Chapter XIV

Rolf Boldrewood

WHEN Lance issued from the dark cell and was relegated to ordinary confinement, he fully justified Bracker’s anticipations in one respect. He was ‘bleached,’ as that official had described the change of complexion likely to result. His face was ashen white, his eyes had a vacant stare like those of a blind man. He staggered from weakness, so that the warders were fain to hold him up more than once. When addressed he made no answer. It seemed as if his senses had suffered partial obliteration. Bracker was not present when his victim was returned to his cell after serving the full term of punishment. The other warders, who had no special dislike to him, were indulgent rather than otherwise in their treatment and comments.

‘You’re a bit low, Trevanion,’ one of them said; ‘I’d ask to see the doctor if I were you, and get sent to hospital for a week or two. He’ll order you wine, and soup, and things. You’ll be slipping your cable like that other chap Bracker got into trouble about, if you don’t mind.’

Lance made no reply. He sat down slowly and doubtfully upon the folded blankets at the farther end of the cell, steadying himself with difficulty against the angle of the wall.

‘Now, you take my tip,’ said the elder of the two men to his fellow as they left, after bolting the cell door with the clang inseparable from prison life, ‘that chap will do one of three things before a month’s out. Bracker’s been running him too hard. He’s a well-bred ’un, and they won’t stand driving. He’ll either die, go mad, or——’

‘Or what?’ said the younger man.

‘Well, Bracker had better look out. Some fine morning he’ll have Trevanion’s fingers in his throat, and he mayn’t find it so easy to get ’em slacked off again. I’ve known that happen before now. And when the chap was choked off it didn’t matter to Dawkins. He was the warder. It happened when I was at the stockade.’

‘Why didn’t it matter?’

‘Because Dawkins was dead! The chap laughed when they dragged him off, and said they might do what they liked with him. He’d settled Dawkins, and that was all he cared for in the world. They might hang him now, and welcome.’

‘And did they?’

‘Of course they did, but we old hands knew Dawkins had been tantalising him; it was a way of his with some prisoners, and this cove made up his mind to rub him out. He got him to rights, safe enough.’

‘Hadn’t we better tell Bracker?’

‘What for? He thinks he knows everything, and wouldn’t thank us. Likely think we’d been putting up something to get his place. Let him take his chance like another man.’

.     .     .     .     .

When the medical officer saw Lance he ordered his immediate removal to the hospital ward. He said the prisoner was dangerously low and feeble; that his health had suffered more than could be accounted for; and that there were certain bruises and excoriations which could not have been produced in any ordinary way. He spoke kindly to Lance, and advised him to follow his treatment and diet marked out for him, and to be more cheerful and resigned if he wished to get well and come safely through his imprisonment.

‘You’re only a young man, Trevanion,’ he would say. ‘After this couple of years are out there is nothing to prevent your going to the United States, or to any other part of the world where people have never heard of you, of Ballarat—hardly of Australia, for that matter. And what a deal of life there is to come for you—the best part too. Take courage and make up your mind to bear the necessary hardship of your sentence, and look forward to the day when you will go forth a free man.’

.     .     .     .     .

Whether acted upon by this well-meant advice, or following out some course of action nurtured like the fungus of a dungeon in the dark depths of his brooding heart, a change took place in the sullen captive’s mien. He seemed thankful for the ‘medical comforts’ doled out to him, and availed himself of them readily. He listened respectfully to the chaplain and gaol surgeon, and when, after a fortnight’s treatment in the hospital ward, he was reported fit for the ordinary discipline of the gaol, the warders with one exception declared that they would not have known him to be the same man.

The ordinary routine of prison life is scarcely calculated to develop the finer feelings in the keepers of the wild beasts in human form over whom they hold watch and ward. Boundless dissimulation, craft and subtlety, tameless ferocity, ruthless cruelty, are their leading characteristics. Apparently peaceable and harmless, theirs is but the guile of the red Indian or the dark-souled Hindoo, biding his time until the hour comes for murder and rapine. Let but the keeper relax vigilance; let the sentinel slumber at his post, and mutiny and murder are prompt to unmask. Still, with this knowledge drilled into them by decades of experience, the ordinary prison officials are just if not merciful, strict but not severe; while their own discipline is so rigorous that any departure from regulations is sternly and invariably visited on the offending official.

