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  ― 7 ―

The Saving of Wantagong Station.

I.

“This thing will have to come to an end. There's nothing in it.”

Gray pushed back the papers he had been poring over and touched the bell near his side.

“Ask Mr. Clark to step in here for a few minutes if he is not busy, please.”

“Yes, sir.”

A few minutes afterwards Clark, the junior partner in Gray and Co., a well-known firm in Sydney, entered the neat office.

“Oh, I say, Clark, I've been looking over the accounts of Wantagong. I got Ralston to make them up for the last three years, and it is not good enough. We must shut down.”

Clark took the sheets up and examined them, while the other leant back and thoughtfully filled his pipe, continuing:

“I'm dashed sorry for Rowan. He and the dad are old chums, but the way things are going with this cursed drought anything in the west is dangerous.”

“Well, the matter has been in your hands,” replied Clark, tossing the sheets back on the table. “As far as I can see, things have gone far enough. What do you propose to do? Foreclose?”

“Umph.” Gray shifted uneasily in his comfortable office-chair, biting the end of his pipe. “I suppose that is what it means; but we must do it as nicely as we can, for the old fellow's sake.”

“Business is business,” answered his partner, curtly. “You have been too long in the Street not to know that, old man. Of course, we don't want to be brutes, especially in the circumstances. It's an old account. What do you suggest? You know surroundings better than I do.”

“Of course we can't allow sentiment to interfere, but the best thing to do is to put in a manager for a bit. It means the same thing in the end, but will ease things down a little.”

“Very good. Will you attend to it?”

“Yes.——Oh, I'll tell you what's a better idea. You want to have a look at the country out back. How would it be for you to run up to Wantagong and examine things? Let Rowan see how we feel, and arrange for the new man.”

“Just as you like. Things are a bit slow here, and, as you say, I want to see the west. I'll go up next week.”




  ― 8 ―

“Right; that's settled. Just drop Rowan a line.”

“All right.” Clark stopped as he was going out. “Oh, I say, are there any family there?”

“No. Rowan's a widower. He has a daughter, but she was down here at school the last I heard of her. Never saw her, anyhow.”

“That's a good job. Don't want any aggrieved females about,” said Clark, with a short laugh, as he went out. “I suppose you will look after getting the manager. Ralston was mentioning some fellow from Riverina way the other day.”

“All right,” answered Gray, turning again to his papers, while he muttered, “Tough old beggar, Clark. But he is right; there is no sentiment in this game. Poor old Rowan!”

Shortly after Clark, having sent the necessary letter, left the office.

As he slowly walked through the street he grimly reflected that once again his partner, the kindly, jovial Gray had passed the dirty work on to him.

It was a nice task telling a man he was ruined; but he dismissed the subject with a shrug of his shoulders. It had to be done.

II.

The girl came swinging up the garden path, while a handsome sharp-nosed collie romped by her side.

Her arms were overflowing with a great bunch of cornflowers, poppies, and carnations—a gorgeous mass of crimson and blue dashed with green foliage.

Raising her arms to save the blossoms from the friendly onslaughts of her companion, her face was buried in the blooms, and the wealth of colour lined against her rich black hair, piled lightly, but with a careless grace, beneath the sunshade, made a brilliant contrast.

She was of medium height, with a lissome figure, full of health and energy, and glorious violet eyes, and clean-cut mouth and nostrils.

Scolding the dog merrily for daring to follow her, she passed into the cool, shady dining-room and laid the flowers on a side table.

Before starting her decorations she remembered it was time for the mail to be in, and tripped merrily over to the station office.

Her father looked up with an answering welcome to her cheery smile.

“Hello, Girlie! I was just going to call you over. I wondered if you could possibly forget mail-day.”

She laughed as she nestled comfortably on the side of his chair, and eagerly searched for her own budget.

John Rowan was a type of the west. A tall, wiry plainsman, with clear blue eyes and short grey hair, that clustered closely to the sun-tanned skin. The light muscular frame spoke of one who lived in large spaces, of the strenuous days on the broad plains, the crack of the whip, and the ring of galloping hoofs.




  ― 9 ―

If the strong, bronzed face was seamed and marked with care—well, stand out at the home-paddock fence yonder, and glance across the sullen, burnt plains.

