FOR some days after his encounter with Trevenna, Lance Trevanion avoided as much as possible going into the township. He devoted himself to working steadily at his claim at the reef, to which he had gone before the adjournment to Caleb Coke’s hut with unexpected results.
His first impulse was to prepare for sudden departure. Trevenna, as a cheap and obvious form of revenge, would probably inform the police of his identity without delay. He shuddered at the idea of recapture—nothing, of course, could be easier than to send word to the nearest police station that prisoner Trevanion, lately escaped from the hulk President, and for whom a reward of no trifling amount was offered in the Police Gazette, was living as ‘Harry Johnson,’ the miner, just outside of Omeo township.
Yet, upon further reflection, other considerations presented themselves: Coke and Trevenna were evidently ‘working’ this horse and cattle business together. They would not, presumably, be too anxious to bring the police near to the scene of their illegal practices. They would assume also that he, Trevanion, if recaptured, might reveal much to their disadvantage. Besides, he was now receiving weekly drafts to a considerable amount from Charles Stirling. These he exchanged through Barker and Co., the storekeepers at Omeo, for drafts on a Melbourne bank, keeping up the appearance of a mining speculator by buying parcels of gold from time to time, which were transmitted to Melbourne by escort consigned to the same bank. He was loth to interrupt such satisfactory financial operations, while proceeding in a manner so favourable to his project of escape. In a few more weeks, if nothing happened in the meantime, a sum would be placed to his credit in Melbourne with which he could safely embark for San Francisco, Valparaiso, or the Islands, leaving the remainder to be sent after him.
Thus arguing, he determined to trust to the chapter of accidents, and, unless he received further warning, to abide the issue. Besides this, he believed that Coke entertained a friendly feeling towards him; even that he might depend upon him for notice in case Trevenna was determined to play the informer.
As matters turned out, Trevenna and Coke were at that very time maturing plans with which the sudden arrival of additional police would have seriously interfered. But of this determination, as well as of its scope and intention, Lance Trevanion was ignorant.
He had not, of course, been able to keep out of sight and observation of his fellow-miners at Omeo. A parcel of gold had been offered for purchase by his friend Barker, and as it was rather larger than usual, he felt bound to go into Omeo to inspect it. His face—decisively as the battle had terminated in his favour—still bore the signs of the severe punishment which he had received. And all unheeding as he had been of the pain during the heat and fury of the conflict, the disfiguring bruises and cuts were none the less en évidence for days after the affair.
But this condition of facial disarrangement was too familiar to all classes of society at Omeo to cause more than faint surprise or trivial comment. ‘Been having a friendly round and slipped the gloves off, Harry?’ said the storekeeper. ‘I didn’t think there was a chap on the field that could paste you like that!’
Lance muttered something about ‘accidents will happen,’ and so on. ‘Tell you all about it some other time.’ Yet though not denying the impeachment, he showed so little desire to be questioned upon the matter that the storekeeper, a shrewd person, dropped the subject and addressed himself to the more important business of the gold purchase.
This was concluded, and the gold safely placed in the fireproof safe, at that time a necessary part of every storekeeper’s outfit, there to await the monthly or fortnightly escort. By far the greater portion of the gold so purchased was sent to town by escort—the protection of the police troopers being in general considered sufficient. In spite of the perils of the road, there were, however, always to be found men, fearless or foolhardy, as the case might be, who preferred to be the bearers of their own winnings in Nature’s lottery, or of that which they had purchased as a speculation.
Lance had been working for nearly a week after making this purchase, at his claim, which, strangely enough, was the only payable one for some distance on either side. He had heard nothing further of Trevenna. Coke appeared to have left his usual haunts temporarily. Once more a feeling of comparative security came over him. The apparently peaceful and isolated nature of the locality assisted to lull his grief-worn spirit into a condition of repose.
It was noon at the Tinpot Reef. He had been working hard since early morning, and had just decided to prepare his midday meal. The fire was kindled, the camp-kettle placed upon it, and the water for the tea, that indispensable adjunct of the Australian’s al fresco refection, was commencing to boil. In anticipation of this stage of proceedings, Lance had seated himself upon a fallen tree and was smoking meditatively, after the manner of his class.
It was a lonely and silent spot—on this particular occasion rendered more solitary and deserted-looking than ordinarily, from the fact that the discouraged holders of the adjoining claims had arranged to prospect a distant gully, and had, to that end, departed in a body on the previous morning. The ropes were still upon the windlasses, the raw-hide buckets on the braces. The tents and huts, with their rude adjuncts, showed that the desertion was but temporary; therefore, the camp could not legally be appropriated as ‘worked and abandoned ground.’ Still there was an eerie, and it might have been thought by a supersensitive resident an ill-omened, aspect about the place.
