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Chapter I

Disappearance.

The day goeth down red darkling,
The moaning waves dash out the light,
And there is not a star of hope sparkling
On the threshold of my night.

The waves of a mighty sorrow
Have whelmed the pearl of my life;
And there cometh to me no morrow
Shall solace this desolate strife.

Gone are the last faint flashes,
Set is the sun of my years;
And over a few poor ashes
I sit in my darkness and tears.’

   Gerald Massey.

THE little company assembled in the Commissioner's tent looked at one another in astonished silence. Miss Langdon was just on the point of saying ‘Good-night,’ when the sergeant startled them with his intelligence, and now she stood there, tall, dark, and handsome, her habit gathered up in one hand, looking down at him pitifully.




  ― 146 ―

‘Oh, Jocelyn, there must be something awfully wrong!’

‘Wrong!’ interposed young Anderson—‘I should just think there must be! Never saw the sergeant knocked so completely off his chump before! The only thing is, what the dickens can it be? He can't have murdered his wife, you know. He ain't been married a month.’

‘Sergeant!’ said the Commissioner.

At the sound of his voice the habits of a lifetime came to his aid, and the sergeant rose to his feet.

‘I beg your pardon, sir,’ he said in a low, monotonous voice, out of which all life and passion seemed to have gone; and the four onlookers saw that his face was of a gray, ashy pallor, and his shoulders were bowed like those of an old man.

‘What is this, sergeant?’ asked the Commissioner kindly.

‘I’—it seemed he had to moisten his dry lips before the words would come—‘I have killed my wife, sir!’

‘Nonsense, man!—you're dreaming!’

The girl standing by the table laid down her whip, and took up the chamois leather bag the sergeant had flung there on his entrance, and turned it slowly round. He watched her with fascinated eyes. Then young Langdon, who had his own ideas of what was the best thing to be done in an emergency, poured out a nobbler, filled it up with water, and pushed it across the table to him.

‘Drink it, sergeant; it'll steady your nerves. And then tell us what's the meaning of all this.’

He took the proffered glass with a hand he vainly strove to keep still, and drank its contents.




  ― 147 ―

‘Now, sergeant?’

‘I've killed my wife, sir.’

His voice sounded monotonous, hopeless. Evidently that was the only fact that had impressed itself upon him. All else would have to be dragged out of him by cross-examination.

‘How, sergeant?’

The other three stood there listening, and the Commissioner motioned them with his hand to be silent.

‘I—I——’

He looked helplessly in his questioner's face, and then his eyes wandered off to the gold-bag Miss Langdon was fingering again.

‘Come, sergeant, did you kill her on purpose?’

‘No, no; I said I'd kill her, but, before God, I didn't think to do it!’

‘I said he'd repent before the year was out,’ muttered Anderson in Bob Langdon's ear; ‘but, by heaven, I never thought it 'd come to this!’

‘Where's your pistol?’ asked the Commissioner, going on asking questions with what seemed to the woman beside him cruel persistency.

His hand wandered aimlessly to his belt. The pistols were there right enough.

‘No, I didn't shoot her.’

‘What did you do, then? Come, sergeant, this is waste of time!’

‘I—I took her up in my arms. I—I don't know how it happened—her head must have hit against the rock, I think—I saw her lying there white and dead. I saw her—I saw her, sir—my little girl, that I—that I——’

The four listeners could say nothing for a moment. Whatever it was, there had been a desperate tragedy


  ― 148 ―
in this man's life. But it was necessary to come to the bottom of this, and the Commissioner asked again:

‘Where were you, sergeant?’

‘Up in the gully at the head of the creek, sir.’

‘At this hour of the night? What the devil were you doing there?’

‘I——’ The sergeant paused; but the whole shameful truth had to come out sooner or later, there was no hope of saving her good name, and he went on with a visible effort: ‘I followed my wife, sir.’

‘Your wife?’ The Commissioner hesitated. Officers of the law are but men, after all, and it seemed a cruel thing to ask this crushed and broken man what his wife had done that he should have felt it necessary to follow her. ‘I am sorry for you, sergeant; but what did your wife go up the creek for?’

‘I don't know for certain,’ hesitated the sergeant, and his eyes were still on the gold-bag.

‘You had some idea, though?’

‘I thought—I mean—I think——’

‘Take your time, sergeant. Yes, well, you followed her up the gully? And what do you think she went there for?’

‘I think—I think she went for that bag of gold.’

