Not prone to sudden outburst, rather of the older Gothic calibre, slow of incandescence, but capable under sufficient stimulus of being wrought up to a white heat, I had been inwardly raging since Malgrade first came within scope of my vision. I had refrained from violence, though at desperate cost of self-repression, not wishing to have it bruited abroad that Dolores was the teterrima causa.
But one swift thought of the ruin he had so nearly effected in my own case, joined to a sight at the same moment of the woman’s bleeding face as it came between me and the westering sun, precipitated such a wave of wrath and desire for vengeance that I felt as if, like Ugolino, I could have passed an eternity in mangling the flesh of my foe.
Well was it said Brevis insania furor est. What is it but madness when the whole sensorium is merged in one reckless spasm of blood-lust, careless—if but the hate-hunger be appeased, the hate-thirst slaked—that fortune, fair fame, life itself be spent in the effort, lavishly as a child’s toys of which he is awearied?
Powerless then, too, the disciplined will, the instinctive inherited habit of provision, to stand against the dire half-animal transport. The passion of Dolores, haughty and tameless as was her spirit, seemed to pale before the superior volume of mine, as with glaring eyes I confronted him, her enemy and mine.
‘Base dog, and son of a dog!’ I said. ‘How dare you speak to a man that you have wronged like me? You can beat a woman, you can lie behind backs. Look at that woman’s bleeding face. Stand up to a man, you hound, and take the punishment you deserve, for, by ——, you shall have it now.’
A general misconception has gained credence that evil-intentioned people decline to look fixedly upon the countenances of the just or other sections of humanity. This may not infrequently occur; but the converse fact must have repeatedly impressed itself upon even the most superficial observer. Whatever his evil doings, and they were comprehensively numerous, man nor woman could ever say Algernon Malgrade’s bright blue eyes and soft met them not fairly when he elected to deceive. Clear were they, and burning with the fires of hell when the demon within him was unchained; but always unwavering, lowered neither to friend or foe.
As he stepped lightly forward with a mocking smile on his lip, I watched their cruel light deepen and glow, as might the gladiator’s gaze in the old days of Rome, when the sword play was before Cæsar, and the deadly inevitable stroke or thrust was impending.
In the matter of science as applied in the modern arena to boxing, no man on that great goldfield was his equal. But he had been lately leading an indolent dissipated life, while I had been taxing for the last few months, and therefore strengthening, every muscle and sinew in my whole frame.
Of these and other ideas I was dimly conscious as we went at each other with silent ferocity: on both sides the feeling of personal antagonism was too intense to suffer the intrusion of ordinary precaution.
From the first onset all notion of defence seemed to be abandoned, and the strange, curiously rare, sound made by the fall of heavy blows upon face and body, with our heaving breath, was the sole interruption for a space to the stillness of the sequestered spot.
I must have received a larger share of the first succession of blows that rained upon either form, but I felt or I heeded them not. I had iron muscles, a giant’s strength in that hour, and, after fighting in to a ‘half-arm rally,’ which lasted for many seconds, I was less surprised than grimly triumphant when my adversary dropped senseless upon the turf, and lay without motion, prone and nerveless, as one dead.
Dolores had stood the while at a little distance watching the combat, her great dark eyes fixed upon us with an expression half fierce, half wondering, as though the contest, while ministering to her craving for revenge, was half painful from the mingled emotions which so inexplicably sway that most ancient and still unriddled sphinx of womanhood.
But when the man stirred not for a space, lying in an awkward position, as does a corpse, she slowly and unwillingly, yet as if drawn by a powerful influence, moved towards him, and then kneeling down by his side changed the position of his head, and loosened the kerchief carelessly knotted around his throat. As for me, I would not then have touched limb or feature to have saved his life, looking on him still with the loathing pitiless ire which the wounded serpent excites as we watch him writhing in the flames.
My evident feeling of abhorrence, ignorant as she was of the deeper reason I had for revenge, commenced to produce a counterpoise of sympathy on her part. Gradually he recovered consciousness, and, sitting up, gazed at me with a look of malice so intense, so devilish, that I could have deemed it in my excited state to have issued from a corpse re-animated by a fiend from hell.
Shaking his fist, he moved his mouth and essayed to speak. No words came, though a gibbering horrible sound was produced. I saw Dolores, with a softened expression akin to pity, place her hand upon his face; not till then did I observe with more curiosity than regret that the lower jaw was broken. My last left-handed blow, delivered with full force, had caught the lower face fair, at exactly the true distance, splintering the bone as if glass.
For the first time I felt partly avenged.
‘You have shown yourself a man, Harry Pole,’ said Dolores, as Malgrade fell over and apparently fainted, ‘both in your pity and in your anger. I envy the woman who claims your love—the love of a good man. Once I had that treasure, but lured away by a villain, such a one as he (and she pointed to the prostrate man), I left home and happiness for ever—for ever. You had better return to your tent. I cannot abandon him in helplessness and pain, though in such a case he would not think of me. We part not this time, better for both if we did.’
