Chapter VII

Better So.

At the Door of Life, at the Gate of Breath,
There are worse things waiting for men than Death.’


THE sergeant said nothing. What could he say? He went slowly up to the wretched stretcher whereon the girl lay, and stood looking down on her—the girl who was his wife, the fair-haired, soft-eyed woman who had been all in all to him, whom he had loved so intensely, and who had cared for him so little, she had dragged his good name in the dust, and had made

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him the laughing-stock of the diggers' camp. And all for what? For a man who left her to die like this!

With the quick eye of a man accustomed to notice everything, he took in all the surroundings, saw the marks of the clayey soil and the green grass on her damp wet clothes, and mentally calculated how long she must have been lying there. A violent paroxysm of coughing shook her, and after a momentary hesitation he dropped his revolver, put his arms round her, and held her till it had passed, the other man meanwhile looking on in silence.

‘I think I'll light a fire, eh, sergeant?’ he asked. ‘Is she very bad? Will she get over it?’ and his tone was as matter-of-fact as if it were an everyday occurrence.

‘Light a fire if you can,’ said the sergeant. ‘The man's cleared out some time last night, I suppose; the blankets are all gone. I don't know, I should think she was dying.’

‘He was a d——d skunk to leave her like that,’ ventured the trooper; but the look on the sergeant's face did not encourage him to continue the conversation, and he went outside and began searching round for a dry stick or two to kindle the fire.

It took some time, but at last a tiny flame sprang up, and he tended it carefully, building his fire close to the doorway, where it had evidently been built before. Soon it was crackling and glowing in spite of the damp wood, and the dancing flames lit up the interior of the hut. The trooper went out and fetched in the wringing wet shawl, and, fastening it on two sticks, hung it before the fire to dry.

‘Is it any good looking round for the man?’ asked

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Ottaway, coming and standing on the other side of the stretcher, and looking down on the girl.

‘No, he's got clean away, I think.’

‘What'll I do? You ought to have a doctor,’ as a fresh paroxysm of coughing seemed to wrench the last spark of life from the girl's frail body.

‘Go back to camp,’ said the sergeant with an effort. ‘Tell the Commissioner how it is, and get blankets and anything else you can from my place. She can't last long, I think.’

‘Won't you have a doctor? Snaky Bill's new mate, Chunky Smith they call him, was a full-blown doctor in the old country; he's got all the papers quite right, they say.’

‘All right. Fetch him along if you can. But it's too late to do any good.’

‘And you—what'll you do?’

‘Stop here.’

‘Black Anderson might come back.’

The fire was crackling and dancing cheerfully now. The sergeant felt as if his hearing were become on a sudden preternaturally acute, as if he must perforce listen to every dropping coal and breaking twig, to the sound of the wind and rain outside, to the restless footsteps of the trooper, to the panting, sobbing breath and incoherent murmurs, broken perpetually by the cruel cough, of the girl he looked down on. He would gladly have put up his hands and shut out these disturbing sounds, but it seemed to him he must be unmoved before the other man.

‘And if he does?’

‘He might shoot you down like he did the old German.’

‘Well,’ said the sergeant bitterly, ‘after all, wouldn't

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that be the best thing that could happen? Go on, Ottaway; make haste, like a good fellow. Anderson won't come here again. It's the last place he'd come to.’

Ottaway turned away, and the sergeant felt himself compelled again to listen intently to his retreating footsteps. When he was gone he lifted the girl—how light a weight she was now, like a child in his arms!—and carried her to the fire. She was icy cold, and he took off his long dragoon cloak, warmed it at the fire, and, taking off her damp wet dress, wrapped her in it. The shawl was soon dry, and he chafed her cold feet and put it over them. Then he bethought himself of the brandy in his flask, and though it made her cough terribly, it seemed to put a little life into her.

‘Dave, Dave!’ she panted, ‘I knew you'd come back.’

The man bending over her drew back a moment. Then he steeled himself. What did it matter? He had known all along how it would be, and she was dying.

