― 336 ―

3. Chapter III.

Trevaskis returned to the mine at a quarter to twelve, after drinking heavily at the leading hotel at Broombush Creek. He had abstained from all stimulant during the day, and meant to keep absolutely cool and sober till this crucial affair of temporary theft was done with; but the fatigue and noteheat of the day, combined with his inability to eat, and the tense excitement under which he laboured, combined to break down his resolution. So far, however, from feeling incapacitated for carrying out his plans, it seemed to him that the fillip which brandy gave his spirits and imagination formed an additional element of success.

He put his horse in the stable, and then went into his rooms by the outer door of his office. He had, in the course of the afternoon, come through the intermediate rooms from Victor's, leaving the doors unlocked, so that he might pass through in the dark without a light. After much consideration, he had decided to hide the gold in the safe in his own room. It would be the safest plan. Then, as soon as darkness fell, on the succeeding night, he would go out with the gold, and come down the face of the reef with it, nearly opposite the engine-room, triumphantly displaying the two bars, as he had recovered them, wrapped round with a piece of stained cloth, where they had, no doubt, been hidden by the thief, under some stones, till he should be able to carry them off at his leisure.

It was these after-details that occupied his mind as he reached the safe with the pair of duplicate keys. He was so sure of his ground that he could manage all without lighting even a match. He knew that there were always some of the miners who lingered at the inn till after midnight, and who, on returning, would sometimes stroll to the engine-house. If they saw a light at so unusual an hour in the purser's office, they would as likely come as not, in their idle irresponsible way, to see what "was up." He

  ― 337 ―
shot back both bolts, and was in the act of taking up the first bar of gold, when he thought he heard footsteps at the door. He had not time to withdraw his notehead from the safe, when a strong grip on his arm for a moment paralyzed him, and a voice cried at his ear:

"Who are you? What are you doing here?"

In a moment he had recovered from his stupefaction. With the fury of a beast of prey suddenly attacked, he closed in the darkness with the man, whose grasp warned him that he was not one who could be lightly shaken off. Backing out from the safe, and without uttering a word, he threw both arms round his antagonist like a vice, and flung him fiercely round. As he did this, the man's head came against the edge of the iron safe with a horrible dull thud. At once his hold relaxed. He gave one low shuddering moan, and Trevaskis felt him in his arms a limp, inanimate burden. He slowly released him, letting him slide to the ground without allowing him to fall heavily. He lay there without a movement, or even the sound of breathing. And then an awful silence fell on the room.

Trevaskis was incapable of coherent thought. His first instinct was to recover the keys and make off; but he had dropped a bar of gold. It was under the man's motionless form. As he groped about, he came on a fine cambric handkerchief–one that had a suspicion of the breath of violets on it. Then, with a cold, trembling hand, he touched the man's face. The cheeks were smooth; on the upper lip there was a slight silken moustache. A suspicion of the truth flashed on him. He remembered that a lamp usually stood on the window-sill; he groped for it, and lit it after he had ineffectually struck two or three matches. He could never recollect the first instant in which the prostrate man's face became visible to him. After what seemed long moments, he found himself with a heart that throbbed to bursting, his eyes riveted on Fitz-Gibbon, who lay as he fell, without sound or motion. And, as he looked, the words came to him like the hiss of a serpent: "By-and-by you get over that, and you go on and on till––" Now the blank was filled. Trembling in every limb, he knelt down beside Victor.

"My God! I have killed him! I have killed him! I have killed

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him!" He murmured the words over and over automatically, while the perspiration rolled in great cold beads down his face.

For some moments the power of thought was suspended. He tried in a stupefied mechanical way to recollect what he had proposed to do. But here, even if his memory had been clear and active, it would have afforded him little assistance. It was all the work of less than three minutes; but in that infinitesimal space of time he found himself in the grim clutches of a deed wholly at variance with the purpose which had called it into being.

It is this tragic, unlooked-for evolution of events that, all through man's history, makes him so largely the puppet of forces with which he may gamble, but which he can never wholly control. Nearly all the criminals who become such through accident, rather than temperament, owe their first plunge into lawlessness to the unforeseen development of circumstances rather notethan determined purpose.

"No, no; he doesn't move nor breathe; he is dead–he is dead–he is dead!" moaned Trevaskis under his breath, his eyes fixed on the livid bruise above Victor's right temple. He felt for a pulse in vain; he held the glass of his watch against the parted lips; he placed his notehands above the heart; but he found no symptom of life. Trevaskis rose up, notelooking wildly around. His brain, which had been demoralized for so many days by fiery stimulant, by ceaseless excitement, without proper rest or nourishment, had at this crisis lost all power of initiative.

