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Chapter I

Jenny Carter.

She will not hear my music? So!
Break the string; fold music's wing;
Suppose Pauline had bade me sing!
‘One Way of Love.’ Robert Browning.

JENNY CARTER leaned over the bar-counter, her elbows on the rough planks among the glasses and tin pannikins, and her chin in her hands. Her face was tanned and freckled by the strong winds and fierce sun of Northern Victoria, and her yellow hair had a bleached look as if that sun had stolen some of the colour from it. Still, she was not counted pretty without reason, for her big brown eyes looked out wistfully from under their long lashes, and the rare smile that parted her red lips showed a row of milk-white teeth.

But Jenny Carter had not yet learned her own value in a land where women of any sort were scarce, and a pretty unmarried one a valuable commodity,

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and very evidently no thought of her personal appearance had ever come either to trouble or to gratify her. Her yellow curls had been tossed and tumbled by the wind all day long, and her lilac cotton gown was buttoned all awry. It had seen service, too, that gown, and was faded in some parts to a dull and dingy white, and the rents and tears that were pretty numerous had been mended in a fashion that could only be called slipshod. It was open at the neck a little for coolness, for the January day had been a sweltering one, and the line where the sun-tan ended showed as a dark ring round her white neck; the sleeves, too, were rolled up to the elbows, but that was evidently their normal condition, for the round young arms were all one golden brown, like her face.

The Lucky Digger hotel and store was a poor enough place, half canvas tent, half bark and corrugated iron shanty, and the counter, which ran the whole length of the room, merely consisted of rough boards laid along the tops of casks, some empty and some full. The floor was bare earth beaten hard by the passage of countless feet. The stock-in-trade was stored in numerous bottles on the shelves nailed up against the walls, wherever the walls would bear shelves; and, for the rest, bags of flour, cases of gin and brandy, boxes of tobacco, kerosene, matches—in fact, all the necessaries of a digger's life—were piled up in the corners and on the floor in seemingly hopeless confusion.

It was early yet, and the place was comparatively empty. One or two idlers and loafers stood about, trying to cadge a drink or win a smile from the proprietor's pretty daughter, but in a desultory, half-hearted fashion. The business of the day would not fairly

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begin till the sun had set over the ranges in the west and the diggers came trooping in for a song and a chat, and, maybe, if Sailor Joe were there, and was not too drunk to play his fiddle, a bull dance would be attempted. Then, indeed, the competition for Jenny's hand would be keen.

There were no other women besides Jenny and her stepmother within many miles, and the men who did not succeed in getting them must needs console themselves with each other; but there was no hurry—that was three or four hours off yet. It was hopeless to think of securing Jenny beforehand, for though she might promise readily enough—but, again, she might not—it would all come to the same thing if Black Anderson happened to be there. The sergeant from the police camp on the plateau overlooking the diggings was bad enough—he always regarded Jenny as his own property—but when Black Anderson was there it was hopeless.

Not that the girl made any show of liking one way or another. It was patent that she did care for Black Anderson, infinitely preferred him to any of the many who nightly visited that shanty, though no man could have told exactly how he knew it any more than he could have said why he knew she hated the sergeant. She neither sought the one nor avoided the other, but it was common talk on Deadman's that Buck Carter's Jenny was ‘dead nuts’ on Black Dave Anderson, and that she feared the police sergeant.

Neither of them was there at the moment. Buck Carter himself lay along a pile of flour-sacks, his head a little lower than his heels, sleeping heavily. He sampled his own liquor a little too often, though in all probability he got it somewhat purer than he deemed

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wholesome for his customers, taken as a body; still, it had its effect on him, and, as a rule on hot afternoons his wife or daughter looked after things while he slept the sleep, if not of the just, at least of the full. His daughter glanced at him carelessly. It was always the same every afternoon, and so long as he was right for the evening she did not much care.

Outside was the busy hum of many voices, for there were two thousand men on the new field, and their claims were pegged out as close together as might be. Even the silence of two thousand men is audible.

From the open tent-door the girl could see away down the gully to the jutting shoulder of the hill, whereon stood the police camp, in marked contrast, with its white tents and neat fence, to the rough unkempt diggers' camp that lay below, and was the reason of its existence. The hills opened out here into a little flat, and the creek (Deadman's Creek) cut a way for itself, with many windings, through the soft alluvium.

Such a pretty creek it had been six months ago, in spite of its sinister name—ferns and mosses and flowering creepers clothed its banks, and tall trees and tree-ferns and undergrowth grew on the surrounding hills. Now the clear sparkling water had become of the consistency of pea-soup; the trees—at least, for some distance round the camp—were represented by blackened stumps; ferns, grasses, and flowers were hidden under upturned heaps of yellow earth. Cradles and tubs stood in double lines along the banks of the creek, and the ramshackle dwellings of the diggers—sometimes tent, sometimes slab hut, bark-roofed, sometimes only a miserable lean-to made out of scraps of corrugated iron and old kerosene-tins — were

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dotted about as close as possible to the windlass that stood over every man's own particular claim.

