Chapter VIII

Weeds upon the Grave.

I have set my life upon a cast,
And I will stand the hazard of the die.’


How long he stood there he never knew, but he was roused at length by a hand on his arm, and, raising his eyes, saw the Commissioner standing before him, and behind him one or two troopers, and a man he dimly recognised as the doctor spoken of by Ottaway.

‘Hallo, sergeant!’ The Commissioner's voice had a ring of pity in it. ‘Why, you're wet through! Where's your flask?’

He looked about him vaguely, dimly remembering he had dropped it on the ground when the girl died. The Commissioner picked it up, but the brandy had all been spilt.

‘Here's mine!’ He took it mechanically, and it seemed to put a little life into him. ‘Come, tell me, what's the meaning of this?’

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‘He's got clean away.’ He heard his own voice as if someone else were speaking. ‘He's got clean away, and’—that other man seemed to have great difficulty in speaking at all—‘and——’

‘And Ottaway says you found your—— He deserted the girl.’

‘Yes, sir.’

He moved aside as if to let them pass.

‘Come, let me look at the girl,’ said the man they called Chunky Smith.

He turned round then, and led the way into the hut, the Commissioner and the doctor following; for he was a doctor, a member of the Royal College of Surgeons, London; but when the troopers would have come too, Commissioner Ruthven waved them back. It would be quite hard enough if they two strangers looked on the end of this man's story.

‘The trooper told me she was very ill,’ said the doctor.

‘She's dead, sir,’ said the sergeant quietly, and he turned back the shawl and opened his heavy cloak. So gently he did it. The Commissioner, looking down at the still, white, peaceful face, could not but remember the frantic man who had rushed into his tent two months ago, accusing himself of the murder of his wife.

‘You did not, sergeant, you——’

‘No, sir; I did what I could. I—I—— My God! she was dying when I got here.’

The doctor bent down and examined her, and the two men stood quietly looking on.

‘H'm,’ he said at last, ‘inflammation of the lungs, failure of the heart's action—call it what you will. It was exposure, really—it all comes to the same thing in the end. She was ill before, and last night

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without any shelter—you can't call this humpy shelter—finished her. Only a shawl like that between her and the weather! It must have been a cruel hard night.’

‘Ottaway found the shawl this morning out by the creek,’ said the sergeant monotonously.

‘You wrapped her up, then?’


‘It was too late. Nothing could have saved her. After all, it was best. Such a child as she was;’ and he drew the covering over the fair dead face again.

There was nothing for it but to go back to camp again.

‘I'll send down four men with a stretcher for the body,’ said the Commissioner.

‘Couldn't we bury her here, sir?’ said the sergeant. ‘What need——’

‘Well, yes, if you like. I'll send down a burying party this evening. Come along, sergeant.’

The sergeant hesitated.

‘If you please, sir,’ he said with an evident effort, ‘if you have no objection, I'd rather stay. I can't leave—I mean, I——’

‘As you please, sergeant.’

Then they left him with his dead, which was all his now, and went back up the slippery steep hillside in the wintry rain.

‘Good Lord!’ said the Commissioner, ‘to think of his stopping, after all! I'll send that burying party along pretty smartly. I can't have my sergeant knocked up. And the pity of it is, she wasn't worth a second thought from any man.’

‘He looked fit to cut his throat when he turned down that shawl,’ said the young fellow beside him pitifully; ‘that's always the way, isn't it? A man

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always comes a cropper over a woman who ain't worth a tuppeny cuss. It's the way of the world, I suppose. Will you catch the man?’

‘Who can tell?’ said the Commissioner. ‘It's evident he don't allow much to stand in his way. The brute made off with the blankets on a night like last night. I'm afraid he may be trusted to save his own skin.’

That was much the opinion at the Lucky Digger.

Buck Carter said he could not afford to close the place simply because his daughter, who wasn't any daughter of his since she'd run off with a man like Black Anderson, had up and died, and so things were even more lively than usual. There was so much to be discussed, and everybody required so much liquid sustenance to aid in that discussion. Of the poor girl lying out in her grave in the gully, very few thought, any more than they thought of the solitary man up in the police camp sitting over his lonely fire reviewing bitterly his life. What they talked of was the probability of Black Anderson's capture, and the possibility of his guilt.

Pard Derrick sat silently by the fire. He was not keen on his share of the business being made known, and he was bitterly repentant that he had not gone to the sergeant the night before. He might have saved the girl's life, though, indeed, she was better dead. Careless fellow as he was, he felt she was better sleeping quietly down in that lonely gully, with the earth piled up above her face; but, still, what a night she must have passed, what a cruel, hard night before it ended! And the talk went on all around him; no one thought of her, only Sal Carter's eyes were red, and she was extra snappy, and was very sure that lynching was too good for Black Anderson.

