Chapter XI

To This Last.

The loftiest and purest love too often does but inflame the cloud of life with endless fire of pain.—‘Sesame and Lilies.’ Ruskin.

JENNY'S face looked innocently happy, as he had not seen it look since the day the German was murdered, and he saw that any remonstrance of his would be

  ― 125 ―
thrown away. She would go to her lover if a dragon stood in the way, and he turned away with a muttered ‘Good-bye.’

‘Won't you have a nobbler?’ she asked, with ready hospitality, for women in little things are meaner than men, and it never occurred to her that he would refuse.

‘No,’ he said, and with a muttered curse, whether for the falseness or the faithfulness of women he could not himself have told, he turned away and went back to his claim again; and when on the road he saw Sergeant Sells advancing towards him, he moved out of his path as a man who had done him a great wrong.

The sergeant certainly never gave a second thought to Pard Derrick. He was wondering if they two would get on better if they were not so much alone. Suppose he asked a comrade in to tea occasionally; perhaps, under cover of his presence, he would find himself able to speak more easily to his wife, possibly she might get to address him as a matter of course. It was rather a forlorn hope, and he laughed a little cynically to himself as he thought how it would sound that a man who had been married just a month should ask a comrade in in order that he might the more easily get acquainted with his own wife. No, he would, not like his mates to know that. Still, there was nothing else to be done, and when he dismounted at his own door, he had quite made up his mind as to his future course.

‘Jenny!’ he called, ‘Jenny!’


‘Have something nice for tea, will you? I'm going to ask Tom Clark in.’

‘All right.’

  ― 126 ―

It would be a good thing, she thought, if he had a friend to keep him company; he could not watch her so closely. She would be able to slip away so much the more easily; and she set the mid-day meal so cheerfully, moved so differently from her usual listless manner, that her husband would have been blind if he had not noticed it. He set it down to pleasure at the prospect of company other than his, and the reflection gave him so much pain he had half a mind not to ask Tom Clark, and to abandon his project altogether.

But he did not like to go back on his word, so that night Trooper Clark sat down to tea with his sergeant and his wife.

And the experiment was not a success. Hardly had they sat down before he saw that for himself. If he could not speak to his wife alone, he could find no words at all with the big, shy trooper sitting alongside him. His wife was evidently not interested in Clark, though she looked brighter than he had seen her for many a long day. He addressed a remark to her now and then shyly, and she smiled back in reply, but did not speak, and it was always some time before he could summon up courage to try again. As for the host, he racked his brains for some trivial remark to make in vain, and relapsed into stony silence with an uncomfortable feeling that his guest must see how the land lay, and must be reading him through. As a matter of fact, Trooper Clark did no such thing. He was so much in awe of the sergeant himself that he did not wonder at the silence of his wife. He only wished her husband would go out and let him have ‘a go in’ with her alone. She had never taken any notice of him down at the Lucky Digger, but he felt

  ― 127 ―
sure that, after having lived alone with Sergeant Sells for one whole month, she would be only too glad to vary the monotony. But Sergeant Sells did not express the least intention of going away.

Jenny cleared the table when they had finished, and he called to his guest to fill his pipe and come and sit by the open window. The evening was fresh and cool, the sky cloudless, and the rising moon made the whole of the camp visible. From where they sat they could plainly see the Commissioner and his clerk at dinner in their dining-tent, and knew that the lamp Jenny had lighted and put on the table before she went out into the kitchen must make them also plainly visible to any looking on. They had nothing to say to each other, those two, and they listened to the sounds of the washing-up coming through the thin wall from the kitchen beyond.

Trooper Clark wished he was there helping to wash those plates and dishes instead of smoking his pipe in state in the parlour, and Sergeant Sells wished he was there too. He was not going to take Tom Clark there. He wished he would go; he wished he had never asked him. And the washing-up went on apace, and Jenny even crooned a little song to herself, a song her husband had heard her sing when first he had made her acquaintance, nearly eight months ago now. She had never sung since she had been his wife. He wished his guest would go, that he might take advantage of this unwonted cheerfulness. Perhaps she would have talked to him to-night, if there had not been a stranger present.

