'Tell him it is too late, but I am grateful all the same—very, very grateful.'
'Yes, yes. Come. You are weary; you'll be stronger to-morrow an' braver.'
He led her away, and they walked across the flat and through the paddock in silence. It seemed to Harry that she had forgotten their avowals of love. Her attitude frightened him, he dreaded lest she should be on the eve of a serious illness; he had sore misgivings and tortured himself with many doubts. Her words rang in his head with damnable iteration: 'I deceived them all. I lied to every body.'
Maori welcomed them under the firs, capering heavily and putting himself very much in the way, but with the best intentions. Summers came to the verandah and greeted Chris with warmth.
'Eli, but ye're pale, lassie,' he said, having drawn her into the light.
'Take her in,' whispered Harry; 'she's quite worn out.'
'Will ye no come in yersel'?'
'No, no, thanks. Come back here, Mr. Summers; I want to speak to you.'
Summers led the girl into the house and returned after a few moments.
'What's happened tae the girl? She's not herself at all,' he said.
'Her father's been taken.'
'Ay, have they got him? Weel, 'twas sure to be.'
''Twas she who hid him, but he went light-headed with some sickness, an' the police came down on him. She feels it awfully, poor girl, being alone in a way.'
'Not alone, not while Jock Summers moves an' has his bein'.'
Harry had been fishing for this. He knew the man, and that his simple word meant as much as if it had been chiselled deep in marble.
'Good night,' he said, throwing out an impetuous hand. While he hastened away under the trees Summers stood upon the door-sill, gazing after him, ruefully shaking the tingling fingers of his right hand.
Harry returned to the skillion and loitered about for ten minutes without discovering anything of Dick Haddon, but at the expiration of that time Dick stole out of the darkness and approached him with an affectation of the greatest unconcern. His greeting was very casual, and he followed it with a fishing inquiry intended to discover if the young man knew anything of Christina's whereabouts.
'Never mind, Dick, old man,' said Harry kindly, 'it's all UP.'
'All up?' cried Dick.
'Yes, I know why you went to Yarraman; but it's been a wasted journey, Dick. Shine was arrested a couple of hours ago, an' she's broken hearted.'
Dick received the news in silence, and they walked homewards together.
'What'll I do with this?' asked Dick at Hardy's gate, producing a parcel from under his vest.
'Hide it away, an' keep it dark. Not a word must be said to hurt her.'
'Good,' answered the boy. 'I know a cunnin' holler tree. So long, Harry.'
'So long, mate.'
Dick liked the word mate; it touched him nearly with its fine hint of equality and community of interests; it seemed to suit their romantic conspiracy, too, and sent him away with a little glow of pride in his heart.
When Harry re-entered his own home he found his mother seated as he had left her. She arose and approached him, placing a hand on either shoulder.
'Well, my boy?'
'You have seen her?'
'Yes. I've taken her to the homestead. She is dazed. It seems as if she no longer cared.'
'It will pass, Henry.'
'You think my love will pass?'
'All this seeming great trouble.'
'It'll pass, mother, if she comes back to me; never unless.'
'The sins of the fathers,' sighed Mrs. Hardy as he turned from her to his own room, like a wounded animal seeking darkness. 'The sins of the fathers.'
NEXT morning all Waddy knew of the arrest, and it was felt that the game was nearly played out. Dick's confession was published in the same issue of the Yarraman Mercury and public opinion in the township had decided against the searcher in spite of his long and faithful service as teacher and superintendent. The murder theory was reluctantly abandoned.
Harry Hardy called at the homestead to inquire after Chris before going to work, and was told that she was much rested but not yet up. At dinner-time he heard that she had been driven into Yarraman by Jock Summers to be near her father; the fact that she had left him without a word or a line seemed to confirm his worst suspicion, and again her words, 'I deceived them all. I lied to everybody,' returned to mock him. Harry had no quality of patience: he was impetuous, a fighter, not a waiter on fortune; but here was nothing to fight, and in his desperation he did battle on the hard ground.
They had cut the dyke in the new shaft at a shallower depth than Dick's Mount of Gold drive, and here Harry expended those turbulent emotions that welled within him, working furiously. Whether handling pick or shovel, toiling at the windlass, or ringing the heavy hammer on the drill, he wrought with a feverish energy that amazed his mates, who ascribed it all to an excusable but rather insane anxiety to test the value of their mine in the mill. For their part they were very well satisfied with the golden prospects, and quite content to 'go slow' in the certain hope of early affluence.
