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Title: King of The Rocks Author: Ambrose Pratt * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1306601h.html Language: English Date first posted: November 2013 Date most recently updated: December 2013 Produced by: Maurie Mulcahy Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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JOHN STANDISH, R.N.R., captain of the finest liner, and commodore of the fleet owned by the largest steamship company trading in the Southern Hemisphere, was seated one morning in his private room at the Grosvenor, Sydney, an hotel where he was always to be found during the few days his steamer stayed in that port. A knock came to his door; an obsequious waiter entered.
"A gentleman, name o' Cap'n Jackson, wants to see you, Cap'n; particular, he says," and the waiter waited as if he expected gold to drop from the other's lips.
"Jackson, Jackson! Don't know the name. Who is he, waiter?"
Captain Standish, a stout, full-blooded Englishman, spoke habitually in a strong voice and somewhat jerky manner.
"Dunno, Cap'n, he looks like a sailor; he says you know him."
"Haw, I don't remember. However, show him up!"
"Yessir," and the waiter vanished.
John Standish exercised his memory during the next few minutes, and at last decided that his visitor was to resolve into "some demned pilot or coastal skipper. Like those fellows' cheek to call themselves 'Captains,' by Gad!"
Then came a second knock, and "Cap'n Jackson," said the waiter, who ushered in the visitor, slammed the door, and disappeared in the twinkling of an eye.
"Haw, how d'ye do? What can I do for you?" said Captain Standish, searching as he spoke with both hands in his vest pockets for his pince-nez, being slightly disconcerted by his visitor's abrupt announcement.
"Don't you remember me, John Standish?"
Something in the other's voice made the captain forsake his search for the glasses and stare at his companion with quick interest—an interest which, as he stared, changed from curiosity to anger, if his features could be trusted to convey his feelings. He saw before him a tall, thin man, grey-haired, but young and active-looking still—a man whose face exhibited the strength of a Caesar, the wickedness and cunning of a Borgia.
"Manville?" cried presently Captain Standish.
"I congratulate you."
"What do you want?"
"I heard you were in Sydney, so I came to see you.''
"Why did you call yourself 'Jackson'?"
"A ruse de guerre, my friend. I fancied you might not be expiring with anxiety to see me again."
"You thought rightly."
"I commence to flatter myself I possess some penetration."
"Again I say, what do you want with me?"
"A slight service."
"Not another penny shall I give you. You swore to be content with the last."
"Bah! that was years ago; but I don't want money."
"What, then?" the captain's voice proclaimed a vague concern.
"A favour you can grant with perfect ease."
"Name it, name it!" impatiently.
"Your head steward died on the voyage out?"
"I am an excellent waiter, John Standish."
"Bosh, man; you a servant!"
"Captain Manville, R.N., once; now a ship's steward," sneered Captain Standish.
"And merchant service at that, my friend; but you need not remind me. There are some things a man does not forget."
"Well, well, you don't ask anything impossible. Be at the Company's office this afternoon, three sharp. And now, good morning."
"Your pardon, John Standish."
"What the devil more do you want?"
"Your under-stewards and cook's assistants, to the number of four men, deserted ship last night, and are now on their way to the Nundle gold rush. I won't say that I had nothing to do with the affair. They were very soft, and absolutely believed me when I told them that they had only to go there and pick up nuggets as big as their heads. I took care, too, to keep them very drunk until their train started."
"You scoundrel. But you've given yourself away. I shall telegraph for the police to arrest them when the train arrives."
Captain Standish rose to ring the bell, but hesitated on hearing his companion laugh.
"John Standish," said Manville deliberately, "you're a fool. Do you think I intended you to have these poor beggars arrested?"
The captain spluttered with anger. "Damme, sir, I'd like to know what you mean."
"Certainly, certainly, and so you shall. I have four intimate friends who are either cooks or waiters, and they all need billets very badly. I have promised these men to procure them berths upon the Alemene."
"The devil you have!" thundered the captain.
Manville suddenly looked at his watch, then sprang to his feet with all his manner altered. Formerly he had worn an air of half-cynical, half-humorous impertinence, now he spoke abruptly, and as one used to command.
"See here, John Standish. I have no time to waste, so I'll be quite candid for once in my life, and for your own sake you'd better attend to me. I have drawn up a full account on oath of a certain matter wherein you figure as the abominable hero, my friend, and this I have despatched by registered package to a friend of mine at Scotland Yard. In my letter of instructions to this friend I have directed him to open the package and use the contents as he pleases, if, after the lapse of six weeks, I do not personally demand it back from him or cable him to return it to me. Need I tell you, John Standish, what will happen if my friend be allowed to open that package?"
"Curse you!" said the captain, but his face grew sickly pale.
"I may take it that my cooks and stewards will receive employment, then?"
"Cooks, stewards, cooks! Do you intend to poison us all, or what?"
Manville laughed outright at the other's troubled looks.
"My poor friend," he said smoothly, "nothing so bad as that. Tell me, is it not true that the banks here are shipping large quantities of gold by you this trip to London?"
John Standish started back with a suspicious look, and fixed the other with his eye.
"Yes," he said, "gold specie worth a million."
"Precisely; well, I might inform you that during the last few years I have grown respectable. From a thief I have developed into a thief-catcher, and I am now a member of the West Australian Secret Police. A gang of five men have just booked passages in your steamer for London—two in the first saloon, three in the second. These gentry are known to the police as being the most successful and daring cracksmen and spielers in the world; they have lately pulled off a big coup in West Australia, but we have not yet sufficient evidence to arrest them on. I have followed them from Perth, and hold instructions to follow them if necessary to London. You might be interested to learn that these villains have arranged a plan to rob your steamer of the gold to be shipped on board by the banks we were speaking of just now. This I only learned lately in Sydney, for one of my men wormed his way partly into the rascals' confidence."
"Good God!" said Captain Standish.
"My object," pursued Manville calmly, "in enlisting your kind assistance to ship myself and my brother police on board your steamer in a menial capacity is to avoid arousing the suspicions of the gang. If we shipped as passengers they would spot us the first day; they are as cunning as rats, but cooks and stewards they would never suspect."
"Would you mind proving your words to me, and show me your credentials?" said Captain Standish, with as crafty a look as his frank face could exhibit.
Manville took from his breast a badge surmounted with a silver crown, also an unfastened letter directed to "Inspector-General Fosberry, Chief of New South Wales Police." The letter was of introduction, and presented Detective Manville, of the West Australian Police, to Inspector-General Fosberry, of Sydney, and explained, besides, the bearer's mission to New South Wales. It was stamped with the Government coat-of-arms, and signed by "Farley, Chief of the Secret Police of West Australia."
Captain Standish handed the letter and the badge back to his companion with a sigh of relief.
"You have not presented this letter of introduction?" he asked.
"It was not necessary until I had received a cable to arrest my game. That cable has not yet arrived."
"Why didn't you tell me all this at first instead of threatening me to your wishes. I would have been glad to assist you."
Manville smiled curiously.
"This business means a great deal to me," he said; "I can't afford to throw any chances away. If I am successful I get a big money reward and promotion; and I am engaged to be married to the prettiest girl in Perth. You understand?"
Captain Standish understood; he became quite hearty in his manner.
"I congratulate you, my boy, both on your turning respectable and—er—the girl."
"But, ah, by Gad, I hope you really know something of your business? Chief steward has a lot to do, you know."
"You may depend upon me."
"By-the-bye, I suppose I'd better telegraph to our agent at Albany to secure a man to replace you in case you leave us there."
"As you please, Captain; but for goodness' sake don't engage one. I may have to go on to London with you, you know."
"Ha, ha, ha! what a joke it will all be afterwards!"
"Won't it? Good-bye for the present, Captain Standish."
"Good-bye, Manville; take care of yourself."
"One moment," said Manville impressively. "I can depend upon you to mention no word of what I have told you to anyone, your officers or your agents especially. You see, I want to pull off this coup and get the entire credit myself. It means a big thing to me, and one word let slip might ruin everything."
"I won't breathe a word," said the big captain good-naturedly. "Don't be later than three, and bring your friends, the new—ahem—cooks, along."
CAPTAIN STANDISH, early on Christmas morning, lay dozing in his cabin on the stately Alemene, while the floating city he was tyrant of ploughed its way at sixteen knots an hour through the Indian Ocean, Londonwards. While dreaming placidly of a delightful dish that had charmed his palate the night before, there came to his ears the sound of a muffled pistol shot, followed quickly by a perfect babel of noise—shouts, oaths, and yells of pain or rage. Springing up, he rushed in his pyjamas to the lower deck, where a strange scene greeted his wondering eyes. Lying handcuffed on the boards were five men, two of whom he recognised as saloon passengers; over them stood the chief steward, two assistant cooks, and two cabin stewards, all heavily armed; while a crowd of sailors and half-dressed passengers gaped around in dazed astonishment.
"What the deuce is this?" demanded Captain Standish.
The chief steward took a silver badge from the lining of his coat and handed it gravely to the captain.
"It means, sir," he said, "that I and these cooks and stewards are detectives. We have arrested those gentry lying there, who are wanted for a dozen crimes. If you will come with me I shall explain."
Signing to his men to guard the prisoners, the steward took the captain to a certain state-room, where he showed him spread out upon the bunk a complete collection of cracksman's tools—braces, drills, sound destroyers, jemmies, lanterns, diamond-cutters, etc., all of the most perfect workmanship and finish. He showed him also how two of the floor planks of the cabin had been cut through so cleverly as to defy detection, and an opening made through the lower iron flooring into the vessel's hold.
"Good God, Manville," said Captain Standish, "they were after the gold!"
"Yes," said the chief cook; "their object was to bore their way into the strong-room, get the gold, and leave at the first port of call. Those drills there would go through steel bulkheads or anything."
"I can well believe it. Really, Manville, you are a born detective; you have worked this business most cleverly. If my recommendation is of any service to you, I shall give it most freely in the proper quarter. I never saw anything so clever in my life, by Gad!"
"Thank you, Captain Standish; I really think I deserve some credit."
"Credit is not the word, Manville. I am sure that my Company will reward you."
"Do you think so? Well, I suppose I'd better look after my prisoners now. You'll give me room for them, I hope?"
"Certainly. But how about yourself—are we to lose our chief steward?"
"Well," replied Manville, "just as you think best. If I have given you satisfaction hitherto I'll look after things till we get to Aden, and my men can stay on as they are, too. You'll pay our salaries, of course?"
Captain Standish smiled at this evidence of close-fistedness.
"Up to the time you leave, of course."
Manville resented the captain's smile.
"It's all very well for you to laugh, Captain," he said; "it may seem mean on my part, when I'm going to get a big reward for this job, to haggle over a few pounds, but when a man marries he's got to look after himself."
"Oh, certainly!" said the captain, thoroughly delighted at the other's annoyance; "but you'll open a bottle of champagne to celebrate the occasion, won't you? Christmas Day and all."
Manville appeared to be extremely put out.
"I don't see why I should," he answered, and retired to attend to his prisoners.
Just after breakfast, however, the chief steward again presented himself before Captain Standish. His face was flushed and his eyes were very bright; he had evidently been drinking.
"I want you, Cap'n," he said, in rather a thick voice, "to allow me to shout for all hands. It's Christmas Day, and I've just had the biggest stroke of luck that ever came my way."
The captain was both surprised and amused at Manville's proposition.
"Think of the cost," he suggested, with a wicked smile.
"Oh, damn the odds," replied Manville; "Christmas only comes once a year. I've fixed up with the purser. Champagne for the first saloon, whisky for the second, and rum—" he stopped on seeing the captain's face expand with a meaning smile. "Well, damn it then, champagne for everyone—women, sailors, and every man-jack on board—if it breaks me."
"It'll cost you £60 at least. Remember you're going to be married," said the captain.
"What the devil has that got to do with you?" asked the chief steward testily; but Captain Standish roared with laughter, and clapped the other on the back.
"Nothing at all, old chap; nothing at all. I'll drink your health with all the pleasure in life; and as you said just now, damn the odds!"
Manville retired to the store-room of the ship, where with the two under-stewards, or rather detectives, he had brought with him on board the Alemene, he busied himself for a couple of hours, sending out at intervals basket after basket of champagne to the main deck, until a tempting row of nearly twenty dozen bottles stood in crates before a great array of sandwiches and fruit. Before, however, the chief steward himself proceeded to the deck he retired to his cabin to lock away in his trunk a case containing a large-sized hypodermic syringe and some dozen or so damaged hollow steel tube needles.
Ten minutes afterwards could have been heard a hundred yards from the ship a perfect battle of corks, followed by the captain's voice proposing the toast, "Detective Manville!"
The champagne was drunk in relays, the first saloon partaking first, the second cabin next, and afterwards in their proper order the ship's company, cooks, stewards, and seamen. The last were very enthusiastic, and they drank their host's health with three times three, withdrawing thence to their duties, singing noisily the chorus, "For he's a jolly good fellow," a sentiment which was speedily caught up by both saloons in a rousing echo, "And so say all of us!"
Half an hour later the ship's doctor was hastily summoned to attend Captain Standish, who had been seized with a sudden weakness of his muscles, being able to move neither hand nor foot. From the door of the captain's cabin a dozen men presently implored the physician to visit others, their friends or relatives, who had been stricken in the same extraordinary manner. At one o'clock one half the ship's company, passengers and sailors alike, were lying in their cabins, on the deck, and everywhere, inanimate and paralysed in every limb; the other half, shivering with terror, vainly ministered to the unfortunates, but every moment one by one these attendants themselves would fall victims to the mysterious disease which had so suddenly attacked the ship.
At half-past four, Doctor Campbell collected a few of the still healthy passengers together.
"We have been poisoned," he said briefly. "The symptoms point to Wourali, a South American drug, of which but little is known.''
"Is there no antidote?" demanded a portly giant, whose usually plethoric face was now pasty with fear.
"Nothing certain; artificial respiration, stimulants, and hypodermic doses of strychnine are used, but——" he paused impressively.
"Then, for God's sake, let us try and save some of these poor people; half of them are women." The speaker choked back a sob.
The doctor sighed. "I have used all my strychnine," he said; "these people, for all their flaccid muscles, are dead as herrings. You fellows had better fill yourselves with whisky; it's the only thing left now."
He set the example by knocking the head off a bottle, and pouring the liquid down his throat. The pasty-faced giant reached out his hand for a decanter, then suddenly fell with a groan, a helpless mass of humanity, to the ground. The doctor started up, and forced some spirit down his throat, then set two of the others to work at the patient's arms and shoulders to induce artificial respiration. Suddenly one of the bystanders broke in——
"Who has poisoned us?" he demanded.
"The man whose champagne we drank a while ago."
"Detective Manville?" gasped an incredulous chorus.
"Why, certainly," said the doctor, who was working like a maniac on the giant.
"Let us go and find Manville," suggested a little man who had just drunk a tumbler of raw spirit.
"Go armed, then!"
The little man flourished a revolver in response, and strode to the door followed by the crowd. There he pitched headlong to the ground, for his legs had failed quite suddenly, and he was helpless as a child; but the others, drunk with the fear of death and liquor, rushed, a pack of raving lunatics, over the body of their stricken leader in search of the chief steward.
But Detective Manville was not to be found.
By two o'clock three hundred and sixty three men and seventy women, out of the whole ship's company, had died by poison. Of the others, three women and two men, confined to their beds by illness since the vessel left port, had been strangled during the afternoon as they slept. Sixty women and eleven men, who, being teetotalers, had not availed themselves of Detective Manville's kind invitation to drink champagne, had retired in a panic to the first saloon, where they barricaded themselves behind the locked doors.
Detective Manville, with his four attendants and five prisoners (now free as air), assumed command of the Alemene.
His first act was to place an armed guard over the saloon stairs, then he stopped the vessel's engines, which were by this, however, scarcely moving, since engineers, stokers, and firemen had long been dead. Next he signalled a strange steamer which had risen like a mushroom on the horizon. Detective Manville then searched the captain's cabin, and in John Standish's private trunk he found a key.
With this he proceeded to the strong room of the Alemene, and found to his joy that it fitted the lock. The door opened, only however to disclose a second locked door more solid than the first, and the same key was of no service here. With a curse on his memory he darted away, and among the dead lying on the deck selected the body of the chief officer, on whose watch-chain swung a single key. This fitted the lock of the second door of the Alemene's strong room just as easily as the captain's key had fitted the first; and as he applied it, Detective Manville mused in cynical admiration on the precautions which the owners of the vessel had lavished upon the care of the treasures which they carried.
"Excellent men," he said aloud, "they trusted neither the captain nor his mate, and they were right; the captain is dead, the mate is dead. The makers of proverbs were sometimes wrong; 'Trust not, and you shall not be disappointed,' the old saw should have run."
By five o'clock one million sovereigns' worth of gold specie had been removed from the strong room of the Alemene to the cabin of the Swallow—the strange black steamer which Detective Manville had signalled earlier that evening. By seven o'clock the dead bodies, of whom that morning had been near four hundred living human souls, were secured behind bar and bolt in the Alemene's after-hold. By ten o'clock the sixty women and eleven men who had taken refuge in the first saloon could not have escaped therefrom had they chosen, for the cabin doors were strongly blocked with barricades of heavy merchandise which filled up the cabin staircase to a level with the deck.
At midnight a dull but terrible explosion thundered out across the ocean. The Alemene's bows were lifted clear of the water some seconds preceding the sound; but instantly they settled down again, and in a few short moments the hulk of what had been the finest ship afloat sank steadily head foremost into the bowels of the sea, and presently disappeared in a swirling whirlpool of water. But the Swallow was already miles away, and steaming south at thirteen knots an hour.
"IT is no use talking, men; my terms or none."
Manville, owner of the Swallow, spoke. He was standing, his back to the mizzenmast, his hands and feet lashed firmly to the spar while before him skulked a dozen mutineers, all that remained alive from the fight in which the chief officer and half the crew had been killed, and he himself taken prisoner.
"Give him another turn, Somers!" said Raglan, formerly ship's carpenter, but now head of the mutineers, and master of the Swallow.
A sailor at the word twisted a rope, an end of which he held in either hand; and as this rope passed round Manville's throat, the captive groaned and choked, struggling in vain against the hempen torture.
"Stop!" said Raglan presently, and again addressed his prisoner. "Will you listen to reason now, you fool? Navigate us into Valparaiso, and a third of the gold is yours."
Manville laughed evilly. "Navigate yourself, you hound!" he gasped.
"Keep a civil tongue, or I'll slit your weazand for you!"
"Go on, you cur; I can't stop you!"
Raglan, with an oath, took a knife from his belt and advanced to the mast, but a sailor intervened.
"Out of the way, you whelp!" shouted the carpenter, and slashed at the sailor with his knive.
But Somers and some others threw themselves upon their chief and soon disarmed him.
Somers then advanced to his late captain with a deprecative air.
"Look you, Cap'n Manville, it's this way. We can't do without you, an' you can't do without us. I'm not above givin' you a fair thing since 'twas you that scooped the pool and shoved the shiners in our way. But bless yer, half's too tall, and then to kill Raglan, that's ridiculous. But you take us into port and I'll see you get a fair divvy, s'elp me Gord; a full third to you, and we 'uns 'll split the rest a'tween us."
Manville sneered as he answered:
"No use, Somers. If you want to reach Valparaiso you must release me, then throw your weapons overboard, next surrender Raglan bound to my mercy"—he gritted his teeth—"then I'll talk to you."
Somers, looking vastly disappointed, returned to his fellows, whence a bitter colloquy ensued, and the decision at length arrived at, that Manville must be starved into submission.
For three days more the Swallow floundered on in an aimless way at half-speed through the extreme South Pacific, her general course north-east. Three weeks had passed since she had left the waters of the Indian Ocean; no one on board but Manville knew her whereabouts; coal was running low, provisions, too, were giving out, and she was far from the ordinary track of ships. In all those three days Manville had not tasted food or drink, but his resolution was of iron still, and the baffled mutineers retired each day from the cabin into which they had thrust him, helplessly raging against the strength of their bound master's will.
On the fourth morning a hideous discovery was made—all the Swallow's fresh-water tanks were dry. The men tapped a barrel of rum to brace their spirits against this news, and by noon were raving drunk. They decided in their madness to delay no longer the execution of their prisoner, and were about to carry their purpose into practice when land was sighted suddenly.
A long, low ocean atoll it was, horse-shoe in shape, with one narrow inlet leading into a glass-still, landlocked harbour, fringed with a thin stretch of palm-tufted, rocky ground.
With a reckless dash the Swallow was steered by her drunken pilots through the narrow passage, and by wonderful good fortune carried clear of the snarling rocks of the entrance, which showed their cruel grey teeth and mumbled hungrily through their curling lips of spray as the vessel passed.
A mile farther on the engines were stopped and the anchor lowered with a sullen splash into the crystal water of the lagoon.
"Shore!" was the cry, and one and all the mutineers hastened into the long-boat and pushed off for the land. With clumsy carelessness they moored their boat to the rocks on the beach, and splashing through the low-tide mud, scrambled like a pack of school-boys to explore their new domains. Water they soon found in abundance by the palm trees, but despising this treasure now that they had found it, they strolled in groups around the island slowly and carelessly, since time was of no moment to them.
But while they wandered, steadily the tide flowed in, and with the tide a thin, mysterious current that poured in from the inlet through the mid lagoon, then set again in a strong sweep seawards along one coastline of the bay. At dusk the sailors, sober now and weary of their island, sought to return to the ship, but the boat had disappeared, and the silent Swallow, swinging at her anchor, was the sole inhabitant of the lagoon. Somers threw off his clothes with a laugh, and plunged into the sea to swim off to the ship, a bare five hundred yards from shore. The space of sixty feet he traversed while his comrades watched him, then he threw up his arms, with a sharp scream of pain, and vanished.
"Shark," said Raglan. "Your turn, Duggan."
But Duggan, awed by the fate of Somers, refused, and the night was spent by the mutineers among the palm trees. Next morning, when the tide was low, Duggan slipped into the water and swam scarce fifty feet before his doom took him. There remained on the island ten men, who set to work with their sheath knives to cut down palm trees for a raft. By the evening of the third day they had half cut through a single trunk, but their knives were either broken or worn out. Three of them who wore revolvers fired every shot into the stubborn wood, but their powder was wasted, and the tree shook its slender fronds in derision at their futile efforts. Shell-fish fed them for a week, then dysentery came to rob them of their manhood. On the ninth day ten wan and desperate wrecks of men sprang together into the water and swam off towards the Swallow, yelling and splashing as they went. Nine were torn to pieces in a moment. Raglan, head mutineer, and last alive, was drawn under by a mighty shell-back six feet from safety, and his death shriek ringing over the bay reached the ears of a living skeleton, who lay in horrible agony in the vessel's cabin. That scream, as nothing else could, lightened the horrors of his awful solitude, and Manville, iron soul, died a little later, as he had lived, unconquered, in spite of his sufferings, a sneer curling the edges of his lips.
At that very moment the English world was ringing with the news of a terrible shipping disaster. The Alemene had disappeared mysteriously between Albany and Aden, leaving nothing behind her to explain the fate which had engulfed in the silence of death a magnificent liner, with her five hundred passengers and crew. The nine days' wonder was still further intensified by a startling communication made to the daily papers by the police of Scotland Yard.
Crushing proofs had suddenly come to light, which on investigation clearly damned Captain Standish, commander of the ill-fated vessel, as the perpetrator of a horrible and mysterious murder, which had shocked England some years before.
For weeks the cables worked, carrying pregnant messages to and from Australia, but the Alemene, lying in the slime of the ocean a thousand fathoms deep, gave no answer to the watchers who waited for her to return. It never rains but it pours. Fast on the heels of one disaster came news of a second. The Swallow, an ocean tramp steamer of some 2000 tons, owned and commanded by one Gerald Manville, had set out from Sydney for New Zealand. Since then the Swallow had not been seen nor heard of, and as a frightful storm had swept up from the south soon after her departure from Port Jackson, it was thought she must have foundered in the open sea. No connection was imagined by the wildest dreamer between the hidden fates attending either vessels; but for long after, when storms raged at sea, men secure on shore shuddered at the eccentric cruelties of the ocean, to which they attributed each dreadful loss.
THE air was very still and placid, and rarely a ripple stirred the surface of the sea as the Dido, after rounding the curve of the picnic island, let fall her anchor into the green and lambent waters of the bay. Presently the hiss of escaping steam drowned the hum of conversation on the yacht's deck, and the men and women lying there in easy-chairs looked drowsily forth at the thickly-wooded reaches of the far shore, or the huge sails of the racing squadron of half-deckers lying in the middle distance, which, overtaken by a calm, floated with idly-flapping wings, like great sea-hawks hovering just before their flight to sun themselves upon the surface of the stream.
"How beautiful it all is, but how-idle—how deadly still," said Mara Hescombe dreamily, when the shrill of the steam had ceased.
Cuthbert Stone, smiling, looked at the speaker, herself the personification of idleness as she reclined on a cane lounge, her hands dropping motionless beside her, her heavy-lidded eyes half closed to exclude the glare that flashed up reflected from the waters at the instance of the noon.
"What would you?" he asked, still smiling; "the most beautiful is that which is most peaceful."
The girl, who noticed his prolonged admiring glance, although her eyes seemed to be employed elsewhere, woke suddenly from her languor.
"For my part, I see more beauty in movement." She sat upright, and smartly tapped the arm of her nearest companion with her fan. "Wake up, poet," she cried laughingly. "I do believe you were asleep. Tell us which is the more beautiful, energy or peace?"
The man appealed to was fashioned in heroic mould, but his great limbs were so languidly inclined just then that he scarcely stirred at her quick-spoken command.
"Peace, peace," he muttered drowsily, in deep guttural tones; "let me be!"
All present laughed, but Miss Hescombe arose from her chair impatiently.
"Oh for a wind, a storm, anything, so that we should see a battle among those boats!"
The eyes of Cuthbert Stone followed her as she moved to the railing with swift but graceful stride, and they could not fail to mark how good she was to look upon, with the gracious curves of her well-proportioned figure, the pleasing outlines of her profile, and the golden flashings of her hair, lit then to radiance by the shining glory of the sunlight. He could not choose but follow her.
"How restless you are," he said half reproachfully.
"Oh, but everything is so calm, it is insufferable. Look! the poet sleeps, father sleeps, mother sleeps, the sea sleeps!"
She tapped her foot in a tattoo beat upon the deck.
"I am awake," said Cuthbert Stone.
"Are you? then do something!" returned Miss Hescombe imperiously.
"What do you want me to do?"
"What an-obvious question! Only a man would ask it. How do I know what you are to do? Something, anything—only do it quickly!"
Cuthbert Stone looked over the side of the yacht gravely into the sea.
"Do you know this harbour of Port Jackson reminds me most intensely of you. It is often placid as it is now—as you were a moment past—but not for any length of time. A little cloud the size of a man's hand rises in the blue sky above, Heaven knows whence or why, and the instant after it is transfigured from a peaceful lake into an angry sea, sans pitie et sans remords."
"So I am a creature without kindness or pity. How easily your tongue runs to flattery, Mr. Stone."
"You should be satisfied with my simile, Miss Hescombe, you who find most beauty in energy. The sea is mysterious besides."
"Ah, but that is much better. I can forgive you now for your previous accusation. Am I a mystery to you?"
Cuthbert Stone tried to look into the girl's eyes, but she evaded his glance coquettishly.
"A mystery indeed. I have studied you a whole year, and know you very little even now."
"How seriously you said that."
"It is a serious matter for me."
"My dear sir, you are foolish to consider any woman seriously."
"Miss Hescombe, I have been a long time wanting to say something to you."
The girl gave him a swift sidelong glance, and shrugged her shoulders with a little foreign gesture.
"Nothing serious, I hope. Just consider the day, its altogether too calm, dull, and—your beloved word—peaceful for seriousness; do, for goodness' sake, be frivolous in order to balance things a little better."
"I have waited and waited."
"Whatever for? You see me every day, you can speak to me at any time."
"Ah," she interrupted, "I can see from your face that you are about to say something heavy. I forbid you to speak."
Cuthbert's face grew stern and cold. "How unkind you can be," he said.
"Rather, how unkind you can be, Mr. Stone; here am I perishing for lack of something to do, to see, to say, and you want to make me still duller with your gravity. I think your conduct downright selfish! If you must be serious, why not go and make your speech to the poet; he will listen to you quite patiently, for I'm sure he's half asleep," she added laughingly.
"Won't you listen to me?" persisted the man.
Miss Hescombe was not required to give an answer, for at that moment, with a noisy clatter, the poet rose to his feet and came towards them, a heavy-browed German giant.
"I was not asleep," he said slowly, mouthing his words in a deep voice, which transformed his "p's" into "b's," his "w's" "v's," and "s's" "z's"—"I was thinking."
"Ach Himmel!" mimicked Miss Hescombe saucily, "the boet vass dhinkging? Vot vaz id dhat the boet vaz dhinkging aboud hein?"
The giant shook a great finger at her.
"Ach, you rascal; my thoughts would not interest a rattle-plate girl like you."
"But indeed they would," declared Miss Hescombe, grown earnest with a swift, capricious change of front; "I am dull as ditch-water. Do tell me, poet dear."
The German was a philosopher, who did not pay too much court to the intellect of woman, but he was not proof against the wiles of beseeching eyes and tender smiles, so he answered her as if Mara had been one like himself.
"I was thinking," he said, "that philosophy is an exposition of maxims, which are admirable until they are submitted to the test of practical experience."
"An example?" demanded the girl.
"It is better to sleep than to wake; to rest than to move——"
"I do not agree with you," cried Miss Hescombe.
The poet shrugged his shoulders.
"That does not matter," he said placidly; "except that you interrupt me."
"Go on, poet dear," with an apologetic smile.
"It is also better to put up with a misfortune than to seek to escape it, and so perhaps encounter a worse. Well, I was thinking these things, and all the while a ray of the sun came shining across my knees from the slit in the awning above, and my legs were made, ach, so hot. I told myself it was better to rest on and put up with this small evil."
"Philosophy or laziness?" commented Miss Hescombe, interrupting again with ardent scorn.
"But," continued the poet, unmoved, "I found that the small thing I speak of drove all the philosophy from my mind, and so at last I arose and came over to you."
Cuthbert Stone laughed heartily.
"The unknown evil you just now spoke about, Herr Siegbert; many thanks! But if a ray of sunshine can make you forget your beloved philosophy, what could not a greater thing such as love effect?"
There was a faint challenge in his voice, suggestive perhaps of by-gone controversies between the two.
"Ach so, love?" observed the poet slowly. "I cannot rest at all now for love."
"What, poet dear, you in love?" Miss Hescombe, who had been inclined to drift from the conversation, became instantly alert and interested.
"That is so," answered the German heavily. "It has come upon me in my old age."
"Oh, do tell me who she is! Is she pretty, is she young, rich, poor, nice?—tell me everything!"
"There is not much to tell, only that the care of the person with whom I am in love is my chief thought. It is an evil this love, for it transforms me from a philosopher into a critic, from a poet into a human being."
"Tell me more," imperiously; "is she pretty?"
"Ach, what matters that," said the German tragically, "it is the evil in myself which concerns me. I, a poet, cannot now lie in the woods alone with Nature to watch a beautiful sunset or sunrise, without being concerned to first inquire whether or not the grass is damp lest I might catch cold and die, and so lose this love of mine. I dare not sit down in the house without first looking to see if I be resting in a draught. I cannot smoke too long my pipe for fear it should affect my heart. When the mood takes me to write, I dare not write too long lest my poor eyesight be offended. Ach, I tell you it is terrible, this love of mine!"
Miss Hescombe had been watching the German with growing disenchantment during this last speech.
"It seems to me that you take a great deal more interest in your silly health than in your love!" she declared scornfully.
The poet submitted with a deprecatory shrug of his huge but shapely shoulders.
"Nein, meine liebe, not more, just so much; that is all."
"Yost so much," mocked the girl. "I wouldn't own you for a lover, poet; fancy being afraid of draughts, ugh!"
"It is the fear born of love!" answered Herr Siegbert, with an ecstatic glance heavenwards.
"Oh, please don't do that," laughed Miss Hescombe, "or I shall be forced to agree with you that love is an evil, since it can make my poor old poet look so silly?"
"So silly, hein? Ach well, let us talk of other things."
"No, you don't," said the girl quickly; "you haven't completed your confession yet.''
"What more do you want from me?"
"Lots. First, who is she, a girl or a grown woman?"
The poet considered for a second, his eyes twinkling merrily.
"Neither," he answered at last, "it is a man!"
Miss Hescombe stared at him in amaze.
"A man!" she gasped. "A man!"
"Ja, meine liebe—mine self."
Cuthbert Stone shouted with laughter, but it took the girl a moment to understand, though, when she did, much less a time to show her indignation.
"You fraud," she cried, "I should have remembered that you stolid Germans are incapable of any passion except self-love!" Her anger was apparently quite real.
"A joke," said the German, "does not deserve such hard words."
"But a joke against a woman?" murmured Cuthbert Stone, trying to conceal his pleasure.
"Ach yes, it was very rude of me," said the poet, with contrition.
"Go away, both of you. You"—to the poet—"made fun of me, and you"—to Cuthbert Stone—"laughed at me."
She looked very pretty in her indignation—too pretty altogether to take her at her word.
"I apologise; I am sorry," said Herr Siegbert humbly.
"And I," said Cuthbert Stone, "have thought of something to do."
Miss Hescombe disregarded the poet altogether, but she caught at the other's suggestion eagerly.
"Yes, anything; what is it?"
"You and I will take a boat, row over to those half-deckers, and chaff their crews about their racing speed. Eh?"
"Excellent! a dingey, and you row, eh?" cried the girl, who, even in her excitement, reflected that her companion could not be half as serious while rowing under a November sun as he could sitting beside her in the stern sheets sharing the shade of her parasol; she was a little nervous of Cuthbert Stone's seriousness, be it confessed.
In a moment they were embarked and away, leaving the poet to keep company with the dozing figures of Miss Hescombe's father and mother on the Dido's deck, an arrangement which did not at all displease the German, for he was a man not over-fond of conversation, and he loved of all things uninterrupted converse with his own imaginings.
The girl kept up a ceaseless chatter until the squadron was reached, when she joined her companion in exchanging merry badinage with the crews of the different tiny yachts around which they slowly glided, challenging their owners to a trial of speed, sculls versus sails. Tiring of this amusement soon, however, Miss Hescombe declared it was time for lunch, and ordered an immediate return to the Dido. Obediently enough Cuthbert put the boat about, but his plan of "doing something" had not been conceived in the entirely disinterested idea of serving Miss Hescombe's caprice. Half-way between the flotilla and the yacht he paused in his labour. Coolly drawing in his sculls he placed them across the thwarts of the boat before him, and leaning forward, rested his arms upon the rampart thus formed.
"What is that for?" inquired Miss Hescombe, with some surprise.
"I want to speak to you," said Cuthbert Stone.
Miss Hescombe imagined she knew what would be the tenor of her companion's conversation, and a spirit of perverseness possessed her instantly.
"Well, do your talking while you row," she commanded serenely. "I'm as hungry as—Oh my!"
A sudden puff of wind had come up from the south, which rocked their tiny boat to and fro; they watched it presently catch the sails of the flotilla and careen the racing craft with rude speed almost completely over; but in a second all was still again, and only a fleeting ripple on the waters showed the passing of the baby squall.
"It will blow hard soon," said Cuthbert Stone; "that squall is the precursor of a storm."
"Then let us get back quickly to the Dido," suggested Mara, a little nervously; but the man shook his head with an air of quiet determination.
"Not until I have said my say," he answered.
Mara Hescombe discovered in herself a feverish anxiety to postpone listening to that which the man had resolved to utter.
"Your say," she mocked; and rattled on, "one would imagine you a tragedian, with that frown and those tight lips. Are you rehearsing? What is the character? Mark Antony or Hamlet? Oh, I know, it's Othello, only you should have your face blackened; you'd look lovely with your face blackened, Mr. Stone."
Cuthbert watched her grimly.
"You'll have to listen to me in the end," he remarked; "I can wait."
"Have to listen to you, Mr. Stone? You are very certain about it. Do you often make women do things?" her voice was quietly sarcastic.
"May I speak now?" he demanded.
"Oh certainly, pray go on, don't mind me!" and the girl deliberately covered both her small ears with her hands, while she mocked him with her eyes.
"Mara, Mara, how can you be so unkind?"
The words rang out with a very real appeal.
Miss Hescombe heard them quite distinctly, but she gave no such sign; instead, she regarded the man with a fine show of criticism, and still with her hands to her ears meditatively observed:
"No, it isn't Othello; I was mistaken after all; it's Romeo, with the sculls for a balcony, and I'm Juliet; he's a bad actor though, a Romeo should never sit."
The speech was a cruel one, and its effect disastrous. Cuthbert stood up suddenly, his face grown very white, his eyes aflame.
"You shall hear me!" he cried, and as he spoke stepped over the sculls before him, not entirely conscious of what he was doing, or indeed of what he intended to do.
Miss Hescombe shrank away as he approached her, frightened by his eyes, and next moment both were struggling helplessly in the water, for neither man nor girl could swim, and their boat, floating bottom upwards, had drifted yards beyond their reach.
Their plight could not be seen from the Dido, for a little promontory of the picnic island intervened. The crews of the racing squadron saw, but they were lying half a mile away, still becalmed and helpless.
Two men, however, standing on the bridge of a small coasting vessel that was steaming slowly down the harbour towards the heads witnessed the accident, and into the hands of those men Fate placed the lives of Mara Hescombe and Cuthbert Stone. One was short and stoutly built, with dark, reckless features, narrow-set and evil eyes. The other, taller than his companion by a full head, and of more graceful fashion altogether, possessed a face remarkable for an extraordinary combination of strength and beauty. His forehead and straight thin nose, his chiselled lips and clean-shaven chin, almost faultless in their classic perfection of outline, produced a singular effect of austerity and coldness, resembling in that respect the features of some old sculptured god; but his large grey eyes, looking forth from under firmly marked and level brows, were soft and lustrous, and charged besides with a curiously magnetic and penetrating power.
"Those two fools will drown, Julian," said the shorter man, after they had together watched the struggling figures in the water for a moment.
"Let them drown," replied the other curtly; "there will be then two fools less for this over-burdened world to longer reckon with."
"But those half-deckers yonder see them as well as we do. Hark to that shout; they are calling to us to save them."
"We have no time to waste in nonsense of that sort, Burgess; let the half-deckers save the idiots themselves."
The speaker frowned as he spoke, and the frown singularly marred the comeliness of his face.
"You'd better stop, Julian; the yachts' crews yonder can see we've noticed the accident, and they'd make it ugly for you afterwards if we let them drown."
"Damn them!" said Julian, with an impatient shrug; but he, nevertheless, gave a sullen order, and the vessel's course was changed. Five minutes afterwards Miss Hescombe and Cuthbert Stone were being ministered to in the cabin of the Night Hawk, which vessel lay for the nonce inactive in the stream, to the ill-concealed annoyance of her master, who waited alone impatiently upon the upper deck until his unwelcome guests should be recovered sufficiently to take their departure.
A half-hour passed, and then Burgess approached his captain.
"They are almost right again, sir, but the girl is very weak. They want us to put them on board their own yacht, whose masts you can see there over the point."
"Very well," said Julian coldly; "only for the devil's sake hurry about it; have a boat lowered and manned at once. You had better take charge of it yourself, Burgess."
"What about their own boat?"
"Let it be; we've done quite enough for them as it is."
"Ay, ay, sir."
The necessary orders were given, and with a speed that showed a wonderful discipline the boat was made ready almost in the twinkling of an eye, but the moment after Burgess approached his captain once again.
"They want to see you, sir, to assure you of their gratitude," he said, his lips curled with a faintly humorous smile.
The captain swung abruptly on his heel. "Tell them to go to Hades!" he replied. Then over his shoulder, "Hurry's the word, Burgess; we've lost too much time already."
"Ay, ay, sir." In another minute the face of Burgess appeared once more above the railing of the ladder. "The lady won't leave without seeing her rescuer, sir; she has a will of her own."
His deprecating smile concealed an intense desire to laugh outright at the quaint humour of the situation.
The face of the captain was a study. "Won't leave, won't she, Burgess? Make her!" He swung on his heel again.
Burgess, shrugging his shoulders, departed, and his voice could soon be heard protesting vehemently below; but he had truly said that Miss Hescombe possessed a will of her own, for the young lady presently made her way, supported by Cuthbert Stone, to the captain's private bridge. Julian faced her, black as night, but the frown faded from his forehead, and he doffed his cap as he looked at her, for not even Mara Hescombe's then bedraggled condition could conceal her loveliness.
"I have come to thank you for my life," she said earnestly.
"I, too, must thank you," said Cuthbert Stone, staring curiously at the extraordinary man before him; but Julian noticed nothing except the tears in Miss Hescombe's eyes, and that those eyes were extremely beautiful.
"You go to unnecessary trouble; I want no thanks," he answered curtly. Then meeting Miss Hescombe's glance, he gazed at her long and full, so that the girl rosed under his regard.
"We hope to prove our gratitude hereafter," said Cuthbert Stone.
"Impossible," returned the captain, with a half sneer. "I shall probably never be in a position to do you another service."
"There are exceptions to Johnson's rule," cried Cuthbert quickly.
"Perhaps," said Julian. "At any rate, you are now in a position to render me a service equal to that which you seem to think I have rendered you."
"Only name it," murmured Miss Hescombe.
Julian bowed profoundly.
"By returning, madam, as soon as may be, to your yacht; my boat waits for you below."
Brusqueness such as this Miss Hescombe had never before encountered, and her face flushed with surprise and mortification. Turning haughtily, she moved unassisted to the ladder, her strength returned with the indignation occasioned by this cynical and unprovoked rebuff; but the sight of the water now stirred into wavelets by a fast rising wind made her remember the death she had escaped and the load of gratitude she owed to this rude but wonderfully handsome stranger, for Miss Hescombe had not failed to remark a fact so apparent as Julian's exceptional good looks.
"At least, tell me the name of our preserver," she faltered, looking shyly up at him.
Julian, glancing at her, waited a full minute in the pleasing contemplation of her beauty, while every second her glance would travel to his eyes or to the deck in either the perfection of coquetry or the depth of innocence, just as the watcher might choose to regard it.
Cuthbert Stone decided on the former at once, for he considered the captain to be a very likely person for women to practise their coquetries upon. However, he was wrong, Miss Hescombe had never been so unaffected in her life.
"My name," said the captain at last, "is Julian Savage. Good-day, madam," and with a short bow he left her to resume his impatient pacing on the deck.
"Well, I'll be——," said Cuthbert Stone angrily, under his breath, as he took his seat, and they were the only words he uttered for some time.
Miss Hescombe, less nonplussed, but even more angry than her companion, glanced often backwards as the boat shot over the waters under the united force of four strong arms; she did not trouble at all to remark the little racing yachts which now tore through the waves at full speed, their white sails sometimes gleaming in the sunlight, sometimes darkening as the shadows caught them like the flashing pinions of sea-birds on the wing. The battle of boats, which earlier in the day would have enchanted her, possessed no interest now, for a new experience had come to her unsought; a man, the first she had ever known to do so strange a thing, had treated her curtly, with abominable rudeness indeed—had rejected her advances with disdain, and finally contemptuously dismissed her. The boat commenced to round the point of the island, but instead of looking for the Dido, Mara glanced over her shoulder towards the Night Hawk. Julian Savage was standing with his back to her, looking through a field-glass towards the far shore of the bay.
"If ever," muttered Miss Hescombe to herself—"if ever I get the chance, I shall make that man sorry for to-day."
Then she thought of his eyes, which somehow had seemed softer than his word, and she smiled and frowned, for her thoughts were contradictory.
"Of all the creatures I have ever met," said Cuthbert Stone that evening on the Dido's deck, "that man, Julian Savage, is the most cold and brutal; he froze me like a blizzard."
"I am inclined to agree with you," replied Miss Hescombe. "Did you ever meet with such contempt—such indifference? One would imagine that after saving our lives he'd have been a little gracious, don't you think; why he did not even trouble to inquire our names."
"No; all he wanted was to get rid of us as quickly as possible."
"Perhaps he knows us," said Mara savagely, "no one could really be so incurious as he seemed to be; but," she added wickedly, "what a handsome man he is! A romantic experience altogether, wasn't it?"
Cuthbert involuntarily smiled.
"Will you listen to me now, Mara?" he asked, and placed his right hand on one of hers, which rested idly on the rail. But the girl withdrew her fingers, and moved towards the cabin stairs, where her mother had just appeared.
"I have had enough seriousness for one day," she declared. "Next time you want to be serious with me, please do it on shore; remember neither of us can swim."
AT the Governor's dinner-party, given in honour of the birthday of the Prince of Wales, Miss Hescombe was placed between Captain Stardee, an officer of the British Navy, and Mr. Cecil Vane, a Sydney barrister, two gentlemen with whom she was already slightly acquainted. She found herself soon conversing almost exclusively with the Australian.
"The ne plus ultra of the average Colonial's social ambition is an invitation to any quasi-private function at Government House," observed the Q.C., with a languid and somewhat didactic drawl.
The remark interested the girl.
"I have wondered why there seemed to be so few men in society here; are the vice-regal functions so exclusive, then?"
"They pretend to be," returned Mr. Vane, "but they are not really; the governors whom Her Gracious Majesty sends to rule over us come here with but one idea, and that is, to make themselves popular, at all hazards, with the cornstalks; consequently, they shower their invitations right and left, although mind you, they affect all the time a very pretty exclusiveness."
"Then why the scarcity of men?"
"Pure laziness; the male Australian is an animal whose whole soul is wrapped up in business; when his day's work is over he goes home to sit and read in dressing-gown and slippers, to smoke or to sleep, quite satisfied that his wife or his other women-folk should go out alone to enjoy themselves."
"How uninteresting; but surely the younger men go about more?"
"How long have you been in Sydney, Miss Hescombe?"
"Not quite a month. Why?"
"A month here, and you have not yet discovered that we have no young men in this colony! You have been surely dreaming your time away."
"Oh, you are jesting! I have met dozens; why, you are young yourself."
"I am growing young certainly, but then I am barely fifty; you should see me ten years hence, I shall be quite a boy then, I hope. You must know that all the brainy Australians are born tired and very, very old; they commence to grow young about the time that an Englishman feels himself getting middle-aged."
"Mr. Vane, you are trying to amuse yourself at the expense of my innocence."
"Not I; you will find it out for yourself later on."
"I am sure that you are laughing at me. I shall talk to the captain."
"Very well; but one day you will offer me an apology."
Captain Stardee had been making signals for some time to attract the girl's attention.
"Are you interested in the coming American cum Hispano struggle?" he inquired.
"I am more interested in Australia, Captain Stardee. Have you been long on this station?"
"About three years; may I help you with my experience?"
"Please; I want to know about Australian young men——"
"Ah, an exciting subject to discuss with a young lady," he replied, smiling; "how can I assist you?"
"First, there are young men here, aren't there?"
"I seem to have met quite a number, if I remember rightly."
"Well, are they as 'chivalrous, brave, and obliging' as the English papers described them at the time of the Queen's Jubilee?"
"Now you have set me a task; you see, I didn't read those papers you speak of. However, so far as my experience goes, the men here compare quite favourably with those of any other race; of course, I speak of gentlemen."
"Could you conceive of an Australian, apparently a gentleman, so far as speech and appearance are concerned, being wantonly discourteous to a woman?"
"Frankly, no. I have many friends among the Sydney born, and they are all courteous and civil to a fault. Surely you can have suffered no discourtesy?"
Miss Hescombe did not feel called upon to make a confidence.
"Oh, no," she replied, smiling, "but a lady friend of mine informed me of an unpleasant chance experience she had encountered at the hands of an Australian, seemingly a gentleman, and I wondered; that was all."
"Of course," observed the captain, "this being a democratic country, and education being both free and compulsory, it would be hard to determine off-hand, from a man's appearance or manner, whether he was a gentleman or not. Many of the Sydney larrikins have had college educations, I have heard."
"Equivalent to our English term 'roughs,' Miss Hescombe; they form the lowest element of society here."
"Oh, I am sure the man my friend told me of was not a larrikin; he was wonderfully handsome and spoke like a polished gentleman, although he was so rude."
The captain smiled.
"The gentleman on your right hand, Mr. Vane, could tell you some strange tales about polished scamps here, if he would; he is a criminal pleader."
Mr. Vane overheard this remark, and replied:
"Our friend Savage, for instance, eh, captain?" whereupon both men laughed as at some common amusing recollection.
"Savage," echoed Miss Hescombe, deeply interested on mention of a name quite near her thoughts at that very moment.
"Yes, Julian Savage; in my opinion the cleverest rascal in Australia; though," and he lowered his voice, "I am guilty of slander in making the remark, and I daresay I should be made to pay dearly for my incautiousness if the scamp in question could ever know I made it."
"Oh, do tell me about him," said Miss Hescombe eagerly.
"He would interest you as a type since you are studying Australia, eh?"
"Yes, I am writing a book," replied Miss Hescombe a little affectedly.
"Well, for my sake, if you put this man in your book, pray disguise him well; I confess that he is the only man in Christendom I pay the compliment of feeling at all afraid of."
"That makes him doubly interesting; please commence."
"Well, my friend Stardee there, met him first; he ran across him down in the South Seas under rather curious circumstances. The Admiralty had heard that the natives of some of the islands (names are of no consequence) were being secretly supplied with arms and ammunition by some enterprising trader contrary to the British laws in that behalf, so the Pelican was ordered down to the South Seas to investigate, and, if possible, capture and punish the offenders.
"Captain Stardee, having arrived there, made many inquiries, and finally found the reports correct. He consequently put forth every effort to ascertain the names of the enterprising and lawless traffickers, but for a long time fruitless; however, he did at last manage to discover, by judicious bribery, that a shipment of rifles was shortly expected by the natives to be landed on the shores of a certain island harbour. Accordingly he made careful preparation to catch the lawbreakers flagrante delicto.
"A day or two before the expected denouement, however, who should arrive in the very harbour where Stardee's gunboat was lying concealed, but Julian Savage, in command of a little steam sloop, and, of course, he very shortly discovered from the natives the fact of Stardee's presence there. Well, he presented himself on board the Pelican in response to a command, and later his vessel was examined, but everything was shipshape and his papers were found to be correct. Stardee, however, laid an embargo on his leaving the harbour, for he did not want to run any risks of our friend communicating with the ship expected to arrive with the arms; the captain was aware, you see, of a certain free-masonry existing between these island traders. However, Savage not only raised no demur, but on the contrary, indeed, indignantly inveighed against the practice of supplying irresponsible islanders with weapons, as he declared it made legitimate trading dangerous.
"Well, to cut a long story short, they waited several days, three weeks, in fact, lying perdu in a little inlet of the harbour, and during that time Savage made himself simply worshipped by every man jack on board the Pelican, from the captain to the cabin boy. I assure you, our friend Stardee there still has a soft corner in his heart for the handsome scamp; eh, captain?"
The captain, thus appealed to, shrugged his shoulders and smiled, but answered nothing.
"Was he so handsome?" asked Miss Hescombe innocently.
"The best-looking fellow I ever met, and the most entertaining," replied Captain Stardee. "He had more words at the tip of his tongue than any man or woman I have ever known, and he could say the smartest and most cutting things to the accompaniment of the sweetest and most engaging manner in the world."
"Was he educated?" still more innocently.
"A perfect savant; there seemed to be nothing in the world's history he was not conversant with, from the love affairs of Dionysius to the latest secret in the manufacture of gun metal. The man was a walking lexicon."
"To proceed with my story," struck in Cecil Vane, "this Admirable Crichton practically lived on board the Pelican as Stardee's guest during his stay in the harbour, and lived, too, on the best; he drank nothing but champagne, and displayed an epicurean taste for foie gras and truffles. Meanwhile, a watch was kept on the highest point of the island for the arrival of the ship that never came. At last one of the terrible hurricanes common in those latitudes showed signs of visiting the island, and it was deemed advisable to get the Pelican immediately to sea, for the harbour, although filled with small bays and inlets, was little better than an open roadstead for a vessel of any tonnage."
"However, the hurricane came on quicker than was expected, and amongst his other excellencies Julian Savage, who was on board at the moment, proved an expert pilot, and it was mainly through his knowledge of the various channels that the Pelican was guided to safety.
"Returning a few days later they found that Savage's sloop, the Sea Fowl, was a complete wreck, having been actually smashed to pieces on the foreshore of the bay. Captain Stardee, moreover, discovered to his disgust that during the storm a ship had visited the island, had landed a cargo of arms and ammunition, and disappeared without leaving a sign.
"It was soon afterwards found necessary to return to dock for repairs to the Pelican, and Stardee gave Savage and his crew, who had been saved to a man, a passage with their belongings to Suva. His first suspicion of his guest arose from the fact of the extraordinary value of his belongings, for Savage brought on board quite a respectable cargo of island money and other marketable commodities. Subsequently, on another trip to the island, Stardee learned from closer examination of the Sea Fowl's wreckage that the sloop had once possessed a private hold, concealed by a sliding panelled covering, which could have easily contained a large supply of arms and stores. Stardee understood then the native's strange story of the ship which had landed her stock of arms during the hurricane."
"How very clever," laughed Miss Hescombe; "how completely he must have deceived you, Captain Stardee. But did you never secure redress?"
The captain gave a vexed shrug, but Cecil Vane roared with laughter.
"That is the best part of the story, Miss Hescombe. Redress, by Jove, he got redress! That scamp Savage, as soon as he reached Sydney, entered an action-at-law against the Admiralty to recover the value of his sloop, which he declared he had lost through being compelled to remain in the harbour during the hurricane owing to the embargo laid upon him by our friend here. I acted for the beggar, and he got a verdict of £1,500 damages."
