Story type: Literature
“It’s time I set about making my own living,” said Dot Burton.
She spoke resolutely, and her face was resolute also; its young lines were for the moment almost grim. She stood in the doorway of the stable, watching her brother rub down the animal he had just been riding. Behind her the rays of the Australian sun smote almost level, making of her fair hair a dazzling aureole of gold. The lashes of her blue eyes were tipped with gold also, but the brows above them were delicately dark. They were slightly drawn just then, as if she were considering a problem of considerable difficulty.
Jack Burton was frankly frowning over his task. It was quite evident that his sister’s announcement was not a welcome one.
She continued after a moment, as he did not respond in words: “I am sure I could make a living, Jack. I’m not the ‘new chum’ I used to be, thanks to you. You’ve taught me a whole heap of things.”
Jack glanced up for a second. “Aren’t you happy here?” he said.
She eluded the question. “You’ve been awfully good to me, dear old boy. But really, you know, I think you’ve got burdens enough without me. In any case, it isn’t fair that I should add to them.”
Jack grunted. “It isn’t fair that you should do more than half the work on the place and not be paid for it, you mean. You’re quite right, it isn’t.”
“No, I don’t mean that, Jack.” Quite decidedly she contradicted him. “I don’t mind work. I like to have my time filled. I love being useful. It isn’t that at all. But all the same, you and Adela are quite complete without me. Before you were married it was different. I was necessary to you then. But I’m not now. And so–“
“Has Adela been saying that to you?”
Jack Burton straightened himself abruptly. His expression was almost fierce.
Dot laughed at sight of it. “No, Jack, no! Don’t be so jumpy! Of course she hasn’t. As if she would! She hasn’t said a thing. But I know how she feels, and I should feel exactly the same in her place. Now do be sensible! You must see my point. I’m getting on, you know, Jack. I’m twenty-five. Just fancy! You’ve sheltered me quite long enough–too long, really. You must–you really must–let me go.”
He was looking at her squarely. “I can’t prevent your going,” he said, gruffly. “But it won’t be with my consent–ever–or my approval. You’ll go against my will–dead against it.”
“Jack–darling!” She went to him impulsively and took him by the shoulders. “Now that isn’t reasonable of you. It really isn’t. You’ve got to take that back.”
He looked at her moodily. “I shan’t take it back. I can’t. I am dead against your going. I know this country. It’s not a place for lone women. And you’re not much more than a child, whatever you may say. It’s rough, I tell you. And you”–he looked down upon her slender fairness–“you weren’t made for rough things.”
“Please don’t be silly, Jack!” she broke in. “I’m quite as strong as the average woman and, I hope, as capable. I’m grown up, you silly man! I’m old–older than you are in some ways, even though you have been in the world ten years longer. Can’t you see I want to stretch my wings?”
“Want to leave me?” he said, and put his arms suddenly about her. She nestled to him on the instant, lifting her face to kiss him.
“No, darling, no! Never in life! But–you must see–you must see”–her eyes filled with tears unexpectedly, and she laid her head upon his shoulder to hide them–“that I can’t–live on you–for ever. It isn’t fair–to you–or to Adela–or to–to–anyone else who might turn up.”
“Ah!” he said. “Or to you either. We’ve no right to make a slave of you. I know that. Perhaps Adela hasn’t altogether realized it.”
“I’ve nothing–whatever–against Adela,” Dot told him, rather shakily. “She has never been–other than kind. No, it is what I feel myself. I am not necessary to you or to Adela, and–in a way–I’m glad of it. I like to know you two are happy. I’m not a bit jealous, Jack, not a bit. It’s just as it should be. But you’ll have to let me go, dear. It’s time I went. It’s right that I should go. You mustn’t try to hold me back.”
But Jack’s arms had tightened about her. “I hate the thought of it,” he said. “Give it up! Give it up, old girl–for my sake!”
She shook her head silently in his embrace.
He went on with less assurance. “If you wanted to get married it would be a different thing. I would never stand in the way of your marrying a decent man. If you must go, why don’t you do that?”
She laughed rather tremulously. “You think every good woman ought to marry, don’t you, Jack?”
“When there’s a good man waiting for her, why not?” said Jack.
She lifted her head and looked at him. “I’m not going to marry Fletcher Hill, Jack,” she said, with firmness.
Jack made a slight movement of impatience. “I never could see your objection to the man,” he said.
She laughed again, drawing herself back from him. “But, Jack darling, a woman doesn’t marry a man just because he’s not objectionable, does she? I always said I wouldn’t marry him, didn’t I?”
“You might do a lot worse,” said Jack.
“Of course I might–heaps worse. But that isn’t the point. I think he’s quite a good sort–in his own sardonic way. And he is a great friend of yours, too, isn’t he? That fact would count vastly in his favour if I thought of marrying at all. But, you see–I don’t.”
“I call that uncommon hard on Fletcher,” observed Jack.
She opened her blue eyes very wide. “My dear man, why?”
“After waiting for you all this time,” he explained, suffering his arms to fall away from her.
She still gazed at him in astonishment. “Jack! But I never asked him to wait!”
He turned from her with a shrug of the shoulders. “No, but I did.”
“You did? Jack, what can you mean?”
Jack stooped to feel one of his animal’s hocks. He spoke without looking at her. “It’s been my great wish–all this time. I’ve been deuced anxious about you often. Australia isn’t the place for unprotected girls–at least, not out in the wilds. I’ve seen–more than enough of that. And you’re no wiser than the rest. You lost your head once–over a rotter. You might again. Who knows?”
“Oh, really, Jack!” The girl’s face flushed very deeply. She turned it aside instinctively, though he was not looking at her. But the colour died as quickly as it came, leaving her white and quivering.
She stood mutely struggling for self-control while Jack continued. “I know Fletcher. I know he’s sound. He’s a man who always gets what he wants. He wouldn’t be a magistrate now if he didn’t. And when I saw he wanted you, I made up my mind he should have you if I could possibly work it. I gave him my word I’d help him, and I begged him to wait a bit, to give you time to get over that other affair. He’s been waiting–ever since.”
Dot’s hands clenched slowly. She spoke with a great effort. “Then he’d better stop waiting–at once, Jack, and marry someone else.”
“He won’t do that,” said Jack. He stood up again abruptly and faced round upon her. “Look here, dear! Why can’t you give in and marry him? He’s such a good sort if you only get to know him well. You’ve always kept him at arm’s length, haven’t you? Well, let him come a bit nearer! You’ll soon like him well enough to marry him. He’d make you happy, Dot. Take my word for it!”
She met his look bravely, though the distress still lingered in her eyes. “But, dear old Jack,” she said, “no woman can possibly love at will.”
“It would come afterwards,” Jack said, with conviction. “I know it would. He’s such a good chap. You’ve never done him justice. See, Dot girl! You’re not happy. I know that. You want to stretch your wings, you say. Well, there’s only one way of doing it, for you can’t go out into the world–this world–alone. At least, you’ll break my heart if you do. He’s the only fellow anywhere near worthy of you. And he’s been so awfully patient. Do give him his chance!”
He put his arm round her shoulders again, holding her very tenderly.
She yielded herself to him with a suppressed sob. “I’m sure it would be wrong, Jack,” she said.
“Not a bit wrong!” Jack maintained, stoutly. “What have you been waiting for all this time? A myth, an illusion, that can never come true! You’ve no right to spoil your own life and someone else’s as well for such a reason as that. I call that wrong–if you like.”
She hid her face against him with a piteous gesture. “He–said he would come back, Jack.”
Jack frowned over her bowed head even while he softly stroked it. “And if he had–do you think I would ever have let you go to him? A cattle thief, Dot! An outlaw!”
She clung to him trembling. “He saved my life–at the risk of his own,” she whispered, almost inarticulately.
“Oh, I know–I know. He was that sort–brave enough, but a hopeless rotter.” Jack’s voice held a curious mixture of tenderness and contempt. “Women always fall in love with that sort of fellow,” he said. “Heaven knows why. But you’d no right to lose your heart to him, little ‘un. You knew–you always knew–he wasn’t the man for you.”
She clung to him in silence for a space, then lifted her face. “All right, Jack,” she said.
He looked at her closely for a moment. “Come! It’s only silly sentiment,” he urged. “You can’t feel bad about it after all this time. Why, child, it’s five years!”
She laughed rather shakily. “I am a big fool, aren’t I, Jack? Yet–somehow–do you know–I thought he meant to come back.”
“Not he!” declared Jack. “Catch Buckskin Bill putting his head back into the noose when once he had got away! He’s not quite so simple as that, my dear. He probably cleared out of Australia for good as soon as he got the chance. And a good thing, too!” he added, with emphasis. “He’d done mischief enough.”
She raised her lips to his. “Thank you for not laughing at me, Jack,” she said. “Don’t–ever–tell Adela, will you? I’m sure she would.”
He smiled a little. “Yes, I think she would. She’d say you were old enough to know better.”
Dot nodded. “And very sensible, too. I am.”
He patted her shoulder. “Good girl! Then that chapter is closed. And–you’re going to give poor Fletcher his chance?”
She drew a sharp breath. “Oh, I don’t know. I can’t promise that. Don’t–don’t hustle me, Jack!”
He gave her a hard squeeze and let her go. “There, she shan’t be teased by her horrid bully of a brother! She’s going to play the game off her own bat, and I wish her luck with all my heart.”
He turned to the job of feeding his horse, and Dot, after a few inconsequent remarks, sauntered away in the direction of the barn, “to be alone with herself,” as she put it.
Adela Burton was laying the cloth for supper, and looking somewhat severe over the process. She was usually cheerful at that hour of the day, for it brought her husband back from his work and, thanks to Dot’s ministrations, the evening was free from toil. It was seldom, indeed, that Adela bestirred herself to lay the cloth for any meal, for she maintained that it was better for a girl like Dot to have plenty to do at all times, and she herself preferred her needlework, at which she was an adept.
No one could have called her an idle woman, but she was eminently a selfish one. She followed her own bent, quite regardless of the desires and inclinations of anyone else. She was the hub of her world from her own point of view, and she was wholly incapable of recognizing any other. Most people realized this and, as is the way of humanity, took her at her own valuation, making allowances for her undoubted egotism. For she was comely and had a taking manner, never troubling herself unless her own personal convenience were threatened. She laughed a good deal, though her sense of humour was none of the finest, and she was far too practical to possess any imagination. In short, as she herself expressed it, she was sensible; and, being so, she had small sympathy with her sister-in-law’s foolish sentimentalities, which she considered wholly out of place in the everyday life at the farm.
Not that Dot ever dreamed of confiding in her. She sheltered herself invariably behind a reserve so delicate as to be almost imperceptible to the elder woman’s blunter susceptibilities. But she could not always hide the fineness of her inner feelings, and there were times when the two clashed in consequence. The occasions were rare, but Adela had come to know by experience that when they occurred, opposition on her part was of no avail. Dot was bound to have her way when her soul was stirred to battle for it, as on the day when she had refused to let Robin, the dog, be chained up when not on duty with the sheep. Adela had objected to his presence in the house, and Dot had firmly insisted upon it on the score that Robin had always been an inmate as the companion and protector of her lonely hours.
Adela had disputed the point with some energy, but she had been vanquished, and now, when Dot asserted herself, she seldom met with opposition from her sister-in-law. It was practically impossible that they should ever be fond of one another. They had nothing in common. Yet it was very seldom that Jack saw any signs of strain between them. They dwelt together without antagonism and without intimacy.
Nevertheless, Dot’s announcement of her desire to go out into the world and hew a way for herself came as no surprise to him. He knew that she was restless and far from happy, knew that his marriage had unsettled her, albeit in a fashion he had not fathomed till their talk together. His young sister was very dear to him. She had been thrown upon his care years before when the death of their parents had left her dependent upon him. It had always been his wish to have her with him. His love for her was of a deep, almost maternal nature, and he hated the thought of parting with her. He had hoped that the companionship of Adela would have been a joy to her, and he was intensely disappointed that it had proved otherwise. His anxiety for her welfare had always been uppermost with him, and it hurt him somewhat when Adela laughed at his hopes and fears regarding the girl. It was the only point upon which his wife and he lacked sympathy.
Entering by way of the kitchen premises on that evening of his talk with Dot, he was surprised to find Adela fulfilling what had come to be regarded as Dot’s duties. He looked around him questioningly as she emerged from the larder carrying a dish in one hand and a jug of milk in the other.
“Where’s the little ‘un?” he said.
It was his recognized pet name for Dot, but for some reason Adela had never approved of it. She frowned now at its utterance.
“Do you mean Dot? Oh, mooning about somewhere, I suppose. And leaving other people to do the work.”
Jack promptly relieved her of her burden and set himself to help her with her task.
Adela was not ill-tempered as a rule. She smiled at him. “Good man, Jack! No one can say you’re an idler, anyway. I’ve got rather a nice supper for you. I shouldn’t wonder if Fletcher Hill turns up to share it. I hear he is on circuit at Trelevan.”
“I heard it, too,” said Jack. “He’s practically sure to come.”
“He’s very persistent,” said Adela. “Do you think he will ever win out?”
Jack nodded slowly. “I’ve never known him fail yet in anything he set his mind to–at least, only once. And that was a fluke.”
“What sort of a fluke?” questioned Adela, who was frankly curious.
“When Buckskin Bill slipped through his fingers.” Jack spoke thoughtfully. “That’s the only time I ever knew him fail, and I’m not sure that it wasn’t intentional then.”
“Intentional!” Adela opened her eyes.
Jack smiled a little. “I don’t say it was so. I only say it was possible. But never mind that! It’s an old story, and the man got away, anyhow–disappeared, dropped out. Possibly he’s dead. I hope he is. He did mischief enough in a short time.”
“He set the whole district humming, didn’t he?” said Adela. “They say all the women fell in love with him at sight. I wish I’d seen him.”
Jack broke into a laugh. “You’d certainly have fallen a victim!”
She tossed her head. “I’m sure I shouldn’t. I prefer respectable men. Shall we lay an extra plate in case Mr. Hill turns up?”
“No,” said Jack. “Let him come unexpectedly!”
She gave him a shrewd look. “You think Dot will like that best?”
He nodded again. “Be careful! She’s coming. Here’s Robin!”
Robin came in, wagging his tail and smiling, and behind him came Dot. She moved slowly, as if dispirited. Jack’s quick eyes instantly detected the fact that she had been shedding tears.
“You’re too late, little ‘un,” he said, with kindly cheeriness. “The work is all done.”
She looked from him to Adela. “I’m sorry I’m late,” she said. “I’m afraid I forgot about supper.”
“Oh, you’re in love!” joked Adela. “You’ll forget to come in at all one of these days.”
The girl gave her a swift look, but said nothing, passing through with a weary step on her way to her own room.
Robin followed her closely, as one in her confidence; and Jack laid a quiet hand on his wife’s arm.
“Don’t laugh at her!” he said.
