The Moving Finger (Mary Gaunt)/Dick Stanesby's Hutkeeper
DICK STANESBY'S HUTKEEPER
"Hallo! Dick. You here! Why, I thought you were away up tea-planting in Assam."
"And I thought you were comfortably settled down on the ancestral acres by this time."
"No such luck. The ancient cousin is still very much to the fore. Has taken to himself a new wife in fact, and a new lease of life along with her. She has presented her doting husband with a very fine heir; and, well, of course, after that little Willie was nowhere, and departed for pastures new."
"Make your fortune, eh! Made it?"
"Of course. Money-making game riding tracks on Jinfalla! Made yours?"
"Money-making game riding tracks on Nilpe Nilpe."
The two men looked at each other, and laughed. In truth, neither looked particularly representative of the rank and aristocracy of their native land. The back blocks are very effectual levellers, and each saw in the other a very ordinary bushman, riding a horse so poor, the wonder was he was deemed worth mounting at all. Both were dusty and dirty, for the drought held the land in iron grip, and the <fierce north wind, driving the dust in little whirls and columns before it, blew over plains bare of grass and other vegetation as a beaten road.
Around them was the plain, hot and bare of any living creature, nothing in sight save a low ridge bounding the eastern horizon, a ridge which on closer inspection took the form of bluffs, in most places almost inaccessible. Overhead was the deep blue sky, so blue it was almost purple in its intensity, with not a cloud to break the monotony. Sky and desert, that was all, and these two Englishmen meeting, and the shadows cast by themselves and their horses, were the only spots of shade for miles.
"Sweet place!" said Guy Turner, looking round. "Warmish too. Wonder what it is in the shade?"
"In the shade, man. There ain't any shade, unless you count the shadows of our poor old mokes, and mine 's so poor, I 'll bet the sun can find his way through his ribs. I 've been in the sun since daybreak, and I reckon it is somewhere about boiling point."
"I suppose it must be over 160°. What the dickens did you come out for?"
"Well, seeing it 's been like this for the last three months, and is likely to go on for three more, as far as I can see; it ain't much good stopping in for the weather; besides there 's this valuable estate to be looked after. But to-day I rode over for the mails."
"What, to the head-station?"
"Lord, no! The track to Roebourne passes along about twenty miles off over there, and I get the boss to leave my mail in a hollow tree as he passes."
"Trusting, certainly. There 's some good about this God-forsaken country."
Dick Stanesby, or, to give him his full name, Richard Hugh De Courcy Stanesby, shrugged his shoulders scornfully.
"Evidently, Dick, that mail wasn't satisfactory. Has she clean forgot you, Dick, the little white mouse of a cousin, with the pretty blue eyes? She was mighty sweet on you, and——"
But there was a frown on Dick's usually good-tempered face. He was in no mind to take his old chum's pleasantry kindly, and the other saw it, and drew his own conclusions therefrom.
"Chucked him over, poor beggar, I suppose. Hang it all! Women are all alike; once a man's down, he 's forgotten," but he did not speak his thoughts aloud. He looked away across the sweltering plain, and said casually,
"Where do you hang out, old man?"
Stanesby pointed east in a vague sort of manner, that might indicate South Australia, or far distant New South Wales.
"Got a shanty on the creek there," he said laconically.
"Creek, is there a creek? The place looks as if it hadn't seen water since the beginning of the world."
"Oh, there 's a creek right enough. I believe it 's a big one when it rains, but it hasn't rained since I 've been here, and there ain't much water in it. Just a little in the hole opposite the hut. The niggers say its permanent. Springs, or something of that sort."
"Niggers! That's what I 've come over about. They 've worried the life out of us on Jinfalla. Taken to spearing the cattle, and the men too if they get a chance. Old Anderson thinks we ought to have some 'concerted action,' and settle the matter once for all."
"H'm. Wipe 'em out, I suppose he means?"
"It 's what a squatter generally means, isn't it, when he talks about the blacks? Sounds brutal, but hang it all, man, what the devil is a fellow to do? They 're only beasts, and as beasts you must treat 'em. Look here, there was a young fellow on our run, as nice a boy as you 'd wish to see—his people were something decent at home, I believe, but the lad had got into some scrape and cleared out, and drifted along into the heart of Western Australia here. He was riding tracks for old Anderson about two hundred miles to the west there. He didn't come in last week for his tucker, so they sent word for me to look him up."
"Well?" for Turner paused, and drew a long breath.
"Well—same old nip, of course. His hut was burnt, and he and his hutkeeper—I tell you, Dick, it won't bear talking about—he was a lad of twenty, and the hutkeeper was an old lag, might have been seventy to look at him, but when I found their bodies down by the creek, I couldn't tell which was which."
"It 's bad," said Stanesby, "very bad. What did you do?"
