Meanwhile, at “Cootamundra,” Dundas awaited impatiently the return of Earani. In implicit obedience to her wishes he had returned to the homestead. The afternoon wore on, and for some unaccountable reason a feeling of foreboding took possession of him. When he had come to the surface the sun was shining brightly and warmly, but shortly afterwards the southern sky gave signs of one of the sudden spring storms that were characteristic of the district. The light wind died away, and the creeping line of cloud rose higher, dulling the brightness, and over all fell the threatening stillness that heralded the outbreak.
Dundas paced to and fro in the drive, watching the sky with anxious eyes, and trying to battle with his nervous anxiety for Earani, and to shake off the feeling of depression that had fallen on him.
Then suddenly, as his eyes turned across the vineyard, he saw something that brought him to a halt with an exclamation of surprise and dismay. Unseen till that moment, a dogcart had turned from the main road into the lane approaching “Cootamundra,” and it did not need more than one glance to tell him that the coming visitor was no other than Marian Seymour.
He stood his ground, watching the progress of the dogcart with increasing perplexity. The gate was too far away for him to open it for her. She would reach it long before he could. So he waited, racking his brain for some reasonable explanation of her visit.
As the dogcart drew nearer, and he could hear the beat of the pony’s hoofs on the drive, he walked back to the verandah, and stood bareheaded. Marian swung the dogcart smartly round the curve, and came to a clattering halt before him. Without a word of greeting, she sprang down from her seat, not waiting for his assistance. Dundas stood in embarrassed silence as she faced him, still holding the reins in her hand.
“Alan,” she said quietly, “will you tie my pony up for me? There will be no need to take him out of the shafts. I will wait here for you.” Her calm self-possession gave him time to regain his own. He took the reins from her outstretched hand. “You were wise to run for shelter, Marian,” he said in as matter-of-fact voice as he could summon, and, turning as he led the horse away, he continued, “This storm will be something out of the ordinary.” It took him very few minutes to complete his task, and, after covering the cushions to protect them against the coming downpour, he returned to the verandah.
Marian was standing where he had left her. A feeling misgiving came to Dundas as he looked at her strained and anxious eyes. He was about to make some commonplace inquiry, when she interrupted quickly, “Alan, I did not come here to pretend. There can be no pretence between us. You know that it is not the storm that has driven me here.”
“Whatever the cause, Marian, you are welcome,” he answered in level tones. “But you had better come into the house,” and he held the door wide for her as she passed inside. “It is not exactly conventional, I suppose,” he said, as he brought forward a chair for her, “but ——”
She cut his words short with an abrupt gesture. “Convention!” she gave a little laugh. “How little convention weighs when the real things are in the scale. No, Alan we won’t talk of convention.”
Dundas looked at her with lifted brows. It was a new and unknown Marian who stood there, proudly erect, ignoring the proffered chair, and whose pleading eyes gave the lie to her haughty bearing. “As you please, Marian,” he replied, smiling, “I knew when I saw you coming (you want me to be honest?) that you were not coming for shelter, but —” here he paused and shook his head, “but why you came is beyond me.”
She glanced through the window into the gathering shadows, then turned abruptly. “Yes, Alan, I think you would be hardly likely to guess why I am here. I have come to ask you a question.” She paused.
“Well?” he prompted.
She looked straight with unfaltering eyes into his. “Alan, you cannot have forgotten that night you drove me home from the bank. Tell me, did what passed between us on that drive mean anything to you then? Tell me, were you in earnest?”
Dundas flushed. The directness of the attack staggered him for a moment, and she saw it, and interrupted his halting words quickly. “Don’t misunderstand me, Alan, this is not recrimination. My purpose is too strong to allow any trifle of convention to come before it. I only want to know if you were in earnest then. Don’t count what has happened since.”
He looked into the true brown eyes and read the devotion shining from them. For a moment he bent his head, and then spoke calmly. “Since you ask it, Marian, I answer, Yes. At the time I meant it all, and more.”
