IN another moment steps were heard on the verandah. The growling dogs, still deeply distrustful, remained in the yard. A hand tried the back-door; it yielded, but this apparently excited no suspicion. It is not the custom to lock up houses in the bush of Australia. Burglars are unknown, and bushrangers prefer to transact their business chiefly in broad daylight—about the hour of 11 A.M. This was held to be an exceptional case.
‘The storekeeper sleeps off the big room,’ said some one cautiously. ‘I saw him there when I was buying tobacco.’
‘That’s Billy’s voice,’ whispered Gray. ‘I’d know it amongst a thousand.’
‘Let’s go in anyhow,’ a rougher voice answered. ‘There’s not a dashed soul awake. Light a match and we’ll have him out.’
A match flashed, lighting up the dim room, but with a result wholly unexpected by the chief actors in the melodrama. As they looked carelessly round the silent room they could hardly restrain a start of surprise as their roving eyes fell upon the sergeant in full uniform, the armed men, the levelled weapons. At the same moment Mr. Gateward arose from behind his bale, and lighting a tallow lamp, retired discreetly.
But in far less time than is occupied in tracing these ephemeral lines, thought had matured and action followed. Outmanoeuvred, outnumbered as they were, the cool courage of the race was as manifest in these unhappy outlaws as in the best men of Britain’s warlike forces.
‘Surrender in the Queen’s name!’ roared the sergeant. ‘It’s no use, Billy; better give in quietly.’
‘Not alive you don’t get us,’ answered the younger man, with the soft, deliberate intonation of the native-born Australian, while he raised his revolver.
The other, a grizzled, broad-shouldered ruffian, shorter than his companion by several inches, forbore reply, but firing at the sergeant’s first word, shot Bertram Devereux through the body, sending also a second bullet into Harold Atherstone’s right arm without loss of time. As he did so, Atherstone shifted his revolver to his left hand and fired deliberately. The robber sprang and fell on his face.
At that moment it seemed as if every firearm in the room was discharged simultaneously—the sergeant’s rifle, Gray’s and Mossthorne’s revolvers. When the smoke cleared, Mossthorne lay dead with a rifle bullet through his heart and with a smaller bullet through his shoulder. Bertram Devereux, bleeding profusely, was lying insensible.
Mr. Gateward had come forward from behind his entrenchment. ‘Seems there was enough of you without me,’ he said, ‘but I felt cowardly like, stowed away behind the sheepskins. But surely the Doctor ain’t finished this young gentleman now, as well as the poor Captain long ago?’
‘By—! that rally’s over quick!’ exclaimed the sergeant, as he drew a full breath and gazed around, while Mr. Gateward looked on the prostrate forms with a curious mixture of relief and regret. ‘Short and sharp while it lasted, wasn’t it, Mr. Atherstone?’ the sergeant continued, addressing himself to that gentleman, who had raised Devereux’s head with his left arm, and was trying to discover the nature of the wound. ‘I’d rather have taken the Doctor alive, but he gave us no time; shooting’s too good for him! As for poor Billy, he’s better where he is than locked up in gaol for his natural life. Now about Mr. Devereux. We must look to him first thing. He’s hard hit, but it mayn’t be serious. Where’s Dr. Ryan? Oh! at Wannonbah. That’s just right. We’ll want him for the inquest besides. Constable Gray!’
The young man, who had been examining the wound in Mossthorne’s breast, stood at attention. ‘Take my roan horse and ride like h—l to Wannonbah. Tell Dr. Ryan to come here straight. Then go to the barracks and tell the senior constable to telegraph to the coroner straight off. Come back with him yourself.’
With a sign of assent the young man passed out into the night. A rush of flying hoofs told in marvellously short space that he was speeding on his errand on the best three-miler in the district.
‘Now let’s have a look at Mr. Devereux,’ said Herne. ‘Hold his head a little higher. How do you feel, sir? Bleeding stopped, but you’ve lost a lot of blood. Faintish, I daresay. Gateward, bring the brandy out of your room; a taste will do him good—and Mr. Atherstone too, for the matter of that. Seems the ball turned outward. Breathe a little, sir. That’s all right,’ as the wounded man took a deep inspiration. ‘Take a sip of this, and we’ll carry you to bed.’
