― 369 ―

6. Chapter VI.

Doris stood motionless for a few moments, supporting herself against the iron wall. Before any coherent purpose had formed itself in her mind she saw Trevaskis leading a saddled horse towards the office.

In a few seconds she had reached him. Before she could speak he had turned to her, his face full of concern, saying:

"What is it, Miss Lindsay? Is there anything wrong?"

"Do you know that Mr. Fitz-Gibbon is in there?" she said, pointing to the iron passage, her hand trembling, her voice low and quivering.

Aided by the information he had gleaned through reading Victor's half-written letter to Miss Paget, Trevaskis with instinctive quickness guessed all that underlay the girl's agitation.

"You are ill and nervous, Miss Lindsay," he said in a studiously quiet and impressive voice. "Would you like to come down through the iron passage and see for yourself?"

"Thank you, I should like to come at once," she answered.

Trevaskis fastened his horse to a bridle-post in front of the offices. Then he opened the outer door of his own, saying, "I will just get the key." He passed into his bedroom. Dan was sitting by the bed: on it Victor was lying in a state of somnolent unconsciousness, muttering from time to time in a thick inarticulate voice. Dan Trevaskis, with a face notefull of dull misery, fanned the sick man feebly from time to time.

"I've took 'e up, Bill. But, Gord 'elp us, 'e don't seem to me like as 'e'd live. 'Twas dreadful close down there; but 'tain't so much better 'ere. Bill, I must get a doctor to 'e some'ow or other. It breaks my note'art to see and note'ere 'e, it do–it do. If you was––"

"Shut up, you miserable blatherskiter, will you!" cried Trevaskis, in an access of sudden fury. "You went on mumbling

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and jabbering like this last night, and I told you we would get him away shortly; now you dared to take him up here without my leave–and what's the consequence? A girl comes to me with a white face, saying Fitz-Gibbon is in the iron passage."

Without waiting for a reply to notehis speech, muttered in a low menacing tone, Trevaskis closed the door after him, and rejoined Doris with a bunch of keys in his hand. To open the door leading into the passage, to traverse it to the end, to light a bull's-eye lantern and let the partial gleam of it fall on the outer portion of the cave room, was the work of a few moments.

"I suppose you have been hearing rumours of Mr. Fitz-Gibbon's disappearance, and have become anxious on his account, Miss Lindsay?" said Trevaskis in a suavely sympathetic tone, as he walked beside Doris on her way towards Stonehouse.

"I do not know what to think," she answered in a shaken voice.

Spot, whom Trevaskis had been careful to keep outside, made a dash at the door when it was opened, and now that it was shut he stood close against it with his nose to the ground, his eyes full of fiery animation. But Doris heeded him no longer. She did not even notice that he lingered behind.

"At any rate, you see that your strange fancy was a delusion. I took you in without a moment's delay, so that you could be under no mistake. You see, Miss Lindsay, the key of this passage never goes out of my possession; so that whatever motive Mr. Fitz-Gibbon might have for hiding, he couldn't do it without my knowledge."

"Hiding!" repeated Doris, raising her head with a sudden haughty gesture. "He would never hide–why should he?"

"How, then, could you think that he would be there?"

"There were some words running in my head," returned Doris in a faint colourless voice. " "Perhaps someone is making believe in the matter, because of some wickedness or another." And then I looked in at the little window where Spot was bounding up, and there–half lying down, his eyes closed, and his face white–oh, I am glad I was deceived! It was terrible––"

"I am glad that I was on the spot," said Trevaskis, speaking in a tone of kindly solicitude. His face had blanched visibly while Doris was speaking; now a dull red mounted in his cheeks, and

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settled in a deep rim under his eyes. "I know what it is to be bothered with strange ideas–to fancy you see faces and things."

"Have you sometimes seen things like that, then?" asked Doris, with a feeling of relief.

"I had a touch of fever on me once, and I couldn't close my eyes but I saw crowds of faces and animals, and heard people talking and shouting," answered Trevaskis slowly. "And not only so, but at last, when I went about–I was so placed that I could not keep in bed, as I should have done–I began to fancy I saw people in all sorts of ways–some dancing, others lying down as if they were dead."

Doris drew a long sigh. They had now reached the top of the reef, and looked down on Stonehouse with its surrounding trees, and the illimitable western plain, gray and silent, and lightly flushed with the crimson afterglow which lit up the sky.

"You are sure that no one but yourself can get into that iron passage?" she said. And then, without waiting for an answer, "I think it would be better to search that underground room well."

"I was down there for some hours this afternoon," said Trevaskis, repressing with an effort the strong irritation roused by the persistence of her impression. "It is very good of you to be so much interested in one who is almost a stranger to you. I had a letter from his uncle this morning. He does not seem so very much surprised. I have been wondering whether the young lady he was engaged to marry knows––"

"The young lady?" repeated Doris, looking up with a puzzled look, as if she had not heard aright.

