LANCE TREVANION, dwelling and working by himself, had accustomed the miners around Omeo to his irregular, independent mode of life. Sometimes he was absent for days together, returning at midnight or dawn, as the case might be. When it was reported that he had been seen to enter his hut just after dark in company with another man, no one looked upon the circumstance as calling for comment. He had been at the claim which he had sold to Yorkey Dickson early in the day, and being detained there, discussing the intricacies of a mining dispute, had reached his home after sunset.
On the next morning—the one fixed for the departure of the escort for Melbourne—he was heard inquiring from the Barker storekeeper if his gold had been properly labelled and directed. ‘He was not sure about going himself,’ he said, ‘but thought it likely he might at the last minute.’ The storekeeper looked at him with a certain air of surprise. ‘What are you staring at?’ he asked abruptly, at the same time fixing his eyes intently on the man.
‘Oh, nothing, Harry,’ Barker replied apologetically, ‘only I thought there was something queer about you this morning. If you’d been a drinking man I’d have thought you’d had a booze on the quiet. And your face ain’t got rid of them marks yet. Seemed they was about gone, last time I seen yer.’
‘They’ll not last much longer,’ he said grimly, ‘and the man that gave them to me got the worst of it. He won’t be so ready for a row in future.’
‘Is that so?’ inquired the trader confidentially. ‘We all thought it must have been his fault, you bein’ such a quiet card in a general way. Serve him right, I say.’
‘So I say too,’ replied his auditor. ‘By the way, just send your boy over to the post-office to see if there are any letters for me. I’ll have a smoke while he runs over.’
In a few minutes the letters came. One from the banker in Melbourne acknowledging his last draft and informing ‘Mr. Henry Johnson’ that they would receive and hold to his order the parcel of gold of which they had advices. The other, addressed to ‘Mr. Henry Johnson, Long Creek, Omeo,’ was in a female hand. Mr. Johnson placed it in his pocket unread, saying carelessly that it would do to read when he got home.
‘He’s a rum chap, that Ballarat Harry, as ever I see in Omeo,’ said the storekeeper. ‘Sometimes so jolly in a quiet way, and then he’s as stiff and stand off as can be. But I’m dashed if ever I seen him as queer as he was to-day; why, I hardly knowed him when he came in first!’
When ‘Harry Johnson’ reached his hut, he sat down, and shutting the door, which he carefully secured with a bolt, took out the letter and read as follows a sardonic smile upon his features the while—
TOORAK, 10th September 185–.
MY OWN DARLING LANCE—Could you ever expect to receive a letter from me written in this country? In your wildest dreams, did it ever occur to you that I should come out to Australia in search of you? I told you at our last parting at dear old Wychwood that I would come, if you did not return within the time specified. I don’t know that the time has quite elapsed, but when the poor old Squire died (how changed and softened he was, Lance, in his latter days you can hardly think) I could not stay in England. You never wrote. We did not know what had become of you: whether you were dead or alive. I promised him, Lance, on his deathbed, that I would seek you out. And you know we Chaloners and Trevanions hold to our word.
I know now all that you have done and suffered, my poor darling—all! I can partly understand why you did not write. Still you should have done so; you know you should. I am not going to reproach you or to write a long letter. But fancy me having been up at Ballarat and stayed at Mrs. Delf’s inn at ‘Growlers’,’ and know Jack Polwarth and his wife and dear little Tottie—who hasn’t forgotten you—and Mr. Hastings and Mr. Stirling! I was actually there when your letter came from Omeo!
