By Gilbert Parker
THE last time Field Osgood saw Barbara Golding was on a certain summer afternoon at the lonely Post, Telegraph, and Customs Station known as Rahway on the Queensland coast. It was at Rahway also that he first and last saw Mr. Louis Bachelor. He had had excellent opportunities for knowing Barbara Golding; since through many years she had been governess (and something more) to his sisters Janet, Agnes and Lorna. She had been engaged in Sydney as governess simply, but Wandenong cattle station was far up country, and she gradually came to perform the functions of milliner and dressmaker, encouraged thereto by the family for her unerring taste and skill. Her salary, however, was proportionately increased, and it did not decline when her office as governess became practically a sinecure as her pupils passed beyond the sphere of the school-room. Perhaps George Osgood, father of Field Osgood, and owner of Wandenong, did not make an allowance to Barbara Golding for her services as counsellor and confidant of his family; but neither did he subtract anything from her earnings in those infrequent years when she journeyed alone to Sydney on those mysterious visits which so mightily puzzled the good people of Wandenong. The boldest and most off-hand of them, however, could never discover what Barbara Golding did not choose to tell. She was slight, almost frail in form, and very gentle of manner; but she also possessed that rare species of courtesy which, never declining to fastidiousness nor lapsing into familiarity, checked all curious intrusion, was it never so insinuating; and the milliner and dressmaker was not less self-poised and compelling of respect than the governess and confidant.
In some particulars the case of Louis Bachelor was similar. Besides being the Post, Telegraph, and Customs Officer, and Justice of the Peace at Rahway, he was available and valuable to the Government as a meteorologist. The Administration recognized this after a few years of voluntary and earnest labor on Louis Bachelor’s part; it was not his predictions concerning floods or droughts that roused this official appreciation, but the fulfilment of those predictions. At length a yearly honorarium was sent to him, and then again, after a dignified delay, there was forwarded to him a suggestion from the Cabinet that he should come to Brisbane and take a more important position. It was when this patronage was declined that the Premier (dropping for a moment into that bushman’s jargon which, in truth, came naturally to him) said, irritably that Louis Bachelor was a “—— old fossil who didn’t know when he’d got his dover in the dough,” which, being interpreted into the slang of the old world, means, his knife into the official loaf. But the fossil went on as before, known by name to the merest handful of people in the colony, though they all profited, directly or indirectly, by his scientific services; and as unknown to the dwellers at Wandenong as they were to him, or he again to the citizens of the moon.
It was the custom for Janet and Agnes Osgood to say that Barbara Golding had a history; and they said it with little mannerisms peculiar to young ladies of modern promise. Janet declared to her sister Agnes that the Maid of Honor (so they called her) might, if all were known about her, be translated into a novel; and Agnes in appropriate season had, with slight variations, said the same to Janet. On every occasion the sentiment was uttered with that fresh conviction in tone which made it appear to be born again. The occasion when it seemed to have had the most pregnant origin, was one evening after Janet had been consulting Barbara on the mysteries of the garment in which she was to be married to Druce Gallant, part owner of Booldal Station. “Aggie,” remarked this coming bride, “her flushed up ever so pink when I said to her that she seemed to know exactly what a trousseau ought to be. I'm afraid, dear, I said it with a faint suggestion in my voice,—unpardonable with her, she always is so considerate—but it had its effect. I wonder! She is well-bred enough to have been anybody; and the Bishop of Adelaide recommended her, you know.”
