The Moving Finger
by Mary Gaunt
Previous Part     1  2  3  4     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

He broke a branch from a tree, thereby scattering the crows and stepped down to the edge of the glittering white salt. It crunched beneath his feet like sand, and he went on till the hard crust began to give way beneath him and the thick mud oozed up. Then when he thought it was moist enough to resist the fierce hot wind, which was blowing from the north like a breath from an oven, he prepared to write his last message. And then came the difficulty.

What was he to say? What could he say? Not that he had so little, but so much. And it might never be read after all, or at best it would only be read by some station hand who, once they were dead, would give but a passing thought to their message, only a passing thought to their sufferings. They had found a skeleton, he remembered, the first year he had been on Yerlo, a skeleton that must have been lying there years, a poor wind-tossed, sunbaked thing from which all semblance of humanity had long since departed, and he, in his carelessness, had thought so little of it, had never realized the awful suffering that must have been before the strong man came to that.

And now—and now—he took his stick and wrote in large printed letters on the crisp salt—



"James Anderson and Charles Helm were lost on the 20th October. They have gone S.E. from the salt-pan. Will you kindly send word to Mrs. Helm, The Esplanade, St. Kilda, and to Miss Drysdale, Gipps Street, East Melbourne."

Then he wrote his name, "Charles Helm."

It seemed so feeble, so inadequate, not a hundreth part of what he felt did it express, and yet what could he say? Not even in his extremity could he write tender messages to his loved ones there. They would know, surely they would know, they would understand, that his thoughts had been full of them when he wrote that cold message. What more could he say? But would they ever know the love and longing that had filled his heart? Would his mother ever know that her boy had thought of her at the last? Would Mabel Drysdale understand how he had cared for her?—all he had meant to convey by the mere mention of her name? He stepped slowly back and wakened his companion.

"Mate," he said, "don't you think we'd better be travelling? It's a little cooler now, and it 's getting late."

Anderson struggled to his feet wearily and then went down to the salt-pan.

"So you 've been leaving a last message," he said; "I 'm afraid it's not much good. Who 's likely to pass this way?"

"It's only a chance, of course," said Helm, "but—well—I 'd like them, if possible, to know I 'd thought of them."

"And a woman, too," laughed Anderson cynically, "if we get out of this you 'll learn, I expect, just about how little value she sets on your care for her."

"You 've been unlucky," said the younger man gently; "there are women who—but there, I don't suppose we'll come through. Anyhow, it's time we started.

"Well—well, keep your faith and I'll keep mine. Perhaps here and there, there may be a woman worth caring about, but they 're few and far between."

"Don't you want to say anything?" asked Helm.

"Who? I? No. Who is there to care a straw whether I leave my carcase to the crows or not? There's only the boy, and he's too young to understand. But, I say, you might have mentioned the name of the station," and taking the stick from Helm's hand, he walked out on the salt and wrote;


"Please let them know at Yerlo," and signed his name, "James Anderson."

"There's my last will and testament," he said. "Come on now."

Helm went up to the horses.

"It's no go," he said. "My poor old beggar's done."

"I expected it, old chap. We'll have to foot it; mine's only a shade better than yours. Clearly we'll have to leave yours behind. Mine can carry the pack a little farther, but I really don't think he can carry me."

It was still very hot, but the shadows of the boxwood trees had grown longer, and there was just a promise of the coming night in the air. They must walk, for they had only the one horse now, and it did not seem likely he could hold out long. The other had lain down to die, and whether this one could crawl on under the slender pack was a question Anderson asked himself more than once. That he could carry either of them was out of the question. They put a blanket or two on his back, their pistols, and the empty waterbags, and then it seemed cruelty to force the poor beast to move, but necessity knows no law, and they started slowly on their hopeless journey round the salt-pan, Anderson leading the way, Helm following with the horse. So slowly they went, and their only hope lay in speed. Helm looked back a little sadly at the dying horse, which had made an effort to rise, as if in mute protest against being left.

"Poor old beggar," he said, "wouldn't it be kinder to put him out of his misery?"

"Oh, give him a chance for his life," said Anderson. "I 've known horses to recover in the most wonderful way. After he 's had a spell he may find water for himself; anyhow, we 'll give him the chance."

It was a blessed relief when the sun sank beneath the horizon; the night was still and hot, but the wind dropped at sundown, and the men found it easier to walk in the dark. The crows had followed them as long as it was day, but they, too, left as soon as the darkness fell. They were unaccustomed to walking, and it would have been hard work under the most favourable circumstances; as it was, it was cruel. They did not talk much, for what had they to say? An hour or two, and the moon rose, a full moon, red and fiery, and as she rose slowly to the zenith, silvering as she rose, the plain grew light as day. Every little stick and stone, every little grass blade, was clearly outlined, the low ridge which they were leaving behind, the ridge where they had found their worst fears realized, loomed large behind them, while the salt-pan to their left stretched away one great lake of glittering white, which it seemed to Helm they could never round.

"How long, Anderson," he asked, "before we can hope to reach the other side?"

"Not before morning, man. I don't see we can do it before morning."

Then they plodded on a little further, neither liking to be the first to give in, though their mouths were parched, and burning thirst was consuming them. But still they walked steadily on till more than half the night was gone; at last Helm flung himself down on the ground.

"I must rest," he said, "if I die for it;" and Anderson sat down quietly beside him.

Then sleep, merciful sleep, came to them in their weariness, and they slept till the first faint streaks of dawn began to appear in the eastern sky. It was a dreary, hopeless waking, the salt lake was behind them now, and all around was the plain, bare hard earth in some places, patches of grass in others, not a living thing visible, even the crows had gone, and, though the foul birds had filled Helm with a shrinking horror, their absence was still more terrible, for did it not show that they were plunging farther and farther into the desert, farther and farther from the water without which they could not live out another day. The sun rose higher and higher, till the full force of his rays seemed more than they could bear, and yet the nearest shade was miles away, a line of trees or scrub dim on the horizon.

Neither mentioned the significance of the absence of the crows, though both were thinking of it, but at last Helm said,

"The trees, let's go for the trees. This is past bearing."

But Anderson shook his head.

"They 're clean out of the way, man," he said sadly. "Try to hold out a little longer. The old horse is keeping up wonderfully. I never thought he 'd hold out so long."

"He's very nearly at his last gasp," said Helm, and they relapsed into silence again.

On, and on, and on, the thirst was so bad now they could hardly speak to one another, still they pushed on under the burning rays of the almost vertical sun, every step it seemed must be their last. Was it really only last night they discovered they were lost, only last night? Another mile, and another, and the heat grew unbearable, and Helm, without a word, turned to the left, and made for the trees. Anderson paused a moment, and then followed him, though to him it was giving up the struggle. If they turned out of the path which led to the only water they knew of, turned into this pathless wilderness, what possible chance was there for them, and yet how could they stand this terrible heat any longer?

"I tell you I shall go mad," moaned Helm. "I didn't think I was a coward, but I can't stand this. Old chap, don't let me go mad; shoot me if you see I 'm going mad."

"Mad," said the other bravely, "nonsense, man, you're all right. You'll feel better presently when you've had a spell."

The lines of trees resolved itself on closer inspection into close-growing gidya scrub, and long before they reached it the crows had again made their appearance. A little flock kept them company, waiting on in front, rushing up behind as if perchance they might be late, wheeling round on either side.

"There must be water there," said Helm eagerly, "look at the crows again."

"Don't build on it, old chap," said the other. "The scrub is too thick for us to find it."

But Helm was not to be dissuaded, and he wasted his energies in a frantic search for water. His mate looked more soberly, because more hopelessly, but the result was the same, and finally they lay down in the shade and slept again, slept soundly too, in spite of the crows, which were more confident, more impudent, than ever. Night fell, and with the darkness grew in Helm an intense desire to be on the way again.

"We 're wasting time," he kept saying hoarsely, for his tongue was so swollen he could hardly speak at all, "wasting time. Don't you see they 'll be expecting us in to supper at Gerring Gerring, and I shouldn't like the crows to get there first. They might frighten her, you know, she's only a girl and she hasn't seen so much of them as you and me. Those knowing old crows! they 're not here now. Don't you see that's why they want to get there first?"

"Be quiet, man. You 're dreaming."

"Dreaming, was I? Anderson, Anderson, mate, I 'm not going mad. For God's sake, don't let me go mad."

"No, no, old man, it's all right. We 're on the right track now. Here, I 'll take the horse and you give me your arm. There, now then, if we 've luck we may hit Gerring Gerring before morning."

They walked on in silence, but Helm kept stumbling, and but for his companion's supporting arm would have fallen more than once. The moon rose up, and as it grew light as day again he stopped short and looked solemnly in his companion's face. It was worn and haggard and weary, but not so wild, he felt instinctively, as his own.

"Anderson," he said, "I know I 'm done for. My head's all wrong. It 's cooler now, but what'll it be to-morrow? If—if—if I do anything mad before I die, don't tell her, I 'd like her to think well of me. Just say I died, don't say how it hurt."

"All right, mate," said the other, for he had no comfort to give.

And then they walked on again in silence till the moon declined before the coming day, the cruel day, which brought the heat and the following crows again. Dawn brought them to a patch of "dead finish," as the settlers call a dense and thorny scrub with pretty green leaves, through which it is well nigh impossible to force a way even under the most favourable circumstances; and which presented an utterly impassable barrier to men in their condition. They turned aside once more, and Anderson thought to himself that they must indeed have given up hope, to be stopped by an impassable barrier and yet to make no moan. It was surely the very depths of hopelessness when all ways were alike to them. He looked back on their tracks and dismay filled his heart; they were not firm and straight, but wavering and wandering like those of men in the last extremity. He had followed tracks like these before now, and they always led to the same thing. He wondered dully would any one ever follow those tracks. A little further on Helm let go his arm and ran on ahead.

"We'll never do any good at this rate," he gasped, "never—never;" and he pulled at the collar of his shirt till he tore it away. "We must have something to drink. We 'll die else, and I mean to have a fight for life. There's the old horse, he can't stagger a step further; what's the good of keeping him? Let's shoot him—and—and—There's enough blood in him to—to—"

"No, no, man, no. I tell you that's the beginning of the end—more than the beginning—the end in fact."