‘Oh!’ The Commissioner took up the bag as if its touch would elucidate the mystery. ‘And where was the bag?’

‘Buried by a big granite boulder, sir. I watched her dig it up.’

‘Did she know you were watching?’

‘No, sir.’

‘You were hidden in the scrub, I suppose?’

‘Yes, sir.’

It seemed to the wretched man only yesterday that


  ― 149 ―
he had stood by and listened to the Commissioner questioning his wife—who was not his wife then, and never ought to have been his wife—and heard her monosyllabic replies. And now she was dead, lying there at the foot of that great boulder, white and still in the bright moonlight, with her pretty yellow hair spread out across the soft, cool grass. And he had killed her—he, who loved her better than his life, had laid her there. The owl overhead was hooting the shameful truth; he heard it in the mournful wail of the curlews that came fitfully over the ranges. Then he started, for he was in the Commissioner's tent. In front of him was the dining-table, with a disorderly array of tumblers and glasses and decanters on it; the Commissioner was speaking to him with a ring of pity in his voice, and a woman was looking at him with pitiful dark eyes.

‘What did she want the gold for?’

‘I—I don't know, sir.’

‘But you must have some idea, else why——’

‘I thought,’ his voice was sunk to a hoarse whisper hardly under his own control—‘I thought she was going to give it to Black Anderson.’

The Commissioner started, and dropped the gold-bag, and his clerk gave vent to a long, low whistle, his favourite method of expressing astonishment.

‘Black Anderson's got clean away to Frisco, man!’ he said.

‘I saw him to-night, though,’ said the sergeant, like a man for whom the worst has passed. It mattered not now what he said or did. He had told the very worst. ‘I saw him to-night for a minute standing up among the fern, and I heard her say, “Run, Dave, run!” Then I—I—then I——’




  ― 150 ―

He put one hand on the table, and leaned heavily on it. Then he put his two hands together and wrung them like a woman in unspeakable pain.

‘So it was true, after all, what they said about her and Black Anderson!’ said Anderson impetuously.

‘Oh, hush, hush!’ cried Winifred Langdon pitifully.

She felt that the boy standing there could not realize this man's sorrow.

Then the Commissioner asked one more question:

‘Do you think she went there to meet Black Anderson, sergeant?’

‘Yes, sir.’

His head drooped on his breast. He stood there before them, those happy young people, a shamed and disgraced man. The Commissioner's future wife stood beside him, a tall, handsome, happy woman. His wife, younger by several years than she, lay out there in the gully, dead; and he had killed her, and worse still, oh, worst of all! he read in the eyes of these people, even in the pitiful eyes of the girl opposite, that they thought he had had a perfect right to kill her.

‘Whose was this bag of gold?’ asked the Commissioner sharply; and he opened it and poured out a little heap of yellow gold-dust and shining nuggets on to a newspaper in front of him.

‘I don't know, sir.’

He ran his fingers through it as Jenny had done one fatal night, and turned up the little nugget in the shape of the cross with one arm.

‘Now, that's peculiar,’ said the Commissioner; ‘any man who found that nugget would remember it.’

But no man there had seen it before.

‘I remember,’ said young Anderson, ‘Pard Derrick


  ― 151 ―
telling me some time ago he ought to have the devil's own luck, for he'd found the Holy Cross with but a wee bit broke off. Could he have meant that, do you think?’

‘We'll see about that in the morning. Winny, it's getting late, and I must——’

‘And I must go home,’ she said.

Their horses were being walked up and down outside by an impatient and curious trooper, who had seen Sergeant Sells go in, and wondered what on earth he could have to say to the Commissioner at that hour of the night, that he should have dashed in so unceremoniously.

Bob Langdon mounted, and the Commissioner helped his sweetheart into her saddle in dead silence. Then she put her hand on to his shoulder.

‘Jocelyn, what are you going to do? What will be done with that poor man?’

‘I'm off at once to see if his story's true. He's so shaken and off his head that as likely as not he's exaggerating. I don't suppose she's dead. He knocked her down. I expect that's about the long and the short of it.’

‘But, Jocelyn—that girl—and that other man?’

‘Yes. I'm afraid there's not the shadow of a doubt she's been playing a double game. She's played the sergeant false, and—and—— Well, what is there to be said?’

‘He looked like a man who had broken his heart,’ mused the woman.

‘Poor beggar!’ said the man. Then, under pretence of seeing to her stirrup-leather, he stooped and managed to impress a lover-like kiss on her hand. Her brother called to her, and they rode off together.




