A short story by Louis Becke
Nell Of Mulliner's Camp
Title: Nell Of Mulliner's Camp
Author: Louis Becke [More Titles by Becke]
Mulliner's Camp, on the Hodgkinson, was the most hopeless-looking spot in the most God-forsaken piece of country in North Queensland, and Haughton, the amalgamator at the "Big Surprise" crushing-mill, as he turned wearily away from the battery-tables to look at his "retorting" fire, cursed silently but vigorously at his folly in staying there.
It was Saturday night, and the deadly melancholy of Mulliner's was, if possible, somewhat accentuated by the crash and rattle of the played-out old five-head battery, accompanied by the wheezings and groanings of its notoriously unreliable pumping-gear. Half a mile away from the decrepid old battery, and situated on the summit of an adder-infested ironstone ridge, the dozen or so of bark humpies that constituted Mulliner's Camp proper stood out clearly in the bright starlight in all their squat ugliness. From the extra display of light that shone from the doorway of the largest and most dilapidated-looking of the huts, Haughton knew that the Cooktown mailman had come in, and was shouting a drink for the landlord of the "Booming Nugget" before eating his supper of corned beef and damper and riding onward. For Mulliner's had gone to the bad altogether; even the beef that the mailman was eating came from a beast belonging to old Channing, of Calypso Downs, which had fallen down a shaft the previous night. Perhaps this matter of a fairly steady beef supply was the silver lining to the black cloud of misfortune that had so long enshrouded the spirits of the few remaining diggers that still clung tenaciously to the duffered-out mining camp, for whenever Mulliner's ran out of meat a beast of Channing's would always--by some mysterious dispensation of a kindly goldfield's Providence--fall down a shaft and suffer mortal injuries.
Just at the present moment Haughton, as he threw a log or two into the retort furnace and watched the shower of sparks fly high up over the battery roof, was thinking of old Channing's daughter Kate, and the curious state of affairs existing between her and his partner Ballantyne. Briefly stated, this is what had occurred--that is, as far as Haughton knew.
Twelve months before, Mrs. Channing, a meek-faced, religious-minded lady, had succumbed to the worries of life under the combined and prostrating influences of a galvanised iron roof, an independent Chinaman cook, and a small powerful theological library. Immediately after her death, old Channing at once wrote to his daughter, then at school in Sydney, to come back "and cheer up his lonely life."
"Poor dad," said Kate, "I suppose he means for me to continue poor mother's feeble remonstrances to Chow Kum about giving away so much rations to the station gins, and to lend a hand when we muster for branding."
However, being a dutiful girl, she packed up and went.
On board the steamer she had met Ballantyne, who was returning to Queensland to resume his mining pursuits in the Palmer District. He knew old Channing well by reputation as a wealthy but eccentric old squatter, and in a few days he managed to make the girl fall violently in love with him. The day that the steamer reached Brisbane a telegram was brought on board for Miss Channing. It was from her father, telling her that Mrs. Lankey, of Mount Brindlebul, was coming up from Sydney in another week, and she was to wait in Brisbane for her. Then they were to travel northward together.
If there was one woman in the world she hated it was Mrs. Lankey, of Mount Brindlebul station, in the Gulf country, and Ballantyne, from whom she could hide nothing, saw his opportunity, and took it. He took her ashore, placed her in lodgings, went to an hotel himself, and the day before her future escort arrived, married her.
Perfectly satisfied with the cogent reasons he gave for secrecy in not apprising her father of their marriage, and shedding tears at the nonchalant manner in which he alluded to a honeymoon "some time in a year or so when the old man comes to know of it," pretty Kate Channing went back alone to her lodgings to await Mrs. Lankey and cogitate upon the peculiarly masterful way in which Ballantyne had wooed and won her.
Six months afterwards she got a letter from Ballantyne, telling her that he had bought Petermann's crushing mill at Mulliner's Camp, "so as to be near you, my pet," he said. At the same time he warned her of the folly of their attempting to meet, at least openly; but added that Haughton, his partner, who knew of his marriage, would visit Calypso Downs occasionally and give her news of him; also that they could correspond by the same medium.
