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- Cumner & South Sea Folk, v3 - 5/8 -
--blessed be His name! And then He visited me with sorrow, and, if I still mourn, I have peace, too, and a busy life." Here he looked at the sketch again.
"Then I was a soldier. She was my world. Ah, true, love is a great thing--a great thing! She had a brother. They two with their mother were alone in the world, and we were to be married. One day at Gibraltar I received a letter from her saying that our marriage could not be; that she was going away from England; that those lines were her farewell; and that she commended me to the love of Heaven. Such a letter it was--so saintly, so unhappy, so mysterious! When I could get leave I went to England. She--they--had gone, and none knew whither; or, if any of her friends knew, none would speak. I searched for her everywhere. At last I came to Australia, and I am here, no longer searching, but waiting, for there is that above us!" His lips moved as if in prayer. "And this is all I have left of her, except memory," he said, tenderly touching the portrait.
Warmly, yet with discreet sympathy, the young man rejoined: "Sir, I respect, and I hope I understand, your confidence." Then, a little nervously: "Might I ask her name?"
The reply was spoken to the portrait: "Barbara--Barbara Golding."
With Louis Bachelor the young squatter approached Wandenong homestead in some excitement. He had said no word to his companion about that Barbara Golding who played such a gracious part in the home of the Osgoods. He had arranged the movement of the story to his fancy, but would it occur in all as he hoped? With an amiability that was almost malicious in its adroit suggestiveness, though, to be sure, it was honest, he had induced the soldier to talk of his past. His words naturally, and always, radiated to the sun, whose image was now hidden, but for whose memory no superscription on monument or cenotaph was needed. Now it was a scrap of song, then a tale, and again a verse, by which the old soldier was delicately worked upon, until at last, as they entered the paddocks of Wandenong, stars and telescopes and even Governments had been forgotten in the personal literature of sentiment.
Yet John Osgood was not quite at his ease. Now that it was at hand, he rather shrank from the meeting of these ancient loves. Apart from all else, he knew that no woman's nerves are to be trusted. He hoped fortune would so favour him that he could arrange for the meeting of the two alone, or, at least, in his presence only. He had so far fostered this possibility by arriving at the station at nightfall. What next? He turned and looked at the soldier, a figure out of Hogarth, which even dust and travel left unspoiled. It was certain that the two should meet where John Osgood, squatter and romancer, should be prompter, orchestra, and audience, and he alone. Vain lad!
When they drew rein the young man took his companion at once to his own detached quarters known as the Barracks, and then proceeded to the house. After greetings with his family he sought Barbara Golding, who was in the schoolroom, piously employed, Agnes said, in putting the final touches to Janet's trousseau. He went across the square to the schoolroom, and, looking through the window, saw that she was quite alone. A few moments later he stood at the schoolroom door with Louis Bachelor. With his hand on the latch he hesitated. Was it not fairer to give some warning to either? Too late! He opened the door and they entered. She was sewing, and a book lay open beside her, a faded, but stately little figure whose very garments had an air. She rose, seeing at first only John Osgood, who greeted her and then said: "Miss Golding, I have brought you an old friend."
Then he stepped back and the two were face to face. Barbara Golding's cheeks became pale, but she did not stir; the soldier, with an exclamation of surprise half joyful, half pathetic, took a step forward, and then became motionless also. Their eyes met and stayed intent. This was not quite what the young man had expected. At length the soldier bowed low, and the woman responded gravely. At this point Osgood withdrew to stand guard at the door.
Barbara Golding's eyes were dim with tears. The soldier gently said, "I received--" and then paused. She raised her eyes to his. "I received a letter from you five-and-twenty years ago."
"Yes, five-and-twenty years ago."
"I hope you cannot guess what pain it gave me."
"Yes," she answered faintly, "I can conceive it, from the pain it gave to me."
There was a pause, and then he stepped forward and, holding out his hand, said: "Will you permit me?" He kissed her fingers courteously, and she blushed. "I have waited," he added, "for God to bring this to pass." She shook her head sadly, and her eyes sought his beseechingly, as though he should spare her; but perhaps he could not see that.
"You spoke of a great obstacle then; has it been removed?"
"It is still between us," she murmured.
"Is it likely ever to vanish?"
"I--I do not know."
"You can not tell me what it is?"
"Oh, you will not ask me," she pleaded.
He was silent a moment, then spoke. "Might I dare to hope, Barbara, that you still regard me with--" he hesitated.
