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The Land of The Lost

Chapter X

page 74

Chapter X

When Hugh Clifford left the tent he struck across the gumfield in the direction of the "Scarlet Man." The rain was still falling with sufficient heaviness to wet him through, but even had it not been so every leaf of the scrub was a tiny reservoir, which discharged its contents on his person as he brushed by. The night was so dark that he had to trust to his sense of locality to guide him until he had surmounted the hillock from which the lights of the inn were visible. From this cause, as well as the difficult nature of the ground, fully twenty minutes elapsed before he set foot in the inn.

Upmore came from the back of the house at the sound of his step, and listened with evident astonishment to his tale.

"Miss Hamilton!" he exclaimed. "Why, the doctor has gone through not half an hour ago. He called me out to ask if I had seen anything of her."

"Had you?" asked Hugh.

"The doctor went off pretty fast. I expect he will be half-way there by this time. What's to be done?"

"I might catch him," said Hugh, "if your horse is of any account."

"He's of no account to-night," replied Upmore, "because he is not here. I lent him to a man a quarter of an hour ago and he has taken him to the races."

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"Hang the races!" said Hugh peevishly. "Well, of course, you will let Mrs. Brandon go down and look after her. If only for the girl's peace of mind, there should be a woman there as soon as possible."

"I'll ask her," said Upmore; "it concerns her, and not me. If she is willing to go, there is no more to be said."

Upmore then left him, and was absent for nearly ten minutes, Hugh in the meantime moving impatiently in and out the house.

When Upmore at length returned he notified that Mrs. Brandon was willing to visit the tent after ten o'clock, and that he, Upmore, would accompany her.

Hugh nodded his concurrence, and having purchased a small flask of brandy, set off at a run down the road. He regretted now not having sought the inn by the same route, in which event probably five or ten minutes might have been saved, running on the rough surface of a gumfield being, at any rate on a dark night, next door to an impossibility.

The exertion of a mile's spin through the close, heavy atmosphere rendered him unpleasantly warm, and when he reached the point of the road where he should turn off he paused for a few seconds to wipe the perspiration from his forehead. As he was on the point of resuming his journey an audible motion in the scrub a few yards lower down the road attracted his attention, and thinking it might be due to the escaped horse, he moved cautiously forward to reconnoitre. Hugh found his conjecture correct in one particular, but incorrect in another. A horse was among the tea tree, but it was securely tied by the reins, and though by passing his hand across its back he discovered it to be saddled, he made the further discovery that the saddle was a man's.

His attention, however, was too much engrossed by page 76the young girl under his charge for him to bestow more than a momentary wonder on the presence of the animal in such a spot and at such an hour. He turned off the road and moved rapidly forward in the direction of the tent, the glare from the fire now being visible.

As he approached the spot he was startled to hear a murmur of voices, and a moment later the sound of a pistol-shot broke the intense stillness of the night.

With a loud cry of encouragement Hugh sprang forward, but scarcely had he moved a few yards when, stumbling against some clods of earth, he fell heavily to the ground. To spring to his feet was the work of an instant, but the delay had been sufficient to enable some person to dash past him and run at full speed through the tea tree.

Hugh started in pursuit. For some time the sound of a person stumbling and breaking through the scrub was to be heard in front of him; then there came a silence. As he stood still listening and wondering there flashed on his recollection the lonely horse tethered in the tea tree, and again he darted forward, making straight for the spot where he had observed the animal.

The scrub in this direction was thick and strong, impeding his progress and occasionally bringing him to the ground; but barely conscious of these hindrances in the fierce anger that possessed him, the young man broke his way through by brute force, heedless of the rents inflicted on his garments and his skin, and in a few minutes bounded on to the hard road. Rapid, however, as had been his progress, the pursued man had managed to keep his original advantage, and at the moment Hugh reached the road he tumbled hastily into the saddle, set spurs to his steed, and with a hoarse, mocking laugh galloped away into the darkness.

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Any attempt to follow him Hugh recognised to be hopeless, and choking down his anger, he set off for the tent as rapidly as his breathless state permitted him. What sight would meet his eyes on the spot where he had left the beautiful, peaceful figure of the girl? The pistol had been fired, but by whom? The man was apparently uninjured, but how about her? These questions, and a dozen like them, surged through his mind before he reached the tent and lifted the canvas to enter.

A pungent odour of exploded gunpowder greeted his nostrils. There, with her back against one of the supports of the tent, sat Esther, the pistol in her hand, her eyes wide open and turned towards him.

A passionate pity smote the heart of the young man as he looked at her, and scarcely conscious of what he was saying, he uttered a few words of tender endearment and sorrow. Then her face, like a still lake suddenly smitten by the breeze, broke and trembled, lines drooped from the corners of her mouth, her eyes smiled and the lids fell down and concealed them, her face blanched slowly to the whiteness of paper, and with a long, quivering breath she fell sideways in a dead faint on the couch of fern.

Hugh's first act was to remove the pistol from her hand and examine it. One shot only had been fired, and as the weapon remained in her possession it was evident that no worse disaster than a severe fright had befallen her. Anxious as he felt as to the result on her health of the nervous strain to which she had been subjected, he almost smiled with delight as he reflected on the fortunate afterthought which had led to the pistol being placed in her possession.