Thus matters stood between them for some months, till Kate, wearying to meet the cold, calculating Ballantyne, adopted the device of riding over late every Sunday afternoon to Mulliner's for the mail, instead of her father sending over one of his black boys.
But instead of meeting her with kisses, Ballantyne terrified her with savage reproaches. It was madness, he said, for her to run such a risk. By and by he would be in a better position; at present he was as poor as a rat, and it was best for them to be apart. And Kate, thoroughly believing in him, bent to his will. She knew that her father was, as Ballantyne thoughtfully observed, such a violent-tempered old man that he would cast her off utterly unless he was "managed" properly when he learnt of her marriage.
"And don't come down this way from Mulliner's," added the careful Ballantyne. "There's an old mail tin, about a mile or so away from here, near the worked-out alluvial patch. You can always drop a letter in there for me. Haughton's such a good-natured ass that he'll play Mercury for you. Anyway, I'll send him to look in the tin every Sunday night."
That, so far, was the history of Mr. and Mrs. Ballantyne.
"Another duffing crushing," muttered Haughton, as he stooped and placed his hand into the bucket of quicksilver under the nozzle of the retort pipe. "What between a reef that doesn't pan out five pennyweights to the ton, and a woman that pans out too rich, I'm sick of the cursed place."
As he stood up again, and, hands on his hips, looked moodily into the fire, a woman came down the rough path leading from Ballantyne's house to the battery. Walking quickly across the lighted space that intervened between the blacksmith's forge and the fire, she placed a billy of tea on the brick furnace-wall, and then turned her handsome black-browed, gipsy-like face up to his. This was Nell Lawson, the woman who had "panned out too rich."
"Here's your tea, Dick," she said.
"Thanks," he said, taking it from her, and then with a quick look over towards the battery, "I wish you wouldn't call me 'Dick' when any of the hands are about; Lawson might hear of it, and I don't want you to get into any trouble over me."
The black eyes sparkled, and the smooth olive-hued features flushed darkly in the firelight as she grasped his arm.
"You lie!" and she set her teeth. "A lot you care! Do you think I'm a silly? Do you think as I don't know that you want to sling me and don't know how to go about it?" and she grasped his arm savagely.
Haughton looked at her in gloomy silence for a few seconds. Standing there, face to face, they looked so alike in features--he wiry, muscular, black-bearded, and bronzed to the hue of an Arab, and she tall, dark-haired, with oval, passionate face--they might have been taken for brother and sister.
She let his arm free, and then, being only a working miner's wife, and possessing no handkerchief, whipped her apron to her eyes.
"You're a damned cur!" she said, chokingly. "If it hadn't ha' been for you I'd ha' gone along all right wi' Bob, and put up wi' livin' in this place; an' now------"
"Look here, Nell," said Haughton, drawing her away into the shadow of the forge, "I'm a cur, as you say; but I'd be a worse cur to keep on this way. You can't marry me, can you?"
"You used to talk about our boltin'--_once_" and she snapped out the last word.
Haughton tried to explain why the "bolting" so trenchantly referred to did not eventuate. He was stone-broke. Ballantyne was going to do his own amalgamating at the battery, and it would be cruel of him to ask her to share his fortunes. (Here he began to appreciate his leaning to morality.) If she was a single girl he would stay at Mulliner's and fight it out with bad luck for her sake; but they couldn't go on like this any more. And the people at Mulliner's were beginning to talk about them, &c, &c.
She heard him in silence, and then gave a short, jarring laugh--the laugh that ought to tell a man that he is no longer believed in--by a woman who has loved him.
"I know," she said, quietly, "you want to get clear o' me. You're took up with Kate Channing, the _proper_ Miss Channing that rides over here o' Sundays to meet you on the sly."
At first he meant to undeceive her, then he thought, "What does it matter? I'll be away from here in a day or so, and after I've gone she'll find I'm not so base as she thought me, poor girl;" so, looking away from her so as to avoid the dangerous light that gleamed in her passionate eyes, he made the plunge.
"That's it, Nell. I'm hard up and desperate. If you were a free woman----"
She struck him in the mouth with her clenched hand--"I'll kill her first, Dick Haughton," and then left him.