Bracker was an exception—for the credit of the department it must be admitted that he was the only man in that great prison-house who would have acted as he did towards any prisoner, however vexatious.

As Lance passed into his cell he saw his oppressor watching him with the expression he knew so well. He was not long left in suspense.

‘Didn’t Saunders complain of not being strong enough for the wood and water work, Jackson?’

‘Yes, sir,’ replied the under warder.

‘Well, take this man here and put him in his place. He’s fat and lazy enough after his loafing in the hospital to do a little work again.’

‘This way, Trevanion,’ said the warder. ‘You’ve got to work in the lower yard.’

As he passed Bracker their eyes met for an instant

‘You’re not worked down yet, my man,’ said Bracker, with an insolent laugh. ‘Wait till you’ve had another month’s graft where I’m going to put ye. “Jimmy Ducks” aboard an emigrant ship’s a fool to it.”

Lance drew himself up for an instant and looked full into his tormentor’s face. The cruel cowardly eyes fell for a moment before the gaze of the patrician, degraded and despairing as he was. Then the warder quietly pushed him on.

‘Don’t cross him, if you take my advice,’ he said. ‘He’s a devil all out when he goes for a prisoner, and I never knew one that didn’t come off worst in the end. You lie low for a bit and give him his head. The doctor’s your friend now, and he’ll see he doesn’t crowd you.’

Lance nodded his head in recognition of the kindness of the man’s intention, then silently commenced his laborious and uncongenial task. When he returned to his cell at night worn out and exhausted by the unwonted toil, hardly recovered indeed from the pitiable weakness to which he had been reduced, he swore a bitter oath and then and there registered an unholy vow.

From that hour he awaited but opportunity to wreak a full measure of vengeance upon his adversary. He felt his strength declining day by day. Daily did he endure the cheap taunt, the cruel mockery, the ingenious expedients, by which Bracker sought to intensify his misery. But a single chance he would yet give to him, if he had the manhood to accept it.

One morning he addressed him with the usual salute.

‘I wish to speak a few words to you, and before I do so I wish you to understand that I mean no—no—disrespect——’

‘Speak and be d—d,’ was Bracker’s courteous rejoinder.

‘It is only this. You have been what the people here would call “running me,”—that is, putting me to work above my strength, insulting me habitually as well. Why you should do so is best known to yourself. I can’t stand it much longer. If you will leave off this line of conduct and treat me fairly, like any other prisoner, I will promise on my part to—to—behave well and reasonably. Don’t decide in a hurry—it may cost both our lives.’

Bracker laughed aloud. He stopped to look at Lance more than once, then he laughed as at too exquisite a joke. It was the mockery of a fiend exulting in the agonies of a demontortured soul

He misconceived the situation. He concluded that his captive’s courage had failed him; that henceforth he would be able to treat him with the contemptuous cruelty with which he was wont to finish his persecutions. He triumphed in his foresight, and could not forbear showing a cowardly exultation.

‘So you’ve dropped down to it at last, my flash horse-duffer, have you? You’ve shown the white feather that I always knew was in you—a rank cur from the beginning, with all your brag. By God! I’ll make it hotter than ever for you, just for this very bit of impudence. D—n ye! Get back to your muck.’

As he spoke the last words, ending with a foul expression, he had drawn near Lance, and raising his foot as if for a contemptuous kick, he placed his hands on his shoulders. The long corridor between the cells was for the moment without a second warder. With a panther-like bound Lance sprang forward, and in another moment his hands were at Brackets throat, clutching with the grasp that death alone relaxes.

‘Dog!’ he ground out between his teeth. ‘Your last hour is come. Die, wretch, and go to hell—die, if you had a hundred lives, scoundrel and villain that you are—die for your cruelty to a helpless wretch that never did you harm! ‘

So sudden was the onslaught that Bracker, though a powerful man, had no chance of resistance, never dreaming that the cowed convict, as he took Lance to be, would turn upon him. In another moment he was on his back on the floor of the cell, his foe with knee on chest awaiting the moment when the blanched features should display no sign of life, nor abating for one second the deadly gripe of the slayer of his kind.

