THE MORNING of their departure rose bright and cloudless. The air was fresh and bracing, for the hoar-frost lay unthawed for hours on the wire-grass in the sheltered valleys, adown which the little cavalcade passed on the Gippsland road. The trooper, a young mounted constable of the Victorian Police, with the storekeeper, Holmes Dayton, rode in front. Then came Estelle Chaloner and her travelling companion, Janie Graham, a young girl born and nurtured in the bush, the niece of the goldbuyer Constantino Gray. She had been on a visit to Omeo (save the mark!), and was now returning to her friends. They had not gone far when Dayton, the storekeeper, turning into a forest track which ran at right angles to the main road, explained that he had occasion to meet an acquaintance on business, and would rejoin them at the next stopping-place. The trooper then fell back to effect companionship with Gray, while the girls succeeded to the leading position.
Mounted on the good steed which she had learned to love, Estelle’s spirits rose as she felt his free elastic motion. Rested by his sojourn in the inn stable, he paced fast and easily along the forest paths.
Though unable to account for the feeling, Estelle was conscious of a distinct sensation of relief, almost amounting to exhilaration. She was quitting Omeo for ever, and she looked forward with pleasurable anticipation to the few days of wayfaring which the journey to Melbourne would necessitate.
‘It will be my last week of freedom,’ she told herself. ‘I shall have to sell you, though, my poor Wanderer, you dear, good, faithful creature!’ and she patted her horse’s arching neck and pushed over a stray lock of his mane. ‘Well, wherever I go, and whenever I see the old land again, I shall never have a better horse. I have ridden some good ones in the old country, but I doubt if any one of the lot was as sure-footed, as easy, as untiring—certainly not on the food and treatment you have had to put up with. I wish I could take you home. Indeed, if we were going back in the ordinary fashion, I would take you with me, whatever it cost. It would be only buying you over again; and good horses are cheaper here, even at gold prices, than in England.
‘Now let me see,’ she continued, in soliloquy, ‘we shall be near Melbourne by the end of this week. Then, for I suppose it would be dangerous for him to wait, I must huddle up a few dresses and be married at once. Married at once!’ Here she sighed; the light died out of her eyes, and the freshness of the morn seemed to fade out of her face. How different was it from the meeting in Australia which she had promised herself in her more sanguine imaginings! Even if he had been comparatively poor, her fortune would have sufficed for all needs until he was enabled to claim his paternal heritage. But now, how immeasurably worse than poverty was his condition!—disgrace, dishonour, irrevocable, perhaps inexpiable,—possibly debarring him from ever claiming his rights! She saw herself after the vow had been sworn which bound her to a dishonoured man, a passenger in a foreign vessel, voyaging to a distant land, with perhaps dangers and privations in store of which she had no previous conception. How strange and unreal it all seemed!
But it was too late to despond—to falter. She had promised: she would perform. Shrinking with maidenly reluctance from the hasty, and in a measure clandestine, union to which she found herself committed, she felt compelled to call up all the reserves of resolution, of which she had so uncommon a portion, before she could still the instinctive dislike to the next act in the drama of her destiny.
As these thoughts—sombre, hopeful, and desponding by turns—passed through her brain, the bright spring day wore on; the babbling brooklets, through which their horses plashed ever and anon, ran clear and sparkling. As Estelle Chaloner mused over her surroundings and gazed upwards through the tall white-stemmed eucalypts which, rank upon rank, hemmed in the rugged bridle-track, looked at the trooper, the gold-buyer, the rustic damsel who was to be by day and night her closely associated companion, she could hardly realise her own identity. ‘How changed is my monde,’ she thought, ‘in the course of a few short months—my daily thoughts and feelings, my plans of the present, my prospects in the future! Am I indeed the same Estelle Chaloner who sat in the old hall at Wychwood for all the long sad autumn months, who saw the red leaves fall in those ancient woods, waiting the while for the last sands of a sick man’s life to run out? And now, where am I? and what am I? What I shall be in the future I almost tremble to think.’