For the big drought held the west in its pitiless grasp, and the one green spot on Wantagong station was his daughter's garden, as the one green spot in his life was the girl herself.

Her mother dying when she was a child, they were comrades these two, more than father and daughter, and had grown into a sympathy that had strengthened as she had left school and taken up the charge of the old station home.

“Any news, Father?”

“Yes, dear. We are going to have a visitor. I have a letter from Gray's, saying that one of the firm, a Mr. Clark, is coming up to have a look round,” he replied. “So you will have to be affable and take care of him. I suppose he will be up for a week or two.”

Ellen had not a very clear idea as to who Gray's were, and their letters were too closely connected with her father's worries for it to be a pleasant one. But she quickly perceived that the matter was important, in spite of his carelessly-assumed tone. The Rowans were full of grit, and she answered, quizzingly:

“Is he nice, or some old nuisance that can only talk of sheep, sheep, sheep——” with an emphasis as she recalled some of the guests at the homestead.

Rowan laughed.

“To tell the truth, I haven't the slightest idea, as I have never met Clark. Old Gray and I are old friends, but this young fellow came into the firm when the old man retired. They say he is a very smart business man. As to sheep, you cheeky young scamp, he certainly ought to be able to talk about something else, coming straight from town.”

“I think it will be lovely having him here,” she cried impulsively. “We have not had many visitors these dreary dry months.”

“Well, my dear, old or young, Mr. Clark is an important gentleman to us just now, so I'm sure you will be nice to him, as, indeed, you always are to my guests.”

Involuntarily his voice had grown sober and thoughtful, and her heart was filled with the vague fear of impending evil. Throwing her arms around his neck impulsively, the girl passionately cried:

“Of course I will be nice, dearest. But if he is going to make you look worried and sad, I'll hate him——hate him—” and she threw her dainty head back like a mother at bay.

“Tut, tut,” said Rowan, patting her heaving shoulders gently, and touched by the loyal sympathy, “there is nothing to get excited about, Girlie.”

The little gust of passion passed away at his reassuring words as quickly as it came, and, with a parting peck at the grizzly moustache, she skipped back to the house with a light song on her lips.

When she had gone, Rowan's face grew stern and sad. The despair of


  ― 10 ―
the beaten crept into his eyes as he read the crisp, curt note lying before him. Simple as it was, a gloomy intuition warned him of the end.

There were many hearts like his in the dry west, burdened with a debt that drought had brought to breaking point. The mortgage held by Gray's had been standing for years, and with any luck need never have been a matter of concern for either parties.

But the original amount had been heavily increased by necessary improvements, and with the coming of the drought a mountain of care lay on his shoulders, which he had zealously kept from his daughter's knowledge, while the fear of failure ever haunted him. Yet it could not be so much longer.

III.

The dusty buggy pulled up in front of the verandah, where Rowan was waiting to welcome the visitor.

In the security of her own little room Ellen scanned him with interest. Since she had been aware that Clark was coming, idle speculations, influenced by an antipathy to Gray and Co., had decided that he would be old and horrid.

But the figure that wearily alighted from the buggy she could see was certainly not old.

A naive bashfulness, consequent on this discovery, kept her from the room when the two men entered. After a freshening nip, Clark welcomed the suggestion of a bath, for it was a luxury he had not anticipated from the depressing surroundings of the last few hours. Wantagong, however, its owner informed him, was fortunate so far in having a good house water supply. Enough at least to keep life in the garden and wash off the penetrating dust.

At dinner Ellen found herself introduced to a man the reverse of her conception.

Clark was a tall, clean-shaven man, of about 35, with the easy, confident carriage of one who was accustomed to succeed. He proved agreeable company, and she found the fears of the conversation anchoring on the subject of sheep and rabbits were needless.

Clark detested “shop,” and, in truth, felt at the present moment disinclined to touch on station affairs at all.

Coming up to Wantagong with the sole intention of obtaining a knowledge of local surroundings and getting a nasty mission over as soon as possible, Ellen was rather a shock. A pleasant one, truly, but as he took in the cool spacious room, with its tastefully-decorated table and dainty service, and his glance wandered to the sparkling eyes across the table, and rested on the rounded, delicately curved neck resting so firmly on the white shoulders, the matter did not seem so simple.

