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  ― 39 ―

Chapter IV

At the Lucky Digger.

Hostess! clap to the doors: watch to-night, pray to-morrow.’

King Henry IV., 11. 4.

THE bar was full in a second.

Then the creaking dray stopped right opposite, and the crowd made a lane, up which the sergeant walked. He would not look, but even though it was dark he was painfully conscious of Jenny's eyes being fixed on him with an imploring, shrinking gaze, as if she thought her lover's fate lay in his hands. There was a very babel of tongues around, but he seemed only to hear the long sobbing breath she drew as he went up to her stepmother.

‘Old German Max has been shot, missus,’ he said quietly. ‘The inquest must be held here.’

‘All right.’ Mrs. Carter spoke as if it were an everyday occurrence hardly worthy of note, perhaps because she saw the look of dread and terror deepening on her stepdaughter's face. ‘You'll have to put the poor old chap in the shed at the back though, sergeant. We're chock full here.’

Then she turned to Jenny.

‘Come, bustle up there, Jen! Don't look as scart as if all your belongin's had been killed. The old German weren't nothin' to you.’

‘He warn't up to much, anyhow, miss,’ said Pard Derrick confidentially. ‘There's lots as good as him about, though, mind you, I'm not sayin' as the poor old beggar ever done any harm, even though he were


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a no-account man. And somebody 'll swing for it, let's hope.’

Jenny seemed to be listening with all her ears, as through the thin walls of the bar they could plainly hear the sergeant giving directions for the disposal of the body. Then he came into the bar again, the diggers parting to let him pass, although they resented the calm air of authority which he assumed. He spoke a few words quietly to Mrs. Carter, while Pard Derrick expressed his views in an aside intended to reach the ears only of a chosen few.

‘Says it was Black Anderson, does he? Much he knows about it! Who's the sergeant? Thinks a mighty lot of himself, he do; but I've seen better men than him swapped for sore-eyed dogs up where I come from!’ and the men next him laughed.

Not for one moment had Jenny believed her lover guilty, but she had an exalted idea of the power of the police, and she feared for him. If they had a down on a man, she knew well enough his career in a mining camp was apt to be brief, and she never stopped to consider that frequently this was decidedly for the public good. Dimly—for hardly could she shape her own thoughts—the fear was growing on her that in some indefinable way, guilty or not guilty (and most firmly did she believe in his innocence), Black Anderson would suffer for this. The sergeant loved her: she would have been less than woman had she not known that; and—and would he not be likely to take every advantage that he could over a rival? Her code of honour was not high—how, indeed, should it be?—and now she felt that the sergeant would take advantage of this accusation to drive Dave out of the camp. Whether or not he believed the


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charge himself she did not stop to question, but that he would take advantage of it she did not for a moment doubt. She was as certain as if he had told her so that he would hound Dave Anderson down to the very gallows. He would see but one side of the case, and it would be her fault—hers—hers.

Jenny set no value upon herself; she knew nothing of her own charms, even as the only girl on the field; but she did know—she could not help knowing—that out of all the camp two men had singled her out in a manner different from the others who haunted the bar, and the fear she had always felt of the sergeant was intensified tenfold as she thought of Black Dave in his power.

The jeering remarks of the men did not tend to reassure her, for often enough had she seen the bar cleared by the police, and she saw plainly that, though they scowled openly, they only grumbled and jeered under their breath.

She could have wrung her hands and cried aloud in her fear and terror, which was all the worse to bear that as yet it had hardly taken definite form. If she could only see Black Anderson, and warn him! If she might hear from his own lips a confirmation of his innocence! Her head was aching, throbbing, and there was her stepmother nodding and beckoning to her to pour out a nobbler for the sergeant, and to attend to the other men waiting round.

‘Upon my word!’ said Mrs. Carter, bustling round, ‘it's enough to wear my life out! Look sharp, Jenny, there! Put the kid down on the flour-sack. He'll be good; if he won't, he mun just cry. Carter! Carter! Where the dickens have that man got to?’

Very reluctantly the girl laid down her charge,


  ― 42 ―
who raised a shrill protest on the spot, and was promptly picked up by Pard Derrick, to whom a baby was an agreeable novelty.

‘Lord!’ said he, ‘makes me feel kinder young again’—he certainly wasn't nearly thirty—‘to hear a babby cry. A man sorter gets a kinder craving to see a woman when he ain't seen one for a long while, and I think mysel' it does a fellow good to see a kiddie now and again—eh, missus?’

‘I dunno. Seems to me I see a deal too much on 'em. Here, Jenny, Jenny, what are you at? You might give the sergeant a clean tumbler, any way; the pannikins aren't for the likes of him!’

