Harry Grey waited at the foot of the hill, evidently in no very gracious humour; with his hands thrust deeply into his pockets, and his back set against a tree, he gazed gloomily at his feet, propped out before him, seeking a satisfactory solution of the difficulty he had in hand, and which for the last nineteen hours, sleeping and waking, had defied his not particularly ingenious mind. His boots suggested nothing, and time was pressing. The girl might come at any moment, and his diplomacy was equal to no better line of action than the bald and brutal truth. Any fool can tell the simple truth. What the young man wanted was a lie that would “fill the bill” and at the same time save him the indignity of a confession of his own weakness. Open confession is good for the soul, but when one’s confessor is a pretty young woman, with a reserve of native dignity, to whom a fellow has sworn eternal constancy a thousand times, and undying devotion as often again, and the confession is a cruel renunciation of her affection and her fealty, one is so far lost to the teachings of his youth as to be willing to give all his moral copybook maxims for a really serviceable deceit.
Harry groaned dismally, and vented his feelings on his horse, but Eaglehawk, accustomed to these impassioned addresses, and stung out of all patience by the voracious flies, continued to paw up the dirt and lash out viciously with his heels, regardless of his owner’s ill-humour and his objurgations.
When the young man heard the rattle of a horse’s hoofs above on the ridge he abandoned all thoughts of subterfuge, and resolved to make a virtue of necessity. He would be candid—he would give a plain statement of the case. They must separate and endeavour to forget each other; family reasons, &c., rendered it imperative. An air of melancholy, tempered with firmness, was necessary to the explanation. Harry assumed such an air, and awaited the ordeal, but as the sound of the hoofbeats drew nearer his firmness melted into trepidation and his melancholy dwindled into a pitiful shamefacedness, for beneath the veneer of sophistry with which he had tried to delude his better self there was a consciousness of the paltry nature of the part he was playing, and a still small voice told him that selfishness and not filial affection prompted his action.
Comet came over the hill at a rattling gallop, clearing the logs and stumps and clumps of scrub in his long, swinging stride, and his mistress sat him with the ease of a bush-bred girl, to whom a good horse is one of the necessities of life, and with a grace rarely seen in bush or town.
Vic brought the nag up standing within a few feet of her lover, and dropped lightly to the ground before he could offer assistance.
No wonder the young man shrank from the idea of offending Victoria Macdougal. The distressing nature of his task came home to him with an increase of bitterness as she stood there, smiling coyly, and curtseying with mock dignity. She looked prettier than ever to-day; her cheeks glowed like newly-blown brier roses after rain, and her beautiful hair clung in exquisite little curls about her white brow and her dainty pink ears. He noted, with a great regret at his heart, the elegance of her slim figure in the light, well-fitting habit she wore. Her lips were even more tempting than usual, too, and he thought, sighing, that her fine eyes had assumed a brighter blue, but were gentler withal. She was sweet and inviting, but he did not kiss her. He leaned against the tree more determinedly, and ruefully congratulated himself upon his strength of mind.
Victoria missed the customary salutation, and noted Harry’s reticence, and her manner changed at once. She also could be cold and careless.
“Good afternoon, Mister Grey.” They might have met for the first time at the show ball last week.
“Good afternoon, Vic.”
Harry felt supremely uncomfortable, and tugged at Eaglehawk’s rein and bullied the horse in a poor endeavour to hide his discomposure, and to avoid looking into her beautiful, inquisitive eyes. Harry is a tall, strong fellow, spoken of by most of his male friends as a good fellow (usually with a superfluous adjective, be it regretfully recorded) with an ordinarily well-developed sense of honour, but lacking the moral stamina to act up to it in all cases. He is the first son of old “Jock” Grey, of Wombat. Grey, of Wombat, is a successful farmer and breeder in so large a way as almost to merit the dignity of being included amongst Victoria’s “squatocracy.”
Vic is the daughter of George Macdougal, a farmer in a smaller way, and not a good farmer at that. He and his big athletic sons are imbued with the digger’s passion, and devote more time to prospecting up and down the creek and trenching for the reef than to the prosaic work of cutting scrub, ring-barking, fencing, and putting down crops. A Jew from the city has been seen wandering over their land, and there is much talk amongst the widely scattered neighbours of mortgages and liens on stock. After kicking at a tuft of grass, with a brave show of unconcern, for a few awkward moments, and trying hard to control his nerves and his ideas, Harry became desperate.
“Vic,” he blurted, “I’m going to make you hate me!”
“Hate you, Harry?” There is much concern in her face now. “You frighten me. You look serious enough to have all the mounted police in the colony on your track,” she continued, with a pathetic assumption of raillery. “ Have you been bank-breaking or cattle-stealing? Well, sir, don’t you see how impatient I am?”
He hung Eaglehawk up to the tree, and, pointing to a log by a clump of saplings, said:
“Hadn’t you better sit in the shade?”
He made this arrangement cunningly, that he might stand behind her whilst telling his story. He was afraid of the sudden unveiling of that deeper light in her eyes, which had flashed forth at times to his great discomfort.
Vic turned to obey him, and, sitting upon the log, with a stick she had picked from the ground she played nervously amongst the stony soil at her feet, and Harry Grey stood behind her and faltered through his explanation.
“Vic, I have to give you up. We must meet no more, but just forget all this—this foolishness that has been between us. You know that our fathers are bad friends. Dad expects me to marry Mary Lalor up at Gumleaf, and he has heard of my meetings with you. Sandy Martin dropped to it and reported it to the boss, who tackled me about it yesterday, and I up and told him we were sweethearts, and that I had asked you to marry me. Then dad tore round and went on like a dingo in a snap-trap; said I must drop fooling, or go and punch cattle for my tucker for the rest of my days. He swore that if I did not cut this—this—you know, I could give up all thoughts of working in with him, or of ever owning a shilling of his or an acre of Wombat land. And he means it. I didn’t reckon on the old man cutting up rusty about it, but he is real mad, and as he’s got the whip-hand of me I had to cry small, and promise him I’d ride across for the last time to-day and square matters up like. We must part for good and all, Vic.”
