Chapter II.

RICHARD CRAVEN at home had always been looked upon as a confirmed dipsomaniac. From his first days at college the craving for drink had overpowered him, and had ruined the brightest prospects of distinction. He was sent down as a hopeless case, and from that day forward his mother was never known to smile. In his regiment—for he had been a soldier—he was the hardest drinker the generation had seen, and he had left it to avoid being cashiered. Subsequently he grew worse, and after the death of his mother lost all hope of himself. He quarrelled with all his family, his father included; but, on the death of the latter, his elder brother took steps to at one stroke remove this blot upon the family honour, and give Dick another chance. He consented to go out to the colonies, and with his portion of the inheritance was sent off in a sailing

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vessel to New Zealand. During the three months' voyage he kept straight, and resolved to bring his own strong will to bear upon his madness; but on landing in the colony he disappeared from ken, and for three months was scarcely conscious of his own actions. He had the cunning to take an assumed name, and so escaped observation; he was merely one of those many unfortunates whose “friends” had sent them out to “give them another chance,” out of sight and mind in a country where there are few social restraints upon vice, and with a people who can have no knowledge of, and consequently no sympathy with, the one more stranger come to dig his own grave in their midst. But at the end of his debauch Richard Craven pulled himself together. “I have a will,” he cried, “and if will can conquer the insanity in my blood—by God, mine shall.” He went back to his old name, invested his money in a run, carefully selected for its remoteness from temptation, and settled down quietly upon it with his shepherds. For three years he had lived here, breaking out at intervals when occasion afforded, but on the whole, from lack of opportunity, not so frequently as in England. Six months before this time, after a terrible bout of drinking, he had grown desperate, and gripping his teeth together hissed out between them his last resolution: “If I, who in all else am adamant, strong of will, and steadfast of purpose, cannot for good and all refrain from

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this hour to my death from taking the accursed stuff, then, by the God that made me, I'll use the same will of mine in another way, and rid the earth of a brute-beast.”

For six months he had kept his vow. The arrival of temptation in the presence of his visitors with their whisky had at first alarmed him; but as days went on and he kept free from it, he grew more hopeful, and thinking the danger was passing away allowed himself to look more cheerfully upon life, even to the point of attracting this fair stranger's sympathy.

Marion turned over in her sweet morning sleep, and drowsily opened her eyes with the lingering remnant of last night's smile upon her lips. She was conscious dimly of some disturbing cause. Loud shouts and strange voices burst upon her awaking brain, and she started out of oblivion, and in alarm sat up. The noises continued, so she got up, and for the second time that night threw open the window. From somewhere at the back came a succession of gruff shouts, then a yell, and then a flood of imprecations. What on earth could it be? In the house itself sprang up a medley of sounds—the crash of falling furniture, and a noise as of the breaking of windows; more cries, yells, and imprecations ensued, and then the sounds came out into the yard. The moon had gone down upon the bush, and she could see nothing, but stood listening intently with a palpitating heart. Was it an attempt upon the

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house made by some swagmen or a raid of bushrangers? She was conscious of a yearning wish that Craven would come to her and protect her. The disturbance broke out again after a lull, and she thought she could distinguish voices in altercation. Jimmy's Scotch accents struck her ear, but the words she could not make out; then came a series of fierce yells, and a burst of wild laughter; and then the quick tramp of feet as of some one running in the direction of the bush. A voice, which she recognized as Deardon's, said:

“He's gone. Well, it's not good following.”

Then all was silence. Marion crept back to the bed, shivering with cold, and in time fell asleep.

In the morning Craven did not appear at breakfast. Marion awoke with no memory of the night's disturbance, but the breakfast-room recalled it to her. There were apparent traces of some struggle; one of the chairs was propped against the wall minus two of its legs, and pieces of broken glass littered the grate. She was up before the others, and found Deardon clearing away this débris, and asked him anxiously about the noises; but he seemed to her to have suddenly grown surly, and she could get no explanation. The others had not been disturbed in the night, and she did not enlarge upon her alarm.

Craven's non-appearance was explained by Deardon, who stated that he had gone for a day or two to the out-hut, and left his apologies.

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Marion was disappointed. Had he not said that to-day—— No, but she knew what he had meant, and—— He surely must be back before night. Yet Craven did not appear, and after the evening meal, while the others talked and laughed together, she took herself off with a sad little ache at her heart, and putting on her hat strolled into the fringe of the bush.