"Yes; Miss Helen Paget. Mr. Fitz-Gibbon is engaged to be married to her, I believe," answered Trevaskis with slow emphasis, watching the girl's face as he spoke with malicious keenness. But he was not rewarded by any signs of distress or confusion. Her calm gravity was undisturbed, outwardly at least. A look of perplexity, perhaps of unbelief, rose in Doris's eyes. Trevaskis, disconcerted by her clear, unconfused gaze, took refuge in pulling out his watch, awaiting with nervous eagerness her reply. But she made none. Seeing Kenneth Campbell approach on his way towards the mine, she bowed to Trevaskis with simple dignity, saying:

"I am obliged to you for taking me into the passage, but I must not keep you any longer. I think I must talk to my old friend Mr.

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Campbell about poor Mrs. West. We are going to take her across to her brother's place to-morrow."

Trevaskis retraced his steps with a feeling of baffled uncertainty which added fuel to the rage that smouldered in his mind against his brother. He had long ere this found the futility of endeavouring to act as though he were "quite on the square."note He was terrified lest he should make some move that might noteultimately wreck all in the end. For in the involved, dangerous game he was playing, circumstances were constantly forcing him to go on the hand to mouth plan.note A much greater man than he was notewill be prone to commit blunders in such circumstances, because the want of proportion between his means and his ends progressively increases, and his mind is exhausted in fruitless efforts. He had to go on to see two of the directors of the Colmar, who had been examining an old mine further north and had telegraphed to him to be at Nilpeena to meet them on their way back to town. He had not much time to spare, but he could not go on without a word of warning to Dan. The word of warning turned into a violent altercation. Dan sat as if he had not moved during the last half hour, staring at Victor, who still lay for the most part motionless. Now and then he tossed feebly, and now and then he murmured half audible words. But he did not open his eyes, and there was no gleam of consciousness on his face.

When Dan saw his brother coming to the room a second time, he started up, his heavy eyes aflame. He said nothing till Trevaskis had entered the room, then he planted his back against the door with a look of dogged despair and determination, which checked the furious reproaches that rose to the lips of the younger brother.

"Look 'ere, Bill, if this job is to go on it must be at the awner's 'count,"note he said in a low husky voice.

"I don't understand you," returned Trevaskis.

"Then I'll put it feer, so as there cussn't be a mistake. Yistidday was a fortnight that I parted from my awnly cheeld to go as it were in the place of one as was anxious to make b'law 'e 'ad left the country. Friday and Saturday, Sunday and Monday, I was lyin' most of the time––"

"Dead drunk; yes, go on."

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"Why did note'ee keep the drink to my 'and, knowin' well that in the low, haaf-sarednote state I were in I would keep on drinkin'? Why did note'ee draw the coortins and keep the place quiet, so 'ut I might lie there without countin' day noteor night? Why did note'ee––"

"Suppose I don't choose to be cross-examined by you like this, as if I were a country bumpkin in the hands of a kerb-stone lawyer,"note said Trevaskis, his eyes flashing ominously.

"And then, when I coom a little to myself, you took me down to a hawl of a place, where this young man was lying, and you patched up some sort of a yarn, and I sucked in every word like Gospel truth. You didn't wait till I was clever and feelin' like a man," said Dan, with a catch in his throat. But he overcame the weakness, and went on, with that tense indignation which sweeps all artifice before it: "No, you made me b'law as 'twas for the sake of my lad partly, and that you wanted to take care o' the young man–to nuss 'e, to be good to 'e."

"So I did––"

"So you did not. All the time you've been pizening note'e with drugs. Shame on you to do such a cowardly thing, and me takin' every care on 'e."

"You fool! what is the good of exciting yourself like this?" cried Trevaskis, beyond himself with rage, his eyes glowing like coals, his face ashen to the lips.

"I may be a fool and an idjit, but I won't be a murderer."

"A murderer!" cried Trevaskis, starting up with a threatening movement of his hand.

"Yes, a murderer, a murderer, a murderer!" cried Dan, raising his voice and drawing nearer to his brother, who gazed at him with a feeling akin to fear.

"For the good Lord's sake, hold your tongue!" said Trevaskis in a low voice. "Do you want to draw a crowd of miners round the place? Do you want to have me accused of what I never meant to do? Do you want to have your own boy exposed to all the world as a thief? What good will all this do you? Come, Dan, be reasonable. We've both lost our heads a little. Give me your hand, like a good fellow. You needn't be afraid that anything will happen to this young man. A little laudanum won't kill anyone;

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and you must see that if he got his senses clean back, while he's here, noteit would be all up with me."