Immersed in reverie, she had trusted the conduct of her horse almost entirely to his own discretion. A hackney exceptionally good in the slow paces, as are many Australian horses, the Wanderer had, for his own pleasure and satisfaction, gone forward at the top of his walking speed, which was sufficiently fast to keep her companion’s horse at a jog-trot. From time to time, at an earlier stage, the rustic maiden had laughingly protested; then Wanderer was held back. However, in this particular instance the failure of consideration was unnoticed, until Estelle was aroused by a cry from her companion, so loud and vehement in tone that she knew at once that no ordinary occurrence had called it forth.
Reining up sharply, she turned in her saddle to behold a sight which blanched her cheek and well-nigh froze the lifeblood in her veins.
From out the tangled forest growth, emerging from behind a gigantic eucalypt, two men, masked and armed, had stepped into the roadway, abreast of the gold-buyer and the trooper. A third man, half hidden by the bushes, levelled his fire-arm a few paces in the rear. Both girls sat horror-stricken on their horses as the trooper’s carbine and the fire-arms of the robbers appeared to make simultaneous reports. The gold-buyer fell heavily from his horse in the road; the trooper staggered and swayed in the saddle, dropping his reins, but recovered himself, though evidently hard hit and unable to control his horse. The wounded man rose to his knees, but at that moment one of the masked strangers rushed over and struck him over the head. Estelle’s eyes darkened, and she felt as if all sensation was leaving her; but, recovering herself, she shook her reins, and the free horse dashed down the slope leading to the creek of which they had been told, with the speed of a racer, accompanied by her terror-stricken companion, whose hackney followed suit with the instinct of his kind.
The creek was crossed almost immediately. Mile after mile fled away like a dream before either of the girls thought of drawing rein. At length, at the foot of a steep and rocky range, the horses commenced to slacken speed.
‘My God!’ said the girl, ‘did you see that? They have murdered my poor uncle! Whatever shall we do? Do you think they will come after us? Is there any house that we can go to along this horrid road? I know we shall both be killed and planted so as never to be heard of again.’
‘Let us think over our best course,’ said Estelle, aroused to the necessity of self-possession in the hour of need, and in the presence of a weaker nature. ‘I remember this range. Five miles on the other side is an inn, near a water-race. If we can get there we are safe; there seemed to be a good many people about when we passed up. But I hear horses galloping after us. Good heavens!’
They stopped, and, listening, could plainly hear the sound of more than one horse coming fast along the rocky road behind them.
‘We must turn into the wood,’ said Estelle; ‘fortunately it is thick enough to hide us until we see who are following up.’
They rode some distance into the forest, the low-growing pendent shrubs of which, the product of a damp climate and constant rainfall, were sufficiently dense to shield them from observation.
Nearer and nearer came the hoof-beats. The girls gazed anxiously through the close foliage. Then a chestnut horse came round a corner of the range, upon which sat a man whose arms were apparently helpless.
‘Great Heaven!’ said Estelle, ‘it is Beresford the police trooper. He has been wounded in the arms. See! he cannot hold the reins, poor fellow!’
‘That’s his chestnut horse,’ said the rural young lady excitedly; ‘I’d know his blaze and white stockings a mile off. But what’s follerin’ him up? I’m blessed if it ain’t poor old Uncle Con’s horse, and he’s got his pack all right and reg’lar too. Those chaps is gone cronk and done their villainy for nothing. I’m dashed if I ever see the like!’
‘We had better catch them up,’ said Estelle; ‘the Lawyers Rest is hardly five miles distant. We might help that poor Beresibrd.’
Suddenly relieved from the deadly fear of the close presence of the wretches whose deed of blood they had witnessed, the girls put their horses to full speed and overtook one fugitive before he reached the hill-top. Bending down from her saddle, the Australian maid caught the pack-horse’s bridle, bursting into tears and loud lamentation as she recognised her dead kinsman’s effects attached to different sections of the pack-saddle.
‘Poor old Uncle Con,’ she said, ‘there’s his mackintosh, his water-bag, his billy-can—all the old traps I know so well. Many a time I’ve joked him about them—so particular to have everything handy for camping, he was. He won’t camp no more, poor old man! He said it would be his last trip, and so it was. I wonder if I shall live to see those villains hanged? That old wretch Coke’s in it for one, I’ll swear.’
