The Moving Finger (Mary Gaunt)/Christmas Eve at Warwingie
CHRISTMAS EVE AT WARWINGIE
It was a comfortable place, the wide verandah at Warwingie, a place much used by the Warners on all occasions, save during the heat of the day—but the long hot day was drawing to a close now. Slowly the sun was sinking over the forest-clad hills. The heat haze which had hung all day over the eastern outlet to the gully cleared, the faraway blue ranges grew more distinct, and the creeper-covered verandah was once more a pleasant place to lounge in. From the untidy, half-reclaimed garden, came the sound of children's voices, subdued by the distance, and the gentle lowing of the milkers in the stockyard behind the house. But no one came on to the verandah to disturb Tom Hollis and Bessie Warner, the eldest daughter of the house—perhaps they knew better—and yet these two did not seem to have much to say to each other. He leaned discontentedly against one of the posts, moodily staring out into the blue distance, and every now and again flicking his riding boot with his whip; but she looked happy enough as she swung herself slowly backwards and forwards in a rocking-chair, her hands clasped behind her head. Such a pretty girl, oh, such a pretty girl, she was—so dainty and pink and white. Her rosy lips were just parted in a smile; the long, level beams of the setting sun, falling on her through the passion vine, lingered lovingly in her golden hair, and made a delicate tracery as of fine lace work, on her pink gingham gown. Such a pretty picture she made, rocking slowly backwards and forwards, thought her companion, but he dared not say so. And then too it was so hot and so still it was hardly wonderful they were silent.
Silence seemed more in keeping with the quiet evening. They could not agree, and yet they could not quarrel openly. He brought his eyes back from the hills at length to the girl's fair face.
"Oh, Bessie," he said almost in a whisper, "oh, Bessie——"
"Now, Tom," she interrupted, "now, Tom, do be quiet; whatever is the good of going all over it again?"
"If you could only like me a little," he sighed miserably.
"Like you a little! I have liked you a good deal more than a little all my life—but there's where it is. I know you a great deal too well. I like you, oh yes, I believe I may say I love you quite as well even as my own brothers, but—marry you, no thank you. I have lived all my life up here at Warwingie, up among the hills, and I 'm just tired of the monotony of it. Nothing ever happens, nothing ever will happen, I suppose; it 's most horribly unexciting; but anyhow I don't see I 'd better matters by going and living alone with you at Tuppoo, even if you 'd take me on such terms, which, of course, you wouldn't."
"You know I would," he said drearily.
"Don't be so foolish, Tom Hollis," said Bessie sharply, rocking away faster than ever. "You know you wouldn't do any such thing. You 'd despise yourself if you did. Why don't you despise me?—I 'm sure I 'm showing myself in an extremely disagreeable light for your benefit."
"But I know you, you see. I know you so thoroughly," he said; "and I'd give—I'd give——"
"There, for goodness' sake, stop, and let 's hear no more of it. I can't and won't marry you—it 'd be too slow. I don't want to live on the other side of the ranges all the rest of my life. If I 've got to live here at all, this is the nicest side, and I 've Lydia and the children for company, to say nothing of papa and the boys—besides, you 'll come over sometimes."
"I shan't," he said, sullenly, "I shan't. If you don't take me, I 'll not come here to be made a fool of. I shan't come again."
"Don't talk nonsense," she said calmly; "you will; you 'll forget all this rubbish, and be my own dear old Tom again. I should miss you so dreadfully if I didn't see you three or four times a week."
A gleam of hope Hashed into his sad brown eyes, and passionate words of love and tenderness trembled on his lips, but, for once in his love-making, he was wise, and turning, gazed silently down the gully again. She would miss him—very well then, she should; he would go away, and not come back for a month at least. The only fear was lest in the meantime some one else might not woo and win her. Those brothers of hers were always bringing some fellow to the house. However—— A bell inside rang furiously, and five boys and girls, ranging between the ages of twelve and three, came racing in from all corners of the garden. Bessie rose from her chair, and shook out her skirts.
"That 's tea," she said; "you won't mind a nursery tea with the children, will you? Lydia and I always have it when papa 's away. The Campbell girls are here too. Harry, you know, is very much in love with Dora, and, like a good sister, I 'm helping on the match. Aren't you coming?"