The night was clear of wandering clouds, and the moon, full-orbed, uprose from the cafions eastward, and streamed across the dark bush. It was one of those nights which are almost unknown outside of New Zealand—a brilliant, boisterous, chill, clear summer's night. Marion pushed through the outstanding loose scrub, from which the tall pines had been felled, and got upon a foot track leading through darkness to nowhere. Scarcely realizing her own actions, she walked pensively along it for some distance, and then awoke to consciousness with a start in the face of a vast tree trunk across the path. She looked round bewildered, for the minutes had fled unnoticed, and she knew not where she was. She hurried back upon what seemed the track she had followed, and ran on breathlessly for ten minutes, but at the end of that time she found that the bush was growing denser about her, and she was evidently tending upwards. Back she went in another direction, which proved equally bewildering; and now, thoroughly alarmed, she resolved to abandon all tracks, and strike out down the

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incline on what must be the homeward route. In a few minutes she was in the heart of the bush.

What a terribly lonely, desolate place is the New Zealand bush! On all sides towered gigantic rimus and kaikateas, the one with its upright, and the other with its downset coat of pine-needles. Stern black birches, gloomy matais, graceful pittospores loomed through the mist against the moon above and around; while at a lower elevation the large-leaved crackers, the koromikos, and the straight lance-wood were everywhere in view. But more in evidence to-night was the undergrowth. Deeper, though she knew it not, was every step plunging her into the abysmal recesses of the bush-smothered valleys beneath the mountains, The lawyer dug its sharp thorns into her and stayed her; the supplejack caught her by the neck and choked her back; the clematis clung around and beset her. Denser grew the underwood, and slower became her progress. The wind got astir, and came flying down in a frenzy from the upper gorges; hissed through the pine-needles, and rattled the cracker leaves above her head, but through the undergrowth could not penetrate, and she heard the storm overhead with a sense of security. But the dew lay thick upon the ferns, which were piled in rank luxuriance on every side. Mosses and rich lichens, ferns of high and low degree, todea, hymenophyllum, pteris, overgrew the tree-holes and clambered across the undergrowth. On, on went Marion in the horror

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of the loneliness upon her: nothing in life moved; only the wail of a weka from the far-distant mountain-side reminded her this was not death.

Presently a dull, murmurous sound struck her ear with a dull monotony, and she was experienced enough to know its meaning—it was a bush-creek; but where? She walked more cautiously, and then of a sudden turned with a cry; a piece of rotten wood, broken by her footstep, fell with a faint “plop” into the stream, and peering down in the faint light she heard the gurgle, and discerned the black rank water of a sluggish flowing creek, half bridged across by the rank vegetation, underwood, and fern in which she had been standing. With a sigh of relief she turned back and began wearily to move—anywhere.

After half an hour or more, in which she lost all hope, she saw a faint glimmer of light below her, and presently emerged upon a clearing, in the centre of which was a small hut, from which proceeded the light. She stepped down into the clearing, and the wind swung round and caught her. It was a raging wind just let loose from the ranges, and would have blown out the moon if he could. Across the patch of open ground he hurled Marion after her hat, and pitched her roughly against the wooden cabin. She gathered breath, and had one foot upon the threshold of the door, which was ajar, when she hesitated and listened. Rude tones and laughter could be heard from within, even through the tempest, which now came

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tearing over the flat once more. It reached the hut, and was twisting her off into the night, when she summoned up courage and pushed open the door. Then she shrank back appalled. It was an ordinary shepherd's out-hut used in the mustering and lambing seasons, and beside a bed in one corner, consisting of bags stitched across a rude framework, there was a small table roughly put together in the middle of the room. Half reclining on this, with his feet on a broken chair, was Craven. Before him were three or four bottles, and in his hand he held an empty glass. He wore no coat and no collar, and his black eyes were fiery and bloodshot. When Marion entered he looked up and struggled to his feet.

“Ha! ha!” he shrieked. “You've come, have you? Found your way here, ch, to the out-hut on the Dead Dog's Flat? Welcome, my lady. Ha! ha! ha!” He shricked aloud with laughter, and tossed off another glass. “Come in, come in, I say; what's to frighten you? Only the wind and the devils. Ha! ha! For I can call spirits from the vasty deep. See, here's to the spirits!” He staggered to his feet and held out his glass again. “Won't you have some whisky? No, you're quite right; it brings devils. Away! away! Ha! ha! ha!”