"I don't care. I can't stand this;" and before Anderson could stop him, Helm had drawn his pistol and shot the horse in the head.

The poor beast was at his last gasp, and for the last hour Anderson had been meditating the advisibility of leaving him behind, so it was no material loss; his only care now was to prevent his mate from drinking the blood, which, according to the faith of the bushmen, is worse than drinking salt water.

"Poor old beggar," he said, taking his pistols and cartridges from the saddle, where they had been wrapped among the blankets, "I suppose it was about the kindest thing we could do for him. Come on, mate, we must leave him to the crows now," and he caught Helm's arm and would have led him on.

But the other resisted and breaking free ran back, and before he could stop him, had drawn his knife across the horse's throat and taken a long draught of blood.

Does it sound ghastly? But such things are, and his lips were dry and parched, and his throat so swollen that he could only speak in hoarse whispers, and so great was the temptation that Anderson, looking away at the bare pitiless plain, with the mocking mirage in the distance, felt that he too might as well drink and die; only the thought of the cripple boy who would be alone in the world but for him, made him make one more desperate effort for self-control.

He took the younger man's arm and dragged him on, skirting slowly round the "dead finish" till at length, late in the afternoon, it gave place to boree. His own senses were clear enough, but Helm was muttering wildly, and he listened with unheeding ears to his babble of home and mother and sweetheart. They could not go far, and soon they forced their way in among the scrub, and though the burning thirst was worse than ever, the shade was grateful. The crows stopped too, and settled on the low trees, turning their evil blue-black heads on one side to get a better view of their prey.

"I can't keep my head," moaned Helm, "I can't. I have been mad all day. I know I have. It has stretched out into ages this long day and it's not over yet. When were we lost? Yesterday? The day before? It feels like years."

"Never mind," said Anderson, not unkindly, "it can't be much longer now. Try to sleep, old man."

"Sleep! with a thousand devils tearing at me!"

But they did sleep after all, a wearied, troubled sleep, a broken sleep full of frightful dreams, or still more cruel ones of cooling streams and rippling waters. Night came, and Anderson awoke from what seemed to him a doze of a moment to find his companion gone from his side. For a second the thought came to him that it was not worth while to look for him. He was mad—mad, and where was the use of troubling about him any further; and then his better feelings, and perhaps that longing for human companionship which we all must feel, made him rise up and look for him. Up and down, he was staggering up and down, a hundred feet one way and then back again on his own tracks.

"We must get on, old chap," he muttered when he saw Anderson, "we must get on. You rest if you like though; there isn't anybody waiting for you; but Mabel, she 's waiting for me and I must try and get back. She would be disappointed else. Grieve! of course she'll grieve if I'm lost. All the world isn't a cynic like you."

Anderson took his arm again.

"We'll go together," he said. "If you do care a straw about seeing her again, come on quietly with me."

He yielded for the moment, but it required one continuous effort on Anderson's part to keep him up to it. Plainly his reason was gone, and the other man, growing weaker and weaker, found by the time the sun was high in the heavens that the effort was more than he could make. It was the end, or so close that he could only hope and pray the end would come quickly. The young fellow had struggled on so bravely, so hopefully, and now it had come to this. They had left the scrub behind them and Anderson made his way to a tree, the only specimen of its kind in all the wide plain, and lay down beneath its branches—to rest? No, he felt in his heart it was to die. Helm he could not persuade to lie down. He kept staggering on hopelessly round and round the tree, struggling to keep in the shade, fancying, as many a lost man has done before him, that he was "pushing on."

It was the same old story. Anderson had heard it told hundreds of times over the camp fire, one man will lie down to die quietly, and the other will go raving mad. So Helm had gone mad, poor chap; and then he remembered his passionate prayer to him, not to let him go mad, to shoot him if he saw he was going mad, and he lay and looked up at the hard blue sky through the leaves, and at the watching crows, and knew that he was only waiting for death, knew that he was too utterly weary to aid in any way his mate. He listened to him muttering to himself for a little, watched him as he went monotonously round and round. It was not so hard after all—not near so hard for him as for Helm. If only the boy were dead, he thought wearily, if only the boy were dead he would be glad that this should end it, his life was never worth much, he had failed all through, he would be glad to be at rest—if only the boy were there before him; but the boy—the poor little helpless thing, he must make another effort for the boy's sake, and he struggled to his feet again. But the burning landscape was a blood-red blur before his eyes, and then, quite suddenly it seemed to him, sight and hearing left him. He was dying—was this death? How merciful death was—if only the boy—


Very wearily he opened his eyes. Could it be that some one was pouring water down his throat? Some one was bathing his face.

"He's coming to," said a voice in his ear. "By Jove, it was a narrow shave. The other poor chap's done for, isn't he, Ned?"

"Quite dead. He went mad evidently, clean off his head. Why, the poor chap had begun on his own grave."

When Anderson came to himself he found he had been picked up by the other exploring party.

"We picked up your tracks away by the 'dead finish' there," said the leader, "and I thought it must be pretty near up with you. You 've had the devil's own luck, mate. Why, you were within five miles of Gerring Gerring Water, and over by the 'dead finish' you passed within three miles of a very decent waterhole, quite good enough to have kept life within you. You shot the horse?"

"My mate did. He was mad, poor fellow."

"Poor beggar, he seems to have had a bad time, but it's all over now."

It was indeed all over now. They had wrapped him in a blanket and were digging a shallow grave. He had begun it himself, they said, and had been digging with his long knife, though whether it was for water, or whether it was really intended for a grave, no one could now say. His sufferings were ended.

They left him there in the desert, the young fellow who had fought so hard for his life and set so much store by it, and as soon as Anderson was a little recovered, set out for Yerlo again.

It was over a week before he reached the station, so far had he wandered out of the track, and as he rode up to the house a stable boy lounged up to him.

"What a while you 've been away, Boss," he said. "We 'd most given you up for lost. The mail's in and there's a pile of letters for Mr. Helm. None for you though."

"Is everything all right?" asked Anderson, feeling like a man who had come back from the grave.

"N-o-o, there's mighty bad news. I don't like to tell though."

"Out with it, man, don't keep me waiting."

The lad looked away and turned his pipe from side of his mouth to the other.

"It 's your youngster," he said. "He had convulsions last Sunday. Mrs. Brook—she said as nothing couldn't have saved him. 'It was a blessed release,' she said."

Anderson flung the reins to the lad and walked quietly into the house. It was a mistake, he clearly saw, coming back from the grave. He wished he had died within five miles of Gerring Gerring Water.


"You don't care. Oh! Susy, you don't care!

"But I do," she sobbed. "You know, you know I care."

They were standing on a jutting headland, looking away out over the Southern Ocean, and the sea, blue and calm as the sky above, stretched out before them. Behind them were the low forest-clad ranges that bounded the coast line, shutting out the lonely selection from the rest of the colony of Victoria, and the only sign of human habitation was the weatherboard farmhouse the girl called home. Even that was hardly visible from where they stood, hidden as it was by the swell of the hill, and alone here with this man, alone with the sea and sky around her, with the soft South wind blowing among her curls, with the plaintive cry of the seagulls in her ears, the salt savour of the sea in her nostrils, she was sorely tempted to throw off the trammels of her education, to do the thing her heart prompted her to do, to tell this man he was dearer, as she felt in her heart he was dearer, than anything on earth. But so much stood in the way. For twenty years she had lived secluded in this lonely corner of the earth, all her thoughts, her hopes, her fears, bounded by the horizon of her own home, and the narrow limits of the township, just five miles away on the other side of the ranges. And now this sailor man, brought home by her young apprentice brother, had come into her life, bringing new thoughts, new ideas, new—she whispered it to herself, with a hot blush—hopes.

Five-and-twenty years ago now, Angus Mackie and his wife had emigrated from the cold and stormy western isles of Scotland to this sunny South land, and they had brought with them to their new home the stern faith of the old Puritan, the rigid adherence to the old rules, the hard, straitlaced life, and so had they brought up the children that grew up around their hearth. And Susy was the eldest, Susy with the blue eyes and rose-leaf complexion, and waving chestnut hair. So pretty she was, this daughter of the South, it hardly seemed possible she could be the child of the stern Puritan parents, and yet she had grown up in their ways, grave and obedient, walking in the narrow path set so straight before her without a question, and without a doubt. Never for one moment had she looked over the hedges with which she was set about—hardly had she realized there were hedges—and now this man had come like a fresh breeze from the sea, and he had taught her—what had he not taught her? At his glance all the passion born of the blue skies and the bright sunlight, and the warm breezes of her native land, awoke to life, and filled her heart with thoughts and longings that she, untutored, and ignorant of the world's ways, hardly understood. Only she leaned against the rock that cropped up out of the hillside, and pressed up against it till the hard stone marked her hands. Perhaps the physical pain brought her some rest from the mental disquietude which was so new to her.

The man who stood beside her was a sailor every inch of him. Not handsome perhaps, but certainly good-looking, with honest blue eyes, and a steadfast strong face. A man who had read and thought, and even though now at five-and-twenty he was but second mate of the Vanity, had lived his life to some purpose, for the fates had been against him; it had been an uphill struggle always, and in uphill struggles we have little time for the niceties of life. And now this girl, this dainty, fair, feminine thing had come across his path like a gleam of the sunshine of her own land, and when he felt he had fairly won her, his very honesty set a barrier in his way.

"You know I care," she sobbed. She would have used a stronger word, but shyness prevented her, and she put her face down on her clasped hands, and sobbed aloud.

"If you love me," he said deliberately; he was not shy now, though he turned away from her bowed head, and looked away over the sea sparkling in the November sunshine, "if you love me, what is there in God's name to stand between us?"

"That," she said, in a whisper, "just that."


She lifted up her head now, and looked away at the sea too, but she did not see it, for her eyes were misty with tears. And he did not see that, for he too looked seaward. Far too deeply moved were they to look each other in the face.