"Buried 'em, of course, my mate and I, and shot the first buck we came across skulking in the bush. What would you have us do?"
"It 's all bad together," said the other man, with an oath. "The blacks about here are tame enough if you let 'em alone, but these young fellows get meddling with their women, and—well——"
"That 's all very well, but you didn't find a mate too ghastly a corpse to look at, or you wouldn't take the matter so coolly. You 'd have done just as I did. Something must be done, old man, or the country won't be habitable."
They had been riding along slowly, side by side, one man eager, anxious, interested, the other evidently with his thoughts far away. The mail he had got that morning was stuffed into his saddlebags, and the news it brought him made him think longingly of a home in far-away England, a creeper-covered house, and a cosy room with a bright fire, and the rain beating pleasantly on the windows. Rain—he had not seen rain for three long years. Always the hard blue sky and the bright sunshine, always the dreary plain, broken here and there by patches of prickly bush and still more thorny spinifex, always the red bluffs marking the horizon, clean cut against the cloudless sky.
Habitable? Such a country as this habitable? It had given him bread for the last three years, but—but—he felt burning in his pocket the letter summoning him home—telling of the death, the unexpected death, of his young cousin, that made him master of that pleasant home, that filled his empty pockets. What did anyone ever dream of living in such a country for—driving the unlucky niggers back and back? What need for it? What need? Far better leave it to the niggers, and clear out altogether.
Had Gladys forgotten? He wondered. The little white mouse of a cousin, as Turner called her, who had cried so bitterly when he left, and even now answered his letters so regularly, those letters that had come to be written at longer and longer intervals as home ties weakened, and the prospect of seeing her again slowly died away. Had she forgotten—had she? She looked like the sort of woman that would be faithful—faithful—well, as faithful as any one in this world could be expected to be, as faithful as women always are to their lovers in distant lands. Turner had been sweet there once too, curious he should meet him just now; he had forgotten her surely, or he would never have referred to her so casually. Yes, Turner had forgotten, and yet he had been very bad too—strange how completely a thing like that passes out of a man's life. Could he take up the broken threads just where he left off—could he? So sweet and tender as she was, so quiet and restful. There was that other one, who loved him after her fashion too, but—pah, it was an insult to Gladys to name her in the same breath—she—she——The country was not habitable—a doghole unfit for a European; what was Turner making such a song over the niggers for?
"Old man," said Turner, he had been telling to unlistening ears the tale of how the blacks had speared, in wanton mischief, a mob of two hundred cattle on Jinfalla, not fifteen miles from the home station, "old man, you see it would be just ruination to let this go on. Either they or we must clear out. We can't both live here, that's certain."
"Always the same old yarn wherever the Englishman goes, always the same old yarn. Poor niggers!"
"Well, what'd you have?" said the other warmly; "something 's got to be done."
"I 'm going to cut it all."
"What?" Turner stopped his horse and looked his companion full in the face. "Cut it all?"
"My cousin 's dead."
"And Heyington 's yours?"
"And Eastwood too."
There was silence for a moment. Then Turner said again:
"You can marry Gladys Rowan now."
Then he added, as if as an afterthought, "If she 'll have me."
"No fear of that," said Turner with a sigh. Then he turned to his old chum, and stretching over laid a kindly hand on his arm, "I congratulate you, old chap."
"Thank you." And they rode on in silence, the one man thinking bitterly that if ever he had cherished a spark of hope of winning the woman he had loved he must give it up at last, the other trying to realise the good fortune that had come to him.
And an hour ago he had been as this man beside him—only one little hour ago!
"How far do you reckon it to the head-station? Fifty miles?"
"Fifty? Nearer eighty I should say."
"Then I guess I 'll put up at your place. How far 's that?"
"About ten miles."
"All right. Lead on, master of Heyington."
To refuse a man hospitality in the bush—such a thing was never heard of, and, though Stanesby said no welcoming word, it never occurred to Turner to doubt that he was more than welcome.
"It 's right out of your way."
"Good Lord! What 's ten miles, and we haven't met for years. I must say, old chap, you don't seem particularly pleased to see an old chum."
"I—they ain't so plentiful I can afford to do that. No, I was thinking of going in to the station with you."
"Right you are, old man, do you? Only we 'll put up at your place for the night—my horse 's pretty well done—and go on in the morning."
Stanesby said nothing, only turned his horse's head slightly to the left. Save the red bluffs away to the east there was nothing to mark the change of direction. There was no reason apparently for his choosing one direction rather than another.
They rode in silence, these two who had been college chums and had not met for years. Possibly it was the one man's good fortune that raised a barrier between them. It was not easy for Turner to talk of present difficulties and troubles when, as Stanesby said, he was going to "cut it all"; it was not easy for him to speak of bygone times when the other man was going back to them, and he would be left here without a prospect of a change. And Stanesby said nothing, he could only think of the great difference between them; and yesterday there was nothing he would have liked better than this meeting with his old friend, which to-day fell flat. No, he had nothing to say. Already their paths lay wide apart.