Soon after this Druce Gallant arrived at Wandenong and occupied the attention of Janet until supper-time, when he startled the company by the tale of his adventures on the previous evening with Roadmaster, the mysterious bushranger, whose name was now in every man’s mouth; who apparently worked with no confederates, a somewhat perilous proceeding, though it reduced the chances of betrayal. Druce Gallant was about to camp on the plains for the night, in preference to riding on to a miserable bush-tavern a few miles away, when he was suddenly accosted in the scrub by a gentlemanly-looking fellow on horseback, who, from behind his mask, asked him to give up what money he had about him, together with his watch and ring. The request was emphasized by the presence of a revolver held at an easy but suggestive angle from the pommel of the saddle. The disadvantage to the Druce Gallant was obvious; he merely requested that he should be permitted to keep the ring, since it had many associations, remarking at the same time that he would be pleased to give an equivalent for it if the bushranger would come to Wandenong. At the mention of Wandenong the highwayman asked his name. On being told, he handed back the money, the watch, and the ring, and politely requested a cigar, saying that the Osgoods deserved consideration at his hands, and that their friends were safe from molestation. Then he added, with some grim humor, that if Druce Gallant had no objection to spending an hour with Roadmaster over a fire and a billy of tea, he would be glad of his company; for bushranging, according to his system, was but dull work. Struck with the unusual character of the man, the young squatter consented, and together they sat for two hours, the highwayman, however, never removing the mask from his eyes. They talked of many things, and at last Gallant ventured to ask his companion about the death of Blood Finchley, the owner of Tarawan sheep run. At this Roadmaster became moody, and rose to leave; but, as if on second thoughts, he said that Finchley’s companion, whom he allowed to go unrobbed and untouched, was both a coward and a liar; that the slain man had fired thrice needlessly, and had wounded him in the neck (the scar of which he showed) before he drew trigger. Gallant then told him that besides a posse of police, a number of squatters and bushmen had banded to hunt him down, and advised him to make for the coast if he could, and leave the country. At this Roadmaster laughed, and said that his fancy was not seaward yet, though that might come; and then, with a courteous wave of his hand, he jumped on his horse and rode away.
The Osgoods speculated curiously on Roadmaster’s identity, as did indeed the whole colony; and at length the father concluded that it might be a well-bred scoundrel named Calthorpe whom he had saved from prison at Brisbane a couple of years before. He could not think of any other likely person.
And here it may be said that people of any observation (though, of necessity, they were few, since Rahway attracted only busy sugar-planters and their workmen) were used to speak of Louis Bachelor as one who must certainly have a history. The person most likely to have the power of inquisition into his affairs was his faithful aboriginal servant Gongi. But records and history were only understood by Gongi when they were restricted to the number of heads taken in tribal battle. At the same time he was a devoted slave to the man who, at the risk of his own life, had rescued him from the murderous spears of his aboriginal foes. That was a kind of record within Gongi’s comprehension, from the contemplation of which he turned to speak of Louis Bachelor as “That fellow budgery marmi b’longin’ to me,” which, in civilized language, means “my good master.” Gongi often dilated on this rescue, and he would, for purposes of illustration, take down from his master’s wall an artillery officer’s sabre and show how his assailants had been dispersed.
From the presence of this sword it was not unreasonably assumed that Louis Bachelor had at some time been in the army. He was not, however, communicative on this point, though he shrewdly commented on European wars and rumors of wars when they occurred. He also held strenuous opinions on the conduct of Government and the suppression of public evils, based obviously upon military views of things. For bushrangers he would have a modern Tyburn, but this and other tragic suggestions lacked conviction when confronted with his verdicts given as Justice of the Peace. He pronounced anathemas in a grand and airy fashion, but as if he were speaking by the card, a Don Quixote whose mercy would be vaster than his wrath. This was the impression he gave to Field Osgood on the day when the young squatter introduced himself to Rahway, where he had come on a mission to its one official. The young man’s father had a taste for many things; astronomy was his latest, and he had bought from the Government a telescope which, excellent in its day, had been superseded by others of later official purchase. He had brought it to Wandenong, had built a home for it, and had got it into trouble. He had then sent to Brisbane for assistance, and the astronomer of the Government had referred him to the postmaster at Rahway, “prognosticator” of the meteorological column in The Courier, who would be instructed to give Mr. Osgood every help, especially as the occultation of Venus was near. Men do not send letters by post in a new country when personal communication is possible, and Field Osgood was asked by his father to go to Rahway. When Field wished for the name of this rare official, the astronomer’s letter was handed over with a sarcastic request that the name might be deciphered; but the son was not more of an antiquary than his father, and he had to leave without it. He rode to the coast, and there took a passing steamer to Rahway.
