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- Cumner & South Sea Folk, v2 - 5/9 -
She looked for a moment as though she would read him through and through; as though, in spite of all their candour, there was some lingering uncertainty as to his perfect straightforwardness; then, as if satisfied, she said at last: "Yes, but with a difference. I have no doubt which memory it will be. You will not wish to be again on the plains of Nindobar."
"And you," he said musingly, "you will not wish me here?" There was no real vanity in the question. He was wondering how little we can be sure of what we shall feel to-morrow from what we feel to-day. Besides, he knew that a wise woman is wiser than a wise man.
"I really don't think I shall care particularly. Probably, if we met again here, there would be some jar to our comradeship--I may call it that, I suppose?"
"Which is equivalent to saying that good-bye in most cases, and always in cases such as ours, is a, little tragical, because we can never meet quite the same again."
She bowed her head, but did not reply. Presently she glanced up at him kindly. "What would you give to have back the past you had before you lost your illusions, before you had--trouble?"
"I do not want it back. I am not really disillusionised. I think that we should not make our own personal experience a law unto the world. I believe in the world in spite--of trouble. You might have said trouble with a woman--I should not have minded." He was smoking now, and the clouds twisted about his face so that only his eyes looked through earnestly. "A woman always makes laws from her personal experience. She has not the faculty of generalisation--I fancy that's the word to use."
She rose now with a little shaking motion, one hand at her belt, and rested a shoulder against a pillar of the veranda. He rose also at once, and said, touching her hand respectfully with his finger tips: "We may be sorry one day that we did not believe in ourselves more."
"Oh, no," she said, turning and smiling at him, "I think not. You will be in England hard at work, I here hard at living; our interests will lie far apart. I am certain about it all. We might have been what my cousin calls 'trusty pals'--no more."
"I wish to God I felt sure of that."
She held out her hand to him. "I believe you are honest in this. I expect both of us have played hide-and-seek with sentiment in our time; but it would be useless for us to masquerade with each other: we are of the world, very worldly."
"Quite useless--here comes your cousin! I hope I don't look as agitated as I feel."
"You look perfectly cool, and I know I do. What an art this living is! My cousin comes about the boarhunt to-morrow."
"Shall you join us?"
"Of course. I can handle a rifle. Besides, it is your last day here."
"Who can tell what to-morrow may bring forth?" he said.
The next day the boar-hunt occurred. They rode several miles to a little lake and a scrub of brigalow, and, dismounting, soon had exciting sport. Nellie was a capital shot, and, without loss of any womanliness, was a thorough sportsman. To-day, however, there was something on her mind, and she was not as alert and successful as usual. Sherman kept with her as much as possible--the more so because he saw that her cousins, believing she was quite well able to take care of herself, gave her to her own resources. Presently, however, following an animal, he left her a distance behind.
On the edge of a little billabong she came upon a truculent boar. It turned on her, but she fired, and it fell. Seeing another ahead, she pushed on quickly to secure it, too. As she went she half-cocked her rifle. Had her mind been absolutely intent on the sport, she had full cocked it. All at once she heard the thud of feet behind her. She turned swiftly, and saw the boar she had shot bearing upon her, its long yellow tusks standing up like daggers. A sweeping thrust from one of them leaves little chance of life.
She dropped upon a knee, swung her rifle to her shoulder, and pulled the trigger. The rifle did not go off. For an instant she did not grasp the trouble. With singular presence of mind, however, she neither lowered her rifle nor took her eye from the beast; she remained immovable. It was all a matter of seconds. Evidently cowed, the animal, when within a few feet of her, swerved to the right, then made as though to come down on her again. But, meanwhile, she had discovered her mistake, and cocked her rifle. She swiftly trained it on the boar, and fired. It was hit, but did not fall; and came on. Then another shot rang out from behind her, and the boar fell so near her that its tusk caught her dress.
Jack Sherman had saved her.
She was very white when she faced him. She could not speak. That night, however, she spoke very gratefully and almost tenderly.
To something that he said gently to her then about a memory, she replied: "Tell me now as candidly as if to your own soul, did you feel at the critical moment that life would be horrible and empty without me?"
"I thought only of saving you," he said honestly.
"Then I was quite right; you will never have any regret," she said.
"I wonder, ah, I wonder!" he added sorrowfully. But the girl was sure.
The regret was hers; though he never knew that. It is a lonely life on the dry plains of Nindobar.