An hour's slow riding brought them to the creek Stanesby had spoken of. There was no gentle slope down to the river, the plain simply seemed to open at their feet, and show them the river bed some twenty feet below. Only a river bed about twenty yards wide, but there was no water to be seen, only signs, marked signs in that thirsty land, that water had been there. Down where the last moisture had lingered the grass grew green and fresh, and leafy shrubs and small trees and even tangled creepers made this dip in the plain a pleasant resting-place for the eye wearied with the monotony of the world above it.
"By Jove!" cried Turner, surprised.
"Told you so," said his companion, "but it ain't much after all. Fancy calling that wiry stuff grass in England, and admiring those straggly creepers and shrubs. Why we wouldn't give 'em house-room in the dullest, deadest corner of the wilderness at home."
"Lucky beggar!" sighed the other man. "But you see they 're all I 'm likely to have for many a long year to come. Hang it all, man, I bet you 'd put that shrub there, that chap with the bright red flower, into your hot-house and look after him with the greatest care, or your gardener would for you."
"It 'd require a d—d hot house," said Stanesby laconically, wiping his hot face.
They did not descend into the bed of the creek, the ground was better adapted for riding up above, and a mile further along they came upon a large blackfellows' camp stretched all along the edge of a water-hole.
"The brutes," said Turner; "bagging the water of course."
"They 'd die if they didn't, I suppose. This, and the hole by my place is the only water I know of for forty miles round. After all they were here first, and if I had my way they 'd be left to it."
"All very well for you to talk," grumbled Turner. "Do they look worth anything?"
Certainly they did not. The camp was a mere collection of breakwinds made of bark and branches, more like badly-stacked woodheaps than anything else, and the children of the soil lay basking in the sun, among the dogs and filth and refuse of the camp, or crouched over small fires as if it were bitter cold. The dogs started up yelping, for a blackfellow's dog doesn't know how to bark properly, as the white men passed, but their masters took no notice. A stark naked gin, with a fillet of greasy skin bound round her head, and a baby slung in a net on her back, came whining to Turner with outstretched hands. She had mixed with the stockkeepers before, and knew a few words of English.
"Give it terbacker along a black Mary. BudgeryCite error: Closing
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<ref> tag this blackfellow go."
"Much as his life is worth, I guess," said
Turner grimly, "judging by the specimen of her temper the young lady gave us this afternoon."
Stanesby muttered something that was hardly a blessing under his breath, then he caught up his hat and went down the bank to the waterhole. The other man felt more comfortable in his absence. He sat down, lighted his pipe, and taking up the paper again, began to read with fresh interest.
Half an hour passed. The sun sank below the horizon, gorgeous in red and gold, and Turner watched the last rosy flush die out of the western sky. Darkness fell, and he sat on smoking and thinking sadly, till his comrade loomed up out of the gloom.
"Is that you, Stanesby?" he called out.
"Who the devil should it be?" Then remembering his hospitality, "Why you 're all in the dark! Why didn't you light a candle!"
The girl did not make her appearance, and Turner did not comment on her absence. Stanesby said nothing. He lighted a candle, and calling Jimmy to his assistance, began clearing the table and washing up the dirty plates and pannikins. Turner offered to help, but was told ungraciously that two were enough, and so went on smoking and watched in silence. He did not feel on intimate enough terms to comment; but he knew well enough Stanesby had gone out to find the girl, and either failed to find her, or at any rate failed to bring her back. It was no business of his any way, and he sat smoking till he was called to the evening meal, which was a repetition of the mid-day one, with milkless tea instead of whisky for a beverage.
"I 'm clean out of whisky, I 'm sorry to say."
"It 's all right, old man. I don't often manage to get it at all on Jinfalla."
They discussed station matters then, discussed them all the evening, though Turner could not but feel that his host's thoughts were far away. Still they lasted, they interested the man who was bound to live on here, till at length Stanesby got up with a mighty yawn and suggested they should turn in.
There was a bunk fixed against the wall, and he threw his comrade's blankets into it.
"It 's all I can do for you to-night, old man. Come to Heyington next year, and I 'll treat you better."
"Thanks," said Turner. "No such luck for me." Then he spoke the thought that had been in his mind all the evening.
"I say, that girl hasn't come in."
"She 's all right, she can sleep out then. I can't say it 'll cool her temper, for it 's as hot as blazes still. Good night, old chap."