"You know," she said; and in her voice the trace of the Scotch accent which still lingered there, inherited from her father, was softened by the Australian drawl, which, whatever other folks might think, sounded infinitely sweet in Harper's ears, "you know," she repeated again, "you know," and there was an appeal in the soft voice, a prayer that he would not force her too far.

But he had gone too far for pity. In plain words she had told him she loved him, and in plain words now would he have named the bar that she had set up between them.

"What is it?" he asked, and his voice sounded cold and hard, "in heaven's name, what is it!"

"You know," she hesitated, "it is written—that—that we shall have no—no dealings—with—with the unrighteous."

"Am I unrighteous?" he asked bitterly. "How am I unrighteous?"

"You are an unbeliever. You—you told me so yourself. You don't believe in heaven or—or—hell—or—or—"

"In heaven or hell, don't I? You know, Susy—good Lord!—Susy, you know you can make this world one or the other for me.

"Don't—don't," she implored. "I mean you don't think enough about your eternal salvation."

"Child, how can I? This world is hard enough to get on in, God knows, how can I worry about the next? Who knows? There mayn't be a next."

"There is, there is!" she cried, eagerly. "Oh! if you would only repent while there is yet time—if you would only repent and be saved!"

"Oh, child, child, is there anything in the world I would not do for your sweet face?"

"Not for me—oh, not for me! Because—because—"

He put up his hand to stop her. The religious phrases that she had been accustomed to from her youth up, and that came naturally to her tongue, hurt him somehow as the foul-mouthed conversation of the fo'c'sle had never hurt him. From her lips he would not, if he could help himself, hear the phrases he had been accustomed to laugh at as canting and hypocritical.

"Don't dear, don't. I know what you are going to say. It is no good. We are so different altogether. I can't believe—as you believe—I cannot. I 'll do my best to be a good man—I 'll never lie to you or—"

"It is no use," she moaned, "no use at all. We cannot prevail by our own strength."

He laughed bitterly.

"Belief is not a matter of will," he said, "or I would believe just to please you—just because I want you more than anything in the wide world. All I can do is to be honest, and tell you I can't believe. It need never make any difference to you, dear, never, never."

The girl laid her face down on the hard rock again.

"And if—and if—next time your ship goes past here you were to fall from the mast, and be drowned, you think—you think you would just go out like a fire—that—that would be all."

He kicked a stone till it fell over the edge of the cliff, and they could hear it going by leaps and bounds into the sea a hundred feet below.

"And you think," he said, "I shall be eternally damned, tormented in fire and brimstone for ever and ever. Upon my word, Susy, mine is the kinder fate."

"I can't bear to think of it, I can't bear to think of it!" she cried. "Oh! Ben, Ben! I can't bear it!"

He made a step forward then and caught her in his arms. How could he resist the upturned face and the sweet blue eyes brimming with tears. Puritan she might be, the old Covenanter blood might be strong as ever, but she loved him—there was little doubt of that, and he clasped her close in his arms and covered her face with kisses.

"What does it matter, dear, what does it matter? Let the future take care of itself."

She tried to wrench herself from his embrace then.

"No, no, it is for eternity. I can't, I can't."

"Susy," he caught both her hands in his, "do you love me?"

"You know I do."

"Better than any one in the world?"

"Yes." She whispered it under her breath, as if afraid of her own temerity.

"Then listen. You shall do as you like with me. I 'll give up the sea, darling. I 'll take up a selection here, you shall teach me your creed and I 'll do my best to believe. There, my little girl, will that satisfy you? Who knows, in time I may become as respectable a psalm-singer as that holy swab, Clement Scott, your father's so fond of quoting. The beggar's got a tenderness for you, hasn't he, Susy? Why the first week I was here I was wild with jealousy of the canting brute!"

Gently but firmly she drew herself out of his encircling arms and leaned up drearily against the rock again.

"Clement Scott," she said, and there was a hopeless ring in her voice that went to his heart like a knife, "Clement Scott is a true Christian man, he is father's friend, and—and—oh!—" with a sudden burst of passion, "I know—I know he is the better man."

Ben Harper said nothing, only moved a step or two further seaward. What could he say? The girl loved him, he saw that she loved him well and truly, but she did not love him well enough. She wanted to put him aside, as her training taught her she ought to put aside all the pleasures of this life, all the sunshine and laughter of life, as things hurtful to her soul's salvation. And because she was young, because she had been born under sunny, laughter-loving skies, his love came to her with a cruel temptation, and because of its very strength, because of the pain it cost her, she would put it aside as a thing wrongful and wicked.

He looked at the silent little figure in its pink gingham frock, leaning up against the rock with head bowed down on its clasped hands. Dimly he understood the struggle that was going on in her breast, and clearly too he foresaw the inevitable end. Her very love for him was an argument against him. Never, never, never!—the booming sea on the rocks below seemed to take up the refrain—would this woman be wife of his? Never, never, never; the play was played out. Down through the vista of years he looked, and saw her the wife of the man he hated—the man who was to him the very incarnation of hypocrisy and cant He saw the hard, loveless life; he saw the lines growing in the fair, young face that was so dear to him; he saw stern Duty take the place of Love; he saw her life grow hard and narrow; he read in her face the bitterness of unfulfilled hopes, and the longing, the unutterable longing for something that might not be put into words, and a great pity for her filled his heart. Not for worlds would he add to her pain. She had come into his life, a dainty, fair, tender thing, and he had only hurt her; by his own pain he gauged hers.

A step forward and he was looking down at the snow-white breakers thundering at the foot of the cliff. The sea was his home, the cruel, fickle sea; he would go back to it and leave the woman he loved in peace. What right had he to come into her life to spoil it? He would go back whence he came, and all should be as it had been before. Go back?—ah! we none of us can go back; surely the Greeks of old were right when they said that not even Omnipotence itself can alter the past. For him he felt, as he watched the white gulls wheel about the face of the inaccessible cliff, there could be no comfort. He had gotten a hurt that would last him a lifetime, but for her—surely he had not hurt her irredeemably.

Very slowly he walked back to her side again, and laid a hand on her shoulder.

"Susy," he said, and he strove with all his strength to banish from his voice all else but kindness, "are you—do you—are you going to marry Clement Scott?"

But she would not raise her face.

"My father—he—I mean—" and so low was her voice, he had to stoop his head to hear, "father said I should—he is a Godfearing man—my father said I—I should beware that I chose—the—the better man. It—it—would be for my soul's salvation."

"Susy—Susy, child, I would not harm you, not for all this world or the next could give me. See now, my darling, I must go and leave you, must I?"

She raised her face now, and the bright sunlight showed it to him white and strained. She was paying for her love, if ever woman was. It went to his heart to see her quivering lips, to read in her eyes that voiceless appeal to him, not to tempt her beyond her strength.

"My poor little girl!"

He put out his arms and drew her close to his breast again, and at the sound of his voice, at the tender touch of his hands, she broke down—broke down and cried passionately with her face hidden on his shoulder. He pushed back her hat, and some strands of her hair fell loose across his hand. He held it lightly and tenderly, noting how it shone in the sunlight, noting that it looked like spun gold.

"Don't cry like that, my darling, it breaks my heart to hear you."

But he knew there was no hope for him in those tears. There was resignation, heartbroken resignation to the inevitable, but not a touch of yielding, not a spark of hope for him.

"My poor little girl!" he said again. "My poor little girl!"

"It is my poor boy, I think," she sobbed, "if you care, my poor, poor Ben!"

She was so close and yet so far, so very far away from him.

"Susy, child, I can't bear this," his voice was hoarse with the passion that now he could not keep under control, "you must let me go—now."

She raised her face and looked with her tear-dimmed eyes straight into his.

"Ben, Ben, I love you, I will tell you this once, whether it's right or wrong. I love you, I love you, I love you!" And she flung her arms round his neck, and drawing down his face to her own covered it with kisses, hot, passionate kisses in which the future, which for her stretched away into eternity, was forgotten.

"I must go. Susy, Susy, if you will not have me, in pity's name let me go!"

"Go then, go, my darling."

She drew herself out of his arms firmly, sadly, and they stood for a moment looking into each other's eyes, only for a moment though, then with a long-drawn sigh she turned away and covered her face with her hands.

He stood a little apart and took a long farewell to all his hopes. Would the picture ever fade from his mind, he wondered. There it all lay before him, blue sea and sky and dark bushland, and the only living thing visible the trembling girl in her simple pink frock, her face hidden in her hands, and the sunlight bringing out lines of gold in her fair hair. So it ended—his month-old romance. To-day he must go back to the old dull routine that makes up the sum of a sailor's life, and this brief madness must be but a tender memory of the past.

"Susy," he whispered, "Susy," but the little figure never raised its head.

"Susy, won't you wish me good-bye. Say something to me before I go. Must I go?"

He had no hope she would change her mind. He had learned her steadfastness only too well in the last four weeks, only he asked because it gave him the faintest shadow of an excuse for stopping at her side.

"Yes, go, go!" And the command was almost prayerful in its intensity.

"But—but—one word—one word—you—"

"God bless you! God keep you! Go, go!"

He turned away then, away from the bright water sparkling in the sunlight, away from the woman he loved with all his strength; but a chimera, it seemed to him, a vague fancy, stood between them, yet it was stronger than iron bars, and with a heavy sigh he turned his face towards the dark ranges and went down to the township, five miles beyond.

The good ship Vanity had lain three long months at Port Melbourne Pier, but they were weighing anchor at last. Standing there on the poop, the second mate listened sadly enough to the chanting of the men as they walked slowly round the capstan. There was almost a wail in the tune, though the words were the essence of common-placeness, and related how the singers had courted Sally Brown for seven years, and when she had proved obdurate, with great complacency had taken her daughter instead.

"Seven long years I courted Sally, Ay, ay, roll and go! Seven long years and she wouldn't marry, Spend my money on Sally Brown."

"Ay! ay!" it rose loud and clear above the noise of the busy pier, above the voices of the men at work there, above the creaking and groaning of the crane that was loading the great iron tank that lay next them, "ay! ay! roll and go!"

