Chapter V. The Lost Romance
 

Jack looked in vain for any sign of elation on his friend's face when he entered. He read nothing but grim determination. Dot's demeanour also was scarcely reassuring. She seemed afraid to lift her eyes.

"Isn't it nearly bed-time?" she murmured to Adela as she passed.

Adela looked at her with frank curiosity. There were no fine shades of feeling about Adela. She always went straight to the point--unless restrained by Jack.

"Oh, it's quite early yet," she said, wholly missing the appeal in the girl's low-spoken words. "What have you two been doing? Moonshining?"

Fletcher looked as contemptuous as his immobile countenance would allow, and sat down by his untouched drink without a word.

But it took more than a look to repress Adela. She laughed aloud. "Does that mean I am to draw my own conclusions, Mr. Hill? Would you like me to tell you what they are?"

"Not for my amusement," said Hill, dryly. "Where did you get this whisky from, Jack? I hope it's a legal brand."

"I hope it is," agreed Jack. "I don't know its origin. I got it through Harley. You know him? The manager of the Fortescue Gold Mine."

"Yes, I know him," said Hill. "He is retiring, and another fellow is taking his place."

"Retiring, is he? I thought he was the only person who could manage that crowd." Jack spoke with surprise.

Hill took out his pipe and began to fill it. "He's got beyond it. Too much running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. They need a younger man with more decision and resource--someone who can handle them without being afraid."

"Have they got such a man?" questioned Jack.

"They believe they have." Hill spoke thoughtfully. "He's a man from the West, who has done some tough work in the desert, but brought back more in the way of experience than gold. He's been working in the Fortescue Mine now for six months, a foreman for the past three. Harley tells me the men will follow him like sheep. But for myself, I'm not so sure of him."

"Not sure of him? What are you afraid of? Whisky-running?" asked Jack, with a twinkle.

There was no answering gleam of humour on Hill's face. "I never trust any man until I know him," he said. "He may be sound, or he may be a scoundrel. He's got to prove himself."

"You take a fatherly interest in that mine," observed Jack.

"I have a reason," said Fletcher Hill, briefly.

"Ah! Ever met Fortescue himself?"

"Once or twice," said Hill.

"Pretty badly hated, isn't he?" said Jack.

"By the blackguards, yes." Hill spoke with characteristic grimness. "He's none the worse for that."

"All the better, I should say," remarked Adela. "But what is he like? Is he an old man?"

"About my age," said Hill.

"I wish you'd give us an introduction to him," she said, with animation. "I've always wanted to see that mine. You'd like to, too, wouldn't you, Dot?"

Dot started a little. She had been sitting quite silent in the background.

"I expect it would be quite interesting," she said, as Hill looked towards her. "But perhaps it wouldn't be very easy to manage it."

"I could arrange it if you cared to go," said Hill.

"Could you? How kind of you! But it would mean spending the night at Trelevan, wouldn't it? I--I think we are too busy for that." Dot glanced at her brother in some uncertainty.

"Oh, it could be managed," said Jack, kindly. "Why not? You don't get much fun in life. If you want to see the mine, and Hill can arrange it, it shall be done."

"Thank you," said Dot.

Adela turned towards her. "My dear, do work up a little enthusiasm! You've sat like a mute ever since you came in. What's the matter?"

Dot was on her feet in a moment. This sort of baiting, good-natured though it was, was more than she could bear. "I've one or two jobs left in the kitchen," she said. "I'll go and attend to them--if no one minds."

She was gone with the words, Adela's ringing laugh pursuing her as she closed the door. She barely paused in the kitchen, but fled to her own room. She could not--no, she could not--face the laughter and congratulations that night.

She flung herself down upon her bed and lay there trembling like a terrified creature caught in a trap. Her brain was a whirl of bewildering emotions. She knew not which way to turn to escape the turmoil, or even if she were glad or sorry for the step she had taken. She wondered if Hill would tell Jack and Adela the moment her back was turned, and dreaded to hear the sound of her sister-in-law's footsteps outside her door.

