When we got the notion into our heads, we set to work to carry it out. We didn't want to leave Aileen and mother behind. So it was settled that I was to go over and see them, and try and persuade them to go down to Melbourne and stop with Jeanie after Jim had started.
Then, if we all got safe over to San Francisco, Jeanie and they could come over by the first ship that sailed. There was no down upon them, so they could do anything they liked. The main thing was to get Jim off safe and me and Starlight. After that the rest might come along when they pleased. As for dad, he was to take his own road; to go and stay as he chose. It wasn't much use trying to make him do anything else. But he was more like to stop at the old Hollow than anywhere else. It wouldn't have seemed home to him anywhere else, even where he was born, I believe.
The first thing of all was to go to the old place and see mother and Aileen. They were both back at the old cottage, and were a bit more comfortable now. George Storefield had married a lady—a real lady, as Aileen said—and, though she was a nice, good-tempered young woman as ever was, Aileen, of course, wouldn't stay there any longer. She thought home was the best place after all.
We took a couple of days figuring it out at the Hollow. Starlight had a map, and we plotted it out, and marked all the stages which could be safely made—went over all the back tracks and cross-country lines; some we had travelled before, and others of which we knew pretty well from hearsay.
After we'd got all this cut and dry, I started away one beautiful sunshiny morning to ride over to Rocky Flat. I remember the day as well as yesterday, because I took notice of it at the time, and had better cause to remember it before all was over. Everything looked so lovely as I began to clear the foot hills of Nulla Mountain. The birds seemed to chirp and whistle gayer than they ever did before. The dewdrops on the grass and all the twigs and shoots of the trees looked as if it was covered with diamonds and rubies as the sun began to shine and melt some of them. My horse stepped along limber and free. `O Lord,' I says to myself out aloud, `what a happy cove I might be if I could start fresh—knowing what I know—and not having all these things against me!'
When I got on to the tableland above Rocky Flat I took a good look at the whole place. Everything was as quiet and peaceful as if nothing had ever happened within miles of it—as if I hadn't had Goring's handcuffs on me—as if Jim hadn't had the bullets whistling round him, and risked his life on an unbridled horse—as if the four dead men had not lain staring up to the sky in the gully up yonder for days before they were found and buried.
But now it looked as if only two or three people had ever been there from the beginning of the world. The wild ducks swam and splashed in the little waterhole above the house. Two or three of the cows were walking down to the creek, as quiet and peaceable as you please. There was some poultry at the back, and the little garden was done up that nicely as it hadn't been for many a day.
After I'd pretty well settled in my own mind that there was no one anext or anigh the old place, I drew up by degrees, bit by bit, and sneaked across the creek. I was just making for the barn when I saw two horsemen pop up sudden round the back of the house and ride towards the front gate. I saw with half an eye they were Sir Ferdinand Morringer and a trooper.
Lucky for me they were looking up the gully instead of my way, and, though my heart nearly stood still, I rode as hard as I could lick for the gate of the barn, which was betwixt me and them. They never looked round. They were too much taken up with watching the spot where Hagan and his lot were found. I had just time to chevy straight into the barn and pull off my saddle and bridle and hide under the hay when they shifted full towards where I'd been and then hung up their horses. The trooper tied his to a dead branch of a tree, and then went moving about. I was mortally afraid of his stumbling against something and spoiling the whole affair.
It seems Sir Ferdinand had never given up the notion of our turning up at Rocky Flat some day or other; so he used to take a turn himself that way every now and again on the chance, and a very good chance it nearly turned out to be. Besides this, it seems since he'd heard of her being at the ball at Turon he'd taken a great fancy to Aileen, and used to talk to her as much as she'd let him, when she was at George Storefield's and any other place where he met her. He wouldn't have had much chance of saying the second word, only he was a good-natured, amusing sort, and always as respectful to her as if she'd been a lady. Besides, Aileen had a kind of fancy that it might make things no worse for us if she was civil to him. Any way, she thought, as women will do, that she might get something out of him perhaps once in a way that would be of use to us. I don't believe as it would make a scrap of difference one way or the other. And, like people who try to be too clever, she was pretty near being caught in her own trap this time. Not that I blame the poor thing, she did all for the best, and would have given the eyes out of her head, I believe, to have done us real good, and seen us clear of all our troubles.