The next important piece of news the Mercury had to offer referred to Ephraim Shine, who had recovered consciousness in the gaol hospital but was declared to be dying from an old ailment. Steps were to be taken to secure his dying deposition. On the Saturday morning came the information that Shine was dead, and with this came the full text of his deposition—a complete confession, setting forth his crimes and those of Joe Rogers without reservation, and completely exonerating Frank Hardy. Rogers and Shine had been working together to rob the mine for two years. Their apparent hostility was a blind to deceive the people. They had conspired to fix the crime upon Frank at Rogers' suggestion, for the reason that his vigilance was making it unsafe for the faceman to continue his thefts, and because they hoped his conviction would arrest the growing suspicions. Shine agreed, for these reasons, and because he cherished a desire to marry Mrs. Haddon and found Hardy in the way. For a long time the pair had been content with such gold as Rogers could hide about his clothes, but his discovery of the big nugget, which he hid in the drive, gave them the idea of attempting robbery on a large scale, and for weeks Rogers had hidden such gold as he could lay his hands on in holes in the muddy floor of the workings, to be carried away when opportunity offered via the Red Hand laddershaft. That was to have been their last venture together, and Shine had intended to induce Mrs. Haddon to marry him, and then to take her away somewhere where he was unknown, and where it would have been possible to sell the gold in small parcels without exciting suspicion. Rogers had hidden the gold in Frank Hardy's boot, and Shine salted his washdirt on the creek with Silver Stream gold, and the slug he pretended to take from Frank's crib bag was hidden in the palm of his hand when he took up the faceman's billy from the floor of the searching shed.
Joe Rogers appeared before the bench of magistrates at Yarraman on the following Monday. Harry and Dick were in attendance as witnesses; Chris was also present in court, and there Harry saw her for the first time since the night of Shine's arrest. She sat beside Mrs. Summers, a stout, grey, motherly woman, and was dressed in deep mourning. Harry thought she had never looked so beautiful. But how changed she was from the simple gentle girl of a few days back! She sat as she did when he found her in the skillion after her father had been taken, with intent eyes bent upon the floor. When called upon to give her evidence she gave it clearly and fully, in a firm distinct voice, like a person without interest or feeling. She seemed to have no desire to shield the character of her father, but told the whole truth respecting him, and left the Court with her companion immediately on being informed that her services were no longer required, so that Harry was unable to speak with her. This was a bitter blow to him; he believed that she was taking precautions to avoid him, and saw in that action further reason for his suspicion that her declaration of affection had been a mistake or perhaps a deliberate deception. 'I deceived them all. I lied to everybody,' she said. The young man stiffened himself with chill comfortless pride, and made no effort to seek her out. He loved her, he told himself, but was no whimpering fool to abase himself at the feet of a woman who was careless, or might be even worse—pitiful.
Joe Rogers reserved his defence and was committed to stand his trial at the forthcoming sessions in about a fortnight's time, charged with gold-stealing, wounding Harry Hardy, and shooting at Trooper Casey.
Harry returned to his work. He made no further calls at the homestead to inquire after Christina, but heard from Dick that she had not returned to Waddy, but was staying in Yarraman till after the trial. Mrs. Haddon expressed an opinion that the poor girl felt the disgrace of her position keenly, and dreaded to face the people of the township where her father had been accepted as a shining light for so many years, and where she had always commanded respect and affection.
As the time for the trial approached Harry found himself hungering for a sight of her face again. Pride and common-sense were no weapons with which to fight love. At best they afforded only a poor disguise behind which a man might hide his sufferings from the scoffers.
