The solicitors are the mortgagees."
Mary leaned her elbow on the chair arm and her head on her hand, in an attitude of deep reflection.
"Does foreclosing mean that they can take your property?" she asked pointedly.
"That is exactly what it does mean. They collar everything mentioned in the bond; every acre, houses, stock, all I possess in the world. Possibly they would take the flesh off my bones if they thought it was worth anything; or even my soul if they could realise on it."
Oliver sat bolt upright on the couch, took his face in his hands, and puffed at his pipe.
"Can't something be done?" he asked, staring at the floor like a man lost in thought.
"Can't you do something?" Mary queried sharply.
He rose to his feet, thrust one hand in his breeches pocket, and held his pipe in the other.
"I don't know," he said, still pondering. "I've been pretty hard hit myself, and what trifle I've got is so tied up that I find it difficult to keep my head above water."
"My dear old chum," cried Harold huskily as he grasped his friend's hand, "I know that you've got your own worries and difficulties, and I'll be hanged before I pile mine on top of you. Life's a game. I've had a run of rotten luck, but I must just begin again, that's all."
Gordon appeared to be deeply affected.
"It breaks a fellow's heart," he said, "to have to stand helpless and see his chum go under. But don't despair, old chap. Something will turn up. It's the dark hour before the dawn, you know. I must look into my affairs and see just where I stand. You know that if I've a loaf half of it is yours."
Harold's feelings and acknowledgments were expressed by a hand grip, he could not voice them, while Oliver seemed a prey to emotion that overcame him, and catching up his felt hat, he rammed it on his head, saying:
"I'll leave you two together for a bit. I'll take a turn round and have a look at the horses; we'll talk matters over later on."
As soon as the door had closed upon his retreating figure Mary sprang up, and throwing her arms round her lover's neck, she said with soul-felt sympathy:
"Poor darling boy! I had no idea things were so bad as that. But Gordon must do something. I don't believe him when he says he's hard up. He—"
"I am afraid, sweetheart, that Oliver really is in straits himself, he surely wouldn't lie to me," said Harold as he took the girl's face in his hands and kissed her. "He has been an extravagant beggar, and, as you know, his passion for horse racing has landed him in difficulties, at least that is what he says."
"I didn't quite understand that," answered Mary thoughtfully, "though I know he's pretty reckless. But now let us sit down and talk things over. Never mind Gordon. He hasn't your big-heartedness." She resumed her seat, he drew his chair up to hers and held her hand. "Of course it's all nonsense," continued Mary, "about your going under. You will not go under if I can help it. Dear old Aunt Margaret, who has been a mother to me, has managed the bit of property my father left me so well that I can help you and will. You are my affianced husband, and what is mine is yours."
"My God, Mary, you are a woman worth dying for, but you unwittingly torture me. This is the second time to-day my feelings have been stirred to their depths. Just before your arrival old Jim Dawkins offered me his life's savings, a thousand pounds. He's a pal, Gordon's a pal, and you are a saint, but I'm going to work out my own salvation or perish." His face was tormented, his eyes misty. He sprang up and paced the room. There was an impressive silence. Mary was a tactful woman. She watched and waited. She saw that her lover's soul was tortured, and understood that it was better to let the paroxysm subside. Presently he swung round and faced her. "No, Mary," he continued. "I am not going to risk your little fortune, nor Dawkins', nor Gordon's. I'm winded but not beaten. Fate has dealt me a heavy blow, but I am young. I have health and strength, those are qualities that count in this country, and I'll face my difficulties like a man."
Mary's sweet face was filled with an expression of admiration, and rising from her seat she clasped her hands about his arm, and asked softly:
"I admire your spirit of independence, but why are you so obstinate, dear? Think of the friends who love you; think of me. It's my duty to help you."
He caught her in his arms and held her in a passionate embrace.
"Do I not think of you, my beloved," he cried. "You are my life, my heart, my world. But the pride of my race burns fiercely in my veins, and I would rather die than bring anyone I love to ruin."
"That is foolish talk, dear," she answered with gentle chiding. "I cannot do very much, but such little as I can do, I say again, it is my duty to do. Should I love you if I acted otherwise. I have a few thousand pounds, and—"
"Mary darling, you don't understand," he cried distressfully. "It would take over ten thousand pounds to clear off the mortgage to begin with. Supposing I could raise that amount to-morrow, what then? Unless the drought breaks up suddenly, and there is no hope of that at present, I should be as bad as ever in a month's time. Even if rain came next week it would take months for the land to recover. The great drought of twenty-five years ago lasted four years, and this one seems likely to last as long. No, men who come to the wilderness take their fate in their hands. Fortune smiled upon me for a time, now she has pitilessly crushed me. I must abandon the struggle here and go elsewhere. I've no alternative. They'll turn me out."
"Go where?" the girl asked quietly.
"God knows," he answered despairingly.
Mary was distressed and her eyes were filled with tears, though she tried to control herself.
"I still think you should allow your friends to help you," she murmured appealingly.
"Now look here, little woman," he said firmly, "we are only making ourselves miserable. At the present moment the outlook is as black as it can be, and I cannot see a glimmering ray of hope. Our marriage has already been postponed through this infernal drought. In the glamour of more fortunate days I dreamed of the time when with you at my side I might win fortune here. But Nature can be cruel even to those who love her as I do. My dream is over, and I have no right to ask you to waste the flower of your youth, and miss your chances in life waiting for me—a broken, ruined man."
He buried his face in his hands, and his great chest heaved with a sob. Mary's white fingers closed about his wrists; she drew his hands down gently, and laying her dear face against his she said in a low sweet tone:
"Harold, the flower of my youth is yours; I am yours until death. Whatever fate the years may have in store for us hope and my heart will wait for you. Emotion choked him. He could only hold her in his strong embrace; and his silence was a thousand times more eloquent than words could possibly have been. At last the strong man's strength came back. He released her, sprang up, and laughed—but it was the laugh of a defiant and embittered man; he was not embittered against her, for her sake he would have sacrificed his life, but in his heart he railed against the fate that had ruined him.
"Sentiment is all very well, little woman, but we cannot live in a world of dreams, although I am afraid I've been given to dreaming," he said. "I am not a coward, I can fight as you say, and for your sake I'll fight, and by God I'll win. The weakness is over, and now tell me what the urgent and pressing matter is that has brought you here."
"Oh yes," she exclaimed, as her pretty lips parted, revealing her white teeth as she smiled sweetly. "You quite put the matter out of my head. It's rather curious. It appears that a few days ago an old bushman staggered into the town desperately ill, and was taken to the hospital. He was delirious for a time, but when he recovered his senses he asked Nurse Wood, who, as you know, is a great friend of mine, if you were still living at Glenbar Run. Of course Miss Wood told him that you were still here, and he said he must see you immediately."
"See me," Harold gasped, with a puzzled look.
"Yes. He said he would get up and come to you, but Doctor Blain wouldn't hear of it, and he asked me to see the old man. He told me his name was Bill Blewitt, and beseeched me to bring you to him."
"I don't know anyone of the name of Blewitt," said Harold, still puzzled. "What does he want?"
"He wouldn't say, but declared it was a matter of life and death. He made me promise not to mention the matter to a living soul except yourself. As the poor old man seemed in such deadly earnest I promised him I would let you know. I thought of writing to you, but as I longed to see you I decided to come myself. On leaving the hospital I ran against Oliver and incidentally mentioned I was going to ride out to Glenbar. He was very anxious to know the nature of my errand, but I refused to enlighten him. Anyway, he insisted on bringing me in his buggy. I would rather have come by myself, for though I am very fond of Oliver, he annoys me sometimes by saying things he ought not to say as your friend and my friend, and knowing that I'm engaged to you."
"Poor Oliver," said Harold with a laugh. "He has a heart of gold, and if I were out of the way he'd marry you if you would have him."
"Well, you see, you are not out of the way and I am going to be wife to you, so there is nothing more to be said on that point." She spoke with a decisiveness not to be gainsaid.
"You darling," exclaimed Harold, his face betraying the intensity of his feelings. Then he suddenly waxed thoughtful, and pulling his moustache he muttered:
"Bill Blewitt! Bill Blewitt! I can't place the fellow. What the deuce can he want to see me for?"
"Perhaps he has some secret that he wishes to impart to you," suggested Mary. "He is a strange old man, and very determined, I should think."
"Yes, but why make me his father confessor?"
"You know just as much as I do, Harold dear, but as Doctor Blain says the poor old fellow has a dog's chance of his life, humour his whim and see him."
"Of course I will, little woman. Anyway, I have to thank Bill Blewitt for your presence here, so I am grateful to him and you."
He threw his arms about her, their lips met, and at that moment the door was flung open and Oliver Gordon reappeared. They drew apart quickly.
"Oh, I'm sorry I've interrupted," he said, laughing. "But there, don't mind me, I'm only a cipher."
"We don't," replied Harold. "Why should we?"
"As you say, why should you. Spoon away to your hearts' content and I'll be deaf, dumb and blind. All the same I'm ravenously hungry; have you got any tucker in the place?"
"Yes, of a kind," answered Harold, who seemed to have quite recovered his good spirits. "I'll tell Jim Dawkins to make a damper, and we'll have a scratch meal. After that, when the sun's gone down, you'll drive Mary back, and I'll follow in the saddle."
Mary, who knew the place well, said she'd help the old housekeeper to prepare the food, and ran off.
"God bless that dear little woman," murmured Harold.
"She's a mascot; she'll bring you luck," Oliver remarked, as he proceeded to mix a brandy-and-soda.
The two men pledged each other and Mary; filled their pipes, and fell to chatting for a little while, until drowsiness stole upon them both. Outside the heat haze still quivered over the thirsty land like a gossamer veil of wind-stirred silver. The fiery sky was without a cloud, and the sun as it sank to the west threw never a shadow over the yellow plain. The silence was almost painful, now and again it was punctuated by the whinnying of a horse in the stables, or the drowsy drone of a buzzing bluebottle as it winged its flight about the house. The friends slept until the sun had sunk below the horizon, then Mary burst into the room with a cheery laugh and startled them into wakefulness.
"Now then, you lazy mortals," she cried, "the feast awaits you, a perfectly royal banquet."
They followed her to the so-called common dining-room, where the rough log table was covered with a white cloth, and the resources of Harold's establishment had been taxed to furnish the proper embellishments. Some old silver plated forks and spoons which had belonged to his people had been hunted out by Mary; the glasses had been polished, the cruets cleaned, fresh mustard made, clean salt provided.
"By Jove, Mary, you are a brick," exclaimed Harold. "It's a jolly long time since my table looked so spick and span."
"Oh, you men," sighed Mary, with a rueful expression, "you are such helpless creatures when you haven't a woman to look after you. You are all alike; just great careless children."
Jim Dawkins had turned out an excellent damper; he could hold his own with any chap at damper-making. Then there were eggs, stewed fowl, tinned corned beef, and other delicacies, and Harold declared it was a feast for the gods. Jim Dawkins plied his knife and fork with the rest, and the wine and spirits Oliver had brought served to enliven the feast, whilst sweet Mary Gordon sat at the head of the table, the Queen of the hour.
Two hours later Oliver Gordon and Mary in the buggy and Harold following-, riding a bush hack, were making their way under the canopy of stars that glittered like burnished steel, to Gordonstown.
THE township of Gordonstown, although only a little over forty miles from the Glenbar Run, was outside the belt of drought that every now and again withered up the plains. It could boast of a Town Hall, Club, Library, weekly newspaper, and streets of stone-built houses. It wore an air of prosperity, and the district round about was fertile enough, while a projected railway from Melbourne had recently caused a boom in "town lots" which for years had been waiting for buyers. Pleasantly situated on a bend of the river which was navigable for small craft up to that point, it was a place of some importance, as a port of shipment for live stock, wool, hides and other produce. Its population of between five and six thousand was a thriving and contented community, proud of their pretty little town, and particularly proud of their excellent racecourse on the outskirts. Racing went on practically all the year, but the great event, when all the town got racing mad, was the "Gordonstown Gold Cup Day," in the middle of June. It was the chief event of a four days' programme, and it attracted racing lovers from far distant parts. Oliver Gordon was prominent among those who fostered the sport, but it was generally believed that for some time his luck had been out.
Mary Gordon's home was a picturesquely situated stone villa, standing in about five acres of charming grounds on the outskirts of the little town, near the race-course. Here she lived with her aunt, Margaret Bruce, her mother's widowed and childless sister. Mary was left an orphan when she was a child. She had a brother, her senior by some years, and Mrs Bruce came from Scotland, where she had resided with her husband, to mother them. The brother died three or four years later, and since then Mary had lived under her aunt's care. Margaret Bruce was a middle-aged lady, sweet tempered and devotedly attached to her niece. She was exceedingly fond of Harold Preston, and from the very first had encouraged the love-making between him and Mary. For a brief period, however, just prior to Harold's declaration of love, she was inclined favourably to Oliver Gordon, but his gambling propensities and love of horse-racing caused her to mistrust him, and she set the seal of approval upon Harold. For nearly four years the young people, who were nearly of the same age, had been very happy, and but for the drought which had brought disaster to him, Harold would have made her his wife.
When Mary and the two men arrived at Gordonstown after their night journey from Glenbar, Gordon proceeded direct to his house, and Harold was a guest at Mary's house, where he was cordially welcomed by Margaret Bruce. She commiserated with him in his misfortune, but encouraged him to hope that there would speedily be a change for the better. Mrs Bruce was always optimistic, and her influence invariably inspirited Preston whenever he was inclined to be despondent.
A hearty breakfast the next morning after a good night's rest, combined with the cooler air and greenery and freshness of the place, heartened Harold considerably, and about noon he set off for the hospital. It was a white building, with green shutters and flower-covered walls; it stood in a neatly kept garden, and the long veranda that ran round the building afforded a pleasant promenade or resting-place for those patients who were not compelled to keep to their beds in the wards.
As Harold mounted the steps to the main entrance he ran up against Doctor Blain, who had just finished his morning round. They greeted each other very heartily.
"No need to ask why you are here," said Blain. "Miss Gordon told me she was going to bring you back. I hear you've been having a bad time up there. These scorchers try a man's patience, but one has got to take the rough with the smooth, and lucky he who can smile at misfortune."
"Lucky he who can smile at misfortune, as you say," Harold answered, "though one wants to have a deuced lot of philosophy to smile when he is face to face with stark ruin."
"Come, come. I trust things are not so desperate as that."
"I am afraid they are. To the struggling man two years of drought spells disaster."
"By Jove I am sorry, truly sorry," said the doctor with a ring of genuine sympathy in his voice, "but all trouble has its compensations. You have troops of good friends—"
"Thank God, yes," exclaimed Harold earnestly; "more than that I have health and strength and am going to win through."
"That's the way to look at things," the doctor remarked. "Pluck and energy can do wonders."
"Well now, who is this mysterious patient of yours—Bill Blewitt, isn't it?"
"Yes, that's the name he gave when he was brought in. He's a tough old nut, who seems to have had a pretty bad time of it. It appears he's been out West in some God-forgotten place and has tramped back through the wilderness. How he's managed to live, heaven knows, I don't. But there's precious little to be got out of him: he's as reticent as the Sphinx. I fancy there is something on his mind, and he declares that you are the only man in the world he'll tell it to."
"It's strange," said Harold in a musing voice, toying with his moustache; "I can't place him. I certainly don't remember the name. Is he very ill?"
"Yes, he's pretty bad."
"Well—he's got a sporting chance. He has wonderful vitality, and may possibly pull through. Anyway, I am doing my best; the beggar interests me. But come, I'll take you to him."
The two men mounted the broad stone stairway, and entered a long, scrupulously clean ward, with about a dozen beds ranged on each side. The windows were screened with sunblinds that subdued the glare, and kept the atmosphere relatively cool. The polished floor was speckless; flowers were arranged on little tables down the centre of the wards, interspersed with tail palms in pots. There was the sad spectacle of sick and dying men, but sympathy and human charity had done their best to brighten and cheer them in their sufferings.
Nurse Wood, a sweet-faced, middle-aged woman, was busy in the ward as the doctor and the visitor entered. She hurried up to Preston and shook his hand.
"Oh, I'm so glad you've come. Mary told me she would be sure to bring you back. Our interesting and mysterious patient asks for you every hour of the day, and calls your name in the night. Poor old fellow; he has evidently gone through terrible hardships."
"I'll hand Mr Preston over to you, Nurse," remarked the doctor as he consulted his watch; "you'll excuse me, I'm sure, Preston. I didn't know it was so late. I have an appointment I must keep. Look me up at the Club between four and five, will you, and we can have a chat?"
Harold promised to do so, and when the doctor had gone, he and Nurse Wood walked to the extreme end of the ward where there was a partitioned recess that was quite brilliant with flowers and plants. On a narrow bed in this recess lay a wild-looking, haggard man. His long, matted grey hair, his straggling unkempt beard and moustache, his sunken eyes, and drawn, tormented face gave him the appearance of being very old. His skin was burnt to the colour of brick, but even the tan could not disguise the pallor of his face. He seemed to be dozing. The Nurse went gently to the bedside, and asked softly:
"Are you asleep, Blewitt?"
"Eh—what—hullo; who coo-eed?"
"I have brought Mr Harold Preston to see you."
The old fellow's face seemed to suddenly re-animate, and a light came into his bleared eyes. He turned quickly, raised himself with an effort on his elbow, and stretched forth a brown withered hand.
"God's in His heaven still," he mumbled, with something like a smile.
Harold tried to identify the man but failed. The patient was quick to understand.
"You don't know me, boss; 'tain't likely you would with all this weed about my face. Besides, it's nigh on to three years since we met."
There was a chair by the bedside. The visitor seated himself and held the withered hand between his own, and the sick man resumed the recumbent position. Then there was an awkward little silence. Harold was busy racking his brains to try and recall where he had seen Bill Blewitt before. Bill turned his eyes on Nurse Wood with a look that spoke plainer than words. She was leaning over the foot-rail of the bed; she understood the meaning of that look; Bill did not intend to talk while she was there.
"Well, I'll leave you for a while," she said softly; "and mind you don't exhaust yourself too much." She turned and walked down the ward, and following her with his eyes, Bill said:
"That's one o' God's women. A rough devil like me ain't fit to be 'tended by the likes o' her."
"You mustn't say that, old chap. A man's a man, whether he's rough or smooth, and when we get bowled over women are ministering angels."
"God love 'em, that's true," replied Blewitt, with a lump in his throat. "Until I managed to stagger into this settlement I hadn't set eyes on a white woman for three years. I'm only a dingo, boss, but I'm grateful, and I don't forget them as does anything for me. That's why I sent for you."
"What have I done?" asked Harold, still studying the old bushman with mingled curiosity and interest.
"Do you mind about three years ago, when four chaps stayed on your Run for a few days, and you was good to 'em?"
"Oh, by Jove, yes," exclaimed Harold, as light began to dawn on him.
"Well, I was one on 'em. We had tramped down from the Snowy River, and was stony broke. We was intending to push out West prospecting. We was all old hands and were searching for gold. You was a white man to us; you fed us and was good to us. I asked you to lend me some dust and you gave me twenty quid!"
"Good Lord! Yes, now I remember," cried Harold. Then with a bitter laugh, "I was pretty flush then, now I'm stony broke."
The old man fixed him with his eyes as if doubtful about the truth of the statement.
"On my honour, it's true," Harold said, interpreting the look correctly. "Two years' drought has cleaned me out."
"Give us your fist, boss. I believe you now." They shook hands, and Blewitt continued, "I says again, God's in His heaven, and He's let me come back to help you, 'cos you helped me, see. I ain't got no religion, but I believe that these things is arranged." Harold was all eagerness now. Instinctively he felt that this wanderer had some interesting revelation to make. "When you gave me that twenty quid, a lump came up in my throat, boss, and me and my pals swore as we'd pay you back if we lived, P came down here to the township and bought some outfit, and the four of us set our faces to the wilderness. We struck out over the plains, and steered for the north-west. Sand and heat, thirst and hunger, that's what we had to endure. But we was all born bushmen and used to roughing it, so we pulled through, and after being out for many weeks we came to the foothills of a great range, and fell in with a tribe of Myalls (wild black men). We seemed in for a rough time, for I don't think they'd ever seen white men before; but we fired off our revolvers, and told 'em we could make thunder and lightning that would kill 'em all off. They believed the yarn and was good to us. We were about at the end of our tether when we met these black devils, but they gave us grub, and when we had been with 'em for two or three weeks we persuaded half a dozen of 'em to guide us into the mountains.
"One day we struck a deep gorge with a river running through it. It had a promising look, and we found gold-bearing quartz cropping out of the hill-sides. We fossicked around, getting out lumps of stone with hundreds of pounds' worth of gold in 'em, but it was no use to us, for we couldn't crush it. Then we began to pan the river dirt, and we got out pounds' weight of scale gold. I tell you, boss, it made our eyes water; here was thousands and thousands of pounds' worth of gold, but civilisation was far off, and we was hard put to it to get grub enough to keep body and soul together. But we had struck it rich, and we made up our minds to load ourselves up with as much as we could carry and come back to make proper arrangements to work the claim.
"But things went wrong. One of my mates fell ill of fever and died, and we buried him under a rock; another went out one day further in the hills prospecting, and never came back. Me and the other chap then packed up our traps and started for home. We tramped into the desert, and I tell you, boss, it was hell. We did about three hundred miles when my chum fell ill. I stayed with him till he died, and his bones are bleaching out there in the wilderness. It was awful lonely for me. God! what I suffered. I kept the life in me with vermin and roots, and the thirst was awful. I must have gone mad, because there was many days that I couldn't remember anything. But I was tough. I was a sailorman in my younger days, and I suppose that made iron of me. How long I tramped I don't know, for I lost count of the days; but there was one clear thought in my head, I wanted to find you; I wanted to prove to you that even a rough old dingo like me has a heart. I laid my course pretty straight for this place, and the night I stumbled into the settlement I was done. I suppose I went off my nut, 'cos I don't remember 'em bringing me here, and when I came to again they told me I'd been here a week."
"It's wonderful!" commented Harold thoughtfully, as the old man paused from exhaustion; "we are poor weak creatures, but our lives sometimes seem influenced by a strange destiny that we cannot understand."
He spoke to himself, and Bill Blewitt made no reply, but pointing to a locker at the side of his bed, he said:
"Open that there locker, boss, and you'll see two billy cans, give 'em to me." He took the lid off a two-pint billy, and Harold saw, to his astonishment, that it was more than half full of scale gold. He opened the other which was filled with pieces of quartz; he took out three or four lumps and examined them with the eye of the expert.
"If I'd nothing to prove that my yarn is true, you might 'a' thought I was raving. But seeing's believing, ain't it, boss? Look at them pieces of stone, why, there's more gold than stone. And from where I brought them from, out there, beyond the thirst land, there are thousands of tons. Some day there'll be stamping mills by scores put up, and the place will hum."
Harold would have been a strange man if he had failed to "be moved by this ocular evidence of the buried wealth the old man spoke of. It needed no expert knowledge to determine that the specimens of quartz the miner had brought back with him were exceedingly rich in the precious metal. He was excited, though he tried to keep his feelings in check.
"Well, all I can say, Blewitt," he remarked, "is that you can enrich yourself and your relatives."
Blewitt's sunken eyes turned to him, and with a strange little laugh, he said:
"I ain't got no relatives that I know of, boss. I've been wandering over the world for nigh on sixty years, thirty of 'em in this country and ten afore that in New Zealand. I'm one of those chaps as can't settle anywhere, and I've never been much given to womenfolk. The pals I've left out yonder were the best chums I had. Now God Almighty is a-finishing of me up. What does it matter! He's been good to me, to let me win through to this place and find you. You gave me to drink when I was dry, and to eat when I was hungry, and you helped me and my chums like a white man. I'm only a dingo, but I remember things. Give me out that bundle, boss."
Harold handed him a bundle from the locker. It contained a few old rags of clothing, a much rusted revolver, and a frayed, worn, leather pocket-book.
"I ain't no scholar," he said, "but I can read and write, and in this book which I'm going to give to you, there's a lot of notes written that will help you, and a kind o' map I drew of the gold region. I calculate it's about eight hundred miles nor'-west, and by west half west from here, and the way is hard. You'll take the gold too, boss, and look after me while I'm here. If the Doc. can patch me up I'll guide you to the place. But I give you this advice, don't you blab about the business, or there'll be a rush and you'll lose your chance. Well, I'm pretty well pumped now, but my mind's easier now I've seen you. I didn't want to peg put before I had a chance of giving you the information. Now you've got it, use it. You ain't a dingo like me; maybe you've got a wife or a gal, and dust and gold stone will be useful to you."
Harold gripped the hand of this rugged gold seeker, and there was a tremor in his voice as he spoke.
"Bill Blewitt, don't you call yourself a dingo again. You've got the heart of a true man. You've given me new life, new hope. Yes, I have a girl, one of the dearest women on God's earth, and for her dear sake I accept your gift. May God prolong your life, that I may prove to you that I, too, can be grateful."
A wan smile spread itself over Blewitt's brown, wrinkled face as he made reply:
"I'm worn out, boss, and pretty tired. I've played the game fairly and never wronged no man, and I've never knowed what fear was. I ain't going to be a skunk now, and if Almighty God says as I've got to hand in my checks I'm willing and ready."
It seemed as if all that had been said was all that could be said at that moment, and as the old man was obviously exhausted and drowsy, Harold left him, promising to see him on the morrow. He carried off the old pocket-book in his pocket, and the two billies weighty with their precious contents he wrapped in a newspaper the patient had been reading, as he did not wish to attract attention as he passed through the town. A feeling of elation possessed him, for his star having dipped low on the horizon, seemed to be in the ascendant again. Save for those weighty tin cans under his arm, which were substantial and real enough, he might have found some difficulty in convincing himself that he had not dreamed a fairy story. But it was the kind of fairy story common enough in those days in Australia, and as many a man still living can testify, they were far more wonderful than fiction.
ALTHOUGH Harold Preston's life so far as it had gone had been that of a bush farmer, intellectually and by temperament he was many degrees above the average of his class. Springing from intellectual and robust stock he found mental recreation in a speculative philosophy, and was bookishly inclined. He had been a voracious reader, and his reading had covered a wide field. He was by way also of being an idealist. His lines had been cast close to the heart of nature. He lived on the edge of the wilderness, and often as his eyes wandered over the seeming interminable spaces, which stretched far, far away to the blue distance, where the Western sun appeared to sink below the edge of the earth, his imagination was stimulated to a wide expansion, and he dreamed dreams, such dreams as came to those hardy pioneers who first set their feet on the shores of that wonderful land where, for tens of thousands of years, the primitive savage, half animal, half man, had roamed in undisputed freedom. Harold realised the illimitable possibilities of the country where he had had his birth, a country he ardently loved, whilst the immensity of his surroundings could not fail to deeply impress one of his temperament and lift him out of the narrow groove of sordidity, greed and selfishness which is the lot of the average settler. The result of it all was the development of a large-hearted altruism that found practical expression in a somewhat reckless generosity, and a trust and faith in his fellow-beings. He held to the belief that there is inherent goodness in all men, and it was opposed to his principles and disposition to think ill of anyone.
At quite an early age, when a student at Melbourne, his idealism had fostered in him a belief that it was his special mission to put an end for ever to the feud which had so long existed between his people and the Gordons. The bitter rivalry and fierce jealousy, which in the past had led to bloodshed and misery, was to end when he came into his inheritance. In a subconscious way this resolve had come to him, when as boy and girl, he and Mary Gordon had looked into each other's eyes. As they grew up together his resolve strengthened with the years, and when Margaret Bruce appeared upon the scene to take charge of the orphan girl, he felt that his dream would be realised. Margaret knew little of the ancient feud and cared less. Her niece's happiness was far more to her than musty traditions of rivalry, and stupid shibboleths. She grew to like young Preston, and encouraged him. There had been one little episode which had served to reveal her personality. Oliver Gordon, with the rashness and flippancy of youth, had dared to remind her that between the Gordons and the Prestons was a barrier, and woe betide anyone who attempted to break it down. She turned upon him with a fierceness that made him wilt, young as he was.
"You stupid boy," she exclaimed, "what do I know and what do I care about the senseless quarrels between the two families in the past. I have heard of them with astonishment and a sense of shame. And once and for all you will understand that I will be no party to keeping alive an un-neighbourly feeling. If Harold Preston and your kinswoman, Mary Gordon, are desirous of mating, I'll see to it, as Mary's guardian, that neither you nor anyone else shall prevent it. Now please take that as final. Harold is a good lad and honest and upright, and you will show your manliness by holding out the hand of fellowship and goodwill to him."
Years had passed since that little incident, and between the two men it seemed as if a firm bond of friendship had been welded. Their rivalries were friendly ones. They were both fond of horses. Harold loved them for their own sake, but Oliver regarded them more from the pounds, shillings and pence point of view. He had a passion for racing, and entertained no sentiment for an animal that failed to gratify his desire for winnings. One of the little triumphs of his life had been when he rode Kangaroo in the Gold Cup Steeplechase stakes, and beat Charioteer ridden by his rival. The two horses seemed equally matched; they were bush bred and bush trained, and for weeks before the races the interest taken in them in Gordonstown and throughout the district rose to fever heat. It was a tremendous event in the life of the bush community. Thrones might have toppled over, the whole of Europe might have been in a blaze, the American continent might have been overwhelmed by some stupendous cataclysm, but these things would have sunk into insignificance in comparison with that one great event in the lives of the Gordonstown settlers, the race between Charioteer and Kangaroo. Never in the history of the place had there been so much excitement as on the day of the race. It was made a general holiday. From far and near, from stations scores of miles away, came riders astride of all sorts and conditions of horses, bush buggies, wagons, carts, four in hands; and there was not a man, possibly not many women, who had not "a bit" on the great event, whilst everyone knew, from the grey beard to the callow youth, that whichever horse won, piles of gold would change pockets. The betting was slightly in favour of Preston's Charioteer, and as each man was to ride his own horse, the public felt sure that only the best would win. The day was beautiful, and the winter sun was tempered by a fresh breeze. Neck and neck kept the two horses; the hearts of the multitude throbbed wildly; their voices rent the sky, as thundering cheers were swept like billows before the breeze; there were minutes of tense, strained suspense that was like an agony, then for a moment or two a silence that told of the pent-up feelings of the eager spectators, "By God Charioteer has it." "No, Kangaroo. Kangaroo, Kangaroo." Yes, it was true; just when the prize seemed Preston's, Gordon urged his mount to a final spurt, and the big horse crashed past his rival and won by a head only. The people seemed to go mad. A roar of cheering shook the earth. They swarmed, over the course, and were almost tempted to carry the winning horse shoulder high, but they hoisted his rider instead, and to the strains of "See the Conquering Hero Comes," they bore him into the paddock.
Harold Preston took his defeat like a man, and that night in a crowded Club House proposed in a felicitous speech the health and happiness of the winner. Oliver made no attempt to conceal the gratification he felt at having outstripped his rival. However sincere he might have been in his friendship, he desired to be and was determined to be—top dog. He could not brook defeat in anything, and he liked to believe, and encouraged the belief in others, that if he was not the greatest man in Gordonstown, he was certainly one of its leading lights. This was vanity, of course, but while it gratified him it did no harm to anyone.. In striking contrast with his friend, Gordon had no ideals; he was practical and materialistic, and it was inconceivable of him that he ever indulged in day dreams; nor had he any of Harold's altruism. He was self-centred, and never allowed other people's affairs to worry him. In spite of the diversity in their temperaments, Harold was sincerely attached to his friend, and one of his first resolves was, after that interview with Bill Blewitt, to take Gordon into his confidence and ask him to join in an expedition, and of course he could not keep the information from Mary.
As soon as ever he entered the house on his return from the hospital she saw by his changed expression that something had heartened him, and he did not keep her long in suspense. The two tin pots, one nearly full of scale gold, and the other of richly veined specimens of quartz, were fairly good evidence that old Blewitt was not romancing; it was evidence, that if made generally known would have caused hundreds of persons to make a wild rush for the district, however inaccessible it might appear. Men in their thirst for fold did not hesitate to take risks, and would face each itself in the mad struggle for wealth.
Mary could not but be gratified by the sight of so much gold, and she was glad indeed, for her lover's sake, but reaction followed the elation, and she said with very visible distress:
"I wish, dear, that Blewitt had not given you that information."
"Why?" asked Harold in amazement.
"Oh, well, it will unsettle you; besides, if you go in search of this El Dorado, think of the dangers you will have to run."
He took her in his arms; he strained her to his breast, and she clung to him as if afraid to let him go from her. He kissed her and soothed her, and with a light-hearted laugh, said:
"My darling little woman, you mustn't worry yourself about dangers. Risks, when one comes to face them, generally sink into insignificance compared with what one imagines them to be. Besides, I'm a seasoned bushman, and haven't passed my life on a bed of roses. You know that well."
"But from what Blewitt told you the place is a long way off, and you might have to be absent for many months. What about your farm during your absence?"
"Oh, that will be all right. You and Jim Dawkins can look after it for me; Jim's as true as steel, and is a capable and intelligent fellow. I'd trust him with my life."
"Yes, I know that, dear; all the same I wish—"
"Oh, come, come, Mary sweetheart, don't let us get moody because a lucky chance at the psychological moment has shown me a possible way to fortune. It could not have come at a more opportune time, as you know. If Blewitt is correct in what he says about the richness of the district, there must be an enormous amount of wealth for the picking up. Why should I miss such an opportunity? Gordon and I will work out a scheme together—"
Mary gave a little start, and there was a strange, a quite unusual expression in her eyes as she looked at him and asked quickly:
"Do you intend to let Gordon into the secret?"
"Why, of course I do, dear. Why shouldn't I?" He was astonished at her question. There was something in her manner and tone that seemed to imply mistrust of Gordon. As she remained silent he asked again: "Why shouldn't I? Have you any reason to suppose that he is not to be trusted?"
"Pray, don't attach any importance to my question," she said, with some confusion. "I really don't know what prompted me to speak as if I had some doubt. To be quite frank, what I really thought was, if the position were reversed, would Oliver be as generous as you?"
"Yes—I believe he would," answered Harold with an air of abstraction. "I believe he would," he repeated. "I don't like to think ill of my friend."
"No, of course you don't," said Mary, as she put her hands on his arm and looked up into his face. "You are a big-hearted, generous man with Catholic sympathies, and not quick to suspect anyone of evil intent..."
"Good God, Mary," he interrupted, "do you suggest that Oliver has any evil intentions?"
"Oh, no, no, but I think he is rather selfish, and would not, as you would, go out of his way to serve a friend."
Harold did not pursue the argument; though he had never seriously thought of it before, he could not but admit now that Mary was right. It was a tiny rift in the lute, a little flaw in the bond of friendship. All the same he was quite willing to co-operate with his friend if Gordon was willing, anyway he could not entertain the idea for a moment of withholding the information from him.
As he went down town on his way to Gordon's house he looked in at the Club and had a chat with Doctor Blain, as he had promised to do.
"Well, what did you make of our mysterious patient?" asked the doctor.
Harold realised that however frank and open he might be with Gordon, it was necessary to be reticent with other people, and so his answer was somewhat in the nature of equivocation.
"Oh, I found him rather an interesting old chap, and what is more, an honest and grateful one. Although I had forgotten the incident, it appears he and three pals were on my Run about three years ago. They were stony broke and were going west, gold hunting. Of course I did what any man in this country would have done under the circumstances. I fed the poor beggars, and gave them a little money. Since then Blewitt, the only survivor of the four, so he tells me, has been fossicking round somewhere, and has picked up a few ounces of dust, and remembering my hospitality to him and his chums, he was obsessed with a desire to repay me."
"Has he struck anything?" asked the doctor with some eagerness.
"He has brought back a few pieces of veined quartz which he has placed in my possession, but of course it's impossible to express an opinion until they have been assayed. I shall send them down to Melbourne."
"It sounds as if Blewitt had made a find," remarked the doctor thoughtfully. "Has he told you where he got the stone?"
"He hopes to get strong enough to guide a little expedition to the place," answered Harold evasively.
"Oh, by Jove, then we shall have to patch him up," said the doctor with a cheery laugh, "and if he's able to go, I should be tempted to throw up doctoring here and join the expedition."
"By the way, Doc., let the old fellow have any luxuries or strengthening things he wants, I'll pay," said his friend.
"That's suggestive," remarked the doctor, with a knowing wink. "Bill Blewitt's life is valuable—eh, old chap?"
"Well, it would be a pity if his secret died with him."
"I agree with that," answered Doctor Blain. "Well, I'll do my best, and I shall try and pump his secret out of him."
As Harold rose to go and, put out his hand, he said:
"You may pump, Doc., but I don't think you will get anything out of him. Bill Blewitt, I should say, is a man who knows how to hold his tongue when it suits his purpose. Besides, if the facts were known in the town there would be a rush ending possibly in death and disaster."
"You're right, you're right," muttered the doctor reflectively, and as he shook Harold's hand he added, "You can rely upon me, my friend. I will be as silent as the grave. Gold mania is very infectious, and when it seizes a community, it generally means tragedy, so be cautious."
WHEN Preston left the Club he changed his mind about seeing Gordon that day. Although he was only vaguely conscious of it, that little doubt that Mary's question had given birth to was worrying him, and so, with a resolve that he would withhold the information from Oliver for the present, he returned to Mary Gordon's residence. He talked of going back to Glenbar that night, but Margaret Bruce and her niece both urged him to spend a day or two with them, as it would be an agreeable change from arid Glenbar. Although anxious about his business, he was not averse to a few days' holiday spent in Mary's company, and readily accepted the invitation. He had three days of dreamy delight, and talked to Mary of the time when their two lives would be welded and they would work out their destinies together.
"You are the only woman the world holds for me, Mary," he said on the last night of his stay as they sat on the veranda in the moonlight. He was unusually thoughtful, unusually serious, as though some shadowy feeling of apprehension about the future was haunting him. "If by any possible chance we were separated I—well—"
He stopped suddenly with a little snap of exasperation, as if angry with himself for having betrayed his thoughts.
She leaned towards him, laid her hand on his, and said in a low, sweet tone:
"What is the matter with you to-night, dear? Why talk of separation? One must, of course, consider human contingencies, but I can think of nothing save death that can separate us if we are true to each other."
A little tremor thrilled through him.
"Death, yours or mine, would set the other free," he answered. "Let me say now truthfully, as God will judge me, if I die I hope you will not let any foolish sentiment keep you from marrying if you desire to do so. But in my case I honestly believe that if I survive you I could never bear to hold another woman in my arms. I suppose I am peculiar in that way. But you have so filled my life that your death would leave a void no one else could fill. I am sure, quite sure, my feelings in that respect will never change."
Her head was on his shoulder, her hand stole up to his neck, and she murmured:
"Harold, what is troubling you to-night? It is so unlike you to be really despondent. Are you not well?"
For answer he flung his arms around her, and with a lover's ardency embraced her again and again. The warm, languorous north wind kissed the trees and they sighed. The silver sheen of the moon flooded the landscape with ghostly splendour, and the southern stars palpitated with a glittering radiance. There was the scarcely perceptible music of tiny wings as they beat the air, and there floated up from the earth the sounds of a thousand night insects like the sounds that come to one in dreams. The whole night seemed to drone out a song of the aeons, of the ages, of the love tales that had been told and forgotten, and of the millions and millions of human moats that had danced their little hour in the sun and passed like the shadow of smoke.
The two beings seated on the veranda locked in each other's arms were experiencing the blissful moments—alas how few—transient as the light of a meteor, when a song of heavenly joy seems to sing in the human heart, and that sorrow and wrong and dusty death have been banished for aye.
They drew back abruptly and sat up in their seats as the sound of footsteps recalled them to the everyday world again.
There was a little short laugh, and a voice, that somehow sounded like a false note in the symphony of the night, said:
"I'm sorry I've intruded at such an inopportune moment. I'm a regular bungler, but Miss Bruce told me I should find you here." The voice was Gordon's. "But you needn't mind me; I don't count," he added. "As I said the other day at Glenbar I am only a cypher."
"Oh, it is all right, old chap!" exclaimed Harold with unmistakable confusion. "Come and sit down. You are privileged to interrupt."
Mary's face burned as with fire, and she was so startled by the abrupt and unexpected apparition of Gordon, that she said, "I will leave you two men together for a little while," and fled.
"The fact is," said Gordon, as he threw himself into the chair Mary had just vacated, stretched out his legs and proceeded to light a cigar, "the fact is, I have been wondering what had become of you. You seem to have ignored me. Why, goodness knows."
"On my honour, no, but—"
"Make no excuses, old fellow. I quite understand of course. Spooning with; one's girl is an all-absorbing occupation. But a little matter of exigence prompted me to come up and see you, though I am sorry I interrupted your tête-à-tête. It's a perfect night for love-making. I rather envy you."
A certain flippancy and lightness in Gordon's manner and speech annoyed Harold in spite of himself. During that blissful half-hour with Mary he had touched the highest point of love's elation, and been under the spell of that ecstasy which transfigures the whole world until it appears as a paradise. Now his mind's banality jarred on him.
"Well, what's the matter of exigence?" he asked with a sharpness that did not escape the other's notice Harold partly sat on the rail of the veranda, clasped his hands about one of the wooden pillars supporting the projecting roof, and gazed up at the moon.
"Don't bite me, dear boy," answered Gordon with a laugh. "I asked Miss Bruce if you were still here, and she told me I should find you and Mary on the veranda. So I came. I made my entrance at a moment when you had forgotten that I and the world existed. But don't let that worry you. I understand things and say again, I envy you."
Harold got down from the rail and seated himself in the other chair.
"Pardon my momentary irritation," he said, "one is apt to be a bit flurried by a sudden awakening from a pleasant dream. And now, what's the business?"
"I have received a letter from Melbourne in connection with a matter which necessitates my personal attention there, so I've booked my seat in the Coach which starts to-morrow morning."
"It's a sudden call, isn't it?"
"Well, yes, it is rather, and unexpected, certainly."
"Likely to be away long?"
"Several weeks, possibly some months. The prospect of a long absence induced me to look you up to-night, as, naturally, I am anxious about your affairs. What are you going to do with regard to the foreclosure?"
"To be perfectly frank, I have not thought about It."
"Well, you are a cool beggar, upon my word."
"Oh, don't think I'm indifferent, Oliver. Before the foreclosure can be made absolute I have thirty-one clear days in which to pay off the principal and interest."
"And can you pay it?" asked Oliver with peculiar sharpness, as he leaned forward with the palms of his hands resting on the arms of the chair.
There was a pause of some moments before Harold spoke.
"Not unless you can help me."
Oliver fell back in his chair again, and emitted a sigh pregnant with meaning. There was another gap of silence.
"I'm afraid it's impossible," he said at last with apparent sincerity. "It's devilish hard on you, old chum, and it cuts me to the heart to think I am powerless. But, on my honour, I am up a tree myself. I've been going the pace for the last year or so, as you know, but until I came to look into my affairs, I didn't realise they were so complicated. I've got to pull up with a round turn. That's one of the reasons I'm going down to Melbourne. I shall have to put matters right somehow."
"From the frying pan into the fire, eh?" remarked Harold with a laugh. "Melbourne's a pretty hot place, you know."
"You are jumping to hasty conclusions, my friend," said Oliver with some vehemence. "Give me credit for possessing a few grains of common sense. I have a little business there that I have neglected, and on the principle that if you want a thing done well you must do it yourself, I am going to look after it. But you may bet your boots, my boy, that the lure of Melbourne would have to be much stronger than it is to tempt me to ruin myself. Why, good Lord, this place is far more of a danger zone to me. I've got a reputation to keep up here. I have to pretend to a lot, as you know, but in Melbourne there need be no pretence. I shall simply be one of the many motes, and can live as cheaply as I like."
"Don't take my chaff too seriously, Oliver." He lapsed into silence once more, and the whispering trees and the voices of the night made the silence strangely impressive. Harold revolved many things in his mind, until at last one clear thought came to him. This unsought interview seemed to him the very opportunity he wanted. "Since you have taken me into your confidence so far, I'll give you confidence in return," he said. "I have a proposal to make, which, if we can carry it out to a practical issue, may bring fortune to both of us." His resolve not to tell Oliver he had rescinded and he now felt that this was the psychological moment for the revelation.
"You have not been dreaming wild dreams, have you?" asked Oliver with a sceptical laugh and irony in his voice.
"No. But supposing I told you I know the way to El Dorado?"
"I should say you have been eating lotus."
"But suppose I insist that I am wide awake, and that my El Dorado is not the figment of a dream?"
"I should demand proof."
"And supposing I told you I know of a place where quartz stones by tons can be found, containing nearly as much gold as stone; while fine gold can be gathered up by bucket-fulls?"
"Again I should demand proof. I've heard that sort of talk before."
"And in the event of my furnishing the proof, would you stake much or all and join me in an expedition?"
"Yes, by God I would!" exclaimed Gordon, starting to his feet in a paroxysm of excitement, for there was something convincing in his friend's manner. Even allowing for exaggeration, he knew that Australia was full of possibilities, and the picture Harold had conjured up might be no dream of a visionary. Some r where in the vast unexplored regions of that fifth continent of the world there was wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. Mining men and geologists knew it. It was a question of finding it. "You have something at the back of your head, Harold," he continued, with an eagerness that was in striking contrast with his previous scepticism. "What is it? You can trust me. I'm your chum."
Harold rose up and stretched himself.
"Yes, I feel sure I can trust you. Come into my room." He led the way, and Gordon followed him into a neat little bedroom, daintily furnished. A small satinwood bedstead hung with a mosquito net filled up one corner. A large kangaroo rug partially covered the floor, while two or three large basket chairs, well supplied with cushions, a small white wood table in the centre, and a large chest of camphor-wood drawers against the wall were in keeping with the framed, sketches, several water-colour drawings, Mary's work, which adorned the walls. A vase of flowers stood on the table, and a little portable stand of books, on the top of which were photographs and a few knick-knacks, were evidence of refinement and culture. From the ceiling a large Colza oil lamp was suspended, its brilliant white light being partially subdued by a rose-coloured shade. Harold took a key from his pocket, inserted it in the lock of one of the drawers, opened the drawer, and produced the billy containing the pieces of quartz, which he poured out on to the table.
"What do you think of these specimens?" he asked with a little chuckle of triumph.
Gordon dropped on his knees by the table, caught up piece after piece of the quartz, held it in various positions, so as to get the full light from the lamp, while a glow came into his eyes; his voice vibrated with nervous excitement.
"I say...by Jove!...where did you get these from?" he cried.
"What do you think of them?" Harold asked coolly.
Gordon rose to his feet, and held some pieces still nearer the lamp, scrutinising them with critical eye.
"Well, if these are fair samples of the reef from which they have been taken, I should say someone has struck it rich."
Harold turned to the drawer again, and produced the other billy containing the scale gold, and he placed it on the table and removed the lid. Gordon's eyes dilated and his forehead wrinkled up. He did not touch the gold with his fingers for fear of scattering the grains, but he gazed on it greedily. His face hardened with an expression of avarice.
The inspection over, Harold put the billies back into the drawer and locked them up again.
"Sit down and let's have a talk," he said, as he drew up one of the cushioned chairs, placed a cushion at the back of his head, and leaned back with the air of a man who was contented and comfortable. Gordon occupied another chair facing his friend, and fixed his eyes upon him with a look of impatient searching interrogation. "I thought you would be surprised," remarked Harold with a laugh. "When you drove Mary out to my place the other day, she brought me word that an old prospector who is lying very ill in the hospital wanted to see me. It appears I had rendered him some service about three years ago, although I had forgotten it, but he hadn't. And as the old chap seems to be in a bad way, he has placed those specimens in my possession and given me all the particulars of the place where he found them."
"Where is it?" asked Gordon, with a gasp of eagerness, and partly raising himself in an attitude of alertness, like one who waits for a verdict.
Harold did not answer immediately; he puffed at his cigar, and gazed up at the ceiling. Presently he looked into the eyes of his friend, held forth his hand, and said:
"Give me your hand, old chap. We are chums, and whether you consent to join me or not, you'll respect my confidence, won't you?"
"If you feel you can't trust me, hold your peace," answered Gordon tartly, as though he was hurt by the remark.
"Of course I trust you, otherwise I should not have told you as much as I have done."
"Of course you've told Mary?" asked Gordon quickly.
"Oh yes, naturally."
Gordon leaned back in his chair. He was not so self-possessed as usual. The unexpected revelation had thrown him off his balance a little.
"Did you swear her to secrecy?" he asked, with an unwise display of irritation. "It's dangerous to trust a woman with a secret!"
"No swearing was necessary. What has annoyed you? Mary is one of those women who can be faithful unto death."
Gordon sat up and laughed, but it was a laugh with no soul, no sincerity in it. It was a mockery.
"Forgive me, old chap. It was only a momentary annoyance. I thought at first that you showed some reluctance to trust me with your secret; it pricked me a bit. But now we understand each other. Go ahead with your story."
"As a matter of fact, there is not much story to tell. If those specimens of gold are to be taken as fair samples, it is obvious that there's gold for the getting where they came from. If we were in London or Paris, say, instead of Gordonstown, we could with those samples float a gold mining company with a quarter of a million sterling in twenty-four hours. For anything the public knew, it might be a bogus gold mine, but a gold mine, a flaming prospectus, and a guinea-pig or two on the board of directors, act as a talisman to draw the money from the pockets of fools. But you and I will reap the harvest for ourselves, if there is a harvest to reap. We've got to do the pioneer business, but, unlike the majority of pioneers, we'll take jolly good care we consolidate our own interests before we let outsiders in. You follow me!"