But Trooper Clark could not possibly know how ardently his absence was wished for; so he smoked stolidly on, deriving a certain amount of pleasure

  ― 128 ―
from watching the progress of the Commissioner's dinner, and listening to the soft singing in the next room. Presently a young lady rode up to the Commissioner's tent, a young lady and another man; and Trooper Clark chuckled as he pointed out to his host that they were Miss Winifred Langdon and her brother Bob, a fact which the sergeant knew as well as he did. Then the curtain of the tent was suddenly drawn, as if to keep out prying eyes, and there was nothing left for Tom Clark to do but listen to the singing and watch for stray troopers to cross the moonlit square among the white tents, and the sentry pacing slowly up and down in front of the gold-tent. Then the singing stopped, the last plate was put away, and Jenny entered the room where the two silent men were sitting. She did not sit down; she did not even look at them. She only entered the bedroom, and came out with a shawl over her head. Trooper Clark felt a twinge of disappointment, for he had thought she had smiled pleasantly on him; but her husband was fairly astonished.

‘Why, Jenny!’ he said.

She felt some sort of explanation was due. She knew he would not be pleased, but she hardly thought he would stop her with the trooper sitting opposite.

‘I'm goin' down to father's,’ she said.

Sergeant Sells looked at her. He could hardly forbid her before a stranger, and she had reckoned on that.

‘But — but,’ he began clumsily enough, ‘you wouldn't be so rude as to leave Tom Clark here all alone?’

‘Oh, he's got you! I ain't goin' to be long. Peter's that sick, an' I promised 'im a bit of puddin'.

  ― 129 ―
Sal ain't got much time for cookin'; she's got her two hands pretty full now I'm gone.’

It was true enough, he knew, that the child was ill. Might she not mean to be back soon? Should he not be making matters worse by making a fuss before a stranger, making himself out a thorough tyrant, who would not even let his wife go and see her little brother? So he said nothing, and his guest watched his hostess out of the room, puffed away resignedly at his pipe, and turned his attention once more to the sentry in front of the gold-tent. The sergeant pushed his tobacco-pouch towards him, and he filled another pipe and calmly smoked on; after all, it did not make much difference whether he smoked here or in his own tent: he was getting accustomed to the sergeant's silence, and he began to wonder how long it would be before Mrs. Sells came in, and whether he should stop till then or not. He rather thought he'd stop; the tobacco was uncommonly good, and it was a good thing to be on such friendly terms with his sergeant. It would look well before the other fellows.

Then Sergeant Sells got up, and began to walk restlessly about the room, and he wondered again if he'd better go. There was a frown on his face, too, and he kept looking at the clock. His wife had not been gone half an hour yet; he surely could not be expecting her back already. Then another thought struck him.

‘I s'pose you'll be goin' down to meet the missus, an' bring her home—eh, sergeant?’ he said.

Sergeant Sells looked relieved.

‘Yes, yes, of course; I must do that, if you don't mind, Clark,’ he said. ‘She won't like coming up by herself. The child was sick,’ he added, vainly trying

  ― 130 ―
to make excuses for what he felt was her unpardonable rudeness, ‘and of course she had to go. If you'll excuse me, I'll go down and fetch her home.’ How he wished with all his heart he could have said she would be expecting him, she would be disappointed if he did not come! ‘But you stop here, I won't be long.’

‘All right,’ said Trooper Clark, settling himself back comfortably in his chair.

One of the other chaps would come across and talk to him, he thought, when the sergeant was gone, and it wouldn't be bad, and he watched him out of his own front-door with an easy mind. As a guest he felt more comfortable in his absence than in his presence.

Once outside, it did not take Sergeant Sells long to make his way down to the Lucky Digger. It was crowded with diggers, as usual, but only Buck Carter and a barman (engaged since Jenny's marriage) were serving out drinks. Neither Jenny nor her stepmother was there. He was glad of that. It gave him a comfortable sensation all over. He had forbidden her ever to go into the bar again, but he had not been at all sure that his wishes or commands would have any effect. So he was a happier man than he had thought, and he crossed the bar and spoke quite pleasantly to Buck Carter.

‘Where's the missus?’

‘Inside o' there, a-nursin' the kid,’ growled his father-in-law. ‘You kin go in if you want.’

He needed no second invitation, but, lifting the canvas screen, entered the living-room of the Carters. Sal was sitting by the window softly crooning to the child on her knee, but there was no one else in the

  ― 131 ―
room. He looked around anxiously as Mrs. Carter looked up.

