a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership
|BROWSE the site for other works by this author
(and our other authors) or get HELP Reading, Downloading and Converting files)
SEARCH the entire site with Google Site Search
Title: Her Assigned Husband Author: Ambrose Pratt * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1402811h.html Language: English Date first posted: October 2014 Most recent update: October 2014 This eBook was produced by: Maurie Mulcahy Project Gutenberg of 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.
GO TO Project Gutenberg Australia HOME PAGE
Chapter I.—A Family Conclave.
Chapter II.—Some Pages from a Young Woman's Diary.
Chapter III.—In a New Country.
Chapter IV.—The Road.
Chapter V.—Camberwell Station.
Chapter VI.—Mark Seldon Goes to Camberwell.
Chapter VII.—"His Duel is with Me."
Chapter VIII.—A Catspaw.
Chapter IX.—The Beam is Tipped.
Chapter X.—A Choice of Evils.
Chapter XI.—The Triangles.
Chapter XII—A Mutiny.
Chapter XIII.—-Morcan's Gift.
Chapter XV.—Another Page from Mrs. Sherwin's Diary.
Chapter XVI.—An Impatient Woman.
Chapter XVII.—Second Thoughts.
Chapter XVIII.—"Before He Dies."
Chapter XIX.—A Pot of Broth.
Chapter XX.—A Miracle.
Chapter XXI.—The Saving Grace.
Chapter XXII.—The Final Test.
Chapter XXIII.—The Last.
AMELIA BLESSINGTON Shrugged her shoulders, tilted her dark brows, and allowed the edges of her thin, straight mouth to droop. She desired to signify to her son that she was piously resigned to the inevitable. Her eyes, however, did not betoken resignation. They sparkled with a fine, malicious fire which seemed to take color from the burning logs at which she gazed. Sir Harry Blessington regarded her with a cold appraising stare. His eyes were cynical and deeply discontented. "It was on your advice I left England," he observed.
"Was it on my advice you absented yourself for nearly five months, never writing to Elizabeth, and not even condescending to inform your mother of your whereabouts?"
The young man's face flushed. "Deuce take it," he muttered. "I acted for the best. My silence merely bettered your instructions. Absence and fond hearts, you know. I thought myself uncommonly considerate and clever—in the circumstances—to disappear for a time. I had her promise, and, hang it all—you vowed that she should never break her word."
"You behaved like a fool—an imbecile. I blame you for everything," said his mother quietly.
Sir Harry bit his lip. "And I deserve to be blamed," he admitted. "I reposed too great a confidence in you. I fancied you more than capable of managing the baggage, idiot that I was."
Mrs. Blessington permitted her son a glimpse of the red light in her eyes. With a voice of exceeding sweetness she asked: "Do you think it would pay either of us to quarrel just now? I suppose you are as hard up as usual. I, for my part, am dreadfully in debt, and my creditors daily grow more insolent."
"But you are still the trustee of Elizabeth's estate?" he demanded anxiously.
"I am not."
"What!" he cried. "Already?"
"My guardianship was terminated by the marriage. Her rascally husband cut short the honeymoon in order to get her to take over control of her affairs."
Sir Harry showed his teeth in a snarl of rage, and his black brows drew together in an ugly frown. He looked for the moment like a dangerous wild animal. "How much did the fellow make away with before the debacle?" he demanded.
"He! Oh, nothing. A thousand or two, perhaps. Why?"
Sir Harry looked tremendously relieved. "I thought from your tone that he had ruined her. Pish! You frightened me." He flung out his hands. "Come, come, mater. Things are not so black after all. The money's safe. It's only a question of laying our hands on it. Somehow or another we'll contrive that."
The acrid monosyllable and the glance that accompanied it served to put Sir Harry on his mettle. "How?" he repeated; then in a voice of concentrated resolution: "I'll find a way, by heavens! And there'll be no mistake made this time. But first I must know just where we stand. Let me remind you that as yet I am only acquainted with the barest facts. One, Bessie is married. Two, her husband has been transported to Botany Bay for fourteen years. Three, she has sacked you and assumed control of her property. Why, strap me if you've even told me her husband's name."
Mrs. Blessington once more shrugged her shoulders. "His name is Sherwin, Luke Sherwin."
"Sherwin. Humph! Commence from the beginning, please."
"It commenced at Bath; you know when you left us that we proposed to winter at Bath."
"And I begged you not. But never mind, go on!"
"We met him at the rooms. Lord Strathnaver introduced him as a friend——"
"That young wastrel!" cut in Sir Harry. "Surely such a presentation should have put you on your guard at once. A friend of Strathnaver——"
Mrs. Blessington stopped her son with a single burning look. "I required no warning, sir, Mr. Sherwin never deceived me." She spoke in a tone the softness of which uncannily contrasted with the passion in her eyes. "I read him for a villainous adventurer while he was preparing to make his smirking bow to us. But Elizabeth——" She spread out her hands.
"Well, well," impatiently. "Elizabeth?"
"She fell in love with the blackguard at first sight. She danced every dance with him."
"You should have quitted Bath next morning."
"I desired to, but Elizabeth defied me, and refused to go."
"You should have coerced her, dragged her away!"
"She anticipated that by poisoning my coffee. Such, at least, is my opinion. At any rate, I was taken dangerously ill very suddenly, and for nearly a fortnight I was confined to bed."
"Was always with Mr. Sherwin, I subsequently discovered from the servants. As soon as I became strong enough to raise my head I intervened, of course, but the mischief was done."
"What do you mean?"
"They had procured a parson to marry them on the fifth day of their acquaintance."
"But no contract could be legal without your consent. Her father's will expressly stipulated——"
"Elizabeth had foreseen even that detail. She is a creature of resource. While I lay ill and fearing myself about to die, she persuaded me with many tears and kisses to sign a document which I understood was a message to you—bidding you attend my bed of death. It was in reality a formal consent to her marriage with Luke Sherwin."
"The little devil!" hissed Sir Harry. "But still, fraud, fraud. No court would uphold a consent so wickedly obtained."
Mrs. Blessington smiled grimly. "So I told Mr. Sherwin."
"Ah! And he?"
"Mr. Sherwin proved himself an adroit man of business. He pointed out that since the mischief actually was done, it might be more advantageous to me to compromise than to fight a protracted lawsuit. He had previously taken pains to ascertain my true financial status."
"Ah! So you compromised. And the terms?"
"He agreed to push no inquiries into my stewardship of his wife's estate, and he gave me a bond for £20,000. In return, I signed a valid consent to the marriage."
Sir Harry gave a low whistle. "And nevertheless you are in debt," he cried.
"When the bond came due for payment, Mr. Sherwin lay a prisoner in irons at the Old Bailey. He is now on his way to New South Wales."
"But Elizabeth will honor it. She must."
"She may. She is under no legal responsibility, my lawyers tell me, but I continue to hope that she may prove so far tractable!"
"Is she aware your husband gave you the bond?"
"She was present when he signed it."
"Why do you doubt her, then?"
"She has greatly changed. Wait until you see her and you will understand."
Sir Harry shifted to a more comfortable position. He had obviously been under a prolonged muscular strain. "Is she still infatuated?" he inquired.
"It is impossible to say. She will not talk about her husband at all. For a week after he was sentenced she kept her room and refused to see a soul. She reappeared a woman of the world, ten years older, and infected with a craze for keeping her own counsel. Since then she has plunged into every sort and form of gaiety. She seems intent on making the world believe that she is heart-whole."
Sir Harry smiled, and stroked his black moustache. "So she is keeping a stiff upper lip. Well, well—we'll see."
"She is prouder than Lucifer," said Mrs. Blessington. "I believe she would murder anyone who offered to sympathise with her."
Sir Harry nodded. "Thanks for the hint. By the way, who was her husband?"
"At Bath," sneered Mrs. Blessington, "he was the eldest son of a wealthy Irish gentleman. At his trial he was shown to be the youngest son of an impoverished Cornish schoolmaster."
"A personable creature, I daresay? Tall and dark, with a military figure, an ingratiating smile, a melancholy air, and the manners of a French dancing master?"
Mrs. Blessington frowned and shook her head.
"On the contrary, he is fair, not very tall, but immensely big and imposing. He reminded me of a prize-fighter, but I am obliged to confess that his features, though heavy, are not coarse."
"What do you count the secret of his fascination? He did fascinate the girl, I suppose."
"He has a remarkable gift of brightness. He turns everything to laughter, and he can be incredibly impertinent without causing offence."
"A marvel!" exclaimed Sir Harry. "He will be a rare acquisition to the convict settlement. By the way, for what was he transported? Something romantic, one may be permitted to hope?"
Mrs. Blessington's thin lips curled. "Before marrying Elizabeth he was a common pickpocket," she replied. "But no—I do him an injustice—an uncommon pickpocket, I should say. No man ever possessed a more limitless effrontery. Witness the circumstances of his arrest."
"He took Elizabeth that evening to the Spanish Ambassador's ball."
"Only a few weeks earlier he had stolen a watch and purse from his Excellency's pocket at a London theatre and had been detected in the act. He only got clear by striking his victim senseless and forcing a way through the crowd. He must be a Hercules."
"The ambassador recognised him, I presume."
"At once, and charged him with the crime in the middle of the ball-room—Elizabeth hanging on the rascal's arm."
Sir Harry laughed gently and rubbed his hands together as though well pleased. "Elizabeth would not have relished that," he murmured. "A jilted lover may find compensation in the thought."
Mrs. Blessington pursed up her lips.
"I told her he was an adventurer from the start," he said.
"And doubtless at the finish, too," sneered Sir Harry. "But tell me, how did the fellow, Sherwin, behave?"
"He laughed to scorn his Excellency's accusation and challenged him to fight a duel. Pretended to be grossly insulted, and so on."
"You were present, mother?"
"Aye." Mrs. Blessington smiled as at some precious memory.
"There was a violent scene, and many people took sides with the adventurer. But his Excellency pressed the charge, and Mr. Sherwin was arrested, here in this house, later the same evening, by the Bow Street runners. Elizabeth was like one demented——"
"Spare me her insanities. I can imagine them. What was Sherwin's defence?"
"He endeavored to set up a case of mistaken identity and prove an alibi."
"He failed, of course?"
"There was no error made. He is not by any chance an injured innocent?"
"His whole life was traced. It made a spicy record. Moreover, several brother pickpockets and many respectable citizens identified him past questioning. He had been in gaol before."
"And so he was transported for fourteen years."
Sir Harry thrust out his boots to the fire. "There should be no trouble in breaking Elizabeth's marriage," he observed. "Does she still call herself Mrs. Sherwin?"
"And the world titters, of course."
Mrs. Blessington raised her eyebrows. "She is an object of combined curiosity, pity, and contempt. She is attempting the impossible—to live as though nothing had happened and her position were not desperately equivocal. She could not maintain the farce for a day were it not for her enormous fortune. But already she is finding out how bitter is her need of a protector. The young bloods, you know."
"Ah, yes. I know the young bloods well. Hum, hum! I begin to see my way. I must teach her to lean on me. What? Can you better that for a suggestion?"
"You will need to be extremely careful not to let her discern your purpose. She is uncommonly intelligent, and her mind has been sharpened with suspicion."
"Trust me, mother. I'll commence by being her indulgent elder brother. I'll escort her everywhere, and yet efface myself in company and incite the world to enjoy all the opportunities it craves to fret her spirit. Damme! but the role appeals to me. With my left hand I'll fan the flames, with my right I'll pluck her from them just as they begin to sear her flesh. Mark me well. In a month I'll be her only comforter, her only consolation."
"Would you wed her, Harry?"
Sir Harry tugged thoughtfully at his moustache. "There are eighty thousand reasons why I should," he said at last. "But I confess I'd prefer to get my fist into her treasury some other way. There's no disguising the fact she is a soiled dove. She's the wife of a pickpocket, you say, but for aught we know he may have half a dozen other wives. However, we'll talk again on this. There's no hurry to decide." He got to his feet. "Meanwhile, I'll have a furbish up, if you'll excuse me. My old room, I suppose?"
"I'll go with you, Harry. Pray lend me your arm."
Some two or three moments after Mrs. Blessington and her son had departed from the library, a section of one of the heavy bookcases, flanking the ingle opened outwards on a shrieking hinge, and from the cavity behind it a young woman of medium height and slender build stepped into the apartment. She was attired as though for a garden party at Ranelagh—richly, according to the accepted fashion of the period. Her first act was to close the bookcase. She then removed the hat which had obscured her countenance, and revealed a shapely head covered with a wonderfully plaited mass of gleaming copper hair. It was not a gentle or a genial face the fire-light played upon. The young woman's features were regular enough and her complexion was clear and faultless, but her expression was not alluring. It would have set a man on his defence; a child it would have terrified. For several minutes she stood motionless, gazing, as Mrs. Blessington had done, into the heart of the burning logs; one hand holding the strings of her discarded hat, the other pressed tightly to her side. But her mobile face was never for an instant still. A thousand shades and shadows crossed it, and each muscular distortion gave a fleeting portraiture of stormy passions, superbly held within subjection by a strength of will enormously beyond the commonplace of female resolution. No physiognomist but would have been enchanted by the spectacle. No dreamer but would have trespassed on the utmost prerogatives of inspiration to divine a future fit for such a subject of distracting speculation. Many a time the young woman seemed to be on the very edge of a tumultuous verbal outburst, but always her pre-determination to be silent triumphed. At the outset of these little crises she looked a girl of twenty-three; as often as she mastered them she aged a dozen years.
At length her reverie was interrupted by the sound of approaching footsteps in the corridor. Immediately she heard them the young woman's attitude relaxed. She did not alter her pose, but she began to swing her hat gently to and fro, and when, a few seconds later, Mrs. Blessington re-entered the room, the young woman showed her a visage that reflected nothing of the owner's soul, except, perhaps, her pride.
"So you have returned, my dear," said Mrs. Blessington, pausing, somewhat startled, near the door. "I did not expect you for another hour at least. No unpleasant contretemps recalled you, I sincerely hope?"
"Nothing unusual, aunt, save that I was unusually bored. Has Sir Harry arrived?"
"Only a little while ago. He is now repairing the exactions of his journey."
"How much does he know?"
"Everything, Elizabeth. I was only required to supply a few details. You have nothing, my dear, to apprehend from his reproaches—nor need you fear his sympathy. He assured me he regards you as a sister, and he quite approves the courageous attitude you have taken up. I am confident you will find him an agreeable companion, and I trust you will not scruple to employ his services. You are far too young to go about unattended, and, if you'll suffer me to pay you an earnest compliment, you are far too beautiful, my dear."
Mrs. Sherwin dropped her aunt a smiling little curtesy. "You are too indulgent to your emancipated ward," she said, then added quickly: "I think you have always been a little too indulgent to me, aunt, and I a little too ungrateful."
"Oh, my dear," cried Mrs. Blessington, "you are growing human. I must kiss you for that most delightful little speech."
Mrs. Sherwin seemed nothing loth. She held out her arms, indeed, for the embrace, and the two women caressed each other cordially.
"Between ourselves," Whispered Mrs. Blessington, "Harry is as much your slave as ever."
Mrs. Sherwin blushed very charmingly. "Between ourselves," she whispered in return, "I am very glad to hear it. I am not unmindful that I treated him abominably."
Mrs. Blessington was bewitched by this unexpected confession into a display of magnaminity that flouted practice and disowned all precedent. "He deserved it," she exclaimed. "But for his outrageous folly in deserting us——"
But the younger woman put a loving finger on her aunt's lips. "No, no," she said. "Harry is not responsible, and I will not have you blame him."
Positively, there were tears in Mrs. Blessington's eyes when her niece ran away to dress for dinner.
October 17.—It is well, Indeed, that I contrived to overhear their first unguarded colloquy. Mrs. Blessington is a Sphinx, and my cousin has the wisdom of a fallen angel. Oh, heavens, to know that his unfailing kindness, his exquisite consideration, his chivalrous solicitude, and his unflagging readiness to sacrifice his predilections to my whims are so many sweet, smiling masks assumed to trap my confidence and undermine my independence. Is there any meanness, any baseness, from which a gentleman will shrink in his pursuit of fortune? With pickpockets and snatch-purses, such practices may be accounted natural, but I do now begin to realise that the hearts of all men are infamous and black with guile. Yet there is one shall pay me to the full; aye, and more than one, perhaps. Why not acquit Sir Harry in his own coin—with the other? Might I not constrain him to attend me to the Antipodes—there to be an instrument of my revenge? How could he resist the pressure I may put upon him? He is fathoms deep in debt, and I have learned the trick of stirring up his passions. Shall I teach him that his "soiled dove" is a spider—spinning out the lesson over many thousand leagues of ocean and across the verges of an undeveloped continent? The plan has pleasing features, and a man is always useful to a woman who can manage him and keep him loyal with a dangled purse. Do you not hear the knelling of your doom, accursed sneak who call yourself Sir Harry Blessington?
November 9.—All London is going to her Ladyship of Tinemouth's rout—save only me. Her Ladyship has overlooked my invitation. Everybody knows, of course, and pities me. To Hades with their sympathy! There's not a tender glance or smile addressed to the misfortunate but is the prelude to a sleeve-laugh and a mordant sneer. Every house that closes strengthens my determination. England grows steadily more insupportable. My position becomes almost daily more impossible. Yet there are kind souls who believe that I am deaf and blind, and wholly reckless. I visit the Colonial Secretary to-morrow.
November 27.—The die is cast. The Rubicon is crossed. The Minister was more than kind to me. For a mere £6000 I am to be vested with a grant of 20,000 acres of excellent grazing and agricultural land situated within a few miles of the convict city, with the right to the assigned service of 40 convict laborers. He advises me to procure a flock of Saxon sheep, which are noted for growing an especially fine wool, and to provide for the building of a house in advance of my arrival. I shall follow his counsel to the letter. He has promised to equip me with letters to the Governor of New South Wales, and he assures me I shall be received as a very welcome addition to the society of the new colony. Better a year in Europe than a cycle in Cathay, sings the poet. He was not a woman lured into marriage with an English felon. Better, say I, to queen it among the derelicts of Sydney than to suffer the contemptuous patronage of London Pharisees. Not a woman came to my last party but has a slack purse or a slacker reputation, and not a man but is, or was, a rake-hell.
December 1.—I owe Harry Blessington even more than I had thought. Lord Strathnaver was very drunk to-night, very maudlin, and very confiding. Harry's ears should have burned. In vino veritas. It would appear that Harry has been covertly informing the world that I could forthwith break my marriage in the courts if I desired, but that I am disinclined to have recourse to the law immediately, while I possess a plausible excuse and sanction to enjoy the privileges and employ the license of a matron. I may no longer feel surprised at the rapidity of my exclusion from the houses of personages who were formerly accustomed to treat me with distinction. Ah! well. What matters? The play here is almost ready for the curtain. In a few days Harry will learn that he is faring out to Botany Bay. I can picture his astonishment, his indignation. He will struggle like a lion in the toils, and ah! his mortification to discover he is no such noble animal—merely a buzz-fly tangled in a spider's web!
December 23.—The good ship Vansittart sailed to-day, her fore-hold filled with material for my Australian house, her decks littered with sheep of Saxony and a herd of our best English cattle. Nobody knows my plans yet except the Minister and my lawyers. But the Blessingtons have learned that I propose to sell Heatherdean, and they are aflame with curiosity. We set out, all three of us, to-morrow for Italy, where I shall dwell until the news arrives that my Antipodean home is fit for occupation. That may be a year, perhaps.
March 9.—Despatches. Despatches! Never was there a more considerate Minister. The copy of a gubernatorial report, sixty folios in length, eloquently describing the social and fiscal conditions of the colony; also an elaborate brochure on the convict system; finally, a gracious epistle signed by my Lord himself, charged with much patient and sincere advice, and many wise suggestions. I am, indeed, flattered to discover that his Lordship believes me worthy of such grave and serious attention. I must take care to reinforce the impression I have been fortunate enough to carve upon his memory. He tells me, very candidly, he attaches much importance to my "brave adventure," and that he is prepared to devote all the resources at his command to assist it towards a prosperous career, for the colony's sorest need is of free immigrants with sufficient capital and enterprise to establish industries that may ultimately make the settlement "a self-supporting institution;" and he argues that if one English woman may succeed—which he considers highly probable—it will become less difficult to tempt Englishmen of the required type to embark their fortunes in the South.
April 27.—More despatches—all of moment, but one, to me, of a most urgent, cutting interest. The convict Mark Seldon has graduated through all classes of the probation gang system, and for good conduct has been promoted to the position of schoolmaster in a secondary road-gang station at Parramatta—wherever that may be.
June 3.—Better news. The convict Mark Seldon has been degraded and punished for supplying tobacco to men in the gangs.
September 14.—The convict Mark Seldon has been flogged for insubordination, and remitted to the lowest class of the "probation gangs." We set out for London to-morrow, and sail from Portsmouth in the Vansittart, on November 19. Sir Harry is becoming reconciled to his fate. He vows that he adores me. Mrs. Blessington is passively resigned. I have promised to discharge her debts—else-wise she could hardly now return to England—and to make her an allowance of £1200 per annum till her death. Harry has been assisted by his native modesty to solve the riddle of my original behaviour. I am consumed with a secret longing to become his wife, and to endow him with my rich inheritance, but I suffer from this strange perversity—despite my flighty ways, I am at heart a thoroughly religious woman, and were I a dozen times enfranchised by the law, my conscience would forbid me to re-marry while my convict spouse still lived. I am going to New South Wales, it seems, for two main reasons. Number, one—because I smart intensely from the ban of London's social disapproval; and number two—because I am sufficiently human, notwithstanding my religion, to indulge my vengeful instincts with the spectacle at narrow range of a certain felon working out his punishment in chains. Sir Harry, who has independently studied the convict system, is so confident that Luke Sherwin will not long survive its dreadful discipline that he has made me doubly anxious to be gone. The thought faces me constantly that I have been too patient, that he will perish ere I have an opportunity to—but no! I will not entertain this cruel doubt. Never was there born a stouter villain, one better qualified to wear the yoke, to bear the lash and live, and live. Moreover, I have rights which I might challenge Providence to repudiate—with blasphemies—and yet retain. And I am far from willing to be blasphemous. I am infinitely prayerful, infinitely meek. My life is one prolonged entreaty that he should be spared to feel the gentle ministrations of a woman's hand—a loving woman's hand.
IT was, no doubt, in consequence of the Colonial Secretary's potent interest in her affairs that Mrs. Sherwin was launched under the fairest auspices upon the quaint little social cosmos of Sydney.
On the arrival in Port Jackson of the good ship Vansittart, Mrs. Sherwin found herself an object of extraordinary attention and solicitude. An aide-de-camp, accompanied by two equerries, forestalled her debarkation in a boat propelled by the oars of sixteen convicts, with a pressing invitation from the Governor and his lady to make Government House the hostel of her entire party; and, when she stepped ashore, it was to run the gauntlet of a thousand eyes, of women desperately eager to note and imitate the latest English fashions, and of men, scarcely less anxious to scan the features of an inexplicable phenomenon—a woman young, beautiful, and fabulously rich, who had turned her back upon the great world in order to cultivate a patch of the Antipodean desert. One may be sure that Mrs. Sherwin spared no pains to decorate her person fittingly on that eventful morning. The vexed countenance of her English tire-maid, Julia Dixon, was proof enough if proof were wanting. But the truth is, Mrs. Sherwin's form and face provided ample witness. "Ravishing, 'pon honor!" exclaimed Sir Harry as she set her foot upon the quarter-deck. That gentleman had already made friends with the aide, whom he ceremoniously presented. "Major Eustace Wilkes, my dear cousin; I knew his elder brother in the 14th Lancers. Many a bottle have we cracked together."
Mrs. Sherwin gave the major a graceful courtesy and an alluring smile. She read his despatches quickly, and indifferently assented to the invitation they conveyed. But she praised with ardor the loveliness of the harbor, the brightness of the sky and the courtesy of her reception, and all the while her eyes besought the aide-de-camp to take the spirit of her universal praises to himself. Major Wilkes was her lover on the quarter-deck; but before they reached the shore he was her slave. There were many similar good resolutions passed before the day was done, though one may doubt if any one was kept. Mrs. Sherwin was presented to a round dozen leading private citizens upon the landing stage, and to as many officers, who obviously held their civilian brothers in contempt. By some magic, which nobody could trace or analyse, she contrived to make each man she met believe he had absorbed her interest, and each woman that her dressmaker had little, if anything, to learn from London.
In the rarer atmosphere of Government House she was not a whit less successful. Five minutes' conversation with his Excellency pleasantly convinced the Governor of a better standing with the English Minister, his chief, than he had even dared to fancy; and her Excellency's affectionate esteem was acquired in perpetuity by a few subtle flatteries, supplemented with some rolls of brocaded silk and the promise of her tire-maid's services to convert them into ultra-fashionable frocks. In a word, Mrs. Sherwin was irresistible. She fascinated every mind, she captivated every heart. Her first week was spent in a round of routs and dinner parties, and, even before it was over, she had quenched every natural misgiving as to the nature of her relations with Sir Harry Blessington.
Very manifestly, her cousin worshipped her; but it was equally patent, even to the most suspicious eye, that Mrs. Sherwin used him merely as a servant and a shield. With other men, she flirted openly, but with him she did not flirt. She was always the great lady, and he must keep his distance. Soon the unlucky baronet came to be veritably pitied; he was ever so painfully anxious to placate her, yet she treated him with coolness, and seldom addressed him save to utter a command.
The more aspiring of her colonial critics, however, came presently to confess doubts if Mrs. Sherwin might possess a heart at all. True enough, she was rarely unresponsive to their coram populo advances, and it was a comparatively easy matter to entrap her into a tete-a-tete. But, observe this miracle—the lady, just now an audacious siren in the crowd, had no sooner acquired an opportunity for unsupervised audacity than she would confound her swain with such an address as this: "How nice that we are now alone. Do you know, Captain So-and-so, I have been deliberately intriguing for this chance to consult you. I am most seriously interested in making a success of my experiment in industry, and I can see it is quite necessary I should not start with mistaken notions. Now, I am aware, that you are the great authority here on (say, hop-growing), so I propose to put myself at your feet, a very diligent and grateful pupil if you will but condescend to be my teacher."
