Chapter 160170050

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Chapter NumberIII
Chapter Title
Chapter Urlhttp://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article160170050
Full Date1886-10-16
Page Number45
Corrections0
Word Count2010
IllustratedN
Last Corrected0000-00-00
Newspaper TitleAdelaide Observer (SA : 1843 - 1904)
Trove TitleA Life's Punishment
article text

CHAPrER III.

Both the girle—for the eldest was appa rently not more than seventeen or eighteen years of age—were profuse in their thanks. They were both tall, and their beauty owed more to expression than to any particular features of their face. Their complexions were more delicate than the generality of women I had seen in Australia. Their manner of speaking was ladylike and un affected. It may be thought that considering these were the first gentlewomen I had spoken to since leaving England I may have overrated their charms. But subsequent and more intimate knowledge of them has proved to me that my first impressions were correct. But, at the moment when they Btood before me, pale and nerveless now that tbey were safe, it was the face of the elder girl that riveted my attention. It seemed to me that I had met her before, there was something both in her manner and appearance that was familiar. The thought perplexed me, but before long the mystery was made clear.

It was evident that this fair young driver was too nervous to drive her ponies home again, and my offer to take her place was thankfully accepted. She sat beside me, and her sister occupied a little seat at the back of tbe carriage. Now that their fears were lessening they became communicative, feel ing, I suppose, that I had some right.to know to whom I had rendered service,

They were the daughters of Joseph Har- 1 diuge, a eheeptarmer or squatter. They toll me a great deal about their life iu the bush, but I fear that I gave a very divided atten tion to what they said. The name of flar dinge had shown me in a moment the truth of that old saying concerning the Bmallness of the world. I had come to Australia be lieving that I should be nnkaown to every one, and now at that very moment I was on my way to meet a man whom I had known intimately years ago.

Hardinge was a relation of my wife's; he had married young, and had come out here

to increase his fortune. I could remember the details distinctly now, thongh hitherto I bad almost forgotten the man's existence. It was like my luck to have come to the same colony. Here was, of course, the likeness in the girl's face which had puzzled. me. She was the image of her father as I remembered him.

I fonnd out that Mrs. Hardinge had been dead some year or two, and that the two girls and their father were staying in Adelaide for a few weeks' holiday from the station. As I drove the ponies towards the hotel where Hardinge was staying it struck me that I was in a peculiarly awkward position. Hardinge would surely recognise me if we met; and yet, on the other had, I could not well desert my post of driver. How earnestly I prayed for good luck to be on my side and help me out of my dilemma! And my prayer was answered. As soon as we pulled up in the yard of the hotel both girls jumped out

and ran indoorB to find their father. I had

promised to follow them at once, but no sooner had an ostler come to the ponies' heads than I walked ont of the yard, rapidly crossed the street and turned down the first lane I came to and so ont of sight.

I had escaped! I'was unknown to the ostler, and so the Hardinges would be unable to track me to the warehouse, even if they so desired. Bnt nevertheless Hived in terror during the next few days. Once or twice, when going about the streets, I saw them in the distance, but managed to keep out of their way. After a little while they returned home to their station, and I was compara tively safe again. Still 1 could not afford to be any the less careful. They might come to town again at any time and meet me in the

atreets.

For nearly twelve months I lived in a state of constant anxiety. Then I saw them again. It was at Fort Adelaide. I had gone down

to conclude some business with a vessel which was on the point of sailing for the old country. Coming away I saw the Hardinges threading their way through the goodB which covered the wharf straight for the ship I was leaving. I hid behind a vast stack of wheat, and watched them go on board and disappear below decks. The next day their names were in the paper as passengers bound for London. I was safe now, or at least until they returned.

And daring thiB time—that is to say, for the laBt two years—I had been dead! There was no denying the matter. The London Times had said so; had Riven the

Particulars of my death, so far as they could

e ascertained. I bad read the account myself in the paper at the Institute. The good ship Heartsease, in which I had taken a passage for America, had never been heard of from the day she left Liverpool. Friends of those on hoard, the owners, and all others interested, so said the Times, had hoped againBt hope to the very last. There could be no doubt now bnt that the

ship had foundered and all hands lost. Not even so much as a piece of wreckage which could be recognised had been given up by the sea. Then came the list of names of those on board—and my name, my alter ego, amongst them.

