II: An Hour in Two Lives

THE pair on board the river steamer bound from a Northern township in Queensland to its capital were about the same age as far as years counted, and these might have been five-and-twenty. The young man had “lived,” to use his own expression. The woman had had five years' experience of marriage—an unhappy one. She had been sobered and saddened by it, and in consequence, imagined that she felt very

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much older than she did, and mentally characterised her companion as “a remarkably good-looking boy.”

The first time she saw him she had said to herself that there was too much of the Greek god about him, and “very little room for brains in that small head”; but her indifferent glance had lingered a moment on the classic contour of a face and form that excited a warmer admiration in most women than their antique prototypes of Antinous or Apollo.

On his side he had noted this initial indifference, and a dominant expression of sadness on a naturally mobile countenance. But he had also seen that the gaze of the dreamy, grey eyes could quicken to animation, and that they lighted up even when the mouth sometimes remained set and serious.

He had heard about her from his own people, and others—of the unhappiness of her married life, and how it had been said at head-quarters that her husband would have lost his billet over and over, but for “that little wife of his, you know.” He had long wished to meet her, and chance had brought them together a couple of days ago.

They had at once taken up a position of frank friendliness towards each other, and he had talked a good deal of his aspirations and ambitions, to which she had responded with apparent sympathetic interest. Still, he did not feel sure of the kind of impression he had made, or if when they met in the society of the capital, the entrée to her house would be allowed him for any other reason than that of previous acquaintance with his family. In fact, he had not quite made up his mind—in spite of what he considered an extensive knowledge of women—in what category to place her.

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At the moment he wanted her to go on shore with him, but did not feel at all sure of her consent, or of his own powers of persuasion should she refuse. It would be pleasant to have a ramble in the moonlight while the wretched little boat was coaling and dropping cargo and passengers; but he was hardly surprised that she demurred to the proposition when made.

“I assure you, Mrs. Belmont, it would be quite impossible for you to remain on board while they are coaling. You have no conception how it would annoy you, and the captain says he will be quite a couple of hours about it. What would you do?”

“Well, I thought I would go to bed, you know, it's nearly ten o'clock, isn't it?”

“But you couldn't possibly go to sleep with the noise, and even if you half stifled yourself shutting down the port and drawing the curtain across your door, it wouldn't keep out the coal dust.”

“So bad as that, really?”

“Oh! ever so much worse! Heat intolerable, men swearing, pandemonium itself! Do be persuaded for your own sake — everybody does. It can't be helped that you happen to be the only lady on board. I'll take such good care of you, and you cannot surely resist that moon.”

Mrs. Belmont hesitated. She had not been long in this semi-tropical country, she knew people did things “out there” they would not do “at home,” still, it did seem an outré proceeding to wander off till midnight in a strange place with a young man she had only known a couple of days on board ship. True, she knew his family, but this Hilarion Bingham had the reputation of being what was called “fortunate”

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in his relations with her sex, and it was notorious that her husband left her very much to her own devices—all the more reason that she should be more circumspect than a better guarded woman.

It would of course be very pleasant to leave the dirty, evil-smelling vessel for a couple of hours, and breathe a purer atmosphere in that glorious moonlight and the radiance of the Southern Cross—if only people wouldn't say ill-natured things and make her position more difficult. Life was bad enough while they spoke well of her; what might it not be should they speak ill or even think it!

Some of these reflections must have made themselves visible on her countenance, for even as she turned to speak, the young man arrested her unspoken words—“Don't vex your soul on the score of Mrs. Grundy,” he said with a smile, “it would be nothing out of the way, and even if it were, there's nobody to say anything about it.”

“There are reasons”—she began gravely.

“There always are,” he interrupted. “We know all about that, Mrs. Belmont, and now that you have sacrificed on the altar of the conventions, and made your nice, proper little protest, you'll come, won't you?”

Before she could utter the rejoinder that came to her lips, a young man crossed the deck towards them, calling out as he advanced—“You're going on shore of course, Bingham. I see the gangway is lowered, but it's rather awkward for a lady. You'd better let him go first, Mrs. Belmont, while I follow you, and between us, I don't think we'll let you slip over the side.” The slight cloud that had contracted Mrs.

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Belmont's pretty brows cleared off as she turned to the new-comer.

“What an observant person you must be, Mr. Young! So much more so than Mr. Bingham, for example, who never noticed that I was frightened out of my wits at the mere thought of venturing on that ladder.” She gave a kind of little shudder, and continued: “Let us go before my courage fails me again.”

Hilarion Bingham turned upon her a look half amused and half reproachful, and silently preceded her down the rickety kind of ladder with one narrow plank nailed lengthwise across the rungs which had been thrown from the deck to the landing stage.

“Easy to see they don't lay themselves out for lady passengers.” said the other young fellow, who was following with both arms stretched out until his hands rested lightly on either side of Mrs. Belmont's waist.