Yes, he was going now, leaving all the sunshine of his life behind him, the best part of his life and—

"Now then, mister, bear a hand there, ain't there longshore lubbers enough wi'out you?"

"Ay! ay! roll and go!" It was only another way of saying "Blessed be drudgery," only a reminder that work is a universal panacea for all ills and heartaches. And after all the second mate of the sailing-ship is not likely to have much time for idle dreams—regretful or otherwise—for the life of such men is monotonous enough; and two days later when they had come through the Rip, and were out in the Southern Ocean sailing along eastward, there was little enough to remind Ben Harper of the events of a week before. True it was on this stern, forbidding coast lay the Mackie selection; it was over this expanse of sea they two had stood and looked when they said farewell—he had even heard tell that the lights from their cottage window, the bright glow from the kitchen fire, were plainly visible to ships at sea, so close was she. And he wondered to himself should he see those lights to-night. Hardly. He lay there in his bunk and listened to the row in the rigging. Things had not mended evidently since he went below. Gone was the summer and the bright November sunshine, the wind from the south was coming up cold and chill, and the prospect of four hours to-night on a very cold, wet, bleak poop was anything but inviting.

"It 's just going eight bells, sir." He scrambled out of his bunk and into some clothes and oilskins, and was standing alongside the mate under the lee of the weather cloth in the rigging, by the time the watch got aft. They were the average crew of a sailing ship, men from every nation under the sun, and as they passed slowly round the capstan, their shoulders hunched to their ears, each man answered sullenly to his name. Not that they bore the second mate any ill-will, but Jack ashore spends his last weeks in riotous living and suffers a slow recovery for the first few days of the voyage. Besides the night was bitter cold, the wind that whistled shrilly through the rigging already bore on its chill breath drops of icy rain; there was no prospect of things mending, and after the hot summer days at Port Melbourne extra wraps—indeed any clothes in the fo'c'sle beyond what each man stood up in—were conspicuous by their absence. Merchant Jack is a thriftless beggar at best, and who could have foreseen wintry weather like this?

"Andersen!" called the mate, as a tall, fair haired Swede, his hairy breast bare to the cold night air, stepped forward.





"'Ere, sir."



What a motley crew they were! Swedes and Germans, cockneys and niggers, they passed on till the two watches had answered to their names, and the last man was a Russian Finn, black-haired and swarthy, with a flat face and eyes like a Tartar.

"They Finns," said the bo'sun confidentially to Harper, "is just pisen. Never knew no ship come to any good as carried em.

"Pooh!" said the second mate, who was not troubled with superstitious fears; besides the bo'sun made the same remark every time the watches were mustered, then he shouted, "Relieve the wheel and look out. Keep yourselves handy there, the watch."

"She 's got the main-to'g'll'nts'le on, mister," said the mate, "and the outer jib. It's been like this all the watch, steady enough. The sea's getting up a bit, and having the spanker set makes her steer so badly, but the old man wouldn't let me douse it;" and muttering something about the "glass going right down into the hold" the oil-skinned figure departed down the companion.

It was dark, very dark indeed, for though the moon was nearly full, heavy clouds obscured the sky, and only now and then she managed to pierce them, showing as clear as day the deserted wet decks—for the watch had all stowed away—the few sails set and just under the foot of the foresail the lookout man, banging his arms to and fro to keep himself warm.

The second mate paced briskly up and down the poop, for'ard was the lookout man, aft the man at the wheel, they three seemed to compose the whole ship's company, and it gave him for a moment a sense of loneliness. Hardly a week ago and he had hoped for such different things.

He had lost nothing, nothing; he told himself so over and over again, as he drew his oilskins close round him, and yet there was a sense of loss in his life, a great and terrible loss. She would be nothing to him, the girl he loved so well, she would marry Clement Scott, she had as good as told him so—because—because he was the better man. The better man—the better man—the words formed themselves into a sort of rhythm that his steps kept time to—"the better man, the better man."

"Binnacle light's goin' hout, sir," said the man at the wheel, breaking in on his sad thoughts.

"Below there. One of you boys trim this light."

Young Angus Mackie answered his hail, unshipped the light, and lingered for a moment.

"We 'll be right aboard t'auld place in an hour or two, sir."


"I was sayin' that goin' on this tack we 'll be awfu' close in shore. Ye could pretty nigh chuck a biscuit in at the kitchen door. I wonder if they'll be thinkin' o' us."

"E—h—h?" muttered Harper, for had not his thoughts been taking the same road, though not for worlds would he have owned it.

"I'm thinkin' Susy will. Ye see I 'm thinkin' Susy was a bit gone—"

"You boy, trim that lamp," said Harper angrily. "Look here, my lad, you just keep your tongue lashed amidships, and don't go gassing about things that don't concern you in the least, or you and I 'll part brass rags."

The boy scurried below and returned with the lamp retrimmed. He slipped the light into the binnacle and looked doubtfully at the second mate. It was dull and he was inclined to talk, but after his late rebuff hardly dared. Harper began to pace up and down again, and the boy stowed himself under the lee of the house, volunteering the information as he passed the mate.

"Bo'sun says the wind 's goin' to shift ahead."

"You be hanged, and the bo'sun too!"

But before an hour had gone by he was obliged to acknowledge that the bo'sun's weather prophecies were very correct, for the wind shifted point after point till it was right ahead and blowing half a gale. Harper looked aloft and noted the clouds scurrying across the sky. Heavier and heavier they were growing to wind'ard.

"By Jove!" he muttered to himself, "we 're in for a nasty night."

Suddenly the lookout man reported, "Light right ahead, sir."

Harper stepped forward to the skylight and peered down into the cabin, dimly lighted by an oil lamp. It was a bare enough little place at best, but it looked comfort itself as contrasted with the wet decks above. The skipper was lying on a settee sound asleep, one hairy arm thrown out, and on the table meditatively surveying him was Dinah, the ship's cat.

"Hallo there!" reported the mate through the skylight; "light right ahead, sir."

Very lazily he rolled off the sofa, scared puss out of her senses by a rough sweep of his hand, and came up on deck.

"Great Scott!" he growled, "what a night!" Then he took a squint through his night glasses.

"Oh, yes, mister," he said, "that's all right. It's just a small light—a leading mark for the small craft going into the creek there for lime. Fixed white light, I heard of it the day before we left. It's deep water right up. We'll go right in, mister, and make a long board of it on the next tack."

The moon was completely hidden now, and both men hanging over the break of the the poop could see nothing but the bright light right ahead.

"It looks small, sir," ventured Harper, taking another look through his glasses.

"Didn't I tell ye it was small? If ye will be for ever—"

Harper still looked steadily through his glasses.

"By the Lord! sir, that looks uncommonly like a line of breakers! There—to port!"

The skipper made one hesitating step forward, and then the truth flashed on him like lightning.

"Great Scott!" he cried again, "so it is! Call all hands. Hands 'bout ship!" Then he turned to the man at the wheel, who was the Russian Finn the bo'sun objected to as unlucky, "Keep her clean full for stays."

The men came tumbling out from the holes and corners where they had stowed away, and the watch below came up growling audibly at having their rest disturbed, but none apparently understanding the danger of the situation. It is all in the day's work that a sailor should be disturbed before he has had more than a taste of the bliss of sleep. The wild tumbling waters and the shrieking wind told them no tale; they only thought the wind had gone round and freshened a bit since they went below.

Harper standing on the fife rail at the crojack braces could have told them a different story. Clearly he saw the danger. There ahead, a little to leeward, were the long line of breakers; even in this pitchy darkness he could see their white foam-topped crests against the inky water; he fancied that even above the roaring of the wind through the rigging he could distinguish the crash with which they flung themselves hungrily against the rocks, the long-drawn sob as of disappointment with which they fell back into the sea again, there to gather strength for a fresh onslaught. Above them was the loom of the land showing only like thick cloud-bank against the horizon, and the bright light beckoning, it seemed, with friendly hands.

"Ready about!" shouted the skipper.

"O—o—oh, o—o—oh, o—o—oh!" sang the men at the braces in mournful monotone. Bang went the wet sail against the mast, and the second mate from his vantage point watched her slowly come up to wind. Slowly—slowly—the towering seas came pouring aboard—she took it in by the deck-house by ton loads, and the men all hung on to the nearest thing handy for dear life. Slowly, slowly her nose came up to the wind. Would she go round? Would she? Would she?

"Gummy!" he heard the bo'sun's voice near him in the darkness, and above all the din; "she is a blanked old bathing machine, ain't she?"

Nobody disputed the fact. Would she come round? Would she? Would she? Surely she was coming.

Then there was a pause for a brief second. Every man in that pause, it seemed, realized the gravity of the situation.

By Jingo! Will she come? Will she not?

Then the hoarse voice of the skipper broke in.

"Up with your helm, hard up! Flatten in your head sheets! Haul in your weather cro'jack brace!"

"Jammed, by G—d!" said the bo'sun, taking a squint over the side at the racing water and the ship rolling helplessly in the trough of the seas, "jammed, by G—d! like Jackson's cat."

The ship was in irons. "Would they ever get out of this fix?" thought Harper, while he listened to the skipper shouting orders to the man at the wheel, as she gathered stern-way and heard the Russian Finn's hoarse:

"Helm's amidships, sir," in reply. He was a plucky old man, old Alick MacDonald, given to carrying on as long as he dared, which was a good deal longer than most men would have dared, and his second mate had seen him in some very tight places already, but his good luck had always stood him in good stead; would it hold good once more?

Gradually the ship paid off, slowly her nose came round, and Harper, looking at the foaming line of breakers, thought how perilously close they were. But—but—surely after all she would come through scot free, a moment more—only a moment more. The moon came from behind the heavy clouds paling the light ashore before her bright rays, and showing them just for a second the seething white water all around. So close was the danger, every man held his breath.

"We're clear!" The words were on Harper's lips, then—crash—the ship struck with a sickening shock that shook her from stem to stern, and brought down the foreto'g'll't mast from aloft with all its tackle, and strewed the deck with wreckage. In a moment the men had dropped the ropes and rushed as one man aft to be clear of the falling top hamper.

