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Title:      Landtakers: The Story of an Epoch (1934)
Author:     Brian Penton (1904-1951)
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Language:   English
Date first posted:          November 2002
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LANDTAKERS

The Story of an Epoch

 

by

 

Brian Penton (1904-1951)

 

 

First Published 1934

 

 

For Jacques Kahane

 

A perilous crossing, a perilous journeying, a perilous looking back, a perilous trembling and hesitating.

--ZARATHUSTRA

 

 

 

CONTENTS

I. SIN, SWEAT, AND SORROW

II. WASTELANDS

III. THE DARK DEMON

IV. CHANGE

V. A PERILOUS CROSSING

 

 

 

 

I

SIN, SWEAT, AND SORROW

 

 

Chapter One

JOHNNY NEWCOME

 

Derek Cabell glared round at the ramshackle buildings of the Moreton Bay Penal Settlement. His gesture of impatience, failing even to startle the dog, which slept on with its nose to its tail, or the drowsy horse he had tethered to his boot, only confirmed his deep sense of personal futility.

Red earth and blue sky met in the jagged line of a near horizon. In the middle of this vault stood the settlement--a prison within a prison. Shanties built of black bark twisted by the fierce sun, with crazy-shaped doors and glassless windows. Jail and barracks of stone. A yellow stone windmill. A long, dusty, empty street. Sheep, a few cows, pigs, wide patches of yellow Indian corn. At one side of the valley a river shimmered in the sunlight; at each end of the valley the bush. Into illimitable blue distance it faded, across unexplored mountains and plains, grey, motionless and silent.

His eyes screwed up against the harsh light, his boyish features matted in lines of discontent, Cabell sat on the side of the road and bitterly compared this crude scene with an image of his native Dorset village. The violence with which he beat at the flies buzzing in a black cloud round his face and neck revealed the intensity of his feelings.

A detachment of soldiers and yellow-clad convicts approached from the other end of the street as though upon air. Only the rattle of a chain here and there was to be heard, for the dust was inches thick and soft as powder. It rose in clouds from their feet and cast a smoky shadow on the ground.

With undisguised contempt Cabell watched the detachment go by. There were men of all sizes, in every stage of decrepitude. Shuffling feet, round shoulders, faces prematurely aged by sun, hard work and under-nourishment. The soldiers' uniforms were unbuttoned and dirty. Dust and sweat mixed in the lines of their withered faces. Of the convicts few were unmarked by disease or mishap. The scarlet rash of poisoned blood covered their arms like long gloves. Black stumps of teeth showed through their lax mouths. Legs dragged heavily that had been broken and badly set. Hands lacked fingers. And bitten deeply into all, convicts and soldiers alike, was the pockmark of spirits desolated by ennui and despair.

The detachment having halted in the shadow of a stone arch farther up the street, Cabell turned his attention gloomily to an old man, with a face like a dried-up orange in colour and texture, who was lying stretched out under a bullock-dray that had halted in the middle of the road. Flies were crawling over the old man's face and exploring his open mouth. But Deaf Mickey Moran, Mickey the Shellback, who had seen twenty years of life in her Majesty's great jailyard, Australia, who had been starved, ironed, flogged, frozen and sunstruck while his skin had become a nerveless, calloused hide, was not likely to lose any sleep for a few flies. (Had there not been a time when he had eaten flies and been glad of them?) He slept with his face in the dust and snored like a pig.

Cabell called the old man: "Mickey! Wake up, confound you." He spoke in a petulant way, and when the old man did not move, his full, red lower lip thrust out like a spoiled child's. "I'll wake you up," he muttered, and, seizing a stick from the ground, threw it with all his strength at the old man's head. It ricocheted off the bony skull and hit the dog sleeping behind him. The dog growled.

Mickey opened his eyes and looked at the dog. "What's wrong with ye?" he grumbled at it. "Lie down."

"Mickey Moran," Cabell said, venting his bottled-up feelings on the old man, "why don't you answer when I call you?"

Mickey turned the lobe of an enormous ear with the tips of fingers that seemed to be wearing away with labour. "Master?"

"How many?" Cabell shouted, pointing up the street. "How many have they got to do?"

Mickey reflected. "That's what I don't know exactly, master," he said. "Ten or more, I reckon it is. There's Shake Brown for nickin' over the fance and pinchin' some plums out of the Cove's garden, and the two young divils was with him. There's that nigger went to sleep mindin' the Jim Crows last week and let half an acre get et up. There's Punch Judah for smokin'." He counted them off slowly on his fingers.

"Ten!" Cabell struck viciously at a fly on his neck. "Hours," he said. "Curse them!"

"Hours," Mickey repeated, and lay down in the dust again.

Cabell pulled his cabbage-tree hat on to his head. Hours. How they leaked away in this cursed place! Hours, days, weeks, months. The blood of your best years, how it drained out unnoticed in this land of tons of time! In a burst of wilful pessimism he tormented himself with a vision of a Derek Cabell forty years hence, still sitting by the side of this road and waiting for the fulfilment of unmaturing dreams. He positively sweated with fear as he looked at that figure, which was really Mickey Moran with the addition of a few horrible features glimpsed in the ranks of the convicts.

In an instant he was on his feet, driven by an irresistible anxiety to do something. He untied the reins from his boot, tightened the girth, and climbed into the saddle. The horse started, woke, shuffled forward a few paces, and stopped. Its head drooped to the ground again. The dog did not even bother to look up, as though it realized the impotence of this gesture when there was literally nothing to do and nowhere to go.

People were coming out of the houses now and going towards the arch, where quite a crowd had collected. It looked like a prayer-meeting and was as quiet as one. Some settlers sat loosely on their horses, watching over the heads of the soldiers or talking to each other. An aboriginal strode past and mingled with the people. He carried a spear and wore a dirty blanket over his shoulder. On his right foot he had a boot, which was nearly crippling him. Behind came his wife with a wicker basket on her shoulder. The basket contained a dead kitten, a sheep's head and some crusts. She was nearly stark naked, and grease dripped off her hair and ran down her breasts and back like sweat.

Cabell pulled his horse on to the road and ambled to the arch. One of the horsemen nodded and said "Still here?"

"Still here," Cabell grumbled, reining.

Shyly his eyes appraised, from white sunbonnet to heavily booted feet, the woman to whom this man had been talking. One big red hand held a child to her breast, the other grasped the bridle of a restive horse and a heavy riding crop. She was about thirty years old, grim about the eyes and mouth, but--a woman.

"It's nearly through, Mrs Duffy," the horseman who had greeted Cabell told her. "And a good job they're making of it for ye."

She grunted impatiently. "It won't teach him nothing," she said. "He'll be drunk again tomorrow."

"Och!" the horseman chided her, laughing. "Take him in hand yeself, why don't ye, then? Ye'll be a widder within this year, him drinking like that."

She showed him a pair of sunken dark eyes. Vestiges of a fast-vanishing prettiness clung to her, of a girlish charm that had once curved her flat cheeks and softened the bony frame. "That man, he was a good husband once, Mr Flanagan," she said. "That's before he got into his bit of trouble and come here. Now he's nothing but a sly, brawling, soaking good-for-nothing." She spat into the dust. "I'm as good as a widder now, that's tellin' ye square."

Flanagan bent down. "Remember I'll be comin' across about that cow next week, won't ye?"

"I'll be seeing you." She nodded and turned away.

Flanagan joined Cabell and they rode off down the street together.

"There's a woman for ye," Flanagan chuckled. "Brings her husband in once a month to be flogged. She took up some land and got him assigned to her. But she don't take no lip. She just waits till he's drunk himself asleep, claps the darbies on him, hooks him up to her stirrup, and brings him in for fifty on the bare back. And no questions asked."

Cabell was silent, thinking about her, about women, white women. Soft, round Dorset faces with cherry-coloured cheeks and red lips. Girls with soft voices who smelt like milk; the girls in Owerbury high street on Sunday morning. His black eyebrows drew together.

Flanagan was thoughtful, too. He stroked his downy, fair beard, behind which a youthful face, browner than Cabell's and more amiable and sly, concealed itself. "I saw her come up the street six years ago," he said. "Just a bit of a sheilagh, and a more nicely spoken one never come out of Ireland." His grey eyes grew sad. "She's not like that now. Still . . . ten thousand sheep. . . . And a woman at that! That's sayin' a lot."

They had arrived at a grog shanty, a tumbled-down one-roomed shed built of bark. The place was full of men drinking, many drunk. It was dark, because it had no windows and a door just wide enough to squeeze through, and smelt of sweat, dust and rum. A bar, made of bark slabs nailed on saplings driven into the earth floor, cut off one corner. A couple of logs and boxes provided the only seats.

Flanagan shouted loud greetings round the room--a popular man; but Cabell hesitated in the doorway, repelled, as always, by the faces which turned to look at them. Whatever had been there of friendliness, forbearance and common human decency, life had scored out with her crudest die. The skin hung to their skulls like shrunk leather, their eyes had retreated into deep sockets and were calculating and suspicious; their lips pressed tightly together so that no colour showed. Their harsh voices, their ungracious gestures, their watchfulness uncovered for him suddenly the surface of a life in which men had not yet made the social contract that softens the brutality of "everyone for himself". At least, so it seemed to him.

Really the scene was commonplace enough: a number of settlers with unkempt beards and dusty clothes who passed the time drinking while their convict servants were being flogged; a few soldiers, drunk and quarrelsome, and half a dozen bodies stretched out in the dirt, dead drunk. But for some reason he never forgot it. Long after Pat Dennis's pub had changed, he was given to talking about "that mob at Pat Dennis's" with a curious inflexion of contempt and fear. In his mind those faces and voices became a symbol, apparently, of all the ruthless, unscrupulous, man-against-man struggle that was the life of this epoch.

He would have gone away at once only Flanagan had already ordered a drink for him, so he shouldered through the crush and took the sticky glass which the barman, Pat Dennis, had filled with the only liquor he sold--a villainous, black, thick mixture of rum, tobacco juice and bluestone. Flies blackened the top of the bar, the walls, the faces of the drunks fallen asleep; flies buzzed in the thick air, brawled over the barman's ragged beard, bred and eternally replenished their voracious stock in the bunches of gum-leaves hung from the ceiling.

"Hev yez heard about Bill Purves?" the barman asked them when they put their glasses down.

"Drinking himself off the hooks again?" Flanagan said.

"He'll never no more taste liquor. He's been burnt in half," Dennis told him.

"Burnt in half?"

"Sure. Last week it was. Takes the short cut through Mahoney's scrub that was burning off. Wind blows up. Down comes a stinking great hunk of timber on him. Smashes his arm and leg to smithereens and pins him underneath. After a bit he comes round, sees the fire's in the butt, hollers himself hoarse, then writes a note to his old woman on a bit of bark. One of Mahoney's blacks tracked him down yest'y. Head and shoulders here, legs there, heap of ashes in between. Clean as a whistle."

The drinkers round about listened, but none of them made any comment except Carney, an ex-convict who was in a fair way to becoming a rich squatter. "Now, if I'd 'a known that," he said, preening a tobacco-stained beard, "I'd 'a been down there like a shot to cheer up that pore widder."

His friend Curry, another ex-convict, spat scornfully. "You! You ain't got the condition for cheerin' up a widder like that one. 'D be like puttin' one of them skinny Welsh bulls in with my cows. 'D be a widder in a week again, she would."

Laughter dismissed the tragic end of Purves. Pat Dennis was already telling them how Darrow, a young Englishman, had been cleared out by the scab and had nearly drunk himself into the D.T.s with worry.

An institution, this barman, in a land where men lived far apart and news was hard to come by. Like many others in the room, he was an Old Hand, had done time for sheep-stealing. But he was fat now and prosperous-looking, despite the dirt crusted on his singlet and trousers. They said that when he started the grog shanty a year before he had bought a hophead of rum and had never bought any more. But man must drink, and there was nothing else to drink. In a place where everybody knew everybody else, men would have taken even worse drink than this from a news-vendor such as he was. He had information about events that had happened only a month ago in Sydney, five hundred miles away, as well as stories of murders, hangings, abscondings and calamities among their common acquaintances. His little ferret eyes sparkled when he told them about disaster and death, and promised it with knowing winks when he could only report someone's lucky strike. It was noticeable that the first kind of news never failed to silence the bar, while the second got only a few grunts and doubtful head-shakings.

"Rain coming, gents?" he asked Flanagan, pointing through the door at the line of cloud that daily formed along the horizon of the thirsty valley.

They looked at it hopefully for a moment or two and listened to its faraway muttering.

Flanagan shook his head. "That's not rain, Pat. That's only God's bloody gammon," he said.

"Well, it rained down Waring Downs week before last," Pat said, naming a place two hundred miles away. "Inch and a half in half an hour. And when the blessed thing stopped its racketing there wasn't a damned beast breathing on the place. Drownded everything." He rubbed his podgy hands cheerfully.

"'Tis a fine country," Flanagan laughed. "If you ain't killed with the sunstroke or drove loony for the want of decent company or poisoned with Pat's liquor, 'tis drownded you'll be. A real and regular God's own country, as they say."

Dennis leant across the bar, winked, and nudged him. "That's the God's truth, surely," he said. "Hev yez heard what's happened at Peppiott's?"

"Not Jack Peppiott?" Cabell put in, ready to defend a man who was, unlike so many of the others, a free settler and not without the elements of decency.

Dennis nodded and pointed to the corner of the room farthest from the bar. A man was sitting on a box; his hands, on his knees, gripped a bottle and a glass. He was a big man with a fine head and intelligent eyes. They were fixed on the ground, brooding with a terrible look of impotent rage. Without raising his eyes, he blindly filled the glass and drained it.

"Peppiott drunk!" Flanagan said, surprised.

"Swore he'd never come in here," Dennis said, smiling. "But they all come sooner or later to get away from it. Every dog has his day, they reckon." He nodded two or three times. "But he ain't drunk, though he'd give half his guts to be; I'll swear he would."

"What's the matter?" Flanagan asked.

Dennis chuckled. "What d'you think? Comes home suddenly and finds his old woman locked up in the storeroom with one of the lags. He flogs them both half to death with a stockwhip, grabs his gun and goes out lookin' for his brats to finish them off. But he couldn't find them nowhere, so he comes down here. He ought to be blind with the stuff he's soaked up in the last twelve hours, and he ain't turned a hair."

"Mrs Peppiott!" Cabell said, horrified.

Flanagan's grey eyes opened wide. "I'll be damned. There's a woman I'd've said . . . Well, and she the daughter of an English lord!"

Dennis winked his little black eyes. "It's all fair on top with them and black as Newgate's knocker inside."

Cabell's cheeks darkened. The anger that had been working in him all day flushed a stream of hot blood through his body. He glared round at the company and listened to their conversation: four topics reiterated with endless, monotonous violence--sheep, women, schemes to get more cheap convict labour, and the prospect of a drought that would rape their possessions from them. He wanted to tell them that he loathed them. He wanted to stand beside Peppiott and protect him against their sly, knowing glances. But his tongue was frozen.

He was very young, not quite twenty-two years old. He was homesick. He was lonely. He had just seen a woman who was once young and pretty watching her husband flogged. He had heard of death coming in a horrible way to a man he knew. He had so far hardly understood the tragedy at Peppiott's, but he had caught a glimpse of Peppiott's eyes and had seen in them the shadow of pain. What he felt was something more intimate than sympathy. The sufferings of these people became his own. It was perhaps a kind of self-pity he felt. It became sheer terror of the country in which such things could happen and of the men who could stand by and not be moved to horror by them.

"These la-di-dah women," Pat Dennis was saying, "they've all got the itch if you only knew."

Cabell found his tongue. "Don't you talk like that about Mrs Peppiott!" he said angrily, reaching over the bar and giving Dennis a shove. "She's--she's a lady."

Dennis looked surprised. "What's that? A lady?"

"A lady, yes," Cabell told him. "And in case you don't know what that is, it's a woman who wouldn't put her foot where your shadow had been."

"So's yer old woman," Dennis grumbled, not quite understanding.

Two little white spots spread out in a fan shape from the corners of Cabell's eyes, and the nostrils of his thin nose widened. Dennis jumped away from the bar, expecting to be hit.

"You scum! You dare--"

"Here, me boy, me boy," Flanagan hastily intervened. "What's it bitin' ye at all then?"

Cabell shook himself free. "To hear that--dirty brute talk you wouldn't think it was Peppiott who got him a ticket-of-leave, would you?" He pointed at the door. "Why, he'd be rattling his chains out there still if it weren't for Peppiott."

Dennis's mouth closed like a trap and his little eyes sank back into their sockets. He muttered and went off to the other end of the bar.

Flanagan grinned. "That's one won't dance at your wedding, me boy, nor forget to spit in your noggin if he gets the chance."

"What do I care? He was a lag," Cabell said. "Now he's a--a swine."

"Come, come!" Flanagan slapped his shoulder. "You've got to get over them Nancy English ways. We're all the Lord God's swine together here. A civil tongue and a blind eye's more use than all them high-and-mighty sentiments. You won't make no friends without."

"Friends!" Cabell flared up again. "Think I want friends here?" He gestured round the bar. "Floggers," he grumbled. "That's all they are. The whole lot of them. There's nothing in this country but a lot of floggers and jailbirds." He had a swift vision of the continent, silent and unfriendly, dotted here and there with such clearings as this, pinpoints on its verge, peopled by such men as he had seen marching down the street, with men like these Currys and Carneys for their masters, all hating it, hating each other, hating those who were not like them, not scarred and starved and ironed, hating their unending exile, and sending down into the future their passionate hatred.

"Yes, you're right. We're all the same. Offscourings," he said irritably. "We're only here because we're not wanted in England. And, floggers or not, we all hate, hate, hate all the time. We hate the place. We hate each other. We hate those that sent us here." He paused to take a deep breath and looked up with passionate, dark eyes. By contrast with the eyes of his companion, which watched him from afar as it were, detached and cool but thoughtful, what secrets of a young and tormented spirit were here exposed! They stared out defiantly, but their gaze shifted watchfully from side to side. The heavy black eyebrows had learned a trick of supercilious disparagement, but the eyes were fixed on Flanagan's face with the peculiar anxiety of one beseeching to be understood and reassured. They were at once wide and frank, withdrawn and distrustful. A first glance was struck by their ingenuous clarity; a second by the suggestion of thoughts cunningly concealed behind the mask of youthful uncertainty. From all this a shrewd observer would have decided that Cabell was at that stage of development where the spirit has broken adrift from its old moorings and wanders blindly in search of new ones.

He frowned and pushed his soft, shaven chin into Flanagan's face. "I've got four brothers in England," he said bitterly. "They sent me here, and by God don't I hate them!" The tan on his cheek went a shade darker and his voice, dropping suddenly to an undertone, took on a vibration of concentrated venom that surprised even Flanagan, who had been following his outburst with mildly conciliatory attempts to make him finish his drink.

Cabell pushed the glass away. "'Just the place for you.' That's what they told me. 'Freedom. Money. Fine life.' Ach! Look at it." He seized Flanagan by the shoulder and pointed through the door. "A damned graveyard."

His voice was so urgent that some of the tough Old Hands standing near glanced involuntarily at the bush, whose heartbreaking indifference, immensity and loneliness they had only too many reasons to know. Not a quiver in the grey leaves. Only a shimmering veil of brazen sunlight hardening the earth and turning the scant pastures to powder.

"Money out of that ground, eh?" Cabell muttered. "Money out of scab and footrot? Fine life, isn't it? Oh, a fine life for the flies and the bugs and the lice and the fleas. And what about freedom in a jailyard fifty times as wide as England?" He dropped a discouraged hand. "I hate it," he said rather pathetically. "I loath it. It's so different from England, this eternal, cursed, colourless bush."

"Well now," Flanagan said soothingly. "What you want, me boy, is just a good dose of Holloway's. Isn't it now?"

"No, it isn't," Cabell said. "I know what I want. I ought to get like these. . . ." He substituted a gesture round the bar for a word. "Well, I won't. There. I'll cut my throat first." He glared defiantly.

"Get along with ye," Flanagan urged him. "'Tis a bit too much of Pat's poison ye've got wandering loose in ye brain pan." He gave Cabell a shove and steered him towards the door.

"There now," Curry grunted as they passed him. "There's a cocky upstart for ye."

"Thinks he's too bloody good for us," Carney said.

Flanagan hastened him out. He had his own reasons for taking an abusive young new chum under his wing in the face of the general disapproval which now showed itself in howls and catcalls and a stream of black spittle that just missed Cabell's boot. His sly wink to them said as much.

Cabell had just reached the door when he heard a voice call "Hey you, limejuicer, Johnny Newcome!" Turning, he found that Peppiott, whom he had quite forgotten in his excitement, was following him unsteadily across the room.

"I want to tell you something," Peppiott said, taking him apart from Flanagan. But at that moment his eye lighted on Cabell's dog, which was busy scratching off its surplus fleas in the doorway. Peppiott frowned, ran to the door and kicked the dog savagely. He turned on Cabell. "Don't keep sluts," he said. "What d'you want to keep a slut for?"

"It's not a slut," Cabell told him. "It's a dog."

"Ah, don't tell me--they're all sluts," Peppiott shouted. "They make the house stink. Use somebody else's."

Cabell stared at him. His eyes were bloodshot but sane.

Flanagan tapped Cabell's shoulder. "Aw, leave the old gazebo. He's drunk."

"Do you think I'm drunk?" Peppiott asked.

"No," Cabell said.

He held Cabell's arm tightly. "You think you know all about it. But you don't. Look here, can you wait?"

"Now?" Cabell asked.

"No, not now. Can you wait till you're good for nothing else?" He gazed intently into Cabell's eyes for several seconds. Then he shook his head. "You're as good as done for," he said. "If there were tigers, you'd be all right."

Cabell tried to withdraw his arm, but Peppiott dug his nails in. He came closer, till his breath, stinking from all the bad liquor he had swallowed, burned on Cabell's cheek. "I'll tell you something," he said. "There are no tigers. Nothing happens. That's the curse of it. You pray for something to startle you, something to shoot at. But--nothing happens. D'you understand?"

"I think so," Cabell said.

"No you don't," Peppiott replied impatiently. "You'd hang yourself." He trembled through all his body, as though chilled to the bone. "Look here," he said. "I had a place right out in the Never Never. I was a nipper like you. It had three inches of soil. We got a drought. I waited two years. One day a wind came and blew the dirt right out of the ground and piled it up against the trees. Next day the rain started, but there was only the clay left."

"Yes, I do understand," Cabell told him.

"You're cocked up," Peppiott said. "You think it depends on you. But it doesn't. It'll just break you and change you and break you again. If you had the patience of fifty stone sphinxes you might see it through--or go mad."

The despair in his voice brought a look of pity into Cabell's eyes. This seemed to strike Peppiott like a fist. He jerked his head back, glared, and thrust Cabell away.

Cabell pulled his hat straight and prepared to follow Flanagan.

Peppiott watched him sulkily for a moment, then burst into a wild laugh. "Ah," he shouted. "Mister Bloody Cabell. He knows what a lady is, he does. Well, here's to you, Mister Cabell. Long life to you. And here's to the day when you find yourself bogged in the country with a lady hanging round your neck." He drained his glass melodramatically, raised it above his head, and crushed it in his hand.

Bewildered, Cabell watched the blood run down Peppiott's wrist and soak into his sleeve.

"And as for you," Peppiott was shouting, "you prison louse, take that!" and he flung the bottle at Dennis's head. Dennis dived behind the bar and the bottle smashed to pieces on the wall.

The crowd laughed. "Good old Peppiott."

"Go it, Peppiott."

"Buy a goat, Peppiott," Carney said. "It saves you a lot of trouble."

Cabell turned and ran after Flanagan.

They rode some distance up the street before Flanagan spoke. "Ye're daft, ye fool; ye're daft. Now, fancy breaking out on a single drink like that!"

"Oh, it's not the drink," Cabell said wearily. "It's my sheep. I've nearly gone crazy thinking about them."

Flanagan stroked his beard and sideways considered his companion's face, by contrast almost girlish with its soft contours and olive skin and the long, thin, sensitive nose and red lips. "That's a ginger bastard, that McGovern," he agreed. "He'll steal the fleas off a dog if it didn't watch him."

"Watch?" Cabell said helplessly.

They passed a field of corn where the crow-minder was going round and round with his rattle, stirring up hordes of black crows that seated themselves on the fence until he had passed, then settled into the corn again. The futility of this idiotic labour pressed upon Cabell an infuriating sense of his own powerlessness.

"How the devil can I watch? I can't be everywhere on a fifty-mile run at once, can I?"

"There'll be some more gone when you get back," Flanagan suggested.

"Of course. That's why he sent me down here to get the boy flogged. He's getting worse every day, too. Oh, I could murder him."

"Mind your step there, me boy," Flanagan warned him. "That's an old trick of his, to fasten the thought of murder on you. He'll kill you on the spot and prove it was your own doing."

"But why don't the men split on him?" Cabell demanded. "They must know what he does with what he steals."

Flanagan winked and pointed at the crowd of convicts and soldiers and settlers gathered round the arch, past which they were riding. A voice was cursing, threatening, yelling "Hit on the back, you dirty flogger!" which told them that O'Duffy, the flogger, was up to his old trick of making the lash curl round under the belly, where no protective crust of calloused weals had grown.

"While they've got breath in their bodies he can flog out or starved bellies he can stuff with double rations, you'll have a hard job coaxing anything about your lost sheep out of them boys," Flanagan said. "I tried that. Last month he lifted that bit of a stallion I bought in Sydney."

"Not the roan?"

"The same." Flanagan nodded. "You're not the only poor sod who would like to see that one laid out. There've been cattle disappearing around here for a long time. But them hills behind Murrumburra is worse than a fly trap. I know. I've been lost in them."

Discouragement got the better of Cabell. He put his hand impulsively on Flanagan's arm. "You're stocking up again," he said. "Take what I've got left and let me get out of this place. I'll start farther away on my own."

Flanagan's grey eyes concealed a sly thought as he replied disparagingly, "What's a thousand of them poor jumbucks to me?"

They pulled up at the bullock-dray. Mickey was laying down the law to a lad in convict's clothes who gazed at him with the loosened eyes and mouth of one wandering in some limbo of terrifying phantoms. The youth was a little older than Cabell, as thin as a rake, with a dirty down covering his chin and hollow cheeks, and pink-rimmed lashless eyes. He did not seem young, but old and withered and diseased, and looked more like a half-starved white mouse than anything else.

"What're ye grumbling about at all?" Mickey mocked him. "Didn't ye get a trip and two days in town; didn't ye, darlin'? And didn't the master here give ye a hunk of bacca, eh? Yer lout, yer!"

Cabell bent down and shouted roughly in the boy's ear. "You better get up on the load."

"Well, when did I get made a coachman for lags," Mickey complained, stumping angrily up and down as the lad climbed into the cart. "By Henie, no one never carried me home after a floggin'. And who's goin' to catch it if he bleeds on the Cove's tobacco, eh?"

"Now, if I was in your place," Flanagan said confidentially, "I'd make them canary-birds sing."

"But how, how?"

"Ah, get along with ye." Flanagan laughed. "Ye're too softhearted to kill the flies in yer tea." Then, serious, he added: "Listen, honey. McGovern's promised Carney five hundred head of Durhams and three thousand ewes in lamb. Now that's the three thousand they lost down at Finney's last year when the shepherds took to the bush. They're worth something to me if I can get them. And the roan stallion--ye'd make a slave of me for life if ye delivered that back. See? Use your brains, me boy, and you'll set yourself up for a new start. Good day till I see ye." Before Cabell could reply he put his horse into a trot and was off down the road.

Mickey's fourteen-foot bullock-whip cracked echoes out of the hill, the bullocks stirred, and a cloud of hot dust rose around them, concealing within a few minutes all sign of earth or sky.

Cabell rode ahead, thoughtfully.

In the river an abo stood waist-deep, spearing fish. Motionless he stood, as everything else in this sad, grey world was motionless. Two gins with pendulous black-nippled breasts sat on the bank watching him. Heat quivered from the stone walls of the barracks, from the slab roofs of the houses. Noiseless on the padded streets the ghosts of ten bullocks and a lame convict followed Cabell through the red haze.

Just outside the town they passed another cornfield. The crow-minder was sitting on the edge of the road, staring vacantly into the distance. The crows lined the fences, the branches of the trees, and discussed with sardonic chatter their conquered adversary. But there was one they could not defeat. He stood in the middle of the cornfield--a scarecrow made from the skin of an abo flayed for the purpose and stuffed with straw. Against the empty, burnished sky he tried to raise his jet-black arms, but they were broken at the elbows. The straw was beginning to come out at the eyes and nostrils.

 

 

Chapter Two

AN OLD MAN AND SOME DAGUERROTYPES

 

Perhaps I ought to make it clear that very little of this story is imaginative. Until a few years ago there were quite a number of old people in our district who had been with Cabell in the early days. They were all good storytellers, and it needed very little to set them going. There was one old fellow named Sambo who could remember back as far as 1840. How old Sambo was nobody could guess, but time had begun to rub his features away, as weather wears away the nose of a stone statue. He was terribly scornful of the days into which he had arrived, and if any of us youngsters tried to defend ourselves he would immediately produce a story that threw over our pretentious bravado the gigantic and belittling shadow of the past.

Then, of course, there are the memoirs and reminiscences of the early settlers, of which at this time the best of Australian literature is composed, the gossip handed down in the old families of our district, the letters that have been preserved, including Cabell's own letters to his sister Harriet in Dorset. These begin with Cabell's arrival in Sydney in 1842 and end with a remarkable document which marks the end of an epoch in his life and the opening up of the country.

I think I could have reconstructed nearly the whole of Cabell's life in Australia from these letters and the things I heard people tell about him. But I doubt whether I would have had the impulse to do so if I had not known Cabell himself--as a very old and lonely man. A large part of this book came from his own lips.

Every evening as the sun was sinking he would come out on to the veranda and seat himself in the rocking-chair which no one else dared to touch. For me it was almost a fantastic thing, that battered old relic out of the past which the storytellers had made as horrifying as a nightmare to my young imagination. For the old man it was the past made tangible. As his long, thin arms rubbed slowly up and down the scored and twisted arms he began to talk to himself, a habit all bushmen get through living alone. Sometimes he would talk out quite loud in a curious, sad tone, as though renouncing something precious. But most frequently he would begin to whisper to himself, covertly, suspiciously. The whisper would grow into a mutter. I would be hiding behind the flowerpot-stand or under the veranda, where glaring toadstools grew on the house stumps and lizards watched me with open mouths. I would be as motionless as they, listening, longing to run away from the things he was remembering, yet frozen by the fascination of my horror.

Growing up in a period when Australians had begun to feel in themselves the germ of a new people and to fumble for words to express themselves, I often wondered what roots that new psyche was coming from. Then it struck me that the answer was somewhere in the life of this old man and his generation. If I could piece together the picture of that epoch as I had inherited it from him--the savage deeds, the crude life, the hatred between men and men and men and country, the homesickness, the loneliness, the despair of inescapable exile in the bush; the strange forms of madness and cruelty; the brooding, inturned characters; and, joined with this, an almost fanatic idealism which repudiated the past and the tyranny of the past and looked to the future in a new country for a new heaven and earth, a new justice; on the one hand the social outcasts, men broken by degradation and suffering, on the other the adventurers: blackest pessimism balancing the most radiant optimism--if I could only see all this, then I would understand.

Nowadays it is very difficult to see as they saw. Our eyes have grown used to the grey trees with their thin metallic foliage, the forests of a prehistoric time that stood, just as they are now, long, long before men began to crawl about the earth. The vast emptiness of the western plains, scarred by drought and flood and bush-fire, today as desolate as the Sahara, tomorrow as lush as an English meadow, the dry gullies, forty feet deep, that became torrential rivers overnight, the sad silence of the bush, and the subhuman people who inhabit it--these things are commonplace to us, even beautiful; but a hundred years ago, to eyes fresh from the soft countryside of England, that is like a full-bodied woman holding her children tenderly to her breast, the new continent was fantastically alien.

Settling it was quite a different matter from settling Africa and America. The story is not at all the same. There was nothing spectacular in the country to break the dead monotony and loneliness of the life--no tigers, as Peppiott put it. A man just had to learn to wait--or go mad. Really all these early settlers were just slightly off the hinges: not, as one generally conceives them, simple people, simple honest backwoodsmen. Loneliness, ennui and impatience took strange psychological shape in them. And they were not ordinary men. The time and the circumstances bred enormous hatreds, enormous greeds, and their struggles with the incredible land, even allowing that the romantic mists of time magnify all things, were saga-like.

Three questions have puzzled me for a long time. Why, I have often wondered, did men like Cabell, hating the country so much, keeping themselves going with the hope that every wretched day brought them nearer to England, which their nostalgic fancy had turned into a promised land--Paradise itself--why did they never go back? Was it possible that, although they talked of it continually and always seemed to be scheming for it, men really did not want happiness, but even ran away from it as from a plague? Could it be true what Cabell said in the last letter he wrote to his sister, that "a man might want to go back where he had been happy, but it would stop at that. Where he'd had his hard times--that was where he would stay"?

A second question occurred to me quite recently, when I visited Dorset and saw the house where he was born. It stands just outside the village of Owerbury. There are still only ten white cottages in the place, with mossy green thatched roofs like seabirds resting with folded wings in the shelter of the downs. It has changed very little since the morning Cabell saw it for the last time. It is a lovely place. The house is very old--Elizabethan, I imagine--built of red irregular bricks with weatherworn chimneys. Mosses have filled up a deep crack across one of the walls. A gorsebush was glowing in the corner of the garden, just as Cabell often described it, and there were the same flowers and herbs and shaven English lawns, which seem as though they must be swept up every day. The village begins at the fretted iron gates, and at the bottom of the village street is the sea, lazily eating away the chalk cliff on one side and piling up shingle on the other.

At the house I saw a daguerrotype of Cabell which he had had taken when he arrived in Sydney in 1842, a little over two years before this story begins. It shows him in his colonial clothes--a pair of Wellingtons, loose trousers, light coat and open shirt, with a broad-rimmed hat in his hand. He is standing beside a man about ten years older--he was just twenty then--and the difference between them is striking. The man was withered by sun and worry, so one sees Cabell's young English face against the background of the country, as it were.

There is the full, sensual lower lip that was a family characteristic, the plump, olive cheeks, thrown up vividly by the blackness of the hair and the thick eyebrows. In the Byronic fashion of the period the hair falls into a curling side-lever on each cheek. There is something dandified about this that seems out of place in the businesslike clothes and side by side with the ragged beard and roughly shorn hair of his companion; deliberately, defiantly dandified. It does look, too, as though he were ashamed of the clothes and for that reason is thrusting himself more aggressively into the picture. His whole strained pose seems to be saying "Yes, look at me. Laugh. Glory in it. I stink of the jailyard. But I'm safely buried twelve thousand miles under your feet. So you needn't worry." At the same time, his eyes are saying something absolutely different. They are turned slightly away, and though at first sight they, too, seem to express defiance, recklessness and self-assurance, one realizes after a while that they have only that instant glanced out of the picture, involuntarily, anxiously, as though expecting some harm. The effect is disturbing. It suggests all sorts of unpleasant things lurking about just outside the range of the camera.

What surprised me most at first was the contrast between this youthful face and the face of old man Cabell as I knew him. In sixty-five years life seemed to have changed even the bones under the flesh. The nose, which in old Cabell was predatory, hooked, with splayed, enormous hairy nostrils--a cruel beak--in the young man was straight, with a sensitive bridge and a delicate, womanish septum. The youth had a chin more rounded than otherwise, neither weak nor particularly strong, whereas the old man's jaw looked like three pieces of roughly cast iron clamped together and hinged under his ears on a huge bulge of muscle that swelled and relaxed continually as he sat thinking. The sensual lower lip, so prominent in the youth as to mark, one would have thought, a fundamental trait, had disappeared in the old man, whose tightly repressed mouth seemed to have no lips at all, giving him an air of Calvanistic severity. The only likeness between them was apparently this little trick of glancing anxiously and suspiciously sideways, so that you expected the door to open upon some horrible thing.

The contrast became even more marked when I compared the daguerrotype with the portraits of his father and four brothers which are to be found in the same album. The pictures show Clement and John together, Clement in clerical dress, John in the full-dress uniform of some stylish regiment, Victor with their father among the Daylesbury hounds, and David posed foppishly against the back of an Empire chair in a grotesque get-up that must have been dashing at the time. While I could not for the life of me see anything to connect the old hawk Cabell with these feeble-looking folk, there was no doubt at all that the lad in the colonial breeches was their son and brother. The same high-bridged nose and heavy underlip. In the father the mouth was soft and weak and overindulged. In David the features had just that extra touch of refinement needed to give them an effeminate clarity and handsomeness. In Victor the same features were coarsened, bovine. What might be described as a robust kind of homosexuality, common to a certain type of priest and soldier, marked the broad, simple but somehow frustrated faces of the twins Clement and John.

At this point, remembering the different man Cabell had been, almost a different type physically, as I saw him, the second question occurred to me: "Was it given to him also to become like these? What was it that changed him? Was the impulse in himself or did life do it blindly?"

Questions perhaps unanswerable.

I must not forget to mention that he differed from his father and brothers in one peculiarity. They were all definitely blonde with ruddy John Bull complexions, but Cabell had jet-black hair and dark-brown eyes--almost like a Spaniard. A picture of his mother and sister, on another page, explains this. The mother was a fine-looking woman, not remotely like Cabell except that she had inky-black hair and eyes, and in those eyes a vague but haunting look of doubt and disquiet. Harriet, the sister, who was ten years older than Cabell, took after her mother as closely as the sons resembled their father.

When Cabell's mother died soon after his tenth birthday it was this sister who tried to replace the older woman's passionate devotion. There was twenty years between Cabell and his eldest brother. He was delicate in childhood, it appears, and literally spent his first years in cotton-wool, much to the contempt of the squire, who was disgusted with him from birth and reckoned "he'd turn himself out to grass and not stand any more if the old woman can't drop anything better than that".

His mother was Irish, came from County Clare--a mystic and visionary sort of woman apparently, given to communings with the air. A strange mate for the matter-of-fact squire, one would imagine, but he was not so matter-of-fact. All the Cabells were gamblers and had the gambler's awe of signs and portents. From the two of them Cabell inherited a disposition to start at shadows and moon over a twilight landscape.

The squire had brought up his sons to be dependent on him, and the household was a nest of warring parasites, for the brothers never stayed away very long. They fought each other bitterly but joined in a solid bloc against their youngest brother when their mother died and left him the remains of her trust money--two thousand pounds or so.

The youngest child's usual fear of being overlooked, "left out", cheated, was in Cabell magnified and complicated by many good reasons for it. He was continually being pushed aside in scenes of greedy conflict when the brothers fought over horses, rights of precedence, even the cut from the joint. At this time the family fortune was mortgaged up to the hilt, but the squire had expectations in a sister who had married well and was now a widow without heirs.

When Cabell was nineteen this sister, his Aunt Julie, then in her early middle age, arrived suddenly to live at Owerbury House. Immediately the Nordic bloc reformed against the quiet and sullen Celt, to whom they attributed an evil disposition for cunning and trickery. Cunning he certainly was. They had compelled him to be. Observing in Aunt Julie's cynical eye a twinkle of delight for the caustic anger with which he defended himself and remembering their mother's money, they held a family council and decided that Derek should accept the invitation of their cousin Francis, in Australia, to teach any member of the family how to make a fortune out of sheepfarming if a little capital was forthcoming. Harriet's protests were wasted. The squire raked up the two thousand pounds willed to Cabell and told him to take himself off to the Colonies as soon as he liked. Cabell did not argue. He went about the house in silence, with his eyes on the ground. Suddenly he would stop and remain motionless for ten or fifteen minutes, thinking. A prelude to an outburst of anger, two white fans would spread out from the corners of his eyes. He would rush from the house, and Harriet, following, would find him in some corner of the garden sobbing his heart out. But she was too wise to let him know what she had seen.

Aunt Julie, coming upon him thus one afternoon, said in her harsh, contemptuous voice, "So you still weep, at your age?"

He looked at her resentfully.

"Well," she mocked him, "I've heard Cabells swear a lot and kick their wives and dogs, but I never seen one weep before. I wonder what your father would say if I told him."

"Tell him," he spat at her. "I don't care."

"Perhaps I will," she said. "I see you're frightened out of your wits about going to Australia. Do you think the cannibals will eat you?"

"I'm not," he retorted defiantly, adding more defiantly still, "I want to go."

"Now," she said, "that is indeed surprising. Are you sure?"

"Yes," he said, sullen, obstinate.

"Fool!" she sneered at him. "The spit of your mother. She would swallow any dirt and say that she liked it rather than let them think they'd got under her hide at last. Oh, a fool of a woman!"

He scowled, but said nothing.

"Good-bye, then, my voluntary jailbird," she laughed. "I hear your father is going to take you over to Dorchester for the night coach tomorrow."

"I'm going in the morning," he said furiously. "By myself."

He went by himself. The sun was just breaking through the mist over Owerbury when he crossed the downs. He could hear farmer Northover's boy Jake driving the cows up the valley. He could see a fisherman from the village, old Sam with the wooden leg, who had been a powder-monkey at Trafalgar, spreading out his nets on the shingle. He could hear Lucy Potter at the Owerbury Arms, singing to herself as she fed the chickens in the backyard. Enormous shadows moved across the mist in the village street. It was like a dream. So he remembered it.

The cousin lived near Limestone, which is now Ipswich, in Queensland. He was a scoundrel and kept the kind of station that is known outback as a Dotheboy's Hall. He sold Cabell four thousand scabby culls as first-class merinos, and most of them died at their first lambing. Just when Cabell had learnt enough to know that he had been taken in his cousin died. Cabell took a job as an overseer on a station called Murrumburra, about forty miles north of Moreton Bay, sank the remains of his capital in a thousand really good ewes, and vowed to himself, "I'll be rich in ten years."

Aunt Julia wrote: "By now I suppose you've had enough of it to come back and eat humble pie with your brothers. They eat it very nicely, in big mouthfuls, without a bit sticking in their throats. I am sending you a draft to pay your fare home."

Cabell replied: "I do not wish to return. It was true what I said: I wanted to come here."

He thought he was telling a lie, but, who knows, perhaps he was telling the truth. It is the question in which all other questions about Cabell end.

 

 

Chapter Three

McGOVERN

 

Although Murrumburra was only forty miles from Moreton Bay, the journey took a good four days by bullock-waggon at that time. For the first two days after they left the settlement Cabell gave Mickey and the bullocks no peace, he was so anxious to be back with his sheep; but on the third day he became silent and morose and let them idle along at their own pace. He even began making excuses to stop on the road, so that when they camped on the fourth evening they still had twelve miles to do. The fact was that he wished to put off the moment when he would see McGovern again. Matters had come to a head between them.

Cabell's outburst at Moreton Bay was only one of many symptoms of a crisis. He felt the spur of two impulses--the one urging him to throw up everything and return to England and the security of Owerbury, the other driving him to face the problems of his life, which was desperately confused. The first impulse worked upon him with all the fascination of the gracious memories from which it sprang--memories of peace and happiness in the lovely vale of Owerbury. The second was charged with only the bitterness of his anger and pride; it showed him that the one way to escape an ignominious return to the charity of his aunt and the hatred of his brothers was to force himself upon this alien and ugly land. At this moment he stood hesitating on the mystic line that separates youth from manhood, looking back rather wistfully, looking forward fearfully, for though the ordeal awaiting him would make him a cunning and sinewy man, it had to be faced and endured by the frightened boy.

All that was most forbidding in the life round him centred upon the character of McGovern, the superintendent of Murrumburra. The personality of this greedy, swaggering, bloody-minded Currency Lad (as native-born whites were called) had travelled along with them, for they could think and talk of nothing else.

The boy Pete was in a high fever and his groans awakened Cabell at night.

"What's the matter wid ye at all?" Mickey demanded, sitting up and kicking him.

"It's me back," the boy moaned.

"Yer back, is it? Well, if ye still know it's yer back and it doesn't feel like yer back's yer insides there's nothin' the matter at all wid yer, darlin'," Mickey told him. "Tell me, will ye? Can ye feel the bare bones stickin' up under yer shirt, can ye, like an old skeleton?"

"No, Mickey."

"So ye can't. Well, they didn't flog ye at all then, and if I tell that to the Cove he'll up with his tape, he will, and put a flamin' big rut in yer lights with one wallop'd make the Devil shiver his teeth to bits and him sittin' in the middle of the furnace of Hell."

The boy shuddered.

"There's a man!" Mickey said. "Mind ye, he's lazy, and that's all'd save him makin' ye into a mash for the pigs."

With the suffering one's morbid interest in suffering, the boy asked, "Did he ever flog you, Mickey?"

"Now ye're askin' somethin', and the answer's he did," Mickey said proudly, rising out of his blanket. "It was that time at the Limeburners' when he was a lobster." He shook his head. "That was a place. Ye had to fight the rats and maggots for yer tucker, and after that the dirty floggers'd give you fifty every time they just thought of ye, for the things ye'd be after doin' if ye had a chance. Then they'd send ye into the sea with a sackful of lime on yer bloody shoulders. Ye'd hear the gazebos singin' out that time, and it was somethin' to sing out about, I'm tellin' ye."

He took out his pipe, lit it with an ember from the fire, and chuckled. "But I had them fine boys beat. They flogged and flogged till the sweat runnin' off their faces near sizzled when it hit me back, but not a one of the big galoots could break my hide. In them three years I got that many strokes ye'd be near three years addin' them together."

"You must've had a terrible thick back," Pete said.

"Why, didn't the biggest doctors come up from Sydney to set eyes on it?" Mickey boasted. "They said it ought to be put behind a glass case."

"Was it McGovern that broke it?"

"That's what he did, the big brute. For one Sunday the boys had the bands on that bad they was they didn't care at all if the Old Cove was the Old Toaster or what. So they up and smashed in the sentry's mug with one swipe of the shovel, grabbed ahold his musket and run into the store, barred the door and shouted to the Old Cove to go hang himself and worse, the way you'd wonder they had the nerve and every mother's son bound to be lashed bare for each word he spoke that day. Well, in a few minutes the Old Cove rushes up, firing off his pistol like he was in the thick of a battle at Waterloo, and shouts that if we come out hell hang us and if we don't he'll shoot us through the door, the which he does, killin' Tommy the Rat dead as a doornail and blowin' off Tim Sheeny's nose clean into the tin of molasses I'm busy gettin' on the outside of."

Mickey wiped the back of his hand across his mouth and licked his lips.

"Be the Holy, that was a feed-up, with all them lobsters bangin' on the doors the way ye'd wonder the grub didn't stick in them lags' gissards from fear. But they'd made them doors so thick to keep us out they couldn't get in themselves now and we just had to sit there snug as turkey-cocks, ready to bust in fifty little pieces with the vittles beginnin' to swell inside, if anybody so much as stuck an elbow into us."

Mickey took a deep breath.

"Then just as old Shake Brown was sayin' if there was a bit of a burick on his knee he wouldn't change with the Queen herself, there's a rorty great explosion gives me the scare of me young life, so's before I know what's happenin' at all I'm as empty as the priest's saucepan in Lent, and there's old Shake Brown, arse-up in the flour barrel, kickin' like a two-year-old, with the top of his head lyin' on the floor among the syrup and the sultanas. One of them sneakin' lobster rats had come crawlin' over the roof to get a pot at us through the skylight, but the very same instant Gilegan--the same was hanged next week--ups with the musket and brings that lobster down head first on top of us. It's as safe as the Pope's poodle we thought we was then, but. . . ."

He glanced round at the darkness. "What d'ye think I hear?" He bent forward and whispered behind his hand, "Himself."

"McGovern?"

"Sure. He was up on the roof and the Old Cove was shouting to him 'Get them hangman's carcasses out and I'll make ye a sergeant on the spot.'

"'Ay, ay, sir!' he says. 'I'll have 'em out in two ups,' says he.

"'Don't ye want no weapons, me man?' says the Old Cove.

"'I got me Tabby,' says he. 'Me dear Tabby. It'll scamper them rats.' And he laughs. But I don't know him then, so I take no notice and goes on havin' a shinnanikin with Punch the Nigger over a ham-bone he's got ahold the one end of, when suddenly I looks up and sees his face, with its beard the like of gold on fire in the sun, grinnin' straight down as if he was Nick himself havin' a squint at the bottom of the burnin' lake to see who he could stick the fork into. And that grin gives me such a shock I lets go the bone and just looks.

"'Aha, me hearty,' says he, 'ye're the one I'm after.'

"'Me?' I says. 'What for'd ye be after me? I ain't done nothin'.'

"He just chuckles. You know that way he chuckles?"

"Yes!"

"Well, at that Phil Finey and Ginger Dubbs--the same was topped the next week along with Gilegan--they lets fly with the muskets, and when I looks up again there he is still, lookin' down and grinnin' at me.

"'Hey!' I says, puttin' a handful of flour into me gob by accident, 'go away, darlin'. 'Tis no use ye sittin' up there, or these blissid murderers'll bring ye tumblin' down on me in a minute.'

"'Tumblin' down I'll be,' he says, 'and tumblin' up again to skin ye like a new potato.'

"At that the boys laugh hearty and go back to their tucker, except Dubbs and Finey, that've started loadin' up again. Then all of a sudden he roars 'Look out, I'm comin',' and with that gives a mighty great lep on to me, near brainin' me on the spot, takes me under his arm, jumps on a barrel, and heaves me through the skylight, all as quick as a snake's wink. He's half through after me when Ginger lets fly and blows his right sole off. Then three of the others get a hold on his legs, but one gets his faced bashed to smithereens, the next's knocked senseless, and the third gets off easy with a broken shoulder. By this he's out on top of me, tears off me shirt, straps me up to the flagpole, pulls the cat out of his belt, and spits on his hands."

Mickey sighed.

"And that's the end of me power and glory, for the hulkin' great galoot near cut me liver out with the first whack, he did and all. And after twenty he looked like Red the Butcher. And after a hundred you could hear them old rogues spewin' up their hearts all over the store. And after that I don't know except what I was told. They reckoned that me two boots was squelchin' like I'd had me feet in the water when they led me off. And what's more, there was enough bits off of me scattered round the store to feed a hungry dingo."

"It must've been a terrible sight," Pete said weakly.

"It was a sight ye'd never see before nor since," Mickey said, stroking his beard. "Why, it broke up that revolt in three minutes when the Old Cove yells out 'Them what don't come out by the time I count fifty'll be flogged three hundred by McGovern, and them that come out'll be flogged three hundred, not by McGovern (that's them that don't get hanged).' But he didn't say that last bit loud enough to hear, so they all come out, lookin' like they'd been shot out of a cannon, instead of enjoyin' the only bust-up they'd ever had in their lives, God bless 'em. There now!"

They were silent for a while, then Pete asked, "Did he get made a sergeant all right then?"

"Sure, he did, too."

"I nearly have a fit just to look at him," Pete said.

"You!" Mickey spat. "His Honour'd hardly take any notice of a bit of a louse the likes of you. He might just let fly a kick at ye, and that'd be all." He knocked out his pipe and threw a piece of wood on the fire. "'Tis a fight he's always after stirrin' ye up to, the way he'll be able to smash yer face in with one hit'd knock a bullock down. It's like I was meself before he broke up me back for me. It's a change. Och! it's hanged ye'd be for a change, and cheerfully."

Cabell lay stiff as a poker, listening to Mickey's whining Irish voice. When the old man was snoring again he rose and went to the cart for a nip of rum from the cask they were taking up to McGovern. He poured out a second drink and took it to Pete, who looked at him doubtfully for a moment before he grabbed the pannikin and drained it.

Cabell sat down beside him and poked the fire into a blaze. Big-winged nightbirds flew across the stars and settled in the trees with forlorn cries. The bullocks splashed about in the mud of the drying river and rattled their horns together. Possums and bandicoots squabbled in the depths of the scrub. But these noises were the merest scratches on the thick silence of the night, the velvet night of the Australian bush, impenetrable, lonely and sad.

Pete was shivering. He lay with all his weight on his elbow, straining to keep the shivers out of his back.

"How old are you?" Cabell asked.

"Twenty-three years, master."

"How long have you been here?"

"Five years, master."

Cabell looked at him closely. His features hung down, his weak chin, his swollen lips, the bags under his eyes, his ears that looked like pieces of wet cardboard. At the same time his eyes--one had a slight squint--stared up at Cabell watchfully, glancing away on either side every few seconds.

A picture of a man thrashing a dog with a stick flashed into Cabell's mind. Frowning at the fire, he failed to account for this sudden return of an old memory. It came of an incident that had made a deep impression on him when he was quite young. He was out driving with his mother one day when they came upon a man beating a dog in a ditch. The dog was making no sound, but it was shivering and gazing up at the man, glancing away quickly on each side every now and then. When his mother leant out of the carriage and protested, the man took off his cap and explained that the dog was a mongrel from the village that had been chasing the deer in Lord Winburn's park. As soon as the carriage drove on, Cabell's mother promising to see Lord Winburn about it at once, the man had replaced his hat and picked up his stick and had begun beating the dog again, heavily, methodically. Then suddenly a strange thing happened. The dog let out a fearful wail and leapt at the man's throat. They had to stop the carriage and run back. He was frightfully torn about and nearly died.

Cabell looked uneasily at the crazy lad.

"Didn't you kill somebody?" he asked.

"I did me old man in, master--in a fit."

"Do they come often, these fits?" Cabell asked, and at once wondered angrily why he had asked such a question, but insisted, "Do they?"

"When I'm started, all on a sudden, that's when they come."

"Are you very sick now?"

A spasm of shivers rattled the boy's teeth. "I'm afeared, master," he whispered. "I'm afeared."

"Be quiet, you fool," Cabell said angrily, glancing round at the darkness. "Go to sleep, why don't you?"

But they sat close together watching the fire and waiting for the grey dawn to filter through the trees.

 

 

Chapter Four

INDESTRUCTIBLE

 

Cabell rode into the homestead yard just after sunset that evening. The barking of the dogs brought McGovern to the door.

"Aha, is that the little limejuicer at last?" he called. "I thought you'd mizzled."

"Why should I?" Cabell grumbled.

McGovern merely laughed, a low, rich and vibrant laugh with many mocking undertones.

He sensed trouble in the air. McGovern was in a gay mood and kept singing to himself and stretching his shoulders like a dog preparing for action. That was one sign of it. The other was an unusual quietness in the lags' hut.

He unsaddled his horse, threw a bucket of water over her back, and let her out into the paddock. A man was going about with a flare, lighting the dingo fires round the sheep pens. Flashes of sheet lightning sketched the outline of the buildings, the looming hump of the ranges, spread a carpet of white sheep across the near landscape.

In the darkness of the harness shed Cabell gave up trying to find a peg to hang his bridle on, and flung it irritably against the wall. Then he braced himself and went across the yard to the humpy. McGovern, his hands thrust in the tops of his trousers, still sprawled across the narrow doorway. His body soaked the air for a yard around with a rank smell of sweat and tobacco and rum.

Cabell began to force his way past, but when he was almost through an incident happened which, small enough in itself, was yet typical of McGovern and so humiliating to Cabell that he never forgot it. On a sudden impish impulse, apparently, McGovern expanded his shoulders and pinned him to the door-jamb.

Cabell stood a good inch over six feet, and two years of hard work had put a lot of solid flesh on to him, but beside McGovern he looked a weed, panting and struggling to free himself--"like a beetle on a pin," as McGovern said with immense relish, glancing down sideways and roaring with laughter. It was all over in ten seconds, but in that time the doubts and misgivings and hesitations of months died in Cabell.

McGovern stopped laughing to remark with naïve pride, "You know what? I broke a fellow's rib doing that once."

Cabell rose slowly from the dust and looked at him. The blood flushing into his head made his lips look colourless. But he could not speak. His mouth quivered and tears began to well out of his eyes.

"Hmn! A hot-tempered fellow," McGovern said, stroking the golden pelt of his chest thoughtfully, but adding after a while, with a deep, ironic laugh, "God bless his heart and liver, did I hurt the little limejuicer?" He reached out to lay his finger on Cabell's chest, where blood was beginning to distil from the chaffed flesh, but Cabell beat his hand down, pushed him aside, grabbed a piece of rag from his bunk and fled from the humpy.

McGovern stared out at the thickening darkness for a few seconds, then rubbed his hands together.

There was a knowing twinkle in his eyes, which lurked in the weed-fringed grottoes of his eye-sockets like suspicious little animals. Even so, they were the most prominent feature on that face, barring a pair of thick lips and a set of perfect teeth that flashed out of the furze of golden beard whenever he smiled. What kind of a face it was there was nothing to show, for the beard, tangled and matted, filled with burrs and grass-seeds, stained with tobacco and greasy, covered everything but the red tip of a flat nose. He was always laughing and talking, in a deep, friendly voice capable of infinite shades of expression, but all the time his eyes lived their secretive life apart, twinkling gaily when his mouth looked downcast, retreating doubtfully when he laughed. But it was difficult to draw any conclusion from this, except that McGovern was by no means the simple, lazy, drunken, cheerful fellow he pretended to be.