"But you knew that he had broken the laws by selling arms to the natives."
"Yes, but we had no evidence against him," replied Captain Stardee sadly, "except our suspicions, and a few broken pieces of wreckage. We put him on his trial, and did all we could to convict him, but the natives were impossible witnesses, and his crew stuck to him like wax. We could get nothing incriminating from them. We discovered afterwards that they (his crew, not the natives) were all members of a secret society in Sydney here, of which he is the head."
"A secret society; that sounds mysterious," said the young lady, who did not trouble to conceal the strong interest she experienced in the narrative.
"A species of Australian Mafia, Miss Hescombe," explained the barrister, "organised by the man we are discussing out of a section of Sydney larrikins called a push or gang; but I weary you—shall we talk of something else?"
"Oh, please not, you are helping me so much with my book, and I am longing for instruction in Australian ways and habits. Are those secret societies common?"
"Well, no, pushes are common enough, but one could hardly define them as secret societies, rather as bands of young scoundrels banded together for the love of mischief; every suburb of Sydney reluctantly suffers under the tyranny of a push."
"But why is that; what do these pushes do, Mr. Vane?"
"Oh, nothing in particular—everything bad they can think of that is just inside the pale of the law. They are generally brats of boys and young men who collect together of a night at street corners under the leadership of the worst blackguard of the lot. They insult women and passers-by whenever they see a chance of doing so and escaping scot free. If any man is foolish enough to resent their insults the push attacks the unfortunate in a body, sometimes indeed half murder him."
"But the police?" cried Miss Hescombe, horrified.
"The police are generally powerless, for the blackguards choose time and place, and besides, always keep sentinels posted to warn them of the approach of the guardians of the law, whereupon they vanish into the air. In the worst infected districts the police are actually afraid of the ruffians, and never venture on their beats after nightfall except in pairs."
"Good heavens! what a horrible state of things," cried the girl; "it seems almost incredible that such an evil could exist in the midst of a civilised community at the end of the nineteenth century."
"Nevertheless it does exist, Miss Hescombe; and what is more, no one has yet been able to devise a remedy."
"But are there not laws, Mr. Vane?"
"Certainly there are laws, but you must first catch your criminal before you can hang him. These pushes, moreover, exercise a terrorism over most private citizens whom they come in contact with. Why, I can assure you that, in my own experience, I have known some of the greatest rogues, even when arrested and put on trial, escape scot free owing to their very prosecutors being afraid to testify against them for fear of the subsequent vengeance of the push to which the rogues belonged. Sounds like a story of the Middle Ages, doesn't it? but it's true enough."
"And this secret society you spoke of just now headed by this Mr. Savage" (Miss Hescombe did not blush) "do its members commit the same atrocious deeds that you have just described?"
Mr. Vane considered for a moment.
"I can't quite say," he answered, somewhat undecidedly. "I have not heard of 'The Rocks' doing that sort of thing; at all events, not since Julian Savage became their king."
"King?" echoed the girl, surprised.
"That is the name these pushes always give their leader, and although 'The Rocks' have long developed from a push into a political society, I fancy they would still claim their old customs."
"What are this society's objects, Mr. Vane?"
"My dear young lady, if I knew, I could sell my knowledge for a good round sum to the police."
"What an extraordinary man this Mr. Savage must be," observed the girl reflectively. "I wonder what sort of a woman his wife is?"
She considered that she had put the question artfully, and plumed herself with a secret smile when her fish took the bait.
"Oh, Savage is a woman-hater, Miss Hescombe; he's not married, nor ever likely to be, from what I have heard."
Captain Stardee interrupted from her other side:
"What, still talking about Savage?" he asked.
"He is worth discussing, Captain Stardee," declared Miss Hescombe; "I never have heard of a more complex or romantically interesting character. From your and Mr. Vane's description, he must be utterly charming. I should like to meet him."
Both men laughed.
"Half the women in Sydney are in love with him," said the captain.
"Decidedly I must meet him; you make me more and more curious."
"You won't find him a beetle, though, who will sit quietly on a pin while you make a copy of him for your book," declared Vane, still laughing.
"Ah, you only see him from a man's point of view," said the young lady, with a saucy smile.
"You mean that he might allow you to dissect him?"
"He would not know he was undergoing an operation at all. My methods are quite too soothing for that."
"Are they, indeed? Perhaps you have been dissecting me."
"It is quite possible, Mr. Vane," returned the girl, laughing, and mentally referring to a chapter of her book.
"I call that distinctly unfair. Here have I been attending to your frightfully defective education all the dinner, and you ungrateful one—ah, words fail me!"
"I have drawn a most charming portrait of you."
"H'm, will you let me see it?" demanded the Q.C.
"I shall send you a copy, with the author's compliments."
"In proof, I meant."
"Ah, now you ask too much."
"I have my revenge made to hand. I shall merely have to remember when I see your book in print that I instructed your ignorance, and my vanity will be instantly soothed."
"You could easily have been much ruder than that," said Miss Hescombe. "You must be one of those 'chivalrous, brave, and obliging' Australians of the Pall Mall Budget. However, I know what you mean."
"Dear lady, tell me what I meant."
"You intended to insinuate that knowing so little about Australia, I am guilty of profound impertinence in writing about Australians."
"How crude you must think me," sighed Mr. Vane. "Permit me to disabuse your mind of such an idea. It is one of my pet theories that in literature the person who knows the least about a subject is the one who possesses the best right to descant upon it."
"There is something that sounds sarcastic in that speech," observed Miss Hescombe, somewhat dubiously. "I wish you would explain it a little."
"Why, I mean that what such a person can write must be more or less imaginative, whereas the man who knows relates facts, and facts are such stodgy things—don't you agree?"
"I see very plainly that you are laughing at me; but as Lady Killingworth is collecting eyes, I shall delay reprisals for a little."
"Laughing at you, my dear young lady! Heaven forbid!"
"My vengeance shall be pitiless."
"Peccavi. Avert the punishment, I implore you, your timid slave entreats!"
The girl looked at him with an assumption of tragic hauteur.
"On one condition, minion."
"Anything, most noble. I kneel to you in spirit."
"Then place beneath my microscope another victim without delay! Promise!"
"Poor beetle! Who is it to be?"
"Your heroic scamp, Mr. Julian Savage."
Cecil Vane gave a low whistle as the gentlemen arose to honour the departure of the ladies.
"Great Scott!" he muttered to himself. "Here's a pretty kettle of fish to fry; I've let myself in for something spicy this time."
In the ballroom a little later Miss Hescombe encountered Cuthbert Stone, whose appearance certainly excused remark. He was standing aimlessly beside a window, pale, and extremely agitated, while he crushed and crumpled a piece of pink paper between his hands without apparently knowing that his emotion created comment. The girl commanded her partner to lead her to him.
"Goodness, Mr. Stone," she said merrily, but nevertheless with a kind note of inquiry in her voice, "one would think you had been recently confronted with a ghost."
The American tugged at his long yellow moustachios nervously with one hand, with the other he half extended the pink paper towards her.
"It's a cable," he muttered hoarsely; "and it seems to tell me that I'm ruined."
He watched the girl hungrily as he spoke, then of a sudden swung on his heel and strode off among the promenaders.
"Cuthbert!" Miss Hescombe's musical voice called out softly after him, but the American did not hear her, nor did he see the sudden tender pity of her eyes.
The girl went straight to her mother, and murmured something in Lady Hescombe's ear which gave the old lady the greatest pleasure she had known for months; for what she heard promised the fulfilment of her dearest hopes.
Miss Hescombe had said: "Mother, if Cuthbert Stone asks me to-night to be his wife, I shall answer 'Yes.'"
But although Lady Hescombe searched throughout the evening, and sent her husband into all the rooms and corridors of Government House in quest of him, Cuthbert Stone was not to be found. In such manner do the Fates in their disposition of human lives sometimes create the cups of chance and circumstances, and Folly spills them to the ground.
WHEN Cuthbert Stone left Government House that night he visited, instead of his hotel, his yacht, hiring a waterman at Princes Steps to row him to the Dido; this in the vain hope to find rest there and peace from his thoughts.
For hours he tramped up and down the gleaming white decks of his beautiful vessel, but in spite of himself always thinking, thinking. The sailors one by one retired below to sleep, leaving only the usual night watch on deck; but Cuthbert heeded nothing, nor did he even notice the passing of time, so bitter were the fancies that possessed his brain.
In a painful vision he beheld himself bereft of the riches that had hitherto made life so pleasant a fruit to his palate; he beheld himself a pauper, deserted by his countless friends, stripped of his fair belongings, his palaces in Italy and Switzerland, his hotel in Paris, his house in London, his mansion in New York; he saw his yacht, the Dido, which he had had built for himself, perhaps the dearest loved of his possessions, in the hands of an unfeeling stranger. He saw himself, a laggard in the race of love, forced by the chances of a disastrous hour to fall back, conquered by lack of means, and allow some other to pluck the splendid flower he had destined for himself. Mara Hescombe had never appeared so beautiful or so utterly desirable to him as in that wretched time when, face to face with ruin and himself, he stretched forth his hands in lonely bitterness and cursed the folly which had led him, already rich beyond the dreams of avarice, to risk his all in the foolish search for more.
What wonder that his thoughts were sad? Every moment he grew more restless, more irritable, more completely miserable.
His eyes by chance at last lighted on a small dingey that swung loosely from its davits at the Dido's side only a few feet above the water. A sudden impulse seized him to indulge in violent exercise, in the hope that he might expel his persistent thoughts by ardent physical exertion.
Muttering an order to the watch, a few more moments saw him yards away from the yacht, speeding into the starlight darkness like a frantic spirit, his oars bending dangerously under the nervous strength of his arms. For an hour he worked ceaselessly like a veritable madman, but at length, spent and overcome by toil so strange and unaccustomed, panting he paused for rest, and presently slipping from his seat he sank into a deep, lethargic slumber, his boat thereafter drifting on at the mercy of the wind and tide.
He was awakened by the sound of voices, how long after he could not know, but time must have sped in his sleep, for it seemed almost dawn. A thin grey mist hung like a tattered awning above the surface of the waters, the stars were paling their lamps in the lightening sky, though still distinguishable through the haze of fog; but the lights of the vessels at anchor in the harbour gleamed dully red, green, or amber, and seemed very far away.
In the distance he could just discern the familiar shape of the Dido looming like a white spectre of the mist. He wondered in half-dazed fashion why it was that he could see her at all, for he fancied he had rowed miles in his fervid race with thought, but he reflected that with nothing to guide him he had probably spun in circles through the sea.
Then the voices which had disturbed his slumbers recurred to him. He heard, too, a sound as of waters lapping the sides of crags. Wonderingly he turned, to see towering above him close at hand the dark walls of a great tramp steamer, swinging at her anchors in the stream.
Silhouetted against the sky, their arms resting on the bulwarks, stood boldly forth the heads and busts of two men, who each wore the peaked cap of a ship's officer. Their voices were distinctly borne to Cuthbert through the deep stillness of the morning air, as his boat slowly drifted, a creature of the fog, past the huge sides of the ship.
One voice was harsh and strident, faintly reminiscent of the croaking of a water-fowl, but the other was musical, deep-toned, and far-reaching, and it sounded besides strangely familiar to Cuthbert's ears. At first he idly, incuriously listened, but presently a name half-caught made him strain forward, eager and alert.
"You should get a faster vessel," he heard the strident voice remark. "Your old tub is fit for nothing but a coal hulk now."
"Ay," answered the other's mellow tones, "but the trouble is to find the one I want."
"I'll put you on to a good thing. Do you see that yacht over there, the Dido?"
"Yes, I marked her as I came across; as pretty a model as ever visited this coast, though the double funnel spoils her beauty a bit."
"Ha, ha!" croaked the first voice, "spoils her, does it? You should see her run. Five months ago, when I was taking guns to the Cuban rebels, she passed me off Florida as if the Caliban was standing still. She left us hull down in five hours, and we were making fifteen knots good."
"She must own fine engines, then."
The man with the croak was silent while he lit a cigar. By the aid of a flickering match-light, Cuthbert caught a momentary glimpse of his black-bearded visage, but though he strained his eyes to see, the face of the other whose voice still baffled his memory remained shrouded in gloom.
"She's near the fastest thing afloat, I reckon; built at Baltimore for Cuthbert Stone," croaked the smoker.
"Ah, the Yankee millionaire."
"Millionaire that was, my boy; I fancy if the cables in last night's late editions were correct, that the corner he tried to work in grain has about cooked him."
"How comes his yacht to be here?"
"Yankee cunning," answered the other, between a chuckle and a drawl; "he's here with her. He thought, I expect, that if he happened to be a few thousand knots away from Wall Street while the job was being worked, he'd stand a better chance of hoodwinking his guileless pals the brokers. But he has fallen in the soup right up to the neck."
The chuckle in the speaker's voice was unmistakable at that moment, and Cuthbert Stone, listening amid the darkness and the mist, felt a sudden murderous impulse steal over him. Almost unconsciously his hand strayed to his hip pocket, where happily a derringer was not, though he sighed to find its place unoccupied.
"I wonder where this broken smarty is to be found?" the rich deep tones of the other man broke in upon Cuthbert's homicidal musings.
"Union Club or the Australia Hotel," replied the croaker; "but to return to that deal we've been speaking of."
"I guess you magnify the risk. I go to Honolulu this day three weeks. Couldn't you take a trip to the islands in the meantime, and meet me on your return, say, at that—parallel—longitude? How the devil could any soul suspect such an arrangement? You could land the stuff as you did the last, and a cool thousand in each of our pockets, with no questions asked."
"No questions asked," repeated the musical voice of the other dreamily.
"Quite so," spoke up the croaker; "and as I brought the stuff over for you, it would be dashed uncomradely to slip me up now, wouldn't it?"
"Wouldn't it!" echoed the other.
"I thought I'd bring you to see it in the right light," cried the croaker heartily, and Cuthbert saw him slap his companion vigorously upon the back.
But the man who received the slap started suddenly.
"Eh, what?" he cried.
"I'm damned if you've heard a word I've said!" shouted the croaker in a rage.
"You're wrong," returned his companion coolly. "I heard you, but I was thinking of another matter. I can't help you this trip, captain. I have another affair on hand."
"Well, why the devil didn't you say so at first, instead of wasting all this time?"
Cuthbert Stone did not hear the other's reply, and thereafter the voice of either came only in a faint murmur to his ears. He found the reason in the fact that his boat was gradually drifting farther and farther from the steamer, and presently putting out his oars he rowed slowly back to the Dido, wondering vaguely the while where it was that he had heard before the peculiar mellow tones of the musical speaker's voice. The problem was solved sooner than he could have expected.
Later that same morning, while he lounged in the smoking-room of the Union Club, waiting in a fret of anxiety the arrival of a cable which he expected would notify him finally of the disposition of his fate, riches or ruin, a waiter informed him of the arrival of two visitors in company, tending him at the same time a single paste-board. Cuthbert read a name which set his pulses throbbing; the name was—"Julian Savage."
"Come to borrow money on the strength of saving my life," he thought; then added grimly to himself, "well, he's come to a foundering ship."
"Show them in," he said curtly to the waiting servant, but the moment after only one person entered—Julian Savage.
The young Australian was dressed in a nondescript sea officer's uniform, which suited his appearance admirably. He started with surprise when he recognised the man he had come to see.
"You!" he cried.
Cuthbert Stone believed this surprise to be more affected than real, but he remembered that it was incumbent upon him to assume the role of the grateful debtor, and he replied with courtesy:
"Yes, it is I, Mr. Savage. I am delighted that you have afforded me an opportunity of again expressing my extreme gratitude. Everything I have is yours," he added, laughing up his sleeve, as he reflected that his offer was not, after all, worth much at that moment.
"I did not know till I entered the room that you are Mr. Stone," replied the other, with a faintly humorous smile. "I called to see you on a matter of business."
"Won't you sit down, sir? Will you take something to drink—a glass of wine?"
"No, I thank you; but if I may smoke——"
Julian Savage rolled and lit a cigarette, while Cuthbert Stone gradually struggled from a maze of startled thoughts which had possessed him since he had heard his visitor speak, for Julian's voice was identical with that of the musical-toned speaker whose conversation he had overheard that very morning from the tramp steamer's deck, while he himself lay in his boat shrouded from observation by the harbour mists.
"As I have come to see you on business, and I am a busy man, I trust you will excuse me if I strike straight to the heart of the matter," said Julian Savage.
"Certainly," replied Cuthbert Stone, who had now recovered from his surprise, and like all Americans was, on the mere mention of business, at his best, courteous, but collected and alert.
The Australian thought that he had seldom seen a more handsome man than the American; the American thought, "This man is a smart customer, I must watch him."
"You have a yacht?" suggested Julian Savage.
"You are well informed," smiled the other; "the Dido."
"Is it true that you can get a speed out of her of thirty knots?"
"Very nearly that under forced draught; but may I ask the reason of your inquiry?"
"I wish to purchase her."
Cuthbert Stone frowned in spite of himself.
"The Dido is not for sale," he said curtly, and with some warmth; then recollecting his role of grateful debtor, he added, "I am sorry not to be able to oblige you in this, Mr. Savage."
"Don't mention it," returned the Australian politely. "Pray read your message; don't mind me," this in reference to a telegram which a waiter entering the room at that moment offered Cuthbert Stone upon a salver.
The American forgot his visitor completely in reading his cable. His face, at first on fire with curious anxiety, gradually became dull and hard set as he conned the paper; and his reading over, he stared blankly at the wall before him for quite a time, watched by the Australian from out of the corners of his eyes.
"Ahem," said Julian Savage at last.
Cuthbert Stone started up and drove his clenched fist on the table before him.
"You!" he cried, white-faced and miserable, "what do you want?"
"Your yacht," returned the Australian, with brutal directness.
Cuthbert Stone laughed a nasty, mirthless laugh, and straightened himself up in his chair.
"That's business," he said; "what is your offer?"
"Thirty thousand pounds."
"Bosh, man, she cost me nigh half a million dollars less than a year ago," but he read his cablegram again reflectively.
"Thirty thousand pounds spot cash," repeated Julian Savage.
"There are two quick-firing guns on board the Dido that alone cost me nearly half the sum you name," said the American, and he returned to the reading of his cable.
"You will not be able to obtain more than I offer you in Sydney, and it would-take you weeks of trying to get as much," declared the Australian.
Cuthbert Stone looked up languidly; despair had settled upon him; he had lost all interest in the deal.
"Read that telegram," he said.
Julian, taking the paper offered, found a few code words translated by pencil notes in the margin; he read—"Cable 200,000 dollars instanter, save credit. Chance—Bate, New York."
"The stars in their courses fight for Sisera," he muttered; but aloud, "I hope the 'chance' I read of here will ultimately bring you a golden harvest, Mr. Stone," he murmured politely.
The American shrugged his shoulders, his features twisting themselves into a hopeless and somewhat sickly smile.
"I suppose I should improve it," he muttered in a languid voice, wherein indifference combated despair. "Give me enough to meet that demand, Mr. Savage, and the Dido is yours."
Julian Savage nodded. Walking briskly to the door, he returned almost immediately accompanied by a well-dressed man, who must have been waiting in the passage.
"Let me introduce Mr. Stone, Mr. Gavan Hood. Mr. Gavan Hood is my solicitor, Mr. Stone."
Cuthbert Stone mechanically inclined his head in the direction of the man of law, but a vacant and listless expression sat upon his face. It was plain that he was scarcely conscious of what transpired. As in a dream, he listened while the lawyer monotonously recited the contents of a formidable-looking parchment document. He asked no question, nor did he speak; he did not seem to understand. He was requested to sign his name, and to set his hand to a certain seal. Like an automaton, he did as he was bid. Julian Savage handed him an open cheque for £41,664 13s. 4d. saying: "If you prefer, I shall send and have this cashed." But even Cuthbert's business instincts had departed from him; idly, dreamily, he shook his head.
Julian Savage regarded him with something approaching pity in his eyes.
"Any of your personal belongings or valuables now on board the Dido you are welcome to take at your convenience, of course, Mr. Stone," he said.
Cuthbert vacantly looked at him. "Of course," he muttered aimlessly.
"Good-bye, sir," said the Australian.
"Good-bye," echoed Cuthbert Stone,
Still apparently in a dream, he presently arose and wandered forth down Bligh Street towards the banks, holding Julian's cheque between two nerveless fingers by a single corner of the fragile paper.
DAUGHTERS of society are generally trained and brought from infancy to womanhood according to the doctrines of some settled plan, which plan, in its turn following the individual parental opinion, is either the outcome of fashion or experience.
In most cases fashion is the motive power of choice, and that is the chief reason why one physically matured but unmarried woman largely resembles another in the expression of her individuality.
An ardent pity for the gentler sex seizes the intelligent dreamer, male or female, who sees and understands. Fashion is but another name for custom, and custom is a remorseless thing which thrives in undiminished vigour long after the reasons that originally explained its existence have died or disappeared. No custom is more fixed and settled than the iron prejudice of habit which guards the education of woman—women whom men delight to call the most perfect handiwork of the Creator, and yet still bind in their opinions as the irresponsible half of humanity, to be treated as eternal children and fenced in with a thousand absurd and half-imaginary precautions. Woman, already sufficiently restrained and circumscribed by the unfortunate physical limitations of her sex, becomes, by the system of her education, a creature deceitful, fanciful, and imaginative. She is compelled to affect a grotesque combination of childish innocence and modesty, an attitude impossible to sustain except by the exercise of a ridiculous deceit, which, after all, deceives no one, if the truth be told, except perhaps the woman herself who uses it.
Behold there the fountain from which spring the thousand and one cynical and half-truthful proverbs which entangle the feet of womankind at the instance of the wit of man. The wits see the effect, but they continue to despise the cause.
Nine out of ten women born into the world are constrained during girlhood to gain their experience of life and to mould their own dispositions from and upon the unexciting and still more uninstructive incidents of their semi-conventual education until they wed. After that, the deluge! Released from prison bars, which formerly sought even to restrain their very thoughts, they experience a sudden limitless freedom, their callow minds are confronted with life as it is, unveiled truths are remorselessly thrust beneath their notice. Unprepared by any previous training more instructive than their own undisciplined imaginings, marriage becomes, instead of a blissful and crowning experience, something little short of a tragedy, the key to unlock the Bluebeard's chamber of the world's dreadful secrets, thitherto a thousand times intensified because undefined and only guessed at.
Marriage thus is constituted a furnace which tries the temper of the steel; it consumes the bad, it refines the best. Little wonder, then, that man, who is a curious, inquisitive animal, much given to probing exciting problems and watching interesting developments, invariably prefers the society of one newly-married young woman to that of a score of single girls, however bright-eyed the innocents may be. The reason of that purely masculine peculiarity has frequently been asked—behold the riddle solved.
Mara Hescombe's parents had fallen in love when boy and girl together, but they only married late in life, being constrained to wait many years for the fulfilment of their hopes by force of inexorable circumstances. Mara was their only child.
They were not exclusively votaries of the modern fashionable world, being rather of the old-time school of thoughtful, retiring folk, but they were, nevertheless, subject in a certain degree to the dictates of established customs; therefore, when their daughter had arrived at the age of ten they placed the girl in charge of the head mistress of a fashionable ladies' college, an establishment which had stood the test of years, and had already furnished to the world a score of brilliant leaders of society.
Mara Hescombe spent three years at that boarding-school, during which time she casually acquired four doubtful excellencies—an extravagant love of reading, an elegant slanted handwriting, a smattering of modern languages, and a very decided taste for the wearing of expensive frocks. At the age of thirteen she emancipated herself from control, parental or scholastic, and continued her education after her own methods. These methods chiefly consisted in the division of the waking hours of each day into two separate employments—the morning absolutely devoted to the indiscriminate exploration of her father's well-stocked library, the afternoon to pleasure: a canter in the park, tennis, or the earnest designing of a frock, which invariably, when completed, sent her dressmaker into bubbling ecstacies.
"Bon Dieu!" the little Frenchwoman would cry, "what taste, what esprit! Ciel, mam'selle, you would make a fortune as one modiste. You have ze—comment s'appelle—T'il—ze genius; c'est a dire vous etes, 'chic.'"
Lady Hescombe's dowager friends, who one and all believed in the conventual system as the most perfect education for girls not yet arrived at a marriageable age, predicted a shocking future career for a child whose parents were so doting and weak-minded as to suffer themselves to be dictated to by such a forward chit; they counselled bread and water or a convent as a cure for stubbornness, certainly a firm course of treatment, involving a return to boarding-school, and the finishing of a fashionable education according to approved standards. "Why," they chorused as a final argument, "a girl is not looked at by men nowadays unless she can play like a Chopin or sing like a Patti. You will never marry her, dear, never!" It was true that Mara had declined even to receive the visits of a music-master.
Lady Hescombe sighed and agreed, and consulted her husband.
"Let the girl alone," advised Sir Stuart; "she'll find a husband fast enough, she has her mother's face."
But in spite of the pretty flattery, the mother's soul was troubled. She was of the old school, and believed a woman's only destiny lay in the field of marriage. Her doubts in time communicated themselves to her husband, and half reluctantly the pair sent for Mara one day to talk seriously with her. Mara was fifteen then, and had already enjoyed in undisputed sovereignty her own way for two years. A servant found her in the library, with her head in the cushions of a lounge, her heels on a conveniently placed table; she was reading an expurgated edition of the "Decameron," not from choice, but she had never heard at that time of such a thing as expurgation.
"Your father and mother wish to see you in Sir Stuart's study, Miss Mara," said the butler respectfully enough, though his old-fashioned, grey-headed soul was shocked by the young lady's unconventional attitude, albeit he worshipped his young mistress.
"Oh, bother, Jacob," returned Miss Hescombe, without stirring. "I'm at an interesting part just now; tell them I'll be along in a moment."
The moment was a long one; but the conspirators in the study were not unthankful for the slight reprieve, although they imagined themselves sternly resolved in mind.
"I wonder what is keeping the dear child?" murmured Lady Hescombe at the end of fifteen minutes.
"I expect she's reading. She hates to be disturbed when she has a book; but really, Alice, I think she ought to show us a little more respect. I shall ring for Jacob to remind her we are waiting."
But Mara, opening the door at that moment, walked into the room, fresh, breezy, and convincing.
"You sent for me, father. Mother" (note, not "papa," "mamma"), "what is it?"
She looked from one to the other with an engaging smile. Sir Stuart cleared his throat.
"Your mother and I," he began, and hesitated; then, "sit down, my dear; we want to talk with you a little."
Mara perched herself at once upon the old gentleman's knee.
"All right, father, only do be quick about it. I have an appointment to ride in the park with Charley Morrison at three, and it's nearly half-past two already. I have to dress and lots of things before then."
Lady Hescombe saw her opportunity and took it.
"You are not going alone, my dear, I hope, as you did last week, to my great displeasure; you must take a groom with you, at least."
Mara pouted her lips.
"It's not half the fun with a groom,'' she declared.
"But you are growing into a big girl now, my child, and the proprieties must be considered."
"Bother the proprieties," said Mara Hescombe. "They were only invented for girls who can't take care of themselves. I can take care of myself, can't I, father?" and she dabbed a kiss upon the old gentleman's nose, to his combined delight and discomfort.
"But your mother is right, my darling," he said half apologetically, to be truthful. "If you do that sort of thing often, people would commence to talk."
The girl sprang from his knee on to the floor with sudden energy.
"That is the sort of thing that does make me angry," she cried, with fiery vehemence. "People will talk. One can't turn round but people will talk. If a girl does the most innocent things, people will talk. A man may do it, and it's nothing. Even if the girl does the same thing, so long as there's a third person present, it's nothing. There's really no harm in it alone; but she must do everything in a crowd, or people will talk! People seem to think that no girl is fit to be trusted! Let them talk, I say; it makes one wild. I am fit to be trusted, so there." She heaved a great sob in her passion.
"My darling," murmured both her parents together.
"Look here, father and mother," continued the girl, "you know I am a good girl, don't you?"
"I'd like to hear anyone dare say a word to the contrary," said Sir Stuart warmly.
"You are my daughter," declared Lady Hescombe proudly, as if that fact were amply sufficient to account for unexampled funds of goodness.
"Well," said Mara, "you know that I'm not going to do anything wrong, whether I take a groom with me or not. Life wouldn't be worth living if one has to do everything in fear and trembling of what a lot of folk one doesn't know and doesn't care a fig for would say if they heard of it. Let them hear, and let them talk just as much as they like! They're nothing to me. All I care about is your good opinions, daddy and mammy, and you know I'm all right, don't you, dears?"
The "daddy" and "mammy" were pet names, and only used on rare occasions when coaxing was necessary as a last resort; they never failed.
"Bless the child," cried Sir Stuart, "she shall do as she likes."
Lady Hescombe sighed, but said nothing. She yielded to her daughter's stronger will, but, like all her sex when beaten, was of the same opinion still.
"Thank you, dears," cooed Mara, graciously including her mother in her gratitude; "and now, if that's all you want me for, I'll be off. Young Morrison has a beastly temper if he's kept waiting."
Sir Stuart looked at Lady Hescombe and Lady Hescombe looked at him; they had been routed in one direction, they were nervous of renewing the attack in another, but Lady Hescombe remembered the danger of delay, and decided not to postpone the event.
"One moment, my pet," she began tremulously, a fact Mara was quick to note to her own advantage, disclosing as it did an acknowledgment both of her strength and her mother's weakness. "Your father and I have been thinking about you and your future, and trying to decide what will be best for our darling in order to secure her happiness and comfort when we are both dead and gone. Ah, yes, my dear," she went on quickly, noticing the girl's gesture of painful dissatisfaction on mention of so sombre a subject, "some day we must be called away, everyone must die, and your father and I are both growing old now, dearie, and that is why we must now think of you and your future, so that when God calls upon us to leave our pet, we may know that she is in safe hands. We could not die happily unless."
"Oh, mammy dear, don't speak of dying," cried the girl, melted into tears at the very thought of losing her loved ones.
"Ah, but I must, you are growing into a woman now, Mara, able to see and judge for yourself, and you know these things must be. It is our dearest hope to be allowed to be spared until we see our darling happily settled in life, and married to some good man in whose hands we may safely leave her when the parting comes."
"I will never marry; I will never leave you," sobbed Mara.
"Don't cry, pet, don't cry," muttered Sir Stuart, with a suspicious break in his own voice.
"So you see, dear," went on Lady Hescombe steadily, disregarding the interruption, "as you are a good girl who wishes to please her poor old father and mother, we want you to help us by doing what we know is best for your good. You know how we love you and how we have always cared for you, and you know that all we do and wish is for your good. It is not too much for us to ask you to help us for your own sake, is it, my child?"
The appeal was an artful one, and went straight to the girl's heart. Mara threw her arms round her mother's neck, and rubbed her tear-wet face on the old lady's cheek.
"What is it you want me to do, mammy dear?"
Lady Hescombe glanced triumphantly at Sir Stuart.
"Well, pet, you know that nowadays a young lady of society is expected to be very wise, and to know and to be able to do many things which we have allowed you to neglect through our fondness for you, dear; that is our fault and we are to blame, not you, but I know my brave little girl will soon repair her deficiencies to please us."
Mara dried her tears, and looked at her mother wonderingly.
"What things, mother?" her voice had regained its calm.
This was slightly discouraging, but the old lady spoke on still confidently.
"Well, dear, every lady is expected nowadays to be a linguist, at any rate to speak French and German fluently, and then she should be a musician, or have some other accomplishments. Every educated man expects now his wife to be not only educated but an accomplished woman."
Mara shook her head.
"Father said only yesterday that the only way to learn foreign languages properly is by mixing with the people whose tongue you want to acquire; those are his very words. I'd learn German in a week in Berlin, and I just long to see Paris. As for music, mother, I just love it, but I couldn't learn it; I'd try really to please you, but it would be money thrown away, I know; it's beyond me! I'm not musical at all, I can't keep a tune in my head for ten minutes together; really, mammy, I'm telling you the truth, dear. But I can recite; you ask Jacob or any of the servants. I just sent them into hysterics the other night in the kitchen after you had gone to bed by a piece out of Huck Finn; I was the Duke of Bilgewater. They screamed so much I thought every minute they'd wake you and daddy up; the footman says I ought to be on the stage, he says I'd make a fortune at the Friv." She laughed merrily at the recollection, then suddenly her face sobered, and assumed an expression of grave mystery. "Mammy, dear, and you, daddy, I'll tell you a secret. Do you remember, daddy, the other night at dinner when the Secretary of State for the Colonies was here he said that a real author needed nothing but his writings to make him an attractive personality for ever? Well, I mean to be a great authoress. I'm writing a book!"
The announcement was made with tragic seriousness; Lady Hescombe looked at Sir Stuart, Sir Stuart looked back at Lady Hescombe. Both sighed, but, as usual, the girl had vanquished them, and presently she departed unrestrained, after depositing a breezy kiss upon either of their brows.
There was a long silence after her departure.
"Really, my dear," murmured Lady Hescombe at last, "we could do worse than adopt the child's suggestion about travelling; it is absolutely necessary that she should have a good accent. Even those horrid Quimper girls spent a year abroad before they were considered finished."
Sir Stuart arose and took up his hat.
"We must consider it," he said. "I hate leaving England, but if it is necessary—" and he sighed again, leaving the sentence unfinished. "I am going to the club for an hour," he added presently and departed, bowing low to his wife like the courtly old gentleman he was.
Meanwhile, Mara rode unattended to the park, dressed in a silk velvet habit that both became her well and satisfied her taste for excellence. She encountered soon a boy of twenty, who, mounted on a big bay thoroughbred, waited for her in murmuring impatience.
"What kept you?" he demanded. "You're near a half-hour late."
"I'll tell you after we have had a gallop," replied the girl, and for a while she kept her companion busily occupied in following her rather reckless course, but a press of vehicles soon compelled a halt.
"Now tell me," insisted his boyship, catching her.
Mara turned to him with mirthful eyes.
"Guess!" she said.
"Can't," he growled, his temper still a little ruffled, "unless it was dressing; girls take such years to shove on a frock. I wonder they ever leave their mirrors."
"I take no time to dress," declared Mara indignantly. "I'd race you any day."
"Well, I give it up."
The girl looked at him pityingly.
"Of course you give it up, you never did have more than one idea in your head at a time."
"All right to that; you wait! But never mind, what's your news?"
"Father and mother," with a ripple of laughter, "had me in the study for a lecture; they wanted me to go to school again, so that I might learn enough to be a credit to the man I marry. Pooh, why I know as much as half a dozen men already—men like you anyway, Charley," with a frankly critical glance at the boy. "Fancy me going to school. But I fixed them up in two two's; they won't ask me again, I guess," the last two words with a strong American accent.
"Good for you, old girl; what'll they be wanting next?—old fogies!"
"How dare you!"
Like a flash of light Mara turned a face blazing with anger on the boy, then she pulled her mare's rein sharply with one hand, and with the other let the whip fall heavily upon the spirited creature's flanks. With a bound the mare turned and the girl galloped homewards alone with set face and quivering lips, meditating furiously on the slighting word spoken of her parents. She never spoke to Charlie Morrison again.
Next month she took her parents for a prolonged continental tour.
Thus Mara Hescombe grew to womanhood, mistress of herself, and queen of the household of her parents. Her first grown-up dinner-party was not a startling event to her, for she had presided at many another during her girlhood; her first grown-up ball was even less exciting, for she had arranged all her dances beforehand with as cool a sang-froid as any tenth season belle; but her coming of age was a final emancipation almost as complete as the attainder of majority of a man; and if the young lady did not buy herself a latch-key to celebrate the event, it was merely because she really did not need one in a house where her word was Medean law.
Not only over her parents was Miss Hescombe accustomed to wield her tyrannical sceptre. Every one about her felt her influence more or less; that is, every one with whom she was brought in contact, and at the same time wished to influence, for the young lady could be very disdainful to those she did not like. Young girls adored her, partly because she was beautiful—for young girls are the most cheerful worshippers of beauty in the world—partly because she was the embodiment of that freedom which the female heart sighs for, and yet in nearly every instance is afraid to grasp. Older women were a little afraid of her, perhaps because of her inquiring eyes and searching tongue, perhaps because of a ruthless pen which had already, through the medium of a fairly successful novel, won the girl some fame as a fearless unmasker of social shams and mockeries. Young men voted her good fun or a jolly chum, until they knew her better, whereupon they usually singed their wings at the fire in her vestal shrine, for Miss Hescombe, though romantically inclined, had arrived at the age of twenty-four quite fancy free. Old men and old ladies invariably doted on her, for to these the girl showed herself at her best—reverential, thoughtful, and unselfish.
Her present, which was her second visit to Australia, was undertaken in the interests of patriotic literature, for Miss Hescombe had determined to write a book which should enlighten the really widespread ignorance of the people of England as to the condition of their cousins dwelling in the Antipodes—an ignorance which she had discovered on her return to Britain from her first sojourn in the land of the South.
Occupied in a remorseless hunt for copy, the adventure which had brought beneath her ken the romantic figure of the young Australian, Julian Savage, had come to her as a gift of the gods, and she seized upon the chance with an eagerness she scarcely attempted to conceal, and straightway she fastened the spirit of her subject upon the marble table of her mental dissecting-room, holding her scalpel aloft. But, alas! she found that she could not dissect a spirit, and the man himself was as elusive as a shadow. Every inquiry concerning him terminated in nothingness. People had heard of him—they knew him to be a remarkably handsome person, an ambitious person, but—There was always a "but."
From a prolonged series of "buts," she gathered that Julian Savage was not too desirable an acquaintance for any young girl to form. For one thing, he was not a member of that section of society, soi-disant the "upper ten"; worse still, he did not seem to want to gain admittance there. Again, he was a man of mystery, about whose doings there were many mutterings and queer fantastic shadows cast. The great "They say" declared him to be a political wire-puller, a secret but colossal democratic agitator, the leader of a reformed band of ruffians, whose very reformation was a menace to the community, so complete it seemed to be, and so mysterious its suddenness "They say" whispered behind glove, moustache, or fan that he was a wonderfully successful gambler and breaker of the law; no one, however, accused him of being a roue, to Miss Hescombe's extreme astonishment. Smuggling was hinted at in connection with his seafaring trade. One thing alone was notorious about him, everybody knew that he had acquired a fortune through the flotation in London of a large gold-mining company, but no one could find a handle to tarnish his name with even there, for the mine had not yet proved a failure, and was still paying dividends, though slender, on capital invested. The mystery surrounding his personality, his habits, his character, his very domicile (for no one knew his settled whereabouts), invested Julian Savage with a tenfold interest in Miss Hescombe's eyes. Her inquisitiveness intensified, and soon she, who had come to Australia to study Australians, discovered that the sphere of her ambitious observation had narrowed into an overweening curiosity concerning the character, disposition, and habits of one solitary man. She was, however, compelled at last to rely, for the assistance necessary for the satisfaction of her curiosity and the pursuit of her studies, upon the half promise she had extracted from Mr. Cecil Vane, Q.C., on the night of Lord Killingworth's dinner. After days of waiting for the fulfilment of that promise, she exercised the prerogative of emancipated womanhood, and indicted to Mr. Vane the following short letter:—
"DEAR MR. VANE,—I fear that the pressure of your affairs has caused you to forget a promise made recently to so insignificant a person as Mara Hescombe. I hate to remind you, but my humility is sincere, and I know that I have stated the true reason of your neglect. Be assured of my forgiveness for past delay, but please remember that the pin and the camphor are awaiting the arrival of the beetle which you have contracted to supply. My mother and father would be glad of your company to dinner on Thursday next.
Thursday morning brought her a reply:—
"MY DEAR MISS HESCOMBE,—The difficulties of the task you set me, and not the reason you assigned, have hitherto delayed me. I commend your humbleness, without, however—pardon me—entirely giving credence to its sincerity. Many thanks for your invitation to dine, of which I shall gladly avail myself upon condition that your parents and yourself will afterwards be my guests at the opera, when I shall take the opportunity of presenting to you the insect whose capture you have set your heart upon.
Miss Hescombe immediately telegraphed—
"Bring the Beetle to dinner."
Mr. Vane returned—
"Fear to alarm the brute; better as it is."
Which message the girl read with subdued delight, for it aroused her expectations.
"Which dress, mammy, do you think I look my very utmost best in?" she inquired when evening approached.
Lady Hescombe considered judiciously.
"I should say the black silk with the jet and silver trimmings, it shows your fair skin so beautifully, my dear; but why?"
"Why?" echoed Mara, "because I want to look my best to-night, mother, for, as we heard that girl the other day in King Street say, 'I'm on the mash.'"
"Not Mr. Vane, dear, is it?" asked the old lady a little wistfully.
"No, mother darling, a beetle," answered Mara Hescombe.
MR. CECIL VANE sipped his iced champagne and looked reflectively at Miss Hescombe, who was eating sweets. A little silence had fallen upon the table for a moment, one of those queer little intervals of rest which frequently occur even among those votaries of society who hold that silence is less a solecism than a social crime. It was broken presently by Sir Stuart.
"How do they stage their operas out here, Mr. Vane?" he asked. "Your theatres appear to me so small after London that I feel quite nervous for the success of their managers."
"Very well, I assure you," answered the barrister, "we have quite as good performances as in London, though we get them later—that's the only difference. We have to wait until you English folk grow tired of a thing before we are allowed to see it." ### He returned to his reflective contemplation of Miss Hescombe.
"I suppose," ventured Lady Hescombe, "theatrical companies don't make much money in these colonies; the population is so scanty."
"But we are a theatre-loving people, Lady Hescombe, far more so than you English; and if a drama or an opera is good (for Australian audiences are keenly critical), it means a golden harvest for its producers every time."
"Mr. Vane," observed Mara Hescombe, "you have kept your eyes upon me for the last four minutes; is it my gown you are admiring, is my hair in danger of falling, or do I need a pin somewhere?"
The Q.C. gave a measured sigh.
"I was thinking," he said slowly, "of the beetle. If he possesses any of the proper feelings of a beetle he will be crushed, crushed hopelessly."
The girl was delighted.
"A compliment from a Q.C. is not to be lightly regarded," she declared; then, for a woman is never satisfied except by constant iteration, she asked, "You like my costume?"
Mr. Vane inclined his head.
"I am not yet too young to appreciate it properly; it seems to me perfection."
"What is this talk about a beetle?" demanded Sir Stuart laughingly.
"Miss Hescombe is making a collection of Australian coleoptera, Sir Stuart," rejoined Mr. Vane, with much gravity. "She has commissioned me to procure her rare specimens."
Lady Hescombe's sweet old face assumed a merry smile as she turned to her husband.
"No doubt, my dear, we shall know quite as much as these two people who are trying to mystify us by waiting a little. For my part, I believe this beetle will resolve himself into a human animal of the masculine persuasion."
"Madam," said the Q.C. affectedly, "your penetration is remarkable; you have discovered our secret."
"And may we now know his name?"
"His name," rejoined Mr. Vane, "is Julian Savage."
Sir Stuart and Lady Hescombe gave a simultaneous start of surprise.
"What?" they cried earnestly, "the man who saved our daughter's life; how delighted we shall be to meet him."
The Q.C. turned a reproachful countenance upon Mara Hescombe, and truth to say, the girl found grace to look confused.
"So," he said, waving an admonitory forefinger, "you have actually dared to hide this from your confederate; you have caused me to work blindly in the interests of—ahem—science, you have pumped me dry and obtained the benefit of my experience of your subject, and all the time—Madam, if it were not that I am growing younger every day I should find it in my heart to take you seriously to task."
His playful words, however, contained a real rebuke, and Miss Hescombe hastened to apologise.
"My dear Mr. Vane, it was not from you that I wished to conceal anything, but from him. After he had saved my life, for some mysterious reason he treated me very curtly, and did not even trouble to inquire my name, so I thought that if he knew he were asked to meet the person whose life he had saved he would have refused; that was the reason of my silence."
The Q.C. laughed heartily.
"You need not have troubled yourself, young lady," he answered, much amused. "I assure you, Mr. Savage has no idea that he is about to meet so charming a person as yourself. The fact is, he is about to float a gold mine in London, and I informed him as a decoy that your father—Sir Stuart here—is an influential man in English mining circles."
Here he turned suavely to his host. "I trust you will excuse my somewhat unwarrantable use of your name, Sir Stuart."
The old gentleman laughingly rejoined, for he had heard of his daughter's uncourteous treatment at the hands of her preserver, and it amused him to consider the employment of an artifice necessary to induce this young Australian to condescend and meet a girl usually so sought after by all male creatures as Mara Hescombe.
But Miss Hescombe was far from being amused; her mobile lips wreathed themselves into a firm, decisive line.
As he stepped into the carriage which was to take them to the theatre, Mr. Vane hazarded a jest.
"Do not be too severe upon the young man, Miss Hescombe; remember his youth and inexperience."
"I shall be revenged," returned the girl.
"In writing your book, of course, you will have an opportunity."
"I never carry a private grudge to such a length," declared Miss Hescombe warmly.
"Ho, ho, my poor beetle!" muttered the gentleman, "your wings are likely to be clipped before long." But he took care not to voice his thoughts aloud.
The Q.C. brought Julian Savage to the proscenium box at the close of the first act. Sir Stuart and Lady Hescombe greeted him most warmly.
"We have just learned, Mr. Savage, that we are indebted to you for the preservation of our daughter's life," they cried, almost in a breath; "how delighted we are to meet you; how can we ever be thankful enough to you!"
The young man, who had expected a cool and stately greeting, found each of his hands enthusiastically seized and pressed by a handsome old gentleman and a sweet-faced old lady, neither of whom he had ever seen before. He was a little bewildered, and turned wonderingly to the Q.C. for an explanation. Mr. Vane smiled and pointed to Miss Hescombe, who stood in the background, a picture of demure self-possession.
"Ah," said Julian Savage, bowing low, "the girl of the harbour accident." His eyes rested on her for a moment in quiet consideration of her appearance, but they showed neither appreciation nor the reverse; then he turned and gravely addressed Sir Stuart. "You should really persuade your daughter, sir, to refrain from harbour excursions in a dingey with a protector who cannot swim. Without taking into consideration the danger of drowning, the harbour is full of sharks."
Miss Hescombe experienced the feelings of a child rebuked by its schoolmaster, and she had never been over-fond of school.
"I fear that I must have put you to a lot of inconvenience that day by my folly, Mr. Savage," she murmured sweetly; "you appeared so anxious to avoid delaying my departure that I am afraid I must have interrupted you."
"You have guessed correctly," answered the Australian, without apparently seeing any necessity to sacrifice truth to politeness; "I was in a violent hurry that day."
Mr. Vane smothered a laugh, for Miss Hescombe's face was a picture of vexed perplexity, but Lady Hescombe tactfully interposed, "We have all the more reason to be grateful to you, Mr. Savage, since the service you rendered us caused you any inconvenience."
It was impossible to withstand the old lady's sweetness, and Julian Savage, woman-hater, found himself regarding her kind face without the suspicion he was accustomed to use towards other members of her sex.
"Please do not you speak of gratitude," he replied, with a certain old-fashioned courtliness; "it is I who feel grateful that I have been so happy as to render you a service."
Which speech and the glance accompanying his words earned him a place in Lady Hescombe's heart which he never afterwards entirely lost. Women attach an importance to an earnestly uttered flattery which men would rate as beneath consideration. It is not because women are more credulous than men, but from the situation of their sex they lack the opportunity to investigate completely the value of an expression, and are therefore often persuaded to endow a fleeting intention with exaggerated worth, whereas men, from their better knowledge of their own kind, value words at nought, and even discount deeds.
Throughout the evening Julian Savage devoted himself exclusively to being charming to Sir Stuart and Lady Hescombe. He paid them a dozen graceful and deferential small attentions, and proved himself in other ways the possessor of a manner completely fascinating. Every word that fell from either of their lips he treated as coin of gold. He told them between the acts stories of quaint and out-of-the-way experiences; he pressed them to accept rare island curiosities and treasures which he described to them, and promised to offer later for their inspection. In a word, he made himself profoundly interesting, and his audience of two found themselves delighted with him, and deeply impressed with the charm of his personality. Mara Hescombe, to her amazement, found herself left out of the conversation altogether, and relegated to the society of Mr. Vane. The Q.C. was secretly in ecstasy, enjoying her badly-concealed disappointment, but he refrained from any open reflection on her generalship until they were about to leave the theatre to proceed to take supper at the Australian Hotel, according to previously-formed arrangements. Then he whispered:
"Quite an exceptional beetle, Miss Hescombe, eh?"
The girl retorted:
"Exceptional? Indeed, sir, you have entirely deceived me; he is not an interesting specimen at all."
Mr. Vane laughed. "There was once a fox——"
"The grapes are not sour; I can pluck them if I choose."
"Dear lady, one man may easily lead a beetle to the pin, but a dozen ladies——"
"Are you prepared to back your opinion?" demanded Mara, interrupting.
"Shall it be a box of gloves?"
"It's a wager," laughed the girl, and the whole party rose at that moment to leave the box.
Lady Hescombe and her husband went first, then Mr. Savage, finally Mara and Mr. Vane.
Arrived at the head of the staircase, Miss Hescombe discovered she had left her handkerchief behind her in the box, and though both gentlemen offered to recover it, she appealed to Julian Savage.
Immediately he had departed, "Oh, how stupid of me!" she cried; "I fastened my brooch in the curtain and forgot all about it. I might have lost it. No! don't you bother, Mr. Vane; you wouldn't know where I left it," and waving aside all assistance, she demurely tripped backwards to the box.
She found Mr. Savage at the door, her handkerchief in his hand. He seemed surprised to see her.
"Forgotten something else as well?" he inquired.
"Yes," she replied; "a pearl brooch."
He returned with her into the box and helped to search for the missing article, but, strange to say, Miss Hescombe did not approach the curtains for some time.
"How stupid it was of me!" she declared, after they had made a moment's exhaustive examination of the floor.
"You must be very careless," said the man, in the manner of a person coldly stating a fact.
The girl coloured a little. "You seem to have a bad opinion of me.''
"I hardly know you at all, so I can scarcely claim to have formed an opinion," said Mr. Savage, and his manner indicated that he felt no great desire to extend his acquaintance.
Mara Hescombe was not used to be so disdained, but she controlled her feelings.
"I wonder where that brooch is?" she asked dreamily.
Julian finished an examination of the last chair.
"Unless it is in those curtains, it is certainly not in the box."
"Ah, the curtains!" cried the girl, as if suddenly struck by the idea.
The man proceeded to the draperies farthest from the stage and nearest to the place where Miss Hescombe had been seated during the opera. There was a sudden gleam, and the girl flashed to his side.
"Ah, my pretty pearls! How glad I am! I would not have lost them for anything. Thank you so much, Mr. Savage."
Julian bowed and walked to the door, but the girl did not immediately follow him; she seemed to find some difficulty in fastening the brooch, and Julian looked back at her inquiringly.
"It is the clasp," she murmured, with an appealing glance.
"May I help you?" politely.
"No, thanks!" But the clasp was refractory, and the girl finally accepted his aid.
It was a daring piece of coquetry, and well-devised. The man's face was brought close to hers; his senses subjected to the magnetic fragrance of her person. His downward-straying glance could not fail to mark the marble whiteness of her shoulders, the gracious outline of her bosom, or to note the nervous heaving of her breasts as his fingers involuntarily touched the lace of her corsage in the accomplishment of his undertaking. The girl, watching him narrowly, beheld a flush mantle slowly in his cheeks, then quickly vanish, leaving his face paler than before; but his hands never trembled, and his voice was steadiness itself as he finally drew back and said:
"That is right, I think."
"Thank you," returned the girl simply, and passing from the box she took his arm in their walk along the passage.
They found, to Mr. Savage's surprise, but not at all to Miss Hescombe's, that their companions had, instead of waiting for them, proceeded straightway to the Hotel Australia.
"Father and mother never wait for me," explained the girl; "I have trained them to be quite independent."
The man looked at her with awakening interest.
"You have trained them," he echoed, smiling. "Shall I call a cab?"
"It is only a few steps," said Mara, "let us walk."
In silence they strolled along Pitt Street citywards until the corner of Market Street was reached. There, a couple of drunken loud-voiced fools stood chattering with some women of the streets, under the verandah of Her Majesty's Hotel. Miss Hescombe felt her cheeks burn with shame at the foul-mouthed epithets she could not help but hear, and she regretted the impulse which had moved her to the walk. Being on the inside of the pavement, she was the nearer to the squabblers, and she shrank close to her companion, clinging nervously to his arm. The sight was a common one to Julian Savage, but he felt for the girl's distress, and quickly engaged her in a brisk conversation to distract her mind from the unpleasant little incident. Mara brightened under his advances, and he found himself presently wondering at the clever quip and repartee which was returned so readily by this girl whom he had been at first inclined to regard as merely a pretty woman. He felt himself involuntary interested, and was, moreover, put on his mettle to sustain on his part the sparkling banter which flowed so easily from her lips.
When they entered the supper-room the face of either was brimming over with the good humour of people who are convinced that they have said really smart things and can so afford to admire the smartness of others.
Mr. Vane was not surprised, but a humorous smile played round his lips as he caught a somewhat triumphant glance from the eyes of Miss Hescombe. The glance said as plainly as words, "The gloves will soon be mine." Mr. Vane's smile was more illegible.
The supper was a very bright affair. Everybody was pleased with everybody else, and there existed, too, that sense of new acquaintanceship among the guests which invariably suffices to place its participants on a plane of mental tension and shows them, so far as manners and converse are concerned, at their best.
Julian Savage became more and more impressed with Mara Hescombe's piquant cleverness. He for his part exerted himself to please, and displayed a brilliance and grace of manner that even exceeded Captain Stardee's opinion expressed concerning him at Lord Killingworth's dinner. Lady Hescombe and Sir Stuart were completely captivated. Mr. Vane was delighted at his protege's expansion, and Mara Hescombe plainly swam in her element The conversation danced joyously over the heads of a hundred topics, and finally turned to the discussion of the different beverages affected by society. Julian declared that he could determine the character and disposition of any person by the liquor which pleased that person's palate most.