It was unpleasant to see myself included in a long list of dead people! 1 wonder how many have had the same experience, and whether they felt the same uncomfortable, gruesome sensations I felt when 1 read the

account.

But how thankful I felt that I had told my wife of my change of ship! Although, per "baps, she was at present too disgusted with my behaviour to write to me, yet it was a consolation to know that I had saved her the additional sorrow which she would other wise have felt at the news of my death. And then I wondered how she had explained matters to her family and to mine. Could she have told them of my letter and its contents, or had she preferred to take the part of a widow ?

The HardiDges were absent from the colony for about four years. My life, or rather my mode of existence, altered little for the better. I still had hopeB of hearing from my wife. I called for letters at the PoBt-Office immediately after the arrival of every mail, and every time I was disappointed.

I had due warning when to*be on my guard with regard to meeting Hardinge. He was a leading colonist, and the date of his depar ture from England was duly chronicled by the Adelaide papers. The day came when the vessel which was bringing him back was sighted in the Gulf, The time of my safety had departed, and I muBt be again on the alert. So I thought at the time, but looking hack through the vista of past years I can see that my fears were almost groundless. In the first place, it waB doubtful if Hardinge would have remembered me; and in the second place, would he have gone the ex treme length of handing me over to justice? But it is too late to think of that now; in the days I write of I thought that every man who looked at me recognised me and read my

secret.

On the evening following the day of

Hardinge's retnrn I had spent my spare j hours in the reading-room of the Institute. ]

The time of closing was close at hand when a cry in the Btreets broke in upon the stillness of the room. Again came the cry, " Fire! fire!" and in another minute the Institute was deserted.

Once outside, there was little difficulty in finding the locality of the fire. The glare and the direction taken by the people in the street were ample guides.

A shop in Bundle-street had caught alight. It was two-storied, the living apartments

being in the upper story. A very short ; space of time had elapsed Bince I bad heard the alarm, but the hour waB not late, the streets alive with people coming away from the theatre, public meetings, and music halls, and by the time I arrived on the scene a dense crowd had collected. By dint of much pushing and squeezing I gained the front row of spectators.

The stock of the shop was of some light and combustible material. The fire had appa rently started at the rear oi the premises, on the ground floor. The firemen were hacking down the front shutters, and when they fell the interior of the shop looked like an immense furnace, and the terrific heat made the onlookers retreat as far back as possible.

At this moment a cry was raised that a child was supposed to nave been left in its bed in the upper story. The idea was perhaps but the offspring of an excited imagination, but it took hold of me at once and filled me with horror. It was awful to think of a human being, especially a helpless child, being in the room above {that

furnace! The entrance to the top story was at the side of the building, in a right-of-way or lane, I could just Bee it from where I was standing. The firemen made no movement as if intending to find out the truth of the rumour, I was excited, and their apparent apathy enraged me.

In a moment, without any consideration, I rushed for the side door leading to the stairs. I can remember hearing, Uke an echo, a cheer from the crowd as I entered. The stairs were burning, but must have only caught alight a short time before; thev were still stand ing firm, and I was able to get un. The dense smoke was the worst thing I had to contend with, but by crawling on my hands and knees, managed to make my way upwards. The floor of the upper story was terribly hot; the fire would soon burst through. The smoke was not quite so bad in some of the rooms and ray progress was quicker, I went from room to room, but could find no living creature. The last room I entered was one of the front oneB overlooking the street. I could hear the shouting of tne crowd as they called to me to return, and the hiBBing of the water falling upon the burning timbers beneath me. The heat of the floor was in creasing; here and there tiny tongues of flame were beginning to pierce it. I felt my self becoming stupid and confused by the smoke and heat and excitement. From my position on the floor I wsb unable to teU where the windowb were Bituated. To go back by the stairs must, I knew, be impos sible by this time. Then came a crash of splintered glass and a man's voice calling to

me, I answered and made towards the direc tion of the sound, A ladder had been raised against the front of the shop, and a fireman had climbed, hoping to render me some assistance. " He is sue 1" I heard him shout, and a cheer from the crowd followed. At last I had my hand upon the sill of the window; the fireman reached out to grasp it; in another moment I should have been safe. And then to my horror, I felt the floor beneath me heave and tremble; then came a burst of light and a rush of roaring flame. The floor had given way, my hand lost its hold upon the window, and then blankness.