She stared at him. “Good gracious, Jack! What’s the matter? I didn’t mean anything.”
“I know you didn’t. But this thing is serious. If Fletcher Hill comes to-night, I believe she’ll have him–that is, if she’s let alone. But she won’t if you twit her with it. It’s touch and go.”
Jack spoke with great earnestness. It was evident that the matter was one upon which he felt very strongly, and Adela shrugged a tolerant shoulder and yielded to his persuasion.
“I’ll be as solemn as a judge,” she promised. “The affair certainly has hung fire considerably. It would be a good thing to get it settled. But Fletcher Hill! Well, he wouldn’t be my choice!”
“He’s a fine man,” asserted Jack.
“Oh, I’ve no doubt. But he’s an animal with a nasty bite, or I am much mistaken. However, let Dot marry him by all means if she feels that way! It’s certainly high time she married somebody.”
She turned aside to put the teapot on the hob, humming inconsequently, and the subject dropped.
Jack went to his room to wash, and in a few minutes more they gathered round the supper-table with careless talk of the doings of the day.
It had always been Dot’s favourite time, the supper-hour. In the old days before Jack’s marriage she had looked forward to it throughout the day. The companionship of this beloved brother of hers had been the chief joy of her life.
But things were different now. It was her part to serve the meal, to clear the table, and to wash the dishes Jack and Adela were complete without her. Though they always welcomed her when the work was done, she knew that her society was wholly unessential, and she often prolonged her labours in the scullery that she might not intrude too soon upon them. She was no longer necessary to anyone–except to Robin the faithful, who followed her as her shadow. She had become Number Three, and she was lonely–she was lonely!
There came a sound of hoofs thudding over the pastures. Robin lifted his eyebrows and cocked his ears with a growl.
Dot barely glanced up from the saucepan she was cleaning; her lips tightened a little, that was all.
The hoofs drew rapidly nearer, dropping from a canter to a quick trot that ended in a clattering walk on the stones of the yard. Through the open window Dot heard the heavy thud of a man’s feet as he jumped to the ground.
Then came Jack’s voice upraised in greeting. “Hallo, Fletcher! Come in, man! Come in! Delighted to see you.”
The voice that spoke in answer was short and clipped. Somehow it had an official sound. “Hallo, Jack! Good evening, Mrs. Burton! What! Alone?”
Jack laughed. “Dot’s in the kitchen. Hi! little ‘un! Bring some drinks!”
Robin was on his feet, uttering low, jerky barks. Dot put aside her saucepan and began to wash her hands. She did not hasten to obey Jack’s call, but when she turned to collect glasses on a tray she was trembling and her breath came quickly, as if from violent exercise.
Nevertheless she did not hesitate, but went straight through to the little parlour, carrying her tray with the jingling glasses upon it.
Fletcher Hill was facing her as she entered, a tall man, tough and muscular, with black hair that was tinged with grey, and a long stubborn jaw that gave him an indomitable look. His lips were thin and very firm, with a sardonic twist that imparted a faintly supercilious expression. His eyes were dark, deep-set, and shrewd. He was a magistrate of some repute in the district, a position which he had attained by sheer unswerving hard work in the police force, in which for years he had been known as “Bloodhound Hill.” A man of rigid ideas and stern justice, he had forced his way to the front, respected by all, but genuinely liked by only a very few.
Jack Burton had regarded him as a friend for years, but even Jack could not claim a very close intimacy with him. He merely understood the man’s silences better than most. His words were very rarely of a confidential order.
He was emphatically not a man to attract any girl very readily, and Dot’s attitude towards him had always been of a strictly impersonal nature. In fact, Jack himself did not know whether she really liked him or not. Yet had he set his heart upon seeing her safely married to him. There was no other man of his acquaintance to whom he would willingly have entrusted her. For Dot was very precious in his eyes. But to his mind Fletcher Hill was worthy of her, and he believed that she would be as safe in his care as in his own.
That Fletcher Hill had long cherished the silent ambition of winning her was a fact well known to him. Only once had they ever spoken on the subject, and then the words had been few and briefly uttered. But to Jack, who had taken the initiative in the matter, they had been more than sufficient to testify to the man’s earnestness of purpose. From that day he had been heart and soul on Fletcher’s side.
He wished he could have given him a hint that evening as he looked up to see the girl standing in the doorway; for Dot was so cold, so aloof in her welcome. He did not see what Hill saw at the first glance–that she was quivering from head to foot with nervous agitation.
She set down her tray and gave her hand to the visitor. “Doesn’t Rupert want a drink?” she said.
Rupert was his horse, and his most dearly prized possession. Hill’s rare smile showed for a moment at the question.
“Let him cool down a bit first,” he said. “I am afraid I’ve ridden him rather hard.”
She gave him a fleeting glance. “You have come from Trelevan?”
“Yes. I got there this afternoon. We left Wallacetown early this morning.”
“Rode all the way?” questioned Jack.
“Yes, every inch. I wanted to see the Fortescue Gold Mine.”
“Ah! There’s a rough crowd there,” said Jack. “They say all the uncaught criminals find their way to the Fortescue Gold Mine.”
“Yes,” said Hill.
“Is it true?” asked Adela, curiously.
“I am not in a position to say, madam.” Hill’s voice sounded sardonic.
“That means he doesn’t know,” explained Jack. “Look here, man! If you’ve ridden all the way from Wallacetown to-day you can’t go back to Trelevan to-night. Your animal must be absolutely used up–if you are not.”
“Oh, I think not. We are both tougher than that.” Hill turned towards him. “Don’t mix it too strong, Jack! I hardly ever touch it except under your roof.”
“I am indeed honoured,” laughed Jack. “But if you’re going to spend the night you’ll be able to sleep it off before you face your orderly in the morning.”
“Do stay!” said Adela, hastening to follow up her husband’s suggestion. “We should all like it. I hope you will.”
Hill bowed towards her with stiff ceremony. “You are very kind, madam. But I don’t like to give trouble, and I am expected back.”
“By whom?” questioned Jack. “No one that counts, I’ll swear. Your orderly won’t break his heart if you take a night out. He’ll probably do the same himself. And no one else will know. We’ll let you leave as early as you like in the morning, but not before. Come, that’s settled, isn’t it? Go and get Rupert a shake-down, little ‘un, and give him a decent feed with plenty of corn in it! No, let her, man; let her! She likes doing it, eh, Dot girl?”
“Yes, I like it,” Dot said, and hurriedly disappeared before Hill could intervene.
Jack turned to his wife. “Now, missis! Go and make ready upstairs! It’s only a little room, Fletcher, but it’s snug. That’s the way,” as his wife followed Dot’s example. “Now–quick, man! I want a word with you.”
“Obviously,” said the magistrate, dryly. “You needn’t say it, thanks all the same. I’ll leave that drink till–afterwards.”
He straightened his tall figure with an instinctive bracing of the shoulders, and turned to the door.
Jack watched him go with a smile that was not untinged with anxiety, and lifted his glass as the door closed.
“You’ve got the cards, old feller,” he said. “May you play ’em well!”
Fletcher Hill stepped forth into the moonlit night and stood still. It had been a swift maneuvre on Jack’s part, and it might have disconcerted a younger man and driven him into ill-considered action. But it was not this man’s nature to act upon impulse. His caution was well known. It had been his safeguard in many a difficulty. It stood him in good stead now.
So for a space he remained, looking out over the widespread grasslands, his grim face oddly softened and made human. He was no longer an official, but a man, with feelings rendered all the keener for the habitual restraint with which he masked them.
He moved forward at length through the magic moonlight, guided by the sound of trampling hoofs in the building where Jack’s horse was stabled. He reached the doorway, treading softly, and looked in.
Dot was in a stall with his mount Rupert–a powerful grey, beside which she looked even lighter and daintier than usual. The animal was nibbling carelessly at her arm while she filled the manger with hay. She was talking to him softly, and did not perceive Hill’s presence. Robin, who sat waiting near the entrance, merely pricked his ears at his approach.
Some minutes passed. Fletcher stood like a sentinel against the doorpost. He might have been part of it for his immobility. The girl within continued to talk to the horse while she provided for his comfort, low words unintelligible to the silent watcher, till, as she finished her task, she suddenly threw her arms about the animal’s neck and leaned her head against it.
“Oh, Rupert,” she said, and there was a throb of passion in her words, “I wish–I wish you and I could go right away into the wilderness together and never–never come back!”
Rupert turned his head and actually licked her hair. He was a horse of understanding.
She uttered a little sobbing laugh and tenderly kissed his nose. “You’re a dear, sympathetic boy! Who taught you to be, I wonder? Not your master, I’m sure! He’s nothing but a steel machine all through!”
And then she turned to leave the stable and came upon Fletcher Hill, mutely awaiting her.
THE COAT OF MAIL
She gave a great start at sight of him, then quickly drew herself together.
“You have come to see if Rupert is all right for the night?” she said. “Go in and have a look at him.”
But Fletcher made no movement to enter. He faced her with a certain rigidity. “No. I came to see you–alone.”
She made a sharp movement that was almost a gesture of protest. Then she turned and drew the door softly shut behind her. Robin came and pressed close to her, as if he divined that she stood in need of some support. With her back to the closed door and the moonlight in her eyes, she stood before Fletcher Hill.
“What do you want to say to me?” she said.
He bent slightly towards her. “It is not a specially easy thing, Miss Burton,” he said, “when I am more than half convinced that it is something you would rather not hear.”
She met his look with unflinching steadiness. “I think life is made up of that sort of thing,” she said. “It’s like a great puzzle that never fits. I’ve been saying–unwelcome things–to-day, too.”
She smiled, but her lips were quivering. The man’s hands slowly clenched.
“That means you’re unhappy,” he said.
She nodded. “I’ve been telling Jack that I must get away–go and earn my own living somewhere. He won’t hear of it.”
“I can understand that,” said Fletcher Hill. “I wouldn’t–in his place.”
She kept her eyes steadfastly raised to his. “Do you know what Jack wants me to do?” she said.
“Yes.” Hill spoke briefly, almost sternly. “He wants you to marry me.”
She nodded again. “Yes.”
He held out his hand to her abruptly. “I want it, too,” he said.
She made no movement towards him. “That is what you came to say?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Hill.
He waited a moment; then, as she did not take his hand, bent with a certain mastery and took one of hers.
“I’ve wanted it for years,” he said.
“Ah!” A little sound like a sob came with the words. She made as if she would withdraw her hand, but in the end–because he held it closely–she suffered him to keep it. She spoke with an effort. “I–think you ought to understand that–that–it is not my wish to marry at all. If–if Jack had stayed single, I–should have been content to live on here for always.”
“Yes, I know,” said Hill. “I saw that.”
She went on tremulously. “I’ve always felt–that a woman ought to be able to manage alone. It’s very kind of you to want to marry me. But–but I–I think I’m getting too old.”
“Is that the only obstacle?” asked Hill.
She tried to laugh, but it ended in a sound of tears. She turned her face quickly aside. “I can’t tell you–of any other,” she said, with difficulty, “except–except–“
“Except that you don’t like me much?” he suggested dryly. “Well, that doesn’t surprise me.”
“Oh, I didn’t say that!” She choked back her tears and turned back to him. “Let’s walk a little way together, shall we? I–I’ll try and explain–just how I feel about things.”
He moved at once to comply. They walked side by side over the close-cropped grass. Dot would have slipped her hand free, but still he kept it.
They had traversed some yards before she spoke again, and then her voice was low and studiously even.
“I can’t pretend to you that there has never been anyone else. It wouldn’t be right. You probably wouldn’t believe me if I did.”
“Oh, I gathered that a long time ago,” Hill said.
“Yes, of course you did. You always see everything, don’t you? It’s your specialty.”
“I don’t go about with my eyes shut, certainly,” said Hill.
“I’m glad of that,” Dot said. “I would rather you knew about it. Only”–her voice quivered again–“I don’t know how to tell you.”
“You are sure you would rather I knew?” he said.
“Yes.” She spoke with decision. “You’ve got to know if–if–” She broke off.
“If we are going to be married?” he suggested.
“Yes,” whispered Dot.
Hill walked a few paces in silence. Then, unexpectedly, he drew the nervous little hand he held through his arm. “Well, you needn’t tell me any more,” he said. “I know the rest.”
She started and stood still. There was quick fear in the look she threw him. “You mean Jack told you–“
“No, I don’t,” said Hill. “Jack has never yet told me anything I couldn’t have told him ages before. I knew from the beginning. It was the fellow they called Buckskin Bill, wasn’t it?”
She quivered from head to foot and was silent.
Hill went on ruthlessly. “First, by a stroke of luck, he saved you from death by snake-bite. He always had the luck on his side, that chap. I should have caught him but for that. I’d got him–I’d got him in the hollow of my hand. But you”–for the first time there was a streak of tenderness in his speech–“you were a new chum then–you held me up. Remember how you covered his retreat when we came up? Did you really think I didn’t know?”
She uttered a sobbing laugh. “I was very frightened, too. I always was scared at the law.”
Hill nodded. He also was grimly smiling.
“But you dared it. You’d have dared anything for him that day. He always got the women on his side.”
She winced a little.
“It’s true,” he asserted. “I know what happened–as well as if I’d seen it. He made love to you in a very gallant, courteous fashion. I never saw Buckskin Bill, but I believe he was always courteous when he had time. And he promised to come back, didn’t he–when he’d given up being a thief and a swindler and had turned his hand to an honest trade? All that–for your sake!… Yes, I thought so. But, my dear child, do you really imagine he meant it–after all these years?”
She looked at him with a piteous little smile. “He–he’d be worth having–if he did, wouldn’t he?” she said.
“I wonder,” said Hill.
He waited for a few moments, then laid his hand upon her shoulder with a touch that seemed to her as heavy as the hand of the law.
“I can’t help thinking,” he said, “that you’d find a plain man like myself more satisfactory to live with. It’s for you to decide. Only–it seems a pity to waste your life waiting for someone who will never come.”
She could not contradict him. The argument was too obvious. She longed to put that steady hand away from her, but she felt physically incapable of doing so. An odd powerlessness possessed her. She was as one caught in a trap.
Yet after a second or two she mustered strength to ask a question to which she had long desired an answer. “Did you ever hear any more of him?”
“Not for certain. I believe he left the country, but I don’t know. Anyway, he found this district too hot to hold him, for he never broke cover in this direction again. I should have had him if he had.”
Fletcher Hill spoke with a grim assurance. He was holding her before him, one hand on her shoulder, the other grasping hers. Abruptly he bent towards her.
“Come!” he said. “It’s going to be ‘Yes,’ isn’t it?”
She looked up at him with troubled eyes. Suddenly she shivered as if an icy blast had caught her. “Oh, I’m frightened!” she said. “I’m frightened!”
“Nonsense!” said Hill.
He drew her gently to him and held her. She was shaking from head to foot. She began to sob, hopelessly, like a lost child.
