She took it from him and pinned it in her dress without words. Then, shyly, she proffered her hand. “Thank you. Good-bye!”
He drew a short hard breath as he took it into his own. For a second or two he stood so, absolutely motionless, his great hand grasping hers. Then, very suddenly, he stooped to her, looking into her eyes.
“Good-bye, little new chum!” he said, softly. “It was—decent of you to treat me—without prejudice.”
The words pierced her. A great tremor went through her. For an instant the pain was almost intolerable.
“Oh, spare me that!” she said, quickly and passionately, and drew her hand away.
The next moment she was running blindly through the passage, scarcely knowing which way she went, intent only upon escape.
A man at the foot of the stairs stood aside for her, and she fled past him without a glance. He turned and watched her with keen, alert eyes till she was out of sight. Then, without haste, he took his way in the direction whence she had come.
But he did not go beyond the threshold of the little dusty conservatory, for something he saw within made him draw swiftly back.
When Fletcher Hill went to the court that day, he was grimmer, colder, more unapproachable even than was his wont. He had to deal with one or two minor cases from the gold mine, and the treatment he meted out was of as severe an order as circumstances would permit.
The Fortescue Gold Mine was five miles away from Trelevan, in the heart of wild, barren country, through which the sound of its great crushing machines whirred perpetually like the droning of an immense beehive.
The place was strewn with scattered huts belonging to such of the workers as did not live at Trelevan, and a yellow stream ran foaming through the valley, crossed here and there by primitive wooden bridges.
The desolation of the whole scene, save for that running stream, produced the effect of a world burnt out. The hills of shale might have been vast heaps of ashes. It was a waste place of terrible unfruitfulness. And yet, not very far below the surface, the precious metal lay buried in the rock—the secret of the centuries which man at last had wrenched from its hiding-place.
The story went that Fortescue, the owner of the mine, had made his discovery by a mere accident in this place known as the Barren Valley, and had kept it to himself for years thereafter because he lacked the means to exploit it. But later he had returned with the necessary capital at his back, had staked his claim, and turned the place of desolation into an abode of roaring activity. The men he employed were for the most part drawn from the dregs—sheep-stealers, cattle-thieves, smugglers, many of them ex-convicts—a fierce, unruly lot, hating all law and order, yet submitting for the sake of that same precious yellow dust that they ground from the foundation stones of the world.