Ellen, for her part, as she appraised their visitor, and noted the straight blue eyes, the curly head, with a touch of boyishness that was forgotten in the contemplation of the strong face, with its firm mouth and the massive neck, concluded that she was going to like him.

Nor did matters improve for Clark when they adjourned out to the cool garden.




  ― 11 ―

Mentioning a fondness for music, Rowan had persuaded his daughter to get her violin, and as they lounged in easy deck chairs, where the soft moonlight outlined the shrubs, while the perfume of the spring flowers filled the air, and listened to the beautiful strains of the sweet-toned strings, well … mortgages and drought seemed a long, long way away.

Clark was not a woman's man, society occupying a small place in his life. which might have been the reason that in his own room the vision of his young hostess filled his thoughts to the oblivion of the pressing conditions of John Rowan's account in the stately ledgers of the firm. And that was a new experience for him, for the now neglected ledgers represented the monument of a successful business career, held the story of a keen struggle between rival brains for the supremacy of trade.

But a dainty figure danced recklessly across their columns, and the strains of a violin distorted the additions in an appalling manner. So much that Clark grew hot and angry, and wondered what the devil was the matter with him, and finally decided to get right down to business in no uncertain way as soon as morning came. And, being a man of purpose, he promptly did so, and after breakfast Ellen saw nothing of the two men till the midday meal, which proved a quiet one, neither being inclined to talk, and she felt the shadow of a disappointment that drew the tears perilously near her eyes. She had been filled with a great happiness since the previous night, a feeling she could not have explained, but with the glorious optimism of youth she felt that Wantagong would find no foe in Clark.

The matter and reason of his visit were vague to her, and the possibility that mortgages and loans were apt to ride roughshod over friendship, and even greater ties, was unknown in a happy ignorance.

IV.

And the evenings came with their sweet moments.

Although his business was concluded as far as his visit was concerned, Clark still lingered on in the moonlit garden, and still listened to the strains, now gay, now sad, that floated through the heavy-scented air. And more than ever the fascination of the player enwrapped him.

Out of the comparison with other women he had known Ellen Rowan came out incomparable and alone.

From which it will be seen that his case was desperate, and calculated to cause wonderment amongst those who knew only the Clark of Sussex-street. A wonderment in which he himself shared. Even Rowan noticed how matters were tending, and almost felt fresh hope. Yet he knew the position was desperate.

To himself Clark made no secret that he was in love with Ellen, and the problem that filled his waking moments was whether to test his fate or not. In ordinary circumstances there would have been need for little hesitation. He was good to look upon, a clean man, and fitted materially to seek where he would. Yet he was reluctant, for there seemed something unfair in the relation he stood to the Rowans. And he had no idea how much the girl


  ― 12 ―
knew. His soul revolted at winning her through any influence but the supreme one. And he felt she might think he was seeking her through pity.

So the days passed till the responsibilities of life called him imperiously away. He was to leave early in the morning, so said good-bye the night before.

They stood at the edge of the wide verandah—he twining a spray of the virginia that clustered around the post, while she caressed the collie for whom he had entertained a week's sublime jealousy.

“I suppose I'll see you in town some day?” He felt the remark was trivial, and wished he were only game to speak the words in his mind.

She laughed, and replied, “Oh, I don't know. It's a long way from here, isn't it?” She spoke easily and carelessly, for a woman is ever able to dissemble at such a time, although her heart is throbbing with passionate feeling. And he fidgeted nervously, and felt a fool. Yet Sydney business men would have marvelled at Clark being nervous.

Well, old friend, you will let me know if you do come down, won't you? And, look,” he added eagerly, “will you let me write to you? We have been good chums, haven't we?”

“You can, if you like; but do you really want to write to poor me? A busy man like you?” and she gazed at him mischievously.

“I'll write,” he said gaily, “and mind you answer the letters.”

They were silent for a few moments, and he added, “Don't think me presumptuous, Miss Ellen, but promise me if you ever want a friend, if you are ever in trouble, that you will let me know.”

He spoke seriously, and took her hand in his. She looked at him with startled eyes, then answered in low tones. “I will, Mr. Clark; I believe you are a true friend of mine.”