Turner lay awake long after the light was out, staring up at the unceiled roof, at the faint light that marked the open doorway and the window, thinking, thinking, wondering at his own discontent, thinking of the fair-haired, blue-eyed girl he had loved so well and so long. It was all over between them now, all over; there had never been anything except on his side, never anything at all, and now it was not much good his even thinking of her. She would marry Dick Stanesby and never know, never dream—— His thoughts wandered to that other girl, it was no business of his, but it worried him nevertheless, as things that are no concern of ours do worry us when we lie wakeful on our beds, and the girl's beautiful, angry face haunted him. He thought of her there down by the creek, alone in her dumb pain, so young, so ignorant, so beautiful. There was something wrong in the scheme of creation somewhere, something wrong, or why were such as she born but to suffer. His life was hard, cruelly hard, he had known better things; but she—she—hers had been hard all along. Had she known any happiness? he wondered. He supposed she had if she cared for Dick Stanesby. When first she came, unasked and unsought, he had been good to her; he knew his friend, he had known him from a boy, easy-going, good-natured, with no thought for the future for himself, how could he expect him to think for another? He had been good to her—oh, yes, he knew Dick Stanesby—very good to her, but he had taken no thought for her future any more than he would for his own. He would go into the head-station with him to-morrow morning, he very much doubted if he would come back. He would intend to at first, but it would be very much easier to stay, and he would stay, and the girl—what would become of her? He found himself saying it over and over again to himself, what would become of her? What could become of her? till he fell into an uneasy doze and dreamed that he was master of Heyington and had married Gladys Rowan, who was no other than Dick Stanesby's hutkeeper, and crouched in the corner with a long, shining knife in her hand. Then he awakened suddenly and heard the sound of voices, a woman's voice and Dick's, Dick's soft and tender. He could not hear the words, but the tones were enough. It was the same old Dick. He did not want her, he would rather be without her: but since she was there, he must needs be good to her. So she had come back after all! He might have known she was sure to come back. Why couldn't she stop away? Why couldn't she join her relatives down by the creek? Alas! and alas! The barrier between her and them was as great as it was between her and the white man. Greater, if possible. Poor child! poor child! How was it to end?
He tossed and turned and the voices went on softly murmuring. He thought of Gladys and grew angry, and finally, when he had given up all hope, he fell fast asleep.
Next morning he found that peace reigned. The girl came in and quietly cleared away the remnants of last night's meal and began making preparations for breakfast. Her mind was at ease evidently. She had no doubts about the permanency of her heaven; and when she saw him she smiled upon him the same slow, lazy, contented smile with which she had first greeted him, apparently forgetting and expecting him to forget all disagreeable episodes of the day before. How long would this peace last? asked Guy Turner of himself.
The meal done, Stanesby called to his black boy to bring up the horses, and touching the girl on the shoulder drew her aside, evidently to explain that he was going into the head-station and wanted provisions for the journey.
"We 'll take a packhorse between us," said he to Turner, "it 'll save trouble; and I 'll show you a decent camping-place for to-night." Then he followed the girl outside, and his companion began rolling up his swag.
He came back a few moments later, the girl following, and Turner could not but note the change in her face. It was not angry now, there was hardly even a trace of sullenness on it. Fear and sorrow seemed struggling with one another for the upper hand, and she was sobbing every now and then heavily, as if she could not help herself.
"Good Lord! Stanesby, what the dickens have you been doing to the girl?" he said.
Stanesby looked at him angrily.
"You seem to take a confoundedly big interest in the girl," he said.
"Well, hang it all, man, she looks as if she had been having a jolly bad time, and really she's only a child."
"A child, is she? A child that's very well able to take care of herself. I haven't been beating her, if that 's what you 're thinking. I suppose I may be allowed to go into the head-station occasionally without asking my hutkeeper's leave."
"Oh! that 's the trouble, is it? Depends upon your hutkeeper, I should say. I don't ask mine, but then——"
Turner paused, and Stanesby answered the unspoken thoughts with an oath.
"Oh, if you feel that way," began Turner, but his companion flung himself out of the hut angrily.
Then the girl turned round, and Turner wondered to himself if she were going to repeat the performance of last night. But no, she was quiet and subdued now, as if all hope, all resentment even, had left her.
"Going to the head station?" she asked, and her voice was soft and low and very sweet, with just a trace of the guttural enunciation of her mother's race; but she spoke good English, far better than her appearance seemed to warrant, and did no small credit to old Miss Howard's training.
"Yes, yes, of course. We're going to the head station, but Stanesby 'll be back in a day or two," he added soothingly, because of the sorrow on her face. And then he hated himself for saying so much. What business was it of his?
She stepped forward and laid both hands on his arm.
"Don't take him away, don't, don't!" she pleaded.
Her big dark eyes were swimming with tears, and there was an intensity of earnestness in her tones that went to the young man's heart. Besides, he was young, and she was very good to look upon.
"My dear child," he said, his anger against his old friend growing, "I have nothing in the world to do with it. He must go into the head-station sometimes. He must have gone often before."