"Stand fast, men, stand fast!" sung out Harper. "Where are you off to there?"

"Well," growled the bo'sun, who still stood by the second mate, "hell's the next port, if you ask me!" And his companion could not but wonder at his coolness. He too, clinging for life, realized that the good ship Vanity was a total wreck, and as he realized it, he raised his eyes and saw the light, which had been their guiding star till now, go suddenly out and leave all the cliff in pitchy darkness.

Crash went the ship again, bumping heavily and bringing down more hamper from aloft to add to the confusion on deck, and sea after sea swept over her. The two men scrambled aft, and above the thunder of the seas that fell aboard and the roar of the breakers that were not to be disappointed of their prey, heard the skipper shouting orders for the launching of the life-boat. It seemed to Harper no boat could live in such a raging sea, of a surety no boat could land on such a coast—at least not the coast as he knew it, the coast where was the Mackie selection—and the Mackie selection was somewhere hereabouts, you might see the light of their kitchen fire from—Good God! it came upon him like a flash—was that the light that had led them to destruction?

But there was no time for questions like that. The idea passed through his mind as he heard the skipper shout,

"Port watch, rig tackles! Starboard watch, see port life-boat all clear for going out!"

The raging wind and sea seemed to have gone down for a moment, now they had accomplished their end. The moon came out again, and he saw the watch at the skids, and the tall figure of the first mate as he stood on the boat, ripping off the covering with a sheath knife. One step forward he made to go to his assistance when there rose a towering wall of dark water to wind'ard.

"Stand from under—stand from under!" yelled every throat, but it was too late. It was doubtful if they heard, it was certain they had no time to get away. The wave came on resistlessly, and when the water had passed over them, boat and skids, part of the bulwarks, the first mate, and half the starboard watch had been swept away. There was a wailing cry above the roar of the seas, but it was impossible to say who had gone.

"Gone to port," muttered the bo'sun, "an' darned quick too!" And that was their requiem, for now it was each man for himself. The old skipper's voice was silent, and the second mate feared he too must have been carried overboard by the last sea.

"Jump for a blue light," he said to a boy next him, who was clinging to the broken skylight, "they're in the locker in the cabin."

The lad hesitated, then swung himself down, and in a minute or so returned, clambering back through the skylight holding two blue lights in his hand. He struck the end of one and illuminated the whole place with the ghastly glare. The Vanity, but a few minutes before a trim, smart ship, lay there on the reef a total wreck. The bright light showed her broken bulwarks with the seas making clean sweeps through them, the decks one mass of wreckage in hopeless confusion, cordage and rigging, splintered yards, and shattered deck-house—all alike had suffered a sea change. The foremast and the mainmast were gone, and their stumps stood up jagged and torn, but the mizzen lower mast still remained, and the men—those of them that were left—were in the rigging, for the deck every moment was becoming more untenable. The wheel was broken and the Russian Finn lay dead beside it, killed by a falling gaff, his swarthy face, white now in the bright light, turned up to the stormy sky; and a little farther for'ard, close to where Harper himself was standing, lay the skipper, jammed against the skylight by a heavy hencoop.

He bent over him and attempted to move the hencoop.

"All right, mister," said the old man bitterly, "better leave it alone. The old barkie's clean done for, an' I'm thinkin' we 're all bound for the same port."

As the blue light died down the lad lighted another, and one or two men dropped from the rigging and crawled to Harper's assistance.

"I ain't worth much now, mister," moaned the old man again; uwe 'll never get out of this fix; "but they succeeded in dragging him aft and lashing him in the rigging. The boy who had burned the blue lights scrambled after them, and then, clinging there, hardly out of reach of the hungry waves, commenced their long wait for daylight.

"What 's the time, sir?" asked the lad next the second mate.

"About eleven."

The boy drew a long sigh.

"Oh, Lordy! we can never hold on till morning, can we?"

"God knows."

A light started out of the darkness against the cliff—a light that grew and grew till it was a great flame even from where they stood, and the men in the rigging raised a shout.

"They see us ashore! Hurrah! hurrah!"

"Mighty little good their seeing us ashore 'll do us," said the bo'sun; "hell 's between!" And looking at the strip of seething boiling water that lay between them and the coast, Harper was obliged to acknowledge the man was right.

Still it lent them some comfort—that bright fire. They were a handful of men clinging there, drenched to the skin already, and every wave wetted them again with its salt spray, the wind whistled through the rigging bitter and cold, the icy rain like spear points cut their faces; there was no hope for them, no hope at all save in that blazing fire on shore.

Who shall describe the thoughts of men in extremity? Who shall say whether they thought at all—those men half dead with cold, clinging for dear life with numb hands to a slender rope that might give way at any moment? Would they see the morning light?

Harper was surprised to find he took it so quietly. There was none of the despair he had fancied he should feel in like case—or rather, he questioned, was it not despair that made him take it so calmly, utter despair? And after all what did a few years more or less of life matter to him? If death only came quickly without much pain, would it not be well with him? What had he to live for? Bitterly came back to him the last time he had looked over this raging sea. If it was not here, it was somewhere hereabouts, somewhere quite close. He could not help thinking of it, and contrasting it, that lovely summer's afternoon, and this bitter winter's night, with just ten days in between them. He looked at the fire on shore, now dying down, now blazing up brightly, replenished by willing hands, and between it and him came Susy Mackie's fair face. So sweet and dainty and fair, all that a man might long for, and yet she would give no thought to him. No thought! A wave higher than its fellows drenched him through and through, and made him wonder was the Vanity settling down, slipping off the reef into the deep water beyond it. No thought! What did it matter? It was only a little nearer the inevitable end, and if she had given him thought—if she had given him her heart, it was in despite her better judgment; her narrow up-bringing had won the day, and only that morning he had thought that life was not worth living without her. Why should he repine now that fate had taken him at his word? Then a great wave of tenderness came over him. His little girl, his sweet, pretty little girl, who made even of the stern, hard, unlovable faith of her fathers, a thing that was holy and beautiful. His little girl! He remembered—and the very thought sent a warm glow through his chilled veins—how she had wept over his possible death, wept bitter tears because she thought her God was harder and more cruel than the children He had made with His hands. His little girl, his darling!

The boy next him began to moan, and in spite of the shrieking wind and the howling sea Harper made out that his hands were aching, that he was perished with cold and could not hold on any longer.

"Nonsense, lad, nonsense!" and he took off his strong leather belt and buckled it round the shroud and round the boy's body, "there, that 'll give you a helping hand. Hold on now." Then as the boy thanked him, he saw by a stray and watery moonbeam it was young Angus Mackie.

"It's right on your own coast, Angus, we 've come to grief."

"I 'm thinking," said the lad, "it's right on our own place. I 'm thinkin' yon light—not the fire, the one we saw first—is our ain kitchen fire. Mony 's the time I 've been seein' it an' me out fishin' here."

"But the fireplace doesn't face the door," wondering to himself why it was he discussed such things now.

"Naw, but there 's a bit mirror agin the wall, it reflects things. Oh, mony's the time I've seen it. Mither, she wanted it in the parlour; but Susy, she was saying we were living in the kitchen, and it made things brighter like. Dad, he was for sayin' it was a snare o' the Evil One; but Susy, she had her way."

So after all it was his sweetheart's natural girlish longing after pretty bright things that had lured them to destruction. Should he die to-night it was her innocent hand that had dealt the blow. The boy beside him was thinking the same thing, and presently he said, "When she comes to know, what'll she say?"

Harper said nothing. If it had been possible he would have prayed the boy to keep the knowledge from her; but he knew it was not possible. If any man escaped from this wreck, he would surely tell of the light they had mistaken for the new leading mark, and if they all perished—well—then there would be no need to plead for silence. The sea keeps her own secrets.

"Susy is gone on ye, sir," said the boy again, "why wouldn't ye have her?"

It hardly seemed strange to him now, the question he would have resented fiercely at any other time.

"Have her!" he repeated, and looking down, he noted that the last wave had left behind it a great crack in the deck, and he heard the skipper moaning, "Oh, the poor barkie, the poor barkie!" and knew that he too had seen it. "Have her? She wouldn't have me."


"She didn't think I was good enough," explained Harper hastily.

"She told ye that!—oh, Lord! They 've been at her about that pious psalm-singer Clement Scott. Ye try again when we get ashore. She's goin' to stop a bit wi' Aunt Barnes, at South Yarra, this Christmas. T' auld girl hates t' psalm-singer, an' she 'll do the job for ye. Oh, Lord! oh, Lord! I 'm starved wi' the cold."

"It 's not so long now," said Harper, and suddenly he felt as if the night were stretching itself into interminable years. The bar that Susy had thought so hopeless, so insurmountable, was it really but a thing of straw? Was there really a chance for him yet? Was there really anything in the lad's careless words? And hope awoke again in his breast, and with the hope a raging bitterness against the fate that was putting a barrier once more between him and the attainment of those hopes. She loved him, she had acknowledged that she loved him, and now to be free to win her! The eagerness for life awoke in him again. Who said the world was dreary? Who said life was not worth living? A bright, fair world stretched enticingly before him, and he was dying. Yes, dying—they were all dying, the old ship was breaking up fast, and if succour did not come quickly—He drew a long breath and looked down through the rain, that was falling in torrents now, at the decks below. One moment all was hidden by the raging seas, the next by the faint moonlight he saw the cracks widening—widening—then came another great sea, and he felt the ship bump heavily on the rocks. No, it was the poorest chance that she should last till morning, they—these men hanging to the rigging—had no chance whatever of living in the sea that boiled around them. Wider and wider grew the cracks on deck, the water was pouring into the hold, and the cargo was being washed out of her. One bale of wool—two—three—rose up on the next wave. A bale of wool! What is a bale against a man's life? And yet the skipper was moaning pitifully over their loss.

"My great Scott! eighteen hundred bales of wool gone! What will the owners say? The poor old barkie! The poor old barkie! How shall I face the owners?"