"Of course I do, and agree. But where the deuce is El Dorado?" Gordon was getting impatient, beyond control.
"Somewhere out in the western ranges, beyond the desert."
"Somewhere! That's vague."
"The information in my possession will enable us to locate the spot. A gorge in the mountains. The quartz cropping out of the hill-side, and a stream flowing through the gorge, with a sandy bottom, like the sands of Pactolus."
Gordon lapsed into thoughtful silence. He put his hand to his forehead, and closed his eyes. His brain was working; he was trying to visualise certain things that might come to pass. At last he spoke, his left hand went up to his mouth, his thumb and index finger caressing his chin, his eyes fixed on vacancy.
"It sounds attractive enough, but the Western Ranges, they are far off, my friend, and there's the thirst land between us."
"Yes, but as the mountains won't come to us, we must go to the mountains. Anyway, whether you go or not, I shall go."
"By God, if you go, I will go too," exclaimed Gordon, springing to his feet all alert now, "we'll share the risk and the spoil."
"That's a bargain," said Harold, and they shook hands again. "Let us start as soon as possible. Say in a month. How will that suit you?"
Gordon 'stroked his moustache, in a pondering mood again.
"Yes...I think I can arrange. But what are you going to do about your farm?" He turned a keen, penetrating gaze on his friend's face, trying to read his thoughts.
"I don't know," Harold replied, with an anxious expression. "If by paying a certain amount down I could get them to renew the mortgage for a year..."
"Now look here," exclaimed Oliver with an eagerness that betrayed his anxiety. "I'll tell you what I'll do. While I am in Melbourne I'll call on Frampton & Heathcote, they've done business for me you know, and we are pretty chummy. I'll ask them to persuade their client to renew the mortgage for a year, and I'll pay down the arrears of interest. I must borrow the money. How will that pan out?"
"You are a brick," answered Harold, with a display of emotion, for he was deeply touched by his friend's apparent generosity.
"Very well, now make your mind easy," continued Gordon, still labouring under suppressed excitement. "I'll do my best. Of course, if we are going to start for the West in a month's time I shall have to cut my stay in Melbourne pretty short. But I'll manage somehow, and while I'm away you make arrangements for the little expedition. What about taking Jim Dawkins?"
"No. I can't do that. Jim's a splendid bushman and as hard as iron, but he's the only man I can leave in charge. I have two other chaps, however, Pete Radley and George Grindon, who I fancy will be glad to accompany us. They are good boys, and thoroughly reliable."
"Yes, they are all right, and I have no doubt I can induce two of my fellows to go. Six of us will be enough."
"Now about the quartz? You had better let me take it down to Melbourne and get it assayed. Of course we couldn't do any reefing put there without crushers, but if prospects warranted it, we'd soon have a stamping mill out and at work."
Harold opened the drawer again, took out the billy containing the quartz, wrapped it up in paper, making a neat parcel of it, and entrusted it to his friend. At this point somebody rapped on the door, and in response to Harold's "Come in," Mary, looking very sweet and pretty framed in the doorway, commanded them to "Come at once and have some supper. I'm sure you've talked enough. Just like men when they get together."
With a laugh they followed her to the little dining-room, where the table was already spread, and Mrs Margaret Bruce, very prim, in a rose-coloured dress and a white cap, trimmed with rose-coloured ribbon, on her head, was waiting for them. Margaret was a gentle, lovable woman between forty and fifty years of age. She had been a mother to Mary, and the girl's happiness seemed to be her one concern in life.
They were a merry little party at the supper table; the subject of the projected expedition in search of gold was not mentioned, the conversation being general. The meal ended. Mary, who had a small but well-cultured voice, sang a song or two, Harold accompanying her on the piano, and at eleven o'clock Gordon took his departure. As the two men shook hands at parting at the garden gate, Gordon placed a warning finger on his lip. "Now remember to be discreet and mum in this business. We understand each other. Neither must give the show away."
"WE understand each other," was Gordon's parting remark to his friend, but probably he would have been nearer the expression of a truth had he said instead, "I understand you, but are you sure you understand me?"
Harold Preston wore his heart upon his sleeve, Oliver Gordon masked his from prying eyes. Those who would understand Gordon must subject him to a critical study, and even then the student would probably be baffled by the subtleties of his character, and the fine nuances of his temperament. Within the limitations in which his life, so far, had been set he had displayed qualities of mind which might have enabled him to have held his own among the tricksters of politics, or the bluffers of diplomacy. He had travelled, and had spent two years drifting about the continent of Europe before coming to Australia. He had a dual personality, one in which a surface suavity and a winsome plausibility enabled him to secure a certain amount of popularity. The other was the hidden fierceness and savagery of the brute beast. This can be illustrated by a little incident: he had a reputation of being fond of animals, but was known to have whipped a dog to death because it disobeyed him, and to have shot a horse because it failed to win him a race upon which he had set his heart. He professed a belief in fatalism, and that made him materialistic, and by nature being gross he was essentially a sensualist. Oliver Gordon loved to rule, for he was far too stiff-necked to bow to authority, but not the least significant of the traits in his varied and complex character was a secretiveness which baffled even those who were most intimate with him, whilst his imminent will-power enabled him to wait patiently, ruthlessly to gain an end; he could be as the tiger that crouches and watches for its prey.
Such a man was not likely to be understood by Harold Preston, with his artistic temperament, his confiding nature, his refinement and altruistic tendencies. Harold was, by circumstances to which he could offer no resistance, a farmer. That is, a farmer in the Australian sense, which has a somewhat more comprehensive application than it has in England. But by temperament he was an artist with all that it implies. Men understood him, and women could read his soul like a book, whereas women with all their powers of penetration would have found themselves at fault where Gordon was concerned. Gordon was by nature hypocritical, but his hypocrisy was not transparent, and so was dangerous. Preston, on the contrary, was unsophisticated; he had the spirits and enthusiasm of the boy, with the courage and resolution of the man. His life has been passed near the great heart of Nature; he had heard its pulsing, he had felt its influence to the innermost chambers of his soul. Gordon was indifferent to Nature; he had no ears for her voice, he seemed to be without the sensuousness which is necessary to him who would understand Nature and fall under the sway of her mystery. He was a voluptuary, whereas the animalism in Preston was over-powered by an idealism which gave him clear eyes to see the spiritual beauty of life. Though he sometimes dreamed, he was capable of a practical application of his theory that the dreamer is out of place in the material world, and he toiled honestly that he might live. His daily routine was regulated by the common sense desire to make money, because money was indispensable to the wants of the grosser side of life. He ad no vulgar desire to acquire money for money's sake, but he was proud, with the pride of his race, he loved independence, to hold his head high, to have the wherewithal to gratify his tastes. If wealth had come to him, an altruistic nature like his would have found its happiness in an endeavour to impart some happiness to others, and money is a powerful means to that end.
Gordon had no ideals; he loved money because money gave him power; he was ambitious. He aimed at ruling, not serving, and his theory of life seemed to be "the end justifies the means." Being unscrupulous, he was not particular as to the means. It was difficult to understand love in Gordon's case, being governed by anything but animalism, but hate might become such a powerful passion that it would stop at nothing. With Preston, love was so pure a passion that its association with sensualism would have made his very soul sick, nor was it easy, when one looked into his soft gazelle-like eyes, to imagine hatred dominating his being. And yet as he could love strongly, so he might be able to hate strongly under extreme provocation.
No. Harold Preston did not understand Gordon, but Oliver Gordon did understand Preston.
On the morrow Gordon left for Melbourne. Harold went clown to see his friend at the Coach Office for a few parting words. On his way back he dropped in to the hospital to have a chat with Blewitt. The old man was sitting up in a chair near a window, the outlook from which embraced a wide stretch of country. Although very ill, he had improved a little, and insisted on getting out of bed. He manifested great pleasure on seeing Preston.
"I'm glad you've come, boss. The Doc.'s been giving me plenty of good things. He says as you told him."
"Yes, I said you were to have anything you desired."
"Any thing's good enough for a dingo like me; but I don't like being here, boss, I ought ter a' died in the wilderness, but I wouldn't until I had made my discovery known to you, and I tramped across them barren lands and the thirst was hell, but every day I humped my swag, and carried them billy-cans, because I swore to myself as I wouldn't die until I got back to civilisation and found you. My chums' bones bleach out there; three on 'em, and they was strong men too, but the fever grips two of 'em and they went. The third chap was lost in the mountains, and only the 'Almighty knows where his bones are. It was a big price to pay, boss, for our discovery, and them chaps might a bin allowed to have had a burst in the towns. Not as they'd a stayed long. A town spree's all right for a bit, but you soon tires of it, and when once you've got bitten with the bush you can't get away from it. And you keeps on going back, until one day you're bowled over with thirst or the sun, or maybe the fever; or a death adder or black-snake gets you, and you hand in your checks. I hears the call of it night and day, and I can't abear the idea of handing in my checks in this 'ere place. It ain't that I'm afeared of dying, boss, don't you make no mistake about that. I've played the game fair and square, and I've done my bit, but I want to die out there, boss, where the hot winds blow and the sky's the roof. It ain't fit as an old dingo like me should be in a swell place like this, and have them nurses awaiting on me. It ain't woman's work to be looking after a helpless old chap like me. I say it ain't right, boss. It makes me feel ashamed of myself. The nurses is angels, and the Doc., he's a good chap, but he don't understand. When I tells him I'm going out, he says, angry like, What have you got to complain about? Ain't you got all you want?' I says, 'Yes, Doc., but I ain't used to it; I'm happier when I have my swag on my back, on the tramp under the blue sky—'"
The poor old man seemed disposed to rattle on airing his grievance against the fate which had made him a hospital patient, interminably, but Harold broke in on his outpouring, and stopped it.
"Now look here, Blewitt my friend," he said, "you must be patient, and don't forget that after all you are only mortal. You have much to be thankful for, that you were able to suffer and endure as you have suffered and endured, and reach this haven at last."
"That's all right, boss," cried the old man querulously; "it isn't as I'm a complaining about the nurses or the Doc. or any of 'em. I'm a complaining about this 'ere weakness as prevents me doing anything for myself and—"
"Well, well, Bill, you must bear with it," said Harold cheerily. "What cannot be altered must be endured, you know. Your powers of endurance have been strained to breaking point, but your vitality is evidently great, and if you'll only have patience and don't fret, your strength may come back. I look forward to having you as my chum when we start for the Ranges."
The old chap stretched out his worn sunburnt hand and grasped Harold's with a strength that seemed prophetic, whilst his eyes were misty as he answered:
"That's the talk as I likes to hear, boss; it does me good."
Further conversation was prevented by the appearance of the doctor and the head nurse. He greeted Blewitt with a cheery good morning.
"Why, you're looking better, my friend. Umph, pulse stronger too. Did you enjoy the port wine and the fruit?"
"Yes, Doc., they're all right, but you see I'm—"
"Never mind what you are," said the doctor, who knew what was coming. "Be thankful for the mercies vouchsafed you; don't dwell too much on our bad treatment of you, in making you take soup, port wine, fish, and fruit, and other delicacies, and you will pull through all right, and be off on another prospecting expedition."
The old man broke into a laugh that augured well, and promised the doctor that he wouldn't grumble any more. When Doctor Blain had finished his rounds he invited Harold to lunch with him at the Club, and they walked over together.
"He's a marvellous old chap is that," the doctor remarked, "and I quite expect now that he will pull through. He has certainly taken a turn for the better. These old gold seekers are a pretty tough lot and take a lot of killing. Blewitt has a tremendous amount of will-power, and that's a great factor in his favour."
The luncheon finished, the doctor and his friend adjourned to a shady, flower-covered corner of the veranda for their coffee and cigars, and Oliver Gordon became the subject of conversation, by the doctor saying:
"I understand that Gordon's gone off to Melbourne."
"Yes, I believe he has some business to attend to there."
"Cherchez la femme," said the doctor, with a merry twinkle of the eye and a little laugh that indicated what was passing through his mind.
"Well, possibly there may be a lady in the case, but Oliver doesn't tell me anything of his private affairs."
"No, I suppose not. He's devilish close, I should think. He has never appealed to me. There is something about the fellow I don't like. He's a difficult chap to understand."
"What is it you don't like?" asked Preston, gazing steadily at the doctor.
"Well...between ourselves...I should say he could be very treacherous and an unforgiving enemy."
Preston's brow contracted a little, and his face wore a troubled look. He could not bear to think Gordon was treacherous.
"What is your reason, Doctor Blain, for that opinion?" he asked pointedly, and with just a suspicion of annoyance.
"To begin with, I flatter myself that I am not a bad judge of character," answered Blain. "Then of course in this little gossipy place one hears a good deal about one's neighbours. And, moreover, I have had some personal experience of Mr Gordon in his capacity of a governor of the hospital. When I came up here from Sydney a few years ago I learnt in the course of time that I was one of six candidates for the post, and that I had got in by one vote only. But the point is this, one of the candidates was a nominee of Gordon's, and Gordon it appears had set his mind on securing his election. The choice lay between me and the nominee, and the nominee was defeated. For anything I know to the contrary it was a fair fight, and one would have thought that Gordon would have taken his defeat gracefully. But his vanity was wounded; he is not a man who can endure defeat, and though I was an utter stranger to him, he evidently regarded me as his enemy. Ever since he has tried to make my position as uncomfortable as he could, and has subjected me to a good many petty annoyances. Don't you think now, that I have a pretty good reason for my opinion of your friend?"
Preston grasped his chin with his left hand and pondered for many moments, then turning suddenly to his companion, he asked sharply:
"Blain, have you any particular motive for telling me this?"
The doctor took time to consider his answer, and he reflectively watched the smoke from his cigar gracefully dissipate itself on the languid air.
"No, I had no specific motive. Subconsciously, perhaps, I desired that you, as a subscriber to the hospital, and a friend of, and great believer in Gordon, should know that only a man of weak character would take up the attitude that Gordon has displayed to me. Frankly, I would not trust Gordon beyond a very short range of vision. I've never had an opportunity of saying so much to you before."
"Do you think he's dishonest?"
"I think he's treacherous. Wound his vanity or defeat him in any way, and you make a deadly enemy of him."
Preston leaned back in his chair and smoked hard. "What the doctor had told him evidently affected him deeply. When he spoke it was as a man who has come to a decision after much weighing of facts.
"You will appreciate my feelings in this matter, Doctor Blain, I am sure. The information you have given me throws a new light on my friend's character, and it reveals a flaw, if what you say is correct."
Blain started forward, clutching the chair arms, and stretching his neck out. There was a gleam of fire in his eyes. "If what I say is correct! What do you mean by that?" he asked warmly. "Do you suggest that I have lied to you? Or that I am paltry enough to attack Gordon without justification, because I don't happen to admire him?"
"By heaven, no," answered Preston with a pathetic earnestness. "I apologise if my clumsy remark has led you to believe that I doubt your veracity. I am labouring under a sense of mental shock. The sudden shattering of an ideal confuses and distresses a man. I have admired Gordon and had faith in him; I cannot bear to think that I have been deceived. That he is self-willed I am not prepared to deny, and it is no less true that he likes to obtain his ends, but I have always regarded him as a fair fighter. Why he should bear you any ill-feeling because he failed to secure the election of his nominee puzzles me, and—don't be offended with me—I am inclined to think you are perhaps unduly prejudiced against him."
Doctor Blain shrugged his shoulders, leaned back in his chair, and purled at his cigar. These little actions were indicative of his feelings. After reflecting for some long moments he let his eyes follow the cigar-smoke, and said with an air of abstraction:
"Friendship that is worthy of the name should have faith. Your faith is very strong, Preston. I hope it won't receive a rude shock." He changed his position slightly, and met his companion's gaze. "You live out in the wilderness," he continued, "and you hear the voice of Nature oftener than you hear the voice of man. We are only a small community here, but the evil that is in us shows itself pretty plainly at times. Your creed, I know, is to think ill of no man—"
"Unless I have unmistakable proof that he is bad," interposed Preston ardently.
"Ah, just so. I claim equality with you in that respect. Now I should not have expressed myself so freely about Gordon if I had no evidence of his insincerity. I am sorry now that I mentioned the matter since it has hurt—"
Preston again interposed a remark.
"You need not regret it. I quite understand that you are justified in your opinion from your point of view."
"I rather think my justification does not rest on my own personal little Grievance. Gossip and rumour, even in a small place like this—"
"Why attach importance to gossip and rumour," snapped Preston with undisguisable irritation, "have no patience with the poisonous tittle-tattle of silly people to whom scandal is as the breath of their nostrils."
"Nor have I," said the doctor with perfect composure. "And in order that you may exclude me from your category, I shall have to say more than I had any intention of saying. I am not a casuist, but I have my own views with regard to the acts and deeds of men. You and I have always been very friendly ever since I came here to take up my appointment. You and Gordon are very friendly, yet you are men of such different qualities of mind and heart that I am somewhat at a loss to understand how it is you have such unbounded faith in him."
"Look here, doctor," exclaimed Harold with vehemence, "unless you have some definite charge to proffer against Gordon, I beg of you to let the subject drop."
The doctor was not in the least disconcerted. "I could present a catena of facts before you, but will content myself with two or three, in order to justify myself and to put you on your guard; to be forewarned is to be forearmed. You compel me to this. It is known, for instance, throughout the town that you and Miss Mary Gordon are engaged. Some time ago in this very Club; there had been some races during the day, and there was rather a noisy and excited gathering in the evening; Gordon was not quite sober, and he and Mr Cartwright, the town surveyor, got into a heated argument about a disputed bet. Gordon made some offensive remarks to Cartwright, who retorted by reminding him that it was not policy to throw stones when one inhabited a glass structure. One thing led to another, and Gordon boasted of always succeeding in anything he undertook. Whereupon his opponent, in good-natured chaff, as it seemed to me, reminded him that though he had tried to win Mary Gordon, you had cut him out. I shall never forget the expression that this brought to Gordon's face. It seemed to me the expression of a man who had a devilish nature. It passed almost immediately, and he broke into a laugh, but the laugh was devilish; what he said in reply clung to me, and I resolved that if ever a favourable opportunity presented itself I would let you know it. To-day the opportunity has come without my seeking it."
"Well—what was it?" asked Harold with strained eagerness, his face aflame, as the other paused.
"He said that Mary Gordon did not know her own mind; that she was simply amusing herself with you, and he offered to bet Cartwright a hundred pounds, that Mary would never become Mrs Preston, but Mrs Gordon."
Harold sank back in his chair, and the flame gave place to a ghastly pallor.
"My God!" he gasped.
The doctor looked at his companion searchingly, but still maintaining his composure said:
"I am sorry that I should have felt compelled to tell you so much. If you need corroboration I refer you to Cartwright. There is no doubt he will remember the incident. And now there is one more fact to strengthen my case. Although I did not know Gordon personally when I was in practice in Sydney, I had a friend, manager of one of the Sydney Banks. He was a married man with a charming family of five daughters and a son, who was the baby. The second daughter was a sweet and beautiful girl of nineteen. Gordon was an honoured visitor to my friend's house. He betrayed the trust by seducing that daughter. The poor girl, when she knew she was likely to become a mother, begged and implored Gordon to marry her. Presumably he refused, for in a fit of horror and despair she shot herself. The cowardly betrayer of the girl would have paid for his crime with his life, for the father made a vow to kill him, but he fled. As is now known, he went to Scotland. My friend brooded over the tragedy of his daughter so much that his heart broke and he died. Your friend, Oliver Gordon, is still a free man; still lives his boastful and empty life. If what I have told you puts you on your guard my purpose will be served."
Preston had leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, and, burying his face in his hands, he remained in that attitude for some minutes, until the doctor rose and touched him on the shoulder.
"Look here, my friend, don't take this revelation too much to heart. I know that it's a painful thing to be disillusioned, to have one's ideals shattered. But, after all, Gordon is only a detail in your life. It has been my painful duty I must regard it as a duty—to put you on your guard. And, believe me, I have been actuated by a sincere desire to serve you, for I like you. You are a white man, but your life has been passed in the wilderness, and your knowledge of human nature is comparatively limited. Well, I must go. I hope our friendship won't be shaken by what I have told you. I had no intention when we sat down here to make this revelation, but it has come out as such things often do without premeditation."
Preston rose up as a man rises when he has been knocked down by a partially stunning blow. The mental shock he had received had deprived him of some of his physical power. His tortured face was pale despite the sun-brown. He emitted a hollow, cynical laugh that was more like a spasm of pain, and put out his hand to the doctor.
"It is something like an ordeal of fire, Blain, when a man suddenly realises that his faith and trust have been misplaced. No one likes to be deceived, befooled. I appreciate the motives which have prompted you to make this painful revelation. You would hardly have been a true friend if you had not told me. I am afraid I am apt to be a little too confiding, to take too much for granted. As you say, forewarned is forearmed. However, for the present let the matter rest where it is. Good-bye. By the way, bring all the skill that is yours to bear on Bill Blewitt's case. I want that man to live."
They shook hands and parted, and as Harold Preston went out into the sunlit street he was conscious of having undergone some great change, and that the sweetness of his life had turned a little sour. Something had broken.
As Harold Preston left the Club and made his way along High Street in the direction of Mary Gordon's residence his mind was in a welter, and he felt that the threads of his life had become knotted and tangled. The sun was shining with flaming radiance, the streets were filled with a flood of white light, and yet he had a curious physical feeling that there was a darkened medium before his eyes. Although the heat was great, the business of the little settlement caused a stir and bustle. Men and women, screening themselves with white umbrellas, passed and repassed, absorbed in their respective interests, and the traffic rumbled over the rough pavement with an intermittent cadence that was suggestive of sea waves breaking gently with rhythmical murmur on a sandy shore.
As he went on his way, self-absorbed and with an air of abstraction, he was only vaguely conscious of his surroundings. He was in that peculiar state of mind when memories are apt to crowd upon one, and the mental eye takes a rapid panoramic survey of the incidents and episodes of the dead and gone years. He flung his gaze back to his early childhood, passed in the wilds where the voice of Nature spoke to him and he understood and was happy. Then came four years as a student in Melbourne, when his thirst for knowledge caused him to be singled out as "a promising lad." He had powers of acquisitiveness, and a mental hungering for intellectual stimulus that might have led him to a plane of professional activity with resulting honours and the praise of his fellow-men. But he was a child of Nature, and every fibre of his being vibrated to the call of the wild. Life in a crowded city, amidst the dust and passion of struggling masses of human atoms jostling each other in the fight for existence, did not appeal to him. He lacked the imminent motive power of ambition which is indispensable to a man desirous of worldly distinction. His temperament inclined him to an Arcadian simplicity of existence, where he could breathe the free air of great spaces, and listen to the soothing undertones of Nature. His soul demanded something purer than is afforded to the toiler in a great city where the masses herd like cattle.
Besides, he felt that his destiny was to continue the work his people had begun. In the area of the inheritance that would come to him. there was scope enough to satisfy him, nor was he indifferent to the potentialities of even that outpost of civilisation. Civilisation was rapidly eating its way into the remotest corners of the great land of his birth, and he knew the time would surely dawn when the wilds would be peopled with teaming millions, and the voice of Nature be stilled by the roar and fret of humanity, and the tears and the sorrow and wrong that are concomitants of civilisation when it throws, its corroding clasp around the virgin heart of Nature. And so in the fulfilment of what he conceived to be his inevitable destiny, Harold Preston shook the dust of Melbourne from his feet, after four years of strenuous intellectual work, during which he had equipped himself more thoroughly than the average youth. He had never been in sympathy with the under-world of the ever-growing town. Its fleshiness and vulgarity had no attraction for him. He was a stranger to its haunts of vice, its sink-holes of meretricious pleasures, where men and women sought nepenthe in the hashish of vicious excitement.
He spent some months with relatives in Sydney, and derived pure joy from sailing about its wonderful harbour.
Then he learnt something of the luring spell of the sea by sailing in a coasting schooner as far north as Cooktown, thence he made his way overland through the jungles and planes, to dear Glenbar, where amidst its restfulness, and repose, and the siren song of the wilds ringing in his attuned ears, he found the life he longed for.
This is an epitome of his experience of the world, not a very wide experience, and it had left him with all the freshness and joyousness of youth. In due course he came into his inheritance, and when his soul's love for Mary Gordon found a response his happiness and contentment were complete.
Now as he made his way through the sun-smitten township, his heart was tortured with the cruelty of disillusionment. The two years' drought had ruined him financially, but that concerned him far less than the discovery that the friend in whom he had had such unbounded faith was made of the commonest clay, and had been guilty of a crime for which there could hardly be any atonement. To a man of Harold's simple nature this falling of his idol was an appalling calamity: it shocked and stunned him; it had taken something out of his life that could never be replaced. As he entered the house Mary met him with a sweet smile and cordial welcome that heartened him a little, but she was quick to notice his changed appearance. His troubled thoughts were reflected in his face, which wore a gloom she had never seen before. He had such an optimistic nature, such boyish enthusiasm, that he was almost invariably bright and cheerful, but now it seemed as if he had actually aged, and there was a look of despair in the depths of his dark eyes.
"Whatever has happened, dear?" Mary asked as she passed her soft hand soothingly over his broad forehead. There was a note of concern in her voice.
His first impulse was to tell her what he had heard about Gordon, but a feeling he could not quite understand restrained him. While he could not doubt Doctor Blain's statements, which were too circumstantial to be a mere fabrication, was it not possible that his informant had exaggerated the details? Was it not possible, also, that there were some redeeming features in the horrible story? It was so hard to think of Oliver Gordon as a black-hearted, depraved wretch whose soul was steeped in vice.
"I am tired, dear, and worried," he answered prevaricatingly, as he dropped into a chair, and, leaning back, put his hand to his forehead. She went behind the chair, and encircling his neck with her arms, she laid her face against his head.
"It is not like you, Harold, to worry; why should you? You have such resource within yourself, such youth and splendid energy, that you cannot fail to overcome your difficulties."
He grasped her wrist, and looked up wistfully at her sweet face with its ineffable expression of sympathy and love. He smiled sadly.
"Yes, Mary, I have youth and energy, but at times it seems as if nothing on earth could compensate us for ruined hopes and misplaced confidence."
She drew away, and seated herself in a chair facing him.
"What I mean is, when you put your trust in somebody and you find you've been deceived."
She clasped her hands about her knee and assumed a very thoughtful expression; there was a pause. Then still in the same position, but fixing her soft brown eyes that were pathetic, upon him:
"Harold, is it possible that some wretch in the town has been poisoning your mind against—me?"
"What a fool I am, Mary, to have given you such an impression as that," he exclaimed, starting up with a burst of energy. "Surely you cannot think that I am such a poor weak creature as to allow any silly, flippant gossip to shake my faith in you?"
"I hope you are not," she said softly.
"Indeed I am not. I should hate and despise myself if I thought I was capable of such baseness. No, my dear girl. If the time should ever come when you feel that you have made a mistake in giving me your love, all you will have to do is to tell me honestly, and I will release you and never again let the shadow of my presence fall upon you."
"If the time should ever come," she answered with an impressive solemnity, "I 'will tell you, Harold. Whatever the fate of the years may be, my heart will remain true to you unless you should at any time feel you had made a mistake and told me so."
In an instant he was on his knees at her feet, and taking her face in his hands, he kissed her on the lips: "Mary my beloved," he said with reawakened cheerfulness, "don't let us spoil the harmony of our love by suggesting even the possibility that either of us has made a mistake. I have told you before, and I tell you again, that you are the only woman in the world for me. We are not girl and boy. My love for you has grown and matured with the years. Your pure, gentle soul is more precious to me than all the wealth this country may be capable of producing. My poor life will be a sapless, meaningless thing without your companionship. I am a simple-minded man, with no greed for wealth, no aspiration beyond that of desiring to live a clean and useful life, and of doing my duty to all as an honest and earnest man should."
"Harold, every word you say, every sentiment you express finds a response in my own breast," she answered sweetly. "I judge you with a woman's eyes, and woman's instinct, and seeing the goodness that is in you, my soul clings to your soul. Human life can be idealised, purified, glorified by human love. Let us get all that is sweet and beautiful and idyllic out of our joint lives by mutual love, at the same time never forgetting that we are only mortal, and when we quit this earth it will be to reunite somewhere beyond the stars where love is eternal."
It was a true woman's soul that spoke, and there was a light in her eyes that almost seemed as if her whole being pulsed with a divine inspiration.
From Harold's mind passed all thoughts of Gordon. He was filled with a spiritual happiness that lifted him above the world. He had no thought for anything else but this dear woman whose womanhood was purified by the hand of God. He raised her up, he held her in his arms for some moments, her heart beating in rhythm against his. He kissed her with a kiss that was free from all grossness, and said, "If it be true, Mary, that angels walk the earth you are one of them."
A tender smile dimpled her beautiful face, and a ray of sunlight lighted up her hair with a ha-lo of gold.
"Well now, we must not forget that we are of the earth earthy," she said in a tone that was like the breathing of a lute. "A little sentiment at times is delicious when love fills the heart; it is like the joy that comes from an entrancing dream, but we awaken from dreams to the world that is real and practical. See, the sun is setting, let us go into the garden. This room is very hot."
They passed through the open doorway on to the veranda. The air was heavy with the strong scent exhaled from the long trumpet blooms of masses of Funkia Sieboldiana that grew in a circular bed close to the house. The sun was dipping below the horizon. A nimbus of fleecy clouds hung just above it, glowing with living colours of amber and crimson. Great bars of golden light spread up fanwise to the zenith, and over the whole landscape was the gleam of shimmering gold. The translucent atmosphere glowed as if from the reflection of intangible fire that imparted to it a transparent amber light. As the upper rim of the sun disappeared the colour in the west deepened, and the gold on the landscape gradually dissolved to crimson, and this again dispersed, giving place to a velvety purple that deepened and deepened as the stars began to scintillate in the eastern heavens, while the west still glowed with horizontal lines of dark red, orange-yellow and sea-green. These faded almost imperceptibly as the robe of night slowly spread over the earth, and the whole canopy of heaven was studded with myriads of glittering points of light.
Harold and Mary strolled arm in arm along the garden walks. A warm wind came up from the river and sighed languorously through the palms and tree ferns, and fire-flies flashed their tiny lamps until the air seemed to drip with a rain of molten silver.
"The world is very beautiful," whispered Mary, deeply impressed with the poetry of the night.
"And love makes of it a paradise," was Harold's response. "I feel it is good to be with you. You always raise me to a higher plane, and I see with clear eyes the nobler things that are worth the striving for."
"You must not idealise me too much, Harold," she remarked with a musical laugh. "After all, I am very human, you know."
"Yes, you are very human, but it seems to me that you embody some of the highest attributes of human nature."
The glory of the stars and the spell of her beauty, held him, and he felt it was good to be alive.
THE following evening Harold Preston arrived at his home, hot, thirsty, and dust-covered after the long ride from Gordonstown. The aridity of Glenbar was striking when compared with the greenery and freshness of the township. The scorching wind that swept in from the beyond was ladened with an impalpable powder that spread a haze over the dried-up land, and made life almost unendurable. A stranger would have found it difficult to believe that this brown, choked, burnt-up region was in its normal state a vast extent of rolling sea-green, stretching away and away to the misty horizon, and that cattle and sheep roamed and fattened there in their thousands, filling the air with the melody of their voices and adding a pastoral beauty to the fair scene. But these long droughts turned it all into a desolate wilderness, where even the death adder and the black-snake found it difficult to procure sustenance. Over all brooded a strange, impressive silence that was as the silence of a dead world. Occasionally, like some accursed spirit of the place, a wandering hawk might be seen poised in the ether, silhouetted against the hard, cruel, blue sky, from which in the daytime the fierce sun poured out a blinding light over the parched and sweltering earth, and at night it was an eerie mystery with the wind playing a weird, syncopated aeolian melody that suggested a wail of pain, as it swept through the gaunt, leafless branches of the trees.
As Harold drew rein at the entrance to his house, he was welcomed by Jim Dawkins, who led the sweating, panting horse to the stables. Harold shook oil some of the white dust from his garments, and entering the house, freshened himself with a little whisky well diluted with soda-water that was hot to the palate, as though it had been heated over a fire. He changed his clothes and rested for half an hour, and then went into his office where he found a pile of letters waiting for him on his desk. Recognising by the handwriting of the address on one of the envelopes that it was a letter from Gordon, he opened it with something approximating to a feeling of irritation, for it served lo remind him of the ugly story Doctor Blain had told him. He stretched himself out on the couch and perused the letter which ran as follows:
"My Dear Harold,
It delights me that I am able to give you some good news. I had a long interview with Frampton & Heathcote with respect to the mortgage on your property at Glenbar. At first they seemed indisposed to listen to any proposition, saying they considered the matter closed, as due legal notice had been given to you, and you had taken no steps, nor even acknowledged the receipt of their communication. However, I argued the beggars into a more complaisant mood by convincing them that your estate at the present time, owing to the long drought, was practically valueless, and that there was not a single sheep nor a single head of cattle on the whole Run except the three or four cows you keep for milking purposes. That even if the drought ended this autumn it would take between two and three years to bring the land into full cultivation again, and fit it to carry its proper proportion of live stock.
"I told them I was prepared to take over the mortgage myself, and pay out the present mortgage. They promised to consult with their client, and give me an answer at the earliest possible moment. This morning the answer came, and subject to the money being paid within seven days, my offer would be accepted. I lost no time in going down to my bank to see how I really stood with regard to ready cash, and was agreeably surprised to find I am in rather a better position than I anticipated, and I have arranged to pay the money to-morrow. The solicitors will at once prepare a new deed, inserting my name as mortgagee, and I will present it to you for signature on my return. Of course I have taken it for granted that you would much rather I held the mortgage than a stranger, consequently I have refrained from consulting you in order to save time.
"And now as regards the other matter, only second in importance to the mortgage affair. Indeed I am rather inclined to place it first. The samples of gold-bearing quartz you entrusted me with I submitted to Jacobson & Quilter, the well-known mining engineers and assayers, and I have got their report. Having carefully weighed the stone, they crushed it and extracted the gold, which pans out at the ratio of 3.7 ounces per ton. Of course you do not need to be told that this represents extraordinary richness, and a reef of any magnitude that would give such an average means wealth beyond one's dreams.
"I saw Jacobson personally; he is a keen, hawk-eyed Jew, and the remarkable richness of the samples of ore had evidently aroused his instincts, and he pumped me hard and cunningly to learn where the ore had come from, but I was equal to him. I vaguely described the place as in a region that had been only very partially explored, and that the means of access were at present most difficult. He pointed out that though there was a reef of solid gold, it would be practically useless without machinery to treat it, and means of conveyance to the marts. And he offered to send a trusty expert to examine and report, and if that report was favourable his firm would find the capital to erect the necessary machinery, and organise quick means of communication, with the nearest city. I told him that I was not in a position to give him the slightest information. I said the sample of ore I had submitted belonged to a friend of mine, and that they had been brought to him by a thoroughly experienced prospector, but at present no information of any kind would be given to anyone. The old Jew was much disappointed, though somewhat consoled when I promised him that if it was found that it would pay to develop the district, his firm should have a chance of tendering for machinery. Well, my dear chum, I think you will admit things are looking a bit rosier, and if we can locate the spot from which the old chap brought the samples, and the samples fairly represent the amount of gold that may be found there, there is a fortune waiting for someone.
"I hope you will lose no time in making the necessary preparations for a start. I am eager to be off, and I am sure you must feel the same. You may expect me back in Gordonstown in the course of the next fortnight or three weeks. As you will remember, my original plan was to remain here for some time, but the projected expedition to the West has necessitated a complete modification of my arrangements. Our future is on the knees of the Gods, but I feel confident that you and I can win through to many prosperous years. Love to you and Mary,
If a letter couched in similar terms had come from Gordon a few weeks ago, it might have begot in Preston feelings of elation. As it was he experienced a sense of irritation, and the letter dropped from his hands to the floor. He lolled back on the couch, put his hand over his eyes, and pondered. He began to see things in better balanced proportions, and could no longer be indifferent to the fact that if the dream of riches was ever to be realised, risks and difficulties must be overcome.
Bill Blewitt, an experienced bushman, hardened by many adventures and rough life, was the sole survivor of the party of four which had set out with high hopes for the West. It was true they were without organisation, and entirely dependent on their own individual exertions. Therefore such an expedition as that contemplated by Preston could not be undertaken lightly, and its success would depend on the care that was taken to guard against failure. As a stockman and farmer he had gained much experience of bush life, but he had never attempted any exploration, and the circumstances of his life had confined him to a relatively restricted area. Gordon was little more than a townsman. He had at no time shown any desire to trust himself to the wilds, with a view to wresting some of the hidden secrets from those far-off spaces, of which so little was known at that period. It therefore seemed that he was hardly qualified for the work that had to be done. Those facts could not be overlooked, but what really concerned Harold more than anything else was a somewhat vague feeling of jealousy of Gordon. At that stage he could not quite justify that feeling, but his faith in Gordon had been shaken, and though he would not have owned to a definite fear of him, he was obsessed by an instinctive mistrust of the man whom at one time he had regarded as one of the truest of friends. And now Gordon, by taking over the mortgage had obtained a power which, if he had any sinister motives, he could use to Harold's undoing.
It was a little more than four years since Preston had been compelled to resort to mortgaging his property. There had been a bad year. Nearly three months of torrential rains had turned his lands into swamps, and disease broke out among his sheep and cattle. The rains were succeeded by intense heat, and a fire, which had its origin in the carelessness of a shepherd, swept over the crops and grasslands, leaving a blackened waste. That year of disaster brought about a financial crisis, and Harold appealed to his friend to assist him. Although it was generally believed that Gordon was rich k he declared that he was unable to render the desired assistance; but he advised him to go to Melbourne and see Frampton & Heathcote, and he gave him a letter of introduction. The result was, they undertook, after a survey of the property, to lend ten thousand pounds secured by mortgage over the whole estate. The money was advanced "on behalf of a client who wished to remain anonymous." Now by the irony of fate, as it seemed to him, Gordon had obtained a power which, if he were so inclined, he might use to crush him. Might use! The thought startled Harold so that he sprang up and paced the room with a feeling of desperation, then a still more disquieting thought took definite shape in his brain for the first time: "Was it possible that Gordon still kept alive the old feud which had existed for so many years between the Gordons and the Prestons?"
Harold felt angry with himself for admitting even the possibility of this, but it took such possession of him that it would not be dismissed, and he recalled a hundred and one trifling incidents that at the time he attached no importance to but which now seemed strangely significant. Had he known that Gordon was a sleeping partner in the firm of Frampton & Heathcote, and the "anonymous client," his feelings against Gordon would have led to open warfare against the man who, while professing strong friendship, was capable of cunning and treachery that made him a deadly enemy. Preston, with his notions of chivalry and his strong sense of honour, was no match for Gordon. And being in ignorance of Gordon's baseness, and notwithstanding that black page in his history as revealed to him by Doctor Blain, it pained him extremely to find himself doubting his friend.
At this moment, when his distress of mind had reached such an acute stage that he felt as if he must do something desperate, Jim Dawkins came in to announce that supper was ready. The interruption relieved the tension for the time being, and without a word Harold strode into the long, log-built annexe to the house, which was the common feeding-place for all the hands employed on the Run.
The floor was the natural earth. The shingle roof was supported by beams of the stringy bark tree, and the walls were logs placed one above the other and clamped together. The apertures that did duty for windows that could be closed by wooden shutters were now screened by flimsy cotton curtains. The long deal table was covered with a coarse cotton cloth, and bare forms were placed at each side, but a large chair for the master was at the head of the table. Harold generally took his meals with his employees unless he had guests, in which case he entertained them in a small and well-furnished dining-room in the main building. Besides Jim Dawkins, the staff now consisted of an old woman who for many years had acted as housekeeper, two girls who did the work of the household, one shepherd who had been retained although he had little to do, two experienced stockmen, Pete Radley and George Grindon, a couple of stable hands, a dairy maid, and the indispensable carpenter. In good times Preston employed a large number of people of both sexes. Here in this extreme outer fringe of civilisation the little community lived through the torrid heat amidst primitive surroundings, and without any of the comforts, to say nothing of the luxuries, enjoyed by the town dwellers. But they were healthy and happy.
The meal consisted for the most part of tinned provisions, though there was an ample supply of potatoes boiled in their skins; the drink was water from the artesian well which fortunately never failed, milk, a thin beer, and tea.
Harold, although abstracted and thoughtful, enjoyed his meal, for he was hungry and exhausted. The conversation was as primitive as the surroundings. There was little to talk about. The deadness of everything and the heat were depressing, but Jack Doughty, the shepherd, who was a weather wise man, struck a cheering note.
"This yere draught's agoin' to break, boss," he said with oracular solemnity.
"Why, what makes you think that, Jack?" asked Harold.
"I saw four wild ducks flying from the West 'ard last night, and the sun went down in a bank o' cloud."
No one threw any doubt on Jack's prophecy, for it was a good sign to see duck, and it was long since there had been any cloud. It indicated that there was rain somewhere out West, and it might spread to the East.
When the supper was over Harold rose, and turning to Dawkins said:
"Come and smoke your pipe with me on the veranda, Jim, I want to talk to you."
HAROLD stretched himself out on a deck-chair on the part of the veranda facing the west, while one of the serving women put a bottle of brandy and a jug of water on a small table within his reach. He lit a cigar, and leaned back with a feeling of mental weariness; he had a vague, haunting sense of fear that things had gone hopelessly wrong, that he was face to face with a crisis in his life. It was a morbid condition, quite foreign to his nature, and he was so thoroughly under its influence at that moment that he despaired of ever setting his affairs right again.
The mystery of the night held the earth, and out of the vast silence came, in rising and falling cadences, that low wailing note called forth by the wandering night breeze as it breathed its hot breath over the bare branches of the surrounding trees, and among the yielding stems of a clump of bamboos that formed a screen on the eastern front of the house. It was accentuated and invested with an almost supernatural uncanniness, for the stricken and burnt-up land harboured none of those forms of life which are evidenced during the tropic night by many undertones blending in a monotonous and sibilant melody. As compared even with Gordonstown this drought-blighted region seemed like part of a dead world steeped in eternal silence. The thin, translucent atmosphere imparted to the myriad stars that pierced the ebony sky an almost unnatural brilliancy, though it failed to penetrate the vast spaces of darkness below, the darkness that held its thousand secrets unrevealed by shape or sound. Far away in the magic and mystical west, across the unpeopled and desolate wastes, there lingered a curious radiance like the faint reflection of a hidden furnace from which emanated a violet glow, tinged with a strange, ethereal flush of tender rose.
Harold's eyes focused in one wide range of vision the steely brilliance of the stars, that magic light in the west, and the velvety pall of darkness enveloping the land; and in his supersensitive condition he was almost painfully impressed with the dream-like and poetic beauty of it all; his whole being was alert with an understanding that he was living his life in the solemn stillness of a backwater, where he but faintly caught the sounds of the world of passionate human struggle where Mammon was the god before whom all bent the knee, and the lust for gold hardened the hearts of men. To such a man that backwater was an Elysium; he had found happiness free from alloy, for the little frets and worries inseparable from the daily existence of all who labour that they may live were to him, with his resilience and optimism, but stimuli to greater effort to gain the modest competency he desired; that and the love of the woman to whom he had given his love were all he had demanded from the world.
His soul stirred in response to the voices of the primitive wilderness where his lot had been cast. He understood Nature in all her moods; if the night held something that was vague, mysterious, awful, it revealed to him through his poetic temperament beauties that would have failed to touch grosser minds, and the days, whether days of rain or sunshine, of calm or tempest, brought him a full-hearted contentment, for a splendid, glorious, exhilarating freedom was his. An encompassing restriction, the miserable and emasculating conventionalities of high-pitched civilisation would have made him wretched and dissatisfied. He was a product of the wilderness, and had none of the subtle understanding of human nature which comes to men who toil and traffic in the marts of teeming cities, and enables them to realise how fierce and cruel the heart can be when it has been rendered distrustful by the wrong, the greed, and the selfishness of others. When the great drought destroyed the fabric that was the result of his ungrudging toil, he realised that Nature could be cruel, but it raised in him no spirit of rebellion; he was content to believe that even in her cruelty, as men understood it, she was carrying out some great purpose, and though she wrecked and destroyed, she could smile and speedily build up again.
But now a false, jarring note had been struck in the well-balanced symphony of his existence, and an instinctive mistrust of his friend, in whose honour he had had such unbounded faith, pained and wrung him as he had never been pained and wrung before. As he sat there pondering in the solemn stillness of the night, with the glory of the shining stars above him, he heard voices, and one seemed to come from the West, over the vast empty spaces; it crooned a siren song of gold, of gold that had lain buried since time began. He was as free from sordidness as a man may be, but that song lured him, and strange as it may seem, it made him restless, unsettled, unhappy. He was not cynical, neither was he embittered or despairing, but he was subconsciously aware that something had fallen away from him, a something that had made for peace and contentment, and his outlook on life had undergone a sudden and remarkable change. For the first time in his career, perhaps, he was suffering the agony of disillusionment, and as the deepest things in the human heart are those which it can never utter, he was in a vague way conscious of a crying out for interpretation. His mind was wrestling with a problem that was shadowy and indeterminate. He was so self-absorbed that Jim Dawkins was beside him before he was aware of his presence.
"Are you asleep, boss?"
The voice aroused him, and he half started up.
"Hullo, Jim, is that you? You've been a long time."
"Well, I went to the stables to see that the horses were all right."
Harold's cigar had fallen from his hand and gone out. Jim was smoking a short clay pipe. Harold lit a fresh cigar, and told Jim to pull a chair forward and sit down. Jim Dawkins was an uncultivated, man, but he rang true. He, too, was a product of the wilderness, and in his crude, rough way he understood the solace that Nature had for those who understood her. In a great city Jim would have pined, withered, and, missing the solace, would probably have sought for consolation in drink, and have died. Harold mixed himself a little weak brandy and water and told Jim to help himself, but Jim was a very moderate drinker, he preferred mild beer to anything else.
"Jim," began Harold, "did you ever push out to the West in my father's time?"
"Well, boss, soon after I came on the Run, your father sent me and two other chaps with a mob of cattle to see how far the grazing lands extended. It's nigh on forty years ago. We pushed on slowly, for many weeks, till we came to a vast swampy region. It was no place for man or beast, so we turned and drove the cattle home again."
Harold leaned back in his chair, and, resting his forehead on his hand, said:
"Do you remember four fellows coming here between three and four years ago? They had humped their swags down from the Snowy River diggings, and were broke."
"Of course I do, boss, and you was pretty good to 'em."
"Well, those fellows pushed out beyond the grass lands, found a way through the swamps, crossed a river that flows from the north, and tramped for weeks through a blistering desert, till they struck the foothills of the Ranges, and in the heart of the Ranges they found a gorge where gold can be gathered in bucket-fulls. One of those four men is now lying in the hospital at Gordonstown. The bones of his three chums bleach somewhere out there. The chap in the hospital is named Bill Blewitt. He remembered that I had helped him and his mates, so he sent for me, and has given me samples of the gold and the quartz, and particulars of the place where he found them."
Harold paused as if wishing to see the effect of the information on his listener. But Jim did not betray the slightest trace of excitement, and speaking as one in whom interest had not been aroused he said:
"And I suppose you have it in your mind to go out there?"
"Yes." Harold knew that he could trust Jim with his life, hence the reason for taking him into his confidence.
"Well, don't." There was something so abrupt, so decisive, so unexpected in that snapped out "Well, don't," that Harold raised himself again and looked at Jim. A light streaming through a little window behind where Preston sat illuminated the sun-browned face of Jim, but the face was impassive.
"Harold fell back into his former position with a little scoffing laugh.
"Why do you say that, Jim?"
Jim tapped his pipe on his boot heel to empty it of ashes, refilled the pipe, lit it, and spoke oracularly:
"Well, it's this way, boss, gold prospecting and gold digging ain't much in your line, I take it. One chap out of four, you say, has come back. Them Ranges is far away, and you've got to take risks to get to 'em, and when you get to 'em maybe you won't find the gold."
The crude force of Jim's argument was not without effect on the listener, and Harold remained thoughtful for some minutes, while Jim seemed absorbed in the contemplation of his pipe.
"Of course there is something in what you say," said Harold at last. "But, you see, it's this way, Jim, I'm broke through the drought, and but for the fact that Mr Gordon has taken over the mortgage, this property would have passed out of my possession."
"Mr Gordon has taken over the mortgage!" repeated Jim with undisguised amazement. "Yes; why does it astonish you?"
Jim did not answer immediately. Then:
"Look here, boss, I'm only a rough chap, but sometimes I see things pretty clearly. Now, I've been on this Run nigh on forty-five years. When I first come Gordonstown was only a clearing, and between your father and the Gordons there weren't any love. Them Gordons never could act fair and square. And they would have driven your people away if they could have done it. They was greedy for your father's lands, but they didn't get 'em. Your father was a fine chap. He was a good man and a honest one; he wanted nought from the Gordons, but he knew how to keep what he owned, and what he owned, boss, he left to you, and you've got to keep it."
"But surely, Jim," said Harold with a caustic laugh, "you don't suppose I'm going to part with it."
"What I do suppose, boss," answered Jim sententiously, "is that if you don't pay off that there mortgage Mr Oliver Gordon gets your property."
A startled expression came into Preston's face, but as he was in shadow Jim did not notice it. The old man had driven home a truth, that though obvious enough before, had not appeared to Harold in all its glaring nakedness until that moment. So startling was the effect upon him that he sprang up and took a turn or two up and down the veranda. Then swinging round abruptly and standing over Jim, who smoked his clay pipe placidly, he said:
"I am afraid you haven't a very good opinion of My Gordon."