“Thank you, little girl. Good-night, and good-bye.”

Another long pressure of her hand and he was gone.

As the buggy drove away in the early morning she again watched from her window, but this time she knew he was neither slow nor horrid, but that the memory of his voice and the vision of his strong, kind face would dwell in her heart for ever and aye—for good or ill. With a pure, true intuition she felt her love was returned.

V.

The crash came suddenly, as is the nature of such things. After two burning, dry months, when the stock were rotting on the plains, and fodder was at a price that broke fortunes in the west and made them for the smart speculators in the east, Rowan was told the property must go into the market. In vain he pointed out the folly of trying to sell as things were. The answer was curt and definite—the first loss was the best. The firm could go no further. When her father told her as gently as he could that they must leave the old home Ellen was stunned. To leave Wantagong; her heart grew cold at the thought. Never to ride across the plains again on the starlit


  ― 13 ―
nights when her mind had been full of delicious dreamings. To leave the old home—her garden. In the depths of her sorrow her thoughts flew to Clark, and her heart was filled with a great bitterness. The bitterness of disappointment and failure in our ideals. The saddest of all sad broken dreams and hopes. There was no open bond between them; she had no claim. Yet in her young heart she knew there was an indefinable something mightier than all else in life—and she was forsaken.

After the first irrepressible abandonment to anguish her native nobility of womanhood brought her to her father's side. Come what may, they had each other, and in the shadow of their sorrow the old tie was strengthened with a sweeter sympathy. Rowan had written to Clark, but the latter told him he could do nothing; he was but the junior partner. But he strongly advised him to remain at the station till the place was sold. In his grievous bitterness it never occurred to him to show the letter to the girl.

An old-time neighbour and friend, whom in the happy past Rowan had often taunted with deserting the grand old west for the softer Sydney life, had offered them a welcome refuge in their trouble. Their old friends would be delighted to have Ellen, who had almost lived with them while at school, and the kindly letter was full of brave assurances and hopes of doing something for Rowan amongst his many old friends and business connections. He need have no fear of being a burden. They knew the heart of this veteran of the plains.

So they drove out of the homestead paddock for the last time. In the early morning the cool breeze that ushers in those biting, burning days swept across the plain, and Ellen, as she looked back at the old deserted home, could restrain her feelings no longer, but, leaning on her father's ready shoulder, broke into the soothing tears of bitter grief. Rowan said nothing. He could but stroke her heaving shoulders gently with loving sympathy as he sat with drawn, tense face and quivering lips.

The end of fifty years!

But the rough, bearded station hand who was driving—remembering the old days of green, waving plains when he had held the girl on her first pony—lashed savagely at the unoffending horses, and cursed to himself with all the blasphemous elasticity of the western vocabulary.

VI.

For Clark the position was a cruel one. The crisis had been none of his making, nor could he prevent it. And his distress was embittered by the knowledge that Gray's folly had precipitated matters.

A juggle on the racecourse, the half of a horse's head, meant that Gray wanted a considerable sum of hard cash at once. The firm were involved in weightier speculations, ultimately to yield a golden harvest. But money was tight, and while Gray was affably prepared to admit the foolishness of his way, the money had to be paid. And being paid, must be replaced as soon as possible.




  ― 14 ―

Of course, Clark knew, and Gray knew, that by the terms of partnership the former could have refused to allow the money to be withdrawn, but that would involve a rupture and dissolution. And dissolution at that stage would mean a smash. And Clark could see the alternative, and was not surprised when Gray pointed out the necessity of getting rid of Wantagong. For the moment the cold business cloak that had enveloped him through years of ceaseless fighting was broken in the bitterness of his soul.

He could see the wounded eyes of the girl, feel the dumb, broken agony, as she learnt the end, and his heart rebelled. There was no disguise now. He knew that with all the passion of a man's life his whole being had gone out to the girl on those western plains. Such a passion comes but once in a man's life.

The old, careless, laughing criticism he had of women had vanished as frost before the sun in the remembrance of those honest, dear eyes, the music beneath the shade of the fern, and the last good-bye.

And he saw the young lip curl with contempt of the fair-weather friend. Contempt that may grow to hats as she parted from one precious memento and then another of by-gone days.