So! so! and his chances of facing those owners seemed so pitifully small, and yet the old man's thoughts were full of it. Sometimes he moaned over the wife and children in faraway England, but not as one who gives up all hopes of seeing them again, only as one who maybe had brought them to bitter poverty and pain by his mischance, for would the owners give him another ship, now he had lost the old Vanity? "Hardly likely," he muttered to himself. "Hardly likely." And so the bitter night wore on. There was nothing to mark the hours as they passed. Now a man moaned a little, now another cried aloud that he could hold on no longer, that he must fall and die before morning. Always there was the sea, sweeping over the decks and halfway up the mast towards them, with wearisome monotony. Great squalls of rain came up every now and then, blotting out all else and making all round inky-black; then they passed, and the pale and watery moon showed them the shore quite close, and the raging waters between. The tongue of the ship's bell had broken loose somehow, and the wash of the sea made it toll with mournful cadence. It rose clear and loud, even above the shrieking of the gale, and Harper fitted its notes to his own words. "Never more," it seemed to say; and then, as a heavier sea than usual swept over the wreck, shaking her down to her very keel, "Never, never more."

And yet on shore the fire leaped and danced. Kindly anxious hands were feeding it, and it was impossible not to think that the men who would stay out on such a bitter night, were not doing all they knew for the help and succour of these helpless men. There were rocket apparatus stationed along the coast, and if the ship would only hold together long enough, why should they not all be saved? If she only would. Ben Harper was feverish in his desire for life now. He must live; he must see Susy once again, he must—he must! And eagerly he watched for the dawn.

So long the night, so long, so long. Is it a truth that our hours of gladness and our hours of pain are all of a length? Surely not. The night wore on, and it seemed to those waiting men that the longed-for morning would never come. But gradually the moon sank behind the dark mass of the land to leeward, and in the east came the first faint streaks of dawn.

A shout rose up from the weary waiting men, a shout Harper fancied he heard echoed faintly from the shore. Then the day was born, stormy and cold, and the light only showed them a handful of men clinging to a wreck, which each sea threatened to break into a thousand pieces.

"Merciful God!" cried the skipper, as the daylight showed him the full extent of his peril, "my poor wee wife!"

But if the daylight showed them their danger it showed them too that those on shore had not been unmindful of them. The ugly cliffs, steep and inaccessible, were not very high, and on the nearest point to the wreck, not indeed one hundred yards away, a little knot of men were getting ready the rocket apparatus. There were women there too, with shawls thrown over their heads, and Harpers heart beat as he thought of seeing his love again. Surely now—now that he came to her from the very jaws of death—cast up out of the cruel sea—she would not reject him. Would she not rather take it as a sign from her God that she was to wed this man? Surely she would. In another few minutes he would be by her side—a little longer and he might hold her in his arms again. How long—how long? O God! if they would only make haste. Could they not see that every moment was precious, that the old ship was breaking up fast?

He began to count the men in the rigging, nineteen of them, men and boys, and the skipper was helpless with a broken leg. It would take them some time to get off. And yet not so long though—once they had the rope aboard.

They got the apparatus fixed at last, and then "swish." They could not see anything, for it was broad daylight now, but they heard the sigh of the rocket as it passed and knew it had missed. A despairing cry went up from the perishing men, for they, like the second mate, were counting their chances and reckoning them poor indeed. It almost seemed a matter of minutes now.

Again the men on shore tried, and this time the shout that went up was one of triumph. The thin line lodged beautifully over the mast, and the men in their awkward position hauled it in, and it seemed as if they had home and happiness within their grasp when the block came along.

Very carefully they made the thick rope fast round the mizzen lower masthead, the bo'sun still brisk and cheerful after the terrible night which he had spent in the rigging, his only covering a pair of torn dungaree trousers.

"None of your darned men-o'-war slippery hitches about this," said he; and Harper, as he saw the breeches-buoy come along the stout cable, could have shouted as the men were doing. Here was happiness and safety—here was the woman he loved—nay, should he not say rather the woman who loved him—waiting on shore for him, and would she deny him now he had come through so much? His little girl, his darling! One by one he watched the men go, he watched the breeches-buoy swallowed up in the raging waters, he watched them received on shore as men risen from the dead, and he counted eagerly the moments till his turn should come. They knew now on shore the name of the ship. Was that woman on shore looking seaward, his Susy? She had a red shawl, he remembered, as we do remember trifles in the supreme moments of our life. That must be Susy, and she was thinking of him. Only six now. And now only five. For one brief moment he felt as if he were tasting the bliss of perfect happiness. Could he have doubted that a merciful God ruled this world of ours? Ah, little girl, you shall learn a newer, purer, more pitiful faith, and Ben Harper will be your teacher, and then—and then—— All the exultation went out of his heart, for his eye fell on the tail of the block and he saw that it was stranded. It had lain there—that thick rope—in its house, carefully kept against the day of need, day after day, week after week, year after year, and the long waiting had told on the stout rope, slowly it had rotted, slowly—and no man knew it. And now in the day of need when a good man's life depended on it, it was failing. Was it though? Only three more men. And now only two—only the old skipper and himself. No one had noticed the rope, and where was the good of speaking of it. He watched the breeches-buoy, coming back to them, and clearly, clearly he read as in letters of fire that one of those two must die. Twelve hours ago he would have given his life for the skipper's, gladly, willingly; but now—now it was different. It was his right to live, he' told himself fiercely—his right, just as it was the right of the skipper to be the last to leave the ship. He was an old man, what was his life to him?—loyal enough to his owners—a rough old sea-dog, hard and even cruel at times—he was old, he had lived his life, he must be the one to stay. Even for the wife and children's sake—the owners were not hard men—they would see they did not starve. And he must see Susy again—just hold her in his arms once again. Sweetheart, sweetheart, who so dear in all the world? It was his right to go, he told himself again. Then he cut the lashings with which they had bound the skipper to the mast, the breeches-buoy was so close now and it was easier for him to do it. The old man might find a difficulty by himself, and he would want to be all clear when next the buoy came back. When next the buoy came back! He looked at the stranded rope and knew that the buoy would never come back. Hardly would it reach the shore. Certain it was it would never come back, and the wreck was breaking up fast. It was his right to go, and no one would know. And even if they did, he was only taking his rights. How could he give his life, with all its fair possibilities, all its high hopes, for this worn-out old shellback? And the buoy was here!

"You go, sir. It'll only make a few minutes' difference, and I can help you. You're hurt, and you'll find it hard to manage by yourself."

The old man demurred a moment—staunch old sailor, he would have stuck to the ship to the last, but the mate said again, "It only makes the difference of a minute or two, sir. That's nothing."

He could not send a message—not one. Why should he? They would never understand. The fair-haired girl would never know how he had longed for her this night.

Down, down went the buoy, and the waters swallowed it up. A great wave—another—he had done with life, for the rotten rope had parted at last!

But on shore there was great rejoicing, for they hauled the skipper up out of the sea, bruised and hurt and half drowned, but still alive; and the cry went round that he was the last man left aboard the Vanity.

Then the bo'sun put up his hands and squinted through them seaward.

"Jimini! there's the mizzen mast gone! Poor old girl!"

"An'," said another voice, the voice of the man who had left before the skipper, "there was two men aboard when I left, an' one of 'em was the second mate. Where is he?"

"Gone to ——," but a woman's bitter cry cut short the bo'sun's speech.


"Hallo! Dick. You here! Why, I thought you were away up tea-planting in Assam."

"And I thought you were comfortably settled down on the ancestral acres by this time."

"No such luck. The ancient cousin is still very much to the fore. Has taken to himself a new wife in fact, and a new lease of life along with her. She has presented her doting husband with a very fine heir; and, well, of course, after that little Willie was nowhere, and departed for pastures new."

"Make your fortune, eh! Made it?"

"Of course. Money-making game riding tracks on Jinfalla! Made yours?"

"Money-making game riding tracks on Nilpe Nilpe."

The two men looked at each other, and laughed. In truth, neither looked particularly representative of the rank and aristocracy of their native land. The back blocks are very effectual levellers, and each saw in the other a very ordinary bushman, riding a horse so poor, the wonder was he was deemed worth mounting at all. Both were dusty and dirty, for the drought held the land in iron grip, and the fierce north wind, driving the dust in little whirls and columns before it, blew over plains bare of grass and other vegetation as a beaten road.

Around them was the plain, hot and bare of any living creature, nothing in sight save a low ridge bounding the eastern horizon, a ridge which on closer inspection took the form of bluffs, in most places almost inaccessible. Overhead was the deep blue sky, so blue it was almost purple in its intensity, with not a cloud to break the monotony. Sky and desert, that was all, and these two Englishmen meeting, and the shadows cast by themselves and their horses, were the only spots of shade for miles.

"Sweet place!" said Guy Turner, looking round. "Warmish too. Wonder what it is in the shade?"

"In the shade, man. There ain't any shade, unless you count the shadows of our poor old mokes, and mine's so poor, I 'll bet the sun can find his way through his ribs. I 've been in the sun since daybreak, and I reckon it is somewhere about boiling point."

"I suppose it must be over 1600. What the dickens did you come out for?"

"Well, seeing it's been like this for the last three months, and is likely to go on for three more, as far as I can see; it ain't much good stopping in for the weather; besides there's this valuable estate to be looked after. But to-day I rode over for the mails."

"What, to the head-station?"

"Lord, no! The track to Roebourne passes along about twenty miles off over there, and I get the boss to leave my mail in a hollow tree as he passes."

"Trusting, certainly. There 's some good about this God-forsaken country."

Dick Stanesby, or, to give him his full name, Richard Hugh De Courcy Stanesby, shrugged his shoulders scornfully.

"Evidently, Dick, that mail wasn't satisfactory. Has she clean forgot you, Dick, the little white mouse of a cousin, with the pretty blue eyes? She was mighty sweet on you, and———"

But there was a frown on Dick's usually good-tempered face. He was in no mind to take his old chum's pleasantry kindly, and the other saw it, and drew his own conclusions therefrom.