She dropped her hands and leaned back wearily against the wall.
"No," she said, "no, not when the myalls are down along the creek."
"Good Lord! Those d——d black fellows! I never thought of them. But they won't touch you!"
She looked up and smiled faintly, as if amused at his ignorance.
"Kitty tumble down," she said, relapsing into the blackfellows' English.
"Oh! come, I say," said Turner, "this 'll never do." And he went outside in search of Stanesby, whom he found strapping their swags on to the packhorse.
"Look here, I say, old man, that poor little beggar's frightened out of her wits of the myalls down by the creek there."
Stanesby shrugged his shoulders.
"All bunkum! I know her ways. She wants to get me to stop. She seems to guess there 's something in the wind. The myalls! pooh! They 're as tame as possible. They steal any odds and ends that are left about—that's about their form."
"But the poor child is frightened."
"Frightened! Get out. There wasn't much fright about her when she took the knife to you last night! She knows very well how to take care of herself, I can tell you."
"But those myalls. On Jinfalla we—— Well, it really seems to me risky to leave her all alone. Even if there isn't any danger—the very fact of being alone——."
"Pooh! Considering she tramped from the head-station here all the eighty miles on foot, just because of some breeze with the cook there, she must be mightily afraid of being alone. However, if you don't like her being left, it 's open to you to stop and look after her. I 'm going to start in about two minutes."
"Oh, well, if you think it 's all right—"
"Of course it 's all right. There 's Jimmy got your horse for you. Come on, old chap."
Turner mounted, and Stanesby was just about to do the same, when with a quick cry the girl ran out of the hut and caught his arm.
She said no word, and before he, taken by surprise, could stop her, she had wound both her arms around his neck and laid her face against his breast.
Turner put his spurs into his horse, and rode off smartly. It was no affair of his. The whole thing made him angry whenever he thought of it.
As for Dick Stanesby, though usually never anything but gentle with a woman, he was thoroughly angry now; he had felt angry before, but now he was roused, which did not often happen, to put his anger into words.
"Confound you, Kitty! Do you hear me? Don't be a fool!" and he roughly shook her off, so roughly that she lost her balance, staggered, and fell. He made a step forward to take his horse, which was held by the stolid black boy, but she was too quick for him and, grovelling on the ground at his feet, put out her arms and held him there, murmuring inarticulate words of tenderness and love. Stanesby stooped down, and caught her wrists in both his hands.
"Get up!" he said roughly, and dragged her to her feet. She stood there, leaning all her weight on his supporting hands, looking at him with reproachful eyes.
They were beautiful eyes, and there was need enough for her sorrow had she only known; but what Stanesby was thinking of was the awkwardness of the situation. He did not mind the black boy, he counted him as so much dirt—but Turner! Already this girl had made an exhibition of him, and now it was worse than ever. Every moment he dreaded he would turn round, and even though he did not it was equally bad, he kept his face purposely averted.
The girl broke out into passionate prayer to him not to leave her, then, seeing he was still unmoved, she began to call him every tender name her limited vocabulary contained, though there was little enough need to do that, her eyes said enough.
"Kitty, go back to the hut this moment! For God's sake, don't be such a fool! One would think I was going to murder you."
"The myalls will," she said. Then she paused, and added solemnly, "to-morrow."
"What confounded rot!"
He let go her hands suddenly, and she fell to her knees and tried to put her arms round him again; but with a quick movement he stepped backwards, and she fell forward on to her face. He pushed her aside roughly, angrily, with an anger that was not all against her, and mounted hurriedly, snatched the packhorse's rein from the black boy, and was off at full gallop after his friend before she could regain her feet But she did not try to, once she realised that all hope was gone. He had left her, it was all over with her, she might just as well lie there.
At the sound of the galloping horses behind him Turner looked round. Through the haze of the early morning, the haze that promised fierce heat later on, he saw the horses coming towards him, and beyond, half-veiled by the dust they made as they passed, a dusky red bundle flung carelessly out on the plain, of use to no one. The black boy walked away, it was no business of his. There was the lonely hut and the far-reaching plain, nothing in sight but the bluffs far away to the east, nothing at all, only that red bundle lying there alone and neglected.
He had no words for his comrade when he did come up. That dusky red heap seemed to fill all his thoughts, and about that silence was best. Stanesby checked his horses, and they rode on slowly as men who have a long journey before them. The sun climbed up and up to the zenith, but there was no shelter, no place for the noonday rest. Then away in the distance arose a line of trees raised up above the horizon, and Stanesby pointed it out to his companion.
"We can spell there a bit," he said. "It 's only that beastly prickly bush, for all it looks like a forest of red gum at the very least from here, but there 'll be a scrap of shade, and I 'm getting tired. There 's water there sometimes, but it was dry as a bone last time I passed."
"It 's a grand country!" sighed Turner.