Why didn’t I write? You see now how hard it is to bear when friends are silent But I refrained, sorely against the grain, for your sake. It might unsettle you, I thought, even tempt you to come to Melbourne, where the risk would be terrible. So I waited till I could get a really good opportunity and escort for Omeo. You will see me—I am almost beside myself with joy at the thought almost as quickly as this letter reaches you, Mr. Vernon, my kind host, says. He bought me a delightful horse—so safe and pleasant I shall quite enjoy the ride up. A storekeeper, his wife and daughter, also an assistant, are my companions, so you see I am well protected. Have you got the. ring and the token? I have mine safe. Ever and till we meet, your own
‘Well, I’m blowed,’ was the reader’s inelegant but characteristic exclamation as he folded up the letter,—oh! rare and precious outpouring of a fond woman’s love and tenderness, ‘if this game isn’t right into my hand! I’ve got his gold. I’ve got his cash. His girl’s running fair into my arms, and, if the luck holds, I’ll have his house and land in the old country. Lance Trevanion, if I haven’t got square with you, the devil’s in it, or Caleb Coke, which comes to the same thing! I’ve got to take care he don’t turn dog on me, though. It was he put me on to plant for Trevanion in Mountain Ash Gully. We’re both in it, though he fired the shot and knocked him on the head afterwards. We’ve gone whacks so far in the nuggets and cash in the hut; who’d ’a thought he’d such a pile stowed away there? But if I can get to Melbourne, take the girl on the hop, marry her, and clear out to England or ’Frisco the day after, as I expect he intended to have done, old Caleb may whistle for his share. By Jove! what a lucky job it was that Coke and I had a good overhaul of the hut on the quiet. It’s put me up to all I wanted to know to act Lance Trevanion to the life. I’ve done it before, but now I’m up in my part to the letter. I’ve got the very clothes he was last seen in, the marks on my face he gave me, damn him, much about the same as I gave him’, with putting on a bit of a drawl that he always had, the devil himself wouldn’t know us apart I wonder if he will when my turn comes below?’
Then the villain laughed aloud, a ghastly sound in the lonely hut and still night. The unnatural sound died away,—guilt rarely laughs long,—when, lighting his pipe and stirring the embers of the fire in the chimney, he recommenced his meditative plotting.
‘Now then, the devil of it is, that I’ll have deuced little time to work things in, if this girl Estella, or whatever she calls herself, comes up to-morrow or next day. However, perhaps the shorter the time the better the chance; she’ll be bustled, and won’t have time to think. All I’ve got to do is to play Lance Trevanion to the life for a day or two, get her off to Melbourne, and follow up after. The sooner I’m off the better, for fear Kate gets wind of it and blows the whole bloomin’ plant to blazes. There’s nothing she’d like better, blast her! I think I can do the swell business middling near the mark. I’ve been studying some of those squatter toffs that come to Monaro for store catch. If a bit of slang leaks out, or a slip in grammar, why, of course, it’s from associating with rough cards at the diggings, not to mention the chain-gang business; she’ll believe, like all these flats of new chums, that Australian life’s enough to take the shine out of any man’s mind and manners, grammar, and good looks. Then the wedding! Ha! ha! if that won’t be the best joke out. Fancy Larry Trevenna spliced to a real lady—a dashed handsome girl I believe she is anyhow her likeness says so. Next day off to England or America,—the last if I can fix it—and no more Australia for yours truly.
‘The best of it is, even if I am nabbed, I can easily prove that I’m not him. Then there’s the bigamy racket, though I daresay if I let Kate off, she’d, be glad enough to take her own way and clear out. It’s a ticklish business, of course; but I stand to win or lose a heavy stake, and I’ll play it out, by God! I don’t see how she can doubt I’m the real man. I’ve read his letters and things till I nearly know all the places and people by heart. I’ve got the ring and the locket she talks about, and a lot of family trinkets and nicknacks, and there’s no mistake we are as like—that is, were—as two peas. Why the deuce we should be, the devil only knows. Well, I’ll have another smoke and turn in. There’s a deal to think about to-morrow.’
Next day being Sunday, which even at the wildest Australian digging differs somewhat from other days, Mr. Harry Johnson dressed himself more carefully than usual, and after breakfast went ‘down town’—that is, he proceeded to Barker’s store, in order to gather up news generally and discover whether Miss Chaloner was on the road up, so that he might be fully prepared for the momentous meeting.
As it happened, he found out precisely what he wanted. A young fellow had arrived that morning and had passed a party one stage back on the road answering to their description. The young man was not a miner, but a cattle-dealer, making a forced march to Monaro in order to buy store cattle. The price was rising daily, so he was riding post-haste for fear of losing the market. He had overtaken the storekeeper’s party, in which were three women—one a fine-looking girl—to this he could swear—and riding a clever, well-bred hackney: such a horse was never bought in Melbourne under a hundred pounds. He believed they would be in Omeo to-morrow evening before sundown, and were going to stay at the Reefers’ Arms.