Scarcely had they ridden another mile when they overtook the police trooper. Partly disabled and in pain, and guiding his horse with difficulty, the deathlike pallor of his face told of weakness from loss of blood; yet he braced himself gallantly for the work that lay before him.
‘Let me hold your rein,’ said Estelle, as she rode up to his horse’s shoulder; ‘are your arms badly hurt?’
‘Riddled through and through,’ said the young fellow, groaning. ‘The brute must have loaded with slugs; my wrists feel the worst, and there’s a hole in my shoulder as well. I may get some one to ride back with me from the inn. I can’t leave poor Con dead on the road.’
The sight of the unpretentious slab edifice with a bark verandah which was dignified with the title of Lawyers’ Rest was more grateful to Estelle’s strained vision than would have been the most palatial hotel in Europe, for around it stood a dozen men, while several horses, ‘hung up’ to the palings of the little garden, testified to an unusual gathering. The trooper’s dull eye brightened at the sight, and he looked as if the spirit within him had power to overcome the weakness of the flesh. They rode up to the door, a strange cortège, in the eyes of the miners and squatters there assembled—a woman leading a horse, upon which swayed and bent forward a wounded man, while a girl followed with a pack-horse heavily laden and mud-splashed to the eyes.
As they reined up amid the excited crowd, the trooper lay forward in a deathlike swoon, and was only saved from falling by the strong arms which lifted him from the saddle and bore him tenderly to a couch.
In broken and disjointed sentences Estelle described the deed of blood, while the gold-buyer’s niece inveighed wildly against the murderers of her uncle. He was a well-known man, and a corresponding degree of indignation was aroused, while all necessary steps were taken for the relief of the fugitives.
The gold was removed, and, after being weighed in the presence of witnesses, deposited with the landlord, as also the other effects of the deceased. Wanderer and his comrades were stabled, a comfortable room prepared by the landlord’s wife for the girls, while a dozen well-armed men were ready to start for the scene of murder within ten minutes of their arrival. With them rode Trooper Beresford, recovered from his faint. Revived with eau-de-vie de Cognac, he insisted on accompanying them.
But this was a bootless errand. Beresford pointed out where the men first appeared from behind the buttress of the forest giant. The tracks were as a printed page to the experienced dwellers in the waste who stood beside him. But the gold-buyer lay dead in the centre of the road. From a gunshot wound the blood had welled forth into a pool, while his skull had been cleft with more than one stroke of an axe.
‘We’d better take him back to the shanty with us, boys,’ said one of the older men, by common consent elected to act as leader. ‘You young chaps as has got sharp eyes hunt about, and don’t leave so much as a button behind if you come across one, next or anigh him. It’s no use follerin’ the tracks for more than a bit, just to see which way they’ve headed. Beresford here ain’t fit, and if they’re the men we suspect, one of ’em’s near Mount Gibbo by this, and the rest many a mile off some other way.’
So the dead man was placed on a horse, and the party wended their way sadly back to the little hostelry with their silent blood-stained companion.
On the morrow, at a formal meeting, it was decided that a strong body of volunteers, with a black tracker, should follow up the trail of the murderers. A reward sufficiently large to tempt an accomplice was offered for information leading to a conviction, an old comrade of the dead man subscribing more than half the amount. A messenger had been despatched to the nearest police station, and the Coroner shortly arrived to hold an inquest upon the body.
This melancholy business having been completed, and a verdict of ‘wilful murder by persons unknown’ having been brought in, Estelle felt sufficiently recovered to recommence her journey. Now that she had experienced one of the dread realities of goldfields life, much of her former confidence had departed. She felt an overwhelming impatience to regain the security of civilisation, and cheerfully accepted the offer of the escort of the Coroner, who was also a police magistrate. He accompanied her as far as the next township on the way to Melbourne. There were also a couple of police troopers en route for the barracks at Jolimont, so that nothing better could be wished. At the township they fell in with a squatter and his daughter bound for Melbourne, with whom they joined forces till Toorak once more rose to view and the winding Yarra Yarra. And now this strange and terrible occurrence had passed like the horror of a dream, and Estelle Chaloner was again in Melbourne, safe under the sheltering wing of Mrs. Vernon. Awakening on the first morning in that well-ordered home, she felt as if evil-hap or danger could never menace her more. Shaken in nerve and outworn by the journey, words could faintly express the need she felt for rest. Yet a shuddering dread possessed her lest she might be destined for experiences not less terrifying and lawless in her future.