The morning had been fair, but though no clouds obscured the sky a chill wind had arisen, and the temperature seemed to fall as the rising blast became shrill-voiced and wailing.
Listening half mechanically to the boding signs of storm, Lance did not notice the clatter of hoofs as a woman came at speed along the ravine which lay to the eastward, and reined up her horse within a few yards of his camp.
He turned listlessly towards her, but started to his feet and gazed into the face of the rider with the look, half intent, half horror-stricken, as of one who views an apparition.
‘Kate Lawless!’ he exclaimed.
‘I used to be once,’ the woman made answer, in a voice which seemed struggling with an attempt at cheerfulness overlain with habitual melancholy. ‘Won’t you lift me down, or have you forgotten the way?’
He was at her side in a moment, and as, with the accustomed aid, she sprang lightly to the earth, each gazed into the other’s face for an instant without speaking.
‘Hang the mare up to that dead tree,’ she said. ‘I’ve ridden her hard and far to-day, but she’ll have to carry me across the mountain to-night; I mustn’t chance letting her go. And now I suppose you’re wondering what brought me here? I’ve got something to say to you, Lance Trevanion, that’s well worth the hearing.’
‘And what may that be T he made answer coldly. ‘Let me remind you that the last words I heard you speak caused my ruin, body and soul.’
‘For God’s sake, don’t talk to me like that,’ she said. ‘I’m the most miserable woman this day that walks the earth. I’ve helped to ruin you, I know, but how I’ve suffered for it! I’m risking my life in coming here to-day, and except to warn you for your good I wouldn’t have done it. Look at me, Lance, and see if I’m speaking true or false!’
‘You took a false oath once,’ he said slowly; ‘why should I trust you now, Kate?’
But while he spoke he could not avoid marking the unmistakable traces which misery had imprinted upon her face and form. His voice softened, his heart relented in spite of his just scorn and indignation. How changed was she indeed! And could that haggard woman, who, with streaming eyes and sorrow-laden features, stood before him in a suppliant attitude, be the Kate Lawless of old days?
The trim and lissom girl, with an air of wild unconscious grace, lithe of form and displaying in her every movement the instinctive charm of early womanhood, had disappeared for ever. In her place stood a hard-faced woman—bitter, reckless, and despairing. Her dress, that unfailing test of feeling, showed that she had ceased to concern herself about her personal appearance. Her fair hair was carelessly twisted into a large knot, which showed behind the old felt hat which she wore: a shabby kirtle was secured with a belt around her waist above a torn and faded gray tweed riding-skirt. A red silk handkerchief knotted loosely round her neck furnished the only coquettish-looking bit of colour that her dress afforded, and, in spite of the carelessness and disorder of her apparel, formed an effective contrast to her dark gray eyes, still bright, and her abundant hair.
‘You are changed, indeed, Kate,’ he said musingly. ‘So am I. Don’t you think, by the way, I ought to call you Mrs. Trevenna?’
‘Call me Kate this time,’ she said; ‘God knows whether we shall ever meet again. Do I look miserable, neglected, downtrodden to the very ground? For that’s what I am, besides being the wife of the greatest brute, the meanest villain, ever God made. But it serves me right, Lance Trevanion; it serves me well right!’
Here the wretched woman burst into a fit of passionate weeping. Hiding her face in her hands, she sat down upon the log, and in broken sentences detailed her wrongs and described the cruelty with which she was habitually treated. Why did she marry him? Well, she hardly knew. She was restless and miserable after the trial. Ned was gone, and she was half mad, and could have drowned herself when all was over. Once in Trevenna’s power, the brute had shown her that one of his reasons for making her his wife was to wreak his spite upon her as a former favourite of his enemy; to punish her by every ingenious device of callous cruelty for having preferred Trevanion to himself. She had been worked upon before the trial by the artfulness of Dayrell and Trevenna, the former having caused a letter to be written, as if from Lance to his cousin, sneering at her low birth and bush manners in a way which led her to believe that he had from the first intended to impose upon her ignorance. Hasty, credulous, and madly ungovernable in her fits of ill-temper, she had been practised on to bear false witness at the trial. Then Tessie, ignorant of the wonderful likeness of the two men to each other, had really mistaken Trevenna for Lance, having come upon him unexpectedly in one of his trips to Eumeralla.
