‘Welcome to the Hollow, Miss Marston,’ he said. ‘I can’t say how charmed I am in one sense, though I regret the necessity which brought you here.’
‘I’m glad to come, and only for poor father’s being so bad I could delight in the life here.’
‘How do you find your father?’
‘He is asleep now, and perhaps the rest will do him good.’
‘He may awake free from fever,’ says Starlight. ‘I took the risk of giving him an opiate before you came, and I think the result has been favourable.’
‘Oh! I hope he will be better when he wakes,’ says Aileen, ‘and that I shall not have to watch through another dreadful night of raving. I can hardly bear it.’
‘You must make your brothers take their share; it’s not fair to you.’
‘Thank you; but I feel as if I couldn’t leave him to anybody but myself. He seems so weak now; a little neglect might kill him.’
‘Pardon me, Miss Marston; you overrate the danger. Depend upon it, your respected parent will be quite a different man in a week, though it may be a month or more before he is fully recovered. You don’t know what a constitution he has.’
‘You have given me fresh hope,’ she said. ‘I feel quite cheered up—that is’ (and she sighed) ‘if I could be cheerful again about anything.’
Here she walked into the cave and sat down by father to watch till he awoke, and we all went out about our daily work, whatever it was—nothing very wonderful, I daresay, but it kept us from thinking.
Starlight was right. As luck would have it, father woke up a deal better than when he laid down. The fever had gone away, his head was right again, and he began to ask for something to eat—leastways to drink, first. But Aileen wouldn’t give him any of that, and very little to eat. Starlight had told her what to do in case he wanted what wasn’t good for him, and as she was pretty middling obstinate, like himself, she took her own ways.
After this he began to get right; it wasn’t easy to kill old dad. He seemed to be put together with wire and whip-cord; not made of flesh and blood like other men. I don’t wonder old England’s done so much and gone so far with her soldiers and sailors if they was bred like him. It’s my notion if they was caught young, kept well under command, and led by men they respected, a regiment or a man-of-war’s crew like him would knock smoke out of any other thousand men the world could put up. More’s the pity there ain’t some better way of keeping ’em straight than there is.
He was weak for a bit—very weak; he’d lost a deal of blood; and, try how he would, he couldn’t stand up long at a time, and had to give in and lie down in spite of himself. It fretted him a deal, of course; he’d never been on his back before, and he couldn’t put up with it. Then his temper began to show again, and Aileen had a deal to bear and put up with.
We’d got a few books, and there was the papers, of course, so she used to read to him by the hour together. He was very fond of hearing about things, and, like a good many men that can’t read and write, he was clever enough in his own way. When she’d done all the newspapers—they were old ones (we took care not to get any fresh ones, for fear she’d see about Hagan and the others)—she used to read about battles and sea-fights to him; he cared about them more than anything, and one night, after her reading to him about the battle of Trafalgar, he turned round to her and says, ‘I ought to have been in that packet, Ailie, my girl. I was near going for a sailor once, on board a man-o’-war, too. I tried twice to get away to sea, that was before I’d snared my first hare, and something stopped me both times. Once I was fetched back and flogged, and pretty nigh starved. I never did no good afterwards. But it’s came acrost me many and many a time that I’d been a different sort o’ chap if I’d had my will then. I was allays fond o’ work, and there couldn’t be too much fightin’ for me; so a man-o’-war in those days would have been just the thing to straighten me. That was the best chance I ever had. Well, I don’t say as I haven’t had others—plenty in this country, and good ones too; but it was too late—I’d got set. When a man’s young, that’s the time he can be turned right way or wrong. It’s none so easy afterwards.’
He went to sleep then, and Aileen said that was the only time he ever spoke to her in that way. We never heard him talk like that, nor nobody else, I expect.