He had intended to decline, but she put her hand on his arm in the old familiar way, and he weakly gave in.
"Aren't you dull, all you women alone?" he asked.
"No, sir, of course not; besides, they 'll all be home to-morrow for Christmas."
"They 're at Kara, aren't they?"
"Yes, that bothering old Wilson always has a muster at the most inconvenient times. They want to be home, of course, so they 've taken every man on the place to help. Dick, at the mature age of ten, is our sole male protector."
"They can be back to-morrow, though?"
"Oh, yes; they 're bound to be here pretty early too. It's Christmas Day, you know—at least——. Why, what was that?"
She paused on the doorstep and listened.
"Some one coming into the yard," said Hollis. "They must have got away earlier than they expected."
A sharp cry—an exclamation of fear and terror, and men's voices raised, loud and peremptory.
"That's not——" began Bessie, but Hollis pushed past her into the house. It was a bush house built in the usual primitive style of bush architecture, with all the rooms opening one into the other and dispensing with passages altogether. The dining-room, a big sparsely furnished room, had doors both front and back, and looked on the yard behind as well as on the garden. The table was laid for a substantial tea. Mrs. Warner, Bessie's stepmother, a good-looking woman of thirty, was at the head of the table with the tea-pot in her hand, but the children had left their places and clustered round her; two other girls of sixteen and eighteen were clinging to one another in a corner, and two women servants, raw Irish emigrants, were peering curiously out into the yard, where half a dozen horses and men were now standing. The cook, an old assigned servant, had taken in the situation at once, had made for the dining-room followed by the other two, and was now sitting in the arm-chair, her apron over her head, beating the ground with her feet.
Hollis saw it all at a glance—the big dining-room, the frightened women, the silent children, the sunlit yard beyond, the horses hitched to the post and rail fence, the half dozen bearded blackguardly men, with pistols and knives in their belts—noted it all, even to the blue and white draped cradle in the corner of the room, and the motes dancing in the sunbeams that poured in through the end windows—noted it all, and looked down on the girl at his side.
"Oh, my God!" he muttered, "it 's the Mopoke's gang, and——."
He was unarmed, but he looked round vaguely for a second. Two of the men stepped into the doorway and covered him with their pistols.
"Bail up, you ——-," said the shorter of the two, a man in a dirty red shirt and torn straw hat, who was evidently the leader of the party, "bail up; throw up your hands, or ——," and he added such a string of vile oaths that Bessie, shuddering, covered her face with her hands. Hollis did not at once obey, and in a second a shot rang out and his right hand fell helpless at his side—shot through the wrist.
"If the gent prefers to keep 'em down, I 'm sure we 're allus ready to oblige," said the little man, with grim pleasantry, interlarding his speech with a variety of choice epithets. "Now then, mate, back you steps agin that wall—and Bill," to the other man, "you just let daylight in if he so much as stirs a finger."
Hollis leaned up against the wall, stunned for a moment, for the bullet had smashed one of the bones of his wrist, and torn a gaping wound from which the blood was trickling down his fingers on to the carpet, but with the armed bushranger in front of him he realized the utter hopelessness of his position. Help himself he could not, but he never thought of himself, he never thought even of the other helpless women and children; his heart had only room for one thought—Bessie, pretty dainty Bessie, the belle of the country side. How would she fare at the hands of ruffians like these? He would die for her gladly, gladly, but his death could be of no avail. The men had come in now, and he scanned them one by one, brutal, cruel, convict faces, sullen and lowering; the only one that showed signs of good humour was that of the leader of the band, and his good humour was the more terrible as it seemed to prove how certain he was of them and how utterly they were in his power.
"You will kindly all stand round the room, with your backs to the wall, so I can take a good look at you, an' you can impress my 'aughty features on your minds—kids an' all, back you go. I 'm sorry to inconvenience you, Mrs. Warner, but you must just let the babby cry a bit. I can't have you a-movin about a-obstructin' my men in the execution of their dooty."
The baby in the cradle had wakened up at the shot, had cried uneasily, and now not having been noticed was wailing pitifully, but its mother dared not move. She stood by the window, the two youngest children hanging on to her skirts, a strong-minded, capable woman, who had all her wits about her, but she too saw clearly they were caught in a trap. She looked across at Hollis, but he could only shake his head. There was nothing to be done, nothing.