He was very drunk; and because of that Victoria Lindley, barmaid at O'Fallen's, was angry--not at him but at O'Fallen, who had given him the liquor.
She knew more about him than any one else. The first time she saw him he was not sober. She had left the bar-room empty; and when she came back he was there with others who had dropped in, evidently attracted by his unusual appearance--he wore an eyeglass--and he had been saying something whimsically audacious to Dicky Merritt, who, slapping him on the shoulder, had asked him to have a swizzle.
Dicky Merritt had a ripe sense of humour, and he was the first to grin. This was followed by loud laughs from others, and these laughs went out where the dust lay a foot thick and soft like precipitated velvet, and hurrying over the street, waked the Postmaster and roused the Little Milliner, who at once came to their doors. Catching sight of each other, they nodded, and blushed, and nodded again; and then the Postmaster, neglecting the business of the country, went upon his own business into the private sitting-room of the Little Milliner; for those wandering laughs from O'Fallen's had done the work set for them by the high powers.
Over in the hot bar-room the man with the eye-glass was being frankly "intr'juced" to Dicky Merritt and Company, Limited, by Victoria Lindley, who, as hostess of this saloon, was, in his eyes, on a footing of acquaintance. To her he raised his hat with accentuated form, and murmured his name--"Mr. Jones--Mr. Jones." Forthwith, that there might be no possible unpleasantness--for even such hostesses have their duties of tact--she politely introduced him as Mr. Jones.
He had been a man of innumerable occupations--nothing long: caretaker of tanks, rabbit-trapper, boundary-rider, cook at a shearers' camp, and, in due time, he became book-keeper at O'Fallen's. That was due to Vic. Mr. Jones wrote a very fine hand--not in the least like a business man-- when he was moderately sober, and he also had an exceedingly caustic wit when he chose to use it. He used it once upon O'Fallen, who was a rough, mannerless creature, with a good enough heart, but easily irritated by the man with the eye-glass, whose superior intellect and manner, even when drunk, were too noticeable. He would never have employed him were it not for Vic, who was worth very much money to him in the course of the year. She was the most important person within a radius of a hundred and fifty miles, not excepting Rembrandt, the owner of Bomba Station, which was twenty miles square, nor the parson at Magari, ninety miles south, by the Ring-Tail Billabong. For both Rembrandt and the parson had, and showed, a respect for her, which might appear startling were it seen in Berkeley Square or the Strand.
When, therefore, O'Fallen came raging into the barroom one morning, with the gentle remark that "he'd roast the tongue of her fancy gent if he didn't get up and git," he did a foolish thing. It was the first time that he had insulted Victoria, and it was the last. She came out white and quiet from behind the bar-counter, and, as he retreated from her into a corner, said: "There is not a man who drinks over this bar, or puts his horse into your shed, who wouldn't give you the lie to that and thrash you as well--you coward!" Her words came on low and steady: "Mr. Jones will go now, of course, but I shall go also."
This awed O'Fallen. To lose Vic was to lose the reputation of his house. He instantly repented, but she turned her shoulder on him, and went into the little hot office, where the book-keeper was, leaving him gesticulating as he swore at himself in the glass behind the bar. When she entered the room she found Mr. Jones sitting rigid on his stool, looking at the open ledger before him. She spoke his name. He nodded ever so slightly, but still looked hard at the book. She knew his history. Once he had told it to her. It happened one day when he had resigned his position as boundary-rider, in which he was practically useless. He had been drinking, and, as he felt for the string of his eye-glass, his fingers caught another thin black cord which protruded slightly from his vest. He drew it out by mistake, and a small gold cross shone for a moment against the faded black coat. His fingers felt for it to lift it to his eye as though it were his eye-glass, but dropped it suddenly. He turned pale for a minute, then caught it as suddenly again, and thrust it into his waistcoat. But Vic had seen, and she had very calm, intelligent eyes, and a vast deal of common sense, though she had only come from out Tibbooburra way. She kept her eyes on him kindly, knowing that he would speak in time. They were alone, for most of the people of Wadgery were away at a picnic. There is always one moment when a man who has a secret, good or bad, fatal or otherwise, feels that he must tell it or die. And Mr. Jones told Vic, and she said what she could, though she knew that a grasp of her firm hands was better than any words; and she was equally sure in her own mind that word and grasp would
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