Hot and ugly and uninviting the whole scene looked this January day. Away over the hills yonder there might be cool and shaded nooks where the hot sun did not penetrate, and where the graceful tree-ferns dipped their long fronds in clear and sparkling water. But here in the centre of the camp the garish sun held undisputed sway. It was hot, hot everywhere. In the bar of the Lucky Digger, with multifarious odours of the various stores and the reek of stale liquor in the air, it was hottest of all.

The sunbeams grew longer and longer, and crept in through the tent-door and up along the earthen floor till they touched the edge of the counter. The girl watched them idly. She watched the motes dancing in the doorway, watched the little swirl of dust that the faintest breath of wind raised on the track outside, and hardly heard the desultory conversation which the idlers who leaned over the bar kept up with each other. It was a monosyllabic conversation with many pauses, for the day was hot, and the long silences were filled in by the deep snores of the sleeping man and the chatter of children which came from behind the canvas screen dividing the living rooms from the bar and store.

Presently the curtain was thrust aside, and a tall dark young woman stood in the doorway. Handsome in a coarse sort of way, but as untidy as Jenny herself, she swayed herself slowly backwards and forwards, half mechanically, hushing to sleep the baby she held in her arms.

‘You, Jenny!’ she said sharply; ‘ain't you ashamed

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of yourself, a-loafin' there all the afternoon, an' me just worn out with this child?’

Jenny crossed the room slowly and took the baby from the woman's arms, then, drawing out a three-legged stool from beneath the counter, she sat down thereon, and bent over the little morsel of humanity with a world of tenderness in her attitude. Mrs. Carter stretched out her arms as if glad to be rid of their load, and, stepping into the centre of the room, looked round her with a frown; then shook her sleeping husband to his feet with no gentle hand.

‘You lazy, good-for-nothing, drunken——’

But here some man in the crowd ventured on an approving snigger, and Sal Carter turned on him sharply.

‘And what business is it of yours, I'd like to know?’ she asked viciously. ‘Out you go, every man jack of you! I know you, sittin' there waitin' till some fool 'll come along as 'll shout drinks for the crowd. Out you go, I say!’

‘Well, missus,’ said one, bolder than the rest, ‘ain't that good for trade?’

‘Mind your own business! I'm goin' to have the place to myself a bit. Clear now!’

The man in the corner swore a good round swinging oath that even commanded the respect of men who had graduated in the gaols of Sydney and Van Diemen's Land, and, lifting up the edge of the tent, peered out.

‘There's that trap comin' along.’

The gentlemen who favoured the Lucky Digger with their company, though ostensibly honest as the day, evidently had a rooted objection to meeting the police if it could be avoided. No drinks being forth-coming,

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a bad-tempered woman to entertain them, and a sergeant of police riding straight along the dusty track with the evident intention of making this house his destination — the meeting silently and unanimously concluded to adjourn till a more favourable opportunity for continuing business presented itself, and one by one the idlers slunk quietly away.

Mrs. Carter laughed grimly.

Then she turned to her husband.

He was sitting on a flour-sack, holding his head with both hands, as if he feared it might break up into fragmentary pieces if he let go for a moment. He was a little uncertain of his own identity too, and gazed at his wife as if he rather thought he was one of the loafers she had so unceremoniously dismissed.

‘There's a bucket of water outside for you,’ she said, ‘and you'd better get along quick—here's the sergeant a-comin'.’

The landlord stumbled away behind the curtain, and his wife turned to her stepdaughter with the air of one who has thoroughly done her duty.

‘Trounced 'em well, didn't I? Give us over that kid, Jenny; here comes the sergeant.’

Jenny looked out at the open door away down the track. A trooper was riding slowly along it, and the dust that rose to his horse's knees stained its four white feet red. A smart-looking man was Sergeant Sells, who had been a non-commissioned officer in a cavalry regiment once, and still retained the soldierly air which only years of drill can give. The sun gleamed on his silvered shoulder-straps and on the mountings of his cartouche-box, and, as he dismounted at the door, showed up a gray hair or two in his neatly-trimmed whiskers and the deep-red scar

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which ran right across his left cheek. It was somewhat of a vexation to the sergeant when he reflected that he was a middle-aged man in a community where most men were young, for he was older, indeed, than Buck Carter; albeit, that gentleman had somewhat undermined his constitution by the too careful sampling of his own liquors, and the sergeant's figure was still trim and youthful. But there was no doubt about it, crow's feet were beginning to creep about the corners of his cold, steely-gray eyes, and more than one or two gray hairs had grown in his coal-black hair and whiskers.