"The devil of it was," as one gallant soldier subsequently informed his comrades at the mess, "the woman is absolutely serious. She put me through a catechism so earnest and intelligent that, damme, sirs, before I knew what I was doing I was acting the professor; aye, and not unwillingly."
Beyond doubt, Mrs. Sherwin's popularity must have suffered a speedy eclipse had she singled out any individual for warmer favors. But she subjected all her admirers to the same process. In company she challenged them with glances tinged with provocation; but in privy conversation she became a mind—and nothing but a mind—burning with an imperious desire to be instructed. Now it was about some phase of convict discipline; now about the proper soil for certain crops; now again about the climate or the rainfall. Every brain that she encountered was explored, and her passion to be educated seemed insatiable. Gradually, most of her admirers ceased to pursue her with amorous intent, convinced of the insincerity of her engaging "company" manners and fatigued with the task of answering her questions. Those voted her a serious woman, a schemer, a blue stocking, or a tease. But as she lost caste among the frivolous, she as steadily increased the circle of her sober friends; and three months had not elapsed before many of the older officers and the more solid civilians began to treat her with deep and genuine respect. Her stay at Government House extended over nearly four months, and it would not have terminated then had their Excellencies' wishes only been consulted. Mrs. Sherwin, however, felt the time had come to get to hand-grips with her great experiment, and the architect having reported that the building and equipment of her country homestead wanted nothing of completion, she took leave one fine day of her hosts and set forth at the head of an imposing retinue into the bush.
Two days after her departure there arrived a mail packet from England carrying, inter alia, a letter to the wife of Major Marshall (a flagrant gossip) from a bosom friend in London. Within half a dozen hours the ladies of Sydney were better acquainted with a certain part of the contents of the document than they might have been had Mrs. Marshall employed the town crier to be her publisher.
Sydney positively effervesced. "Mrs. Sherwin is no great lady, neither is she a widow. She is an imposter, an adventurer. She is the wife of a convict. Her husband was a notorious transported thief or murderer, who is now, they say working in a chain gang in Van Diemen's Land. Mrs. Sherwin migrated to Sydney because England cast her out." The noise of these explosive exclamations soon penetrated to headquarters, and, thereupon another sensation was provided to society. The Governor sternly rebuked Major Marshall for permitting his wife to circulate the scandal. He described Mrs. Sherwin as a noble but unfortunate woman, and he fearlessly proclaimed himself her champion.
His Excellency's first subsequent report to the Secretary of State, now on record in the archives of the Colonial Office, makes the following interesting reference to Mrs. Sherwin:
"I can perceive no reason to apprehend an unprofitable outcome of the cross-breeding experiment now in progress at the Camberwell sheep-walk—to which your Lordship rightly attaches great importance—because the director of operations is a female. Mrs. Sherwin is a woman of masculine character, and is exceptionally shrewd and capable. Her merino sheep have greatly improved and increased since they landed here in April of last year . . . Mrs. Sherwin is planting immediately 40 acres with hops for malt, 60 acres with grain, and 10 acres with assorted fruit trees and Malaga vines. I am hopeful that her example will stimulate a like enterprise among our free settlers......"
Sir Harry Blessington rode at Mrs. Sherwin's right hand, John Morcan at her left. Behind them straggled a large ungainly coach, filled with serving women and drawn by four stout cobs; three carts loaded with impedimenta, and some fifteen horsemen, of whom four were laborers and the remainder convict probationers.
Not a face but was smiling or pleasantly excited as they left the confines of the town. Mrs. Sherwin was conscious of a deep elation, a feeling of unbounded pride to be the captain of a rare adventure, the mistress of so many destinies. Her maid-servants were thrilled by the novelty of their situation, charmed by the brightness of the morning, and deliciously expectant of discovering romance in the unknown about to be explored. The men-servants, one and all, tingled with the knowledge that they had just entered a service which was to be requited with a wage beyond experience. They were persons of good character, selected, and recommended to Mrs. Sherwin by the Governor, and each carried a contract in his pocket that promised to make him eventually a man of substance provided he fulfilled its terms. Sir Harry Blessington felt joyous because his cousin had been more kind to him that morning than since the Vansittart left England, and she seemed disposed to continue being kind.
And finally, John Morcan was glad because he had got up before daylight to witness the execution of a criminal, and the wretch had screamed his way to the scaffold, and had struggled madly on the drop. A most reputable man was John Morcan, and the Governor, in giving him to Mrs. Sherwin, could not easily have furnished stronger proof of his consideration for her interests. Born at Trinidad, and educated in Jamaica, John Morcan had spent his youth superintending a great cotton plantation in Virginia, where he developed a fair talent for handling and controlling slaves. Subsequently he had actively embarked his fortunes in the slave trade, but fate had proved unkind, and he had been picked up off the African coast, the sole survivor of a wreck, by the frigate which had carried his Excellency to Australia. In Sydney he had entered the Government service as overseer at a Convict sheep farm, and, to the astonishment of all concerned, he had made the State undertaking a pronounced success, where it had previously been a dismal failure and a drain upon the revenue. On learning his history, Mrs. Sherwin conceived a vague notion of attracting the man to her employ, but as soon as she saw his face, her negligent intention matured into a fixed resolve. The Governor had resisted her pleading for a full week, being most unwilling to lose a careful officer, and one in whom he placed implicit trust; but Mrs. Sherwin was not a woman easy to deny when she had set her heart upon a thing, and eventually she got her way. Her first difficulty was the only one. John Morcan assented to the transfer immediately he heard that she desired to make him responsible for the comfort and conduct of the many convict labourers in her employ. Strange to say, the high salary she offered had tempted him less than the fact that he would hold a position of narrow but supreme authority in her domain. In the Government service there had been too many superiors overlooking him to suit his autocratic disposition. A born autocrat was John Morcan, but to the casual eye he did not look it. His appearance, indeed, suggested rather the courtier than the king, as he rode beside his mistress in the sunlight, and a running fire of eloquence that yet was always deferential interpreted to her the country they were traversing. Let us listen to him for a moment.
"No, madam, those are only sandstone ridges yonder; we shall see no hills until we cross the coastal area. You say rightly, this land is poor and hungry. Mark the shrunken stature of the gums, and see how ragged is the underbrush. Those trees, madam? Surely they are flattered by the kindly designation. Melileuca they are called, and seldom do they reach a proper size in ironstone soil like this, though I have seen them tower in swampy land, and shipwrights find a use for them I'm told, in laying keels. Your humble pardon, madam; I followed badly the direction of your glance. Yes, those are trees, indeed; they must be nurtured from a spring or creek we cannot see. The country dips in line with their advance, as, no doubt, you already have perceived. They are a sort of box, and where they cluster one may find a pool, and when they straggle in procession one may hope to come upon a watercourse."
"My man, you are a perfect mine of information," put in Sir Harry lightly.
Morcan bowed courteously. "Why, sir, it is my trade to learn the tricks and wiles of Lady Nature. But I must freely own that in this land she often does deceive me and confound my penetration. One needs must be a stubborn student here to probe her secrets and deduce her laws, and I am over age to be a patient scholar."
"What age are you, Morcan?" asked Mrs. Sherwin.
"Eight and forty, madam," bending low. "You had not thought it, haply, for I enjoy a habit of light sleeping which has kept me younger than my years."
"Light sleeping? You have given us a paradox. Explain!" commanded the baronet.
"Why, Sir Harry, it has saved me free from maims and wounds. There is nothing like an unexpected maim received at night to stoop the spirit of a man and frost his hair—if he recovers. Madam, I am sure there is a tree will please you. Has it not a tender shape, a green and gracious presence? There is a mystery about that tree I cannot master. It grows as well upon a meagre slope like yon as on a fertile plain, and the dryest summer season will hardly mar its foliage. The natives call it currajong, and I am warned it is a useful fodder, failing else, to feed to famished stock. But, I pray that we shall never have occasion to experiment its virtue, for it grows rarely in this latitude."
In this manner, for an hour or more, Morcan beguiled the road to his companions, never hesitating for a phrase, never lacking a theme of comment, and outpouring information as copiously as a tap discharges water from a well-stocked reservoir. Chance approved him as good a man of action as a talker. He had just begun to teach Mrs. Sherwin how to distinguish between certain eucalypti, when a chorus of female screams gave token of an accident. Sure enough, the coach containing the maids had slipped one forewheel in a deep crevice, and the startled horses tugging madly at their traces, threatened to play havoc with the abruptly stopped and dangerously tilted vehicle. Morcan promptly wheeled his horse and took the track back at a gallop. Reaching the scene of turmoil, he flung himself to the ground and rushed to the heads of the plunging leaders, to bring them, as by magic, under government. One heard his orders, then, rapped out savagely, but tense and to the purpose. It was wonderful to see the serving men's agility to second his intentions, to note the eagerness of their obedience. Already they had recognised a master mind.
Mrs. Sherwin and Sir Harry overlooked the spectacle with interest. The horses were immediately removed from the vehicle and the maids assisted to the road. In a twinkling, axes were in requisition and a stout sapling was selected, felled, and stripped in the scrub beside the path. The pole thus produced was inserted under the fallen axle and used as a lever to lift up the sunken wheel. The entire business occupied perhaps a quarter of an hour—no more. By that time the coach was ready for the road again, the horses re-harnessed, and the maids re-seated.
"Stap me!" exclaimed Sir Harry, "but your foreman shines in an emergency, my dear Elizabeth."
Mrs. Sherwin nodded. "A treasure, a perfect treasure," she declared. "But for what is he waiting now?"
"He's rating the driver of the coach," explained Sir Harry. "I wish we could hear him. See how the fellow cowers under the admonishment, and look! God bless my soul, the girls are shrinking too."
Mrs. Sherwin smiled. "They do not lack spirit either," she remarked. "Yet they are all as still as mice and shrinking, as you say."
Sir Harry shook his head. "Humph!" he said. "A man of parts, 'tis evident. I begin to mistrust the soft speech he employs to us."
"Why should you, Harry? It is his duty, surely, to be courteous to us."
Sir Harry shrugged and frowned. "The contrast is too violent, my dear. Sycophancy nearly always masks a tyrant heart. There is a little of the monster in your Morcan."
"I fancied he had pleased you."
"Don't mistake me, Bess; he does. I like the man. All the same I have a doubt of him. I ask myself this question: Que diable fait-il en cet galere? He is a savant, to judge him by his conversation, and from his appearance he might be an Italian prince. And you are paying him two hundred pounds a year! Read me the riddle, cousin!"
"The coach starts," said Mrs. Sherwin.
"But he is staying with the convicts. Will he rate them, too? By God, look there!"
John Morcan's whip had fallen across the shoulders of a man who was too leisurely preparing to mount his horse. The man showed no resentment; he merely quickened his action, and a moment later the whole cavalcade was on the march.
"Will you brook that sort of discipline?" asked Sir Harry, bluntly—turning to his cousin. Mrs. Sherwin met his glance composedly, but her face had gone a trifle pale.
"We are not in England," was all she said.
Sir Harry shrugged again and both rode on. Morcan soon joined them.
"I ask your pardon, madam, for chastising a lazy rascal in your presence," he said quietly. "But the fact is, I dared not let his offence pass unrebuked in the only language these fellows understand. If we are to live in peace at Camberwell it is essential that justice always should be swift and sure. There is only one form of government that convicts will respect, and it is their inveterate habit to encroach on leniency."
Mrs. Sherwin sighed. "I forgive you freely, sir; but, I would have wished the incident had not occurred."
"And I too, madam. But I have so acted simply that it may not speedily occur again. Had I followed the promptings of an indulgent disposition (Morcan's face at the moment was infinitely sad) and permitted the fellow to be insolent unpunished, we should, I fear—indeed I know—have brought a company to Camberwell already ripe to question your authority."
"You have had much experience with convicts," suggested Sir Harry.
"Convicts and their kind," said John Morcan.
"It has taught you the need to be firm with them, I see."
"To be just, rather," corrected Morcan. "Justice implies firmness, but extends the principle. One may be firm without being just, and that would never do with convicts. They are primitive beings, Sir Harry; and their prison training has reduced them almost to the level of brutes. When they trespass, they consciously and wilfully incur a certain penalty. Should the penalty they expect be not forthcoming, they reason on the instant that their master is a fool, and suspect, as well, he is afraid of them. Suffer them to entertain and feed this reasoning, and they will very quickly set you at defiance. One may rule convicts very easily, as long as they are given no occasion either to rebel against excessive punishment or to hope that they may trespass with impunity. The secret of success is to accord to them unfailingly, the exact punishment which they have risked, which they expect, and which they believe they deserve. Did you observe the conduct of the man I disciplined? I gave him a single lash. He expected it. He had challenged it. He knew he deserved it. Justice was done. He gave me complete and prompt obedience, and for some time to come I will vouch for his exemplary behaviour. I will venture a further prophecy. Until we reach Camberwell we shall have no more trouble in the ranks. One punishes a rebel not only to mend his conduct, Sir Harry, but—pour encourager les autres—to create an atmosphere."
Sir Harry nodded. "And suppose you had given that particular rebel two strokes of your whip, or three?"
Morcan shook his head. "In that case the fellow would have borne me a lasting grudge, and his companions would have set me down a savage despot. It is probable, moreover, that some day in the near future my dead body would be picked up in the fields. A foreman of convicts who would live long, Sir Harry, must needs wear chain mail under his garments, if he have a cruel heart."
"I think your heart is very kind," said Mrs. Sherwin, suddenly.
Morcan bowed to his saddle bow.
"And very just," she added as an afterthought.
He bowed again.
Sir Harry glanced at Mrs. Sherwin, and was puzzled at her curious expression. She gazed straight before her horse, and was at once frowning and smiling.
Sir Harry glanced at Morcan and was more puzzled still. The man's face wore a high color, and he studied Mrs. Sherwin with a look of something very like dismay.
"I can assure you, madam, I wear no armor!" he cried earnestly.
Mrs. Sherwin turned to him with a wholly gracious smile, her frown all gone. "You are much too brave for that," she said sincerely.
Morcan for a third time bent to his saddle bow, but his face had gone as pale as death. Mumbling some excuse, he fell back and returned at a canter to the main body of the cavalcade.
Mrs. Sherwin, for her part, pricked her horse into a trot, but she went forward. Sir Harry followed her, eager for an explanation. "Stap me, Bess!" he spluttered, as he overtook her, "you treat your foreman very forwardly, I think. After all, he is a servant, though a savant." Sir Harry's countenance was black with jealousy.
Mrs. Sherwin's laughter tinkled like a silver bell. "Oh! my poor Harry," she said presently. "Haven't you the wit to know that a woman does not praise her servant for a tender purpose, to the ears of others? Now, for my part, I thought Morcan disliked my little compliments. Did I err? Oblige me, and consult your memory."
"You disconcerted him," Sir Harry growled, "and no wonder."
"You consider him, perhaps, unused to praise?"
"Tut-tut! All men love praise, although unused to it."
"But Morcan fled."
"You did not praise him, Bess. You flattered him."
"You flattered him," the baronet repeated doggedly.
"So he ran away."
"And so would any modest man in his position."
"Ah, well," sighed Mrs. Sherwin. "Another time I'll be more careful. I'll remember he is modest, and restrain my transports. But, Harry——"
"You ought not to blame me too much, cousin dear."
Sir Harry's face softened instantly, but he pretended to be adamant. "Oh, and why?" he demanded gruffly.
"Because you'd rather ride alone with me to Camberwell than share my company with Morcan—or am I flattering myself?"
Sir Harry surrendered at discretion. "You know I would," he cried.
Mrs. Sherwin smiled. "You'll have your wish," she said. "You'll find that Morcan will not bother us again upon this road. He is a very, very modest man."
Sir Harry refused to credit his cousin's prophecy, but it came true, none the less.
WHEN ALMOST at her journey's end, Mrs. Sherwin encountered fresh evidences of the Governor's benevolent consideration for her welfare. It consisted in a large force of convicts, working in chains, to convert into a decent road the rough track which led from the main highway to her property. The officer in charge was slightly known to her—she had met him at Government House—and he was prompt to inform her both of the Governor's kindly purposes and the discomforts he suffered in advancing them, through having to camp out in the wilderness.
Mrs. Sherwin as promptly mended his comfort with a gracious invitation to be her guest at Camberwell until the road should be completed. Five miles further on, the party came upon a stout log fence that crossed the track at right angles and extended on each side of the path until it lost itself among the trees. Mrs. Sherwin glanced back to find Morcan almost at her elbow. "We have arrived?" she asked excitedly.
"Let me be the first, madam, to bid you welcome to your own domain," he said, and he spurred forward to throw open the gates, which were fastened with a padlocked chain.
Sir Harry assisted him, and, as the gates fell apart, each man stood bareheaded at the salute, while Mrs. Sherwin rode between.
She looked rarely lovely at the moment, with her sparkling eyes and scarlet cheeks—a picture of pride and high resolve.
"My own land—my own home!" she whispered as she entered the enclosure.
Before her stretched a long, railed lane of cleared land about a chain wide, that penetrated a close forest of eucalyptus. Morcan pointed with his whip to a double procession of small saplings, each defended with a panelled envelope, that grew at some distance along the rails. "You shall have a princely avenue one day, madam," he assured her. "There are oaks and elms and poplars, and I see not one that looks a weakling."
"I cannot see the house," said Mrs. Sherwin.
"The path curves, madam; moreover, it is a mile and more away."
"Is all my land forested like this?"
"Only the lower flats; and even of these much has been already cleared and planted."
"I see no sign of clearing except this infant avenue."
"You have a vast estate, madam, and this is merely a trivial part of it. A little patience and I warrant you will be enchanted."
"It is good land, Morcan?"
"Excellent, madam. Observe the stature of your gums."
"My gums!" repeated Mrs. Sherwin in a dreamy tone. Sir Harry looked at her with a sinking heart. Already she seemed to be in love with her property. Was she destined to spend her life in this alien country? He had hoped she would have sickened of her experiment long since.
"Your gums appear to me to be confoundedly gloomy," he declared with energy. "Never have I seen a darker or more silent wood."
"The afternoon is closing in," explained Morcan. "The sun already wants one hour to sinking. I think we should push on, madam."
Mrs. Sherwin nodded, and urged her horse to a hand gallop. Very soon the path began to climb, and presently the trees grew sparser, permitting glimpses of wide, park-like meadows in the middle distance. Then, quite suddenly, the riders broke from the forest brake and merged upon the brow of an inconsiderable hill. On a common impulse, they drew rein sharply, and stood silently at gaze. Below them, the path sloped to a little river, garlanded with weeping willows, that coursed among a welter of quietly rolling downs, and, after traversing a broad stretch of grassy meadow land, disappeared into a dense line of timber in the south. Near the top of the low hill, immediately opposite the one on which the party rested, and nearly half a mile away, rose the walls of a large and imposing Elizabethan house. Its western windows caught and reflected back the glory of the declining sun, and they seemed to be on fire. The whole structure, indeed, was bathed in an aureole of warm and dazzling light. A clump of dark, towering gums gave an effective background to the glowing mansion. In the foreground was a high row of terraced gardens leading to the brook, embellished with gravelled paths of many curious patterns; the garden mapped with ornamental fences hedged with baby growths of may, and box, and yew. But the house by no means stood forth a lonely figure in the picture. It was flanked on the north by a line of pretty little detached cottages, and at some distance from the mansion to the east, but at a lower elevation, the roofs and smoking chimneys of many habitations peeped above a straggling copse of myall that shaded and half concealed a castellated wall of rough-hewn stone. The neighboring slopes and hills all gave evidence of life and cultivation. Here was an orchard neatly set with tiny trees; there, a vineyard thick with spikes; there, again, a paddock grazing mares with foals at foot. Cows and sheep browsed lazily in the northern meadows, and far to the south unfolded fields of grain, still young, but gleaming yellow where the fading light glanced upon them.
For several moments none of the little party spoke. Mrs. Sherwin and Sir Harry were rapt in wonder and astonishment. John Morcan watched them furtively, but held his peace. The noise of the approaching cavalcade it was that broke the spell at last.
Mrs. Sherwin heaved a deep sigh. "Let us go on," she said.
"You are pleased, madam?" asked Morcan.
"I am bewildered," she said softly. "I dream and am afraid to wake."
Morcan pointed to the northern cottages. "Those are your farmers' quarters, madam. The convicts dwell down there, behind that castellated wall."
"You have been here before, Morcan?"
"Yes, madam. At the Governor's direction I came to supervise the building of the convicts' quarters about a year ago. His Excellency was anxious they should be adequately housed."
"That wall is your notion?" asked Sir Harry.
"There are black sheep in every fold," replied Morcan.
Mrs. Sherwin was seen to shiver slightly.
"You are cold, Bess," said Sir Harry. "Let us mend our pace."
"No, no," she said vehemently. "But oh! I am glad to be so near home—to have escaped the horrid sight of men in chains. I hate Sydney on that account. Oh! it is a horrible place. There is no pity there. Mr. Morcan, you must be very kind to my convicts, please; I will have it so."
Morcan bowed low. "Your will, madam, is my law."
Mrs. Sherwin pointed to the castellated wall. "That wall must come down," she said with warmth. "It is no part of my ambition to maintain a gaol at Camberwell."
"It shall be pulled down to-morrow, madam."
"Not to-morrow, Morcan. I will see it nearer first."
Morcan bowed silently.
"Having seen it closely, I may change my mind."
They crossed the brook as he spoke and began to climb the hill. A bell rang loudly in the distance, an iron bell.
"What!" cried Mrs. Sherwin, "a church as well as a gaol?"
Morcan laughingly shook his head. "It is the sunset bell, madam, to call your servants from the fields."
"To call my servants from the fields," whispered Mrs. Sherwin. Tears flooded unbidden to her eyes, and she was still gazing through a mist when reins were tightened on the broad, gravelled causeway before the mansion.
Sir Harry assisted her to alight, while a servant held her horse. There were many servants in livery waiting to receive her, a grey-haired major-domo at their head; and amongst them her housekeeper, Mrs. Romney, an old servant she had brought with her in the Vansittart from England and had sent to Camberwell two months before. Unexpectedly, Mrs. Sherwin felt a very little girl, and sadly overcome. Her hands tightened on Mrs. Romney's grasp and she listened fearfully to the buzz of welcoming exclamations. The faces were so numerous and strange; they bent on her such searching looks; they seemed to demand so much of her. Mrs. Romney drew her through the porch and into the great hall. She saw a huge apartment with a wide staircase mounting upwards in colonnades, and balconies that spanned the walls. It was lit with a multitude of candles, and was richly furnished and very new and grand. "My home—my home," she muttered, and burst into a storm of weeping. The motherly hands of her old servant quickly drew her from the crowd. Still sobbing stormily, she was assisted up the splendid stairs and brought into a room exactly like the bedroom of her English home—a room that was embowered, too, with fresh-cut English flowers—with roses, and marigolds, and hollyhocks, and masses of fragrant mignonette. It was all as she had designed and dreamed. Mrs. Sherwin dashed her tears aside and looked about her. "Oh, what a fool I am," she wailed. "They will all mistake me. They'll think I am a feeble, silly, bread and butter wench, and I'm not, I'm not!"
"No, no, my dearie. Of course you're not," fondled Mrs. Romney. "You've had a long and tiring journey. Enough to break anybody down. But never mind, my pet. It's all over now, and you're safe at home with your old mammy Romney, in your very own old room. See, my poppet, even the pictures are the same, and the way they're hung. I saw to that. And the very paper on the walls."
Mrs. Sherwin looked round the lovely flower-decked room and put both her hands to her breast. "Mammy Romney," she said, tragically. "I'm going to howl, just like I used to do when—but you know when."
"Yes, I know when, my dearie."
"I don't want to, Mammy. I'd give everything not. But I—I—I can feel it coming. I'm going to howl."
"Howl away, my poppet. It'll do you good."
Mrs. Sherwin flung herself into Mrs. Romney's open arms, and, burying her face in the old lady's ample bosom, she howled as though her heart were breaking and she were, indeed, the most desolate and, miserable creature in the Austral world.
Just five months, to a day, after Mrs. Sherwin had entered her domain at Camberwell, John Morcan might have been seen riding a big thoroughbred, followed by two mounted servants, each leading a pair of saddled but riderless horses, up to the convict barracks at Rose Hill. The prison clock chimed the last stroke of twelve as Morcan dismounted. The superintendent of convicts, who had seen his visitor approaching, awaited him in the doorway of his private office.
"Come right in, Mr. Morcan," he said pleasantly. "Take that easy chair. Glad to see you looking so well. It is evident you thrive in your new employment."
He closed the door suddenly and violently upon the clerks listening in the outer office, and his face altered in expression with the slam. It grew hard and cold. "See here, John," he said in a low, but angry tone, "we are old cronies, but I'll be hanged if I stand any more of your nonsense. You have four horses without. That means you want four more farm laborers."
"Well," said Morcan, very coolly lighting his pipe. "What of it?"
The superintendent hammered a shut fist on an open palm. "What of it?" he spluttered. "I've had applications in the last month for the Government to resume no fewer than eight of the men I've let you have already. They all make the same complaint, inhuman and illegal treatment, and I vow they have good grounds. You're a cruel devil, John."
Morcan leisurely crossed his knees. "What have you done with the applications?" he demanded. "Sent them on to the Governor?"
"I would, if I had done my duty. See here, John. This business has got to stop. I've helped your Mrs. Sherwin and you as far as I dare."
"Come, come, my friend, nothing to trouble about. You've had your orders, definite orders, from the Governor to help Mrs. Sherwin in every possible way."
"I've transcended them, as well you know."
"You've been well paid, haven't you?"
Morcan shrugged his shoulders. "You want a higher price, perhaps? State your real trouble, and let us talk seriously. I have to be back at Camberwell to-night."
The superintendent spread out his hands with a gesture that nicely matched his semitic type of face. "Everybody is complaining that you get the pick of the convicts, John. That's my trouble. There are not enough good men to go round, and I am being blamed all round for showing favoritism. Lord, if the settlers got to know of the Camberwell applications for resumption, I'd be the centre of a scandal that would shake my post."
"Nonsense!" cried Morcan. "You have always acted on the Governor's instructions."