"No, I haven't, governor," answered Jim with blunt honesty. "When I see you and him getting very thick with one another I didn't like it; but it weren't for me to say anything. And I tell you straight, boss, I don't like him having the mortgage."
"But don't you understand, Jim," rapped out Preston with some warmth, "so long as I pay the interest and am prepared to pay the principal when it is called up after due notice, there is no chance of the property falling into Gordon's hands?"
"Yes, so long as you do," replied Jim, undisturbed by the boss's little display of irritation.
Harold threw himself into the chair again, and relit his cigar, which had gone out. There was another considerable pause, and out of the mystery of the night came that weird aeolian melody that seemed to Harold's ears like a cry of distress. At last Jim broke the silence with another oracular utterance.
"So long as you pay, boss, you are safe. That's clear. But suppose this here drought goes on for another year or two where will you be?"
"You've become a pessimist, Jim."
"A pessimist. You are inclined to take too gloomy a view of things."
"Facts is facts," answered Jim, with unflinching determination to stick to his point. "If I saw grass and crops growing on your Run again, and mobs of cattle and sheep roaming about as they did afore this damned drought struck us, I should take no gloomy view. But the land's burnt up; there ain't no grass, there ain't no crops, no cattle, no sheep, and even if rain comes in the autumn it will take four years for you to pull up and pay off everything. Is that right or ain't it?"
"It's right," admitted Preston sadly.
"Then I ain't no pessimist. Now take my advice, boss. You use my thousand pounds, marry Miss Gordon right away, and with her money and my bit you'll pull round."
A spasm of emotion brought tears to Preston's eyes.
"By God, Jim, you are a white man," he said in a voice that betrayed his feelings. "Don't think that I fail to appreciate your offer and your advice, but I do not intend to place your little hoard in jeopardy, and I am too proud to ask Miss Gordon to become my wife until my prospects improve. No, Jim, my friend. There's gold out there in the West, and I am going to search for it. It seems like destiny that Bill Blewitt should have come back at this critical period. When I helped him I cast my bread upon the waters, unknowingly, and it has returned. I should be a fool if I remained indifferent to these things. I shall go West. It's my only chance."
"Then I shall go with you."
"No, Jim, you must remain here and look after my interests. Where is there another man I can trust as I can trust you. Something must be done, and as I am resolved not to take your money or marry Mary until I have bettered my position, the only alternative is to go West. There is gold out there beyond all doubt, and if old Blewitt is well enough he'll guide us to the place. If we happen to strike it rich I shall soon be able to put matters right here. You know as well as I do that in this country men who have been lucky enough to find gold in paying quantities have made fortunes in a few weeks." He had spoken rapidly and with a forcibleness that implied a desire to impress his listener with the uselessness of further protest or argument.
Jim was a slow thinking man, but no one could have charged him with stupidity. He had a clear mental vision, and was able to draw pretty accurate deductions from such premises as came within the grasp of his intellect. He sat silent and imperturbable.
"If you leave me in charge, boss, I'll do my duty to you as I done my duty to your father afore you was born. When I come to this Run first I was a young un, and I've growed up on it, and I've seed you grow up-on it. It's home to me, and I ain't fit for no other life but this. I've lived here for many years, and I'm going to lay my bones here. And I'll serve you well and true till I'm dead. But, boss, there's one thing I want to say, you've got to make it clear to Mr Oliver Gordon that he's not to interfere with me while you are away."
"Don't worry yourself on that score, Jim, my friend," answered Harold with a chuckle; "Gordon will go with me."
"Oh," gasped Tim, and the peculiar intonation he gave to the exclamation left no room to doubt that the announcement gratified him. And after a pause he added, "I'm happier now that I know Oliver Gordon's going with you."
"Oh, yes, he'll go with me, Jim, and share whatever risks and hardships we may have to face."
Jim was not given to mincing matters. He knew nothing of the art of dissembling. He could keep silent when he considered silence was desirable, but when he wanted to express a thought he expressed it with the bluntness which was characteristic of his rugged nature. And he was blunt now.
"Well, boss, it wouldn't give me no kind o' concern if Mr Oliver Gordon never came back again."
"I'm afraid you are unduly prejudiced, Jim," said Harold reflectively.
"Your father didn't like the Gordons, boss, and I don't like Mr Oliver."
"But surely you are not prejudiced against Miss Gordon," exclaimed Preston, leaning forward a little, and speaking with a certain sharpness.
"Miss Mary is a Gordon," replied Jim decisively, as though he considered that in that brief expression of his feelings he summed up all that he had to say on the subject, and that however much he might appreciate Mary for her beauty and sweet womanliness, the fact of her being a Gordon was, in his opinion, the only bar to an alliance between her and Harold. "Mind yer," he added, "I ain't got a word to say agin Miss Mary, only I wish she wasn't a Gordon. Maybe she'll make a good wife."
Although Harold felt a little piqued he wisely refrained from provoking any argument on a subject that affected him so deeply; he appreciated Jim's sterling honesty too much to display anger even though he, might feel it.
"Well, Jim, you represent a past generation, but at this time of day the old feud is dead, and we will not discuss it," he said firmly. "I shall marry Mary."
Jim remained silent for some minutes, then he rose with a yawn, and knocking the ashes from his pipe, announced his intention of turning in, and with a "Good night, boss," went away to his bed. Harold remained absorbed in thought; he experienced a strange sense of loneliness that he could hardly understand. But he was in a peculiarly sensitive mood, and the solemn stillness of the night, the vast silent spaces full of the mystery of the unknown, the immensity of the star-studded heavens that spoke of eternity and the finite littleness of human affairs, impressed him subconsciously; he felt how paltry and contemptible were the jealousies and hatred of men when inevitable death was the end of it all. Nature was eternal, but men came and went like moths; they fluttered through their brief space of time moved by passion and pain, hopes and fears, love and hate, then dropped into the dust and were forgotten. In his half-dream state he heard the syncopated melody of the wind breathing through the trees, and in his depression it seemed to him that it was a dirge of woe and pity that filtered down to earth from beyond the stars, and yet there was a tenderness in the solemn beauty of the night that seemed to soothe him, and touched a chord in his soul that made him feel at peace with all the world.
'He must have slept, for suddenly he sprang up with a start, stretched himself and disappeared in the shadows of the house. And the night slumbered in the deep heart of peace with folded wings; over the vast spaces brooded the great silence, strangely impressive in its awful solemnity, and the tender notes of the wind chanting in aeolian strains among the trees was a low sweet lullaby; nature crooned peace to the hot, restless hearts of men who had ears to hear and souls to understand.
DURING the weeks that ensued Harold Preston experienced a reaction from the depression under which he had laboured. The shadow which had filled his vision had been dissipated; he became bright with hope and new-born desires. He turned his eyes to the east in the morning when the pearl of dawn changed to a stupendous scheme of glorious colour that glowed with the vividness of flame; and he turned his eyes to the west when the softer blending of hues in the translucent air at eventide were like the glow of ethereal fires, so soft, so tender, so delicate that it seemed unearthly; he felt under the spell of the western mystery, and heard a voice, dulcet and low, that ever called to him from the vast silence of the mystical west. He became enthusiastic and entirely obsessed with the idea that out there, beyond the edge of the vast emptiness, he would find the land of his heart's desire. It was not for fame but love he wrought. If he could win some of the hidden wealth that Nature had stored up in the earth, he could face the future with a bold heart in the sweet companionship of the woman who was dearer to him than all the buried wealth of the world. And the altruistic longings of his soul might find gratification if he had the power which money gives. He was simple-minded enough to believe that his ideals were by no means illusory, and that within the space of the years that remained to him he could plant seed that would blossom into flowers to gladden the hearts of his brother pilgrims who were journeying to the dust. At times his eyes glittered with a strange eagerness as he dreamed of the day when he would be able to call Mary Gordon his wife, and to the uttermost limits of his humble abilities serve his fellow men by teaching them that there is sublimity in life if one will look with clear vision on its beauties, and see the blue that shows above the grey.
It was the dream of a man with a pure heart; he could harbour no thought that he might possibly awake to find that the idealist was out of place in the hard, fierce world of pain and wrong, of sorrow and sin.
The strenuous weeks flew by, and he worked hard to put his affairs in order, and complete the preparations for the momentous expedition that he fondly hoped would bring him years of happiness. The drought still held, but as the summer waned there were signs in the vivid, fierce blue of the sky that some change was at hand. When the sun rose in the east there were now trailing clouds no longer like crimson-dyed floss-silk, but 'compact and heavy, with dark depths that seemed stored with moisture. They were the vanguard of an army that was ever pressing forward in the wake of the sun, and presently it would spread itself to north and south and west and east, and let loose the flood-gates over the panting and weary laud. At times, too, the wind spoke of coming rain; there was a sob in its voice, and a moisture in its hot breath, while long drawn-out vapour-clouds like skeins of sodden wool drifted through the black blue of the heavens.
Harold rode into Gordonstown three and four times a week, and spent many golden hours in Mary's company. Although she did not seek to discourage him in the carrying out of his great project, she could not altogether conceal a haunting fear that perhaps, after all, he was being mocked by a mirage. The story of the Austral land is a story for all to read. Does it not tell of the thousands who set out in high hope, under molten skies, over heat-blistered plains, lured by the golden mirage to hunger and thirst, pain and toil, broken hearts and nameless graves? A few have found El Dorado, but to the many El Dorado has been but a city of dreams, that has faded like the mists of dawn, and lured only to destroy.
Harold tried to laugh away her fears. Strong with a great endeavour, he would win through and prove to her that he had followed no eidolon, but gone straight to a golden goal. Had he not seen with his own eyes evidence of the wealth out there? Had not Bill Blewitt, sustained by a tremendous purpose, struggled back alone through the dreary wilderness, that he might impart the secret to him? After all, were not men's lives influenced by a destiny which they were powerless to avert? Were not the mysterious workings of Destiny shown when Bill came to the Run and he gave him food and shelter; and in the return of this man from the wilderness to prove that gratitude is something more than a name? Thus he argued, and asked her if it would not be foolishness to turn a deaf ear to such a distinct call. She could not voice the answer her heart wished to give, but Love spoke when she said "Perhaps, Harold, you are right, all the same I wish to God you were not going."
"Why are you so pessimistic?" he asked. "I have come to the brink of ruin, and at the very moment when it seemed as if my little patrimony would pass from me, you yourself brought me a message of hope. Do you really think it would be wise on my part to ignore that message?"
"God knows, dear, I do not wish to dishearten you," she said with touching earnestness; "but human plans are subject to so many contingencies. And what if the message of hope prove delusive?"
His enthusiasm showed no abatement. He laughed cheerily.
"In which case I should return to the Run," he answered, "and by that time this abnormal drought will have ended, and we may have a succession of normal seasons. You know how it is in this country."
"But why risk the hardships and dangers of a long journey for an uncertainty, when you have a certainty here?"
"A certainty!" he echoed.
"Yes. My fortune would enable you to surmount your difficulties and regain a position of independence."
A shadow swept over his face, and his lips tightened. It was some moments before he could trust himself to speak. His pride rose strong within him; he seemed to hear a voice that spoke from the grave adjuring him not to be under an obligation to the Gordons. And yet, by the force of circumstances he could not control, a Gordon had saved him from disaster, and taken over the mortgage. As he remembered that he experienced a sense of humiliation, but when he saw tears trembling in Mary's eyes, eyes that pleaded to him with a dumb eloquence, he took her hands, kissed the tears away, and said with a ring of pathos:
"Darling woman, you thrill the fibres of my soul, for out of the depths of your own soul your love for me speaks. But I entreat of you not to try and dissuade me from my purpose. The prize is not won without dust, and I should be untrue to myself if I shrank from difficulties so long as there is a chance of my being able to work out my own redemption. If we mutually agreed to link our destinies now, and your little fortune should prove unequal to the demands that might be made upon it, I should never again be able to look the world in the face, for would it not be said that a Preston had brought a Gordon to ruin. Think of it, Mary; think of what I should suffer. My love for you is stronger than my pride, but not even my love will tempt me to risk reducing you to a state of poverty."
She sighed, and perhaps, although she was not conscious of it, the pride of her race prompted her answer:
"I appreciate your feelings, Harold. Why should you humble yourself to the woman you love and who loves you. I was willing to take the risk—shadowy as it seems to me—which you suggest is possible. But as my offer does not find favour with you, I withdraw it. Garry out your purpose; I understand how it has become an obsession with you, and I pray to God that He will watch over you, and bring you safely back again."
Harold could not wholly disguise the emotion which this exchange of views had brought about, but he felt that there could be no faltering now. He loved this woman with the whole strength of his manhood. But there was that within him which prevented his joining hands with hers until he had won back his financial independence. There was no sordidness in this desire, but though he did not fully understand it perhaps, it was the pride of his race that dominated him.
If his optimism had needed any further stimulus, it surely found it when, a few days later, on visiting the hospital, he learned that Bill Blewitt was on the eve of being discharged. The old man's wonderful vitality had enabled him to triumph over the illness induced by hardships and exhaustion, aided, of course, by Doctor Blain's skill arid good nursing. Blain had become greatly interested in his patient, and had bestowed upon him exceptional care and attention.
"Blewitt's recuperative powers are extraordinary," he said to Harold. "He is a type of man which the wilderness produces and civilisation destroys. It was all in his favour that he has been practically a teetotaller all his life, and his own statement was backed up by evidence which to a medical man admitted no question of doubt. He is a most intelligent and interesting old chap, and I should like to help him in some way."
"Oh, you may rest assured, Doc., that he will not want so long as I am able to do anything for him."
When he met Blewitt he warmly congratulated him on his recovery, and told him that he would find a permanent job for him on the Run.
"But you're going out to the Ranges, boss?" he exclaimed, with eyes that flamed with eagerness.
"Of course I am, Bill."
"Then I go along with you."
"But, don't you think—"
"There ain't no buts about it, boss. I'm going." His iron will and determination were so obvious that Harold refrained from any further argument, and he felt relieved when the old man consented to remain on the Run until the little expedition was ready to start.
Mary Gordon was no less gratified by Blewitt's recovery than was Harold himself.
"His bush experiences and knowledge of the route will be invaluable to you," she said. "And since this old man is able to accompany you, why should not I go too?"
"Good Lord, Mary—"
"Now stop a minute, and let me have my say. I have thought it all over since we talked together the other day. I love freedom, I have been brought up in freedom; I am in sound health; I have roughed it in the bush. I long to do something that in after years I may look back to with pride. Why should my womanhood be a bar to accompanying you in this, the most momentous incident in your life?"
"But, think of the risks—"
"Risks! If there are risks for me there are risks for you, and a woman who cannot share risks with the man she loves is unworthy of him."
"Yes, but the hardships and discomforts—"
"Hardships and discomforts," she repeated with a healthy, joyous laugh, "they appeal to me. I have passed many and many a night under the stars with the bare ground for my bed. I can live on pemmican and enjoy it; I can make and eat damper with the best of you, and as a horsewoman I will back myself against any bushman in the colony. If you urge that no woman has ever been a member of an exploring expedition before, I plead to you to let me be the first of my sex to have the credit of the innovation. Women are capable of much that men will not credit them with, and I want to burst the shackles of conventionalism, and share with you the glorious life of freedom in the wilderness."
She spoke joyously, even with enthusiasm, and there was a light in her eyes that revealed how her whole being throbbed with the anticipated pleasure of being by her lover's side whatsoever might happen.
Harold was deeply impressed. He knew, of course, that Mary was no neurotic product of an enervating civilisation. She had been brought up in the splendid air and free life of the Australian bush, and had frequently experienced the primitive existence of wild and isolated stations when visiting friends and relatives in lonely parts of the country. And now she laid bare to him, not only the magnificent courage of her womanhood, but her soul's great love for him, for no woman who did not love deeply would have offered to share the dangers and hardships inseparable from pioneer work in unknown country. Courageous himself he could not fail to admire her courage, and all the feelings that stirred him, and the emotion that set his blood dancing in his veins found expression in the full-throated exclamation:
"Mary, you are splendid! A wonder-woman worth dying for!"
"Don't talk of dying," she answered delightedly, "we are going to drink our full of the wine of life, and realise in excelsis the glory of living. We are young; the golden dreams of youth still stir our pulses. There is work to do, we will do it, and when the end comes we will face it calmly, conscious of having done our duty."
He gazed at her with gleaming eyes that were afire with a tremendous admiration, and infected by her enthusiasm and earnestness, he threw out his open arms to her, and said:
"Woman of God, I salute you!"
She lay on his breast, and a great sigh burst from her.
"Now I am happy, oh so happy," she murmured. "The shadow of a nameless fear that encompassed me has gone like a film of smoke. I have yearned and yearned for the chance to do something that would take me out of the restricted area in which most women have to fritter away their frivolous lives. Perhaps they like it, but it has never appealed to me. I hate it. Let those who desire the pussy-cat existence have it. The fashionable women enjoy it, but I am a woman of the wilds, and crave for the freedom of nature."
A sort of ecstasy had laid hold of her, and she bared her naked soul for the man who loved her and who held her in his arms to see. He saw and understood. He felt that the world was beautiful, and that when God created woman He crowned His handiwork.
There was a silence between them, until with some overmastering impulse Mary straightened up her body, put her arms around his neck, locking her fingers together and throwing back her head, gazed at him with a look in which all the intense ardency of her nature was concentrated, and she spoke with inflexible decision.
"Harold, I am going with you to the West."
For a moment he hesitated; a tiny reaction set in, but it passed. The woman's great strength of purpose filled him, and though she had not asked a question, but made a declaration, he answered:
"Yes, Mary, you are going with me to the West."
HAROLD PRESTON was happy. He was like a pure-hearted healthy boy to whom the world is a dream and a romance, whose soul is attuned to catch every sound, interpret every thought that can minister to his pleasure and enjoyment. Bill Blewitt had come up to Glenbar, and he and Harold discussed the forthcoming expedition in all its details. Bill was scarcely less enthusiastic than Harold himself. He had tramped the wilderness again and again, and though his mind was incult, he felt the ineffable spell of freedom in the vast spaces where Nature rules and fills the soul of man with a delight that the city can never give. He had seen comrades fall by the way, and their bones bleach under the brazen skies; he had suffered the pangs of hunger and the unspeakable agony of thirst; for weeks he had walked shoulder to shoulder with Death, defying Death, and now, although he was stricken in years and weakened by the privations he had suffered, he was ready, with that entire absence of fear which is one of Nature's precious gifts to him who understands her, he was ready and panting to go forth again into those vast, empty spaces where the wanton winds roamed pure and undefiled as they came direct from the outer limits of the earth. He and his mates had done a bold thing when they set out over an unknown route for the wonderful ranges, carrying their lives in their hands, and bearing upon their backs the necessarily limited supplies of sustenance, well aware that when those supplies were exhausted they would have to depend upon the resources of primitive man to keep body and soul together. Such men are the heroic pioneers who have given to civilisation its treasures and its comforts, while they themselves have perished unknown and forgotten. The bones of these nameless dead moulder in the far corners of the earth, in pestiferous jungles, in Arctic wildernesses, and the sun-blistered plains of tropic lands, where Nature still reigns supreme.
Oliver Gordon still lingered in Melbourne. He occasionally sent a brief note to Harold to say that unexpected business matters detained him, and expressing a hope that preparations for the expedition were being pushed forward. Harold kept the determination to allow Mary to accompany him a secret. He resolved not to reveal it until the last moment. If at first he had regarded her proposal as a wild and impracticable desire, he had put that from him, and the mere thought of it now filled him with delight. Signs of the break-up of the drought increased and heartened him. The fierce brazen sky was now often dappled with clouds. Flocks of wild ducks and other birds were frequently seen flying high over the parched land. The morning sun rose in banked-up masses of heavy clouds, and at eventide, far away in the mysterious West, vapour hung like a gossamer veil dyed with purple and gold.
He often turned his eyes to the West and dreamed of the gold lying buried there. And yet he only thought of the gold as one may think of the intangible scent of a rose. Gold could give pleasure and delight to the senses, and beget in the hearts of some fierce desire. But it did not appeal to him as it appeals to most men. The romantic side of his nature was excited by the prospects of traversing the unknown, of getting still closer to the heart of Nature, of adventures, of wrestling with Death itself. He understood in a subconscious sort of way that the discovery of gold meant the destruction of Nature's solitudes, and where there was gold the tentacles of civilisation, like those of a huge octopus, would fling out, destroying the forests, sucking the life out of the green heart of the primitive wilderness. It meant that multitudes of men would swarm into Nature's voids. They would break the silence of millions of years with the roar of machinery. They would defile God's air with foul smoke. They would build cities where all that is base in the human heart would come to the surface—greed, avarice, lust, hate; the bitterness of oppression, the power and ambition of the rich, the helplessness and suffering of the poor; where those who had much would struggle to get more, whilst the poor would find life more of a curse than a blessing, and the pauper would learn that he was merely tolerated as a nuisance, to be borne with, and that when death relieved him of his misery he would be shovelled into the ground with scarcely more ceremony than would be shown in the burial of a favourite dog.
Some such reflections as these took vague shape in Harold's mind when, meditatively, he turned his eyes to the west which flamed into an ineffable splendour as the sun sank, and gradually darkened until the robe of night enfolded it in mystery. Harold Preston was a product of the wild; his responsive temperament found delight in the radiant atmosphere, and the silence of the great spaces where man seemed to be so near his God. In great cities God is little more than a name, while contending sects make a mockery of the sweet, simple faith of the Christ Who left it as a legacy to the world when He gave up His life on Calvary; but in the desert spaces of the earth, on the lonely ocean, in the vast depths of the jungle, God is a great reality.
Harold had lived far from the modern world; his religion was the religion of Nature, the simple faith of a child of the plains, but he had great ideals, soulful yearnings, though a voice he could not understand filled him at times with apprehension that his soul's demands would never be satisfied. He was intensely human, and his humanism never having been subjected for any length of time to the corroding influences of city life, he was an altruist in the best sense, with a tendency to regard every other man as his brother. But there was a practical side to his nature all the same, and he fully grasped the potent meaning of the ordinance: "Man shall earn his bread by the sweat of his brow."
Although he was a dreamer he found joy in toil, and during those long dreary months of killing heat he fretted as he saw himself reduced to comparative idleness, and his crops, herds, and flocks destroyed. It may be imagined, therefore, with what anxiety he watched the portents in the sky which seemed to speak of corning rain. He wanted to see his lands soaked before he started for the West, for even if the main purpose of his journey there failed, he would retrace his steps to his home with the assurance that he would hear the pleasant music of lowing kine and bleating sheep, see crops springing where now there was only brown, blistered earth.
At last one morning when the sun rose its blinding light and fierce heat were subdued by a veil of mist and cloud. All day long a brooding silence hung over the land, and a great pall-like shadow enveloped it. The clouds became denser and darker as evening drew on. The wind rushed out of the south-west in fitful puffs that were no longer like the thrice heated blasts from a great furnace. In the intervals of the puffs the silence was like the silence of an unpeopled world; it was a silence that could be heard. The dust was caught up and whirled in spiral columns that weirdly suggested tortured living things. Some were shattered to pieces against the buildings, enveloping them in a veil of fine, gritty powder. The wind increased in strength, bending the bamboos and twisting the great trees until they shrieked. The horses in the stables whinnied, and the cows lowed as if from some great fear. A night bird set up a long wailing note that was like the cry of a spirit in pain. The clouds grew denser, the darkness deepened, but in the west there was a strange, dull, blood-red glow that was almost unearthly. Not a star was visible; it almost seemed as if eternal night had settled on the world; and the sun and moon and stars had been blotted out of the heavens for ever and ever. At times Nature seemed to hold her breath as if in horror of some impending calamity. Now and again the air shuddered throughout the vast emptiness.
All the shutters of the house had been barred and bolted, and the doors closed. Harold, Jim Dawkins, and Bill Blewitt sat on the sheltered veranda smoking. Although Bill rarely indulged in stimulants, he was a confirmed smoker. His pipe had been a great solace to him in many a lonely hour in the wilderness. Occasionally one or other of the men punctuated the silence with a casual remark. They were impressed with the strange sense, not of fear, but awed expectancy which is a reverence in the presence of a mystery, a something that compels attention and causes one to hold one's breath. It was as if the spirits of the night were wandering about preparing for some awful rites; in the immensity of the silence there were yet sounds that could not be interpreted, weird whisperings, as it were, that came out of the coal black heavens and echoed through and through the whole void. There was a terrific grandeur, the grandeur of an impenetrable darkness in which something stupendous was being prepared that was to shake the solid earth. Even the puffy wind died away, and the silence was pain, a horrible ceasing of every indication of life, as if Azrael had swept over the land, stilling everything that breathed in stony death.
Suddenly, with an abruptness that was startling, there leapt into life a stupendous jagged ribbon of reddish-blue flame that threw out spears of fire to right and left, filling the whole firmament, as it seemed, with dazzling light that stretched from horizon to horizon. For moments that seemed minutes the three men were blinded by the flash. Presently Harold said, and his voice sounded strangely hollow in the silence: "At last." He knew that the great drought had ended, and that awfully brilliant flash of lightning was a sign that filled him with hope. There was a long pause. When the brain is numbed and the heart subdued with the strain of expectancy, time seems to be leaden-footed, and suspense is an agony. At last there was a splitting, rending crash, as if the very heavens were falling, as an appalling burst of thunder shook the buildings to their foundations. It rolled and roared with rising and falling cadence. It was as if an angel with a flaming torch had sped through the air to marshal the elements to war, and heaven's heaviest artillery had responded to the call with a shock that made the solid earth tremble. The three men smoked and remained silent. Courageous as they were, they might have felt some inward shrinking at this beginning of a war of the elements, but they were no strangers to the terrific and sublime grandeur of tropic storms.
There was another pause; then a mighty blast of wind, laden with a suffocating cloud of dust, struck the house as if it would whirl it into space, but it was 'solidly built and withstood the strain; one or two eucalyptus trees, however, were dashed to the ground, and the others shrieked out as if with a cry of horror as the great wind bent and twisted them. Once again the flaming torch tore through the sky, followed almost immediately by another appalling crash of thunder. Drops of water began falling like weights, making a loud noise as they struck the house, and in another minute or two the clouds burst, and it seemed as if a second deluge had come, upon the earth. The wind rose to a gale, but the ram beat down the dust, and the roar of wind and rain was like the roar of a tortured ocean hurling itself with titanic force against an iron-bound coast. The lightning lit up the land with awful splendour; the crash of the prolonged peals of thunder was like the rending and tearing of a world falling to pieces.
All night long the storm continued with unabated fury but towards morning the lightning flashed at longer intervals, and the reverberations of the thunder sounded farther away. When the grey dawn broke Harold looked through his window. A heavy, steamy vapour rose from the hot earth, and the range of vision was circumscribed within a narrow limit. The clouds were low and black, and the light that filtered through was like light seen through smoked glass. A flock of wild ducks, spread out in a long thin line, came out of the mists indistinct and phantom-like, and disappeared into the mists again, fading away as a dissolving view fades. The rain poured down steadily, and in fancy Harold saw his lands growing green again, crops springing up, and the whole plain dotted with herds and flocks, and he heard a paean going up to God from the heart of recreated life born of the blessed rain.
He dressed himself and went on to the veranda. He felt it was good to be alive. A city dweller suddenly dropped down in Glenbar would have voted it a desolation, a deadly dull place filled with a soul-maddening loneliness, but he had never felt lonely; he would have been far more lonely in the midst of a crowded city. In the good seasons every hour of the day brought its duties, and he experienced an unspeakable joy and contentment in labour, while the happiness and welfare of his people were ever near to his heart. He had no longings for the follies and frivolities of the city. He lived a man's life, healthy, happy, and blessed with the love of the woman he worshipped. Dreamer though he was, he did not cry for the stars. To earn his bread by the sweat of his brow, do such good as came within his scope, and feel thankful for the health and strength God had given him, satisfied the cravings of his nature. But with it all there was one purpose he kept steadily in view; it was the goal towards which he pressed, to see Mary at his side as mistress of Glenbar, and himself in possession of a competence that would enable him to act the part of the good Samaritan. It was a noble purpose, and he deserved to succeed.
When he had breakfasted with his people, he drew Jim Dawkins to the veranda and spoke with light-hearted hopefulness of his prospects now that the drought had broken up. A long, dry water-course that took its rise in some uplands farther north, skirted his paddock, and joined the river at Gordonstown, was now a swirling cataract, so heavy had been the rain, and it bore on its tawny bosom little islets of debris, knotted bunches of withered reeds, great masses of dead leaves, and rafts of sticks and broken branches of trees. The gurgling sound of the flowing water was a sweet sound to Harold's ears, and the frogs that had been so long silent were croaking in hoarse chorus that was like a song of praise. The trees so long choked with their heavy burden of dust had been washed clean, and looked bright and happy in the grey mists, whilst the bamboo plantation was a fairy scene of delicate green drapery and nodding plumes. The rain still beat heavily on the ground, striking it with such force that it sprang up again in sparkling jets that fancy could have pictured as millions of tiny fairies dancing over the land in a delirious waltz of joy. A song of thanksgiving seemed to arise from the grateful earth and fade away amongst the dense clouds that poured out their life-giving streams, as a sign of resurrection. If Harold saw visions and dreamed dreams during the long burning days when his hands found little to do, he was practical enough now. This rain meant so much to him, and the plash of falling water everywhere stirred his soul to an ecstatic rapture, and his brain was working rapidly.
"Jim," he said, "the tremendous storm which has broken up the drought foretells a spell of rain that will soon alter the whole face of the land, and prosperity will come to us again. The time of idleness has passed, work lies before us. A few weeks ago, when you offered to lend me that thousand pounds of yours, I felt compelled to refuse it, fearing as I did that it would go into the melting-pot with the rest, and though I could face ruin myself I could not bring you to ruin. But this break in the weather puts a new complexion on things, and it is necessary that I should restock the land and buy seeds. For this purpose I will take part of your money—"
"Take it all, boss," said Jim tersely.
"No, not at present, Jim. I will have half; that will be enough, I think. We will ride to Gordonstown together, and I will instruct my agent to purchase what we want. Come with me to the office, and help me to draw up a list. In a month's time the land should be ready for stock, and during my absence you can plough and sow, and engage as many new hands as you want. I intend to start for the West at the earliest possible moment, so we shall have a busy tide during the next few weeks. I want to leave everything in order before I start."
They went into the office, and Harold opened his desk, took out writing materials, and began to write.
"Boss," began Jim in the tone of a man who has a weighty proposition to make.
"Boss, don't you think, now that the long drought has broke, that it would be better for you to stay on your Run and attend to things here?"
"Why?" asked Harold with a sharp intonation.
"You see, boss," said Jim with a certain ponderosity, and yet with the air of one who was perfectly clear in his views, and had the courage of his opinions, "some chaps are fitted for one thing, and some chaps for another thing; you ain't got no call to go prospecting, it ain't in your line, and it seems to me this scheme of yours is a wild-cat sort of business. If Mr Gordon likes to go, let him go and be damned to him. But take my advice, you stop at home, marry Miss Gordon, and stick to that you know something about. If your father was living that's what he would tell you; I've watched you grow up, and that's what I tell you. You was happy enough here afore this drought struck us; HOW it's over, and you can put things right again in a few months."
Harold did not attempt to interrupt, he knew Jim's honest heart, was convinced of his sincerity, but the idea of journeying out to the West had fascinated him to such an extent that he could not get free from it.
"I am quite sure, Jim, that you mean well, but you don't quite see the matter in its proper proportions. Blewitt has furnished me with unmistakable evidence that he is not romancing—"
"Oh, old Blewitt's all right, he's a good chap," broke in Jim, "but gold-hunting's his business, and I say again it ain't yours. These chaps as go prospecting ain't the chaps as get rich, it's them as comes after them. I ain't too proud to pick up gold in lumps if I saw the chance of doing it, but I ain't likely to get the chance, and so I'm content to remain where I am."
In Harold's dark eyes there was a gleam that indicated a mental turmoil. Jim's advice displeased him, but he kept silent, fearing that if he expressed his thoughts in words in the mood that then held him under sway he might hurt the feelings of the man who, rough as he was, and in his crude way, had an affection for him that would keep him faithful unto death.
THE two men worked for some time, drawing up an inventory of the things urgently required before active work could begin. Under the revivifying influence of rain vegetation in that hot country sprang up like magic, and in an incredibly short time the features of the landscape would be entirely changed; Nature would don a robe of brilliant colours, vivid green predominating. Large tubs had been placed under the spouts projecting from the eves of the buildings, and the varying sounds of falling waters everywhere were like a symphony of praise and thanksgiving. For upwards of two years no such sounds had been heard in Glenbar. The inventory completed, Harold filled his pipe and lit it; then turning in his seat, he rested his elbow on the desk, his cheek on his hand, and faced Jim. His brow was calm again; the turmoil had ceased.
"I am sorry, old friend," he said, "that you are not in favour of my little expedition—"
"It ain't a little expedition, boss," interrupted Jim. "And that's the whole trouble. It ain't going to be a picnic. Blewitt left three chums behind; they were hard men, but they pegged out. Now, boss, you know me well enough to know that I ain't the chap to funk anything that's got to be done, and I'm ready to go with you and face what's got to be faced without a growl; but I ask again, what are you going for? You've got a certainty here, there ain't no certainty out there."
Harold's face was thoughtful. There was a potent force in Dawkins' argument that was not without its effect, but he had persuaded himself that a fate he dare not resist was directing his life into a channel that, by following it, he would be able to realise some at least of his dreams. He did not deceive himself as to the risks inseparable from such a journey. Had not Blewitt's three churns, experienced and toughened as they were, perished: while Blewitt himself, a man of exceptional physical strength and vitality, had only escaped the fate of his mates by a hairbreadth. Nor would he have escaped but for an iron will and a great purpose that sustained him. The enthusiasm of the explorer and discoverer of buried wealth had kept the vital spark alight, and such little fame as comes to men who gamble with Death and score for the time might have been his if, when he staggered into the little town, he had gasped out the news that out there, far, far away, where the burning sun set the heavens aflame with amber light, there were hoards of gold which Nature had stored up aeons and aeons ago. The cry of "Gold" would have led to "A Rush," men athirst with lust-greed for the yellow dross would have left wives, children, home, everything, and have streamed out in to the burning wilderness, lured by a golden mirage that would have lured many of them to their death.
Blewitt knew that and held his peace until he could whisper the secret into the ears of one man, a man to whom he desired with, as it seemed, his dying breath, to discharge an obligation. Harold reviewed all these points again in his mind, until he saw the finger of Fate pointing to the West, and heard a voice say: "Go, it is decreed." If there had been a tendency to waver under the influence of Jim's arguments, he was inflexibly determined now, and bringing his hand down upon the desk with a bang said:
"Jim, I appreciate all you say, but by God I'm going out there because I feel I've got a call that I dare not disobey." There was almost a fierce obstinacy in his manner, certainly an iron determination that would not be easily turned.
Jim shrugged his shoulders.
"So be it, boss, I've said all I'm going to say. You know that I won't be idle here. I will look after your affairs as if they were my own."
Harold gripped the hand of his manager, and gulped down something that came suddenly into his throat.
"Well now, as we've got that matter off our chests let's come to business, Jim. I will make use of five hundred pounds of your little hoard, and we'll go to my solicitor in Gordonstown, and I'll give you a proper bond—"
"I don't want no bond," growled Jim.
"There must be a bond," answered Harold decisively.
Jim remained mute, a shrug of his shoulders implying a reluctant assent.
An hour later the two men were riding along the rain-soaked bridle track that led to Gordonstown. They were clad in thigh-high snake boots and thin flexible oilskins. Parrots and parrokeets screamed hoarsely in the trees, as if they of all living things objected to the rain; magpies flashed about, engaged in a busy hunt for insects and worms, whilst a black snake or two wriggled across the path and disappeared into a clump of withered scrub where frogs were croaking in full-throated chorus, indifferent to the danger that menaced them.
The rain was pouring steadily down when they reached the town. Mud-laden water rushed swiftly along the channels to the river, water was pouring off the roofs in cataracts; it had washed the streets, the houses, the lawns, the gardens, the trees, until everywhere there was a delightful freshness. Although Gordonstown had not suffered from the drought as Glenbar had, and indeed seldom lacked a sufficient rainfall, the season had been unusually dry, and the clouds of dust that swept in from the plains in dry weather had parched and choked the vegetation until it drooped wearily, but now the spirit of life seemed to be astir in everything, and the nostrils were filled with the vapour that rose up from the hot earth, mingling with the odours of flowers that exhaled their subtle scents as if in gratitude.
It was the busiest hour of the day; the streets were filled with people, the rumble of the traffic went on incessantly. All this was in striking contrast with the calm and quiet of Glenbar, and Harold always experienced a sense of confusion when he first came into the town. Small as the place was, it embraced all the activities, the passion, the rush and fret associated with city life. It had its drinking saloons, Its gambling places, its warehouses and shops, its police station, music-halls, newspaper offices, stock exchange and haunts where painted vice shamelessly flaunted itself. A few days' stay at a time were enough for him, and he invariably returned to his home on the Plains with a sense of relief. He could tolerate city life, but not enjoy it. It was not that he was unsociable or averse to the companionship of his fellow-beings, but in crowded centres he saw a phase of human nature that hurt him. This was due partly to temperament, partly to his upbringing. Whatever his faults and weaknesses were, and he was not free from them, he was honest and pure-minded, and his pledge once given he would have died rather than have broken it.
It must have been this side of his character, that in a vague way appealed to the simple soul of Jim Dawkins. They had both been nurtured at Nature's bosom; they had felt the throb of her great heart; they had heard her voice and understood the language of truth in which she speaks to those who will listen. Neither was given to outward expressions of religion, but each felt in a way they could not clothe with words that Nature is God, and that Nature's teachings are far purer, sweeter, holier, and saner than the hard, narrow dogmas of men, which beget hatred and uncharitableness, and ignore the beautifully simple doctrines laid down by the gentle Saviour for the guidance of humanity. Men preach brotherly love, forgiveness, and charity, but do not practise what they preach. The heart of man is full of hypocrisy; the heart of Nature is utterly without guile.
Jim was an unlettered man; he seldom read books. Left an orphan at an early age, he was apprenticed to the sea, but never took kindly to it, and when his period of apprenticeship was over he drifted into the Australian bush, bringing up at Glenbar at the time when Gordonstown was slowly beginning to expand from a primitive settlement into a town. Harold, on the other hand, had read deeply, and his mind had evolved many thoughts and feelings, tending somewhat to mysticism and the dreaming of dreams which unfitted him for any other life than the one he led. He and Dawkins visited the solicitor, who was instructed to draw up a bond; and next they proceeded to Harold's agent, and as a final act of the day's business Harold, by Blewitt's request, went to the bank and sold the gold dust the old man had brought from the West. It weighed ten ounces within a few pennyweights, and realised nearly forty pounds. After two or three social calls Jim secured lodgings for the night at an inn, whilst Harold went out to Mary Gordon's house where he was always a welcome guest.
Both she and Margaret Bruce were agreeably surprised to see him. Mrs Bruce regarded him with a motherly affection, and she and her niece had spent many happy days under his roof at Glenbar.
Mary was full of the projected expedition, and was now as enthusiastic about it as he was himself. She was a fearless horsewoman, and had often taken part in bush picnics, sometimes camping out, leading the wild, free life for two or three weeks at a time. She had taken her aunt into her confidence, but from the moment she heard of it Margaret set her face sternly against her going.
"The men are going to do men's work," she said, "and will have to rough it and share dangers that you have no right to expose yourself to. It is pioneer work, and you will be out of place. It is an unwomanly thing for you to think of doing."
Mary told him of this, and he talked with Margaret, trying to convince her that she was too conventional in her ideas as to what a woman might do and might not do in Australia.
"It is true it is pioneer work," he said, "but why should a woman be deprived of the glory and exhilaration that come to the pioneer who treads for the first time Nature's primitive solitudes? We live in an ever-changing world, you know. The greedy hand of civilisation is stretching itself far out into the empty spaces, and the locomotive is destroying with its shriek the peace of millions of years. Australia grows by leaps and bounds, and possibly within my time there will be nothing left to explore."
The views that he expressed were the result of the wonderful progress he himself had witnessed. The one place he could never believe would change was his dear Glenbar, the home of his childhood, the place of his dreams, his tiny world of peace. Civilisation and commercialism were twin sisters, and the ugly grasping claws of commercialism had no respect for the holiest of places; it vulgarised and bestialised; it tore up forests, destroyed mountains, changed Nature's gardens into blighted, blackened coal heaps; it turned the red blood of men, women, and children into water until they starved and rotted in their own sweat; it created gambling hells, reared boozing dens where human beings destroyed themselves, body and soul; it filled the cities with harlots, and drove the toilers to seek shelter in pestiferous and leprous courts and alleys. Yes, wherever civilisation went commercialism was at its side. And commercialism was ready to barter not only the birthplace of the Christ, the Cross on which He was crucified, the sepulchre where He was laid, but the Christ Himself. God came very near the heart of man in the wild and desert places of the earth, but in the cities man drew himself far, far away from God.
Harold had not passed much of his time in what is called "the world," or in "Society," but he knew all these things, and when he thought of them something within him shuddered, and a wordless prayer was in his heart that Glenbar would always remain the Glenbar of his youth. He loved it with all his heart and soul as a mother loves her first-born, and the one thing needed for him to regard it as a little earthly Eden where love and happiness would find their utmost expression, was Mary Gordon as its mistress and his wife. It was a state of bliss that guided him like a pole star, and as he hoped and dreamed, he was now within measurable distance of its attainment. He was not unmindful of the perpetual change inevitable in human life as year succeeded year, but somehow he had a vague idea that his own life would change less than most men's. It would be as the slow blossoming of a beautiful flower; it would linger for a while at its zenith, then slowly and imperceptibly decline, until with a great joy pulsing in his heart at the thought of duty well done, life well lived, he would fold his hands in a prayer of wordless thankfulness and fall asleep. He excogitated many plans for the future, and in them all Mary was a central figure.
Margaret Bruce maintained an unyielding austerity to her niece joining the expedition in spite of all argument; sweet, gentle, lovable woman as she was, she displayed a feeling in this matter that very rarely showed itself. But she knew she could do no more than argue and persuade; she could not command. Mary was of full age. She had entire control of her own little property, and the determined will characteristic of her race dominated her at times. She might be coaxed, she would never be driven. Her lover had consented to her going with him, and unless he himself forbid it, no other human being would be likely to influence her. Margaret did not abate any of the strength of her opposition, but finding she could make no impression on either Harold or her niece, she withdrew from the contest with a sadness of heart.
Mary experienced an unusual feeling of exaltation that evening as she and Harold sat together on the veranda, listening to the patter of the rain, and inhaling with a sense of gratitude the odours that floated in from the revivified garden. They were both very happy. Love purifies and glorifies, and love held them in its powerful sway. He thought she had never looked so beautiful. Simply attired in a white dress, relieved by a red ribbon and a gold locket at her throat, her glorious gold-brown hair ornamented by a blood-red rose, her face radiant with health, her eyes aflame with the joy she felt, she presented to the rapt gaze of her lover the picture of the woman of his dreams. Sometimes when the natural instincts of the man had stirred within him, prompting him to seek his mate, he had set up an ideal of the woman he could love, and Mary gradually came into his vision as a realisation of that ideal. But never before had her loveliness appealed to him with such a strange and overmastering influence as it did that night. He had a curious mental idea that was like a phantom thought that she alone stood between him and his God; that she held his salvation or condemnation in her keeping, and that if she went out of his life he would sink into an abyss of eternal darkness. His mind had a tendency to invest her with an ethereality, and he almost fancied he was gazing upon a vision from afar off.
Suddenly he sprang to his feet and with a laugh said:
"Upon my word, Mary, I believe you have been mesmerising me."
"Yes. Or I must have been falling asleep, and you appeared to me not as a woman of earth but heaven."
"You great silly goose," she exclaimed. "You mustn't let such extravagant fancies run away with your common sense. I am only a poor little human creature, intensely human, living a simple life, and happy, oh so happy in your love."
They clung together and embraced with the pure passion of a soulful love.
"Yes, human enough," he said, "and yet there is something about you, a something I cannot define, that exalts you above other women."
She laughed as a woman laughs whose heart is stirred with a great joy.
"Every true lover thinks that of the woman he loves," she answered, "but go on thinking it, Harold, and never cease to think it while our lives last."
"I will never, never cease," he said, and pressed his lips to hers.
Jim Dawkins went back to Glenbar the next morning. The rain had ceased to fall at Gordonstown, and the sun shone through a steamy haze, but further north the clouds were still pouring out their flood of waters which lay in great pools wherever there was a depression, while the water-course was filled beyond its holding capacity, and was spreading the flood over the land. Harold was detained in the town another three days completing his business, and that evening he met Oliver Gordon in the main street. He had just arrived by coach, and was on his way to his home.
"I was wondering whether you might be here," he said. "I am glad, as I have much to tell you. Come to my house with me, and when I've made myself presentable we'll have a chat over dinner. I am glad to see the drought has broken at last. There has been no rain in the south. It spells better luck for you, old chap, and it will soon set you on your feet once more."
He seemed in high spirits, and Harold at that moment was in consonance with him, forgetting for the time the doubts that had troubled him.
Gordon's house was a large, white stone building standing on an eminence on the western side of the town. It was the most imposing private dwelling in the place. It was flanked by a high tower, from which there was a wonderful view. It stood in extensive grounds, garden and paddocks. The gardens were ablaze with flowers and beautiful with palms, bamboos, cacti, tree ferns, eucalyptus and blue gum trees. The place had been built and laid out by his grandfather, enlarged and improved by his father, and still further enlarged and improved by himself. He knew how to make himself comfortable, to minister to the sensual side of his nature. He had no ideals, he was pleased to be regarded as a sportsman, and the life he led was of the world worldly. He prided himself on being a perfect horseman, good shot, expert fisherman, capital judge of horse flesh, a billiard and card player, and though not a drunkard, he was fond of wine and good living. He kept numerous servants, and his household was controlled by an old and lady-like woman who had been in his father's service. He was one of the magnates of Gordonstown and owned much property in the place, though he had never taken any part in its municipal affairs. This was due perhaps to a love of self-indulgence and constitutional laziness. He was not lazy where sport was concerned, or where powers of physical endurance were called for, but he held back from anything that demanded mental concentration. Fond of reading he had got together quite a respectable library, but only cared for that class of literature that amused him, and enabled him to pass away the time when it hung heavy on his hands. He supported the Church, but no one who knew him well would have credited him with sincerity.
The two men dined well, arid talked over their affairs generally. Gordon told Harold that he had brought the mortgage deed back with him, and all that was required to complete the matter was his signature, which he could append in the morning in the presence of his solicitor. He spoke with some fervour of the projected expedition, and said he was quite bitten with the idea of the search for the gold. He placed before Harold the report of the assayers who had examined the quartz, which they referred to as being of exceptional richness.
"They were very anxious to know where it had come from," said Gordon, "and suggested that a syndicate should be formed, but of course I didn't enlighten them, and gave them no encouragement as regards a syndicate. You and I will keep this matter in our own hands, old fellow, and if there's any gold to be got we'll have the lion's share."
They went to the billiard-room where coffee was served. Harold was no player, but he never refused a game when he was the guest of his friend. On this evening he seemed unusually clumsy with the balls, and missed strokes that were ridiculously easy. The fact was his mind was running on other 'things, and particularly on the pledge he had given to Mary that she should accompany the expedition. He felt that the moment had come when he must impart the information to his friend, and he wondered how he would receive it. Oddly enough he had an instinct that it might lead to a rupture between them.
"WELL, you've played a rotten game to-night," said Gordon, as glancing at the marking board, he saw that his friend's score was only thirty-five in a hundred up game.
"Yes, I couldn't give my mind to it. I've been thinking of the expedition. No, don't let us play any more. I want to talk to you. I have something to say that will surprise you."
The cues were put up. Gordon drew forth his pipe, lit it, and settled himself in an easy position on the leather couch.
"Well fire away, old chap. What's the surprise?"
Harold was too unsophisticated to be diplomatic, nor was he given to beating about the bush. What he wanted to say he generally said with a bluntness that was not always wise, but was at least honest.
"Well, it's this, Mary Gordon is going to accompany us to the West."
Gordon sprang up as if propelled from a catapult. "What!" he cried with a full-throated utterance, and there was a startled expression in his face.
"My dear Oliver, don't look at me as though I had done you an injury," remarked Preston with a short laugh.
"Why are you so surprised?"
"Surprised! Good God, man, you must be mad; you are both mad." He put his pipe on the rack, and thrust his hands into the pockets of his trousers, and stared at his friend.
"I don't quite see where the madness comes in."
"Who suggested this?" The question sounded like a fierce demand of a superior to an inferior.
Harold's blood stirred in his veins; his face flushed; his pride was hurt, but he answered with a calm reserve:
"The suggestion came from her."
"Ah, I guessed as much. And you encouraged it?" Gordon snapped surlily.
"No; not at first. I strongly set my face against it, and reminded her of the risks and hardships. She laughed at my arguments."
"And so won you over," this with a bitter sneer that wounded his friend's sensitiveness. "Really, you are as weak as a schoolboy."
"Well—she changed my views, and I saw the matter from a point from which I had not seen it before."