Of his own safety—of his assured doom for killing a prison official—he thought not. The blood fury was on him. His unendurable wrongs, his daily torment, had reached the point of desperation when the human animal turns at bay, disregarding alike the hunter’s spear, the baying hound, the fast-flowing life-blood.

Another minutest subdivision of time would have settled the matter. Another dead warder would have been found by the side of a reckless and desperate prisoner. The usual inquest would have been held, when, after a verdict of wilful murder, the rope or a sentence of imprisonment for life would have terminated all public interest for a season.

But in mercy or otherwise to Mr. Bracker an attendant accidentally returned to the corridor and noticed the open cell door. This, of course, was irregular. Rushing towards it he was just in time—hardly a second too soon—to prevent Mr. Bracker, ‘our late respected head warder of Ballarat gaol’ as he would have been styled, from posing as a corpse, and Lance Trevanion, late of Wychwood, Cornwall, from becoming a murderer!

Some considerable time elapsed before Mr. Bracker returned fully to his senses after regaining consciousness. He had been hurled to the cell floor with such violence that concussion of the brain had taken place, while his swollen throat testified to the deadly gripe of the victim who had so nearly turned the table upon his tormentor. It was fully a week before he was in a condition to give evidence before the Visiting Justice. The interval Lance was condemned to spend in ‘solitary,’ to be nourished wholly on bread and water,—to be abandoned in fact to the society of the Furies, which none the less mordantly than in the days of the world’s green youth rend the heart and shatter the brain of their ill-fated or guilty victim.

Lance was rapidly passing from one stage of misery to the other, from the unmerciful to the merciful woe. As he sat or lay in his cell the long hours through, the thought crossed his brain, revelled and ran riot there, that if he had only persevered in his policy of endurance, if he had been strong and patient instead of weak and impulsive, this needed not to have happened. He might probably have found some door of escape from his tribulation, not literally of course, but through the clergyman and the Visiting Justice, the latter of whom would have been most uncompromising in punishing an official who misused his power.

Now that the storm of passion was over, the fury spent, the brevis insania passed away, calmer reflection would intrude. To what further sentence had he rendered himself liable? Would he be committed for attempted murder, or would it be manslaughter? Should he be condemned to a further sentence of years—long years of imprisonment? Might he not be hanged for the attempt to commit the capital Offence? No doubt he intended to kill Bracker—that he would not deny. His mind was made up. If a shameful death or long imprisonment was to be his doom, he would rid himself of a worthless life. He had procured the means of self-destruction during his first remand. The feeling aroused among his fellow-captives by his daring attempt to take the life of his gaoler was peculiar and exceptional. Though many of the prisoners from motive of policy were subservient to Bracker, he was liked by no one. He had been known to be trying to ‘break’ or crush Trevanion. Cruelties and unnecessary severity springing from the irresponsible use of power are presumably not unknown in gaols. But the prison herd knows that at a certain point despair sets in. Reckless retribution follows, and the life of the agent or leading actor in the tragedy nearly always exacted counts with himself and his fellows merely as dust in the balance.

The criminals like to think that from their midst will arise at least one man who devotes himself to sacrifice, so only may he avenge himself and them upon their enemy. The time comes, and with curious certainty the man. Then the words of the first warder come true. The sullen patience of the harassed convict, who rarely resents routine discipline, however severe, becomes exhausted, and the debt is paid in full by a brutal murder or a life-long injury. Let it be borne in mind that ‘early in the fifties’ the problem of successful goldfield management was yet unsolved in Australia. The legislation had been chiefly tentative; the police and prison arrangements were incomplete. From the seething mass of the mining population, not always ruled with tact or temper, smarting under alleged injustice and excited by the enormous yield of the precious metal, arose a dangerously large and increasing criminal class. The overcrowded gaols, ample for a pastoral colony, were unable to contain them. Among the more experienced officers apprehensions of a revolt of the mining population—unhappily but too well-founded—began to assume the appearance of certainty. In such event the prisoners, if altogether centralised or confined inland, might easily be liberated would hardly fail to be so on the first outbreak. Considering these contingencies, the Government of the day determined to relieve the pressure upon the metropolitan gaols by establishing prison hulks. Vessels moored in the waters of Williamstown Bay could be more easily guarded—would obviously be more difficult to escape from. Ships by scores, deserted by their crews, lay at anchor motionless and tenantless as that of the Ancient Mariner. Their owners were too happy to sell at any reasonable price. The idea was approved—not sooner approved than acted upon. The President, the Success, the Sacramento, the Deborah, were purchased and forthwith proclaimed to be, and to be considered, Her Majesty’s gaols. They became from that day floating prisons. There were those long after who did not hesitate to designate them as floating hells.