The trial occupied two days. The prisoner was defended by a clever young lawyer from Melbourne, who fought every point pertinaciously and strove with all his energy and knowledge and cunning to represent Joe Rogers as the victim of circumstances and Ephraim Shine—especially Ephraim Shine—who was a monster of blackened iniquity, capable of a diabolical astuteness in the pursuit of his criminal intentions. The story of the boy Haddon was absolutely false in representing Rogers as having assisted in the theft of the gold produced. The boy was a creature of Shine's; that was obvious on the face of his evidence and the evidence of Miss Shine and Detective Downy. Shine had had the lad in his toils, otherwise why had he taken such precautions to shield the man, and why had he given him warning of the approach of the troopers? Rogers' story was entirely credible, he said. It was to the effect that Shine had confessed to him that he had robbed the mine of a quantity of gold and had been robbed in turn by the boy Haddon, who was his real accomplice. He solicited the aid of the unfortunate prisoner to recover the treasure, and offered him half the gold as a reward. The prisoner was tempted and he fell. His action towards the boy at the Piper Mine was taken merely to induce him to disclose the whereabouts of the lost booty, and the shooting at Trooper Casey was an accident. Rogers had acted on blind and unreasoning impulse in snatching up the gun on the approach of the police, believing his complicity with Shine in the effort to recover the hidden loot had come to light, and the discharge of the weapon was purely involuntary.
To give an air of plausibility to this plea it was necessary to represent Ephraim Shine in the worst possible light, and that conscientious and hard-working young lawyer spared no pains on his own part or the part of the dead man's daughter to make every point that would tell for his client; but Chris was not more moved than at the preliminary investigation. She told the truth simply, and no effort on the part of the barrister could shake her evidence or break through the unnatural calm in which she appeared to have enveloped herself. Harry saw her several times during the course of the trial, and found a desolate anguish in her white immobile face, that stirred up in his heart again a fury against fate, the law, and every force and condition that added the smallest pang to her sorrow. If he could have only interposed his body between her and all this trouble it would have been keen joy to him to have felt raining upon his flesh, with heavy material blows, the shafts directed against her tender heart; but his strength was of no avail, he could think of nothing that he might do but take that insolent lawyer by the throat and choke him on the floor of the Court. He was helpless to do any thing but love her, and every sight of her, every thought of her, added fuel to his passion.
She went to him once outside the Court with out stretched hands and swimming eyes, murmuring inarticulate words, and he understood that, she meant to thank him for the efforts he had made to spare her in his evidence on the previous day. In truth she bad been touched by the change in him, and she, too, was fighting with her love a harder battle than his.
'I'm sorry for you, Chris,' he said, 'but time will heal all this, never fear.'
She gazed at him and slowly shook her head.
'Never, Harry,' she said.
'It will, it will!' he persisted. 'Chris, you're coming back after it's all over?'
'Yes,' she said, 'I must.'
'An' you've not forgotten?'
'No, Harry, I have not forgotten anything.' There was a strain of firmness in her voice that jarred him, and he looked at her sharply; but her face gave him no comfort. A moment later she was joined by Mrs. Summers and another friend, and he left her, his heart unsatisfied, his mind shaken with doubts and perplexities.
Joe Rogers was found guilty and sentenced to twelve years' hard labour. Close upon eight hundred ounces of gold were handed over to the Silver Stream Company, and the Company, 'in recognition of the valuable services of Master Richard Haddon,' presented him with a gold watch and chain—which for many months after was a source of ceaseless worry to his little mother, who firmly believed that its fame must have inspired every burglar and miscellaneous thief in Victoria with an unholy longing to possess it, was continually devising new hiding-places for the treasure, and arose three or four times a night to at tack hypothetical marauders.
Returning from school at dinner-time on the day following, Dick found Frank Hardy sitting in the parlour holding his mother's hand. Mrs. Hardy and Harry were also there, and a few people were loitering about the front, having called to congratulate Frank Hardy on his release; for Frank had been given a free pardon in the Queen's name for the crimes it was now known he had never committed.
Dick found Frank looking older and graver, much more like his mother, whom he resembled in disposition too. He greeted the boy quietly but with evident feeling.
'It seems I owe my liberty to your devilment, old boy,' he said later.
Dick was beginning to find the role of hero rather wearisome, and would gladly have returned to his old footing with the people of Waddy, but there was nevertheless a good deal of satisfaction in appearing as a person of importance in the eyes of the Hardies, and he accepted the implied gratitude without any excess of uneasiness.
'Well, I've got to pay you out, my lad,' Frank continued. 'Your mother has been foolish enough to promise to be my wife, and that will place me in the responsible position of father to the most ungovernable young scamp in Christendom; and one of the conditions your mother makes is that I am to prevent you from saving any more lives and reputations. What do you think of that?'
