FOLLOWING closely upon this little episode, a fresh discovery in Number Six demonstrated to Lance Trevanion that whatever else was raw, unfurnished, and disagreeable in Australia, the colony of Victoria generally, and Growlers’ Gully, in the district of Ballarat, particularly, were the easiest places to make fortunes in, out of a book of fairy tales. Each week the yield of the claim grew richer, the balance at the bank to the credit of Trevanion and party became larger. So imposing was it that Lance seriously thought of selling his share in the claim to his mate, even if he lost a thousand or two by it. Jack Polwarth was a good fellow, and what, indeed, did a little money matter any more than an odd handful of precious stones to Sinbad in the valley of diamonds? He would be at home with his friends in, say, half a year. That is if he returned by India, took a look at the Himalayas, saw Calcutta and Madras; or why not via Honolulu, getting by heart the new world, including the Garden of Eden as exhibited in the isles of the southern main, before reappearing triumphant in the old. What would his father say now? Where would be his cousin Estelle’s misgivings, that unswerving friend and lady-love whose letters had been as constant as her heart? What a heavenly change would it be once more to the ineffable beauty and refinement of English society after the rude environment of a goldfield, the primitive civilisation of an Australian colony, but so few years emerged from the primeval wilderness.
It was with a sort of sob or gasp that he realised the dream-picture on which he allowed his thoughts, a rare indulgence, to dwell. And after all why should he not carry out his purpose? Why indeed? Strong and unbending in matters of need and pressure, a certain indolence, an occasional tendency to irresolution, formed a portion of his character which often delayed prompt action and permitted opportunity to pass by. The loitering life he lived at present, a central figure, so to speak, amid admiring associates and envious adventurers, was pleasant enough in its way. Then the old old temptation! It would give him, yes, undoubtedly it would, a certain amount of pain and uneasiness to break off finally with Kate Lawless.
Tameless in spirit as she was, reckless of speech and fierce of mood when her ungovernable temper was aroused, Kate Lawless could be wonderfully soft and alluring, like all such women, when the tender fit took her. There was then a child-like simplicity and abandon which caused her to seem, and, indeed, temporarily to be, a different woman. She resembled one of those rare psychological studies—which are indeed scientifically authenticated—who lead a dual existence. For no two individuals could be more unlike than Kate Lawless in one of her ‘tantrums’ (as her brothers familiarly expressed it) and the same woman when the paroxysm was over, imploring forgiveness and lavishing caresses on the object of her causeless resentment. That there are such feminine enigmas no student of humanity will deny. But with all her powers of fascination, she was so uncertain in her mood that she caused Lance Trevanion the most serious doubts whether she reciprocated the affection which he had been repeatedly on the point of avowing for her. Sometimes she was especially friendly, full of fun and vivacity, taking long rides through the wild forest tracks with him, on which occasions she would astonish him by the way in which she would ride at stiff timber or gallop adown the rock-strewn ranges, breast high with fern, daring him to follow her, and shouting to imaginary cattle. At these times her whole aim and endeavour appeared to be to attract and subjugate him. At other times she was cold and repellent to such a degree that he felt inclined to break with her for ever, and to congratulate himself on being quit of so strange and unsatisfactory a friendship.
He had not told himself, indeed, that he was prepared to marry her. Democratic as he had become in many of his opinions, and conscious, self-convicted, of falsehood and treachery to his cousin Estelle, he yet in his cooler moments shrank from the idea of marrying an uneducated girl of humble extraction, reared in a wilderness and bearing traces of a savage life, beautiful exceedingly, and despite of her wilful and untamed nature, wildly fascinating, as he confessed her to be. Thus swayed by opposing currents, his heart and brain drifted aimlessly to and fro for a space, while still a strange and unreal tinge of romance was given to his life by the ever onward and favouring current of the golden tide.
Although matters had not progressed sufficiently far on the pathway to civilisation at Growlers’ to establish a claim to society in any conventional acceptation, yet was there a rudimentary germ or nucleus. One or two of the Government officials were married. There was a clergyman who had a couple of daughters, energetic, intelligent damsels, who had adapted themselves with much tact to their unusual surroundings. At the camp there were gatherings of the officials of various grades—police, gold commissioners, magistrates, and so forth, with a few of the more aristocratic adventurers whose names were known, and who were armed with introductions. It would be inaccurate to deny that there was a little loo now and then, also whist, of which the points were certainly not sixpenny ones. To these rational expedients of passing the time, which, when there was no actual business on hand, occasionally lagged, Mr. Trevanion would have been a welcome addition; good-looking, well-bred, and—more than all—exceptionally fortunate as a miner. But to all these hints and suggestions he—with a certain perverseness difficult to account for, and which was remembered in days to come—obstinately turned a deaf ear. More than one hint—well meant—was thrown out touching the expediency of being ‘so thick with those Lawlesses.’ Of course one could understand a young fellow being attracted by a handsome lively girl like Kate Lawless. In those wild days every man was a law unto himself, and revelled in his freedom. Yet was there not lacking, even in that mêlée of rude adventurers . and unprecedented social conditions, more than one kindly adviser. There were men who knew the world—European and Australian—well and thoroughly. From them he received warnings and advice. But he repelled all friendly aid, and obstinate with the perverse intractability of the Trevanion nature, disregarded them all.
