THE morning of the despatch of a conductá from El Real de Dolóres was always a busy one. The packing of the mules with the small but heavy boxes filled with bars of silver, made scene of huge noise and bustle under the manipulation of the native muleteros. The operation was performed under the personal supervision of Maynard, who had gone down early to the hacienda accompanied by Noel and Margaret, it being one of her days for her visits of benevolence to the families of the miners whose dwellings clustered around the works.
It was a curious and a stirring scene, and gave Noel a better idea than he before had of the resources and expenditure of the mine, and of the condition of the country. The sight of the numerous escort armed and accoutred for the journey, combined with the reminiscences of the last thirty-six hours, enabled him vividly to realise the fact that the post which Maynard held was actually in an enemy’s country, so for as it was necessary for every one to protect himself, and he learnt to admire the courage and judgment manifested in the conduct of the enterprise.
It had been arranged that the train should start about noon, and that Noel should follow it some hours later and join it in the evening at its first camping place. So, after it had set off with vast shouting of the mule-drivers, jingling of mule bells, and discharging of fire-arms on part of the escort, Noel returned home with his friends to have some dinner and prepare to take his leave. Maynard remarked as they ascended the hill that the sky had a threatening look, and that the convoy would probably get a soaking the first night, but neither Margaret nor Noel heeded him or the sky, for they had been
exchanging glances of affection, and the thought of their coming separation weighed heavily on them both. Yet they had agreed that it was best to be parted for a while, in order that they might contemplate the position in which they were placed, at a distance from the spell of each other’s presence.
The meal was a gloomy one for them both, despite the incessant talking of Maynard, who seemed to be doing his best to speed the parting guest, but who really was attached to Noel, and felt his departure much. He even expressed his wonder at Noel’s going at all, and said it could only be accounted for by the supposition that Margaret had quarrelled with him and made the place unpleasant.
Meanwhile the threatening cloud had gathered thickly over the mountain. At length it was announced that Noel’s mule was ready. James went out into the verandah and, looking at the sky, said that one might fancy by the darkness that it was nightfall. And so it was to Noel and Margaret, for it was the first separation that had ever caused them grief, and their very heartstrings seemed tom asunder by it.
Words were impossible to them. A silent clasp of the hands was all that they permitted themselves. The two men descended the steps together, but before Noel was fairly in his saddle, Maynard, as if struck by a sudden thought, flew back up to the spot where Margaret was standing. Noel turned his head towards her, and by the intense flash which at that instant darted from the overhanging cloud, beheld Maynard seize her wrist as in a vice, pull her violently round, and peer eagerly into her face which she turned upon him with a white and stony glare as of indignation and defiance, while from James came the words, rather hissed than spoken, –
‘You never cry when I go away!’
At that instant the thunder pealed forth a sudden and deafening crash that caused Noel involuntarily to strike his spurs into his mule. The animal, a powerful and spirited beast, sprang forward, and presently they were buried in the heart of the forest. Maddened by the sight which he had beheld, and which seemed as if burnt by the lightning into his brain, Noel heeded not his path, or the flashes that darted around him, or the big drops that beat upon him, and drenched him through and through his serápe to the skin; – heeded not the night, or the strangeness of the country through which he was being borne, or the exclamations of those whom he at last encountered;
– knew nothing, in fact, of the hours that he passed, wet and chilled and fevered, – until days afterwards, when he found himself in his own room in Maynard’s house, awaking with a gentle sigh as from a deep sleep, and Margaret, his beloved Margaret, sitting by his bedside with wan and tearful face, holding his hand in hers, and watching him with the anxiety of a mother for her first born.