‘Eh, sergeant,’ she said, ‘is that you? Why, Jen's been gone this quarter o' an hour. In a mighty hurry she seemed, an' lookin' quite perky, she was.’

The sergeant's stern face lighted up with pleasure. So she had only gone for a few minutes, just to take the child the pudding she had promised him. What on earth had he feared? He snapped his fingers for the benefit of the tired, white-looking little chap on his mother's knee, and said pleasantly:

‘I've come straight down, and I didn't see her. It's bright moonlight, too. Wherever can she have got to?’

‘Oh, likely as not you passed her on the road! If you was lookin' the other way she wouldn't say nothin'. She's home before you, I guess.’

He rose up hurriedly. What a fool he should look in Clark's eyes if his wife got home before him!

‘Good-night, Mrs. Carter;’ and he went outside again.

Then, as he stood on the dusty track that led up to the police camp, misgivings once more took possession of his soul. It was bright as day; his eyesight was clear as ever; he could not possibly have passed her. A man was leaning idly against the wall of the store, with an empty pipe between his teeth. His luck was bad, his tobacco-pouch was empty, and there was no more credit for him at the store.

‘Say, partner,’ he said, addressing the sergeant, as he paused and looked around him, ‘was you lookin' for your old woman?’

The trooper nodded. He shrunk from discussing Jenny with a stranger; but, at least, there could be

  ― 132 ―
little enough harm in hearing from this man where she had gone.

‘Because I seen her,’ said the man—‘I seen her a-makin' for the creek. Gone to set down by them steppin'-stones, I guess. It's mighty purty down there, I've heard; but I ain't had no time for such luxuries mysel'. But women likes 'em, bless you! I guess that's where you'll find her, partner; but don't you go for to tell her 'twas I set you on. It may be she's got a little game o' her own on, an' I'd be spoilin' sport.’

The sergeant recognised the man now; he was a digger the others called the Bandicoot, from his persistent ill-luck; but he was not going to listen to remarks on his wife, even in chaff, and with muttered thanks he turned away in the direction of the creek.

His pleasure had all gone. He was hardly uneasy as yet. She had been accustomed to cross the creek for quiet and coolness before she was married. Had he not found her there more than once? There was surely nothing to be alarmed about, nothing even to be vexed about, and yet, vaguely, he felt both alarmed and vexed. He made his way among the windlasses by the long line of cradles and tubs that lined the muddy creek—it was bright as day in the moonlight—and reached the stepping-stones. There was no sign of her there; but she might already have crossed, and if so, the thick scrub would hide her from view. He crossed the creek and entered the gully, and—he could hardly have told why himself—made his way very quietly along the narrow track that someone's feet had worn among the scrub and undergrowth.

He set down each foot very carefully, and moved aside the branches with his hands, so that not a snapping

  ― 133 ―
twig nor a rolling stone should betray his presence. Then he had qualms. Was it not mean so to spy on his own wife? And he answered himself at once, it was not. Why had she said she was going down to see her little brother, and, instead of coming home, come here? With every precaution he took, his fear that something was wrong grew apace, and with it arose jealousy and anger. If there were anything wrong, and he found it out now, here, where he had wooed and won her, he would kill her, he knew he would, and prudence called on him to turn back, to turn back and rest content with questioning her in the morning. There was nothing wrong, he told himself again and again: what should there be? She was little more than a child, an unhappy child, whom he had married, and whose love he had failed to gain; what more likely than that she, feeling no companionship in him—he acknowledged it to himself bitterly—had stolen away to the place she had always chosen when she wished to be alone? Why should he doubt—why? He asked himself the question as he went on, and tried to answer it; but he failed utterly. He only felt that he must find out what had brought his wife here, and if it were only just to be alone in the quiet moonlit night, then would he beg her pardon with all his heart. Then another thought arose and comforted him.

If he found her here alone, as he had found her once before, might he not come to a better understanding? Perhaps here in the open he could beg her not to fear him and shrink from him, could tell her of his boundless love, could try to bring her a little closer to himself. The new hope took firm possession of him, and he found himself wildly

  ― 134 ―
longing for the moment when he should come up with her.

