When we found that by making darts and playing hide and seek with the police in this way we could ride about the country more comfortable like, we took matters easier. Once or twice we tried it on by night, and had a bit of a lark at Jonathan's, which was a change after having to keep dark so long. We'd rode up there after dark one night, and made ourselves pretty snug for the evening, when Bella Barnes asked us if we'd dropped across Moran and his mob that day.
`No,' says I. `Didn't know they were about this part. Why, weren't they at Monckton's the day before yesterday?'
`Ah! but they came back last night, passed the house to-day going towards Mr. Whitman's, at Darjallook. I don't know, but I expect they're going to play up a bit there, because of his following them up that time the police nearly got Moran.'
`What makes you think that? They're only going for what they can get; perhaps the riding-horses and any loose cash that's knocking about.'
`Billy the Boy was here for a bit,' says Maddie. `I don't like that young brat, he'll turn out bad, you take my word for it; but he said Moran knew Mr. Whitman was away at the Castlereagh station, and was going to make it a warning to them all.'
`Well, it's too bad,' said Bella; `there's no one there but Mrs. Whitman and the young ladies. It's real cowardly, I call it, to frighten a parcel of women. But that Moran's a brute and hasn't the feelings of a man about him.'
`We must ride over, boys,' says Starlight, yawning and stretching himself. `I was looking forward to a pleasant evening here, but it seems to me we ought to have a say in this matter. Whitman's gone a trifle fast, and been hard on us; but he's a gentleman, and goes straight for what he considers his duty. I don't blame him. If these fellows are half drunk they'll burn the place down I shouldn't wonder, and play hell's delight.'
`And Miss Falkland's up there too, staying with the young ladies,' says Maddie. `Why, Jim, what's up with you? I thought you wasn't taking notice.'
`Come along, Dick,' says Jim, quite hoarse-like, making one jump to the door. `Dash it, man, what's the use of us wasting time jawing here? By ——, if there's a hair of her head touched I'll break Moran's neck, and shoot the lot of them down like crows.'
`Good-bye, girls,' I said, `there's no time to lose.'
Starlight made a bow, polite to the last, and passed out. Jim was on his horse as we got to the stable door. Warrigal fetched Starlight's, and in half a minute Jim and he were off together along the road full split, and I had as much as I could do to catch them up within the next mile. It wasn't twenty miles to Whitman's place, Darjallook, but the road was good, and we did it in an hour and twenty minutes, or thereabouts. I know Starlight lit a match and looked at his watch when we got near the front gate.
We could see nothing particular about the house. The lights shone out of the windows, and we heard the piano going.
`Seems all right,' says Starlight. `Wonder if they came, after all? They'll think we want to stick the place up if we ride up to the hall door. Get off and look out tracks, Warrigal.'
Warrigal dismounted, lit a couple of matches, and put his head down close to the soft turf, as if he was going to smell it.
`Where track?' says Starlight.
`There!' says Warrigal, pointing to something we couldn't see if we'd looked for a month. `Bin gone that way. That one track Moran's horse. I know him; turn foot in likit cow. Four more track follow up.'
`Why, they're in the house now, the infernal scoundrels,' says Starlight. `You stay here with the horses, Warrigal; we'll walk up. If you hear shooting, tie them to the fence and run in.'
We walked up very quiet to the house—we'd all been there before, and knew where the front parlour was—over the lawn and two flower-beds, and then up to the big bow-window. The others stood under an old white cedar tree that shadowed all round. I looked in, and, by George! my face burned, cold as it was. There was Moran lying back in an arm-chair, with a glass of grog in his hand, takin' it easy and makin' himself quite at home. Burke and Daly were sitting in two chairs near the table, looking a long way from comfortable; but they had a couple of bottles of brandy on the table and glasses, and were filling up. So was Moran. They'd had quite as much as was good for them. The eldest Miss Whitman was sitting at the piano, playing away tune after tune, while her eyes were wandering about and her lips trembling, and every now and then she'd flush up all over her face; then she'd turn as white as a sheet, and look as if she'd fall off the stool. The youngest daughter was on her knees by her, on the other side, with her head in her lap. Every now and then I could hear a sob come from her, but stifled-like, as if she tried to choke it back as much as she could.
Burke and Daly had their pistols on the table, among the bottles—though what they wanted 'em there for I couldn't see—and Moran had stuck his on the back of the piano. That showed me he was close up drunk, for he was a man as never hardly let go of his revolver.
