« PrécédentContinuer »
her hands, stretching them overhead, and clasping them again with a sounding slap that made half the men start back and nearly fall over their forms.
Of a sudden she halted before Dick, and proceeded to lash him with her tongue with a fierceness which I can compare only to a brutal bullock-driver laying open the ribs of his beasts with his terrible raw-hide whip. She railed about promises made, only to be broken ; of lying statements, of false representations; and made other startling and lurid disclosures-all of which produced rather unpleasant and vivid impressions of Dick's behaviour during his little trip to Shortland.
When a woman is angry there is nothing as regards her next move that can safely be predicted but uncertainty.
In the act of raging, with all the blindness of mad-dog ferocity, she turned towards the boy, whose attentions she had hitherto scouted, and with feminine inconsistency fell upon his neck in a passionate fit of weeping. Before we had recovered from our surprise the pair had gone out in the rain together.
Left to ourselves, Dick naturally became the centre of attraction--every ear itching to hear the other side of the story. But if he meant to be communicative there was no indication of it in his face. He had relapsed into a solemn silence, which contrasted oddly with his recent outburst of jocularity. Leaning forward, with his beard between his hands, his elbows on his knees, and with one foot tapping the floor, he sat staring before him with an expression of solemnity in his simple face which I had never seen there before.
At last he straightened himself, sent his blue eyes wandering from face to face as if awakening from a sleep, and in the end turned them towards the counter. The rum, which the publican had lost no time in supplying, stood there. After a brief pause he wearily rose to his feet, took up the grog, and lounged impassively to the door. As he passed out he stooped down and smashed the bottle to atoms on the step.
The next moment he was gone. The following morning many curious eyes were directed towards Dick's hut. Even as I so gazed, standing at the door of the battery, the Duchess and Rawy, coming from quite another direction, passed by. I gave them “Good-morning.”
The face of the woman was pale and drawn, and there were circles round her eyes; but, on the other hand, those of her companion struck me with their brightness. They said little, beyond that they were on their way to the store for provisions. This fact spoke for itself. If I felt any sorrow for Dick, it was swept away in the current of the greater sorrow I felt for the sorely smitten boy.
Yet there was a pleasant surprise in store for us all. Perhaps it was due to the gentle influence of her new associate, but certainly the whole mind and manner of the Duchess seemed to have been diverted into a purer and better channel. She became neat and sober in her attire, preserved a greater timidity of the diggers, no longer visited the Diggers' Rest, and in every way appeared to have profited by her new condition.
Despite this change for the better, the Rev. Mr. Stevens felt it his duty to make a pastoral excursion "to the tent of this son of Eli and the woman whose garments were not white” -as he was pleased to describe Rawy and the Duchess -to entice them into his fold.
I regret to say that Mr. Stevens did not just then find much favour in the eyes of the masculine members of our community—not but what we all had the greatest respect for religion in the abstract. That same week he had refused to bury “ Stingy Bob”—a digger who had been killed at the bottom of a shaft by a bucket slipping from the windlass-—on the ground that for all he (the reverend gentleman) knew the deceased might have been a Roman Catholic. The feeling of indignation
awakened by this circumstance was all the more acute because he persisted in his obduracy in the face of the doctor's potent argument–a deduction received by us as conclusive proof—that the chances were a thousand to one that Stingy Bob, far from being Roman, had belonged to Mr. Ştevens' own persuasion, because it was the cheapest,
I happened to pass the outlying hut one afternoon, and there found the reverend gentieman, perched on a stump which stood most invitingly for the purpose immediately opposite the door, deep in a fervid address, in which he was painting the future of the pair, should they continue to sow tares in the wheatfield, with a colouring so vivid that it made me feel quite warm, although the day was raw and boisterous.
Rawy appeared to have beaten a retreat ; but the Duchess stood in the doorway, white to the lips, and trembling in every part of her with rage. Coldly sarcastic, she said that if she had known her humble cot was to be honoured with such distinguished company she would have laid down a piece of scarlet carpet, and dug up some palms and shrubs and tastefully arranged them as a border. From irony she leapt to abuse, and that with such disquieting rapidity and vehemence that her shocking words came with the violence of a blow on the ear.
“Woman!” shrieked the reverend gentleman, with eyes and hands uplifted in horror. The next second he was plunging wildly down the slope. As he was more fleet of foot than the Duchess, he got away without misfortune to any one but the public hangman.
If there was one of us who had been so sanguine as to suppose that the change for the better in the Duchess would have any duration, he hardly could have held the same view after the expiration of a few days. The improvement, to whatever cause it was due, passed again, and left her no better. She gave Mrs. Sowerby plenty to talk about, I promise you. Indeed, the majority of us were compelled to admit that Chow Lee's opinion of her—if the reader should happen to remember it-was a fairly accurate one. It was with a sense of relief that we heard her declare her intention to quit for a soil more congenial to her tastes.