'Oh, you'll make a rippin' father,' said Dick. That'll be all right.'
'Good. Then it's settled. We have your consent?'
Dick nodded gravely.
'Thanks for your confidence,' said Frank laughing. 'I think you'll find me a fairly good sort as step-fathers go.'
Dick had no fears whatever on that point; he and Frank had been excellent friends for as long as he could remember, and Frank had been his champion in many semi-public disagreements about billy-goats; and besides, he was a reader whose judgment the boy held in the highest respect, and that counted for a great deal.
The boy had a message for Harry, and delivered it with great secrecy at the earliest opportunity.
'She's back at Summers's, Harry,' he whispered. 'She gave Kitty a letter to give to me to give you.'
Harry tore the envelope with trembling impatient hands. It contained only a short note: 'Will you come to me at the gate under the firs to-night at eight?' and was coldly signed, 'Your true friend,
HARRY awaited the approach of evening with burning impatience, and his heart was lighter than it had been for weeks. He thought that now the distraction induced by her father's danger, his arrest and his death, and the subsequent trials had departed, he would find her with a clear mind and responsive to his love, and it would be his pride and joy to teach her to forget her troubles and to make her happy. Harry, who up to the time of meeting Chris after his return to Waddy, had been even more unromantic and lacking in poetry than the average bush native, had, under the influence of his passion, evolved a strong vein of both romance and poesy; and the sudden development of this unknown side of his nature induced novel sensations. He thought of his previous self almost as a stranger, for whom he felt some sentiment of pity not untouched with contempt, and even when hope was feeblest he hugged his love and brooded over it secretly with the devotion of a tender girl.
He was at the trysting-place a quarter of an hour before the time appointed, but Christina was already there. Her greeting chilled and subdued him. He went towards her, smiling, elate, with eager arms, calling her name; she put him back with extended hands.
'No, no, Harry; not that,' she said, and he noticed in her voice the strength of some resolution, the firmness that had jarred upon him when last they met.
'Not that!' he repeated. Chris, you love me. For God's sake say it! You have said it. You told me so, an' it was true—oh, my darling, it was true!
He could see her distinctly: she stood in a shaft of moonlight falling between the sombre firs, and her face was marble-like; her whole pose was statuesque, all the girlish gentleness of the other days seemed to have fled from her, and her hour of tribulation had invested her with a dignity and force of will that sat well upon her stately figure. Harry beheld her with something like terror. This was not the woman he loved. His cause had never seemed so utterly hopeless as now, and yet he felt that it was not the true Chris with whom he was dealing; that the true Chris was the soft-eyed clinging girl safely enshrined in his heart.
'Chris,' he said, 'you have changed—but you'll come to me again?'
Her face was turned towards him; she shook her head with passionless decision.
'No, Harry,' she answered, 'that is all past. I sent for you to tell you that we must forget.'
'Forget!' he cried, springing forward and seizing her hand, 'how can I forget? Can a man forget that he loves?'
'You will forget. It is better, and you will live to be glad that you did.'
'Never, never! Chris, what do you mean? Why're you talking to me of forgetting—why, why?'
'Because I know in my heart that it must be. I came here to tell you so, to ask you to waste no more thought on me.'
'You do not care for me, then. Is that what you mean?'
She gave him no answer, but her steadfast eyes looked into his and their light was cold, there was no glimmer of affection in them.
'You never loved me, Chris?'
She continued silent; she had wrought herself to a certain point, to what she believed to be a duty, and she could only maintain the tension by exerting all her energies.
'What have I done to be treated like this?' he continued. 'I did all I could to spare you. I would have spared him, too, if it'd been in my power.'
'You were generous. Yes, you did all you could; for that I will be grateful to you all my life.'
'And I love you—I love you! I want love, not gratitude, Chris—your love.'
'You must forget me!
He approached her more closely, and his voice had lost its pleading tone.
'On the night of the arrest,' he said, 'you told me you had deceived all—lied to all; did you lie to me?'
He paused for a reply, but she did not speak, and he continued fiercely:
'Did you lie to me when you said you loved me? Was that a lie? Was it a trap?'