‘And this is what I’ve brought you to,’ she continued, gazing at his rude attire, his changed aspect; for never does the look of freedom and careless pride return to the man who has known the prison garb, the clanking chain,—who has once answered mechanically to the harsh summons of the gaol warder. ‘A working digger, and worse. Oh, my God! An escaped prisoner. God forgive me! I don’t see as you can. No man could that has gone through what you have!’
And here the frantic woman cast herself at his feet and bowed her head to the earth in an attitude of despairing supplication almost oriental in intense self-abasement
In spite of his cruel wrongs, of the life-wreck and dishonour in which this woman had been chiefly instrumental, Lance Trevanion’s heart was touched as he saw the once haughty and tameless Kate prone in the dust at his feet.
He raised her gently, and, seating her beside him, essayed to comfort her. ‘Kate,’ he said, taking her hand, ‘we are two miserable wretches, destined to be each other’s ruin. Why should all the blame fall upon you? Fate was too strong for us. It is over now. We must bear it as we may. If I have undergone the torments of the damned, your deadliest enemy could not have chosen a worse lot than you have made for yourself. I forgive you freely. Now you have far to go, and I must finish my shift by sundown. Let us make believe we are at the camp at Ballarat again; my dinner is nearly ready.’
A faint flicker, dying out instantly into rayless gloom, was visible in the woman’s sad eyes. She dried her tears, and with a strong effort recovered her self-possession.
‘You are too good to me, Lance; God bless you for it,’ she murmured. ‘I shall thank you to my dying day, whenever that is: I somehow think it mayn’t be long. Anyway, I will have a few mouthfuls. There’s thirty miles of mountain road to go back, and I must be home before he comes. I see you’re marked,’ she continued, looking with curiously blended sympathy and shyness at his discoloured face, ‘but you’re nothing like as bad hurt as he was, or you couldn’t move about or stoop to blow up that fire. He was close upon dead for a week after he got back. He didn’t tell me who done it till one day we quarrelled when he was better. Then he half killed me,—kicked and trampled on me, as he’s done many a time. If it wasn’t for—for the child,’—here she hesitated and looked down,—‘I’d have left him long ago.’
‘Cowardly brute, ruffianly dog!’ groaned Lance, grinding his teeth, ‘why didn’t I kill him when we met at Gibbo? I had two minds to finish him there and then. Things could hardly be worse than they are. But the next time we meet one of us dies; I swear it, as God hears me.’
‘Oh! don’t talk like that,’ she cried, and even in his wrath Lance recognised with amazement the new element of pitying tenderness which anxiety for his safety evoked (oh! wondrous-fashioned instrument, the woman’s heart! soaring to seraphic melody, yet at times clanging with frenzied discords, echoes from the Inferno); ‘if there’s anything of that sort you’ll be sure to be taken, then it will be “life” or worse. But,’ changing her tone to one of grave entreaty, ‘what I came for to-day was this,—I knew you were here, no matter how; where I live we know a lot, all the worse for us and other people.’
‘And what was it, Kate?’
‘I came to warn you,’ she said, as she fixed her eyes imploringly upon his countenance, ‘and you believe me, just as if Tessie was talking to you this minute.’
‘To take care of my horse, Kate?’ he said, half jestingly; ‘I haven’t any to lose.’
‘To take care of your LIFE!’ she cried, almost with a scream. ‘You have that to lose, haven’t you? and unless you are carefuller than I ever knew you to be, you’ll find it out too late. I overheard him and that old wretch Caleb Coke (and of all the murdering dogs I ever heard of I think he’s the worst) talking over some plan they’ve put up, and from words I caught I made out it was about you. There was a deal about gold-buying and some hut, and a box with nuggets and things locked up in it—money as well. You’ll know if that fits. The man, whoever it was, was to be “put away,” as Coke said. So you take my tip! Trust nobody about this field, Caleb Coke above all, and get shut of Omeo the first minute you can.’
‘When did you hear this?’
‘The day before yesterday. They sat up late drinking, and Coke took more than he does in general; he’s that full of villainy of all sorts,—robberies and murders too, people say,—that he’s afraid of grog for fear of giving himself away. Anyhow, they both went off early this morning, and Trevenna’s to be back to-night. So I ran up this little mare—she’s the only one I’ve got now to my name—as soon as they were well off the place, and rode here on the chance of finding you at this reef.’
‘Well, Kate, my poor girl, you’ve done me a good turn, if you never do another. You may have saved my life, you see. Not that it’s worth much. But I’ve a notion of getting away to California or the Islands next month, and if I carry that out what you want me to be careful about may rise in value, do you see?’