"Will that keep people from talking? Besides, I am cheating myself. I was offered only yesterday fifty sovereigns for three——"
"Yes, better stop there," cried Morcan, with a sardonic grin, "I know your figure now. Frankly, its exorbitant. Never mind, let me have those applications, and the moneys yours." He slapped his pocket.
"What do you want to see them for?"
"I desire to know my friends."
Both men laughed. The superintendent took some papers from a cabinet, and handed them to Morcan, who put them with a careless gesture in his pocket, and at the same time from his trousers pocket took a roll of bills.
"I ought to keep those applications," said the superintendent, with a doubtful look. "They bear the Government stamp."
"They'll be safer with me," sneered Morcan. "They affect me more intimately."
"You'll be sure to destroy them?"
The superintendent counted his money, and his expression became more satisfied.
"There's fifty-eight pounds there," said Morcan as the bills disappeared.
"Of course, you hadn't noticed," sneered Morcan. "The extra eight pounds is for the four new men I want to take with me to-day."
"But that's at the old rate, John."
Morcan produced a paper from his breast, and handed it to his companion. "An express order from his Excellency. I could get the men for nothing, if I chose."
"But not your pick, John."
Morcan laughed shortly. "Gad! what a sordid little brute you are!" he commented acidly. "Read the despatch, and you'll find my men are named."
The superintendent's jaw dropped a little. "Oh!" he said, then read aloud: "James Fordyce, John Paul, Henry Robotham, Mark Seldon. They are all probationers," he remarked.
"I want their complete histories, and colonial records."
"It's against the regulations, John."
"I know. I've paid you in advance for breaking them. Which is the book? This?"
"No, that one. But I must not see you open it. I'll go out and have the men called. I'll be absent, say, ten minutes."
Morcan nodded and seated himself at the table. The superintendent departed, closing the door carefully behind him. Morcan opened the book and began to turn the pages, here and there pausing to read. It was obvious that the arrangement of the great volume was familiar to him. Within five minutes he had learned all he desired to knew, and when the superintendent returned he was standing by the window drumming on the pane.
"The men are packing their kits," announced the superintendent.
"Did they make any bother?"
"No. They are 'timers' and know better. They merely asked your name. But stay, one of them remarked that he'd been under you before."
"That was Seldon," said Morcan. "A big, square fellow, with a grinning face."
"Yes, that was the man. He is a first-grader, who has been twice remitted from the third class. A cunning chap, but not really clever. He can climb, but he cannot hold."
"I see that you have not entered him up in the book for the last six weeks," said Morcan carelessly.
The superintendent made a grimace. "Nothing to enter," he replied. "The rascal has been behaving like an angel. I shall be glad to get rid of him, I can assure you."
"I mistrust him. He has a gift of ingratiation that has often kept me wakeful, guessing. He is the most popular man in the barracks. Why, damme, John—I like the creature myself."
"Evidently a dangerous rogue," said Morcan, smiling oddly. "And the others? Any points about them?"
"Fordyce and Robotham are the usual type of cattle. Paul is inclined to be a sneak. They are all hardy, however, and will stand a deal of knocking about. Fact is, you've got the pick of my establishment, John, and how you did it puzzles me. The convicts go by numbers here."
But Morcan was not to be drawn. "I guess I'll be moving," he said abruptly, "I want to put my legs under mahogany to-night. Bye-bye, my Jonathan. No doubt we'll both live to meet and treat again."
"But I've a hundred things to tell and ask you," cried the other.
"I know," returned Morcan over his shoulder, as he passed through the door. His tone was full of contempt. "But I've got all I wanted," he added in an underbreath.
He mounted his big bay, and from his high post in the saddle he watched the iron-studded gate, which he knew would open presently to disgorge his four most recently acquired assigned servants. The superintendent watched him from the window, smiling evilly, and muttering to himself. Almost one could swear what he was saying. "I hate you, John Morcan, I hate you, and one day I shall make you smart dearly for your insolence."
But Morcan never heeded him. Always he watched the gate, and immediately it opened his tongue began to play. "That is right, my men. Time was made for slaves and you are Roman citizens. One can see it in your lordly bearing, and your slow and stately gait. And you have worlds upon your shoulders, too, my Atlases. What, are they only swags! Perdition! Aren't you conscript fathers after all?"
The first three yellow jackets stared at their new master in stupid bewilderment, halted speechless by his odd address; but the fourth and last to appear pushed past his mates with a gay and ringing laugh.
"Never doubt your intuition, sir," he cried. "We are conscript fathers right enough. Aye, and the great Jove be our witness, we carry worlds upon our shoulders, too. But alas! my gracious and perspicuous patron, you behold us in a sore disguise, for we are prisoners in Carthage—some of us having sinned unwittingly against Diana, sir—(he pointed to Robotham) a poacher—some of us against Pluto, sir—(he waved a hand at Paul and Fordyce) coiners both—and, I, your humble servant (he bowed low) against Mercurius, the god of commerce, sir; 'tis said I was a thief."
John Morcan's face became like wood. "Why, look you," he retorted mockingly, "all three divinities are special friends of mine, and I am therefore bound to forward their decrees. To horse, to horse!"
Mark Seldon grinned delightedly. "A hit, a palpable hit," he said, and hurried to obey. His three companions took their cue from him and in a moment, all were mounted.
Morcan, touching his horse lightly with the spur, set off at a canter down the road, and his six servants, old and new, followed in his wake. Only one looked back to wave his hat in farewell to the barracks. Mark Seldon it was, and a solitary hand-wave from one of the narrow windows answered him. Not until the building was lost to view did he sit squarely in the saddle, yet he had no trouble in managing his horse, and was evidently a skilful rider. Not so the other three; they flopped hideously, and their painful insecurity of tenure had already provoked the mirth of Morcan's two older servitors. In a flash, Seldon constituted himself an equestrian instructor, and for the next couple of hours he was indefatigable in his attentions to the poacher and the pair of coiners. He did not succeed in teaching them to ride by any means, but he saved them from many a nasty fall, and he finally prevailed on them to bestride their horses in a fashion calculated to preserve them from disaster. Morcan observed the convict's unselfish ministrations from afar, but he did not interfere, although he often frowned and shook his head. The pace he fixed was urgent, and the halts for rest were few and short. Morcan noted that as often as he slackened speed the men who followed him almost immediately began to make merry among themselves.
Morcan was too unaccustomed to the laughter of convicts to like it. The unusual always appeared wrong to certain minds. The horses suffered in consequence of his perturbation, and at length it became necessary to reduce speed, for Morcan's own bay was showing symptoms of exhaustion. He slackened to a walk and shouted for Seldon to join him, ordering the others to keep a distance of fifty paces.
Seldon overtook his master at a trot, and drew rein just behind him.
"Ride abreast of me!" said Morcan curtly. Seldon promptly advanced.
For five minutes no word was spoken, then Morcan made a gesture towards the rear.
"They are sedate enough now," he remarked, looking squarely at his companion.
Seldon smiled expressively. "Their sense of humor has been shifted forward fifty paces," he explained, and he added, with an audacity that made Morcan bite his lip, "Convicts as a rule are sad dogs, sir."
"And you are the exception proving the rule?" Morcan's sneering retort seemed weak to himself. He felt ashamed of it as soon as it was uttered.
Seldon was not in the least put out. "Oh, I," he answered with a comical grimace. "I am an exception to all rules, sir. I'm quite egregious. Are you a believer in metempsychosis!"
"The devil!" cried Morcan. "What next?"
"Nay nay, not the devil. I suffer, at times from the sweetest human aspirations."
"You were transported, I understand, for picking pockets."
Seldon's smile grew wonderfully whimsical.
"I would like to recall to your mind, sir, a passage from Cervantes."
"Go on, my man. I am listening."
"Unfortunately I can only reproduce the broad effect, not the delicious satire of the master. Do you remember the exquisite fun he pokes at the Jesuits' College of Granada for its praise of Sanchez in that, although he lived where there was a splendid garden, he was never seen to pluck a flower, and that he would rather die than use salt or pepper to give a relish to his meat?"
"I remember," said Morcan. "But I see no application."
With inimitable drollness Seldon replied. "Why sir, Sanchez was a dull fellow, and no pattern for a man born cracking jokes and loving joyousness. 'Tis certain if I had a garden I would pick a nosegay every hour. But I never had a garden of my own."
"So you played in other people's gardens?"
"Who made no proper use of them," supplemented the convict with a bright infectious laugh.
In spite of himself Morcan's lips began to twitch.
"And merely to augment the dull world's stock of joy?" he questioned, smiling.
"Why, sir," returned Seldon with a sadder but deceptive gravity, "whatever be the sum total of misery in the world I am sure it is not my duty to increase it. I never filched a coin of joy to hoard. Believe me, what I took I put in circulation."
"Oh, I can easily credit that," laughed Morcan. "You are, I see, a knave created from philanthropy."
"And poverty," sighed the convict. "If Providence had given me a wealthy nobleman for father, I had always been an honest man."
"But in that case I had lacked the pleasure of this conversation."
Seldon rocked with laughter. "Damme, sir!" he said at length, tears of mirth standing in his eyes. "I pray you to stand within my sight if ever you find need to put me on the gridiron. I blasphemed and howled last time I underwent the cat. It was simply because there was no one by to cap my Roland with an Oliver."
"And what precisely do you mean by that petition?" demanded Morcan, bending on the convict the look of a cornered tiger.
The ferocity of his appearance startled Seldon into real seriousness, but he met his master's angry gaze undauntedly.
"I am always faithful to my creed of circulating joyous currency," he answered slowly. "Not for worlds would I clip your pleasure, sir. My mind was to increase it."
"Speak plainly, you scoundrel, if you dare."
"If I dare," Seldon laughed. "Cowardice is the only crime of which I am incapable. It is probably the only crime for which you could be rightfully convicted."
Morcan's face went livid, and his whole being shook with passion. "You dog. You dog," he whispered.
"For twenty minutes you have baited me," said Seldon grimly. "For twenty minutes you have malignantly abused your position of authority. Why? Because it pleased you to experiment in torture—gave you joy. You yearned to see me wince. So I have named you coward to your face. And I shall tell you why. Cowards often reach to posts of eminence, my master, but they are seldom guilty of performing a generous or noble action, because they are incapable of magnanimity. A cruel-hearted man was never yet a brave one. Have I spoken plain enough to please you?"
Morcan raised his whip and flicked it threateningly.
The convict's horse swerved, but the man did not. He pulled his horse to line immediately and bared his head.
"Shall I return to the ranks?" he asked, "or will you try again. That merely grazed my chin."
Morcan's lip was bleeding. He had bitten it severely. With a supreme effort he regained his self-command.
"Stay where you are," he mumbled; then presently, in a calmer voice, "I was a fool to strike at you. I have heard of your impassivity to physical pain. They tell me you laugh and jest on the triangles."
"There is humor in everything—if one has the wit and will to seek it out."
"And you are both resolute and witty," jeered Morcan. "Yet I fancy I could make you whimper if I chose."
"You'll choose some time, assuredly," smiled Seldon. "Why not here, and now?"
"You challenge me?"
"With deep respect, of course."
Morcan's eyes glinted. "Your real name is Luke Sherwin!" he said gently. "I know the reason of your alias, for I am fully acquainted with your history."
"I suppose it is all set out in the privy records," said Seldon. "And you are a Government officer. Well?"
"I am not a Government officer now."
"Nor am I your employer, although you have been nominally assigned to me. Are you not beginning to feel curious?"
"Then I shall not keep you in suspense. Camberwell is not a Crown station. It belongs to a private citizen whose convict manager I am."
"And his name?"
"You have the sex wrong. I serve a lady."
"Whose first name is Elizabeth. But the world calls her Mrs. Sherwin."
"Impossible!" gasped the convict, reining up his horse. Morcan reined up too, commanding by a sign his more distant followers to do the same. He watched Seldon as a cat might a mouse.
"You are not even smiling," he commented mordantly.
"I tell you it's impossible!" cried Seldon.
Morcan merely smiled.
Seldon opened and shut his mouth. "Quite impossible," he said again, "of course, you are fooling me. I should have guessed."
"The love of women passes all understanding," murmured Morcan.
"The love of women," repeated the convict. "Aye, and you, her servant, dared to strike me!"
The light returned to his eyes and the smile to his lips.
"Be still my fluttering, heart," he jeered. "My revered master. I see your point. This woman hates me—and you—you, you are the selected instrument of her revenge."
"You are devilish intelligent, by God!" exclaimed Morcan. "I hadn't thought of that. By heaven! I had not thought of that."
"Morcan," said Seldon earnestly. "I am sorry I insulted you, sincerely sorry. You have done me a tremendous service. You haven't meant to serve me, but that is as nothing. My point is that you have served me. I always pay my debts—and I'll pay yours now. For the nonce your sentence of death is revoked."
"I repeat, for the nonce your sentence of death is cancelled. Your life is safe."
Morcan looked into his servant's eyes and understood.
"So, that was your game?" he said. "Thanks, I'll be careful."
"You'll need to be," said Seldon coolly. "Ride on, now, my dear master. I want to be alone."
"You would give me orders?" spluttered Morcan.
But again their eyes met. Morcan's soon dropped, he shrugged his shoulders and rode on, alone. Seldon rode a dozen yards behind him; the other servants fifty paces further back. Thus Luke Sherwin came to Camberwell.
More than a year elapsed before the convict Mark Seldon approached his mistress at closer quarters than a hundred yards. In the meanwhile the work of the station proceeded with the regularity of a machine. The men were well fed, and although they were governed by an iron discipline and obliged to work hard, they were accorded special indulgences, which kept them on the whole in a condition of content. The Crown regulations provided that each assigned servant should receive daily 1½lb. of meat, 1½lb. of bread, 1oz. of tea, 1oz. of sugar, ½oz. of soap, and 1oz. of salt. The Camberwell convicts, however, were treated much more liberally than the statute contemplated. Tea, sugar, and salt were supplied to them unstintedly; they were given as much fruit and vegetables in season as the farm produced or they desired, and each man received a weekly allowance of 2oz. of tobacco. As most of the convicts had served previously at other stations, public or private, they knew themselves to be exceptionally well off and they behaved accordingly.
Nevertheless the penitentiary within the castellated enclosure—which had not been thrown down—seldom lacked an occupant, and the monthly visit of the magistrate, Mr. Longhorn, who farmed a sheep-walk eighteen miles away, nearly always resulted in the assemblage of all hands to witness a flogging. Those ugly incidents, however, in no way interfered with the general routine. They were simply part and parcel of a system in universal use, which everybody accepted as the established order, and which few persons then living in the colony thought of renovating or conceived to be a desirable subject of reform. Insubordination is an essential feature of slavery, and insubordination must, of course, be firmly chastised or chaos would supervene. Mrs. Sherwin had been shocked and painfully distressed, on her first arrival in Sydney, by the prevailing callous indifference of all classes to the practice of punishment; and her first letter to the Secretary of State is still on record for examination by the curious. "I am certain," she wrote, "that the system now in operation is a terrible mistake. I have heard of men being yoked to ploughs and worked like bullocks. I have seen them yoked in carts and rollers, working in the streets. And whenever a flogging is administered, or an execution is ordered, the spectacle attracts legions of sight-seers. Does such a system tend to humanise men or to brutalise them? And what, I ask, is the effect of witnessing such degradation? Can women and children witness such scenes—and they are of daily occurrence—without losing the freshness of their virtue, and having all their finer sensibilities destroyed? I assure your Lordship to the contrary. I assure your Lordship that the whole community is being brutalised, and that even the gentlest females here resident have come to regard most horrible customs of cruelty and injustice as unworthy of their protest, and the victims as unworthy of their pity."
In those lines we can detect the spirit of generous and noble indignation, and respect the hand that penned them. Truth, none the less, obliges Mrs. Sherwin's biographer to confess that even before she quitted Sydney to take up her residence at Camberwell, the raw edges of her indignation had worn smooth. Nor should we too quickly condemn her for that. Women even more than men are especially devised by nature to adapt themselves to circumstances; and the social unit of either sex must indeed be a phenomenon which in any society can long remain unimpressed and uninfected by the moral tone suffusing its environment.
Mrs. Sherwin continued for many months to grieve that there should be need to punish any man in her employ; but once having admitted the necessity to punish, the process of her spiritual reconciliation with the customary mode of punishment worked surely, however slowly, to the inevitable end; and within a year she could look at the northern corner of her castellated wall—wherein the triangle was located—without a shudder.
As the first shearing season approached, Camberwell wore the appearance of a beehive. As many men as possible were withdrawn from the outlying parts of the run and concentrated near the homestead, to engage in the work of preparation; and field labor was practically abandoned. First of all a great shearing shed was erected, then many little smithies, for before the shearing could commence, drays had to be constructed to convey the wool to port. And everything had to be done on the spot, for while raw materials were available in plenty, such as wood and iron, there were no shops in the colony at that era where finished vehicles of the required sort could be purchased. Tyres, therefore, had to be hammered out by hand; boxes, axles, and arms to be fashioned with rude tools; and bows for the bullock yokes. When the drays were ready, one half the men were employed washing and shearing the sheep; the other half making racks and packing the wool therein as tightly as they could contrive, with brute force assisted by crude appliances. All this done, the fattest bullocks on the station were selected and yoked—a dozen or more to each dray—and at length the wool packs were despatched on their journey to Sydney, each waggon in charge of three drivers, and the whole procession under control of a free foreman, attended by half a dozen stock drivers, also free men.
With the departure of the wool, the station assumed its normal calm, and the customary routine re-commenced. The men, however, all experienced a difficulty in returning to the dull round of their ordinary occupations, after the excitement and unusual relaxations of the shearing; and firm handling was required to keep them in order.
John Morcan, as a consequence, enjoyed himself beyond the commonplace. The man undoubtedly possessed a genius for suppressing turbulence, and it is very natural in a gifted person to be happy when occasion arises for the exercise of his peculiar talent.
Morcan's methods, however, were too effective to permit of a protracted treatment. During the first week the penitentiary was much in use, the treadmill ground a deal of corn, and the triangles often needed furbishing. But that was the end. The last trace of insubordination vanished, and the youngest convicts vied in dutiful behaviour with the oldest cattle in the stalls. And they did not hate Morcan extremely, except in idle words. For his hand though heavy, administered an impartial justice, which in their brutalised esteem, they considered properly proportioned to their various offences. They never named him save to curse him and to mutter threats of vengeance, but in their hearts they thought him a better master than the common. And this was simply because Morcan governed them in undeviating accordance with a rule. The rule was hard, but they were all acquainted with it, and they could avoid its penal savor if they would. The rule fixed for every known offence a certain punishment, and every convict knew the punishments by heart. He knew too, that if he broke the law he would receive the stated punishment exactly; no less but no more. Some feebler spirits held the law cruel, but only one convict suspected John Morcan of cruelty. That man was Mark Seldon. And he kept his suspicions to himself.
A peculiar man was Mark Seldon, and before the year was out he had won for himself a peculiar situation in the little settlement. The free men liked him; the convicts idolised him. Every young maid-servant on the station wooed him. John Morcan feared him. Mrs. Sherwin watched him. In a word he filled the minds of all.
As a workman, his conduct was faultless. The hardest and most slavish tasks were regularly allotted to him as his daily portion, but he never complained. He seemed unconscious that he had been singled out from all his convict associates for abusive treatment, and he made light of the heaviest drudgery put upon him. Gifted with the strength of an ox, he applied to the performance of his ox-like toil the developed craft of expert fingers, a fine intelligence, and an enthusiasm for exertion, which nothing appeared capable of quenching. Nearly always he had completed his harder job in advance of the easier work of his companions. Forthwith he would assist the hindmost man, whoever he might be, bringing such a fund of joy to the business that it seemed superfluous in any of his beneficiaries to thank him. Obviously he loved work for its own sake, and was happy and felt obliged to be employed. Yet he was no less happy in his leisure, and he had the gift of making others happy, too. He extracted fun from the greatest and smallest circumstances; he made every tragedy a comedy, and every comedy a farce. But as a teacher he shone most brightly. He taught his fellow convicts to laugh frequently; but above all he taught most of them to be constantly good-humored and to derive an ironic delight from the petty persecutions involved in their enslaved condition. His philosophy was contained in a single sentence, and it soon became the philosophy of every convict on the station. "To pardon," he declared, "is a good vengeance; but to pardon with a smile is to be revenged completely for the worst wrong one man can inflict upon another."
He succeeded in teaching some of the men to smile on the triangles. For himself, he was never flogged, never punished. He was much too cunning to provide occasion. Every order addressed to him discovered him submissive; and the more unpleasant its significance the more pleasantly he set about the task of its fulfilment. Traps were laid to involve him in disputing with authority. But he could not be induced to express so much as the slightest contrary opinion. He was sometimes directed to do some manifestly useless or foolish piece of work. He obeyed with alacrity. He was subsequently rated for stupidity, and ordered to undo his work. He endured the unjust insults with disarming humbleness and eagerly undid the work condemned. One day Morcan commanded him to remove a heap of large stones from one corner of a paddock to another, and immediately the job was finished to carry the stones back to their former resting place. Mark Seldon did not ask a reason. He obeyed. Morcan often sought to jest with him. Mark Seldon invariably roared with laughter at his master's quips, but never replied to them in kind, however piercing the temptation. He treated Morcan not with respect, but with reverence. And Morcan grew ever more and more disturbed; more and more afraid. Sometimes at night, in the deepest dark, Morcan would strain his ears listening for stealthy footsteps, his right hand clenched upon a pistol stock. But he listened quite in vain. The man obsessed him. He thought of Seldon night and day, and brooded over fresh experiments, which always failed as soon as they were tested. But the worst was, Morcan knew that he was being played with. He felt it in his bones; and the convict's quiet laughter was always ringing in the ears of his imagination.
Now, Morcan was a brave man, and it irked him sorely to be daunted by a shadow. It was as though he were a superstitious creature, and hag-ridden at that. He analysed and probed his soul for weeks, to realise at length that he was afraid of the unknown. Later still he comprehended that he was more curious than fearful, and that malice alone had not prompted his former strivings with the mystery he longed to solve. But he had chosen the wrong weapons. He had been subtle, and his foe had foiled him with a finer subtlety than he could compass. He would need, perhaps, to be direct. He took counsel with Mrs. Sherwin on the matter, and one night he sent for Mark Seldon. The messenger found the convict already abed, but with his usual submissive and careless good humor Mark Seldon promptly arose and dressed, asking no questions of the courier—whom he followed silently to the manager's abode.
Morcan nodded to his visitor and dismissed the servant, directing him to close the door. Seldon stood rigid at attention in the middle of the room. Morcan placed a second chair before the fire and reseated himself.
"Take that chair, my man," he said, "I want to talk with you."
Seldon complied, to find himself the focus of three partially shaded lamps. Morcan sat in the gloaming, and, but for the fire-light, his outlines only would have been revealed.
"We are quite alone," observed Morcan, "and I have taken precautions against eavesdropping."
Seldon's laugh was sincere, but it was too mirthful and musical to give offence.
Morcan waited patiently for it to stop. "You don't believe me," he shrugged. "Pray examine the cottage for yourself. Outside, beneath the floor-mat, and below both windows are covered springs, which will ring bells at a touch. I invite you to experiment."
But Seldon shook his head. "I never doubted you," he answered lightly. "You are not the man to dig a pit-fall and point it out to your intended victim."
"What, then, made you laugh?"
"Bad manners, sir. A fault in my breeding, which I can't eradicate, invariably forces me to laugh when I win a point in any game that I happen to be playing."
"So you fancy you have scored a trick against me, eh?"
"Or somebody else?"
Morcan suppressed an impulse to exclaim, but he could not prevent his eyes glinting.
"Mrs. Sherwin, for example?" he asked quickly.
But the convict had marked the other's sudden animation. "Or Mrs. Sherwin's cook?" he suggested drolly.
Morcan got up and fetched a small table from a far corner, which he placed between the two chairs. It was set out with a puncheon of rum, two glasses, a jar of tobacco, and some fresh clay pipes.
"The rum is from Jamaica," he observed as he sank back in his seat, "and the tobacco was grown at Hergott's valley, in Virginia. Let us forget for an hour or two that we are dwelling in a penal colony, and dream ourselves in an older and more courteous hemisphere." He filled both glasses and pushed one across the table. The other he held up to the light. "I give you a toast, Mr. Sherwin—Lucretius, Juvenal, Tacitus, the three deepest minds that ancient Rome produced."
After a momentary hesitation, Mark Seldon took up the glass, bowed to Morcan, and put the rim to his lips. "A scholarly toast and a fine liquor," he declared approvingly. "Yet I am glad you put Lucretius first."
"Juvenal and Tacitus were big men, but Lucretius only, dared to look beyond the flaming walls of the world—'flammantia moenia mundi'—and gaze boldly into stellar space."
"He found no gods there, Mr. Sherwin."
"And was brave enough to say so. Sir—I would not willingly offend you—but you were wrong to bracket him with Tacitus, a mere historian, and Juvenal, a satirist. Lucretius is a lonely, a distracting figure—distracting because he has set us problems to which no answer may be found, and lonely because he towers in intellect above his own or any other time—at least, in my opinion."
"I perceive he has infected you with his agnosticism."
"And not you, Mr. Morcan? You are a religious man?"
Morcan flushed at the delicate irony of the other's tone. "I make no such claim, sir," he replied.
"Why, no," said Seldon. "You are a student, a thinker, too, I make no doubt. In every age religion has been the enemy of truth, of morals, and of reason——"
"You are quoting from Lucretius," cried Morcan.
"But alas! I cannot give the Latin. My memory is full of faults."
"And do you hold, with the Roman master, there is no second life for planetary men?"
"I await some proof of it."
"And yet your name is a synonym for mirth and gaiety in Camberwell."
"What a full creature you must think me!" exclaimed Seldon in genuine astonishment.
"Say a stout actor, rather," corrected Morcan.
Seldon shook his head. "The strongest and the weakest of us must have leaning posts," he stated gravely. "The custom of the weak is to lean upon religion, the strong, upon philosophy."
"Ah! So you are a philosopher. What, then, is your philosophy?"