Mrs. Whitman was sitting crouched up in a chair behind her daughter, with a stony face, looking as if the end of the world was come. I hardly knew her again. She was a very kind woman, too; many a glass of grog she'd given me at shearing time, and medicine too, once I was sick there with influenza.
But Miss Falkland; I couldn't keep my eyes off her. She was sitting on the sofa against the wall, quite upright, with her hands before her, and her eyes looking half proudly, half miserable, round the room. You couldn't hardly tell she was frightened except by a kind of twitching of her neck and shoulders.
Presently Moran, who was more than half boozed as it was, and kept on drinking, calls out to Miss Whitman to sing a song.
`Come, Miss Polly,' says he, `you can sing away fast enough for your dashed old father and some o' them swells from Bathurst. By George, you must tune your pipe a bit this time for Dan Moran.'
The poor girl said she couldn't sing just then, but she'd play as much as he liked.
`Yer'd better sing now,' he drawls out, `unless ye want me to come and make you. I know you girls wants coaxing sometimes.'
Poor Miss Mary breaks out at once into some kind of a song—the pitifullest music ever you listened to. Only I wanted to wait a bit, so as to come in right once for all, I'd have gone at him, hammer and tongs, that very minute.
All this time Burke and Daly were goin' in steady at the brandy, finished one bottle and tackled another. They began to get noisy and talked a lot, and sung a kind of a chorus to Miss Mary's song.
After the song was over, Moran swore he'd have another one. She'd never sing for him any more, he said, unless she took a fancy to him, and went back to the Weddin Mountains with them.
`It ain't a bad name for a mountain, is it, miss?' says he, grinning. Then, fixing his black snake's eyes on her, he poured out about half a tumbler of brandy and drank it off.
`By gum!' he says, `I must have a dance; blest if I don't! First chop music—good room this—three gals and the missus—course we must. I'm regular shook on the polka. You play us a good 'un, Polly, or whatever yer name is. Dan Moran's goin' to enjoy himself this night if he never sees another. Come on, Burke. Patsey, stand up, yer blamed fool. Here goes for my partner.'
`Come, Moran,' says Burke, `none of your larks; we're very jolly, and the young ladies ain't on for a hop; are ye, miss?' and he looked over at the youngest Miss Whitman, who stared at him for a moment, and then hid her face in her hands.
`Are you a-goin' to play as I told yer?' says Moran. `D'ye think yer know when yer well off?'
The tone of voice he said this in and the look seemed to frighten the poor girl so that she started an old-style polka there and then, which made him bang his heels on the floor and spin round as if he'd been at a dance-house. As soon as he'd done two or three turns he walks over to the sofa and sits down close to Miss Falkland, and put his arm round her waist.
`Come, Fanny Falkland,' says he, `or whatever they call yer; you're so dashed proud yer won't speak to a bush cove at all. You can go home by'n by, and tell your father that you had a twirl-round with Dan Moran, and helped to make the evening pass pleasant at Darjallook afore it was burned.'
Anything like the disgust, misery, and rage mixed up that came into Miss Falkland's face all in a moment and together-like, I never saw. She made no sound, but her face grew paler and paler; she turned white to the lips, as trembled and worked in spite of her. She struggled fierce and wild for nigh a solid minute to clear herself from him, while her beautiful eyes moved about like I've seen a wild animal's caught in a trap. Then, when she felt her strength wasn't no account against his, she gave one piercing, terrible scream, so long and unnatural-like in the tone of it that it curdled my very blood.
I lifted up the window-sash quick, and jumped in; but before I made two steps Jim sprang past me, and raised his pistol.
`Drop her!' he shouts to Moran; `you hound! Leave go Miss Falkland, or by the living God I'll blow your head off, Dan Moran, before you can lift your hand! How dare you touch her, you cowardly dog!'
Moran was that stunned at seeing us show up so sudden that he was a good bit took off his guard, cool card as he was in a general way. Besides, he'd left his revolver on the piano close by the arm-chair, where his grog was. Burke and Daly were no better off. They found Starlight and Warrigal covering them with their pistols, so that they'd have been shot down before they could so much as reach for their tools.
But Jim couldn't wait; and just as Moran was rising on his feet, feeling for the revolver that wasn't in his belt (and that I never heard of his being without but that once), he jumps at him like a wallaroo, and, catching him by the collar and waist-belt, lifts him clean off his feet as if he'd been a child, and brings him agen the corner of the wall with all his full strength. I thought his brains was knocked out, dashed if I didn't. I heard Moran's head sound against the stone wall with a dull sort of thud; and on the floor he drops like a dead man—never made a kick. By George! we all thought he had killed him.