‘I feel better, I think,’ said the wounded man, speaking with difficulty. ‘I must have fainted, I suppose. That scoundrel was too quick for me. I thought he might surrender. What! are you winged, Atherstone?’
‘Yes, worse luck,’ said Harold, suppressing a groan as the broken bone grated. ‘The fellow did not shoot badly, either. Billy just missed the sergeant, I see. There’s his bullet mark in the door.’
‘He fired first; but I didn’t miss him,’ replied that officer, with a grim smile. ‘Gray’s revolver bullet went through his shoulder. You dropped the Doctor in good time, Mr. Atherstone, just before he got to his third barrel. We’d better put a cloth over them now.’
As he spoke a tall white female figure appeared in the doorway. It was Pollie Devereux herself, wrapped in a dressing-gown. In her eyes, wide and shining in the half-light, was horror unspeakable, with nameless dread, as she gazed upon the forms that lay prone and so motionless.
‘I could not wait longer after the shots ceased,’ she said pleadingly. ‘I was growing mad with anxiety. Mother is praying still. Are the men both dead? This one is Billy Mossthorne, I know. Poor fellow! I can’t help being sorry for him. I remember his being at Maroobil.’
Her gaze, which had been for the moment riveted to the still forms which
strayed towards the darker corner of the room, where Atherstone was supporting Bertram Devereux. The expression of her features changed instantaneously to that of agonising terror. She raised her arms with a gesture of despair, and for the moment seemed as if about to abandon herself to a transport of grief. But recovering with a strong effort of will, she sprang to the side of the wounded man, and kneeling, threw her arms around his neck, while she implored Harold to tell her if the wound was mortal.
‘Oh, how his blood has been flowing!’ she said. ‘How pale he is! His eyes are shut. And you too, Harold? Your arm is hurt; and I was wicked enough to joke about him last night. If he dies I shall never forgive myself. Oh, my dear, dear Bertram!’
Whether this impassioned adjuration had any special effect upon the patient is uncertain, but as he opened his eyes, he smiled faintly in acknowledgment of the sympathetic words.
‘Much better, dearest Pollie,’ he said. ‘No cause—for—alarm—much better. Flesh wound—only.’ With this he turned pale and closed his eyes.
‘Oh! why has not some one gone for the doctor?’ demanded the girl passionately. ‘He may die yet for want of assistance, and we are so helpless. I will go myself to Wannonbah if there is no one else.’
‘Constable Gray is half-way there by this time,’ said Harold calmly. ‘No time has been lost. If I might suggest, you will help us best by asking Mrs. Devereux to be kind enough to have your cousin’s bedroom prepared, so that we may carry him in.’
‘You are quite right. Mother and I will watch by him till Dr. Ryan comes. I know I am unreasonable and foolish, but you must bear with me a little. Is your wound painful?’
‘My wound is a scratch,’ he answered roughly. ‘Don’t trouble yourself about it. Ask your mother to do what I say.’ Upon this Pollie retired; and with but little loss of time Mr. Bertram Devereux was placed upon his own bed in the spacious apartment which he occupied, and with all the necessary arrangements promptly made for his benefit.
Mrs. Devereux at once devoted herself to his relief and solace as if she had been his mother. Her heart was stirred with additional tenderness as she recalled her husband’s death from a similar wound at the hands of the same man. For the truth had leaked out through Mr. Gateward. The widow of Brian Devereux now knew that the hand stained with her husband’s life-blood had been imbrued with that of the younger scion of the house, now wan and helpless before her; that the robber in his turn had fallen by Harold Atherstone’s bullet and lay dead beneath her roof.
‘Thank God! Harold is but slightly hurt,’ she exclaimed. ‘I regard him with a feeling I should extend to no other man as the avenger of my husband’s blood. But oh! if the boy be likewise sacrificed! What a fate seems to pursue the race. May God in His infinite mercy avert it!’