Gordon, his hands still in his pockets, paced up and down the room like an angry animal, and Harold leaned against the billiard-table, following his movements with keen eyes, and with just a suspicion in his mind that he was at a disadvantage. Suddenly Gordon swung round on his heels impetuously, and with a vehement outburst exclaimed:
"Harold Preston, you are a damned fool."
Harold wilted for a moment, then a wave of strength swept through him, arousing the pugnacious side of his manhood.
"If that's your opinion of me," he said angrily, "we'll go our separate ways. I am not tinder your domination, nor is Mary, and I am going to boss the expedition. Let that be clearly understood." He drew himself up with a sense of pride, and made a movement as if to leave the room. He had a strong will that was capable of displaying itself at times.
Gordon placed himself in front of him; his face seemed livid, and there was a ferocity in his eyes which revealed to Harold a phase of his nature that he had never so much as suspected during all the years he had known him. It was the wild brute nature dominating every other feeling. But with a strange suddenness that was scarcely less remarkable, the ferocity disappeared like a light that is blown out, and he broke into a laugh, but it lacked sincerity.
"Forgive me, old chap, if I have offended you! I didn't intend to do so. The fact is you've sprung a mine on me and startled me out of my self-possession. Surely a little reflection will enable you to see the madness of the whole proposition."
"I can see no madness in it," answered Harold with admirable composure, yet with firmness.
"But can you not see you are encouraging Mary to risk her life?"
"Well, upon my word, Harold, you are denser than I thought it was possible you could be." The anger light began to gleam in Gordon's eyes again, but faded as quickly as it came. The effects of the first shock having passed, he was getting his temper more in hand.
"If that's your opinion you must stick to it. I've got my own way of looking at things, and I will not allow you or any other man to browbeat me. You can back out of this business if you like, but I'm going through with it. Let that be clearly understood."
"Browbeat you! Who wants to browbeat you, certainly I don't." There was a little rising inflexion in Gordon's voice which was suggestive of a smouldering fire of passion that required much self-restraint to prevent it bursting into flame. "Surely we as men can argue like men of sense, not like two fools. Now it does seem to me that you have been carried away by some romantic idea that has blinded you to facts. We are not going out into the wilderness on a bush picnic, but on a desperate journey of hundreds of miles through what is virtually an unknown country. We've got to fend for ourselves as men must fend in the savage heart of a wild laud. You and I and the others may be able to stand it, but do you think it right that a delicate woman should be asked to take the risks?"
"Mary is not delicate," Harold snapped decisively.
"No, not in the literal sense. What I mean is she has lived her life in comfort; she has never known what it is to want for anything; but does it occur to you that she has the powers of endurance necessary for such a journey?"
"Yes," with even more decision.
"Upon my word, Harold, it seems to me you are under the influence of a brutal obstinacy," said Gordon with exasperation.
Harold still leaned with his back against the billiard-table, and whatever his thoughts were he preserved an outward calm.
"You told me just now," pursued Gordon, "that when Mary proposed going you opposed her, reminded her of the risks, the hardships—"
"Yes, that's true, but when I came to think it over I saw reason to change my views, as I have already told you."
"Well, think it over, again, old chap, and you'll come round to my views."
"I don't think so."
"I say again it's a mad idea, perfectly preposterous. It must be abandoned." The demand rang again in Gordon's voice.
"If you argue all night, Oliver, you will not change my determination to take Mary if she is still willing to go."
The light of anger came into Gordon's eyes once more, and he bit his under lip. He always chafed under defeat.
"That is your fixed determination?"
Gordon's face paled. He shrugged his shoulders; he paced up and down for some minutes, slewed round abruptly, and flung out his right hand with a gesture of menace.
"Very well, if that is your determination I don't go."
Harold gave a little scoffing laugh.
"That's all right. You've only got yourself to please."
Gordon placed himself in front of him with blazing eyes. "And, by God, I will please myself," he exclaimed with an emphasis of passion. "If we are to quarrel the quarrel will be of your own making. I've tried to serve you, and this is what I get in return. If I don't go I withdraw my offer to take over your mortgage; now you know what that means."
Harold's face blanched, and he drew himself up. Gordon saw that he had made an impression.
"I shall be very sorry if you drive me to that extreme measure. But if you can be obstinate so can I. If you have no regard for Mary's welfare and safety have some regard for yourself. Do you want to be turned out of your property, ruined and despised?"
Harold moved uneasily. He could be self-willed at times, but felt now that perhaps, after all, he was gambling with his own interests. During the argument the mortgage had not been in his mind. If he had never heard that story about Gordon told to him by Doctor Blaine, it is doubtful if he would have set himself in antagonism to Gordon over this question of Mary going or not going. But though he had been almost afraid to admit it to himself, his respect for Gordon had been greatly lessened, if not destroyed, and as Gordon had almost invariably managed to come out the victor in the friendly rivalries between them, except in the rivalry for Mary's love, he had been impelled by a force he did not clearly understand, to try and humble Gordon in this instance when all the winning cards seemed to be in his hands. But Gordon, after all, held the trumps, and humiliating though it was, Harold had to admit that he was beaten. Nor could he help recalling Margaret Bruce's protest against Mary going. If she joined forces with Gordon as she was almost certain to do notwithstanding her fondness for him, he saw that his humiliation would be deeper. He did not for a moment entertain the possibility of Mary deserting him, and if he wished it she might still insist on going, but in that case Gordon, by declining to take over the mortgage, could effect his ruin. Nor could he be unmindful of Jim Dawkins' arguments.
A strange sense of despair came upon him such as he had hardly ever experienced before in the whole course of his life. He had been so joyous and happy a few hours ago; now the reaction had come, and he felt baffled and beaten. He knew Gordon to be a determined man, and he would have deserved the reproach of denseness if he had failed to grasp the full meaning of an open quarrel at that juncture. While he would have hesitated to believe that his friend was a Judas, he knew that at times he could be obstinate and even spiteful; and though claiming to be a sportsman, he took defeat badly. He had never been a generous loser. His arrogant pride was: too strong.
Harold mastered his feelings to some extent, for he recognised with bitterness how helpless he was to enforce his opinions. After all, whatever his principles were, he could not afford to trifle with his own interests. To see all that he had struggled and toiled to gain swept from him, and himself cast forth penniless from the home of his people, and the home where he had known so much happiness, was too dreadful to contemplate. Independence and pride were all very well, but when they led to self-abasement they exemplified the acme of human folly. He had the acumen to see that, and felt the necessity of temporising with the man who had the whip hand over him.
"I am very sorry, Oliver," he said almost in an apologetic vein, "that we should be at loggerheads about a matter that so closely concerns me, but if you are really determined in your opposition—"
"I am quite determined," Gordon interpolated sternly.
"Very well then, I will discuss the matter with Mary, but if she persists—"
Gordon broke in impatiently with another interruption.
"If she persists! What nonsense. It is for you to decide. You have proclaimed yourself the leader of the little expedition, and a leader who is without determination isn't worthy of the position."
Harold's face flushed slightly.
"I admit that," he said, "but I should like to hear her view before coming to any decision."
"All right," said Gordon as he relit his pipe, "but don't be under any delusion as to my feelings in the matter. If Mary goes I don't go; and if I don't go I decline to take up the mortgage. That's final, and the devil himself won't change me. Now you know what lies before you."
Any further discussion of the matter would have been absurd. They shook hands and parted. Harold went out into the street which throbbed with human life; he passed a brilliantly lighted saloon from whence issued laughter and song, the people in the streets passing to and fro seemed light-hearted and happy, but he felt under a sense of utter depression that he could not shake off. It was as if a new-born trouble had gripped him fiercely, that some of the sunshine had faded out of his life for ever, and a haunting thought filled his brain that the friendship which had endured so long between him and Gordon was dead beyond revivification. To a man of Preston's temperament the breaking of a friendship was like the shattering of an idol before which he had bowed in veneration. But he knew now that his faith in Gordon had gone. And yet he was in Gordon's power; he must either dissemble or be prepared to face ruin.
He made his way back to Mary's home, and after supper drew her to the veranda, and they sat side by side. It was a beautiful night, the rain had cooled the air. Light clouds trailed across the sky, and stars glittered in the great depths of blue. Nicotina and other flowers made the air languid with their scent; the wind crooned a lullaby in the palm trees and the great fronds of the tree ferns. It was a night for love cooing, for all the world seemed filled with love, and a sweet undertone of wordless melody seemed to tremble through space until it was lost among the stars. But Harold's heart was hot and restless; he was oppressed with an idea that there was some great change—perhaps a tragic change coming into his life. His enthusiasm over the expedition had waned, and a phantom-like regret that he had decided on it haunted him. Jim Dawkins' words rang in his ears; he began to think that after all Jim was right, and it would be better for his peace and happiness if he remained on his farm instead of trying to pierce the veil of mystery that hung between him and the Western Ranges. The years that lay behind held for him tender memories of happiness and contentment, why should he try to alter the current of his life and turn it into unknown channels where it might be fretted into a raging torrent, and sweep him to misery and despair?
His mood was in antagonism with his temperament; it was an unnatural mood, and vaguely he understood that it was the result of an influence Oliver Gordon exercised over him, an influence that he was powerless to shake off, although in every fibre of his being he felt that it was a sinister influence and might darken his future. If he had never come to know of that dark episode in the life of that man whom he had once esteemed as one of the truest of friends, he would never have harboured such disquieting thoughts, but when confidence has been betrayed and faith destroyed a dark and brooding suspicion takes their place. Had it not been for those fierce years of cruel drought his life would have flowed on in its sweet serenity. Mary would have been his wife, and his friendship with Oliver might have remained unbroken, for he might never have heard of the dark episode. Perhaps for the first time since he came to man's estate, he began to realise', to dwell upon the uncertainties of human life. Nature was eternal, but human life at its longest was such a pitiably small span, subject to cataclysmic changes, and to the inevitable tragic sorrow which comes when Death takes those we love from us. Was it not possible, he thought, to realise some few of one's ideals? He was full of strange fears and fancies, and somewhere in his distressed soul a voice said, "It is the passions, greed, envy, and jealousies of men that make life bitter and unholy."
He and Mary had been silent for some time. There are moments when lovers understand that silence can be infinitely more eloquent than speech. The moon was rising in the east, and her pallid light filled the garden and the landscape beyond with a soft, radiant, ethereal beauty, like a vision of splendour that comes into the lotus eater's dreams. Harold turned, laid his hand on Mary's, and voiced the sentiment that was uppermost in his mind.
"I wonder, dear, if anything I could say or do could change your love for me."
"Change my love for you!" Surprise rang in her voice. "What a strange question. It implies a doubt."
"Give me an answer, Mary."
There was a long pause.
"No, nothing, unless you became a drunkard and a gambler, and the tenderness of your heart turned to hate."
He laughed and pressed her hand.
"I am not likely ever to become a gambler or a drunkard, and I don't believe I could really hate anything to which God has given life."
"Then my love for you will never change while life is mine."
There was another short silence.
"Perhaps my question seemed to carry more meaning than I intended. I know that when a woman truly loves a man it takes something tremendous to change her. But I am only going to put your love to a small test. I want you to abandon the idea of accompanying me on my journey west."
She turned her eyes on his face, and saw a light in his eyes that told surely of a troubled mind, of a something that was making his heart ache.
"Why do you make that request, Harold?"
"I saw Oliver this evening on his return from Melbourne. I told him you were going with me, and it made him angry. He said I had no right to subject you to the hardships and perils of such a journey."
"How very kind of him." she said with cutting irony. "And I suppose he has influenced you?"
"Does it strike you, Harold, that not to go means for me a bitter, bitter disappointment? I had set my heart upon going?"
"Then why be influenced by Gordon?"
"Because—well, I don't want to quarrel with him, and I am afraid if I insist on your going it may lead to a rupture in our business relations." He was going to say friendship but checked himself.
Mary did not speak again for some moments.
"Does Oliver intend to go?"
"Oh, of course. That is if you remain behind."
"Then why not let him go alone?"
"I don't quite gather your meaning, Mary."
"He has reminded you of the hardships and perils which I should have to encounter. Will there be no hardships and perils for you?"
"Well, dear," he said with a laugh, "I don't suppose it will be as easy as a railway journey."
"That answers my question. After all, why should you go? The journey may end in a fiasco, and now that the long drought has broken there is plenty of work to do on your farm. Stay here with me. Let Gordon go if he wants to go. We need not worry about him."
Here again was the advice Jim Dawkins had given, and it now came from the woman he loved. Was it the voice of Fate speaking through her, through him? No. He laughed at the very thought. Fate had come to him in the person of Bill Blewitt, who had wriggled out of the clutches of Greedy Death, to breathe in his ear, and his ear alone, the secret of the gold in the Ranges which lay far, far beyond the dim horizon to which his vision reached from Glenbar. A something he could not quite understand—it was not the lust of gold, which still seemed to him as intangible as the scent of the rose—lured him on. The rose scent could soothe the senses, but in a little while it was dissipated, leaving only a memory. Gold could give power, luxury, but it was also capable of destroying all that is beautiful and spiritual in human nature. No, he was at a loss to define what it was that lured him to the West, but it did lure him, and a something else within him impelled him to respond to the lure.
"Yes, Mary," he answered, "there is plenty to do on the Run, but I have arranged everything with Jim Dawkins."
"And you intend to go?"
"Yes. I feel somehow as if I must. I want a break in my life. So far it has been uneventful; I want one episode at least that I can, in future years, look back to with pleasure if not pride. Perhaps, after all, I have inherited from some dead and gone ancestor a strain of the spirit of adventure; anyway, I repeat, I want to go."
"And Gordon will go with you?"
She did not reply immediately. Her face wore a look of trouble; her thoughts were busy with many things, hopes and fears alternated. With a sigh she answered him as one who yields reluctantly to that which cannot be avoided:
"Then go, Harold, and if the main object of the journey is achieved, that is, if you discover the gold, see that your interests are well protected, and let Oliver carry out the development. I will remain behind, and when you return I shall be waiting with open arms to receive you."
The gloom had passed from him. He felt happy again, and their lips met in a kiss of perfect love. He knew now that whatever might happen, whatever might change, Mary would remain true, and her love was the only thing that mattered.
HAROLD returned to Glenbar on the morrow, and' found Jim Dawkins very busy. He did not see Gordon before leaving, as he had gone down the river to visit a small sawmill in which he had an interest, but he left the following note for him:
"My Dear Oliver,
You can make your mind easy. Mary will be left behind. Please push ahead with your preparations, as we shall start on our journey in a fortnight or three weeks at the outside. I will come down to Gordonstown in a couple of days to sign the mortgage deed. Yours affectionately,
Harold was glad to get back to his holding. Somehow the bustle, the activity, the noise of such a relatively small place even as Gordonstown confused him. It was all in such violent contrast to the loneliness of his home, which wasn't loneliness to him. He had so many interests there, so much that appealed to the contemplative side of his nature. The rain was still falling, not as a deluge, but with steady persistency. The earth was soaked, and the water was going down, down to the roots of things, and in another two or three weeks the grass would be springing into new life, the ploughs at work, and the long silence would once more be broken with the voices of living things. Cattle and sheep and horses would wander in freedom to the far boundaries of his lands, and a new prosperity would begin.
Harold felt on his return that he had had a morbid fit in Gordonstown, and had been obsessed with fancies which are born of morbidness. He was sorry he had been so bitter with Gordon. He was almost tempted to think lightly of that dark episode in his career, and to find excuse for it as the one false step of a wilful boy which he had ever since regretted, and yet, irresistibly, a feeling oppressed him of a scarcely veiled deceptiveness of character in Oliver which would for all time prevent the old friendship from enduring. There might be a renewal of a sort of friendship, but it could not be quite the same; it would be friendship only in name, a friendship without respect or confidence. But what troubled him most of all was the knowledge that he was under an obligation to this man, and that his position, his influence, and perhaps his mental powers were inferior to Gordon's. Time had been when he quite thought that the old rivalry and bitterness which had so long existed between the two families had ceased for ever. At any rate he had been at pains to prove that the animosity of his people had not been transmitted to him, that he represented a new era in which the Prestons and the Gordons would be united by a bond of fraternal regard. But now he asked himself, was it really so? Were Gordon's professions of friendship mere make-believe; had he himself not inherited a little, at least, of the spirit which had impelled his father and his father's father to contend for supremacy, for mastery? Something within him seemed to answer "yes." Anyway, he could not disguise the fact that with all his altruism and fine feeling, he experienced a sense of envy of Gordon's superior position, but in one thing at least he had triumphed, he had won the love of Mary Gordon, though her cousin had striven for it, and he would crown that triumph by making her his wife.
And suddenly, as a result of all this heart-searching and mental analysis, a great change came over him, in a sense it burst upon him—he was seized with a lust for gold. He was quite sure that up to that moment he had had no such lust. Now he realised with a clearness that made him wonder that he should have been so long blind, that riches would make him Gordon's equal, and the probable chance of acquiring riches had been placed in his way with a dramatic suddenness that gave weight and significance to it. He might in time secure a competence from his business if the seasons held good. But here was a way opened to him of getting rich quickly. All his faculties sprang into alertness, and a sort of fever burned in his veins. Yes, he would start for the West with a grim, fierce purpose of locating the gold deposits, and he now experienced a sense of joy that Mary was not going. She would have been a drag upon the expedition, she would have hampered his own movements, and he recalled her warning that in the event of the gold being located he should adopt every means to secure his own interests. Yes, it should be men's work; he would take the lead, and make Gordon feel and understand that he was his equal, if not his superior. This awakening of the fighting spirit in his nature stirred him to new energies; he felt that something had taken hold of him, a something that crushed down the finer feelings of his being, and filled his heart and brain with a passion of material desire, and he knew that it was lust for gold. It had come to him like a revelation, and he yielded himself to it, although he was conscious of a vaguely defined feeling that it had swept away some of his happiness, and made him discontented with things as they were.
The ensuing days were days of strenuous activities, and he worked far into the night, balancing his books and setting his accounts in order. He got up fresh hands from Gordonstown to replace Pete Radley and George Grindon, who had consented to accompany him to the West. They were hardy men, and old servants, and he knew they would be faithful to him. In addition, he would have Bill Blewitt on his side. So that in the event of any difference arising, there would be four, including himself, opposed to Gordon and the two men he had undertaken to supply. The organising of the expedition required much thought and care. All the necessary provisions for seven men, for a period of not less than eight months, would have to be carried, together with tools and two tents. For this purpose six pack horses were needed, with two spare ones in case of contingencies. In carrying out the arrangements Blewitt proved himself invaluable. He was an old hand, and knew that if success was to be achieved nothing must be overlooked. Many an exploring and prospecting expedition had come to grief through some trifling failure in the organisation. Fire-arms and a plentiful supply of ammunition would also have to be carried, for encounters with the wild blacks was a probability not to be overlooked. The aborigines were pitiless, cruel, and sternly opposed the advance of the white man into their country. They could not be blind to the fact that the advance of the white spelt annihilation to them.
During all those days of bustle and work Harold was haunted by thoughts of the riches that he now believed were within his reach. He could not deaden his conscience to the change in his nature; he was aware that a certain sordidness had taken possession of him, but he did not struggle against it. He soon received a reply to the note he had left for Gordon. It was couched in the following terms:
"My Dear Harold,
I am glad you have come to your senses. I saw Mary the evening after you left, and she told me of her decision not to go. Incidentally she placed a command upon me to look after you, take care of you, and bring you safe back.
"As I am going out of town for some days I have sent the mortgage deed on to your solicitor, and asked him to procure your signature so as to put the matter in order.
"I have also instructed my own solicitor to draft an agreement between you and me, setting forth that we are to share equally the cost of the expedition, and in any discoveries we make whether one or both of us find gold. Of course this is business, and safeguards our mutual interests. I don't want to imperil our friendship by a possibility of squabbling in case we are fortunate enough to strike it rich. A dispute about money will destroy the strongest of friendships. I have selected two of my men, experienced chaps, to go with us, so that we shall be a party of seven. The details of the organisation I leave to you. With the aid of Blewitt, I have no doubt you will see that nothing is forgotten. I have ordered two new guns, one an up-to-date, double-barrelled fowling-piece, the other a powerful rifle to carry a two ounce slug. I shall be ready in time. I did intend to take Kangaroo with me, but have changed my mind, and shall buy a rough bush horse.
This letter stung Harold like whipcord. The reference to what Mary had said was made with the obvious intention of hurting him, and it did hurt. The tone of the letter, to his way of thinking, was offensive; there was an air of patronage about it that sent the blood to his face with a flush of indignation. It made him feel more than ever that Gordon was treating him as an inferior, and he bitterly regretted, now that it was too late, that he had taken Gordon into his confidence.
The same day that he received the letter he saddled his horse and rode into the town. He went straight to Gordon's residence, to find that he had left, and would not be back for perhaps a week. This was probably fortunate, though Harold did not think so then; but his temper was up, and in his then mood a quarrel would have been inevitable. He called upon Mary, and gave her the letter to read. It made her indignant also.
"Why on earth did he want to repeat my words," she said; "he gives them a force and point that I never intended them to have. They were spoken lightly and in a frivolous way. But there, why should you mind? Although I say it of my own kinsman, Oliver hasn't your sincerity and delicacy of feeling. He can be cutting and bitter at times, and that is what you never are. But after all you mustn't take him too seriously. I really think he means well, though he's not tactful. Besides, he has taken over the mortgage in order to help you. You cannot get out of his hands now unless"—she hesitated for some moments, then added—"unless you will avail yourself of my money."
Harold's feelings were moved to their deepest depths, his pride surged up until he felt hot as if with fever.
"Damn Oliver!" he exclaimed with an outburst of temper that startled her.
She put her hand to his mouth.
"That is not my Harold speaking," she said with sweet tenderness; "nor is it your true self. Don't outrage your own principles. There is something beautiful in your nature, something that drew me from my cousin to you, and you have won my soul's love. Isn't that a triumph? Why then be false to yourself? Why raise a doubt in my mind that the purity of your heart, in which I have so firmly believed, is, after all, only make-believe? Leave hatred and bitterness to baser men. You have a nobility of soul that should keep you free from the pettiness of small minds."
A sense of humiliating shame possessed him, a wave of emotion made him tremble. He caught her in his arms, crushed her to his heart, and there were tears in his voice as he spoke.
"Mary, my darling, forgive me; you make me seem a brute beast, and God knows I am not brutal. You remind me that my winning your love is a triumph. It is, it is! It makes me proud, happy, grateful! The love of such a woman as yourself demands sacrifice. I am prepared to sacrifice my feelings, my very life if need be, for your dear sake. I am strong again. The bitterness has passed. Put your lips to mine and tell me that I am forgiven."
"My faith is whole once more, and you are forgiven," she murmured; joy danced in her eyes as she took his troubled face between her soft hands and kissed him as a woman kisses a man who has seen her soul.
When the wave of emotion that had shaken them both had subsided they talked of their affairs, their mutual interests, and he made his feelings against taking her money clear to her. He was resolved to carry through the arrangements he had come to with her cousin: sign the mortgage bond at once, and the other agreement as soon as it was ready. Finally she consented to go out to Glenbar with her aunt' on the following day, and stay there until the expedition was ready to start.
He left her with a feeling of regenerated happiness and peace. He signed the mortgage deed that afternoon, and rode back at night, under the moon and stars, to the home he loved. And with only the many undertones of the bush pulsing in his ears he felt that the world was beautiful.
Mary and Margaret Bruce arrived at Glenbar the following evening. The westering sun was shining through a mist of rain, and had called into being a marvellous rainbow; as Harold ran to the door on hearing the buggy draw up, his eyes wandered to that arc of glorious colours which told that God was in His heavens; he felt as if it was a good omen to himself, and by an irresistible impulse slightly inclined his head as an act of reverence.
His guests were conducted to the large, well-furnished sleeping chamber which had been his mother's, and where after a brief illness she had folded her hands resignedly to the Divine will and passed to eternal rest. His old housekeeper had been busy all day furbishing the rooms, hanging up spotless white curtains, spreading the capacious bed with lavender-scented sheets, and making all gay and sweet with flowers. In the recess of a window that commanded a view of the wide stretching plains, she had placed a large glass vase filled with huge purple trumpet-shaped blooms that exhaled a languorous scent pervading the whole apartment. Harold was a lover of flowers, as his mother had been, and even during the drought he had managed to keep one little patch bright by watering it from the Artesian well.
That night supper was spread in the best dining-room, and Jim Dawkins and Bill Blewitt were persuaded by Harold to join the little party. They felt somewhat bashful in the presence of the ladies, and it was obvious they were not at their ease, but Mary and her aunt soon removed all restraint by their cheerfulness and homely ways. Mary was glad to meet Blewitt, and chatted freely with him. He was still weak, and bore unmistakable traces in his face of the terrible suffering's he had gone through. He was very reticent about himself, showed no disposition to enter into any details, and when Mary asked him if he thought there was much gold in the place he had been to in the Ranges, he answered her with a terse, "Yes, miss, plenty."
Suddenly she said with a little laugh:
"Would you be surprised, Blewitt, if I told you. I thought of joining the expedition?"
He raised his head quickly, a flash of fire came into his bleared and sunken eyes.
"You, miss," he exclaimed in a tone that rang with alarm. "No, no, miss, you mustn't do that. It ain't woman's work. You'd die."
Harold was conscious of a little inward start, but he remained silent. That decisive and bluntly expressed opinion made him feel thankful that he had not insisted on Mary going with him, and he mentally gave Gordon credit for having more sagacity than he had. The subject was by tacit consent dropped, for somehow it had produced a feeling of depression. It made it clear to Mary that the expedition would not be the mere "outing" she at first thought it would be. "It ain't woman's work, you'd die," was suggestive of hardship, risk she had not dreamed of; but she remained silent.
For another week Harold was kept very busy, and his men had not an idle moment. The rain now fell intermittently, and though the sun shone at times, its fierce heat was subdued by the mist in the air. Already the land was taking on a tint of green. The ploughs were at work, the vines were being trained and pruned, the orchards attended to, the dairy overhauled, the shippons cleaned and whitewashed. In the evening, when his day's labours had ended, Harold spent happy hours with Mary; he and the two ladies and Dawkins generally indulged in a game of whist, and Mary added a touch of real home life by playing on the piano—Harold himself played a little—and singing simple songs in a melodious and well-trained voice. Harold's happiness was perfect; the influence of his affianced wife in his home made it seem doubly home to him, and he dreamed of the time when she would be mistress. He would
"Set her as a Goddess in his house and pay her reverence there."
At last a letter came from Gordon asking him to come down and sign the agreement, and he added, "I am now ready to start at any moment."
That night Harold rode into the town. He dined with Gordon, who told him he had put all his affairs in order, had engaged a competent manager to look after his various interests, and added with a laugh, "I have even made my will. One never knows what's going to happen, it's as well to be prepared. And I may as well tell you that if I peg out before you my executors have instructions to cancel the mortgage."
Harold's pulses stirred. He felt that he had wronged the man in thought; he put out his hand and grasped Gordon's with something of the old grip of friendship. Oliver seemed slightly disconcerted at this demonstration, he was not demonstrative himself, but he made no remark. The two men went to the gun-room, and Gordon took pride in showing the new weapons he had bought.
"By the way, I picked up quite a curious old second-hand pistol the other day in Melbourne," and he displayed a double-barrelled, percussion-cap weapon with delicately chased stock, damascened barrels. A silver plate bearing a monogram was let into the stock. The barrels were rifled. "I find it has an effective range of eight hundred yards. I shall take it with me, as well as my two colts revolvers. We may not want them, but it is just as well to be on the safe side."
Harold examined the pistol with great interest, and agreed with his friend that in the hand of a marksman it would be more formidable than a black man's spear and boomerang.
A few days later the little expedition set out from Glenbar on its fateful journey to the West. One thing only did Harold forget. That one thing was destined to lead to tragedy.
"'Twas a long last look and a mute farewell
To the homes where our fathers had loved to dwell,
And our faces turned to the wild north-west,
And we rode away on a roving quest."
OLIVER GORDON and his men went up to Glenbar the night before. Mary had suggested to her lover that she should ride out with the party a day's march, but he would not hear of it.
"I could not bear to say my farewells to you in the presence of others," he told her.
As the hour of parting drew near they were both deeply affected. Mary tried to keep her spirits up, but it was a failure.
"I wish now," she said, "that you had never committed yourself to this journey."
"I hardly know. I suppose I am stupid. I have made myself a bit nervous by imagining all sorts of dangers."
Harold endeavoured to reassure her, saying that he would come back all right, and bring wealth with him. She and her aunt were to remain for a few weeks at Glenbar, as Mary wanted to assist in putting the household in order, as well as to explore the neighbourhood. The party started at daybreak. Harold remained behind on the pretence of having a few details to settle up, and he was to follow on horseback two hours later. His real reason was to spend those two hours in sweet dalliance with Mary. He had not quite understood how severe the wrench would be when the supreme moment to say good-bye came. While neither of them was inclined to exaggerate, they did not foolishly underrate the difficulties and the dangers of the journey, and they knew that under the most favourable circumstances they could not hope to meet again for months.
The morning broke fine, but misty, a saffron-coloured mist to which the rising sun imparted a blinding glare. Heavy clouds hung low in the east, indicating that the suspension of the rain was only temporary.
Mary and her lover strolled into the forest which marked the eastern boundary of his property. The tall, umbrageous trees made a solitude filled with a dim, religious light, and steeped in an impressive silence that seemed to be intensified by the low murmur of the underworld, and the drowsy hum of bees as they languidly hovered over the big blossoms of the convolvus lianas and the purple and brown orchids which gemmed the trees with splashes of colour.
They did not talk much, for they had exhausted nearly all they had to say. Harold thought he had never seen Mary look so beautiful as she did in that hour of their parting. The light that filtered through the trees flung a halo of gold around her head, as it gleamed on her rich brown hair, and her eyes were raised to his face with a look of pathetic tenderness, in which her great love for him was expressed with the eloquence of her soul's emotions. They spoke in a language that needed no words. But at last words had to be uttered, and once again Mary renewed her pledge, "Whatever the years and Fate may bring I will wait for you, true unto death."
Their lips met; a sob broke from her, tears blinded her, and then the final "good-bye" was spoken. They tore themselves asunder, he mounted his horse, and with one final glance of farewell rode away into, the silence.
At first the track trended north for two or three miles, and then they struck a north-west course, and faced the wilderness. They camped that night on the extreme north-west boundary of the Glenbar lands, and took note of their equipment to make sure that nothing had been left behind. But they could not remember a single item that had been overlooked. The horses, which were in splendid condition, were hobbled for the night, and as the men consumed their frugal fare around the camp fire, each one was looking forward in high hope that the expedition would be crowned with success.
A fortnight later they found themselves threading a way through a bewildering maze of swamps, a watery solitude where black swans seemed to lord it with an autocratic air, and immense numbers of pigeons, ducks, plovers, and quail made it their home, fearless and undisturbed. Although they were not the first white men to burst into that watery waste, as some of the early explorers had been there before them, they were perhaps the very first to spread terror among its denizens by striking many of them down with swift death and shivering the silence of ages with their guns.
Blewitt's experience proved invaluable, as he was enabled to guide the little party safely through this track of a thousand streams where there was a riot of reptile life, and small crocodiles lay like logs of scabby wood in the slime. The horses at times found it difficult to obtain firm foothold; occasionally one or other would sink up to the knees, and obtain release only after a desperate struggle. There were many narrow shaves, and disaster was only averted by skill and caution. At last this oozy track of many waters lay behind them, and they entered upon a sandstone region of burning desolation. The land here was naked and dry. Such herbage as there was consisted of tufts of rank, sour grass which the animals would not touch.
The dangerous death-adder glided about over the hot sand, and emus dotted the plain, startled occasionally into wariness, as some huge kangaroo sped with flying leaps from a real or imagined danger. A few stunted prickly acacias broke the monotony of the scene, and were the haunts of colonies of brilliantly plumaged parrots. Lizards were everywhere, including the monitor, or fork-tongued, which, if it cannot find a tree to climb, will burrow in the ground. The heat was terrific; it radiated from the sand as from a furnace, and the travellers, as well as the horses, began to suffer from its effects. As they pushed their way forward into the vast emptiness the aridity became more marked, even the stunted acacias and the sparse tufts of sour grass could find no sustenance. It was the heart of the thirst land where the sun reigned as a fierce and pitiless sun-god, subduing every living thing to helplessness, and exsiccating the earth at that season as if a superheated blast of air had swept over it, and yet now and again from the shelter of a wind-formed sand ridge a frilled lizard, which is half lizard, half kangaroo, would start up and stare in wonderment. It has bulging eyes, a formidable-looking mouth, and wears around its neck a huge saw-edged frill which expands under excitement; when this frill is expanded and the reptile squats on its hind legs with its long scaly tail moving with a wavy snake-like motion, its appearance is demoniacal.
That and the moloch horridus, a spine-covered lizard of the most repulsive appearance, seemed to be the only living things that Nature had fitted to make their home in that heat-blasted desert; they were singularly suggestive of the hideous imaginings of a delirious, drink-sodden brain. These two were, apparently, the only representatives of reptile life inhabiting that fire-smitten region, even the dreaded death-adder gave it a wide berth. The loneliness and solitude were deeply impressive, whilst the brooding silence, the fierce splendour of the brazen sky, the blinding light that flooded the great spaces, and the awful sterility made it difficult to believe that it was part of the same work in which there were crowded cities and roaring floods of human life. It was like another planet, a dead world given over to eternal silence.
Every member of the little party, as well as the horses, began to wilt. During the torrid heat of the fierce day they had to remain inactive. The horses were hobbled, though it is doubtful if they would have roamed far: they stood with drooping heads and open mouths, panting for breath. The men sheltered themselves as best they could in the shadow of their tents. They had to shield their eyes from the affluence of the light and the unchecked brilliancy, which even in that land of light was extraordinary.
They travelled at night, night that was awesome with an indescribable weirdness, and heavy with darkness though the multitudinous stars in the velvety heights made tracks of silver flame.
Here in the mystery of the night these glittering stars watched over the silent earth, as they had watched for millions of aeons, long before the passionate heart of man pulsed with love and hate, and he had pushed his daring way into the remotest of Nature's solitudes. When the opalescent glitter of the dawn heralded the approach of the sun, the weary men sought rest for themselves and beasts.
Bill Blewitt, who up to this stage had struggled forward with a grim determination, now began to show signs of exhaustion, a mental drowsiness that was ominous. A remarkable incident at this period was the presence of a huge white eagle that hovered over the camp from day to day. Sometimes it swept with majestic wings through ethereal space to the purple horizon, then turned and flew into the very eye of the sun again, and would remain for hours, as it seemed, poised over the little camp. It was like a desolate, lonely spirit of the desert, a thing of ill omen that stared with its fearless eyes into the depths of the burning sun, and hung like a figure of impending doom over the little group of human atoms that crawled like tiny insects over the fiery sand.
It had taken the expedition nearly five weeks to reach this point in the journey, and Blewitt said it would take them another week to get out of the dry desert region. Between Gordon and Preston there had been some slight disagreements over matters of detail. Gordon had betrayed an intolerance of the discipline that it was necessary to enforce for the well-being of all concerned, and this had led to a little friction. Moreover, he had become strangely irritable, and disputed with Blewitt the question of the route to follow. Although Oliver knew nothing at all of the region through which they were passing, and Blewitt had traversed it twice, he would not admit that the latter's knowledge was superior to his own, but endeavoured to enforce his own views with a high hand. Blewitt was neither influenced nor daunted, but appealed to Preston to assert his authority to keep peace in the camp. This led to heated arguments, and at times Gordon became sullen and silent; he seemed to be suffering in health, and for a few days displayed symptoms of sunstroke, but they passed off, though his temper did not improve. He proved himself to be a man of a callous and unimpressionable nature.
And now Blewitt's exhaustion became so pronounced that one day he fell down on the burning sand and lay as if he were dead. Some remedies from the little medicine chest brought him round, but it was obvious to everyone that he was a doomed man; with a willpower, however, that was astonishing he kept on. One of the horses had died, the others were worn and weak, and all the members of the party were weak and listless from the effects of heat and thirst, when fortunately they reached a belt of timbered land, and found some water in a rocky hole. This was a godsend, and they decided to camp for a few days to recuperate after the exhausting passage of the desert. There were shady groves of casuarina or beefwoods, for which they were truly grateful, but they found themselves surrounded by huge ant-hills, and it was some time before they hit a spot which ensured them freedom from the attacks of the terrible termites. Their journey over the brooding desert wastes had taxed their energies to the utmost. There wasn't a man of the party but recognised now that the expedition they had undertaken was one that called for exceptional powers of endurance, and that many dangers and difficulties would have to be encountered before their object was achieved. In these primitive wilds, where Nature had held undisputed sway for incalculable ages, pioneers had to carry their lives in their hands.
Harold Preston was far too intelligent to think for a moment that the continuance of the journey could be undertaken lightly, and he saw with distress he could not disguise that they were not to escape tragedy: Blewitt was doomed; Harold suggested that an attempt should be made to convey him back as fast as possible to Gordonstown. Blewitt laughed grimly at the bare idea of this. Throughout the journey he had doggedly refused to sleep under a tent, saying that he wasn't used to luxury. He would roll himself in his bush blanket, with a coat for a pillow, and lie with only the star-gemmed sky above him.
On the night of the third day after they had reached the belt of scrub he lay down at the foot of a tree within the radius of the camp fire glow. All the rest of the party were asleep, with the exception of Harold. He was restless and anxious about Bill, upon whom the shadow of death had unmistakably fallen. In the solemn night hours in the forest there were faint sounds that only served to intensify the silence—the whir of insects, the occasional flutter of a bird, the low, strange cry of a dingo calling for its mate, or the click and swish of some night lizard as it seized its prey.
Occasionally a puff of wind stirred the foliage of the trees to a sigh; it was like the sigh of some unseen spirit of the air.
Harold paced backwards and forwards before the fire, which had burned down to a mass of glowing embers, until his attention was suddenly arrested by Blewitt, who, in a weak voice, called "Boss." Harold went to him and knelt down.
"What is it, old man? What can I do for you?"
"You can't do anything, boss. I've reached the end of my journey."
Bill spoke with difficulty. He was evidently suffering.
"I should have liked to have held out until we reached the Ranges, but it ain't to be, boss, it ain't to be. I'm glad I didn't die in the hospital. I told you I was a dingo, and I wanted to die like a dingo in the open."
"Well, now look here, Blewitt," said Harold, who was deeply moved, "don't exhaust yourself with unnecessary talk. Have you any relatives you would wish me to write to; anything you would like me to send to them?"
"I may have relatives, boss, but they are scattered all over the world, and I don't know where they are. I'm an old man, and it's years and years since I heard from anyone belonging to me. I've been wandering all my life, a vagabond; it was according to my nature, boss, and I was content. When I was a young 'un there was a gal I was mighty fond of. I'd a-give my life for her gladly, but once when I was stony broke she took up with another chap and went off to California with him. That made a devil of me, and I swore from that day I'd have nothing more to do with women. But I heard from a pal that the chap she took up with had been cruel to her, and killed her. Then I swore to hunt him down and kill him. I found him in a mining camp in Colorado, and told the boys I was there to kill him in fair fight. He was a coward and tried to slink away, but the boys rounded him up. We fought with revolvers, and I told him he could fire first, for I knew as the Lord God wouldn't let him kill me. He fired and missed. Then I gave him another chance, and he missed again. The third shot was mine, and I plugged him through the head. My poor gal was revenged. The boys buried him, and I came to this country. I've never done no wrong to any man, boss, and I've saved the lives of some at the risk of my own; now I'm going to hand in my checks, and the Lord God, Who wouldn't let that chap in Colorado kill me, is a-going to judge me fair and square, and I ain't afraid."
He had managed to tell in his crude way this tragic little story with great difficulty; his breath failed him at times, and it was evident that only a tremendous effort of will-power enabled him to go through with it. Harold felt his own powerlessness in such a supreme moment. The occasion was too solemn for argument, or even comment, and poor Blewitt's simple faith was too impressive, too grand to be disturbed by any dogma, any narrow doctrine of ethics. The mystery of the night was around them; the silence of the wilderness was eloquent with a mighty something, deeper, more appealing, more moving than mere formal, word-uttered prayer. The unwearied and watching stars, which had witnessed all the tragedies of the sinful world of men, seemed to shine with a promise of hope that there were peace and rest for the tired heart of man as he drifted out to the great unknown, and the night wind breathed softly through the trees as if it, too, had a message of hope to tell. Harold raised himself up, and paced to and fro again with a sorrow too deep for words moving him to unwonted emotion. Once more the old man called him.
Harold knelt down beside him again.
"You was good to me, boss, and when my chums died out here one after another I felt I'd been left that I might tell you the secret of the gold find. You was the only man in all the world I cared to tell it to. But, boss, I don't like that other chap, Gordon. He ain't square, he ain't white. Watch him, and don't let him get the upper hand of you. And now, boss, I want to sleep, and you must go to sleep. Good night."
There was something in the way Blewitt spoke that forbade reply. Sleep held everything save the languid night wind and the things of the night that stirred in the great spaces of mystery, Preston was exhausted; his whole being was yearning for rest. His brain was weary, his heart ached. He stretched himself on the ground, his face buried in his arms, and in a few minutes oblivion held him.
The wood pigeons began to coo, the parrots to chatter, the magpies to scream; the forest was bathed in saffron light, and the East pulsed with the many-coloured fires of the new day. The camp was already astir, some of the men had gone out in search of the horses. Harold rose from his hard bed, stretched himself, and then recalling the incident of the night, he glanced at Blewitt. His tired face seemed to be ten years younger; his lips were parted as if with a smile. Harold stooped and covered the face with the blanket.
Bill Blewitt had gone to the Lord God, Who would judge him "fair and square."
THERE in that lonely forest, far, far beyond the confines of civilisation, there was a scene of tragic sorrow, not demonstrative sorrow, but all the more touching by its muteness. Harold felt as if he had lost an old and tried friend. Whatever old Bill Blewitt's sins and faults were, he had the heart of a true man, and was fearless even when he knew that grim death had clutched him. Uncultivated and rough as he was, he had the stuff in him that heroes are made of.
At noon that day some of the men dug a grave at the foot of a great she-oak. Blewitt's body was sewn up in his bush rug and reverently laid to rest. Gordon seemed the least moved of any of the group. Harold recited from memory a few passages from the burial, service, and the impressively simple ceremony closed with all the men, with the exception of Gordon who stood apart, repeating the Lord's prayer. A rough cross was made and placed firmly in the ground at the head of the grave, over which a cairn of stones was built, and Pete Radley, who was handy with his knife, cut a slab of bark, about twelve inches square, from the tree, and on the bared trunk carved Bill Blewitt's name, and a paraphrase of the dying man's own words: "The Lord is going to judge him fair and square."
The mournful duty ended, the fire was beaten out, the camp struck, and the journey resumed for another ten miles. The following morning, when preparations for a fresh start were being made, Gordon and Harold sat smoking together on an empty case in which they had carried some of their provisions. They had been silent for a time. Blewitt's warning words about Gordon, words he had uttered with his last breath which closed with that final "good night," had sunk very deeply into Harold's mind, and in spite of himself his distrust of Oliver increased. It was not in his nature to cherish ill will or think evil of anyone lightly. A man must have injured him very grievously indeed if he could not have forgiven him. They had not spoken about Blewitt since the old man had been placed in his grave. Now Gordon said with startling abruptness:
"Where's that map and pocket-book of the route, and the gorge in the mountains that Blewitt sketched?"
Bill, in the course of his many wanderings, had acquired a smattering of geographical knowledge, and was not without some ability to sketch in a crude way. While he was staying at Glenbar preparatory to the start, and as if with some premonition of his death during the journey, he made a small map, tracing the compass directions of the route, and indicating certain points in the mountains as bearings, with approximate distances, as a guide to the precise spot where he had discovered the gold. His pocket-book, with many useful notes in it, he had given to Harold when he was at the hospital.
"I have it here," said Harold carelessly as, thrusting his hand into his breast pocket, he drew forth a flat leather case and opened it. It contained some letters, but he searched in vain for the map and pocket-book. "Umph, that's curious. It must be in my bag." He rose and went to where their baggage was piled up near one of the tents. There was but little baggage, each man's belongings was contained in a canvas bag marked with his name. Harold had a writing-case containing writing materials, a diary, and some letters. Again his search for the map and book was fruitless. His face assumed a thoughtful expression, he bit his finger-nails, and pondered for some minutes; then returning to Gordon, who still sat on the box and smoked, he said:
"I'll be hanged if I haven't left the packet behind in my office. It is the one thing I have overlooked."
"My God, the one thing, the chief thing," cried Gordon passionately as he sprang to his feet, and his eyes flashed fire. "Well, upon my word, you're an unmitigated ass! Your stupidity spells disaster unless I am very much mistaken."
Harold wilted a little. That it was a stupid oversight he admitted to himself, but Gordon's coarseness and brutal manner stirred his blood.
"Look here, Oliver," he said with some heat and determination, "don't speak to me in that hectoring tone. I am not your servant nor your inferior."
Gordon swung round, he seemed to quiver with passion.
"By heaven—" he checked himself with a great effort. "Well, we won't quarrel. But without that map and now that Blewitt's gone, we are on a wild goose chase, it seems to me. And this is the precious expedition that you wanted Mary Gordon to join." He walked quickly away as if afraid to trust himself to say more.
The last insult stung Harold to the innermost recesses of his heart. When he had agreed to Mary's suggestion that she should accompany them it was with a sanguine light-heartedness, and a lack of knowledge of the difficulties likely to be encountered. But Gordon's taunt virtually implied that with a cruel selfishness he would have placed Mary in imminent peril of her health and life. The taunt was unjust, and it hurt him very much. After a mental struggle with himself he came to a resolve. He called all his companions around him. He mounted the box and addressed them.
"Boys, the death of our companion and guide is a serious blow to us, all the more serious because I have unfortunately come away without a little map he made and placed in my possession. That map would have enabled us to have located the gorge where he found the gold. But I have inadvertently left it behind. I make no excuse for my carelessness. It seems to me, however, my duty to put this matter before you. That desert track has tried us. We have lost one of our number and one of our horses, and it will be necessary to harbour our resources in view of contingencies. We know what lies behind us, but before us is the unknown. Now it is for you to say whether we shall return in our track or go forward."
Pete Radley and George Grindon spoke as in one voice, and said "Go forward," but Gordon and his men remained silent. Then after a pause Radley added:
"I see no reason yet for turning back. We ain't schoolboys out for a holiday, but men with men's work to do. I for one ain't coward enough to shirk the work. Let us go through with it."
"I'm of that opinion too," said Grindon.
Harold looked at Gordon's men, then at Gordon himself, who was standing with his bare arms folded across his chest, and a sullen, brooding expression on his face. Their eyes met.
"If my men are willing to go on I will go," he said sternly.
"Of course if you go, governor, we'll go," they both answered.
"That settles it, then. There's nothing more to be said. Let's strike camp at once. We are wasting time here," said Harold.
The men turned to, and began to get the horses together. Preston went to Gordon with outstretched hand.
"Look here, Oliver Gordon, don't let there be any rankling ill feeling between us. We are in the wilderness, we are all dependent upon each other, and it is no time for bickerings or unfriendliness."
For some moments—long moments—Gordon unmistakably hesitated to grasp the proffered hand, until with dramatic suddenness his whole manner changed as if some new thought had come to him. He laughed, but there was no heartiness in the laugh.
"You are rather exaggerating matters," he said. "I confess I have shown some irritability. Perhaps the tramp over that sweltering desert affected me and my liver went wrong. However, it's all right now, we'll work together. I came out with a purpose, and I am going to accomplish it."
The last sentence seemed to have a hidden meaning, but it passed unnoticed. Harold was glad, but he did not fail to note that there was a lack of sincerity in Gordon's manner, though he made no comment. His distrust of his companion was not lessened.
Soon the little party were on the move, travelling in a north-west and by-west course. They were able to supply their larder with fresh food, as wood pigeons, wild duck, and teal were plentiful. As they forged ahead slowly, for the horses experienced a difficulty in getting through the dense undergrowth, they became depressed with the monotony of the forest, and on the third night a heavy storm broke over them, and the rain fell in torrents, rendering their position miserable in the extreme. A gale raged, and the roar of wind and rain was terrific; many a tree was struck by lightning, and not a few were uprooted by the gale. The darkness became intense, whilst the downpour made it impossible to keep a fire burning. It was a night of horror; it tried their nerves and tested their endurance to the utmost. The morning broke sullen and gloomy. The wind was still strong, but the rain had become a fine drizzle. The horses were in a miserable plight, and some of the stores had got soaked with water.
On the top of a slight eminence, which Harold ascended in the hope of getting an outlook over the country, was a large cairn-like mass of rock. The face of one side at the base had been denuded, forming a sort of cave, which afforded the drenched and weary men shelter for a couple of days; they were enabled to keep a large fire going, and thus obtain hot food and drink. The view which the summit of the cairn afforded showed the forest stretching on for incalculable miles. Here another misfortune befell them. One of the horses got its foot into a crab hole, and in its struggle to extricate itself broke its leg and had to be shot. It took them eight days to get out of the recesses of the dismal jungle, during which it bad become like a steaming cauldron.