Their cottage was at no great distance from the spot. When he recovered himself he would be able to walk there easily enough with her assistance. He was too well accustomed to feminine caprice to wonder at her change of humour. Doubtless they would effect a temporary reconciliation as they had done many a time and often before.
It was late when I reached our camp. I crept to my bed and slept as well as the pain of my sorely-bruised body would allow.
My appearance on the next morning naturally created great and general astonishment. But I kept my own counsel. Of course, it was shrewdly guessed that I did not so disfigure myself. And the multiform though not dangerous injuries I had evidently received were not to be accounted for on any ‘ran against a post’ theory.
But I have before stated that in no community in the world is the anciently wise precept of each man minding his own proper business more strictly adhered to than upon a goldfield. If somebody had ‘rolled into me’ or vice versâ, it was doubtless my own affair. If I had reasons for not publishing the nature of the combat, evidently a hardly contested one, why well and good also. It would come out in due time; and if it never did so, what matter? So my countenance was permitted gradually to recover its normal contour and complexion without exciting ill-bred remark or curiosity.
Some idea may be formed of the vast quantity actually produced by a glance at the official register of the period. It is there recorded by Commissioner Blake that within two years not less than three hundred thousand ounces of gold were sent to the metropolis by the Government escort alone. Much was also taken to Sydney or Melbourne by miners who preferred the hazardous plan of carrying their own treasure. Making all due allowances, gold to the value of a million and a half sterling must have been reft from the forgotten subterranean river beds of the Oxley during the two years that we spent there.
The streams filled to overflowing ran foaming along their channels, or raised above them by heavy rains amid the cloud-capped mountains at their sources, ran riot in devastating flood, sweeping away from the lower lands the cottage homes and crops of farmers, the flocks and fences of the larger graziers, the dams and water-races of the sluice-employing miner, while every week brought news of deaths by drowning in the dangerous fords of the unbridged streams. Coach passengers, or the horsemen or ordinary post traveller, the peripatetic labourer of the colonies, all shared and suffered alike.
What was curious was that the winter proper, which in Australia extends from June to August, had been exceptionally dry and fine. An occasional week of hard frost perhaps, with the thermometer down to 25° Fahr., but on the whole glorious weather—fresh, pure, invigorating, without tempest or inclement weather of any kind.
But in September the weather changed with the rapid unheralded suddenness of the Australian seasons. Sleet-storms and heavy-driving gales of polar severity succeeded the bright noons and cloudless morns of the midwinter period.
Unprotected as our encampment was in the essentials of substantial buildings, the change of weather fell upon us like a Russian winter campaign.
A change came over the aspect of the whole settlement. The tents and bark-covered buildings, blown down or soaked through and through, looked bedraggled and forlorn. The women and children suffered much, doubtless; for these last there was no play now outside of their homes, in which the narrow space precluded all but huddling and overcrowding for warmth and shelter.
The miners were now often hindered from their regular labour, and in the intervals, when the claims were ‘off work,’ might be seen grouped in or immediately around the bars of the hotels. These establishments did a roaring trade in hot grog, for the greater convenience of furnishing which, ingeniously contrived receptacles of boiling water were kept simmering all day and half the night on the counters.
I was sitting with Bagstock at the camp, at which palatial residence we were not disinclined occasionally to spend an evening, when a miner came to the door and requested to see the Clerk of the Court upon very urgent business.
This was no doubt informal, the ‘government time’ to which Bagstock was so fond of referring, only lasting from 10 o’clock to 4 P.M., as in more settled communities. But of course in real emergency no hard and fast line was drawn.
‘What d’ye want, my m-m-m-an?’ said Bagstock, looking at the drenched figure and splashed garments of the messenger. ‘Look sharp! it’s awfully c-c-cold.’
‘I daresay it is,’ said the man, looking down at his steaming horse, the heaving sides of which betokened the pace at which they had travelled. ‘I hadn’t time to think about it. I was sent to ask you to, if you’d come and marry a party to-night.’
‘Marry a p-p-party?’ echoes the astonished functionary. ‘Couldn’t they c-c-c-come to me? C-c-can’t they w-w-wait till m-m-morning?’
‘They can’t come, and if they wait till morning it will be too late,’ said the man solemnly, a tall gaunt Forty-Niner, as the Californian diggers were called who had been at the first discovery.
‘Where is it, th-th-then?’ asked Bagstock.
‘At the Gravel Pits,’ said the messenger, naming a diggings more than ten miles off, on an exceptionally bad road, and with a dangerous creek to cross.
‘The Gravel Pits! said Bagstock. ‘The G-g-g-gravel Pits, and on this sort of night!’ Here the wind howled afresh and the rain poured down obliquely in swirls and eddies as if bent on finding its way into every cranny and corner by sideling intrusion. ‘Why, I w-wouldn’t go there to-night for f-f-fifty pounds!’