For the rest he was not altogether unpleasant-looking, despite his bandy legs which had grown round the belly of a horse and his wide shoulders which tipped him over at every step so that he seemed to have a hard struggle to get straight again. There was an air of swagger and braggadacio about him that went well with his Viking beard and his deep voice, but like these it probably served a purpose--the same purpose perhaps. In fact, it was impossible to believe that he ever did anything without a purpose--and that a very obscure one. Happy-go-lucky, lounging, careless--yes, the most dangerous and aggressive kind of man. Ugly as he was, he had a way of preening and stretching his body that made the muscles ripple so that the whole rugged frame seemed transfused with graceful energy.

Add to this that he was the result of a liaison between a lady of some consequence in the south and one of her convict servants, a flash confidence trickster, that he had lived on his wits for nearly thirty years, that he had been soldier, jailer, cattle thief, that he had spent all his life in the company of convicts, and one can guess what sort of an antagonist he was likely to be.

When Cabell returned he was sitting at the table--four struts driven into the floor with a slab of bark for a top--sucking at a pannikin of black tea. Before him lay a damper with a chunk torn out, a tin plate of boiled potatoes, a corner of black salt-beef with a jack-knife sticking in it, and a dish of rice and raisins. Among the food stood a lamp, a tin filled with bad fat in which a piece of rag was burning. The fat sizzled and gave off a rancid smoke that coated walls and rafters with dust-filagreed soot. Soot lay thick on the floor, lightly feathered Cabell's cheek, made a glistening paste in the sweat on McGovern's forehead. Even worse was the dung fire burning in the middle of the humpy to keep out mosquitoes. The grey smoke hung over the table, stung Cabell's throat, and made his eyes water. But the mosquitoes still came and buried themselves in his fresh skin like fiery sparks. To soot, dung smoke, mosquitoes and the vermin which bred plentifully in the dusty floor McGovern was alike indifferent.

Cabell sat down. He had been washing his hands. McGovern looked at them--white, long-fingered, with clean nails--then looked at his own--squat, red, ingrained with dirt and greasy. He smiled.

After glowering disgustedly at the flies and the soot for a while, Cabell reached out for the food. McGovern promptly seized his hands in two hairy paws, threw back his head and laughed. They repeated the struggle at the door.

Cabell wrenched his hands away and jumped up from the bench. "I know what this means," he said, breathless. "You're trying to frighten me. You've been stealing my sheep again."

McGovern put his feet up on the table and clasped his hands across his belly. "Stealing your sheep?" he said in a tone of mild surprise, but his smile, his belittling glance said quite plainly "Of course I steal your sheep, fool. What do you expect?"

"I know you do," Cabell said in a shaky voice.

"Go on. Who's been telling you?"

"I don't need to be told." He gestured. "Every time I go away. . . ."

McGovern nodded amiably. "Come to think of it, you lost some day before yest'y."

"How many?"

"Sixty--more or less."

"Sixty!" Cabell swallowed a lump. "Why, confound you, I. . . ."

He raised his hands as though to empty the kettle of tea over McGovern's face, but instead buried them in his hair and let out a groan. Before this cool bravado, expressed in bantering smiles, his courage ebbed out. He turned away, but the strength and vigour of the man were inescapable. They throbbed through the table, which moved against him as McGovern's deep breath rocked it to and fro; when he went to the door they pursued him in laughter that at once maddened and chilled him.

The sky was ablaze with stars. Their alien faces looked down coldly. He felt lonely and bleak. In a fit of dejection he thought, "I'll never get away. Never. I'll rot. I'll go mad like Peppiott. I can't fight them. They're too cunning." Tears of self-pity thickened in his eyes.

The dogs came out to welcome Mickey and Pete with the dray. Lowing and rattling their chains, the bullocks trailed into the yard. A halo of dust ringed the dingo fires.

The sight of the cart, reminding him how calmly McGovern had packed him off to Moreton Bay, quickened Cabell's sense of injury again. He spun round and demanded in a husky but firmer voice, "If you didn't lift them--if the dingoes took them--the skins must be there. Where are they?"

McGovern picked his teeth with the meat-knife, grunted. "Find them, limejuicer. Find them."

"Limejuicer, limejuicer!" Cabell cried in exasperation. "I won't always be a limejuicer."

McGovern laughed a complacent laugh and stroked his arm.

Cabell scowled. "You think I'm like these wretched lags. You think that frightens me. Well, I tell you now, I won't take another step off Murrumburra till I get back every sheep I've lost."

"You mean it?"

"I do."

McGovern looked up with a sly grin. "Now, if I was in your boots," he said softly, "I'd be on a better lay than that."

Struck by the tone of his voice, Cabell glanced at him.

He leant across the table and pointed to the lags' hut. "Quiet, eh? Why?"

Cabell had forgotten the convicts, who at this hour were usually quarrelling over scraps of food and cursing each other. There was one who sang mournful songs far into the night, another who sat at the door weeping and wailing about the pains in his head, a third who kept running out to spit on a tree where McGovern had cut his name. But even these madmen were quiet tonight.

"What's the matter with them?"

McGovern spat on the floor, in the hollows of which lay water, and tea-leaves, and half-chewed gristles, and dog dung. "I laid the tape round them a bit," he said off-hand. "They came with a stink about that last dollop of meat."

"It was only half-rations. You know it was."

"A bit of guts-ache's good for them sometimes," McGovern said. "It takes their mind off things. Oh, they'll soon forget it when Gursey's flogged."

"Gursey?"

"Aha, a mate of yours?" He took his feet from the table and sat up.

"Rubbish!" Cabell flushed. Then after a silence he stammered, "Only . . . well, what could you possibly want to flog him for?"

McGovern stroked his beard and gave him an inscrutable grin. "We'll soon think of something when it's time."

"You're a filthy brute!" Cabell burst out. "Now I know what's behind this. You think. . . . He didn't tell me about the sheep, see. I asked him and he wouldn't. You're going to have him flogged because you think he told me you were stealing my sheep."

"Barking up the wrong tree again," McGovern told him calmly. "I wouldn't have the bastard flogged for all the rum in Bengal." He puffed at his pipe, then said, with a wink, "He's fly, is Mr Gursey. Did you know he was going to top all us superintendents and start a republic of lags?"

"How should I know?" Cabell flushed again.

"But you do. Ha, ha!" McGovern laughed good-naturedly. "Friend Gursey doesn't talk about nothing in the smithy."

"I don't know what you mean," Cabell mumbled, nearly as red as McGovern himself now.

McGovern winked and strolled to the door.

In the yard Mickey was stumbling about among his bullocks. "Away wah yeh, ye swabs!" he shouted in their language, kicking them. They turned slowly and dragged off. The smell of dust and fresh dung floated into the room.

"Leave that load tonight. Just as it stands," McGovern called to him.

Mickey came into the light and wagged his bald head angrily at McGovern. "For what would ye be puttin' more temptations in the blasted world then unless ye're Himself, the Divil and all?" he complained.

"Do as I say."

Mickey went off grumbling, and, after scratching the side of his face thoughtfully and turning his eyes from the dray to the lags' hut and back to the dray, McGovern grunted and returned to the table.

He sat down beside Cabell and prodded him with the stem of his pipe. "Look you here, my boy, he's a red-hot man, Joe. But he's set on getting his Ticket before the year's out, so he's running with the lambs for a bit, eh?" He nodded shrewdly. "You could put your finger in his gob and he wouldn't bite it."

"Have you tried?" Cabell asked in a challenging voice.

McGovern laughed heartily. "You've got me there. It wasn't me finger I put in his mouth the other day."

Cabell grimaced. "Ach, you're a disgusting brute," he said. "I saw what you did. You tied him up and smeared his face with--with that filth."

"Ah, you don't understand Joe," McGovern told him. "It wasn't the dung but the tying-up that made him look like he did. He crept off like a mouse, though, didn't he?"

Cabell frowned at the table. He knew that McGovern was weaving a web round him, but how and where he did not know. McGovern's face, at once lazily cheerful and slyly calculating, told him nothing. He fidgeted with the meat-knife for a second or two, then dug it deep into the table. Words impatiently escaped him again. "You must be a monster, an absolute maniac, if you haven't got some purpose treating him like that." He brushed the hair out of his eyes with a gesture of helplessness. "Nobody could be so brutal, not even in this country."

"Ah!" McGovern rose and stretched himself, smiled ironically.

 

 

Chapter Five

"ONE DAY YOU WILL GET MURDERED!"

 

Suddenly the yard seemed to have awakened. The bullocks padded about in the dust, chains rattled, a door slammed, the watchman came out of his box and grunted at Mickey, then went round his fires throwing on fresh wood. The flames leapt up, tarnishing for an instant the yellow light in the hut.

Cabell glared at the table, then reached over abruptly and pushed the knife away.

"Listen," McGovern began again, reseating himself and setting his back against the table. "I'll tell you a yarn about Joe. It was down in the barracks at Moreton Bay. There was an overseer, an Irish sod named Geogarty, that used to 'feed pigs'. Don't know what that is? It's taking some poor sod's tucker and feeding him only the offal and husks. He's some lag the rest of the gang's got a nark on, so he can't split to the Cove because nobody'll stand by him, and afterwards the overseer'll just kick his stuffing out. All he can do is sit quiet and hope for a change before he starves. Geogarty picked on a poor devil called Coyle, the same that's down in the hut now. Coyle and Gursey was thick at the time, but Gursey was expecting word of his Ticket any day, so he says nothing. But he shares his tucker with Coyle and just looks at Geogarty as much as to say 'You wait till I get out. Your damper'll be dough.' Well, this Geogarty he's a lag himself, and he doesn't want to lose a soft crib, so he thinks to himself, 'Get out and split on me, will you? We'll see about that, me hearty,' and he begins putting the boot into Joe with this and with that, enough to make a saint boil in the gall. But Joe's got patience. He's not the same as other lags at all. The System soon breaks them up, but Joe it just sets on fire and leaves him as hard as brick.

"Just to show you. One day he's working on the roads when he opens up a bull-ant nest. He gets out of the hole quick, but Geogarty sends him back. Three times he gets out and three times Geogarty sends him back. The third time he stays and the ants crawl all over him, hundreds of them--and you know what one nip from a bull-ant is. Does Joe say a word? Not him. He still goes round with his eyes on the ground and his gob tight as a corpse's, for fear some word might slip out and lose him his Ticket. But when he does look at Geogarty that sod knows his number's up and he'll be back in the gang himself unless he can think of something soon.

"Then one day he gets a notion. There's a terrible Nancy English officer there, a duke or something, and Geogarty knows Joe's not nuts on lifting his lid to anyone, specially to this cove, who spends his time going the rounds and prodding the lags with a bit of a cane he had. So Geogarty starts sending Joe on messages wherever this Lord Muck is. And when Joe tries to sneak past without lifting his lid, Lord Muck he pulls him up. 'Haw, haw, what's this I see, you scum?' says he. 'Don't you know you've got to raise your hat when you pass me, you gallows-rat?' And forthwith he sits himself down and makes Joe walk up and down in front of him fifty times, raising his hat each time.

"Well, Joe goes back very slow to the gang, and on the way he picks up a gibber and puts it in his pocket. 'Ho, ho,' says Geogarty when he sees from Joe's face that his temper's coming up at last, 'you don't look all that pleased, Joe.' 'No,' says Joe, 'I just found out I've got to leave you and it makes me sad.' 'What, you got your Ticket already?' 'No,' shouts Joe, 'I've got yours,' and with that he whips out the gibber and lands it square between Geogarty's eyes, laying him out flat as a pancake. 'Now, boys,' he says, after he's made sure he hasn't killed the sod, 'I'm making for the bush. Who'll come with me?' But the only one that would go was that crazy loon Red."

McGovern glanced into the yard and rubbed his chin. "Hmn," he muttered. "Yes. What happened then? Well, he was out for a year. Went up country where no white man's never been before nor since. Nearly done for once or twice--thirst, starvation, myalls. Killed a black once and ate him. Flesh the colour of them pretty flowers you see down the scrub--kind of purply blue. Then a tribe takes them in and they could've stayed for the rest of their days, but Joe begins to think--he's got a head on him--and he thinks this is just like being in jail; so as there's only one way of getting free, he sets out with Red, crosses the Divide about five hundred miles up the coast, comes down through all that bush where they're just beginning to push out now, in his bare feet and without any gun or anything, and gives himself and Red up at Moreton Bay, after trekking close on a thousand miles. And after that what d'you think they done to him? They give him three hundred on the bare back, and for three months after he couldn't see, feel or walk." He shook his head. "Poor Joe!"

Cabell sat with his head in his hands, staring gloomily at the table. As the story progressed he had become more and more uneasy, had walked round the table, then into the far corner of the room as though he did not wish to listen, but had returned to the bench at last.

McGovern smoked in silence, watching him. After a while he leant over and, peering closely into Cabell's face, said, "Now you see the kind of man he is. Just suppose you was to drop him the wink that you're going to take him down to Moreton Bay with the darbies on, eh?"

Cabell turned his head. Several seconds passed before he retorted, indignantly, "I'll do nothing of the kind."

McGovern patted his knee. "Don't worry your soft heart about it. He won't be flogged. He'll see to that." He nodded slowly with one eye closed.

"You tell me this?" Cabell cried. "Now I will tell him. I certainly will."

"Ah, I knew you would. All I got to do then is send you off to Moreton Bay with him, you let him escape, he comes back to kill me--or get Red to kill me--and. . . ." He smiled.

Cabell frowned, sensing vaguely the double meaning behind all McGovern had been saying. "What d'you mean? Why would I let him escape?"

"Why?" McGovern nudged him. "Because you want to go looking for those skins without anybody looking for you."

Cabell drew away. "I don't know what you're driving at," he said, then jumped up. "I'm going to clear out of this place. I--" He stopped, beat angrily at a mosquito on his cheek, and blurted out "One day you will get murdered!"

"Ah!" McGovern dropped his hands on his knees with a long sigh of satisfaction.

But Cabell had stiffened, as though his own words had vouchsafed him some utterly unexpected and outrageous revelation.

The flame of the lamp, unwavering for an instant, twinkled on the points of McGovern's suddenly intent eyes.

 

 

Chapter Six

THREATS

 

"Yes?" he urged gently at the end of a long silence.

Cabell roused himself, and as though reluctant to meet McGovern's eyes, glanced nervously about the hut. It was the prompting of a desperate inspiration that made him turn quickly and glance over McGovern's head at the figures moving about the yard in the light of the dingo fires.

Still dazed, the boy Pete was staggering around in a drunken fashion after Mickey, helping him.

McGovern craned his neck. "Pete?" he disparaged. "Pete murder me? Why, he's just a go-along." He called, "Hey, Pete, you dog, come here."

Pete looked round doubtfully, then came across the yard. He stopped in the doorway, and the light from the slush lamp played grotesque tricks with his sickly, emasculate face.

Cabell gazed at him intently. He looked a pathetic figure hunched up against the background of night, stars and smoky fires.

"Come along in, Pete," McGovern coaxed him. "Come and tell me what they did to you, the dirty swine."

The lad shuffled forward a few inches, but kept one foot out ready to jump away from the kick he was expecting.

"Hurt your little Nancy, did they, Pete?" McGovern mocked him. "Well, that's rotten. You won't be getting any extra bits out of the lags' tucker this week, will you?"

The boy hung his head.

As he talked McGovern edged slowly along the table till he was within a yard of the door. Then with a heavy spring he leapt on the lad and fastened a hand in his collar. "Got him!" he shouted.

Pete cried out with the pain of wounds reopened. In an instant drops of sweat were channelling the down of his cheek.

McGovern chuckled. "Why do you tremble, my little bird? Maybe you don't like me, eh? Maybe you'd like to flap your wings and fly away? But jailbirds don't have no wings, Pete. And birds that don't have no wings get boned mighty quick and brought back and skinned and served up with raspberry jelly. Yes, raspberry jelly." He laughed at his joke, a vast, good-natured laugh that blotted out the silence of the night and the little noises of sheep and men.

The boy covered one dirty foot with the other and shuddered.

"Aha, my little canary-bird, so the cat has been scratching you, has it? Is that what you're chirping about? And while the cat was crawling up your back didn't a little thought come into your head? Didn't you think it would be nice to murder the sod that sooled the cat on you, eh? Yes, yes, I know all the little notions in canary-birds' heads."

McGovern kept his eyes fixed on Cabell, and his words took a special meaning from them.

"Listen here, Pete," he said, drawing the boy closer but talking straight at Cabell. "Why don't you do it?" He pointed to the door of the room, divided off by a slab wall from the rest of the humpy, where he slept. "When he shakes down in there he goes right off to sleep and he doesn't know nothing again till sun-up. It's a drummond, Pete. You get out of your bunk about midnight; creep across the yard; come in here (don't be frightened Mr Cabell'll see you); take this knife"--he let Pete go and picked up the jack-knife--"(don't use a pistol--you can't trust them); sneak into his room; listen (he snores like a dog); you bend over him; pull the blanket back, softly, softly, and you stick the blade into him here, like this," and he dug the knife up to its handle in the table. "But be careful, Pete," he whispered to Cabell; "be sure and slit his throat after, just to be on the safe side."

Cabell's interest was riveted on Pete, who showed signs of extraordinary excitement. As McGovern described how he should enter the room and listen, Pete held his breath and listened. When McGovern told him how to bend over and feel for the heart, he sucked his lips together and shadows of fear and hatred and triumph chased vividly across his face; and as McGovern plunged the knife into the table a choking, animal cry gurgled up his throat. For a moment he stood quivering on tiptoe, his long neck stretched out, his mouth open, one hand raised, then suddenly his features went lax, as though a spring in them had snapped. He turned his bloodshot eyes slowly, sullenly towards Cabell and a look of ghastly alarm came into them. "I didn't," he muttered. "I didn't."

McGovern nodded shrewdly at Cabell. "Well, you'd better," he said. "If you don't get him he might get you."

The boy shook his head in a dazed way, then, becoming aware that McGovern was not holding him, he stumbled out of the door, tripped over something and sprawled into the darkness.

McGovern picked up a piece of wood from the floor and flung it after him. They heard the boy fall heavily again.

Cabell watched him rise and disappear on the other side of the fires.

He was roused from deep thought by McGovern speaking close to his ear.

"I got to thank you for that. I was beginning to think I only had a kitten there." McGovern closed one eye and scratched the tip of his flat nose. "So much the better, my lad. So much the better." He began to sing softly.

 

 

Chapter Seven

LAGS

 

Twelve convicts lived in the lags' hut. They slept on heaps of straw and ragged blankets spread over the floor, which was foul with spit. The stench of the place suggested not merely filth but that utter abandonment of every physical decency that is the last sign of despair.

Three men were sitting at the table--Joe Gursey, the blacksmith; Red, the butcher and general rouseabout; and one of the shepherds named Jimmy Coyle. Coyle and Gursey were arguing. As their movements fluttered the flame of the slush lamp, features flicked out of the darkness--a wart-crusted ear, a yawning mouth, a naked chest, arms, legs.

Coyle pointed through the door. "There's a cart with a month's tucker. We've all got the bands on. And you don't want to rob it. Getting soft, eh, Joe?"

"No softer than I was when I first met you."

"You weren't a crawler in those days, Joe."

"I'm not one now."

"Get along with you! You're that meek the boys'll be calling ye Holy Joe next."

"So we will, too," spoke up Feeny from the darkness. "Holy Joe the Whiddler." There was a laugh from half a dozen of the men.

"Call me what you like," Joe said, repudiating them with a wave of his hand. "But you won't make me touch a grain of that corn."

"And for why?" asked Coyle slyly.

"Because I don't want to get done again for a crack."

Coyle laughed sarcastically. "Did ye hear that boys? He doesn't want to get done for a crack. But what about us?" He tapped Gursey's shoulder. "Answer me this, Joe. Did you or did ye not guts up a dollop of that jumbuck I drove off Flanagan's last week?"

"That's not the point at all."

Coyle smiled. "I'll tell you how it is, boys. Joe's all there when it's somebody else's neck in the squeezer. But when it's likely to be his own, he tells ye the crack's a bad ha'penny."

"Ay, that's how it seems," they agreed.

Gursey faced them. "Think, can't you! He starts starving you all of a sudden. He won't give you tucker this morning. And in the night he leaves the cart out under your nose. Why, d'you think?"

There was a sound of heads being scratched in the darkness and much uneasy rustling among the straw.

Mark Scuggan spoke out for the convicts who had been silent so far. "Maybe 'tis as Joe reckons, Jimmy--a trap. If so be it is, I haven't got the bands on that bad I can't wait a bit longer."

"Another whiddler," Coyle sneered.

Mark Scuggan thrust his face into the light, a very small grey face in a wide fringe of white beard, and went on in a quavering Quakerish voice, "Nay, nay, Jimmy Coyle. You be a terrible scamp these days, callin' all honest men by suchlike names. And what's more, you be downright criminal to use such words to Joe. He's no whiddler, and well do you know it."

"Aw, stow your whid, you old loon," Coyle muttered.

"As for who's the loon," said the old man calmly, "'tisn't far to look. You haven't been in your right mind since the day began to come for Joe to get his Ticket. If some would make bold to call him Joe the Whiddler to his face, many more might think the same of ye behind your back. For 'tis plain as the fingers on your hand that ye'd destroy yourself to drag him down with ye." He nodded reproachfully and slid back into his straw.

Coyle smiled bitterly. He was a man about the same age as Gursey, with sardonic lines about his thin mouth, fine hands, a good Roman nose, and something of the same passionate energy that distinguished Gursey from the stolid and indifferent convicts around. He exchanged a look with Gursey--a nasty look on both sides.

But the lags had had time by now to think about what Gursey had said. Even those who did not like him were inclined to listen to him: they trusted him, which was more than they did each other; probably for the same reason they disliked him--because he was different from them, his hatred a kind of ecstasy, his hopes for the future when he should be free a fanaticism and a faith. "Ay, ay," they grumbled. "Maybe. . . ." They were pretty hardened to hunger by worse places than Murrumburra.

It was nearly midnight. Through the cracks in the walls light glowed from the dingo fires. In the farthest corner Mickey snored and Pete groaned fitfully.

Coyle gave Gursey a malicious smile and went to the door.

Nervously Gursey watched him.

Gursey was a small man, below medium height, with that frail, fleshless kind of body that is often the most enduring. Two years in the mines on the Coal River, where the men came up only on Sundays--flogging-day--had left him with a peculiar, rickety pallor, and as a legacy of the punishment he got for escaping from Moreton Bay he had a tic in the right side of his face and a leg that dragged as he walked. His hair was white and he had a white, snowy beard, which he chewed nervously. His body was horribly cut about from the nape of his neck to his waist. His fiery little eyes, set close together, flickered in their deep sockets like beetles burrowing into his skull, giving the impression of shrewd and incessant watchfulness. His voice was high and thin, like the yap-yapping of a terrier, which his sharp features made him curiously resemble, and as he talked he kept jumping up and thumping the table or walking up and down waving his hands in jerky gestures, as though beset by wasps. Impatience, exasperation, even frenzy, were his normal emotions. Transported for seven years for agitating for higher wages in the new mills in Manchester, his constant fierce rebellion against "The System" had kept him in servitude for fifteen years. At this time he must have been about thirty-five years old.

His attention was distracted from Coyle for a moment by the mutterings of Red, who was counting the devils that were always trying to get round behind and strangle him. One of the lost souls. Nobody knew where Red came from, how long ago, or why. When anyone asked "Tell us how you was boned, Red," he just stared, and had long ceased to know that he was in prison at all. He had a bullet head and a nose smashed flat on his face. The only person he ever talked to was Gursey, who had been with him in one prison-yard or another for nearly ten years. The lags kept a sharp eye open when he was about, for he was likely to see one of his devils escaping into their pockets. Then he would fling them down and strip them naked and pummel them unconscious in a flash. A hulking and dangerous brute of whom an unscrupulous man could easily make deadly use.

Coyle returned from the door and sat down beside him. "Red," he whispered, with one eye on Gursey. "There's five gallons of Bengal in the dray, Red."

Red glanced at him with an absent look and glanced away immediately to swipe at the empty air.

Coyle nudged him and began to sing softly:

 

"Cut your name across me backbone,
Stretch me skin across yer drum,
Iron me up on Pinchgut
From now to Kingdom Come;
I'll eat yer Norfolk Dumpling
Like a juicy, Spanish plum,
Even dance the Newgate Hornpipe
If ye'll only gimme rum!"

 

The old song seemed to convey more to Red than Coyle's words. He grinned and wiped the back of his hand thoughtfully across his mouth, chuckled, then punched Coyle in the chest. "Ye Kilmainham rat, where is it?" he demanded.

"In the dray," Coyle told him. "Waitin' for ye."

"His dray?"

"Yes; the Cove's dray."

Red brought his two fists down on the table again, making the lamp jump and splutter so that the faces of the men on the floor were completely lighted for a moment. "I'll scuttle his nob with me fist!" he roared. "I'll choke the lamps out of him. I'll--"

Gursey shook him violently. "Stow your whid." Turning on Coyle, he demanded: "What did you tell him that for, damn you?"

Coyle cocked an eyebrow. "And why not?"

"Because you knew the whisper of it'd put him off the hooks so there'd be no holding him back! Wasn't that it?"

Coyle shrugged. "There's no pleasing you, Joe. What do ye want?"

"I don't want that."

"No?" Coyle looked incredulous. "And here's me thinkin' all this time you must've made it up with the limejuicer to do just that and nothing else."

"Well, you're wrong."

Coyle made a long face. "Can you tell me why you've been feeding this one up like a fighting cock, then, and living on the husks and bones yeself? Can ye? Maybe you haven't been putting it into his head the Cove's got a couple of red devils ready to drop on him, eh?"

Gursey glowered, opened his mouth to speak, but stuffed the end of his beard into it instead.

Coyle laughed in his face, then turned to the convicts, who had raised themselves on their elbows again, roused like Red by the mention of rum.

"You, Feeny," he demanded, pointing at Gursey, "are ye going to let this lily-livered damned whiddler come the white rhino over you when there's Bengal asking ye to lift it?"

Feeny scratched his head and looked doubtfully at the rest, who looked doubtfully back, each waiting for the other to make up his mind. "No, I won't, neither," Feeny grumbled. "Only . . . well, I'm wid ye if the rest is."

Coyle raised the lamp. "Who isn't?"

The light fell on the faces of those nearest the table, toothless, bony, scarred and sunbaked faces with tangled beards and wrinkles that might have been cut out with haphazard blows of the chisel. There was Jake Henn, a London footpad, with a red hole where his left eye had been knocked out. There was Nigger Jack. There was Mark Scuggan, the old man, perpetually cringing as though expecting a blow. There was Hoppy Charlie, one side of his face shrunk to the bone, the other swollen out with toothache. There was Flash Harry, who had worn Cossack trousers and jewelled brooches in his time, his ribs sticking out through the rags of a dirty jacket now. They rubbed their chins thoughtfully, peered at each other, grinned doubtfully. Rum!

Scuggan looked uneasily at Gursey, licked his lips, then turned his eyes away. "Well . . . hmn . . . if 'tis rum you said . . . well--"

The others stirred.

"Yes," said Jake Henn. "Rum might be worth crackin' a load for. How much'd you say? Five gallons." He glanced round, trying to work out what his share would be. "Well, sayin' that everybody was in, too. . . ."

"Ay, ay," the rest agreed.

Coyle glanced questioningly at Gursey.

He turned his back on them and beat away his invisible horde of wasps. "Hang yourselves, then," he snarled. "But there won't be a whiff of the stuff on me in the morning for McGovern to sniff out."

"Did ye hear that?" Coyle asked.

There was an argument on the floor. It was settled by Feeny calling "No dirty scabbing tricks now, Joe. Flog one, flog all. That's our motter."

"Ay, ay."

Gursey turned on them. "Of course," he snapped. "You're in here for years yet. I won't do it."

"He won't do it, he says," Coyle told them aside.

"Damn and blast his Ticket, I say," Feeny growled.

"You hear what the boys say?" Coyle conveyed it to him.

Gursey spat at his feet. "Swine. You don't give a damn for the rum, either."

"Oh, ho! And don't I? Just you see, Joe, me boy." He strode to the door and looked out.

Red followed him anxiously, smacking his lips and muttering.

"Shake a leg now, lads!" Coyle called to the men after surveying the yard and the sky. "Oliver's just getting up in the trees."

The convicts rustled out of the straw, stood hesitating round the table, looking at Gursey.

Gursey jumped off the bench and confronted them. "Think what you're doing. Didn't I tell you it was a trap?"

"That was only tucker," Feeny said. "This is rum. If it's scared ye are, we ain't."

"Yes, I'm scared," Gursey said. "And you--you're scared, too. You've got nothing to look forward to. You've always been trying to get shot or hanged. That's why you've escaped and beaten up soldiers and tried to strangle each other. It's despair. That's all it is." He beat frantically on the table and a wild light came into his eyes. "But can't you see, you fools? You have got something. You have. You have!" He waved his hand towards the door, beyond which was the scrub where dingoes were howling to each other. "It's yours. Yours. Can't you understand? In two, three five years you'll be out of this muck and misery. Outside you'll find a country. Yes, it's ours. These tit-sucking limejuicers, they'll go back home; but we'll stay. It's all poverty and jails for us in England. We'll begin again here. No more empty guts, no more--"

"Aw, stow it!" Feeny cut in. "Ye're never through wid the talkin'."

"Only wait," Gursey went on, brushing him aside. "The day will come if you wait. It will. It will. But if you don't wait you'll just rot here till you die." He backed against the door.

"You and your day!" Coyle said.

Mark Scuggan piped up in a quavery voice. "A b'lieve 'ee, Joe. That I do. But come three years I'll be on the offal dump, so 'tisn't much use me thinkin' what will be. Whereas a pannikin of rum in me hand now. He, he!" He laughed nervously.

Feeny thrust Gursey aside. "Ye'll drink the stuff when we bring it to ye or by Christ we'll make a hole in ye to pour it in! Stand away!"

Gursey recovered himself against the table and sat down while the lags crowded through the doorway.

Scuggan lingered a while. "'Tis that big sweep McGovern troublin' you, I see," he said sympathetically.

"No, no. I don't care a damn for him."

"Who could trouble you more than these wild beasts, then? Not Cabell, surely."

Gursey took the end of his beard between his teeth. "Yes," he said. "Cabell!"

The old man nodded. "Ay. A b'lieve. He's an artful one. God made 'em both and Devil brought 'em together. . . ."

Inside the dark homestead humpy McGovern slept as he always did, sucking up great gulps of air.

Cabell awoke soaked in sweat. He had been dreaming. He was locked up in the humpy, beating a dog with McGovern's stockwhip. It was pitch dark and all he could see was the dog's eyes, which glanced from side to side, but all the time came nearer. Suddenly there was a burst of mad laughter and the dog sprang. . . . He was back in the cemetery at Three Barrow Down, where his mother was buried, watching a funeral. Only it was his own funeral. His father was there in a black coat, and all his brothers. They had red beards. They were bending over and spitting into the coffin. He looked down. It was himself, but he had the legs of a dog. The coffin began to fall, fall, fall. . . . He was running along labyrinthine gullies in the ranges behind the homestead, looking for his mother, who was lost. He had heavy irons on his legs. The dog was following. He was afraid to move lest the rattling of the irons attracted the dog. But he must move. He must. He must. . . .

One of the dogs at the homestead end of the pens barked. The watchman cursed it quiet, and again the only sound was the drone of mosquitoes.

Through the window Cabell saw the first tender radiance of the rising moon. A black bunya pine was fossilized in the ultramarine sky. He felt miserable and heavy with a foreboding of evil--overtones of his nightmare. Burying his face in his arms to protect it from the mosquitoes, he tried to sleep. But the dog began yapping again. He climbed from the bunk, picked up a piece of wood, and crept out to drive it away. The dog was yapping, not at the moon, but at the dray, a grey blur in the middle of the yard. It sensed Cabell and trotted back to the pens and lay down.

He was just turning away when his quick ear caught the sound of movement in the darkness. Immediately the sound was repeated, and clearly came an angry whisper. When his heart quietened down a little he had first an impulse to wake McGovern, which he checked at once, then an impulse to get his pistols from under the bunk and see for himself. He climbed through the window and got into the scrub. In a minute or two he was standing in the shadows a few yards from the lags' hut, near the fence. Figures crouched whispering behind this. Four men were working at the cart, pulling the bags about hurriedly in search, he understood, of the rum, handicapped by having to keep on the side farthest from the homestead for fear of being seen.

His hands were clammy. He was afraid to move, and the mosquitoes bored into his ears, his eyelids, crawled up his wide nostrils. His gloom persisting, the dream melting into this present experience in a way that baffled his efforts to separate them and assure himself that he was awake, he realized at the same time, as a curious fact, that he could easily burst out laughing if he let himself go. But at this point action became imperative. He twitched all over, nerves tugging like tight wires in his flesh. But prudence restrained him from stepping out to present his pistols at their heads. He backed towards the humpy to awaken McGovern. But he had not reached the edge of the scrub when a new idea came to him, making his heart leap up in his throat again. Minutes passed while he stood thinking about it. The idea vanished after a while. He came to and found himself pondering a heavy scent of clematis, white vines of which trailed from the trees around him. It suggested a childish prayer. He wiped his hands dry on his trousers, said the prayer over to himself, and began to feel his way back through the scrub again.

The men were gone from the cart. He saw them climbing over the fence in a hurry, then silhouetted against the light as they entered the hut. His courage returned in the rush of disappointment. He was cursing to himself for a great opportunity lost when voices broke the silence. They began in mutters and grew to shouts.

Mickey's voice rose above the rest. "Damned if I will! Ain't it like St Gabriel himself I am to ye, the way I'm watchin' over ye by hidin' the pisin."

"Choke him, Red." This from Feeny.

There was a scuffle.

"Say it or I'll draw yer like a fowl." This unmistakably from Red--a crazy voice.

"Not if ye sit there till ye rot on me."

Sounds of heavy blows, grunts.

"Leave him, Red. Ye can't hurt him. There's no time. Try the lad."

Another outburst of shouting, then the boy's voice saying wildly, "I don't Red. S'elp me God. I was boned when they loaded. Mickey hided it, he did."

"Well, off comes yer shirt for a start," Red muttered with a frantic kind of glee.

A horrible scream tore layers of imaginary flesh off Cabell's shoulders. He guessed that they had ripped the boy's shirt off the blood-caked back.

The scream died in a long moan. All the dogs howled horribly, too, and the dingoes answered them and the curlews began piping in melancholy agitation by the river. The watchman came out of his box, whistled his dogs in, and prudently retreated to the farthest end of the pens.

"Take it easy, Red," somebody said. "He'll have a fit on yer."

"Oh, stop him, stop him!" Scuggan's trembling voice protested. "Are you all loony?"

Another scream, longer and wilder than the first.

"Don't ye like the taste of salt, then?" Red said. "Ah, but ye've got a fine bloody back to rub it in."

Another silence while the boy controlled his sobbing. Then, "I'll show yer," he whimpered.

An audible gasp of relief came through the door, and an exclamation rather like disappointment from Red: "I hadn't hardly started."

Cabell relaxed against the tree and wiped sweat out of his eyes.

The four figures came through the door again, supporting Pete between them. He was breathing hard.

They had just got him over the fence when the moonlight broke through the trees and struck across the door of the humpy. Whether Pete thought he saw McGovern standing there or whether it brought back memories of the scene of the previous evening, he dug his heels in the ground suddenly, gave a third scream, and began struggling.

Echoes threw back a scream more bleak and bloodcurdling.

The men hesitated a second, then turned and fled for the hut, leaving Pete in Red's hands.

Gursey rushed out into the yard, leapt the fence, and flung himself upon them, clawing the madman's fingers from Pete's throat, kicking him, punching. "You'll wake them, you fool," he panted. "Get back to the hut. Quick!"

Cabell, too, was frozen by the scream and held his breath, expecting McGovern to appear. But he came to quickly and, burying his teeth in his lip, stepped out before them, his pistols glinting in the moonlight.

Gursey gave one look and was over the fence and out of sight in an instant. Red automatically lumbered after him. But the boy was petrified. He backed slowly away for ten yards before he could make his legs turn and run. Then Cabell was on him. They came down heavily on the ground together.

Pete's strength returned in a cat-like frenzy.

"Shut up, curse you!" Cabell hissed. "You'll wake McGovern." But in the end he had to crack the lad on the head with the butt of his pistol.

The light went out in the lags' hut and the tense silence of listening was over the place.

Cabell fought down a wave of weakness, dragged the boy under the trees, then crept back to McGovern's window. Heavy breathing reassured him. He brought a bucket of water, and in a few minutes the boy was sitting up.

Cabell shook him. "After another trip to Moreton Bay, are you?" he asked in a sardonic idiom learnt of McGovern.

Pete rubbed his head. "It warn't me, master. I didn't. S'elp me God I didn't."

"It doesn't matter now," Cabell said. "I'll leave you to McGovern in the morning."

Pete looked as though he might faint, so Cabell threw the rest of the water into his face. "Listen," he said. "I'll give you this one chance."

Pete cringed away.

"Tell me where my sheep go to."

"I don't know nothin' about your sheep," Pete grumbled. "I told you before."

"I couldn't get the ribs thrashed out of you before."

Pete was silent. Then he began to weep. "I can't, master. I can't. They'll do me in."

"Who?"

"Them that's on the racket."

"Do you in, how?"

"Baptise me in the river."

Cabell dragged him to his feet. "I'll ask you again at counting out. Think about it."

Pete staggered off dizzily. The moon was well up now, dappling the yard with deep shadows.

Cabell walked back to the cart, tidied the load, put a fallen sack in place and some spilt cobs into the sack, tied the tarpaulin down, and returned to the humpy.

Back in his bunk, he emerged from a prolonged fit of shivers to a triumphant feeling of an enterprise miraculously launched.

 

 

Chapter Eight

A DANGEROUS LAY

 

He was not so sure when he came out again in the morning. The crystal dawn revealed to him the immensity, crudity and indifference of the world in which he proposed to act. Rising to the west on abrupt escarpments cut through by gullies still gloomy and moonstruck, falling to the east in wave after wave of untinted greyness, the bush was a gigantic fist in which the homestead lay like a grain of sand, a thing of such oceanic antiquity that his little time-bound heart might well falter at thoughts of conquest here.

Through McGovern's window came the sound of lusty breathing. Cabell paused in the act of pouring a bucket of water over his body and considered his slender arms and legs. A conviction of inadequacy completed itself.

His thoughts veered back to the conversation of the night before, but he dismissed them irritably, not wishing to probe too deeply into McGovern's designs in case, perhaps, he should see his own. In telling the story to us as an old man Cabell used to picture himself, and most sincerely, as a bewildered youth who never knew what he was going to do next. For example, he had not the slightest idea how he was going to make good his threats to Pete. The idea of handing him over to McGovern--Oh, that was too repulsive! But he dismissed thought on this matter, too, deciding to "wait and see what would turn up".

Shaved, dressed in moleskins, topboots and a red flannel shirt, he emerged from the humpy with a deep furrow between his eyebrows. On his way to the lags' hut he grew a shade paler, passing tell-tale footmarks in the dust. He stamped them out and went on with a little more determination.

Coyle was already up and searching about the edge of the scrub for dry gum-leaves to put in his pipe.

The fuzz from the crowded hut stopped Cabell in the doorway. Black hordes of flies immediately plated his back. The soot from the slush lamp had settled on the faces of the sleeping men. Pete lay on his stomach, his face towards the door. A trickle of blood had dried over his left eye. Red's head hung backward; his mouth was open and his purple tongue was curled up in the back of his throat, as though his devils had done for him in the night.

Cabell kicked the wall. "Wakey!" he shouted. "Sun's burning your eyes out!"

They began to scramble up from the floor, scratched their flea-bitten bodies, then one by one went out into the yard, nibbling at corn-cobs already much chewed over.

Pete opened an eye and closed it at once without moving.

When all the lags had gone Cabell stirred the lad with his foot. "It's time you were getting back to Burradeen, Pete," he said, adding in a low voice, "if you're going."

But still he did not move.

Joe Gursey hung about the door.

"Wake up, confound you!" Cabell said, irritable all at once.

"The lad's queer," Gursey told him.

"What's supposed to be wrong with him?"

"It's the rough handling he's had."

Cabell looked at Gursey sternly. "He'll have worse before the day's out."

Gursey walked away.

Cabell considered the boy, then bent down and touched him gently. "But it's no good to try and gammon me, Pete," he said, as though arguing with a child. "I'm not as soft as I look."

The boy buried his face in the straw and began to weep.

"I'll leave you till we've counted out, then," Cabell said softly. "I couldn't leave you any longer. You know that." With immense relief he escaped from the sight of the boy's thin shoulders shaken by sobs.

The convicts had started work. The dogs were in the pens driving the sheep out. Red, Feeny and Nigger Jack held the gates so that only four or five sheep could crush through at a time, while Joe Gursey, Flash Harry and Mark Scuggan stood by and counted. There were eight thousand sheep in the pens, eight flocks. As soon as a flock was complete one of the shepherds whistled up his dogs and went off with it towards the river, a thin copper wire coiled among the now sunlit trees.

The sheep in the pens leapt and crowded towards the gates. The din of bleating, barking, men shouting filled the air with birds like flakes of light. Clouds of dust rose like a flight of scarlet and gold motes in the slanting beams of the sun. The men holding the gates against the sheep sweated themselves wet, and the falling dust covered their faces with stiff, ferruginous masks.

The last flock had gone when McGovern appeared yawning in the doorway. He spat, scratched himself, then rubbed his hands briskly, and his eyes fell first on Gursey. "Hey, you, Joe, cutthroat; come and strap these boots!" he shouted.

Gursey came back and began to do as he was told.

"What're you scowling about?" McGovern demanded. "Don't like it, eh?"

"Yes," Gursey said humbly.

"Lucky for you, or I'd tell you to lick them. You would, wouldn't you? Damn your eyes, you've snapped a strap," McGovern chuckled. "What're you shivering for?"

"It's a touch of the fever."

"All the tucker you gutsed last night, you mean."

"I didn't have any tucker."

"Is there a beak from here to Hobart'd believe that, Joe?"

"I slept all night," Gursey said quickly.

"Get along with you!" McGovern laughed and pushed him over into the dust, then strolled out into the yard, where Cabell was stoking the fire under the kettle, the nearest job to hand when McGovern had come out suddenly and caught him going to the lags' hut.

"Now, you ----," McGovern said with a sarcastic twinkle, "I bet you didn't hear a thing, either?"

"Was there anything to hear?"

Standing over him in characteristic attitude, his legs wide apart, his hands in the top of his trousers, McGovern half closed his eyes and nodded. "You're fly. You're an artful dodger. But"--he shook his head--"you'll take that trip just the same, my bonny."

Whistling gaily, he went on again and came at last to the cart, relieving a painful suspense among the men in the yard. He pulled the tarpaulin off, rolled up his sleeves and began to overhaul the load. Twice he counted the bags of corn, tested the rum cask, then scratched his head and frowned. "I'll be double-damned!" he muttered in an aggrieved tone. "What sort of a snivelling mob is this?"

The men grinned at a miracle from heaven.

Cabell put a handful of tea in the boiling billy. The water frothed and coloured and sizzled over on to the flames. He returned to the humpy with it and sat down to eat.

McGovern was exploring the yard. He stopped once or twice to examine the ground, but went on and vaulted the fence.

As he watched McGovern approach the lags' hut Cabell began to be afraid. Once McGovern laid hands on Pete he would have nothing to offer the boy, he thought. In fact, things did not turn out exactly as he feared, when, a few yards from the door of the hut, McGovern signified by a shout that he had made a discovery.

It consisted of half a dozen cobs of corn with green leaves which marked them indisputably as part of the load in the dray. They were concealed under the rubbish heap near the fence, in such a way as to be visible only to a quick eye which came from the humpy with the thought of finding them thereabouts.

"Aha," he shouted, holding them up, "rot me if there isn't some guts in you still, my bullies!"

The men glanced at each other, and those who had work elsewhere hastened to it.

Cabell came to the door. Gursey, hammering an axe-head into a new handle in the smithy, paused to listen, and a strange look flashed between them, of entreaty and hatred on the one side, of pity giving away to a kind of supercilious pitilessness on the other.

McGovern threw the cobs into the yard and went into the hut, expecting to find more hidden there perhaps. He reappeared in a minute dragging Pete by the collar. "Here's a damn caper!" he roared.

"He's sick," Cabell said.

"Sick, eh?" McGovern threw the boy down at the door of the humpy. "I'll sicken him. He's just the very one to tell me who cracked that load last night."

Cabell went back into the humpy and poured himself a pannikin of tea with unsteady hands.

McGovern was stroking the boy's arm affectionately when he came out again. "Cough it up, Pete," he wheedled. "Wasn't it those swines Gursey and Red did it?"

More like a white mouse than ever, the boy trembled. He did not look at McGovern though, but over McGovern's shoulder at Gursey, who was swinging the new axe to test it. As he buried the head in the stump near the door of the smithy he glanced at Pete. Pete turned his eyes away quickly and on the other side of the yard saw Red clench his fists round a phantom neck and wring it.

"That's all right, Pete," McGovern told him. "One word and they're as good as in the rumbler."

Pete had only one other place to turn his eyes, and there he found himself face to face with Cabell. He burst into tears.

McGovern lost his patience. "Say it, curse you," he shouted, "or I'll drop you dead!"

Pete sagged against the wall.

McGovern ripped off his belt and whistled it down on the boy's shoulders. Pete fell to his knees in the dust without a sound.

Cabell waved his pannikin agitatedly between them. "Don't!" he cried hoarsely. "Don't flog him, McGovern!"

"Ay, I'll flog the sod," McGovern shouted, bringing the belt down again.

"But you're only knocking him senseless," Cabell protested with a curious exasperation. "He'll have a fit and be no--no use at all."

McGovern looked at him, impressed, wiped his forehead, grunted, and went into the humpy. He came out with a pair of handcuffs, locked one of the boy's wrists, and dragged him across the yard into the harness shed. He threw the loose end of the handcuffs over a beam and fastened Pete's free wrist with it, so that the boy stood with his arms raised and his feet just touching the ground. In half an hour or less the backs of his legs would begin to turn and his wrists and shoulders would feel as though they were being torn from their joints.

"Remember anything yet, honey?" McGovern asked, his good temper quickly returning as usual.

But Pete only blubbered.

"There's a long day ahead," McGovern said cheerfully, took his bridle and saddle and went out. Three minutes later he rode away into the hills; Cabell returned to his breakfast, Gursey finished trying his axe out, and the bush stillness settled over them again.

During the next thirty minutes Cabell looked at his watch at least a dozen times, and slapped more and more savagely at the flies. Once or twice he even blushed and muttered to himself in an ashamed kind of way. But he let half an hour go by before he rose from the table.

In the harness shed he found Pete breathing hard. His hands were red. Where his jacket had pulled up his white belly was bare, with purple marks of the lash across it. Flies crawled over his face and back.

Cabell pushed a box under his feet. Then he began waxing a thread to sew up a rent in the pad of his saddle.

Pete gave hard little gasps as the muscles of his back relaxed.

After ten minutes Cabell said, in a soft voice, as though afraid to start the conversation: "Pete, did you find out--you know, about my sheep?"

The hunted look in Pete's eyes resisted his smile of entreaty. He answered nothing.

Another five minutes went by. It was scorching hot outside. The waves of heat struck up into their faces. Cabell's dogs lay crushed against the wall of the humpy, snapping at the flies. The huts cracked as though they were on fire, and the gum-trees in the scrub made a tearing noise as they slipped off slivers of bark. From the roofs of the buildings and from the dust silver shimmers of heat arose.

"I'll get you out of this," Cabell said. "I'll protect you. I'll get you double rations."

Pete licked his lips. "I don't know nothing about your sheep," he grumbed.

"But you must know--you must!"

"I don't know nothing."

"But last night, Pete. . . . You said they'd--murder you. So you must know. Don't you remember?"

Gursey began to hammer on the anvil. The vicious blows startled a flight of cockatoos, which circled, cackling hysterically, over the homestead.

"I don't--I don't--I don't!" Pete cried, as though trying to mimic them.

Cabell glanced at his watch, frowned, and went to the door to look down the track.

Pete's eyes were wide when he turned. "Oh, crack a whid for me, master," he besought. "You seen it. Tell him, for Jesus's sake."

Cabell ran to him. "I will, Pete. Indeed I will. Only help me, Pete. I--I. . . . Afterwards when you're free I'll give you money. I'll be your friend. I promise. I swear."

He became solicitous all at once, began brushing the flies off Pete's back. "Do you want a drink? I'll bring you one." He dashed out of the shed and returned with a pannikin of rum, which he held up to Pete's lips. "Are you better now? Can you speak? Hurry. He's coming back in a minute. Can't you understand? You can be on the way to Burradeen with a sack of food before he comes. Only tell me, quick." He stopped babbling suddenly and bent his head close to the boy's, so that they breathed heavily into each other's face.

Pete tugged at his handcuffs. "I dursn't, master."

"You can't!" Cabell bent the rim of the pannikin against his thumb.

"I can't. I can't."

The blood rushed into Cabell's face. He threw the pannikin on the ground. "Damn you," he said. "Look what you're doing. You're making me into a--a beast like him." He pointed to the door, then in redoubled fury kicked the box from under Pete and left him jerking about on the beam like a dead carcass.

The sound of a horse splashing through the river startled them. Cabell went outside and looked around, then strode sulkily into the smithy, where Gursey was sharpening the axe at the grindstone.

"Did you rivet that leather I told you to?" he snapped.

Gursey took no notice for a while, then said, with a malicious smile, "So you didn't, did you?"

Cabell stamped like a child. "But I will. I will."

They glared at each other.

McGovern rode up and went into the harness shed. They moved apart and listened. They heard his low voice, the sound of blows, a cry, and he came out again.

"I'm going down the creek. See that sod doesn't get no water till I come in," he called to Cabell as he rode past the smithy.

Gursey started the grindstone again. "And if you do?" he asked. "What then?"

Cabell turned his head away.

"Oh, I know that," Gursey said impatiently. "I mean after. When you've found the sheep."

Cabell beat away a disagreeable question. "I don't know."

"You'll go away. You'll get a place of your own. You'll get Old Hands to work it for you. You'll be like him--like him!" Gursey shouted to make himself heard above the noise of the grindstone, but he seemed to be shouting in absolutely fiendish glee.

Cabell did not answer.

"Oh, ay," Gursey went on, half mocking, half fierce. "As like as not you'll be a big bug in a few years. Rich. With a woman in your bed every night."

"Why not?" Cabell fired. "It won't be for want of making men like you work."

Gursey grinned triumphantly. "But I just told you so. I said you'd be like him. But you'll be worse. He's a bastard and nothing's bad enough for him, but you--you'd do anything, anything." He stopped the grindstone and came nearer as he spoke, waving the axe excitedly over his head. "He's one of us, anyway. He doesn't look down on us, whatever he does. But you think we're dirt, don't you? I can see through your aristocratic mug. You think that anything you do to us is right."

They looked at each other--Cabell, tall, boyish, pale, gazing down with an expression of cold and supercilious anger; Gursey, wrought up by uncontrollable excitement, his face twitching and scarlet. Gursey turned away abruptly and stumped back to the grindstone.

This was a curious friendship. Cabell was lonely if he could not find some excuse to visit the smithy two or three times a day, yet the moment he saw Gursey his arrogance became ungovernable. All the pity he felt when he was away from the man dried up in him and he felt, as Gursey said, that nothing could hinder him--nothing. Gursey waited for him eagerly, but as soon as Cabell showed up an insolent anger got the better of him. "The aristocratic mug," as he summed up Cabell's supercilious gestures, whipped him out of fits of dejection and freshened the longing to be even some day for all he had suffered.

But deeper than this conflict which attracted them there was perhaps an understanding, a bond of brotherhood between them, for what distinguished them in a world of dispirited characters was that each of them believed, in his own way, that he would eventually pull himself out of the muck, had a firm faith in the power of his will.

"Aye," Gursey said after a long silence. "But suppose they didn't work? Suppose they found out they'd only got to stick together? Where'd you be then and your woman?"

"It won't be in my day," Cabell said.

"Maybe it will and maybe it won't. But tomorrow it might be." Gursey came back to the door.

"There'll be no lags in Australia much longer."

"Not new lags, you mean. But there'll be the old hands and their brats and their brats' brats. They'll hate, and hatred never dies. Never. Never!" He spat in the dust at Cabell's feet. "What say they took it into their heads to have no more coves here, no more soldiers and masters? That'd put the kybosh on you, wouldn't it?"

"That's what every--beaten dog like you hopes for."

"Yes, that's true," Gursey said eagerly. "But whose country is this, d'you think? It's a beaten dog's country. That's what it is. It's full of beaten dogs, what with us lags and all the rest that come because they had to."

"To be masters and floggers on their own account."

"That's true, too. But those that do, get rich and go away. What's left behind is the double-flogged, the poor mongrels that've been kicked about till they've gone mad and won't stop at nothing." He pushed his face up close to Cabell's. It was excited.

Cabell, too, was excited. They seemed to have reached a crisis of some sort.

A cry from the harness shed startled them. The flimsy walls shook, then all was silent again.

"There," Cabell said contemptuously. "You talk and talk, but you never do anything. You wouldn't lift a finger to save Pete. Why?"

Gursey's eyes became shifty. He leant against the doorpost and took the end of his beard between his teeth. "It's because I can't stand another flogging without going mad," he said apologetically in a low tone. "I'd murder the first swine I saw when I got off the triangle. Then they'd stretch me--and it'd be all over." The vitality ebbed out of him suddenly.

"You could escape," Cabell said anxiously.

"I don't want to escape," Gursey fired up. "I want to be free."

Cabell laughed, but in a forced, mechanical way. "Ach," he said quickly to change the subject. "What kind of a new nation could you make, anyway, with nothing but convicts in chains?"

"It's only convicts in chains could make a new nation," Gursey said slowly, sadly. "It's only them who want one."

Cabell laughed again.

"Laugh," Gursey told him bitterly. "You might laugh on the other side of your black face one day. It's a long way from your merry old England out here, and it's a very funny sort of place, where nothing happens like it should. Christmas comes in the middle of summer. The north wind's hot and the south wind's cold. Trees drop their bark and keep their leaves. The flowers don't smell and the birds don't sing. The swans are black and the eagles white. You burn cedar to boil your hominy and build your fences out of mahogany. Aye," he sneered, "it's not the same as the Old Country at all."

Cabell rose and went to the door of the harness shed. He stopped and listened to Pete trying to reach the box.

"Your Honour," Gursey called, beckoning him back. "Just one word before you go in there."

Cabell returned slowly to the smithy.

Gursey seized him by the arm and shook it. "I never made you any promise. Never. Never."

"I didn't say you had."

"But you let him think so, don't you? Always sneaking round here. And the way you stop talking all of a sudden when he goes past." Gursey nodded. "I'm on to your lay."

"I've got no lay," Cabell said quietly, freeing his arm. "I asked you once and you wouldn't tell me. Very well." He turned to go.

"I wouldn't tell you if I was free today," Gursey cried. "No, by God, I wouldn't!" He ran in front of Cabell and barred his way to the harness shed, waving his bony hands.

Cabell watched him with a forced and deprecating smile. The sun beat through his hat, like a weight resting on the top of his skull, and turned the shirt against his back to a thin sheet of hot metal. "What d'you want?" he snapped, after another unsuccessful attempt to get into the shed.

Gursey prodded his chest with a black forefinger. "He's dead keen to send me and Red down, isn't he? Me and Red, mind you. Why?"

"How can I tell?"

"Not so he can lift sheep off you this time."

Cabell looked at his feet, prized a stone out of the dust with the toe of his boot.

"I'll tell you. He thinks we'll come back to do for him."

Cabell kicked the stone across the yard, and his eyes followed it.

Gursey lowered his voice. "But he knows--he knows we'd do for you first."

Cabell opened his mouth to speak, but a voice began calling him with a desperate urgency. "Master, master!" it shouted. "Quick! I'll tell yer."

 

 

Chapter Nine

THE ARTFUL DODGERS

 

When McGovern came in Pete was gone. Cabell said he had split on Gursey and Red as McGovern had expected him to, so he had let the boy go. He was pale and upset, but McGovern did not seem to notice. After a few moments McGovern laughed.

"That settles his hash," he said, half to himself.

That night he put two convicts in irons and chained them to the anvil in the smithy.

"We ought to settle down snug together for another two years now," McGovern mocked Joe.

He tormented them till Red let out a terrible yell and ran at him, forgetting all about the irons, which jerked him flat on his face. McGovern went inside chuckling contentedly. Gursey had not once spoken or raised his head.

McGovern was in a jovial humour and broached the rum. But after tea he began to be restless, kept going to the door and looking at the smithy. Through the reflection of distant lightnings the stars burned with a feverish, sickly colour. The air was heavy--like wadding to the nostrils. The dogs lying round the door panted for breath. From far away came an echoing rumble.

He lit his pipe, let it go out, then suddenly began to talk about indifferent matters, off-handedly as man to man. He told Cabell stories about the settlers in the district, how many of them had "started with a damn sight less than you and made their pile". He went over this again and again. He became very serious and began giving Cabell good advice. "You don't want to stick round here, lad, tailing another man's sheep. Look here, I could put you on to land out beyond the Swamp way where you'd run a sheep to the acre. Clean as billiard table. Grass like a feather bed. And water. You could float a ship in the holes. Look here, lad"--he jerked himself across the table and patted Cabell's shoulder--"all you want--a thousand good ewes and fifty rams and a year's tucker. You could go tomorrow." He seemed to take it for granted that Cabell would leave Murrumburra soon--as soon as his ewes had lambed. "And I wouldn't waste no time, neither, lad. You're not doing yourself no good round here with a wet season just in the offing. Did you hear them ducks going over this afternoon? Wouldn't mind betting we'll be cut off here inside a week if the river starts getting up, which means you'll be set back a couple of months and a good dollop of monkeys into the bargain most likely. Take my tip. You ought to move on before it breaks."