From the sea Rahway looked a tropical paradise. The bright green palisades of mangrove on the right crowded down to the water’s edge; on the left was the luxuriance of a tropical jungle; in the centre was an arc of opal shore fringed with cocoa-palms, and beyond the sea a handful of white dwellings. Behind was a sweeping monotony of verdure stretching back into the great valley of the Popri, and over all the heavy languor of the South.
But the beauty was a delusion. When Field Osgood’s small boat swept up the sands on the white crest of a league-long roller, how different was the scene! He saw a group of dilapidated huts, a tavern called The Angel’s Rest, a blackfellow’s hut, and the bareness of three Government offices, all built on piles, that the white ants should not humble them suddenly to the dust; a fever-making mangrove swamp, black at the base as the filthiest moat, and tenanted by reptiles; feeble palms, and a sickly breath creeping from the jungle to mingle with the heavy scent of the last consignment of sugar from the Popri valley. It brought him to a melancholy standstill, disturbed at last by Gongi touching him on the arm and pointing towards the post-office. His language to Gongi was strong; he called the place by names that were not polite; and even on the threshold of the official domain said that the Devil would have his last big muster there. But from that instant his glibness declined. The squatters are the aristocracy of Australia, and rural postmasters are not always considered eligible for a dinner-party at Government House; but when Louis Bachelor came forward to meet his visitor the young fellow’s fingers quickly caught his hat from his head, and an off-hand greeting became a respectful salute.
At first the young man was awed by the presence of the grizzled gentleman, and he struggled with his language to bring it up to the classic level of the old Huguenot’s speech. "Huguenot" is used figuratively, though the young squatter came to know subsequently that Louis Bachelor was descended from a family part Irish, part French. But there was something more than Celt and Gaul in the man, s steadying quality of race of discipline that made him, even in this humble position, a little grand and more than a little grave. Before they had spoken a dozen words Field Osgood said to himself: “What a quaint team he and the Maid of Honor would make! It’s the same kind of thing in both, with the difference of sex and circumstance.” The nature of his visitor’s business pleased the old man, and infused his courtesy with warmth. Yes, he would go to Wandenong with pleasure; the Government had communicated with him about it; a substitute had been offered; he was quite willing to take his first leave in four years; astronomy was a great subject, he had a very good and obedient telescope of his own, though not nearly so large as that at Wandenong; he would telegraph at once to Brisbane for the substitute to be sent on the following day, and would be ready to start in twenty-four hours; after visiting Wandenong he would go to Brisbane for some scientific necessaries—and so on through smooth parentheses of conversation. Under all the bluntness of the Bush young Osgood had a refinement which now found expression in an attempt to make himself agreeable—not a difficult task, since, thanks to his father’s tastes and a year or two at college, he had a smattering of physical science. He soon won his way to the old man’s heart and laboratory, which had been developed through years of patience and ingenious toil.
Left alone that evening in Louis Bachelor’s sitting-room, Field Osgood’s eyes were caught by a portrait on the wall, the likeness of a beautiful girl. Something about the face puzzled him. Where had he seen it? More than a little of an artist, he began to reproduce the head on paper. He put it in different poses; he added to it; he took away from it; he gave it a child’s face, preserving the one striking expression; he made it that of a woman—of an elderly, grave woman. Why, what was this? Barbara Golding! Yes; the same expression and contour of features, only many years older. He then carefully and quickly made from memory an excellent head of Barbara Golding, being careful to retain that expression. Then he tore up the other pieces of paper and waited, seeing in his hand the possibility of a romance. He would not spoil the development of the drama, of which he now held the fluttering prologue, by any blunt treatment; he would touch this and that nerve gently to see what past connection there was between:
These dim blown birds beneath an alien sky.
He mooned along in this fashion, a fashion in which his bushmen friends would not have recognized him, until his host entered. Then, in that auspicious moment when his own pipe and his companion’s cigarette were being lighted, he said: “I’ve been amusing myself with drawing since you left, sir, and I’ve produced this,” handing over the paper.
Louis Bachelor took the sketch, and, walking to the window for better light, said: “Believe me, I have a profound respect for the artistic talent. I myself once had—ah!” He had sharply paused as he saw the pencilled head, and he stood looking fixedly at it. Presently he turned slowly, came to the portrait on the wall, and compared it with that in his hand. Then, with a troubled face, he said: “You have much talent, but it is—it is too old—much too old—and very sorrowful.”
