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Lady Bridget in the Never-Never Land (1915)
by
Rosa Praed (1851-1935)



CONTENTS


BOOK I   FROM THE POINT OF VIEW OF MRS GILDEA
BOOK II  FROM THE POINT OF VIEW OF LADY BRIDGET O'HARA
BOOK III FROM THE POINT OF VIEW OF COLIN MCKEITH AND OTHERS





BOOK I

FROM THE POINT OF VIEW OF MRS GILDEA




CHAPTER 1



Mrs Gildea had settled early to her morning's work in what she called
the veranda-study of her cottage in Leichardt's Town. It was a
primitive cottage of the old style, standing in a garden and built on
the cliff--the Emu Point side--overlooking the broad Leichardt River.
The veranda, quite twelve feet wide, ran--Australian fashion--along
the front of the cottage, except for the two closed-in ends forming,
one a bathroom and the other a kind of store closet. Being raised a few
feet above the ground, the veranda was enclosed by a wooden railing,
and this and the supporting posts were twined with creepers that must
have been planted at least thirty years. One of these, a stephanotis,
showed masses of white bloom, which Joan Gildea casually reflected
would have fetched a pretty sum in Covent Garden, and, joining in with
a fine-growing asparagus fern, formed an arch over the entrance steps.
The end of the veranda, where Mrs Gildea had established herself with
her type-writer and paraphernalia of literary work, was screened by a
thick-stemmed grape-vine, which made a dapple of shadow and sunshine
upon the boarded floor. Some bunches of late grapes--it was the very
beginning of March--hung upon the vine, and, at the other end of the
veranda, grew a passion creeper, its great purple fruit looking like
huge plums amidst its vivid green leaves.

The roof of the veranda was low, with projecting eaves, below which a
bunch of yellowing bananas hung to ripen. In fact, the veranda and
garden beyond would have been paradise to a fruitarian. Against the
wall of the store-room, stood a large tin dish piled with melons,
pine-apples and miscellaneous garden produce, while, between the
veranda posts, could be seen a guava-tree, an elderly fig and a loquat
all in full bearing. The garden seemed a tangle of all manner of
vegetation--an oleander in bloom, a poinsettia, a yucca, lifting its
spike of waxen white blossoms, a narrow flower-border in which the
gardenias had become tall shrubs and the scented verbena shrubs almost
trees. As for the blend of perfume, it was dreamily intoxicating. Two
bamboos, guarding the side entrance gate, made a soft whispering that
heightened the dream-sense. The bottom of the garden looked an inchoate
mass of greenery topped by the upper boughs of tall straggling gum
trees, growing outside where the ground fell gradually to the river.

From where Mrs Gildea sat, she had a view of almost the whole reach of
the river where it circles Emu Point. For, as is known to all who know
Leichardt's Town, the river winds in two great loops girdling two low
points, so that, in striking a bee-line across the whole town, business
and residential, one must cross the river three times. Mrs Gildea could
see the plan of the main street in the Middle Point and the roofs of
shops and offices. The busy wharves of the Leichardt's Land Steam
Navigation Company--familiarly, the L.L.S.N. Co.--lay opposite on her
right, while leftward, across the water, she could trace, as far as the
grape-vine would allow, the boundary of the Botanical Gardens and get a
sight of the white stone and grey slate end of the big Parliamentary
Buildings.

The heat-haze over the town and the brilliant sun-sparkles on the river
suggested a cruel glare outside the shady veranda and over-grown old
garden.

A pleasant study, if a bit distracting from its plenitude of
associations to Australian-born Joan Gildea, who, on her marriage, had
been transplanted into English soil, as care-free as a rose cut from
the parent stem, and who now, after nearly twenty years, had returned
to the scene of her youth--a widow, a working journalist and shorn of
most of her early illusions.

Her typewriter stood on a bamboo table before her. A pile of Australian
Hansards for reference sat on a chair at convenient distance. A large
table with a green cloth, at her elbow, had at one end a tray with the
remains of her breakfast of tea, scones and fruit. The end nearest her
was littered with sheaves of manuscript, newspaper-cuttings,
photographs and sepia sketches--obviously for purposes of
illustration: gum-bottle, stylographs and the rest, with, also, several
note-books held open by bananas, recently plucked from the ripening
bunch, to serve as paper-weights.

She had meant to be very busy that morning. There was her weekly letter
for THE IMPERIALIST to send off by to-morrow's mail, and, moreover, she
had to digest the reasons of the eminent journal for returning to her
an article that had not met with the editor's approval--the great
Gibbs: a potent newspaper-factor in the British policy of the day.

It had been an immense honour when Mr Gibbs had chosen Joan Gildea from
amongst his staff for a roving commission to report upon the political,
financial, economic and social aspects of Australia, and upon Imperial
interests generally, as represented in various sideshows on her route.

But it happened that she was now suffering from a change at the last
moment in that route--a substitution of the commplace P. & O. for the
more exciting Canadian Pacific, Mr Gibbs having suddenly decided that
Imperialism in Australia demanded his special correspondent's immediate
attention.

For this story dates back to the time when Mr Joseph Chamberlain was in
office; when Imperialism, Free Trade and Yellow Labour were the catch
words of a party, and before the great Australian Commonwealth had
become an historical fact.

THE IMPERIALIST's Special Correspondent looked worried. She was
wondering whether the English mail expected to-day would bring her
troublesome editorial instructions. She examined some of the
photographs and drawings with a dissatisfied air. A running
inarticulate commentary might have been put into words like this:

'No good . . . I can manage the letterpress all right once I get the
hang of things. But when it comes to illustrations, I can't make even a
gum-tree look as if it was growing . . . . And Gibbs hates having
amateur snapshots to work up . . . . Hopeless to try for a local
artist. . . . I wonder if Colin McKeith could give me an idea. . . . . Why
to goodness didn't Biddy join me! . . . . If she'd only had the decency to
let me know in time WHY she couldn't. . . . Money, I suppose--or a
Man! . . . . Well, I'll write and tell her never to expect a literary
leg-up from me again . . .'

Mrs Gildea pulled the sheet she had been typing out of the machine,
inserted another, altered the notch to single spacing and rattled off
at top speed till the page was covered. The she appended her signature
and wrote this address:

To the Lady Bridget O'Hara,

Care of Eliza Countess of Gaverick,

Upper Brook Street, London, W.

on an envelope, into which she slipped her letter--a letter never to
be sent.

A snap of the gate between the bamboos added a metallic note to the
tree's reedy whimperings, and the postman tramped along the short
garden path and up the veranda steps.

'Morning, Mrs Gildea . . . a heavy mail for you!'

He planked down the usual editorial packet--two or three rolls of
proofs, a collection of newspapers, a bulky parcel of private
correspondence sent on by the porter of Mrs Gildea's London flat, some
local letters and, finally, two square envelopes, with the remark, as
he turned away on his round. 'My word! Mrs Gildea, those letters seem
to have done a bit of globe-trotting on their own, don't they!'

For the envelopes were covered with directions, some in Japanese and
Chinese hieroglyphics, some in official red ink from various
postoffices, a few with the distinctive markings of British Legations
and Government Houses where the Special Correspondent should have
stayed, but did not--Only her own name showing through the
obliterations, and a final re-addressing by the Bank of Leichardt's
Land.

Mrs Gildea recognised the impulsive, untidy but characteristic
handwriting of Lady Bridget O'Hara.

'From Biddy at last!' she exclaimed, tore the flap of number one
letter, paused and laid it aside. 'Business first.'

So she went carefully through the editorial communication. Mr Gibbs was
not quite so tiresome as she had feared he would be. After him, the
packet from her London flat was inspected and its contents laid aside
for future perusal. Next, she tackled the local letters. One was
embossed with the Bank of Leichardt's Land stamp and contained a
cablegram originally despatched from Rome, which had been received at
Vancouver and, thence, had pursued her--first along the route
originally designed, afterwards, with zigzagging, retrogression and
much delay, along the one she had taken. That it had reached her at
all, said a good deal for Mrs Gildea's fame as a freely paragraphed
newspaper correspondent.

The telegram was phrased thus:

SORRY IMPOSSIBLE NO FUNDS OTHER REASONS WRITING BIDDY

Mrs Gildea's illuminative 'H'm!' implied that her two inductions had
been correct. No funds--and other reasons--meaning--a MAN. She
scented instantly another of Biddy's tempestuous love-affairs. Had it
been merely a question of lack of money with inclination goading, she
felt pretty certain that Lady Bridget would have contrived to beg,
borrow or steal--on a hazardous promissory note, after the
happy-go-lucky financial morals of that section of society to which by
birth she belonged. Or, failing these means, that she would have
threatened some mad enterprise and so have frightened her aunt Eliza
Countess of Gaverick into writing a cheque for three figures. Of
course, less would have been of no account.

Mrs Gildea opened the two envelopes and sorted the pages in order of
their dates. The first had the address of a house in South Belgravia,
where lived Sir Luke Tallant of the Colonial Office and Rosamond his
wife--distant connections of the Gavericks.

Lady Bridget's letters were type-written, most carelessly, with the
mistakes corrected down the margin of the flimsy sheets in the manner
of author's proof--the whole appearance of them suggesting literary
'copy'.

Likewise, the slapdash epistolary style of the MS., which had a certain
vividness of its own.




CHAPTER 2



'Dearest Joan,

You'll have got my wire. Vancouver was right, I suppose. I sent it from
Rome. Since then I have been at Montreux with Chris and Molly, and
since I came back to England with them, I've been in too chaotic a
state of mind to write letters. Really, Chris and Molly's atmosphere of
struggling to keep in the swim on next to nothing a year and of eking
out a precarious income by visits to second-rate country houses and
cadging on their London friends gets on my nerves to such an extent
that Luke and Rosamond's established "Colonial Office" sort of
respectability is quite refreshing by contrast.

I should have loved the Australian trip. Your "Bush" sounds perfectly
captivating, and, of course, I could do the illustrations you want.
Besides, I'm stony-broke and, financially, the great god Gibbs appeals
to me. I'd take my passage straight off--one would raise the money
somehow--if it wasn't for--There! It's out. A MAN has come and upset
the apple-cart.'

Mrs Gildea gave a funny little laugh. The letter answered her thought.

'"Oh, of course!" I can hear you sneer. "Just another of Biddy's
emotional interests--bound to fizzle out before very long." But this
is a good deal more than an emotional interest, and I don't think it
will fizzle out so quickly. For one thing, THIS man is quite different
from all the other men I've ever been interested in. The first moment I
saw him, I had the queerest sort of ARRESTED sensation. He's told me
since, that he felt exactly the same about me. Kind of lived before--
"WHEN I WAS A KING IN BABYLON AND YOU WERE A CHRISTIAN SLAVE" idea.
Though I'm quite certain that if I ever was a slave it must have been a
Pagan and not a Christian one. Joan, the experience was thrilling,
positively electrifying--Glamour--personal magnetism. . . . You
couldn't possibly understand unless you knew HIM. Descriptions are so
hopeless. I'll leave him to your imagination.

By the way, Molly annoyed me horribly the other day. "You know, dear,"
she had the audacity to remark, "he's not of OUR class, and if you
married him, you'd have to give up US! For could you suppose," she went
on to say, "that Chris and Mama--to say nothing of Aunt Eliza--would
tolerate an adventurer who tells tall stories about buried treasure and
native rebellions and expects one to be amused!"

OUR CLASS! Oh, how I detest the label! And that unspeakably dreadful
idea of social sheep and goats--and the unfathomable abyss between
Suburbia and Belgravia! Though I frankly own that to me Suburbia
represents the Absolutely Impossible. After all, one must go right into
the Wilderness to escape the conditions of that state of life to which
you happen to have been born.

Well, that speech of Molly's came out of a fascinating account my
Soldier of Fortune gave us of how he stage-managed a revolution in
South America, and of an expedition he'd made in the Andes on the
strength of a local tradition about the Incas' hidden gold. I call him
my Soldier of Fortune--though he's not in any known Army list, because
it's what he called himself. Likewise a Champion of the Dispossessed.
He has an intense sympathy with the indigenous populations, and thinks
the British system of conquering and corrupting native races simply a
disgrace to civilisation. With all of which sentiments I entirely
agree. Luke has taken to him immensely, chiefly, I fancy, because he
was once private secretary to some Administrating Rajah in an
Eastern-Archipelago or Indian Island, and as Luke is hankering after a
colonial governorship, he wants to scrape up all the information he can
about such posts.

I answered Molly that one may have a violent attraction to a man
without in the least wanting to marry him, and that relieved her mind a
little.

As for HIM, the attraction on his part seems equally violent. We do the
most shockingly unconventional things together. He tells me that I
carry him off his feet--that I've revolutionised his ideas about the
"nice English Girl" (useless to protest that I'm not an English girl
but a hybrid Celt). He says that I've wiped off his slate the scheme of
life he'd been planning for his latter years. A comfortable existence
in England--his doctor advises him to settle down in a temperate
climate--an appointment on some City Board--rubber shares and that
kind of thing--you know it all--a red brick house in South Kensington
and perhaps a little place in the country. He did not fill in the
picture--but I did for him--with the charmingly domesticated wife--
well connected: the typical "nice English Girl," heiress of a
comfortable fortune to supplement his own, which he candidly admitted
needs supplementing.

Of course he's not a mere vulgar fortune-hunter. He must be genuinely
in love with the nice English Girl. And that's where I upset HIS
apple-cart.

In fact, we are both in an IMPASSE. I'm not eligible for his post and I
shouldn't want it if I were. To my mind marriage is only conceivable
with a barbarian or a millionaire. From the sordid atmosphere of
English conjugality upon an income of anything less than an assured
5,000 pounds a year, good Lord deliver me! And you know my reasons for
adding another clause to my litany. Good Lord deliver me also from further
experience of the exciting vicissitudes of a stock-jobbing career!

Then again, apart from personal prejudices, I am appalled, quite
simply, at the cold-blooded marriage traffic that I see going on in
London. Any crime committed in the name of Love is forgivable, but to
sell a girl--soul and body to the highest bidder is to my mind, the
unpardonable sin against the Holy Ghost. Frankly, I'm petrified with
amazement at the way in which mothers hurl their daughters at the head
of any man who will make a good settlement. There's Molly's sister--
she chases the game till she has corralled it, and once inside her
walls the unfortunate prey hasn't swallowed his first cup of tea before
she has wedded him in imagination to one of her girls--"How do you
like Mr CHOSE?" "Like him? What is there to like? He's the same as all
the rest of the men, and they're as like as a box of ninepins. . ."

"But what do you think of him. . .?" "But really there's nothing to
think" . . . "But don't you think he'd do for Hester?" etcetera,
etcetera.

She has just married the one before Hester to what she calls the
perfect type of an English country gentleman--meaning that he owns an
historical castle in Scotland, a coal mine in Wales and a mansion in
Park Lane. Heavens! I'd rather follow the fortunes of a Nihilist and be
sent to Siberia, or drive wild cattle and fight wild blacks with one of
your Bush cowboys, than I'd marry the perfect type of an English
country gentleman! Give me something REAL--anything but the
semi-detached indifference of most of the couples one knows. No. MY man
must be strong enough to carry ME off my feet and to break down all the
conventions of "OUR CLASS." Then, I'd cheerfully tramp through the
forest beside him, if it came to that, or cook his dinner in front of
our wigwam. Now, if my Soldier of Fortune were to ask me to climb the
Andes with him in search of that buried treasure! But he won't: and--I
confess it, Joan--I'm in mortal terror of his insisting upon my
entering the sphere of stock-jobbing respectability instead, and of my
being weak enough to consent. But we haven't got anywhere near that
yet.

So far, I'm just--living--trying to make up my mind what it is that I
want most. Do you know, that since my violent attraction to him--or
whatever you like to call it--all sorts of odd bits of revelation have
come to me as to the things that really matter!

For one thing, I'm pretty certain that the ultimate end of Being is
Beauty and that Love means Beauty and Beauty means Love. The immediate
result of this discovery is that I'm buying clothes with a reckless
disregard of the state of my banking account.

I begin to understand and to sympathise with that pathetic striving
after beauty which one sees in the tawdry finery and exaggerated
hairdressing of a kitchenmaid--Rosamond Tallant has one who is
wonderful to behold as she mounts the area steps on her Sundays out.
Formerly I should have been horrified at that kitchenmaid. Now I have
quite a fellow-feeling with her piteous attempts to make herself
attractive to her young man, the grocer's boy or the under-footman I
suppose. Am I not at this very moment sitting with complexion cream
daubed on my face, in order that I may appear more attractive to MY
young man. I know now how Molly's maid--who is keeping company with
Luke's butler--feels when we all dine early for a theatre and
Josephine gets an evening out at the Earl's Court Exhibition with her
gentleman.

Sounds beastly vulgar, doesn't it? But that's just what I'm making
myself pretty for--dinner there this evening at the French Restaurant
with MY gentleman. It's quite proper: we are a party of four--the
other two I may add are not in Rosamond's or Molly's set.

I've been interrupted--He has telephoned. The other pair have
disappointed us. Will I defy conventions and dine with HIM alone?

Of course I will.'




CHAPTER 3



The particular sheet ended at this point. Mrs Gildea laid it down upon
the earlier ones and took another from the little pile which she had
spread in sequence for perusal. She smiled to herself in mournful
amusement. For she scarcely questioned the probability that her friend
would in due course become disillusioned of a very ordinary
individual--he certainly sounded a little like an adventurer--who for
some occult reason had been idealised by this great-souled, wayward and
utterly foolish creature. How many shattered idols had not Lady Bridget
picked up from beneath their over-turned pedestals and consigned to
Memory's dust-bin! On how many pyres had not that oft-widowed soul
committed suttee to be resurrected at the next freak of Destiny! And
yet with it all, there was something strangely elusive, curiously
virginal about Lady Bridget.

She had been in love so often: nevertheless, she had never loved. Joan
Gildea perfectly realised the distinction. Biddy had been as much, and
more in love with ideas as with persons. Art, Literature, Higher
Thought, Nature, Philanthrophy, Mysticism--she spelled everything with
a capital letter--Platonic Passion--the last most dangerous and most
recurrent. As soon as one Emotional Interest burned out another rose
from the ashes. And, while they lasted, she never counted the cost of
these emotional interests.

But then she was an O'Hara: and all the O'Haras that had been were
recklessly extravagant, squandering alike their feelings and their
money. There wasn't a member of the house of Gaverick decently well to
do, excepting indeed Eliza, Countess of Gaverick. She had been a
Glasgow heiress and only belonged to the aristocracy by right of
marriage with Bridget's uncle, the late Lord Gaverick, who on the death
of his brother, about the time Bridget was grown up, had succeeded to
the earldom, but not to the estate.

Gaverick Castle in the province of Connaught, which with the
unproductive lands appertaining to it, had been in the possession of
O'Haras from time immemorial, was sold by Bridget's father to pay his
debts. His brother--the heiress' husband, who, unlike the traditional
spendthrift O'Haras had accumulated a small fortune in business, was
able by some lucky chance to buy back the Castle--partly with his
wife's money--soon after his accession to the barren honours of the
family. His widow inherited the place as well as the rest of her
husband's property, and could do as she pleased with the whole. Thus
the present holder of that ancient Irish title, young, charming and
poor, stemming from a collateral branch, lived mainly upon his friends
and upon the hope that Eliza, Countess of Gaverick, might at her death
leave him the ancestral home and the wherewithal to maintain it.

As for Bridget's father, the last but one Earl of Gaverick, his career
may be summed up as a series of dramatic episodes, matrimonial, social
and financial.

His first wife had divorced him. His second wife--the mother of Lady
Bridget--had deserted him for an operatic tenor and had died shortly
afterwards. She herself had been an Italian singer.

Lord Gaverick did not marry again, and Mrs Gildea had gathered that the
less said about his social adventures the better. Financially, he had
subsisted precariously as a company promoter. There had come a final
smash: and one morning the Earl of Gaverick had been found dead in his
bed, an empty medicine bottle by his side. As he had been in the habit
of taking chloral the Coroner's jury agreed upon the theory of an
overdose.

Yes, Mrs Gildea could quite understand that apart from general views on
the marriage question, Lady Bridget O'Hara might well shrink from
further connection with City finance.




CHAPTER 4



A naughty little gust--herald of the sub-tropical afternoon breeze
that comes up the Leichardt River from the sea, blew about the typed
sheets on the table, and, among them, those of Lady Bridget's letter,
as Mrs Gildea laid them down.

While she collected the various pages of manuscript that had been
displaced and was bundling them together, with a banana on each sheaf
to keep it safe, there came a second snap of the gate and a man's voice
hailed her.

It was the voice of a man who sang baritone, and his accent was an odd
combination of the Bush drawl grafted on to the mellifluous Gaelic,
from which race he had originated.

'Any admittance, Mrs Gildea, except on business, during working hours?'

'Yes, it is working hours Colin, but you happen to be business because
you're just the person I'm wanting to speak to, so come along.'

'Good for me, Joan,' and the man came along, clearing the rest of the
garden path and the veranda steps in three strides.

He gripped Mrs Gildea's hand.

'You're nice and cool up here, and you get every bit of wind that's
going along the river,' he said. 'It's a good thing you kept this
humpey, Joan--a little nest for the bird to fly home to, eh?'

'Yes, I'm glad, though it seemed a silly piece of sentiment . . . and,
as you say, I always FELT the old bird might want to fly home for a bit
some day. Well, YOU look cool enough, Colin.'

'This is temperate zone for me after the Leura. . . . But it's a hot
March because we haven't had a proper rainy season, and I'll just stand
here and catch the breeze for a minute or two before I sit down.'

He balanced himself on the veranda railing: took off his broad-brimmed
Panama hat and mopped his forehead with a silk handkerchief. Mrs Gildea
surveyed him with interested admiration.

A big man--large-limbed, bony--a typical Scotcher in that--with thin
flanks, a well-set up back and massive shoulders. His face was
browny-red all over except where the skin ran white under the hair and
there was a ruddier ring round the upper part of the throat. His nose
was thin between the eyes, broadening lower, high-bridged and with high
cut nostrils, showing the sensitive red when he was enraged--as not
infrequently happened. He had large honest blue eyes, intensely blue,
of the fiery description with a trick of dropping the lids when he was
in doubt or consideration. They were expressive eyes, as a rule keen
and hard, but they could soften unexpectedly under the influence of
emotion. At other times, according to the quality of the emotion, they
glowed literally like blue flames. He was considered queer-tempered,
rather sulky, and his face often took on a very unyielding expression.

He had thick reddish-yellow eyebrows at the base of a slightly receding
forehead--wanting in benevolence, phrenologists would have said, and
with the bump of self-esteem considerably developed. His hair was
yellow, pure and simple--the color of spun silk, only coarser, and it
would have curled at the ends had he not worn it close-cropped. His
moustache and beard were rather deeper yellow, the beard short,
well-shaped--the cut of Colin McKeith's beard was almost his only
vanity--there was one other, the 'millionare strut' in town--and he
had the masculine habit of stroking and clasping his beard with his
large open-fingered hand--spatulate tips to his digits, the practical
hand--fairly well kept, though brown and hairy.

There were lines in his face and a way of setting his features--that a
man gets when he has to front straight some cruel facts of human
existance--to calculate at a glance the chances of death from a
black's spear, a lost trail, an empty water-bag, the horns of a
charging bullock or even worse things than these.

And such experiences had put a stamp on him, and distinguished him from
the ordinary ruck of men--these and his undeniable manliness, and good
looks.

He smiled as he glanced amusedly from the littered wind-blown papers on
the table to his hostess' rather troubled face.

'Well you seem to have a pretty fair show here of what you call
"copy,"' he said.

Mrs Gildea met his look with one of frank pleasure.

'That's what I want YOU for.'

'What's the job?' he asked. 'You ought to know that literary "copy" is
not much in my line. Now if it had been yarding the fowls or cleaning
up the garden, I'd feel more at home as a lady's help.'

'Colin, you take me back to Bungroopim--when it happened to be a slack
day for you on the run, and when the married couple had levanted and
I'd got an incompetent black-gin in the kitchen--or when the store
wanted tidying and you and I had a good old spree amongst the rubbish.'

He laughed at a time-honoured joke.

'Stick sugar-mats and weevilly four-bins; and a breeding paddock of
tarantulas and centipedes and white lizards to clear out. I WAS a bush
hobbledehoy in those days, Joan. It's close on twenty years ago.'

Joan Gildea gave a little shudder.

'Don't remind me how old I am. There's the difference between a man and
a woman. My life's behind me: yours in front of you.'

'I don't know about that, Joan. I've had my spell of roughing it--
droving, mining, pioneering--humping bluey along the track--
stoney-broke: sold up by the bank and only just beginning now to find
out what Australia's worth.'

'That's what I said--you are just beginning. Roughing it has made a
splendid man of you, Colin: and who would ever believe that you are
four years older than I am. Colin, you ought to get married.'

'The Upper Leura is no place for the sort of wife I want,' he returned
shortly.

'I don't see that. It isn't as if you were going to stop there always.
When you're rich enough you can put on a manager. You've got an
enormous piece of pretty good country, haven't you?'

'One thousand square miles--and a lot more to be got for the taking--
mostly fair cattle pasture--now that we're going in for Artesian
bores. But it means capital, sinking wells three thousand feet and
more. It'll be three or four years at least before I can see a trip to
Europe--doing the thing in the way I mean to do it.'

'Must you go to Europe for a wife? Aren't Australian girls good
enough?'

'I've always meant to try for the best. You taught me that, Joan, I
shall follow your example. You were an Australian girl.'

Mrs Gildea's face saddened. 'Well,' was all she said.

'You see,' he went on, and the eyes took their narrow concentrated look
and suddenly blazed out as he straightened himself against the veranda
post, 'I know something of what marriage in the back block means: and
I've studied women--don't laugh--I mean theoretically--from books.
I've read history--always managed a couple of volumes or so in my
swag--nights and nights, by the light of a fat lamp and a camp fire. I've
studied the women of great times--ancient and modern--they're always
the same--and I've remarked the type of woman that's got grit--
capacity for fine things--You understand all that as well as I do,
Joan. Look at the women of the French Revolution for one instance--the
aristocrats, you know--well, I've realised that it takes blood and
breeding and tradition behind to carry a woman to the block with a sure
step and a proud smile . . .' Suddenly, he became aware of Joan's gaze,
half surprised, wholly interested. . . . He reddened and pulled himself
up gruffly.

'Sentimental rot, d'ye call it?'

'No, Colin, I believe in all that and so do you.'

'Blood and breeding and tradition--all the grand stuff that's been
grown in them on the NOBLESSE OBLIGE principle--self-respect, courage,
dignity--the stuff that gives staying power as well as the fire for
making good spunk. . . . Not that I'd put a pure-blood racer to haul up
logs for an iron-bark fence: any more than I'd set out to plant an
English lady of that sort to rough it on the Leura.'

'Well, why not? Do you want your wife to be like a canary in a cage?'

'You know I don't hold with gilded cages and spoiling a woman who is
there to be your mate. But all the same, I shan't look out for MY wife
until I can afford to give her as good a show as she'd be likely to
have if the stopped at home. You see, a real woman must be a sportsman
in her way of taking life as much as a man, and I maintain as a general
proposition that it's the English lady--even one of your sneered-at
"Lady Clara Vere de Vere" lot who makes the best front against battle,
murder, and sudden death--if it has to come to that. . . . Just
because,' he went on, 'though she might have been brought up in a
castle and never have done a hand's turn that could be done for her,
she's still got in her veins the blood of fighting ancestors--men who
were ready to lay down their lives for God and King and country and
their women's honour--and of women too who'd maybe held the stronghold
that had been their husband's reward, and kept the flag flying, when to
fail or flinch meant death or worse. . . . Why, look at your Lady
Nithisdales and your Lady Russells and your Maria Theresas. . . .'

'And your Joan of Arc--who was a peasant girl--and your Charlotte
Corday. . . .'

'Oh, you beat me there. . . . And I wasn't intending to fire off a
speech anyway. . . . And anyway, Joan, its awful cheek to think I could
ever get the sort of wife I want, but if I can't, I won't have one at
all. . . . I'll have my money's worth. Romance--Ideals--something
more LIFTING than beef and mutton and cutting a bigger dash than your
neighbour. . . . See?'

He broke off with a laugh, and the wonderfully vivid light that came
into his blue eyes made him look like an ardent youth.

'And you a democrat!' jeered Mrs Gildea. 'You, a champion of the
people's rights; you, an Imperialist in the broadest sense of the term!
Oh, I really must put you into one of my articles as a certain type of
modern Australian. In fact, Colin, that's what I wanted to talk to you
about.'

'All right, fire away. We'll drop the marriage question.'

'To be resumed later.' A quizzical look passed over Mrs Gildea's mouth,
and then, 'Oh, what a pity!' she muttered to herself.

'What's a pity?'

'Never mind! The English mail's in--as you may see. I'll show you what
Mr Gibbs says. He didn't like my last letter. He says he wants bones
and sinews, not an artist's lay figure dressed in stage bushman's
clothes. There, Mr McKeith, among your other cogitations on the subject
of women, you may try to realise that the mission of a lady special
correspondent is not all'--she looked round for a metaphor--'Muscat
grapes and pineapple.'

'Or cooked-up information from heads of departments; or got-up shows of
agricultural, mining and other industries. Or trips to the Bay to see
the model island prison in which our weary criminals rehabilitate their
enfeebled systems by cool sea-breezes and generous diet. Or ministerial
picnics to experimental cotton and sugar plantations the size of your
garden to prove that all tropical products can be raised to perfection
without mentioning the difficulty in a White Australia of finding the
labour to do it.'

'Oh, don't rub it in, Colin. I'm only a special reporter, and even
special reporters can't know everything. Now, do just sit down and let
me ask you questions. And first of all, do you want a whiskey peg or a
cup of tea, or what?--I've had my late breakfast.'

'I'll have a smoke, please. Been swearing off store baccy now I'm down
from the Bush. I'm trying hard to smoke cigarettes like one of your
English toffs.'

He pulled out a copper cigarette case with some hieroglyphical letters
and numbers stamped on it, which he regarded with a humorous smile.

'Only cost a shilling, but now I've my brand across, it looks fine. You
know that by the Brands Act you've got to have a number and two letters
on every head of stock--My brand's the Mark of the Beast 666 C.K.
See?'

He fixed his cigarette into a new amber mouthpiece, made a wry face,
and began to smoke.

'I don't think much of your quality of cigarettes,' said Mrs Gildea.
'On the whole, I prefer your tobacco.'

'All right. Give me my pipe any day--' And he pitched away the
cigarette and produced an ancient pipe, which he filled with tobacco
from an india-rubber pouch and lighted. 'Now, fire away.'

'Not for a little bit yet. You must read my rejected article and my
official instructions, and then you'll have some grasp of the subjects
I want information upon. Here they are--Mr Gibbs first.'

She handed him her editor's letters and pushed a small pile of
manuscript towards his elbow.

'There. It will take you about a quarter of an hour to digest all that;
and meanwhile, if you don't mind the noise, I shall go on typing
something I've got to send off by to-morrow's mail.'

She settled herself at the typewriter, her back partially turned to
him. The subject matter of what she was doing took all her attention.
She worked hard for about ten minutes, hearing sub-consciously the
rustle of papers under his hand and one or two faint ejaculations and a
queer little laugh he gave once or twice as he read.

Presently he said:

'I say, there's a mistake here. I've gone through your editor's
letters. He's sound; I think I can help you to get at what he wants.
But these other sheets have got mixed up with something else. I thought
at first it was a story you'd given me, and I went on reading and got
interested; and now I see it must have been written by some young woman
friend of yours'--if it's meant for a letter.'

Mrs Gildea turned with a dismayed exclamation.

'Good gracious! You don't mean to say that I've given you her letter?'

'Is it really a letter? Do women type letters? It reads to me much more
like what the heroine of a novel would be supposed to say than an
ordinary everyday girl. If that's a flesh and blood woman I'd like to
know her.'

Mrs Gildea took from him the three typed pages he had in his hand. They
were certainly part of Lady Bridget's letter--almost the whole of it,
for only the end and the beginning ones were missing. In her hurried
rearrangement of the wind-scattered sheets she had put these into the
wrong bundle. She ran her eye anxiously over the badly-typed slips,
which, with their marginal corrections and smart, allusive jargon of a
world entirely removed from Colin McKeith's experience, might easily
have misled him into the belief that he was reading literary 'copy.' Of
course he knew that Joan Gildea wrote novels as well as journalistic
stuff.

He read her thoughts.

'You needn't worry. There isn't the least clue to her identity--I
suppose that's what you're afraid of. Not a surname anywhere--I
couldn't have imagined a woman would write like that--give herself
away--as she does. But it's fine all the same. There'd be nothing
small about that woman, Joan. Do you know how it ended?'

'I don't know yet. But I can guess.'

'Eh?' He blew out rings of smoke with less than his usual deliberation.
'D'ye think she'll marry the chap?'

'No--she never does.'

'She's a flirt, then?'

'Bid--' Mrs Gildrea swallowed the rest. 'SHE would scorn such a
commonplace suggestion. Do you remember that novel of Hardy's, THE
WELL-BELOVED? She's like the man there, who was always in love with the
same Ideal--under different forms--until he found that he'd made a
mistake, and then the game began all over again.'

McKeith ruminated. 'SHE'S like that, is she? . . . The fellow is what
you'd call a bounder?' he exclaimed suddenly.

'So I imagine.'

'But she's in love with him--she must be, or she wouldn't write like
that?'

'You don't know her. She can't do anything by halves--while she's
doing it.'

'By Jove, that's what I like. There's a woman who'd never hang on the
fence. And her ideas about love and all that: it's splendid.'

He brooded again a few moments, while Mrs Gildea sorted her papers
afresh; then he exclaimed:

'It strikes me, she's one of the sort I was talking about just now.'

'Well, she WAS born in a castle.'

'I guessed it. . . . You won't tell me her name?'

'How could I--I ask you? After you'd read that!'

'No. All right. You can trust me not to find out.'

'Besides, she would never do for you.'

He laughed quizzically. 'Well, I'm a barbarian, and it's possible I may
some day be a millionaire. But I'm not such a conceited cad as to
imagine a woman like that would ever fall in love with ME! ' His voice
sank almost to a reverential tone. 'The only thing I do know is that if
I got the chance, I'd show her I was strong enough to carry her off to
my wigwam and she could do what she pleased afterwards. I'd be her
slave so long as she cared for me--and I'd never live with a woman who
didn't.'

'My dear Colin, you're not likely to get the chance. Please forget that
you ever read that letter.'

'No, I can't do that; but as she's in London and we're over here, it's
not much odds anyway. Well, have you found the right sheets? Give them
to me if you have and then we can come to business.'




CHAPTER 5



Colin McKeith had been gone some time and Mrs Gildea, primed with fresh
ideas, had finished her article on the lines he suggested, before she
again tackled Lady Bridget's love-affair.

The second letter (there is no need to reproduce the page of daring
sentiment that closed the first) was dated from Castle Gaverick in
South Connemara, and plunged straight into the tragic culmination.

'It's all over, Joan--was over soon after my last letter, but I've
been too wretched ever since to write. If you had been in England you
might have read in one of last week's "MORNING POST'S" that a marriage
has been arranged and will shortly take place between Mr Willoughby
Maule, formerly confidential adviser to His Highness the Rajah of
Kasalpore--and Evelyn Mary, only daughter of the late John Bagallay,
Esq, and the late Mrs Bagally of Bagallay Court, Birmingham.

Rosamond tells me that Luke told her that Evelyn Mary has been throwing
herself at Will's head ever since they met last year on a P. & O.
steamer between Singapore and Colombo. She and her chaperon went on a
tour round the world, it seems, just before Evelyn Mary came of age. I
wonder they did not get engaged then, and can only conclude--as there
was no ME then to upset the apple-cart--that he did not know how rich
she was going to be. Anyway, I feel certain that it was Evelyn Mary who
was at the back of his plan for settling down as a respectable
stock-jobber. Molly Gaverick--who is a cat--said she knew for certain
Willoughby Maule came to England with the fixed intention of marrying
for birth and position or for money, and that he fancied, in me, he'd
found both--she says that he took his impressions of us from the
paragraphs in the Society papers and thought us much richer an bigger
than we are, and that now he knows better he thinks it safer to drop
birth and make sure of money.

The Bagallays made theirs in nails. Last year Evelyn Mary came into a
fortune of a quarter of a million. I'm told that it's absolutely at her
own disposal. She was an only child. A quarter of a million would be an
immense temptation to a poor and ambitious man.

And yet, Joan, I CAN'T believe that Will has been actuated by wholly
sordid motives. He may be an adventurer, but he is not a mean one.

Rosamond Tallant thinks it much more likely that because I didn't
introduce him to Aunt Eliza, and Chris and Molly never asked him to
dinner, he got the idea that I considered him good enough to amuse
myself with, but not good enough for serious consideration as a
husband. And it's quite true that I always shirked that point when it
was touched upon. If I must be perfectly honest with myself, I think I
was afraid of his putting me at the cannon's mouth and telling me I
must decide then and there to take him or leave him. Should I ever have
had the strength to give him up? He's so frightfully dear to me, that I
can't think of him now without a shudder at the thought of his
belonging to another woman. I never really believed it would come to
that. He once or twice hinted that there WAS a girl--the "nice English
girl" that I had chaffed him about. I had an idea that it was his way
of putting pressure on me.

The first time was the evening that I dined alone with him at the
Exhibition., Heavens! I grow hot this moment thinking that he may have
supposed I was in the HABIT of dining alone with men in French
restaurants at popular Exhibitions. I don't know why I did for this man
what I'd never done for any other, Partly, I fancy, because it never
dawned upon me that he could misunderstand me. Rosamond says I
idealised him too much, and that he's just the ordinary man and not the
tiniest bit of the Bayard I imagined him. I daresay she's right, and
that he may have laughed in his sleeve at my romantic rhapsodies.

All the same, I never can convince myself that he is a mere
fortune-hunter. Perhaps the very fact that I didn't make the smallest
effort to wrest him from Mademoiselle Croesus when he tried to make me
jealous seemed proof to him that he was no more to me than a caprice.
So, when we made each other an atrocious scene and I told him to go off
to her, he simply took me at my word.

The scene began with my telling him about my sort of engagement to
Aubrey Blaine--whom as you know, I was really nearer to marrying than
I have been to marrying anybody. And yet, as I tried to explain to
Will, I didn't WANT to marry Aubrey. Only the mischief with me is
always that I can't hold back with one hand and give with the
other. . . Will wasn't able to enter into my feelings about that affair in
the very least or to understand how, when it came to the point, I realised
that I COULDN'T sink to domesticity on seven hundred a year. Fancy
taking a house in Pimlico or West Kensington, or one of those horrible
places with a man to whom you have a violent attraction and consulting
with your adored as to whether you could run to three maids and a
Tweeny! The sordidness of it would be too disenchanting.

When I said something like that to Will, he flared up and we hurled
nasty speeches at each other, and finally he walked off slamming the
door--I used to hear that slam in my dreams sometimes--or it may have
been Luke coming in late--the Tallants' hall door makes a particularly
Kismetish bang. That was our real parting, though it wasn't the last.
He wrote to me--a bitter sort of farewell. And I did a mad thing. I
went to see him in his rooms. But when I got there, his manner--
something he said which offended me--one can't explain the
unexplainable--started the scene all over again. It was as if a
mocking demon came up between us. That time it was I who left him. The
next thing I heard was that he and Mademoiselle Croesus were engaged.

I wrote to him--I know it wasn't the proper sort of letter--I daresay
he saw through my pretended indifference. He sent me back my letters as
I had asked him to do--wrote me in quite the right strain--said he
was not worthy of me--that I'd shewn him I was far above him--that he
might not presume to think I could be happy with a man of his
inadequate means and position--that he could never forget me--and so
on--but that it was best as it is.

And now I've got to get what consolation I can out of my own inner
conviction--that it IS best as it is, and that I ought to be thankful
for being still Bridget O'Hara, mistress of my own fate, and free yet
to sport about--sport!--oh, the irony of it--in what you call the
stormy sea of my emotions.

I make over to you the copyright of my sufferings.'

The letter broke off abruptly. It was resumed on another sheet six
weeks later at Gaverick Castle.

'Rosamond Tallant has just sent me a writing case I left at their house
with these pages in it. I daren't read them over, but they'll give you
an idea of my state of mind during those last dreadful weeks in London.
My nerves are now in a little better condition. Since I came here, I've
set myself resolutely NOT to think of Will--that is, not more than I
can help; there are times when his ghost is extremely active. I'm
putting out brain-feelers, for I know that I should go to pieces
altogether if I didn't throw myself into some new interest. So that I'm
trying a system for the development of one's higher faculties that was
taught me by a queer old German professor I met at Caux last summer,
who was interested in the odd little second-sight experiences I've had
occasionally which I told him about. He made me do exercises in
deep-breathing and meditation--you shut yourself up, darken your room
and concentrate upon a subject--Beauty, Wisdom, Friendship, were some
of the subjects he gave me--and you can't think how thrillingly
absorbing it was. I worked frightfully hard at it for a bit, drinking
only distilled water and living on vegetables--you CAN do that in
Switzerland: you simply CAN'T in civilised society--And then came Rome
and the Willoughby Maule episode.

Episode! Has it come to that!

Ah Joan, I have a horrible suspicion that however much I may try to
persuade myself I'm concentrating upon some abstract theme, I've really
all the time been thinking of him.

Yesterday I took Friendship for my study in concentration. You, dear
thing, came up, naturally, and your image actually kept Will away for a
clear five seconds. I thought what a help it would be to be with you,
and afterwards I made the suggestion of an Australian trip on literary
business to Aunt Eliza, but it was no good. She is deeply engaged just
now in driving batches of stuffy relatives in a stuffy brougham--
luckily there's no room for me in it--to still stuffier garden
parties. And, besides, I don't feel that I can take any desperate step
of that kind until the Irrevocable has been written in Destiny's Book.

Will Maule is not married yet.

Well, anyhow, the meditation on Friendship was comparatively
successful. Wisdom I found beyond me, and Beauty awakened painful
memories. To-day I mean to concentrate on wealth--one of my
Professor's theories is that if you concentrate regularly on a thing
you are bound in the long run to get what you set your mind upon, and I
do find my position of dependence upon Aunt Eliza too unspeakably
galling. What a monstrous injustice it seems that I--who if I had been
born a boy, must have been Earl of Gaverick, should be at the mercy of
an ill-tempered, miserly, old woman who may leave the home of my
forefathers to a crossing-sweeper if she pleases. I suppose it ought to
go to Chris, but one doesn't feel called upon to arraign Fate on behalf
of a distant cousin who by rights has no business to be Lord Gaverick
at all.

I'm concentrating on Art too. Every day I do some inspirational
painting by the sea shore. I've made some studies of Wave-fairies for
the Children's Story Book we planned to do together. It's quite
invigorating to sport about with them in imagination, in a grey-green
stormy sea, out of reach of human banalities. I can feel the cold spray
as I paint and the sense of power and rest in the elemental forces--an
almost Wagnerian feeling of great Cosmic Realities.'

Again Mrs Gildea smiled to herself. How like Biddy O'Hara!

She couldn't be so utterly heart-broken if she was able to practise
deep breathing and concentration--Wealth, Friendship, Art--a pretty
comprehensive repertoire--and to prate on Cosmic Realities and the
Wagnerian feeling!

But presently the tragic note shrieked again. Bridget went on:

'I am in a fever of suspense and misery wondering whether Will's
marriage will come off or if, at the last moment, it will be broken. He
has been obsessing me these last days. He too--I am certain of it--
dreads the Irrevocable, and regrets the rupture between us. I dream of
him continually--such restless, tantalising dreams. And yet my mood is
so contradictory. If the marriage WERE broken off and he stood before
me, free, and offered himself!--

Could I bring myself to face our future together with all its
depoeticising influences, its almost certainty of friction? No.
Something deep down inside me says--has always said--"It would be a
mistake; this is not the real thing: we are not suited to each other;
the attraction might even turn to repulsion." Imagine the agony of
that!

Life goes on here, all dribble, waste and fret--I cannot concentrate,
I cannot paint--the Wave-fairies won't play--Your Bush gobies appeal
more to my present humour. I feel a sort of nostalgia for the wild--
though my nostalgia is mental, and not from any former association. Do
not be surprised if some day you get a telegram saying that I am
coming.'

Another sheet.

'Will was married yesterday. I have just read the account of the
ceremony--I can see it all--the usual semi-smart opulent wedding--palms
lining the aisle, Orange blossom galore. The bride "beautiful in
cream satin and old lace"--Evelyn Mary is simply a LUMP--Pages in
white velvet--The fussy overdressed Bagallay crowd of friends--I hear
there are no "in-laws," And the bridegroom's face--dark, cynical--I
know the sort of miserable smile and the queer glitter in his eyes.--
"I WILLOUGHBY TAKE THEE EVELYN MARY. . . FOR BETTER AND FOR
WORSE. . .TILL DEATH US DO PART ". . . There! I'm a blathering idiot to
mind. . .I ought to be dancing with joy at my escape. Let us end the
chapter. The incident is closed, I'm going for a long tramp by the sea and
shall post this on my way.

Your BIDDY.'




CHAPTER 6



Mrs Gildea was too busy in the next two or three weeks to trouble
herself unduly over Lady Bridget O'Hara's tragic love-affair. She had
to report on the small holders of property in Leichardt's Land and made
a trip for that purpose among the free-selectors in her own old
district. The TWENTY YEARS AFTER letter she wrote about this expedition
for THE IMPERIALIST was one of her best, and for that she was greatly
indebted to Colin McKeith's commentaries.

Old associations with him had been vividly reawakened by this visit to
the home of her youth. She remembered, as if it had been yesterday, how
McKeith, a raw youth of eighteen with a horrible tragedy at the back of
his young life, had been picked up by her father and brought to
Bungroopim to learn the work of a cattle-station. . . . hitherto his
experience, such as it was, had been with sheep in the, then, unsettled
north. Joan was herself a girl in short frocks, three or four years
younger than Colin McKeith, and with no apparent prospect of ever
crossing the 'big fella Water,' as the Ubi Blacks called it, or of
joining the band of Bohemian scribblers in London.

She remembered how quickly Colin had learned his work--remembered how
the shy self-contained lad, with always that grim memory of his boyhood
shaping a vengeful purpose in his mind and making him old for his
years, had developed the flair of the Bush in his hardy Scotch
constitution. She was compelled to own that he had developed, too, some
of the worst as well as the best of those Scotch qualities inherited
from his parents, expatriated though they had been, and from the
staunch clansmen behind them. He had the Scotch loyalty; likewise, the
Scotch tenacity of character which never forgot and very seldom
forgave; the Scotch obstinacy of purpose and opinion; the Scotch
acquisitiveness; a tendency too to 'nearness' in matters of small
expenditure which combined oddly with a generosity amounting almost to
recklessness in large enterprise. It was on the whole not a bad outfit
for a pioneer who meant to get on in his world.

The beginnings were small, but indicative of the trend of his career.
He contrived, even when he was earning no salary but working only for
his 'tucker,' to get together a horse or two, a cow or two, a specially
good cattle-dog or two, which last he made the nucleus of a profitable
breed. The cows and bullocks he left at Bungroopim when the time came
for him to push out, reclaiming them after they had increased and
multiplied in those pleasant pastures like Jacob's herds in the fields
of Laban.

Not that there was any seven years matrimonial question. There had been
no Leah. Or if Joan Gildea had ever played the part of Rachel in Colin
McKeith's sentimental dreams, those boyish dreams had left no serious
mark upon him. He had gone north to a newly-formed station and had
there out-bushed the bushman in his knowledge of the idiosyncrasies of
cattle and sheep and his amazing faculty for spotting country suitable
for either. Here no doubt his descent from generations of herdsmen had
stood him in good stead.

He sold his knowledge to rich squatters in the settled districts who
employed him to take up new country for them and to manage the hundreds
of square miles and the thousands of stock from which they derived the
best part of their wealth. But he only managed for other men until he
had made enough money of his own to take up and stock new country for
himself.

In a few years he had acquired a moderate-sized herd and established
himself with it on the almost unexplored reaches of the Upper Leura.
Life on that river never lacked dangerous adventure. McKeith's father
had owned a station on the Lower Leura--the bank took it in payment of
their mortgage after the catastrophe occurred. That station had been
the scene of one of the most horrible native outrages in the history of
Australia. The tragedy had set its mark on Colin McKeith. Left a
penniless boy after having worked his way to independent manhood he had
made it his purpose to pursue the wild black with relentless animosity.

All along the Upper Leura to the fastnesses at the river's head where
his new station stood on the boundaries of civilisation he had gone,
mercilessly punishing native depredations.

He had been put on trial by a humanitarian Government for so-called
manslaughter of natives, and had been acquitted under an administration
immediately succeeding it. Afterwards he had at the peril of his life,
made an exploring trip across the base of the northern peninsula of the
colony with the intention, as he phrased it, of 'shaking round a bit.'
He 'shook round' to some purpose, penetrated to the Big Bight, and got
on the tracks of a famous lost explorer. Colin McKeith solved the
mystery of that explorer's fate and had his revenge on the Government
which had impeached him by pocketing the reward which it had offered
any adventurous pioneer following on the lost explorer's steps.

Later, McKeith was given a mission to explore and develop a certain
tract of fertile country between the heads of the Leura and the Big
Bight--the particular Premier instigating the mission being a
far-sighted politician who realised that a Japanese invasion of the
northern coast might eventually interfere very radically with the plan
for a White Australia.

Colin McKeith threw into his own scheme of life a trip to Japan, by way
of India and China. He volunteered, too, for the Boer War, and did a
short term of service with the Australian Contingent in South Africa.

He dreamed more and more of becoming an Empire-maker--a sort of
Australian Cecil Rhodes. But he was wise enough to realise that all
Empire-making cannot be on the Rhodesian scale.

He realised that his personal fortune must first be secured. Without
money one can do nothing. Cecil Rhodes had had the natural wealth of
Rhodesia at his back. McKeith had set himself the task of opening up
the fine country out West, which he knew only needed a system of
irrigation by Artesian Bores to defy drought, the squatters curse. That
object once accomplished--he gave himself with luck and good seasons
five or six years--there would be nothing to stop his becoming a
patriot and a millionaire.

But Colin went slowly and cannily--and that was why the Leichardt's
Land Government believed in him. He had the reputation of never
spending a penny on his private or public ambitions where a halfpenny
would serve his purpose, and he was known to be a man of deep counsels
and sparing of speech. Thus, no one knew exactly what was his business
down south at this time. Only the general remark was that Colin McKeith
had his head screwed on the right way and that some day he would come
out on top.

But that there was deep down a spring of romance beneath that hard
Bushman's exterior, Joan Gildea, herself a romance writer, guessed
easily. And her intuition told her that a little thin bore had been
made in the direction of that vital spring of romance by his
inadvertent reading of Lady Bridget O'Hara's letter.




CHAPTER 7



Joan saw that McKeith was extremely anxious to know more about the
writer of that letter and the progress of that love-affair, though he
had given his word of honour that he would not try to find out her
identity. But he put subtle questions to Joan about her friends in
England and her acquaintance with the higher circles of society in
London. Once, he asked her straight out whether she had heard again
from her typewriting correspondent, and if the Soldier of Fortune had
proved himself a Bounder, as they had suspected?

'Yes,' Joan answered unguardedly. 'I'm thankful to say that he is
married to his heiress.'

The eager light which suddenly shone in McKeith's eyes startled Mrs
Gildea.

'You don't mean to say that you're thinking of her like that?' she
exclaimed. 'It's no use, Colin.'

'Probably not,' he answered composedly. 'Tell me, how does she take
it?'

'Deadly seriously. She's practising Deep-breathing and Concentration to
try and drive the man from her thoughts.'

'What! Oh, you mean Theosophy and that kind of thing. I went to hear
Mrs Annie Besant lecture once, and I couldn't make head or tail of it.'

'No. You wouldn't. But it was a German Professor who taught B---- No. I
will NOT tell you her name.'

'Anyway, I know that it begins with a "B." And I know that she's got
one relation called Molly, and another called Chris, and a friend whose
name is Rosamond--likewise that Rosamond is the wife of Luke. . . . By
Jove!' He stopped short and looked at Mrs Gildea with sharp
enlightenment.

They were in the veranda of her cottage, and he was seated on the steps
smoking, his long legs stretched out against one veranda post, his
broad back against another. 'Seen the paper this morning?' he asked.

'No. If you pass the CHRONICLE Office, I wish you'd lodge a complaint
for me against the vagaries of their distribution department. Twice
lately I haven't had the paper till the afternoon.'

He pulled it from his pocket, and, leaning across, handed it to her.

'Read the English Telegrams,' he said.

Joan stopped cleaning her typewriter and examined the column of latest
intelligence.

'Good gracious! So they've appointed Sir Luke Tallant new Governor of
Leichardt's Land!'

'Luke!--A coincidence you'll say. No good telling me that. SHE wrote
that "Luke" was hankering after a colonial governorship.'

'Well, he's got it,' replied Mrs Gildea noncommittally.

'And if you read the leading article you'll see that the CHRONICLE is
justly outraged at so important a post as that of Governor of
Leichardt's Land being given to an unknown man who has never served
outside the Colonial Office in London and who doesn't even belong to
the noble army of Peers.'

'That's all nonsense. Luke Tallant's a friend of Chamberlain's, a
thorough Imperialist and a very good man for the post.'

'You know him then?'

'I know OF him.'

'From HER?'

'HER! Has it come to HER! Colin, if anyone had told me that you would
ever be fool enough to fall in love with a woman you've never seen, I
should have laughed outright. You don't even know what she's like.'

'I can see her in my mind's eye, as I used to see the women I read
about by my camp fire. You'd never believe either what a queer
idealistic chap I can be when I'm mooning about the Bush. Don't you
know, Joan'--and his voice got suddenly grave and deep-toned--'you
ought to, for you were a bush girl and you've had men-kind out in the
Back Blocks--Don't you know that when a man has got to go on day after
day, week after week, year after year, fighting devils of loneliness
and worse--with nothing to look at except miles and miles of stark
staring gum trees and black, smelling GIDGEE* and dead-finish scrub--
and never the glimpse of a woman--not counting black gins--to remind
him he once had a mother and might have a wife. Well, can't you see
that his only chance of not growing into a rotten HATTER* is to start
picturing in his imagination all the beautiful things he's ever seen or
read about--the sort of lady-wife he hopes to have some day and in
making such a companion of her that she seems to him as real as the
stars and far more real than the gum trees. So as he'll keep saying to
her always in his thoughts: "I'll keep myself sound and wholesome for
your sake. I'll never forget that I'm a gentleman, so as YOU won't
shrink away from me in horror if ever I've the luck to come across YOU
down here on this Earth."'
[*Gidgee--Colloquial pronunciation of gidia, an Australain tree.]
[*Hatter--A white man who prefers the society of blacks.]

He stopped, fitted another cigarette from the copper case into the
holder and, before beginning upon it, said without looking at Mrs
Gildea:

'I wouldn't spout like that to anybody but you, Joan. My word! Though I
see by your writing that you've a fair notion of how this cursed, grim,
glorious old Bush can play the deuce with a chap--body and brain and
soul--if he doesn't wear the right kind of talisman to safeguard
himself.'

'Yes--I understand. And your talisman, Colin? What was your picture of
the lady-wife? Describe your Ideal and I'll tell you if SHE is the
least bit like it.'

McKeith smoked ruminatively for a few moments, his eyes narrowed. The
lines in his forehead and round his mouth showed plainly. He was gazing
out into space, far beyond the sun-flecked Leichardt River and the
Botanical Gardens, and the glaring city and the range of distant hills
on the horizon.

'Well,' he said at last, slowly, 'you can laugh at me if you like, but
I'll tell you how I see HER. She is tall--got a presence, so that if
SHE'S there, you'd know it and everybody else would know it, no matter
how many other women there might be in the place. Most big men take to
their opposites. Now, though I'm a big man I've never fancied a snippet
of a girl. Five foot seven of height is my measure of a woman, and a
good ten stone in the saddle--What are you laughing at, Joan? I'm out
there, I suppose?'

Mrs Gildea controlled her muscles.

'No, no, not in the least. In fact, your description fits the Ideal
Wife perfectly. Go on, Colin. Five foot seven and a good ten stone. How
is the rest of HER? Fair or dark--her hair now--and her eyes?'

'Her hair--oh, it isn't fair--not yellow or noticeable in colour--
like those dyed beauties you see about. Her hair is dark, soft and
cloudy looking. And she's got a small head set like--like a lily on
its stem--and her hair is parted in the middle and coiled smoothly
each side and into a sort of Greek knot. . . . '

'In short, she's a cross between the Venus of Milo and the Madonna.'

Mrs Gildea was smiling amusedly.

'Perhaps. . . . Something of that sort. Dignity and sweetness, you
know--those are what I admire in a woman. But not too much of the goddess
or of the angel either. I shouldn't want always to have to load up with
a pedestal when we shifted camp, and the only shrine I'd keep going for
her would be in my heart. It's a Mate I'm wanting, as well as an
Ideal. . . . Now you're laughing again.'

'No, I'm not. I agree with you entirely--and so would SHE.'

'There! You needn't tell me. I shouldn't wonder if I'd got the second
sight where SHE'S concerned.'

Again Mrs Gildea smiled enigmatically.

'I shouldn't wonder, Colin. But you haven't finished your personal
description. What about the colour of her eyes?'

'Now I don't believe I could say exactly the colour of her eyes any
more than of her hair. They're the kind, to me, that have no colour.
Soft and melting and sort of mysterious--Deep and clear and with a
light far down in them like starlight reflected in a still
lagoon. . . . I say, Joan, you remember the old Eight Mile Water-hole on
Dingo Flat--middle of the patch of flooded gum and she-oak--that the
Blacks used to say had no bottom to it? HER eyes seemed to me a bit like
that water-hole--No bottom to her possibilities.'

'That's true enough,' assented Mrs Gildea. 'There's no bottom to HER
possibilities.'

'I could tell it from her letter. She seemed to write flippantly about
things--but that was just because she hates insincerity and flummery,
and the world she lives in doesn't satisfy her. Why, it was as if I
read slick through to her soul. That woman would go through anything
for a man she really loved.'

He had a way of lowering his voice when he spoke of love--as if he
felt it a sacred subject; and this in him surprised Joan. She was
discovering a new Colin McKeith. She answered softly.

'Yes. I think she would--IF she really loved him.'

'What I haven't been able to make out is whether she did care--does
care--for that chap. You see, that would make a difference.'

'A difference! How? What do you mean?'

'I mean that I don't believe I should feel about her as I do if I
wasn't going to meet her. Look here, Joan, you've as good as told me--
and if you hadn't, I'd be pretty thick-headed not to have put two and
two together--that the Luke of her letters is Sir Luke Tallant, our
new Governor. Well, if she was staying with him in London, and his wife
is a friend of hers, why shouldn't she come and stay with them out
here?'

The idea had already presented itself to Mrs Gildea, but she tried not
to show that it had, or that there had ever been any question of the
sort in Bridget's mind. Colin had not read the opening sheet of her
letter.

'I suppose more unlikely things than that have happened,' Joan said
neutrally. 'But really, Colin,' she went on with strenuous emphasis, 'I
can't understand this phase of you. You--a hard-headed Bushman, to be
dreaming romantic dreams and falling all of a sudden over head and ears
in love with--with a figment of your imagination--just because you
happen to have read by mistake some sentimental outpourings of a woman
you know nothing about and who would never forgive me if she knew I'd
let you see her letter.'

'She won't know--You have my word of honour that I'll never give you
away over that letter--not under ANY circumstances, so you can set
your mind at rest on that score, Joan. And as to my falling in love
with--a figment of my own imagination'--he spat the words out
savagely--'we'll see how far your remark is justified when She does
come out and I recognise her--as I am convinced I shall do directly I
set eyes on Her.'

Mrs Gildea burst into rather hysterical laughter, which manifestly
offended Colin McKeith.

'We'll drop the subject, please,' he said stiffly. 'And now, Mrs
Gildea, I'm quite at your service for any information you desire about
the Big Bight country and the probability of a Japanese invasion so
soon as our future Commonwealth comes to crucial loggerheads with the
Eastern Powers on the question of a strictly White Australia.'

After that Colin pointedly abstained from allusion to the Ideal Wife
and to Joan Gildea's Typewriting-Correspondent, as he had called her.
He was very busy himself at this time in connection with a threatened
labour strike that was agitating sheep and cattle owners of the Leura
District. Likewise with a report he had been asked to furnish of a
projected telegraph line for the opening of his 'Big Bight Country'.
Colin McKeith appeared to be deep in the confidence of the Leichardt's
Land Executive Council and to have taken up his abode for the winter
session in the Seat of Government, though he seemed to regard his
recent election for a Northern constituency as an unimportant episode
in a career ultimately consecrated to the elucidation of far-reaching
Imperial problems.

Joan Gildea found him excellent 'copy,' and the great Gibbs
cablegrammed, in code, approval of her lately-tapped source of
information.

She almost forgot Bridget O'Hara in her absorption in colonial topics.
But three weeks before the expected arrival of the new Governor of
Leichardt's Land a cablegram was shot at her from Colombo which made
her feel that there was no use in setting oneself against Destiny. This
was the wire:

EXPECT ME WITH TALLANTS BIDDY.

She said nothing to Colin McKeith about the message--partly because
his movements were erratic and he was a good deal away from Leichardt's
town just then. Thus Mrs Gildea did not know whether or not he had read
the flowery description telegraphed by a Melbourne correspondent who
interviewed Sir Luke Tallant and his party at that city and wired an
ecstatic paragraph about the beautiful Lady Bridget O'Hara who was
accompanying her friend and distant relative, the Honourable Lady
Tallant.

Anyway, McKeith made no references to the newspaper correspondent's
rhapsodies when he paid Mrs Gildea a short visit two or three days
before the landing of the new Governor. But his very reticence and
something in his expression made Joan suspect that he was puzzled and
excited, and would have been glad had she volunteered any information
about Lady Tallant's companion. Joan, however, kept perverse silence.
In truth, she felt considerably nervous over the prospect. What was
going to happen when Colin McKeith set eyes on Bridget?

Joan Gildea was a simple woman though circumstances had made her a
shrewd one, and she had all the elementary feminine instincts. She
believed in love and in strange affinities and in hidden threads of
destiny--all of which ideas fitted beautifully on to Bridget O'Hara's
personality, but not at all on to that of Colin McKeith.




CHAPTER 8



The first dinner-party given by Sir Luke and Lady Tallant at Government
House included Mrs Gildea and Colin McKeith.

These two met in the vestibule as they emerged respectively from the
ladies' and gentlemen's cloak-room. Both held back to allow certain
Members of the Ministry to enter the drawing-room before them, which
gave opportunity for an interchange of greetings.

'Well!' both said at once, and the tones in which the monosyllable was
uttered and the glances accompanying it held volumes of hidden meaning.
'I haven't seen you since the Governor arrived,' Joan went on. 'Where
have you been all these three weeks?'

'At Alexandra City, close on the desert, where they bored for water and
struck ready-made gas--the whole place now is lighted with it. If you
like, I'll give you material for a first-rate article upon an uncommon
phenomenon of Nature.'

'Thank you. I shall be grateful. Colin'--hesitatingly, 'I did think
you'd have come and looked after an old friend at the big Show in the
Botanical Gardens when the Governor made his State Entry.'

'State Entry! Good Lord! Sir Luke Tallant has got a bit too much red
tape and too many airs about him to suit the Leichardt'stonians.'

'You WERE there, then?'

'Started for Alexandra City that afternoon.'

'But you saw--Colin did you see--the Tallants and--their party?

His face changed: it looked positively angry, and his jaw under the
neatly trimmed, sandy beard, protruded determinedly. But at that moment
a footman came towards them, and Mrs Gildea was handed on to an
imposing butler and ushered through a wide palm-screened doorway into
the large inner hall which had a gallery round it and the big staircase
at one end. Joan saw that the room, formerly stiffly furnished and used
chiefly as a ballroom, had been transmogrified with comfortable lounge
chairs and sofas, beautiful embroideries, screens, a spinet and many
flowers and books into a delightful general sitting-room. It seemed
quite full--mostly of official Leichardt'stonians. Joan looked for the
new Governor and his wife, or at least for Lady Biddy, but none of them
had yet put in an appearance. A handsome, fair-moustachioed young
aide-de-camp, looking very smart in his evening uniform with white
lapels, was fluttering round, his dinner list in his hand, and
introducing people who already knew each other. He looked distinctly
worried, so did the private secretary--sallow-faced, of a clerkish
type, and obviously without social qualifications--who was also
wandering round and trying ineffectively to do the right thing. The
aide-de-camp rushed forward to shake hands with Joan, exclaiming in a
relieved undertone:

'Oh, Mrs Gildea, do help me. I believe I've made an awful hash of it
all. People out here,' he murmured, 'ain't used to viceregal etiquette
as she is interpreted in Ceylon--that was my last post you know. They
seem to think his Excellency ought to have been standing at the door to
receive THEM, instead of their waiting to receive HIM.'