One of the leading ideaa connected with the scheme was the compulsory labour of the convicts, who, it was thought, might be employed beneficially to themselves and to the state in building at Williamstown—then a chief port of Melbourne—wharves, lighthouses, and docks. There were millions of tons of blue-stone—a species of volcanic trap—to be had near the shore for the quarrying. Harbour accommodation was miserably insufficient. The labour of a thousand men was a valuable consideration in that day of dearth of every kind of manual labour. Long afterwards the navvies employed in the construction of the Yan Yean aqueduct received one pound sterling per day. At this time double the wage would not have furnished the labour these convicts performed, and in many instances performed well.

The President enjoyed the bad eminence of being styled and worked as a strictly penal hulk—an abode for refractory and desperate criminals. Many of these were, in the prison slang, ‘long-sentence men,’ incorrigible felons serving a life sentence for repeated offences; men who could not be trusted to work even in the iron-gangs—so skilful and determined were they in all methods of escape. Many of these were doomed never to leave the President’s gloomy cells but for the coffin and the shroud. Others again, after performing the allotted form of strictly penal and reformatory discipline, were drafted on board the Success, where they underwent the more popular and varied experience of working in the quarries on the mainland:—in irons, it is true, but having the excitement of a daily voyage to and fro in one of the barges used for the purpose.

.     .     .     .     .

When Lance was brought up for trial he found to his relief—if indeed anything could have afforded him a gleam of satisfaction—that in spite of the heinousness of his offence—penally considered—a favourable feeling had sprung up with regard to him. Now that Bracker had in their opinion got his deserts, several of the ‘good conduct’ prisoners came forward with voluntary statements. They had seen the injured man knocking about the prisoner Trevanion. He was always ‘tantalising,’ and seemed to want to provoke him to a breach of regulations. Had not spoken before, because they were afraid of Bracker, who was well known to be revengeful. It was believed in the gaol (sent round, doubtless, in the wonderful way criminals have of communicating with each other) that he had caused a prisoner in another gaol to hang himself.

Two warders had also noticed his conduct to prisoner Trevanion when he came out of hospital. Thought it severe and unnecessary. The prisoner’s own statement was taken on oath. He admitted the offence, but averred that he had become reckless through consistent ill-treatment. Bracker, of course, denied everything in the most unabashed manner, looking with evil eye upon the recalcitrant warders and the ‘good conduct’ prisoners. But the papers had been sent for in the last inquiry made into his conduct, also upon a charge of cruelty to prisoners. The evidence, unfortunately for him, was very similar. Mr. M‘Alpine, who was an unsparing foe to all official misconduct, at once decided against him. After a terrific lecture, he reminded Bracker that he had been disrated for a former offence of a like nature. He should recommend him, therefore, for dismissal, which recommendation, to the general joy of the inhabitants of the Ballarat gaol, was promptly carried out.

‘Prisoner Trevanion, whose conduct if condoned must have a bad effect upon the other prisoners (other prisoners, how the words fell like drops of molten lead upon his heart! ), is ordered to serve the rest of his sentence on board Her Majesty’s hulks at Williarnstown.’

.     .     .     .     .

Two stern-faced men set out from Lynn
    In the cold and heavy mist,
And Eugene Aram walked between
    With gyves upon his wrists.