"A mighty staff, Mr. Morcan. It has not yet stooped beneath my weight, and I do lean upon it very heavily at times."
"And did you procure it from Lucretius?"
"Nay, from Seneca—a prouder and a firmer soul—although less clear and wise."
"And will you show your staff to me?"
"Why, very willingly. How does the phrasing go? Somewise like this, I think forgive my stupid memory—'A great soul should know how to submit blithely to the order of the universe. If it be not for a better life that we are to quit this life, if not to find a home in the skies more tranquil and more beautiful than this, our spirits, free from suffering, will return at last to their fount of origin and will mingle in the great All.'" The convict raised his glass, drained it, and set it down upon the table. John Morcan hospitably refilled both glasses.
"It would appear that a great soul may permit himself wide latitude in the choice of a profession," he suggested genially.
Mark Seldon sighed. "I would draw your attention to the inadvertent sounding of a personal note," he said respectfully. "You remind me that I was a thief." He drained his second glass of rum and sighed again.
Morcan pushed him over the tobacco-jar. "You have not yet smoked."
The convict filled a pipe and lighted it with a spill. Morcan was already smoking. The silence lasted for several minutes, then Morcan refilled Seldon's glass.
The convict thanked him with a nod. "A ripe and charming liquor," he commented. "And to think that I once despised rum!"
"You have had a varied life, Mr. Sherwin."
The convict drained his third glass. "Aye," he agreed, "a varied life, and a hard one viewed in bird's-eye retrospect—though I've known jolly days. Thanks, thanks (Morcan was refilling his glass). But d'ye know you wronged me a moment since. I was never a thief from choice."
Morcan began to sip his second glass; the convict drained his fourth.
"We are a problematic set of creatures, Mr. Sherwin. Heaven only knows the good that we conceal."
He refilled the other's glass.
Seldon smiled wryly. "Good fellows all, at bottom," he agreed. "The rogue of every profession merely wishes to gain a fortune in order that he may become an honest citizen."
"You were, I take it, driven into knavery?"
"Driven is scarcely the word, sir. I was, as it were, insinuated into the trade of robbery. My indentures were signed across my swaddling wrap, and as soon as I could toddle, I was taught to look upon a clever swipe-snatcher as the noblest work of God."
"But your education was not neglected in other respects, Mr. Sherwin?"
"Sir, my father, although a rogue, was a fine scholar, and he often assured me he never had an apter pupil, I had no other praise of him."
"His was your only school?"
"I graduated at Toledo on the profits of a jewel robbery in Flanders. It was money well expended."
"And you returned to London to ply your early trade?"
"To look for a fortune, Mr. Morcan."
"Sir, my pockets were empty before I quitted Spain."
"I see. I see. So you engaged the assistance of the Ambassador of Spain for their replenishment."
For the sixth time Morcan filled the convict's glass.
Seldon, with his usual alacrity, absorbed the liquor on the instant. His face had grown strangely pallid, but he showed no other sign of tipsiness in spite of his inordinate potations.
"I did not know the man," he said. "He flaunted only a fob, and I deduced a fat purse. I marked him for nought else, but my hand was out of practice and had lost its cunning. I was clumsy, and was nearly caught in flagrante delicto. 'Tis, indeed, a most excellent rum of yours." He held out his glass to be refilled.
Morcan's eyes had begun to glitter. "And then, Mr. Sherwin, and then?" he cried.
"Why, then," replied the convict, "I repaired to Bath, quite handsomely accoutred for adventures."
"Erotical, I'll dare to swear," smirked Morcan.
"Not at all, my friend. I went to hunt for an heiress. I was never a sentimentalist."
Morcan laughed hoarsely. "You had good hunting," he croaked.
"On the contrary," said Seldon severely, "I caught a Tartar." He put down his glass and rose languidly to his feet, Morcan staring at him in a sort of dumb amaze.
"A Tartar," repeated Seldon, nodding his head to emphasise the words.
"A Tartar!" echoed Morcan foolishly, like a man adream.
The convict smiled indulgently. "Really," he protested, "of the two you are the drunker, although I have swallowed three glasses to your one."
"But, a Tartar," cried Morcan. "Upon my soul, I'd be confounded sober. Such rank ingratitude! Has not the lady followed you to Botany Bay?"
"Did I speak of a lady?" asked the convict softly.
"Of whom else?"
"Sir, you are either very drunk or very stupid. Would a lady employ a servant to debauch and catechise her husband that she might spy upon their conversation in that corner yonder. I wish you a good night, Mr. Morcan. I have mightily enjoyed your rum."
He laughed and walked slowly to the door. He opened it without haste, and very leisurely departed, laughing once more as he disappeared.
Morcan sat moveless in his seat, like a man converted into stone. Presently the curtains parted, and Mrs. Sherwin stepped forth from her hiding-place.
Morcan got somehow afoot, his instincts driven by his breeding into automatic operation.
Mrs. Sherwin breathed in marble. Her face was sheet-white, and the finger-tips she placed on Morcan's wrist were icy cold.
"The man must be a fiend," stammered Morcan. "He knew you were there all along."
"How did he know?"
"I cannot tell, madam."
"I can. He felt my presence," Her lips parted in a doubtful smile. "There are not any fiends in this world, Morcan, but some men possess a sixth sense. He played with you as a cat might with a mouse, and the more confident you became the surer and the easier his game. Long before the end, I expected some such farcical denouement."
"I am glad you can call it farcical, madam. I tell you frankly I am afraid of your extraordinary husband."
"You are afraid because you do not understand."
"I grant it, madam. But——"
"You may cease to fear him, Morcan. His duel is with me."
"I beg you to believe that my fears have ever been on your account alone."
"Thank you, Morcan—but put all by. He will never injure me again. Now pray attend me to the house."
"You are very pale, madam, a little spirit?"
"I assure you I am well. Let us proceed."
Greatly to Seldon's astonishment the discrimination that for a full year had victimised him in the allotment of tasks ceased from the date of his evening with Morcan. The very next day he was transferred from hard field labor to the orchard, and was permitted to exchange his spade and pick for a hoe. Nor was this all. In the orchard, now in charge of an imported expert, his eagerness to learn the mysteries of fruit culture was recognised and graciously indulged. The orchardist had a passion for his craft, and was something of a landscape gardener as well. Within a month Seldon was treated by him rather as a pupil than a helot, and was employed exclusively on the finer forms of work.
Once a day it was the convict's privilege to see Mrs. Sherwin at a distance. She always rode a black horse, and was accompanied by Morcan or Sir Harry Blessington, or both; it being her custom to make a daily round of the plantations.
Mark Seldon had noted the habit many months earlier, and had devised an explanation to suit his fancy. "There is no reason whatever," he argued privily, "why she should put herself to the trouble of so regularly inspecting the work of the station. She trusts her manager, and never interferes with anything he does. Ergo, she rides to please herself, and her pleasure consists only in one item of her round. She rides ten miles in order to gloat quietly for ten seconds over the spectacle of one thief paying up his reckoning."
The thought enormously amused the convict; but, strange to say, whenever he knew himself under observation by Mrs. Sherwin he wore a grave and cast-down face, and appeared absorbed in his employment of the moment. "She will be happy for the day," he would mutter as she disappeared, and then he would laugh consumedly. A very patient man was Mark Seldon. Always as Mrs. Sherwin appeared he would ask in his heart "To-day?" But when nothing unusual passed he resumed, in no wise disappointed, but would mutter a "Manana" and shrug his shoulders in the Spanish way. Yet he lived in an unending state of expectation, expecting something he never put in words. It was that the passionate spirit of Mrs. Sherwin would break bounds and refuse to content itself longer with a course of passive revenge.
Mark Seldon was as sure this would eventually happen as he was certain that he breathed. It was the spice of his life to feel a constant deep conviction of wild hostile forces kept within a strong but dubious control; forces that must ultimately burst forth and bring about, perhaps, a tragedy. He knew himself hated by an extraordinary woman in an extraordinary manner, and by night and by day his mind toiled to divine and penetrate her purposes. When he first realised that the duel would be long drawn out he was saddened by the prospect for a while, but he never altered his initial resolution to cast the burden of the play on her; and his joyous disposition quickly reconciled him to the part he had adopted. During the year of his persecution he had derived from his dour life an almost transcendental satisfaction. Conscious that the most subtle and industrious efforts were being made to goad him into insubordination, he encased himself in an armor of meekness which knew no flaw. He met every insult with a humble smile; he counted every act of injustice with a tacit acknowledgment that he deserved no better treatment. No man ever submitted more willingly to oppression, and no man ever distilled a more piercing delight from degradation. The convict was positively grieved at heart when the change came and his lot was lightened; for he could no longer go to bed of an evening rejoicing in the fact that he had foiled the enemy. He could no longer grinningly assure himself before he slept, "If they want ta flog me, they'll have to do it by false evidence."
Instead of that he was robbed of his rest by wonder. He believed that Mrs. Sherwin was merely marking time in order to prepare a new campaign against him, and he yearned with all his soul for the fight to recommence.
Not the least remarkable endowment of the convict was his unshakable self-confidence. Never did he experience the smallest sensation of anger or resentment that the forces opposed to him were multiple and strong. And it never once occurred to him to doubt the game unequal or the play unfair. True enough, he was absolutely in his adversary's power. She wielded an authority little short of life and death; and he was destitute of physical resources to withstand her will. But he was so far from conceiving himself at a disadvantage that be often criticised her management of the contest, and chuckled to think how much more adroitly he would labor to break a man's spirit were he in her place. The interlude lasted seven months.
The opening move in the new campaign was made, appropriately, on a Friday. About ten o'clock in the morning Seldon was ordered to leave the orchard and work in a big, terraced garden that stretched between the homestead and the river. "I got you the job," explained the orchardist. "I was asked for my best hand, and I nominated you, although I dislike losing you. I did it because your ideas on landscape gardening and mine coincide, and the head gardener is an imbecile. I want you to try and induce Mrs. Sherwin to replace that rose plot on the second terrace with a shrubbery. The view there should be broken with trees, and they've made a plain of it. I've told Mrs. Sherwin that you know something of the Spanish methods of landscape gardening, and she became quite interested. You are bound to see a lot of her now, and if you play your cards well you ought to improve your position. At any rate, I've done my best for you."
"I am deeply grateful," said Seldon gravely. "But I've been very happy under you, Mr. Grieve, and I hate leaving the orchard."
"I always push on a good man when I get an opportunity," returned the orchardist. "Good day, and good luck to you."
Seldon found his new master an elderly Briton—a free man, of course—of the most insular and conservative opinions, but in a short time succeeded in earning his respect as a dutiful and most effective laborer. There were only two other convicts in the garden service, both men of advanced years, and poor intelligence, but of good character. Naturally enough, the hardest share of the work fell upon Seldon's shoulders, but he not only made little of his own toil, he assisted the others to do theirs, and he permitted them to command or to abuse him at their pleasure. In three days he was voted useful; in three weeks he was considered indispensable.
During that period he saw nothing of Mrs. Sherwin. He wondered, but was careful to ask no questions of his master, and as his fellow-servants were earth-bound clods he learned nothing from them. Morcan strode through the gardens once a day, but he spoke only to the head gardener.
What had become of Mrs. Sherwin? Was she ill? And Sir Harry Blessington also was invisible. Seldon often cast his eyes towards the mansion, but discovered nothing to explain the mystery. One afternoon, however, while he was mending a wall on the lower terrace, his fellow workers being engaged in the upper shrubbery, a maid-servant came down from the house to cut a basket of flowers, and she chose as of a set purpose to exploit the beds in his vicinity. Seldon had heard the girl's name before, Phoebe Russell, and he had more than once received encouraging glances from her bold, black eyes. She was not ill-looking, and was reputed to be a flirt and forward. She presently accosted him. "You are the only one busy just now," she said. "Old Smith and Lyons are lying down in the shade up there, taking it easy."
"Oh!" said Seldon. "Then Mr. Maling must have given them a holiday."
"Maling has given himself a holiday," replied the girl. "He has ridden over to Applin to take some cuttings to Madam Spermin. Didn't you know?"
Seldon began to mix some mortar in his barrow. "I am not in the gentleman's confidence," he grinned.
Phoebe strolled over to the terrace, and after assuring herself she could not be seen from the house, she dropped her half-filled basket and sat down on the parapet. "When the cat's away the mice will play?" she remarked. "What's that mushy stuff you are fooling with?"
"Mortar, my dear."
"Your name's Mark Seldon, ain't it?"
"Mine's Phoebe Russell. But I s'pose you knew."
Seldon stopped work and leisurely surveyed her. "If they were to cut out my heart they'd get a surprise," he said.
"What an idea!" cried the girl.
"They'd find 'Phoebe' written all over it."
Miss Russell giggled delightedly. "Go on with you," she said. "Something always told me you was game for larks. As if I'd believe a thing like that."
Seldon assumed an expression of the deepest melancholy. "I'm not deluding myself I have the slightest chance," he sighed. "I'm only a convict, and I've still four years to serve before I can get my ticket. But nothing can prevent me from adoring you. There are stars in the heavens that the lowest beasts may worship unchastised. Ah! how beautiful you are."
"Gammon!" cried Miss Russell, but she reddened charmingly.
"I think of you awake; by night I dream of you. Providence has been very kind to me to-day." He raised his hat and looked into the sky, as though sending up a prayer of thankfulness.
"Get off the grass," protested the girl. "Anyone'd think I was setting up for a Lady May. I ain't."
Seldon accepted the invitation. He dropped his trowel and approached the parapet. "You are kinder than the angels," he muttered.
"You're trembling," cried the girl.
"It's true," he admitted. And indeed he was. "I haven't been so near a woman for three infernal years. It's funny, Phoebe, but I simply dare not touch you."
"You'd better not," she flashed. "I ain't that sort, let me tell you."
"Nor I," he answered. "Your eyes are like the sloes, and your skin is like a roseleaf. Would you condescend to let me kiss your hand?"
Miss Russell put both her hands behind her.
"Talk sense," she commanded. "How d'ye like working in this garden?"
"I got you the job," she informed him. "I kept at the missus till she consented."
"The deuce you did!" said Seldon. "That was awfully good of you, my dear. But why did you take so much trouble for a convict?"
"I was fool enough to like your looks. And you always raised your hat to me. Besides, everybody said you was good fun. But you haven't made me laugh once, yet."
"It's because I'm in love with you, Phoebe. A man never can do himself justice when he's in love. But you'll laugh soon enough."
"When you leave me and remember how utterly afraid I was of you."
"You afraid of me! That's a good one!" she laughed boisterously.
Seldon stepped away. "Hush!" he cried.
"Pooh!" said the girl. "Who'll hear?"
"Mrs. Sherwin, perhaps."
"She'll need long ears; she's in Sydney."
"In Sydney. Oh!"
"She's been gone a fortnight, and won't be back for another ten days. She's bringing company."
"My word, yes. A whole crowd of soldier officers and big bugs. We're going to have fine doings at Camberwell. And time, I say. It's been as dull as ditchwater ever since we came here. Not a soul for a girl to speak to 'cept greyheads and convicts."
Seldon made a grimace. "You haven't given the convicts much of a chance to entertain you," he grumbled.
"Pooh! Convicts!" sneered Miss Russell. "They're slow and—they're afraid."
She struggled quite convincingly, but Seldon did not release her until she had tasted his kisses.
"Some convicts don't need challenging," he grinned.
"You're just a brute," panted the girl. "I'll never speak to you again." She got to her feet and picked up her basket.
"Not to-day, perhaps," he mocked. "But there's always to-morrow." She turned her head and went off in a fume.
On the following afternoon he met her in the shrubbery, but she ignored him. On the third they encountered on the upper terrace. She dropped a handkerchief. He recovered it, and she put a note into his hand.
That night, an hour before midnight, he broke bounds at the risk of a flogging to answer her petition. He found Miss Russell waiting for him at the place of their first flirtation.
"It's just mad of me, you know," she said. "I can only stay a minute."
He slipped an arm around her waist, and was quietly repulsed.
"You said you was in love with me," whispered the girl. "But I don't believe it. You ain't really, are you? You hadn't any right to kiss me till I told you that you might."
In the light of the half-moon she saw him shake his head and smile. "I am sorry, I humbly ask your pardon," he entreated. "I won't again, unless you say I may."
"All right," said Phoebe, "but don't pretend you're sorry. I saw you laugh. What would you get if you was caught here with me?"
"Two dozen lashes, I expect. Every pleasure has a price, my dear."
"My goodness!" the girl exclaimed. "And just to tell me you are sorry for kissing me."
"Not a bit of it," he chuckled. "You asked me to apologise, remember, please."
The girl shivered and drew her wrappings close. The night was decidedly chill.
"You'd best get back," she said. "I'd feel dreadful if you got into trouble on my account. I'm sorry I came."
"Tush, my dear. The risk is small—and even were I caught you'd have no right to blame yourself. Blame yourself, indeed! Don't you comprehend, Phoebe, that you are the first person in three years who has treated me as a human being—a man? I can't tell you what that means to me. But I'll try. Yes, I'll try. Listen! little girl. I am going to be something better, for your sake, than I am. I am going to give you a pretty memory."
"What do you mean?"
"I am going to refuse the cup that you have offered me. After to-night, I shall never speak to you again. This is our final meeting."
"Because I have a grateful heart. Because you have a reputation worth your while to keep. Because I am a bad lot. Because it would ruin you to be caught in my company."
"But if I knew all that before?" she muttered daringly.
Seldon shook his head. "You are not in love with me, my dear," he answered gravely. "You are here to-night partly out of curiosity, partly because you love excitement and your life is dull, and partly because you were willing to give a poor devil a bright hour." He took her hand and raised it to his lips. "It's all over, Phoebe," he said smiling. "I shall never forget your goodness. For your part—never forget that a woman is always to be worshipped. Good-bye to you, my dear."
"No—no . . . not yet."
"I—I—want to tell you something, I——"
Seldon stepped close to her and peered into her face. "Ah," he said, and looked around him.
Phoebe caught him by the arm. "I won't do it," she gasped. "It's not yet too late. Listen. Listen. They put me on to trap you. But I won't do it. Run . . . . . . . Run! No, not that way. It's guarded. Go by the brook. Quickly! Quickly!"
Seldon, however, having repressed his first impulse to fly did not move. "So that was it," he murmured, nodding to himself. And again. "Well done, Elizabeth!"
Phoebe shook him violently. "What are you waiting for? Don't you understand? They know you are here—with me."
"I understand perfectly, my pretty little traitress. Most of it, at any rate; but who are they?"
"Mrs. Sherwin and Morcan. Oh, for pity's sake, go!"
"Mrs. Sherwin is in Sydney."
"She returned this evening. Won't you go? Are you going to let them catch you?"
"What! And get you into trouble after all your goodness to me?"
The girl cowered back under the lash of his tone. "They are coming," she moaned.
"Yes," he said, "I hear them. Don't cry, Phoebe. It's not your fault that a cat will always after kind. And you really have a soft little heart, you know."
"I'd rather you beat me," whimpered the girl.
"What is this?" demanded a stern voice, the voice of Morcan.
Mrs. Sherwin and Sir Harry Blessington appeared at the same moment on the ledge above the parapet.
Phoebe uttered a scream and started off like a rabbit down the path. No one tried to stop her. Morcan came forward, a cocked pistol in his hand. The moonlight gave the scene an air of odd romance. The convict laughed lightly and put his arms above his head.
"Why, it's Mark Seldon!" cried Morcan in a tone of deep astonishment. "What are you doing here, you rogue?"
"The air, sir. Some of Mrs. Seldon's midnight air. I have also filched a slice of her moonshine."
"No impudence, fellow! You have broken bounds."
"And am ready for the punishment."
Mrs. Sherwin's velvety contralto interrupted. She was leaning over the parapet and her hair shone like a coil of diamonds. "Is it not the man Grieve gave us to work in the garden?" she asked.
"Yes, madam," said Morcan.
"Then I shall talk to him, Morcan—with your permission."
"My man," said Mrs. Sherwin, and paused.
Seldon lowered his arms and turned to face her, smiling grimly. "I am indeed," he said. "Pray proceed, ma'am. What is your will of me?"
Mrs. Sherwin spoke very sweetly and indulgently. "My man, we observed your occupation and we realise you had a partner in your trespass. We know her and shall deal with her anon. You we shall forgive—on this occasion. We have good accounts of you, and would not treat you harshly for a first offence. Return promptly to your quarters and see to it we need not call you to another reckoning."
The convict made her a low and courtly bow. "Madam," he said, "I am humbly thankful for your clemency, but if you will not extend it to the woman you have recognised I beg of you to punish me for both. I should die of shame to think a girl should suffer through my fault."
"Spoken like a gentle, by gad!" burst forth Sir Harry Blessington. "Bess," he said again. "The fellow's right. You must pardon the wench too."
Mrs. Sherwin rose splendidly to the occasion. "She is absolved," she cried, and leaned a little nearer to the convict. "We would not have you die of shame, my man. Rest tranquil, your sweetheart is forgiven."
"Madam, you are very merciful. I thank you from my soul. Good-night."
And the convict strode off to his quarters. But no, he did not stride, he slunk. He had spoken bravely, but he walked beatenly. Mrs. Sherwin saw, and her smile was the smile of a woman who is satisfied.
At the muster roll next morning, Morcan made a brief but surprising announcement to the convicts.
"There will be no work to-day, but at 11 o'clock all hands will assemble on the parade ground for inspection by his Excellency the Governor. When dismissed, they will return to their quarters singing the National Anthem. Beer will be served from the cask at the storehouse at noon, to each applicant 1½ pints—to drink his Excellency's health at the midday meal. The hands must provide their own pots. God Save the King!"
The convicts were too surprised to cheer. A holiday! The thing was unprecedented. And free beer into the bargain! How could they believe their ears?
Morcan beckoned to Mark Seldon and departed from the square. He walked directly to the garden and paused at the gate on the upper terrace, which he proceeded to unlock.
"You beckoned me," said Seldon.
Morcan threw open the gate. "You are to work as usual," he said curtly.
Seldon grinned. "No parade for me?"
"And no beer?"
"And no beer."
"The mercy of a woman!" sighed the convict.
"Passes all understanding," supplemented Morcan. He swept the silent mansion with a glance (it was barely six o'clock) and turned again to Seldon. "I have my weaknesses," he said, "but I hate injustice."
"I'm used to it," murmured Seldon.
"I'm disposed to give you a word of advice."
"Nip your disposition in the bud," returned the other.
Morcan's brows knitted. "This is not a trap."
"Tush!" grinned Seldon. "I read you like a book. You are feeling mean, and I'm not surprised. You have a kink or two in your nature, but some of it is manly. And you see me in for the devil of a time. But don't you worry, I am not."
"Man, you eat her salt. Be true to it."
Morcan winced and his face darkened. "All right," he said. "But remember that I tried to warn you. You are to work on the second terrace until further orders. Turn on the fountain at 8.30 and keep it playing until curfew."
Seldon nodded, and Morcan departed.
All day the fountain played, but no one came to see it. The Governor and his friends were inspecting the station.
On the following morning, a gay company invaded the tennis court on the first terrace, and pursued the pastime till dark. Seldon worked like a machine. On the third day the men of the party went for a kangaroo hunt into the far mountain foothills and a dozen ladies yawned their time away on the verandahs of the mansion. Gradually, however, the gardens became a popular resort, and, as the weather continued beautifully mild, it was always more or less tenanted throughout the day. Seldon waited patiently for he knew not what. But his senses were continually alert. Mrs. Sherwin's guests ignored his existence. They passed him and his fellow-servants by with eyes unseeing, and flirted and amused themselves as though in the presence of clods. Seldon counted eighteen strange gentlemen and sixteen ladies. Most of the men were soldiers, and most of the ladies their wives. On the sixth evening of their stay, Mrs. Sherwin gave a ball, and many new guests came from the surrounding country. Seldon spent the day hanging colored lanterns in the gardens, and at nightfall he received orders to remain and supervise the fountain and the lights.
"It will come to-night," he assured himself, as he ate his evening meal.
With the darkness the garden assumed the appearance of a fairyland. Seldon surveyed the scene and felt proud of his work. Strapped before him was a carpenter's bag filled with spare candles and extras, and his duty was to make a round of all the lanterns once an hour. He had made three rounds before the music struck up and the ball commenced. Between whiles his orders were to stand at a corner of the upper terrace, where a free man was placed on sentry—so that he might always be on call if needed. He liked the position because it gave him a view of the ball-room and all that passed, and it commanded also the supper tables on the lawn.
The free man was a decent fellow with whom the convict had some friendship. They conversed brightly, and the hours sped on wings. It was a pretty ball, and the guests all seemed to enjoy themselves amazingly. Mrs. Sherwin danced every dance, and the two watchers on the terrace agreed she looked a queen. Not until midnight did she leave the ball-room, and then it was to preside over the al fresco supper—an affair of extravagant brilliancy and merriment. But afterwards the hostess was less attentive to her guests, and ceremony was discarded like a cloak. The music ceased to attract any save inveterate dancers, and the gardens called most couples to its fragrant shades.
Seldon saw Mrs. Sherwin pass at two towards the lower terrace and the brook, hanging on the arm of a tail, black-whiskered officer. The clock struck at the moment and he went his round. Half a dozen couples lingered by the fountain, enchanted by the beauty of the scene. Seldon trimmed some sputtering wicks and silently pursued his course. He came at length to the lower terrace and the brook. The lanterns there were fewer and his duty less.
He went from lamp to lamp among the trees, and he shivered as he went, although the night was exquisitely mild.
"It is coming," he whispered. "It is coming."
He reached the last lamp, and found that it had guttered out. The spot was black as midnight, and no sound was to be heard except the gurgling of the water in the creek.
"It is here," muttered Seldon in his soul.
He crouched down suddenly beside a laurel hush and strained his ears to listen. A moment of intense stillness. Then a man's voice, low and hoarse, was heard.
"Even that excuse will not avail you. Whoever 'twas has gone, my dear. I claim the forfeit and will have it."
"Captain Gray, you hurt my arm."
There was the sound of a scuffle, then a kiss.
"Wretch!" cried Mrs. Sherwin's voice. "You've had your forfeit. Let me go."
"Without my lawful interest—never!"