Clearly, the aide-de-camp had failed to please, though he looked
spruced and his manners were beautiful. The Premier of Leichardt's
Land, a red-faced gentleman of blunt speech, was grumbling audibly to
the Attorney-General. Mrs Gildea caught snatches of discontent as she
passed from one to another.

'Damned impertinence, I call it. A salaried official, no better than
any of us, giving himself royal airs. . . . May do in India. . . won't
go down in a free country like this.'

The AIDE finished pairing his couples.

'Mrs Gildea, you're to go in with the Warden of the University. Of
course you know Dr Plumtree? Literature and learning is an obvious
combination, but' (in a confidential aside) 'if you KNEW the job I've
had to find out the right order of precedence. Mr McKeith, the Governor
will be so glad to meet you. Will you take in Lady Bridget O'Hara?
She's not down yet. You see,' he explained again to Mrs Gildea, 'we're
strictly official to-night and Debrett's out of it.'

'So am I,' put in Colin McKeith. 'I guess that Lady Bridget would be
better pleased if she wasn't handed over to a rough bushman.'

'Now, there you ARE quite out of it,' laughed the aide-de-camp. 'Lady
Bridget asked specially to be sent in with you,' and at Mrs Gildea's
enquiring smile, he explained once more: 'Sir Luke was speaking about
Mr McKeith, said his name had been mentioned at a meeting of the
Executive yesterday. Oh! you're top hole, Mr McKeith, I assure you.'

The AIDE broke off suddenly.

There was a rustle of silk on the grand staircase--the slam of a door
above, the sound of a laugh and the patter of little high-heeled shoes
on the parquet floor of the gallery. The AIDE darted to the foot of the
staircase and all eyes turned upward.

The new Governor and his wife came down in slow and stately fashion,
arm-in-arm, Sir Luke looking very impressive with the Ribbon and Order
of St Michael and St George. He was a handsome man, clean-shaven but
for a heavy dark moustache, and carried his dignities with perhaps a
little too conscious an air--'Representative of the Throne' seemed
written all over him and no greater contrast could be imagined than the
new Governor presented to his predecessor, an elderly, impoverished
marquis who had the brain of a diplomatist and the manners of a British
farmer, and who with his homely wife had been immensely popular in
Leichardt's Land.

Nor a greater contrast than the new Governor's wife to the fat, kindly,
old marchioness. Lady Tallant was a London woman, of about forty-five.
She had been excessively pretty, but had rather lost her looks after a
bad illness, and her worst affliction was now a tendency to
scragginess, cleverly concealed where the chest was no longer visible.
Obviously artificial outside, at any rate Lady Tallant was, as Mrs
Gildea had reason to believe, a genuine sort underneath. She had a
thin, high-nosed face of the conventional English aristocratic type, a
good deal rouged to-night, but with natural shadows under the eyes and
below the arch of the brows which were toned to correspond with the
evidently dyed hair. Her dress, a Paris creation of pale satin and
glistening embroidery, was draped to hide her thinness, and her neck
and throat were almost covered with strings of pearls and clusters of
clear-set diamonds. Judging from the way in which the
Leichardt'stonians stared at her as she came down the stairs, it seemed
probable that none of them had ever before seen anyone quite like Lady
Tallant.

Joan Gildea's eyes passed quickly from Sir Luke and Lady Tallant to a
third figure behind them, on the half-landing, but first she realised
in a flashing glance that Colin McKeith's gaze had been all the while
riveted upon that figure. Not in astonishment--a proof to Joan that he
had seen it before--but in a kind of unwilling fascination, most
upsetting to Mrs Gildea's sense of responsibility in the matter.

The Visionary Woman of the camp-fire! And she had let Colin McKeith
believe that Bridget O'Hara was the embodiment of his Ideal--height
five foot seven at the least: weight ten stone or more: smooth-parted,
Greek-coiled hair: a cross between a goddess and a Madonna--that was
Colin's Ideal--Good Heavens! What did he now behold? A very little
woman. One of the snippets he despised. Not an ounce of the traditional
dignity about her. Lady Bridget gave the impression of an
old-fashioned, precocious child, dressed up in a picture frock of soft
shining white stuff, hanging on a straight slender form and gathered
into a girdle at the waist, with a wisp of old lace flung carelessly
over the slight shoulders. She stood for a moment or two on the half
landing, then, as the aide-de-camp murmured in the Governor's ear at
the foot of the stairs, she came close to the bannisters and looked
down amusedly at the party in the hall. Her face was a little poked
forward--a small oval face, pale except for the redness of a rather
thin-lipped mouth--the upper lip like a scarlet bow--and the
brilliance of the eyes, deep-set under finely-drawn brows and with
thick lashes, golden-brown, and curling up at the tips. Peculiar eyes:
Mrs Gildea, who knew them well, never could decide their exact colour.
The nose was a delicate aquiline, the chin pointed. An untidy mass of
wavy chestnut hair stuck out in uneven puffs and insubordinate curls,
all round the small head. At this moment Mrs Gildea remembered a
suggestive charm sent to Lady Bridget by her cousin, Chris Gaverick,
one Christmas, of a miniature gold curry-comb.

It was a vivid brief impression, for the girl moved on immediately, but
Joan noticed that Colin McKeith had arrested Lady Bridget's wandering
gaze. That was not surprising, for his great height and the
distinctiveness of his appearance, made him more likely than anyone
else present to attract her attention. Then, as she caught sight of
Joan, the interested, startled look changed to one of bright
recognition, the red lips smiled, showing dimples at their sensitive
corners.

'His Excellency and Lady Tallant,' said the aide-de-camp, and Bridget
seemed hardly able to keep herself in the background while Sir Luke and
his wife advanced to greet the assembled guests. This, Lady Tallant did
with quite enchanting courtesy, making an apt apology for having kept
them waiting, which almost mollified the irate Premier. Bridget came
with a swift gliding movement to the side of her friend, squeezed her
hand and held it, while she talked in a soft rapid monotone.

'How cool you look. I've never been so hot in my life. And the
mosquitoes! Rosamond is in despair. She says she really can't afford to
lose more flesh. Do you see how she has had to make herself up to hide
the mosquito bites? Luckily, I've got a skin that insects don't find
palatable. . . .'

They had of course met since the Landing. Joan had paid her formal
visit, had lunched at Government House, and was now on intimate terms
with the new people. Also, Lady Bridget had found her way to the
cottage on Emu Point.

She looked round at the different groups and gave a cynical little
shrug.

'Why! it's like everything one had left behind! I might be at a party
to the Colonial Delegates in London for all the difference there is.
Where's your barbarism, Joan? . . . I'm pining for a savage
existence. . . . That's an excessively good-looking man'--her eyebrows
indicated Colin McKeith--'I do hope he is the man I asked for to take me
in to dinner--I told Vereker Wells that I wanted a new sensation--that man
looks as if he might give it to me--No, don't tell me: there's
excitement in uncertainty.'

She went on in eager monologue, giving no time for replies.

'It seems we've put the official backs up. Vereker Wells was determined
to follow Indian vice-regal precedents--so ridiculous--as I told him:
and as for Luke, he's got it on the brain that his mission is to uphold
the dignity of the British Throne. Like a NOUVEAU RICHE--terribly
afraid of doing the wrong thing and showing every moment that he's new
to the great Panjandrum part. . . . Ah so!' . . . an ejaculatory trick
of Bridget's. 'He IS my fate!'

Captain Vereker Wells brought up Colin who was holding himself stiffly,
limping just a little, as he did when he was nervous, and looking very
big and strong and masterful--likewise extraordinarily well-groomed
and tailored.

'Lady Bridget O'Hara, let me present Mr Colin McKeith.'

Lady Biddy looked up at Colin and he looked down at her.

'Do you think I can POSSIBLY reach your arm?' as he held his elbow
crooked to about the level of her shoulder. 'You know I asked to be
sent in with you--it was rather bold of me, wasn't it? But if I had
known how VERY tall you are!'

Mr McKeith lowered his arm, stooping over her, and Mrs Gildea heard him
say in a voice that sounded different somehow from his ordinary deep
drawl:

'I wonder why I was chosen for this honour?'

And Bridget's reply:

'I'd been told that you were an explorer--that you're a kind of Bush
Cecil Rhodes--I don't know Mr Cecil Rhodes, but I have an adoration
for him--I wanted to talk to a real Bushman--I always felt that I
should like Australian Bushmen from Joan Gildea's description of
them. . . . And you. . . .'

The rest was lost, as the groups converged and the long line of couples
went forward.




CHAPTER 9



It was not an altogether successful party. The dinner had portentous
suggestiveness; the Leidchardt'stonians were at first rather difficult.
Sir Luke a little too conscious of his responsibilities towards the
British Throne: Lady Tallant so brilliant as to be bewildering. But
except as it concerns Lady Bridget and McKeith, the Tallant's first
dinner-party at Government House is not of special importance in this
story. Mrs Gildea, very well occupied with Dr Plumtree, only caught
diagonal glimpses of her two friends a little lower down on the
opposite side of the table, and, in occasional lulls of conversation,
the musical ring of Lady Bridget's rapid chatter. Colin did not seem to
be talking much, but every time Mrs Gildea glanced at him, he appeared
absorbed in contemplation of the small pointed face and the farouche,
golden-brown eyes turned up to him from under the top heavy mass of
chestnut hair. Lady Bridget, at any rate, had a great deal to say for
herself, and Mrs Gildea wondered what was going to come of it all.

Conversation became more general as champagne flowed and the courses
proceeded.

Sir Luke, discreetly on the prowl for information, attacked Antipodean
questions--the Blacks for instance. He had observed the small company
of natives theatrically got up in the war-paint of former times, which,
grouped round the dais on which he had been received at the State
Landing, had furnished an effective bit of local colour to the pageant.
Up to what degree of latitude might these semi-civilised, and he feared
demoralised beings, be taken as a survival of the indigenous population
of Leichardt's Land? Did wild and dangerous Blacks still exist up north
and in the interior of the Colony?

'You'd better ask McKeith about that, your Excellency,' said the
Premier. 'He knows more about the Blacks up north than any of us.'

The Governor enquired as to the amenability of the Australian native to
missionary methods of civilisation, and one of the other Ministers
broke in with a laugh.

'Bible in one hand and baccy in the other! No, Sir, the Exeter Hall and
General Gordon principles aren't workable with our Blacks. Kindness
doesn't do. The early pioneers soon found that out.'

Lady Bridget had stopped suddenly in her talk with Colin, and was
listening, her eyes glowering at her companion.

'Why didn't kindness do?' she asked sharply.

'Yes; Mr McKeith, tell us why the early pioneers abandoned the gentle
method,' said the Governor.

McKeith's face changed: it became dark and a dangerous fire blazed in
his blue eyes.

'Because they found that the Blacks repaid kindness with ingratitude--
treachery--foul murder--' He pulled himself up as though afraid of
losing command of himself if he pursued the subject: his voice thrilled
with some deep-seated feeling. Mrs Gildea, who understood the personal
application, broke in across the table with an apposite remark about
her own early experiences of the Blacks. Lady Bridget impatiently
addressed McKeith.

'Go on. What do the Blacks do now to you people to make you treat them
unkindly?'

'What do they do now--to us squatters you mean?' Colin had recovered
himself. 'Why they begin by spearing our cattle and then they take to
spearing ourselves.'

'Did they ever spear you?' she asked.

Colin smiled at her grimly.

'Well, you wouldn't have noticed, of course, that I've got just a touch
of a limp--it's only if I'm not in my best form that it shows. I owe
that to a spear through my thigh one night that the Blacks rushed my
camp when I was asleep. And I'd given their gins rations that very
morning.'

'And then?' Lady Bridget's voice was tense.

'Oh then--after they'd murdered a white man or two, the rest of us
whites--there wasn't more than a handful of us at that time up on the
Leura--banded together and drove them off into the back country. We
had a dangerous job with those Blacks until King Mograbar was shot
down.'

'King Mograbar! How cruelly unjust. It was his country you were
STEALING.' She accentuated the last word with bitter scorn.

'Well! If you come to that, I suppose Captain Cook was stealing when he
hoisted the British flag in Botany Bay,' said McKeith.

'And if he hadn't, what about the glorious British record, and the
March of Civilisation?' put in Vereker Wells.

Bridget shot a scathing glance at the aide-de-camp.

'I don't admire your glorious British record, I think it's nothing but
a record of robbery, murder, and cruelty, beginning with Ireland and
ending with South Africa.'

'Oh! my dear!--I warn you,' said Lady Tallant, bending from her end of
the table and addressing the Leichardt'stonians generally. 'Lady
Bridget is a little Englander, a pro-Boer, a champion of the poor
oppressed native. If she had been alive then she'd have wanted to hand
India back to the Indians after the Mutiny, and now when she has made
Cecil Rhodes Emperor of Rhodesia, she'll give over all the rest again
to the Dutch.'

Bridget responded calmly to the indictment.

'Yes, I would--if Cecil Rhodes were to decline the Emperorship of all
South Africa--which I should make his job. . . . But you'd better add
on that I'm a Socialist too, Rosamond, because I've become one, as you
know. I think the working man is in a shamefully unjust position, and
that the capitalists are no better than slave-drivers.'

'Oh, not out here, my word!' exclaimed a Leichardt'stonian who happened
to be one of the old squattocracy. 'The landowners and the capitalists
are not slave-drivers, they are slave-driven. We've got to pay what the
Trades' Union organisers tell us--or else go without stockmen or
shearers. Fact is, our Labour War is only just beginning; and I can
tell you, Sir, that before a year is out the so-called bloated
capitalist and the sheep and cattle station owner will sing either
pretty big or very small.'

'I don't think it will be very small--on MY station,' murmured
McKeith. 'But it's quite true about the Labour War. They're organising,
as they call it, already all along the Leura.'

The Governor asked to have the Labour situation explained from the
squatters' point of view; and for a few minutes McKeith forgot to look
at Lady Bridget. He was on his own ground and knew what he was talking
about.

'It's this way,' he began. 'You see, though, I'm cattle--and I'm the
furthest squatter out my way. But there are a few sheep stations down
the river, and there isn't an unlimited supply of either cattle-hands
or shearers, so we've got to look sharp about hiring them. Now, last
year, we--of course I'm classing myself with the sheep-owners, for we
all stand together--hired our shearers for seventeen shillings and
sixpence a day. Then, up come the Union organisers, form a Union of the
men and say to them: "You've got to pay ten shillings down to the Union
and sign a contract that you won't shear under twenty shillings a day."
The Organiser pockets the ten shillings, and makes three pounds a week
and his expenses besides, so it pays HIM pretty well. Well then, the
shearers go to the squatters. "All right," say they, "we'll shear your
sheep, but it's going to be twenty shillings instead of seventeen and
six." The squatters grumble, but they've got to have their sheep shorn,
and they pay the twenty shillings. Next year, I'm told, the word is to
go round that it's to be twenty-two and sixpence. Well sir, we're to
see what's to happen then!'

The Labour talk lacked local picturesqueness. Sir Luke preferred the
Blacks, and started the question of danger to white men in the
out-districts. How far had officialdom penetrated into the back blocks?
He understood that Mr McKeith had explored for the laying of a
telegraph-line to the Big Bight. Could Mr McKeith give him any
information about all that?

McKeith explained again. He had stopped a week, he said, at the last
outpost of Leichardt's land civilisation. The telegraph master there
lived in a hut made of sheets of corrugated zinc, raised on piles
twenty feet high and fortified against the Blacks. The entrance to it
was masked, spear-proof and had two men always on guard--there were
four men at the post. McKeith told a gruesome story of an assault by
the natives, and of rifles at work through gun-holes in the zinc tower.

Lady Bridget listened in silence. Now and then, she looked up at
McKeith, and, though her eyes gave forth ominous red-brown sparks, they
had in them something of the same unwilling fascination Joan Gildea had
noticed in the eyes of Colin McKeith.




CHAPTER 10



In the drawing room, before the men came in, Bridget talked to Joan
Gildea. They hadn't yet had, as Biddy reminded her, a regular
outpouring. The outpouring it should be stated, was always mostly on
Bridget's side.

'When did you start Socialism?' Mrs Gildea asked. 'That's something
new, isn't it?'

Biddy gave one of her slow smiles in which lips, eyes, brows, what
could be seen of them under her towzle of hair--all seemed to light up
together.

'Why, I've always been a Socialist--in theory, you know. I've ALWAYS
rebelled against the established order of things.'

'But latterly,' said Joan, 'I haven't heard anything about your
doings--not since you wrote from Castle Gaverick after--after
Mr Willoughby Maule's marriage?'

The light died out of Bridget's face. 'Ah, I'll tell you--Do you know,
Rosamond saw them--the Willoughby Maules before we all left. She met
them at Shoolbred's--buying furniture. Rosamond said SHE was dragging
after him looking--a bundle--and cross and ill; and that he seemed
intensely bored. Poor Will!'

There was silence, Bridget's thoughts seemed far away.

'But about the Socialism?' prompted Mrs Gildea.

'Oh well, Aunt Eliza made up her mind suddenly to consult her new
doctor--Aunt Eliza's chief excitement is changing her doctors, and she
grows quite youthful in the process. They say that love and religion
are the chief emotional interests of unattached women. I should add on
doctors when a woman is growing old. Don't you think, Joan, that in
that case, all three come invariably to the same thing?'

'Love, religion and doctors! As emotional interests, do they come to
the same thing for elderly women?' repeated Mrs Gildea, as if she were
propounding a syllogism. 'No, certainly not, when the elderly woman
happens to be a hard-working journalist.'

'Oh, there you have the pull--I suggested the idea to Rosamond the
other day and she gave a true Rosamondian answer. "They don't come at
all to the same thing," she said, "because usually you have to pay your
doctor and SOMETIMES your lover pays you." Rather smart, wasn't it?'

'Yes, but I think you'd better warn Lady Tallant that the
Leichardt'stonian ladies are a bit Puritanical in their ideas of
repartee.'

'Oh, Rosamond is clever enough to have found that out already for
herself;' and the two glanced at Lady Tallant, who seemed to be playing
up quite satisfactorily to the female representatives of the
Ministerial circle.

'I suppose you made friends with some Socialists when you were in
London?' went on Mrs Gildea.

'My dear, I would have made friends with Beelzebub just them, if he
would have helped me to escape from myself.'

Bridget sighed and paused.

'But you ARE getting over it, Biddy--the disappointment about Mr
Maule? You ARE growing not to care?'

'I don't want to grow not to care--though, of course, now I should
prefer to care about someone or something that isn't Willoughby Maule,
I feel inside me that my salvation lies in caring--in caring
intensely. . . . But you wouldn't understand, Joan. You weren't built
that way.'

'No,' assented Mrs Gildea doubtfully.

'But,' went on Biddy brightly, 'I think sometimes that if one could get
to the pitch of feeling nothing matters, it would be a way of reaching
the "letting go" stage which one MUST arrive at before one can even
BEGIN to live in the Eternal.'

There seemed something a little comic in the notion of Bridget O'Hara
living in the Eternal, and yet Mrs Gildea realised that there really
was a certain stable quality underneath the flashing, ever changing
temperamental sheath, which might perhaps form a base for the Verities
to rest upon.

'Beelzebub didn't teach you that,' she said.

'No, quite the contrary. It all came out of my concentration studies
and the Higher Thought Centre where I met some most original
dears--Christian Scientists and Spiritualists--and then these
Socialists--not a bit on the lines of the old Fabians and Bernard Shavians
and the rest who used to believe only in Matter--specially landed property
matter--and in parcelling that out among themselves. My friends are
for parcelling out what they call the Divine Intelligence, which they
say will bring them everything they need for the good of others and,
incidentally, themselves. Of course none of them have a penny. But they
do contrive to get what they want for other people--it was a soup
kitchen this winter where they fed 11,000 starving poor. Only, when
they begin, they never have the smallest idea of HOW it's going to be
done.'

Lady Bridget was so absorbed in her subject matter that she did not
notice the entrance of the men; but Mrs Gildea saw that Colin McKeith
was making straight towards them. He halted behind Bridget's chair.
Biddy went on in reply to a question from her friend.

'You see, they argue this way, "We don't know," they say, "the HOW of
the simplest things in life, we don't know the HOW of our actual
existence--how we move or think--not even the HOW of the most
ordinary fact in science. We only know that there must be an
Intelligence who does know and who has forces at command and the power
to set them in motion." '

'And how do we know that?' asked Colin McKeith.

Bridget turned with a start and looked at him solemnly for a second or
two.

'You paralyse me: you are too big. I can't speak to you when you are
standing up. Please sit down.'

He went to fetch a chair. At the moment, Lady Tallant came up.

'Biddy, will you sing. Do for Heaven's sake make a sensation. Help me
out! You know how!'

Lady Bridget had a funny inscrutable little smile and a gleam in her
eyes which crinkled up when she was going to say or do something rather
naughty.

'I'll do my best, Rosamond. But you don't think it would be a dangerous
experiment, do you?'

Lady Tallant laughed, and told Captain Vereker Wells to take her to the
piano.

'YOU know that Biddy does a lot of mischief when she sings,' said the
Governor's wife, sitting down in Lady Bridget's vacant place beside Mrs
Gildea. Colin McKeith, still on the outskirts with his chair, stood
leaning upon it, watching the performer.

The piano was in such a position that Lady Bridget faced him.

A vain man might have fancied that she was singing at him, and that the
by-play of her song--the sudden eye-brightenings, the little twists of
her mouth, the head gestures, were for his particular benefit.

She was singing one of the Neapolitan folk-songs which one hears along
the shores of the Mediterranean beyond Marseilles--a love song.

Most people know that particular love-song. Lady Bridget gave it with
all the tricks and all the verve and whimsical audacity of a born
Italian singer. Well, she was Italian--on one side at least, and had
inherited the tricks and a certain quality of voice, irresistibly
catching. And she looked captivating as she sang--the small pointed
face within its frame of reddish-brown hair, the strange eyes, the
expressive red lips, alive with coquetry. The men--even the old
politicians, listened and stared, quite fascinated.

Some of the Leichardt's Town ladies--good, homely wives and mothers
who, in their early married days of struggle, had toiled and cooked and
sewed, with no time to imagine an aspect of the Eternal Feminine of
which they had never had any experience, were perhaps a little shocked,
perhaps a little regretful. One or two others, younger, with budding
aspirations, but provincial in their ideals, were filled with wonder
and vague envy.

A few of them had made the usual trip 'Home,' landing at Naples and
journeying to London, via Monte Carlo and Paris, and these felt they
had missed something in that journey which Lady Bridget was now
revealing to them. Joan Gildea, whose profession it was to realise
vividly such modes of life as came within her purview, felt herself
once more in the blue lands girdling the Sea of Story--It all came
back upon her--moonlight nights in Naples; on the Chiaja; looking down
from her windows on sunny gardens on the Riviera, and the strolling
minstrels in front of the hotel. . . .

As for Colin McKeith who had never been in the Blue Land and knew
little even of the British Isles except for London--chiefly around St
Paul's School, Hammersmith--and the Scotch Manse where he had
occasionally spent his holidays--even he was transported from the
Government House drawing-room. Where? . . . . Not to the realm of
visions such as he had seen in the smoke of his camp fire. Oh no. He
had never dreamed of this kind of enchantment.

A fresh impulse seized the singer. She struck a few chords. A familiar
lilt sounded. Her face and manner changed. She burst into the famous
song of CARMEN. She WAS CARMEN. One could almost see the swaying form,
the seductive flirt of fan. There could be no doubt that had the voice
been more powerful, Lady Bridget might have done well on the operatic
stage.

Yet it had a TIMBRE, a peculiar, devil-may-care passion which produced
a very thrilling effect upon her audience. She got up when she had
finished in a dead silence and was half-way across the room before the
applause burst out. There was a little rush of men towards her.

'Beats Zelie de Lussan and runs Calve hard,' said the Premier who had
made more than one trip to England and considered himself an authority
in the matter.

Bridget skimmed through the groups of admirers, stopping to murmur
something to Lady Tallant who had met her half way; then stopped with
hands before her like a meek schoolgirl, in front of Mrs Gildea and
Colin McKeith--he almost the only man who had made no movement towards
her. Bridget sank into her former seat.

'The last time I sang that was at a Factory Girls' entertainment at
Poplar,' she said. . . 'You should have seen them, Joan: they stood up
and tried to sing in chorus and some of them came on to the platform
and danced. . . . Mr McKeith you look at me as if I had been doing
something desperately improper. Don't you like the music of CARMEN?'

Colin was staring at her dazedly.

'It seemed to me a kind of witchcraft,' he said. . . . 'I should think
you might go on the stage and make a fortune like Melba.'

She laughed. 'Why my voice is a very poor thing. And besides, I could
never depend upon it.'

'Everything just how you feel at the time, eh?' he said. 'You wouldn't
care what you did if you had a mind to do it.'

'No,' she answered. 'I shouldn't care in the least what I did if I had
a mind to do it.'

There was the faintest mimicry of his half Scotch, half Australian
accent in her voice--a little husky, with now and then unsuspected
modulations. She looked at him and the gleam in her eyes and her
strange smile made him stare at her in a sort of fascination. Joan knew
those tricks of hers and knew that they boded mischief. She got up at
the moment saying that people were going and that she must bid Lady
Tallant good-night.

Then the Premier's wife came up shyly; she wanted to thank Lady Bridget
for her singing. It had been as good as the Opera--They sometimes had
good opera companies in Leichardt's Town, etcetera, etcetera.

Lady Bridget made the prettiest curtsey, which bewildered the Premier's
wife and gave her food for speculation as to the manners and customs of
the British aristocracy. She had always understood you only curtsied to
Royalty. But she took it as a great compliment and never said anything
but kind words about Bridget ever after.

Colin McKeith escorted Mrs Gildea to her cab and as they waited in the
vestibule, obtained from her a few more particulars of Lady Bridget
O'Hara's parentage and conditions. But he said not a word implying that
he had discovered her identity with the author of the typed letter.

'I'll come along to-morrow morning if I can manage it, and tell you
about Alexandra City and the Gas-Bore,' he said carelessly as she shut
the fly door. Joan wondered whether he had caught Lady Biddy's parting
words in the drawing room.

'If Rosamond doesn't insist on my doing some stuffy exploration with
her, I'll bring my sketches some time in the morning, Joan, and you can
see whether any of them would do for the great god Gibbs.'




CHAPTER 11



'And what are you going to do, Biddy? How long are you going to stay
with the Tallants?'

'Until Rosamond gets tired of me--or I feel no further need of the
moral support of the British Throne,' answered Lady Bridget lightly.
'I'm not sure whether I shall be able to stand Luke's Jingo attitude in
regard to Labour and the Indigenous Population--all the Colonial
problems in capitals, observe. He does take his position so
strenuously; it's no good my reminding him that even the Queen is
obliged to respect a Constitutional government.'

Bridget took a cigarette from a gold case with her initials in tiny
precious stones across it, and handed the case to Mrs Gildea who shook
her head.

'Still too old-fashioned to smoke! I should have thought you'd have
been driven to it here to keep the mosquitoes at a distance. . . .

'Do you like my case, Joan? Willoughby Maule gave it to me,' she asked.

'You didn't return it then?'

'Why should I have hurt his feelings? We weren't engaged.' A meditative
pause and then suddenly, 'Evelyn Mary doesn't smoke. Nice girls don't!'

'Biddy, I shall be sorry for Evelyn Mary if the Maules are to live in
London and you go back there again--which I suppose you will do.'

'You needn't suppose for certain that I shall go back.' She savoured
her cigarette slowly. 'I can't go on with that old life, the sort of
life one has to lead with Aunt Eliza and the Gavericks and their set. I
can't go on pushing and striving and rushing here and there in order to
be seen at the right houses and join the hunt after fleeing eligibles.'

She gave a bitter little laugh, and then her tone changed to that
ripple of frivolity in which nevertheless Mrs Gildea discerned the
under-beat of tragedy.

'Besides, even so, it's incongruous--impossible. I've come to the
conclusion that the only things which make London--as I've known it--
endurable are unlimited credit at a good dressmaker--Oh, and one of
the beautiful new motor-cars. You don't mind travelling from Dan to
Beersheba if you can do it in five minutes. But when you've got to
catch omnibuses or take the Tube, dressed in garden-party finery--well
it's all too disproportionate and tiresome.'

Mrs Gildea laughed. 'You must remember that I am out of all your fine
social business--except when I go as a reporter or look on from the
upper boxes.'

'It's abominable: it's stifling,' exclaimed Lady Biddy, 'it kills all
the best part of one. You know I've tried time after time to strike out
on my own individual self, but I've always been brought back again by
my hopeless, hopeless lack of practical knowledge of how to earn a
livelihood. The one gift I'd inherited wasn't good enough to be of any
use--If my mother had only left me the whole of her voice, I'd have
been an opera-singer. But I don't think I could have stood the drudgery
--and I should have hated the publicity of it all. . . . Joan, how did
you ever manage to make yourself independent?'

'By drudging,' said Mrs Gildea dryly. 'Besides, I was born differently.
And I was brought up with practical people.'

'Mr McKeith, for instance. He told me about his having been what he
called a "cattle new-chum" on your father's station.'

'He wasn't exactly a "new-chum." His father had owned a sheep-station
up in the unsettled districts. There was a tragedy--the place was sold
up when Colin was a boy. He wanted to learn how we did things further
south--and besides, he was left without a penny--that's how he came
to be with us.'

'Oh! . . . anyway, he's practical. But it isn't that side of him that
appeals to me. He believes in Missions--in a sort of way.'

Mrs Gildea laughed uneasily. 'So you have discovered the streak of
idealism in Colin. But'--she veered off hastily, 'I didn't want to
talk about Colin McKeith. What I want is to hear about your own state
of mind.'

'My state of mind! That's chaotic. The fact is, I feel in a horrible
sort of transition state. . . . It's just as if one were trying to wind
a skein backwards--taking up one end and finding a confusion of knots;
then, taking up another and after forcing a few of the knots, giving
the thing up in despair. One knows the right end is there, but how to
find it through all that hopeless, woolly tangle!'

'Still, you must have learned something about how to wind your skein
while you've been working through your various enterprises,' said Mrs
Gildea. She took up one of Bridget's sketches which were on the table
and looked at it thoughtfully.

'This is quite charming, Biddy--if only it wasn't too fine for
reproduction. The block would cost more than the thing is worth.'

Biddy made a MOUE. 'Oh, I know. Like me isn't it? Impracticable. But I
COULD do you some illustrations. I drew Rosamond entertaining the
Ministerial Circle last night and showed it to Vereker Wells while we
were waiting for breakfast. He nearly died with laughing. I couldn't
have dared to let Luke see it.'

'That I can believe. And I should be murdered by the Leichardt'stonians
if I allowed it to be published. But if you'd come with me through the
Blue Mountains and caricature yourself exploring the Jenolan Caves--
like the "Lady of Quality" in the Dolomite Country I could do something
with that.'

Mrs Gildea alluded to their first and only collaboration as author and
artist.

'Yes, I might. We'll think about it. And if I did perhaps I could make
money enough to keep me out here for a year or two travelling about.'

Joan Gildea looked up in a startled way from the drawing she had been
studying, and asked with some eagerness:

'Biddy, do you really mean that you are thinking of stopping out here
for a year or two?'

'I do. I want to shake myself free from the old clogs. I want to be
honest with myself and with--with the people who ARE honest with
themselves. I've always envied you, Joan. Your life is real at least.
You can put your finger on vital pulse beats. I should like to do as
you are doing, study and learn from a country that has no traditions,
but is making itself. I want to breathe Nature unadulterated--if I
could only reach the reality of her. Joan, I have the feeling that if
one could go right up to the Bush--far away from the Government House
atmosphere and Luke Tallant's red-tapism and the stupid imitation of
our English social shams--well, I think one might touch a more vital
set of heart-beats than the heart-beats of civilization.'

'You are off civilization, Biddy?'

'Yes I am, I've had a horrible time. I was quite reckless and spent far
too much on clothes and things--but that's not what matters--it's the
effect on one's inner self that matters. And now I'm going through the
pangs of revulsion, and just wondering where I can find anything that's
true and satisfying. I believe it may be a kind of birth into a new
life--coming out here you know and all the rest.'

She stopped, her long golden brown eyes fixed Sphinx-like on Joan, who
returned the gaze, but did not answer in words. Biddy went on: 'YOUR
work is practical--not idealistic. I believe the truth of it all is
that the idealists haven't built up on a practical basis. There's too
much POSE. Joan, I do think it's only the pinch of starvation that
knocks down the ridiculous POSE of people.'

'True enough. Your cranks don't get much beyond POSE.--They think they
do, but they don't.'

'Even the ones who believe in themselves--and who are in their way
truly sincere. Joan, do you know, there were moments at the meetings I
went to of those people--Christian Scientists, and my Spiritual
Socialists, and all those philo-factory-girls and tramps, and
philo-beasts, and philo-blacks and the rest of it--Moments when a
ghastly wonder would come over me whether, if we were all stranded on a
desert island with a shortage of food and water, it wouldn't be a case
of fighting for bare existence and of Nature red of tooth and claw.'

'True for you, Lady Bridget. I like the way that's put,' broke in a
voice from the other side of the veranda railing.

Lady Bridget started and looked round, a sudden flush rushing upon the
ivory paleness of her face. If she had not had her back turned to the
garden; if she had not left the gate open behind her, and if the wind
in the bamboos had not then made a noisy rustling, she would have seen
the visitor or heard his steps on the gravel path. Or if she had not
been so absorbed in her subject and her cigarette she might have
noticed that Mrs Gildea had looked up quickly a minute before and given
a mute signal to the intruder not to interrupt the conversation
untowardly.




CHAPTER 12



Lady Bridget recovered herself as Colin McKeith mounted the steps and
made the two ladies a rather self-conscious salute.

'I suppose you know that's a quotation,' she said.

'Weren't you a bit out?' he answered, and repeated the phrase. 'Excuse
my correcting you.'

Bridget shrugged.

'Thank you. But I always thought men of action weren't great readers.
How did you do your reading?'

'Some day--if you care to hear--I'll tell you.'

She looked at him interestedly. 'Yes, I should care to hear.'

'Not now,' put in Mrs Gildea. 'You've come this morning to tell us
about the Gas-Bore at Alexandra City, and, as it's got to go into my
next letter, I shall take some notes. Do look for a comfortable chair,
Colin, and you may smoke if you want to.'

'This is good enough,' and he settled himself after his own fashion at
Lady Bridget's feet with his back against the veranda post and his long
legs sprawling over the steps.

Lady Bridget leaned out of the depths of her deep canvas chair and
offered him her cigarette case.

He eyed it in amused criticism--the dull gold of the case, and the
initials in diamonds, sapphires and rubies set diagonally across it.

'YOUR writing?'

Again the faint pink rose in her paleness.

'No, it's the writing of the person who gave it to me.'

'Was it a man?' he asked bluntly.

Bridget looked at him with slight haughtiness.

'Really, Mr McKeith, I think you are--inquisitive.'

'Yes, I am. And I've Bush manners--not up to your form. Please excuse
my impertinence.'

'I don't mind Bush manners. They're--rather refreshing sometimes. . . .
But'--again extending and then half-withdrawing her offering hand.
'You'd despise my cigarettes?'

He made an eager movement.

'No I shouldn't. Choose me one, won't you--two--if I may have one to
keep.'

'Why to keep?' She selected two of the dainty gold-tipped cigarettes,
and he received them almost as if they had been sacred symbols. One he
placed carefully, notwithstanding her laughing protest, in a
letter-case which he carried in an inner pocket. She tilted her face
forward for him to light the other cigarette at hers, and he did so,
always with that suggestion of reverence which sat so oddly upon him.
Mrs Gildea watching the pair was immensely struck by it.

He smoked in silence for a few moments, his eyes still apparently
fascinated by the glittering initials on the case which now Bridget
attached to her chatelaine chain. She threw away the end of her
cigarette.

'Well, so you've become the Governor's unconstitutional adviser?' she
said. 'Joan, do you know that Luke Tallant kept Mr McKeith talking and
smoking in the loggia just below my bedroom for hours last night after
every one had gone--I know, because I couldn't get to sleep.'

McKeith had all compunction, 'I'm downright sorry for that, Lady
Bridget. I'd have gone away if I'd only guessed your room was up
above.'

'Oh, it didn't matter. I'd lots to think about--my own shortcomings
and Luke's responsibilities.'

'He takes them--hard,' hazarded McKeith.

'I hope you gave him good advice,' put in Mrs Gildea.

McKeith's lips twisted into a humorous smile.

'Well, I told Sir Luke that I didn't think he need bother himself just
yet awhile over that northern tour of inspection he's talking about.'

'He wants to make a kind of royal progress, Joan, through the
Back-Blocks,' said Lady Biddy.

'It'll mean a bit of stiff riding,' said McKeith, 'but I've offered to
show him round the Upper Leura anyway, and to find him a quiet hack.'

'Rosamond flatly declines the Royal Progress,' said Bridget. 'I'm
coming instead of her.'

'Can you ride?' he asked.

'CAN I ride--Can any O'Hara ride! You needn't find ME a quiet hack.'

'All right,' said McKeith. 'But I wouldn't make sure of that by putting
you on a buckjumper. It's a bargain then, Lady Bridget.'

'A bargain--what?'

'You promise to pay me a visit when the Governor makes his trip north--
when he carries out his notion of establishing military patrols and a
Maxim gun or two to put down Trades-Unionism and native outrages in the
Back-Blocks?'

Lady Bridget looked at him thoughtfully. He had pulled out his tobacco
pouch and was filling a well-worn pipe. 'You won't mind my pipe, will
you--as you're a smoker yourself. Mrs Gildea likes it best--And so do
I.'

Lady Bridget sniffed his raw tobacco and made a tiny moue. 'Well, if
you prefer that--No, of course I don't mind. I see,' she went on,
'that you favour the Maxim gun idea, Mr McKeith. I understand that
you're one of the Oppressors; and you and I wouldn't agree on that
point.'

Mr McKeith returned her look, all the hardness in his face softening to
an expression of almost tender indulgence.

'We'd see about that. I might convert you--but in the Back-Blocks.'

'Or I might convert YOU.'

He shook his head, and then laughed in a shy, boyish way.

'There's no knowing what might happen--but in the Back-Blocks.'

Lady Bridget leaned forward. 'Tell me about them--Tell me about your
life in the Bush and what makes you hate the Blacks.'

'What makes me hate the Blacks?' he repeated slowly and the soft look
on his face changed now to one very dour and grim.

'You do hate them, don't you? Mr McKeith, the Premier told me something
about you last night, which simply filled me with horror. If I believed
it--or unless I knew that what you did had been in honourable warfare,
I don't think I could bear to speak to you again. Now, I'm going to ask
you if it's true.'

'If what is true? Lady Bridget, I'll tell you the truth if you ask me
for it, about anything I've done. But--I warn you--ugly things happen
--in the Back-Blocks.'

'The Premier said that you were the terror of the natives. He told me
about a gun you have with a great many notches on the barrel of it, and
he said that each notch represented a black-fellow that you had
killed.'

'I never killed a black-fellow except in fair fight, or under lawful
provocation. Many a time one of them has sneaked a spear at me from
behind a gum tree; and I'd have been done for if I hadn't been keeping
a sharp look-out.'

'But you were taking their land,' Lady Bridget exclaimed impetuously,
'you had come, an invader, into their territory. What right had you to
do that? You were the aggressor. And you can't judge them by the moral
laws of civilised humanity. They fought in the only way they
understood.'

'Lady Bridget, there are moral laws, which all humanity--civilised or
savage understands. I'm not saying that no white man in the Bush has
ever violated these laws, I'm not saying that the Blacks hadn't
something on their side. I'm only saying that in my experience--it was
the black man and not the white man who was the aggressor. And when you
ask me what made me hate the Blacks--well--it isn't a pretty story--
but, if you like, I'll tell it to you some time.'

'Tell me now,' she exclaimed, 'Oh, Joan . . . Won't your notes keep?'

Mrs Gildea had got up, a sheaf of pencils and a reporter's note book in
her hand.

'Yes, for a few minutes. But I've just remembered something I've got to
refer to in one of Mr Gibbs' letters. Don't mind me; I'll be back
presently.'

McKeith seemed to take no heed of her departure; his eyes were fixed on
Lady Bridget; there was in them a light of inward excitement.

'Please go on,' she said, 'I want so much to hear.'

He thought for a few moments, shook the ashes from his pipe and then
plunged into his story.

'I've got to go back to when I was quite a youngster--taken from
school--I went to St Paul's in the Hammersmith Road--just before I
was seventeen. You see before that my father had scraped together his
little bit of money and we'd been living in West Kensington waiting
while he made out what we were all going to do. He wasn't any great
shakes, my father, in the way of birth, and fortune. I daresay, you
guessed that, Lady Bridget?'

She tossed her head back impatiently. 'Oh what DOES that matter! Go on,
please.'

'He'd been a farmer, Glasgow way'--McKeith still pronounced it
'Glesca,' 'and my mother was a minister's daughter, as good a woman and
as true a lady as ever breathed. But that's neither here nor there in
what turned out a bad business. Well, we all emigrated out here, and,
after a while, my old dad bought a station on the Lower Leura--taken
in he was, of course, over the deal, and not realising that it was
unsettled country in those days. So the whole family of us started up
from the coast to it. . . . He drove my mother and my two sisters just
grown up, and a woman servant--Marty--in a double buggy, and Jerry
the bullock driver and me in the dray with him and taught me to drive
bullocks. There were stock-boys, two of them riding along side.

'It took us three and a half weeks, to reach the station, averaging
about thirty miles a day and camping out each night.

'I'd like you to camp out in the Bush sometime, Lady Bridget, right
away from everything--it'ud be an experience that 'ud live with you
all your life--My word! It's like nothing else--lying straight under
the Southern Cross and watching its pointers, and, one by one, the
stars coming up above the gum trees--and the queer wild smell of the
gums and the loneliness of it all--not a sound until the birds begin
at dawn but the HOP-HOP of the Wallabies, and the funny noises of
opossums, and the crying of the curlews and native dogs--dingoes we
call 'em. . . . Well, there! I won't bother you with all that--though,
truly, I tell you, it's the nearest touch with the Infinite I'VE ever
known. . . . Lord! I remember the first night I camped right in the
Bush--me rolled in my blanket on one side of the fire, and Leura-Jim
the black-boy on the other. And the wonder of it all coming over me as
I lay broad awake thinking of the contrast between London and its
teeming millions--and the awful solitude of the Bush. . . . I wonder
if your blood would have run cold as mine did when the grass rustled
under stealthy footsteps and me thinking it was the blacks sneaking us
--and the relief of hearing three dismal howls and knowing it was
dingoes and not blacks.'

'I'd have loved it' murmured Bridget tensely. 'Go on, please.'

'Well, I've got to come to the tragedy. It began this way through an
act of kindness on our journey up. We were going through the
bunya-bunya country not far from our station, when out of the Bush
there came a black gin with two half-caste girls, she ran up and
stopped the buggy and implored my mother's protection for her girls
because the Blacks wanted to kill and eat them.'

'O . . . oh!' Biddy made a shuddering exclamation.

'Didn't I say the Blacks hadn't everything on their side--I ought to
explain though that in our district were large forests of a kind of
pine--there's one in this garden,' and he pointed to a pyramidal fir
tree with spreading branches of small pointed leaves spiked at the
ends, and with a cone of nuts about the size of a big man's head,
hanging from one of the branches.

'That's the bunya-bunya, and the nuts are splendid roasted in the
ashes--if ever that one gets properly ripe--it has to be yellow, you
know--I'll ask Joan Gildea to let me roast it for you. Only it wouldn't be
the same thing at all as when it's done in a fire of gum logs, the nuts
covered with red ashes, and then peeled and washed down with quartpot
tea. . . .'

'Quartpot tea! What a lot you'll have to show me if--if I ever come to
your station in the Back-Blocks.'

'Different from your London Life, eh? . . . Your balls and dinners and
big shows and coaching meets in Hyde Park, and all the rest of the
flummery! Different, too, from your kid-glove fox-hunts over grass
fields and trimmed hedges and puddles of ditches--the sort of thing
you've been accustomed to, Lady Bridget, when you've gone out from your
castle for a sporting spree!'

'A sporting spree!' She laughed with a child's merriment, and he joined
in the laugh, 'It's clear to me, Mr McKeith, that you've never hunted
in Ireland. And how did you know, by the way, that I'd lived in a
castle?'

'I was led to believe that a good many of your kind owned historic
castles which your forefathers had won and defended with the sword,' he
answered, a little embarrassed.

'That's true enough. . . . But if you could see Castle Gaverick! My old
Aunt is always talking of restoring it, but she never will, and if my
cousin Chris Gaverick ever does come into it, he'd rather spend his
money in doing something else. . . . But never mind that. . . . I want
to hear about the black gin and the half-caste girls, and if your
mother saved them from the cannibals . . . and why the blacks wanted to
eat their own kind. Dog doesn't eat dog--at least, so they tell one.'

'It's this way. Our blacks weren't regular cannibals, but in the bunya
season they'd all collect in the scrubs and feed on the nuts and
nothing else for months. Then after a bit they'd get meat-hungry, and
there not being many wild animals in Australia and only a few cattle in
those outlying districts, they'd satisfy their cravings by killing and
eating some of themselves--lubras--young girls--by preference, and,
naturally, half-castes, as having no particular tribal status, for
choice.'

'Half-castes!' She repeated, a little puzzled.

'These ones had Chinky blood in them--daughters of a Chinaman
fossicker. . . . We're not partial to the Chinese in Australia--only
we don't eat them, we expel them--methods just a bit dissimilar, but
the principle the same, you see. . . . Anyway, of course we took on the
gin and her girls, and for about a year didn't have any particular
trouble at the station with the blacks--though there was a shepherd
speared in one of the out-huts. . . . That was his fault, however, poor
devil--the old story--but it don't matter. The trouble came to a head
with a black boy, called Leura-Jimmy, that Jerry the bullock-driver
brought up with him and left at the station where he went down to the
township for store supplies--He took me with him--I told you I was
learning bullock-driving. . . .'

McKeith paused, and the dark look came upon his face.

'And Leura-Jimmy?' put in Bridget.

'Oh, he was a fine, big fellow--plausible, too, and could speak pidgin
English--he was never weaned from his tribe, and he was a treacherous
scoundrel at heart. . . . As a precautionary measure, my father forbade
the blacks to come up to the head-station. But Jimmy fell in love with
the eldest of the half-caste girls. She encouraged him at first, then
took up with one of the stock-boys. . . .

'It was the bunya season again, and the girls' old tribe, under their
King Mograbar--a devil incarnate in a brute--I sent him to Hell
afterwards with my own hand and never did a better deed'--McKeith's
brown fists clenched and the fury in his eyes blazed so that he himself
looked almost devilish for a moment. His face remained very grim and
dour as he proceeded.

'Jimmy had got to know through the half-caste girl about our ways and
doings, and he made a diabolic plot with King Mograbar to get the
blacks into the house. . . . Every living soul was murdered . . .surprised
in their sleep . . . My father . . . my mother . . . my
sisters . . . God! . . . I can't speak of it. . . .'

He got up abruptly, jerking his long legs, and went to the further end
of the veranda, where he stood with set features and brows like a red
bar, below which staring eyes were fixed vacantly upon the avenue of
bunya trees in the long walk of the Botanical Gardens across the river.
But they did not see those bunya trees. What they saw was a row of
mutilated bodies, lying stark along the veranda of that head-station on
the Leura.

Bridget was leaning forward in her squatter's chair, her fingers
grasping the arms of it, her face very white and her eyes staring too,
as though they also beheld the scene of horror.

Presently McKeith came back, pale too, but quite composed.

'I beg your pardon,' he said stiffly. 'Perhaps I should not have told
you.'

'It's--horrible. But I'm glad to know. Thank you for telling me.'

He looked at her wistfully. There was silence for a moment or two.

'And you . . . you . . . where were you?' she stammered.

'Me! I was with the drays, you know. We got back about noon that
day. . . . If we'd been twelve hours sooner! Well, I suppose I should
have been murdered with the rest. . . . The blacks had gone off with their
loot. . . . We . . . we buried our dead. . . . And then we ran up our
best horses and never drew rein for forty miles till we'd got to where
a band of the Native Police were camped. . . . And then . . . we took
what vengeance we could. . . . It wasn't complete till a long time
afterwards.'

He was standing behind Bridget's chair, his eyes still gazing beyond
the river. He did not notice that she leaned back suddenly, and her
hands fell nervelessly to her lap. He felt a touch on his arm. It was
Mrs Gildea, who had come out to the veranda again. 'Colin,' she said,
'I want you to go and bring me my typewriter from the parlour. And then
you've got to dictate "copy," about the Alexandra City Gas-Bore. Please
go at once.'

He obeyed. Mrs Gildea bent over Lady Bridget.

'Biddy! . . . You're not faint, are you?'

Lady Bridget roused herself and looked up at her friend rather
wildly. . . . 'No. . . . What do you take me for? . . . I said I wanted
real things, Joan . . . And I've got them.'

She laughed a little hysterically.

'All right! But we shall give you a taste of real Australia that isn't
quite so gruesome. That some of the tragedy belongs to the pioneer
days. . . . I could tell you things myself that my father has told me.
. . . But I won't. . . . Mind, Colin McKeith is no more of a hero than
a dozen bush boys I knew when I first knew him. Yes, put it there,
Colin, please. . . . And now, if Biddy doesn't mind, we'll proceed to
business, which is my IMPERIALIST Letter. I suppose you haven't brought
back any snapshots of Alexandra City and your wonderful Gas-Bore that
Mr Gibbs could get worked up for his paper?'




CHAPTER 13



That was not the only time Lady Bridget and McKeith met on Mrs Gildea's
veranda. In fact, Biddy, reminiscent of wild sea-excursions along the
shore by Castle Gaverick, developed a passion for what she called tame
boating on the Leichardt River. She found a suitable skiff in the
boat-house--the Government House grounds sloped to the water's edge,
and would row herself up and down the river reaches. It was easy to
round the point, skirt the Botanical Gardens, and, crossing above the
ferry, land below Mrs Gildea's cottage, then climb up the bank and
enter by a lower gate to the garden. Thus she would often turn up
unexpectedly of mornings for a chat with her friend in the veranda
study.

At this time, Colin McKeith contracted a similar habit. He showed a
still greater interest in Mrs Gildea's journalistic work and professed
a strong desire to enlighten British statesmen, through the medium of
Mr Gibbs' admirable paper, on certain Imperial questions affecting
Australia--the danger of a Japanese invasion in the northern waters--
the establishment of a naval base by Germany in New Guinea--the Yellow
Labour Problem and so forth. He would intersperse his political
dissertation with racy bits of description of life in the Bush, and
would give the points of view of pearl fishers, miners, loafers,
officials in out-of-the-way townships, Labour reformers, sheep and
cattle owners--all of which vastly amused Lady Bridget, and was
valuable 'copy,' typed unscrupulously by Mrs Gildea. In fact, she owed
to it much of the success which, later, attended her journalistic
venture. Mrs Gildea thought at first that the 'copy' would be more
easily obtainable in the intervals before and after Lady Bridget's
arrival, or on the days when she failed to come. But, finding that
Colin was distinctly at his best as a narrator with Biddy for an
audience, she artfully arranged to take her notes under those
conditions. This lasted two or three weeks, during which period Sir
Luke and Lady Tallant conscientiously improved their acquaintance with
the new sphere of their labours. They visited hospitals, inspected
public buildings, inaugurated social schemes, and, to the strains of
'God Save the Queen,' performed many other insignificant public
functions, from which, as often as not, their guest, Lady Bridget,
basely cried off.

On one such occasion, Joan, arrayed in her best, had patriotically gone
forth on a steaming March day to support their Excellencies, fondly
expecting that, as arranged, Lady Bridget and Colin would meet her. But
Lady Tallant, looking distinctly cross, accompanied the Governor alone.
Bridget, it appeared, had come down, just as the carriage drove up, in
her morning frock and garden hat, saying that she had a bad headache
and meant to spend the afternoon in a hammock by the river bank. As for
Colin, there was no sign of him.

But when Mrs Gildea got home very tired, and hot she was made extremely
angry by hearing the voices of Lady Bridget and McKeith in the veranda
where they were drinking tea and, it seemed, holding a confidential
conversation. Mrs Gildea's gorge rose higher. She had to stop a minute
to try and recover her temper. Here was Biddy disburdening herself to
Colin of her family troubles and short-comings, showing herself and
them in the worst light, singing small to a man with whom it was highly
desirable she should maintain her dignity. Instead of that, she was
deliberately pulling down the barrier of rank and social position which
should exist between Lady Bridget O'Hara and the Factor's son, the
Out-Back squatter--Colin McKeith.

Biddy was saying: 'Oh, but you're as bad as that sort of person who
can't be made to realise that the oldest peerage in Ireland counts for
nothing in comparison with an oil-king's millions and being able to
entertain the right set. . . . And besides, really Mr McKeith, there's
no difference at all between us. You talk such a lot about YOUR
grandfather having been a Scotch peasant. Why! MY mother's father was
an Italian beggar--Ugh! haven't you seen them with their crutches and
things on the steps of the churches?--And my mother sang in the
streets of Naples until a kind musician heard her and had her trained
to be a opera singer.'

'Your mother?'

'My mother! That's where my CARMEN comes from--only that my voice, I'm
told, isn't to be compared with what hers was. . . . But that's not the
worst about my mother. Not that I blame her. I think that a woman has a
perfect right to leave her husband if she has ceased to care for him,
and that it's far more moral to live with a man you love and can't
marry, than with a husband you hate.'

Mrs Gildea cut short Lady Bridget's exposition of her views on morality
before McKeith had time to answer. Her voice was sharp as she went up
the steps and arraigned the pair.

'Really, Biddy, I do call this too bad of you. May I ask how you and Mr
McKeith come to be drinking tea together in my veranda?'

'Sure, and it's by accident intoirely,' answered Biddy, with a
whimsical look and the touch of the brogue she sometimes put on when a
situation became embarrassing.

'A prearranged accident!'

'No it wasn't, Joan. As a matter-of-fact, we were the last persons
either of us expected to meet.'

'Honour bright,' put in McKeith. 'I'd forgotten all about the Pineapple
Products Exhibition, and I just dropped in at Government House to pay
my respects after a pleasant dinner two nights ago--What you'd call a
visit of digestion.'

'And since when, Colin, have you become an observer of social
obligations?' jeered Mrs Gildea.

He grinned, 'Ah! you have me there. Anyway, I asked for Lady Bridget,
and found her down by the boat-shed.'

'And we thought it would be cooler on the water, so he rowed me round
the point. It was the most natural thing in the world that we should
discover we were thirsty, and that we should come up the garden and ask
your old woman to give us some tea. Don't be a cat, Joan. You never
used to be grudging of your hospitality.'

Mrs Gildea quickly recovered her usual genial demeanour. She poured
herself out a cup of tea, and remarked that it was refreshing after the
pine-apple syrups and other concoctions she had, as in duty bound,
sampled at the Show. Lady Bridget rattled along with questions about
the Function and the behaviour of the Government House party. Had Sir
Luke been too over-poweringly pompous? Was Lady Tallant really cross?
and had Vereker Wells made any more blunders? and so forth. But she did
not enlighten Mrs Gildea much about her doings with Colin McKeith, and
presently said she must go and make her peace with Rosamond. McKeith
accompanied her--naturally, since he had to row her back to the
Government House landing. There was something in the manner of the pair
that Mrs Gildea could not understand. Of course, Colin was in love--
that she knew already. But was Biddy merely playing with the big
primitive-souled bushman--or was it possible that she, too, could be
in love?




CHAPTER 14



The next time Biddy came, Joan tackled matters boldly.

'Biddy, I've had my marching orders. Mr Gibbs finds Leichardt's Land a
bit stale. I take train to Sydney next week and tour the Riverina, the
Blue Mountains and the country along the railway line to Melbourne. Are
you coming with me?'

Bridget gave a deprecatory laugh. ' I don't know what Rosamond would
say.'

'She'd recognise the necessities of the situation. Besides, you could
come back again.'

'I haven't been here a month. And I don't find Leichardt's Land stale.
On the contrary, I find it extremely stimulating. No, I think the
Riverina and the Blue Mountains will keep, as far as I'm concerned.'

'But I won't keep. Mr Gibb and the drawings for THE IMPERIALIST won't
keep. The question is whether you want to make some money or not?'

'It's the one thing I've WANTED to do all my life, and have never yet
succeeded in doing except when we collaborated in "The Lady of
Quality."

'Here's your chance for a continuation series, "The Lady of Quality in
the Bush." How does that sound?'

'Rather clumsy and long, don't you think? "Lady Bridget in the Bush"
would be more alliterative and catching. Only I should be giving myself
away.'

'I think you're doing that already,' said Mrs. Gildea.

'How do you mean, Joan? I don't see it.'

'Yes, you do. Look here, Biddy. Colin McKeith isn't Mr Willoughby Maule.'

'He's a hundred times better man, Joan.'

'That you needn't tell me; and I'm glad you recognise the fact. But
from the point of view of "The Lady of Quality," would he be a better
husband?'

'You forget, my dear, that I'm not the genuine article. I'm nothing but
a pinchbeck imitation of the real "Lady of Quality." If HIS grandfather
was a peasant, remember that my maternal grandparents were peasants
too. I told him so yesterday.'

'Has it come to that? You go fast, Biddy. But I warn you--Colin
McKeith isn't the man to be trifled with. He knows his own mind. The
question is whether you know yours.'

Biddy nodded her head like a Chinese Mandarin.

'Two months ago you were wildly in love--or, at least, from your
letters one might have judged so--with another man,' said Mrs Gildea.

'No--no--don't call that love.'

'Call it a violent attraction, then. I suspect the man could have made
you marry him if he had chosen. So far as I can understand, you
quarrelled because neither of you would face matrimony on what you
considered an inadequate income.'

'Middle-class respectability--living in Pimlico or further
Kensington,' scoffed Biddy. 'Ordering sprats and plaice for dinner and
pretending they're soles and whitebait. Perambulators stuffing up the
hall; paying your own books and having your gown made at home! No,
thank you. 'Possum skins and a black's gunya--that's Autralese for a
wigwam, isn't it?--appeal to me infinitely more.'

Mrs Gildea threw up her hands.

'Biddy, you haven't the faintest notion how dull and uncomfortable--
how utterly unpoetic--how sordid the life of a struggling bushman can
be.'

'No! You know, Joan, I think that it might be perfectly fascinating--
if one really cared for the bushman.'

'Really cared! Have you EVER really cared for any man? COULD you ever
really care?'

'That's what I've been asking myself. It would have to be someone quite
different from all the other men I've liked--something altogether
above the ordinary man, to make me REALLY care.'

'You said that Mr Willoughby Maule was different from any man you'd
ever met. Each man you've ever fancied youself in love with has been
different from all the rest.'

Lady Bridget laughed rather uneasily.

'How tiresomely exact you are, Joan! Of course, they were different.
Everybody is different from everybody else. And I attract marked types.
Will was more marked and more attractive--as well as attracted--
that's all.'

'His attraction doesn't seem to have been as strong as self-interest,
any way,' said Joan, with deliberate terseness.

The girl's small, pale face flushed to deep crimson for a moment.

'Joan, you are cruel! You know that was the sting! And it wouldn't have
stung so if I hadn't cared. Sometimes I feel the maddest desire to hurt
him--to pay him out. I never felt like that about any of the others--
the ones I really did ALMOST want to marry. And then--at other times
I'd give ANYTHING just to have him again as he used to be.'

'I'm certain you weren't really in love with him,' exclaimed Mrs
Gildea.

Bridget seemed to be considering. 'Wasn't I?--I'm not so sure of that.
No--' she went on impetuously, 'I was not REALLY in love with him. He
had a magnetic influence over me as I told you. Perhaps I might get a
little under it again if he were to appear suddenly without his wife--
it turns me sick to think of a married man having a magnetic influence
over me. . . . Even if there was no wife--now. So, when you've
idealised a person and can't idealise him any more: C'EST FINI. There's
nothing but a ghost to come and make you uncomfortable sometimes--and
that CAN'T last. . . . Besides, I've been breathing the strong clear
air of your gum trees lately. It's a case of pull devil--pull bushman.
Do you see?'

'I see, my dear, that you're idealising Colin McKeith, and let me tell
you that a bushman is very far removed from the super-man. Oh, Colin is
a fine enough specimen of a pioneer in a rough country. But his rough
life, his bush surroundings, and all the rest--why, he'd jar upon you
in a hundred ways if you were alone with him in them. Then--he's not
of your order--though I hate the phrase and I hate the kind of man.
All the same, Biddy, you may pretend to despise the men of your own
class, but I fancy that, after a spell of roughing it with Colin on the
Upper Leura, you'd hanker after something in them that Colin hasn't and
never will have. . . . And then,' Joan's swift imagination carried her
on with a rush, 'you don't know in the least the type of man he is.
You'd have to give in to him: he'd never give in to you. He's
domineering, jealous, vindictive and reserved. Before a month was out
you'd quarrel, and there would be no chance of your ever making it up
again.'

'I must say, Joan, that for a friend of his you're not an enthusiastic
advocate.'

'It's because I'm so fond of Colin that I hate the thought of your
making him miserable. Anyway, however, you're bound to do that.'

'I don't see why.'

'If you flirt with him and then drop him, he'll suffer, though he'll be
too proud to show it. And as for the alternative, it's out of the
question. You must see that it would be sheer folly.'

'I've committed a great many follies,' said Bridget wistfully.

'But, so far, none that are quite irrevocable.'

'Well, he hasn't asked me yet to commit this one.'

'You're leading him on to it. Biddy, it is abominable of you to
encourage him as you do--coming here with him that day. . . . And you
let him take you riding. . . .'

'Yes, he knows now that I CAN ride.'

'And he's at Government House nearly every day--I can't think what
Lady Tallant is about to ask him so often to dinner.'

'She likes him because he takes Luke off her hands. You know we've
nick-named him the Unconstitutional Adviser.'

'That's rubbish. You sing to him.'

'What harm is there in my singing to Colin McKeith?'

'As if you didn't know well enough that you're perfectly irresistible
when you look at a man while you're singing those Neapolitan things.
Biddy, it won't do. Give it up.'

'I can't do that, Joan.' She spoke with a strange earnestness. 'Don't
you see that it's giving me a chance.'

'Of forgetting Mr Willoughby Maule!'

'Yes. . . . But it's more than that.'

'More than that. . . . Do you mean . . . can you mean that you could
love Colin McKeith--for himself?'

'Love is a big word, Joan. I've never said to any man--"I love you."'
She spoke the words now as if she were uttering a sacred formula. Her
voice reminded Mrs Gildea of something--the same note in the voice of
Colin McKeith when he, too, had spoken of love. Yet what she had said
was true. Bridget had talked often enough of falling 'in love'--which
she had always been at pains to define as a mere transitory condition--
not by any means the 'real thing,' and she had freely confessed to
violent attractions and even adorations. But, as she had sometimes
solemnly stated, she had never 'loved.'

'I can't explain,' she went on. 'I know you think me a heartless,
emotional flirt. Yes, I am. I admit it. But there's a locked door in
the inner chamber--a shrine that no one has desecrated. The Goddess is
there, waiting--waiting to reveal herself.'

'And so--all the rest have been--experiments?'

'No, The Quest of the Ideal through the Forest of Illusion. I've often
thought, Joan, there was a lot in the motive of that novel of Thomas
Hardy's THE WELL BELOVED. But I seem to be mixing up my metaphor, and
it's time I went back to Government House.' She got up and began
putting on her gloves.

Mrs Gildea laughed hysterically. Somehow, she could not imagine Colin
McKeith producing the golden key and masterfully taking possession of
Lady Bridget's locked shrine. She could only think of him as tricked,
deceived and suffering hideously at the end. She stammered out her
fear, beseeching Biddy to be merciful, but Biddy's mood had changed,
and she only smiled her Sphinx smile.

'I think he's quite able to look after himself,' she said. 'And if he
isn't, sure, he must take the consequences.'




CHAPTER 15



Mrs Gildea could get nothing more out of Lady Bridget. She attacked
McKeith in a more tentative manner, but Colin was doggedly reticent. He
was taking the thing hardly. His way of facing a serious situation was
by setting his teeth and saying nothing. After these unsuccessful
attempts, Joan made opportunity, before leaving, for a private word on
the subject with Lady Tallant. But Rosamond Tallant treated the matter,
at first, very lightly.

'Dear Mrs Gildea, you needn't worry, it's only Biddy's way. She must
have some excitement to keep her going. If it isn't one thing, it's
another. In London, I tried to interest her in Society, or Politics,
and the Opera--and now Luke is trying to interest her in Colonial
questions--but she always drifts back to--Men. She can't help it. And
the funny thing is, I don't believe that in her heart she is capable of
a serious attachment.'

'I'm not so sure of that,' answered Mrs Gildea.

'If so, she has had plenty of opportunities of proving it. But I wasn't
ever afraid even of Willoughby Maule. I was certain that would fizzle
out before real harm could come of it. And mercifully it did. He's
married a woman with a quarter of a million and the right to dispose of
it absolutely as she pleases. I heard that she signed a will on her
wedding day, leaving it all to him in the event of her death. Too great
a temptation, wasn't it? Though I do think if Biddy had chosen she
might have kept him in spite of Miss Bagalay and her money. As it is,
Colin McKeith, or else the novelty of it all out here--has driven him
out of her head. I felt sure of that when I asked her to come. You
needn't worry about her.'