At this point he put down his pannikin of rum, from which he was sipping continually, and entered on a long, involved rigmarole lasting for nearly two hours, about the necessity of starting young and remembering that "it was every man for himself and the swag for him that hit first". He echoed Cabell's uneasiest thoughts when he spoke of the way a man's best years ran away in this country, and drove the point in with some awful yarns about men who had come out young and hopeful ("Just like you, me boy. Fine, upstanding Johnny Newcomes."), and had drunk themselves mad or hanged themselves in despair.

During this he got gloomier and gloomier, until finally, in a burst of boozy misery, he beat his chest and began to complain that he was a "done sod" himself. "Lazy as a store pig. That's me. Take after my old man. They hanged him, and they'll hang me."

He stared mournfully at Cabell, nearly pulling the table out of the earth to save himself from falling over, for by this time he was very drunk. His face had gone several shades redder and he talked as though he had a mouthful of molasses. "You're laughing at me. Think I'm dirt, don't you? Bloody aristocrat. That's what Joe says. Joe's right. Wouldn't tell you if I wasn't drunk as a bastard. 'Brighten your lamps. He's dangerous.' That's what Joe says to me long ago. Well, he don't need to put me flash. I know you're dangerous, curse you. Where's the bloody rum?" He poured out another pannikin, spilling half of it over the table. "Just you wait," he muttered threateningly. "You can't come Yorkshire over Bob McGovern. I ain't scared of no sod, dead or alive." He emptied the pannikin and banged it down on the table, frowning with the ludicrous, maudlin rage of drunkenness. But at this moment he lost his grip on the table and toppled over backwards. He made a ridiculous exhibition trying to get on his feet, half staggered, half crawled into his room, and after repeating that he wasn't scared of nobody, particularly of Cabell, shut his door and made a great fuss barring it and pulling the shutter over his window.

All this deeply impressed Cabell, and for some time after McGovern had closed his door he sat with his chin in his hand, thinking.

Of course, he saw at once that McGovern had been talking, not wildly, but with a definite purpose--was not, perhaps, really drunk at all. His stories, his advice, his humiliation, and, most interesting, his intentionally transparent pretence of being afraid by asserting that he was not afraid--all this was calculated to produce some effect, but for the moment an explanation eluded Cabell. At first he thought that McGovern was merely daring him again, expressing contempt for him. But he dismissed this quickly. The only conclusion left, then, was so unexpected, so bizarre, that, in a curious way, it frightened him.

He walked excitedly up and down the humpy, chewing his nails, pausing now and then to stare at McGovern's door. Going to his bunk then, he sat down with his head in his hands and again went over all that had been said. But the incredible conclusion remained: McGovern had been pretending, but because he was afraid.

Say he had wanted to close the door, what better way was there than by some such clumsy subterfuge that Cabell would pass over as a freak of drunken humour. But why close the door--now--tonight? Because he knew the vague idea that had been forming in Cabell's mind since his trip to Moreton Bay? But the stories and the advice contradicted this. They could only excite Cabell to do something--immediately. There was also the ironing-up of Gursey and Red and McGovern's determination that Cabell should leave with them for Moreton Bay in the morning, his persistently exasperating behaviour since Cabell's return, all tending in the same way--to force Cabell to act. Ah, to force him to act.

He had not to look far to understand that. He found the same desire in his own feeling that any violence, any horror was better than waiting another week, another day in suspense. But was it possible that McGovern could feel the same? Hopefully he projected a new estimate of McGovern's character, not as a man superhumanly courageous, but even, perhaps, dogged by incessant fear of the brooding characters around him, never knowing what insane and secret revenge they might be plotting, and always trying to bring them to action. Always on the watch for a conspiracy, might he not--as his words had suggested last night, as Gursey's had suggested this morning--might he not really believe that there was something between them? Misinterpreting his timidity as cunning, McGovern had become more and more truculent--yes, in the hope of forcing a crisis.

A strange, exalted mood descended on Cabell. It would seem that McGovern's tactics were a mistake, then, for seeing himself for the first time as the attacker Cabell discovered an energy and courage he had never known before.

But were they? He checked himself on the brink of a rash act. He was taking from under his bunk two bundles which he had prepared that afternoon before McGovern's return. A doubt came to him that there might perhaps be more in McGovern's artful dodge than he had seen. He sat down and thought about it again, and, becoming cooler, he undid the bundles and extracted from each a pistol, powder and shot, which he put away under his palliasse where they were usually kept. Then, having made sure that McGovern was still asleep, he slipped out into the sultry darkness and took a cautious detour along the edge of the scrub to the smithy.

Clouds were rising swiftly, ribbed with lightning that burned for seconds long on the air--like eagles flying up into the stars. It lit the country for miles around, showed Red asleep and Gursey still sitting with his chin on his chest.

Cabell threw one of the bundles on to Gursey's knees, shook Red and gave him the other.

"Good-bye, Joe. Good luck," he whispered.

Gursey jerked his head up. His eyes glittered malignantly in the lightning. He flung the bundle from him and muttered, but his words were lost in the thunder that rumbled like a soft bouncing ball rolling about among the hills.

Cabell hesitated, looking down at Gursey with a suddenly heavy heart.

Red was already eating the food. Feeling about in the bundle, he stopped chewing, turned to Joe, and whispered.

Gursey jumped to his feet and ran to the length of his chain after the retreating figure of Cabell. A stone whistled past Cabell's head and thudded against the wall of the humpy. He turned and looked back. His blood had begun to beat like a hammer.

A feeling of guilt overpowered him. He shivered, glanced round uneasily at the nervous, twitching night, and flattened himself against the wall. The thunder grumbled, died away, came again, nearer. The sheep clustered together, began to bleat. A voice moaned in the gullies, far away, then close at hand. The door of the harness shed banged viciously; something seized him by the throat, the hair, the chest and shook him. Wind. On the roof of the smithy a piece of bark flapped like a bird in a trap, tore itself free and whirled away overhead. Dry and brittle branches crashed in the scrub. The clouds pressed on the earth and the darkness was like a jelly. He ran into the house and barred the door. His head and limbs ached. Blinding light penetrated the gloom of the humpy through every crack in walls and roof, pressed his eyeballs back into his head. Then the thunder rattled the dishes in the safe and the clouds burst in a solid sheet of water that poured into the room, extinguishing the candle, and left him groping under his palliasse with his eyes fixed on the momentarily lighted window and McGovern's door.

It rained cats and dogs all night, but the thunder and lightning soon passed and he felt calmer. Towards dawn he fell asleep.

He started awake and found McGovern leaning over him.

"What's the matter?"

"Our two canaries have flown." McGovern spoke with his usual air of ridiculing the world in general, but he looked worried, as though he had overlooked something. Also, he found it necessary to add, "My bunk's awash. That's why I'm out early."

Cabell trusted his voice to ask, a shade incredulously: "Escaped? But how could they?"

McGovern turned away and went to the door. "They must've had a file," he grumbled.

Cabell grew bolder and followed him. "Have I got to ride down to Moreton Bay for soldiers, then?"

"No need to." McGovern glanced at him quickly. "They'll come back."

"Why should they?"

"You know why."

"I?"

"Look here." McGovern pointed to the bush. "There's this here jailyard a few miles wide. And all round blacks and nothing else." He laughed in Cabell's face. "Blood's what they're after now. My blood." He moved back into the humpy, as though he did not want to talk, and began getting things out for a meal.

The sheep in the yard were muddy and forlorn. The clearing was one vast puddle. Above the drip, drip of water from the trees the wash of the rising river could be heard. It told Cabell that today or at latest tomorrow everything must be decided. He put his coat on and splashed through the rain to awaken the lags. Neither said any more about the escapees. This created a strained and artificial silence in the humpy. When Mickey had patched up the roof, McGovern got dry blankets from the store and retired with a bottle of rum, remarking that he had sleep to make up. After fretting impatiently about the yard for an hour, Cabell announced to Mickey in a loud voice outside McGovern's window that he was going over to the Five Mile to see how his sheep were after the rain.

Out of sight of the humpy, he turned off the track to the Five Mile and plunged into the sodden scrub towards Winjee Creek. The gloomy and mysterious twilight under the trees played on his nerves and made him stop and listen for the sound of voices and footsteps to be repeated. Two hours later he rode out on to an open downland where Winjee Creek, now a yellow torrent, joined the main river, from the far bank of which the foothills of the range rose in steep granite cliffs. The sun was shining on the mountains. Deep gashes of blue shadow cut the surface of grey bush, marking the course of gullies which crisscrossed like a maze. Cabell studied these for some minutes, then turned his attention to the out-station hut at the junction of river and creek, and, having assured himself that the two convicts in charge there were safely out of sight, he cantered down to the river. It was already swollen enough to make crossing unpleasant, and he was soaked to the skin when he rode out on the opposite bank. Twenty minutes later he disappeared into the scrub. . . .

When he rode into the yard of the homestead late that night he was wet and tired, with hands cut about and bruised. But his eyes were on fire and great projects were stirring in his brain. There was much still to be done--much still to be done, he reminded himself, as he paused outside the humpy to take a grip on himself. First, there was the river. He turned his head and listened to the sound of the water coming down from the range. And there was McGovern. He thrust his hands out of sight in his pockets and strolled into the room.

McGovern effaced a querulous look with a smile. He was sitting at the table, drunk, or pretended to be drunk, cleaning a pair of pistols.

"You're still safe?" he said, casting a quick, suspicious look into the darkness behind Cabell.

"Of course. Why not?"

"No reason I know of--up to the present." McGovern smiled again.

"What d'you mean?"

McGovern squinted down the barrel of one of the pistols. "Your old mate and his offsider come back here this afternoon."

"I suppose you mean Gursey?"

McGovern held the pistols up to the light. "Ain't they little beauties!" he said. "They've killed better men."

Cabell turned away to his bunk.

"Pete's gone," McGovern said.

"Escaped?"

"Not on your life! They dragged him off by the scruff, squealing like a stuck pig. What, you didn't know?"

"You mean I helped to murder him?" Cabell asked angrily

"Why not?"

"Why?"

"Ah, why?" McGovern winked. "Once a whiddler always a whiddler, and you've got brains."

Before Cabell could think of a reply he had disappeared into his room.

So he knew!

 

 

Chapter Ten

SUSPENSE

 

Well, nothing was decided next day or the next. Cabell waited and had hardly any sleep at all. Under the noise of the river and the sound of the rain on the roof he could hear footsteps, voices. A dozen times each night he slipped out of his bunk to hide himself behind the flour barrel and watch. But no one came.

By now the river was over the flats and half a mile wide in places. It roared down, crashing together the trees it had torn from the scrub. McGovern rubbed his hands and sympathized with Cabell at the prospect of a prolonged flood. Between the homestead and the hills Cabell had explored there was a boiling torrent now. Meanwhile, he waited, too.

He was in exceedingly good spirits, seemed, contrary to Cabell's idea, to thrive on the suspense. If Cabell had examined himself closely in a mirror he would have understood why. Overnight his plump cheeks had caved in, his eyes had dark bags under them, and tight lines had come out round his mouth. He said nothing and answered nothing, started to gobble his food greedily and pushed his plate away after a mouthful, shouted at old Mark Scuggan for no reason at all and immediately again smuggled a pannikin of rum to him, rushed from the humpy as though it were stifling him and rushed back at once and looked round anxiously as though he feared or hoped that some important event had taken place while he was away. Throughout the rest of the day nothing could budge him. For a while he sat bolt upright on his bunk, pretending to read, but glancing every moment at window or door, listening. Then suddenly his eyes went dull and his spine seemed turned to jelly. The flies devoured him unmolested.

Towards evening he threw his book aside, went resolutely to the harness shed with a bundle bulging under his coat and saddled his horse. When McGovern looked out half an hour later the mare was in the paddock again and Cabell was sitting on the anvil, a picture of misery. McGovern observed all this and was no fool. He knew that he would not have long to wait now.

In Cabell a new being laboured to be born. He feared, even loathed it--a crude and unscrupulous whisperer of perilous designs. Oh, the hesitations and misgivings, the doubts and regrets and longings!

What touches the heart of the lonely one more sadly than the sound of rain on the roof at night? It at once shuts him in more closely with his own thoughts and sharpens the inhospitality of the world outside, fills it with gloomy and mysterious questions. It reminds him of different rain on a different roof, for each rain and roof has its own music. The soft Irish rain falling on peat, the thin London ooze dribbling over the slates, the gale-driven showers of the West Country hissing in the thatch, the rain in our district that comes down in leaden drops on the galvanized iron, with great, passionate surges of wind. . . . Cabell sweated in his bunk, for it was the height of midsummer, and thought of winter nights at Owerbury, with the clean, white, chill, scented sheets pulled over his head, the gale whining in the chimneys, the sea rattling the shingle, the firelight leaping and dying on the walls. Oh, how he longed for that life again, the security, the accustomed face of it! The smoke of the dung fire and the stench of the dogs sheltering in the humpy choked him. Lice and fleas crawled over his body, which was covered with red lumps from their bites. And all the time a dark shadow was hovering over the borderland of his thoughts.

Yes, he would have given ten years of his life to be quit of Australia then.

But morning came at last, and with it McGovern, swaggering, spitting, blowing his nose through his fingers, and thrusting his frowsy beard in Cabell's face to say "Seems like your offsiders have let you down, limejuicer, eh?" He shouldered Cabell aside and stood in the doorway looking at the sodden bush.

Cabell stared at his neck--red and squat, with thick veins and sinews and loose, coarse skin like leather. A red hair stuck out of a mole behind his right ear. Vast and gnarled, the ears lay flat against his head. The wrinkles of the neck were grained with dirt and the band of the shirt stiff with it.

Cabell did not think of Owerbury just then. He thought of Gursey, sympathetically, perhaps a trifle impatiently, and even looked at the jack-knife on the table. The strength and insolent confidence of that neck. How often it had been bared to hoot laughter at him, thrust out as though daring him to choke it, so damnably sure of itself! For by this time Cabell had forgotten what he had surmised a few nights before, and McGovern had become once more a superhuman, indestructible monster for him.

He found himself glowering into McGovern's eyes.

"Feel like killing something, do you?" McGovern asked him softly.

Cabell licked his lips.

"There's some black duck out," McGovern said with a smile. "You can take my old rat-trap." He gazed up at Cabell's face for a moment, then went into his room. In a minute or two he came out with an old fowling-piece, the barrel pressed into his stomach and the butt towards Cabell. Cabell automatically slipped his finger over the trigger and held the gun in the same position, staring down in a dazed way at the hammer, on which his thumb rested.

McGovern met his eyes with a faint smile. "Yes," he said. "It is loaded."

Cabell wrenched the gun away and half-ran out of the humpy as though escaping.

In the harness shed he threw the fowling-piece down and glared at it resentfully. Suddenly he went hot and trembled all over. The fit was so violent that he had to lean against the wall for a while. But it passed. Gloomy thoughts pulled down the corners of his mouth. He beat them away with a gesture of exasperation, and began to root under a heap of saddlery in the corner. He recovered the bundle he had hidden there the evening before--a few letters, a shirt or two, his razors in a chamois-leather roll, and a pair of pistols--wound the shirts round his body, put the letters in his boot and the razors and pistols in the pockets of his coat, as an afterthought picked up the fowling-piece, and went out with his bridle jingling on his shoulder to catch his horse.

McGovern was still at the door, an interested look in his eye, as though he had been watching Cabell's transactions through the bark walls.

Cabell turned guiltily to see that the pistols were out of sight, but at the same time asserted to himself, by way of reassurance to his rapidly beating heart, that he had nothing to be ashamed of, anyway, if he did leave Murrumburra and never came back.

McGovern looked very pleased and satisfied when he rode past the humpy. "If you run into them conspirators up the river," he called, "give them my love and say I still sleep sound." His laughter died away in the hills.

So he was running away from Murrumburra after all. At least, that was what he thought. He would go to Flanagan's, five miles away across the river, and ask for a job till the floods went down. At the same time he speculated on the character of that sly fellow. Certainly no one was to be trusted. A man ought to protect himself. Now, that roan stallion was a fine horse, worth a lot of money. Say Flanagan refused to keep his bargain. . . .

Curious how those two impulses continually at war with each other in a man--the desire to get away from the stress and the struggle, the desire to master it--will often mask themselves in each other. For why was he hurrying to Winjee Creek now if he only wanted to cross the river? There were places no worse much nearer the homestead, and all of them death-traps just now as far as that went. And if he had chosen just that place because at the back of his woolly thoughts was the idea of getting those five hundred Durhams and three thousand sheep out of the hills he had explored three days before, then must he not also have known that he would never dare it while McGovern was free to chase him, that, anyway, he would be unable to do it alone? Yes, there were many evasions and obscurities in this part of the old man's story, much that he would not admit because, perhaps, of the terrible fruit he gathered years afterwards from that night's work. In telling the story he slurred over this part of it by slipping in a long discourse on the awful weather it was, how the bush was full all of a sudden with toadstools like gold plates, till he came to the place where, arriving at the open downs about four o'clock in the afternoon (Why, what the devil could he have been doing since ten in the morning if not idling in the scrub on purpose?), an extraordinary irregularity attracted his attention to the humpy by the river. Though it was a good two hours from sunset, the sheep were penned up, and penned up so near the rising waters that it was plain they had not been taken out that day at all. They were bleating mournfully and the dogs were trotting round them in amazement at untoward events. A spiral of smoke came from the humpy but no sounds to break the silence, the brooding tragic silence of a wide landscape pressing round a tiny habitation of men.

A fact which he had noted at the time became suddenly significant. The day before, the hut-keepers from all the out-stations had come in for their weekly rations, but Robins, the hut-keeper at Winjee Creek, had not come. An equally significant fact which he did not recall was that he had said nothing about this to McGovern, having forgotten it, maybe.

He rode back into the scrub and sat down on a rock for two hours without moving. In the end he thought it highly likely that Gursey and Red would have quartered themselves here. The humpy was isolated, the country round it open, and the means of a desperate retreat near in the river, and had not Flanagan said that McGovern's accomplices--which the shepherds of Winjee Creek undoubtedly were--would have enough rum and tobacco to ration an army? Still, he thought, he should make sure, reconnoitre. What would McGovern say if he came all this way and merely found the hands sick or drunk?

Oh, he was sure, of course. Why did he start up suddenly and sniff the air as though he had smelt a familiar smell--as though he thought he was being followed?

He went down then and took a good look at the river, marking the dangerous places in his mind. It would be worse tomorrow, he decided, and worse still the day after.

When he got back to his horse the birds were settling among the dark foliage with disconsolate twitterings. From the depths of the scrub a mopoke cried harshly, a lonely, unanswered cry. The rain had dropped, but the clouds lay sullenly on the hills, as black as pitch. He stood and peered into the scrub for a long time, queerly affected by the feverish little noises fretting the fall of night. He felt that something was coming. The air was heavy with foreboding of it. The black clouds hid it in their wombs, ready to fall upon the desolate wilderness.

He grabbed the horse and dragged it out into the open. The damp heat stifled him, so he took off his coat, heavy from the pistols in the pockets, and laid it across the pommel. When it was quite dark he began to walk with the reins over his arm towards the humpy.

A light wavered and the rectangle of doorway stood out against the ebony plaque of darkness. A spasm of lightning left him with an image of the humpy, its lean-to roof, a cabbage-tree palm behind, the glinting waters of the uproarious river. Shadows moved on the wall, distorted heads, elongated arms. The lightning came again, and immediately after a dog barked. . . .

The five men inside the hut turned their heads to the door. Pete jumped off the bench and retreated to the wall.

Gursey snatched the lamp off the table and put it on the floor, rose, took a step towards the door, hesitated, and drew back into the shadows near the window. He gazed anxiously down at Red, with the hypnotically intense stare of one watching the crisis of a fateful experiment.

Red's eyes lighted up. He took an axe from the wall, went to the door and quietened the dog. They heard him plod round the humpy, return.

"What's there?" Pete demanded.

Red gave another look at the night. "Nothin'."

Gursey replaced the lamp on the table and brushed the tumble of white hair out of his eyes. The light shone up into their bearded faces, reversing the shadows, so that they seemed painted like savages.

Red sat down and resumed his sullen thoughts, a pannikin gripped in his two fists. Gursey kept an eye on the bottle between them, manoeuvring the quantity of liquor in his pannikin so that he remained hot and excited but not quite drunk--a nasty mood. His eyes were bloodshot. From time to time he broke into a fit of growling and cursing, came to and stared sulkily at Robins, the hut-keeper.

Robins broke a heavy silence. "I 'ad a good crib 'ere. And now you done the guy on me. The nubblin' chit for us all, that's 'ow it'll end." His fat face shone from the effort of a long and vain dispute.

Nobody answered him.

Davy, the shepherd, talked to himself in his bunk. "Hanged, is it? So they will. Ha, ha! All hanged up in a row, blast ye!"

Pete pulled his jacket up close to his neck, and the old man laughed. "Hang ye up in a row. Ay, that they will. Ha, ha!" He made a motion of passing a rope round his throat and strangling. His head jerked, his eyes popped, his yellow tongue hung out. "Ha, ha, ha!"

Pete rose, stared round the room, sat down again.

Robins appealed to Gursey. "But the Cove'll come."

Gursey frowned and licked his lips, made one or two false starts, then burst out impatiently "Let him come."

"Lobsters'll come."

"McGovern won't bring no lobsters here," Gursey said, "and you know why."

Robins sighed. "Well, I 'ad a good crib 'ere," he said mournfully and dropped his hands on his plump thighs.

Red closed one eye and looked at them. "Ye'd burn well," he said thoughtfully.

"That's the caper," chuckled old Davy. "Stick him up the chimbley. 'Ear him frizzle." A villainous-looking old brute this, with a chin like a trowel and a mouth turned in over bare gums.

He reduced Pete to a fit of the shivers.

"Scared like, eh?" Red demanded, giving the boy a rough shake.

"No, no, Red. Not that scared. . . ."

Red picked up the axe and laid it on the table. "Hmn," he said.

Pete drew away.

"Ain't we three sworn brothers like?"

"Yes, Red. Yes."

"All in together like?"

"Yes, yes. Only . . . he'll do us in!" Pete cried. "He's got pistols'n everything."

Gursey put a finger through a hole in the boy's jacket and ran it over the still-unhealed weals. "If McGovern lays hands on that--you know, don't you?"

Pete lowered his head.

The dog began to bark and strain at its leash. Gursey nudged Red, who ran to the door with the axe again; Pete and Robins jumped up and watched him. The dog's barking ceased and all was quiet. Pete sank back stiffly on to the bench, but Robins continued to gaze at the door with a terrified and hopeful expectancy. Gursey stood up under the window and did not move.

"It'll only be them dingoes," Robins said persuasively.

They ignored him.

A flash of lightning lifted a patch of downland from the pit of darkness. Red bent down and released the dog, which bounded away yapping. They heard a shout. Pete stumbled behind the table. The shout was repeated, just audible above the noise of the river.

"The slut's a-top of him!" Red shouted and ran outside. Gursey hesitated a moment, then went cautiously to the door. Cabell was standing with one foot in the stirrup of a plunging horse. The dog had him by the leg and he was trying to beat it off with his coat. Red was running towards him, waving the axe and roaring at the top of his voice. The darkness snapped over them. Then a stab of flame, the report of a gun. The dog let out a whine and the two noises raced across the downs and died in the wash of the river. Another flash showed Red, the axe raised, looking round for the horseman, who was swinging into the saddle only a few paces away. Red gave a terrible yell, rushed at him, and buried the axe in the haunches of the horse. It lashed out with its hind feet, then was gone, galloping across the downs. Its hoof-beats died away in the darkness.

Gursey returned slowly to his bunk and sat down.

Robins opened his mouth twice to speak, but no sounds came from it. A little snuffling nose that was running all the time completed his look of abject misery. "Did they get him?" he choked out at last.

"Cabell shot the dog."

Red came splashing back. The dog had snatched something from Cabell--his coat. He threw it on the table and began to look for what gave it weight. The pistols of course. He performed a heavy dance in the middle of the floor. Robins was aghast.

Red thrust the barrels against his head. "I got a mind to try one pill on ye just to see the powder ain't wet."

Robins's knees gave way and lowered him quivering on to the bench. "Don't, Red, for the love of God! I'm in with the boys up to the neck."

Red looked disappointed. "Well . . . right y'are, then," he grumbled, putting the pistols down grudgingly.

Gursey snatched them up, examined them, and flung them on to the table.

They stared at him.

"Ay," he said bitterly. "I doubt it's not the first time his kind has got somebody to do their dirty work." His fidgety eyes burned against the whitewash pallor of his face as he gazed at the pistols in the same resentful way Cabell had gazed at the fowling-piece. "Dropped them. Huh! And hasn't he been tailing me up for this the last three months?" He limped to the door and looked out. "'Very well,' he says, damn him," Gursey muttered. "Well, I'll give the bastard 'Very well'."

Robins gaped at him. "Is that as much to say you've changed your mind?" he asked hopefully.

Gursey turned back to the bush. There was a reckless look in his eyes. He picked up the pistols, cocked them, and laid them down with the butts towards him.

"No!" he snapped. "I've just made it up."

 

 

Chapter Eleven

CRISIS

 

One evolves a straightforward story from events that were twisted and darkened by the cunning of men. This gives the impression that Cabell acted with a conscious and ruthless foresight. Yet he always believed that he blundered through that night under the merciful hand of Heaven.

He galloped a long way down the river before he pulled up to attend to his own and the horse's wounds. Only then did he find that the pistols were gone. He was shocked. It was a curious thing that he should not have realized, till this moment, that the pistols were in the coat which he threw at the dog, that he never doubted for an instant that the convicts would find them.

Blood was pouring over the mare's rump. He did what he could for her, but that was not much, then washed his own wounds, which were deep and painful. By this time his excitement had cooled off a little and he sat down to think. But his brain was clogged and weary. His thoughts wandered. He began trying to recall what Mrs Peppiott looked like; whether the mole was on the right or left side of her mouth. Such a homely and pleasant face. A homely and pleasant woman. A good woman. Then it was old Sam, the Owerbury fisherman, with his row of medals; but that thought was irritating, though as persistent as the sound of the river with which its emotional overtones seemed to war. He jumped to his feet and limped to and fro under the trees. Why this heaviness in his heart, this feeling of guilt and dishonour?

At this point of his story old Cabell used to fall into a long silence, which ended with an explosive outburst against, of all things, Socialists. "They called me Fighting Cabell," he said, frowning at us with intense annoyance. "Raddled it up on the sheds for miles around, confound their impudence. 'Beware of Fighting Cabell.' That was in 'Eighty-seven, when the shearers wanted more money. Why, you'd think I was a monster to hear them talk. Fighting Cabell . . . huh . . . 'thinks we're dirt' . . . 'do anything, anything' . . ." he mumbled irritably.

He became silent again, still frowning. After a while his eyebrows lifted and he sighed. "Time, time," he said in a rather melancholy voice. "It's like a mad dog. If it only let up for a minute or two men would be decent enough, decent enough." He had a look which went with that tone of voice, a doubtful sideways glance that contrasted oddly with his customary fierce and defiant effort to stare you out of countenance. He seemed to be peering round to make sure you were doing him justice. He believed so much in justice, believed that all could be vindicated in the eyes of the just--all.

He recovered himself soon and glared at us twice as sternly as usual, as he always did after one of these lapses.

"But that's neither here nor there," he would grumble, forbidding us to draw any conclusions. "What I was telling you about was that night--McGovern. A dog of a man. The way he'd treated that poor fellow Gursey--well, I could have murdered him myself when I thought about it." He turned his head away for another moment or two, then went on hastily with his story.

He had been walking about under the trees for some time when he realized suddenly that the noise of the river was dying away. That could mean only that a heavy downpour farther along the range had started it rising again quickly, so that already it was over the snags and rocks which had previously broken its surface into a white foam. Like a sheet of asphalt, it flowed smoothly through the darkness.

An hour later he rode in to the homestead yard.

McGovern was sitting up, expecting him. He told his story simply. He had seen the sheep penned up, had reconnoitred, thinking it might merely mean that the hands were sick. He said nothing of the pistols, little about the convicts, stressing the fact that the sheep were in danger of being drowned.

McGovern listened attentively but without surprise. His whole body seemed to relax. He took a deep breath and stretched his arms. His eyes positively danced as he gazed at Cabell with grateful, almost kindly, satisfaction and the complacency of one who has foreseen everything. Then he became serious, hmn-hmned for a while, tore a splinter from the table with his thumbnail and picked his teeth with it. Well, as for those sods in the humpy, they could wait, he said. They'd be there for the ironing-up any time. But the sheep. . . . The river was getting up quick, did he say? Hmn!

They looked at each other impenetrably.

"Think we ought to move them, do you?"

"They're not my sheep," Cabell muttered.

"Hmn. It's a long way." He stared out doubtfully at the night.

"Only telling you they'll be drowned by morning," Cabell said.

"Hmn."

They prodded each other along like this for some time, till McGovern rose, yawned, and began to pull on his boots. "No sort of a life for a man," he grumbled.

Oh, they were cunning, both of them!

When they were running-in the horses Cabell said, "I suppose I better take the bay gelding."

"Yes," McGovern chuckled. "It swims like a duck."

"Is he going to murder me in the scrub, then?" Cabell wondered fearfully as he rode out of the yard behind McGovern.

But McGovern jogged on easily without once turning to see if Cabell was there. He understood. It was all open and above board to him now--it was action. His pipe threw a glow on the brim of his hat, and after a while he burst into song:

 

"''Pon my conscience, dear Larry,' says I,
'I'm sorry to see you in trouble,
Your life's cheerful noggin run dry,
Yourself going off like its bubble.'
'Hold your tongue in the matter,' says he,
'For the Neckcloth I don't care a button,
And by this time tomorrow you'll see
Your Larry will be dead as mutton.'"

 

It was long past midnight when they came out on to the downs, but the lamp was still burning in the humpy. The ghostly footsteps of rain shadowed them along the river bank, the horses stumbled and snorted, the sheep bleated pitifully at terrifying phantoms of darkness.

Fifty yards from the humpy they dismounted. McGovern's damp beard brushed across Cabell's cheek. "Tie the nags up and follow me close," he ordered, then splashed forward on clumsy feet. A dog flew out at him, but he sent it limping away with one swift kick.

The light in the humpy wavered as somebody rushed past it to the door.

Cabell stopped between the horses, which tossed their heads against the tug of his nervous hands.

With a gigantic bound McGovern leapt through the door and collided with a man coming out. The man went down with a soft thud and lay still, huddled against the wall. . . .

Gursey, Pete and Robins jumped out of their bunks. They saw Red lying on the ground, blood gushing from his nose, McGovern, with hands tucked in the tops of his trousers and legs wide apart, grinning in the doorway. Gursey stood near the window, Pete at the farthest end of the table. Their faces expanded, contracted, puffed out lopsidedly with dancing shadows. A pistol lay on the table. The brass bands round the barrel, the chasings on the butt shone in the light. The air of the room became stagnant again and the slush-lamp burned without a quiver.

Robins, standing between Pete and Red, was the first to speak. He jerked his head in and out for several seconds, trying to dislodge his tongue from gummy spittle. It came loose all at once and ran away with him. "I--I--I. . . . It ain't me, master. They jist comed round 'ere. That's 'ow it was, master, s'elp me God." He ran forward with this petition, pressing McGovern for immediate reassurance.

McGovern pushed him aside. His fat back padded against the wall, bringing the axe down with a clatter. He remained there, panting heavily.

"Well, boys," McGovern said, "it's worth turning out in a dirty night to set eyes on you again. And no throats cut, either!" He leant against the door-post and crossed his legs. Idly he pointed his beard between cross-grained thumb and forefinger.

"They was going to cut my throat, yer Honour," Robins said. "Because I wouldn't do the guy on you, that's why."

McGovern smacked his lips. "All necks soft and sound for the squeezer."

"Hang 'em, hang "em!" The parrot voice of Davy screeched with insane mirth from one of the bunks and eagerly repeated, "Hang 'em! Hang 'em at once! Hang 'em up the chimbley!" His haggard grey features came out from the bundle of stinking rags that made his bed, and looked around. At the sight of Robins he winked slyly. "Murder and rob ye, he would," he told McGovern, pointing at his mate. "I'm on to his racket."

"Liar!" screamed Robins. "I ain't!"

"I heard yer," Davy nodded. "And you know what I heared."

McGovern negligently pushed Robins back to the wall. "A damn fine crop of murderers you are," he taunted them. "A good pistol like that"--he winked sideways at Cabell--"and you don't fire a shot at a man." He threw back his head and laughed. The light penetrated the high vault of his mouth, gleamed on his tongue and white teeth.

Cabell, in the doorway, saw with sinking heart their despairing eyes, their loosely hanging arms.

McGovern took off his hat, shook the water out of it, and threw it on the table. It overbalanced and fell to the floor. Robins darted forward, picked it up, brushed it, and laid it carefully on the table again.

Gursey was looking at the pistol. He crammed his beard between his teeth and let it slide out again. One step, reach out, pull the hammer back, fire. . . . Three seconds. . . . One side of his face twitched violently from its nervous tic, the other was chalk-white and impassive.

"I'll tell you what I'll do," McGovern offered. "I'll race you for that pistol."

They did not raise their heads. Feeny's mouth hung open, his pink-rimmed eyes blinked, he seemed not to hear or see or understand.

"Come, boys," McGovern rallied them, friendly, persuasive. "You're not thinking you'll get another chance?" He stroked his chin thoughtfully. "They might give you the present first and hang you after. Or they'll just hang you, maybe. In a month's time--just think of it. No more Gursey, no more Pete, no more Red--or Robins," he added aside to the collapsed bundle of fat cringing in the shadows.

Robins gasped, clawed at the collar of his jacket, made formless sounds.

McGovern picked up the pistol, winked again at Cabell, examined the flint, the powder. He laid it down, butt towards them. "Have a go, lads," he tempted them, spreading his arms.

They stared at the pistol, fascinated by the light on its shining barrel. Cabell had come right into the room now. In his agitation he had almost brought the horses with him. Irritated by the grip he kept on them, their skinny heads tossed up and down. The jingle of their bits was the only sound for a moment.

"You're gonners, anyway," McGovern reasoned, and pushed the pistol gently towards them. "You just try and think what I'll do when I get the irons on." He swaggered up and down the room, one hand on his hip, the other lightly caressing his silky beard. "That last flogging, Pete," he said confidentially, "forget it. There's worse coming. Then a little spell in the chain-gang perhaps. How'll you like that, eh? Hungry! My God, you'll be hungry. And you, Joe. Well, you'll be topped and no mistake."

His bravado seemed to crush the spirit out of them. Cabell, however, it brought to such a pitch of hysterical exasperation that a gesture of disgust and impatience broke from him. McGovern spun round as though it was from this point and not from the other side of the table that he had expected a movement, thrust his hand in his shirt, then laughed, a trifle nervously. He covered a slip by pretending to scratch his chest and turned away, but his eyes kept glancing towards the doorway watchfully. What did he expect?

What worried Cabell most at the moment was how McGovern would act if Gursey did fire the pistol and missed. Would he shoot Gursey and the boy and Red, then kill him as their accomplice? And what if Gursey fired and didn't miss? Would Gursey try to kill him then? He saw all these possibilities quite clearly in sudden, illuminating waves of terror which brought the chilly sweat out in his hair, but he could not tear himself away.

A blubber of silence enclosed the room. Dingoes howled far away, somewhere near the river a curlew kept up an interminable, broken-hearted piping, the horses stamped, the dogs sniffed suspiciously round their heels; but none of these sounds came into the humpy. McGovern lounged against the wall and sucked his teeth.

Cabell's gesture pulled Gursey back to consciousness. He was leaning forward with one hand on the table, the other in his beard, staring at the pistol. Suddenly aware of Cabell, he glanced up and their eyes met. They exchanged a long look. He rubbed his hands on the seams of his trousers, half smiled, half frowned, turned away abruptly and went back to the window.

Cabell cleared his throat huskily.

McGovern stirred and hitched up his trousers. "Well, boys," he said cheerfully, "time's up. You've had your turn, now it's mine." He reached round to the back of his belt and brought out a pair of handcuffs.

Pete lifted his head for the first time. His eyes were glazed. His teeth began to chatter.

McGovern went towards him with an amiable laugh, waving the handcuffs. "Put your mitts in this, lad, and you'll feel more comfortable."

Pete backed round the table, stumbled over Red, ran blindly towards the door, collided with Cabell, doubled back to the table. McGovern followed with clumsy patience, guffawing merrily, but paying even closer attention to Cabell. He faced the boy across the table, leaning on it with the handcuffs clutched in his fists. Pete glanced rapidly from side to side, then grabbed blindly at the pistol that lay between them.

Cabell shouted. The cry came involuntarily, triumphantly from his dry throat.

For an interminable second they all seemed to be paralysed. Pete stood hunched up, fumbling with both hands for the trigger; McGovern leaned back with one hand in his shirt. Then--crack--a pistol exploded. McGovern staggered as though his leg had been wrenched away from under him. The table heaved as his hands, clawing for support, fastened their nails in the crack between the slabs of bark. A look of utter, naive amazement overflowed his features.

Pete still stood before him with the pistol at arm's length in a hand gone suddenly limp. Wild noises came from the boy's puffed-up lips, flecked with bubbles of spittle. His body was erect and stiff.

A fit, Cabell grasped in an instant. In the next he saw with a shock that the hammer was still up on the pistol.

McGovern had gone purple in the face. He was wrenching his hand out of his shirt. He got it free at last and pulled into the light his long, black-barrelled pistol. He fired it point-blank into Pete's face. The boy spun half-round, dropped flat on to the sticky mud of the floor.

At the same instant Red lifted himself to his knees and took a deliberate aim at McGovern's heart with the second barrel of the pistol he had fallen with.

McGovern roared and dived backwards out of the light, staggered on his broken knee, and collapsed among the bunks in the corner.

Unsteadily Red rose to his feet, laid the barrel on his forearm and aimed.

Robins bent down stealthily, picked up the axe and raised it.

Cabell turned his head away with an automatic reflex of horror. A moment of silence in which two strained shadows blackened the wall, motionless. Then a brittle, crushing noise. He looked round. The body of Red was crumbling up slowly against the table, slowly settling on to the floor, with a deliberate, uncanny movement, as of life. Robins stood by watching, the axe across his shoulder. Tears welled from his melancholy eyes. He turned and stared at Cabell, sniffed violently. "There," he said. "That just shows yer."

A haze lifted from Cabell's sight, and, peering into the corner, he saw the collapsed figure of McGovern and traced to it the incessant thunder of abuse that had shattered suddenly the febrile silence. He was trying to scramble up, but his knee kept giving way under him.

Robins came to and rushed across the room to help him.

A burst of laughter from Davy distracted Cabell's attention. "Diddled ye! Ha, ha, ha! That's one ye won't stretch. Ha, ha, ha! Out the winder he went. That's one saved his windpipe till tomorrer."

Cabell looked for Gursey. He was gone--through the window. The discovery pulled him together. "Diddled us!" he found himself shouting after Davy. "Gursey's gone."

McGovern was leaning on Robins's shoulder and trying to wrench a second pistol from under his shirt.

Cabell flattened himself against the wall, raised his hand as though to ward off a blow, then turned and dived between the horses, wrenching them around behind him.

A figure rushed down the slope towards the river. Gursey.

Cabell came to his senses. He threw the reins of McGovern's mare over her neck, savagely kicked her in the ribs, picked up stones and shied them at her till the sounds of her hoofs galloping towards the scrub had died away, leapt into his saddle, and urged the gelding after Gursey.

How automatic these actions had been he realized when he found himself faced, at the river bank, by the wide stretch of rushing waters. He pressed his heels into the horse and galloped along the bank in pursuit of running feet. McGovern had staggered to the door and was shouting into the darkness for him, calling on all the devils in hell to blast and blind him. The dogs followed with an incessant whining and barking.

He ran alongside Gursey. "Up! Up!" he shouted, pulling the gelding back, "and hang on when she jumps! Grab the stirrup! Quick!"

Gursey hesitated a moment, white face lifted, backed away a pace or two, then scrambled up feverishly behind him.

Cabell turned the horse back to the land, spun it round and put it to the bank. It went in with a splash like glass breaking. The water flowed over their heads, gurgled in their ears. He slipped off the saddle, got a hold on the gelding's tail with one hand, on Gursey with the other. He could feel the horse's feet working. The darkness pressed upon them. From far away came the wild halloo of voices cursing them.

 

 

Chapter Twelve

AN END AND A BEGINNING

 

Two glasses of Dennis's poison ratified a deal. Two thousand sheep and four hundred cattle had changed hands, and Flanagan's order-to-pay was safely stowed away in the knotted end of his handkerchief.

"Been havin' a go in your way?" Dennis asked Cabell. Sinking his wounded pride in the office of district gossip, he smiled, cringed, served them out of his private bottle.

"Nothing to speak of," Cabell told him. "I chased a convict over the river just before it broke the banks and now I can't get back for a while. That's all."

"Was he drownded?"

"Yes, he was drowned."

For this concession Dennis leant across the bar and told them, "It's cleaned old Mahony out. Saw his house go past this mornin' with a dog up on the roof howlin' fit to bust. His cows've bin comin' down legs-up these three days. No sign of the old man yet, though."

"Huh." Cabell finished his drink.

"Damn lucky if he's feeding the fishes. It's better than trying to feed yourself in this hole," one of the drinkers interjected. He was caked with mud from head to foot and a lump of dry mud hung in his beard like a blood globule.

"Drinkin' himself blind five days," Dennis hastened to explain behind his hand. "Caught near Badger's--two years' wool went--bullocks--everything."

The man edged down the bar. "No women, no booze, and work your guts out to see yourself break out in scab and the wool washed away down to the sea." He jerked his thumb over his shoulder at a man who stood near the door watching the flooded river. "Him, for instance. Just married, and there's his wife all on her lonesome fifty miles the other side of Redbank, with all the damn cannibal blacks sitting round to get at her kidney-fat."

Cabell shrugged. "Hard luck," he said, and turned away.

The man stared at his back vacantly, then moved down the bar again.

The only other person beside Cabell who seemed comparatively indifferent to the flood was Peppiott. He leant on the bar with his head in his hands. A skull had come up under his florid skin, his eyes had fallen in. Jostled by newcomers to the bar, he became aware of vague realities behind the engrossing shadows, picked up his big body and shuffled off to a corner to stand and stare for as long as he was left alone at the wall a few inches in front of his nose. Occasionally he threw back his head and laughed or kicked the wall savagely, became silent, staring again.

Cabell gave him a passing glance of pity, as one looks at the misfortunes of a stranger.

Weighty thoughts clouded the amiability in Flanagan's eyes. He considered his reflection in the bottom of the glass, considered the side of Cabell's face, considered the reflection again.

"If ye'd take my advice," he said, "the country's good up the coast."

"So I've heard," Cabell said.

"Hmn. Thinking of the Downs?"

"Well--perhaps."

A more reserved and independent, less friendly Cabell--a change sensed rather than seen. The soft contours of the olive-skin cheeks had flattened down a little maybe, the eyes no longer jumped about from landscape to brawling drunkard with restless discontent. That and perhaps a little note of arrogance and contempt in the way he spoke. "Here, I've brought you those cattle and sheep. Get a man to help me into the yards with them," was all he had said when Flanagan opened the door to him two nights ago.

"Got them. Holy saints! Where from?"

"Oh, out of those gullies where you lost yourself."

That from a limejuicer!

They had another drink and went out into the steamy sunlight. Dennis and the man who had lost his wool roused themselves to gaze thoughtfully after Cabell--why, perhaps they could have explained no better than Flanagan.

Flanagan paused at the door. "Funny thing now, you lettin' that lag get the slip of you in the river, Cabell," he said. He rubbed his beard and stared at the sky.

"Funny?"

"Yes." He continued to consider, with wrinkled brows, a bizarre problem located among the broken clouds. "When ye come to think of it. Man might've thought ye'd pick him up and get him to give ye a hand with all them cattle, now."

"I told you he was drowned."

"Ye-es. So ye did." Flanagan nodded two or three times. "Funny thing, now," he said, "the way ye got all them cattle down three miles to my place, fixed up the man he had there in the gully and all. . . ."

An old gin followed them to their horses with thin, grey palm outstretched. "Gib him toombacca, Marmy," she begged.

Cabell threw her a lump of twist. She picked it out of the mud, put it in her mouth and went back to the door.

Flanagan stood looking at Cabell's horse for some time, then ran his hand down a foreleg. "Bit heavy in the bone, eh?" he said. "Where'd ye get this one?"

Cabell nodded towards Murrumburra.

"Funny thing," Flanagan said, sitting on his heel and squinting up at Cabell, "funny thing never seeing that roan of mine."

Cabell took the reins off the post, climbed into the saddle, and squirmed his crutch against the hot leather. "McGovern must've sold it."

"Damn funny thing!" Flanagan rose and took hold of the bridle. Most of the amiability was gone from his face now. "Take my tip," he said confidentially. "Ye'd better go some place a mighty long way from here. Some place McGovern wouldn't think of or nobody come sneakin' round after a runaway convict."

Cabell walked the horse out into the yard. "Well, so long," he said, touched the gelding with his heels, and in a splash of muddy water cantered off up the road.

Flanagan watched him out of sight, spat in the mud, and returned to the bar. The outstretched hand of the gin he thrust roughly aside, which shows how the small matter of a roan stallion may wither even the sources of a charitable nature.

 

 

II

Wastelands

 

 

Chapter Thirteen

LANDSEEKER

 

Five men, two bullock drays, five hundred cattle, a thousand sheep--day after day, week after week they pushed out. At first the sun set in their faces. They crossed mountains where there were trees taller than ships' masts and so wide in girth that if a tunnel were driven into them a bullock dray might pass through with room and to spare for a horseman.

Once or twice they met a man with a drayload of wool, creeping through the ranges towards the sea. He pulled up, mopped his brow.

"Going far?" he wanted to know.

"Yes," Cabell answered.

"Downs?" the man asked.

"No."

"Maranoa?"

"Oh--wherever you like."

"No call to get uncivil," the man grumbled, but Cabell had ridden on to scowl at the hands, who had stopped in the hope of a few minutes' yarn with a stranger.

The little caravan straggled on again, down the other side of the mountains to the plains. Not a tree was to be seen for miles here, but the grass grew so high that a man might stand up in his stirrups and not see over the top of it.

Now the sun set on their left hand, day after day, week after week. Shepherds saw the smoke of their fires from miles away and tramped in for a chat. Gursey rose from the fire when they came, and sat in the shadows. He was clean-shaven now, more terrier-like than ever. He was always looking round at the bush, back the way they had come, as though expecting someone. Short shift these visitors got if Cabell found them about the place. "Sneaking around to get a look at the brands," he told himself, though it was pitch-black nights when the shepherds came.

Soon they were out in trackless, thinly settled country. Gursey became quieter, though he still looked back along the cart track-longingly, almost regretfully, now, it seemed.

But there were violent quarrels when Cabell proposed to stop and camp. Gursey nagged. They stayed in one place on the northwestern edge of the Downs for three months; in another farther north for nearly five. But Cabell gave way in the end to Gursey's entreaties, sneers, alluring descriptions of country farther north still and in towards the rich coastal mountains.

They struck camp.

One of the men died of black-water, and Cabell went back a hundred miles with the drays to get fresh stores and new hands. When he returned Gursey hid his face under his hat for a week, ate alone, till he saw that the two strangers Cabell brought back were harmless "hatters"--an old man and a lanky boy born in the bush.

On again. Day after day, week after week--the way Gursey and Red had gone when they escaped from Moreton Bay years before.

At dawn the hands started the cattle off the camp, then the sheep. Gursey yoked the bullocks to one of the drays and drove on ahead. They followed his tracks, and at sunset came upon the camp he had made. A big kettle of tea was standing by the fire, dampers were baking in the ashes, fires were piled ready for the cattle and the sheep.

All night a man rode round the cattle. At the campfire the rest would be smoking a last pipe before turning in to sleep till their watch.

Cranky Tom fell into deep thought and stroked his magnificent tobacco-stained whiskers, which looked as though a fine bird had folded its wings over his face. "Mr Kebbel, sir. Must be the first white men round these parts, Mr Kebbel, sir." Each word had to be pulled out of his mouth with both hands, a laborious business.

Sambo, the boy, looked at him contemptuously. "Whatyamean, first white man?"

Tom made a face as though stabbed by sudden pain, jumped up, stamped with both feet. "You agen?"

Sambo, young and cynical, had a sarcastic eye, which he kept on Tom, waiting for him to speak. He always had a parallel story to diminish the wonderful things that happened to Tom.

"Put yer peepers on that, will yer?" he said, throwing something into the firelight.

Cabell examined it. A buckle from a belt.

"Found it smornin'," Sambo explained. "Campfire'n' all."

Gursey glanced quickly at Cabell. Suddenly he got up and went out into the darkness. Cabell followed and found him striding up and down under the trees.

He laid a hand on Gursey's arm. "It won't be the same this time, Joe," he said compassionately. "You'll never have to go back."

"Ay," Gursey said bitterly. "Never go back. Never. Never."

They stood in silence, thinking of the future--each in his own way. Cabell's hand tightened slightly on Gursey's arm. Gursey's shoulder drooped as though a heavy weight had been laid on it.

At the fireside Tom was stroking his whiskers in deep thought again. "Ah!" he exclaimed at last. "Bird dropped it."

"Whatyamean, bird dropped it?"

"Seed one of them hawk-birds pick up a boot, fly off with it," Tom said, slapping his knee triumphantly at disposing of Sambo.

"Aw, that! That's nothin'," Sambo did not fail to remember. "Seen a eagle onct pick up a young blackfeller, boots'n'all."

"A-a-a-h!" Tom stamped round the fire angrily again. "Liar!"

"Better one than you'll ever be, ain't I?" Sambo tempted him.

"What's that?" Tom fired up. "Was one afore you was born."

Sambo grinned evilly and rolled down into his blankets, while Tom chuckled with deep satisfaction at an enemy overwhelmed.

"I might as well've let him shoot me, hang me, anything," Gursey said, "as be tied to your grindstone for the rest of my life, always sneaking off from a stranger with the fear of God leaping up in me at every footstep. And on top of it all ten to one I'll be nabbed again."

"Who could nab you? Nobody knows out here."

"You know."

"Well?"

Gursey waved his arms. "Oh, don't you think I can't feel you holding it over me already?" He limped away further into the night.

Cabell went back to the fire and lay down.

At two o'clock the cattle rise, sniff the air, bellow mournfully. The dogs get up from the fire and stretch themselves. The sheep stir and bleat. The watchman canters round, driving restless cows back into the mob. Cabell sits and watches nervously. Soon the cattle settle down again. The watchman rides in to rouse up his mate, smokes a pipe, and shakes down. Silence again under the immense dome of stars as big as fists. From down near the river tinkles the bell of a hobbled horse, one near by tears at the grass, a dog whimpers in its sleep; the sound of cattle chewing the cud, their soft breathing; the freshened fires crackle and leap, shining on their eyes; wild things scream far away in the darkness; the watchman's horse comes near, passes. Cabell glances at Gursey's empty blanket, shakes his head, and lies down. At the paling of the first star he is up, rousing the camp.

The bush began to thicken, mountains rose up starkly from the horizon. The cartwheels furrowed the earth, winding here and there to avoid a fallen tree, a patch of impenetrable scrub. The sheep coming after beat down the grass. It was the first road.

Day after day, week after week. They moved so slowly that it seemed they would never get anywhere. Summer became winter. Winter went and summer returned. Herds of kangaroos fled through the scrub. Birds rose in great flocks from under their feet. Blacks followed them and ran away at the sound of a gun.

Then the rain came. Torrents of rain for a month. Their clothes were never dry. They slept huddled together under the dray, got up to ride dispirited horses after weary sheep and cattle. The rivers rose and marooned them. The blacks returned more boldly. There was a skirmish. Sambo was wounded. The cattle stampeded. Nearly fifty were drowned, speared or lost.

They crossed the river. They took the wheels from the cart, lashed barrels on each side, and turned it into a boat. Thus they ferried across the precious sugar and flour, of which much had already been destroyed by weevils. Then they swam the sheep over. This not for one, but for five rivers.

The sheep lambed. They camped till the lambs were strong enough to be weaned and marked and travelled. On again--the landseekers, the forerunners, the men who first broke the silence of the sad, grey wastelands. A whole book might be written just about this.

The men got tired, tailing sheep and cattle by day, watching them by night. They had been on the march for nearly eighteen months, over hills so steep that they must cut a road for the waggon, through scrub so thick that they must hack every inch of the way, over sun-baked plains, over mud where the wheels sank to the axle. Cabell's temper got shorter and shorter. He wanted to stop here or here or here, but Gursey turned on him angrily and had his way. Another range of hills was rising out of the northeast. His cart tracks led them towards it.

Once more a road must be cut into the hillside, boulders rolled aside, a tunnel forced through undergrowth. The lawyer vines hung over everything, tearing the clothes off their backs and making festering sores on their bodies. The stinging tree reached out its heart-shaped leaves to touch them. Sambo brushed against it. He was twisted with agony.

Gursey turned and looked back. Only the bush melting into purple shadows round the whole wide horizon--still, silent, unpeopled. He nodded to Cabell. "Tomorrow."

At evening they entered the valley.

It lay between hills magenta-coloured in the distance, green with heavy timber and matted undergrowth near at hand. A wide, shallow river wound out of sight to east and west, enamelled over with the lights of the sinking sun. Here and there a big waterhole, clumps of trees, stretches of rolling open country like a park. Grey galahs flashed their pink breasts among the foliage, white cockatoos, perched in the gums, looked down at the intruders and screamed like old women. Flocks of black duck rose from the water or swam away into the reeds, spreading a corrugation of gentle ripples over the images of men and beasts as they crossed the river. The grass was high and green after the rains. A pleasant smell rose from the trampling feet of the cattle, the scent of sweet marjoram. The aromatic smell of wood, of smouldering leaves, of mud at the edge of the river, of water--the smell of the land. Now another smell overlay it--the smell of greasy wool, of sweating horses and cattle. It loaded the dry air, clear as crystal and slightly intoxicating. In the scrub the animals rustled with alarm at it and cried out.

Cabell stood up in his stirrups, looked round and smiled.

That night they broached the rum.

March the fifth, 1847.

 

 

Chapter Fourteen

HARD MAN

 

They took no holiday.

Within two weeks Cabell had hurdles up for the sheep. Then he built pens for the lambing-down and began to split timber for the drafting yards.

First up and last asleep, he worked for fourteen hours a day. He was everywhere at once: deep in the scrub squaring timber, down at the yards helping Gursey sink postholes, out among the cattle looking for a cow he thought he had heard coughing during the night, tailing up the shepherds to make sure they were not asleep, waiting at the pens to count their sheep as they came in at sundown.

Then he must feel a belly here and there to see if the sheep had been driven too hard, walk round and round the pens peering at them till they settled down for the night, inspect wood-piles to see that there was enough to keep the dingo-fires going till dawn, test the hurdles, patch a gap where the brushwood had come adrift, call Sambo down to say "Do you think that will be all right? Do you think it'll last till tomorrow?"

Bill Penberthy came with his blankets to keep watch.

"Sleep round the other side," Cabell said as he spread them out in a comfortable place.

"What's that ye say?" Penberthy growled back, a great bulk of resentment at being ordered.

"Sleep where I told you before."

"Are you asking me?"

Cabell threw blankets across the pen.

"What the flamin' hell's he think I am?" Bill asked Tom. "A flamin' convict?" A sore point this that someone might forget that he had ceased to be a convict three years ago. "He'll be wantin' us to lift our lids to him next. See if he don't." He jammed his hat down on his head till it half covered his face. "Damned if I will, and that's tellin' ye straight."

Tom thought about it. "Tell you what, he's a funny sort of cove, that's what he is."

"Funny!" Bill exploded. "He's a flamin' dam' slave-driver, that's what he is, comin' down here three and four times in a night to pull you out because there's a dinger about--a dam' dinger himself, sneakin' round so you can't never tell whether his eye's on ye or what--a miser, the way the first thing he puts up's a storeroom with a flamin' big padlock'd take ye a week to crack--don't trust nobody, he don't--countin' the sheep morn and night--looks at you so you get in a sweat tryin' to remember if ye've just been pinchin' something." He spread his blankets on the hard stones where Cabell had thrown them. "But I ain't a flamin' convict," he grumbled. "Can't order me . . . won't lift me lid . . . blast him." He settled down on the stones.

For another hour Cabell poked about in the darkness. He walked half a mile across the flats to where the drafting yards were being built. He felt along the high barricades, which would have to hold big herds of half-wild cattle driven in for drafting and branding, tested each greenhide lashing and wooden peg with his fingers, each rough mortice, pulled on the rails till his shoulders ached, counted the number of panels finished that day, and paced out the distance still to be done. He must even peer into one of the holes and measure it with his arm to satisfy himself that Gursey was putting the posts in as deep as he should.