Marion shuddered in horror, and crouched upon the floor near the door, covering her face with her hands; and once more he resumed his talk and laughter.

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“Why have you come here?” he demanded suddenly, and he strode forward angrily. “What are you doing here?” he said fiercely; then his face changed and he laughed wildly. “Ah, you want to see me as I am. This is it, just as I am,” and again he laughed. “Oh, you'll come to me after this, won't you? Ha! ha! ha!” His laughter screamed back at him from the roof, and died away, and he let his head fall upon the table with a maudlin sob. The gusts had blown open the door, and through it now stepped into the hut a weka, or woodhen, on the search for something to gobble. Undisturbed by the presence of human beings and the strange noises, it marched in cautious jerks across the room, and began rummaging in the ashes of the fireplace, turning occasionally an inquisitive eye upon Craven as his voice grew louder.

The storm tore over the clearing and banged the door with a crash, but still Marion crouched, incapable of motion from very stupor. Craven's voice vied with the roaring of the wind, but at last grew fainter beneath it. A terrible gust flew over the hut, which rocked and shivered. There was a rending of beams—a shock; and with a rattle and a moan the whole of the iron-plated roof slid off into the night. The weka wailed shrilly and the man gesticulated wildly, raising long arms to the moonlight now pouring across the roofless hut; but the shock aroused Marion, and with one low, panting cry she burst through

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the open doorway, and fled from that ruined hut with its strange unhuman tenants. A track used for sledges led from the clearing, and this she followed blindly. It was past midnight ere this took her home: she crept through the door, for doors are never locked up-country, and going into her room cast herself upon the bed in a violent fit of weeping.

It was three days later that Craven returned, and in the meantime Crawford had been getting extremely restless and anxious to be off. The river was still too full, and he was chafing against the inevitable delay, as indeed now was Marion. The other two were indifferent to locality. Craven returned late on an afternoon, and entered the room with a polite apology. His face was set white, and his eyes were bloodshot, but otherwise he was as he had always been. He turned his black fierce eyes in a steady gaze upon Marion, who trembled and quivered in her chair.

“I hear, Mr. Crawford,” he said,” from Deardon, that you are anxious to be off. In which case I won't press you to stay, as you must have taken a large slice out of your time. We can't try the river, but we might manage the Gorge Pass if it's fine to-morrow. Deardon thinks it will be all right.” Crawford gladly assented, for this would shorten their journey to the West Coast, which was now desirable in view of their long detention.

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“Evidently he's about tired of us,” said Drummond to Alice; “and we may just as well go as stay.”

Next morning they were up betimes, and all being in readiness a start was made. Craven rode with them to show them the way across the Pass, and their route lay along a rough bush-track round the base of the mountain above the Waitiri. A few miles above the station-house the river cuts its way through a range of mountains, of which the peak, on whose base they were, was one, and it was through the gorge they were to pass. Immediately above the gorge the Waitiri spreads away in sundry branches to its glacial sources. For a long time they rode all together, and conversation was brisk on every one's part but Craven's and Marion's; but the pack-horse which Drummond was driving proved obstreperous, and wandered into the bush, and some of the party went to regain it. Craven was in a fit of abstraction, and ere he was aware of it he was alone with Marion. He said something about the weather and the road, and then relapsed into silence. Presently his eyes grew stern, and he reined in at a cross track.

“I am going,” he said, in harsh tones. “Goodbye, Miss Lister; excuse me, please, to the others. You will find the way easily now.” He spurred his horse up the cross track. She looked after him with obscured senses. He pulled his bridle again and came back to her.

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“Miss Lister,” he said, quietly, “I forgot that I wanted your forgiveness. That is the one thing I desire to carry away with me. It will soften the path to hell.”

He spoke calmly, and his very calmness added to her emotion. “No, no,” she cried; “you must not, you shall not, I——”

“You forgive me?” he asked, stroking his horse with white impassive face.

“I—yes, yes, but you must not—you are not—you will get stronger. You——”

He laughed the unpleasant laugh of a man who has made up his mind, and said coolly:

“Yes, I have a strong will.” Then he came closer, and a light burned in his eyes; he made a movement to take her hand, and abandoned it. “There is but one thing needful for a man like me, Miss Lister. I will not ask to touch your hand, but merely that I may have the flower you wear.” It was a sprig of bush veronica.

She did not seem to hear, and in a moment he turned his horse away. “Yes; it is better that it should end here, perhaps.”