This verse, from Hood’s pathetic ballad, Lance had been fond of and learned by heart as a schoolboy, little dreaming how closely the circumstances would apply to himself in the aftertime. It would keep ringing through his brain with incessant automatic iteration, as Lance found himself early next morning driven off to Ballarat, leg-ironed and handcuffed, in charge of two warders. The two men, with himself in the centre, took their seats in the back part of Cobb’s coach, and in company with various other passengers, clerical and lay, male and female, as is the slightly unfair practice of the Government, looking at it from the standpoint of the travelling public. However, no great inconvenience having so far resulted, the sentimental objection to travel with criminals has lessened. And being decidedly the more economical mode of escort, as far as the Government is concerned, the arrangement is continued.

Of course glances of pitying wonder were cast from time to time, especially by the female passengers in the crowded coach, at the men in police uniform and the sad, sallow, clean-shaved man sitting between them. One young girl alone, though sitting nearly opposite, had exhibited no interest in the trio. She sat near the right-hand door of the coach. Closely veiled, she had turned her head towards the town and the crowd always attendant on the departure of a coach.

The clock struck six. The powerful high-conditioned horses sprang at their collars, obedient to the practised hand of ‘Cabbage-tree Ned,’ one of the ‘stage’ heroes of the period. The heavily-laden coach swayed on its thorough-brace springs and rattled down Sturt Street at the rate of twelve miles an hour. More than once had Lance been the envied occupant of the box seat beside this very driver, who, smoking the proffered cigar, was as civil to Trevanion of Number Six as an official of his exalted position could afford to be to any one.

And now he sat, chained and alone,
    The ‘warder’ by his side,
The plume, the helm, the charger gone, etc.

Gone, gone, indeed,—how many things had gone!—fame and fortune, hope, honour,—all that made life worth living. The sooner that wretched dishonoured life went too, the better for all. Thank God, it would be easy to drop overboard from barge or boat—the waters of the bay had ended the sorrows of many a hopeless wretch, it was said. The heavy irons provided for a quick and silent escape from life’s weary burden.

An involuntary sigh, as the sequel to the train of thought, from the fettered captive, together with a faint but distinct tinkle from his leg-irons, appeared to arouse the girl from her reverie.

She gazed at the prisoner long and earnestly, then with a cry of grief and despair which thrilled the hearts of all who heard her she threw herself forward, and clasping his manacled hands within her own looked into his face, worn and altered in every feature as it was, with the piteous agony of a frightened child.

It was Tessie Lawless!

‘Lance! oh, Lance!’ she cried in tones so full of anguish that the warders forbore to interfere, and the coach passengers listened in sympathetic wonder. ‘Is this what they have brought you to? Oh, wicked wicked girl! Worse and more wicked man! For I know now how they plotted to destroy you. Your blood will be on our heads. Surely we must suffer for this if there’s a God. Where are they taking you to? Oh, God! have mercy!’

The driver having inquired tersely into the occasion of the disturbance, and having gathered that a girl had recognised a friend or relation in the prisoner, lighted a fresh cigar and let his horses out adown the incline with the remark that accidents would happen, but a good-looking girl like her had no call to fret; she might have her pick of twenty new sweethearts long before this one had served his time. Women would go on like that, he supposed though, to the end of the world.

The public, as represented by the twenty inside passengers, did not exhibit undue surprise or other emotion. Some of the women whispered ‘poor thing—fine young fellow too—pity he’s gone wrong,’ and so on. The men kept mostly mute, though not unsympathetic. They were not unused to seeing tragedies acted in everyday life in those unconventional days of the early goldfields. The passions had lacked hiding-places such as are furnished by a highly-civilised community.

The crowded goldfields camp more nearly represented ‘board ship’ than the provincial life pure and simple, and things were done and said, necessarily coram publico, which in more conventional communities would have been wholly suppressed or excited inconvenient remark.