"Never! Nay, let me go or I shall scream."
"Scream away—my sweet enchantress. I'm no boy. So—so, by heaven, I will devour you."
"How dare you, sir. You've torn my dress. Oh! Oh! Help!" A muffled scream broke out.
The convict stood erect, breathing deeply.
"Shall I—or shall I not?" he asked the stars. He heard a sound that instantly decided him, and he sprang like a panther into the glade below.
The darkness was profound, but in the darkness was one flash of white. It flitted by him like a spectre, but be heard a woman sobbing as it passed. In the same moment of time a heavy figure blundered into the convict's open arms. They closed like springs of steel, and presently an awful cry resounded through the night. "Murder! Murder! Murder!" It ended in a gurgling groan.
Seldon stood up and folded his arms across his breast.
It seemed to him that the play was badly stage-managed, for a complete minute elapsed before the searchers came.
But they came at length, surrounding him with a circle of glittering blades, and the lights they carried (torn mostly from the garden trees) showed a man lying unconscious at his feet—the face battered almost out of recognition.
The Governor was there, grave, composed, sardonical; and behind him fluttered a dozen ladies, amongst them Mrs. Sherwin.
A man stooped over the prostrate officer, and felt his breast. "He lives, but is insensible. He has been hammered like a beast," he cried indignantly.
Morcan put a heavy hand on Seldon's shoulder. "Come with me," he said indignantly.
But the Governor intervened. "Not so fast," he commended. "The man is a convict, I perceive. Justice should be summary."
Captain Gray uttered a deep groan, and, opening his eyes, struggled to one arm. "God!" he said. "Where am I? What is this?"
"You have been assaulted, my dear Gray," declared the Governor. "Can you rise? Assist him, Mortimer."
Slowly the beaten soldier got afoot. "Ah!" he said. "I remember—Mrs. Sherwin——"
But the convict interrupted, speaking in a tone that beat down every other sound.
"Bah?" he shouted. "Why prolong the farce? Justice should be summary. I'll confess. The captain there chose to fancy I had been insolent to Mrs. Sherwin, because I excused myself for allowing yonder lantern to become extinguished. And he took upon his shoulders the duty to chastise me. He met a better man. That is all. Eh? Captain Gray, eh? A better man? Have I not proved that beyond a doubt? Have I spoiled your beauty, you dog?"
Seldon's eyes passed over the crowd and looked into the eyes of Mrs. Sherwin.
"But I wasn't insolent to you, madam," he cried pleadingly. "As heaven hears me, I was not. The captain had no right to fling his powdered knuckles in my face. I have been your servant two years, madam, and I've never once been insubordinate. I pray you to speak for me."
"The man lies, your Excellency," said Mrs. Sherwin coldly. "He attacked Captain Gray without reason—like a brute beast."
"And he has demanded summary justice," mused the Governor. "Well, he shall have it." He nodded to Morcan. "Take him away, Mr. Morcan, and give him six dozen lashes in the morning. Come, ladies, the musicians play for us in vain."
Seldon's wrists and arms were seized suddenly by a newly-come guard, and he was hustled off along the river wall. He made no resistance, but he laughed like a man intoxicated with mirth, or else a Bedlamite, and many a lady clasped hand on ear to shut out the offensive sound.
The Governor had a long interview with Mrs. Sherwin. He wished to resume Mark Seldon from her service as a dangerous criminal, and return him to the public chain-gangs, and she was hard put to it to combat his intention. But she found an argument at last to win her way, and his Excellency went to his bed somewhat doubting the quality of his own justice, summary though it had been. "Women, women!" he muttered as his valet removed his pumps. And again, as he donned his night shift. "Women are the deuce! Baines, the very deuce." The valet cordially agreed. "They are, indeed, your Excellency," he declared.
SELDON tried in vain to sleep. He tossed and turned, but could not find tranquillity in any posture, though the pallet of the "condemned cell," on which he lay, was comfortable enough. "It must be the change of quarters," he muttered. But he knew better. The truth was, his mind had successfully revolted against his will, and his thoughts ebbed and flowed like the tide of a troubled sea, scorning his efforts to compose them. To be flogged—that was no great matter. He had been twice flogged before, during his service in the public gangs, and the brutalising punishment had not materially affected the ebullient optimism of his nature. He was one of those odd creatures who are born occasionally into the world dowered with an undeveloped nervous system. At a later period Mark Seldon might have earned an opulent if inglorious living by showing himself at the music-halls of London or New York and permitting curious people and pseudo scientists to stick pins into his arms and legs. He was not wholly insensible to pain, of course, but he felt pain far less keenly than the average white man, and he could endure treatment, calculated to madden a normal being, with indifference.
It was not the prospect of being flogged that kept him wakeful. An unwonted melancholy filled his soul and robbed him of his rest. He sat up at length and propped his back against the wall, and strove to order the movements of the thoughts that would not be suppressed. Why should he be so sad, so stupidly disturbed? What had he hoped for that so overpowering a depression should beat down his sense of humor on the culmination of an issue he had long expected? Whence arose this paralysing sense of disappointment? It was not long before he probed the mystery. Mrs. Sherwin—he always called her "Mrs. Sherwin" in his thoughts—had violated his idealised conception of her character. She was not just, and he had subconsciously cherished a deep belief in her justice. She had procured him to be flogged by an unworthy trick. She had answered his appeal with a lie, supposing it, perhaps, an appeal for mercy. But he had not appealed for that—he had called directly to her honor, being desperately anxious, in that little crisis, to prove her true, in part at least, to his ideal. And she had rung false—false as a cracked bell. The convict bowed his head upon his hands. "What have I done to her?" his spirit groaned. "Never was there a sweeter or more loving girl. Never lived a woman with a kinder heart, a finer sense of right, a more susceptible compassion. And now she is all spite and hatred and malignancy. She lives to hurt, to humble, and to torture a wretched creature in her power, a creature her magnanimity should long since have pardoned and forgotten. And the fault is all mine—all mine. She is determined to damn both our souls and to make me bear the double burden through eternity—she who taught me to believe in God!"
In the pitchy darkness of the cell the convict might afford to weep, for none could see him. He had not wept for five and twenty years and had a store of tears. They trickled down his stubble-covered cheeks and dropped upon his hands. But he wept silently and did not sob at all, and he drew a strange comfort from his tears. He was glad to learn that he could cry. "There must be a spark of decency in me," he thought. "I am puling in pity for her—and that is true. For she will score my back less than her own spirit, and some day she will know remorse."
A little later he threw up his head and strained his faculties to listen. Some faint sound reached him. What, day? Already the day? The sound was repeated. Hastily he dried his face and got afoot. A key was being inserted in the lock. "They are coming for me!" he muttered, and he composed his lips to smile—an actor born and bred. But what caution to unlock! What fumbling care! What deft and gentle manipulations of the key! Seldon caught his breath and staggered back a pace, overcome with an idea.
Slowly and almost noiselessly the heavy door swung back to show a small cloaked figure in the opening holding a dark lanthorn. A shaft of light flashed in the convict's face, revealing it a ghastly white.
"Bess!" he gasped.
The figure advanced into the cell and softly closed the door. Then it slipped back the shade blinds of the lanthorn, and Seldon gazed into the tearful eyes of Phoebe Russell.
"You!" he said, and his tone was balanced
"S-s-sh!" hissed the girl. "Not a sound. I've come to save you."
"To save me!"
"Yes. Listen! It still wants an hour to daylight. I'd have come before but I had hard work to steal the keys. You've got to slip out and go straight to the orchard. You'll find a horse tethered by the shed where they store the dried fruit, and you can get a saddle from the barn. I hadn't time to get a saddle. My advice is, take to the bush. But, in any case, ride for your life. You've only got about an hour's start."
"Phoebe!" said the convict.
"Why have you done this—made this chance for me?"
"I couldn't bear to think of you being flogged. I just couldn't bear it."
Seldon shook his head. "It won't do, Phoebe."
"What won't do?"
"Your plan, my girl. It does not please me. Were I to abscond, as you suggest, I'd become a criminal again. I'd have to rob in order to live. And I'd be hanged when caught at last, as some day I should be caught, infallibly. One man cannot fight society, no, nor ten, nor ten hundred."
"You're afraid!" cried Phoebe.
"That's it precisely. I am afraid. I'd rather be flogged than hanged any day. I want to live as long as possible. I'm in love with life, my girl."
"You'll stay here—and—be—flogged?"
"Can't you believe your ears? Yes. I shall stay here and be flogged."
"Well!" said Phoebe. "Of all the men—pho! I never did."
Seldon's errant sense of humor flowed back to him. "You think I ought to prefer hanging to flogging?" he inquired with a grin. "But, of course, you do. To be hanged is decidedly more dignified, and you are a woman. But I'll tell you my trouble, Phoebe, so you'll fully understand. A man may be flogged many times and still remain a man. But he can only be hanged once, when he perishes, and his dignity with him. A convict has little use for dignity, my dear."
Phoebe tossed her head. "I've come on a fool's errand," she sneered. "I guess I'll return——"
"To her who sent you," finished Seldon, coolly.
"Nobody sent me," the girl flashed out. But Seldon, striding forward suddenly, put his hands upon her shoulders and shook her gently to and fro. "Don't lie to me, my girl!" he said in a tone of chill contempt. "You are merely her messenger, and I suppose you are employed not only to carry but to fetch. Well, I have a message for her."
"Let me go," she gasped.
"Go then!" He released her and stood back. "Why do you pause?" he mocked. "Ah, I see. A thousand pardons, ma'am," he hurried to the door and threw it wide.
But Phoebe hesitated still.
"For what are you waiting?" he demanded.
"You said you had a message," mumbled the girl. Her shame was manifest, and she could not meet his eyes.
The convict's face glowed as from an inward fire, and for a moment its expression softened into tenderness and beauty.
"Tell her," he commanded in a piercing underbreath, "tell her that I understand."
"Is that all?"
"Tell her also that to understand is to forgive."
"Tell her, finally, I have wherewithal to pay my debts, and I will never question any draft she makes on her account with me till hate be satisfied. I'm afraid you'll mangle that message, Phoebe," he added in an altered tone, "but no doubt you'll do your best."
The girl shook her head and passed mutely from the cell. Seldon closed the door. She locked it cautiously and went her way.
Seldon sought his pallet and lay down, sighing happily. The sigh ended in a yawn. In a few minutes he was sleeping like a babe.
Phoebe Russell found her mistress seated by the open window of her bedroom gazing out across the darkened world. There was only one small glow-lamp burning in the room, and Mrs. Sherwin kept her face in the heavy shadow of the curtains when she turned her head.
"Well, child," she said quietly, "you failed."
"I saw him, madam, but he would not go."
"He said he would be forced to rob if he escaped, and he would surely be caught at last and hanged. He said he would rather stay here and be flogged."
Mrs. Sherwin's left hand crept to her breast, and for a moment the room was absolutely silent.
"Did he—suspect?" Phoebe scarcely recognised the voice; it was so hoarse.
"Ah! And you?"
"I pretended to be indignant, but he shook me by the shoulders as though I were a doll, laughed me down, and ordered me to carry you a message."
There was a long silence, then the hoarse voice asked: "What was the message?"
"I was to say that he understands, that to understand is to forgive, and, finally, that he will never question your right to hate him and to make him pay."
"No more, Phoebe?"
"That was all, madam."
"What is the time?"
"A quarter to four, madam."
"Thank you. Go to your bed, child."
"I am sorry I failed, madam."
"Repent nothing, Phoebe. But see you hold your peace. Be off to bed."
Phoebe glided from the room and a moment afterwards Mrs. Sherwin arose. She crossed to the cabinet on which the night lamp stood, and, from a bottle labelled "chloral," she poured some drops into a glass. After drinking, she caught up the lamp and peered at her reflection in a mirror on the wall. The image did not please her, and that is not remarkable, for it was not the countenance of a young and pretty creature that she saw, "You hag!" she cried. "You hag!" and, putting down the lamp, she stumbled to the bed and flung herself face downwards on the pillows.
Nearly all the gentlemen at the house party assembled in the walled square to see Mark Seldon flogged.
There was an understanding between them that esprit de corps demanded their attendance—the wretched culprit had assaulted a member of their mess. No such consideration however, could have availed to drag them from their beds—in Sydney. But they had spent a whole week in an atmosphere defended stoutly from the dreadful common places of the capital, and their appetites were sharpened by abstinence from their ordinary diet. To get up at six o'clock in the morning to witness the flogging of even a famous convict would have seemed to any man a foolish act in Sydney; but at Camberwell it wore the savor of a strange event, and promised spice for conversation. Quite a professional air distinguished the gathering, and not an officer but looked unusually alert and wore his uniform as though prepared for an inspection by the G.O.C. Sir Harry Blessington was the only man, except Morcan, in mufti. He was frankly bored. He suffered from a bad cold, and he took snuff continually to conceal this ill-humor. He would much rather have remained in bed, but some of the younger guests had insisted on his presence and he had not known how to resist them—being in a sense their host.
The visitors had no reason to complain of stage-waits. As soon as they had placed themselves to satisfaction, Seldon's cell was opened and the convict, already stripped to the waist, was brought forth between two stocky servants, and led to the triangles. Coming suddenly from the dark into the light, he was momentarily a little blinded, and he blinked his eyes in a manner to raise a general smile. Presently, however, he got his sight and he must have been pleased by what he saw for he laughed aloud, and his laughter sounded positively joyous. "Silence!" thundered Morcan.
Seldon bowed to the company and nodded towards Morcan as though to say: "Gentlemen, you see how I am placed;" and he marched briskly to the whipping posts. The soldiers were enchanted at his spirit and they exchanged meaning glances. After all, their early rising might be unusually rewarded—no ordinary criminal, this fellow. Regard, too, his magnificent torso, his tough seamed brown skin, and his splendid muscular development. "By Gad, sir!" exclaimed one of them. "The man is a bull!"
The servants immediately prepared to bind him, but Seldon promptly, and with absurd ease, shook them off, and stood forth a pace to face the crowd.
"I claim the right to say a few words before the music begins to play," he said.
Morcan had already drawn a pistol, but even as he started forward full of threats and bluster, Sir Harry Blessington's husky, voice rang out.
"Tush. Tush! Morcan. Don't be so officious, man. Let the fellow speak out. We want to hear him."
"Speak, then!" growled Morcan. "And be quick about it!"
Seldon shrugged his shoulders. "Does the tiger smell blood?" he jeered at Morcan. But his manner and expression altered instantly, and he turned to the officers with a gallant and intriguing air.
"Gentlemen," he said. "From my heart's deeps I thank you for the Christian compliment of your assemblage (he put his hand upon his heart). Would that I might entertain you as your gracious condescension merits, but his Excellency, through no fault of mine, has seen fit to order me no more than a beggarly six dozen lashes. I pray you, therefore, to accord me the indulgence of your pardon if the performance you are now about to supervise should fail to overtake in all particulars your charitable expectations. Gentlemen, your obliged and very humble servant."
And he made them, half naked as he was, the bow of an accomplished cavalier. Thereupon he strode to the triangles and stretched out his arms for the straps, saying over his shoulder: "I am sure, gentlemen, that in the circumstances, you will not think me wanting in the courtesy that is your due to turn my back upon you."
The company made no remark. Here and there a dull eye sparkled as a mind discovered insolence; but not a few faces wore the blush of shame; and even the most arrogant were silent—silenced.
Morcan, however, was not a wit affected by the convict's rankling speech, and he went about his business like a tradesman. In two minutes Seldon was securely triced, and a big freeman named Galt was placed at the correct distance behind him with the cat. Morcan stepped to the side of the triangles and raised his hand. "One!" he said, and his hand fell.
The cat whistled and the thongs flew to their mark.
"Two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve."
The cat played the dozen with the regularity of a machine. Then came a pause. Seldon turned his face, he could not turn his body, and asked coolly: "Anything wrong?"
One of the younger officers tittered nervously. Morcan resumed his counting.
About the twentieth stroke faint pink stripes began to shine through the bronze of Seldon's back. At the thirtieth Gait changed his position, and, of course, the direction of the cat. At the fortieth stroke the pink stripes became well defined and showed a transverse pattern. At the fiftieth the thongs of the cat were also pink—and wet.
Again Morcan paused. He fancied the convict might have fainted, for he had been for many seconds very still and his body had a sagging look. But Seldon quickly reassured him. "There's nought the matter with me!" he said.
"Give him some water!" cried Sir Harry Blessington, in a shaking voice.
"God bless you, whoever you are!" said the convict. "But don't give me any water or I'll scream. My back feels like meat on the grid." He laughed gently, and added. "But perhaps it would amuse you to hear me scream."
Sir Harry Blessington could bear no more, he swung on his heel and hurried from the square. Five followed him. I wish that I could give their names, but they are not recorded.
Morcan resumed his counting. At the seventy-second stroke Seldon uttered a long wail that might have been heard for half a mile. But when they released him he stepped from the torture platform white, yet smiling, and apparently quite strong. "It was a yell—of triumph," he gaspingly explained to the astonished audience. "Because I beat the cat. Well, gentlemen, I'm afraid I can't do any more for you to-day. Some other day, perhaps; good day to you, and thank you kindly for your company! Is it back to the cell, Mister Morcan?"
Morcan nodded. Seldon bowed and walked briskly to his former prison, scattering blood drops in his train.
The officers made for the gate, talking altogether in a hum. Morcan followed the convict into his cell. Seldon was sprawled across the flags, insensible, having collapsed before he could reach the pallet; and his swoon must have been deep, for he rested partly on his lacerated back.
Seldon was permitted to rest for three days and was then detailed to work with a gang of men engaged in clearing a section of alluvial scrub-land some two miles from the homestead.
The gang was entirely composed of assigned convicts who had been at some time or another punished for various offences. Morcan's "black list" they were called. They were treated as a class apart, and whenever it was possible they were employed on constructive tasks at outlying portions of the station partly in order that they might be the more easily supervised and disciplined and partly to prevent them mixing with the other servants.
They expressed no surprise when Seldon joined their ranks, but he was soon to discover they were by no means indifferent to his "promotion." Before the day was over he had received several veiled threats that he should not attempt to do more work than the slowest of his companions, and the expression "currying favor with the overseer!" was more than once muttered in his ear as some scowling fellow passed him by. As they all trudged homeward in the evening at the tail of the foreman's horse, Seldon endeavored to get into closer touch with them, but as profitably he might have addressed himself to sticks or stones. Without exception, they sullenly discouraged his advances and declined to be drawn into conversation. Nor were they more communicative when the compound was reached and the overseer left them to their own devices.
Separately and silently they set about preparations for the evening meal, and the only thing they had in common was the fire. Never was there a gloomier company. Seldon strove industriously to penetrate their reserve, but quite in vain. They would not talk, and, if they listened to his remarks and questions, they gave no sign. They stubbornly ignored his existence, and each man seemed to be a deaf mute and alone.
"Well," said Seldon at last. "I have never been sent to Coventry before. But I suppose you fellows think I've done something to deserve it. Good night!" and he went straight to his bunk. From his sleeping place he could see the fire and he watched it; but the men did not move from their original positions until the curfew tolled, and then they slunk off like shadows to their cots, exchanging never a word. Seldon shook his head in the darkness where he lay, and frowned reflectively. "There is an understanding between them," he muttered, "which my intrusion has affected. They have been plotting something, and my presence has upset their plans. A rebellion, perhaps!"
In the morning he was one of the last astir, and be found the gang assembled round the pump, filling their billies.
A bath was out of the question, but the next best thing was a swill, and Seldon stripped his torso for the exercise while waiting his turn at the pump. Until that instant not a soul had recognised his presence, but, having chanced to turn his back upon the crowd the silence was broken with a chorus of gutteral exclamations. Seldon swung round in astonishment. The faces that confronted him were no longer blocks of wood, but sentient and eager masks of passion.
"So you was flogged, arter all?" said the biggest and ugliest of the group, a man named Gilly.
Seldon raised his eyebrows. "Flogged?" he echoed. "How you jump at conclusions. Is my back red? Something must have stung me in the night. I've an absurdly tender skin."
He sauntered to the pump, filled his billy and swirled the water over his breast and shoulders, shaking himself afterwards like a dog. Many times he repeated the performance, then he rinsed his face and hands. When he had finished he found the crowd still fixedly regarding him.
"Six dozen, mate?" asked Gilly.
Seldon slipped his shirt over his still wet and gleaming limbs.
"Six dozen grandmothers," he answered tartly. "The scars are painted. I was sent here to spy on you."
He refilled his billy and carried it over to the fire. Presently the others followed and squatted down beside him.
There was no further conversation, but during breakfast every man made a point of offering him something to eat. Seldon rejected their donations with contempt. He had already sized the men up as a set of desperate savages, and he no longer desired to be admitted to their confidence. During the next three weeks he had as isolated a life as though marooned in the Sahara. His companions ignored him and he ignored them. Covertly, however, they watched him day and night, and he was perfectly aware each night he clambered into his bed that he might never see another sunrise. It was only a question of when they should decide to break out in revolt. That they would start the business by strangling him he did not for a moment doubt. He had no evidence to go upon except the men's faces and methods, but he needed none. Seldon knew their kind and he felt it in his bones that his life hung by a thread. He developed a habit of remaining awake, simulating sleep, until the homestead clock had chimed the midnight hour. But his trouble went entirely unrewarded. On the night of his twenty-third reckoning he had just counted the twelfth stroke of the chiming bell and was about to relax his mind for slumber when a pair of vyce-like hands gripped his throat and simultaneously a number of heavy bodies flung themselves upon his legs and arms. It was all done soundlessly and with professional address. Seldon's great strength was useless to him and he did not struggle long. When his senses cleared he was trussed like a turkey for the spit, and a gag of hessian sacking filled his mouth—and he seemed quite alone. But he was no longer in his bunk. He lay beside it on the cinder-covered ground.
"The fools should have murdered me!" he thought. "They had their chance," and he would have laughed had he been able. His bonds gave him very little trouble. They consisted of ordinary rope of poor quality, and there had been a period in Seldon's life when he had amused yokels at English country fairs by snapping chains drawn across his biceps, and pulling against carthorses—for pence and halfpence. As soon as he had freed himself he spat out the nauseous gag and stood up to stretch his cramped limbs and rub his aching throat. Suddenly a yellow flare in the southern sky attracted his attention, but he was still guessing what it might be when the great bell on the battlements began to sing out lustily. Seldon nodded his head to the flare. "They've set fire to the ricks," he muttered. "And what for if not to lure the foremen thitherwards while they attack the house?"
He stepped into the square and ran lightly to the gate, but it was locked as usual. "How did the beggars get out? They must have climbed the wall." Groping his way along the high enclosure he came presently to the corner, and there his fingers clutched a dangling rope. Then seconds later he bestrode the wall and found, as he had expected, another rope on the further side. Dropping to the ground he paused a while in blank uncertainty, staring at the flames which leaped high above the dark structure of the largest barn three hundred yards away. "They ought to be battering down the kitchen door by this," he reflected, "but they are such fools, I dare not credit them with a reasonable plan." The sounds of voices reached him—wafted from the homestead. "Ther'd be screams if—-" he said; and the thought decided him. He set off like a deer to the nearest of the sheds. Gaining its shelter without accident, he fumbled his way along the slab front, until he found what he was searching for—a crowbar which he had remembered to have seen when returning that evening to the compound. As he caught up the implement a man passed the shed at a run. Seldon followed him more leisurely, guided by his footfalls, for, although the sky was alight, the barns and sheds that intervened the burning ricks made the immediate foreground as black as Erebus. But there was one small patch of illuminated turf which had to be crossed, and this showed Seldon his quarry. "Morcan!" he gasped, and quickened his steps. "The man is stark mad!" was his thought. A few seconds later he heard a strangled shout for help. Seldon set his teeth and ran as he had never run before, for he had light and silhouetted figures to guide him now and he knew that he was needed.
At the extreme corner of the barn, and on the very edge of the shadow was a sprawling, squirming group of men. They were too busy to heed the newcomer, too anxious to bury their knives into the carcase of the man they loathed. With the shout of a schoolboy, Seldon flung himself upon them and twice his crowbar rose and fell. Three figures detached themselves from the squirming mass, three rested moveless. Three more figures suddenly rushed from the cover of the light and dashed at Seldon in a fan. "Only six!" he muttered, and his bar became a scythe. There was a mild chorus of oaths and yells, then a knife was flashed across his knuckles. He dropped the crowbar, and a big man fell into his arms, clawing and stabbing like a catamount. Seldon hugged him close as much for protection as revenge, and the man began to groan. Using the limp body for the moment as a shield, Seldon staggered back half a dozen rapid paces, then he caught it up and whirled it round his head, and Gilly, the leader of the outlaws, had the unwitting merit of oversetting the last couple of his uninjured followers. They went down like ninepins, and, before they could recover, the crowbar was at work again.
"Be careful not to kill them!" said a hoarse and very weary voice.
Seldon put his foot on a stubborn neck and looked behind him. Morcan was standing in the light preening himself over like a ruffled tabby.
"It's curious," observed Seldon, "but this chap won't go to sleep. His head must be made of gutta percha. Hope you're not hurt, sir."
"Only bruises, thank you. But my clothes are cut to ribbons. I've been wearing a chain shirt for the last month you know."
"Ah," was Seldon's comment, "that squares me up. I had thought you an ordinary imbecile when I saw you running into the lure. You are less a fool than you looked."
"You'll kill that man, Seldon."
The convict lifted his foot. "He'd be saved the cat anyway, and perhaps the gallows," he replied indifferently. Then he rapped out a question: "Where the devil are the free men? We are very lonely here."
Morcan smiled. "In the kitchen at the homestead under arms. I've been expecting this for weeks."
"Well, I'll be damned," said Seldon.
Morcan began to examine the stricken field, Seldon to bind up his wounded hand. Morcan tailed the tally as he worked, "Gilly is only stunned I think, but he is not shamming; Gripps is dead, eh, what, yes, dead as Caesar. Baine, dead, too. My God, his skull is battered like an egg Shell. Dodson—is this Dodson? My dear Seldon, you're a thorough workman. Stainer—humph! Ha, you're awake my poor fellow. You're leg is broken? Yes, I believe it is. We'll attend to you in good time. Ah! here's Wilson Four, a stout axe-man very badly spoiled. Will he ever fell a tree again?" He stood up. "It's a shambles, Seldon. A perfect shambles; but where are Griffen, Bayles, and Bedioe? The gang numbered ten at curfew."