"By George!" said Stanesby, "I never will come back this way. Why should I, now I 'm free to do as I please?"
Why, indeed? And Turner's thoughts immediately flew back to the dark-eyed girl, and the solitary hut as he had last seen it through the haze of the morning, with that red heap lying there carelessly flung aside, and the black fellow stalking away. Why should he go back? Why indeed? Only to have that scene repeated. Better go straight on to England, and home, and pretty, fair-haired, blue-eyed Gladys Rowan.
So they lay there in the scanty shade and spelled, and built a small fire of dry sticks, and filled the billy from the waterbag that hung at each horse's neck, and boiled their tea, and ate their humble mid-day meal, and dozed the afternoon away, lazily watching the hobbled horses as they searched on the still damp edges of the shallow clay pan for such scanty grass as the moisture induced to grow there. They hardly spoke, they had nothing in common now; once they reached the head-station, they would part never to meet again. Each felt it instinctively, and each was thankful that it should be so. The sooner the parting came, the better now.
The shadows of the thorny bushes began to grow longer and longer as the sun sank in the west, and they mounted their horses and started off again. Then the sun went down, and the colour faded out of the sky as the stars, bright points of light, came out one by one. The new moon was a silver rim clear cut in the west, and not a sound broke the stillness. How lonely it was, how intensely lonely! Turner thought of the poor girl alone in the hut miles behind them, and wondered if his companion too were thinking of her. After all, surely the very loneliness gave safety. At any rate, she was safe at night. If the blacks did not attack at dusk they would leave her alone for the night. But the morning—next morning! Was it right to leave her? He himself had no faith in the myall blacks, they were treacherous, they were cruel. Had he not come over to arrange some plan of campaign against them? And yet he went away and left that girl at their mercy, completely at their mercy. He felt strongly tempted to turn back. If they could not stop with her, at least they might have brought her along with them. She was defenceless; her blood was no protection, rather the reverse. And then, when he turned to speak to Stanesby, the recollection of his scornful, "It 's open to you to stop and look after her," tied his tongue. After all, it was not likely Stanesby would have left if there was the slightest danger; he had lived among these blacks, he understood them thoroughly; it was an insult to the man he had known all his life to suppose anything else; and yet the thought of the girl's loneliness haunted him. The moon set, and by the starlight they saw looming up ahead some rocks, isolated rocks, roughly piled together by some giant hand.
"We 'll camp there," said Stanesby, "there 's a little water down under the rocks—about enough to keep life in the horses; there 's some grass and a bush or two to make a fire. What more could the heart of man desire?"
Out in the bush not much time is wasted, and soon after they had halted their blankets were spread, and they were asleep, or lying, if not asleep, staring up at the bright starlit sky of the southern hemisphere.
But Turner could not sleep, it was worse than it had been the night before. Why should he be haunted in this way? Why should he take Stanesby's sins on his shoulders? The girl was all right, she must be all right; why should she haunt his dreams, and keep him wakeful on his hard bed, when he had a long journey still before him? Stanesby was sleeping peacefully as a child. He could hear his deep breathing; if there was anything to be feared he would not sleep like that. It was hot still, very hot. This was an awful climate, a cruel life, and Stanesby had done with it all. No wonder he slept soundly.
He sat up restlessly. A sound in the distance broke the stillness, then he started, surely it was the trotting of a horse. He rubbed his eyes. Their own three horses were there close beside them, he could see them vague and indistinct in the gloom. They were there right enough. What could this be? Who could be riding about at this time of night? They were still a good forty miles from the head-station, and this horse was coming from the opposite direction.
He put out his hand, and shook his companion awake.
"Some one 's coming," he said shortly.
"Some one! Gammon! Good Lord!——"
There was no doubt about it, and he rose to his feet. It was the other side of the rocks, and they walked round quietly. They were only curious, there was nothing to fear. In the dim starlight they saw a man on horseback advancing towards them.
"Hallo!" called out Stanesby, as he came quite close, "who the devil are you?"
The horse was done. They could hear his gasping breath, and the man bent forward as if he too had come far and fast, but he did not answer, and as he came closer Turner saw he was a blackfellow.
Stanesby saw it too, and saw more, for he recognised his own black boy Jimmy.
"Good God! Jimmy, is it you?"
There must be something wrong, very wrong indeed, that would bring a blackfellow, steeped in superstitious fears of demons and evil spirits, out at dead of night.
"Jimmy!" Stanesby caught him by the shoulder, and fairly pulled him from his horse, "What's the meaning of this?"
Jimmy did not answer for a moment. He was occupied with his horse's bridle, then he said carelessly, as if he were rather ashamed of making such a fuss about a trifle.
"Myalls pull along a hut."
"My God!" cried Turner. It seemed like the realisation of his worst fears.
But Stanesby refused to see any cause for alarm.