"Then," said Mara Hescombe, "pray read me mine; I adore a light Tokay."
The Australian bent upon her the fire of his strange eyes.
"Tokay," he murmured musingly, "that is a wine but little known out here. Australian ladies like a sweet champagne, that is to say those who venture upon wine at all. By far the greater number of our women seem afraid to taste anything more fiery than water. Now, if you had said ale——"
"Ugh!" shuddered the lady, then, catching the spirit of the jest, "well, ale—go on, after all I have tasted it."
"A fondness for ale in women denotes either the literary instinct or a craving for Bohemianism. I know a lady journalist who writes very readable short stories, she dotes on ale; washerwomen, too, are invariably fond of it, and what can be more Bohemian than a washerwoman?"
Everyone smiled, but Mara felt a slight resentment, for she thought she possessed a literary gift, and she admired Bohemianism.
"Brandy," suggested Sir Stuart, "is my drink."
"The liquor par excellence of an English gentleman," declared Julian Savage, "a man who loves his wife first, his family next, and then his club. His hobby is law-making, his pleasure is horse-racing, his recreation either gardening, billiards, or political discussions in which he invariably adopts the basis of a semi-Liberal Conservatism."
"Father, you are discovered," laughed Miss Hescombe. "My mother," she added slyly, "is fond of port."
Lady Hescombe smilingly deprecated criticism.
"Please do not analyse me, Mr. Savage; you are too acute."
"I," said Mr. Vane, "prefer whisky and soda to anything."
"Ah," said Julian, "the national Australian drink. But I cannot refrain from such an excellent opportunity to hold the mirror to your face."
"Proceed," laughed the Q.C.
"Well, to commence, you remain a bachelor from a rooted distaste of incurring responsibilities; you are discreet, obliging, and suave, but you keep your opinions to yourself; you conceal an earnest political ambition behind an invincible reserve, although you are a member of a legislature where your name is a certain power, and where there are many opportunities for self-advancement——"
"Hold, enough," interrupted Mr. Vane.
"Like all lazy men," went on the other, undisturbed, "you are good-tempered and generous. Day before yesterday I saw you give threepence to a beggar in the street——"
"Of your charity, refrain."
"You have a great fund of tactfulness, and you like to know exactly what it is that every person you are thrown in contact with wants to talk about. When you first met me you thought that as I was a seaman I should want to talk about the sea, and you gave me the sea until I felt a touch of mal de mer."
"I—I——" cried the Q.C., protesting stammeringly in the midst of a ripple of laughter.
"Lastly," continued Julian, quite unmoved, "you are very fond of pretty faces, and I shall be much surprised if you do not finally marry a widow with an undisclosed family of interesting encumbrances."
"I have taken my last glass of whisky and soda," declared Mr. Vane disgustedly, when the laughter had subsided; "and now that you have quite finished your gratuitous attack, perhaps you will recommend a medicine to suit my case."
"After the lancet," said Julian, "something stimulating to keep up the tone. Try a course of absinthe; it ought to give you the touch of Yankee hustle that your composition lacks. You are too restful, too sedate."
"Thanks," replied the Q.C. drily.
"Mr. Cuthbert Stone," observed Miss Hescombe, "drinks nothing but dry champagne; he detests any other wine, and never touches spirits."
The face of Julian Savage assumed an illegible expression on mention of this name.
"A bad fault," he murmured; "he will die of spiritual effervescence at a doddering old age. I like a man to mix his drinks and die in his prime."
"Whatever can have become of Cuthbert lately?" queried Lady Hescombe suddenly; "we have not seen him since the night of Lord Killingworth's dinner."
Mara Hescombe, who had often wondered at her knight-errant's unexplained absence from her side, and had indeed many times unnecessarily reproached herself as being the innocent cause thereof, blushed slightly, but said nothing.
Sir Stuart answered his wife gravely.
"He has not been at his club for several days past. I fear the boy is in financial trouble, for it is common talk that his yacht has changed hands."
"Surely not!" cried Mara. "He would never sell the Dido, I am certain; he loves her far too well."
"I have heard," remarked Mr. Vane, "that Mr. Stone has been very hard hit, through an enormous but ill-advised speculation. Rumour has it that he tried to effect a corner in the world's grain market, and has ruinously failed."
"But," urged Mara, "Mr. Stone is a millionaire."
Mr. Vane shrugged his shoulders. "He is likewise a speculator," he replied.
A gloom fell upon the table, for Mr. Stone was an intimate friend of at least three of the party present.
"I should be more than grieved to learn that report speaks truly," said Sir Stuart.
His benevolent face was very grave, and Lady Hescombe was evidently also deeply shocked. Mara tried to speak lightly, but she remembered the last time she had seen Cuthbert Stone, and the impression his despairing eyes had made upon her on that occasion; her effort was apparent.
"Rumour often lies," she said.
Julian Savage, who had been silently studying the faces of his companions, spoke abruptly:
"I think that perhaps I can relieve your apprehensions."
The eyes of all invited him to proceed.
"Mr. Stone was at one time on the verge of ruin, and found it necessary to dispose of his yacht. Since then, however, he has been remarkably fortunate, and is now, I believe a multi-millionaire. The corner of grain which he had attempted to effect, when almost a failure, turned, owing to some lucky unforeseen circumstances, into a most brilliantly successful coup. Thousands of lesser speculators have been reduced to beggary, but Mr. Stone and his following walk out of the affair with bulging pockets."
Lady Hescombe and her daughter entirely overlooked a certain cynical reflection in the latter part of Julian's speech, but Sir Stuart and Mr. Vane caught the sneer, and found themselves almost involuntarily so much in sympathy with the sneerer that they were silent.
"How glad I am!" cried Lady Hescombe. "Poor Cuthbert, how terrible it would have been for him otherwise!"
Mara experienced a sense of unrestrained relief. To herself she whispered, "Now I need not promise to marry Cuthbert; at least, not yet." Aloud, she said, "How splendid! Now he will be able to repurchase his yacht."
Julian Savage turned to the girl.
"Pardon me," he murmured. "Mr. Stone is very rich, but he will never do that."
"Why not?" asked Mara, surprised; then archly—"But I know he will, for he has engaged himself to take us with him in the Dido to San Francisco when we leave Australia."
The Australian shook his head.
"Unless both you and he will consent to be my guests for that purpose, I do not see how Mr. Stone can keep his word."
"Then it was you who bought the Dido!" cried Miss Hescombe, in amazement, completely astonished out of her manners.
Julian bowed, and with graceful tact immediately turned the conversation into another channel.
KARL SIEGBERT, poet, philosopher, student, and philanthropist, was a rara avis in his way. A great-bodied, beetle-browed giant, with square, impression-less face, dull and wooden to a remarkable degree, he nevertheless possessed a heart composed of tissues so fine as to be responsive to the sensibilities of the meanest created thing. When about to dispose his huge bulk, as he loved to do, at full length upon the ground in the shade of some sunny Australian forest, alone with the trees and the insect life of a country which profoundly interested and pleased him, because of its vagueness in the present, its immeasurable possibilities in the future, he was accustomed to first minutely examine his proposed resting-place in order to discover whether in taking his pleasure he should hurt or disturb any other creature, whose home or business caused its presence on the spot. Discovering such to be the case, the good-natured giant would seek elsewhere for his couch, and, when finally satisfied, lie often from dawn to dusk idly basking in the warmth of the sunbeams, whose full heat only reached him chastened and deflected by the foliage, and dreaming strange, rich dreams and visions, afterwards to appear in perfected form in the poems which earned him not only the warm praise of thousands, but also his bread and butter.
He had never willingly injured animal or human being. The weeping of a child would have been a torture to him; to have seen a horse ill-treated in the street, misery sufficient to arouse his keenest indignation.
He was clumsy in his habits. If in walking through a room he overturned a chair, as he often did, he would return it to its position, his heart overflowing with silent apologies. His friends knew but little of his real nature, for he possessed a rich sense of humour, and a great gift of silence in all things concerning himself. Keenly sensitive to ridicule, he recognised the absurdity of being at the same time the owner of a herculean body and a woman's heart. But his friends, without knowing why, loved him, and children instinctively adored him.
He had already made his mark in literature, and publishers not only welcomed his copy, but paid him prices for his work which should have long ago left him well-to-do; but indiscriminate charity was another of Karl Siegbert's vices undiscovered by the world, and he was in consequence perennially as poor as the proverbial church rat.
He had resided for some years in Australia, generally in the country districts of New South Wales, but once in every few months he spent a time in Sydney, a city he had grown to dearly love, and there he always renewed his acquaintance with the world with a rare and youthful joyousness, preserved all the more freshly, perhaps, by his intimate communings with his adored goddess, Ceres.
In his early youth he and Sir Stuart Hescombe had been very warm friends, and though neither had corresponded through the years of his sojourning in Australia, it was with a very real pleasure that he heard of his friend's arrival in the Colony. Since that moment he had spent most of his time at the Hotel Metropole, where old memories were revived between the two, old scenes revisited in imagination, and the old friendship renewed.
The poet had from the first made much of and petted Mara to her heart's content; he treated her as a lover, his mistress, as a slave his queen, or as a comrade, according to the girl's subtle moods, which his own fine sensibilities taught him how to follow unerringly; he loved her all the while with something of a father's devotion to his only offspring. Miss Hescombe, on her part, liked the big German extremely, but, woman-wise, her affection was not entirely unselfish, and having discovered her power over him, she contrived to make him useful to herself in many little ways, a fact which Siegbert easily detected, but was too good-natured to resist.
Even when in Sydney the poet continued to take his solitary rambles, and to indulge himself in his custom of wakeful dreaming. It was his habit to stroll nightly into the Domain, and thence to the point of Mrs. Macquarie's chair, where, recumbent on the grasses, he would lie for long, delightful hours gazing up into the star-lit heavens, or looking forth across the waters, whose mysterious shadows and reflections seemed to contain a meaning which his inspired fancy strove to read.
One night he saw a thunder-storm arise. He watched with vivid interest legions of black clouds marshal themselves in massed battalions across the face of the sky, blotting out the moon and stars till all was dark as Erebus. The waves grew thick and sombre save for the curling tops of spray, which galloped like gleaming white horses through the gloom. Then ribbons of light, reflected from the many-coloured lamps on the far shores of the city, danced and trickled through the black heaving waters like streaming stockwhips of fire wielded by fairy riders in the dark. The thunder mumbled and crashed in dull reverberations overhead like the roar of mighty guns, and every little while the sullen clouds were torn asunder, and there seemed to leap forth black mailed hands holding forked tongues of quivering lightning in their grasp, long flaming swords that struck and daggered at the dark.
Siegbert, aroused beyond himself by the splendid beauty of the storm, deserted the sheltered position he had chosen at first, and strode forward to the farthest seaward pinnacle of rock, where he stood like a statue, unmindful of the spray that whirled past him on the wings of the wind, or the warm rain that, pouring down in fitful torrents, drenched him through and through. He was in an ecstasy, entranced by the wild grandeur of the scene, and thus he had waited for many minutes, when a sudden gleam of electric fire more dazzling than the others revealed to him the fact that he was not alone.
Close beside him stood, with folded arms, the tall, slim figure of a man gazing calmly out to sea.
Siegbert was surprised, and his first impulse was to depart, in a curious, jealous resentment of sharing with another the beauties which delighted him so ardently. The second after he felt an equally strange desire for companionship steal over him, to know and speak with this man, who, of all the city's thousands, could, as he did, so far appreciate the glories of a storm as to brave certain discomfort to see it at its best. Something in the attentive stillness of the other appealed to his fancy, and suddenly he spoke, or rather shouted:
"This is splendid, my friend, hein!"
The stranger turned to him gravely. "There will be wrecks to-night," he answered. His voice, though scarcely raised, was of a peculiar timbre, and reached the poet distinctly in spite of the noises of the driving gale.
Siegbert shrugged his huge shoulders in sympathy for those who might be fighting for their lives against the wind and waves.
"How much I would give to be at sea!" he shouted.
"You are safer here," returned the stranger.
"Ach, yes; but to share in that great fight, to feel oneself a unit struggling with the universe, to defy the storm and conquer it!"
A long fluid flash of lightning illuminated both the heavens and earth as he spoke, and showed to the full the great burly form of the Teuton as he stood commandingly forth, an heroic figure at the edge of the sea-foam, his usually stolid face now alight with strange enthusiasm.
"Come!" said the stranger suddenly, and as he spoke moved shorewards from the rocks.
Acting on impulse, the poet followed him, and silently the strangely met pair strode along the asphalt pathway next the sea-wall, which now was slippery from the waves that broke with hollow echoes on the stones, and spattered their spray in a constant rainfall far over the sand and turf. Soon they reached a little wharf in the centre of the sheltered cove, and still without speaking the stranger put his fingers to his lips and blew a long shrill whistle. Almost instantly a small steam launch, whose lights they could see tossing in the bay, came shorewards, and ran in to the wharf behind the shelter of the floating baths. Even there the waves ran tumbling in with a long, treacherous surge, and it was with great difficulty that the little steamer accomplished its mission.
The stranger sprang aboard at once. "Come on!" he repeated as he turned.
Siegbert hesitated for a moment, while the timbers of the launch groaned and creaked even though protected by thick hempen fenders as they rubbed heavily against the piles of the wharf. Then, still animated by the impulse which had moved him to the adventure, he too sprang on board the tiny craft, which thereupon crept away from the dangerous shore and toiled slowly out into the harbour.
In the third of an hour they came to the side of a long, double-funnelled but gracefully modelled steamer, who strained at her anchors liked a lashed hound whose quarry is in sight. With a curious sense of familiarity, Siegbert followed the stranger on deck, and later into a richly furnished cabin, where his host placed before him a many-chambered decanter of spirits and liqueurs.
The poet saw before him a young and extremely handsome man. His thoughts worked quickly, and he guessed aloud:
"This is the Dido," he said, "and you are Julian Savage?"
The face of the other displayed no surprise as he answered:
"This is the Dido, and I am Julian Savage."
"My name," said the poet, introducing himself, "is Siegbert—Karl Siegbert."
Julian Savage nodded indifferently.
"You have the same name as the German poet," he remarked.
Siegbert, who had filled himself a glass of benedictine, looked stolidly before him.
"Yes," he said, "that is so."
Julian thoughtfully swallowed a thimbleful of curacoa, then glanced keenly at the other, as if struck with an idea.
"Perhaps you are the poet?" he suggested.
"I make rhymes," answered the German.
"Are you the author of Traumerei?"
The face of Julian Savage became suddenly interested.
"I am entertaining an angel unawares," he cried, with quick enthusiasm. "My dear, sir, I cannot tell you how deeply honoured I feel to have you for my guest; the writer of Traumerei may command me. Everything I have is yours."
"Ach," said the poet, "you know my work; you are then acquainted with the German tongue?"
"Yes, although I do not speak it very fluently. I learned your language in order to study Heine in the tongue in which he loved best to speak and sing. I had heard how much his foreign lovers lost by trusting to translators, and I have proved the saying true. Since then my labour has been doubly rewarded, for of late I have been made acquainted with another singer of your nation whose songs are sweet almost as Heine's, and are, moreover, happily without that veiled touch of cynicism which so often spoils the great master's pen."
Siegbert gravely shook his head.
"Heine was a great man, and a true poet, none greater, none truer; tell me, who is this new singer whom you dare class in comparison with Heine?"
Julian smiled and bowed.
"His name," he answered, "is Karl Siegbert."
A poet can no more thoroughly despise a flattery applied to his intellect than a woman a flattery addressed to her person. So Karl Siegbert, although he waved aside the words with an expressive gesture of dissent, and a vigorous spoken denial, was nevertheless pleased; and there came to his eyes a seldom glow, to his cheeks an unaccustomed flush. Heine was his god, and to be compared to his divinity a flattery, however insincere, which possessed the greatest power to charm him.
"To revert to your expressed desire," said Julian Savage presently, "if you still wish to view the ocean in a storm, I shall take the Dido at once to sea; her engines are always ready, and the storm still rages. What say you?"
But Karl Siegbert shook his head; his mood had changed, and the benedictine inclined him to sensuous idleness.
"Let us talk," he said.
Julian nodded, and sank back on the cushions of the lounge.
"How did you know me?" he asked.
"I know the Dido well. I had heard the name of the man who purchased her from Cuthbert Stone."
"Ah, Mr. Stone is a friend of yours, perhaps?"
"A friend of my friends."
"I have some good cigars," said Julian, who as he spoke pressed the spring of a cabinet beside him. The poet lit a long fragrant weed, and smoked in silence for a time.
"Tell me," he said at last, "what you were doing standing there in the storm?"
For the first time each noticed the drenched condition of the other's clothes.
"Thinking," replied Julian; then, "but you are wet. Will you let me supply you with a change?"
The poet laughingly pointed to his huge frame.
"You could scarcely cover me," he answered; "but I will drink more to avoid a cold," and he filled himself another glass of benedictine.
"Tell me," said Julian, "what you were doing standing there in the storm?"
"Thinking," answered the German, and both men laughed.
"Let us exchange thoughts," he suggested presumably.
Julian lit a cigar, and puffed the smoke reflectively before him for a moment.
"I agree," he answered. "You are older than I. Speak first!"
"I was dreaming," said the poet—"dreaming of a battle among the gods, where I, enthroned like Jove, directed thunderbolts against the legions of those who rebelled against my sway. It was a confused dream, for the God of the Christians intruded in my thoughts and forced me to pay him homage. Later, I was the rebel Lucifer, and struggled hopelessly against the gleaming faithful ones, until at last I fell down, down for ever, through the gloom, where the only light in the darkness was the flash of God's chastising sword. It was an evil dream, and I was glad to see you when I awoke standing by my side. At least, in a second I was glad, for at first you seemed intruding, I do not know why. In my dreams I am always a great man," he added, a little apologetically.
Julian smiled in sympathy.
"I, too, was dreaming," he said softly, "and in my dreams I am always great."
"Tell me your dream," said the German.
"My dream was of earth," answered the Australian, "but it was a good dream. In my dream it seemed that Australia had become a mighty nation, the queen and lawgiver of other nations throned supreme, and this was all wrought by the work of my hands. I was the king."
"Ach," said the German, "you say true; that was a good dream. It seems that you, too, are a poet, since you dream such things."
Julian smiled illegibly, and sipped his rich liqueur.
"No," he answered slowly. "I am no poet. I am ambitious; that is all."
Siegbert studied the face of the speaker long and earnestly.
"You are a strong man," he said at last; "you will gain what you desire if it be not overmuch."
"My fear," replied the other, "is that I shall not attain my ambition before I am old, and have outgrown my power to enjoy. Time runs so swiftly, and the heart so soon grows cold, and loses its enthusiasms. It is the curse of life that the image of desire changes its expression with the years, and what is supremely beautiful to the young is looked on with indifference by the old. What I want must come to me soon or never."
"Ach," cried the poet, "you are a philosopher, and still so young."
"I am old," said Julian, "old as the world; but my body is young, and my soul is its slave."
Siegbert gravely shook his head.
"You are a materialist, and I thought you a dreamer like myself."
"You are wrong," said the other. "You are a dreamer of dreams, whose lucid expression satisfies the brain that creates them. I am a dreamer, but an actor also. I send my dreams like long arms into the future to fashion it beforehand to my wishes. My dreams are the rehearsals of my hopes."
"Your ambition is practical rather than spiritual, I perceive."
"Else it would not be ambition at all. Spiritual successes are so easy, a man has only to conquer himself to achieve a victory. To conquer the world, that is more difficult!"
"But self-conquest is necessary first. Did you find the task so easy? I strove for years, but gave up the struggle long ago as far beyond my strength."
Julian's lip curled.
"I am master of myself," he muttered scornfully.
"And yet you said just now that your body is the tyrant of your soul."
"Ay, but in another sense. My soul is bound to its clay casket, and must grow old and decay with the flesh. That I cannot help, and in that sense I am a slave."
"I pray God," said the German, "that my soul shall be ever young."
"A hopeless prayer. Pray rather that your body shall die while your soul is still unwearied of its chains."
As he spoke, Julian stretched forth his hand and drew to himself a brown old violin that reposed in a dark corner of the cabin. Slowly he tuned the thing until the chords twanged truly to his ear.
"Do you believe in prayer?" asked Siegbert.
The Australian gently drew his bow with a long, low, sighing sound across the strings.
"I believe in prayer as I believe in love," he answered. "To poor humans fatuously striving for the unattainable, the one is the last refuge of the weak, the other the elysium of fools."
As his speech ended, a weird, little air began to whisper from the moving bow. Siegbert pondered gravely over the words he had just heard, until the gradually increasing flow of melody claimed at last his undivided attention, and finally held his senses spell-bound. It was plain to him that Julian was a master of the violin, although his music was such as the poet had never listened to before. A mournful little minor tune sent up a plaintive wailing from the midst of a storm of shrill chromatic crashes which filled the cabin with a sharp burst of sound, while always a dully muttering refrain moaned loudly from the deep throats of the lower strings. It was as though the voice of one weak human were raised in conflict with the Fates; for ever the storm grew stronger and the sobbing louder, but the slender, sweet-toned tune grew fainter and more faint, until at last it died in a whirlwind of sound which enveloped every other theme in a strangely heart-stirring babel of melody.
Siegbert marvelled that even a master's touch could do so much.
"Ah!" he cried, tears glistening in his eyes, "you are a wonderful man, Herr Savage. Would that I could do with my pen what you effect so easily with your bow!"
Julian arose and bowed low, with a quaint, old-fashioned courtesy.
"I may charm the senses of one here or there, Herr Poet," he replied, "but your songs touch the hearts of thousands."
Siegbert also stood up, his face flushing under words of praise that were evidently sincerely uttered.
"Let us be friends," he said impulsively, and held forth his hand.
"With all my heart," returned the Australian; and thereafter both were silent for a little, being stricken by that strange shame which attacks even sentimental men whenever tricked into any open expression of sentimentality.
MARA HESCOMBE saw a good deal of Cuthbert Stone during the next few weeks. The young American approached her on the top of his fortunes, buoyant and triumphant, expecting nothing less than an easy victory in the field of love after his brilliant successes in finance. But his opportunity had passed. The girl who would have yielded to him in his dark hour of ruin, allowing her pity to plead to her of love, found nothing peculiarly appealing to her emotions in his sudden acquisition of fortune.
For as long as she could she postponed his declaration, but when she found that she could no more avoid his importunities, she gave him "No" for an answer, kindly, but with convincing firmness. Several reasons combined to account for her refusal. For one, Mr. Stone had appeared too sure of an affirmative reply to his addresses, and a woman does not like her wooer to be over-confident; for another, the romance had departed from the situation. Her woman's heart would have gloried in the sacrifice of self displayed in the marrying with a man who had lost his everything. There would have been an opportunity to rise superior to the common level of humanity and prove herself indeed a heroine to the world. Many women, it is true, would have preferred the more solid social triumph of wedding a millionaire, but not Mara Hescombe, who was by nature more romantic than other members of her sex, and thus inclined to wantonly despise the manifest advantages of wealth. A third reason might have been found in the fact that she had become latterly more deeply absorbed than ever in the exploitation of her favourite hobby, the study of individual characteristics, the particular matter then beneath her criticism being no less fascinating a subject than the personality of Julian Savage.
Miss Hescombe was by no means a tyro in her art; she was a keen observer, and a close and clever reasoner according to the rules of what might be called a priori logic. She had many opportunities of observing and analysing the character of Julian Savage, for he now visited her parents continually, and it was natural that she should see a deal of him. Almost every other day he was Sir Stuart's guest at their family lunch or dinner. Often in the afternoon he took her with her mother for long drives to places of interest about Sydney and its suburbs. Once he had spent a whole evening with herself almost tete-a-tete, for on that occasion Sir Stuart had been engaged, and Lady Hescombe not quite well. And yet her subject eluded her; worse still, continued to elude her. His conversation was interesting, his manners admirable, but his reticence on all matters concerning his own affairs extreme. She used up all the wiles known to women to induce him to talk about himself, usually a sufficiently fascinating theme to all mankind, but on that subject Julian was dumb.
Driven to extremities, the girl sought to discover what manner of man he might be by extracting from him a confession of opinions on scores of well-considered topics. There again her object was defeated, for Julian, when he admitted an opinion, gave a logical reason for it always, but thenceforward refused to be drawn into an argument, however trifling, concerning its merits. Baffled at every point, she was reduced to using the last weapon of her sex—her intuition. That informed her only that Julian was a man, strong-willed and exceedingly self-centred; but Miss Hescombe wished to know something beyond, something deeper. She suspected a latent romantic depth of character in her subject, but the means of sounding the well was not revealed to her.
Sometimes disheartened, she had been on the point of abandoning in disgust her enterprise; but all her efforts to convince her understanding that she herself had imported into the study of her subject the mysterious side to his character, which attracted her so strongly, were dispelled by a single glance from his compelling dark eyes, which evidently comprehended her far more easily and completely than she had been able to in his case after weeks of close attention. Mara Hescombe then returned to her task with renewed animation and a fresh method of attack. She designed situations, laid plans, and awaited their development. She assumed a hostile attitude, and decried everything Australian in his hearing.
Julian smiled indifferently. He had admitted himself interested in accomplishing the Federation of the different Australian States. She became a bitter opponent of Federation. Julian shrugged his shoulders, and even refrained from reminding her of her former enthusiasm for the measure.
Escorting her through the streets of the city one afternoon, he gave a shilling to a dirty little newsboy, and refused the change.
She blamed him for committing an act of foolish charity, giving excellent reasons in support of her contention.
Julian smiled at her.
"It is just a question of standpoint. For instance, you have never sold papers for your living," was the reply.
"Have you?" she retorted; his answer a careless nod.
On another occasion, in the Botanical Gardens, he scattered a handful of gold and silver coins among a group of destitute inhabitants of the park.
"You have never slept on wooden benches, with the sky for curtains and a stone for a pillow," he replied, in answer to her remonstrance.
"Have you?" she retorted again.
"But from choice, not from necessity."
She smiled, well pleased, for she thought she had at last discovered a phase. He was generous, at least.
She knew that Julian was endeavouring to interest her father in certain mining ventures in the colony, Sir Stuart being the controlling director of a large English syndicate formed for the acquisition of Australian mines. Acting on impulse she opposed his plans, and displayed a power of criticism that astonished her subject into the reluctant consideration of herself as a capable adversary in his designs. With a feeling of triumph she observed his sudden interest, and continuing her line of attack, made herself secretly acquainted with much mining lore, technical terms, and so forth, in spite of a natural distaste for anything approaching business.
Julian was undoubtedly annoyed by her interference, but he successfully cloaked his displeasure; and as Sir Stuart never opposed his daughter's inclinations, Mara was henceforth admitted into all their business discussions.
Julian had some time before offered to the syndicate a certain gold mine at Talala, a mountain township perched at the edge of the New England Plains. The prospects of this property looked so good that a purchase was on the tapis, and it had been arranged that Sir Stuart should visit the mine at a future date with Julian and an independent expert to inquire into its actual merits. Miss Hescombe at once decided that she and her mother should accompany the party. From that moment the courteous indifference with which Julian had previously regarded the girl commenced to disappear, and in its place he brought into gradual exercise all his powers of fascination to overcome the personal bias which, he considered, influenced Miss Hescombe into opposing his objects, but which he could not know was a mere affectation on her part employed for the very purpose it had effected. There was no sudden change in his attitude, however; the man was far too wise for that. At first he sought her society a little more, still retaining an appearance of indifference; later he allowed the girl to see that he had commenced to admire her; later still he paid her deft little attentions, and employed the opportunities open to his skill in administering to her vanity the balm of a flattery that was always half defined and subtly clothed with words.
Mara was not deceived. She detected and despised the reason of his change, she suspected the sincerity of his advances; but, nevertheless, was a victim to the fascination of his personality, and in his presence forgot everything but the charm of the moment, and her triumph in the success of her manoeuvres. Alone with her thoughts, however, she analysed his motives and detested them; she analysed herself, and condemned her readiness to accept his attentions and forget the motives which begot them. Altogether she gave up a very great deal of time and meditation to the task she had set herself to perform. Julian must have been flattered had he known. And yet she was compelled to admit to herself that she had not advanced so very much. She had discovered two things—that he was charitable, and that he was most anxious to sell his mine to her father's Syndicate; but that was all. She continued her method of attack, and opposed his project. Julian continued his treatment and became more and more attentive, more and more admiring.
Cuthbert Stone during those days was rather a trial to Miss Hescombe; he was jealous—plainly jealous of Julian Savage, and apparently he had not relinquished his hopes of ultimately winning the girl at all.
Miss Hescombe's note-book became filled with contradictory statements just then, as witness the following extracts:
"Nov. 19th. The enigma is expanding; he grows attentive. Opposition to his schemes enlivens him; he notices me more. Last night he glanced at me often surreptitiously, as if trying to discern my motives in opposing him. His eyes are long and low-lidded, but when interested the lids lift up, and the pupils dilate and almost glitter; they are really very fine eyes, I should say magnetic. He really admires me, I think.
"Nov. 20th. Cuthbert Stone rests me after the enigma. He is legible at all events, quite frank and open. I do hate mysterious people. I sometimes believe the sphinx has only one object in life, to make father buy his horrid old mine. He talks of nothing but shafts and cross cuts and lower levels; it keeps my time employed to pretend to understand. I really think he tried to make eyes at me to-day, but he can't flirt a bit. Cuthbert knows how much better, but Cuthbert is jealous; what fools men are!
"21 st. He is trying to make me think that he is in love with me. Cad!
"22nd. He is in love with me. That peculiar lighting look of the eyes cannot be mistaken. Well, perhaps now it will be easier to find him out. There is a mystery, I know. If his mind were as beautiful as his face it would be a delightful mystery. Cuthbert says the only mysterious thing about him is the means by which he makes his money. He insinuated all manner of unkind things, but then Cuthbert is jealous. There is a mystery. I can feel it. He has the air of it about him. Soon I shall know now.
"Nov. 23rd. I have walked twice in the Botanical Gardens with him, tete-a-tete. Yesterday I asked him to tell me of himself, straight out. Am afraid I blushed. He shrugged his shoulders and suggested that we could find more interesting topics. I insisted, and he replied with a sneer that if I were curious about him or his past he would be glad to answer any questions I cared to ask. He is the rudest man in the world. I almost left him then and there, only I was curious, so I punished him another way; I told him very sweetly that I would take advantage of his promise some other day, and in the meantime would prepare a list of questions. He laughed, and made some observation about female journalists. When he sneers he is abominable. I detest him.
"Nov. 25th. After all, I cannot convince myself that the sphinx is in earnest; his eyes are perfect, but he is so frightfully persistent about his mine. Cuthbert has bet me a box of gloves that it will turn out a swindle. Why I took the bet, I am sure I don't know. I half believe the old mine is a swindle myself. I wrote a chapter to-day of my book, but it had to be imaginative; my facts won't settle. We leave this day week to visit the mine. The poet is coming with us. The poet is ridiculously fond of the sphinx.
"Nov. 30th. The poet tells me that the sphinx is a marvellous musician. I wormed it out of him, for it seems he has given some absurd promise to keep the thing a secret; why, I cannot imagine. The sphinx has asked the mater and me to afternoon tea in the Gardens day after to-morrow. Mater, I am afraid, won't be able to go. Cuthbert Stone told me some silly stories about the sphinx—says that he's been making inquiries. According to him, sphinx has committed nearly every crime on record. I asked him how it was, if that were so, that he happened to be still at large. Cuthbert replied that the sphinx is too clever to go to gaol; he has never been found out. Cuthbert insinuated that he is employing a detective to make inquiries. I hope he is. My book must be written somehow, and until I know more how can I invent a plot? I feel a little mean about it though, it's horrid to be spied on. Cuthbert must have something common in his nature to descend to such an artifice. Jealousy is a degrading thing. I believe I'll give the sphinx a hint to put him on his guard; he was very nice last night."
These somewhat skeleton entries outlined the proceedings of a week. During that week Miss Hescombe had observed a remarkable friendship spring up between Karl Siegbert, whom she had grown to regard as her special property, and Julian Savage.
The two had suddenly discovered a mutual liking, and they spent every spare moment in each other's society. The girl was perplexed and curious. She questioned the poet, but although he spoke freely and enthusiastically enough of his new friend's talents and charming manners, he was otherwise uncommunicative, perhaps because he had nothing else to tell; but Mara thought otherwise, for after a fiery cross-examination she had extracted, under promise of secrecy, a glowing account of certain wonderful performances by Julian on his violin, and she reasoned that the German, having been so far admitted to her sphinx's intimacy, knew other things if he would but disclose them.
Stories had come to her also during that week from unexpected sources—mere gossip, as a fact—of Julian's munificence to the poor. She heard of distressed families whose sufferings he had relieved, workmen out of work whom he had fed and found employment for. Her tete-a-tete conversation with Julian in the Gardens, moreover, had been full of interest. He had appeared at his best on those occasions, and had displayed a wonderful knack of reading characters at a glance. He had made her strolls enjoyable from a certain fantastic trick of descanting on the lives and habits of the passers-by, inventing at will, in a brilliant, careless fashion, whole reams of anecdote to account for any observable peculiarity in the people whom they met. She noticed, too, as they walked homeward through the Domain at dusk that all the park loungers, and their name was legion, saluted her companion as they passed, with a sign of deep respect, and involuntarily the respect manifested by those outcasts influenced her thoughts concerning the man who walked beside her, and who so carelessly replied to the salutations he received. He became more of a mystery still to her—more worthy each day of being solved.
Meanwhile Cuthbert Stone was not idle. He was thoroughly in love with Mara Hescombe. He had already followed her half round the world in the hope of winning her for his wife, and in spite of her first refusal of his offer his conceit of himself, and faith in his own powers, forbade him to despair of ultimately gaining what had become the deepest desire of his heart. He now saw his hopes in grave danger of defeat, for he imagined that Julian Savage was in love with his mistress, and every day more steadily convinced him of the interest that Mara felt in the affairs of the young Australian. Cuthbert Stone was what the world would call an honest man. He had never picked another man's pocket, nor done anything which his conscience entirely abhorred. The usual follies of a man of the world he had certainly committed in his earlier youth, but since he had known Mara, like all men who are completely in love, he had severed his connection with anything in his past which could contain a chance of interfering with his hopes for the future. Therefore, and thus much, he was honest, and an honourable man so far as the world goes. But then there certainly did exist people in the world who loathed his very name—men whose calling was the same as his own, who practised a like system of relieving the pockets of the speculative public per medium of the Stock Exchange, but whose abilities in that direction were inferior to Cuthbert Stone's, and who had consequently been forced to frequently assume the indignant role of the over-reached. Years spent among the bulls and bears of Wall Street, during which he had acquired a colossal fortune by means scarcely remarkable for any hyper-sensitive scrupulosity, had succeeded in planing the edges of Cuthbert Stone's conscience. This had developed, indeed, into a hard and serviceable article, warranted to stand the severest strains of both use and abuse; and latterly, like the conscience of Napoleon Bonaparte, it had established for itself a standard of measurement in the self-justifying word "success." A man, therefore, of such a cultivated disposition was not likely to stand around with his hands in his pockets while a mysterious outsider like Julian Savage made love—successfully, too—to the girl he wanted as much as Cuthbert wanted Mara Hescombe. "No, sirree," as Cuthbert would himself have said had he been interrogated on the subject.
The mystery surrounding Julian Savage's origin and circumstances, which appealed so strongly to Miss Hescombe's romantic imagination, Cuthbert Stone regarded very differently. He argued that a man is only anxious to conceal that about which he has reason to be ashamed, ergo, as Julian's circumstances were mysterious, necessarily they were shameful. Further, he reasoned that if he could manage to obtain sufficient proof of this suspected shamefulness, Mara Hescombe's interest in Julian Savage would abate proportionately to the measure of the shame disclosed.
To think with him was to act, and Cuthbert Stone immediately employed inquiry agents to spy upon the man who had saved his life.
The detectives had an easier task to perform than their employer imagined, and very soon they returned reports of their investigations which filled the heart of Cuthbert Stone with glee. His enemy (for immediately Julian Savage assumed the proportions of a rival, he became such to the American) was metaphorically in his hands. The evidence submitted to him was so strong and so crushing that he felt he could afford to laugh at the pretensions of his rival. He resolved at first to at once disclose his information to the Hescombes, but a later report inclined him to a more dramatic course, and he finally determined to allow Mara Hescombe to see with her own eyes the true position of the man whose dalliance she encouraged, and to learn from the consideration of his private manners and associations his actual social merit.
The detectives had informed Cuthbert of a semi-social, semi-political agitation which had lately sprung into existence among the lowest classes of the community, fathered by a secret society of roughs and ragamuffins called "The Rocks." They informed him, moreover, that this agitation, though looked on with indifference by the bulk of the people, was attentively regarded by the lawgivers of the country and the guardians of the peace. Julian Savage was known to be one of the organisers, perhaps the chief instigator, of the movement, and it was a notorious fact that he was the elected King of the Rocks, the society mainly responsible for the little upheaval amongst the lower orders. A meeting had been called for a certain evening, at which Julian Savage had promised to attend, and it was expected that he would make a speech. A public hall in one of the lowest suburbs of the city had been hired for the occasion. It was Cuthbert's intention to induce Mara Hescombe to be present, in order to reveal to her at one coup Julian's intimate connection with the city outcasts, and at the same time exhibit his rival at his worst, for the inquiry agents had posted him that it was the custom of the King of the Rocks, when he appeared among his subjects, to throw off the habits of higher society and to assume for the time a dress and manner which would not render him in too great contrast with his fellows. Cuthbert had also ascertained that the common language of "The Rocks" and their associates was of that peculiar adjectival and picturesque quality usually known as Billingsgate. Questionable taste for a gentleman to deliberately arrange to submit the ears of his lady-love to such indignity, but then Cuthbert was in love and jealous.
At considerable cost he secretly hired for the evening the entire use of an organ-loft in the hall destined for the projected meeting, which would command an uninterrupted view of the proceedings, and at the same time screen its inmates from the eyes of the crowd. It escaped him altogether that his enterprise might possess an aspect of danger should any of the rough assembly suspect spying intruders on their business.
He experienced no difficulty in persuading Mara Hescombe to accompany him. That young lady, on being assured that she would witness an out-of-the-way phase of human nature, became enthusiastic in prosecuting the idea, and she made no objections to accepting Cuthbert's sole escort to the meeting, especially when he craftily suggested the desirability of assuming a disguise. To the female heart a disguise is an irresistible attraction, vide the popularity with the sex of the bal masque and the stage.
Mara assumed a costume something between the familiar dress of a Salvation Army lass and a singer at the music halls. It was picturesque certainly, but as little as possible calculated to fulfil its intended mission, for it could not fail to excite remark, and under the circumstances it seemed desirable, of all things, to escape attention. However, Cuthbert was enchanted at her falling in with his plans, and he raised very little demur. They proceeded to the hall an hour before the time appointed for the meeting, and having reached their seats unnoticed of any save the caretaker, they carefully concealed themselves among the curtains protecting the organ. From their vantage-ground they silently watched the hall fill with a disreputable and ill-clad rabble. Men—old, young, and middle-aged; boys, girls, and women, all eager and excited, their faces lit up with a strange animation, until the place was crowded to the doors. There were no chairs, every one stood and waited. Groups here and there talked, shouted, or gesticulated, arguing and wrangling. One old man in a corner, remarkable for his long, dirty grey hair and hawk-like nose, addressed a score of his nearest companions in a shrill, squeaky voice, glaring at them wildly as he spoke, and answering their repartee and interjections with savage curses and commands to listen. A girl of twenty in the middle of the press called God to witness that the men around her were a set of hulking pigs to shove her about. On her remonstrance there was a babel of laughter, hoarse cackling, shrill treble, and deep bass guffaws; but the press parted, and the girl stood alone for a moment in the centre of a little ring of faces, her eyes bright, her cheeks flushed, her dainty little figure trembling with rage, as pretty a picture as could be conceived, marred, however, by the shrill tide of abjurations which immediately flowed from her lips. Here and there some youthful rough, desirous of changing his position in the crowd, would force his way with brutal rudeness through the press, his course marked by a sudden swaying of the mob, and lurid comments from those with whom he had collided. The noise was deafening, everybody seemed to be talking at once, and endeavouring to make her or himself heard above the general clamour. Mara watched the scene with fascinated eyes, staring as if enchanted at the mazy rabble beneath her, her ears dazed by the clack of tongues and the unaccustomed language and tricks of speech. The oaths and blasphemies which occasionally reached her she scarcely noticed in her absorption in the scene, and if sometimes she shuddered involuntarily as some more than usually horrible epithet astounded her, it was quickly forgotten in the sudden kaleidoscopic changes constantly occurring in the crowd. The women interested and disgusted her more than aught else; they were so free and so fearless of their ruffianly companions, so eager to participate in the movements of the men, so persistent in making their voices heard, usually in senseless outcry. In the midst of the babel a remarkable silence suddenly overcame the mob; as if by the stroke of an enchanter's wand every tongue was for a moment stilled, in extraordinary contrast with the former buzz of sound. Then with one spontaneous impulse a mighty shout was raised—resonant, deafening, and every eye in the assembly turned upon the stage at the far end of the hall. Mara looked with the rest, and to her astonishment beheld Julian Savage standing on the centre of the platform between two other men, all three clad in rough workmen's clothes. They had entered without warning by a side door, and evidently it was their appearance that had evoked the extraordinary emotion of the crowd. The girl stared at this unexpected presentment as if she could not believe her eyes. With searching and minute attention she surveyed his attitude and dress, unconscious that in the dim light Cuthbert Stone watched her narrowly.
"Good heavens!" she muttered at last, "it's Mr. Savage."
"Why, so it is," whispered Cuthbert, in affected amaze. "By Jove, look at his clothes! What's he in that rig-out for, I wonder? I be——"
The girl clutched his arm to silence him, for at that moment Julian, stepping forward to the edge of the foot-lights, commenced to speak. His voice was low, but sonorous and quite distinct; he spoke without apparent effort in an unbroken flow of words, amid a silence expectant and intense. His language, although scarcely the polished tongue of society, being punctuated by terse slang phrases and pungent expressions suited to the appreciation of the great audience who waited on his words, possessed, nevertheless, a very certain dignity of its own, compelling both attention and respect. That he dominated the sympathy of his listeners was apparent from an occasional universal sigh of satisfaction that broke out at intervals in a long, deep murmur. The subject-matter of his discourse consisted in a somewhat extraordinary appeal to the people to support and accomplish the mooted union or amalgamation of the Australian States. The arguments he employed to further his directions were revolutionary rather than democratic, and revolutionary in an original form. He advocated the formation of an undivided nation as the first step to accomplishing, not a self-governing republic under Imperial patronage, the old ideal of democratic agitators, but a separate and independent monarchy under the sway of an elected king. Presently, with an insolent assurance that took Mara Hescombe's breath away, he assumed his daring plans achieved, and metaphorically patting the Mother Empire on the back, he coolly informed his audience that ties of blood would, of course, be recognised, and the new nation would never be other than an ally of Old England, so long as she behaved herself. A thousand sarcastic reflections passed through the girl's mind as she listened. How grateful England would be for this condescension. How she would thank this man who in his obscurity so solemnly patronised a mighty Empire. Mara's lip curled in unutterable scorn, but she found herself compelled to listen in spite of her disgust; and, however absurd his ambitious utterances, she could not fail to mark and marvel at the wonderful grasp this man possessed upon his audience. Every word that fell from his lips was received and treasured as of priceless merit. As he warmed to his discourse, and in its unfolding himself grew touched with enthusiasm, she saw his face change, his eyes flash and glow, his words roll tumbling from his tongue—quick, vivid, picturesque, and sparkling, very whips to sting the pulses of his hearers to emotion. The mob, at first so mute and still, swayed and pressed forward, murmuring like a sea, bursting every now and then into hoarse roars of acclamation. Mara felt her heart throb and beat tumultuously, her nerves involuntarily tingle, sharing the magnetic impulse of the crowd, and, in spite of the wide divergence between her own opinions and the speaker's, she was deeply moved by his subtle eloquence and power.
Cuthbert noticed this, and felt in a subdued fury that his purpose had so lamentably failed. Instead of inspiring his lady-love with contempt for his rival, as he had wished, he had provided her a means of witnessing the scene of his rival's triumph, for Julian's oratory had effected nothing less. The crowd below them had developed into a sea of frantic enthusiasts, and Mara Hescombe herself was trembling all over with excitement.
Cuthbert stood up suddenly, and restraining an unmuttered curse on the edge of his lips, he placed his hand upon the girl's arm. "Let us come away," he whispered. He had expected resistance, noticing Mara's absorption, but to his surprise she followed him without a word, and they made their way silently and undeterred into the street.
"Let us walk home," said Mara; "I feel stifled. If I had stayed there any longer I think I must have screamed out."
"What did you think of the speech?" asked Cuthbert, hoping against hope.
"Horrible!" answered the girl, with a little shiver of remembrance; she was almost unnerved.
Cuthbert was delighted.
"Just the sort of stump oratory that delights those wretched creatures," he remarked. "The fellow is one of them, so he knows how to work the business properly. Lord, how they howled!"
"I wouldn't call Mr. Savage a stump orator," replied Mara quietly; "his speech was wicked, but it was very strong and eloquent."
"Bah!" cried Cuthbert rudely, his temper getting a little the better of him; "he has the gift of the gab, certainly, but the fellow is an out-and-out bounder, as I can prove."
The girl withdrew her hand from his arm, offended less by the rudeness of his manner than by the spite of his words.
"Do you think so," she replied stiffly, and the conversation thenceforth rather languished.
The following afternoon, accompanied by Karl Siegbert, Mara met Julian Savage by appointment on the lawn by the lake of the Botanical Gardens. Julian was in earnest converse with no other than Cuthbert Stone when the girl approached. Beside him stood a small table covered with cakes and tea-things, while a number of vacant chairs rested idly on the grass. Mara noticed more than anything the elegance of Julian's then attire, in contrast with his appearance of the night before. He bowed profoundly, and moved forward several paces to meet her, with a certain grace of motion for which he was remarkable. A question was asked in the girl's heart: "The eagerness of a lover, or the practised antics of a squire of dames?" She read an answer in the man's eyes, which were very earnest, but she was hard to satisfy.
"Your mother?" he asked, with courteous anxiety.
"Was too busy to accompany me this afternoon."
"And as I happened to meet Miss Hescombe, I invited myself to join your party," struck in the poet.
"You are very welcome," returned Julian, and he pointed to the chairs.
Mara, glancing at Cuthbert Stone as she seated herself, noticed with surprise that his face was black and frowning.
"You quite well?" she asked kindly.
But Julian Savage interjected before the American could answer.
"Mr. Stone is quite well, I believe," he observed, some subdued feeling noticeable in his voice; "but I think he is a little disturbed. He has been kindly endeavouring to point out to me the error of certain of my ways, but I am too confirmed a sinner to repent even on the representation of such a saint."
The girl and the poet glanced interrogatively from one to the other, in a mist to understand.
Julian's face was impassive and illegible in spite of the sting of the words he had just used.
Cuthbert was evidently vastly angry.
"At least," he cried, "admit that I have treated you fairly. I gave you every chance beforehand."
Julian shrugged his shoulders.
"I have just described you as a saint," he replied. "However, the tea grows cold. Might I ask you to preside, Miss Hescombe?" and lifting the table of tea things, he placed it before the girl.
"I hope you gentlemen have not been quarrelling," said Mara with severity.
"Pas si bete—merely disputing," laughed Julian.
There were but three chairs, and the host courteously offered the one still remaining unoccupied to Cuthbert Stone, who tartly refused. The first cup that Mara prepared he also offered to Cuthbert, who again refused.
Julian raised his eyebrows.
"Then, since you will not join us in our tea, perhaps you will be so kind as to remove your sainthood elsewhere—unless, of course, you intend to lay bare the result of your investigations now."
The words were peculiarly insulting, and delivered in a manner calculated to induce an already angry man to forsake his self-control entirely.
Cuthbert started at the taunt, but instead of departing, he folded his arms across his chest with a savage and determined gesture.
"Just as you like," he cried, "the present is as good as any other time." He turned and addressed Mara Hescombe directly. "Before I say what I intend, I want to tell you, Miss Hescombe, that I offered this fellow," pointing rudely to his rival "the chance of escaping——"
"On terms," interrupted Julian; "those terms being that I should never hereafter, voluntarily or involuntarily, intrude my society upon any member of Sir Stuart Hescombe's family."
Mara started forward breathlessly attentive, her cheeks flushing quickly on these last words, and she fixed her eyes interrogatively upon Cuthbert.
"Precisely," continued that gentleman, "those were my terms, and I fancy I can prove that they were reasonable. If Sir Stuart was acquainted with what I have discovered he would demand as much himself——"
"Excuse me," cried Mara, interrupting very warmly, "if that be so, father should know and himself decide; you have no right, Mr. Stone, to arrogate to yourself such a responsibility. But," she added, after a second, turning to Julian as she spoke, "what nonsense is all this? What are these very dreadful disclosures about you, Mr. Savage? Some good jest invented for my bewilderment, I am sure."
"You are wrong," interposed Cuthbert bitterly. "Mister Julian Savage——"
"Stop!" The words rang out imperiously, and the American involuntarily obeyed.
"Preface your communication by acquainting us with the means employed by you in acquiring your information."
"I have no objection," returned the other with bravado. "I employed detectives to make inquiries concerning you."
"And why, may I ask, Mr. Stone?"
"I suspected you of sailing under false colours."
Julian shrugged his shoulders. "Proceed," he said calmly.
"First and foremost," declared Cuthbert, with marked venom, "you are a convicted thief."
Mara Hescombe cried out "No, no!" indignantly; but Karl Siegbert sprang to his feet, speaking for the first time, and in broken English through excitement.
"Pe tamn," he stuttered, waving aloft a huge threatening hand, "how you vas dare such a thing speak! Herr Savage is mein friendt!"
"Softly, poet, softly," murmured Julian.
"Let him deny it if he can," sneered Cuthbert Stone.
Julian smiled tranquilly.
"Mr. Stone is quite right," he replied; "at the age of seven, a starving youngster on the streets, parent-less, homeless, friendless, I stole a pair of boots; it was from a cobbler's shop if I remember rightly. I sold them to a brother street arab for sixpence and two cigarette stumps. Never shall I forget the meal I bought myself—two sausages, a buttered roll, and a piece of seedcake—and then the after-dinner smoke. Ah me, with the years one loses the capacity to enjoy. I have never tasted a meal since then which pleased me half so much. But my reminiscence bores you, perhaps. Yes, I am a thief; pray proceed, Mr. Spy."
The man spoke quite calmly, with a cool indifference of insolence that both astonished and captivated at least two of his audience.
The American grew even more bitter under such treatment
"You were imprisoned for years on the training ship Sabroan," he muttered hoarsely.
"The Sabroan!" ejaculated Miss Hescombe.
Only a day or two before she had visited the vessel, and seen the imprisoned boys working at their tasks.
"Excuse me," muttered Julian politely, "you slightly mistake; but you are scarcely to blame for that, being a stranger. I served some six years on the Vernon, the old training ship. The Sabroan is a new boat, quite recently commissioned; and fitted, I believe, with every modern comfort and convenience. We prison boys of the old regime had to put up with many discomforts, I can assure you. I had not the luck to serve upon the Sabroan, more's the pity. Next, Mr. Stone."
"You are the leader of a gang of larrikins, the worst of the riff-raff and dregs of the city, the Rocks' Push."
"You are speaking of the past," answered Julian suavely; "I beg you to believe that the members of my 'push' are now respectable and law-abiding citizens, men in my own employ, who receive good wages, and, for the most part, possess private bank accounts. Not one of them has even a police-court conviction against his name."
"Bosh!" cried Cuthbert rancorously; "perhaps you will tell me that you and your push are not suspected by the police of smuggling, of garrotting, of burglary, and a score of other crimes."
For the first time Julian appeared to be aroused from his attitude of cynical indifference. His eyes flashed, he threw his head proudly back, and his hands involuntarily clenched. He took one quick step forward, frowning blackly. Mara Hescombe watched him, with a strange feeling of expectancy, of something like approval. But almost instantly he recovered his self-command and fell back, smiling indifferently as before.
"Ah, bah!" he shrugged, "you taunt me with suspicions, sir; I cannot answer you. Deal with facts, I pray you; have you any more to confront me with?"
"No," said the American bitterly; "I——"
"Are you certain? Surely your paid spies have discovered for you more than that?"
The sting of the words was cutting as a whiplash.
"Is not that sufficient?" sneered Cuthbert—"thief, gaol-bird, suspected criminal; enough in my opinion to oust you for your life-time from any decent society into which you may try to sneak."
"Pardon me," said Julian, with exquisite courtesy, "those words recall a previous remark of yours which I allowed to pass unchallenged at the time, but upon which I now beg to join issue. You observed, before we commenced this little argument, that you suspected me of 'sailing under false colours.' You now accuse me of endeavouring to 'sneak into society.' You are wrong, both in your assumption and your assertion. I neither sail under false flags, nor do I sneak. My past is not concealed, anyone may read it who so wills; true, I do not proclaim it, but I am not ashamed of it. As for society, that I care nothing for. Sir Stuart Hescombe, who imagined that he had cause to be grateful to me, extended to me his hospitality, which I accepted after much pressing, and after first acquainting him with the record that you find so disreputable."
"What!" cried Cuthbert Stone, absolutely stunned by this piece of information, so quietly, so contemptuously vouchsafed. "I don't believe you."
Julian shrugged his shoulders with utter indifference, and turned to his guests.