Yes, he trusted nobody. Himself alone against all men. Say little, keep watch, suspect their easy words of friendship. Guard yourself. At home there were his brothers; here everyone was an enemy, but he had particular enemies--McGovern, Flanagan, Gursey. . . . To Gursey, however, his attitude was a special one, a feeling that amends must be made for a dishonourable act undefined. Thus would be lightened the vague and incomprehensible but omnipotent sense of guilt, punishment for which was always hanging over him. He did not feel it as guilt exactly, but as a haunting conviction of unworthiness that had been with him from earliest childhood. Great and inexorable powers had to be placated before one could hope that the smallest wish would be fulfilled. They were harsh, inimical, and all-seeing. Theirs was the sternest of precise justice. Another kind of justice, tender and understanding, was to be found in his mother's arms. She often gave what these powers had denied.

Gursey had just taken the damper out of the fire when he arrived at the camp. This was perched on the top of a small hill that commanded a view up and down the valley and lay within a stone's throw of the river. The homestead would be built here eventually.

He ate his share of the damper in silence, with a lump of cold salt junk, washed it down with scalding black tea which took a strong aroma from the smoke of the pine log's.

"When'll you start cutting the uprights for the humpies?" Gursey asked, in his usual challenging voice.

"When you've finished the drafting yards."

"It's time to start on the huts."

"It's time to finish the drafting yards."

The same old tug-of-war.

The men ate their meal on the other side of the fire--Tom and Sambo back to back, and farther away in the shadows old Don Butler, his face buried in his hands as though suffering some unimaginable agony. Daft, of course, as daft as they all became in the lonely bush.

"Winter's coming. You can't leave the men outside like this," Gursey argued.

"But the cattle are not branded."

"Cattle, cattle--that's all you ever think of."

"Mr Kebbel, sir." Cranky Tom smoothed away his whiskery and cleared his throat. "Mr Kebbel, sir. . . ." It took him a lot of hard thought to get started, most coherent sounds having long left his memory except the wild yodellings in which he conversed with sheep. "This 'ere"--he prodded Sambo--"crow-bait, sir, this 'ere young . . . Sambo, sir. What 'e says is there ain't no sich thing as. . . ." He put his damper down, rolled back his sleeves, and began making rapid passes to illustrate some indescribable thing. Failing, he lapsed into deep thought for a moment or two, then began again with a gesture of hooking Cabell into mysterious confidences. "Mr Kebbel, sir, ain't there no sich thing's two 'umpies built atop each other, now, sir?" This immense problem of definition solved, he collapsed into a heap and sat with thin neck extended, mouth open, ear propped forward with the tips of his fingers to drink in judgment.

"A two-storey house, do you mean?"

"What I mean. . . ." In the dust he drew with his forefinger a lopsided picture of a two-storey house, only he gave it a door leading out on to vacancy on the top floor. "There, that's what I mean you to understand, Mr Kebbel, sir."

"A two-storey house."

"Ain't there sich a thing, now?"

"Certainly."

He pointed scornfully at Sambo. "There, yer blanky know-all."

But Sambo was not impressed. His weathered face, which was long and horselike, hung over the drawing, then split into a grin that revealed a mouthful of broken, black teeth. "Why, where's the steps? There ain't none."

Tom looked helplessly from Cabell to Gursey, took refuge in abuse. "Crow-bait!" he snarled.

Sambo laughed good-naturedly. "Say you was born in one next."

And so truthfully he might have said if the mists of time had not left the past a wreck of years crowded with the bobbing backsides of sheep. He had consorted with them for so long that he had come at last to look like one, dewlaps and all. He had the same fatalistic eye, bleating voice and creaky joints. The really remarkable part of him was, strictly speaking, not a part of him at all--a set of false teeth bought second-hand from a drover for the price of a drink. Only the drover had been such a big man and Tom was such a wizened-up one that it was a hard job to get them into his mouth. He put them in at every meal and they stayed clenched on his lower jaw, giving him a look of tigerish ferocity. Food was introduced by lifting them up like a lid or was wedged in through the gap between them and the gum. Chewing proceeded without any assistance from the teeth, but they had the value of a unique objet d'art in a country where few boasted anything better than a row of isolated black stumps, like the relics of a burnt-out scrub.

The meal over, he removed this fine façade, knocked it out on his boot like a pipe, and put it away in a greenhide bag along with other precious things. The teeth came out again with little bits and odours of this assortment clinging to them, so that when Tom was equipped for a meal he looked and smelt as if he had just been making one off fly ointment, old boots, fur, paper and gunpowder.

"Kin tell you where you kin see that 'umpy," he told Cabell. "Down Echuca way, it is. Sixty miles this side the Murray. Glass stuff and all. Somethin' like a thousand winders or somethin' they reckon."

Sambo sneered. "What fer'd a man want to build 'umpies on top each other?" he wanted to know.

"What fer? Fer to get away from them bleedin' blanky kangaroo-rats, Mr Kebbel, sir. Et up an extry pair of duds I 'ad. Somethin' savage, they was."

"You had extra pair duds! You!" The last thread in a tissue of fantastic improbabilities.

Tom plumed his gloomy whiskers. "Currency scum, Mr Kebbel, sir," he said, and jerked his thumb over his shoulder. "Been nowhere--seed nothink--knows nothink."

Suddenly an apparition rushed upon them from the shadows. It was old Dan Butler. He stopped at the outer circle of light, grimaced with exasperation, and clawed the air. "The noise," he groaned. "It's fair cruel."

"'Oo's making a noise?" Tom demanded. "I was a-talkin'."

"Everything's making noise," Dan cried, and clutched his hands over his ears, sensitive, from long living on voiceless plains, to the ghostliest vibrations. "Can't you hear it?" He waved round the circle of darkness, where the quietness seemed absolute--"It's worse'n a pit of jabberin' devils"--then uttered a shriek of despair and rushed off, dragging his blankets behind, to seek an impermeable silence out in the scrub.

Tom rolled his eyes thoughtfully. "Must be goin' off his nut, that feller."

Cabell got his blanket from the cart and lay down feet to the fire, his head pillowed on his saddle. But he did not sleep. Would the lambing be good? Would many die? Would there be a drought? A flood? Would diseases wipe him out? Would blacks come across the hills?

The sky flung over him its studded canopy. Oh, the crashing immensity of time and the world, the thin wafer of his little moment! Along the river curlews piped. Dingoes called from the hills. This enormous darkness was theirs, and his all that was contained within the circle of the fires. How small that circle was, how many years of enduring toil must pass before the valley was full of his creatures! A generation was small enough, and he had set ten years.

He closed his eyes to shut these worries out and found behind his lids thoughts more tormenting, the thoughts that never were far away, the thoughts of England.

 

We are all in a state of expectation about David. It certainly SEEMS to promise a most desirable conclusion. He dines EVERY night up at the Hall and Fanny has become so quiet all of a sudden, so meditative. She MUST be revolving SOME thought in that pretty head.

 

So much for an heiress-endowed brother. And Victor was running a horse in the Derby. And Archdeacon Clement had made a sensation by purchasing the famous Batrachini vase in the teeth of strong competition from all the collectors of Europe. And John had been promoted. And so on. . . .

Cabell flung himself over and pressed his thumbs into his eyes as though he hoped to rub away the images of that far, far world, clearer and more real to him than the world at hand, where all was still fantastic in its crude, wild ways.

He opens his eyes and traces the sharp outline of the hills, edged with the glitter of chill starlight. Now he tries to recapture the worst of those worries he put away a few moments ago. He would like to wrap them round himself like the chains and penitential shirt of a devil-infested hermit. But it is too late. Thought is a Hydra. Lop off one head and it grows another more terrible than the last--or more lovely.

 

I read your letter to Phillipa Mayne. . . . She's grown so tall, Derek, you could not conceive it. And so stately. Quite like the Queen, but so much more queenlike. . . . Do you recollect how she stole a ride on your cob and fell into Northover Pond? You wrung the water out of her dress. Do you remember?

 

He falls to biting his lip, trying to find the seventh star in the Pleiades, listening to the interminable argument at the fireside.

As well try to blow out a bushfire, hold back the river with his hands. On every passionate sense burns the ardent fantasy of a beautiful girl in a clinging wet dress, looking down at him one warm June afternoon. Overhead the luminous green of the new leaves. Around the blossoming lilac. The sunlight strikes up from the water and dapples her laughing face with shadows.

He rises urgently and stands staring at the fire. Becoming aware of the men gaping at him, he mumbles something about Bill Penberthy letting tide fires go out and plods down the slope to tramp round and round the sheep pens. Then the watchman, waking up, sees his face, lighted on one side, gloating over the sheep. He breathes the oily smell of their wool deep into his lungs; the fit passes.

He climbs the slope again and rolls back wearily into his blankets.

The voices at the fireside drone on and on. "I knowed that feller afore you was born, Sambo. Tailin' sheep he was on Mattarula. See him now. King of the Hawkesbury, they calls 'im."

Fortunes that grew like mushrooms. Men who came with empty pockets and now ruled lands as wide as England, immense herds, owned towns, flocks no one had numbered to within thousands. . . .

He listened greedily. These were the stories he liked to hear.

 

 

Chapter Fifteen

LAMBING-DOWN

 

Somehow or other the calendar went astray and there was an argument about the date. Cabell said it could not be later than August the eighth and Gursey said it would not be earlier than August the fifteenth. Not a very urgent matter at ordinary times, but the question now was when the lambs would begin to drop. Cabell had marked September the thirtieth on the calendar when he put the rams in on the first of May, but Bill Penberthy now lumbered into the dispute, on principle, to assert that the rams went in on April twenty-four.

Cabell was probably the only one who knew for certain when the rams went in, when the lambs were due, and what the date was, but their doubts possessed him at once, and before a week was past he had lost all faith in his own sense of time. In vain, Sambo tried to comfort him by saying that the ewes would begin dropping, calendar or no calendar, when they had to. Cabell nodded gloomily, as though he mistrusted even ewes to do their work without a watchful eye on them.

The result of all this was that Cabell began expecting the lambs a fortnight before their time. It was winter. The westerly wind beat down the long grass, snatched sparks from the roaring dingo-fires and set them glowing in the topmost branches of the trees. Throughout the night of the twenty-second, twenty-third and twenty-fourth Cabell sat up beside the pens waiting for the first lamb, but he waited in vain. The dawn showed only the bush billowing like a sea, the lambing yards smashed flat.

He became restive, then angry and frightened. The sheep were late. Something must be wrong with the pasture. They would die in lambing. All would be lost.

One day shortly after he had begun to worry about the lambs being overdue he was at work in the scrub splitting timber. The wind had dropped. Everything rested in the noon. Not a whisper, not a lisping murmur of air in the stiff leaves glistening on the treetops a hundred feet overhead. Strange thoughts came to him out of the silence, out of the bush that had been listening, waiting like this for thousands upon uncountable thousands of years. For what? For him?

He saw a stone which his foot had moved from the surface of the ground where it had sat against another stone worn exactly to its shape. Had no foot ever touched that piece of ground, then? With wonder, with such childlike awe as he had once tried to imagine the abyss of space that lay between himself and the star which came out every evening above Three Barrow Down, he stood with his back against the cool bark of a gum-tree and tried to imagine the centuries through which the bush had stood as it stood now.

A frightening thought that took him back to Dorset: the tilled fields, even the open downs, every inch of earth there had been worked over, walked over, touched and flavoured by men. Every inch of it subdued, made safe and friendly. It even looked human, a great full-breasted woman. But here . . . how forlorn and desolate seemed the distant figures of men walking about the valley! The very cattle and sheep looked uneasy in these wide pastures. Yet what was there to fear? No terrible thing waited to rush out on them. Only, weighting the chilly noontide, this barren and inhuman quietness of a whole empty continent that seemed to brood over an ancient thought which comprehended nothing of men and their creatures. That this old, haggard, grey one had waited so long for him--him--to come and vitalise her was a thought that answered its own presumption. He threw down his axe and hurried away to look at the ewes, beset by the need for immediate action.

But he found the sheep grazing quietly under the sleepy tutelage of Tom, who was carrying on ruminative converse with the crows that followed the flock round in excited anticipation of eyes to pick out.

Cabell appealed to him. "They're a week late. Have you ever seen anything like it?"

Tom winked. "Mr Kebbel, sir, them sheep . . . ain't nat'ral."

"What the devil's wrong with them?"

"No sheep ain't nat'ral, Mr Kebbel, sir. Now, I knowed a flock once what all died in one night and nothing to show what fer they did it."

"Did you?"

"Now, them sheep--" Tom lowered his voice. "Some'll tell you--sheep's stoopid. Tain't so, Mr Kebbel, sir. Pig-'eaded, but not stoopid. Pig-'eaded and vicious."

"Do you think they'll start soon, really?"

"Bidin" their time, Mr Kebbel, sir. Come a real cold night when it's rainin' and all, then they'll start. Aw, sheep's got brains all right."

"You think they're all right, then, eh?" Cabell insisted, cheered a little by an assumption of dark knowledge in Tom's eye.

Tom tapped his chest. "Take them crows, now. Some'll tell you--birds. What I says is crows is devils." Tom pointed at the trees, where the blue-black legions sat squabbling and blinking their wicked white eyes. "Does birds talk, Mr Kebbel, sir? No, they don't. Does crows talk? They does. And what about?" He rose on tiptoes and whispered in Cabell's ears. "Greenbobs' eyes. They knows."

A new worry to plague him. "I'll get a gun and shoot some," he said anxiously.

Tom buttonholed him again. "Take them eagle-birds, now. Yest'y afternoon one comes down in that tree. Takes a look round then mizzles. Where's he now?" Tom nodded towards the Interior. "Out in the Never-Never, that's where 'e is, a tellin' of his mates. And what's he sayin'? Them ewes over Kebbel's's gettin' tight, boys,' that's what he's sayin' this minute. 'E knows."

Tom closed an eye, as one aware of evil plots. "Take them dingoes, now. . . ."

But Cabell fled from such a system of consolation. Nearly another week passed and no lambs. He took his blankets down to the pens and slept among the sheep. Looking out from his blankets, Bill Penberthy saw him going round the fires and stoking them up, then peering over the hurdles as though a matter of life and death was being decided there. "Gawd stiffen the crows," Bill commented bitterly.

Nobody in the camp got any rest, and suddenly Cabell became mean and cut off the little extra rations he had allowed them since they arrived in the valley. He made them account for every nail they used, even looked resentfully at the scraps of cold and sodden damper they threw away, as though they were throwing away his very substance.

When Bill came down with the dray for a load of timber that afternoon he pointed across the valley to where a flock of crows was wheeling over the scrub. "Some'in's died on ye down there by the look of it," Bill said.

"What could it be?" Cabell said anxiously.

"Might be a 'oss," Bill drawled.

"A horse? What horse?"

"The roan stallion. That's the 'oss it might be."

"How the devil? I saw it this morning."

"Ain't I tryin' to tell you when I has half a chance," Bill growled, hitched up his trousers. He reached into the cart and threw a piece of hobble-chain on the ground. "Broke 'is 'obbles. Just picked that there up down the river."

"Curse him! It'll take a week to find him."

"If you ever sets eyes on him again--a flighty 'oss like that."

"What makes you think he's dead."

"Don't think he's dead. Tryin' to tell you about them 'obbles. Must be that brindle cow what's dead."

"The brindle cow?"

"Yes, or the sheep's begun droppin'. What's the use argifyin'! Must be some'in'."

"Lambs!" Cabell ran the mile and a half to the scrub. He found Tom rushing about with a stick, chasing away crows and hawks that swooped about above the newly born.

Tom shook his fist. "Call yourselves sheep?" he harangued the scattered flock. "Call yourselves pure-bred meriners? What I call yer. . . ."

Eighty lambs had been dropped altogether. Cabell found ten corpses with their eyes picked out. The trees were black with crows.

It was just such a night as Tom predicted for the lambing, perishing cold and windy and wet--the last lick of winter. All night Cabell and Sambo and Gursey went about among the sheep, picking up lambs and wrapping them in blankets and carrying them to the fire. When all the spare blankets had been used up Cabell turned the men out and filled their beds with lambs. They gathered to windward of the fire and huddled against a hot rock.

Bill grumbled a lot, but Cabell saved his lambs. A hundred dropped in the night and only five died. Having failed to destroy him there, the wind made a rear attack that nearly settled everything, lambs, men, stores and all. Cabell, on his way to the fire with a batch of lambs, found that a spark had set the storeroom alight. He dropped the lambs and tried to tear off the burning sheets of bark, but they roasted his hands. When he pulled on the poles the roof fell in and a tar-soaked tarpaulin inside flared up.

"Look out!" Gursey warned him, running up. "There's gunpowder!"

Cabell tore the tarpaulin out and muffled the flames. The men heaved the poles off. Old Dan stood among the lambs and dug his fingers into his ears. But he was spared. At the last moment Cabell got hold of the keg and threw it over the edge of the slope. This saved all the tea, tobacco, salt and flour they had to last the next eighteen months, but his hands were badly scorched.

While Gursey was tidying up some spilt grain he started back to the pens.

"Where're you going with hands like that?" Gursey shouted after him.

"It's nothing." He waved stiffly and started off again.

But Gursey caught him roughly by the shoulder. "No, you don't. There's enough to do here slaving our guts out without nursing you and cutting a rotten arm off you as well, maybe."

The raw flesh on his hand and arms began suddenly to shrivel and throb in the cold wind. When the wounds had been dressed in flour and fat he needed a stiff rum to pull him round.

But he could not lie down. Trussed up like a fowl, he walked about the lambing paddock in the yellow dawn light and fumed at Tom and Bill Penberthy, who were busy suckling the greenbobs to their mothers. Many mothers had no offspring, and some offspring, thanks to the dingoes, had no teat to suck at. So dead ones must be skinned and the skins sewn over the motherless living and the imposters fobbed off on the ewe that smelled itself in the false covering. Or sometimes, when the lamb was doused with brine, the ewe would begin licking it and take it for its own.

Every time Tom succeeded in palming-off a lamb in this way he preened his whiskers and winked at Cabell, indicating a treacherous blow at the tenderest feelings of a common enemy. "Got him there," he chuckled. "Wait'll it grows up inter a crossbred wether, yeh stoopid old mutton-face, yeh."

The sun rose. In the pale-blue windswept sky a speck appeared, grew, hung suspended. A second and a third. Tom took his pipe out and pointed. Eagles. The crows were already there, lining the hurdles of the lambing paddock and the branches of the trees.

Cabell fretted in his bonds.

 

Everything in the world
Lives only to destroy me. . . .

 

A fantastical fellow, who endowed the country with cunning and subtlety and vindictive purpose. Yet there might have been some method in this madness. Who can say what end a man is serving with this gesture or that? Least of all the man himself. By imagining danger on every hand he made himself prudent, dogged and far-seeing. Any plans for the future of the valley beyond the next ten years he repudiated, however, defining his only ambition as a triumphant return to Owerbury. The periodic arguments which Gursey forced on him about the nation coming to birth in the Australian wilds irritated him intensely, as though they compelled him to see something that distracted his eyes from their goal.

"Funny the way the lambs come out," Gursey remarked one afternoon towards the end of the lambing-down. "You got nearly all ewes. It used to be the same at Murrumburra. And down that place I was on near Bathurst it was the same." He leant against the stockyards. "Seems like the country was hungry for things to fill it," he said thoughtfully.

Cabell shook his head to chase away the flies, for his arms were still tied up. "And the next thing you know," he said, "there's a drought or a flood come to kill them off."

"Just the same, they go on increasing. Else you wouldn't be here."

"Let them increase, then, and I won't be here long."

Cabell turned, balancing himself gingerly on the rail, and watched Bill Penberthy drive the strong mob into the pens--the ewes that had lambed a fortnight ago and could travel now with their lambs. The green mob, ewes that had just lambed, were in the lambing paddock, where Tom was going round with a long stick to stir up the lambs so that they would not sleep too long and neglect their food or fall prey to the crows and hawks keeping tireless watch from the trees. The full-bellied mob was away down the river, waiting for men to come and pick up the lambs dropped during the day.

It was a late afternoon of spring. The cicadas had come out to sing the sun down, but the rasping of their million throats laid only a greater silence over the valley. The sheep bleated, Bill grumbled, Tom cursed, but no sounds penetrated the web of metallic music. Old Dan went past with a bundle of sheepskins, and his face was set in the serene smile that visited it only during rare interludes of the most perfect quiet.

"Yes, it can be rich when it likes," Cabell admitted, speaking from a heart delighted by the sight of his growing flocks and herds. Of the thousand ewes and sixty rams he had brought from Moreton Bay five hundred remained, but they had lambed twice now, adding twelve hundred sturdy fine-woolled animals to his stock.

In the next breath he complained: "One good season in four. That's the rule here. They'll most likely be food for the crows this time next year." A concession of pessimism lest the demons should blast his flocks on the spot.

"Save the water, that's what you've got to do," Gursey said. "Enough runs away in one night during the rains to last a lifetime." In a burst of enthusiasm he climbed on to the rail beside Cabell and began expounding his favourite theme--the future of the country. "Build dams. Flood up those gullies behind the hills. Drought would never come over the ranges then."

Cabell frowned.

"In twenty years," Gursey went on, "you'd've made this a part of the world. There'd be roads. There'd be people. Just where you're sitting might be streets. The bush'd be gone. Children'd be born and grow up here. Before you died you'd see them men, and they'd find their whole life in this valley where there wasn't a sign of life when you came exploring." His enthusiasm transfigured him. "What a chance!" he cried.

"A chance!" Cabell grimaced. "A chance to live in dirt and loneliness for the best years of my life. To go crazy like everyone else. To forget that there's anything in the world except sheep."

"You'd be making a new people."

"What a people! A mob of despairing immigrants."

Gursey brushed this aside. "People don't immigrate in despair. They immigrate in hope," he said.

"I've got my own hopes," Cabell said. "You know what they are."

Gursey's nagging voice jumped half an octave. "Ay, like the rest of them--pick the eyes out of the country and leave it." He jumped down from the fence and limped to and fro in front of Cabell. "Whose fault is it the place is lonely and stinking, with nothing in it but sheep to think of? Yours and others like you. You live like pigs"--he gestured towards the hovel building on the hillside--"you don't lift a hand to make the place better than a sty, though it's few of you want the money to build something fine and fit for men. You marry women and breed, but you never think of paying back what the country's given you by making a home in it. When you come the grass is good and the water enough for all and the bush full of timber. When you leave it the ground's sick and eaten out, the timber's cut and burnt and wasted, and the rivers have half dried up. As soon as you've got the beans, off you go to spend them somewhere else, to rot in Owerbury, to be a fat fool on a tame horse. And what have you left behind? Not even a well-bred sheep. Not even a decent horse. Nothing--because you've never thought of anything but yourself." He spat into the dust. "It isn't enough for you to waste what belongs to us by rights. You want us to work our guts out so that you can go back and be the sort of thing that sent us here."

Cabell sensed depths of personal resentment behind his words, overflowing from a heart full of grievance. "Is he going mad?" he wondered in alarm.

Gursey pounded his chest. "You've done me in, ruined everything, everything for me!" he said. "Just because you want to lord it over a pack of sots in England."

"You're ruining yourself," Cabell said, "with your hatred."

Gursey laughed. "It's that what keeps me alive."

Cabell climbed down from the fence and went for a walk up the river. Little spurts of anger kept drawing his heavy black brows together. The anger was not with Gursey; for some infuriatingly elusive reason it seemed to be with himself.

 

 

Chapter Sixteen

MYALLS

 

Sambo crossed the river and rode upstream towards the Three Mile, a belt of scrub that joined outcropping promontories of hills and cut the valley in two. As he passed a flock of sheep scattered along the bank, Cranky Tom poked his head out of the mulga scrub and shouted derisively "Hey, you, crow-bait! Reckon 't'ain't the roan stallion what's pinchin' them mares away at all."

"Whatyamean, ain't roan stallion?"

Tom screwed up one eye and rubbed his cheek. "Seed a foal round 'ere yest'y. Dead spit of you it was."

Sambo sucked his black eye-tooth for five minutes. "Boss dead sore 's'mornin'," he told Tom.

"What about?"

"Them lambs yours."

"What's wrong with 'em?"

"Boss reckons all growin' long yaller whiskers."

"T'hell with you! Bring the flies, you do."

"Flies? Could hang you up by the heels for a fly-trap."

Civilities exchanged, Sambo dug his one rusty old bent spur into the horse and rode on. He rode loosely, with the reins thrown over his arm and both hands stuck in the tops of his trousers. On horseback his lanky body, with its disjointed legs and pigeon-toes that on earth kicked and stumbled over every obstacle, knitted to a new grace, swayed like a dancer.

It was early in summer, towards the end of Cabell's first year in the valley. The rainless winter and three months of heat had changed the whole face of the valley from green to brown. The river was hardly more than a good broad-jump and the lagoons had dwindled to a chain of pools and mud-ringed shallows that seemed from a distance in the brilliant sunshine to be crusted over with snow. This was flocks of ibis and egret come to scoop out the fish packed closely in the waters waiting for rain. Snipe and plover sat about on the mudbanks or set off, like swarms of insects, to sweep the dirty waters. And overhead, ready to prey on the preyers, a brown kite dived and circled on strong wings that brought it close over Sambo's head, so that he could see its bunched claws and yellow, rapacious eye as it swooped away, beating an eddy of warm air into his face.

He turned up one of the gullies and came out into a wide, open place where a low-roofed wattle-and-daub shanty stood beside some sheep pens. This was the Three Mile out-station, established a month before with the winter lambs, where Bill Penberthy was shepherd and Dan kept the hut, looked after the food, shifted the pens, doctored culls, and stood watch at night.

"Y'there, Dan?" Sambo shouted. "Y'there, blast yeh?" But there was no answer from behind the barricaded door and windows until he dismounted and began to kick a hole in the bottom of the wall, which showed signs of having been so kicked many times before. Then a querulous voice demanded "Whatya want?"

"Open the door!" Sambo demanded. "Or I'll kick it down."

Prolonged grumblings ceased, and there was a sound of heavy timber being moved. After a few minutes a board swung away from the window and Dan's face, twisted by suffering as usual, appeared at the opening. "Must you worrit me?" he asked in a weak voice.

"Only wanted arst yeh if yeh'd seen that roan agen. . . ."

But at the first note of Sambo's stertorous cattleman's voice Dan slammed the cover and groaned. The interview might have ended there if two tom-tits had not started squabbling in the topmost branches of a pine, faintly scratching the silence of the gully. At that barely perceptible sound Dan uttered a yell of rage and began tearing down the barricades of the door. He emerged suddenly and looked wildly around, clutching an ear with one hand and waving aloft an ancient horse-pistol with the other. The birds, which realized at once that they were in the wrong gully, long since deserted by all croaking and whistling things, became suddenly quiet and huddled together on the end of a branch in the hope of escaping the avenger's eye. But it was as sharp as his ear. He let out a blood-curdling shriek and fired. The pistol exploded with a jet of flame three feet long and a terrible roar. Dan dropped it and stood with his head in his hands, trembling till the last echo had died away and the tom-tits had flown out of hearing. Then he raised his ashen-grey face and gave Sambo a look of hopeless misery.

"Yeh'll have to blow yer own head off to get rid of them noises," Sambo told him disparagingly.

The old man sat down on the doorstep and shook his head. "It's fair cruel, Sambo," he said in a little cracked voice. "The noise here fair lifts the top off your nut." He made a discouraged gesture towards the sky as a crow flew by. "It ain't only the birds, Sambo. It ain't only you rampagin' at the cows. It ain't only the cattle and the curlews and the sound of hammerin' day in, day out down at the homestead. It ain't only the blasted bleatin' sheep, the cockatoos and Bill a-talkin' to hisself. It's everything. Everything!" He shook a fist at the trees. "Hear them crackin' and rustlin', Sambo. Hear the branches fallin' off. Hear the wind in the grass. Hear the bunya nuts droppin'. Hear the bleedin' bees. Hear . . . oh, everything, Sambo! It'll drive me off the hooks if I don't get a bit of peace soon." His voice trailed off and the silence closed over them again, like the shell of an unborn world.

"Seein' yeh hear sich a lot," Sambo said, laughing, "have you heard that runaway horse lately?"

"Horse!" Dan screamed, starting up. "Twelve legs--rattlin' 'obbles--kickin'--stampin'--playin' hell's delight. Quadruped! Hell's cat, that's what that is. Never 'eard such noises."

"Where'd it go?"

Dan pointed over the hill. "It was over at the Blue Waterhole last night, neighin' fit to lift the sky. Oh, my God. . . ." At the memory of it he grabbed his ears again and rushed back into the humpy, where he could be heard frenziedly piling up his ramparts against a world of incessant sound.

Sambo rode on towards the waterhole, with a detour to keep him to windward of the quarry, but when an hour later he left the scrub there was no sign of the stallion or his runaway stud. A grey fringe at the banks of the lagoon heaved up, like a bursting bubble, and threw a racing shadow across the brown earth. A flock of native-companions he had disturbed rose slowly, circled above him with high-pitched trumpetings, then beat away over the bush.

For another hour Sambo rode about, making casts for fresh tracks, which, leading from the waterhole, showed that the horses had been frightened away only a short time before and had galloped up the valley. He was just about to give a tedious job best when he heard the sound of their hoofs in the distance, and a few minutes later the lovely roan stallion, followed by two young mares, burst out of the scrub about a mile away and dashed across the open. Before Sambo and his suddenly excited horse were properly in their stride they disappeared in the thick scrub on the other side. This was a game after Sambo's own heart. Without pulling rein he dived into the cool shadows after them and rode straight on, leaping fallen trees, bending and swaying to avoid low branches--a centaur if ever there was one.

He caught glimpses of the mares far ahead among the trees, a tail, a flying hoof, but he did not seem to gain on them. Soon he was toiling up the spine of the heavily wooded hills that ran down the centre of the valley, midway between the two ranges that bounded it on either side. He put his horse to the loose gravel bank of a dried-up creek, and snorting and almost flat on her belly she plunged up. Then a fifty yards' slide down a sheer face of rock, with stones bounding away ahead to crash out of sight in the gully, and up again to the foot of a little plateau where at some time long ago a bushfire had blasted a channel through the thick undergrowth. Here Sambo hesitated between two likely patches of scrub.

Suddenly his horse threw up its head, sniffed the air and stamped. A hot wind came through the clearing, with terrifying scents from inland. Sambo threw up his head and sniffed the air, too. He conversed with her in low, wondering snorts, and his bony, equine face took on a look of doubt.

At this moment, in a scatter of stones, the roan stallion dashed across the plateau straight towards them, with the two mares close at his heels. The horses showed signs of extreme terror. Their flanks were shining with sweat and foam flew from their mouths. He swung out to head them off, but they galloped past as though they did not even see him. His own horse became terrified then, and Sambo had a hard fight to make her turn and go back across the plateau where the stallion had come. By the time they reached the brow of the hill she was letting out whinnies of alarm. But nowhere in the wild and silent landscape, into which the sunlight pressed like a metal wedge, could Sambo's sharp eye ferret out a sign of life. Nothing moved but a column of white smoke rising from a grassfire at the foot of the ranges. It curled up till it reached the ridge of the hills, then spread in flat strata on the wind. Twenty miles off, on the opposite side of the valley, another fire was burning, and at the apex of a triangle, nearer, a third. For some time Sambo peered, or rather breathed, towards this. Born in the bush, his nose was sharper than his eyes. Faintly, beyond the smell of burning grass, it scented another smell less pleasant, of rancid fat and the smoke of rotten wood. Fifty yards away a clump of low bushes, sheltered from the wind, stirred gently and a crow called, to be answered from far across the valley. Sambo nodded shrewdly and loosened his rein. The horse spun round and started down the hill towards the homestead.

Myalls!

Cabell, indulging in an optimistic dream at the end of a fruitful year, came back to the realities of pioneering with the reflection that happy thoughts tempt Providence, and began overhauling the camp's small armoury and melting the lead lining of tea-cases to make shot. But the blacks were shy and kept to the hills. At night their fires glowed through the scrub and in the day they burned grass to signal across the valley, but no one saw them. Three tribes, or branches of a tribe, were coming together from west, north and south--a yearly meeting for a great corroboree.

A week passed and nothing happened.

Once more, as in the lambing-time, peace departed from the camp. Cabell lived in the saddle and the men were lucky if they got through a night without being called up on some alarm or other. In vain Gursey told him that the blacks never left their gunyahs in the dark. All night he patrolled his woolshed with a gun, stroking the bales of wool as he passed, as though they were live and timid things that must be petted lest they pine away and grow thin.

A strip of moon grew to its first quarter. Voices wailing tuneless song stirred the night-birds. There were shouts, women screaming. Figures moved against the glare of a big fire. Next day six men came out of the bush and beckoned from the opposite bank of the river. Sign of an important occasion, their noses had been reddened. Cabell and Gursey went down. Cabell gave them the sodden remains of a damper, some old clay pipes and tobacco. A one-eye giant of a fellow made a long speech, waved his spear, and they withdrew. That night the voices wailed longer and louder.

Two days later the tribe came down and pitched their gunyahs on the bank of the river, about three hundred yards from the station. The bark gunyahs were like small bell-tents, and a fire was always kept burning in them. Cattle promptly evacuated the locality. The horses galloped about in their paddock and were restless all night. Even the stupid sheep hated the smell of the blacks. Most of the men were young fellows with chests like barrels and muscles that seemed likely to split their coal-black skin. Their eyes were purple-rimmed and the palms of their hands grey. They had wide mouths, low foreheads, and noses that lay flat on their faces, with big nostrils turned up and out. They were not like men, somehow--subhuman. Sad, wrinkled, oppressed, those faces could have belonged to the old age of the world but never to its dawn, one would have thought. Even Cranky Tom looked youthful in comparison. The smell of rancid fat and rotten wood clung to everything they touched, and a horse shied at a gate if they had been near it. The women, carrying their babies in bark dillybags on their backs, had long, pendulous breasts which they flung over their shoulders for their babies to suck. Hundreds of dogs infested the camp--hungry, half-wild dingoes that cringed before the indignant Scotch collies and came creeping silently back to get round behind the flock or resume digging at the offal dump Tom and Sambo had chased them away from.

On the third day the other tribes came in. Brides were to be taken, disputes settled, boys circumcized. There were fights. Three men chased another up the river. At sundown they returned and their bodies shone with a coating of fresh kidney-fat. Loud cries echoed along the hills and abruptly stopped. The night was dark as pitch. Heavy clouds covered the moon. On nights like this the blacks were depressed and silent.

But on moonlight nights they sang and danced.

The moon was a golden plate in the middle of a blue-black sky. The red stars paled, all form became wraithlike.

Cabell lounged in the doorway and watched the lights of the abo camp. Voices came up from the men's hut--Cranky Tom's mumblebumble, Sambo's high-pitched, derisive retorts.

Tom muttered.

"Tell yeh, distinctly heard female voice," Sambo said.

"You get outa here, you young--" A heavy piece of wood hit the wall of the hut.

Sambo laughed. "Next year yeh'll have a tribe o' yeller-whiskered abos comin' to see yeh, Tom."

The disjointed shadow of Tom shaking a fist sprawled across the moonlit grass.

A droning noise started, a solitary bullroarer that stopped abruptly, started again, stopped. A chatter of voices arose, stopped. A song began and ended after a few bars. The nervous ecstasy of the blacks gathering round their big fire communicated itself to the white men. Sambo ceased laughing.

Ducks and solitary jabiru passed across the moon and geese hastening to a rendezvous at the lagoons. The echoes of their whistling calls trailed up the valley behind them. Nankin birds passed on silent wings, croaking horribly and letting out a fowl-like cackle as they settled in the trees. Minutes went by and there were no other sounds.

A strange mood settled on Cabell. He felt at once calm and exalted. It was something the moon was doing to everyone and everything in the valley. Remote in depthless peace, the gums rose, tall, statuesque, motionless, with a white flame of blossoms burning at the top. But their shadows were alive with whispers, the brush of wings, the suppressed cries of the flying-foxes feasting on the orange-scented flowers. The silver strip of river flowed silently from shadow to shadow, but here and there a fish rose, rippled the surface, broke the quiet. From the scrub, covered with blackest darkness, roofed with a dome of silver, came the quivering cries of animals intoxicated with moonlight. So it was with Cabell. A dreamy contentment like quiet sleep possessed his body, relaxing weary nerves and muscles. But under this his blood thrilled with a passionate stirring--a passionate, deep yearning, towards what he could not have said, did not even ask. Consciousness, too, had found a moment of rest, and he was utterly submerged in the mood that entranced the valley. It was as though he had momentarily let go his hold on everything that had kept him alien in the land and had become a part of its wild fantasy--to him, for that moment, no longer strange, no longer fantastic.

He felt content.

Gursey came up the slope and leant against the wall beside him. He smoked his short, black pipe, making little noises with his lips as he puffed.

Cabell shook his head. "Ah, that's a long, long way from here, all that," he said, half to himself.

"The Old Country?" Gursey said.

Wonderingly Cabell repeated the words: "The Old Country."

Gursey took out his pipe and turned his head to watch a drove of flying-foxes settle in the flame-tree behind the humpy. Suddenly they began screeching and as suddenly were quiet again. Down at the camp a semicircle of bent figures was forming round the fire. Behind them stood excited men armed with spears. Their black bodies were lost against the shadows, but the moonlight and the flickering glow of the fire shone on the painting in kopi and blood-wood gum which spotted and striped their frames and picked out their eye-sockets, the bridge of their noses, their ribs, the line of their jaws.

Cabell began to talk again, in a quiet voice, as of one remembering a long-vanished past. "My brothers used to chase a tame deer round Exmoor. They used to be called hard-riding." He laughed. His gesture printed the shadow of a long arm on the grey mud wall of the storeroom. Then he roused himself and said in a surprised voice, "Used to? I suppose they're doing it still."

The bullroarer had started again, then another and another, till the air seemed to moan and quiver inside Cabell's head. . . . A man standing beside the fire kept time by banging two flat sticks together, and burst into fragmentary song in a hoarse voice, like a dog yelping. The thunder of the bullroarers died away, rose again--urgent, vicious. . . . A few old women sat down by the fire and stretched out their legs towards it. On the hollow between their stomachs and thighs they began to beat rapidly with their cupped hands. . . . The moonlight happiness of the blacks burst out in sudden song. The air trembled with the chant of men's voices, the drone of the bullroarers, the rattle of the dry sticks. The two white men watched in silence, stirred deeply by the wild rhythm, the dark power of the voices.

A man had come out of the shadows. He threw a few twigs on the embers and the fire blazed up again. In the flickering light he danced, with head and feet rigid, his body twisting and shivering to the music. His skin began to shine with sweat and the flames climbed over it. The music stopped abruptly--horns, voices, drummers, all together. The sound rolled away into the night. Then silence.

"Yes, a long, long way from here," Cabell repeated slowly. In this was none of the bitterness that always sharpened his voice when he spoke of England, none of the jealous longing for precious things taken from him, but just the faintest accent of contempt.

Gursey puffed at his pipe and smiled.

 

 

Chapter Seventeen

DAN

 

Soon there was always a crowd of blacks at the gate of the homestead waiting for Cabell to distribute sparing handfuls of tobacco and flour. Meanwhile they followed Cranky Tom about. Sometimes he scared them out of their wits by putting in his false teeth.

But as the moon waned they withdrew to a new camp near the Three Mile, whence only a faint echo of their night-time concerts reached the homestead. They were hunting kangaroo and feasting on the fish trapped in the shrunken pools.

When Cabell rode out to Dan's gully with the weekly rations on Sunday he found the blacks catching duck on the big lagoon. The heat of the sun bleached the sky and turned the waterhole to a sheet of burnished metal. One of the blacks, with a sod of brown grass tied to his head, went into the water and swam slowly across the lagoon to where the ducks were feeding. The herons stalking in the reedy shallows looked up suspiciously as the grass floated by, shook out their wings, but went on picking in the mud. The little pigmy geese swimming and diving in the middle of the hole gave the ducks no sign of the danger approaching. The grass-tuft floated on without a ripple. Suddenly, silently a duck disappeared under the water and came up again in a few seconds with its neck broken. So the hunt went on for half an hour till there were more dead bodies than live ducks. Then something alarmed the others and they flew squawking from the water and disappeared over the scrub.

As Cabell rode past their camp the blacks came out to crowd round him in the hope of getting a bit of tobacco. They followed him as far as the mouth of Dan's gully, then suddenly fell away, and when he looked round he saw them all crowded together, shaking their hands and discussing animatedly some terrible thing that resided hereabouts.

It was Dan apparently. Cabell pounded the door of the silent shanty, but for some time there was no answer. Then Dan appeared, dishevelled and heavy-eyed, grabbed the rations, darted back into the house and shut the door again.

"What's the matter with you?" Cabell demanded through a crack in the mud wall.

Dan groaned.

"Are you sick?"

"Sick! I'm a-dyin'."

"What's wrong?"

"It's them . . . them devils."

"What devils?"

"Them black devils."

"What have they done to you?"

Dan groaned again. "Can't you hear nothing?"

"Heard nothing unusual."

"Nothing unusual! Night after night . . . all them shrieks . . . screams . . . murders . . . 'eathenish rumpus."

"Pull yourself together, man. They'll be gone soon."

"I sincerely 'ope so, Boss. I'm just about played out."

But they did not go soon. The thunderstorms that preluded the rainy season came with white squalls of rain, the lagoons began to fill, the river to murmur, but the blacks did not make for the dry highlands where they spent this time of year. Half of them hung about the lagoons fishing and the other half hung about the station, waiting for stray gifts which became less frequent. The new moon arrived, and again there was carousal and dancing at the Three Mile. The mood did not come back to Cabell, however. As the time of the rains approached, the time of floods, foot-rot and discomfort, he dealt out more cuffs and kicks than tobacco among the blacks.

Things went from bad to worse. One day he caught a black sneaking away with a leg of mutton from the gallows where the carcass of the sheep or steer killed for rations was hung every Saturday night. He snatched up a stockwhip and chased the black into the corner of the yard with it. The thief was the ugly one-eyed devil, and twice already he had cut across Cabell's temper by coming into the yard and looking at the storeroom. Now he raised a howl that brought up half a dozen hulking brutes, armed to the teeth. After a lot of arguing and gesticulating they were got off the premises.

Cabell was for riding out at once to drive the lot of them from the valley at the point of the gun, but Gursey held him back. "Leave it to the rain," he said. "They'll pack up when it sets in properly."

But the trouble was started. It came to a head that very night, and by morning not a black was left in the valley. At sunset a terrible thunderstorm passed over. Trees were struck and the thunder was like a bombardment.

"Old Dan'll be havin' the time of his life," Sambo said. But even he looked relieved himself when, after hammering the valley for two hours, the storm broke up as quickly as it had come.

The night was still again, still with the silence that is a thousand little noises. An excited horse galloped across the paddock, the river swirled round the bend, water dripped on to an upturned bucket. The valley was mosaiced with ragged sheets of silver that harboured a hundred moons.

Shouts came from the Three Mile, faint at first, then louder and louder until they seemed to be advancing on the homestead. Cabell pushed his plate away and went to the door.

Because of what had happened that afternoon the men were nervous, too. Tom stood in the doorway of their hut and looked up the valley doubtfully. The dogs began to bark. The sheep woke up and bleated.

The voices at the Three Mile ceased abruptly, to be replaced after ten seconds of heavy silence by a series of bloodcurdling shrieks, which died away in distant echoes. As they ceased, the echo of a pistol shot, or rather, of an explosion like a magazine blowing up, roared across the valley. There was another, and after a long interval another.

Tom was the first to stir. "Hear that?"

Cabell glanced at Gursey.

"Can't be the blacks," Gursey said. "They wouldn't budge an inch at night."

Then faintly they heard the pad of a horse's hooves approaching at the gallop. Ten minutes later there was a splash as the horse plunged through one of the pools left by the thunderstorms, and shortly afterwards Bill Penberthy rode up to the gate and climbed stiffly out of the saddle.

He told a strange story.

The thunderstorm had driven old Dan crazy, and he had half smothered himself by wrapping up his head in blankets. When it had passed he spent a frenzied hour trying to stop the noise of water dripping from the roof. But no sooner had he fixed that than the moon came out and the blacks began a corroboree. That was too much for Dan. Shrieking with rage, he dashed out of the gully, burst into the circle of dancers, grabbed a boomerang clacker and smashed it across his knee. Paralysed by the dramatic appearance of an arch-fiend, the dancers stopped dead. The children and the women fled. Then one of the men shouted and Dan shot him. After this he lost his head completely, and before the last black had disappeared he shot two more.

They looked at each other.

"Dang him!" Tom swore. "Always said that man 'ad no tact!"

 

 

Chapter Eighteen

RAIN

 

The rainy season started in earnest, and they had something else to worry about. Every day it rained, without once letting up for a month. Marble masses of cloud rolled down from the north-east and cracked open against the ranges. The rain hissed in the trees like water on fire, ripped the tough leaves of the staghorns to shreds, and curtained the world into a leaden twilight. Then the sun broke through for a few hours with pent-up midsummer heat. Wreaths of steam wavered over the sodden ground. Boots left out to dry overnight were covered with mildew in the morning, and gun barrels had a coating of rust a few hours after they were cleaned. Gaudy fungi sprouted from the bark walls of the humpies, which were furred with green slime. The roofs, shrunk by the long dry season, and the green beams which supported them swelled and twisted and leaked at every joint, and the ant-bed floor came up in clods of grey mud on the men's boots. Their clothes were never dry. When a man put his blankets out in the fugitive sunlight the blowflies laid on them.

The valley became a vast lake cut in two by the yellow waters of the river, which had risen to the top of its banks and roared past with trees torn, roots and all, from the earth. Where the ground had been hard as iron it sucked a man down to his knees now. To ride was out of the question. Cabell, keeping an eye on his cattle, floundered about in mud and water from dawn till dusk, leading his plunging, sweating horse through the morass to the high sandy places where instinctively the cattle had made their camps. In the vapour-packed sunlight he gasped for air. The sweat never dried on him. He came in at night, gobbled a mouthful of food, and flung himself down as he was, in mud-drenched clothes.

One night a scream awakened him. He lay for a long time listening, but the only sound was the patter of rain on the shingles and the drip, drip of water somewhere near his head. The blanket round his feet was soaking wet. He moved his weary legs a few inches and prepared to sleep again, convinced that the scream was in his own dreams, when it came once more, from the far corner of the hut. Then Gursey's voice, muttering distracted sentences of fear. "Don't let them. . . . For Christ's sake. . . . Don't flog me. . . . For Christ's sake."

He got out of bed and tried to light the lamp, but it was waterlogged and all the matches were wet. He tramped out into the rain and got a dry match from Tom, who carried half a dozen wrapped in canvas in his hair. When he had coaxed a glimmer from the lamp then, he found Gursey, his shirt torn off and deep scratches bleeding on his throat, doubled up on the muddy floor by an attack of fever.

Cabell nursed him.

"It's rope, soap and calico for me," Gursey kept on repeating. That was how the soldiers used to announce a hanging in the penal settlements. They would come out into the prison yard and shout "Rope, soap and calico for one!" and Gursey dreamt that they were holding him down while they shouted it in his ear. He struggled with these phantoms till the veins swelled up, blue and knotted, in his thin neck. "S'elp me God, I didn't shoot him. I didn't! I didn't! Tell them, Cabell. Tell them I didn't want to shoot McGovern."

Cabell sat on his bunk night after night, holding him down. As the dawn came Gursey fell asleep and Cabell went out to help with the foot-rotting sheep.

Half a dozen or so would have died during the night. They had to be skinned and the carcasses burnt at once, for already the blowflies were breeding in them. Then the men caught the sufferers that still lived and pared away the rotten parts of the hooves. The wet ground did it. The hooves went black and rotted off the sheep. The smell was horrible. After a sleepless night it made Cabell nearly vomit his heart out. All the time there was the rain or else the sun was grilling them. Everything was coated with slimy mud and the ointment they used on the sheep. Some kind of corrosive in this ate their nails away and burnt holes in their clothes till it reached the flesh underneath it, where it made tender, running sores.

Through eyes swollen by fatigue and the bites of flies Cabell watched a rebirth of Nature. In contrast to the weary settlers, the land was bursting with life. Not a shade of brown was left on the landscape. The grass seemed to grow visibly. Along the river it was as soft as a down bed, on the hillsides higher than a man on a horse. Vines and creepers enmeshed the trees on the eastern slopes, where the vegetation was thick and sub tropical. The bright green shoots of the bamboos were up more than six feet. The lagoons were alive with fish that had concealed themselves in the mud during the dry spell. Day and night birds went over in huge flocks. The cranes could be heard trumpeting loudly at all hours, and black-and-white storks paraded the valley and rose in clouds at the approach of some poor devil plodding through the mud to visit the cattle camps in the hills.

Cabell went into a trance as he sat beside Gursey's bed at night, bathing the sick man's temples with brine. He did this mechanically all night, and in the dawn came to with the lingering after-taste of bad dreams. Once he thought he was in Owerbury again, and awoke with a terrible, oppressive sense of defeat. He sat staring dully at the grey oblong of window, weighed down by his misery. Then the chitter of birds awakening in the flame brought him back to the valley and he felt an unaccountable uprush of joy. Again, he dreamt of McGovern, prompted by Gursey's nightmare chatter. McGovern was standing in the doorway, his hands in the tops of his trousers, laughing. "I guessed I'd find you some day, lad," he said. Cabell was standing near the table, and once more he was sick with a sense of defeat. "What do you want?" he demanded. "Everything," McGovern said. "For attempted murder, harbouring an escaped convict--everything." He turned and waved toward the luxuriant valley. Cabell grabbed a pistol and fired. When the smoke cleared McGovern was still standing in the doorway, laughing. He awoke. A hammer was beating on his skull. His hands were cold and clammy. The first flush of fever. He wanted to throw himself on the bunk and sleep, sleep for hours, days, weeks. But he forced himself through the morning ritual of shaving and bathing and went out giddily to face another day.

A few nights after this he awakened with a start to a conviction that some unusual thing was happening. Gursey lay twisted up on his bunk babbling incoherently. Cabell fought against the weights on his eyelids and slowly opened them. The coming dawn faintly outlined the black form of the trees.

All at once he heard a mighty splash and the pounding of hooves. He was fully awake and out of the door in an instant.

Sambo was standing in the yard peering through the twilight. "Mob from the west side's off their camp," he said, yawning.

"What the blazes. . . ."

Sambo sniffed the air. "Blacks."

They swallowed a billy of tea and started off. They lost three hours leading their horses to the place where the cattle had been raided. They found it by following the crows. The blacks had speared and quartered a bullock, hamstrung three cows, and driven off half a dozen calves. The hamstrung cows were still alive, bellowing pitifully, though the crows had already picked out their eyes. Cabell shot them and went on.

Now they were able to ride. The tracks of the marauders were easy to follow in the rain-soaked gravel, but the raiders had about five hours' start, though, as they were driving the calves, they would be travelling slowly. The way was rough, through clumps of giant spear grass that cut the hand reached out to part them, over swamps, holes scooped out by the rain, up crumbling slopes. Rain and sun alternately drenched and baked them. At noon they came on a spot where the calves had been killed and cut up. Pools of blood were still warm. Encouraged, they set off again. Soon they were in the range country. The going was easier here among the cotton and pine trees, but they had to ride carefully to avoid the lawyer vines and the stinging tree, of which Sambo had had one experience.

Half an hour later they came out on to an open plateau and let the horses go. They had been cantering for ten minutes when Sambo suddenly hauled his horse on to its haunches and yelled back "Stop where y'are!"

Cabell pulled up. "What's wrong?"

Sambo dismounted, walked ahead a little way, and gingerly picked up something from the ground. "See," he said, holding it up for Cabell to inspect. "Fishbones. Poisoned. Go through a hoof like butter. Through yeh boots, too."

"They can't be far ahead if they begin leaving those things," Cabell decided.

Sambo pointed to the three hills to the north-west, where came together the ranges from north and south, now emerged from the transparent veil of blue that covered them when seen from the homestead. "That's where they hang out. Once they get in them gullies we ain't got a chance in a lifetime of finding them."

They made a cast and picked up the tracks farther on. The blacks were a couple of miles ahead, Sambo thought. Ten minutes later they entered a gloomy swamp where the slimy ground heaved up under the horses' hooves and roared at them. Frogs.

Millions of frogs. The tumult made the two men dizzy. The very air seemed to be green and slimy here, a primeval twilight through which the rain oozed. Except for the frogs the place was deserted. In a season when birds were nesting everywhere no birds were to be seen here. Cabell spurred his horse, so as to be near Sambo. It shied. Then Sambo's horse stopped dead and refused to budge. Sambo let out a string of curses and spun it around hastily.

"What's up now?" Cabell demanded.

Sambo pointed to the ground just ahead. A black mound, like a heap of fresh cow-dung, palpitated with a sluggish, evil life. "Snakes matin'," he said. "Better keep yer eye open."

They made another detour and rode on for a few minutes, but Sambo stopped again and pointed up into a tree. Two more snakes, enmeshed in shining, damp coils clung to the branches. And when Cabell looked around he saw the trees everywhere festooned with coupled snakes, their skins shining in the half-light with brilliant, phosphorescent colours. He was horrified.

"Lousy with 'em," Sambo said.

"Let us get out, for God's sake," Cabell said quickly.

"Aw, if yeh want to," Sambo grunted, but he was not far behind Cabell when they came out in the open again.

So the blacks got safely into the gullies of the overlapping ranges. At sunset Cabell and Sambo turned their horses back for home.

Now hardly a day passed without cattle being speared or hamstrung, but no one ever saw the blacks. They came down in small parties from the ranges and were away before Cabell knew what had happened. In those few weeks he lost much of the fruit of his year's labour, not only by the wholesale maiming and stealing of cattle, but because the mere smell of the blacks stampeded the herds. Once disturbed like this, the animals needed weeks to quieten down or they fretted themselves into poor condition. One of the best mobs split up and half the beasts took refuge in a thick scrub. Short-handed, harassed, overworked, the men could not drive them out. Cabell, worn to a skeleton by fatigue and fever, refused to lay up as long as he had strength to drag himself on to a horse. Gloomily he watched the panic among the cattle, foreseeing thus established on his run a breed of wild scrubbers that would be a perennial source of destruction, to his pastures and to the integrity of his herds.

Gursey did not improve. Cabell continued to spend the nights on the edge of his bunk. Dreams of England, so safe, so calm, so happy, filled his night-time reflections again, and the thought of his brothers, coddled in peace and plenty there, re-awakened the bitterness that had softened into contempt when things were going easier. Half sleeping, half waking, his mind evolved interminable galling images in this strain. But it was the re-awakened thirst for revenge which gave him the energy to go through the day. Time and again he tracked the raiders to the ranges and explored gully after gully in search of them. Had it not been for Gursey he would have camped out on the hills till he found the blacks and exterminated them. But as the sun sank he turned his tired horses homewards and there settled down once more to his nightly vigil.

It was more than fever Gursey had. It was a breakdown after years of physical and mental torture. That he would come out of it sane seemed doubtful; even that he would come out of it at all seemed highly unlikely. In his deliriums he relived scenes of horror which, re-created vividly by his half-coherent words, stifled Cabell with pity and disgust--scenes of murder in which crazy convicts slowly tormented a brutal overseer to death by crucifying him on an ant-bed, of a semi-official punishment by which Gursey had been tied to a horse's tail and dragged backwards and forwards through a salt swamp after the skin had been flogged off his back, of men starving in a penal camp who had picked over their ordure for scraps of undigested food to eat.

After such a recital Cabell staggered to the door for air, more exhausted by the hearing than by a day in the saddle. He stared into the night that stretched on all sides across the wilds, and his loneliness was agony. Words ached to be spoken, but the night invited no confidences, mocking the hopes of his weary spirit with its teeming, vital life. He heard himself muttering. "Christ," he was saying, "Christ, but it's lonely here. It's lonely here."

He turned back to the spectre in the bunk. The smoky light of the slush lamp blackened the hollows of its cheeks, the sunken cavities of its eyes. Its pale lips moved incessantly. Contortions of pain and terror swept across the thin features. Cabell reached down and pressed Gursey's hand. Many complicated emotions underlay that simple gesture--pity, a feeling of guilt, the need of his own loneliness. There was also in his mind the conviction that the powers of the brooding darkness would be less threatening if he could expiate his offence against this man. "Don't die," he said aloud. "Don't die, for God's sake, Joe!" and pledged himself to a deeper patience and understanding for the future.

The rainy season passed. The cloudbursts gave way to a drizzle and this to a brief shower in the afternoons. The blazing sunshine dried off the mud and slush, and the river fell back to a wide sleepy stream. But the blacks, whose raids had been protected by the heavy ground, did not become less troublesome. Rather, encouraged, they ventured farther, and one day penetrated Dan's gully, giving the hut a wide berth, however, and surrounded Bill Penberthy and his flock. Bill fired one shot, and without waiting to reload shinned up a tree with the head of a spear in his leg. The blacks took as many carcasses as they could carry and left twice as many on the ground. By the time Bill had extracted the spearhead and treated his wound and gathered the flock and yarded it and carried the news to the station the raiders were safe away as usual.