On Monday, therefore, Lawrence Trevenna devoted the whole of his energies to the fullest preparation for the leading part which he had to play. He neglected no precaution. He made fresh search among the papers of Lance Trevanion. He read and re-read the letters contained in the brass-bound portmanteau which had been sent to Omeo by Charles Stirling. He reckoned up over and over again the various points on which it was necessary for him to be accurately informed in order to satisfy any lurking doubt of Miss Chaloner.
He had noted more than one reference to the chain with a coin attached, and an almost historical heirloom which he had given her at parting. The ring which Lance always wore, and which he had taken from the dead man’s finger, was also alluded to. The half threat which Estelle had made to come to Australia, if Lance did not return, or write, was spoken of. Of course, as a passenger in the Red Jacket, he knew the day on which that vessel sailed, when she arrived in Melbourne, and those occurrences of the voyage which Lance had described in his home letters. The doubt in his mind was naturally whether this high-born damsel would throw herself into his arms with the unreserve of plighted love, and be ready to marry and depart with him from Australia at the earliest possible period; or whether she might have her doubts as to his being the right man, and so work confusion or even danger. Much was on the cards. All depended on the deal. But he held a strong hand he told himself. Trumps, too, in profusion. And, with the hardihood of a born and practised gambler, he stood prepared to back his luck to the last.
The following day passed slowly; but as the evening wore on he lounged over to the hotel at which the travellers were to arrive, and made it carelessly but generally known that he expected a young lady who was coming up with Caldwell and his wife and sister. He was thereupon congratulated in a jocular manner, when finally, as the early spring day was fading fast into the short twilight, the tramp of horses’ feet was heard along the well-worn track which came up from the coast town, and the little cavalcade, composed of two men and three women, halted before the hotel verandah.
The inn loungers gathered around the strangers, proffering aid, much stimulated by the prospect of news. The ladies had been assisted from their steeds, and the landlord was leading the way to the principal sitting-room, in which a cheerful fire was blazing, when a tall man came through the party, and, pausing before the young lady who followed at the rear of the party, said, in a voice tremulous with emotion, ‘Estelle, my darling, we meet at last!’
The girl gazed earnestly in his face for a moment, his eyes meanwhile fixed on hers with an intense and even increasingly fervid glance; then, as he wound his arm around her waist and drew her towards him, she murmured with undoubting faith—‘Lance, ah! my dearest Harry, I hardly knew you at first. It must be your beard, I think. And how did you happen to be here to meet me?’ she continued, disengaging herself from his embrace, as a sense of shyness and confusion commenced to assert itself as she looked around.
‘And why did you not write and tell me you were in Australia before?’ he said, half menacingly; ‘it was hardly fair to me, I think.’
‘It is a long story; we shall have plenty of time to talk it over. I did it for the best, though I daresay you will blame me. But I must go and rest a little; we are all terribly tired. You will be here this evening, though I warn you we shall go to bed early.’
She did not appear at the ordinary evening meal, sending out word that she was fatigued, and had a quite too overpowering headache. The storekeeper’s wife and daughter were loud in praise of the uncomplaining manner in which Miss Chaloner had undergone the hardships of the journey. ‘It’s not as if she was used to it, poor dear,’ said the matron, ‘like me and Bessie here, as has had to rough it all our lives, pretty near. Yet there she was, taking everything as it come, and never a growl out of her. My word! she can ride though.’
‘And that horse of hers is a plum,’ assented Miss Bessie; ‘she looked after him well, and he’s worth it. I’d like to have him, I know, instead of my old crock. I believe he’s thoroughbred, or close up; and if they ever have races in this beastly hole, he’d win all the money they’re game to put up, hands down.’
‘Nonsense, Bessie,’ replied the elder woman; ‘how do you know? Your tongue goes too fast, Miss. Don’t you think so, Mr. Johnson? I don’t know what’s come to the girls nowadays, they’re that forward and think they know everything. But you’re a lucky man, if it’s true as you’re engaged to be married to the young lady, as it seems is a fact. There’s very few girls like her in this country or any other, you mark my words, and I hope you’re good enough for her, that I do. I’ll just go and see how she is.’