He stooped down again, and she seemed to recognise him, and put up her hands out of the enfolding wraps to push him away.

‘Run for your life, Dave, run, run! Never mind me.’

He had not minded her; he had never given her a thought; but she was past knowing that now.

She was so frightened, so frantic, so desperately anxious, and so near to death, he could not but try to soothe her last moments.

‘Hush, hush! He's right safe away. I'll not hurt him. Jenny, Jenny, don't you know me?’

‘The fire! the fire!’ she moaned, ‘the fire! Pard,

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you're usin' up all the wood, an' what'll I do to-morrow? Oh, it's that heavy, an' what'll I do to-morrow?’ The cough choked her then, but she struggled to make herself heard. ‘Dave, Dave, I mustn't let him——’

‘Jenny, Jenny, my poor little child!’

‘It's you,’ she said, ‘you,’ looking at him for the first time with some gleam of reason in her eyes. ‘You didn't ought to come here.’

He chafed her hands gently. They were burning hot now, and the terrible cough was worse than ever. It seemed as if she could not bear it, and, reluctant as he was, he felt he must hold her in his arms; how could he leave her lying there on the cold ground?

Consciousness was coming back to her for a brief space, and certainly she had some brief respite from the cough. Was it because he held her in his arms, or was it the last flicker before death?

Her eyes were closed, and he noted the long sweep of the thick eyelashes on her cheek, the blue veins in her eyelids and on her temples. The sun-tan was gone, and the sunken cheeks were white as marble; her yellow hair had fallen all across his arm. And this was his wife—the girl he had loved so madly, the girl he had married only three months ago! He had longed often to hold her like this, had hoped in time she would understand his love. But she had always moved away from him, had shaken off his hand; she had—what had she not done? and now, surely, it was the irony of fate that he should hold her in his arms to die.

She opened her eyes, her soft brown eyes, and looked up in his face, and he remembered in the old days, when first he knew her, how he had tried to make her look at him like that, and she never had—no, never, not once.

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She seemed to understand a little what he was doing for her: that he was brushing away her damp hair from her face, that he was pillowing her head on his arm, and a look of gratitude crept into her tired eyes. Dimly at last she seemed to understand.

‘I'm dreamin',’ she gasped—‘I'm dreamin' all along.’

But the theory of dreams did not satisfy her, and she put up her hand and touched his beard.

‘You’—and the wonder deepened in her eyes—‘you are good!’

‘Good! oh, my child, my child! I wanted always to be good to you, but you wouldn't let me. Oh, Jenny, Jenny!’

Even in his own ears the words sounded feeble and useless—only a confession of helplessness; it was somehow a fitting conclusion to the whole story.

‘I—I,’ she said, as if at last she had thoroughly grasped the situation, ‘I'm main sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you, but I told you—I told you—not to have no truck with me. I warn't the wife for you. I was Black Dave's girl—always—always.’

‘And now,’ he could not resist the taunt, ‘he's left you.’

‘'Twas my fault,’ she said with a sob; ‘'twas my fault. I let on to Pard about the gold. I—I——’ The cough came again, and when it had passed she lay back in his arms utterly exhausted. He began to be cramped and dizzy from the awkward position in which he knelt, and though he sheltered her from the wind and rain, it beat pitilessly on his shoulders.

She opened her eyes and looked straight into his, as if she had been a child. Did she understand? Or was she delirious again? There was perplexity and trouble in her eyes.

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‘He swore he'd never leave me—he swore he wouldn't slip me up! Isn't a man never set on a woman that way? Isn't it never no good to be set on a man?’

‘Oh, Jenny, Jenny! my poor little girl!’

‘Isn't it? Isn't it?’ she asked persistently, and he saw that she was drifting off into unconsciousness again.

‘Yes, child—yes,’ he answered, and the answer seemed to soothe her.

Her restless fingers plucked feebly at the cloak in which she was wrapped. It was the last sign, he thought; would she last till the doctor came? He began to doubt it. And she was not nineteen. Poor little girl—oh, poor little girl! A great pity swept over him. Such a child as she was, and she had never had a chance! Even he himself, when he had loved her most, when he had had her welfare most at heart, had but given a helping hand to destroy her.