Well, she brings a chair out on the verandah, and Sir Ferdinand he sat down on a bench there for half-an-hour, talking away and laughing, just as gentlemen will to pretty girls, no matter who they are. And I could see Aileen look up and laugh now and then, pleased like. She couldn't help it. And there was I stuck in the confounded barn among the straw all the time looking out through one of the cracks and wondering if he was ever going to clear out. Sometimes I thought the trooper, who was getting tired of dodging about doing nothing, couldn't be off seeing my horse's tracks leading slap into the barn door. But he was thinking of something else, or else wasn't much in the tracking line. Some men would see a whole army of fresh tracks, as plain as print, right under their noses and wouldn't drop down to anything.
However, last of all I saw him unhitch his horse and take the bridle on his arm, and then Aileen put on her hat and walked up to the top of the ridge along the stony track with him. Then I saw him mount and start off at a rattling good bat along the road to Turon and the trooper after him. I felt all right again then, and watched Aileen come slowly down the road again with her head down, quite thoughtful like, very different from the way she went up. She didn't stop at the house, but walked straight down to the barn and came in at the door. I wondered what she would do when she saw my horse. But she didn't start, only said—
`You may come out now, Dick; I knew you were here. I saw you ride in just as Sir Ferdinand and the trooper came up.'
`So that's why you were making yourself so pleasant,' says I laughingly. `I mustn't tell Starlight, I suppose, or we shall be having a new yarn in the newspapers—"Duel between Sir Ferdinand Morringer and Captain Starlight."'
She laughed too, and then looked sad and serious like again.
`I wonder if we shall ever have an end to this wretched hide-and-seek work. God knows I would do anything that an honest girl could do for you boys and him, but it sometimes looks dark enough, and I have dreadful fears that all will be in vain, and that we are fated to death and ruin at the end.'
`Come, come, don't break down before the time,' I said. `It's been a close shave, though; but Sir Ferdinand won't be back for a bit, so we may as well take it easy. I've got a lot to say to you.'
`He said he wouldn't be back this way till Friday week,' says she. `He has an escort to see to then, and he expected to be at Stony Creek in a couple of hours from this. He'll have to ride for it.'
We walked over to the house. Neither of us said anything for a bit. Mother was sitting in her old chair by the fire knitting. Many a good pair of woollen socks she'd sent us, and many's the time we'd had call to bless her and her knitting—as we sat our horses, night after night, in a perishing frost, or when the rain set in that run of wet winters we had, when we'd hardly a dry stitch on us by the week together, when we had enough of them and the neck wrappers, I expect plenty of others round about were glad to get 'em. It was partly for good nature, for mother was always a kind-hearted poor soul as ever was, and would give away the shoes off her feet—like most Irish people I've met—to any one that wanted them worse than herself, and partly for the ease it gave her mind to be always doing something steady like. Mother hadn't book-learning, and didn't always understand the things Aileen read to her. She was getting too old to do much in the house now. But her eyes were wonderful good still, and this knitting was about the greatest pleasure she had left in the world. If anything had happened to stop her from going on with that, I don't believe she would have lived a month.
Her poor old face brightened up when she seen me, and for a few minutes you'd have said no thought of trouble could come anigh her. Then the tears rolled down her cheeks, and I could see her lips moving, though she did not speak the words. I knew what she was doing, and if that could have kept us right we'd never have gone wrong in the world. But it was to be, I suppose.
Mother was a deal older-looking, and couldn't move about as well as she did. Aileen said she'd often sit out in the sun for an hour together and watch her walking up the garden, or putting up the calves, and carrying in the water from the creek, and say nothing. Sometimes she thought her mind was going a bit, and then again she'd seem as sensible as ever she was. To-day, after a bit, she came round and talked more and asked about the neighbours, seemed more curious like, than she'd done, Aileen said, for many a long day.
`You must have something to eat, Dick,' says Aileen; `it's a long ride from—from where we know—and what with one thing and another I daresay you've an appetite. Let me see what there is. Mrs. Storefield sent us over a quarter of veal from the farm yesterday, and we've plenty of bacon of our own. Mother and I live half our time on it and the eggs. I'm making quite a fortune by the butter lately. These diggings are wonderful places to send up the price of everything we can grow.'
So she got out the frying-pan, and she and I and mother had some veal chops, with a slice or two of bacon to give it a flavour. My word! they were good after a forty-mile ride, and we'd had nothing but corned beef in the Hollow lately. Fresh butter and milk too; it was a treat. We had cows enough at the Hollow, but we didn't bother ourselves milking; bread and beef and tea, with a glass of grog now and then, was the general run of our grub.