Yet there was no escape. Dumbly he had to assent to Gray's cruel, hard arguments, sullenly admit from a business view the folly of continuing this terrible fight against Nature's odds in that drought-stricken land. And yet he had hoped and dreamed——

“It was like a cursed bottomless pit,” Gray had muttered, angry with himself for his utter folly, and anxious, as all of us are, to put the blame elsewhere. Rain—God knows when the rain will come, and meantime it's draining the very life-blood out of the business. Rowan can't blame us. We are not the Bank of England. A loss. … Of course there will be a loss, a mighty big loss, too. But if we don't get our hands on some ready money the whole business will be lost.”

“Yes; but who the devil do you think is going to buy it, anyhow?” Clark had interjected, irritably. “Don't forget that.”

“Heavens! Forget it! That's the trouble. Anyway, we can have a try to find some fool who will. Hang it, you are so confident about a turn in the tide, why don't you buy it yourself?” Gray had snarled, with a sneering side glance at his partner. For he knew that Clark must have money put by. He was not an extravagant man, and his share in the business alone since he was a partner meant a good deal. And Gray felt a grievance that there had not been an offer from the other to increase his interest in the firm—a grievance that was accentuated because he guessed the offer was not forthcoming because Clark lacked confidence in his partner.

Clark had brushed aside the suggestion with a curt comment, and the matter ended with the sending of a notice to Rowan that the place was to be sold.

That night, in the solitude of his own rooms, the suggestion came dancing back across his angry thoughts in letters of fire. Why not? The difficulties of the old days at Wantagong seemed infinitesimally small beside those of now. Had he but put his fortune to the test, all might have been well. That his


  ― 15 ―
love was returned Clark never doubted, yet he knew that to go to her now was impossible. It might be that he could win her in the years to come by reparation. And there could be none surer and nobler than the saving of her father and the old home. Could he save Wantagong? The experience of the last three years might appal the stoutest heart. It was a bottomless pit, as Gray had said. He was not a wealthy man, but at the price the station would go he could buy it, all right. But to hold it. … For how long? Might it not be well to let things go, and to plead his cause when the first sorrow had grown easier. Some day they might regain the old home if she wished it; by then, perhaps, another home would have grown dearer.

He smiled out across the bay at the thoughts of what might be, but dismissed them with a shrug of the shoulders. Idle dreams.

He knew without written word or spoken thought she had looked to him to keep all well. Bravely he had accepted the tryst, and now—Wantagong was to be sold.

And he was dreaming.

Long after the city had been wrapt in silence he sat through the lonely hours, figuring, hoping, yet fearing, till the rattle of the market carts in the early morning roused him.

And there was a look of determination on his face as he sought his neglected bed.

VII.

The Merrywethers, with whom Ellen was staying, were kind-hearted folk, but it was hard to be reconciled to these circumstances. It was not home.

The first week in the city was a bitter one for Rowan. Previous trips in more prosperous days contrasted keenly in his mind and accentuated his position.

To a naturally proud man the position was intolerable. Therefore he gratefully accepted the offer of a position as traveller to a large pastoral company.

Anything was better than living on the bounty of friends, dear as they were.

Ellen watched him with a swelling heart as he marched away with braced shoulders and firm footsteps to face a new life. It was their first separation since she had returned from school, but the sorrow of parting was softened by the knowledge that he would be happier in not being dependent.

She had also been eager to do something. What the something would be was a hard question, as it always has been to the well-educated but hopelessly useless girl, commercially speaking. But Rowan was so hurt at the suggestion, made in all goodwill, and her hosts so pained, that the subject was dropped.

About a month later the station was sold at a ridiculously low figure, and Rowan felt the sacrifice keenly, although the loss was the mortgagees'.

The sale was completed in the name of a well-known city solicitor, and the actual buyer's name kept a secret.




  ― 16 ―

Up to this time they had not met Clark since his first visit. Although they had been treated better than was usual in such cases, being given a longer time and chance, towards Clark both felt a sense of disappointment, tinged with resentment. Yet Ellen at times was filled with an intense longing to see him, and again she would that they should never meet. And she could not resolve on how to treat him if they did. It was a case of man and maid where there was no tangible bond, but still one defying analysis yet of illimitable power. They “understood each other,” and when disappointment enters that understanding the wound gapes.