"And you 've ridden like blazes, and ruined the mare, to tell us rot like that. What if they do come up to the hut? They 've been there before."
The answer was more to his companion than his servant, but Jimmy answered the implied reproach.
"Blackfellow burn hut," he stated.
"This fellow sit down along a bush," he went on stolidly.
"Well—if you did! I wish to heaven you had stopped alongside your confounded bush before you ruined my mare."
"Bungally you!" said Jimmy, who was no respecter of persons, meaning "you are very stupid." "Blackfellow put firestick in humpy and——"
"Good God! Stanesby, I knew it. The myalls are going to burn down the hut, and this beggar 's got wind of it."
Jimmy nodded approvingly.
"All gone humpy," he said, stretching out his hands as if to denote the deed was done.
"But the girl, Jimmy, the girl!"
"Poor gin tumble down."
"I—Jimmy," Stanesby caught him by the shoulder, and shook him violently, and Turner knew by the change in his voice that his fears were roused at last, "how did you know this? When did you hear it?"
"Sit down along a bush," said Jimmy again. His vocabulary was limited.
"But when—when? It must have been all right when you left?"
"Blackfellow pull along a humpy to-night," said Jimmy, nodding his head solemnly, feeling that at last he had got a serious hearing, and hoping to hear no more about the mare.
"But the girl—the girl! Where 's the girl?"
"That one myall hit him gin along a cobra big fellow nulla-nulla? Gin tumble down."
"But—my God! what 'd you leave her there for?"
"Myall got 'em nulla-nulla for this fellow."
"You brute!" cried Turner, "why didn't you bring her with you?"
"Only got 'em one yarramen," said the blackfellow nonchalantly. There was only one horse, he had taken it and saved his skin. He had come to warn the white man of the destruction of his dwelling, but he did not count the half-caste girl of any value one way or another. The blacks would attack the hut at sundown when they saw the coast clear. The white man would be angry at the destruction of his hut, he had ridden after him to tell him, and also because safety lay with the white man; but the girl—if there had been a horse in the little paddock, he might possibly have brought her out of danger, but even as a blackfellow he looked with contempt on a half-caste; and as a woman—well, a woman was worth nothing as a woman. There were plenty more to be got. He lay down on the ground, and lazily stretched himself out at full length. There was nothing more to be got out of him.
Stanesby kicked him, and went for his horse.
"This is terrible!" he said, in a hoarse, husky whisper. "That poor child! Old man, I ought to have taken your advice. My God! Why did you let me leave her?"
Turner was saddling his own horse, and asking himself the self-same question. That girl's blood was on his head he felt, and yet—and yet—it was no business of his. Stanesby had declared all safe.
"What are you going to do?"
"Going straight back, of course."
"We 'll be too late. Jimmy certainly said at sundown."
"He may be wrong, you know; besides, there 's no trusting these devils. They might have changed their minds. You 'll help me, old man, won't you?"
It took but a few moments to prepare for that journey back. Each man saw that his revolvers were loaded, saddled his horse, and they were ready. The horse Jimmy had ridden was done.
"Shall we leave him?" said Stanesby, contemptuously stirring him with his foot.
"No, by Jove! no," said his companion, "we must have him. He knows all the sign."
So they forced the reluctant Jimmy to mount the packhorse, and distributed his load between them, taking only what was absolutely necessary.
When they were quite ready Stanesby looked at his watch.
"Ten o'clock," he said. "We must be there before daylight if we want to do any good;" and Turner could not but note that there was a more hopeful ring in his voice. Evidently he thought that perhaps all would be well after all.
They rode in silence, each man busy with his own thoughts. They had to ride judiciously too, for their horses were poor, and they had done forty miles already that day. Could they ever get back to the out-station before breakfast? Could they? And would they be in time if they did? Turner asked himself the question again and again, and he felt that his companion was doing the same thing. Whenever he touched his horse with the spur till the poor beast started forward with a fresh burst of energy, his companion felt he was thinking that the girl's life was forfeit by his carelessness, was wondering would they ever be in time.
Dawn would be about six o'clock. Forty miles to go, and eight hours to do it in. Forty miles straight ahead, with absolutely nothing to break the monotony except the little patch of prickly bush where they had spelled that afternoon. They went farther before they spelled to-night, and they did not stop then till it was very evident to both that the horses must have a rest, if it was only for half an hour. Turner lay on the ground and stared up at the starlit sky, and listened to the deep breathing of the black boy, and the restless pacing up and down of his companion. Then he fell into a doze from which he was aroused by Stanesby, and they were on their way again.
"We can't stop now till we get there," he said. "Old man, we must be in time. We must!"
But the other man said nothing. He could not judge, he could only hope. And now at the end of the journey, weary and tired, his hopes had gone down to zero.
The first faint streaks of dawn began to show themselves in the eastern sky, and Stanesby drew a long breath.