'It does not matter now, Harry; all is over, all.'
'An' you did lie to me. You lied because you thought I'd give your father up if my love was not returned. My God! you thought I took advantage of—'
'No, no, no!' she cried, 'not that. I thought no ill of you, I think none. Think what you will of me.'
'But I was fooled—cruelly, bitterly fooled. You needn't have done it, Chris. I'd rather have died than have added to your sufferings. Your trick wasn't necessary. I cared more for you than you'll ever know.'
Her hands trembled at her sides and her lips moved, but her eyes remained steadfast.
'I know your good heart, Harry,' she said in a voice almost harsh from the restraint put upon her. 'I will bless you and pray for you while I live, but I can never be your wife. You are mad to think of me. Some day you will be glad I refused to listen to you, and grateful to me for what I have done.'
'Grateful!' he cried. 'To be grateful I must learn to hate you. I'll go an' learn that lesson.'
He turned from her and strode towards the gate, but there he paused with his arm upon the bar, and presently he moved back to her side.
'I can't go like that, dear,' he said, seizing her hand again, 'nothing on earth can ever make me anything but your lover, an' nothing can make me believe you lied when you said you loved me. Your kisses were not lies. Speak to me—say that you did love me a little!'
'Good-bye, Harry,' she said in the same constrained tone.
'For God's sake be fair to me, Chris.'
'I am fair to you. Go; learn to love someone who will bring you happiness. Good-bye.'
'There is one woman who could bring me happiness, an' she stabs me to the heart. I won't give you up, I won't forget, I won't say good-bye. When this misery's gone from you, you will be your old self again, an' we'll be happy together.'
'Do not think that, Harry; you must put me out of your heart.'
'Never—never while I live!'
He looked into her strong pale face for a moment, and lifting her yielding hand to his lips kissed it.
'Good-night,' he said gently. 'I'll come again.'
'Good-bye, Harry,' she whispered.
He hastened away, carrying his trouble into the sleeping bush. She stood for a few moments after he had gone, erect, with her hands pressed over her eyes, then walked towards the house with firm steps; but at the verandah uncontrollable sobs were breaking in her throat; she turned and fled into the plantation, and lying amongst the long grass wept unreservedly.
Harry's mind was in a tumult; he tried in vain to compose his faculties, to discover some reason for Miss Chris's action apart from the dreadful possibility that she had really never cared for him. Now that he had it from her own lips that she could be nothing to him, he refused to accept the situation. There were barriers raised between them, he would beat them down; there were mistakes, illusions, he would overcome them; he was strong, he would conquer. Anything was possible but that she had lied to him, but that her warm loving kisses were false and scheming. His heart scouted that idea with a blind rage that impelled him to hit out in the darkness. This spiritual fight tore the man of action, racked him limb from limb. Oh! to have been able to settle it, bare-armed and abreast of a living antagonist in the child's play of merely physical strife. He found tears on his cheek and this weakness amazed him, but his thoughts followed each other quickly, disconnectedly, like those of a drunken man; he went home baffled, but clinging to hope with the tenacity of one who feels that despair means death.
Next morning Harry found himself utterly miserable, but still trusting that time would serve to restore Chris her natural cheerful temperament, and bring home to her again the conviction that she really loved him, and then all would be well.
At about half-past two that afternoon Dick Haddon, in his capacity of faithful squire to the two lovers, visited the mine hot-foot, with news for his friend. Harry was below, but he hastened to answer the boy's message. He had dreamed of a sudden repentance on his sweetheart's part, and his heart beat fast as Dick beckoned him away from McKnight, who was at the windlass.
'She's gone away,' said the boy eagerly.
'Chris away? Where's she gone?'
'She's goin' to Melbourne—going fer years an' years. Mr. Summers is drivin' her into Yarraman now. She left a letter for you with mother. Thought I'd come an' tell you, 'case you might want to go after her.'
'Gone for good!' This possibility had not occurred to the young man. 'She left a letter for me? Are you sure it's for me?'
'Yes, yes; mother's got it. If I was you I'd get it at once; an' I'd—I'd—' Dick was much more excited than Harry; he was eager to spur his friend to action.