'It's not so much about Biddy that I'm worrying as about my old friend,
Colin McKeith,' said Mrs Gildea. 'It isn't fair that he should be made
a victim.'

'Oh, well, it isn't altogether Biddy's fault that she attracts all
types of men.' And then Lady Tallant made exactly the same remark as
Lady Bridget. 'I think Mr McKeith is quite able to look after himself.
I don't pity him in the least. Didn't somebody say of Lady Something or
Other that to love her was a liberal education?'

'Steele said it of Lady Elizabeth Hastings.'

'I call it a liberal education for Colin McKeith to love Lady Bridget
O'Hara,' laughed Lady Tallant.

Mrs Gildea changed her tactics and voiced her other fear--a more
insistent fear.

'Has it ever occurred to you that Lady Bridget O'Hara might fall in
love with Colin McKeith?'

'Why, my dear, she's wildly in love with him already,' rejoined Lady
Tallant, to Joan Gildea's surprise.

'You've seen it?'

'I'm not blind, and I know Biddy. But I've seen that she's taking this
affair differently from the others, and that's what makes me think it
has gone deeper. A very good thing for Biddy.'

'You can't mean that it would be a good thing for Biddy to marry Colin
McKeith?'

Lady Tallant's social manner was rather full of affectations.
Underneath it, however, lay commonsense and sympathy. She became
suddenly simple and direct.

'Well, now, Mrs Gildea, let us look at the matter without prejudice.
You are fond of Biddy and so am I, but we know her drawbacks.
Naturally, it wouldn't be a good thing under ordinary conditions, but
is she likely to do much better?'

'She has had plenty of chances.'

'And thrown them all away. And though she looks so young, she is close
on thirty. Of course, with her looks and her fascination she ought to
have married well. I'm sure her friends have tried hard enough for her.
But what can you do with a girl who throws herself at the heads of
ineligibles, and when one trots out an unexceptionable PARTI and does
one's best to bring them together, goes off at a tangent and lets the
whole thing drop through. You know how it was with. . . .' Lady Tallant
enumerted names.

Mrs Gildea acquiesced mournfully. Lady Tallant continued:

'The truth is, Biddy has tired out the patience of her relatives and
friends. Molly and Chris Gaverick got the hump over Willoughby Maule--
who would have done well enough if he had only had more money. Old
Eliza'--so Lady Tallant irreverently styled the Dowager Countess of
Gaverick--'told me herself that she was going to wash her hands of
Biddy. I shouldn't wonder if she didn't leave her a penny. And, after
all, it was her own fortune, and she has a horde of needy relatives.
She will consider that she has done her duty to the Gavericks if she
lets Chris have the Castle. When all's said and done, I don't see that
it would be such a bad thing for Biddy to marry a rich Australian
squatter.'

'Colin McKeith is not rich.'

'Oh, he will be. Sir Luke has been hearing all about him.'

'He's not her equal. His father was just a land bailiff, and his
grandfather a crofter.'

'Oh, what DOES that matter! In these days any of us would marry the
roughest of rough diamonds, provided he was decently well off. Biddy
has always been mad after adventure and an open-air life. She's an
original, and everything would be in keeping.' Lady Tallant went on
briskly. 'She would enjoy living among the blacks, provided they did
not murder her, and I suppose one could trust Mr McKeith for that.'

'Oh, there's no danger from the blacks now,' put in Mrs Gildea.

'And then she needn't be buried for ever in the Bush. Luke tells me
that Colin McKeith is certain to come to the fore in politics--I
daresay he will be Premier of Leichardt's Land before long. Biddy would
like bossing the show and airing her philanthropic crazes.'

Mrs Gildea shook her head doubtfully.

'Colin wouldn't agree with them. Besides, she would be expatriated.'

'Oh no. The big men over here are always taking trips to England, being
feted and made much of in Downing Street--Imperialist Policy and that
sort of thing--I can see Biddy at it.'

Mrs Gildea was silent. She scarcely knew Lady Tallant in this downright
mood.

'There's no use blinking matters,' said that lady. 'At home, Biddy has
been a failure. That was why I persuaded her to come out with us. I
knew she wanted a fresh start badly.'

It was quite true. Mrs Gildea remembered Bridget's confidences to
herself. She could not help feeling that Lady Tallant was right in the
main, and put forward no more objections. But she explained her own
plans and the necessity for her immediate departure from Leichardt's
Land--how she had hoped, too, to take Biddy with her and interest her
once more in literary and artistic work.

'Biddy won't go, she told me so, and I don't mean to let her,' said
Lady Tallant decidedly. 'We're short-handed till the new Private
Secretary gets here, and she helps me with my notes and things
generally. And if it wasn't for Biddy's singing, our dinners would be
too deadly dull for words.'

Joan gave up in despair. She suspected that Lady Tallant's affectionate
candour was not unadulterated with selfishness. Finally, Rosamond
promised that she would interest and amuse Lady Bridget to such an
extent as would deter her from rash love-making for want of counter
excitement. Then, Joan reflected, Colin was pre-eminently a prudent
business man, and, as he had told her some time before, would have to
go back to the Upper Leura before the strenuous work of the Session
came on. This was always supposing that the present Ministry kept in
without going to the country upon certain Labour measures unacceptable
to the large land-owners, in which case it was just possible McKeith
might be thrown out of his seat.

Events lay in the lap of the gods. Mrs Gildea wound up matters at the
Cottage and took train south, where she was soon wholly occupied in
describing the wonder of the Jenolan Caves and the wild gorges and
primaeval gum forests in the Blue Mountains. She was really too busy in
the interests of the IMPERIALIST to worry over her friend's love
affairs. In fact, she gleaned most of her information as to the
Leichardt's Town Government House Party from the newspapers she
happened upon at bush hotels. For Lady Bridget was evidently in a
reactionary mood as regards letter-writing and Colin McKeith never put
pen to paper, if he could avoid doing so, except on business.

It was at Mossvale that she read a florid paragraph in the Ladies' Page
of a Sydney Journal, telling of the engagement of 'that intrepid
Pioneer and future Empire-builder, Mr Colin McKeith, to the Lady
Bridget O'Hara, niece of the late, and cousin of the present, Earl of
Gaverick'.

Next post brought her three brief and characteristic letters. She
opened Lady Tallant's first:

'Government House,

Leichardt's Town.

'DEAR MRS GILDEA,

I do hope this may catch you before the newspapers, which I find
announced the engagement rather prematurely last week. I am still of
opinion that Biddy might do much worse than marry Colin McKeith,
though, ENTRE NOUS, the settlements--or rather want of them--for Mr
McKeith tells us that he needs all his capital for making wells and
buying cattle, and he won't injure his prospects and Biddy's by tying
it up--does not at all please Sir Luke, who, before he would
countenance the marriage, insisted upon a cablegram being sent to the
Dowager Lady Gaverick. Her answer: "Not my business, must do as she
pleases," only confirms what I said to you, and I am afraid Biddy's
chances are worth nothing in that quarter.

The wedding is to be early in May, from Government House, of course,
and I need scarcely say how much we all hope you will come back for it.

Always sincerely,

ROSAMOND TALLANT.

P.S.--No doubt, Biddy is giving you full details.'

But Biddy did not indulge either in details or rhapsodies. She began:

'They say hanging and wiving go by destiny, and clearly my destiny is
to become the wife of Collin McKeith. I've always felt that the only
thing which could reconcile me to marriage would be marrying a MAN; and
at last I've found one. I want to tell you, Joan, that we've made an
agreement to ask each other no questions about respective Pasts. The
black-fellows he has slain--the one jarring note between us--are
never to be resuscitated. The men whose hearts I have broken and VICE
VERSA are dead and buried on the other side of the Equator, under a
monument of inviolable silence. Such are the terms of the marriage
contract: and you in especial must respect them. I need say no more,
except this: Have no fears for the happiness of

Your BIDDY.'

From Colin in telegraphic conciseness:

'Tremendously happy. She's absolutely my Ideal--in everything but
size.'

All very satisfactory and conclusive. But--Mrs Gildea could not escape
from a vague misgiving. She was not afraid of the ghost of Mr
Willoughby Maule: indeed, she argued favourably from the baldness of
Bridget's letter in comparison with the reams of sentiment she had
written upon the previous occasion. Nor did she feel uneasy on the
score of any others of Lady Bridget's bygone passions. But had this
complex, fastidious, physically-refined creature the least
comprehension of what life on the Upper Leura might mean? And how about
an Ideal dethroned from her pedestal and plumped down amid the crude
realities of the nethermost Bush?

Mrs Gildea did not get to the wedding. She was ordered to report on the
mines of Western Australia, and was on the other side of the continent
when the marriage took place. In fact, it seemed doubtful whether she
would again meet Lady Bridget before her mission as Special
Correspondent ended. But the McKeiths were to spend their honeymoon in
travelling to his station on the Upper Leura, a distance of some
hundreds of miles from the nearest port, and quite out of THE
IMPERIALIST programme.

She read, however, circumstantial accounts of the wedding, and there
were portraits of the pair--in which Colin looked grumpy and Lady
Bridget whimsically amused--snap shots, too, of the wedding cortege,
in which Sir Luke Tallant, fathering the Bride, appeared a pompous
figure in full uniform; and Lady Tallant in splendid panoply, most
stately and gracious. A long account followed of the bride's family
connections, in which the biographer touched upon the accident of sex
that had deprived her of the hereditary honours; the ancient descent of
the Gavericks, with a picture of the old Irish castle where Lady
Bridget had been brought up--and so forth, and so forth. Mrs Gildea
sighed as she read, and pictured in her imagination the wild wastes of
the Never-Never Land and the rough head-station which was to be Lady
Bridget's home.





BOOK II

FROM THE POINT OF VIEW OF LADY BRIDGET O'HARA



CHAPTER 1


It was the way of the O'Haras to do things first and to consider
afterwards whether it were well or ill that they should be done. Many a
ruined O'Hara might have fared differently in life's battle had he
thought before he acted.

Lady Bridget was no exception to the rule of her family. She had
accepted Colin McKeith in a blind impulse of escape from the old
hedged-in existence of her order, of which she was quite tired and
where-in she had proved herself a failure. She had been attracted by
the idea that he represented, of wide spaces and primitive adventures.
She had always longed to travel in untrodden ways, and had loved
stories of romantic barbarism. And then, too, some queer glamour of the
man had got hold of her. She was intensely susceptible to personal
influence--his bigness, his simplicity, his strength and daring, and
the feeling that he was quite capable of mastering her, not only by
brute force--which always appeals to a certain type of woman--but by
power of will, by a tenacity of passion which she recognised even
through the shy reserve with which McKeith tried to cloak his
adoration. For she was goddess to him, as well as lady-love--and that
she realised plainly. A look from her would make him go white and his
large hands tremble; an unexpected grace from her would fill him with
reverent ecstasy.

The thing happened one soft moonlit evening after dinner at Government
House, when she had strolled out alone to a secluded part of the
terrace, and he had followed her after the men left the dining-room.
She was in a mood of tempestuous raging against her ordained lot.
Letters had come from England that day which had irritated her and made
her wonder how she could endure any longer her galling state of
dependence. Eliza Countess of Gaverick had sent her a meagre cheque,
accompanied by a scathing rebuke of her extravagance. Some cutting
little sarcasms of Molly Gaverick's had likewise annoyed her, and she
fretted under the miserable sense of her inadequacy to the demands of a
world she despised and yet hankered after. Then Sir Luke had been
tiresomely pertinacious over some small dereliction on Bridget's part
from the canons of Government House etiquette, which he had requested
should not be repeated. Rosamond Tallant had been tiresome also and had
made her feel that even here she was no more than a dependent who must
conform to the wills of her official superiors. Joan Gildea might have
served as a safety-valve, but Joan was away in or near the Jenolan
Caves, and could not be got at unless Bridget chose to throw up other
things and go to her, which Bridget was not inclined to do.

The whole thing was a tangle. If only it were possible to find a way
out that would not prove still more painfully complicated.

At the moment the ting-tang of a steamer bell bound outward to the
northern coast, borne to her on the river-breeze, intensified her
desire for escape from conventional limitations. Oh! to find herself
under totally new conditions! The heavy fragrance of magnolia and
gardenia blossoms seemed freighted with exotic suggestion. The tropical
odours blended with the perfume of autumn roses, which made a trellis
over her head and overran the balustrades. The subtle mingling of
perfumes that float in the clear air of an Australian garden, when the
fierce heats of summer are gone, gave her a sense of almost
intoxication.

In fact, Bridget was in the mood for any desperate leap into the
Unknown. Such was her unconscious thought as she crunched a spray of
verbena in her fingers and inhaled the scent which had always a faintly
heady effect upon her imagination. She was leaning on the stone kerb of
the balustrade, vague emotions stirring her, when she heard McKeith's
step on the gravel. Presently he stood beside her, his tall form, in
the well-cut evening suit which always became him best, towering head
and shoulders above her small stature. It was always a satisfaction to
Lady Bridget, fastidious in such masculine details, that he was
particular about his tailoring, and tonight he exhaled the scent of one
of Sir Luke Tallant's excellent cigars. There used to be a good deal of
chaff between them about one of his personal predilections which jarred
a little upon Bridget--his pipe and, particularly, the quality of his
tobacco. But he did not change it in spite of her chaff. She was
beginning to find a certain mule-like obstinacy about him in
unimportant details.

'If you object to this, what WOULD you say to the store tobacco smoke
when I'm in the Bush?' he said. And then he had explained that, when
camping out with the stockmen on their expeditions after cattle, he
always smoked the same tobacco that he supplied to his hands. That was
according to HIS rule of social equality by the camp fire, he
said. . . . And where was all Lady Bridget's vaunted socialism if she
jibbed at such a simple illustration of the first principles of socialism?
Of course, Bridget had taken his banter in good part, and with a pretty
grimace had told him she would get out a consignment of the stuff her
Aunt Eliza gave at Christmas to the old men in their Irish village and
present him with it.

He threw away the butt end of Sir Luke's cigar when he joined her. For
several moments he stood watching her--the picturesque little figure
in its dainty frock, the grace of the small head with its crop of
untidy hair, the pale pointed face--chin resting in the cup of one
flower-like hand, red lips--the upper one like Cupid's bow--slightly
parted, strange deep eyes gazing across the dark expanse of river to
the scattered lights on the high land opposite. Above, the Southern
Cross, set diagonally, in the dark clear sky gemmed with its myriad
stars.

There could be no doubt that Colin McKeith was in the grip of an
infatuation such as he had never known before in his life. It staggered
him. His breath caught in his throat and ended in an uncertain laugh.
He stuttered in sheer awkwardness.

'I--I say . . . you seem to be up in the clouds. You've been awfully
down in the mouth--all through dinner. Won't you tell me? Is anything
the matter?'

Bridget turned and looked at him. Her eyes were softly glistening, her
lips trembled. He thought of her as of a child seeking sympathy in a
strange land, where nobody understood her and somebody had been unkind.
He was intensely stirred by her impulsive appeal.

'Oh! I'm worried. I'm so alone in the world. Nobody wants me--here or
in England either. I was just wondering if I couldn't go off and join
Joan Gildea. . . . But she wouldn't want me either, perhaps.'

He went closer, stooping over the balustrade. Magnetic threads seemed
to be drawing them to each other. He wanted to say, 'I want you,' but
dared not. He blurted forth instead?

'What is it? I'd cut off my right hand if that would be of any use to
you. Good Lord! That does sound cheek! Only--you know--I'm big enough
to bully the whole of Leichardt's Land from the Governor down--and I'd
do it if you wanted me to. Just tell me what's worrying you?'

'It's everything--the whole set of conditions from the day I was born
into them.'

'Conditions are easy enough things to break, if you're determined to do
it. Look here--talk it out. . . . you can trust me.'

Then she recklessly set the flood gates open--laughed with tears in
the laughter; drew a tragically amusing picture of her life--her
anomalous position, her dependence, her hatred of the pretences, the
shifts, the sordid bravado by means of which her impoverished Gaverick
relatives clung on to their social birthright, the toadying of the
Dowager, the worldly admonitions of Rosamond Tallant and her set--she
used some of the phrases he had himself read in that letter. Had he
been in any doubt as to its authorship that doubt must now be at rest.
But he would never tell her of that episode. For one thing, his promise
to Joan bound him. Like a stab came the remembrance of that man of whom
Biddy had written--the man towards whom she had confessed a violent
attraction--and who had behaved as a cad and a fortune-hunter would
naturally behave. That he could have weighed money in the balance with
THIS! She could not have cared for the fellow, or he MUST have thrown
over everything else for her. Was it possible that she had cared--that
she still cared?

'Tell me,' he asked hoarsely. 'Is it that you are fretting after
somebody over there who--someone you can't marry? There must have been
a lot of men in your life. Perhaps there was one who--whom you--
loved.'

His voice dropped, as it had a way of doing when he touched the sacred
subject.

'There have been a lot of men,' she admitted frankly. 'But there has
never been one true Man among them. I've never really in my heart
wanted to marry any of them, if that's what you mean--I don't like
marriage--OUR system of marriage--a bargain in the sale shop. So much
at such a price--birth, position, suitability, good looks--to be paid
for at the market value. Or else it's just because the man happens to
have taken a fancy to one, and while the fancy lasts doesn't think
whether or not it's a fair bargain--on either side. I've seen people
fall madly in love and marry like that. Then before very long the love
turns to hate and it's a case for the Divorce Court.'

'Nothing of that is--love--not as I--and you--understand it.'

She gave him one of her inscrutable looks and then turned again to the
stars. There was silence; Colin thought she must hear his heart
thumping, but she seemed lost in her dreams. He put out his big hand
and timidly, reverently, took hers, crushed verbena and all, as it lay
on the balustrade. It rested like a prisoned bird within his; he could
feel the nervous twitch of the little fingers.

'There's another system of marriage--a better one, I think--where the
man doesn't ask for anything but the right to love until--until he has
compelled the woman's love in return.'

'Compelled! I like that word. I could yield to my master. But he would
have to prove himself my master.'

'Will you let me try?' McKeith said boldly. He grasped her hand tightly
as he spoke; she gave a little cry, for he had hurt her. He was all
compunction and gentleness in a moment.

'Oh, you are strong!' she said. 'I almost think you could make me do
anything you chose.'

'No--that isn't what I meant.' He seemed trying to steady himself.
'I'm damned if I'd ever give up my free-will to anybody, and I wouldn't
like even the woman who was my mate to do it either. But love--that's
a different thing. . . . '

'Your mate!' she repeated.

'You don't know the Bush idea of a real mate--shoulder to shoulder,
back to back--no getting behind one or the other--giving up your life
for your mate, if it came to a pinch.'

'And that's your idea of--love?'

'Something like it, only closer, dearer--a thing you couldn't talk
about even to your mate--unless your mate was your wife--a flower
that blooms once in your life, and that would never--if it were cut
off--come to bloom again. Look here,' he said fiercely, 'have you ever
felt for any one of the lot of men you spoke about just like that?'

'N--no,' she answered slowly.

'If you told me you had, I'd walk away now down those steps--' he
pointed to the flight of stone steps leading from the terrace to the
drive--'and you wouldn't see me any more. . . . But I'm not going to
leave you now, I mean to stick on for all I'm worth, so long as I see
the faintest chance of your giving me what I've set my heart on.'

'Yes--well?' She stared at him in a fascinated manner.

'Well--Bridget--I can't milady you. We're man and woman and nothing
else to-night. . . . '

She interrupted. 'I like you to say that. I feel now that WE, at least,
are real--not social shams.'

'Bridget--you said you'd never found yet a Real Man to love you.
Here's one.' He patted his broad chest with his open palm. 'I'm a rough
Bushy and there's not a frill about me, but I'm bed-rock if you come to
Reality. I'm a lode you've never struck in your life before. There's
payable gold here, if you choose to work me,'

She laughed nervously, considering him.

'Mr McKeith, I'm sure that you're a perfect Mount Morgan, and you
certainly have a most original way of putting things. Do you happen to
own a gold mine, by the way?'

He drew in his breath slowly, as if he were considering the check, then
he took her cue.

'Oh, well! I have pegged out a good many claims in my time and never
got much more than my tucker out of any of them--though there was a
show I came on once up the Gulf way that I've always been a bit sorry I
didn't stop and look into. But rations were short and the Blacks
bad. . . . However, that's neither here nor there, now. Gold mine or not,
I'm positive that I shall be a rich man before many years have passed--all
the richer for a true mate to stand by me.'

'Yes, of course,' she said hastily--'I wasn't thinking of that--
whether you were rich or not, I mean.'

'I know you weren't. All the same, I suppose your grand relations would
consider me a presumptuous boor for daring to lift my eyes to you. And
yet, if I could make you love me, it wouldn't count for a blade of
grass that your father was born in a castle and mine in a crofter's
cabin. . . . Only--you know too--' he became timid and hesitant again
--'you know it isn't that I don't feel you as far above me, almost, as
those stars in the sky. . . . '

'Oh don't, don't, Mr McKeith. It isn't true, you know. I've told you
how I despise all that--all the life I've led.'

'Yes, I know. There's not such a difference between us when we stand as
we are now, right on the bed rock. You're like me in having a strain of
working-folk's blood in you. It's Nature you're hankering after--God's
sweet air and the breath of the gum trees and freedom for your soul.'

'Freedom for my soul! How strange that you should understand.'

'I understand better than you might think. You want more than freedom
to make you content. You want a kind of bondage that is the truest
freedom--Love--a strong man's love, a strong man's worship. And
that's what I'd give you, Bridget. Are you angry with me for saying
it?'

'No.' She turned her face straight to him without any shadow of
embarrassment. 'Mr McKeith, I'm too honest to pretend that I didn't
half expect this. I felt you were beginning to care for me, and I was
wondering whether I ought to let you go on.'

'Whether you ought to let me! As if you would be able to hinder it!
Why, you couldn't stop me loving you. You might as well try to dam up
the river Leichardt with this little hand I'm holding.'

She would have withdrawal it, but could not.

'No, no. It isn't strong enough--this tiny, trembling hand, which I
could break to bits in mine if I wanted to. And could you prevent me
from taking you in my arms--you wee great lady--and carrying you
right away--away, out into the Bush where I'm on my own ground and
where not one of your swell men folk would have a chance to find you.'

'I don't think any one of them would want to.' she laughed again
tremulously. 'If it comes to that though, I fancy you'd have some
trouble in disposing of me against my will.'

'Do you think I'd ever want you against your will! No. I'd sooner cut
the whole show, and let you scorn me at a distance as much as you
pleased.'

'I--scorn you! . . . I wouldn't scorn you.'

'And even your scorn wouldn't kill my love,' he said, in that moved
voice that was so unlike his ordinary utterance--'because there's
nothing in the Universe, so far as I know it, that would be able to do
that. Why, it seems to me that my feeling for you is as much a part of
myself as the very blood in my heart. I knew you were the only woman in
the world for me the moment I saw you--so slim and small and strange,
the very contrary of what I'd always thought would be the kind of woman
I'd be in love with--that day when you came walking along that gangway
behind Lady Tallant. It was just a revelation, and then I bolted
straight off to Alexandra City.'

'Which seems rather odd, doesn't it, in the circumstances?'

'No, it's this way. I had to take a few days for getting over the shock
--for rubbing in the fact that what I wanted more than anything on
God's earth, now I'd seen it, was utterly beyond my reach.'

'One might think I was an enchanted princess--a sort of Brunhilda
guarded by a fiery dragon.'

'That's a good bit of how I looked on you--though I've never made much
out of Wagner--he isn't human enough for me. . . . And how could I
have dreamed then that you'd ever let me come as near you as I am this
evening!'

'I must say, Mr McKeith, you haven't shown such extreme diffidence in
approaching me.'

'Ah! Because you soon showed that Brunhilda's dragon was only
pasteboard and blue fire after all--one of the shams you despise. I'm
not afraid of him now. . . . Oh, it's wonderful. . . . It's
beautiful. . . . '

He took her other hand and held the two covered over by his own as he
said with an odd solemnity:

'Lady Bridget O'Hara will you come away with me to the Bush, leaving
everything else behind you?'

She stood very slender and erect, her eyes shining in the moonlight out
of her small pale face and fixed upon him thoughtfully as if she were
weighing his proposition. After a few minutes, she answered
deliberately.

'Yes, Mr Colin McKeith, I will go away with you into the Bush, leaving
everything else behind me--the old "Lady Bridget O'Hara" included.'

He gave an indescribable ejaculation--joy, surprise, triumph--all
were in the utterance. Dropping her hands, he stooped to her and his
arm went round her.

'Oh! Biddy . . . darling.'

She knew he wanted to kiss her, and that he scarcely dared so
greatly. . . . As his beard brushed her cheek, she shrank and moved a step
from him. He, too, shrank, hurt by her rebuff.

'You mustn't be--ardent,' she said. 'You must give me time to get
accustomed to--the fate I've chosen. You know the dragon isn't
altogether a sham. He's got a few kicks in him--yet.'




CHAPTER 2



On other occasions also Lady Bridget made McKeith feel that she
preferred good fellowship to love-making. She was perfectly charming,
always excellent company, and she had a sense of humour which delighted
him, but she did not encourage effusiveness. She seemed to want to hear
about the Bush a great deal more than she wanted to hear about his
feelings towards herself, and appeared anxious to show him that she
meant to be a thorough-going 'mate.' The phrase had taken her fancy.

There was not much opportunity however, for exchanging sentimental
confidences. Everything was rush and hurry during the few weeks between
the engagement and the marriage. It was plain that Lady Tallant wished
to get the wedding over before she and the Governor started upon a tour
of the important stations in the settled districts round Leichardt's
Town, officially contemplated. Bridget had a shrewd suspicion, which
she confided to Colin, that Lady Tallant was getting tired of her.
Perhaps Bridget did not keep herself sufficiently in the background to
please the lady of Government House. Her unpunctuality too often
annoyed Sir Luke.

Another reason for not delaying the marriage was that the Leichardt's
Land government was expected to go out of office on a Labour Bill, and
that an appeal to the country would certainly follow its defeat. In
that case McKeith's re-election would have to be considered, and an
electioneering honeymoon in one of the out-back districts was an
inspiring prospect to Lady Bridget. Then the preparation of a Bush
trousseau needed thought and discussion. She had not much money,
either, to buy her trousseau with. Bridget would have none of Sir
Luke's suggestions of conciliatory letters and cablegrams to Eliza Lady
Gaverick on the subject of settlements. She said she did not intend to
cadge any longer upon her rich relative, and that she preferred to
marry without settlements. Sir Luke was not satisfied with McKeith's
views upon the financial question, and had some difficulty in getting
him to tie up even the insignificant sum of three thousand pounds in
settlement upon his wife. Colin pointed out that his capital was all
invested in cattle, and that though things would be all right as long
as there were good seasons, a bad one would cripple him, and he would
need money to recoup his losses and buy fresh stock. Bridget took his
view and Sir Luke frowned, but did what he considered his duty so far
as the paltry settlement went. At all events, it was a satisfaction to
Colin McKeith's shrewd Scotch mind that nobody insisted upon getting
the better of him in the matter. He knew that Bridget never gave it a
second thought. She was much more interested in the social and racial
problems of this new country of her adoption, and especially in the
blacks. What time she could spare from her trousseau she spent in
reading books about them, which some of her official friends got her
from the Parliamentary Library, and had already learned to think of
herself as a 'bujeri* White Mary,' whose mission it might be to
compose the racial feud between blackman and white.
[*Bujeri--Black's term of commendation.]

To Colin, knowing now the tragedy of his youth, she did not speak much
on this subject. The time went with startling rapidity. The two were
borne on the tide of Colin's wild elation and Bridget's more impersonal
enthusiasms. They were like travellers steaming through strange seas,
not knowing what they were going to find at the end of the voyage and
too excited to care.

That was the way of Bridget O'Hara, but it was not the way of Colin
McKeith.

Yet his closest intimates would scarcely have known him at this period.
He was as a man bewitched, with intervals only of his ordinary
commonsense. In these intervals the consciousness of glamour made him
vaguely uneasy.

Had Joan Gildea been there she would have seen all this and would have
observed signs of over-strain in Bridget--something faintly
apprehensive yet obstinately determined. And Joan would have understood
that when an O'Hara woman gets the bit between her teeth, she will not
stop to look back or to consider whither she is galloping. Bridget kept
herself continually on the go. Latterly, even Colin was warned by her
nervous restlessness. When they were alone together, which was not
long, nor often, her body seemed never still, her tongue rarely at
rest. Sometimes her talk was brilliantly allusive; at others it was
frothy chatter. One day it really irritated him. She had been
fluttering about the sitting-room opening on to the terrace, which Lady
Tallant had made over to her guest. An English mail had come in. She
read him bits of a letter from Molly Gaverick and made explanatory,
satiric comments upon those impecunious, aristocratic relatives who
were on the fringe of the London smart set of which Bridget herself had
lately formed a yet more outside part.

'Chris Gaverick has gone into the wine business, and they've taken a
tiny house in Davies Street, Berkeley Square, and the Eaton Place house
pays its rent . . . You don't understand? . . . No. . . . Molly and I
talked it out when they were married. Of course, it seemed madness,
with their means to take a house in Eaton Place. They ought to have had
one in Bayswater. But it has answered splendidly. You see, they put
their wedding presents into it and let it for the season, and managed
to live rent free and have the use of other people's motors and all the
going about they wanted without paying even for their food . . . and no
expense of entertaining, outside a dinner or two at Hurlingham. . . .
Cadging!. . . In London Society everybody cadges except the
millionaires--and they're cadged upon. . . You see, as Molly said, you
can't entertain in Bayswater, or know the right people, and go about to
the right houses, which is the most important thing for a poor couple
who want to keep their heads up. Now the result is that Chris is able
to bring in quantities of clients and gets a commission on all the wine
he sells. . . . What's the matter, Colin? You look quite fierce.'

'And that,' commented McKeith, 'is an English belted Earl!'

'Irish--there's a difference. And are they belted--really? Isn't it a
figure of speech?'

'I don't know, and I don't care.'

'But wouldn't you care to hear Molly's account of their visit to the
Duke and Duchess of Brockenhurst to meet the King and Queen of
Hartenburg? Molly is very sorry I wasn't there. She says that it would
have made everything so much nicer for her and Chris, and that the King
might have ordered some wine from his firm.'

She was teasing. He knew it, and it infuriated him.

'Oh, no doubt you're sorry too that you weren't there with the Duke and
Duchess, and the King and Queen, and your cousins, the Earl and
Countess,' he flung at her.

'They'll be your cousins too--by marriage. And if you ever become a
very rich man and take me back to England, you'll have to "Chris and
Molly" them and to give him a big order for wine. . . . '

That mollified McKeith.

'And if I wasn't a rich man, and didn't give a big order, they wouldn't
care a twopenny damn for me.'

'Molly mightn't--unless by chance you were taken up in high quarters
and made the fashion--like Cecil Rhodes and "Doctor Jim," or some new
edition of Buffalo Bill. Then she'd call you "one of nature's uncrowned
kings." But Chris Gaverick isn't a bad sort, if his wife would let him
be natural. . . . They hadn't got my cablegram about you, Colin, when
this was written,' she went on. 'I wish I could have told the Queen
myself. I'm sure she would have been sympathetic. And now I don't
suppose I shall ever meet her again.'

He rejoined with clumsy sarcasm.

'I see. The Queen of Hartenburg was an intimate friend of yours--the
sort of chum who'd have been likely to drop in any day for a yarn and a
cup of tea!'

'She often did when she hunted with our hounds in Ireland, and it IS
true that the Queen of Hartenburg was quite an intimate friend of mine
--for two winters, anyhow. But I assure you, it hasn't made me proud,
and if the Queen of Hartenburg bores you, let us talk of something
else.'

She gave another glance at the last sheet of Lady Gaverick's letter and
thrust it into a pigeon-hole of the writing-table, then came back to
the long settee on which he sat. All the time, his gaze had never left
her. She saw that he was disturbed.

'What is the matter?' she asked again, and sat down, a little way from
him, on the settee. He turned sideways to her, bending forward, one
large hand twisting his fair beard. There was a hungry look in his
eyes, but his passing ill-humour had melted into a deep, adoring
tendeness.

'Biddy--my mate--will you answer me a question--truthfully?'

'I believe I can say honestly, that truth is one of my strong points,'
she parried lightly.

'I want you to be serious. I mean it seriously. I want you to tell me
what determined you on marrying a rough chap like me? That letter--
thinking of you among those grandees, you talking a language that's
worse than Greek to me, brings the wonder of it home. As I look at you,
the thing seems just incredible.'

'I can't understand why it should seem so surprising.'

'WHY! You know what I mean. It's not only that your birth and bringing
up are so superior to mine, and that you had a right to look for a
husband in a very different sort of position--I can see plainly that
is what Sir Luke thinks. . . . '

'I don't care--a twopenny d-a-m-n--as you said--for what Sir Luke
thinks. I've got my own ideas as to the kind of husband most likely to
suit me.'

'There's the marvel of it. For you must have had dozens of men wanting
you. You are so beautiful.'

'Oh, Colin, I've told you what I feel about the English marriage
system. And, PAR PARENTHESE, I'm not beautiful. I don't come up in the
least to the artist's standard. My measurements are wrong. I'm too
small.'

'That's rot. There's a fascination about you no man can resist--or
woman either. I see it in the people who come here.'

'If I happen to have drawn them into what Rosamond used to call my
mysterious sphere of influence--which I seem to do without knowing it.
I'm not sure, though, that either Rosamond or Luke approve of my
drawing the Leichardt's Town people into my mysterious sphere of
influence.'

'I think, if you ask me, that Lady Tallant is a bit of a cat, and Sir
Luke more than a bit of a prig.'

'No. You mustn't say a word against them.' It was not in Bridget to be
disloyal. 'They've given me the time of my life.'

'When you smile like that, you remind me of a photograph of a picture
I've seen--a woman, I don't remember her name.'

'Mona Lisa--La Gioconda. I know--I've been told that before.'

'Yes, that's it. Mona Lisa. People have written about her.'

'Reams. Some day I'll read you what Pater says of her, unless you've
read him already--by your camp fire.'

For he had talked to her, as he had talked to Joan Gildea, about his
readings and his dreamings under the stars in the Bush.

'Eh! you shall teach me about these new writing chaps. I don't
understand your up-to-date theories. I've always gone in for plain
facts--standard reading--history--great thoughts of great minds--
old books brought out in people's editions. I'm up a tree--downright
bushed when you begin upon your queer ideas--all those new-fangled
religions and notions--Theosophy, spooks--about the earth being
alive, and thoughts making a sort of wireless telegraph system--I do
believe in that, though--to a certain extent. And your Brotherhood of
Man! Bosh! We're all like a lot of potatoes thrown into a sack and
shaken about by circumstance. And the big ones come to the top, and the
little ones--because they're little--sink to the bottom. I've always
wanted to be one of the big potatoes, and mean to be.'

Bridget laughed. She had a ringing laugh when she was amused.

'Oh! go on, Colin. I grant that you're a very big potato and I'm a very
little one.'

'You know I didn't mean it that way. You're the biggest potato in the
whole bag as far as mind goes, and you make me feel the smallest.
You're so wonderful that the marvel of your being contented to marry me
is a bit staggering. And that brings me back to my question, which you
haven't answered.'

'How have I brought myself to the incredible enterprise of marrying an
Australian bushman? Do you know?'--she became suddenly serious--'I
have asked myself that question once or twice, and I haven't been able
to answer it.'

The light of adoration in his eyes faded a little.

'I've been afraid of that,' he said slowly. I've been afraid that you
might be rushing into the business without reasoning it out--weighing
all the sides of it.'

'If I were, it would only be the way of the O'Haras.'

His blue eyes became more troubled.

'I've been afraid of that,' he repeated. 'Bridget--suppose--my dear,
suppose it was to turn out a mistake.'

'Well, I've made so many mistakes in my life and lived through them
that one more wouldn't matter,' she rejoined lightly.

'This one would matter--because it would be irretrievable. Suppose
that you were to find that you couldn't put up with the Bush life--
I've told you that you are letting your imagination and your enthusiasm
run a bit away with you, and that there may be hardships you don't
reckon on. For though it all looks to me plain sailing now, and I hope
it will only be a year or two before I can put on a manager, and give
you the home and the climate that are more suited to you, one can't
tell in Australia that there may not be a drought or that a cattle boom
may not turn to a slump--do you see?'

'I shan't mind in the least, Colin--that is, I shall mind immensely,
but if there comes a drought it will be quite exciting helping you to
drag out the poor, thirsty beasts, when they get bogged into the
waterholes as you were describing the other day.'

He laughed.

'YOU--helping to drag out bogged beasts! Why! they'd drag you in.'

'Well, there are other things. Riding! I could help you to break in
horses. All the O'Haras are good on horseback'--at which he laughed
immoderately and told her that when she had seen one, Zack Duppo, on a
buckjumper, she would not be keen to try that game. But it might amuse
her to help cut out a few tame bullocks on a drafting camp if she had a
good old station mount that knew its work.

She shuddered. 'I love horses, but I should run away from the first
bullock that looked at me. I'm frightened of beasts, and, on second
thoughts, I should not want to pull out bogged ones. And I loathe
cooking--domestic work--in a house. It would be different out of
doors. You've promised to teach me the first time we camp out how to
make--what do you call them--johnny-cakes?'

'Ah! The first time we camp out together. If you knew how I've dreamed
of that. Biddy, I've got plans in my mind for that--' He caught her two
hands in a fierce grasp, and as he looked at her, his eyes full of
love, he would--greatly daring--have held her close to his breast and
kissed the provocative lips, as yet almost virgin to his. But she made
a shrinking movement, and he, acutely sensitive, dropped her hands, and
the love that had flamed in his eyes gave place to the dour look she
did not know so well.

'Why do you always keep me at a distance?' he said, and drew abruptly
away from her.

'Dear man, you mustn't be importunate. It--it's constitutional with
me. I've always hated love-making at close quarters.'

'Always! Does that mean that you've been in the habit of letting men
kiss you?'

'Colin, you are rude--brutal.'

'D'ye think so? It seems to me that I'm only as Nature made me. Biddy--
if you feel like that now--how will it be when you're my wife?'

She flushed a little, but as her way was, evaded him.

'Perhaps I shall have grown more used to it all by that time.'

'The time is not so long--only a fortnight from now. And when you hold
me off from the touch of your hand--the feel of your lips--well, it
makes me wonder. . . . '

She gave a little alarmed shiver.

'Don't wonder, Colin. Don't worry. . . . And oh! before everything,
don't drive me--it isn't safe with an O'Hara woman. I can see that you
don't understand women--of a certain type.'

'Oh! I grant you women haven't stood for a great deal in my life, and
the few I've known well have been of the humble, human sort. But I do
know this, Bridget'--his face softened--'I do know that a proud,
sensitive woman--which is what you are and what I love you for being--
is like a thoroughbred mare, out the first time in harness. You must
keep your hands tight on her and let her go her own pace. I can tell
you, too, the cart-horse kind that has to be driven with a whip and a
"gee-up" all the time wouldn't be the type for me.'

She laughed gain, but shakily. There was an appeal in her voice.

'Colin, you've told me a lot about breaking in young horses, and how
patient one has to be with them. Be patient with me. . . . Now, I'll
try and answer your question--truthfully. I only know in a very
confused sort of way WHY I want to marry you. . . . I think you must
understand what a lonely sort of life I've led, really--and what a
dreadful muddle I've made of it--Well, I've told you how I hated
everything. And though I can laugh, and be interested, too, in Molly
Gaverick's way of looking at things, and in her determination not "to
be out of the swim"--I was just as determined myself, when I had the
mood to be in it--and though one side of me hankers after the push and
the struggle and the worldliness--yet the other side of me revolts
against it, and longs to be washed clean of all the sordid social
grime. There! I've felt about marrying you that it would be a new
baptism into a bigger, fresher, purer life--do you see?'

'Yes--I see.' His tone was doubtful. 'You've tried it before--that
idea of bigger interests--a different kind of life--in other ways,
Biddy, haven't you?'

'Oh! in ever so many ways. Of course, that wasn't only in the sense of
love--hero worship, you know. It was the schemes, ideas, plans for
living in the higher part of one. Tolstoy, Prentice Mulford--that kind
of thing. . . . Colin, you blame me for not GIVING; yet, all my life,
I've been blamed for giving too freely.'

'For giving too freely!' He repeated sharply.

'You mustn't misunderstand me. I said it hadn't only to do with men
making love to me--my ideas about a different life. It was my general
attitude--expecting to meet something great and being disappointed. . . .
Of course, I've suffered--suffered horribly--in my heart--in my
pride. And I've often found that my attitude towards things brought me
into difficulties. The average person, if it's a man--supposes that
because one has such ideas one must be a kind of abandoned creature.
And, if it's a woman, that one has some mean, ulterior motive. I've
always seemed to be looking for largeness and finding only what was
small. You attracted me because you're like nature--big, simple,
elemental.'

'Now, what the deuce do you mean by elemental?'

'Primal, unadulterated--closer to the heart of life and nature. It's a
sort of cosmic quality. You are large--your surroundings are large.'

He laughed, only half comprehending, gauche in the expression of his
deep-hearted satisfaction.

'One thousand square miles, two thirds of it fair grazing country in
good seasons, and will be first-rate when I've worked out my artesian
bore system. Plenty of space there for a woman to swing her petticoats,
in--your riding skirt it'll have to be.'

'There! You see!' she cried. 'COULD one be mean or small in such
conditions? It's glorious, the thought of riding over one thousand
square miles--and tapping Mother Earth for your water supply! It will
be just what I said--a new baptism--a washing in Jordan. But you will
be patient, Colin; promise me that you will be good to me, and not ask
too much--at first.'

There came a note into her voice which intoxicated the man with hope
and joy. But he restrained himself. He would not frighten her again.

'Good to you! Biddy--you know you're sacred to me--I'll do everything
--I'll be as patient as you could wish until you get so used to me that
everything comes naturally. You understand? So long as you'll trust me
and open your heart to me, I'm not afraid that you won't love me, my
dear, in the end.'

'I WANT to love you, Colin.'

She moved a little closer to him and put her hand up, timidly, to his
shoulder. His breath came quickly, but he did not lose his
self-control. He knew that he must go gently with her. She drew her
hand down his coat sleeve and let it rest like a snowflake on his--a
contrast in its smallness and whiteness to the great brown hand
beneath. She looked at that, smiling whimsically, and he saw her smile,
and reddened. But he did not know that she found a pleasure in the
sight of his hand--scrupulously kept, the nails as well trimmed as a
bushman's nails can be, while showing the traces of manual labour.

'How ridiculous they are together!' she said softly 'But I like your
hand, Colin. It's different from the other men's hands.'

He was glad she said 'the other men's,' and not 'the other man's'.
Through all the gusts of passionate tenderness that went out to her,
there was always rankling the thought of 'that other man.'




CHAPTER 3



They had only one more talk, in the real sense, before their marriage,
and that was an unpremeditated but natural outrush of the vague
jealousy which slumbered at the core of McKeith's love. It was on the
last evening, and it made an ineffaceable impression upon him.

They were standing, after dinner, close together by the balustrade of
the terrace.

It was a clear night, with a young moon, and the stars set deep in blue
so dark that the sky gave an impression of solidity. The air was full
of scents and of a soft balminess, with the faint nip of an early May
in the Southern hemisphere.

He had folded her light scarf round the child-like shoulders. The touch
of his big hand stirred her--it had not often done so in that peculiar
way. It roused something in her that she had thought dead or drugged to
sleep, and took her back for an emotional moment to a certain late
summer evening at Hurlingham, when she and Willoughby Maule had stood
in the garden together under the stars. There came to her an almost
fierce reaction against that moment. She felt a distinct emotion now,
but it was different--less tumultuous, and bringing her a soft sense
of enfoldment.

She slipped her hand gently into McKeith's, and they remained thus for
nearly a minute without speaking. He was the first to break the
silence.

'Bridget,' he said impetuously, 'we're going to be husband and wife
to-morrow. It makes me tremble, darling--with happiness and hope, and
with fear, too. What have I done, a rough Bushy like me--to win a
woman like you? Well you know how I think about that. And I don't
believe in a man belittling himself to the woman he loves, though it's
just because he loves her so that he feels unworthy of her. And then it
comes over me again--badly sometimes--how little I really know of
you, and of your life, and of your feelings towards the other men you
must have had to do with--one other man in especial, may be, that
you've loved, or may have thought you loved. That's what I want to know
about, my dear.'

Her face was turned from his as she answered:

'What's the good of your knowing, Colin? Whatever there was is past.'

'But IS it past. Over and over again, I've started to ask you and have
pulled back. Now it's got like a festering sore in my heart, and I'm
afraid it will go on festering unless I'm satisfied. There WAS somebody
in especial--a man you cared for and might have married if he had been
a finer sort of chap than he turned out to be?'

She looked at him sharply.

'How do you know? Has Rosamond Tallant been telling you?'

'No,' he said, with complete candour. 'There wasn't a word of that sort
passed between us--and I wouldn't have heeded it if there had.'

'Joan, then? No, I'm sure Joan Gildea wouldn't have talked behind my
back.'

'You may bet your life on that. Joan hasn't said anything about
whatever love-affairs you may have had.'

'Every girl has had love-affairs. I'm no exception to the rule. There's
been no real harm in them. Let them lie--buried in oblivion. They're
not worth resurrecting.'

'No, but,'--he persisted--thinking all the while of that letter--
'Bridget, I must ask you this one thing. Is there any man in the world
you care for more than you care for me? I know,' he added sadly, 'that
you don't love in the way I love you--in the way I'd like to be loved
by you. I know that's too much to expect--yet.'

The melancholy note in his speech touched her.

'I told you that I do WANT to love you, Colin--only I can't help being
what I am,' she said softly. She looked up at him in the pale
brightness of the thin moon and myriad stars. He stood with the faint
illumination from the open windows of Government House upon his fine
head and his neat fair beard. It intensified the gleam in his earnest
blue eyes, while it softened his angularities and bush roughness, and
as she looked up at him, she could not help feeling what a splendid
fellow he was! What a MAN! So much finer than that other man to whom
she had nearly given herself! Ah, she had had an escape! Under all his
show of romantic adventure, his ardent protestations, his magnetic
charm, that other man had been utterly sophisticated, worldly,
self-interested. He had shown this in his money-grabbing, in his
disloyalty both to the woman he had professed to love, and to the woman
he had married for her fortune. Thinking of him in this way, Lady
Bridget felt that in time she might come to care a great deal more for
Colin McKeith,

He caught up her last words.

'Yes, I know that you WANT to love me Biddy, and I hope with all my
heart and soul that you will--or else--' he broke off, his face
darkening.

'Or else--what?'

'I don't know. It would be hell. I can't think such a thing at this
moment. If it comes--well, I'll face it as I've had to face other ugly
things. Don't let us speak of the possibility!'

She sensed some quality in him that she had not realised before.

'You frighten me a little, Colin. It's as if I may any day come up
before something I wasn't prepared for; and yet--I rather like it.'

He smiled at her.

'I'm glad you like it, anyway. You seem to me such a child, Biddy,
though you are always telling me you are such an old soul. I can't for
the life of me make out what you mean by that.'

'Oh! A soul that has come back and back, and has lived a great many--
perhaps naughty--lives.'

'H'm! Yes! Well, one life is good enough for me, and as we can't prove
the other thing, what does it matter anyhow? I wouldn't want you in
another life if you were going to be quite a different person. I want
you as you are in this one. And so I reckon would any man who has ever
been in love with you. Let us go back now to what I was asking you.
Biddy, there WAS a man--one man that you did care for? You've admitted
as much.'

'Yes--I suppose there was.'

'And not so long before you came out here?'

'I suppose that's true too.'

'Bridget!--do you know what's been festering in my mind--the thought
that you might be marrying me in a fit of pique--a sort of reaction.
Biddy--tell me honestly, my dear, if it's anything of that sort?'

She seemed to be considering.

'I don't quite know how to answer you, Colin--if I'm to be absolutely
honest. And I'd always rather tell you the truth.'

'Thank God for that. Let there be truth between us--truth at any
cost.'

'You see,' she said slowly. 'My whole coming out here--everything I've
done lately, has been done in reaction against all I've done and felt
before.'

'Would you have married that man--if everything had been on the
square?'

'What do you mean by "on the square"? I've done nothing to be properly
ashamed of!'

'No--no--I was thinking only of him, Biddy, did you love that man?--
really love him?'

'I'm not sure yet whether I'm capable of what you'd call loving really.
I had a violent attraction to him,'--he remembered the phrase--'I
confess I did feel it dreadfully when he married someone else. Now it
doesn't hurt me. And of course, he has gone out of my life altogether.
I'm glad he has, and I hope he will keep on the other side of the
world.'

'Well, let it stop at that.' He drew a breath of relief. 'I don't
believe you really cared for him. If you had, you couldn't take it as
you do. I'll never bother you again about that man. And, oh, my dear--
my dear--it doesn't seem to me possible that you shouldn't come to
love me, when I love you as I do--with my whole heart and soul--I
worship you, Biddy. And I'll not say again that I'm unworthy of you--a
man who loves a woman like that CAN'T be unworthy.'

He took her in his arms and kissed her. And this time she did not
resist the caress.



They were married with much flourish of trumpets and local
paraphernalia. Never before in the annals of Leichardt's Land had a
wedding taken place from Government House. This one was regarded as
quite an official event. The Executive Council--at that moment about
to undergo the pangs of dissolution--attended in a body. There were a
great many members of parliament present also. It became even a
question whether the official uniforms worn at Sir Luke's 'Swearing In'
should not lend eclat to the occasion. But Colin McKeith vetoed that
proposition.

The bridal party drove straight from the Church to that same
extemporized wharf by the Botanical Gardens which had been put up for
the Governor's State Landing. It had been re-constructed and
redecorated for to-day's event. Thus the embarcation of the bride and
bridegroom, of the viceregal party and the wedding guests, in the
Government yacht, which was to take the new-made pair to the big
mail-boat in the Bay, was almost as imposing a ceremony as the
Governor's Entry into his new kingdom. The day was glorious--an early
Australian winter's day, when the camellia trees are in bud, and the
autumn bulbs shedding perfumes, and garlands of late roses, honeysuckle
and jasmine are still hanging on trellis and tree.

As the bridal party came down the avenue of bunyas, and the band played
the Wedding Chorus from LOHENGRIN a feeling of dream-like incongruity
came over Bridget. She laughed hysterically.

'What a pity Joan Gildea isn't here!' she said. 'Think of the "copy"
she might have made out of this!'

Lady Tallant had conceived the original idea of having the wedding
breakfast on the deck of the Government yacht, while it steamed down
the forty miles between Leichardt's Town and the river bar, beyond
which, in those days, large vessels could not pass. There, the repast
was laid on tables decorated with white blossoms and maidenhair fern,
under an awning festooned with flowers and exotic creepers, and
supported apparently, by palm trees and tree ferns which had been taken
from the Government Gardens.

The bride looked small, pale, and quaint in her white satin dress and
lace veil, now thrown back and partly confining the untidily curling
hair. Some of the reports described her as being like an old picture;
others as a vision from Fairyland. She came barely up to her husband's
shoulder as they stood together, and the adoring pride of his downward
gaze at her, stirred all the women's hearts and roused a sympathetic
thrill in the men's breasts. Colin made a good show in the regulation
bridegroom's frock coat, and with a sprig of orange blossom in his
buttonhole. There was no doubt that he was extremely happy. He gave a
short manly speech in response to Sir Luke's rather academic oration
proposing the health of the wedded pair. The Premier too made a speech,
and so did the Attorney-General, who was best man. Bridget's
bridesmaids had been selected from the daughters of the Executive with
as much attention to precedence as though she had been a royal
princess. All this had delighted the Leichardstonians, and when Sir
Luke read out the congratulatory cablegrams received that morning from
the Earl and Countess of Gaverick, Eliza, Countess of Gaverick, and one
or two other members of the British aristocracy, the enthusiasm was
great.

The speeches were over; the wedding cake had been cut; the river-bar
and the liner were in sight, when Lady Bridget went below and changed
into sea-going blue serge. The mail-boat, beflagged in honor of the
occasion, dipped a salute. The Governor led the bride along the
gangway, introduced the captain of the mail-boat, and there were more
congratulatory speeches, and still more of official ceremony as the
bride passed by a line of inquisitive and admiring passengers--
fortunately there were not many--and down to the state-room prepared
for her. Then the curtain seemed to fall that divided her from her
past, and when the Governor stepped again on to the Leichardt's Land
yacht, and the last farewell had been waved, Lady Bridget felt
thankfully that she had become a private individual at last. Only just
Bridget, wife of Colin McKeith, Bushman, now starting upon her voyage
towards the Wild.

She could not get away from the bewildering sense of unreality. It
dominated every other feeling. She did not even reflect that there was
no going back; that her fate was sealed, and that the Bush was
henceforth to be her prison or her paradise.

All the way up the river, Rosemary Tallant congratulated herself upon
having done the best that was possible for poor Biddy the failure. It
was all entirely satisfactory. She wove a halo of romance round Colin
McKeith, and, after reading her laudation of him, and her description
of Bridget's send off, old Lady Gaverick and the impecunious Chris and
his wife declared to each other that Biddy had done as well for herself
as the family had any reason to expect.

Eliza, Lady Gaverick, was highly pleased, though she would not for the
world have let her niece by marriage know it. Being Scotch herself she
approved of the Scotch bridegroom, and began now to think seriously of
the alteration she subsequently made in her will.

It was a four days' passage to Leuraville the port at which the
McKeith's were to be dropped. Not being a good sailor Lady Bridget
retired to her berth when the steamer got into a choppy sea.

Of course she had no maid. Colin unpacked the cabin trunk and dressing
bag and arranged things so far as he could understand his wife's dainty
toilet equipments, and his mistakes made them laugh and got them over
the first awkwardness of close quarter.

Then he said:

'Now I'm going to stow away my own traps. My cabin is just facing this
and you've only got to call out if you want anything. Eh, but my word!
Biddy, it's a fine thing to be marrying from Government House. The
Company has done us both proud.'




CHAPTER 4



They were landed at Leuraville on the evening of the fourth day. A
tender took them off with the mails--as it happened, they were the
only passengers for that small sea-township. Ordinary business folk
going north, preferred the smaller coasting steamers which put in at
every port. The postmaster, the portmaster, the police magistrate, and
a few local notables were waiting to receive them at the wharf. McKeith
greeted them all heartily and rather shyly introduced them to his
bride. The local men were shy also. They mostly addressed her as Mrs
McKeith. The police magistrate--Captain Halliwell, lean, dark, sallow,
with a rather weak mouth, but more carefully dressed than the others,
and with an English voice, called her Lady Bridget. He was a retired
officer of the ROYAL ENGINEERS. She had been told and now remembered
that men in the ROYAL ENGINEERS were popularly said either to be
religious or cranks. This man was a Christian Scientist which he
announced when apologising for not offering the hospitality of his
house, a new baby having arrived the day previously, ushered into the
world, he explained, by prayer and faith and without benefit of medical
skill.

Bridget knew something about Christian Scientists. She plunged at once
into faith-healing ethics with the police-magistrate, while Colin saw
about getting the trunks off the tender. How odd it seemed to be
talking about London and Christian science in a place like this!

Leuraville too seemed part of a dream. But her face soon lost its
bewildered look. She became interested in her surroundings, although
there was no suggestion here of savage freedom or romantic adventure.

Leuraville showed low and hot and ugly. A red sun near its dropping,
drew up the miasmic vapours from the mangrove-fringed reaches
stretching on either side of the wharf. Some light crafts were moored
about. A schooner was loading up with cattle--wretched diseased
beasts. Bridget watched them with shuddering repulsion--being hoisted
up and slung aboard with ropes. The men at their task swore so
abominably that the police-magistrate stepped up to them and
remonstrated on the plea of a lady's presence. Bridget had never heard
such swear-words. She was used to the ordinary 'damn,' but these oaths
were so horribly coarse. Colin, who was asking local questions of the
other men appeared to take it all as a matter of course. The men
stopped their work to stare at Lady Bridget. They wore dirty corduroys
hitched up with a strap over flannel shirts that were open at the neck
and left their brawny breasts exposed. There were other loafers in
flannel shirts, hitched up trousers and greasy felt or cabbage-tree
hats, and there were two or three blacks of the demoralised type seen
in coast townships. Now, one of the bullocks got loose and rushed
blindly down the wharf, and Bridget shrieked and clung wildly to her
husband's arm until it was headed back again.

Colin laughed at her terror.

'It's all right, Biddy. But how's that for a Bushman's wife. You'll see
lots of cattle up at Moongarr.'

Moongarr was the name off his station which was to be her future home.

'I hate cows. Once I was charged by a wild cow and I've been afraid of
them ever since.'

'That isn't a cow. It's Mickey Field's poley-tailed bullock being
shunted off to the Boiling-Down Works on Shark Island,' said a local
man.

The police-magistrate found his opportunity.

'You wouldn't be afraid, Lady Bridget, if you realised that cow as an
expression of the Divine mind.'

Bridget laughed. Her sense of the queerness of it all was almost
hysterical. She had the Irish wit to make the men grin at her prompt
answer, which when it became bruited up and down the Leura, earned her
the reputation of being sharp at repartee.

'But do you think,' said she confidingly, 'that the cow would be after
realising ME as an expression of the Divine Mind?'

'Eh, you needn't think you're going to knock spots off my wife, any of
you,' cried Colin delighted at the sally. And now he walked and talked
like a man on his own soil again, as more of the townsfolk came about--
extraordinary people, Bridget thought. Loose-limbed bush-riders, really
trim, some of them, in clean breeches and with a scarlet handkerchief
doing duty as a belt, unkempt old men, a Unionist Labour organiser
addressing a knot of station-hands out of work--even a Chinaman--a
Chinky, McKeith called him, who, it appeared kept a nondescript store.
That was in the days before the Commonwealth and the battle cry of
'White Australia.'

All of them showed the deepest interest in the small, pale, picturesque
woman walking by Colin's side.

It seemed incredible to Biddy that she should be walking like that
beside the big Bushman, in this sort of town, and that he should be her
lawful protector.

The street they walked up began from the wharf with two-storied
respectable buildings--the Bank, the Post-Office, the
police-magistrate's residence, some dwelling houses, within palings
enclosing gardens--clumps of bananas, pawpaw apple trees, a few flower
beds, bushes of flaunting red poinsettia, and so forth. There were
stores, public houses, meaner shanties straggling along a dusty road
that lost itself in vistas of lank gum trees.

The Postmaster hoped that Mr McKeith's lady would not find the hotel
too rowdy. It was one of the two-storied buildings, and had a bar
giving onto the street, and a veranda round both upper and lower
storey. A number of Bushmen and loafers were drinking in the bar, and
others were on the edge of the veranda dangling their legs over it into
the street. All of them stopped their talk and their drink to stare at
Lady Bridget. The landlady--a big, florid Irish-woman in black silk,
with a gold chain round her neck came out onto the veranda and greeted
McKeith as an old friend, holding out her hand to Lady Bridget. She
took the husband and wife up to their rooms, a parlour opening on the
balcony, a bedroom over the bar and a little room at the back of it.

'It's a rough sort of shop, Biddy,' said Colin, when the woman had
departed. 'But it will do for a shake-down for to-night. If the steamer
had come in earlier I'd have taken you straight up to Fig Tree Mount,
where the buggy will be waiting for us; and after that we'll begin our
camping out, and you'll be in the real Bush. But we've lost the train,
and must wait till daylight to-morrow. You'll be tired my dear--and
you must be feeling strange,' he added kindly. 'I'll go and have your
traps brought up and leave you to fix yourself. I want to see one or
two chaps and find out whether my drays are down as far as Fig Tree for
stores and what's going on up along the Leura.'

Bridget noticed that the change in McKeith seemed yet more accentuated.
His manner was more curt and decided--rougher than before. He appeared
to have taken on the tone of the Back-Blocks. Yet she admired him. She
did not dislike the roughness.

But she felt a womanish aggrievement at his having left her to undo her
own things. And the rooms were horrible--the meagre appliances--the
course cotton sheets, the awful Reckitt's-blue colouring of the painted
walls. And then the dreadful noise of the men drinking below in the
bar! If this was the Bush! But Colin had said it was not the Bush.

He left her again after dinner which was horrible likewise--burned up
steak, messy fried potatoes and cabbage, an uneatable rice pudding. He
did not seem to mind. The result of his enquiries had left him grim and
preoccupied. Yes, he had taken on the Bushman, and had more or less
dropped the lover. The practical Scotch side of him was uppermost, and
he appeared more disturbed over station affairs than at her want of
appetite. She resented this unreasonably. She had not wanted him to
play the lover in these surroundings, they would have been fatal to
romance, but she had not bargained for his glumness. He was angry at
the non-arrival of his draymen and the probability that they were
drinking at a grog-shanty on the road. He would certainly sack them, he
said if that were the case. And he had disquieting news from Moongarr.
Pleuro had broken out among the cattle. What was Pleuro? Lady Bridget
wondered, but she was not sufficiently interested in cattle to ask the
question. And the Unionist labour men were making themselves a nuisance
--going round the stations burning the grass of squatters who employed
non-Union stockmen and shearers--in one instance, threatening to burn
a woolshed. And there hadn't been any rain on the Leura for a month
past, and weather prophets were predicting a drought.

It was dreadfully prosaic and boring. After he had gone out again to
transact further business, Lady Bridget went to bed and squirmed
between the cotton sheets, remembering ruefully the luxuries of
Government House. Never in all her life had she slept between cotton
sheets or washed herself in an enamelled tin basin. The noise in the
bar became intolerable. She could hear the swear-words quite
distinctly. They were disgusting. She tried to stop her ears . . . . Oh
what a dreadful life this was into which she had plunged so recklessly!

Her thoughts went back to the old-world--to the luxurious veneer
covering the younger Gavericks' petty economies--stealing the
notepaper at country-houses for the sake of the address--cadging for
motors and dinners--'keeping in' with the people likely to be of use;
pulling strings in a manner which Bridget knew would have been too
utterly galling to Colin McKeith's self-respect. And she thought of her
father and his financial unscrupulousness! But none of these could have
conceived of life without certain appurtenances of that position to
which they and she had been born. The only one who was self-respecting
among the lot was old 'Eliza Countess' as they designated her. It
struck Bridget that Eliza Countess and Colin McKeith had points of
character in common--it was true they both came from Glasgow. She
thought of the parsimonious rectitude--which had of course included
linen sheets and fine porcelain and shining silver--of old Lady
Gaverick's establishment, of its stuffy conventionality--though that
had been soothing sometimes after a dose of Upper Bohemia; and Bridget
wept, feeling rather like a wilful child who had strayed out of the
nursery among a horde of savages.

At last she could bear it no longer. They were singing now--a terrible
thing with a refrain of oaths and GEE-UPS, and whistling noises like
the cracking of whips--a bullock drivers' camp ditty. Bridget
shudderingly decided that a row in Whitechapel could be nothing to this
in the matter of bad language. She got up and paced the sitting-room in
her dressing-gown, wondering when her husband would come and rescue her
from these beasts. Watching for him she could see through the
uncurtained French windows the starry brilliance of the night, and the
moon now in its middle quarter. And down below, the houses and shanties
along the opposite side of the street, the fantastic tufts of the
pawpaws, the long white road stretching away into the ragged blur of
gum-forest.

Presently a firm step sounded on the veranda and came up the stairs.

When Colin opened the door, he saw standing by the table, which had a
kerosene lamp on the red cloth, and, even at this time of the year,
winged insects buzzing around, and sticking to its greasy bowl--a
small white figure like an apparition from another world, in its
wonderful draperies of lace and filmy white, the little pale face
framed in a cloud of shining hair, and the strange eyes wide, scared,
and with tears glistening on the reddened lids.

She cried out at him.

'How could you have left me alone here with those horrible drunken men
down there making such a noise that I thought every minute they would
break in on me? And swearing! I've never dreamed of such dreadful
language; and I can't stand it--I won't stand it a moment longer.'

'You shan't. It's abominable, I've been a thoughtless beast.'

He swooped out through the open door, down the wooden stairs which
creaked under his wrathful steps. Bridget heard him call the landlady,
'Mrs Maloney! Come here!' in a voice of sharp command. Presently she
heard him speaking to the men in the bar, not abusively, indeed almost
good humoured tone, but imperatively.

'Look here, mates.' The uproar stopped suddenly. 'You're decent blokes
I know, and you've all had mothers if you haven't had wives. Well,
there's a lady up there--she's my wife, and she's never heard
bullock-drivers swear before, and you've scared her a bit. Just you
stop it. Shut up and be off like good chaps.'

Some dissentient voices arose; an attempt at drunken ribaldry, strident
hisses, 'Sh! Sh!' Cries of 'Shame.' 'Chuck it!' Then again, McKeith's
voice, this time like thunder. 'Stop that I say--one more word and out
you go, whether you like it or not.'