If we could have got some things out of our heads, that was the pleasantest time ever we spent in the Hollow. After father could be left by himself for a few hours we got out the horses, and used to take Aileen out for long rides all over the place, from one end to the other. It did her good, and we went to every hole and corner in it. She was never tired of looking at the great rock towers, as we used to call ’em, where the sandstone walls hung over, just like the pictures of castles, till, Starlight said, in the evenings you could fancy you saw flags waving and sentinels walking up and down on them.
One afternoon we went out to the place where the old hermit had lived and died. We walked over his old garden, and talked about the box we’d dug up, and all the rest of it. Starlight came with us, and he persuaded Aileen to ride Rainbow that day, and, my word, they made a splendid pair.
She’d dressed herself up that afternoon just a little bit more than common, poor thing, and put a bit of pink ribbon on and trimmed up her hat, and looked as if she began to see a little more interest in things. It didn’t take much to make her look nice, particularly on horseback. Her habit fitted her out and out, and she had the sort of figure that, when a girl can ride well, and you see her swaying, graceful and easy-like, to every motion of a spirited horse, makes you think her handsomer than any woman can look on the ground. We rode pretty fast always, and it brought a bit of colour to her face. The old horse got pulling and prancing a bit, though he was that fine-tempered he’d carry a child almost, and Jim and I thought we hadn’t seen her look like herself before this for years past.
It was a beautiful warm evening, though summer was over, and we were getting into the cold nights and sharp mornings again, just before the regular winter weather. There was going to be a change, and there were a few clouds coming up from the north-west; but for all that it had been quite like a spring day. The turf on all the flats in the Hollow was splendid and sound. The grass had never been cut up with too heavy stocking (which ruins half the country, I believe), and there was a good thick undergrowth underneath. We had two or three little creeks to cross, and they were pretty full, except at the crossing places, and rippled over the stones and sparkled in the sun like the brooks we’d heard tell of in the old country. Everything was so quiet, and bright and happy-looking, that we could hardly fancy we were the men we were; and that all this wild work had been going on outside of the valley that looked so peaceful and innocent.
There was Starlight riding alongside of Aileen on his second-best horse, and he was no commoner either (though he didn’t come up to Rainbow, nor no other horse I ever saw), talking away in his pleasant, easy-going way. You’d think he hadn’t got a thing to trouble him in the world. She, for a wonder, was smiling, and seemed to be enjoying herself for once in a way, with the old horse arching his neck, and spinning along under her as light as a greyhound, and as smooth as oil. It was something like a pleasant ride. I never forgot that evening, and I never shall.
We rode up to the ruined hut of the solitary man who had lived there so long, and watched the sun go down so often behind the rock towers from his seat under the big peach tree.
‘What a wonderful thing to think of!’ Aileen says, as she slipped down off her side-saddle.
We dismounted, too, and hung up our horses.
‘Only to think that he was living here before we were born, or father came to Rocky Flat. Oh! if we could have come here when we were little how we should have enjoyed it! It would have seemed fairyland to us.’
‘It always astonishes me,’ said Starlight, ‘how any human being can consent to live, year after year, the same life in the same place. I should go mad half-a-dozen times over. Change and adventure are the very breath of my nostrils.’
‘He had the memory of his dead wife to keep him,’ said Aileen. ‘Her spirit soothed the restless heart that would have wandered far into the wilds again.’
‘It may be so,’ said Starlight dreamily. ‘I have known no such influences. An outlaw I, by forest laws, almost since the days of my boyhood, I shall be so till the day of my death,’ he added.
‘If I were a man I should go everywhere,’ said Aileen, her eyes sparkling and her face regular lighted up. ‘I have never been anywhere or seen anything, hardly so much as a church, a soldier, a shop-window, or the sea, begging his pardon for putting him last. But oh! what a splendid thing to be rich; no, not that altogether, but to be able to go wherever you liked, and have enough not to be troubled about money.’
‘To be free, and have a mind at ease; it doesn’t seem so much,’ said Starlight, talking almost to himself; ‘and yet how we fools and madmen shut ourselves out of it for ever, for ever, sometimes by a single act of folly, hardly crime. That comes after.’