‘Oh, don’t joke in that horrid way; you never used to,’ said the woman, rising and gathering up her skirt, as if in preparation to depart. ‘It makes my heart ache’—here she pressed her hand to her breast; ‘I have one, though you mightn’t think it. But oh, for my sake, for every one’s sake, for the sake of that girl in England, if you want to see her again, be careful! Don’t go out of sight of Omeo—if you value your life—till you start for Melbourne, and then travel in company. Coke thinks no more of a man’s life than a wild dingo’s, and Trevenna’s as bad. The things I’ve heard, I wonder God lets them live. I must go now. I’ve stayed too long. Remember my words; they’re as true as if I was on my dying-bed.’
Then she walked rapidly to where her horse stood patiently—a small roan mare, the fineness of whose limbs, together with the character of head and eye, denoted Arab blood, crossed probably with the wild ‘mustang’ of the hills. Trevanion kept by her side, wondering when the strange scene would end.
She made again as if to depart, for an instant touching the mare’s bridle. Then, turning towards him, held out her hand—‘Good-bye, Lance, and God bless you, wherever you are. You are sure you forgive me, don’t you?’
‘As I hope to be forgiven,’ he said solemnly, unconsciously using a half-forgotten form of words, the true meaning of which had long been alien to his heart. ‘That is, you poor ill-treated Kate, I forgive you freely, and with all my heart.’
As he spoke, the woman turned upon him a countenance so transfigured by gratitude and tenderness that Lance Trevanion, for the moment, hardly recognised her, so wonderfully softened, so refined and ennobled, was every lineament by the unwonted emotions. Deep and bright in her lifted eyes shone the fires of a buried passion as she gazed for a moment into those of her companion. Then, as if inspired with sudden frenzy, she threw her arms around him, and, pressing his head to her bosom, kissed him passionately on the lips and forehead.
Disengaging herself as suddenly, she waved him back from approaching her, and, springing into the saddle, drove the astonished mare wild, plunging over the crown of the ridge and adown the rocky side of the ravine, which the roused and surefooted animal cleared with leaps like the ‘flying doe’ of her native woods.
‘Poor Kate!’ he exclaimed, as he slowly retraced his steps, and, gathering up his mining tools mechanically, proceeded to complete his day’s work; ‘there is good about her after all. How queerly men and women are compounded in this mad world—as I begin to think it is. What a life hers must be, tied to a scoundrel like Trevenna! and yet he is a free man—whose whole life, since he came to the colony, has been criminal—while I, who, God knows, never had a thought of wrongdoing, have worn the felon’s chain, and may again, who can tell? “A mad world, my masters!” in truth and saddest earnest.’
No doubt remained in Trevanion’s mind, as in the seclusion of his hut that evening he pondered this singular interview, but that the woman had warned him in all good faith. If her words were not true, she was indeed the falsest of her sex. But there are looks, tones, gestures which neither man nor woman can feign; moments in which all the truth of the being comes to the surface; portions of our lives when a clearer insight is gained in the passing of seconds than can be derived from years of ordinary experience.
Such a flash of enlightenment was this, as when the lightning gleam pierces the gloom of midnight, showing the perils of the road, disclosing pitfalls and precipices previously shrouded in darkness. His course had been thus illumined. How heedless was he, pursuing what appeared to be a fairly open pathway; and yet, what unsuspected dangers lurked on every side. These two remorseless villains, attracted by the report of his comparative opulence,—of course the gold-buying would reach all ears,—were evidently planning his robbery and murder. If not his own, whose then could it be?
There was another man whom it possibly concerned—Con Gray, well known as a gold -buyer in Omeo. He had lately made heavy purchases—had even stated that this was his last trip to Melbourne. This man was perhaps the fated victim. Under any circumstances Omeo was no longer safe harbour. He would sell his claim on the reef. He would invest his cash in gold, and, making some excuse, join the escort, and so get to Melbourne unsuspected, and safe from being robbed on the road—if a man could be said to be safe at any point of the journey between these savage solitudes and the metropolis.
Thus having fully resolved to quit Omeo, taking whatever risks might be involved in that step rather than await the perils which seemed to be thickening around him, a feeling of impatience now took possession of Lance Trevanion. On the very day on which he had met Kate, he had ‘broken down’ some stone of extraordinary richness, which, though it might prove to be only a ‘shoot,’ in mining parlance, served to cause the value of the claim to rise measurably. He had therefore no difficulty in disposing of it to very great advantage, giving as his reason for quitting so promising a ‘show’ that he had decided on devoting himself to gold-buying for the future.