Therefore, after a vain attempt to persuade poor Tessie to moderate her feelings, Lance was fain to yield to the contagion of her grief. Weakened in mind and body by his late sufferings, softened by the tenderness of her every tone, and touched by the first kind words he had heard since his imprisonment, he was fain, though hating himself for the weakness, to weep for company. As the tears streamed down the convict’s grief-worn countenance—tears which he vainly strived to hide with his manacled hands—every heart was touched, and those emotions of our common humanity which ennoble the species were deeply stirred. Murmurs of ‘Poor things,’ ‘Poor girl,’ ‘Hard lines,’ etc., were heard. Even the warders, though unused to the melting mood, were raised from out of their ordinary groove of total indifference to human suffering not provided for by the gaol regulations. After a short colloquy the one nearest to Tessie motioned to the girl to exchange seats, an offer which she thankfully accepted.

There was no dereliction of duty involved in this charity, which was heartily and unanimously endorsed by their public. Relaxation of discipline was necessarily permitted in the case of escort of prisoners from one part of the country to another. Such a task was generally looked upon in the light of a holiday by warders or police troopers. It involved change of air and scene, higher pay for a time, and with various perquisites and indulgences. All that was required of them was to deliver over their charge safely to the authorities. That being the result, they were allowed a certain latitude with regard to the means. If the prisoner thereby escaped, their punishment was exemplary. It often happened, however, that the prisoner, being a fair sort of fellow (as prisoners go), was conversed and generally associated with on terms of equality. Of course proper security was exacted. A single trooper, camping out through a stretch of thinly-inhabited pastoral country, has been compelled to handcuff himself to the prisoner nightly for his better safeguarding. But these formalities apart, much cheerful companionship has ere now been enjoyed between the (official) ‘wolf and hound.’

Hence, as the first warder observed in a gruff whisper, ‘they had no call to bother their heads if the poor chap’s girl wanted a yarn with him. It was the last one as he’d see for a spell, unless he fell across a mermaid.’ Here the speaker, who had been a ship’s carpenter once, growled a hoarse rumbling laugh. ‘Let him have his bit o’ luck for once. He’d got stiffish times to come, or else they’d heard wrong.’

So Tessie, sitting on the right side of Lance—there being no one to the left of him at the coach-window—leaning her head on his shoulder, commenced to whisper in his ear. The friendly warder studiously gazed at the fast-flying landscape, as if it possessed peculiarly picturesque effects. The second man almost turned his back upon Lance in his anxiety to be out of the reach of confidential communications, while Tessie’s murmuring voice, instinct with more than womanly tenderness, sounded in the ear—ay, in the heart of the captive, so lately sullenly despairing of God and man—like the voice of an angel from heaven.

‘You may think me immodest, Lance,’ she said—‘I may call you that now, may I not?—but I don’t care. There are times when a woman must follow her own heart, and this is one of them. I would tell you what I feel now if there were hundreds looking on. I cannot help it; and what does my poor life matter? When I think of what you were when I first saw you! full of health, hope, and spirits, with a smile for every one, and under compliment to no living man, I felt as if my heart would burst when I saw you—saw you—as you are! ‘

Here the girl’s tears streamed down like rain—and she sobbed, though striving with all her will power to restrain her feelings—till her slender form shook and trembled in a manner piteous to see. Her forlorn companion gazed at her silently, with a world of misery in his hollow eyes. Just at that particular juncture the conversation in the coach became, if not more cheerful, decidedly more loud and animated, and their united voices helping to drown poor Tessie’s lamentations, some poor opportunity was given her to recover herself.

‘You think me very silly,’ she said, with a miserable attempt to smile. ‘I did not know how much I cared for you until the trial—women don’t always. I thought I had a friendly feeling, and no more, till I felt I could have killed Kate—wretch that she is! for the part she took against you. Then I knew—that I loved you! Oh! my God! I know now! But you would never have been told it if you had been free and rich—not now—not now either—except I thought I could do you some good—some good, after helping to ruin you. God forgive me! ‘

‘I have been back to Ballarat, back to Eumeralla and the Snowy River, to other places, too, because I was determined to find out how the thing was worked between Dayrell and Kate.’

‘And did you find out?’ Lance said, and his voice sounded strangely hoarse in the girl’s ear—even his voice had changed, she thought. ‘What fiends there are on earth!’

‘I am certain that I have,’ she answered. ‘I daresay you wondered—and so did I—what made Kate so venomous against you all of a sudden? Dayrell didn’t like you because you thought yourself above him, and for another reason, and besides he wanted to get his name up for a conviction, because so many horses had been stolen and the Commissioner had been blaming the police.’

