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- Cumner & South Sea Folk, v3 - 6/8 -
Barbara! She mustn't know while I'm alive. Stretch out, my nag; we've a long road to travel to-night."
This was Edward Golding, the brother whom Barbara thought was still in prison at Sydney under another name, serving a term of ten years for manslaughter. If she had read the papers more carefully she would have known that he had been released two years before his time was up. It was eight years since she had seen him. Twice since then she had gone to visit him, but he would not see her. Bad as he had been, his desire was still strong that the family name should not be publicly reviled. At his trial his real name had not been made known; and at his request his sister sent him no letters. Going into gaol a reckless man he came out a constitutional criminal; with the natural instinct for crime greater than the instinct for morality. He turned bushranger for one day, to get money to take him out of the country; but having once entered the lists he left them no more, and, playing at deadly joust with the law, soon became known as Roadmaster, the most noted bushranger since the days of Captain Starlight.
It was forgery on the name of his father's oldest friend that had driven him from England. He had the choice of leaving his native land for ever or going to prison, and he chose the former. The sorrow of the crime killed his mother. From Adelaide, where he and Barbara had made their new home, he wandered to the far interior and afterwards to Sydney; then came his imprisonment on a charge of manslaughter, and now he was free- but what a freedom!
With the name of Roadmaster often heard at Wandenong, Barbara Golding's heart had no warning instinct of who the bushranger was. She thought only and continuously of the day when her brother should be released, to begin the race of life again with her. She had yet to learn in what manner they come to the finish who make a false start.
Louis Bachelor, again in his place Rahway, tried to drive away his guesses at the truth by his beloved science. When sleep would not come at night he rose and worked in his laboratory; and the sailors of many a passing vessel saw the light of his lamp in the dim hours before dawn, and spoke of fever in the port of Rahway. Nor did they speak without reason; fever was preparing a victim for the sacrifice at Rahway, and Louis Bachelor was fed with its poison till he grew haggard and weak.
One night he was sending his weather prognostications to Brisbane, when a stranger entered from the shore. The old man did not at first look up, and the other leisurely studied him as the sounder clicked its message. When the key was closed the new-comer said: "Can you send a message to Brisbane for me?"
"It is after hours; I cannot," was the reply. "But you were just sending one."
"That was official," and the elder man passed his hand wearily along his forehead. He was very pale. The other drew the telegraph-forms towards him and wrote on one, saying as he did so: "My business is important;" then handing over what he had written, and, smiling ironically, added: "Perhaps you will consider that official."
Louis Bachelor took the paper and read as follows: To the Colonial Secretary, Brisbane. I am here tonight; to-morrow find me. Roadmaster." He read it twice before he fully comprehended it. Then he said, as if awakening from a dream: "You are--"
"I am Roadmaster," said the other.
But now the soldier and official in the other were awake. He drew himself up, and appeared to measure his visitor as a swordsman would his enemy. "What is your object in coming here?" he asked.
"For you to send that message if you choose. That you may arrest me peaceably if you wish; or there are men at The Angel's Rest and a Chinaman or two here who might care for active service against Roadmaster." He laughed carelessly.
"Am I to understand that you give yourself up to me?"
"Yes, to you, Louis Bachelor, Justice of the Peace, to do what you will with for this night," was the reply. The soldier's hands trembled, but it was from imminent illness, not from fear or excitement. He came slowly towards the bushranger who, smiling, said as he advanced: "Yes, arrest me!"
Louis Bachelor raised his hand, as though to lay it on the shoulder of the other; but something in the eyes of the highwayman stayed his hand.
"Proceed, Captain Louis Bachelor," said Roadmaster in a changed tone.
The hand fell to the old man's side. "Who are you?" he faintly exclaimed. "I know you yet I cannot quite remember."
More and more the voice and manner of the outlaw altered as he replied with mocking bitterness: "I was Edward Golding, gentleman; I became Edward Golding, forger; I am Roadmaster, convicted of manslaughter, and bushranger."
The old man's state was painful to see. "You--you--that, Edward!" he uttered brokenly.
"All that. Will you arrest me now?"
The bushranger threw aside all bravado and irony, and said: "I knew you could not. Why did I come? Listen--but first, will you shelter me here to-night?"
The soldier's honourable soul rose up against this thing, but he said slowly at last: "If it is to save you from peril, yes."