Twice he essayed to blow out the lamp, with a vague purpose of going away, of saddling his horse and riding back to Broombush; but no, even already he felt himself in the toils. He had kept away from the main track on his return, so as to avoid anyone he knew, and yet, within two miles of Colmar, he had been accosted in the starlight by three horsemen, one of them the manager who had dined at the Colmar Arms on the day that Vansittart made up his story about the fortune he had discovered at a gold mine. The thought of this chance encounter made him feel as if all effort at concealing his guilt would be abortive. Whichever way he turned he seemed to see himself beset by unknown risks, from which he could find no ultimate escape.

"I have murdered him! I have murdered him!" he gasped

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hoarsely, staring at the prostrate body, his face gray with terror. Presently, with a wild rebellion against the horror of it all, he flung himself down once more by Victor's motionless form, chafing his hands, uncovering his chest, and raising his head. Then he got some water, with which he wetted the young man's lips, face, and hands. But there was no tremor of returning life–all its pulses seemed to have ceased. Oh God! he was already growing cold and stiff!

As this conviction fastened noteupon him, Trevaskis stood once more rooted to the spot. He was overtaken by a nightmare sort of horror, in which all his consciousness was centred noteon one awful thought. He saw, as if in a series of pictures, the ghastly consequences of this night's work. His arrest, his trial, the witnesses that would notearise on every side, the damning evidence that would be supplied by the contents of the cave room.

"They won't believe I didn't mean to kill him," he said, uttering the words in a horrified whisper, his parched lips cleaving to his teeth. "And yet I didn't–I didn't–so help me God! I had no thought of harming him." One or two hot tears trickled down his cheeks. Gradually the very poignancy of his sufferings seemed to restore his stricken faculties. Part of one of the projects that had floated notehastily through his brain, when rendered desperate by the thought of seeing the cave room searched, now came back to him. He hurried through the store-rooms to his office, and opened the door leading into the iron passage. Then he put a lighted candle in the cave room, preparatory to carrying Victor there.

At first it seemed as if he were wholly unequal to the task. But as he thought of all that lay at stake, the blood leapt in his veins with those throbs that chronicle moments during which physical impossibilities disappear. He lifted Victor in his arms, and, without once pausing on the way, carried him through the offices and the iron passage into the cave room. On reaching it he placed the inanimate form on the bunk near the entrance. As soon as he had done this, he hurried back into one of the stores in which a small quantity of dynamite was kept. He took five plugs and a cartridge, with the necessary wire to explode the charge, from a

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magneto-electricnote battery in his own office. Then he took the lamp back to the purser's office, intending to extinguish it and leave it there. But he dared not. A sudden unreasoning, overwhelming horror came over him, that, if he went back in the dark, the face of the dead would stare at him from every side. Even at that moment, with the light full in his eyes, a conviction seized him that close behind, just over his shoulder if he looked, he would see a sight that would freeze his blood with terror. He leant across the desk at which Victor used to work, and moaned piteously:

"O God! O God! is this to be my life after this? Wherever I go, wherever I am, whatever I do, is this thing to be with me–never to leave me? And I was warned, I was warned, but I would go on my way! But, oh, God in heaven! though no one else would believe it, you know I did not mean to kill him, nor to lay a finger on him." Tears coursed down his cheeks as he spoke, half in prayer, half in exculpation. No, he had not meant it; surely that would take away the guilt of the deed. This little outburst seemed to lessen the pressure on his brain.

Yet, as he went back, he peered with wild eyes from side to side. When he reached the cave room he put the lamp on the little deal table, taking care not to let his eyes wander towards the bunk on which Victor was lying.

Trevaskis' plan was to let this charge off, so that it might appear Victor's death was due to the discharge while engaged in searching the place prior to his going to town. There would be the letter which he, the manager, had received on the subject less than a week ago, to bear witness to Fitz-Gibbon's wish to overhaul the cave room. Everyone that knew anything of it knew that the place was littered with all sorts of odds and ends. A few plugs of damaged dynamite accidentally ignited would be the supposed cause of noteexplosion, and noteof the young man's death. But before firing the charge he would remove the smelted gold. He had hidden the bars underground close to the bunk.