  ― 152 ―

The Commissioner went back to his tent again, where his clerk and Sergeant Sells were still standing.

‘Now, sergeant,’ he said, ‘do you think you can take me and one or two troopers up the gully to where this occurred?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘All right. We'll start at once. Anderson, you'll see to the safety of that gold? Wynne’—he called his orderly—‘get Jackson, will you, and be ready to start up the gully at the head of the creek with the sergeant and me in five minutes.’

Outside the tent again, the sergeant felt it cruelly strange that all things should be so unaltered. There was the round full moon sailing up in the sky, the white tents, the deep dark shadows. He looked behind him at his own house, the only wooden building on the camp. The light was still burning in the little parlour, and silhouetted in the open window he still saw his guest. What a lifetime he had lived through since he had sat opposite Tom Clark at tea!

Then they went down through the diggers' camp, passed the Lucky Digger, where the men were still shouting and singing in the bar, and crossed the creek. They were in the gully now, and the sergeant led the way without a word. Over rocks and logs, crushing the fern and water-plants and creepers, straight on in silence he led them, till at last they came to the opening, the little break where he had enacted the tragedy of his life. Then he drew back. He could not, he would not, look at her dead face.

‘There!’ he said hoarsely, and he pointed ahead with his finger.

The Commissioner pushed aside the ti-tree and creeper as he himself had done an hour before.




  ― 153 ―

‘Why, man—God bless my soul, sergeant! there's nothing here!’

In a moment the sergeant stood beside him, and the other two men quickly followed. It was light as day, but no sign was there of the girl he had left there dead.

‘Sergeant, you've been dreaming. It was only a bad nightmare after all.’

He leaned up against the granite boulder for support. There—there he had seen her lying dead. The men were looking at him curiously. They did not understand what they had been brought here for, and the Commissioner was searching round the little break in the scrub for some confirmation of his sergeant's extraordinary story.

‘You see, sergeant, there is nothing.’

He silently pointed to the little heap of up-turned earth close at his feet.

‘Any animal might have done that—a wombat, a bandicoot.’

‘I wish to God, sir. I thought so! I saw her myself turning up the earth with that stick.’

It was lying there, a small stick broken off the ti-tree. Yes, looking again, the Commissioner thought that little hole was the work of human hands. But where was the girl? There was certainly no sign of her. One of the men picked up a uniform-cap on the edge of the scrub.

‘Hallo, sergeant! Here's your cap.’

Evidently he had been here, thought the Commissioner, looking at him as he sat there on a ledge of rock, his arms resting listlessly on his knees, and his head drooped forward on his breast. He took the cap mechanically from the man, and dropped it on


  ― 154 ―
the ground beside him. The evening was cool, and the wind which came up the gully was quite chilly, but his head was too hot to bear a cap.

The Commissioner was at fault. He was thoroughly sorry for the sergeant, but he hardly knew what else to do. He certainly could not stop there much longer, and yet a certain delicacy made him hesitate before exposing his non-commissioned officer's private affairs to the two troopers standing by. He crossed over and stood beside him, and the sergeant rose to his feet wearily.

‘It's true, sergeant, what you have been telling me? You don't think you could have imagined it? You haven't been drinking?’

The other shook his head.

‘No, sir.’

‘And where did you last see your wife?’

‘Here, sir. Lying at my feet here, sir.’

‘For Heaven's sake, man, let's get a clear understanding of the thing. Now, tell me, how did it all happen? Where did she hit her head?’

‘I—she——’ He hesitated, then went on more calmly: ‘I was standing just here, and with my hand on her shoulder, when she called to the man behind me among the fern there! My God! I didn't care much what I did, and I lifted her up, and I flung her against the rock there. I think so. I can't say rightly what happened. I know I saw her lying white and still there. And I'd done it.’

‘And the man?’

‘I don't know. I don't rightly remember. I never thought of him.’

Commissioner Ruthven took a puzzled turn or two up and down the small clearing; then he turned to his orderly.




  ― 155 ―

‘Wynne,’ he said, ‘you don't see any traces of anybody having been about here, do you? The sergeant swears he saw Black Anderson here among that clump of fern not an hour ago, and he declares he left his wife here. Where the dickens have they got to?’

Trooper Wynne's countenance was a study. To express all he felt would, he thought, hardly be consistent with the respect due to his superior officer; and with the sergeant within earshot—though, to be sure, he did not look as if he were paying much attention—it hardly seemed to him decent to give his true opinion of the sergeant's wife.