And Clark was in the same straits.

The first all-powerful impulse was to hasten to meet her. Then came doubt, and he wavered. For his was not an enviable plight. After all she might not care; what warrant had he? And the Rowans in such a case would hardly wish his friendship. They were human, and it might well be his company would be distasteful with its reminiscences. To go boldly forward, telling her what he had done in the inspiration of his passion, seemed more than ever appearing to try to buy what he wished freely given. And if he did not. … Well, come what may, he would see her, and plead his cause, putting the past aside.

It was easily arranged; the first invitation Clark had accepted for months.

The girl felt the hot fire in her face when she saw him enter, and angry with her weakness her face hardened. It was then Clark saw her, and his heart sank.

How he managed he did not know, but late in the evening they were alone on the verandah, sheltered by the shadows of the clinging creepers. And he wondered at the folly of his hopes, for words were lost, and the few utterances stilt and trite.

And suddenly, whether it was the pathetic droop of the young head during the long silence, or a reckless longing to end it all, he knew not, but he found the hot words rushing with the force of his passion, and his soul was bared with a great nakedness.

The girl's face surged with a maddening colour; her bosom heaved with tumultuous longings. Her soul floated out to his on the stream of the tenderness of a great love, and this story would have ended but for the passing mention of one word.

Clark in his superb avowal swept aside the sordid surroundings, and the name of sweet memories fell from his lips without thought.

Wantagong! Like a thunderclap it woke her from the oldest dream on earth. Wantagong! An icy chill gripped her heart. She saw her father toiling and struggling—then failure. She saw him hopelessly wandering, an outcast, for a pittance. And her whole being revolted in an inexplicable resentment against the man opposite her. She felt a traitor that she should have listened in seeming acquiescence, and rose suddenly, with outstretched hand, commanding silence:

“Stop, Mr. Clark; I am sorry to have let you speak like this. It was wrong. After the proof we have had of your friendship”—and the scorn in her tone made him writhe—“it would be better if we had never met,” and


  ― 17 ―
she turned with erect head and set lips, and passed into the house. Without another word or look. … Had she seen that bowed, ashen, grey face. … Ah, well, she dare not betray her own twitching lips and moist eyes, for duty is a hard master.

But in the solitude of her own room the hot tears streamed down the whitened cheeks, whilst she kept insisting she had acted rightly. … But love laughs and mocks at more than locksmiths.

Clark, for the moment, was as one stunned; the shock was so sudden, so unexpected. Then came the reaction, and he was filled with anger, and the savage resolve of pique. Resolves to be dismissed by calm reasoning with contemptuous shame. It was unfair. … He did not want to see her again. … As to Wantagong. … That was his business. If he could make it pay, he would, he muttered with clenched teeth, so much the better for him. But after a night of torment, a night when the world seemed asiant and life a wasted thing, his true self was king. Come what may, the girl would ever he the same in his thoughts, and perhaps in the days to come she would know what his friendship was.

He doggedly followed out his plans, and sent a bunch of instructions to the manager of Wantagong through his agent, that made that worthy sit up and get an extra hustle on his men. The smallest details were dwelt upon, and he noticed with a silent wonder the precise instructions about the care of the homestead. Nothing was to be neglected at all hazards, and of all things the garden must be kept in its former beauty, which seemed to the man of sheep and plains the most “sanguinary rot.” Perhaps it was, but such rot makes the world green.

In the fight that followed against Nature's forces, Clark's manhood was at its best. He worked with feverish, untiring energy, and in the midst of it was grateful for the work that absorbed almost his whole thought.

Journals were carefully studied, and information extracted from every acquaintance that knew anything of the dry west. His few leisured moments were spent in the clubs where bush visitors mostly congregate.

VIII.

Ellen heard little of Clark during these strenuous days. Once a magnate in the pastoral world, and the chief of the company for whom her father was working, mentioned Clark's name while they were dining at Merrywether's:—

“I saw your friend Mr. Clark the other day. By jove, that man is working himself to a shadow. If he is not making money he ought to be. Yet the game is not worth the candle,” he commented with the easy complacence of one whose own position is too secure to worry over efforts.