Meanwhile, the vision of final escape from a life of dread and suspicion, from the rude surroundings and mean shifts by which alone he could hope to secure safety under present circumstances, commenced to arise clear and inspiriting before him. It seemed comparatively easy to slip down to town under cover of having gold to dispose of—as did many a miner of the period. And then—and then, once on blue water with a draft for five thousand pounds in his pocket, and more to follow at regular intervals as long as Number Six continued ‘payable,’ what a vista of change, affluence, almost happiness, opened out before him! This was Saturday; on this day week the monthly gold escort would leave Omeo for Melbourne. It gave him ample time to make needful preparations. It was the last day of the month. It might be the last day of his exile.
The week passed in an uneventful fashion. It seemed to Lance Trevanion as if all things were working harmoniously for his release from the thraldom he had so long endured. The claim had been well sold. He had received the proceeds in cash, as indeed is the custom of goldfields. He had made several advantageous purchases of gold, and had received advices from the mercantile house in Melbourne with whom, through Barker and Co., the storekeepers, he had established business relations, that they would be prepared to honour his drafts or furnish him with bills of exchange in Britain or America. All things seemed prosperously working together for a noiseless and unsuspected exit from Omeo—from Melbourne—from Australia. He had reduced his worldly possessions to the smallest portable quantity, while leaving his hut and belongings in apparently the state which they would present during his absence, presuming merely a temporary absence.
So steadily had he laboured, so assiduously had he devoted himself to the arrangement of every detail which by any chance could be needed, that on the Thursday evening he was in the somewhat nervous position of a man who had nothing to do but to await the signal for departure. At the same time, he had neglected no precautions which could tend to throw his comrades of Omeo and the public generally off their guard. He had not signified his intention of starting with the escort. He had made the same arrangements which would have been necessary for the consignment of his gold if he himself was absent.
He had said casually to his friend Barker, the storekeeper, that ‘he might go, or he might not; he was not sure; just as the fit might take him. Anyhow, he would only be away a fortnight. It depended upon any fresh “show” turning up. There was a talk of something towards the Snowy River.’
He had purposely, from the day of his arrival at Omeo, adopted a rough, laconic manner, in keeping with his assumed character of ‘Ballarat Harry’; had been, indeed, at some pains to efface tokens of gentle blood, of culture, of refinement, of that chiefly indefinable personal accompaniment which is usually described as ‘the manners of a gentleman.’
This curious possession, sometimes laboriously acquired, and yet only perfect when merely derived from the accident of birth and inheritance, is, by some shrewd observers of human nature, believed to be wholly inseparable from the individual who has once possessed it. Others believe—granting a careless habit of association, a looseness of fibre, recklessness of mood, sordid surroundings, not to mention a fixed intention of cutting loose from all the influences of early training—that wondrous, almost incredible declension may take place. One likes to fancy that the refinement produced by years of early training, joined with hereditary tendency, can never be obliterated. But
‘Want can quench the eyes’ bright grace,
Although in the case of Lance Trevanion it would have been an exaggeration to have said with the poet—
‘Poor wretch! The mother that him bare,
But (and I who write have many a time witnessed the transformation) it is by no means so easy to recognise the ‘lapsed gentleman’ after he has, for whim, indolence, or necessity, played the bush labourer for a year or two. The roughened hands, the altered expression of face, the gradual disappearance of les nuances, the minor society tricks of expression and manner, the rough habiliments, the changed step—all these and more—the inevitable concomitants of the comparatively rude life of the miner, the ‘sundowner,’ the shepherd or boundary-rider—denote the disrated aristocrat. Any one of the subdivisions of Australian manual labour does inevitably, indisputably, change and disguise the individual, of whatever previous history. There are exceptions, doubtless; but such are rare.
In addition to the safeguards which a miner’s garb, daily labour, and rude association provided against recognition, Lance had practised of set purpose the slang phrases and ungrammatical idioms common among men of his adopted occupation. This kind of verbal deterioration is more easy to acquire by careless habit than to relinquish when an upper stratum of society is again reached, as relatives of young men returning from ‘back block’ sojourns or ‘northern territory’ explorations have discovered to their regret. Taking his privations into consideration, it must not be considered very wonderful that the ‘Ballarat Harry’ of Omeo was a different-appearing personage from the Lance Trevanion of No. 6, Growlers’, much more the haitghty, rebellious heir of Wychwood.
The expected morning broke—a transcendent day of early spring, known even to this mountain land, mist-shrouded and storm-swept though it be in its winter garb. The sky was cloudless, the air breezeless, as the sun uplifted his golden shield over the forest-clothed shoulders of the Bogong and the Buffalo.