'How long have they been gone?' asked Harry, as he hastened towards the township. He felt that this was a crisis, that action was called for, but the news had confused him. He was fighting with the fear that she was taking this course to avoid him for the reason that his connection with her misfortunes had made him hateful to her. He burned to read her letter, but he had no mind for heroic schemes or projects.
'On'y about a quarter of an hour,' said Dick in answer to his question. 'They can't've gone far.'
'You're sure she was going to. Melbourne—going for good?'
'Certain sure—heard her tell mum.'
Mrs. Haddon was standing at the door when they reached the house, and Harry followed her into the kitchen.
'Give it to me, Alice,' he said. 'Quick! Can't you see I'm half mad?'
Mrs. Haddon handed him the letter, and he tore the envelope with awkward impatient fingers. The note was brief:
'DEAR HARRY,—I write this to bid you good-bye again, and thank you again for all your kindness and goodness. I am going away because I can no longer bear to live amongst people who know me as the daughter of one who was a thief and almost a murderer. Don't think bitterly of me. All that I have done I did for the best, according to my poor light. We may never meet again, but it would make me happier some day to know that you had forgiven me, and that you remembered me without anger in your own happiness.
—Your very true friend,
Harry sank into a chair and sat for a minute staring blankly at the letter, and Mrs. Haddon stood by his side staring curiously at him. Suddenly she slapped firmly on the table with her plump hand and asked sharply:
'Well, Harry, well?'
He turned his blank eyes upon her.
'Do you care a button for that girl?'
'Care?' he said. 'I care my whole life an' soul for her!'
'Well, then, what're you goin' to do? ''Re you goin' to lose her?'
'In the name o' God, Alice, what can I do? She doesn't want me; she is going away to be rid of me.'
'Not want you? You great, blind, blunderin' man you; she loves you well enough to break her heart for you. Can't you see why she's going away? Of course you can't. She's goin' because she thinks she's an object of shame an' disgrace; because she feels on her own dear head an' weighin' on her own great, soft, simple heart all the weight of the shame that belonged to that bad devil of a father of hers; because all that the papers, an' the lawyers, an' the judge said about the sins o' Ephraim Shine she feels burnin' in red letters on her own sweet face. That's why she's goin'; an' if she is leavin' you it's because she feels this whole villainous business makes her unfit to be your wife. Now what're you goin' to do, Harry Hardy?'
Harry had risen to his feet; his face was flushed, he trembled in every limb.
'Do?' he gasped. 'Do?'
'Do!' Repeated the widow in a voice that had grown almost shrill. 'There's a horse an' saddle an' bridle in McMahon's stable.'
Harry turned and ran from the house; and the little widow, standing at the door flushed and tearful, looking after him, murmured to herself:
'An' if you lose her, Harry Hardy, you're not the man I took you for, an' I'll never forgive you—never.'
She looked down and encountered Dick's eyes—seeming very much larger and graver than usual—regarding her with solemn admiration. The boy had conceived a new respect for his mother within the last two minutes, and had discovered in her a kindred spirit hitherto unsuspected.
'My colonial! that was rippin', mum!' he said.
HARRY took French leave in McMahon's stable. He saddled Click, Mac's favourite hack, mounted him, and started down the dusty Yarraman road at a gallop. To Harry that ride was ever afterwards a complete blank. He started out with his mind full of one thought, an overpowering resolution. He would seek Chris, he would take her in his arms and defy every fear or scheme or power that might be directed against their love and happiness to part them again. That was his determination, and, having made it, he rode on blindly, pushing the horse to his best pace.
After passing the Bo Peep the road ran out into treeless open country, slightly undulating. There were a few trickling rock-strewn creeks to cross, and Harry rushed Click through them like a man riding for his life. Half an hour's gallop brought the vehicle in sight, and ten minutes later he came abreast of the buggy and brought his foaming horse to a trot. 'Stop!' he cried; and Summers, much amazed, pulled up his pair.
Harry threw himself from the saddle, leaving the horse his freedom, and, going to the buggy, seized Chris by the hand and drew her down towards him.
'Chris, I want to speak to you. You must, you must!'
He helped her from the vehicle. His attitude was stern and masterful, and Chris yielded with a sense of awe. Summers regarded the pair for a moment with pursed lips and bent brows; then a grim smile dawned about his mouth, and he touched his horses with the whip and drove slowly away down the road.