A man stood on guard at each door, while the other four went through the house; they could hear them yelling and shouting to one another, pulling the furniture about, and every now and then firing off a shot in simple devilment, as if to show their prisoners that they had made sure of their prey and feared no interruption. The baby cried on, and the sunshine stole gradually up the wall; up and up it crept to the ceiling, and the clock ticked noisily on the mantelshelf—but there was no change, no hope for them. A crash of broken wood and glass told them that the bushrangers had found the store-room, and had made short work of bolts and bars. There were spirits stored there, brandy in plenty, as Bessie and her stepmother knew full well, and Hollis scanning their faces read clearly their thoughts—what chance would they have once these men began to drink! Ghastly stories of the bushranging days of Van Diemen's Land rose before him, of innocent children murdered, of helpless women, and a groan burst from his lips as he thought that the woman he loved was in the power of men like these.
Bessie started forward, though the man at the door pointed his pistol straight at her.
"Oh, Tom," she cried, "oh, Tom!"
"You go back," ordered the guard angrily.
"Don't be so hard," said Bessie, suddenly. "You've got us safe enough. What can a lot of women and a wounded man do against you? You look kind," she added, "do let me give baby to his mother, it 's wearying to everybody to hear him crying like that, and let me bind up Mr. Hollis's hand, oh, please do."
Her voice trembled at first, but she gained courage as she went on. She looked the man straight in the face, and she was very pretty.
He told her so with a coarse oath that sent the shamed blood to her face, and then crossed the room and spoke to the other man.
They whispered for a moment, and then curtly told the woman they intended to hold Hollis surety for them. If any one attempted to escape, they would, they said, "take it out of his skin." Then one rejoined his comrades, while the other lolled against the doorpost, his pistol in his hand.
Lydia Warner crossed the room and gathered her baby in her arms, and Bessie stepped to Hollis's side.
"Oh, Tom," she whispered, "oh, Tom—"
"Hush, dear, hush—here they come."
They came trooping in with coarse jokes and rough horseplay, bearing with them spoils from Lydia Warner's well-filled storeroom, among them an unopened case of battle-axe brandy. This was the centre of attraction. For a moment even the man on guard craned his neck to watch, as the leader of the gang, the man they called the Mopoke, produced a chisel and a hammer and proceeded to open it.
Their prisoners took the opportunity to whisper together, Mrs. Warner joining her stepdaughter and Hollis.
"What can we do, Tom, oh, what can we do? They are beginning to drink now, and——"
"Slip away if you can, you and Bessie."
"No, no, they will shoot you—besides, we can't."
Bessie was binding up his wrist, and Mrs. Warner, bending over it, seemed to be giving her advice. The bushrangers had opened the case and were knocking off the heads of the bottles and drinking the brandy out of tea-cups, but the Mopoke looked over his shoulder almost as if he had heard them, and briefly reminded them that he held Hollis responsible, and that if any of them "sneaked off" he 'd shoot Hollis "an' make no bones about it, for we ain't a-come here to be."
"Nevertheless," muttered Hollis, "one of you must go—Bessie, I think. They'll be mad with drink soon, and once drink's in them there's no knowing what they 'll do to any of us—go, dear, go——"
"I can't, I can't." The girl's hands were trembling, as she bound her handkerchief round his wrist, and the tears were in her eyes. Creep away to safety and leave him to die—how could she!
He said again, "Go, Bessie, go, they'll never miss you; it's really our only chance—you don't know what they'll do by and by."
"Lydia, you go." Bessie slipped her hand into Hollis's uninjured one and held it tight. Even in his anxiety and misery he felt in her clasp, he read in her eyes, a something that had not been there half an hour ago. Oh, to be safe once more, to be free to woo and win her.
"I can't leave the children," said Mrs. Warner; "the Campbell girls are no good, and besides, Tom wants you to go, don't you, Tom?"
He nodded. It was true enough; he was wild with anxiety to get her away. He would risk his life gladly—thankfully lay it down, if only he could be assured that Bessie was across the ranges safe in the Commissioner's camp at Tin-pot Gully, and for the other women, their danger would be the same whether she went or stayed.
