THE LILY-MAID OF ASTOLAT.
"One pain is lessened by another's anguish,
One desperate grief cures with another's languish."
Romeo and Juliet.
"And when I learnt it at last, I shrieked, I sprang from my seat,
I wept and I kissed her hands, I flung myself down at her feet."
"And I knew why we love and suffer,
I saw through what white lakes of fire
The souls of some mortals must tremble,
Before they are fit for the higher.
And the secret of living was loving,
And loving must ever be pain
Till He, by whose word came our being,
Shall summon that being again."
Australian Poets, Agnes Neale.
Some months had elapsed. The doctor, sad but steadfast, was occupied, happily for him, with plans for putting the affairs of his settlements on a permanent and self-governing basis. Hilda, subdued now, took special interest in the development of the Amazona community. Gwyneth directed her. Half her time the girl spent about the beautiful hill whence the consumptives looked out on all the land of promise that was ripening, but not for them. Her work was done, Gwyneth felt. The perfecting of it she left to Hilda and the friends who had assisted to establish the girls' colony. The strain imposed by concern for her father's absence, his mysterious return, and subsequently his arrest and disgrace; the cruel treatment to which, as she felt, she had been subjected by the man she still loved deeply—all told upon a not robust constitution.
Brightness and joy she still brought to many a desolate occupant of the Mount, but the seeds of disease, as a result of her untiring devotion, were implanted in her slender frame.
Daily she grew more ethereal and lovely, as the consumptive often do. The sweet spirit that was hers shone from the delicate frame that was languishing. She almost welcomed the prospect of soon being laid to rest beside the fresh-made flower-beds that crowned the hill where those she had comforted were sleeping. Sad she was, but not morbid. To the last, life afforded her opportunity of engaging in work she loved. Calmly about the lake her yacht glided, as she sought to cheer those who like herself were passing to another shore.
"You have not escaped me this morning," said Hilda, gently laying her hand on the girl's arm, as the latter was about to step into her boat. Gwyneth, with a wearied expression, sank on to the seat on the pier and gazed pensively at the waters rippling against the peaceful prow of her yacht. "I have been wanting for a long time to see you, dear," said the young widow, softly. Seating herself by the sick girl she took her hand in hers, and stroking it lovingly, added—"I want to ask your pardon for a great wrong I did you."
"I do not quite understand you, Mrs. O'Lochlan," replied Gwyneth, with a shade of reserve.
"Do not speak like that, Gwyneth. Look at me, dear."
The girl turned her head and gazed, almost vacantly, into Hilda's face. Her thoughts were far away.
"I, too, have suffered," pleaded Hilda, "for my pride and selfishness, I suppose. Let me relieve my mind by confessing my sin and securing forgiveness."
The thought of all that the gay young bride of a year before had endured touched Gwyneth's heart. Schooled to forget her own grief in that of others, she tried to say something sympathetic. Words, however, failed her. She merely bent her graceful neck and kissed the young widow's anxious brow, while the gentle breeze blew the unconfined tresses of golden hair about the other's pale face.
"Gwyneth, I shall always hale myself for having written that horrid letter; for having despised you—you, who were so vastly my superior in every way—for having striven to separate you from my brother. Can you forgive me?"
The dying girl placed an emaciated arm round the other's neck, bent her head, as if tired, on Hilda's breast, and said—
"Forgive you? I thank you, now. It had to be."
Through her closed eyes tears found their way, and moistened the long lashes upon which they glistened as dew.
Hilda kissed the frail girl, and stroked the transparent cheek. Bending over her she whispered—
"It had not to be, Gwyneth. He loved you dearly. Never for one moment has he wavered in his attachment. I know it."
The sick girl opened her eyes that seemed to have expanded and gathered lustre as her frame decayed. Fixing a searching gaze on her companion's face she exclaimed—
"It cannot be. I have imagined every possible explanation of his conduct. Only one remains."
Hilda produced the silver case. The girl's eyes glistened. Her hand shook very distressingly. With trembling fingers, as once before, she opened the little casket. Her mother's and her own likeness were there, as when with girlish pleasure she had presented it to her lover.
"Can it be all a dream?" she exclaimed, as she bent over the love-token, and the hectic glow suffused her delicate cheeks. "Those other faces I saw there! Could they be the creation of a diseased imagination?"
She kissed the little casket, bathed it with tears, while the breeze wiped it again with her hair. Quickly and quietly Hilda told her all. What Tom Lord had seen; the part that Malduke had played.
Gwyneth opened her eyes, clasped the silver thing amongst tresses that lay upon her breast, looked up to the soft, cloudless sky, and her eyes sang her Te Deum and Nunc Dimittis in one breath.
"You must see him, dear, and be reconciled," said Hilda, cheerfully. "You will soon get better now."
"Too late—for that," replied the girl, smiling through her tears. "If it could have been, I should have loved this world too much. But tell him, please, I loved him dearly to the last. Ask his forgiveness for my having doubted him. Everything was so against him. I was so alone. Now, if you do not mind," she added after a long pause, "leave me, dear Hilda, to accustom my mind in solitude to this last new joy."
