The Land of The Lost
Shortly after six o'clock the innkeeper came down with the news that he had intercepted a large party of natives, who had promised to seek out Dr. Hamilton immediately on their arrival on the course. He had also taken the additional precaution of forwarding a note by one of the party. Nothing in consequence remained to be done until the arrival of the doctor.
With the first streak of light a wind had arisen, and now blew gustily across the gumfield from the north. Occasional heavy showers added to the unpleasantness of the day, while the sky was entirely obscured by large masses of dark cloud, shifting rapidly to the southward. Owing to the dampness of his fuel, Hugh found the greatest difficulty in keeping up a cheerful fire, clouds of sour smoke rolling with every puff of wind into the tent, greatly to the discomfort of its inhabitants. Without the bushes were dark and dripping, the ground sodden with moisture, and the creek below the bank was rising rapidly, momentarily increasing the depth and volume of its note.
At about eight o'clock Mrs. Brandon, who, having attended to the injured girl and assisted in the preparation of the morning meal, had become very fidgety, announced her intention of returning to the hotel, page 93promising at the same time to come back should the doctor not arrive within the next two hours. Neither Hugh, nor, if the truth must be confessed, was Esther, particularly upset at her departure. The reason for Esther's apparent dislike was unknown to the young man, but personally he felt a sort of nervous objection to the woman's manner of watching each speaker's mouth in turn. He felt that during the last few hours he had been compelled to go through a number of exaggerated and unnatural performances with his lips purely on this account, and he was not sorry when those essentials to articulation had resumed their ordinary subjective relation to the workings of his mind.
Esther, probably from the effects of the pain in her foot, together with the smoke and the general unpleasantness, did not seem to the young man to be in quite such cheerful spirits as she had exhibited overnight Her manner was still friendly, but it was unquestionably more reserved. This was only what he had anticipated, but he was not thereby prevented from feeling depressed by the circumstance. During the last few hours he had bestowed an exaggerated amount of reflection on a bunch of violets nestling against her bosom. The flowers had brushed against his lips as he carried her from the road, and they had since filled the tent with their delicate fragrance. The point for consideration had been whether he might dare to claim them as a reward for his services, but now he became more and more sure that such a request would be little short of audacious.
"Remember you're a gum-digger," he said to himself bitterly as he stood among the scrub looking out for the expected buggy.
The loss of the ring had also apparently caused the girl page 94some uneasiness. Might it be that the trinket was a keepsake from someone—even a token of some prospective relationship nearer and dearer than that of a friend? He dismissed the thought with a sudden contraction of the brows. More than an hour had been devoted to a search for the missing jewellery, but neither ring nor brooch was forthcoming. Whatever might account for the loss of the latter, the absence of the former was all but inexplicable.
"I should not have cared much for the brooch," said Esther, "but the ring is different."
"Yes," said Hugh quietly.
Very little conversation passed between them. Hugh spent the greater part of the time among the scrub, seeking the tent only when the showers were unusually heavy. At length, a little before ten, he caught sight of a trap advancing rapidly towards the inn, and calling out the news to Esther, he made for the road.
The occupant of the trap, seeing him approach, pulled up and waited. He was an elderly man, probably sixty years of age, with a delicate and somewhat irritable appearance.
"Doctor Hamilton?" inquired Hugh breathlessly, as he drew near.
"That is my name," said the gentleman impatiently.
"Miss Hamilton is in the tent," said Hugh. "You have heard, no doubt, that she was thrown and hurt her ankle very badly."
"Where did it happen?" asked Doctor Hamilton, preparing to dismount.
Hugh pointed out a spot a few yards away.
"It is just like her," muttered the doctor crossly, "to choose some spot where assistance was not to be obtained."page 95
This struck Hugh as highly unreasonable, but he said nothing.
"If you will hold my horse, young man," the doctor continued as he dismounted, "I will go over and see what is to be done. He is one of Roller's horses," he added, regarding the spirited-looking animal with a glance of no favour, "and his mouth is cast iron; keep an eye on him. There is someone with her, I suppose?"
"Not at present," said Hugh, anticipating an unpleasant time for the girl and wishing to mollify him as far as possible. "Mrs. Brandon was there until a short time ago, but she has now returned to the hotel."
Doctor Hamilton growled some response, and picked his way gingerly through the wet scrub in the direction of the tent.
Twenty minutes later he found his way back to the buggy, looking rather more irritated than before. He was leading Esther's horse, which he proceeded to tie up behind the vehicle.
"She can't walk," he said, as he came up, "and I'm sure I haven't the strength to carry a lump of a girl weighing over nine stone. You carried her there, she tells me, and I suppose there is nothing for it but for you to carry her back—that is if you have no objection," he added, with a desperate attempt at politeness.
"Not the least," said Hugh, with an indifference he was far from feeling. Whatever else came and went, the remembrance of two occasions when he had held her in his arms could not be taken from him.
He found Esther waiting in some embarrassment, and noticed as he bent towards her that her eyes were slightly red.