Harry and Chris stood upon the plain facing each other, the girl's hands clasped firmly in those of the man. Harry was dressed just as he had come from the mine; her neat black frock was marked with the grey dust from his clothes. He was flushed; his eyes had more of power than of love in them. She still strove, but felt his strength greater than hers, and her heart beat painfully. She whispered a pitiful protest when he drew her to his breast and clasped her closely in his irresistible arms.
'I won't let you go, my dear love—I swear I won't!' he whispered vehemently.
'You must. Oh, why do you make my task so hard?'
'I won't let you go from me, Chris.'
She looked into his glowing eyes, and struggled a little, murmuring incoherently.
'Never, Chris, never!' he continued. 'You love me! Look into my face an' deny it if you can. You can't!' he cried, with a flush of triumph.
'I have never denied it, Harry; but I must go. 'Tis because I love you—'
He laughed suddenly with the elation of a conqueror, and stopped her mouth with kisses.
'You love me, an' you'd leave me. Why? Tell me why, my darling, my dear love!'
She threw back her head and gazed into his eyes. 'I will tell you,' she said. 'I would leave you because I am the daughter of Ephraim Shine, the man whose memory is hated everywhere; the man whose crimes you and yours can never forget; the man who sent your innocent brother to prison, who whitened your mother's hair with grief, who left you to die in the waters of the mine—who was a triple thief and a hypocrite. He was my father and I loved him. I cannot do anything else but love him now, but you must hate and loathe him. Think of me as your wife—me, the thief's daughter, whispered about, pointed at. Think, as I have done, of that possible time when you might love me less because of him and the wrong he did you, when you might be ashamed to be seen with me. People don't forget crimes like his, Harry; they talk of them to their children. Think of your mother and your brother. Think, think—oh, Harry, think, for my strength is gone.'
He only clasped her closely and kissed her cheek.
'Think of your mother,' she continued. 'Harry, I would die to serve her. I would rather die than bring shame or grief into her life.'
'I love you! I love you!' he said.
'Think, think of the people pointing at us, whispering about my disgrace.'
'No, dear, you think. Think of me without you—cursed, ruined, without a care for anything on earth. Chris, there's not for me one ray of sunlight, not one smile in the world without you.'
Her forehead was bent upon his shoulder. He felt her strength leaving her, and continued with low vehement words:
'Dear, you love me, an' you think it's your duty to leave me. I tell you there's no man on God's earth here'd be so desolate. I'd rather be dead than lose you. To lose you is the only sorrow I can imagine. I care more for one smile of yours, one touch of your dear fingers, than for anything else in all the world. If you hate me an' want to ruin my life, you'll go. Chris, if you love me, can't you see what the loss of you would mean? I tried to think of it last night an' couldn't, it was too terrible. I was like a child facing a great black cavern peopled with devils.'
His words, his earnestness, brought her new light; she had not realised the depth of his love, she had thought that the blow might be heavy at first, but that he would soon learn to forget. She understood him better now; his love was like her own, and she knew that to be imperishable. She no longer struggled, but clung to him with trembling fingers.
'I did not think you loved me like that, dear,' she said softly.
'I worship you! And you, my wife, my sweet wife?'
She slid her arms about his neck and drew his face to hers.
They stood in the centre of an open plain above which the yellow sun hung gleaming like a ball of gold; there was silence everywhere: Harry's horse stood still with his nose to the ground, at a distance Summers' buggy dipped slowly down into the bend of an old watercourse, and far off in the dim simmering background there was a hazy suggestion of trees. The solitude was complete.
'Then you won't go, Chris?' he said.
'Yes,' she answered, smiling into his face, 'but not for ever.'
He drew her closer at the suggestion.
'But why must you go? Why should we part?'
'Please, please, dear, for a time. I—I want to be away for a little while, till I can bear it better—you know what I mean. Ah!' she cried with sudden warmth, 'I thought was going to be strong and brave and bear it all alone; but I was only a girl, not a heroine—my heart was crying out against it by day and night.'
'We'll be very happy, Chris, in spite of those silly terrors. 'Twas Mrs. Haddon sent me after you.'
'I'm glad. Oh, I'm glad!'
He gathered her to his heart, and kissed her again and again.