“I had no business to come on a cargo boat, had I?” she retorted with a little laugh, tripping over the awkward bridge with the careless ease of a child, and hardly availing herself of Bingham's outstretched hand as she swung herself down on the quay.

Alma Belmont was not the sort of woman to put on helplessness with an idea of making herself “interesting,” and for all that Hilarion Bingham's beautiful head was “too small for much brains,” he knew this much, and she knew that he knew it. The other simple youth was much flattered by being credited with superior powers of discrimination, and made a remark to the effect that he had sisters, and ought to

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know something about women, and that they always “liked a fellow to look after them, and that sort of thing, don't you think, Mrs. Belmont?”

“We know that you want to look after one woman, at any rate,” interposed Bingham, “and I am sure Mrs. Belmont will not wish to divert you from your allegiance, so don't hesitate about dropping our company at the corner.”

The three had been walking abreast along a straggling kind of street, consisting of a few stores or shops with a one-storied dwelling-house here and there sandwiched in between them. They were for the most part dark and silent, as if the inmates were abed, but at the first turning—the “corner” alluded to—sounds of mirth and merriment and the music of a fiddle came towards them, proceeding from a brightly-lighted house, from which a signboard was swinging.

“Well, good-night, then,” said Frank Young, stopping to shake hands with his friend. “They seem to be keeping it up still; I expect the bridal pair, though, will have made themselves scarce by this time——”

“And pretty Lucy will want consoling for the loss of her twin sister, eh, Frank? Good luck to your wooing, my boy!”

“Let me wish you good luck, too, said Alma, holding out her hand with a charming smile and gesture; “I had no idea I was treading on the heels of a romance.”

The young man laughed as he again shook hands warmly with the pair, and walked down the street with glowing eyes and rapid, elastic footstep.

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“Now tell me all about it!” cried Mrs. Belmont, turning to her companion; “is it the innkeeper's pretty daughter, or who is responsible for that beatific expression on our young friend's ingenuous countenance?”

“Pretty sister, and a really nice girl, Mrs. Belmont. You have been long enough in the colony now not to be surprised if, indeed, I say a charming young lady. Report has it that the brother was an Oxford man; he is at any rate a gentleman, and a capable one to boot. He transformed a low public into a respectable house of entertainment, which has completely altered the character of the district, and when those twin orphan sisters of his came out to him instead of governessing for a livelihood, they found themselves treated like young princesses.”

“And what of the bridegroom. Is the match a suitable one for this—young lady?”

Hilarion replied to the pause rather than to the question:

“Ah! I see you are incredulous. He is a very decent fellow, a surveyor, and there is plenty of work here for men of his profession. Young and he are starting together on a three months' expedition into the heart of the country the day after to-morrow, I believe.”

“Poor young bride! A short honeymoon!”

“Yes, poor fellow! A short honeymoon indeed!”

There was a perceptible difference in the two intonations: a note of wistful regret in the woman's; in the man's a ring of impatience and some other feeling.

It was such a night as one sees only in the tropics,

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flooded in moonlight and as bright as day. One could distinguish the different shades of leaf and flower, the delicate pink of the oleander, the greenish white of the seringa bloom, the waxen hue of the magnolia; the air was full of soft sounds and mysterious murmurs, laden with nutty fragrance and the heavier scent of the datura and trumpet-blossom. They had walked on till they had left the scarce habitations behind them, and Alma felt as if she were in some enchanted place. There was an unreality about this luxuriance of beauty, in the midst of which Hilarion and she were walking together as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; its very loveliness oppressed her, and she gave an involuntary little sigh and stopped short. They had come to a kind of gully with a range of low hills on one side, on the slope of which was built a solitary wooden house, shut in by a hedge of prickly pear that surrounded it. It was new and unbeautiful, the trellised sides of the verandah as yet bare of creeper or vine, and the front open to the gully. By the roadside where they were standing lay a tree log, and a small clump of trees still further back cast a kind of shadow onwards.

“Let us stop here,” said Alma; “we can sit down and speculate on that solitary, silent house, which would be almost ugly if it were not transfigured in this silvery radiance. And yet,” she continued, “I would sooner make my home there than go on, go back to——” she stopped abruptly with a quiver of pain in her voice.

“Yes, I know, everybody knows,” cried Hilarion; “go back to a man whose very presence is a degradation

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to your womanhood, to a life which must be one long endurance and martyrdom. “Why do you do it, you poor little woman? God, why do you do it?”

There was a note of passion in his voice that had not sounded till that moment.

“Stop,” exclaimed Alma, “say no more; for pity's sake, stop, Mr. Bingham.”

She shrank away a little, putting up her hand as if to hide her face, but he caught hold of her wrist and grasped it firmly while he went on with a torrent of rapid speech that she was powerless to check.