“I intended the face to show age and sorrow, Mr. Bachelor. Would not the original of that have both?”
“She had sorrow—she had sorrow—but,” and he looked sadly at the sketch again, “it is too old for her. Her face was very young—always very young.”
“But has she not sorrow now, sir?” the other persisted gently.
The gray head was shaken sadly, and the unsteady voice meditatively murmured: “Such beauty, such presence! I was but five-and-thirty then.” There was a slight pause, and then, with his hand touching the young man’s shoulder, Louis Bachelor continued: “You are young; you have a good heart; I know men. You have the sympathy of the artist—why should I not speak to you? I have been silent about it so long. You have brought the past back, I know not how, so vividly! I dream here, I work here; men come with merchandise and go again; they only bind my tongue; I am not of them: but you are different, as it seems to me, and young. God gave me a happy youth. My eyes were bright as yours, my heart as fond. You love—is it not so? Ah, you smile and blush like an honest man. Well, so much the more I can speak now. God gave me then strength and honor and love—blessed be His name! And then He visited me with sorrow, and, if I still mourn, I have peace, too, and a busy life.” Here he looked at the sketch again. “Then I was a soldier. She was my world. Ah, true love is a great thing, a great thing! She had a brother. They two with their mother were alone in the world, and we were to be married. One day at Gibraltar I received a letter from her saying that our marriage could not be, that she was going away from England; that those lines were her farewell; and that she commended me to the love of Heaven. Such a letter it was—so saintly, so unhappy, so mysterious! When I could get leave I went to England. She—they—had gone, and none knew whither; or, if any of her friends knew, none would speak. I searched for her everywhere. At last I came to Australia, and I am here, no longer searching, but waiting, for there is that above us!” His lips moved as if in prayer. “And this is all I have left of her, except memory,” he said, tenderly touching the portrait.
The young man rejoined warmly, yet with discreet sympathy: “Sir, I respect, and I hope I understand, your confidence.” Then, a little nervously: “Might I ask her name?”
The reply was spoken to the portrait: “Barbara—Barbara Golding.”
With Louis Bachelor the young squatter approached Wandenong homestead in some excitement. He had said no word to his companion about that Barbara Golding who played such a gracious part in the home of the Osgoods. He had arranged the movement of the story to his fancy, but would it occur in all as he hoped? With an amiability that was almost malicious in its adroit suggestiveness, though, to be sure, it was honest, he had induced the soldier to talk of his past. His words naturally, and always, radiated to the sun, whose image was now hidden, but for whose memory no superscription on monument or cenotaph was needed. Now it was a scrap of song, then a tale, and again a verse, by which the old soldier was delicately worked upon, until at last, as they entered the paddocks of Wandenong, stars and telescopes and even Governments had been forgotten in the personal literature of sentiment.
Yet Field Osgood was not quite at his ease. Now that it was at hand, he rather shrank from the meeting of these ancient loves. There was Barbara Golding's story not yet fathomed; yes, his plot had some flying threads which he had not yet gathered. Apart from everything else, he knew that no woman’s nerves are to be trusted. He hoped fortune would so favor him that he could arrange for the meeting of the two alone, or, at least, in his presence only. He had so far fostered this possibility by arriving at the station at nightfall. What next? He turned and looked at the soldier, a figure out of Hogarth, which even dust and travel left unspoiled. It was certain that the two should meet where Field Osgood, squatter and romancer, should be prompter, orchestra, and audience, and he alone. Vain lad! When they drew rein the young man took his companion at once to his own detached quarters known as the Barracks, and then proceeded to the house. After greetings with his family he sought Barbara Golding, who was in the schoolroom, piously employed, Agnes said, in putting the final touches to Janet’s trousseau. He went across the square to the school-room, and, looking through the window, saw that she was quite alone. A few moments later he stood at the school-room door with Louis Bachelor. With his hand on the latch he hesitated. Was it not fairer to give some warning to either? Too late! He opened the door and they entered. She was sewing, and a book lay open beside her, a faded, but stately little figure whose very garments had an air. She rose, seeing at first only Field Osgood, who greeted her and then said: “Miss Golding, I wish to introduce to you an old friend.” Then he stepped back and the two were face to face. Barbara Golding’s cheeks became pale, but she did not stir; the soldier, with an exclamation of surprise half joyful, half pathetic, took a step forward, and then became motionless also. Their eyes met and stayed intent. This was not quite what the young man had expected. At length the soldier bowed low, and the woman responded gravely. At this point Field withdrew to stand guard at the door, that the action in his strange little play should not be interrupted,
Barbara Golding’s eyes were dim with tears. The soldier gently said, “I received—” and then paused. She raised her eyes to his. “I received a letter from you—five-and-twenty years ago.”