But no season of repose was as yet for her. She must risk whatever further trials fate had in store. Her word was given; the plighted vow must be kept. The life, the very soul of him to whom she was pledged to entrust all that womanhood holds most sacred, trembled in the balance. Was she, from girlish timidity, from mere nervous shrinking and feminine reluctance, to which she could not give a name, to draw back meanly from mere personal considerations? What were her wrongs and probable privations to his? The die was cast.
Early in the following week the half-expected, half-dreaded fateful letter arrived. ‘He had taken their passage,’—‘our passage,’ she repeated to herself—‘in the John T. Whitman for Callao, in the name of Mr. and Mrs. H. Johnson. He had arranged for the marriage at the little church at South Yarra, on the morning of the day the vessel was to sail. She would sail on that afternoon, and no humbug about it; he had seen the first mate and made things right with him, so his information was good. Nothing remained, then, but for his heart’s darling Estelle to hold herself in readinesss to be at St. Mark’s at the hour appointed, and all would yet be well. What he had suffered since they parted, no tongue could tell! . . . She might imagine his feelings when he became aware of the diabolical crime that had been committed. He was half-way to Melbourne when he heard of it. No doubt justice would overtake the guilty parties. ‘She had escaped—that was everything. Poor Con Gray was right when he said it should be his last trip.’
And so the day was at hand—close, inevitable! This was on Tuesday. Saturday was the day fixed for the sailing of the John T. Whitman—for the joining of two hearts, two bodies, two souls—irrevocably, eternally—in this world and the world to come. For how can the human mind realise the essential dissociation during the probation of this earthly life, or even amid the spiritualised conditions of another existence, of those once made one flesh—wedded, and welded together under the sanction of the most tremendous of human sacraments?’
Like most prospective occurrences seen dimly and afar, Estelle Chaloner had not closely analysed her feelings when the day of doom should arrive. Now, she experienced a kind of minute analysis of her sensations, distinctly painful in its intensity. She read and re-read Lance’s letter, and, among other things, marked with surprise an occasional lapse in grammar, or the use of a small letter when a capital was imperative. Even the handwriting, though more like Lance’s letters from school than his latter-day epistles, seemed cramped and laboured. ‘Poor fellow, poor fellow?’ she said softly to herself, ‘I suppose he hasn’t written much lately. Australia is a bad country for correspondence, and yet——’ here she smiled and blushed slightly as she recalled the pile of home letters she had watched Mr. Stirling despatch one Sunday morning, and her playful reference to his dutiful habits. ‘People differ in Australia, I suppose,’ she continued, ‘as in all other places. What ignorant folly it is to think otherwise!’ and again she sighed—sighed deeply; then rose from her seat half impatiently. ‘It is my fate,’ she said; ‘man or woman, who can escape their destiny?’
Of course, all Melbourne rang with the account of the Omeo Tragedy, as it was called. Every provincial paper, from one end of Australia to the other, had its moral deduction, its elaborate amplification. Murders and robberies were unhappily far from infrequent in those early days of the Gold Revolution—that social, political, and pecuniary upheaval which overturned so many preconceived opinions, and changed the destinies of states no less than individuals.
But for this special crime the horror was universal, the clamour for vengeance upon the villains who had done to death a worthy and inoffensive citizen was exceptionally loud and persistent. A friend of the murdered man offered three hundred pounds for information leading to conviction; the Government as much more. It was confidently hoped that such ‘honour among thieves’ as existed would disintegrate before so powerful a solvent.
