Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Land of The Lost

Chapter XIV

page 114

Chapter XIV

Roller bore his loss with equanimity, and none of those who expressed condolence with him in the result of the race were able to decipher in his countenance any other expression than good-tempered indifference. It was probably some consolation to a man who had been denounced as a shark to prove in his own case that the minnows occasionally have the advantage.

Leaving information with those around him that he would be found at the accommodation house, and was prepared to settle all claims immediately, he left the course and seated himself before his cheque-book in the house parlour. To such as presented themselves he showed himself at once cheerful and business-like, and, not to be balked in his determination to immediately discharge all claims against him, he wrote and posted cheques to the few who, from feelings of generosity, refrained from putting in an immediate appearance. These duties concluded, he began to reflect on his next course of action.

To pass the night in the squalid little house in which he sat was, in his then state of mind, highly distasteful; to ride twenty-five miles to Parawai in the rain hardly less so. He would have liked to see Esther and learn full particulars of the accident, if only for the reason page 115that his apparent callousness in allowing her father to go unaccompanied had probably not raised him in her esteem.

For a man to be without fear of rivals is a bad thing both for himself and the other party concerned, because, while it degrades the latter from the queenly position which is hers by right of her attractiveness, it can never be consistent with passionate love on the part of the former. The capability for jealousy is implanted in the nature of every man and woman, doubtless with a wise and beneficent object, and the strength of its outbreak is in proportion to the security that preceded it. On this score for a man to be without fear of rivals is a bad thing for himself, and such was Roller's position with regard to Esther Hamilton.

Their engagement had come about in the commonplace fashion which characterises the majority of matches. They had seen and heard of one another daily; he was fairly good-looking, wealthy, the leading man of the district; she was young and charming. They danced together, picnicked together, rode together. No other man interfered, no other woman. Then he proposed and was accepted.

Yet though it never entered Roller's head to doubt the entire satisfaction of the girl in the prospect of marriage with a person of his importance, or to question the genuineness of her affection, this was, perhaps, rather due to the fact that she had hitherto given him no cause, for in other affairs of life he had sometimes shown a suspicious and overbearing disposition. A little more doubt, and it is probable the attractions of the racecourse would have had a slighter hold on his mind. One grain of jealousy, and the open flood-gates of heaven might have been powerless to keep him from page 116her. As it was, he determined to ride the nine miles to the township on the coast, where it would be possible to pass the night in comfort and amid congenial society. Another reason existed in the charge he had laid against the man who had attacked him in the booth, whose name he now recollected to be Brice. If he were to proceed further against him—and in this he was quite determined—then his presence would be required in the court-house on the following morning.

Thus it happened that several days elapsed before he again saw Esther.

Brice was fined forty shillings, which, no little to the surprise of the court, he paid. The man's manner was quiet and respectful. For the abusive language he pleaded a drop too much, and for the drop too much the season of the year and the excitement attendant on the particular occasion of the races. He neither looked at nor addressed Roller during the progress of the case, and on being released immediately quitted the township.

Esther, meanwhile, had had an unpleasant time with her father. On hearing a full account of her adventure, the doctor's wrath knew no bounds. Had the whole been the result of a deliberate plan, he could not have shown greater irritation than he now displayed. Unable to formulate any distinct charge of misconduct, he returned again and again to the subject from different sides, vacating his position whenever the girl's protestations rendered it no longer tenable.

This kind of harassing warfare, which while it is the hardest to overcome is also the severest to endure, had a wearing effect on the nerves of the invalided girl. She began to long for some call on her father which would take him for a few days from his home, and thus page 117give him a chance of forgetting the incident which at present entirely engrossed his thoughts.

"The most extraordinary adventure that ever happened to a respectable girl," he said once.

"Perhaps I am not respectable," she said, closing her eyes in weariness.

"Good heavens! what can you mean by that?"

"Just that you make me doubt it," she said in the same tone.

"It is your incredible folly——" began the doctor.

"In what?" she interrupted, straining her attention to discover the exact nature of her offence.

"In what!" repeated her father in tones of exasperation. "Do you hear of other girls involving themselves in such an intolerable mess?"