"My dear Miss Hescombe, your tea is quite cold; you have not touched it," he said concernedly.
Karl Siegbert sat back in his chair and burst into a roar of laughter, great hearty cachinnations which might have been heard half over the Gardens.
"Ha, ha, ha!" he growled, holding his sides, and tears trickling down his fat, furrowed cheeks. "Mein Gott, mein Gott in Himmel!"
Presently arising, he seized Julian's hand in his mighty grip and wrung it silently, still, however, shaking and heaving with mirth; but then he strode across to Cuthbert Stone, who stood biting his lips, confounded and miserable, and in the kindness of his great heart at seeing a brother human so terribly discomfited, he linked arms and drew the American away, leaving Mara and Julian Savage together.
The girl, though twice addressed by Julian, made no reply for a time in words, only she looked up at him with a great tenderness and pity shining from her eyes.
"Was the little boy often very hungry?" she asked at last.
The words were comical a little, but not the thought that conceived them, and Julian understood. He laughed softly.
"That boy would have eaten anything—from orange-peel to boot-leather; he was a perfect little animal."
"And did he sell papers on the streets?"
"No, but the news-boys often used to help him."
"Kind news-boys," murmured Mara. "And did he sleep always in the open, with a hard bench for his bed, the sky for curtains, a stone for his pillow?"
Julian nodded and smiled, remembering his own former words to her thus repeated.
"Poor little boy," said Mara. She stood up and held out her hand. "If you don't mind," she said, "I would like to walk home by myself now, but I want you to promise me this evening. Will you come?"
Julian stooped low, and half-unconsciously kissed her hand.
"I shall not fail," he answered. But Mara, turning, walked swiftly away from him, holding her right hand tightly pressed to her side. She had a strange feeling that she dare not move it—dare not look at it; it tingled all over, and the white skin blushed and burned where his lips had touched it. Indeed, that hand had become marvellously transfigured in the girl's imagination by a simple act of courtesy; but then, the hand of an Englishwoman is seldom kissed.
MARA HESCOMBE walked very quickly until she reached the dividing wall, but when she had passed through the ivy gates and beyond Julian's sight, her steps grew slower, and in the avenue of palms she almost paused, treading in hesitating measure upon the planking of the rustic bridge.
Her left hand was gloved, but her right was bare. Only partially recovered from her shyness, she kept glancing strangely at the slender fingers, which she thought were coloured with shame at the caress which through some pitying but uncontrollable impulse she had lately permitted them to receive. She herself was already regretful of what she called her weakness, and because she had experienced a certain pleasure in the act it seemed to be not quite a proper thing to allow, and yet it was sweet to have a man bend before her and kiss her dainty hand reverently, as Julian had kissed hers just now. Men of a past age had paid such homage to the woman they revered, and the old custom found an echo of appreciation in Miss Hescombe's heart.
With introspective, wondering eyes she gazed down at the fern brook, unconscious of the material things her eyes beheld. She scarcely knew that she had halted, although her left hand rested lightly on the frame-work of the bridge. Her glove, held idly in listless fingers, fell from her grasp unheeded to the water, and was borne swirling away, rushing and tumbling with the stream down a tiny stone cascade, green with water weeds and mosses; finally into a little lakelet, where, caught by an eddy, it presently sank away from sight among the lotus lilies, whose star-like blooms flamed up among the shadows of the ferns.
But the girl, wrapped in her dreaming, noted nothing. Her face, at first grave and troubled, became at last tender with the thoughts that flitted through her brain, while a happy smile touched her lips and eyes with an indescribable softness. The hand which Julian had kissed she lifted shyly, perhaps unconsciously, to her face, and drew it slowly and caressingly across her cheek once, twice, and thence to her lips, where it rested with a meaning that presently appealed to her, for waking from her dream, she thrust it from her with bright eyes and burning cheeks, glancing swiftly round lest any should have observed her act.
Some paces distant stood a girl of twenty, poorly gowned in grey, but with a monstrous hat of violet velvet and ostrich plumes perched cumbrously upon her head. She was pretty in a fashion, and sad-eyed, but her hideous costume offended Miss Hescombe's cultivated taste into a sudden desire to leave the spot.
But the girl cried out swiftly: "Stay, stay!" and Miss Hescombe, who had moved on a little, turned again, and glanced at her inquiringly.
"What is it?" she asked.
"I saw yer," declared the girl meaningly.
Miss Hescombe felt her face turn scarlet. "You saw what?"
"I saw yer talking to Julian Savage, I saw him kiss yer 'and; yes, an' I saw yer kiss yer own 'and, too, where he kissed it."
"You are an extremely impertinent woman," said Miss Hescombe frigidly, moving off as she spoke.
But the girl stepped quickly in front and barred the way.
"No more woman than yourself," she cried indignantly; "yer ain't got no call to be insultin'. I'm only tellin' yer for yer own good."
"Nonsense! Please stand aside and let me pass."
"Not me, till I've done my say."
Mara stared indignantly at the girl for a moment, then her coldness wavered, and she smiled, for the humour of her opponent's attitude appealed to her, standing as she did with arms akimbo and feet spread wide apart—a vulgar statue of determination.
"What do you want with me?" she asked more kindly.
"It's about him," answered the girl, and she jerked her thumb in the direction of the bay.
"Mr. Savage?" asked Miss Hescombe.
"Yes, he's making up to yer, ain't he?"
"I don't know what you mean," and Miss Hescombe shook her head perplexedly.
"Trying to be yer bloke?"
Miss Hescombe still did not understand, and the girl remarked compassionately on such ignorance.
"Blow me, yer hare an innocent!" She thought a moment, then her face lit up with the arrival of an idea. "He's courtin' yer, ain't he?" she demanded.
For the fourth time that afternoon Miss Hescombe blushed.
"No," she answered incisively, an angry gleam in her eyes, "he is doing nothing of the kind."
The girl's jaw dropped, and the light went out of her eyes. "Oh," she muttered, "I thought he was."
"Now, perhaps," said Miss Hescombe icily, "you will be good enough to let me pass."
"Yer ain't lyin' to me, are ye?" asked the girl, but the look in Miss Hescombe's eyes cowed her, and she stepped aside without dreaming of further disputing the path.
Mara strode away with all the dignity of an offended queen, but at the same time a very real curiosity was knocking at her heart. All the woman in her wanted and clamoured to discover the reason of her strange adventure, and, forgetful of her dignity, her outraged pride, she stopped when she had reached the corner of the path to look back. The girl was still loitering by the bridge, staring after her most solemnly.
Miss Hescombe beckoned, and the girl flew up the path. "Why did you stop me?" demanded Mara.
"I thought he was courtin' yer," answered the girl.
"What made you think so?"
"Him kissin' yer hand."
"But what has that to do with you?"
"Oh, nothing much;" but the girl's eyes assumed a look of sullen rancour.
"You're in love with him yourself," asserted Miss Hescombe, in the manner of a judge sentencing a criminal to immediate execution.
"Mr. Savage is your lover."
"My bloke—him! I wouldn't touch him with a clothes-prop."
Miss Hescombe burst out into a rippling laugh of sheer amusement, but the girl was bitterly indignant.
"Laugh away," she said, "maybe some day you'll laugh the other side of yer mouth if yer have much to do with him."
"Why, what has he done to you?"
"I'll find out for true one of these days," answered the girl, "and it won't be no good to Julian Savage when I do."
"Tell me all about it," said Miss Hescombe softly.
"There ain't much to tell," answered the girl. "He had to do with putting my bloke, Jack Lennon, out of the way; that's all."
"Putting him out of the way?"
"Yes, and I'm not the girl to forget. He'll hear from Mary Hotchkiss one of these days yet, see if he don't."
Miss Hescombe knew not what to say. Curiosity impelled her to question the girl further than her sense of honour quite allowed. She felt herself quite contemptible, but she proceeded.
"What makes you think these things?" she demanded.
"Lennon was mate o' the Night'awk, his—Savage's—boat, 'fore he bought his new-fangled Dido. Lennon had it fixed up to put his smugglin' goin's on away to the water police. I know, 'cos Lennon had it fixed up with me, and that we'd get married and start house-keepin' after that trip, and then when the Night'awk come in they said Lennon had fell over an' was drowned. He knows better nor that, though, an' so do I. One of his push let out when he was boozed a different yarn to what they told the beak, though he wouldn't stick to it when he was sobered up, and he smashed me in the teeth because I told him what he'd said."
"Who did?" gasped Miss Hescombe. "Not Mr. Savage?"
"No, the bloke what was boozed."
"What did he tell you?"
"Said that Julian Savage dropped to Lennon's game, an' sewed him up alive in a sail an' heaved him overboard."
"What horrible thing is it you are telling me?" cried Miss Hescombe, much dismayed.
"It's the truth," said Mary Hotchkiss doggedly; "an' I don't care who knows it. He's a bad lot is Julian Savage!"
"A bad lot!" repeated Miss Hescombe in a whisper, remembering the conversation of a short half-hour ago; but the girl, catching the whisper, imagined that Miss Hescombe agreed with her.
"Yes, he's a murderer," she muttered eagerly.
But Miss Hescombe shuddered and drew away.
"He is nothing of the kind," she cried. "You are a wicked girl to say such things, and I am a wicked girl to listen to you. Mr. Savage saved my life. I don't believe a word you say," she concluded, rather inconsequently, as she hurried up the path.
Mary Hotchkiss stood dazed with silence for a moment; then spite at her flouting prompted her to speech, and she shouted after Miss Hescombe in a voice that displayed an excellent lung power:
"Garn, he's your bloke! I knew you was lying to me. He's yer bloke and you're his doner, you bloomed white liver!"
But Miss Hescombe did not turn her head.
NEVER had a woman on the verge of entering the shackles of a romantic friendship received so rude a rebuff to her poetical imaginings. Julian Savage accused of murder, cold, gruesome crime, committed without any romantic and atoning excuse therefor, but from motives of merely commonplace self-interest.
Mara Hescombe had bravely enough challenged and flouted his traducer, but in the privacy of her own mind a black suspicion rankled, a festering sore able to deface by its gnawing persistence the fair image which other events had conspired to erect upon a pedestal now in grave danger of overthrowal.
Her mother remarked on her silence. She pleaded a headache. Her father was instantly solicitous. She declared that she would soon be quite well; her indisposition was really only trifling. She was allowed to rest, but her thoughts contained companionship sufficient to forbid even the semblance of such ease.
A murderer! Sure, the very suspicion supplied enough reason to justify the withdrawal of every regard, even the attitude of gratitude for services rendered. Would, could it suffice to sanction the end of gratitude for life prolonged? No, not that. All else, perhaps, but not that. And yet, suspicion; the accusation of a frantic woman. Could she rely on such?
Reasonable? No. Her intuition? No guide in such a case. Assuming for the sake of hypothesis that the crime had been committed, was she justified in sitting as a judge? In such case, with one hand he had taken, with the other given life. Would the other counterbalance the one? Life! Such a terrible thing to either give or take.
The thought appalled her, for in its train came the quick question: If he had no right to take, what better right to give or to prolong? Her answer was more a matter of sentimentality than logic, and it was not altogether satisfying.
The afternoon was very long; her thoughts very painful, very persistent. She could decide nothing very clearly. It seemed plain that her duty lay in the direction of questioning the suspected criminal to allow him a chance to speak his cause. Quaintly, her inclination was elsewhere. She hated the thought of her engagement for the evening. Clearly, too, whatever he had or may have done in the past, or might still do in the future, her debt to him must remain the same. She lived still at his hands, a bond was between them, ineffaceable for ever. All the more reason then that she should do her duty to herself and him justice.
She found herself dwelling on the unexpected possibilities opened up before her in the study of his character. But her professional enthusiasm was dulled, for the personal element would intrude. She liked the man. Yes, murderer or no, Julian Savage was Julian Savage, and strangely likable. His eyes were so beautiful and grave, so kindly expressive when they happened to rest on hers. His brow was so broad and high—"noble" the girl called it. His head shaped so graciously. And then his manner so winning, his insight so keen. He understood her better than any other man had yet. He read her thoughts so easily that there seemed to be really seldom need for speech.
Sympathy! It was more, for they communicated without a glance; they were en rapport. Communicated, yes; but, nevertheless, to her he remained a mystery. A mystery, ah! Suddenly Mara had discovered what she had spent hours in groping for—the reason why she had found it possible to harbour a suspicion against this man, who so disturbed her. This very mystery—that was it! It fascinated her; but she knew now that there was and had always been a repellent influence latent in the charm, a subtle something that whispered the advisability of entertaining any explanation of the mystery's origin in lieu of none.
"Bah!" she soliloquised. "I am a schoolgirl still; a bread-and-butter miss to cant to myself of mysteries. I should be ashamed and sorry to be guilty of such nonsense. It is what the age of pig-tails legs and eyes sucks up from Family Heralds and penny dreadfuls."
The speech was full of a scorn that she tried to feel the sting of, but could not. She was more satisfied, however; and when Julian arrived, she welcomed him quite graciously, and presently recounted to him all that troubled her in one long speech, gravely delivered and tactfully—a speech that demanded either answer or confession.
Julian Savage listened with his eyes on her face, reading more there than in her words, perhaps. His own features were not all impassive; but the emotion he at times exhibited was hard to classify.
When she had finished he was silent for long, and that, too, looking gravely, abstractedly on the floor, heedless of the girl's close scrutiny. So long was he still that the silence grew intense and painful. Mara could not speak another word. She tried, and could not. Oppressed, she would have welcomed the intrusion of her parents, of anyone; but none came to interrupt, and every moment she grew more nervous, more highly strung.
Perhaps her emotion was communicable. At any rate, at the moment when she felt that she could scream or faint—and she was a girl little used to either of such tricks—Julian raised his eyes and looked at her.
So tender and pitiful was his aspect that in very surprise and gratitude the girl was immediately rested and at ease. She felt as though she had toilfully climbed the side of a steep and dangerous precipice through the blinding sunlight, to find at the summit a couch of cool, soft grasses and the shade of gracious trees. An inexplicable sensation of peace crept over her; her doubts and suspicions seemed driven far away; a delicious drowsiness assailed her limbs. In truth, she was a little hypnotised; the long tension of her mind during her reflections, its intensification in the avowal of her suspicions, and subsequent nervous expectation of an answer, superadded with the sudden relief afforded by Julian's gentle glance, had combined to effect a drowning of the senses, almost sleep.
Words aroused her—earnest, passionately uttered words:
"Miss Hescombe, you have been kind to me, for you have laid completely bare your mind concerning me. How can I answer you? I shall not tell you how grieved I am at your so little faith in me that you have harboured doubts—such doubts—for what right have I to ask for faith in you? None; and yet—" he sighed, and then bent towards her earnestly—"as God hears me, that poor girl is wrong. Her lover was drowned through his own fault, not mine; her loss turned her brain, and she pursues me, poor stricken thing, although she lives upon my charity. But for me she would long ago have been confined in some asylum; but she is harmless and sensible, save in her insane hate of me, and I, who love liberty so much, would not deprive a dog of freedom if I could help it, much less her of hers, poor girl. And you thought me capable of murder!"
Mara felt herself bitterly reproached. Her doubts, her suspicions, suddenly appeared little less than crimes. Shame filled her heart. A revulsion of feeling shook her, and tears started to her eyes. She could only look at him.
"May I tell you a little of myself, Miss Hescombe? It will not detain you long."
The girl nodded.
"It seems necessary, after all that has happened in this day, otherwise I should not have spoken—not, at all events, to gratify your curiosity; but your notebook is absent now," he sneered.
"I deserve that," she whispered. "Do not speak unless you wish."
Julian stared down at the carpet.
"My father was a gentleman by birth, a naval officer by profession, a scoundrel by disposition. My mother—a barmaid. They married, God knows why. They hated each other profoundly. He disappeared; she—ah, well, I need not speak of her. I was seven years old then. I starved for months on the streets; the wonder was I lived. Then I became a thief, as you have already heard. I was sent to the training-ship the Vernon, and there they petted me because I was so young, I suppose. I tasted delightful things for the first time in my life—bread and butter, meat, soups, curries. I was a strange child, a reasoning child. I argued that as the best good of my life till then, good regular meals, had come to me by committing crime, crime, therefore, was not so bad a thing after all. Bread and butter was good, chops were good, also steak, cakes, jam, puddings; but curries—I fancy I must have inherited a taste for spices—curries were convincing." (He smiled half bitterly, half humorously as he spoke.) "After my third currie I vowed myself to the service of the devil. I determined to succeed in life through crime. I became a hypocrite. Concealing my ambition I worked hard, and obtained the good opinion of my masters. I studied; my teachers loved me. Years passed, and my ambition grew with my attainments. And then a miracle happened. A gentleman visiting the Vernon took a fancy to me, and I went to live with him. In the course of time he grew to love me as a son. For my part I worshipped him. He was kindness, goodness itself. A learned man and a scientist, he taught me all he could, and to please him I worked like a slave. I devoted myself to him to repay him for his goodness. He was rich. Knowing his regard for me, his friends appeared to forget my origin, and were my friends. He died; his friends remembered the Vernon, and cast me off. In bitterness I recalled my old ambition; but in the years I had lived with that good man I had changed for the better. I had discovered that crime was detestable for its own sake, and I could not go back. Ostracised from the society I had dwelt amidst for years, I was compelled to seek elsewhere for friends, for employment. My benefactor had left me above need, but I could not bear to be idle. I had always loved the sea, thenceforth it became my home. I qualified myself in seamanship, and became an island trader—captain of my own vessel. I might easily have sought some other part of the world, where, my origin unknown, I could perhaps succeed in another rank of life; but I was proud, I would not run away or hide. I determined to be revenged upon the society which had despised me here. With that purpose in view I have worked ardently for years, amassing means and acquiring influence among that section of the community which alone received me without contempt; that influence, hereafter, I shall use as a lever for my revenge upon my enemies. I am succeeding, I think. My ambition is not a noble one, but it is very human, at least. Such was my life until——" He paused.
The girl, who had been listening in rapt silence, urged him further.
"Until?" she questioned.
"Until I met you." His eyes were fixed on the floor.
Mara drew in her breath sharply, and waited silent.
He looked up, and their eyes met, hers questioning, a little fearful, too; his passionate, imperative.
"I love you," he said.
The girl started back as if to defend herself, all the instincts of her maidenhood aroused.
"No, no!" she cried, in manifest deep agitation.
Julian did not move.
"You see in me a man who interests you because his nature does not lie all on the surface, like common fools. I am a subject for your study, a source of inspiration perhaps. No, do not speak; it is so. Like myself, you have ambition; but where mine is on the living stage, yours lies in the field of letters."
Mara made no reply, but her eyes were downcast, and her breast was heaving. It was Julian's turn now to regard her closely, and the study must have been a pleasing one, for involuntarily he smiled.
"It agitates you to discover that I have measured accurately the reason of your interest in me. Did you think I should presume to think it had another source?"
Still no answer.
She flashed at him a glance that gave him a pause.
"What!" he cried, amazed.
Mara hid her face in her hands. "Oh, go away; go, go!" she whispered.
A strange look crossed Julian's face—a look less of exultation than of pity, less of triumph than contempt.
He arose and paced the room, frowning blackly, his lips twitching, his hands nervously clenching and unclenching themselves. Plainly he was urging himself to pursue some previously determined course which had as plainly met unlooked-for check.
At last he stood before her and glanced down.
"Good-night," he said.
A smothered sound answered him.
"You are crying," he whispered; and stooping, touched her hands.
"No, no!" said Mara, and shook herself free; then, but still hiding her face, she stretched forth one hand. "Good-night," she muttered.
Julian kissed the tips of her fingers with gentle reverence, and the second after he was gone, closing the door behind him noiselessly.
Mara sprang up, her lips parted as if to recall him, but the words died unuttered on her tongue, and she stood gazing at the door like a statue for a moment; then, with a quick, ardent gesture, she pressed her right hand to her mouth and passionately kissed the fingers that Julian's lips had touched. "Oh my dear!" she whispered, softly and tenderly. Her eyes were bright with tears, her cheeks flushed with rose, her body palpitating and quivering with emotion.
Never before had Mara Hescombe been one half so spiritual nor one half so human; the combination was a masterpiece of beauty and of passion; but, alas, there was no one by to appreciate the picture.
ALTHOUGH in a sense Julian Savage acted the part of host and guide to those who accompanied him to inspect his mine at Calla Rock, Talala, seeing that the expedition was undertaken upon his suggestion, still the party was practically an open one, and he had no right to cavil at the inclusion of any guest personally distasteful to himself.
Mara Hescombe marvelled much when, stepping out of the mail train in the early dawn at Quambi platform after a long and weary journey, Cuthbert Stone unexpectedly stepped forward from among the loungers assembled to watch the train arrive, and politely offered her assistance.
Quickly the girl turned to look for Julian, anxious to see how he would take this intrusion.
Sir Stuart and Lady Hescombe greeted Cuthbert heartily, surprised to see him there, no doubt, but evidently pleased. The poet looked a little grave as he shook hands; the expert, Mr. Salterman, was introduced to the American; but Julian lingered in the carriage with his back to the others, busily engaged apparently with some bag whose contents he explored. He only quitted the apartment when the engine whistled warningly, but his face was composed, and he nodded to Mr Stone almost genially.
"Of course," thought Mara, "he saw Cuthbert, and was angry, and then pretended to look into his bag in order to recover his temper."
As a fact, Julian Savage was most annoyed. He had been put to great pains already to smooth out all the crumples of his party. He had long been most eager to dispose of his mine, and the chance of a lifetime had presented itself before his grasp. Sir Stuart Hescombe was empowered by the Syndicate he represented to deal with and purchase for cash any property at his discretion. Having ascertained this fact, Julian had tactfully gone to work, and had already presented his mine in its most favourable aspect to the old gentleman, with the result of awakening his interest in a speculatively valuable concern.
Sir Stuart, however, was a man not easily influenced except through his affections or his friendships.
When Julian encountered Mara's opposition to his schemes he observed this fact, and noted, as an immediate result, the cooling of her father's enthusiasm. Thenceforth, Julian adopted a separate line of conduct towards Miss Hescombe. Up to that time he had passed her by indifferently, in spite of her youth, brains, and beauty, for he was by nature far from susceptible to the influences of sex. Seeing her, however, an obstacle in his path, he prepared to subdue her opposition, and his keen insight taught him the only means of accomplishing this object.
With sapient caution he first paid her gradual attentions, and later made love to her. He had not anticipated reaching her heart. It came upon him at last like a clap of thunder that the girl was inclined to take him at his word, for he was far from being earnest in his wooing. He had only calculated upon interesting her sufficiently in his personality to make her blind to his schemes, perhaps an ally in them, having long perceived the necessity of obtaining either her silence or co-operation.
Profoundly disturbed was he, then, when Mara revealed in a glance to him another and deeper interest altogether.
He had surprised the girl, whose doubts in his sincerity had departed, by leaving her on that occasion, his victory incomplete. But as he had foreseen, she had attributed to him other motives than the true reasons for his conduct.
She clothed him with a delicacy, a romantic unwillingness to take advantage of her moment of weakness. His departure, which had actually been the flight of a man unaccustomed to the heroics of love-making, and also contemptuous thereof, she had construed into a chivalrous reluctance to hasten her surrender. Since that hour he had proved himself a master of diplomacy. He had treated her with a melancholy reserve, which implied his profound appreciation of her, an avowal besides of his own unworthiness.
His object had been secured, for Mara, from a more or less affected opponent, had developed into his ardent partisan. Sir Stuart's enthusiasm had reawakened in his projects. The expert, whose opinion was to finally decide the matter, had been approached, and found to possess an itching palm. The prospects had therefore seemed all fair until now, at the eleventh hour, an avowed enemy had arisen to threaten his success—an enemy, moreover, who possessed a great influence upon Sir Stuart Hescombe, and that, too, an influence which would be hard to combat, for Sir Stuart not only regarded Cuthbert Stone's opinion on matters financial with veneration, but he notoriously considered the young man as his future son-in-law, destined one day to wed his daughter Mara.
Julian writhed under this unexpected snarl of Fate, and it required all his self-control to present a smiling forehead to the enemy; but he succeeded, and Cuthbert's assurance and vanity were both hurt by his rival's magnificent indifference. Miss Hescombe saw farther beneath the surface, but she was assisted by her intuition, perhaps by something deeper still.
Julian had engaged rooms by telegraph at the main hotel of the town, and the party, who had expected to "rough" it in a bush shanty, were pleasantly surprised to accept the comfort of excellent baths and beds. They spent the day at Quambi, rising early in the afternoon, and under Julian's guidance explored the town. It was prettily situated in a valley, hill surrounded, but the heat was terrible, the thermometer registering ninety-eight degrees.
Mara was interested in the peaceful, sleepy aspect of the place. The streets were for the most part dull and deserted. Those who walked abroad crept like snails about their business; those who rode or drove moved slumbrously from shade to shade across the sun-parched squares. Every one they met saluted them with a drowsy "Good afternoon," and stared, but their interest was half dreamful, and the girl quickly christened the place "Sleepy Hollow."
"Is every Australian country town like this?" she asked.
"In summer the country people dream their lives through. At night they sleep; they rise at dawn cheerful until the sun is up, and then they slumber through the day like a drugged swarm of bees. The business men lean on their desks or counters and smoke silently; they seldom speak. The farmers lie and drone in the shade of their verandahs or under the trees, patiently waiting for their crops, occasionally mouthing a curse against the skies if rain delays too long. The squatters sleep or take holiday in the capital. The sun is supreme, you see, and the sun in summer is full of sleep."
"But in winter?"
"As winter approaches, the people awake and are full of life. The scene is different then. Men are up and abroad. They till their lands, gather in their crops, business is brisk, they walk instead of crawl. The streets echo under the beat of ardent hoofs. The doctors, too, are abroad, for winter is the time of sickness. Disease sleeps with all else in summer time. Then there are shows, exhibitions, fetes, and gatherings—yes, winter is the best time country-wards."
"You lived in the bush very much?"
"Holidays only, but for months at a time; I know it well."
"Very much, but for the sea best of all."
"And the slums of Sydney?" queried Cuthbert, with a sardonic smile.
Julian saw that Sir Stuart, his wife, and Karl Siegbert lagged a little to examine a quaint old grey stone church; he turned to the American.
"It seems, sir, that I have acquired your enmity. Will your frankness inform me wherefore?"
Cuthbert shrugged his shoulders. "Have you heard the rhyme of Dr. Fell?"
"Often; but does that apply with you, so sane and sensible? Confess the Dido resting in my hands."
"Absurd! I have cabled orders for a finer craft."
"You are a moralist then, and disapprove me?"
"I do not understand you."
"Or a churchman, and my agnosticism offends your bigotry?"
"Talk sense, man."
"Please, gentlemen," said Mara earnestly.
"Pardon me," murmured Julian, "but I am vastly interested in this discussion; to find the cause is often to root out an evil. Mr. Stone is too capable to suspect of prejudice, and I am therefore in the dark. Would you ask him to enlighten me?"
Miss Hescombe knew, but played the hypocrite. "Please, Cuthbert, tell us," she asked.
The American's face softened on being so named before his rival.
"I hate impostors," he muttered.
"Wherein do I impose?"
"You are an adventurer, proved and self-confessed."
"Adventurer, so that offends. And yet I have means, and my father was an earl's grandson. Perhaps you hate conversing with a man who has tasted prison bread. I was but a child, Mr. Stone, and irresponsible. Would you have acted very differently? Remember, I was hungry, seven hours without a meal, and that the half of a news-boy's meagre breakfast—a crust of bread, a morsel of salt meat, tough, but ah, so serviceable. My commencement was evil, but since then I have tried to make amends. Come, sir, be frank with me, own wherein I have erred, and, on my soul, I'll remedy my fault. You owe me thus much from the gratefulness you should feel for the service to which you compel me to refer."
Cuthbert remained silent, but evidently he was moved.
Julian spoke on with a rare, frank dignity:
"I do not ask your friendship, keep that for those who please you better then myself. What I do ask seems to me a right, and yet I ask it as a favour, and I am not used to seeking favours."
"I—I——" stammered the American, but stopped.
"You doubt my honesty; speak out."
"Perhaps I may have been wrong. I did. You read my thoughts."
"A thousand thanks for the avowal. It is my misfortune, then, that I seem other than I am. You would not take my word?"
"To what effect?"
"I am honest, Mr. Stone; a fool, perhaps, but honest."
Cuthbert glanced at Mara, but the girl was staring straight before her, her face illegible.
"You are not a fool," he answered bluntly, but he was plainly driven into a corner.
Julian stopped suddenly and held forth his hand. "I offer you the choice of ways."
The men looked at one another a full half minute unflinchingly, Julian's eyes kind, but firm; Cuthbert's softening in his own despite. The American's were the first to fall.
"If you can overlook the Gardens," he muttered.
"Say no more," said Julian, "you have made me very glad," and they clasped hands with apparent warmth.
"I feel so happy that I could sing," cried Mara.
"Don't," entreated Julian. "The Quambians would never forgive you for disturbing their repose."
But Cuthbert was far from being satisfied. He had been persuaded against himself; trapped with inimitable skill into relinquishing his animosity, and in his heart he knew he was of the same opinion still. He hated Julian Savage, distrusted and despised him, but the man dominated and compelled him. He determined to wait and watch.
AN hour before sunrise a start was made on the fifty mile journey to the mine.
Cuthbert Stone found himself, to his delighted surprise, included in a large wagonette, drawn by four horses, spirited, high-stepping brutes, which contained the whole party save Julian Savage and the poet, who rode beside the vehicle mounted on a pair of dark bay thoroughbreds, Julian with a double-barrelled fowling-piece slung over his shoulder.
It is a matter of question whether this arrangement pleased Miss Hescombe so well as it did the American. As a fact she had looked forward to something else, but she suspected the plan was diplomatically conceived on Julian's part to cement friendly relations for the journey between Cuthbert and himself, and for that reason she affected to be completely satisfied.
The country over which they travelled was strangely interesting to eyes accustomed to the more romantic landscape of Europe, or the green lanes of England. A mile or two from Quambi they entered a hilly desert forested with long straight gums, and the eternal eucalyptus. Far as the eye could reach spread wastes of forest land, grey and infinitely sombre viewed from the sunless dawn. The ground was parched and sparse of either grass or moisture. The silence was supreme, unbroken even by the chattering of birds. The road stretches out before them clad with dust, a long trailing yellow serpent winding in and out among the lonely ranges. Sometimes in the distance would appear a few stray sheep or a hopeless-looking, solitary horse, standing without motion contemplatively surveying the expanse of desert solitude. From the summit of successive hills the landscape widened to the view, and beyond the plains mountains clothed in thin blue mist rose from out of the twilight, their sheer tops mingling with a sea of clouds. The air was dry and cool, but marvellously still.
The trees by the roadside drooped their leaves like the trees in painted pictures. The very dust raised by the prancing horses settled placidly upon the road again when they had passed.
An oppressive sense of her own littleness in the midst of the mighty vastness of these plains beset Miss Hescombe with a sudden loneliness, and perhaps in likewise her companions also, for after the first few miles were traversed no one sought to speak. The poet rode like a giant centaur, his face set to the east, where the sky commenced to feel the flush of dawn. Julian, a hundred yards before the carriage, was watchful and alert, his eyes keen in search of game.
Soon, without warning, the sun, a monstrous ball of red, sprang from behind a distant mountain; his rays, subdued for a little by a misty curtain, presently shone forth strong, effulgent, dazzling, fringing the hills with silver, and lighting the plains into instant glory.
Mara cried out with surprise, for hidden in the grey of the twilight, but now disclosed and shining in the sun, she beheld drawn over the earth a very carpet of golden everlasting flowers—those beautiful blooms which blossom without moisture, and are veritable sun-flowers. At night they close their petals and wreathe their heads like living things asleep, but through the day they blazon forth their yellow crowns and glorify the desert, however hot the season, however terrible the drought.
The poet was in an ecstasy. The scene enchanted him, and he drew nearer to the carriage to obtain the sympathy he knew that he would find in his delight.
"It was so splendidly unexpected," cried Mara. "These vast reaches were so sombre and uncompanionable until the sun arose, and now we are suddenly crowded with friends.''
"It is a darling welcome," said the poet, "in which we, though strangers, may share; it is the welcome of the full-breasted Goddess of Earth to Apollo the life-giver."
Lady Hescombe smiled in sympathy, but Mr. Salterman, the expert, who had witnessed many such a scene before without enthusiasm, was openly contemptuous.
"They're about the commonest flowers going, and the stiffest," he observed. "Give me daisies or dog-roses in preference any day."
"Everlasting flowers, the emblem of immortality," began the poet, but a sudden cry from the hitherto immobile coachman arrested the discussion, and looking forth they saw Julian urging his horse full gallop at the wayside fence in hot pursuit of a kangaroo. The marsupial cleared the obstruction at a bound, a big, grey-coated fellow, tall and muscular, who sprang away with long, ungainly hops across the plain. Julian's horse swerved at first, but, forced round again with an iron wrist at his bridle rein abreast of the fence, jumped over in splendid style.
The carriage stopped to watch the chase, its inmates standing for a better view.
Over logs, creeks, and gullies, with long, swift strides, Julian's thoroughbred raced, taking all obstructions in his stride, and nearing the quarry rapidly, his rider sitting with easy grace, displaying perfect horsemanship.
Suddenly Mara turned pale and gave a cry.
"He is off! My God, he is killed!" for the horse had halted and suddenly appeared riderless; but a puff of smoke, followed after two seconds by a heavy report echoing dully across the plain, told a different tale, and the kangaroo was seen that instant to topple over in his mad career and fall headlong to the ground.
"Neatly shot," remarked the driver, with critical laudation. "Jem Scott couldn't have done it better."
He whipped up his horses without troubling to ask permission of his passengers, and the consequence was nearly an accident. Sir Stuart and Lady Hescombe, who had been most ardent spectators of the chase, staggered, and were only saved from falling by Cuthbert Stone, who had maintained a firm hold of the carriage side.
Mara, who had previously seated herself, was glad of the opportunity to hide the confusion occasioned by her recent causeless emotion, and in the laughter and exclamations that ensued, she played a part not too hysterical, a matter of credit to her powers of dissembling, considering that she had been deeply moved.
A short half-hour afterwards, Julian overtook the carriage, and deposited in the boot the trophy he bore slung across his saddle.
"We shall have 'roo tail soup for to-night's dinner," he remarked; "a bush delicacy which the town cannot provide."
Immediately thereafter he rode forward at a gallop, waving his hand to the party, and disappearing round the bend of the road was seen no more for some hours.
Speculation ran current concerning his vanishment, even the poet was at a loss to account for this sudden humour of his friend, but at noon the reason was made patent.
Under the shade of a clump of currajongs near by the roadside, whose thick wealth of foliage cast deep, grateful shadows on the ground—inviting havens of rest for the now weary travellers—they came upon Julian and another man, a stranger, busily at work.
Julian's horse was tethered at some distance; farther on a cart, perhaps pertaining to the stranger, with an equine skeleton sleeping in its shafts, stood idly, peacefully still. Upon the grass was spread a damask table cover, and around it rugs and cushions in profusion. Then a litter of good things, amongst which nothing seemed to be forgotten.
Meats, pasties, poultry, wild duck, brush turkey, wonga pigeons, fruits manifold, and wines: Tokay, claret, Chablis, and champagne. The seats were regularly partitioned off with cards inscribed.
Miss Hescombe found herself placed between the poet and Cuthbert Stone. Julian reserved the head of the improvised table for himself, with Lady Hescombe at his right, and Sir Stuart on his left hand. Salterman sat at the far end upon an inverted box, lately full of soda-water bottles. Julian had handed his guests to their places with much affected ceremoniousness. Each one found a delightful little trifle pinned to the cloth. The ladies, a box containing an exquisite bouquet of roses—to Lady Hescombe damask blooms, to Mara half-open buds, fresh as if that moment from the garden. The gentlemen discovered treasures of cigars enclosed in thin glass tubes hermetically sealed.
"A dinner-party with cotillion presents," was the unanimous decision; and all were vastly pleased but Cuthbert, who looked frowningly upon Miss Hescombe's pretty buds; the gift was too significant, he thought, and Mara too openly enamoured of the compliment so subtly paid her. Thus may a simple courtesy and its acknowledgment distort the jealous eyes of love.
In spite of that, however, and the heat—no paltry factor to reckon with—the feast ran merrily along as ever picnic did since al fresco dining lost its quality of savage need, and later introduced itself to titivate the jaded palates of civilised communities. Even the ladies discovered appetites, and did full justice to the meal, their kind hearts first satisfied by seeing that their host was all-providing, the servants having a separate table of their own at no great distance.
Conversation was diverse and disjointed, but its course possessed no gaps.
Sir Stuart descanted on the future possibilities of a country whose large scope and vastness his recent journeyings had brought home to him.
Cuthbert Stone discoursed of politics, dipping his fingers into the trough of Australian dough, as every foreigner is fain to do, and kneading, for the benefit of a thankless audience, figures of native politicians as they appeared to him, naked and hideous.
Lady Hescombe, an ardent botanist, talked of flowers, and kept entreating the party by turns to assist her in her search for specimens.
Salterman argued hotly with Cuthbert Stone. Siegbert, helping himself to large draughts of Veuve, grew quite loquacious, and hugely enthusiastic over both the expedition and his host.
Miss Hescombe drew Julian into, of all subjects in the desert, a discussion upon books, he fulfilling the general duty of attentive host and audience combined to all, and admirably be it confessed, disagreed with her upon a certain author's merits between the seconds of his leisure.
But the girl was interested and demanded more, and so successfully that presently she had an audience of four to jibe at her opponent.
She required a list of his objections.
He detailed them with laconic brevity. First, the writer was evidently a woman, although writing under the cover of masculine designation; a purely personal objection which Mara scorned. Second and last, the novelist suffered from ideas.
"Just Heaven, is that a fault? If you had said a lack!"
"I had disclosed a crime in place of fault."
"I lose you."
"Then to explain, 'Martin Haze,' as this woman styles herself, has forty thousand original ideas on forty thousand different subjects."
"You paint her full of virtue yet."
"Young lady, please do not interrupt; these ideas are all very well, except that she reveals them."
"What can you mean?"
"Don't you see, she has an idea on politics: a situation is devised to proclaim her epigram; another on dress, a like proceeding. She has her own opinion on religion: an unoffending person is introduced to be a victim thereof at the hands of the hero, an impossible person unrelieved by the smallest physical failing, even a squint. She detects foibles in society: a number of hopelessly irrelevant scenes depict her discoveries. She hates certain national proclivities of the French: a miserable frog-eater who has nothing to do with the plot strays through the chapters, and is mercilessly compelled to exhibit in condensed essence all his countrymen's depravity. She has evidently travelled in China: her poor hero is packed off, at a moment's notice, on a wild-goose chase to the Flowery Land in order to voice a fragment of intelligence. She has no large confidence in her own sex's constancy: her heroine suffers accordingly, and flirts with a crowd of irrelevant outsiders, although anyone can see with half an eye that her marriage is already arranged with the heroic demi-god who poses as a man. Next——"
"Oh, please, that is enough!"
Julian, had he cared, might easily have discerned a veiled something in the involuntarily smiling faces of his guests before his criticism was half concluded, but he did not heed, and the girl's voice, tinged with entreaty, perhaps with defiance, alone arrested him; then, however, he looked and noted, smiled, and hesitated.
"Surely," he said "you——"
"I am 'Martin Haze.'"
The others broke into open laughter
"How do you feel?" asked the poet whimsically. "I have tried these seconds past to catch your eye."
"At last I have obtained an honest criticism," exclaimed Mara, with a brave attempt to conceal her mortification. "Thank you, Mr. Savage, exceedingly; you have proved your case."
He bowed gravely, and immediately changed the conversation, without in any way attempting to excuse his denunciation or palliate with any tardy compliment his hostile aspect of the work. It was well; a reputation for sincerity thenceforward distinguished him in the minds of all present.
From the currajongs, the road left the last of the table-lands, and climbed the breast of hills, gradually rising taller and more tall.
The rest of the journey was unpleasant, for the cattle were forced to toil ever upwards under a blazing glare, and the labour of the great-hearted creatures was not a grateful thing for sensitive eyes to watch. Then two mountains all around them shut in the view, and only here and there on the crest of some outlying jagged spur the eye could be relieved for a moment by a magnificent landscape of rolling mounds and endless plains stretching far beneath, or the cool sparkle of a distant river shining like a quicksilver snake in the hot sunbeams.
At four o'clock in the afternoon they reached the edge of a little plateau, but a few miles in extent and almost level. There they beheld a little scattered village of wooden houses, each one perched and dumped down without thought of plan or order, a village with but one street, and that rocky and overgrown with weeds.
"Behold our destination," cried Julian; "yon is Talala!"
The visitors, staring with all their eyes, presently were requested to alight before a long, low-roofed cottage, surrounded by a wide verandah. It was perched beside the road and under the shade of a huge willow tree, which was evidently fed by the waters of a pond that sparkled through the railings of a panel fence beside the cottage.
Above the deserted verandah was fastened a legend writ on tin: "Licensed to retail spiritual and fermented liquors.—JOHN SCHOFIELD."
Mara noticed the signboard at once with an air of triumph.
"That sign is an irresistible attraction to all travellers; it has made Schofield's fortune, and is the lasting despair of Jacobs, the rival innkeeper across the way."
Mara pouted, but Julian put his hands like a trumpet before his mouth.
"John, John!" he called, and presently a sprightly old lady came tripping out from some inner room, whose darkness looked invitingly cool through the open doorway.
"Well, I'm blessed," she cried, "it's you! I expected you last night, Mr. Savage."
"Why, John, you see I have lady guests who are unused to roads and sun; that's why we're late. Can you put us all up?"
"John!" echoed Mara.
The old lady bridled.
"Put you up? of course I can. Didn't I get your telegram. Come along Mrs. and Miss; females first is good manners, I guess, all the world over; you men can wait or go in the bar, and have a nip if you want one. I'll trust you with the key, Mr. Savage. You can keep the tally on the slate. Your bottle is on the third shelf, behind the glass ball. Come on!"
And without further ceremony the ladies were carried away under the wing of the motherly old woman, leaving the men to their own devices.
Sir Stuart was delighted with the place and their quaint reception, but a little fearful of essaying the quality of the liquor. But Julian reassured him.
"It's hard to get better stuff in Sydney. This is Schofield's," he said.
JULIAN SAVAGE did not belong to that "sleek-headed" class who sleep o' nights; rather the nervous, agile-brained variety, who find completest rest in employment, and in their deepest slumbers dream. He retired for the night at the same hour as the rest of his party, but not for rest. Not even his soft bed, with its exquisite lavender-scented linen, could tempt him to repose. Lighting a cigar, for an hour he amused himself with reflections, then he looked at his watch and nodded.
"Come in," he said.
No one had asked admittance by even the faintest of taps, but the door opened, and there entered the hostess of the inn.
Julian arose politely, and offered his own chair, which the old woman accepted, after first carefully locking the door.
The ceremony contained a semblance of conspiracy; also the appearance of the dame, gleaming-eyed and business-like, her noteworthy motherly appearance gone. Her face exhibited many traces of former beauty—a straight and well-shaped nose, the only remaining relic unmarred by age; but her eyes, in spit of the dry and wrinkled skin, were still large and piercing, the chin still firm and strong.
"Well?" she said, a very certain demand intoned.
Julian, seated opposite, clasped his knees, and leaning back, regarded her with unadmiring eyes.
"You looked better this afternoon," he murmured.
"None of your sarcasm with me."
"Mother, mother, what a hypocrite you are!"
"You are not, of course. Titled people, rich, I suppose, and the girl head over ears in love with you. What's your game? out with it."
"Ah, and the girl!"
"My sweet mother, the girl is nothing to me."
"You are lying, of course."
"Whenever did I make a fool of myself over a woman? Shall I commence now?"
"You might do worse, if she has money."
"A paltry few hundreds. The father's property is entailed, and goes with the title to some distant cousin. He is, however, director of an English Syndicate, and will buy my mine."
"And where do I come in?"
"S'sh, my sweet mother, what if Papa Schofield should hear you? These walls are thin."
"Five hundred pounds."
"Come, come, don't be a Jew; it's to your poor old mother, boy."
"Five hundred pounds!"
"And all the trouble I have taken. I've put a hundred pounds' worth of specimens in each shaft!"
"And the boys have watched the place night and day. I'll have to pay them."
Julian's face was cold as stone—as firm, as hard.
"Five hundred pounds."
The old woman's eyes flashed angrily.
"A thousand, or I'll blow on the whole show."
"Do, and I shall immediately introduce myself in my proper colours to your beloved marital connection."
The old woman commenced to cry softly to herself.
"You were always that hard and cold. Just like your father; just like your father."
Julian, rising, opened the door, and pushed her gently but firmly out of the room.
"Good-night," he said, and passing swiftly down the passage, he went out into the dark, energetically breathing as he walked deep draughts of the keen mountain air, as if to purify his lungs from contact with a vicious atmosphere within.
The night was moonless, but the sky replete with stars, the general gloom of that opacity to which the sight might not easily grow accustomed. The white painted cottages of the miners loomed like great ghosts from the shade. Camp fires sparkled like witch-lights from the heights of inaccessible hills around. The whole scene was mysterious and unapproachable in its loneliness, its selfish silence, and gross, unthinking sleep.
So thought Julian as he stumbled on along the stony plateau, taking a direction which he knew would lead him to running water at the last. Sailors on land invariably turn to rivers for companionship. Julian was compelled to put up with a mountain creek—a thin stream murmuring slumberous and low amid a waste of granite rocks and tumbled mullock heaps; in daylight dreary and miserable sight to the last degree, but now touched with the infinite kindness of night into a romantic seeming.
He climbed to a long and narrow pinnacle of rock and looked downwards, searching for the familiar reflection of the stream. It was dull, as if the flood was thick with slime, a probable enough conclusion considering its uses.
Julian was disturbed, angry, and distrait, as only an interview with his mother could make him.
He gave vent to his thoughts aloud, an uncanny custom.
"If only a man could have allotted to him the mother of his dreams—virtuous, wise, and tender—what might he not become?"
He was answered by a sigh, evidently uttered by a human being.
His heart in his mouth, he looked around to find, standing on the rocks a yard or two away, a figure he had taken in the gloom for stone. This figure was between him and the ravine, and could not pass without solemn risk of fall. It sighed again.
"Who goes there?" Julian demanded, finding voice.
"I, Mr. Savage."
"You, Miss Hescombe. I thought you long a-bed. Why are you here?"
"Your voice is angry; did I startle you?"
"In truth you did, my heart still beats my ribs. But what prank is this; you might be missed, and cause your parents grave anxiety. Shall I escort you back to the hotel?"
"No, thank you," haughtily.
"But your parents? Supposing you were missed and searched for—you would be found with me—what would they or Mr. Sto—or the others think?"
"You need not be found with me, I shall go elsewhere. Let me pass!"
"You are offended, why?"
"Your anxiety is over-keen."
"'Tis for you."
"Or Mr. Stone?"
"What can you mean?"
"You are very interested in his good will——"
"No; let me pass."
He folded his arms.
"Then so I shall. I was thinking of you before you came, and I decided that you are a hypocrite."
"I thank you—and——"
"I now know you for a liar."
"Hard words, Miss Hescombe."
"I have harder still in store if you wish to hear them."
"Proceed, I beg."
"Mr. Stone's word that last. Have you discussed the matter with him?"
"Please let me pass."
"Coward again; I cannot force you. Oh, if I were a man!"
"Softly, Miss Hescombe, you are on the verge of tears; a thousand pities to weep now and spoil your choice expression."
"Excellent indignation, your voice is most impressive. Are you too angry to play the listener for a moment?"
"You can compel me to."
"Not I," said Julian. "You may go," and stepped aside.
The girl took a quick step forward, passed him, hesitated, and looked back. Julian was standing with downcast head above her now, his face in silhouette against the sky.
"What have you to say?" she asked.
He looked at her dejectedly.
"Nothing, on thought; perhaps I am what you say. Farewell, and God be with you!"
"So much art is not possible in any man," thought Miss Hescombe; aloud she said imperiously, "I am waiting; speak!"
Julian risked his all on a touch.
"You have taught me the folly of my thoughts; I shall not speak," he answered, and walking to the far end of the rock, seated himself upon the stone.
Mara Hescombe stopped in doubt, a little overcome. Her suspicions had been transformed by temper into certainties on one half-uttered word of Julian's; temper departing, those same certainties appeared very meagre things. Pride rebelled against the humiliation of apology, but pride is powerless to restrain a woman's tears, that woman over-wrought.
She turned up the hill-side sobbing bitterly, but Julian easily overtook her.
"Listen to me," he said. "You have called me a 'hypocrite, liar, adventurer, coward.' So I am, all you say and more. I shall tell you your reasons for thinking me so, then my own. You think me an adventurer because I have offered your father for sale a mine, a hypocrite because you imagine that to secure your assistance I have made love to you, a liar because you disbelieve in my love, a coward because I have calmly suffered Cuthbert Stone's repeated insolence. Am I right?"
The girl answered with a sob, her face hidden in her hands.
"Now, my reasons for agreeing with the description you have given me. When I met you first I was a man filled but with one ambition, an ambition which did not include dalliance with women. I am no carpet-knight. You came into my life when I wanted least of all such interruption. I was rude to you, boorish to you intentionally, for your eyes took hold of me, and I was trying to withstand their influence. Later, I met you and I fell in love with you, madly, passionately in love. That night at the theatre, in Vane's box—no, do not interrupt. I am speaking truth. It happened then. I went home and cursed myself and you. My God, how I hated you for coming! I was free before, and loved my freedom; but you—well, well. I held myself in; you did not dream of it. You grew interested, studying me—ah, Vane hinted at that. I should have left you for very pride's sake, but I could not. I found I had to see you daily, hourly, if I could. I wanted an excuse, and found—a mine, thus am I adventurer; do you understand?"
The girl's sobs ceased, and she listened with parted lips.
"Blessed mine," continued Julian, "it gave me an added sight of you. You continued to study me. That maddened me, and in your presence, knowing your reasons, I was cold. Then you commenced to oppose my mine, and I thought I knew the reason. Presumption, blind, extravagant, I know; but I thought you had begun to love, and strove to hide it thus; fool that I was! Your opposition was delightful, it gave me opportunity to woo you; was that hypocrisy? Then came that hour in the Gardens, and Stone's denouncement of my past. I suffered it at length to prove to you by my little triumph at the end I was not all the cad he thought; but all the while I swore revenge, a brutal man's revenge; that was my cowardice! That same night I told you of my love, and—on my knees, I ask your pardon—I thought your glance was kind. I was mistaken, as I know now so bitterly, but my mistake opened heaven to me. I dreamed, and dared not speak to you again lest my vision be dispelled; only, in my happiness I could not bear to have a cloud, and so I sought every man's good-will, even Cuthbert Stone's, hating him the while. Therein I was a liar and a hypocrite! Our methods of reasoning are different, Miss Hescombe, but our conclusions are the same. Shall I escort you now to the hotel?"
Mara did not heed his last suggestion; she had come very close to him and was gazing through the darkness, seeking his face with eyes hot and dazed with tears.
"Julian," she muttered, and lifted up her hands.
The man for the first time in his life took a woman in his arms, and the contact so insolently thrilled his nerves that straightway he trembled in every limb like one taken with the palsy, and his emotion, communicated to the girl, conveyed to her mind the last and most absolute conviction of his devotion. The embrace was awkward and clinging, but momentary; they kissed, but parted instantly, the girl a little frightened, but happy, fervently happy; the man on fire with passion, but his brain clear and quivering with a sudden fear of himself and of the woman who had stirred him.
They marched guiltily to the hotel, still apart and glancing at each other furtively, wondering how in a single instant each had marvellously changed. They said good-night with faces averted and hands that were loth to part.
Julian was timid as the girl, if not more so, and his lips burned queerly from her kiss. He crept to his room, to find his mother waiting there.
"Ah!" she sneered, "what about the girl now, you liar, ay? Better make it a thousand, Julian."
Julian threatened her a moment with his hand, but restraining himself, turned sharply and hurried back again into the night.
"MR. SALTERMAN, may I speak with you privately a moment?"
"Certainly, Mr. Stone. What can I do for you?"
"Walk with me a little first. Ah, good morning, Mr. Savage. You slept well, I hope?"
"Excellently, I thank you."
Julian passed them with a careless nod on his way to the telegraph office.
Cuthbert turned, and hooking arms with the expert, strolled in the opposite direction.
"You are to inspect this—er—mine of Savage's to-day, I believe?"
Salterman glanced inquiringly at his companion. "Mr. Savage informs me he will not be prepared to-day. The shafts are under water, and need pumping first. He has put on two shifts of men to bale her out with buckets and a hand-pump."
"Ah! may I ask your present opinion of the property?"
"I have not seen it; but past reports and its local reputation point to it as an excellent investment."
"Then why does Savage want to sell it?"
"It needs more capital to properly develop it than he can now afford—expensive machinery and so forth."
Mr. Stone stopped and faced the expert with a look of meaning.
"I am anxious," he said, "to prevent Sir Stuart Hescombe from being led into purchasing this mine. I have my own opinion as to its merits as an investment, and as he is my life-long friend, I would be inclined to spend a few pounds to keep him from burning his fingers."
"My dear sir—my dear sir——"
"Excuse me, Mr. Salterman, by the expression, 'a few pounds,' I do not limit myself to any particular amount. Now, Sir Stuart is pledged to abide by your decision, your reputation for expertness and honesty being well known—world-wide, in fact."
"You are very flattering."
"Therefore, if you should give a qualified report on the merits of this bonanza—no man can see into the ground, Mr. Salterman—a lukewarm report—a report with a 'but' at its tail—you understand?"
"Mr. Stone, you mistake me. I am an honest man."