At length the land began to fall away, the trees were sparse with scarcely any undergrowth, and after a long gentle descent they found themselves on the edge of a plain dotted with a scanty growth of spinifex, and evidently the home of vast numbers of kangaroos, which could be seen either peacefully feeding or bounding in wild flight over the hummocky plain. The weather had improved, and there was a crystalline clearness in the air. Far away on the horizon a jagged line of hills could be seen; the men cheered; here were the Ranges at last. Seen from that distance, they seemed to rise up like an unbroken wall with a serrated top, the whole covered with a dark purple mantle. When the sun set that evening these far-off hills became mystical and wonderful with ever-changing lights. Backed by the flaming gold of the Western sky, they assumed an ethereal and visionary aspect touched with colours from Nature's palette, compared with which the pigments of men are dull, cold, and lifeless. It was the poetry of colour, the soul of a mirage of heaven itself. As the gold of the background changed to hot red, splashed with fierce yellow bands, and edged with delicate sea-green, an amethystine haze as delicate and soft as the violet on a tropical butterfly's wing lay over the mountains. The red, the yellow, and pale green blended, deepened and faded until the trailing robe of the jewelled night swept them out of human vision.
Harold had stood entranced, spellbound. The gorgeousness of Nature ever held him, and aroused all the artistic emotions of his soul; and the superb transformation scene; the wonderful display of light and colour, the startling atmospheric effects that with a sort of cunning alchemy, turned the cloddy earth to liquid gold, drew from him a wordless reverence for the beauty and splendour that are of God. The stars broke out in the eternal spaces of the heavens, glittering with the brightness of burnished steel that sent out spears of silver light piercing the robe of night, until the earth below was bathed in a pearly sheen.
Harold was suddenly startled from his reverie by a voice that said:
"Yonder is our Mecca. Somewhere in the heart of those Ranges lies the buried gold that has lured us from our homes, across the burning wastes, through the gloom of the forests to—perhaps—God knows—Death."
He started as though something had struck him, a something that crashed like a violent discord in a soul-moving symphony. He turned with a shudder, and saw a pallid, tortured face.
It was the face of Oliver Gordon.
"WELL, you are a Job's comforter, upon my word," replied Harold. "I see nothing to be despondent about."
"No, I suppose not. You always were a sanguine chap, full of fancies. You are not practical. You entered on this business as though you thought it was going to be a promenade. And so little did you calculate the difficulties of it that you would have brought Mary Gordon with you!"
Harold's face flamed, and his eyes glittered with an anger that was rare with him.
"Look here, Oliver," he snapped, "unless you wish to pick a quarrel don't rub that into me any more. What is it that is rankling in your mind? You seem to have completely changed. If you have any charge to make against me, why don't you speak out like a man? What is the grievance you are nursing? Why do you persist in reminding me about Mary, as though you thought I was dastard enough to lead her wilfully into danger?"
It was too dark for Harold to note the effect of his little outburst on his companion. Could he have done so, the belief which he still entertained of Gordon's faithful comradeship might have received another shock. Gordon drew himself up, and there was undisguised bitterness in his tone and manner as he replied:
"I confess that I have changed, and I curse my folly for ever having joined you."
For the first time since he had known him Harold began to think that Gordon was a coward and feared for his own safety. He gave a sharp expression to his thoughts.
"If you are afraid," he said incisively, "start back at daylight with your two men, two horses, and half the stores. I'm going forward. Please understand that nothing you can say will shake my determination. I shall proceed even if I go alone."
Gordon did not reply for some moments. He made a movement that was heard rather than seen by Harold, who started back with a vague, instinctive feeling that his erstwhile friend intended to strike him.
"I am not afraid in the sense you mean," he said hotly, "and if anyone else had charged me with cowardice I'd have beaten him to a jelly. I am not afraid of anything but myself. If you go forward so do I, let that be understood. I'll pit myself against you."
He snapped out the last words, as it were; there was a subtle meaning in them. He turned abruptly and walked away into the darkness.
Harold stood for some time ruminating on what his companion had said, and was exercised in his mind to determine whether it conveyed a threat, or was the boastful utterances of a man whose pride and feelings had been wounded. One sentence haunted Harold: "I am not afraid of anything but myself," Gordon had said. What did he mean by that?
Suddenly their meaning seemed to dawn upon Harold. His friend's health was failing, and he was obsessed with anxiety that his mind was subject to some sudden change calculated to deprive him of his self-control, and might even lead to tragedy. This deduction seemed to Harold the only possible one. It troubled him greatly, and while it took from him the anger that Gordon's taunts and manner had aroused, it made him restless to a degree that kept him awake for hours; rolled in his blanket in the open, he lay and gazed at the steel-blue stars, trying to determine what was the right thing to do under the circumstances. Presently the stars grew dim, dimmer and faded, hidden by a curtain of fleecy amorphous clouds that scudded like smoke over the face of the heavens. He fell asleep in a little while from sheer weariness, waking soon afterwards with a start as a roaring sound filled the air. He sprang to his feet. It was dawn, a pale lemon-coloured dawn with a clouded sky. "A brickfielder" was blowing; that is, a burning south-west wind that drove the sand before it like a wall. The camp was aroused, and the men had to envelop their heads in their blankets to prevent the dust from blinding and choking them.
Gordon kept to his tent all day, and Harold did not disturb him. This great dust-storm detained them prisoners where they were. Neither men nor horses could have faced it and lived. Not until the night drew on did the storm abate. It was a starless, melancholy night, impressive with a brooding silence as if Nature was intent on preparation for some further display of her majesty and power. But the morning broke sullen and calm; the atmosphere was opaque with, fine dust which had been carried to great heights and was now slowly floating down to the earth again. Before striking camp Harold was determined to try to come to a clear understanding with Gordon, who seemed to have intentionally avoided him during the last twenty-four hours. Still obsessed with that haunting fear that his companion was the victim of mental depression that might become serious if he remained in those solitudes, he again urged him to start back at once, and return to Gordonstown with all possible speed.
"And you; what are you going to do?" Gordon asked calmly.
"I am going on, as I have already told you. Although you have dubbed me stupid and an ass, I am not easily turned from a purpose. When I have once made up my mind to do a thing, I do it, even at the risk of my life."
He could hardly have been indifferent to the remarkable change that this little speech produced in his erstwhile friend. Gordon's pale face took on a deep flush of red, the result of some sudden emotion; and there was a gleam in his eyes, fraught with a fierce determination, even some obscure but terrible meaning, while the corners of his mouth relaxed as ii with a smile, but it was the workings of the muscles into an expression of supreme contempt. And when he spoke there was a frigidity in the tone of his voice which only too surely betrayed his feelings.
"Can you persuade yourself, Preston, even for a moment, that I am inferior to you in that respect. You have known me now for a good many years, and I don't think you can recall a single instance when I have shown less determination than you to accomplish a purpose. I've got a purpose to fulfil now, and I intend to fulfil it even at the risk of my life. Now let us understand each other once and for all. You are going on to the Ranges, so am I: we go on together unless you wish to split the camp up into two sections, in which case there would be a rivalry that might possibly become dangerous."
"I have no such wish, but I agree with you that we should understand each other, once and for all. If you are disposed to be quarrelsome and pragmatic, the sooner we; separate the better. I don't know why your friendship should have cooled—"
"Don't you!" this with a peculiar intonation that was significant.
"Perhaps I can give you a reason. There is an immanent something in each of us which struggles for mastery. I am intolerant of restraint, I have never been under the dominant influence of anyone—"
"But I don't want to dominate you."
"As a child," continued Gordon, without noticing the interruption, "I was wayward and self-willed. Even now that I am no longer a child those faults, I suppose you consider them faults, are stronger than ever, ingrained in fact, and nothing can eradicate them. Now so long as there is any rivalry between us there is bound to be friction."
"There is no rivalry," said Harold in amazement.
"Oh, yes, there is."
"Then I am not aware of it."
Gordon shrugged his shoulders.
"Then it exists in my imagination only," he said with biting irony.
"Surely it does," answered Preston, agape with an astonishment he could not conceal.
"Very well, let us leave it at that," said Gordon with another lifting of his shoulders. "But I would add that I am too individualistic to play second fiddle to anyone."
Again it occurred to Harold that his friend's peculiar state of mind was the result of some physical disturbance arising from the hardships: and climatic conditions they had been compelled to endure. Anyway, he had revealed a phase of his character which was new to Harold, who, out of his inherent altruism, he was disposed to disregard, or at least to attach no serious import to it. This mental attitude displayed itself in a laugh of real sincerity, and he said with kindly intonation:
"Well, old fellow, we'll cease our rivalries if they really exist. I prefer friendship to enmity, peace to war."
"That's all right," said Gordon without the slightest indication that he was touched or impressed.
Once more the little party were on the move, and they struck out over the hummocky plain towards the alluring Ranges, which were now hidden from view by the dust haze and the clouds that hung low, presaging rain, which in a few hours began to fall. That night the camp was pitched beside a water hole near a clump of spinifex bushes.
Next morning the rain had ceased. It had washed the air, the clouds were dispersing, the sun asserted itself again, and the Ranges slowly emerged like a mirage floating in dreamy splendour on a sapphire sea.
Two days more travelling brought them to a vast, rolling, boulder-strewn plain, through which streamlets meandered, and lush grass afforded good feed for the horses. This was the beginning of the foothills among which they soon found, themselves. The air was salubrious and bracing, and the pleasant gurgling of flowing water was like a blessed dispensation to the wearied animals and men, whose powers of endurance had been taxed to the utmost by the aridity of the wastes through which they had been travelling.
Australia is a land of violent contrasts: its vastness, variety of climate, sterility, and fecundity give to it a character entirely its own. The solitude of this richly clothed and well-watered region in which the little party now found themselves impressed Harold deeply. The potentialities of this part of the country were too apparent to be overlooked, and in fancy he saw the time, surely not far distant, when the mountainous region would resound with human activities, and civilisation and commercialism would turn its latent riches to account. The axe would ring, sawmills would buzz, villages and towns would spring up, whilst the passions, jealousies, and wickedness of men would produce discord where all was now peace and purity.
Up to this point the expedition had been alone in the wilderness, and no trace of the aborigines had been seen. It was known that the blacks gave the thirst lands a wide berth, but in the fertile hills where game abounded they wandered in savage freedom, lords of all they surveyed, as they had wandered for untold ages. Their resentment of the white man's intrusion had led to deadly encounters. The possibility of being harassed by natives was one that could not be overlooked, and the necessity of care and vigilance forced itself upon all of them.
As the little band pushed its way through the scrub and ravines, a sharp look out was kept, and at night each man took it in turns to act as sentry, but not a trace of a black man was seen. For several days the party travelled with difficulty through this hilly country, which was particularly trying to the horses, although they were able to obtain good food and water. One evening, after having overcome many obstacles, they rounded the base of a high hill covered with mallee and tea-tree scrub, and suddenly found themselves in what can only, be described as a delightful green glade, shut in by precipitous rocks and rugged hills. A stream of water flowed through the glade, arid there were indications that game abounded. That night the camp was pitched beside the stream, and in the lingering twilight Gordon went off with his gun, returning in about an hour with three ducks, a pigeon, and a wild goose, which made an excellent supper for men who had been living on scant supplies of food for weeks. Here Nature seemed to have provided a wealth of everything water, game, grass, wood. It was an oasis in a desert land.
The following morning, as the sun was rising, flinging out an affluence of light and warmth, Gordon took Preston on one side, saying that he had a suggestion to make. He looked pale and haggard. His usually bright eyes were dim and bloodshot.
"You suggested some days ago," he began, "that I was afraid, a coward—"
"No, I didn't go quite to that length."
"Don't interrupt. Listen to what I've got to say. I am going to put your courage to the test now. We are apparently within measurable distance of our goal, but whether success or failure is to be our lot it is impossible to say. Your oversight in not bringing Blewitt's map and written particulars has reduced us to the position of men groping in the dark."
Harold made a gesture as if about to speak, but checked himself.
"With nothing to guide us, we've got to use such intelligence and instincts as we possess to locate the gold," continued Gordon. "We are prospectors without any experience, and I am not at all sanguine that we shall reap any reward for all that we have endured. Now what I suggest is this: we leave our men here where they can exist in comfort for a time and recoup for the homeward journey, while you and I, with two horses, push out into the mountains. At any rate something has got to be accomplished before we turn back. I am not going back without fulfilling my purpose."
Gordon's appearance was that of a man who was suffering, who was ill. The other members of the party had preserved their health fairly well. Little touches of fever had been cured with quinine, and nothing had occurred to cause the least alarm. Harold himself had remained remarkably fit. Gordon was the only one of the party who seemed to be on the verge of breakdown, and somewhat alarmed by his pallor and seeming weakness, Harold said:
"No, I don't agree with your proposal. It seems to me—"
Gordon did not give him time to finish the sentence, but bursting into a mocking laugh, he exclaimed in a bitter, taunting manner:
"Ah, you are the coward; you are afraid."
Harold was stung by the taunt. His opposition to the proposal had been prompted by a kindly consideration for his friend, and this reflection on his courage wounded him. He had endured Gordon's reproaches and ill humour to the limit of his patience, and he now realised that the moment had arrived for him to assert himself. He could no longer remain passive under these repeated insults. It seemed to him only too evident that if absolute failure was to be the end of the expedition, and that was the prospect staring them in the face, Gordon would put all the blame upon him, and reconciliation would be difficult; indeed it would probably lead to lasting enmity on Gordon's part, for he was of an unforgiving nature when his pride had been wounded. He had often given evidence of that in the past.
Without displaying any trace of temper or ill feeling, but with a determined air he said:
"Your charge of cowardice, Oliver, is unjust. I was thinking of you—"
"Your sympathy is offensive. I don't want it."
"That settles it. You need not say anything more. We'll go, even if death awaits us."
"Even if death awaits us," repeated Gordon with a strange look in his eyes.
"In a deep ravine walled by rugged heights,
Through the toiling days and the restless nights
I felt, 'neath the spell of that gloomy place,
That a change had come o'er my comrade's face."
IN the course of the day Harold informed the men of the proposal. Pete Radley raised some objection, saying that he did not consider it right two men should take the risks of going into the mountains by themselves. Gordon remained silent. Harold overruled the objection, and determined that the men should remain where they were for six weeks, taking every precaution to guard against possible attacks from wandering natives. If at the end of the six weeks he and Gordon had not returned, a cache was to be made of some of the provisions, the place where they were concealed being indicated by a stone column; the camp was then to be broken up, and the men were to return home as rapidly as possible.
The following morning, as soon as day had broken and breakfast had been partaken of, Preston and Gordon bade good-bye to their comrades, and leading two horses, endeavoured to find a route through the tangle of foothills. Their outfit was as ample as the resources of the remaining supplies allowed. They were well furnished with arms and ammunition, mining tools, and a small bag of oatmeal, a bag of flour, some tinned foods, and about twenty pounds of bacon.
As they proceeded farther towards the mountains the difficulties of finding a route increased: huge rocks and inaccessible ridges barred their progress. There was a marked coldness between the two men, though Gordon was responsible for it. He had become sullen, gloomy, taciturn, and once again he reproached his companion for having forgotten the map, and with cowardice, when in view of the difficulties they had to encounter, Harold hinted at the wisdom of returning. From that moment Harold mentally resolved that no suggestion of going back should pass his lips whatever happened. His bushcraft, which was much superior to Gordon's, stood them in good stead now, and he displayed a skill and instinct in picking out a route which at last brought them to a spot from which they obtained a view of the Ranges, and forbidding enough they looked. Dark ravines, knife-like ridges, rocky spurs clothed with patches of forest, and repelling precipices were the chief features of a scene of primitive savagery and utter desolation. Outlined against the blue of the sky, they presented a mass of splintered and shattered aiguilles and tortured pinnacles. Under the ever-shifting lights that played over them, their appearance constantly changed, sometimes they were bright with splashes of colour, at others it seemed as if they were wrapped in a funeral pall.
Harold remembered that in his description of the gully where he had discovered the gold, Blewitt said it was almost due south from a landslip that shot out at right angles from the base of the highest peak. This landslip when viewed from certain points had the appearance of a gigantic squatting camel, a rising projection at the extreme point of the ridge forming the head and neck. About ten miles in a southerly line from that natural phenomenon the gold gully ran back into the heart of the mountain, from which a cascade fell and formed a stream through the gully, the bed of the stream yielding quantities of scale gold.
The explorers searched the Range for this camel-like resemblance, but failed to locate it. On the upward slopes the forests were so thick that they had to cut a path, and often found themselves beset by the cruel "lawyer vine" (appropriately named) with its hook-spike leaves, and the "stinging tree" with its poison leaves that blistered the flesh if they came in contact with the hands or face. More agreeable than these were the sassafras trees, masses of fragrant underwood, and a vast variety of flowering shrubs. It was a wonderful panorama when viewed as a whole, with an ever-changing aspect owing to the differing altitudes of the sun, the shifting clouds, the density or transparency of the atmosphere.
The two desperate men who were fighting every inch of their way to the base of these grim mountains had no eye for the beauty, grandeur, and sublimity of the scene. Gordon only spoke when he was compelled to, and neither of them suggested retreat. They both seemed determined to conquer or perish. After many days of heart-breaking and exhausting work they came one afternoon, after climbing for hours, dragging their unwilling horses after them, to the entrance into a deep gully through which a stream flowed, fed, as could be seen, by a foaming cascade which came over a precipice by which the gully was closed at its farthest end. The gully was hemmed, in by precipitous walls rising abruptly, and densely clothed with scrub and trees. "Is this Blewitt's gully?" each man mentally asked himself.
On one side and easily reached by a long slope was an immense flat plateau of rock overhanging the stream. They gained this with a sense of relief, and resolved to camp there and try their luck. Harold felt ill and miserable, and his face had become ghastly pale, but he did not complain. From the plateau extending into the mountain buttress was a cavern, the entrance partly curtained by lianas, wild convolvulus, and fern fronds of enormous size. This cave suggested comfortable shelter, and Harold entered to explore, but quickly beat a retreat as he found the place was the home of an immense number of black snakes, a deadly species which are fond of moist places. In order to dislodge these unpleasant neighbours a quantity of brushwood and sticks were set on fire, and burning brands were flung into the cavern, while Gordon and Harold stood with spades in their hands, and as the reptiles scurried out they battered them with the spades and flung their bodies into the ravine. Finally, to thoroughly exterminate the snakes, they lighted a huge fire of a peculiar brushwood, including savine, in the cavern itself. This wood when burning gave off pungent and acrid fumes which filled every recess of the cavern. Not until the next morning when the fire had burnt itself out did the men venture to explore the cave. It was high, but of no great depth. With branches of tree they swept it clean, and then gathered fern leaves and scrub on which to sleep. The horses were hobbled and turned adrift in a well-grassed cuplike depression at the foot of the ravine, and preparations were made for a stay of some days. Harold felt weak and languid. His skin was hot, his face flushed, his eyes bloodshot, his lips cracked, and he suffered from, insatiable thirst.
He knew now that he had been seized with fever that would certainly prostrate him for a time, even if it did not kill him, but he resolved to fight against it with all his strength and will-power. He made no complaint, and though Gordon saw that his companion was ill, he displayed no sympathy. They had brought a few simple medicines with them, including quinine, as well as a supply of brandy; Harold proceeded to doctor himself as best he could, and all that day rested whilst Gordon went out with his gun, returning towards the evening with some birds and a couple of rock wallabies, which furnished an ample supper.
The following day the sick man felt slightly better, and after breakfast he carried some tools down to the bottom of the ravine, and selecting a likely spot, began to pan the dirt from the stream, seeking for gold, whilst Gordon undertook to prospect for quartz. Harold was rewarded by some specks of gold in his tin dish, and thinking he might obtain better results lower down the stream where fallen rocks formed a natural dam, he shifted his position; stooping on the bank of the stream he began to fill his dish with sand when suddenly he was startled by the report of a gun, heard the whish of a bullet close to his ear, and saw it strike and embed itself in the trunk of a hardwood tree, growing on the other side of the ravine. He dropped his dish, sprang to his feet, swung round, and beheld Gordon holding in his right hand the double-barrelled pistol he had shown to his friend in Gordonstown; a little film of blue smoke was still issuing from the muzzle of the weapon.
"My God!" exclaimed Gordon, "what a clumsy fool I am. I fired at a rock wallaby and nearly hit you." His face was deadly pale, there was a look of fierce intentness in his eyes.
For some moments Harold stood motionless. The agony of his mind was torturing. Was it possible, he thought, that his friend intended to murder him? He had a revolver in a leather case attached to the belt around his waist. He unbuttoned the flap of the case, laid his hand on the butt of the revolver, approached Gordon, and looking him full in the eyes, he said with a deadly menace in his tone:
"Oliver, you lie. There was no rock wallaby there."
"I give you the lie back," retorted Gordon passionately.
"It is unusual to fire at a rock wallaby with a bullet."
"That's true," snapped Gordon, "but I saw the animal on a rock on the other side of the gully, and impulsively fired. I am sorry. I admit my clumsiness. I am ashamed of my markmanship."
Harold was sick with doubt. Gordon's manner puzzled him. His unflinching gaze and immobile face told him nothing. The two men stood facing each other for some moments. They were alone in the solitude, far removed from civilisation. It was man to man. If it meant a quarrel and fight to the death, there was only the eye of God to witness. The savagery of Nature was around them, one thing preyed upon another, but for the first time since these solemn and eternal mountains took shape and form civilised men desecrated them with a display of the envy and jealousy inherent in every human heart.
Instinctively Harold still kept his hand on the butt of his revolver. Suddenly he withdrew his hand, folded his arms on his breast, and in a strangely calm voice said, as he fixed a piercing gaze on the other man's face:
"Oliver, I am neither a coward nor a fool, although you have accused me of being both. If you are desirous of killing me you shall have a chance of doing so, but you shall pit your life against mine. We are alone in these fastnesses. If you have a grievance against me, and we cannot settle it amicably, get your revolver and face me like a man. It shall be a duel to the death."
Gordon wilted. His face was ashen grey, his lips dry and parched; his voice was rasping and husky when he spoke. Throwing the pistol with which he had fired, at Harold's feet, he said: "You insinuated that I tried to murder you in cold blood. If you really believe that was my intention, you have a very real grievance. I am now unarmed. Pick up that pistol. One barrel is still loaded. Send the bullet from that barrel through my brain and consummate your hatred."
"Hatred!" gasped Harold.
"I don't hate you, Oliver."
"If you believe that I tried to kill you, you cannot love me."
"My God, Oliver," exclaimed Harold, pressing his hand to his burning forehead, "what am I to think?"
"What you will."
Harold covered his face with his hands and sobbed. Gordon stood immovable, though the muscles under his eyes twitched, and there was a strange light in his eyes. Harold's whole being was stirred to its profoundest depths by a flood of emotion that shook him as with an ague. It was so hard for him to think evil of the man for whom he had entertained such a devoted friendship. To doubt was torture. He felt as if he would rather die than do him a wrong. It was horrible to believe that he had fired that shot with murderous intention, and yet—
Harold Preston's fine nature was stabbed and torn with these conflicting thoughts, for while he doubted one moment, the next he felt that he was doing his companion a damnable wrong. At last with an irresistible impulse he flung out his hand, his voice pulsed with emotion.
"Give me your hand," he said. "I will, I, must believe you. You surely would not murder me in cold blood."
Gordon took the hand; his own was cold and nerveless; there was a grim expression on his face. He was about to speak, but the words that trembled on his dried lips remained unuttered, for Harold reeled, fell against him, nearly knocking him off his feet, and sank inertly to the ground.
"And the gorges hid from the light of God
Where the foot of a white man had never trod."
IN a gorge of savage grandeur within a few miles of the ravine where that dramatic scene had taken place, a lonely man was at work hewing the rock with a pick. There was no vivid verdure, no softness of light and shade, no splendour of tropical vegetation. Cliffs with rugose faces rose up perpendicularly to great heights, keeping the gorge in a perpetual state of gloom. It seemed as if some strange freak of Nature had wrinkled these gigantic cliffs until they resembled the lines on a human forehead. This great gap in the heart of the mountains had been scooped out by titanic agency at some far-off period, and the sun had been forbidden ever to shine there. It was closed by a piled-up mass of rocks that were shattered and riven in a most extraordinary manner. Their summits, brought into relief against the sky, presented a pectinated appearance, as if a giant hand had cut out gaps, leaving a huge row of teeth. Through some of these gaps water flowed, and was blown by the wind into filmy spray until from base to summit the rocks glistened. The drippings from these streams formed a deep, dark, mysterious-looking pool at the base of the cliffs, and its overflow tore down the gorge with hoarse murmurings, flung itself over a wall of rock, and was lost in a sandy belt a hundred feet below.
The whole place was repellent with an almost infernal grimness. It seemed like a haunt of witches or evil spirits, as perhaps it was. Anyway, it was not difficult to imagine it one of Nature's hiding-places where she had buried secrets. The lonely man evidently thought this, for he worked feverishly with his pickaxe, as if determined to lay bare the secrets to the light of day. Probably he was the first man who had ever set foot in that awful gorge since the mountains were called into being. As slabs of rock yielded to the blows of his pick and fell with a crash, he examined them with blazing, hungering eyes, but nothing rewarded his search. Suddenly, as if with an outburst of impetuous anger, he snatched up his tools and strode fiercely higher up the gorge. He critically inspected the rocks, and presently began to drive a hole by means of a small pointed crowbar and a heavy hammer, which he took from a canvas bag he had carried with him. Occasionally he poured water from a tin billy into the hole, and worked with such feverish energy that the perspiration dripped from his face in heavy beads. There was a certain fierce, defiant audacity in the act of that lonely human atom tapping a tiny hole in those stupendous rocks with a view to compelling Nature to disclose if she had stored there the yellow dross, for the possession of which men will cheat, lie, and kill, and women will sell their bodies and souls.
At last, when he had sunk the hole deep enough, he wiped it out, filled it with gunpowder, put the end of about six yards of fuse into it, tamped the mouth of the hole with dead rushes and mud, then stretching out the fuse cord to its full length, he struck a match and applied it to the free end of the fuse, and ran back for some distance.
There was a pause, it seemed to the waiting man like an age. His heart beat fast, he mopped the perspiration from his brow. Suddenly a flame of fire flashed up; a dense, white pillar of smoke rolled away, and the gorge resounded with a massive thud that swelled like a thunderous peal of a monster organ, broke up into a multiplicity of roars, with distinct diminuendo and crescendo notes. These in turn died down to a sudden moan, then suddenly swelled again to a vast volume of reverberating sound that was flung back from rock face to rock face, from crag to crag, pinnacle to pinnacle. It was as if Titans who had been sleeping for aeons had awakened and were shaking the solid walls with howls of rage, which gradually diminished, and finally died away like the growlings of far-off thunder. At the first outburst several large hawks, who had made their homes among the crags and peaks, sprang into the blue ether with shrill cries, as if they were uttering maledictions on the disturbers of their peace. Never before had the sleeping echoes of that dread gorge been suddenly awakened to life in such a manner. So startling were these echoes that the man stood for some minutes as if the awful sounds—sounds suggestive of a world being riven to ruins—had deprived him of all power to move.
At last he stirred, made his way to the shattered rock, and examined the debris with eager eyes, going down on to his knees and turning pieces of stone over with his hands. But his search was fruitless. The rock was silica, but showed no trace of gold. The man rose with an imprecation on his lips: he was bitterly disappointed. He gathered his tools together with a fierce anger, thrust them into the bag, swung the bag over his shoulder, and reflecting the gloom of the place in his haggard face, he made his way out of that awful gorge with a weary, uncertain gait.
Within the cavern on the plateau, on a bed of leaves and ferns on which a blanket was spread, Harold Preston tossed and rolled in the throes of a deadly fever. His face burned with a hectic flush, his eyes were glassy, his hair was wet with moisture. He was wrestling with death, lonely and desolate. Then there came to him Oliver Gordon, the man who had been working in the sunless gorge. He flung his canvas bag of tools down with a muttered curse. His hair was unkempt, his face pallid and pinched, his clothes ragged and muddy. He seated himself on an upturned empty box in the entrance of the cavern, rested his elbows on his knees, his face in his hands. Harold turned his sunken eyes to him, and said, feebly:
"Well, have you found anything?"
"Not a damned speck."
There was a long silence. Gordon still sat and nursed his wrath.
The sun was setting, flinging back from the West a flood of pale, chrome-coloured light that filled the ravine and illuminated the cavern, bringing into startling relief the fever-stricken man tossing on his couch of leaves, his eyes like glowing coals, and his companion sunk in the depths of despondency.
Presently Preston stirred and tossed out his hand with a gesture of despair.
"My God this is awful," he groaned.
"Awful!" echoed Gordon with a hollow laugh, the laugh of a man whose heart is full of bitterness. "It's tragedy."
"Yes, tragic in its horror and misery; but we must endure and suffer in patience."
"Endure and suffer in patience!" Gordon raised his head up with a movement of passion; the expression in his eyes denoted the exasperation that stirred his pulses. "Why should I endure and suffer?" He laid a strong emphasis on the personal pronoun.
"It is a man's duty to endure and suffer with patience when disaster overtakes him," said Harold. "We came into this business with open eyes; we took our fate in our hands when we dared the wilderness."
"I didn't," snapped Oliver fiercely. "I think I was mad, blind. You lured me into it."
"Why put all the blame on me?" Harold asked pathetically.
"Why! Who else is to blame? Had you not been idiot enough to leave that chart behind things might not have been as bad as they are."
"Have you no sympathy for me?" asked Harold in a feeble, broken voice. His weakness was extreme.
"Why should I have sympathy?"
"Then your friendship has been make-believe?" said the invalid, fixing his burning eyes on the other man's tortured face.
Gordon sprang up, kicked the box away savagely, and stood over the prostrate man menacingly.
"We won't quarrel now," he said hoarsely. "I am going to have another try to locate the gold. If I fail, well—"
He broke off abruptly, snatched up a tin can, went down to the stream, filled it with water, and returning, placed it on the hot ashes of the fire. He then cut some pemmican into small pieces, and putting them into the water, made a soup which he divided between himself and his companion. This soup, together with some hard biscuits, constituted the supper. The sick man drank the soup eagerly, but could not eat the biscuits.
"Will you have a pipe?" Gordon asked with a surly gruffness.
"No. I am off my smoke."
"I should say you are off everything."
Harold looked at the other reproachfully. The harsh, unsympathetic manner of Gordon stabbed him like a knife, but he remained silent. His wretchedness was extreme, and he wondered what the end was going to be. The night deepened, the stars came out, and a chill wind blew over the mountains, stirring the foliage in the ravine to plaintive murmurings. Gordon replenished the fire, placed the box near it, filled his pipe, and sat smoking in moody silence. Harold tossed uneasily on his bed of leaves. The fever was running high. There was a hectic flush on his drawn face, and a fierce gleam in his eyes; he threw his arms about and rolled his head from side to side. The firelight fell on Gordon and transfigured him. He looked like an evil genius gloating over the misery of the sick man. He watched him with A strange, compassionless expression.
"For God's sake give me a big dose of quinine, Oliver," murmured Harold.
Gordon rose sulkily, and went to the little case in which a few drugs remained. There were only a few doses of quinine left. He mixed some with a tea-spoonful of brandy from a flask, added water, and handed it to Harold, whose hands shook like aspen leaves, and he had a difficulty in conveying the tin pannikin to his bloated, parched lips. He tossed the fluid down his throat, let the pannikin fall, and with his teeth chattering, lay back and groaned.
"The fever's got a deadly hold of you," said Gordon in a cold, rasping voice. He seemed to be utterly pitiless.
"Yes. It's no use shutting one's eyes to facts. You're doomed."
There was a repellent brutality in the way Gordon spoke. His expression was hard and stern. Harold made no reply, but his thoughts were bitter, and with his glassy eyes he watched his erstwhile friend's face, and wondered if his brain had really given way.
Presently Gordon rose, knocked the ashes from his pipe, replenished the fire, and going farther into the cavern, rolled himself in his blanket, and lay down on his bed of leaves.
The silence and mystery of the night held the ravine. The stars watched over the earth, as they had watched since the world began, long before men with their passions and hate had defiled it. The stream flowed hoarsely over the boulders, speaking with the voice of ages from the heart of the eternal mountains; the voice of the infinite into which the human atoms were caught up and forgotten when they had lived their little day and turned to dust.
THE morning broke dull and threatening. The wind had changed in the night. The mountains were enwrapped in a gossamer veil of mist; a cold damp wind sobbed through the ravine.
Gordon rose, went down to the stream and washed himself, collected a quantity of reserve fuel for the fire, made a mess of meal and pemmican stewed in the billy, and placed some of it in a tin dish by Harold's side, but he allowed it to remain untouched. Death seemed to have set its seal upon him. His face was like wet chalk; his eyes had sunk, his features were drawn and pinched. Gordon stood for some moments gazing intently at this human wreck. He addressed some remark to him, but received no answer. He loaded his gun, strapped his revolver to his belt, threw his bag of tools over his shoulder, and was about to depart, when he was arrested by the sick man's voice, a voice that sounded uncanny and hollow as if it came from a depth.
"You are going?" he said.
The muscles of Gordon's face moved convulsively as one's muscles move under some sudden shock or surprise.
"Yes...This is the last day!"
"The last day!"
Without another word Gordon went off, and the stones rolled from beneath his feet as he strode down the rugged slope.
Harold lay for a long time motionless; he seemed to be dead. The wind rose, and came down the ravine in hoarse, reverberating gusts that shook the trees and shrubs until they wailed, as if they were being tortured. Heavy raindrops began to fall, then lightning blazed through the low-lying clouds, and in a few moments was followed by a deafening crash of thunder that seemed to shake and rend the mountains. The sick man moved and repeated Gordon's words:
"The last day!"
They had sunk into his brain, and the raging storm seemed to impart a startling significance to them. Suddenly, as if impelled by a galvanic shock, he half sprang up, clutched the tin dish containing the now cold porridge, and forced some of it down his throat. The effort exhausted him; he fell back again and remained still.
The rain fell in torrents, the roar of waters mingled with the heavy splitting crash of the thunder, and the scream of the tortured trees as the fierce wind twisted and bent them as if determined to tear them up by the roots. An unusually vivid flash of lightning struck an overhanging pinnacle of rock in the upper part of the ravine, and it fell into the depths with multisonous crashings that startled into life every latent echo of the ravine with an effect that was unearthly and awful. For some minutes the noise was deafening, and above the niagara of sound that rose from the earth beneath, the artillery of the heavens above burst into horrisonous salvos, suggestive of the very firmament having been rent in twain. The tumult of the warring elements was as if a grand prelude was taking place by way of introduction to the sounding of the last trumpet to summon the quick and the dead to the judgment seat of God.
Harold Preston turned his head feebly on one side, muttering as a dreamer mutters in his sleep:
"The last day."
Nature, having let loose her stupendous forces, began gradually to subdue the strife. The lightning flashed at longer intervals and with less vividness, the thunder rumbled afar off, the heavy clouds broke up, the rain ceased, a curtain of mist rose up from the drenched and battered earth, the ravine seemed full of weeping as the wind died down to a sigh, and the trembling trees shook the water from their leaves like tears.
The sick man with an effort rose on his elbow, and stared about him with ghastly, sunken eyes. Then with another effort he managed to get on to his knees. He swayed about like a drunken man, He crawled with difficulty to where the little medicine chest stood. His brain was evidently alert, though his shrunken body had but a remnant of strength. He seized the quinine bottle and a glass, mixed an unusually large dose of the drug with brandy and water, and slowly swallowed it. It brought a slight flush to his pallid face, some light to his eyes, and a slight accession of strength enabled him to crawl back to his bed.
As the day waned to its close shafts of fire from the sinking sun pierced the misty atmosphere, and set it glowing with a rosy tint. Before the darkness descended Gordon returned; he was drenched to the skin. As he entered Harold moved and gazed at him. Gordon visibly started. He expected to have found a corpse, but Harold's powerful constitution and strong vitality had so far kept Death at bay.
"Well?" said Harold.
"Nothing," growled Gordon, as he piled fuel on the still glowing ashes and commenced to strip off his wet clothes and replace them with dry ones from a bundle he had used for a pillow. Nothing more was said between the two men until Gordon had prepared food and given the invalid a share. Harold forced himself to eat, though he had no appetite. When the meal was finished Gordon, contrary to his habit, did not light his pipe, but seated himself on the box, and the glow from the fire brought his haggard, drawn face into strong relief. He remained absorbed in profound meditation for some time, then suddenly broke into speech.
Harold had been lying motionless with his eyes closed. He might have been dead save for a nervous quivering of the eyelids.
"Are you awake?" Gordon asked sharply.
"I told you this morning that this was the last day. To-morrow at daybreak I am going."
"You mean you are going to leave me?"
"Yes." The monosyllable was jerked out with a decisive snap.
Harold made a convulsive movement with his hands, and pressed his temples with his fingers.
"You have but a few hours to live. Death has got you in his grip. I could not save you even if I had any desire to do so, but I haven't, and I do not intend to risk my own life by remaining here another day. This mad expedition has been a ghastly failure, and you are to blame. Had we found the gold we came in search of I should not have hated you less than I do, but I might not have desired your death. As it is now—"
"Hated me!" Harold moaned.
"Hated you, that is what I said. For years you have been a shadow on my life, and you came between rue and the woman who should have been mine. You, with your sentiments and your dreams, were too stupid to see that you had made a deadly enemy of me. I would have dared hell itself to have defeated you in everything, even the smallest thing, and I swore that though Mary Gordon might never be mine, she should never be yours. When you proposed this expedition to me I understood that a strange chance had given me the opportunity I had long craved. On the day we started I mentally determined that you should never come back alive. The farther we penetrated into the wilderness the stronger my hate grew, and when I found myself alone with you in this solitude I felt that my opportunity had come, and so I tried to kill you some days ago, but you moved at the moment I fared and I missed you."
'Harold dropped his hands from his temples, jerked himself into a sitting position, and with blazing eyes cried in a voice that seemed to come from a throat that was being tightly compressed:
"You coward—you—damned traitor—"
The spasmodic effort took from him all his strength, and he fell back struggling to breathe.
Gordon sat apparently unmoved. His brow was puckered into a deep frown, his eyes shone like those of some blood-thirsty animal about to spring upon its prey. The sick man's arms twitched and jerked, his hands opened and shut convulsively, his closed eyelids trembled, he breathed stertorously, and in a little while lay motionless. The clouds, which had been slowly drifting away, unveiled the face of the moon, and a flood of pale, ghostly light filled the cavern, and turned the face of Harold Preston to marble. Gordon kept his eyes fixed for some time on that marble white face, then he knelt on one knee, and placed his fingers on Harold's wrist. He pulled the blanket over the face, rose to his feet, and began to collect his things together. He took nothing but what he could carry in his arms or on his back, and when all was ready he cast a furtive glance at the stilled figure outlined under the blanket, went out into the moonlight, and made his way cautiously down the slope to the gap in the cliff where the horses had been stabled. One of the two they had brought with them had been ailing for some days, and had gone very lame. He took off the hobbles, released it from the head stall which had tethered it to a post driven into the ground, and turned it adrift. The other animal he saddled, strapped his swag in front of him, and rode away in the moonlight towards the camp which was about sixty miles away.
The moon waned, and there were some hours of darkness and silence ere the rising sun pierced the eastern sky with spears of golden fire, and the western stars paled and faded before its glory. Nature, affrighted by the war of the elements on the preceding night, had recovered, and was now smiling through her tears like a radiant bride; and as the God of day slowly emerged above the horizon, the voices of thousands of living things, that had been hushed to silence by the darkness of the night, broke out in a choral symphony of praise. From the moist earth rose a thin, translucent vapour that gleamed like a topaz in the sun's rays. The devastating forces of Nature that had been let loose a few hours ago were chained, and the ravine was bathed in a vivid light until it was like a dream-picture of heavenly beauty; a beauty that wings the soul and points her to the skies.
The light penetrated into the cavern and brought into relief the stilled form that was outlined beneath the blanket. Presently there was a movement, the blanket was drawn down, and a face was exposed that was like the face of a corpse upon which labefaction had already begun its work. Then a thin arm was stretched out, and an almost transparent hand was passed over the white forehead. The brain was beginning to work slowly; coherent thought was shaping things, and memory was trying to place in their proper sequence a number of scattered ideas. In a little while Harold Preston turned on one side and supported himself on his elbow. His eyes, which had the glassy, expressionless appearance of a dead fish, wandered to Gordon's sleeping place, and saw that it was empty. His gaze remained fixed for some time; the dazed brain could not quite grasp the situation, until the man's whole body was convulsed with a sudden awakening to the awful truth. He was deserted, left there to face death in utter loneliness, utter desolation. It was appalling; but in that moment, when the full realisation of the treachery of the man he had once regarded as his friend, came to him, he seemed to be transfigured; something fell away from him, his heart throbbed with a fierce hatred that was reflected in his white face, and it became devilish in its expression, an expression only half human.
"He tried to kill me," he gasped, "and now he has left me broken and ill to die here alone...alone!...To die die." He sprang up with a mighty effort of will. "No, I will not die until I have killed this damnable man as he would have killed me. Hear me, O God! No—there is no God, or He would never have allowed this accursed man to have triumphed. I will face the tortures of hell a thousand times rather than let this human devil escape." There was now an awful light in his eyes, the light of a fierce, consuming hatred. His dreams were over; his altruism was dead, and every minute of the life that might remain to him he would dedicate to revenge, vengeance on the dastardly coward who had betrayed him.
Overcome by the outburst of passion, he leaned against the rock wall and panted. The horror of the situation he had to face sank into insignificance, compared with the horror of dying before he had overtaken the traitor and slain him. That done he would be willing to die, but not before—not before. Some great purpose set his heart beating strong once more, and sent the fevered blood coursing through his veins again, bringing a transient flush to his corpse-like face, and a fierce light of deadly hate in his eyes.
He drew himself up to his full height with a supreme effort. He staggered out of the cavern and down the slope, like a man drunk. The will for the time being triumphed over the body. He was defying Death, and it was as if Death had stepped aside for a moment in amazement at the sight of this fever-stricken man worn almost to a skeleton, daring to wrench himself free from his ice-cold grip.
He reached the bottom of the ravine, and falling upon his hands and knees amongst the grass that fringed the side of the stream, his blazing eyes searched the ground. A cry burst from his parched lips, as his groping hand struck something; it was the double-barrelled pistol Gordon had used when he made the attempt on his life, and had subsequently thrown at his feet, and it had remained on the spot where it fell ever since the exciting incident. It was wet and rusty; he snatched it up with a frantic eagerness, pressed it to his lips as if it were something precious, whilst a strange expression, half grin, half a maniacal laugh, contorted his haggard face. With trembling hand he thrust the weapon into his belt, rose with difficulty to his feet, staggered across the stream, and gained the tree in the trunk of which the bullet intended for him had lodged. The bullet hole was plainly visible. With what seemed frenzied excitement he fumbled in his pocket, and produced a large bladed knife. He opened the blade, and with shaking hands, whilst his whole frame vibrated, he dug the bullet out of the tree. It was partially flattened, but no great skill would be required to adapt it to the barrel of the pistol. Between his set teeth and with his breath coming in gasps as if it were failing him, he muttered:
"Oliver Gordon, you coward and treacherous hound, this bullet you intended for me shall slay you I swear by God "; he threw up his hands heavenwards. "Hear this oath, God!" He paused, then with awful bitterness he almost screamed out the words: "No, there is no God. But by the powers of hell I swear this man shall die by my hand and this bullet."
In his fever-heated brain the idea prevailed that he could overtake Gordon in the wilderness and kill him. But he had used up the last remnant of his strength. Only a tremendous effort of will had sustained him up to this point. He had wrestled with death, and now that his purpose of recovering the pistol and the bullet was fulfilled, the flickering flame of life sank down again; every atom of colour faded from his face, which took on an ashen grey, the glassiness of his eyes returned, and with a great sob, as if his heart had burst in twain, he swayed on his feet, reeled, beat the air with his hands as if trying to ward off something, then fell forward with a crash, and lay prone and motionless on the ground.
"Are there hearts as bitter and dead as mine
Where the faces throng in the moving line—
Numb with the chill of a black despair
That no man guesses or wants to share?
Unto each man once shall the gage be thrown:
He must fight the fight with his soul alone."
IT was harvest time in Glenbar, and not for years had there been such an abundance of the fruits of the earth. Nearly ten months had passed since the great drought broke up, and during those busy months there had been an almost miraculous recovery, though it was no miracle for a recuperative country like Australia. Nature has many moods there, and in all of them she is thorough. When she smiles her prodigality is astounding, and she smiles more often than she frowns, though even her frowns can be endured with a full-hearted optimism, as soon as her fickleness has passed, she will shower out her favours lavishly. In the Golden Land of the Southern Seas God seems to have set His special mark, and there Nature will take to her bosom those who have eyes to see, hearts to feel, and teach them to understand the joy of living and the beauty of the world.
There was joy in Glenbar, for flocks and herds roamed the land, and it was many years since the crops had been so good. In the orchards the fruit trees bent beneath their burden of fruits. All day long in the golden sunlight men laboured eagerly to garner that which they had sown, and at night they slept the sweet sleep which, comes to those who have no care. In such a climate care is of man's own making.
Jim Dawkins had had a strenuous time, and when he surveyed the results of his labour he was justifiably proud, and longed for the return of the "Boss," that he might see how faithfully Jim had respected the confidence reposed in him. The ten months had glided by quickly on the Glenbar Run, and Dawkins had been so fully occupied with his manifold duties that he had scarcely realised the flight of time. But at last he began to wonder what had become of the expedition, and even to feel a little anxious. Since that day when Harold Preston had pressed the hand of his faithful henchman in a parting adieu no sign had come from the wilderness into which he and his companions had disappeared. It was true the journey to the Ranges was a long and trying one, but at the start it was thought that within six months at the most some of the party would return to report.
Mary Gordon was frequently at the Run. She was a great favourite with all there, and Jim Dawkins regarded her as being under his special care, and was beginning to feel something like affection for her. Her devotion had touched him. For a long time she had been hopeful and optimistic; but gradually her hopefulness gave place to anxiety which she could not conceal, try as she would. Jim Dawkins noticed it and shared it, though he too tried to conceal his own feelings. During the harvesting she and her aunt went up to Glenbar at Jim's request, to make a stay for a few weeks. She thought of the time when she might rule there as mistress, and was desirous of familiarising herself with the varying conditions which each season brought. Nor was she content to remain an idle spectator; she insisted on taking a hand in the dairy work, and of helping in the ingathering of the various fruits of the orchards as they came to maturity. Often and often she turned her eyes wistfully to the mysterious west, and yearned for some cheering message that would end the suspense and relieve the anxiety. When the west flamed with gold at the going down of the sun she tried to draw hopeful augury from it, but as day succeeded day and the silence remained unbroken, she was often conscious of a sinking sensation at the heart, that sensation which comes to us all when we fear that some loved one is in peril. Suspense taxes the fortitude of the strongest, and suspense began to tell upon Mary. She had many and many sleepless hours, hours when she was haunted by a presentiment of coming evil. She tried to free herself from it, but it would not be shaken off.
One night she and her aunt sat on the western veranda after supper. It was a night of transcendent beauty. A soft wind from the west stirred the trees to dreamy murmurings, and brought with it the delicate fragrance of new mown hay, and the subtle scent of the jasmine whose tendrils covered the front of the house. From the orchards came the musical piping of tree frogs, and from the earth arose the sibilant voices of myriads of night insects. A full moon rode in regal splendour in the heavens, with a train of attendant cirri that occasionally veiled her beauty, and then suddenly revealed it that men might look up and wonder. The land was full of strange shadows that came and went as if they were aerial spirits who had descended to earth to engage in revelry. Far away in the west was a deeper darkness, as if some great purple curtain had been drawn, shutting it off in a mysterious and eternal silence. The moonlight lay in patches like molten silver, adding a touch of mystic weirdness to the scene. The subdued voices of the things of the night only served to accentuate the silence of the vast spaces that stretched beyond the vision and up to the eternal stars. The night was impressive with a something indescribable, intangible, and yet awesome by reason of its intangibility. This something stirred the soul with a poetic melancholy, and turned the thoughts to littleness of human life, to the loved ones who had gone down into the dust, to the mysteries of eternity, and the wonder of creation.
Mary reclined in a cushioned chair, absorbed in meditation. Her eyes wandered across the landscape to the curtained west that had enfolded the man who held her heart, but which sent back no sign, no sound to tell her that all was well. The visionary loveliness of the night with its great silence and its mysteries depressed her, and she was moved by an emotion she could not account for; she felt as if she wanted to cry out, to weep and weep, why she knew not, unless it was that she was a prey to unwonted supersensitiveness, and a vague, shadowy premonition of tragedy unnerved her. She started up with a sense of relief, as though a spell had been broken and released her from some impending horror, when Jim Dawkins came on to the veranda and spoke to her.
"It's a grand night, miss, isn't it?"
Aunt Margaret, having supped well, had fallen asleep, and Jim's voice failed to arouse her.
"Oh, Jim, I'm so glad you have come," said Mary. "I was feeling quite lonely. Please get a chair and sit down."
Jim drew a chair near hers and seated himself.
"Do you mind my pipe, miss?"
"Oh, no. The smell of the tobacco will make me think I am really awake. I am afraid I have been dreaming waking dreams. I was feeling horribly lonely."
"Well, Miss Mary, it's a kind of night that's apt to make one a bit thoughtful."
"Yes, indeed. The silence is so impressive. It takes one's thoughts away from the busy, bustling parts of the world, and turns them to—"
She did not finish the sentence.
"To a world what's better than this," added Dawkins.
"I was going to say—to God."
"It's much the same thing, Miss Mary. Not but what this world is good enough. It's them that is in it what makes it bad."
Mary laughed, a little, short, plaintive laugh.