Steamer-day broke wet and stormy. The wind was blowing hard from the north-east, with a nasty send of sea up the Gulf. Although there was no certainty of the boat calling, even in fine weather, it was customary, after she had been sighted, for every one who had nothing better to do to saunter down to the beach to watch her go by.
The Duchess, an early arrival and an intending passenger, gave us all as much attention as she did Rawy, which was little enough. He, poor boy, standing somewhat in the background-every few minutes making spasmodic starts towards her, but checking himself the next second-gazed at her unremittingly, with a strained, yearning expression. It was positively painful to watch him struggling to remain master of himself. His lips twitched and trembled, and the handkerchief he held shook as if the hand were palsied; his pallor kept increasing, and I feared at one time that the stupid fellow would faint. At length the hot tears welled up in his eyes, and, bubbling over, coursed down his cheeks. Then he began to sob, not audibly, but visibly, as if his heart were breaking.
There was no need for his distress : the steamer passed a long way out, lumbering along like an over-driven bullock, her deck all awash, and the spray flying high over her smoke-stack.
The end came in a few hours, and it came in a most unexpected way.
That night a ball took place at the Diggers' Rest. I do not propose to dwell upon the convivialities of that evening : it was a scene of roaring revelry which possessed absolutely no claim to be described to the polite reader.
Towards morning—when the fun had grown fast and furious, and coats and waistcoats had been discarded, and the gentlemen stood forth in costumes admirably adapted to the heat of the room—to the wonder and dismay of everybody the Duchess sailed through the door en grande tenue.
Never were Volscians more fluttered than the fair sex present. They intuitively gathered their skirts about them, and, flying together, began to whisper and chatter without a moment's intermission on the part of any of them.
At length one hard-faced dame, presumably ignorant of the customs of the fashionable world, remarked, with malevolent distinctness, that if naked people were allowed to come in it was time for all decent women to go.
The Duchess heard the sneer, but treated it with goddess-like indifference. When, however, it was repeated, with the addition of a personal corollary, she seemed about to risk her dignity with a retort.
At this perilous juncture a married man, who was so far under the influence of liquor as to be utterly indifferent to consequences of any kind-and they promised to be dire, if black looks in a wife mean anything-rebelled momentarily against the restrictions of conjugal bondage, and, reverting to the individual freedom of action of other and happier days, caught the Duchess round the waist and staggered away with her in the steps of a polka, danced to the accompaniment of his own whistling
Under such conditions as were forward that night the human passions operate with alarming intensity. It is immaterial who began it, but thereupon arose a furious fight, which was referred for immediate settlement to the arbitration of glasses, bottles, chairs, and, in fact, any weapon which came the handiest.
The Diggers' Rest was a two-storied building, and a flight of stairs led from the dance-room to the apartments above. The Duchess was standing at bay, with her foot on the bottom step, when I saw her struck on the forehead with a missile which laid open the flesh. Half stunned by the blow, and moaning with pain, she stumbled, in terror of her lise, up the stairs.
Almost the same second some devilish hands dashed two kerosene lamps to the floor. In the twinkling of an eye the place was in flames, and ringing with the screams of women and the blasphemous outcries of men.
A panic ensued, in which the lesson which Reason teaches was swallowed up in the mighty impulse of self-preservation. In the rush to escape men and women fought for places with all the fury of animals made mad with fear. The weak went down before the strong, and the fearful shrieks and moans from those trampled underfoot made the heart stand still with horror. When the wild stampede was over, those who had escaped scathless returned and dragged out the maimed and the insensible. By some miraculous means all were got out with their lives.
How I got there I do not know ; but when the first gleam of consciousness returned to me I found myself—surrounded by the prostrate forms of men and women, moaning and sobbing with agony of body and mind-sitting some little distance from the burning building, attempting to wipe some adhesive wetness from my eyes.
“Where are you hurt ?” It was the doctor who spoke.
Staggering to my feet with his assistance, I replied, " I'm all right, I think ”_ as indeed proved to be the case.
The doctor began remarking, “It's all the fault of that dashed Duchess" when his eyelids flew open like rebounding elastic. “By God!” he cried, “I never saw her come down those stairs.”
He saw her, though, a second later, when a passing rush of wind blew aside the smoke and showed her at an upstairs window, her wide, terrified eyes agape in the ghastly light.
Before the ladder, which was brought with all possible speed from somewhere in the rear of the house, could be planted in position, the lower story was like the cavernous jaws of some hellish monster, crackling and grinding the fabric to pieces; while from mouths, which had been windows, darted forked tongues which