As the pearl-gray tints of the dawn-light insensibly dissolved,—losing themselves, even as had the darker hues of the earlier morning, in a bath of delicatest pink, enriched ere the eye could trace the translucence with hues prodigal of crimson and burnished gold,—the austere marble-white snow-peaks appeared to stand forth in yet more awful and supernal splendour. Contrasted with colouring of indescribable brilliancy, they appeared a company of phantasmal apparitions in the silence of that wondrous dawn pageant.
Lance Trevanion was but a man as other men. How many times had he looked upon these and kindred wonder-signs of Nature with incurious eyes, holding them to be but ordinary phenomena with which, in the grip and peril of Circumstance, he had nought to do. But now, his nervous system being more tense, and his mental tone exalted in view of an imminent deliverance, a stir took place among faculties long disused. In curious unexplained fashion the beatific vision connected itself with his cousin Estelle, whom he had ceased to regard as a terrestrial entity. Severed from her, not less by seas and oceans than by inexorable fate, her image, bright and celestial as it had formerly appeared, was now fading rapidly; becoming fainter and yet more ethereal with each succeeding recollection.
But on this, the last morn which he hoped to spend in this wilderness, her image seemed to present itself with strangely persistent clearness before him. How she would have joyed,—she that was so passionately fond of landscape scenery, who discovered fresh beauties in every humble hillock and lowly streamlet,—could but she have stood here with him; together could they have beheld this entrancing vision. With quickened tide, the back-borne stream of memory brought to his recollection the many times they had stood hand in hand and gazed at sunset, stream, or woodland, glorified by Nature’s alchemy. He could almost fancy that he heard her voice, soft and low, rich, yet so clear and distinct, as she dwelt upon each feature of the landscape with instructed enthusiasm. He recalled her dainty ways—her unvarying softness and sweetness, her unfailing tact and temper, which had so often turned the tide of the Squire’s wrath, the discreet counsel that had so often been displayed in times of perplexity.
And now, what torture to think of her! of all the sweetness and beauty, divine as it now appeared to him, lost for ever, as much alien to him, henceforth and for evermore, as though she had been born on another planet!
The sudden change from the currents of his thoughts led the lonely, half-despairing man to an almost complete temporary detachment from his surroundings. He forgot much of the misery, the despair, the evil hap of this past year—that year which had been so much more eventful than the whole of his previous life. A new hope appeared to arise within his outworn, wearied heart. Might he not, if he regained the old land—might he not yet recover his position? Great heavens! was it then possible that such an elysium should be in store for him? He knew Estelle’s steadfast fearless nature; he knew the sweet and loving pardon that would shine in her eyes when they met, if ever permitted by a merciful God. Was there a God? and could He be thus merciful even to a forlorn, degraded outcast like himself?
As he stood leaning, with folded arms and meditative air, against the doorpost of his humble dwelling, the clatter of hoofs along the track which led near the hillock upon which the hut stood gave a fresh current to his thoughts, and recalled him to a sense of the present. ‘One day more,’ he said, half aloud. ‘Shall I ever see these hills and valleys again? I owe them much. They have proved good harbour for the stricken deer.’
‘Who the deuce is this?’ His thought shaped itself into speech as a wild-looking rider forced his horse, a half-broken colt, as near to the hut door as he could get him. The colt snorted and trembled, after the manner of his kind, but refused to budge a foot nearer. The horseman,—a long-haired, long-legged native lad,—exercising his spurs vigorously, besides devoting the colt and all his relatives to the infernal deities, was fain to hold out a scrap of paper in his hand and await Lance’s approach.
‘It was you as sold Number One South, on the Tinpot Reef, to Yorkey Dickson, wasn’t it?’ inquired the ingenuous youth, staring at Lance.
‘Yes; what then?’
‘Well, there’s been a bloomin’ row between him and his mates and Mick Doolan’s crowd. They’re measuring him off, and makes out as you’d took up too much ground. He wants you to come. He give me this for ye; blank ye, I’ll knock the blank head off ye, if ye don’t stand quiet.’
This last communication, though in strict continuation with his previous address, was apparently intended for the colt’s progressive education, that vivacious animal having taken fright at Lance’s approach, and swerved backward with rear and plunge directly Lance reached out his hand for the missive. He, however, retained hold of the paper, which, after some difficulty, he deciphered—
MR. HARRY JOHNSON.
Dear Sir,—I paid you honest for Number One South, which I stand a good show of loosin’ if you don’t come out and prove your pegs. The Tips are trying the bluff game, and if you don’t stand by me I’ll be regular jumped and run off the field. Come afore dinner.