Bessie clasped his hand tighter and leaned her face against his arm for one brief second, while her stepmother went on.
"As soon as it 's dark slip out, and I must try and keep them amused. Dora can sing a little and I can play. Go straight across the ranges, and if—and if—I mean, tell your father. Oh, Bessie dear, make haste."
She left them and joined the others, pausing a moment like a brave woman to speak to the leader of the band, and so give Bessie a chance of a last word with Hollis.
The sun had gone down now and darkness had fallen. The room was wrapped in gloom, and Bessie mechanically watched her stepmother draw down the blinds and light a couple of candles on the table, which, while they illuminated the circle of bushrangers, only threw into deeper darkness the corners of the room.
"You will go, dear," muttered Hollis, "if only for the sake of that plucky woman."
"I will do what you tell me," she whispered. "I can't bear to leave you, Tom; if they should find out they will kill you. Oh, Tom, Tom!"
"They won't find out," he said soothingly. "They haven't counted you, nor noticed you much yet. And Mrs. Warner is wonderfully plucky. You ought to try and save her and those girls. Bessie, you don't know what fiends those men can be."
"Yes I do," she said, and he felt her hand tremble; "that is why I don't want to anger them. They have made you responsible, and I 'm afraid—I 'm afraid to leave. Don't you think they 'll go in an hour or two—just take what they want and go?"
"No, I don't," he said. "They are in for a drinking bout now, and God knows what they'll do before it's ended. Darling, for your own sake—for the sake of the others, for my sake, even—you must risk it and get away if you can. We ought to have help before midnight."
"Bessie," said Mrs. Warner, "come and help me to put the two little ones to bed. Mr.—I beg his pardon—Captain Mopoke says he doesn't mind."
"None of your larks now, missis," said the Mopoke; "you jest mind what yer about, or I 'll let daylight into yer gallant defender there."
"That 's the way," whispered Hollis tenderly; "go now—go, dear."
She lifted his hand to her breast in the obscurity, and stooping, laid her face against it.
"My darling," he said passionately, "God bless you, my darling; it will be all right, I know. And remember, dear—you won't be angry—remember, I have loved you so. I think I have always loved you, Bessie."
The men round the table were in high good humour, joking with each other and the two Irish servants, who were beginning to think that being "stuck up" was not so terrible after all, while the cook took her apron from her face and joined in the chaff. Hollis was thankful for it. It enabled him to say what he had to say unobserved, for even his guard, feeling sure of him, gave more heed to his comrades' sayings and doings. His broken wrist made him feel sick and faint, and it was only by a strong effort of will he kept his senses at all. If only he could see Bessie safe out of it!
"Go, dear," he whispered again, "go to Mrs. Warner."
"Tom," she whispered, her face still against his hand, "I love you, Tom. I did not know it this afternoon, but I do now. I love you, I love you."
"Bessie!" Mrs. Warner's voice sounded imperative. "Are you never coming?"
"God bless you, my darling!"
He pushed her gently from him, but at the bedroom door, where her stepmother stood waiting for her, she looked back into the dimly-lighted room. The light from the two candles shone on the bushrangers' faces, gleamed on the pistol barrels in their belts, on the dainty china, the glass, and the silver, but all the rest of the room was in gloom. She knew the other women were there, knew the children were there—they were dimly discernible in the corners. She could even see Hollis, but when she looked again the candles stretched out in long beams which reached her eyes and blinded her, and she turned to wipe away her tears.
"Now then, Bessie," said her stepmother, "go, dear—quick, quick. You 'll never be missed in the dark, and I 'll light plenty of candles now, and dazzle the Mopoke. Go, Bessie, go."
There was no time for words. They were very fond of one another, those two—fonder than women in their position often are—and Lydia Warner drew her husband's daughter towards her and kissed her tenderly.
"Everything depends on you, Bessie," she said, with a break in her voice, and then she opened the long French window of her bedroom, and Bessie stepped outside, and the door was softly shut behind her.