We had a talk about the merry time at the Turon races, and Aileen laughed in spite of herself at the thought of Starlight walking down the ballroom to be introduced to her, and being taken up to all the swell people of the place. `He looked grander than any of them, to my fancy,' said she; `and oh! what a cruel shame it seems that he should ever have done what keeps him from going among his equals as he was born to do. Then I should never have seen him, I suppose, and a thousand times better too. I'd give up every hope of seeing him again in this world, God knows how cheerfully, if it would serve him or help his escape.'
`I'm down here now to see you about the same escape,' I said; and then I told her about Jim's letter, and what he said about the mate of the ship. She listened for a good while patiently, with her hand in mine, like we used to sit in old days, when we were young and happy and alive—alive, not dead men and women walking about and making believe to live. So I told her how we made it up to meet somewhere near the Queensland border. Jim to come up the Murray from Melbourne, and so on to the Darling, and we to make across for the Lower Bogan. If we could carry this out all right—and it looked pretty likely—the rest of the game would be easy; and once on blue water—O my God, what new creatures we should all be!
Aileen threw her arms round my neck and sobbed and cried like a child; she couldn't speak for a bit, and when she looked up her eyes seemed to have a different kind of look in them—a far-away, dreamy sort of light from what I'd ever noticed in them.
`It may come about,' she said, `Dick. I've prayed whole nights through and vowed my life to the Blessed Virgin. She may accept the service of my years that are to come. It may be permitted after all the sins of our people.'
After this she dried her eyes and went to her room for a bit, while I had a quiet, easy sort of talk with mother, she saying a word or two now and then, and looking at me most of the time, as if that was enough without talking.
Then Aileen came out of her room with her habit and hat on. `Run up my horse, Dick,' she says, `and I'll take you over to see George Storefield's new place. A ride will do me good, and I daresay you're not tired.'
I caught her horse and saddled him for her, and off we went down the old track we knew so well all our lives.
I told her all about our lark with old George, and how good he'd been through it all; besides promising to give us a lift through his country when we made the grand start. She said it was just like him—that he was the kindest soul in the world, and the most thoughtful. The new Mrs. Storefield had been very civil and friendly to her, and told her she knew George's feeling towards her, and respected it. But Aileen never could feel at home in the grand new house now, and only would go to see old Mrs. Storefield, who still lived in the family cottage, and found it the best suited to her. So we yarned away till we got in sight of the place. When I saw the new two-story stone house I was regular struck all of a heap.
Old George had got on in the world and no mistake. He'd worked early and late, always been as steady as a rock, and had looked ahead instead of taking his pleasure straight off when he got the first few hundred pounds together. He'd seen fat cattle must be dear and scarce for years to come. Noticed, too, that however cheap a far-away bit of country was held, sometimes bought for £200 or £300, it always rose in value year by year. So with store cattle. Now and again they'd fall to nothing. Then he'd buy a whole lot of poor milkers' calves about Burrangong, or some of those thick places where they never fattened, for £1 a head or less, and send them away to his runs in the Lachlan. In six months you wouldn't know 'em. They'd come down well-grown fat cattle in a year or two, and be worth their £6 or £8 a head.
The same way with land; he bought up all the little bits of allotments with cottages on them round Paramatta and Windsor way and Campbelltown—all them old-fashioned sleepy old places near Sydney, for cash, and cheap enough. The people that had them, and had lived a pokey life in them for many a year, wanted the money to go to the diggings with, and quite right too. Still, and all this land was rising in value, and George's children, if he had any, would be among the richest people in the colony.
After he'd married Miss Oldham—they were Hawkesbury people, her grandfather, old Captain Oldham, was one of the officers in the first regiment that came out—he didn't see why he shouldn't have as good a house as any one else. So he had a gentleman up from Sydney that drew plans, and he had a real stone house built, with rooms upstairs, and furniture to match, a new garden, and a glass house at the side, for all the world like some of them grand places in Darling Point, near Sydney.
Aileen wouldn't go in, and you may be sure I didn't want to, but we rode all round the place, a little way off, and had a real good look at everything. There wasn't a gentleman in the country had better outbuildings of all sorts. It was a real tip-top place, good enough for the Governor himself if he came to live up the country. All the old fencing had been knocked down, and new railings and everything put up. Some of the scraggy trees had been cleared away, and all the dead wood burned. I never thought the old place could have showed out the way it did. But money can do a lot. It ain't everything in this world. But there's precious little it won't get you, and things must be very bad it won't mend. A man must have very little sense if he don't see as he gets older that character and money are the two things he's got to be carefullest of in this world. If he's not particular to a shade about either or both of 'em, he'll find his mistake.