“Oh,” she cried, stretching her arms in agony, “I cannot bear it! It was not you, that terrible shadow. You must not—you cannot go to—this loneliness, this life of—of horror.”

“I go to no life,” he said, hoarsely—“not to life.”

“Ah!” she shrieked, dropping from her horse. “My God, you cannot, you may not! See, see!

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you shall not be desolate; I will not suffer it!” She clasped his stirrups in her fear and anguish; he threw himself from his horse. “See, see!” she continued. “I cannot bear it; you shall not go into this darkness. I am brave and strong, and I will not suffer it. No, no! You shall not. We will fight it together,” and she clutched his hand gasping. The terror of the thought in his mind clung to her and dazed her, so that she knew not what she said.

He drew nearer and looked long into her eyes. “Do you know what you are saying?” he asked, slowly. “Do you know what it means? Do you know that I am a—the wretch you saw in me the other night; that there is a fiend in me incarnate and undying?”

“No, no; not undying,” she said.

“You know all?” he asked.

“I know all,” she returned, growing quiet too, but gasping; “and I know that you are not the thing you fancy you are, and that you shall fight it down.” Indeed, to her the out-hut and its terrors were but as a dream, which she failed properly to connect now with the stalwart man by her. He drew in his breath, and his face lit up with a sudden thought. He covered his face with his hands.

“My God! if it were so!” Then quickly, “Yes, yes; it shall be so. I wanted a motive—I wanted a motive, and now I shall have it. Yes, yes; we shall fight it down and kill it.” He

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looked at her strangely, and took her hands; she did not shrink, for all the background had vanished in the strong light of a present love, and she felt only that she loved him. There was silence for a space, as he held her hand, and then he laughed tremulously and kissed it.

“Come,” he said, softly, “let us wait for the others. Sit here and rest. This is the gorge.”

She sat in silence upon the rocky ledge on the side of the track overlooking the great gorge. They had been ascending since they left the station-house, and now the river lay some fifteen hundred feet below. The heights, separated by the gorge, rose almost sheer from the river in rocky buttresses and loose scrub-covered serrations. Standing at this height on one mountain, it seemed as if a stone might have been thrown across to the other. The river lay as a white streak between and below.

Craven regarded it in silence, but his under-lip quivered from time to time and his white face flushed. Presently he said: “See; that rata shall be yours. You shall find my senses are not yet gone.” He pointed with one hand to a ledge half-a-dozen feet below her, from which a small pine protruded outwards, and had been half eaten away by a twining rata with its gorgeous scarlet blossoms.

“No, don't!” she cried; but he took no notice, and in a second he was below her on the tree. He crept out upon the branch, and broke off

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some of the flower-heads, and tossed them up to her.

“Come back,” she said, anxiously. “Oh, come back!”

“See, see my nerves,” he said, with an almost piteous smile, and with one hand he shook the branch on which he sat. A crack resounded in the air; Marion gave a wild cry. He laughed in the delight of one who has proved his point.

“It is of no consequence,” he said; “I can reach another branch—see.”

Marion shudderingly looked down at him with shaded eyes. He put out a hand towards a large bough, and smiled as he appeared to exult in his strength. Suddenly, however, a change came over his features; the smile faded and the eyes grew fierce and set, the brow was drawn in a black frown, and he clenched his teeth together. His hands stayed in mid-air. Through his mind flitted a swift impulse such as comes sometimes in moments of insanity.

“The hand of God,” he muttered. “It is the hand of God.” He looked up, shivered—crack went the branch again, and bent over. “My arm is a little too short,” he said, quietly. “Will you go back for help, please?” But Marion started to her feet in horror, and shrieked loudly as she gazed at him.

“Go back, go back to them!” he cried, as the branch bent over. “Look away; shut your eyes. Great God!”

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But she stood transfixed, and a slow rending of branches ensued; and then the pine branch with its living burden fell into the abyss, and dashed from ledge to ledge down the slope towards the river.

“Marion, Marion!” said Alice's voice, “what was that noise? What have you left the horses for?”

“She's admiring the gorge there,” said Crawford. “Good gracious! isn't that a dangerous place, my dear?”

“Marion, I say; here's some news,” said Drummond, as he got off his horse and moved towards her; and then said gaily, “She won't mind me calling her Marion now,” at which all three laughed.

“Marion, my dear, where's Mr. Craven?”

“Good heavens!” said Drummond suddenly; “why, I believe she's fainted.”