A mile or so out from the battery, on a seldom used track that led to an abandoned alluvial workings, a stained and weather-worn biscuit-tin had been nailed to an iron-bark tree. In the prosperous days of Mulliner's it had been placed there by the diggers as a receptacle for letters, and its location there saved the mailman a long _detour_ to their camp. At present poor loving Kate Channing and Dick Haughton were the only persons who ever looked into it. After getting the station letters from the landlord of the "Booming Nugget," Kate would ride through the bush and come out on the track just opposite; then, bending down from her horse, she would peer eagerly into the tin to see if a letter had been left there for her. Generally there was not. So, with a sad, wistful look in her blue eyes, she would drop her own tenderly-worded letter in and ride away home.
Twice Nell Lawson had seen her passing over the ridge towards the old workings, and had wondered what had taken her so far off the road; and on each of these occasions she had seen Dick Haughton follow in the same direction shortly after. He was never away more than half an hour. The first time she simply wondered, the next she grew suspicious, and as she saw him returning went and stopped him. As she threw her arms around his neck she felt the rustling of a letter that lay loosely in the front of the dungaree jumper he always wore when at work. She said nothing, but determined to watch, and one day, with the bitterest hatred gathering at her heart, she saw Kate Channing ride up to the tin on the iron-bark, look carefully inside, and then drop in a letter. And as Nell Lawson could not read she let it lay there untouched. But from that hour murder lay in her passionate heart.
That evening, as she entered Bob Lawson's humpy, her husband, a big, heavy-featured man, looked up and saw the ghastly pallor of her face.
"Why, what's the matter wi' 'ee, Nell? You be lookin' quite sick-loike lately. Tell 'ee what, Nell, thee wants a cheange."
"Mulliner's be a dull pleace," she answered, mechanically.
"Aye, lass, dull as hell in a fog. Mebbe I'll take thee somewheres for a spell."
For nearly another week she nursed her hatred and planned her revenge; and Haughton, as he saw the dark rings forming under her eyes, and the cold, listless manner as she went about her work, began to experience a higher phase of feeling for her than that of the mere passion which her beauty had first awakened in him long months before.
It was five o'clock on Sunday afternoon. The fierce, blinding sun had just disappeared behind the hideous basalt range twenty miles away from the "Big Surprise," when Nell Lawson put on her white sun-hood and walked slowly towards the old alluvial workings. When well out of sight from any one, near the battery, she turned off towards the creek and made for a big Leichhardt tree that stood on the bank. Underneath it, and evidently waiting for her, was a black fellow, a truculent-looking runaway trooper named Barney.
"You got him that fellow Barney?" she asked, in a low voice.
"_Yo ai_," he replied, keeping one hand behind his back. "Where that plenty fellow money you yabber me vesterday?"
"Here," and she showed him some silver; "ten fellow shilling."
Barney grinned, took the money, and then handed her an old broken-handled crockery teapot, which, in place of a lid, was covered over with a strip of ti-tree bark, firmly secured to the bottom by a strip of dirty calico.
As soon as the black fellow had gone she picked up that which he had given her and walked quickly along the track till she reached the old mail tin. She stood awhile and listened. Not a sound disturbed the heated, oppressive silence. Placing the teapot on the ground, she lifted the stiff, creaking lid of the tin and pushed it well back. Then, taking up the teapot again, she placed one hand firmly upon the ti-tree bark covering the top, while with the other she unfastened the strip of rag that kept it in position. In another moment, grasping the broken spout in her left hand, she held it over the open tin, and, with a rapid motion, turned it upside down, and whipped away her right hand from the piece of bark.
Something fell heavily against the bottom of the tin, and in an instant she slammed down the lid, and threw the empty teapot in among the boulders, where it smashed to pieces. Then, an evil smile on her dark face, she placed her ear to the side of the tin and listened. A faint, creeping, crawling sound was all she heard. In another minute, with hand pressed tightly against her wildly beating heart, she fled homewards.
"This will be my last ride over, dear Ted," was the beginning of the letter to Ballantyne that lay in Channing's bosom. "Father is very ill, and I cannot leave him. Do let me tell him, and ask his forgiveness; it is so miserable for me to keep up this deceit."
Darkness had set in by the time she had got the mail from the landlord of the "Booming Nugget," and turned her horse's head into the track that led over the ridge to the old workings.