"We had better not begin to moralise, Jim, or we may get out of our depths."
There was a pause. Jim felt as if he had been reprimanded. Then unconsciously he struck a keynote that attuned itself to Mary's thoughts.
"I wonder, miss, when we shall see the boss."
"I wonder!" repeated Mary with a long-drawn sigh that trembled on the silence of the night and went up to the watching stars.
There was a pause. Then Jim spoke again.
"It's nigh on ten months now since they went away, and I sometimes think they haven't met with much luck."
"Why, Jim? What makes you think that?" A note of anxiety vibrated in Mary's voice.
"Well—you see, Miss Mary—if they'd found gold it strikes me the boss would have sent back word for more tools and stores. Two of the hands could have come back safe enough, I fancy."
There was something in Dawkins' tone and manner that was peculiarly suggestive, though perhaps he did not intend that it should be so. But his words filled Mary with new apprehensions. She shook with an involuntary shudder.
"Oh, yes!" she exclaimed with a lump in her throat. "Surely by this time they must have run out of provisions, unless—unless they have been able to obtain supplies there."
"I don't know where they'd get 'em," Dawkins said curtly.
"In that case then they must have been reduced to starvation," Mary answered quickly, half starting up and grasping the arms of the chair with nervous anxiety.
Jim understood now that he had alarmed her; he tried to calm her fears. He broke into a little laugh.
"We mustn't think that, Miss Mary," he said with a forced cheeriness. "They are all hardy chaps, and would make some shifts." His remark didn't carry conviction to his listener, nor was it satisfactory to himself. "Of course," he went on, "they wouldn't starve so lone as they had horse-flesh to live on."
"It don't do to be too particular, Miss Mary, when men are hungry.' And if horse-flesh ain't as good as bull-beef, it ain't a bad substitute. Then again, you see, if they were without the horses, they would be a longer time in getting back. Perhaps that's what's delayed them."
"Yes," assented Mary thoughtfully, "but—"
She stopped as if afraid to give expression to her thoughts.
"You mustn't worry yourself, Miss Mary."
"One can't help feeling a little anxious."
"I grant that; all the same if they had met with any misfortune some of 'em would have got back with the news by this time. There were seven of 'em, you know."
Mary was prevented finishing what she was going to say by the awakening of Margaret Bruce.
"Bless my life, I believe I've been t asleep," exclaimed Margaret.
It caused the others to laugh, and the strain was relieved.
"Your belief is quite justified, auntie," said Mary.
Aunt Margaret still felt drowsy, and suggested as the hour was late they should all retire, a suggestion that met with approval.
Mary was labouring under a fit of nervous depression that was quite unusual, and sleep seemed out of the question. She drew a chair to the window, opened the window, and gazed on the moonlit landscape; there was a glamour about it that brought strange fancies to her mind. The pools of silver lights, the moving shadows, the night wind sighing through the trees, the vast spaces over which the eye wandered, the far-off western horizon where the mystery of an impenetrable darkness brooded, and the solemn silence that held the earth suggested to her the aisle of some mighty cathedral in which unseen beings watched and mutely prayed, and angels waited to waft the prayers to the throne of God Himself. The tender beauty of it all thrilled to the depths of Mary's soul, and folding her hands in an attitude of prayer, her eyes wandered to the ethereal vastness where the stars themselves seemed to be absorbed in prayer; she invoked the blessings and care of God for her absent lover, and there went up a wordless cry from her heart: "Lord, in Thy mercy let him return unto me, let him return, O Lord."
The warm perfumed wind of the night stirred her hair, and fanned her face on which the silver sheen of the moon played and filled her eyes with a glory of light, until she seemed spiritualised with a beauty that was not of earth but heaven. Then she succumbed to the soothing influences that worked upon her like a spell, and leaning back on the cushions of the chair, with her splendid hair falling loosely about her like a veil, she slept.
The moon lay low on the horizon, the shadows lengthened, the pools of silver light vanished, the tree frogs ceased to pipe, and a silence that was as the silence of the tomb held the land. It was the dark hour before the dawn. In the east the stars began to pale; a faint pearly mist seemed to be drawn over them. Pearl was succeeded by a delicate roseate blush, the blush that springs to cheeks of a virgin bride when her husband takes her in his arms. Lying in a long line between the horizon and the zenith was a mass of fantastically shaped cloud; it caught the flush, deepened into rose and gold, dissolved into a softness revealing the azure depths beyond, while from the horizon itself there emerged long shafts of vivid yellow light, and the purple curtain in the west was slowly rolled up as the birth of the new day was heralded throughout the firmament, and was resounded by the thousand voices of awakening Nature like a trumpet call to the world to labour after the night's repose. And as the sun mounted higher it shed its revivifying beams around, lighting up the scene with shifting lines of beauty, and bearing a message of resurrection and the life that endures for ever.
Mary Gordon stirred and awoke. At first she was a little astonished to find that she had passed the night in the chair at the open window. Then she recalled the sense of depression under which she had laboured the previous evening. But the glory of the morning heartened her. She leaned out of the window, filled her lungs with the pure air, and turning her longing eyes to the west, her heart repeated the prayer: "Lord, in Thy mercy let him return unto me, let him return, O Lord!"
MARY understood that the inherent fearlessness of her character and the faith and hope that had always upheld her had given way to some presentiment of evil, and it had shaken her. But in the glory of the new day her spirits rose, and she mentally argued that she had been very foolish to frighten herself by mere imaginings. She tried to free her mind from that presentiment, but the suspense stretched her nerves to a point of tension that made her unduly sensitive, and though she busied her mind with many self-imposed duties, she could not quite get rid of the uneasy feeling that something had gone wrong.
The days sped rapidly away. From the dawn to the last glimmer of twilight the work on the Run proceeded with feverish activity. Those days were days of emotion to the woman who waited and longed for the return of the man who possessed her heart. Why did no voice come from over those great wastes and whisper in her ear "All is well"? The dead years had been so tranquil and happy that she seldom thought of the future. The intensity of her love for Harold and his for her had made her life beautiful, while good Margaret Bruce had been almost all that a mother could be. So she had passed from girl to womanhood, and there had been nothing to mar her perfect happiness save one little painful episode. There had come a brief period during which she had been incapable of understanding herself, of gauging the real feelings of her heart, the desires of her soul. It was when the immaturity of the girl was merging into womanhood. She and Harold had known each other from their childhood, but on neither side was there any stronger feeling for years than that of an ardent friendship.
At that time Oliver Gordon, her cousin, had come from far beyond the seas to take up his inheritance. They met as strangers, though they were blood relations. He looked on his cousin, saw that she was fair, and revealed her womanhood to her. Although much about her own age, he was little more than a boy, but full of big ideas, impressed with a sense of his own importance, and inflated with the responsibilities of his new position. There were a dash and temerity about him that appealed to her unsophisticated nature. He was possessed of good looks, a good figure, and added to these there was that touch of self-assertiveness that some women admire in a man. Between these cousins there was for a time something perhaps a little more serious than a mere flirtation at any rate on his side. He vowed that she was essential to his happiness, but as yet he had touched no deep chord in her nature. She did not understand herself at that period. She liked him, and if she did not exactly encourage him, he certainly persuaded himself to believe that the time was not far distant when he would succeed in arousing in her womanhood those soulful sentiments which lead to an abiding love.
But with the advent of Oliver Gordon, something began to stir in Harold Preston's nature which made him regard the new-comer with the eye of jealousy. Up to that time it had never seriously occurred to him that his love for Mary was different from the love a brother has for a dear sister. But it hurt him when he became aware of Gordon's attentions. The difference in nature and temperament between the two young men was great. Harold was entirely lacking in anything like self-assertiveness. His natural modesty, coupled with a shy and retiring disposition, placed him, in some respects, at a disadvantage. He was apt to set too low a value upon himself. His physical courage would have been difficult to overmatch, but in matters of the heart where a woman was concerned he was as timid as a schoolboy. If he lacked something of Gordon's town-bred manners, he was superior to Gordon in natural refinement, honesty of purpose. His intense humanness tended to Utopianism. He did not vex himself with any of the profound problems of life; his simple faith was, "It's as well to try and do some good in the world." It was better than the preached dogma which is so seldom put into practice. Gordon's idea of life was to get all you can out of it and enjoy yourself, never mind who suffers.
Whenever Oliver Gordon and Harold Preston met Gordon adopted an air of patronage and superiority that stung Preston. But so anxious was Harold that the old feud between the two families should be allowed to die out that he endured in silence, though in a firm belief that an opportunity would sooner or later occur when he would be able to assert himself in a way which would cost him no loss of self-respect or wounded dignity. The opportunity came rather sooner than he expected, as such opportunities often do in similar cases.
It was a few days after Christmas, and it happened to be Mary's birthday. The weather was beautiful, and to celebrate the event Mary had organised a bush picnic, inviting a number of young people of both sexes as her guests. Of course Gordon and Preston were included, and it was decided to have the picnic in a beautiful glen known as "The Fairies' Haunt," about seven miles from Gordonstown, and thither servants were despatched with a pack horse laden with provisions. When the alfresco lunch was being laid out in a delightful, shady glade where there was a spring of deliciously cool water, Mary busied herself in cutting up a large cake which had been specially made in her honour. While so engaged she managed to gash her hand rather severely. Harold Preston by chance witnessed the accident, and rushing down to the stream, he wetted his handkerchief, and hurrying back, bound up the cut hand. An hour later the wound was still bleeding, and as Harold felt somewhat alarmed, he volunteered to gallop to the town and bring Doctor Blain back. Mary smiled and said:
"I will gallop in with you, and you can bring me back."
Gordon, who happened to be near by at the moment, heard this, and swinging round on his heel, said peremptorily:
"Preston will do nothing of the kind. I will go with you. It is my place to do so."
"Indeed," said Harold calmly, and in a half joking way. "By what right do you claim to be a dictator in this matter?"
Gordon's face grew very red, his brows contracted to a deep furrow.
"By what right! Every right. Anyway, I'll brook no interference from you." There was no suggestiveness of joking in Gordon's manner.
Mary stood stock still with a little affrighted look in her eyes. But Gordon's rudeness startled her into words, and some display of anger.
"Oliver, you ought to be ashamed of yourself to speak like that to Harold. He has as much right to escort me as you have."
"What?" cried Gordon hotly, then suddenly checked himself and added mildly, "I won't admit that. Where does his right come in?"
"It shall be for Miss Gordon to decide, and if she gives me permission to accompany her, neither you nor any other man, nor any dozen men shall prevent my going," said Harold with a dignified firmness that surprised Gordon. He had hitherto regarded Harold as a sheep, and he was a little startled now to find that there was something of the bulldog in him.
"I'll be damned if you—" began Gordon, but Mary checked him. She was as much a Gordon as he, and her pride was wounded. There were times when she could assert herself with a great deal of forcibleness. Now she saw Gordon without his mask, and she was really angry.
"Harold Preston will go with me and bring me back again. We shall be back in an hour and a half. The picnic is not to be broken up. Do you understand, Oliver?"
Her determination was unmistakable. Gordon was amazed. He had somehow come to believe that his word with her was law. She left him in no doubt now that she could not be commanded. He was humiliated, but had the tact to refrain from any display of feeling.
He laughed, shrugged his shoulders as though he didn't care a hang, and answered:
"Oh, by all means. If you prefer his company to mine there is nothing more to be said." He tossed his head with a flippant indifference and spoke sneeringly.
"Nothing," repeated Mary in a tone that indicated finality as far as that incident was concerned. Gordon felt that he had been snubbed and it rankled, stirring up the worst that was in him.
Harold and Mary rode into Gordonstown together. They scarcely spoke a word the whole way, the subject of dispute was not referred to. They found Doctor Blain at the hospital. He examined the hand, said a little vein had been pricked, washed and dressed the wound, stopped the bleeding, strapped the hand, and told Mary she had done well to come in as the continual bleeding might have had serious results; now she could go back and enjoy herself.
On the return journey, and as soon as they had left the town Mary said to her companion:
"Harold, I was amazed at my cousin's rudeness to you this morning. I cannot imagine whatever was the matter with him. But I hope you won't let it trouble you. He has offended me almost beyond forgiveness. I had no idea he was capable of displaying such horrible temper."
He laughed with a heartiness that impressed her with his sincerity.
"Oh dear no, it does not trouble me. I would put up with a great deal more than that for your sake, Mary."
"For my sake!" with a little incatching of the breath. She glanced at him, then dropped her eyes, and there was a light in them that did not escape him. He was astonished by his own temerity, but that look in her eyes emboldened him.
"Yes, Mary. Does that statement surprise you?"
She threw another glance at him, and again averted her eyes. It was some moments before she made any reply. Then:
"Yes, it does surprise me."
"Why should it?"
"I—I scarcely know how to answer you, Harold."
Her hesitation emboldened him still more. He drew hopeful augury from her manner.
"Come. Please give me an answer."
"You are very persistent, Harold."
"Yes. I want an answer. I must have an answer."
"Supposing I decline to answer," with a furtive look and a little smile dimpling her cheeks, which had taken on a heightened colour.
"In that case I should not be so rude as your cousin was this morning, but remain silent and keep my thoughts to myself."
They had reined in their horses to a walking pace. Mary drew herself up and looked at him now with fearless eyes.
"Tell me your thoughts, Harold. I want to know them."
He broke into a laugh again.
"Oh, oh. That's rather cool. You decline to answer my question, and yet you want to know my thoughts."
"Can you—do you not understand?" she said softly.
"I'm afraid I don't, Mary. Make allowance for my denseness."
"You are not dense; you are simply tantalising me."
"Upon my word I am not, Mary."
"Well—if—I answer your question, will you answer mine?"
"Of course I will."
She did not speak immediately. She seemed to be gathering up her thoughts or mustering courage. With her free hand she stroked her horse's neck, and slightly bent her head so that the broad brim of her sun-hat overshadowed the face, concealing it from him.
"You see, Harold," she began and paused. "You see," she repeated. "You—you have—never led me to suppose that—that—you cared enough for me to—to do very much for my sake. Hence my surprise. Now tell me what you were thinking about."
His eyes denoted the confused state of his mind.
"I am afraid, Mary, I have been an ass," he began. "You see, we have known each other all our lives nearly, and somehow I got it into my silly head that you regarded me simply as your friend."
"Simply as my friend!" This with a little gasp.
"Yes, or perhaps as you might have regarded a brother."
She raised her head, letting the sunlight fall full upon her face, and there was a wonderful expression in her brown eyes, wonderful because her soul was looking through them. She remained silent, and again patted the neck of her horse. Her silence was eloquent. He did understand now.
"I have been very stupid, Mary. Although I felt that you were the only woman in the world I—I—could ever really love, it seemed to me you had given your heart to your cousin, and so I have remained silent. If I have done wrong in speaking freely now you must forgive me. I am idiotically sensitive in some respects, and I would never forgive myself if I thought I had caused you any unhappiness."
She turned to him suddenly as if about to reply, but at that instant a few weeks' old rabbit scuttled across the road, and a huge hawk sprang from the branch of a eucalyptus, and curved down in a graceful swoop, almost touching the head of Mary's horse with its outspread wings. The animal was startled, and broke into a gallop. Harold dug his heels into the sides of his own horse and galloped after her, and neither drew rein until they reached the Glen. It was an untoward incident, very disconcerting to Preston who was preparing to take his fate in both hands, if Mary had encouraged him to speak freely. Now it seemed that the golden opportunity had gone, and he resolved not to refer to the subject again unless Mary brought it up.
During the rest of the day the picnickers allowed nothing to interfere with their enjoyment. It was a perfect summer day, and "The Fairies' Haunt" was an ideal spot for young people. They paired themselves off, and there was much flirtation until tea was served. After that they played games and danced in the twilight to the scraping of a fiddle played by one of the young men. The stars and moon were shining when they began to saddle up for the return home. Gordon was adjusting the saddle on his own horse, and Mary went to Harold and asked him to tighten the girths of her saddle. Some of the party had gone on, and the sounds of their laughter awakened the echoes of the woods. Gordon lingered until Mary told him to accompany a young lady who was just riding off alone. She had manoeuvred so that she and Harold brought up the rear; they rode side by side, their horses almost touching. For some time they did not speak. The night was glorious; the moon and stars bathed the forest in a flood of molten silver.
"How lovely it is," said Mary, "let us go slowly." They reined their horses to a walk. Presently she put a question to her companion. "Harold, what made you think you had caused me unhappiness?"
"Well, I thought that I might have been too outspoken, that you you were pledged to your cousin—"
She laughed merrily; it was the sweet laugh of a pure, light-hearted girl.
"You silly fellow. I am almost inclined to scold you for that. I am not pledged to my cousin, not likely to be pledged to him—"
"Then may I hope?" he said with hot eagerness.
She stretched out her gloved hand to him. He caught it in his and pressed it. He knew then that she had given him the answer he desired.
AFTER that day of the picnic, Harold Preston was supremely happy in the knowledge that he had won Mary Gordon's heart, and she gave him clearly to understand that between herself and Gordon there had never been anything serious, anyway not on her side. He had made himself most agreeable, paid her much attention, and she accepted it rather as her due. She had always regarded Harold as the man destined to be her husband, and had been somewhat astonished, even a little piqued that he had failed to declare his love. It was his silence that led to the flirtation with her cousin. She thought that if anything could make Harold open his lips it was that. But she was mistaken, and had it not been for the little accident on the day of the picnic his silence would have continued. One's way in life is often determined by little things.
On the morrow of the birthday party Oliver Gordon called on his cousin to ask for explanations. His manner was dictatorial, even boorish, and it aroused Mary's fighting spirit. She made no attempt to conceal her feelings for Harold, and claimed complete freedom in a matter which so closely concerned her future happiness. Oliver upbraided her, charged her with having made a fool of him. She retorted by charging him with lack of sincerity, told him that the attention he had paid to her was simply the attention any relative situated as they were would have paid. Anyway, she did not know her own mind at first, now she did.
Gordon, recognising that she had a will of her own, and the hopelessness of trying to force himself upon her, gave up the contest, though with bad grace, and took himself off to the south where he remained for some time, returning to Gordonstown to attend to his business there at rare intervals. When he did return for good he seemed to have quite recovered from his disappointment, if it had been a disappointment, and he was at pains to cultivate Harold's friendship. On Harold's side friendship was very real. The intense sincerity of the man's nature was revealed in all he did. He was too earnest, too truthful to dissemble, and his experiences of life had so far saved him from any approach to cynicism. He had the splendid enthusiasm, the freshness, the joy and capacity for believing and loving, of a boy. There was an acute difference in the two men, it was the difference that separates coarseness from refinement. Oliver Gordon was coarse 'in the sense that he lacked any of the moral qualities which were characteristic of Harold. He was entirely worldly, and had none of those tense, uplifting moments which gave colour and poetry to Harold's life. If Mary did not exactly understand her cousin, Harold was like an open book to her. She saw deep into his soul, as a woman sees when all her faculties are alert with love; and she thought of the years that lay before them, years that seemed so full of promise, when they could live their lives together, linked by a bond of mutual love and trust. They might be commonplace lives, moving in a very circumscribed sphere, but they would be happy because sanctified by love and usefulness.
All this might have come to pass, nay, assuredly it would have come to pass had they married. She would have been his wife at any moment, but he had scruples about a certain instability in his financial position; his pride held him back until such time as he could feel independent of her small fortune. Then came that cruel drought: it was destiny; and Bill Blewitt with the report of vast deposits of gold out in the Western Ranges: it was destiny again. And now Mary Gordon turned her eyes, dim with tears at times, to the shrouded and mysterious west which had taken her lover into its silence and held him. Ever since that little episode of the picnic, which seemed so far away in the past, her days and years had beer very happy. She lived no idle life. She interested herself in a hundred and one things, and particularly in the hospital, which had proved such a useful institution in the town. She could not bear the thought of being a nonentity in the community in which her lines were cast. She determined to qualify herself to the fullest possible extent to be a worthy helpmate to Harold, when as his wife she would rule as mistress over Glenbar. She wanted to do something with her life, so that when the time came to give it up she could fold her hands calmly with a consciousness that she had not frittered the precious years away. It was that feeling that had induced her to spend so much time on the Run during Harold's absence.
The little settlement consisted of about two hundred souls, men, women and children, in busy times, and all the men and most of the women were in Harold's employ. She knew that it was the desire of his heart to largely increase the number; he had long been pondering over a scheme for greatly extending his dairy operations, and setting up on some part of his estate a factory for preparing and cleaning his own wool and hides for the market. The drought had hung that scheme up for a time, but she felt sure that on his return he would endeavour to give it practical shape. It was an age of progress. Gordonstown was extending year by year, and it was in the natural order of things that Glenbar must expand sooner or later.
Jim Dawkins loved now to have her and her aunt at the Run, for Margaret Bruce was exceedingly useful in the house, and Mary not only helped him with his accounts, but she looked after the welfare of the women, and started a little school where the children might be taught the rudiments of knowledge.
The harvesting came to an end. It had been a glorious harvest, and the work was carried out under ideal conditions of weather. The sheep-shearing would follow, then the cattle would be rounded up, and a selection made of those that were fit for the market. Through all these phases of the farm life Mary's anxiety about the expedition continued.
The boundary line of the Glenbar lands on the western side was a full mile away from the house, but Harold had grazing rights far beyond that, and at certain times of the year the shepherds led their flocks almost up to the swamps. Many a time now Mary would ride to the boundary and to the limits of the grazing grounds, and look away to the West with an intense desire to go on and on in the hope of obtaining some news. But the wilderness was pitiless. The vast sunlit plains held a silence that was as the silence of the sphinx. And out there where the earth melted into the blue horizon that flamed with many-coloured fires at the close of day, there was the mystery of the unknown. It tantalised her until her heart ached and her eyes filled with tears. Sometimes she felt angry with her womanhood, which set a limit to what she could do. A hardy man on a good horse, accompanied by a pack horse, might have pushed out hundreds of miles, and gained some information. But then a reaction set in, and she thanked God that she was a woman whose life was to be made beautiful by companionship with the man she loved. But oh, it was weary waiting. Why did he not come?
So the days passed and autumn drew on. She and Margaret Bruce were preparing to leave for their home. They had interests in Gordonstown that could not be neglected too long. She tried to be cheerful, to think cheerfully, but it was impossible to divest herself of an anxiety that caused her many painful hours. The pain of suspense became, at times, almost unbearable, and she was a prey to a restless nervousness that began to tell upon her. Aunt Bruce endeavoured to comfort the girl; she spoke hopefully, though she did not feel hopeful. Then within a few days of the time fixed for their departure from Glenbar the silence was broken with dramatic suddenness. It was dinner hour: there was a lull in the work of the farm, the toilers were recuperating their energies with their frugal midday meal. A horseman galloped at breakneck speed across the land, coming from the boundary, and reined in his foam-flecked horse at the entrance to the house so abruptly that he nearly threw it on to its haunches. The man was Joe Peterson, a stockman. He was drenched with perspiration and excited. He coo-eed, and one of the men ran out from the dinner-room.
"Here, take the horse to the stable. Where's Mr Dawkins?" he said rapidly and excitedly.
Dawkins and several others came out.
Peterson had a message to deliver. He and several other stockmen had been out for some days in the grazing lands, rounding up the cattle that had strayed. The previous evening they had seen a light far away to the westward which had puzzled them. It was a flickering light, shooting up and fading away alternately. A light of that kind out in the wilds puzzled, even alarmed them, and at first they thought that some of the blacks had encamped there, though very rarely indeed did the blacks venture so near the settlement unless bent on mischief. The stockmen did not venture out in the darkness, not knowing what forces they might have to encounter; but all night they kept watch, and as soon as the dawn broke, mustered together, examined their revolvers, and rode in a body to the West, each man carrying a heavy stockwhip. They rode warily for nearly ten miles, until they came upon a party of haggard, ragged, exhausted white men encamped near a pool. It was the survivors of the expedition which had set out for the West with such high hopes more than a year ago, and it was the light of their camp fire that had attracted the attention of the stockmen the previous evening.
Oliver Gordon, gaunt and worn and ill, his clothes hanging in rags about him, came forward and greeted them. The party was in the last stage of exhaustion. Harold Preston, Pete Radley, and one of Gordon's men had been left behind in the wilderness dead. They had lost all their horses. The last two they had slaughtered for food. They were making straight for Glenbar, but even the few miles that separated them from the settlement seemed more than they could accomplish without assistance, and so on the previous evening they made a huge fire, hoping that it would be seen and bring them assistance. Such was the message that Joe Peterson, who had ridden for dear life, had to deliver.
Harold Preston was dead!
Jim Dawkins, rugged and tough as he was, broke down when he heard the news. But he bucked himself up. He thought of Mary, and gave orders that the men were to finish their meal, then quietly make up a little relief-party, and convey food out to the members of the expedition, while he himself undertook to break the news to Mary.
Harold Preston was dead!
Jim Dawkins' rough, sympathetic nature was stirred to its depths. Never before had he faced such an ordeal. It cut him up. It unmanned him. He could face danger fearlessly, but this strained him to breaking point. In order to steady himself, calm his nerves, he superintended the relief preparations. Four men, with Peterson at their head, started off with four spare horses, and a laden pack horse. Then Jim went to seek Mary. Quietly as the preparations had been made, Mary gathered that something unusual was going on, and had come on to the veranda to inquire what it meant, and she and Dawkins faced each other. She saw the little party riding towards the boundary.
"Is anything the matter, Jim?" she asked with an accent of alarm.
For some moments he was utterly at a loss what to say, how to answer. It was an emergency he was scarcely equal to. He made an ineffectual effort to look bright.
"Well, miss. I'm sending some things out to the expedition."
"Things out to the expedition," she gasped breathlessly. "You've had news?"
"Yes. Joe Peterson was in the grazing lands yesterday, and saw their camp fire."
"They are about twenty miles off. They'll be in to-morrow."
Something in his manner startled her. She fixed her eyes upon him. A spasm of faintness seized her and almost deprived her of breath.
"Jim, you are concealing something," she said with a vehemence that reduced him to a pitiable state of distress. "For God's sake don't keep me in suspense. What is it?"
"Well—miss. They seem to have had a pretty rough time—"
"And Harold—Mr Preston—is he well?"
"He's stayed behind, Joe Peterson says."
She felt as if she were going to fall, and grasped the railing of the veranda to steady herself. Jim put out his hands to catch her, but with a violent effort of will she recovered and straightened herself up.
"Jim, have a horse saddled. I'll go with the men," she said peremptorily.
"No, miss, you'd better not do that. It's men's work."
"But why has Mr Preston remained behind?"
"Two of the other chaps have also been left," said Jim with diplomatic prevarication. His tongue refused to tell her the truth.
A ray of hope came to her. Harold and two men had been left behind. There was nothing ominous in that apparently. But she put the question.
"Why have they stayed behind?"
"Mr Gordon will give you all the news when he comes in, so keep yourself calm."
"Gordon is with the return party?" she asked breathlessly.
"Yes. I expect they will be in to-morrow, and then we shall get all the details."
Mary's first fears were allayed; Jim excused himself on the score of some duties to attend to, and was glad to get away. Never before in the whole course of his life had he come so near betraying his emotion by tears.
FOR some days there had been signs of a change in the weather, and as the evening drew on a high wind arose, accompanied by rain; the night was wild and stormy.
Mary did not see Jim Dawkins again that day. He purposely kept away. He could not face her. He had misled her, but he felt that Gordon would break the news to her better than he could. He was miserable enough himself. The news of Harold's death was a shock that weakened his manhood.
All night long the weather continued bad. The wind blew in squalls, at times rising to a gale. It shook the house, and dashed the rain against the windows with a violence that was alarming. At any other time such an occurrence would not have affected Mary; now it made her nervous, irritable. Sleep was banished. Her thoughts worked rapidly. Why had Harold remained behind? Why did he not leave Gordon and himself come, knowing how terribly anxious she would be? Was it not a little unkind of him to remain? This line of reasoning made her angry with herself. It reflected harshly on him, and she had no right to be harsh in the smallest degree until she knew the reason for his remaining behind. Of course he had written to her. Gordon would bring the letter. In a few hours she would know everything. Thus she tortured herself with doubts, hopes, fears. Her woman's strength of endurance was taxed to its uttermost limits. The long period of suspense had! told upon her, now this uncertainty was like a real weight that was crushing her. She made a desperate effort to be brave, strong. But the unknown, the vague, the indefinite; the menace without a name that lies hidden in darkness tests even iron nerves. When one knows what one has to encounter it is different. A truly courageous man or woman can face the certainty of death without flinching; but courage loses, its power when one cannot see one's foe.
Poor Mary worked herself into a state bordering almost on hysteria. There was a terror in the night that frightened her. And yet she was a healthily constituted woman to whom hysteria was unknown, whose nerves had been braced and hardened by familiarity with Nature in all her moods, and the tonic of open air life. But now the lashing of the rain, the shaking of the house, the roar of the wind dismayed her, and an overwhelming sense of loneliness almost prompted her to cry out aloud that she might break the spell of the strange feeling that held her with a nameless dread. She went to the window, drew back the curtain, and peered into the night, but was faced with nothingness, a black void. The window panes were blurred with rain; beyond them the night with its mystery. She readjusted the curtain with a shudder. Would the night never end? It was like infinity. She loosened her long and beautiful hair; it fell about her like a raiment of old gold. She removed some of her things, put on a dressing-gown, and lay on the bed longing for the dawn; the light would surely dismiss her phantom fears. The darkness had taken away her hopes; the day would perhaps restore them. She prayed that all might be well, and fell asleep even against her will. Her aunt came to her with tea, toast, and fruit on a tray.
"Why, Mary darling, haven't you been in bed? How horribly pale you look. Are you ill?"
The girl started up and flung her hair from her face. She thought that she had had a bad dream, a nightmare. Her head ached, her eyes were heavy. An unaccountable sense of depression weighed upon her.
"Oh, auntie, I am so glad you have come. What is the time?"
"Ten!" She sat on the edge of the bed and rubbed her eyes. "Why, I must have slept for hours."
"What has been worrying you, child?"
"Thoughts, fancies, fears. What a horrible night it has been. Thank God the day has come."
Aunt Margaret drew back the curtain from the window. The sun was hidden in clouds; the landscape was enveloped in mist. The wind had ceased, but a drizzling rain fell. Mary drank a cup of tea and ate some fruit.
"Why have you made yourself ill like this?" asked Margaret as she seated herself at the side of the bed.
"I am not ill, auntie," the girl answered, laughing a sad little laugh. "I got nervous. I don't know why. But I have been wondering why Harold and the other men have remained behind. It's very foolish of me, of course, to let my imagination fill me with silly fears."
She spoke bravely, but she was far from feeling brave. Her aunt did her best to cheer her. She helped her to dress her hair. Mary attired herself very neatly, and went down to the veranda. She felt as if the day was big with Fate, with revelation. She inquired for Jim Dawkins, and was told he had ridden off somewhere, but would be back in an hour or two. It was an unusually dismal day, but Mary did not complain, she knew that the rain was a blessing. She dare not let her thoughts run away with her again, so she went into the dairy to find occupation, and chatted with the chief dairymaid, who was churning. Frequently she went to the door and tried to pierce the mist, but saw nothing but the mist. It was as if a curtain had been let down from heaven to veil a tragedy. The hours seemed to go by leaden-footed, and she was glad when the bell sounded for dinner. As soon as all the hands had assembled she looked into the dinner-room, and her eyes searched for Dawkins in vain. Nobody could or would say where he had gone to. She went to the door of his office and turned the handle, but the door was locked. Then it came to her as a flash that Jim had gone off to meet Gordon, and she resolved to go also, but she heard her aunt calling her to dinner.
"I don't want any dinner, aunt," she replied. "I am going to ride to the boundary."
"Mary, you must not be so foolish," said her aunt with an insistence that was not to be denied. "Be sensible. Come and have your dinner. Your proper place is here. Now be good and do as I wish."
Mary yielded, though reluctantly. She knew that she was bound up in her aunt's affections, and she loved her. Margaret was full of sound common sense; she and her niece had been such close companions, such intimate friends, and Mary never liked to oppose her wishes. She made a pretence of partaking of dinner, she had no appetite. Anxiety had her on the rack again. The meal over, she hurried to the veranda and paced up and down impatiently. After a time she procured a book and tried to read, but the book lay in her lap, and she fell to dreaming. She heard the clock in the dining-room strike three. Then a long hour crept away, and soon afterwards she caught the sounds of a horse's hoofs coming from the west. She sprang up and ran to the other end of the veranda, and saw a horseman emerge from the mist. He looked like a phantom. She did not know it, but he was the figure of tragedy coming from behind the veil. As he drew nearer she recognised Jim Dawkins, and her heart told her that he had been to meet the wanderers. At last the mystery of the long, long weary months would be cleared: up. The message of the West would be given to her. She ran out and met him.
"Are they coming, Jim?" Her voice rang with a pathetic appeal. Her nerves were tense. She was waiting for the verdict.
"Yes. They will be here very shortly." He spoke with a sadness that he could not conceal.
"Where are they?" It was a demand.
"I will go and meet them," she said, making an impetuous movement.
"No, please...No, you must not. I have a message for you from Mr Gordon—"
"Yes, yes. Don't hang on your words so, Jim. What is it?"
"Naturally he wants to make himself a bit tidy. He is in rags. He asked me to say if you will go to your room with your aunt he will come to you as soon as possible."
Mary was about to utter some protest, but checked herself, though impatience was burning like a raging fever in her veins.
"I will go," she said and turned back into the house. In about an hour she heard some stir, the clattering of the feet of men and horses, and a subdued cheer. With palpitating heart she ran to the window and peeped out. She saw Gordon riding between the two men who had returned with him. They looked like scarecrows. They all had straggling beards and moustaches. They sat their horses—which had been taken out to them—as weak, dejected men sit. They disappeared into one of the out-buildings, followed by some of the hands who had gathered to witness their arrival. Mary and her aunt remained together; the girl's body was bent, her elbows on her knees, her hands clasped together, her eyes glistening with tears. She was still waiting for the verdict. There was a knock at the door; she was about to spring up, but her aunt stopped her and opened the door herself. In another moment Oliver Gordon stood in the room. Someone had lent him a coat that was too big for him, it accentuated his emaciation. His eyes were sunk in his head, his face pinched and drawn and burnt to the colour of dull copper. He held forth both his hands.
"Gordon!" Mary exclaimed as she sprang up and seized the extended hands. There was a pause, it seemed like an age; then her heart spoke. "What of Harold? Where is he?"
Gordon's eyes lit up, but he could not meet her gaze, she was trying to read his thoughts. "Why don't you speak? Is he well?"
"I—left him in—the Ranges." The voice seemed to come from far away. His guilty conscience smote him. There was guilt in his averted eyes.
"With the other men?"
"Bill Blewitt died on the journey out."
"You are prevaricating. Why do you torture me?" She still clasped his hands, still gazed at him. There was desperation in her look and manner.
"I—am weak and ill; be patient. I have much to tell you."
She flung his hands from her violently. She covered her face and shivered.
"My God," she sobbed. "Harold—is dead."
Gordon stood with bowed head, his arms hanging straight down, limply at his side. He dare not look at her.
"Yes—he is—dead," he answered in a scarcely audible voice.
"Ah!" she gasped, and her whole soul went out in that exclamation. She swung round like a mechanical figure, and pitched forward against her aunt, who caught her in her arms, strained her to her bosom, her hot tears falling on the girl's hair. But Mary did not weep. The spring of tears was dried up. Her brain was stunned.
Her heart was broken.
Harold was dead!
FOR many long days Mary Gordon lay like one from whom the power of thought had been taken away, and yet she was conscious of a sort of divulsion as if she were being stretched on a rack. It was a mental feeling, for she had no bodily pain.
Harold was dead!
The shock had for the time broken her physical strength. Her aunt tended her with assiduous devotion. Gradually the girl's numbed brain began to reawaken, and with the reawakening came the full comprehension of what she had suffered. She had been so happy, so buoyant with health and contentment. She looked to such a far-stretching horizon, the future seemed so full of promise. Now she asked herself: "Is life nothing more than a mirage, a something that seems luring and beautiful from a distance; a fantastic dream that fascinates, until suddenly one awakes to find hopelessness and ashes where one looked for fruit? Is it merely a void through which resounds the moans and weeping of a sorrowing world?"
These are thoughts that come to those who are stricken suddenly by some stupendous sorrow in a moment of supreme happiness; when a precious loved one has been borne by Time to Death. Death does not hold Time, but Time holds Death; it flows ever and ever on like a silent river, bearing its flotsam to the Great Gatherer who sweeps the poor human atoms into eternity. The news of Harold's death had withered every flower in Mary Gordon's life, and she felt that henceforth her way would be but a dusty road under a grey sky.
When a fortnight had passed she rose again, but she was no longer the same being. Jim Dawkins in his rough, rugged way tried to console her. To him the loss of the "Boss" was a heavy blow. He was very human, and he understood what the loss meant to Mary. From him she gathered the story which Gordon had told—of the trying journey out to the Ranges; of the death of faithful old Bill Blewitt; of the camp in the foothills; how he and Harold had pushed on into the mountains only to meet with bitter disappointment; how Harold was seized with deadly fever; how he nursed him and tended him with loving care, though he himself was suffering; how he stayed with him until he breathed his last and he buried him; of his own lonely journey back to the camp where he learnt of the death of Pete Radley, who in chopping wood for the fire had struck his wrist with the axe and severed an artery; how his chums had done all that mortal men could do who were ignorant of surgery, to staunch the flow of blood, but to no purpose. Then of the terrible journey home, and the death of his man from exhaustion in the wilderness.
George Grindon and the other man corroborated this story up to the journey to the foothills and from the foothills home. But there was none to corroborate or contradict the tragedy in the mountains. The truth of that dark and treacherous deed was known to Gordon and his God, and Gordon could not fail to believe that his guilty secret would never be revealed until the grave gave up its dead and the secrets of all hearts were disclosed, for the dead man could not come back to refute him. The dead tell no tales.
Gordon had only remained in Glenbar for three days after his return. He was broken down in health, and the hardships he had endured had undermined his constitution. He went back to Gordonstown and placed himself under the care of a Dr Evans, who, in common with the whole community, was shocked to hear of Harold Preston's death. The reaction after the strain he had endured prostrated Gordon, and for some time Evans had doubts of his patient's recovery.
When Mary and her aunt returned to their home, Mary suspecting nothing of her cousin's guilty secret, and believing him to be a brave and honourable man, nursed him with tenderness and skill, and in no small degree helped in his recovery. What his feelings were during the time that he hovered between life and death he allowed no one to know, but with returning strength his worldliness reasserted itself, and his thoughts were busy with plans for his future. His final triumph over his rival was complete, and though his guilty secret might torture him a little, he resolved that it should not prevent him fulfilling the purpose for which he had suffered and dared so much. When he was able to concern himself again with his affairs, he seemed to have aged at least ten years, but he was unregenerate, and if for any brief moment he had had a tendency to repentance, he was impenitent enough now, and his characteristic imperviousness was as strong as ever. But to Mary he displayed a tenderness and deference which were not lost upon her. The disastrous expedition and its fatal consequences were allowed to become a dead letter. Once and once only when he was beginning to recover from his illness did he refer to it, and he remarked, with what seemed to her an ill-concealed reproach, after he had expatiated on his own trials and sufferings, and the dangers he had had to face, "and only to think, Mary, that he wanted to take you with him."
She was hurt, and rebuked him for what she considered was a reflection on the dead man's memory. But Gordon was unabashed. He was a man of an extraordinary temperament. In times past he had given evidence of a certain inherent brutality, but no one who knew him could have believed him capable of a deed so devilish as that with which he had burdened his soul. When on that black day he had fired at his comrade in the gorge of the Ranges, it was probably a sudden impulse provoked by unexpected opportunity, though it proved that a long dormant, deadly passion had been aroused, and he would not have hesitated to have murdered the man, for whom he had professed friendship, in cold blood. A false aim had saved him from that crime; but his guilt was none the less terrible when with unspeakable cruelty he deserted his dying companion, and left him to suffer and die alone in the solitude of the mountains. But as Schiller says, "Let him that sows the serpent's teeth not hope to reap a joyous harvest; every crime has, in the moment of perpetration, its own avenging angel—dark misgivings at the inmost heart." Gordon could never expect to escape that avenging angel so long as memory remained. By his act of treachery he had entirely changed his life. That he was callous was certain. Nor was he without courage of a kind, for he had taken his own life in his hand when he and Harold Preston left their friends behind in the foothills, and had gone alone into the heart of the Ranges. But neither courage nor callousness could save him from himself. His future life would be a tortured one, live it as he might He had sown the serpent's teeth.
Many months passed before he had regained his normal health, or what approximated to normal health, for Dr Evans made it clear that he would lever be a strong man again, his constitution had been undermined.
Those fleeting months had worked a great change Mary. Her youth and buoyancy had given place to a staid reserve. A shadow hung over her the shadow might become lighter as the years advanced, but it would never be entirely dissipated. A little while before Harold started upon the fatal expedition he had made his will, appointing his solicitor and Jim Dawkins his executors. When the will was made known Mary found to her amazement that her lover had left all his property to her after payment of the five hundred pounds' loan plus interest to Jim Dawkins, and an additional five hundred pounds to him as a legacy. The solicitor advised her to pay off the mortgage so that she might take the estate free from all encumbrance. By what seemed to everyone who knew of it a superlative act of generosity, Oliver Gordon refused to receive a penny piece of the mortgage money.
"When we were preparing to leave," he told Mary, "I informed Harold, and gave instructions to my solicitors accordingly, that in the event of my predeceasing him the mortgage was to be cancelled. He has predeceased me, and now I will accept no payment from you." Drawing the mortgage deed from his pocket, he cut it to pieces with a pair of scissors, and burnt them in her presence. "There, that effectually cancels it," he added.
Mary was deeply touched by this act, and her heart warmed towards him. To her mind, suspecting nothing of his treachery or hidden motives, this struck her as proof positive of his friendship for the dead man. It was a master stroke on his part. Of course he had been in ignorance of the existence of Harold's will, and it was a revelation to him as it was to everyone concerned. Had there been no document of the kind, he would have foreclosed and entered into possession of Glenbar; but he was not indifferent to the fact that even without the proceeds of the record harvest, Mary was in a position to pay the mortgage off at once. To have permitted that would have been a blunder from his point of view.
Although it is not conceivable that, previous to the starting of the expedition, he had contemplated killing the man for whom he professed friendship, he had mentally determined to take every possible means to discredit him in Mary's eyes. What he really hoped to do was to ruin him financially, and drive him out of the country. He knew how strong Harold's pride was, and had he succeeded in ruining him, he was perfectly sure that it would prove an effectual barrier to Harold's marriage with Mary Gordon. The "unknown client" who held the first mortgage was himself. When he had instructed his solicitors to foreclose he held Preston in the palm of his hand, so to speak. But when that supreme moment came he realised, as he had failed to realise up to then, that if he exercised his power it would without doubt have been fatal to his own designs. That he was the unknown client must have become known for concealment would have been impossible when it came to registering the transfer of the property in his own name. The revelation would not only have made an enemy of Harold, but Mary Gordon would have despised him for evermore. Harold would not have caused him much concern if he'd been sure of retaining Mary's friendship.
It was while he was in this hesitating mood, and wondering what crafty scheme he could devise for blacking Harold in Mary's sight, that Fate appeared to play into his hands. The return of Bill Blewitt from the Ranges changed the whole course of events. When Harold took him into his confidence and suggested the expedition, it at once occurred to him that by securing a hold over the Glenbar property he would hold a winning card. He calculated that the expedition might possibly—probably—end in failure, in which case Harold would be unable to redeem the mortgage: He faced the prospects of the journey at first with a light heart, for he was unable to realise the privations, risks, and uncertainties of such a journey. As the little party advanced into the wilderness the seriousness of the undertaking began to dawn upon him. His nerves and endurance were tested as they had never before been tested. Then came the death of Blewitt, and the discovery that Harold had left the all-important map and instructions behind; it was probably at that moment that the murderous instincts were first aroused in Gordon's heart. A feeling of desperate despair seized upon him; he could not turn back; that would have been a confession of weakness and cowardice, whilst to go forward was to confront difficulties, dangers—the unknown. But he resolved to push on, to take the risks in the hope that the chapter of accidents might dispose of Harold. When the foothills were reached and he suggested that he and Harold should set out tor the mountains alone, the evil in his heart was overpowering every feeling of self-restraint, and no doubt he determined that the final triumph should be us. "How oft the sight of means to do ill deeds makes ill deeds done."
In the dead years he had often given proof that his moral nature lacked the ennobling qualities of generosity and goodwill in their widest sense, whilst his vanity was so supersensitive that anyone wounding it was regarded as an enemy; hence the open ill feeling he displayed for Dr Blain, and his secret jealousy of Harold Preston. On the day that Harold scored over him during the picnic in "The Fairies' Haunt," seeds began to germinate in his heart, that were to bring forth a crop of devil's fruit, and the crowning act of his selfish and hypocritical life was the desertion of the dying man in the mountain solitude. The pity of it all was that he was enabled to deceive Mary Gordon as to his true character. She had always considered him to be self-centred, and somewhat selfish, but when he cancelled the mortgage deed and forbore to exercise his claim on the Glenbar property, she experienced a sense of anger with herself, for had she not done him a wrong? Could he have given greater proof of his generous disposition than by this cancellation? It was not a little curious that Margaret Bruce urged her strongly to insist on his taking the money which was his due; the ace of her argument being that she, as a matter of self-respect and dignity, ought not to place herself under such a deep obligation to her cousin. Gordon had never been much of a favourite with Margaret. Perhaps it was because she was shrewd enough to detect some of the weaknesses of his character, which he was at pains to conceal from most people. Anyway, she did not like the idea of her rich niece accepting such a gift from him. But Mary's sensitive nature shrank from doing anything that might wound or give offence.
"Really, auntie," she said, "I could not think of refusing what has been offered with such spontaneous generosity. Oliver told me that he had arranged, in the event of his death before Harold's, that the mortgage was to be cancelled. As poor Harold has gone first Oliver now shows his devotion to his dead friend and his regard for me by refusing to take the money. Surely you wouldn't have me insult him."
"I fail to see, my dear, that to refuse his gift would be insulting," persisted Margaret. "I am afraid you give him credit for too much sensitiveness."
"Oh yes, auntie, it would hurt him very much, I am sure."
"Better that he should be hurt than that you should sacrifice your independence."
Mary quite failed to see it in that light, and remained uninfluenced by Mrs Bruce's objections. The idea of offending her cousin in a matter of that kind was repulsive to her, because she believed in his sincerity, believed that he had been faithful to her lover, that he had imperilled his own life, and broken his health by his devotion to his friend. That was the impression he had laboured to make upon her. He did not use the exact words, but his meaning was unmistakable, and she, poor girl, believed him, and believing she accepted his gift as a testimony of his respect for her and his affection for his dead friend—the friend who slept the sleep of death in the solitude of the far-off Ranges which had lured him to his doom. Ah, if she had but known how he had sown the serpent's teeth, every emotion of her soul, every feeling of her heart would surely have concentrated themselves in a hatred so intense that she would have invoked heaven itself to curse him.
AS might be supposed, the failure of the "Preston Expedition," as it was called, was the subject of much comment in Gordonstown. The loss of four lives out of seven was a heavy toll, and of course the expense had also been heavy, though that was a private matter, whilst the results were nil. With subtle craft Gordon endeavoured to place himself in as favourable a light as possible, and to make it appear that if anyone was to blame it was Harold Preston. This aroused a good deal of feeling, for Harold had' been very popular, and his honesty and upright conduct caused him to be esteemed by everyone who knew him. For some weeks there was rather an acrimonious correspondence in the local paper, and Gordon's reflections on the "Memory of the dead man" were resented. One person in particular was very outspoken; that person was Dr Blain. It will be remembered in speaking of Gordon he bluntly said to Preston as they sat together in the Club one day after Harold had been to see Blewitt in the hospital, "I should say Gordon could be very treacherous, and an unforgiving enemy." Blain had gauged him perhaps more accurately than anyone else, and as he had entertained a feeling of real friendship for Preston, he did not hesitate to champion him now that he could no longer defend himself. During the newspaper controversy over the failure of the expedition, Dr Blain and his friend, the town surveyor, Mr Cartwright, were chatting together one evening in the Club when the conversation turned upon Gordon, and Blain again gave vent to his opinions in rather strong language.
"I consider he is a contemptible hound, and should be horsewhipped for daring to cast a slur on the memory of his friend. I happen to know that Preston had great faith in him, and it made him angry if anyone in his presence spoke ill of him, but now that Harold is dead the brute does not hesitate to asperse him."
"My dear fellow," answered Cartwright, "the best way to treat a man like Gordon is with silent contempt. That is what I have done ever since I had a dispute with him over a bet. 'Contempt,' says an Eastern proverb, 'can pierce the back of a crocodile.'—"
"Yes, that's all very well, but one cannot always be silent when the character of one's friend is assailed."
"It strikes me," said Cartwright, "that the whole truth about the expedition has not been told."
"There I agree with you. I think it is greatly to be regretted that Gordon and Preston were allowed to go into the Ranges alone.' The other members of the expedition should have protested."
"Well, you see, they were not in a position to do that. They were only subordinates."
"Yes—that is so...all the same it is regrettable, as we have only Gordon's word for what happened."
Cartwright looked at his friend with a keen note of interrogation in his eyes.
"Surely you don't think—"
"What surprises me is that Preston should have succumbed to fever and Gordon should have escaped. Of the two men I should say Preston had much the better constitution. His life had been practically spent in the bush; he was inured, whereas Gordon was not."