Ellen lifted her eyebrows, and said icily: “Oh, I don't know that Mr. Clark is a particular friend of mine. Really, I know very little of him.”

Her heart rebelled at the tiny white lie.

Her companion stared; then remarked, hastily: “Eh. … I beg your pardon. … I understand. … Why—it was Clark that recommended your father to us. Er, merely a matter of business, I suppose.”




  ― 18 ―

He did not add that Clark, as a large shareholder, had practically created the billet, but hastily turned the conversation into other channels.

Then the rain came. No longer a mocking shower, but a solid fall for days over the whole back country. A fall that sent men galloping through paddocks, bareheaded, in a wild delirium of joy. For the first time for years the tanks were overflowing, the green grass sprang up in a night, and the troubles of a few days ago seemed things of a forgotten past.

Clark's fight was won. As he sat reading his manager's glowing telegrams his face was more of the conquered. The strain of the last few weeks as it relaxed left him broken and weary in heart and body.

For what was the good of it all?

After a careful scrutiny of his books he sent a letter to his solicitor that was to make that old gentleman wonder as he read and re-read it, whether he was in his right senses. After which he sat rubbing his glasses, and gazed with blinking eyes vacantly at the long row of legal works opposite, as he realised that chivalry was not yet dead.

A happy little party sat in the comfortable smoking-room at Merry-wether's, listening to the heavy, ceaseless rain. Out in the streets the arc lights shone on glistening pavements, where the water ran to riotous waste, on the hansoms splashing along the road with their macintoshed drivers bending before the downpour.

Inside the talk had naturally drawn to the West.

Ellen had withdrawn to one of the heavy-curtained windows, where she was half hidden, and gazed out into the dark night with aching eyes.

Too late. The pity of it.

The others had forgotten her presence.

“Poor old Rowan,” said Merrywether, with a sigh, “this will be a bitter night to him in a way. To think of the difference of a few weeks. It seems cruel. Ah, well, life's a strange thing.”

“By George, yes,” added one of his companions, “it seems rough, all right. Why, to-day Wantagong must be worth three times as much as it was sold for. They tell me it has been wonderfully managed since Rowan left.”

“By the way,” interrupted a third, “talking about Wantagong, did you hear that Gray and Clark had dissolved?”

“No,” said Merrywether. “That's news.”

“Oh, yes. They dissolved about a week ago. Gray's been going the pace a bit, and Clark wouldn't stand it. No wonder; there's no going the pace about him. That chap must be coining money. There is not a harder man at a bargain in the city. I believe there has been trouble in the firm ever since Wantagong was sold.”

“I heard something about that at the time,” said Merrywether, “but took no notice of it.”




  ― 19 ―

“It's a fact, all right. Clark, from what I hear, was dead against selling. He must be pretty sore now. They would have been more than safe with this rain.”

“Well, we had better change the subject,” replied the host. “Rowan ought to be along soon. He is coming home to-night.”

Ellen had listened to this with a dull pain at first. Her cheeks flushed and her heart beat nervously as she heard of Clark. What did it all mean? The entrance of Rowan gave her an opportunity of slipping quietly out unobserved. After her father's wants had been attended to, and they were back in the “den,” as he liked to call it, Merrywether took a letter off the mantelpiece and handed it to his friend. The other guests had gone.

“Here's a letter that came for you yesterday, Jack.”

Rowan opened it carelessly. His correspondence was limited now-a-days to instructions from the company, and they were not interesting.

As he read it he leant forward with startled, whitened face, exclaiming, “Heavens! Am I dreaming?”

Ellen rushed anxiously to his side, while his friend leant forward in alarm.

“What's the matter, Jack?”

“Matter!” replied Rowan, with a strange laugh. “Read that.”

Merrywether took the letter nervously, and with staring eyes read:—

John Rowan, Esq.,

c.o. R. Merrywether, Esq.,

Mosman.

Dear Sir,

I am instructed by my principal to inform you that you have the offer of Wantagong station, stock, etc., complete, at the price of purchase when recently sold, together with an additional sum, which you will find reasonable, for maintenance since that date.

As you will perceive, this is a very handsome offer, and I respectfully beg to congratulate you on your good fortune.

I may mention that I shall be very pleased to arrange the simple matter under existing circumstances of financing the purchase, if agreeable to your good self.