It was very dark now, very dark indeed, and very still. Quite plainly she could hear the voices and laughter within, and she stood still on the verandah for a moment to collect her thoughts, and let her eyes get accustomed to the gloom. It was a perfect summer's night, hot and still—not a breath of wind stirred the leaves on the trees. Far away from the reed beds at the bottom of the gully came the mournful wail of the curlews, and the whimper of the dingoes rose over the ranges. Overhead in the velvety sky the stars hung low like points of gold. It was so peaceful, so calm this glorious summer's night, this eve of the great festival which should bring to all men good tidings of peace and joy. Could it possibly be that murder and rapine were abroad on such a night as this? Could it possibly be that those nearest and dearest to her were in deadly danger?
It was seven miles, at the very least, to Tin-pot Gully, or, as it was beginning to be called, Toroke—seven miles round by the road, though it was only three across the ranges. But then she did not know the way across the ranges, the bush was dense and close, there was no track, and she might easily be lost for a week there. The only alternative was the road, and it would take her two hours at least to walk, and what might not happen in two hours? She could dimly see the buildings in the yard now, the stable, the cowshed, her father's office, the men's hut, the post-and-rail fence of the stockyards beyond, with the bushrangers' horses hitched to it all in a row. It struck her forcibly how secure, how safe, they must have felt thus to have left their horses, their only means of escape, alone and unguarded. Should she let them go? Should she drive them away? And then another thought flashed into her mind. Why not make use of one of these horses? Whatever she did must be done quickly, and if only she could ride she might bring help in very little over the hour. In an hour not much harm could happen, surely. Surely they might spend their Christmas yet at Warwingie in peace and happiness. Her father would not return to find his home desolate, and Tom—Tom—but no, she dared not think of Tom. Only this afternoon she had laughed his love to scorn, and now there came back to her his face drawn with pain, but full of love and tenderness and thought for her—the sun-bronzed face with soft brown eyes, giving not one thought to himself, not one thought to the life he was risking for her sake. The danger was lest she should be heard. And then, if they shot him, as she most firmly believed they would, what would her life be worth. Not worth living, thought Bessie Warner, as she stole softly up to the horse nearest the slip panels that led out into the home paddock. She had not been born and bred in the bush for nothing, and if she could once get the horse out of the yard half her troubles would be over.
"Woa, horse," she said softly, putting out her hand and patting his neck, "woa, good horse;" but he started back to the utmost limit of his halter, and showed his fear so plainly that she shrunk back in terror lest the noise of his movements should bring out one of the gang. Trembling she took shelter inside the open stable door, her heart beating so hard it seemed to deafen her. The big chestnut settled down quietly again before she ventured out, and this time she picked out a little dark horse. There was a big, quiet-looking white beside him, but though he stretched out his nose to be patted she rejected him because of his colour. Even in the dim light he was clearly visible across the yard, and his absence would be noted at once, while possibly the darker horse would not be so soon missed. He was fairly quiet as she unfastened the reins, which were buckled round one of the rails in the fence. Then she paused with them in her hand, and the desperateness of the venture nearly overwhelmed her. The night seemed quite light to her now. The outlines of the house were plainly marked against the sky, and all the windows were brilliantly lighted up—evidently Lydia had promptly carried out her intentions. Then a child's cry, loud and shrill, broke on the air, and Bessie started. Woa, good horse, go softly now, for life and death hang on the next few moments. The beating of her own heart nearly choked her—her own light footsteps sounded in her ears like the march of a hundred men, and every moment she expected one of those long windows to open and the bushrangers to come rushing out, for not a regiment of cavalry, it seemed to her, could have made more noise than that solitary horse moving quietly behind her. She kept on the grass as much as possible, but it seemed an age before she had reached the slip-panels. They were down as the bushrangers had left them, and she looked back. No, it was impossible to distinguish anything in the yard. The horses even were one blurred mass; unless they inspected them closely her theft could not be detected. It was so still and so dark—never in her life had she been out at night alone before. The noises frightened her, and the silence was still more terrifying. The cry of the curlews was like a child in pain, and the deep, loud croak of a bullfrog from a water-hole close at hand seemed ominous of disaster. She shrank up close beside the dumb animal for companionship and gave another frightened glance back. Then she pulled herself together—this would never do. For Tom's sake, for Lydia's sake, for the children's sake, but most