The Land of The Lost
Clifford hesitated, then buttoned his coat across his chest, and prepared to start.
"Are you going?" she asked hesitatingly.
"I shall not be very long," he replied.
"But in this rain?"
"Well, it is rather heavy," he admitted. "If you don't mind I will wait a few minutes."
"I could not think of letting you get wet through on my account," she said. "I have already sufficiently inconvenienced you."
"Not at all," said Clifford.
The fire, which must otherwise have been extinguished by the rain, was protected by a small fly of palm leaves, which the natives had given to Clifford for that purpose. He now occupied himself in piling on fuel, and thus flooded the tent with a cheerful blaze of cherry-coloured light. Then, with a feeling of disgust at his own large proportions, he sat down in a corner of the tent and looked respectfully at his patient
"Are you feeling easier now?" he asked.
"Yes, thank you," she responded.
"Because there is plenty more cold water when your foot begins to get painful again."
"How did the accident occur?" he asked.page 64
"I am afraid I was very careless," she replied. "My mind was occupied with other things, and I left everything to the horse. Then he stumbled and threw me. I could not immediately get my foot from the stirrup, and he dragged me a few yards before I got loose."
"It is a very dark night for riding," said Clifford.
"Let me tell you all about it," said the young lady. "My name is Esther Hamilton; I am a daughter of Dr. Hamilton, of Parawai. My father and I were to attend the races to-morrow, and at five o'clock this evening we were preparing to start. Then a message came for my father from a settler about half a mile from the village, and he told me to ride slowly on, and he would overtake me. I had just made up my mind to turn back, and, indeed, had pulled the rein with that purpose when the accident occurred."
"Then your father might pass by at any moment?" said Clifford.
"He might," she assented, "but I do not think so, because there was a chance the case he was called to might be serious, and he told me if he did not overtake me in a couple of hours either to turn back or press on as quickly as possible."
"It is very unfortunate," said Clifford. "There were some native women a short distance down the creek until a few days ago, but now the field is almost deserted. Do you know anything of Mrs. Brandon?"
"No," replied Esther slowly, with a slight change of manner.
"Because she might possibly object to come out such a night as this, though I hardly think it likely under the circumstances."
"She might," assented Esther, looking troubled.
"Is there anything else you can suggest?" he asked.page 65
"I might borrow a horse from Upmore and ride over for your father, but that would necessitate leaving you alone for a number of hours. I do not say it would be unsafe, but still——" He hesitated and looked out across the fire into the rain.
"Why?" she asked, as he remained silent.
"Well," he replied, "the field is nearly deserted, but there are still a few undesirable characters remaining. I do not believe any harm would befall you, but I have often had visitors of all kinds in the evening, and were you to be bothered by them in my absence, your friends would naturally blame me for leaving you unprotected."
"Yes," she said hurriedly, a new fear dawning in her eyes, "do not leave me alone. Could I not go with you?"
"In this rain? You would get your death."
"But when it leaves off. It does not seem quite so heavy now."
Clifford listened. It was true the downpour had abated something of its first fury, but at this period of the year what are known as the Christmas rains might be expected to keep up more or less continuously for three or four days together. He conjectured it was hardly likely they could travel any distance that night without getting drenched to the skin.
"Are you afraid to remain alone while I run up to the hotel?" he asked.
"How long will you be?" she inquired anxiously.
"Possibly three-quarters of an hour—less, of course, if Mrs. Brandon does not return with me."
Her face fell.
Suddenly a thought struck him, and going to his knapsack he produced a small glittering object from the bottom.page 66
"Can you use a pistol?" he asked.
"I never have, but I daresay I could."
Clifford withdrew the cartridges and showed her how to manage the weapon; then, reloading it, he placed it in her hand.
"Be very careful," he advised. "If anyone should come don't be too ready, but when there is a necessity cover your man. He will probably run away, but if he advances on you fire at his chest. Try and kill him, you understand. You must kill a man of that sort, for if you only wound him he will probably kill you. But don't be alarmed; it is getting on for nine o'clock, and not a night to induce anyone to be out. It is the unlikeliest thing in the world that you will be disturbed."
Esther placed the pistol under the rug within reach of her hand. Then Clifford buttoned his coat, threw a gum sack across his shoulders, and stepped out into the rain.
"Good-bye," he said cheerfully.
"Good-bye," she replied in scarcely audible tones. After his departure Esther lay quiet, listening to the sound of the rain on the tent-roof; but about ten minutes later the downpour ceased as suddenly as it had begun, and was followed by a stillness broken only by the subdued singing of the creek beneath the bank.