The worthy dame, on returning from the bedchamber, brought the intelligence that Miss Chaloner could not appear again, being prostrated by a nervous headache, but sent a message to Mr. Johnson that she would be quite well in the morning, and would be glad to see him after breakfast. With this ultimatum ‘Mr. Johnson’ was fain to be outwardly content, and, though inwardly chafing, betook himself to his hut, there to spend the night with what ‘companions of Sintram’ might be available. He was not, however, wholly dissatisfied with the progress made. ‘Anyhow,’ he thought, as, after a couple of potent ‘nips,’ he sat smoking over his fire, ‘the first act’s over, and pretty right too. She believes I’m the man, and though something or other’s startled her,—like a half-broken filly,—she’ll come to, after a bit. I must have a regular good pitch to her to-morrow, and bring out the cove’s rings, and trinkets, and keepsakes, that she knows about. I’ll have the whole thing out with her, and settle about when we’re to meet in Melbourne and get spliced. It’s a job that won’t stand waiting about. I must get her away and on the road in a day or two, and pick up the escort and get down by myself. If I leave with her, that infernal Kate’ll get wind of it and be on our track as sure as a gun. She thinks I went to Monaro for horses, and won’t be back for a month, but she’d fossich out any woman business if I was the other side of h—l, I do believe.’
‘I shall be cornered,’ he said to himself, pursuing the same train of thought, ‘if she wants to stay here a while and see where I was working, and all that rot that women are so dashed foolish about. I must lay it out that I might be taken any day, and the sooner we both get to Melbourne and off by the first ship—the day after we’re married, if possible—the safer for her dearest Lance—that’s me—me!—’ here the villain laughed aloud with fiendish enjoyment of the base deceit of which the unhappy girl was to be the victim. ‘If he could only see us! ha! ha! Once we’re married, there’s no get over that. Once we’re clear away, hang it, I’d almost like to have him alive again, to enjoy the sight of his face and see how he took it. His lady-cousin—his wife as was to be, that wouldn’t touch me with a pair of tongs—if she knew—if she only knew—that it was Larry Trevenna, that used to be a stable-boy, a farm-lad, a horse-dealer’s tout. If mother hadn’t died, things might have been better, and old granddad too. She used to talk as if there was some mystery. I wonder if there was, and what sort. Anyhow there WILL be, and that’s enough for the present, if it comes off.’
Estelle rose early next morning with a view to survey at leisure her novel surroundings. She had perfectly recovered from the fatigue of the previous day. The regular exercise of the bush journey had acted beneficially upon her health and spirits, as indeed such a term of travel does upon all normally constituted people. The night had been clear and frosty. As she paced the verandah, which, as in most houses of the class, absorbed the whole front of the hotel, she was first surprised, then charmed and excited, by the view of the majestic Alpine range, the snow-covered peaks of which were glittering in the rays of the morning sun.
‘How grand! how inconceivably lovely!’ said she, half aloud; as gradually the view opened out, in a sense expanded itself before her rapturous gaze. ‘How little I expected to feast my eyes upon a scene like this! Poor Lance, poor fellow! how often such a glorious landscape as this must have comforted him in his loneliness! Perhaps he thought of me at such times; he could not help it. He used to tease me at Wychwood, I remember, about what he called my craze for scenery. I must remind him of it to-day. Yes, to-day; how strangely it sounds! I shall have to make up my mind——’ and here she seemed to fall into a musing mood, while a sigh from time to time escaped involuntarily. ‘Yes,’ she thought; ‘it would be hardly advisable to live here after we—after we were married. Reports would be sure to get abroad, and then, perhaps, if he was recaptured his punishment would be increased, and that would kill him—would kill us both indeed. I could never survive it, I feel sure.
‘Then, what would be the safer course to pursue? To go to some seaport, where they could take ship for Europe or America, as the case might be? Why should they not take their passage for San Francisco? Once landed there, who was to know Lance from any other Australian digger, numbers of whom had been backward and forward since the earliest “rush,” in 1849? Melbourne in some respects would be the better port of shipment; it was nearer, more easily reached, and there was such a mixed multitude of “pilgrims and strangers,” miners, speculators, colonists, Europeans, and foreigners, that any number of persons “illegally at large “(an expression she had caught in Melbourne) might pass unnoticed.’
The clang of the breakfast-bell put an end to her meditation, and exchanging the keen air of the outer world for a seat near the glowing fire, high piled with logs, she took the place reserved for her near her travelling companions of the previous day. The social atmosphere of the table d’ôhte was less ‘select’ than that at ‘Growlers’, but the utmost decorum nevertheless prevailed. Among the strangers to her was a middle-aged man, whom she heard addressed as Mr. Gray, and more familiarly as Con. He was a gold-buyer, about to leave for Melbourne on the following day.