“You shall hear what people say about this husband of yours: that but for you he would not have a single friend or acquaintance, that no one would receive him into their houses. Do you know that you could divorce him to-morrow if you chose? What should hinder you from doing it, and entrusting your happiness to other keeping?” His voice softened as he spoke, and he dropped the hand he had grasped and laid his own gently upon it. “Don't sacrifice your whole life. He has himself disgraced the name he gave you. Cast it off, even if you accept no other.”

Alma turned upon him almost fiercely. “Do you think I should take back my own, the name that I never sufficiently valued, the name that belongs to my brothers, who sustain its honour in the service of their country? You must have a very poor opinion of me, Mr. Bingham, for I fear, indeed, I have brought this upon myself. Let us go back to the ship.” She spoke with dignity and made a movement to rise, but Hilarion gently restrained her, and her gaze followed

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his gesture as he pointed to the house on the hillside.

“Look,” he said, “look, we are in shadow and they cannot see us.”

A lamp had been brought into a room opening on the verandah, where a man and woman were standing close together, the moonlight full upon them. The man's arm was round his companion's shoulders, and one of hers, from which the loose sleeve of her white wrapper had fallen, was raised against the verandah post, her head resting on her hand; she was looking out into the night with a rapt expression, while his gaze rested on her face. For a few moments they stood thus like statues, marble-white in the moonlight, the pair below motionless as they. Suddenly they saw the man put his hand under the girl's rounded chin and turn her head towards him, when she flung both arms round his neck and was almost lifted off her feet as he clasped her to him in a close, long embrace.

In a transport of passion Hilarion caught Alma to his heart with wild kisses that she hardly repulsed. The spell of the night was upon her, and the happiness of the wedded lovers throbbed and thrilled in her breast as in his, knocking at her heart with a clamant persistence.

“You love me, Alma,” he whispered; “look up and say you love me.”

As Alma raised her head, she saw the verandah was deserted, the lights extinguished, and the house once more in silence and darkness. With a sudden revulsion of feeling, like the snapping of a string too tightly strained, she burst into tears and thrust

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Hilarion from her with a cry—“How could you—how could you?”

The reproach in her voice stung him like a blow as she sank sobbing on the tree trunk from which they had risen, and he uttered no word of protest or appeal till she had grown calmer; then he said simply—

“Forgive me, Mrs. Belmont; I was wrong. You do not love me, but I—love you. Give me a little pity for my love.”

“Pity! I have none to spare. I need it all for myself. You knew it. You cannot expect that I should either pity or forgive.”

She spoke with the cruelty, the perverse injustice of a woman at war with herself and unable to resist inflicting her own suffering on another, jerking out her words like so many lashes; and thus Hilarion felt them as he stood before her with head bowed and eyes cast down.

In the curious mechanical way that we see objects with our bodily eyes while the absorbed mind looks inwards, he became conscious of watching what appeared to be a piece of stick lying in the dust at a little distance from Alma's feet, and all at once it seemed to have changed its position and to be moving or dragging itself along the ground, till it had almost reached the hem of her dress. In a sudden he had realised her danger. Without a word of warning he lifted Alma up in his arms, and carried her some yards before setting her down again on her feet. As he did so, she struck him full in the mouth with the back of her ringed hand.

“How dare you? How dare you?” she cried furiously.

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He had already gone back to the spot where she had been sitting, and was striking with his stick at a wriggling, hissing reptile. Then for the first time she realised the danger from which he had saved her. She was trembling from hand to foot when he rejoined her.

“Thank God you are safe!” he exclaimed, with an indrawn gasp of relief.

“I owe you my life,” she said simply, then suddenly cried out, “But you are hurt—what is it?”

His face was lividly white from emotion, and he was holding a handkerchief to his mouth; as he removed it to reply, she saw that his lower lip was cut and bleeding, and again cried out anxiously, “Oh! what is it?—what is it?”

“Curious!” he said, with a smile that she felt to be worse than any reproach—“curious how remorselessly women can break a man's heart, and yet be pitiful over a drop of blood! There is no harm done, Mrs. Belmont. I was yours, and you have marked me with your brand—that is all!”

“And you saved my life!” She broke into a passion of tears.

“This is my reward,” he said, gently taking her hand in his and raising it to his lips. “I do not ask again for love nor pity—nor even for remembrance. If you think you owe me anything, give me your forgiveness. It is a compact, is it not? You shall forgive and forget, and I will forgive and—remember.”

He dropped the hand he held and waited, but Alma uttered no word. Moved by an impulse that she did not attempt to resist, she placed both hands on his

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shoulders and, with a grave tenderness that was almost a blessing, kissed him on the forehead.

“Goodbye, Hilarion!”

They stood a moment facing each other, looking each into the other's eyes. Then Hilarion quietly drew Alma's arm within his own.

“We will go back to the ship,” he said. And side by side—nearer rather than further from each other in spirit, since that mutual farewell—they retraced their steps in silence.