Dan, who was rarely moved to great excitement, listened to his brother in stolid silence. In silence he took his proffered hand, and seemed to assent to what he said.

"I don't mind your keeping him in this room to-night, only be careful, Dan, be careful. After I come back to-morrow, you must go away for a day and a night for a little change."

Dan sat for nearly an hour after his brother went away, close to the bed on which Victor was lying. A terrible thought had fastened on his mind. It was a close, sultry night, with a hot wind blowing from the north-east. The sky was deeply overcast, the daylight was fading, and a darkness heavier than that of night had fallen on this man, bereaved, lonely, and despairing.

"I want to get up–I want to get away–why do you tie me like this?" Victor muttered, over and over again, throwing his hands about with a convulsive, helpless gesture. After a time he turned over, and gradually fell into a deep sleep, breathing heavily.

"Bill means to kill 'e–to give 'e a big dose when 'e gets me away, and then when I come back 'e'll make me bury 'e somewheres. 'E'll make me do everything. But I won't, I won't! I'll take 'e away somehow before he comes back; I'll take 'e away this very night."

Dan's brain seemed to be on fire. Even as he gasped out his determination to take prompt action, he was conscious of a creeping lassitude, of a total inability to plan or act. He felt dizzy, and the walls seemed to close around him. He went out, locking the outer door behind him, feeling that if he did not get away for a little time he would choke, or fall down in a fit. There was no fresh air to revive him; yet even the dismal wailing wind, full of sulphurous smoke, warm as if it had escaped from a seething caldron, thick with dust and mullock grit, was better than the close room in which Victor's motionless form and pale face struck an indefinable fear into Dan's soul. The long-continued tension, the morbid nervousness that had seized him on the day he had met his boy under such unhappy circumstances, had now come to a climax. He walked bareheaded along the foot of the reef above the mine, with its dull roar of machinery and its flaring

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lights. A sort of blurred confusion fell on him; he gave up trying to think what he should do. He saw someone coming towards him–someone who came close up against him. Dan stood aside to let him pass. But the man did not pass; he came up to him, and gripped both his hands.

"Dan, Dan, what's come to ye? noteTo-morrow I leave this mine for good, and I've been notelooking for you to say good-bye. I ast for you of the cap'en, and he shut me hup as if I was a cut-throat. My missis is bad again, and I won't come back 'ere no more." Dan made a hoarse murmur by way of reply. "P'raps 'tain't my business, but 'pears to me, Dan, there's summat wrong with you besides hillness."

"Iss, 'Zilla, iss," burst out Dan, not waiting to think or parley with himself, "summat is wrong with me in body and soul, and if I don't get some 'elp I don't know what's to come to I."

"Tell me what it be, Dan. You as good as saved my life once, and I don't forget that."

"You are goin' away to-morrer?"

"But I can wait."

"No, don't wait; you can help me to-night. But swear on your knees, in the hearin' o' the living God–if so be as 'E cares to listen to we–that you'll never, never speak to anyone of what I tell ye, that you'll ax no question over what I say. Swear to me on your soul, as you hope to be saved from eternal damnation; swear to me, 'Zilla, for the sake o' old times."

Dan's voice was hoarse with anguish. He was trembling, and his hands were cold and clammy. At that moment he clung to his old friend as to one providentially sent to save him from the terrible fate that, to his excited fancy, seemed momentarily drawing nearer.

"I swear, Dan, I swear to do what I can for you, short o' foul sin, and that you wouldn't ax o' me," answered 'Zilla. "What trouble be you in?"

"A man's been badly 'urt by accident––"

"A man on the mine–a young man?" cried 'Zilla, with a strange suspicion rising in his mind.

"I didn't mean to do 'e 'arm, and it's no fault o' mine, and you must keep to your promise, 'Zilla, and ax no questions,"

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answered Dan doggedly.

"I won't, Dan, I won't! A man's been 'urt, you say?"

"And I've been trying to nuss 'e. I've been on the job for some time. Lord in heaven, I've lost count o' days!"

"On the mine here, Dan, without no doctor? There, I don't want a hanswer; only when you're swellin' with sore amazement you must let it off some'ow. You've been on the job for some time, Dan?"

"Yes, and I dussent tell a livin' soul, for fear o' being took by the throat and clapped into prison."

"And you innercent, Dan?"

"Do you misbelieve me, 'Zilla?"

"No, my old mate–no, I don't; but–There–no, I won't–go on, Dan."

"And now this night a hawful fear 'as come upon me, 'Zilla; a fear o' crime and blood-guiltiness that 'ud hang round my neck like the nether millstone,note and drag me low down below the very foundations o' hell."