"If you would let me feel that your anger is just, father," she said quietly, "it would be better for us both."

But this was exactly what the doctor was unable to accomplish.

Nor did affairs improve greatly with the arrival of Roller. This gentleman had, on learning the facts, neither reprimand nor reproach; he slew with the subtler and far more deadly weapon of silence. The incident was something to be buried at once and beyond resurrection. He asked no questions either as to the name and whereabouts of the gum-digger or with regard to the second man who had played a part in the affair. He even went so far as to defend Esther when in private conversation with the doctor the latter revealed the irritation under which he laboured; but he was distinctly and dreadfully cold. Like an iceberg, Esther told herself in the rebellious mood to which she was fast being driven.

Rendered helpless by the injury she had received, page 118subject on the one hand to the volcanic outbursts of her father and on the other to the frozen silence and arctic countenance of her lover, while she herself, seeking in vain to discover a rational reason for the attitude of either, writhed under a sense of injustice, blended with a not to be subdued feeling of discredit in the eyes of the world—was it to be wondered at that her thoughts constantly turned to the young man who had so chivalrously defended her? Or that once, lying between sleeping and waking, she fancied for a moment she beheld him kneeling beside her, his eyes full of solicitude for her suffering, and that she felt again the clasp of the strong hands that had held her safe from harm? A sense of intolerable shame followed the tender fancy; shame both in that she had been so far overcome as to permit the action and in that the bare recollection of the scene increased the beating of her heart. She wondered at and accused herself momentarily, inflicting sharper blows than any that reached her from outside; yet the difference between the gentle treatment she had received from the young Samaritan who had found her wounded by the side of the way and the harsh upbraiding and icy politeness of her father and lover exercised a persistent fascination for her thoughts, and was not to be overpowered either by a sense of shame or of the fealty she owed to her betrothed husband.

Nor was Esther happy in the thought of the promise she had exacted from the young man to call at the house. For the first few days the sound of a horse on the road or a rap at any of the doors filled her with alarm, and sent the blood in a rush to her cheeks; but as day followed day and still he made no appearance, this feeling gave place to one of surprise, not page 119entirely unmixed with disappointment It had seemed to her during the period of her alarm that her invitation had been rash, even bold; but as the days passed, and it appeared that the young man did not intend to call, she began to think that in common gratitude and politeness she could have done no less than she did.

This was the state of Esther's mind when one day the girl of the house handed her a wire couched in the following terms:—

"Down on Tuesday for a month.—Wilfrid Hamilton."

From that moment her face lost its troubled expression, and her injured ankle, which had hitherto puzzled and added to the irritation of the doctor, commenced to mend rapidly.

As for Hugh Clifford, he had returned to his old manner of life, and was fast becoming a proficient in the art of gum-digging. The old spirit of enjoyment in the speculative nature of his pursuit was, however, dead, and though he worked no less indefatigably than before, anyone sufficiently interested to observe him might have read distaste and weariness in his eyes. Why had he made no attempt to see Esther Hamilton? He had.

On the day that witnessed Esther's departure for her home the rain, as we have seen, fell heavily, and it continued to fall with almost unabated violence for two days following. During this time, digging being an impossibility, Hugh devoted himself to collecting firewood from the creek, which, swollen almost to the level of the bank, bore down on its turbulent waters the long-accumulated debris of the woods. Stripped to the skin, the young and vigorous man entered with the page 120athlete's delight into a fierce conflict with the flood, fighting desperately for the coveted prey as it was whirled by in the arms of the roaring stream. He had provided himself with a tomahawk, to which was attached a strong line, and with this implement he enticed to the shore logs of considerable magnitude. None came to interfere with him. With the exception of a solitary figure, which on the third day of the rain appeared on the summit of the hill and remained there for a quarter of an hour with its face turned the other way, not a soul did he see. The gumfield might have been, and not improbably was, entirely deserted. As for the figure, no doubt it was that of the innkeeper, who seemed to entertain a special liking for that elevation, where he might be seen, tall and lean against the sky and not unlike a native hawk in appearance, two or even three times a day.