‘How many ounces are you taking down this time, Con?’ asked a jocular miner at the other end of the table ‘You’ll be waited for some day, if you don’t look out.’
‘Not much this time, old man,’ said Gray. ‘But you’re right; it is a risky game, and I don’t think I’ll chance it much longer. Indeed this may be my last trip.’
‘Right you are,’ said the furnisher of the raw material. ‘I’m blessed if I’d travel that road the way you fellows do, and known to have gold on you, for all the percentage you make out of it. There’s too many cross chaps about, for my fancy and so I tell you.’
‘Well, a man must live, you know, Johnny,’ replied the gold-buyer good-humouredly. ‘But I think I’ll take your advice and cut the road after this.’
When her lover arrived, Estelle, as was natural, bent an earnest gaze upon his form and features. Neatly but plainly dressed, his stalwart figure, erect and stately, showed to great advantage among the carelessly attired loungers who thronged the entrance. His bold regard, his dark and clustering hair, his regular features, stamped him as a being of different mould, in her eyes, from the ordinary persons around them. A thickly growing beard and moustache hid the lower part of his face, and concealing much of his mouth and chin, somewhat altered (Estelle thought) the expression of his countenance. It was not wholly an improvement, though she could understand his reason for adopting the prevailing Australian fashion.
He passed carelessly into the parlour, where there were still a few people gathered around the fireplace. Putting his arm round her waist, he said jocularly, as he drew her towards him, ‘So you have recovered from your fatigue. After our long separation, it seems awfully hard on me that we should see so little of each other.’
The storekeeper’s wife smiled, and Miss Bessie giggled, as Estelle, blushing deeply, withdrew herself from his clasp, saying hurriedly, ‘I don’t think there’s any necessity for being so affectionate in public. We have a great deal to talk over and decide to-day.’
It was a strange feeling that had come over her for the moment. Added to her natural dislike to such endearments before spectators of the class then present, a curious indefinable sensation of repulsion took possession of her temporarily, as strong as it was instinctive. He drew back, with a half-angry look; then, assuming an air of injured dignity, said, ‘I ought to apologise. I forgot you hadn’t been long out from home. We don’t mind these trifles in Omeo. Do we, Mrs. Caldwell?’
‘Not when people’s engaged,’ said the matron; while Miss Bessie tossed her head, and said, ‘She thought all the gentlemen wanted keeping in their places; she’d let them know when she’d a young man of her own, that she would.’
All this was of course painful to Estelle; but fearing, from his changed expression, that she had hurt his feelings, she proceeded to make amends, after the manner of her sex, by hastily proffering concessions. The sudden thought of his melancholy life, of his wrongs and misfortunes, almost impelled her to beg his pardon in the humblest manner for the involuntary slight. Yet the thought would obtrude itself of how differently Mr. Stirling or Mr. Dalton would have acted under the same circumstances, and a sigh told how grieved she felt that any environment, how sad and mournful soever, should have obscured the refinement so inherent in the blood of Trevanion.
Prompt to redress the fancied injury, she placed her hand within his arm, saying, ‘I think the best thing we can do is to go for a nice long walk on this lovely day, and you shall show me a little of the “field,”—you see I understand diggers now,—and your hut, where you have been living all this time by yourself, you poor lonely hermit that you were.’
‘Now that’s the way to behave,’ said Mrs. Caldwell, smiling, with motherly approval; “I see you’ll know all you’ve got to do after a while—girls is flighty at first, Mr. Johnson.’
So they walked forth along the principal (and only) street of Omeo, not wholly without observation from the miscellaneous crowd of miners, teamsters, wayfarers, tradespeople, bushmen, and others, with which a mining town where gold is abundant—and such was then the stage at which Omeo had arrived—is filled up. More than one head was turned from time to time to gaze with interest and surprise at the distinguished-looking though plainly dressed girl ‘who had come up to Ballarat Harry.’
‘His luck’s in, my word,’ was the remark of a stalwart miner, who, pick on shoulder, was following a cart with his mate, conveying their worldly possessions. ‘I wonder if they’re going to live in that hut of his on the ridge. She don’t look as if she’d been used to cook in a slab fireplace, or lift the lid off a camp-oven.’