Meanwhile Estelle found herself, to her surprise and slight annoyance, placed involuntarily in the position of a heroine. Her portrait was in the illustrated papers; not, however, limned from any miniature, but hit off from a thumb-nail sketch made by an ingenious but deeply respectful young gentleman connected with the press, during the passage of a brief interview. It had leaked out in some way, probably through her travelling companion, that Estelle was about to be married to a man connected with mining pursuits (so he was described) at Omeo. This fact was dwelt upon and emphasised as adding to the natural interest felt in the case. This version of the affair was more than distasteful to her; as, apart from her natural disinclination to be described and commented upon from every conceivable point of view, she dreaded lest the additional publicity forced upon her private affairs might prove fatal to Lance’s freedom.
The bridal preparations, however, went on. Mrs. Vernon, having once expressed her sincere regret at the sacrifice, so complete and uncalled for, which Estelle was about to make, and having withstood, not wholly unmoved, the indignant remonstrance of the high-souled maiden, remained acquiescent under protest. Their vessel, an American clipper, was visited the cabin allotted to Mr. and Mrs. Johnson criticised, but finally furnished and fitted up with many a cunning device for staving off the ills of a life on the ocean wave or lightening the ennui of a ‘home on the rolling deep.’
Finally, the very day fixed for the ceremony did arrive. Estelle appeared at breakfast pale but determined, and about eleven o’clock Mr. Vernon returned from Melbourne in a cab, prepared for paternal functions. Then this abnormally small South Yarra wedding-party drove down the Toorak Road, and, not far from the entrance of Caroline Street thereunto, alighted before the small but ornate church of St. Mark’s.
‘By the bye, Estelle,’ said Mr. Vernon suddenly (he had long since arrived at the semi-paternal stage, which included the use of her Christian name), ‘I met an old friend of yours in Melbourne, just down from the diggings.’
‘An old friend?’ she replied smilingly.
‘Well, one of your oldest in this country, excepting ourselves. Guess who it was.’
‘I am sure I cannot tell,’ she said, ‘unless it be John Polwarth. I shall always think of him as a real friend.’
‘Not very far off. Was there no one else at Growlers’? Think again.’
‘Mr. Stirling or Mr. Hastings then good and true friends both. Which of them can it be?’
‘Well, it was Charlie Stirling. His father was an old friend of mine, and a better fellow than Charlie doesn’t live.’
‘How strange! how wonderful!’ said Estelle, almost musingly. ‘To think that he should be down here before Lance goes away. Do you think he will come to see—to see—the ceremony?’ And here a blush faintly overspread her countenance.
‘He wasn’t sure. Just off the coach, and covered with mud, but would rush off to his hotel and do his best. Then he told me a piece of news about himself.’
‘What was that?’
‘Why, he had got a year’s leave of absence, and as he had made a lucky hit in the Coming Event,—a claim that’s nearly as good as Number Six, he says,—he’s going to treat himself to a run home.’
‘Going to England! Mr. Stirling going home! You don’t say so? Who would have thought it?’
‘Well, he is just the man to appreciate it thoroughly. It will improve him, as it does every Australian with the requisite amount of brains. Though I really don’t see how Charlie Stirling could be much improved—except by a good wife,’ he added thoughtfully.
‘I am sure I hope he will find one,’ Estelle replied; ‘no one is more worthy of that or any other happiness. I wonder if he will come, and whether he will think Lance much altered?’
Mr. Vernon made no reply to this latter remark. Indeed he was strongly inclined to say, ‘Confound Lance!’—or even to use a stronger expression. But he consoled himself with the conviction that it was impossible to advise women for their good—even the best of them. And thus reflecting he preceded the little party into the church.
They had purposely delayed so as to be as near the appointed hour—half-past eleven o’clock—as possible; and the half-hour chimes from the churches in the city were rhythmically audible as they entered and took their places. The gray-haired clergyman—a tall, venerable personage—advanced from the vestry and stood as expectant of the entrance of the bridegroom. As a side door opened, that personage entered from the right side of the chancel.