The girl sighed deeply and then spoke again. “And if the other had not come, Alan, you would have asked me to be your wife?” She smiled bravely as she spoke, but the smile could not hide the pain that showed behind it.
Dundas could not find the word to answer, but bent his head in silence, and so they stood for a long moment. It was the man who spoke first. “I cannot ask you to forgive me, Marian. There are some things that are beyond forgiveness. I do not know how great the wrong may be, but, Marian, you have seen her” — his voice faltered — “and at least you can understand. If there can be any palliation for the wrong I have done it is in that I had not found her until afterwards — and then — I forgot all.” His voice died away in a whisper, and he stood with his head still bowed before her, and could not see the all-embracing love that shone from her troubled, worshipping eyes.
“Ah, Alan, no need to ask for forgiveness; that has been yours for many days unasked. I have not come to blame, for I understand so well — oh! so well. But tell me, Alan, do you think the girl you would have asked to share your life would wrong you now?”
He looked up quickly. “You wrong me, Marian?! You surely do not need an answer to that question.”
“And yet, Alan, I am going to test your confidence in me to the utmost,” she went on steadily. “I am going to risk your anger, and perhaps before I have finished you will despise me.”
He smiled and shook his head. “You could not make me do that, Marian. Whatever you have to say to me, I know you come as a friend.”
There was another silence, and then the girl spoke again. “Alan, I have come to beg you, to implore you, to give her up before it is too late.”
“Let me finish first,” she broke in quietly. “Don’t misunderstand me. No matter what happens, you and I could never be anything to one another now. There is no thought of self in this for me. It is for your own sake, Alan, that I appeal to you now. For your happiness and your whole future, for everything you hold dear, I beg you to guard yourself. I do not know who she is, but in my soul I know she will bring your nothing but sorrow. That terrible beauty of hers holds you in its grip, Alan, but a woman can see more clearly. She will lead always, and always you will follow, and the road she will take you will lead to despair.”
Dundas listened with a faint smile on his lips. “Ah, Marian! It is not like you to condemn without a hearing. If you only knew her really as she is, you would know how great a wrong you do her.”
“Alan, I do not wrong her. I know she would not harm you purposely. But tell me, why is it that I feared her instinctively from the moment I saw her? Why is it that Dick Barry fears her, not only on your account, but on account of other things which he dared not tell me?”
Dundas answered coldly, “I do not know what Barry has told you, Marian. He is no longer my friend. But this I do know, if he has said a word against Earani he is worse even than I thought him, for until to-day, when he attempted to betray us, she has been nothing but his friend.”
“Friend,” she said bitterly, “and yet he feared for his life from this friend. This friend that comes and goes unseen. This friend that holds some powers that the mind shrinks from. This friend that would not hesitate to kill to gain her ends. I could have had that friendship. It was freely offered, but I tell you I would rather die than take her hand, Alan,” she went on passionately. “I tell you she is evil, evil. I have loved you. I love you now; but I would rather see you dead than bound to her. What do you know of her? Is she a creature of this world, or is she something nameless, something to dread instead of to love?”
Dundas listened in silence until she paused. Then he spoke gently. “Marian, you wrong yourself greatly, but you wrong Earani more. That you are sincere in what you say I do not doubt, but you are wrong, so wrong, that what you say would be almost laughable, if it were not so pitiful. Even were she all you say, my answer would be the same, but I know her as no one else ever can or will. She is the noblest and the most splendid woman the world has ever known, and, Marian, if by any chance we were parted, then my life would end.”
At that moment a clear, full voice broke in, “A proper answer, Alan.” Both Marian and Dundas, lost to all else but the question at issue, swung round at the words. The shadows had deepened while they talked, so that the room was almost in twilight. On the threshold stood Earani. She had tossed back the hood of her mantle, and the silky strands of her hair fell about her face in wind-blown disorder. She was flushed and radiant with exercise, and her breath came quickly, and the big grey eyes were bright with excitement. Never before had Dundas seen her look so regally beautiful.