Two hours before daylight, Kate Channing's horse walked riderless up to the sliprails of Calypso Downs, and the stockman who had kept awake awaiting her return, went out to let his young mistress in.
"Got throwed somewhere, I suppose," he grumbled, after examining the horse. "This is a nice go. It's no use telling the old man about it, he's too sick to be worried just now, anyway."
Taking a black boy with him, and leading Kate's horse, he set out to look for her, expecting, unless she was hurt, to meet her somewhere between the station and Mulliner's Camp. Just as daylight broke, the black boy, who was leading, stopped.
"Young missus been tumble off horse here," and he pointed to where the scrubby undergrowth on one side of the track was crushed down and broken.
The stockman nodded. "Horse been shy I think it, Billy, at that old fellow post-office there?" and he pointed to the old mail tin, which was not ten feet from where Billy said she had fallen off.
"Go ahead, Billy," said the stockman, "I believe young missus no catch him horse again, and she walk along to Mulliner's."
"_Yo ai_," answered the black boy, and he started ahead. In a few minutes he stopped again with a puzzled look and pointed to Kate Channing's tracks.
"Young missus been walk about all same drunk."
"By jingo, she's got hurted, I fear," said the stockman. "Push ahead, Billy."
A hundred yards further on they found her dead, lying face downwards on the track.
Lifting her cold, stiffened body in his arms, the stockman carried his burden along to Ballantyne's house. Haughton met him at the door. Together they laid the still figure upon the sofa in the front room, and then while the stockman went for Nell Lawson, Haughton went to Ballantyne's bunk and awoke and told him. His mouth twitched nervously for a second or two, and then his hard, impassive nature asserted itself again.
"'Tis a terrible thing this, Ballantyne," said Haughton, sympathetically, as they walked out together to see the place where she had been thrown.
"Yes," assented the other, "dreadful. Did you hear what Channing's black boy told me?"
"He says that she has died from snake-bite. I believe him, too. I saw a boy die on the Etheridge from snake-bite, and he looked as she does now; besides that, there is not a scratch or bruise on her body, so she couldn't have received any hurt unless it was an internal one when she was thrown. Here's the place," and then he started back, for lying at the foot of the tree was the panting, trembling figure of Nell Lawson.
She had tried to get there before them to efface all traces of her deadly work.
"What are you doing here, Mrs. Lawson?" said Ballantyne, sharply; "we sent over for you; don't you know what has happened?"
The strange hysterical "yes" that issued from her pallid lips caused Ballantyne to turn his keen grey eyes upon her intently. Then something of the truth must have flashed across his mind, for he walked up to the tree and looked into the tin.
"Good God!" he said, "poor little woman!" and then he called to Haughton. "Come here, and see what killed her!"
Haughton looked, and a deadly horror chilled his blood: lying in the bottom of the tin was a thick, brownish-red death adder. It raised its hideous, flatted head for a moment, then lowered it, and lay there regarding them with its deadly eye.
"How did it get there?" he asked.
Ballantyne pointed to Nell Lawson, who now stood and leant against a tree for support.
Haughton sprang to her side and seized her hands.
"Are you a murderess, Nell? What had she done to you that you should take her innocent life? She was nothing to me--she was Ballantyne's wife."
She looked at him steadily, and her lips moved, then a shrill, horrible laugh burst forth, and she fell unconscious at his feet.
That day Haughton left Mulliner's Camp for ever.
Perhaps this story should have another ending, and Nell Lawson have met with a just retribution. But, as is the case of many other women--and men--with natures such as hers, she did not. For when old Channing lay dying she nursed him tenderly to the last, and perhaps because of this, or for that he could never understand why blue-eyed Kate had never come back, he left her all he had, much to the wondering admiration of honest, dull-witted Bob, her husband, who almost immediately after the old man's death, when returning home one night from the "Booming Nugget," filled with a great peace of mind and a considerable quantity of bad rum, fell down a shaft and broke his neck, after the manner of one of old Channing's bullocks--and then she married Ballantyne.
Everything seems to come to him who waits--especially if he is systematic in his villainy, and has a confiding wife--as had Ballantyne in his first matrimonial venture.
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