Mrs. Vernon gazed at the newcomer with unaffected interest. In certain respects he was a man whom no girl would have been ashamed to acknowledge—tall, erect, stalwart, his dark crisp hair and beard trimmed according to the prevailing fashion. He looked around with a quick and searching glance which apparently took in every individual in the church. Then he fixed his eyes steadily upon the group in the midst of which Estelle stood, and advanced towards his bride. He smiled as Estelle murmured his name, and hastily shook hands with Mr. and Mrs. Vernon, who seemed hardly prepared for the salutation.
There was nothing particular to find fault with in his morning suit, yet somehow Estelle could have wished one or two details altered.
The bride looked more than once towards the rear of the church, as if expectant. But the inexorable minutes fled, and walking forward, at a sign from the clergyman, she knelt before the communion rails. One gleam of triumph, which, had she caught, would have strangely disturbed her thoughts, flashed from her companion’s eyes. He knelt beside her, and the timehonoured service commenced.
Every precaution had been taken to secure secrecy in the matter of the ceremony. When the little party walked unobtrusively in and the service began, there appeared to be no spectators but those already known and invited. In some mysterious way, however, the news spread. A wedding is rarely, if ever, conducted without a few attendants not included in the original programme. Some few strangers appeared as the clergyman commenced to read the opening sentences. They were not, however, such as to attract attention. But just as the clergyman reached the words, ‘Wilt thou take this woman to be thy wedded wife?’ two men entered at one of the side doors and looked searchingly at the bridal pair. One of them gave vent to a sudden ejaculation, while the other, a tall man in police uniform, drenched and travel-stained, walked rapidly up to the altar. To the dismay of the congregation, he placed his hand on the bridegroom’s shoulder. Not less menacing and abrupt were his words than this unusual act, of such unnatural seeming in a sacred edifice—
‘Lawrence Trevenna, you are my prisoner. I charge you with the murder of a man known as Ballarat Harry, otherwise Lance Trevanion. Put up your hands,’—here the speaker’s tones became harsh and resonant,—‘or by ——! I’ll shoot you where you stand.’
At the first touch of the stranger’s hand, the bridegroom started as if to resist his captors, for by this time Charles Stirling stood by Dayrell’s side. For one moment he raised his hand as if to strike his antagonist, but as he faced the pistol level with his brow, and marked the Sergeant’s steady eye and grim, set countenance, his courage appeared to waver, then to fail utterly. He mutely acquiesced while the manacles were slipped over his unresisting hands. At this moment Estelle, who had been gazing at this strange and sudden apparition with wide eyes of wonder and alarm, uttered one piercing, heartrending shriek and fell senseless into the arms of Mrs. Vernon.
Then Mr. Vernon, hitherto silent in wonder, as were the other witnesses of the scene, moved as if to address the intruder. It was not necessary to make verbal interrogation; for, advancing a few steps and bowing to the company, he thus addressed them—
‘My excuse to you, reverend sir, and these ladies and gentlemen, must be the extremely urgent nature of my errand. My name is Francis Dayrell, a sergeant in the police force of Victoria, at present quartered at Bairnsdale. I have ridden night and day to effect this arrest, and must ask permission to congratulate the lady’s friends upon her escape from a fate too terrible to think of. This scoundrel, who has so successfully personated his victim, the late Launcelot Trevanion, is the husband of one Catharine Lawless, through whose information his villainy has been frustrated. Mr. Stirling (here he motioned to that gentleman, who advanced to where the spectators stood amazed and awe-stricken) is in possession of the facts. I leave him to make fuller explanation.’ Here Sergeant Dayrell bowed again, not without a certain ease which spoke of different experiences, and removed his prisoner.
It has been remarked that those clever people who dedicate themselves to a criminal career are prone to small oversights and inadvertent acts which often lead to their detection when success seems assured. Were it not so, such are the qualities of coolness and energy displayed by the ‘irregulars’ of society, that its virtuous members would have but little chance of survival in la lutte pour la vie. After the event every one is wise; surprised, too, that the criminal should not have perceived to what his heedlessness plainly led. The evildoer himself is even genuinely astonished when, in his interval of enforced leisure, he gains the opportunity of reviewing his ‘plan of campaign.’ He perhaps owns to the gaol chaplain that he has been ‘most imprudent’ But generally he is more concerned to establish a theory of unadulterated bad luck, and to lay the blame upon every one but himself.