Cabell decided to evacuate the Three Mile, and sent Bill back to drive Dan and the sheep down to the homestead at once. Then he set out with Sambo for the ranges, not bothering to track the blacks but hoping, with the speed they could make on dry ground, to intercept them at the mouth of the gullies. Having tied their horses up in the scrub, they settled down in the cover of the bracken to wait. But hours passed and no blacks came.

The soft afternoon light flattened out the harsh contours of the landscape and everything seemed remote and dreamlike. Bees murmured in the blossoming dogwood, a bellbird cried from the distance, the sun drew warm scents from the new grass, the cobalt blueness of the sky seemed to stain the air. Cabell felt dizzy and overheated. A sense of unreality possessed him. Incredulously he stared at the gun propped on the rock before him, at Sambo passing the time by carving his name on the butt of his Tyrolese rifle. It was all a dream--blacks, stolen sheep, ambushes, murder, convicts, fever, mud, foot-rot, everything. . . . He slipped into a world more kindly and convincing. He was no longer dressed in clothes that stank of sweat and diseased animals. Soft linen touched his skin. His waistcoat, his cravat, his shining boots belonged to a man of fashionable and fastidious taste. His hands were white and cared for. It was evening. He was standing in a garden . . . the scent of lilac and lavender . . . the sound of the sea . . . a mist rising . . . Jake Northover driving in the cows . . . Lucy Potter singing far away in the inn yard. A girl raised childish blue eyes to him and smiled. She put strong arms round his shoulders and drew him to her, kissed him with cool, firm lips, caressed his hair, gazed at him with tenderness, understanding, and love. "Derek!" "Phillipa!" What secret source of life was hidden in those breasts that his body should grow so new and vital against them?

"Hey, Boss! Wake up, blast yeh!"

He opened his eyes and stared down into Sambo's mouth, where the teeth were like little black ticks eating into his gums.

"Hey, Boss, the humpy's burnin' down!"

Following Sambo's pointing finger, he saw a thin wisp of smoke rising above the hills. He stared at it dully. His head was buzzing. A soft voice whispered "Derek! Derek!"

"What's wrong there?" he asked in a thick voice. He was losing something, something gracious and scented, something he passionately wanted. It was slipping away from him. He tried to recapture it by staving off the evil and insistent dream that had risen to cloud it. An age seemed to pass in that struggle. "Derek! Derek!" The voice faded, was gone.

He was on his feet, fully awake.

"Them black sods doubled on us," Sambo was saying. "Now they're playin' hell's delight with the stores."

"My God!" Cabell cried. "Gursey!"

They rode hell for leather homewards. From far off they heard the voice of Tom wailing, and found him grubbing frenziedly in a heap of ashes where the men's hut had stood.

Cabell rushed into the homestead humpy. By some miracle it was undisturbed. Gursey lay sleeping quietly. Cabell brushed the flies off his face, wiped away the sweat, and went outside.

"What happened?" he asked Tom.

Tom raised his fists and shook them at the heavens. His indignation blew his whiskers over his face, wild noises came from his throat, but no words.

"He's done fer," Sambo explained. "They roasted his teeth."

Nothing was to be got out of Tom. He flung himself at the smoking debris again and went on raking like a mad fowl till he was hidden in a cloud of dust.

The storeroom was in chaos. Flour and tobacco were scattered over the floor. A cask of black sugar mixed its contents with ointment for foot-rot, rum and a pool of blood. The damage was incalculable.

"That's black blood," Sambo said. "Some'un got a blue pill in."

It was Bill Penberthy. He rode in at this moment and told how, coming from the Three Mile with Dan and the sheep, he had seen the men's hut burst into flames. As he galloped up the blacks ran out of the storeroom. He fired and shot one coming through the doorway. The others escaped to the scrub, dragging the body and howling defiance.

 

 

Chapter Nineteen

CATASTROPHE

 

That night they held a council of war.

"Only a waste of good horse-hoof chasin' them blacks in this country, Boss," Sambo said.

"But we must do something at once," Cabell said. "I've got to get the wool down to Moreton Bay and stores are running short, but I can't go while the blacks are here."

Sambo winked. "Just leave 'em alone a day or two."

"Will that make them leave us alone?"

"Bet yeh bottom dollar it won't." Sambo winked again.

"Well?"

"See, they'll think we're scared and come mobbin' in on us. Then we can knock 'em off like flies."

Cabell thought about it. "But will they come?"

"It's a drummond now they've seen in the store."

Tom roused himself from deep gloom and thumped the table. "Them blacks," he said. "They damn well gone too far. I'm a-goin' to take a hand."

"You! Whatya think you can do?"

Tom snarled. Malevolent fires lit his dull eye. "Blow 'em up," he growled.

"Whatyamean, blow 'em up?"

"Wait and see." Tom nodded darkly.

"Ooooo!" A resonant groan from a dark corner of the hut preceded a feeble protest from Dan, who was sitting with pads of wool stuffed in his ears. "Can't you do it without blowin' up?"

Tom hammered the table again. "I'll make such a hell of a blow-up," he roared, "there won't be nothin' left of them blacks, not even 'alf a crow's pickin'!"

Dan staggered out into the middle of the floor, stared at him with incredulous horror, then rushed from the humpy.

So they prepared for battle. They cut loopholes in the walls of the homestead and in the walls of the woolshed, manufactured a fresh supply of shot, and overhauled the guns. The flocks never went out of sight.

Dan watched these preparations, forecasting an hour of hubbub for which Hell might be a gracious exchange. He had to bear, too, all the noises of the homestead--dogs that whimpered, horses that neighed, people who talked, coughed, spat and laughed, clumsy feet that kicked buckets, doors that banged, birds that twittered and screeched night and day, besides a man in delirium and a man who kept calling on the heavens to bear witness that he intended to blow up all the blacks in Australia.

Evening in the homestead, where they were all living together till the new hut was ready for the men, was worse than flaying alive for Dan.

Sambo and Tom were gambling at the table with greasy cards for wads of tobacco or packets of Epsom salts.

Gursey stirred and began to mutter. "Wake up, Red. Red, somebody's coming. Red!" For a moment he lay motionless, staring with bright eyes at the darkness beyond the door. Then he struggled to get out of the bunk, but Cabell calmed him: "You're dreaming, Joe. Quiet. Quiet." He fell back on the bunk exhausted, to begin again after a moment: "One step--reach down--grab the pistol--fire!" His voice gave out. His lips moved but no sounds came.

The little noises of the night, wind in the trees, dingoes, the crackling of the fires round the sheep pens, re-established themselves.

"'Ere, wake up, you!" Tom called Sambo's attention back to the matter in hand by pounding indignantly on the table. Gambling for Epsom salts was a serious business. Tom brought to it the profound earnestness of whisker-stroking, deep breathing and cabalistic muttering. As each card was dealt he seized it, thrust it out of sight, glared round as though he suspected a legion of spies, then examined it intently under the table. If it was a good card he groaned. If it was a bad card he forced out a hollow chuckle and looked as though he had just been sentenced to death. Play began. His claws hovered over each card for long moments of complex calculation till he seized one and slapped it down on the table, with a rending shriek for each trick taken and for each one lost a mutter that expressed long-suffering patience with knavery and foul play.

Arguments would break out. "You renigged!"

"Who renigged?"

"Ain't that Jack clubs?"

Tom examined it closely with shifty eyes. "What's wrong with it?"

"Ain't that spade?"

Exposed, he wriggled, sweated, and reluctantly withdrew the offending card.

"Sharper!"

"Who's a sharper?"

"You, sheep-dip!"

Tom threw his cards down. "That's the last stror. Take that back or I won't play no more."

"Seen yeh makin' scratch back joker."

Tom rushed from the room. "So much's mention cards to me again," he flung back, "and I'll brain you."

In five minutes they were playing frenziedly again.

A huddled bulk in the corner of the room moved. "Sssssh!" It was Dan. His ears had detected unfamiliar sounds. "What's that?"

All heads tipped sideways. Cabell went to the door. Owls were signalling to each other in the trees by the river, like dogs barking.

Slowly Dan relaxed a pose of strained expectation. "Catfish," he sighed with relief.

"What did you think?" Cabell asked him.

"Blacks a-creepin'."

"Nonsense."

"Them blacks!" Tom threw his cards down and clutched his mouth. "I'll blow them blacks to Pockataroo."

"Oh!" Dan whimpered.

"First thing tomorrer," Tom promised, "I'll start."

"Start what?" Dan asked nervously.

"The infermal machine."

"A infermal machine! Oh!" Dan ran out of his corner. "What sort of a infermal machine?"

"One'll shake the marrer out of you."

"Oh, my God!" Dan appealed to a deaf and pitiless heaven, darted back to his corner, and buried his head under a pile of sheepskins.

True to his word, Tom was up before daybreak, and disappeared into the scrub with one of the working bullocks. An hour later he came back with an enormous log, hollow and round like a cannon. He enlarged the hollow with a crowbar, cut a block to fill one end, made a priming-hole at the butt, and very soon had ready, mounted on two boulders and held down by others, stuffed to the mouth with powder, stones, old iron, old boots and cows' hooves, and pointing up the valley, a thing which he justly called infernal machine rather than cannon.

"Must be Dook of Wellington in disguise," Sambo jeered.

Dan groaned all night, and next morning had disappeared.

"Gone back to the Three Mile," Sambo announced.

"He'll be murdered, the fool," Cabell said, and rode out to bring him back. But Dan was firmly barricaded in the shanty. Nothing could move him.

A week passed. They kept an eye on the cattle and waited. As Cabell rode up the valley the long grass shivered. Two calves were stolen, but he did nothing. The blacks came out of cover and looked round curiously. They grew bolder. One afternoon a party demonstrated with spears and shields half a mile from the homestead; their bodies were patterned with kopi and mud. Cabell went about his work quietly, but his nerves were all twisted up and jumpy. He had arrived at a point of exhaustion where dream and reality became indissolubly mixed. A dozen times a day he had to stop what he was doing and decide, by a great effort of will, whether he was asleep or awake.

Gursey passed the turn and daily improved. He slept for twenty-four hours without moving, and when Cabell came in at noon he was staring about with dazed but comprehending eyes.

"Hullo," Cabell said. "You're going to get better, then?"

Gursey tried to speak, but a whisper was all he could manage. "What happened?"

"A touch of fever."

"You--too?"

"Me? No, I'm fit."

"Look done up," Gursey said laboriously.

Cabell glanced at himself in the shaving mirror. It was a week since he last did so. A growth of soft, black stubble threw into startling contrast his olive skin, which the sun did nothing to tan. Sharp angles of bone were pushing out. His hair was matted and wild. "Tom o' Bedlam," he grunted.

"Foot-rot started yet?" Gursey asked.

Cabell laughed. "It's nearly midwinter, man."

"How long since. . . ."

"Ten-twelve weeks," Cabell said. "I lost count myself."

Gursey shuddered. "Bloody terrible dreams. . . ."

Cabell made him a broth. He drank a little and went off into deep sleep again.

Cabell got himself a meal. But he had no appetite for the salt junk, and left it to the flies. His head propped in his hands, he watched their sluggish movements in the melting fat. The sound of Gursey's soft breathing soothed him. He dropped off to sleep, too.

He awoke with a start and the flies rose in a buzzing cloud from his face. A black silhouette in the doorway became slowly identifiable as Sambo, sucking his tooth. "Some'n y'ought to see out here, Boss," he said.

Cabell went to the door, and shielded his eyes against the brutal light.

"See, over there, half-way to the Three Mile."

"Blacks--why, they're dressed!"

"Dan's duds," Sambo said. . . .

Fifteen minutes later they galloped into Dan's gully. The door of the shanty was wide open. Flies rose from a pool of blood, like a red rag, on the threshold. Of Dan himself, not a sign.

Sambo felt the ashes of the fire. "Half hour ago," he said.

Cabell looked at him. "Where is it?"

Sambo jerked his head towards the scrub. The squabbling of crows, with their long-drawn, evil-sounding cr-r-rrr, broke the opaque silence of the hot afternoon. They traced the sound to a cluster of stunted trees and vines farther up the gully. The grass had been trampled, and the scent of sweet marjoram mixed with the smell of wild blacks. Cabell hesitated a moment, then wiped the sweat out of his eyes and parted the undergrowth. The rush of wings obscured the sound of twigs cracking under his feet. Blind in the shade, he could see nothing for a moment. Sambo nudged him and jerked his head sideways. It was hanging by the elbows from the low branch of a tree--Dan's stark-naked body.

At first it looked as though the body had been flayed, but, going closer, they saw that the skin had peen pricked off with spears. The ears had been slit open and the eyes were gone, but whether gouged out by the blacks or taken by the crows it was impossible to say.

"Do you think they killed him first?" Cabell asked.

After a while Sambo said sheepishly "Ain't dead yet, Boss." He held his hand against the open mouth. "Breathin" like a grampus."

"Confound the old fool!" Cabell said angrily.

But the ghastly fact remained. When he raised his eyes again he could see the overhanging hairs of Dan's whiskers moving in the draught of breath.

Sambo sucked his tooth.

"Get out of here," Cabell said peevishly, giving him a shove. "Look to the horses."

Sambo went back to the hut, lit his pipe, and sat down. A tiny spot at the peak of the incandescent sky grew larger, receded, melted into light--a kite, waiting like himself. Watching it, he dozed. The crack of a pistol-shot awakened him. The crows flew screeching from the scrub and settled in the high trees. Sambo yawned, sighed, knocked out his pipe and rose. He got a shovel from the hut and went round to the side where the shade was thickest. After testing the ground for a soft spot, he began to dig.

So much for Dan.

But Cabell had no time to brood about it. For next morning at sunrise, as they were counting out, fifty howling, painted demons rushed on them from the scrub.

The battle was short.

Cabell ran up the slope to cut off the raiders from the humpy. A hulking fellow was peering in through the doorway and Cabell dropped him with a running shot, slammed the door, and faced round with his back to it. He heard a twang as a spearhead fastened in the bark, and a second after felt warm blood trickling over his cheek. He fired and missed a pair of white eyes staring out from behind the storeroom.

The lull was broken by the sound of Tom's approach. He came across the flat, shrieking and firing at random, his legs disjointedly flapping on either side. A nulla-nulla caught him on the brow with force enough to fell an ox. He crumpled up and a black rushed out from behind the flame-tree to finish him with a stone axe, but he was on his feet again and gave the black a sharp crack on the shins with the butt of his gun. The black went down on his knees and Tom snatched the axe and cleft his skull in two. For the rest of the battle he was principally occupied running about in the thick of the spears waving his arms and yodelling in an attempt to herd the blacks round to the muzzle of his gun.

But they took cover behind the storeroom and the flame-tree. A hand came out, a spear whizzed past, but there was nothing to aim at. Cabell and Bill Penberthy waited at the end of the humpy for a shot.

Sambo had flattened himself against the wall of the store. Next time a hand came out he grabbed it, threw his weight back, wrenched a head into view, and clubbed it with a lump of iron. Three times he did this; then the blacks became quiet.

Sambo winked back at Cabell.

Suddenly a hand appeared again. He grabbed and missed. In a second or two it came once more. This time he reached it, and at the same instant two fists closed on his own arm, his feet shot up in the air, and he disappeared round the corner into a crowd of blacks. They staggered over each other trying to brain him, and their nullas missed or took him across the back. Flinging his arms round the nearest black, he waltzed a living shield between himself and the enemy. Everything happened quickly then. Cabell and Bill Penberthy rushed out and fired at random into the tangle of black bodies. Those behind the flame-tree fled. The others hesitated a moment, then followed, dragging their wounded away.

Sambo hung on to his shield. It was the giant with the one eye. Paint and sweat spread a layer of grease over his body, so that it was all Sambo could do with nails and teeth and knees to keep a grip on him. Locked together, they rolled down the slope, both yelling like madmen. Cabell and Bill followed with pistol butts aloft, waiting for a chance to get a blow in. But blows were as mosquito-bites on the black's iron-hard skull. He got a grip on Sambo's throat and Sambo's voice gurgled. They came to rest at the bottom of the slope. Cabell fastened two fingers in the black's nostrils and pulled while Penberthy tried to prize open his stranglehold. But the black clung to Sambo like a boa, and Sambo's face became rapidly as blue as the sky above.

Tom saved him. For some moments he had been standing at the top of the slope, taking no notice of their shouts, in an attitude of strained attention, as of one listening for some momently expected, faint sound. It came--a burst of flame, a roar that thundered to and fro across the valley, and a rain of stones, splinters, bits of iron, cows' hooves and a dozen and one other oddments that had been missing round the station for the last day or two. The blacks stopped on their way to the scrub and looked back, then plunged with appalling shrieks into the bush. Tom himself barely escaped disembowelment from flying fragments, but he emerged unseamed, though rather surprised by the unanticipated verticality of the discharge.

The effect on the one-eyed giant was instantaneous. He unlocked his hands, looked wildly round, saw the sky raining cows' hooves, and began to quake. For the first time Cabell and Penberthy landed their blows squarely. He went over like a log, knocking out what remained of breath in Sambo.

But Sambo was well salted. He was already stirring when Cabell hurried back from the store with a tot of rum.

"All right now?" Cabell asked him.

"Course I'm all right. Whatya think?"

"No bones broken?"

Sambo grunted. "Coulda fixed him easy without you interferin'."

Cranky Tom, who had been prowling about among the bodies left by the blacks in a snooping attitude horribly suggestive of one finishing off the wounded, came out from behind the flame-tree with a long knife. "Hey, Boss. Look at this'n. Ain't dead yet," he complained, kicking the one-eyed black.

"Get a rope and lash him up," Cabell ordered. After a few minutes the black came round and grinned at them cheerfully.

Cabell pointed to the house, then to himself. Then he pointed to the black and to the hills.

The black grinned again, displaying teeth as big nearly as piano keys. "Yilbung," he said.

Cabell tapped his chest. "--Yilbung?"

"Yohi, yohi."

But that was all Cabell got out of him. When he repeated signs suggesting that the black should lead them to his camp he merely grinned.

Sambo tried, Bill tried, but in vain.

"Don't understand you, don't he?" Tom said, recovering from a fit at the sight of Yilbung's teeth. "Just leave 'im to me." He flung down his hat, rolled up his sleeves, spat on his hands, and approached the prisoner.

Sambo sneered. "Like ter like."

But Yilbung thought otherwise. Tom's preparations convinced him that the moment of torment and death had arrived. He opened his mouth and yelled.

"Shut yer trap," Tom commanded, scowling. "Now then," when Yilbung became silent again, "attend and I'll talk to you in your own langwidge. D'y'ear?"

Yilbung rolled his eyes.

He prodded the black in the ribs. "You--Yilbung?"

"Yohi, yohi."

"Me"--he prodded himself--"Tom."

"Toom, yohi."

"This'n--Sambo."

"Sumbo."

He pointed to Sambo's black eye. "Yilbung done that, eh?"

A grin uncovered Yilbung's molars.

Tom patted his shoulder. "Good old Yilbung. 'Ere, 'ave a whiff, Yilbung." He thrust the pipe into the black's mouth. "Now"--he took the pipe away and fixed the black's one eye with a severe judicial stare--"where's them off-siders of yourn disportin' 'emselves, eh?"

Yilbung gazed greedily at the pipe.

"Come on, Yilbung boy," Tom rallied him. "Black-fellow sit down longa ranges, eh?" He pointed to the hills melting into the ultramarine horizon.

But Yilbung stared and said nothing.

"You won't, won't yer?" Tom yelled, shaking his fist under Yilbung's nose. "Unnerstand this, you lousy off-scourin' of a scabby, tick-eaten, blamed crow-bait, I'll . . . I'll . . . well, God 'elp yer."

The spirit of this was only too plain to Yilbung. He cowered and panted while Tom danced and stamped in the dust, clutched phantom throats, split open phantom gizzards, punched phantom eyes, and wound up by presenting his pistol at Yilbung's ear.

Sambo laughed derisively, but to Yilbung this was an authentic devil-devil dance by such a devil as his imagination had only dimly apprehended before. He addressed an appealing gabble to Cabell.

"Yilbung take Tom," Cabell said, pointing at the men, then at the hills.

Yilbung hesitated.

"Split, you blackguard," Tom shrieked, giving his butcher's knife a twist against Yilbung's ribs, "or I'll feed you to the dogs!"

A fearful grimace conveyed the purport of this to Yilbung. He wilted. "Yohi, yohi, yohi," he agreed.

At sundown they were ready to set out. Cabell told Gursey.

He struggled up weakly on his bunk. "You're not fit to sit on a horse, you fool, let alone ride all night," he said.

"Nonsense."

"Look at your face."

Cabell examined a deep, jagged wound that cut his cheek from chin to ear. "I'll last till tomorrow."

"And tomorrow you'll be shivering your heart out here."

"That's why I'm going at once. I want to be sick with an easy mind. I won't have one till I've seen those blacks off the run."

"'Dispersed' is the word!"

"Call it what you like."

 

 

Chapter Twenty

MASSACRE

 

That terrible ride through the darkness among the starlit ranges. A heavy dew soaked them and the cool night air made their teeth rattle. Exhausted by weeks of excitement and hard work, they dozed in their saddles, to awake and find themselves enmeshed in the thorny vines of the scrub. Cabell kicked the black shadow at his stirrup to urge it on, and they hurried forward again. His wounded jaw was stiff and fiery. The fever seemed to be burning his eyes out.

The gullies wound in and out among the overlapping hills. There was nothing to be seen but the sparks which the horses' hooves struck from the stony ground and the brilliant stars pinning the thick night to the sky. Behind this curtain the trees whispered and the birds cried harshly. They soon lost all sense of their whereabouts. The Southern Cross circled round them--now to the right, now to the left, now ahead, now lost behind the peak of the ranges.

A sound like muted bells came nearer, and out of the darkness emerged a high, rocky escarpment, down which trickled the last remnant of a torrent that had torn trees and stones out of the earth a few weeks ago. The horses stopped at the end of a blind alley.

"Get a move on, cuss you, or I'll blow the head off of you!" Tom grumbled, then woke up and found his horse quietly cropping among the rocks.

Cabell was tying Yilbung's wrists before releasing him from the stirrup. "We go the rest of the way on foot it seems," he told them in a thick voice.

They climbed the escarpment, pulling Yilbung up by the hair, and plunged into the bush again. They had a line round the blackfellow's neck and Cabell held him firmly by the wrist. After an hour the bush thinned into a sparse forest of big timber. Yilbung stopped, whispered, and pointed through the trees. What Cabell had thought was a firefly a few inches in front of his nose he saw to be a glimmer of embers two miles away at the top of the next rise. He went on alone. He saw other fires and the shape of a fair-sized encampment of perhaps a hundred or a hundred and fifty blacks. The smell of their rotten-wood smoke came faintly through the heavy perfume of gum-trees soaked in dew.

He returned to the men and told them.

Tom pressed his knife into Yilbung's ribs. "So much's grunt and your liver's out," he warned.

But no threats were necessary. The only protest Yilbung made was when he discovered that they were not going to let him see the murder; but Tom soon quietened him, and taking him back a mile down the hill they gagged him and tied his feet and arms round a tree. Then they toiled wearily along the ridge again and, knocking out their pipes and slipping back the hammers of their guns, crept towards the edge of the timber and lay down to wait.

It was within an hour or two of dawn, Cabell guessed. The dying fires vaguely outlined the gunyahs in which the blacks slept. Beyond was the darkness of the bush. A possum cluttered in a treetop, leaves rustled, Sambo sucked an empty pipe, the heavy dewfall dripped on to the stones. But Cabell could hear only the beat of blood in his temples. Every fibre of his body stiffened to hold the last glimmer of consciousness. Over and over again he slipped back into a darkness, and over and over again fought himself to the surface.

A foreboding fastened upon him that some irrevocable thing was about to happen. Soon something would cease, some fine bright thing that was precious above everything else to him. Frowning at the pinhead of light that was the last ember of the nearest fire, he tried to concrete this vague but penetrating sensation in words, but it eluded his scattered faculties while every moment tightening its grip on him till, in a fit of violent trembling, he thought he heard a voice speaking in his ear, urgently warning him that if he wanted to save himself he must run away and abandon what he had planned to do. Then, overwhelmingly, it came to him, with the force of a danger understood too late, that after tonight's work he would never be as he was before, as he was when he left Owerbury, and simultaneously the happenings of the last four years--the sacrificing of Gursey, the stealing of the cattle and sheep and the roan stallion--were re-acted before his eyes and he saw, with horror and dismay, how far already the corrosive of this new life had eaten into him. There was no question here of right or wrong. What suddenly assailed him, as a terrible revelation, was the discovery that the Derek Cabell who was once as much a part of Owerbury as its quaint houses and walls, its trees and hedges, what with his soft, drawling Dorset voice and his soft, indolent Dorset manners, had been secretly and treacherously metamorphosed into a different being, a Derek Cabell who took his place in the crude life of a country of outcasts as naturally as any Carney or Curry among them. And if in so short a time he had come so far, what more appalling changes might come over him in the future? In one of those ghastly descents into darkness he had two swift visions of himself--one as a boy standing under Farmer Northover's lilac bushes with a laughing, lovely girl, and one as a man in colonial clothes vainly trying to make the people in Owerbury High Street stop and recognize him. He came to and stared dully at the dwindling ember. An aching sadness invaded his heart. It seemed that never till this moment had he realized how far England was away. Even in a penal settlement, England, his England of soft hills and rosy-cheeked girls, had not seemed so utterly of another world. He shut his eyes, but no image of those lost realities would come now to blot out the sight of the camp, the stark trees, the strange stars. Lost. Lost realities. The sense of his loss grew into a heavy fatalism. The weak assurances of his exhausted brain could not convince him that a place in that far, far world could ever be regained.

These thoughts held him for a moment with all the exaggerated clarity of hallucination. Such, indeed, they were. From one minute to the next he could not tell whether he was awake or asleep. Now he tried to get up and go away as the voice was telling him to do, but the leaden impotence of a dream fixed him to the ground. Again, he was looking impatiently at the sky for some signs of the dawn. Then he thought that the tiny remnant of the fire was the glow of awakening consciousness in his own brain and this darkness, where the blacks slept and murderous designs that murdered the murderer were maturing, was only the darkness of a feverish nightmare. He clutched at that idea and struggled to awake in the hope of finding himself in the bunk at the homestead. But the glow sank lower and lower till it was gone and he was left floundering in darkness.

Something cold, refreshingly cold and firm and hard touched his shoulder and gently shook him. Strength flowed from it into his blood, which began to move again and melt the stiffness in his body.

"Say, y'wake, Boss?"

He turned his head, grimacing with the pain that shot down his neck. "Yes, what's the matter?"

"Better scatter a bit," Sambo whispered. "The dawn's comin'."

"Very well," he said; then in a tone of appeal, "But don't go too far."

"We'll know when to start when you let her rip," Sambo replied.

He saw their forms rise dimly against the stars and move off. Then they were gone. His teeth would not lock together, but chattered so violently that he felt sure the noise must wake the blacks in the gunyah ten yards away. He buried his mouth in the crook of his elbow and padded his teeth with his lips, so that his tongue became thirsty with the salt of blood.

When he raised his eyes again Orion, striding the eastern sky, was pale and remote. He could see the shadowy forms of gunyahs farther away. The day was breaking. He wished himself in the darkness again now, and lay willing a miracle to put back the moment when the first black would come.

But none was vouchsafed him except the blossoming miracle of an Australian dawn. The crystal air was on fire. Stars still blazed where the western edge of the black roof had not yet crumbled away. The ranges thirty miles to the east lay sombre in their shadow and drew a jagged line across the limpid green reaches of the sky. Everything was silent, waiting. The fires were black, but a spiral of blue smoke curled from a still-smouldering log near by. The air was delicately shot through with its scent and the scent of gum-leaves. Then a bird in the tree overhead fluttered its wings and ventured a timid call. Another and another. Answers from other trees along the ridge. Dingoes retreating to the scrub raised their heads and howled across the valley. Curlews piped their last melancholy call. A kookaburra broke into laughter. The sunrise of a new day and all life awakening--for him a melancholy and incongruous thought, with the overtones of his sad musings still upon him.

A movement in the camp startled him. A mangy dog came out of one of the gunyahs and began to rake in the ashes of a fire after bones. Suddenly it cringed and slunk out of sight again. A man emerged and walked slowly across the plateau to where it ended in a granite face that dropped sixty feet or more to the stony gully below. He stood looking south-eastwards towards the homestead, just visible at the edge of the open valley twenty miles away.

Cabell's hands seemed to be covered with tight gloves as he groped among the stones for his gun and raised it to his shoulder. He tried to aim, but the sights would not come together. His trembling became uncontrollable. He lowered the gun again and rested for a moment, cooling his cheek on the metal breech. A movement among the trees to the left that might have been a bird and might have been an impatient sign from Sambo jerked him out of a coma. He raised the rifle again and forced his teeth into his soft underlip. The sights met in the shadows of the black's left shoulder-blade. Silhouetted against the deepening blue of the sky, he stood as motionless as a cardboard target. Cabell gripped the trigger and stiffened himself for the pain in his cheek as the gun bucked. Gripped tighter. Click!

At first he thought that the click was an explosion filling the bush and scaring the birds. Then he understood that the gun had, by some amazing chance, not been loaded, and flinging it down he shouted with vexation.

The black jumped a foot in the air, glanced over his shoulder, and began to run along the edge of the precipice towards the bush on the other side of the plateau. He had not gone ten yards before Tom fired. He stopped dead, threw his arms up, and disappeared over the edge. A feather of smoke drifted from the clump of bushes on Cabell's left and a loud cackle of laughter broke the silence. "Blowed that'un to Jimbambie all right," Tom called joyously.

Cabell fought back a surge of hot vomit.

Something ripped through the leaves just overhead and struck the trunk of a tree behind. He glanced round. It was a spear. Another followed it immediately. His energy returning suddenly, he scrambled behind a log, and peering round the end of it after a silent minute saw a pair of bright eyes staring at him from the nearest gunyah. A hand came out, took a spear from the pile at the entrance, and drew it inside. He wrenched his pistol from his belt and fired. The gunyah rocked and a body pitched head first onto the grey ashes of the fire.

Not a black showed, but the piles of spears were all stealthily withdrawn.

Cabell watched the blood trickle down the face of the black he had shot. An uprush of fierce satisfaction seemed to strip the tired skin from his body. Emotions accreted in weeks of anxiety for his foothold in the valley, of abortive plan and pursuit broke free in him, flushing away all other emotions and filling him with a mad vigour. He gave a wild halloo. "Give it to them, boys!" he shouted, and emptied his pistols through the flimsy gunyah.

Cranky Tom needed no encouragement. Five minutes of firing and reloading and he was quite demented. As for Sambo, it was part of a day's work to be deprecated by the tacit assumption of some even more bloody precedent in his young life.

Three times they stopped firing and waited for signs of life in the camp. A flight of spears, co-ordinated by some mysterious tribal instinct, betokened it. But fewer and fewer spears came over, and the fourth time they let up there was none. They waited for five minutes and gave the camp a last volley, then came out from the bush.

Their shots had ripped the bark gunyahs to pieces. Some had fallen over, revealing huddled bodies inside. Here and there one groaned. It was left to Tom to finish these off. Mouths open on rows of white teeth mocked away the last remains of sanity. He rushed about like a decrepit fiend.

But Nemesis awaited him. Suspecting treachery, he bent over a body and listened for signs of life. Then he retreated and aimed his pistol at it. The hammer clicked down--empty. While he was reloading the body rose up and scampered out of the camp. Cabell and Sambo fired and missed. Tom clubbed his gun and rushed after the fugitive, who was forced back to the precipice. He picked up a spear and tried to threaten Tom off with it, but Tom was too far gone. The spear took him square in the chest and came out three inches behind his shoulder-blades. He fell flat on his face, splitting the haft of the spear in two. The black poised on the lip of the precipice, then threw up his hands and went over head first into the gully.

For some minutes Cabell gazed at the stone barb protruding from Tom's back. He worked the toe of his boot under Tom's chin and turned the face up. The yellow whiskers were spongy with blood. But there was nothing deathlike about the face. It seemed to be holding its breath for a mad shout.

Cabell drew his fingers across his own face, and his senses began to return.

Sambo gave the flaccid rump a sentimental little kick. "Warn't bad pore ole bastard. Kin say that much f'r'im."

Three bonfires reduced the tribe to ashes. Nothing was left of it except the dogs, which had gone back to the bush. Cabell sat on a log with his hands hanging between his knees and watched the firelight glisten on black flesh. Sambo sat a little way off, a black tooth buried in his lip witnessing the arduous difficulties of carving ZAMBO on to the mahogany butt of his gun. From time to time he rose and threw fresh pieces of wood on to the fire. Black smoke curled into the blue air. Overhead, crows.

In a violent reflex of will Cabell flung out his arms to dispel melancholy thoughts and to embrace the harsh, repugnant thing that had lodged itself within him. "If I am to be so, then let it be. They won't have me, won't they? Would they have me before? Well, we shall see!"

Sambo chuckled and jerked his head towards the bush. "Bet Yilbung's feelin' peckish, smellin' all this good barbecue," he said.

Cabell jumped up. "I forgot about him. I'll finish him, too." He took a step towards the bush, but he seemed to put his foot into a bottomless hole.

"Whoa, there, jellylegs!" he heard a distant voice say, and the hole swallowed him.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-one

CABELL BRINGS THE WOOL DOWN

 

A pair of secretive eyes set in bony hollows, a dry yellow skin shrunk on to the skull, a scar from temple to chin that dragged up the corner of his mouth, colourless lips and a tangle of black beard. Cabell stared at this face. Was it a look of enmity or fear the stranger gave back? Prudence, not indifference, made him turn abruptly away from the mirror and replace the razor on the shelf. Better to let him remain a stranger, with hidden thoughts, bearded and unapproachable, so utterly different from the fresh-cheeked boy that was himself.

He stood for a moment steadying his convalescent legs against the table, then pulled on his hat and went out to lend a hand with the shearing. Hurry infected them. Three years of loneliness and hardship were coming to fruition. The insane routine of tailing sheep began to fit into some comprehensible system of human endeavour. And on the skyline of the men's simple ambitions loomed more clearly the day of temporary release. Cabell would load the dray and disappear over the hills on his four hundred-mile trek to the coast, across plains, ranges and downs. He would be away four months, six months, perhaps, but one day he would return, bringing hands to relieve them. They would take their cheques, sixty pounds or so apiece, saddle their horses, and ride over his wheel-tracks. After two hundred miles or so they would find a grog shanty. The publican would pocket their money, and two months would pass and sheep be forgotten. They would get drunk, see new faces, see a woman, perhaps, sleep--for two months. . . . A brooding silence lifted from the homestead. Even Bill laughed sometimes, talking far into the night with Sambo, blowing about grog and women.

Then one fine morning late in September the long, double-handed whip cracked, the bullocks heaved lazily into the yokes and the dray creaked across the river, its load of twenty-five bales, like a pyramid of down cushions, straining the greenhide. The men in the sheep pens turned, waved casually, and went on with their work. But there would be no talk in the evenings now except of Cabell's wayfaring, and the wilderness of days all monotonously alike would take order again by counting from this one.

That night Cabell camped ten miles away on the hills to the south-east--a good day's journey.

The sky was a deep, clear cobalt overhead, for the summer was young. A nip in the air after sundown helped to keep the mosquitoes away. He slept under the dray with the tarpaulin pulled down and pegged in the ground. Before it was light he was up and about looking for the bullocks, whose bells' tinklings were the only sounds in the dry land.

He turned south-west to avoid an outcrop of rocky hills into a country of small creeks and shallow holes that ran for a few months after the rainy season, then dried up. Just once every ten miles or so he would come on a trickle of water, enough to fill the keg swinging at his tailboard and give the bullocks a drink. Here and there would be teeming life, as in the valley round the homestead. Birds flashed in the scrub, kangaroos bounded off and watched him from a distance. But in the waterless country between nothing moved. The creaking of the cart and the swishing noise the bullocks made beating down the high, brown grass--no other sound. On all sides, to limitless horizons, stretched the rolling plains, and the only sign that life had visited them in the uncountable centuries was the faint mark of his own wheel-tracks pressed into the soft earth two years before and hardened by the sun.

It was no fool's job, this bullock-driving with a load of nearly three tons up, over trackless country, through the sandy beds of dried-up rivers, in and out among the timber. With a few inches to spare on either side a small mistake could ruin everything. If the whole team started round and pulled a bullock up against a tree the beast would be killed on the spot, and others, too, perhaps. A whip-crack at the wrong moment might send the whole team bolting down a hill to smash up at the bottom. Or the load might slip on a stiff rise: up would go the dray and the two polers would be swung. The whole team would go mad and twist up, and it took a smart hand to split the yoke with an axe without killing an animal in that moiling fury of bullocks.

Late one afternoon, fifteen days out from the homestead, the team broke down half-way up a hill. There was three hundred yards of ridge before them, washed out by ages of rain into deep cracks and holes. He camped for the night and next morning faced the fact that the load had to be taken off. With fifteen bales the team struggled on a hundred yards. He took off another seven bales, and at sunset the following day, their hides cut and quivering from the whip, they got to the top. Next day he emptied the dray and took it downhill, loaded again, and fought to the top a second time. He made four journeys altogether. To lift twenty bales weighing two hundred and fifty pounds apiece on to a dray is no joke. He spent seven days climbing this hill three hundred feet high, and he still had to go down the other side.

The eighth day he worked from daybreak till near midnight putting on the load, and awoke as stiff as a post to survey the five hundred yards of rocky slide downhill. He locked both wheels and started off. It was an anxious moment as he watched the pyramid of bales lean over, but the ropes held, and in a scurry of stones and gravel the dray slid forward. It went in zigzags, narrowly missing feet-deep crevices that could have turned it upside down in a flash. Two hundred yards from the bottom the offside wheel jammed against a rock and the felloe on which the chain was dragging split from hub to rim. He took the bullocks out, drove them over the hill again, back to the nearest patch of scrub that had a fair-sized tree, cut down an ironbark, hitched the bullocks to it, and dragged it back to the dray. It was near midday before they crossed the hill once more. He chained the tree to the back of the dray, put the bullocks in, and half an hour later touched the flat ground at the bottom. He lost two more days before he got on his road--a day to unload and cut a new felloe for the wheel, almost another day to load. So it had taken him close on eleven days to cross that hill. At the homestead they were picturing him at least a hundred miles farther on.

A few mornings later two of his bullocks were missing. He spent half a day tracking them, only to discover their dead bodies near a patch of green camelweed. Coming on this food suddenly, they had gorged themselves to death. Two more died during the day. He had eight bullocks now to do what twelve had been hard-worked to do before. He was lucky to get six miles a day out of them now.

Glorious sunsets of vermilion cloud trailing across the north and north-east made him toss sleeplessly in his blankets at night. Would he beat the rain? was his constant thought. He still had a hundred and fifty-odd miles to go.

Startled by rumblings near at hand, he crawled out from under the dray one night. A rising moon ambered the open jaws of the coming storm. It passed, with muffled grumbles of discontent as it gobbled down the stars. Heavy drops pattered on the tarpaulin. Out on the steppes a bullock bellowed gratefully. In a few minutes the clouds were gone. He turned back to the dray and his heart stood still with fright. At the edge of the scrub about two miles away he saw the glow of fires. Blacks, he thought at once.

He got his gun and went to see. While he was still a hundred yards off dogs started barking and a big collie rushed on him. A thick, Scotch voice called, "Who's that there?" and a figure rose into the firelight.

Cabell came forward. "Good day," he said.

"Guid day to ye."

"Saw your fire and thought I'd come and see," Cabell said, eagerly scrutinizing the first new face seen for two years.

The man grunted. "Hae ye ne'er seen a fire afore?"

"None but my own for seven weeks."

The man looked him up and down and grunted again. "Dinna waste yer time askin' for tobacco or nothin'," he warned, "for I havena bitty by me."

Cabell laughed, a boyish, excited laugh. "Well, have some of mine." He took the twist from his pocket and held it out.

The Scotchman looked at it for a moment, produced a small clay pipe, rubbed his beard, then turned away and went into the scrub.

The fires, Cabell saw, were dingo fires, round a sleeping flock of sheep.

The man returned with another pipe, a big briar with a bowl as big as a basin. "Since ye're so free wi' it, I dinna mind if I. . . ." He stopped in the middle of cutting the twist in half and glanced up suspiciously. "But ye'll probably be wantin' half of my flour in exchange," he said.

When Cabell reassured him he went on cutting the tobacco a little farther down the twist, so that Cabell got a poor quarter of it back.

"Sic an unprincipled lot of rogues as infest the country," the Scot explained, and the rest of the sentence died away in mutters in the back of his thick neck. He was a big fellow with a red beard, a long face, and arms like ships' cables. Having examined Cabell with distrust for some time he asked, "And where d'ye come frae, then?" his deprecating, down-turned wrinkles expecting the worst possible answer.

Cabell pointed north-west. "About two hundred miles," he said.

"Huh."

"And you?"

The Scot prodded his thumb vaguely over his shoulder.

"Travelling far?"

"Weel, that's no sae sure."

"I was only thinking I might put you in the way of the water."

After a long silence and many more uneasy glances, the man gestured towards the fire and said, "Weel then, set ye doon."

"I don't want to rob you of your sleep," Cabell muttered, but hastening to take advantage of a rare experience just the same.

"Och, mon, time's no dear in this country and wood's the only thing ye're no taxed on," the man told him, loosening up a little. "I'll mak' up the blaze for ye." Whereupon, with great prudence, he selected three small twigs from a carefully gathered pile and spread them neatly on the embers. The fire flickered up, lighting his long face and the barrel of his muscular chest. "Set ye doon, set ye doon," he urged. "It's plain ye're nae common trampin' pedlar."

"Indeed I'm not," Cabell replied quickly. "My name's Cabell. Derek Cabell. I'm bringing my wool down to Moreton Bay."

Neither his injured voice nor his information impressed his host, who shook his head doubtfully and grumbled: "Nae tellin' what a mon may be by his outer looks in this place. What wi' yer blackguards and yer convicts and yer Irish scum, it's no safe for a man to turn his back." He looked round at the moonlit plain as though he suspected that even now some passing blackguards, convicts or Irish might take a fancy to stop and lift some of his possessions.

Cabell smiled. "You can sleep easy out here," he said. "You're the first stranger I've seen for nearly four years."

"Dinna believe it, laddie," the Scotchman told him. "Only four days by I run into a wheen of cut-throats, and the foul tongues in their heads'd mak' ye think they were for practisin' speech wi' the wrong end o' theirsel'. A wench there, too. But I could tell ye somethin' I seen wi' her that wouldna' edify ye muckle."

Cabell interrupted eagerly. "Where was this?"

The Scot nodded reluctantly sideways. "Over the back of the burn ahint the rocks," he said.

"Is there a shanty?"

"Aye, a de'il's kitchen."

"I might get some flour there," Cabell said. "I've run out."

The Scot grimaced doubtfully. "Whatever ye dae," he warned, "keep yer een on yen wi' a cut on the left hand. A wheen o' hangman's trash is goin' waste there."

"Did he steal something from you?"

The Scot shoved his lower lip out and shook his head. "Weel, that's no sae sure. I had a mare for carryin' when I gang there and noo I hinna the mare."

"Did you sell it?"

"I dinna sell it."

"Well?"

The Scot stared gloomily at the fire. "I hinna the mare. That's true. But I've got a wee bit of a packhorse and a black colt I didna hae afore. Hooever"--he looked at Cabell--"that doesna concern ye. Ye've seen no Scotch bastard drivin' a flock this way, see?"

Cabell nodded. "You seem to have diddled them all right."

"Maybe aye and maybe och aye," the Scotchman answered. "But it's plain there's naethin' agin the law in it. What's been stolen yince canna be stolen if an honest man takes it frae the thief. Besides, havena they got my sorrel mare? There's nae mair'n a wee bit spavin in her."

A few chance remarks told Cabell that this honest Scot's name was Ivor McFarlane and that he had no fixed place of abode, but, like many others at the time, tailed his flock round the open wastelands, stopping only to lamb and shear his wool; thus he avoided all ground rents and taxes. But the country was beginning to fill up and squatters were becoming more and more ready to impound the stock of such nomads whenever they saw it near their precious grass. ("Ye wouldna think there was sic measly ruffians i' the world as to plot agin a puir sheep gettin' his nibble o' God's grass.") So he was reluctantly forced to think of getting a run of his own. There was a new law out, he told Cabell. Fourteen years' lease for up to two hundred square miles of land, to be rated according to its stocking capacity.

"There's land and water to spare where I come from," Cabell said, thinking that it might be a good thing to have such a discreet and hermit-like neighbour to share some of the responsibilities of settling the valley--lending a hand at the muster, the lambing-down and the shearing, keeping an eye on the blacks, and so forth.

McFarlane narrowed his eyes. "Ye'd no be askin' for a premium to say where that might be?" he said when Cabell had seductively described the valley.

"Of course not."

He continued to scrutinise his visitor thoughtfully, wondering what axe was here to grind. "Ye dinna look like a sheep-stealer."

"Follow my tracks for two hundred miles," Cabell told him. "You'll see good country nearer, of course."

"Further the better," McFarlane replied. "When a mon's far frae the Government they're nae thinkin' every minute of the feus and taxes and siclike."

A grey light was washing up from the east. McFarlane knocked out his pipe and rose. "Ye'll be pushin' off noo, I daresay," he said, foreseeing that Cabell might invite himself to breakfast.

"I suppose so," Cabell sighed, and looked across the lonely plain.

"Weel, guid day to ye." McFarlane touched his forehead, turned, and went away to his sheep.

Cabell strolled back to the dray. The air was oppressive and threatening. If it had not been for that broken felloe and the camelweed, he reflected, irritable and tired all at once, he would have been well down the coast country by now and on some kind of a road. He pressed his bullocks in the hope of getting to the shanty and refilling his tuckerbags. For some days he had had no damper, nothing, in fact, but what he shot at the waterholes.

At noon the clouds massed overhead. The air seemed to coagulate and clog the lungs. Then the rain burst on him. In half a minute he was wet through and the expanse of downland was blotted out. He filled his pannikin at the edge of the tarpaulin and for the first time in weeks tasted fresh water.

Late that afternoon he was paddling in the dust again. The deluge had covered a patch not more than two miles square. Cabell drove the bullocks into a wide river bed, as dry as a bone. The wheels sank almost to the axle in sand. When they were near the far bank the leaders stopped and turned their heads upstream, and a shudder of uneasiness passed over the team, which from pulling well became suddenly intractable. Cabell looked round but saw nothing unusual. The river bed, strewn with logs and stones, divided down the middle by a small high island, twisted away to the ranges in the east. Not a cloud showed in the sky. The rolling, grassy countryside, dotted over with clumps of trees and peaceful in the setting sun, looked like nothing so much as a fine wide park where hunters might come riding at any moment in red coats, with winding horns and speckled hounds in pursuit of a deer. He was speculating on this thought when a commotion on the island attracted his attention. A flock of cockatoos rose and flew away screeching. Kangaroos bounced out, looked eastwards, and fled across the river to the high land on the bank. Their excitement infected Cabell. He got to work with his whip again and put the bullocks to the stiff incline of the bank. They resisted, as though paralysed, their heads lifted to the east, then began to pull like furies. In ten minutes they were at the top.

Cabell stopped to wipe the sweat off his face and heard, faint at first but momently louder, a dull, distant roar. He looked anxiously round the skyline again, but at first could fix no definite direction for this strange noise. Then he saw from the commotion among the birds away towards the ranges that it came from the east. It was now so loud that it covered the noise of the bullocks, which were bellowing and rattling their chains. A cool stir passed through the air, and a few moments later a wall of yellow, foaming water, eighteen inches high, came splashing round the bend of the river, advancing with uncanny slowness across the dry sand. It divided at the island and in a few minutes joined forces again at the near end, with the precision of some military movement, which its deliberate progress intimidatingly resembled. The vanguard of surf took fifteen minutes or so to pass round the next bend and out of sight, leaving a stream of dirty water, crowded with leaves and logs that had lain in the sand since the river fell. The noise receded in the distance. The soft wash of the rising river and the cries of scared birds stirring the quiet nightfall.

Cabell cursed aloud. "Heavy rain in the mountains," he told himself. "Ten to one every blamed creek will be up tomorrow."

He was right. A terrific storm broke during the night and settled about daybreak into the perpendicular drench he knew so well. When he rose the island that had stood ten feet from the river bed the afternoon before was almost covered. Farther on he found things worse than he had expected. Creeks were not only up; they had spread far out from their banks and were treacherous with eddy and undercurrent. He climbed a tree and surveyed a country in flood. Water flowing upstream along the margin of the nearest pool told him that the creek was still rapidly rising. Fret and fume as much as he would, he had to be content with fixing the dray on the highest piece of ground in sight and settling himself underneath it.

His patience lasted three weeks. They were spent in a space six feet by four feet six and about three feet high--under the dray. He built a windbreak and a fire at one end. The tarpaulin pulled down all round kept off the rain. Mosquitoes and sandflies came. The air was black with them. He made a comforter out of a square of his shirt and wrapped his neck up to his ears. Then he bandaged his hands, but they got under his trouser-legs and they bit through his shirt. He scratched and the bites swelled. He was never really dry. A miserable, hissing glow was all he could get out of the sodden wood, which he had to carry a mile from the nearest scrub. Tobacco ran out, then tea. He laboriously dried some used tea-leaves by rubbing them in a piece of the torn-up shirt and smoked these. Then he smoked gum-leaves till his whole system seemed saturated with eucalyptus and everything tasted and smelled of it. The black soil turned to mud, then to slime, then to quicksand, so that he sank to his calves at every step. By comparison the squelching ground under the cart was dry, but it was not getting any drier. He dug a channel to keep the water out, but that was the merest convention when the whole countryside was inches deep in flowing water. Even when he did manage to build a serviceable dyke of mud, he was no better off. The water oozed up through the ground, came in as a kind of sweat on the air. He dragged half a hollow log under the dray and slept on that. Snakes, centipedes, wood-adders, scorpions came to share his camp.

He kept himself calm for two weeks. By then he had counted the spokes of the wheels and the boards in the floor of the cart thousands of times, carved his name on both sides of the butt of his gun, sung all the songs he knew and recited all the poetry he remembered from his childhood, had gone over and over the personal history of every man, woman and child he had ever encountered till the very thought of them made him sick. An inspiration suggested that he should unravel his stockwhip and plait it again. This kept him busy for three days, but it was finished at last. Daily he sat for hours on end, staring at the fire and muttering strange, disconnected thoughts. In the beginning it annoyed him to catch himself talking aloud, a habit so typical of the dyed-in-the-wool bushman that he had carefully guarded against it; then he talked aloud without thinking, and noticed only when the sound of his voice stopped.

It did not rain all the time. For a few hours every day there would be glimpses of sunshine which filled the air with steam. For one whole week little rain fell where Cabell was camped, but the ground got no harder, the river crept farther over the downs. There was no danger, not even of being drowned. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, except a thousand and one petty discomforts--and the vast boredom of waiting. Waiting!

"Nothing happens. That's the curse of it. You long for something to startle you, something to shoot at. But--nothing happens." He had thought he understood those words when he heard them nearly four years ago. Now he smiled at the memory of the impatience that had possessed his spirit then. A chit of a boy. If he could have had a prevision that day in Dennis's shanty of what the future would be--not its horrors and excitements, but of the black spaces of waiting, waiting, waiting to act in a world keyed down to a rhythm of timeless, hopeless waiting, would he have been here now? he wondered. It came to him then--a thought that was to remain with him all his life, deepening the doubt and distrust which underlay his whole attitude to himself and the world around him--that a man has to earn every atom of his own knowledge for himself, can never, never learn even the simplest truth from others. Yes, he knew better now. "If you've got the stone patience of fifty sphinxes you might see it through," Peppiott had said. "Well, I've got pretty stony patience now," he told himself, but even as he smiled a doubt seized him. Did he know any more of the next four years than he had known of these? They said there had been droughts here which lasted for seven years and longer, floods that left bullocks sixty feet up in the trees, bushfires that burned out areas bigger than England. He thought and thought till his muscles, tightened to grapple with these ghostly dangers, snapped and burned as though he were on a rack. The suspense of lying inactive, with every slow second bringing this disastrous future nearer, became intolerable. Restless to madness, he tore the flap of the tarpaulin away and scrambled out into the night.

The peace, the utter stillness of it, paralysed him. Mile upon mile of waterlogged downland gleaming in the moonlight, white trunks of trees--nothing else. He emerged from a trance, seized a spoke and tried to drag the wheel out of the mud into which it had sunk a good six inches. It was as set as a rock. "It will sink on me and crush me to death," he muttered. "No, I won't go under there again."

But it had begun to rain once more. He plodded through the mud to the shelter of the scrub that was really no shelter at all. Sleep was impossible. Sandflies and mosquitoes crawled into his nose and ears and bit like fire. His eyes, swollen from sleeplessness and venom, watched the dawn coming in a red glory over the mountains.

This was the sixty-fourth day out. Allowing him twenty days for mishaps and business and rest, they were calculating back at the homestead that he would be just about where he was now--on his way home.

He got his gun from the cart and, disregarding a bushman's rule never to shoot an animal that seems sick, killed the first duck he saw, a scabby-looking bird that remained on the water when the others flew away. He skinned it and threw it into the pot, but could not eat it. His head ached and his tongue was furred. Till sunset he wandered aimlessly about the sodden plain, bored beyond all conception of boredom. As the night was setting he returned to the dray and tried to eat a few mouthfuls of food, then nauseated, enraged suddenly, he seized the duck and flung it as far as he could into the darkness.

Next day a fit of agonizing indigestion set in, the result, probably, of a prolonged, unrelieved diet of duck. Pains like needles piercing his bowels made him double up on the ground and cry out. He crept back under the cart and lay sweating and groaning all that day. A terrible itching began in his arms and spread quickly over his whole body, which became inflamed and covered with a scarlet rash. Only at night, when the sun had gone down, did he get any peace from it. Then the slightest exertion, even if he raised his hand to brush a mosquito away, set the skin ablaze. He scratched frenziedly, and by morning the scratches were festered and the mosquito-lumps had turned to sores.

Three days passed. A heavy shower broke down his dykes and flooded under the dray. He no longer noticed. From time to time he drank a little water. He ate nothing, but the indigestion got no better. The only relief from bouts of pain was the greater agony of his itching skin. Even his eyelids burned now, his scalp, the inside of his nose. He believed that he was dying. Immediately he said, breaking a long silence, "I must be dying," a savage desire to live sprang up in him, flushed a desperate energy through his debilitated body. He crawled out from under the cart, which had now sunk to the axles. The dawn was just breaking. Somewhere, about fifteen miles away, was a shanty with people and medicines. He undressed on the bank of the swollen river, rolled his clothes up and tied them on his head, with his gun balanced precariously crosswise on top and lashed down with a strip of rag from his shirt, and waded out into the water.

For a hundred yards he was on the bottom, then his foot went over the bank and a strong current swept him away. Efforts to swim were futile. The current just raced off with him. He had time to grab the bundle of clothes as it slipped over his face, but the gun slid out and was gone. When he touched bottom he was nearly six hundred yards down the bank. He crawled out and threw himself on the ground, his body smarting as though from a bath in vinegar. Clouds of sandflies immediately settled upon it.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-two

BUSHED

 

The loss of the gun had a strange psychological effect. Realizing suddenly, as he lay gasping for breath, that without a gun he would starve in this inhospitable country, he began to feel hungry, despite the paralysing agony of his indigestion. From this it followed that unless he found the shanty soon he must starve to death.

He jumped to his feet and pulled on his clothes. Then he remembered the duck he had thrown away three nights before. He undressed, waded into the water again, and reswam the river. After searching for half an hour, he found the remains of the meat buried in the mud. It was foul, but he swallowed a few mouthfuls, and swam the river a third time. By now the midsummer sun was flaming down from a cloudless sky. Flails of heat beat across his raw back, but he was done up and incapable for the moment even of pulling on a shirt. At last he dressed and dragged himself to a thin patch of shade behind a rock. There he lay till midday before he could get strength to set out.

Then he had to decide what particular pinpoint on the immense, swaying arc of skyline to make for. As well as his scattered thoughts could do it, he went over everything the Scotchman had said about the shanty. He had passed it four days before their meeting. He had been travelling from the south-west at about six miles a day. So it must lie twenty-four miles from the point where they met. As he had travelled ten miles after leaving McFarlane, it could not now be more than fifteen miles away. Even if he missed the shanty he must strike a homestead, a station, a shepherd, for he was well within the outer rim of settlement now.

Carrying the duck in a piece of cloth looped over his arm he started off, with confidence reanimated by the mere action of moving forward, even at a snail's pace and in great pain. The black mud was like a ball chained to his legs. He was fighting it for an hour before he crossed the depression in which the river lay and struck firmer ground. When the night came down the dray was still in sight, and the new skyline, different from the old in minute particulars that would not have appeared to less anxious eyes--the shape of a tree, the extent of a patch of scrub--raised no shanty to view.

"But it can't be far now," he told himself, and lay wakeful all night, going over and over what McFarlane had said, endlessly calculating and recalculating distances. To the wool on the bank of a flooded river, to the bullocks straying afar, to what was happening at the station he gave not a single thought. His one idea now was to reach the shanty and save himself.