As he was about to uncover them his gaze involuntarily rested on Victor. The next instant he was kneeling beside him with a low cry. If his eyes had not deluded him there was a slight tremor of the eyelids. Now, as he felt the pulses afresh, he thought he

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could detect a faint, uncertain beat. When he put his hand over the region of the heart he was sure of it.

Like most men who have lived much in the bush with workmen under them, Trevaskis had picked up some rough knowledge of surgery. Now that the first overmastering terror and excitement had passed away, leaving him comparatively sober, he noted symptoms in Victor's condition that pointed to concussion of the brain. The inflexibility of the limbs, the coldness of the body, the all but imperceptible pulse and breath,note he had noted these before in such cases. But as he recollected this, he also recalled how, in the two worst instances noteof concussion of the brain that had come under his notice, the patients had, after lingering some days, died unconscious. . . . Would Fitz-Gibbon recover or die?

With this thought arose the question as to what should be done with him under these altered circumstances. Should he take him back to the office and leave him till he was found lying there? No one would have any clue as to the way the accident happened. Only, if he died, would not a chain of evidence be somehow forged that would incriminate the real culprit? At this thought Trevaskis stood for a moment irresolute. At last he determined to take Victor back and leave him on the floor in the office, with his head slightly raised.

But when he attempted to carry him, as he had done before, he found himself quite unequal to the task. The stimulus of extreme terror was gone. The reaction had set in. The varying emotions he had passed through had dissipated his strength. He went to his room to fortify himself with a dose of brandy. All the time he was torn in two directions, whether to hide Victor in the cave room and tend him till he found whether he died or recovered, or take him back and allow him to be discovered in his unconscious state on the morrow in the ordinary course of events.

He lit a candle in his room and helped himself to some brandy and water. As he was in the act of drinking this, he noticed Victor's note on the table, with the key of his drawer. He had barely taken in the fact that the young man's presence in the office was due to his intention to start by Circus Bill's trap at four

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in the morning, when he heard a notecontinuous knocking at his office door. He instantly blew out the light and waited in silence, to find whether he was the victim of the insane fears that in so short a time had taken fast hold of him. But no, the knocking after a short intermission was renewed. He went to the office window and drew up the blind.

"Be 'ee there, Bill?" said a voice which he recognised as his brother's. He went out to him at once, finding a strange relief in the prospect of friendly companionship. At first he heard his brother's voice as if from a great notedistance. Dan Trevaskis was in dire trouble, and, all unconscious of the wild dismay in which he found his brother, he began to relate his tale. On the journey from Melbourne he had met his boy Dick on the way thereto–ran against him accidentally at one of the stations at which both trains called. He was looking miserably ill, and on being questioned he confessed to his father that he had embezzled some money, that he had left the Bank on ten days' leave of absence, and meant to run away somewhere. His father had brought him back with notehim; had walked with him from Yarranalla, twelve miles further off than Nilpeena. They had come by an indirect route, so as to meet no one on the way.

"I want to hide 'e, Bill. The lad can stay by me at that claim where I'm to work alone. Why, what 'ud be the good of 'e trying to run away? I'll make the money good to the Bank; but I can't abear to let 'em 'ave the boy to put in prison. I'd sooner die, by God I would!"

"Where is he now?" said Trevaskis, in a dull heavy voice.

"'E's noterestin' a bit away from here. . . . I didn't like to bring 'e up, in case anyone might be about with note'ee."

Gradually, as Trevaskis listened to his brother, a scheme unfolded itself, vague at first, but gathering coherence as he thought it over.

In this youth fleeing from justice, and in his father eager above all things to screen him from the reach of the law, he might find the very instruments needed to free him from the horrible dilemma in which he found himself. To send this youth away under the name of Victor Fitz-Gibbon would afford him all the notemeans necessary to secure the treasure and to see whether Victor recovered. If he did, he could be drugged, and left in the wastes around somewhere till he was discovered. Others might be suspected, and others might suffer, but at any rate this great crisis could be tided over. Only, till the boy was safely despatched, secrecy would be necessary as to that stricken life now hidden underground. If the worst came to the worst–if he died, he could get rid of the remains in a way that would absolutely defy detection. There was the limestone kilnnote all this week and the next, and at any time that the manager would choose to set it going, ready to calcine any matter that was cast into its depths.