"My God! we 're still a mile away."
"If they weren't there last night we 'll be in time."
"Poor little girl! How thankful she 'll be to see us. It 's all right, it must be all right."
And the light broadened in the east, the rosy light grew deeper and deeper, then it paled to bright gold, and behind, and all around, the world looked dark against that glowing light. Up came the rim of the sun, and Stanesby, urging his tired horse forward, said, "We ought to see the hut now. The confounded sun 's in my eyes."
Turner rubbed his own. But no, against the golden glowing rising sun the horizon was clean cut as ever, only the boundless plain, nothing more.
"Jimmy!" Stanesby's voice was sharp with pain and dread.
Jimmy raised his head sullenly. He was tired too, and considered himself ill-used.
"All gone humpy," he said.
Brighter and brighter grew the sunlight, another fierce hot day had begun. And there was nothing in sight, nothing. The plain was all around them, north, south, west, only in the east the red bluffs.
"All gone humpy." Their haste had been of no avail. The tale was told. They had come too late.
What need to ride for all they were worth now? But so they did ride, revolver in hand. And when they arrived at what had been Dick Stanesby's hut, an out-station of Nilpe Nilpe, there was nothing to mark it from the surrounding plain but a handful of ashes; even the hard earth showed no sign of trampling feet.
Stanesby flung himself off his horse like a madman.
"She may be all right. She must be all right. It may have been an accident. She is hidden down by the creek."
Turner said nothing. What could he say? His thoughts flew back to the lonely hut, and the girl lying there on the hard ground in her dusky red dress, alone, cast off, a thing of use to no one. Well, she was dead, he expected nothing else, and she was avenged. Surely this home-coming would haunt the man who had left her all the days of his life.
He laid his hand heavily on the black boy's shoulder.
"Track, you devil!"
And Jimmy led the way down towards the waterhole.
They followed him in silence.
The tall reeds looked green and fresh after the hot dry plain, but they also suggested another idea to Turner, and he tried to check his companion's headlong career.
"Look out! You don't know. They might be in those reed beds."
"All gone blackfellow," said Jimmy, and stolidly went ahead.
Then at last he brought them to what they sought. Dead, of course. Long before they started on that mad ride back her sufferings had been over. Dead! and Turner dared not look his companion in the face. No peace, no tenderness, about a death like this. It was too terrible! And this man had left her; in spite of her prayers he had left her!
They avenged her. The blacks had not gone far, but they could not follow them up that day. They spent it in the shade down by the waterhole, and Turner did not try to break his companion's silent reverie. Then when their horses were recruited they set out for the head-station of Nilpe Nilpe. There they told their tale. It was not much of a tale after all. Only a half-caste girl murdered, and a hut burnt. Such things happen every day. But the blacks must be punished, nevertheless, and half-a-dozen men rode out to do it, Stanesby at their head.
He was very silent. They said at the station, coming into a fortune had made him stuck-up and too proud to speak to a fellow, only Turner put a different construction on his silence. And the vengeance he took was heavy. They rode down among that tribe at bright noonday, led by Stanesby's black boy, who had been one of themselves, and when evening fell it was decimated, none left but a few scattered frightened wretches crouching down among the scanty cover in the creek bed, knowing full well that to show themselves but for a moment was to court death swift and certain. So they avenged Dick Stanesby's hutkeeper.
They count Dick Stanesby a good fellow in his county. He is a just landlord, well beloved by his tenants. He is a magistrate and stanchly upholds law and order; and withal he is a jolly good fellow, whose hunting breakfasts are the envy and admiration of the surrounding squires. His wife is pretty too, somewhat insipid perhaps, but a model wife and mother, and always sweet and amiable.
There have been found men who were Goths enough to object to Mrs. Stanesby's innocent, loving prattle about her eldest boy and her third girl, and the terrible time they had when her second little boy had the measles, and they were so terrified for the first twenty-four hours lest it should turn to scarlet fever; there have been men, I say, who have objected to this as "nursery twaddle," but their womenkind have invariably crushed them. They believe in Mrs. Stanesby and in Dick Stanesby too.
"Their story is too sweet," says Ethel De Lisle, his sister's sister-in-law. "It reminds one that the chivalry of the olden times has not yet died out among true Englishmen. Only think, he loved silently because he was too poor to speak. He went away to Australia, and he worked and waited there all among the blacks and all sorts of low people, and at the end of four years, when his cousin died and left him Heyington, he came back faithful still and he married her. I call it too sweet for words.".
But Mrs. De Lisle has never met Guy Turner. He is still "riding tracks" on Jinfalla, and consequently she knows nothing of Dick Stanesby's hutkeeper, or of a solitary grave by the Woonawidgee creek.
- A blackfellow has hit the woman over the head with a big stick or club. The woman is dead.