‘Camp-oven be blowed,’ rejoined his mate, who was affectionately carrying a long-handled shovel, as being too valuable an implement to be trusted in a vehicle, ‘they’re a-goin’ to Melbourne to be spliced; and most like he’ll settle there and take to gold-buying on a big scale. He’s well in, is Harry, by all accounts.’
‘It beats me what she sees in him, then—a gal like her, as might have any man in the whole bloomin’ colony, in a manner of speaking. Harry was a jolly, free-handed chap, as you’d see when he first come, but he’s got that surly and short lately as you’d hardly know him as the same man.’
‘Well, I warn’t here when he first come, but from the look of him, when I see him the other day, I shouldn’t be surprised if there was something “cronk” about him, for all his gold-buying.’
All unheeding of this careless but not inaccurate criticism, the lovers sauntered on. As they cleared the outskirts of the town, Estelle said, ‘Now you must show me your hut I must see the place where you have lived your lonely life, poor fellow. How I used to pity you, when I thought of it.’
‘There it is, on that rise—this track leads up to it. It’s such a miserable hovel, I hardly like you to see it’
‘Nonsense! you forget I’ve been to Growlers’ and Ballarat, and know all about diggings. Why, it’s the regular thing, like a shooting-box or a bothy in the Highlands. Everybody does it. Better men than you (I was going to say) live in huts. Why, this is quite a grand hut! What fine broad slabs, and a big padlock too. I thought the miners were so honest?’
‘Sometimes,’ he said; ‘not always.’
They walked, into Ballarat Harry’s hut. Estelle sat herself down on a three-legged stool by the side of the still smouldering fire, and gazed into the pile of ashes on the hearth. Here, for so many a lonely evening, had he sat and smoked and thought—ah! with what bitterness—of a lost home, a forfeited birthright, of a father’s curse, which, harmless as thistledown at first, had commenced to be so fatally prophetic. It was hard. Fate had been against him—against them from the beginning. But she would make up to him—as far as woman’s love might repair the wrongs of destiny and the cruelty of man—for this dreadful episode of his life.’
‘Oh Lance—dear Lance!’ she said; ‘how you have lived through it all I can hardly imagine.’
‘If I had not had the thoughts of you to keep me up,’ he said, looking at her with eyes of bold admiration, ‘I might have given in. But I kept always saying to myself, she will reward me, Stella will be mine when we meet, and all the past will be forgotten—and you are mine,’ he said, as he took her hand in his and made as if to exact the betrothed lover’s accustomed tribute.
But again a shrinking feeling of denial—for which she could not account—possessed her whole frame. She drew back shuddering. ‘Pray, don’t let us have any nonsense of that kind,’ she said; ‘there will be plenty of time by and by. At present, I feel as if I had so much rather hear all about your trial and the cruel unjust sentence which ruined you, and of your life in those dreadful hulks; I always wonder how you managed to escape.’
For one moment the flash of his eyes in stern displeasure reminded her vividly of bygone days and their lovers’ quarrels at Wychwood. Then he spoke, in a voice studiously free from irritation—
‘I got out through the help and managing of Tessie Lawless—a girl that cared a deal more for me than you do, if that’s the way you’re going to treat me. You’ve forgotten our old Wychwood days, I suppose. Well, as you’ll have to leave to-morrow, or next day at furthest, for Melbourne, and we go different ways, we mustn’t fall out, must we? I can wait. So we’d better talk over this journey.’
‘Now don’t be cross, my dear Lance; you must give me time. Remember, I’ve been a lonely and very sad woman for years, and all thoughts of love and marriage were put out of my head. Do tell me of your escape.’
‘Well, I DID escape,—which is the chief thing that concerns us now,—or I believe I should have hanged myself, like the fellow that was in my cell before me—or got shot, like two other men, for trying to clear out by day. What I suffered, no tongue can tell!’—here he assumed the most tragic expression possible, and groaned as if at the recollection,—‘the very thoughts of it make my blood boil.’
‘But how did this girl—Tessie Lawless, was that her name?—succeed in releasing you?’
‘Well, she persuaded a man who, I believe, was pretty sweet after her, to come one dark night with a boat to the stern of the old hulk. She sent money and bribed my warder, so I was able to get out and drop down into the boat. After I was free, she sent a man and two horses to where I could meet them, and I came up here.’
‘What a brave girl! I should like to see and thank her. She must have been a great friend of yours?’