"Chucked him over, poor beggar, I suppose. Hang it all! Women are all alike; once a man's down, he's forgotten," but he did not speak his thoughts aloud. He looked away across the sweltering plain, and said casually,

"Where do you hang out, old man?"

Stanesby pointed east in a vague sort of manner, that might indicate South Australia, or far distant New South Wales.

"Got a shanty on the creek there," he said laconically.

"Creek, is there a creek? The place looks as if it hadn't seen water since the beginning of the world."

"Oh, there's a creek right enough. I believe it's a big one when it rains, but it hasn't rained since I 've been here, and there ain't much water in it. Just a little in the hole opposite the hut. The niggers say its permanent. Springs, or something of that sort."

"Niggers! That's what I 've come over about. They've worried the life out of us on Jinfalla. Taken to spearing the cattle, and the men too if they get a chance. Old Anderson thinks we ought to have some 'concerted action,' and settle the matter once for all."

"H'm. Wipe 'em out, I suppose he means?"

"It's what a squatter generally means, isn't it, when he talks about the blacks? Sounds brutal, but hang it all, man, what the devil is a fellow to do? They 're only beasts, and as beasts you must treat 'em. Look here, there was a young fellow on our run, as nice a boy as you 'd wish to see—his people were something decent at home, I believe, but the lad had got into some scrape and cleared out, and drifted along into the heart of Western Australia here. He was riding tracks for old Anderson about two hundred miles to the west there. He didn't come in last week for his tucker, so they sent word for me to look him up."

"Well?" for Turner paused, and drew a long breath.

"Well—same old nip, of course. His hut was burnt, and he and his hutkeeper—I tell you, Dick, it won't bear talking about—he was a lad of twenty, and the hutkeeper was an old lag, might have been seventy to look at him, but when I found their bodies down by the creek, I couldn't tell which was which."

"It's bad," said Stanesby, "very bad. What did you do?"

"Buried 'em, of course, my mate and I, and shot the first buck we came across skulking in the bush. What would you have us do?"

"It's all bad together," said the other man, with an oath. "The blacks about here are tame enough if you let 'em alone, but these young fellows get meddling with their women, and—well——"

"That 's all very well, but you didn't find a mate too ghastly a corpse to look at, or you wouldn't take the matter so coolly. You 'd have done just as I did. Something must be done, old man, or the country won't be habitable."

They had been riding along slowly, side by side, one man eager, anxious, interested, the other evidently with his thoughts far away. The mail he had got that morning was stuffed into his saddlebags, and the news it brought him made him think longingly of a home in far-away England, a creeper-covered house, and a cosy room with a bright fire, and the rain beating pleasantly on the windows. Rain—he had not seen rain for three long years. Always the hard blue sky and the bright sunshine, always the dreary plain, broken here and there by patches of prickly bush and still more thorny spinifex, always the red bluffs marking the horizon, clean cut against the cloudless sky.

Habitable? Such a country as this habitable? It had given him bread for the last three years, but—but—he felt burning in his pocket the letter summoning him home—telling of the death, the unexpected death, of his young cousin, that made him master of that pleasant home, that filled his empty pockets. What did anyone ever dream of living in such a country for—driving the unlucky niggers back and back? What need for it? What need? Far better leave it to the niggers, and clear out altogether.

Had Gladys forgotten? He wondered. The little white mouse of a cousin, as Turner called her, who had cried so bitterly when he left, and even now answered his letters so regularly, those letters that had come to be written at longer and longer intervals as home ties weakened, and the prospect of seeing her again slowly died away. Had she forgotten—had she? She looked like the sort of woman that would be faithful—faithful—well, as faithful as any one in this world could be expected to be, as faithful as women always are to their lovers in distant lands. Turner had been sweet there once too, curious he should meet him just now; he had forgotten her surely, or he would never have referred to her so casually. Yes, Turner had forgotten, and yet he had been very bad too—strange how completely a thing like that passes out of a man's life. Could he take up the broken threads just where he left off—could he? So sweet and tender as she was, so quiet and restful. There was that other one, who loved him after her fashion too, but—pah, it was an insult to Gladys to name her in the same breath—she—she—The country was not habitable—a doghole unfit for a European; what was Turner making such a song over the niggers for?

"Old man," said Turner, he had been telling to unlistening ears the tale of how the blacks had speared, in wanton mischief, a mob of two hundred cattle on Jinfalla, not fifteen miles from the home station, "old man, you see it would be just ruination to let this go on. Either they or we must clear out. We can't both live here, that's certain."

"Always the same old yarn wherever the Englishman goes, always the same old yarn. Poor niggers!"

"Well, what'd you have?" said the other warmly; "something's got to be done."

"I 'm going to cut it all."

"What?" Turner stopped his horse and looked his companion full in the face. "Cut it all?"

"My cousin 's dead."

"John Stanesby?"

"John Stanesby."

"And Heyington 's yours?"

"And Eastwood too."

"Good Lord!"

There was silence for a moment. Then Turner said again:

"You can marry Gladys Rowan now."


Then he added, as if as an afterthought, "If she 'll have me."

"No fear of that," said Turner with a sigh. Then he turned to his old chum, and stretching over laid a kindly hand on his arm, "I congratulate you, old chap."

"Thank you." And they rode on in silence, the one man thinking bitterly that if ever he had cherished a spark of hope of winning the woman he had loved he must give it up at last, the other trying to realise the good fortune that had come to him.

And an hour ago he had been as this man beside him—only one little hour ago!

"How far do you reckon it to the head-station? Fifty miles?"

"Fifty? Nearer eighty I should say."

"Then I guess I 'll put up at your place. How far's that?"

"About ten miles."

"All right. Lead on, master of Heyington."

To refuse a man hospitality in the bush—such a thing was never heard of, and, though Stanesby said no welcoming word, it never occurred to Turner to doubt that he was more than welcome.

"It's right out of your way."

Turner stared.

"Good Lord! What's ten miles, and we haven't met for years. I must say, old chap, you don't seem particularly pleased to see an old chum."

"I—they ain't so plentiful I can afford to do that. No, I was thinking of going in to the station with you."

"Right you are, old man, do you? Only we'll put up at your place for the night—my horse's pretty well done—and go on in the morning."

Stanesby said nothing, only turned his horse's head slightly to the left. Save the red bluffs away to the east there was nothing to mark the change of direction. There was no reason apparently for his choosing one direction rather than another.

They rode in silence, these two who had been college chums and had not met for years. Possibly it was the one man's good fortune that raised a barrier between them. It was not easy for Turner to talk of present difficulties and troubles when, as Stanesby said, he was going to "cut it all"; it was not easy for him to speak of bygone times when the other man was going back to them, and he would be left here without a prospect of a change. And Stanesby said nothing, he could only think of the great difference between them; and yesterday there was nothing he would have liked better than this meeting with his old friend, which to-day fell flat. No, he had nothing to say. Already their paths lay wide apart.

An hour's slow riding brought them to the creek Stanesby had spoken of. There was no gentle slope down to the river, the plain simply seemed to open at their feet, and show them the river bed some twenty feet below. Only a river bed about twenty yards wide, but there was no water to be seen, only signs, marked signs in that thirsty land, that water had been there. Down where the last moisture had lingered the grass grew green and fresh, and leafy shrubs and small trees and even tangled creepers made this dip in the plain a pleasant resting-place for the eye wearied with the monotony of the world above it.

"By Jove!" cried Turner, surprised.

"Told you so," said his companion, "but it ain't much after all. Fancy calling that wiry stuff grass in England, and admiring those straggly creepers and shrubs. Why we wouldn't give 'em house-room in the dullest, deadest corner of the wilderness at home."

"Lucky beggar!" sighed the other man. "But you see they 're all I 'm likely to have for many a long year to come. Hang it all, man, I bet you 'd put that shrub there, that chap with the bright red flower, into your hot-house and look after him with the greatest care, or your gardener would for you."

"It'd require a d——d hot house," said Stanesby laconically, wiping his hot face.

They did not descend into the bed of the creek, the ground was better adapted for riding up above, and a mile further along they came upon a large blackfellows' camp stretched all along the edge of a water-hole.

"The brutes," said Turner; "bagging the water of course."

"They 'd die if they didn't, I suppose. This, and the hole by my place is the only water I know of for forty miles round. After all they were here first, and if I had my way they'd be left to it."

"All very well for you to talk," grumbled Turner. "Do they look worth anything?"

Certainly they did not. The camp was a mere collection of breakwinds made of bark and branches, more like badly-stacked woodheaps than anything else, and the children of the soil lay basking in the sun, among the dogs and filth and refuse of the camp, or crouched over small fires as if it were bitter cold. The dogs started up yelping, for a blackfellow's dog doesn't know how to bark properly, as the white men passed, but their masters took no notice. A stark naked gin, with a fillet of greasy skin bound round her head, and a baby slung in a net on her back, came whining to Turner with outstretched hands. She had mixed with the stockkeepers before, and knew a few words of English.

"Give it terbacker along a black Mary. Budgery{1} fellow you," but he pushed her away with the butt end of his whip.

"My place's not above a mile away now," said Stanesby, as they left the precincts of the camp behind them.

"I wouldn't have those beggars so close, if I were you. Some fine morning you'll find yourself—"

"Pooh! They're quite tame and harmless. I 've got a boy from them about the place, and he's very good as boys go. Besides, I 'm off as soon as possible."

1 Means "good."

"Well, I bet you the man who takes your place thinks differently."

"Very likely."

"Got a decent hutkeeper?"

"What? Oh yes. Pretty fair."

Clearly Stanesby was not in the mood for conversation, and Turner gave it up as a bad job. It was about two o'clock now, the very hottest hour of the day, and all nature seemed to feel it. Not a sound broke the stillness, not the cry of bird or beast, nothing save the sound of their horses' hoofs on the hard ground was to be heard.

"By Jove!" said Turner, "this is getting unbearable. I vote we get down and shelter for a spell under the lee of the bank."

For all answer, Stanesby raised his whip and pointed ahead.

"There 's the hut," he said. "Better get on."