A short time before Trevaskis left town, he had seen a play in which a murderer–a man who had designedly killed another for the sake of gain–had disposed of his victim in that manner.note

"This is what people mean when they say the stage has such good moral effects," he thought; "it helps them to scheme how to get away from a coil of suspicions. No one would believe that I hadn't killed Fitz-Gibbon because he was on the track of the hidden gold. But I didn't; it was all accidental. Now here's the way to get out of it all." He felt his courage rising every moment.

"What do you think, Bill? Can't I keep him with myself all unbeknownst to anyone else?" said Dan, in an imploring voice.

"No, Dan, you can't; the thing has been tried over and over again, and always comes to grief," answered Trevaskis coldly. And then, in the pause that ensued, he keenly noted the despair of the unhappy man, who was ready to embrace any scheme to save his boy from the shame and open disgrace that threatened him.

"There's only one plan that I can see to save him," said Trevaskis in a moody, yet half indifferent tone.

"What is that, Bill? tell me for God's sake!" cried Dan.

There was silence for a moment or two, and then Trevaskis answered, in the tones of one who is not supremely interested:

"There is a young swell here who wants for some notereason of his own to be quit of his friends for a time without leaving the country. There is a wool-shipnote leaving Port Pellew the day after to-morrow. If anyone left by that vessel in his name I believe he would pay handsomely––"

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"Oh, Bill! Bill! would 'e let my boy go?–but tell me, has this young swell done nothing 'isself?" cried Dan with breathless eagerness.

"Nothing in the world, in the way you mean," answered Trevaskis, still maintaining the cold aspect of a man not committed to one side or the other.

"Would 'e let my lad Dick go in place of 'e?"

"I believe he would, and pay his way," answered Trevaskis, turning to fumble for his pipe and tobacco-pouch. He smoked as a rule only at night, and kept these on the mantelpiece of his office. He had lit only a candle, and he felt somehow safer to be away from his brother's observation while he threw out these baits as if they were half-random suggestions, unconnected with any vital interests of his own.

"Then, Bill, for God's sake let my boy go for him!" cried Dan, standing up and placing his hand on Trevaskis' arm.

"Go and call him in," said Trevaskis curtly. Dan at once hurried outside. Then Trevaskis unlocked the iron safe in his office and took out a little leathern bag which held a hundred sovereigns. He had thought it safer to keep some gold coin by him, and now his forecasts were strangely confirmed. He was fast approaching the old self-complacent standpoint, in which his "luck" appeared to him as a definite valuable possession, to be calculated and acted upon. With this bag of sovereigns in his notepocket he went with a lighted candle into the purser's office. There was Victor's Gladstone bag all ready packed, with his ulster and travelling cap on a chair by the sofa on which he had thrown himself down under his travelling rug. He unlocked the drawer of the desk at which Victor habitually worked, and found the large envelope enclosing the safe key addressed in his bold running hand:

Captain Trevaskis,

Colmar Mine.

The envelope had been so hurriedly closed that by slipping in the point of his penknife the paper yielded under a little pressure without the least tear.

Trevaskis reflected that someone might call by arrangement to waken the purser before four. He therefore threw the window

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wide open, poured water into the wash-hand basin, which stood in an noteiron frame near it, washed his hands, and threw the wetted towel carelessly on the edge of the stand, and then flung various articles about on the bunk, giving the place that air of disorder which a room wears when one leaves it hurriedly. Then he gathered up Victor's effects and took them to his own room. There the father and son awaited him.

Trevaskis wasted no time in preambles of any kind.

"I'm going to help you out of this mess you've got into, Dick, but mind, you have to keep your wits about you. You'll get out of the train at Oswald township, and change into the one for Port Pellew at mid-day. You'll get into the Port at seven in the evening, and put up at the Kangaroo Inn. It's about the middle of the township, facing the jetty, and the nearest inn to the station. Here's a note-book and pencil; just enter these directions. . . . Yes–well–there are two wool-ships advertised to sail on Saturday, early in the day. Go by the first one that sails. Now, mark me, your line is to leave evidence which will lead people to believe you are one Victor Fitz-Gibbon, but you are not to go in his name. Dan, what name had this unfortunate boy better go under? W. T. had better be the initials, because he'll have to take a stock of my things. William Thompson–that will do–that will do."

"And 'ow's 'e to give out that 'e's Fitz-Gibbon, Bill? Is 'e to make any statement?" said Dan, who was quivering with excitement as he listened.

"Nothing of the sort," answered Trevaskis. "In the first place, he's to post me this letter the first thing." He produced the envelope Victor had addressed, and into it he put two or three folded official documents that he took off his own table–papers of the kind that might have been casually in the purser's possession.