"I am such a bother to you, Mr. Clifford," she said, her colour rising.page 96
Hugh did not immediately reply, but took her up carefully in his strong young arms. When he did speak it was to say, "The place will seem very dull when you are gone. Do you know, I think your visit has disorganised my life?"
Whether or no she were conscious of the deep ring of earnestness which underlay the superficial levity of his tone, she made no reply but a smile, and he bore her out into the open air.
"It was not your fault," he said presently, in the tone of one petting a young child.
"No," she said, immediately understanding him— probably because her thoughts ran in the same channel. "I could not arrange where I should meet with an accident."
Nothing more was said on this subject. Esther was the next to speak. "I want to ask you," she said, "if you find my ring and brooch to send them to me at once. Will you do so?"
"I will," he replied. "Shall I send them or bring them?"
"As you please," she answered; then, after a pause, "bring them if you will. I hope you will come to see us. You have been very kind."
They were now close to the buggy and almost within the doctor's hearing.
"Your violets are withered now," said Hugh suddenly. "May I have them?"
Whatever might have been the outcome of the request, its fate was determined by the fact of the doctor looking towards them as though in impatience at the delay. He had made a sort of rest for the girl's foot in the fore part of the buggy. She was soon comfortably ensconced among the rugs with a waterproof cape drawn well up page 97about her. Hugh handed in the reins, and with a curt nod the doctor prepared to start.
So far Esther had not looked at Hugh since the moment he had mustered sufficient temerity to ask for her flowers, but as the horse got into motion she turned suddenly towards him and, reading in his eyes an unmistakable look of reproach, leant forward and said something in an undertone to her father.
"Oh, ah—yes," said the latter half unwillingly, at the same time checking the animal. "Miss Hamilton reminds me that I have not thanked you for your services to her at a time when she was—er—dependent on them. If you will let me know——"
The fact that the person he addressed had suddenly become rigid, while the face of the girl beside him had at the same instant flushed scarlet, warned the doctor that it was possible to make a mistake, and he concluded somewhat lamely, "I am much obliged to you."
"There is no need for thanks," said. Hugh. "I hope you will soon be quite recovered, Miss Hamilton."
"And Mr. Clifford has promised to come and see us, father," said Esther, wishing to atone for her father's meditated offence.
"Just so," said the doctor, in non-committal tones. "Well, we shall have to dash between the showers."
"And you will come, Mr. Clifford?" said Esther, as they moved off.
Hugh bowed, but made no reply. Something very like anger burned in his heart.
The girl seemed to read the meaning of his silence, for she laid her hand on her father's arm and again the doctor brought the carriage to a standstill. "Do you promise?" she asked, looking back.page 98
"Yes," he replied, disarmed by this evidence of her sincerity.
"Good-bye, then," she cried, waving her hand.
Doctor Hamilton gave the horse a sharp cut, causing the animal to rear and then break away swiftly along the road. Hugh watched it till it was out of sight and a sudden splash of rain drove him reluctantly back to the tent.
How dark, dismal, and disordered seemed that abode where but twenty-four hours ago he had dwelt in nearly perfect contentment! Was it not an absolute truth that her visit had, as he had told her, disorganised his life? To rise with the lark, to be entirely absorbed in the vicissitudes of his daily work; to rest in the evening, thinking and smoking beneath the tranquil stars; to sleep dreamlessly, until the increasing light awakened him to a new day: how pleasant it had all seemed, but now how narrow and unsatisfactory! What a waste of existence! Absolutely, on such terms of solitude and persistent labour, life was not worth living. Here was the spot where she had twice lain in a dead swoon; where she had held his hands and looked confidingly into his face. Almost he could smell now the scent of the violets in her dress; could watch the droop of her eyelids, the sudden sunlight of her smiles; could catch the dovelike tones of her voice.
He tried to set the tent in order, but desisted from sheer disgust. He tried to scrape gum, but the mechanical nature of the occupation sickened him. Had the day been fine, like its predecessors, he might have deadened thought by hard, muscular effort, but here in the tent, with the showers falling heavily at shorter and shorter intervals, there was no employment page 99which could check the miserable, delightful whirl of imagination. Finally he stretched himself on his couch, and lay looking with wide, absent eyes into the raindimmed sky. The thought of the girl had flooded his being and pulsed in every fibre of his brain. His blood brought pictures of her from his heart, and built them up in his eyes. Her very exquisiteness seemed to make her impossible of attainment. It was not reasonable that such a creature could ever be his, for it was quite certain that no man could look at her without love; then what chance had he—a stranger—against those with whom she was in daily communion?
Would Clifford have felt any happier had he heard what passed between Esther and her father immediately they left him?
The doctor cut savagely at the horse as though displeased with something that had occurred, and a few yards further down the road he broke out with, "What the deuce is the meaning of all this?"
"Of what?" asked the girl.
"Of your good-byes and your promises," replied the doctor, fuming; "and asking him to the house."
"He has been very considerate," said Esther, "but I will tell you by-and-by."
"A gum-digger!" said the doctor scornfully. "You should have more sense."
"I don't care," said Esther rebelliously. "I like him."