"Only a few more hours," he told himself as he ate a leg of the duck next morning. Immediately there was light he began walking again. At noon he was ten miles from the dray, facing a wide patch of scrub. "It must be on the other side of that," he said and plunged in. For five hours he walked among the trees. With exercise the pains were wearing away, but the agony in his skin became worse. It was as though he had been clawed all over and the wound tickled with a feather.

He saw an opening ahead and shouted. The sound died in answering echoes. Running, he burst from cover into a narrow clearing, strewn with the blackened trunks of trees, brought down by fire, not by man. There was no sign of a shanty or any sign of life, except the white cockatoos chuckling at him derisively from the treetops. His heart turned cold. A light, misty rain began to fall. The light faded. It was night.

In the morning he went over his calculations again and decided that he must be nearer the dray than he had supposed. If McFarlane had come from the Moonie he must have come this way. His misgivings died in the daylight. "I'll keep on through this," he determined. "It must be on the other side." To convince himself that he did not doubt the shanty was a few miles away, rather than because of the cravings of hunger that had come upon him suddenly, he ate all that remained of the duck and even fed a few bones to a solitary crow which shook its damp wings at him.

He hurried on, momently expecting the end of the scrub. In the twilight between the grey timber nothing moved. Mopokes were crying in the distance. Twigs cracked under his feet. Sometimes he ran. A stitch of breathlessness came and went in his side, but he hardly noticed it till sheer exhaustion pulled him down. His brain worked madly, adding and subtracting in an utterly meaningless way. An idea was coming to birth in his mind, and the more clearly it showed itself the more frantically worked his brain, trying to fill all consciousness with figures to blot it out. At last he jumped up and ran on, stumbling among roots and fallen boughs, pursued by this idea, which he could not bear to see. As dusk was falling he came out into the open downs again. The wavy line of horizon stretched before him, as empty as when he first sought to chase it. He threw himself on to the wet ground and, so weary was he, fell straight into a deep sleep, despite his hunger and the burning rash.

He awoke in the darkness. Low down in the western sky the moon showed itself for a moment through a veil that thickened and left him staring with hot eyes at a blank wall of darkness. He gazed with fear, and a violent shudder swept him. "Keep your head, you fool," he said angrily, beating his forehead with his fist. "You're lost if you lose your head." The calculations started again. "Say I've done twenty-five miles--no, twenty. Well, he said four days back. I ought to be right near it now. But there's no sign of it. What if. . . ." The idea raised its head again. He shouted to drown its voice. Gradually he stopped shouting. He went lax suddenly, and out of the silence he heard himself say "The Scotchman must have been lying."

He shivered, pretending not to hear. Then a light was vouchsafed him. He laughed. "Of course, the confounded old rascal. Not a liar, but a horse-thief. He wouldn't have dawdled on the road with people out after him. He'd have driven the wool off those sheep." So, more calculations. "Must be another fifteen miles on," he decided then. He jumped up ready to start at once. In sympathy the moon broke through the clouds and flooded the land with brilliant light. Distant trees stood out against the sky. He went forward, hungry and wracked, but hopeful again.

That was his fourth day from the dray, the seventy-second of his journey. Neither that day nor the next did he find the shanty. He ate a few berries and some mushrooms to take the edge off his hunger. The sun hid itself behind a leaden pall and he wandered aimlessly with nothing to guide him through patches of clearing and scrub all made to the same mould, all monotonously alike. Clothed in the fresh green of new grass, the country looked more than ever like a park. Always it seemed that he must find houses and people over the next rise. Sheep-droppings, an old axe-head, a rotting boot sent him delirious with hope, but he saw nothing except the ever-fleeting skyline, the shimmering veils of heat. He did not look for the shanty any longer. There was no shanty. The Scotchman was a liar. When at the end of the fifth day he dragged himself under a tree and lay down to sleep, the idea overpowered his hopes. That such a cunning, secretive fellow as McFarlane would have told the truth about a place where he had stolen horses, even if it did exist, was plainly absurd.

Next day he started to retrace his steps. He tried to buoy himself up by saying that he had come thirty miles, but deep in his heart he knew that the distance was nearer forty. Hunger became a fever. He searched for berries. Searching, he wandered from his landmarks. For hours he sought them again in the featureless bush. Each tree seemed familiar, but there was always another tree, another stone, another patch of fire-clearing to draw him deeper into the maze and disappoint him. To and fro, from one side to the other he ran. As soon as he stopped to get his breath hunger started. It was a terrible hollow pain eating out the pit of his stomach. He left off searching for the landmarks and went back to the search for food.

The best part of the sixth day he spent trying to climb an old blue gum in which wild bees were building, sixty feet up. There were no branches for forty feet. He clutched the trunk, scrambled a few feet, and his hands relaxed of his own weakness and he fell. Over and over again he tried, tearing off pieces of dead wood and always falling. The pain of the scratches at least helped to take his mind off the incessant itch of his skin, which was now entirely the colour of pickled cabbage. He rested a few minutes, then tried to climb the tree again with a rope made out of his shirt, but rain and sun and sweat had rotted the cloth. He went up a few yards and the cloth parted, letting him down heavily. Two hours passed while he sat watching the bees, imagining the burning, dark honey on his tongue. At last his will, nagging him to move, got him to his feet again. He flung himself at the tree with a last, desperate, angry effort, which petered out as before and left him hanging with his nails buried in a crack. The wood came away and he fell. When he recovered his breath he found himself clutching a piece of rotten, spongy wood in which were half buried three white, fat wood-grubs. He devoured them greedily. He found more. He went on, looking for dead trees. All the rest of that day he spent thus, eating altogether perhaps twenty grubs, which tasted sweet, like milk, and took away the dry ache in his stomach. Late in the afternoon he had a bit of luck. He found a goanna asleep on a log and killed it with a stone. He felt exactly as he had felt at a successful lambing or shearing. Those things belonged to another world now. All his thoughts and joys and expectations were directed to the yellowish, fatty flesh sizzling in the fire. Before it was half cooked he began to eat it. It did not kill him, but it made him violently sick. He rubbed his greasy hands ruefully over his distended stomach and almost immediately became aware of an unbelievable coolness penetrating the fiery skin there. He took a piece of warm fat and rubbed it over his shoulders. The torture began to ease almost at once. He greased himself from head to foot. Before he fell asleep the colour of his skin was almost normal. He thought he had recovered the perfection of physical well-being. He slept like a child.

The thought of his dray beside the rising river returned. He started walking before dawn. At sunrise he found himself on the bank of a creek in flood. He had never been here before, he knew. Now he faced what he had long tried to deny--he was lost. Around him the green, juicy grass springing from the reanimated earth, the exuberant blossom of the wattle-trees in the scrub, of the gums, birds on the wing, fish rising in the river--food and succour for all things, but for him a vast, murderous indifference. The face of the bush, for a fleeting second, became really a face, a woman's face with cruel, tight, virgin lips. He saw it staring at him on all sides, half sightless, half mocking. The sound of a voice shouting foul execrations brought him back to himself. He found himself staring at a knot on the trunk of an ironbark. It began to take the form of a face again. He covered his eyes with his cold hands, turned and fled.

This was December the twelfth, his seventh day from the dray and seventy-fifth from the homestead. The hands were wondering if he would be back in time for them to get to a shanty by Christmas.

He no longer looked for food or his way. He was like a drunken man, at once superhumanly clear-minded and befogged in illusions. All he cared for was to keep out of the scrub. A heavy sense of guilt oppressed him. He thought of the massacre in the ranges, and remembered the tales of superstitious bushmen about bewitching things in the bush. But, like a drunken man, he knew even as he fled that there was nothing to flee from, though he kept that knowledge hidden in the bottom of his mind, knowing, too, that if his fear stopped he would drop in his tracks and perhaps never get up again.

At last he tripped in the grass and lay stretched out, unmoving. He fell to sleep at once, and dreamt that he was back in the homestead eating breakfast. Outside the dogs were barking round the pens. . . . He awoke with the sun on his face. He listened. It came again--a dog barking, away behind the scrub to the east. He leapt to his feet and listened. Again and again the dog barked.

For two hours he hurried eastwards, stopping every few minutes to listen and cooee, until his throat was raw. The dog had barked for five minutes. It had not barked again. In his excitement he had left his hat on the ground, and now the sun beating on his bare head made him giddy and his thoughts more confused than ever. He began to believe that he had only dreamt about the dog barking. He grew discouraged. His steps lagged. He collapsed panting in the shade.

He had been there for nearly an hour, half asleep, when the dog started barking again, this time behind him, but nearer. He staggered to his feet. Early in the afternoon he heard it a third time, far away to the west. It must be travelling from him. He gripped his lower lip between his teeth, and half ran, half stumbled across the soft waves of grass-covered downs. Always there was another wave ahead and another and another, a void and trackless sea of grass rolling in from the sun-bleached skyline.

The dog did not bark any more. The sun slipped down. When he stopped to listen he heard only the brazen screech of the cicadas and the pounding in his head. Every few minutes he went quite blind. A dry vomit came on. To move at all, in shambling steps of a few inches, was a battle of will renewed at every step. A gully, even a moderate sized log across his path at this moment, would have brought him to a standstill for ever. The light turned yellow. Dusk began to fall.

The light was almost gone when he noticed a commotion of small birds above a break in the even line of the ridge where the grass had been flattened down. He crawled to the top of the slope, thinking they might have turned up something to eat, and found, sure enough, that they had been picking at the body of a young snake crushed in the soft loam. It was nearly a minute before he saw and understood the mark of the heel that had crushed it. Energy returned to his limbs with a shock that threw him over the narrow but plain track of a man's footsteps.

The brief twilight thickened into night before he had gone two hundred yards. Still trembling with excitement, he made a fire and lighted torches. All the time he talked to himself in hoarse mutterings: "This wood, worth a fortune in England. Sell it by the inch. That wardrobe in the tower--cedar. Now no shirt. Flannel's the stuff. Funny, yet coolest." Behind this was the idea that somebody would hear and turn the track into an illusion. "A week old. Probably leads nowhere." But he knew that it was no more than a few hours old. Up and down he went, refreshed, like a horse that has smelt water.

After three-quarters of an hour the track broadened a little. The glimmer of the torches showed more footmarks going in the same direction. From time to time he peered into the darkness ahead and forced a hoarse cooee out of his throat. The sound faded in the distance and no answer came. But the track got clearer and clearer with the mark of many feet, so that he could no longer repress a triumphant cry. "Thank God," he shouted, "I'm safe!"

Two hours later he had to pull up and rest. The burst of strength was oozing rapidly away. As it went, doubts returned. "How do you know this goes anywhere?" he asked himself. "It might go on for thirty, forty miles yet. Have you got another ten miles in you?" He shook his head violently. "No, no. It's well trodden and fresh. Look. I must be near some place."

He let the weight of his body carry him along. His head felt as though it had been beaten on an anvil. The itch had started in his back again. But no light rose out of the darkness, only a solitary owl answered his angry cries.

In a last spurt of energy he raised his voice and cursed the country, the night, the track, and McFarlane whose falseness had brought him to this. Then he stumbled forward a few paces and dropped to the ground. . . .

When he came to, a little man with a round face, as shiny and red as a pippin, was bending over him and pressing a tin mug to his lips. "Drink up, me beauty," he was saying in a gruff Irish voice. "It's better'n the milk of Paradise you was near tastin'."

He drank greedily for some time, then looked round. He was in a big, bare humpy, furnished with bark tables and benches and innumerable bunks, built one above the other, ship's fashion, in the wall. Then he saw that the room was crowded. It seemed as though hundreds of other pippin faces, grouped according to diminishing size, were peering down at him, while behind them all was an immensely stout woman mixing something in a basin and ranting to herself all the time. "Och, ye're a lazy, drunken, good-fer-nothin' cut off the backside of yer country, the whole lot of ye!" she roared.

He did not try to understand, but for a long time watched a corner where a number of bedraggled-looking leghorns were sleeping on the edge of a bunk. The walls, the floor and the table were white with their droppings.

"Won't the light wake the fowls?" he asked.

"Sure'n all, that's not the question. Drink the milk," the man answered.

"This isn't the shanty, then?"

"What shanty's that, me love?"

He rested a moment. "I knew I was getting somewhere," he said then. "The track got plainer every minute."

"Sure'n ivry half minute the rate you was goin' round and round it. Wonder it was you didn't trip over yeself."

He dozed off. When he woke up there was a smell of cooking in the humpy. The hundreds of pippin faces were still watching him. He reached out to touch them and they vanished noiselessly into the shadows. But he could see their eyes shining, wide and amazed, in the light of the fire.

The man came back.

"How do you know . . . ?" Cabell began.

"Well now, and ain't Mickey O'Connor's saints in this wilderness as well as in their native land?"

"Yer saints be--praised," the old woman began again. "An' the poor gintleman shoutin' off his head by the hour and you shiverin' in yer blankets for fear it's the Divil remembered ye, ye overfed, lyin', cowardly, blasphemious. . . ."

Cabell slid back to sleep. He thought he was just going from one dream to another.

 

 

 

III

The Dark Demon

 

 

Chapter Twenty-three

THE SHANTY AT PYKE'S CROSSING

 

How differently everything might have turned out if the wheel of the dray had not broken, if the bullocks had not died, if the rain had held off for another ten days, if he had not met that Scotchman, and if, also, he had never gone to the shanty at Pyke's Crossing. Afterwards--for years afterwards--there were times when he thought: "Better to have died in that bush. Better to have been lost and forgotten. . . ."

But that was far in the future when he awoke in the morning and found that the pippin faces were real enough. There were fifteen of them on Timberinga station, besides their father, Mickey--all shepherds, even Danny, who was just about big enough to see over a sheep's back.

"The richest family in the district," Mickey told him proudly, for their combined wages made three hundred and fifty pounds a year and rations. "One of these days I'll buy a pub and settle the old woman in style," he said.

"Settle on yer backside, that's all the settlin' ye'll ever do, Mickey O'Connor," retorted his wife, who was still in a very bad humour it seemed, so that breath could not be expelled from her lungs without forming itself into abuse. Add to this the cackle of hens nesting in the bunks, picking among the scraps on the table, fighting her for the dough in her pudding-basin, the plaintive protests of a cow which stood with its head through the door, contretemps between a litter of puppies and a boxful of kittens in the corner, sundry screams and mutters from a menagerie of koalas and cockatoos chained to the roof-beams--and beneath it all the gentle monotone of Mickey's contemplative maunderings.

"I was born in Dublin, where ye never can hear yeself spake," he explained sadly, "then I go and come here--"

"Where ye can never hear nothin' else," snapped Mrs O'Connor.

Cabell was already well enough to think again, and the anxieties pushed aside by the struggle for life came crushing down on him. He rose on his elbow and asked, "Is there a shanty near here where I might get some help to move a dray? I was looking for it."

Mickey had a sudden fit of coughing. When he recovered, after a nervous glance at his wife, who was pounding more fiercely than ever at her pudding mixture, he said, "Is them ticks any better now, is they?"

"Ticks?"

"Sure. Wasn't you covered from yer sternpost to breakfast-time with them?"

"I thought it was prickly-heat."

"No, them small microbes it was, suckin' the blood out of ye."

So they went on to talk about the ticks, and every time Cabell mentioned the shanty Mrs O'Connor clattered her pots and pans and flew off at Mickey and Mickey became very busy shooing the chickens out of the flour-bin or chasing the cow away.

But on the fourth day Cabell was able to leave the bunk--eleven days since he started from the dray and eighty-one since he last saw the homestead. In less time a sailing ship had come twelve thousand miles from England through the doldrums and gales of three oceans.

He brusquely drew Mickey out of earshot of the house and demanded, "Is there a shanty or not? If so, where?"

Mickey admitted that there was a shanty, forty miles to the north-east. "But don't say a word of it in front of the old woman," Mickey pleaded. "Ye see it's that b'y. He's out on the spree there this three weeks."

"One of your sons?"

"Yes, that b'y Pat. He's over there with all the lousy scum and he won't come home."

"Drinking?"

"And carryin' on fit to be hanged, the lout. And breakin' the old woman's heart," Mickey said with a sigh.

Mrs O'Connor's head came round the door. "If ye're talkin' about that brat, he ain't none of mine and I won't have him round the place, I won't. I'm tellin' ye."

Mickey drew Cabell farther away. "Would ye tell him if ye went there, mister, to come home at once or I'll belt the lights out of him?"

"Certainly."

Mickey rubbed his nose. "Well, don't do that, neither. You better just say 'Ye parrit's got the mange.'"

"Very well."

"It's the old woman," Mickey explained, forcing a few sour wrinkles into his shining cheeks. "If 'twuz me I'd see him damned and be glad of it. . . . But don't ye go tellin' him that."

Cabell reassured him.

So at dawn next morning Danny was rounded up to guide Cabell to the track.

"If you see me old man's b'y," Mrs O'Connor whispered as they shook hands, "mightn't ye just tell him I'se gettin' him a great sucking pig from the homestead Christmas Day."

"I'll send him home, don't fear," Cabell promised.

"Bless ye. Bless ye," Mrs O'Connor cried. "And if ye ever want the mud licked off the soles of yer boots I'll do it for ye."

Danny was brought up and handed over to Cabell, who was advised to keep a firm hand on him, as he was likely to run away, being scared out of his wits of the first stranger he had ever seen. He trembled and panted like a wild animal, and sure enough, as soon as he got half a chance, scampered off into the bush. Cabell had to be content with following the glint of his yellow hair, which brought him about midday to the shanty track, a rutted path overgrown by the new grass. He must have passed within a few yards of it when he heard the dog bark; the scrub they had just come through was that in which he had had the illusion of watchful faces.

Danny had already disappeared. Cabell shouted good-bye to a patch of quivering grass and set off briskly along the track. Next day at sundown he reached the shanty.

An incident which caused him some annoyance happened when he was about ten miles from it. A man galloped past, leading two fine horses. Cabell shouted good day, but the man rode by, so close that Cabell had to jump out of the way to avoid being ridden down. He shouted out again, asking for a lift, and had the chagrin of seeing the man gallop out of sight over the downs without turning his head. Cabell, irritable from flies and dust and weariness, fixed in his memory a glimpse of black beard and bushy black eyebrows knitted over sullen eyes, and promised himself a word with their owner if met at Pyke's Crossing.

The place was crowded when he limped in. A lonely hut at the crossing of a river still in flood, its walls held up by props, straw and rags stuffed in its windows, thirty miles from anywhere--this was civilization for the isolates of the bush, old hands, migrants who had become shepherds, settlers for whom it was a refuge from monotony, loneliness or despair, currency lads like Sambo, born and bred in the Outback, who could not imagine that life had anything more gracious to offer.

The proprietor was a fat, cheerful little German named Fritz Schmidt. "Goot day," he greeted Cabell. "How ze world treat you, huh?"

Cabell took his hat off, wiped the sweat out of his eyes, and looked around, bewildered a little by the sight of so many new faces all at once.

The conversation was an incessant roar in every slang and dialect, from pidgin English to Whitechapel flash cant. There was a swart little Portuguese drover, an American nigger, Irishmen and Scotchmen, an aboriginal begging for tobacco, a Jew pedlar selling gilt tiepins and bright neckcloths, a man having D.T.s, another being sick through the window, and thirty-odd lantern-jawed, sun-shrivelled nondescripts arguing about dogs and horses, cattle and sheep in terms which suggested that they themselves were an enslaved sub-species ruled over by quadrupeds.

But Cabell's wonderment changed quickly to embarrassment as he realized that even in this motley crowd his bedraggled clothes made a remarkably poor show. Mickey O'Connor had fitted him up with an old cabbage-tree hat with the brim hanging off behind and an old shirt patched with hessian, which he so outsized that the cuffs barely reached his elbows. His trousers were in tatters, and the soles and uppers of his rain-rotted boots had parted company long ago. Approached by a boozy individual who said "Down on your luck, eh, mate? Well, I'll shout you a wet, damned if I don't," Cabell blushed and turned his back on the company abruptly, though he was longing to mix with the friendly crowd and talk. "What have you got there?" he asked the myopic little German, shuffling a handful of silver ostentatiously on the bar.

The barman pointed to the shelves, piled gin-cases stacked with bottles. "I got the best three-star in the country," he said proudly.

"What else?"

"I got jampagne. First prize! Goot Cape Smoke. Goot Chamaica."

Cabell looked doubtfully at the bottles, opened and refilled more than once, to judge from the greasy labels.

"What you want? I got everyding." He spread his white puffy hands, which seemed to be covered with inflated rubber gloves. "I get you trunk pretty dam quick," he promised. "And no snakes. Leave it to Fritz."

"If he ain't got it he'll make it for you," one of the men said. "It's all out of the same tin."

"What din, you blackguard?"

"Binkley's patent scab dip."

Fritz punched his bar, endangering the integrity of the whole building. "Why you trink so dam much? Why you not rub it on your carcass?"

"I did. It burnt the hide clean off me."

"You want new hide, new bones, new face, then you be first prize," Fritz grumbled.

The man laughed cheerfully--a pleasant-looking young fellow of about twenty years, with a mop of fair hair and bright, reckless eyes. Leaning against the bar, he was talking with a man whose back was half turned to Cabell. "That's him," Cabell thought, recognizing the black beard, and promising himself a few words there later.

He ordered a drink and, according to custom, bought the barman one, too. According to custom, the barman filled his own nobbler from a bottle of cold tea under the bar.

"My name's Cabell," Cabell told him in a loud voice, perhaps a little louder and more haughty than he meant. "I'm looking for hands. My dray's bogged with all my wool. Anybody here likely to want work?"

"When you want him?"

"Straightaway. Tomorrow."

"Christmas evening? Aw, you come next week." Fritz pointed across the room to a man with a face bloated by heat and drink, asleep on the floor. "That one been trunk tree week. Ready next week. That one"--indicating a little wizened-up monkey of a man who was sitting disconsolately alone on a box near the door--"he come before five week with eighty pound. Got twenty left. Might be zis month, might be next, might be never. Getting olt. No one else."

The man on the floor looked as though he would need more than a week to recover. The man with the monkey face looked, as Fritz said, as though he might never recover. His skin, copper-coloured by the sun, hung in pouches round his eyes and jowls.

Meeting Cabell's stare, he turned his head away quickly and gazed out at the edge of the downs, where the sun was sinking egg-shaped into a red haze of heat.

Cabell looked at him more closely, his attention fixed by something in the discouraged stoop of the shoulders and in his clear blue eyes, which, round and innocent, contrasted oddly with all the open secrets of the weatherbeaten face. In the middle of a brawling, joyous crowd he looked strangely thoughtful and sad.

"That's Yack Beters," the barman told him. "Vas Ober on Merriman."

"Overseer?"

"Ja. Best stockman in New South Wales. Only"--he tapped his dirty singlet--"he get the homeache bad, and that makes him mad like a cut snake."

"Poor devil," Cabell said.

Fritz waved his hand nervously. "Don't say nossings like that. He might hear you. That makes him madder." He leant confidentially across the bar. "See, every year he comes on one white horse to say good-bye because he's going to England. I shake him by ze hand. Zen after one minute he say to me, 'Vell, shake a leg, squarehead, and give the boys a last taste on me.' I don't answer him nossings. 'Vat?' he say. 'You won't!' and swell up like a bullfrog. 'No,' I said him. 'You go to hell. You go to England. You go away from here, Yack Beters. Been wastin' all that money on booze for five years and never once you go to England.' 'Vat!' he shout louder. 'Ain't my cheque no ploody goot? Zat vat you say?' I just answer him there's a storm coming up and he better pretty dam quick get over the river. 'Vat!' he yell. 'You call me ploody new-chum. You say me I have one drink and can't swim that ploody creek. That what you say me?' Then he start breaking up all ze bottles and ze glasses and ze walls." He spread his hands. "I give one liddle drink. Then he never go. 'Go tomorrow,' he say. But he never go. Five year. Always the same. Drink, fight and curse." He sighed. "Then one day he get up and walk straight out." He pointed through the door towards the still-brazen skyline. "Straight out over ze downs. Straight into ze sun. 'Damn old fool you, Yack Beters!' think I. 'Now might you on the sea be.' And I don't see him no more till next Christmas, when he comes in to say me good-bye again." With his sentimental eyes and watery little button-nose he looked like a dejected pug dog, but he roused himself suddenly and briskly wiped the zinc top of the bar. "Vell, it ain't my fault," he said with resolution. "I gotta licence to sell ligger, and by Gott I vill."

Cabell shuddered. He thought of the little man walking straight into the blazing sun with two months' liquor in him, back into the bush he had thought to see the last of.

The man looked up quickly and, seeing their eyes on him, again glared. "Hope 'ee'll know me when 'ee sees me," he grumbled.

"Ve don't look at you, Mr Beters," Fritz said nervously. "Ve look at the sunset."

"Lying squarehead," Peters muttered resentfully. "Why did 'ee send that white mare back?"

Fritz stuttered and turned pale. "Mr Beters, I don't know what you say. A white mare! Lieber Gott, what white mare?"

"Dang 'ee for an old woman, but 'ee knows well enough what white mare. The white mare I boozed away last year. And 'ee has the guts and gumption to send it back as though I did just walk off and leave it behind me like."

"Nein, nein," Fritz protested, in great agitation at the sight of Peters working himself up into a rage. "I don't know no such things, Mr Beters."

"Can't pay for what I drink! That what ye say?" Peters roared, jumping up and kicking the front of the bar so that everybody grabbed to save his drink. "Insultin' me, that's what you be doin'."

He badly needed to feel insulted, Cabell guessed, glancing covertly sideways while Fritz retreated to the other end of the bar. He was at that stage of recovery where a feeling of frustration and regret seeks some motive for smashing the world to pieces. Robbed of Fritz, he turned on Cabell, attracting his attention with a vicious smack between the shoulder-blades.

"I'm Jack Peters if you want to know," he said defiantly. "How d'ee do?"

Nothing is more calculated to sour a man instantaneously than an unexpected blow on the back, especially a back still burning from blood-sucking ticks and treatment with horse medicines. Cabell turned and frowned at the little man with his supercilious stare--that "aristocratic mug"--which was his automatic mask in moments of doubt or fear or embarrassment. It consisted in keeping his eyes fixed blankly on the bridge of his opponent's nose and remaining completely passive. Its effect, heightened now by the scar which tipped up the corner of his mouth and his left nostril into the semblance of a sneer, was to drive a man in Peter's frame of mind quite mad.

He elbowed Cabell roughly. "Will 'ee drink with me?" he demanded, and his chin came out a couple of inches to define an invitation that might otherwise be mistaken for an act of friendliness.

"I've got a drink of my own," Cabell said, firmly withdrawing his arm from Peters's grasp.

"Won't drink with the likes of me. That what you mean?" Now the conversation had ceased along the bar and necks craned to see what he would do. Under this scrutiny, to which he had been unaccustomed for so long, Cabell withdrew farther into his shell and said coldly, "I've had all the drink I want for the moment."

"If I'm good enough to talk about I be good enough to drink with," Peters shouted. "Fritz! Squarehead! Two phlegm-cutters here."

"Mr Beters," Fritz protested, "why you bick a fight? Zis gentleman, he don't know you from a crow."

"Two phlegm-cutters," Peters repeated frantically, "or I'll smash your mug in for 'ee!"

The crowd cheered, "Go it, Pete! Douche him, Pete!" They were instantly in arms against this stiff-necked stranger who had refused two invitations to drink--a serious breach in the bush--talked in a precise English voice, and gave them a belittling stare down his twitching nose.

Peters pushed a glass towards Cabell and raised his own. "Here's to 'ee."

Cabell turned away.

"Won't, won't ye?" Peters cried, smashing his own glass down. "Damme, but you shall!" and picking up the other glass, he flung it at Cabell's head.

Cabell ducked and the glass flew down the bar and hit the man with the black beard full on the side of the face. He spun round, felt his bleeding cheek, then rushed across the room and seized Peters by his scraggy throat.

"Misder! Misder!" Fritz shouted in dismay. "It vas not for you meant."

The drinkers gathered round to watch the one-sided fight. Peters's feeble hands beat the air and his blue eyes gazed up in astonishment at his assailant, who went on shaking him with an exasperated violence that seemed to seek in this activity a release for sullen angers long pent up. He said nothing, and his dark, brooding face remained set. One or two of the drinkers shouted protests, but none interferred. They seemed afraid of him.

"Give him a chance, Jem," called the young man who had talked about Fritz's drinks. "He'll snuff on you."

Jem stopped shaking Peters and studied him at arm's length with a dull glare, then flung him against the bar.

Peters gulped a chestful of air and spat it out. "Lousy horse-thief!" he shouted. "I'll see 'ee hanged next time."

Jem gazed at him, seemed to hesitate, then with the suddenness of an irresistible impulse planted a big-knuckled fist between Peters's eyes. Peters grabbed at the bar and brought a pile of glasses crashing down.

The apparently gratuitous brutality of the blow shocked Cabell. Forgetting his own affront at the sight of blood trickling from the little man's mouth, he jumped between them and pushed Jem back. At the same moment he remembered that he had a grievance here, too, and it was immensely magnified as the dark eyes stared at him with a dull, uncomprehending indifference and a big hand brushed him impatiently aside.

He jumped between them again, and this time gave the man such a violent shove that he staggered back into the crowd. "Hit one your own size," Cabell said.

The man picked himself up. "Who the devil are you?" he asked, in a slow, burred voice, as sullen and dead as his face. "I've no quarrel with you, mate."

"I've got one with you," Cabell replied. "You should be taught some manners."

"Manners?"

"You rode me down this afternoon. I promised I'd see you about it."

"Ah!" The man's eyes came slowly alight, as though seeing Cabell for the first time. "You did, eh?"

"Yes, I did."

The young fellow intervened. "Stow it, Jem. Remember. . . ." He nodded towards a ragged hessian curtain that partitioned the bar from the back of the humpy, and turning to Cabell said hastily, "Jem'll apologize if he did you any wrong. That's an old quarrel he had with Peters there. He's too damn quick-tempered, that's all."

But Jem brushed him aside. "Don't apologize to no cussed tramps, I don't," he grumbled, and with one sweep of his fist, on the back of which Cabell saw suddenly a broad purple scar, he cleared a circle in the crowd. Then, hitching his trousers and rolling back his sleeves, he invited Cabell to "put 'em up".

A moral coward, but lacking no courage physically, Cabell put them up and came out into the circle. But before they were within striking distance of each other a clear voice cried out passionately behind them, "Jem, what are you doing?"

Cabell turned and saw, with amazement, the figure of a woman, wrapped in a woollen riding cloak, her long black hair falling in heavy plaits around her shoulders.

"Emma!" Jem and the young man exclaimed together.

She dropped the hessian curtain and came, on unsteady feet, towards them. As she approached Jem withdrew a pace, lowered his eyes with a frown, and hid his big fists behind his back, shyly, like an overgrown lout of a boy caught in some disgraceful act.

She went up close to him and asked, in a low, indignant voice, "Do you want to get us all hanged, you fool?"

Cabell's wide eyes were inmovably fastened upon her. They saw a broad face, high, protuberant cheekbones, and flat, broad cheeks, pale with fever, which distilled a dew of sweat along her high forehead and long upper lip.

Getting no reply from Jem, she turned her eyes on Cabell, questioning. A look, half of fear, half of anger, filmed them like a shadow. This gave her whole face an air of enigma and mystery, so that anyone who had glimpsed it would have been compelled to turn and stare and to ask what secret it concealed of suffering, tragedy, or hatred.

Looking on this first young woman he had seen for years, Cabell felt the blood in his cheeks. He slid his eyes down to her feet and discovered that he had been standing for some time with his left fist thrust out before him. He lowered his hands and put them sheepishly into his trouser pockets. The same kind of feeling seemed to overcome the other isolates, too. They moved away and tried to hide behind each other from the unusual sight of a woman. "You must be mad," she told Cabell, cutting the air with her hand. "You're no match for him!"

Cabell glanced up, surprised by her sympathy.

But she shook her head impatiently and added, "He might easily have killed you," and there was no sympathy in this, but rather an accusation as though Cabell would have done her a personal injury if he had got himself killed.

He was even constrained to make an apologetic gesture. He cleared his throat and mumbled something, shifting uneasily on his long legs. But, the first shock of surprise passing, he returned the stare of wonder which she had fixed on him as though she sought to discover what sort of a man this was who could be foolish enough to try conclusions with Jem. Now Cabell's eyes cleared a little and he saw her as a short, rather frail woman of about twenty-eight years, with dark-ringed hollows to her unusually deep-set eyes, big hands and tight colourless lips. These lips were what impressed him most. There was something savage in their restraint, as though all her strength were concentrated there in a vyce-like grip on herself, holding back God alone knew what cry of indignation or fear. Had she let this out it could hardly have exposed more clearly the fierceness of her spirit than did the power with which it was suppressed.

"Where did you come from?" she asked in her low but clear and dominating voice.

He answered her like a child, startled out of his reticence by the directness of the question and because he was bemused and embarrassed by her sudden appearance, dropping upon them from the void in this wild place. "From two hundred miles to the north-east," he said, adding rather breathlessly, "My name's Cabell."

She looked him frankly up and down, as one used to dealing with men and without any shyness before them. "You must be a new-chum in these parts," she told him, "to be picking a fight with Jem." Before he could reply, as pride impelled him to do, that all the Jems in the world couldn't ride him down with impunity, she shifted her gaze to this now harmless-looking culprit, who stood biting his nails and staring at the floor.

"Won't you ever stop fighting--?" she began.

But he interrupted her with a brusque wave of his hand, made as if to speak, and lowered his eyes again without saying a word.

She shrugged her thin shoulders, half despairing, half impatient, and turned on the young man. "Did he get the horses, Dirk?"

Dirk put out a hand and supported her, for she was trembling and pale. "Yes, Em; we're all ready now." Between these two faces brought close together Cabell saw, under superficial differences of colour, a strong family likeness in the shape of their firm chins and short, straight noses. Who, then, he wondered, was this Jem, a stolid, peasant-like animal?

"Well, why are we waiting?" the woman asked petulantly. "Why, why, why?"

Dirk shook her gently. "Don't be crazy, Em. You're not fit to move. Besides, the rivers won't be low enough for the cattle yet."

She drew her hand wearily across her eyes and leant heavily against him. "Oh, let us get on, for God's sake!"

As she spoke they moved off towards the back of the shanty, followed by Jem. He gave Cabell a sulky look as he passed, then disappeared through the hessian curtain.

Fritz raised his head above the bar and smiled tentatively.

"Holy Ghost, but ain't she a white sergeant, that one!" somebody said admiringly.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-four

THE STRANGE WOMAN

 

Cabell went back to the bar and called for another drink. For some time he reflected on the strange woman, whose strangeness, of course, consisted largely in the mere fact that she was a woman and that she was here.

"Who's that fellow Jem?" he tried to draw the barman. But Fritz had had enough of gossip with Cabell for one day. "I don't know no such things," he said sourly. "Ligger, zat's my business."

Gradually Cabell sank into sad thoughts--the girls in Owerbury High Street on Sunday morning. Lucy Potter, who smelt of fresh milk, Phillipa Mayne under the lilac bush--sad, savage, celibate fantasies.

A hand on his arm roused him. It was Peters again, considerably worse for half an hour's hard drinking and a black eye. He was waving an empty bottle in one hand and supporting an even drunker comrade with the other. In the gloomy light of the slush lamps, shining through the haze of smoke from dung fires burning round the bar, Cabell recognized the bloated face that had been asleep on the floor when he arrived.

"My mate," Peters introduced him, "Herb Tutt."

Herb opened one eye and fixed it on Cabell. "'Ave yo' wash yo' neck jish evenin', Colonel?" he asked.

Cabell remained aloof.

"Not outshide," Herb explained. "Inshide, I mean. What I mean, young 'un--'ave a drink?" He left Peters and flung his arms round Cabell. "Pete told me--great fight--marvellous bastard--'gratulations," from which telegramatic baring of his soul Cabell was relieved to understand that Herb was embracing, not strangling him. "Yer see," Herb explained feelingly, "he kicked me dawg. Now, that dawg--"

"Shut yer trap," Peters ordered, pulling him off. "Mr Cabell, don't want to head nothing of yer dawg."

"Don't yer?" Herb looked in amazement at a man who did not want to hear about his dog. He had a head like a lump of granite that somebody had once started to chip into the shape of a face, but they had not gone far.

"They do say that 'ee has wool to shift," Peters asked Cabell.

"That's so."

"Me and the mate"--Peters nodded to Herb--"we'd come if 'ee'd have us. When?"

"Tomorrow?"

Peters hesitated and looked at Fritz's bottles, sighed. "Aw well, I can't taste the stuff any more," he said.

Herb thrust his head between them. "Could 'e put a blowfly in a pickle-bottle?" he asked.

"Can you?"

"My dawg can," Herb said defiantly. "Just let him try puttin' blowfly in pickle-bottle. Then won't kick dawg. Now, that dawg--"

"Dry up, damme." Peters gave him a shove. He staggered back and sprawled on the floor, where in a few seconds he was sound asleep.

Cabell and Peters exchanged drinks.

Peters pulled his nose, shifted uneasily, then said: "I've put 'ee in a devil's black books there," jerking his thumb over his shoulder towards the hessian curtain.

Cabell waved aside apologies, finding the little man contrite, and agreeable company with his childlike eyes and drawling West Country voice.

But Peters shook his head. "Ay, there's people of one sort and people of another, but that man--a's a bad lot. That a be."

"You know him well?"

"Yes and no. I know him for a horse-stealer and for the man that lifted a stud off Burgurrah last year. 'Tis that which made bad blood between us. That and the Scotchman that lifted two nags off of him."

"A Scotchman named McFarlane?"

"Ay. D'ee know him?"

Cabell told him how they had met.

Peters grinned. "'Twas this way. She's down with the black-water and the Scotchman comes in with a nag you could hang your hat on. He's that afeared of losing it he near brings it into the bar with him. So I tells him that feller Jem's just making up his mind to lift it. Damme if he don't run off with their two best horses."

"Who are they?" Cabell asked.

Peters stroked his chin. "First there's the lad. No harm in him. That's Dirk Surface. A bit careless like and reckless as a steer. Then there's his sister, a damn sight recklesser."

"That's the woman?"

"Call her that. I'd as lief call her a demon. She'd ride anything with hair on. There's deep waters in the wench, too."

"What d'you mean?"

"No more'n the Devil said to the owl," Peters replied with a wink.

After a long pause Cabell asked, "His wife, is she?"

"His wife!" Peters laughed. "That she's not, for sure. And shan't never be, although he's dead nuts on her. So much so they say he killed a man outright once for something about her. I never rightly knew nor heard of any that did. They're a deep lot."

"What are they doing here?"

Peters winked again. "Grow'd too hot round here for Jem since I got on the track of them Burgurrah horses, so they're pushing out west. So they say. But between us two, man and man, it's eyewash. Jem's got horses hid to take over the range, and the cattle they have shall cover the tracks."

Cabell frowned, trying to piece all these facts into a feeling about the woman that had been growing upon him. He tried but failed to see her as a camp follower of horse-thieves, and emerged from speculation with a deeper sense of her strangeness.

Peters was saying "She's a bit of a mystery. No one ever knew where she come from nor when nor why. But as I've know'd her these two years they've been living over the back of the Swamp, she's straight as you could expect where evil do thrive. But that Black Jem--" He spat. "They say he goes mad fighting and has near killed more than one man. That were her meaning when she says 'Ye'll get us all squeezed.' She's scared for that young rapscallion Dirk, ye see. It's said she once rode a hundred miles to get him out of a shanty where he was boozing with Jem."

Cabell asked about Pat O'Connor.

"The whelp," Peters replied. "He's out on Jem's cattle camp up the river, grafting for his booze."

Cabell told him about the O'Connors.

"I know them," Peters nodded. "Decent old codgers. But their lad's straight headed for the gallows. And as for getting him back home, well, I did hear tell he was going off to help Jem and Dirk with the cattle."

They were silent for a moment, Peters thinking of the trouble he had made for Cabell, as his next remark showed. "'Tis well we'll be off early," he said. "There won't be no occasion to cross paths with the sod again."

Cabell laughed. "As far as that goes--"

"Oh, no, no," Peters said hastily. "He do be a terrible quick man to knock yer down, and I'd never have an easy mind if a young strapper like you come to harm on my account."

"Perhaps it would be on my own account," Cabell said, and, as events turned out, spoke truer than he knew.

When Peters roused him next morning the sun was already well up.

"We're late," he grumbled.

"I were sleeping off," Peters snapped back. "What did ye expect?" His face was grey and ill-tempered; but his innocent eye, expressing relief, betrayed another reason. "That bunch got away. They be well out of sight now."

"What? Not the woman--the Surfaces?"

"Yes. They went before sun-up."

"Did they take young O'Connor?"

"Ay."

"But I promised I would send him home."

"'Twas more than worth your while," Peters growled. "The whelp'd only be back tomorrow in worse company."

Cabell was angry, wondering what the O'Connors would say about his unfulfilled promise, but that slipped quickly from a mind overshadowed by a thought--related to certain obscure and uneasy dreams which had kept him tossing on his palliasse--that he would not see another woman so young and fresh as Emma Surface for God alone knew how many long years, perhaps. A little burst of exasperation made him complain: "Wish you'd called me. You knew I wanted to speak to O'Connor."

A truth, the wise and aged Peters perceived, which concealed a truth.

Profounder self-deceptions puzzled Cabell and made him exclaim irritably, "Why the devil should I sleep late this one morning when I'm always up at the crack of dawn?"

"The day I was supposed to be spliced," Peters said, "I didn't wake up at all."

In the bar they found the drinkers cheering Herb Tutt, who was slowly breaking up the shanty's crockery, a piece at a time--crazy behaviour explained by the fact that he had ten pounds left on his cheque. Change he could not have, because coin was short in the wilds--only more cheques, and cheques meant booze to be consumed immediately. Money had no other meaning. But it was some satisfaction to smash ten pounds' worth of crockery.

At noon they left the shanty, glum and silent, Cabell, Peters, Peters's white horse--"Give 'ee thirty quid for it. Still owe 'ee ten, counting what I didn't drink," Peters told Fritz doggedly--Herb, and Herb's dog, a criminal-looking mongrel with hair coming off in patches, a shifty eye and a tail like a broom.

They spent three days finding the dray, a week getting wool across the river a bale at a time, in a canoe made of bark and tarpaulin, four more days rounding up the bullocks, swimming them over, and dragging the dray through the bed of the river at the end of a rope. Doing all this they swam the river nearly a hundred times and worked on the banks in mud up to their waists. The next ten miles of slimy river flats occupied them for sixteen days. They shifted the wool to the high ground six bales at a time, then drove back through the morass for the next load. After that five miles a day seemed like flying. Thirty-five days later, one hundred and fifty-one days after Cabell left the homestead, they arrived in Moreton Bay.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-five

THE MOB AT PAT DENNIS'S

 

Guilty curiosity frustrated a determination to steer clear of Pat Dennis's. His business with the agent, the Land Commissioner, and the storekeeper finished and the dray once more on the west road, he was congratulating himself on an incognito successfully preserved from the omnipresent spies of McGovern and Flanagan when a desire to know what these two old enemies were up to (they must have been plotting to destroy him for the last four years) became irresistible. He sent Peters and Herb on with the dray and rode back to the settlement.

Settlement was rapidly becoming inadequate to describe broad, well-made streets, two-storeyed hostelries, houses built of dressed timber and painted, shops that sold perfumes, pomades, stays and wedding-rings in a mysterious annex from the saddlery, horse medicine and barrelled rum department. A boat arrived fortnightly from Sydney with news of the great world, and there was a Moreton Bay Courier to mirror the affairs of the little world held in the claws of two bends of the river, but busy with the comings and goings of a vast hinterland.

Gone, for years now, the red coats and the canary jackets. A notice on the wall of the Colonial Stores to the effect that the latest composition of that distinguished and elevated authoress, Miss Maria Edgeworth, having been received hot from the press, perusal by members of the Moreton Bay Reading Circle would commence at eight p.m. sharp on the twenty-first instant at the commodious residence of Mrs Gribble, near the Colonial Stores, attested to the dawn of a new era of civilizing influences, which revealed themselves also in the offer of betrousered abos to recite the "Lorsprer" for a consideration. A gentleman who clipped horses and beards did a thriving trade, and a storekeeper had added a line of cravats and stiff collars to his stock of ironmongery.

Pat Dennis had kept himself abreast of the times by attaching a second storey, a private bar, a coffee-room and a name to his establishment. A sign announced the Royal Hotel, to which had been added the respectability of a licence. Other developments were a coat of paint and the importation of two or three fresh barrels of rum for alchemical transmutation into an infinite variety of phlegm-cutters, mountain dew, potheen, Scotch, three-star and genuine Napoleon, all of which the steady stream of squatters arriving with wool and departing with stores consumed in large quantities at an increased price and, disregarding fancy names, knew as "Pat's Chain Lightning". A metamorphosis of the same kind had taken place in Dennis himself; that is, he was known as a publican instead of a grog-seller, he smoked a cigar instead of a pipe, and he changed his shirt once a week. But he still had a sly, malicious eye.

Cabell might have measured a deep change in himself from the astonishment, admiration even, with which he gazed upon the transformed interior of the pub. As it was six years since he last saw real tables and chairs that could be moved, a billiard-table, or a papered wall, he might be pardoned an illusion of luxurious, metropolitan accommodation and the shyness which overwhelms the man from the bush when he finds himself suddenly among such things. That the wall was papered with pages torn from a volume of Tillotson's sermons was a detail lost in the general effect of gracious amenities. Also, Pat Dennis wore socks!

Cabell watched him from the end of the bar, but Dennis scented a stranger and drew near. They exchanged greetings and a few words about the weather, while Pat's busy little eyes probed the beard, the scar like a mask, and the withdrawn, doubtful stare in search of the key to a personality pigeonholed some time ago for future reference. Cabell would have been less surprised by this long hesitation if he had not been accustomed to think of himself as the same fresh-cheeked boy who had left England.

Suddenly Pat slapped the bar. "Glory, if it ain't Mr Cabell?"

"Yes," Cabell blurted out.

"Look like a grown-up brother to yeself," Dennis said. "And how's it been getting along with ye?"

Fresh from four years among honest men, Cabell was no match for Dennis. The friendly sparkle in those ferret eyes made him forget the depths of malice secreted there. "Oh, I'm getting along," he said modestly.

"Didn't I hear them say now ye was out on a fine place on the Warrego?" Dennis guessed. "How's it lookin' up?"

"So-so."

"Ye're on good country, then--if it's the Warrego."

"I'm not on the Warrego."

"Of course; ye'd be further north."

"Yes, further north."

Dennis saw that nothing was to be gained like this, so he shouted to the barman, "Hey, ye there! A pint of the best fizz in the house for the gintleman."

The barman, as he filled two glasses, gave Cabell a quizzical look and, catching his eye, nodded. "How do, Mr Cabell? Know me?"

"Can't say I do."

"Jimmy Coyle from up Murrumburra. Remember?"

Cabell placed the thin, dark face with the sardonic lines at the side of the mouth and the bitter smile.

He looked Cabell up and down insolently and grinned. "You can come round these parts safe now, Boss," he said. "The old Cove's smoked off Murrumburra."

"Safe?" Cabell said coldly.

"There was a hell of a stink that night you mizzled."

Cabell said nothing.

"McGovern said he could get you done for a crack," Coyle told him.

Dennis waved the barman away. "Go on! Get along with ye. This gint don't know ye."

Coyle winked. "He knows. I'm Yorkshire, too."

Cabell flushed up, but it was a great weight off his mind to know that McGovern was gone from the district. Perhaps from Australia itself, Pat Dennis added, for the owner of Murrumburra had turned up suddenly and discovered some deficiencies in the stock and McGovern had cleared out overnight. Some said he had joined the rush to the Californian goldfields. "It's ten to one that's the stone end of him," Dennis added, "for if anything goes wrong on the Sacramento the first thing the mob does is look for an Australian and hang him."

He chattered on, telling of a death here, a failure there, a murder by blacks, of Peppiott--and here his eyes gleamed with particular amiability--who had thrown himself in the river a few days after Cabell left, of Deaf Mickey, who had married an old woman who used to be in the female factory at Hamilton but had since exchanged her for a horse and cart and was now doing well for himself.

"What became of that chap Flanagan?" Cabell asked vaguely.

Dennis chuckled. "That Flanagan! Ha, ha! There's a poor gazook. Married Mrs Duffy--her that used to bring in her old man to be flogged. He died after his last red back, the poor sod, and Flanagan ups and splices her, thinkin' to get away with them ten thousand sheep she had. Ha, ha, ha!"

"He's still about the place, then?"

"Why, sure. He as goods as lives here."

"Here?"

"Ye see, 'twasn't him got her cattle but her got his. And she was that used to havin' the whip-hand that the poor boy was soon thinkin' Duffy had the best end of the stick. She had to hand him over to Gilegan to flog, whereas," Dennis lowered his voice, "it's common knowledge she chases him round the house with her stockwhip whenever he shows his nose there."

Cabell grinned. "I suppose he's drinking himself to death."

"Not a bit of it. He's in for politics."

"Politics?"

"Sure. Ain't ye heard how we're after havin' a colony of our own, wid a governor and council. Some say tomorrow we'll be sendin' our members to a parliament like the big bugs in the Old Country."

"What's Flanagan got to do with it?"

"Why, he's one of the coves. Does all the talkin'."

"It won't come to anything," Cabell said, to counter a jealous thought that Flanagan, once little better off than himself, was becoming a great man in the country.

"Don't ye think so now?" Dennis said, in his humblest, most obsequious voice. "'Tis something to hear a real educated man say that."

"The folk in England have got their heads about them and wouldn't listen to such nonsense."

"And now I hear ye say it like that, sure I see they wouldn't at all."

"A parliament!" Cabell grunted. "Pooh. They'll be setting themselves up for gentlemen next."

"So they will, too, yer Honour. It's an open secret Flanagan's missus is only lettin' him waste his rhino in the certain chance of bein' me lady if it comes off. If ye seen him the way he is now, dressed up to the nines, ye'd think he'd kissed the Queen's toe already."

"Rubbish!"

"Sure, it's galling enough to me, yer Honour, that hasn't the worth in me whole carcass of the blood that's in yer Honour's little finger," Dennis said slyly.

"Huh."

"And when I see him up there, as he is this minute, jawing all the gentry and the likes of Mr Carney and Mr Curry and--"

"Up where?"

"Up in the coffee-room. He's getting up a round-robin for the Queen, you see. . . . But maybe yer Honour'd like to see for yeself?"

"No, no. I've got no time to waste."

"Wouldn't take half a minute just to peep round the door. Ye'd get a laugh, if nothing else."

"No, no--who did you say was there?"

"A crowd big enough to hide yeself in if yer Honour was ten times less changed."

A treacly radiance of affability round Dennis's mouth failed to warn Cabell. Curiosity got the better of him. "I admit I'd like to see the nonsense with my own eyes. That's a fact."

Dennis hastened to push a chair under his legs. "Just sit on that now," he said, "till I make sure the galoot's still there and if it's worth yer Honour's while stepping up." Whereupon he flew up the stairs and announced to Flanagan that the long-missing Cabell was at this moment drinking in the bar.

"Whew!" said Carney. "So he come back. It's a pity Bob McGovern didn't wait a bit longer."

"Not a word of that," Flanagan told him. "Just let's have a look at the darling to see if he's changed at all."

"Not a bit since the day he opened his dirty trap in the bar," Dennis said.

So when Cabell entered the room a few minutes later he found himself expected. Half a dozen hostile faces, remembered as habitués of Dennis's shanty when he was a despairing limejuicer on Murrumburra--"that mob at Pat Dennis's"--gave him a derogatory inspection as he came in. He stopped in angry embarrassment and looked around. That most of the crowd, made up of squatters and townspeople come to talk of politics, were unknown to him and paid him no attention, did not exempt them from a curse that the sky would fall and blast the whole assembly on the spot. They belonged to "that mob"--the symbol in which he comprehended all the ruthless, crude, antagonistic individualism of the time. He envied it, he feared it. He had repudiated it, sworn to hang himself rather than become like it, yet every day the forces of the life he lived remoulded him secretly and irresistibly to the same pattern. Already few observable differences distinguished him from these thin-lipped, skinny, narrow-eyed, lined faces.

He was not, perhaps, as blind to this as he tried to be. Mirrors could not always be avoided; and more eloquent even than mirrors was the genuine astonishment of Flanagan as he came forward, exclaiming, "Cabell, by the Holy! I wouldn't have known ye, man." Then he seized Cabell's hand and wrung it heartily. "Well, it warms me heart to see ye again."

A new Flanagan, too--dressed up to the nines, as Dennis had said, with gold watch-chain and the suave veneer of a man even now practised in the art of democratic politics.

"Canvassing for votes already," Cabell thought, giving himself over to Flanagan's exuberant handshaking after a glimpse of Dennis's portly figure blocking the gangway had frustrated a flurried idea of retreat.

"This is Mr Cabell, gentlemen," Flanagan went on, without waiting for him to speak. "His name's worth a hundred on the bottom of our bit of paper. Lord Felsie that was with Peel in 'forty-three is his own cousin." And he shook Cabell's hand again and hastened to pour him a drink.

But behind this display of affability Cabell detected a hard and calculating look in the Irishman's eye. "He's thinking of that roan stallion still," Cabell thought, and himself began to think of it with all the resentment a man has towards one he has injured.

"Drink up," Flanagan urged. "Then take a look at this, me boy. We want your monniker here." He had unrolled a stiff paper, scrawled over with signatures in all manner of hands, formed and illiterate. "We're asking after the charter of our liberties, no more, no less."

"Hear! Hear!" someone said. "No more of those damned Sydney tyrants."

"Nor them damn English tyrants neither," added Carney, with a sour eye on Cabell.

"Well," said Flanagan, a cautious politician, "I'm not saying a word against the English as such. Let them rule in England and long live the Queen. But we didn't come out here to hew and carry and be told what's what by some new-chum dude in Whitehall that doesn't know B from a bull's foot in the matter of local conditions."

"That's right," Carney backed him up. "We're our own masters here." He also partook of the spirit of the times, thanks to the horse-clipper and the ironmonger. Under those socks, Cabell reflected, the mark of the irons would still be visible. "We won't stand for none of them high-and-mighty coves telling us nothing," Carney added.

"Quite," Flanagan agreed.

He was getting paunchy already, Cabell's hypercritical eye noted. And there was a harassed look about him, as one who momently expects a whack on the head from behind. This compensated Cabell slightly for the deference the substantial-looking squatters paid to him.

"Self-government," Flanagan continued. "That's our aim. And a boundary of our own. The sooner they know that in London the better."

"Three cheers for the Republic of Americky," Carney said.

"That Lord Whatsisname," somebody remarked, stating the perennial grievance of the settler, "him what's always saying the Crown lands oughtna be sold. What's he know? He hasn't got the right."

"That's so," said one of the squatters. "If he'd had to open up my bit of country and fight for every inch of it with blacks and bushfires, he'd change his ideas mighty quick."

"Or if he'd brought a load of wool where I came last month."

"These limejuicers--they know nothing. They can't graft, they can't ride. If they stood in the sun for five minutes it'd kill them. All they're good for is to sit on their backsides in London and tell us what to do."

"All them lords," Carney said. "Like females, if you ask me."

To which there was a general assent.

There was an undernote of bitterness and contempt in all this. It was the sort of feeling that makes family quarrels and civil wars so much more violent than quarrels with strangers. In old hands like Carney there was some good reason for bitterness no doubt. But there were few emancipists or exiled Irish rioters or blackbirded migrants here. Many of "that mob" were men from the very same class as Cabell himself. Yet in some indefinable way they were no longer Englishmen. Coarser, tougher, more confident, and like all men who have become sure of themselves through their own work and hardship, narrow in outlook, impatient of anything outside their horizons, and self-opinionated. The development in process with Cabell had completed itself with most of them. They had grown a hard outer skin, like a husk. Through this it was impossible to perceive what a man's antecedents and class had been. A strange, conglomerate likeness extended even to the pitch of their voices and their accents, in which all trace of former refinement was lost. They talked in the flash cant of the jailyard.

Seeing him silent while they committed themselves, the squatters left off talking and stared at him suspiciously. All men were suspect in a country where the spirit of the time was every man for himself. Not that they were talking any kind of treason. The cause of a sudden massing together against the stranger, which Cabell felt in a wave of antipathy directed at him from twenty pairs of narrowed eyes, was a subtle and, to the men themselves, inexplicable reaction against one not yet, they felt, completely assimilated to their type. Each of them had come here years before with illusions, hopes and standards like Cabell's and had shed them, reluctantly, unconsciously, as Cabell was doing, under the heels of a hard life. The result was a certain prickly feeling of moral inferiority and shame before one in whom the process was not yet completed, whose silence was criticism unspoken.

Cabell hardened against them, against "that mob", for the very reason, perhaps, that he felt less strange among them than before, that he found himself agreeing despite himself with much of what they were saying. How could he avoid it? Their grievances came of economic necessities that pressed upon him, too. They wanted security of tenure in their lands, a government removed from the influence of wealthy interests at home and in the South, to which, quaintly, it was left to Carney to add the most serious complaint of all, that Sydney and England had robbed them of cheap labour by stopping the transportation of convicts. With all of which, as a squatter, Cabell was bound to agree. Yet it galled him to do so, as though he were selling himself to the cause of men he loathed from the bottom of his heart--with all the strength of the fascination his fantasies of England still exerted upon him.