It was hardly distinguishable from the surrounding plain, the little hut built of rough logs, and roofed with sheets of bark stripped from the trees which grew in the river-bed. Down in the creek there was a waterhole, a waterhole surrounded by tall reeds and other aquatic vegetation which gave it a look of permanence, of freshness and greenness in this burnt-up land. But that was down in the creek, round the hut was the plain, barren here as elsewhere; no effort had been made to cultivate it or improve it, and the desert came up to the very doors. The only sign of human life was the refuse from the small household—an empty tin or two, fragments of broken bottles, and scraps of rag and paper, only that and the hut itself, and a small yard for horses and cattle, that was all—not a tree, not a green thing. The bed of the creek was their garden, but it was not visible from the house; its inmates could only see the desolate plain, nothing but that for miles and miles, far as the eye could see. So monotonous, so dreary an outlook, it was hardly possible to believe there was anything else in the world, anything but this lonely little hut, with, for all its paradise, the waterhole in the creek below.

Turner said nothing. It was exactly what he expected; he lived in a similar place, a place without a creek close handy, where the only water came from a well, and undiluted, was decidedly unpleasant to the taste. No, in his eyes Stanesby had nothing to grumble at.

The owner of this palatial residence coo-eed shrilly.

"Jimmy; I say, Jimmy!"

A long, lank black boy, clad in a Crimean shirt and a pair of old riding breeches, a world too big for him, rose lazily up from beside the house, where he had been basking in the sun, and came towards them.

Stanesby dismounted and flung him his reins, Turner following suit.

"All gone sleep," said Jimmy, nodding his head in the direction of the hut, a grin showing up the white of his regular teeth against his black face.

"Come on in, Turner."

The door was open and the two men walked straight into the small hut.

It was very dark at first coming in out of the brilliant sunshine, but as Turner's eyes grew accustomed to the light, he saw that the interior was just exactly what he should have expected it to be. The floor was hard earth, the walls were unlined, the meagre household goods were scattered about in a way that did not say much for his friend's hutkeeper, a shelf with a few old books and papers on it, was the only sign of culture, and a rough curtain of sacking dividing the place in two, was the only thing that was not common to every hut in all that part of Western Australia.

"Howling swell, you are, old chap! Go in for two rooms I see."

The curtain was thrust aside, and to Turners astonishment, a girl's face peered round it. A beautiful girl's face too, the like of which he had not seen for many a year, if indeed, he had ever seen one like it before; a face with oval, liquid dark eyes in whose depths a light lay hidden, with full red pouting lips, and a broad low brow half hidden by heavy masses of dark, untidy hair, which fell in picturesque confusion over it. A beautiful face in shape and form, and rich dark colouring, and Turner started back too astonished to speak. Such a face! Never in all his life had he seen such a face, and the look turned on his companion was easy enough to read.

"Come here, Kitty," said Stanesby in an unconcerned voice. "I want some dinner for this gentleman."

Then she stepped out, and the illusion vanished. For she was only a half-caste, beautiful as a dream, or he who had not seen a woman for many a long day—he never counted the black gins women—thought so, but only a despised half-caste, outcast both from father's and mother's race.

Not that she looked unhappy. On the contrary, she came forward and smiled on him a slow, lazy smile, the smile of one who is utterly contented with her lot in life.

"Whew! So that 's our hutkeeper, is it?"

"Dinner, Kitty."

The girl took a tin dish from the shelf and went outside. She walked well and gracefully, and Turner followed her with his eyes.

"By Jove!" he said, "talk about good looks. Why, Dick, you—"

"Hang it all, man," said Stanesby. "I know well enough what you 're thinking. The girl is good-looking, I suppose, for a half-caste. The boss's sister, old Miss Howard, found her among the tribe, a wild little wretch, and took her in and did her best to civilise her; but it wasn't easy work, and the old lady died before it was done."

"And you 're completing the job?"

Stanesby shrugged his shoulders.

"I saw her, of course, when I went in to the head-station, which wasn't very often, and I suppose I told her she was a good-looking girl. She mayn't understand much, but she understood that right enough, trust a woman for that. Good Lord! I never gave her a second thought, till I found her at my door one night. The little beggar had had a row with 'em up at the house and came right off to me. It wasn't any use protesting. She might have done worse, and here she 's been ever since. But she's got the temper of a fiend, I can tell you, and it ain't all skittles and beer."

The girl entered the room and Stanesby began turning over his mail letters, making his companion feel that the subject had better be dropped between them. He had explained the girl's presence, he wanted no comments from his old friend.

He filled his pipe and sat down on the only three-legged stool the hut contained, watching his friend seated on a box opposite and the girl passing in and out getting ready the rough meal. She was graceful, she was beautiful, as some wild thing is beautiful, there was no doubt whatever of that. Her dress was of Turkey red; old Miss Howard had had a fancy for dressing all her dark protegees in bright colours, and they had followed in her footsteps up at the station, and Turner mentally appraising the girl before him, quite approved her taste. The dress was old and somewhat faded, but its severe simplicity and its dull tints just set off the girl's dusky beauty. Shoes and stockings she had none, but what matter? any touch of civilisation would have spoiled the picture.

Stanesby apparently took no notice of her, but began to read extracts from his letters and papers for his companion's benefit. He was hardly at his ease, and Turner made only a pretence of listening. He could not take his eyes from the girl who was roughly setting out the table for their meal. "The temper of a fiend," truly he thought it not unlikely, judging by the glances she threw at him whenever she took her eyes from Stanesby. She could hardly have understood what he read, but she listened intently and cast angry glances every now and then on Turner. He and these letters, she seemed to feel, were not of her world, they were taking this man away from her. Yes, he could well believe she had the temper of a fiend. But she said nothing. Her mother had come of a race which from time immemorial had held its women in bondage, and she spoke no word, probably she had no words in which to express her feelings.

The table was laid at last, and a piece of smoking salt beef and a great round damper brought in from outside and put on it.

"Dinner," said the girl sullenly, but Stanesby went on reading, and paid no attention, and Turner felt himself watching to see what would happen next. He caught only snatches of the letter, just enough to know it was a description of a hunt in England, of a damp, cold, cloudy day, of an invigorating run—the contrast struck him forcibly—the stifling, hot little hut, and the jealous, half-savage woman standing there, her eyes aflame with anger at the slight she fancied was put upon her.

She stole over and touched Stanesby lightly on the arm, but he shook her off as he would a fly and went on reading calmly.

The other man watched the storm gather on her face. She stood for one moment looking, not at Stanesby but at him; it was very evident whom she blamed for her lover's indifference; then she stretched across to the table and caught up a knife. Her breath was coming thick and fast and Turner never took his eyes off her, in between her gasping breath he heard his friend's voice, slow and deliberate as ever, still telling the tale of the English hunting day, still reading the letter which put such a world between him and the girl standing beside him. Then there was a flash of steel, Turner felt rather than saw that it was directed at him, and, before he even had time to think, Stanesby had sprung to his feet and grasped her by the arm.

"Would you now? Would you?" He might have been speaking to a fractious horse. Then as Turner too sprang to his feet and snatched the knife from her hand, he flung her off with an oath.

"You little devil!" He sat down again with an uneasy laugh, and the girl with an inarticulate cry flung herself out of the open door. In all the half hour that had elapsed, she had spoken no word except when she called them to their dinner; but in that inarticulate moan the other man seemed to read the whole bitterness of her story.

"I told you," said Stanesby, he seemed to feel some explanation or apology were necessary; "I told you she had the temper of a fiend. I hope she didn't hurt you, old man?"

"No, no. She meant business, though, only you were too quick for her. But I say, old man, it isn't well to have a good-looking young woman fix her affections on you in that ardent manner. There'll be the devil to pay, some day."

The other laughed, and then sighed.

"I tell you it was no fault of mine," he said.

"Come on and get something to eat. There's whisky in that bottle."

Virtually he had dismissed the subject; with the disappearance of the girl he would have let the matter drop, but he was not at his ease, and his old chum was less so. It was all very well to talk of old times, of college days, of mutual friends, each was thinking, and each was uncomfortably conscious that the other, too, was thinking, of that dark-eyed, straight-limbed young savage who had forced her personality upon them both, and was so far, so very far, removed from the world of which they spoke. There was another thing too, a fair-haired, blue-eyed girl, as different—as different as the North Pole from the Equator—each had loved her, to each she had been the embodiment of all earthly virtues, and each thought of her as well, too—the one man bitterly. Why should this man, this whilom friend of his, have everything? And the other man read his thoughts, and unreasoning anger grew up in his heart against his old chum. It has nothing whatever to do with Dick Stanesby's hutkeeper, of course, nothing whatever; but it is nevertheless a fact, that these two old friends spent what should have been a pleasant afternoon, devoted to reminiscences of old times and a renewal of early friendship, in uncomfortable silence. The monthly mail, which Stanesby had brought in, contained many papers, and after their meal they lighted their pipes and read diligently, first one paper and then another. At first they made efforts at conversation, read out incidents and scraps of news and commented thereon, but as the afternoon wore on, the silence grew till it became difficult to break it. The sunlight outside crept in and in through the open doorway. There were no shadows because there was nothing to cast shadows, save the banks of the creek down below the level of the plain and the red bluffs, thirty miles to the eastward. But the sun stole in and crossed the hard earthen floor, and stole up the wall on the other side, crept up slowly, emphasising the dull blankness of the place. So did the sun every day of the year, pretty nearly; so did he in every stockkeeper's hut on the plains of Western Australia; but to-day he seemed to Turner to be mocking his misery, pointing it out and emphasising it. Such his life had been for the last three or four years; such it was now; such it would be to the end. He could see no prospect of change, no prospect of better things: always the bare walls and the earthen floors for him; unloved, uncared for he had lived, unloved and uncared for he would die. And this man beside him—bah! it would not bear thinking of. He pushed back the stool he had been sitting on, and strolling to the door looked out. Nothing in sight but the black boy, who wasn't a boy at all, but a man apparently over thirty years of age, lolling up against the verandah post, like one who had plenty of time on his hands.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4     Next Part
Home - Random Browse