Cold, stern, suspicious, a man who himself was the soul of neatness, and who, up in the camp, succeeded in keeping things to the very high standard Commissioner Jocelyn Ruthven set up for himself, he was the last man in the world one would have expected to meet in a low grog shanty; and seeing him there, not one in a thousand could have suspected that the untidy, pretty girl so lovingly bending over her stepmother's baby was the magnet that drew him thither. He hardly acknowledged to himself that the attraction existed; and when he did, it was only to make solemn vows that never again, save in the pursuit of duty, would he enter the place—a vow he made as often as he left the Lucky Digger, only to break it next day, or at most the day after.

What was this girl to him, he asked himself angrily, that she should take possession of his very soul? He did not want her for a wife, this slattern who stood all day long tending the bar, serving with her own hands, listening to the conversation of men whose very presence was an insult to a woman. He had dreamt his dreams; he had had his hopes, and his ideal

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woman had been so different, so very different. Besides, what need to think of this girl? She never gave him a second thought.

And then he rode slowly down in the direction of the Lucky Digger, and found that his heart beat high as he noted that, for once, the only occupants of the place were Jenny and her stepmother; and Jenny was bending over the child in her arms as tenderly and fondly as even the spotless woman of his dreams might have done! She raised her eyes as he entered, and he caught the glance—pathetic, wistful, appealing, it seemed to him for the moment; the next, the cruel thought came to him that it was dislike and fear he read in those brown eyes. What matter? She was nothing to him; never should be—never—never!

‘Well, Mrs. Carter,’ he said awkwardly, ‘is the mail in yet?’

‘The mail! Lord bless the man! the mail ain't due till to-morrow, and then like as not it won't be here till Saturday. What'll you take, sergeant?’

It was a sorry enough excuse he had felt as he asked the question; but the sergeant was one of those men who are not ready with an excuse, and he felt bitterly that this woman must know, as indeed she did, that he had come here for no other purpose than to look once more at her stepdaughter.

‘Give me a nobbler, then,’ he said, and he leaned over the counter, cudgelling his brains for some remark that might make Jenny lift her eyes to him again.

Mrs. Carter divined his wishes.

‘Where's the brandy, Jen?’ she asked. ‘Here, give us over that kid, and get it for the sergeant yourself.’

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‘It's on the shelf there,’ said Jenny sullenly. ‘You can get it easy enough. I'll keep baby; he's goin' off at last.’

The sergeant drank his nobbler slowly, and Mrs. Carter, her arms folded in luxurious idleness, leaned up against the wall and tried to make conversation for the trio; but she had to do it all herself, for neither of the others helped her in the least.

‘Drat it all, sergeant!’ she said at last, ‘ain't you got a tongue in your head?’

‘Have you seen Black Anderson lately?’ he asked. ‘I saw a man who said he was a brother of his last time I was down in Melbourne with the escort.’

He noticed the flush mount slowly through the sun-tan to Jenny's forehead—noticed, too, that she was all attention now, though she never raised her head; and his blood boiled within him to think that he was placing himself in the position of rival, and unsuccessful rival at that, to Black Anderson—a man whose very reputation should have forbidden him the society of any decent woman.

‘Did you, now?’ said Mrs. Carter, by way of taking a polite interest in the conversation; ‘well, I'm thinkin' now that it's not the likes of Black Dave 'll be mindin' much about his kith an' kin. It's all he can do to——’

‘What?’ asked the trooper suspiciously.

‘Oh, nothen—only men can't be botherin' about their brothers with the colony in between them. It's hard livin' these times.’

‘Oh, gammon! you and the old man are making your fortune. You'll be flitting one of these fine days, and going to Sydney to live like a fine lady.’

‘Mebbe,’ she said indifferently; ‘but there ain't

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much o' the fine lady about me; as long as trade's brisk the bar 'll suit me. There's Jen, now; she's got the makin' of a gran' lady in her. Sit an' do nothin' but moon around all day long she will. An' she's pretty, too, an' silks an' velvets 'll set her off.’

The sergeant looked at Jenny. A future in which Black Anderson had no part held no interest for her, and she had bent over the baby again. Assuredly, a career in which she had no part looked blank and forbidding to him, and yet a future which she controlled—might it not hold possibilities still more terrible?

No fear of that! She would not even look at him.

‘Good-evening, Mrs. Carter,’ he said, tossing off the last drops in the bottom of his glass.

He would not trouble to speak to Jenny, he told himself. It was time this foolish fancy was crushed right out, and it should die here and at once. Then, by way of putting a finishing touch to his wise resolutions, he crossed the room and stood looking down at the girl as she swayed slowly to and fro with the child in her arms.

‘Miss Jenny,’ he said, and in spite of himself his voice, usually somewhat harsh and dry, took a softer tone; ‘aren't you going to say “good-night” to me?’

She raised her eyes—beautiful eyes in which there lingered a soft tenderness born of her love for the baby in her arms, or for the man they had been speaking of, and the trooper knew what without her his life might just as well end there and then. But the softness died as she read the love in his face, and he turned without another word, his spurred heels ringing as he walked away and mounted his horse.

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