"In their bunks, perhaps, by this. They would be with a grain of sense."
Morcan nodded. "Well, we must have help. Will you mount guard while I play go fetch?"
"Whatever you say, sir."
Morcan departed, to return some moments later with a crowd of overseers and freemen.
Seldon was leaning against the wall of the barn. Morcan called him aside. "I am going to appropriate your honors for a time," he said quietly. "You deserve a pardon for tonight's work, but I doubt you'd get it if I did my duty. We ride to Sydney in the morning. You take my meaning?"
"What I want," said the convict thickly, "is a pint of rum."
"You'll find a bottle on my study table. Drink the lot. I'll join you in ten minutes."
Seldon nodded, and stumbled off into the dark. He was very sick indeed.
Morcan's ten minutes stretched into an hour, but Seldon did not miss him. He took the most comfortable chair he could find, and literally obeyed his host's injunction. He wished to drown thought, but in that he failed. He succeeded only in becoming sorrowful. It was half past one when Morcan appeared.
"It was Mrs. Sherwin detained me," he explained. "I have told her nothing except that some men were injured. She supposes they were burned." He laughed shortly. "Your name was never mentioned."
Seldon shrugged his shoulders. "It's your business, Morcan. One might think you had a decent motive to judge from your expression."
"I owe you my life, I suppose. Their knives surely would have found my throat soon or late. That makes a difference."
Seldon looked at him with a speculative eye. "I heard wheels a while ago," he observed.
"Yes. I've sent the whole gang, dead and living, into Sydney. You and I start presently. We'll ride if you feel well enough. I see your hand is bandaged."
"It's only a scratch. Why are you taking me."
"For evidence. The Governor is sure to hold a Court."
"I see. And afterwards?"
"It all depends on the Governor. At least he should grant you a ticket of leave. It will be a pardon if he listens to me."
Seldon shook his head. "Mrs. Sherwin would never forgive you, Morcan. Better hold your tongue, I think. Besides, I doubt I want a pardon, or a ticket, either."
"Is it the rum talking? Man, you are daft."
Seldon heaved a sigh. "Alas!" he said. "I'm sober, and a slave to conscience. How can I quit till she is satisfied? She has only flogged me once, as yet, remember."
"A downright Bedlamite," cried Morcan.
"And you'd lose a pleasant post," said Seldon evenly. "You are not a youngster, Morcan, to be always starting life anew. Far better be true to your salt. Your sentiments do you honor, but honesty is always the best policy in the long run. A thief tells you so."
"You really wish me to—to——?"
"And you'd rather?"
"It will be easier for me, of course. But——"
"Never mind the 'buts,' Morcan. She has rights that transcend reason. I admit them, and you must not trick her out of them. You will not need my evidence. You saw the whole thing. You can tell the Court that I am ill. I am. My soul is sick. I killed two men to-night." He stood up and stretched himself—yawning.
"I'll be away two days at least," reflected Morcan. "In the meanwhile you'd best stay in the gaol infirmary."
"The very thing for me."
Morcan crossed over to a cupboard and took from it several books. "They will keep your mind occupied," he suggested.
Seldon accepted the volumes with a simple "Thanks!" and the two once more faced the night.
SELDON was eating his breakfast one morning in the gaol infirmary when the door opened and Morcan appeared.
The convict stood up and saluted respectfully. "Feeling better?" asked Morcan.
"Quite comfortable, sir—thanks to you."
"It is proposed to try you as a shepherd," said Morcan. "It is now eight-thirty. At nine o'clock the provision cart will start for the western boundary. You are to relieve Monahan who is——"
"Committed suicide last week," smiled Seldon.
Morcan gave a slight shrug. "You'll need a new hut as Monahan's was blown down by last Thursday's storm. I sent some men out yesterday so you should have a roof over your head to-night. The under foreman goes out with you, and he will tell you what you are to do. By the way, are you still above taking advice?"
"I am in a humble mood this morning, sir."
"Then keep an eye on the blacks. Monahan did not cut his own throat. He was speared in his bed. You'll not speak of this to any of the others, Seldon."
"You wish me to——"
"To be silent. I am not justified in warning you, you understand."
"Good God!" muttered the convict. "Is it possible she wants my death?"
Morcan closed the door and took a double-barrelled pistol from one pocket, a box of ammunition from the other. "What she wants is known to her alone," he answered quietly. "For my part, I am sick of persecuting a man of your kidney. Hide these things away, Seldon; but use them only to protect yourself. You will perceive that I am trusting you enormously."
He held out the pistol by the barrel. "It is loaded," he remarked. "Four mornings since—your back was bare," he added in an undertone.
Seldon took the weapon and thrust it in his shirt. He bestowed the ammunition in his jacket pocket.
"You are only taking one risk," he said reflectively.
"That you will kill yourself?"
Morcan shook his head. "We all have our black hours, our moments of despair," he said. "But the sane of us recover. And you are not insane, although, I think, you are abnormal."
"You, too, Morcan. You are not insane although you are most certainly abnormal. You enjoyed my flogging, but now you are befriending me. Take care, you are growing human."
"Bah!" retorted Morcan. "I'd flog you again if need arose to-morrow."
"And regret it even more intensely afterwards."
Morcan frowned heavily. "It is quite true," he admitted. "Something has come over me. I feel most damnably sorry for you, Seldon. Once I disliked you; once, again, for quite a long time, I was afraid of you; and, now——"
"And now," said the convict, "your heart is aching to hear me say: Morcan, I understand. I have nothing to forgive. We are two pawns in the game of life. Here is my hand."
"Your hand!" Morcan stared dully into the other's shining eyes.
"A convict, a snatch-purse thief, offers the freeman, John Morcan, his hand in friendship. Will you beat it down, Morcan? Nay, I'll dare to be more intimate, will you refuse my friendship—John?"
Morcan breathed deeply. "I—I—enjoyed flogging you," he muttered hoarsely. "I counted slowly—I prolonged the strokes."
"Dear old chap. I know. It's your disease. Mine was to steal purses. Mine is cured. Yours is being cured. I'd be helping you to cure it John."
Morcan's better nature struggled for a moment with another force, and his face was very ugly and contracted while the battle raged. But quite suddenly he grew composed. The struggle was over. He laughed shortly and moved to the door. But he paused and turned in the act of passing forth, and the smile he threw at Seldon was full of malice.
"I'll give you a physic for slushy sentimentalism as a keepsake," he said, jeeringly. "It's a piece of information. Listen with both your ears. I've been lying to you. Your wife sent you the revolver. You can guess for what purpose. I do not think it was to save you from the blacks. Do you?"
Mark Seldon sighed. He did not believe Morcan.
The journey to "Monahan's location" occupied almost six hours. As the crow flies, it was distant no more than twenty miles from the homestead, but the intrusion of several jagged hills necessitated a long and roundabout route. The location lay, of course, far beyond Mrs. Sherwin's boundaries, and all that part of the country belonged to the Crown; but, as no other station yet intervened between Camberwell and the great chain of mountains to the west, there was nobody to dispute the squattage rights of grazing stock upon the whole of that broad stretch of territory. Seldon thought he had never seen a more beautiful spot, a wilder or more lonely place than the site of his new home. It was at the apex of a triangular tableland pushed into the heart of the first and lower ranges. Two bold and frowning cliffs overhung the climbing valley, and, behind them, row on row of loftier cone-like elevations towered into the sky, the farthest and tallest being at the moment tipped with the bluish-white of late unseasonable snow. A creek, bedded with large, white pebbles, crept its twisted course between the spurs; and the tableland, itself sparsely timbered, was enclosed on the east by dark masses of eucalyptus forest whose rolling tops looked like the waves of a sea as they dipped gently towards the lower world.
On a knoll beside the creek three men were busily at work fashioning a hut, and, as soon as the cart stopped, Seldon was ordered to assist them. The job, however, was already almost finished, and the hut only lacked a roof. The structure was of the usual pattern of the period. Four posts placed upright had been embedded in the ground a few feet apart from one another, and the intermediate spaces filled with twisted wattle and other pliable shrubs in the manner of hurdles. The walls thus formed had been daubed with two or three coats of mud, and the mud smoothed with a stick. At one end of the hut was a huge, half-open chimney built of stones and mud and stubble; but this was not of recent manufacture, and had evidently been used by Seldon's predecessor. The fixing of the roof was no great business—merely a matter of pitching and pegging and giving the canvas an overall covering of bark and rushes, of which a plenitude had been collected.
Within an hour, the "wattle and daub" mansion was declared habitable by the foreman; and nothing remained except to dump within it the provisions from the cart; for it already contained the late Monahan's truckle bed and such utensils as his aboriginal murderers had not thought worth their while to steal. The dumping over, the foreman took Seldon a round of the yards and paddocks and explained in detail his duties to the few valuable sheep there assembled and the larger herds of mixed stock straggling at liberty across the valley.
No time was wasted on the lesson, for the foreman was anxious to travel by daylight, and, before five o'clock, Seldon was alone in the bush—a sore and very sorry man. He had not even a dog to bear him company; nothing but sheep. He lighted a fire and cooked himself a supper, but he found he could not eat. He was beginning to appreciate Mrs. Sherwin's latest move in his regard; and he soon gave it a name, "Solitary confinement." The idea, by some feasible perversion of thought, brought comfort to his mind, and, although he could not eat, he slept the clock round dreamlessly.
A great burst of music awakened him to life again—the warbling of a thousand magpies. Seldon listened to the charming concert for an hour, then leisurely arose and went down to the creek to bathe. He found a deep pool and gave himself the torture of a swim in order to melt away the lint that had fastened, leech-like, to his lacerated shoulders. He emerged faint and sick, despite the coldness of the water, and slowly dried his body in the sun. There were no such things as towels at Monahan's location. He did not don his shirt again, for his back had re-commenced bleeding; but he went about his day's work nude to the waist. The work was not hard, merely tedious; but it kept him constantly employed and obliged him to cover many miles of ground. "The sheep," he said that evening to his friend the fire, "is a monstrously stupid animal."
Once more he slept like the dead, and once more the magpies wakened him at sunrise. He felt his strength returning and was glad. His swim refreshed him and his back no longer bled or hurt. He enjoyed his second day, and on the third he was happy; having invented a system of shepherding to enlarge his leisure. The spare hours thus won from duty he spent in roaming the hills and collecting ferns which he brought down to the valley and planted about his hut. At the end of a week he turned butcher and killed a sheep, but he only made one meal from the carcass, for, having neglected to hang it out of reach of dingoes, the wild creatures came and robbed him while he slept.
It having been forbidden him to kill more than once in eight days, he lived on damper till the fortnight closed, and the provision cart appeared again. One man drove it, unaccompanied, an elderly and surly free-laborer named Cosgrove. Seldon had awaited the visit with impatience, hoping he scarcely knew for what; news, perhaps. But Cosgrove was one of the few men of the station he had never been able to like, and very little commerce of opinion passed between them. Cosgrove dumped his load on the grass before the cabin, and made a tally of the merinos in the paddock before he opened his lips, and, even then, it was merely to ask if the blacks had been troublesome.
"I have seen no blacks at all," responded Seldon.
"Stock alright? You haven't lost any, have you?"
"Well, I'll be going. Good day to you."
Seldon had a hundred questions to ask, but he stood tongue-tied while the old man drove away.
A surprise, however, was in store for him; for, amongst the food packages, was a square parcel wrapped in brown paper, and securely tied with string and fastened with many seals. He tore off the wrappings and found a vellum-bound book, a rare edition of Lucretius' "De Rerum Natura." There was nothing to show who might have been the donor, but Seldon made no question that Morcan had again befriended him. He supped that evening on the majestic verse of the great Roman poet, and he went to bed in the small hours at peace with all the world.
When he opened his eyes again, dawn had already broken, and the sun was rising; but an unwonted silence wrapped the valley. The usual morning concert of the magpies was lacking, and not a sound of any sort was to be heard. A bushman of experience would have been alarmed, but Seldon paid no heed to the portent, beyond to remark a little sadly, "the sweet warblers have deserted me." Following his custom, he lighed the fire, and set on his kettle to boil, then passed out of the hut to bathe in the creek. He had not left the cabin five yards behind him, however, when a flight of spears hurtled from the big gums that bordered the stream. One grazed his right temple, a second passed under his left arm and scored his side on its passage, and a third transfixed his left thigh. The others passed him narrowly. Seldon felt he had been badly hit, although the pain as yet was small. He made no outcry, but turned and shambled back, crouched double, to the hut. A dozen more spears flew over him, the air was split with a chorus of varied screams as the aborigines left their cover and chased him in a body, banishing their weapons and yelling like a pack of hounds. Seldon, however, reached, the cabin without further scathe, and, though fearfully impeded by the spear he carried, he possessed himself of Morcan's pistol before the first of his foes appeared. He had no time to shut the crazy door; merely enough to turn and fire as a nulla-nulla whizzed by his ear. The black who had thrown the club collapsed in the doorway a huddled corpse. Seldon fired again and wounded another black, who limped off with a dismal howl. And that was the end of the attack, for, finding their victim armed with the dreaded thunder tube, the natives disappeared like shadows.
Seldon waited for a minute or two, expecting a second assault, but longer he could not rest whatever happened, for the blood was trickling down his side and pouring from his leg like water. Setting his teeth he grasped the longer section of the spear in both hands and snapped it short off near the entrance wound. The effort sickened him, but the worst part of the operation was still to come. He had to drag the spear by the head section right through his thigh. That he accomplished the feat without swooning was due to the agony it caused, but he swooned before he could completely secure the rough tourniquet he immediately applied.
"To think this should be the finish!" he muttered as the blackness came. But it was not the finish.
By some miracle of luck, the spear had missed his larger arteries, otherwise no surgeon could have saved his life, nor have prolonged it to the moment when he tumbled senseless on the cabin floor. The spear, moreover, was a simple hunting weapon, and the wound it made was straight and fine. While he lay unconscious a great quantity of blood oozed away from him, hardly arrested by the ill-fastened bandages, but, by degrees, the flow thickened, and at length it ceased. The absolute stillness imposed by his insensibility was partially responsible for the comparative quickness of the coagulation. Nature is no bad doctor, and her processes only seem to be artless; not one but has a deep if indiscernible design. At the will of his invisible physician, Seldon simulated the sleep of death for half the day, and, when he woke, the bandages were sealed about his wounds by a serviceable and very firm cement. He was babylishly weak and languid, but, as the mists of his long stupor cleared away, a ravenous hunger beset him.
He must have food. Inch by inch, he dragged himself to the dead fire and scratched among the ashes for the damper he had left there overnight. Part of it was badly charred owing to the aberrations of a log, but there was enough edible to stay his appetite, and a draught of water from the kettle quenched his thirst. It was easy to drink from the kettle, for it swung on chains from the chimney iron.
"Come," he thought. "You won't die immediately, old chap. There's enough water in the kettle to last for days. Besides, you may be strong enough to light the fire again and cook some food to-morrow." He had a mind to try and reach his bed, but his strength gave out at the first effort. "Heavens! how tired I am," he whispered, and, even as he breathed the words, his head sank back listlessly upon the embers and once more he fell asleep.
"Ah, those dear magpies. They have come again." It was morning, and the air was filled with charming melody. Seldon listened to the song of the birds in a state of dreaming, bordering on ecstasy. Why should he stir? He was perfectly comfortable, and absolutely happy. His thoughts, too, were wonderfully beautiful. He had done his best to pay his debts. Not his fault if any rested undischarged. He had been stricken down in harness, and now it was his privilege to taste the joys of idleness. He dreamed till midday, and then, suddenly, he became alert and strong. He sat up, and presently got afoot, feeling not the slightest pain, although his injured leg was stiff as any block of wood. "Cured!" he cried out hoarsely, "cured!" and he laughed like a drunken man.
"I ought to be hungry. I must be hungry," he muttered after a pause; and he set about lighting the fire. It was soon ablaze. He mixed a damper and placed it in the ashes. He made tea and drank it by the quart. He filled his pipe with tobacco, but could not smoke it. He tried to eat the damper he had cooked, but failed. Then he sat for hours on his camp stool staring at the black corpse in the doorway, talking to it at intervals, and incessantly wondering and complaining of the swarm of flies. At sundown he had one lucid moment. "I'm in a raging fever!" he said.
He carried the kettle and the dumper over to the bed, and then reposed himself between the blankets, being overtaken with a fit of bitter cold. All night long he plucked nervously at the bandages that cased his wounds. But, when morning came, he lay as still as the dark lump in the doorway; and the magpies sang to him in vain.
Camberwell, Sept. 5, 18—.
I must be honest with myself. I am tired of the long struggle. There; I am glad it is set down in black and white. I can breathe more freely now. Why should I fill my life with barren toil and trouble? Why should I, with seeing eyes, remain the willing slave of an illusion? I have wasted too many years contending with a monster, hugging to my soul the foolish hope that he might prove a man. He will never bow the knee to me, confess his fault, nor plead to be forgiven. I merely feed his most colossal vanity by seeking his subjection. Every suffering I put upon him tortures me and hardens him—the cunning pride of him that mocks me in the trappings of humility. His game is evident. He would wear me out and bring me to the dust at length a suppliant—a serf. He—who made love to my tire-maid!
He would have me go to him, a whip in one hand, and beseech him to lay the lash across my shoulders. And I might do it, too. My folly is incurable. It is capable of anything. I never see him but I quake and quiver. And I have come to the end of my resources. Either I must go to him and kiss his feet or he must be destroyed. The only choice I have is to be infamous or merciless. My body yearns for him. My heart aches for him. My soul abhors him. Were he dead I should find peace, perhaps—and other interests. Other interests! To sleep and not to dream of him! To wake, and not to think of him! If he were dead, that might be possible. If—he—were—dead!
It was Saturday night and Sir Harry Blessington was unusually bored. He had returned that afternoon from a visit to Sydney—whither he had escorted his cousin's late guests—to receive a severe snubbing at dinner for having ventured to stay several days longer at the seat of Government than he had originally proposed. He had answered flippantly, and Mrs. Sherwin had retired in a cold anger to her room, leaving him to pass the evening alone.
Sir Harry was not a man of large mental resources, and he hated solitude like the devil. During the last year he had got into a habit of repairing rather frequently to Sydney, and having "a good time," as he privately expressed it, with the garrison officers who always gave him a gay welcome. And Mrs. Sherwin did not approve of these holidays; partly because he invariably came back with empty pockets, but chiefly because he was too candid and too cynical to conceal his dissipations.
In his own opinion the fault belonged entirely to his cousin. She had dragged him to Australia, and kept him for upwards of two years dangling in her train, waiting—for what? That her convict husband should die and set her free to marry him? Sir Harry shrugged his shoulders at the thought, and buried his nose in his wine glass. He still believed his cousin was fond of him and his regard for her remained sincere, but it had lost its freshness and all his passion had subsided. She was too conscientious to be worshipped with eternal ardour by a blade like him, too good; too—er, well, "damn it all!" he muttered, "she's a fool!" Moreover, she held the purse, and a man cannot live long on any woman's bounty without despising her in order to evade the deeper folly of despising himself. "A bigot, and a puritan!" he reflected acrimoniously, and he rang for another bottle of the "puritan's" excellent port. An hour later when he was feeling much happier and beginning to debate the question of still another bottle, Mrs. Sherwin unexpectedly sailed into the room. Sir Harry rose at once, although a trifle unsteadily, to greet her, and was pleasantly astonished to find her mood had changed. "I have come to apologise for my temper, Harry," she said with a direct and simple sweetness as she took a chair before him. "I had no right to abuse you."
Good port is a precious stimulant of chivalry. "Not another word," cried the baronet vehemently. "The fault was mine, and I forbid you to apologise. It is I who ought to ask your pardon—yes, and on my knees."
"Oh, pray don't!" smiled the lady, "you might have an accident. Sit down Harry and let us talk."
Sir Harry frowned and blinked his eyes. "I am quite sober," he protested gloomily. "Never been more sober in my life."
But he was glad to sit down, for his legs were tremulous. "It is only my second bottle since dinner, and I can carry four," he added.
"But you had one at dinner, Harry."
"The wine a man takes with his meat, Bess, is not to be counted," he answered her gravely. "When I was in the Guards, I——"
"Yes, Harry, you've often told me that story. But I want to talk to you seriously to-night."
"Your will is my law," he made her a wavering bow, and his eyes wandered to the bottle. It was empty.
"Afterwards, please," said Mrs. Sherwin.
His face flushed darkly. "You do me an injustice, cousin. I was about to retire when you appeared. What is your will of me?"
"That you return to England, Harry. A ship sails on the 14th, the Medusa. I wish you to take passage in her. I have kept you here too long. I was wrong to bring you out at all, I think. I have treated you rather badly. It was because I mistook your character. I judged you with a biassed mind. You are a kinder fellow than I dreamed, and a better. I thought you vicious through and through. I have been putting off this confession from day to day for many months. Thank God it is made at last. But I haven't hurt you past amends, I think. You care for me, I know. But you will easily learn to forget, and you are still young enough to start life afresh. I have made all arrangements in advance. You are to have the Kent property. I have settled it in tail male for the sake of the name, Harry. I wouldn't have the name of Blessington die out, and you are very reckless, dear. You'll forgive me some day, Harry. Not soon, perhaps, but with the years."
Sir Harry gazed at her in speechless amazement for many moments after she had finished. She kept her eyes resolutely on the floor waiting for his pronouncement.
"It's—banishment," he said, at last.
"No, dear," she answered softly. "It's the end of your exile."
"But I love you, Bess. I came out here with you because I thought——"
"I thought you—cared for me."
Mrs. Sherwin slightly shrugged her shoulders. "We'll not go over that," she said, "I am a married woman. Be content——"
"But how can I——"
"Pardon me, Harry, how can you accept the Kent property, you would say. I reply, because it is rightfully your own. My father on his deathbed asked me to give it to you—for him. He had not time to make a second will, and at the last repented having stripped the title bare. Now you know why I did not sell it, when I left England for ever."
"For ever, Bess?"
"Aye indeed, for ever."
"But to leave you here—alone. It's unthinkable."
"I wish it, and you have said that my will is your law."
Sir Harry shook his head. "I'd feel a beast," he said quietly. "I couldn't do it, Bess, even if I didn't care for you, and I do. I used to be the devil of a bad lot, but I don't fancy I was ever as bad as that."
"Harry, you put shame on me in London."
"I did, my dear."
"You let people think me your mistress."
"Who told you that?"
"Is it not true?"
"It is, by God!" He stood up, and so did she. "I wanted you," he cried.
"And more than me!" she retorted, pale as death.
"And that's true too," he thrust back savagely. "But you most; just you!"
Her eyes flashed fire. "Harry, I listened in secret to your speech with your mother the day you returned from France to hear of my marriage with a convict."
"And that explains a lot," he commented dourly. "But not everything. I was mad with jealousy that day—and a pauper I was to boot."
"You called me a 'soiled dove.'"
"And could have named you worse, you jade, for I had always liked you better than your money, and you jilted me most scurvily."
Mrs. Sherwin's anger fell from her like a cloak, and she wrung her hands together with a gesture of tragedy. "Oh!" she said piteously, "I have ever been a fool, it seems, a proud, a silly fool."
Sir Harry was too enraged to spare her. "A fool, indeed," he growled. "And a fool still."
"But I have paid."
"And like a fool even in that," he cried. "God in heaven, Bess, why won't you come home with me? What is this convict husband to you, that you should blight your life and mine because he lives. Where is he? Under what name is he hiding? For two years you've been fending my enquiries, and making me a laughing stock. The Governor knows, and I'll swear you know. The Governor smiled at me superior the other evening when I tried to pump him in his cups. I could have struck him in the mouth."
Mrs. Sherwin gazed at her cousin through lids half closed. "And—if—you—knew?" she questioned slowly. "How would it profit either you or me?"
"It might, Bess—if, if—as I have sometimes thought, he were at Camberwell."
"What a quaint thought!" Mrs. Sherwin moistened her lips with her tongue before she could smile. "That he could be here, here! And in what capacity? One of the footmen, perhaps."
"Or a gardener," said Sir Harry dryly. "You flogged a gardener the other day, my dear."
"Oh, yes, a gardener. But would a wife flog her husband, Harry? Remember the marriage service, 'to love, honor, and obey.'"
"Mock away! Mock away! I was present at the flogging. The man behaved like a——"
"An early Christian martyr, Harry?"
"Idiot," cried Mrs. Sherwin. "He is the man! And you call him a cavalier."
Sir Harry fell back a step, confounded by the sudden flaming of her scorn, and the ugly mask of hatred, the bursting of her self-control revealed. "Um, um," he mumbled. "I guessed it, but would not let myself believe. Poor devil. Poor devil!"
"You can pity him?" Her tone was indescribably contemptuous.
"Because you hate him, Bess. Hate! It is a feeble word. You had him flogged."
"Well," said Mrs Sherwin. "Now you know everything."
"He is out at Monahan's gorge, alone," mused the baronet, aloud. "Morcan told me this afternoon. Monahan was killed by the blacks, I understand. His successor, let us hope, will fare more peacefully."
Their eyes encountered for a second.
"He was alive, and well—on Thursday," whispered Mrs. Sherwin.
Sir Harry strolled over to the window and drew back the curtains. "A full moon," he observed reflectively. "The world is as bright as day. What a night for a ride!"
Mrs. Sherwin seemed not to hear. "It is late," she said. "I think I shall go to bed. Good night, Harry."
He glanced at her across his shoulder. "Pleasant dreams," he answered civilly, but he did not open the door for her. Mrs. Sherwin was obliged to perform that ceremony for herself.