“Don’t!” he said. “Don’t! It’s all right. I’ll take care of you. I’ll make you happy. I swear to God I’ll make you happy!”
It was forcibly spoken, and it showed her more of the man’s inner nature than she had ever seen before. Almost in spite of herself she was touched. She leaned against him, fighting her weakness.
“It isn’t–fair to you,” she murmured at last.
“That’s my affair,” said Hill.
She kept her face hidden from him, and he did not seek to raise it; but there was undoubted possession in the holding of his arms.
After a moment or two she spoke again. “What will you do if–if you find you’re not–happy with me?”
“I’ll take my chance of that,” said Fletcher Hill. He added, under his breath, “I’ll be good to you–in any case.”
That moved her. She lifted her face impulsively. “You–you are much nicer than I thought you were,” she said.
He bent to her. “It isn’t very difficult to be that,” he said, with a somewhat sardonic touch of humour. “I haven’t a very high standard to beat, have I?”
It was not very lover-like. Perhaps, he feared to show her too much of his soul just then, lest he seem to be claiming more than she was prepared to offer. Perhaps that reserve of his which clothed him like a coat of mail was more than even he could break through. But so it was that then–just then, when the desire of his heart was actually within his grasp, he contented himself with taking a very little. He kissed her, indeed, though it was but a brief caress–over before her quivering lips could make return; nor did he seek to deter her as she withdrew herself from his arms.
She stood a moment, looking small and very forlorn. Then she turned to retrace her steps.
“Shall we go back?” she said.
He went back with her in silence till they reached the gate that led into the yard. Then for a second he grasped her arm, detaining her.
“It is–‘Yes?’” he questioned.
She bent her head in acquiescence, not looking at him. “Yes,” she said, in a whisper.
And Fletcher let her go.
THE LOST ROMANCE
Jack looked in vain for any sign of elation on his friend’s face when he entered. He read nothing but grim determination. Dot’s demeanour also was scarcely reassuring. She seemed afraid to lift her eyes.
“Isn’t it nearly bed-time?” she murmured to Adela as she passed.
Adela looked at her with frank curiosity. There were no fine shades of feeling about Adela. She always went straight to the point–unless restrained by Jack.
“Oh, it’s quite early yet,” she said, wholly missing the appeal in the girl’s low-spoken words. “What have you two been doing? Moonshining?”
Fletcher looked as contemptuous as his immobile countenance would allow, and sat down by his untouched drink without a word.
But it took more than a look to repress Adela. She laughed aloud. “Does that mean I am to draw my own conclusions, Mr. Hill? Would you like me to tell you what they are?”
“Not for my amusement,” said Hill, dryly. “Where did you get this whisky from, Jack? I hope it’s a legal brand.”
“I hope it is,” agreed Jack. “I don’t know its origin. I got it through Harley. You know him? The manager of the Fortescue Gold Mine.”
“Yes, I know him,” said Hill. “He is retiring, and another fellow is taking his place.”
“Retiring, is he? I thought he was the only person who could manage that crowd.” Jack spoke with surprise.
Hill took out his pipe and began to fill it. “He’s got beyond it. Too much running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. They need a younger man with more decision and resource–someone who can handle them without being afraid.”
“Have they got such a man?” questioned Jack.
“They believe they have.” Hill spoke thoughtfully. “He’s a man from the West, who has done some tough work in the desert, but brought back more in the way of experience than gold. He’s been working in the Fortescue Mine now for six months, a foreman for the past three. Harley tells me the men will follow him like sheep. But for myself, I’m not so sure of him.”
“Not sure of him? What are you afraid of? Whisky-running?” asked Jack, with a twinkle.
There was no answering gleam of humour on Hill’s face. “I never trust any man until I know him,” he said. “He may be sound, or he may be a scoundrel. He’s got to prove himself.”
“You take a fatherly interest in that mine,” observed Jack.
“I have a reason,” said Fletcher Hill, briefly.
“Ah! Ever met Fortescue himself?”
“Once or twice,” said Hill.
“Pretty badly hated, isn’t he?” said Jack.
“By the blackguards, yes.” Hill spoke with characteristic grimness. “He’s none the worse for that.”
“All the better, I should say,” remarked Adela. “But what is he like? Is he an old man?”
“About my age,” said Hill.
“I wish you’d give us an introduction to him,” she said, with animation. “I’ve always wanted to see that mine. You’d like to, too, wouldn’t you, Dot?”
Dot started a little. She had been sitting quite silent in the background.
“I expect it would be quite interesting,” she said, as Hill looked towards her. “But perhaps it wouldn’t be very easy to manage it.”
“I could arrange it if you cared to go,” said Hill.
“Could you? How kind of you! But it would mean spending the night at Trelevan, wouldn’t it? I–I think we are too busy for that.” Dot glanced at her brother in some uncertainty.
“Oh, it could be managed,” said Jack, kindly. “Why not? You don’t get much fun in life. If you want to see the mine, and Hill can arrange it, it shall be done.”
“Thank you,” said Dot.
Adela turned towards her. “My dear, do work up a little enthusiasm! You’ve sat like a mute ever since you came in. What’s the matter?”
Dot was on her feet in a moment. This sort of baiting, good-natured though it was, was more than she could bear. “I’ve one or two jobs left in the kitchen,” she said. “I’ll go and attend to them–if no one minds.”
She was gone with the words, Adela’s ringing laugh pursuing her as she closed the door. She barely paused in the kitchen, but fled to her own room. She could not–no, she could not–face the laughter and congratulations that night.
She flung herself down upon her bed and lay there trembling like a terrified creature caught in a trap. Her brain was a whirl of bewildering emotions. She knew not which way to turn to escape the turmoil, or even if she were glad or sorry for the step she had taken. She wondered if Hill would tell Jack and Adela the moment her back was turned, and dreaded to hear the sound of her sister-in-law’s footsteps outside her door.
But no one came, and after a time she grew calmer. After all, though in the end she had made her decision somewhat suddenly, it had not been an unconsidered one. Though she could not pretend to love Fletcher Hill, she had a sincere respect for him. He was solid, and she knew that her future would be safe in his hands. The past was past, and every day took her farther from it. Yet very deep down in her soul there still lurked the memory of that past. In the daytime she could put it from her, stifle it, crowd it out with a multitude of tasks; but at night in her dreams that memory would not always be denied. In her dreams the old vision returned–tender, mocking, elusive–a sunburnt face with eyes of vivid blue that looked into hers, smiling and confident with that confidence that is only possible between spirits that are akin. She would feel again the pressure of a man’s lips on the hollow of her arm–that spot which still bore the tiny mark which once had been a snake-bite. He had come to her in her hour of need, and though he was a fugitive from justice, she would never forget his goodness, his readiness to serve her, his chivalry. And while in her waking hours she chid herself for her sentimentality, yet even so, she had not been able to force herself to cast her brief romance away.
Ah, well, she had done it now. The way was closed behind her. There could be no return. It was all so long ago. She had been little more than a child then, and now she was growing old. The time had come to face the realities of life, to put away the dreams. She believed that Fletcher Hill was a good man, and he had been very patient. She quivered a little at the thought of that patience of his. There was a cast-iron quality about it, a forcefulness, that made her wonder. Had she ever really met the man who dwelt within that coat of mail? Could there be some terrible revelation in store for her? Would she some day find that she had given herself to a being utterly alien to her in thought and impulse? He had shown her so little–so very little–of his soul.
Did he really love her, she wondered? Or had he merely determined to win her because it had been so hard a task? He was a man who revelled in overcoming difficulties, in asserting his grim mastery in the face of heavy odds. He was never deterred by circumstances, never turned back from any purpose upon the accomplishment of which he had set his mind. His subordinates were afraid to tell him of failure. She had heard it said that Bloodhound Hill could be a savage animal when roused.
There came a low sound at her door, the soft turning of the handle, Jack’s voice whispered through the gloom.
“Are you asleep, little ‘un?”
She started up on the bed. “Oh, Jack, come in, dear! Come in!”
He came to her, put his arms about her, and held her close. “Fletcher’s been telling me,” he whispered into her ear. “Adela’s gone to bed. It’s quite all right, little ‘un, is it? You’re not–sorry?”
She caught the anxiety in the words as she clung to him. “I–don’t think so,” she whispered back. “Only I–I’m rather frightened, Jack.”
“There’s no need, darling,” said Jack, and kissed her very tenderly. “He’s a good fellow–the best of fellows. He’s sworn to me to make you happy.”
She was trembling a little in his hold. “He–doesn’t want to marry me yet, does he?” she asked, nervously.
He put a very gentle hand upon her head. “Don’t funk the last fence, old girl!” he said, softly. “You’ll like being married.”
“Ah!” She was breathing quickly. “I am not so sure. And there’s no getting back, is there, Jack? Oh, please, do ask him to wait a little while! I’m sure he will. He is very kind.”
“He has waited five years already,” Jack pointed out. “Don’t you think that’s almost long enough, dear?”
She put a hand to her throat, feeling as if there were some constriction there. “He has been speaking to you about it! He wants you to–to persuade me–to–to make me–“
“No, dear, no!” Jack spoke very gravely. “He wants you to please yourself. It is I who think that a long delay would be a mistake. Can’t you be brave, Dot? Take what the gods send–and be thankful?”
She tried to laugh. “I’m an awful idiot, Jack. Yes, I will–I will be brave. After all, it isn’t as if–as if I were really sacrificing anything, is it? And you’re sure he’s a good man, aren’t you? You are sure he will never let me down?”
“I am quite sure,” Jack said, firmly. “He is a fine man, Dot, and he will always set your happiness before his own.”
She breathed a short sigh. “Thank you, Jack, I feel better. You’re wonderfully good to me, dear old boy. Tell him–tell him I’ll marry him as soon as ever I can get ready! I must get a few things together first, mustn’t I?”
Jack laughed a little. “You look very nice in what you’ve got.”
“Oh, don’t be silly!” she said. “If I’m going to live at Wallacetown–Wallacetown, mind you, the smartest place this side of Sydney–I must be respectably clothed. I shall have to go to Trelevan, and see what I can find.”
“You and Adela had better have a week off,” said Jack, “and go while Fletcher is busy there. You’ll see something of him in the evenings then.”
“What about you?” she said, squeezing his arm.
“Oh, I shall be all right. I’m expecting Lawley in from the ranges. He’ll help me. I’ve got to learn to do without you, eh, little ‘un?” He held her to him again.
She clasped his neck. “It’s your own doing, Jack; but I know it’s for my good. You must let me come and help you sometimes–just for a holiday.” Her voice trembled.
He kissed her again with great tenderness. “You’ll come just whenever you feel like it, my dear,” he said. “And God bless you!”
THE WAY TO HAPPINESS
On account of its comparative proximity to the gold mine, Trelevan, though of no great size, was a busy place. Dot had stayed at the hotel there with her brother on one or two occasions, but it was usually noisy and crowded, and, unlike Adela, she found little to amuse her in the type of men who thronged it. Fletcher Hill always stayed there when he came to Trelevan. The police court was close by, and it suited his purpose; but he mixed very little with his fellow-guests and was generally regarded as unapproachable–a mere judicial machine with whom very few troubled to make acquaintance.
Fletcher Hill in the role of a squire of dames was a situation that vastly tickled Adela’s sense of humour. As she told Jack, it was going to be the funniest joke of her life.
Neither Hill nor his grave young fiancee seemed aware of any cause for mirth, but with Adela that was neither here nor there. She and Dot never had anything in common, and as for Fletcher Hill, he was the driest stick of a man she had ever met. But she was not going to be bored on that account. To give Adela her due, boredom was a malady from which she very rarely suffered.
She was in the best of spirits on the evening of their arrival at Trelevan. The rooms that Fletcher Hill had managed to secure for them led out of each other, and the smaller of them, Dot’s looked out over the busiest part of the town. As Adela pointed out, this was an advantage of little value at night, and it could be shared in the daytime.
Dot said nothing. She was used to her sister-in-law’s cheerful egotism, and Adela had never hesitated to invade her privacy if she felt so inclined. Her chief consolation was that Adela was a very sound sleeper, so that there was small chance of having her solitude disturbed at night.
She herself was not sleeping so well as usual just then. A great restlessness was upon her, and often she would pace to and fro like a caged thing for half the night. She was not actively unhappy, but a great weight seemed to oppress her–a sense of foreboding that was sometimes more than she could bear.
Fletcher Hill’s calm countenance as he welcomed them upon their arrival reassured her somewhat. He was so perfectly self-controlled and steady in his demeanour. The very grasp of his hand conveyed confidence. She felt as if he did her good.
They dined together in the common dining-room, but at a separate table in a corner. There were many coming and going, and Adela was frankly interested in them all. As she said, it was so seldom that she had the chance of studying the human species in such variety. When the meal was over she good-naturedly settled herself in a secluded corner and commanded them to leave her.
“There’s something in the shape of a glass-house at the back,” she said. “I don’t know if it can be called a conservatory. But anyhow I should think you might find a seat and solitude there, and that, I conclude, is what you most want. Anyhow, don’t bother about me! I can amuse myself here for any length of time.”
They took her at her word, though neither of them seemed in any hurry to depart. Dot lingered because the prospect of a tete-a-tete in a strange place, where she could not easily make her escape if she desired to do so, embarrassed her. And Hill waited, as his custom was, with a grim patience that somehow only served to increase her reluctance to be alone with him.
“Run along! It’s getting late,” Adela said at last. “Carry her off, Mr. Hill! You’ll never get her to make the first move.”
There was some significance in words and smile. Dot stiffened and turned sharply away.
Hill followed her, and outside the room she waited for him.
“Do you know the way?” she asked, without looking at him.
He took her by the arm, and again she had a wayward thought of the hand of the law. She knew now what it felt like to be marshalled by a policeman. She almost uttered a remark to that effect, but, glancing up at him, decided that it would be out of place. For the man’s harsh features were so sternly set that she wondered if Adela’s careless talk had aroused his anger.
She said nothing, therefore, and he led her to the retreat her sister-in-law had mentioned in unbroken silence. It was certainly not a very artistic corner. A few straggling plants in pots decorated it, but they looked neglected and shabby. Yet the thought went through her, it might have been a bower of delight had they been in the closer accord of lovers who desire naught but each other.
The place was deserted, lighted only by a high window that looked into a billiard-room. The window was closed, but the rattle of the balls and careless voices of the players came through the silence. A dusty bench was let into the wall below it.
“Do you like this place?” asked Fletcher Hill.
She glanced around her with a little nervous laugh. “It’s as good as any other, isn’t it?”
His hand still held her arm. He bent slightly, looking into her face. “I’ve been wanting to talk to you,” he said.
“Have you?” She tried to meet his look, but failed. “What about?” she said, almost in a whisper.
He bent lower. “Dot, are you afraid of me?” he said.
That brought her eyes to his face with a jerk. “I–I–no–of course not!” she stammered, in confusion.
“Quite sure?” he said.
She collected herself with an effort. “Quite,” she told him with decision, and met his gaze with something of a challenge in her own.
But he disconcerted her the next moment. She felt again the man’s grim mastery behind the iron of his patience. “I want to talk to you,” he said, “about our marriage.”
“Ah!” It was scarcely more than a sharp intake of the breath, and as it escaped again Dot turned white to the lips. His close scrutiny became suddenly more than she could bear, and she turned sharply from him.
He kept his hand upon her arm, but he made no further effort to restrain her, merely waiting mutely for her to speak.
In the room behind them there came the smart knocking of the balls, and a voice cried, “By Jove, he’s fluked again! It’s the devil’s own luck!”
Dot flinched a little. The careless voice jarred upon her. Her nerves were all on edge. Fletcher Hill’s hand was like a steel trap, cold and firm and merciless. She longed to wrench herself free from it, yet felt too paralysed to move.
And still he waited, not urging her, yet by his very silence making her aware of a compulsion she could not hope to resist for long.
She turned to him at last in desperation. “What–have you to suggest?” she asked.
“I?” he said. “I shall be ready at the end of the week–if that will suit you.”
She gazed at him blankly. “The end of the week! But of course not–of course not! You are joking!”
“No, I am serious,” Fletcher said. “Sit down a minute and let me explain!”
Then, as she hesitated, he very gently put her down upon the seat under the closed window, and stood before her, blocking her in.
“I have been wanting this opportunity of talking to you,” he said, “without Jack chipping in. He’s a good fellow, and I know he is on my side. But I have a fancy for scoring off my own bat. Listen, Dot! I am not suggesting anything very preposterous. You have promised to marry me. Haven’t you?”
“Yes,” she whispered, breathlessly. “Yes.”
“Yes,” he repeated. “And the longer you have to think about it, the more scared you will get. My dear child, what is the point of spinning it out in this fashion? You are going through agonies of mind–for nothing. If I gave you back your freedom, you wouldn’t be any happier, would you?”
She was silent.
“Would you?” he said again, and laid his hand upon her shoulder.
“I–don’t think so,” she said, faintly.
He took up her words again with magisterial emphasis. “You don’t think so. Well, there is every reason to suppose you wouldn’t. You weren’t happy before, were you?”
She gripped her courage with immense effort. “I haven’t been happy–since,” she said.
He accepted the statement without an instant’s discomfiture. “I know you haven’t. I realized that the moment I saw you. You have been suffering the tortures of the damned because you’re in a positive hell of indecision. Oh, I know all about it.” His hand moved a little upon her shoulder; it almost seemed to caress her. “I haven’t studied human nature all these years for nothing. I know you’re in a perfect fever of doubt, and it’ll go on till you’re married. What’s the good of it? Why torture yourself like this when the way to happiness lies straight before you? Are you hoping against hope that something may yet turn up to prevent our marriage? Would you be happy if it did? Answer me!”
But she shrank from answering, sitting with her hands clasped tightly before her and her eyes downcast like a prisoner awaiting sentence. “I don’t know–what I want,” she told him, miserably. “I feel–as if–whatever I do–will be wrong.”
“That’s just it,” said Fletcher Hill, as if that were the very admission he had been waiting for. And then he did what for him was a very curious thing. He went down upon one knee on the dusty floor, bringing his face on a level with hers, clasping her tense hands between his own. “You don’t trust yourself, and you won’t trust me,” he said. “Isn’t that it? Or something like it?”
The official air had dropped from him like a garment. She looked at him doubtfully, almost as if she suspected him of trying to trick her. Then, reassured by something in the harsh countenance which his voice and words utterly failed to express, she leaned impulsively forward with a swift movement of surrender and laid her head against his shoulder.
“I’ll do–whatever you wish,” she said, in muffled tones. “I will trust you! I do trust you!”
He put his arm around her, for she was trembling, and held her so for a space in silence.
The voice in the billiard-room took up the tale. “That fellow’s luck is positively prodigious. He can’t help scoring–whatever he does. He’d dig gold out of an ash heap.”
Someone laughed, and there came again the clash of the billiard-balls, followed in a second by a shout of applause.
The noise subsided, and Fletcher spoke. “My job here will be over in a week. Jack can manage to join us at the end of it. Your sister-in-law is already here. Why not finish up by getting married and returning to Wallacetown with me?”
“I should have to go back to the farm and get the rest of my things,” said Dot.
“You could do that afterwards,” he said, “when I am away on business. I shan’t be able to take you with me everywhere. Some of the places I have to go to would be too rough for you. But I shall be at Wallacetown for some weeks after this job. You have never seen my house there. I took it over from the last Superintendent. I think you’ll like it. I got it for that reason.”
She started a little. “But you didn’t know then–How long ago was it?”
“Three years,” said Fletcher Hill. “I’ve been getting it ready for you ever since.”
She looked up at him. “You–took a good deal for granted, didn’t you?” she said.
Fletcher was smiling, dryly humorous. “I knew my own mind, anyway,” he said.
“And you’ve never had–any doubts?” questioned Dot.
“Not one,” said Fletcher Hill.
She laid her hand on his arm with a shy gesture. “I hope you won’t be dreadfully disappointed in me,” she said.
He bent towards her, and for a moment she felt as if his keen eyes pierced her. “I don’t think that is very likely,” he said, and kissed her with the words.
She did not shrink from his kiss, but she did not return it; nor did he linger as if expecting any return.
He was on his feet the next moment, and she wondered with a little sense of chill if he were really satisfied.
They found Adela awaiting them in her corner, but chafing for a change.
“I want you to take us to the billiard-room,” she said to Fletcher. “There’s a great match on. I’ve heard a lot of men talking about it. And I adore watching billiards. I’m sure we shan’t be in the way. I’ll promise not to talk, and Dot is as quiet as a mouse.”
Fletcher considered the point. “I believe it’s a fairly respectable crowd,” he said, looking at Dot. “But you’re tired.”
“Oh, no,” she said at once. “I don’t feel a bit sleepy. Let us go in by all means if you think no one will mind! I like watching billiards, too.”
“It’s a man called Warden,” said Adela. “That’s the new manager of the Fortescue Gold Mine, isn’t it? They say he has the most marvelous luck. He is playing the old manager–Harley, and giving him fifty points. There’s some pretty warm betting going on, I can tell you. Do let us go and have a look at them! They’ve got the girl from the bar to mark for them, so we shan’t be the only women there.”
She was evidently on fire for this new excitement, and Fletcher Hill, seeing that Dot meant what she said, led the way without further discussion. He paused outside the billiard-room door, which stood ajar; for a tense silence reigned. But it was broken in a moment by the sharp clash of the balls and a perfect howl of enthusiasm from the spectators.
“Oh, it’s over!” exclaimed Adela. “What a pity! Never mind! Let’s go in! Perhaps they’ll play again.”
The barmaid came flying out to fetch drinks as they entered. The atmosphere of the room was thick with smoke. A babel of voices filled it. Men who had been sitting round the walls were grouped about the table. In the midst of them stood the victor in his shirt-sleeves, conspicuous in the crowd by reason of his great height–a splendid figure of manhood with a careless freedom of bearing that was in its way superb.
He was turned away from the door at their entrance, and Dot saw only a massive head of straw-coloured hair above a neck that was burnt brick-red. Then, laughing at some joke, he wheeled round again to the table; and she saw his face….
It was the face of a Viking, deeply sunburnt, vividly alive. A fair moustache covered his upper lip, and below it the teeth gleamed, white and regular like the teeth of an animal in the wilderness. He had that indescribable look of morning-time, of youth at its best, which only springs in the wild. His eyes were intensely blue. They gazed straight across at her with startling directness.
And suddenly Dot’s heart gave a great jerk, and stood still. It was not the first time that those eyes had looked into hers.
The moment passed. He bent himself over the table, poised for a stroke, which she saw him execute a second later with a delicacy that thrilled her strangely. Full well did she remember the deftness and the steadiness of those brown hands. Had they not held her up, sustained her, in the greatest crisis of her life?
Her heart throbbed on again with hard, uneven strokes. She was straining her ears for the sound of his voice–that voice that had once spoken to her quivering soul, pleading with her that she would at their next meeting treat him–without prejudice. The memory thrilled through her. This was the man for whose coming she had waited so long!
He had straightened himself again, and was coming round the table to follow up his stroke. Fletcher Hill spoke at her shoulder.
“Sit down!” he said. “There is room here.”
There was a small space on the corner of the raised settee that ran along the side of the room. Dot and Adela sat down together. Hill stood beside them, looking over the faces of the men present, with keen eyes that missed nothing.
Dot sat palpitating, her hands clasped before her, seeing only the great figure that leaned over the table for another stroke. Would he look at her again? Would he remember her? Would he speak?
Fascinated, she watched him. He executed his stroke, again with that steady confidence, that self-detachment, that seemed to set him apart from all other men. He was standing close to her now, and the nearness of his presence thrilled her. She tingled from head to foot, as if under the power of an electric battery.
His late opponent stood facing her on the other side of the table, a grey-haired man with crafty eyes that seemed to look in all directions at the same time. She took an instinctive dislike to him. He wore a furtive air.
Warden stood up again, moving with that free swing of his as of one born to conquer. He turned deliberately and faced them.
“Good evening, Mr. Hill!” he said. “I’m standing drinks all round. I hope you will join us.”
It was frankly spoken, and Hill’s instant refusal sounded unnecessarily curt in Dot’s ears.
“No, thanks. I am with ladies,” he said. “I suppose the play is over?”
Warden glanced across the table. “Unless Harley wants his revenge,” he said.
The grey-haired man uttered a laugh that was like the bark of a vicious dog. “I’ll have that another day,” he said. “It won’t spoil by keeping. You are a player yourself, Mr. Hill. Why don’t you take him on?”
“Oh, do!” burst forth Adela. “I should love to see a good game. You ask him to, Dot! He’ll do it for you.”
But Dot sat silent, her fingers straining against each other, her eyes fixed straight before her, seeing yet unseeing, as one beneath a spell.
There was a momentary pause. The room was full of the harsh babel of men’s voices. The drinks were being distributed.
Suddenly a voice spoke out above the rest. “Here’s to the new manager! Good luck to him! Bill Warden, here’s to you! Success and plenty of it!”
Instantly the hubbub increased a hundredfold. Bill Warden swung round laughing to face the clamour, and the tension went out of Dot. She drooped forward with a weary gesture. As in a dream she heard the laughter and the shouting. It seemed to sweep around her in great billows of sound. But she was too tired to notice, too tired to care. He did not know her. She was sure of that now. He had forgotten. The memory that had affected her so poignantly had slipped like a dim cloud below his horizon. The glory had departed, and life was grey and cold.
“You are tired,” said Fletcher’s voice beside her. “Would you like to go?”
She looked up at him. His eyes were searching hers, and swiftly she realized that this discovery that she had made must be kept a secret. If Hill began to suspect, he would very quickly ferret out the truth, and the man would be ruined. She knew Hill’s stern justice. He would act instantly and without mercy if he knew the truth.
She braced herself with a great effort to baffle him. “No, oh, no!” she said. “I am really not tired. Do play! I should love to see you play.”
He looked sardonic. “Love to see me beaten!” he said.
She put out a quick hand. “Of course not! You will beat him easily. You are always on the top. Do try!”
He smiled a little, and turned from her. She saw him approach Warden and tap him on the shoulder.
Warden wheeled sharply, so sharply that the drink he held splashed over the edge of the glass. The excitement in the room was dying down. She watched the two men with an odd breathlessness, and in a moment she realized that everyone else present was watching them also.
Then they both turned towards her, and through a great singing that suddenly arose in her ears she heard Adela whisper excitedly, “My dear, he is actually going to introduce that amazing person to us!”
She sat up with a stiff movement, feeling cold, inanimate, strangely impotent, and in a moment he was standing before her with Fletcher, and she heard the latter introduce her as his “affianced wife.”
Mutely she gave him her hand. It was Adela who filled in the gap, eager for entertainment, and the next moment Warden had turned to her, and was talking in his careless, leisurely fashion. The ordeal was past, her pulses quieted down again. Yet she realized that he had not addressed a single word to her, and the conviction came upon her that not thus would he have treated one who was a total stranger to him.
Because of Fletcher, who remained beside her, she forced herself to join in the conversation, seconding Adela’s urgent request that the two men would play.
Warden laughed and looked at Fletcher. “Do you care to take me on, sir?” he said.
From the other side of the table, Harley uttered his barking laugh. “Now is your chance, Mr. Hill! Down him once and for all, and give us the pleasure of seeing how it’s done!”
There was venom in the words. They were a revelation to Dot, the almost silent looker-on. It was as if a flashlight had given her a sudden glimpse of this man’s soul, showing her bitter enmity–a black and cruel hatred–an implacable yearning for revenge. She felt as if she had looked down into the seething heart of a volcano.
Then she heard Hill’s voice. “I am quite willing to play,” he said.
A buzz of interest went through the room. The prospective match plainly excited Warden’s many admirers. They drew together, and she heard some low-voiced betting begin.
But this was instantly checked by Fletcher. “I’m not doing it for a gamble,” he said, curtly. “Please keep your money in your pockets, or the match is off!”
They looked at him with lowering glances, but they submitted. It was evident to Dot that they all stood in considerable awe of him–all save Warden, who chalked Hill’s cue with supreme self-assurance, and then lighted a cigarette without the smallest hint of embarrassment.
The match began, and though the gambling had been checked a breathless interest prevailed. Fletcher Hill’s play was not well known at Trelevan, but at the very outset it was evident to the most casual observer that he was a skilled player. He spoke scarcely at all, and his face was masklike in its composure, but Dot, watching, knew with that intuition which of late had begun to grow upon her that he was grimly set upon obtaining the victory. The knowledge thrilled her with a strange excitement. She knew that he was in a fashion desirous of proving himself in her eyes, that he had entered into the contest solely for her.
As for Warden, she believed he was playing entirely to please himself. He took an artistic interest in every stroke, but the ultimate issue of the game did not seem to enter into his calculation. He played like a sportsman, sometimes rashly, often brilliantly, but never selfishly. It was impossible to watch him with indifference. Even his failures were sensational. As Adela had said of him, he was amazing.
Hill’s play was absolutely steady. It lacked the vitality of the younger man’s, but it had about it a clockwork species of regularity that Dot found curiously pleasing to watch. She had not thought that her interest could be so deeply aroused; before the game was half through she was as deeply absorbed as anyone present.
It did not take her long to realize that public sympathy was entirely on Warden’s side, and it was that fact more than any other that disposed her in Fletcher’s favour. She saw that he had a hard fight before him, for Warden led almost from the beginning, though with all his brilliancy he never drew very far ahead. Fletcher kept a steady pace behind him, and she knew he would not be easily beaten.
Once he came and stood beside her after a very creditable break, and she slipped a shy hand into his for a few seconds. His fingers closed upon it in that slow, inevitable way of his, but he neither spoke nor looked at her, and she had a feeling that his attention never for an instant wandered from the job in hand. She admired him for his concentration, yet would she have been less than woman had she not felt slighted by it. He might have given her one look!
Adela was full of enthusiasm for his opponent, and that also caused her a vague sense of irritation. She was beginning to feel as if the evening would never come to an end.
The scoring was by no means slow, however, and the general interest increased almost to fever pitch as the finish came in sight. Hill’s steady progress in the wake of his opponent seemed at length to disconcert the latter. He began to play wildly, to attempt impossible things. His supporters remonstrated without result. He seemed to have flung away his judgment.
Hill’s score mounted till it reached and passed his. They were within twenty points of the end when Warden suddenly missed an easy stroke. A noisy groan broke from the onlookers, at which he shrugged his shoulders and laughed. But Hill turned upon him with a stern reproof.
“You’re playing the fool, Warden,” he said. “Pull up!”
He spoke with curt command, and the man he addressed looked at him for a second with raised brows, as if he would take offence. But in a moment he laughed again.
“You haven’t beaten me yet, sir,” he said.
“No,” said Hill. “And I don’t value–an easy victory.”
There followed a tense silence while he resumed his play. Steadily his score mounted, and it seemed to Dot that there was hostility in the very atmosphere. She wondered what would happen if he scored the hundred before his opponent had another chance. She hoped he would not do so, and yet she did not want to see him beaten.
He did not, but he left off with only three points to make. Then Warden began to score. Stroke after stroke he executed with flawless accuracy and with scarcely a pause, moving to and fro about the table without lifting his eyes from the balls. His play was swift and unswerving, his score mounted rapidly.
Dot watched him spellbound, not breathing. Hill stood near her, also closely watching, with brows slightly drawn. Suddenly something impelled her to look beyond the man at the table, and in the shadow on the farther side of the room she again saw Harley’s face, grey, withered-looking, with sunken eyes that glared forth wolfishly. He was glancing ceaselessly from Hill to Warden and from Warden to Hill, and the malice of his glance shocked her inexpressibly. She had never before seen murderous hate so stamped upon any countenance.
Instinctively she shrank from the sight, and in that moment Warden’s eyes were lifted for a second from the table. Magnetically hers flashed to meet them. It was instantaneous, inevitable as the sudden flare of lightning across a dark sky.
He stooped again to play, but in that moment something had gone out of him. The stroke he attempted was an easy one; but he missed it hopelessly.
He straightened himself up with a sharp gesture and looked at Hill. “I am sorry,” he said.
Hill said nothing whatever. Their scores were exactly even. With machine-like precision he took his turn, utterly ignoring the grumbling criticisms of his adversary’s play that were being freely expressed around the room. With the utmost steadiness he made his stroke, scoring two points. Then there fell a tremendous silence. The choice of two strokes now lay before him. One was to pocket his adversary’s ball; the other a long shot which required considerable skill. He chose the second without hesitation, hung a moment or two, made his stroke–and failed.
A howl of delight went up from the watchers, their hot partisanship of Warden amounting almost to open animosity against his opponent. In the midst of the noise Hill, perfectly calm, contemptuously indifferent, touched Warden again upon the shoulder, and spoke to him.
Warden said nothing in reply, but he went to his ball with a hint of savagery, bent, and almost without aiming sent it at terrific speed up the table. It struck first the red, then the white, pocketed the former, and whizzed therefrom into the opposite pocket.
A yell of delight went up. It was a brilliant stroke of which any player might have been proud. But Warden flung down his cue with a gesture of disgust.
“Damnation!” he said, and turned to put on his coat.
The two girls left the billiard-room, shepherded by Fletcher, almost before the tumult had subsided. It seemed to Dot that he was anxious about something and desirous to get them away. But Adela was full of excited comments and refused to be hurried, stopping outside to question Hill upon a dozen points regarding the game while he stood stiffly responding, waiting to say good-night.
Dot leaned upon the stair-rail, waiting for her, and eventually Fletcher drew Adela’s attention to the fact.
Adela laughed. “Oh, that’s just her way, my dear Fletcher. Some women were born to wait. Dot does it better than anyone I know.”
It was at that moment that Warden came quietly up the passage from the billiard-room, moving with the lightness of well-knit muscles, and checked himself at sight of Fletcher.
“I should like a word with you–when you have time,” he said.
Adela swooped upon him with effusion. “Mr. Warden! Your play is simply astounding. Allow me to congratulate you!”
“Please don’t!” said Warden. “I played atrociously.”
She laughed at him archly. “That’s just your modesty. You’re plainly a champion. Now, when are you going to let Mr. Hill show us that wonderful mine? We are dying to see it, aren’t we, Dot?”
“The mine!” Warden turned sharply to Hill. “You’re not going to take anyone over that–surely! Not in person–anyhow! What, sir?” He looked hard at Hill, who said nothing. “Then you must be mad!”
“He isn’t obliged to go in person,” smiled Adela. “I am sure you are big enough to take care of us single-handed. Dot and I are not in the least nervous. Will you take us alone if we promise not to tease the animals?”
Warden’s eyes flashed a sudden glance upwards to the girl who still stood silently leaning upon the rail. It was almost like an appeal.
As if involuntarily she spoke. “What is the danger?”
Hill turned to her. “There is no danger,” he said, curtly. “If you wish to go, I will take you to-morrow.”
Warden made a brief gesture as of one who submits to the inevitable, and turned away.
Fletcher held out his hand to Adela with finality. “Good-night,” he said.
“Are you really going to take us to-morrow?” she said.
“Yes,” said Fletcher.
She beamed upon him. “What time shall we be ready?”
He did not refer to Dot. “At five o’clock,” he said. “I shall be busy at the court all day. I will come and fetch you.”
He shook hands with Dot, and his face softened. “Good-night,” he said. “Go to bed quickly! You’re very tired.”
She gave him a fleeting smile, and turned to go. She was tired to the soul.
Adela caught her by the arm as they ascended the stairs. “You little quiet mouse, what’s the matter? Aren’t you enjoying the adventure?”
Dot’s face was sombre. “I think I am too tired to enjoy anything to-night,” she said.
“Tired! And no work to do! Why, what has come to you?” Adela surveyed her with laughing criticism.
“Let’s go to bed!” said Dot. “I’ll tell you when we get there.”
Something in tone or words stirred Adela. She refrained from further bantering and gave her mind to speedy preparations for bed.
Then, as at last they were about to separate, she put a warm arm about the girl and held her close. “What is it? Aren’t you happy?” she said.
A great sob went through Dot. Her trouble was more than she could bear. She clung to Adela with unaccustomed closeness.
“I’ve promised to marry Fletcher at the end of the week–instead of going back with you to the farm.”
“I thought that was what he was after,” said Adela. “But–don’t you want to?”
“No,” whispered Dot, trembling.
“Well, why don’t you tell him so–tell him he’s got to wait? Shall I tell him for you, you poor little thing?” Adela’s voice was full of compassion.
But Dot was instant in her refusal. “No, oh, no! Don’t tell him! I–I couldn’t give him–any particular reason for waiting. I shall feel better–I’m sure I shall feel better–when it’s over.”
“I expect you will,” said Adela. “But I don’t like your being miserable. I say, Dot–” she clasped the quivering form closer, with a sudden rare flash of intuition–“there isn’t–anyone else you like better, is there?”
But at that Dot started as if she had been stung, and drew herself swiftly away. “Oh, no!” she said, vehemently. “No–no–no!”
“Then I shouldn’t worry,” said Adela, sensibly. “It’s nothing but nerves.”
She kissed her and went to her own room, where she speedily slept. But Dot lay wide-eyed, unresting, while the hours crawled by, seeing only the vivid blue eyes that had looked into hers, and thrilled her–and thrilled her with their magic.
In the morning she arose early, urged by a fevered restlessness that drove her with relentless force. Dressing, she discovered the loss of a little heart-shaped brooch, Jack’s gift, which she always wore.
Adela, still lying in bed, assured her that she had seen it in her dress the previous evening while at dinner. “It probably came out in that little conservatory place when Fletcher was embracing you,” she said.
“Not very likely, I think,” said Dot, flushing.
Nevertheless, since she valued it, she finished dressing in haste and departed to search for it.
There was no one about with the exception of a man who was cleaning up the billiard-room and assured her that her property was not there. So she passed on along the passage to the shabby little glass-house whither she and Fletcher had retreated on the previous evening.
She expected to find the place deserted, and was surprised by a whiff of tobacco-smoke as she entered. The next moment sharply she drew back; for a man’s figure rose up from the seat under the billiard-room window on which she had rested the previous evening. His great frame seemed to fill the place. Dot turned to flee.
But on the instant he spoke, checking her. “Don’t go for a moment! I know what you’re looking for. It’s that little heart of yours. I’ve got it here.”
She paused almost in spite of herself. His voice was pitched very low. He spoke to her as if he were speaking to a frightened child. And he smiled at her with the words–a frank and kindly smile.
“You–you found it!” she stammered.
“Yes, I found it, Miss Burton.” He lingered over the name half unconsciously, and a poignant stab of memory went through her. So had he uttered it on that day so long, so long ago! “I knew it was yours. I was trying to bring myself to give it to Mr. Hill.”
“How did you know it was mine?” She almost whispered the words, yet she drew nearer to him, drawn irresistibly–drawn as a needle to the magnet.
He answered her also under his breath. “I–remembered.”
She felt as if a wave of fire had swept over her. She swayed a little, throbbing from head to foot.
“I have rather a good memory,” he said, as she found no words. “You’re not–vexed with me on that account, I hope?”
An odd touch of wistfulness in his voice brought her eyes up to his face. She fought for speech and answered him.
“Of course not! Why should I? It–is a very long time ago, isn’t it?”
“Centuries,” said Warden, and smiled again upon her reassuringly. “But I never forgot you and your little farm and the old dog. Have you still got him?”
She nodded, her eyes lowered, a choked feeling as of tears in her throat.
“He’d remember me,” said Warden, with confidence. “He was a friend. Do you know that was one of the most hairbreadth escapes of my life? If Fletcher Hill had caught me, he wouldn’t have shown much mercy–any more than he would now,” he added, with a half-laugh. “He’s a terrific man for justice.”
“Surely you’re safe–now!” Dot said, quickly.
“If you don’t give me away,” said Warden.
“I!” She started, almost winced. “There’s no danger of that,” she said, in a low voice.
“Thank you,” he said. “I’ve gone fairly straight ever since. It hasn’t been a very paying game. I tried my luck in the West, but it was right out. So I thought I’d come back here, and that was the turning-point. They took me on at the Fortescue Mine. It’s a fiendish place, but I rather like it. I’m sub-manager there at present–till Harley goes.”
“Ah!” She looked up at him again. “He is a dangerous man. He hates you, doesn’t he?”
“Quite possibly,” said Warden, with a smile. “That mine is rather an abode of hate all round. But we’ll clean it out one of these days, and make a decent place of it.”
“I hope you will succeed,” she said, very earnestly.
“Thank you,” he said again.
He was looking at her speculatively, as if there were something about her that he found hard to understand. Her agitation had subsided, leaving her with a piteous, forlorn look–the look of the wayfarer who is almost too tired to go any farther.
There fell a brief silence between them, then with a little smile she spoke.
“Are you going to give me back my brooch?”
He put his hand in his pocket. “I was nearly keeping it for good and all,” he said, as he brought it out.
She took it from him and pinned it in her dress without words. Then, shyly, she proffered her hand. “Thank you. Good-bye!”
He drew a short hard breath as he took it into his own. For a second or two he stood so, absolutely motionless, his great hand grasping hers. Then, very suddenly, he stooped to her, looking into her eyes.
“Good-bye, little new chum!” he said, softly. “It was–decent of you to treat me–without prejudice.”
The words pierced her. A great tremor went through her. For an instant the pain was almost intolerable.
“Oh, spare me that!” she said, quickly and passionately, and drew her hand away.
The next moment she was running blindly through the passage, scarcely knowing which way she went, intent only upon escape.
A man at the foot of the stairs stood aside for her, and she fled past him without a glance. He turned and watched her with keen, alert eyes till she was out of sight. Then, without haste, he took his way in the direction whence she had come.
But he did not go beyond the threshold of the little dusty conservatory, for something he saw within made him draw swiftly back.
When Fletcher Hill went to the court that day, he was grimmer, colder, more unapproachable even than was his wont. He had to deal with one or two minor cases from the gold mine, and the treatment he meted out was of as severe an order as circumstances would permit.
The Fortescue Gold Mine was five miles away from Trelevan, in the heart of wild, barren country, through which the sound of its great crushing machines whirred perpetually like the droning of an immense beehive.
The place was strewn with scattered huts belonging to such of the workers as did not live at Trelevan, and a yellow stream ran foaming through the valley, crossed here and there by primitive wooden bridges.
The desolation of the whole scene, save for that running stream, produced the effect of a world burnt out. The hills of shale might have been vast heaps of ashes. It was a waste place of terrible unfruitfulness. And yet, not very far below the surface, the precious metal lay buried in the rock–the secret of the centuries which man at last had wrenched from its hiding-place.
The story went that Fortescue, the owner of the mine, had made his discovery by a mere accident in this place known as the Barren Valley, and had kept it to himself for years thereafter because he lacked the means to exploit it. But later he had returned with the necessary capital at his back, had staked his claim, and turned the place of desolation into an abode of roaring activity. The men he employed were for the most part drawn from the dregs–sheep-stealers, cattle-thieves, smugglers, many of them ex-convicts–a fierce, unruly lot, hating all law and order, yet submitting for the sake of that same precious yellow dust that they ground from the foundation stones of the world.
Personally, Fortescue was known but to the very few, but his methods were known to all. He paid them generously, but he ruled them with a rigid discipline that knew no relaxation. It was murmured that Fletcher Hill–the hated police-magistrate–was at his back, for he never failed to visit the mine when his duty took him in that direction, and there was something of military precision in its management which was strongly reminiscent of his forbidding personality. It was Fletcher Hill who meted out punishment to the transgressors who were brought before him at the police-court at Trelevan, and his treatment was usually swift and unsparing. No prisoner ever expected mercy from him.
He was hated at the mine with a fierce hatred, in which Fortescue had but a very minor share. It was recognized that Fortescue’s methods were of a decent order, though his lack of personal interest was resented, and also his friendship with Fletcher Hill, which some even declared to be a partnership. The only point in his favour was the fact that Bill Warden knew the man and never failed to stand up for him. For some reason Warden possessed an enormous influence over the men. His elevation to the sub-managership had been highly popular, and his projected promotion to the post of manager, now filled by Harley, gave them immense satisfaction. He had the instincts of a sportsman and knew how to handle them, and a personality, that was certainly magnetic, did the rest.
Harley had a certain following, but the general feeling towards him was one of contempt. Most men recognized that he was nothing but a self-seeker, and there were few who trusted him. He did his best to achieve popularity, but his efforts were too obvious. Bill Warden’s breezy indifference held an infinitely greater appeal in the eyes of the crowd.
Harley’s resignation was of his own choosing. He declared himself in need of a rest, and no one attempted to persuade him otherwise. His day was over, and Warden’s succession to the post seemed an inevitable sequence. As Hill sardonically remarked, there was no other competitor for the chieftainship of that band of cutthroats.
For some reason he had postponed his departure till after Hill’s official visit to Trelevan. He and Warden shared the largest house in the miners’ colony in Barren Valley. It was close to the mine at the end of the valley, and part of it was used as the manager’s office. It overlooked the yellow torrent and the black wall of mountain beyond–a savage prospect that might have been hewn from the crater of a dead volcano.
A rough track led to it, winding some twenty feet above the stream, and up this track Fletcher Hill drove the two visitors on the evening of the day succeeding their arrival at Trelevan.
There was a deadness of atmosphere between those rocky walls that struck chill even to Adela’s inconsequent soul. “What a ghastly place!” she commented. “I should think Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones must have been something like this.”
Harley met them at the door of his office with a smile in his crafty eyes. “Warden is waiting for you in the mine,” he said to Fletcher. “His lambs have been a bit restless this afternoon. He has set his heart on a full-dress parade, but I don’t know if it will come off.”
Fletcher’s black brows drew together. “What do you mean by that?” he demanded.
Harley shrugged his shoulders with a laugh. “You wait and see!”
The entrance to the mine yawned like an immense cavern in the rock. The roaring screech of the machines issuing from it made an inferno of sound from which, involuntarily, Dot shrank.
She looked at Hill appealingly as they drew near. He turned instantly to Harley.
“Go ahead, will you, and tell them to stop work? We can’t hear ourselves speak in this.”
“I’ll come with you, Mr. Harley,” said Adela, promptly. “I want to see the machines going.”
Harley paused for a moment. “You know your way, Mr. Hill?” he said.
Hill nodded with a hint of impatience. “Yes, yes. I was here only the other day.”
“Very good,” said Harley. “But don’t forget to turn to the right when you get down the steps. The other way is too steep for ladies.”
He was gone with the words and Adela with him, openly delighted to have escaped from her solemn escort, and ready for any adventure that might present itself.
Dot looked after her for a moment, and then back at Hill. “She’ll be all right, won’t she?” she asked.
“Of course she will!” said Hill.
“Then shall we wait a minute till the noise stops?” she suggested.
Hill paused, though not very willingly. “There is nothing to be nervous about,” he said.
She glanced at the cavernous opening with a little shudder. “I think it is a dreadful place,” she said.
She saw him faintly smile. “I thought it didn’t appeal much to you,” he said.
She shivered. “Do you like it? But of course you do. You are interested in it. Isn’t that grinding noise terrible? It makes me want to run away and hide.”
Hill drew her to a large flat rock on the edge of the path. “Sit down,” he said.
She did so, and he took up his stand beside her, one foot lodged upon the stone. In the silence that followed she was aware of his eyes upon her, intently watching her face. She gripped her hands hard around her knees, enduring his scrutiny with a fast-throbbing heart. She expected some curt, soul-searching question at the end of it. But none came. Instead, the noise that reverberated through the valley suddenly ceased, and there fell an intense stillness.
That racked her beyond bearing. She looked up at him at last with a desperate courage and met his eyes. “What is it?” she questioned. “Why do you–why do you look at me–like that?”
He made a brief gesture, as if refusing a challenge, and stood up. “Shall we go?” he said.
She got up also, but her knees were trembling, and in a moment his hand came out and closed with that official grip upon her elbow. He led her to the mine entrance guiding her over the rough ground in utter silence.
They left the daylight behind them, passing almost immediately into semi-darkness. Some rough steps hewn in the rock led down into a black void before them.
“Are there no lights anywhere?” said Dot.
“Yes. There’ll be a lamp round the corner. Straight on down!” said Fletcher.
But for his presence she would hardly have dared it, so great was the horror that this place had inspired within her. But to wait alone with him in that terrible empty valley was even less endurable. She went down the long, steep stair without further protest.
They reached the foot at length, and a dim light shone ahead of them. The atmosphere was vault-like and penetratingly damp. The passage divided almost immediately, and a narrow track led off between black walls of stone to the right, where in the distance another lamp shone.
Fletcher turned towards this, but very suddenly Dot clasped his arm. “Oh, don’t let us go that way!” she begged. “Please don’t let us go that way!”
Hill paused in response to her urgent insistence. “What’s the matter with you, Dot?” he said.
She clung to him desperately, still holding him back. “I don’t know–I don’t know! But don’t go that way! I have a horrible feeling–Ah!” The deafening report of a revolver-shot rang out suddenly close to them.
Hill turned with a sound in his throat like the growl of an angry animal, and in a moment he had thrust Dot back against the protecting corner of the wall.
“You are not hurt?” she gasped.
“No; I am not.” His words fell clipped and stern, though spoken scarcely above a whisper. “Don’t speak! Get back up the steps–as quickly as you can!”
The command was so definite, so peremptory, that she had no thought of disobeying. But as she moved there came to her the sound of running feet. Hill stayed her with a gesture. She saw something gleam in his hand as he did so, and realized that he was not defenceless.
Her heart seemed to spring into her throat. She stood tense.
Nearer came the feet and nearer. The suspense of waiting was torture. She thought it would never end. Then suddenly, just as she looked to see a man spring from the opening of that narrow passage, they stopped.
A voice spoke. “All right! Don’t shoot!” it said, and a great throb of amazement went through her. That voice–careless, debonair, half-laughing–awoke deep echoes in her heart.
A moment later Warden came calmly round the corner, his great figure looming gigantic in that confined space.
He held out his hand. “I’m sorry you’ve had a fright. I fired that shot. It was a signal to the men to line up for inspection.”
He spoke with the utmost frankness, yet it came to Dot with an intuition she could not doubt that Hill did not believe him. He returned the revolver to his pocket, but he kept a hold upon it, and he made no movement to take the hand Warden offered.
“We came to inspect the mine, not the men,” he said, shortly. “Go back and tell them to clear out!”
Dot, mutely watching, saw Warden’s brows go up. He had barely glanced at her. “Oh, all right, sir,” he said, easily. “They’ve hardly left off work yet. I’ll let ’em know in good time. But first I’ve got something to show you. Come this way!”
He turned towards the main passage, but in a second, sharp and short, Fletcher’s voice arrested him.
He swung on his heel. “Well, sir?”
“You will do as I said–immediately!” The words might have been uttered by a machine, so precise, so cold, so metallic were they.
Warden stood quite motionless, facing him, and it seemed to Dot that his eyes had become two blue flames, giving out light. The pause that followed was so instinct with conflict that she thought it must end in some terrible outburst of violence.
Then, to her amazement, Warden smiled–his candid, pleasant smile. “Certainly, if you make a point of it,” he said. “Perhaps you will walk up with me. The strong-room is on our way, and while you are looking at the latest specimens I will carry out your orders.”
He turned back with the words, and led the way towards the distant lamp that glimmered in the wall.
Stiffly Hill turned to the girl beside him. “Would you rather go back and wait for me?” he said.
“Oh, no!” she said, instantly. “No; I am coming too.”
He said no more, but grimly stalked in the wake of Warden.
The latter moved quickly till he reached the place where the lamp was lodged in a niche in the wall. Here he stopped, stooped, and fitted a key into a narrow door that had been let into the stone. It opened outwards, and he drew aside, waiting for Hill.
“I will go and dismiss the men,” he said. “May I leave you in charge till I come back? They will not come this way.”
Hill paused on the threshold. The lamp cast a dim light into the place, which was close and gloomy as a prison.
“There are two steps down,” said Warden. “One of them is badly broken, but it’s worth your while to go in and have a look at our latest finds. You had better go first, sir. Be careful!”
He turned to depart with the words, still ignoring Dot. She was close to Hill, and something impelled her to lay a restraining hand on his shoulder as he took the first step down.
What followed happened with such stunning swiftness that her memory of it ever afterwards was a confused jumble of impressions, like the wild course of a nightmare.
She heard Warden swing round again in his tracks, but before she could turn he had caught her and flung her backwards over his arm. With his other hand simultaneously he dealt Hill a blow in the back that sent him blundering down into the darkness, and then, with lightning rapidity, he banged the door upon his captive. The lock sprang with the impact, but he was not content with this. Still holding her, he dragged at a rough handle above his head and by main strength forced down an iron shutter over the locked door.
Then, breathing hard and speaking no word, he lifted her till she hung across his shoulder, and started to run. She had not uttered a sound, so stunned with amazement was she, so bereft of even the power to think. Her position was one of utter helplessness. He held her with one arm as easily as if she had been a baby. And she knew that in his free hand he carried his revolver.
In her bewilderment she had not the faintest idea as to the direction he took. She only knew that he ran like a hunted rat down many passages, turning now this way, now that, till at last he plunged down an unseen stairway and the sound of gurgling water reached her ears.
He slackened his pace then, and at last stood still. He did not alter his hold upon her, however, but stood listening intently for many seconds. She hung impotent across his shoulder, feeling still too paralyzed to move.
He turned his head at last and spoke to her. “Have I terrified the senses out of you, little new chum?” he whispered, softly.
That awoke her from her passivity. She made her first effort for freedom.
He drew her down into his arms and held her close.
“Right down,” she said, insistently.
But he held her still. “If I let you go, you’ll wander maybe, and get lost,” he said.
His action surprised her, but yet that instinctive trust with which he had inspired her long ago remained, refusing to be shaken.
“Put me right down!” she said again. “And tell me why you did it!”
He set her on her feet, but he still held her. “Can’t you guess?” he said.
“No!” she said. “No!”
She spoke a little wildly. Was it the first doubt that ran shadow–like across her brain, leaving her so strangely cold? She wished it had not been so dark, that she might see his face. “Tell me!” she said again.
But he did not tell her. “Don’t be afraid!” was all he said in answer. “You are–safe enough.”
“But–but–Fletcher?” she questioned, desperately. “What of him?”
“He’s safe too–for the present.” There was something of grimness in his reply. “He doesn’t matter so much. He’s been asking for trouble all along–but he had no right–no right whatever–to bring you into it. It’s you that matters.”
A curious, vibrant quality had crept into his voice, and an answering tremor went through her; but she controlled it swiftly.
“And Adela,” she said. “She was with Mr. Harley. What has become of her?”
“He will take care of her for his own sake. Leave her to him!” Warden spoke with a hint of disdain. “She’ll get nothing worse than a fright,” he said, “possibly not even that–if he gets her to the manager’s house in time.”
“In time!” she echoed. “In time for what? What is going to happen? What do you mean?”
His hold tightened upon her. “Well,” he said, “there’s going to be a row. But I’m boss of this show, and I reckon I can deal with it. Only–I’ll have you safe first, little new chum. I’m not taking any chances where you are concerned.”
She gasped a little. The steady assurance of his voice stirred her strangely.
She tried to release herself from his hold. “I don’t like this place,” she said. “Let me go back to Mr. Hill.”
“That’s just what I can’t do.” He bent suddenly down to her. “Won’t you trust me?” he said. “I didn’t fail you last time, did I?”
She thrilled in answer to those words. It was as if thereby he had flung down all barriers between them. She stood for a moment in indecision, then impulsively she turned and grasped his arms.
“I trust you–absolutely,” she told him, tremulously. “But–but–though I know you don’t like him–promise me–you won’t let–Fletcher be hurt!”
He, too, was silent for a moment before responding. She fancied that he flinched a little at her words. Then: “All right, I promise,” he said.
“Then I will go–wherever you like,” she said, bravely, and put her hand into his.
He took it into a strong grasp. “That’s like you,” he said, with simplicity.
THE GREATER LOVE
Through a labyrinth of many passages he led her, over ground that was often rough and slimy with that sound of running water in their ears, sometimes near, sometimes distant, but never wholly absent. Now and then a gleam of light would come from some distant crevice, and Dot would catch a glimpse of the rocky corridor through which they moved–catch a glimpse also of her companion walking with his free stride beside her, though occasionally he had to stoop when the roof was low. He did not look at her, seldom spoke to her, but the grasp of his hand held her up and kept all fear at bay. Somehow fear in this man’s presence seemed impossible.
A long time passed, and she was sure that they had traversed a considerable distance before, very far ahead of them at the end of a steep upward slope, she discerned a patch of sky.
“Is that where we are going?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said.
She gazed before her, puzzled. “But where are we? Are we still in the mine?”
“No. This is the smugglers’ warren.” She caught a hint of humour in his voice. “The stream flows underground all through here–and very useful we have found it.”
She gave a great start at his words. “You–you are not a smuggler!” she said.
He drew her on. “I am a good many things,” he said, easily, “and the king of this rat-run amongst them. There’s no one knows it as well as I do.”
Her heart sank. “You said–you said yesterday–you had lived straight!” she said, in a low voice.
“Did I? But what does it matter to you how I live?” With a touch of recklessness he put the question. “If Fletcher Hill managed to put the official seal on me, what would it matter to you–now?”
There was almost a note of anger in his voice, yet his hand still held hers in the same close, reassuring grasp. She could not be afraid.
“It would matter,” she said at last.
“I wonder why?” said Bill Warden.
“Because–we are friends,” she said.
He made a sharp sound as of dissent, but he did not openly contradict her. They were nearing the opening, and the ground was rough and broken. She stumbled once or twice, and each time he held her up. Finally they came to a flight of steps that were little more than notches cut steeply in the rock.
“I shall have to carry you here,” he said.
Dot looked upwards with sharp dismay. The rocky wall rose twenty feet above her, the rough-hewn steps slanting along its face. For the first time her heart misgave her.
“What a dreadful place!” she said.
“It’s the only way out,” said Warden, “unless we tramp underground nearly half-way to Wallacetown!”
“Can’t we go back?” she said, nervously.
“What! Afraid?” He gave her hand a sudden squeeze.
She looked at him and caught the blue fire of his eyes as he bent towards her. Something moved her, she knew not what. She surrendered herself to him without a word.
Once more she hung upon his shoulder, clinging desperately, while he made that perilous ascent. He went up with amazing agility, as if he were entirely unencumbered. She felt the strength of his great frame beneath her, and marvelled. Again the magnetic force of the man possessed her, stilling all fear. She shut her eyes dizzily, but she was not afraid.
When she looked up again they were in the open. He had set her on her feet, and she stood on the rugged side of a mountain where no vestige of a path or any habitation showed in any direction. For the first time he had relinquished all hold upon her, and stood apart, almost as if he would turn and leave her.
The brief twilight was upon them. It was as if dark wings were folding them round. A small chill wind was wandering to and fro. She shivered involuntarily. It sounded like the whispering of an evil spirit. The fear she had kept at bay for so long laid clammy hands upon her.
Instinctively she turned to the man for protection. “How shall we get away?” she said.
He moved sharply, so sharply that for a single moment she thought that something had angered him. And then–all in one single blinding instant–she realized that which no words could utter. For he caught her swiftly to him, lifting her off her feet, and very suddenly he covered her face and neck and throat with hot, devouring kisses–kisses that electrified her–kisses that seemed to scorch and blister–yet to fill her with a pulsing rapture that was almost too great to endure.
She tried to hide her face from him, but she could not; to protest, but his lips stopped the words upon her own. She was powerless–and very deep down within her there leaped a wild thing that rejoiced–that exulted–in her powerlessness.
The fierce storm spent itself. There came a pause during which she lay palpitating against his breast while his cheek pressed hers in a stillness that was in a fashion more compelling than even those burning kisses had been.
He spoke to her at last, and his voice was deep and tender, throbbing with that which was beyond utterance.
“You love me, little new chum,” he said.
There was no question in his words. She quivered, and made no answer. That headlong outburst of passion had overwhelmed her utterly. She was as drift upon the tide.
He drew a great heaving breath, and clasped her closer. His words fell hot upon her face. “You are mine! Why shouldn’t I keep you? Fate has given you to me. I’d be a fool to let you go again.”
But something–some inner impulse that had been stunned to impotence by his violence–stirred within her at his words and awoke. Yet it was scarcely of her own volition that she answered him. “I am–not–yours.”
Very faintly the words came from her trembling lips, but the utterance of them gave her new strength. She moved at last in his hold. She turned her face away from him.
“What do you mean?” He spoke in a fierce whisper, but–she felt it instinctively–there was less of assurance in his hold. It was that that added to her strength, but she offered no active resistance, realizing wherein lay his weakness–and her own.
“I mean,” she said, and though it still trembled beyond her control, her voice gathered confidence with the words, “that by taking me–by keeping me–you are taking–keeping–what is not your own.”
“Love gives me the right,” he asserted, swiftly–“your love–and mine.”
But the clearer vision had come to her. She shook her head against his shoulder. “No–no! That is wrong. That is not–the greater love.”
“What do you mean by–the greater love?” He was holding her still closely, but no longer with that fierce possession.
She answered him with a steadiness that surprised herself: “I mean the only love that is worth having–the love that lasts.”
He caught up the words passionately. “And hasn’t my love lasted? Have I ever thought of any other woman since the day I met you? Haven’t I been fighting against odds ever since to be able to come to you an honest man–and worthy of your love?”
“Oh, I know–I know!” she said, and there was a sound of heartbreak in her voice. “But–the odds have been too heavy. I thought you had forgotten–long ago.”
“Forgotten!” he said.
“Yes.” With a sob she answered him. “Men do forget–nearly all of them. Fletcher Hill didn’t. He kept on waiting, and–and–they said it wasn’t fair–to spoil a man’s life for a dream–that could never come true. So–I gave in at last. I am–promised to him.”
“Against your will?” His arms tightened upon her again. “Tell me, little new chum! Was it against your will?”
“No! Oh, no!” She whispered the words through tears. “I gave in–willingly. I thought it was better than–an empty life.”
“Ah!” The word fell like a groan. “And that’s what you’re going to condemn me to, is it?”
She turned in his arms, summoning her strength. “We’ve got to play the game,” she said. “I’ve got to keep my word–whatever it costs. And you–you are going to keep yours.”
“My word?” he questioned, swiftly.
“Yes.” She lifted her head. “If–if you really care about being honest–if your love is worth–anything at all–that is the only way. You promised–you promised–to save him.”
“Save him for you?” he said.
“Yes–save him for me.” She did not know how she uttered the words, but somehow they were spoken.
They went into a silence that wrung her soul, and it cost her every atom of her strength not to recall them.
Bill Warden stood quite motionless for many pulsing seconds, then–very, very slowly–at length his hold began to slacken.
In the end he set her on her feet–and she was free. “All right, little new chum!” he said, and she heard a new note in his voice–a note that waked in her a wild impulse to spring back into his arms and cling to him–and cling to him. “I’ll do it–for you–if it kills me–just to show you–little girl–just to show you–what my love for you is really worth.”
He stood a moment, facing her; then his hands clenched and he turned away.
“Let’s go down the hill!” he said. “I’ll see you in safety first.”
In the midst of a darkness that could be felt Fletcher Hill stood, grimly motionless, waiting. He knew that strong-room, had likened it to a condemned cell every time he had entered it, and with bitter humour he told himself that he had put his own neck into the noose with a vengeance this time.
Not often–if ever–before had he made the fatal mistake of trusting one who was untrustworthy. He would not have dreamed of trusting Harley, for instance. But for some reason he had chosen to repose his confidence in Warden, and now it seemed that he was to pay the price of his rashness. It was that fact that galled him far more than the danger with which he was confronted. That he, Fletcher Hill–the Bloodhound–ever wary and keen of scent, should have failed to detect a ruse so transparent–this inflicted a wound that his pride found it hard to sustain. Through his lack of caution he had forfeited his own freedom, if not his life, and exposed Dot to a risk from the thought of which even his iron nerve shrank. He told himself repeatedly, with almost fierce emphasis, that Dot would be safe, that Warden could not be such a hound as to fail her; but deep within him there lurked a doubt which he would have given all he had to be able to silence. The fact remained that through his negligence she had been left unprotected in an hour of great danger.
Within the narrow walls of his prison there was no sound save the occasional drip of water that oozed through the damp rock. He might have been penned in a vault, and the darkness that pressed upon him seemed to crush the senses, making difficult coherent thought. There was nothing to be done but to wait, and that waiting was the worst ordeal that Fletcher Hill had ever been called upon to face.
A long time passed–how long he had no means of gauging. He stood like a sentinel, weapon in hand, staring into the awful darkness, struggling against its oppression, fighting to keep his brain alert and ready for any emergency. He thought he was prepared for anything, but that time of waiting tried his endurance to the utmost, and when at length a sound other than that irregular drip of water came through the deathly stillness he started with a violence that sent a smile of self-contempt to his lips.
It was a wholly unexpected sound–just the ordinary tones of a man’s voice speaking to him through the darkness where he had believed that there was nothing but a blank wall.
“Mr. Hill, where are you?” it said. “I have come to get you out.”
Hill’s hand tightened upon his revolver. He was not to be taken unawares a second time. He stood in absolute silence, waiting.
There was a brief pause, then again came the voice. “There’s not much point in shooting me. You’ll probably starve if you do. So watch out! I’m going to show a light.”
Hill still stood without stirring a muscle. His back was to the door. He faced the direction of the voice.
Suddenly, like the glare from an explosion, a light flashed in his eyes, blinding him after the utter dark. He flinched from it in spite of himself, but the next moment he was his own master again, erect and stern, contemptuously unafraid.
“Don’t shoot!” said Bill Warden, with a gleam of his teeth, “or maybe you’ll shoot a friend!”
He was standing empty-handed save for the torch he carried, his great figure upright against the wall, facing Hill with speculation in his eyes.
Hill lowered his revolver. “I doubt it,” he said, grimly.
“Ah! You don’t know me yet, do you?” said Warden, a faintly jeering note in his voice.
“Yes,” said Hill, deliberately. “I think I know you–pretty well–now.”
“I wonder,” said Warden.
He moved slowly forward, throwing the light before him as he did so. The place had been blasted out of the rock, and here and there the stone shone smooth as marble where the charge had gone. Rough shelves had been hewn in the walls, leaving divisions between, and on some of these were stored bags of the precious metal that had been ground out of the ore. There was no sign anywhere of any entrance save the iron-bound door behind Hill.
Straight in front of him Warden stopped. They stood face to face.
“Well?” Warden said. “What do you know of me?”
Hill’s eyes were as steel. He stood stiff as a soldier on parade. He answered curtly, without a hint of emotion. “I know enough to get you arrested when this–farce–is over.”
“Oh, you call this a farce, do you?” Bill Warden’s words came slowly from lips that strangely smiled. “And when does–the fun begin?”
Hill’s harsh face was thrown into strong relief by the flare of the torch. It was as flint confronting the other man. “Do you really imagine that I regard this sort of Forty Thieves business seriously?” he said.
“I imagine it is pretty serious so far as you are concerned,” said Warden. “You’re in about the tightest hole you’ve ever been in in your life. And it’s up to me to get you out–or to leave you. Do you understand that?”
“Oh, quite,” said Fletcher Hill, sardonically. “But–let me tell you at the outset–you won’t find me specially easy to bargain with on that count–Mr. Buckskin Bill.”
Bill Warden threw up his head with a gesture of open defiance. “I’m not doing any–bargaining,” he said. “And as to arresting me–afterwards–you can do as you please. But now–just now–you are in my power, and you’re going to play my game. Got that?”
“I can see myself doing it,” said Fletcher Hill.
“Yes, you will do it.” A sudden deep note of savagery sounded in Warden’s voice. “Not to save your own skin, Mr. Fletcher Hill, but for the sake of–something more valuable than that–something more precious even than your cussed pride. You’ll do it for the sake of the girl you’re going to marry. And you’ll do it–now.”
“Shall I?” said Fletcher Hill.
Bill Warden’s hand suddenly came forth and gripped him by the shoulder. “Damn you!” he said. “Do you think I want to save your life?”
The words were low, spoken with a concentrated passion more terrible than open violence. He looked closely into Hill’s eyes, and his own were flaming like the eyes of a baited animal.
Hill looked straight back at him without the stirring of an eyelid. “Take your hand off me!” he said.
It was the word of the superior officer. Warden’s hand fell as it were mechanically. There followed a tense silence.
Warden made a sharp movement. “I did it to save your life,” he said. “You’d have died like a dog within ten seconds if I hadn’t turned you back.”
A curious expression crossed Hill’s strong countenance. It was almost a smile of understanding. “I am–indebted to you–boss,” he said, and with the words very calmly he took his revolver by the muzzle and held it out. “I surrender to you–without conditions.”
Bill Warden gave a sharp start of surprise. For an instant he hesitated, then in silence he took the weapon and dropped it into his pocket. A moment longer he looked Fletcher Hill straight in the eyes, then swung upon his heel.
“We’ll get out of this infernal hole straight away,” he said, and, stooping, gripped his fingers upon a ridge of stone that ran close to the floor. The stone swung inward under his grasp, leaving a dark aperture gaping at his feet. Bill glanced backwards at his prisoner.
The smile still hovered in the latter’s eye. “After you, Mr. Buckskin Bill!” he said, ceremoniously.
And in silence Bill led the way.
THE BOSS OF BARREN VALLEY
“Oh, my dear!” gasped Adela. “I’ve had the most terrifying adventure. I thought I should never see you again. The men are all on strike, and they’ve sworn to kill Fletcher Hill, only no one knows where he is. What became of him? Has he got away?”
“I don’t know,” Dot said.
She sank into the nearest chair in the ill-lighted manager’s office, and leaned her white face in her hand.
“Perhaps he has been murdered already,” said Adela. “Mr. Harley is very anxious about him. He can’t hold them. And–Dot–just think of it!–Warden–the man we saw yesterday, the sub-manager–is at their head. I saw him myself. He had a revolver in his hand. You were with Fletcher Hill. You must know what became of him!”
“No, I don’t know,” said Dot. “We–parted–a long time ago.”
“How odd you are!” said Adela. “Why, what is the matter? Are you going to faint?” She went to the girl and bent over her, frightened by her look. “What is the matter, Dot? What has happened to you? You haven’t been hurt?”
“I am–all right,” Dot said, with an effort. “Did Mr. Harley bring you here?”
“Yes. And you? How did you get here?”
“He–brought me most of the way–Mr. Warden,” Dot said. “He has gone now to save–Fletcher Hill.”
“To shoot him, more likely,” said Adela. “He has posted sentinels all round the mine to catch him. I wonder if we are safe here! Mr. Harley said it was a safe place. But I wonder. Shall we make a bolt for it, Dot? Shall we? Shall we?”
“I shall stay here,” Dot answered.
Adela was not even listening. “We are only two defenceless women, and there isn’t a man to look after us. What shall we do if–Ah! Heavens! What is that?”
A fearful sound had cut short her speculations–a fiendish yelling as of a pack of wolves leaping upon their prey. Dot sat up swiftly. Adela cowered in a corner.
The terrible noise continued, appalling in its violence. It swept like a wave towards the building, drowning the roar of the stream below. The girl at the table rose and went to the closed door. She gripped a revolver in her right hand. With her left she reached for the latch.
“Don’t open it!” gasped Adela.
But Dot paid no heed. She lifted the latch and flung wide the door. Her slim figure stood outlined against the lamp-light behind her. Before her in a white glare of moonlight lay the vault-like entrance of the mine at the head of Barren Valley, and surging along the black, scarred side of the hill there came a yelling crowd of miners. They were making straight for the open door, but at the sight of the girl standing there they checked momentarily and the shouting died down.
She faced the foremost of them without a tremor. “What is it?” she demanded, in a clear, ringing voice. “What are you wanting?”
A man with the shaggy face of a baboon answered her. “You’ve got that blasted policeman in there. You stick up that gun of yours and let us pass! We’ve got guns of our own, so that won’t help.”
She confronted him with scorn. “Do you imagine I’m afraid of you and your guns? There’s no one here except another woman. Are you out to fight women to-night?”
“That’s a lie!” he made prompt response. “You’ve got Fletcher Hill in there, or I’m a nigger. You let us pass!”
But still she blocked the way, her revolver pointing straight at him. “Fletcher Hill is not here. And you won’t come in unless Mr. Warden says so. He is not here either at present. But he is coming. And I will shoot any man who tries to force his way in first.”
“Damnation!” growled the shaggy-faced one and wheeled upon his comrades. “What do you say to that, boys? Going to let a woman run this show?”
A chorus of curses answered him, but still no one raised a revolver against the slender figure that opposed them. Only, after a moment, a cur in the background picked up a stone and flung it. It struck the doorpost, narrowly missing her shoulder. Dot did not flinch, but immediately, with tightened lips, she raised the revolver and fired over their heads.
A furious outburst followed the explosion, and in an instant a dozen revolvers were levelled at her. But in that same instant there came a sound like the roar of a lion from behind the building, and with it Warden’s great figure leapt out into the moonlight.
“You damned ruffians!” he yelled. “You devils! What are you doing?”
His anger was in a fashion superb. It dwarfed the anger of the crowd. They gave way before him like a herd of beasts. He sprang in front of the girl, raging like a man possessed.
“You gang of murderers! You hounds! You dirty swine! Get back, do you hear? I’m the boss of this show, and what I say goes, or, if it doesn’t, I’ll know the reason why. Benson–you dog! What’s the meaning of this? Do you think I’ll have under me any coward that will badger a woman?”
