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- Cumner & South Sea Folk, v3 - 2/8 -
I," she said. "Do you dare pay the penalty?"
"Do I dare ride with you to the cliff--and beyond?" Her lips framed a reply, but no sound came.
"But we will wait till to-morrow," he said absently.
"Why not to-day?" she painfully asked.
"We will wait till to-morrow," he urged, and his eyes followed the trail of a horseman on the hill.
"Why not while we have courage?" she persisted, as though the suspense hurt her."
"But we will wait till to-morrow, Alice," he again repeated.
"Very well," she answered, with the indifference of despair.
He stood in the doorway and watched a horseman descending into valley.
"Strange things may chance before to-morrow," he said to himself, and he mechanically lighted another cigar. She idled with her fan.
He did not leave the house that afternoon. He kept his post on the veranda, watching the valley. With an iron kind of calmness he was facing a strange event. It was full of the element of chance, and he had been taking chances all his life. With the chances of fortune he had won; with the chances of love and happiness he had lost. He knew that the horseman on the mountain-side was Cayley; he knew that Cayley would not be near his home without a purpose. Besides, Cayley had said he would come--he had said it in half banter, half threat. Houghton had had too many experiences backward and forward in the world, to be afflicted with littleness of mind. He had never looked to get an immense amount of happiness out of life, but he thought that love and marriage would give him a possible approach to content. He had chanced it, and he had lost. At first he had taken it with a dreadful bitterness; now he regarded it with a quiet, unimpassioned despair. He regarded his wife, himself, and Cayley, as an impartial judge would view the extraordinary claims of three desperate litigants. He thought it all over as he sat there smoking. When the servants came to him to ask him questions or his men ventured upon matters of business, he answered them directly, decisively, and went on thinking. His wife had come to take coffee with him at the usual hour of the afternoon. There was no special strain of manner or of speech. The voices were a little lower, the tones a little more decided, their eyes did not meet; that was all. When coffee-drinking was over the wife retired to her room. Still Houghton smoked on. At length he saw the horseman entering into the grove of palms before the door. He rose deliberately from his seat and walked down the pathway.
"Good day to you, Houghton," the horseman said; "we meet again, you see."
"You are not overjoyed."
"There's no reason why I should be glad. Why have you come?"
"You remember our last meeting five years ago. You were on your way to be married. Marriage is a beautiful thing, Houghton, when everything is right and square, and there's love both sides. Well, everything was right and square with you and the woman you were going to marry; but there was not love both sides."
While they had been talking thus, Houghton had, of purpose, led his companion far into the shade of the palms. He now wheeled upon Cayley, and said sternly: "I warn you to speak with less insolence; we had better talk simply."
Cayley was perfectly cool. "We will talk simply. As I said, you had marriage without love. The woman loved another man. That other man loved the woman--that good woman. In youthful days at college he had married, neither wisely nor well, a beggar-maid without those virtues usually credited to beggar-maidens who marry gentlemen. Well, Houghton, the beggar-maid was supposed to have died. She hadn't died; she had shammed. Meanwhile, between her death and her resurrection, the man came to love that good woman. And so, lines got crossed; things went wrong. Houghton, I loved Alice before she was your wife. I should have married her but for the beggar-maid."
"You left her without telling her why."
"I told her that things must end, and I went away."
"Like a coward," rejoined Houghton. "You should have told her all."
"What difference has it made?" asked Cayley gloomily.
"My happiness and hers. If you had told her all, there had been an end of mystery. Mystery is dear to a woman's heart. She was not different in that respect from others. You took the surest way to be remembered."
Cayley's fingers played with his horse's mane; his eyes ran over the ground debatingly; then he lifted them suddenly, and said: "Houghton, you are remarkably frank with me; what do you mean by it?"
"I'll tell you if you will answer me this question: Why have you come here?"
The eyes of both men crossed like swords, played with each other for a moment, and then fixed to absolute determination. Cayley answered doggedly: "I came to see your wife, because I'm not likely ever to see her or you again. I wanted one look of her before I went away. There, I'm open with you."
"It is well to be open with me," Houghton replied. He drew Cayley aside to an opening in the trees, where the mountain and the White Bluff road could be seen, and pointed. "That would make a wonderful leap," he said, "from the top of the hill down to the cliff edge--and over!"
"A dreadful steeplechase," said Cayley.
Houghton lowered his voice. "Two people have agreed to take that fence."
Cayley frowned. "What two people?"
"My wife and I"
"Because there has been a mistake, and to live is misery."
"Has it come to that?" Cayley asked huskily. "Is there no way--no better way? Are you sure that Death mends things?" Presently he put his hand upon Houghton's arm, as if with a sudden, keen resolve. "Houghton," he said, "you are a man--I have become a villain. A woman sent me once on the high road to the devil; then an angel came in and made a man of me again; but I lost the angel, and another man found her, and I took the highway with the devil again. I was born a gentleman--that you know. Now I am . . ." He hesitated. A sardonic smile crept across his face.
"Yes, you are--?" interposed Houghton.
"I am--a man who will give you your wife's love."
"I do not understand," Houghton responded. Cayley drew Houghton back from where they stood and away from the horse.
"Look at that horse," he said. "Did you ever see a better?"
"Never," answered Houghton, running him over with his eye, "never."
"You notice the two white feet and the star on the forehead. Now, listen. Firefoot, here!"
"My God!" said Houghton, turning upon him with staring eyes, "you are--"
"Whose horse is that?" interjected Cayley. Firefoot laid his head upon Cayley's shoulder.
Houghton looked at them both for a moment. "It is the horse of Hyland the bushranger," he said. "All Queensland knows Firefoot." Then he dazedly added: "Are you Hyland?"
"A price is set on my head," the bushranger answered with a grim smile.
Houghton stood silent for a moment, breathing hard. Then he rejoined: "You are bold to come here openly."
"If I couldn't come here openly I would not come at all," answered the other. "After what I have told you," he added, "will you take me in and let me speak with your wife?"
Houghton's face turned black, and he was about to answer angrily, but Cayley said: "On my honour--I will play a fair game," he said.
For an instant their eyes were fixed on each other; then, with a gesture for Cayley to follow, Houghton went towards the house.
Five, minutes later Houghton said to his wife: "Alice, a stranger has come."
"Who is it?" she asked breathlessly, for she read importance in his tone.
"It is the horseman we saw on the hillside." His eyes passed over her face pityingly. "I will go and bring him."
She caught his arm. "Who is it? Is it any one I know?"
"It is some one you know," he answered, and left the room. Bewildered, anticipating, yet dreading to recognise her thoughts, she sat down and waited in a painful stillness.
Presently the door opened, and Cayley entered. She started to her feet with a stifled, bitter cry: "Oh, Harry!"
He hurried to her with arms outstretched, for she swayed; but she straightway recovered herself, and, leaning against a chair, steadied to his look.
"Why have you come here?" she whispered. "To say good-bye for always," was his reply.
"And why--for always?" She was very white and quiet.
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