"Oh, Dan, Dan! 'e ain't a-dyin'? I won't ax another question; but tell me 'e ain't a-dyin'?"

"No, 'Zilla–no, no; but I want 'e to get better quicker nor I can make 'e notew' drugses out o' a bought box, made up by people as never saw the sick ones as swallers 'em. I want 'e to be took care of above ground, not down in a dark, lonesome cave place."

"Down in a cave place, Dan? Slinkin' there alone and in secret with a man badly hurt? 'Ow in the name o' the Amoighty did you get into such a hawful fix, and you an innercent man?"

"Zilla's voice was full of consternation and wonder. He spoke without any afterthought as to his friend's veracity. Dan understood this, feeling that the whole affair was so full of perplexing mystery, that it was taking an unfair advantage of his old mate to appeal to him for help, while giving him so little confidence. It was a sudden fear, lest he should be tempted to betray his brother, that led him to reply in a gruff tone.

"'Zilla, the world is full o' liards. Don't you go a-haddin' to the number. You promised not to ax questions?"

"I did, Dan, I did, and I won't go back on my word. You want to have this man took to a place where 'e'll be well took care of–

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say, to an 'orsepital?"

"Iss, 'Zilla, and with money to pay for the best nussin'."

"There's a private 'orsepital been lately opened at Broombush, for those as can pay well."

"Yes, that's been running in my 'ead, 'Zilla. But––"

"In course, you want to get him took there without noteyour appearin' in the matter?"

"Nor you, 'Zilla, for that 'ud come to the same thing."

"I know that. Did you ever see a hold Scoty as goes about with an 'awker's waggon, sellin' religious books, and preachin' on Sundays and week-days, when 'e can get chaps to listen as 'ow's there's few to be saved, and it's very onlike it's them?"note

"No, I never did!"

"And 'ave you some sort of a machine and a beast as you can make a start with this very night?"

"I could noteborrow the light 'Merican waggon as belongs to the place, and there's a beast in the stable. But what do you mean, 'Zilla?"

"Zilla briefly explained that Kenneth Campbell was going on the morrow to take Mrs. West to her brother's at the Halfway House. That he was a man who was always on the look-out to do things for people in need, and had already taken several men, who were suffering from fever at the mine, to the hospital in Broombush Creek in his waggon.

"My idear is, if you was to make a start to-night, and meet him somewhere on the way––" said 'Zilla, pausing a little dubiously, as he saw that there were some grave obstacles. If Dan had a horse and trap, even one as fanatical for serving his fellow-creatures as Kenneth was, might wonder why the man who, with such conveniences, had come upon a helpless invalid in the bush, did not at once convey him to a place of refuge, instead of appealing to a casual passer-by. But here the thoughts which had been slowly revolving in Dan's mind during the last endless days and nights, in connection with this matter, came to his aid.

"I won't meet the ould chap o' the road at all, 'Zilla," he said eagerly. "I 'aven't told you–we 'adn't much talk together sin' I coom this time–but I was goin' to work a claim theer, about a mile to the south o' what they call the broken-down whim."

  ― 378 ―

"That's feer within two miles and a arf o' the Arf-way 'Ouse, Dan! That 'ull be most on the track."

"Iss, and there's a bit of a shanty there. I'll go this very night. I'll notesturt in two hours, with notethe sick man on a mattress noteand quite comfortable like, 'Zilla. Oh, 'Zilla! the weight as is took off my 'eart. I'll be like camped there, and this ould chap as is so given up to doin' things for people, he can coom along from the Arf-way 'Ouse."

"Iss, Dan, you scratch me a few lines, and I'll go acrost and show them."

"And 'e'll be sartin sure to coom?"

"As sure as there's breath in 'is body, and anyone needin' 'is help," answered 'Zilla solemnly.

An hour later, 'Zilla went across to Stonehouse to see Kenneth. He was not in his waggon, and 'Zilla went to the kitchen to ask where he would be likely to find him.

"'Tis about this journey o' his noteto-morrer," he explained to Bridget, who stood at the door, fanning herself vigorously with a Chinese paper fan.

"Shure, thin, and if it's to take noteahny more sick people it cahn't be done; for the mistress hersilf is going as far as the Half-way House, besides the sick woman and Miss Doris. Ye see, it's loike this," said Bridget, who was always ready to offer elaborate explanations of every domestic project. "Mrs. Challoner, she haven't been shlaping at ahl at ahl for days and noights; and it just tuk Mrs. Murray in the head, if she went for a dhroive in the waggon, it might lull her loike, and be a little change; so––"

Before Bridget's flowing narrative had come to an end, Kenneth came round the back veranda, and 'Zilla gave him the note, which he had received from an old mate of his, who was at work somewhere not far from the Half-way House.