‘The sun is going down behind the great rock tower,’ Aileen says, as if she hadn’t heard him. Perhaps she didn’t. When people have a lot on their minds they’re half their time thinking their own thoughts. ‘How all the lovely colours are fading away. Life seems so much like that—a little brightness, then gray twilight, night and darkness so soon after.’
‘Now and then there’s a star; you must admit that, Miss Marston,’ says he, cheerful and pleasant again; he was never down for long at a time. ‘And there’s that much-abused luminary, the moon; you’ll see her before we get home. We’re her sworn votaries and worshippers, you know.’
We had to ride a bit to get home with any kind of light, for we didn’t want father to be growling or kicking up a row with Warrigal that we left to look after him. But a few miles didn’t matter much on such a road, and with horses in such buckle as ours.
The stars came out after a while, and the sky was that clear, without a cloud in it, that it was a better light to ride by than the moon throws. Jim and I sometimes rode on one side and sometimes the other; but there was old Rainbow always in the lead, playing with his bit and arching his neck, and going with Aileen’s light weight on him as if he could go on all night at the same pace and think nothing of it; and I believe he could.
When we got home dad was grumpy, and wondered what we wanted riding the horses about when there was nothing to do and nothing to see. But Warrigal had made him a pot of tea, and he was able to smoke now; so he wasn’t so bad after all. We made ourselves pretty comfortable—Aileen said she’d got a good appetite, for a wonder—and we sat chatting round the fire and talking away quite like old days till the moon was pretty high.
Father didn’t get well all at once. He went back twice because he would try to do too much, and wouldn’t be said by Starlight or Aileen either when he took a thing into his head; then he’d have to be nursed and looked after day and night again just the same as ever. So it took near a month before he was regularly on his pins again, and going about as he did before he was hit. His right arm was a bit stiff, too; it used to pain and make him swear awful now and again. Anyhow, Aileen made us that comfortable and happy while she was there, we didn’t care how long he took getting well.
Those were out and out the pleasantest days we ever spent in the Hollow—the best time almost Jim and I had had since we were boys. Nearly every day we rode out in the afternoon, and there wasn’t a hole or corner, a spring or a creek inside the walls of the old Hollow that we didn’t show Aileen. She was that sort of girl she took an interest in everything; she began to know all the horses and cattle as well as we did ourselves. Rainbow was regular given up to her, and the old horse after a bit knew her as well as his master. I never seen a decent horse that didn’t like to have a woman on his back; that is, if she was young and lissom and could ride a bit. They seem to know, in a sort of way. I’ve seen horses that were no chop for a man to ride, and that wouldn’t be particular about bucking you off if the least thing started them, but went as quiet as mice with a girl on their backs.
So Aileen used to make Rainbow walk and amble his best, so that all the rest of us, when she did it for fun, had to jog. Then she’d jump him over logs or the little trickling deep creeks that ran down to the main water; or she’d pretend to have a race and go off full gallop, riding him at his best for a quarter of a mile; then he’d pull up as easy as if he’d never gone out of a walk.
‘How strange all this is,’ she said one day; ‘I feel as if I were living on an island. It’s quite like playing at “Robinson Crusoe”, only there’s no sea. We don’t seem to be able to get out all the same. It’s a happy, peaceful life, too. Why can’t we keep on for ever like this, and shut out the wicked, sorrowful world altogether?’
‘Quite of your opinion, Miss Marston; why should we ever change?’ says Starlight, who was sitting down with the rest of us by the side of our biggest river. We had been fishing all the afternoon and done well. ‘Let us go home no more; I am quite contented. But what about poor Jim? He looks sadder every day.’
‘He is fretting for his wife, poor fellow, and I don’t wonder. You are one of those natures that never change, Jim; and if you don’t get away soon, or see some chance of rejoining her, you will die. How you are to do it I don’t know.’