Roadmaster laughed a little and rejoined: "By God, sir, you're a man! But it isn't likely that I'd accept it of you, is it? You've had it rough enough, without my putting a rock in your swag that would spoil you for the rest of the tramp. You see, I've even forgotten how to talk like a gentleman. And now, sir, I want to show you, for Barbara's sake, my dirty logbook."
Here he told the tale of his early sin and all that came of it. When he had finished the story he spoke of Barbara again. "She didn't want to disgrace you, you understand," he said. "You were at Wandenong; I know that, never mind how. She'd marry you if I were out of the way. Well, I'm going to be out of the way. I'm going to leave this country, and she's to think I'm dead, you see."
At this point Louis Bachelor swayed, and would have fallen, but that the bushranger's arms were thrown round him and helped him to a chair. "I'm afraid that I am ill," he said; "call Gongi. Ah!" He had fainted.
The bushranger carried him to a bed, and summoned Gongi and the woman from the tavern, and in another hour was riding away through the valley of the Popri. Before thirty-six hours had passed a note was delivered to a station-hand at Wandenong addressed to Barbara Golding, and signed by the woman from The Angel's Rest. Within another two days Barbara Golding was at the bedside of Captain Louis Bachelor, battling with an enemy that is so often stronger than love and always kinder than shame.
In his wanderings the sick man was ever with his youth and early manhood, and again and again he uttered Barbara's name in caressing or entreaty; though it was the Barbara of far-off days that he invoked; the present one he did not know. But the night in which the crisis, the fortunate crisis, of the fever occurred, he talked of a great flood coming from the North, and in his half-delirium bade them send to headquarters, and mournfully muttered of drowned plantations and human peril. Was this instinct and knowledge working through the disordered fancies of fever? Or was it mere coincidence that the next day a great storm and flood did sweep through the valley of the Popri, putting life in danger and submerging plantations?
It was on this day that Roadmaster found himself at bay in the mangrove swamp not far from the port of Rahway, where he had expected to find a schooner to take him to the New Hebrides. It had been arranged for by a well-paid colleague in crime; but the storm had delayed the schooner, and the avenging squatters and bushmen were closing in on him at last. There was flood behind him in the valley, a foodless swamp on the left of him, open shore and jungle on the right, the swollen sea before him; and the only avenue of escape closed by Blood Finchley's friends. He had been eluding his pursuers for days with little food and worse than no sleep. He knew that he had played his last card and lost; but he had one thing yet to do, that which even the vilest do, if they can, before they pay the final penalty--to creep back for a moment into their honest past, however dim and far away. With incredible skill he had passed under the very rifles of his hunters, and now stood almost within the stream of light which came from the window of the sick man's room, where his sister was. There was to be no more hiding, no more strategy. He told Gongi and another that he was Roadmaster, and bade them say to his pursuers, should they appear, that he would come to them upon the shore when his visit to Louis Bachelor, whom he had known in other days, was over, indicating the place at some distance from the house where they would find him.
He entered the house. The noise of the opening door brought his sister to the room.
At last she said: "Oh, Edward, you are free at last!"
"Yes, I am free at last," he quietly replied.
"I have always prayed for you, Edward, and for this."
"I know that, Barbara; but prayer cannot do anything, can it? You see, though I was born a gentleman, I had a bad strain in me. I wonder if, somewhere, generations back, there was a pirate or a gipsy in our family." He had been going to say highwayman, but paused in time. "I always intended to be good and always ended by being bad. I wanted to be of the angels and play with the devils also. I liked saints--you are a saint, Barbara--but I loved all sinners too. I hope when--when I die, that the little bit of good that's in me will go where you are. For the rest of me, it must be as it may."
"Don't speak like that, Edward, please, dear. Yes, you have been wicked, but you have been punished, oh, those long, long years!"
"I've lost a great slice of life by both the stolen waters and the rod, but I'm going to reform now, Barbara."
"You are going to reform? Oh, I knew you would! God has answered my prayer." Her eyes lighted.
He did not speak at once, for his ears, keener than hers, were listening to a confused sound of voices coming from the shore. At length he spoke firmly: "Yes, I'm going to reform, but it's on one condition."
Her eyes mutely asked a question, and he replied: "That you marry him,"
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