On that, came the noise of a scuffle and the fall of a heavy body
across the veranda. And of McKeith, once more breathing satisfaction:

'All right! I haven't killed him--only given him a lesson . . . . But
just you understand I'm not taking any of your bluff. You've GOT TO GO.
If you don't, it'll be a case of the lock-up for some of you. And if
you do--quietly mind, there'll be a shout all round for the lot of you
to-morrow. Drink my health and my wife's, d'ye see? Here Mrs Maloney,
chalk it down.'

In five minutes he was back in the sitting room, looking rather
dishevelled, and with his coat awry. But there was silence below except
for the putting up of shutters, the sound of shuffling feet along the
road and snatches of the bullock drivers' chorus which gradually died
away in the night.

McKeith went up to his wife who was still standing by the corner of the
table, and put his arm round the little trembling form.

'Oh! Biddy--my darling. I've been a brute. I'm not fit to take care of
you. I ought to have thought of all that. But one gets used to such
goings-on in the Bush, and they aren't bad chaps--the bullockys, and
you've got to discount their lurid language a bit. I don't know whether
it is that bullocks are more profane than most animals, but it's
certain sure that you can't get them to move without swearing at them.'

Then, as she said, half crying, half laughing, 'I see. So this is my
baptism into the Bush! You should have taught me the vocabulary, Colin,
first.'

'Don't be too hard on me. You won't have this kind of thing at
Moongarr. That's the worst of these cursed coast townships. I shouldn't
have left you alone, but if I hadn't, we couldn't have got off properly
to-morrow, and I'd set my heart on having things ship-shape for our
first camping out. Everything's fixed up now--I've been wiring like
mad up the line . . . . The buggy's at the Terminus all right, and I've
got the black-boys there, and the tent and all that. It's going to be
an experience you'll never forget. THAT'S to be your baptism into the
Bush, my dear . . . . If only there's water enough left in the Creek
yet . . . . But if there isn't we can dig for it. Oh, Biddy, think of
it--a night like this--moonlight and starlight--MY starlight--MY
star, that I used to look up at and wonder about, come down to earth.
No, no, I won't maunder, I won't be a romantic zany--not till
to-morrow night--I know the very spot for our camp . . . .'

He began to describe it--a pocket by the river bed--pasturage for the
horses--then pulled himself short. No! He wanted it all to be a
surprise . . . . She was to have just the very thing she had often said
to him she would like best . . . . And now it was getting late and they
must be up in good time to-morrow. Would she go to bed and try to sleep
. . . .

He took her to the door of her room . . . . Was she as comfortable as
she could be here, anyhow? . . . . He knew it must seem cruelly rough
to her; but it wouldn't be his fault in the future if she didn't have
things as she liked them--so far as conditions would permit . . . .
And after all, there women who enjoyed a wild life with their husbands.
There was Lady Burton--and scores of other women--Biddy had asked him
to have patience--and he meant to be patient--he worshipped her too
much not to be patient. Well, she must be patient too with him, and
with this queer old Bush which she would get to feel as much at home in
as he did himself--in time.

He left her at her bedroom door, kissing her hand with the native
chivalry that sat well upon him, and went back to his pipe and the
waking dreams of an ardent but self-restrained lover who had practical
as well as romantic considerations to weigh. Bridget went to sleep with
the smell of his tobacco--and yet did not seem to mind it in the least
--coming in whiffs through the door cracks and filling her nostrils.
She too dreamed--a vivid dream, but by some law of contrariety, not of
any idyllic camping ground in the Never-Never Land. She dreamed that
she was seeing the Carnival at Nice--a medley of dancing waves, azure
sky, palms, gold-laden orange trees and white green-shuttered houses--
flowers, CONFETTI, masks, grotesque pageantry, the merry music of the
South. And though he had never been with her at Nice, Willoughby Maule
came into her dream. They were doing impossible things--dancing
together in the Carnival crowd, flinging confetti, bobbing and
grimacing before the comic masks. Then the carnival scene seemed to
turn flat, and to become a painted picture on the drop curtain of a
stage, and she started up at the sound of knocks such as one hears
before the curtain rises in a French theatre.




CHAPTER 5



Her husband was at her door calling her in the grey of dawn. He had
everything ready he said. She dressed fumblingly as if she were still
in her dream, and they walked to the station-shed whither the baggage
had already gone. The sun was only a little way above the horizon when
they took their places in the bush train that was to bear her on the
second stage of her journey into the Unknown. Such a wheezy, shaky
little train, and such funny, ugly country! Sandy flats sparsely grown,
mostly with gum trees, where there were no houses and gardens. Near the
township there were a good many of these wooden dwellings with
corrugated iron roofs--some of the more aged ones of slab--and with a
huge chimney at one end. They were set in fenced patches of millet and
Indian corn or gardens that wanted watering and with children perched
on the top rail of the fences who cheered the train as it passed.
Sometimes the train puffed between lines of grey slab fencing in which
were armies of white skeleton trees that had been 'rung' for
extermination, or with bleached stumps sticking up in a chaos of felled
trunks, while in some there had sprung up sickly iron-bark saplings.

Now and then, they would stop at a deserted-looking station, round
which stood a few shanties, and the inevitable public house. Maybe it
had formerly been a sheepfold, abandoned when the scab had destroyed
the flocks; and there were enormous rusty iron boiling-pots to which a
fetid odour still clung, and where the dust that blew up, had the
grittiness and faint smell of sun-dried sheeps' droppings.

At one of the more important stopping places, they had early lunch of
more fried steak, with sweet potatoes and heavy bread and butter and
peach jam. Most of the other passengers got out for lunch also.

There was a fifth-rate theatrical company cracking jokes among
themselves, drinking brandy and soda at extortionate prices, and
staring hard at Lady Bridget. Colin pointed out to her a lucky digger
and his family--two daughters in blue serge trimmed with gold braid,
and a fat red-faced Mamma, very fine in a feathered hat, black brocade,
a diamond brooch, and with many rings and jangling bangles. There were
some battered, bearded bushmen who seemed to be friends of Colin's,
though he did not introduce them to his wife, and who talked on topical
subjects in a vernacular which Lady Bridget thought to herself she
would never be able to master. There was a professional horse-breaker
whom McKeith hailed as Zack Duppo, and to whom he had a good deal to
say also. There were some gangs of shearers or stockmen or what not,
who appeared to be the following of two or three rakish, aggressive
looking males upon whom the bushmen scowled. Union delegates, Strike
Organisers, McKeith explained.

After that station, marks of civilisation diminished. The Noah's Ark
humpeys in their clearings became few and far between, and the long
lines of grey two-railed fences melted into gum forest. Now and then,
they saw herds of cattle and horses. Once, a company of kangaroos
sitting up with fore paws drooping and a baby marsupial poking its head
out of the pouch of one of the does. Then, taking fright in a second,
all leaped up, long back legs stretched, tails in air, and, in a few
ungainly bounds they were lost to sight among the gum trees. Early in
the afternoon the train reached the temporary Terminus, for the line
was being carried on by degrees through the Leura district. This was a
mining town called Fig Tree Mount--why, nobody could tell, for there
were no fig trees, and not a sign of a hill as far as the level horizon
--except for the heaps of refuse mullock that showed where shafts had
been sunk. A good many years ago, Bridget was told, there had been a
rush to the place, but the gold field turned out not so good as had
been expected, and it was only lately that the discovery of a payable
reef had brought the digging population back again. From one direction
came the whirr of machinery, and there was in the same quarter a
collection of white tents and roughly put up humpeys. Otherwise, the
township consisted of a long dusty street cutting the sandy plain and,
out of the two score or so of zinc-roofed buildings, twenty were public
houses.

Lady Bridget had been very silent all day. To Colin's anxious enquiries
she answered that it was enough to take in so many new impressions
without talking about them. Through the crude blur of these impressions
her husband stood out definitely, a dominant influence. She seemed to
be only now beginning to feel his dominance. Yet all the time, she
could not get away from the sense of living in some fantastic dream--
an Edward Lear nonsense dream. The sight of the kangaroos in the Bush
brought a particular rhyme of her childhood to her mind. She half said,
half sang it to an improvised tune:


'Said the Duck to the Kangaroo,
"Good gracious! how you hop!
Over the fields and water too,
As if you never would stop!" '


She caught her husband looking at her in a fascinated, puzzled way, and
paused and gave him her funny little smile.

'That's a very pretty song,' he said. 'But I can't make out what it
means. What is it about a duck or a kangaroo? They're nonsense words,
aren't they?'

'Nonsense--oh yes, frightful nonsense. Only it struck me that there's
sometimes a lot of truth in nonsense. Listen now,' and she went on:


'"My life is a bore in this nasty pond,
And I long to go out in the world beyond.
I wish I could hop like you!"
Said the Duck to the Kangaroo.'


He still looked puzzled--but adoring.

'You've got no sense of humour,' she said, 'Don't you see that you and
I are as incongruous as the duck and the kangaroo?'

'That is so,' he answered gravely. 'But I'll be a kangaroo with
pleasure if it makes the Bush more attractive to you.'

She fell suddenly silent again, and sat gloomy and staring at the
endless procession of gum trees as the train lumbered on through that
fantastic forest, which made her think of all kinds of ridiculous
things. And she was conscious all the time of his furtive watching from
the corner opposite, and of his readiness to spring forward at the
least indication of her wanting anything. It bewildered her--the
strangeness of being alone with, entirely dependent upon this big man
of the Bush, who had the right to look after her, and yet of whom she
knew so little.

He did look after her with sedulous care. He had natty bush dodges for
minimising the discomfort of the hot, dusty train journey. He
manufactured a windsail outside the carriage window, which brought in a
little breeze during the airless heat of mid-day. He contrived to get
cool drinks and improvised for her head a cushion out of his rolled up
poncho, a silk handkerchief and a large cold cabbage leaf against which
she leaned her hot forehead. In all his actions she watched him with a
curious blend of feelings. There was a satisfaction in his largeness,
his commonsense, his breeziness. She liked hearing his quaint Bush
colloquialisms, when he leaned out of the window at the small stations
and exchanged greetings with whomsoever happened to be there--
officials, navvies, miners, even Chinamen--most of whom saluted him
with a 'Glad to see you back, sir!' . . . or a 'Good-day, Boss. Good
luck to you,' as if they all knew the significance of this wedding
journey--which no doubt they all did.

Bridget kept in the background and smiled enigmatically at it all. She
was interested in her husband both in the personal and abstract sense,
and was a little surprised at herself for being pleased when he paid
her any attention or sat down beside her. At moments, she even hankered
after the touch of his fingers, and had a perverse desire to break down
the restraint he was so manifestly putting upon himself. Once, when he
had been sitting very still in the further corner, thinking she was
asleep, she had looked at him suddenly, and had found his eyes fixed on
her in a gaze so concentrated, so full of intense longing, that she
felt as if he were trying to hypnotise her into loving him. She knew
that if he were, it must be unconscious hypnotism on his part. There
were no subtleties of that kind in Colin McKeith. No, it was the primal
element in him that appealed to her, dominated her. For she was
startled by a sudden realization of that dominant quality in him as
applied to herself. In their courtship it had been she who dominated
him.

He reddened guiltily when he caught her eyes. His long upper lip went
down in obstinate resistance to impulse. But if he had kissed her then,
she would not have rebelled.

'Colin, what are you thinking of?' she said, and he answered in a tone,
husky with pent emotion.

'I was thinking of our camp to-night--of how we should be alone
together in the starlight. . . . And of how I want to make you happy
and of how wonderful it all is--like some impossible dream.'

'Yes. I've been feeling too that it is like a dream,' she replied
gravely.

'A bit of nightmare so far, I'm afraid, for you, Biddy,' he said
shaking himself free from sentiment. 'But this part of it will soon be
over.'

He got up, pulled the blind down behind her, and readjusted the cabbage
leaf under her head. Just then, the train pulled up at a station where
there were selectors' holdings, and a German woman was lugging along a
crate of garden produce. He jumped out and bought another cabbage from
which he shredded a fresh cool leaf for her pillow. And at that they
laughed and he relapsed into normal commonplace.

When she got out at Fig Tree Mount, he took her across the sandy street
to the nearest and largest of the public houses which had 'Station
Hotel' printed on it in big blue letters--a glaring, crude,
zinc-roofed box with a dirty veranda that seemed a receptacle for
rubbish and a lounge for kangaroo dogs, to say nothing of drunken men.
The dogs took no notice of the male loungers, but started a vigorous
barking at the sight of a lady. There was the usual bar at one end, the
usual noise going on inside, and the usual groups of bush loafers
outside. Several riding horses were hitched up to the palings at a
right angle with the Bar, and a bullock dray loaded with wool-bales--
on the top of which a whole family appeared to reside under a canvas
tilt--was drawn up in the road. The beasts were a repulsive sight,
with whip-weals on their panting sides, their great heads bowed under
the yoke and their slavering tongues protruding. Bridget looked at
everything with a wide detached gaze, as she followed her husband along
the hotel veranda. McKeith, motioning to his wife to proceed, stopped
to peer at the faces of two men lying in a drunken sleep on the boards.

'Not my men, anyway,' he said, rejoining her. 'But that will keep.' The
place seemed deserted and in disorder. There were glimpses through the
open windows of unmade beds within, and, on the veranda, lay some red
blankets bundled together. Colin took his wife into a parlour, where
flies buzzed round the remains of a meal and some empty whisky bottles
and glasses. After considerable shouting and knocking at doors along
the passage, he succeeded in arousing the landlady, who came in,
buttoning her blouse. Her obviously dyed yellow hair was in a
dishevelled state, her eyes were heavy and her face sodden. She had
evidently been sleeping off the effects of drink.

'Had a night of it, I suppose, Mrs Hurst?' observed McKeith glumly.
'This is a nice sort of place to show a lady into.'

The woman burst out on the defensive, but McKeith silenced her.

'That'll do. Clear away all that mess and let us have a clean cloth and
some tea. And I say, if you have got a decent room for my wife to wash
the dust off and take a bit of a rest in, I'll be obliged.'

The landlady blinked her puffed eyelids, muttered an uncourteous
rejoinder and went off with some of the debris from the table. Bridget
laughed blankly. She looked so small and flower like, so absolutely
incongruous with her surroundings, that the humour of it all struck
McKeith tragically.

'Good Lord! I wonder what your opinion is of this show! Here is the
beginning of what is called the Never-Never Country, my dear. Do you
want to go back again to Government House?'

'No, I don't,' and she touched him to the heart's core by putting her
little hand in his.

'That's my Mate,' said he, his blue eyes glistening. 'But I'll tell you
what I think of your splendid pluck when we're quit of these beastly
townships, and have gone straight into Nature. Now, I've got to go and
see after the buggy and find my boys, and I shall have all my work cut
out to be ready in an hour. You just make the best of things, and if
the bedroom is impossible spread out my poncho and take a rest on that
sofa there, and don't be frightened if you hear any rowdiness going
on.'

The bedroom was impossible, and the sofa seemed equally so. Bridget
drank the coarse bush tea which the landlady brought in, and was glad
that the woman seemed too sulky to want to talk. Then she sat down at
the window and watched the life of the township--the diggers slouching
in for drinks, the riders from the bush who hung up their horses and
went into the bar, the teams of bullocks coming slowly down the road
and drawing up here or at some other of the nineteen public houses 'to
wet the wool,' in bush vernacular. She counted as many as twenty-four
bullocks in one of the teams, and watched with interest the family life
that went on in the narrow space between the wool bales and the canvas
roof above. There were women up there and little children. She saw
bedding spread and a baby's clothes fluttering out to dry, and tin
pannikins and chunks of salt beef slung to the ropes that bound the
wool bales together. Then, when the wool was wetted, or when some other
teams behind disputed the right of way in lurid terms which Lady
Bridget was now beginning to accept as inevitably concomitant with
bullocks, the first dray would proceed, all the cattle bells jingling
and making, in the distance, not unpleasant music.

It was the horses that interested Lady Bridget most, for, like all the
O'Haras, she was a born horsewoman. Though she was moved almost to
tears by the spur scars on the lean sides of some of them--spirited
creatures in which she recognised the marks of breeding--and by the
unkempt condition of some that were just from grass, she decided within
herself that there could never be a lack of interest and excitement in
a land where such horseflesh abounded.

Presently she had her first sight of the typical stockman got up in
'township rig.' Spotless moleskins, new Crimean shirt, regulation silk
handkerchief, red, of course, and brand new, tied in a sailor's knot at
the neck, leather belt with pouches of every shape and size slung from
it, tobacco pouch, watch pouch, knife pouch and what not. Cabbage tree
hat of intricate plait pushed back to the back of the head and held
firm by a thin strap coming down to the upper lip and caught in two
gaps on either side of the prominent front teeth--there are very few
stockmen who have kept all their front teeth. Stockwhip, out of
commission for the present, with an elaborately carved and beautifully
polished sandal-wood handle hanging down behind, a long snake-like lash
coiled in three loops over the left shoulder.

Lady Bridget knew most of the types of men who have to do with horses--
huntsmen, trainers, jockeys, riding masters and the rest, but the
Australian bush-rider is a product by itself. She liked this son of the
gum forest-tanned face, taut nerves, alert eyes piercing long distances
--a man, vital, shrewd, simple as a child, cunning as an animal. And
the way he sat in his saddle, the poise of the lean, lanky muscular
frame! No wonder the first stockman seemed to the wild blacks a new
sort of beast with four legs and two bodies. And the clean-limbed
mettlesome creature under him! Man and beast seemed truly a part of
each other. Lady Bridget O'Hara's soul warmed to that stockman and to
his steed.

He was looking at the windows of the bar-parlour. As soon as he saw the
lady, the cabbage tree hat was raised in a flourish, the horse was
reined in, the man off his saddle and the bridle hitched to a post.

Now the stockman stepped on to the veranda.

'Mrs McKeith--or is it Lady McKeith I should say--I haven't got the
hang of the name if you'll pardon me--Mr McKeith sent me on to say
that he'll be here with the buggy in a minute or two. . . . I'm
Moongarr Bill. . . . Glad to welcome you up the Leura, ma'am, though I
expect things seem a bit rough to you straight out from England and not
knowing the Bush.'

Lady Bridget won Moongarr Bill's good favour instantly by the look in
her eyes and the smile with which she answered him.

'I'm from Ireland, Moongarr Bill, and if we Irish know anything we know
a good horse, and that's a beauty you're riding.'

'Out of a Pitsford mare by a Royallieu colt, and there's not a finer
breed in the Never-Never. My word! you've struck it there, ma'am, and
no mistake,' responded the stockman enthusiastically. 'I bought 'im out
of the yard at Breeza Downs--that's Windeatt's run about sixty miles
from Moongarr, and I will say that though it's a sheep-run they've beat
us in the breed of their 'osses. . . . Got 'im cheap because he'd
bucked young Windeatt off and nearly kicked his brains out, and there
wasn't a man along the Leura that he'd let stop on his back except me
and Zack Duppo--the horse-breaker who first put the tackling on 'im.'

After the interchange of one or two remarks, Lady Bridget had no doubt
of being friends with Moongarr Bill, and Moongarr Bill decided that for
a dashed new-chum woman, Lady Bridget had a remarkable knowledge of
horseflesh.

The quick CLOP-CLOP of a four horse team and a clatter of tin billys
and pannikins--as Lady Bridget presently discovered slung upon the
back rail of an American buggy--sounded up the street.

'There's the Boss,' said Moongarr Bill. 'Look alive, with that
packhorse, Wombo.'

Lady Bridget now perceived behind the stockman a black boy on a young
colt, leading a sturdy flea-bitten grey, laden with a pack bag on
either side. He jumped off as lightly as Moongarr Bill and hitched his
horses also to the veranda posts. Except that he was black as a coal,
save for the whites of his eyes and his gleaming teeth, he seemed a
grotesque understudy of the stockman--moleskins, not too clean and
rubbed and frayed in places, fastened up with a strap; faded Crimean
shirt exposing a wealed and tattooed breast; old felt hat--not a
cabbage tree--with a pipe stuck in its greasy band; an ancient red
silk handkerchief with ragged edges, where whip crackers had been torn
off, round his neck, and a short axe slipped among a few old pouches
into the strap at his waist. He jumped on to the veranda, clicked his
teeth in an admiring ejaculation as he gazed at Lady Bridget.

'My word! BUJERI feller White Mary you! . . . new feller Mithsis
belonging to Boss. My word!' Then as McKeith drew up his horses in
front of the hotel, Wombo and Moongarr Bill sprang to the heads of
wheelers and leaders.

It seemed to Bridget that there was a change in her husband even since
he had left her. He looked more determined, more practical, wholly
absorbed in the unsentimental business of the moment. He had changed
into looser, more workmanlike rig--was belted, pouched, carried his
whip grandly, handled his reins with a royal air of command, as if he
were now thoroughly at home in his own dominions, had already asserted
his authority--which she found presently to be the case--and intended
the rest of the world to knock under to him. There flashed on Lady
Bridget an absurd idea of having been married by proxy--like the
little princesses of history--and of being now received into her
lord's country by the monarch in person. Her face was rippling all over
with laughter when he joined her in the veranda.

'What! Another delicious black boy! He looks like a Christy Minstrel. I
thought you hated blacks, Colin.'

'So I do. You've got to have 'em though for stock boys, and I keep my
heel on the lot at Moongarr. Wombo and Cudgee aren't bad chaps so long
as they are kept clear of their tribe. How do you like the new buggy,
my lady? A dandy go-cart, eh?'

He looked as pleased as a child with a new toy carriage. The buggy was
quite a smart bush turn-out--comfortable seats in front--a varnished
cover, now lying back; a well behind, filled with luggage; a narrow
back seat whence Cudgee--a smaller edition of Wombo--sprang down.
Cudgee, too, stared at Lady Bridget and clicked his teeth in
admiration, exclaiming:

'Hullo! New feller Mithsis.'

Afterwards, Lady Bridget remembered the greetings and wondered why the
black boys had said: 'New feller Mithsis!' Who had been the old feller
Mithsis? she asked herself.

McKeith sternly quashed the black boys' ebullition and told them to
mind their own business. Bridget agreed that the buggy was first rate
and became enthusiastic over the horses, four fairly matched and
powerful roans.

'Oh! what beauties! I'd like to go and make friends with them.'

He was delighted. 'Good 'uns, ain't they? But wait and make friends
when you're behind 'em. We've twenty-five miles to do before sundown.
Got your traps fixed up? That's right. Here, Bill, take her ladyship's
bag and stow it safely at the back of the buggy. Handle it gingerly--
it's full of silver and glass fallals--not what we're much used to on
the Leura.'

The stockman grinned and carried the dressing-bag--one of Sir Luke's
and Lady Tallant's wedding presents--as if it were dynamite. Colin
seemed anxious to impress his wife's dignity upon her new subjects. She
felt still more like a queen of comic opera. He helped her into her
dust cloak, paid the bill, cut short the landlady's sulky apologies--
she had done her hair and recovered herself a little. Then he settled
Lady Bridget into the buggy after the manner of a bush courtier--her
feet on a footstool, the rug over her knees, a cushion at her back. His
whole air seemed to say:

'This is the Queen, and I, the King, expect that proper homage be paid
her.'




CHAPTER 6



The loafers at the bar all came out to see the start. The family on the
top of the bullock-dray peered forth from under the tilt. The barkeeper
shouted, 'Good luck to you and your lady, Mr McKeith.' The drunken
reprobates, awakened from their slumber on the boards, called out, too,
'Goo-luksh!' There was an attempt at a cheer, but before McKeith had
got out his answering, 'Thank ye--Good day, mates,' a shower of
opprobrious epithets rained upon him from a little band of discontented
bush rowdies--the advance guard of that same Union delegate who had
come up with them in the train from Leuraville.

Three of these men lurched on to the bar veranda, and, so to speak,
took the stage. In front was a stumpily-built bullock driver with a
red, truculent face, a ragged carrotty beard and inflamed narrow-ridded
eyes. A little to the rear stood a lanky, muscular bushman in very
dirty moleskins, with a smooth loose-lipped face, no eyelashes, and a
scowling forehead, who was evidently the worse for drink; next to him,
a shorter man of the drover type, older, eagle-beaked and with
sinister, foxy eyes. This one hailed McKeith.

'Yah! Look at him and his spanking team! What price honest labour, you
blamed scab of a squatter? Just you wait a bit. It'll be our turn soon
to burn all you blanked capitalists off the Leura.'

The lanky bushman took up the jeering note.

'Pretty flash turn-out, ain't it! My word, you think yourself a bloated
fine gentleman now you've married into the British hairystocracy, don't
you, Mister Colin McKeith? You can take it from us, boys, he's the
meanest cuss that ever downed a harmless nigger. . . . Ask him what the
twenty-five notches on his gun stand for?'

'And I tell YOU what it is, Steve Baines. There'll be another notch on
my gun, and it won't be for a nigger, if you give me any more of your
insolence,' said McKeith coolly. 'Get out of the way, men. Let the
horses go, Cudgee. Ready, Biddy?'

But Cudgee, out of malice or stupidity, did not let the roans go or
else someone else put a restraining hand on the reins. The man with the
ragged beard roared out.

'Ho, you think you're going to ride over us!--you and your fine
ladyship! Wot do we care about the British hairystocracy. What we're
asking for is the rights of labour, and we mean to have 'em. Do you
want to know what he's done to us boys? Fired us out straight away cos
we was 'avin' a bit of a spell and a drink to keep the life in us after
we'd close up killed ourselves lifting that there ladyship's blanked
hundred-ton weight of pianner on to the dray. . . .'

Moongarr Bill's chivalrous instinct flamed to a counter attack. He had
just mounted, but swung down from his saddle and made a rush at the
speaker. McKeith's stern voice stopped him.

'Don't be a fool, Bill. Let the brutes alone and push on with the pack.
This is not the time for a row. As for you, Jim Steadbolt--you know
me, and you know that if this was any other sort of occasion, you'd pay
on the nail for your infernal cheek. . . . Leave go of those reins.
D'ye hear'; for the man of the ragged beard was jerking the near
leader's bit and putting the mettlesome animal on its haunches.

'Damn you! Let go.'

He leaned forward to strike at Steadbolt with his riding whip, but the
lash had caught round the pole-bar of the buggy, and he could not
extricate it. Bridget tried to help him. He turned to her for an
instant, a soft gleam of tenderness shining through the steely anger on
his face.

'No. Keep still, my dear. Don't be frightened.'

'I frightened!' She gave a little laugh. Her form stiffened. The small
pale face poked forward between the folds of her motor veil, and all
the O'Hara spirit flashed as she spoke to the group of malcontents.

'How dare you! Stand back. I thought Australian men were men, and that
they didn't insult women.'

There was an uproar in the veranda, and more cries of 'Shame,
Steadbolt, you! . . . You just git, Gumsucker Steve. We ain't got no use
for you, Micky Phayle. . . . Can't you see a lady as is a lady?'
sounded from the bar and parlour. It was the landlady who asked the
last question. The two reprobates who had been asleep, lunged off the
veranda, and made a feeble assault on Steadbolt, who still clung to the
reins. The man, lashed to fury by the scorn ringing in Lady Bridget's
voice, made a last envenomed attack.

'It ain't us GENUINE Australians that insults you. . . . Takes a
mongrel Scotchy for that. . . . Say, Ladyship, just you ask your
husband what a sort of an insult he's got ready for YOU up at his
Bachelor's Quarters at Moongarr.'

The words had not left his mouth when McKeith's driving whip whizzed in
the air and raised blood on the speaker's cheek. Steadbolt dropped his
hold of the roan leader's bridle and fell back screaming imprecations.
At a touch, the buggy-horses bounded forward.

'Sit tight, Biddy,' said her husband. 'Up you get, Cudgee,' he shouted.
The black boy leaped to the back-seat, and in a moment the buggy
swerved by the bullock-dray that was drawn up a little further down the
road, and the excited horses galloped past the nineteen public houses
and the zinc-roofed shanties, past the new quarter of tents and
whirring machinery, past the deserted shafts and desolate mullock
heaps, then way out along the sandy wheel-track into the unpopulated
Bush.

For the first mile scarcely a word was exchanged between husband and
wife. The horses were fresh and McKeith had enough to do to keep them
from bolting. Moreover, even in emotional phases, he was always silent
while chewing the cud of his reflections. Bridget was thinking, too.
She had an uneasy sense of startlement, without exactly knowing why she
felt startled in that inward way. It was as though some great obscene
bird of flight had brushed her with its wings, and brought vaguely to
her consciousness unpleasant possibilities. But presently she became
interested in watching Colin's handling of the team. She had often sat
behind such a team, but never beside such a splendid whip. Impulsively
she made some such remark, and he looked down at her, the hard face
breaking into a smile.

'That's good. . . . Wait a bit, my dear, until they've steadied down
again. . . . Y'see they take a lot of driving, and I don't want to lay
an accident on top of that unholy shindy. . . .' He spoke in jerks. The
roans were inclined to 'show nasty' as Moongarr Bill came abreast of
them, and Wombo's pack jingled behind. McKeith gave Moongarr Bill
directions about the camp in Bush lingo, which again turned Bridget's
thoughts. The black boy and the stockman spurred on as the roans
slackened pace. McKeith was able to relax the strain.

'My word! we scooted pretty quick out of that piece of scenery,' he
said. 'I felt downright mad at your being let in for such a disgraceful
bit of business. I hadn't time to tell you that I'd sacked those men
half an hour before. Found them in the lowest of the grog shanties,
their horses not looked after, dray only half loaded, and the three of
them--Gumsucker Steve was to have come and taken off our leaders when
we got into broken country--thick with the Union delegates and
sticking for higher wages. I paid them off and filled their places on
the spot with two chaps off a wool-drive. . . . So I left the brutes
vowing vengeance, and I suppose they thought they'd lose no time in
giving me a taste of it. . . . Well, they're no loss.' He had been
explaining things in jerks while he brought the team to an harmonious
jog-trot along a piece of uneven road. 'That fellow Steadbolt is a
wrong 'un--not good even at his own job of wood and water joey--which
means, my dear, the odd cart-driving on a place--and not to be trusted
within ten miles of a public house.'

Lady Bridget asked suddenly:

'I want to know, Colin--what did that man mean by saying you had an
insult ready for me at your Bachelor's Quarters? What insult?'

It seemed as though blue fire leaped from McKeith's eyes.

'Insult! Good God! Biddy you can't hold me responsible for the foul
insinuations of a beast like that. Insult YOU! my wife!'

The passionate tenderness thrilling his voice, the honest wrath and
bewilderment in his face must have silenced any doubt, had doubt
existed in Lady Bridget's mind.

'I don't know, Colin. I don't even know what Bachelors' Quarters mean.
Have you an army of Bachelors at Moongarr, and what do they do when
they're at home?'

He laughed. 'It's a shanty I put up for the new-chums when I've got any
--and for the gentlemen-sun-downers that come along, and visitors that
I don't want to be bothered with at the House. There's a woman up
there. . . .' He stopped suddenly and his face grew grim again. 'That's
it, I suppose--I'm sorry I didn't sling the whip harder and cut the
fellow's cheek open. I would if I'd thought. . . . !'

He stopped again.

'What woman? Have I a rival? This is becoming dramatic!' Lady Bridget's
voice was amusedly ironic, but she carried her head erect. 'Tell me
about the woman at the Bachelors' Quarters, Colin.'

'There's nothing to tell, except that's she's the widow of a man who
went up with me on my last Big Bight expedition, and was killed--
partly through his own, and partly through my, fault. That's why I've
made a point of looking after her, and I built my Bachelor's Quarters
chiefly to give her a job. I thought she was too young and too good
looking to be drawing grog for diggers at Fig Tree Mount--which was
what she set out doing.'

'I see. . . . So she's young--and handsome.'

'Oh, in a coarse sort of way. . . . No, I wouldn't say that; she's
rather refined for her upbringing. Anyway, Steadbolt as well as a lot
of other men fell in love with her--Steadbolt was pretty well off his
head over it. She wouldn't have him at any price--naturally--and I
had to give the fellow work outside the head-station to keep him away
from her. That was before I went south. Very likely he's been trying it
on again, and knew I should have to get rid of him as soon as I came
back.'

'Why doesn't the woman marry again?'

McKeith shrugged. 'Too jolly comfortable perhaps--or perhaps the right
man hasn't turned up. Florrie Hensor is several cuts above a
malingering lout like Steadbolt. Well there, poor devil! Maybe, it's
not unnatural that I should feel a sneaking sympathy for an
unsuccessful lover. That abominable lie was a bit too strong though--
and before you! The man must have been downright mad from drink and
fury and bitterness. It--it's all funny--isn't it? One of the queer
sides of the Bush. Good old Bush! I am glad to be back in it again,
Biddy.'

He lifted his head and seemed to draw in the strong odour of the gum
trees and the pure vitality of the weltering sun. His anger appeared to
have left only compunction behind it. And again he begged her to
forgive him for having subjected her to an experience so disagreeable.
They were on a stretch of clear road now, and the roans trotted
pleasantly along. Lady Bridget took up his words.

'Yes, it's all funny--that kind of thing--in this setting. . . . I
never supposed that I should be howled at by a revolutionary mob in the
Australian Bush. . . . A BAS LES ARISTOCRATS. It's quite exciting. I
think I should have enjoyed the Reign of Terror.'

'Eh! You're only frightened of four-footed beasts. If you'd lived then,
you'd have gone up to the block with that smile on your lips, and the
proud turn of your little head--just as I used to dream of you. . .'

'Of ME! '

'You don't know--I'll tell you some day. I remember talking to Joan
Gildea once. . . . It's queer. . . . But never mind now. D'ye like
this, Biddy?'

'I love it. I wish we could drive on through the forest all day and all
night--a dream drive. I think I might be able to place myself at the
end of it.'

'To place yourself!'

'I've never been able to find my true pivot inside. All my life I've
been howling in my soul and haven't known what I was howling for. I
thought to-day that you might teach me.'

'Is it only to-day that you have thought that?' he said wistfully.
'Well, anyway, I'm glad of it.'

'Colin,' she said abruptly, 'wasn't it funking a little bit, don't you
think--running away?'

'No--not with YOU beside me. You'll have other opportunities for
seeing whether I've got much of the funker in me. No doubt those brutes
will give trouble some time.'

'What can they do?'

'Fire my run--spoil my cattle sales--get hold of my stockmen. . . .But
I'm not so badly off as my "sheep" neighbours at Breeza Downs.
They've got to have their shearing done. . . . Though I've had a lot of
bother to-day,' his face became gloomy, 'and I foresee more ahead.'

She asked what other sort of trouble.

'Why! there's been no rain at Moongarr since I left it five months ago.
And Pleuro means innoculation and short sales. . . . Ah well! . . . '

He flicked the wheelers gently. 'Shake it up, Alexander! Look alive,
Roxalana. . . . I named 'em when I was reading ROLLIN'S ANCIENT
HISTORY, my dear . . . my dear!' He looked down at the little woman by
his side with deep tenderness in his blue eyes and a smile that
banished the shade from his face. 'Oh, my dear, there ain't going to be
any bush worries for us this blessed afternoon and evening. It's the
poetry and romance'--he pronounced it romance--'of the bush that's
got hold of me now. I'm just longing for us to strike the camping place
--and then--just you and me together--just man and woman--alone with
Nature!'

He put his hand on hers and she pressed it in return. The Woman in her
thrilled to the Man in him.

Cudgee, on the hind seat with his back to them, broke the spell.

'My word, Massa! You look out, Mithsis--big feller goanner sit down
along a tree.' And for the first time in her existence, Lady Bridget
beheld a monster iguana dragging its huge lizard tail and turning its
stately, brown crocodile head round at her from the safe vantage place
of a thick gum branch.

After that, the way led off the main road, on by a less used track
through wilder country. Here Wombo, the black boy, was waiting--
Moongarr Bill having gone on with the pack horse to the camping place--
and helped to unharness the two leaders which he drove before him
ahead. The trees thickened, the buggy wheels caught on stumps. Cudgee
had to get down at intervals and, with his axe, lop and clear fallen
timber. Every mile the progress grew slower and the forest more lonely.
No sign now of a selector's clearing, or of any human occupation. . . .
But there was a pack of emus hustling and shaking their big bunches of
feathers like startled ballet girls.

'I feel as if part of the Zoo had been let loose,' said Lady Bridget
when again there bounded along in the near distance a pair of kangaroos
with a little Joey kangaroo taking a lesson in locomotion behind its
parents.

They were still in the gum forest, but now and then came a belt of
gidia scrub--mournful trees with stiff black trunks and grey green
foliage and a pale sort of wattle flower smelling like dead cattle when
rain is about, as McKeith explained. But there was no rain about now,
and, in truth, he would have welcomed the unpleasant odour. Perhaps it
was that which made the ground so stark and bare beneath these trees
where no grass will grow. The sun was lowering when they left the
gidia. Out in the gum forest again, the birds were chattering before
retiring to rest. All life is still in the bush at mid-day, but now
there were curious scutterings among the grass tussocks, and the whirr
of its insect population sounded all round. The country got prettier--
swelling pastures and stony pinches and a distant outline of hills.
They could see the green line of a water course.

'Plenty water sit down along a creek?' McKeith asked the black boy. But
Cudgee shook his woolly head.

'Ba'al* mine think it, Massa. No rain plenty long time.'
[*ba'al--the Aboriginal negative.]

McKeith sighed. The dark shadow of coming drought is a fearsome spectre
on the Never-Never Land.




CHAPTER 7



A COO-EE sounded long, clear, vibrant. Moongarr Bill and Wombo, who had
gone on ahead, were fixing camp. Lady Bridget's musical voice caught up
the note. She answered it with another COO-EE, to Cudgee's delight.

'My word! Ba'al newchum, that feller white Mary,' said he.

They had rounded a knoll abutting on the green line of ti-trees and
swamp oak. It was a barren hump; upon its crest, and alone in barbaric
majesty, stood a row of grass trees silhouetted against the sunset sky.
Weird sentinels of the bridal camp they seemed--tall, thick black
trunks like palm-stems, from each of which spread an enormous tuft of
gigantic grass blades green and upright in the middle, grey and jaggled
and drooping where they hung over at the bottom. Out of each green
heart sprang a great black spear many feet in height.

The stony knoll dropped sheer like a wall. On the other side of it was
a space the size of an amphitheatre, a large part of it spread with
soft green grass, like a carpet, and the rest of the floor scattered
with low shrubs and big tussocks. Amongst them was a herb giving out a
fragrance, when the feet crushed it, like that of wild thyme. The whole
air seemed filled with a blend of aromatic perfumes.

Here was a roofless room, open on one side where a break in the
ti-trees showed the sandy bed of the creek, which, at first, to Lady
Bridget's fancy, had the appearance of a broad shallow stream. On this
side, low rocks with ferns growing in their crannies, edged the stream.
On the opposite shore, one giant eucalyptus stood by itself and cast
its shadow across. Beyond, lay the gum-peopled immensity of the bush.
The stony walls of the knoll, curving inward and sheltering a thick
growth of ferns and scrubby vegetation, closed in the bridal chamber.
Creepers festooned the rocky ledges and crevices. Here and there, a
young sapling slanted forward to greet the morning sun when it should
rise behind the hummock.

Moongarr Bill had undone the pack-bags and was building a fire between
two large stones. The flames leaped up, the dead twigs crackled. Long
years after, Lady Bridget could recall vividly the smell of the dry
burning gum leaves--her first experience of a bush campfire.

Close to the fire, under the flank of the rocky knoll the tent was
pitched, a roll of blankets and oilskin thrown just within it.

Presently, from the hummock above came the sound of Cudgee's axe. He
had felled the youngest of the grass-trees, and was now chopping off
its green tuft. Soon he appeared, carrying a huge bunch of the coarse
blades of foliage, which he brought to the tent. With an odd mixture of
emotions, Lady Bridget watched her husband take the grass tops from the
black boy and spread them carefully on the floor of the tent, heaping
up and smoothing the mass into a bed, upon which he laid the oilskin
and then one of the blankets--they were new white blankets, fresh from
the store. After that, he set the cushions from the buggy, covering
them with the rug, at the head of the couch, making a bolster, and,
over that, the one she had had at her back.

'No down pillows or linen sheets allowed in a bush camp-out, my lady
Biddy,' he said with a laugh, a half timorous glance at his wife, but
her answering smile reassured him.

'You'll never sleep on a sweeter bed,' he said, sniffing the resinous
fragrance of the grass-tree tops. He would not let her help him with
the upper blankets when she wished to lend a hand.

'No, this camp is my own show. Go and look at the scenery until I've
got our wigwam in order.'

And she submissively obeyed.

Against the other side of the rock wall, the black boys had built a
second fire. The horses were hobbled and grazing along the green border
of the creek. The buggy propped up, was covered with a tarpaulin. The
pack-bags had disgorged their contents. A miscellaneous heap of camp
properties lay on the ground. And now, Cudgee's axe was at work again,
stripping a section of bark from a gum tree, for what purpose Lady
Bridget did not divine.

She walked down to the creek and stood among the rocks at its edge. She
had expected a rippling stream, and, to her disappointment, saw only a
broad strip of dry sand, along which Moongarr Bill was mooching, a
spade in his hand.

'What are we going to do for water?' she exclaimed.

'Dig for it, my ladyship,' answered Moongarr Bill. 'That's one of the
upside-down things in 'Stralia. Here's two of them--mighty queer, come
to think of it--the rivers that run underground and the cherries that
grow with their stones outside.'

Lady Bridget observed that she was already acquainted with that
oft-quoted botanical phenomenon. In her rides around Leichardt's Town
she had been shown and had tasted the disagreeable little orange berry
which has a hard green knob at the end of it and is, for some ironical
reason, called a cherry. She also told Moongarr Bill that in England
she had seen a dowser searching for hidden springs by means of a forked
hazel twig carried in front of him which pointed downwards where there
was water and asked why Australians didn't adopt a similar method. At
which Moongarr Bill laughed derisively, and said he did not hold with
any such hanky-panky.

'Bad luck, Biddy,' McKeith said behind her. 'If there had been the
proper amount of rain in these last three or four months, we'd have had
the one thing that's wanting now to make this the ideal camp I've had
on the top of my fancy--a running creek of pure water. But never mind
--the water's there, though you can't see it. . . . That's got it,
Bill!'

For already the sand was darkening and moisture was oozing in the hole
Moongarr Bill had been digging, and which he widened gradually into a
respectable pool of water. When it had settled down, all the billies
were filled and the horses driven to it, whinnying for a drink.

Lady Bridget watched the evening meal being prepared between the two
fires--only watched, for she was sternly forbidden to set hand to it.

'No canned goods, nor cooked food,' McKeith said, were allowed at this
lay-out. Moongarr Bill was first-class at frying steak. He himself was
going to boil the quart-pot tea and would give Biddy a demonstration in
johnny-cakes, made bush fashion at their own camp fire. The sheet of
bark had been cut into sections--one sub-divided into small squares to
serve as plates. The inside looked clean as paint, and smelled of
Mother Nature's still-room. Colin mixed the flour and water upon the
larger sheet and worked up a stiff dough. He kneaded it, slapped it
between his broad palms, cut it and baked the cakes in the ashes; then,
butter being the only luxury permitted, he split them and buttered
them; and Lady Bridget found in due time that not even the lightest
Scotch scones taste better than bush johnny-cakes.

Quart pot tea, likewise--made also in true bush fashion. First the
boiling of the billy--Colin's own particular billy, battered and
blackened from much usage--half the battle, he explained, in brewing
bush tea. Then, regulation handfuls of tea and brown store sugar thrown
in at the precise boiling moment. Now the stirring of the frothing
liquid with a fresh gum-twig. Then the blending and the cooling of it--
pouring the beverage from one quart pot into another, and finally into
the pannikins ready for the drinking.

Proudly, round the rock-flank of the hummock, Moongarr Bill brought
fried steak and potatoes steaming in a clean tin dish and done to a
turn, then went to cook more for himself at his own camp. They ate off
the bark plates. Salt, sugar and mustard came out of small ration bags.
McKeith produced black-handled knives and forks--the last a
concession. And good to taste were the fizzling johnny-cakes and the
strong, sweet, milkless tea.

Such was Lady Bridget's real marriage feast.

They were hungry, yet they dallied over the repast. It was the most
delicious food she had ever tasted, Bridget said. They made little
jokes. He was entranced by her happiness. Joyously she compared this
banquet with others she had eaten in great houses and European
restaurants, which were the last word in luxury. Oh! how she loved the
dramatic contrast of it. Nature was supreme, glorious. . . . Oh no, no!
never could she hanker after that which she had left behind--for ever.
Because, if ever she were to go back again to the old life, she would
be an ugly dried-up old woman for whom the smart world would have no
further use. . . .

Then suddenly she became quiet, and busied herself in the tent, while
McKeith took out his pipe and smoked in ruminative bliss. When she came
back she had no more talk of contrasts or of her old life, no more
fantastic outbursts. Indeed, there seemed to have come over her a mood
of sweet sobriety, of blushing, womanly shyness.

'Mayn't I be your squaw and help you to wash up?' she said, when he
collected the tin pots and pannikins and proceeded to get the camp
shipshape. No, she was not to stir a finger towards the dirty work. It
was HIS job to-night. Another camping-out time she might play the squaw
if she liked. She was not on in this act.

He amused her greatly by his tidy bush methods. The billies were
refilled, the ration-bags laid ready for the morning.

Now darkness had fallen. He put more logs on the fire, and the flames
blazed up. Then he made up a little pile of johnny-cakes that he had
not buttered, and covered it with the bark plates. 'We shall have to
make an early start, and there'll be no time to bake fresh ones--and
no more use for these things,' he said. The square of bark on which he
had mixed the dough was in his hands and he was about the fling it
among the bushes, but she stopped him.

'No--don't throw it away. . . . I--I want it for a keepsake, Colin.'

He stared at her in surprise. The red flames threw a strange glow on
her face, and made her eyes look very bright.

'My dearest! A sheet of bark!' Then a great light broke on him. The
strip of bark dropped from his hands. His arms went out and enfolded
the small woman, lifting her almost from the ground as he crushed her
against his breast and kissed her lips with the first passionate
lover's kisses he had ever given her. . . . 'Oh, my dear--my
sweetheart!' He gave a big, tremulous laugh. . . . 'There was never any
woman in the world like you. . . . To think of your caring about just a
sheet of bark!'

'You made me my first johnny-cakes upon it. . . . And to-night is the
beginning of our married life--and oh, Colin, it is the first time I
have felt really married to you, and I want a bit of the bush to
remember it by.'

He kissed her again. . . . The miracle was accomplished. He seemed to
have no words in which to say all that filled his heart.

The night sounds of the bush stirred the vast silence. For the first
time, Lady Bridget heard the wail of the curlew--a long note, weirdly
melancholy. It startled her out of her husband's arms. There were
uncanny swishings of wings in the great gum tree on the other side of
the creek. And now the clanking of the horses' hobbles which had been
dilatory, intermittent, became sharply recurrent. A shout from Moongarr
Bill cut short the monotonous corroboree tune which the two black boys
had been singing at their camp some little distance away.

'My word, I believe YARRAMAN* break him hobble!'
[*Yarraman--horse.]

At which the boys scampered off through the grass, and presently came
the cracking of a stock whip among the trees.

'It's all right, Moongarr Bill's after them,' said McKeith, as his
bride released herself from his arms. 'But if you don't mind darling.
I'd better just see if anything has started the beasts.'

Lady Bridget watched him disappear round the knoll. The curlews went on
wailing, and as if in answer a night owl sent forth his portentous HOOT
--HOOT!. . . Apparently nothing was much amiss with the horses; they
had quieted down again. Lady Bridget picked up the strip of bark and
carried it in her arms into the tent, laughing to herself as she did
so.

'Only a sheet of bark! What a fool I am--But it's quite appropriate,
anyway.'

She put it beside her dressing-bag, and then went out once more into
the night. Through the interlacing gum branches she saw a great coppery
disk, and the moon rose slowly to be a lamp in her bridal chamber. How
wonderful the stars were!. . . There was the Southern Cross with its
pointers, and the Pleiades. And that bright star above the tops of the
trees, which seemed to throw a distinct ray of light, must be
Venus. . . . The moon was high enough to cast shadows--black--distorted.
The low clumps of shrubs beyond the carpet of grass looked like strange
couched beasts. . . .

As she stood by the rocks at the creek edge, she heard her husband
speaking to Moongarr Bill, who seemed to be walking down along the
sandy bed.

'Horses all right, Bill?'

'Oh, ay--just a possum up a tree gev Julius Caesar a start. . . . Been
digging a decent bath-hole for the ladyship in the morning, boss.
There's plenty there.'

'I wish it was as near the surface at Moongarr, Bill. We shall have our
work cut out making new bores, if the dry weather lasts.'

'My word, it's no joke going down three thousand feet. Amazing queer
the amount of water running underground on this dried-up old earth.'

'But we can always strike it, Bill; no matter how dried up the outside
looks, there's the living spring waiting to be tapped. And how's that
in human nature too, Bill. Same idea, eh?'

Moongarr Bill emitted a harsh grunt.

'My best girl chucked me a month back, boss, and as for your darned
sentiment and poetry, and sech-like--well, I ain't takin' any just at
present.'

'Bad luck, Bill! Struck a dead-head that time, eh?. . . Well,
good-night.'

'Good-night, boss--and good luck to you. I reckon your spring ain't a
dead-head, anyway. . . . Say, Mr McKeith, me and the boys are shifting
our fire over to the other side of the creek. . . . Keep the 'osses
from hevin' any more of their blessed starts. . . . Handier for gettin'
them up in the morning.'


* Yarraman--Horse.




CHAPTER 8



Lady Bridget McKeith had been married about a year and a quarter.
Winter was now merging into spring. But it was not a bounteous spring.
That drear spectre of drought hung over the Never-Never Land.

Lady Bridget stood by the railing of the veranda at Moongarr, looking
out for two expected arrivals at the head-station--that of her
husband, who had been camping out after cattle--and of the mailman--
colloquially, Harry the Blower--who this week was to bring an English
mail.

Perhaps the last arrival seemed to her at the moment most important of
the two. The bush wife had long since begun to feel a sort of home
sickness for English news. Yet, had you asked her, she would have told
you that barbarism still had a greater hold than civilisation.

There did not, however, appear to be much of the barbarian about Lady
Bridget. She still looked like an old picture in the high-waisted
tea-gown of limp yellow silk that she had put on early for dinner, and
she still trailed wisps of old lace round her slender shoulders. There
was the same touzle of curly hair, like yellow-brown spun glass or
filaments of burnished copper, which was shining now in the westering
sun. The finely-modelled brows and shadowy eyes were as beautiful as
when Colin McKeith had first beheld his goddess stepping on to
Australian earth.

But for all that, a change had taken place in her--a different one
from the indefinable yet significant change which is felt in almost
every woman after marriage. There is usually in the young wife's face
an expression of fulfilment, of deepened experience--a certain
settled, satisfied look. And this was what was lacking in Lady
Bridget's face. The restless soul within seemed to be peering out
through hungry eyes.

She could see nothing human from the veranda except the blue-smocked
figure of Fo Wung, the Chinaman, at work in his vegetable garden by the
lagoon. There was one large water-hole and a succession of small ones,
connected by water-courses, now dry, and meandering from a gully, which
on the eastern side broke the hill against which Moongarr head-station
was built. The straggling gum forest, interspersed with patches of
sandal-wood and mulga, that backed the head-station, stopped short at
the gully, and beyond, stretched wolds of melancholy gidia scrub.
Looking up from the end of the veranda, Lady Bridget could see an
irregular line of grey-brown boulders, jagged and evidently of volcanic
origin, marking the line of gully. These gave a touch of romantic
wildness to the otherwise peaceful scene.

Lady Bridget's gaze went along a track skirting the gidia scrub, and
crossing the lower end of the gully near the lagoon, to the great plain
which spread in front of the head-station. Except for some green trees
by the lagoon, a few ragged belts of gum and sandal-wood or single
isolated trees dotted about, the plain was unwooded to the horizon.
There were also silhouetted upon the sky the grotesque-looking sails of
one or two windmill-pumps. In the foreground the plain was intersected
by lines of grey fencing, within which browsed straggling herds of lean
cattle, mostly along the curve of the lagoon.

Neither plain nor lagoon formed altogether pleasing objects of
contemplation just now, for they spoke eloquently of the threatened
drought. When Lady Bridget had come up a bride, the plain had been
fairly green. The sandal-wood blossoms were out and wild flowers
plentiful. The lagoon was then flush with the grass, and its water, on
which white, pink and blue lilies floated, had reflected the vegetation
at its edge. Now the lagoon had shrunk and the water in the gully was
in places a mere trickle. Of course, the trees were there--ti-tree,
flooded gum, and so forth--but they looked brown and ragged. One
standing by itself, a giant white cedar, which in spring was a mass of
white and mauve bloom and in winter of scarlet berries, had a wide
strip of brown mud between it and the water that had formerly laved its
roots.

Lady Bridget had thought that the rocky gully, the lagoon and the vast
plain made as pretty a landscape as she had ever seen, when she had
first looked upon it in the early morn after her homecoming. Now, as
she paced up and down the veranda--for she was in a restless mood--
her mind went back to that bridal homecoming. They had not arrived at
the head-station till after dusk, but it had been visible from the
plain a long way off, and she had examined it with ardent curiosity
through her field-glasses in the clear light of sunset.

She had seen a collection of rough buildings backed by the forest, and
from different points of view, as they drew nearer, had made out that
the three principal ones formed three sides of a square. Two of these--
the side wings--were old and of primitive construction--slab walls,
bark roofs, and low verandas, overgrown with creepers. Colin explained
that these were the Old Humpey--as he called the original dwelling
house--and the kitchen and store building opposite. Lately, the New
House had been put up at right angles with the old buildings, and
fronting the plain. It had been begun before his trip south and
practically finished during his absence. Colin was very proud of the
New House.

It was made of sawn wood and had a high-pitched roof of corrugated
zinc, turned to gold by the sunset rays upon it. There was a deep
veranda all round the New House, and it was much taller than the wings,
being raised on blood-wood piles, that had been tarred to keep off
white ants, and with a flight of wooden steps leading up to the
veranda.

The details of Moongarr head-station became familiar enough later to
its new mistress. Besides the dwelling houses were various huts and
outbuildings. The stock-yards lay on a piece of level ground behind at
the side of the gully, and between the yards and the House stood a
small slab and bark cottage--the Bachelors' Quarters.

Even though glorified by the sunset, it had given Lady Bridget a little
shock to see how crude and--architecturally speaking--unlovely was
her new home. But her Celtic imagination was stirred by the weirdness
of the grey-green gum forest, and of the mournful gidia scrub, framing
the picture.

Then, as dusk crept closer, and the great plain, along which the tired
horses plodded, became one illimitable shadow out of which rose strange
sounds of beasts and eerie night cries of birds, the spell of the
wilderness renewed itself and she felt herself enveloped in world-old
mystery.

She remembered how the lights of the head-station against the forest
blackness had looked like welcoming torches and how she had roused
herself out of her weariness at the last spurt of the equally weary
buggy horses. Then the jolt in the dark over the sliprails, the slow
strain of the wheels up the hill, the cracking of Moongarr Bill's
stock-whip, and the sound of long drawn COO-EES. Also of dogs barking,
of men running forward. Then how Colin had lifted her down and half
carried her into the parlour. She remembered her dazed glance round and
the rushing thought of how she could soften its ugliness. Yet it had
looked welcoming. A log fire blazing, the table spread, a Chinese cook
in baggy blue garments--pigtail flowing; a Malay boy; her bewildered
question--was there no woman in the establishment? Then Colin's
strident call from the veranda--'Mrs Hensor. Where's Mrs Hensor!' And
the appearance presently of Florrie Hensor--youngish, tall, a full
figure; black hair, frizzed and puffed, a showy face, red cheeks,
redder lips, rather sullen, flashing dark eyes--who had received Lady
Bridget almost as if she had been her equal, and of whom the bride had
at once made an enemy by her frigidly haughty response. From the first
moment, Lady Bridget had disliked Mrs Hensor. But she had felt a vague
attraction towards the little yellow-headed, blue-eyed boy clinging to
Mrs Hensor's skirts. As for any uneasiness on the score of Steadbolt's
insolent insinuations, she had absolutely dismissed that from her mind.

Yes--that bridal homecoming--how strange it had seemed! How rough
everything was! How impossible the whole thing would have appeared to
her had any fortune-teller in Bond Street prophesied the end of her
marriage journey!

And how, in the first moment of settling down, she had laughed with
Colin at the thought of what Chris and Molly Gaverick, and 'Eliza
Countess' would have said! But with what dauntless energy she had
worked in transforming her new abode and in making it reflect her own
personality. She had felt really grateful, she said, to the Union
delegates for having enticed away the builders before the inside
furnishings were complete. Soon they got hold of a bush carpenter, and
she was provided with occupation for a good many months.

Lady Bridget had been very happy in those early days. Colin had seemed
so thoroughly in the picture--strong, chivalrous, adoring--like a
Viking worshipping his conquered bride. The romance of it all appealed
tremendously to the Celtic blood in Bridget. It was her nature, when
she gave, to give generously. She had become genuinely in love with her
bush husband during that wonderful honeymoon journey.

Ah, that journey! What an experience! If she could have written it down
as a new adventure of 'The Lady of Quality,' how the great Gibbs would
have jumped at her 'copy!' Well, she had practically done so in her
letters to Joan Gildea--now back in her London flat. But the true
inwardness of the adventure was a thing never to be put into words.

No sign yet of the men. Lady Bridget ceased her restless pacing and
swung herself slowly to and fro in a hammock at the end of the veranda.
As she swung she traversed over again in her imagination the stages of
that honeymoon journey.

Two hundred and twenty-five miles of it, after the first camp out. Many
more nights under the stars. Then out of the gum forests they had gone
through the great western plains, covering ground fairly easily, for
McKeith had arranged to have fresh horses on the road, and they always
drove a spare pair ahead of the buggy. Occasionally they stopped at a
head-station. Once at night they pulled up at a bush house, and a
strange old man had put his head out of a window and shouted to them in
the darkness. 'If ye've come to see me, I'm drunk,' he had said, 'and
if you've come to drink, the rum-keg's empty, but ye'll find a pint pot
outside and a little water in the tank.' And then he had shut the
window again and refused further parley.

They had camped, hungry, in the paddock--for provisions had run out,
and on that account, and because the horses had strayed in the night,
they had to go again to the house. The old man, sober and ashamed,
captivated likewise by Lady Bridget's beauty and charm, apologised
almost on his knees--he made Biddy think of Thackeray's picture of Sir
Pitt Crawley proposing to Becky Sharp. Old Mr Duppo, it was--the
father of Zack Duppo, the horse-breaker, who had recently been breaking
in colts at Moongarr.

They stayed till the horses were found. Mr Duppo had a housekeeper--
now if Mrs Hensor had been like that housekeeper there could have been
no cause for jealous scandal. An aged dame, long, bony--dressed in a
short green petticoat and tartan jacket, with a little checked shawl
over her head and pinned under a bearded chin. She poured tea out of a
tin teapot and leaned over her master's chair at meal times to carve
the salt beef.

Lady Bridget sketched the pair. The old man roared over the sketch, but
the housekeeper bore her a grudge for it, and afterwards had not a good
word for the 'Ladyship' who had slipped out of her proper sphere into
the Never-Never country.

There were plenty of other small adventures which would have made the
hair of Lady Gaverick and her friends stand on end. A dream-drive
indeed, full of sort of 'Alice in Wonderland' episodes. Bush life Out
Back--a jumble of odd characters and situations. Fencers' camps,
cattle-drivers' camps, bullock-dray camps. There had been a baby born
unexpectedly under the tilt of a bullock-dray, on one occasion, the
night before McKeith's party appeared on the scene, and Lady Bridget
had a trunk down from the buggy, and there in the road tore up some of
her fine-laced smocks and petticoats to provide swaddling clothes for
the poor little scrap of mortality. And there were tramps 'humping
bluey' on the track likewise, and diggers carrying their picks. Bridget
liked seeing Colin hail-fellow-well-met with them all--sharing tucker
and quart-pot tea. She wished that her socialistic friends of the old
played-out civilisation could see this shrewd, practical humanitarian
of the Bush.

They came very close to each other in those long days of the
dream-drive. He talked to her as he had never talked before, and as he
talked rarely afterwards. He drew aside curtains from recesses of his
real nature, the existence of which she had not suspected, and, in
truth, at a later time, doubted. Then, if in broad sunlight the shy,
rough exterior of the man would close suddenly over those secret
chambers, when evening came, it would seem as though the camp fire
illuminated them once more.

After the first time or two, he allowed her to boss the camp 'lay-out.'
It was she who spread the blankets on Wombo's beds of grass tree tops
and dry herbage. Wombo and the 'big feller White Mary' (the adjective
used metaphorically as expressive of distinction) made great friends in
those days--out of which friendship sprang, alas! in due time, certain
tragic happenings. It was Lady Bridget who would set the billy boiling
and who, after one or two failures, succeeded in making excellent
johnny-cakes. She remembered her first performance in that line under
the eyes of a small group of admiring spectators--her husband 'just
waiting to see how the new-chum cook shaped,' and, as he said the
words, she, glancing up from the sheet of bark and the dough she was
kneading, caught a look in his face which was something she could never
in all her life forget. And Moongarr Bill with the horses' reins over
his arm, and the two black-boys agape, beady eyes twinkling, white
teeth glistening, emitting their queer guttural clicks of approbation,
and an occasional 'My word! Bujeri you, Lathy-chap,' the nearest they
could get to Moongarr Bill's accepted form of address. There was joy,
glory to Lady Bridget in this playing of the squaw and fending for her
man, ceasing to be the goddess and becoming the primal woman.

And the sports, and songs, and stories by the camp fire! Moongarr
Bill's yarns, Colin's exploring tales, Wombo's and Cudgee's dances and
corroboree-tunes--strange, weird music that had a fascination for Lady
Bridget. She, too, would get up and sing CARMEN'S famous air, and the
Neapolitan peasant songs of her mother's youth. Never, for sure, had
the gaunt gum trees echoed back such strains as these.

But time came when all the romance of barbarism seemed to have fizzled
out and only cruel realities remained--when work and worry turned
McKeith from the worshipping lover into the rough-tongued, irritable
bushman--when his 'hands' deserted him, his cattle died and things
generally went wrong, and when he showed himself something of the
hard-headed, parsimonious, ill-conditioned Scotch mongrel that
Steadbolt had called him. When, indeed, he seemed to have forgotten
that Lady Bridget O'Hara had graciously permitted him to worship her,
but had not bargained for being treated--well, as many another
out-back squatter--treats his help-mate. Then Bridget would tell
herself bitterly that it might have been better had she married a
civilised gentleman. There would sometimes be scenes and sometimes
sulks, and those times no doubt accounted for the hungry look in Lady
Bridget's eyes and the slight hardening of her mouth.

She was loyal though, in spite of her many faults, and 'game' in her
own way--and when Colin came out of his dour moods, she was generally
ready to meet him half way.

For, through all, the memory of the dream-drive honeymoon lingered. And
the bit of bark, sapless, brown, curled up by the heat into almost a
tube, and partially eaten by white ants--before the desecrating
assault had been discovered and the termites' nest destroyed with
boiling water--was still cherished as a sacred symbol.

While she swung in the hammock the memory pictures came and went like a
cinematograph show--the dream-drive presently merging into an
electioneering trip through McKeith's constituency a few weeks after
her bridal homecoming.

The 'Lady of Quality' might, had she been so minded, have also made
spicy capital out of the humours of that political contest--in which,
unhappily, the Labour Party had triumphed. Steadbolt had had his say on
the occasion, and there had been a free fight--Lady Bridget was not
present, and only heard darkly of the occurrence--when Steadbolt had
got the worst of it in an encounter with his late employer.

But all that was but a small side-show, and not likely to affect in any
great measure Lady Bridget's life. Except that the loss of McKeith's
seat in the Legislative Assembly made it no longer necessary for him to
spend at least part of the winter session in Leichardt's Town. Nor
would Lady Bridget have the opportunity to resume her old intimacy at
Government House. In any case, however, she was not destined to see
more of her old friend in Australia. A few months previously, Lady
Tallant had developed symptoms of grave disease--it was said that the
Leichardt's Land climate did not agree with her, and she had gone back
to England, leaving Sir Luke to perform his duties without her help.




CHAPTER 9



At last, Lady Bridget heard the unmistakable sound of cattle in the
distance--the low, multitudinous roar of lowing beasts and tramping
hoofs and the reverberating crack of stock-whips. It came from the
gidia scrub. She knew that they had been mustering SCRUBBERS--
otherwise, wild cattle from the broken country at the foot of Moongarr
Range.

She left the hammock and went again to the veranda railing. Looking
along a side path from the Chinaman's garden she saw that Mrs Hensor
and her boy--the yellow-headed urchin of about six--were hastening
towards the Bachelors' Quarters. The woman carried a basket of
vegetables, the boy hugged a big pawpaw fruit which he held up proudly
as his mother responded in her free-and-easy, rather sulky fashion to
Lady Bridget's stiff nod. 'It's for the House,' cried the child. 'Fo
Wung said I was to bring it up.'

Lady Bridget made a wry face--she did not like pawpaws.

'Very well, Tommy, and if you're good you can have what's left
tomorrow.'

'That's all right,' responded Tommy in bush formula.