of all for Tom's sake, she must be brave and cool. If she would save them she must not give way to such vague imaginings. Surely she might venture to mount now. She led the horse up to one of the numerous logs that lay strewn about the paddock, and flinging the off-stirrup to the near side to form a rest for her right foot, she climbed on the log and prepared to mount. Often and often she had ridden so—a man's saddle presented no difficulties; but now to her dismay the horse started back in affright at the first touch of her woman's draperies. If he refused to carry her what should she do? Should she let the horse go? No, that would never do. She made another effort, and at last scrambled into the saddle, how she could not have told herself, but once there she kept her seat, for the black, though he plunged and snorted for a moment, soon settled down into a rough canter towards the main road. It was not easy going on the run, and even when she reached the road it was not much better, for it was only a bush road, unreclaimed, full of stones and stumps and holes, while the heavy bush on either side made it so dark there was very little chance of seeing the danger. Lucky for the girl she was a good horsewoman. She kept urging her horse on, and he responded gallantly, but more than once he stumbled, and had she not had an excellent seat she must have fallen. But he picked himself up sturdily and pushed on. Good horse, brave horse, it can't be more than four miles now. On either side stood the tall trees dimly outlined against the dark sky, and the Southern Cross—the great constellation of Australasian skies—hung right in front of her. She caught sight of it the moment she turned into the road. It was there every night of the year of course, but looking straight at the golden stars it seemed to Bessie it had been sent to her this Christmas Eve to comfort and encourage her—a sign and a token that all would be well with her and hers.
Then she heard sounds of voices ahead and the gleam of a fire, and she drew rein smartly. No one would she trust, no one dared she trust, save the Commissioner at Toroke, and who would these people be camped by the roadside? The district had a bad name, the times were troubled, and a helpless woman might well be excused for pausing; but she had no time to waste, she must take all risks, and she brought her reins down smartly across her horse's neck, and he started forward at a gallop. There was a shout and a curse, and she saw three figures start up round the fire, and then she found bullocks rising up all round her, and knew that she had come on a bullock driver's camp. A regular volley of curses burst on her as she scattered the bullocks in all directions, but she dared not stop—how could she trust herself to men like these?—and faster and faster she urged her horse forward. He stumbled more than once in the rough roadway, but at last the sound of voices died away, and looking back the fire was but a bright speck in the darkness. On again, up a steep hill where for very pity's sake she must needs draw rein and let her horse pick his way carefully, up and up, till after what seemed interminable now she found herself on top of the ridge overlooking Tin-pot Gully. The gully was but a narrow cleft among the surrounding ranges, where in winter flowed a creek the banks of which had proved wonderfully rich in gold, and the rush had been proportionately great. It had been a pretty creek a year ago, trickling down amidst ferns and creeper-covered rocks, and so lonely that only an occasional boundary rider in search of stray cattle had visited it; but now it was swarming with life, and was reduced to the dull dead level of an ordinary diggers' camp. The tall forest trees had been cut down, and only their blackened stumps were left; the dainty ferns and grasses and creepers had all disappeared before the pick and shovel, and rough windlasses, whips, and heaps of yellow earth marked the claims, while along the banks of the creek, now a mere muddy trickle, stood the implements of the diggers' craft, cradle and tub, and even here and there a puddling machine. The diggers' dwellings, tents and slab-huts, and mere mia-mias of bark and branches, were dotted up the hill-sides wherever they could get a foothold, and of course as close to their claims as possible. There was no method, no order; each man built how he pleased and where he pleased; even the main road wound in and out between the shafts, and its claims to be considered permanent were only just beginning to be recognized.
The Government camp was on a little flattened eminence, overlooking the embryo township. They were all alike, those police camps of early gold-fields days. The flagstaff from which floated the union jack, the emblem of law and order, was planted in such a position as to be plainly visible in the mining camp. Opposite it stood the Commissioner's tents, his office, his sitting-room, his bed tent, his clerk's tent, comfortable and even luxurious for that time and place, for they were as a rule floored with hard wood and lined with baize; just behind was the gold tent, over which the sentries stood guard day and night, and behind it again were the men's quarters and the horses' stables. Down the creek, men of every rank were gathered together from all quarters of the globe; the diggers' camp was untidy, frowsy, and unkempt, but here on the hill the Commissioner reigned, and law and order ruled supreme.
