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14. Chapter XIV.

One morning they went as far as the broken-down whim, and spoke to each other at a little distance, so as to hear the strange distinct echoes, that had a curiously mocking, ironical undertone.

"It is what we say, but not our voices," said Doris. "This rock has a voice that has no kindness in it."

"You will remember it when we go away," said Euphemia, a little way off.

"Away! away!" The words died slowly, with a suspicion of laughter in the dying syllables, but laughter without mirth. Victor, who had reined his horse in close beside Doris, thought he saw her face falling a little at the word.

"If the voice has no kindness, it has sorrow," he said. "If you were going away and I had to stay at the mine––"

"Aren't you going to stay after we go away?" she said, looking up quickly.

He had been on the eve of telling her a hundred times before, and a hundred times he had checked himself; but the temptation was then too strong.

"What I should like to do would be to leave on the same day, and go down by the same train from Nilpeena, and then take passage in the same ship by which you go."

"And come all the way–to France? Oh, that would be charming! It would be no longer the Silent Sea then, as this is."

She looked round beyond the echoing rock, northward and southward, where the great expanse of gray naked land was in the distance half concealed by a light mist, which veiled the inequalities of the low reefs.

Then she looked back at Victor, who was watching her face intently.

"Why should you not come? Your mother is across the sea, and––"

"I am coming," he said, his heart beating hard.

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"Oh, I am so glad!" Her voice, with its spontaneous gaiety, thrilled the young man with a sudden keenness of emotion that almost bordered on pain.

They were both silent for a little, a vague half-consciousness invading the girl's serenity.

And then Euphemia's robust, cheerful voice came from a little distance, awakening sudden startling reverberations in the echoing rock.

"What can that be over there?" she cried, pointing with her riding-whip in a southerly direction.

"Over there," echoed the rock, with its sinister after-notes.

Here beside it, their horses for a moment held in check, were two young creatures, with radiant eyes and quickly throbbing pulses, a vague mist of happiness on their faces, all the glad possibilities of life seeming to lie around them like sheathed buds. But what was there "over there"?

"I do not much like your echoing rock," said Doris, as they rode up to Euphemia, to see what had attracted her attention.

"It is a little hut–one of the weather-board kind, I suppose," said Victor, "for it was not there six days ago. Someone must have taken up a claim, but diggers don't generally put up a hut of any sort. Why, this is going to be one great gold-field," he added, as he looked around, and noticed that a mile or two away from the broken-down whim, towards the north, on the road to Broombush Creek, a large irregular edifice was in course of erection.

"That must be the place Mrs. West's brother is putting up," he said. "She told me it is to be called the Half-way House, because it is about half-way between Colmar and the diggings."

"Couldn't we go as far as the diggings this morning?" said Euphemia. "Mother said the other day we might go within sight of it."

Doris, however, objected on the ground that she wanted to get back a little earlier than usual, because of something she wanted to do for the Connell children. This was a second family in which two children had lately fallen ill. Sickness had of late been spreading at the mine, and Dr. Magann, who had removed from the partially-deserted Ridges, bringing with him his movable wooden dwelling, announced that the malady, which had attacked several adults as well as children, was in some cases

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noteslow fever,note in others typhoid.

"I wish you wouldn't visit these poor people so often," said Victor, as they turned homewards.

"Why do you wish that?"

"Because I notedidn't like to see you out in the dust and heat, going into places where they have fever."

"But you ought not noteto wish that I were selfish," she answered, looking at him with grave seriousness. "When I see these poor people's hot, bare, untidy little huts and tents, and then come back to Stonehouse, and think how I have had everything soft and pleasant all my life, I feel as if I could not bear to have so much and they so little."

"But you have sent all your own easy-chairs to the sick people, Doris, so there's one thing you have not got more than they have," said Euphemia bluntly.

Victor, on hearing this, stole a look at Doris that had in it much of the respectful adoration with which devout people regard a patron saint. Indeed, to him those radiant eyes, full of sweet tenderness for all suffering, were holier than those of any saint in the calendar.note

"I think, though, mother is getting frightened that you might take the illness, for you had fever when you were a little girl, and might get it again, so perhaps it will be only Shung and me notewho go with flowers and things," Euphemia went on, after a pause. She was very loath to turn her back on the "diggings" for the sake of the invalids.

On hearing this Victor's uneasiness increased.

"But really, you know, the people noteof our mine are not so badly off. They all have plenty of food and fresh air, though perhaps a little too much dust and mullock. And now that 'Zilla has lent his cottage to the Connell–she won't bring his wife while there is so much illness–none of the larger families are in tents or one-roomed huts. And if they would only boil the water before they drank it, it wouldn't hurt them. Besides, you know, they are very kind in helping one another," he added, trying to imbue Doris with a stronger motive for being reconciled to Mrs. Challoner's

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wishes than the fear of personal danger would be likely to afford.