Pollie had been sent to bed with peremptory commands to go to sleep instantly, and on no account to rise till she was called. The mother watched, hour after hour, with the unwearied patience of women under the excitation of grief or duty. Ere daylight broke, a trampling of horses was heard, and the man of skill, the arbiter of life and death, appeared in the chamber.
After careful examination, Dr. Ryan gave it as his decided opinion that the bullet had taken an outward course; had therefore injured no vital organ; that the faintness had been caused by loss of blood, which symptom was natural, but not necessarily dangerous. He commanded Mrs. Devereux to seek the rest she required, saying that he would take her place at the bedside of his patient. He would see what Mr. Atherstone’s injury was like, and would make a search for the missing bullet in the morning.
‘You will have me here for a day or two, Mrs. Devereux, so you must make me useful. It will all come to the same in the bill. I shall be wanted when the coroner comes. Fortunate escape you have all had, to be sure.’
With the morn came good tidings, and relief from the doubts and fears which had so cruelly tortured the dwellers at Corindah. Dr. Ryan, by his exercise of professional skill or the aid of exceptional good fortune, verified his favourable diagnosis by extracting the bullet, which had lodged in the outer muscle. The bleeding having ceased and the wound been dressed, there was no reason, he averred, why the patient, with such careful and intelligent nursing as he was certain to enjoy at Corindah, should not be well and hearty within the month.
The coroner too, a high and dignified official, arrived with the jury, more police, and, it appeared, likewise with a large proportion of the population of Wannonbah. The inquest was held duly and formally, a jury of twelve being impanelled, by whom a verdict of justifiable homicide was returned, the slain men being declared to have been killed in righteous defence. A rider was added to the effect that ‘the conduct of Sergeant Herne and Constable Gray was deserving of high commendation, their coolness and courage rendering them, in the opinion of the jury, worthy of speedy promotion. In token of which, as well the Coroner as we the said jurors have attached our seals,’ etc.
The bodies were buried in the little graveyard of Wannonbah, situated upon a yarran-shaded sandhill about a mile from that infant city. The denominational divisions, owing to the climate or other influences perhaps, were not so strictly defined as is the case in some rural Australian cemeteries, where a closely paled fence divides Protestant from Catholic, and Jew from Dissenter. At Wannonbah the dead slept much as they pleased, or rather, as their relatives desired. So Billy Mossthorne, having kinsfolk and sympathisers in the district, was buried near a maternal aunt who had nursed him in his childhood; and the Doctor, coming in for his share of indulgent forgiveness, was interred by the side of a horse-breaker of reasonably unblemished character.
Corindah was again tranquil. The inevitable sequences, great and small, of the night attack had been disposed of. The police troopers, the doctor, the coroner, the jurors had come and gone. The account in extenso of the ‘battle, murder, and sudden death,’ had been first published in the Wannonbah Watchman, and then had gone the round of the metropolitan and provincial papers. Sergeant Miles Herne was promoted to be sub-inspector, Constable Gray to be senior constable. Then the excitement ended, and the midnight affray at Corindah slipped into the limbo of partly forgotten facts.
One or two results, however, were not so speedily disposed of. Harold Atherstone’s good right arm was of very little use to him during the ensuing half-year, the broken bones being somewhat tardy in uniting; and Bertram Devereux, through carelessness on his own part, had a relapse, and after hovering between life and death for several weeks, lay deathlike and slowly recovering in his room, needing the most careful and constant attendance to ‘bring him through,’ as Dr. Ryan expressed it himself. In this labour of love both mother and daughter were closely engaged for many a day after the event. It was the first time that Pollie’s feminine instincts had been called into play by the necessity for personal service which a wounded soldier generally imposes upon the nearest available maiden. No situation, as persons of experience will admit, is more favourable to the development of the tender passion. The touching helplessness of the sufferer, the sense of possession and ownership, so to speak—albeit temporary—the allowable exaggeration of gratitude, the implied devotion: all these circumstances in combination render the relative positions of maiden fair and helpless knight so extremely suitable for mutual attachment, that the blind archer rarely fails to score an inner gold.