‘I’ll give you fifty pounds, half down,’ said the unknown, feeling in his pocket, ‘if you’ll go at once; there’s life and death in the cards. What do you say?’
‘Well,’ said Bagstock, ‘that alters the c-c-case; done with you! I must muffle up, I s-s-suppose. I’ll order my horse. ‘Pole, you’ve got y-y-yours in the stable. C-c-come along for c-c-company.’
In five minutes we were mounted and all three riding as hard as we dared through the splashing sheets and streams of various depths that lay across our path in every way. Bagstock was not always painfully anxious about his work, but when actually compelled to his task there was no fault to be found with his energy and capacity. Our guide took the lead. I never rode in a wilder night, rarely along a rougher road. The ceaseless rain had filled all the minor water-courses, and every road-rut was running like a rivulet for hundreds of yards together. We waded through sheets of water or sand waist deep in unexpected pools. Best, our horses were tried and good. As for the message-miner, he rode ahead, keeping straight forward towards some unknown point, and his wiry middle-sized mustang seemed to pass with instinctive cleverness the uneven blind tracks, dangerous to all horses not gifted with the marvellous surefootedness of the bush-bred Australian.
A two hours’ ride landed us at the Gravel Pits, a section of the great stream of the ‘deep leads’ which formed the crowning glory of the goldfield. Wonderfully rich claims had been met with here, of which some, from the character and preponderance of the ‘pay gravel,’ as our Californian friends termed it, had gained their present name.
‘Here’s poor Jim’s hut,’ said our guide, pulling up at length with a jerk that brought us all almost on the haunches of his nag, ‘and a better mate never handled a pick. But his time’s up. The confounded low fever has about settled him. The doctor says he can’t last another day anyhow.’
‘But you told me some one w-w-wanted to be m-m-m-m-married,’ said Mr. Bagstock, quite aghast. ‘I’m not the undertaker. Who’s the bridegroom?’
‘Why, poor old Jim is,’ said the miner, taking the saddle off his smoking hackney, and letting her go with a pair of hobbles and a large bell which he affixed to her neck while he was talking. ‘But you go inside, both of you, gentlemen, and you’ll see all about it.’
He pulled open the door of the hut as he spoke, and held it open for us to enter.
The sight was a singular one. On a rude bedstead near the fireplace, scrupulously clean, and warm with all the usual coverings, lay the wasting figure of a man, the unearthly brilliancy of whose eyes and the waxen hue of his features showed that he was in the last stage of fever. Such a sight was by no means new to us. In crowded mining camps, as in all armies in tent or field, typhoid fever and its allied diseases claim their toll with fearful and awful regularity.
Day after day, when the weather was hot and humid in the late autumn, had we heard the ‘Dead March in Saul’ pealing and reverberating through the forest, and listened to the tramp of the long array of mourners.
But these terrible muster-rolls had long ceased, and save in exceptional cases like the present, when the Destroyer after being battled with through long months had finally triumphed, were beginning to be forgotten.
Another remarkable figure in the tableau was that of a handsome girl, whose whole form and face were plunged in deepest despairing grief—heartbroken, apparently, with the traces of undried tears on her cheeks. She was leaning over the bed, dressed in such finery, including a costly white silk dress, as would have excited the envy of most women on the field. She was dressed in bridal array evidently, a veil covering partly her long fair hair. She also wore heavy gold earrings, a broach of the same material, and a necklace of brilliants. A large bouquet of white roses and camellias, supplied by no provincial horticulturist, lay on the table near to her.
We at once took in the situation. Both of us knew the sick man by sight, as also by reputation. He had come here with his mate by way of California, where he had worked for some years, but had originally come from Australia, to which land he had at first emigrated from his native country.
He rose with the utmost difficulty, holding by a bar suspended above the bed, as we came in, and fixed his glassy eyes upon us.
‘Glad to see you, gentlemen!’ he said, in a thin reedy treble, which struck painfully on our ears when we recalled the strong man who now lay so feeble and childishly weak. ‘I wasn’t sure as Mr. Bagstock ’ud come, the weather bein’ that bad. I was afeared I shouldn’t be able to make an honest woman of poor Bessy there. I couldn’t have rested in my grave if I hadn’t done it—nohow I couldn’t. Don’t take on, girl. It wasn’t altogether your fault or altogether mine either, as things arn’t square.’
‘Oh, Jim!’ cried out the girl passionately, fastening her eyes upon him with the intense devouring gaze of love mingled with despair, ‘don’t talk in that way. I’m glad and proud enough to be made your wife; but I always knew that it would be so some time, and I trusted you, didn’t I? Hadn’t we better wait till you get well?’
‘I’m not goin’ to get well, Bess, and what ain’t done this night’ll never be done,’ said the sick man grimly. ‘So let’s lose no more time. Bill’s here, as’ll be best man; and they can’t say as you haven’t a wedding dress and all complete, even to the bo-kay.’
Here the sick man tried to smile, but the extreme weakness of the facial muscles prevented the attempt from becoming anything but a ghastly contortion.