‘My word! I’ll have him steady enough by the time we get back to Tin Pot. Been backed first time the day afore yesterday, and of course he’s touchy,’ he explained, as the colt, after a wild rear, in which he nearly fell backwards, stood with his forefeet rooted to the ground and snorted, trumpet-like. ‘Shall I say you’re a-comin’?’
‘I suppose so—yes,’ slowly answered Trevanion, half absently. ‘Curse the claim and all belonging to it! I never wanted to see it again. But I won’t have the fellow done out of it. Tell him I’ve half a mind not to come, as I’m going to Melbourne to-morrow. It’s lucky for him I got word to-day.’
‘All right! I’ll tell him you’ll be there by dinner-time. So ’long!’ and with the words on his lips he turned his horse’s head, and with spur and shout forced him into a hand-gallop along the main track to the township, up the principal street, and opposite the hotel door before the half-tamed excited animal had time to halt or resist.
‘It’s an infernal nuisance,’ said Trevanion, half aloud. ‘But I don’t want to leave things tangled up. Yorkey paid me good money, and I shouldn’t like the poor devil to be wronged by those scoundrels. I’ll walk, too; it will do me good, and keep me from thinking.’
The day promised to be glorious. Slowly the mountain mist had rolled back, and gradually disclosed the tones and magically blended colour effects which the awakened morn revealed. A dull grayish green tinted the undulating prairies, stretching to the darkly dense forest which clothed the foothills of the Australian Alps. The sombre mountains gradually ripened in colour as the sun-rays pierced them in concentric lines, so that a graduated scale, shading from darkest green to brilliant emerald, developed hourly. Deathlike, still eternal-seeming, majestic, their snow-crowns rested on Bogong and Buffalo, with far-seen Kosciusko and Feathertop in the azure distance.
The solar heat became distinctly noticeable—indeed, bordering on oppressive. But Lance, excited in spite of himself, stepped joyously forward as he felt the miles slipping behind him, as though on some long-remembered schoolboy truant expedition. How different was the free elastic stride with which he covered the ground now from the aimless, dejected shuffle of himself and his fellow galley-slaves of the President! His spirits rose with each mile of the way traversed. Surely everything was turning in his favour. He would be pardoned yet, his fair fame re-established. His innocence would not be so hard to prove, after all. Tessie and Kate could now give different evidence.
‘Yes! England, Estelle, Wychwood! Fate would repent her of this dire injustice. He would yet again place foot on the shore of his native land, the home of his ancestors, as surely as he would presently ascend the ridge on the other side of this Mountain Ash Gully, into which he was now descending; as surely as he would behold the plain far-stretching towards the horizon, the diggers’ tents in the secluded valley.’
Thus thinking, and moving forward with eager, quickened step, he reached the bottom of the ravine,—which a notable exception to the general distribution of timber—was covered with a scrub or thicket of the mountain ash saplings for some distance back. From the course of the little stream, eastward, appeared a narrow flat, riddled with shafts long worked and abandoned, but still furnishing, in this depth and closeness, a record of former richness.
‘What would Kate say if she saw me here to-day?’ he thought to himself. And then her warning rang in his ears. ‘As you value your life,’ he seemed to hear. ‘When I get back,’ he said, ‘I will swear to take excellent care of myself.’
‘If such a thing as prudence can be knocked into a Trevanion, surely what I have undergone should produce it. But what a lunatic! what a benighted idiot I was to leave England at all! Why couldn’t I have borne the old man’s petulance, like scores of other fellows that I have known? All would have come right in the end, with Estelle’s help. What a girl she was! And what a fool I have been! Looking back, it seems incredible that I—that any man—could have been so mad, so blindly besotted! I wonder how the old Squire is now? He and Estelle must have a lonely time enough of it in the gloomy old manor-house. Well, I swear—as God hears me now—that when I return—if I ever do—I will humble myself before the old man, and, yes, try for the, rest of my life to make amends to him and to her for the sorrow and anxiety which I have cost them.’
As this last thought passed through his mind, shaping itself unconsciously into articulate speech, he stopped, with his right foot raised upon a block of stone, and listened intently, with head half turned towards the thickest portion of the scrub, which here approached the narrow track worn in old days by the cattle-herds of the surrounding pastures.
At that moment a shot was heard, and Lance Trevanion fell forward on his face, temporarily disabled, if not mortally wounded. Following the report, two men emerged from the covert, one of whom carried a gun. They were Caleb Coke and Lawrence Trevenna.
‘That dropped him,’ said the former, with a fiendish chuckle. ‘Not far from the “curl,” I’d say, if it was a bullock. Many a one the old single barrel has finished. I thought she’d carry straight that distance.’