After we'd had a good look round and seen the good well-bred stock in the paddocks, the growing crops all looking first-rate, everything well fed and hearty, showing there was no stint of grub for anything, man or beast, we rode away from the big house entrance and came opposite the slip-rails on the flat that led to the old cottage.
`Wouldn't you like to go in just for a minute, Dick?' says Aileen.
I knew what she was thinking of.
I was half a mind not, but then something seemed to draw me, and I was off my horse and had the slip-rail down before I knew where I was.
We rode up to the porch just outside the verandah where George's father had planted the creeping roses; big clusters of bloom they used to have on 'em when I was a boy. He showed 'em to me, I remember, and said what fine climbers they were. Now they were all over the porch, and the verandah, and the roof of the cottage, all among the shingles. But Mrs. Storefield wouldn't have 'em cut because her old man had planted 'em. She came out to see us.
`Well, Ailie, child,' says she, `come along in, don't sit there on your horse. Who's this you've got with you? Oh! it's you, Dick, is it? My eyes ain't as good as they were. Well, come along in too. You're on the wrong road, and worse 'll come of it. But come along in, I'm not going to be the one to hunt you. I remember old times when you were a little toddling chap, as bold as a lion, and no one dreamt you'd grow up to be the wild chap you are. Gracey's inside, I think. She's as big a fool about ye as ever.'
I very near broke down at this. I could stand hard usage, and send back as good as I got; but this good old woman, that had no call to think anything of me, but that I'd spoiled her daughter's chance of marrying well and respectably—when she talked to me this way, I came close up to making a fool of myself.
We walked in. Gracey was sewing away in the little parlour, where there always used to be a nosegay when I was a boy, and it was that clean and neat I was afraid to go into it, and never easy till I got out again. There she sat as sober-looking and steady as if she'd been there for five years, and meant to be for five years more. She wasn't thinking of anybody coming, but when she looked up and saw me her face changed all of a sudden, and she jumped up and dropped her work on the floor.
`Why, whatever brings you here, Dick?' she said. `Don't you know it's terribly dangerous? Sir Ferdinand is always about here now. He stayed at George's new house last night. Wasn't he at Rocky Flat to-day?'
`Yes, but he won't be back for a week. He told Aileen here he wouldn't.' Here I looked at them both.
`Aileen's carrying on quite a flirtation with Sir Ferdinand,' says Gracey. `I don't know what some one else would say if he saw everything.'
`Doesn't he talk to any one when he comes here, or make himself pleasant?' I said. `Perhaps there's more than one in the game.'
`Perhaps there is,' says Gracey; `but he thinks, I believe, that he can get something out of us girls about you and your goings on, and where you plant; and we think we're quite as clever as he is, and might learn something useful too. So that's how the matter lies at present. Are you going to be jealous?'
`Not a bit in the world,' I said, `even if I had the right. I'll back you two, as simple as you look, against any inspector of police from here to South Australia.'
After this we began to talk about other things, and I told Gracey all about our plans and intentions. She listened very quiet and steady to it all, and then she said she thought something might come of it. Anyhow, she would go whenever I sent for her to come, no matter where.
`What I've said to you, Dick, I've said for good and all. It may be in a month or two, or it may be years and years. But whenever the time comes, and we have a chance, a reasonable chance, of living peaceably and happily, you may depend upon my keeping my word if I'm alive.'
We three had a little more talk together, and Aileen and I mounted and rode home.
It was getting on dusk when we started. They wanted us to stop, but I daren't do it. It was none too safe as it was, and it didn't do to throw a chance away. Besides, I didn't want to be seen hanging about George's place. There was nobody likely to know about Aileen and me riding up together and stopping half-an-hour; but if it came to spending the evening, there was no saying who might have ears and eyes open. At home I could have my horse ready at a minute's warning, and be off like a shot at the first whisper of danger.
So off we went. We didn't ride very fast back. It was many a day since we had ridden over that ground together side by side. It might be many a day, years perhaps, before we did the same thing again. Perhaps never! Who was to know? In the risks of a life like mine, I might never come back—never set eyes again upon the sister that would have given her life for mine! Never watch the stars glitter through the forest-oak branches, or hear the little creek ripple over the slate bar as it did to-night.