MRS. SHERWIN with difficulty disrobed herself—she had dismissed her maid some hours before. She put on a dressing gown, and sat herself down before the open window, leaning her elbows on the sill, her head upon her hands. It was as Sir Harry had said, the world was very near as bright as day. But Mrs. Sherwin was less occupied in looking than in listening, and she was hardly conscious of the golden radiance of the night. The silence was profound. Twice, at long intervals, she thought to hear the sounds that she expected, but they came from the wrong quarter and were quickly stilled. At length her patience was rewarded. Somewhere in the shadows a door had been softly opened, but a shade less gently closed. She caught her breath and stretched forward, till her-bosom rested on the ledge. Cautious footfalls sounded on the ground. She watched a certain patch of darkness with passionate attention, and presently beheld it give her cousin to the moonlight. He carried a riding whip and a long attenuated box, and the moonbeams played upon his silver spurs as he hastily strode across the lawn in the direction of the stables.
Mrs. Sherwin had seen enough. Drawing back into the room, she hurriedly pulled down the blind and drew the heavy folding curtains to a close.
Ten minutes later she ceased her feverish pacing of the floor and paused before a mirror. "I could stop, him, even yet, perhaps," she said. Then she gave a sudden cry. "Is that I!" and stared with unaffected horror at her image in the glass.
How long she stood at gaze she did not know. But she knew what broke the spell. It was the faint sound of a horse's gallop, already distant, and soon growing fainter till at last it died away. Mrs. Sherwin moved slowly towards the window, and parted the curtains. The sound, again, or was it an echo? She thrust aside the blind and strained her ears.
Nothing. Nothing. Next second she started violently to hear the lowing of a cow. She dropped the blind and stood erect, trembling in every limb. The lowing continued for several moments! Gradually Mrs. Sherwin recovered her composure. "I shall have to live in the city after this," she muttered. "For whenever I hear a cow calling to its calf——" She broke off suddenly. "Oh! my God! What have I done?" she wailed. She staggered against the railing of her bed and clutched it for support. The lamps were failing and the world was all aswing. The dizziness passed soon, but left her sick and shaken. "And I've such a lot to do," she moaned. "And nobody else can do it; nobody else." Slipping off her dressing gown, she began to robe herself anew, but not coquettishly, and all the while contending grimly with a nauseous hysteria. The task appeared interminable, her riding clothes were most difficult to find, and nearly impossible to fasten. Mrs. Sherwin wept dismally, but stop she could not, even when her fumbling hands most helplessly revolted. She was still crying and shuddering when the job was sufficiently forward to pass muster for completion. It was strange that her appearance should trouble her, but it did, and very painfully. "I must look a slattern," she mumbled as she left the room and tip-toed to the stairs. The great Chippendale clock pointed to a quarter past two. She had to dry her eyes to read it. "A slattern, a slattern, a slattern," she muttered miserably as she coaxed the big hall door to open. Later she told the same story to Black Beauty in the box. "You've got to carry a slattern. Beauty. My coat is all rucked and my bodice has the wrong buttonings; and I feel like dying." She wound her arms round the mare's neck and sobbed uncontrollably. Black Beauty was sympathetic but clumsy. She trod on her mistress's foot, and the sharpness of the pain helped to bring Mrs. Sherwin to sense and self command. It was hard to find the proper saddle and trappings in the darkness of the harness room, but harder still to buckle up the girths—a man's job that. Yet Mrs. Sherwin managed to accomplish it and more—to climb atop the nervous mare without help or accident. It was better afterwards.
The first wild ride through the keen air gave her back her courage, and sent her sickness to the winds. Her thoughts, however, followed her like furies and made her drive Black Beauty like a harridan. The miles! Oh! the long and dreadful miles! Would she never overtake Sir Harry Blessington? He would be on the grey she got from Hurlingham. He would be sure to ride the grey; and Black Beauty could lose the grey in a six furlongs gallop. Why was she so long in overtaking him? After all Sir Harry had not a very big start. An hour perhaps, no more. Her whip rose and fell, and the panting mare mended her already reckless pace. The time came, however, when Black Beauty ceased to respond; when her gallop became a labored canter, and her canter slackened to a spent trot. And still no sign of the grey. Mrs. Sherwin beat the mare cruelly, but at length gave over in despair, and the pace became a walk. Oh! the torture of the track! The miles of trees that beat her with their shadows, and nodded at her with their shining tops, rustling to each other as she crawled among them, "See her go—the murderess!" Was it an hour that passed before Black Beauty moved again? "An hour! You utter fool. It was ten thousand years. But see, she's trotting now, the dear. Ah! I knew she would not fail me. Faster, Beauty, faster! On! on! on!" Ever the track climbed gently, winding in and out amid dark shapes of cliffs, and spurs, and towering rocks. Is it fancy that the night grows lighter, though less bright, the trees more tall and individually visible and sparse? Where has gone the golden glamor of the moon? Why has the sky straight overhead thus darkened into starless purple, like a pall, and whence has come this grey and spectral glimmering that makes the trees assume such ghastly forms?
Is that the dawn—yonder flash of crimson cresting that black pile of heaving earth? Faster, Beauty, faster, though you die. We must not be too late. Every word was a scream, a shriek. Black Beauty heard and took a panic. She gathered up her haunches and galloped madly from the forest out upon an almost open plain. Straight before them lay a creek, a mountain, and a hut, and all was very plain to see, for dawn had broken and there was no mist. Sir Harry Blessington had just dismounted from his tired grey, and was peering through the open doorway of the hut. He heard a woman's scream and turned his head—to stand a stiffened image of surprise. But, as Mrs. Sherwin approached he was galvanised to action. He hurried to meet her, waving his arms and signalling her to stop. Black Beauty was easy to control, being on the verge of death. Mrs. Sherwin slipped to the turf and stumbled forward, not knowing that the mare had fallen and was coughing up her life blood. "Oh! Harry," cried Mrs. Sherwin. "Tell me I'm in time. For God's sake tell me I'm in time."
"In time for what?" he asked. He was pallid to the lips.
"To save you from being a murderer," she gasped.
"Be easy," he responded gravely. "The blacks have saved us both, I think. There's a dead nigger in the doorway, and Sherwin also seems to be a corpse. You had better stay here till I investigate. It's not a pretty sight."
Mrs. Sherwin did not swoon, but her legs would not support her. She sat down abruptly on the grass.
Sir Harry offered her his flask, but she refused it with a gesture.
"Go and see!" she commanded huskily.
"But you—you won't faint, will you? You look dreadful, Bess."
"I'm in hell," said Mrs. Sherwin. "Don't waste time with me. Go! Go! Go!"
Mrs. Sherwin watched him with tragical intentness. Sir Harry went to the floor of the hut, peered within for a few seconds, then entered and disappeared. But only for a moment.
He came out, carrying what seemed to be a blanket. This he cast down on the threshold, and rushed towards the mountain, flinging his arms about and puffing like a grampus. Presently he stopped, and drew out his flask and drank deeply. Satisfied, he produced a kerchief and bound it round his face. Then he returned quickly to the hut, and, taking up the blanket, he spread it before him through the doorway. He stooped and fumbled with his hands. "Ah!" sighed Mrs. Sherwin. Sir Harry had begun to drag something from the hut; something black and horrible, that the blanket had only covered partially. He dragged the thing to some bushes more than a hundred yards distant, pausing many times in his hideous task to dart away and breathe; but he always returned to pursue his work until the thing was concealed from sight amid the shrubs and bracken.
The flask again! Would the man never get to the crux of his duty? At last, at last! He was going back to the hut. He entered. Mrs. Sherwin counted a hundred and then struggled to her feet. But Sir Harry reappeared while she was still fifty paces from the hut, and he came out to her panting as from a long run.
"You can't go in there, Bess. It's too horrible," he gasped.
Mrs. Sherwin swayed from side to side like a wind-shaken reed. "He is dead!" she said.
"Not yet. He's still alive, but dying fast. Here, you must take some brandy, Bess."
Mrs. Sherwin drank the spirit thankfully. "I am going to him," she announced.
"By God! you are not. It would kill you."
"You don't understand, Harry. He is my husband. I must see him."
"So you shall if you wait. But not in there. I'm going to fetch him out. The hut is—I can't tell you."
"Then be quick, Harry. I must see him, I tell you—before he dies. I must."
Sir Harry nodded and strode off to the hut. Two minutes passed; then he staggered forth carrying what seemed a great pile of bed clothes. Step by step he tottered heavily, with short steps and feet wide apart, to the big gum tree on the bank of the creek, and there he set his burden down.
Mrs. Sherwin turned her back and stared at the forest until he called her. She walked over to the tree, then, and leaned dizzily against the trunk. Sir Harry knelt beside the convict, striving with great earnestness to make the dying man's couch appear, at least, to be comfortable.
Mrs. Sherwin played a schoolgirl's trick. She peeped at the convict through her fingers. Horrors! And she had once loved that grizzly death mask.
"He is quite insensible," said Sir Harry. "And I doubt he'll live an hour. He won't recover consciousness, I think."
Mrs. Sherwin had nothing to say. She could only stare in silence at the shrunken yellow face, whose eyes seemed to have sunk back in the sockets like a mummy's. How still it was! How hideous!
Sir Harry said many things to her to which she paid no sort of heed. He went away, and returned, carrying food, and tins, and dishes, a big kettle, and many odds and ends. He gathered sticks and brushwood, and lighted a fire. She stared always at her husband. It was long before she became conscious of what Sir Harry was doing, and even then she continued to brood and dream. Sir Harry had taken off his coat and was as busy as a bee. He boiled water and made tea; also a sort of paste. He brought the tea and paste to the dying convict and contrived to force his preparations down the fellow's throat, muttering the while all sorts of cheerful incoherencies. Only once he spoke to Mrs. Sherwin. "I'm building up a salve for a bad conscience," he explained, but she did not give him her attention. Later on Sir Harry filled a pail with hot water, and, thrusting in his silken neckerchief, he again approached his patient's couch. "We mustn't do the thing by halves," he maundered. "We must be able to say we did our very best, or we'd never sleep o' nights, eh, Sherwin?"
Speaking, he removed the coverlid, thus suddenly revealing the nude, stark body of the convict. "Gad!" exclaimed Sir Harry. "What a feast for worms! Side and thigh. Heigh? But you got it here, my man. A spear, of course, and it must have gone through you like a bullet." He began to wash the ugly mass of corruption away from the wounds, but soon found he had a helper. It was a ghastly business; but they got the body clean at last, and set both wounds bleeding freshly. Mrs. Sherwin tore her petticoat in strips for bandages. When all was done, they went away and made themselves a breakfast of tea and scones. But when the time came, neither could eat a morsel. They soon abandoned the pretence, and eyed each other quietly.
"You had better ride to Camberwell and send help," said Sir Harry.
"No," she replied. "You must go, please. My place is here."
"He will never recover consciousness."
"My place is here," she repeated, and walked back to the gum tree.
Sir Harry followed her and set his flask beside the convict's pillow. "In case," he muttered, and went to catch his grey, which was browsing by the stream. He mounted at once and rode off, waving his hand by way of farewell. He had covered half a dozen miles when the thought suddenly occurred to him that the blacks might return to avenge their fallen comrade and murder his defenceless cousin. At the same moment the grey's off fore foot slipped in a wombat's hole, and the baronet was thrown violently against a stump. The horse uttered a shrill, half-human scream, and stumbled to the track side with a broken shoulder. Sir Harry made no outcry. He lay in a huddled heap where he had fallen, absolutely motionless, his face half buried in the mould.
Mrs. Sherwin gave a shrill laugh when her cousin disappeared. She knew she was going to break down, and the thought amused her. She continued to laugh wildly for several minutes, then she began to cry, and scream, and bite her fingers. It was hysteria that beset her, and she was too weak and weary to resist. Rather, indeed, did she welcome the attack, for the paroxysms might shut out reason and remembrance, even consciousness. Very soon she sprawled upon the grass, a struggling, twitching figure, that excited the curious attention of some sheep in a neighboring paddock. The merinos trotted one by one to the rails and stood there in a long line, watching her with the gravest interest, until she ceased to move, whereon they straggled back to their feed again. Mrs. Sherwin slept dreamlessly, the complete slumber of exhaustion, till the sun rode high. A human voice it was that wakened her, a voice she knew. She sat up, and remembered, agonised. The convict, scarce a yard away, was talking to the sky; but it was evident he fancied he had a companion who disputed with him.
Mrs. Sherwin strove to make some meaning of his babble, but it was very hard to understand, for he often spoke in Latin and sometimes in Spanish, and she was ignorant of either tongue. She made out, however, that he was endeavoring to prove one Lucretius a greater man and a finer philosopher than one Epicurus; also that he labored under the belief that John Morcan held another opinion, and was there to support it. He called on Morcan a dozen times, alternately chiding him for obstinacy, accusing him of prejudice, and pleading with him to be reasonable.
Her patience wore thin at last, and she attempted to arouse him from the thrall of his absurd delirium.
But the sunken eyes refused to open, and the toneless voice went on. "Christ only did better than Lucretius," he murmured, "when he taught his followers to love their neighbors. Are you a Christian, Morcan? Whom do you love? You are an Epicurian. You seek your own happiness. You find it in dealing hurts to people you should succor."
"Luke! Luke!" cried Mrs. Sherwin, and she seized and strongly pressed his hands.
The convict uttered a little moan. "Be pleased, Morcan. Be happy," he muttered. "You are hurting me, and you are hearing me complain. I thirst."
Mrs. Sherwin started to her feet, and, snatching up a cup, she ran like a deer to the creek, returning almost as quickly with a measure of cold, clear water. With one hand she raised the sick man's head, with the other she pressed the water to his mouth. But his jaws had locked again, and it was long before he drank. She was obliged, indeed to imitate her cousin and prise his teeth apart. Once, however, his parched tissues had tasted the fluid they seemed insatiable, and she made many journeys to the stream before they were repleted. When that occurred at length, the convict's deep and regular breathing demonstrated that he slept.
Mrs. Sherwin felt strangely, almost wildly, happy. Hope had come to her that he might live—the criminal that she had wished a little before to kill. She hurried to the fire that Sir Harry had kindled, now almost dead, and built up again, and set the kettle on to boil. It was in her mind to prepare some food suitable for a babe half-perished of starvation. Searching among the stores her cousin had brought from the hut, she only found flour, salt, and sugar. These would not do. She dared to enter the hut, and, although she twice retreated, sickened by its awful atmosphere, she braved the task repeatedly until she learned its vanity. But how could she make broth without meat? Sheep browsed in the paddock, but there her courage and her will alike deserted her. Her eyes, roaming the plain, fell suddenly on the body of Black Beauty. She shuddered at the thought that flashed into her mind, but she gave it entertainment. Hours must yet pass before help could arrive from Camberwell, and what if, in the meantime, her convict should pass into the Shades? Mrs. Sherwin saw at her feet a cleaver. She took it up and walked swiftly to the body of the mare. Black Beauty lay on her side, with neck outstretched and tongue protruding. Mrs. Sherwin dared not give herself a second's breathing-time for speculation. She set her teeth and chopped off, with three clumsy strokes, the black and bleeding tongue. She caught up the ghastly piece of flesh, and, speeding back to the fire, she thrust it in a pot. She poured hot water in the pot and set the mess to simmer on the ashes, adding salt and flour, and stirring it with a long twig of green wood which she tore from a little wattle tree that grew near by. Thus she made a broth, and, some hours later, when it cooled, she fed it to her convict forcibly. The operation so far restored his faculties that he fell a-groaning, and throughout the afternoon she sat and listened to his senseless mutterings, his head pillowed on her lap. And what was in her mind no man will ever know.
With the coming of the twilight, he sank into a heavy sleep, and Mrs. Sherwin gently withdrew from him to tend the fire and to stay her own hunger with tea and scones. Would the station people never come? She strolled for nearly a mile down the track to meet them, but with the settling of the darkness she retraced her steps, haunted with all manner of new fears. The convict still slept peacefully, breathing like a child. She heaped fresh wood on the fire and killed an hour by making a big damper. No signs of the station people yet! How black the night was, how ineffectual the stars! And the moon would not rise till after twelve o'clock. Mrs. Sherwin experienced an imperious need of protection. She was afraid. She crept to the convict's couch, and, sinking on the grass beside him, she took his hand and twined the nerveless fingers round her own. For a long while she rested thus, listening to his respirations and feeling vaguely comforted. Suddenly the hand she held gripped her hand tightly, and a scream rose in her throat which all but passed her lips. The hand as suddenly released itself and was lifted, talon clenched, into the reflection of the fire-light. "God!" wailed the convict. "Oh. God! Oh, God!"
Mrs. Sherwin's breast contracted painfully.
"Oh, God!" he said again. He sighed loudly, and his arm dropped weakly to his side.
"Are you in pain?" Mrs. Sherwin asked the question in a strident voice, but she got no answer.
After a long interval she put out her hand and touched his face. It was wet and icy cold. "He is dead," she thought, and sprang up, trembling in every limb. But no, the fire-light showed that he was breathing still, also that his body was shivering. She heaped the clothes about him, and with her kerchief wiped the clammy perspiration from his face, but he continued to shudder in spasms as if overtaken with ague. "He must be warmed!" she cried, and, putting forth all her strength, she tugged and dragged the mattress little by little to the fire, until at last the convict's feet almost touched the outer embers. Thereupon she piled all the wood she could find upon the flames and made a mighty conflagration. The heat in the vicinity soon became intense, but it was all one to the unconscious man. As though smitten with a blast from the Antarctic snows, he shook and shivered ceaselessly. Terrified and half desperate, Mrs. Sherwin heated the remains of the broth and forced the stuff down his throat, but still there was no change. Then, quite by chance, she saw Sir Harry Blessington's flask glittering at the foot of the gum tree. With a cry of joy she caught it up and poured the contents in a cup, to which she added an equal quantity of boiling water. The convict's teeth were chattering like castanets, but, against her expectation, he swallowed the brandy without waste or trouble, and the effect was almost instantaneous. The ague fit immediately began to subside, and within a few minutes his body lay tranquilly composed and his skin grew warm to the touch.
Mrs. Sherwin brought more fuel from the woodpile next the hut, and sat down near the couch to wait and watch. Surely something must have occurred to make her friends so late. The cart had broken down, perhaps, or they had lost their way. How dark it was, and how fearfully oppressive the silence of the bush. Hark! What was that? A long, soft, but piercing and most melancholy ululation swept across the plain. The sighing of a lost soul in Erebus could not have been more sad. Three times it sounded, and then the universal stillness was resumed. "A curlew; it was a curlew," muttered Mrs. Sherwin. "It must have been a curlew." But she was in a panic, and once more she crept forward and crouched beside the sleeping convict. Gradually her apprehensions faded and the world's darkness ceased to daunt her. Her jaded mind and weary body claimed repose. She fought the encroaching weariness for a while, telling herself that she must stay awake in order to attend the fire, but the languorous warmth was irresistible, and at length she fell into a heavy, dreamless sleep.
"Can that great disc of golden glory be the moon? Where am I? Who is talking?" Mrs. Sherwin sat up and stared about her wildly.
The fire was still glowing fitfully, though near its end, but the plain, so shadowed when she slept, was bathed now in a lake of dazzling yellow mist that wrought a myriad enchantments, charming every commonplace to more than mortal loveliness. With a shock, memory returned to her, and a supervening sense of loneliness and of a duty to be done at once enthralled and energised her tired mind. Evidently she must rise and mend the dying fire. But what had awakened her so suddenly from out so deep a slumber? Ah! That laugh! How terribly familiar, and yet how strange!
The convict was actually laughing! Why should a dying man laugh? Silently she turned her head and gazed at him. His eyes were open, and he was staring up into the sky. Was he conscious at last? What could he be laughing at? She was soon to know, for quite suddenly he began to talk. "Yes," he said. "It does sound ridiculous. I don't blame you for not believing me a bit. A thousand pounds for a cup of water. Why not a kingdom and a crown? You think I could give you that as easily, or an Empire! But isn't it worth testing? (His voice grew very wheedling.) You can't be sure I haven't the thousand pounds, you know. It might be hidden anywhere. And what would you lose, after all, by giving me one tiny cup of water?"
Mrs. Sherwin caught her breath. He was pleading for water. At least she could understand that. She scrambled afoot and hurried over to the bucket, returning quickly with a brimming cup, to kneel beside him.
"Here is water!" she cried. "Can you hear me? Can you hear me? Come, let me help you drink?"
"Ah," said the convict. "You are wise. You have listened to reason."
He raised his head in his eagerness to drink, yet it fell back weakly on her arm at once, and, but for her deftness, the water must have spilled. With closed eyes he drank and drank and drank until the cup was drained.
"More?" she questioned, leaning towards him, motherwise.
His eyes opened and looked into hers, and his face puckered in a happy smile.
"I cheated you," he whispered. "I haven't thousand pence in all the world."
"Don't you know me, Luke?" she asked.
"Oh, yes," he answered promptly. "You are her man. Your name is John Morcan. She chose you because she thought you have a tiger's heart. But we'll beat her yet, even in that. You are steadily improving, John, and one day you'll be human if you live. It's a merry world, John. Listen and I'll tell you a secret. There's a woman in it."
"What is her name?" Mrs. Sherwin's voice was like a raven's.
"Why," said the convict. "Elizabeth, of course. But I used to call her Betty before she learned to hate me."
"You hate her, too," said Mrs. Sherwin.
"I knew you thought that," smiled the convict. "I've always been a mystery to you, old fellow. It's because I'm so infernally simple and because your mind is crooked. You must learn to think straight, John."
"Don't you hate her, Luke?"
"Why should I, then?"
"She has been hideously cruel to you."
He stirred restlessly. "Who has a better right?" he asked, and frowned. A little silence, then his eyes closed, and, still frowning as though in pain, he spoke again. "But I'm disappointed in her, John. She flogged me for a false offence. She lied to the Governor."
"But not to you, Luke. You knew the real reason why she had you flogged."
"Of course," he answered testily. "Do you suppose there are any secrets between her and me?"
"But there might be a misunderstanding, Luke."
"No. You are wrong. I know, for instance, she believes that your heart is black with hate of her."
"Does she, then? What matter? I do not care. I am so tired, John, so tired."
"But is it true? Do you really hate her?"
"Oh what a fool you are!" the convict muttered wearily. "If I hated her I would have killed her long ago." His bloodshot eyes opened wide. "You ought to know that, John. Haven't I twice prevented a rebellion against your rule? Haven't I twice saved all your lives? Does she know that?"
Mrs. Sherwin's hand stole to her throat. "If you do not hate her," she said unsteadily, "you must love her, Luke."
The convict laughed grimly. "So at last you are beginning to think straight, my lad," he chuckled.
"You—love—her!" Mrs. Sherwin croaked. "Oh, how can you, how can you?—a devil like her—a devil!"
"We're all devils more or less," he sighed. "And for the devil that inhabits her I think I am responsible. But some day she will drive it out."
"When she has killed you!"
The convict smiled very softly. "Betty, darling," he whispered. "I've paid you nearly all I owe you now. I welcomed the flogging. It brought us so near the end. There only remains to die, but I would not have you kill me. That is why I fought the blacks. That is why I'm still clinging—to—to a life that I—abhor. You'd be so sorry afterwards!"
Mrs. Sherwin flushed scarlet, then went deathly pale. She leaned above him with an almost terrible expression.
"So you knew me all the while! You have been playing me!" she cried.
Nearer and nearer she stooped until she could count the very lashes on his eyelids. But then she caught her breath and drew back with an exclamation of horrified amazement, for the eyes into which she had peered so closely were covered with a film of thick, crimson ooze. While she still watched him, the lids closed again, but the lips of the convict moved. She bent to catch the trailing whispers and heard some stupid talk of Epicurus, then no more.
When she was sure he slept she mechanically arose and attended to the dying fire. Afterwards she squatted down before it and stared into the glowing mass until the dawn. As the first birds began to call to each other from the tree-tops, she roused herself as from a dream, and walked past her sleeping husband, never glancing at him, towards the forest. At the edge of the brake she met a cavalcade, headed by Morcan, with a waggon and a buggy in their train. She conversed for several minutes with her foreman, then climbed into the buggy and was driven rapidly towards Camberwell.
Morcan and his followers pursued their journey to the hut.
Sir Harry Blessington had sustained serious injuries when the grey horse threw him, and when discovered by a rancher, he was not in a condition to explain his cousin's plight. Hence the long delay in sending help from Camberwell to Monahan's Location. Mrs. Sherwin seemed fated to play the nurse. Her first news on reaching the homestead was that Sir Harry was light-headed. A messenger had been despatched to Sydney for a surgeon, but had not yet returned, and the household was in a chaos of confusion and anxiety. Mrs. Sherwin easily restored her frightened servants to order, but it was a task of real difficulty to compose the baronet's delirium. His reason seemed to have been unhinged by his fall. For hours his screams continued to fill the house, and it was necessary to strap him to his bed.
Mrs. Sherwin was on the point of a collapse herself when finally the surgeon came upon the scene, and his report on Sir Harry's state was not encouraging—a broken collar bone and some obscure brain trouble excited by an occipital concussion.
The doctor feared brain fever, he said, but he hoped that the chloral might dissipate the symptoms. Mrs. Sherwin would have dearly liked some chloral, too, but her private stock had run out and she was ashamed to levy on her visitor. As soon as she could contrive, she withdrew to her own sanctum and indulged in the luxury of a hot bath. What an expedition! she reflected, as she lay in the stimulating tub. Two of her best horses had been killed, her cousin's life and reason were both threatened, and it was very doubtful if the convict Mark Seldon would not perish. Better in every way if she had not taken Sir Harry into her confidence, but had waited quietly and patiently for just another week or two. In that case there need not have been any bother at all, for Providence and the blacks had been industriously serving her. And she had simply interposed to upset their handiwork. Mrs. Sherwin entertained these impious reflections with a deliberate and impish irony, but she could not altogether cheat herself.
Deep in her heart she was aware of a singing spirit that sustained her tired faculties. And the burden of its song was this: The whole world may pass away, but he will live and you will live, and nothing else matters vitally beside the fact that you have saved him. Yet she mocked the song and the inmost meaning of the song with cruel thoughts which she told herself were resolutions. Truly, she had saved him, but not for grace. She had snatched him from the grave in order to prolong his punishment and feed a hunger for revenge that never would be glutted. Aye, and that was her true motive in riding Black Beauty to death. Not to save Harry Blessington from murder, but to preserve for herself a victim whose destruction would desolate the central purpose of her being. Wait a bit, and she would teach her convict husband to regard his bad days in the past as Elysium compared with what the future had in store for him. He had fought her with a weapon of submission. Well, well. She would break it in his grasp and rob him of his fortitude. He loved her still! She had it from the lips of his unconsciousness. She would use that knowledge cunningly to flagellate his soul as already she had flogged his body—this low-born cutpurse who had dared to wive a Blessington!