“Yes, five-and-twenty years ago.”
“I hope you cannot guess what pain it gave me.”
“Yes,” she answered faintly, “I can conceive it, from the pain it gave to me.”
There was a pause, and then he stepped forward and, holding out his hand, said: “Will you permit me?” He kissed her fingers courteously, and she blushed. “I have waited,” he added, “for God to bring this to pass.” She shook her head sadly, and her eyes sought his beseechingly, as though he should spare her; but perhaps he could not see that. “You spoke of a great obstacle then; has it been removed?”
“It is still between us,” she murmured.
“Is it likely ever to vanish?”
“I—I do not know.”
“You cannot tell me what it is?”
“Oh, you will not ask me,” she pleaded.
He was silent a moment, then spoke. “Might I dare to hope, Barbara, that you still regard me with——” he hesitated.
The fires of a modest valor fluttered in her cheeks, and she pieced out his sentence: “With all my life’s esteem.” But she was a woman, and she added: “But I am not young now, and I am very poor.”
“Barbara,” he said; “I am not rich and I am old; but you, you have not changed; you are beautiful, as you always were.”
The moment was crucial. He stepped towards her, but her eyes held him back. He hoped that she would speak, but she only smiled sadly. He waited, but, in the waiting hope faded and he only said, at last, in a voice of new resolve grown out of dead expectancy: “Your brother,—is he well?”
“I hope so,” she somewhat painfully replied.
“Is he in Australia?”
“Yes. I have not seen him for years, but he is here.”
As if a thought had suddenly come to him, he stepped nearer, and made as if he would speak; but the words halted on his lips, and he turned away again. She glided to his side and touched his arm. “I am glad that you trust me,” she faltered.
“There is no more that need be said,” he answered.
And now, woman-like, denying, she pitied, too. “If I ever can, shall,—shall I send for you to tell you all?” she murmured.
“You remember I told you that the world had but one place for me, and that was by your side; that where you are, Barbara——”
“Hush, oh hush!” she interrupted gently. “Yes, I remember everything.”
“There is no power can alter what is come of Heaven,” he said, smiling faintly.
She looked with limpid eyes upon him as he bowed over her hand, and she spoke with a sweet calm: “God be with you, Louis.”
Strange as it may seem, Field Osgood did not tell his sisters and his family of this romance which he had brought to the vivid close of a first act. He felt,—the more so because Louis Bachelor had said no word about it, but had only pressed his hand again and again—that he was somehow put upon his honor, and he thought it a fine thing to stand on a platform of unspoken compact with this gentleman of a social school unfamiliar to him; from which it may be seen that cattle-breeding and bullock-driving need not make a man a boor. What his sisters guessed when they found that Barbara Golding and the visitor were old friends is another matter; but they could not pierce their brother’s reserve on the point.
No one at Wandenong saw the parting between the two when Louis Bachelor, his task with the telescope ended, left again for the coast; but indeed it might have been seen by all men, so outwardly formal was it, even as their brief conversations had been since they met again. But is it not known by those who look closely upon the world that there is nothing so tragic as the formal?
Field Osgood accompanied his friend to the sea, but the name of Barbara Golding was not mentioned, nor was any reference made to her until the moment of parting. Then the elder man said: “Sir, your consideration and delicacy of feeling have moved me, and touched her. We have not been blind to your singular kindness of heart and courtesy, and,——God bless you, my friend!”
On his way back to Wandenong, Osgood heard exciting news of Roadmaster. The word had been passed among the squatters who had united to avenge Finchley’s death, that the bushranger was to be shot on sight, that he should not be left to the uncertainty of the law. The latest exploit of the daring freebooter had been to stop on the plains, two members of a Royal Commission of Inquiry. He had relieved them of such money as was in their pockets, and then had caused them to write sumptuous cheques on their banks, payable to bearer. These he had cashed in the very teeth of the law, and actually paused in the street to read a description of himself posted on a telegraph-pole. “Inaccurate, quite inaccurate,” he said to a bystander as he drew his riding-whip slowly along it, and then, mounting his horse rode leisurely away into the plains. Had he been followed it would have been seen that he directed his course to that point in the horizon where Wandenong lay, and held to it.
It would not perhaps have been pleasant to Agnes Osgood had she known that, as she hummed a song under a she-oak a mile away from the homestead, a man was watching her from a clump of scrub near by; a man who, however gentlemanly his bearing, had a face where the devil of despair had set his foot, and who carried in his pocket more than one weapon of inhospitable suggestion. But the man intended no harm to her, for, while she sang, something seemed to smooth away the active evil of his countenance, and to dispel a threatening alertness that marked the whole personality.
Three hours later this same man crouched by the drawing-room window of the Wandenong homestead and looked in, listening to the same voice and sighing once or twice as he listened, until Barbara Golding entered the room and took a seat near the piano, with her face turned full towards him. Then he forgot the music and looked long at the face, and at last rose, and stole silently to where his horse was tied in the scrub. He mounted, and turning towards the house muttered: “A little more of this, and good-bye to my nerves! But it’s pleasant to have the taste of it in my mouth for a minute. How would it look in Roadmaster’s biography, that a girl just out of school brought the rain to his eyes?” He laughed a little bitterly, and then went on: “Poor Barbara! She mustn’t know while I’m alive. Stretch out, my nag; we’ve a long road to travel to-night.”
Yes, this was Edward Golding, the brother whom Barbara thought was still in prison at Sydney under another name, serving a term of fifteen years for manslaughter. If she had read the papers more carefully she would have known that he had been released two years before his time was up. It was eight years since she had seen him. Twice since then she had gone to visit him, but he would not see her. Bad as he had been, his desire was still strong that the family name should not be publicly reviled. At his trial his real name had not been made known; and at his request his sister sent him no letters. She had spoken to him but thrice in fifteen years. He had always persisted in his innocence, and it appeared to be established that he had not struck the fatal blow at the gambling brawl, but he was considered an accessory, and condemned as such. Going into gaol a reckless man he came out a constitutional criminal; that is, with the natural instinct for crime greater than the instinct for morality. He turned bushranger for one day, as he vowed to himself, to get money to take him out of the country; but having once entered the lists he left them no more, and, playing at deadly joust with the law, soon became known as Roadmaster, the most noted bushranger since the days of Captain Moonlight.
It was forgery on the name of his father’s oldest friend that drove him and his from England. He had the choice of leaving his native land for ever or going to prison, and he chose the former. The sorrow of the crime killed his mother. From Adelaide, where he and Barbara had made their new home, he wandered to the far interior and afterwards to Sydney; then came his imprisonment, and now he was free-but what a freedom!
With the name of Roadmaster often heard at Wandenong, Barbara Golding’s heart had no warning instinct of who the bushranger was. She thought only and continuously of the day when her brother should be released, to begin the race of life again with her. She had yet to learn in what manner they come to the finish who make a false start.
Louis Bachelor, again in his place Rahway, tried to drive away his guesses at the truth by his beloved science. When sleep would not come at night he rose and worked in his laboratory; and the sailors of many a passing vessel saw the light of his lamp in the dim hours before dawn, and spoke of fever in the port of Rahway. Nor did they speak without reason; fever was preparing a victim for the sacrifice at Rahway, and Louis Bachelor was fed with its poison till he grew haggard and weak.
One night at this time he was sending his weather prognostications to Brisbane, when a stranger entered from the shore. The old man did not at first look up, and the other leisurely studied him as the sounder clicked its message. When the key was closed the new-comer said: “Can you send a message to Brisbane for me?” “It is after hours; I cannot,” was the reply. “But you were just sending one.” “That was official,” and the elder man passed his hand wearily along his forehead. He was very pale. The other drew the telegraph-forms towards him and wrote on one, saying as he did so: “My business is important;” then handing over what he had written, and, smiling ironically, added: “Perhaps you will consider that official.”