Forgetting everything else but the joy of seeing her safe, Dundas exclaimed, “Earani! Thank God, you are back and safe. I feared ——”
“There was nothing to fear, Alan. In truth I came on the wings of the wind and raced the storm back. I think my woman’s instinct urged me on,” and she turned her eyes meaningly on Marian, who stood silent and motionless watching her.
Dundas glanced from one to the other. Into Earani’s eyes had come a look of cold inquiry, while from those of Marian flashed an expression he could not fathom. Both seemed about to speak, and he hurried to interpose. “Marian came as a friend, Earani, but she does not understand.”
Earani smiled and turned to him. “Ah, Alan, am I unfortunate in that I antagonise your friends, or are you unfortunate in your friends? First it is Dick, and now it is this girl who tries to come between us, but,” she went on, coming towards him, “but your faith in me remains unshaken. I am very rich in my one friend, Alan.” He took the outstretched hand in both of his, and together they turned toward Marian, who had neither moved nor spoken.
“Marian,” said Dundas quietly, “this is the only answer I can give you. I had hoped that you would have been friends. It is not too late even now.”
For the first time the girl spoke, facing them erect, with her clenched hands stiffly at her sides. “Friends!” and there was a terrible bitterness in the word. “As you say, Alan, it is not too late even now. It is not too late to save your future, and your peace of mind. Alan, I am right. You are at the parting of the ways. For the sake of all you hold sacred close your eyes to her beauty, and draw yourself away,” and she held out imploring hands.
But the calm voice of Earani broke in, “And for you, Marian, it is not too late. What you wish is hopeless, hopeless, and your fears for him are folly. The gift of peace and forgetfulness I offered is still yours, if you will have it; but nothing can part us now. In the eyes of your God, we are bound.”
At that moment the first deep growl of thunder rolled round unnoticed by them all. Marian’s answer came swiftly. “From you I will take nothing. Not even my life, if it were yours to grant it. Alan, for the last time.”
He shook his head, and turned away. “Oh, Marian, why will you be so blind? My life and all are here.” For a fleeting second the room was lit by a vivid flash from outside, and a nearer crash of thunder rolled over them. Earani threw one white splendid arm across his shoulder, and the two stood looking into one another’s eyes, forgetful for the moment of the girl. Again the light flashed up. Marian had turned away, and as she did so saw the blue light gleam on the thin, keen blades of the Indian knives on the wall beside her. With the crash that followed the light, the blind hate she felt for Earani reached its flood. Her hand snatched a light knife from its place, and as she turned Alan’s arm encircled Earani’s waist. They had forgotten her very existence. Then the strain snapped. She took one swift step towards them, and with all the force of her strong, young arm, struck — once, and the red knife dropped from her hand.
Earani made no sound. Her stately head dropped on Alan’s shoulder for an instant, and then her body, relaxed in death, slipped through his arms. But as it fell, with a cry of fear, he knelt, and caught her to him. After that one cry, he, too, was silent. Swiftly as had come the blow, came to him realisation. He drew his hand from beneath her, and stared wide-eyed at the blood that reddened it. Then he looked up with agonised questioning eyes at the girl, who stood looking down on him. Then his glance fell to the knife that lay at her feet, and after that he saw her no more.
As the slow moments passed he knelt, gazing down into the white face of his dead, and while he knelt the storm broke in a lashing fury of rain. Neither of the living heard it. Mute and motionless they gazed until suddenly Dundas roused himself. Without looking up he passed his arms round the still body of Earani. Then with a mighty heave of his shoulders he brought himself to his feet, still holding her in his arms. Passing Marian with unseeing eyes, he crossed the room, and bearing his still-warm burden out into the storm he strode towards the shed. Horror-stricken, Marian watched him go; then she suddenly followed him into the storm, calling his name. He reached the shed and entered it, and she followed in all haste, to find the door barred against her.