Weeping and embracing they parted. Gwyneth loosened her little boat, whose sail was already set, and as it skimmed over the rippling surface of the waters, the dying girl, who knew at last that she was loved, lay on the white pallet she had placed in the stern for her sick passengers. The little cargo of flowers she had shipped for others lay about her slender white-robed figure, as she reclined beneath the snowy sail.
"Now I may trust my eyes to rest upon the scene of our happiness once more," she murmured. "I will approach within a mile and return."
She made fast the stern-sheet, and, still resting amongst her floral offerings, almost lost in a reverie of happy thoughts, glided unconsciously onward with tiller against her back and a lily in her hand, towards the village pier at the other end of the lake.
The birds skimmed curiously about the barque, whose lovely occupant was still—sleeping or in a faint—as the flower-laden barge drew towards the wattle shores.
Travers had returned, moody, despondent, and heartily ashamed of himself. He confessed to his father that he had betrayed the trust reposed in him. He had felt, he said, that under the circumstances his presence in the valley was rather a hindrance than otherwise to his brother-in-law. From colony to colony he had wandered. News of his mother's death had aroused him from his selfish inaction. He had "come to himself," and resolved to stand by his father's side and to atone by single-handed devotion for failure in the past.
It was the doctor's birthday. A quiet family picnic had been arranged, with the view of withdrawing him from labours to which, as a solace for pain, he was devoting every waking hour. The party drove to the spot where the creek debouched into the lake. The wattles were untouched, although on either side, beyond their fringe of gold, the gardens and homesteads ranged.
The Dowlings were talking to the doctor of Travers and his troubles. Mrs. Dowling was speaking of Gwyneth, and how unwittingly she had caused her pain, of how feelingly the girl had read to her the tragic story of Elaine.
"I cannot help it," the fanciful old lady continued, "but, now that I know all, I am ever, in my dreams, associating Gwyneth with Elaine, and seeing the child herself reclining in the barge in which the Lily-maid voyaged to Camelot."
On a bank below the old people, the young folk, Eva and Maud, Travers, Frank, and Tom, were sitting, close to the rivulet brink. The girls were plaiting wreaths of wattle and clematis. Travers was bravely battling with his despondency. Seizing the garland Maud had woven, he had bent forward and laughingly placed it on Eva's brow, exclaiming—
"So I crown you Queen of the Vale."
Instinctively he thought of the one who was still the queen of his heart. He raised his eyes to look across the lake to the vine-clad hill beyond, where, it was said, its guardian angel spent her days.
He started to his feet.
Mrs. Dowling, above, who had just concluded her remark about the Lily-maid, uttered a startled cry. All stood as if spell-bound.
Upon the lake, a few hundred yards away, a boat with white sail was bearing down upon the very spot where they stood. The tiny vessel seemed filled with flowers. Amongst them lay a frail form, clad in white, a lily in her hand. Her eyes were closed, a smile played upon the wasted, ethereal face, about which lay a profusion of golden hair.
No one moved. Not a sound was uttered. Like a fairy vision, the little vessel glided onward towards the picnickers. It brushed along the bank on which the fresh-crowned Queen of the Lake was sitting. The sail, catching in the overhanging wattle-boughs, moored the bark within a yard of the lately animated group.
Travers, not knowing what he did, sprang forward, bent over the motionless figure, took one of the transparent hands in his. The silver case was clasped on the still heaving breast.
"Gwyneth, my darling, speak to me!" cried the young man with quick, eager breath. "Gwyneth, you are not dead! You shall not die! You have come to me at last, my child!" Slowly the maiden, recovering from her swoon, opened her eyes. Only that one distracted face she saw bending over hers.
"You forgive me," she murmured, after a long pause, during which she gazed, wonderingly, into his face. She tried to say more, but voice failed her. She put her slender arm about his neck and drew her lover towards her. He kissed the cold brow, on which the dews of death were gathering. "I came—I do not know how—nor where I am," she whispered, slowly, with difficulty. "I came to tell you—that—I love you still. That I know, now, that you loved me always. Now let me fall to sleep again, I am so tired! so tired!" she repeated, as if to herself. "Ah! but so glad!"—and the old smile set on her delicate features. She pressed his hand, though she seemed to sleep.
"Gwyneth," cried the young man wildly, "you shall not die. This is only a swoon. Speedily you will recover now. We will be happy together yet," and he chafed her hands as though she were in a faint, and showered kisses on the cold forehead.
"Hush!" at length, opening her eyes again, she murmured, as the flame of life flickered. "That may not be. I am bride of Another now, who gave His life for me. We are one in Him!"
"Eva!" she murmured after a pause, as the girl, with the mimosa wreath still about her chestnut locks, stole near and bent a terrified face over the floating death-bed of flowers.
"I know you loved me," said the dying maiden, slowly, to her lover. "Now you shall love her. She is yours, and you shall be hers. Often I shall look upon you. Your joy will be mine."