The young woman’s face paled, and her head bent lower, but she did not speak; she still played nervously amongst the dead leaves and stones with her stick, and struggled bravely to stifle the sobs that rose in her throat.
“It isn’t that dad has any objection to you, Vic—Miss Macdougal,” added the young man, clumsily, “or doesn’t think you good enough for me, or anything like that; but Wombat needs more cash than he can command to work it properly, and your people are too poor, you know.”
The girl started as the last words fell from his lips, but gave no answer for a minute or more. Drawing the dirt and dead leaves back over the small hole she had made in the ground, she dropped the stick, and then, turning her white face towards him, repeated —
Harry flushed a deeper red, and looked fixedly from the eyes that turned upon him full of bitter reproach.
“Yes,” he muttered, “too poor. I hope you won’t feel cut up, and that you’ll soon forget.”
“I may not soon forget, but I shall not feel our parting much. I never knew you till now, Harry.”
He was going on to explain or excuse his conduct in a feeble way, but she gave him no attention.
Comet, who, throughout the interview, had been fighting the flies at a little distance, came in answer to the call of his mistress, and she sprang lightly to the saddle from the log, disdaining Harry’s proffered assistance.
“Have you nothing to say?” he asked miserably, as she gathered up the reins.
“What need I say? Your father has settled the matter.”
The young man winced, and he gazed gloomily after her as she put her horse at the brush fence, and rode at a dangerous pace along the foot of the hill, till her figure was lost to his view beyond the bend. Then he mounted Eaglehawk, and that game little animal broke his record for seven miles in the run to Wombat.
Miss Victoria did not ride straight home; she pulled up and dismounted by a patch of young wattles, about a mile and a half from the trysting-place, and in a familiar shaded nook indulged in a long reverie, ending in tears, and then took herself severely to task, and scolded herself into a proper state of dignity and self-respect.
Two days later the whole of the district was in a fever of excitement over the intelligence that the Macdougals had struck a golden lode at the foot of Magpie Hill, on their sister’s selection. The news reached Wombat, and Harry and his father rode across to inspect “the find.” Intelligence of gold discoveries travels through mysterious agencies, and flies to every point of the compass as if a staff of aërial Mercuries were always in waiting to carry the electrifying news from ear to ear. When the Greys cached the paddock there was a great crowd about the cutting in which the Macdougals, father and sons, were at work. Miners and prospectors had gathered from miles around, and scores of envious agriculturists swelled the excited throng.
One glance at the cap of the reef convinced all with the slightest knowledge of mining that the Macdougals had struck it rich and were “in for a big thing.” The outcrop showed almost as much gold as stone, and the pure yellow metal shone with dazzling lustre in the bright rays of the midday sun. The men had already laid bare a great quantity of the quartz, showing that the reef widened as “she” dipped, and to the astonished onlookers it seemed that there must be a fortune now in sight.
Harry Grey stood, speechless, staring at the reef. He had some little knowledge of quartz-mining, and had seen golden stone before, but never anything like this. Yet it was not the gold alone that amazed him; he remembered how, only a few hours before, he had stood upon this very spot, within a foot or two of the great treasure glowing before his eyes, telling Victoria Macdougal that she was too poor ever to be the wife of the son of Grey of Wombat.
The young man plucked at his father’s sleeve, and backed out of the crowd. His eyes danced with excitement, and the hand on his father’s arm shook like that of an old man.
“Great Scott!” he gasped, when beyond earshot of the people standing about. “Dad, listen. I stood on top of that golden pile when I broke with Vic on Monday. My boots must have touched the gold. She sat upon that log which they have been forced to roll aside to get at the reef, while I babbled about her poverty like an inspired jackass!”
Mr. Grey held his chin, and seemed to pull his naturally long visage down to an extraordinary length as he heard this, and a ludicrous expression of intense solicitude grew in his pawky face.
“Couldna ye mack it up again, boy?”
“Good-day, Mr. Grey. How do you do, Master Harry?” It was Vic who had obtruded into their conversation. She looked at Harry with a peculiar little smile that made him flush to the eyes. She wore the dove-coloured riding-dress he had so often admired, and her abundant bright hair rippled from under her hat. The young man noticed with selfish satisfaction that her face was unusually pale, and, despite the faint smile upon her lips, she did not look as happy and radiant as might have been expected of one who had experienced great and sudden good fortune.
“They have struck it at last, Vic,” said the young man, indicating the cutting with a toss of his hand.
“I have struck it,” she answered with emphasis. “At about nine minutes past 2 on Monday afternoon I was sitting on a log over the spot where my brothers are working, playing amongst the dirt with a stick and listening to your story—you’ll remember, Harry—when I turned up this golden key to wealth.” She held out for their inspection a fine nugget, on which a quaint pattern was wrought in white quartz.
“You see,” she said, “it is almost the shape of a broken anchor.”
She turned away, but paused after walking a few yards, and looking back, said, with an artfully ingenuous air:
“By the way, Mr. Grey, have you heard of my brother Dick’s engagement to Mary Lalor, of Gumleaf? They have been in love with each other for some time, it appears, but said nothing about it till yesterday.”
When she had gone father and son stood in thoughtful attitudes for a few moments, and then turned, and each looked into the other’s blank face and breathed a great sigh.
“Just my infernal bad luck!” muttered Harry, cutting fiercely at a dandelion with his riding whip.