'Have you seen anything of your master--or the postman?' asked Lady
Bridget of Mrs Hensor.

'I believe Mr McKeith is coming on ahead with Harry the Blower,' said
Mrs Hensor. 'Look sharp, Tommy, the cattle will be at the yard
directly, and I've got my dinner to cook for the whole lot of them,
seeing that some visitors aren't good enough for the house.'

The woman pointed her last sentence by a malicious glance at the
mistress of Moongarr.

'I suppose that is what your master keeps you here for--to cook for
the visitors at the Quarters, Mrs Hensor,' said Lady Bridget, with
incisive sweetness.

Mrs Hensor flushed scarlet, but she checked an impudent reply. Pulling
Tommy angrily along, she hurried up to the four-roomed, zinc-roofed
humpey and its lean-to kitchen, protected by a bough shade, which lay
between the head-station and the gully, with the stockyard close to it,
and which constituted her domain. It annoyed Mrs Hensor to hear McKeith
called her master. She always spoke of her late husband as having been
the Boss-mate on that--to him fatal--exploring expedition. Also, she
resented having all the bachelors 'dumped down'--as she phrased it--
on her, while the 'Ladyship's swell staff' was spared the trouble. At
present the Bachelors' Quarters was fairly full. Mr Ninnis,
store-keeper and overseer in the owner's absence, abode there
permanently, and just now, there were Zack Duppo, the horse-breaker,
and a young man from Breeza Downs--a combined cattle and sheep station
about fifty miles distant--who had come to help in the mustering and
to collect any beasts strayed from the Breeza Downs' herd.

The gully crossing lay below the boulders of rock at the head of the
lagoon. Presently, two horsemen appeared on the rise. One was McKeith;
the other Harry the Mailman--otherwise the Blower--a foxy, browny-red
little man on a raw-boned chestnut, carrying his mail-bags strapped in
front and at the side of his saddle.

Lady Bridget supposed they had met at the turn-off track just above the
crossing. McKeith was carrying a leather mail-bag, from which he
appeared to have extracted a bundle of letters, with one hand. He held
his bridle and coiled stock-whip in the other. He was listening to the
mailman, who seemed to be talking animatedly. As they neared the house,
he gave the usual COO-EE, that set all the dogs barking, and put the
Chinaman-cook and black-boys on the alert.

The riders passed by the end of the veranda where Lady Bridget stood.
McKeith looked up at her. He seemed preoccupied and angry, and merely
nodded to his wife, but did not take off his hat as he had done in
earlier days--and, somehow, to-day she noticed the omission.

'All right, eh, Biddy?' he called out casually. 'Here's your mail--
I've taken out mine,' and he pitched the leather bag, with the string
cut and the official red seal broken, on to the veranda at her feet. 'I
say--you might bring the whisky out to the back veranda. I daresay you
could do with a nip, eh, Harry?'

'That I can, Mr McKeith. Riding along these plains is dry work. Good
day, Ladyship. I'm a bit behind time, but I lost an hour looking for a
hole to fill my water bag at--And then I could not drink out of it--
for a demed old pleuro bullock had got there first and died in it. My
word, Boss, you'll be in a fix if it don't rain before long.'

McKeith made an angry gesture. He spoke sharply to the horses. The two
men rode round the kitchen-wing and dismounted at the paling fence,
which made the fourth side of the little square. The back veranda of
the new house, with steps ascending to it, in the middle, the Old
Humpey, with its veranda, along one side, the kitchen and store
building along the other, and a rough slab and bark outhouse beyond it.
Native-cucumber vines and other creepers partially closed in the older
verandas. In the centre of the square was a small flower bed with a
flowering shrub in the middle.

Lady Bridget brought the whisky decanter from the dining room to the
back veranda, and McKeith mounted the steps, the mailman remaining
beside them. A canvas water-bag, oozing moisture, hung from the
rafters, and there were tumblers on a table beneath it. McKeith took
the decanter from his wife's hand, too preoccupied, it seemed, even to
notice the little satirical smile on her lips. She was thinking how
funny it seemed that she should be playing Hebe to Harry the Blower.
She soon realised, however, that serious things had happened. As
McKeith mixed a liberal allowance of whisky with water from the
water-bag and handed it to the mailman, he asked curtly:

'This isn't one of your blowing yarns, Harry? You're positive about the
fact?'

'Saw the thing with my own eyes, Boss. As fine a team as ever I'd wish
to own, lying with their throats cut, and the trees black with crows
all round. There was the dray-load all turned over, and two cases
prized open. I bet that the rum-kegs and spirits that couldn't be
carried off, are buried in some handy dry water-hole close by. I saw
two or three empty brandy bottles with the heads of 'em smashed to show
that the rascals had wet the wool before starting off.'

McKeith cursed in his throat. 'No sign of my men?'

'Scooted clean out of the scenery--the whole lot. I reckon that's what
they shook hands on with the Union chaps, and that the natural
consequences of absorbing your grog will be another woolshed or two
burned down before long. Here's your health, Boss, and the Ladyship's.'
And the mailman gulped down his 'nobbler' and turned to remount the
lean chestnut, which was standing hitched to the palings, observing
cheerfully:

'Well, so long, Sir. Go'day, Ma'am. This sort of argufying ain't going
to carry my mail-bags along the river.'

'Go up to the Quarters and ask Mrs Hensor for a feed,' called McKeith.
'And look here, Harry, you can tell them at the Myall Creek out-station
as you go by, to have two good horses ready in the yard for me. I'm off
to Tunumburra to put the police on to those devils straight away.'

'All right, Boss. You'll find it will take some tall calculatin'
though. Them Unionists are getting too strong for the police to tackle.
Windeatt up at Breeza Downs is in a mortal funk, and sending word
everywhere for a squad of Specials to protect his woolshed.'

'It seems,' said Lady Biddy to her husband, when the mailman had gone,
'that there might be some use after all for Luke Tallant's Maxims.'

'It seems that Jim Steadbolt has been taking his revenge,' he answered,
'and that I must be in the saddle in an hour's time. Mix me a drink,
Biddy, and order in some grub, while I go and have a bath.'

He looked as if he needed one. The dust of the drafting camp was caked
upon his face and clothes. His was the appearance of a man who had been
riding hard after stock and sleeping, between his blankets only, under
the stars.

Lady Bridget mixed him his drink and went to see Chen Sing in the
kitchen. When she came back, Colin was in the front veranda. He had
tumbled the rest of the letters and papers out of the mail-bag, and was
hastily and eagerly scanning the last LEICHARDT'S TOWN CHRONICLE.

'Any news, Colin?'

'I don't know, I was looking to see if the Government were going to act
against the strikers--I see they are sending troops.'

'And is Luke Tallant coming at the head of them, in official uniform,
to read the Riot Act?--if there is a Riot Act in Australia. I'd like
to see Luke maintaining the supremacy of the British Crown on the
Leura.'

He looked up at her in vague rebuke of her levity, and there was
suppressed tenderness in his eyes, notwithstanding his preoccupation
with his own troubles.

'No, no. But there's something in the paper about Lady Tallant being
ill and having an operation. Poor chap! He wouldn't have been bothering
much about strikes in the Never-Never and the supremacy of the British
Crown, any more than I should in similar circumstances. . . . Well,
there! I must go and bogey*.'
[*Bogey--in Black's language, 'bathe out of doors']

Sudden compunction overswept Bridget.

'Oh, Colin! You would care. . . really. . . even though they had cut
the throats of your four best dray-horses?' But he had disappeared into
a little veranda room, against which a corrugated iron tank backed
conveniently, and in a minute she heard the splash of water.

She picked up the paper and looked at the English Intelligence before
examining her own letters. It was quite true. There was a paragraph
stating that Lady Tallant's health had not improved since her arrival
in England, and hinting at the likelihood of an operation being
advisable. Bridget reflected, however, that Sir Luke would probably
have received a cablegram by this time, one way or other--which would
have put him out of suspense, and, presumably, there had been no later
bad news.

A letter from Molly Gaverick confirmed that item of the English
Intelligence. Rosamond Tallant's condition was certainly far from
satisfactory. Molly, however, seemed much more taken up with a recent
illness of Eliza Countess of Gaverick than with that of Lady Tallant.
Being a tactless and absolutely frank young person, she had no scruple
in proclaiming her hope that 'old Eliza' would make Lord Gaverick her
heir. This was the more likely, wrote young Lady Gaverick, because the
old lady had lately quarrelled with her own relatives, and never now
asked any of her stuffy provincial cousins to share the dulness of
Castle Gaverick and of the house in Brook Street. If she did not leave
her money to Chris Gaverick, there was not, conceivably, anyone else to
whom she would leave it.

'By the way,' Molly continued, as if it had been an afterthought 'Old
Eliza is immensely interested in you and your cow-boy husband--
ranch-owner is what, I suppose, I ought to call him. She asked Mrs
Gildea so many questions about you both that Joan read her your account
of your honeymoon journey through the Bush, and all the rest of it. How
you can endure such a life is incomprehensible to me--but Aunt Eliza
says it shows you've got some grit in you, and that evidently your
husband has cured you of a lot of ridiculous nonsense--I am quoting
her, so don't be offended, and you needn't show this to Nature's
gentleman, which is what Aunt Eliza calls him. I can't help feeling
though, that it's rather a pity you didn't wait a bit before taking the
Irrevocable Step. I don't know whether you ever heard about Mrs
Willougby Maule's death--eleven months after their marriage.'

No, Bridget had not heard. Molly Gaverick was an uncertain
correspondent, and, no doubt, Joan Gildea and Rosamond Tallant, if they
had known of the event, had thought it wiser, in writing to her, to
suppress the news. For a moment, Lady Bridget sat meditating, and all
the blood seemed to rush from her brain to her heart--she could almost
hear her heart pounding. Then she went on again with Lady Gaverick's
letter.

'It was a motor accident--nothing serious at the time, but the baby
was born prematurely, and she lingered a week or two, and then died. I
must do him the justice to say that he seemed to feel her death very
much. It looked as though, after all, the marriage had been quite a
success. Her money gave him a lift and they were going out a good deal
in the political set. She left her quarter of a million to him,
ABSOLUTELY. I heard that some remote Bagallys were going to contest the
will, but they found that they hadn't a leg to stand upon. I wish now
that we hadn't been so sniffy about W.M. As Chris observed with
unconscious cynicism, there's a good deal of difference between a
penniless adventurer and the possessor of quarter of a million.
Unattached men with money can be so useful. As soon as Rosamond Tallant
gets better--if she does--I'll make her ask him to meet us. I know he
used to be a great friend of Luke's. . . . '




CHAPTER 10



Lady Bridget had read so far when the door of the bathroom opened and
McKeith came out, clean again in fresh riding gear, and with a valise
ready packed and strapped in his hand.

The noise of the cattle became much louder, though the mob was not yet
in sight.

'I wish I hadn't got to go off before the branding,' he said. 'These
Breeza Downs people always want to claim every cleanskin*. You might
tell Ninnis and Moongarr Bill, Biddy, to keep a sharp look-out. And now
let me have my grub--I'm sorry, dear, to have you hurry up your
dinner.' He strode along to the dining-room, too absorbed in his own
annoyances to notice his wife's face or to ask any questions about her
letters.
[*cleanskin--unbranded calf]

Lady Bridget gathered them up and followed him. The Malay boy waited at
table with the assistance of a servant girl from Leuraville, the only
female domestic--with the exception of Mrs Hensor--on the
head-station.

McKeith swallowed his soup and ate the savoury stew prepared by the
Chinese cook with the appetite of a man who had been all day in the
saddle. Lady Bridget, who was an extraordinarily rapid eater, as well
as a fastidious one, had finished long before he was half-way through.
She sat silent at first, while he growled over the outrage upon the
horses. Then suddenly visualising the poor beasts lying stiff in
congealed blood, and the mailman's exaggerated description of trees
black with crows, she flamed out in wrathful horror, and was as anxious
as her husband that the perpetrators of the crime should be brought to
justice. He seemed pleased, and a little surprised at the ebullition.

'I thought you weren't taking it quite in, Biddy. I am glad you think
like me, though I expect yours is the humanitarian view and mine's the
practical one. This touches my pocket, you see. Well, anyway, you won't
be so keen now on defending the Unionists.'

'I think they've got as much right to fight for their principles as we
have for ours, but I don't think they've the right to torture horses,'
she rejoined. Her sympathy with oppressed shearers and dispossessed
natives struck always a jarring note between them. His long upper lip
closed tightly on the lower one, and he hunched his great shoulders.

'Well, that sort of argufying won't muster the cattle,' he observed
drily, plagiarising Harry the Blower. She changed the subject.

'Did you have a good muster?'

'Oh, fair! Between three and four hundred head. The water is running
still up in the range. We should have done better if that skunk Wombo
hadn't bolted.'

Lady Bridget leaned forward with interest.

'Oh! Then he HAS gone after the black-gin. Brave Wombo!'

'I wouldn't care a cuss whether he went after the black-gin or not;
she's a half-caste, by the way, and all the worse for that. And he
might stop with her, if it wasn't that he knows the country, and can
spot the gullies where the cattle hide. I've no use for sentiment--
especially black sentiment--when it's a case of a forced sale to keep
me going. My heavens! there's only one thing, Biddy, that could break
me, and it's drought. I believe we're in for a long one, and unless I
can make sales quickly and get money to sink new bores on the run,
things will go hardly with me. Harry the Blower spoke naked truth for
once in his life.'

'Oh! but there's sure to be rain soon. It looked so like it last
night,' she answered lightly.

'LOOKED so like it! Yes, and ended in wind and dust. Sure sign of
drought! I must be off. . . . Here, give me the LEICHARDT LAND
CHRONICLE, and don't expect me till you see me. . . . And by the way,
Biddy, I hear there's a Unionist Organiser going the round of the
stations and pretending to parley with the masters. Don't you be
philanthropic enough to let him open his jaws--I've told Ninnis he's
to be hounded off before he has time to get off his saddle.'

'Colin, you are unjust all round. You were very unjust to Wombo. Why
shouldn't the poor black-boy marry as well as you or anyone else?'

McKeith gave a hard laugh.

'I'm not preventing him from marrying. I only said I wasn't going to
have his gin on my station.'

'You wouldn't listen when he told you that he didn't dare go back to
his tribe--because his gin's husband threatened to kill him.'

'My sympathies are with the gin's husband. What business has Wombo to
steal another man's wife?'

'The husband broke her head with a nulla-nulla, and she loves Wombo and
Wombo loves her. I consider that any woman, whether she's black or
white, who lives with her husband while she loves another man is
committing a sin,' said Lady Bridget hotly.

McKeith stopped in the act of filling his tobacco pouch from a jar on
the mantelpiece and looked sharply at his wife.

'You think that, Biddy. I remember long ago you said something of that
sort to me. It isn't my idea of morality or of justice. But I'm one
with you this far. If I'd ever reason to believe that you loved another
man and wanted to go off with him--you might go--I wouldn't put out a
hand to stop you. And then. . . . '

'And then?' She had grown very white.

'Well, I think I'd make another notch in my gun first--and it would be
a previous one--for myself that time.'

'No, you wouldn't, Colin. Because you know I shouldn't be worth it--
and you are not the man to funk.'

'I'm not. But where YOU come in--Good Lord! Mate! What would there be
left for me to live for?'

Her heart thrilled to the old term of endearment, to which in their
early honeymoon days she had attached a sentimental value. Of late it
had fallen into disuse, and when she had heard him on occasions greet
the foreman, may be of some stray party of drivers or surveyors with
the bush formula: 'Good day, mate!' she had felt with deep aggrievement
that she no longer desired the appellative. She had not yet realised
that while the word 'mate' in Australese, like the verb AIMER in
French, may be used as a mere colloquial term, it implies in the deeper
sense a sanctity of relation upon which hangs the whole code of Bush
chivalry.

'Oh, Colin!' Her eyes glistened with tears. She felt ashamed of her
neurotic fancies and her resentment of his lacks in the matter of
conventional courtesies--of his outward hardness, his want of sympathy
with her ideals.

He came to her, taking her two hands while keeping his pipe in one of
his own so that the whiff of the coarse 'Store-cut' tobacco made her
wrinkle her nose and stemmed the tide of emotion. But he did not seem
to notice this.

'No, you're not going to put that theory into practice, Mate. . . . I'm
not afraid. So we'll leave it at that. And now what's this about the
black-boy to do with my being unjust to that Organiser? There's no
beastly sentiment in his case. He's out to make money, that's all.'

'You won't hear what he's got to put forward on his side any more than
you would listen to poor Wombo.'

'No, I won't. I'm not taking any--either in gins or in organisers. Let
'em show their faces here, and they'll pretty soon become aware of the
fact.'

Lady Bridget took away her hands and moved to the veranda. Outside,
McKeith's horse was waiting. He strapped on his valise, finished
ramming the tobacco into his pipe, then going behind his wife, bent
downward and hastily kissed her cheek. She did not turn her head.

'Good-bye, Biddy. Don't you go worrying over the blacks or the
Unionists. And if you're dull and want a job there'll be a spice of
excitement in helping to tail that mob of scrubbers. I had to hire two
stray chaps, we're so short-handed.' He went down the steps to the
outer paling. Still she made no response, though now she turned and
watched him vault into the saddle. She also saw his face lighten at
sight of Mrs Hensor's boy with the great pawpaw apple. Tommy Hensor was
a favourite with the Boss.

'Bless you, boy, it's as big as yourself. Take it back to the Quarters
and tell your mother to give you a slice, or perhaps her ladyship will
cut it for you.'

He trotted off in the direction of the gully and of the roar of cattle.
Lady Bridget could see the heaving backs of the mob, and could hear the
shouts of the stockmen as they rounded the beasts to the crossing.
Tommy Hensor looked up pleadingly to her, holding out the pawpaw apple.
His yellow hair flamed to gold in the sunset, his blue eyes were as
bright almost as Colin's. Lady Bridget shook her head.

'No, I don't want you this evening, Tommy. Take that back to your
mother.'

She settled herself in the hammock and read Molly Gaverick's letter
over again. Then she read one from Joan Gildea. Joan was in the full
swing of London journalism again. She gave Bridget rather fuller news
of Eliza Countess of Gaverick, and dwelt at some length upon the old
lady's interest in Bridget's wild life and in Bridget's husband.

'You may be sure,' wrote Joan, 'that I had nothing but good to say of
Colin, and oh! Biddy, dearest, how rejoiced I am to know that he is
making you so happy. I could read between the lines of all your amusing
descriptions and sketches of "the Dream-drive." I had my doubts and my
fears, as I never concealed from you, but I believe that you have found
the true, well-beloved at last.'

There was a good deal, too, in the letter about Rosamond Tallant, who
was in cheerful spirits, it seemed, in spite of the impending
operation, and would not hear of Sir Luke's asking for leave to be with
her--and so on--and so on. Not a word about Willoughby Maule and his
bereavement--which, after all, could not be so very recent. Why had
Joan never mentioned it? Was she afraid of rousing regret and of
awakening painful memories.

* Cleanskin--Unbranded calf.




CHAPTER 11



McKeith's absence was longer than he had expected. Lady Bridget heard
from Harry the Blower on his return round with the down-going mails
that the little bush township of Tunumburra had become the scene of a
convocation of Pastoralists called to concert measures against the
threatened strike. The mailman reported that the district was now in a
state of great commotion, and the strikers, gathering silently in armed
force, prepared to defend their rights against a number of free
labourers whom the sheep-owners were importing from the South. The men
who had killed McKeith's horses were, according to the mailman,
entrenched in the Range, awaiting developments. It was thought that
nothing would happen on a large scale until the arrival of the free
labourers and the troops, which it was said the Government was sending.
Harry the Blower talked darkly of marauding bands, ambushed foes and
perilous encounters on his road, all of which waxed in number and
blood-thirstiness after the manner of Falstaff's men in buckram. But
nobody ever took Harry the Blower's yarns very seriously.

It would have been natural for Lady Bridget to work herself up into a
state of humanitarian excitement--the O'Hara's had always espoused
unpopular causes--but since the arrival of the English mail a curious
dreaminess had come upon her. She spent idle hours in the hammock on
the veranda, and would only rouse herself spasmodically to some trivial
burst of energy--perhaps a boiling water skirmish against white ants,
or a sudden fit of gardening--planting seeds, training the wild
cucumber vines upon the veranda posts, or watering the shrubs and
flowers within the rough paling fence that enclosed the house and
garden. A new-made garden, for ornament rather than for use, for the
staple produce was grown in the Chinaman's garden by the lagoon. Young
passion-fruit vines barely concealing the fences' nakedness, a mango, a
few small orange trees now in flower. A Brazilian cherry, two or three
flat-stone peach trees and loquets--all looking thirsty for rain--
that was all. The Old Humpey, as it was called, had creepers
overgrowing its roof, a nesting-place for frogs, lizards, snakes--and
Lady Bridget, brave enough for doughty deeds, could never overcome her
terror of horned beasts and reptiles. McKeith's office, where he
entered branding tallies and posted the station log, was in the Old
Humpey, and two or three bachelor bedrooms opposite the wing with
kitchen and store. But Lady Bridget lived chiefly in the new house--
less picturesque with its zinc roofing and deficiency of green
drapings, but, being built on sawn lengths of saplings, more or less
fortified against snakes. In front there was a great vacant space
between the ground and the floor of the house--pleasant enough in
summer, when a gentle draught could find its way through the cracks
between the boards, but cold in winter, though the northern winters
were not sharp enough or long enough for this to be a serious
discomfort.

Nor, when Lady Bridget slept alone in the new house, did she mind much
the dogs and harmless animals that couched under the boards, they gave
her a sense of companionship. But there was a herd of goats--some of
them old and with big tough horns--which McKeith had started in his
bachelor days to provide milk when, as sometimes happened, the milch
cows failed; also to furnish savoury messes of kid's flesh--a pleasant
change from the eternal salt beef varied with wild duck. Occasionally
it happened, especially in mustering times, that nobody remembered to
pen the goats in their yard by the lagoon, and on these occasions they
would get under the house, and the noise of their horns knocking
against the floor of her bedroom would so effectively destroy Lady
Bridget's chances of sleep that she would rise in the night and drive
them into their fold. These were incidents which added variety to the
monotony of her life in the Bush.

The head-station was very quiet one afternoon, most of the hands being
out with the tailing mob; and Lady Bridget, in a restless mood, went
for a roam through the bush. She walked past the Chinamen's garden and
Fo Wung, carrying up buckets of water to his young cabbages, stopped to
smile blandly and report on his produce. But she was in no mood for the
interchange of remarks in pidgin English.

It was lonelier at the head of the lagoon. She could hear the trumpeter
geese tuning up in shrill cornet-like notes and the discordant shriek
of native-companions, as the long-legged grey birds stalked
consequentially at the water's edge. She disturbed a flock of parrots
in the white cedar tree, and a covey of duck rose with a whirring of
pinions and a mighty quacking, shaking the drips off their plumage so
that they glittered like diamonds in the sun. From the limbs of the
dead gum tree hung flying foxes, their bat-like wings extended limply,
and a gigantic crane stood in melancholy reflection upon one leg.

Lady Bridget crossed the gully and roamed the borders of the gidia
scrub. Here, in an occasional open patch, were wattles breaking into
yellow bloom, and sandalwood trees already in blossom, scenting the air
faintly and making bright splashes upon the grey and black background
of the mournful gidia. She filled her arms with flowers and wandered
on, long past the stockyards, into the fastnesses of the gully, where
lay dark pools almost empty now and where grey, volcanic looking rocks
seemed to make a rampart between the scrub and the head-station.

She was sitting there, her back against a boulder, the forest behind
her, so motionless that inquisitive bower-birds and leather-heads came
quite close to her feet, her small pointed chin poked forward, her eyes
shadowy and mysterious as the still waterpools below. She was visioning
in space that man who had once undoubtedly cast a strong spell upon
her. The spell had been broken by his own infidelity--if it WERE
infidelity of the real man. For she could never believe that he had not
truly loved her. Broken, secondly, by the counteracting influence of
her husband. But now it seemed that the news of him in Lady Gaverick's
letter had started the old vibrations afresh. It was as if an iron wall
between them had suddenly been knocked down and he had gained access to
her inner self. For months she had scarcely thought of him. Last night
she had seen him in a dream, and he had spoken to her. He had said, 'Of
course, I loved you. I never loved anyone better, but I felt that you
were not of an accommodating disposition--that I could not give you
anything you really wanted, and that we should not be happy together.'
That was all of the dream she had brought back. But she KNEW that there
had been a great deal more. The impression had been so vivid that she
could not rid herself of the fancy that he was within actual reach of
her. It was impossible to imagine him fourteen thousand miles distant.

She did not try now to fight against this haunting, but yielded herself
to the power of the dream. When she heard a footstep in the forest
behind her, she started and turned and stared into the dim aisles of
the gidia, as though she expected to see his ghost.

'Mithsis--mithsis--me Wombo--plenty my been look out for you. Plenty
mine frightened to go along a head-station.'

Lady Bridget laughed hysterically. What a contrast between the romantic
hero of her dreams and the figure of the black-boy before her. Wombo
had been in the wars. Very little was left of the trim understudy of
Moongarr Bill. He was hatless; his Crimean shirt was torn into ribbons;
his moleskin breeches were covered with blood and dirt; the strap belt,
with its sheath-knife and various pouches, was gone, and this, judging
from the state of his legs and feet, had been forcibly removed.

A gash from a tomahawk disfigured his head; the woolly hair was matted
with blood. But there remained still something of the PREUX CHEVALIER
about Wombo.

'Mine bring it gin belonging to me,' he announced with dignity, making
an introductory gesture towards what appeared almost an excresence upon
the black trunk of a gidia tree except for an old red blanket slung
round one shoulder, which only half covered a woman's dusky form.

'That Oola. Mine want 'im marry Oola. Black teller belonging to that
feller plenty COOLLA*. My been sneak camp. Me catch 'em Oola. Black
feller look out, throw 'im tomahawk, NULLA-NULLA*. My word! big feller
fight. Me YAN plenty quick. Oola YAN* plenty quick. Black feller come
after--throw 'im spear--close up MUMKULL*. BA'AL* can pull out spear,
Oola plenty cry.'
[*Coolla--in Blacks language, meaning Angry.]
[*Nulla-nulla--A black's weapon.]
[*Yan--To go away.]
[*Mumkull--To kill.]
[*Ba'al--No--Not.]

Oola joined in with the black's plaintive wail.

'YUCKE*! Poor fellow, Oola!'
[*Yucke!--Alas!]


Wombo pulled her forward. A comely half-caste who, as a child, had been
partially civilised by a stockman's wife on one of the Leura
out-stations, but who had, later, gone back to her tribe and married a
Myall, as the wild blacks are called. She was very young, soft and
round of outline, with hair straighter and more glossy than is usual
among her kind, and large black eyes now raining tears. She wiped them
away with a sooty hand, pink in the palm. Her left arm hung limp by her
side.

Lady Bridget jumped to her feet, all concern.

'Oh, you poor thing! You poor, poor thing,' she cried. For Wombo,
tweaking aside the concealing blanket, showed the smooth shaft of a
spear transfixed in the quivering flesh of Oola's arm, above the elbow.
He had broken off the long end of the spear to expedite their flight--
so he explained in his queer lingo--but Oola had cried so much that he
had not been able to draw out the rest of the shaft.

'BUJERI* YOU, white Mary!' pleaded Oola in the native formula. 'You gib
it medsin. . . . You gib it one old fellow skirt. . . . BA'AL, Oola got
'im clothes. . . BA'AL got 'im ration. . . plenty sick this
feller. . . .' And she beat her breast with the arm that was unhurt.
[*Bujeri--Very good.]

'Of course, I'll give you medicine--and food, and I'll look out
something for you to put on. Only for heaven's sake, stop crying,' said
Lady Bridget. 'Come along. You must have that spear pulled out and your
arm seen to. Come with me to the Humpey. Quick--MURRA* make haste.'
[*Murra make haste--To run quickly.]

But Wombo drew back, casting an affrighted glance down the gully
towards the crossing.

'Ba'al me go long-a Humpey--I believe Boss PHO-PHO*, Oola,' he said.
[*Pho-pho--To shoot.]

'Wombo, you are foolish. What for Boss shoot Oola?'

'YOWI*--I believe when Boss say PHO-PHO, my word! that one PHO-PHO.
Plenty black feller frightened.'
[*Yowi--Yes.]

Bridget pushed the unhappy gin along the track.

'You needn't be frightened. Boss has gone away.'

'Boss no sit down long-a Humpey?' Wombo looked relieved, and while
Bridget reassured him, the three moved on towards the crossing. In
answer to Lady Bridget's questioning the black-boy told his story as
they went. She already knew of Wombo's passion for the young gin, who
was within the prohibited degree of relationship, therefore TABU to
him, and who, moreover, was already legitimately wedded to a warrior of
the tribe. She knew also that McKeith had forbidden the black-boy,
under pain of severe penalty, to seek the coveted bride. Of course, it
was all nonsense about his shooting the poor creature, though no doubt,
in ordinary circumstances, he would have sent them off the station. But
hard as he was--and Lady Bridget had learned that her husband could be
very hard, he would never be inhuman, and, naturally, Oola's wound must
be dressed.

Lady Bridget hurried them over the crossing and up the hill. The white
men were all out with the cattle. She needed assistance, and seeing Mrs
Hensor at the kitchen window of the Bachelors' Quarters, called to her.

'Please come out at once, I want you.'

The woman's face became sullen on the instant.

'I can't come now. I'm in the middle of my baking.'

'But don't you see? The thing is important. This poor gin has a spear
through her arm--it must be attended to immediately. Wombo is hurt
too. The wounds must be washed and dressed. . . . Look at the poor
creatures.'

Mrs Hensor contemptuously surveyed Wombo and his erring partner.

'Serve them right. He's stolen her from her husband and the Blacks have
given them what for. They don't need any fussing over, these niggers.
They are used to being knocked about.'

Lady Bridget's eyes blazed, but her tone was icy.

'I suppose you understand that I've given you my orders to attend to a
wounded fellow-creature.'

'Well, I don't call Blacks fellow-creatures. Do you suppose we should
not all be having spears thrown at us if the niggers weren't afraid of
Mr McKeith's gun?'

'You have my orders,' repeated Lady Bridget sharply, her wrath at white
heat.

'I take no orders from anybody but the Boss, and his orders were that
if Wombo brought the gin here, they'd got to be driven off,' retorted
Mrs Hensor.

'They will not be driven off. You will answer to your master for this
disobedience!' said Lady Bridget.

Mrs Hensor laughed insolently.

'Oh, I'm not afraid of Mr McKeith finding fault with ME,' and she
withdrew out of sight into the kitchen.




CHAPTER 12



Lady Bridget made as dignified a retreat as was possible in the
circumstances. She could have slain Mrs Hensor at that moment. She took
the blacks to the veranda of the old Humpey and went to look in the
office for antiseptics, lint and bandages. Chen Sing, the Chinese cook,
came at her call, and rendered assistance with the bland phlegm of his
race. The spear had been pulled out of Oola's arm by the time Lady
Bridget came back with the dressings. In her spasms of East End
philanthropy she had learned the first principles of surgical aid. When
Oola's arm and Wombo's gashed head had been washed and bandaged, the
trouble was to know what to do with the pair.

Now that they were comfortable and out of pain, fed and given tobacco
to smoke and a tot of rum apiece, they had time to remember
superstitious fears kept at bay while they had been running for their
life. Both were afraid to show themselves in the open. On one hand,
there was the terror of McKeith; on the other, of Oola's husband. Lady
Bridget gathered that Oola's husband was a medicine man, and that he
had 'pointed a bone at his faithless wife and her lover.' To 'point a
bone' at an enemy--the bone having first been smeared with human
blood, and subjected to magical incantations--is the worst spell that
one aboriginal can cast upon another. It means death or the direst
misfortune. All that the afflicted one can do is to fly--to hide
himself beyond the sorcerer's ken and the reach of pursuit. For this
reason, Wombo and Oola had fled back to Moongarr. No outside black
dared venture within range of McKeith's gun. Now Wombo and Oola
besought Bridget to hide them from the vengeful furies. There was that
slab and bark hut at the end of the kitchen and store wing. Nobody was
likely at present to want to go into it. The door had a padlock, and it
was used as a store-house for the hides of beasts that had been killed
for the sake of the skins when in the last stage of pleuro. The key was
always kept hung up in McKeith's office.

Here Lady Bridget installed Wombo and Oola. She brought them cooked
meat, bread and a ration of tea and sugar, provided them with a pair of
blankets, and found for Wombo some old moleskins, a shirt, and a pair
of boots, while Oola almost forgot the medicine man's evil spell in her
puzzled delight over a lacey undergarment and a discarded kimono
dressing-grown, which had been part of Lady Bridget's trousseau. That
excitement over, the lonely mistress of Moongarr went back to her own
habitation. She ate her solitary dinner and paced the veranda till
darkness fell and the haunted loneliness became an almost unbearable
oppression. Vast plains, distant ranges, gidia scrub and the far
horizon melted into an illimitable shadow. The world seemed boundless
as the starry sky--and yet she was in prison! She had longed for the
freedom of the wild, and her life was more circumscribed than ever. A
phrase in an Australian poem, that had struck her when she had read it
not long ago came back upon her with poignant meaning. 'Eucalyptic
cloisterdom'--that was the phrase, and it was this to which she had
condemned herself. The gum trees enclosed for her one immense cell and
she had become utterly weary of her mental and her spiritual
incarceration. Oh! for the sting of love's strong emotion to break the
monotony. The most sordid sights and sounds of London streets, the most
inane babble of a fashionable crowd would be more stimulating to her
brain, sweeter in her ears than the arid expanse, the weird bush noises
--howl of dingoes, wail of curlews, lowing of cattle--that a year ago
had seemed so eerily fascinating.

Even her marriage! The romance of it had faded, as it were, into the
dull drab of withered gum leaves. The charm of primal conditions had
been overpowered by their discomfort. Nature had never intended her for
the wife of a backwoodsman. At times she felt an almost unendurable
craving for the ordinary luxuries of civilisation. The bathing
appliances here--or rather, the lack of them--were often positive
torture to her. She hated the food--continual coarse beef varied by
stringy goats' flesh or game from the lagoon. She had come to loathe
wild duck--when the men had time to shoot it. She could never bring
herself to destroy harmless creatures, and was a rank coward over
firearms. Talk of the simple life! Why, it was only since they had got
Fo Wung that there had been any vegetables. And the climate--though
the short winter had been pleasant enough as a whole--was abominable.
The long summer heat, the flies and the mosquitoes! What had she not
suffered the first summer after her marriage! And now the hot weather
was coming again. That was not the root of the trouble, however--
Bridget was honest enough to confess it. The root lay in herself--in
her own instability of purpose, her mercurial temperament. She had been
born with that temperament. All the O'Haras loved change--hungered
after strong sensation. She was spoiling now for emotional excitement.

Well, the little human drama of the Blacks' camp had taken her out of
herself for an hour or two. It had been so funny to see Oola stroking
the lace frills of Lady Bridget's old petticoat and looking up at Wombo
with frank coquetry as she mimicked the 'White Mary's' gestures and
gait. Lady Bridget meant to stand by the savage lovers. She would not
allow Colin to treat them badly when he came back.

Ninnis, the overseer, broke upon her restless meditations. He was a
rough specimen, originally raised in Texas, who, after knocking about
in his youth as a cow-boy in the two Americas, had come to Australia
about fifteen years previously, had 'free-selected' disastrously, and,
during the last five years, had been in McKeith's employ. He was
devoted to his master, but he looked upon McKeith's marriage as a
pernicious investment. His republican upbringing could not stomach the
'Ladyship,' and he persisted in calling Lady Bridget Mrs McKeith. He
considered her flighty and extravagant in her ideas, and was always
divided between unwilling fascination and grumpy disapproval. To-night
he was in the latter mood and this incensed Lady Bridget.

'I've been writing up the log,' he began in a surly, aggressive tone,
'and I thought I'd better make a note of Wombo and that gin having come
to the head-station, in case of there being trouble with the Blacks.'

'Why should there be trouble with the Blacks?' she asked, in manner
equally unconciliatory.

'Well, ye know--though, I daresay, it wouldn't seem of much
consequence to you--Wombo's gone agen the laws of the tribe, and
that's a serious matter. If they know he's skulking here under
protection, they'll be spearing the cattle, and the Boss won't like
that.'

'I'll explain to Mr McKeith,' said Lady Bridget haughtily.

'Well, I reckon it's best not to keep them on the head-station against
the Boss's orders,' persisted Ninnis.

Lady Bridget set her little white teeth. 'Naturally, Mr McKeith's
orders don't apply to ME--as I had to tell Mrs Hensor.'

'Mrs Hensor knows the Boss better than most people,' said Ninnis, at
which Lady Bridget flashed out.

'We need not discuss that question, Mr Ninnis.'

Ninnis' jaw stiffened underneath his shaggy goatee.

'Well, I guess you know your own business, Mrs McKeith, and it's up to
you to square things with the Boss.'

Lady Bridget reared her small form and bent her head with great
stateliness.

'But I'll just say, though,' went on Ninnis, 'that I hear Harris of the
police is coming along. And what Harris doesn't think he knows about
the heel of the law being kept on Blacks--and every other darned unit
in the creation scheme'--muttered Ninnis in parenthesis--'ain't
entered in the Almighty's Log-book.'

Ninnis expectorated over the veranda railings--a habit of his that
jarred on Lady Bridget.

'Well, what about Harris?'

'He's had his eye on Wombo and would be glad of an opportunity to best
him--on account of a little affair about a colt Wombo rode for him at
the last Tunumburra races--and lost the stakes--out of spite, Harris
declares.'

'Oh, I know about that--and I told Mr Harris what I thought about his
treatment of the Blacks. But he can't punish Wombo if I choose to have
him here. I don't think Mr McKeith would bring Harris to Moongarr--he
knows I can't bear him.'

'Well, I reckon that's up to you to square with the Boss,' repeated
Ninnis surlily. 'I'm told Harris is on the look-out for desperate
characters going along the Leura--these unionist organisers--dropping
in at stations on pretence of getting rations and spying out the land,
and calling on the men to join them. There was a boundary rider from
Breeza Downs to-day--caught us up with the tailing mob and fetched
back their new chum and Zack Duppo, leaving us awful short-handed--so
that if Joe Casey doesn't fetch in the milkers so early to-morrow
you'll know it's because I've had to send him out herding. They're
doing their shearing early at Breeza Downs with shearers Windeatt has
imported from the south, and he wants police protection for them and
himself.'

Lady Bridget laughed.

'Harris and his two constables will have enough to do if they are to
protect the district.'

'That's just what Windeatt has been clamouring about. Now the
Government have sent up a military patrol, I believe. But they say it
isn't strong enough, and all the able-bodied men on the Leura are
enrolling as specials. No doubt, that's what been keeping the Boss. You
may be sure if there's fighting to be done--black or white--he'll be
in it.'

Lady Bridget angered Ninnis by her apparent indifference, and he bade
her a cross good-night. Had it been anybody else she would have
encouraged him to stay and talk. As it was, she resumed her lonely
pacing, and did not go to her room till the whole station was abed.

When at last she went to sleep she dreamed again vividly of Willoughby
Maule.




CHAPTER 13



McKeith returned, without warning, the following afternoon. He was not
alone, but had spurred on in advance of the other two men he had
brought with him. Lady Bridget, reading in her hammock at the upper end
of the veranda, heard the sound of a horse approaching, and saw her
husband appear above the hill from the Gully Crossing. She got to her
feet, expecting that he would ride up to the veranda, calling 'Biddy--
Biddy,' as he usually did after an absence. But instead, he pulled up
suddenly, turned his horse in the direction of the Bachelors' Quarters,
and passed from her line of vision.

She supposed, naturally, that someone at the Quarters had attracted his
attention, then remembering that Ninnis and the white men were out with
the cattle, wondered, as the minutes went by, who and what detained
him.

Tommy Hensor, running up from the garden with his evening dole of
vegetables, enlightened her.

'Boss come back, Ladyship. I can see him. He is up, talking to Mother.'

Lady Bridget was too proud a woman to feel petty jealousy, nor would it
have occurred to her to be jealous of Mrs Hensor. Her sentiment of
dislike towards that person was of quite another order. But she was
just in the mood to resent neglect on the part of McKeith.

She went to the veranda railing, whence she had a view of the
Bachelors' Quarters, and was able to see for herself that Tommy's
report had been correct. She called to the child:

'Go at once, Tommy, and tell the master that I am waiting.'

Tommy flew off immediately on his small, sturdy legs, and Lady Bridget
watched the scene at the Bachelors' Quarters. McKeith had dismounted,
and with one foot on the edge of the veranda, was facing Mrs Hensor,
who looked fresh and comely in a clean blouse and bright-coloured
skirt. The two seemed to have a good deal to say to each other, though
Lady Bridget heard only the voices, not the words. Her Irish temper
rose at the thought that Mrs Hensor might be giving him her version of
the Wombo episode. She felt glad that the black-boy and his gin were
comfortably sleeping off the effect of their wounds, and of the
plentiful meals supplied them in the hide-house, and thus were not in
evidence. When McKeith spoke, it was in a dictatorial, angry tone--
that of the incensed master. Clearly, however, Mrs Hensor was not the
object of his wrath. Lady Bridget saw little Tommy run excitedly up to
deliver her message, and almost cried out to him to keep away from the
horses' heels, to which he went perilously near. As things happened,
the beast lashed out at him, and Tommy had a very narrow escape of
being badly kicked. Lady Bridget heard Mrs Hensor shriek and saw her
husband drag the child to the veranda and examine him anxiously, Mrs
Hensor bending with him. Then McKeith lifted up Tommy and kissed and
patted him almost as if he had been the boy's father. It always gave
Bridget a queer little spasm of regret to see Colin's obvious affection
for the little fellow. He was fond of children, specially so of this
one. Lady Bridget knew, though he had never said so to her, that he was
disappointed at there being no apparent prospect of her having a child.

And she--with her avidity for any new sort of sensation, although she
scoffed at the joy of maternity--felt secretly inclined sometimes to
gird at fate for having so far denied her this experience. She herself
liked Tommy in her contradictory, whimsical fashion; but now, the fuss
over, the boy--who clearly was not in the least hurt--made her very
cross, and she became positively furious at seeing McKeith delay yet
further to unstrap his valise and get out a toy he must have bought for
Tommy in Tunumburra. Then, his grievance aparently coming back on him,
he put the child abruptly aside, and leaving valise and horse at the
Bachelors' Quarters, walked with determined steps and frowning visage
down the track to the veranda. There, his wife was standing, very pale,
very erect, her eyes glittering ominously.

McKeith was through the gate and up the flight of steps in three or
four strides.

He seemed to sense the antagonism in her, and demanded at once, without
waiting to give her any greeting.

'Biddy, what's this I'm hearing about Wombo and that gin?'

'I think you might have asked me before going to Mrs Hensor for
information,' she answered with equal curtness.

He stared at her for a moment or two as if surprised; his face
reddened, and his eyes, too, glittered.

'I don't know what you mean. I had to speak to Mrs Hensor about beds
being wanted up there, and of course I asked her how things had been
going on.'

'And did she tell you that she had been inhuman and insolent?'

'Inhuman. . . Insolent!'

'She spoke to me impudently. She defied my orders.'

'I am given to understand that she was carrying out mine,' said McKeith
slowly. 'And if that's so, Mrs Hensor was in the right.'

'You put that woman before ME--before your wife?'

'There's not another woman in the universe I'd put before my wife. But
that's no reason for my giving in to her when she does what I know to
be folly.'

'I see. You call an act of common humanity folly--doing what one could
to relieve the agony of a fellow creature. I am glad that I differ from
you--and from your servant. Mrs Hensor refused to help that poor gin
who had a spear through her arm and was shrieking with pain.'

'Oh, you don't know black-gins as well as I do. They'll pretend they're
dying in agony just to wheedle a drop of rum or a fig of tobacco out of
a white man; and they'll take it quite as a matter of course when one
of their men bashes their head in with a NULLA-NULLA.'

'I suppose you'll allow that a spear wound may hurt a little,' said
Bridget. 'I believe that you yourself suffered from the effect of one
at least, you once told me so.'

And memory--so active these late days, brought suddenly back the
vision of him as he had approached her that evening at Government
House. What a great Viking he had looked!--in modern dress, of course,
but bearing mark of battle in a slight drag of the left leg, only
noticeable, she knew now, when he was shy and proud, and under, to him,
difficult social conditions. But what a MAN she had felt him to be
then, among the other men!

It seemed an outrage on her idealised image of him to hear him speaking
in that dry, caustic manner.

'Ah, that's different. The Gulf natives have a nasty way of barbing and
poisoning their spears. An ordinary spear-thrust is nothing to either
black or white. Wombo could have pulled the thing out, and in a few
hours the gin would have been all right again.'

'You think so--well in a few hours she was in a high fever. I took her
temperature this morning when I re-bandaged the wound.'

McKeith laughed shortly.

'It wouldn't be surprising, if you had given her grog and tobacco and
as much meat as she wanted. That what you did, eh?'

'Yes, it was. They were both starving.'

'Well, I wouldn't bank on your stock of medical knowledge, Biddy--not
if I was down with fever or otherwise incapacitated. But that's not the
point--which is that those blacks have been kept here against my
express orders.'

'They've been kept here by MY orders,' flamed Lady Bridget.

McKeith's jaw squared, and there showed in his eyes that ugly devil
which many a black and white man had seen, but never his wife before.

'Look here, milady--there can be only one boss on this station. And
now you'll excuse me if I act according to my own discretion.'

Without another word he walked up the veranda and down the few steps
connecting it with the Old Humpey. She heard him go into his office,
and presently the door of it slammed behind him. She knew that he was
going to the culprits in the hide-house, and wondered what punishment
he would mete unto them. Had he gone to the office for his gun? At this
moment, anything seemed possible to Lady Bridget's heated temper and
excited imagination.

She stood waiting, absorbed in her fears, so abstracted from her
ordinary outside surroundings that she was unaware of the approach of
two horsemen from the Gully Crossing. They did not stop at the garden
gate, but made for the usual station entrance at the back. One of them,
lingering behind the other, gazed earnestly at Lady Bridget's tense
little figure and bent head, poised in a listening attitude and
conveying to him the impression that something momentous had happened
or was about to happen. And just then, appalling shrieks, from the rear
of the home, justified the impression.

Lady Bridget ran through the sitting-room to the veranda behind, which
again connected on either side the new house with the Old Humpey and
kitchen and store-wing--the hide-house standing slightly apart at the
end of the store building. The shrieks in male and female keys came
from the hide-house and mingled with McKeith's strident tones
fulminating in Blacks' lingo. The noise brought Mrs Hensor and Tommy
down from the Bachelors' Quarters, and the Chinese cook, the Malay boy
and Maggie the housemaid from the service department. The three
verandas and garden plot made a kind of amphitheatre; and now, into the
arena, came the actors in the little tragedy.

From the hide-house, McKeith dragged the prisoners, and through the
gateway in the palings which made the fourth side of the enclosure.
With one hand he clutched Wombo, with the other Oola, who in her
lace-trimmed petticoat and flowered kimono was truly a tragi-comic
spectacle.

McKeith carried his coiled stockwhip in the hand which held Wombo. It
was plain, judging from the state of Wombo's new shirt, that he had
given the black boy a thrashing; Oola was unscathed. Of course, Colin
could not lift his hand to a woman, though he was a brute and the woman
only a black-gin. Lady Bridget felt faintly glad at this.

She watched the scene, half fascinated, half disgusted, all her
attention concentrated on these three figures. She had but a dim
consciousness of two men riding round the store-wing and dismounting.
One of the two remained in the background screened by the trails of
native cucumber overhanging the veranda end. The other--a wiry,
powerful figure in uniform, with a rubicund face, black bristling
moustache and beard and prominent black eyes, reminding one of the eyes
of a bull--walked forward and spoke with an air of official assurance.

'Can I be of any use to you, Mr McKeith, in dealing with that nigger? A
bad character, as I've reason to know.'

'No, thank you, Harris. I can do my own dirty jobs,' said McKeith
shortly.

He had released the pair and now stood grimly surveying them. Oola was
crying and squealing; Wombo stood upright--a scowl of hate on his
face. His whole nature seemed changed. A flogging will rouse the
semi-civilised black's evil passions like nothing else. There was
something of savage dignity in the defiant way in which he faced his
former master.

'What for you been take-it stockwhip long-a me? BA'AL me bad black boy
long-a you, Boss. What for me no have 'em gin belonging to me? Massa
catch 'im bujeri White Mary like it gin belonging to him. What for no
all same black fellow?'

McKeith cut short the argument--sound logic it seemed to Lady Biddy--
by an imperious, silencing gesture, and a sudden unfurling of his
stockwhip, which made a hissing sound as it writhed along the ground
like a snake. The black boy sprang aside. McKeith pointed to the gidia
scrub and issued a terse command in the native language.

'YAN ' (go). 'BA'AL YOU WOOLLA ' (don't talk any more). 'YAN.'

Wombo turned appealingly to Lady Bridget.

'Lathychap!'

'YAN,' stormed McKeith again, and, as Lady Bridget made a movement of
sympathetic response towards the black fellow, he added sternly:
'You'll oblige me by not interfering in this business. The Blacks know
that what I say, I mean, and I'll have no more words with them.'

Bridget stood quite still, her attitude and expression all indignant
protest, but she said nothing. Her face was turned full towards the man
hidden by the creepers, who was watching her with intense interest, but
she was unconscious of his gaze.

Wombo retreated slowly. Oola, cowed, whimpering, behind him. Then, she
made an appeal to Lady Bridget, stretching out her unbandaged arm
imploringly.

'White Mary--you PIDNEY (understand). That fellow medsin man--husband
belonging to me. Him come close-up long-a srub--throw 'im spear,
NULLA-NULLA--plenty look out Wombo. BA'AL, Wombo got 'im spear--ba'al
got 'im NULLA-NULLA. Suppose black fellow catch 'im Wombo--my word!
that fellow MUMKULL (kill). Wombo--mumkull Oola--altogether BONG
(dead). YUCKE! YUCKE! Lathychap suppose Massa let Wombo sit down long-a
head-station--two day, three day--black fellow get tired--up stick--
no more look out. No catch 'im Wombo. Lathychap!' she pleaded, 'BUJERI
you PIALLA (intercede with) Boss.'

Lady Bridget came down the steps from the veranda and went up to
McKeith.

'Colin, what the gin says is true. Her tribe will kill them, and they
have no weapons and no means of protection. Will you, as a favour to
me, let them stay for a few days? At least, till her arm is healed and
the danger past?'

McKeith hesitated perceptibly, then the consciousness of weakening
resolve made him harden himself the more, made his speech rougher than
it might have been.

'No, I can't, Biddy. I never break my word. They've GOT to go.'

He turned fiercely on Wombo, who stood sullen and defiant again, and
from him to Oola, who crouched in the dust, sobbing pitifully and
rubbing her damaged arm.

'Plenty me sick, Boss--close up TUMBLEDOWN ' (die), she wailed.

'Stop that! YAN--do you hear? YAN--YAN--BURRI--BURRI--' (go
quickly).

The whip lashed out again. It stung Wombo's bare leg, and flicked
Oola's petticoat. The two ran screaming lustily towards the rocks and
scrubby country at the head of the gully.

Lady Bridget uttered a shuddering exclamation and made an impetuous
movement with arms partly outstretched as if to follow the pair. Then
her arms dropped and she stood stock still.

There was a dead silence. In all the relations of husband and wife,
never had there been a moment more crucial as affecting their ultimate
future. They looked at each other unflinchingly, neither speaking.
McKeith's lips were resolute, locked, his pugnacious jaw set like iron.
Here was the stubborn determination of a fighting man, never to admit
himself in the wrong. And his eyes seemed to have a steel curtain over
them--which, however, had Bridget's spiritual intuition been awake to
perceive it, softened for an instant, letting through a gleam of
passionate appeal.

But Bridget's soul was steel-cased also. He saw only contempt,
repulsion in her gaze. The larger issues narrowed to a conflict of two
egoisms. It seemed to both as though, in the space of that last quarter
of an hour, they had become mortal foes.

The police inspector broke in upon the tense silence. Here was another
egoism to be reckoned with--malevolently officious.

'They'll be hiding in the gully, Mr McKeith. No fear of them taking to
the outside bush with the tribe hanging round. I'll just round 'em up
and drive 'em into the scrub and strike the fear of the Law into them.
I'll do it now before I turn out my horse into the paddock.'

'No,' flamed Lady Bridget. 'You'll leave those unfortunate creatures
alone--or--if you molest them--whether it's by my husband's
permission or not--well--you'll find I'm a bad hater, Mr Harris.'

The police inspector flushed a deep red.

'Maybe I'm not such a bad hater either, my lady--but with my respects.
. . . '

'That will do, Harris,' interposed McKeith. 'I told you that I'd do my
own dirty jobs. There's no occasion for you to go against her
ladyship's wishes.'

Harris touched his helmet to Lady Bridget and, leering with veiled
enmity, replied:

'I'm never one to put myself up against the ladies, except where my
duty comes first--and that's not the case--yet. But as I was saying,
with my respects, my lady, Mr McKeith knows very well how to treat the
blacks. He knows that you've got to keep your word to them, whether
that means a plug of tobacco or a plug of cold iron.'

Lady Bridget drew back and looked at Harris for a second or two with an
expression of the most withering haughtiness. Then, without a word she
turned her back on him. The inspector infuriated, muttered in his
throat. McKeith interposed sharply:

'Bridget, Harris is going to stay the night.'

'Ah! at the Bachelors' Quarters,' Lady Bridget smiled with distant
calm. 'Of course, Mrs Hensor knows. I'm sorry I can't ask Mr Harris to
dinner at the house this evening.'

Now, by the social canons of the Bush, the police inspector, being
technically speaking of higher grade than the casual traveller, should
have been accepted as a 'parlour visitor.' He would thus have occupied
one of the bachelor spare rooms in the Old Humpey and would have joined
the Boss and his wife at dinner. Harris had never before stayed the
night at Moongarr, and he had confidently expected to be received with
honour. Thus he regarded Lady Bridget's speech as an insult.

'Oh, I'm not one to force my company where it is not wanted,' he
blustered. 'I'm quite content with a shake-down at the Quarters, though
if I'd known I might have gone by the short cut with the Specials--
it's rather late, however, to push on to Breeza Downs, where--though
perhaps I say it as shouldn't--I'm sure of a welcome from Mr and Mrs
Windeatt, being, so to speak--for law and order--the representative
of His Majesty in the Leura district.'

Lady Bridget smiled with detached amusement, as she turned again and
patted the head of an elderly kangaroo dog, which came up to her with
its tongue out and a look of wistful enquiry in its bleared eyes,
scenting plainly that something was amiss. 'Good dog, Veno,' she
murmured.

Harris bridled.

'I'll bid you good evening then, my lady,' he said stiffly. 'No doubt,
Mr McKeith, you'll spare me half an hour in the office by and by. Just
to concert our measures for the proper protection of the Pastoralists
and the safeguarding of the woolsheds this shearing season.'

'Yes, yes, or course,' McKeith answered mechanically. The spunk had
gone out of him, as Harris would have phrased it; and the Inspector,
looking at Lady Bridget, guessed the reason.

'And what now about the gentleman from Leichardt's Town, Mr McKeith?
Will I be taking him up with me to the Bachelor's Quarters? Or may be,'
Harris added unpleasantly, 'her ladyship won't object to having him in
the house.'

McKeith muttered angrily, 'Damn! I'd forgotten.'

It was not like him to lose himself during working hours in even a
momentary fit of abstraction--except, indeed, when he was riding
without immediate objective through the Bush. His eyes were still upon
his wife's slight figure as she moved slowly towards the veranda, with
the air of one who has no more concern with the business in hand. Her
graceful aloofness, which he knew to be merely a social trick, stung
him inexpressibly, the faint bow she had given Harris when he bade her
good evening had seemed to include himself. It galled him that he did
not seem fitted by nature or breeding to cope with this kind of
situation. The half consciousness of inferiority put him still more at
disadvantage with himself.

'Biddy, wait please,' he said dictatorially.

She paused at the steps, her hand on the railings, her eyes under their
lowered lids ignoring him.

He went closer and spoke rapidly in a harsh undertone.

'I didn't tell you--though I rode ahead on purpose--I met a man at
Tunumburra who said he knew you. He's out from England--been staying
at Government House, and brought a letter from Sir Luke Tallant. I hope
that at any rate you'll be civil to him.'

She flashed a quick glance at him, and her eyelids dropped again.

'But naturally. I'm not in the habit of being uncivil to--my friends.'

And just then--Mrs Hensor, who loved cheap fiction, said afterwards it
was all like a scene out of a book--there appeared in the space
between the two wings, a man who had strolled unobserved from one side,
out of the background of creepers, and who advanced with quickened step
to where the husband and wife stood.




CHAPTER 14



A striking individual. Tall--though not as tall or as massively built
as Colin McKeith, firm boned and muscular, but with a sort of feline
grace of movement. There was the unmistakable stamp of civilisation,
and, at the same time, an exotic suggestion of the East, of wild
spaces, adventure, romance. Not in the least a Bushman, but wearing
with ease and picturesqueness, a backwoods get-up. Clothes, extremely
well cut; riding breeches and boots; soft shirt and falling collar with
a silk tie of dull flame colour knotted at the sinewy throat, loose
coat, Panama hat. So much for the figure. The face ugly, but
distinguished, sallow-brown in colouring. Nose long, fine, with a
slight twist below the bridge; cheeks and chin clean-shaven, an
enormous dark moustache concealing the mouth. Hair black, slightly
grizzled, and when he lifted his hat forming a thick lightly frosted
crest above his forehead. Eyes black--peculiar eyes, sombre, restless,
but with a gaze, steady and piercing when concentrated on a particular
object, as, just now, it was concentrated on Lady Bridget.

The gaze seemed compelling. Lady Bridget suddenly lifting eyes that
were instantly wide open, became aware of the man's presence. The
effect of it upon her was so marked that McKeith, watching her face,
felt a shock of surprise. The change in her was noticed by the Police
Inspector, with malevolent curiosity. So also by Mrs Hensor, a little
further away.

The new-comer saluted her with a low bow, his hat in one hand, the
other extended.

'You haven't forgotten me, I hope, Lady Bridget, though I should think
that I am the very last person in the world you would have expected to
see in these parts.'

Lady Bridget had turned very white. She stared at him as if he had been
a ghost, and at first seemed unable to speak. But her confusion lasted
only a few seconds. Almost before he had finished his sentence she had
pulled herself together. Her hand was in his, and she spoke in her old
fluty voice and little grand manner, with the old slow, faintly
whimsical smile on her lips and in her eyes. It came over McKeith that
he had not of late been familiar with this aspect of her, and that she
was exhibiting to this man the same strange charm of her girlhood which
had been to him, in the full fervour of his devotion, so wonderful and
worshipful, but of which--he knew it now--the Bush had to a great
extent robbed her.

She laughed as she withdrew her hand from that of the newcomer. And
standing on the steps, her head almost on a level with his, met his
eyes with challenging directness.

'Really, Mr Maule, you shouldn't startle a nervous creature in that
uncanny way--appearing like the unmentionable Personage or the angel
if you prefer it, only with this difference, that we weren't speaking
of you. I hadn't the most distant notion that you were on this side of
the equator. If my husband had mentioned your name I should not have
been so taken by surprise.'

'Were you really so surprised? I thought I MUST have sent my shadow on
before me--because I've been thinking so tremendously of you these
last few days, and of the prospect of seeing you again. I daresay you
know,' he added, turning politely to McKeith--'that I had the pleasure
of meeting your wife when she was Lady Bridget O'Hara, one winter at
Rome, with her cousins, Lord and Lady Gaverick. And later, we saw
something of each other in London.'

'No, my husband doesn't know,' Bridget gave a reckless laugh, and her
eyes challenged those of McKeith before he could answer. 'You see,
Colin and I, when we married, came from opposite poles geographically,
morally and mentally. He did not understand or care about my old
environment any more than I understood--or cared about his. So we
agreed to bury our respective pasts in oblivion. Don't you think it was
a good plan?'

'Quite admirable. I admire your mutual courage in adopting it.'

'You think so! It has its drawbacks, though,' said McKeith dryly. 'I
must apologise for having left you to announce yourself. The fact is,
those Blacks put other things out of my head. They had to be taught
they couldn't disobey orders without being punished for it.'

'Poor wretches! Yes! I know the popular idea of asserting British
supremacy over coloured races, by the force of the whip. I have not
always seen it answer; but then my experience has been with natives
rather higher in the scale of evolution than the Australian
aboriginal.'

'You believe in the power of kindness--as I do,' exclaimed Lady
Bridget. 'My husband and I take different views on that subject. But we
need not discuss them now. Come and have some tea, and tell me about
the Tallants.'

Maule followed her to the door of the living room where she turned to
give some orders to Maggie, the maid-servant, and to the Chinese cook.
McKeith went off with Harris to see after the horses and have a talk
with Ninnis at the stockyards. Thus, Maule was left alone for a few
minutes to study and form his own opinion as to Lady Bridget's setting.
She was a woman who, whatever her surroundings, must always impress
them with her personality. This bush parlour was original in its
simplicity. Walls lined with unvarnished wood which was mellowing
already to a soft golden brown. Boards bare, but for a few rugs and
skins. A fine piece of tappa from the Solomons, of barbaric design in
black and orange, made the centre of an arrangement of South Sea Island
and aboriginal weapons. Divans heaped with cushions flanked the great
fireplace. Two writing-tables occupied spaces between French windows--
one the desk of a business-like roll-top escritoire; the other, the
flap of a Chippendale bureau, with a Chippendale arm-chair before it.
There were a few other pieces unmistakable English. In fact, Eliza
Countess of Gaverick, in addition to a handsome present of plate, had
sent her niece the furnishings of her old room at Castle Gaverick. A
few pictures and etchings hung on the other walls--among them several
wild seascapes--reminding one a little of Richard Doyle's exquisite
water colours--in which green billows and foamy wave-crests took the
shape of sea-fairies. Also some weird tree studies--mostly gum and
gidia, where gnarled limbs and bulbous protuberances turned into the
faces of gnomes and the forms of strange monsters. Maule had no doubt
that these were Lady Bridget's own. There was an upright grand piano--
the alleged cause of Steadbolt's conversion to Unionism, and all about
the place a litter of newspapers, books and work. The room was filled
with flowers--sheaves of wattle and of the pale sandal-wood blossoms,
as well as many sub-tropical blooms with which he was not familiar.
Blending with, yet dominating the mixture of perfumes, a peculiar scent
resembling incense, appealed to him; and this he did not a first trace
to a log of sandal-wood smouldering on the open hearth more for effect
than warmth, for the early spring evenings had scarcely a touch of
chill. The French windows stood open to the veranda, a room in itself
with its many squatters' chairs, hammocks and tables. Beyond, stretched
the green expanse of plain, utterly lonely, the waters of the lagoon
taking a reddish tinge where they reflected the lowering sun. It seemed
an inconceivable environment to have been chosen by the Lady Bridget he
had known in London, one of whose chief attractions to him had been
that she represented a certain section of the aristocracy of Great
Britain, decadent perhaps, but 'in the swim.'

She cam now along the veranda from the Old Humpey with the light,
rather hurried tread he remembered, talking rapidly when she joined
him.

'I've been seeing about your room. I suppose you know enough now of the
Never-Never to understand that we are quite primitive in our habits.
You won't find a spring mattress--or water laid on--or any other
convenience of civilisation.'

'May I remind you that I've roughed it pretty well in the Andes.'

'Yes, but you have had so many luxuries since then that you will have
forgotten what roughing it feels like--just as I've forgotten now that
I was ever anything but a barbarian--I see you shave still.'

'Yes--why?'

'Only that I discovered just now the white ants had eaten all the
woodwork of the spare-room looking-glass. The thing crumbled in my hand
and fell on the floor and was broken. A bad omen for your visit, isn't
it?'

'I hope not. So you are superstitious as ever?'

'I haven't ceased to be a Celt--though I've become a barbarian. I'll
borrow the overseer's looking glass for you.'

'Pray don't. I've got one of sorts in my razor case. Is dinner regarded
in the Never-Never as a sacred ceremonial?'

'The men don't put on dress clothes, if that's what you mean. As for
the repast, for a long time, as a rule, the menu was salt junk and
pumpkin. We've improved on that a little since the Chinese cook and the
Chinese gardener came back from the goldfields--there was another rush
at Fig Tree Mount that fizzled out. To-night, you will have
kangaroo-tail soup, and kid EN CASSEROLE. If you make believe very hard
you might possible imagine it young venison. . . . Here, Kuppi!' The
Malay boy brought in the tea-tray and she signed to him to put it on
the table between the fire and the window.

'Tea,' she asked, 'or would you rather have whiskey and water? I can't
offer you soda water because, till the drays come, we have nothing to
run the seltzogene with. . . . Do you know that the Unionists cut our
dray horses' throats? We're lucky to have whiskey in the store. They
broke open the cases of spirits and stole a lot of things. . . .
Vicissitudes of savage life, you see!'