"See, I'll put a stamp on it, and it will be all ready for posting, and mind you post it the very first thing before you go to the inn. Then, in your bedroom, be careful to forget this little packet–look, there are three letters, all addressed "Victor Fitz-Gibbon, Colmar Mine, Colmar," as well as a couple of his visiting-cards. Go into your room the last thing before starting, and put these

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into a drawer in the toilet-table or some such place. Your name won't appear at all; they don't treat these ships like passenger vessels. You'll pay the captain for your passage. You'll go first class, and directly you land in London go to the post-office; there will be letters awaiting you there, and I'll make arrangements with a friend in the City to give you some work in an office till we can see our way to your coming back. Here's a hundred sovereigns for you."

Trevaskis, as he spoke, emptied the little leathern bag on the table, and the money fell in a glittering shower.

"Oh, uncle, that is too much! You are too good to me," said Dick, penetrated with the thought of his kinsman's disinterested generosity.

He was a tall, loose-jointed youth, with pale eyes and rather a foolish mouth, but there were as yet no vicious lines in his face, and the sight of his father's silent misery pierced him to the heart.

Trevaskis filled one of his largest portmanteaus with clothes and linen. As the preparations drew to a close, poor Dan began to feel certain misgivings.

"Oh, Bill! don't 'ee think if 'ee spoke for my lad to the directors and managers they'd look over this? I'd be more nor willin' to make up the money. 'Twas only fifty pound, all told," he said, speaking to Trevaskis in a low voice.

"Just enough to get him four years in the stockade,note and put the stain of a convict on him for life," answered Trevaskis, closing the portmanteau with a sharp click. "As for my speaking to anyone on his behalf, if I was a wealthy member of Parliament, and all the rest of it, I might do some good; as it is, I notewould only give them the clue where to send the police for him."

Dan shrank back as if he were struck, and offered no further resistance. At three all was ready.

"You had better walk down with your portmanteau, and wait a little beyond Scroog's inn till the coach starts," said Trevaskis, turning to his nephew. But the father in Dan rose tyrannously.

"Just 'alf a minute for myself and the lad, Bill!" he said in a tremulous voice, and then he stepped outside with his son. The night was very sultry, the sky heavily overcast with clouds.

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There was a high, hot wind, dense with dust.

"Dick, my boy, noteyou're going far from me. I want to say a few words to you, but I'm whizzy like."

Dan stopped abruptly. He made an effort to go on, but the words ended in short stifled sobs. There was so much he would like to have said, now that the moment of parting had come, and he thought bitterly that to send his son away to the far ends of the earth, with a lie in his mouth as it were, was not a hopeful antidote for the evil courses into which he had fallen. But probably no form of set words or remonstrances could have reached the heart and conscience of the lad as did the sound of his father's broken voice.

"I oft to have set you a better ensample, I know," he went on, when he could make his voice audible.

"Oh, father, don't say that; you've always been too good to me!" cried Dick, his own voice shattered and full of tears. "You kept me long at school, and got me a good easy billet, and now noteI have given you nothing but trouble."

"If you was only a little youngster once more, Dick, and I could keep you! but to be going from me like this, it takes the 'eart out o' me."

Dan looked round, as if with some wild and sudden thought of escape. The silent and desolate salt-bush plains did not seem to him as forbidding as the wide, cruel world beyond, to which his boy was fleeing in disgrace.

"But if I kep' you they would tear you from me, and make a gaol-bird of you. Oh, Dick! will you come to that after all? Oh, I'm afeerd, I'm afeerd––"

"No, father, no! I promise you on my knees!" cried the lad in an agony of remorse and grief, kneeling down where he stood.

"Say your prayers to me, Dick, as you used to when you was a little chap," whispered the father.

When they re-entered Trevaskis' office it was half-past three. He had some tea and bread-and-butter ready, and Dick did his best to eat and drink; but it was rather a melancholy failure. The first gleams of daylight were struggling through the warm dust-laden air as he went on his way. Half an hour later the coach started from Scroog's inn, amid a lusty chorus. Several of the

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passengers were lucky diggers, who had spent the night in drinking and gambling. The refrain

"We won't go home till morning,
Till daylight does appear,"note

fell on Dan's ears with a mocking hilarity, as he watched the trap whirling away, with Dick wedged in between two other passengers on the back-seat.