Louis Bachelor took the paper and read as follows: “To the Colonial Secretary, Brisbane. I am here to-night; to-morrow find me. Roadmaster, the Bushranger” He read it twice before he fully comprehended it. Then he said, as if awakening from a dream: “You are——” “I am Roadmaster,” was the complement to the unfinished sentence.
But now the soldier and official in the other were awake. He drew himself up, and appeared to measure his visitor as a swordsman would his enemy. “What is your object in coming here?” he asked. “For you to send that message if you choose. That you may arrest me peaceably if you wish; or otherwise, there are men at The Angel’s Rest and a Chinaman or two here who might care for active service against Roadmaster.” And he laughed carelessly. “Am I to understand that you give yourself up to me?” “Yes, to you, Louis Bachelor, Justice of the Peace, to do what you will with for this night,” was the reply.
The soldier’s hands trembled, but it was from imminent illness, not from fear or excitement. He came slowly towards the bushranger who, smiling, said as he advanced: “Yes, arrest me!” Louis Bachelor raised his hand, as though to lay it on the shoulder of the other; but something in the eyes of the highwayman stayed his hand. “Proceed! Proceed, Captain Louis Bachelor,” said Roadmaster in a changed tone. The hand fell to the old man’s side. “Who are you?” he faintly exclaimed. “I know you yet I cannot quite remember.”
More and more the voice and manner of the outlaw altered as he replied, with mocking bitterness: “I was Edward Golding, gentleman; I became Edward Golding, forger; I am Roadmaster, ex-convict and bushranger.”
The old man’s state was painful to see. More than fever was making him haggard now. “You—you—that! Edward?” he uttered brokenly. “Yes, all that. Will you arrest me now, sir?”—“I—cannot.”
And now the bushranger threw aside all bravado and irony, and said: “I knew you could not. Why did I come? Listen! But first, will you shelter me here to-night?”
The soldier’s honorable soul rose up against this thing, but he said slowly at last: “If it is to save you from peril, yes.”
Roadmaster laughed a little and rejoined: “By ——, sir, you’re a man! I only wanted to know if you would do it. But it isn’t likely that I’d accept it of you, is it, Captain Bachelor? You’ve had it rough enough, without my putting a rock in your swag that would spoil you for the rest of the tramp. You see, I’ve even forgotten how to talk like a gentleman. And now, sir, I want to show you, for Barbara’s sake, my dirty log-book.” Here he told the tale of his early sin and all that came of it, and then went on. “She didn’t want to disgrace you, you understand,” he said. “You were at Wandenong; I know that, never mind how. She’d marry you if I were out of the way. Well, I’m going to be out of the way. I’m going to leave this country, and she’s to think I’m dead, you see.”
At this point Louis Bachelor swayed, and would have fallen, but that the bushranger’s arms were thrown round him and helped him to a chair. “I’m afraid that I am ill,” he said; “call Gongi. No, no, you cannot do that. Ah!” He had fainted.
The bushranger carried him to a bed and summoned Gongi and the woman from the tavern, and in another hour was riding away through the valley of the Popri. Before thirty-six hours had passed a note was delivered at Wandenong addressed to Barbara Golding, and signed by the woman from The Angel’s Rest. Within another two days Barbara Golding was at the bedside of Captain Louis Bachelor, battling with an enemy that is so often stronger than love and always kinder than shame.
In his wanderings the sick man was always with his youth and early manhood, and again and again he uttered Barbara’s name in caressing or entreaty; though it was the Barbara of far-off days that he invoked; the present one he did not know.