She rattled on, scarcely pausing. She was seated on a divan, the tea
before her--he in a squatter's chair with long arms, in which he sat
silent, leaning forward, his hands on the chair-arms, his eyes fixed
upon her. She avoided looking at him. Her small sun-browned hands
fidgeted among the cups. If anything remained of her anger and emotion,
she hid it under a ripple of absurd housewifely chatter, not waiting
for him to answer.

'Well, is it to be tea or whiskey?'

'Tea, please,' and then at last she stopped and looked at him and could
not turn her eyes away, or did not want to do so. His black orbs stared
with a disquieting fixity--a sort of inhuman power--from out of his
foreign-looking face. That stare was his chief weapon in the
subjugation of women--they called it magnetic, and no doubt it was so.
It increased the fascination of his ugly good looks.

The gaze of each one seemed to fuse in that of the other. Hers, at
first coldly curious, tentative, caught light, warmth, intensity from
the sombre fire of his. Suddenly he said:

'In God's name, Biddy, how did you come to marry that rough brute.'

'IS he a rough brute! It's very rude of you to say so. But do you know,
just for a half minute to-day, I rather thought so myself. I don't
pretend to agree with Colin's methods of treating the Blacks, though
I'm told it's the only way to treat them--you know they did commit
terrible atrocities up here. . . . Still to flog a black man, a wild,
warlike, human creature, seems to me nearly as bad as shooting him. Do
you know--the first thing I ever heard about Colin was that he had a
great many notches on his gun, and that each one meant a wild
black-fellow that he had shot dead.'

'And now he flogs tame ones,' Maule observed quietly. Her brilliant
eyes searched his face for a sign of malevolent sarcasm, but not a
muscle quivered. Her own eyes wavered under his steady look. She busied
herself among the tea things.

'Sugar?'

'Please.'

But she paused, the tongs balanced in her delicate fingers.

'It is frightfully thrilling--life in the Bush.'

'What part of it? The shooting or the flogging?'

She burst out: 'You know I hated that. You know I was furious about the
flogging. You know'--She pulled herself up.

'I know nothing--except that you must have changed enormously in a
very short time to have been thrilled with anything but horror--by
that sort of thing.'

'Yes, I have changed. But it isn't time that changes one. Time never
counts with me. It's only feeling that counts. Oh, of course, I think
it all horrible--about the Blacks up North. They're not allowed on
this station--except one or two half civilised stock-boys--and this
one fell in love and carried off his gin, and brought her here against
my husband's orders.'

'Yes? And you had befriended them--I gathered that. But it doesn't
explain YOU. '

She took up a piece of sugar with the tongs, holding it suspended as
she spoke, jerkily.

'Why should I be explained? As for my finding life in the Bush
thrilling. . . . I was dead sick of falsities when I left England, I
wanted to be thrilled by something real.'

'And you found that--in your husband?'

'Yes; I did. He IS real, at least. He is true to himself. So few men
have the strength of their goodness or the courage of their badness,
when it comes to a big test.'

'Oh! I grant you. Yes; I know that's what you're thinking. I wasn't
true to myself in the big test. . . . But YOU were to blame for my
having been false to the higher ideal.'

'I! Oh--what makes you--' But she thought better of the impetuous
questions that trembled on her lips, and went on in a different tone.

'What does that matter! I'm not saying anything about high ideals. What
is high? . . . . What is low? . . . . You've just got to invoke truth
and freedom--as far as your conception of them goes. . . . And there's
a reason for Colin's hatred of the Blacks.'

'Ah! Is it permitted to ask the reason?'

'His family were all massacred by the natives--father, mother, sisters
--all. Well, one admires a man steadfast in revenge--going straight
for what he wants--and getting it--doing it--in love or in hate. Now
I have answered your question.'

The gesture of her head seemed a defiance. She dropped the sugar into
his tea, and he took the cup from her hands, and slowly drank it
without saying a word.

It was she who broke the silence.

'You provoke me. You make me say things I don't want to say. You always
did.'

'Ah! Then marriage has not changed you so immensely, after all!'

She bit her lip and rose abruptly.

'Do you want any more tea? No. Then come to the veranda and tell me how
it is that Luke Tallant has allowed you to exchange Government House
for the Never-Never?'

He had followed her through the French window.

'I see you haven't heard the bad news.'

'No--what? We only get a mail once a week.'

'I thought McKeith would have broken the shock. He came on, he said, to
do so. Poor Lady Tallant.'

'Rosamond! The operation?'

'She died under the anaesthetic. Sir Luke got the news by cable the day
before I left Leichardt's Town. He wired at once for leave and has
started for England by this time.'

'Oh? poor Rosamond! Poor, poor Rosamond!'

'Is she to be so greatly pitied! She has been saved much suffering!'

Then as Bridget went on murmuring, 'Oh, poor Rosamond, she did love
life,' he added gently. 'Life can be very cruel. . . . I myself have
had cause for gratitude to Death, the great Simplifier. If my wife had
lived she must have been a hopeless invalid doomed to continual pain.'

Lady Bridget gave him a swift look of reproach.

'Oh, do you expect me to congratulate you?' she exclaimed bitterly.
'Yes,' she went on, 'perhaps, to HER Death was merciful--but not to
Rosamond. And Luke did care for his wife. He will be broken-hearted.'

She stood gazing out upon the plain, on which the mist was gathering.
From across the gully sounded the cattle being driven home.

When she turned to him, her eyes were full of tears.

'I think I'll go now.' She said simply. 'Colin will show you your room.
He's there--coming up from the lagoon.'

She went through a French window lower down the veranda into her
bedroom, and Maule descended the steps into the garden and presently
joined his host.




CHAPTER 15



A little later, McKeith having tubbed and changed his riding clothes,
came to his wife's room. He looked very large and clean and fair, and
the worst of his temper had worn off in a colloquy with Ninnis, and the
imparting and receiving of local news. But his eyes were still gloomy,
and his mouth sullenly determined. And he had remembered with remorse
that he should have softened to Bridget the sudden news of her friend's
death. The sight of her now--a small tragic figure with a white face
and burning eyes, in a black dress into which she had changed, deepened
his compunction.

'I am very sorry, Biddy.' He tried to put his arm round her shoulder,
but she drew back.

'What are you sorry for, Colin--that Rosamond Tallant is dead, and
that you forgot to tell me, and let me hear it from--Willoughby
Maule?' She paused perceptibly before pronouncing the christian name,
'Or that you behaved like an inhuman monster to those wretched Blacks,
and refused me the only thing I have asked you for a good time past?'

Her tone roused his rancour anew.

'I think we'll drop the subject of the Blacks; there is no earthly use
in talking about them, I make it a rule never to threaten without
performing, and I'd punish them again, just the same--or more severely
--under similar circumstances.'

'Very well. You will do as you please, and I shall do as I please,
too.'

'What do you mean?'

'Just what I say. I agree with you that there's no use in discussing
things about which we hold such different opinions. Quite simply, I
can't forgive you for this afternoon's work.'

'Biddy, you exaggerate things.'

'Perhaps. But I don't think so in this case. Let me go out, Colin.
Dinner must be ready by now.'

'No. I've got something to ask you first. I want to know why you looked
so upset--as if you were going to faint--when that man came up to you
to-day?'

'Naturally, I was startled. I had no idea he was in Australia.'

'But why should that have affected you. One might have imagined he had
been your lover. Was he ever your lover, Biddy? I must know.'

'And if he had been, do you think I should tell you,' she answered
coldly.

McKeith's face turned a dark red. His eyes literally blazed.

'That's enough.' He said, 'I shall not ask you another question about
him. I am answered already.'

He stood aside to let her pass out into the veranda, and she walked
along to the sitting-room.

Dinner went off, however, more agreeably than might have been expected.
Lady Bridget's manner was simple and to the guest charming. The black
dress, the touch of pensiveness was in keeping with the shadow of
tragedy. But she spoke in a natural way, and with tender regret of Lady
Tallant--questioning Maule as to when he had last seen her, and
learning from him how it had been at Rosamond's instigation that he had
cabled proposing himself as a companion in Sir Luke's loneliness. It
had been only a week after his arrival in Leichardt's Town that the
blow had fallen.

'You know, Tallant and I always hit it off very well together,'he
observed explanatorily, addressing McKeith. 'It was at their house that
I used to meet Lady Bridget during the few months that I had the honour
of her acquaintance in England.'

McKeith looked at his guest in a resentful but half puzzled way. A
spasm of doubt shook him. Suppose he had been making a fool of himself
--insulting his wife by unreasoning suspicions? A vague contempt in her
courteous aloofness had stung him to the quick. And the other man's
easy self assurance, the light interchange of conversation between them
about things and people of which McKeith knew nothing--all gave the
Australian a sense of bafflement--the feeling that these two were
ruled by another social code, belonged to a different world, in which
he had no part. He had been sitting at the head of his table,
perfunctorily doing his duty as host, wounded in his self-esteem--
almost the tenderest part on him, morose and miserable. Now he snatched
at the idea that he had been mistaken, as if it were a life-buoy thrown
him in deep waters. He began to talk, to assert himself, to prove
himself cock of his own walk. And Maule suavely encouraged him to lay
down the law on things Australian, while Lady Bridget withdrew into
herself, baffling and enraging McKeith still more hopelessly. He did
not seem now to know his wife! A catastrophe had happened. What? How?
Why? . . . . Nothing was the same, or could be the same again.

It was a relief when dinner was over. The men pulled out their pipes in
the veranda. Lady Bridget, just within the sitting room window, smoked
a cigarette, her small form extended in a squatter's chair, listening
to, but taking scarcely any part in the conversation. The two outside
discussed local topics--McKeith's failure to trace the perpetrators of
the outrage on his horses. Maule's impressions of Tunumburra--where he
had met McKeith in the township hotel, and the two had apparently, in
the usual Bush fashion, got on intimate terms--the rumours of an armed
camp of Unionists, and the expected conflict between them and the sheep
owners and free shearers at Breeza Downs, whither the Government
specials were bound. Lady Bridget gleaned that Maule had placed himself
under McKeith's directions.

'What are your immediate movements to be?' he asked his host.
'Remember, I am ready to fall in with any plans you may have for making
me useful.'

McKeith did not answer at once. He took his pipe from his mouth, and
knocked the ashes out of it against the arm of his chair, while he
seemed to be considering the question. Then, as if he had formed a
definite determination, he leaned forward and addressed his wife in a
forcedly matter-of-fact tone.

'I don't suppose you know much about what has been going on, Biddy. The
same boat that brought up the specials brought a hundred or more free
labourers, and they're on their way up to the different sheep-stations
along the river--a lot of them for Breeza Downs, where Windeatt has
begun shearing. Windeatt is in a blue funk because a report that a
little army of Unionists, all mounted and armed, are camped that way
and threatening to burn down his wool-shed and sack his store. The
burned old Duppo's wool-shed last week.'

'He's a skinflint, and I'm sure he deserved it,' put in Lady Bridget
indifferently.

McKeith check a dry sarcasm. He became aware of Maule's eyes turning
from one to the other.

'Well--' He got up and leaned his great frame against the lintel
between Maule and Lady Bridget. 'The Pastoralist Executive at
Tunumburra have asked us cattle-owners who--are more likely to be let
alone than the sheep-men, to help in garrisoning the sheep-stations;
and I've promised to ride over to Breeza Downs to-morrow and do my
share in protecting the place. Harris and I are going together.'

Lady Bridge seemed more interested in blowing smoke-rings than in her
husband's news.

'I may have to be away several days,' continued McKeith. 'Then there's
the new bore we're sinking--the water is badly wanted--cattle are
dying--I can't run any risk of the bore-plant being wrecked. The men
who are working there must be sent off because we're short of rations--
thanks to those murderous brutes keeping back the drays--and the
muster has to be stopped for the same reason. I won't answer for when I
can be back.' . . . As she made no answer, he asked sharply: 'Do you
understand, Biddy?'

'Yes, of course. I have no doubt, Colin, that you'll find it all highly
stimulating. And perhaps you will be able to shoot somebody with a
clear conscience, which will be more stimulating still. Really Mr
Maule, you are lucky to have come in for a civil war--I heard that in
South America that was your particular interest. Do you carry civil
wars about with you? Only, there's nothing very romantic in fighting
for mere freedom of contract--it seems so obvious that people should
be free to make or decline a contract. I wonder which side you would
take.'

Her levity called forth an impatient ejaculation from McKeith.

'I'm afraid in my wars it's generally been what your husband would
consider the wrong side,' said Maule with a laugh. 'I've usually fought
with the rebels.'

'Then you'd better not go to Breeza Downs. You'd better stop and fight
for me,' exclaimed Bridget.

'That's just what I was about to propose your friend should do,' said
McKeith in hard deliberate tones. He looked straight at his wife--
shoulders and jaws squared, eyes like flashing steel under the grim
brows. The expression of his face gave Bridget a little sense of shock.
She raised herself abruptly, and her eyes flashed pride and defiance
too.

'How very considerate of you, Colin--if Mr Maule LIKES to be disposed
of in that way. HE is to be allowed freedom of contract I presume,
though the shearers are not.'

'You needn't be afraid that I shall strike, Lady Bridget,' laughed
Maule. 'It will suit my general principles to keep out of the
scrimmage. I don't know anything about the rights and wrongs of your
labour question, but I confess that, speaking broadly, my sympathies
are usually rather with Labour than with Capital.'

'Capital!' echoed McKeith derisively. 'It's blithering irony to talk of
us Leura squatters as representing capital. We're all playing a sort of
battledore and shuttlecock game--tossed about between drought and
plenty--boom and slump. A kick in the beam and one end is up and the
other end down. There's Windeatt, who will be ruined if his wool-shed
is destroyed and his shearing spoiled. No rain, and the banks would
foreclose on most of us. Take myself. Two years ago the skies were all
smiling on my fortunes. This last year, it's as if the hosts of heaven
had a down on me.'

'The stars in their courses fought against Sisera,' murmured Lady
Bridget.

'I'm Sisera, am I?' He gave her a fierce look and crossed to the
veranda-railing, where he began cutting tobacco into the palm of his
hand. 'Well, there is something in that. But the stars have never
licked me yet. Sisera was a coward, or they wouldn't have DOWNED him.'

'Ah, but there was Jael to be reckoned with,' put in Maule softly.

'Jael!' McKeith plugged his pipe energetically. 'The more fool Sisera
for not giving Jael a wide berth. He should have gone his way and kept
her out of his affairs.'

A hard little laugh rang from the depths of the squatter's chair. Maule
got up and strolled into the sitting-room, where he seemed engrossed in
the pictures on the wall. Just then Cudgee, the black boy, hailed
McKeith from the foot of the steps.

'That fellow pollis man want'ing Massa. He sit down long-a Old Humpey.'

'All right.'

McKeith looked into the parlour. 'My wife will entertain you, Maule. I
daresay you've got plenty to talk about. I'll see you later.'

Presently they heard him outside speaking to the Police Inspector.
'Come into the office, Harris, and have a smoke and a glass of grog.'




CHAPTER 16



Lady Bridget and Willoughby Maule were alone again. She got up from the
long chair, and as she did so her cigarette case dropped from her lap.
He picked it up and it lay on his open palm, the diamonds and rubies of
her maiden initials glistening on the gold lid. They looked at each
other across it.

'I gave you this,' he said, 'and you have kept it--used it?'

He seemed to gloat over the bauble.

Her fingers touched his hand as she took the case from him, and he gave
a little shiver of pleasure.

'Let me have it; I want another cigarette.' She selected two and gave
him one of them.

They moved to the divan near the fireplace, where some red embers
remained of the log of sandalwood. Its perfume lingered faintly in the
atmosphere.

'That's good,' he said. 'It's like you; the only thing in the
god-forsaken desert that IS like you.'

'Oh, you don't know me--now.'

'Don't I! Well, your husband has given me the chance of knowing you--
better--and I warn you that I shall not scruple to avail myself of the
opportunity.'

She shook her head dubiously. 'Give me a light.'

He stooped and lit his own cigarette, then, bending, held its tip to
her. They both inhaled a few whiffs in silence. Presently, he said:

'I find it difficult to understand McKeith.'

'Don't try. You wouldn't succeed. I observe,' she added, 'that you must
have become rather friendly at Tunumburra?'

'Oh, yes. I can generally get on with open-air men. Besides, I wanted
him to like me. I wanted him to ask me here.'

'Well--and what do you thing of it, now that you are here?'

'Great heavens! What do you imagine that I should think of it! The
whole thing seems to me the most ghastly blunder--the most horrible
anomaly. You--in these surroundings! Married to a man so entirely
beneath you, and with whom you don't get on at all.'

'You have no right to say that.'

'The thing is obvious; though you tried to carry it off before dinner.
Your manner to each other; the lack of courtesy and consideration in
him; his leaving you. . . .'

'Stop,' she interrupted. 'There's one thing you MUST understand. I
don't mind what you say about yourself--I want to hear that--but I
can't allow you to criticise my husband.'

'I beg your pardon. It isn't easy in the conditions to preserve the
social conventions. I will try to obey you. At any rate, you allow me
to be frank about myself. . . . It was sweet of you to keep this--more
than I could have dared hope for.'

He fingered tenderly the cigarette case on her lap.

'I suppose I ought to have sent it back to you. But I didn't want to.
You see it was not like an engagement ring.'

'No, worse luck.'

'Why, worse luck?'

'The ring would have been the outward and visible sign of an inward and
spiritual bond. If you had been really engaged to me--formally,
officially engaged, you couldn't have thrown me over so easily.'

'I--throw you over! Is it quite fair to put it that way?'

'No, I admit that. Let us be honest with each other--this once.'

'This once--very well--but not at this moment. I daresay there will
be time for a talk by and by.'

'I wait your pleasure.'

'There are some things I should like to understand,' she went on,
'--about you--about me, it doesn't matter which. And, after all, I only
want to know about you out of a sort of perverse curiosity.'

'That's so like you. You always managed to infuse a bitter drop into
your sweetness. And you COULD be so adorably sweet. . . If only I could
ever have felt sure of you.'

'Where would have been the use? We never could spend an hour together
without hurting or annoying each other. It's a very good thing for us
both that neither cared enough to make any real sacrifice for the
other.'

'There you wrong me,' he exclaimed. 'I did care--I cared intensely.
The touch of your hand--the very sweep of your dress thrilled every
nerve in me. I never in all my life loved a woman as I loved you. That
last day when you walked out of my rooms. . . .'

'Where I never ought to have gone. Fancy the properly brought-up
English girl you used to hold up to me doing such a shocking thing as
to visit you alone in your chambers! . . . Oh! Is that Colin back
again?'

For Maule had started visibly at the sound of quick steps mounting to
the veranda, and McKeith's towering figure appeared in the doorway,
looking at them.

Lady Bridget turned her head, her cigarette in her hand, and glanced up
at his face. What she saw in it might have made a less reckless or less
innocent woman feel uneasy. She was sure that he must have heard that
last speech of hers about visiting Maule in his chambers. Well, she
didn't care. Besides Colin hadn't the smallest right to resent any
action of hers before her marriage. . . She did not turn a hair. Maule
admired her composure.

'BON SANG NE PEUT MENTIR,' he thought to himself, and wished they had
been talking in French.

'You look as grim as the statue of the Commander,' said Lady Bridget.
'What is the matter?'

'Lady Bridget and I have been exchanging unconventional reminiscences,'
put it Maule with forced lightness.

McKeith took no notice of either remark, but strode across the room to
the roll-top escritoire, where he usually wrote his letters when in his
wife's company. He extracted a bundle of papers from one of the pigeon
holes.

'This is what I came for. Sorry to have interrupted your
reminiscences,' and he went out again, passing along the back veranda.

Maule had got up and was standing at the fireplace. Lady Bridget rose
too.

'I'm going to bed. We keep early hours in the Bush.'

'What! Already!' he exclaimed in dismay.

'I was up at six this morning. Well, I hope you won't be too
uncomfortable with the white ants in the Old Humpey--they are
perfectly harmless. Your room is next to the office, as I daresay
you've discovered. And you'll find Colin there I suppose, with your
friend the Police-Inspector.'

'Don't call that man Harris my friend. We've had one or two scraps at
each other already. He was pleased to take it for granted that I'm what
he calls a "new chum," and didn't like my shewing him that I knew
rather better than he does what police administration should be in
out-of-the-way districts.'

Lady Bridget nodded. 'Then we're both under ban of the Law. I DETEST
Harris. . . . Good-night.' And she flitted through the French window
without giving him her hand.

The station seemed in a state of unquietude till late into the night.
The lowing of the tailing-mob in the yard was more prolonged than
usual. And the horses were whinnying and answering each other down by
the lagoon as though there were strangers about. Lady Bridget, lying
awake and watching through her uncurtained windows the descent of the
Southern Cross towards the horizon, and the westward travelling of a
moon just out of its first quarter, could hear the men's voices on the
veranda of the Old Humpey--that of Ninnis and the Police Inspector;
Maule seemed to have retired to his own room.

McKeith was evidently busy upon preparations for his absence from the
station. He must have been cleaning guns and pistols. There were two or
three shots--which startled and kept her in a state of tension. At
last she heard the interchange of good-nights, and the withdrawal of
Ninnis and Harris to the Bachelor's Quarters. Finally, her husband came
to his dressing-room--not along the front veranda, as would have been
usual, but by the back one, through the bathroom. Even this deviation
from habit seemed significant of his mood--he would not pass her
window. He moved about for a time as if he were busy packing. Then came
silence. She imagined him on the edge of the camp bed, so seldom used,
smoking and ruminating.

Whiffs from his pipe came through the cracks of the door between the
two rooms, and were an offence to her irritated nerves. She had grown
accustomed to his tobacco, but, as a rule, he did not smoke the last
thing at night. He had seemed to regard his wife's chamber as a
tabernacle, enshrining that which he held most sacred, and would never
enter it until he was cleansed from the grime and dust of the stockyard
and cattle camp, and had laid aside the associations of his working
day. That attitude had appealed to all that was idealistic in both
their natures, and had kept green the memory of their honeymoon. It
angered her that to-night, of all nights, he should disregard it.

In personal details, she was intensely fastidious, and at some trouble
and cost had maintained in her intimate surroundings a daintiness
almost unknown out-back. Her room was large, and much of its
furnishings symptomatic of the woman of her class--the array of
monogrammed, tortoise-shell backed brushes and silver and gold topped
boxes and bottles, the embroidered coverlet of the bed, the flowered
chintz and soft pink wall paper, the laced cambric garments and
silk-frilled dressing gown hanging over a chair. When service lacked,
and there was no one to wash and iron her cambric and fine linen, she
contrived somehow that the supply should not fail, and brought upon
herself some ill-natured ridiculed in consequence. The wives of the
Leura squatters thought her 'stuck-up' and apart from their kind. If
they had known how much she wanted sometimes to throw herself into
their lives--as she had thrown herself into the lives of her East-End
socialistic friends! But the stations were few and far between, and the
neighbours--such as they were--left her alone.

Letting her mind drift along side-tracks, she resented now there having
come no suggestion from the Breeza Downs women that she should
accompany her husband and share the benefits of police protection, or--
which appealed to her far more--the excitement of what might be going
on there. Of course, though, there was nothing for her to be nervous
about here--she wished there might have been. Any touch of dramatic
adventure would be welcome in the crude monotony of her life.

But the adventure promised to be of a more personal kind.

Suddenly, she jumped out of bed and softly slipped the bolt of the door
into her husband's dressing room. She did it on a wild impulse. She
felt that she could not bear him near her to-night. He should see that
she was not his chattel. . . . But, perhaps, he did not want to
come. . . . Well, so much the better. In any case, she wanted to show him
that she did not want him. She wondered if he would venture. . . . She
wondered if he did really care. . . .

He appeared in no hurry to test her capacity for forgiveness. . . . Or
it might be that the minutes went slowly--laden as they were with
momentous thought. She lay in a tumult of agitation, her heart beating
painfully under the lawn of her nightgown. She had a sense of gasping
wonderment. She felt, as Colin had felt, that something tremendous had
happened--and with such bewildering suddenness--altering all the
conditions between them.

Yet, through the pain and bewilderment, her whole being thrilled with
an excitement that was almost intoxicating--like the effect of an
insidious drug, or the fumes of heady wine. She knew it was the old
craving for sensation, the fatal O'Hara temperament awake and
clamouring. Try as she would--and she did try in a futile fashion--
she could not shut off the impression of Willoughby Maule--the sombre
ardour in his eyes, the note of suppressed passion in his voice. There
was no doubt that this unexpected meeting had restarted vibrations, and
that his influence was a force to be reckoned with still.

If Colin had acted differently--if he had not behaved so brutally to
those poor blacks--if his manner to her had not been so hard and
overbearing. And then his leaving her alone like that with Willoughby
Maule! Of course, he was jealous. He had jumped at conclusions. What
right had he to do so? What could he know? He must suspect her of
horrible things. His questions had been insultingly dictatorial. Now,
he wanted to shew her that he flung her off. He would not put out a
finger to hold her to him. Had he not said something like that before
their marriage! . . . It was abominable.

The whiffs of tobacco smoke came no more. He was moving about again.
She heard him in the bathroom. After a minute or two he came to the
door and tried to open it.

'Biddy,' he said. Then in a deep-toned eager whisper, 'Mate!'

She sat up in bed; she had the impulse to go and open the door, but
some demon held her back. She lay down again on her pillow. . . . The
bed had creaked. . . . He must have known that she was awake. . . . He
waited a minute or two without speaking . . . knocked very softly. . . .
She was silent. . . . Again she heard him moving about in his
dressing-room, and, after a little while, she heard him go out, passing
along the back veranda. He did not return. It was dawn before Bridget
dropped into the heavy morning slumber, which follows a night of
weeping.





BOOK III


FROM THE POINT OF VIEW OF COLIN MCKEITH AND OTHERS




CHAPTER 1



When Lady Bridget awoke, it was then near the hour at which they
ordinarily breakfasted. Finding, when she had dressed, that all was
silent in the next room, she looked in.

It was empty, the bed had not been slept in, but there were signs that
McKeith had got into his riding clothes and that he had packed a
valise.

Maule was waiting in the dining-room, and Maggie, the serving maid,
gave a message from McKeith that he had had his breakfast at the
Bachelors' Quarters with Mr Harris and that they were both going to
start for Breeza Downs immediately.

Bridget made no pretence of breakfasting. She told Maule to forage for
himself, and, after swallowing a cup of coffee, made the excuse of
household business--to see if the Chinaman had put up his master's
lunch--if the water-bags were filled--what were to be the proceedings
of the day. She had a hope that McKeith might say something
conciliatory to her before he left. The remembrance of that disregarded
appeal--the word 'Mate' to which she had given no response, weighed, a
guilty load, upon her heart.

But she was sore and angry--in no mood to make any advance or stoop to
self-justification. He was outside the store, where Ninnis was weighing
rations for Harris, and McKeith's and the Police Inspector's horses,
ready saddled, with valises strapped on, were hitched to the paling.

Harris sulkily touched his helmet to Lady Bridget, but McKeith had his
back to her and seemed wholly absorbed in some directions he was
giving.

'You'll see to it, Ninnis, that six saddle-horses are kept ready to run
up, in case the Pastoralist Executive sends along any message that's
got to be carried down the river--there's that lot of colts Zack Duppo
broke in, they'll do. And you can get in Alexander and Roxalana from
the Bore pasture, in case the buggy should be wanted--and one or two
of the old hacks that are spelling out there. Of course, her ladyship's
horse mustn't be touched, and you'll see Mr Maule has a proper mount if
he wants it--the gentleman who'll be here for a bit--a friend of her
ladyship's from England--you understand. You'll keep on those new men
for the tailing mob, though I'm not sure they mightn't be Unionists in
disguise. Anyway, Moongarr Bill is a match for them. . . . And you'll
just mind--the lot of you--that it's my orders to stockwhip blacks
off the place, and that if any Unionist delegates show their faces
through the sliprails they're not allowed to stop five minutes inside
the paddock fence.'

'Right you are, Boss,' responded Ninnis, and there was a change of
grouping, and McKeith strode out to the yard to look into some other
matter, all without sending a glance to his wife.

Presently Moongarr Bill came up, chuckling mysteriously, 'Say, Boss, I
believe there's one of them dashed organising chaps coming down now
from the top sliprails.' And as he spoke, a man rode to the fence,
harmless enough looking, of the ordinary bush type.

He was about to get off his horse in the assured manner of a bushman
claiming the usual hospitality, but McKeith--big and grimly menacing--
advanced and held up his hand.

'No, wait a bit. Don't unsaddle. I'd like first to know your business.'

'I'm an Organiser,' said the man defiantly, 'and I'm not ashamed of my
job. Trades Unions are lawful combinations, and I've come to have a
talk with your men. . . .' He ran on with professional volubility. 'My
object in going round your district is to bring about a peaceful
compromise between employers and employed--Do you see. . . .?'

'Stop,' thundered McKeith. 'I'd have you understand that there's an
organiser on this station already. I'M the Organiser here, and I'm not
taking stock in Trades Unions at present.'

'But you'll let me have a talk with your men?--No harm in that.'

'No, you don't,' said McKeith.

'Well, I can spell my horse an hour or two, can't I?'

'No, you can't. You'll ride off my station straight away.'

'I've been off tucker since yesterday,' said the man, who seemed a
poor-spirited creature. 'Anyhow, Boss, you'll give me something to
eat.'

'Yes, I'll do that.' The laws of bush hospitality may not be violated.
Food must be given even to an enemy--provided he be white. McKeith
called to the Chinaman to bring out beef and bread. A lump of salt junk
and a hunk of bread were handed to the traveller.

'Now you be off, and eat that outside my paddock,' said McKeith. 'See
those gum trees over there?--You can go and organise the gum trees.'

The man scowled, and weakly threatened as he half turned his horse's
head.

'Look here, Boss, you'll find yourself the worse for this.'

'Shall I. In what way, can you tell me?'

'You'll find that your grass is burned, I daresay.'

'I'm obliged to you for the hint. I'll take precautions, and I'll begin
by shepherding you straight off my run,' said McKeith. 'Harris, if
you're ready now, come along here.'

The Police Inspector stepped off the store veranda, where he had been
standing, a majestic and interested onlooker. The Organiser--after
all, a mere man of straw, crumpled under his baneful stare.

'You can't give me in charge--you've got no warrant--I've done
nothing to be given in charge for.'

'Some of your people have, though, and here's a bit of information for
any skunk among your cowardly lot,' said McKeith. 'I've offered one
hundred pounds reward for the scoundrels who cut my horses' throats and
robbed my drays on the road to Tunumburra. There's a chance for you, if
you're mean enough to turn informer.'

'I know nothing about that,' said the Organiser.

'Eh? Well, if my grass is burned, I shall know who did it, and so will
this Police Inspector. And I am a magistrate, and will have you
arrested. Get on your horse, Harris, we'll start at once, and ride
alongside this chap till he's over my boundaries.'

Harris unhitched his horse and mounted, but not sooner than McKeith was
he in the saddle. Then McKeith looked at last towards the veranda where
Bridget stood, white, defiant, with Maule at the French window of the
dining-room just behind her.

McKeith took off his hat, made her a sweeping bow, which might have
included his guest, turned his horse's head and rode in the direction
of the sliprails, Harris and the sulky Organiser slightly at his rear.

Bridget never forgot that impression of him--the dogged slouch of his
broad shoulders--the grim set of his head, the square, unyielding look
of his figure, as he sat his horse with the easy poise of a bushman who
is one with the animal under him--in this case, a powerfully made,
nasty tempered roan, one of Colin's best saddle-horses--which seemed
as dogged tempered as its master.

Maule showed tact in tacitly assuming the unexpected necessity for
McKeith's abrupt departure--also that he had already bidden good-bye
to his wife.

Lady Bridget made no comment upon her husband's scant courtesy to his
guest when she rejoined Maule after an hour or two spent in housewifely
business. They strolled about the garden, smoked cigarettes in the
veranda, she played and sang to him, and he brought out his cornet,
which he had carried in his valise, being something of a performer on
that instrument.

A demon of reckless gaiety seemed to have entered into Lady Bridget.
Watching McKeith disappear behind the gum trees, she had said to
herself:--'I can be determined, too. I have as strong a will as he
has. He did not choose to say one regretful word. He was too stubborn
to own himself in the wrong. He left me in what--if he believed his
suspicion to be true--must be a dangerous position for a woman--only
it shall not be dangerous to ME. I know exactly how far I am going--
exactly the amount of excitement I shall get out of it all. Neither
Willoughby nor he deserve an iota of consideration. I shall amuse
myself. So! No more . . . . But he can't know that. He has never
thought about ME. He has thought of nothing but his own cross-grained
pride and selfish egoism. No man of ordinary breeding or SAVOIR-FAIRE
would have gone off like that!'

She forgot in her condemnation of Colin to make allowance for the
primal nature of the man; for a certain kinship in him with the loftier
type of savage, whose woman must be his wholly, or else deliberately
relinquished to the successful rival, and into whose calculation the
subtleties of social jurisprudence would not naturally enter.

Nor did she remember at the moment that Maule had been described by her
own relatives as a person of neither birth nor breeding--a
fortune-hunter--not by any means a modern Bayard. He at least was a
man of the world, she thought, and would appreciate the situation. He
had lost that touch of unaccustomedness--she hardly knew how to
describe it--which had often irritated her in their former relation.
In their talk that day he seemed much more at home than she was in the
world she had once belonged to. He spoke of 'personages' with the ease
of familiar acquaintance. Apparently, he had got into quite the right
set--a rather political set, she gathered. He told her that he had
been pressed to stand for a well-nursed Liberal Constituency, and
implied that but for the catastrophe of his wife's death he would now
be seated in Parliament, with a fair prospect in the future of place
and distinction. Of course, it was the money which had done it, she
told herself, though he had undoubted cleverness, she knew, and, as he
pointed out, his experience in a particular South American republic--
very much to the fore just now in European diplomacy--stood to his
advantage. His marriage had given him opportunity. He alluded without
bad taste to his dead wife's generosity. She had left him her entire
fortune unfettered. He was now a rich man. He explained that she had
had none but very distant relations and that, otherwise, charitable
institutions would have benefited. She had been a very good woman, he
said--a woman with whom nine hundred out of a thousand decent men
would have been perfectly happy. He let it be inferred that he was the
thousandth man. His eyes, not his lips told her the reason why.

Their talk skimmed the surface of vital things--the new awakening in
England; the threatenings of a socialistic upheaval; his individual
aims and ideas--she recognised her own inspirations. He spoke of his
political ambitions. Suddenly she said:

'I wonder why you made the break of coming out to Australia--why you
did not stay in England and follow on your career?'

'There are bonds stronger than cart ropes which may drag a man by force
from the path he has marked out for himself. Surely you must
understand?'

'Really, Mr Maule.'

'Why will you be so formal!' he interrupted impetuously. 'It is absurd.
Women nowadays always call men they know well by a PETIT NOM.'

'Do I know you well! I often think I never knew you at all.'

'That is what Lady Tallant used to say to me, latterly, about you and
myself--that we never really knew each other.'

'Oh, poor Rosamond! It makes me miserable to think of her. You became
friends, then--latterly?'

'She was very nice to me when she came back from Leichardt's Land. And
besides, she was anxious for me to come out to Luke and help him a bit.
. . . She told me about your marriage. She knew I could settle to
nothing--of course, the world in general thought it was because of
that tragedy--my wife's death--and the child--you understand?'

Bridget nodded slowly.

'Lady Tallant knew the truth--that I was tormented by one ceaseless
longing--after the impossible. I fancy she thought that if I could
realise the impossibility, I might get over the longing. . . . But--
Bridget, it's no use pretending--I did try to do my duty. I think I
succeeded, to a certain extent, in making my wife happy--but there was
always the same gnawing regret. . . .'

'You must put all that out of your head,' she interrupted curtly.

'I cannot. A man doesn't love a woman like you, and, because she is
married to another man, put her out of his head--in two years or ten--
or Eternity, for that matter.'

She laughed joylessly. 'Eternity!' she scoffed.

They were in the veranda after luncheon, she swinging slowly in the
hammock, playing with a cigarette, he smoking likewise, scarcely
attempting to suppress the stormy feeling in his face and voice. For
her, the crude brown-grey landscape rose and fell with the motion of
the hammock, and jarred with the exotic memories he evoked. She had
been called back to the varied emotional interests of her girlhood, and
realised, in a rush, how deadly dull was life in the arid wastes of the
Never-Never. Nothing more exciting than to watch the great parched
plain, with the dry heat-haze upon it, getting browner every day, and
the shrinking lagoon and its ever widening border of mud. Nothing, when
she turned her eyes to right and left, but ragged gum trees and black
gidia forest. What a dead blank wilderness it was!'

She gave a little gasp as if for breath. He seemed to read her
thoughts.

'Do you remember Rome--and the Campagna, that first day we went to
Albano?--And our walk through the woods down to Lake Nei?--It was
then I first knew that I loved you.'

'Will--if you are going to stay here you mustn't talk like that. It's
not playing the game.' She spoke pleadingly.

'Does your husband play the game?' Maule retorted. 'Is it playing the
game to leave you here alone with me, when he must know--or at least,
guess--how things have been between us?--Do you think I didn't notice
yesterday that he suspected me--suspected us both? I should have been
a blind mole not to see by his face and manner how he felt. Upon my
soul, he would have no defence--if. . . .'

She stopped him with a gesture.

'I must ask you again not to discuss my relations with my husband; they
do not concern you.'

'Do they not!' And as she rose abruptly from the hammock, 'I beg your
pardon,' he added humbly, 'I will do my best not to offend again.'

He got up too and stood, his back against the veranda railings.

'Lady Bridget, you mustn't be angry with me. I suppose I am a little
off my balance, you must remember that this is--for me, a rather
staggering experience.'

'Shall we go for a ride?' she asked suddenly. 'I don't suppose you have
much idea of what a wild western station is like.'

'Oh, I'm fairly well acquainted with life on big pastures,' he answered
lightly, taking her cue. 'You would be surprised, perhaps, at the list
of my qualifications as an "out-back squatter."--I'm a bit of a
rancher--had one in the Argentine--a bit of a doctor--a bit of a
policeman--I was in charge once of a constabulary force out in British
Guiana. That's where I got a rise off Harris--a bit of a law breaker,
too--in fact a bit of everything. Yes, I should enjoy a ride round
here with you immensely.'

'Then do you mind looking for Mr Ninnis, the overseer, you know.'

'Yes, I know Ninnis. Had a yarn--as he'd say--with him last night
while your husband was talking to Harris. Ninnis doesn't get on well
with Harris--another point of sympathy. We're quite friends already.
Ninnis and I--he's been in South America, too.'

'You'll find him somewhere about the Bachelors' Quarters, and I'll go
and put on my habit,' she said.

Lady Bridget appeared as Maule and Ninnis were finishing saddling the
horses. Ninnis had stayed near the head station, and was keeping a
sharp look-out for bush fires, he said. Otherwise, there appeared to be
no elements of disquiet. Lady Bridget noticed with surprise that Ninnis
seemed to defer to Maule, which was not his usual attitude towards
strangers. She attributed this to a community of experiences in South
America, and also to Maule's undoubted knack of managing men.




CHAPTER 2



They rounded the lagoon and skirted the gidia scrub. Maule was on a
Moongarr horse, Bridget rode a fiery little chestnut. Maule had already
had opportunity to admire the famous O'Hara seat. They had hunted
together once or twice on the Campagna, that winter when they had met
in Rome. It was difficult to avoid retrospect, but Bridget seemed
determined to keep it within conventional limits. They found plenty,
however, to talk about in their immediate surroundings. Perhaps it was
the effort to throw off the load on her heart that made Bridget gaily
confiding. She drew humorous pictures of the comic shifts, the almost
tragic hardships of life on the Leura--how she had been left
servantless--until Ninnis had got up Maggie from the Lower Leura--
when the Chinamen decamped during the gold rush. She described the
chivalrous SUNDOWNER who had on one occasion helped her through a
week's washing; and Zack Duppo the horsebreaker, whose Christmas
pudding had been a culinary triumph, and the loyalty of faithful Wombo,
who had done violence to all his savage instincts in acting as
house-servant until the advent of the Malay boy Kuppi. She told of her
first experience of a summer out West. The frying of eggs in the sun on
a sheet of corrugated zinc, so intense was the heat. The terror of
snakes, centipedes, scorpions. The plagues of flies and white ants.
Then how, during the servantless period, in utter loneliness and
Colin's enforced absence at the furthest out-station she had had an
attack of dengue fever, and no woman within forty miles of her.

'And your husband allowed this? But where was that barmaid-looking
person who seems to keep house here for stray gentlemen--and, who has
the yellow-headed and blue-eyed little boy?'

Bridget's lip curled.

'Mrs Hensor had accepted a temporary situation at an hotel in Fig Tree
Mount--the only time I've regretted her absence,' and the musical
laugh seemed to Maule to have acquired a note of exceeding bitterness.
'Perhaps you don't know,' she went on, 'that Mrs Hensor is a sort of
Helen of the Upper Leura--though unfortunately as yet no Paris has
carried her off--I wish there was one bold enough to do it. She had to
be asked to take a change of air because there was rivalry about her
between the buyer of a Meat Preserving Establishment and the chief
butcher at Tunumburra. Fair Helen scorned them both. Result: The two
buyers bought beasts elsewhere and, as you would understand, on a
cattle station, butchers may not be flouted. Though I daresay,' Lady
Bridget added with a shrug, 'if I could have had the butchers in the
house--I draw the line only at Harris--and had sung to them and
played up generally, I might have scored even off Mrs Hensor. But they
wouldn't come until after she had gone and there was no further danger
of a duel taking place outside the Bachelors' Quarters.'

Maule took her cue again and laughed as if the matter were one to jest
about. But as he looked round, his face did not suggest merriment. Nor
for that matter did the landscape. They were riding at the edge of the
immense sandy plain, patched with brown jaggled grass and parched
brambles and prickly lignum vitae--nothing to break the barren
monotony but clumps of stunted brigalow and gidia, a wind-mill marking
the site of an empty well with the few hungry-looking cattle near it.

Now they dipped into a scrub of dismal gidia.

'This is the most depressing country I have ever ridden through,' he
said.

'You don't know what a difference three inches of rain makes,' she
answered. 'Then the grass is green, the creeks are running, and at this
time the dead brambles are covered with white flowers. But it doesn't
rain. There's the tragedy.'

'The tragedy is that you--you of all women should be wasting your
youth and beauty in this wilderness. How long is it going to last?'

She shrugged again, and for an instant turned her face up towards the
sky. 'You must ask the heavens?'

'Meaning, I presume, that like most of the Australian squatters, your
husband hasn't capital enough at his back to stand up against continued
drought?'

'Precisely.' She looked at him, with her puzzling smile.

'But you couldn't have understood his position when you married him?'

'No, I didn't--altogether. But I should really like to remind you that
I am not in the witness box.'

'I think you owe me the truth!' he said, passionately.

'What do you call the truth?' she asked, reining in her horse and
meeting his eyes straight.

But she had to turn hers away before he answered, and he as well as
herself was conscious of the compelling effect his gaze had upon her.

'I could have made you marry me if I had been strong enough to
persist,' he said.

'Cannot any man do what he is strong enough to do--if he wishes it
enough to persist?'

'I should have put it this way. If I had thought less of you and more
of myself. But after what you said that day, when you jeered so
contemptuously at the kind of environment in which, THEN, I should have
had to place my wife--what could I do--except withdraw? But you
suffered, Bridget,' he went on vehemently. 'Not so much as I did--but
still you suffered. You thought of me--I felt it, and you must have
felt too, how continually I thought of you. I used to try and make you
think of me--dream of me. And I succeeded. Isn't that true?'

'Yes, it is true,' she answered in a low voice.

'Only lately, since I have been in the district, it has seemed to me
that the invisible wires have been set working afresh. Isn't that true
also?'

'Yes, it is true,' she said again, as if forced to the acknowledgment.

'Then, can there be any question of the bond between us? You see, it's
independent of time and space! for you WERE sorry--you DID care.
That's the truth you owe me. If after--after we parted in that
dreadful way, I had gone back, had thrown up everything, had said to
you, "Come with me ANYWHERE, let us be all in all to each other--on
the slopes of the Andes, on an island in the South Seas--you would
have come?" '

'I always told you,' she said with her puzzling smile, 'that the slopes
of the Andes appealed to me.'

'Peru would have been more picturesque than this, anyway. Is that all I
can get out of you--that grudging admission? Well, never mind, I am
satisfied. You have owned up to enough. I won't tease you now for more
admissions.'

'I have admitted too much,' she said gloomily. 'The curse of the
O'Hara's is upon me. Almost all of them have gambled with their lives,
and most of them have lost.'

She gave her horse the rein as she spoke, and they cantered on over the
plain. After that, she resolutely forbade sentiment.

Mr Ninnis was gratified by an invitation that evening to dine at the
Home, and came down in his best dark suit and his most genial mood.

Bridget sang. She had not been singing much lately. Colin's gloom over
the evil prospects of squatting on the Leura re-acted upon her spirits.
And besides, the piano had been attacked by white ants, and the tuner
had not been so far up the river for a long time. It was inspiring to
learn that Maule added to his gifts that of getting a piano into tune.
Ninnis promised to rummage among the tools for a key that would serve.

Ninnis had never admired Lady Bridget so much as he did this evening.
Certainly he thought her more flighty and incomprehensible than ever,
but he could not deny her fascination. It seemed quite natural to him
that she should be in high spirits at seeing an old friend from
England, who appeared to know all her people. Ninnis had taken
immensely to Maule. Beside Maule knew parts of the world where Ninnis
had been. It was curious to see the American-isms crop out. Ninnis
considered Maule a person of parts and of practical experience. He said
to himself that the Boss had done wisely in leaving Maule at the
head-station while they were short-handed. Maule showed great interest
in Bush matters--said he wanted to learn all he could about the
management of cattle--thought it not improbable that he might invest
money in Leichardt's Land. Ninnis agreed to show him round, and Maule
begged that he might be made useful--even offered to take a turn with
the tailing-mob, so that Moongarr Bill and the other stockmen might be
free to muster more cattle.

Nothing was heard of the Blacks during the next day or two, but one
morning Ninnis discovered that an old gun, which the station hands and
the black-boys were allowed to use on Sundays for shooting game in the
lagoon, had disappeared in the night. Circumstantial evidence pointed
to Wombo as the thief. Cudgee owned to having seen him skulking among
the Gully rocks. A deserted gunya was found near a lonely, half-dry
waterhole in the scrub, and there were rumours of a tribe of wild
blacks having passed towards the outlying country in the Breeza Downs
direction.

No news came, however, of either racial or labour warfare. McKeith sent
not a word of his doings, and Harry the Blower was not due yet on his
postal, fortnightly round.

McKeith had been gone a week, and the time of his absence seemed like
that sinister lull which comes after the sudden shock of an earthquake
and the tornado that follows upon it. Then, one day, something
happened.

All the men except the Chinamen were out. Moongarr Bill, Ninnis, and
the stockmen on the run, while Maule--a book and a sandwich in his
pocket--had gone herding with Joey Case and one of the extra hands.

A sense of mutual embarrassment had that day driven them apart. He had
been afraid of himself, and she too had felt afraid. During these seven
days she had rushed recklessly on as though impelled by a fatality,
never pausing to consider how near she might be to a precipice.
Whenever possible, she had ridden out with Maule and Ninnis, or with
Maule alone. She found relief from painful thoughts of Colin in the
excitement and emotion with which Maule's society provided her. She
went with him on several occasions behind the tailing-mob, though
ordinarily, she could not endure being at close quarters with cattle.
But it interested her to see Maule ride after and round up the wild
ones that escaped; to watch his splendid horsemanship which had the
flamboyant South-American touch--the suggestion of lariat and lasso
and ornate equipment, the picturesque element lacking in the Bush--all
harmonizing with his deep dark eyes and Southern type of good looks.

To-day, she had preferred to remain at home alone. She had been pulled
up with a startled sense of shock. Last evening when they were walking
together on the veranda he had begun again to make love to her, and in
still more passionate earnest--had held her hands--had tried to kiss
her. She had found herself giving way to the old romantic intoxication
--then had wrenched herself from him only just before the meeting of
lips.

At last, she had realized the strength of the glamour. She fought
against it; nevertheless, in imagination gave herself up to it, as the
opium-smoker or haschisch-eater gives himself up to the insidious
FANTASIA of his drug.

Yes, Bridget thought it was like what she had read of the effects of
some unholy drug--some uncanny form of hypnotism.

For she knew that she did not really love Maule--that her feeling for
him was unwholesome.

There was poison in it acting upon her affection for and trust in her
husband. Maule made subtle insinuations to McKeith's detriment,
injected doubts that rankled. There were no definite charges, though he
would hint sometimes at gossip he had heard in Tunumburra. But he would
convey to her in half words, looks, and tones that he had reason to
believe Colin unworthy of her--that her husband had led the life of an
ordinary bushman, and had fully availed himself of such material
pleasures as might have come to his hand. The veiled questions he asked
about Mrs Hensor and her boy, brought back a startled remembrance of
the scene outside the Fig Tree Mount Hotel and Steadbolt's vague
accusation. She had almost forgotten it--had never seriously thought
about it. Yet now she knew the midge-bite had festered.

Could it be that there was a chapter in Colin's life of which she knew
nothing? Was it not too much to believe that he had always been
faithful to his ideal of the camp fire? Ah! Maule would have jeered at
that--would have been totally incapable of understanding the romance
of that dream-drive--a dream in truth. But how beautiful, how sane,
how uplifting it seemed, compared with the feverish haschisch dream in
which she was now living. Restless under the obsession, she wandered up
the gully and, as she sat among the rocks, wrestled with her black
angel--and conquered. Clearly there was but one thing to do. She must
send Maule away at once before Colin came back. As for Colin, that
trouble must be faced separately. Maule must ride back to Tunumburra--
he knew the track. Or, should he wish to explore the district further,
Harry the Blower was due with the mail to-morrow, and could guide him
to any station on the post-man's route which might appear to Maule
desirable.

Bridget knew that Maule would leave the tailing-mob before the other
men that afternoon, and would probably come to look for her here. So
having arrived at her decision and wishing to put off the inevitable
scene as long as possible, she set forth by another route for the
head-station.




CHAPTER 3



But she had only gone a few steps, when out of the gidia scrub, came
Oola the half-caste, her comely face bruised, her eyes wild with grief
and terror, her head tied up in a blood-stained strip torn from Lady
Bridget's lacy undergarment, the gaily-flowered kimono hanging in dirty
shreds upon her brown bosom.

'White Mary! Lathy-chap!' she cried. 'Plenty poor feller Oola. Plenty
quick me run. Me want 'em catch Lathy-chap before pollis-man come. That
feller pollis-man take Wombo long-a gaol. Mithsis'--the gin implored.
'BUJERI you!--Mithis tell pollis-man Wombo plenty good blackfellow. No
take Wombo long-a gaol.'

'What has Wombo been doing?' asked Lady Bridget. 'Did he steal the
gun?'

'YOWI (yes). Wombo plenty frightened long-a ole husband belonging to
me.' And Oola dropped and knocked her head upon the ground, wailing the
ear-piercing death-wail of the Australian native women.

'Oola, you must stop howling!' said Bridget, alive to the seriousness
of the situation. 'Has Wombo shot your husband with our gun?'

'YOWI, Mithis. That feller husband altogether BONG ' (dead).

From Oola's broken revelations Bridget pieced the story. It appeared
that the tribe had followed in hot pursuit of the fugitives, and,
knowing his peril, Wombo had sneaked up to the head-station in the
darkness, possessed himself of an effectual weapon, and fled away with
the gun. The offended blacks had discovered the guilty pair on the
outskirts of Breeza Downs, and Oola's husband, with a company of
braves, had attacked their gunya. Then--to quote Oola--'that feller
husband throw spear at Wombo--hit Oola long-a COBRA (head) with NULLA
NULLA. Him close-up carry off Oola. My word! Wombo catch him PHO PHO.
Plenty quick husband belonging to me TUMBLE DOWN.' And Oola wailed
anew.

'Where's Wombo now?' Bridget asked.

'Blackfeller YAN (run) along-a pollis-man. Pollis-man close-up black's
camp. That feller Harris catch 'im Wombo--fetch um long-a Tunumburra
gaol. Mine think it stop to-night Moongarr. Close-up station now.'

Lady Bridget at once saw through the affair. Here was Harris taking a
legitimized revenge on Wombo, and doubtless also on herself. Clearly,
he had been patrolling the Breeza Downs boundaries in search of
Unionist incendiaries, and seizing Wombo instead, had acted promptly
without waiting for a warrant or consulting McKeith. Wombo would be
charged at the township with theft of the gun and murder of Oola's
husband. To a certainty he would be hanged if the matter ran its
ordinary course. That it should not do, Bridget declared within herself
--if she could by any possibility prevent it.

The half-caste woman and the white lady went swiftly through the gidia
scrub towards the head-station. At the gully crossing, Maule, on his
way back from the tailing-mob, overtook them, and dismounting, walked
with Lady Bridget to the house. She forgot then all the scene of last
evening, told him the black's story, begged him to help her in the
rescue of Wombo.

He reflected for a minute or two.

'We're up against Harris,' he said, 'and Harris has a grudge against
all of us. But Harris feels some respect for my knowledge of
constabulary law, which, I take it, is pretty much the same in most
countries where there are white settlers and native races.'

She looked up at him, letting him feel that she was relying on his
astuteness and his strength. He went on:

'Ninnis is mustering with Moongarr Bill and the others, a good way off,
and they're camping out to-night. . . . That leaves only Joe Casey and
the other extra hand. Ninnis put me in authority here. Somebody has got
to take command, and it must be either you, Lady Bridget, or myself.
Perhaps I'm the best qualified of the two. . . .'

She laughed shakily in assent.

'Anyway, I fancy that I know how to deal with this sort of affair
better than you do,' he said. 'Will you let me manage it my own way?'

She nodded.

'I suppose I may assume that your husband left me in a position of some
responsibility. And if I seem to be taking too much on myself--or, on
the other hand, deferring too much to Harris, you'll trust me and not
interfere?'

There was no time for discussion, had she wished to go against him.
Oola was shrieking and pointing frantically to the track down from the
upper slip rails, along which Harris and his prisoner were to be seen
riding.

The Police Inspector, uniformed, burly, triumphant, exhaled the Majesty
of the Law as he rode slightly in advance leading the black-boy. Now,
as they pulled up at the fence, Wombo presented a sorry spectacle--a
spear wound in his left shoulder, a spear graze on his leg, his wrists
handcuffed and his feet tied to the stirrup-iron with cords so tight
that they cut into his tough, black flesh.

Harris dismounted, tied Wombo's horse securely to the veranda post and
then made his statement which coincided with Bridget's idea of what had
happened. It was too late to push on to Tunumburra. He proposed to lock
up his prisoner at Moongarr for the night. Could he have the
hide-house?

Not long before, the Police Inspector had locked up a horse stealer,
whom he had in charge, in the hide-house for a few hours while he took
a meal.

To Bridget it seemed an irony that Wombo should be imprisoned in the
very room he had so lately shared with his stolen gin.

She was quivering with indignant pity at sight of the sores on the
black boy's legs made by the raw hide thongs, and Oola, who had crept
up the off side of the black-boy's horse, was wailing anew. Maule
checked with a look the angry protest on Lady Bridget's lip and
answered the Police Sergeant in her stead.

'Why, certainly. I'm sure her Ladyship won't object. You'll let me see
to that for you, Lady Bridget,' and, as she bowed her head, he
addressed Harris again. 'Mr Ninnis and most of the others are camping
out to-night on the run, and I seem to be the only responsible man in
the place--of course you know that Mr McKeith asked me to stop and
help look after things for Lady Bridget if necessary.' Then he
complimented Harris genially upon his zeal. 'You've got your warrant, I
suppose,' he asked incidentally.

The Police Sergeant looked a little uncomfortable.

'Well, fact is, I wouldn't waste time going back to Breeza Downs
head-station for that. Mr McKeith's there and they had a bit of an
alarm. Those Unionist skunks tried to fire the shed one night, but no
particular damage was done, and they've dispersed. But Windeatt is in
such a fright of their making another attempt on his head-station that
he's pushing the imported shearers on with the shearing for all he's
worth, and keeps any man he can get hold of on guard night and day
round the house and sheds, while I and my lot have been doing a bit of
riding after Unionists. . . . Now, if you please, we'll have the key of
the hide-house,' concluded Harris. 'I'd like to get my prisoner stowed
away safe before I take an hour's spell myself. I'm pretty well knocked
up, I can tell you. No sleep at all last night watching that nigger who
was tied up to a gum tree, and I've been in the saddle all day.'

Maule proffered the usual refreshment with a deprecatory reference to
Lady Bridget, who stood stonily apart. Then on pretext of getting the
key of the hide-house, he had a few words with her in the office.

'I'm going to take care of this,' he said, as she gave him the key of
the padlock which secured the hide-house door, and he forthwith
fastened it to the ring of his watch-chain. 'Of course you want the
black-boy to escape?'

'I shall let him out myself,' she answered.

'That would only make McKeith more angry. I have a better plan, in
which you need not be implicated.'

'I would rather do it myself,' she said. 'I'm not afraid. If it had
been possible, I would have cut those horrible thongs straight away and
let the poor wretch get into the bush. He'll be safe at the head of the
gully in the gidia scrub.'

'I promise you that he shall be safe in the gidia scrub before sunrise
to-morrow. Trust me.'

She shook her head. 'But I can't take services from you, after. . . .'
she began hastily and then stopped.

'You call that a service! Yes--to humanity, if you like. Oh, I know.
After yesterday evening. NOW, you blame me for being true to myself. . . .
All that has got to be settled between us, Bridget--for good and
all. I thought it out as I rode behind the tailing-mob to-day. But for
the moment,' he fingered the key agitatedly, 'Bridget, you MUST let me
do this thing for you. Don't refuse me that small privilege, even if
you deny me all others.'

She wavered--yielded. 'Very well. You can manage it better than I
could. So I will accept this last favour.'

'The first, not the last. What have I done but cause you pain? . . . If
you knew the torture I have been going through. . . .' He checked
himself. She was staring at him, half frightened, half fascinated.

'No, no. There must be an end.'

'Yes. There must be an end. Later on, we'll decide what the end is to
be.'

He went out to the veranda carrying the key. Bridget did not follow
him. She had no power either to resent or to compel him. She sat
waiting. When, after about a quarter of an hour, he came back, she was
still in the office as he had left her, seated by the rough table on
which were the station log, the store book, and branding tallies.

He came in triumphantly, exhibiting the key.

'Harris wanted to take possession of this. It was lucky I had put it on
my chain. However, he's satisfied that Wombo is securely locked up and
an extra glass of grog and a hint that, as he hasn't provided himself
with a warrant there's no obligation on him to stand over his prisoner
with a loaded gun, eased his mind of responsibility. The man is in a
beast of a temper though, he evidently expected to be entertained down
here. I hope Mrs Hensor will give him a good dinner. He insists on
sleeping in the little room off the store veranda where he says he can
keep watch on the hide house. I suppose it's all right?'

Bridget nodded. 'I'll tell Maggie.' Maule asked for ointment with which
to dress the black-boy's wounds and abrasions, and she gave it and left
him.

The afternoon was drawing in. Then came the sound of the herded beasts
being driven to the yard at sundown and, by-and-by, of Joe Casey's
stockwhip as he got up the milkers. The shorthandedness and disturbance
of Harris' arrival made everything late, and the goats which should
have been penned by now, were busy nibbling at the passion vines on the
garden fence. But all this made little impression on Bridget's
preoccupied brain. She had the thought of that coming interview with
Maule before her. Oola's continuous wailing was an affliction, and she
gave the half-caste a blanket and some food and told her to camp on the
further side of the hide house where, with eyes and ears glued by turns
against the largest chink between the slabs, she might see and speak to
the prisoner.




CHAPTER 4



Maule's and Lady Bridget's TETE­TETE dinner was an embarrassed meal,
with Kuppi and Maggie hovering about the table. The man's eyes said
more than his lips, and the woman sat, strained and silent, or else
uttered forced commonplaces.

They were alone at last on the veranda, with night and the vast
distances enfolding them. The air was close and hot, the sky banked
with storm clouds, and, occasionally, there were flashes of sheet
lightning and low growls of thunder. Before long the head-station was
very quiet. Harris had inspected the hide-house and, having assured
himself of the safety of his prisoner, had retired to the veranda room,
making a great parade of keeping his door open, his gun loaded, and his
clothes on, ready for any emergency. Joe Casey had gone to his hut, the
Chinaman and the Malay boy to theirs, and Maggie, the woman servant, to
her own tiny room wedged in between the new house and the kitchen wing.

But it was all early. At that hour, Maule laughingly reminded Lady
Bridget, the dining world of London would scarcely have reached the
dessert stage.

She would not waste time on banalities.

'I've been waiting to tell you something. My mind is quite made up. I
can't go on like this any longer. You must go away to-morrow.'

'To-morrow!' he echoed in dismay.

'Yes. I've thought it out. You don't know the country, but the mailman
will be here to-morrow, and he can show you the road.'

'You are very kind. . . . Why are you so anxious to get rid of me?'

'Surely you understand. You made me a scene yesterday. You'd go on
making me scenes.'

'And you?'

She gave a hard little laugh. 'Oh! I--don't want to play any more.'

'You call it play! To me it's deadly earnest. I let you go once. I do
not mean to let you go again.'

'But you are talking wildly. Don't you see that it is impossible we can
be friends.'

'Oh! that I grant you. We must be everything to each other--or
nothing.'

In spite of her cold peremptoriness he could see that she was deeply
agitated. That fact gave him courage. His voice dropped to the tender
persuasive note which had always affected her like a spell.

'My dear--my very dearest. . . . We made a great mistake once. Let us
forget that. Death has opened the gate of freedom--for me, at least--
and I can only feel remorseful thankfulness. We have again a chance of
happiness. We will not throw it away a second time.'

'You seem to forget that if you are free I am married.'

'What a marriage? Call it a mad adventure.'

'That may be,' she said bitterly. 'But it doesn't alter the fact that I
did care very much for my husband.' She brought out the last words with
difficulty.

'DID care. You put it in the past tense. You don't care for him any
longer. It would be astonishing if you did. One has only to see you
together. . . . Oh, Biddy, it was so like you to rush off to the other
side of the world, and ruin your life for the sake of some strange
impracticable idea! I can follow it all. . . .'

'You are mistaken,' she put in.

'I think not. You married in a fit of revulsion against the conditions
in which you were living--the hollow shams of an effete civilisation--
that's the correct phrase, isn't it? And--well, perhaps there was
another reason for the revulsion. . . . And you thought you had found
the remedy for it all. Oh! I admit that he is very good looking, and,
of course, he worshipped you--until he had you secure, and then he
reverted to the ways of his kind. "Nature's gentlemen" usually
do. . . .'

'Be silent, Will,' she exclaimed vehemently. 'You don't understand.'

'My dear, your very anger tells me that I do understand. Why! naturally
your imagination was set on fire. The Bush was painted to you in its
most glowing colours. No doubt, as you said, it's a Garden of Eden in
good seasons. Wonderful vegetation, glorious liberty--no galling
conventions--vast spaces--romance--and the will o' the wisp wealth
of the Wild. Confess now . . . are not my guesses correct?'

'Yes--partly.' She spoke with reluctance. 'But I remember that YOU
used to talk to me about the joys of the Wild,' she added with sharp
irony.

'Oh, yes, I know it all. I've been there myself. And it's only when El
Dorado proves a delusion that one begins to hanker--I did before I met
you--for the advantages of civilised existence.'

'Well, you have secured those. Why not go and enjoy them as I'm asking
you to do.'

'They have no value for me, unless I may share them with you. Bridget,
I can give you everything now that you once asked for.'

'With your wife's money?'

He drew back sharply. 'Ah! You CAN hit a man!' and there was silence
for a few minutes. Then he leaned closer to her, and his fingers
touched the gold cigarette case which lay on the arm of the squatter's
chair in which she was sitting. He went on in a changed manner.

'Poor Evelyn left her fortune to me, knowing the truth. She was a
noble-souled woman. I was not worthy of her. But unworthy as I may have
been, Bridget, I deserved better of my wife than your husband deserves
of you. At least, I did not deceive her.'

'What do you mean? Colin did not deceive me. That, at all events, is
not one of his faults towards me.'

'Has he told you, then, why he keeps on his station that insolent woman
and her yellow-haired blue-eyed boy?'

Bridget started visibly. He saw that his shaft had struck the mark. But
she answered calmly:

'I don't know what you want to imply. I thought you knew that Mrs
Hensor's husband was killed on one of Colin's expeditions, and that he
looked after her and her boy on that account.'

'Oh, yes, I've heard that story. But it seemed common gossip at
Tunumburra that there was another--less creditable--explanation.'

She turned fiercely upon him. 'You have no right to make such an
abominable accusation.'

'I only mention what I heard. I went about a good deal there in bar
saloons, and to men's gatherings. Naturally, I was interested in the
district where, by the way, McKeith does not appear to be over popular.
Of course, I attached no great importance to the gossip then. It only
made me wonder. Oddly enough, to-day when I was out with the tailing
mob, one of the men repeated it--I need not say that I stopped him. He
said he'd had it as a fact from a man who was a long time in your
husband's employ--a man called Steadbolt.'