"Did I infer anything else? If so, I apologise—I retract. I humbly beg your pardon."
"Granted. You were saying——"
"I forget what I was saying; but I meant, and mean, that my cheque for £500 is waiting for you if your report decides Sir Stuart not to purchase the 'Brown Snake' mine."
Mr. Salterman glanced over his shoulder. No one was in sight, except a few scattered gold-diggers, clad in muddy moleskins, tramping from the village towards their claims.
"Five hundred pounds," he said.
"No one can see into the ground, Mr. Salterman."
"True, quite true."
"Most mining experts are foolishly inclined to optimism. The best of all are pessimists. They make the fewest errors."
"What you say is incontrovertible."
"It seems to me that an exorbitant price is asked for this mine—fifty thousand pounds."
"It is a large sum, Mr. Stone."
"Considering that no man can see into the ground, Mr. Salterman, it is."
"I will think over what you have said."
"Pardon me, I require an answer now."
"I should prefer to wait until I have seen the mine."
Mr. Stone smiled inscrutably. "I cannot wait."
"This five hundred pounds?"
"Will be paid to you immediately your report is furnished."
"Very well, sir, you will be satisfied."
"Mind, do not condemn it utterly! Damn it with faint praise, you understand. I wish no comments."
"Sir, I am your very humble servant."
Mr. Stone drew from his pocket-book an envelope.
"There is a hundred on account," he said; "and now good morning. It will be better that we be seen as little as possible together."
"Au revoir, Mr. Stone."
Julian Savage met Karl Siegbert on his return to the hotel. The poet, who supported a sweet tooth, was sipping lemonade through a straw, seated in a little parlour.
"Good morning, my friend," he said, with some asperity. "You are up early—very early, considering——" he paused meaningly.
"Considering what?" demanded the other.
"Your nocturnal wanderings."
Julian smiled. "What did you see, Karl?"
"Sit down here beside me, ach, so now," and he lowered his voice to a whisper; "I may speak without our being overheard."
"Speak German," shrugged Julian, "if you are nervous."
The poet took him at his word.
"I was walking late last night, as is my custom before sleeping; I saw you with my little Mara. What means that?"
Julian placed his hand upon the other's shoulder caressingly.
"Good father Karl, you make me anticipate that which I had already intended to confide in you. Your little Mara does me the infinite honour of pretending that she loves me. Does it displease you?"
The poet gravely shook his head, pondering, wondering.
"Ach!" he said at last, his head sunk upon his chest, "the little one, the poor little one!"
"So you pity her."
Siegbert's eyes roved until they met Julian's glance bent whimsically upon him. He slapped his fist upon the table, making the table dance.
"No, I envy her," he said.
Julian was puzzled.
"You will now not want the old Siegbert; you boy, ach, go to your sweetheart. See you she is up and about. She waits for you."
He pointed through the doorway to Miss Hescombe, a dainty figure in spotless muslin, strolling carelessly upon the grass.
Julian patted the poet's shoulder kindly, as a boy would pat the coat of a great tame bear.
"You talk nonsense," he cried cheerily. "Let us go out and speak with her together."
"Wait," said the poet, "I have other things to say to you."
"Be quick, then."
"Ach, these lovers! It is about last night. Many people could not sleep last night."
"You mean something, Karl; was there another owl abroad besides yourself?"
"Ho, ho! Yes. Be wary, Julian—Cuthbert Stone!"
Julian frowned. "The spy," he muttered.
"And so you gentlemen have commenced your Bacchic revels thus early in the day. Poet, I blush for you. Mr. Savage, I put you on your trial. Why, it wants an hour to breakfast!"
Mara, standing in the doorway, illumined the room with the reflections from her gown. Julian bent and kissed her outstretched hand.
"Fair judge, I plead 'Not guilty,' and beg leave besides to tender Queen's evidence. I have tasted nothing, but Karl Siegbert here indulges in deep draughts of——"
"Lemonade," interrupted the poet. "I go to do a penance in my chamber." He passed out, awkwardly desirous of doing the lovers service.
"Let us walk a while; I have news," said Julian, and together they strolled away, unconsciously following the direction of their ramble of the previous night.
"What a glorious morning, but how sad the landscape is," exclaimed the girl.
For miles around could be seen nothing but a treeless waste of mullock heaps, extending even to the hills, monuments that did not need entablature to tell of worked-out claims, broken fortunes, or shattered hopes. The landscape was indeed sad.
They walked without further speech down to the edge of the stream and to a certain narrow rock. Julian was stricken with an extraordinary fit of shyness; he was conscious of vague pleasure in this companionship a deux, but he found himself afraid to look at Mara, unable to meet her eyes.
"What is your news?" she asked.
He looked down at the sluggish current nervously. "We were observed," he muttered.
"Last night? By whom?"
"The poet and—" he hesitated—"Cuthbert Stone."
"Ah! then mother will soon hear of it, for Cuthbert tells her everything. We must speak first."
"Stone is in love with you, Miss Hescombe."
Julian found something suddenly unpleasant in the flavour of this thought.
"Is he, Mr. Savage?"
Their eyes met, and Julian's face flushed warmly under the bronze of his skin. He had all the feelings of a girl surprised in her first love, and yet his sex demanded that he should take the initiative.
"May I call you Mara?"
There was something so peculiarly modest and self-doubting in his question that it charmed the girl.
"Yes," she answered simply.
"Do you know," he said, in his direct fashion, "I feel a little afraid of you this morning."
"Am I so very terrible?"
"You are a darling, and——"
"What else, after so pretty a commencement?" Miss Hescombe was not shy at all.
"I should like to"—he hesitated, then blurted out—"to kiss you," and blushed frantically, half with terror at his daring, half in shame at his terror.
Mara laughed and blushed a little too; this style of wooing pleased her with its freshness. She was a connoisseur in styles.
"What makes the water of this creek so very yellow?" she asked irrelevantly; "is it gold?"
"No, but the miners washing for gold, disturb the bed, which contains much yellow mud. You can wash a pan of dirt, however, almost anywhere along the edges and it will show signs of gold."
"Really? I must see it closer, later you may show me how, and I shall try my luck."
She tripped from her standpoint down the steep sides of the ravine, agile as a fawn and far more graceful, Julian thought, as he followed her more slowly. He never admired full-breasted women before, but somehow he overlooked this objection in Mara. She was largely fashioned, but the curves of her figure were tender to the eye, and all desirable.
A recurrence of his shyness came over him as he stood beside her on the slippery footing at the bottom, occasioned, perhaps, by the fact that they were shut in together completely from the prying outer world. Mingled, however, in his fear was a new, and, to him, extraordinary feeling now at birth in his breast, the dawning spirit of desire. This combated his shyness and completed his disorder.
Mara did not speak, only stood beside him gazing into the stream, apparently placid as the depthless skies above.
Julian glanced at her furtively, wondering at her stillness and even now at his own emotion. He thought of the embrace she had permitted the night before, but she seemed unapproachable now, miles beyond him, although, in fact, so physically near that by stretching forth his hand he could almost touch her. The memory of her kiss and of the contact of her soft body fired his brain; but an unaccountable chill was master of his impulse and kept his hands rigid at his sides.
He called himself a fool. "She is only a woman," his thoughts informed him; but he started, for his fancy tricked him that someone had sacrilegiously shouted his thoughts aloud. Involuntarily he sighed, and the girl turned to him, her eyes luminous with love.
With a speechless cry he held open his arms, and slowly she came to him in gracious confidence, in tender self-surrender.
"I love you, Julian Savage," she said; "I shall love you for ever and ever." And then the fulness of her sacrifice revealed to her by his eager grasp, the trembling of his frame, her woman's heart rebelled. She broke away from him, and stood apart flushed and tremulous.
"What have I done?" cried Julian.
But she went to him again and put her arms about him, saying brokenly:
"Oh, my dear, be good to me; I love you so."
Julian was strangely moved. From depths of his nature before this unsounded, unsuspected, he felt a warm chivalric impulse rise. He clasped the girl closely to his breast, and looked forth defiantly at the rocks and mullock heaps as if he were defending his sweetheart from encircling foes.
There is an essence of humour in all things earthly, even passion; that look, that gesture, in presence of the rocks, the silent gully, the dirty, sluggish stream, were entirely laughable; but neither Mara nor Julian thought them so. The man raised the girl's face, his hand beneath her chin, and kissed her with an ardour, an unfortunate suddenness, that plainly spoke his ignorance of kissing. Then the girl sprang like a sprite up the sharp incline, and would have hurried off but for a summons.
"Well?" He had reached her then.
"We must not tell your parents yet."
"That unfortunate mine, dear; I would rather your father did not know until he has decided to purchase it or not. You see, he might consider himself unnecessarily urged to comply with my wishes on your account, and I prefer that he should have a free hand."
"Are you serious, Julian?"
The girl rippled with laughter. "You are truly a conceited man."
"Does that follow?"
"Father is most likely to be quite against us, you silly boy. Why, you are a mere nobody, and he thinks a duke would not be good enough for me. Besides, he has long ago made up his mind that I shall marry Cuthbert Stone."
"But Stone is not a duke."
"Don't sneer, sir; he is a millionaire, and mothers second cousin, twice removed or something, besides."
"Are you quite sure?"
"Well, it's in Debrett."
"No, but about your father; will he refuse me, do you think?"
Julian looked very grave, but the girl flashed at him a glance full of tenderness.
"Do not be afraid," she murmured; "I am my own mistress, and particularly in this matter! I shall please myself."
"Under the circumstances, I still think we had better tell your parents nothing yet."
"But Cuthbert will tell mother about last night; she will ask me to explain."
"Don't give her an opportunity. You see, dear, they are my guests. If they know and disapprove me, it will make things quite unpleasant. Besides——" he muttered and hesitated.
The girl was unconvinced.
"They ought to know," she said.
"Darling Mara, I can't bear to think of risking any portion of our happiness, it is so new, so splendid. Let us be silent till this trip is over, and then I shall go to your father the moment we arrive in Sydney and tell him everything."
"After he has signed the contract for the purchase of 'Brown Snake,'" he added to himself; but Mara, being no thought-reader, was quite satisfied, and with a tender smile agreed.
"WHAT a very pretty girl!"
"Carrying those dishes. Wait until she returns."
"Did you sleep well, mother?"
"Like the dead; my bed was perfect and the room nattiness itself. This is indeed a charming little inn."
"Ju—Mr. Savage says that it changes only on Saturdays; then the miners come and spend their earnings of the week in drink."
"What a pity that is! I did not think miners were such improvident creatures; but look at this girl now."
A quietly-dressed young woman at that moment crossed the threshold, carrying an empty tray; they could only see her side face, but her profile was remarkably attractive.
"She reminds me of some one; who is it?"
"Yes, her face is familiar; who can it be that she resembles?"
"I have it, mother—Mr. Savage!"
"No, surely not!"
"Yes, the nose and chin are identical. I wish she would pass again."
As if in answer the girl returned with an armful of dishes, going to the breakfast room. She looked in as she passed the door, and nodded a bright good morning. Her full face was extremely pretty, but the resemblance to Julian only extended to her profile.
"You were mistaken, dear," said Lady Hescombe. "By-the-bye, Mara, you were not very kind to poor Cuthbert yesterday. When are you going to relieve his anxiety and say 'Yes'?"
"Never, mother. I have already refused him."
"My pet, you are very positive. Your father has set his heart upon it, Mara."
"What about my mother?"
"You could please me, too."
"Dear old mater, I would please you both if I could, but I cannot in this. I shall only marry the man I love."
"You say that meaningly." She placed her hand tenderly upon the girl's breast. "Is it still there, and your own, dearie?"
Mara flushed, and her eyes were soft and far away. She did not answer.
"May I not know?"
"You before any, dear."
"Then tell me."
"Who is it, Mara?"
"Kiss me, mother."
The old lady took the girl's head upon her breast, and fondled it, with a pretty gesture full of affection.
"Whisper me, pet."
"Julian Savage, mother."
"Ah!" Her voice was very sorrowful.
"You are displeased?"
"I am sad for your sake, dear; there are so many things to prevent. He has not spoken?"
"No." The lie was difficult and full of pain.
"I do not think he will, dear; he seems an honourable man, and he is under disabilities."
"Do you mean his past, mother?"
"His past?" echoed the old lady, in surprise.
"Yes, about the Vernon, and so forth."
"My dear, who told you that?"
"Mr. Savage himself."
"And you—oh, Mara! what are you saying? what are you thinking of?"
"I am not a child!" cried the girl.
"How could he be responsible, a baby of seven? Think, dear, he was starving, and remember his life is different now. Do you know a more courtly gentleman? But leave that aside; show me a better man, a braver, or a kinder."
"Mother, your affection for Cuthbert blinds you to the merits of any other man."
"I am older than you."
"And wiser, dear; but, mother darling, I love him."
"Sooner or later you will regret. His unfortunate past would always be thrown in his face and yours. Think, Mara. You are a woman, and know what these things mean to a woman. What will your friends say? Oh, dear, I tremble for you in the future. Why did we ever come to this Australia!"
The girl rose and closed the door, then slipped on her knees and clasped her mother with her arms.
"Mummy, pet, I love him so; I want you on my side."
"Your friends will drop you; you will lose caste. A woman rejected by the society to which she of right belongs is never happy. Oh, my dear, you make me very miserable."
"Mummy, kiss me, or I shall cry."
The old lady did as she was bid, and kissed her daughter fondly.
"Say you will be on my side, mummy."
"Always, dear; but what will your father say? I must go to him now."
"Oh no, dear, you must not tell him yet; not till Julian speaks. I would die of shame."
"You want me to deceive him, Mara?"
"Not deceive, dear; only not tell him yet, please, mummy."
"There, there, then, don't cry, pet; your old mother loves you."
"And, mummy, be—kind—to—him."
Lady Hescombe sighed. "I will do my best," then muttered beneath her breath, "Poor Cuthbert."
Mara sprang to her feet, her eyes dancing with delight.
"You dear old darling," she cried, "now I am happy as a queen!"
Three days passed slumbrously at the little inn with scarce an incident. Julian was constantly absent at his mine superintending the operations necessary before an inspection could be effected. Sir Stuart and the poet generally accompanied him, being vastly interested in work which was entirely new to them.
Mrs. Schofield, in the meanwhile, waited upon her guests with the most assiduous attention, amusing them with her quaint humour, and the very thorough generalship she displayed in ordering her household. Her husband was an elderly working miner, a tall and muscular animal of a man, absent throughout the day at his claim, in the evenings too thoroughly tired to do aught else but sleep. Mrs. Schofield, whom everyone called "John," had therefore complete control of the inn, and she managed it with a wholehearted pleasure in the business, and an equally evident profit. Travellers were numerous, and all treated her with a friendly condescension which she returned with magnificent motherliness. She had several daughters who played the part of maidservants, and under their mother's constant supervision worked like veritable slaves.
Mara struck up quite a friendship with one of these girls—the pretty one who had interested her from her resemblance to Julian Savage. She found her docile, sweet-tempered, and obliging in the extreme.
Cuthbert Stone treated himself to as much of Mara's society as he could obtain, but Miss Hescombe rather avoided him, and although Lady Hescombe did her best to make up for her daughter's neglect, he passed a not too happy time.
Long walks were instituted, hills were climbed from whose summits magnificent views were obtained, not properly, however, appreciated, for the interest of all seemed to be centred around the host of the party, and during his absence every one was dull.
During those two days, Mara saw but little of Julian, and tete-a-tetes were rendered impossible between them by the unceasing vigilance of Mr. Stone, who had apparently made up his mind to prevent the recurrence of such an interview. He was everywhere. Did the lovers rise early, Cuthbert was before them. Did they arrange a meeting in the evening, Cuthbert would be found lounging by the door of the hotel, and persistently he joined them.
Julian smiled, and put up with the infliction very philosophically; but Mara, who wished an opportunity to inform her lover, at length, of her mother's acquiescence in her affair, was secretly both annoyed and disturbed. With the passing of time her affection for Julian grew, and she found her chief pleasure in his society. With him, even in the presence of others, she was at rest and satisfied; apart, either dull and bored or the victim of feverish gaiety and restlessness.
Julian, on his part, was far too busy during the day to give but a casual thought to his sweetheart. At night, alone with his reflections, he thought of her too much for repose. She impressed, disturbed, or enraptured him by turns. Sometimes he passionately wished to repeat past experiences, to feel again the throbbing softness pressed close to him, to again taste the fragrance of her breath in the sharp rapture of her kiss. At such times he would start up, on the verge of issuing forth to the banks of the stream, where he had first tasted the delights that stirred his memory; but the fear of finding her awaiting him by chance restrained him. Why, he could not tell. He wanted her; again, he did not want her. He was not sure of himself. Hitherto he had been the master of his own soul. An outside influence threatened to dispute his captaincy, and all the pride of the man rebelled. He knew nothing of love from experience, only what he had read in books, and such love he both laughed at and despised. And yet when he thought of Mara his nerves thrilled, his pulses throbbed, and all his nature cried out as for something needed, dearly, imperatively wanted.
Reviewing his impulses, he called his passion by the hard name of lust, a self-degarding vice he had never thought to suffer from. The vague wishes and feelings that stirred his being into a newer existence of sublimer aspirations than he had known before he reviled as weaknesses. An incipient shame for errors, misdeeds, crimes of the past, crept like an invisible spirit into his brain, insidious, suggestive. He had been reflecting on Mara's purity, the nobility of her character, the strength and freedom of her thought. Perhaps a comparison occurred to him. At any rate, he shuddered, and drowned his shame in bitter curses of himself.
"What!" he cried. "You, Julian Savage, would play the hypocrite to your very soul? Know, you fool, that being black, no shame can touch or hurt you. These sneaking feelings are libidinous desires in disguise. You know what will best please this woman, and, hoping to possess her, you allow such things to enter your weak mind."
Restlessly he paced his room, with aching head and weary eyes, but he was haunted by a most persistent spectre, and even in his sleep dreams mocked him, quickened pictures of unadmitted hopes, phantoms of white-armed women, lustrous-eyed, who spoke with Mara Hescombe's voice, and beckoned him with ardent hands across long quicksand drifts through which he struggled helplessly.
That was the night of the third day; he woke in the early morning with a splitting headache. "Liver, Julian Savage, liver," he soliloquised, and presently, half-dressed, sought the kitchen of the inn for hot water bandages.
Jenny Schofield, John's prettiest daughter, supplied his needs and returned with him, a ministering angel, to his room, where she prevailed upon him to lie down, and seated beside his bed, bathed his head with much skill and tenderness.
Now the window of Julian's room opened out upon the verandah of the inn, and Cuthbert Stone, up betimes, as was his late and sudden custom, at that moment passed and glanced through the half-closed shutters. He repassed, passed yet again; there was the sound of a chair being moved on the verandah, and he disappeared. Julian neither knew nor cared.
"Jenny Schofield, you should be a nurse," he said presently, inspired by the relief she had afforded; "your hands are so soft, your touch so exquisitely gentle and magnetic."
"Thank you; I have no ambition in that direction," replied Jenny. "I hate nursing."
"Then I should be all the more grateful for your kindness to me."
"No need, sir; I am happy to serve you."
"Why is it, Jenny, that you have always been so good to me?"
"Have I been that? I did not know."
"Oh yes, you did and do know, Jenny; come, tell me the reason!"
Jenny shook her head.
"You have been always nice to me," she answered.
Miss Hescombe, sent to the verandah by a well-chosen if Mephistophelian suggestion put forward by Cuthbert Stone, both saw and heard. She occupied a chair on the verandah, deftly placed by the same subtle agency.
Jenny was seated with her back to the window, beside the bed. Miss Hescombe could not therefore see her face, but she saw Julian's profile, and noted with a smothered indignation the housemaid's hand stroking his brow with ministering gentleness. Mara hated herself for what she was doing, and she did not seek to clothe her act with excuses, but something she had never before experienced had taken hold of her, and for the nonce she was nothing but a human woman, sentient and resentful of an insult to her woman's empire. All the essences and polishes of training and manners that constitute the distinction and superiority of a lady above other members of her sex, placed by the accident of birth in a lower social grade, were swept away by the swift breath of jealousy, and so Mara Hescombe rested silently, watching and listening.
And yet what there was to see and hear was very innocent. It would have so continued, too, but for that eternal spirit of experiment which ever agitates the inquiring brain of man. Julian had conceived an idea, a brilliant idea. Seeing Jenny so close beside him, he could not help discovering that she was pretty-faced and cast in gracious mould. He had fallen of late to wondering if the feelings which Miss Hescombe had stirred in his heart pertained alone to her, or whether they could be satisfied by any other member of her sex. He looked embracingly at the girl beside him, but instead of being moved to passion, a feeling of aversion, nearly akin to disgust, assailed him. He should have been satisfied with that, but he was not the man to leave an argument unfinished.
"You are growing a very pretty girl, Jenny," he said.
For answer the girl gazed at him steadily, and Julian saw in her eyes the shadow of a look which had of late become familiar in Miss Hescombe's glances bent in his direction. Startled, he half rose, and to his horror felt a very real contempt, both of himself and Jenny, wake to life within him. But—and there was a but—he had brought it on himself; something was demanded of him now, and besides, the experiment needed a physical act for its consummation.
He drew the girl palpitating, but unresisting, towards him, and kissed her on the lips. Jenny hurriedly released herself, gave a quick sigh, and incontinently fled.
Miss Hescombe glided away from the window, noiseless as the phantom of a dream.
Julian rose to his feet and wiped his lips with his handkerchief.
"Paugh," he said, then paused. "Perhaps though," he soliloquised aloud, "perhaps it is because she is my sister. I remember reading somewhere something of the kind. Copper touching copper elicits no spark. I may be mistaken. At any rate, I am a fool."
This last reflection was not peculiarly consoling, and he went to the breakfast table later in a restless mood.
That day the inspection was to be made, and the whole party had arranged to visit the mine. Miss Hescombe saluted him with beaming face—a face that sparkled, nay overflowed, with happiness.
"I have obtained a good quiet hack for you, as you requested," said Julian, addressing her, his eyes meaning more than his words.
"Oh, I am sorry you have taken the trouble," quoth Mara; "I have changed my mind. Mr. Stone has promised to drive me in a dog-cart he has unearthed."
Julian was surprised, but not disturbed. "At your pleasure," he replied.
An early start was made. Sir Stuart and Lady Hescombe, the poet and Mr. Salterman, in the wagonette; Miss Hescombe and Mr. Stone in a sulky, not a dog-cart; Julian alone riding on his bay.
Leaving the plain, the road, a courtesy title only, climbed suddenly into lofty ranges, the ascent being made by sharp, steep grades, over ground but partly cleared; full of boulders, rocks, and ruts. Thus for some seven miles, until a halt was called at the sheer edge of a precipice, the nearest point to the mine attainable by vehicles. Descending, Julian led the party on foot along a narrow bridle track scarce three feet wide, which, cut out of the side of the mountain, and undefended by any railing, skirted the precipice for half a mile. From the edge of the path was a sheer fall of five hundred feet, and down below tall gum trees growing in the valley looked like the tiny toys of the wooden gardens of a child's Noah's ark.
The prospect was magnificent. Taller mountains still across the valley, whose huge lava tops were shaped into fantastic semblance of old granite battlements, frowned down upon the canons and gullies winding at their feet. Giant boulders jutted recklessly from the sides of moss-grown hills, and in the valley jagged heaps of stone were interspersed with flowery reaches or wild gardens of great tree ferns, whose graceful fronds made gentle arbours for the streams to pass between.
Julian was a gracious leader. He paused to point out each new beauty of the scene, and ministered most tenderly to Lady Hescombe's nervousness. Whenever he glanced behind him, though, to give some direction or look to his horse, which followed in the wake of the party of its own accord, he could not fail to notice Mara, who hung upon Mr. Stone's arm, and accepted his attentions with every semblance of cordiality. Her attitude puzzled him. Little used to the ways of woman, he could find no explanation, and yet he invented many, though all seemed inadequate, for until that morning she had rather painfully avoided Cuthbert.
Later, when they reached the mine—a long black tunnel sloping downwards through the solid rock at the foot of the opposite mountain—this attitude became more pronounced. Mara kept Cuthbert beside her—a very willing cavalier. She did not exactly neglect Julian, but she showed a very decided preference for someone else.
Even Lady Hescombe noticed it, and in her heart condemned her daughter's fickleness, wondering if Mara could be developing into a flirt. She pitied Julian, and her thoughts praised him for his dignified self-command.
Julian, indeed, had commenced to have a doubt. Traversing the dark low passages of the mine by candle-light, if he should warn his companions of some danger, it was Cuthbert's arm Mara sought to guide her, not his. While bending over the black depths of a hollow shaft, the girl standing by chance between him and his rival, a stone, carelessly displaced, fell with a resounding crash. Mara gave a scream, and clutched nervously at Cuthbert Stone. When standing before the faces of the workings, where the grey, rocky matrix revealed a quartz lode studded with yellow metal that gleamed dully in the sickly light, a veritable jeweller's shop of gold, Mara expressed all her admiration to another than the owner of the mine.
Then Julian awoke to the fact that he was slighted. Feelings, doubts, humours, suspicions, whose very existence in mind or matter he had never previously possessed conception of, stirred in his heart, and pricked at him like daggers. He was assailed with a sense of sudden imminent loss, the loss of what till that moment he had not valued. But now he looked at Mara, and found her full of worth.
She passed him at the entrance of the tunnel, greeting the return to sunlight with a dazzling smile.
A wild impulse came to him to seize her in his arms, and kiss her there before them all.
"She is mine, she is mine!" his heart cried out.
She turned at that moment and beckoned Cuthbert Stone.
Julian suddenly knew that from his cradle he had loathed and hated the American. He longed to take him by the throat and wring the life out of his detested body.
Long habits of self-control befriended him at that sore time. Instead of the deeds he held in contemplation, he suavely smiled and invited his rival, first of all present, to the lunch prepared—a very feast of costly dishes, of rarest wines.
Lady Hescombe, feeling a little faint from her exertions, suddenly remembered she had left her salts forgotten in the carriage. Julian whistled to his bay, and sprang into the saddle in spite of protestations. With a cavalier's bow he was off. He jumped the stream and swept up the bridle path at a reckless gallop. Lady Hescombe understood; also Karl Siegbert, Mr. Stone, and Miss Hescombe. Sir Stuart, in the dark, marvelled at the daring horsemanship of young Australians. Mara watched the horse's every hoof-stroke with strained eyes, her heart not with apprehension.
Over the narrow path, where one false step meant death, Julian rode at top speed fearlessly. He disappeared over the summit, and the girl knew from the sudden relief how terrible had been her anxiety. In a second he reappeared, and with still madder recklessness forced his gallant brute full gallop down the pass. In his journey there had been danger; in his return, an open peril manifest to the most unobserving eye. And yet he rode as if the path were wider half a league, with careless fingers on the rein, free seat and gallant bearing.
Karl Siegbert swore he had never seen half so fine a feat; but as the bay leaped over the jagged gully, and drew up panting, on its haunches before the party, Mara slipped backwards on the grass in dull unconsciousness.
"You see, Lady Hescombe," said Julian, with concern, "it is as well that I went for your salts."
"I fear your dangerous horsemanship has frightened her to this," replied Sir Stuart.
Julian was voluble in grave regrets.
"I did not see any danger," he said, "and never thought that you would so much consider me, I am overcome with shame to have caused such a thing by my thoughtlessness."
Mara came slowly round.
"Is he safe?" she murmured; then pride gave her strength. She sat up and laughed merrily, attributing her folly to the sun, to anything rather than its real cause.
Julian made amends for his fault by his attention to all present. Feverishly restless, he drank a good deal of champagne, but the wine only served to enliven his fancy, and he exhibited a careless brilliancy of talk that charmed and puzzled every one. Quip followed quip, jest, epigram, and piquant anecdote. The life and soul of the party, he made a peerless host. The poet was his slave, Sir Stuart full of admiration, Lady Hescombe of pity, Mara of anger and contempt. Cuthbert Stone was interested in spite of himself, Salterman so full of amazed wonder that one man, almost unassisted, could make an hour so full of pleasure that he commenced to regret his bargain with the American.
Mr. Salterman, questioned by Cuthbert Stone, refused to utter his opinion concerning the mine until he had written his report. He promised, however, to lay his full results before a meeting to be held that night.
Julian found an opportunity at last to address a word in private to Miss Hescombe while she was walking to her room after returning to the inn, Cuthbert Stone having been compelled, for lack of male attendants, to himself drive his sulky into the stableyard.
"Mara," said Julian, a little huskily, "you avoid me. Have I offended you?"
The girl drew herself up haughtily. "Not at all until now," she rejoined, with cutting emphasis. "Be kind enough in future to address me by my proper name!"
EVERYONE was present, even Lady Hescombe, who detested business. She attended for the simple purpose of observing Julian Savage. Some instinct warned her that he was fighting an adverse fate, and she found herself at the last moment curious as to how he would comport himself under such circumstances. Her friendly and grateful regard for the man who had saved her daughter's life had changed within the past few days into a deeper interest, which might develop into almost anything. During the day she had seen him bear himself with singular dignity under what she regarded trying circumstances. She had been impelled to both pity and respect him.
With unusual interest she observed him now, seated almost opposite to her before the long green patchwork-covered table. An Egyptian cigarette intermittently between his fingers and his lips, he chatted carelessly with herself, Sir Stuart, and the poet, as unconcerned as if the forthcoming issue meant nothing to him. And yet the old lady felt that it was really otherwise with him. Asked why, she could not have laid a finger on a single proof or even a single reasonable ground for her belief. Women are fashioned, however, out of finer clay than men. They are more capable of seeing far and clearly. What we call their instinct or their intuition, for lack of better names, may be a capacity which enables them to receive spiritual impressions, or perhaps a finer system of logic which arrives at its conclusions by too quick means to allow of tracing its separate steps. At any rate, Lady Hescombe, without knowing why, felt and was convinced that on Mr. Salterman's report of the Brown Snake Mine Julian Savage's fortunes lay nicely balanced.
Thus it was that, noting his well-ordered, careless ease of manner, she admired him, for strength of mind in man is ever admirable to woman.
Cuthbert Stone and Mara were wrapped up in a conversation of half tones at the further end of the table. Julian's eyes never strayed in their direction; he laughed, joked, chatted, and smoked as if unconscious of their existence.
It was Sir Stuart who remarked on the expert's delay.
Julian shrugged his shoulders.
"He is a conscientious man who will fill his papers with the minutest details, then weigh the pros and cons with all the exactness of a judge before he commits himself. Did you observe him before the face of the Salem reef? I asked him what he thought of the show."
"What was his answer?"
"He replied, with a shake of the head, 'No one can see into the ground, Mr. Savage.' What do you think of that?"
"He's a pessimist, assuredly. Why, anyone could be excused for enthusing over that show; it was a perfect collection of nuggets."
"Yes, and displayed under splendid aspects, from a miner's point of view—five hundred feet from the surface."
"Ah," cried the poet, "here he comes."
Lady Hescombe fixed her eyes on Julian earnestly.
Just the shadow of a change visited his face, a scarcely noticeable pallor, a slight quiver of the lips, then he was himself again—smiling, careless, insouciant.
Mr. Salterman seated himself at the head of the table and spread out a bundle of papers before him. He, strangely enough, seemed ill at ease, pale one moment, hot the next, his eyes wavering and restless. He asked permission to read his report, and commenced at once in a nervous, jerky voice that often broke. Several times he repeated himself. This at first, but after a while he gathered confidence, and towards the end read out loudly, almost defiantly.
Never for a moment did Lady Hescombe take her eyes from Julian's face; he had other watchers, too—one in Mara, who gazed at him from her end of the table with a breathless interest, as if she were seeking to probe his very soul; the other, Karl Siegbert, whose eyes, though half closed, missed nothing. But Julian appeared to heed none of them. He listened and looked downwards at the pattern of the table-cloth, keeping himself well in hand.
The report, which had opened in a species of panegyric on his property, suddenly commenced to take damnatory views.
Julian glanced at Salterman with a quick look that took in everything—the expert's nervousness, the inflection of his voice, the strange discomfort that he evidently suffered.
He felt a catching at the throat, a contraction of his heart-strings, but his will was paramount, and he slowly lit a second cigarette from the half-burnt fragment of the first with hands whose trembling no one could detect. When the expert's voice took the defiant ring before alluded to, Julian puffed a wreath of smoke meditatively before him, and nodded his head as if agreeing with what he heard.
Salterman concluded his report with the following words:—
"Finally, I should say that the Brown Snake Mine is a remarkably pretty and picturesque property, which possesses many things to recommend it. It has been, as before pointed out, well developed. There are three fairly-defined reefs, which have all been proved to a considerable extent, which reefs apparently carry a richly payable quantity of good free gold. However, from my wide experience of mining, and, moreover, judging from the fact that all these reefs are found in diorite country, a formation which for permanency I distrust, I doubt much whether they will long continue, or even should they continue, whether they will be found always payable. I therefore advise my employers that in my opinion this mine offers to capitalists rather a chance for promising speculation than an opportunity for investment, where investors would require certain dividends. This is my opinion, formed after due and earnest consideration. However," added Mr. Salterman, as he put down his papers with a nervous flourish, "no man can see into the ground; I may be mistaken."
"An excellent phrase of yours that, Mr. Salterman," observed Julian coolly, when the other had finished. "Is it original?"
"Full many a shaft at random sent, finds aim the archer little meant."
Mr. Salterman turned red to the eyes, and half rose from the table.
"What do you mean?" he blustered.
Julian appeared to be quite oblivious of his emotion.
"Nothing, sir, nothing," he answered; then turned to Sir Stuart with a grave and most charming courtesy. "My dear sir," he said, "how can I hope that you will forgive me for all the profitless trouble I have caused you? Believe me, I shall never forgive myself."
"What, this trip? I have enjoyed myself immensely, I assure you. I would not have missed it for anything; nor the others either, I think. What do you say, Alice—Mara?"
Lady Hescombe, who had in the last moment been almost loving Julian Savage for his strength and calmness, replied quite eagerly:
"Don't speak of forgiveness, Mr. Savage; I am only grieved that your expert's opinion and mine do not coincide."
Their eyes met, and Julian, off guarded by the sincere kindness of her tone, allowed her to see something of what it cost him to maintain his unconcerned demeanour.
"For my part," quoth Mara, "I have enjoyed myself perfectly. What about you, Cuthbert?"
The Christian name was spoken with pretty innocence, but a flashing look at Julian revealed the sting intended.
"It has been extremely pleasant, especially the latter part," returned Mr. Stone, with an ardent glance at the girl.
Julian smiled to them all his thanks most courteously, then turned at the last to Karl Siegbert.
"Well, old friend," he muttered, "and you?"
The poet for a moment did not answer; then rising with heavy clatter he said a little thickly in his deep bass:
"I am going for a walk, will you come with me?"
Julian nodded, but before accompanying him arranged with his guests in a few quiet words the details of their journey back to town.
"Ach!" said the German at last, when the lights of the inn twinkled at them through a width of darkness, "a bit of bad luck, Julian!"
"Bad! Yes, very bad."
"Don't mind, boy; you showed nothing."
"Bah! No; they can't laugh at me, either of them."
"Whom speak you of?"
"Stone and 'your little Mara'—curse her!"
"Curse them both, I say!"
"Look here, Siegbert, I'm a bit off colour just now; do, like a good chap, let me leave you here and go off on my own."
"Then, damn you," flashed Julian, "don't talk!"
He walked on at a furious pace, but the giant's mighty strides kept pace without an effort. Presently said Julian:
"It's the worst day's work he's ever done for himself, the fool. Wait till I get back to town."
"Who, the expert?"
"Yes; nobbled, by God! and under my very nose."
"Stone, of course, thickhead!"
"Oh, 'come come'; I'm done for, I tell you.''
"As bad as that?"
"Well, I depended on it as a last chance. I must play the rogue now, willy-nilly."
"What will Mara say?"
"Haven't you eyes? She's been playing with me, fool that I was to let her. Dropped me like a toad as soon as she was sure of me, and now she's stringing the American. I wish him joy of her!"
Julian stopped suddenly, and turning like an adder on the German, struck at him viciously with closed hands on his undefended face. Siegbert caught his wrists and held him, breathing hard, helpless as an infant.
"Ach, so," he growled, "you are human after all, my boy. Well, I am glad of it."
"Damn you, let me go!"
"Wait; first apologise!"
"I'll see you in hell first!"
"Then strike me again until your rage is satisfied. I'll not prevent you."
The German let go his prisoner's wrists and folded his arms across his chest with quiet dignity.
"Karl, Karl," said Julian brokenly, "I'm a damned cad. Kick me!"
The poet laughed joyously. "Promise me!" he said.
"Only a little music. Come, I have a surprise for you."
"Where, what is it?"
"Down there," and he pointed to the creek.
"First, wait a bit; I'm clean let down, Karl, old man."
The German sat on a convenient stump, and Julian paced up and down before him, the convulsive workings of his face hidden by the kindly dark.
"What do you mean by turning rogue?" asked Karl presently.
Julian stopped and faced him.
"Ah, you sneer. You mean I am a rogue already. Well, perhaps I am, but I'm not a criminal yet. I've stood that off so far."
"And you contemplate that now?"
"Oh, nothing new. My plans are cut and dried, but I've put them off from some lingering weakness, I suppose. But now—Do you know, I haven't a hundred left in the world."
"But the Dido is still yours."
"Yes," savagely, "my stock-in-trade."
"Sell her and invest the proceeds. It will give you a comfortable income."
"Bah! Income, yes; a couple of thousand per annum. Enough to keep me a drone and mock me with the echoes of impossible hopes."
"Tell me, boy, everything."
"Ah, bah! you'd either think I raved or lay an information."
"Before you stands a black-hearted wretch who to gain the prize he wants——"
"First," interrupted Siegbert, "tell me the prize you want."
"Money, money in abundance; without that ambition is foolish, power is impossible, dreams are vain."
"And you dream?"
"No longer. At heart I am already a criminal, and I feel a spirit within which tells me that my old ambitions shall die with the accomplishment of my first crime."
"Poor boy, tell me your old ambitions."
"Power, power over the people of this land. I have a little now, but it is circumscribed, and not enough. Karl, don't laugh at me. I tell you I meant to use it wisely, for the people's good. I have suffered with the people. I know the feelings of the poor, their heart-burnings, their envy of the rich. I swear to you I meant to do them good. But I am on my fad; I bore you."
"The poor are the many, the rich the few. I would have wealth distributed better. First make the nation, then mould its laws for the people's benefit. I would give all lands and property to the State, like Henry George, and keep them so, inalienable for ever, the people's birthright, which they could not barter if they would."
"Impossible without a revolution."
"Then let a revolution come. It must come one day, the sooner then the better."
"Even so, and supposing you effected your desire, would your end be so fulfilled?"
"Ay, for all would work for the State, State employed. The deserving would no longer starve, at all events, and all could find employment who so willed."
"Utopia if you like, but no vainglorious vision. Give me a million pounds and I'd soon make it possible."
"You'd spend it thus?"
"I'd do well enough."
"King, perhaps. Your State would not be republican."
"No, a monarchy of life-elected kings, chosen for their public worth, with an aristocracy of worth and intellect into which the meanest citizen might raise himself."
"On my soul, a pretty dream; but I have heard you called king already, Julian."
"You are irrelevant. 'Tis only by a few lads."
"'The Rocks.' I am very curious. Are they the blackguards they are supposed to be?"
"They were. Now they are respectable enough, and educated, too."
"By you—perhaps they are dreamers, too?"
"It is said of you, Julian, that you are a smuggler, an illicit trader, a thousand other things."
"It is not proved."
"No, but answer me."
"Laws which I despise I only feign to keep. Are you satisfied with my confession?"
"I shall be, when you tell me the crime you contemplate."
Julian hesitated. His temper had long since vanished and his ordinary coolness returned. Under cover of the dark he smiled.
"Another time, Karl," he answered.
The German arose, and, linking arms, drew his friend to the banks of the creek, unto the very rock near which Julian had first tasted the kiss of woman. The giant, stooping, lifted, with a breathful heave, a great lump of stone from its resting-place, and drew forth from the cavity beneath a long black object.
"What is it?" cried Julian, amazed.
Siegbert fumbled in his pocket for a bunch of keys.
"A violin," he answered; "I am told, a genuine Stradivarius. It has been with my people for generations, but it goes this moment into a more worthy master's hands. Accept it, Julian, with my sincere affection!"
"Just now I dared to strike you," muttered Julian, his voice full of pain.
Siegbert turned with a noisy laugh and gently boxed his companion's ears.
"I am avenged," he said; "come, play to me!" and placed in Julian's hands a treasure which was received as reverently as a Paduan peasant would accept a relic of his patron saint.
Julian tuned the strings with tender fingers, marvelling at the rich, melancholy sound that every touch evoked. Presently he used the bow, but with an indescribable diffidence, as if a spirit dwelt within the violin which he, an intruder, must approach with soft apologies. The strings murmured back at him, assisting the illusion with their low, full-throated chidings.
"What think you?" asked the poet; but Julian, in a sensuous ecstacy, did not answer.
From the midst of a profound rhythm of deep chords a silver peal of melody had suddenly arisen, wild and sweet as ever flute, soft and tender as ever human voice. Siegbert was thrilled to his heart's core, and listened silent as the dead.
Mara Hescombe and Cuthbert Stone, who had approached unseen, treading softly on the grass, made curious by the first heard twanging of the strings on tuning, were arrested by the sudden tide of sound. All three listeners were charmed or swayed intently; they listened involuntarily, bending forward with senses strained as if their very lives depended on catching to the full the silken beauties of each perfect note. With elfin softness of suggestion an unutterably perfect song woke in the music, tuned to words—words of wooing passion, which were a thousand times more beautiful because of fact unsung. Unmistakably the theme was love—love unimaginably tender, reverent, and true.
Mara, whose soul and mind for eighteen long hours had been darkened, choked with outraged pride and jealousy, found an exquisite peace steal gently through her aching heart. With magic subtlety the music stilled her pain. It filled her with a sense of triumph, of power, of romance. A queen enthroned, she listened to the vows of mail-clad knights who swore to do her bidding or to die for her. The man she loved was there, no longer under cloud of her offence, but a true and gallant knight, and king of all the others; he wooed her with fair and gentle words that rang through the waiting chambers of her heart, that hungered to receive such offerings. Unconscious of what she did, she moved forward step by step, her lips parted, her eyes aglow, until she reached the charmed presence.
"Julian!" she cried, the word a soft caress, her arms outstretched a little, following the form of her imaginings.
With a sullen discord the music ceased, and Julian turned to stare at this ghost-like visitation from the dark.
"What," he cried, "you!"
"Yes, I," said Mara, her senses still entranced.
Julian bowed mockingly.
"I did not think I had such gentle audience, Miss Hescombe."
"Julian," the voice was troubled—the voice of one waking from a dream.
"At your service, madam. What can I do for you?"
Cuthbert Stone strode forward and touched the girl's hand. Mara looked round at him as if she did not understand.
"You play like a wizard, sir," said Cuthbert. "I verily believe Miss Hescombe dreams."
"Is the lady in your charge?"
"I have the honour to escort her."
"Then see to it. If she sleeps, awaken her. Madam, good-night."
With a deep reverence he moved off, followed by the poet, leaving the girl flaming cheeked, uncertain of all things except that she had been derided, and was deeply shamed.
Julian seated the poet in his room's one easy-chair, then standing himself, laughed loud and long.
"Even so little revenge is good," he said.
But the door opened suddenly, and there flounced in Mrs. Schofield, raging and vixen-eyed.
"My five hundred pounds!" she gasped. "I want my money. You fool, you fool!"
Julian mocked her with a smile that was, however, full of bitterness.
"Excuse me, I am not alone," he murmured. Then his eyes flashed with a sudden evil light. "Mother, allow me to present Mr. Karl Siegbert. Karl, this exquisite gentlewoman is my mother."
The German arose open-mouthed and bowed, coughing to hide his confusion. But Mrs. Schofield stood as if turned into stone, her face stricken with pallor, and white even to the lips; she gazed at her son appealingly.
Julian pointed to the door.
"My kind, sweet mother," he sneered, "you look tired; you need rest; go to your virtuous couch. Dearly as I love you, deeply as my friend admires you, we would not for worlds detain you."
Mrs. Schofield slunk silently to the door, shrinking from the lashing words, trembling as with an ague, and, with exaggerated politeness, Julian held the door wide and bent low before her retreating form.
"Phew!" he muttered as he returned; "I have a good deal to put up with at times; eh, Karl?"
"Your mother, really?" gasped the German. "Then your name is——"
"Julian Savage. The dear creature married again without waiting for news of my father's death. No one but you, she, and I know of my relationship, hence her instant response to the curb I used just now."
"I am sorry you have told me," replied the poet gravely.
Julian shrugged his shoulders with indifference. "You know so much already; why not all?"
"Ah!" gasped Siegbert again.
"What thought hurts you?"
"A memory. I had been struck by a likeness between you and Jenny Schofield when first I saw her."
"Poor Jenny," said Julian, somewhat sadly; "she is my sister, I suppose."
"If you will excuse me, I think I shall now to bed."
"As you will, Karl. But do me a favour. Take my Stradivarius, and bring it with you to Sydney."
"I set out in a few moments on horseback for Quambi to catch the mail train."
"Is there need of so much haste?''
"Put it down to my soreness, Karl. Of a truth, I do not care to face my guests again. I leave them in your charge."
"Ah, then I shall stay with you till you depart, so that I may give you God-speed."
Julian looked at the poet for a moment with a quiet gleam in his eyes; then he took up the lamp, and moved to the door.
"If you care to accompany me I can promise you amusement," he said.
The poet did not hesitate, but followed him.
Julian strode softly along the passage until he reached a certain door, whereon he rapped insistently.
"Who is there?" demanded a sleepy voice from within, after some delay.
"Answer," whispered Julian to the poet.
"It is I, Siegbert," said the poet aloud, but hesitatingly.
"What do you want?"
"To speak with you a moment," said the poet, in answer to a commanding look of Julian's, rather than the voice within.
The door was unbarred and partly opened, showing in the slit the bewildered face of Salterman, the expert, who beheld staring in his eyes the barrel of a revolver, and fell back in dismay.
Julian pushed into the room, and drawing the poet after him, locked the door.
"What is the meaning of this?" cried Salterman, in loud, terrified tones, retreating, as he spoke, to his bed.
Julian, placing his lamp quickly on the table, faced the expert.
"I entreat you to make no outcry," he said, with a mocking smile. "No, stay where you are; no nearer the bed, please; doubtless you have a weapon there."
"This is an outrage."
"No, sir, a judicial inquiry; be kind enough to attend to me."
"What do you want?"
"Particulars; the main facts I am aware of, but I need details. First, how much did Mr. Stone pay you to damn my mine?"
"Excellent indignation, Mr. Salterman, but no answer to my question."
"You must be a lunatic."
"Possibly I am; but an answer, please."
"Mr. Siegbert, if you are a party to this outrage it will go hard with you."
Julian frowned. "Mr. Salterman, you are running a grave risk. Answer me!"
His voice was very low, but his eyes were full of menace.
Salterman folded his arms. "I am an honest man, sir, and scorn to reply to such a charge."
Julian laughed a low, musicless laugh, mirthless and cynical.
He advanced with a sudden movement to the bed, and threw the pillows on the floor. Upon the mattress rested a revolver, a gold watch, and a pocket-book.
Salterman, whose face had turned ghastly pale, sprang forward, only to meet, however, the muzzle of a pistol. Julian slipped the expert's revolver into his coat, and took up the pocket-book, which he opened by the light of the lamp. After a moment he found a paper which interested him. It was a cheque for £400, drawn by Cuthbert Stone, and made payable to "E. Salterman, or order." "As I thought," he muttered, and passed the paper to the wondering poet.
Turning to the expert, he said:
"Four hundred is an odd amount, Mr. Salterman. I see here bank-notes for another hundred. Five hundred pounds was the price of your honour, eh?"
The expert glared at him like a trapped rat, spiteful but terrified.
Julian put the bank notes in his pocket.
"The amount I paid you, you traitor, I shall retain, but I'll see you do not make anything by the deal. Sit down there."
He pointed to the table, where pens, ink, and paper were invitingly displayed.
Mr. Salterman seated himself down, trembling.
Julian handed him a chequebook taken from the porte-monnaie.
"Write a cheque for £100, payable to Cuthbert Stone, or order."
"What do you intend to do?" muttered the expert
"Return Mr. Stone his money, of course, like an honest man," laughed Julian. "Come, be quick."
"But he only gave me four hundred," whined Mr. Salterman, most miserably.
"All the better for Mr. Stone; he'll have interest on his money," mocked Julian, "and you'll remember this transaction longer."
The expert wrote, his hand trembling like a leaf.
Karl Siegbert watched the pair of actors in the little comedy with mingled feelings of admiration and contempt.
"Did you pay this person, too?" he asked Julian in a whisper, while the expert wrote.
"A hundred," nodded Julian, adding with a reckless smile, "just to encourage his honesty."
Mr. Salterman handed up the cheque, which his inquisitor carelessly glanced at and transferred to his pocket.
"Now," he said, "write at my dictation on that paper:
"I, Ernest Salterman, hereby admit and acknowledge that Mr. Cuthbert Stone, for his own purposes, bribed me with the sum of £500 to report unfavourably on the Brown Snake Mine. I now return him the said sum in full, in humble regret that I was ever induced to commit so rascally an action."
"I'm damned if I will!" cried the expert, almost in tears.
Julian cocked his revolver leisurely.
"Look me in the eyes, Mr. Salterman," he said. "That's right; now, I give you just ten seconds—ah, that's better."
Mr. Salterman took up his pen and wrote as requested, signing his name in full at the bottom of the document.
"Good-night, and God keep you for an honest man," said Julian, as he withdrew.
They went into the bar parlour, where Julian wrote three letters, which he folded and addressed most carefully, and handed with a peculiar smile to his friend.
"I want you, Karl, to take charge of these, and see that they are delivered personally before breakfast to-morrow morning; will you do this for me?"
"And now, I must away." He looked at the poet with whimsical scrutiny for a while. "Ah, I see you disapprove of me; will your friendship allow you to shake hands?"
Karl stood up, his face clouded and sombre.
"You are a strange man, Julian, but God forbid that I should judge you. Good-bye, my friend."
Five minutes later a clatter of hoofs sounded through the midnight stillness, a clatter which gradually softened and died into the distance undisturbed.
Karl Siegbert, sitting in the fading lamplight, for the wick had commenced to spit and flicker for lack of oil, felt strangely lonesome. With troubled face he stared at the three letters in his hand, fascinated by some quality about them. They looked innocent enough, covered with almost transparent envelopes, whereon was writ only their destination in a bold and dashing hand; but to the poet they seemed evil, though why he could have scarcely told. Yet he suspected that there was trouble in them, and his feelings were revealed in one muttered sentence:
"I cannot destroy them, for I have passed my word."
SIR STUART HESCOMBE, abroad early in the morning for a ramble, very soon met the poet, who looked weary and anxious-eyed.
"I have a letter for you, Artie," said Karl, calling his friend by an affectionate nickname of more youthful days.
Sir Stuart opened the cover at once without ceremony, and read aloud:
"MY DEAR SIR,—I regret very much that important business calls me back to town immediately. I hope you will excuse my abrupt departure to Lady and Miss Hescombe.
"I am, sir, yours very truly,
Sir Stuart was surprised.
"Terse and to the point," he remarked. "And so he went last night?"
"On his bay."
"Karl, I want your opinion about that lad; you seem to have taken a fancy to him?"
"Artie, to speak the exact truth, I can tell you nothing; my opinions are chaotic. I have a different one concerning him every hour."
"He is a charming companion."
"A perfect host."
"And from what I have seen, a gallant gentleman."
"He seems so."
"I will not conceal from you, Karl, that I have more than a speculative interest in discerning him. My wife last night told me something that has very much disturbed me. It seems that—er—Mara has—is—ah—she—er—er—in short, she's in love with the fellow, damn him!"
"You don't like him, Hescombe?"
"Man, it's not a question of my liking him, but of whether or not the fellow is worth the interest my little girl takes in him."
"But bear with me a moment; you yourself——"
"I like him; he can make himself so deuced pleasant, Karl. I'd like to meet the creature who would resist him. But who is he; what is he?"
The poet shook his head. "I know next to nothing."
"It's all my own fault," went on the baronet gloomily. "I've only my own stupid generosity to blame if the business turns out badly. The fellow, when I pressed him to visit us, spoke out in a manly fashion and told me some wretched story of his past, a theft, training ship, and so forth. I liked him so well, his appearance and so forth, that I insisted on his staying to dine with us that very evening, and since then we've all treated him like a member of the family."
Karl did not speak.
"But, I ask you, how the devil could I have anticipated anything like this? Why, it's monstrous! I don't suppose the fellow has a grandfather; and Mara is the most wilful girl in the world."
"It is very sad," murmured Siegbert.
"It's absurd, Karl; that's the word—'absurd.' But come, now, what do you think of the fellow, old friend? Is he the clean potato?—to use a vulgar but expressive phrase."
"I dare not say; sometimes I almost think he is not, and other times I find myself appraising him sublimely. What I know is this: he is a strong man, few stronger, and grandly capable. He has enormous latent powers for either good or ill. I tremble for his choice of path if ever he be called upon to choose, for if he pick the bad road he will take others with him down to hell. He is not the one to travel alone. Whatever that man may do he will find scores of followers. He possesses that personal magnetism which produces proselytes, and that, too, in so great degree that his disciples at his will are turned to devotees. Why, even I myself, cold and selfish pig that I am, sometimes I lose myself in merely listening to him. Ach, he will make himself heard of yet; the pity is, I cannot foretell where or how."
Sir Stuart, who had listened attentively, spoke very gravely.
"He is not the man for Mara."