‘Never fear, missus,’ said Snaky Bill soothingly;

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‘we'll lynch 'im sure as fate, if the sergeant don't shoot him on sight, which I reckon he will. He ain't goin' to get away. If he didn't get clear of those ranges an' gullies in the hot weather, I reckon he ain't agoin' to do it now.’

‘Tell you what it is, mates,’ said Pard Derrick, speaking for the first time, ‘the man as took that poor sick gal's blankets a night like last night is just the sort of mean skunk as 'd shoot a man down in his tracks, ain't he, now?’

There was a general chorus of assent.

Chunky Smith had told of the scene down in the gully. Public sympathy was with the sergeant, for all he was a ‘trap,’ and public opinion was very much against Black Anderson. He had taken away the only girl on the camp, the girl they had most of them never dared to lift their eyes to, and if he had not murdered her, he had certainly left her to die; had taken away the blankets—he, a strong powerful man—and had left her sick, dying, without so much as a shawl to cover her.

Yes, public opinion was very much against Black Anderson. The police need fear no obstacles in their way now, and even had Pard Derrick proclaimed there and then his share in the betrayal, not much harm would have been done. But he kept his own counsel, and went on:

‘But he ain't agoin' to be took; bless you! he knows a sight more'n that. Bet you what you like, the man as murdered old Max ain't never taken.’

‘I'll bet you what you like,’ said Chunky Smith, ‘if there's a rope in the colony that 'll hang him, the sergeant is going to find it. What else has he got to live for? I reckon he'll track him down, if he's anywhere in the colony. Lord! if I were Black Anderson,

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I wouldn't reckon myself safe as long as Sergeant Sells was above-ground.’

‘My colonial, Chunky,’ said Pard Derrick, turning round, ‘you seem to be pretty cock-sure. Now, to my mind, the sergeant was that broke when he came back to camp, he was just about fit to turn up his toes.’

‘It'll make an old man of him, maybe,’ said the doctor thoughtfully. ‘But there's a lot of go in him yet, and he's not like you young fellows who can afford to forgive and forget. I saw his face when he turned down the shawl and showed me the dead girl's face, and I knew he was going to remember it, and to remember it to some purpose, though I dare say he doesn't think so yet.’

The sergeant sat in his house, and thought the self-same thoughts. His fire had died down to the tiniest spark, the wind howled round the chimney and whistled through the crack beneath the door, and the rain beat drearily against the window-panes. Such a night, just such a night it had been last night, and that frail girl had battled through it all alone. And now she was dead—dead before she was nineteen; and he—an old man—was left. Such a brief life hers had been, so brief and so unhappy. She had spoiled his life for him—oh yes, she had spoiled his life; but he had not met her till that life had more than run half its course, and he—he had stepped in and helped to spoil hers at the very threshold. It was no excuse to say he had meant well; he judged himself by the result. And the wind, that beat in stormy gusts against the window and shook the door, said to him plainly that his very love had sacrificed her. He should have known, he should have seen that a child like that was

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no fit wife for him, that the seven-and-twenty years that lay between them was too great a gulf even for his mighty love to bridge.

And so she had fallen, as he might have known she would—poor little ignorant, loving girl!—and she had paid the penalty.

Out there she lay, out in the cold wet gully, the girl he would have surrounded with every comfort; and he laid his head down on the table as he thought of what she must have suffered first, of how he had found her deserted and dying. He blamed himself—blamed himself bitterly; but he was not alone to blame—there was that other man. If it had not been for him—if it had not been for him, would she not have been in time a happy wife, might he not have sat his children upon his knee? No, no—a thousand times no!—wailed the wind round the roof; but the thought would come that it might have been, and now he could only wish that he, too, were lying in that gully at rest. Life held nothing for him—no hope, not the faintest chance of happiness. He had staked all, and he had lost—miserably lost.

There was one thing only he had to do, and then—and then—— He drew out his revolver and looked at it longingly. Why not? What use to go on living?

But no, not yet. One thing more he had to do before he had done with life, and he pushed back the chair and walked up and down the hut. He would track down the man who had done him this foul wrong; he would have vengeance! No vengeance—nothing, he felt—could ever right the wrong, could ever bring back to life the girl he had laid down in her grave that afternoon, could make her his stainless wife again. Nothing could do that—nothing could undo what had been done; but there only remained

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to him vengeance, and he would have it. Up and down he marched half the livelong night, listening to the howling wind and the pitiless rain, thinking of it all, till he flung himself on his bed and, worn out with very weariness, slept.