‘I am bound to make a try next month,’ says Jim. ‘If I don’t do something towards it I shall go mad.’
‘You could not do a wiser thing,’ says Starlight, ‘in one way, or more foolish thing in another. Meantime, why should we not make the best of the pleasant surroundings with which Nature provides us here—green turf, sparkling water, good sport, and how bright a day! Could we be more favoured by Fortune, slippery dame that she is? It is an Australian Decameron without the naughty stories.’
‘Do you know, sometimes I really think I am enjoying myself,’ said Aileen, half to herself, ‘and then I feel that it must be a dream. Such dreadful things are waiting for me—for us all.’ Then she shuddered and trembled.
She did not know the most dreadful thing of all yet. We had carefully kept it from her. We chanced its not reaching her ears until after she had got home safe and had time to grieve over it all by herself.
We had a kind of feeling somehow that us four might never meet again in the same way, or be able to enjoy one another’s company for a month, without fear of interruption, again, as long as we lived.
So we all made up our minds, in spite of the shadow of evil that would crawl up now and then, to enjoy each other’s company while it lasted, and make the best of it.
Starlight for all that seemed altered like, and every now and then he’d go off with Warrigal and stay away from daylight to dark. When he did come he’d sit for hours with his hands before him and never say a word to any one. I saw Aileen watch him when he looked like that, not that she ever said anything, but pretended to take it as a matter of course.
Other times he’d be just as much the other way. He’d read to her, and he had a good many books, poetry, and all kinds of things stowed away in the part of the cave he called his own. And he’d talk about other countries that he’d been in, and the strange people he’d seen, by the hour together, while she would sit listening and looking at him, hardly saying a thing, and regular bound up in his words. And he could talk once he was set agoing. I never saw a man that could come up to him.
Aileen wasn’t one of those sort of girls that took a fancy to any good-looking sort of fellow that came across her. Quite the other way. She seemed to think so little about it that Jim and I always used to say she’d be an old maid, and never marry at all. And she used to say she didn’t think she ever would. She never seemed to trouble her head about the thing at all, but I always knew that if ever she did set her fancy upon a man, and take a liking to him, it would not be for a year or two, but for ever. Though she’d mother’s good heart and softness about her, she’d a dash of dad’s obstinacy in her blood, and once she made up her mind about anything she wasn’t easy turned.
Jim and I could see clear enough that she was taking to Starlight; but then so many women had done that, had fallen in love with him and had to fall out again—as far as we could see. He used to treat them all alike—very kind and respectful, but like a lot of children. What was the use of a wife to him? ‘No,’ he said, once or twice, ‘I can bear my fate, because my blood does not run in the veins of a living soul in Australia. If it were otherwise I could not bear my reflections. As it is, the revolver has more than once nearly been asked to do me last service.’
Though both Aileen and he seemed to like each other, Jim and I never thought there was anything in it, and let them talk and ride and walk together just as they pleased. Aileen always had a good word for Starlight, and seemed to pity him so for having to lead such a life, and because he said he had no hope of ever getting free from it. Then, of course, there was a mystery about him. Nobody knew who he’d been, or almost where he had come from—next to nothing about him had ever come out. He was an Englishman—that was certain—but he must have come young to the colony. No one could look at him for a moment and see his pale, proud face, his dark eyes—half-scornful, half-gloomy, except when he was set up a bit (and then you didn’t like to look at them at all)—without seeing that he was a gentleman to the tips of his delicate-looking fingers, no matter what he’d done, or where he’d been.
He was rather over the middle size; because he was slight made, he always looked rather tall than not. He was tremendous strong, too, though he didn’t look that, and as active as a cat, though he moved as if walking was too much trouble altogether, and running not to be thought of.
We didn’t expect it would do either of ’em much good. How could it, even if they did fall in love with one another and make it up to get married? But they were both able to take care of themselves, and it was no use interfering with ’em either. They weren’t that sort.