As one in a dream, Dundas stood in the lift and sank into the depths of the sphere. With a strength born of a terrible resolution he made his way down the steps from the first landing to the vestibule. No sound of the fury of the storm reached him. He crossed the gleaming pavement, passed the groups of figures, and made his way to the “temple,” and came to a halt beside the throne-like couch, and bending, laid the body gently on it. Reverently and tenderly he composed her for her rest. He loosened the arm-thick silken tresses over her shoulders, and folded the white hands across the still, round breast. Then he stood erect and looked down on her long and earnestly, and there was a faint smile on his lips that answered the soft, mysterious shadows about the corners of her mouth.
Then he knelt beside her, and kissed the white forehead, and spoke softly and tenderly. “Wait for me, my beloved. Wait for me, I am coming to you now.” His hands felt for the spring beside the couch. The tiny panel fell open, and with steady, unfaltering touch, still keeping his eyes on the hallowed face before him, he pressed the button in the cavity — and found peace.
* * * * *
Above, in the driving welter of the storm, the frantic girl beat with her hands on the locked door of the shed. The voice that called aloud one name in her agony was swept away by the storm. At last, in despair, she turned away to the homestead. The lashing rain had drenched her through and through, and her dripping garments clung to her body.
She reached the verandah, and turned to look back. As she did so a dull roar broke on her ears, a roar that swelled into a terrific volume of sound that blotted out the fury of the storm. Then for an instant the shed showed up an incandescent mass, and collapsed in twisting, writhing sheets of white-hot iron, and where it had stood shot up for a second a mighty pillar of blue-white flame, that while it lasted turned the falling night into midday brightness, and the solid earth rocked and swayed like storm-tossed water. In ten seconds from the time the first sound was heard it was all over, and the darkness and the storm swept on again, and a thick mist of steam rose from the cracked and blistered earth.
* * * * *
It was a weary and dispirited man who stepped from the night mail to the Ronga platform on the following morning. Barry had passed the night in sleepless vigil. He had failed in his purpose, and failed hopelessly, and the future was dark before his eyes. The night of storm had given way to a glorious spring morning, when he started in his car back to Glen Cairn. It was still early when he reached his home. At his door he was met by Kitty, with deep trouble in her eyes. “Oh, Dick, I’m afraid something dreadful has happened. Marian Seymour is missing. She left home yesterday afternoon, and did not come back. Her mother has been here, simply distracted. Can you help?”
“Where’s Seymour?” asked Dick, with sinking heart.
“He went to Sydney a week ago,” answered Kitty.
Barry thought a moment. “Then I must get Bryce.”
“Oh, Dick, do you know anything?” asked Kitty, in deep distress.
“I’m afraid I do, Kitty, and hope with all my heart I’m wrong,” and he turned back to his car. “I may be a good while, Kit, but don’t worry,” he said, as the car moved off.
He roused Bryce from his after-breakfast cigar, and with a few words of explanation hurried Hector to his car. Barry had no doubt but that Marian had gone to “Cootamundra,” in spite of his warnings, and as they raced along at top speed he outlined in terse, swift sentences to the bewildered Bryce the history of Earani as he knew it. “And,” he concluded, “Marian has gone out there, and God alone knows what has happened.”
“It was a night in which anything could happen,” said Bryce. “The worst storm we’ve had for years, and just about nightfall there was a heavy shock of earthquake. The whole town rattled as if it were coming to pieces. This is a deuce of a business, Dick. Shouldn’t we have brought weapons of some kind?”
Barry laughed shortly. “You don’t realise even remotely what we are up against, Hec. Weapons are no use against her. I pray with all my heart that poor child is safe — but —” and he said no more until they came in sight of the homestead. Then all he said was, “The shed’s gone. Something’s happened.”