"I do not think you need fear," said Siegbert. "Julian is ambitious; he has not much idea of love."
"It is the girl I fear. I want you, Karl, to use your influence; she thinks a lot of your opinion. You might easily put in a quiet word now and then suggestively derogatory. The trouble is, we have all been at the fellow's feet so much that her romantic mind has taken fire. Oh, if she were only safely married to Cuthbert, what a relief it would be! But we, my wife and myself, depend on you, Karl; you can do much if you will."
"What I can do I will, you may be sure."
"Here comes Mara. I am afraid we look like conspirators. I know I feel like one."
The poet took a letter from his pocket.
"Good morning, little one," he said somewhat nervously; "I have a message here from Mr. Savage which I promised to deliver."
"Why cannot he deliver it himself, old Karl, eh?" exclaimed the girl, not offering even to take the note.
"He has gone."
Mara's face changed quickly, but her expression was unreadable. She took the note, however, and going a little aside opened it, while the conspirators furtively surveyed her. They saw her cheeks flush and pale by turns. Her correspondence seemed voluminous, but part fluttered unheeded to the ground. Presently her hands fell to her sides.
"There has been some mistake," she faltered.
"What is the matter?" asked the others in a breath.
"This letter is not for me."
Karl Siegbert felt his brain reel at a sudden suspicion.
"For whom is it?" he demanded.
"For Mr. Stone."
"Give it to me at once!"
His voice was imperative and almost rude, and the girl took instant fire.
"No!" she cried. "It has come to me by mistake, and I have read it; but there has been injustice done, a gross injustice, which must be righted, or an explanation made. Father, you must read this!"
Sir Stuart, though vastly curious, shook his head.
"Impossible!" he said. "It would be most dishonourable. Cuthbert should have it at once if it is for him."
Mara stamped her foot in sudden indignation.
"Cuthbert Stone is a scoundrel!" she cried. "Listen to this:
"'You have worked me a cowardly and unjustifiable wrong, as the accompanying document will prove, in that you bribed Salterman, the expert, to report unfavourably on my mine, the Brown Snake. Why you stooped to such an underhand piece of knavery I cannot conceive, except it be that you have some deep and private interest in thwarting my projects. Well, you have succeeded in this instance; you have prevented me from advantageously disposing of my property—at the present moment to me a matter of import. But to show you how completely I despise your interference, I return your own cheque for £400, part of the blood-money paid to your creature, whom I have also induced to remit you his own cheque for the remaining £100 paid to him by you in cash. Let me warn you, however, to look to yourself. I am not the person for fools to trifle with.
"' JULIAN SAVAGE.
"' CUTHBERT STONE, Esq.'"
The baronet and Karl Siegbert listened to the reading of this letter involuntarily, but as the recital proceeded, surprise and horror supplied an interest to one at least of them, and when Mara had finished their exclamation was the same.
"Why, this is damnable!"
Mara, stooping quickly, picked up the papers which she had dropped: Cuthbert's cheque for £400, Salterman's cheque for £100, and the expert's confession. Each was examined minutely in turn by all three, and thereafter not any felt a doubt could be advanced.
There was a pained silence between them. They looked at each other inquiringly, disgustedly; Karl only without surprise, for he had known before.
Suddenly the girl cried out:
"These came directed in mistake to me. Why is that? Have you a letter for Mr. Stone, poet?"
Siegbert nodded, and slowly drew it forth, thinking deeply. His thoughts ran thus:
"Julian has, with Machiavelian cleverness, made his letters the instruments of his revenge. They were not misdirected by any carelessness. He has doubtless included in this letter, the last, which I have not yet delivered, some prickly means of wounding my little girl. Well, I shall defeat his object there, at all events; he has not played fair with me."
Acting on his thoughts, after deliberately examining the envelope, he tore it open. The enclosed note contained a direction at the foot of the first page: "Miss Mara Hescombe." Karl handed it at once to the girl.
"This is for you," he said.
Mara took it aside and read:
"If only you had been a little colder you had not worked me quite the ill that now I suffer from. Do you smile at that, well satisfied, coquette? Pretender that you are, I could have sworn that you loved me; you almost swore it—you vowed it certainly. But my most grievous quarrel with you is your kiss. Save for that, I could have departed, hurt indeed, but not so stupidly as now, empty and hungry-hearted. You need not have so far descended. Was I not already sufficiently at your feet that you should pour wantonly upon me your sweet stores to work the final ruin? The man who wins your wifehood will miss something surely! Ah, coquette! I knew so little of woman, although my prejudice was to distrust; and now you laugh at me! Laugh on, then, at this: I am tormented. Your softness, your mock sweetness, tortures me. A hundred times by day or night I feel you in my arms again as you have now twice lain—most willing, unresisting! I feel the magic of your kiss, your lips on mine, pressed by your counterfeit affection most passionately to mine. Fool, I! Agreed; a thousand fools, for in no other woman's kindness can I find relief from the passion that consumes me for you. Do you heed? Even before you discarded me I tried that. I kissed another woman to experiment! Yes; at Talala! Her kiss disgusted me, but I glory in it now, for I have this one satisfaction: although you are coquette and heartless, I was faithless first.
"Miss MARA HESCOMBE."
Had Karl Siegbert read this letter his single-minded soul would, no doubt, have been for ever disenchanted of his friend, Julian Savage; for he, possessing the clue, would have easily discerned the cunning workmanship of phrases designed to not only lay bare in its worst aspect to the eyes of Cuthbert Stone Mara Hescombe's flirtation with Julian, but still more intended to sting and lash the girl with the shame of knowing her secrets all revealed.
But Karl did not read the letter. He could only, with the baronet, watch the girl, as absorbed she forgot all else but the seemingly earnest and passionate words which she had, happily, rescued from the sacrilegious possession of a man she now despised.
Mara's face, when she had concluded, was transfused with a soft glow of quiet happiness. Julian's two wrongs had had the extraordinary effect of working one right in her mind. When she beheld him kiss Jenny Schofield, her pride and love, which would have been sickened at the very idea of even considering the possibility of her lover stooping to touch another woman, had been outraged into revolt. She had at first almost hated him, and in her misery sought to wound him by any means at her command. The hard names he called her in his letter delighted her, for they proved that she had hurt him by her punishment. But when she came to the concluding sentences, in which Julian daringly confessed his crime, describing it as an experiment, she could not see there an attempt of the subtle Parthian to wound her in his flight; it only seemed to her the last defiance of a man really ashamed of his faithless act, and now desperate from hopeless love. And for this imagined desperation Mara forgave her lover and took him to her heart again.
IT is, somehow, easy to attain heroics in the country. Surrounded by rugged tracts of wilderness, vast plains of treeless land or the interminable bush, the very loneliness, the sparseness of human or other moving life, assist the mind to exaggerate, or, at least, intensify emotions.
A return to the seething rush of the city acts as an instant douche on the reflections. Thought, freed for a time by the touch and consideration of immense distances wherein there is ample room for the imagination to revolve unfettered by the contracting influence of more intimate associations, becomes narrow and confined again.
There is a loneliness in the city, too, but it differs from the solitude of the great silent bush, whose untenanted expanses betray the wanderer into vision long and limitless. The city's solitude is the loneliness of individual indifference. There the life-struggle transforms each unit into a sharply separate segment weaponed on all points, and striving against the bulk of humanity for its own existence or aggrandisement. The feeling, the very being of one, are as nothing to the next. And this very indifference, to the occasional generous or imaginative mind, is the worst of influences. It is epidemic like the measles or the plague. It begets itself in the barrenest of soils.
It is easy to wander through a trackless forest, and either pour soft blessings on humanity or simply allow the impulses of a warm heart to stray in generous dreamings of its fellows, loving all, hating none; or for a lover to build an idol to his mistress, or the mistress to feel in her imaginings the presence of her lover permeate the very atmosphere through her abandoned worshipping.
But let the generous soul, the fond lover, or the ardent mistress mingle with the fashionable crowd ablock in George Street at the mid-day hour. Each finds his separate emotion turned back to feed upon itself. Eyes meet eyes, but idle curiosity is the only interest encountered.
The philanthropist of desert wastes observes his overflowing human love derided—not openly, but suggestively—by the business man who hastens, his eyes fixed to the front; the well-dressed lounger, who insolently stares; the multi-coloured female, who, beneath the shade of a portentous hat, and secure in her furbelowed entrenchments, perchance smiles dazzlingly upon him. Even the beggar at the street corner mocks him with sullen indifference to his fate, eager only to wheedle or to steal.
The lover, seeing these things, sighs for his mountain fastnesses again; or, if a man of the world, smiles and passes on, conscious, but not all regretful, of the changes environment has wrought. But the ardent mistress, imaginative and worshipping a little while ago, whose romantic soul had been stirred to its depths by the virginal touch of nature, seeing the crowd around her, forgets her dreaming, and remembers only that she is a woman, and essentially a social organism, a figment of the mazy world of dress and manners, epigram and art.
Thus Mara Hescombe, whose romantic disposition had been attuned to an heroic keynote at Talala, in Sydney once again, was surprised to discover that she could think of other things beside her love affair. Even while whirling citywards in the mail train it had seemed a matter of life and death to her to obtain an immediate reconciliation at all hazards with her lover.
Once arrived, however, she found a number of things awaiting her attention. Invitations to answer, social calls to make, visitors to see, letters to write—a score of little duties to complete.
With a vague surprise, she found that she returned to these occupations with considerable pleasure. Life, which had been for a while intensified by her emotions into a compass, wherein time was a matter of seconds, eternity of hours, suddenly relaxed. There seemed no such occasion for hurry after all. Julian would doubtless soon call, she thought, and explanations be arrived at of themselves. She even came to wonder at herself for having considered the matter of such momentary importance, almost, too, to describe her haste as something short of maidenly reserve.
One morning she found a letter from Mr. Vane lying on her table:—
"Dear Madam," it ran,
"re the Beetle.
My size in gloves is 7¾.
Mara pondered over this laconic notification for some little time. It appeared probable that the Q.C. had encountered Julian Savage, and gathered from his conversation that she, Mara, had failed in her undertaking. Then a thought struck her with sudden fear, little short of terror. She remembered Julian's letter, in which he had called her names—"pretender," "flirt," "coquette." Could Mr. Vane have been indiscreet enough to mention to Julian the subject-matter of their wager? She had wondered a little that, although three days returned to town, Julian had not called upon her or her people. This now seemed ominous.
She wired to the Q.C.
He came to see her, as ever, dapper, neat, and cheerful beyond words.
"So pleased to know you had returned to town. Sydney has been dull in your absence. I hope you enjoyed your excursion, though?"
"Perfectly, I thank you. Won't you sit down?"
"Thanks. I see you have tea. Might I trouble you?"
"Pardon me. Milk?"
"And three lumps. I have a sweet tooth."
"Such a small cup, too. You must be all sugar."
"No, madam. Like repels like, you know. Your parents well, I hope?"
"And the Beetle?"
"I want you to answer that question yourself, Mr. Vane."
"Perhaps that is why you sent for me?"
"The Misses Dallyn," announced a waiter at that moment.
Mara frowned swiftly, but arose all gushing to greet her visitors.
"What! Madeline, Clare! How nice of you to come this afternoon. You know Mr. Vane, don't you?"
"How d'ye do, Mr. Vane," said the new-comers in a breath, and then the elder continued, "Oh, Mara, we are to return to England next week. Auntie has been called home by a cable."
"Nothing serious, I hope?"
"Some estate matters—bothering things. Lord Killingworth really should go himself; but he is too lazy. He talks a lot about his office, and the home authorities getting annoyed, and that sort of thing; but we know better."
"My dear lady," interposed Mr. Vane, "this is high treason."
The girl laughed.
"Is it? Then we are in for it. We told Lord Killingworth himself exactly what we thought of him."
"It is a wonder you are still alive. Vice-royalty to be so bearded—horrible!"
"Mr. Vane," said Miss Clare Dallyn seriously, "who was that excessively handsome man with you when you bowed to us yesterday?"
The Q.C. assumed a look of deep gravity. "That man, Miss Dallyn, was—ah—the Beetle!"
"The Beetle?" echoed all.
Vane sent a wicked glance toward Miss Hescombe.
"Have you read Richard Marsh's work of that name, ladies? Well, the man in whose company you espied me yesterday is no other than the brother of the extraordinary Egyptian woman therein described."
"Do you mean to say that he can transmute his shape like Marsh's horrible heroine?"
"He is quite a Proteus, Miss Dallyn. The most versatile young man I know."
"Of course you are jesting?"
"Not at all, I assure you. Why, in one of his transmutations he was actually pinned to a piece of camphor in the glass case of a butterfly collector, whom I have the honour of knowing; but he escaped."
"You expect us to believe that?"
The Q.C. bowed.
"My reputation for veracity appears to be at stake; I appeal to Miss Hescombe."
Mara, though annoyed, could not refrain from smiling.
"Mr. Vane is pleased to be mysterious," she said. "Won't you take tea, Madeline dear, and Clare?"
But the younger Miss Dallyn was not to be put off.
"He is a splendid beetle, anyhow," she cried; "won't you tell me his name?"
Vane smiled. "Miss Hescombe knows."
"His name is Savage," vouchsafed Mara.
"Ah," said Madeline, "I seem to have heard that name before; not your gallant preserver, dear?"
"How ungrateful, then, of you to permit him to be called by such a name."
"I am not responsible for Mr. Vane's nonsense, Madeline."
The Q.C. shrugged his shoulders, with an inimitable gesture of deprecation.
"The insincerity of women," he murmured. "Miss Hescombe, does not your conscience prick you?"
Mara copied his shrug as nearly as she was able.
"A guilty conscience shows a vacant mind."
"An epigram! an epigram!"
"Which I invented three weeks ago, and have been waiting an opportunity to use. Remember, it is copyrighted, Mr. Vane."
"We must really go," observed Miss Dallyn. "So many farewells to make, my dear, you will excuse us, Mara; and, oh yes, do dine with us to-morrow evening, dear, will you? only women. A dorcas meeting, Mr. Vane; it wouldn't interest you."
"You are mistaken. I'd dearly love to observe you all from behind a screen or under a sofa."
"And listen to women's private chatter; fie, sir. Remember the fate of Paul Pry."
"You admit, then——"
"Nothing, Sir Inquisitive. Au revoir, Mara."
"Au revoir, dears, until to-morrow; seven or eight?"
"Eight. Good afternoon, Mr. Vane."
"Now," said Mara very seriously, "kindly explain yourself."
The Q.C. looked reflectively upon the carpet.
"Having failed in a certain enterprise—something about a mine, I think——"
"Well, well?" impatiently.
"Sails to-night from Sydney in his Dido. Has he said good-bye to you?"
The girl needed all the self-control which social training gives to women to preserve an unconcerned demeanour. She felt her heart contract a little; but her lips did not quiver, and she smiled in the Q.C.'s face.
A daring idea had occurred to her resourcefulness.
"Poor fellow," she murmured, with an artistic rendering of half-fitful, half-contemptuous indifference. "My fault. I should have sent for him; he will be thinking me very unkind!"
Mr. Vane seemed amused. "I think he does that."
"Oh, I judge by inference alone; he changed the topic when I so much as mentioned your name."
"The fact was, when I had won my gloves——"
"As I was saying, Mr. Vane, when I had fulfilled the conditions which entitled me to the wager—I take sixes, I might mention—Mr. Savage was—Oh, goodness me, what strange, importunate creatures men are! If a woman is merely friendly to them, they expect all manner of things beside."
The Q.C. laughed outright.
"Poor Savage; extended an inch, he required the proverbial ell, eh?"
"You are quite restfully understanding."
"I'll send the gloves to-morrow, Miss Hescombe. Black or tan?"
"Mixed, please, and buttoned to the elbow. All the same I'd like to say good-bye to him; he is really very nice, and quite a gentleman. A perfect host, Mr. Vane."
"Really, I knew, though, that you would find him interesting."
"Oh, quite; my note-book has profited immensely."
"It would be a kindness to send for him."
"If you see him again——"
"My dear lady, I would not dare—he is a most peculiar fellow; but if I might suggest a telegram——"
"But, men," the girl shook her head with a wise look, "who—er—you know, expect so much from a message of that kind."
"I could see that he would receive a note."
"A note might do," reflected Mara gravely; "but I do not like to trouble you."
"I assure you——"
The girl arose smiling. "Then one moment."
Returning five minutes later she handed the Q.C. a letter in an envelope, addressed but unfastened.
If Vane had possessed the curiosity of the average woman, he would have been surprised. It ran:
There has been a mistake. I must see you before you sail. How could you think of leaving me so?
JULIAN SAVAGE read Mara Hescombe's note with the deepest amaze. It was handed to him on the Dido's poop by a special messenger. Study revealed that it was sealed with Vane's private signet, and countersigned by the Q.C.'s well-known handwriting, else he had doubted its authenticity.
Julian felt an extraordinary exhilaration steal into his nerves.
"Burgess," he shouted, leaning over the rail.
The good-looking but wicked face of his mate immediately appeared at the ladder.
"I doubt if we shall sail to-night, after all. Business takes me ashore after dinner, and I may not be able to get through with it. Have everything prepared, however, against my return."
"Ay, ay, sir!"
Burgess saluted and retired, and Julian presently descended to the saloon to sit down to a lonely meal. He had scarcely commenced, however, when a steward presented two cards: "Mr. Karl Siegbert"—"Mr. Cuthbert Stone."
"Admit them," said Julian, smiling grimly as he conned over one of the pasteboards.
"How are you, Karl?—sit down. You, Mr. Stone, surprise me; you are either very courageous or very foolish."
"I do not follow you exactly," returned the American, with admirable sang-froid.
"I was right in my estimate, then; you are a fool. I have a little score to settle with you; did you think I would forget?"
"A score to settle—rather melodramatic, eh?"
"Possibly, but I can be dramatic at times, as you will see before you leave me. Ho, steward!"
"Mr. Burgess and two men forward."
"Ay, ay, sir!"
Cuthbert folded his arms and smiled ironically; but like magic Julian's order was executed, and the mate, with two sailors, entered the saloon.
"You sent for me, sir."
"Has the boat that brought these gentlemen gone?"
"Yes, sir; under orders to return in half an hour."
"Take that man, put a gag in his mouth, and keelhaul him."
"Ay, ay, sir!"
In the flash of an eye Cuthbert's arms were seized and he was hurried, struggling vainly, to the door. But Siegbert, with great quickness, intervened his huge bulk.
"Julian, Julian!" he cried.
"For my sake, listen to him first; I believe he has a proposal to make."
Julian made a sign, and the American staggered forward, free, but ashen-pale and trembling.
"Business," he gasped, "business!"
"Speak out, and quickly, then!"
Cuthbert looked hard at the marble face of his enemy, and most fully realised that he stood in deadly peril. The knowledge did not steady his nerves, and twice he swallowed his breath gaspingly before he could speak.
"In private," he muttered at last.
At a look from the captain, Burgess and the sailors withdrew, also Siegbert, but more leisurely.
"Well?" The tone was sharp and cutting as a knife.
"I have an offer to make you."
"What is it?"
"That letter you wrote me at Talala went first, by your mistake in addressing it, into Miss Hescombe's hands."
Julian smiled grimly.
"Sit down," he said, with a sudden and almost genial change of front. "Did Miss Hescombe read it?"
"Yes, and Sir Stuart also."
"How sad! Really I am distracted. How could I have been so careless?"
"You look distracted. I commence to suspect that your mistake was intentional."
"You commence to see clearly at last then, Mr. Stone. Pray, how did you get out of the difficulty; rather awkward for you, was it not?"
Cuthbert looked a little dazed, but presently shrugged his shoulders.
"Sir Stuart was all right; he refused to allow himself to be influenced by a communication which came to his knowledge by such means. He wouldn't even let me allude to the matter in my own defence."
"Honourable man! But Miss Hescombe?"
"I explained to her that the affair was a practical joke, the result of a bet between you and me."
"Rather a lame excuse, in my opinion," sneered Julian.
"Well, what would you? The whole thing was sprung upon me. Salterman had disappeared; I could think of nothing else. The trouble is, I have now to make my words good."
"Ah, may I ask, how did Miss Hescombe accept your—er—somewhat off-hand explanation?"
"To be quite frank with you, she has refused to even speak to me again until she has observed you and me together, and herself decided upon the terms of our amity."
Julian laughed heartily. "Clever girl!" he cried.
"And that is why I have called upon you," said Cuthbert.
Julian surveyed his companion with a mocking smile.
"I wonder I don't fall on your neck and kiss you for your condescension," he remarked.
"Of course, it resolves itself into a matter of business," said Cuthbert, with a rather thin assumption of unconcern.
"Oh, of course; but might I ask in what way?"
"Well, we might, for instance, call upon her together this evening."
Julian stared, frowned, smiled, and finally arose, bowing gravely.
"Really you compel my admiration, Mr. Stone. Your assurance is sublime."
"For an adequate consideration, of course."
Julian sat down again and toyed with a wine-glass held at arm's length.
"What are you worth?" he asked.
"Eh, I beg your pardon?"
"How much are you worth?"
"About twenty-five millions."
Julian shook his head. "Not enough—not half enough."
"What do you mean?"
"I'd require fifty millions at least for the job you outline."
Cuthbert nervously thrust his hands deep into his pockets.
"Oh, that's absurd; you're joking!"
"My jokes are not like yours, Mr. Stone," smiled Julian.
"Of course, I'd pay you handsomely. I'm willing to give you a cheque this moment for a thousand."
"Your extravagance appals me."
"Two thousand, then?"
"Burgess," called Julian.
Cuthbert leaned forward and spoke quickly in a hoarse, frightened whisper.
"Five thousand, then. Be reasonable, Savage. How could you make so much half so easily? My cheque on the spot beforehand, here, now, if you like—and for what? Just to appear to be friends with me for a single night."
"Sir," said Burgess at the door.
Julian's eyes were shining with a singular brightness.
"I have reconsidered the keel-hauling, Burgess; have a boat manned and ready in an hour."
"Ay, ay, sir!"
"And tell Mr. Siegbert to come down."
"The terms of our arrangement," said Julian, turning to the American "are: you write me a cheque this moment for £5,000, in consideration of which I promise to appear to be on friendly terms with you for this night, and this night only."
"Agreed," cried Cuthbert, monstrously relieved, and forthwith he drew from his pocket-book a chequebook and ink pen.
"Ha, I am glad to see that you gentlemen have arranged your differences," said Siegbert, entering.
Julian nodded. "You both must dine with me. Steward, champagne."
The dinner occupied an amazing time. Course followed course in endless succession, and with every relay a different wine was served. The host was brilliancy and charm personified. He delighted each of his guests by his cordial seeming, his clever stories, his endless flow of fresh and vivid anecdote, the excellency of his table, his rare and costly vintages. No want of theirs was left unsatisfied. An hour fled by afterwards, unnoticed, in lounging on cushions, chatting and smoking fragrant cigarettes, the like of which neither Siegbert nor the American, with all his wealth and knowledge of good things, had ever tasted before.
Julian appeared a very Epicurus, a most accomplished Sybarite. His guests astounded themselves by their own brilliance, unthinking that their latent excellencies of thought were skilfully extracted by a master conversationalist. It was only when the clock struck nine that any gave a thought to time.
Cuthbert arose with an exclamation.
Julian, full of apologies, retired to dress, but took a strangely long time in effecting his toilet. He came from his cabin finally, bringing his violin.
"What," cried the poet, "you contemplate enrapturing us unasked? Apollo bless you!"
Julian only smiled. It was after ten when they were announced at the Metropole. The Hescombes were entertaining other visitors, but were full of pleasure to receive the prodigals, for they had seen not one of the three gentlemen since their return to the city.
Mara welcomed them, a little overcome at seeing Julian and Cuthbert apparently upon the best of terms together; but before the crowd that filled her rooms she could not make remarks.
Other events soon surprised her even more. Julian, from his first entry into the room, excited widespread comment. Faultlessly dressed, his extraordinary face attracted universal stares. Many present had seen or heard of him; few had ever met him before. Some better acquainted than others with his history were inclined to resent his inclusion among their immaculate society; one or two actually took leave on his account. But all who remained were compelled to pay homage to his peculiar star, and before long he was the centre of a circle of admirers, chiefly young ladies and old men.
Mr. Vane, who regarded him in a measure as his protege, was quietly triumphant, and hung upon the outskirts of the circle bandying repartee with the centre, doing all in his power to help "the amazing fellow," as he privately described Julian, to maintain his sudden sovereignty.
Mara was a little hurt that she was not especially sought out, but she could not help, however, being pleased that the man she had honoured with the gift of her affection was admired by other women, since that very admiration reflected credit on her choice.
Many of the guests sang, or performed upon the grand. Mara, noticing Julian's violin, urged him to play, but he pleaded delay, later he would do his best, he said.
Strangely enough, when the bells had chimed eleven, and the assemblage showed signs of breaking up, of himself he drew forth his Stradivarius, and from the first note won from the strings he claimed attention.
People sought their seats again. There were musicians present who listened, staring open-mouthed at the erect and graceful figure, who, with seeming carelessness, could charm such matchless music from the hollow brown old wood.
And he was gracious. Did one name a masterpiece with half uttered wish, Julian straightway rendered it, holding his audience spell-bound while he played.
Midnight struck, and he put up his violin, smiling illegibly as he stooped to replace it in its case.
The guests departed in the next few moments one and all, save only Julian, Siegbert, and Cuthbert Stone.
Those three gentlemen stood almost alone in the room during a moment, for the host and hostess were bidding farewells at the door.
Cuthbert took Julian a little aside.
"On my soul," he said, "my money is well spent. I have not enjoyed an evening such as this in all my life before."
"I am glad to hear it," returned Julian; "I hope for your own sake that you never will again."
"You remember the terms of our agreement?"
"Perfectly. I was to appear to be your friend for to-night—and to-night only."
"Quite right. Well, the night is ended, and my friendship—that is all."
"My God, you don't mean——"
Cuthbert was seized with a sudden tremor, and he gazed with the look of a hunted animal into Julian's sneering face, appealing eyed beyond the expressive power of words.
Mara interrupted, coming like a gay fairy between them.
"So," she said, "you two have dared to play off a practical joke on me. I demand both to know the terms of it and to share in the profits."
Cuthbert's eyes, almost bloodshot with anxiety, were fastened despairingly on Julian Savage. Sir Stuart, Lady Hescombe, and the poet joined the little coterie.
"A stupid joke," muttered Cuthbert, scarcely knowing what he said.
"I suppose the bet was whether or not I would read the letter," said Mara. "I demand to know which of you had sufficient faith in me to risk his money on my honesty."
"I——" stammered Cuthbert.
Julian only smiled.
"Come, come, Mara, they are punished sufficiently," smiled Lady Hescombe.
"Not a bit of it!" cried the girl. "Cuthbert, you tell me everything; I'm not going to be taken in for nothing."
"Go on, Cuthbert, tell the truth," said Julian, in a peculiar voice.
The American cast a despairing glance at his rival.
"I wagered Mr. Savage a level hundred that you wouldn't read it."
"Oh, Mr. Savage, how very unkind of you to think so badly of me." Mara seemed really in earnest, though she smiled.
"I made no such bet," replied Julian quietly.
"But, but——" The whole party stared at him in astonishment, then at Cuthbert, whose face was ghastly pale.
"You liar, you liar!" shouted the American suddenly; "you have my money, my very cheque, in your pocket now."
Julian turned to him.
"I did not think you had so much brains as to jump at such a chance as that or I'd have come better prepared. 'Pon my soul, you surprise me; you're rather quick, after all. But you are too late, poor man; you forget that the cheque in my pocket is for a different amount than the 'level hundred' you spoke of just now."
Cuthbert gnashed his teeth and threw himself on Julian, overcome by the torture he endured into a sudden homicidal impulse. The ladies screamed, but the fracas was of short duration, for Julian had been long prepared. His right hand shot out straight from the shoulder, and struck Cuthbert on the chin. Falling back, half dazed by the blow, the American was seized before he could renew the struggle by the burly poet.
"What does this mean?" cried Sir Stuart. Then, very sternly, "Guests of mine brawling in my very rooms!"
Cuthbert cried out to Lady Hescombe:
"Don't believe this fellow, auntie, for God's sake; he is trying to ruin me in the opinion of my friends, the liar, the hound!"
"Karl," said Julian, "oblige me by assisting silence for a moment."
Siegbert nodded, and placed one huge hand over the American's mouth.
"I ask your pardon humbly, ladies, and yours too, Sir Stuart, for the unhappy accident which compels me to desecrate your hospitality by appearing in conflict with another of your guests. I ask a thousand other pardons for the request I am about to make. Will you concede me your attention for a moment in order that I may both assert and prove my blamelessness?"
His words were spoken with a quiet dignity that compelled respect even from the indignant baronet. Thenceforth he outlined to them concisely the whole transaction of his intercourse with Cuthbert Stone, omitting nothing, even his own crafty device in misdirecting letters, and the still, more questionable arrangement made that very evening on the Dido. Finally, he produced Cuthbert's cheque for the consideration money, and after all had been satisfied by its examination he tore it into small pieces, which he scattered on the floor.
"You may condemn me if you will," he added, "for the attitude I have assumed in these affairs. Perhaps it would have been more manly in me to have treated the whole thing with despite. But I confess to being very human, and I could not see a man who had villainously tricked me get away scot free after he had worked me a real injury, for I will not conceal from you I was most anxious to realise upon my mine."
The baronet showed both his belief and sympathy in a practical manner.
"That affair can easily be re-opened if you like, Mr. Savage."
But Julian put the suggestion aside.
"It is too late, unfortunately," he said. Then turning to the poet: "Don't bother any longer, Karl."
Cuthbert Stone, who had listened to everything in constrained silence, found himself free. He went at once to Lady Hescombe.
"You don't believe that fellow, auntie?"
The old lady shook her head. "You have done very wrong, Cuthbert," she said sadly.
"Do you desert me, too?" But Mara did not answer. He reached the door. "I'll get even with you for this, Mr. Vernon thief, if it costs me every penny I possess." And disappeared.
Julian shrugged his shoulders as he faced the others.
"I must not detain you longer. Considering the trouble I have already caused you, you will not regret that my 'good-night' is also 'good-bye.'"
"What, you are leaving Sydney?"
"I sail almost at once."
Farewells were spoken, the last of which was Mara's at the stairway.
"I must see you to-morrow," she said.
"But I sail in an hour."
"For me you will postpone."
Julian discovered a pleasure in being thus disposed of.
"At what hour, then," he asked, "and where?"
"At three, by the sun-dial in the Gardens."
"May I?" he asked, holding her hand.
The girl glanced quickly round her. "Someone might see you."
"Well, then." He kissed her hand; and Karl coming, departed in the poet's company.
Mara found herself wishing that Julian had not been satisfied with her hand.
Julian walked along the pavement silently, feeling a strangely settled delight in all his being, as if his life had been suddenly ordered by some omnipotent hand into a deep channel, where calm delights abounded. Analysing this, however, he discovered that his life, so ordered, represented the intervening space between that moment and the meeting-time arranged for later on that same already dawning day.
As they passed the Herald office in Hunter Street, the friends found a little knot of excited night watchmen, prowlers, and cabmen, gathered round a notice-board.
"Some late cable, I suppose," said Siegbert. "I wonder what it is?"
They could not perceive it for the crowd, and were compelled to ask. A coffee-stall proprietor answered them, waving his apron enthusiastically as he spoke.
"War has been declared between America and Spain."
THE great yellow sun bathed the Gardens in a flood of golden warmth. The trees movelessly folded their leafy heads in lazy slumber. Even the birds and insects slept drowsily in spite of the attractions of honied flowers, fragrant and multitudinous. The terraces only, unprotected by aught of shade, shone fiercely, refracting upwards again the ardent beams that streamed down from the cloudless azure of the sky. The light was strong and pitiless. It revealed to Mara Hescombe the half-diffident, half-expectant nervousness of her lover. It disclosed to Julian Savage a certain disappointed air about the girl. Neither, in fact, found the sunlight an aid to lovers' dalliance. Julian did not appear the same romantic figure of the night before. He looked hot, uncomfortable, anxious. Mara also felt a measure of the same humours.
They met without ardour and talked about the now accomplished war, the summer heat, local politics. Entrenched in a mound, fenced round with giant cactus and canopied with the shade of Moreton figs, they spent an hour seated, gazing idly forth into the glittering bay where the warships lay silently, curtained with canvas awnings.
Mara pitied a little launch which baked undefended from the glare in the centre of the cove, her smoke stack fuming restlessly.
"It is mine," said Julian. "It waits for me."
The girl felt the words keenly, for they brought home to her the fact that she was spending last hours with her lover.
"You go then, really?"
"When you leave me."
"For how long?"
"I do not know.''
"Julian, I know so little about you; tell me more."
"What is there to tell?"
"Where are you going?"
"I do not know."
"It's the truth."
"Why, why, you must know. One does not set forth on a voyage such as that——"
"Unless one is compelled to, Mara."
"How can you be so compelled?"
Julian smiled somewhat sadly. "I have no money left."
"Julian, you contemplate something—something evil."
The girl's eyes were wide with a sudden emotion.
"You infer; from what?"
"Something tells me. I feel it, Julian."
"Don't laugh at me!"
"I cannot, for you are too near the truth, however you arrived at your conclusion. I go to win what I want. If I fail I shall not return."
"Julian, you do not love me."
"You are wrong, dear."
"Look at me, so. Now tell me what you want most; the truth, dear."
"I never lie."
"Then answer me!"
"I knew you did not love me. I am nothing to you."
"Better you should think so, perhaps."
"Can you deny it?"
"How can I win you without?"
"Do you wish to win me?"
"Do you wish me to win you?"
"Oh, how cruel you are!"
"Am I cruel, dear? It does not seem so to me. I know really less of you than you of me; and I am curious to discover many things."
The girl flashed at him a quaintly inquiring glance.
"I have often wondered that you never asked me questions."
"I never could feel I possessed the right."
"But you do, you do! Oh, you are a strange man, Julian. Are you really as modest as you pretend to be?"
"Modest. I! No one ever accused me of that before. But would you answer me?"
"You might try me and see."
"How many lovers have you had, Mara?"
The girl flushed faintly. "One or two."
"Did they—did they ever kiss you?"
Julian's face betrayed a quaint consciousness of the impertinence of his query, and he did not look at Miss Hescombe as he spoke.
Mara flushed painfully this time. "Yes," she whispered.
"Not very often."
Julian felt a strange jealousy awake within him.
"How many besides myself have kissed you?" he muttered, his voice cold and hard.
"Two," whispered the girl.
"Did you love them?"
"I thought so at the time."
"Ah! perhaps I am the third; perhaps you are only thinking now?" his tones were very bitter.
Mara took his hand.
"Dear, do not be unkind; I am sure of nothing so much in the world as that I love you. Kiss me, Julian," she whispered, seeing his face cold.
But Julian pushed his hand aside.
"How can you be sure?" he muttered. "What is the difference? You thought you loved them once, and they kissed you as I have kissed you. How did you find out that you did not care?"
"Their kisses taught me, dear. I hated them."
The man's eyes flashed. "And mine?" he asked, passionately regarding her.
The girl drooped her eyes. "I do not hate them," she murmured.
Julian gathered her to him, and rained swift, hot caresses on her parted lips, so that she gasped for breath. At last he held her from him, panting, blushing, and dewy-eyed, a little struggling, too.
"Let me go, dear," she whispered.
"No, not till—quick, tell me, Mara, what you feel?"
His glance commanded hers, drawing her regard imperatively to his. Waves of warm colour surged over her face as she met his eyes. A vague distress and fear commingled in her own.
"Oh, let me go!" she cried.
"Never; answer me!"
"I feel—Oh, Julian, let me go!"
"Oh, Julian, you make me feel—that—that—Oh, I cannot tell you!"
She threw herself forward on his breast to hide her burning face from his searching gaze, but Julian thrust her back again relentlessly.
"You make me feel—that I—am—a—woman."
"Tell me," he commanded quickly, "has any other man made you feel like that?"
"No, no! On my honour, no!"
The words were almost sobbed out, and the girl had turned deadly pale. This time Julian let her rest quietly against his shoulder, so that she might recover her composure. He did not know that she was almost fainting. For his own part, a most extraordinary flood of emotions swayed his heart and brain. He felt his purpose drifting; his blood was on fire; his nerves kept thrilling sweetly at the contact of the girl's soft form so confidingly reposing in his arms. A thousand tiny voices seemed whispering in his ears, bidding him let his shadowy ambitions go, and grasp instead the real treasure of his sweetheart's love. But his glance straying seaward through the lattice work of leaves caught the flash of brass work on the little launch awaiting him. A stream of other thoughts flowed in. His self-command, ever at his beck, returned, and in a moment he was cold and passionless again.
"I must leave you, Mara," he said suddenly.
The girl looked up a little dazed. "Where would you go?" she asked.
Mara remembered. "Julian, give up this voyage; for my sake, dear, give it up!" she cried.
"And you—would you marry me?"
She hid her face again.
"I will do what you wish," she whispered, so low that the words, but for the deep stillness, could not have been heard.
The man's lips curled as he looked down upon her bowed head.
"Love in a cottage, eh! But for how long? We are neither of us fitted for it, Mara. My wants are too many, and yours none too few, I fancy. Is that brutal enough?"
The girl stood up. "Quite," she said; "good-bye."
Julian looked at her a little unsteadily. "You spoke last night something of a mistake."
"It does not matter now."
"It still matters."
"No—Good-bye." She suddenly hid her face. "Oh, forget I was ever so unmaidenly."
"You unmaidenly! never! You couldn't be if you tried!"
"I threw myself at your feet. How justly I am punished!"
"Dear, listen to me." He drew her back to the seat. "Our lives are very brief, and only worth the living if we gain our best desires in their span. All my life I have longed for power; I cannot leave my ambition yet. For years I have tried honestly to realise my dreams. My last hope was in that mine. It failed. I gained instead the knowledge of a power to love—the hope, too, of winning you. More than ever, therefore, I need the means of power. I have now at my command still left a stock-in-trade, a lever to open the world's treasure-chest, and a chance. I love you, dear, but I cannot let the chance go. If I took you at your word we would both be for ever miserable—you, in regretting your sacrifice——"
"You think not now, but hereafter. For myself, I am one of the restless ones. My very nature would fret you."
"This chance you speak of, is it honest?"
Julian frowned. "If it were not?"
"I could not marry you even if it gave you millions."
The man looked at her with a steady, impersonal glance. "You are very fair to look on, Mara."
"Oh, not fair enough!" The words were unutterably sad.
"Your mind is pure and honest, I think."
"No; not enough!"
"To tempt me to keep straight, you would say. Ah, well, drop me! I admit I am a bad lot, dear. Let our good-bye be farewell; for you a thousand times the better part."
Tears gathered in the girl's eyes. "I wonder how I love you; you who are not even true to me?"
"No, your own letter; and besides——" She hesitated.
"Ah! you mean poor Jenny?"
Mara flushed at his unmoved tone. "You say that; what is she to you?"
"She is my sister."
"Does it amaze you? Poor Jenny and I, in our mother, share a common misfortune. She is an evil woman, Mara, more evil than I could paint."
"Is dead, I hope. He was a gentleman by birth, but by choice a villain. Oh, I am sprung from gracious stock! He deserted my mother when I was quite a child, and she followed his example in regard to me. I thought her dead for long. Afterwards I knew that she had passed herself off as a maid, and married her present husband, honest John Schofield."
"You say these things to try me."
"They are true, my dear. Come, I show you myself as I am. You were deceived before, seeing that you were ignorant. Draw back now, and I shall not blame but rather honour you. Purity like yours should not touch pitch like mine. An ill match, an ill match! There are some words I remember. Shall I say them to you? They would fit your lips well. Marlowe surely wrote them for you to say to me."
"'Since there's no help, come, let us kiss and part;
Nay, I have done, you get no more of me;
And I am glad, yea, glad with all my heart,
That thus so cleanly I myself can free.
Shake hands for ever, cancel all our vows,
And when we meet at any time again,
Be it not seen on either of our brows
That we one jot of former love retain.'"
The girl was crying silently, her face hidden in her hands; but the man arose and stood before her.
"Good-bye, Mara. Forget me!"
She felt her hand touched softly, then laid aside with gentle reverence. Afterwards a long silence.
At last, and suddenly, a great loneliness came upon her, and she sprang with a passionate gesture to her feet.
"Oh, my dear, come back!" she cried; but Julian had gone, and the little launch, which had been waiting in the bay, was even then disappearing round a bend in the cove, leaving a long drooping trail of smoke that lowered like an evil shadow above the sparkling waters.
WHEN the Dido was twenty miles at sea, fast steaming on a north-easterly course, a letter was brought to Julian Savage. It was written in crabbed German characters, which, freely translated, ran:—
"Being desirous, Julian, of viewing personally and unobserved the private home of your subjects and comrades, I visited lately at midnight that part of our beautiful city of Sydney which is celebrated as the habitat of 'The Rocks.' Perhaps I should have asked your august permission, but I wished to see it while not under the shadow of your patronage.
"How shall I describe my experience? I found a complete suburb of narrow lanes, tiny stone houses—dirty, dark, and evil-looking—a network of by-ways and purlieus admirably adapted for the quick passage of feet justice-hunted, where easily one could be lost or lose one's pursuers.
"The streets were dark and lonely; the municipal lamps very properly provided for the protection of passengers—in every case unlit or perhaps put out. As my steps strayed, silently as may be, through the gloomy thoroughfares, I felt that I was watched. Strange calls and counter calls echoed through the night as if unseen sentinels had been alarmed at my approach.
"Nervous at last and lost—do you smile, Julian?—I slunk into the deep shadows of a building, taller than the rest, and my back to the wall, and with clenched fists, I waited earnestly, haunted by a nameless fear, as if some shadowy evil crept after me to work its vengeance for my intrusion upon its dark dominions. But I was wrong; nothing disturbed me, although the quiet was frequently shaken with muttered murmurings. Soon I wandered on again and presently came to a ledge of sandstone, free from houses, overlooking tops of terraced cottages in a gulch beneath, and farther on the sea. It was very peaceful there, and, tempted by the stillness, I stretched myself at length in the angle of an escarpment of rock, and gazed up at the stars, as is my custom to think and dream. How long I lay there I know not, but through my dreaming I seemed to hear voices, and at last your name uttered loudly recalled me to my situation. Two men, from whose view the friendly shadows hid my form, were conversing earnestly of you. I listened anxiously. They spoke of many things—of your past, your leadership of their clan, your ambitions, your faults and follies. Lost in wonder, I reflected on the measure that is taken by the smallest of those above them. They discussed you without caution, sometimes with critical abuse, sometimes with amatory laudation, for it was plain that they hold you dearly. They spoke of your cunning, your ability to elude the law, and evidently for that they rendered ardent homage. They spoke of your futile efforts to amass a fortune honestly, and as evidently for such virtuous attempts despised you. They spoke of your intentions for the future hopefully, as if you had at length been brought to see the error of your honest ways.
"The rest of their converse amazed me, for I gathered that you hold in contemplation a shuddersome thing. Julian, think deeply before you engage in it! I dare not write what I have heard; but, my friend, I fear I know what is in your heart. You have brains, genius I might say—genius that might benefit the world properly employed, but better a thousand times that you were dead than you should do the thing you think of. What is success after all, even the giant success which your skill and energy might attain, if you seek it through the halls of crime? Dead Sea fruit, which will not only wither in your grasp, but prove infinitely bitter to your taste when you have won it. For God's sake, Julian, keep clean-handed. You have not only yourself to consider now, remember that the happiness of another depends upon the manner in which you arrange your life. What will you say to her—for you are no hypocrite, whatever else you may be—when she asks? Everything dies but good and evil, Julian, forget not that; but while the one lives in a godlike freedom, the other rots for always, and always in stinking corruption. Bear with me, boy, and take my words as from a friend who loves you and wishes you all good.
"Baron of the German Empire."
Julian read the letter gravely to the end. Finished he asked the steward from whom he had received it.
"From Mr. Siegbert, sir."
"Did he come aboard himself?"
"Yes, sir; he is in state-room number 5."
Julian started in dismay, but the man's face was so entirely natural that he dismissed him. Walking carelessly to the cabin indicated, he rapped at the door.
"Come in," answered a deep voice.
"Come out, rascal!" said Julian grimly.
There was the sound of a gruff laugh, followed by the opening of the door, and the Teuton giant stepped forth.
"Well," he growled, "must I walk the plank?"
"No, but you must get ashore again; that, too, as quickly as possible, for I have no time to lose. I don't like your joke, Karl. Steward!"
"Send the mate."
"You would put me ashore, Julian?" asked Siegbert ponderously.
"I have no other course, and even that means a loss of hours; we are twenty miles or more from land."
"One moment, boy. Let me think!"
The mate appeared at the door. "You sent for me, sir?"
"'Bout ship, Mr. Burgess. We return to Sydney."
"'Bout ship, I tell you!" Julian's voice was thunderous.
"Ay, ay, sir!"
"Wait," cried Siegbert. He turned to Julian and muttered low, "You are determined in your course?"
"You read my letter?"
"You have considered, weighed well the problem?"
"Long before you wrote."
The poet appeared absorbed in thought, but he gazed rapidly from the captain to the mate, as if comparing them.
"Well," he said at last in German, "why should not I also? I have long wished to partake in a real adventure. I shall never have such an opportunity again."
"What!" cried Julian.
"Well, why not?"
"By God, I do not! You will see what sort of pirate I shall make."
"Old friend," said Julian gravely, "you cannot deceive me."
"Young man," replied Siegbert, "one of my ancestors was a Norse Viking. His blood lives in me again. Bah! you shall see!"
Julian stared at him, but the poet's face was stolid and illegible.
"As you will," he said, a little wearily at last. "Never mind that order, Burgess. Keep the Dido on her present course."
The mate withdrew, and the friends for a long minute looked at each other solemnly. Then Julian burst into a loud but almost mirthless laugh.
"What amuses you?" asked the other.
"It is unlikely, Karl, that even in your wide reading you could have dipped into the realms of the American penny dreadful."
"The penny dreadful; I have heard of such things, but what?"
"When quite a child I read an awesome book, entitled, 'The One-eyed Pirate of the Invisible Island.' Our situation recalls it to me vividly."
The poet smiled.
"Do you know, Julian, you are quite a boy in some things still. That is one of the reasons why I have great hopes of you."
"You are very kind, Herr Baron."
"Not at all. By-the-bye, when does the—er—bloodshed commence? I expect you have mapped out a plan. Shall we fly the cross-bones?"
"My dear Karl, in this nineteenth century we conduct such business after different methods. I shall explain my plan without words; see here."
He produced two flags, which he unfolded and spread upon the table. One the stars and stripes of America, the second the Imperial flag of Spain.
Siegbert reflected silently for some time, looking at the ensigns.
"By turns," he said at last, "you will belong to either nation, and to the benefit of neither. An excellent plan, by Thor and Odin—a noble, knightly plan."
His voice spun out a thread of piercing satire, which made the other start and pale with rage. Julian directed a piercing glance at the speaker, but the stolid Teuton's face seemed unable to hold a double meaning.
"And the victims," went on the poet, "will you burn them over a grid, or persuade them to walk a plank?"
"Neither," answered Julian curtly.
"What, you will let them go?"
"Ah, I see, you contemplate arranging for them a humane death, perhaps. After catching and robbing a ship you will scuttle her, and send all on board to perdition by express?"
Julian, the victim of an irony he could not quite locate, frowned, but did not know how to give expression to his resentment.
"Speak plainly in future, Karl," he said presently. "I think you are trying to mock me. As for your question, you have surmised my exact intentions."
The German's face for a fleeting second wore an expression of absolute horror, but he quickly controlled himself.
"You are foolish to think I mock you, my friend. But when you rob these people do not you imagine that you work them sufficient evil? Could not you arrange to spare their lives?"
"Impossible. I have no wish to shed blood, but for our own protection we must absolutely leave no signs behind us. There is a trite old saying, 'Dead men tell no tales.' We shall be in no position to allow tales to be told of us."
"And you are prepared to butcher fellow-humans in cold blood on this wholesale plan for the sake of a little paltry gain, and for your own selfish safety."
"Bah!" said Julian, "you are pale; your Viking blood is rather thin, it seems. It is still possible for me to put you ashore."
"The old Norsemen killed in battle and in hot blood."
"Ay, and murdered afterwards in cold. True types of pirates were your Vikings."
"Shall I 'bout ship, Karl?"
"No, I shall not turn back now. When do you strike the first blow?"
"In ten days we should cross the track of the Juan d' Alvarez, a Spanish merchant steamer running between Valparaiso and Manilla. I am reliably informed that she carries a fair store of specie. We should make at least ten thousand in our maiden venture."
"One of the Pacific liners trading with Australia would do very well, but I have scores to choose from."
"That is lucky," said the poet drily.
Julian Savage took a certain pleasure in shocking his friend with plain and brutal speech in the conversation recounted, but he was actually far from being animated by the cold-blooded ferocity which appeared to dictate his words. By nature he was to a great extent a callous-hearted man, and indifferent to any suffering in which he did not personally share. In this and other respects he had claims to regard himself as fashioned from similar clay to that used in the moulding of historic heroes.
Napoleon would never have been Emperor of France and tyrant over half the world if he had possessed a heart permeable in the most infinitesimal degree by one spark of human pity. Xerxes was the cruellest of the cruel; Alexander a prince of butchers, who slaughtered thousands for his pleasure; Hannibal a human boar; Caesar a very priest of death! They all had genius, granted. That genius had painted their names unforgettably upon the pages of history and romance, but the first cause of their success in every instance was the pulseless, pitiless heart that beat in each of their iron bosoms. In every epoch of the world has been born some individual who has thus been destined to rise immeasurably above his fellows. Thousands of others similarly, or even more plentifully, endowed so far as intellect is concerned, spring up, then for want of opportunity wear their lives out and die every day, it might almost be said every moment, without leaving the figment of a sign to mark their transit or their final exit. Other giant minds, again, cumbered by that subtle handicap, a human heart, have often viewed God-occasioned opportunities thrust before their grasp which only needed the embracing to achieve their own supreme aggrandisement. Voluntarily they have let these chances pass, regretfully perhaps, but better pleased to dwell for ever in obscurity than welcome the goddess Fortune, her robe stained by the pain of others. It is possible that such as these have suffered also from another lack: that activity and insolence of egotism which in all cases seems to have enshrouded the characters of the heroic dead. Without that strain of mind even the coldest heart, the keenest talent, is at nought. For lack of it difficulties assume their true proportions, circumstances become chains of iron; customs, immutable prison-houses of the soul. To achieve supreme success it is necessary to break from the ruts of time, to be blind to the obstacles of reason, to defy custom; and to do these things requires an absolute and most abandoned self-esteem. Julian Savage, to some extent, possessed the three most vital qualities necessary to procure for their owner the realisation of ambitious dreams. He was callous-hearted, talented exceptionally, and like Napoleon Buonaparte, he believed most ardently in his star. Unfortunately, circumstance had placed him in a land where Order was the people's king of gods. Even so handicapped by Fate he had succeeded in winning for himself a certain sovereignty among unsettled minds, but his foresight taught him the hopelessness of attempting more with the means at his command.
He saw most clearly that the Fates above had gradually changed the condition of the world into the inception of a new and third epoch of humanity.
The first, though long dead, appealed most to his tastes—the epoch of the sword. Had he lived in another age he might have become a famous general. Fighting for its own sake he liked, but the qualities of leadership were also his. He possessed that peculiar personal fascination which produces followers. Active and filled with energy, he was the man to grasp an opportunity and ride it to the death. Beyond all, he was iron-willed.
The second epoch, that of the pen, did not suit him at all. He was too active, too quick and ardent-brained to translate his thoughts to the enduring care of ink. The third epoch, that of gold, suited him perhaps least of all. But he detected and measured accurately its enormous and steadily increasing power over the dispositions of human life. He recognised that to the really ambitious man its acquisition was the very basis, the first and most necessary step to the ladder of power, and for years he had steadily and with stony patience set himself to the task of amassing money. But the only process he could find was slow and foreign to his inclinations. No sure and quick path could he discover, although his eyes searched in many strange directions.
Speculation he never indulged in, for he was not one to wager where the balance of chances inclined so fearfully against him. But a means at length occurred to his imaginings, a pathway which promised sure fortune, though it led through the dark-stained halls of crime.
While dallying with the thought, opportunity arrived to clinch his determination, and he was enabled to purchase for a tithe of her real value the Dido, a vessel admirably adapted to carry out his half-formed purpose. That purpose was wholesale piracy on the high seas, to be effected in a ruthless and thorough manner characteristic of the man.
His complete design was to occasionally intercept some magnificent merchant steamer in its passage through the ocean, force it to surrender under the muzzles of his guns, and, if in a part of the sea ship-frequented, compel it to follow him until a spot was reached where he could work without fear of interruption. There arrived he would sack each ship thoroughly of all valuables, and afterwards arrange that in its last journey to the ocean ooze it should leave no witness behind who could testify to the perpetration of so monstrous an outrage.
During the time that Julian was endeavouring to sell his mine to Sir Stuart Hescombe, to a certain extent his purpose had languished. For the first time in his life he had been brought under the immediate influence of the society of pure women, and the companionship of gentlemen by birth and disposition. Sir Stuart had almost treated him as a son; Karl Siegbert, a gifted poet and philosopher had, unasked, sought his friendship. Mara Hescombe had woven around him the spell of her gentle womanhood; had compelled his admiration, and extracted his affections from out the depths of his selfish reserve.
Latterly he had almost forgotten his ambitions in the excitement of experiencing new sensations, fresh and hitherto undreamed-of emotions.