‘Well, I suppose she thought a good deal of me in her way, poor thing. I believe she’s in Melbourne somewhere, but I’ve never seen her since.’
‘You don’t seem to have been very anxious to thank her for all the devotion and courage, I must say. It’s the way of the world, I suppose, and Australia is very like other places in essentials, I begin to suspect. And now, what are our plans to be? It will be a risk for you to remain here longer, I suppose?’
‘To be sure it will. You can’t tell what may happen. Any day I might be arrested. Our dart—our plan, I mean—is to get to Melbourne as soon as possible. You can go down with Holmes Dayton and Con Gray. A policeman goes with them as escort, and, I think, Gray’s sister-in-law. You couldn’t have a safer party. I shall go across country towards the Murray, and travel a way of my own. We can meet in Melbourne at any place you arrange, and be married at once—that is, the day before the vessel sails that we take our passage in for San Francisco. Then we’re off as Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, and no one the wiser! What do you say to that?’
‘I suppose,’ she answered slowly and reflectively, ‘that it would be the best plan.’
‘The best plan!’ he repeated, almost angrily, while a sudden flash shone from his eyes, and a frown of impatience crossed his face, which brought back old memories with magical suddenness. ‘Why, of course it is. There can’t be any other, unless I hang on here till that infernal hound Dayrell track me down. But you don’t seem to be half keen about it. Can it be’—and here he changed his voice and looked earnestly, almost pleadingly, into the girl’s face—‘that you have changed your mind? If you have, say so. I have lost home and friends—everything—I know. Am I to lose you too?’
His eyes rested on the girl with almost magnetic power. Then a blush came to her cheek, as she replied—
‘You have my promise, Lance, and the word of a Chaloner is sacred. Surely you should know that? Of course I will do as you wish. But—and here she smiled and raised her eyes pleadingly—you must not be hasty, but bear with me a little. All things are so strange, and the time is short. After all my looking forward to our meeting, you have taken me a little by surprise.’
‘Forgive me, my darling,’ he said, with well-acted warmth; ‘I was hasty, but you know the Trevanion temper—my pride was touched. And you will be ready to start to-morrow? That horse of yours (old Vernon, or whatever his name was, is no bad judge, if he picked him) is as fit for the road as when he left Melbourne. I suppose he expected to get a commission out of you?’
‘You must not talk in that way of my good old friend,’ she said gravely. ‘He was like a father to me; I can’t be too grateful to him and his dear good wife. But I shall be quite ready to start in the morning with the people you mention. I am so glad there is a girl in the party.’
As they walked back to the inn, the arrangements for meeting in Melbourne were discussed in detail and completely sketched out. She was to go to Mr. Vernon’s house, and thence, when apprised of his arrival, she would meet him at the South Yarra Church, only escorted by her friends. Mr. Vernon would ‘give her away,’ and she would ask them to keep the matter secret. The ceremony would be deferred till the day before the sailing of their vessel for Honolulu or San Francisco, as might be decided. Unless Fate intervened with unexampled unkindness, it seemed as though a burst of sunshine was about to break through the cloud of misfortune which had so long encircled them.
‘By this time to-morrow evening,’ he said, ‘you will be on your way to Melbourne. It’s lucky you’ve had so much practice lately in riding. I suppose you found it rather awkward at first?’
‘Awkward?’ she said, gazing at him with astonishment, ‘Why, you surely must have forgotten that I hunted regularly the season before you left home.’
‘Oh yes; of course—of course,’ he said. ‘But I seem to have forgotten so many things,’—here he assumed an air as of one indistinctly recalling long-past incidents. ‘Then the horses out here are so different.’
‘I don’t think that at all,’ she answered; ‘I have seen some wonderfully fine horses here. And I am sure my good old Wanderer, that I rode up, is as grand a hackney as ever was saddled. You mustn’t run down Australian horses, you know.’
‘Never mind the horses,’ he said pettishly; ‘I wish I’d never seen one, out here at any rate; and now let us settle it all, how we’re to meet, and all the rest of it. I’m to send a note to John Vernon and Company, Flinders Lane,—is that the address?—and you’ll be ready at a day’s notice, won’t you?’
‘Yes,’ she said slowly and half absently; ‘I suppose so.’