‘No, sir. We haven't seen any sign, sir. But if he left those two together—well, sir, it isn't for me to give an opinion, but all the camp knows she was always Black Anderson's girl. It's hard luck on the sergeant, but everyone knew how it would be!’

‘But the sergeant says she was dead when he left her—lying there dead on the ground by the rock there!’

‘Says he killed her, does he, sir?’ Trooper Wynne grasped the situation at once. ‘I thought there was something very wrong with the sergeant. Well, if he killed her, she'd be there; and if he didn't, perhaps the other man took her away with him. The sergeant's so off his head, he doesn't look as if he knew much about it.’

‘Possibly she might have gone back to her father's,’ said the Commissioner thoughtfully, but Wynne shook his head.

‘Not she, sir, if it was Black Anderson. She was always “dead nuts,” as they used to say, on Black Anderson. The sergeant oughtn't to have married her; but he was just mad after her; and they do say


  ― 156 ―
Sal Carter made the match. She was a good enough girl, to my thinking, was Jenny Carter—a little simple, perhaps, and wild about Black Anderson. If he was up here in the ranges—and likely as not he is—and she got wind of it, he'd but to hold up a finger and I'll bet the sergeant might go to pot, for all she'd care!’

‘The sergeant swears he killed her.’

‘It's a curious fact, sir,’ went on Trooper Wynne, emboldened by the puzzled Commissioner's thus discussing the matter with him, ‘how mighty fond some men are of saying that sort of thing. Now, I'll bet she was up the minute his back was turned, and off after the other man. It's hard luck on the sergeant, anyhow. He looks pretty well broken by it, doesn't he, sir?’

He did indeed look a broken man, thought the Commissioner, as he glanced at him; but much as he pitied him, this man's sorrow was not his sorrow, and if Black Anderson was anywhere about he must be followed up immediately.

‘I believe you're right, Wynne,’ he said. ‘I'm pretty nearly sure you're right. But now, the next thing is to take Black Anderson. He can't be far off, and a woman 'll hamper him.’

‘No woman's going to hamper Black Anderson, sir. He'll stick to her just so long as she's useful to him, and it must be deadly work all alone in the mountains. Then, when he's tired of her, he'll drop her like a hot potato. They count him a jolly sort of fellow, Black Anderson, but he's got no works. Don't you believe it, sir; no woman's going to hamper him!’

‘Poor girl!’ said the Commissioner pitifully. ‘Well, he can't have got far in an hour, anyhow. Do you know this place at all, Wynne?’




  ― 157 ―

‘No, sir.’

Wynne glanced round. The steep, high hills shut them in on every side. The gully up which they had come was narrow enough, and it seemed to end in an impassable barrier of rocks which formed a wall right across. A little to the left, however, the steep rocks split into a narrow gorge, down which trickled the creek, but it was impossible any man could have come down that.

‘Seems a pretty stiff sort of place, sir, doesn't it?’ said Wynne, after his survey. ‘Easy as rolling off a log for the man that knows it, but a hard nut to crack for anyone else. He'll be miles away—miles away—while we're fooling round for a track.’

‘That's true enough,’ said the Commissioner. ‘Still, we must just look round for that track. If we can't find it, we'll get the trackers from Yackandandah to-morrow. Look alive now, you and Jackson, and see if you can't find a way they might have gone.’

Then he walked over to where the sergeant was standing.

‘Look here, sergeant, it's no use your distressing yourself like this. I don't think you killed her. Knocked her insensible, maybe; but you were too excited to notice the difference. Come, now, don't you think that's likely?’

The wretched man raised his face, and a gleam of hope shot athwart it.

‘My God, sir! If—if—— But where is she?’

The Commissioner looked away. Why was the moon so cruelly bright? It would have been easier to tell a thing like this in the dark.

‘She—I'm afraid, sergeant, she must have followed Black Anderson, if you're sure it was he you saw. Of


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course, she may have made her way down to the Lucky Digger; but from what the men say, I would not buoy myself up with any false hopes, if I were you.’

It seemed brutal thus to show him, thought the Commissioner, that he had been discussing his wife with the troopers; but put it as gently as he could, it would come to the same thing in the end, and, looking at his face, he did not think the misery could deepen there.

‘I would rather she was dead!’ he whispered to himself. ‘My God! even if I killed her myself!’

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