"Do you"—Cartwright jerked his chair nearer the doctor's, and leaning forward, and sinking his voice almost to a whisper—"do you think it possible that there has been—foul play?"
Blain remained silent for some long moments. Then:
"Let me put it hypothetically, and I confess the hypothesis is perhaps a bit far-fetched, but we must premise that these two men were rivals. Well now, supposing a quarrel arose between them—"
"Good God! You suggest, then, that Gordon murdered his rival?"
They were seated on the veranda close to the doorway that gave entrance to the smoking-room. Framed in the doorway a man stood unobserved by the other two. His face was leaden-hued; his eyes blazing with the fire of passion. It was Gordon. He had overheard part, at least, of the conversation. He stepped on to the veranda and confronted the others.
"Dr Blain, you are a damned blackguard!" he cried excitedly; "an infamous traducer of other men's reputations, but you shall pay dearly for this."
Blain sprang to his feet and faced his opponent. He remained perfectly cool.
"If I am a blackguard, you are a contemptible eavesdropper, and since you have heard my opinion of you, there is nothing more to be said." He made a movement towards the door, but Gordon seized him by the arm.
"You charge me to my face with having killed my friend."
"I made no such charge."
"You lie, you cur." Gordon was pulsing with passion; his lips were white.
Blain shook himself free.
"Although I make no accusation, my opinion is, you are quite capable..."
Before he could finish the sentence Gordon struck him full in the face. The doctor staggered and almost fell, and blood gushed from his nostrils. Gordon, who had entirely lost control of himself, was about to strike again when Cartwright seized him. Other men rushed from the room, including two of the waiters who rendered assistance, and it took their united strength to restrain him, for Gordon was beside himself with passion, and behaved like one who was frenzied. His face was livid, his eyes seemed bulging from his head. Blain did not attempt to retaliate, nor did he make any remark, but hurried to the lavatory, where he was joined by Cartwright.
"Long as I have known Gordon," said the latter, "I have never seen him lose his temper like that before."
"It's the culmination of the animosity he has displayed against me ever since I came here," the doctor replied as he held a wet sponge to his temporarily disfigured face. "I am not sorry in a sense, as now it will be an open war between us. He has played the underhand game long enough." He paused, and then added significantly: "Don't you think with me, Cartwright, that a man who is capable of displaying such frenzied violence is equally capable of killing an opponent with whom he might quarrel?"
"Well—I confess—I shouldn't care to face such a brute in a quarrel—unless I was armed."
"Perhaps poor Preston did face him but was unarmed," suggested the doctor.
"Blain, it's terrible to suppose—" He broke off abruptly. He was afraid to finish the sentence.
The doctor fixed him with his eyes and replied solemnly:
"I know what you would say, my friend. But there can be no proof. Dead men tell no tales."
Doctor Blain's outspoken opinion indicated the trend of his thoughts, but of course he intended it to be nothing more than the opinion of a possibility; he might even have gone so far as to say—a probability. He was a keen observer of men, and had an innate faculty of judging his fellows. He had formed a pretty accurate estimate of Gordon and Preston, and he had seen many things, small in themselves, but significant in connection with Gordon, which had begotten mistrust; there were the incidents of his whipping his dog to death, and shooting his horse, to say nothing of that dark story which he had made known to Preston. He had been one of the few men in the town who had never taken Gordon at his own valuation. Money and self-assurance count for much with some—with most people in fact, and Gordon possessed both. In the dispute between Gordon and Cartwright about the bet, Blain, in telling Harold the story, said that when Cartwright reminded his opponent that Preston had triumphed over him in winning Mary's love, "an expression came into Gordon's face which was the expression of a man who had a devilish nature," that was an indication of powers of observation which, if not rare, were certainly not very common. Then again, on that occasion had not Gordon offered to bet Cartwright that Mary would never become Mrs Preston, but Mrs Gordon.
All these details and many others Blain had treasured up in his memory, to say nothing of his own personal grievance against Gordon, and weighing them with the fact of Gordon being alone in the mountains with the man he despised, despite his professions of friendship, and his return to civilisation without him, raised in the doctor's mind a dark suspicion of foul play, and it had become an obsession. In his outspoken comments he betrayed a lack, perhaps, of that subtlety without which the diplomat is not likely to succeed in his career, but at least he was honest. But withal Blain was not blind to the difficulty that confronted him in the absence of proof, and how was it possible to obtain proof. As he had observed, "Dead men tell no tales." To make an accusation without a shred of evidence to support it would be fatal to his own career. So he mentally resolved to keep his thoughts to himself in future. It seemed to him that there was not the slightest possibility of the truth ever being divulged. Gordon himself believed that, and considered himself safe. His guilty conscience might torture him, but some men can bear the burden of guilt and laugh. It remained to be seen whether Gordon was a man of that stamp.
The quarrel between two important townsmen in the chief club was not likely to be kept secret, and in the course of a day or two a spicy paragraph appeared in the local paper, and though names were suppressed, it was so worded that the two persons chiefly concerned were pretty clearly indicated, and of course there was a scandal. This decided Blain that the facts should be known, and he issued a summons against Gordon for assault. The local sheet had hinted at "Revelations," and in consequence the public were on the tiptoe of expectancy. But they were disappointed when the case came before the magistrate. It proved a commonplace event, as some thought, who did not know all the facts, "A vulgar, pot-house affair." Blain's solicitor described it as "a brutal, and unprovoked assault." The defendant did not appear. "He was indisposed," in reality he dare not face the ordeal of having to answer possible awkward questions in a court of law; but he was represented by a trumpery solicitor, who declared that his client, "who was well known as a gentleman of unblemished honour," had lost his temper on overhearing some grossly offensive, personal remarks reflecting on his honour, made by the plaintiff, and as the plaintiff had refused to apologise, he "smacked him in the face." The demand for apology was denied by Dr Blain and Mr Cartwright, who appeared as a witness, and the result was Gordon was fined five pounds and costs. Herein the triumph was the doctor's, but a few weeks later Gordon was able to take a minor revenge by enlisting the sympathies of every member of the Hospital Board on his side possibly his threat to withdraw his support from the hospital had something to do with it—and a request was preferred by the Board to Dr Blain to send in his resignation. The doctor had no alternative but to comply, and Dr Evans was immediately appointed, through Gordon's influence, to fill the vacancy.
Blain's dismissal, it could be regarded in no other light, caused a storm of protest in the town, for he was exceedingly popular, but the members of the Board stood firm. The doctor's friends took practical means to show their indignation by entertaining Blain at a public dinner and presenting him with a testimonial. It had been his intention to leave the town, but after this evidence of goodwill he felt it was his duty to remain, and he set up in private practice, and soon had cause to congratulate himself. On the other hand Gordon must have felt that his triumph, after all, was a very small thing. It was true he had a following before whom he posed as a martyr. He made known that after all that he had endured and suffered, and the money sacrifices he had made, in trying to locate in the interests of the town, the alleged rich deposits of gold in the Ranges, he considered it was abominable that his character and honour should be assailed by "an obscure doctor." Of course this went down with the flippant and thoughtless, but he could no longer deceive himself as to the exact position in which he stood. He realised that his popularity had waned.
His cousin, Mary Gordon, was particularly hurt by what was referred to "as a scandalous affair." To her he excused himself by asserting that Dr Blain had been calumniating him for years; that the limit was reached on the day when he grossly insulted him in the Club.
"What could I do, Mary?" he asked pathetically, trying to look tearful. "After all, I am only human, and the way I was insulted was more than flesh and blood could stand, so I slapped the doctor's face. Of course he made a tall story of it, and you know the result."
Mary's sympathies were aroused; it could hardly have been otherwise. She, unfortunately for herself, believed that he had been kind and devoted to Harold; and then had he not given proof of his generosity by cancelling the mortgage. All the same, she suggested that he should leave the town for a considerable time, and return when the whole affair had blown over. This was quite in accord with his own views, he had been contemplating it, and was glad she had put the idea in words. And so, in the course of a week or two after that, he bade a tender farewell, and left Gordonstown for Melbourne, and shortly afterwards she went to Glenbar to take possession of her property.
THAT outpost of civilisation the little settlement of Glenbar was en fête; a general holiday had been proclaimed, and every soul had donned his or her best attire in honour of the occasion. For several days preparations had been going on. A bullock dray, drawn by a span of twelve fine oxen, had come in from Gordonstown, heavily laden with boxes of provisions and all sorts of delicacies. It was followed by a horse wagon with barrels of beer and several cases of wine. A triumphal arch had been erected across the road; it was composed of a light framework of wood, covered with wheat sheaves, flowers and fruits, and above it waved the dear old British flag. It was a really beautiful structure, and did credit to all concerned. The whole place had been made gay and festive with flags, flowers, strips of bunting, even bright-coloured cloths and blankets being pressed into service.
At the entrance to Mary Gordon's house two masts had been set up, and stretched from one to the other was a broad strip of turkey red, on which in white letters appeared the words—"Welcome Home." In the paddock adjoining the house was a huge marquee gaily decorated with flags and flowers, with candle lanterns suspended from various parts of the roof for illumination purposes. In this marquee the banquet was to take place. The beer barrels had been piled up in a triangle at one end. Tables and seats were provided for the accommodation of over two hundred guests; every employee on the estate was invited, arrangements being made for even the shepherds and the herdsmen to be present. It had been intended at first that the feast should take place in the open air, but unfortunately the weather was threatening, and Jim Dawkins wisely determined to get a marquee from the town. A sheep and an ox were also to have been roasted whole in the open, but for the same reason it had been deemed necessary to put up a temporary framework with a corrugated iron roof so that the culinary operations could be carried on despite the weather. Jim Dawkins had been responsible for the whole of the arrangements, and had a free hand to do what he thought proper. His instructions were to do everything on a liberal scale. He had carried out his duties faithfully and with the punctilious regard for detail which was so characteristic of him, though all the time his heart was sad.
Nor was Margaret Bruce much behind. She had superintended the work of the women and children with the assistance of Miss Ruth Welford, who had been appointed mistress of the little school, founded by Mary Gordon, when she came into possession of the property. The house had been furbished up and made bright with flowers. In carrying out the general scheme of the decorations Ruth had been a prime mover, for she was a young lady of artistic instincts, with an excellent eye for colour.
All these preparations, the decorations, the triumphal arch, the marquee, the furbishings, and the barbecue were to celebrate the home-coming of Mr and Mrs Gordon; Mary had become the wife of Oliver Gordon, who had thus made good his boast to Mr Cartwright, the town surveyor, that Mary would never be Mrs Harold Preston, but would be Mrs Oliver Gordon. They had been married six months, and two years had now been numbered with the dead past since Gordon and his two companions had come back from the ill-fated expedition to the Ranges. Of the two companions. George Grindon had since died. His health had been broken down by the hardships he had endured. The other man who had been in Gordon's service had gone home to his native England.
For nearly eighteen months after his quarrel with Dr Blain and the concomitant scandal, Gordon had lived chiefly in Melbourne, paying short visits occasionally to Gordonstown and longer ones to Glenbar. During his visits to the Run he persistently appealed to Mary to marry him. At first she was very resolute in her refusal, saying that she had loved Harold with her whole heart and soul, and could never love any other man. Nothing daunted, Oliver persevered. He told her that she was outraging Nature by remaining single, that it was her duty to link her fortune with his, and thus consolidate the Gordon interest in this district. Poor Mary began to feel bewildered. She appealed to Jim Dawkins, who had become greatly attached to her, and served her loyally and faithfully "for Mr Harold's sake." In his blunt, honest way he said: "I ain't agin you marrying, miss, if you can find the right man, for it's right that a woman should have a husband, but I ain't in favour of your marrying Mr Gordon."
She knew that Jim had always been prejudiced against the Gordons, even against herself at one time, therefore although she had appealed to him, she did not attach the importance to his objection that otherwise she might have done. Then in her distress of mind she turned for consolation and advice to her aunt.
"I have never been much impressed with Oliver," said Margaret, "but I think that under the changed condition of things you might give favourable consideration to his proposal. You are still young, and I don't think you should spend the rest of your life in mourning. All the mourning in the world will not bring Harold to life again; besides, while you are in the world you owe a duty to the living. You have property, Oliver is your cousin, and from all I hear and see the life he is leading now is breaking up hi, health fast. You may save him. You have to consider whether it is not somewhat in the nature of a duty for you to do so. Beyond that I will not go I do not urge you to marry him. You are quite old enough to judge for yourself. I certainly will not encourage nor discourage him. You must work out your own destinies together. Perhaps you would be happier, more contented if you were married, but if you don't marry Oliver, who else is there? Living here, in this out-of-the-way place, what chance is there of your meeting anyone? If you sold your property and went elsewhere, say to England, would you be happier? I say again use your own judgment. I will certainly not take any responsibility one way or the other."
Mary was thus thrown on her own resources. Sortie of the points in her aunt's argument weighed with her, particularly when she referred to the state of his health, and suggested that Mary might save him. She had often felt for him when she had noticed that he appeared to be suffering, and her expressions of sympathy were met by an assertion that he was intensely unhappy, but she could make him happy. She did not know that his peccant past was corroding his present, torturing him, and driving him, as weak men are driven, to seek nepenthe in strong drink. Had she known that she surely would have cursed him.
With the deep subtlety that was part of his nature he played upon her feelings, aroused her pity until in her loneliness and despair she at last felt that she could hold out no longer, though she told him frankly that while she would be a good, faithful, and dutiful wife to him, she could never love him.
"I will take you on those conditions," he said, "in the hope that love will come afterwards."
It thus came about that after his years of scheming and his dastardly crime, he had gained his purpose, and triumphed for the last time.
Mary joined him in Melbourne, where they were married, and immediately afterwards started for New Zealand, and had been travelling about in that country for seven months. Now they were returning to where in future their home would be—Glenbar. From Glenbar the expedition had set out for the Ranges, and to Glenbar Gordon had returned. That was a little more than two years ago. Now he was bringing his bride there, and the home-coming was to be celebrated with feasting and junketting. The weather which had been threatening for some days broke inauspiciously as the husband and wife arrived in a sort of wagonnette with a hood to it. They were greeted by a sharp thunderstorm and a heavy downpour of rain that dashed the flowers to pieces, made the bunting and flags limp, and damped the ardour of the welcome that had been prepared for them. Gordon and his wife both looked very ill, Mary particularly. She had a tired, worn, haggard appearance. Her husband had aged considerably, his face was marked by dissipation, his eyes had a shifty, restless, hunted expression. There was unmistakable evidence that he had suffered—been tortured. The rain poured so heavily that in a very short time everything was bedraggled. The depression that fell on the spirits of everyone was painfully apparent. Mary, followed by Aunt Margaret, went up to her room wearily. As soon as they were alone, she flung off her hat and cloak, and throwing her arms round the neck of Mrs Bruce, burst into tears.
"Oh, auntie," she sobbed, "thank God I am home again. I feel so wretched. I am so ill."
Margaret soothed, comforted her, did not distress her with needless questioning.
"You are tired, dearie, and your condition makes it imperative that you should rest, and be tranquil," she said sweetly. "Now dry those tears. You haven't come home to weep, but to be happy."
"Happy!" the girl repeated with a heart-rending sigh.
"Yes, why not? Come, come cheer up! The wretched weather is enough to make anyone miserable, but we cannot help the weather. There are warm hearts ready to welcome you. We have all been working for days to give you a bright and cheery reception, but this storm has spoilt everything, though it hasn't damped the hearts of those who love you, and there isn't a man, nor woman, nor child on the estate who doesn't love you. So change your things, have a short rest, then we'll go down to the marquee; everyone is just panting to greet you. As for that big-hearted fellow, Jim Dawkins, he'll dance for joy. He is a treasure, is that man. He has carried out your husband's instructions to the letter, and done wonders, I think."
Under her aunt's cheering influence Mary recovered her spirits; one of the maids came up and helped her to change her things, and as soon as she was ready to receive him, Jim Dawkins was admitted. He bore in his hand a magnificent bouquet of choice flowers, which he presented to her with what might be described as graceful awkwardness. A tear or two trickled down his rough, sunburnt cheeks, and there was a huskiness in his throat as he spoke.
"Miss Mary—I beg pardon, miss, I mean Mrs Gordon, it does me real good to see you again; and I hope, miss, I beg your pardon, Mrs Mary, I hope God will bless you and make you happy. I says that from my heart, Miss Mary, I mean Mrs Gordon."
Mary could not suppress a little smile, and she was so deeply touched by the old man's sincerity that she took his brown, weather beaten face in her hands and kissed him.
That spontaneous act overcame Jim, and he wiped his tears away with his knuckles.
"You ain't looking well, miss," he said in honest simplicity; "I beg your pardon, miss, I can't get into the way of calling you Mrs all of a sudden..."
"Never mind, Jim," she said. "Call me what you like. I know that your dear old heart is true to me."
"Indeed it is, Mi—Mrs Gordon," he blubbered in a voice that suggested he had a plum in his throat, and he knuckled some more tears away. "I was saying you are not looking well, but when you have been here a few days you will be all right again." He made a movement as if to leave the room, for the situation was one that taxed his self-possession, and he had exhausted his vocabulary. It was an unique experience for him to talk to a lady in her boudoir. Mary stopped him.
"Jim, are the people in the marquee?"
"Very well then, you and auntie shall take me down."
The three of them went downstairs, and then Mary put one hand on Jim's arm and the other on her aunt's, and they walked into the tent. Her entrance was the signal for a burst of cheering, that lasted—as it seemed to the tired woman—an interminable time. Her husband, who had taken his seat at the head table, rose and would have advanced to meet her, but Jim and her aunt led her forward to the seat next her husband. Margaret sat beside her, and Dawkins sat on Gordon's left. As Gordon did not offer to do it, Mary leant a little forward and addressing Dawkins said:
"Say grace, Jim."
Looking greatly abashed, he rose to his feet, and asked a blessing, while Gordon sat motionless with eyes fixed.
The weather had not affected the appetites of the people, and they did ample justice to the good things spread before them. Such a feast marked a red-letter Jay in their lives. When the knife and fork work ceased Jim Dawkins got to his feet, and made quite a felicitous little speech, beginning with the homely phrase: "Well, chaps and womenfolk." He proposed the health of the bride and bridegroom, referred to the "missus" being dear to them, and expressed a hope "the boss would prove a good sort."
During the time that Jim was talking the boss sat still with a stolid, self-absorbed expression on his red and bloated face, a fixed, lifeless stare in his eyes. When Jim sat down and the applause had ended, Mary glanced at her husband, evidently expecting him to reply, but he seemed to be dreaming, asleep with his bleared eyes open, and oblivious of everybody and everything; so she got up, and with an effort that taxed her sorely and an emotion that imparted a tender tearfulness to her voice, she asked "Dear Friends" to accept the thanks of herself and her husband, and assured them "out of the fulness" of her heart, that she felt "truly glad to be home again." She regretfully referred to the bad weather which had so marred the proceedings, but asked them to make the best of it, and enjoy themselves to their hearts' content, and on the plea that she was tired and not feeling very well, she begged of them to allow her to retire.
It needed no words to express the sympathy all felt for her, it was shown in every face. Without noticing her husband, she turned to her aunt, whispered something, and the two left the tent, Mary leaning on Aunt Margaret's arm. Mary was so done up, felt so ill that she went straight to bed. When she had gone Gordon roused himself a little, laughed inanely, ordered Jim to open another bottle of champagne, and tell the people they could do what "they bally well pleased."
There was a tacit understanding that he could be ignored, and unspoken feelings of regret that "the poor missus should have married such a chap." However, the brief hours were theirs for enjoyment; they were under no restraint; a barn had been cleared for dancing, and the revels were kept up all night. Some fireworks had been sent up from Melbourne, but the persistent rain prevented their being let off, and they were put away for some other occasion. Gordon remained in his seat smoking and drinking champagne and brandy, until overcome he put his arms on the table, buried his face, and slept in that uneasy position until in the cold, grey, damp dawn he awoke dazed and haggard, but he managed to stagger into the house, and throwing himself on to a couch, went to sleep again.
AFTER a few days' thorough rest, combined with the sympathy of all about her, Mary recuperated considerably, although she felt ill, and she decided to call in Dr Blain. When her husband heard of her intention he became furious, swore that Blain should not enter his house, and that if she really wanted a doctor she was to consult Dr Evans, but his own opinion was there was nothing much the matter with her.
It was the first time he had seriously lost his temper in her presence, and the result was he only succeeded in arousing a spirit of independence and determination that staggered him; it was so unexpected.
"You can do as you like, and I intend to do as I like," she said quietly but forcibly. "I am neither your slave nor your servant, and I will not tolerate any interference from you. I am going to send for Dr Blain, and as, no doubt, you are ashamed to meet him face to face, you can take yourself off somewhere. Do I make myself quite clear?"
Upwards of six months of married life had revealed to Mary that she had bound herself to a man whom she could not respect, let alone love. She was painfully deceived in him. He had become a dipsomaniac; when under the influence of drink he cared for nothing or nobody; at other times he proved that he was a weak-willed, bullying creature for whom she could feel nothing but contempt. He was a debased specimen of manhood from whom she shrank with disgust.
Poor woman! She knew that her life was spoilt, that its fair promise of some time ago had resulted in ashes and bitterness. But she prayed in her heart to God that her child, soon to be born, might prove a blessing and a comfort to her. Aunt Margaret and Jim Dawkins compensated her for much suffering. Jim, rough as he was, was stirred by a high and ennobling chivalry. He never attempted to interpose between the husband and wife, but he was as watchful as a house dog, and rightly or wrongly, if need arose, he would have done battle to the death, for Mary's sake. In him the old feud which he thought was dead, whereas it had only been dormant, was aroused, and though he would have gone through fire and water for Mary, he looked upon her husband with a hatred that was hardly concealed.
At Mary's request, he sent one of the hands on horseback with a message to Dr Blain.
"My husband doesn't like Dr Blain, as you know, Jim," she remarked, "but I am going to have him all the same."
"That's right, mum, I like to hear you talk like that. You do a? you like. Your husband ain't got no right to try and boss you in your own place."
Jim was nothing if he was not blunt, and where Mary's welfare was concerned he could rap out with a decisiveness that could leave no one in any doubt as to the state of his feelings.
Mary wrote rather an urgent little note to Blain. "Of course I am aware of the ill feeling between you and my husband," she said, "but I want your service, and I won't have anyone else. I will die first. So please come. Although I am a wife I still remain my own mistress."
Both as a friend and in his professional capacity Blain could not be indifferent to this appeal, and he returned word that he would ride out to the Run in a couple of days' time. On the morning of the day on which Blain was to arrive, Oliver, who was afraid to face the doctor, galloped off to the grazing lands. Mary greeted her old friend with a warmth that was fully reciprocated, but he was shocked to see how much she had changed. She seemed so weary, her poor broken life was so obvious, and the agony of her heart had stamped itself on her face Blain was very tender, very tactful and sympathetic.
"The last three years have taken so much from me and wrought so many changes in my life," she said, "but thank God you have not changed, you remain the same dear, kind, loving old doctor. Ah! if poor Blewitt had never come into the town with those luring tales of hidden wealth how different things might have been," she added with a sigh.
"Kismet," replied the doctor, lifting his shoulders. "It seems sometimes as if destiny deals out some rather cruel knocks. Our poor human comprehension cannot grasp the meaning of it all. Possibly there is a deep meaning, but it is beyond our understanding; we can only endure and wonder. But come, come, we mustn't drift into a speculative argument. You must turn your eyes hopefully to the future, my dear girl, and concentrate your strength of mind, and all the beautiful sweetness of your nature on the child which will soon bring sunshine into your life again. Now I am going to insist on your taking every possible care of yourself. You are a little weak, a bit run down. You must have plenty of rest, keep cheerful, eat plenty of wholesome food. I shall send you a tonic, though you hardly require medicine. You have been worrying yourself, you know, and worry will kill a cat. Don't worry, don't worry, my dear, for baby's sake. You must be quite good to yourself. Now you understand, don't you?"
Dr Blain's visit had a very cheering effect on Mary's spirits. He spent between three and four hours with her and Mrs Bruce, and promised to come regularly one day a week, unless an emergency should arise, in which case she was to send post haste for him. When the time came for him to leave, he and Margaret walked down to the garden gate, where Jim Dawkins was holding his horse.
"That poor girl has been fretting herself to pieces," he said to Margaret. "She is terribly run down; I am just the least bit anxious about her. I want her to sleep as much as possible, and she must have plenty of nourishing food. You will look after her, I am sure, Mrs Bruce. She couldn't be in better hands."
"The poor dear is all I have to live for," sighed Margaret. "When do you expect the baby will be born?"
"I should say in about six weeks. Keep her tranquil as far as you can. Don't let her worry."
"Ah, poor darling, if she could only forget, if she could only forget."
"I understand," replied the doctor, "but we must help her to forget. In a few weeks her motherhood will have calls upon it that will bring new hope, new joy to her. The conservation of her strength in the meantime is of the greatest importance. Please don't forget that," were his parting words as he mounted his horse and rode away into the gathering darkness of the night.
The doctor's professional eye had detected symptoms in Mary's case that were significant; as he himself had said "she had fretted herself to pieces." She had realised when the fatal step had been taken in marrying Oliver Gordon she had wrecked her life. He had managed somehow to throw dust into her eyes, and blind her to facts. It was only when she had become his wife that she discovered how pusillanimous he was, and how putrid was his mind. Nor had she known up to then that he was given to intemperantia bibendi. During their honeymoon tour in New Zealand she had gone through a feverish time of anxiety with him. He had degenerated into a clod with 'no soul, no heart, and so utterly selfish was he that he seemed to be indifferent to her. No wonder she had fretted; no wonder she was glad to get home where the warm hearts of Margaret Bruce and Jim Dawkins were waiting to receive her.
Aunt Margaret was determined that as far as possible her dear niece should be protected from all external influences calculated to irritate and annoy her. And so she gave a warning to Gordon.
"If you don't wish to kill your wife—"
"Kill my wife," he repeated, as his pasty face became ashen.
"Yes," she said, "if you don't wish to kill her, you will keep away from her for some weeks. You must keep away from her."
"I suppose she doesn't love me," he sneered flippantly.
"If she doesn't you have only yourself to blame."
"I suppose so, I suppose so," he gurgled deep down in his throat, and there was a vacancy in his eyes which came often with startling suddenness, as though all the power of concentration was leaving him.
"Why don't you go and stay down at Gordonstown for a time," suggested Margaret. "You have plenty of acquaintances there."
He woke up quickly.
"Gordonstown! Oh no, I hate it now." Perhaps also he was afraid of it, afraid that something might come out of space and reveal his black secret to all who knew him. Yes. He was afraid, and that deadly fear would overshadow him as long as he was on earth. He had no religion. Sometimes at night when he looked up at the stars they begot in him a terrible feeling that there was something wonderful beyond; that death did not mean annihilation, but a passing to—what? A judgment. Yes, surely a Judgment! Man's life is a trust, it carries responsibilities, yes, surely again; he who holds a trust must give some account of it...Yes, surely he passes to judgment. These doubts and fears burned in his brain until he felt as if he must cry out aloud, and he strove to smother that cry—to deaden conscience as cowards do. He was afraid of himself, he shrank from himself. Memory, like an accusing angel, was always with him, save when his brain was steeped in alcoholic stupor; but it was all so transient, and when consciousness returned he was appalled, for there was the accusing angel. "Oh, if one could only forget, only forget," was ever his mental cry.
In the impudence and pride of his youth he considered himself strong minded; he despised the "silly sentiment" so conspicuous in Harold Preston. "In this world it is every man for himself," he used to say, or think, "why the deuce should I worry myself about anyone else? Life's a game, and the player who doesn't wish to go under must be precious cute and cunning." These had been Oliver Gordon's principles, he had lived up to them, acted on them, and what had he to show? He was still young, but the life behind him had raised up gibbering ghosts that goaded him almost to madness; while that before—dark with the impenetrable mystery of the unknown—appalled, and so he was between two horrors. In consenting to marry him, Mary had very wisely stipulated that she should retain her interests in Glenbar; she should have sole controlling power, and in that respect she was legally protected. The consequence was he had no authority, no one respected him—he was a man despised. With bulldog tenacity Jim Dawkins guarded Mary's interests, and dear old Margaret Bruce interposed herself between husband and wife, shielding her from his presence and influence. Notwithstanding his chronically dazed or semi-dazed condition, there was a glimmering of reason left, sufficient to enable him to comprehend that any resistance on his part, any assumption of authority, would only result in still further humiliation.
So the days merged into weeks, and poor Mary remained undisturbed, a prey to her own thoughts, no doubt, but she uttered no complaint; for the sake of her, as yet unborn, babe she endeavoured to keep her mind in that tranquil state which Dr Blain had told her was not only a duty but a vital necessity. Blain visited her once a week, and on those occasions her husband kept out of the way; he had not the courage to meet Blain. These visits were very welcome to Mary; Blain understood her so thoroughly, and he cheered her as no one else could have done. One day when the crisis was approaching he arrived accompanied by a skilled nurse. A room had been prepared for him, as he had arranged to remain for a few days.
It was on a Saturday in the Australian autumn; the weather was beautiful—a soft, balmy air, and dappled pale blue sky. The fierce summer heat of the sun was subdued, but a yellow, golden light bathed the landscape in a dreamy mellow radiance. The night was one of starry splendour, and the opaline dawn came in in a wonderful pageant of changing colour, giving promise of a perfect day, and the promise was fully redeemed. The wind blew with zephyr softness, sweet and gentle as a sleeping child. Silence and peace held all things as if Nature herself had folded her hands in solemn prayer on this holy Sabbath day. Little Miss Ruth Welford assembled the children in the schoolhouse in the forenoon for a Bible class; and in the afternoon the Rev. Walter Sparling, a mild but earnest preacher, came in from Gordonstown to conduct a Church of England service in the evening in the school-house.
Although Glenbar was on the outer fringe of civilisation, those who made it their business to try and save souls considered it a duty to do something for the spiritual welfare of the little community. The Rev. Walter Sparling was a friend of Mary Gordon, and when she came into possession of the Glenbar property she arranged with him to come out on a Sunday afternoon and remain until Monday. The man who should have been the head and guide of that community, Oliver Gordon, was absent on this particular Sabbath which was big with fate, and so in the gloaming, when the sun had left an aftermath of gold and crimson in the west, and night, with her trailing star-spangled robe was advancing in queenly beauty from the east, he did not hear the sweet voices of the children's choir, trained by Ruth Welford, sing the beautiful hymn beginning:
"Glory to Thee, my God, this night
For all the blessings of the light;
Keep me, oh keep me, Kings of kings,
Beneath Thine Own Almighty wings."
On the previous day, with hot heart and dulled brain, he rode out to the grazing lands where he intended to spend some days with the herdsmen until "the affair was over." And as he had no intention of mortifying the flesh by fasting and thirst, he had caused a hamper of provisions and drink to be taken out in advance. No one regarded his absence with any concern; some even considered it was little short of a blessing that he was out of the way. At the close of his service the Rev. Walter Sparling exhorted his small congregation to join him in offering tip a prayer on behalf of Mrs Gordon, and with a simple eloquence he prayed that the Lord would bring Mary safely through her tribulation, and bless and prosper her in all her undertakings. In dismissing his flock with a blessing, he enjoined the children to go quietly to their homes. Soon the hush of the night fell upon the little settlement. The white stars watched overhead, and the breath of the wind as it fanned the trees whispered of eternity.
In the Gordons' home there were lights, subdued movements, and the hush of expectancy. From the window of Mary's room, the window that faced the west, the window at which she had so often sat watching and waiting in vain for the return of the man who held her heart, the light streamed forth into the night until it was absorbed and lost in the darkness. In the small dining-room Margaret Bruce, Dr Blain, Jim Dawkins, the Rev. Walter Sparling, and gentle Ruth Welford were partaking of supper; they seemed to be under a spell of some mystery; the shadow of tragedy moved them to emotion that found its expression in silence. If they spoke it was almost in whispers. The torture of suspense in the heart of each took away appetite and produced that pained, almost despairing apathy which comes when one realises how paltry are human affairs in the presence of pain and wrong. Suddenly the door of the room opened, revealing the presence of the nurse, who said with a note of urgency:
"Doctor, will you come upstairs, please?"
Without a word Blain rose, passed out of the room, closing the door gently behind him. The solemn silence of the little assembly remained unbroken for some minutes, then Sparling spoke, and said almost in a whisper:
"Friends, let us pray," and he recited in low tones, but with an expressive and earnest intonation, the Lord's Prayer, and with a passionate sob repeated twice the words, "Thy Will Be Done."
The night deepened the clock on the shelf ticked off the passing time, which seemed heavy with the burden of an unknown terror. Those who waited with strained expectancy were strung to a pitch of tenseness that was almost unbearable. Outside the calm of Nature remained unbroken; the whispering wind spoke of the dead and gone ages, of the human story always the same—Love and Hate, Envy and Greed, Sorrow and Wrong, Pain and Death. A night bird uttered a strange, bell-like note; the stars kept their unending vigils; the mystery of the darkness filled the great spaces, and each one of the little group was impressed with a vague sense of ineluctable calamity.
The clock struck eleven, ticked away another fifteen minutes, then the door of the room opened silently, and Dr Blain entered; he had a message to deliver.
"Mrs Gordon," he began; his voice broke. Margaret Bruce leaned back in her chair and buried her face in her handkerchief; poor little Ruth bowed her head on the table and sobbed. Jim Dawkins looked as if some unseen hand had struck him a blow, partially stunning him; the Rev. Walter Sparling closed his eyes and prayed silently. The doctor's manner, his tone, his tears proclaimed what he had to tell before he had told it.
"Mrs Gordon...has given birth...to a daughter...the daughter lives, a healthy, well-formed child...but the mother has gone to God!"
SINCE the Preston pioneers had first set their wandering feet in the primitive wilderness of Glenbar, there had been many passings, but it is doubtful if any death had caused such a profound sensation, and thrown the gloom of so deep a sorrow over the settlement, as that of Mary Gordon; it was a tragedy, almost sublime in its pathos; it wrung a chord of sympathy and pity in the heart of everyone who knew her story and the tragic sorrow that had overshadowed her life, a life, in its humble way, as sweet and beautiful and pure as that of any woman who has ever loved and lost. She had given birth to a new life, and in doing so had sacrificed her own, her own so short, but in which she had experienced the ecstasy of a joy so great that it has no words, and a sorrow so profound that the heart breaks.
Only the fools among men question the ways of Providence, but among those who so truly mourned Mary there was unexpressed wonder that this woman, who embodied all that is unselfish, noble, and beautiful in womanhood, should have been called upon to render her spirit to God in return for the child she had given to the world. Why? What was the mystery? Why should she have died? Why was the child born? Had it some great purpose to fulfil? Some great wrong to right? The only answer that could be framed to all these questions was God knows best!
Poor gentle Mary Gordon! If it was possible that she had an enemy, would even that enemy dare to say her life had not been pure and good? It was unthinkable that she had ever borne ill feeling for anyone.
She was laid to rest among her people in the God's Acre at Gordonstown, and throughout the township there was a feeling of profound sorrow. She had been a conspicuous figure in the busy little place. Almost everyone took an interest in the orphan girl; all knew her love story and its tragic ending. Mary Gordon was dead; but Mary Gordon lived again in the baby she had left behind. To Dr Blain, Jim Dawkins, the Rev. Walter Sparling, Ruth Welford, and every soul on the Glenbar Run, her loss was a personal one, for she had endeared herself to all.
When that fatal Sunday night merged into the dawn of the new day a messenger on horseback started for the grazing lands to acquaint Gordon with the loss he had sustained. It was many hours before the drink-sodden brain was able to grasp the meaning of that which was told him. When he did he returned to the settlement, and his thoughts must have been bitter indeed when he stood at the bedside and gazed on the stilled form. Death had taken from the face every trace of pain and sorrow. A holy calm had come to her; she looked a mere girl; loving hands had almost covered her with flowers; she might have been a bride waiting in happy slumber for the bridegroom.
Gordon did not go to the funeral; shame, remorse, fear, no doubt, kept him back. The torture of his soul had been great before her death; it was greater now that she had passed away. No one loved him, but he was not so callous as to be indifferent to the precious legacy his dead wife had left to him, and perhaps the child would come to love him. Perhaps! He spent many days in solitude and moody silence, and it was noted that he refrained from drink. It was hoped that remorse was awakening in him a better feeling; it remained to be seen. To Margaret Bruce he said:
"You were a mother to my wife; you must be a mother to my motherless girl."
"I should be false to Mary's memory if I did not do my duty to her daughter," was Margaret's answer.
The Rev. Walter Sparling christened the child, and when the father was asked what name it should bear, he answered, "Simply Mary."
"To show that the old animosity is dead for ever," urged Margaret Bruce, "add Preston to the name."
At first he protested, but Margaret was persistent, and he yielded, so his daughter was christened "Mary Preston"—Mary Preston Gordon. If the child lived to reach woman's estate she might be curious to know why she bore the name of Preston, learn something of the tragedy of her mother's life, and the beautiful story of her love for Harold Preston, enshrining it in her heart for ever.
Jim Dawkins felt the death of Mary Gordon acutely. He had come to regard her with an affection that was little short of a father's affection for his daughter If he had had any respect or regard for Gordon he might have found compensation, but now he loathed the man, and he resolved to resign his position. It wanted very little reflection, however, to induce him to rescind that resolution, and he decided to remain for the dead woman's sake, and for the sake of the dead woman's child.
As the days, weeks, months rolled by, and the seasons came and went, it was made manifest that Gordon had undergone some process of change. A silent, brooding melancholy had settled upon him. He lived his life apart from everyone. He did not abandon his drinking habits, but retained sufficient control over himself to take an interest in the affairs of the settlement, though he left the management of the business part almost entirely to Jim Dawkins, and loyally and faithfully did Jim justify the trust reposed in him. Gordon had become prematurely old, his hair had turned iron grey; his tortured face was wrinkled and drawn. That he suffered acute mental distress was unmistakable. He sold nearly all the property he owned in Gordonstown, and turned his attention to the development of Glenbar. He carried out many alterations in his house, the house that had so long been the home of the Prestons. He added a new wing, and erected numerous outhouses; built stone cottages for his workpeople, put up a flour mill with improved machinery on part of the estate, built a new school-house, and at the urgent entreaty of his people, a small church which was duly consecrated and a clergyman appointed.
None of the improvements, however, was due to his own initiative; they were due to Margaret Bruce who was ably seconded by Jim Dawkins, and supported by the Rev. Walter Sparling. Had he been left to himself he would probably have sunk into confirmed sottishness, for his will-power was very weak, but old Margaret proved herself to be a woman of great resource, with shrewd business capacity, and she gradually acquired a tremendous influence over him, using that influence wisely and well. But there was another person who also had a great influence upon him, that person was Ruth Welford, a sweet-tempered, bright, intellectual, and exceedingly pretty little woman. She hated him, but for the sake of his child, and in the general interests of the settlement concealed her feelings.
He was as wax in her hands, although curiously enough he never made any advances to her, yet she had only to say do this or do that and he did it. She was the one person to whom he occasionally talked freely, and he revealed to her that he was intensely unhappy. But his moods varied; there were times when he sank into himself, and even she failed to draw him out. Ruth's aversion was instinctive, she positively dreaded him, and told Margaret that she was sure he had something dreadful preying on his mind. Margaret agreed with that, but neither she nor anyone else ever suspected the nature of the corroding secret that made his life a torture, and caused him to shudder at the very thought of death.
For upwards of five years this state of matters continued. By that time Glenbar had developed into what was almost a small town. It was connected by the electric telegraph with Gordonstown. It had its church, its post office, a general store, and twice in that period its school-house had been enlarged, and "Little Ruth," as she was affectionately termed, had two assistants.
Margaret Bruce's foster daughter had grown and developed amazingly. Margaret doted on the child; Ruth had begun to teach her, and all loved her. Her beauty, her precocity and aptitude made her the idol of the settlement, and everyone was struck by her remarkable resemblance to her mother—the same soft brown eyes, the same beautiful gold brown hair, the mould of features, the shape of her hands. Margaret was very proud of her charge, and Ruth was never so happy as when she was engaged in developing little Mary's mental powers. Under the loving care of two such women she could not fail to flourish. She had splendid health, and gave promise of magnificent womanhood.
By this time her father was a wreck. He had become an old and withered man, and no longer made any effort to restrain his craving for drink, but drink now reduced him to a state of silent imbecility. His health entirely broke down, he became a chronic invalid. His daughter was kept from him; he never asked for, and indeed seemed to have entirely forgotten her. The old dining-room, in which there had been so many pleasant little gatherings in the dead and gone past when Harold Preston regarded Oliver Gordon as his truest friend, was devoted to his use. It communicated by means of a French window with the west veranda. On this side of the veranda a mattressed deck-chair was placed, and here he spent most of his time, lying on the chair, his eyes often fixed on the far-off horizon where the Ranges lay in the track of the setting sun.
Old Betsy, who for many years had been Harold's housekeeper, looked after him. He would not have anyone near him; even "Little Ruth" ceased to be welcome, though she visited the house much, and occasionally he would talk with her.
A young, medical man, a Dr Barry, had started to practise in the settlement, and at Margaret Brute's request, he took the wretched man under his care, but as he frankly told Margaret, he could do little for him.
"His life trembles in the balance," he said.
"A spoilt and useless life," Margaret commented with a sigh.
"It seems to me he has something preying on his mind," the doctor remarked.
"Well, he may have," Margaret answered with some warmth; "he ruined the life of my niece, and were it not for the darling child she left behind I should have left him long ago. I will not perjure myself by pretending that I bear him any love, and to be perfectly honest, I hope the Lord will take him soon, as I should be sorry for little Mary to know what kind of man her father is."
"Very probably he may linger for two or three years if he is kept free from excitement," Dr Barry explained; "but his heart is so weak that any sudden shock would assuredly kill him, I'm certain of that."
Margaret's answer was she would not cause him any shock, nor would anyone else on the estate. He must go on lingering until it pleased God to call him.
Jim Dawkins had now become the practical head of the community. He was growing old, but was still active and fairly vigorous. The necessary money for carrying on affairs he drew periodically from Gordon's solicitor, who had a power of attorney, given to him by Gordon a year or so after his wife's death. The consequence was things worked pretty smoothly, as the solicitor was a sensible man, and while keeping strictly within the limit of the powers conferred upon him, he placed no obstacles in Dawkins' way, knowing as he did that the old man's probity and faithfulness were beyond question.
Although Margaret Bruce bore Gordon no love, she was careful to see that he was well looked after, wanted for nothing. She was content to let him drift out—"linger"—as the doctor said, until the end came. Physically he was a pitiable wreck, and now never ventured farther from his room than the veranda, and it was there he passed most of his time. That part of the veranda had been partitioned off on one side so that no one should intrude upon him. The front part was partially screened by a sun-blind, and three or four wooden steps led down to a narrow path that crossed the garden, ending at a wicket gate, giving access to the road. Here Oliver Gordon passed his days with only memory for his companion, and memory tortured him. He had wrecked his own life, squandered his gifts, and steeped his soul in guilt. Then one day something happened suddenly, and memory troubled the co-ward no more.
DURING those long, and to him, dreary months and years that Oliver Gordon had been trying to deaden the pangs of his guilty conscience, a memory must have persistently visualised the terrible scene in the Ranges when with execrable treachery he deserted his fever-stricken companion, to die alone in the solitude, having failed to kill him in cold blood. He persuaded himself that Harold's death was a certainty, but like nearly all men who do evil deeds he made one grave error, and did not admit into his calculations the factor of chance or possibility. Regarding Harold as of a certainty, doomed to death, he should have waited until his companion had ceased to breathe; he could then have returned to civilisation with a truthful story, and his conscience would have been free from the burden of cowardly desertion of a sick and helpless man. Although he had been moved by an overmastering impulse to kill him, his own nervous condition had saved him from that crime, and he might have found some consolation from the thought that though his heart had been filled with murderous intent, he was not a murderer in fact. But he deserted him deliberately and with a callousness that was devilish. It was an outrage on all the unwritten laws of comradeship of men who go forth to face danger together; it was the negation of all heroism; a cowardice so base as to make human forgiveness impossible. Better, a thousand times better, to die as a hero, than drag out a miserable existence with the haunting knowledge that a companion in the throes of deadly illness has been left alone, far removed from human comfort and help. Only a man hardened against every feeling of pity could have lent himself to such infamy in order that he might secure a passing advantage.
Gordon had triumphed over his rival, but at what a fearful cost. He had wrecked the happiness and life of Mary, and brought a curse upon himself. The fact that Preston did not succumb did not lessen the coward's crime of guilty intent. He had poured into the sick man's ear the confession of his hate, accused him of having overshadowed his life, and told him that he had mentally vowed to separate him from the woman he loved and who loved him. All this in circumstances that enhanced the horror of his cruelty; it was the acme of brutality that carried its own punishment, though Gordon did not think of that at the time.
When, after hours of unconsciousness, Harold awoke to a realisation of his companion's treachery, his whole nature suddenly changed, and he made a mighty effort of will to live—to live that he might kill the wretch who had betrayed him, and he took an oath that the bullet which had been intended for him should find Gordon's heart. It has been said that "the great things which change existence come sideways and disconcert all human plans." This was to be proved true in Preston's case in a remarkable manner. The great effort he made to recover the pistol and bullet Gordon had used against him all but snapped the slender thread of his life. Indeed it is pretty certain he would not have survived had it not been for something that came sideways in the sense of the foregoing quotation. That he had exceptional vitality was proved by the fight he had made against the prostrating fever. He awoke as from a profound sleep to find a man bending over him, a white man, strange to say, though a wild-looking, half-naked fellow. And the first words that greeted him were:
"How do you feel now, mate?"
His still semi-dazed senses prevented him for some time from realising the situation. He closed his weary eyes and slowly, very slowly, his brain began to piece the incidents that had occurred until they ran consecutively and made a connected story. But when he opened his eyes once more he was under the impression that he must be dreaming, for like a vision he saw the white man bending down, and behind him a number of naked blacks armed with spears. He was pitiably weak and very weary, but he tried to understand the picture. The black men alone would not have caused him any surprise. But the white? What did it mean?
"Are you feeling better, mate?"
The English tongue served to restore his power of concentrated thought, and he asked feebly:
"Who are you?"
"Don't ask questions now. You're ill."
"Yes, I'm ill."
"What are you doing here alone?"
"I've been deserted, and left to die by a man I regarded as a pal."
"God!" ejaculated the white. "How long has he been gone? I'll put the blacks on him and kill him."
Harold raised himself on his elbow and grasped the man's arm with the energy of desperation.
"No," he said. "I will kill him myself."
"Well, mate," said the man with a short laugh, "you don't look like killing anyone at present. Strikes me-you're in a bad way."
Harold was too exhausted for any sustained effort, and fell back again.
"Carry me to the cave there," he said, indicating the direction; "there are food and medicine. Pull me through. I must, I will live."
The man rose to his feet, said something to his companions in their own language, and in a few moments the sufferer felt himself lifted up and being carried; he closed his eyes, content for the moment to wait for the revelation of what seemed little short of a miracle. His enemy had deserted him, but now it seemed that unknown friends had suddenly appeared, like a miracle, to save him. He persuaded himself that he would live; that thought acted as a powerful tonic on his debilitated frame; and there was another thought—a belief, still more powerful—the God of all men, Whom he had invoked to help him, was not going to let him perish. It did not occur to him at that crisis that the Lord had said "Vengeance is mine." He had sworn an oath to kill a fellow-being, and called upon God to help him. If he had been able to think more coherently he might have asked himself whether the Lord was going to make him an instrument of vengeance? He had always had a reverence for the spiritual side of things, and had ever been disposed to forgive those who wronged him. But now he was a changed being. His whole nature had undergone a revolution; he was on fire with a blood lust; he wanted to kill, kill—destroy, and cast out of the world to eternal damnation one man who had wrecked him, deserted him; no other thought than that of a desire for human vengeance had a place in his brain. "Forgive your enemies and leave vengeance to the Lord" as a moral principle of the Christian faith is sublime But a man only recognises it so long as he has no en envy to forgive; let someone do him a deadly injury, and his heart hardens against all moral doctrines.. He will have vengeance either directly or through the instrumentality of the law if he respects the law under which he lives. In Harold's case, so thoroughly had his nature changed that he would be a law unto himself; he would recognise no law, human or divine, in his efforts to destroy his enemy. In his delirium he had denied God.
The tremendous desire to live, to live but for one purpose—vengeance—took from him dread and pain alike, but it could not perform a miracle; it could not instantly restore his physical strength so that he might rise up, overtake the man who had betrayed him, and slay him in the wilderness before he could work further mischief. Something like a miracle had come to pass in the opportune arrival of the mysterious' white man and his black companions, but Preston was compelled to acknowledge to himself that he was desperately ill—a physical wreck. The little medicine chest that Gordon had considerately left behind contained a few drugs which Preston was able to utilise with the assistance of the white man, and the following day his pulse was almost normal, the temperature had gone down, but the extreme weakness continued. The presence of the other man cheered and comforted him, and gradually he told him the story of the return of Bill Blewitt from the Ranges, the setting out of the expedition, the death of Blewitt in the wilderness, the fruitless search by himself and Gordon for the golden valley, and the catastrophe when he was stricken down with fever, basely deserted by his companion, and left to die alone in the solitude of the mountains.
The listener displayed a keen interest in the story. "Did poor old Blewitt tell you what became of his chums?" he asked.