‘What was the other reason, Tessie? I never did him any harm.’

‘Well, it doesn’t matter now, but he—he—chose to fancy he admired me—poor me!—when we lived at Eumeralla. I never could bear the sight of him and—showed it. One of the boys stupidly chaffed him about it after we came to Growlers’, and said I was “gone upon you,” as he called it. That foolishness made all the mischief, I believe. He set himself to have you somehow.’

‘And he did! May God blast and wither his soul and body, as he has mine!’ groaned Lance, with a savage intensity that made the girl shudder.

‘Oh, don’t—don’t!’ she cried. ‘I can’t bear to hear you speak like that, you seem so different when you do. Then, when you were searched, he found a letter which you had half-written to your cousin in England, and out of that he made greater mischief still. He finished it himself in his own way, and then read it to Kate, making her believe that you had been engaged to your cousin all along, and were making game of her as a half-bred, common bush girl that you were amusing yourself with.’

‘Then how about seeing me at Eumeralla? you swore to that!’ said Lance reproachfully, unable to repress his anger as he thought of the strange medley of fact and fraud by which he had been betrayed.

‘I did, God help me!’ said poor Tessie, very humbly. ‘Why couldn’t I swear falsely, like others? It was that villain Trevenna. I have seem him since, but only for a moment or two. It is the most extraordinary likeness that ever was seen. I was deceived, and so were the other honest witnesses. He was also in the plot against you. He was an admirer of Kate’s, and she played fast and loose with him. When he heard that you and she had met at Growlers’, and were seen riding about together, he was furious, and vowed to shoot you if he got a chance. He was in with Ned and Dan in some cross work at Eumeralla, but only showed on occasions. He used to come across from Omeo, where, if all reports are true, the worst villains in all Australia are gathered together.’

The day was cold, and long besides to the crowded passengers, relieved only by a short mid-day halt for refreshment. The roads chiefly unmade and deep with mud, through which the steaming team rushed, unrelaxing the high rate of speed with which they had started. Their colours were hardly discernible. Along the plank road for twenty miles matters were something better; here the pace was at times little less than full speed. Even then occasionally a loose plank would fly up as a horse trod too near the end, and a shower of mud and water would be impartially distributed. Two persons only felt not the enforced tedium to be a weariness. Lance and Tessie, in the early gloom of a winter evening, were enabled to talk still more at ease. They enjoyed their opportunity, this wintry smile of fortune, as those who might never meet again in life. So many chances were against it. But this strange interview had been most beneficial to Lance. It had softened his heart and revived his drooping, well-nigh extinguished faith in Providence and his fortune. The girl persuaded him to promise that he would do his best to disarm his gaolers by good conduct. The chances were against his finding a second Bracker. She would find means of communicating with him from Melbourne. Trust her for that! She had already given liberally to his present guards, who were fully convinced that she was a young woman deserving of every consideration.

‘You promise me, on your honour,’ she said, as the lights of the town and the well-macadamised street warned of the approaching halt.

‘My honour?’ he said drearily.

‘Yes, your honour,’ she answered proudly; ‘I believe in it, and so will others yet.’

‘I promise,’ he said; ‘may God bless you, Tessie, whatever may be my fate.’

They sat silently, her hands clasped around his, her head against his shoulder.

‘Mine is a strange love tale,’ she said, ‘is it not? But for this meeting, it might never have been told. No living man shall hear such words again from me. And to think that you and I may never meet again! ‘

The coach stopped. There was the usual bustle of escaping passengers and mislaid luggage, as the girl threw her arms around Trevanion’s neck and kissed his lips, his cheeks, his forehead, with passionate fervour.

‘You are mine,’ she said, ‘for this day if for no other, and, unless my heart tells me false, it is the last last time! Do not forget poor Tessie; if she could have saved you with her life you would have been free and happy. May God bless and keep you.’

She descended the coach-steps slowly, and, walking calmly down the lighted street without looking back, was soon lost in the crowd of busy or pleasure-seeking wayfarers.

Nevermore - Contents    |     Chapter XV

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