"I cannot do very much," she answered, "but I like to sit by the sick children and do little things for them–put a few flowers into a pretty vase where they can look at them. You should see their eyes when they see those Provence rosesnote that come from your friends in Adelaide! If I gave them to the mother, she would most likely put them down somewhere and let them fade. Mrs. Snell would not do that–she knows how the children love flowers; but Mrs. Connell does not seem to understand."

"She keeps on gossiping with the other women; she doesn't mind the children properly, nor keep the house clean, nor anything," broke in Euphemia, with a note of indignation in her voice. But Doris seemed to shrink from direct faultfinding. In small things, as in great, she had that gentle charity which leads the rare natures endowed with it to regard the defects of their fellow-creatures with invincible forbearance. "Pity, and sympathy, and long-suffering, and fair interpretation, and excusing our brother, and taking things in the best sense, and passing the gentlest sentence,"note was the girl's inalienable inheritance from her mother.

In the end Victor felt rebuked, as he realized that there was a taint of selfishness in his anxiety that Doris might be spared even the thought of squalor, or suffering, or hardship. Her impulse to give not merely money, or the things that money could buy, but a part of her own life, her own gentle ministering, made him reflect penitently on his partial indifference to such matters, while largely absorbed in happy thoughts and happy plans for the future. Gradually, contact with her enlarged his moral consciousness. He felt that the things to desire most for Doris' sake were not luxury and ease, but that one's own heart and nature should be touched to finer issues, so as to be more worthy of her companionship.

But these early morning rides were by no means always tinged with grave thoughts and reflections. They would often break into songs, and laughter when one of them failed to catch up the tune, as they rode through the exhilarating morning air, their horses' hoofs seeming to keep time in a perpetual refrain; and on other occasions Doris would recount one of the stories Shung-Loo told her when she was a little girl, beginning after this fashion:

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"There was once a Lah-to prince who bribed the world with elephant-tusks, and oxen with humps, and buffaloes that live in the water. When he went out he was surrounded with flags, and the sky was full of feather fans, and the big kingfisher birds came and made umbrellas of their wings. And two-and-twenty elephants came in a train after him, loaded with big cowries to notegive the poor people, and sixteen cowries was the price for a bowl of rice. At night men with gold on their teeth played flutes, and women in gold chains sang songs to make him go to sleep. Then when he slept the black barbarians,note who wear only their skins, a handkerchief, and no sandals, each with a peach-blossom fan––"

"Oh, Doris, a peach-blossom fan, when they had no clothes!" remonstrated Euphemia.

"That's the way it is in the Shih Ch'ing ya ch'ü,"note answered Doris; "and as you don't believe every word without asking questions, you cannot hear any more."

This was a hard saying,note but Doris was forced to adhere to the rule, for the reason that Shung-Loo had been inexorable in its observance.

"Well, you ought to finish it for Mr. Fitz-Gibbon, for he believes every word and never asks any questions," urged Euphemia, which was true to the letter. For always when Doris spoke, her soft musical voice, with its varying intonations giving emphasis to all the grotesque little nuances of Shung-Loo's stories, fascinated Victor–if that were possible–more than ever. He would listen in rapt silence, stealing a glance from time to time at the darkling little shadows cast by those heavy lashes, at the delicately-moulded cheeks, to which exercise had brought a delicate damask glow. And as he listened and looked, it seemed as if he had in absolute fact penetrated one of notethese charmed regions of Oriental supernaturalism whose lore so curiously hung about the girl's solitary childhood.

How completely, how dangerously happy he was! The poet upon whom the Muses keeping ward over Mount Helicon, and dancing with delicate feet round the violet-hued fount, bestowed laurel-leaves, noteand a staff of luxuriant olives, and the

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breath of an inspired voice, saw a vision of the beginning of all things,note in which the earth gave birth to the starry heavens, that they might shelter it upon all sides, and so make it for ever a secure seat for the blessed gods. But this was the revelation of a singer born into the world in its nonage, before the story of man's darkly-stained, incomprehensible existence had filled so many sombre tomes, and before so many wise men had risen up to prove to us that there are no gods. Yet from generation to generation there come brief spaces into most lives in which the old poetic tradition is verified, and the earth is once more a secure seat for the blessed gods. Yes, even in regions where nature is as arid and destitute of notecharm as is the Salt-bush country, where, though the air, the sky and the sunshine are early in the day perfect in their loveliness, yet the earth in its level, neutral-tinted barrenness is more like a vague outline than a finished picture. . . . Now, after two weeks of these long early rides, they were coming to an end, though the riders did not know it.

On the last occasion they rode close to Broombush Creek, very early in the morning, and saw the diggings, with now close on five thousand men at work. They passed the Half-way House, a low rambling structure of wood and galvanized iron, the bar already open for travellers; its signboard–a piece of calico stretched on a board nailed over the door–bore the inscription, "Half-way House. T. Smith:note noteLicensed to sell wines, bears, sperits," in letters of extraordinary variety as to size. In half an hour after passing this, the outskirts of the diggings came in sight, and a medley of confused sounds broke the calm of early morning.