Beside outside acquaintance, in addition to Hastings and his mate Jack Polwarth—who with his honest-hearted good little wife never ceased to disapprove and to keep up a persistent warfare, so to speak, against the Lawlesses—he had a friend within the fortress who more than once gave him a warning, had he cared to avail himself of it.
Quiet and reserved as Tessie (or Esther) Lawless had always shown herself, he had never fallen into the error of mistaking her for a commonplace girl. Without the showy qualities of her cousin Kate, she gave token from time to time of having been better educated and differently brought up from the others. She was always treated with a certain amount of respect, and, even in Kate’s most irritating moods, as she rarely replied, so was she the only one of the party who escaped her scathing tongue.
She never appeared to seek opportunity to gain Lance’s attention, though when she did speak there always appeared to be some underlying reason for her remarks. One of her characteristics was a steady disapproval of the sharp tricks and double dealings of which her cousin often boasted, and which Lance did not generally comprehend. He supposed them, indeed, to be among the acknowledged customs of the country, and not considered to be illegal or discreditable.
‘They are nothing of the sort,’ she was accustomed to say, with considerable emphasis. ‘They are theft and robbery—call them what you will; they are certain to bring all concerned to the gaol at some time or other. If people don’t mind that, nothing I can say will have any effect.’
‘You’ll have to marry a parson,’ Ned Lawless would reply. ‘What do you think of the young chap that preached to us in the flat last Sunday? Why, half the squatters began by a little “duffing.” Nobody thinks the worse of a man for that.’
‘If they’re caught they go to gaol,’ replied the uncompromising Tessie. ‘Then they’re criminals, and can never look any one in the face again! And serve them right too in a country like this, where the gold fairly runs out of the ground into people’s pockets.’
They all laughed at this, and the conversation dropped, while all hands—the girls excepted—set to at a night of pretty deep gambling, which lasted well into the small hours.
A fortnight after this, as Lance was sauntering down in the evening to the Lawlesses’ camp, he found to his great surprise that there appeared to be no one at home. The tents were all down, and gone, but two.
One of the younger boys—a silent apparently stupid youngster of fourteen—was in charge of the few remaining horses and the packs left behind. He could give little or no information, except that the party had moved to a new digging, of which he did not know the name, or, indeed, in which direction it was. All he knew was that he and Tessie had been left behind, to stay till they were sent for. All the horses were gone but three. Tessie had gone out for a walk along the Creek, but would be back soon. ‘Here she comes now.’
The boy pointed to a female figure coming slowly along a track which followed the banks of a little creek, near which the Lawlesses’ camp had been formed, and then walked over to where the hobbled horses were grazing, as if glad to escape from the necessity of answering other questions.
The girl approached with her head down, and her eyes upon the ground, walking slowly, as if immersed in deep thought. Suddenly she raised her head and gazed at him with a peculiar expression in her brown eyes. They were not large, but clear and steadfast—and while she was speaking—had a singularly truthful expression. There was a kind of half-pitying look in them, Lance thought, which made him suppose that some misfortune had happened to the little community, of which he had so lately been a regular member and associate.
‘What’s the matter, Tessie?’ said he. ‘I can see at once that you are troubled in your mind. Why are they all gone away? Didn’t Kate leave any word or message for me? All this is very sudden.’
‘Mr. Trevanion,’ said the girl, stopping short as he approached her, ‘I sometimes think you are the most innocent person I ever met. We natives think young men from England are not very sharp, sometimes but that is mostly about bush work and stock, which they can’t be expected to know. But of all I ever met I think you are the most simple—and well, I must say—foolish.’
‘You are not complimentary,’ replied Lance, rather sullenly, and ‘You don’t rate my understanding very highly. May I ask if you have any letter from your cousin Kate for me?’
‘Yes, I have,’ replied the girl, speaking with more energy than he had ever before noticed in her, ‘and I have been tempted to tear it to pieces and leave you to guess the meaning. If I had acted as your true friend—which I have always been—I should have done so. Take my advice and drop us all—once and for ever. Why should you persist in making friends of us? We are not good company for you—a born gentleman. Why don’t you behave like one, and leave people alone who are not your equals in any respect?’
‘May I ask for the letter you refer to?’
‘Listen to me for the last time,’ she said, coming closer to him and looking earnestly into his face. ‘Listen to me, as if I was your sister—your mother—or the dearest friend in a woman’s shape you have on earth. I know what is in that letter. Kate wants you to join her and the rest of the crowd at Balooka. Don’t go! Do you hear what I say?—don’t go! or you will repent it to the last hour of your life.’