When Flanagan pushed the petition across to him and said "Will ye sign there, me boy?" and Cabell pushed it aside and answered "Certainly not!" the gesture was not begotten entirely of his instinctive antagonism to men in a crowd, jealousy of Flanagan's rise in the country, the curiously involved emotions created by the thought that Flanagan knew he had stolen the roan stallion and was accusing him. An uprush of complex moral indignation was principally the frenzied alarm of the fantasist who feels himself slipping farther and farther away from his dreamworld.

"Ye won't? Did ye say that?" Flanagan exclaimed. "Ye're not telling me ye're against us?" There was a twinkle in his hard, grey, but not unpleasant eyes. What obscure end he expected to serve by pushing Cabell into a corner with such a question it would be difficult to say, for his malice was of an altogether different quality from Dennis's, more concealed and patient. Perhaps he foresaw the day when he would pay himself back a thousand times for the roan stallion, and sought now to cut the ground of sympathy from under Cabell's feet by showing him up and planting an aversion in these stubborn, narrow minds. Or perhaps he was just an astute politician, banking on his knowledge of Cabell's diehard conservatism to give him the cue for a telling flourish. Anyway, he had an air of slightly astonished and offended friendliness as he repeated, "Why, ye wouldn't be turning against the boys, would ye, Cabell?"

Cabell looked at them coldly. "I consider everything said here to be an affront to me," he said in a forced, lofty, stilted voice, "and to anyone who hasn't let themselves be poisoned by the jail-yard democracy of the country."

They stared.

"Don't mean yeh'll take orders from them noo-chums in Lunnon?" Carney demanded.

"If it comes to taking orders," Cabell said, "I prefer to take them from gentlemen."

Carney pushed out his chin. "Aren't we as good as you?"

"Durned sight better!" said the man who had spoken about "Lord Whatsisname," eyeing Cabell's working clothes and deciding that he could not be prospering too well.

"Better or worse," Cabell said, "I'm an Englishman and proud of it. When I leave here it will be without regrets."

Flanagan laughed. "There, and we won't spill no tears neither, honey."

"Hear! Hear!"

A burst of laughter drowned Cabell's stammering reply. He turned and hurried out past Pat Dennis, who joined a commiserating gesture to a leer of venomous satisfaction.

Outside the breeze from the river cooled his head. Suddenly he felt depressed, frustrated, angry with himself, as when he had argued with Gursey about the future of the valley. In the next moment he raised his hand and felt the thick wad of letters in his pocket--two years of mail from England.

 

The Gorse is blooming on Goathorn. From Corfe to Studland is one yellow flame. . . . The mackerel shoals are coming in. . . . Old Farmer Treven dreamt last week that you came riding over the Downs from Weymouth. Oh, brother, will that ever be?

 

"Damn them, anyway," he muttered over his shoulder at the hotel. "I meant what I said, anyway," and went off, unconsciously clutching the letters to his heart, which they seemed to warm and stir.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-six

CABELL CROSSES HIS FINGERS

 

Within two months Cabell was back at the homestead with Peters and Herb Tutt and three hands he had taken on at Pyke's Crossing on the way up.

Another full season of rain had refreshed the valley.

"Thought we'd seen the last of you," Gursey said, his face betraying relief from long anxiety. "What happened?"

"Lost myself in a flood," Cabell explained. "That's all."

"Nothing happened in Moreton Bay?"

"Nothing."

Gursey drew him aside. "Did you see him?"

"McGovern? Don't torment yourself so, man. He's gone off to America."

"Who told you?"

"I saw Coyle, who used to--"

"Coyle? He told you? It's a lie then--a trap. Did he ask about me? You didn't tell him where we are?"

Cabell tried to reassure him. "I told you once, they think you're dead. As for knowing where we are, the Commissioner's the only one who knows that and he's not likely to tell."

Gursey was not convinced. "McGovern's lying low, waiting. One day he'll come back." He was all on edge again and kept looking at the new men nervously. "Who's this lot?"

Cabell told him their names.

"I don't like the look of them."

Cabell laughed. It was so good to be back that all these terrors seemed remote and foolish. The journey over, his first wool on its way to market, the first soil of pioneering turned, his flocks increasing, he had a satisfying sense of construction begun at last. "Ah, there's nothing to worry about Joe," he said, laying his hand on Gursey's shoulder. "McGovern's too lazy to come all this way out."

"You don't know him," Gursey said. "He's greedy, too. If he heard some day you were raking in money he'd come quick enough."

"Money?"

"He'd try to blackmail you."

Cabell took his hand away and frowned. "I'd see him damned first."

Gursey fired up. "You mean you'd see me hanged first!"

Cabell turned to go.

Gursey grabbed him by the arm. "I did see a man yesterday."

"A man? Where?"

"Over behind the ridge."

"Yes? What sort of a man?"

"Big. With a ginger beard. My guts came into my mouth."

"Oh, McFarlane!" Cabell laughed again. "He won't harm you."

"Who's McFarlane?"

"A Scotchman I met on the road. I told him he'd find good country up here."

"You sent him? You must be balmy."

"You don't think we'll be left alone here for ever, do you?" Cabell said impatiently. "Anyway, he'll be useful at shearing."

"Ach!" Gursey cried. "I might have known you'd think of your damned sheep first."

Cabell went off to help unload the stores--cases of tea, casks of black sugar, kegs of nails and salt, sacks of flour and meal, a cask of rum and a barrel of powder, blocks of tobacco, an anvil, potatoes, a case of Holloway's ointment and pills, ten gallons of molasses, a box of clay pipes, new shirts, breeches, coats and boots, a picture in a frame of a landscape covered with snow, trees weighed down with it.

He hung the picture up on the wall of the humpy and the men came and gazed wonderingly.

Gursey scowled and turned away from it.

When the men had gone Cabell asked, "What's wrong? Don't you like the picture?"

"Huh! What's it supposed to be?"

"'England in Wintertime', it's called."

"What's that bird?"

"A robin, I suppose."

"Robin? Huh! Hasn't got a tail like that. Shorter. Hasn't got that sort of beak, neither."

"That's right. I didn't notice. But fancy you remembering what a robin's like!"

"Don't remember much about England," Gursey muttered. "That's a fact. Don't want to, either." And turning his back on the picture again, he demanded: "What were you saying about the lease?"

"I took up a hundred and fifty square miles," Cabell told him. "Ten miles on each side of the river, back to the ridge on this side and back to the scrub over there."

"That's room enough. You could carry forty thousand sheep and two thousand cattle on it," Gursey said.

"Ample room for the next seven years."

"And then?"

Cabell gestured. He did not say what he was thinking--that in seven years he would be a rich man and free.

"You'll sell out and leave me to look out for myself, eh?" Gursey said.

Cabell held his tongue.

"Sometimes I half wish McGovern would come," Gursey said with a smile.

But later, when they were sitting together after a meal, his tone changed. "What was it like in the settlement?"

"It's changing, getting bigger--like a town."

"Are there many people?"

"Oh, crowds of people. Dennis has got tables and chairs you can move about in his pub. One shop has got a glass window ten, twelve times as big as an ordinary window."

"I'd like to see that!"

"There's a notice 'Mind the window. There's glass in it'."

"They want to be careful, all that glass."

"It's like a mirror. The women look at themselves as they go past."

"Women, too?"

"Of course. A lot of women live there now."

"Hmn. Did you talk to any?"

"I talked to one, yes."

"Was she young?"

"Not very old."

"I haven't seen a woman for seven years," Gursey said, "not since I worked at Duffy's. The missus used to treat us well, but she was hard on her old man."

"He's dead now. Flanagan married her."

"No!"

"Mickey Moran's got a wife, too."

"What, Deaf Mickey! Fancy him with a woman." After a long pause Gursey stopped chuckling and said in a gloomy, resentful tone: "Wonder you didn't bring back a woman, too."

Cabell flushed.

"Ha, ha! Tell us about it. Go on, tell us."

"There's nothing at all," Cabell grumbled.

Gursey laughed again. "You've been with a woman. Don't deny it. That's what kept you. Isn't it, now?"

"No."

Gursey let go his hand, which he had seized in his excitement. "I was with a woman once," he said. "Only once. It was at Bathurst. She worked in the house. I used to see her feeding the chickens. I used to watch her bending over the feed-bucket. One day I cheeked the boss and he ironed me up in the woolshed. She came down in the night. She was as big as the side of a house, but she had a soft kind of skin on her back. Next day they took me in to Bathurst and sent me to the mines. So I never seen her no more."

"Women all have very soft skins," Cabell said.

"That was ten years ago," Gursey said thoughtfully after a long pause.

Next morning Sambo and Bill Penberthy came to get their cheques, had a rum and departed for their booze-up.

Gursey watched them ride out of sight.

"You could go as far as Pyke's Crossing," Cabell suggested compassionately.

Gursey smiled. "You can't trick me like that," he said. "Oh, no!" He went back to his work and became silent and gloomy again.

Cabell began stocktaking, redrafting his sheep and preparing for the lambing-down. He had two thousand ewes and nearly a thousand wethers now. Of the ewes he had brought from Moreton Bay only three hundred remained. They were past their prime and their wool deteriorating, so he decided to kill them for the skins, since it would not pay to drove them to the nearest boiling-down works, four hundred miles away, for sixpence a head. He set aside a small flock for meat and slaughtered the rest. A big bonfire consumed two hundred carcasses. It was like turning to a clean page. It lightened his mind.

Now, he felt, he was really starting. He took stock of his position: Say that his flock doubled every two years. Averaging his wool at ninepence a pound and his yield at three pounds to the sheep, he could count on an income rising from about four hundred pounds, not including cattle sent to the boilers. Wages were cheap. Five hands cost him less than a hundred pounds a year. In seven years he reckoned on a fortune of ten thousand pounds, apart from the value of the run, if all went well--if--if--if! . . . Hastily he crossed his fingers and pushed back a treacherous, optimistic thought that all was sure to go well.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-seven

AND INVITES A THUNDERBOLT

 

He was content. A dangerous condition, which invites thunderbolts. Three days later one dropped on him. Returning towards sundown from a boundary-marking expedition along the ridge, he found McFarlane awaiting him in the yard.

"Guid day to ye," McFarlane greeted him, as though they had met every day of their lives in a crowded street.

Cabell returned the greeting cheerfully. "I was going to pay you a call as soon as I got things a bit straight here," he said.

McFarlane shook his head gloomily. "Dinna fash yesel' aboot that, mon," he discouraged. "I hinna time for gossip."

"Come," Cabell laughed, "a neighbourly word's no waste of time. You'll get few enough out here."

"Didna come away oot the wilderness for to talk," McFarlane grumbled, following Cabell round the yard while he rubbed his horse down with a handful of grass and put the saddle away. Then, bethinking himself that he had come to ask a favour, he made an effort to be a little more friendly and added: "That's no sayin' I'll turn the dogs on ye, mind. But"--he grimaced disparagingly--"there's naethin' to tempt a man wi' your taste. A bit weevily parritch and a drop o' post and rails ye wouldna enjoy. Nae, it's a puir place."

"I've been marking boundaries," Cabell told him. "We rub shoulders up on the hills. I noticed your marks."

McFarlane was suspicious at once. "What's that? Ye've no been interferin' wi'em?"

"Certainly not. I just noticed that you seem to have looked up the poorest land in the valley."

A look of deep cunning overspread the Scotchman's red, freckled face. "It's nae a siller mine, I maun grant ye. And sae I winna hae to pay a siller mine's feu for the puir stuff. If there wasna sic a wheen of brazen-faced rogues in the Administration I wouldna be askit for a penny-bit."

Cabell washed his hands and face at the waterbutt, wiped them on the dirty piece of an old shirt which he had become accustomed to accept as a towel, and led the Scotchman into the humpy. Having made tea, he removed the fly-cover from a corner of salt beef and invited the Scotchman to sit down and eat.

But McFarlane shook his head. "I maun be makin' tracks. I didna come for idle hospeetality."

Cabell added a plate of cold potatoes, a damper, a flask of rum and a bottle of pickles to the meal. "Come along, now," he insisted, "or you'll offend me."

McFarlane glanced at the rum. "Weel, if ye'd be offendit. . . . Weel. . . ." He took off his hat and sat down. "Weel, just a wee bite. But mind ye," he warned, "I can offer ye nowt but parritch and a wee skinny sliver o' meat in return."

When the meal was over and McFarlane's pipe was full of Cabell's tobacco and he had mumbled and scratched his head for some time, he came to the point.

"Ye'll mind them two bits o' nags I was tellin' ye aboot."

"The filly and the packhorse you lifted at the shanty?"

"Lifted!" McFarlane made a long face. "Nay, nay, mon. Keep a clip o' your tongue. I didna lift naethin'."

"Which you exchanged, then."

"Nay," McFarlane insisted. "What I come by."

"What about them?"

"Weel. . . ." McFarlane plucked the long red hairs that grew from his nose. "Ye wouldna like to hae them runnin' wi' your horses, I suppose."

"You want them put in foal?"

"Och! Did I no say to mesel' that'd be your first thocht," McFarlane exclaimed in disgust, slapping his knee. "And noo ye'll be askin' some fancy price for what comes i' the richt and proper course o' Nature. And that wasna my purpose ava." This was only partly true, but it was plain he had some other purpose up his sleeve, for he added: "But if ye're feared your stallion'll be for wastin' a wee bit love--and I winna pay ye for it, mind--then ye could keep them at opposite ends o' the run."

"But you've got plenty of room over there."

McFarlane shook his head in sad meditation upon the inhumanity of his fellows. "I didna think ye were sic a man, Cabell, thinkin' to spare a mouthfu' o' grass frae a puir nag."

"Rubbish, man. But are you trying to save grass?"

"Nay, it isna that," McFarlane told him, though his tone showed that this was not a point altogether overlooked. Then his brows wrinkled and he grew angry. "Winna ye mind your ain business?" he muttered. "It's no ony affair o' yours."

"Very well. Run your own horses."

McFarlane grumbled to himself, pushed out his lower lip, tugged at his nose, then said, "Weel, I wouldna say that, either. It's a bad business for us a'."

"Yes? What is?"

He leant across the table. "Ye'll mind that skunk wi' the cut on his hand I slipped ye the word aboot? Did ye see him?"

"At the shanty? Yes," Cabell said, with an unaccountable sudden quickening of his heart.

"And the maid--or woman, mair richtly speakin'?"

"Yes."

"And the young rogue wi' the laugh?"

"Yes, yes. What about them?"

McFarlane paused, then whispered, raising his eyebrows "They're here."

"Here?"

"Aye. Doon the burn." Seeing Cabell's look of amazement, almost of consternation, he nodded agreement. "A' honest men maun arm theirsel' and stick thegither."

"But I haven't seen any sign of them?"

"Ye wouldna, nay. They come eastwise frae the coast."

"When?"

"Roond noon the day the whale damn De'ils tribe o' them went by. Drivin' a handfu' o' coos and three or four hunder horses. They're campit just ower ahint the swamp near the ranges."

"You're sure the woman's there?" Cabell asked anxiously.

Something in his voice made McFarlane glance up. "She's the Old Toaster's bitch, that," he said, shaking his head.

"Yes, yes. But how do you know it was them?"

"Didna I hear him cursin' at her and sayin' he wasna goin' a foot deeper into the wilderness? And her cursin' back ten to his one, in a most ungodly fashion?" He shuddered. "I wouldna touch her wi' a ten-foot pitchfork."

Cabell frowned. "Come, you don't know the woman."

"Nay, I didna seek to enlarge my knowledge after what I seen."

"Well, what did you see?"

McFarlane shuddered again. "Ane nicht i' that De'il's kitchen at Pyke's Crossing the young'un, her brother, gets lushy along wi' the ither rascal. They begin to quarrel, ye ken. All of a sudden she runs into the room, half nakit, wi' her een on fire like the hellicat queen she is. She screams like a loon and lashes the big'un ower the face wi' a whip she has, till the puir brute's cheek (I wouldna gi'e him legbail, just the same) was a' ower bluid. But he doesna speak a word or move an eyelash, till a' at yince she fa's doon i' a faint. He picks her up like a cheeld then and carries her oot. The same nicht I made tracks wi' my twa nags. Ye ken, I couldna remain under the same roof after that."

Cabell became thoughtful. When some minutes had passed in silence the Scotchman said "Sae when I seen them today I minded thae nags and come here to ask ye the favour o' puttin' them oot o' sicht for me. They wouldna think o' lookin' roond here. Whereas, if they see me. . . ."

Cabell roused himself. "They'd cut your throat," he suggested, laughing to drive away uneasy thoughts of his own.

McFarlane's long face which seemed to be made of rubber, stretched three inches longer. "That I wouldna care sae much aboot," he said, and it was the truth Cabell saw, thinking of his own fears, which were not concerned with physical violence exactly.

"All right, bring the horses," he agreed, and went out to let the sliprails down for McFarlane to ride off. For a long time he stood there, looking at the stars above the ranges and thinking of the woman Emma.

At breakfast he told Gursey and Peters that McFarlane wanted to run his mares with the stallion and nothing more, and after breakfast found an excuse to ride round the marsh, known now as Snakey Hollow because of the experience he and Sambo had had there. But, though he found marks of a big horse and cattle camp and signs that during the last few hours it had moved away north-westwards along the foot of the ranges, the intruders were well out of sight.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-eight

THE MEETING

 

But he found them. That was to be expected. As long as he did not know where they were he was restless, thinking of horse-thieves loitering about his property. Less definitely, but more restlessly, he thought about the woman, setting her up as a figure apart from the other two. This also was natural. To the aura of mystery the stories of Peters and McFarlane spun around her was added the mystery of her womanness and his conception of woman. A continually surprising fact that near by, perhaps within a few days' ride, there was a woman. He remembered clearly her strained face, the tight mouth, the filmed eyes, a mole under the right ear, her sharp chin. He remembered, too, what he had not consciously noticed in the bar at Pyke's Crossing, the shape of her frail but full-breasted body outlined under the poncho.

One day after the lambing he made a long-deferred exploration beyond the ranges to the north an excuse for a search. At sundown he saw a feather of blue smoke rising out of the scrub to the west. He rode near enough to see evidences of vigorous pioneering in the shape of a big bark humpy, a yard for horses, a cow-bail and stacks of heavy building timber. The sound of an axe came down with the wind. They were here to stay.

As the sun tipped the trees she came to the door of the shanty and cooeed. The sad intonation of that bushman's call in her high, firm, woman's voice, the glimpse of her slight figure in a blue dress billowing out round her in the wind, vitalized his image of her. For the moment, however, he was occupied with thoughts of Jem and Dirk, who came from the scrub and plodded side by side towards the house. A dangerous neighbour to have, this Jem. What could a woman like that be doing with him about the place?

The shutter of the night fell quickly, but he stayed some time watching the gutter of pale light at window and door. Imagine how different life must be in this bush with a woman. A new picture formed of cleanliness, comfort, crudities magicked away.

He thought he would ask Peters more about her when he got back, but the sight of McFarlane leaving the homestead as he came over the hills put him into a bad humour for some reason. He hung about the scrub to avoid the Scotchman, and when he got in told them nothing, except that he had seen the roan stallion covering one of McFarlane's mares.

Gursey and Peters glanced at each other. Gursey was even a little more sullen than usual and Peters looked worried.

Twice before the month was out Cabell disappeared again. Each time he came back he looked with deeper disgust at the humpy, its rutted floor covered with the mess of dogs, men's spittle, scraps of food. These were things he had hardly noticed for a long time. Now he even complained about the greasy rag they used for a towel. He had not seemed to mind it before.

The long summer dragged on and on. For weeks a dry wind blew from the north-west, like an endless flock of firebirds passing over. The green grass withered away. The men's nails split back to the quick. When they stroked their beards the hair crackled like paper. They could not sweat.

Still, it was a fat year. When Cabell first came to the valley he had planted corn down by the river. There must have been some thistle-seeds in the grain he brought with him. The thistle spread year by year--a patch here, a patch there--till this year it covered the whole valley. In places it was more than ten feet high, obliterated all tracks and stifled even a man on horseback with a sense of diminished horizons. Everyone suffered from the feeling of being hedged in. Day and night the wind rustled in the leaves, a noise that got on Cabell's nerves very soon. He was always expecting more blacks to come creeping on him, and God knows what else.

A plague of rats came out of the north. They burrowed into the store, consumed meal and flour, and when he built platforms five feet high to keep the bags from them, leapt up and gnawed cunning holes so that the flour ran out on to the ground below. He wrapped the bags up in tarpaulins and the rats began to eat saddles and boots. Candles disappeared and slush lamps were empty in the morning. He awakened and found them struggling and squeaking under his blankets, hairy, heavy, hot rats. He could hear them running about the floor, snarling and biting each other. The men slept in their boots, with their hats on. They said the rats would soon get ravenous and begin to eat their hair and toenails.

This was the year 1850, the first great historic fat year at Cabell's Reach. The lambing gave an increase of one hundred and twenty per cent. All living things multiplied. Even the ants came in hordes greater than ever. Up dozens of beaten tracks they toiled over the slope to the barrels of molasses-soaked sugar in the store. The strong, sickly smell of them was on every mouthful of food. There was the little black ant that immolated itself in millions to reach a grain of food in the cracks of the table-top, flying ants, the fierce bull-ant which secreted itself in the toes of boots, in coats, and bit with a pair of red-hot pincers. These things poured into the homestead in milliards, in unstemable armies.

There was a plague of snakes at the same time. To go about on foot in the thistle was dangerous. The black yellow-bellied snake and the more poisonous brown one were everywhere. As he lay awake at night Cabell could hear them hissing in the darkness. Sometimes several would hiss together, like leaves shaken in the breeze. He pulled the blankets tighter over his head. The darkness seemed to be full of snakes. This went on night after night till he could bear it no longer. An assault on the debris piled about the humpy discovered a nest of snakes under some sheepskins a few inches from the head of his bunk. But there were ever more and more snakes--curled asleep on the middle of the floor when he came home, twisted among the harness in the storeroom bloated from a feed of rats, rustling away from under his feet in the long grass, even in his blankets. He was afraid to touch anything, to take a step in the darkness.

The thousand and one petty annoyances of life in the bush which, exaggerated by a good season, he became conscious of again. Dingoes in stronger force. Eagles carrying off his lambs. Every mug of water wriggled with the tadpoles of mosquitoes. Venomous black centipedes bred in the shingles of the roof and dropped on his bunk at night, into his clothes, into his food. Flies. . . . Andy, one of the shepherds, fell asleep after a drop too much rum and a blowfly got at his ear. Cabell syringed it with some virulent sheep mixture for three days, saved his life probably, but burned out his hearing.

One morning Cabell rose with a dull pain in his jaw. At the first mouthful of hot tea he gasped aloud and clutched at the side of his face.

"Aha!" Gursey said. "Toothache."

"It's nothing," he countered quickly, and hastened to pour himself a rum, but the sticky, sweet liquor only made the pain worse.

Gursey brought a pair of pliers from the store. "Open your gob and I'll yank it out for you."

"Go to the devil!" Cabell answered, and snatched up his hat.

In the doorway Gursey grinned, wider than was necessary, to display his gapped gums. "You'll have 'em all out soon like the rest of us," he said with satisfaction.

Cabell went down to the sheep pens, where the lambs were yarded for marking. Ghastly work. The soft cods had to be torn from the rams, the tails docked, the ears marked, ewes on the left, wethers on the right.

For two hundred yards round the pens the trampling feet of the sheep had worn all the grass away. The hot winds sucked up gusts of stinging dust. It filled the men's eyes and gritted between their teeth.

Gursey lifted the lambs and pushed them along the platform to Cabell, holding their hind legs apart while Cabell split the bag with his knife, squeezed out the cods, then drew the tendons with his teeth. No one else had teeth good enough. Then he docked the tail and blood spurted over them from the stump. Peters took the lamb and staunched the wounds with tar, marked the ears, and dropped the feebly bleating animal into the next pen. Soon they were covered in blood. The heat beat down, the flies buzzed round them, crawled over Cabell's tightly set lips. His mouth was slimy and acrid-tasting, his face stiff with dried blood. And all the time needles of throbbing agony thrust up into his temple. Worse than pain was the thought of himself with his fine white teeth gone, like these others.

Gursey mocked him. "You won't be doing this much longer, either. Once the rot sets in nothing'll save them."

After three days of stubborn agony he gave in. He went away by himself, hiding the big pliers under his shirt. For ten minutes he wrestled with the fiery molar, splintering his jaw and half choking himself with his blood. When he could bring himself to examine his teeth in the mirror he saw that, sure enough, they were no longer white but yellow, with dark lines under the gums. Some were loose. Yes, they were going. It was the sign and symbol of the decay that was eating away the life he guarded inside him, as the white-ants ate away the great gum-trees, though they flowered till they fell. Hadn't his father and mother kept their teeth till twice his age?

And still another seven years. Now, looking back on the seven years that had gone, what an immensity of time this was! Seven more years of heat, dust, rats, ants, mud, drought and lamb-marking.

Seven more years to endure the eternal, unconquerable stupidity of sheep. How he hated them! Resigned, fatalistic, always ready to lie down and die, always being lost, bogged, picked to death by crows, gutted by dingoes, only kept on their feet by the constant, exhausting expenditure of his will. Pale from the operation in the scrub, he came back to the job of driving a mob to the yards for crutching--the cutting away of wool from the rump to save the animals from being blown by flies. As usual, it was a struggle to get them through the gate. They stood stock still and stared into the yard, bleating timidly, while he danced about in the dust with wild falsetto shrieks; the side of his face was swollen out as big as an apple and bands of pain stiffened the jaw. As usual, he had to seize the leaders and carry them into the pens--sixty pounds apiece--and, of course, they ran out again as soon as he turned his back, and the flock scattered. He brought them up once more, once more shrieked with his cracked, sore voice, once more staggered into the pen with the leaders one by one, the hot panting bodies clutched to his, the sunlight pressing on his shoulders like a sheet of hot metal. The leaders started to escape a second time. He met one in the gateway and punched at it blindly--a blow straight between the eyes. It sagged down, scrambled to its forefeet in the dust, to rise again, then rolled over with a little bleat, its quick, pitiable breath expiring, jerked convulsively--dead. He rubbed his bruised fist in his hand and suffered a revulsion as he gazed at its upturned, helpless eyes. He was ashamed and hid the body under the woolshed, felt uneasy all that day and the next, wondering if anybody had seen. The jangle of his nerves softened into self-pity.

He harboured resentment against Gursey, who would not let him talk in the hour between supper and turning in. He wanted the small comfort of reciting all these woes aloud, but every evening Gursey got up from the table and went down to Peters in the men's hut. He found that most of all he missed Gursey's passionate upflarings of rage, prophesying scornfully his return to England as a rich man. He could have drawn a lot of consolation from this. But Gursey withheld himself, brooding with Peters over a dark secret.

Thrown back on himself, he sought relief in his daydreams, but whatever fantasy he manufactured turned into a girl in a dripping wet dress, and sooner or later they were together in a dark shed and he was running his hand over the soft skin of her back. "Beastly," he thought, pushing the image aside, and called up the ever-vivid memory of his mother to protect him from it, but imperceptibly the darkness fell, the soft flesh grew up under his hand. He ground his forehead against the frame of the bunk till his eyes smarted. Then he fell asleep and dreamt again.

He disappeared for the fourth time. The evening he returned, dark and silent, Gursey said, "McFarlane was here."

Cabell turned his eyes away. "Yes?"

"Wants us to run his sheep for a while. He's going down to Moreton Bay to meet his old woman on the boat."

"He's bringing a woman?"

"Yes, why not?"

Cabell frowned. Suddenly he burst out, "The man must be a monster. The man who brings a woman into this loneliness and filth and disorder ought to be horsewhipped." He spoke angrily, yet it was easy to see that he was not thinking of McFarlane, but of something quite different altogether.

Gursey watched narrowly, as he soaked lumps of cinder-crusted damper in his gravy and carried them blindly to his mouth.

Cabell seemed to have been waiting for just such an opportunity to unburden himself. The words poured out. He was quite pale, as if enraged, with a lofty, chivalrous indignation, though a moment before he had been eating in deep if rather restless silence. "Whipping's too good for them. They ought to be shot. Even shooting's too good for some men in this country."

The bleat of the sheep trailing home came up from the valley--the sound that went on more or less every hour of the day and night, whimpering, senseless and monotonous.

He clutched his ears, then rushed at the door and kicked it shut.

Gursey continued to gaze at him, feeding his mouth automatically.

With a gesture of disgust Cabell sat down again. After a while he went on in a calmer voice, "Yes, there are men who beat women, like cattle. But that's not the worst. Not by a long way, I can tell you. My father hit my mother across the mouth with the back of his hand once. He was drunk. I saw it. Ach, it's vile, unbelievable. But even that's not the worst." He waved towards the closed door. "To bring a woman out here. That's worse. Even for a man it's terrible. You know that. But to shut a woman in here--like a prisoner--a woman . . . not like a man, you know . . . especially if she's got any breeding, any"--he fumbled after a word--"sensibility. Yes, sensibility. . . ." His voice trailed off, but the next moment he banged the table with his fist and exclaimed angrily, "If you strangled a man like that it wouldn't be a sin. It might even be--the best thing you'd ever done." He glanced up. "What're you looking at me like that for?"

Gursey also was pale. He turned away and began picking his teeth.

"Sulky swine," Cabell grumbled. "Don't you ever have a decent word to say, damn you?"

Gursey rose and went out to the men's hut. He found Peters mixing flour and water for a damper.

"He's been there again," Gursey told him. "This time he spoke to her."

"What, has he telled 'ee so?"

"Told me?" Gursey laughed. "Yes, he told me he's bringing her here."

"Man alive!" Peters exclaimed, turning up blue eyes of alarm. "Don't say that!"

"Yes, it's clear as day. When the bull's on heat it wants to fight. He's thinking how to do that cove in."

Peter's mouth gaped. "Oh sakes, it be all my doing! All be broke up into small splinters with one hit from that Jem." He ruffled his sparse grey hair desperately. "If I did but know one sure-certain thing against her to tell him!"

"Spare yourself, man. He wouldn't listen."

"Oh, oh!" Peters moaned. "Such poisonous things be females to a man setting eyes on them for the first long time; not better'n clover to bullocks coming on it all on a sudden. She seems so small-like and frail as a wisp of feather when he hasn't seed nothing but beasts and men for a twelvemonth. That whitish skin, them daisy feet, them little fingers. . . . Just to see her lay something down, gentle as the thistle blow-aways falling--'tis as good as watching one of the prize buckjumpers on a two-year-old." He shook his head sadly. "But 'tis only seeming. That it is. A bushy's no more'n a brat unteethed wi' 'em. And on top of all the ruts in him and a's blind as a winter bat."

Gursey muttered. "I hope he's served the same as Peppiott."

Peters stared. "What's that? 'Ee don't sound much like his cobber, saying that."

"Ah!" Gursey waved him away. "What's to become of me, eh? What's the first thing she'd do when she come here? Turn me out. That's what she'd do."

"Turn 'ee out? And why so?"

Gursey scowled. "Mind your own business."

It was true. Cabell had spoken to her.

As he rode cautiously along the edge of the scrub that looked out on the Surface homestead she came out of the trees suddenly and confronted him. She did not speak, but eyed him with the curious upwards-sideways stare of her violet-coloured eyes that was at once covert and penetrating.

He was deprived of breath for the moment, as though by a violent blow in the stomach.

The morning sun fell full upon her. It glinted on her black hair, tousled by the wind, which blew her wide skirt out behind like a flag flapping against her horse's rump. Around them the trees trembled, the tall grass bent to the swishing waves of wind, but this violent movement, with the agitation of his own pounding heart, only deepened her cool and statuesque immobility. His sense of her as a being apart from her surroundings, even as one somehow superior to himself, calmer, stronger, wiser and more enduring, was verified thereby. She sat there like a piece of stone, watching him doubtfully, defiantly, a little angrily, but in her eyes he saw again the shadows that vouched for her humanness, linking her to some intimate chord of sad memory--a memory of tender, unhappy eyes gazing down into his own long, long ago.

The horses pawed impatiently and shook their bridles, irritated by the wind.

"So--well, we're neighbours, then," he said lamely and took off his hat. "I just noticed--"

With the decisive, impatient gesture of one who has penetrated all fair-seeming human masks she cut him short and demanded: "Why are you here again today?"

"Again?" He flushed.

"Yes, yes. You were here twice last month. Pat O'Connor saw you."

He pulled on his hat slowly to give himself time to think. "Well--as a matter of fact, yes. I was riding past, you see, and--"

"Out with it!" she said brusquely. "You've lost something."

"Not at all. Oh, no."

"Yes, you have, and you think he's taken it--Jem. Peters has been talking to you."

"Excuse me," he hastened to reassure her, smiling nervously. "There's nothing of the kind. Nothing at all. I was just passing."

"Oh, just passing!" she said scornfully, glancing round at the empty bush.

"Exploring," he mumbled.

She looked at him closely and seemed to notice for the first time how pale and excited his face was. Withdrawing a little on the saddle, she pulled her gelding's head up and backed down the narrow track between the trees as though looking for room to turn. She caught his eye again, fixed on her anxiously. "Don't come back again, please," she murmured, confused. "Whatever you're looking for, don't come back here." Now, suddenly, her resolution had vanished and she seemed to have grown smaller, slender--an illusion created by the wind beating on her from a new angle and wrapping the billowy dress close to her body. It defined the straight line of her slight back and shoulders, one of which, Cabell noticed, had the same nervous trick of hunching itself up a little higher than the other he had observed in convicts waiting for the lash to come down.

But his eyes fastened on her hands and stared at them in surprise. They were raw, big, capable hands. But it was as Peters said. Used to men's hands, with tar-ingrained and cracked nails, brown and horny on the backs, smooth on the palms from working in greasy wool, he was overcome to see her fingers on the clumsy greenhide reins, trying to pull the big-headed beast away from a sweet crop of berang.

"What made you come up here?" he blurted out. "The blacks are devils. Absolute devils." Involuntarily he stabbed his spurs into his horse's ribs, jerking it forward a few paces.

She backed her gelding till the wall of tall blue-gums stopped her, and she continued to search his face with distrustful curiosity. Now the sadness and trouble of her eyes became a kind of tortured, animal suspicion. She looked like a frightened animal forced into a corner.

They played a game. As his face showed more compassionate at the sight of her shrinking away in strange timidity she became paler and more timid still, and the preconceived notion of her he had built up out of himself and scraps of gossip grew stronger.

"Tell me," he said quickly. "Are you in any trouble here?"

At this the mask of her self-assurance was quite gone and her face, though not the slightest flicker of change passed across the finely etched lines at the ends of her slit eyes, across her tightly drawn mouth, her flat, high-boned cheeks, was yet utterly changed, as a face changes in a dream. Perhaps it was merely that, moving from the glare of sunlight, the face shed its crude shadows and took on subtler shades through which these lines, these eyes, these cracked lips showed more minutely clear. But changed or not, there, indisputably, was a face marked with the print of a ghastly life, a ghastly tragic life which he was too innocent to understand, though the general effect he felt powerfully enough.

"I suppose it's impudent--unpardonable," he began, emboldened as the strength seemed to flow out of her. "But a woman--a woman like you--in the bush--with that--that fellow Jem. . . . Of course, I don't understand . . . only what I've heard . . . only. . . ." He hesitated.

"All lies," she spat out at him. "It's Peters who told you that drunken gossip. Jem's my cousin and my brother's partner, if you want to know." Again her face had changed, flushed and resentful.

He stared at the slim column of pale neck, rising from the ruffle of wind-blown fichu. An automatic gesture of concealment, reacting without thought to his spoken curiosity and his probing eyes, she lifted her hand and drew the loose white cambric up to the nape of her neck, not troubling, strangely, about the furrow of bosom exposed by its billowing in front.

Then she went on, in her low, husky voice, ungraciously, as though he had forced her to explain: "I wanted to get away from all that lot, so we came up here. I thought we'd have some peace and quiet here. My brother Dirk's only a lad, and it's no company for him the sort of men he was mixing with round the Swamp and Pyke's Crossing."

He nodded, to fill a gap of silence, during which she watched him impatiently, wanting him to go. Her impatience broke into words again: "Now you must come prowling round. God knows why. As if you hadn't seen what he's like. As if you didn't know."

"Yes, I guessed. That's why I came."

She frowned. "Why should you meddle--why?" Then, brushing that aside, turned exasperation and scorn into an appeal: "Oh, don't you see that I came here because of my brother, not myself? I can look after myself. But all the scum of the earth was down there tempting the devil in Jem to drink and fight. And Dirk--of course he's wild to be in any trouble. Jem might have killed somebody. And what then? They'd take Dirk along too and hang him or put him in--one of those places. Oh, can't you see that?"

"You ought to get rid of the fellow, cousin or not," he said. "He's dangerous."

She laughed scornfully again, but whether at him or at his proposition was not clear. He coloured up and grumbled: "All I meant was I might be able to start your brother with a few ewes-lambs. Five hundred or so. Four hundred," he corrected himself, but glanced at her and made it five hundred again. "It would be good business for me, too," he said.

But before she could reply the sound of a horse coming across the flats stiffened her on the saddle. She listened, then waved at him and said "Oh, go now; quick, before he sees you! Go! Hurry!"

He craned and saw the horseman cantering along the edge of the scrub, five hundred yards away. In the clear air the bearded face was sharply defined. He was not at all inclined to go. "You could have the lambs tomorrow," he told her. "I could put in some good Durhams and a couple of horses. There's better land than this in the valley near me--that is, near McFarlane and me," he added quickly.

She pulled her horse round and tried to ride past him, but he blocked the narrow way.

"Will you think about it, then?"

"Yes, I'll think about it," she said. "But go now, for heaven's sake."

He drew back and let her ride out. She disappeared among the grass and a few minutes later came up with the horseman from a different direction. They talked a while, turned and rode away.

Cabell rode slowly home. . . .

His mind was like a fertile field overshadowed by a promise of gracious rain. Stirrings of hidden life, of buried seeds, of sleeping fruits. . . .

But he thought, "Pity I destroyed those three hundred old ewes."

 

 

Chapter Twenty-nine

THE FIGHT

 

She sent no answer.

He felt an immense relief. ("Now, how was I to spare five hundred lambs?") But at night--in the blank hour before turning in, or when he awakened from a bad dream--then he felt as though cold stone walls were closing in and crushing him. "Seven years, seven years!" he groaned to himself.

Dawn was the merciful gateway to another day of thought-obliterating work.

Peters rubbed his hands. "There now, what fools us be, imagining!"

Gursey kept one eye closed for a long while before he answered. "Just wait. Have you heard him dreaming?"

"But hasn't he told us all there is to know now?" Peters argued. "Didn't he tell me to keep an eye on the horses lest Jem be tempted?"

"What if Jem was tempted? He'd be angry, eh? Or pleased?"

Peters started when the question sank in. "Eh? What's that?"

Gursey winked.

But Jem stole none of Cabell's horses. If Cabell was disappointed even himself did not know, perhaps, lacking a key to violent dreams.

The event of the month was Sambo's return, green and shaky, from a long spree at Pyke's Crossing. "Aw, that ain't drinkin'," he growled. "Ain't much more'n water against what I've had other places. Lick the sweat off yer mug day after yeh've had a nobbler, stone-blind on the spot. That's drinkin'."

"How's that old Fritz?" Peters inquired.

"He sold out. A Paddy and fourteen kids moved in."

"Mickey O'Connor?"

"That's the one. Knows you, Boss."

"He saved my life."

"Got a nut loose," Sambo said. "Tells everybody to send his kid home if they sees him. Howls like a kid himself."

"Hmn. Does he, eh? Still?"

"Dang the lousy brat," Peters grumbled. "Does t' old scut think God made man to scurry round like a pack of hounds after his strays?"

Cabell shook his head, frowned.

Gursey nudged Peters. "Just wait. Just you wait a little longer," he said angrily. "You'll see how his mind works."

"'Tis far to see behind that dark face," Peters said gloomily.

Far indeed.

In 1851, the following year, Cabell wrote to his sister:

 

. . . You better forget me, as if I had never existed. I have ruined myself. And it seems as if I had known all the time. Yes, as if I HAD KNOWN FROM THE VERY FIRST MOMENT. When I think back I seem always on the point of discovering, but some treacherous devil blinded me. A hundred and one things cried out to warn me, but I would not see or listen. Oh, why?

 

How often he tormented his heart with that same question! Why, oh, why did I do this incomprehensible, this mad thing that utterly destroyed me? But the dark demon does not answer questions. The dark demon sits in its secret chamber and no one knows what it is spinning there, a shining fabric of bitterness or a sackcloth of delight. Men long for peace and rest. They long, too, for achievement--life. But to live is to throw oneself into the stream of pain and experience. No one can do so willingly. A man has to shut his eyes for that leap.

Two strangers came into the valley from north-west across the range. "Looking out country," they explained.

Cabell waved up the valley. "Past the red hill is anyone's."

"We've got thirty miles of river behind the range. A humpy and yards on it and all."

Cabell jumped. "Eh? Humpy and yards?"

"Yes. Jem Surface must be finding it tight round here. He's pushing out further--Burnett way."

When they counted-out two mornings later Cabell was missing.

"Good-bye, Jem," Gursey said bitterly, "and good-bye me."

"Oh, no, no! 'Twas only yesterday he talked of England. Seven years come Christmas and he'd be back home, 'twas so he spoke. Bain't possible he'd yoke up with that lot."

"Ain't possible he'd put his friend's neck in the squeezer, is it? Ain't possible he'd do men in for the sake of a few sheep? Ach, you don't know him yet." He whistled up his dogs. "There'll be skin and hair flying behind those hills tonight!" he shouted back.

"Aie! aie!" Peters groaned. "They'll kill him, and it will be all my doing, all my doing."

Gursey sat alone at the door of the homestead humpy after supper, gazing at the ranges to the north, across which the newly risen moon slashed the dark shadows of gullies. Beyond them his fate was being decided, and he was glad of it; yes, in his heart, he was glad of it, because for him as well the longing to live warred with the desire for peace and rest. Even as he shuddered at the thought of what awaited him outside this safe and serene valley, his eyes turned towards the cross in the southern sky, and his blood stirred. Over there was the great world. Men--women--a new people. . . .

Cabell arrived at the Surface homestead just as the moon was pushing her crooked back over the blue-gums. Dogs began barking when he was still a long way off. He spurred his tired horse into a canter, seeing figures appear in the doorway.

Emma caught a glimpse of him as he crossed a lane of moonlight, and she, too, shuddered with the chilly premonition that her peace, her precarious and bitterly won security, was going into the melting-pot of life again. Oh, would there never be an end of it?

"I left the lines out in the waterhole, Dirk," she said quickly. "Go, take them in, won't you?" She sighed when he was gone.

Jem came up from the cow-bail and stood at her elbow, shaggy and black in the moonlight, like a big, slow-witted faithful dog, waiting for orders. Frantically she tried to think of something that would get him out of the way, but invention failed when the simplest of excuses would have done.

Suddenly a little stab of exasperation distracted her thoughts. Why did I send those men back to Pyke's Crossing that way? I might have known they'd tell him.

Cabell emerged from the thistle and dismounted.

"Good day."

"Good evening."

They studied each other, trying to pierce the inky shadows in which the moonlight hid their eyes.

Slow of speech, slow to understand, Jem growled a welcome. "Water round the back for the nag."

"All right." Cabell began to unfasten the girth, and Jem turned inside to put the kettle back on the fire for a tired traveller.

She looked round to make sure he had gone, and ran out to Cabell. "What have you come back for?" she whispered fiercely. "Quick--what is it?"

"Business," he grumbled.

"What business? Why tonight?"

"Well, aren't you going off next week?"

She knotted her fingers. Then furiously, her face knotted into black creases of anger where the moonlight shadows fell--an impressive sight for just the reason that she had to express a swelling rage in a whisper, without a movement that would attract Jem--"Its you who's driving us away," she said. "I hope you're satisfied now."

"Why, I offered--"

She beat the air. "All I want--to be left alone. Don't you understand?"

Their gestures flashed across the wall of the humpy, swept the grass.

"Anyhow, I've come to see him. It doesn't concern you." He went on pulling the saddle off. The horse shook itself, lay down and rolled.

"Ah," she spat at him, pushing her face up close so that her hot breath set his cheek twitching, "don't you think I've been in this country long enough now--in the bush--among men? I'm not blind. You're no better than dogs." Her voice rose under the noise the horse made scrambling to its feet, but she stopped abruptly, hearing Jem lumber across the room, and recovered her place at the door with a leap as he thrust his head out to consider them with vague, heavy eyes and say, "Tea's ready in here." He went in again; Emma went in, too, and Cabell, after hitching his trousers and squaring his shoulders, followed.

In the smoky light of the slush lamp Jem recognized Cabell. "Huh. You!"

"You remember me, then?"

"I do that."

"We met at Pyke's Crossing," Cabell insisted truculently.

"So we did." But Jem's face showed no resentment. He was too busy wondering at a sudden change in Emma, who stood beside him, studying Cabell sideways with her catlike stare. Without understanding, he sensed something between them. Cabell watched her from under beetling eyebrows, his thick lower lip protruberant and damp, his scar livid. Before the scrutiny her face turned down and away, one hand crept over her shoulder, clutched the collar of her dress and drew it up to cover the nape of her neck.

Glancing round the big room, whitewashed, spotless, Cabell thought: Ah, she sleeps in there, then. Behind hessian curtains he could see the red poncho spread over a bunk. At this end of the room where they stood were flyproof safes, three bunks with neatly folded blankets, the usual table and benches, a bucket of maidenhair fern trailing down from the rafters, fresh green boughs of gum-leaves to catch the flies. No scraps, grease, dog-dung. An absolute paradise to his eyes.

A boy with a loose mouth and weak chin, easily recognizable, nevertheless, as an O'Connor, was sitting at the table with both hands round a pannikin, sucking up tea noisily.

The remains of a meal, plates, a bottle. . . .

"Take a seat, mate," Jem said. "Wet your thirst."

Cabell waved testily. "I've no time. I've come to see you about--him." He nodded at young O'Connor, who put down his pannikin and looked quickly at Emma.

Jem glanced down and scratched in his overgrown hair. A clod of a man, with black hands, stiff-jointed, like two lumps of stone, stony gestures, words like stones on his tongue. He seemed to have to choke them out. But when he looked at Emma he became somehow strangely lost to his surroundings--tender, brooding, though doubtful and afraid. "What's that?" he grunted, coming back. "Pat? What's wrong with him?"

"You've got to send that boy back home at once," Cabell blurted out in the high, arrogant voice of his nervousness. "That's what I came here for. To tell you."

Jem took his pipe from between the stumps of teeth.

"You took him away from his parents. They're distracted. You had no right."

"Ho?"

"I promised O'Connor I'd send him home. So I've come for him."

"Ho, ho! So you've come for him, eh?" He put his pipe away in his pocket.

"Jem!" Emma seized his arm. "Hold your tongue. And you"--she flew out at Cabell--"you leave us alone. We don't trouble you."

He turned his eyes on the floor. "I've just heard from O'Connor, you see. He specially asked me. . . . You see, he saved my life. It's the least I can do."

"Heavens!" Emma cried. "What does the boy matter? He'd be off drinking somewhere if he wasn't here."

"No place for a lad," Cabell said provokingly. "These horses--you know perfectly well. . . . He'll be landed in jail before he knows where he is."

Jem snatched his arm free. "Hey, mate, you've got a high-and-mighty tongue there. What's that about my horses?"

But Emma pushed him back. "No, no fighting, Jem. Remember--oh, remember the last. . . ."

He scowled and sat down with his back half turned to the door. "Let him be off, then. I've got no quarrel with him."

She turned eagerly to Cabell. "If that's all you want, you can have him when we've mustered. I swear it."

O'Connor began to whimper. "Don't let him take me, Jem. Me old man'll skin me."

Emma waved to silence him. "He'll come," she assured Cabell. "The minute the horses are in. I swear it."

O'Connor looked at her defiantly. "You can't make me. Tell the boss what I seen. . . ."

She wrung her hands under Cabell's nose. "What more? Won't you go now?" She grabbed hold of his wrist, and he felt as though a piece of ice had been laid on his pulse. A step at a time she forced him back to the door, exerting all the unexpected strength of her little body, which laboured against his. Her breasts crushed against his arm, her hair brushed his face.

He planted his feet. "No!" he shouted excitedly. "I came on purpose. I'm not afraid of him."

Jem drummed his fist on his knee and watched them darkly.

"That's the cove I told you. . . ." Pat O'Connor was saying. "In the scrub with him she was--if you want to know."

The words stopped their struggle. They turned and looked guiltily, expectantly at Jem. He glowered up at them, then leapt to his feet and ran at her, glared down into her eyes, strode back to the table, ran at her again, gestured, thrust both hands into his hair.

Involuntarily she cringed her head before the gaze of his sombre, dumb eyes.

"Ah!" He let go a pent-up breath. "Ah!" Incoherently he cried out at her, but not angrily--rather with a humble kind of entreaty.

Cabell jumped between them. "Don't hit! Don't you dare. A woman--don't raise a finger. . . ."

Jem brushed aside a scarcely perceptible impediment.

Cabell recovered his balance against the table and threw all his weight on to Jem's shoulder. The walls shook as Jem thudded against an upright. He stayed there, flashing his eyes and slowly grating his stony hands together.

Cabell turned on her. "It's true, then. He bullies you. He ought to be choked--choked, d'you hear?" He waved his fists madly--with bony flushed face, burning eyes, quivering beak of a nose like an angry sparrow-hawk's.

But she was not listening. She screamed and covered her face with her hands.

He spun round and met a whirlwind of fists that stretched him flat on his back.

She shrieked again and began to gabble at Jem.

Cabell rose slowly and shook his head. The walls lurched. He felt a sensation of burning at the corners of his eyes, and two fans of white spread over his bony cheeks.

Jem was standing in front of Emma, listening, gazing dejectedly at the ground, his hands at his side.

Before he could turn, Cabell landed heavily on the point of his jaw. The big man thudded on to his knees.

Emma gasped incredulously. "You've knocked him down!"

But in the next instant Jem sprang up and flung himself at Cabell.

Cabell retreated before the sledgehammer fists. He fell against the table and remained there, supporting an ineffectual guard, grunting as each blow struck home. But even worse than the pain was the sight of Jem, his head down like a mad bull, swinging his arms as though driven by a force that had taken complete control of him and must work itself out. He gathered his failing strength and ripped in an uppercut that would have floored any ordinary man, but Jem felt nothing. It was true--he went mad fighting.

Dirk ran in at this moment, but the woman held him back.

"Not you, Dirk," she said, and pushed the lad behind her.

Cabell sprawled over the table, and his fingers closed on something hard--the bottle. He picked it up.

"Yes, hit him with it, hit him with it!" the woman screamed. Her voice was harsh.

With every ounce of strength left him he brought the bottle down on Jem's skull. The glass splintered and a fountain of sweet-smelling rum drenched Cabell's face. He closed his eyes to steady himself, heard a crash as the table went over with Jem on top of it.

"My God!" Emma stared unbelievingly at the big body stretched out among the wreckage of table and crockery. Its hands were already dabbled in blood from the gaping wound on its forehead.

Dirk snatched up the lamp, which had rolled spluttering to his feet, and ran forward to hold it over Jem's face.

"Is he? Is he?" she asked eagerly. In her tense, expectant pose over the fallen man there was something rather terrible, and something more terrible still in the sigh, of weariness, of exasperation, with which she turned away as Dirk shook his head.

"Stunned," he said. "Get some water."

She looked at Cabell. "Only stunned," she said, in the same exasperated tone as when she had accused him of injuring her by nearly getting himself killed. Then she was gone from his blurred vision, where the gaping faces of Dirk and Pat O'Connor floated and merged. In a second or two she returned with a pannikin of water, which she flung in his eyes.

His brain cleared. He could let go the wall and stand up. "I came--really--to ask you about those sheep," he said.

"Yes?"

"Have you decided?"

She gave him a long, hard, calculating stare. It probed, estimated, and weighed him with a shrewd knowledge, a tart, disillusioned knowledge--a stare that exposed the secrets of her own heart if only he could have seen. It considered the body on the floor, swept him from head to feet, speculated on his restless eyes, his sensual mouth. She drew a deep breath and her breasts swelled under the thin dress. The shadows lifted from her eyes for a moment. Her tight lips relaxed. She smiled. "Well, well. . . . Perhaps."

"When will you come for them?"

"Sooner or later."

He picked up his hat and went slowly towards the door, still panting.

"And Pat?" She smiled again, bitterly.

"What's that?" He turned back. "Oh, yes. He's got to go home to his father. I promised that."

"Very well."

Her darkly smiling face baffled him, at once slavish, threatening, grimly amused. As he rode away through the moonlight he pulled up suddenly, confronted by those eyes, staring at him out of the future. "What have I promised her?" he asked himself, horrified.

 

 

Chapter Thirty

THE BARGAIN

 

When he came to this part of his story Cabell used to lay great stress on the terrible year it was--the rats, the ants, the snakes, the sweeping fires in the thistle before the rain broke, painting a harrowing picture of his discomfort and loneliness. Yes, he told us, he might easily have sold out and gone back to England then. He often thought of it secretly. He seemed anxious to make us understand that he was not altogether to blame for what followed--his treatment of Gursey, for instance, and the Black Year.

There was a moment after he returned from that bullock journey and faced the work of pioneering again when his overworked will began to tire. He had come to think of England as a place of fresh and perennial beauty, where life was richer and gayer, where the land burst spontaneously into gardens and existence moved to a gentle rhythm and people were kindly and wise and good. On the other hand, this country: hard work, uncertainty, prickling annoyances, exile from all graces; the companionship of old convicts, daft shepherds, men who had renounced everything but the momentary and immediate in the struggle with the country, whose only talk was of dogs, cattle, sheep, scab and rain; and the very galling sight of Curry and Carney and Flanagan and Dennis growing rich twice as fast as he. He had to defend himself against the tug of that alluring dream by tying himself down. (Did he not admit afterwards that he knew from the first moment he saw her?) But why? One of the unanswerable questions. Only the dark demon could have answered it--that secret, stubborn will which defeated all his efforts to get back into the happy land of his day-dream.

The old man was silent, thinking of this very same thing. "A man goes out to do one job. Say, to send a young brat back to his father. Just from a feeling of what's right and proper, mind you. Nothing else. Next minute he finds he's turned the world upside down. How d'you account for that, eh? Fate. That's what it is. Fate."

Old Sambo remembered Emma Surface well, remembered how she came in with Pat O'Connor one afternoon, dusty from a long ride, looking "like either she expected to be hit or was going to give you one--you couldn't never tell which."

Cabell was down at the yards, drafting out a mob of bullocks that were to leave next morning for Smith's boiling-down works at Redbank.

"I've come--for the ewes and cattle you promised."

Cabell was surly. "You can't have them till we've sheared. We don't shear till next week."

"Dirk couldn't have come," she explained. "He has to keep an eye on Jem's things till he's better."

"What's wrong with him? I thought he was only stunned."

"He's been paralysed. He can move his hand again now."

An inexplicable resentment died out of his mind, she looked so small on her big horse, under an immense cabbage-tree hat which hid half her face, so tired and dusty after her long ride. "You'll need to mark off a piece of country before you take the sheep. When I get this mob off tomorrow I'll take you round. Meanwhile if you'd make yourself at home in that pigsty of a humpy. . . ."

"Thank you."

She turned her horse out and went up the slope.

"Can you give me a shakedown in the hut, Pete?" Gursey shouted across the yard. "It won't be for long."

"Of course it won't be for long," Cabell snapped him up. "I told you what I promised her."

Gursey laughed. "Well see. We'll see."

Cabell turned on young O'Connor. "You'd better get ready to go back to your precious father tomorrow. And you"--catching sight of Peters, alternately looking at the humpy and making long faces at Gursey--"you can go as far as Pyke's Crossing with the cattle and see the brat doesn't slip back. He's made trouble enough."

He spent the night in the watchbox. When he knocked at the door of the humpy in the morning she was boiling the kettle for the morning tea.

"Did you sleep well?"

"Well enough." She did not turn her head. The matter-of-fact way she went about setting the table for his breakfast gave him an uneasy feeling. She had brought a big bundle of clothes, he noticed, a mirror, and a clean towel.

"I'll be away a day or two lending a hand with these cattle. I'll tell Sambo to show you the country behind the red hill, as you're in a hurry."

"Oh, there's no hurry at all. Dirk can't leave Jem yet awhile. Besides, you can't spare a man, with shearing near."

He glanced at the bundle of clothes again and spilled the flour he was pouring into the mixing-basin.

"Let me do that." She elbowed him aside.

Lounging in the doorway, he studied the hard line of her profile. A wisp of hair had escaped the severe coiffure which dragged the shining black masses over her head and fastened them in a lax bundle at the nape of her neck. She kept trying to brush it back with her floury hands. As she did so her firm breasts swelled and flexed under the print dress.

"That fellow Jem's a bad egg," he accused her.

After a long pause she said, in the harsh voice of enforced confession, "He did something for me once. It was something to be grateful for."

"And the other night you told me to hit him with the bottle."

She looked at him squarely. "You'd made up your mind to fight. I had to think of Dirk. If Jem had killed you. . . ." She kneaded the husky dough in silence for several minutes before she added, with a glance half questioning, half grateful, "You beat him. That's all there is about it. I don't complain."

"It was that young brat O'Connor I was after," he said quickly.