He found this faint more obstinate than had been the page 78previous one. It was not until as a last resource he had raised the tent walls so as to admit a fresh current of air and poured a spoonful of brandy between her lips that she showed signs of returning consciousness. Kneeling beside her, he struck her hands gently between his own, and continued to do so till her eyes were fully open and she was looking with a sort of puzzled curiosity into his face. Then, anxious to show the respect in which he held her unprotected position, he desisted and suffered her hands to fall to the rug. But no sooner were they out of his possession than she started violently and again held them out to him.

"Don't leave me," she said huskily. "I have no one but you."

"No, no," he said, gently stroking the soft white palms; "I will not leave you till I leave you in your father's hands."

She seemed satisfied and returned to her old puzzled look, never removing her eyes from his face.

"What is it?" he asked presenty.

"I was wondering who you were," she replied readily.

"My name is Hugh Clifford," answered Hugh.

"Hugh," she murmured reflectively. The young man thought he had never observed such beauty of sound in the name before. "I had a brother Hugh, but he is dead."

"Have you no other brothers?" he asked, humouring her.

"No," she replied; "no brothers and no sisters. My name is Esther. Do you mind my holding your hands?"

"How is it possible I should mind that? I wish for your sake they were not so roughened by labour."

"They are the hands of a true man," she said in page 79dreamy tones; "one to whom I owe — everything." Suddenly her bosom began to heave violently. "Why does God suffer such men to be alive?" she exclaimed wildly.

"Don't think of that now," he urged soothingly. "You are safe with me."

"It is good to feel safe," she murmured, with half-shut lids.

"Are you feeling any pain in your foot?" asked Hugh.

"Ah, I had forgotten that!" she said, opening her eyes and slowly closing them until there remained but a narrow brilliant slit. "No, I feel nothing now; only that I am safe."

"Try and sleep," suggested Hugh. "Mrs. Brandon will be here soon and then you will feel quite contented."

"Do not leave me alone with Mrs. Brandon," she said suddenly, her hands tightening on his.

"No," he replied encouragingly, "you belong to me until your father comes, and I will leave you alone with nobody."

She smiled contentedly, and her eyes closed.

For five minutes there was silence, then her face took a tense look and she muttered, "For if you only wound him he will probably kill you."

Hugh pressed her hands and she opened her eyes. "Can you not sleep?" he asked.

"Oh," she said, "you don't know. I have been so frightened—so terrified; it has nearly killed me. Was it not cruel? And for so long—it seemed hours. I was praying all the time, deep down under my breath in my soul. Why do you look like that? I heard you run after him. Did you kill him?"

"He got away," said Clifford. "He had a horse page 80waiting for him. But never mind him now," he added checking himself. "Try and sleep."

"Would you have killed him?" she asked curiously. "He ought to be killed."

"I might," said Clifford, "or he me; I am violent sometimes. But there—go to sleep, or I will leave you. You shall tell me about him in the morning."

She shut her eyes obediently and said softly, "Goodnight"—then after a pause, "Hugh."

"Good-night," he replied, but though he had her christian name on his tongue, he did not venture to pronounce it.

A quarter of an hour passed, half an hour. She had fallen into a deep, dreamless sleep of utter exhaustion and never moved. Clifford sat still holding her hands and looking into her face, hardly daring, or indeed desiring, to change his position.

It seemed to the young man that he would willingly sit there for ever, watching the rise and fall of her bosom, the snowy curve of her throat, the exquisite pallor of her face with its long, black lashes, its delicately curled nostrils, its slightly parted lips, its crown of dark auburn hair, and the innocent repose and trustfulness of the whole sleeping figure.

"Poor little girl!" he said softly. "Who would harm so tender and fair a creature?"

He laid her hands softly down and drew the rug across her shoulders, then rose to his feet.

There is something in the charge of the helpless, possibly a feeling of proprietorship, which induces love. Those things which are for a time ours are dear to us on that account, quite irrespective of their value, and so it may be with the love which so frequently arises between nurse and patient.

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So far Hugh had not regarded himself as a susceptible subject. He had lived a good deal in the society of women, without feeling even a passing fancy for any of them. But whether it were that absence from their society and the loneliness of the life he was leading had turned the current of his inclinations, certain it is that the first sound of Esther Hamilton's voice in the darkness of the road had aroused a hitherto unknown sensation of the beauty that exists in life. The subsequent sight of her face, together with the tender ministrations, as of a brother or father, he had been compelled by the exigency of the circumstances to perform for her had increased the delight he took in her presence; and finally, whatever curb he may have been inclined to put on the rapidly increasing rush of his fancy towards the deep waters of love was forgotten in the affectionate recognition of his services accorded to him by the physically and mentally exhausted girl when she fell asleep with her hands trustfully clasped in his.

Nevertheless, as he rose to his feet and stretched his limbs, stiffened by their long motionlessness and the drenching to which he had been subjected, there was something of bitterness in his thoughts. Instinctively the young man knew that with the closing of the girl's eyes the door of sweet communion was closed also. Like the peri, he had been suffered to peep into paradise, but the gates were shut, and the windy world with its social exactions blew remorselessly in his face. She had pressed his fingers with her own; she had looked into his eyes with a trust and affection that bordered closely on love; she had delighted him with words of admiration in tones as mellifluous as the speech of birds; she had done that sweet thing which from the page 82right lips entirely steals away a man's heart—she had called him by his christian name. But it was finished. Esther, his girl friend, had fallen asleep: she would awake Miss Hamilton and a stranger. There would be no more calling the gum-digger by his first name; no more holding of hands; no more entreaties that he would not desert her.