The gate to the vineyard stood open, and they ran through with unchecked speed. As the car halted before the verandah the two men sat for a moment staring at one another in silence. From the open door of the homestead came the sound of a voice. A woman’s voice that chattered, and broke off into merry laughter. Bryce whispered one word: “Marian,” and the two leaped out and strode across the verandah and through the door.
She was seated on the couch under the window, and took no notice of their coming. “The red flower sprang from the ground at each step he took. I saw them. Bright red flowers, but they faded so soon. But they will come again,” and she stopped and laughed quietly.
Barry stepped quickly up to her, “Marian, Marian.”
She looked up. “You are too late; he has gone. But the flowers — the flowers —” she paused and seemed to think. “I will not tell anyone where he has gone,” and she laughed merrily and turned away.
Barry slipped out to the car, and returned with a small leather case in his hand. Bryce stood by in helpless silence, and while Barry busied himself over his instruments, the girl babbled without ceasing. Presently Dick stepped over to her side, and took her hand. She surrendered passively, and watched him with incurious eyes, giving no sign of feeling as he pressed the needle to her wrist.
“Bring the rug from the car, Hec,” commanded Barry; and he wrapped her closely in it. Presently the restless muttering ceased, and Barry laid the silent unconscious form back on the couch.
“She’ll do for a while,” was his comment, “and now we must find out what has happened.”
“What about Marian?” asked Bryce.
Barry’s face darkened. “Complete collapse, nervous and mental.”
“Will she recover?”
“Can’t tell yet, Hec; too soon; but I hope for her own sake she never will.”
They turned to the door, and Bryce stooped. “Look,” was all he said, as he handed a stained and evil-looking blade to Barry.
“The red flowers,” answered Barry grimly, looking from the knife to the sinister stain on the floor. “Hec, I fancy the world owes Marian a debt it can never repay.”
They walked from the verandah to the spot where the shed had stood. Now there was nothing but a shallow, fire-blackened hole, without a vestige of iron or timber left, and where they stood they could feel the fierce heat from the ground through their thick-soled boots. Bryce looked at Barry with questioning eyes. “Your earthquake, I fancy, Hec,” he answered. “I don’t know what has happened, but everything has gone, and I thank God that it has.”
Later they stood together by the river bank, and saw beneath them a smashed dogcart, with a dead pony beneath it. For a while they looked in silence. Then spoke Bryce: “Dick, can’t you see what has happened? Alan was in the dogcart. The storm frightened the pony. It bolted, and went over the bank. Alan was thrown into the river. Marian saw it all, and ——” He paused, and looked inquiringly at Dick. “How will it fit, do you think?”
Barry pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Yes,” he answered slowly. “I think we can make it fit, but first there is work to do at the homestead.”
The work was done thoroughly. It took nearly an hour to satisfy Barry that no trace of a dark stain was left on the boards of the floor, and no sign of use was left on a certain knife when he had restored it to its place on the wall. “You see, Hec, it’s neglect of trifling precautions that brings trouble in arrangements like this. I’ve had to dust every one of those knives, so that the one should not look different from the rest, and I don’t think I have left any finger-prints either.”
At last it was finished, and the two lifted the sleeping girl tenderly to the waiting car. Then Barry closed the door of the homestead, and slipped the key into his pocket.
Scarcely a word passed between them as the car raced back to Glen Cairn. It was Bryce who said: “Dick, it’s mighty queer to think of that other waiting for someone to find him.”
Dick answered shortly: “Thank God, he will wait an eternity now.”
Erle Cox, Out of the Silence, Melbourne: Robertson and Mullens, 1947 (first published 1925), pages 402-416
[Editor: Changed “You wrong me, Marian!” to “You wrong me, Marian?!”; “took the oustretched hand” to “took the outstretched hand”; “thronelike” to “throne-like”; “blue white flame” to “blue-white flame”.]