`Stash that, now,' says Burke; `don't touch him again, Jim Marston. He's got as much as 'll do him for a bit; and I don't say it don't serve him right. I don't hold with being rough to women. It ain't manly, and we've got wives and kids of our own.'
`Then why the devil didn't you stop it?' says Starlight. `You deserve the same sauce, you and Daly, for sitting there like a couple of children, and letting that ruffian torment these helpless ladies. If you fellows go on sticking up on your own account, and I hear a whisper of your behaving yourselves like brutes, I'll turn policeman myself for the pleasure of running you in. Now, mind that, you and Daly too. Where's Wall and Hulbert?'
`They went to yard the horses.'
`That's fair game, and all in the day's work. I don't care what you take or whom you shoot for that matter, as long as it's all in fair fight; but I'll have none of this sort of work if I'm to be captain, and you're all sworn to obey me, mind that. I'll have to shoot a man yet, I see, as I've done before now, before I can get attended to. That brute's coming to. Lift him up, and clear out of this place as soon as you can. I'll wait behind.'
They blundered out, taking Moran with them, who seemed quite stupid like, and staggered as he walked. He wasn't himself for a week after, and longer too, and threatened a bit, but he soon saw he'd no show, as all the fellows, even to his own mates, told him he deserved all he got.
Old Jim stood up by the fireplace after that, never stirring nor speaking, with his eyes fixed on Miss Falkland, who had got back her colour, and though she panted a bit and looked raised like, she wasn't much different from what we'd seen her before at the old place. The two Misses Whitman, poor girls, were standing up with their arms round one another's necks, and the tears running down their faces like rain. Mrs. Whitman was lying back in her chair with her hands over her face cryin' to herself quiet and easy, and wringing her hands.
Then Starlight moved forward and bowed to the ladies as if he was just coming into a ballroom, like I saw him once at a swell ball they gave for the hospital at Turon.
`Permit me to apologise, Mrs. Whitman, and to you, my dear young ladies, for the rudeness of one of my men, whom I unhappily was not able to restrain. I have had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Whitman, and I hope you will express my regret that I was not in time to save you from the great annoyance to which you have been subjected.'
`Oh! I shall be grateful all my life to you, and so, I'm sure, will Mr. Whitman, when he returns; and oh! Sir Ferdinand, if you and these two good young men, who, I suppose, are policemen in plain clothes, had not come in, goodness only knows what would have become of us.'
`I am afraid you are labouring under some mistake, my dear madam. I have not the honour to be Sir Ferdinand Morringer or any other baronet at present; but I assure you I feel the compliment intensely. I am sure my good friends here, James and Richard Marston, do equally.'
Here the Misses Whitman, in spite of all their terror and anxiety, were so tickled by the idea of their mother mistaking Starlight and the Marstons for Sir Ferdinand and his troopers that they began to laugh, not but what they were sober enough in another minute.
Miss Falkland got up then and walked forward, looking just the way her father used to do. She spoke to Starlight first.
`I have never seen you before, but I have often heard of you, Captain Starlight, if you will allow me to address you by that title. Believe me when I say that by your conduct to-night you have won our deepest gratitude—more than that, our respect and regard. Whatever may be your future career, whatever the fate that your wild life may end in, always believe there are those who will think of you, pray for you, rejoice in your escapes, and sorrow sincerely for your doom. I can answer for myself, and I am sure for my cousins also.'
Here the Misses Whitman said—
`Yes, indeed, we will—to our life's end.'
Then she turned to Jim, who still stood there looking at her with his big gray eyes, that had got ever so much darker lately.
`You, poor old Jim,' she said, and she took hold of his brown hand and held it in her own, `I am more sorry than I can tell to hear all I have done about you and Dick too. This is the second time you have saved me, and I am not the girl to forget it, if I could only show my gratitude. Is there any way?'
`There's Jeanie,' just them two words he said.
`Your wife? Oh yes, I heard about her,' looking at him so kind and gentle-like. `I saw it all in the papers. She's in Melbourne, isn't she? What is her address?'
`Esplanade Hotel, St. Kilda,' says Jim, taking a small bit of a letter out of his pocket.
`Very well, Jim, I have a friend who lives near it. She will find her out, and do all for her that can be done. But why don't you—why don't all of you contrive to get away somehow from this hateful life, and not bring ruin and destruction on the heads of all who love you? Say you will try for their sake—for my sake.'