‘Why should I not?’ asked he. ‘Are you not going yourself with Billy here to-morrow?’
‘I am not going,’ she said. ‘I shall go to Melbourne tomorrow by the coach, and, perhaps, never see one of them again, or you either. They have been kind to me in their own fashion. I have eaten their bread, and, therefore, I will not say more than I can help. But beware of Kate Lawless! She is not what she appears to be! She is deceiving you, and worse even than being the dupe of a heartless and unprincipled woman may happen to you. Oh, promise me,’ she said, ‘promise me before I leave that you will not go! ‘
‘If I had any doubt, your last words have decided me,’ he said, and as the angry light commenced to gleam in his eyes the girl’s expression changed to that of wonder and strange terror, deepening visibly.
‘It is himself!’ she said, almost shuddering. ‘Can there be two? Is the Evil One walking on the earth and working his will as in the old old days? You will not be turned now,’ she went on. ‘God is my witness that I have done my best. Your blood be on your own head!’
‘Say good-bye, Tessie,’ he said. ‘I shall never forget your good intentions, at any rate.’
‘Good-bye,’ she said, in a tone of such sadness that he felt impressed in spite of himself. ‘You will not forget me. No, whatever happens you will not do that. For your dead mother’s sake, for your sister’s, and if there is any one dearer than either beyond the seas, for her sake, God bless and keep you.’ And, waving her hands distractedly, like a woman in a dream, she walked swiftly towards one of the tents, which she entered, and was hidden from his view.
‘Here it is,’ she said, reappearing, ‘if you will have it,’ and, as if moved to sudden despair, she cast the letter upon the ground with every gesture of anger and contempt. ‘If it was a snake you wouldn’t pick it, up, would you? And yet,’ she went on, suddenly dropping her voice to a low, earnest whisper, ‘the worst carpet snake you ever saw—a death adder, even—would do you less harm than what’s in that letter, if you follow it. Be warned; oh, Mr. Trevanion, be warned.’
As she spoke her face softened, she leaned forward in a beseeching attitude, her eyes filled, and this ordinarily reserved and self-contained Tessie began to weep hysterically.
‘Confound the girl!’ said Lance to himself. ‘What a terrible to-do about nothing at all! What’s the good of coming to Australia if one can’t choose one’s own society? I might as well be in Cornwall again. Surely this girl isn’t in love with me, too?’
His unspoken thought must have manifested itself in some mysterious fashion, though no word escaped him, for Tessie Lawless left off crying, and, wiping her eyes, with a haughty gesture, appeared to return to her usual composed bearing.
That night brought but little sleep to the eyes of Lance Trevanion. It was late when he entered his hut, and, flinging himself on the bed where, for the most part, he had known nought but dreamless repose, he commenced to think over the situation.
Should he accept the warning so solemnly given by this strange girl, who, before this, had manifested but little interest in his career, and had lived a merely negative and defensive life?
‘How little we know of people’s natures,’ thought he, ‘women’s especially. Who would have thought this quiet girl had all this fire and earnestness in her? Her warning squared curiously with all that he had gathered from other sources. Was there something mysterious and by no means fair and above-board about these Lawlesses? It looked like it. And Kate! What an artful treacherous jade she had proved herself to be, if what her cousin said was true. Well, at any rate, he would go and see for himself. He knew, or thought he knew, enough of life not to entirely trust one woman’s word about another. If Kate was false and deceitful, he would have the satisfaction of telling her so to her face. If she was true, well, he really did not know what was to be done in that case. At any rate, he would go and see. Yes, he would show he was not afraid to meet them all, there or anywhere else.’
The fateful letter was short, badly written and worse spelled. It merely stated that her brothers had settled to move to Balooka, naming a new digging nearly a hundred miles away, and not far from the foothills of the great Alpine range. They had gone into a large purchase in horses, and were going to drive them to Melbourne in another month, when they expected to make a lot of money out of them. ‘If he cared to see her again he might meet them next week at Balooka. The road went by Wahgulmerang.’ This precious epistle was signed, ‘Your true friend and well-wisher, Kate Lawless. P.S. If you only seen the black mare that was gave me by a friend.’
There was nothing alarming in this apparently simple and guileless missive. A ride to a new digging was not only a pleasant novelty, but distinctly in the line of his occupation as a miner, now that he was an authority as a ‘golden-hole man’ with local fame and reputation. He had a good horse, and though stabling was expensive he had felt justified in being well mounted, as the companion of such a horsewoman as Kate Lawless. The reference to the black mare and the generous friend rather piqued him, as was probably intended. He had never encountered any one in the guise of a rival, and felt curious to see what kind of admirer had come forward.
His preparations were not long in making. He informed Hastings and his mate Jack that he was going to Balooka and might be absent for a week or two.
They evidently suspected the nature of the magnet which was attracting him, and by their manner showed anything but cheerful approval of his plans; wise by experience, however, they refrained from expostulation.