There was a blaze of light from the Miners' Arms—the tumbledown shanty, half of bark and half of canvas, where the diggers assembled every night—and a crowd of men were at the door lustily shouting the chorus of a sea-song. Here was help in plenty, but she dared not trust them, and galloped on across the creek, dry now in the middle of summer, and up the hill again towards the tents of the police camp, which gleamed white against the dark hillside. A sentry started up and challenged her as she passed the gold tent, but she paid no heed, and the next moment she had slipped off her horse and was standing panting and breathless in the open door of the Commissioner's tent. The light from the colza-oil lamps fell full on her white face, on her golden hair streaming over her shoulders, and on her dainty pink gown, somewhat torn and soiled now. Three young men were seated at the dinner-table, two of them in the uniform of Gold Commissioners—the braided undress coat of a cavalry officer—and all three sprang to their feet.
"Oh, Captain Cartwright," she panted, "they have—'stuck up' Warwingie, and they're going to shoot Tom Hollis."
But before she had time to explain, one man—she recognized him as the Commissioner from the Indigo Valley on the other side of the ranges—had forced on her a glass of wine, and while Captain Cartwright was shouting orders to his troopers, he drew from her the whole story.
"We 'll have to be careful, Cartwright," he said, when five minutes later they were riding over the ranges at the head of ten stalwart troopers. "It appears Hollis is surety for the lot, but he insisted on Bessie Warner making her escape at all risks. He is a plucky fellow, Hollis, but it was the only thing to do. If they 'd been let alone all night—well, when they 're sober I wouldn't trust 'em, and when they 've drunk they 're fiends incarnate. Close up, men, close up a little to the right, sergeant, and we 'll dismount before we come to the stockyards."
They rode across the ranges, and it was not long before the house came into view, ablaze with light, and the troopers crept round it. Then, when they were all assembled, Captain Cartwright with his revolver in his hand stepped on to the verandah and pushed open the door, while Bright, the Commissioner from the Indigo, entered at the other side.
"Bail up, throw up your hands now, or I 'll shoot every man jack of you."
It was nearly an hour and a half since Bessie had left, but the bushrangers were still round the table. The dainty china was all smashed and broken, and the men were throwing cups and glasses at one another in very wantonness. There was no one on guard now, and the women were huddled together terrified in one corner, while still against the wall leaned Hollis, exactly where Bessie had left him.
"Hurrah!" he shouted as his glance met the Commissioner's, and hardly had the word left his lips when the Mopoke turned, raised his pistol, and shot him right in the chest. He slipped to the floor with a great singing in his ears, and when he came back to consciousness again young Bright was standing over him holding a glass of brandy to his lips, and Mrs. Warner had her arm beneath his head.
"Better, old chap, eh?" said Bright, cheerily. "The Mopoke made a mistake this time, for Cartwright shot him like a dog, and the others will renew their acquaintance with her Majesty's jails."
"Bessie, Bessie, where is Bessie? If I can only live till she comes!"
"Of course you will. What nonsense! Cartwright 's going to bring her back with him."
"It 's all up with me, old man," he gasped, "I know. But we 've come out much better than I expected, and—and—if I don't see—Bessie—you must tell her—it was worth it. Poor little Bessie, she said—she loved me—it was only a passing fancy—I hope—I think——"
His eyes closed wearily, and Bright touched Mrs. Warner's shoulder.
"Put a pillow under his head," he said, "and—oh, here's Miss Bessie."
No one asked how she had come so soon—only her stepmother silently resigned her place to her. Hollis seemed just conscious of her presence, but he was almost past speech, and they watched him silently. The doctor came, and shook his head.
"A very short time now," he said. Ten o'clock, eleven o'clock; the moon had risen over the hills, the midsummer moon, and all the garden was bathed in the white light. They had opened the windows and drawn up the blinds to give him more air, but it was very near now—very near indeed—only a matter of minutes. The clock on the mantelshelf struck midnight, and he opened his eyes. He could see through the open door right away down the gully, just as he had seen that afternoon.
"How lovely it is," he said.' "Bessie, kiss me, Bessie. I—was that twelve o'clock? It is Christmas Day then. I wish you many happy Christmases, Bessie. Darling—don't you grieve—it was worth it. Good-bye."