The stockmen told each other they would miss him, all the same. They would miss that wonderful whistling of his from the camp fires; and they were appalled at what he had done to himself. "The last man," Charley Este said, "the last man you'd ever 've thought would 've come to that!"
Most of them believed they had misjudged Arthur Henty--that, after, all, he had had courage of a sort. A man must have courage to blow out his light, they said. And they were sorry. Every man in the crowd was heavy with sorrow.
Ridge people gossiped pitifully, sentimentally, to each other as they drove home. Most of the women believed in the strength and fidelity of the old love between Sophie and Arthur Henty. But straight-dealing and honest themselves, they had no conception of the tricks complex personalities play each other; they did not understand how two people who had really cared for each other could have gone so astray from the natural impulse of their lives.
They recalled the dance at Warria, and how they had teased Sophie when they thought she was going to marry Arthur Henty, and how happy and pleased she had looked about it. How different both their lives would have been if Sophie and Arthur had been true to that instinct of the mate for the mate, they reflected; and sighed at the futility of the thought. They realised in Arthur Henty's drinking and rough ways of late, all his unhappiness. They imagined that they knew why he had become the uncouth-looking man he had. They remembered him a slight, shy youth, with sun-bright, freckled eyes; then a man, lithe, graceful, and good to look at, with his face a clear, fine bronze, his hair taking a glint of copper in the sun. When he danced with them at the Ridge balls, that occasionally flashing, delightful way of his had made them realise why Sophie was in love with him. They remembered how he had looked at Sophie; how his eyes had followed her. They had heard of the Warria dance, and knew Arthur Henty had not behaved well to Sophie at it. They had been angry at the time. Then Sophie had gone away ... and a little later he had married.
His marriage had not been a success. Mrs. Arthur Henty had spent most of her time in Sydney; she was rarely seen on the Ridge now. So women of the Ridge, who had known Arthur Henty, went over all they knew of him until that night at the race ball when he and Sophie had met again. And then his end in the tank paddock brought them back to exclamations of dismay and grief at the mystery of it all.
As she left the cemetery, Sophie began to sing, listlessly, dreamily at first. No one had heard her sing since her return to the Ridge. But her voice flew out over the plains, through the wide, clear air now, with the pure melody it had when she was a girl:
"Caro nome che il mio cor festi primo palpitar, Le delizie dell' amor mi dei sempre rammentar!
Col pensier il mio desir a te sempre volera, E fin l'ultimo sospir, caro nome, tuo sara!"
Ella Bryant, driving home beside Bully, knew Sophie was singing as she had sung to Arthur Henty years before, when they were coming home from the tank paddock together. She wondered why Sophie was riding the horse Arthur had brought for her; why she had ridden him to the funeral; and why she was singing that song.
Sophie sang on:
"Col pensier il mio desir a te sempre volera, E fin l'ultimo sospir, caro nome, tuo sara!"
Looking back, people saw Potch walking beside her as Joseph walked beside Mary when they went down to Nazareth.
"It's hard on Potch," somebody said.
"Yes," it was agreed; "it's hard on Potch."
The buggies, carts, sulkies, and horsemen moving in opposite directions on the long, curving road over the plains grew dim in the distance.
The notes of Sophie's singing, with its undying tenderness triumphing over life and death, flowed fainter and fainter.
When she and Potch came to the town again, the light was fading. Through the green, limpid veil of the sky, stars were glittering; huts of the township were darkening under the gathering shadow of night. A breath of sandal-wood burning on kitchen hearths came to Sophie and Potch like a greeting. The notes of a goat-bell clanking dully sounded from beyond the dumps. There were lights in a few of the huts; a warm, friendly murmur of voices went up from them. For weeks troubled and disturbed thinking, arguments, and conflicting ideas, had created a depressed and unrestful atmosphere in every home in Fallen Star. But to-night it was different. The temptations, allurements and debris of Armitage's scheme had been swept from the minds--even of those who had been ready to accept it. Hope and pride in the purpose of the Ridge had been restored by Michael's vindication and by reaffirmation of the principle he and all staunch men of the Ridge stood for as the mainstay of their life in common. Thought of Arthur Henty's death, which had oppressed people during the day, seemed to have been put aside now that they had seen him laid to rest, and had returned to their homes again.
Voices were heard exclaiming with the light cadence and rhythm of joy.
The crisis which had come near to shattering the Ridge scheme of things, and all that it stood for, had ended by drawing dissenting factions of the community into closer sympathy and more intimate relationship. In everybody's mind were the hope and enthusiasm of a new endeavour. As they went through the town again, neither Sophie nor Potch were conscious of them for the sorrow which had soaked into their lives. But these things were in the air they breathed, and sooner or later would claim them from all personal suffering; faith and loving service fill all their future--the long twilight of their days.