So, during the patient hours when the heavy eyes were closed, when the pale brow required bathing with eau de Cologne, when the spasm of pain contracted the features, when the restless fever-tossed frame lay helpless, the heart of the maiden, unfolding flower-like, grew tender and loving. She persuaded herself that a fate mightier than themselves had decreed their union. She awaited but the avowal which his eyes had long made, but which his lips had not yet confirmed, to acknowledge herself his own for ever, in life or death, here in her native land or in the unknown regions beyond the sea.
After much consideration Miss Devereux had sagely concluded that Bertram was the only man she had ever met who inspired her with feelings of sufficiently romantic intensity, who aroused in her as yet untouched heart the longing and the dread, the joy and the mystery, the strange, inexplicable, subtly compounded essence which the poets in all ages have termed love.
Why it should be so she was unable to comprehend. She told herself that he was not so strong and true as this adorer, so clever as that, or so amusing as the other; but still, why was it? Who can tell? who explain the birth of fancy, the apparition of love? But she chose to make him her hero. And if she so willed it, who was there to gainsay her?
Among the other privileges which her nursing sisterhood permitted was that of receiving and bringing in the letters of her patient. About these he had always been reticent, never encouraging conversation thereon, or admitting that any patently feminine superscriptions were not those of his mother, sisters, or cousins.
Among those which arrived by the monthly mail-steamer was one, the peculiar handwriting of which Pollie remembered having noticed at an earlier period of his sojourn. The characters were delicately formed, but the abrupt terminal strokes indicated, as she thought, no ordinary degree of determination, even obstinacy of purpose.
‘Ah! my cousin Eleanor,’ he said with a faint smile, as she held up the letter; ‘she is my most regular, most useful correspondent. Poor little Nellie, how she would stare to see me lying here! She was my best friend when I was a graceless schoolboy, and takes an interest in the poor exile now.’ He opened the other letters one by one, but did not seem to avail himself of this one. ‘It will keep,’ he said carelessly. ‘Country news, for which I am losing my relish, poachers and pheasants, hunting and coursing, quite a journal of village historiettes.’
‘A good correspondent, evidently,’ said Pollie. ‘Judging from the thickness of the letters, she deserves some gratitude. But when we women harness ourselves to a man’s chariot, that is the treatment we chiefly receive.’
‘That we are always over-indulged,’ he answered, with a faint smile and a meaning look, ‘I am the last man living to deny. But what must we do? It is cruel to refuse kind offices, the mere acceptance of which so gratifies the donor.’
‘It may be so,’ assented the girl thoughtfully, ‘but the bare suspicion that my offering was tolerated would madden me. “All or nothing” is the Devereux motto, and it seems to embody the family temperament.’
Poor Pollie! could her eyes have pierced the inclosure!
This was the missive she unconsciously bore to the interesting sufferer:—
WYNTON HALL, 27th May 188-
MY OWN DARLING BERTIE—You seem carelessly to have missed the last mail, at which I was woefully disappointed, and besides, I was not by any means satisfied with the tone of your last letter, sir! I read it, yes, fool that I am, over and over again, to see if I could not cheat myself into the belief that your feelings towards me were unchanged and, as mine are, unchangeable.
But I could not do it. Something, too, seems to exhale from the very lines of your writing, every letter of which I know so well, breathing coldness and change, the decay of love, the death of constancy.
Yes, Bertram Devereux, I distrust you. You are beginning to play a double game. Another woman has taken your fancy—most likely the lovely cousin of whom you wrote in your first letter, but about whom you have been suspiciously silent or guarded of late. You can deceive, have deceived many people, but you never deceived me. So beware! If for money, or what you men call love, you elect to play the traitor with me, to prove false to the vows which you called heaven and earth to witness, to break the compact which I have rigidly observed—gardez-vous bien, mon ami!