Very sullenly she poured out a nobbler of brandy, and the trooper looked at her attentively with an air of proprietorship, it seemed to her, though she could not raise her eyes, and only saw him through her long yellow lashes. And in very truth the sergeant did feel more sure of her, and with the surety again rose the doubts. She stood there before him—he in his spick-and-span neatness, she untidy, unkempt—just what she was, a girl behind a low public-house bar. The men around were making use of foul language, such as made him shudder with a shame she did not feel. And this was the woman he would make his wife? No, no, a thousand times no! Then she raised her soft eyes and smiled at the baby crowing in its rough nurse's arms—soft, sweet, tender eyes, worth a prince's ransom, and he swore an oath—and meant to keep it—that if she could be no wife of his, to no other man should she belong while he stood by. Black Anderson was in his power; he had no compunctions now, no doubts whatever, and he would take care to keep those two apart. He feared


  ― 43 ―
no other man; he knew they counted for nothing in Jenny Carter's eyes. They never entered her thoughts. Like her stepmother, he was inclined to think that if hate was not love, it was, at least, nearer akin to it than utter indifference. And he would make her care for him.

Mrs. Carter joined in the talk and laughter that went on in spite of the dead man lying so close; his presence did not lower one voice nor hush one single laugh.

Only Jenny was silent; her habitual quiet was deepened by fear and anxiety for the man she cared for, not by any awe of the man cut off so suddenly in the midst of life. Sergeant Sells sipped slowly at his nobbler, and there grew a longing in him to hear Jenny's voice, to make her speak. He was not a man to whom conversation came easily at any time, and in the presence of this girl he was tongue-tied. The men around the bar heartily wished him gone: his presence put a restraint upon them; and the girl he never took his eyes off wished him gone: it seemed to her excited imagination he was reading her very thoughts.

Still he lingered there, leaning over the counter just in front of her, slowly shaking round and round the few drops that remained at the bottom of his tumbler. What would he not have given for a ready tongue—the power to make a remark lightly, to say something casually that should make her raise those wonderful eyes of hers once again! But no words would come, and he could not make up his mind to leave her. He began to grow angry with himself, and to include Jenny in his anger. He was making a fool of himself, and it was her fault. What was


  ― 44 ―
he to say? The longer he kept silence, the more difficult it grew to break it, and he felt that the men around him were laughing in their sleeves. He made a desperate attempt.

‘Miss Jenny!’ and his own voice sounded strange in his ears, and he wished he had kept silence. Jenny turned her face silently towards him, and even then did not raise her eyes. ‘Miss Jenny, I—I—do you like cherries?’

There was a suppressed murmur that to the trooper's sensitive ears sounded suspiciously like laughter; but, having begun, he went doggedly on. Why should these men laugh because he addressed a simple query like that to a girl?

She did not answer, only stared stupidly at the leather strap of his cartouche-box.

Somebody had lighted a small oil-lamp; it burned dimly in the heated atmosphere, making, with its reek of oil, the place ten times as stifling as before, as the tin pannikins and the trooper's accoutrements caught and reflected the bright spot of light.

‘Do you like cherries?’ asked the sergeant again, as if it were a matter of life and death to which he must have an answer—‘do you?’ And, in spite of himself, his thoughts went back to Farmer Goodchap's orchard and the long-forgotten days of his youth, when once before he had asked that question.

The soft, sweet wind of an English summer had rustled the leaves overhead, had touched his forehead with its cool breath, had tossed the fair hair of the girl beside him till it fell over his shoulder. He had felt himself a fool then, and now nearly a quarter of a century had gone by and he was asking the self-same question, with the same—the same—— Pooh!


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that was a boy's love. This—this was something stronger, better—a thousand times more foolish. It was simple madness to think of this girl, and yet he felt he could not go without making her look at him just once more.

‘Jen!’ her stepmother spoke sharply, ‘can't you answer a civil question?’

‘Yes’—the girl spoke with a slow drawl, which, whatever it might sound in other ears, had a charm for the sergeant; ‘I like 'em well enough.’

‘Because I'm going over to Wooragee to-morrow, and—and I'd like to bring you a basket.’

It seemed churlish even to the girl to refuse his offering; but the other men were listening, and it seemed to her that, if she accepted this present, she would bring herself a step nearer to the man she feared and hated.

He was looking at her, devouring her with his eyes.

‘Don't,’ she said sullenly; ‘I don't want none of your cherries.’

There was a jeering laugh from someone behind him, someone who was well pleased to see the trooper snubbed, and he turned with an oath and flung his tumbler down on the counter with such force it broke into pieces, and the few remaining drops of the brandy were spilt on the floor. Then, without another word, he pushed aside the crowd, made his way outside, and was lost in the gathering darkness.

In the bar Pard Derrick tossed the baby high over his head.

‘The old cuss!’ he remarked; ‘but I guess that's rather up his shirt, ain't it, youngster? Now, which of you chaps is going to stand Sam to celebrate this great occasion?’

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