"Yes. Two died, the third disappeared in the mountains, but no doubt he died too."
"No, he didn't, mate, he lived on. I am that man." Preston turned his sunken eyes on him and stared in amazement.
"Yes," he continued. "I went off by myself one day prospecting, and fell in with a black tribe who collared me. They would have speared me no doubt, but I could speak a bit of their lingo which I had picked up while gold-hunting in Queensland a few years ago. I told 'em I was a white spirit of the mountains, and could help 'em to smash their enemies. They took it in. They happened to be on the warpath, as another tribe up in the north had knocked stars out of 'em some time before. We went after the other lot, I led my chaps, and we came out top dog. Now they stick to me like leeches, and won't let me clear. They've made a chief of me, and we've mixed blood."
"And what's your name?" asked Preston eagerly.
"Jack Pringle. I was born in Devonshire in the old country, but came to the Colonies with my parents when I was a kid. All my people are dead, so there's no one to miss me."
Preston remained silent for some little time; he was thinking it all over, and the more he thought the stronger became his conviction that he would recover. But his mental distress was agonising as he grasped the full meaning of Gordon's action. When he deserted him he must have felt convinced that the spark of life would be extinguished in a few hours, and that he could return to civilisation and his triumph would be complete, he would possess himself of the Glenbar property, and might even persuade Mary to become his wife.
Harold Preston would have been a dullard indeed had he failed to see how probable all these things were, and further, that his continued absence would be regarded as evidence of his death. And yet what could he do? Between him and civilisation lay many hundreds of miles of jungle and waterless desert. For one man to attempt to traverse those hundreds of miles was to go to almost certain death, and yet Harold would have faced the risk had his health permitted, but he was a wreck, and it would, even in the most favourable circumstances, be a considerable time in all probability before there was any decided improvement in his health. It took a long time to recover strength after such an illness as he had gone through.
He saw everything as in a vision, and his heart turned to stone; the righteousness that had hitherto filled his soul, adding nobility to his character, was crushed out, and hate and bitterness reigned in its stead: this hate was so intense that it held him with a fierce desire—a desire to destroy Oliver Gordon and all that was his, destroy him, body and soul. Nothing, he was sure, would ever make him relent. Life for him now had but one meaning, one aim to hate and destroy.
For days he lay helpless as a babe, attended by Jack Pringle and Pringle's black friends; in his helplessness he cursed his fate, invoked a thousand curses on Gordon, and impiously railed against Providence for laying him low and allowing Gordon to triumph. There was every excuse for this state of mind; he had been cruelly treated, and it wanted something more than ordinary faith and ordinary piety to stand firm, in face of the disasters that had come upon him.
"What have I done?" he cried in the agony of his soul, "that God should blast me in such a way? God! There is no God, or if there is, He is cruel and merciless. Away, faith! I demand vengeance on the man who has done me such inhuman wrong."
So the days passed, every day he seemed to grow more bitter, and the suspense and his impatience retarded his recovery. Pringle in his rough way tried to console him, and he made known that the golden valley where Blewitt had discovered the gold was but a few miles away. He declared there were vast riches awaiting them, and he tried to cheer his sick companion by promising to conduct him to the wonderful gold deposits as soon as he was able to walk. But Preston displayed no interest. His hate overpowered every other consideration.
"There may be trillions of pounds' worth of gold there, but what is the use of it to us? If it were all mine I would give every ounce of it if I could get the man who has wronged me within my reach so as to torture, kill him, and damn his soul."
"Well, it's a queer sort of world, mate," commented Jack with the expression of a philosopher. "Most men would kill each other for the sake of getting at the gold, but you would let the gold go to get at the man."
"You don't know how great is the wrong he has done me," said Preston fiercely. "I am hungering, for vengeance."
"And perhaps you'll have it, mate."
"Yes, by hell I will," exclaimed Preston with an outburst of energy that left him weaker than ever. "Ah me!" he groaned as he fell back again. He found it so hard to submit to the weakness he could not overcome. But when a man is in the grip of a fell disease, he begins to realise the littleness of human life, and gradually Preston resigned himself to the situation which no mortal power could alter. He must wait with patience for what might come to pass. If he fretted, fumed, and railed against fate it would only retard his recovery; the flame of his life was flickering, and only care and watchfulness could keep it burning. All this was so obvious that he could not remain indifferent to it, and by a slow but certain process the mental storm that had threatened his sanity began to subside; his fortitude was severely tested; but he summoned every atom of his powers of endurance to his aid and left the rest to Nature.
A fortnight passed, and though he was still helpless, there were marked signs of improvement. Jack Pringle proved himself a true comrade, and in his rude way he did his best to nurse the sick man back to health and strength.
"The black fellows are going to return to their settlement in the north," he informed Harold one morning; "and you and I must go with them."
"Yes. There's no help for it, chum. You've got to look matters square in the face, you know. They won't let me clear out, and if we left you here you'd die. You can't go back to Glenbar yet, so you've no choice, old fellow."
Harold groaned, but he understood that it was the only course open to him, and he must submit.
With extraordinary ingenuity some of the natives improvised a rough but comfortable sort of litter with spears and branches of trees; on this the invalid was placed and carried by relays for several days, until the tribe reached their settlement on the banks of a river that flowed north through dense scrub. It was a primitive wilderness into which the white explorer had not yet penetrated, and here the aborigines had made their home for generations.
A DWELLING-PLACE was allotted to Harold, and a gin (native woman) to look after him. The dwelling was a hovel of piled logs; the woman was young, but hideously ugly. Jack advised him to do nothing to offend the natives.
"Our lives are in the hands of these blacks," he cautioned. "It doesn't take much to turn them from friends to enemies, and their spears are precious long and go clean through a fellow. The gin will be as faithful as a dog to you if you make her understand that you are her master."
The advice was not lost upon Harold: The futility of any opposition was too apparent to be overlooked. He felt a revulsion for the woman at first, but soon E roved the truth of Jack's prediction. She was "as faithful as a dog," and nursed him with a tenderness that was truly womanly. He was at least grateful, and endeavoured to impress upon her that he appreciated her attention. He named her "Jinnie," suggested to him by the common name for the native women. But despite his extraordinary vitality and Jinnie's care, many months passed before he thoroughly recovered from the illness that had prostrated him. During that time he had picked up sufficient of the language to enable him to converse with the natives. He found that they attributed to him and his white companion supernatural powers, and regarded their presence amongst them as a good omen, though how they were affected by it neither he nor Jack could understand. However, that was a detail about which there was no necessity to concern themselves; the fact remained, and so long as it remained they were safe.
Jack's thoughts were for ever running on the gold in the Ranges, Harold's on the great purpose of his life—Revenge—and the means of escape whereby that purpose might be carried out. But he was beset by a thousand difficulties. He was farther than ever from civilisation, and how could he hope to make his way back alone? The one and only chance—and that was a forlorn one—was to reach the sea coast, the nearest point, as he gathered from the natives, being about one hundred and fifty miles away. Even if he succeeded in gaining it, what then? Perchance he might be able to attract the attention of a passing ship, but that "perchance" reduced him at times to almost maddening despair. As he dwelt upon the past it had a tendency to reconcile him to his lot, for the unexpected had happened so frequently that it might happen again.
The companionship of Jack Pringle was a great solace to him. Jack had thoroughly adapted himself to the wild, barbaric life, for he was a cheery optimist, and frequently discussed with Harold the possibility of being able to open up to civilisation the rich gold deposits of the Ranges. He had gained great influence over the tribe, but it was not until two years had passed that he was enabled to induce a strong party of them to visit the Ranges again on a "hunting expedition." They cared nothing for gold; they did not understand its value, it had no meaning for them; but hunting, with a possible fight by the way, was irresistible, and so one day, a hundred strong, with Harold and Jack among them, they started south. Jack had no difficulty in locating the gold valley, and Harold had ocular demonstration of its riches. It was situated within six or seven miles of the gorge where he had been so basely deserted by Gordon. And as he recalled all the incidents of that terrible time his hate strengthened, and he mentally renewed his vows of vengeance, although subconsciously he understood that his chance of fulfilling those vows grew more remote as time went on. It made him gloomy and misanthropic. The idea of having to pass the rest of his life as a savage was maddening. He proposed to Pringle that as they were in the Ranges they should make an attempt to escape, but Jack was dead against it. They were without equipment of any kind, and though they had learnt much from the blacks, he insisted that the difficulties of such a journey to men in their position were insurmountable, and they would be sure to perish.
Reflection served to convince Harold that this was true. He remembered how he and his companions, well organised as they were, suffered, and how could two men without food and water or arms hope to sustain life during such a long and terrible journey. Blewitt's two companions had died on the way back, and Blewitt's escape was little short of a marvel. No, Nature interposed barriers between them and civilisation that could not be surmounted without proper equipment. Inured as they both were to hardships now, and with a knowledge of native ways, they could not, nevertheless, live without food and water. Even the blacks gave the thirst lands a wide berth. Their sagacity was astonishing. They knew how to find the nardoo plant and made food of the seeds; they would eat the flesh of snakes and lizards, and dig down into the earth to the tap roots of trees and suck their moisture; but in the desert lands there were no trees, and though snakes and lizards were there, not even an Australian black can keep body and soul together without water.
Harold was aware of all this, and though he had suggested an attempt at escape, he saw the madness of it. No, the time had not yet come, but not for a day, for an hour, for a moment did he cease to dream, of it. It would surely come, he persuaded himself, but, oh! how weary the waiting was. Sometimes in his loneliness he became desperate. He could not be blind to the fact that his prolonged absence would be accepted by his friends as proof positive of his death, and how could he doubt for a moment that Oliver Gordon as mortgagee of his property would possess himself of it. He recalled Mary's promise: "Whatever the fate of the years may be, my hope and my heart will wait for you," but however strong her love it was contrary to human nature that she would continue to wait for a dead man. This thought tortured him almost to the verge of madness, and so unendurable was his position at times, that he felt inclined to kill himself, but a something he could not quite understand restrained him.
During all the long and weary time since that terrible day in the gorge, when he knew he had been deserted by the devilish man he had once regarded as his faithful friend, he had treasured the pistol, and the bullet with which Gordon had attempted to kill him. It was a sort of talisman that served to nerve him to still suffer and endure in order that he might accomplish what was now the only purpose of his life—vengeance. Everything that had given him faith, pleasure, happiness, had been taken from him, and that by the act of one man whose crime could only be expiated by death. He recalled the devotion of poor old Blewitt who, sustained by one great purpose, had struggled through the wilderness, his footsteps dogged by death, in order that he might requite an act of kindness. Was he less than Blewitt? He, too, had a debt to repay; it was true his purpose was not the noble one that had sustained the old bushman, but he was a mortal man living in a wicked world, and had been so terribly wronged by a fellow-man, that he would have been less than human had he felt no resentment. Oliver Gordon's treachery and cruelty had placed him beyond the pale of forgiveness. In all civilised countries murder is a supreme crime which must be atoned for by supreme punishment; Oliver Gordon was a murderer at heart, though the law could not deal with him, and yet he was the blackest of criminals.
So through all his changing moods Harold came back to that one purpose and it kept him alive, though time seemed to bring him no nearer its accomplishment. Although he 'had become inured to the savage life, and it was less irksome, he could not reconcile himself to it. To an intellectual and cultivated man, as he was, the savagery of his surroundings was a never-ending torture. In Jack Pringle's case it was different. He was uneducated; he had no intellectual desires. He had even lost interest in the gold deposits of the "Golden Valley," which would have given him riches beyond the dreams of avarice if he could have worked them. He had become a savage himself; he went about nearly naked as the savages themselves did. He had learnt their rites, their mysteries, their superstitions; he was the father of children, he had native wives, and it was doubtful if he would now have exchanged the wild, free, careless life for that of civilisation even if he could have done so. He would have forgotten even his mother-tongue had it not been for the companionship of Harold. Obviously he was contented; he was growing old; he had nothing to look forward to, he desired nothing, he would simply be as a caged animal in a civilised community. The wild life suited him best.
With Harold it was different, and when five years had passed he was still unreconciled, still unsubdued; his hatred for the recreant brute who had wronged him was as strong as ever. By this time he was prematurely aged. The sun had tanned him to the colour of a Hindu. The hair of his head hung long and matted about his shoulders; a heavy moustache and full beard hid the lower part of his face. In other respects the primitive life seemed to have agreed with him; he was very healthy, very strong, whilst his powers of endurance were equal to those of the blacks themselves; neither the sun nor the terrific heat of the tropics affected him. He was conscious of these things and thankful for them, as he had made up his mind to a desperate attempt to return to civilisation, and he knew that strength and endurance were necessary to success if he had to traverse the wilderness. His perception had been quickened; he had learnt the native ways and could live as they lived. He had become singularly expert in the use of the boomerang and spear, and could bring birds and animals down as well as any black fellow.
But about this time an incident and a tragedy occurred which dashed his hopes once more. Jack Pringle, a much older man than Harold, began, curiously enough, as the passing years were telling upon him, to hanker after the gold again. It became an obsession with him; it was a lust, for it was pretty certain he would never have taken kindly to civilisation. Perhaps his mind had given way a little, but whatever it was the desire to possess gold became a ruling passion. He told his black friends that gold was the white man's god, that he worshipped it, and persuaded them that if they possessed quantities of gold they could gain power over white men in the event of their coming to that part of the country. The argument was effective, and a party of fifty was made up, including Jack and his brother white man, and started for the Ranges again. They were provided with rough appliances, and on reaching the gold valley they immediately set to work to wash the sand of the bed of the stream. The result was that in a short time they had secured several hundred pounds' worth of scale gold. Then it suddenly flashed upon Harold's mind that it would be necessary for him to be in possession of money in the event of his succeeding in returning to a civilised community, so he took means to secrete a little hoard of the gold, and suggested to Jack that as they were now in the Ranges they should make a dash for the wilderness; but Pringle would not hear of it, and declared that nothing on earth would induce him to leave his friends, but he opposed no objections to Harold going if he desired to do so.
"You have reasons for going, old man," he said; "I have none. I could not live in any other way than I am living now. I am a savage, and will die a savage; but you go, kill your enemy, and come back. You will be safe and happy here."
"I will go, but I don't suppose I shall ever come back," said Harold frankly.
Mistaking his meaning jack said gloomily:
"No, the thirst lands will take you as they took my other chums."
Harold allowed the subject to drop. He felt it was better to let Jack retain that idea. He made such preparations for flight as were possible in the circumstances, and determined to avail himself of a dark night to start. But one night the little party was thrown into a state of excitement by seeing a fire blazing about a mile away in the direction of the foothills. Two or three of the tribe crept cautiously forward to ascertain what it meant. In a little while they returned with the information that a number of black men belonging to a tribe with which they were at deadly feud were encamped out there, and he and his tribe resolved to attack them. Against this course both Harold and Jack protested on the grounds that they did not know the strength of the enemy, and it would be better to conceal themselves until the morning. But their friends were too excited to listen to reason. These primitive children of 'the Australian wilds were ever ready for a fight. Endowed with the cunning and instincts of savage animals, they would track down their enemies as an animal tracks down its prey.
Harold and Jack saw the uselessness of opposing the unanimous resolve of their party, and they knew that if they refused it would be taken as a sign of cowardice, and they would of a certainty be killed. They therefore consented to lead them. In the form of a crescent the attackers crept forward, Harold at one horn of the crescent, Pringle at the other. They moved as silently as panthers until they came within striking distance of about a dozen naked blacks crouching round a fire. Both Harold and Pringle, as if acted upon by some mental telepathy, resolved to refrain from taking any part in the attack on this little body of defenceless men, but their companions, mad with excitement and blood-lust, rushed forward with a tremendous shout and hurled their spears. Several men fell at the first onslaught, the others seized their weapons and made a brave resistance, but it was all useless; they were overcome and slain. One of the attacking force was killed, and two wounded, one of the two being Jack Pringle. A spear, probably thrown at random, pierced his chest, and he was found lying unconscious on the ground with blood pouring from the wound. Harold was distracted; he himself drew out the spear though with great difficulty, and the natives, who were clever at stanching blood, stopped the bleeding, bore their companion back to their own camp, and all night long Harold sat beside him, tending him and comforting him as best he could.
At the dawn of day the party set off with their wounded companions for their settlement, where their witch doctors and gins would endeavour to save their lives. But Harold had no hope of Jack, he felt sure that the lung had been pierced, and the wounded man knew that his end was not far off.
"They've spiked me, old man," he said to Harold, "and I'm done for. The pain's awful." He spoke with difficulty, and blood oozed from his mouth. "When I'm gone, chum, you make tracks, but don't forget the gold. You've been a good pal, and the Lord love you."
Harold was overwhelmed with sorrow. He felt as if some malignant foe was working against him. The natives travelled with extraordinary rapidity, and soon reached the camp, where they were received with wailing and mourning. Incantations and mysterious ceremonies were performed by the witch doctors and the women over the wounded men, and a rough kind of surgery was resorted to; in the case of the black man it seemed to be effective, but Pringle had been too surely stricken to death. Harold bewailed his helplessness, but what could he do. Skilful as the Australian blacks are in treating wounds, they cannot heal a pierced lung, and poor Pringle gradually drifted out, dying on the fourth day after his return to the camp.
THE death of Pringle was a great shock to Harold; he felt his loss tremendously; it accentuated his loneliness and strengthened his determination to escape. Five years had now passed since he left his home, young, hopeful, pulsing with lofty ideas. Now he was old before his time, and all the great possibilities that filled his vision five years ago had faded for ever. He did not attempt to disguise from himself that if he succeeded in reaching the home where he had spent so many happy years everything would be changed. He had been mourned as dead, and by this time was forgotten; but when he thought of Gordon in possession of Glen bar, perhaps the husband of Mary, flourishing and living at his ease, and regarded as a person of wealth and importance, it fired his blood and tortured his brain until he felt that he could curse God and die. Die! no, not die while Gordon lived: his great purpose must be fulfilled and when he had wreaked vengeance on the man who had ruined him, then he would willingly give up his existence, for what interest would the world have for him after? His embittered, desolate life would be better ended. These sad thoughts held him, haunted him. He heard a voice in the night calling: "Come, come; vengeance shall be yours."
His days were pitiless with a corroding misery; the savagery amidst which he lived filled him with loathing whenever in fancy he saw his enemy occupying a position which commanded the respect and deference of his fellows. He could not by any stretch of the imagination picture Gordon a prey to remorse. If anyone had told him that Gordon was a wreck, a haunted wretch, to whom life was a burden, and yet death terrified him, he would have laughed that person to scorn. No, to his mind his enemy was a man who could commit a crime one day, and wipe it out of his memory the next with simply a slight effort of will. It was but natural that his thoughts should thus shape themselves. He had never understood Gordon, had never been able to see into the inner recesses of his soul. To a man who wore his heart upon his sleeve as Preston did the subtlety of other men was incomprehensible, and when he first realised Gordon's villainy the shock stunned him. Even when he began to doubt he could only vaguely apprehend Gordon's capabilities of deception, and when at last the truth in all its hideous nakedness was revealed, it utterly transformed his nature.
About six months after that fatal fight in the Ranges when poor Jack Pringle's life was sacrificed, chance seemed to favour Preston, and he resolved on a desperate attempt to escape. For some time there had been a mysterious illness among the natives; without apparent suffering the patient became inert, refused food, was seized with insatiable thirst, gradually sank into coma until death supervened. The witch doctors cast spells and made divinations whereby they discovered that their enemies had sent evil spirits among them, and the only way to escape their accursed influence was to break up the camp, where they had resided for so many years, and proceed to the east, having first exorcised the evil spirits by means of enchanted fires, the sacrifice of two children, and the sprinkling of their blood over their chief, Totem.
Harold heard of this contemplated move of the camp with joy, for he knew that eastward was the Pacific Coast, and if he could succeed in reaching the coast some means of proceeding south might be found. The ceremony of exorcising was spread over seven days. During the whole week great fires were kept burning round the settlement, and were fed with a peculiar brushwood that filled the air with a pungent acrid smoke, and each night as the moon rose living snakes were cast into the flames. On the seventh night the Totem was brought out. It consisted of a block of wood on which the figure of an impossible animal had been crudely carved. Two babies were then put to death, and when the blood from their bodies had been sprinkled over the Totem it was cast into a fire, around which the blacks performed a weird dance, accompanying it with a chorus of wails and groans. Of course after such terrible rites as these every evil spirit was done for, and the next day the whole tribe started on their eastward journey. In the course of a few days the extraordinary wisdom of the witch, doctors was thoroughly established; for the mysterious illness disappeared as the tribe moved on towards' the rising sun, through dense undergrowth and thick jungle. Their impedimenta consisted principally of what each man could carry, and without any organised formation save that the women and children kept together in a compact body, the tribe straggled through the bush, scouts being sent on in advance to give warning should danger threaten, but only one other small tribe of friendlies were met with, and they fraternised for several days. So through the primeval wilds they moved on for weeks through a fairly well-watered district, their boomerangs, spears, and blow-pipes providing them with food.
Harold Preston, scantily clothed as the rest were, and barefooted, was able to accommodate himself to the ways and habits of the natives. His feet had become as hard as iron, the exposed parts of his body were burnt to the colour of copper, whilst the matted hair of his face and body gave him a truly savage appearance. He had learnt the native ways of providing himself with food and water, and could cast a boomerang or hurl a spear with the best. He no longer had any fear of trusting himself alone to the wilderness; the experience he had gained would enable him to live where other white men would starve. The further the tribe advanced east the fiercer became his desire to cut himself adrift from his companions, and seek out and destroy the man who had ruined him.
But for that overmastering desire he would have been content to have ended his days as a savage, but in him was kept alive the feud that had so long existed between his family and the Gordons. A Gordon had broken him and triumphed over him, and he felt that the bones of his people would turn in their graves if he failed to exact a heavy penalty. He thoroughly realised the utter futility of appealing to the laws of civilisation for redress. In such a case as his the law could not aid him. He could only rely upon the traditional law of the savage which was in effect—"If a man wrongs you kill him and exterminate all that is his. Blood and death alone can atone."
It was the elemental law of all savage races; nevertheless Harold did not close his eyes to the fact that however cruelly a man may have been wronged, if he killed his enemy civilisation would regard it as murder, and condign punishment would follow. But that thought had no deterrent influence over him. Stealthily as a savage, he would track his wronger down, and having killed him would outlaw himself for ever by seeking refuge among his black friends once more, where not even the long arm of civilised law would be able to reach him. His whole life, all his thoughts and feelings were now centred in the one desire for vengeance. The spiritual side of his nature was dead, or at least dormant. He had neither faith nor fear now. All the altruism and tender sentiments of his youth and early manhood had been hardened out of existence. He had lived a clean life, he had been honest, and within the narrow range of his sphere of action he had endeavoured to do good. He had worshipped at the shrine of Nature and through Nature to Nature's God, and yet God, in Whom he had once believed, had allowed a treacherous man to rob him of all that he held dear in life, and while the wicked man flourished he had been condemned to years of bitterness and suffering in savage exile. "No, there is no God," he repeated.
Thus in the fierce bitterness of his heart he reasoned; he was human, and thought and reasoned as a human, and he steeled himself against all belief in the justice of Providence, and the goodness of a God who allowed wickedness to prevail over righteousness. Impious as this may seem, it was, after all, very human, for few are the men, conscious of some rectitude and strivings for the better life, who can keep faith whole in the face of persecution and wrong. It does sometimes seem to our poor human understanding that in this strangely constituted world the honest man is allowed to suffer and be trampled upon, while the wicked flourish and are acclaimed. In civilised communities poverty is regarded as little short of a crime, while men bow down and worship the possessor of riches, however wicked he may be. Harold Preston was no exception to the rule that men form their judgment of things in accordance with the point of view from which they view them. Between preaching and practice there is a wide difference, and the abstract principles of the Christian doctrine often seem to be irreconcilable with the stern realities of human life.
After many weeks of wandering the tribe came at last to a luxuriant valley among the foothills of a low range of mountains. It was a wide open valley, well watered and wooded, and here the nomads decided to pitch their camp for a time at any rate. The scouts pushed forward to the mountains which they ascended, and on their return reported that they had seen great waters stretching out far and far to the sky. When Harold heard this a joy that was like a fever seized him, for he knew that the great waters must be the Pacific Ocean; but he held himself in check, hard as it was to do so. For a moment he thought of appealing to his black friends to allow him to go, but reasoning it out he came to the conclusion that it was running a risk, for if they refused they would exercise more vigilance and prevent his escape. So he waited with such patience as he could bring to bear for a favourable opportunity, and in the course of the ensuing fortnight the opportunity came.
Nearly the whole of the tribe went on a reconnoitring expedition; he was to have gone, but pleaded illness and was left behind with the women and children, and a few of the very old men. He occupied a hovel with Jinnie, who was now old and withered, and in the dead of night, armed with some boomerangs, two spears, and in possession of a quantity of gold which he had brought from the gold valley, and carrying a small native cooking vessel and a wooden cup, he stole noiselessly out of the camp, and set his face to the mountains. Jinnie was sleeping soundly when he left. The night was dark, but the bush had no terrors for him now. He kept his course by the stars, always going eastward, and when the sun rose in a pageant of splendour there were the mountains before him. He knew that he had taken his life in his hands, and was faced with mystery and uncertainty; but his purpose sustained him, and if he could reach the ocean he might find some means of going south. He came to a broad river and swam across it, then threw himself down in some scrub and fell asleep. When he awoke the sun was declining in the west. He felt refreshed, strengthened, and buoyant with hope. He pushed on, began to ascend, and gaining the summit of a ridge about two thousand feet high, beheld the vast Pacific shimmering in the golden light of the setting sun.
Every fibre of his being throbbed with excitement; he felt as if he must weep, and by an impulse, which he could hardly understand, he went down on his knees and bowed his head to the ground as an act of adoration to the sea to which he had so long been a stranger. The sight of the mighty waters awakened in him some of his old love for Nature. There was no wind, the silence was impressive, and the marvellous beauty of the scene which his thirsting eyes drank in stirred him to an emotion which actually found expression in tears; it was sure and certain evidence that the sentiments of his soul, which he had thought to be dead, were only dormant. He estimated that about forty miles lay between him and the shore. Two days' travelling; two days! In two days he would be able to lave himself in the sea; the mere thought of it begot in him a sort of ecstasy, and in spite of himself his soul was lifted up a little out of the darkness. The descent of the mountains on the eastward side was not easy. A succession of broken and precipitous terraces presented at times insurmountable obstacles, and frequently he had to retrace his steps and search for an easier way. The solitude was almost overpowering; there was not a sign of human life; he felt as if he were the sole survivor of a deserted world.
At last the mountains were behind him, and he sheltered for the night beneath an overhanging rock. The way now was through very dense scrub which made rapid travelling impossible, and it was not until the afternoon of the fourth day, from the foot of the mountains, that, though he could not see the ocean, he heard the boom of the breakers on the shore. He hurried forward with an eagerness that left him breathless, his excitement increasing as he went, until exhausted and weary he suddenly found himself on the edge of a long line of precipitous cliffs, and at his feet, for miles and miles on either hand, the mighty Pacific rollers broke in snow white foam on the sandy shore. He had to follow the trend of the cliffs for many miles southward before he found a place of descent, and as it was almost dark, he decided to wait for the dawn. He slept soundly through the night.
When he awoke in the morning the sun was high; the ocean glittered in its fierce light, and as he commenced the descent he almost collapsed with overmastering excitement, for in a little cove beneath him a large topsail schooner was anchored, and he could plainly discern a boat drawn high and dry on the shore. For a few brief minutes he felt that what he saw wasn't real, that he was being mocked by a mirage or dream vision. It was the first sign of civilised life that his weary eyes had seen for over five years. There are times when the shock of sudden joy is almost as hard to bear as that of sorrow. Harold threw himself flat on the ground, buried his face in his folded arms, and wept, with a fear at his heart that when next he looked he would discover that he had been the victim of an optical delusion. As his self-possession slowly returned he gradually raised his head, and there, sure enough, were the ocean, the ship, the boat, and more, for standing near the boat were two men. He sent forth a shrill loud coo-ee; he coo-eed again and again, making a trumpet of his hands; then shading his eyes, he watched and saw the two men start and look upward. He waved his arms frantically, and rushed forward at the risk of his neck; he felt the hot sand beneath his bare feet; and as a blurred picture, for his eyes were dim, he saw two men standing a little apart, one pointing a revolver at him, the other a gun. He flung his two spears from him, ran towards the men, and with the last remnant of his strength, he uttered a cry, an exclamation and inconsistently a prayer, "Thank God, thank God," and fell insensible on the sand.
"O human vengeance and human hate!
See, thine altars scattered and desolate!
Poor paltry things of a passing breath,
Ye are silent here in the halls of Death!"
IT was many a long day since Harold Preston had offered up thanks to the Deity. That he did so in this supreme moment of his life showed that his infidelity had no real existence, however much he himself might believe it had. Consciousness soon returned, and when he opened his eyes he saw the two men standing over him. The expression on their tanned faces was that of almost stupifying amazement; and no wonder they were amazed, for here at their feet was a wild, savage-looking being who seemed to have fallen from the clouds, and yet he had spoken in English and had thanked God. Two other men came from the scrub carrying a cask of water suspended from an oar on their shoulders. They were no less astonished than their companions were at this apparition of a seeming savage. They were all sailormen, and had come on shore to procure water.
"Where in the name of holy Moses have you come from?" asked one of the sailors, when he had recovered from his astonishment.
Harold rose to his feet; he had not quite gained his self-possession, and he answered somewhat excitedly:
"I am a white man. I have come from far away in the interior, where I have been living among the blacks for many years. I was out prospecting for gold and fell into their hands. They have kept me prisoner, but I managed to escape some days ago, and made for the sea. Where have you come from? Where are going to?"
"We belong to the schooner there in the cove, The Day Dawn. We've been cruising about among the northern islands gathering up copra, and are bound for Sydney," answered one of the men, who constituted himself the spokesman.
"Sydney!" repeated Harold, "Sydney; this is the hand of fate. I must go with you. You cannot leave me here in this barren, desolate region."
"Well," began one of the sailors as if in doubt, "it strikes me you'll have to come aboard and see the old man; if he likes to give you a passage that's none of our business."
"I don't want him to give me a passage. I can pay for it. I have a little gold," said Harold eagerly. "Where I have come from there are tons and tons of gold."
The sailors exchanged looks, as if a common thought had come to them all—to go and enrich themselves.
"How far is the place?" asked the spokesman with a note of eagerness.
"Hundreds of miles through a desolate, deadly region," answered Harold, divining their thoughts; "only a well-equipped expedition could hope to reach the spot."
"Oh," exclaimed the sailors in chorus, then one:
"Well, mate, you come along with us to the hooker, and see the skipper. His name's Peel; he's a Sydney chap, and ain't a bad sort."
"Take me to him," said Harold. "Lord, I feel as if I had come out of a living death; as if I had been buried for years and am now resurrected."
The sailors got their boat into the water, placed the cask aboard, and when Harold had taken his place in the stern sheets, the four men bent to the oars, and in half an hour were alongside The Day Dawn. A big, burly, red-faced man, smoking a pipe, was sitting on the taffrail of the vessel as the boat came alongside. He sprang to his feet, and leaning over cried out to the men:
"Where in thunder have you captured that savage?"
"He ain't a savage, skipper, he's a white chap," was the answer.
As Harold mounted to the deck by means of the rope ladder, Captain Peel received him with a look of interrogation and amazement. In a few minutes Harold had said enough to arouse the sympathy and interest of the skipper. As he was anxious to conceal his identity, Harold said his name was Thomas Lindsay.
"Well, I'll give you a passage to Sydney, and must find you a rig-out of some sort," said the skipper. "You look like a baboon now," he added with a smile; "but perhaps when you've got some of that scrub off your face and clothes on you, you'll be more presentable."
Harold agreed and went below with Captain Peel, who soon placed at his disposal the means of altering his appearance. Harold decided not to shave, for he did not want to be recognised by anyone who had known him. But he would not fail, he thought, to let Gordon know him before he killed him. He still had Gordon's pistol and bullet in his possession, the bullet "that was to find the heart of the cowardly wretch who had left him to die in the Ranges."
Captain Peel remained at his anchorage another two days shipping water, a necessary they had run short of. It took Harold some little time to reconcile himself to his new surroundings. His return to civilised life, even though it was the semi-civilised life of a south-sea trading schooner, was irksome to him at first. The skipper furnished him with a suit of clothes and pair of sea boots from the "slop chest." He could tolerate the clothes, but the boots tortured him, and he had to get accustomed to them very gradually. The Day Dawn ran south inside the Great Barrier Reef, and with the exception of a succession of gales, the passage to Sydney was uneventful. Skipper Peel proved himself a first-rate fellow, and was keenly interested in his mysterious passenger, but Harold was very reticent about himself. When Peel asked him if he was going to work the gold deposits he had spoken of, he answered somewhat evasively:
"I don't know. I must take advice. They are a long way off. One cannot be too careful, you know, in protecting one's interests. Moreover, I must triumph over myself first. I have lived the life of a savage so long that I want a bit of civilisation now; besides, there is something else to live for in this world than riches."
"Perhaps there is," said the rough sailor with an expression of avarice in his eyes, "but give me the riches and I'll get all I want to satisfy me. It's a damned hard world to get along in when you've no money."
Whatever Harold's thoughts were on that point he allowed them to remain unuttered. He himself was dominated by one desire—Vengeance. After that...well, after that God alone knew what might happen!
When Preston arrived in Sydney he felt bewildered for a time. The noise, the bustle, the stir, the masses of people dazed him. The one feeling that filled him with a fierce joy, if joy it could be called, was the knowledge that at last, after weary waiting, he was drawing near the man he hated. He sold his gold, and provided himself with a few necessaries. Holding himself aloof from everyone, he was a lonely man in the crowd, formed no acquaintance, but nursed his terrible secret in bitter silence. He believed his cause was just, and yet to kill a man in a civilised community, however great the enormity of the man, would be regarded in no other light than that of brutal murder. But let it be so: Gordon had done him a terrible wrong; he couldn't find a single palliative circumstance in his wickedness. No, his hate could only be appeased, by the wretch's death.
The avenger journeyed to Melbourne, thence by coach to Gordonstown. A railway between the two places was in course of construction, but was not expected to be opened for another three or four years. He found great changes in Gordonstown. The place had extended itself, the traffic greatly increased. He had no fear that anyone would recognise him. He was still a lonely man in a crowd. Obtaining lodgings in an inn, he began to make cautious inquiries, and bit by bit learned that Gordon had sold his property in the town, had married Mary, had taken possession of the Preston estates, and that Mary Gordon was dead—and rumour had it that her husband had treated her badly. Dead! When the unhappy man heard that—the woman he had loved was no more—his very soul was convulsed by a passion of sorrow that threatened his sanity. Then a demon entered into him, a demon of relentless, burning hatred. Nothing on earth now should stay his hand. His vengeance would be swift, terrible, and complete. Had it been possible to have dragged Gordon into the wilderness and slowly tortured him to death he would have done it, and have gloated over his sufferings. He cleaned the pistol, bought ammunition, and made sure that the bullet he had treasured for so many years accurately fitted the barrel. It had become an obsession with him that that bullet which was intended to kill him should cut the thread of Gordon's life. There was a poison of madness in his blood; he was reckless of all consequences, and persuaded himself that there was no heart as bitter or as dead as his own. He was numbed with the coldness of a blank despair, and in the throng of people among whom he moved none guessed the terrible purpose of his darkened life.
"Mary! the woman he had worshipped, married and dead!" It was all like a hideous nightmare. "Mine is selfish grief, mine is selfish pain," he thought, "but my heart and brain are seared with her sorrow. I realise it all. Why should guilt such as Gordon has displayed be allowed to thrive? She drooped and died, and I who loved her was far away. What pity can the man who destroyed her life and mine have for the silent tears, the wasted years, the weary, hopeless days? God has not righted the wrong. He has been deaf and blind to her cry of agony and mine. The griefs and passions that shake mankind are allowed to pass unavenged. Might is right, and wrong is not righted in this wicked world. I lived to love, till the damnable shadow of this evil man fell upon me; now I live for hate and vengeance. Love is patient; love was strong and true, and my heart of hate has been patient too; but now the hour of Fate has come, and I will strike with relentless hand. Why should I show any pity? He had none for me."
So in this awful bitterness of soul he moved on. One day he passed Dr Blain in the street, and while he himself remained unknown, he recognised the doctor, though he had grown old and grey. Blain glanced at him with some curiosity, but little he dreamed that this hairy, savage-looking man was his old friend whose heart had turned to stone, and whose soul was filled with the one terrible, relentless desire to kill his enemy.
He started on the last stage of his long journey that was to bring him face to face with the man who had wrecked him. As the miser counts and handles his gold, so Harold, with a fierce, devilish joy, reckoned his hoarded hatred, the hatred that had grown and increased as the years of suffering had gone by. The passions that have ruled since the world of men began were working in the heart of that worn man, and in his breast, with its guarded secret, raged a fire of hell. It was the old tale, a man and woman's love, the shadow of a mad lust for mastery and possession on the part of another man, of wrong and pain inflicted, the loss of faith, the disbelief in the mercy of God, leaden years of agony, and the crime committed to punish crime.
"Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord."
"No, it is mine," man exclaims impiously.
Absorbed as he was with his great purpose, Harold nevertheless had eyes for the many changes that the years had produced. What had been a mere track between Glenbar and Gordonstown was now a well-made road, flanked with the telegraph wire, and houses standing in patches of cultivated ground. Relatively speaking, Glenbar had grown into a town. There were the school-house, the church, the store, the miniature streets with some pretentious to regularity. And as his eyes alighted on his own dwelling-place a flood of memories overwhelmed him. Oh, the happiness he had known there—the precious love of Mary, the golden, dreamy days, his joy in all things!—but all had been taken from him by the fiendish man he had come to kill. His was the triumph now. He could not restore Mary to life, could not bring back the halcyon time of joyous youth, but he could and would rid the earth of a human viper. A sense of hideous satisfaction came upon him at the thought that the viper was now in his power. He would find him—face him suddenly—paralyse him with deadly horror as he revealed himself, and then!—Lord—the very thought of it made his heart thrill with delight. He saw red; he recalled the old feud, and now he, a Preston, the last of his line, would score the final triumph—destroy the Gordons, root and branch.
This great moment repaid him for much that he had endured. Out There—far away, in the Golden Valley of the Ranges—were millions of pounds' worth of gold; and those millions might be his by right of priority. But what cared he for millions; his life was concentrated in this one desperate act of Revenge. That revenge accomplished, the millions could remain where they were, and he would curse God and die. God had tortured him and allowed the evil man to flourish. Never again would he offer up praise to such a God as that.
Some such thoughts as these tore like a tornado through his heated and distracted brain as he stood and gazed on his former home, of which he had been robbed—robbed of his possessions, of the woman to whom he had given his soul, of his happiness, his faith, his hope—by a damnable man who had been allowed to flourish while he had been subjected to the tortures of hell. "The justness of heaven" was a mockery. Men were more just, for they at least did punish crime. All this was mad reasoning, but how could one, situated as he was, and whose faith had been destroyed, reason otherwise; suffering had warped his poor little human brain; the demon still possessed him. VENGEANCE was his shibboleth; he had no care for any other.
As he stood, held by his fierce passion, an old grey-haired man approached; he recognised the man, it was Jim Dawkins. Jim stared at him, but did not know him.
"Hullo! Who are you?" asked Jim abruptly, as he eyed the strange-looking man with suspicion.
"An old bushman. Isn't this Harold Preston's place?"
"No. Preston has been dead many years. Mr Gordon is the owner."
"Oh. Is he about?"
"Yes, but he's pretty queer. You'll find him on the veranda yonder. That's where he spends most of his time."
Harold visibly started, but old Dawkins did not notice it; he seemed self-absorbed and disinterested, like a man who has trouble on his mind.
For a brief moment Harold was tempted to declare himself to his old friend, but checked the impulse. It might lead to his design being thwarted.
"Shall I tell the boss you want to see him?" asked Dawkins.
"No...I'll find him if he's on the veranda. I've a message for him."
"Well, yes, he's there right enough," and Jim. Dawkins passed on, as he was hurrying to attend to some duty or other.
Harold stood silent and thoughtful for tense moments, his hungry eyes wandering over the familiar scenes. A passion of emotion shook him to his innermost depths, and as he recalled all that he had suffered, the anguish he had endured, the torture of suspense, his hatred for the man he had come to kill grew stronger, if that were possible. It was a stupendous moment in his life; he had waited for it, yearned for it, dreamed of it, lived for it, and now that it had come at last, his pulses beat hard with the excitement that he struggled to keep in check lest it should sweep him off his mental balance. He felt how necessary it was to be calm, collected in the hour of his triumph when his hatred for the man who had wrecked him was to be consummated in a supreme act of vengeance. He noted many things, and sighed deeply; it was the sigh of a man whose heart was torn with the remembrance of a happiness that had gone from him for ever. "How the place has changed," he thought; "everything has changed, I more than all; I am a man who has been in hell, and I have come back to exact a terrific reckoning from the man who cast me there." If he had needed a stimulus in that tense moment to nerve him, the thought of his sufferings supplied it. A Sabbath stillness seemed to hold the little settlement, parrots chattered in the bamboo copse, and the soft and plaintive cooing of a wood pigeon served but to accentuate the silence, a silence that was like a wordless prayer.
The day was far spent. The sun was low down on the horizon, and above it hung a canopy of cloud, radiant with flaming gold, whilst the whole landscape was bathed in a flood of saffron light that softened while it revealed every salient feature. The whole scene was one of ineffable beauty, and a faint wind stirred the trees to a languid whispering that was like the crooning of a drowsy mother hushing her babe to rest; but the fiery, restless heart of the embittered man who had come out of the wilderness bent on tragedy would not be lulled: its every throb was a note of vengeance. He moved on, and reached the wicket gate that gave entrance to the front garden. As he lifted the latch a sweet little woman appeared on the veranda coming from the house. It was Ruth, the pretty schoolmistress. She paused a moment, and turning to where Gordon was lying behind the sun-screen, which hid him from Harold, she said with a smile on her sweet face:
"Good night, Mr Gordon; I hope you'll be better to-morrow."
"Good night," came the response.
It was Gordon's voice. Harold recognised it, and his heart danced with an unholy joy. He had waited long, terrible years for the sound of that voice, and now he was within a few yards of his mortal enemy; that enemy should have no to-morrow; the avenger would hurl his guilty soul, with all his scarlet sins heavy upon it, to the nethermost depths of hell.
Ruth tripped lightly down the few wooden steps from the veranda, and reaching the gate, half started back with a sudden sense of shock as she encountered the savage-looking man. He moved on one side; she stared at him for a moment and passed on; his weary eyes followed her as she walked towards the school, and he saw three or four happy children come bounding out to meet her with whoops of joy. The incident thrilled him, but he clenched his teeth and set his face; he would allow nothing to soften him in this dread moment of his great revenge.
He walked steadily up the path, mounted the steps, gained the veranda, and his eyes afire with the ferocity of a wild animal about to spring on its prey, beheld his enemy lying on the deck-chair.
"AT LAST," he muttered with a sudden indrawing of his breath.
Gordon was a pitiable sight; his ravaged face unmistakably proclaimed that he, top, had suffered torture. He was withered and emaciated. He turned his bleared, sunken eyes on the intruder—a hairy, wild-looking being with a weapon in his hand; he betrayed an instinct of fear, and in that moment of fate something must have spoken to him of doom, for he partly raised himself on his elbow, and in a raucous voice that was aquiver with apprehension, he said commandingly:
"What do you want here?"
"You," answered Harold with an expression that was fiendish; "I want you. I have come out of the wilderness to find you."
The sick man's alarm increased, a hectic flush stained his face. "Well—what is it?" he gasped.
For long, tense moments, Harold remained silent. The man he gazed upon—his enemy—was a wreck; he had obviously suffered, been tortured; his youth had gone, his brain had been seared, his heart torn; he had won his triumph at the cost of hellish agony.
Harold was not prepared for this sight; it momentarily softened him, but with a mental curse he hardened himself again.
"You don't know me, Oliver Gordon," he said deliberately under his breath, while his eyes blazed with the fire of his hate.
"No...who...the deuce are you? What do you want? Get out of this. Can't you see that I am ill?"
Again a long pause, then Harold spoke slowly and watched with gloating joy the effect of his words.
"I...am...a dead man...come to life...I...am...here...to...to...kill...you. I am Harold Preston, the man you wrecked and deserted. The final triumph is mine. Here is the weapon you tried to kill me with. I have treasured it all these years that it might kill you!"
Gordon's eyes seemed to suddenly bulge from his head, a leaden hue spread over his haggard face, his teeth chattered as if from ague; he made an ineffectual attempt to rise, and then, with an impulse of supreme horror, he uttered a loud, piercing cry and fell back on his bed.
At that moment a child and an old grey-headed lady, alarmed by the cry, ran from the room on to the veranda. The child stopped suddenly as she caught sight of the savage-looking man, and clung to Margaret Bruce's skirts.
Harold stood transfixed. The silence remained unbroken for what seemed a long, long time; his eyes fell upon the child. The fading light of the sun cast a halo about her, tinging her rich brown hair with gold. Her gazelle brown eyes encountered his. For him Mary Gordon lived again in this glorious child, whose beauty seemed not of earth but heaven. He did not require to be told who she was. The pistol slipped from his hand, and in that dramatic moment something passed from him; his soul awoke; the nightmare had gone. Covering his face with his trembling hands, he sobbed, and a convulsive terror shook him.
"What does this mean? Who are you?" asked Margaret Bruce softly, some instinct answering her own questions.
"God pity me, God forgive me," he cried, as he flung up his hands. It was a prayer this time from his awakened soul.
Margaret Bruce stood as if hypnotised, her delicate white hand on the gold brown hair of the beautiful child who still clung to her skirts, her splendid eyes filled with wonderment. Margaret searched the face of the stranger; she saw the pistol lying on the floor, she heard the appeal "God pity me, God forgive me," wrung from an anguished brain, and some quick up-springing instinct revealed the man to her; speaking like one under a spell, she said under her breath:
"You are Harold Preston?"
It was a pronouncement no less than an interrogation. He covered his face with his trembling hands and sobbed.
"Yes...Harold Preston...I have come from a living death, my tortured brain afire with fierce hate..."
"Hate!" echoed Margaret without altering her pose. The spell still held her.
"Yes, hate for the wretch there who destroyed me."
Tears filled Margaret's eyes; her voice was broken with emotion. She moved now.
"Put the hate from you, Harold. Look on this child, the child of Mary who is in heaven, the woman who loved you and who lives again in this little one. Let the mother speak to you, appeal to you through her sweet and innocent child. The hand of God is in this; it is a miracle."
He fell on his knees by the stilled form of Gordon, who was in the throes of death. The shock had proved fatal, though he still breathed; his eyes reflected the horror he felt, his chest rose and fell convulsively. Preston stretched his arms across the quivering body, his hands clasped in the act of supplication.
"God, in Thy great mercy, pardon him his sins," he prayed. "Pity him, O Lord, for he knew not what he did."
The dying man made a spasmodic movement, and his eyes turned on Harold; he gave a great sigh, and an ashen pallor spread over his shrivelled face.
There were some solemn moments of silence, broken only by Harold's sobs. It was the poetry of tragedy; in those strained moments there was compressed a human story of wrong, suffering, hate, despair, repentance, hope, and the wonder of a little child.
Margaret spoke some words in the ear of Mary, and leading her forward to Harold, who still knelt with bowed head, she placed the child's arms around Harold's neck. This act was sublime in its pathos and tenderness. The touch of the innocent child was as the touch of an angel of God, and her voice sounded to him as if it were the voice of Mary in heaven.
"I am little Mary Preston Gordon," she said sweetly.
At the magic of her touch and voice the man's awful bitterness passed away, his soul sprang out of the pit of hell into the light again. He caught the child to his breast and held her there, kissing her beautiful face framed in a halo of gold brown hair.
"God," he cried with swelling heart, "I am humbled into the dust. I do not deserve this great joy, but Thou knowest how I have been tortured. Forgive me, O Lord, forgive me out of Thine infinite mercy for this dear child's sake. Thou hast said, 'Suffer little children to come unto me;' this little child shall lead me by the hand, lead me, the worn and weary man, that I may find rest, and that peace that Thou alone can give."
Oliver Gordon was laid to rest in the cemetery of the town where his kindred slept. He had wasted his life, he had prostituted his gifts to base purposes, he had brought sorrow and pain to many, he had broken Mary Gordon's heart, and had even alienated the natural affections of his own child, for he frightened her tender, sensitive nature, and she shrank from him; so no one mourned him. But hundreds of hands were stretched out in warm greeting to the man who for so many years had been regarded as dead, and whose thrilling story touched the hearts of all who heard it; a hundred voices accorded him a cordial welcome. Faithful old Jim Dawkins, Dr Blain, Margaret Bruce, and a score of other old-time friends voiced their joy at his return in no uncertain manner.
He felt as if he had suffered the pangs of death and been dead, but was now reawakened to a new life of joy, peace, and faith; and as he looked into little Mary's sweet face, felt her soft little hands resting in his in perfect confidence and trust, he experienced a new-born happiness that compensated him for much. The mother's face lived again in the child's; there were the sun-gold hair, the grace of the lily, the dear, soft eyes with the dreamy light and the mystic spell of the southern night.
In his soul he said:
"They have left me this God-kissed child. 'Tis the bond of Fate, and I see the rise of a splendid star o'er the home of my fathers in old Glenbar."