Had he been successful in disposing of his property, it were impossible to predict what might have happened, but his failure had exhausted every free shilling he possessed, and, returned to the city, he found himself disappointed in love, for had not Mara flouted and dismissed him, and moreover penniless, except for the last of his possessions, the Dido, who waited at her anchors, manned, stocked, and ready for the enterprise he had originally conceived. It was then only that he finally committed himself. Embittered by his failure, enraged and hurt by Mara's sudden change of front, which he could in no way account for, he discovered himself hating the world, which continued to deny him success by anything approaching legitimate achievement.
Turning to his older associates, he found a section ready primed to meet his wishes.
Burgess, his second in command, a clever and dangerous man, to whom he had previously confided something of his plans, had narrowly anticipated his desires. On announcing his intentions, his proposal was accorded an enthusiastic welcome.
No time had then remained for thought. Many things small and great on inquiry were found to be necessary to the enterprise.
Julian was compelled to confess to his men his penniless condition. With eager promptitude they supplied his needs, and thus became in a completer sense his partners, and at the same time he was bound over more thoroughly to fulfil his undertaking.
When he received Mara's letter, bidding him to her side again, and later, when he found her still unchanged in her regard for him, a sudden revulsion of feeling had revealed a nascent regret that was almost shame for the part he was about to play upon the world's stage. The girl's purity of thought, her high aspirations, her fixed ideas of honour, and of right and wrong, had shone out in terrible contrast with the deeds his dark and gloomy mind held in contemplation.
But he forced these considerations into silence by a strong effort of his will. He loved Mara, he honoured her, but neither his love nor his reverence were powerful enough to do more than disturb him with a sense of his own unworthiness beside her worth. He knew himself sufficiently to know that in all his life he could care for no other woman. He wanted her ardently for his own, but she compelled his reverence and drew from him a latent chivalry. The most unselfish act of his life was achieved when he counselled her to forget him.
SIEGBERT spent the greater part of his time in studying the faces of the Dido's company. Between whiles he talked with Julian Savage, or wrote for hours in the cabin, as the inspiration seized him, but he always returned at last to his physiognomical observations.
Daylight each morning saw him on deck chatting with this one or that, putting occasional terse questions as a surgeon would apply a probe, weighing carefully the answers he received, his small, keen eyes all the while alight with quick intelligence.
The net result of his inquiries, calculations, and experiments was then transferred, by force of long literary habits, to certain blank pages in an already well-stocked note-book.
Considering the fact that Siegbert was both a poet and a learned student of human nature, his jottings might be relied upon to furnish fairly accurate information as to the manners and characteristics of the Dido's crew.
"At first sight, boys every one, mere lads ranging in age from nineteen to twenty-five. Sixty-four of them. But on acquaintance their youth discloses much experience. In face, few of them are quite unfortunate, while some have claims to genuine handsomeness. But all have lines of vice ingrained upon their features, or nearly all. There are three lads in the engine-room with almost innocent hearts, if I am any judge—Quale, Connelly, and Rogers. Led away by their advanced companions, of course, and fired with the false, romantic aspect of their emprise; but I fancy when the time comes they will not prove true pirates. We shall see.
"The rest are ripe for any mischief, blatant brutes whose chief delight is contained in the anticipation of bloody cruelties. Beneath the surface they are cowards, I am sure; brave now because they are capably led and massed together. In a mob, fit for any dastard crime, but singly, vague and irresponsible ruffians, pretending the best intentions in the world.
"Their faces are mostly hairless; some show traces of moustache and beard, but not many, God be praised, for thus their mouths are left unveiled, providential ensigns of their natures meant to warn the practised watcher to beware.
"Burgess is the only power among them. The others are weak and feeble-natured, treacherous and unstable; but the mate is made of different earth. Stronger than the rest, he is ten times more wicked; vice is a pastime with the crew, with him it is a deep-seated and earnest ambition. I loathe the man—man do I call him, he is a monster; clever, facile-tongued, and amiable, if taken as he shows himself in speech, but beneath his fair seeming a cold and calculating villain. Well I recognise now the influence to which my boy has so long been subjected. Insidious, plausible, servile, he is the worst of companions for such a man as Julian. The dirtiest thing about him is his cowardice. He conceals it ably, but not from me. I read him as if his very heart were an open book. I fear him all the more for his white liver, for it supplies him with a watchful cunning impenetrable by an unsuspicious eye. He has little intellect, however, in spite of his cleverness. He is shallow as a puddle, and in unguarded seconds one can see the mud beneath, slimy, filthy, horrible. The sort of creature who plots, plans, directs, but lacks the courage requisite to lead. A dangerous enemy, a still more deadly friend.
"He likes Julian now, but only, I opine, because he expects his master to serve his own cherished ends. When the time comes, I foresee that I shall have to kill him. I feel a comfortable glow steal through me at the thought; to rid the earth of such an evil would be a better deed than I have ever wrought in my life yet.
"I have struck up a friendship with the three lads, Quale, Connelly, and Rogers; there is hope for them, they may turn out good children yet. I won their regard completely by recalling a few old tricks of my student days, simple feats of strength which appear amazing to their slender frames.
"The crew in general regard me with good-humoured toleration. They answer my questions sometimes truthfully. Sometimes again they attempt—in their own parlance—to 'pull my leg,' efforts which are ridiculously easy to detect; but I pretend to accept their statements au pied de la lettre, and I fancy they rather pity my dense ignorance. Burgess alone, gifted with amazing cunning, views me with an intangible suspicion, the result, I fancy, of the silent conflict of our natures. I have long known that it is impossible for a good man, not also a fool, when brought into contact with a rogue, not to recognise the rogue beneath his mask, however decorated. I am now convinced that in the reversed case the rogue will detect virtue, however well concealed. But God forbid that I should pose, even to myself, as a good man. Only I may truthfully assure myself of being less evil than Burgess, even remembering the while the parable of the Pharisee and the publican. At least, I am convinced that though I be pharisaical, Julian's mate has never uttered that humble cry, 'Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.' Should he die by my hand, however, I shall spend the earnings of a month in procuring masses for his soul, and even say a prayer for him occasionally myself, as a good Catholic should."
The last of Karl Siegbert's notes upon the Dido's crew here ended abruptly, running its tail into the opening lines of a sonnet, inscribed "To a fair maiden."
There was really nothing in the book to show that the poet harboured any of the feelings the conventional pirate should. A reader of his notes might imagine him an enemy of crime, from his denunciation of Burgess, for example. His poems likewise betrayed a profound sympathy with all created things and a deep love of his own kind.
And yet he had freely, and of his own accord, attached himself to an expedition wherein he could expect to witness, if not to share, in many sanguinary deeds. Truly a somewhat original pirate.
It might be argued that Julian Savage possessed either too little or very remarkable discrimination to have accepted the services of such a follower, for the poet, even in the company of his captain, showed no great enthusiasm for throat-cutting, the avowed business of his chief.
On the contrary, indeed, the Teuton giant exercised on such occasions an exceedingly nimble wit and a power of sarcasm truly surprising in one apparently so stolid. And he actually dared to direct both his wit and his sarcasm not only against the subject-matter of the expedition, but also against his chief for undertaking such a scheme. The strangest part was that his essays passed without rebuke.
How surprised the narrow-visaged Burgess would have been had he been able to hear their discourses at such times. As a fact, he sometimes watched the pair, marvelling at the poet's eager face, wondering, too, what manner of things they might discuss that could call such sombre clouds to the brow of his captain; but he was far from suspecting the real cause.
As the days progressed, Julian discovered an anxiety to avoid the poet. He lay a-bed of mornings longer, so that he would not meet him if he walked the deck.
In the daytime he retired more often to that part of the vessel sacred to its master, and there he stood gazing into the swirling sea, or up into the sky, moping and musing.
What his thoughts were, no man may know; but that they were sad was evident from the frequency with which his head would droop upon his chest, and from the melancholy light in his grey eyes, when by chance he turned them on the men who from afar watched him reverently, as children might watch a grown man whom they both fear and love.
The discipline maintained upon the Dido was nearly perfect. Was a command voiced, the proper men sprung to its execution with the speed of thought. All was order and quietness. No man at his duties spoke unless addressed. The condition of the decks was of dazzling cleanliness. No one of her Brittanic Majesty's ships of war could boast a fitter crew or a better service.
Fine weather waited on the voyage, and when the sixth day broke the sea was of a glassy stillness. Approaching the deck early on that morning the poet was surprised to find a great bustle proceeding everywhere. The crew were busy as a swarm of bees under the guidance of the mate, stripping the guns of their coverings, and presently the vessel halted in her course, as if mechanically.
Siegbert, glancing over the rail, saw about a mile astern a floating target with a flag attached, and it became plain to him that the Dido was about to practise with her guns.
He swore a great oath to himself, and with a sudden rage in his heart sought the captain.
He found him moodily pacing the conning bridge. Karl, mounting the ladder, pointed to the preparations below and clapped his huge hand roughly on the shoulder of his chief.
"What means that?" he demanded angrily.
Julian stepped back a pace, calm and cold.
"You have eyes," he answered.
"Has not this mock gone far enough?" cried the poet, the words breaking from his lips in a storm. "Are you mad that you thus encourage those savage children? Soon they will thoroughly believe that you countenance their folly, and it will then be impossible to turn them. Have I not watched them, studied them these five days past? Am I blind that I should not know them by this? I tell you, Julian, that they are together, the rascals, and they gain courage every day—courage and villainy. Oh, you fancy you are their king, their god; but if you are not careful that will not last any longer than you are able to flatter their desires. You are sober, you are sane, and yet you do not see. Do you choose to see? In your heart you know you cannot go on with this sham—you are a man, not a fiend. Shame on you to encourage, then, those children in their folly. You are playing, but have a care—they do not play."
He ceased for lack of words.
"I am not playing," said Julian.
"Not playing! Boy, look into your heart and know yourself. My life on it, you are not fit for the crimes you contemplate."
"Go to your room," said Julian sternly.
Siegbert folded his arms and laughed. "You cannot order me."
Julian looked into his eyes. "Go," he said, and pointed to the ladder.
The poet stood for the space of half a moment gazing into eyes that were cold as steel and menacing as drawn swords.
Conquered at last by some quality he could not understand, he withdrew stumblingly, sad and discomfited, to the saloon. There he rested lonely throughout the day, speaking to no one but the servants at his meals, for Julian came not near him. At intervals he heard the heavy boom of cannon overhead as the practice proceeded, followed by the cheers and cries of the ship's company as the target was hit or missed.
Hour after hour he sat smoking at his great pipe for solace, and thinking many bitter thoughts, inventing many plans. Often he would strike his hand upon the table and swear some gruff German oath, while sometimes he muttered half aloud the subject of his cogitations.
At dusk Julian found him leaning forward, his face buried in his hands. The captain touched his shoulder gently, and Siegbert started up, disclosing a face wet with tears.
"Well," he said roughly, "what do you want with me?"
"Better you had not come," said Julian.
"Better that I had played informer on my friend, and prevented him from selling his soul to Satan."
"Come, come, you would have been laughed at for a madman."
"Fool that I was to think that I could turn your stubborn heart!"
"Fool I to let you come with me!"
"Why did you? I cannot flatter myself that for one instant you were deceived in my purpose."
"I scarcely know. Perchance I hoped that you would convert me, Karl."
The poet's eyes lighted bravely.
"Oh, have I failed, Julian? Do not say 'No' yet. Let me speak a little with you."
"My greatest trouble is that you are material and atheist. If you believed in any life to come hereafter I could convince your mind by purest logic of the good to be now gained by leading here a life of true unselfishness. Alas, my only means are very limited. I can plead the love of a woman; such a woman, Julian. She is pure as an angel in thought, in word, and deed; high-souled and spirited. Her brain can match your own; her mind is as far above yours as the stars, for it is good, untainted by a single evil; a babe could look into her eyes and see the reflex of a soul as dazzling as its own. And she loves you, Julian; think you—loves, loves you! Her face, is it not fair enough, does that move you? Her body, is it not beautiful? Where else have you seen a form more tender—the bosom of a Juno, the hips of a Venus, the grace of a Hebe? Are you a voluptuary? And she loves you, Julian; loves you, loves you! Will you lose her?"
Julian shaded his eyes with his hand, so that his face was hidden from the other; but he made no answer.
"I can plead on behalf of human pity. Are you stone that you cannot picture the happiness you seek to wreck? What harm has the world wrought you that you should murder people you have never seen? You would hear screams, cries of grief, rage, agony, despair. Screams of women, Julian; and Mara is a woman."
The poet fancied he saw his companion shudder.
"I can plead your own loss, for you yourself will suffer. For ever horrid scenes will follow you, cries ring in your ears—the screams of women, Julian. Have you ever found pleasure in doing good to others? I know you have. Have you ever felt the bliss of giving? I know you have, for I have watched you. Think! Hereafter, if you work your will, nothing but selfish pleasures will be possible. If you seek to benefit another, the act will suffer, for like a haunting curse will enter memory, and you will call to mind the tragedy that gave you power to dispense your favours. If you think to do a charity you'll refrain, remembering the greater pity that was once asked for and refused. Can you not see yourself a hog, steeped in gross, vile selfishness, hated by all others, loathed by yourself, haunted by your crimes? Oh, think not because now you are young and strong, callous to others' suffering, that this state will last for ever. You are human, and no man yet has ever escaped the stings of conscience utterly. It will wake in you one day, and you will see yourself, as I now see, the creature you will make yourself. Picture your age, an old man, no longer brave and self-reliant, but doddering under the load of your guilt on the edge of the grave, hating and fearing death with a deadly fear—a sickening, craven cowardice. Oh, believe me, that must come, for you are human, however strong in evil now. And you will believe in an hereafter then. Have you ever seen an old man unbelieving, Julian? I tell you that however daring disbelief in youth, when age creeps through the bones the eyes see clearer, and the mind feels, through a veil of cowardice, the image of long-suffering justice throned on high, and knows a reckoning time must come. Have you ever watched beside a death-bed? I have many times. I tell you in each case the soul, however strong, was at the last afraid—oh, so much afraid, my friend; and atheist or believer, each cried most piteously for mercy to its God."
He ceased, and Julian sighed deeply.
"You speak well, Karl," he said, in a strange, hoarse voice.
"But I cannot move you," cried the other in despair.
"Yes, you have moved me." He faced the poet gravely in the gloom. "You have made me feel the evil of the thing I am about to do. No longer do I know myself entirely. A year ago I could not have been touched by such appeal, but latterly I seem most strangely changed. For days past I have been haunted by a woman's eyes. I see them everywhere. I have cursed myself for a fool a thousand times, but I cannot free myself, do what I will. Perhaps I am in love. I do not know. And now, Karl, your words. Frankly, at this moment, I regret my purpose, Karl. I would that I could alter it."
"My God, you regret, and yet——"
"You forget that my word is pledged."
"Pledged to crime—a crime to keep such pledge!"
"Perhaps, and yet it is a pledge I cannot break."
"For Christ's sake, why?"
"The conditions of the society of which I am chief are such that if a member break faith with the others the penalty is death."
"Better death, then, than you should keep such a pledge."
"I do not fear death, Karl, but I shall not break faith with the men who have put their trust in me. I am responsible for this whole enterprise; it was undertaken at my bidding. I will not be a mock in their mouths."
"Pride, Julian; accursed pride!"
"Admitted, I am as I am; I did not make myself."
"Julian, I swear to you if this thing goes on you must kill me first. I came here, boy, resolved to save you from yourself, and I shall do my best. You will commit your first crime over the body of the man who loves you, whom I think, I hope, you love."
Julian, smiling sadly, from his pocket took a pistol, which he handed with slow movement to the other. Karl received it wonderingly.
"For what?" he asked.
"What you will. If you are wise you will put a bullet in my brain this instant, for by that means only can you reach what you desire."
The poet thought deeply for a while, staring in silence at the still form of his friend, which the gathering shadows half hid from his eyes. Once he raised the pistol with a threatening gesture, but his hand wavered, and soon he hid it in the pocket of his coat. Finally, he arose, and yawning, stretched out his great arms, to the surprise of his companion, breaking out into a deep, echoing laugh.
"Ach," he cried, "we have been solemn long enough. Come, take me on deck and show me your new-fangled guns. Did I ever tell you that in the Fatherland I was a lieutenant of artillery?"
Julian complied without a word.
The one-time lieutenant of artillery displayed a singular interest in the Dido's armament, both then and thereafter. On succeeding days he held many discussions, standing by the gun slides, with Burgess as to the capacities of the different varieties of cannon, contrasting the relative merits of breech-loaders, quick firers, machine guns, and others against the weapons of the by-gone schools of his more youthful experience.
Burgess displayed quite a professional interest in these arguments. In answer to a leading question, he admitted a training in gunnery furnished at the hands of no less efficient instructors than those of the Royal Navy; but when, where, or how he had received that same instruction he seemed loth to disclose.
Siegbert became an ardent pupil at the feet of the mate, showing a touching desire to acquire knowledge, which Burgess felt bound to respond to.
The Dido possessed two guns only, but they were of the highest class, and fitted with the most modern improvements of contrivance and construction: six-inch quick firers manufactured by Armstrong.
The poet, with remarkable eagerness, set himself to learn the most intimate details of their mechanism, and soon Burgess was compelled to compliment him on the quickness with which he acquired technical perfection.
"If by chance you should happen to be incapacitated, the fortune of war, you know," one day the poet remarked, "why, I should be able to take your place."
Burgess did not relish the observation.
"The captain knows more than I do of artillery," he replied.
This information cast Siegbert into a brown study, which resulted later in his attacking with renewed ardour his warlike studies, so much so, indeed, that thenceforward he could always be seen fiddling about one or the other of the quick firers, to the surprised amusement of the crew.
The Dido had, during her day's rest for gun practice, acquired quite a new appearance. Formerly a brilliant white from stem to stern, she now breasted her waves clad in a dull brown coat, which made her a far less distinguishable object than before. Her old name, too, was painted out, and as the Ulysses she continued her course.
On the ninth day the fine weather which had hitherto attended the voyage suddenly forsook them. The morning broke with dark banked clouds and a lowering sky, while a half gale that had sprung up in the night blowing right in their teeth compelled a hasty reduction of the canvas which hitherto they had carried to assist the steam power.
Siegbert surveyed the threatening storm with evident pleasure, but Julian ordered an increased head of steam, and the newly-christened Ulysses ploughed through the rising sea with undiminished speed.
For some days Julian had avoided the poet, and even at meal-times when they met both had worn an air of anxiety and constraint, seldom speaking, and never upon that subject which, doubtless, must have been the nearest to either of their thoughts. By a tacit consent each seemed to avoid all reference to a theme upon which an agreement had been declared impossible; but Siegbert was secretly pleased to observe that Julian now constantly wore an unsettled and careworn expression, as if his mind were ill at ease, while his pale face and dark-ringed eyes seemed to argue nights spent in fruitless wooings of the god of sleep.
Near noon on the morning of the storm, Julian sent for the poet, who found him pacing the bridge with a calmer face than he had worn for many days.
"Good morning, captain," said Karl cheerily.
Julian gripped his hand with heartiness.
"When first I met you you wished to see a storm. I can gratify you now. The barometer is falling steadily, and the gale increases every moment."
"Shall we be able to continue on our course?"
"If the wind does not change."
"And our quarry?"
"Must be very near us now; but we can do nothing with this sea running."
"'Pon my soul, Julian, you do not appear half the disappointed pirate that you should."
Julian frowned, but made no reply, and soon it was impossible to converse save by shouting, so fierce became the gusts of the fast-rising gale.
All that day and through the long watches of the night the Ulysses behaved admirably, steaming little more than was necessary to steer her, but always keeping her bows to the wind, and riding the huge seas like a very water-bird.
Sometimes she unavoidably shipped one of the great waves that unceasingly threatened her, but always she rose again, trembling and quivering, parting the deluge of waters, and triumphantly gliding atop of the monsters that ever rushed and tumbled to devour her.
The poet spent the night with Julian on the poop, sheltered from the full force of the gale by a sail lashed to the iron stanchions of the bridge; but even so protected the wind broke on their faces with tremendous force, and the flying spray cut and stung like a million tiny whips.
The noise was so deafening that any converse was impossible, but during the long hours the two friends stood and gazed through the darkness into the wild waste of foam that fled and flashed to leeward, occasionally lightened by phosphorescent gleams, or they listened to the roaring of the gale that tore through the rigging, with the clamour of a thousand devils shrieking and howling into the night.
With the morning the wind veered, blowing from the north with even increased fury, and Julian, seeing how his little vessel laboured, at length determined to run before the gale.
Siegbert watched the manoeuvre of putting the ship about with some anxiety. Throughout the night he had been deeply impressed by the wild warring of Nature's forces, marvelling at the so much more awful violence with which they raged at sea than on the land. He had witnessed storms ashore which he had considered terrible, but they were as nothing to this. With an entirely natural nervousness, on the break of day he could not help contrasting the mighty strength and power of the angry ocean with that of the frail little vessel in which lay the hopes of safety of so many lives, and which so gallantly, but to his mind so hopelessly, continued to combat the mad fury of the elements.
The storm had left its mark upon the Dido. Both masts were standing, but every boat save one had vanished; not a movable thing upon the decks remained that had not been securely lashed, while a great part of the starboard bulwarks had been torn away by some sea as cleanly as if cut asunder by a monstrous knife. The usually trim and smart appearance of the vessel was entirely gone, and although the harm she had sustained was really trifling, to the inexpert eyes of the poet she appeared already at least half a wreck.
He wondered at Julian's unconcerned demeanour in surveying the damaged and desolate condition of the decks, still more indeed at the seeming carelessness with which the captain rang the engine bell, and shouted quick, terse orders to the man at the wheel, and the sailors forward who stood ready to hoist a storm sail at his sign.
The Dido at the proper moment swung round with sickening speed, for one fateful second offering her broadside to a monstrous billow that towered above her threatening instant annihilation. But she was managed by a master hand, and, escaping every one of the terrible seas that hurried hungrily to engulf her, she presently ran before the gale, staggering under tiny shreds of canvas that bellied outwards, wrought into iron stiffness by the wind.
Julian wasted no more time, but, tapping his friend on the arm, made his way carefully below into the cabin, followed by the poet.
"Hungry?" asked Julian.
The other nodded, thinking of the impossibility of obtaining anything like a meal while the vessel heaved and pitched as she was doing. But Julian, with wonderful dexterity, collected what he wanted from the racks and swinging trays, and with the steward's assistance soon prepared quite a creditable breakfast, whose only fault lay in its tendency to roam.
Siegbert and he were soon eating heartily; but although the easy carelessness of the captain inspired the poet with admiration and some little confidence, the noises of the cabin were even more terrifying than those of the storm without. The uproar was new to his experience of the Dido; the very ship seemed to speak within herself, groaning, complaining, and creaking, at times even thundering.
The seas every moment broke with heavy blows under the counter, and so violently that it seemed impossible the fabric could long hold together. Behind them the water washed and gurgled with a perpetual roar that occasionally changed its uncouth tones as the stem was lifted clear, whereon for a moment the whirring of the screws became distinctly audible, each lull attended almost immediately, however, by a thunder crash of creaking, rending sounds as the counter dipped again into the sea, throwing up whole showers of spray which the blast would catch and wildly whirl away.
While still eating, the friends were interrupted by the mate, who entered the cabin unannounced, his cheeks frosted with briny crystals, but his eyes shining like stars.
"What is it?" asked Julian, eyeing his excited face with exceeding coolness.
"A sail, sir, or rather a steamer."
"About five miles to port, running like ourselves before the gale."
"Can you make her out?"
"Yes, sir; if I mistake not she is the one we want—the Juan d' Alvarez."
Julian glanced at the poet reflectively, meeting eyes that were full of questioning.
"Have you any orders, sir?" asked Burgess.
The captain shook his head. "Keep her in sight; you may go, Burgess."
"Ay, ay, sir!"
The friends, again alone, made no remark. A kind of prescient silence reigned between them.
Julian returned, after an hour spent in smoking endless cigarettes, to the deck; but the poet, with a purpose in his mind, sought his berth, and for long hours slept the deep, dreamless sleep of the exhausted, insensible alike to the strange noises of the cabin or the wild plunging and pitching of the vessel.
Towards evening he awoke, but although the motion of the Dido seemed steadier, a visit to the deck proved that the gale had not a jot abated, while the sky was still loaded with grey-flecked, leaden clouds. Looking to port, he could easily see, whenever the yacht topped the crest of a wave, a large steamer in the distance, running, like the Dido, under steam, and with storm-sails set before the wind.
He judged her a league away at most, and, with a sudden chill, reflected that the gap between the vessels must have narrowed since the morning, for Burgess had then made them out five miles apart.
Night came upon the waters with a startling suddenness, settling down in thick and all-concealing blackness which seemed impossible to penetrate; but a hope which had sprung up in the poet's heart died almost as soon as born, for from out the darkness to port came presently the distant sparkle of a green lantern that behaved with strange recklessness, tossing and pitching with eerie ramblings through the leaden gloom.
At dinner Julian asked the poet if he intended to share that night's vigil again with him, but Siegbert shook his head.
"You are wise," said Julian. "I would turn in myself to-night, but if I left the yacht in Burgess's charge, I wouldn't answer for our lives. He is so anxious to keep close to the Juan d' Alvarez yonder that he'd most probably run foul of her, or sink us in trying to approach her too quickly."
"Last night has wearied me much," returned the poet, "I fancy I shall soon seek my bunk."
He put his hand affectionately on Julian's shoulder when they arose from the table, and stared keenly into the other's haggard face, for Julian looked wan and almost ghastly with the salt crystals matted in his hair and crusted in the dark hollows of his eyes.
"My boy, leave the Dido to Burgess to-night; you want sleep badly."
But the captain turned away with a sigh.
"I have not slept these many nights," he said, "I could not to-night least of all."
There was a meaning in his words which the German fancied he could interpret, but he made no further remark, and when Julian had gone, sought immediately his room.
At midnight he came forth again muffled in a great cloak from head to heel, and climbed on deck bearing a dark object in his hand.
The gloom was intense, and the storm still howling wildly. The lamps shed hardly any light at all, and it was nearly impossible to see a yard in any one direction. Cautiously he made his way along the boards until he reached the Dido's after-gun. There he rested many moments, but what he did no man could say, for the darkness covered his movements most completely, and no sound could be distinguished from the tempest's unceasing roar. From the after-gun he crept with the same show of caution to the fore part of the vessel, without, however, encountering a soul, and there arrived, he rested as before, shrouded in the gloom.
His business in either place occupied the better part of two hours, and when he returned to the cabin, great beads of perspiration stood out upon his forehead in spite of the keenness of the wind. His hands, too, trembled as if with exceeding nervousness, but his eyes shone with a singular brilliancy as he poured himself out a half tumbler of brandy and drank the spirit neat.
"Ach," he said aloud, apostrophising himself in German, "you have done well, Siegbert; you are a good child, a very good child!"
Whereupon he retired to his berth, and after double locking the door, took from his pocket and carefully examined the revolver which Julian had given him some days before. It proved to be in good order, and loaded in every chamber.
Placing it beneath his pillow, the poet threw himself upon the bunk, where he fell almost instantly into a deep and dreamless sleep.
KARL SIEGBERT woke at daylight the next morning to find the Dido plunging and rolling even more than she had done at any time during the hurricane. Before he went on deck he placed his revolver in his coat pocket and proceeded carefully, with ready hand and many cautious glances about him, as if expecting an attack.
But he found nothing to affright him. The watch alone was on deck, miserably pacing the boards in the midst of a wild deluge of rain, which, pouring down with a long slant in a steady sheet of water, shut out all objects from view at the distance of a few yards as effectively as the densest fog.
The wind had fallen considerably, but the sea was running higher than that of the day before, and the vessel staggered along with a heavy labouring roll, like a spent horse using the last of his powers.
The Juan d' Alvarez was not discernible through the haze of the downpour, but a sailor informed the poet that she was not far distant.
All day the rain continued with scarce a break, the wind gradually lulling, but towards evening the sky cleared at last for a brief instant, revealing the glory of the setting sun, and what was more important, a fleeting glimpse of the Juan d' Alvarez tossing and pitching scarce a mile away to port.
The poet saw little of Julian all that day, but Burgess was much in evidence going from one to another of the crew, delivering little lectures calculated to make the men cheerful and raise their spirits for the task to come. The night was remarkable for a singular quiet and peacefulness, accounted for, perhaps, by the sudden lulling of the noisy wind, whose vanishment left behind only the sullen washings and gurglings of the still heaving waters to remember the fierce voices that had stormed unceasingly for the past sixty hours.
But to Siegbert the silence was ominous. He lay the long night in his bunk listening anxiously to the noises of the ship, whose every groan and creak was magnified by the unaccustomed stillness. He heard the tramp of feet upon the deck, the whisper of men's voices, the clank of chains, the thud of the restless engines. Each sound contained a menace. Feverishly he waited for the morrow, but when the dawn came it had arrived all too quickly. With the first flush of light he threw himself upon his knees, and for several moments prayed most earnestly to the omnipotent God whom with his simple nature he had always faithfully and devoutly worshipped. Arising at last, he crossed himself with the piety of a sincere believer, and the morning streaming through his port-hole showed a face pale, perhaps, but singularly calm and purposeful. For two hours thereafter he sat writing, fast and ceaselessly, undisturbed by the strange noises that since daylight had echoed through the vessel. The Dido still rolled greatly, but the terrible pitching and tossing of the hurricane had almost ceased, and from the cabin the waves, had he cared to look, could be seen to have wonderfully moderated.
But the poet was steeped in other matters. His face wore the gravity of a man who is employed in making his will, and he heeded neither the hurried tramp of feet overhead nor the noise and bustle of preparation that reached his cabin at quick intervals, softened by distance, but nevertheless distinct and sufficiently suggestive.
A knock came to his door.
"Wait," said the poet, and his pencil traversed the paper furiously.
The knocking sounded again imperatively, and Karl at last arising unbarred the door.
"Breakfast," announced the steward.
The poet fell a-trembling all over, and laughed hysterically.
"Ach yes, breakfast," he said, and returning to his cabin stood for a moment, his head bowed with a gesture of something like despair. A second after he stood erect and clenched his hands. "Come, come," he muttered, and striding forth entered the saloon.
Julian Savage was seated before the table sipping a glass of sparkling Burgundy, a half empty bottle beside him testifying to his previous indulgence. The captain had neither plate nor platter before him, only as he drank he idly turned over the pages of a book.
"What!" cried the poet; "you remember me of other days—wine wherewith to break the night's fast. Ach, those days are past for me."
Julian's cheeks were flushed, and his eyes glittered so brightly that his haggard complexion passed unnoticed.
"Bah, old poet!" he made answer. "What does the Parsee sophist, your brother rhymer, say—
"'Yesterday this day's madness did prepare
To-morrow's silence, triumph, or despair;
Drink! for you know not whence you come, nor why!
Drink! for you know not why you go, nor where!'"
"I did not think this of you, Julian. In my fancy I gifted you at least with the courage of your intentions, evil thing though that courage be."
"Did you, Karl? You were wrong, then. I am a coward after all, but a few more glasses of this," he pointed to the Burgundy, "will transform me."
The steward flitted about the table obsequiously; but Julian, observing his presence, ordered him violently away.
"You see," he smiled, "my courage already improves. I can hector my servants. An hour ago I was afraid of them. Why, would you believe, this morning I almost gave way; I was on the point of approaching you to confess my impotence; I was actually commencing to doubt myself, to fear and to believe—can you guess in what?"
"In the good God, Julian?"
"You guess well, my friend. I was near being such a fool."
The poet sighed. "What kept you wise?"
"This and that." He took up his book, and drank his glass to the dregs. "You, who are a solemn Christian, Karl, what can you say to this?"
Slowly, resonantly he recited—
"'What, out of senseless nothing to provoke
A conscience, something to resent the yoke
Of unpermitted pleasure, under pain
Of everlasting penalties if broke?
"'What, from his helpless creature be repaid
Pure gold for what he lent him dross allayed,
Sue for a debt he never did contract
And cannot answer? Oh, the sorry trade!
"'Oh, thou, who didst with pitfall and with gin
Beset the road I was to wander in,
Thou wilt not with predestined evil round
Enmesh, and then impute my fall to sin.
"'Oh, thou, who man of baser earth did make,
And ev'n with Paradise devise the snake;
For all the sin wherewith the face of man
Is blacken'd—man's forgiveness give and take!'"
"I can truly say," spoke the poet sadly, "that those words were the utterings of a disappointed pagan, whose purblind eyes could find no other scheme or purpose in creation than the pleasures and evils he saw around him. He, therefore, insolently dared to challenge his Creator."
"A man after my own heart!" cried Julian. "Purblind or not, he expresses me completely."
"Boy, boy! your soul is on the threshold of its fate. Like a drowning man you clutch at shadows, you pray to straws."
Julian arose and poured out the last lees of the bottle into his glass.
"This is neither straw nor shadow," he laughed, and having drunk, strode a little unsteadily to the doorway, Karl following with sombre countenance.
The Dido wore somewhat the appearance of a man-of-war; her decks were stripped and bare; her guns frowned threateningly, both ready for action. The Spanish steamer, which had resumed her course, now steered nor'-westerly again under full steam, this time on the Dido's starboard bow, and perhaps three miles away. The Dido followed leisurely, but without losing ground, as Karl's anxious glances easily discovered. The crew was gathered forward, and all evidently had been supplied with Dutch courage, for their faces were warm and more eager than the cool morning air could warrant explanation for.
Approaching the bridge, Julian rang the engine-bell, and the vessel, the moment after, surged forward with sensibly-increased speed. Burgess stood on the deck looking up to the bridge, anxiously waiting orders.
"Load the forward gun," said Julian, in a moment.
"Ay, ay, sir!"
The mate sprang forward to obey, and with the assistance of his gunners, a shell, followed by a huge cartridge, was easily sheeted home into the already open breach. But thereafter some little confusion occurred, and Siegbert's strained ears caught the muttered curse of the mate, who presently disappeared in the direction of the magazine. In a few minutes he returned, and without hesitation strode up to the after-cannon, which he examined with scrupulous attention. The poet stared with unseeing eyes into the horizon, where sky and water met in a constantly shifting range of ragged hills topped with foam, hollow and ever-varying; but he did not heed these things, for his mind was in a maze of fear and horror, and his nails cut into his palms with an unconscious ferocity that, however, inflicted neither pain nor hurt. As in a dream, he heard presently the voice of Burgess speaking in low, furious tones to Julian Savage.
"Both guns are useless, sir. Some traitor has been at work upon them. The threads of the breach block are in each case burred, and the breaches cannot be secured."
Siegbert, animated by some agency beyond himself, turned round to face the mate, his countenance expressing grave surprise.
"The threads burred," he muttered.
"But there are spare breach blocks in the magazines," cried Julian.
"Those also have disappeared."
The captain said no word, but he sprang down the ladder to inspect the guns himself, waving back the poet, who would have followed him. Burgess remained standing on the bridge, his face working and twitching with hideous grimaces. The crew, gathered in knots, stood whispering together, not yet fully grasping the meaning of the situation, but satisfied that some misfortune had befallen their designs.
Siegbert felt the stress of a physical pain closing round his heart, but he could neither move nor speak. It seemed to him that hours had passed before Julian returned to the bridge.
The captain's face was calm, his eyes bright and cold.
"There remains to discover the traitor," he said quietly.
Burgess stared at him a moment, then, as if involuntarily, both glanced at Siegbert, but by some superhuman effort the poet held himself together and returned their glances stolidly.
Presently, in a maze, and telling himself he dreamed, Siegbert heard the captain shout an order, and he saw the crew file forward with dark and angry faces. He heard then Julian address his subjects and explain, in a few terse sentences, the whole affair, heard him tell the muttering crowd beneath that for the time the expedition must be abandoned, unless they purposed to take the Spaniard by boarding.
The poet listened, to all outward seeming calm enough, but he could not divest himself of a certain feeling of unreality; it seemed to him that this strange experience were happening to another, and that he himself stood in no peril at all, but was really imagining the feelings of some other man's adventure. Still oppressed with that dazed feeling, he listened to the mumblings and mutterings of the crew grow and take shape in curses, angry words, finally in threats. Suddenly Julian's voice rang out clear and strong.
"Well, men, shall we board her; dare you risk your lives?"
The mutterings died away for a moment as the men looked at one another, but presently it was renewed, although they left the captain's question quite unanswered.
Julian's voice thundered forth again.
"I see you do not care to fight. Bloodshed made easy is your maxim; well, you are wise, perhaps. We shall make straightway for Apia now and have our guns mended. Does that suit you?"
"Ay, ay," answered a few, but the most were silent.
"We had better find the traitor first," cried Burgess suddenly.
A perfect storm of approbation greeted this speech, and Karl turned pale; but putting his hand into his pocket felt his pistol, and found comfort in the thought that he was armed.
"Well, well, this traitor. Whom do you suspect?"
Julian asked the question of the crew, but Burgess answered him.
"I know!" he cried, and with a sudden movement slipped down the stairway, against which he leaned, and retreated until he stood among the crowd below.
Julian frowned at his action. "You know; then tell us who the traitor is?"
"Him." The mate pointed a trembling finger at the poet, his face white with fury. Turning to the crowd he cried to them: "Who else could it be; we know ourselves; there is no traitor amongst us. Hasn't he been fooling about the guns for a week past; haven't we all noticed him? He's not one of us, the damned, white-livered foreign spy!"
His words were drowned in a perfect storm of shouts, and the crew, inflamed in a second, pressed forward to the ladder.
Julian faced them calm as ice.
"Hold," he said, and, as if by magic, they were stayed. "I want proof, not suspicion."
"Who else is it?" shouted Burgess, from the rear of the others.
Julian eyed him coolly. "I don't know, Burgess, unless it be myself or you; but give me proof!"
"You were not so careful in Lennon's case," cried the mate; and it was easy to see the crew approved the meaning of his words.
"Silence!" shouted Julian. He turned to Siegbert and muttered in a low tone: "Deny the charge, Karl; shout and swear at them that they are a pack of liars!"
"But they are not," whispered the poet.
"Quite so, but do as I tell you; you don't want to be torn to pieces, do you?"
Siegbert trembled as he glanced at the threescore drink-flushed faces that scowled up at him.
"It would be no use," he muttered.
Julian shrugged his shoulders and addressed the crowd:
"Mr. Siegbert is my friend. I answer for him; he is no traitor. You must seek elsewhere."
An angry murmur answered him. The crew withdrew some steps and took counsel among themselves. Burgess seemed to be the directing spirit. He spoke often, though the friends on the bridge could not hear his words. In five minutes the storm broke. Knives, pistols, even guns, appeared like magic, and an armed and angry crowd returned to the companion-way, all discipline forgotten in a mob's blind insolence.
One shouted, "The German is the traitor;" another, "Kill the damned foreigner;" then all in chorus clamoured, "Give him to us!"
Julian lifted his hand and faced them quite unmoved.
"You boys are all but drunk," he said good-humouredly; "go to your duties now, and we'll speak of this again. Bless you, even if Siegbert's guilty, the man can't get away."
Probably such was his influence upon them that they would have taken him at his word, but at that moment Burgess from behind muttered something which sent their rage to boiling pitch, and with yells and cries they continued to advance.
But Julian again stayed them with a ringing shout. "Hold! Do you mutiny?"
For answer Burgess fired a pistol point-blank at the German, the bullet only narrowly missing its mark.
Julian leaned suddenly over the rail, his eyes grown suddenly aflame with a queer, electric, greyish light
"Men," he shouted, "bring me that man; he is the traitor!"
The moment was pregnant with fate for all. The slightest thing would then have inclined the balance either way. Burgess, feeling this, with quick cunning tried to speak, but he was stricken dumb by the furious glare of Julian's extraordinary eyes. He could not look away, but seemed magnetised, his arm still stiffly outstretched, holding the smoking pistol in his grasp.
The men stared from the captain to the mate, puzzled and dismayed for the space of many seconds; but at last the habits of long obedience prevailed, and slowly drawing back from the ladder, they closed in silence round the mate.
One took his pistol, others seized his wrists to drag him forward. Only then he seemed to recover his senses, and broke forth in screaming protestations—struggling, biting, and kicking at his captors. But, inexorably, he was pushed forward and up the ladder, until he was at last held panting and desperate before the chief.
Julian surveyed him with a sneer.
"It is a common trick among low, cunning brains like yours to shield themselves by attempting to fasten their own guilt upon the shoulders of another," he said cynically.
"I am innocent," panted the mate.
"Oh, of course, pure as snow; eh? Well, you'll be able to explain that to your master, the devil, presently. Ho, there, bring me irons!"
Burgess broke into a fury of curses, and struggled to escape with the energy of despair, but in a moment he was handcuffed and helpless.
"Two of you take him to his cabin," said Julian; "the others return to your duties instantly. Groat there, get some canvas ready and make a coffin. Burgess, your funeral takes place at midnight."
Great strangling sobs suddenly shook the mate's frame, and tears streamed down his face.
"I am innocent, I'm no traitor," he kept moaning, his spirit even thus soon entirely broken.
Siegbert stepped forward, his face strangely moved.
"Julian," he said, and laid his hand upon the other's arm, but the captain turned on him like an adder.
"Silence!" he thundered. "I am master here; let no man interfere with my control."
Turning, he gave some orders to the man at the wheel, and instantly the Dido's course was so remotely changed that in an hour the Juan d' Alvarez was hull down on the horizon without even a soul on board of her having dreamed of the peril which had menaced them so long.
KARL SIEGBERT paced the deck in a strange tumult of soul. He had escaped death by a wonderful chance, for which he was profoundly grateful; but he saw another about to suffer unjustly for his own deeds. All his nature revolted against accepting life through such a shameful means. He loved life, but he felt its taste grow bitter in his mouth as he thought of the man who lay in utter anguish expecting the death which he had so narrowly eluded.
He saw about him many unfriendly faces, who cast at him glances of quiet hate. Remembering the influence which Burgess had so long possessed over the crew he did not wonder at this, but he did marvel at their tame submission to Julian's decision as to the identity of the traitor who had wrecked their plans.
With a deep feeling of amazement he glanced about him, vaguely disturbed by the extraordinary quiet which had followed the recent angry storm.
Julian on the bridge was peacefully shooting the sun; the crew in silence went about their tasks as if nothing much had happened, while no longer any sound now issued from the cabin of the imprisoned mate.
Karl became suddenly filled with a great longing to depart from the vessel upon which he had passed so tangled an existence; almost he meditated trying to escape by any means. His brain discussed the feasibility of stealing the Dido's remaining boat at dark and launching himself free from the terrible ship; essay any fate rather than continue longer in such company. But the still heaving sea which met his eyes, unbroken by a sign of land on any part of the horizon, gave an answer to his contrivings in the certainty that by such an act he would inevitably encounter that death which he had only so recently avoided.
His melancholy musings were broken at last by the steward, who came from the captain to request his presence in the cabin.
The poet obeyed the summons, swayed by an uncanny nervousness. Julian was seated in a cushioned chair, his arms folded, his face very serious.
"You sent for me," said Siegbert.
Julian nodded gravely. "I am upon the horns of a dilemma," he remarked.
"What is your trouble?"
"Burgess must not die!"
"Julian, do you mean it?"
The poet started forward with both hands outstretched, his face shining with delight. The captain eyed him calmly, and without response in kind to his emotion.
"I do," he answered; "but I do not know how to save him."
"Cannot you pardon him? you have power of life and death."
"Ay, but that would leave us where we were before. Burgess is a truculent fellow, and he would soon incite the crew to mutiny. They are obedient enough at present, for I have given them a victim; and besides, they fear me. But once let him free among them, and things would change. Your life and my discipline would not be worth a moment's purchase. I know my men, Karl; they fear me like the devil, and through that fear they will sacrifice the mate, although not one of them really believes him to be a traitor, and personally they like him. If they had a leader it would be different; you have seen them in a mob, and know it would be the same thing over again."
Siegbert pondered for a while in silence.
"Why did you save me, Julian?" he asked at last. "I bauked your plans."
Julian shook his head. "That is not the question."
"Pardon me, but it is. It is not right that Burgess should suffer unjustly. I hate the fellow, for he is full of evil; but that is not right. Why did you save me?''
"You are my friend."
"But I baulked your plans."
"Julian," whispered the poet suddenly, "are you still of the same mind?"
"What do you mean?"
"I think you know."
Julian looked at him gravely.
"Yes, I know. Be satisfied, Karl, the Dido is a yacht again."
"My God, I thank thee!" cried the poet solemnly, and unconsciously his eyes were lifted to the ceiling, as if his vision could pierce through the boards.
Julian regarded him seriously, a strange smile curving his lips.
"Dear old poet," he whispered.
"God bless you, boy!" said Siegbert. "May He give you a long and happy life."
"My life is almost ended," muttered Julian, but so low that the poet did not hear. Aloud he said: "Now we must devise some means of saving Burgess. I have blood on my hands already, Karl. I want to more."
"Have you no plan?"
"A half-formed one. The hurricane has driven us a long way from the track of ships. I took an observation this morning which surprised me. See here!"
He spread a chart upon his knees, and pointed with his finger to a pencilled cross mark on the paper.
"That is our position; by nightfall we shall reach a little island, a lonely ocean atoll that not once in fifty years is touched by any vessel. That is it, the little dot here marked in blue. How would it do to put the mate ashore with plenty of provisions, and the means of gaining his future livelihood?"
The poet quickly shook his head.
"It would not do, Julian; we have no right to condemn the man to such a living grave."
"Consider, Karl, if we take him with us alive his presence will mean a constant menace to us. The crew will fancy I am afraid of him, and that very thought will rob them of the dread in which they hold me. It only needs a spark to fire them into insurrection. My honest belief is that if I show the slightest vacillation they will free the mate of themselves, kill you, and either kill me or depose me!"
"It is a horrible alternative," muttered Karl.
A knock sounded that moment on the door, and presently there entered the steward bearing a folded paper, which he placed without speaking in the hands of the captain.
Julian opened it and read, a peculiar smile upon his face the while, then he passed it to the poet silently.
The paper was a petition signed by the whole ship's company for the pardon of the mate.
"Wait here," said Julian, and he strode to the deck, to find the crew gathered in a body around the companion-way waiting for his answer.
"I do not pardon either mutineers or traitors," he cried, in a loud, resonant voice; "however, in view of your petition, I shall change the method of your late mate's execution. To-night we shall reach an island, lonely and uninhabited. In the morning Burgess shall be put ashore with suitable provisions. Does that content you?"
A murmuring broke out among the crew, but no man answered or moved.
"Go forward!" said Julian imperiously.
No man moved.
Julian's eyes flashed, and with a sudden movement he darted on them, striking out right and left with an iron bar which he held in his hand. The crowd melted before his attack, leaving three of their number grievously wounded upon the deck; but Julian followed them to the very forecastle, speaking nothing, but striking every man who could not escape him.
He returned, the incipient mutiny entirely crushed, but his face was very grave when he re-entered the cabin.
"You see," he said, "it is as I foresaw; to-night we shall need to keep a careful watch. Come now, and we shall bring Burgess below; the man's presence in his own cabin is dangerous, some one may release him."
Accompanied by the poet, he thereupon went forward and dragged Burgess, whom they found pale and desperate, along the deck.
The mate raised a loud shout for help when taken from his cabin, but a heavy blow in the face checked his outcry, and the saloon was reached without further incident.
Late in the afternoon a trembling seaman reported land on the starboard bow, and Julian ordered the engines to be slacked.
All night the Dido lay off the island, Julian and the poet taking turns to watch, but the crew made no effort to interfere with their plans, and in the morning they came forward in response to their captain's summons, looking sheepish and ashamed.
Leaving Karl to guard the prisoner, Julian took the bridge, and the Dido slowly steamed round the island seeking for an opening.
The atoll was a very small affair scarcely three miles square, consisting of a narrow horse-shoe of high land, well covered with palms and other trees, and enclosing a lagoon of water. This lagoon, however, they did not discover until they had reached its entrance, a narrow inlet, fringed on each rocky side by seething breakers, but clearly showing a deep water channel in the centre.
The sea had almost fallen to a calm and the day promised to be mild and sunny, so Julian ordered out the Dido's only boat to take soundings. These proving satisfactory, he slowly steamed through the narrow entrance into the still waters of the lagoon beyond, which, being almost entirely landlocked, lay placid as an inland lake.
Cautiously advancing, and taking soundings as he proceeded, Julian dropped anchor at last within two hundred yards of a long sandy beach. Thenceforth the boat was employed in taking provisions and implements ashore in many journeyings until there lay piled upon the sand a heap of all things requisite to keep a man living for many months.
Julian then had Burgess brought before him.
"Thank your fate," he said sternly, "that the recollection of many days spent together has inclined my mind to clemency. Yonder you see your future home; you will find there all things necessary to maintain yourself; a tent, food to last you for a great while, and a sufficiency of seed to plant for your requirements should you so desire; also tools, fish-hooks, lines and other implements. You should not starve at least, though you well deserve to do so—traitor and mutineer!"
Burgess said nothing in reply, though had Julian observed his eyes more narrowly he would have waited to order his irons to be removed until he had reached the shore. As it was, the mate stepped into the boat without demur, but when a few yards intervened between the Dido and himself, he suddenly stooped forward, and taking from his boot a concealed pistol, he fired with incredible swiftness point-blank at the captain, who watched him unsuspiciously from the deck. The bullet struck Julian on the left shoulder and he toppled over into Siegbert's arms.
Burgess instantly menaced the sailors who rowed him with his pistol.
"Back to the vessel!" he shouted; and the men obeyed.
The Dido's crew watched the whole occurrence without moving, in a dazed, awestruck fashion, and made no effort to touch the mate as he clambered aboard again.
Siegbert, overcome with horror, only thought of Julian, who lay half fainting on the deck. Bending over him, he tried with the tenderness of a woman to staunch the flow of his blood, unheeding aught else.
But Burgess did not let the grass grow under his feet.
"Men," he cried, "you all know I am no traitor to you; you all know who is actually the traitor—that damned foreigner! What I have done I did in self-defence to save my own life. The captain is dead; by the rules of our band I am now King of the Rocks. Follow me, and I'll make all your fortunes!"
He continued speaking in a loud, bombastic fashion that evidently stirred the crew, but his voice woke Julian from the faint into which he had fallen. Silently he raised himself into a sitting posture, pushing aside the ministering hands of the poet, and from his belt drew and cocked a heavy Colt's revolver.
"Look round you, Burgess," he said, in tones weak, perhaps, but very menacing.
The mate, who had believed him killed, turned sharply round, pale and startled, to meet the muzzle of a pistol and eyes that were cruel as death.
"Into the boat with you," ordered Julian.
Burgess backed unsteadily, holding his revolver behind him.
"Hands up!" cried Julian.
With a sudden, desperate gesture Burgess pulled his right hand forward to risk all in one last attempt, but his purpose was intercepted by a bullet that spattered his brains upon the deck.
"Help me to my cabin," muttered Julian then, in a low, weary voice; and the poet, gathering him up like a child in his great arms, carried him below in the midst of a deep and breathless stillness.
"Is that you, Karl?"
"Yes, boy." Siegbert bent anxiously over his patient's cot. "Are you awake?"
"Yes, now; have I slept long?"
"You have been very ill, Julian."
"This fortnight past, but you are better now—you should recover speedily. Drink this."
Tenderly he raised the sick man's head, and with infinite gentleness assisted him to take the potion which he had prepared. Julian's face was scarcely recognisable, being thin and deadly wan, while his eyes had grown unearthly large.
"Where are we?" he muttered presently.
"Still in the lagoon; try and sleep, Julian."
"I cannot yet, my head is all awhirl; I seem to have been dreaming. Is Miss Hescombe here?"
"Then it was a dream. You have nursed me, Karl—how thin and haggard you look."
"Me, I am strong as a horse. But you will tire yourself, boy. All is well; try and sleep."
Weak as a child, the sick man obeyed, and for hours the poet sat beside the cot watching the regular heaving of his chest, a happy smile upon his tired face. When Julian awoke again it was morning of the next day, but Siegbert still sat beside his bed, though wrapped in deep slumber.
Julian looked at his sleeping friend for long with curiously gentle eyes.
"Dear old Karl!" he murmured; "what has he not gone through for me?"
He tried to raise himself presently, but a sharp pain in his shoulder struck through him as he moved, drawing from his lips a low moan, at which Siegbert started up awake.
"What!" he cried. "You get on splendidly trying to shift for yourself already, eh? But you must not yet. Rest quiet awhile until I make your breakfast."
Departing from the cabin, he soon returned with a pot of steaming broth.
"Take this," he commanded, and with delighted face watched Julian hungrily eat his breakfast.
"How quiet everything is," said the patient, after a while. "How goes it with the crew, Karl?"
Siegbert's face changed perceptibly, and he parried the question; but Julian grew imperious.
"Has anything happened?" he demanded.
"A terrible thing, Julian. But are you strong enough yet to hear it?"
"Tell me, tell me!"
"During your illness, and while you lay unconscious and raving in delirium, the men grew tired of being cooped up on board here always, the shore so near them, so they took it in turns to land in small parties and explore the island. Then came the misfortune. One of these parties discovered the hull of an old iron steamer deeply imbedded in the sand, rust-eaten, and covered with shells and seaweed. One may see it now through the window there across the bay, looking like a huge rock for all the world. Well, they explored this hull and found—guess what, Julian?"
"Tell me, tell me!"
"They say a huge pile of gold. I cannot say myself, for I have not seen it, Julian; but two of the discoverers pulled across here to spread the news, and the whole crew took fire. Not content with being rowed across in sections, those who could not cram themselves into the boat plunged into the sea to swim ashore. Ach, Gott! never shall I forget the horrid sight!"
Julian raised himself to his elbow, regardless of the pain his action cost him.
"Quick!" he cried. "Tell me all!"
"In a second the water swarmed with great monster fish—you call them sharks. The air was filled with shrieks of the dying. In their terror the men who swam nearest the boat caught at it to save themselves, and all were thus spilled into the sea. Many swam back here to the Dido, and I saved those I could. Others struggled to the shore, but most were killed. Ach, Gott, it was horrible!"