'Chris,' he said, 'you're not quite fair to the people of Waddy; not a man or woman of them thinks a mean thought of you.'
'But I cannot bear to face them. Let me go for a time, and I will come back.'
'An' be my wife?'
'Yes, if you still want me.'
'If! You'll write often.'
'Every day if you wish it, dear.'
'Every day then. Good-bye, my darling. I'll let you go, but not for long. If you don't come to me soon, I will come to you.'
The parting was long and loving, and then Harry recalled Jock Summers with a loud cooey. After Chris had been helped into the buggy the old man glanced sharply at Harry.
'Well, Maister Highwayman?' he said.
'She has promised to be my wife, sir,' said Harry.
Summers looked into the girl's brimming eyes, and his face softened.
'I'm right glad,' he said simply.
Harry rode by the trap as far as the town; then there was another parting, and he returned to Waddy like a man in a dream. That evening he told his mother that Christina Shine had promised to be his wife. Her answer surprised him.
'She is a brave, beautiful, genuine woman, and I would not have it different.'
'She said you were the best woman in the world, mother, and I believe she was right.'
'No, no, Henry; I will be content now to have you think me the second best,' said his mother, smiling.
Chris, who was staying with a relation of Summers' in Melbourne, wrote to say their parting should be for six months; but it did not last more than half that time, and meanwhile two or three matters of interest had happened in Waddy. There had been several crushings from the Native Youth, and the yields justified the highest expectations; Frank Hardy and Mrs. Haddon had been married, and Joel Ham had departed from Waddy under interesting circumstances. One evening when reading the Mercury in the bar at the Drovers' Arms, Ham looked up from his paper and addressed several members of the School Committee who were present:
'Gentlemen,' he said, 'I'll have to get you to fill my position within a fortnight.'
'What,' cried Peterson, 'throwin' up your billet?'
'I'm wanted in England,' said the master, tapping the paper.
There was a roar at this, which Joel treated with sublime indifference, but curiosity prompted Peterson to examine the paper closely when the teacher had set it aside, and he found the following advertisement:
'If this should meet the eye of Joel Hamlyn, second brother of Sir Just Hamlyn, of Darnstable, he is hereby informed of the death of his brother and of his succession to the title and estates. Any information respecting the above Joel Hamlyn will be thankfully received.' Then followed a description of Joel Hamlyn that was decidedly applicable to Joel Ham, and the address of a firm of Melbourne solicitors.
The schoolmaster said nothing to satisfy the curiosity of his committee, but was more communicative in the presence of Frank Hardy.
'I am Sir Joel Hamlyn now,' he said, grinning down at his white moleskins and broken boots. 'Just and I hated each other like brothers. He was eminently respectable, I was eminently otherwise. We parted with mutual satisfaction, but he had two boys when I left England, both of whom have since died, or there would have been no anxious and respectful inquiries for my disreputable self.'
'Well, I congratulate you,' said Frank. 'It will be an agreeable change.'
'I do not know,' said Sir Joel; 'I have got drunk on beer here, I shall get drunk on champagne there That's all the difference.'
Later, when parting with Frank for good, he said:
'I have a long journey before me, and I have got to make up my mind in that time in what useful capacity I shall figure in Darnstable teetotal circles, whether as a shining light or a shocking example—whether, in short, it is better to live respectable or die drunk.'
The people of Waddy never heard what Sir Joel's conclusion was, but they had an emphatic opinion about his end; which conclusion, however reasonable it may have been in the light of past events, let us hope was the wrong one.
Harry wrote to Chris before twelve weeks had passed: 'I can stand this parting no longer. I am coming to you.' Chris answering him said, 'Come,' and he went; and when he returned to Waddy Chris accompanied him. They were married very quietly at Yarraman a few months later, and Dick Haddon was the only absentee amongst their immediate friends who have figured in this story. When Harry and Chris were restored to happiness, his interest in them lost its keen edge, but he was considerate enough to send an apology to the bridegroom.
'Dear Harry,' he wrote, 'I'm sorry I can't come and be best man at your wedding, but there is to be a great race to-day—my grey billy, Butts, against Jacker Mack's black billy, Boxer, for two pocket-knives and a joey 'possum, owners up—and of course I couldn't get away.—Your mate, Dick.'