Again the scene in front of Fig Tree Mount Hotel flashed before Lady
Bridget, and Demon Doubt rose up clothed now in more material
substance. Her voice shook as she answered, though she tried to be
loyal:

'Steadbolt was discharged from my husband's employment. He is another
of Mrs Hensor's rejected suitors. That speaks for itself.'

'Strange that Mrs Hensor should reject so many suitors without apparent
reason,' said Maule.

Bridget did not seem able to bear any more. Her head drooped upon her
hands, her shoulders heaved convulsively.

'I don't know what to do--I am alone. It's an insult to talk to me in
this way.'

'I want to protect you from insult--I want to take you out of these
miserable conditions--and there's only one way to do that,' he
pleaded.

He took her hands in his and kissed them passionately. 'Oh, I love you.
There's nothing in the world I would not do to make you my wife. Why
should you hesitate? It breaks my heart to see you unappreciated,
neglected, living the sort of rough life that might suit a labourer's
daughter, but which is sacrilege for Lady Bridget O'Hara. A man had no
right to condemn a beautiful, refined woman like you to such a
fate. . . . Well there' as she murmured incoherently, 'I'll not say any
more about that since it hurts you. You see, I respect your wishes. I'll
even go away at once, if you command it, and leave you to form your own
judgment. I will stay in Leichardt's Town--in Sydney--anywhere--
until you have decided for yourself--as I know you must do--how
impossible it is for you to remain here. Then I will meet you wherever
you please, and we will go to Europe together--bury ourselves abroad--
wait in any part of the world you may choose, until the divorce
proceedings are over, and we are free to marry. You need not be afraid
of scandal, the thing can be kept out of the English papers. It's so
far away that nobody will remember you were married to an Australian.
Besides, anything of the sort is so easily got over nowadays. My
darling, why do you look at me with those tragic eyes? It is not like
the old Biddy to be a slave to Mrs Grundy.'

She had been listening, sitting rigid in her chair, her hands still in
his, looking at him in a strange fixed manner, almost like a person in
the first stage of hypnotism. Now she snatched her hands away and gave
a sobbing cry.

'Oh, I'm not the old Biddy. I never can be again.'

'Dear love--believe me, when I promise you that you shall never have
cause for regret.'

He would have taken her into his arms, but she drew herself back.

'Will, you don't understand. And I don't understand myself, I can't see
things clearly. It's all been so sudden--Colin going away--you--
everything. . . . I want to be alone. I want to find myself.'

He moved aside with a slight inclination of his head as if to let her
pass. 'I told you that I would do anything you wish.'

'You mean that--really? Then I wish you to go away at once. You said
you would leave me to decide for myself. I take you at your word, and I
shall write to you, by-and-by. Promise me that you will go.'

'I have no choice. Your will is law to me. But understand, dearest--I
am only waiting.'

'It's good of you not to want to worry and argue. . . . Don't you
understand?--I couldn't bear you to be here when Colin comes back. You
must go to Tunumburra to-morrow.'

'Go to Tunumburra to-morrow?' he repeated blankly.

'It's on the way to Leuraville, and you can take the steamer from
there. I will write to you in Leichardt's Town. Oh, it's quite simple.
The mailman will be here early. You can leave a letter saying that you
are recalled.'

'I understand.' Her definite planning gave him hope that she had
already made up her mind, and that she would join him in Leuraville or
Leichardt's Town. After all, that might be best. 'But I shall see you
again. The mailman is not here yet. I have still a few hours respite.'

She made no answer at first. Then 'Good-night,' she said abruptly, and
flitted like a small white ghost along the dim veranda.

'Lady Bridget!' His voice stopped her. It shook a little, but the
manner was conventional, and she gained confidence from that and turned
irresolutely.

'Lady Bridget. While we've been talking about ourselves, we've
forgotten that unfortunate black-boy. I only want to tell you, that you
may depend on your wishes being carried out. I shall go to my room and
watch my opportunity. Trust me, that's all--in everything.'

'Thank you,' she answered simply. 'I do trust you.'

She came back a few steps, and he met her in the middle of the veranda.
In one of her swift transitions of mood a humorous element in the
situation seemed to appeal to her, and she said with a laugh:--'It's
comical, isn't it? The two tragedies, black and white--we two here--
those two out there!'

Just then the black curtain of cloud, that had been rising slowly and
obscuring the stars, was torn by a strong flash of chain lightning. It
threw up her face in startling clearness and he saw, in strange blend
with the conflicting emotions upon it, the wraith of her old whimsical
smile.

He did not answer her laugh. In truth, the man's nature was stirred to
a more deep-reaching extent perhaps than ever in his life before. It
may have been the flash of lightning recalling a momentary flash of
illumination that had once shone upon his own soul.

That had been when he was kneeling by the bedside of his dying wife,
and her last words revealed to him a magnanimity of devotion for which
he had been wholly unprepared. He had thought her merely amiable and
stupid--except in her love for him--and his sentiments towards her
had been a mixture of boredom, and the tolerant consideration due to
the bestower of substantial benefits. Nevertheless, she had awakened,
during a spasm of remorseful self-abasement, some nobler quality latent
in the man.

And now--as that flash of lightning illuminated Bridget's face and
made him keenly sensitive to the charm of her personality--her wayward
fascination, her inconsistencies, her weakness, her temperamental
craving for dramatic contrast, her reckless toying with emotion--by a
curious law of paradox, there came back upon Willoughby Maule that
scene with his dying wife, and he had again the flashing perception of
something sacred, unexplainable, to which his own nature could not
reach.

It sobered him. He had had the impulse to snatch her to his breast, to
seal the half-compact with a lover's kiss, so passionate that the
memory of it must for ever bind her to him.

But the impulse was past. They stood perfectly silent, stiff, in the
interval--it seemed a very long one--between the lightning flash, and
the distant reverberation of thunder which followed it.

Then he said mechanically, like one walking out of a dream? 'There's
going to be a storm. Are you frightened?'

'No,' she answered. 'I'm never frightened of storms!' and added,
'besides, Colin would be so glad of rain.'

Before he could reply, she had glided away again and he was alone.

He thought it strange that she should be thinking of her husband and
his material interests just then.




CHAPTER 5



It must have been a little while after midnight when Bridget was
awakened by more thunder and lightning and a confused tornado of sound.
She had been dreaming that Harris was throwing her from the gully
cliffs on to the boulders in its bed--only it seemed to her bewildered
senses that the boulders rose towards her instead of her descending to
meet them. Next she discovered that rain was pattering on the zinc
roof, and that the violent concussions she felt beneath her must be due
to the horns of goats knocking up against the boards of her bedroom.
Ah! she thought, the men had forgotten to pen the goats, and they were
sheltering from the rain in the open space under the floor of the
house. There could be no more sleep for her that night, unless they
were dislodged.

She waited through the din until there came a lull in the storm, then
got up and put on her shoes and a waterproof coat over her nightdress.
It was not the first time by any means that, when sleeping alone, she
had been obliged to rise and drive away stray animals that had been
inadvertently allowed means of entrance.

She went out to the back veranda, which was connected by steps with the
verandas of the other two wings. The moon was full and shed occasional
pale gleams through the scudding clouds. The close heat had given place
to a chill wind and the rain came down intermittently but in no volume
--it could not make much difference to the parched earth. There was not
a light visible anywhere. The goats were still making a noise under the
house.

Lady Bridget got a stick from a heap of sandal-wood boughs stacked
against the veranda, and passing to the front, where the piles
supporting the house were higher, proceeded to belabour an elderly
nanny, who, with her mate, was now nibbling twigs of the creepers. But
she was surprised to see only two or three goats, she had thought there
must be many more. The animals were refractory, and her beatings of no
avail. Now, suddenly, she was seized with a fit of nervous shivering
and realised that she felt physically ill. It was of no use for her to
try and drive off the goats. She sank down on the veranda steps of the
Old Humpey, and afterwards thought she must have fainted.

The sound of Maule's approaching footsteps and his alarmed ejaculation
seemed to bring her to herself. He appeared to have come round the back
of the Old Humpey. He was horrified at the sight of her convulsive
shivering.

'You mustn't stop here,' he exclaimed. 'I was afraid the goats would
disturb you, and I've been getting them out as quietly as I could. Most
of them are shut up in their fold.'

She saw that he was almost fully dressed. With an effort she controlled
her terror, and asked:

'You've not been asleep.'

'Oh! off and on. I've been keeping my eye on Harris' room,' he pointed
across the yard to the kitchen and store-building opposite--at the end
of which Harris had installed himself--to the squat outline of the
slab and back hide house. 'My ear, too,' he went on, 'for Harris'
slumbers are neither silent nor peaceful. When he's not snoring, he
groans and stirs, and the worst of it is that he's got his door wide
open on to the veranda and his bed right across the window that looks
straight at the door of the hide house. I thought I'd take advantage of
the thunder, but it was no good. He was awake and looking out. Now he
has lain down again, and as soon as I hear him snoring I shall try once
more.'

A fresh fit of shivering seized Bridget.

'This won't do,' he said, and went hurriedly into his own room which
opened a few doors down on to the veranda, and coming back with an
opossum rug on his arm and a glass of brandy and water in his hand, he
made her drink the spirits and wrapped the rug round her. Presently the
shivering ceased.

A moon-gleam between two clouds closing on each other showed her his
eyes glowing with sombre passion. She saw that he was holding himself
under stern restraint. Though where they were, the veranda running
between the end of the Old Humpey and the new house, made a kind of
passage so that they were in shadow, there was a possibility of
watchful eyes discovering their whereabouts.

'Will you go back to your room, and I'll get rid of these goats,' he
said, trying to speak in a matter-of-fact way. 'I supose there isn't a
yard where I could put them, nearer than their own by the lagoon.'

'I don't think so,' she answered dully, and without stirring from where
she crouched upon the steps. When he urged her anew to go back to bed,
she answered petulantly:

'Oh, do let me be. I like the wind and the rain--they're soothing. And
I couldn't sleep now until I know that Wombo is safe in the scrub.'

He made no further protest, but set to work shepherding the goats. She
watched him drive them out of the gate till his dark form and the
piebald shapes he was driving before him were lost in the night. She
knew that it would take some little time to pen them all securely in
their fold. But the night was young yet.

From shivering, the fire of the brandy and the warmth of the fur rug
had turned her temperature to fever heat. She felt keenly excited; the
blood in her veins seemed boiling, and the occasional raindrops and
moist wind were pleasant on her face. She had gone to the end of the
veranda and stood there with long withes of the native cucumber vine
that grew over the Old Humpey swaying around her in the breeze. There
was not a light in the place. Even moon and stars were now veiled. Her
brain raced round desperate and futile schemes for eluding the
vigilance of the Police Inspector. She wished now that she had thought
of asking him to dinner and putting opium into his coffee--that was
the sort of thing they did in novels. She did not know that a less
developed brain than her own was working at this moment to the same
end, on an inspiration from the bush DEBIL-DEBIL, or such savage
divinity as watches over the loves of the Blacks.

She saw what at first she had thought part of the shadow of a
neighbouring gum tree cast on the strip of grass that ran at the back
of the Old Humpey. But the lesser shadow moved, halted, and the greater
shadow was stationary and grew denser as the moon sailed again across a
clear patch of sky.

Then Bridget realised that the moving shadow was the half-caste Oola,
shrouded in the dark blue blanket she had given her, and that the gin
had halted at the casement window of Maule's bedroom. Now, Oola, with
her hands on the sill, curved her lithe body, drew her bare feet to the
window ledge and dropped within.

Bridget ran along the grass to the window, and from there watched Oola
move about the room and in the almost darkness fumble among the objects
on the dressing-table. Then Bridget could hear the little click of the
tongue and the guttural note of exultation a black tracker gives when
he comes upon a trail. Bridget drew aside against the wall, so that
Oola, again springing over the window sill, did not observe her. But
Bridget saw the watch and chain with the iron key attached to it which
the gin had stolen, and seized Oola's arm as the dark form crouched
upon the grass again. The gin uttered a smothered shriek. Bridget took
the watch from her hand, detached the key from the chain, and slipped
watch and chain into the pocket of her coat, while Oola, clutching Lady
Bridget's knees, pleaded chokily:

'Mithsis--you gib me key--no make im noise. No tell pollis-man me let
out Wombo. My word! plenty quick he YAN long-a scrub. BA-AL pollis-man
catch Wombo. Mithsis--BUJERI White Mary! You gib it key to Oola.'

The key was in Oola's hand. 'BA-AL me tell,' whispered Bridget. 'you go
quick.'

She, too, bent her body and followed Oola, who sped like a hunted hare
round the comer of the Old Humpey. Now she wriggled in the shadow of
the yard railings. Now she crept stealthily past Harris' window--and--
oh! DEBIL--DEBIL be praised! the Police sergeant's stertorous snoring
was clearly audible.

Blessed, likewise, be the retiring moon and the sweeping clouds! Lady
Bridget, every nerve a-quiver and the rushing blood throbbing in her
temples, also crept noiselessly beneath the window in the wake of Oola,
crawling like Oola, but more to the back of the hide-house into the
shelter of its drooping bark eaves.

Bending cautiously round the slabs, she watched, as the gin, with a
swift wriggling motion like that of a snake, drew herself along the
sunken earth floor beneath the eaves and then, softly raising herself
to the level of the padlock, put in the key. There was a muffled
grating of iron under the gin's hand, as the padlock unclosed and the
hasp dropped, then a creak of the door on its hinges, while it opened
and shut behind the undulating shape in the aperture. Then a low
throaty ejaculation--the black's call of warning. And now with a
quickness incredible, the wriggling movement of two blanket-shrouded
serpentine shapes round the hide-house--in and out among the grass
tussocks and the low herbage, now hidden for a moment by friendly gum
shadows in the dimness, now dark moving blurrs upon the lesser
darkness, and now altogether invisible. . . .

Lady Bridget knew that in five minutes, once they could be upright
again, the fugitives would have reached the gully, and after that the
gidia scrub. Then security from the terrors of a white man's gaol would
be almost assured to them.

Lady Bridget waited--waited, it seemed to her an eternity, in reality
it was barely over the five minutes she had mentally given the two
blacks for their escape. That five minutes had been full of alarms, and
she could feel her heart thumping, so tense was the strain. She had to
consider the possibility of Harris being awakened; also, of Maule's
return and an attempt on his part to free the hide-house prisoner. Also
there was the danger of the clouds breaking before she had done her
work.

She heard a movement of the sleeper in his bed below the open window
opposite. Harris might have been aroused, and perhaps have stirred
without awakening. . . . But the snoring had ceased. . . . She did not
think, however, that he could be fully awake. . . . Presently the
snoring recommenced.

She crept very slowly along the earthen floor, drawing her hands along
the slabs as she went. A splinter from one of them ran into her finger
--but that did not matter. Now she touched the door, which lay back
towards her, for the blacks had not waited to close it. She pushed it
very softly, holding her breath at the creak of the hinge and listening
intently for the recurrent snore which sounded through the window only
three paces from her.

At last the thing was done--the padlock fastened, the key turned in
the lock, and now in her pocket. She dropped flat on the earth, her
cloak drawn lightly between her knees, and wriggled snake-like, as Oola
had done past Harris' windows, then pushed herself on hands and knees
along the ground, squeezing her body against the palings of the yard,
till she reached the Old Humpey on the opposite side. Once round that
corner, she got on to her feet, feeling sick and giddy but intensely
relieved. She leaned against the gum tree which had protected Oola, and
now realised that it had been raining in a driving gust and that she
was wet to the skin.

The bleating of a kid, which had been left under the house and had
found its way into the yard, startled her anew. She thought that she
heard sounds in the wing near the hide-house--steps on the veranda.
Was Harris stirring? Had he discovered the flight of his prisoner?

She waited again till all was quiet. By this time, there was a watery
radiance just overhead. She looked towards the lagoon, but there was no
sign of Maule. She felt the shivering begin again, though her head
seemed burning, and she could hardly think collectedly. Her chief idea
was to get back to bed.

But she was able to reason to herself that Maule must somehow be
informed of the escape. She did not think he could have got back yet to
the spot where he had left her. Or he might come straight to his room
and miss the key and his watch. In any case, these must be restored to
the place from which Oola had taken them.

She lifted herself to the window-sill as Oola had done, and in a moment
was inside the room. It had been an easy enough business, only that in
clutching the window frame, the jagged end of the splinter she had run
into her hand caught and tore her flesh. The room was of course empty.

She lifted a candle--which, with matches, stood on the dressing table
--and put back the watch and chain, and the key now separate from them.
That fact would show Maule that it had been tampered with. But she must
find some more exact means of conveying what had happened. Premature
action on his part might give the alarm. Her brain worked in flashes.
She had vivid ideas, which in her fevered state she could not hold
properly. She must write to Maule. A notebook that he must have taken
from his pocket lay on the table also. She tore out a leaf--paused--
She must write so that only he would understand. An accident might
happen to the paper.

There must be no definite statement to implicate him or herself. Some
words in French occurred to her. She wrote them down and continued the
note in that language. At the close she begged him to act so that there
should be no ground for suspicion--reminded him of his promise to go
away on the morrow--said she would write to him at the Post Office at
Leuraville. She did not sign the sheet, but folded it across--
addressed it to Maule and laid it under the watch on the table.

A fresh spasm of shivering seized her. Suddenly she remembered the
opossum rug she had left. She opened the door leading from Maule's room
into the veranda, and went out. She stood bewilderedly, looking across
the faint-lit yard to the dim veranda of the kitchen wing opposite, as
she fought against the sick faintness that threatened to overcome her.
Then she walked along the veranda to the place where she had parted
from Maule. The rug was lying there, and she threw it round her, and
waited on the steps with chattering teeth and shaking limbs.

In a minute or two, he joined her. She saw by the fitful moonbeams that
he was wet and muddy--truly in a worse plight than herself. She could
hardly speak for the rigor. Seeing her condition, he took her up in his
arms, and carried her along the veranda towards her own room. The clasp
of his arms, the warmth of his body, even through his wet clothing
helped her to steady herself. She continued to tell him of the great
achievement.

'Wombo has escaped--I saw Oola taking the key out of your room. Harris
was asleep--snoring. She let Wombo out, and I locked the door of the
hide-house again afterwards, and put the key back in your room. It's
all right--nothing can be found out till the morning. They're safe in
the scrub by now.'

'Well, I'm thankful for that at any rate,' he answered. 'But at this
moment I cannot think of anything or anyone but you. My dearest--I'm
so afraid of your being ill--what can I do?'

'Nothing. I have sal volatile in my room--stuff to take for a cold. I
only want to get off my wet things and go to bed--I can sleep now.
Don't be frightened about me.'

She staggered when he put her gently down inside her own door, but
recovered herself courageously, lighted her candles, laughed at her own
disordered appearance, bade him go at once and look after himself.

He kissed her hand reluctantly.

'Till to-morrow.'

She looked at him alarmedly. 'Will! But you have promised me. You are
going away to-morrow.'

He did not reply. His eyes were roving round the chamber, dimly lighted
by the two candles. He was observing the feminine details the
untidinesses so characteristic of her; the daintinesses, equally
characteristic--all in such odd contrast with inevitable bush
roughnesses. He noticed the silver and ivory on the dressing-table; the
large silver-framed photographs--an autographed one of the Queen of
Wartenburg--Molly Gaverick and Rosamond Tallant in Court veil and
feathers, Joan Gildea at her type-writer--the confusion of books, the
embroidered coverlet on the large bed, the bush-made couch at its foot
upholstered in rose-patterned chintz on which she had seated herself.

'You have GOT to go,' she urged. 'WHATEVER happens, you are leaving
here with the mailman to-morrow. . . . Promise--on your word of honour
--that NOTHING shall hinder you.'

'Of course, I shall keep my promise, though it breaks my heart to leave
you like this. But I know--I feel that the parting will not be for
long. . . . Yes. . . .' as she slowly shook her head and a strange
fateful look shadowed the feverish brightness of her eyes. 'I COULDN'T
leave you if I didn't feel certain of that.'

'Oh, I'm tired out. I'm tired--dead tired--' Her face was ghastly,
her lips like burning coals. 'I can't argue any more. And now it's
good-night--good-bye.'

'Not good-bye. At least there will be time to-morrow for that.'

'You MUST go--Good-night.'

He left her, but waited in the veranda, reassuring himself by the sound
of movements on the other side of the closed door. When all was silent,
and the candles extinguished, he went back to his own room.

He saw on the dressing-table his watch and chain with the key detached
beside them--a confirmnation of the truth of what Lady Bridget had
told him. But she had forgotten to tell him of the note she had left
also, and, naturally, he did not look for it. Had he known and looked
he would have discovered that the note was gone.




CHAPTER 6



Lady Bridget always looked back upon the next few days as a confused
nightmare. She awoke in the grip of fever--that malarial kind which is
common in Australia--tried to get up as usual, but fell back upon her
bed, faint and dizzy. Her brows ached. She had alternations of burning
heat and icy coldness. There came active periods in the dull lethargy
which is often a phase of fever, and from which she only roused herself
at the spur of some urgent call on her faculties. One of these was
Willoughby Maule's anxious message of enquiry conveyed by Maggie, to
which she had the presence of mind to return the answer that she had
caught cold, and was staying in bed for the present, but would no doubt
be quite well shortly. Also that she was sorry not to bid him good-bye,
but begged that he would not think of postponing his departure.

She heard as in a dream the sound of the mailman's arrival, and
presently, of the saddling of horses in the yard, and then the
CLOP-CLOP of their feet as they were ridden past her end of the house
to the Gully crossing. There were two horses. So Maule had left the
head-station with Harry the Blower, as she had bidden him do. She was
conscious of relief.

She realised in bewildered fashion, that Maule was gone out of her life
at Moongarr, and connected the sound of his horses' departing feet with
the thud of Sir Luke Tallant's hall door, when he had left her at the
first interview which had led to their final quarrel.

From that effort of memory she sank again into mental coma. Maggie took
it to be natural sleep, and laid the mailbag just brought by Harry the
Blower, on her mistress' bed to await her awakening. Much later in the
day, on the return of Mr Ninnis and the other men from their
cattle-muster, finding the bag still untouched, Maggie broke the seals
at her mistress' dazed order, and having sorted out Lady Bridget's
letters, carried away the bag for Ninnis to take his own mail.

But Lady Bridget paid no heed to her letters, and thus it happened that
for the time being, she was quite unaware of an event which was of
great importance to her.

She had been scarcely even distantly conscious of the hue and cry, and
general excitement at the head-station, when it was discovered that the
prisoner had escaped. Harris had his own suspicions--it might be said,
his certainties, but the man's crafty nature bade him keep his
accusations for an opportunity when he ran less risk of being worsted.
He meant to wait until McKeith's return. Meanwhile what he had not been
prepared for was Willoughby Maule's departure with the mailman before
he himself came back from an unsuccessful hunt after the fugitives.
That move had lain outside his calculations. He had gleaned enough from
Mrs Hensor, as well as from his own observation, to feel sure that
Maule and Lady Bridget were in love with each other, and he had never
supposed that they would part so abruptly.

The head-station was very shorthanded in the absence of Ninnis and the
stockmen, and Harris had been obliged to go out by himself on the
man-hunt. He did not know the country at the head of the gully, where
he concluded that Wombo was hiding, and lost himself in the gidia
scrub. Thus, he was in a very disagreeable temper, when he at last
arrived at the Bachelors' Quarters.

To Lady Bridget the day passed, and all the seemingly distant noises of
it, like a phantasmagoria of vision, sound, impressions--the echoes of
station activity; the Chinamen's pidgin English as they weeded the
front garden; Tommy Hensor's voice when he brought the cook a nestful
of eggs some vagrant hen had laid in the grass-tussocks, the men going
forth with the tailing-mob--and at intervals the scorching
recollection of that hinted scandal concerning Colin and Mrs Hensor of
which Maule had told her. . . . Horrible. . . unbelievable. . . and
yet. . . .

Then, after a long while, with lucid breaks in the dreamy stupor, she
heard the roar of Ninnis' incoming mob of wild cattle from the range.
She could even wonder whether he had been able to muster that herd of
five hundred or so for the sale-yards. She knew that her husband was
counting upon the sale of these beasts--probably at 6 pounds a head--to
enable him to fight the drought, by a speedy sinking of artesian bores.
She felt herself reasoning quite collectedly on this subject, until the
roar of beasts turned into the roar of the mighty Atlantic, breaking
against the cliffs below Castle Gaverick. . . . She saw the green waves
--real as the heaving backs of the cattle--alive, leaping. . . . And
she herself seemed tossed on their crest. . . she saw and felt the cool
embrace of the wave-fairies she had once tried to paint for Joan
Gildea's book. . . . Oh! she had never fully appreciated the strength
of that now inappeasable longing for the Celtic home, the Celtic
traditions which had been born in her. She had never known how much she
loved Castle Gaverick. . . how much she loathed the muggy heat, the
flies and the mosquitoes now brought by last night's rain, the fierce
glare beating upon the veranda, the sun-motes dancing on the
boards. . . .

The appearance late that evening of Mrs Hensor, who having heard the
mistress was ill, had come down partly from curiosity, partly from
genuine humanity to see what might be amiss, was the next thing that
roused Lady Bridget from her fever-lethargy.

'Maggie told me you'd been out in the rain last night, and had caught
cold, and I thought Mr McKeith would wish me to ask if I could do
anything,' Mrs Hensor said.

Lady Bridget sat up in bed, for the moment her most haughty self.

'Thank you; but there's no occasion for you to trouble, Mrs Hensor. I
would have sent for you if I had required your services.'

'And I'm not aware that I was engaged to give them,' snorted Mrs
Hensor. 'It was out of consideration for Mr McKeith that I came. I've
got quite enough to do at the Quarters, and I'm really glad not to have
to trouble myself down here--what with Mr Ninnis wanting extra
cooking, and Mr Harris in such a rage over Wombo's getting away--I'm
wondering if you heard anything last night, of that, Lady Bridget? And
Harris is put out, too, over Mr Maule going off with Harry the Blower,
while he was hunting for the black-boy. However,' Mrs Hensor concluded,
'the master will be here tomorrow to see into the rights of things.'

'How do you know that the master will be here to-morrow?' asked Bridget
sharply.

'Harry the Blower brought me a letter from Mr McKeith,' replied Mrs
Hensor with malign triumph. 'I suppose he thought you'd be too busy
doing things with Mr Maule to bother over the station affairs, and that
Mr Ninnis might be out on the run--and so he wrote to tell me what he
wanted done as he often used to before.'

Lady Bridget closed her eyes, and leaned back against the pillows
trying hard to control the muscles of her face, and not to betray her
mortification. Moreover, she was certain that Mrs Hensor had stated the
exact truth.

'I should prefer to be alone,' she said, feeling the woman's eyes upon
her.

'Then I'll go, as you don't want me,' returned Mrs Hensor. 'But if I
was you, Lady Bridget, I'd take a dose of laudanum, and get myself into
a perspiration, for I believe it's a touch of dengue fever you've got
the matter with you.'

A touch of dengue in tropical Australia may be serious or the reverse--
sharp and short and critical, or tedious and less dangerous. Lady
Bridget's case was the sharp, short kind demanding prompt treatment.
When McKeith came home the following day, he found her delirious, and
incapable of recognizing him.

Worn out as was the strong man's frame--not only with wild jealousy
and tortured love, but with sleepless nights of patrol work, days in
the shearing-shed, sharp fighting with a second conflagration--
fortunately put out before much damage had been done--and a final
dispersion of Unionist forces, Colin never for one instant relaxed his
watch by Bridget's bedside.

All night he tended her, fighting the fever as he had fought the fire
at Breeza Downs, plying her with continued fomentations, dosing her
with quinine, laudanum and the various medicines he had found
efficacious. For never was a better doctor for malarial fever than
Colin McKeith--he had had so much experience of it. When towards
morning she fell into a profuse sweating, and he had to change and
wring out the blankets in which he had wrapped her, he knew that the
fever danger was past.

She awoke at mid-day from a deep, health-restoring sleep, so weak
however, that her bones felt like water and her face looked as white as
the pillow case. But her brain was clear.

She saw that there was no one else in the room, which was still in
great disorder. The blankets, hot and heavy, were almost unbearable,
but she had not strength to fling them off. It felt frightfully warm
for the time of year and the air that came in through the open French
window seemed to be blowing from an oven. The sky, as she glimpsed it
from her bed between the veranda eaves and the railings, looked
curiously dark and had a lurid tinge.

Lifting herself slightly, she became aware that Colin was in the
veranda with his back to her, looking out over the plain. The set of
his figure as he bent forward, with his hands on the railings and his
eyes apparently strained towards the horizon, reminded her of the
determined hunch of his square shoulders and the dogged droop of his
head when he had ridden away with Harris and the Organizer.

She called faintly, 'Colin.'

He turned round instantly and came to the bed. She stared up at him,
frightened at the look in his face. . . . Something dreadful must have
happened. She was too weak to go over coherently in her mind the
sequence of events and feelings. She only sensed a menacing spectre,
monstrous, terrifying. She could not realise her own share in the
catastrophe she felt was impending. She could not believe that Colin
could change so much in less than ten days. Everything had come about
with such incredible swiftness. His face looked haggard, ravaged. The
cheeks seemed to have fallen in. The features were rigid as if cut out
of metal. The whites of his eyes between the reddened lids were very
blood-shot and the eyes themselves seemed balls of blue fire. There was
not a shade of kindliness in them, only the gleam of a fixed purpose
which no entreaties would alter.

She could imagine that he might have looked like that, when, as a boy
he had beheld the mutilated bodies of his father, mother, sisters,
stretched stark, after the blacks had done their hideous work.

And it was true that he did feel now somewhat as that boy had felt, for
again to his tortured imagination that which he held dearest seemed to
be lying foully murdered before his eyes. She, his love, had been
ravished from him, and he could only regard her as dead to him for
evermore.

'Colin,' she gasped. 'What is the matter?'

The muscles of his face relaxed, it seemed automatically, as if there
were no soul behind. He laughed a dry ironic laugh. 'Never mind. You
mustn't speak.'

He felt her pulse, examined her as a doctor might have done--all
without a word, and straightened the blankets and pillows.

'You must have food,' he said, and went out. She heard him calling
Maggie. After a few minutes he came back with a tumbler of beaten egg
and milk, to which he had added brandy, and told her she must drink it.

Her hand was too weak to hold the tumbler. He put one arm under the
pillow, raised her head and held the glass to her lips until she had
drunk every drop of the mixture. All this with no show of tenderness or
one unnecessary word. She needed the nourishment and stimulant, and
after them felt better.

'I remember. . . . I must have been ill. What was the matter with me?'

'Dengue,' he answered shortly.

'I was out in the rain. . . . I got a chill I remember.'

'Oh, you were out in the rain!. . . I should have thought you could
have done what you wanted without that.' The bitterness of his tone was
gall-like. And again the ironic laugh.

She winced and drew her head aside. He took away his arm instantly from
behind the pillow and straightened himself, looking down on her, still
with that dreadful light in his eyes. She could not bear it, and turned
her head away from him.

'Don't look at me. . . . I'm going to get up.'

'No, I think you'll stay where you are.' His voice broke slightly but
hardened again. 'I won't talk to you. I won't let you speak a word
yet. . . that will come afterwards.'

'But I don't understand.'

'Better not now. I'll tell you this. You're through the fever. It won't
come back if you do as I tell you--You understand something about
dengue. You'll stop here till you're stronger. You've got to take the
brandy, eggs and milk till you feel sick of it. To-day you'll have
slops. I've told Maggie about preparing your food, if the fever comes
back--it won't if you keep quiet--but if it does--hot bottles--
blankets--laudanum--I've mixed the doses--until you get into a
sweat. Remember that. And you'll have someone in your room to-night.'

'In my room--YOU? What do you mean?'

'It won't be me--I'm going away.'

'Going away--what is it?'

She noticed that he turned and looked at the sky.

'Why is it so dark--and the heat so stifling?' she asked.

'These damned Unionists have fired the only good pasture left on
Moongarr. It's been burning since two o'clock this morning. I sent the
men out. Now I'm going myself--to save what I can.'

He left the room abruptly. In a minute or two she heard him outside
calling 'Cudgee. . . Harris'--and then giving the order to saddle up.
She got out of bed and tottered to the window. She could see now the
wide range of the disaster. The lurid haze was spreading. The horizon
shrinking, and the air was hotter than ever. The fire seemed still a
long way off, but there was nothing to stop the flames if once they
reached the great plain. The course of the river, here at best a mere
string of shallow waterholes, was quite dry. The rain of the other
night had been too insignificant and local to do any good. The brown
mud-strip round the lagoon below, was not perceptibly diminished. She
knew that the narrow water channels flowing from their one working
artesian bore, must soon be licked up by the flames. And the Bore in
process of construction, was at a standstill for want of workmen.

Bridget gazed out despairingly towards the shrinking horizon and upon
the parched plain with the rugged clumps of dun coloured gum trees
scattered upon it--the near ones looking like trees of painted tin,
sun-blistered. The swarms of flies, mosquitoes in the veranda offended
her. She disliked the cattle dogs mooching round with hanging jaws and
slavering tongues. The ferocious chuckle of a great grey king-fisher--
the bird which white people called the laughing jackass--perched on
the branch of a gum tree beside the fence, made her shudder, because
the bird's soulless cachinnation seemed an echo of Colin's laugh.

Ah! that was the bush, undivested of romance--hard, brutal,
vindictive, in spite of the mocking verdure of her honeymoon
spring. . . . And Colin was a part of the Bush. He resembled it. He too
could be strong and sweet and tender as the great blossoming white cedar
down by the lagoon, as rills of running water making the plain green--when
his desires were satisfied. And he could be brutal and vindictive
likewise, when anyone dared to thwart his will and defy his prejudices.

She staggered about the room, feminine instinct prompting her to
freshen her appearance, to change her soiled, crumpled nightdress, to
throw a piece of lace over her dishevelled head, to pull up the linen
sheets which had been rolled clumsily to the foot of the bed, so that
the blankets could be wrapped round her. But she sank again presently,
exhausted, on her pillows.

In a short time McKeith came back, booted and spurred, and stood as
before looking at her with forbidding sternness.

'You'd better have stopped quiet. I've told Mrs Hensor to come down and
look after you. She knows what to do.'

Bridget cried out passionately: 'I won't have that woman in my room.
How dare you tell her to come near me.'

'Dare! That seems a queer way to put it. However, you can order her out
if you don't want her. There's Maggie--and I'm sending Ninnis back
to-night.'

'When are you coming home?'

'I can't say. I've got things to do--and to think about.'

His words and his manner seemed to convey a sinister meaning.

'I see--you are angry about the black-boy. If you want to know I will
tell you exactly what happened.'

He laughed again and his laugh sounded to her insulting.

'Oh, I know what has happened. You needn't tell me. I had some
conversation with Harris this morning. I know EVERYTHING; and now I've
got to settle in my own mind how things are to go on.'

She went very white and repeated dully: 'How--things--are to go on?'

'Between you and me. You don't imagine, do you, that they can go on the
same?'

'No,' she retorted with spirit, 'certainly they can't go on the same.'

Maggie had come along the veranda and was at the French window.

'Mr Harris says he's ready, sir, and the horses. . . .'

'All right.' McKeith went out of the door, but turned and paused as if
he were going to speak to his wife. But he thought better of it and
walked rapidly away--perhaps because she avoided his look.

She supposed that he was infuriated with her because of her part in
Wombo's escape, and she thought his anger unjust. No doubt, too, he
suspected Maule's connivance, and she knew that he was furiously
jealous of Maule. But surely he would understand that she must have
sent Maule away. What more can a wife do in the case of an
over-insistent lover? And how should a husband expect an explanation
when he had literally thrown her into her lover's arms, or at least had
left her defenceless against his solicitations! Had he treated her
differently after the Wombo episode in the beginning, she might have
told him the truth about her former relations with Willoughby Maule.

As things had been, it was rather for Maule than for Colin that she
found excuse.

She was bitterly hurt and offended against her husband. Oh, yes. He was
right. They could never again be the same to each other. If he had come
back penitent, pleading for forgiveness, overwhelmed with contrition at
her dismissal of Maule, she might then perhaps have explained
everything and they might have become reconciled. But now, his vile
temper, his insupportable manner, his dominant egoism made any attempt
of conciliation on her part impossible. She had a temper too--she told
herself, and her anger was righteous. And she also had an egoism that
wouldn't allow itself to be trampled on. She had rights--of birth, of
breeding, to say nothing of her rights of wifehood and womanhood for
which she must insist upon respect. If he would not bend to her, even
to show her ordinary consideration and courtesy, then she would not
lower her pride one iota before him.

Thoughts of this kind went through her mind as she lay smarting under
the burning sense of outrage, until the reappearance of Mrs Hensor.
Then, the new effort she made in sending away the woman exhausted brain
and body and left her with scarcely the power to think--certainly not
to reason.




CHAPTER 7



But Lady Bridget did not know what had followed upon her husband's
home-coming. She had not been in a condition to realize how all night
through he had tended her, putting aside every other consideration,
giving no heed to the affairs of the station, refusing to see the
Police Inspector who had sent in an urgent message soon after his
arrival.

Only when turning for a moment to the veranda and noticing the red
glare in the sky, had he been startled out of his absorption in his
wife's illness. In ordinary circumstances, he would have been on his
horse in a twinkling and riding as for life to fight the worst foe a
squatter has to face in times of drought. He knew that if the fire
spread, it might mean his ruin. As it was, he rushed up to the Quarters
to rouse Ninnis and send him with Moongarr Bill and all available hands
to do what he could in arresting the flames. But he himself dared not
leave Bridget till the fever was down, and the crisis past. That could
not be till she had awakened from the deep sleep into which she had
fallen.

With the sight of her in that sleep, however, the pull on his forces
slackened, though he was still too strung-up to think of snatching even
an hour's sleep for himself. He watched, alternately, the Bush fire and
Bridget's face, thinking his own dour thoughts the while. Every now and
then, he would creep on tip-toe to the veranda railings and gaze out
upon the lurid smoke which it seemed to him was thickening over the
horizon. When the sun was risen he washed and dressed and went up to
the Bachelors' Quarters where Mrs Hensor was already about and gave him
tea and food, which he badly needed. From her he learned a considerable
amount of what had been going on at Moongarr. From the Police
Inspector, a little later, he learned a good deal more.

Harris' manner was portentous; he asked for a private interview in the
office, saying that he had stayed on purpose to see the Boss, because
his tale was impossible to write. Then he told his own version of the
capture and locking up of Wombo, taking blame on himself for having
left the key of the hide-house in Maule's possession.

'But you see, Boss, he twitted me a bit about not having a warrant, and
there's no doubt, wherever he's learned it, that the chap has got the
whole constabulary lay-out at his finger ends--besides having the ear
of the Governor and the Executive down in Leichardt's Town. He's got
money too, no end of it. They were saying in Tunumburra that his wife
left him a quarter of a million.'

'Go on--that's nothing to do with us,' put in McKeith gruffly.

'He's an old friend of her Ladyship's, I understand,' sniggered Harris.

'What the devil has that got to do with Wombo?' said McKeith furiously.

Harris drew in his feelers.

'I wouldn't swear that it had, Mr McKeith, and I wouldn't swear that it
hadn't. All I know is, that Mr Maule had the key of the hide-house in
his bedroom that night, and, being a close friend of her Ladyship's, he
was no doubt aware that she didn't relish the notion of Wombo's being
had up for theft and murder--I'm not saying who it was let out Wombo.
It's a mystery I don't take upon myself to fathom--I'll leave that to
you.'

'There's one easy solution of the mystery that doesn't seem to have
occurred to you,' said McKeith. 'The gin Oola could easily have stolen
the key--they're cunning as the devil--half-castes--and as
treacherous--I know them--I've had my own good reasons for not
letting one of them inside the fence of my head-station.'

'That may be--I can only say what I know, and you can form your own
opinion.'

'Say what you know then--I'm waiting to hear. But be quick about it,
man, I've no time to waste this morning.'

Harris began his tale--how he had watched at the window of his little
room, till after midnight, his gun ready, his eyes glued on the
padlocked door opposite; how overcome with drowsiness against which he
had vainly struggled--'for a man that's been pretty near two days and
nights in the saddle may be excused if his eyes begin blinking,' Harris
put it. He had dropped dead asleep--he confessed it--at his post.
Then, how on awakening suddenly, for no apparent reason, all seeming
quiet around, he had got up as he was, half dressed and in his boots--
had stepped across to the hide-house, had found the padlock intact and,
hearing no sound, had concluded the black-boy was inside safe asleep.
How then, with a relieved mind, he had been going back to his
stretcher, when the noise of a goat bleating had set him on the
look-out from his veranda. How, presently, looking at the veranda
opposite, he had seen the door of Mr Maule's bedroom open, and a woman
come out, how she had stood a few moments facing him, with the
moonlight straight on her, so that there was no possibility of his
making a mistake. Harris paused. McKeith glared at the man, who, had he
been quick at psychological interpretations, would have read an awful
apprehension underlying the ill-restrained fury in the other's face.
The question came in hoarse jerks.

'What--Who--Who was it you saw--?'

'It was the Lady Bridget, Boss. . . . I--'

Before he could proceed, a strong arm struck out and McKeith's hand
clutched at the Police Inspector's neck.

'You hound! You contemptible skunk! Take back that lie, or I'll
throttle it in your throat.'

Harris was of powerful build also, and, moreover knew some tricks of
defence and assault. He freed himself by a dexterous duck of his head,
and a sharp shake of his body, and stepped backward so that the office
table was between him and his antagonist.

His face was scarlet, his bull's eyes protruded from their full
sockets. But he was wary, and not anxious to provoke the devil in
McKeith.

'Wait a bit,' he said thickly. 'if you'll keep your hands off me, and
let me finish what I was going to say, I'll show you the proof that I'm
not telling you lies--though you're mistaking my meaning in regard to
her Ladyship. . . .

'Leave her Ladyship out of it, will you,' McKeith snarled, his teeth
showing between his tense lips.

'I would do that willingly, Boss, for there's no disrespect intended I
can assure you. Only it means that this Wombo business will have to be
reported, and if you can help me to the right evidence--well, so much
the pleasanter for all parties,' returned the Police Inspector
craftily.

McKeith made a slight assenting movement of his head, but said nothing.
His brows puckered, and he stiffened himself as he listened, strung to
the quick, while Harris continued.

'Well--I did see--that lady,'--the volcanic gleam from McKeith's
eyes stopped him from pronouncing Lady Bridget's name. 'I saw her come
out of that room,' he jerked his thumb along the veranda. 'The moon was
right on her just then. I saw her give a shiver--she'd been out in the
wet. Then she walked up the veranda to where there's the covered bit
joining on to the Old Humpey, and I noticed her sit down on the steps--
'

'Stop,' broke in McKeith. 'If you were on the veranda over there, you
couldn't have seen as far as the steps.'

'Right you are, Boss. But I wasn't waiting on the veranda. When the
lady turned her back, I moved into the yard, and I was standing by that
flower-bush'--Again he jerked his thumb, this time to the centre bed,
and a young bohinia shrub covered with pink blossoms 'If you try
yourself from there, you'll find you can look slick through to the
front garden. That's where I saw Maule step out of--I guessed he'd
come round by the back of the Old Humpey. I guessed too, he thought she
oughtn't to be sitting out there in the damp--She was shivering again
--she'd put a rug that was lying on the steps round her. He just picked
her up in his arms, and carried her right along, and when I stepped
across I saw him take her into one of those rooms at the end of the
front veranda. . . .'

A muffled growl, something like the sound a hunted beast might make
when the dogs had got to touch of him, came from McKeith. Again he
stiffened himself; his lips hard pressed; his eyes on Harris' face. The
Police Inspector avoided his gaze; but he too was watchful.

'You see I was thinking of my prisoner, and wondering if there could be
anything afoot about him. So as I knew there was nobody then--in Mr
Maule's room, I went back and looked in. I wanted to make sure, if I
could, where the key of the hide-house might be. There was a candle
left alight, and I saw the key right enough on the chest of drawers
beside Maule's watch and chain. It never came into my mind then, that
anybody could have used it. I noticed a bit of folded paper under the
watch. That's it, Mr McKeith. There's the proof that I am not lying
about what I saw.'

Harris had taken out of his breast pocket, a piece of newspaper in
which was wrapped the leaf torn out of Maule's notebook, folded and
addressed. He opened it out, and laid it on the office table in front
of McKeith, keeping his own stubby finger on one corner of the sheet.

Still McKeith maintained his difficult self-restraint.

'So you stole--a private communication that had been left in another
person's room, and was intended for his eyes alone?'

'Come now, Boss. You know well enough that a constabulary officer who's
up against tricks to release a prisoner has got to keep his eyes
peeled, and mustn't let any clue to mischief escape him. How was I to
know that there wasn't some plot to cheat the law? How do I know that
there wasn't? That's why I'm showing you the paper. I'm not a French
scholar--I suppose that's French--and as I suppose you are, I'll ask
you to translate what's written there.'

McKeith pushed aside the man's finger, and taking up the paper carried
it to the window, where he stood with his back to Harris, spelling out
Lady Bridget's hurriedly written sentences.

He seemed a long time in getting at the sense of what he read. As a
matter of fact, he had only a limited acquaintance with any modern
languages except his own. He had picked up some colloquial German, and
once when laid up in hospital, had set himself to read Balzac's PERE
GORIOT with the aid of a dictionary. Thus he had acquired a fairly
extensive if somewhat archaic vocabulary. But Lady Bridget's veiled
intimation of Wombo's escape couched in up-to-date and highly idiomatic
French which would have been perfectly intelligible to Willoughby
Maule, conveyed little to him beyond the fact of a secret understanding
between his wife and a man whom he knew had once been her lover. That
idea drove every other into the background of his thoughts. He did not
care in the least how Wombo had escaped. It seemed clear to him that
Oola had stolen the key after Harris had gone back to his room, while
Maule and his wife were together--together in Lady Bridget's own
chamber. The blood surged to his brain, and his temples throbbed as
though they would burst. In the madness of his jealousy, the words of
the paper, combined with Harris' revelations were damnatory
confirmation of his wife's guilt. He felt now that he had foreseen what
would happen, from the moment that he had surprised the look on Lady
Bridget's face, when Maule had unexpectedly appeared before her. She
had given herself away then. And, a little sooner, rather than a little
later--as might have been the case had he not left them together--the
inevitable had come to pass.

Yes, through the agony of that conviction now brought home to him, a
dogged resolve formed itself in his mind--the determination not to
betray himself or her. It beat upon him with insistent force. Though
his goddess must be dethroned from her shrine in his heart, she should
not be cast down for a vulgar brute like Harris to gloat over her
shame. . . .

'Well, Boss,' the Police Inspector asked with affected nonchalance that
bordered on insolence. 'Can you make anything that's satisfactory to
you out of that?'

McKeith turned, Harris thought he was going to leap upon him in a fit
of blind fury, and started up from his seat by the office table.
McKeith's eyes blazed, his taut sinews quivered; his face was now quite
pallid, and the hand in which he held the piece of paper was clenched
so tight that the veins stood out like thick cords, and the knuckles
were perfectly bloodless.

But suddenly the pitch on his nerves was eased. His eyelids dropped,
and when he lifted them, the eyes were quiet and intently observant.

He moved into his usual office chair.

'Sit down again, won't you, Harris?' he said, and Harris resumed his
former place.

'What were you asking?' McKeith continued. 'Satisfactory to me is it?
Yes, perfectly satisfactory, thank you. . . . I'm only amused--as you
see. . . to find that I was quite right in my suspicions.' And he
laughed in what Harris thought a very odd way.

'Eh? I don't take your meaning.' Harris' manner was distinctly
objectionable.

McKeith gave him a sharp look, and his teeth went over his under lip.
Then, to the man's evident surprise, he laughed again, throwing his
head back so that the muscles of his throat showed under his beard,
working, as it were, automatically. It really seemed as if the man's
mechanical merriment were no part of himself. He was, in fact, gaining
time to propound an explanation which he did not believe in the least,
but which happened to be almost the exact truth.

He answered with an air of ironic indifference.

'Well, you know, I wouldn't go in for the detective line, if I were
you, Harris. You aren't subtle enough for it. You jump too quickly at
conclusions which have nothing to do with the main point. In fact,
you're a fool, Harris--a damned fool.'

Harris' puzzled expression turned to one of extreme indignation. 'Seems
to me, Mr McKeith, that it's you who are--well, damned queer about
this affair. I'm sure I don't know what you've got to laugh at. But if
you've found out who let the black-boy out of the hide-house, I'd be
glad to know, that's all.'

McKeith ceased from his mirthless laughing and his sarcastic bluff. He
leaned forward, facing Harris with his hands on the paper which he had
laid on the table before him. He picked up the other's last words.

'Yes, that IS all. It's the only part of this note which concerns you.
Well, I can tell you that it was the half-caste woman, as I thought,
who let Wombo out of the hide-house. She stole the key from Mr Maule's
room when HE was asleep, and let Wombo out when YOU were asleep--a
longer time perhaps than you imagined, Harris. The black-boy made for
the scrub, and I suppose they were in too great a hurry to think of
shutting the door. Oola sneaked back--they've got the cunning of
whites and blacks put together, those half-castes--and no doubt she
guessed there'd be a hue and cry directly the door was found open. So
she locked it again--and brought the key to her ladyship.'

McKeith seemed to force the last words from between his teeth.

'Well, that's quite simple, isn't it?'

'Now, I shouldn't call it as simple as you make out, Boss. It appears
mighty odd to me that the gin should have worried round after her
ladyship when she might have sneaked back with the key to the place she
took it from. And then there's all the rest--the putting the key back
and fitting in times and all that. . . . Seems to me a bit too much of
the Box and Cox trick--a sort of jig-saw puzzle, d'you see.'

Manifestly, Harris was endeavouring to square probabilities. McKeith
still held himself in.

'I've given you the facts. You can figure out your details for
yourself. I've my own business to attend to, and I must be off on it.'

He got up, and folding Lady Bridget's note, deliberately put it in his
breast pocket. Harris stretched forth a restraining hand.

'Boss, I say--that's important--for my report, you know.'

McKeith's temper burst out.

'Damn your report. I'm a magistrate, and I've taken your report, and
the blacks are in the scrub and you can go and find them for yourself
if you choose. You have no warrant, remember. No, I'm not going to be
bothered any more about that black-boy. What. . . . Not I--with a fire
raging on my run, and not enough hands to put it out.'

'But her ladyship. . . .' spluttered Harris.

'Listen here you. . . .' McKeith's face and attitude were menacing. 'I
came back to find her ladyship down with dengue as bad as could be. It
was on her that night, and if she had to be carried to her room in a
fit of shaking, what business is that of yours? Understand me, Harris.
Don't you go mixing up my wife's name with this beastly black-boy
affair, or you'll have to reckon with me--and I can tell you, you
won't relish that reckoning.'

'There was no offence meant. I only wanted to do my duty,' protested
the Police Inspector, cringing after the way of bullies.

'You'll find opportunity enough for doing that if you ride back to
Breeza Downs and lend the Specials your valuable assistance in
protecting the sheep-owners against the Unionists. And I might remind
you, as I reminded that damned Organiser who's fired my run, that
there's a hundred pounds reward still waiting for anybody who catches
the men that robbed my drays and killed my horses.'

McKeith paused a moment before going out by the further door of the
office which looked out on the plain.

'I'll leave you now to run up your horse and make your own
arrangements. As soon as I can, I shall start to help in getting the
bush fire under. You can arrest that Organiser if you are keen on
arresting somebody. Send in when you're saddled up, and if I'm ready
we'll ride to the turn-off track together.'

McKeith went back to his wife's room. She was still sleeping. Then it
was that spasms of mortal agony began literally to rend the man. He
left her side and seated himself on the bed in his dressing-room. He
sat with his arms folded across his chest. His shoulders heaved. Deep
dry sobs shook his huge frame. He would not let a groan escape from
between his clenched teeth, but there was blood on his lower lip where
he had bitten it in the effort to control himself. Presently, he heard
a sound in the next room--a half moan--a name spoken. No, it would
not be his name that she would utter first on her return to
consciousness.

The man got up; stretched his long, lean frame, shuddering as if it had
been on the rack. He drew two deep breaths, braced himself, wiped the
blood from his lip, put on the stony mask which Bridget saw when she
opened her eyes and found him looking down at her.




CHAPTER 8



Next morning, Lady Bridget was better and her mind clearer. There had
been no return of fever, and, though the physical weakness was great
and her temperature--had she taken it--would have been found a good
deal below normal, her fierce determination not to remain helpless any
longer gave her strength to get up and dress. She was not able,
however, to do anything but lie in a half-alive condition in the
hammock at the end of the veranda. All night the fire had blazed, but
more fitfully, and this morning the lurid glare had died down. Only a
murky haze, faintly red here and there, spread over the north-eastern
sky. Small, isolated smoke-clouds rose above the stretches of forest,
and an irregular-shaped tract of charred grass at the edge of the plain
showed how far the flames had encroached upon it before they had been
got under. One might well conceive with what almost superhuman
exertions the beaters had at length accomplished their task. A large
number of cattle had been driven by the fire on to the pasture beyond
the home paddock--a pasture that had so far been carefully nursed in
view of possible later necessity.

Bridget was bushwoman enough to comprehend the crippling effect upon
McKeith's resources of the calamity, had she allowed her mind to dwell
upon that aspect of affairs. But her mind was incapable just now of
dealing with practical issues. She felt utterly weak, utterly lonely.
Although she was glad Maule had gone, she missed his sympathetic
companionship to an extent that she could hardly have thought possible.

As the hammock swayed gently at the slight touch of her fingers on its
rope edge, her imagination drifted dangerously and her senses yielded
to the old drugging fascination. He seemed as close to her as had been
his bodily shape a few days previously. She was conscious of the pull
of his will upon the invisible cords by which he held her. If it were
an unholy spell, it was, now, at least, in her desolation, a consoling
one. He loved her; he wanted her. She knew that he was passionately
eager to devote his life to her. He would wait expectantly until she
wrote. With a few strokes of her pen she might end her irksome
captivity in this wall-less prison of desert plain--this wilderness of
gum and gidia.

As she lay there in the hammock, a child's clumpy boots pattered along
the garden path and Tommy Hensor came up the steps with a big cabbage
leaf gathered in his hand. He opened it out when he reached the veranda
and displayed three Brazilian cherries, the first fruits of a plant
growing in the Chinaman's garden.

'La-ship . . . La-ship! I got these myself. I made Fo Wung give 'em me
for you.'

At any other time the child's offering would have been received, at any
rate, graciously. Now Tommy shrank away, startled by the look on Lady
Bridget's face and the forbidding gesture with which she warned him
off.

'Go away! . . . Go away! . . .' she cried. 'I don't want you.'

Tommy's common, freckled little face crumpled up and his blue eyes
filled with tears. He dropped the cabbage leaf and the cherished
Brazilian cherries and ran down the steps again, blubbering piteously.

Lady Bridget got up as soon as the child had clicked the garden gate
behind him. She was ashamed of the spasm of revulsion that had seized
her. She wanted to cast away from her the dreadful thought his
appearance had suddenly evoked. She picked up the cabbage leaf with the
fruit and flung them over the railings into a flower bed, where the
butcher-birds and the bower-birds quarrelled over them, and the big,
grey bird in the gum tree on the other side of the fence cachinnated in
derisive chorus to Bridget's burst of hysterical laughter.

A little later Maggie came out from the bedroom with some letters in
her hand.

'I've laid holt on your mail, Ladyship, turning out your room. I expect
you forgot all about it.'

Yes, she had forgotten, absolutely; it seemed years since Harry the
Blower had passed by and Willoughby Maule had departed. She languidly
inspected the envelopes. Nothing among them of any importance--except
one.

It was a blue telegraph-service envelope, and had been forwarded on by
the postman from Crocodile Creek, the nearest telegraph station. In the
last fifteen months they had brought the bush railway a good deal
further up the river, and Crocodile Creek was the present terminus.
Thus the road journey was now considerable shorter than when Colin
McKeith had brought his bride home.

Lady Bridget read the several lines of the cabled message over two or
three times before the real bearings of it became clear to her
fever-weakened intelligence.

At last she grasped the startling fact that the cablegram was from her
cousin, Lord Gaverick, and that it had been despatched from London
about seven days previously. This was what it said.

'ELIZA GAVERICK DIED TWENTIETH LEAVES YOU CASTLE AND FIFTY THOUSAND
DIFFICULTIES EXECUTORS YOUR PRESENCE URGENTLY DESIRED WIRE IF CAN COME,
GAVERICK '

Lady Bridget let the blue form drop on her lap. She stared out over the
brown plain and the herds of lean beasts all shadowy in the smoky mist
over the horizon, then round, along the wilderness of gidia scrub, with
its charred patches afar off, from which there still rose thin spirals
of smoke.

Destiny had spoken. Here was the order of release. There was no gaoler
to keep the prison doors locked any longer--except--except--No, if
she wished to break her bonds, Colin would never gainsay her.



Late that night the men came back from fighting the fire which they had
now practically put out. Even in the moonlight they looked deplorable
objects, grimed, covered with dust and ashes, their skins and clothes
scorched by the fierce heat.

They seemed drunk with fatigue, and could scarcely sit their horses.
When they dismounted they could hardly stand.

Their feeble COO-EES at the sliprails brought out Ninnis, who had been
sent home in the afternoon and had been taking some well-earned repose
so as to be ready for the next shift--happily not required. He and the
few hands left to look after the head-station and the tailing-mob held
the men's horses when their riders literally tumbled off them. Ninnis
made McKeith take a strong pull of whiskey and supported him along to
the Old Humpey. For Colin had had strength to say that Lady Bridget
must on no account be disturbed. Ninnis led him to the room lately
occupied by Willoughby Maule, and was surprised at his employer's
vehement refusal to remain in it.

'I'll not stop here. . . . No, I won't go to my dressing-room. In God's
name, just let me stretch myself on the bunk in the Office and go to
sleep.'

He threw himself on a bush-carpentered settle, with mattress and
pillows covered in Turkey-red, which was used sometimes at mustering
times when there was an overplus of visitors. There he lay like a log
for close on twelve hours.

By and by, Lady Bridget, at once longing and reluctant, came softly in
to see how he fared.

A storm of pity, anger, tenderness, repulsion--the whole range of
feeling, it seemed, between love and hate--swept over her as she
looked at the great gaunt form stretched there. Colin was still in
riding clothes and booted and spurred. His moleskins were black with
smoke and charcoal; his flannel shirt, open at the neck, showed red
scratches and scorch-marks on the exposed chest and was torn over the
arms, where were more excoriations of the flesh. And the ravaged face!
How hard it was. How relentless, even in the utter abandonment of
bodily exhaustion! The skin was caked with black dust and sweat. The
darkened thatch of yellow hair was dank and wet. The fair beard,
usually so trim, was singed in places, matted, and had bits of cinder
and burnt leaves sticking to it.

A revolting spectacle, offending Lady Bridget's fine, physical
sensibilities, but a MAN--THE Man. She could not understand that
tornado of emotion which now made her being seem a very battle-ground,
for all the primal passions. She turned away with a sense of nausea,
and then turned to him again with a kind of passionate longing to take
him in her arms--brutal as she thought him, and unworthy of the
affection she had once felt for him--felt still alas!--and all the
romance she had once woven about him. . . . She saw that a fly was
hovering over the excoriated arm and drew the ragged sleeve over its
bareness. Then she noticed the mosquito net reefed up on a hoop above
the bunk, and managed to get the curtain down so that he should be
protected from the assaults of insects. But as she touched him in doing
this, he stirred and muttered wrathfully in his sleep, as though he
were conscious of her tenderness and would have none of it; she fled
away and came to him no more.

She had been racking her brain since receiving the cablegram as to what
answer she should return to it.

After that pitiable sight of her husband, Bridget moved restlessly
about the house, with intervals of lassitude in the hammock, for she
still felt weak and ill. But quinine was keeping the fever down, and
she resolved that her husband should not again be required to nurse
her. She did not go into the Office any more, but busied herself in a
defiant fashion upon little cares for his comfort when he awoke. He
should see that she did not neglect her house-wifely duties--at least
while she remained there to perform them. The qualification was
significant of her mood.

Thus, she gave orders that the veranda of the Old Humpey should be kept
free from disturbing footsteps, and saw that the bathroom was in order,
and a change of clothing set ready for him when he should awake. Also
that there should be a meal prepared.

He did not wake till the afternoon. She heard him go straight in to
take his bath, and hastened to have the dining room table spread. But
she saw him go out of the bathroom--all fresh and more like himself--
and cross the yard on his way to the Bachelors' Quarters, making it
clear to her that he wished to avoid the part of the house she
occupied. Bridget went back to the front veranda in a cold fury,
pierced by stabs of mental pain. She watched him from the end of the
veranda go into the living room of the Quarters, and thought bitterly
that he would ask Mrs Hensor for the food he required. No doubt too, he
would obtain from Mrs Hensor, information as to how she herself had
been getting on during his absence, and Mrs Hensor would give him a
garbled report of her own dismissal from the sick room. . . . How dared
he--oh! how DARED he treat her, Lady Bridget, his wife, with such
cruel negligence, such marked insult!

It did not occur to her that he might wish to see Ninnis, who, when at
the station, was usually about this time, in his office at the back of
the Bachelors' Quarters.

After a time, she heard Colin's voice again in the yard, and his step
on the Old Humpey veranda. He came now by the covered passage on to
that of the New House, and advanced towards her.

He only came, she told herself, because it would have seemed too
strange had he continued to ignore her existence.

And he was conscious of her resentment. By a curious affinity, his own
spirit thrilled to the unquenchable spirit in her. Qualities in himself
responded to like qualities in her. He admired her pride and pluck. Yet
the two egoisms reared against each other, seemed to him--could he
have put the thought into shape--like combatants with lances drawn
ready to strike.

He believed that it was love which gave her strength--love, not for
him, but for that other man whose influence he was now convinced had
always been paramount, and who with renewed propinquity had resumed his
domination.

Certain phrases in that letter he had read long ago on Joan Gildea's
veranda, and which had been haunting him ever since Willoughby Maule's
re-appearance, struck his heart with the searing effect of lightning.
He felt, at the first sight of her there on the veranda, before she
turned full to him, a passionate yearning to take her in his arms, and
cover her poor little wasted face with kisses--to call her 'Mate'; to
remind her of that wonderful marriage night under the stars. But when
he saw the proud aloofness of her look, his longing changed to a dull
fury, which he could only keep in check by rigorous steeling of his
will against any softening impulse.

So his face was hard as a rock, his voice rasping in its restraint,
when he came near and spoke to her. 'You have not had any more fever?'

'No.'

He put two or three questions to her about her health--whether she had
taken the medicine he had left for her, and so on, to which she
returned almost monosyllabic replies, sufficiently satisfactory in the
information they gave him.

'That's all right then,' he said coldly. 'I thought it would be, though
I didn't at all like leaving you in such a condition.'

'Really! But it doesn't seem as if you had felt any violent anxiety
about me since you came back. I heard you go to the bathroom a long
time ago, and I saw you going up to the Quarters.'

He did not appear to notice the latter implication.

'I had to sleep,' he said curtly. 'I was dead beat.'

'Yes, I saw that,' she answered.

'A-ah!' The deep intake of breath made a hissing sound, and he flushed
a brick red. 'You came and looked at me?'

'I went into the Office.'

'I didn't want you to see me. You must have loathed the sight of me. I
was a disgusting object.'

She said nothing.

If he had glanced at her he would have seen a piteous flicker of
tenderness pass over her face--a sudden wet gleam in her eyes. And had
he yielded then to his first impulse, things might have gone very
differently between them. But he kept himself stiffened. He would not
lift his eyes, when she gave him a furtive glance. The expression of
his half averted face was positively sinister as he added with a
sneering little laugh.

'One can't look as if one had come out of a bandbox after fighting a
bush fire.'

She exclaimed, 'Oh! what does it matter?'

He utterly mistook the meaning of her exclamation.

'You are quite right,' he retorted. 'When it comes to the end of
everything, what does ANYTHING matter!'

For several moments there was dead silence. She felt as if he had
wilfully stabbed her. He on his side had again the confused sense of
two antagonists, feinting with their weapons to gain time before the
critical encounter.

'Well?' He swung himself savagely round upon her. 'That's true, isn't
it? The end HAS come. . . . You're sick of the whole show--dead sick--
of the Bush--of everything?--Aren't you? Answer me straight,
Bridget.'

'Yes, I am,' she replied recklessly. 'I hate the Bush--I--I hate
everything.'

'Everything! Well, that settles it!' he said slowly.

Again there was silence, and then he said:

'You know I wouldn't want to keep you--especially now,'--he did not
add the words that were on his lips 'now that bad times are coming on
me,'--and she read a different application in the 'now.' 'I--I'd be
glad for you to quit. It's as you please--maybe the sooner the better.
I'll make everything as easy as I can for you.'

'You are very--considerate. . . .' The sarcasm broke in her throat.

She moved abruptly, and stood gazing out over the plain till the
hysterical, choking sensation left her. Her back was to him. He could
not see her face; nor could she see the dumb agony in his.