The man he addressed looked at him with a cowed expression on his hairy face. “I never wanted to interfere with her,” he growled. “But she’s protecting that damned policeman. It’s her own fault for getting in our way.”
“You’re wrong then!” flashed back Warden. “Fletcher Hill is under my protection, not hers. He has surrendered to me as my prisoner.”
“You’ve, got him?” shouted a score of voices.
“Yes, I’ve got him.” Rapidly Warden made answer. “But I’m not going to hand him over to you to be murdered out of hand. If I’m boss of Barren Valley, I’ll be boss. So if any of you are dissatisfied you’ll have to reckon with me first. Fletcher Hill is my prisoner, and I’ll see to it that he has a fair trial. Got that?”
A low murmur went round. The magnetism of the man was making itself felt. He had that electric force which sways the multitude against all reason. Single-handed, he gripped them with colossal assurance. They shrank from the flame of his wrath like beaten dogs.
“And before we deal with him,” he went on, “there’s someone else to be reckoned with. And that’s Harley. Does anyone know where Harley is?”
“What do you want with Harley?” asked Benson, glad of this diversion.
“Oh, just to tell him what I think of him, and then–to kick him out!” With curt contempt Warden threw his answer. “He’s a traitor and a skunk–smuggles spirits one minute and goes to the police to sell his chums the next; then back to his chums again to sell the police. I know. I’ve been watching him for some time, the cur. He’d shoot me if he dared.”
“He’d better!” yelled a huge miner in the middle of the crowd.
Warden laughed. “That you, Nixon? Come over here! I’ve got something to tell you–and the other boys. It’s the story of this blasted mine.” He turned suddenly to the girl who still stood behind him in the lighted doorway. “Miss Burton, I’d like you to hear it too. Shut the door and stand by me!”
Her shining eyes were on his face. She obeyed him mutely, with a submission as unquestioning as that of the rough crowd in front of them.
Very gently he took the revolver from her, drew one out of his own pocket also, and handed both to the big man called Nixon who had come to his side.
“You look after these!” he said.
“One is my property. The other belongs to Fletcher Hill–who is my prisoner. Now, boys, you’re armed. I’m not. You won’t shoot the lady, I know. And for myself I’ll take my chance.”
“Guess you won’t be any the worse for that,” grinned Nixon, at his elbow.
Warden’s smile gleamed for an instant in answer, but he passed swiftly on. “Did you ever hear of a cattle-thief called Buckskin Bill? He flourished in these parts some five years ago. There was no mine in Barren Valley then. It was just–a smugglers’ stronghold.”
Some of the men in front of him stirred uneasily. “What’s this to do with Fletcher Hill?” asked one.
“I’ll tell you,” said Warden. “Buckskin Bill, the cattle-thief, was in a tight corner, and he took refuge in Barren Valley. He found the smugglers’ cache–and he found something else that the smugglers didn’t know of. He found–gold. It’s a queer thing, boys, but he’d decided–for private reasons–to give up the cattle-lifting just two days before. The police were hot after him, but they didn’t catch him and the smugglers didn’t catch him either. He dodged ’em all, and when he left he said to himself, ‘I’ll be the boss of Barren Valley when I come back.’ After that he went West and starved a bit in the Australian desert till the cattle episode had had time to blow over. Then–it’s nearly two years ago now–he came back. The first person he ran into was–Fletcher Hill, the policeman.”
He paused with that dramatic instinct which was surely part-secret of his fascination. He had caught the full attention of the crowd, and held them spellbound.
In a moment he went on. “That gave him an idea. Hill, of course, was after other game by that time and didn’t spot him. Hill was a magistrate and a civil power at Wallacetown. So Bill went to him, knowing he was straight, anyway, and told him about the gold in Barren Valley, explaining, bold as brass, that he couldn’t run the show himself for lack of money. Boys, it was a rank speculation, but Hill was a sport. He caught on. He came to Barren Valley, and they tinkered round together, and they found gold. That same night they came upon the smugglers, too–only escaped running into them by a miracle. Hill didn’t say much. He’s not a talker. But after they got back to Wallacetown he made an offer to Buckskin Bill which struck him as being a very sporting proposition for a policeman. He said, ‘If you care to take on Barren Valley and make an honest concern of it, I’ll get the grant and do the backing. The labour is there,’ he said, ‘but it’s got to be honest labour or I won’t touch it.’ It was a sporting offer, boys, and, of course, Bill jumped. And so a contract was drawn up which had to be signed. And ‘What’s your name?’ said Fletcher Hill.” Warden suddenly began to laugh. “On my oath, he didn’t know what to say, so he just caught at the first honest-sounding name he could think of. ‘Fortescue,’ he said. Hill didn’t ask a single question. ‘Then that mine shall be called the Fortescue Gold Mine,’ he said. ‘And you’ll work it and make an honest man’s job of it.’ It was a pretty big undertaking, but it sort of appealed to Buckskin Bill, and he took it on. The only real bad mistake he made was when he trusted Harley. Except for that, the thing worked–and worked well. The smuggling trade isn’t what it was, eh, boys? That’s because Fortescue–and Fletcher Hill–are using up the labour for the mine. And you may hate ’em like hell, but you can’t get away from the fact that this mine is run fair and decent, and there isn’t a man here who doesn’t stand a good chance of making his fortune if he plays a straight game. It’s been a chance to make good for every one of us, and it’s thanks to Fletcher Hill–because he hasn’t asked questions–because he’s just taken us on trust–and I’m hanged if he doesn’t deserve something better than a bullet through his brain, even if he is a magistrate and a policeman and a man of honour. Have you got that, boys? Then chew it over and swallow it! And when you’ve done that, I’ll tell you something more.”
“Oh, let’s have it all, boss, now you’re at it!” broke in Nixon. “We shan’t have hysterics now. We’re past that stage.”
Warden turned with a lightning movement and laid his hand upon the girl beside him. “Gentlemen,” he said, “it’s Fletcher Hill–and not Buckskin Bill–who’s the boss of this valley. And he’s a good boss–he’s a sportsman–he’s a maker of men. And this lady is going to be his wife. You’re going to stand by her, boys. You aren’t going to make a widow of her before she’s married. You aren’t going to let a skunk like Harley make skunks of you all. You’re sportsmen, too–better sportsmen than that stands for–better sportsmen, maybe, than I am myself. What, boys? It’s your turn to speak now.”
“Wait a bit!” said Nixon. “You haven’t quite finished yet, boss.”
“No, that’s true.” Warden paused an instant, then abruptly went forward a pace and stood alone before the crowd. “I’ve taken a good many chances in my life,” he said. “But now I’m taking the biggest of ’em all. Boys, I’m a damned impostor. I’ve tricked you all, and it’s up to you to stick me against a wall and shoot me as I deserve, if you feel that way. For I’m Buckskin Bill–I’m Fortescue–and I’m several kinds of a fool to think I could ever carry it through. Now you know!”
With defiant recklessness he flung the words. They were more of a challenge than a confession. And having spoken them he moved straight forward with the moonlight on his face till he stood practically among the rough crowd.
They opened out to receive him, almost as if at a word of command. And Buckskin Bill, with his head high and his blue eyes flaming, went straight into them with the gait of a conqueror.
Suddenly, with a passionate gesture, he stopped, flinging up his empty right hand. “Well, boys, well? What’s the verdict? I’m in your hands.”
And a great hoarse roar of enthusiasm went up as they closed around him that was like the bursting asunder of mighty flood-gates. They surged about him. They lifted him on their shoulders. They yelled like maniacs and fired their revolvers in the air. It was the wildest outbreak that Barren Valley had ever heard, and to the girl who watched it, it was the most marvellous revelation of a man’s magnetism that she had ever beheld. Alone he had faced and conquered a multitude.
It pierced her strangely, that fierce enthusiasm, stirring her as personal danger had failed to stir. She turned with the tears running down her face and found Fletcher Hill standing unnoticed behind her, silently looking on.
“Oh, isn’t he great? Isn’t he great?” she said.
He took her arm and led her within. His touch was kind, but wholly without warmth. “There’s not much doubt as to who is the boss of Barren Valley,” he said.
And with the words he smiled–a smile that was sadder than her tears.
THE OFFICIAL SEAL
That life could possibly return to a normal course after that amazing night would have seemed to Dot preposterous but for the extremely practical attitude adopted by Fletcher Hill. But when she saw him again on the day after their safe return to Trelevan there was nothing in his demeanour to remind her of the stress through which they had passed. He was, as ever, perfectly calm and self-contained, and wholly uncommunicative. Adela sought in vain to satisfy her curiosity as to the happenings in Barren Valley which her courage had not permitted her to witness for herself. Fletcher Hill was as a closed book, and on some points Dot was equally reticent. By no persuasion could Adela induce her to speak of Bill Warden. She turned the subject whenever it approached him, professing an ignorance which Adela found excessively provoking.
They saw nothing of him during the remainder of the week, and very little of Fletcher Hill, who went to and fro upon his business with a machine-like precision that seemed to pervade his every action. He made no attempt to be alone with Dot, and she, with a shyness almost overwhelming, thankfully accepted his forbearance. The day they had fixed upon for their marriage was rapidly approaching, but she had almost ceased to contemplate it, for somehow it seemed to her that it could never dawn. Something must happen first! Surely something was about to happen! And from day to day she lived for the sight of Bill Warden’s great figure and the sound of his steady voice. Anything, she felt, would be bearable if only she could see him once again. But she looked for him in vain.
When her brother joined them at the end of the week a dullness of despair had come upon her. Again she saw herself trapped and helpless, lacking even the spirit to attempt escape. She greeted Jack almost abstractedly, and he observed her throughout the evening with anxiety in his eyes. When it was over he drew her aside for a moment as she was bidding him good-night.
“What’s the matter, little ‘un? What’s wrong?” he whispered, with his arm about her.
She clung to him for an instant with a closeness that was passionate. But, “It’s nothing, Jack,” she whispered back. “It’s nothing.”
Then Fletcher Hill came up to them, and they separated. Adela and Dot went up to bed, and the two men were left alone.
* * * * *
So at length the great day dawned, and nothing had happened. The only news that had reached them was a remark overheard by Adela in the dining-room, to the effect that Harley had thrown up his post and gone.
Dot dressed for her wedding with a dazed sense of unreality. Her attire was of the simplest. She wore a hat instead of a veil. It was to be a quiet ceremony in the early morning, for neither she nor Hill desired any unnecessary parade. When she descended the stairs with Adela, Jack was the only person awaiting her in the hall.
He looked at her searchingly as she came down to him, then without a word he took her in his arms and kissed her white face. She saw that he was moved, and wondered within herself at her own utter lack of emotion. Ever since she had lain against Bill Warden’s breast, the wild sweet rapture of his hold had seemed to paralyze in her all other feeling. She knew only the longing for his presence, the utter emptiness of a world that held him not.
She drove to the church with her hand in Jack’s, Adela talking incessantly the whole way while they two sat in silence. It was a bare building in the heart of the town, but its bareness did not convey any chill to her. She was already too numbly cold for that.
She went up the aisle between Jack and Adela, because the latter good-naturedly remarked that she might as well have as much support as she could get. But before they reached the altar-steps Fletcher Hill came to meet them, and Adela dropped behind.
He also looked for a moment closely into Dot’s face, then very quietly he took her cold hand from Jack and drew it through his arm. She glanced at him with a momentary nervousness as Jack also fell behind.
Then some unknown force drew her as the magnet draws the needle, and she looked towards the altar. A man was standing by the steps awaiting her. She saw the free carriage of the great shoulders, the deep fire of the blue eyes. And suddenly her heart gave a wild throb that was anguish, and stood still.
Fletcher Hill’s arm went round her. He held her for a second closely to him–more closely than he had ever held her before. But–it came to her later–he did not utter a single word. He only drew her on.
And so she came to Bill Warden waiting before the altar. They met–and all the rest was blotted out.
She went through that service in a breathless wonderment, an amazement that yet was strangely free from distress. For Bill Warden’s hand clasped hers throughout, save when Fletcher Hill took it from him for a moment to give her away.
When it was over, and they knelt together in the streaming sunshine of the morning, she felt as if they two were alone in an inner sanctuary that was filled with the Love of God. Later, those sacred moments were the holiest memory of her life….
Then a strong arm lifted and held her. She turned from the holy place with a faint sigh of regret, turned to meet Fletcher Hill’s eyes looking at her with that in them which she was never to forget.
His voice was the first to break through the wonder-spell that bound her.
“Do you think you will ever manage to forgive me?” he said.
She turned swiftly from the arm that encircled her, and impulsively she put her hands upon his shoulders, offering him her lips. “Oh, I don’t–know–what–to say,” she said, brokenly.
He bent and gravely kissed her. “My dear, there is nothing to be said so far as I am concerned,” he said. “If you are happy, I am satisfied.”
It was briefly spoken, but it went straight to her heart. She clung to him for a moment without words, and that was all the thanks she ever offered him. For there was nothing to be said.
* * * * *
Very late on the evening of that wonderful day she sat with Bill Warden on the edge of a rock overlooking a fertile valley of many waters in the Blue Mountains, and heard, with her hand in his the amazing story of the past few days, which had seemed to her so curiously dream-like.
“I fought hard against marrying you,” Bill told her, with the smile she had remembered for so long. “But he had me at every turn–simply rolled me out and wiped the ground with me. Said he’d clap me into prison if I didn’t, and when I said ‘All right’ to that, he turned on me like a tiger and asked if I wanted to break your heart. Oh, he made me feel a ten-times swab, I can tell you. And when I said I didn’t want you to marry an uncaught criminal, he just looked me over and said, ‘You’ve sown your wild oats. As your partner, I am sponsor for your respectability.’ I knew what that meant, knew he’d stand by me through thick and thin, whatever turned up. It was the official seal with a vengeance, for what Fletcher Hill says goes in these parts. But it went against the grain, little new chum. It made me sick with myself. I hated playing his game against himself. It was the vilest thing I ever did. I couldn’t have done it–except for you.”
The little hand that held his tightened. She leaned her cheek against his shoulder. “Shall I tell you something?” she whispered. “I couldn’t have done it either–except for–you.”
His arm clasped her. “I’m such a poor sort of creature, darling,” he said “I’ll work for you–live for you–die for you. But I shall never be worthy of you.”
She lifted her face to his in the gathering darkness. “Dear love,” she said, “do you remember how–once–you asked me to treat you–without prejudice? But I never have–and I don’t believe I ever shall. Fletcher Hill is right to trust you. He is a judge of men. But I–I am only the woman who loves you, and–somehow–whichever way I take you–I’m always prejudiced–in your favour.”
The low words ended against his lips. He kissed her closely, passionately. “My little chum,” he said, “I will be worthy–I will be worthy–so help me God!”
He was near to tears as he uttered his oath; but presently, when he turned back her sleeve to kiss the place where first his lips had lingered, they laughed together–the tender laughter of lovers in the happy morning-time of life.