The fires of a modest valour fluttered in her cheeks, and she pieced out his sentence: "With all my life's esteem." But she was a woman, and she added: "But I am not young now, and I am very poor."
"Barbara," he said; "I am not rich and I am old; but you, you have not changed; you are beautiful, as you always were."
The moment was crucial. He stepped towards her, but her eyes held him back. He hoped that she would speak, but she only smiled sadly. He waited, but, in the waiting, hope faded, and he only said, at last, in a voice of new resolve grown out of dead expectancy: "Your brother--is he well?"
"I hope so," she somewhat painfully replied. "Is he in Australia?"
"Yes. I have not seen him for years, but he is here." As if a thought had suddenly come to him, he stepped nearer, and made as if he would speak; but the words halted on his lips, and he turned away again. She glided to his side and touched his arm. "I am glad that you trust me," she faltered.
"There is no more that need be said," he answered. And now, woman-like, denying, she pitied, too. "If I ever can, shall--shall I send for you to tell you all?" she murmured.
"You remember I told you that the world had but one place for me, and that was by your side; that where you are, Barbara--"
"Hush, oh hush!" she interrupted gently. "Yes, I remember everything."
"There is no power can alter what is come of Heaven," he said, smiling faintly.
She looked with limpid eyes upon him as he bowed over her hand, and she spoke with a sweet calm: "God be with you, Louis."
Strange as it may seem, John Osgood did not tell his sisters and his family of this romance which he had brought to the vivid close of a first act. He felt the more so because Louis Bachelor had said no word about it, but had only pressed his hand again and again--that he was somehow put upon his honour, and he thought it a fine thing to stand on a platform of unspoken compact with this gentleman of a social school unfamiliar to him; from which it may be seen that cattle-breeding and bullock-driving need not make a man a boor. What his sisters guessed when they found that Barbara Golding and the visitor were old friends is another matter; but they could not pierce their brother's reserve on the point.
No one at Wandenong saw the parting between the two when Louis Bachelor, his task with the telescope ended, left again for the coast; but indeed it might have been seen by all men, so outwardly formal was it, even as their brief conversations had been since they met again. But is it not known by those who look closely upon the world that there is nothing so tragic as the formal?
John Osgood accompanied his friend to the sea, but the name of Barbara Golding was not mentioned, nor was any reference made to her until the moment of parting. Then the elder man said: "Sir, your consideration and delicacy of feeling have moved me, and touched her. We have not been blind to your singular kindness of heart and courtesy, and--God bless you, my friend!"
On his way back to Wandenong, Osgood heard exciting news of Roadmaster. The word had been passed among the squatters who had united to avenge Finchley's death that the bushranger was to be shot on sight, that he should not be left to the uncertainty of the law. The latest exploit of the daring freebooter had been to stop on the plains two members of a Royal Commission of Inquiry. He had relieved them of such money as was in their pockets, and then had caused them to write sumptuous cheques on their banks, payable to bearer. These he had cashed in the very teeth of the law, and actually paused in the street to read a description of himself posted on a telegraph-pole. "Inaccurate, quite inaccurate," he said to a by-stander as he drew his riding-whip slowly along it, and then, mounting his horse, rode leisurely away into the plains. Had he been followed it would have been seen that he directed his course to that point in the horizon where Wandenong lay, and held to it.
It would not perhaps have been pleasant to Agnes Osgood had she known that, as she hummed a song under a she-oak, a mile away from the homestead, a man was watching her from a clump of scrub near by; a man who, however gentlemanly his bearing, had a face where the devil of despair had set his foot, and who carried in his pocket more than one weapon of inhospitable suggestion. But the man intended no harm to her, for, while she sang, something seemed to smooth away the active evil of his countenance, and to dispel a threatening alertness that marked the whole personality.
Three hours later this same man crouched by the drawing-room window of the Wandenong homestead and looked in, listening to the same voice, until Barbara Golding entered the room and took a seat near the piano, with her face turned full towards him. Then he forgot the music and looked long at the face, and at last rose, and stole silently to where his horse was tied in the scrub. He mounted, and turning towards the house muttered: "A little more of this, and good-bye to my nerves! But it's pleasant to have the taste of it in my mouth for a minute. How would it look in Roadmaster's biography, that a girl just out of school brought the rain to his eyes?" He laughed a little bitterly, and then went on: "Poor
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