Still clasping the lily sceptre, the dying girl sought the hand of each, clasped them together upon the casket on her breast, the smile, as of an angel breathing benediction, as of the wearied going home, settled on her lovely features, the tresses on her breast ceased to heave. "The Lily-maid of Astolat" had passed to "where, beyond these voices, there is peace."
That day Travers learned all the intrigues of Malduke. How he had sought to compass the doctor's death and frustrate his plans. Willie's father had recognized him, and related how, evidently, he had sought to drown his love and his rival in the canal works. At his door lay the guilt of the tragic death of the Lily-maid beneath the mimosa boughs. Travers was maddened by grief and rage. He paced the bush distracted. The evil-doer, he learned, lay in hiding beyond the ranges.
"Justice! Revenge!" cried the frenzied man, as he beat his breast. Seizing his horse he disappeared along a mountain track. Fearing his friend's passion and despair, Frank Brown, with a boundary rider who knew the country, started in pursuit.
Along the side of steep mountains, across slippery outcropping rocks, upon the edge of precipitous "sidings," Travers, as one demented, rode. That face in the boat haunted him. "My murdered child! My wronged Gwyneth!" he cried between his teeth, urging his reeking steed, mad in sympathy with himself, to leap ravines and dash through blinding scrub; now rattling down the fern-tree gully, now swimming the swollen mountain torrent, again dashing up the almost vertical pile of slippery boulder.
The sun had set. Beside a dismal lagoon, in which the frogs were croaking as though all that world were theirs, stood, in a low gorge beneath the hills, a lonely splitter's hut. Travers sprang from his steed, white with the sweat of a twenty miles ride. With a trembling hand the young man opened the rude shutter that served for a window.
Stretched on a bunk, clad in crimson shirt and moleskin trousers, the outcast lay asleep—a revolver on the table beside him, a gun in the corner at his head. Travers stole into the bark-hut across the earthen floor, and took the revolver from the table. As he reached over to seize the gun Malduke sprang up. Travers leaped towards the door. The trapper, trapped at last, stood at bay. He was ashen pale. His eyes glared with fear and rage as he stood facing his foe. He saw that for the moment his assailant was mad.
"At last I have you," cried Travers. "Powder and shot are too good for you. One of us will never leave this hut alive. Coward! You need not tremble so. There, my own hands shall settle you, not your miserable tools." He threw the arms far into the bush. Then, keeping his eye on the object of his frenzied hate, he barred the door with its great cross-piece of wood.
"Now, craven, defend yourself!" In the middle of the hut, illuminated only by the ghastly moonlight, the two met. Wildly for each other's throats they struggled. Malduke was the heavier; Travers more agile and skilful. Now the rude tenement trembled as though a branch had been whirled against it by the storm, while the two hurled each other against the slab sides. At length Travers secured the grip his practised hand sought; over one shoulder, beneath the other he passed his arms, back across the table he hurled his foe. With knee on chest he grasped the other's throat as in a vice of iron.
Another moment and the miscreant's course would have been run. Crash! The tressel gave way beneath the strain. Travers, half-hurled by his antagonist, fell heavily, his head striking on the log that served for a bench.
A deadly silence reigned in the rude cabin, save for the laboured breathing of the half-choked wretch who stood trembling in the midst of the earthen floor. He opened the door and drew a deep breath. A beam of moonlight streamed across the hut on to the white face of the unconscious man.
"I'll settle him now," muttered the other, as he sought with trembling fingers the revolver among the branches that surrounded the deserted hut. "Ah, here it is. This'll finish him! "hissed Malduke, as with a more assured tread he re-entered the shanty.
Travers had come to himself. As the other entered he sprang again upon him. Again they wrestled for life. Two desperate men beating out each other's life, the hatred of their panting breasts, in the silence and darkness of the lonely ravine.
Whiz! at length went a shot through Travers' hair, grazing his ear. Again he seized his foe, hurled him beneath him.
Two figures appeared at the door.
Another shot. A death-cry!
An awful stillness, broken only by the plaintive wail of the curlew and dismal howl of the dingo on the hills. "More blood, more blood!" the cuckoo seemed to cry.
"Quick, Bob!" cried Frank to his companion. "Strike a match. I fear we are too late."
The two lay as dead. Smoke was issuing from the deadly weapon Malduke still grasped in his hand. A stream of blood was oozing from his temple. The shot intended for his enemy had, in the death-struggle, entered his own brain. Malduke had gone to his account. Travers, who, owing to loss of blood, had swooned again, was stretched across the corpse.
For two days he was dazed. Gwyneth he followed to her grave on the hill-top, as in a dream. By degrees the sense of duty and obligation returned. He recalled how she, whom he had loved and lost, brought life and hope to thousands for whom, while her own heart was bleeding, she "made a way in the wilderness."
In the long evenings at Heatherside, new plans were evolved, old sores sought to be healed, but not one word of love was spoken.