But no one came, and after a time she grew calmer. After all, though in the end she had made her decision somewhat suddenly, it had not been an unconsidered one. Though she could not pretend to love Fletcher Hill, she had a sincere respect for him. He was solid, and she knew that her future would be safe in his hands. The past was past, and every day took her farther from it. Yet very deep down in her soul there still lurked the memory of that past. In the daytime she could put it from her, stifle it, crowd it out with a multitude of tasks; but at night in her dreams that memory would not always be denied. In her dreams the old vision returned--tender, mocking, elusive--a sunburnt face with eyes of vivid blue that looked into hers, smiling and confident with that confidence that is only possible between spirits that are akin. She would feel again the pressure of a man's lips on the hollow of her arm--that spot which still bore the tiny mark which once had been a snake-bite. He had come to her in her hour of need, and though he was a fugitive from justice, she would never forget his goodness, his readiness to serve her, his chivalry. And while in her waking hours she chid herself for her sentimentality, yet even so, she had not been able to force herself to cast her brief romance away.

Ah, well, she had done it now. The way was closed behind her. There could be no return. It was all so long ago. She had been little more than a child then, and now she was growing old. The time had come to face the realities of life, to put away the dreams. She believed that Fletcher Hill was a good man, and he had been very patient. She quivered a little at the thought of that patience of his. There was a cast-iron quality about it, a forcefulness, that made her wonder. Had she ever really met the man who dwelt within that coat of mail? Could there be some terrible revelation in store for her? Would she some day find that she had given herself to a being utterly alien to her in thought and impulse? He had shown her so little--so very little--of his soul.

Did he really love her, she wondered? Or had he merely determined to win her because it had been so hard a task? He was a man who revelled in overcoming difficulties, in asserting his grim mastery in the face of heavy odds. He was never deterred by circumstances, never turned back from any purpose upon the accomplishment of which he had set his mind. His subordinates were afraid to tell him of failure. She had heard it said that Bloodhound Hill could be a savage animal when roused.

There came a low sound at her door, the soft turning of the handle, Jack's voice whispered through the gloom.

"Are you asleep, little 'un?"

She started up on the bed. "Oh, Jack, come in, dear! Come in!"

He came to her, put his arms about her, and held her close. "Fletcher's been telling me," he whispered into her ear. "Adela's gone to bed. It's quite all right, little 'un, is it? You're not--sorry?"

She caught the anxiety in the words as she clung to him. "I--don't think so," she whispered back. "Only I--I'm rather frightened, Jack."

"There's no need, darling," said Jack, and kissed her very tenderly. "He's a good fellow--the best of fellows. He's sworn to me to make you happy."

She was trembling a little in his hold. "He--doesn't want to marry me yet, does he?" she asked, nervously.

He put a very gentle hand upon her head. "Don't funk the last fence, old girl!" he said, softly. "You'll like being married."

"Ah!" She was breathing quickly. "I am not so sure. And there's no getting back, is there, Jack? Oh, please, do ask him to wait a little while! I'm sure he will. He is very kind."

"He has waited five years already," Jack pointed out. "Don't you think that's almost long enough, dear?"

She put a hand to her throat, feeling as if there were some constriction there. "He has been speaking to you about it! He wants you to--to persuade me--to--to make me--"

"No, dear, no!" Jack spoke very gravely. "He wants you to please yourself. It is I who think that a long delay would be a mistake. Can't you be brave, Dot? Take what the gods send--and be thankful?"

She tried to laugh. "I'm an awful idiot, Jack. Yes, I will--I will be brave. After all, it isn't as if--as if I were really sacrificing anything, is it? And you're sure he's a good man, aren't you? You are sure he will never let me down?"

"I am quite sure," Jack said, firmly. "He is a fine man, Dot, and he will always set your happiness before his own."

She breathed a short sigh. "Thank you, Jack, I feel better. You're wonderfully good to me, dear old boy. Tell him--tell him I'll marry him as soon as ever I can get ready! I must get a few things together first, mustn't I?"

Jack laughed a little. "You look very nice in what you've got."

"Oh, don't be silly!" she said. "If I'm going to live at Wallacetown--Wallacetown, mind you, the smartest place this side of Sydney--I must be respectably clothed. I shall have to go to Trelevan, and see what I can find."

"You and Adela had better have a week off," said Jack, "and go while Fletcher is busy there. You'll see something of him in the evenings then."

"What about you?" she said, squeezing his arm.

"Oh, I shall be all right. I'm expecting Lawley in from the ranges. He'll help me. I've got to learn to do without you, eh, little 'un?" He held her to him again.

She clasped his neck. "It's your own doing, Jack; but I know it's for my good. You must let me come and help you sometimes--just for a holiday." Her voice trembled.

He kissed her again with great tenderness. "You'll come just whenever you feel like it, my dear," he said. "And God bless you!"