Such misadventure occurred to Mr. Lawrence Trevenna—not less cautious than daring, as he had previously proved himself to be. He left home with surly abruptness, telling his ill-used wife that he was going to Monaro and might be a month or more away. She was not to expect him till she saw him, and so on. A large draft of horses to take delivery of, etc.
To these considerate explanations the woman made answer that he need not trouble himself to hurry back on her account—indeed, if he never came back she would be all the better pleased. He might spare himself the trouble of telling more lies than usual, as whatever he did say about his business would make her believe something different.
‘It would serve you right, you jade, if I never did come back,’ he ground out between his teeth, mingling the words with a savage oath. ‘I may take you at your word yet.’
‘Do so,’ she replied, ‘and I’ll go down on my knees and thank God for it. As He is my judge, if it wasn’t for the child, you’d never have seen me here a day after you struck me first. Don’t think I’ve left off cursing the day I ever set eyes on you—coward and thief—and worse that you are!’
He looked at her for one moment as she spoke, his eyes so full of murderous rage that a bystander would have thought to see him strike her to the earth. But putting strong constraint on himself, as, with a more than malevolent smile, he hade her go back to the hut and mind her baby,—‘you’re my wife now—for better, for worse, you know,’ he sneered. ‘Stay at home and mind the house while your husband’s away.’
The last part of this admonition was lost upon the person to whom it was addressed, as with one fierce glance, expressive of the last extremity of hatred and contempt, the woman passed into the hut and slammed the heavy door, while her lord and master, whistling carelessly, pressed his horse’s side and moved rapidly away.
In apparent pursuance of his proposed plan, Trevenna rode for a dozen miles down the Monaro road, then, wheeling suddenly to the eastward, struck across the bush until he picked up the track which led to Mount Gibbo. There he met by appointment Mr. Caleb Coke, and was thus enabled to arrange certain illegal enterprises upon which they had resolved to embark.
For the first few days after his departure Kate felt little else but an all-pervading sense of relief, almost amounting to absolute pleasure. Lonely and depressing as was her isolated life, miles away from any neighbour; left for weeks at a time without a soul to speak to,—as she would have expressed it,—she still had her homely and simple avocations, amid which, like many a similarly situated bush matron, she found sufficient daily occupation.
She had her baby boy,—a fine sturdy year-old fellow,—her poultry, milch cows, and small patch of garden, to all of which she addressed herself in turn. By degrees a softened expression came over her face. The hard lines died out for a little space. It may have been that she even repented of the bitter words and angry mood which had of late become habitual with her. And when in the sunset-time she caught her roan mare and rode around the paddock for the cows, carrying the laughing baby boy before her on the saddle, there was a wondrous transformation of the sullen-browed shrew of the morning.
The days passed on. The weather changed. The fresh, bright, cloudless days of the early Austral summer commenced to follow each other in unbroken peaceful beauty. The proud heart of the desolate woman was insensibly touched by the softening influences of the Great Mother. ‘Bird and bee and blossom taught her’—a lesson of self-reproach and faintly shadowed amendment.
‘Perhaps if I took him more easy like, he’d be a better man. Suppose he’d married Tessie, I wonder if he would have been different. She was always that quiet and patient with us all. She could get round Ned and bring him straight when no one else could. Anyhow I might have a try.’
Revolving good resolutions, Kate Trevenna, who, with all her faults, was energetic and most capable in household work, as are most of the bush-bred Australian girls of her class, set to work with a will and made her dwelling and everything within fifty feet of it as neat as a new pin. The forenoon having passed quickly in this occupation, she sat down to her mid-day meal,—a cup of tea, a slice of cold corned beef, with home-baked bread and butter of her own making,—when a traveller rode up. Him she knew well as a stock-rider on one of the far-out stations in the Monaro district.
‘Come in and have a cup of tea, Billy. Let your horse go for a bit,’ was the invitation by custom of the country. ‘You’ve come a good way, by the look of him. I’m all alone, you see; Larry’s gone a journey.’