In the evening Morcan came to her for fresh instructions. Gravely she listened to his report. Mark Seldon had been housed in the infirmary and carefully attended by the Sydney surgeon. He had been washed and bandaged, and was now sensible. The wound in his thigh was severe, but, strange to say, it showed clean and healthy, whereas the more trifling scratch in his side had mortified and must be scarified upon the morrow. His eyes, however, constituted the worst danger. They had been infected with some occult poison, and he might, perhaps, lose his sight.
"Go blind!" cried Mrs. Sherwin.
"Yes madam. The doctor thinks it more than probable."
Mrs. Sherwin shaded her own eyes with her hand. She found Morcan's glance rather trying. The impertinent fellow should be corrected.
"Morcan," she said quietly, "is it a fact that on two separate occasions during my occupancy of Camberwell the convict servants under your command plotted an insurrection?"
Morcan started. "Why, madam," he began, but she cut him sternly short.
"Yes or no, please, Morcan?"
"Yes, madam. But the plots came to naught. It was easy to suppress them. The ringleaders were on each occasion returned to the Government."
"May I ask why I was not informed?" Her tone was dangerously sweet.
"I wished to spare you a perfectly unnecessary alarm, madam. These things are to be looked for on all convict stations, and it is part of my business to deal with them. If either had been serious I should have promptly communicated with you."
"Had Seldon anything to do with them?"
"His conduct, madam, has always been exemplary, as I have frequently assured you. He rendered the first conspiracy abortive without my interference by persuading his fellows to treat the agitators with contempt, and on the second occasion he assisted actively in quenching the incipient mutiny."
"Oh, but suppose, instead of hindering the agitators, he had helped them. I have heard that he has an extraordinary influence with the hands."
"In that case, madam, it is not likely that I should be conversing with you here to-night."
"It was a plot, then, to murder you?"
"It miscarried, madam."
"Be frank with me, Morcan. You owe this man your life?"
Morcan shrugged his shoulders. "In a sense, madam, we all owe our lives to him. The rascals proposed a general holocaust. But it is easy to plan and hard to execute. They are expiating their black intrigue now at Norfolk Island. It is only fair to myself to inform you, madam, that his Excellency the Governor practically directed me not to trouble you with this business, and I can assure you positively that there is not now a man on the station capable of designing another such attempt."
Mrs. Sherwin nodded. "It appears I must absolve you," she observed. "But I'd have you remember hereafter that I am mistress here, not the Governor, and I must request that you will never again assume a discretion to spare my feelings."
"Very good, madam."
"Now as to the man Seldon."
"I desire that his sight should be preserved, if possible. You will kindly, therefore, engage the doctor to remain at Camberwell for the present, and you will also send at once to Sydney for a female nurse."
"That will do, Morcan."
Morcan bowed and left the room. Mrs. Sherwin spent an hour in earnest thought and then sent for the manager again.
"Mr. Morcan," she said, "while I was waiting for help at Monahan's Gap I chanced to enter the convict Seldon's hut. I found on the floor a pistol. How did it pass into Seldon's possession?"
"I gave it to madam."
"You gave it to him, sir? For what purpose?"
"In case he should be attacked by the aboriginals."
"Apparently you saved his life, Morcan," she observed after a pause.
"He saved mine, madam."
She nodded. "That is what I am coming to. Exactly how did he save your life?"
Morcan raised his eyebrows, for he could not understand her curiosity. "About three months ago, madam, as you may remember, a fire broke out at midnight in the threshing barn——"
"I heard the alarm, but I was told it was a trifle by yourself. I hailed you from my window."
"The fire itself was of no consequence, madam. But it had a purpose—to tempt me into the power of the conspirators. They had set a trap for me, and the fire was both a lure and a signal. I was foolish enough to be caught unarmed. Five desperadoes were waiting in ambush behind the tool-house, and, as I hurried past, they set upon me. Taken unawares, I was overcast at the first rush, and before I could cry out many knives were at my throat. Seldon, however, had suspected the affair, and he was in ambush, too, fortunately not too far off to serve me. In the nick of time he came to my assistance. That is all, madam."
"One against five, Morcan? And he overcame them. It sounds incredible!"
"Seldon is a man of unusual strength, madam. He had taken the precaution, moreover, to carry a stout baton."
"Was anybody injured?"
"There were some broken heads, madam, but I escaped unscathed, and Seldon with a cut or two. In five minutes we had all the rascals safe in the lockup. I sent them to Sydney before sunrise."
"They were tried, I suppose."
"One was hanged, madam; the others were despatched to Norfolk Island."
"And so that was why you trusted Seldon with a pistol?"
"One of the reasons, madam."
"You had another?"
"May I know them?"
"I had conducted his flogging——"
"And thought, perhaps, he might be flogged again."
Mrs. Sherwin knitted her brows. "Do you know, Morcan," she cried, "I find your reasoning peculiar. Did you expect the man to use the pistol on you?"
"Madam, I thought it more probable that he might use it on himself."
For the first time in the interview they looked in each other's eyes.
"Morcan," said Mrs. Sherwin softly, "you force me to strange thoughts of you—disappointing thoughts. You are well aware why I chose you for the post you occupy."
Morcan bent his head. "So far, madam, I have served you faithfully."
"But what of the future?"
"Madam, I doubt my qualifications to continue serving you in the same way."
"At least you are honest."
Morcan shrugged his shoulders.
"You pity the man. You have grown to like him, perhaps?"
Morcan was silent.
"I await your answer, Morcan."
"I do not pity him, madam."
"You like him then?"
"It is not the proper term, madam."
"Can't you see I want the proper term? I must ask you to supply it."
"Madam," said Morcan, speaking very slowly and intently studying his hands, "he is a great man. I am told he followed once the trade of a thief. I believe he must have been a great thief. There is nothing small or petty in his composition. I have assisted in his crucifixion long enough to understand that I should be a fool to pity him. But to like a man of his character would be a puerile impertinence."
"You are still withholding the proper term, Morcan."
Morcan raised his eyes. They were curiously dull. "If I had a soul, madam, it would grovel in the dust before your husband's. When will you require my resignation?"
Mrs. Sherwin walked to the end of the room and stood for a while examining a picture on the wall. Presently she returned. "Not until he is better, Morcan," she responded equably. "It will take some time for me to secure so excellent a manager. In the meanwhile——"
"I must ask you to restrain your soul from grovelling."
"Alas, madam," said Morcan, "I have not a soul," and he left the room.
"It is a miracle," said Mrs. Sherwin, staring at the door. "A miracle! The tiger has become a human being."
In the infirmary was a low window that overlooked a little garden, the river meadows, and the creek. Beside it Seldon's bed was stretched, and, when the day came for the removal of the bandages from his eyes, the first sight he beheld was a legion of men picking hops on the sunlit reaches of the lower valley. The scene was of great beauty, and it pleased him so much that he uttered a weak protest when the nurse pulled down the curtains.
"Ah! but I must," she explained. "You have been blind so long that we should not take any risk of a relapse. Darkness will help you more than light for days to come. I want you to remember that. Did you see clearly?"
"More dimly, but my eyes no longer ache and the room is deeply shaded, is it not? You are wearing a green frock."
"You will do. I am proud of you." The nurse beamed upon him. "You are really a wonderful man, Mr. Sheldon. For weeks I never thought you would live, let alone—but then; I must not make you conceited. It is not good for a patient."
"You have been an angel to me, nurse." He spoke with deep feeling.
"Angels have wings," she sighed.
"Ah!" he exclaimed. "That means you are about to fly."
She stooped over him and re-arranged his pillow. "The buggy is waiting for me now. I am sorry to go, but I have no choice. But never mind. All danger is past, and I am sure you will soon be as strong and well as ever you were."
He caught her hand and pressed it to his lips. "I'll never forget your goodness, nurse," he whispered hoarsely. "God bless you."
The nurse did not answer, though she seemed to try. Her lips were quivering. She tip-toed in silence from the room.
Seldon lay completely motionless for several minutes, then quite suddenly he spoke. "I know you are there, John. I can feel your presence," he said quietly.
Morcan shambled from behind the head of the bed, where he had been standing, and took a seat beside the cot.
"It's good you can see so well," he muttered.
Seldon nodded. "Why has nurse been so abruptly dismissed?" he asked.
Morcan showed his teeth in a sardonic grin. "How should I know? But I expected it."
"I heard her praising you last night to Phoebe Russell, and Mrs. Sherwin heard her too. I think your wife suspects you a malingering philanderer."
"Really," said Seldon. "I ought to have been up and back at work weeks ago. I can't understand why I keep so feeble. My mind is vigorous enough, but it tires me out to lift a hand."
"You've been very near death."
"I suppose so. I wonder why she plucked me back."
"Ask the next cat you see playing with a mouse. But she will kill you yet."
Seldon smiled wearily.
"In that case, you will be helped to realise the magnitude of my offending, John. The instinct of a woman is to save life, not to destroy it. She knows what a life costs to create, for hers is the creative part; therefore she cannot experience any enjoyment in the sacrifice unless her nature is warped and her instincts perverted. And that is what I have done to Mrs. Sherwin. I have warped her nature and perverted her instincts. How can I blame her, then, if she destroys me? The world is full of justice, John."
"It holds such a thing as mercy, too."
"You have discovered that, you quaint old wolf! Tell me, John, at precisely what point in our extraordinary intercourse did you begin to pity me."
"Never!" cried the other quickly. "I've done some stupid things, but I was always incapable of that mistake."
"And yet I could have vowed——" Seldon paused. "What was it, then?" he questioned presently, "if it was not pity?"
"Bah!" said Morcan. "Give it any name you please but pity. One does not pity a man who finds his best happiness in passively receiving hurts. As soon as I perceived your game, my impulse was to baulk it, not to pity you. I sent you to the orchard—do you remember?"
"Yes, yes. And afterwards?"
"You saved my life."
"But you hated me for that, John?"
"Only for a month or two."
"John," cried the convict, "was it shame?"
Morcan turned away his face. "That was it," he said. "I grew ashamed of hitting a man who refused to strike back. It's a damnable thing, shame. It has undermined my character. I'm not the man I was. I am getting old. I feel a failure. I wish to God I had never seen you, Luke."
Morcan stood up. "Really, Luke. You see—I'm drifting. My anchor chains have parted. More than once I've been tempted to strangle—somebody. To get back into the old groove I'd do almost anything."
"You'd waste your efforts, John."
"Then why not shape another course? The old way was not the best."
"I know that, too."
"I'd help you if I could."
"You ought. You set my ship adrift." Morcan laughed harshly and strode off, but, almost immediately, he turned back. "I forgot," he said, "to tell you she has gone to Sydney. She will be a week away, and she expects you to be out of the infirmary when she returns. You have malingered long enough, my friend. We are short of field hands. Good day to you."
Mrs. Sherwin went to Sydney to arrange for her cousin to sail in the Medusa. Sir Harry was to make the voyage in charge of a specially-engaged physician, for he had not yet recovered from the injuries sustained when he was thrown from his horse on the road from Monahan's Location. He had been severely hurt internally, and neither in mind nor body was he well. It was, however, his weak mental condition that caused Mrs. Sherwin to insist on his return to London, since, for that, no proper treatment was available in Sydney. She kept her own counsel on the matter, but she feared for his reason, and she felt that she would know no peace until he sailed. On the seventh day she travelled back to Camberwell, carrying within her bosom a formidable sealed parchment which the Governor, at a private interview, had put into her hands. Morcan waited on her as soon as she had dined.
"Well," she said. "Don't beat about the bush, please. How is he?"
"Yesterday and to-day Seldon has been picking hops, madam. But he is still located at the infirmary. I thought it best."
She glanced at the clock. "I wish to see him to-night. Bring him here at nine o'clock. He is abed no doubt, but he should not require half an hour to dress."
"Very good, madam."
A few minutes later he was shaking the convict by the shoulders. "Up and dress, man," he commanded grimly. "The hell-cat wants you. She is impatient."
Seldon languidly arose. "It has come sooner than I thought," he said. He put on his rough garments and smoothed his hair. "Luckily I shaved this morning. How tragical you look, John! Why?"
Morcan clenched his hands. "I have seen her," he answered. "She wears a court robe and the expression of a starved leopard. Luke, you are going to your fate. My flesh is creeping. She has some monstrous master card to play. I can feel it in my bones."
The convict shook his head. "There is nothing in me that says 'At last'," he responded dreamily; "and I am generally warned. But we should not keep her waiting, John."
Arm in arm, they took the homestead path and crossed the square, entering the house from the servants' quarters at the rear. Morcan guided the convict through several passages into the main hall, where a waiting maid informed them Mrs. Sherwin occupied the library.
Morcan knocked and opened. Mrs. Sherwin sat before a writing table reading a book.
"I have brought the man you wished to see, madam," announced Morcan.
"Thank you, Morcan. Kindly send him in, and await me in my office."
"Seldon," said Morcan.
The convict stepped forward, and crossed the threshold. Morcan retired, and closed the door behind him. His face was dark with passion as he stalked away. He had wished to be present at that interview, and he could not spy for, as though a secret signal had been given, servants thronged the hall.
In the library a heavy silence reigned. The convict stood in the middle of the floor gazing at the woman he had wronged so terribly; and the woman, who had so terribly avenged herself, sat moveless in her chair regarding him. Not even on her wedding morn had she decked herself with greater care. She wore a gown of shimmering white satin, and jewels clasped her throat and wrists which sparkled almost angrily. Her bosom and her arms were bare. No princess could have looked more proud and lovely and serene.
The convict also was serene enough, but his face was paler than his frosted hair, and his eyes were as dull as hers were shining.
"I desire you," she said at length, "to be seated at this table, opposite to me."
He bowed, and took the indicated chair; but he did not look at her again. His eyes were on the table studying a little pot of pumice.
She waited for a time, then once more spoke. "Have you anything to say to me?"
"No appeal to make?"
"No complaint to proffer?"
"I may take it, then, you are a satisfied, a happy man?"
He bent his head.
"That you are well content to keep on living in your present state?"
"If you please—Elizabeth."
"Ah, do not call me that," she said, a trace of passion in her voice.
"I beg your pardon, madam."
"Look at me!" she commanded presently. "I am here to see you and be seen. You shall not veil your eyes."
He did as he was bid.
"Always obedient," she sneered. "Always the perfect victim, the accomplished martyr. Meek, submissive, and subservient."
"Always—to you," he answered with a ghostly smile.
"Ask me a question?" she ordered.
"Are you happy?" he responded.
"No. A thousand times, no," she said. "And shall I tell you why?"
"If it would please you."
"The practice of revenge has ceased to entertain me since I knew you for a craven, Mr. Sherwin."
"But that is my smallest trouble."
"My cousin, Sir Harry Blessington, is seriously ill. The doctors have ordered him to London, and he sails next week. I would go with him."
"You would go with him, madam?"
"It is my dearest wish. I must go, I shall go."
"Does aught prevent you, madam?"
She leaned a little towards him.
"You live," she said. "I cannot marry while you live, and I cannot go to London till I marry."
He did not flinch or alter his expression. "I begin to understand," he said.
"Well," she sneered, "I have tried to make you understand. What then?"
"You should have left me at Monahan's, madam."
Her lip curled. "Sir Harry rode out there to murder you. I followed to save him from a crime. We found you dead already, as we thought; and so we succored you. Fortune has played me many scurvy tricks, but none as mean as that."
"You have some plan to propose to me, I think," observed the convict.
"I want my liberty," she flashed.
"To marry your cousin?"
"To marry whom I please."
"You want my death," he murmured thoughtfully.
"What a thing it is to be intelligent!" she jibed. "Yes, I want your death. You see this goblet. It is filled with a good wine and it holds in settlement some crystals of eternal sleep. You see that paper. I would have you write on it a farewell message saying how you stole a powder from the medicine chest in the infirmary—it would avoid trouble at the inquest afterwards. Will you write?"
"Of course." Without an instant's hesitation the convict took the paper and caught up a pen. He wrote rapidly for a few moments, then signed his name, and offered her the sheet.
"I think that should do," he said.
Mrs. Sherwin read what he had written, twice and carefully.
"It will do perfectly," she admitted at last. "You appear to have thought of everything, and it reads like truth. This would wipe off much of your account with me. But you have still to square the ledger." She pointed to the wine glass.
The convict took the goblet and raised it to the light. Mrs. Sherwin was unable to detect the slightest trembling in his hand. "I drink," he said, "to the obliteration from your memory of the records of this hour—so that you may never know remorse."
He bowed to her, and drained the glass, and set it down. "Does anything remain?" he asked.
"Only that you lend me your company for another quarter-hour."
"And I am sure you have a good reason," he suggested.
"You have taken a poison that works slowly, Mr. Sherwin. There are emetics and other antidotes in the infirmary."
The convict's eyes forthwith began to twinkle, and his impassivity to melt and change. A moment, and his every feature was alight with humor. He leaned back in his chair, and laughed as gaily as a carefree lad of twenty. Mrs. Sherwin watched him with a face of stone.
"At what are you laughing?" she demanded presently, in tones of ice.
He made shift to control himself, but tears of mirth were in his eyes as he replied: "I am a boor, madam; but your inveterate doubts are as ludicrous as your thoroughness and attention to detail are to be admired. I shall, however, endeavor to be courteous—for fifteen minutes. May I assume that, by then, my case will be beyond the reach of an emetic?"
"And will the end be painless, madam?"
"You will simply fall asleep."
He bowed to her. "You have been too merciful, too kind," he answered with a brilliant smile. "You have deprived yourself of that service which I should most willingly have tendered you."
"You suggest I am a sort of fiend," she retorted cuttingly.
"On the contrary," he answered, with a sudden sternness, "I admit the wrong I did you unatonable. Even yet I cannot feel the ledger squared. I could almost wish that you had sentenced me to die in pain."
Her eyes sparkled. "You still feel in my debt?"
"You can discharge it absolutely if you will."
"Then, for God's sake, tell me how. Time is passing. Passing, do I say? It races!"
"Listen!" she said, and leaned across the table that she might not miss a shade of his expression. "You have made Morcan, out of an iron taskmaster, a friend, and something more. Were you a woman I would say he worshipped you. Yet this maddens me, he has plagued you at my orders, but he does not pity you! Read me that riddle and I'll cry the last account betwixt us fully closed. Tell me why he does not pity you?"
"Morcan is a man of rare intelligence. That is the secret—Betty."
Mrs. Sherwin shivered at the name and frowned. "You must explain," she said intensely. "You must make me understand."
The convict gave a sigh. "I shall tell you if you wish—but I warn you, understanding will be very like to spoil the savor of your long revenge."
"Nevertheless, I command you to make me understand."
The convict sighed again, and his gaze was lowered to the table. "Why, it is very simple after all," he said. "He does not pity me because he knows there never was a need; and he has a thrifty mind. One does not waste pity on a man for the gaining of his heart's desire."
"And would you have me believe," whispered Mrs. Sherwin, "that you gained your heart's desire at Camberwell?"
"Every now and then—some part of it." His voice, like hers, had fallen to an underbreath.
"What was it then?"
"A man who cares much for a woman," he answered huskily, "is very like a dog, madam. If he cannot be caressed by the hand he cherishes he would rather have it beat him than be stroked or fondled by any other hand."
Mrs. Sherwin drew back slowly till she sat erect again. There was a look of horror in her eyes, and her face had lost its color.
"So you did not bow to justice, Luke? There was no motive of atonement in your service?"
"The wrong I did you could not be atoned."
"Not by years of brutish toiling in the fields?"
"They were your fields, Betty."
"Not with strokes and stripes procured by lies? I have heard you scream."
"A whipped cur will always whine, Betty; but he licks his cruellest master's hand."
"Luke; look at me!"
The convict raised his eyes.
"You cared for me, like that?" she asked.
His smile was full of cheerful self-contempt. "Just like a dog," he said. "Just like a dog."
"And I have poisoned you!" she said. "See! The time has run out. No human power can save you now."
She pointed to the clock.
The convict immediately arose. "It is time for me to go?" But, as he spoke, a fit of yawning seized him. "Why," he said. "I think—I must have stayed too long. I—I—by gad! I'm dizzy—I——"
Mrs. Sherwin flew to his side. "Let me help you. Take my arm!" He was rocking like a drunken man. "That couch!" she cried. "Quickly, quickly!"
Half led, half supported, he stumbled to the sofa and sank upon it heavily and helplessly.
"Better call Morcan," he muttered with an effort. "Never do to die here, never do at all—nev—never——"
But the drug had already overpowered him. His head tottered, his eyes closed, and he fell back on the cushions breathing sonorously.
"I MIGHT be excused," whispered the convict to himself, "for supposing this a dream."
He was lying in a luxurious bed in the middle of a large and prettily-appointed room into which the sunlight streamed through two windows that were draped with dainty hangings of the pinkest dimity. His roving glances apprehended some hunting pictures on the walls, a Chippendale table covered with triplex shaving mirrors that stood midway between the windows, a huge walnut cabinet, and a rack of arms. There was also a great brass-bound chest, an open fireplace, and an arched alcove hung with purple curtains.
"I can't be dead," he reflected. "I have a villainous headache, and my mouth is like a lime-kiln. Hullo!" he cried aloud, "what's this?" He had turned his head, by chance, to find beside his bed a table set with cup and saucer and a platter of thin slices of buttered bread, a jug of cream, a bowl of sugar, and a big pot of freshly-brewed tea.
In a second he was up and pouring out a cup of the refreshing beverage. He swallowed his first cup black; to the second he added some cream and sugar, but he drank it nigh as hastily.
"Ugh!" he grunted. "Lime-kilns are not in it," and he poured a third. Presently he fell into a fit of silent laughter—having made another and a quite ridiculous discovery. He was clad in a nightgown of the finest cambric with an embroidered collar and deeply ruffled sleeves. The big mirror opposite was his monitor. It showed him a figure so absurd that he had to bite his lips to refrain from shouting forth his merriment.
His fourth cup of tea both satisfied his mirth and emptied the pot. "What next?" he muttered. "I'm not going back to bed. It must be after ten o'clock. But where are my clothes?"
He toured the room, but found no sign of his old garments. He tried the door. It was locked. He shook his head and marched over to the alcove. Behind the curtains was a bath tub half filled with warm water, a rack of towels, and a small table furnished with sponges, soap, and toilet powder. "One thing at a time!" he gasped. "It's a game of hide and seek, that's clear."
He let the curtain fall, tore off his gown, and stepped into the tub. Ten minutes later he ventured to peep back into the bedroom. It was as he had supposed. His bed was spread with clothes. He stepped into the room whistling gently, to warn his unseen servitor. But he whistled more sharply a moment afterwards to blow off the steam of his own astonishment, for the clothes upon the bed were those of a gentleman, not a convict. But he did not hesitate to put them on—he recognised them all. They had been made for himself by a London tailor five long years ago. He dressed slowly, thinking busily and trying to think. As he took up the coat a paper fluttered from it to the floor. He put on the coat and picked up the paper. "This might explain," he muttered. It was a sealed paper; a legal document. It bore the signature of the Governor and the arms of the English Crown. He read it, with stopped breath—drinking in its purport dazedly. It was a pardon, and it made him a free citizen, conditional upon his residing permanently in New South Wales. This as a reward for his "gallant conduct" in saving the life of one John Morcan, and averting an insurrection of assigned servants at the homestead of Camberwell.
Luke Sherwin read it twice. Then he nodded, folded up the paper, and put it in his pocket. He walked over to the toilet table and brushed his hair. "Upon my soul I look quite distinguished with my frosted poll," he said aloud. "Don't you think so, Betty?" At the name, the door of the great walnut cabinet opened wide, and Mrs. Sherwin stepped into the room. Her action showed the cabinet was not a cabinet at all, but a sham; for the thing was merely a shell masking a second door which admitted to another apartment.
"I think you look—splendid," said Mrs. Sherwin.
He deliberately put down the brushes and deliberately turned to face her. She was trembling like a reed; her eyes were tightly closed; and both hands were pressed to her heart.
"Oh! quickly, quickly," she sighed. "What is it to be?"
"Little fool," he said, not moving from his place. "So you really believed the lie I told you that day in Bidewell?"
"Yes. Yes. I believed it, Luke. You know that I believed it. You made me believe it. You wanted me to believe it."
"I wanted you to act sensibly—to divorce me, to forget me, to start your life anew—not to become a cross between a Borgia and a Messalina."
"It was a crime to tell me such a falsehood knowing, as you did, how I adored you."
"It would have been a greater crime not to try and kill your foolish fondness for a scoundrel!"
"You perverted me." Tears streamed down her cheeks. "I became a devil—a fury. Oh! my God—how I hated you."
He smiled grimly. "And all because of the first decent thing I ever did! And now you love your cousin, Blessington?"
"Luke! How dare you say such a thing?" Her eyes opened wide, and she gazed, at him reproachfully.
"You said so?"
"I never did. I said you prevented me going to England with him. I was testing you."
"Where is he?"
"He sailed on Friday."
"Betty, do you mean to tell me——" He broke off, pale and stammering.
"I have never ceased to care," she muttered weepfully. "I behaved so vilely to you just because I had to; because you made me believe you married me for my money. You could have robbed churches and murdered babies and I wouldn't have cared a bit. But you told me to my face you had never cared a damn for me—that day in Bidewell."
Luke Sherwin strode forward put a hand on each side of his wife's waist. "Those were your very words," she said.
"And so you followed me to Botany Bay and made my life a double hell."
"Yes, I did," she said, defiantly.
"And made me slave in the fields, and had me flogged, flogged!"
"Yes, I did."
"And you'd do it again? You don't repent a bit."
"I'd murder you!" she cried between her teeth.
Suddenly he picked her up and tossed her high into the air as though she were a feather.
But as she fell he crushed her to his breast in a fierce, bear-like hug. And though he hurt her sorely, Elizabeth Sherwin uttered never a complaint.
This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia