The Land of The Lost
It is the morning of a day two months later. The first heavy rains of the approaching wet season have fallen, and the atmosphere, long charged with the dust of the roads and the smoke of burning bush, is restored to its original freshness and purity. In the garden of the doctor's house the chrysanthemums and cactus dahlias are in full flower, and there is a last magnificent burst from the mignonette.
On the verandah, wrapped in a huge coat, sits Hugh. The shadow of the Valley of Death has not quite left his countenance, but his eyes are bright, for he is looking on the face of his sweetheart.
"All your arguments," he is saying, "are nothing. I remember that he lost you, and conceiving what that might mean there is not an ounce of bitterness against him in my heart. They tell me he has acted well since. It is certain he must have suffered out of proportion to his offence; so, if it is any satisfaction to him to know it, you may tell him when you write that my hand is ready for him."
"I knew you would say that, dear," she says. "I cannot forget that whatever justification I had afterwards I did wrong him at the first."
"Stuff and nonsense," says Hugh.
His illness has made him a privileged being, and his rudeness goes unreproved.page 306
A figure comes along past the hedge, and opening the gate, enters the garden.
"It is Jess," says Esther, and she calls him by his name.
"Poor old Jess!" says Hugh; "Bart used to say he was the only perfect Christian on the field and to add that he was mad."
Jess greets them and takes his seat on the step of the open doorway.
"The stone is up," he says musingly, "and I have planted the rose bush on his grave. I thought I would wait till the rains came, and it ought to grow now."
"I am sure it will," says Esther, and Hugh also murmurs a belief in the recuperative powers of the transplanted tree.
"What is on the stone?" he asks.
"Just 'Bart'," says Jess, "and the date. He told me years ago to write no more, and I obeyed him. He thought he was dying then, but he pulled through. He was not a man to die easily. Perhaps the desire was too strong."
"Why should he wish to die?" Esther asks, her face full of tender feeling.
Jess shakes his head.
"That is part of the story of his life," he replies. "I should have liked to put a text on the stone, but he was not great on scripture and I have let it be."
Jess sits musing awhile, then turns to Hugh.
"What news from Auckland?" he asks.
"Brice has a life sentence, and we are expecting a wire from Wilfrid any moment as to Upmore—or Hilton I suppose we ought to call him. His case was to conclude last night."
"He was an inhuman man," says Jess. "There page 307are tales all over the field of what the police discovered under the floor of the dead-house. Bank-notes and jewellery, and some say—bones."
"Yes" says Esther, with a shiver, "and to think that all these years he has been free in our midst! Oh, Hugh," she breaks off suddenly, "what shall I say about the brooch and ring? The police will give them up presently and Mr. Roller has begged me not to return them to him. He thinks if I send them back it will mean that there is no real forgiveness."
Hugh, remembering the scene between himself and Roller, frowns thoughtfully; then, drawing a hand across his brow, he seems to wipe away the last trace of bitterness.
"Then keep them," he says.
Presently through the gateway comes Doctor Hamilton, bearing the expected telegram. His face has lost much of the irritable look that once characterised it, but the habitual sadness is accentuated. He is looking forward to the day, now near at hand, when the daughter he has learned to prize too late shall be no longer with him.
"Sentenced to death," he says, handing the paper to Hugh.
There is a long silence.
"Well," says Hugh at length, "it's an awful end, and it is not nice to think that he is a blood relation, but if ever a man deserved his fate it is he."
Jess rises from the shadow in the doorway and with a little shiver seats himself afresh in the full sunlight of the verandah step.
"I do not like the new man," he says, "but he cannot be worse than Upmore. Of all the men I have met, of all who have crossed the field during twenty years, page 308there has never been another like him. He was the evil spirit of the field."
"And he dispensed spirits worse than himself," says Hugh.
"And so it will go on," says the doctor, "till the last pound of gum is taken from the land and the singular communion is dissolved for ever,"
"And what then?" Esther asks.
"Then," says Hugh, "it will be a desert. The traveller in those days will see the country choked with impenetrable scrub, with here and there in the midst of it the abandoned houses rotting into the ground."
"No," says Jess, rising to his feet, "there is a better day coming. Every year the settler is extending his landmarks and rooting himself like the trees he displaces. As the gum goes he advances."
He turns his face beyond the settlement—a look of inspiration in his eyes. "I see the apple orchards and the vineyards of the future," he says. "The men we know—the reckless, the hopeless, the unhappy—are gone to their appointed places. I hear the voices of the children at play among the thick-leafed trees. I hear the mothers singing at their work. Over all the land rests the peace of God."
Night has settled on the field.
In more than five thousand shanties the diggers are at work scraping their gum. Over three-quarters of a million acres the scratch of the gum-knife is heard, mingling with the shrill cry of the crickets.
In the "Scarlet Man" a little crowd is assembled, for the news of Upmore's conviction has reached his quondam home, and there are many eager to discuss the particulars. "The Parson" has drunk himself white page 309in the face In commemoration of the event, and "Six-and-eight," who seems to attend him everywhere like a shadow, is taunting him with the fact that he is still sober.
"It has cost your reverence eight shillings already," he is saying, "and you ought never to have attempted it. You know very well that you have never got drunk yet under nineteen-and-six, and all you have is thirteen shillings."
"Six-and-eightpence is your charge for a professional opinion, I believe," says "the Parson." "May you burn in hell till I pay you!"
"Nineteen-and-six is the lowest price for oblivion," says "Six-and-eight," wrinkling his cruel little face, "and you haven't the money. Fancy not having the money! How tragic! Let us pray."
The new publican is apparently only new in the sense that he is fresh to the "Scarlet Man," for he is evidently a complete master of his business. During a couple of days past he has been pouring the dregs of the drinks, consisting of stale beer, watered spirit, and so forth, into sundry large tumblers under the counter, awaiting his opportunity to dispose of them. A native, approaching the confident stage, calls for a "long shandy," and is served with one of these tumblers, into which sufficient lemonade has been poured to promote effervescence. He gulps part of it, then, pulling a horrified grimace, expectorates freely. "Ehoa!" he says reproachfully.
"What is it?" asks the innkeeper, with innocent anxiety, coming forward with a spoon. "Fly? Piece o' cork?"
No one takes much note of the occurrence, and the half-poisoned native becomes in time reconciled to the page 310villainous mixture. By-and-by he would drink kerosene, for that matter.
Night takes another turn of his wheel. The lights in the scattered shanties are going out one by one. The sound of the scraping dies away. The moreporks fly soundlessly across the dreary scrub lands.
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