The continual rumble of diggers' cradles, the ring of shrill voices, of axes cleaving wood, of sawing and hammering, of creaking water-carts, carting tanks of water from the one permanent well, which was over a mile from the centre of the diggings, all made up a great volume of sound. The scene altogether conveyed an indescribable impression of confusion. The diggers' tents were of the motliest–dingy canvas, duck, calico, notesacking and hessian, roughly cobbled together; old tarpaulins

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also were fastened over vehicles of every size and description. Among these there was a sprinkling of iron edifices, chiefly stores, boarding-houses, and Government offices. The telegraph line had been extended from Colmar, and the post and telegraph office, with the quarters of the Warden of Goldfieldsnote and the police troopers, a branch bank, etc., were near the centre of the wide, irregular encampment. A public hospital had been built, with a medical man in charge. But typhoid fever had broken out, and the accommodation was inadequate for the increasing patients. A private hospital was now in course of erection, on a slight rise near the road by which one approached the new diggings from Colmar. Everywhere all round, the earth was turned over in mounds, and everywhere men were sinking and tunnelling in the ground, with shovels, gads, pickaxes and crowbars. Machinery had been erected in two places, and already the sound of the batteries was heard. For the sun was now rising, and all hands were hard at work.

The sky, so clear and immensely vaulted, full of warm, pale-blue air, with that look of youth inseparable from pure and joyous colouring, formed the strangest contrast to the world which it overarched here–where the ash-gray salt-bush was replaced by tumbled heaps of soil, and by the squalid abodes of thousands of dirt-stained men. The immense flat, featureless landscape all round held nothing to break the sharpness of the contrast between the heaven above, majestic in its noble sweep of outline, and the earth below, gray and formless and naked, as if it had been worn into sallow desolation by the march of countless æons of centuries, till in this spot it was torn and mangled by an irruption of strange reptiles that had learned the use of tools.

As the riders stood at some little distance looking on, a great shout was heard in the vicinity of the hospital, where some diggers were at work. The shout was taken up by others near.

"A boomernote nugget! a boomer nugget!"

The cry flew like wildfire, and strange excitement ensued. From every quarter men came running and crying out: those who were at work throwing down their tools; those who had been preparing breakfast, some with flour on their arms up to their elbows, with steaks or chops in their hands, as they were about to put them on the coals, gridirons, or frypans, with dish-cloths

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on their arms, with soiled tin plates in their notehands–some even with handfuls of tea which they were about to put in teapots, or billies, or quart pots. When that shrill, sudden cry reached them, there were scores who did not wait to put these things down, but rushed as they stood, as if fearful that this lump of yellow metal, speckled over with quartz, might vanish like a celestial visitant before the sight of it gladdened their eyes. There were some who even ran half naked as they tumbled out of their beds, with dishevelled hair, strained eyes and naked feet.

When they had all satisfied themselves that this thing was true, and not a dream or a false rumour, then the great hubbub increased, and the clamour of voices swelled on the air mightily. But after a little this died away, and gave place to a feverish industry that nerved thousands as one man. There were many who did not taste food that morning for hours. They gulped down pannikins full of hot tea, and then worked on with frenzied haste. Might they not at any moment come upon a boomer nugget–turn it over in the dirt, or hear the dull thud of their tools as they struck against a solid lump of the precious metal? Many who had been on the point of leaving, sickened and wearied out with toiling for weeks and finding not even the colour of gold, while they lived on credit or the generosity of their fellow-workers, now took heart of grace,note and stayed to labour on with renewed energy. Others, who had been lying ill of fever for days or weeks, crawled out of their bunks, and sat watching their mates at work with hungry, wistful eyes; for who could tell whose luck it would be next to come on a big nugget? It is the gambling element that lends so strong a fascination to digging for gold, not the naked lust for its possession, as one is apt at first to suppose, on witnessing the sort of humiliating frenzy that oftentimes takes possession of men, when searching for it in its primitive and most enchanting form.

When the sudden tumult had subsided, the riders turned their horses' heads homewards.

"Wherever men come to this country they make it ugly," said Doris. "Instead of planting gardens or trees, or digging for water, they make dreadful holes and spoil the salt-bush."

"I was just thinking I should like to go and make dreadful holes

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myself," said Victor, smiling. "At any rate, they don't spoil much in spoiling the salt-bush."

"The salt-bush is a very good creature," said Euphemia quickly. "Cows that eat it give good milk, the hens lay good eggs, salt-bush sheep make the best mutton, and the sky is nowhere more beautiful."

Euphemia was born in the Salt-bush country, and it would seem that in the hearts of most human beings Heaven has implanted a love for the spot in which they first see light–a token, perhaps, that life is a gift, notwithstanding our many and bitter feuds therewith.

As the sun ascended the heavens they returned on their "happy morning track,"note all unconscious that it was the last of those excursions.

"You will remember Broombush Creek in the old world," said Victor, as he helped Doris to dismount.

"Yes. I am so glad that you are coming, too. I think of that so often!" she answered, in a low voice.

The words sent the blood tingling through his veins and surging in his ears. He was intoxicated with joy as he walked away.