In some way the sound of the rain had given her a sense of companionship which now on its cessation gave place to a feeling of intense loneliness. She drew herself into a sitting posture with her back against one of the supports of the tent, and wrapped the rugs more closely around her. She was feeling cold and at the same time feverishly excited. The pain in her foot had also again begun to assert itself with a gnawing, irritating persistence. All kinds of unhappy visions crossed page 67her mind. She would be lame for life; her foot was so severely injured as to necessitate amputation. Such ideas were, however, too dreadful to brood over, and she dismissed them with a shiver to the background of her mind, where they hung like a thundercloud, casting a blacker shadow across her thoughts. There was another side to the affair. Supposing Mrs. Brandon refused to come—and perhaps in any case—might there not be a scandal? People were so ready to attribute ill. Might it not even be said her foot had received no injury at all? Esther writhed at the thought like a wounded deer; probably she knew the scandal hunger of the district. From her father she doubted if she would get implicit credence, but how about someone else? He was not always very considerate. Perhaps he was just a little—a very little—suspicious. In any case he would be angry and say unpleasant things.
What a predicament! Alone in a gum-digger's tent at the mercy of a man of whom she knew nothing! Was ever girl so unfortunate? But was he a gumdigger, after all? He had not the appearance of the men she had seen round the stores of the settlement; and then he had been so gentle and considerate it was a shame to distrust him. He had been the first, if not to see, at any rate to suggest, the necessity for another woman's presence. No, she did not distrust him. It was the world she doubted and feared. Besides, there was the pistol. He would not have given her that if he contemplated any action which might necessitate her using it against himself.
How lonely it was here by herself, and how she longed for his return!—yes, though he came alone. Could she use the pistol in case anyone should come? Esther put her hand beneath the rug to ascertain the where-page 68abouts of the weapon. As her hand touched the hilt she started and listened intently, her whole being concentrated in the sense of hearing.
There had been a faint rustling sound as of something moving in the wet bushes without.
The sound did not recur, but she was now alarmed almost to a state of frenzy. The possibility of some ruffian lurking in the vicinity, perhaps even watching her from the blackness beyond the fire, had the effect of increasing her trust in Clifford. The young man assumed in her mind the character of an invincible defender, of a tried and lifelong friend.
"Oh, come back, come back!" she whispered unconsciously, straining her eyes into the gloom.
In a few minutes she became calmer and relaxed the intensity of her gaze. Probably the sound that had frightened her was due to some motion of the atmosphere, though the night hitherto had been phenomenally calm and free from wind. She glanced round the tent, thinking if it were possible for anyone to enter save by the doorway. At one side the rain had left a broad dark mark on the canvas, and this set her wondering whether in the event of more rain falling the place was entirely waterproof. Her gaze passed across the dry roof and down the other side—no rain had entered so far.
Then again an event occurred which sent the blood in a tumultuous wave to her heart. She was now convinced that she was no longer alone. One of the tent walls had suddenly moved a few inches inward as though pressed upon by some object outside. It regained its place on the instant, and again everything was as silent and motionless as before.
In the deathly stillness Esther heard the quick, page 69muffled beating of her heart. Some terrible danger threatened, and still there was no sound of her protector's return.
Again her eyes were fixed on the darkness without, and slowly the pitiful hunted look they wore was intensified to one of terror. Crouched behind the fire, his face rendered uncertain by the quivering flame and smoke, was a man who gazed fixedly into the tent.
In spite of herself, Esther uttered a startled cry, and the man, seeing himself discovered, rose, came round the fire, and bent himself through the doorway. He was a tall man, massively framed, and as he stooped beneath the canvas it seemed to the distressed girl that he filled the whole tent.
The intruder looked round, then pulled off his cap with mock reverence.
"'D evenin', miss," he said. "Boss not at home?"
Esther felt her mouth and lips to have become suddenly dry, but she was surprised at the steadiness of her voice as she replied in the negative.
"Then I'll take the liberty of settin' down till he comes," said the man, suiting the action to the word.
"I expect him every minute," said Esther, moistening her lips.
The man cocked his head and listened intently for a moment, then he settled himself comfortably, favoured her with a long, cool stare, and said, "Do you, now? How very nice!"
As this did not appear to call for any reply, Esther remained silent.
"Me an' your mate," said the man, after a pause, "had a bit of a barney some days ago. I thought I'd just step round and bury the hatchet." He grinned, showing a mouthful of ragged teeth. "Yes, 'tain't the square page 70thing to be on the cross-cut at Christmas-time; so I'm on the bury in' lay—that's my lay to-night. Here's the hatchet."
He pulled a tomahawk from his belt, and bending forward, held it in the face of the frightened girl. Then he laughed, and struck it deep into the earth floor of the tent.
"That's my lay," he repeated, "buryin' of it."