At one time, towards the close of the third day, it seemed to Hugh likely, on account of the continued rise of the creek, that he would be compelled to shift his tent to a point higher up the bank, though everything inside that structure was already well-nigh as damp as it could be. But shortly after nightfall the wind, which since the commencement of the rain had continued to blow steadily from the north-east, shifted to southward, and in a few hours the oppressive damp heat had yielded to a cool breath from the pole, and the glorious southern skies were again lit up with all their wonted brilliance of star and constellation.

The following day Hugh found plenty to do in pulling down his tent and thoroughly drying everything it contained. The next day he was once more at work with his spade.

All through the hot, arduous hours his mind was page 121occupied with his prospective visit to Dr. Hamilton's. Five days had elapsed since the day of the accident, and the question to be decided was whether the visit ought not now to be paid. To this question he could find no reply. The intense interest he felt in the result of these deliberations militated against any result being arrived at. Indifferent towards the girl he had assisted, he might have called the following day and regarded it as a politeness to do so; deeply concerned as he was, the point to be considered was whether a delay of five days was not altogether too brief.

That evening, as he sat scraping his gum, he noticed that the rapid increase of his wealth was beginning to cramp him for room. He thought over this, and scraped rather more rapidly than before. A little later he made the discovery that certain of his stores were running low, and would shortly need to be replaced.

When he blew out his candle that evening he had determined to walk to Parawai the following day. He would get Wilson to pack out his stores and take back the gum. If he found time he might call and inquire after Miss Hamilton. It is curious when one reflects on the persistency with which every man tries to deceive himself as to his motives that no man has ever succeeded in the attempt. Who can explain why a fraction of the mind should wilfully endeavour to stultify the whole?

Hugh adhered to his determination, reaching the settlement about eleven o'clock the following morning. Wilson expressed pleasure in seeing him, remarked chaffingly on his stylish get up, and inquired if he were making a fortune. Then without giving him time to reply, immediately broached the subject of Miss Hamilton and her adventure. page 122"I suppose you were at the races, like everyone else?" he remarked. "The funny thing is no one seems to know the gum-digger's name."

"No?" asked Hugh,

"No. Not that it's of any account, you know, because the whole thing was as straight as it could be. I'd like to hear anyone say anything to the contrary."

"So would I," said Hugh slowly. Then he added, "for that matter."

"Just so," said Wilson, glancing over his shoulder; "but I'll tell you what—the boss has looked as black as thunder ever since."

"The boss?" inquired Clifford, with a prophetic stilling of the blood.

"Roller," explained Wilson, with a wink and a nod. "They're going to run in double harness. Didn't you know? Yes; the marriage is to come off in two or three months' time. He's a daisy, you know," continued the youth, "and if she knew as much about him as I do she'd stand off. He'll lead her the very deuce. But, I say, what's up? You're looking pretty sick on it. I guess you've been working too hard for this gum. How much did you say there was?"

"Two tons," replied Hugh, with a desperate wrench at his whirling brain.

"Two tons!" exclaimed Wilson in astonishment. "Pounds you mean."

"No, hundredweight. Did I say tons? Two hundredweight."

"You look queer," said Wilson solicitously. "You don't think it's sunstroke?" he asked. "There have been several cases this summer already, and to-day is as hot a day as we have had. I wonder how you could walk at all in such a sun."

page 123

"It's nothing," said Hugh; "perhaps I did overwalk myself. Well, I'll be off back. You won't forget those stores?"

"No," said Wilson, with a puzzled look, "I'm not likely to, for this is the first I've heard of them."

"Well, send them as soon as you can," said Hugh, making for the door. The point was to get somewhere where he could think without being bothered.

"Hold hard!" shouted Wilson; "let me know what it is I have to send."

What was the man talking about? Hugh gave another wrench and remembered that the paper was still in his pocket. He would forget his head next, he said, with a contortion of the face intended for a smile.

Wilson watched him depart in some doubt as to whether he should allow him to go, but seeing how erectly and steadily he moved along the road, concluded it was all right and dismissed the matter from his thoughts.

As for Hugh, he was astonished when he found himself entering his tent, because it seemed he had only that instant left the store. Certainly he had not had time to reflect on the piece of news he had just heard.