Here the wounded man moved his arm and groaned.
‘Ha! my fine gentleman!’ said Trevenna, ‘I swore I’d have ye under my feet yet. Where are ye now?’ And here the hellish villain spurned the unresisting form of his prostrate foe. ‘What do ye say about “time” now? This is the last round of all.’
‘That’s no good,’ growled Coke, ‘and d—d cowardly, into the bargain. You couldn’t stand lip to him when he was right, so ye may leave him alone now. He’s only stunned; the ball’s grazed his forehead. Lend us that tomahawk o’ yourn. I’ll finish him.’
Two crashing blows, one of which clove the skull even to the brain, and this man—this ‘masterpiece of nature,’ so lately in full possession of the strength and beauty of youth—lay a disfigured corpse.
‘Now lend a hand and let’s get him off the road a bit,’ said Coke, as coolly as if he was directing the assistants of a slaughter-yard. ‘Scrape some sand over that blood; there ain’t much, but it might show. We’ve got to strip him first, and then it won’t take long to drop him where he won’t be seen again in a hurry.’
Dragged through the scrub some twenty yards or more, the dead man lay with dreadful widely open eyes as they had placed him. A heart-rending spectacle surely, had but the men who now busied themselves in stripping the corpse possessed the feelings of ordinary humanity. But a lifetime of crime, for the most part undetected, had dulled the heart and brain of the older ruffian, to the exclusion of all but the baser instincts—a veritable demon disguised in form of man. Fiends of the pit could scarce have exceeded him in remorseless cruelty.
In Trevenna’s case the love of gain, the hope of booty, together with complicated feelings of jealousy and revenge, rendered him callous to all natural feeling. Swiftly was the dead man divested of his clothing; his watch, a few bank notes, which he had perhaps placed in his purse in readiness for the morrow, were secured, and after counting and inspection, taken possession of by Trevenna.
This done, the old man pointed to a mound a few yards distant around which the saplings clustered thickly, showing that some time had elapsed since the shaft which it marked had been commenced.
‘That’s the deepest shaft on the flat; they was a-sinking for the blue “lead” and bottomed on rock. You take hold of him.’
A combined effort placed the dead man on the edge of a shaft, down which the old man peered with ghoulish glee, as if to gauge the depth. ‘Hold on,’ he said, as he dropped a stone. The men waited for some seconds, which seemed long, until a dull thud came up from the lower level, telling by its delay that the shaft was little under a hundred feet.
In another moment the unresisting form was drawn to the edge of the yawning black-mouthed pit, which, so wondrous straight and narrow, had been driven deeply into the bowels of the earth. A push, a heave, and the once noble and beautiful form of him who was Lance Trevanion disappeared from the face of the earth, hidden from the light of the sun, from the ken of mortal man, for ever and for ever!
As the strange dull sound, so unlike any other, which follows the fall of a human body down a deep shaft came up from below, Trevenna shuddered in spite of his hardihood.
The old man laughed aloud. ‘You’re only half baked yet, Larry, with all your blowing. When you’ve seen as many coves rubbed out as I have, you’ll have better narves. We’ve got a ticklish game to play yet, mind ye, so don’t go a-shivering and shaking like a school-girl. Take off yer duds now and collar his, and let’s see how yer look.’
Trevenna, with a rude oath, repelled the accusation of softness, and doffing his own garments, which he made into a bundle and threw down the shaft, proceeded to dress himself in the dead man’s clothes. This transformation effected, the curious similarity between the two men became so apparent to the only spectator that Coke yelled with apparent amazement and danced around him with fiendish delight.
‘By ——!’ he cried, ‘if that ain’t the rummiest fake ever I see. Your own mother wouldn’t know the difference. Hanged if I could tell, and I knowed the pair on ye purty well. Pitch a log or two down the hole; it won’t be long afore it falls in. It’s bad standing ground, and then he won’t need no tombstone. We’d as well collar our horses now and get to the cove’s hut after dark. Then you start fair to-morrow morning as ‘Ballarat Harry,’ alias Lance Trevanion, Esquire, and I’m d—d if there’s a digger on Omeo as’ll know the difference. What are ye lookin’ in the grass for?’
‘When we had the—the mill—I swear he had a watch-chain. It must have dropped hereabouts.’
‘Well, I’m blowed!’ chuckled the older ruffian, ‘if that ain’t a good ’un. Takin’ a man’s life, his money, his duds, and his watch, and then growlin’ because the chain’s a-missin’. You’ll find it in his hut, I’ll go bail.’