`It's too late, Miss Falkland,' I said. `We're all thankful to you for the way you've spoken. Jim and I would be proud to shed our blood for you any time, or Mr. Falkland either. We'll do what we can, but we'll have to fight it out to the end now, and take our chance of the bullet coming before the rope. Good-night, Miss Falkland, and good luck to you always.'
She shook hands heartily with me and Jim, but when she came to Starlight he raised her hand quite respectful like and just touched it with his lips. Then he bowed low to them all and walked slowly out.
When we got to the public-house, which wasn't far off, we found that Moran and the other two had stayed there a bit till Wall and Hulbert came; then they had a drink all round and rode away. The publican said Moran was in an awful temper, and he was afraid he'd have shot somebody before the others got him started and clear of the place.
`It's a mercy you went over, Captain,' says he; `there'd have been the devil to pay else. He swore he'd burn the place down before he went from here.'
`He'll get caught one of these fine days,' says Starlight. `There's more risk at one station than half-a-dozen road scrimmages, and that he'll find, clever as he thinks himself.'
`Where's Mr. Whitman, Jack?' says I to the landlord (he wasn't a bad sort, old Jack Jones). `What made him leave his place to the mercy of the world, in a manner of speaking?'
`Well, it was this way. He heard that all the shepherds at the lower station had cut it to the diggings, ye see; so he thought he'd make a dart up to the Castlereagh and rig'late the place a bit. He'll be back afore morning.'
`How d'ye know that?'
`Well, he's ridin' that famous roan pony o' his, and he always comes back from the station in one day, though he takes two to go; eighty-five miles every yard of it. It's a big day, but that pony's a rum un, and can jump his own height easy. He'll be welcome home to-night.'
`I daresay he will, and no wonder. The missus must ha' been awful frightened, and the young ladies too. Good-night, Jack;' and we rattled off.
It wasn't so very late after all when we got back to Jonathan's; so, as the horses wanted a bit of a rest and a feed, we roused up the girls and had supper. A very jolly one it was, my word.
They were full of curiosity, you bet, to know how we got on when they heard Moran was there and the others. So bit by bit they picked it out of us. When they heard it all, Maddie got up and threw her arms round Jim's neck.
`I may kiss you now you're married,' she says, `and I know there's only one woman in the world for you; but you deserve one from every woman in the country for smashing that wretch Moran. It's a pity you didn't break his neck. Never mind, old man; Miss Falkland won't forget you for that, you take my word. I'm proud of you, that I am.'
Jim just sat there and let her talk to him. He smiled in a serious kind of way when she ran over to him first; but, instead of a good-looking girl, it might have been his grandmother for all he seemed to care.
`You're a regular old image, Jim,' says she. `I hope none of my other friends 'll get married if it knocks all the go out of them, same as it has from you. However, you can stand up for a friend, can't you? You wouldn't see me trod upon; d'ye think you would, now? I'd stand up for you, I know, if you was bested anywhere.'
`My dear Maddie,' says Starlight, `James is in that particular stage of infatuation when a man only sees one woman in the whole world. I envy him, I assure you. When your day comes you will understand much of what puzzles you at present.'
`I suppose so,' said Maddie, going back to her seat with a wondering, queer kind of look. `But it must be dreadful dull being shut in for weeks and weeks in one place, perhaps, and with only one man.'
`I have heard it asserted,' he says, `that a slight flavour of monotony occasionally assails the honeymoon. Variety is the salt of life, I begin to think. Some of these fine days, Maddie, we'll both get married and compare notes.'
`You'll have to look out, then,' says Bella. `All the girls about here are getting snapped up quick. There's such a lot of young bankers, Government officers, and swells of all sorts about the diggings now, not to reckon the golden-hole men, that we girls have double the pull we had before the gold. Why, there was my old schoolmate, Clara Mason, was married last week to such a fine young chap, a surveyor. She'd only known him six weeks.'
`Well, I'll come and dance at your wedding if you'll send me an invite,' says Starlight.
`Will you, though?' she said. `Wouldn't it be fun? Unless Sir Ferdinand was there. He's a great friend of mine, you know.'
`I'll come if his Satanic Majesty himself was present (he occasionally does attend a wedding, I've heard), and bring you a present, too, Bella; mind, it's a bargain.'
`There's my hand on it,' says she. `I wonder how you'll manage it, but I'll leave that to you. It mightn't be so long either. And now it's time for us all to go to bed. Jim's asleep, I believe, this half hour.'