He saw it all now so plainly—now that it was too late. How clearly the warm moonlight night came back to him—the night when he had asked her to be his wife! She had warned him—yes, plainly as she could; he saw it now; she had warned him, and he had paid no heed to her warning. She had dishonoured and disgraced his name; but if he had suffered, she was paying the penalty too. Dying—dying, and not yet nineteen!

With his handkerchief he wiped her damp forehead gently. Oh, the pity of it! the pity of it! And they might have been so happy. It seemed to him that never till now had he realized how he loved her. And yet surely it was best she should die. Could he who had loved her so wish her to live?

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She opened her eyes again and looked straight up in his face, and there was such a world of love in those dying eyes he was startled. Never in all his loveless life had a woman looked at him like that. Had this love he craved so passionately come to him at last—at last—when it was too late?

But no, she did not recognise him; she was thinking of another man.

‘Oh, Dave!’ she sighed; ‘oh, Dave, Dave! I love you, Dave, I love you; an' I had a bad dream. I dreamt you left me, Dave. An' I knew all along you wouldn't never do that;’ and her restless fingers stole up and gently touched his beard—so gently, oh, so gently! crept up and softly stroked his face. So had he seen her touch Sal Carter's baby in the days that seemed so far away now. And now she took him for another man, and he did not dare disturb her last moments by putting her away from him. It seemed somehow a fitting climax to the whole story.

‘Dave’—she went on in gasps, for she was almost past speech now—‘Dave, I love you so! I'm main sorry if I hampered—you. I'm so tired—I'm—so—tired. Won't—you—kiss me—Dave?’

He could not, he could not. Much for her he would have done, but this was asking too much. Insensibly his hold on her loosened, and almost gone as she was, she noticed it.

‘Oh, Dave, Dave!’ Such a pitiful wail as it was, it went to his heart. ‘Kiss me, Dave. I wouldn't—hamper—you—Dave. Kiss me—kiss me!’

There was no one to see. It was a matter between himself and her, and she took him for another man. Her life was over. What could it matter if he did soothe her last moments?

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He drew her close to his breast again and stooped and kissed her gently, and she put up her lips to meet his. She had never done so before—never, never. And that was the way women loved! She nestled closer to him, and tried to put a feeble arm round his neck.

‘Hold me tight. Hold—me—tight. What is it? Oh, what is—it?

He tried to pour some more brandy down her throat, but she had lost the power to swallow. The cough came again, and he thought, as she lay back after it had gone, that she was dead; but no, she rallied again.

Her hands stole to his face again, and rested on the deep scar which seamed his left cheek. It was something new to her, and pity and perplexity came into the dying eyes.

‘Oh, Dave, Dave! does—it—hurt?

‘Hurt! Oh, child! My God! my God!’

‘Poor Dave—my—poor—boy!’

She tried to put her arms up again, but her strength was all gone, and he could but put his face down to hers and try and soothe her. Then there was a brief struggle for breath, and he held her up so that the cold wind blew right on her face; but it was the last struggle. She was going, going fast. One more look of infinite love from the dying eyes, one more incoherent tender murmur of ‘Dave, Dave!’ and it was all over.

The brief sad life was done—the tragedy had been played out to its bitter end.

He carried her back to the stretcher, drew his cloak close round her, and spread the bright Rob Roy plaid over all. Then he went outside into the pouring rain,

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and leaned against the doorpost of the hut, looking down into the crackling flames.

So it was all over—all over—he kept repeating to himself. It was better so—better so; there could be no other ending; he would not have had it different; but—but—she was dead, and it was best, best, best. Not nineteen, and it was best she should be dead! The words were whirling through his brain, they were written in letters of fire before his eyes. His wife lay dead in the wretched hut alone there—his wife, his wife, he repeated the words again; and every man would speak of her with contemptuous pity.