Yours respectfully,

   HENRY MORRISON.

For a few moments there was a tense silence. Merywether leant back in his chair with a gasp of utter amazement, then slowly ejaculated: “Well, I'm hanged!”

He gave a long-drawn whistle, then added: “Morrison, one of the leading solicitors in the city. Jack, old boy, I'm glad—I'm glad.” And he stretched out his hand, which the other silently grasped.

His emotion was too great for words. Ellen, with a glad cry, had thrown her arms around his neck, and the tears of happiness ran down her cheeks unheeded. And the silence that followed was sweeter than any tongue.

To Rowan this crucial turn in life's tide was a bewildering mystery. He could hardly persuade himself that it was not the phantom of a wearied


  ― 20 ―
brain, the torment of a tired man. But to Ellen, as she crouched in her room that eventful night, the joy of it all was mingled with a glimmer of sad comprehension. She knew. Vainly she tried to escape the punishment of her thoughts. Before the long sequence of her lover's self-abnegation she abased her soul in lowly homage. And she had scorned him—had taunted him. The magnitude of the man's love, the greatness of his charity of soul, while fulfilling her ideal, filled her with awe, and she could have crept to his feet like a dog seeking pardon. But the night passed with flying feet, for joy heeds no pendulum.

In the interview the following day Mr. Morrison was affability personified.

Apart from the lucrative prospect of effecting the transfer, accommodation, etc., there was an element of romance in the transaction which dived beneath the iron casing of his professionalism.

But to their inquiries as to the identity of their benefactor he was adamant. His instructions were emphatic and absolute on that point, he told the bewildered Rowan. Neither the latter's questions nor his daughter's entreaties could move him.

But there was a very small, but very sly, twinkle in his eye that brought Ellen back to his table as her father left the office, with one last appeal.

“You will tell me—only me in secret. Mr. Morrison, won't you?” she pleaded, with her eyes fixed earnestly on the old lawyer's face.

He shook his head.

“Really, Miss Rowan—my instructions—quite impossible, you know. Umph!—professional trust.”

“Ah, but you were not told not to tell me, were you?”

“Ha, ha! Quite a point, I'm sure. No, in truth, your name was not specifically mentioned, but I know Mr. Clark—— Lor' bless me—there, I've slipped it out. Dear, dear!” And he gave a solemn little wink at the girl.

A glorious crimson crept round her eyes, and the music of a thousand birds seemed singing in her ears as she held out her hand.

“Thank you,” she said simply, and was gone.

“Ah, well, I don't think I will get into much trouble over that slip,” mused the venerable old match-maker, who had resolved on this course from the beginning.

And he turned to his work with a happy, satisfied smile.

IX.

In the garden of the quiet old home he had secured on the bay Clark stood looking out across the ocean. The sun was slowly fading in the west, and the dying rays flashed on the distant water and on the man who stood with bowed head and folded arms. His whole attitude was one of utter weariness and hopelessness.

Well, it was done; there was nothing left. Since that fateful night, when her words had cut deep into his heart as only words from dear lips can, he had resolved never to seek the girl again.




  ― 21 ―

An iron pride, foolish if you will—but who are wise?—had called out all the dogged determination of his nature to hand back the old home to her, and to keep secret the part he had played. His work was a triumph of silence. The work was done; nor did he care.

Convinced from her tone and manner that his love was hopeless, life held no stake worth the winning. The fight in the barren west had absorbed his thoughts and energy. It had been a grand fight. His face glowed at the memory. But the future was barren and empty. What had life to——

He heard a light footstep behind him, and turned in surprise, for visitors were few, and saw her stumbling towards him with outstretched arms.

The tears dimmed her eyes; her breath came in choking sobs as she murmured: “Forgive me——”

He looked at her with great wonder in his eyes.

For a moment, in a gust of passion, he swayed like a reed.

Something clutched at his heart, and the words he would have uttered were choked in his throat as he took her in his arms, for when the one love of a man's life comes, it comes with no half-measures, but grips his soul with the strength of a thousand centuries.

In that ineffable silence the sun for a second lit the earth with a great dying flash before giving way to the darkness of night.

But for those two the world was resplendent with the light of an eternal glory.

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