Presently she walked to a shelf-table on the veranda set against the
wall; and from the litter of papers and work upon it, took up the
cablegram she had lately received.

'I wanted to show you this,' she said stonily, and handed him the blue
paper.

There was something significant in the way he steadied it upon the
veranda railing, and stooped with his head down to pore over it.

The blow was at first almost staggering. It was as though the high gods
had shot down a bolt from heaven, shattering his world, and leaving him
alone in Chaos. They had taken him at his word--had registered on the
instant his impious declaration. It WAS the end of everything. She was
to quit. . . . He had said, the, sooner the better. . . . Well--he
wasn't going to let even the high gods get a rise out of him.

He laughed. By one of those strange links of association, which at
moments of unexpected crisis bring back things impersonal, unconnected,
the sound of his own laugh recalled the rattle of earth, upon the dry
outside of a sheet of bark in which, during one of their boundary rides
at Breeza Downs lately, they had wrapped for burial the body of a
shepherd found dead in the bush. Both sounds seemed to him as of
something dead--something outside humanity.

He handed her back the telegram, speaking still as if he were far-off--
on the other side of a grave, but quite collectedly and as though in
the long silence he had been weighing the question.

'It seems to me that this has come to you in the nick of time, to solve
difficulties.'

'Yes,' she assented dully.

'You've got no choice but to go as your cousin says. There's money
depending on it.'

'Money! . . . Oh, money!' she cried wildly.

'Money is apt to stick on to lawyers' fingers when they're left to the
handling of it . . . . This is a matter of business, and business can't
be put on one side--especially, when there's as large a sum as fifty
thousand pounds in the proposition. I guess from this that you're
wanted.'

'Yes,' she said again. She was thinking to herself, 'That's his Scotch
carefulness about money; he wouldn't consider anything in comparison
with that.'

'You had better take the northern route,' he went on. 'There ought to
be an E. and A. boat due at Leuraville pretty soon--I'll look it out.
. . . Perhaps you'd like to make the start to-morrow?'

'To-morrow--oh yes, to-morrow--just whenever suits you.'

'I couldn't take you down myself. There are things--serious matters
I've got to see to on the station. And besides, you'll allow it's best
for me not to go with you. Ninnis could drive you to Crocodile Creek,
and put you into the train; and Halliwell will look after you at
Leuraville, and see you on board the steamer.'

'Oh, I wonder that you can spare Ninnis,' she returned bitterly. 'I
suppose you'd want Moongarr Bill still more on the run. But there's Joe
Casey--I daresay somebody else can milk the cows, and get up wood and
water. Or there's Cudgee--I don't mind who goes with me. . . . I can
drive myself.'

'My God! do you imagine I'd put a black-boy--or anyone but my own
trusted overseer in charge of you! What are you thinking of to talk
like that?'

He took a few steps along the veranda, moving with uncertain gait; then
stopped and leaned heavily against the wall. In a few seconds he had
recovered himself, and came back to her, speaking quietly.

'I will think out things and arrange it all. You'll be perfectly safe
with Ninnis, I think it would be better for you to sleep one night at
old Duppo's place. There's fresh horses for the buggy there--I've got
Alexander and Roxalana in the paddock now--they're the best. . . .'

Oh, how could he bear that those horses, of the dream-drive, should
take her away from him! He went on in the same matter-of-fact manner.
'I expect the answer to the cablegram will get as quickly as if Harry
the Blower took it, if you send it from Crocodile Creek yourself. And
there's your packing--there's not much time, but you won't want to
take a lot of things. Anything you cared about could go afterwards.'

'Go afterwards--What do you mean? I want to take nothing--nothing
except a few clothes.'

'Ah well--it doesn't matter--As you said--nothing matters now. . . .
Well, I'll go and see Ninnis, and settle about to-morrow. . . . Then
there's money. . . .' he stopped at the edge of the steps leading down
to the Old Humpey, looking back at her--'what you'll need for the
passage--and afterwards--I know what you'll be thinking; but I can
arrange for it with the Bank manager at Leuraville.'

A mocking demon rose in her.

'Please don't let yourself be inconvenienced. I only want the bare
passage money. And directly I get to England I will pay you back.'

His hands dropped to his sides as if she had shot him. His face was
terrible. At that moment, she could have bitten her tongue out.

'I don't think--you need have said that, Bridget,' and he went slowly
down the steps, and out of her sight like a man who has received a
mortal hurt.




CHAPTER 9



If purgatory could hold worse torture than life held on that last
evening Lady Bridget spent at Moongarr, then neither she nor her
husband would have been required to do any long expiation there. It
would be difficult to say which of the two suffered the most. Probably
McKeith, because he was the strongest. Equally, he showed it the least
when the breaking moment had passed. Yet both husband and wife seemed
to have covered their faces, hearts and souls with unrevealing masks.
No, it was worse than that. Each was entirely aware of the mental and
spiritual barrier, which made it absolutely impossible for them to
approach each other in the sense of reality. A barrier infinitely more
forbidding than any material one of stone or iron. Because it was
living, poisoned, venomous as the fang of some monstrous deadly
serpent. To come within its influence meant the death of love.

There was not much more of the day to get through. Husband and wife
both got through it in a fever of activity over details that seemed
scarcely to matter. He busied himself with Ninnis--first explaining to
the overseer as briefly as he could, the necessity for Lady Bridget's
voyage to England--a necessity that appealed to Ninnis' practical
mind, particularly in the present financial emergency. It surprised him
a little that McKeith should not himself see his wife off; but he also
recognised practical reasons--against that natural concession to
sentiment. On the whole, it rather pleased him to find his employer
ignoring sentiment, and he fully appreciated the confidence reposed in
himself.

The two men went over questions connected with the journey, overhauling
the buggy so that springs, bars and bolts might be in order, seeing
that the horses were in good condition, sending on Cudgee that very
hour, with a second pair in relay for the long stage of the morrow,
when over fifty miles must be covered. There would be another pair at
old Duppo's, and, after a day and night of comparative rest, Alexander
and Roxalana would be fresh for the last long stage of the journey.
They calculated that under these provisions the railway terminus at
Crocodile Creek, might be reached on the eve of the third day. And
there were many instructions, and much careful arranging for Lady
Bridget's comfort during the journey.

Then there were letters to write, business calculations, a further
overdraft to be applied for to the Bank, pending the cattle
sales. . . . Would there be saleable cattle enough to meet demands and
expenses of sinking fresh artesian bores--now that the fire had destroyed
all the best grass on the run?

McKeith found no consolation in the prospect of his wife's riches. That
only added gall to his bitterness, new fuel to his stubborn pride, new
strength to the wall between them.

He sat brooding in his office, when the business letters were written--
to the Bank-manager; to Captain Halliwell, the Police-magistrate at
Leuraville; to the Manager of the Eastern and Australian Steam
Navigation Depot, Leuraville, enclosing a draft to pay the passage; to
the Captain of the boat advertised for that trip, who happened to be an
acquaintance of his--all recommending Lady Bridget to the different
people's care--all anticipating and arranging against every possible
drawback to her comfort on the voyage--all carefully stating the
object of her trip to England--business connected with the death of a
near relative. Then, after the ghastly pretence of dinner--during
which appearances were kept up unnecessarily before Maggie and the
Malay boy, by a forced discussion of matter-of-fact details--looking
out the exact time of the putting in of the next E. and A. boat at
Leuraville--all of which he had already done, and pointing out to
Bridget that she could catch it, with a day to spare.

There was food for the journey too, to be thought of, and other things
to talk about. As soon as the meal was ended, McKeith went back to the
office, and Bridget saw or heard no more of him that night. He did not
come even to his dressing-room. She concluded that he was 'camping' on
the bunk in the office, and when her own packing was done, she lay in
wakeful misery till dawn brought a troubled doze.

Her packing was no great business--clothes for the voyage, and a big
furred cloak for warmth, when she should arrive in England in the depth
of winter--that was all.

Everything else--her papers, knicknacks, personal belongings--she
left just as they were. Colin might do as he liked about them. She felt
reckless and quite hard.

Only one among those personal possessions moved her to despairing
tears. It was a shrivelled section of bark chopped from a gum tree,
warped almost into a tube.

She placed this carefully in the deepest drawer of her wardrobe. Would
Colin ever find it there--and would he understand? All the time,
through these preparations, strangely enough she did not think of any
possible future in connection with Willoughby Maule. The events of the
past few days seemed to have driven him outside her immediate horizon.

When she came out in the morning dressed for her journey, she found her
husband in the veranda waiting to strap up and carry out her baggage.
Scarcely a word passed between them; they did not even breakfast
together. He said he had been up early, and had had his breakfast
already, but he watched her trying to eat while he moved about
collecting things for her journey, and he poured out the coffee, and
begged her to drink it. While he was there, Chen Sing brought in the
basket of food he must have ordered for the buggy, and there was Fo
Wung too, the gardener, with fresh lettuce and water-cress, and a
supply of cool, green cabbage leaves in which he had packed a few early
flat-stone peaches, and some Brazilian cherries.

Lady Bridget thanked them with the ghost of her old sweetness, and they
promised to have the garden 'velly good--TAI YAT number one' and to
'make plenty nice dishes,' for the Boss during her absence.

While they stood at the French window, McKeith filled flasks with wine
and spirits, and packed quinine and different medicines he had prepared
in case of her needing them. Then after shewing her the different
bottles, he took the supply out to Ninnis to be put in the buggy.

Everything was ready now--the buggy packed, the hood unslung so that
it could be put up and down in protection against sun or rain--this
last alas! an improbable eventuality. Alexander and Roxalana were
champing their bits. Ninnis in a new cabbage-tree hat and clean
puggaree, wearing the light coat he only put on when in the society of
ladies he wished to honour, was standing by the front wheels examining
the lash of his driving-whip. McKeith had given him his last
directions. There was nothing now to wait for. McKeith went slowly up
the steps of the back veranda, and in at the French window of the
sitting room, where Bridget had been watching, waiting. At his
appearance, she went back into the room. She stood quite still, small,
shadowy, the little bit of her face which showed between the folds of
her motor veil, where it was tied down under her chin--very pale, and
the eyes within their red, narrowed lids, dry and bright.

'Are you ready, Bridget?' he asked.

'Yes.'

He came close, and took a little bag she was holding out of her hands,
carried it to the back veranda, and told one of the Chinamen to give it
to Mr Ninnis--all, it seemed to her, to evade farewells. She called
him back in a hard voice.

'Colin--I've left my keys,'--pointing to a sealed and addressed
envelope on her own writing-table. 'There are a few things of value--
some you have given me--in the drawers.'

'I will take care of them,' he answered hoarsely.

They stood fronting each other, and their eyes both smarting, agonised,
stared at each other out of the pale drawn faces.

'Colin,' she said; and held out her hands. 'Aren't you going to say
good-bye?'

He took her hands; his burning look met hers for an instant and
dropped. There was always the poisonous wall which their soul's vision
might not pierce--through which their yearning lips might not touch.
For an instant too, the hardness of his face was broken by a spasm of
emotion. The grip of his hands on hers was like that of a steel vice;
she winced at the pain of it. He dropped her hands suddenly, and moved
back a step.

'Good-bye--Bridget.'

'Is that all you have to say? All?'

He stuttered, helplessly. 'I--I--can't. . . . There's nothing to
say.'

'Nothing! You let me go--like this--without one word of apology--of
regret. I think that, at least, you owe me--courtesy.'

Her tone lashed him. He seemed to be struggling with his tongue-tied
speech. When words came they rushed out in fierce jerks. 'I'll say this
--though where's the good of talking. . . . What does it amount to
anyway, when you're down on the bedrock, and there's nothing left but
to give up the whole show and start fresh as best you can? I'll say
this--I've never pretended to fine manners--I leave them--to others.
I'm just a rough bushman, no better and no worse. Apology!--that's my
apology--As for regret. My God! isn't it all one huge regret? No, I
won't say that. . . . Because there are some things I CAN'T regret--
for myself. For you, I do regret them. I was an insane ass ever to
imagine that I and my way of living could ever fit in with a woman
brought up like you. The incompatibilities were bound to come out--
incompatibilities of temper, education, breeding--outlook on things--
they were bound to separate us sooner or later, I'm glad that it's
sooner, because that gives you a chance of getting back into your old
conditions before you've grown different in yourself--dried up--
soured--maybe lost your health, roughing it through bad times in the
bush. . . . As it is, you'll get out all right--Never fear that I
won't see you get out all right.'

'And you?' she put in.

'Me! I don't count--I don't care. . . . A man's not like a woman. I've
always been a fighter. And I've never been DOWNED in my life. I'm not
going to be DOWNED this time. I shall make good--some time--somehow.
I'm not the sort of small potato that drops to the bottom of the bag in
the big shake-up.'

She winced visibly. He read distaste in her slight gesture, in the
expression of her eyes. It was true that the man's pugnacious egoism--
a lower side of him asserting itself just then--had always jarred upon
her finer taste. He recognised this subconsciously, and his self-esteem
revolted at it.

'You needn't be afraid,' he exclaimed harshly. 'If I wanted to hold to
my rights, and keep you here with me--what has happened would prevent
me--I've got too much pride to hang on to the skirts of a rich wife.
But you won't be harmed. . . . I don't know yet, but I believe there's
a way by which you can win through straight and square--no smirch that
you need mind--And if there is--whatever the way of it is, I'll do my
best to bring you out all right.'

'You are generous.' Her eyes flashed but her voice was coldly bitter.
'May I ask what you propose to do?'

'There's no use. . . .' he said heavily. 'I told you talking was no
good--now. I've got my own ideas. . . .'

'Then, if that's how you feel, the sooner I go the better pleased you
will be,' she returned hysterically. 'Oh, I'm ready to go.'

He moved to the steps, not answering at once. Then he said:

'The buggy is waiting, will you come?'

He went down the steps in front of her, but stopped at the bottom to
help her, for her foot had stumbled on the edge of the veranda. His
strong arm upheld her until she was on the gravel. The touch of his
fingers on her arm, brought home the incredible horror of it all--the
suddenness, the brutality. She pulled her veil hastily over her face to
hide the gush of tears. She could not speak for the choking lump in her
throat. He released her at once and strode on. Not another word passed
between them. Ninnis greeted her with gruff cordiality--began a sort
of speech about the cause of her departure--condolence and
congratulations stupidly mixed. McKeith impatiently cut him short.

'All right, Ninnis. Get up. And mind, the horses are fresh. They'll
want a bit of driving at the start.'

He helped Bridget to her seat, tucked the brown linen coverlet round
her knees. In doing so, he bent his head--she thought he had dropped
something. Then through the thin linen of the covering, and her light
summer garments, she felt the pressure of his burning lips as though
they were touching her flesh.

She bent forward. Their eyes met in a wild look. just for a second. The
horses plunged under Ninnis' hands on the reins. McKeith sprang back.

'Wo-oh! Gee on then!' Ninnis called out. 'Good-bye, Boss. You can trust
me to look well after her ladyship. . . . Be back again as soon as I
can.'

And if Colin spoke, the sound did not carry to his wife's ears. Her
last impression of him as the buggy swayed and rattled down the hill
was again the dogged droop of his great shoulders.

It was too late now. She felt that the Furies were pursuing her. Ah,
but the end had come--come with such hideous misconception--every
word spoken--and there had been so few in comparison with the
immensity of the occasion--a hopeless blunder. It had been the tussle
of two opposing temperaments, it was like the rasping steel of a
cross-cut saw against the hard, heavy grain of an iron-bark gum log.
Then the extraordinary involvements of circumstance. Each incident, big
and little, dovetailing and hastening the onward sweep of catastrophe.
It seemed as though Fate had cunningly engineered the forces on every
plane so that there should be no escape for her victims. Like almost
all the tragedies of ordinary human life, this one had been too swift
in its action to allow of suitable dialogue or setting.




CHAPTER 10



From Joan Gildea to Colin McKeith.

Written about a year later.

MY DEAR COLIN,

I find it impossible to recognise my old friend in the hard,
businesslike communication you sent me from Leichardt's Town. I almost
wish that you had allowed the lawyer you consulted to put the case
before me instead; it would have seemed less unfitting, and I could
have answered it better. But I quite appreciate your objection to
taking the lawyer into your confidence as regards the personal matters
you mention to me. It would be cruelly unjust--I think quite
unpardonable in you to bring forward the name of Mr Willoughby Maule in
connection with Bridget. Not that HE would mind that. I honestly
believe that he would snatch gladly at any means for inducing Bridget
to marry him. Whether she would do so, if you were to carry through
this amazing scheme of yours, it's impossible for me to say. At present
she certainly prefers to keep him at a distance. He has never been to
Castle Gaverick. And except for a few visits on business to London that
is where she has lived since she came over here.

Your letter followed me to Jamaica where I've been reporting on the
usual lines for THE IMPERIALIST, but, of course I couldn't answer it
until I had talked it over with Bridget and, as you desired, had
obtained her views on the matter. It was a shock to her to realise that
your reason for never writing to her and for refusing to let her write
to you, was lest that might affect the legality of these proceedings,
which I understand you have contemplated from the beginning of your
quarrel. Bridget is too proud to show you how deeply she is wounded by
your letter. All she has to say is, that if you really wish to take
this action, she will not oppose it.

But Colin, do you really wish, it? I refuse to believe that you
seriously contemplate divorcing your wife. You must know that you have
not the accepted grounds for doing so. As for the law you quote which
allows divorce in cases of two years' so-called desertion, I can only
say that I consider it a blot on Leichardt's Land legislation. Divorce
should be for one cause only--the cause to which Our Lord gave a
qualified approval; and Bridget has never been unfaithful--in act or
desire, to her husband. I would maintain this in spite of the most
damning testimony, and you must in your heart believe it also. Besides,
your testimony is ridiculously inadequate.

I am glad, however, that you have at last made your accusations in
detail--in order, as you say--that I--and Bridget, incidentally, I
suppose--should fully understand why you are adopting this attitude
towards her. I'm glad too, that you do not mean to make any use of the
evidence against her and are prepared to take all the blame for the
unhappy state of affairs between you! I write sarcastically. Why, it
would be monstrous if you had any other intention! Oh, how I hate this
pedantic roundabout way of writing! I feel inclined to tear up these
sheets--I've torn up two already. Really, you've made it so difficult
for me to treat you naturally. If I could talk to you, I'd make you
understand in five minutes--but I can't--so there!

Naturally, I had heard of your bringing Mr Willoughby Maule to the
station, and when I learned what followed, naturally also, I concluded
that you had discovered his identity with that of the man Bridget had
once cared for. I blame myself horribly. But for my carelessness you
would never have read that letter of Biddy's--she knows all about it
now--and your insane jealousy would not have jumped to conclusions--
at any rate so quickly. And perhaps if I had not bound you to secrecy
you'd have had the matter out with her, which would probably have saved
all this trouble. Anyhow, I can't imagine that you would have left her
alone with him as you did--and with bad feeling between you--at the
mercy of her own reckless impulses and that of Willoughby Maule's
ardent love-making. She doesn't pretend that it wasn't ardent, or that
he did not do his best to get her to run away with him--or that the
old infatuation did not come back to a slight extent--Is it surprising
after your conduct? No wonder she compared his devotion favourably,
with yours. Colin, your leaving her in such conditions wasn't the act
of a MAN, of a gentleman. I speak strongly, but I can't help it. I know
your stubborn pride and obstinacy, but you were wrong, you have
disappointed me--oh! how bitterly you have disappointed me!

Then there was that business about the blacks. What a fool you were--
and how brutally self-opinionated! I don't wonder Bridget thought you
an inhuman monster.

Now I have said my worst, and you must take it as it is meant and
forgive me.

As for the true story of that night's adventures, out of which your
Police Inspector seems to have made such abominable capital--I used to
think Police Inspectors were generally gentlemen--but they don't seem
to be, out on the Leura--I've got all the details from Biddy. A
tragi-comic business--so truly of the Bush, Bushy! I could laugh over
it, if it weren't for its serious consequences. Of course, Biddy got up
to turn out the goats which were butting with their horns under the
floor of her bedroom. I've often got up myself in the old days at
Bungroopim, when stray calves got into the garden, or the cockatoo
disturbed our slumbers. Do you remember Polly? and how she would keep
shouting out on a moonlight night 'The top of the mornin' to ye'--
because we'd forgotten to put her blanket over the cage--I believe
there were several occasions when you and I met in midnight dishabille
and helped each other to restore tranquillity. If anyone was to blame
for Biddy's adventure, it was your wood-and-water joey--or your
Chinamen--or whoever's business it may have been to see that the goats
were properly penned.

Naturally, Mr Maule, when he was disturbed too, came and did the
turning out for Bridget and shepherded the creatures to the fold.

Then meanwhile, she saw the black-gin sneaking in at Mr Maule's back
window to steal the key; and WOULD it have been philanthropic,
impulsive Biddy, if she hadn't helped in the work of rescue, and sent
the two sinners, with a 'Bless you, my children!' off into the scrub?
It was like Biddy too, to go and put the key back in Mr Maule's bedroom
and to scribble that ridiculous note in French so that he shouldn't go
blundering to the hide-house and hurry up the pursuit. I told Bridget
how the Inspector had watched her go out of Mr Maule's room, and had
grabbed the note afterwards, and shown it to you. She had forgotten
altogether about that note--supposed that, of course, it had reached
its proper destination. She couldn't remember either exactly what she
had written--except that she wanted to word it so that if there should
be any accident, nobody--except Mr Maule, for of course, they'd
determined on the release before that--should understand to what it
referred. So she didn't mention any name--she believes she dashed off
some words he had quoted to her about Love triumphant, and securing
happiness and freedom by flight. And then she put in something
referring to a scene they'd had that day in which he had begged her to
fly with him, and she had made him promise to leave next morning,
pacifying him by a counter promise to write.

She told me about her fever and ague--you don't need proof of that
after the state in which you found her--and how Mr Maule carried her
to her room and left her there after a few minutes. She doesn't
remember anything after that, until she came out of the fever and saw
you--with the face and manner I can well imagine--standing by her
bedside.

I am sure that Bridget began to 'find herself' then, and that the way
in which she left Moongarr was one of those shocks which make a woman
touch reality. It may be only for that once in her life, but she can
never be the same again. You have put your brand on your wife, Colin--
that is quite plain to me. She has changed inwardly more than
outwardly.

But she is extremely reticent about her feelings towards you. That in
itself is so unlike the old Bridget, and I have no right to put forward
my own ideas and opinions--they may be quite wrong. Really, the news
of Eliza Lady Gaverick's death, and of Bridget's change of fortune,
coming just at that moment, is the sort of dramatic happening, which I
--as a dabbler in fiction--maintain, is more common in real life than
in novels. I am certain that if I had set out to build up the tangled
third act of a problem play on those lines, I couldn't have done it
better. All the same, I'm very sorry that this change of fortune didn't
come off earlier or later, for I am well aware of how you will jib at
it.

Well, I can tell you, on her own authority, that Bridget never wrote to
Mr Maule as she had promised. She had no communication with him from
the time he left the station until they met on the E. and A. boat. He
joined her, as you know, at the next port above Leuraville. It was
rather canny of him to go there--yet I don't see how, in the
circumstances, he could have loafed round Leuraville without making
talk--though I think it was a great pity he didn't. Of course he had
his own means of communication with the township, and knew she was on
board. No one was more surprised than she at his appearance on deck
next morning. I don't think, however, that she saw much of him on the
voyage. She said that she got a recurrence of the malarial fever off
the northern coast and had to keep her cabin pretty well till they
reached Colombo. Then she asked him to leave the steamer and take a
P. and O. boat that happened to be in harbour--and this he did do.

I am bound to say that Willoughby Maule must have improved greatly
since the time when young Lady Gaverick decided he was a 'bounder.' I
daresay marriage did him good. I believe that his wife was a very
charming woman. Or, it may be that the possession of a quarter of a
million works a radical change in people's characters. Or, again, it
may be that he is more deeply devoted to Biddy than I, for one, ever
suspected. There is no doubt that given the regrettable position, his
behaviour in regard to her now is commendable.

But Bridget, doesn't love him--never has loved him. I state that fact
on no authority whatsoever except my own intuition. Also I am honestly
of opinion she has cared for you more than she has cared for any man.
You don't deserve it, and I may be wrong. But, nevertheless, it is my
conviction. Make of it what you please. I have been, I candidly own it,
surprised to see what discretion and good feeling she has shown through
all this Gaverick will business. There has been a good deal of
disagreeable friction in the matter. Lord Gaverick has not come off so
well as he expected. He has got the house in Upper Brook Street, which
suits young Lady Gaverick, and about fifteen hundred a year--
considerably less than Bridget. The trouble is that Eliza Gaverick left
a large legacy to her doctor--the latest one--and there was a talk
about bringing forward the plea of undue influence. That, however, has
fallen to the ground--mainly through Biddy's persuasion. I believe it
is Bridget's intention to make over Castle Gaverick to her cousin, but
this is not given out and of course she may change her mind.

And now, Colin, I think I have said everything I have to say. The main
point to you is, no doubt, the answer to your question. As I said at
the beginning of this letter, Bridget will not oppose any course you
choose to take in order to secure your release from her--that is the
exact way she worded it. But I cannot believe that, in face of all the
rest I have told you, you will go on with this desertion--divorce
business--at least without making yourself absolutely certain that you
both desire to be free of each other. Remember, there has been no
explanation between you and Biddy--no chance of touch between the true
selves of both of you. Can you not come to England to see her? Or
should she go out to you. I think it possible she might consent to do
so, but have never broached the idea and cannot say. Yes, of course I
understand that this might invalidate the legal position. But as only
two years are necessary to prove the desertion--even if you should
decide together that it is best to part--isn't it worth while to wait
two years more in order to make quite sure? No doubt, you will say that
I am shewing the proverbial ignorance of women in legal questions. But
I can't help feeling that there must be some way in which it could be
arranged. I do beseech you, Colin, not to act hastily.

You say that if this divorce took place, Bridget's reputation would not
suffer, and that she could marry again without a stain upon her
character as they say of wrongfully accused prisoners who are
discharged. But again--is that the question?

I know nothing of your present circumstances--health, outlook on life
--anything. Bridget once hinted to me that you might have your own
reasons for desiring your freedom. She would give no grounds for the
suspicion that there is any other woman in your life. I do not think
anything would make me credit such a thing and I put that notion
entirely out of court. I do not know--as your letter was dated from
Leichardt's Town--whether you still live at Moongarr. It is possible
you may have sold the place. I hear of severe droughts in parts of
Leichardt's Land, but have no information about the Leura district. Now
that Sir Luke Tallant has exchanged to Hong Kong, Bridget hasn't any
touch with Leichardt's Land, and I have very few correspondents there.

Write to me--not a stilted, legal kind of letter like the last. Tell
me about yourself--your feelings, your conditions. We are old friends
--friends long before Bridget came either into my life or yours. You
can trust me. If you do not want me to repeat to Bridget anything you
may tell me, I will faithfully observe your wishes. But I can't bear
that you, whom I should have thought so well of--have felt so much
about--should be making a mess of your life, and that I should not put
out a hand to prevent it.

Always your friend,

JOAN GILDEA.




CHAPTER 11



It was a long time before Mrs Gildea received an answer to her letter.
She had begun to despair of ever getting another line from Colin
McKeith, when at last he wrote from Moongarr, six months later.

MY DEAR JOAN,

Your letter has made me think. I could not write before for reasons
that you'll gather as you go along. I shall do as you ask and tell you
everything as straightly and plainly as I can. I feel it is best that
you should know exactly the sort of conditions I'm under and what a
woman would have had to put up with if she had been with me--what she
would have to put up with if she were going to be with me. Then you can
judge whether or not I'm right in the decision I have come to as the
result of my thinkings. You can tell my wife as much as you please--of
the details, I mean. Perhaps, you had better soften them to her, for
you know as well as I do--or better--that her impulsive, quixotic
disposition might lead her into worse mistakes than it has done
already. Of course, she'll have to know my decision. I am sure that if
she allows her reason play, she will agree it is the only possible one.

I'm not going to talk about what happened before she went away, or
about that evidence--or anything else in that immediate connection. I
was mad, and I expect I believed a lot more than was true. I don't
believe--I don't think I ever did really believe--what I suppose you
would call 'the worst.' But that doesn't seem to me of such great
matter. It's the spirit, not the letter that counts. The foundation
must have been rotten, or there never would have been a question of
believing one way or the other--because we should have UNDERSTOOD.
Explanations would not have been needed between true mates. Only we
were not true mates--that's the whole point. There was too great a
radical difference between us. It might have been a deal better if she
HAD gone off with that man.

But to come now to the practical part of the situation. You know enough
about Australian ups and downs to realise that a cattle or sheep owner
out West, may be potentially wealthy one season and on the fair road to
beggary the next. It will be different when times change and we take to
sinking artesian bores on the same principle as when Joseph stored up
grain in the fat years in Egypt against the lean ones that were coming.
That's what I meant to do and ought to have done at any cost. But--
well I just didn't.

The thing is that if I could have looked ahead, perhaps even six
months, I might not have thought it acting on the square to a woman to
get her to marry me. If I could have looked a year ahead, I wouldn't
have had any doubt on the subject.

But you see I justified it to myself. One thousand square miles of
country--fine grazing land most of it, so long as the creeks kept
running--and no more than eleven thousand head of stock upon it,
seemed, with decent luck, a safe enough proposition, though you'll
remember I was a bit doubtful that day on your veranda at Emu Point,
when we talked about my marrying. The truth was that directly I saw
Bridget, she carried me clean off my head--and that's the long and
short of it.

Besides, I'd been down south a good while, then, figuring about in the
Legislative Assembly and swaggering on my prospects. I'd left Ninnis to
oversee up here, and Ninnis didn't know the Leura like some of the old
hands, who told me afterwards they'd seen the big drought coming as
long back as that.

I remember one old chap on the river, when he was sold up by the Bank
in the last bad times, and his wife had died of it all, saying to me,
'The Leura isn't the place for a woman.' And he was right. Well, I saw
that I was straight up against it that spring when we had had a poor
summer and a dry winter, and the Unionists started trouble cutting my
horses' throats, and burning woodsheds and firing the only good grass
on my run that I could rely upon. I didn't say much about it, but I
have no doubt that it made me bad-tempered and less pleasant to live
with. . . . That was just before the time Biddy went away. Afterwards,
the sales I'd counted on turned out badly--cattle too poor for want of
grass to stand the droving and the worst luck in the sale-yards I'd
ever known.

First thing I did was to reduce the staff and bar everything but bare
necessaries--I sent off the Chinamen and every spare hand. Ninnis and
I and the stockman--a first-rate chap, Moongarr Bill--worked the run
--just the three of us. You can guess how we managed it. A Malay boy
did cooky for the head-station.

After Christmas I left Ninnis and Bill to look after the place. I had
to go to Leichardt's Town. I had been thinking things out about Biddy
all that time--you know I'm too much of the Scotchy to make hasty
determinations. Well, I had that Parliament Bill, allowing divorce
after two years desertion in my head, from the day Biddy left me. It
seemed the best way out--for her. I had heard about that fellow going
Home in the same boat with her, and never guessed but that it was a
concerted plan between them. That note Harris showed me made me think
it was so. I don't think this now--after what you told me.

But what did rub itself into me then was that I ought to let her marry
him as soon as she decently could. I couldn't see the matter any other
way--I don't now. He has lots of money--though a man who would buy
happiness with another woman out of the money his wife had left him--
well, that's a matter of opinion. Besides, she has got the fortune the
old lady left her and can be independent of him if she chooses. There's
nothing to prevent her living any kind of life that pleases her--
except me, and I'm ready and willing to clear out of the show. One
thing I'm sorry for now, and that is having torn up the draft she sent
to pay me back her passage money, and putting the bits in an envelope
and posting them to her without a word. I suppose it should have been
done through a lawyer, with all the proper palaver. Perhaps she didn't
tell you about that. I somehow fancy she didn't. But I know that it
would have hurt her--I knew that when I did it. And perhaps that is
why I did it. You are right. I haven't acted the part of a gentleman
all through this miserable business. But what could you expect?

For you see, my father worked his own way up, and my grandfather was a
crofter--and I haven't got the blood of Irish kings, on the other
side, behind me.

Now I'm being nasty, as you used to say in the old Bungroopim days when
I wouldn't play. YOU were my Ideal, in those days, Joan--before you
went and got married. I've been an unlucky devil all round.

Well there! I had to try and arrange things for an overdraft with the
Bank in Leichardt's Town, but I went down chiefly to consult lawyers
about the divorce question, so that it should be done with as little
publicity and unpleasantness as possible. It appeared that it could be
done all right--as I wrote you. What would have been the good of my
havering in that letter over my own feelings and the bad times I had
struck? It never was my habit to whine over what couldn't be helped.

Luck was up against me down there too. I got pitched off a buckjumper
at a horse-dealers', Bungroopim way. I had been 'blowing,' Australian
fashion, that I could handle that colt if nobody else was able to. The
end of it was that the buckjumper got home, not me. I was laid up in
hospital for close on two months, with a broken leg and complications.
The complications were that old spear wound, which inflamed, and they
found that a splinter from the jagged tip had been left in.
Blood-poisoning was the next thing; and when I came out of that
hospital I was more like the used up bit of soap you'll see by the
COOLIBAH* outside a shepherd's hut on ration-bringing day, than
anything else I can think of.
[*Coolibah--a basin made from the scooped out excrescence of a tree.]

As soon as I could sit a horse again I went to work at Moongarr. I had
found things there at a pretty pass. Not a drop of rain had fallen up
to now on the station for nearly nine months. YOU know what that means
on the top of two dry seasons. As soon as I was fit, we rode over the
run inspecting--I and Ninnis and Moongarr Bill. There's a lot of
riding over one thousand square miles, and we didn't get our inspection
done quickly. Day after day we travelled through desolation--grass
withered to chips, creeks and waterholes all but empty, cattle
staggering like drunken men, only it was for WANT of drink. The trees
were dying in the wooded country; and in the plains the earth was
crumbling and shrinking, and great cracks like crevasses were gaping in
the black soil where there used to be beautiful green grass and flowers
in spring.

The lagoon was practically dried up, and the little drain of water left
was undrinkable because of the dead beasts that had got bogged and
dropped dead in it. They were short of water at the head-station, and
we had to fetch it in from a waterhole several miles off that we fenced
round and used for drinking--so long as it lasted. When we were
mustering the other side of the run, it came to our camping at a sandy
creek where we could dig in the sand and get just enough for horses and
men. The water of the Bore I'd made, was a bit brackish, but it kept
the grass alive round about and was all the cattle had to depend on.
You can think of the job it was shifting the beasts over there from
other parts of the run which was what we tried to do, so long as they
were fit for it.

We were selling what we could while there was still life left in the
herd, but the cattle were too far gone for droving. We managed to
collect a hundred or so--sent them in trucks from Crocodile Creek
Terminus, for boiling down and netted about thirty shillings a head on
them. That was all. I guess that--by this time, out of my eleven
thousand head with No. 666 brand on them I'd muster from four to five
hundred. The mistake I made was in not selling out for what I could get
at the beginning of the Drought. But it was the long time in
Leichardt's Town that had me there.

It was bad luck all through from first to last. Mustering those beasts
for boiling down started that old spear wound afresh. Until it got well
again, there was nothing for it but to sit tight and wait.

Moongarr Bill left to make a prospecting trip on my old tracks up the
Bight--took Cudgee and the black-boy with him. He had an idea that
he'd strike a place where we'd seen the colour of gold on our last
expedition, but weren't able then to investigate it. I've never been
bitten by the gold fever like some fellows, and I daresay that I've
missed chances. But I thought cattle were a safer investment, and I've
seen too much misery and destruction come from following that gold will
o' the wisp, for me to have been tempted to run after it.

Old Ninnis was the next to leave, I made him take the offer of a job
that he had. When it came to drawing water five miles for the
head-station, and keeping it in an iron tank sunk in the ground, with a
manhole and padlocked cover for fear of its being got at, the fewer
there were of us the better. Now the station is being run by the Boss
and the Malay boy, who is a sharp little chap, and more use in the
circumstances than any white man. We've killed the calves we were
trying to PODDY*. And the dogs--except one cattle dog--Veno--Biddy
would remember her; how she used to lollop about the front veranda
outside her room. Now, what the deuce made me write that!--Well, the
dog goes with me in the cart when I fetch water, and takes her drink
with the horses at the hole.
[*Poddy--to bring up by hand.]

I'm getting used to the life--making jobs in the daytime to keep
myself from feeling the place a worse hell than it really is. There's
always the water to be fetched and the two horses and the dog to be
taken for their big drink. If you could see me hoarding the precious
stuff--washing my face in the morning in a soup plate, and what's left
kept for night for the dog. When I want a bath I ride ten miles to the
bore. Then there's saddlery to mend, and dry-cleaning the place and
pipes between whiles--more of them than is good for me. Stores are
low, but I've still got enough of tobacco. I daresay it's a mercy
there's no whiskey--nothing but a bottle or two of brandy in case of
snake-bites--or I might have taken to it.

Thank God I've got a pretty strong will, and I've never done as I see
so many chaps do, find forgetfulness in drink--but there's no saying
what a man may come to. It's the nights that are the worst. I'm glad to
get up at dawn and see to the beasts. And there's that infernal
watching of the sky--looking out all the time for clouds that don't
come--or if they do, end in nothing. You know that brassy glare of the
sun rising that means always scorching dry heat? Think of it a hundred
times worse than you've ever seen it! The country as far as you can
look is like the floor of an enormous oven, with the sky, red and
white-hot for a roof, and all the life there is, being slowly baked
inside. The birds are getting scarce, and it seems too much trouble for
those that are about to lift their voices. Except for a fiend of a
laughing-jackass in a gum tree close by the veranda that drives me mad
with his devilish chuckling.

Well, how do you think now, that her ladyship would have stood up
against these sort of conditions? Many a time, walking up and down the
veranda when I couldn't sleep, I've thanked my stars that there was no
woman hanging on to me any more. Most of the men on the river have sent
away their women--stockmen's wives and all. There was one here at the
Bachelors' Quarters, but I packed her off before I went to Leichardt's
Town.

I'm just waiting on to get Moongarr Bill's report of the country up
north--how it stands the drought, and what the chances are for pushing
out. As for the gold find--well, I'm not banking on that. As soon as I
hear--or if I don't hear in the course of the next two or three weeks
--I shall pull up stakes, and burn all my personal belongings, except
what a pair of saddle bags will carry.

Before long, I'm going to begin packing Biddy's things. They'll be
shipped off to her all right.

When the divorce business is over, I shall make new tracks, and you
won't hear of me unless I come out on top. I've got a queer feeling
inside me that I shall win through yet.

Well, I'm finished; and it's about time. I've run my pen over a good
many sheets, and it has been a kind of relief--I began writing this
about three weeks ago. Harry the Blower--that's the mailman--comes
only once a month now, and not on time at that.

I suppose the drought will break sooner or later, and when it breaks,
the Bank is certain to send up and take possession of what's left. So
I'm a ruined man, any way.

Good-bye, Joan, old friend. I've written to the lawyer, and Biddy will
be served with the papers soon after this reaches you. I'm not sending
her any message. If she doesn't understand, there's no use in words--
but YOU know this. She's been the one woman in the universe for me--
and there will never be another.

He signed his name at the end of the letter; and that was all.




CHAPTER 12



Harry the Blower came up with his mails a day or two later. Among the
letters he brought, there were three at least of special importance to
Colin McKeith.

One was from the late Attorney General of Leichardt's Land, in whose
following he had been while sitting in the Legislative Assembly, and
whom he had consulted in reference to the Divorce petition. This
gentleman informed Colin that proceedings were already begun in the
case of McKeith versus McKeith, and that notification of the pending
suit had been sent to Lady Bridget at Castle Gaverick, in the province
of Connaught, Ireland.

The second letter was from the Manager of the Bank of Leichardt's Land,
regretfully conveying the decision of the Board that, failing immediate
repayment of the loan, the mortgage on Moongarr station must be
foreclosed and that in due course a representative of the Bank would
arrive to take over the property.

The third letter was from Moongarr Bill, dated from the furthest Bush
township at the foot of the Great Bight, which had formed the base of
Colin's last exploring expedition. A mere outpost of civilisation it
was--that very one which he had described at the dinner party at
Government House where he had first met Lady Bridget O'Hara.
Apparently, in Moongarr Bill's estimation, its only reason for
existence lay in the fact that it had an office under the jurisdiction
of the Warden of Goldfields, for the proclamation of new goldfields,
and the obtaining of Miner's Rights.

Moongarr Bill's epistolary style was bald in its directness.

Dear Sir-- he began:--

The biggest mistake we ever made in our lives was not following up the
streak of colour you spotted in that gully running down from Bardo
Range to Pelican River. If we had stopped, and done a bit of stripping
for alluvial, for certain, we should have found heavy, shotty gold,
with only a few feet of stripping. But I've done better than that--got
on the lead--dead on the gutter. To my belief, that gully is the top
dressing of a dried up underground watercourse. It's a pocket chock
full of gold.

You see, it's like this:

Here followed technical details given in local gold-digger's
phraseology which would only be intelligible to a backwoods prospector
or a Leichardt's Land mining expert. McKeith read all the details
carefully, turning the page over and back again in order to read it
once more. There was no doubt--making due allowance for Moongarr
Bill's exaggerative optimism--that the find was a genuine one.

The writer resumed:

'I've pegged off a twenty men's ground, this--being outside the area
of a proclaimed goldfield--our reward as joint discoverers. The ground
joins on to your old pegs; and the wonder to me is that nobody has ever
struck the place. However, that's not so queer as you might think, for
there has been very little talk of gold up here--in fact the P.M. does
Warden's work. Besides, the drought has kept squatters from pushing
out, and it's too far off for the casual prospector. Luckily, the
drought has driven the Blacks away too, further into the ranges; and I
haven't seen any Myalls this trip like the ones that went for us last
time. It's a pity Hensor pegged out then. He'd have come in for a slice
of luck now--we three being the only persons in the world--until I
lodged my information at the Warden's office this morning--who had
ever raised the colour in this district or had any suspicion of a show.
I reckon though that if the find turns out as I think, you'll be making
things up to little Tommy.

I'm to have my Miners' Right all properly filled up to-morrow, and
shall make tracks back to the gully at once, so as to leave no chance
of the claim being jumped. I've named it "McKeith's Find" so your name
won't be forgotten. I don't count on a big rush at first--all the
better for you--but I shall be surprised if we are not entitled at the
end of four months to our Government reward of 500 pounds, as there are
pretty sure to be two hundred miners at work by that time.

I'm writing to Ninnis--though I don't know if he has done his job yet
--telling him to lose no time in getting here; and you won't want
telling to do the same. I reckon that whether the drought has broken by
this time or not, it will pay you better to start for here than to wait
at the station until there are calves coming on to brand and muster.
Ninnis will be in with us all right, and it would be a fine thing if
you came up together. He's a first-rate man, and has had a lot of
experience in the Californian goldfields. Poor luck, however, or he
wouldn't have come over to free-select on the Leura.

It took me a good three weeks to get as far as the Pelican Creek, and I
couldn't have done it in the time if there had been Blacks about.
Knowing the lay of the country too, made it easier than it was before
for us. Cudgee has turned out a smarter boy than Wombo was. No fear of
Myalls with their infernal jagged spears being round without his
sniffing them. One of the horses died from eating poison-bush. Don't go
in for camping at a bend in Pelican Creek, between it and a brigalow
scrub, first day you sight Bardo Range going up the Creek, where
there's a pocket full of good grass one side of a broken slate ridge--
IT'S NO GOOD. But I wouldn't swop the other horses for any of
Windeatt's famous breed. There's some things it would be well for you
and Ninnis to bring, and a box of surveyor's compasses would come in
handy.

Here followed half a page on practical matters, and then the letter
ended.

McKeith pondered long over Moongarr Bill's letter, as he sat in the
veranda smoking and watching a little cloud on the horizon, and
wondering whether rain was coming at last. . . . If Moongarr Bill was
right, the gold-find would mean a fresh start for him in his baulked
career. At any rate, it behoved him to take advantage of the chance and
to go forth on the new adventure without unnecessary delay. But the
savour was gone for him from adventure--the salt out of life. The
stroke of luck--if it were one--had come too late.

And now the Great Drought had broken at last.

Next evening there came up a terrific thunderstorm, and a hurricane
such as had not visited the district for years. It broke in the
direction of the gidia scrub, and razed many trees. It passed over the
head-station and travelled at a furious rate along the plain.
Hailstones fell, as large as a pigeon's egg, and stripped off such
leafage as the drought had left. Thunder volleyed and lightning blazed.
Part of the roof of the Old Humpey was torn off. The hide-house was
practically blown away. The great white cedar by the lagoon was struck
by lightning, and lay, a chaos of dry branches and splintered limbs,
one side of the trunk standing up jagged and charred where it had been
riven in two.

Upon the hurricane followed a steady deluge. For a night and a day, the
heavens were opened, and poured waterspouts as though the pent rain of
nine months were being discharged. The river 'came down' from the heads
and filled the gully with a roaring flood. The lagoon was again almost
level with its banks. The dry water-course on the plain sparkled in the
distance, like a mirage--only that it was no mirage. No one who has
not seen the extraordinary rapidity with which a dry river out West can
be changed into a flooded one, could credit the swiftness of the
transformation.

Then the heavens closed once more. The sun shone out pitilessly bright,
and the surface earth looked, after a few hours, almost as dry as
before. But the life-giving fluid had penetrated deep into the soil;
the rivers and creeks were running; green grass was already springing
up for the beasts to feed upon. The land was saved. Alas too late to
save the ruined squatters. There were so few of their beasts left.

Nevertheless, the rain brought new life and energy to the humans.
Kuppi, the Malay boy fetched buckets of water from the replenished
lagoon, and scoured and scrubbed with great alacrity. He came timidly
to his master, and asked if he might not wash out with boiling water
the closed parlour and Lady Bridget's unused bedroom. He was afraid
that the white ants might have got into them.

McKeith's face frightened Kuppi. So did the imprecation which his
innocent request evoked. He was bidden to go and keep himself in his
own quarters, and not show his face again that day at the New House.

Since Lady Bridget's departure, McKeith had slept, eaten and worked in
the Old Humpey, his original dwelling.

But Kuppi did not know that the white ants had not been given a chance
to work destruction upon 'the Ladyship's' properties. Regularly every
day, McKeith himself tended those sacred chambers. Bridget's rooms were
just as she had left them.

He had done nothing yet towards dismantling that part of the New House
in which she had chiefly lived. He had put off the task day after day.
But since receiving Moongarr Bill's letter, and now that the drought
had broken, and the Man in Possession a prospect as certain as that
there would come another thunderstorm, he knew that he must begin his
preparations to quit Moongarr.

To do this meant depriving himself of the miserable comfort he found
during wakeful nights and the first hour of dawn--the time he usually
chose for sweeping and cleaning his wife's rooms--of roaming,
ghost-like, through the New House where every object spoke to him of
her. In the day time, he shrank from mounting the steps which connected
the verandas, but in the evenings, he would often come and stroll along
the veranda, and sit in the squatter's chair she had liked, or in the
hammock where she had swung, and smoke his pipe and brood upon the
irrevocable past. And then he would suddenly rush off in frantic haste
to do some hard, physical work, feeling that he must go mad if he sat
still any longer.

To-day however, after Kuppi had fled to the kitchen, he went into his
old dressing room and stood looking at the camp bed, and thought of the
day of Bridget's fever when Harris had given him her note to Maule, and
he had sat here huddled on the edge of the bed wrestling dumbly with
his agony. The association had been too painful, and in his daily
tendance he had somewhat neglected this room and had usually entered
the other by the French window from the veranda. Thus, he saw now that
a bloated tarantula had established itself in one corner, between wall
and ceiling, and an uncanny looking white lizard scuttered across the
boards, and disappeared under a piece of furniture, leaving its tail
behind. A phenomenon of natural history at which, he remembered now,
Bridget had often wondered.

He opened the door of communication--where on that memorable night, he
had knocked and received no answer--and passed through it treading
softly as though he were visiting a death chamber. And indeed, to him,
it was truly a death chamber in which the bed, all covered over with a
white sheet, might have been a bier, and the pillows put lengthwise
down it, the shrouded form of one dearly loved and lost. He gazed
about, staring at the familiar pieces of furniture, out of wide red
eyes, smarting with unshed tears. In her looking glass, he seemed to
see the ghost-reflection of her small pale face with its old whimsical
charm. The shadowy eyes under the untidy mass of red-brown hair, in
which the curls and tendrils stood out as if endowed with a magnetic
life of their own; the sensitive lips; the little pointed chin; and, in
the eyes and on the lips, that gently mocking, alluring smile.

There were a few poems that Colin had taught himself to say by heart,
and which he would recite to himself often when he was alone in the
Bush. THE ANCIENT MARINER was one, and there were some of Rudyard
Kipling's and he loved THE IDYLLS OF THE KING--in especial GUINIVERE.
Three lines of that poem leaped to his memory at this moment.

'THY SHADOW STILL WOULD GLIDE FROM ROOM TO ROOM

AND I SHOULD EVERMORE BE VEXT WITH THEE

IN HANGING ROBE AND VACANT ORNAMENT.'

He went to the wardrobe where her dresses hung as she had left them,
only that daily, he had shaken them, cared for them so that no hot
climate pest should injure them. And in so doing, he had been
overwhelmingly conscious of the peculiar, personal fragrance, her
garments had always exhaled--an experience in which rapture and
anguish blended.

How he had loved her! . .. God! how he had loved her! . . . And yet,
latterly, how he had got to take his supreme possession of her as a
matter of course; had allowed the joy of it to be blunted by depression
and irritability over sordid station worries. He remembered with
piercing remorse how often he had neglected the trivial courtesies to
which he knew she attached importance. How he had been prone to sullen
fits of moodiness; had been rough, even brutal, as in that episode of
the Blacks. . . . Brutal to her--this dainty lady, his fairy princess!
. . . And now he had lost her. She was gone back to her own world and
to her own kin.

If only he had yielded to her then about the Blacks! If he had curbed
his anger, shown sympathy with the two wild children of Nature who were
better than himself, in this at least that they had known how to love
and cling to each other in spite of the blows of fate! He had
horse-whipped Wombo for loving Oola, and swift retribution had come
upon himself. . . . That he should have lost Bridget because of the
loves of Wombo and Oola! It was an irony--as if God were laughing at
him. He set his teeth and laughed--the mirthless laugh which had
startled Harris. . . . Well, whether it were automatic or planned
retribution on the part of the High Powers, the trouble could be evened
up and done with. 'I was a damned fool,' he said to himself; 'and I've
been taught my lesson too late for me to benefit by it. Except this way
--I'm not going to be DOWNED for ever. I'll go through my particular
piece of hell, on this darned old earth if I must, and then I'll wipe
the slate and come out on top of something else that isn't love.
There's possibilities enough along the Big Bight to satisfy most men's
ambition. And it's not much odds any way, so long as SHE isn't
seriously hurt.'

With that summing up of the matter, he seemed to gain stoic energy. Now
he went back to his dressing room, and pulled out to the veranda a
couple of worn portmanteaux. Into these he put a variety of personal
belongings. Among them, pictures from the walls, and old photographs in
frames that had been on the dressing table. It was significant that
none of these were portraits of his wife. The portmanteaux he dragged
along the veranda to the side of the steps leading down to the front
garden. Then, instead of returning to Lady Bridget's room, he attacked
an escritoire in the parlour in which he had kept family and private
papers, and which flanked her Chippendale bureau. He brought out
another collection--notebooks, papers, bundles of letters dating much
further back than his occupation of Moongarr--salvage from the wreck
of his old home. His mother's workbox; his father's SHAKESPEARE; the
family Bible--a piteous catalogue. He looked long at the book and the
photographs. These last were portraits of his father, his mother and
his sisters, who had all been massacred by the Blacks, when he was a
boy. He separated all such relics from the general lot, placing them,
and also two or three packets of papers upon a shelf-table in the
veranda--it was that table where Lady Bridget had laid the cablegram
from Lord Gaverick, which she had shown him the day before she had left
Moongarr. Now it seemed to him an altar of sacred memories. He brought
various other small things out of the parlour--things he had not the
heart to destroy--all belonging to his youth--and placed them there.
As he looked at them, a sudden thought seemed to strike him, and a wave
of emotion passed over his face, softening its hardness for an instant.
But the grimness came back. He made a quick movement back to Lady
Bridget's room; and when, after a minute or two, he came out again, he
was carrying a curious object which he had taken out of the deep drawer
beneath her hanging wardrobe. It was a dry piece of gum-tree bark,
shrivelled and curled up at the sides, so that the two edges almost
met. At first he put it on the heap that he had turned out of the
portmanteaux for destruction. His grim thought had been to top with
this strange memorial of his marriage-night, the funeral pyre he had
intended to build. But again the spasm of emotion contorted his
features. His shoulders shook, and a dry choking sound came from his
lips. He took up the piece of bark too, and laid it with the
daguerreotypes on the table. He seemed afraid to give himself time to
think, but went from room to room here and in the Old Humpey, dragging
one thing after another out on to the veranda. Some of the heavier
articles he had to hoist over the steps connecting the two verandas,
and then to drag them down the other steps into the front garden, where
they strewed the gravel round the centre bed.

In spring and summer, when the Chinamen had been there to water and
Lady Bridget to superintend the planting and pruning, this bed had
always been gay with flowers, banking a tall shrub of scented verbena
the perfume of which she had been particularly fond of. Now there were
weeds--most of them withered--instead of flowers. The verbena bush
had long been dead, and the dry leaves and branches, beaten down by the
late storm, made a bed of kindling.

Never was there garden so desolate--the young ornamental trees and
shrubs all dead; the creepers dead also; even the hardy passion vines
upon the fence, mere leafless, fruitless withes of withered stems.

McKeith paused after lugging down two squatters' chairs--the first
house carpentering he had done for his wife after their arrival at the
head-station, and in which, he had resolved, no future owner of
Moongarr should ever sit. That was the thought fiercely possessing him.
Rough chairs and tables and such-like that had been there always, might
remain. But no sacrilegious hands should touch things made for her, or
with which she had been closely associated. They should be burned out
here in the deserted front garden, where not even Kuppi--the only
other occupant of the head-station--would witness his preparations. He
himself would lay and kindle the funeral pyre, and to-night, when there
would be only the stars to see him, he would light the first holocaust.

He stood considering. Sweat dropped from his forehead. His gaunt frame
was trembling after his effort, which had been heavy, and he leaned
against one of the tarred piles supporting the veranda to rest. But
only for a few minutes. Then, his feverish activity recommenced. He
piled up the wooden furniture on the bed of withered verbena branches,
filled the interstices with dead leaves that he collected from the
garden, laid the smaller things--books, papers, pictures--where they
would assist the conflagration, and did not stop until the pyre had
reached to the level of the veranda railing. He reflected grimly that
there was a chance of sparks setting fire to the house itself, and
calculated the extent of the gravel between, deciding that if he was
there to watch there would be no danger.

All the time, the old kangaroo dog, Veno had been nosing round him,
sniffing at the objects lying round, then looking up at him with
bleared, wistful eyes, and evidently unable to understand these strange
proceedings. Once or twice, he had roughly pushed the dog away, but,
when he had finished the work and seated himself from sheer fatigue on
the veranda steps, Veno came and squatted beside him, the dog's head
upon his knee. He filled his pipe and smoked ruminatively; the exertion
had had one good effect; it had dulled the fierceness of his pain.

As he sat there--a faint breeze that had risen with the approach of
sunset, cooling his heated body--he thought again about Moongarr
Bill's letter. He looked at the great pyre in front, and caught the
gleam of the lagoon below through the bare branches of the trees the
little ripple on its surface, the freshening green at its marge. Then
he gazed out over the vast plain towards the horizon. From his low
position on the steps, the middle distance was hidden from him. Through
the reddish tinge cast by the lowering sun, he could discern, far off
likewise, the unmistakable signs of new-springing grass and the course
of the river, for so long non-existent. From the gully he heard the
sound of rushing water. It had been a roaring torrent just after the
storm, and he knew that a flood must have come down from the heads.

Yes, the Drought had broken. The plain would soon be green again.
Flowers would spring up as they had done for Bridget's bridal
home-coming. If the rain had fallen a few months sooner the station
might have been saved.

And even now, with the remnant of three or four hundred cattle,
provided there were no crippling debt, no spectre of the Man in
Possession, he might still hang on, and in time retrieve his losses,
lie low, sink artesian wells, make the station secure for the future.

He had been so fond of the place. He had taken up the run with such
high hopes; had so slaved to increase his herd, to make improvements on
the head-station. He had looked upon this as the nucleus of his
fortune; the pivot on which his career as one of the Empire-builders
would revolve. . . . And now. . . .

Well, some clever speculator no doubt would buy it at a low price
during the Slump, stock it with more cattle, work it up during a good
season or two, and, when cattle stations boomed once more, sell it at
an immense profit. That was what he himself would have done had he been
a speculator in similar conditions. Even still, he could do it with a
small amount of capital to supply a sop for the Bank. . . . Now that
the Drought had broken they would be more likely to let him go
on. . . . He thought of the 3,000 pounds Sir Luke Tallant had made him put
into settlement on his marriage. He had not wanted to do that at the time;
his Scotch caution had revolted against the tying up of his resources,
and his instinct was justified. If only he had command of that money
now! It was his own; his wife was rich; that was the one benefit he
could have taken from her. . . . But it was impossible to broach the
question.

Suddenly the dog stirred uneasily, sniffed the air and leaped to the
gravel walk where it stood giving short, uncertain barks, as though
aware of something happening outside for which it could not account.

McKeith lifted his head, bent in the absorption of his thought, and
looked about for the disturber of Veno's placidity. But Kuppi was
nowhere in sight, nor was there sign of other intruder. Where he sat,
the garden fence, overgrown with withered passion vines, bounded his
vision, and had anybody ridden or driven up the hill through the lower
sliprails, he would not have seen them, probably would not have heard
them. For there were no longer dogs, black boys, Chinamen or station
hands to voice intimation of a new arrival. All the old sounds of
evening activity were hushed. No mustering-mob being driven to the
stockyard; no running up of milkers or horses for the morrow; no goats
to be penned--they had been killed off long ago; no beasts grazing or
calling--no audible life at all except that of the birds, who, since
the rain, had found their notes again and were telling each other
vociferously that it was time to go to bed. Indeed, the silence and
solitariness of the once busy head-station had enticed many of the
shyer kinds of birds from the lagoon and the forest. Listening, as he
now was, intently, McKeith could hear the gurgling COO-ROO-ROO of the
swamp pheasant, which is always found near water--and likewise rare
sound--the silvery ring of the bell-bird rejoicing in the fresh-filled
lagoon.

But Veno was still uneasy, and Colin got up on to the veranda. He stood
there, listening all the while, strained expectancy in his eyes as if
he too were vaguely conscious of something outside happening. . . .

And now he did hear something that made him go white as with uncanny
dread. It was a footstep that he heard on the veranda of the Old Humpey
--very light, a soft tapping of high heels and the accompanying swish
of drapery--a ghostly rustle--'a ghostly footfall echoing.'. . . For
surely in this place it could have no human reality.

It approached along the passage between the two buildings, halted for a
few seconds, and then mounted to the front veranda.

The man was standing with his back to the Old Humpey. He would not
turn. A superstitious fear fell upon him and made his knees shake and
his tall, lean frame tremble. . . . He DARED not turn his head and look
lest he should see that which would tell him Bridget was dead.

But the dead do not speak in syllables that an ordinary human ear can
hear. And Colin heard his own name spoken in accents piercingly clear
and sweet.

'Colin.'

To him, though, it was as a ghost-voice. He stood transfixed. And just
then the dog bounded past him. It had flown up the steps barking
loudly. That could be no immaterial form upon which the creature flung
itself, pawing, nosing, licking with the wildest demonstrations of joy.

He heard the well-remembered tones:

'Quiet Veno. . . . Good dog. . . . Lie down Veno--Lie down.'

The dog seemed to understand that this was not a moment for
effusiveness. Without another sound, it crouched upon its haunches
gazing up at the new-comer.

Then Colin turned. Bridget was standing not a yard from him. A slender
figure in a grey silk cloak, with bare head--she had flung back her
grey sun-bonnet and shrouding gauze veil. . . . He saw the face he knew
--the small, pale face; the shadowy eyes, wide and bright with an
ecstatic determination, yet in them a certain feminine timorousness;
the little pointed chin poked slightly forward; the red-brown hair--
all untidy curls and tendrils, each hair seeming to have a life and
magnetism of its own. It was just as he had so often pictured her in
dreams of sleep and waking.

He gazed at her like one who beholds a vision from another world. And
then a great sob burst from him--the pitiful sob of a strong man who
is beaten, broken with emotion. The whole being of the man seemed to
collapse. He staggered forward, and such a change came over the gaunt,
hard face, that Bridget saw it through a rain of tears which fell down
her cheeks.

'Oh, Colin--Won't you speak to me?'

'Biddy!' He went close to her and gripped her two wrists, holding her
before him while his hungry eyes seemed to be devouring her.

'It's you--it's really you. You're not dead, are you?'

'Dead! Oh no--no. . . . I've come home.'

'Home!' He laughed.

'Oh don't--don't,' she cried. 'Don't laugh like that.'

'Home!' he repeated, grimly. 'Look round you. A nice sort of home. Eh?'

'I don't care. It's the only real home I've ever had.'

'But look--look!'

She followed his eyes to the great pyre in the garden, with the dead
leaves, and the pieces of furniture, the squatters' chairs, the little
tables he and she had covered together, the hammock that he had cut
down leaving the ropes dangling--many other things that she recognised
also. Then her gaze came back to the veranda. To the open portmanteaux;
the different objects still strewing the ground; and then to the
shelf-table against the wall near the hammock, and, there, to his most
cherished possessions. She knew at once his mother's work-box, the
shabby SHAKESPEARE--the portraits, and, on top of all, the piece of
gum-tree bark.

She snatched her wrists from his grasp, darted to the shelf, seized the
shrivelled pice of bark, and pressed it against her bosom as though it
had been a living thing.

'Oh, you COULDN'T burn this! . . . You were going to burn it with the
rest--but you COULDN'T--any more than you could have burned your
mother's things. . . . I thought of it all the way--I knew that if you
could burn this, too, there would be no hope for me any more. I PRAYED
that you might not burn it.'

'But how--how did you know I was going to burn the things?' he
stammered bewilderedly.

'I saw it all--I saw you--just like this, on the veranda--so thin
and hard and miserable--and so proud, yet--and stubborn--I saw it
all--saw the bonfire ready--And I saw this piece of bark--And then
something made you stop and you put it with your mother's things
instead. You remembered--Oh! Mate, you DID understand? You DID
remember--that first night by the camp fire--and we two--just we
two'--she broke off sobbing.

'You saw--you saw--' he kept saying. 'But how--how did you know? Tell
me, Mate.'

'I saw it all in a dream--at Castle Gaverick. Three times I dreamed
the same dream; and I felt, inside me, that it was a prophetic warning.
We're like that, you know, we Irish Celts. And you--though you're a
Scotchman--you used to laugh at such things! But they're true; they're
true--I've had glints of second sight before. Joan Gildea understood.
When I told her, she believed it was a warning God had sent me, and she
said I must go to you--go at once lest it should be too late. She
wanted to come with me, but it would have been difficult for her to
leave her work, and I didn't want her--I wanted to come to you all on
my own.'

'And then?--then?' he asked breathlessly.

'Oh, then I left Castle Gaverick at once, and, in London, I took my
passage--there was an E. and A. boat just going to start. Of course I
knew the route. I got out of the steamer at Leuraville, and came
straight on by train--I didn't wait anywhere. I thought I'd get out at
Crocodile Creek and pay somebody to drive me up here. But you've got
the railway brought nearer, and when I got out at Kangaroo Flat there
was a most extraordinary thing--Then, I knew why the voice inside had
been urging me on so quickly.'

'An extraordinary thing--? What was it?' he said in the same
breathless, broken way.

'It was Mr Ninnis. He was there, standing on the platform just off his
droving trip--he was going to take the next train to Leuraville. If I
had stayed there as Captain Halliwell wanted me to, I should have
missed him. He'd got a letter from Moongarr Bill--Oh, I know all about
that. But it doesn't matter--it doesn't matter in the least. You can
go if you like and find the gold--I'll stop at Joan Gildea's cottage
in Leichardt's Town and wait for you--I don't care about ANYTHING if
you'll only let me be your Mate again. But Colin--' she rushed on, for
he could not speak, and the sight of a great man struggling with his
tears is one that a woman who loves him can scarcely bear to see. And
yet the sight made Bridget happy for all its pain--'Colin, when I
first saw Ninnis, do you know what I thought--? That you had sent him
to meet me. That you, too, had been warned in a dream?'

'No, I wish I had been--My God, I wish I had been.'

'What would you have done, Colin?'

'I'd have been there myself,' he said simply. 'It would have been me,
not Ninnis, that you saw at Kangaroo Flat Station.'

She held out her arms. The roll of bark dropped on the boards of the
veranda. In a moment he was pressing her fiercely to his breast, and
his lips were on hers.

And in that kiss, by the divine alchemy of true wedded love, all the
past pride and bitterness were transmuted into a great abiding Peace.



THE END





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