"Great Heaven!" cried Julian. "How many, then, were saved?"
"I rescued two boys—Connelly and Rogers. They are good lads both, and grateful. They have helped me nurse you bravely. Five men reached the land. There are, besides, six others on shore of the party who first discovered the treasure ship. Thus there now remain alive but thirteen of the Dido's whole crew. The rest are dead, God pardon them! They were bad men, but they are dead. May the good God have mercy on their souls!"
Julian fell back on his pallet overcome with surprise and awe, and the poet, seeing his mood, spoke on in a gentle voice earnestly and at length of the mysterious ways of Providence, drawing from all that had transpired a warning which he painted as being issued to guide his friend direct from the hand of the All-seeing and Omnipotent.
Julian seemed to listen gravely, but his mind was really far away. He was thinking of Mara Hescombe, and wondering if the story of the treasure would prove true. The news of the tragic death of his men had deeply shocked him, but his heart was rather shocked than touched. For a long while not a word of his friend's was intelligible to his brain, but at length, tired of his own thoughts, their meaning broke upon him.
"Dear old Karl, for goodness' sake don't cant," he said softly, but with impatience.
Siegbert was hurt.
"You appeared to listen and agree with me; you led me on to speak of my beliefs—I do not cant," he said.
"My dear friend, I assure you that until this moment I did not hear one word. I would be dishonest if I pretended otherwise, and to you I could not be that. I have been thinking my own thoughts; if you like I shall tell you what they are."
"As you please."
"I warn you that they will disgust you."
"I must first tell you that I am changed a good deal from that which I was. I set out upon this voyage with a heart capable of all evils, robbery, murder, even blacker deeds still; what is more, I had the will, the power, the settled intention to perform what I had undertaken. Do you mark that, Karl? As truly as I lie here this day, I swear to you that I intended to gain a fortune if I should find it necessary to wade to it through seas of blood. Well, you changed me—you and Miss Hescombe between you. Your presence and her memory."
"That does not disgust me," murmured the poet.
"Wait; the change was gradual. I struggled against it. Often I cursed the face of the girl that haunted me. Often I was near murdering you, shooting you down in cold blood, to give a spur to my flagging purpose. Some human feeling at such times forced me to avoid you. I thank the Fates for it now. The sweetness of your nature, Karl—nay, old friend, it is sweet, sweet and true and good; that most of all fought the evil in me, that and your love, your disinterested friendship. Ah, never think I did not see through you; I know you well. I knew your purpose all along. I knew that in your love for me, and to try and save my immortal soul (poor old Karl, as if I possessed such a thing), you followed me, your life in your hands, to try and turn me."
"Julian boy, calm yourself; talk no more now, you will make yourself ill again. Wait till you are strong."
"No, give me some of that spirit. Ah, that is better." He shook his finger at the poet. "Old conspirator, you thought I was blind, eh? But I was not that; no, not that. Your sarcasms on crime, your lectures, did you think me dense? Do you mind the night you came on deck in the hurricane, and crept from gun to gun? You thought yourself unseen, eh? I saw you, and knew what you were doing. Burgess was with me at the wheel, but I took care that he should not see you. Did you dream of that, eh, Karl?"
"Thank God for it!" said the poet.
"No, thank yourself for it, Karl, it was a happy hour for me; for till then racked by doubts, that moment at last made me sure of myself. I had been long groping in a mist, and at length I saw the light. I knew then that one of your maxims held the truth—'No man is right to hurt the least of his fellows.' I saw clearly that we are all born at the instance of some unclean Fate into this wretched world, that we are all the same kind of puppets after all, and though jealous and envious of each other, yet bound together by the same cruel bond, shackled companions in that greatest of disasters, 'life.' Branded alike with our origin of nothingness, we writhe and squirm, brag and blow on land or sea, seeking to conceal and yet prolong our infinite and wastrel littleness. I saw many things very clearly that night, Karl, but the best thing of all that I discovered was the wisdom of those who quickly as possible return whence they came. That is the only means available to man to get even with the Fate that built him. Manufactured from clay, and dowered with the spark of life, called into living at the insolent will of the Creator, and robbed of life again with equal insolence, we are puppets, slaves, animated filth. And yet we take Fate's loan and walk through the world grateful for existence; the wise knowing, the foolish recking nothing, the ignorant caring less, all however, joined in calling suicide a sin! Sin! it is a triumph; the only one permitted our small, pitiful estate. To throw back in the teeth of Fate the loan it gave unasked, and leave a handful of dust no longer capable of hurt to mock the Mocker who created us!"
Siegbert's face was grave and pitiful as the other finished.
"So you contemplate suicide?" he asked.
"I have decided on it, Karl."
"Not yet, but soon," he laughed then a long, low laugh, full of scorn. "Now, my friend, we come to the thoughts I promised to tell you. While you were talking to me of the blessings and infinite goodness of God, I was thinking of the subtle ironies of Fate. Behold, no sooner am I determined on self-destruction than Fate showers unexpected blessings round my head to tempt me to retain a little longer its first insolent gift of life. My crew, who would possibly have still caused me grave trouble did I seek to live honestly, are marvellously removed. A treasure ship waits for me on yonder shore—a treasure ship! Think of that, Karl, and what it means—luxury, ease, the fulfilment of ambition, the possession perhaps of the woman I love."
He sighed a little then, and muttered a name beneath his breath.
Karl watched him narrowly.
"And do not these things tempt you, Julian?"
"Ay, they tempt me; nothing could tempt me more. The Fates are very crafty, Karl."
The poet arose, and standing beside the cot, passed his cool hand over the hot brow of his patient.
"Sleep, Julian, and banish these foolish fancies from your brain."
Julian, smiling, closed his eyes, being quite exhausted. But the poet, retiring to the saloon, wrote for a long while on a large sheet of paper, which afterwards he noiselessly fastened to his patient's cot, in such a manner that it must reach his eyes on waking.
Hours later, Julian awoke to find himself alone. Wonderingly, he stretched forth his hand, and taking the paper, read:
TO MY FRIEND.
"A skull, a set of bones, a patch of clay
Warmed into living by the breath of love
Or flame of lust. A mind most cunning wove
Into the quickened matter, then away!
To win disaster or to wear the bay!
The gods that dwell in the vast dome above
Look down derisive, but imperial Jove
Impassive waits upon the puppet's play.
"A child, and such a pretty child it is,
With shining eyes and crisply curling hair;
A babe, whose brow is innocent and fair,
Whose lips are too sweet tempters not to kiss.
In all his soul no shadow of a wrong,
No grief his mother cannot soothe with song."
"This way lurks Evil, there they say hides good;
This way is webbed with pleasures manifold,
The love of woman, the wide powers of gold:
While yon thin path leads to the darkling wood
Of self-negation. Pause awhile and brood
On the injustice of it. Good so stern and cold
Its best rewards inadequate. Behold
How Evil's lightest promise charms the blood.
"The man is master of his fate, and yet
What knows he of his fate to master it?
Why, whence, or whither? True, the path is lit,
But not so brightly he can see the net
That like a serpent winds about and folds
His every impulse; ay, and holds, and holds."
"Lift up the cup betwixt the light and me!
What? Drained, and in so small a space of time,
Save for the lees? Friend, I have passed the prime,
And now go eastward to the endless sea;
I, who was chained in life, by death shall free
My sad soul from its shackles, and shall climb
By that dark portal from the bitter slime
The Fates would bind me to. Farewell to thee!
"But the three Sisters, far beyond the skies,
The moment ere that moment spoke a name;
The Distaff-holder ceased to mind her frame,
The Spinner, listless, drooped her mournful eyes,
The third, arising, shore a single thread,
And, lo! my friend was numbered with the dead."
Twice Julian scanned the sonnets which so fitly and so intimately presented his condition. When he laid the paper down at last his eyes were dimmed with an unaccustomed moisture.
"The world," he muttered, "will be hard to leave since it contains so true a friend—so earnest, so good a man. Dear, dear old Karl, how clever he is; how aptly, how unerringly he detected the flaw in my argument. How gently he has made it known to me!"
"You forget, Julian," broke in a deep voice from the doorway, "or you mistake. There are two flaws in your armour, one only of which I have shown to you. The other I take from your own lips. You admitted to me not long ago that no man is right to hurt the least of his fellows. Do you think your death will please—Miss Hescombe—or me?"
Julian's answer was a low, mocking laugh that trembled from his lips, prolonged and musical; but his eyes did not laugh at all.
"KARL, I am disturbed about that gold!"
Julian Savage, lank, pale, and but a shadow of his old self, though once more on his feet and fast recovering his proper strength, leaned against the Dido's main-mast as he spoke.
The poet, seated beside him on a deck chair, waved his hand with a faintly deprecative gesture.
"What is there to worry about, my boy? It is safe, no one can take it from you."
"There is so much of it, Karl!"
Siegbert laughed softly.
"Does that displease you?" he asked. Presently, however, his face grew strangely grave. "I think I know what you mean, Julian. Yes, it is much; more than I have ever seen at one time before, more than either you or I could hope to earn by a hundred years of honest toil. It puts a weight upon you, Julian."
"Scarcely that, but it has changed us all since it has been on board. Did you notice how savagely the men tore to pieces the rough boat which we, you and I, constructed with so much labour, after it had served its turn? Mark their faces now as they walk the deck. They are rich men already! Many of them lost friends, cousins, brothers, in the disaster you witnessed. Do they grieve? Watch well! They rather rejoice at the comrade's death, because thereby each remaining man's share in the treasure is increased. They obey me, but no longer do they fear me. They consider themselves my peers now; they are rich men, forsooth."
"You grow bitter, Julian."
"No, Karl; I speak the plainest truth. That gold has altered me as well. I feel a different man since it has been in my possession—conceited, proud, arrogant. Why, even you are changed!"
"You jest. What has your gold to do with me?"
"Mine, nothing; but your own share much, I hope."
"I told you before I shall touch not one penny of it, Julian. I have not altered my mind. But tell me, wherein have I changed?"
"Well, for one thing, you are more reserved than formerly. I catch you often watching me, a suspicious look in your eyes. Your old frankness has disappeared. I think you do not like me as well as you did."
"Julian, I shall tell you a secret about yourself."
"You pretend to be the frankest person in the world; you foster this pretence by always appearing to speak out honestly what is in your mind. In reality you are the closest and most reserved man I have ever known; the most silent, the most secretive."
"That does not explain what I remarked of you."
"Pardon me, it does, my friend. You accuse me of being suspicious of you, of liking you less. Well, you are right in the former—I am suspicious of you, but the cause is in yourself."
"What is it, then?"
"Ever since you gave me a certain promise——"
"Well, Karl, go on."
"I think you have regretted it. I think you are trying to circumvent the spirit of that promise. No, hear me. I do not believe that you intend to kill yourself now, but that you contemplate something almost as tragic and absurd, I feel sure. Bah, if you could see yourself you would not call me suspicious any longer. Do you think you wear the air of a happy man? Do you think you look the conventional and eager lover you should, considering that in a day or two at farthest you will meet the sweetest and most wholesome girl in the world, who is sick for love of you?"
Julian gravely shook his head and was silent.
"Boy, am I unfit to be trusted?" asked the poet sadly.
Julian placed a gentle hand upon the other's shoulder.
"Old friend, I'm in a sad tangle just now; there is nothing lucid in my mind at all. When I am clear I shall tell you everything."
"I would prefer the privilege of helping you."
A sickly smile crossed Julian's pallid face. "Old meddler, don't blame me then if I bore you."
Siegbert faced round earnestly. "Do not fear," he said. "What is your trouble, lad?"
"You love her, Julian?"
"Yes, but how much, or for how long, God help me, Karl, I do not know. I have lost grip of myself altogether. Oh, the brave fellow I have longed to be, I swore to be in my dreams, while I was poor! I was ambitious. You cannot have conception of the measure of my ambition, Karl. All that other men have done for their countries I vowed to surpass and cast in shade by the things I would do for mine. All I wanted was money. That was the only thing I needed for a final lever; every other thing necessary I had—the will, the energy, the power. You would be surprised if you knew half the extent of the quiet power I exercised in Sydney, Karl. My nod has made or broken many strong men before to-day. For my ambition a little while ago I would have sacrificed a thousand lives, even yours, Karl—and I liked you well enough—love, anything.
"I am not romancing, old poet; it was as I say. Well, now, without asking, and without a single sacrifice, everything I wished has come to me: money, more than I ever dreamed as needful to my old designs, a political chance is waiting for me if I judged the signs aright before we voyaged, and here am I without a spark of ambition left. My old dreams are dead. What is more, Karl," he leaned forward and gripped the other's arm with a fierce, nervous pressure, "I despise myself for ever having harboured them."
Siegbert nodded brightly. "Ach!" he said, "that is not so bad."
"Don't mistake me," cried Julian, very quickly. "You think that I repent, that I regret my former disposition. You are wrong. If I did I would feel more satisfied. But I do not; I am just as indifferent, just as callous-hearted as I ever was. The only change in me is that my old desires are dead, and I see their utter foolishness, their lack of merit in striving for or in accomplishing."
"You are in the transition period, my boy. Time will better you. Wait, boy, wait a little. Time is our best friend after all."
"In that it brings us nearer to the grave."
"Who talks of graves? You are still sick and morbid, Julian. When you are completely well you will laugh at these weak-brained fancies. But to revert to our subject; you have not mentioned Miss Hescombe yet."
"You see surely what I would say. I never loved her half so much as my ambition, Karl, and that has gone from me for ever."
"Poor boy," said the poet. To himself he muttered, "Poor Mara; my poor little girl!"
Julian strode away and paced the deck impatiently. Presently he returned.
"Don't waste sympathy on me, Karl. I'm nothing but a cad. That girl is sweet through and through, and, like the cad I am, I lied to her. I never really loved her; but would you believe it, she is the first woman I ever held in my arms, or whose lips I ever kissed."
"Tell me all about it, Julian."
"You know so much already, Karl, you might as well know all the thing I am. To tell you the open truth, I made love to Mara Hescombe for the sake of obtaining her help in disposing of my mine to her father. What do you think of me? Will your charity cover that?"
He faced his friend defiantly, sharp defiance upon his every feature.
Siegbert looked up at him, nodding gravely.
"I guessed as much, boy. I was not sure, but I guessed so much."
Julian stared at his friend, almost dazed, while gradually an expression of something like awe crept upon his face.
"And thinking that," he gasped, in a whisper, "thinking that, you could do what you have done for me!"
Siegbert shrugged his shoulders. "I did not do so much."
"Karl," said Julian sharply, "what is the secret of it all? You have not followed me, risked your life to save me from crime, nursed me night and day in my sickness for mere liking or for pleasure. What is the secret of it, Karl?"
The poet, blushing all over his great solid face like a chit of a girl, looked hastily away; but he felt Julian's imperious eyes upon him, and he was forced to answer.
"I had a little brother," he muttered, "who was like you in face. He would have been as old as you had he lived."
"Liar!" cried Julian angrily. "You have told me a dozen of times you never had a brother."
Siegbert, far from resenting the expression, looked utterly confounded; but presently his eyes lit upon the violin-case of the Stradivarius he had given his friend at Talala.
"It was because you play the violin so well. Ach, Gott, yes; that was just it. I love to hear the violin."
"Dot vas yoost it," mocked Julian, mimicking the broken accent which the poet had relapsed into in his excitement.
Siegbert stood up hastily, eager to change the theme.
"So you do not love Mara now, Julian?" he asked.
Julian saw through the other's purpose; but he smiled and acquiesced.
"I do not know—I do not think so," he answered. "I do not think I ever really loved her. She was beautiful and gracious, and she stirred me a little sometimes; but love—that is different, is it not? You should know, old maker of love songs."
The poet glanced at him with quizzical eyes.
"When you held her in your arms—her lips to yours—how was it then?"
Julian's eyes flashed as some memory occurred to him.
"Ah!" he said, then hesitated, and his lips closed firmly.
"Ah!" mimicked Siegbert. "Ah!"
Julian's cheeks were flushed a little as he met his friend's eyes, and he laughed in a queer, constrained fashion.
"That would be telling, eh?" smiled the poet.
"There is not much to tell. What would any man feel at such a time? What would yourself feel, Karl? Oh, I was moved. I confess it. She made me tremble all over when her body touched mine. A thousand wild desires woke in me—thrilled and flashed through my heart. She made me passionate; but was that love? She made me jealous, too, when she flirted that last day with the American. I could have killed the brute; but was that love? I do not feel now any great desire for her. If I knew that I would never see her more, it would not hurt me. Is that love?"
Siegbert smiled inscrutably. "Have you ever loved any other woman, Julian?"
Julian looked disgusted.
"Not I. I never could stand women, or any of their silly, childish ways. I must say Miss Hescombe was more mannish than most."
"Mara Hescombe mannish!" shouted Siegbert, in horror.
"Well, you know what I mean, Karl. She was more of a companion. Most women talk drivel; but she had a modicum of sense in her head."
"My poor boy, it strikes me that you know very little about the other sex. All women love talking drivel best; but when they are stalking a man, they will talk of or do anything they think will best please their quarry. Ach, wait till you marry!"
"You will wait a long time, Karl."
"Do you think so? In a day or two you will meet Mara again."
"You seem very sure of that. How do you know she will not have left Australia? Remember, it is almost two months now since we ourselves set out from Sydney."
"She will be there," smiled the poet.
Julian thought for a moment, looking straight before him, then his eyes darkened suddenly. Striding forward, he grasped the poet's arm.
"Tell me," he cried, his voice turned almost hoarse, "why are you so sure? Out with it; don't attempt to lie to me!"
"She told me she would wait," answered Siegbert, striving to free himself; but Julian shook him with furious energy.
"That is only half; the rest, the rest!"
"You are mad, boy," stuttered the poet
"Am I? Rascal, it was she who made you follow me. Confess, confess!"
"You are mad," repeated the poet, breaking, as he spoke, gently from the other's grip; but he avoided his friend's eyes.
Overcome with excitement and weak from his exertions, Julian staggered aft towards the saloon without further speech, stretching both his hands before him with a strangely tragic gesture. But Siegbert, though noticing the feeble condition of his friend, did not seek to follow him, save with his little round eyes, that twinkled with surprised amusement.
"Himmel!" he muttered to himself, "let be, let be. Who knows but that good may come of it."
"SAVAGE is a fool—an arrant fool," said Mr. Cecil Vane, Q.C., with curling lips.
Karl Siegbert shrugged his shoulders.
"I have told him so many times," he declared, "but he does not seem to mind. He does nothing but sit and mope in his rooms in the Australia. He never goes out, even at night; he has his meals brought up to him; will see no one. Ach, I have no patience with such a man!"
"In Heaven's name what does the fellow do? How does he occupy his time?"
"He sits in an arm-chair thinking, always thinking."
"I went to call on him this morning, and he sent down to say he was too ill to be seen."
"An excuse, of course; he is not really ill."
"How does Miss Hescombe take his neglect?"
"Pretty Innocence! I know all about that though, Siegbert. Have known this long time. How does she take it?"
"She pretends not to notice it, poor girl; but she feels it. She leaves by the Orazaba next week for London."
"I really feel responsible, Siegbert, in some measure for the whole thing. A stupid wager of mine started the business. I bet her a box of gloves that she could not bring him to book."
"I never thought she was serious until I ran up against Stone one night at the Athenaeum. The fellow was as drunk as a fool. He insisted upon telling me a whole rigmarole about some row they'd had, and how Miss Hescombe had given him the mitten in favour of Savage, whom he described as a 'bastard larrikin.' The fellow was full of spite; he'd got some solicitors here to hunt up the marriage records, and as they could find no trace of Julian's parentage, and knowing that he was born in Sydney, Stone jumped to the conclusion that Savage is illegitimate."
"You surprise me; you know a good deal of Savage, Vane."
"Only outlines. Julian's proper name is 'Manville.' His father was a gentleman by birth, but a bad egg. Got the sack from the Navy—where he was a post captain, by-the-bye—for some disgraceful conduct; came out here then and went in for the merchant service, and married a barmaid. Some years after Julian's birth he disappeared in a steamer which he had command of. Presumably he was wrecked; at any rate, nothing was ever heard of him again. That was about twenty years ago now. I remember the affair through the mysterious loss of the Alemene, one of the big mail-boats, which occurred about the same time."
"Yes, she went down with all hands, leaving never a trace behind her; she had a lot of gold on board, too. By Jove, Siegbert, there must be a pile of money at the bottom of the sea. Our friend Julian had the luck of it to strike that atoll. How much did the treasure actually pan out at?"
"Julian tells me his share is over half a million."
"Good heavens, what luck! Here have I been slaving these twenty years past, with the best practice at the bar here, too, and I don't suppose I'm worth a twentieth of that sum. Well, it's not much when you say it quickly."
Siegbert laughed. "It's a big fortune. I wonder what he will do with it?"
"Goodness knows! It's impossible to predict anything concerning Julian Savage, or rather Manville. I expect he'll take his proper name now. I daresay his English relatives will be glad enough to welcome and acknowledge the relationship when they know of his access of wealth."
"The way of the world, Vane."
"Ay, ay! By Jove, I'd like to have seen Cuthbert Stone's face when he heard of it!"
"Heard of it! He's not here yet, is he?"
"He is; still dangling round the place, poor moth, though his chances are nil, in my opinion."
"Does Miss Hescombe speak to him?"
"Presumably. They were in the same box last night at the Royal."
"Does that surprise you?"
"I confess it does a little."
"La donna e mobile, Siegbert. Some people go so far as to predict a match. The parents would be glad of it, I know."
The poet smiled illegibly.
"It may be so," he answered, "it may be so. Well, good afternoon, Vane. I daresay I shall see you to-night at the Burtons."
"Probably. I don't know yet, though. I half promised to dine with the Hescombes. Ta-ta!"
Karl Siegbert proceeded from the Q.C.'s rooms straight to the Hotel Australia, where, after a period, he was admitted to Julian's presence.
Julian Savage was seated exactly as the poet had described him to Cecil Vane, propped up amongst a pile of cushions in an arm-chair facing a large window which overlooked the street. His face was wan and unshaven. He scarcely looked up as the poet entered the room. He wore the whole air of a person steeped in lethargy.
"How are you?" asked the poet, in a brisk, cheery voice.
Julian glanced at him vaguely, with eyes deep-sunken and lustreless.
"Well," he answered, quite mechanically.
The man was evidently plunged in profound depths of thought.
"I have something to tell you—some news," said Siegbert.
Julian did not heed him, and although the poet did his utmost to arouse his friend, it soon became apparent that all efforts were vain, so that at last he desisted, and, sighing, went away.
For five days Julian had remained in this condition, almost without stirring, eating mechanically, scarcely ever sleeping, but always thinking—thinking. Siegbert imagined him at first to be thus confining himself to his room through some latent sickness, or through some deep-settled plan of avoiding Miss Hescombe by this, the easiest means at his command; but later the poet saw that his friend was at the mercy of some phantasms of the brain, and he waited more or less patiently until he should recover his normal condition.
In reality Julian was indulging in a drunken revel, a wild debauch of dreams. Many curious roads of thought had combined to lead him into this strange intoxication of the intellect.
The man was curiously gifted mentally, being the possessor of an imagination so facile and so ardent that he was able to almost actually materialise for himself any fancy that attracted him.
The incidents of his piratical venture, his curious prevention of the mutiny, his attempted assassination, his illness, and lastly, the finding of the treasure, had all played most powerfully upon his dramatic sensibilities. Withal, throughout his recent varied experiences a subtle change had gradually overtaken his disposition. He had not disarranged facts at all when he told Karl Siegbert that at the inception of his enterprise he had fully intended to carry out his plans as originally conceived.
He had set forth from Sydney on his voyage seething with ambition, and animated with an utter recklessness as to the means of realising his desires. Without attempting in any way to justify himself on moral grounds for the execution of the crimes he contemplated, he looked beyond the crimes themselves to the success he assured himself would follow, and in his dreams smothered over the necessary and baser portions of his plans with surprising ease.
His newly awakened affection for Mara Hescombe he had consigned to the background of his recollections, finding this possible from the fact that he was sexually cold and passive, and consequently her memory had not the slightest influence to move him from his purpose. It is true that Miss Hescombe's face continually haunted his fancy, but instead of this proving a factor to stir his heart with the throb of any humanising emotion, it only served to arouse his resentment against the living girl who had, despite his will, contrived to make her existence a matter of even the smallest moment to him.
The knowledge of Karl Siegbert's quixotical attempt to turn him from his purpose was the first disturbing element to his designs.
He had grown to feel a deep liking for the kindly German, a liking which was certainly more or less selfish, for it was a sentiment that only moved him while in the other's company and elsewhere could be laid aside, but it was nevertheless material to reckon with, for few other men had ever even vaguely touched his crusted heart-strings.
Seeing the poet day after day, Julian had made a study of his mind, his intentions, his desires. The result had strangely moved him.
For the first time in his life he was brought face to face with a native simplicity so pure and rare, an unselfishness so devoted and absolute, that he stood in comparison shamed before the analytical tribune of his own intelligence. It is unlikely that he gave way to the verdict thus passed upon himself by himself without many and bitter argumentative self-communings. A sneerer by disposition, he called all the cynic philosophies of which he was a cunning master to bear upon his reason in his own defence. But the facts remained, and his intelligence was too keen, his powers of analysis too searching and remorseless, to be deterred by sophistries, however well devised, from passing just and scathing judgment.
Julian recorded the verdict with a large amount of indifference, but he was not the man to allow his intellect to despise his soul. The best and the worst of him consisted in the fact that he was incapable of countenancing anything which did not obtain the sanction at the same time both of his heart and his mind. An attribute this which explained in him many otherwise unaccountable turns and twists of character.
Thus, to serve a point, he would lie with the utmost fluency and circumstance, and yet it was notorious that for good or ill his bare word was a bond stronger than another's oath when given or taken in trust or credit.
Charitable by disposition, it would have vexed him to refuse anyone wanting from his store, not that it would have hurt him much to see even a friend suffering or in pain, but the act of giving was always a pleasure to him, correspondingly withholding the reverse.
Yet he had sometimes deluged a person he despised with gifts, and refused to a friend a temporary loan; for the first act contained the approbation of his whole nature; the latter, because lending transversed his principles, only obtained the support of his personal inclination, and so became impossible.
Thus it happened that the spectacle of another man's unselfishness was able to deter Julian from the prosecution of his wicked designs. He was mentally unable to continue in a course which his curious soul had at last been brought to see in a damnatory light.
He had not yet been taught to consider altruism a desirable virtue, his heart was too cynical for that, but reason drew from him a kind of moral lesson by comparisons; and although he was not bored by the possession of a troublesome conscience, still he owned, in common with all mortals, a standard of morality, not a very high one, perhaps, but sufficient at any rate to make him ashamed before his friend.
It must not be concluded that because Julian Savage was the victim of a callous heart and a sluggish soul that he was wanting in intelligence. He possessed, as a fact, intellect of a very high order, while both his callousness and his crusted conscience were the outcome of a singularly hard experience of life, extending from childhood upwards, and they rather existed in spite of his intellect than because of it.
Cynicism had from the same cause become so grafted into his nature that it distorted his vision of the world. He had long grown accustomed to view the actions of his fellows through a veil of discrediting scepticism, and it was the fault of human nature, which is over-full of egotism, that he had seldom been proved wrong in any of his judgments.
He had, therefore, come to regard altruism as practically non-existent among mankind, but rather a fabled virtue, perhaps possessed by ancient saints and heroes, but long since fallen into desuetude.
The discovery of this virtue in his friend, therefore, had come upon Julian with something of a shock at first, and he had taken long in convincing himself of its absolute disinterestedness. Once firmly persuaded of that, however, another faculty of his queer mind came into play.
He was so constituted that he could not observe an admirable quality in the composition of another without at once seeking to do all in his power to improve his own store by acquiring a similar excellence.
In this case, however, he at once despaired. The quality he was reluctantly compelled to revere in his friend was so foreign to his own disposition and settled habits of life that he foresaw a hopeless failure.
The utmost he could do in the desired direction was to forego and abandon his ambitions. That he accomplished at the expense of scarcely a regret, for with the change in his opinions a strange indifference at once settled upon him.
The result might have been logically deduced from the circumstances of his character and nature. Self-deprived of the means of gratifying his long cherished ambitions, he no longer beheld anything in life that could earnestly attract him or awaken new desires to replace the old. A fatalist by disposition, an atheist by conviction, he welcomed the idea of suicide as a relief to the difficulties of his new position, and he soon convinced himself by the logic of an ancient and pagan system of philosophy that what is a man's own may be disposed of at that man's pleasure. A man's life, he next argued, is the property of its possessor; ergo, he, Julian Savage, was amply justified in terminating an existence no longer grateful to him. At that period the recollection of Miss Hescombe, her love for him, his unclassified regard for her, occurred in varying forms with settled persistency to disturb his resolution. But in the end he was able to discipline his thoughts concerning this episode of his life, and to banish all considerations of affection as an unworthy weakness for the entertainment of a strong man's mind.
The subsequent incidents of the mutiny, Burgess's treacherous attack, his illness, and the discovery of the treasure, gave him pause again.
Karl Siegbert's cheerful philosophy and kindly interest in his affairs were strong factors in combating his ultimate intention, but the unlooked-for sudden wealth which Fate had showered upon him during the time when he lay sick and unconscious, and devotedly nursed by his untiring friend, came as the strongest reason of all why he should again change his mind and decide to live. While presented with the mere temptation of theoretical good fortune, he had managed to preserve his resolution; but recovered in health, and standing ankle deep among real ingots of gold, his uncanny fortitude gave way before the visions called to mind by the emblems of power and ease around him.
He returned as from the mould and damps of the tomb to life—life more rich, untrammelled, and splendid than that which he had hitherto experienced.
But his mind was cumbered with the gravity of recent funereal meditations. He had tasted of the cup of death, and the wings of the dark angel hovering above him had brushed many scales from the surface of his eyes. With a broader vision than of old he looked forth on the mysteries of life and death and of eternity. He reviewed at first with an irascible petulance his former existence, its crimes, its incidents, its ambitions, and follies. Bitterly he resented looking back, but his will had sprung from his control, and he was forced to march his reason at the dictates of his thoughts; a new reason, moreover, unclouded any longer by the cynical scepticism that had so long deformed it, but fresh, incisive, keen.
And he was forced to condemn much that had formerly seemed good to him, to despise much that had once been admirable, to hate what formerly he had loved.
Those were wretched, almost despairing days; nights of sleepless, agile-brained activity. He longed for rest, but his sickness had weakened his will, and he could not shackle the play of his thoughts.
Not once, but a hundred times an hour, he was compelled to grovel at the feet of his intelligence, his reviving and unsparing conscience a naked and pitiful object, with never an excuse he dare aver for the manifold shortcomings of his past.
Siegbert found him an unpleasant companion during that period, irritable and fractious to a degree, silent by fits and starts, always morbid and savagely morose; but the poet was not only wise, but far-seeing, and his kindly nature made full allowance for his friend's condition.
Later a reaction set in, and Julian found it once more possible to forget; to scoff and jeer at morality and virtue with something of his old pagan spirit. Savagely the remnant of his old nature availed itself of the natural physical weariness of the new, and for a time he mocked and jeered at his divided spirit to his heart's content.
Later still there crept upon him a profound mental lassitude, during which only one part of his intelligence, his fancy, remained awake. The rest, tired to death of struggling, slumbered in a deadly lethargy which took no heed of time, and forgot all things in the past, the present, or the future.
It was this strange condition which the poet had spoken of to Mr. Vane, and which had distressed the Teuton giant's tender heart, because he could only partially understand its cause or its significance.
Meanwhile Julian dreamed. His fancy, unbridled and freed from the control of reason, hour by hour most marvellously realised a thousand splendid visions for the diversion of the man whose soul was plunged in lethal oblivion, profound and limitless.
There remained to see on his return to consciousness which power would obtain the sovereignty of his soul—his old perverse and reckless will, or the new and chaster influence that had latterly striven to obtain a footing there.
"MY dear Karl, you must not refuse me this. Why, by your own showing the man is uninterested, while my girl's whole future and happiness are at stake. You must see that. Come now. You promised to do your best to help me when we were at Talala. You won't disappoint us now. My wife and I both rely on you."
"But, Stuart, man, what can I do?"
"I am sure you can help us; you are in the fellow's confidence; you must know something that would help us. I do not wish to suggest any malignment, but it is notorious that he has been mixed up in a lot of queer things. A hint from you could effect much. I know I ask a hard thing, Karl; but we are old friends, and the matter is of urgency to me. Once married to Cuthbert she would be quite safe."
Karl Siegbert looked at Sir Stuart Hescombe very gravely.
"Even if I knew such things as you suggest, I could not disclose them, Stuart. Besides, I prefer the one man to the other. Remember the shameful trick Cuthbert Stone played his rival at Talala."
"You are prejudiced, Karl, or else you'd make allowances for that. What Cuthbert did any other young fellow as deeply in love as he is would have done—that is, if he could have thought of it. All's fair in love and war, they say. Not that I defend Cuthbert in what he did—a bad piece of business it was, and must remain; but still we must make allowances for a hot-blooded young man as he is, jealous and half mad at seeing himself put aside for another not half as good. I blame him, Karl, of course, but not overmuch."
"I'm afraid I can't help you, Stuart. Even what little I could say would do no good, I fancy, for in my opinion the poor child is in love with Julian Savage."
"Tut, tut, man! a romantic admiration, nothing more."
"Julian is a wealthy man now, you know."
"You should know me better than that, Karl. Money is not the question. I want to see my girl married to some good, honest, open-living young fellow who is sincerely fond of her. Julian Savage may be well enough in his way, but he has drawbacks as regards his antecedents. I don't profess to know much about women, my boy; but I do know this, that no woman could possibly live happily with a man whom her friends had occasion to sneer at. A woman's life is bound up in society, and what society thinks of her and her surroundings is of more moment to her after the first flush of passion has passed than all the love in the world. Outside of that—and what I have said is solid fact, Karl—in my opinion Savage is not the man to really suit Mara at all as a husband. He is too cold and unimpressionable, too secretive and mysterious in his ways. He has fascinated her, I admit; but that she is really in love with him I cannot believe."
"You may be right in everything you say, Stuart. I do not say that you are not, although I disagree with you. For my part, I believe a woman finds her greatest happiness at the hands of the man she loves. I think, too, that your daughter is really in love with Julian."
"You have grounds for thinking so, Karl, of course?"
The poet shrugged his shoulders.
"I use my eyes, I put two and two together. It is possible I may be mistaken, but I do not think so."
"My wife assures me to the contrary. I may say that she tells me Mara has latterly been far kinder than usual to Cuthbert; indeed, I have noticed it myself. I am sure that very little now would incline her to listen favourably to his addresses."
"The other, to my mind, is the better man; but there, you know your own business best, old chum. You must forgive me for urging a plea in favour of my friend."
"My dear Karl, I like the young man exceedingly. I can never forget, too, the obligation we all owe him; but frankly, I do not want him for a son-in-law."
"Ah, well, Stuart, perhaps we are unnecessarily worrying ourselves. To tell you the truth, the young man himself does not appear too anxious to solicit the honour."
"So you have said before. Now, Karl to come to the point again, will you help me? Let me put it this way. You would not see my girl, your little god-daughter, wasting her heart over a man who is not worthy of her when a word from you might warn her. Even granting that you yourself like the man, and condone his past for the sake of your liking, should not the girl have the opportunity of judging for herself after all his circumstances have been put before her. Come now, if she were your own daughter, what would you do?"
"I would first give the man the opportunity of telling her himself everything that should be revealed to her."
"Ah, but supposing the man were indifferent as you say Savage is, and that he put himself to no trouble over the matter, but allowed her to still go on caring for him without even declaring himself?"
Siegbert arose and paced the room, muttering impatiently to himself.
"Ah, if I only knew," he whispered; "Julian baffles me with his infernal lethargy. Perhaps—" he broke off suddenly, and faced the baronet with determined mien. "Very well, Stuart," he said aloud, "I shall place the facts before her, and she shall then judge for herself."
Sir Stuart crossed the room, smiling gratefully.
"Thanks, Karl," he said; "I shall send her to you."
Miss Hescombe entered presently, bonnie and cheerful as a spring breeze. She did not at all wear the air of a young lady suffering from a love trouble, and no observer, however critical, could accuse the worm of preying upon her damask cheek. Indeed, she had seldom looked more attractive or more entirely debonair.
"Ah, you dear old thing!" she cried. "Father told me I should find you here."
Siegbert pointed to an arm-chair.
"Sit down there, meine liebe; I have most serious things to say to you."
But the girl laughingly pushed him into the indicated chair, then perched herself with careless grace upon one of its arms, whence she looked down at her mentor with a merry smile.
"You serious, poet dear; you couldn't be, poor thing, if you tried; you are too light, too essentially hare-brained and frivolous."
"Ach, that tongue of yours!"
"What have you against it? It is always saying nice things of you."
"Is it, indeed? Nasty, sarcastic things rather. Do you call 'hare-brained' nice?"
"Love-ly, 'cos it's not true. You men love to be told that you are different from what you really are. Now, I'd wager—" she paused, looking at the German critically.
"Well, go on."
"Well, poet dear, you know you are not a Don Juan, don't you? Well, I'd wager anything you'd feel lovely all over if you knew people thought you were. It's the sins you men don't commit that you are proudest of."
"I've heard that before, Mara."
"So you might have; it's gospel truth anyway."
The poet prepared to fire a shot, but his face revealed his preparations easily to the quick eyes of the girl.
"I saw Julian this morning," he remarked with ponderous emphasis.
Mara rippled with laughter. "Is the poor man still asleep?"
Siegbert's face fell; he thought her heartless, and he sighed.
"He is just the same, listless as the dead; one cannot rouse him," he answered sadly.
"If I were a friend of his I would wake him up."
"What would you do?"
"Put a piece of ice down his back," laughed Miss Hescombe.
The poet frowned and was silent.
"What do you think he is dreaming about?" asked the girl presently, her voice taking a more serious ring.
"Who knows; his sins, perhaps."
"He has been a bad man, Mara."
Miss Hescombe looked grave, but she forced a smile.
"All men are bad," she said lightly.
"We are not all, however, evil in the same degree," muttered Siegbert.
"Mr. Savage must be very wicked, judging from your voice."
The poet shook his head sadly, but made no reply.
"Was he so very bad?" asked Mara presently, her eyes upon the floor.
"Ah, well." There was a long silence.
"Did he—was he—was it a girl?" murmured Miss Hescombe at last, looking very grave.
Mara's face cleared marvellously, to the poet's infinite amaze.
"Come, tell me all about this dreadful man," she cried.
"Listen, then," answered Siegbert, and forthwith he recounted to her in a low, earnest voice all that he knew or had learned of his friend, giving, too, without extenuation, a full account of the details of the Dido's voyage, Julian's criminal purpose and desires, the circumstances that led up to them, his temptations, the subsequent gradual change that had been wrought in the man's nature, a true and unvarnished description of Julian as he appeared at the time following his illness, his suicidal intentions and their final relinquishment, not occasioned by the exercise of any moral influence, but by the baser physical temptation of the gold which Fate had so opportunely sent him.
The poet, in his recital, omitted or palliated nothing, except his own good offices rendered to his friend. Even Julian's attitude in regard to the girl herself he ruthlessly revealed. But there existed in his speech something he was unconscious of expressing, namely, the deep affection he bore the man whose secrets he thus disclosed, and the firm faith he himself entertained in his friend's ultimate development; both were patent, not from his words, which were frank and unsparing, but from his manner and his tenderness in uttering the culprit's name; perhaps, too, from something more indefinable, but not the less explicit.
Mara listened without seeking to speak or interrupt, her face sometimes changing its expression, but not legibly, for it was evident that she held herself in hand.
A long hour passed in the recital, and before its close the shadows grew and lengthened in the room until it was almost dark. But neither heeded the slipping of time; the man, wrapped up in his theme, spoke on unbrokenly; the girl, motionless as a statue, sat drinking in every word. Only when the poet spoke of Julian's regard for her she shivered slightly, otherwise she never moved.
In the silence that followed the completion of his story, Siegbert watched Mara very keenly. Till then he had, from a kind and delicate instinct, refrained from looking her way at all; but the girl's face was hidden by the gloom. Only her bosom seemed to heave convulsively a little now and then, though so slightly that it could easily have been passed by unnoticed.
She spoke at last, her voice a little strained, perhaps; but her long silence might account for that.
"You are very fond of Mr. Savage, are you not, poet dear?"
There was something latent in her tone, some little shred of defiant meaning, tangible but impossible to define; it might have been sarcasm.
"I like him, yes," replied Siegbert, with some caution, for he was quick to note.
"So does papa," remarked the girl gravely. "He often speaks about Mr. Savage disparagingly, but he adds as a rider that he 'likes the young fellow well enough.'"
"Yes. Do you know, poet, you and papa remind me of the story of a cynical old minister of France whom everybody loved. Through some misfortune, some story of his private life, I believe, was recounted purely as a jest, in the most innocent manner in the world, you know, to the king. Well, he was dismissed. Do you know what he said when the news was brought him?"
"I do not, meine liebe."
"He shrugged his shoulders—he was a Frenchman, you know—and said, 'Save me from my friends.'"
She slipped from the arm-chair and stood up airily.
"My word, it is growing late! Can I persuade you to stay and dine with us, poet dear?"
The words were silken in their softness, but to Siegbert there seemed to be claws behind.
"I am sorry I cannot," he answered. "I am engaged."
"Then you'll excuse me, won't you? I have only a few minutes left to dress. Such a bore dressing, isn't it? Good-night, old dear. Come again soon, won't you?"
She sailed out of the room with the gayest insouciance imaginable, and Siegbert, looking after her, rubbed his eyes.
"Gott in Himmel," he muttered, "what a girl, what a girl!"
"Is that you, Karl?"
"Gott, Julian, you are awake at last!"
Julian looked up at his friend with a weary but intelligent regard. His face was extraordinarily pallid, his eyes inordinately large and sombre.
"Would that I could have dreamed on for ever!" he murmured.
"You look tired, boy. When did you wake?"
"Last night. I seem to have been in a long trance. I feel weak and ill. This morning I went out for a stroll in the Gardens; I could scarcely walk at first, though I am stronger now."
"Oh, you will soon be well again. What you want is fresh air. You have stayed indoors too long."
"Seven days, they tell me. I would not believe it at first."
"Well, boy, I grew alarmed at last, and brought doctors to you; but they told me there was no danger, that it had to do with your wound. You will have a big bill to pay."
"Do you know, Karl, I met Miss Hescombe this morning. She was coming from the Gardens as I entered. She was awfully cool to me. Is anything the matter?"
Siegbert's face fell, but he parried the question.
"What could be the matter? Perhaps she is annoyed with you for not going to see her so long."
"But you surely explained to her how it was with me?"
"I did, Julian; but you know what women are. Perhaps she thought I was romancing. Besides, one could hardly blame anyone for refusing to believe the story I had to tell about your condition. Why, I myself could scarcely credit it if I had not seen for myself."
Julian appeared concerned.
"I would not have it happen for anything. What a brute she must think me!"
"Did she look well?"
"Was anyone with her?"
Julian's eyes flashed. "Cuthbert Stone."
The poet looked at his friend keenly, his small eyes bright as diamonds.
"People say that a match has been arranged."
"What?" The word was hurled out like a gauntlet of defiance.
"Well, Julian, they say it. I don't know if it is true. They are much together, certainly. He danced with her three times last night at the Mason's ball."
"A lie!" shouted the other, springing, with no sign of weakness, to his feet.
Siegbert appeared to be offended.
"Well, if that is the way you treat me, I must go. Even your illness cannot excuse such an insult."
"Forgive me, Karl, I know you speak the truth, but your news upset me; I was unprepared for it."
The poet sat down again. "Say no more, my boy."
"Do you think it is true—about the match?" muttered Julian presently.
Siegbert shrugged his shoulders.
"You seem more interested in Miss Hescombe than you did, Julian, last time we spoke of her."
"Why, what—what did I say? I forget!"
"Well, you appeared indifferent; you admitted that you had never really cared for her—she was nothing to you."
"I was mad!" The words fell from his lips hoarsely, stridently.
"Were you?" smiled the poet. "I would not go so far as to say that. I think you had forgotten her."
"Karl, I can't tell you how I felt when I saw her this morning. I longed to take her in my arms—to fall down before her, to kiss her hands."
"Bad symptoms, boy."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I don't know what they may portend in you; if you were an ordinary man I should say you were in love."
"In love!" Julian sank back in his chair with an air of deep dejection.
"Well, why not? If you are——"
"If I am?"
"Go and tell her it at once. You have a rival, Julian."
"Soon it may be too late."
"Bother the boy, why do you sit there muttering like an echo? I can see you are in love. Why don't you go and do as I tell you? I have no patience with you modern lovers. Laggards all, I say. When I was a boy we did not make love that way; we were bold, and sought what we wanted when and where we saw it. If we had a rival, the quicker we were in the field, and we did not stop for sabre-cuts either, boy. Why, Gott in Himmel! how do you know that while you are sitting moping here, Cuthbert Stone may not be suing her, and getting for his answer 'Yes'?"
"Even so!" muttered Julian, his face profoundly sad.
"Even so!" mocked the poet. "Does it then please you—the reflection?"
Julian shook his head and looked gravely into the eyes of his friend.
"I have no right to interfere," he said; "let him win her if he can."
"Mein Gott! was there ever such a boy? What rat is in your attic now?"
The other smiled faintly. "I am sane enough," he answered.
"But if Mara should really prefer you, and yet because of your silence give herself to your rival?"
Julian winced, but he answered gravely: "Best for her in the end, Karl; much the best."
"Old friend, I shall tell you. I think she loved me once; what her feelings are now I no longer know. To-day she was very cold to me. But even when she loved me it was not me she really loved, but another man—the man she imagined me to be. She knew very little of me. Had she known, could she know what you know of me she would not, could not ever have touched my hand. Man, she is all truth and purity, and she is proud too. She would have been grateful to me in her thoughts perhaps, remembering the service I so gracelessly rendered her, but when I passed she would draw her skirts aside."
Karl Siegbert's face was a study during this speech. His little eyes glittered, his lips opened and shut, his nostrils quivered.
"So am I to understand," he demanded, "that you will not speak because she does not know you for what you are?"
"I am no more worthy to make love to any good girl, Karl, than the vilest creature that ever drew breath. There, now, you have it; for God's sake, let us talk of something else."
"Julian," muttered the poet, rising suddenly and bending over the other's chair, "she knows."
Julian looked up, not quite understanding. "She knows," he echoed, "what?"
"Everything; I told her."
Julian's face became slowly flushed with blood. "You told her!" he gasped.
"Yes, I. I told her everything. There is not a thing about you she does not know. Even your indifference to her. I did not spare you, boy."
"Abused me for breaking your confidence."
"Ah!" his eyes lighted up, but as suddenly he grew dejected again. "She almost cut me when I spoke to her to-day."
The poet smiled.
"You think slowly to-night, Julian. Might not that have been caused by her thinking you faithless to her? Remember, I told her not only that you never really properly cared for her, but that you no longer loved her at all."
"You damned scoundrel!" shouted Julian; but Siegbert only laughed.
"Come," he said, "you have ten minutes to change your clothes. It's ten to nine now; at nine we'll take advantage of the first intermission to visit the Hescombes' box at Her Majesty's."
But Julian shook his head, looking a little dazed. "I think I'll write to her first," he said.
"Bah," cried the other, "don't talk nonsense, boy; she'd probably burn your letter, or send it back unanswered. You must talk to her; talk her over, my boy."
"But—but—what chance would I have in the theatre? Besides," he muttered shamefacedly, "I look so devilish off colour."
"The best thing that could happen you, you noodle. That's a great card, your looks; better powder your cheeks a little, though you won't need that if you keep as white as you are now. Women are always kind to a sick man. As for a chance to speak to her, I'll manage that all right. Come now, look alive!"
Julian needed no other bidding, with trembling haste he changed his clothes, and a very few minutes afterwards the two friends tapped at a certain box at Her Majesty's Theatre.
"I have brought a truant to visit you," announced Siegbert genially, as the door opened.
The party consisted of Sir Stuart and Lady Hescombe, Mara and Cuthbert Stone. With no exception, the greeting was a cool one. Sir Stuart only shaking hands with his visitor, the others bowing frigidly, though Julian fancied that Miss Hescombe changed colour slightly on his entrance.
There followed a desultory conversation, in which the poet was almost the only speaker. He talked feverishly, asking questions and answering them himself, laughing at intervals in a boisterous fashion quite unlike his ordinary placid manner.
Julian felt entirely out of place. His weakness had robbed him of his usual resourcefulness and tact. He was silent, nervous, and almost distrait, while he wished most ardently that he had never come. A dozen times he would have risen and departed, but for the poet's restraining glances.
At last Siegbert showed signs of leaving.
"By the way," he said to Sir Stuart Hescombe, "I shall be unable to join you at supper to-night, but Mr. Savage is disengaged, and with your kind permission will take my place."
At this insolent proposition everyone stared. Julian himself turned pale with passion, but there was only one answer possible.
The baronet bowed civilly.
"We are sorry you cannot be with us, Karl, but we shall be delighted to have Mr. Savage if he will join us."
Julian's lips trembled on the point of speech, but as he received a severe kick at that moment from his friend on the shins, he merely bowed and departed from the box to the accompaniment of two frigid "au revoirs" from Sir Stuart and Lady Hescombe. Neither Mara nor the American spoke at all.
"What the devil did you do that for?" he cried savagely to the poet, once safely in the street.
"If you listen I shall explain," returned Siegbert, with a Machiavelian smile. "You see it's this way. The supper-party is to take place at Commino's; well, if I know anything of womankind, Mara will decline to be present. She will leave the theatre under Cuthbert Stone's escort and go straight to the hotel, where arrived, she will dismiss your rival and proceed at once to her room.
"Well, to get to the same room she will have to pass the drawing-room door. You know where that is situated. I'd like to hear what is to prevent you from being just handy when she passes that particular spot?"
"But this supper-party?"
"Oh, I shall stroll along to that myself and take your excuses. Be sure I shall keep them as long as I can."
"Karl, you are a genius!" cried Julian gratefully.
"Am I? Come and have a brandy flip. You need one; you are trembling like a leaf."
"But she may go to the supper after all!" cried Julian.
The poet laughed merrily. "So she may, boy. We'll have to run the risk of that."
With all the feelings of a criminal fearing detection, an hour later Julian ensconced himself in the doorway of the deserted drawing-room at the Metropole. A handsome fee to the night porter, to whom he was well known, secured his presence there with no questions asked; but Julian all the same felt ill at ease.
The escapade was a doubtful one. He feared the meeting that he hoped for, and for the second time in his life his confidence deserted him.
Often he was at the point of abandoning his purpose, of slipping away and leaving to another time and opportunity the explanation and the declaration he proposed to offer to his lady-love, but nevertheless a feeling stronger than his will chained him to the spot.
Every step on the stairway, every footfall in the passage sent his heart beating wildly against his ribs, the blood rioting in his veins. Each false alarm left him chill and desperate.
Many minutes passed, and the waiting with each second became more and more a torturing suspense, so that at last, faint with excitement, he leaned, weak and helpless, against the woodwork of the door.
It was thus that Miss Hescombe found him.
At first she thought him some drunken loiterer, for his back was turned to her, but advancing cautiously, she marked his pallid face, his nearly closing eyes, his drooping form, and at the same time recognising with a sudden heart-throb the man, she also divined his purpose.
She would have passed on disdainfully, but Julian had caught her footstep.
Struggling against the weakness that beset him, he took a tottering step forward, so that she was compelled to stop.
"Well," she said, looking him coldly up and down, "what do you want with me?"
But Julian's strength was gone. "I am ill," he muttered, and would have fallen at her feet but that she sprang to support him. With great gentleness she drew him then into the brilliantly lighted drawing-room, where he sank half unconscious into a lounge, his face showing deathly pale in the white glare of the electricity.
"Wait," muttered Miss Hescombe, and leaving him, she fled along the passage, returning presently with some spirit in a tumbler from her father's room. "Drink this."
Julian sipped the liquid languidly for a moment, then waved her hand aside.
"Is it true," he whispered, "that you are to marry Cuthbert Stone?"
"What is that to you?" demanded Mara Hescombe.
He gazed into her eyes. "Everything."
The girl laughed, scornfully. "It is interesting to know that now."
Julian struggled into a sitting posture, falling back once weakly in the effort.
"I love you," he muttered.
"I swear it, Mara! I have loved you all along."
"Really, Mr. Savage, you choose a strange time to make your amatory confessions."
"Do not you believe me?" asked Julian, regardless of her words.
"I believe that you have an excellent eye to dramatic effect, at all events," murmured the girl.
A slow flush mounted from the man's chin to his brow.
"I deserve everything you can say to me," he said gravely. "I humbly beg forgiveness for ever having crossed your path. I shall not trouble you again."
With a great effort he arose from the couch, and bowing with all the dignity he could command, moved slowly towards the door. But with all his will forced to the one purpose, he could not prevent his steps from faltering.
"You had better drink the rest of this brandy," said Miss Hescombe, her voice hard and cold. Her words roused him as nothing else could; setting his teeth, he strode forward almost firmly.
He had reached the passage, when caressing fingers touched one of his tightly-clenched hands, a soft voice whispered in his ear his name—"Julian!"
Scarcely crediting his senses, he paused and turned.
Mara stood before him, her cheeks hot, her eyes shining with an infinitely tender light.
"Tell me it was not true—what the poet told me," she whispered.
"It was all true—all, except that he said I did not love you," Julian muttered brokenly.
"As if anything else mattered!" cried Mara Hescombe.
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