There was a slight sound in front of him, and he paused and peeped through the ti-tree scrub and overhanging creepers. It was a little more open just in front, and the moonlight showed him a break in the scrub where the soft grass grew free from all undergrowth. The creek ran down one side, and beside it cropped out a huge granite boulder, and stooping down beside this boulder, not ten feet away from him, was Jenny, his wife.

The shawl had fallen from her head, and lay in dark folds on the ground behind her, and with a small stick she was digging at the base of the rock. There was no mistaking her; the moonlight showed him every outline quite plainly, her yellow hair, with the stray curls falling over her shoulders, making her look younger and more childish than ever, and the pink frock, the first frock he himself had given her. It was getting untidy now, but it was not yet as ragged and torn as the lilac he had wooed her in. She looked a trim little figure stooping there, and not unhappy either, only somewhat anxious.

But what could she be doing—what could she be doing? The unhappy man watching her leaned back against the steep hillside, and covered his face with his hands. Something was wrong, but what—what? He put up a passionate prayer to his God that he might find her out in no wrong, and then he looked again. So great was his love for her he was almost tempted to call aloud to her and warn her of his presence; but he restrained himself. He would never be happy now till he knew what it was she had come here for; it was hopeless to think of any such

  ― 135 ―
thing—he must find out the very worst; and he sank on his knees in the brushwood, and watched with all his eyes.

He had not to watch very long. She stood upright in a moment, and carefully looked all round her. Apparently she was satisfied that she was all alone, for she bent down again, and from the hole she had dug took out a little bag.

One glance showed him it was a bag, a leather gold-bag, such as every digger on the field used. It was full, too, and he wondered with a pain at his heart what his girlish wife was doing with a hidden store of gold, and where she could possibly have got it from. She did not look as if it had brought her any happiness; in truth, she handled it as if the very touch were repugnant to her, as indeed it was. It brought back to her all the shame and the sorrow she had well-nigh forgotten. It told her that in very truth her lover had been guilty of a cruel crime, for which she with all her tenderness could find no excuse. She had almost forgotten this in his absence. She had felt so tender and pitiful towards the hunted man, she had been so anxious for his safety, she had forgotten how richly he had deserved his punishment; but now the sight of the chamois leather bag brought it all back to her. She had hidden that bag out of sight as soon as she had the chance; she had felt she could not keep it near her, and she had stolen away and hidden it down beside the big granite boulder in the lonely gully, and there it had lain for the past two months, and now Dave wanted it. She sat down on a low stone, and turned the bag over and over in her lap, totally unconscious, poor child! of the eyes that watched her. Dave was to meet her here, but she

  ― 136 ―
supposed she must be too early; anyhow, he was not here, and she must wait a little for him.

All day long her soul had been full of the thoughts of seeing him once again. He was so much to her—so much; and she never gave a single thought to her husband. She had married him against her will, she had married him for Dave's sake; not all in vain might be her sacrifice, since he was still hiding in the ranges; and she never thought for a moment of the wrong she was doing, never thought that he might suffer. He was cold, stern, impassive; he was miles away from her; what did it matter about him so long as Dave was all right? She did not understand that her husband might suffer, she did not comprehend that he felt at all; if she had, she would have been pitiful, as she had been the day she warned him she was not the wife for him, down in this very gully. He had come out of his shell that day; even her half-developed mind had seen a little behind the screen of cold reserve, and she had done her best for him.

But that was two months ago, and she had forgotten all about it, or if she remembered at all, remembered only she herself had been too excited, too overcome, to understand rightly what had happened to her. No, there had never been room in her heart for anyone but Black Dave, and there was none still. She owed no duty to anyone in the world but him, her marriage was nothing to her, and now at the very first opportunity she came to him again.

She had not much fear of being followed. She would be supposed to be down with Sal, and the sergeant would be sitting with his friend. That he would leave him to come after her she never for a moment supposed. The minute she had heard

  ― 137 ―
Trooper Clark was coming to tea she had felt her difficulties were ended. Her husband would suppose she was at the Lucky Digger, and her stepmother would suppose she was back at the police camp. If she were late, she would say she had gone and sat by the creek because the night was so fine; and if he were angry—well, she did not care for that. One way or another, it did not make much difference to her what he thought. She would have seen Black Dave again, and that was all her soul longed for.