‘You see it’s this way,’ he said, coming still nearer to her and looking into her face as if to read her inmost thoughts. ‘I can’t afford to hang about Melbourne. What I’ve got to do is to find out the first steamer, take our passages as Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, then get the license: there’s a church close by the Vernons, isn’t there, where all the swells go?—Toorak, or some such name. We slip over there before lunch, and next day we’re man and wife and at sea—clear of Australia—free and safe for ever! What a sell it will be for those bloodhounds of police!’
As he spoke rapidly, his eyes gleamed with unholy triumph, carefully schooled as was the general expression of his countenance. In spite of her deep abiding sympathy for his sorrows, the girl’s gentle spirit recoiled from the savage satisfaction displayed in his closing words.
‘Oh! Lance,’ she said, ‘do not speak like that. It pains me to hear even a tone of lightness about our deliverance. If God permits it, we should be thankful all our lives. But even if there has been pursuit, these men that you so hate have only been doing what they supposed to be their duty.’
‘You are an angel,’ he said, with an air of deepest conviction and tenderness, ‘too good for me and for every one. For your sake, I suppose I must forgive these rascally traps, especially if they don’t run me down. And now, as we shan’t see each other in the morning, just one kiss before we part for the last time.’
But again she drew back; the same indefinable feeling of repulsion arose in her instinctively, as strong, as inexplicable. ‘You have not long to wait now,’ she said softly; ‘until then, you must humour all my whims. You will, Lance, won’t you?’
‘I suppose so,’ he said half sullenly; ‘women are all alike, full of fancies. But I did think you would remember old days. You used not to be so stand off and distant.’
‘We were girl and boy then,’ she said. ‘Everything seems so changed. I can hardly fancy even now that we are to be married in a fortnight, though I have come all this way to find you out. Some strange mysterious feeling stirs within me from time to time. I can hardly explain it. It is almost like a presentiment of evil.’
He laughed suddenly, and as suddenly stopped. ‘I am not changed,’ he said, ‘except by what I have gone through’; then he dropped his voice into a mournful murmur, as he carelessly and apparently by chance touched the Chaloner ring. ‘But if you can’t make up your mind; if you would like to cry off, to leave me to my fate, say so in time. Perhaps it would be better for you after all.’
‘No, Lance!’ she said, and as she spoke she raised her eyes heavenward, moist with tears of tenderest sympathy, as the thought rushed across her brain of his lonely and desperate condition, abandoned by her as by all the world. ‘We Chaloners keep faith. I am your plighted bride, and I am ready to fulfil my vow, my promise to the living and to the dead. But you must bear with a woman’s weakness and consider how little time I have to prepare. What would they say at Wychwood, I wonder?’
‘We’re in Australia, Stella, and not in England—don’t forget that,’ he answered, the frown again darkening his countenance. ‘I hope we shan’t see the old country for many a day. We must learn to forget old ways and fashions.’
‘I can never do so, wherever we may wander,’ she answered, with quiet emotion. ‘I don’t like to hear you speak of it as a thing of course, and I wish you would call me Estelle, Lance, not Stella. You never used to do so.’
‘Very well, Es-telle,’ he said, ‘I won’t do it again, if it bothers you. Stella’s a common name out here; that’s the reason, I suppose. And now, as we’re at the hotel, we’d better say good-bye. I won’t come in the morning. It’s no use making people talk; they’re ready enough, without helping them. You and that Miss Graham can get away with old Dayton to-morrow. It’s the way everybody up here travels, and nothing’s thought of it. I’ll write the moment I get down. Most likely I’ll be in Melbourne as soon as you.’
They parted with a simple hand-clasp, she gazing into his face as if to read the signs of a spirit worn and wearied with the worldly injustice. His face was calm, and betrayed no emotion other than deep regret at the departure of a friend. He tried to throw into the parting words the sentiment which the occasion demanded, but it was patently an effort, and had not the ring of truth or tenderness.
‘He is changed,’ she told herself, as she moved forward across the verandah of the hotel and sought her bedroom. ‘How changed, I could hardly have imagined. But who would not have been altered by the frightful experience he has gone through! I must try and make him happy, as some poor recompense for all his sorrows.’
Could she have noted the dark and evil expression of her companion’s face, as he lit his pipe and strode savagely along the path to his solitary hut, heard the foul oaths with which from time to time he essayed to relieve his feelings, or the vows of vengeance upon her for her coldness, she would have deemed him changed indeed.