The idea appeared to cause him exquisite amusement, for he laughed again; then, suddenly checking himself, listened with the same intentness as before. Greatly to Esther's relief, he had drawn the axe from the ground and restored it to his belt before he again addressed her. This time his remark took a more personal tone.
"You'll be his fancy girl," he said, with a leering look of admiration. "My! if some men don't get all the luck."
"You are mistaken," said Esther, with a nervous quiet. "I know nothing of him. I was thrown from my horse and hurt my foot. I never saw him before in my life till to-night."
"So I was thinking," returned the man stolidly. "You'll have met him mostly where there was no light to see him by. You're a sly one, you know, but we're all friends. There was a mate o' mine once had a girl on the field—Sandy George his name were—but, lor' bless you, he couldn't keep 'er; she just passed round, you know. You'll be thinking of givin' your mate the chuck by-an'-by."
"I am Dr. Hamilton's daughter," said Esther. "What I have told you is true. I am here as the result of an accident."
"Of course," said the man, with a sneer; "accident's page 71the word. I've been there before. Bless you, I'm not so green as I'm cabbage-looking, though, dang me, if ever I saw quite such a pretty style on the field. But look 'ere, missy," he broke off, regarding her with a dreadful admiration, which seemed to the girl to affect her like the wound of a sword; "I'm not goin' to get you into no scrape with your mate, so give us a kiss and I'll sheer off right away. Come," he went on as she remained silent, "you look pretty snug and temptin' among them rugs. Don't carry it too high, or I may be asking you for a share. Give us a kiss, and I'll be off right away."
"Hark!" exclaimed Esther, with the cunning of desperation, "I hear him coming."
The man half started to his feet and listened. Save the purr of the water, not a sound was audible.
"You made a fool of me that time," said the ruffian, with a grin. "Hanged if I don't love you for your pluck; but I'll pay you out all the same. It was a kiss before, but the price has gone up now. What'll you give to get rid of me?"
"Everything I have," exclaimed Esther, a new hope dawning in her eyes. Feeling in her pocket, she produced a new Russia leather purse which she threw across to him.
"There," she said, "it is all I have; now leave me."
The man unstrapped the purse and poured the contents into his hand; then he sought for and removed one or two notes which had remained in one of the divisions.
"Four poun' three and sixpence," he remarked, transferring that amount to a pocket in the breast of his coat, "You're a generous little dear, but that ain't quite what I meant Lord, I've made as much as four page 72poun' ten in a day, but I ain't seen a girl like you in more'n a year. Come," he concluded, with an ugly smile, "what are you goin' to do?"
"I have given you all I have," replied Esther.
Her throat, tongue, and lips were now so parched by fear that the words seemed to suffocate her as she uttered them. All this time her hand had remained convulsively clasped on the hilt of the pistol beneath the rug. Her brain was working at an exhausting speed, and every one of her senses was sharpened to an abnormal degree by terror. In spite of all this not a muscle of her body trembled; she was possessed by that intense nervous calm which is the resource of timid natures driven to desperation.
The man turned over the empty purse and threw it into a corner of the tent "Those things get a chap into trouble," he remarked. "There might be people to say it was stolen, whereas it was given to me by a sweet little critter of a girl when her fancy joker was out of the road. Now, missy," he broke off, extending a hand as if to touch her, "how are we goin' to get this square? Time's valuable."
"Do not touch me," she said clearly. "I am not defenceless, and it may cost you your life. I have given you all the money I possess, but if you go away at once I will promise any sum you like to ask for. My father will pay it, and I will say nothing against you."
"It won't work," said the man shortly. He listened a moment, then drew himself slightly nearer to her. "The boss is off for the night," he said hoarsely, with deadly intent in his eyes.
Esther's temptation to use the pistol had all this while been an intense drag on her will, but still she refrained. Nevertheless Clifford's terrible warning— page 73"You must kill a man of that sort, for if you only wound him he will probably kill you"—repeated itself persistently in her mind, and she was fully determined, if the need arose, to aim at his head or his heart. As the ruffian approached the temptation became well-nigh irresistible.
"Remember," she cried wildly, scarcely conscious of what she said, "I have told you who I am and the reason I am here. If you dare to come nearer— Perhaps," she broke off, struck by a new possibility, "you have an enmity with the owner of this tent and think to harm him by injuring me, but believe me when I assure you he is a perfect stranger. I am here because my horse threw me and I have injured my foot."
"Oh, stow all that!" said the man brutally. "What the devil do I care who you are! Let's have a look at this foot."
As he spoke he moved suddenly forward and laid his hand on the rug above her knee.
No sooner was the action performed than he found himself looking down the barrel of a pistol.
The next instant there was a loud report and the tent became filled with smoke.