‘I know that, Mrs. Trevenna,’ said the young fellow, taking off his saddle and putting a pair of hobbles on his horse before he permitted him his liberty; ‘I’ve just come from Omeo.’
‘Omeo? that’s not where he went. He’s nigh Monaro by this time, and going farther still.’
‘Well, he was in Omeo last Monday,’ said the stock-rider, ‘or some one dashed like him. They talked as if it was Ballarat Harry. I don’t know him, but anyhow Larry’s bay horse Bredbo was there, for I seen him right enough. I couldn’t be mistook about that. He was foaled near our old place.’
‘Trevenna at Omeo! Then he never went to Monaro at all!’ cried the woman, with such a look, partly of surprise and partly of wild reproach, in her eyes that the young man recoiled for an instant. Something was wrong, he saw with instinctive quickness. He made a futile effort to undo the domestic damage he felt he had brought to pass.
‘Perhaps he changed his mind,’ he suggested doubtfully.? He’s such a rum cove, is Larry. No one knows when he’s comin’ or goin’ half the time.’
‘I expect not,’ answered the woman gloomily, as if talking to herself. ‘Now look here, Billy Dykes/ she said suddenly, walking up to the man and looking into his face as if her flashing eyes could see his inmost thought, ‘you and I knowed each other this years; you tell me all you heard about Larry, and keep nothing back, as you’re a man.’
The young fellow seemed for the moment to have fallen completely under the spell of this fierce woman, whose burning eyes and passionate speech were for the moment suggestive of a disordered brain. He stared at her for a moment, and then replied—
‘There ain’t a lot to tell, Mrs. Trevenna; but I expect you have a right to hear it. He’s no man to leave you like this, and there’s more than me thinks it. He’s gone to Melbourne, that’s what’s up. Barker, the storekeeper, told me.’
‘Any one gone with him?’
‘No; not as I heard on.’
‘You’re keeping something back, Billy Dykes. Don’t try and humbug me, or I’ll—— In God’s name, tell me everything. Was there a woman in it?’
‘Well, she didn’t go with him, they said, but, in a manner of speaking, it was all the same. He followed her, and a regular tip-top young lady, by all accounts.’
‘Did you hear her name?’
‘Miss Chalmers, or Challner; something like that. Not long from England.’
‘That English girl! the cousin, of course,’ she murmured, in a strange, low-toned, hesitating voice. ‘So she’s come out after all. You’re mistook, Billy, old man; it was Lance Trevanion they seen—Mr. Trevanion, I mean—an Englishman, and very like Larry. They came out in the same ship. He was to marry this young lady, his cousin. And I know he was at Orneo.’
‘That makes it all right then. You’ve no call to fret, Mrs. Trevenna, and I’m dashed glad of it. Only what was old Bredbo doing there? I saw him, and couldn’t be mistook. No fear. I know every hair in his tail.’
‘It is queer,’ said the woman, whose countenance had cleared wondrously, ‘but, law, she may have got away from him on the road and turned up at Omeo. Anyhow, I’ll ride over and have a look. You eat your dinner now, while I go down the paddock and catch my little mare.’
The bushman addressed himself to the cold beef and damper with a sigh of relief as he watched his hostess pick up a bridle and walk rapidly across the horse-paddock.
‘She’s a hot ’un, by the Lord Harry,’ he said to himself, as he filled a pannikin of tea from the camp-kettle near the fire. ‘I wouldn’t be in Larry’s shoes for a trifle if he’s working on the cross with her. It’s a bloomin’ mixed-up fakement, anyhow. I heard as Ballarat Harry at Omeo was that like him you couldn’t scarce tell ’em apart. And of course it must be him as went down with the girL But how does Bredbo come to be there? and old Caleb Coke handy too—like an eagle-hawk shepherding a dead lamb. It looks “cronk” somehow.’
He had finished a satisfying meal, providing against future contingencies after the fashion of Captain Dugald Dalgetty (formerly of Marischal College), of happy memory, when his hostess rode up, sitting lightly yet erect on her barebacked steed, with an instinctive poise, as in the side-saddle of the period, such as only the practice of a lifetime could impart.