If you do not already know me sufficiently, believe this, that you will do so. I will never be deserted and scorned with impunity. I hold you bound to me by the most sacred oaths, by what I have forfeited on earth irrevocably, by what in heaven or hell I may yet have to expiate. And remember, I am capable of anything in the way of revenge to punish your falsehood.
If you dare to betray me, to doom me to a life of loneliness and remorse, to the torture of neglect, to the endless regret of desertion and contempt—but no, you cannot dream of perpetrating such fiendish cruelty. I am mad to make the accusation. My brain seems on fire. I can write no more. Believe me for ever and for ever yours only,
SYBIL DE WYNTON.
That night the sleep of the convalescent was troubled. His head moved restlessly on the pillow. His brain was feverishly active. His soothing draught failed of its effect. When Pollie came to his bedside with his breakfast she was shocked at the drawn look of his face, its pallor, and the dark rings under his eyes.
‘We must keep back your home letters until you are quite strong,’ she said, with an archly innocent smile, and a child’s mischievous gleam in her eye, ‘if they affect you like this. Your cousin’s country chronicle must be strong meat for babes. But perhaps you have really had bad news, and I am talking foolishness?’
‘My news is of a mixed complexion,’ he said, trying to assume a cheerful expression. ‘Partly good, but I have been disappointed in an important matter upon which I had set my heart. But I am so weak that the least thing tells upon me.’ Here he lifted his eyes to the sympathetic, tender face, which to him now seemed as that of an angel, and a wistful appeal for pity appeared to be written on every line of his countenance.
It was the fateful moment in which heart answers to heart, and the destinies of two beings are for ever determined. It was the electric spark which fires the mine, which shatters the feeble defence raised by reason against that most ancient strategist and arch-conqueror, Love. A change passed over the girl’s countenance, so swift, so subtle, so profound, that a less experienced student of woman’s ways might have read the sign. To Bertram Devereux it was the plainest of print—with love’s surrender in every line. He saw that pity, measureless and tender, as is woman’s sympathy for man’s strength laid low, had completed the spell which had been working on her sensitive, imaginative nature since his arrival. But for his wound, his near escape from death, the long hours of tendance, he doubted whether the capture of this shy, sweet wild-bird of the waste would have been effected. But now he doubted no longer. She would nestle in his bosom, would trill her song and curb her flight at his desire. The victory was won, and in the blaze of his triumph all doubts vanished as clouds at dawn. For the moment he scorned the dread which had tortured him in the dreary night-watches. He forgot that he was a coward and a traitor. He banished the thought of the sad, reproachful gaze of a forsaken woman. A new life in a new land, a new world of love and splendour lay before him.
Their eyes had met, their hands, their lips, long before this glowing, passionate thought-procession passed through his excited brain. As the girl sat by the bedside of her pale, death-stricken lover, with his wasted hand in hers, she felt as if the surrender of her every thought and feeling to his future welfare would be a price all too small to pay for the boundless happiness which had been granted to her. She was the most favoured of earth’s daughters. All other thoughts and sensations showed wan and lifeless before this wondrous magic rose of love.
‘But I must leave you, Bertram dear,’ she said. ‘You are too weak to be troubled with me. No! not another minute. Mother will bring you your medicine. You must then have a good sleep, and wake up quite a new man.’ So, with one long look of tenderest denial, the fairy of his dreams vanished from the gazer’s sight.
The days of Bertram Devereux’s lingering in hospital were nearly ended. Over those which he still had to undergo was shed the radiance, the sweet love-light of woman’s first love. He seemed to gain strength from that hour. He was soon able to lie at length and dream in the cane lounge in the shaded verandah; later on, to wander amid the orange trees by the lagoon edge, supported indeed by Pollie’s fair round arm, and closely pressed to that true and tender heart. At the termination of his illness, when but for a slightly added pallor, a languor, that but accentuated his ordinary indifferent manner, no trace remained of the effects of the wound that had well-nigh proved fatal, it was then officially made known to the friends of the family that the heiress of Corindah was engaged to be married to her cousin Mr. Devereux, late of Her Majesty’s Sixth Dragoon Guards.