It was on this day that Roadmaster found himself at bay in the mangrove swamp not far from the port of Rahway, where he had expected to find a schooner to take him to the New Hebrides. It had been arranged for by a well-paid colleague in crime; but the storm had delayed the schooner, and the avenging squatters and bushmen were closing in on him at last. There was flood behind him in the valley, a foodless swamp on the left of him, open shore and jungle on the right, the swollen sea before him; and the only avenue of escape closed by Blood Finchley’s friends. He had been eluding his pursuers for days with little food and worse than no sleep. He knew that he had played his last card and lost; but he had one thing yet to do, that which even the vilest do, if they can, before they pay the final penalty—to creep back for a moment into their honest past, however dim and far away. With incredible skill he had passed under the very rifles of his hunters, and now stood almost within the stream of light which came from the window of the sick man’s room, where his sister was. There was to be no more hiding, no more strategy. He told Gongi and another that he was Roadmaster, and bid them say to his pursuers, should they appear, that he would come to them upon the shore when his visit to Louis Bachelor, whom he had known in other days, was over, indicating the place at some distance from the house where they would find him. He knew that these men would not make a breach of this invited contract, that they would give even a bushranger that moment of shrift.
He entered the house. The noise of the opening door brought his sister to the room. One need not tell of that meeting, nor of what it might have been had Barbara Golding known all.
At last she said: “Oh, Edward, you are free at last!”
“Yes, I am free at last,” he quietly replied.
“I have always prayed for you, Edward, and for this.”
“I know that, Barbara; but prayer cannot do anything, can it? You see, though I was born a gentleman, I had a bad strain in me. I wonder if, somewhere, generations back, there was a pirate or a gypsy in our family.” He had been going to say highwayman, but paused in time. “I always intended to be good and always ended by being bad. I wanted to be of the angels and play with the devils also. I liked saints,—you are a saint, Barbara—but I loved all sinners too. I hope when—when I die, that the little bit of good that’s in me will go where you are. For the rest of me, it must be as it may.”
“Don’t speak like that, Edward, please, dear. Yes, you have been wicked, but you have been punished, oh, those long, long years!”
“I’ve lost a great slice of life by both the stolen waters and the rod, but I’m going to reform now, Barbara.”
“You are going to reform! Oh, I knew you would! God has answered my prayer.” How her eyes lighted.
He did not immediately speak again, for his ears, keener than hers, were listening to a confused sound of voices coming from the shore. At length he spoke firmly: “Yes, I’m going to reform, but it’s on one condition.”
Her eyes mutely asked a question, and he replied: “That you marry him,” pointing to the inner room, “if he lives.”
“He will live, but I,—I cannot tell him, Edward,” she sadly said.
“He knows! Did you dare to tell him?” It was the lover, not the sister, who spoke then.
“Yes. And he knows also that I’m going to reform,—that I’m going away.”
Her face was hid in her hand. “And I kept it from him five-and-twenty years!—Where are you going, Edward?”
“To the Farewell Islands,” he slowly replied.
And she, thinking he meant some island group in the Pacific, tearfully inquired: “Are they far away?”
“Yes, very far away, my girl.”
“But you will write to me or come to see me again—you will come to see me again, sometimes, Edward?”
He paused. He knew not at first what to reply, but at length he said, with a strangely determined flash of his dark eyes: “Yes, Barbara, I will come to see you again—if I can.” He stooped and kissed her. “Good-bye, Barbara.”
“But, Edward, must you go to-night?”
“Yes, I must go now. They are waiting for me. Good-bye.”
She would have stayed him but he put her gently back, and she said plaintively: “God keep you, Edward. Remember you said that you would come again to me.”
“I shall remember,” he said quietly, and was gone.
Standing in the light from the window of the sick man’s room he wrote a line in Latin on a slip of paper, (a remembered scrap of his boyhood's studies) begging of Louis Bachelor the mercy of silence, and gave it to Gongi, who whispered that he was surrounded. This he knew; he had not studied sounds in prison through the best years of his life for nothing. He asked Gongi to give the note to his master when he was better, and when it could be done unseen of any one. Then he turned and walked coolly towards the shore.
Two hours after he lay upon a heap of magnolia branches breathing his life away. And at the same moment of time that a rough but kindly hand closed the eyes of the bushranger, the woman from The Angel’s Rest and Louis Bachelor saw the pale face of Roadmaster peer through the bedroom window at Barbara Golding sitting in a chair asleep; and she started and said through her half-wakefulness, looking at the window: “Where are you going, Edward?”