Starlight had plenty of money, besides his share of the gold. If we could ever get away from this confounded rock-walled prison, good as it was in some ways; and if he and Aileen and the rest of us could make a clean dart of it and get to America, we could live there free and happy yet, in spite of all that had come and gone.
Aileen wasn’t like to leave poor old mother as long as she wanted her, so it couldn’t come off for a year or two at earliest, and many things were sure to happen in the meanwhile. So we let all the talking and walking and riding out in the evening go on as much as they pleased, and never said anything or seemed to take any notice at all about it.
All this time mother was at George Storefield’s. When Aileen ran over that time, he said it wasn’t fit for them to live at Rocky Flat by themselves. So he went over that very day—like a good fellow, as he was—and brought over the old woman, and made them both stay at his house, safe and comfortable. When Aileen said she had to go away to nurse dad he said he would take care of mother till she came back, and so she’d been there all the time. She knew Mrs. Storefield (George’s mother) well in the old times; so they used to sit by the kitchen fire when they wanted to be extra comfortable, and knit stockings and talk over the good old times to their hearts’ content.
If it hadn’t been for old Mrs. Storefield I don’t expect mother would have contented herself there—the cottage was got so grand, Aileen told us, and Gracey had to dress a bit now. George had kept on making more money in every way he tried it, and of course he began, bit by bit, to live according to his means.
He’d bought cattle-stations on the Lachlan just when the gold broke out first, and everybody thought station property was never going to be worth nothing again. Now, since cattle had risen and meat and all to such a price, he was making money hand over fist. More than that, as I said before, he’d been made a magistrate, and all the swells began to take notice of him—not altogether because he’d made money either; what I call the real swells, as far as I see, won’t do that. If they don’t care for a man—no matter how much money he’s made—they hold shy of him. But if he’s a straight-going good sort of fellow, that has his head screwed on the right way, and don’t push himself forward too much, they’ll meet him half-way, and a very good thing too.
We could see George was going upwards and out of our lot, beginning to mix with different people and get different notions—not but what he was always kind and friendly in his way to Aileen and mother, and would have been to us if he’d ever seen us. But all his new friends were different kind of people, and after a bit, Aileen said, we’d only be remembered as people he’d known when he was young, and soon, when the old lady died, we’d be asked into the kitchen and not into the parlour. Aileen used to laugh when she talked like this, and say she’d come and see George when he’d married a lady, and what fun it would be to remind Gracey of the time they threshed the oats out together at Rocky Flat. But still, laugh and all, I could see, though she talked that way, it made her feel wretched all the while, because she couldn’t help thinking that we ought to have done just as well as George, and might have been nigh-hand as far forward if we’d kept straight. If we’d only kept straight! Ah, there was where the whole mistake lay.
It often seems to me as if men and women ought to have two lives—an old one and a new one—one to repent of the other; the first one to show men what they ought to keep clear of in the second. When you think how foolish-like and childish man or woman commits their first fault, not so bad in itself, but enough often to shut them out from nearly all their chances of good in this world, it does seem hardish that one life should end all under the sun. Of course, there’s the other, and we don’t know what’s coming, but there’s so many different notions about that a chap like me gets puzzled, and looks on it as out of his line altogether.
We weren’t sorry to have a little excuse to stop quiet at home for this month. We couldn’t have done no good by mooching about, and ten to one, while the chase was so hot after all that were supposed to have had a hand in rubbing out Hagan and his lot, we should have been dropped upon. The whole country was alive with scouting parties, as well as the regulars. You’d have thought the end of the world was come. Father couldn’t have done a better thing for himself and all of us than get hit as he did. It kept him and us out of harm’s way, and put them off the scent, while they hunted Moran and Burke and the rest of their lot for their lives. They could hardly get a bit of damper out of a shepherd’s hut without it being known to the police, and many a time they got off by the skin of their teeth.