She shrugged and went on mixing, as one who had no patience with evasions. "It's over and done with. Jem will take the horses and go--when he can."

He was more and more alarmed to see her so cool and assured. Behind the shadowed eyes and the clenched mouth he caught a glimpse of a woman very different from the one he had imagined--the same woman whose smile had baffled and frightened him the night he fought Jem. Her voice was bitter, there was a stubborn will in her. An instinct of self-preservation, rather than any conscious awareness of danger, made him seek to define more precisely the bargain between them at which all her words hinted. "I'll find you land and I'll help you to build. I'll give you the four hundred ewes I promised and--"

"Five hundred," she corrected sharply.

"Well, five hundred."

"And the cattle."

"Yes; well, if I said so, yes."

"And rations? When he breaks with Jem, Dirk will have nothing."

"Then rations, too." But he frowned at an afterthought. "And you--you're breaking with Jem, too?"

"Of course."

"Rations for you as well, then."

She shrugged again and ended the discussion by turning her back and kneeling to rake out the ashes for the damper.

Here, it seemed to him as he ate his breakfast in watchful silence, was a game in which he lagged a move behind. Dispensing his food to him, she had the cool self-assurance of one who sits with a winning hand or at least the cool resolution of one who has made up her mind to win at any cost. He felt at once as though he was about to be trapped and about to be released, but trapped into what, released from what he could not explain, with her impenetrable face before him posing so many urgent questions.

He was glad when the meal was over.

Shouts and the cracking of whips came up from the valley. In a cloud of dust the mob was starting out from the yards. The cattle were trying to break back to their old camps, bellowing and knocking their horns together.

"While you're away--if you had a piece of hessian I could make curtains to keep the flies out," she said, following him to the door.

"I don't want any curtains."

But the very docility with which she accepted this ungracious rebuff, contrasting with the self-possession of the woman who had elbowed him away from the mixing-basin and served him with food, put her still another move ahead of him.

"You'll be busy looking after your own business--looking out that country," he said in an effort to make up lost ground. "You'll have no time to waste round here."

She laughed. "Good heavens, Dirk's capable of doing that much for himself, don't you think?"

That left him a long way behind. But the struggle in the valley was getting hot. He hurried off to lend a hand, muttering to himself "No time now. I'll get this straight when I come back."

A lean strip of a man, parched by sun and wind, salted by many an ordeal of endurance, tough enough to awe the toughest old hand on the place, and not much like the olive-cheeked boy who had landed in Sydney seven years before, but still at heart an innocent, a babe, beside the woman who watched him go--an innocent straining towards two irreconcilable opposites. Here was the bright fantasy of a lost world, there the seductive, mysterious, promising but alarming reality. And, like all innocents, he managed in his own mind to synthesize a little of the fantasy with a little of the reality, so that before three days were past they seemed no longer irreconcilable and he was riding homewards through the lovely September afternoon with an eager though vague expectation.

He was surprised to find Gursey lounging across the table on easy terms with her. What had come over the man? After months of gloomy silence he talked like a chatterbox. She sat sewing a piece of hessian with a gimlet and cobbler's thread, pale and absorbed. Suddenly Gursey stopped talking, looked at Cabell, who sat with his hands on his knees watching them, and burst out laughing. Then he took himself off, but he stopped at the door to look at Cabell again, and there was a glint of malicious delight in his eyes.

"What have you got there?" Cabell demanded as soon as they were alone.

"I found some hessian in the corner," she replied, undismayed. "There's enough for curtains and a door, if you'd make a frame."

"Huh." It was difficult to maintain that he preferred flies.

He glanced round the room. A familiar smell of old sheepskins, frowsy clothes and grease had gone. The blankets were airing outside in the sun. Holes where the dogs had buried bones had been filled in, the table scrubbed, cobwebs cleared away, the debris of dung fires swept out. Boughs of gum-leaves hung from the ceiling. In place of the dirty towel he had grumbled about there was a fresh rag. His boots were newly greased and his shirts scrubbed clean.

She saw that he was angry. "What did you expect? You surely didn't think I'd take those sheep for nothing."

"I meant nothing more than--to help you."

"Oh, well." She went on sewing the hessian. When she was silent--then she alarmed him most. She was looking at him from behind a high wall. What was hidden under that deeply scored forehead, at the back of those eyes? He had known other silent women: his nurse, Ady Potter, fat and sleepy--that was one kind; his mother--a different kind altogether. With her, silence was a door against which demons hammered to be let out. It was the same with this one. What was she keeping down under the squaw-like face?

He walked up and down restlessly, glancing at her bent head every now and then. With her set mouth and obstinate, sharp chin she looked as though she was holding out against him in some violent argument.

She went about getting him a meal--as a matter of course. "I'll put it all straight tomorrow," he promised himself. "Damn it all, she talks as if we'd agreed about something."

It was a relief when Gursey came in after a silent supper and said that Andy, the shepherd, in for the shearing, had brought his concertina. What about a sing-song?

"Bring him up. Yes, bring them all up," Cabell said eagerly.

But it took a long time to get three woman-shy isolates into the humpy. They stood about outside, nudging each other and guffawing. Then they made the door with a rush and huddled together like sheep in the middle of the room, hardly daring to breathe, looking at everything except Emma, who was sewing her hessian curtains again.

Sambo's ears, like basin handles, twitched and reddened, revealing that for this experience he had no precedent. Herb looked like a sleepwalker. Andy clutched the concertina under his coat and breathed nervously, so that faint wheezings emerged from his chest, like some kind of musical asthma.

Gursey was in a boisterous mood. "Come on, Andy. Give us one of those tunes."

Andy looked round evasively. "What tunes?"

"One of them you've just been playing."

Andy nudged Sambo. They hooted, and were silent all of a sudden.

"Bit shy afore the leddies, yeh see," Sambo said boldly and hid his face in his hat.

"Ha, ha!" Andy screeched. "Ha, ha!" Then knocked Sambo against the wall. "Garn, kick you flamin' next week."

"Sing 'Molly Mocatta'," Gursey said. "How does it go?"

 

"In the old grey house in Parramatta
Lived my sweetheart, Moll Mocatta.
What a pity such a sneezer
Put her white neck in the squeezer". . . .

 

Cabell frowned.

"All right," Gursey laughed. "Sing us something more fit for a lady's ears."

"Can't sing nowt," Andy grumbled.

"Ain't true," Sambo interjected. "Ain't never seen nothin' like him for playin' and singin' tunes. Should hear him keepin' the mob quiet at night. That's the time to hear him."

"Break your flamin' backbone," Andy threatened.

But Sambo would not be put down. "There's one song he knows, Boss. About a cove they held over the fire and chucked in the stable. Can't say he don't."

"Got an awful sore throat on me," Andy protested.

"Give him a nobbler and he can't help singin'," Sambo suggested cunningly.

So Cabell brought out the bottle. Then without any further ado Andy grabbed his concertina and began to sing, all on one note, at the top of his lungs: "The beef it was old and tough--off a bull they'd baited to death--old Hyde got a lump in his gizzard--that had like to've stopped his breath--the people all start swearin' and cussin'--when they seen the old bloke choke--so they takes him out in the kitchen--and holds him over the smoke."

He stopped, emptied his nobbler, took a deep breath and started again: "They holds him so close to the fire--he frizzles like a bit of beefsteak--then they throws him on to the stones--and near cracks his neck--one gives him a boot in the stomach--another jumps on his brow--says his wife, 'Chuck him out in the stable--and he'll be better just now.' Don't know no more," he finished suddenly, with a dramatic return to his normal voice.

"There," said Sambo proudly. "Now sing the leddy that one about the cove that hanged himself up in mistake for his hat."

"Aw, that one!" Andy said, and was bashful but willing.

The bottle circulated, the concertina howled and skirled, Herb's dog growled, and Gursey, utterly unlike himself, drank a lot and capered about noisily.

Again Cabell saw Emma as he had seen her in the shanty at Pyke's Crossing--as one apart from the crude scene of a man's world. The contrast lent her an illusive delicacy and charm. Her skin, burnished over by the sun and coarsened by hot winds--only pale seeming against the background of her hair--looked now more exquisitely soft than any skin he had ever seen. Hard work had roughened her hands, broken the nails, sinewed the arms, and flattened the contours of her body. But against the paw Herb had laid on the table, and compared with the bulky frames around her, she seemed to have been moulded to a miraculous fragility. Their bawling voices set off the quietness of hers, their gestures invested her with grace; in the same room with them she was the creature of a different species, and an aura of romantic and desirable loveliness surrounded her. No trace remained of the hard-mouthed woman through whose bitter smile and harsh voice had echoed the irrepressible overtones of an experience horrible even to guess at. When she met his eyes something young and hopeful showed behind the weary knowledge of hers. He smiled back, and felt absurdly proud that before all these men she smiled at him.

But the jollification came to an end on a slightly discordant note. The rum had awakened an old grievance in Herb. He was plainly preparing to speak. His breath came heavily and his Adam's apple kept running up his granite pylon of a neck and darting out of sight behind the band of his shirt again, as though it was a lump of shy words trying to launch themselves. These mighty pangs made themselves felt throughout the room and a lull fell.

Suddenly Herb reached out and patted Emma on the shoulder. "Miss, that there Black Jem, he kicked my dawg."

Emma started. "Jem? Where?"

"Down Pyke's Crossin'."

"Oh!"

'Bah!" Sambo sneered. "Three-quarter dinger, that dawg."

"Spanker, dinger?" Herb roared. "My dawg Spanker!"

They looked down at the one-eyed, three-legged, scabrous brute which lay between his feet, winking evilly.

"That dawg's a wonder. A bloody wonder. Worth six men."

"What kinder men?" Sambo wanted to know. "Dead men?"

"Missus," Herb appealed to Emma. "Man to man, what's your opinion my dawg?"

Emma considered it. "Seems a very good dog."

"Seems! Very good!" Herb gasped at a blind world. "That dawg, missus--what d'you think he done last night? That dawg saved my life."

"Saved your life?"

Herb nodded. "War this way. Puts damper in ashes, clean forgets it and goes out. When I looks round no Spanker. Thinks 'Ah war up to somethin' on you, Herb.' But you can't never tell with a dawg like Spanker. Comes home arter a bit and locks the monkeys up. Then all on a sudden I remembers that there damper, gettin' flat in the ashes. Looks in the fire--damper gone. That minute in comes Spanker, damper in his mouth." He looked at her hard. "What d'you think this here intelligent animal had done?"

"Reckon you musta et that damper and got the willies," Sambo scoffed.

Herb controlled himself. "I'll tell you, missus. Sees me got out. Sees damper in ashes. Saves my life by taking damper out and standing it up against a tree."

"Go on," Sambo said.

But Herb sensed treachery. "Don't believe it, don't you? Well, the ironbark where there's a spear stickin' in--that's the identical tree. Show you any time you like. And what's more"--he grabbed Spanker, upended him, and thrust his brush under Sambo's nose--"see there? All them hairs wored off. That's where he rubbed hisself bare brushing the ashes off that flamin' damper."

"A blanky miracle," Sambo said.

"Miracle!" Herb shouted. "It's flamin' incredible. That's what it is."

Jealous of all the attention Spanker was getting from Emma, Sambo spat on it. "Now, my dawg--" he began, bringing the animal forward into the light.

Herb spat on Sambo's dog. "Call that dawg!"

"That dawg--"

"My dawg--"

At this point the owners of two incredible dogs were saved from falling on each other only by the dogs doing so. Whereupon every dog within hearing hastened to the spot and an idyllic evening ended with the company being nearly put to flight. When Gursey had restored peace with a stockwhip handle they found that the concertina had been chewed up and that Herb's dog had lost an ear.

Strange how a small, ridiculous incident can bite into a man's memory and come to symbolize a whole experience. "My honeymoon," Cabell used to growl whenever there was any talk of romance in the family, "it began with a dog-fight." One can imagine him brooding over that, recalling every detail--the noise of the dogs, the curses of the men, the preposterous chagrin of Herb, Andy's laments for his battered concertina--and contrasting it with some resplendent, cherished fantasy of an impossibly romantic bridal bed.

He would recall, too, no doubt, how Gursey, following the men out of the humpy, stopped at the door and gave him another baffling grin of vindictive triumph, which revived the obscure doubts that had been nagging at him since he returned in the afternoon. If only he had gone out at once, as his instinct of self-preservation, suddenly active again, had warned him to do, perhaps he would have saved himself--and here one can see him going over the whole miserable business once more, that night and the months which followed, the night of the flood of 'fifty-one, the fate of Gursey, the Black Year. . . .

As a matter of fact, he did go out, after a glance at Emma, still industriously sewing. The yellow light ambered her long neck and thrust warm fingers into the gaping neck of her bodice, sketching the swell of a breast. Somehow I see Emma more clearly in this little picture than in all the others which have come down. The shining black head bent over everlasting work, her deep eye-sockets filled with shadows, silent, impenetrable, guarding a secret plan behind some trivial occupation, patiently waiting.

Half-way to the watchbox where he intended to sleep, Cabell remembered his blanket, left behind in the humpy. Frowning at himself, he went back to fetch it.

She gave him her upwards-sideways glance as he came in and a little smile.

The smile annoyed him. "I forgot something," he found it necessary to explain, took the blanket, and started to go.

But she dropped her sewing and intercepted him at the door. "Where are you going then?" She spoke as if slightly vexed, at the end of her patience, but smiled again.

"Eh? Going to sleep. Isn't it late enough?" He was brusque, angry, and sought to find some fault with her, however small. "All this singing, larking about--never happened before. Keeping the men out of bed like this when they've got to begin washing tomorrow."

"I? But did I ask them in?"

He glared down at her. "Did you ask them? Well, I'll be damned! Is this my place or isn't it? Can't come into my own humpy without somebody leering at me. There's Gursey . . . and all this sweeping, curtains"--abandoning an undefined grievance for one concretely symbolized in the pile of elaborately stitched hessian on the table--"Who asked you?"

"You asked me yourself--you asked me to come."

"No such thing. I offered to help your brother."

"You came and made a quarrel with Jem. You wouldn't have done that unless--"

"Unless what?"

"Oh, unless you'd made up your mind," she said, coming to the point at last. "No, I'm not blaming you. We're all to blame. All of us. If others do wrong it's not only their fault, it's ours as well." She paused, dissatisfied with this vague rendering of a conviction clear enough in her own feeling of it. "We're all plotting and planning for something--every single soul. We all want something, at any cost. Perhaps we don't know--most people never know, it seems to me. But it's here--pulling, burning." She crushed her breast in her hand. "Peace, that's what everybody's looking for all the time. Not happiness, not anything great. Just to get out of this--prison." She pressed her hands against her temples. "But we can't, not except when somebody helps us. So we are always watching and waiting to grab at any chance. The thinnest shadow of kindness in a smile is a chance." She paused again and laughed. "Grab, yes. That's more than I meant to say, perhaps. Perhaps we only get it by grabbing it from someone else. Oh, I don't know. I don't understand when I talk about it. I only know we're all equally to blame--in everything we do--good people as well as bad--because we're all fighting to get at the same thing." But she shook her head slowly. "Not so very much to blame after all. It's not much to expect--a little security."

The speech, spoken in a cool and reasonable voice, passed over his impatient attention, but afterwards he remembered every word of it--against her and in his own favour.

"You talk," he muttered, quieter, for suddenly his annoyance had ebbed out, leaving him stranded on the same hollow feeling of frustration that had taken hold of him when he argued with Gursey about the future of the valley, with Flanagan and "his mob" at Pat Dennis's. A stirring aroma had come to him, the strange aroma of woman, and he was looking at her with eyes gone dim all at once.

She saw the change, and instantly changed herself. She returned to the table and leant back against it, supporting herself on her hands. "Oh, well, whatever happens," she said, "I don't blame you. So if you've taken back the bargain we shan't part in anger."

"I won't break any bargains I've made," he said hastily. "Only--well . . . I don't understand myself. My brain seems turned inside-out tonight."

She responded to this appeal for pity with a soft, a ruthlessly soft, "Yes?"

"Wait," he kept on repeating to himself. "Wait another day. Wait and think." He smiled nervously. "I don't know how we came to talk like this."

"No?" She seemed to have drowsed away. Her voice was barely audible. Her slightly parted lips, no longer hard and repressive, picked up flickering lights from the lamp. A splinter in the bark had caught up the full dress, drawing it tightly around her and exposing her feet and ankles.

The flutter of wings in the night, cries far away, the breeze rustling the dried thistle in the valley--swelling, dying away, like a great, passionate sigh--all this shut them into an intimate world, far from all other worlds, yesterday, and tomorrow. The winter was just past. Flame-tree and wattle were flowering. The heavy perfume came in on the warm air.

"That day I saw you at Pyke's Crossing," he said, "you reminded me of my mother. You're not like her, and yet . . . your eyes--sad. That's why I wanted to help you."

Her strength was in her silence. Too much was beating against the lock of her lips for her voice to be gentle and tender. She knew it frightened him. She knew that she had only to wait. She could see his eyes on her. . . .

He lifted the catch of the door. "Well, I'll go now."

She moved her hand, carelessly brushing against the lamp. It rolled on to the floor and spluttered out. They were in darkness.

Groping over the floor, he heard her dress rustle and his cheek brushed her thigh. Her hand was in his hair, pressing his face into the clean-smelling stuff of her dress.

"Are you cold?" she whispered, drawing him up. "How you shiver!"

 

 

Chapter Thirty-one

NEW LIFE

 

She had released him from a prison. His heart welled over with gratitude. The sharp edge of a new experience had severed him from past and future. There was only the present. It seemed to him that he had never before seen the crystal magic of sunrise, felt the warm velvet on a horse's neck, smelt the heat burning over moist earth. Through an awakened sensuality--his heritage from a long line of hot-blooded Cabells--he found his way back into the world.

And Emma? She remained just beyond the touch of his understanding. Only sometimes in the night she would clutch him with little cries, half of desire, half of fear, that died away as he caressed her. Apart from this, she said very little.

But it was no lyrical experience. His sensuality was too urgent, her desire clouded by purposes too obscure for the gaieties of love-making. He had imagined his honeymoon in a setting of balconies looking out on a misty sea, an English garden of ghostly-scented English flowers drenched in the mellow English sunlight that gilds and shrouds rather than reveals. The girl would have happy eyes and tight, virgin, apple breasts. There would be laughter and lovemaking like some kind of game. And he got . . . nights stifling with the acrid smoke of bushfires--heat--an unknown woman whose desire was harsh and sad. The smell of sheep and harness and dogs mixed with the smell of smoke. Occasionally, on still evenings when the fires died away, the perfume of wattle and gum and dogwood would drift into the humpy--perfume as unlike an English garden as the humpy, with its sunbuckled walls, its ineradicable fleas and ants, was unlike the balconied honeymoon chamber of his fantasy. But no fantasies visited him now, not even in his sleep--except of Emma. He dreamt one night that Black Jem came and killed her.

And now and then, just for fleeting moments, he felt the nudging of a little doubt, a tiny voice crying from far away. Why, it asked, was Gursey always grinning? And why did he and Emma avoid yet seem to understand each other? Again, what could reconcile the startling wildness of her lovemaking with the modesty that would never undress in the light and shuddered away from the touch of his hands till she had covered herself in a heavy woollen shift? But this tiny, arguing voice died in the distance, for it was as though a great flood was rushing him on, out of sight of all old landmarks.

The drying-off of the thistle contributed to the sense of suddenly extended horizons. Only the light, high stalks remained, waiting for a strong wind to clear them away--a crop of broomsticks stretching for miles. The seed-pods cracked open and millions of silvery balls of thistledown floated into the air, whirling and eddying on the lazy gusts of summer breeze, high overhead in the winelike sunshine--an ecstatic dance on the cobalt floor of the sky, the joy of things released from bondage. To Cabell they were the sign and symbol of the release he felt in his own blood.

The pods spilled their bluish seeds thickly across the ground and thousands of birds came to feed--snowy cockatoos with yellow polls, the rowdy minah bird, parakeets like ripe fruit falling from the sky, dancing fantails, rosellas in green-and-yellow jackets jewelled with red. Their chattering, squawking, cooing broke the heavy silence, lifting a deadly weight from his mind and deepening his sensation of a new world miraculously sprung up around him.

But it was also the arduous time of fires. A careless spark from a pipe, merely the heat of the sun, set the tinder stalks alight, and walls of flame that could be heard from miles away swept across the valley. Sheep and cattle stampeded and were in danger of being outflanked. A puff of smoke in the distance called him to instant action. A five-mile race through thickening smoke, with the heat belching out like blows from an invisible fist, the centre of the fire marked by clouds of frightened birds, above which hung the brown kite called from far off by the smoke in the hope of some trifle to be picked up among the fleeing snakes and lizards--then a blind fight for hours with wet bags and branches, over burnt-out ground that made the soles of the men's boots smoulder and blistered their feet--suddenly a change in the wind and a thin, black plume spiralling out of the brown stalks three miles away to the south, and so on and on at every point of the compass.

Cabell came in with his beard singed, red patches of burnt flesh on his hands, and black as a chimney-sweep. The luxury of poultices, clean clothes, and a meal that did not always taste of cinders and salt--a meal garnished with green vegetables devised from pigweed and the soft, unfolded leaf of the cabbage-tree palm which Emma had ridden ten miles to chop down and disembowel; the comfort of a comparatively spotless house and a clean-smelling bunk, the blank hours of evening filled by her listening, her understanding, when he told her of the first two years in the valley, of McGovern and Flanagan and Gursey, and all at once, as she turned her head and the light fell across her throat, as she leant across the table and he saw the full drop of her breasts, as the breeze tightened the flimsy dress about her, a stirring in his veins that wiped away the weariness of the day's work and all memory of it . . . Cabell wondered how he had lived through the seven years before she came.

A change came over him: he began to enjoy the work of the run and to head such centaurs as Sambo and old Peters (just returned from Pyke's Crossing) in the wild rides after horses and cattle. Emma would be out watching them or waiting when he came in at night to hear how he had headed the roan stallion, that uncapturable outlaw whose tough blood was to run through generations of Cabell's horses, or to be shown the rip in his saddle flap where an angry cow had just missed goring him. Then she turned worried eyes on him, and he knew that she was afraid of losing him and he was glad. At such moments, his cheeks flushed, his hair tumbling over his eyes, gesticulating madly as he told her the story of the day's run, he looked, indeed, as though he had been born again to a new experience of living.

In that time there were no fences, of course, and the horses, except for the ones kept in the paddock for daily use, ran wild among the gullies. To round them up was a crazy chase over hidden logs, through swamps and creeks, up and down the hills. Thus were bred horses that could have galloped blindfolded through the hardest country without missing a step. The wild flights made the foals into lean and wiry animals that shirked nothing, took a slide down a sheer face of rock as something in the natural order, and on a feed of grass worked the half-wild cattle from dawn till dusk without turning a hair. Another traditional characteristic of the family began to show itself in Cabell--a passionate love of horses and horsemanship.

When they had broken-in the colts they held the first grand muster for two years. It was a fierce three-day battle in which every horned beast was driven in for drafting, branding and marking. Noise, dust, heat and excitement--fights with tough old bullocks, cows half mad with anxiety for lost calves, with young steers sensing the freedom of the open valley, looking for a break in the line of horsemen--a dash for freedom that stampeded the mob, a moment in which they turned with the runaway and made to break back--shouts, the stamp of hooves, the galloping of horses, stockwhips and a hundred dogs--then the clatter of horns locking, of ribs thumping together in the crush--narrow escapes in the yards, a bullock that leapt a five-barred, six-foot fence, gored a horse, chased Andy up a tree and got away--the scuffling of steers and calves, beasts and men peering for each other through the fog of dust--the smell of flesh seared by branding-irons, the blazing sunlight, flies, sweat, burns--Sambo and Peters, sensing a rival in horse and cattle lore, silently challenging each other to wilder achievements of daring, Peters's monkey-face streaked with dust and twisted up by the pain of effort beyond his strength, Sambo deprecating his own doings to imply more astonishing parallels in the past--Peters walking over the writhing backs in the crush, nipping into the yard with a noose to slip over the horns of a young steer and up the fence again with a pair of horns cracking themselves against the post a few inches under his heels--everybody covered with dirt and blood, clothes torn, panting--Cabell with a stub of pencil trying to keep a check in the stock-book, where sweat-drops turned the dust on the pages to slime--Yilbung (a rouseabout on the station since the night of the massacre) chased around the yard by an angry cow while the men sat on the fence and cheered, till Sambo jumped down on to the cow's back and rode it with his feet buried in the fat under its shoulders. . . .

A day's rest.

Then a moonlight ride after the cattle that had gone wild and taken to the thick scrub round the foot of the ranges, dangerous because they were luring the tamer cattle away and in time would lose their breeding, become hump-backed, long-haired, reverting within a couple of generations to some far-away, primitive ancestry.

Waiting in the still moonlight till they came to drink and graze, then a faint whiff of dust warning the men that they were on the move--a word along the line, into the saddle and out across the valley to cut the mob off from the scrub and rush them back to the yards. In and out among the timber--wild leaps into pits of darkness, under low branches that reached out to rip the riders from their saddles--thorns unnoticed in hair-breadth escapes from being impaled or gored--love of a sure-footed horse born in such desperate moments--an hour's battle and the herd headed homewards, or that small part of it which had not broken back into the bush--the dawn coming over the range, turning the world into a lovely mirror on which the shape of things, hills, bush, cattle, was the merest dim shadow--more scuffling, branding, castrating, a hundred times harder because these cattle were really wild.

Sleep. Sleep without dreams. Black and restful sleep. And on awakening, a sense of contentment, of achievement. System and order were coming into the life of the station. The flocks had been culled over and all bare-bellied and wiry strains cut out. He would build a fence across the valley and draft the cattle to improve the breed.

Emma encouraged all this, but without saying much--only by a nod or a glance when he spoke of what he had done. For instance, it was she who suggested that he ought to buy two or three high-class rams when he went south again, but afterwards the idea always seemed to have been his own.

The thought that he must soon go south on another wool trip was like a voice calling him out of a pleasant dream. He began to wonder how he was to arrange matters so that the advantages of their present arrangement would not be lost, and although he saw vaguely that they could not go on as they were for ever, he tried to push out of his mind the question of what was to follow.

This slow awakening dated from Peters's return. Once or twice he had caught the old man looking at him, and through the haze of his preoccupation with Emma he began to ask himself what the men must be thinking and saying. Sensitive to the opinion of people around him, though often for that very reason defiant of it, he felt uneasy.

In fact, it needed only one good hard jolt to shock him out of a recklessness of the future that was really quite unnatural to him. McFarlane came over for his sheep. He had arrived the night before, he said, with his wife and three sons and a mob of sheep he had picked up on the way. The flock he had left with Cabell having been counted twice and each animal carefully inspected to make sure Cabell was not trying to ring-in any of his culls, and the payment for shepherding and pasturage having been haggled over, he was drinking a rum in the store when Emma went by. He stared incredulously, ran to the door to make certain, ran back to finish his rum, and fled with the sheep as from a spot accursed.

Next day he returned with two bony ginger replicas of himself and an ancient muzzle-loader.

"I'll be askin' ye to part wi' my nags the noo," he said.

"With pleasure," Cabell replied. "I'll run them in next week."

McFarlane shook his head. "Nae, mon. Wi' the wind settin' frae where it is I willna listen yer specious tongue. Gi'e the nags ower the noo."

"I'll send Sambo across with them as soon as he has a minute to spare," Cabell promised.

But McFarlane planted his feet and pushed out his lower lip. "I willna budge."

Despite many dour glances towards the humpy, where Emma was moving about at work, Cabell did not at first understand. He clapped McFarlane on the back. "Come now, you think we're working them, don't you?"

McFarlane sensed a trap. "I willna say aye, I willna say och aye. But I will say ye this: I'm no so sure I couldna get ye for a pretty bit in damages for false preteences."

"False pretences?"

"Aye, pretendin' ye're no hand in glove wi' them Surface blackguards."

Cabell flushed.

"Ye canna deny what I verra plainly see wi' me own eyes," McFarlane said, glancing at the humpy and adding self-reproachfully, "I was aye ower-trustin'."

Cabell stamped on his annoyance, and, seeing that although he expected to be permanently contaminated thereby McFarlane proposed to remain in the yard a week if necessary till he got his horses, he sent Sambo out to run them' in.

McFarlane loosened up a little then. "Ye're weel advised," he said. "Ye dinna seem sae steeped i' the muck o' hell as the rest. But hae a care, laddie. Ye're settin' yer fute i' the primrose path."

Cabell laughed at these maunderings when the Scotchman was gone, but they touched a deeply rooted spring of moral and social shame. From this moment a prickling of guilt never left him alone. It poisoned his contentment and kept him irritably on the look out for signs that he was going the same way as many other young men who came out from England fresh and fine and fell into ways of loose living and went utterly to the dogs.

Emma read the signs of this new development--sudden gaps of silence, frowns, fidgety annoyance if the men hung round the yards while he was in the humpy with her, an ashamed haste in his caresses and fits of silent depression after.

One day as she was helping him in the store to make up the rations for the out-stations Gursey went by, smothering his now-habitual grin, which suggested an inexhaustibly good private joke. Emma lowered her head quickly and busied herself with the lumps of black sugar she was breaking on to the scales.

"What's that damnable fellow always grinning at?" Cabell demanded.

"I didn't notice."

He flared up. "That's not true. Why do you always go away when he comes near you and look at him as if--well, as if you thought he was going to do you some injury?"

She wiped her hands slowly on her hessian apron. "It's not me he'd injure--it's you."

"Injure me? How?"

She shook her head. "Perhaps through McGovern--perhaps . . ."

Cabell laughed. "McGovern? What are you talking about? McGovern's in America. Anyhow, that wouldn't help Gursey much. It'd just be cutting off his nose."

"Yes, but he hates you. And he's mad."

"Go on, he's no more mad than you are, and as for hating me--"

"He does. He told me."

"Told you what?"

"Told me what happened at Murrumburra--that he'd be a free man now only for you. Oh, all the old hands are mad. You ought to know that."

"You've got something on your mind," he challenged her. "What is it?"

"I'm only thinking if you don't send him away from here you might be in trouble some day."

Her obscure design evaded him, but once more, the first time since the night of the sing-song, he became aware of the dark shadow in her eyes, and asked himself what secret and appalling past must have cast it there. Some whisper from a more discerning subconscious or a sudden revolt against the mesh she was weaving around him made him fly out at her. "You don't interfere. What I do with Gursey--that's my business." Somehow this outburst--also the first since that night--seemed to re-establish his integrity. He slept in the watchbox, and next morning left with the packhorse on his weekly visit to the out-stations, which kept him away a day longer than usual. When he returned she was gone.

No word to say why. He bore it for a week--the loneliness, more stifling than ever now by contrast with the last two months and because his tangled and indecisive thoughts were more difficult to live with; the food, tasteless and indigestible again; the filth, that began to crust once more on the table, the blankets and the floor; the flies and the rats, which trickled back to their old haunts; and, most intolerable of all, the physical emptiness of life without her. Then he rode across to Jem's.

He hid in the bushes near the creek where he knew she drew water. At noon she came down. . . .

She shook her head sadly. "It would be the same again. You'd only get tired again."

"I didn't mean to speak as I did. It was--well, there was Gursey and Peters and that confounded Scotchman. They got on my nerves."

"Don't you think they got on mine, too? But I'd be willing to bear that if only. . . . Oh no, I can't stand the insecurity. Never to know when you'd tell me to go. It would be better if you just let me go now--or as soon as Jem's well enough. He can stand up, but he can't move about yet."

As she bent to fill her buckets, clutching her skirts over her knees to keep them dry, an impulse to take her in his arms became irresistible. She let him hold her for a second, then drew away.

He fell on his knees, with his arms round her legs, burying his face in her dress. "I can't go back without you--it's hell without you."

She withheld herself from this appeal to her pity. "Look--the bucket!" she cried, snatching herself away.

He waded into the stream and recovered it. Then they sat down on the grass. "Listen," he said. "I've got a plan. You could come to Moreton Bay with me when I cart the wool down, and take up that land for Dirk."

"And then?"

"I'll give you security," he promised blindly. "I'll start Dirk with a thousand ewes. He can have all the cattle on the west side. Next week I'll put a man on splitting timber for his humpy. Only come. . . ."

She searched his face, narrowed her eyes, and let him draw her close. . . .

But he delayed the wool journey from week to week. He had to break in bullocks, and made an extra-long job of it. Then he decided to wait till after the rain, then till the rivers had fallen, then till the rams had gone in.

But he could no longer push the question into the back of his mind. He saw it in the men's eyes, insistently in hers. Was he going to marry her?

Marriage! To Black Jem's cousin, Black Jem the horse-thief. Who was she! A Hampshire farmer's daughter, she said, who had come out to find a new life with her cousin and her brother when her father had died. Think of it--Aunt Julie, his brothers, and a Hampshire farmer's daughter. Still . . . he totted up the advantages, not the least of which was the thought that he could never, never go back to the old life without her. If she went, he must go, too--back to England. And to go back now, when he stood on the threshold of a fortune, his flocks and herds multiplying and the work of seven wretched years coming to fruition--to go back and face the family with less than he took away--that, too, would be impossible.

And all the time there was the pressure of his shame, his fear of demoralization, which would be miraculously wiped away by marriage--a shame that became daily more potent since it must soon become plain to everyone that she was with child. And on top of this there was the worried look on her face whenever Dirk rode over to see her. Jem was getting better quickly now, he could feed himself; and Dirk, eyeing Cabell with dislike, whispered something in her ear which made her pale. Cabell observed this from a distance and did not ask any questions. The less said about Jem the better--even to himself. But it did occur to him vaguely that legal marriage would cut the ground from under Jem's feet--when he was well enough to use them. Still, he hesitated, waiting, typically, for decision to be forced on him--waiting for an act of Fate to take the responsibility off his shoulders.

One evening as he was sitting down to supper with Emma a man and a woman rode into the yard--a big, fair-bearded middle-aged man with dreamy, kindly eyes, and a young girl. Jacob Bellamy and his wife, they introduced themselves--new settlers from the foot of the hills to the south. The Land Commissioner in Moreton Bay had told them about Cabell, but, curious omission, had forgotten to mention his wife. "Or Jacob didn't notice," Rosa Bellamy cried, wringing Emma's hands from joy at discovering a woman in the wilds. "He hasn't had me long enough to get it into his silly noodle that there are any other women in the world. But thank heaven you are here. Now I needn't worry when--" And she threw her arms round Emma to hide her blushes.

There was nothing Cabell could say. Annoyance gave way gradually to a fatalistic relief. The two Cabells had a last fierce argument--the Cabell who was a boy thinking of England and milky-cheeked English girls and the Cabell who did not look out of place in Pat Dennis's. What the second one said, rather apologetically but firmly, to the first might be summarized thus--only he spoke wordlessly in a swift flash of feeling in the two seconds during which Cabell politely lowered his eyes from the crimsoned face of Rosa Bellamy and raised them again: "There, you can't put that journey off any longer now. Once this fellow compares notes with the Commissioner it'll be all over the colony that you're living with a woman. Think what talk there'll be at Pat Dennis's then, what Emma will be called. Plainly you couldn't marry a woman they talked about like that, so you'd much better hurry up--before they begin to talk. What's more, you know how bad news travels. Say it got to Cousin Francis's widow in Sydney, and she sent it home to Owerbury. . . . No, you'd much better start loading those drays tomorrow."

"I give you fair warning, Mrs Cabell," Rosa Bellamy was saying. "You won't be able to get rid of me. I don't intend to be locked up with Jacob for ever. He never talks about anything but cattle and sheep. Why, he's beginning to look like a sheep, isn't he?" and she pointed at her husband's good-natured face, anything but sheep-like, which smiled on her with gentle, paternal indulgence.

Her own face was round and pretty, with full cherry lips and naïve gentian blue eyes. Hardly more than a child, Cabell thought, seeing in contrast the gaunt face of Emma, on which the marks of secret experience showed more vividly. A feeling of compassion for the older woman overcame him, for, compared with Rosa Bellamy, young and buoyant and gay, Emma seemed frailer than ever, shy, lost. To the girl's exuberant speeches she answered in a hardly audible yes and no, blushed under her tan, and tried to efface herself behind the work of preparing a meal. He felt ashamed of himself then for all the shifts and turns of the last few weeks and remembered only what she had done for him, and his gratitude. In this uprush of feeling he put his arm round her shoulder and said "It would be a mighty poor place here without a wife. As for me--well, I'd have chucked the game long ago if it hadn't been for Emma."

"I hope you heard that, Jacob," the little wife exclaimed. "You--with your boundaries and wool and ingrown horns." She pouted, then laughed. "If I put one of his old rams into his bed he wouldn't know the difference."

Bellamy gazed at some vague phenomenon in the middle distance, dismissing it again with a self-deprecatory smile as he turned back to Cabell.

"There he goes," Rosa said, "Cattle, cattle, cattle!" and sat listening, half amused, half vexed, while Bellamy began to tell Cabell about a plan he had to breed cattle for the English market and send them across the sea in floating ice-boxes. He really did seem to forget now that Rosa existed.

Next day the Bellamy's returned home, Rosa having first made Emma promise to go and stay with them as soon as she returned from Moreton Bay and herself promising to visit Emma often in the future.

"Do you like her?" Cabell asked, as Emma stood watching Rosa's fluttering handkerchief disappear in a cloud of dust.

"She is very gay," Emma said.

"You are not gay, Emma." He took her hand, a work-hardened hand he knew now, after seeing Rosa's.

"I am not so young."

"Does ten years make so much difference?"

She was silent. . . .

Next morning they left for Moreton Bay. Five weeks later, at noon, on Wednesday the thirtieth of June 1851, they were married. An hour afterwards they were out of the township. What would have made gossip a month before was hardly noticed. The entire population was down at the wharf hearing the news from Sydney. Gold had been discovered at Bathurst. An aboriginal had found two thousand ounces of it in one nugget. Men and women and children, many on foot with all their possessions on their back, crowded the roads to Bathurst, hastening towards the Turon River, where fortunes waited to be picked up out of the dirt. Sydney streets were empty, stations deserted, waggon-loads of wool abandoned on the road where the gold fever had suddenly seized the owners.

Jimmy Coyle shouted in the bar that night: "You coves won't guess what happened in town today! Holy Joe spliced that skite Cabell to Em Surface! Aint that the limit?"

"Em Surface?"

"Her that was Black Jem's tart?"

"Oh yes?"

But that was all the notice it got--except from Pat Dennis, who smiled and twinkled his little eyes and docketed it as a choice morsel for some day when men had thoughts for other things than goldmines.

That day was a long way off.

The news raced ahead of Cabell and his bride and set the country on fire. Shepherds tracked them to their camp at night to ask if it was true. Their dull-eyed, discouraged faces lit with reborn hope and they swore to pack up for the Turon at sunrise next day. One evening four horsemen passed them, bound south on reeking nags. Two days later they fell in with a squatter looking for lost flocks in the scrub, cursing the four hands who had cleared out and left his sheep to the dingoes. Cabell sensed the beginning of a new golden age, the end of the golden age of pastoralists.

Events at Pyke's Crossing confirmed that. "What, tail your sheep for twenty pounds a year? Ask us another," the men said when he tried to engage them for work on the run. "Tell you what we'll do, squatter. Give you a job cooking for us. Fifty pounds and tucker."

"No more flamin' sheep for us."

"No more scab and foot-rot."

"Here's to the nuggets we'll pick up, God bless 'em."

"And a lot of good may they do ye," shrieked Mrs O'Connor, mistress now of the Travellers' Rest, bought from its old owner Fritz and stuffed with pippin faces, fowls, koalas and cockatoos. "Turning down an honest man's work to go grubbing in the dirt after what the Divil himself put there to fool ye, drat and blast ye for a gineration of lousy, flea-bitten. . . . Niver ye mind it, honey," she told Cabell, "a lot of good sich scraggy old bits of skin and bone'd 'a' been to ye, I don't think. Ye'll have five of the best O'Connors to do for ye--nothin's better in the whole wide land--and if they don't, I'll skin the backsides off the good-fer-nothin' young basstids and know why. And that's not the most I'd do for yer Honour," she added, drawing him aside out of Emma's hearing. "No, me love, after what I heard about ye from Peters, bless him--a well-meaning man that one--cleaning up that big bully Black Jem there as ye did and sending Pat back home like that. Though if it wasn't for the old man, I don't mind tellin' ye I wouldn't have the young cut-throat round the place, scheming and plotting how to break his mother's heart, and there he is now, half-way to Bathurst--the spit of his father, the old lazy faggot, the wretch. . . ." And wiping her eyes, she commended Cabell to the saints, drafted Danny, Ambrose, Liam, Shawn, and Cornelius into his service, and shouted a round of champagne in his honour.

Ominous clouds were banking up from the south. Cabell hurried the bullocks on. But every now and then he ran back to the cart to see if Emma was riding comfortably on her straw-stuffed cushions of woolsacking. "Must be careful," he warned her.

She smiled. Her eyes had lost their tired knowledge.

Plodding beside the polers, Cabell thought of his year's mail from England. . . . David's young wife had died and left him with a fortune and a son. The son was running wild at Owerbury. David was running wild in London. . . . John had got his colonelcy, Clement his bishopric. . . . Aunt Julie had been very ill and had wondered if she'd ever see "that cub Derek" again, but she was as well as ever now. . . . Phillipa Mayne had married Captain Persall, from Honiton. . . .

A few more years, he thought, a few more years. . . . He had nine thousand sheep now, nearly a thousand cattle. In a few years he would be richer than all the rest of the family together. Would it matter a damn then whom he had married? Owerbury would know nothing about Black Jem. And anyone else--let them dare!

Then the rains broke and by the time they reached the homestead all the rivers were rising for a historic flood.

 

 

Chapter Thirty-two

LARRY IS BORN

 

The river had risen to the foot of the slope. The pens and the men's quarters were gone. Only the roof of the woolshed was visible, creaking and swaying under the force of the flood. A shepherd and three thousand sheep were missing. The carcasses of bullocks went down the river, trees, debris, and McFarlane's house. And still the rain pelted with the venom of a satanic resolution to clear the valley of every living thing.

Emma stood at the door of the homestead and watched the river, which circled the homestead with a waste of yellow waters. Sambo, beside her, checked off the various chunks of lumber as they passed with the dispassionate interest of a toll-keeper. "There goes ole Andy's best cady. Won't be half sore losin' that. Real felt, it war. Crikey, missus, there's his weskit. Can't be much more the poor ole stinker left. Hullo, what's that?" He was struck dumb by his first sight of a sideboard, which Emma guessed must be part of the furniture Rosa Bellamy had been so proud about. She had brought it all the way from England, then from Moreton Bay by bullock-dray. A table, chairs and a chest-of-drawers came whirling down the stream, and after them a painted door, which told her that the Bellamy's house was gone, the Bellamys with it, perhaps.

"Say, missus, there's that old baldy cow snuffed it," Sambo was pointing out. "Not the one was the strawberry heifer's mother. Her sister. You know. Mother that yaller steer the boss sent down to the pots last year. Cripes, what's wrong, missus?"

"I'll be all right in a minute, Sam."

"Boss'll be back soon," Sambo said, peering anxiously through the dusk. "Better make you some tea, eh?"

"Just leave me alone. . . ." She sat down on the bunk, and Sambo, fleeing across the yard, heard her groan.

He found Peters at work with Danny O'Connor on the hill behind the woolshed, dragging bales to safety, "The old woman's started lambin'-down, Pete," he announced. "What the hell?"

They scratched their heads at each other for some moments, then decided that Peters should try to reach Cabell, who was out helping to rescue Herb Tutt and his dog from a tree in the midst of rising waters four miles away, while Sambo made a dash across the valley to fetch Mrs McFarlane. Danny they sent back to the homestead with orders to make tea and mash poultices for Emma, which was all a purely theoretic knowledge of human obstetrics could suggest.

The thick night, glazed over with slanting rain, came down.

Sambo rode through it, now swimming, now plodding up to his knees in mud and hauling a frightened horse behind, but at last striking the crest of the hills that cut the valley in two. Here he had a comparatively good track for five miles, over boulders, washed-out holes deep enough to bury a house, slides of rock on which the surefooted horse never faltered a moment.

At the homestead Danny O'Connor, who was not quite ten years old, sat beside the bed and was scared to death by the look on Emma's face and the way she twisted herself about. He thought she was going to die, remembered what his mother had told him about the man with the black coat and the big bag who came to take away the souls of the dead and often picked up any stray little bad boys he found at hand, distinctly saw such a man--three times life-size with a head like a piece torn off the scurrying clouds--peering through the door, burst into tears, grabbed Emma's hands tightly and buried his head in her breast.

She pushed him away and jumped out of the bunk. "You--Jem!"

Danny gave the black beard one look and dived behind the flour-barrel. His thin legs stuck out from one side and his liquid eyes from the other. "Mary, Mother of Grace. Mary, Mother of Mercy. . . ."

Jem came slowly into the room, wringing the water out of his beard.

Emma stared at him. "What d'you want here?" she faltered. "Is anything wrong with Dirk?"

"Nothing I know of," he grumbled.

She let out a deep breath and lowered herself on to the bunk again, while he glanced round the humpy, scowled and spat.

"So you haven't changed your mind?" he said after a long silence, during which she lay breathing heavily and biting her lips as if gathering her strength for a struggle. "You're going to be his cook and bottle-washer, eh?" But under his easy scorn his gestures were uncertain.

"Yes, Jem; I'm going to stay. I told you so when I left last time."

"A fine time to tell a man when he's tied hand and foot. You didn't give me time to open my mouth."

"There was nothing more to say."

They stared at each other. Raindrops trickled down his cheek and disappeared into his beard. A pool of water spread around his feet. Pale against her hair, her face returned his gaze with pity, with fear, even with regret, but with not the faintest quiver of relenting.

"Then I daresay it's true," he said offhand. "The river washed up a half-drowned rat of a shepherd and he hoofed it out to us. He said you were buckled to Cabell. I thought I'd come over and see though I'm still about as strong as a louse."

"We were married. Yes."

He laughed. Stifled at once by the wash of the river, the noise of the woolshed rocking to pieces, the hiss of the rain on the roof, this laugh had a forlorn and futile sound. It chilled him, broke down his pretence, turned his clumsy mask inside out. What he meant to say scornfully he spoke as a hopeless expostulation: "You don't think he'll stick to you? His family is all big bugs. He couldn't take you home. Now, I'd stand by you till kingdom come. You know that."

She shook her head. "No, Jem. He's life to me." A spasm of pain made her press her sides for a moment. She went on again, not looking at him. "Go away. Leave me in peace. I want to forget everything. I'm not blaming you now. It was my wickedness as much as yours. But it's done with now. I'm starting again." She shuddered slightly and turned away from him.

Jem sneered. "They tamed you properly, Em Surface. You was a real capper claw once, but now you're not much more than a domestic cat."

"I was tamer then, to tell the truth," she said, softly but indignantly. "I did whatever you wanted. Wasn't I always ready to hide you? Didn't I always find a hole somewhere for anything you'd brought in? More than once I put my head in the noose on your account."

"Ay," he remembered. "You were. A proper bit of muslin."

She gazed at the floor

"Remember that time the runners were hot after Nat Buckley and you whipped the lid off an old spirit-barrel and shoved him inside? And when the tykes were going you asks them if they wouldn't like to take a peep through the bunghole on top and see the hairy baboon your uncle had sent home from Africky. Ha, ha! You was a hard case all right, Em."

She shook her head violently. "Well, whatever was wild in me has been beaten out since. A lot of things have happened since. . . . They stripped me half-naked with all the men standing round grinning. And while my back was still sore those same men came into the Factory to offer to marry me. Ach!" She beat her thoughts away. "What's the use talking?"

Jem reached for her hand. "Before Cabell came along. . . ."

"No, Jem. Now I'm free to get what I want. Nothing will stop me--you or him or myself." She tightened her lips, which had relaxed for a moment, and against their determination the powerlessness of threats, prayers and arguments was revealed to him.

In a quieter voice he pleaded: "I'd give you anything you wanted. I'd take you to America. I've got money. I'll get more."

"I don't want what you can give me. I want some peace," she said. "I've never had it. There's always been somebody as long as I can remember--father, mother, then you. Always somebody in trouble or danger. Till that day--it was almost a relief. . . ."

"Peace? Why, if that's all you want . . . we can go to California. They're picking up gold in the streets of Sacramento. Then we can live in some quiet place. You wouldn't have to do a hand's turn."

She laughed. "Oh, Jem. Peace is just what you want yourself. There's a demon in you, always stirring you up to some folly. You need someone always there to take the poison out of you, and I'm not strong enough any longer." She looked at him tenderly for a moment, then turned away again: "No, you're mad. One day you'll kill somebody. If I was there they'd take me along, too, as they did before. Dirk as well, perhaps. Go away and leave me alone."

He dropped on to the edge of the bunk and tried to take her in his arms, shouting all the time to make his voice heard above the noise of the rain and the river. "Give me another chance. I'll hold myself in. I won't bring any more trouble. I'll help Dirk more. . . ."

She pushed him off wearily. "I've told you. Now I want to be alone. I'm sick."

"But listen, Em. I'll--"

"Nothing you can say can change what's been done."

He searched her face for some still-uncovered line of tenderness. Outside the black night waited for him. A glaze covered his eyes, inturned for a moment upon the enigma of his mind. "I can try and go straight if I'm near you, Em. When I'm by myself God knows what happens."

In her eyes he saw a being as frightened as himself--the same Cabell had often seen and feared. "You haven't forgotten how I got you free from that sod Mowlatt, how I brought Dirk out from home?"

"Nothing can make any difference."

His eyes rested unseeingly on the tow head of young Danny, bent absorbedly over a centipede which he was investigating with a splinter of bark. The Black Spy was forgotten for the moment. But, looking up, Danny shrank hastily behind the flour-barrel from the glare Jem had fixed on him.

A dog barking on the ridge behind the woolshed made Emma start.

Jem slowly turned his head towards the door. When he looked at Emma again there was a cunning thought in his eyes. "Nothing, eh?"

"If you think fight--You'd be a fool, with your arm as it is."

He laughed. "I wasn't thinking of that; no, I was just thinking--see here, what say I was to tell Cabell . . . what then?"

She rose on her elbow. "You wouldn't. Oh, Jem! It was all your doing. Surely no one could be so bad." She sank back again and drew the poncho tightly around her neck.

He jumped up. "I could. And by God so I will! And prove it, too!" he shouted. "If I have to strip you."

"Oh!"

They looked at each other.

"So you've got a bay window there, have you?" he cried, losing all control of himself as, for the first time, he saw what was the matter with her when her suddenly lax hands let the poncho fall open. "That's why you're looking so grey? You'll be grey by the time I shut my mouth, my pretty. You've given me a bellyfull of cold gruel tonight, and it brings back to mind some old scores I've been pushing behind me these many years. . . . The times you've twisted the bleeders in me, ogling every Tom, Dick and Harry on the off-chance of getting some softy like this one to take you away and give you. . . . Yes, and the trick you played me with him," he remembered, blazing up afresh. "A fine put up job. Made it up between you to do me in, eh? Damn you. Ay, my lady, I'll tell him a fine tale. That I will." He threw his hat on the table and sat down heavily on the bench.

The angry voice made Danny whimper aloud above the swish of the rain.

Then a splash in the yard as someone vaulted the fence, the flutter of dogs shaking themselves, and Cabell stood in the doorway.

"Emma!"

She looked helplessly at the two men, but after a brief glance neither paid any more attention to her.

Cabell glared at Jem, then looked round hastily to where his pistols hung on the wall.

Jem rose. "That's all right. I'm going. I didn't come to harm you, though I'd give a good round sum to see you in your wooden coat some day. But--" He looked at Emma.

She sat on the edge of the bunk, holding her breath to listen.

Jem went up close to Cabell. "But there's something better for you--so high and mighty, such a toff. Listen, lad, you've buckled yourself to a--"

"Stop!" Cabell shouted. "What are you doing in my house? By Christ, I'll horsewhip you out of it. I'll--" He stopped speaking and slid his eyes towards Emma in a nervous, guilty way, swallowed a lump. She stared back defiantly and his eyes were the first to turn away.

Jem began again, not angrily now, but in a thick, leaden, discouraged voice, as though confessing some great shame of his own, but doggedly and with a thin smile. "Yes--to a Parramatta factory moll. Ay, curse, grab your gun, look for your whip. That won't do you much good. It won't make the world forget Southampton Em, from the Leather Bottle, whose old man was topped for shooting a coastguard, whose old woman was half a gipsy. Everybody knows her who was in Sydney in 'thirty-nine and 'forty. Haven't they seen her flogged in the street and stood round to get a squint at her pretty back? Ha, ha! That's more than you've ever got, I bet. Here, I'll show you," and reaching down he forced Emma with a quick thrust on to the bunk and ripped the poncho and thin dress from her shoulders. "See. Nice, eh? That was for trying to knife a man. Don't say I blame her. He was a sod." He pushed her away from him, chuckled again, a heavy, bleak chuckle, and moved towards the door. "Now you know. Southampton Em. Transported for two years. Bloss to drunken old Major Mowlatt at Bundon on the Murray for three years. And now"--he nodded at the bed--"she'll be making you a father before long, by the looks of it. What if it came out with purple stripes across the shoulder-blades? Ha, ha! Well, here's luck," and he had swung out into the darkness and was gone.

Cabell ran to the door in time to see the dim forms of man and horse gallop down the slope and plunge into the rushing waters, which swept them downstream.

Leaning against the door-jamb, he continued to stare after them. Soon he fell to thinking of how the river was hurrying away north-eastwards to the sea. What became of those logs that raced past? Did they ever reach the sea? And if so, did they just drift about till they rotted, or might not, perhaps, just a fragment of one float on and on, thrown on a beach, sucked down again, cast up on a reef and after months washed off by some storm, tossed to and fro across the Indian Ocean, round the Cape, out into the Atlantic, until, one bright, still winter's morning, after a gale, old Sam, the Owerbury fisherman, came down the beach and salvaged it for his fire? ("See that 'un, boy? 'Tis timber off the old Borealis. Fine full-rigged ship she were. Foundered at them Antipods no more'n ten year ago.") These very logs perhaps--so far away--in Sam's roaring fire, which burned green with great explosions like the fireworks on Chesil beacon the night of the Coronation. . . .

Emma's voice penetrated the blanket of these thoughts.

"Help me, won't you?"

He turned his head cautiously.

Danny, red-eyed and snivelling, peered round the flour-barrel at a fearful but fascinating spectacle. . . .

Dawn was breaking when Cabell came out into the yard again. He walked up and down rapidly with his hands clasped behind. At every step his feet slipped from under him in the slush. The rain pelted down, sticking the rat's tail curls of hair to his cheeks, but he seemed unaware that he was not walking on an even floor in a quiet room.

The sheer weariness made him stop. He sat on the shaft of the waggon in the corner of the yard and rested his head in his hands. There Gursey found him when he came in from the attempt to rescue Herb.

"Herb's gone. Washed off his perch in the night," he announced, and began to slip the saddle off his horse.

Cabell roused himself and went up to Gursey. "Leave that on," he said. "Here's your cheque. Take some food out of the store and go. I'm finished with you."

Gursey heard the baby cry. He nodded two or three times, and a smile of sly triumph overspread his pasty, tired face. But it died away at once, as he began in his ranting and argumentive voice: "Ashamed of her, are you? What did you want? A doll like Mrs Bellamy? One of those high-and-mighty sluts you were always singing out about in your sleep?" He sniffed.

"The disgrace," Cabell muttered. "Think of it."

"Yes," Gursey thrust at him, "disgrace, filth, shame and suffering. But you'll live and learn, my boy, that no woman's worth a faggot till she's been through them all. They need a strong pickling before they're made into human creatures."

Cabell shook his head slowly. "If you'd only told me--"

"Me tell you!" Gursey chuckled. "Why, man, if I live to be a hundred my last thought'll be of your aristocratic mug at this minute. And if I'm baptized crossing the river it'll be a price worth paying for the sight."

Cabell watched Gursey push the horse into the river, saw them battling for their lives as the force of the flood caught them, then they were gone from sight among the trees. He wiped the rain out of his eyes with the back of his hand and sat down on the shaft of the waggon again and began to draw patterns in the mud with a piece of stick. . . .

When Mrs McFarlane arrived at noon, riding double-bank behind Sambo because McFarlane had refused to risk a horse in the flood, and carrying over her head the tub in which Sambo had ferried her across the deepest creeks and pools, Cabell jumped up in a sudden merciful release of feeling and chased her out of the yard with a 'stick. She was a gaunt woman, with a voice like a parrot squawking into a tin. After uttering an incomprehensible Scotch opinion of Cabell, she put her tub over her head again, remounted behind Sambo, and they set off across the valley the way they had come.

 

 

 

IV

Change

 

 

Chapter Thirty-three

THE MOST HATED MAN

 

In five years the face of the valley has changed. At rising and setting the sun pricks out of the grey scrub the windows and roofs of distant homesteads. To the north-west, only ten miles away, lies Cheviot, the McFarlanes', and due west, but half as far again, the still-primitive head station at Winbaggery, where Dirk Surface lives. Ten miles beyond is Nick Jardine's place at Narrow Gut, where the hills begin to draw in, and to the south the Bellamy homestead at Black Rock. Eastwards, just visible above the trees, which press them closely on every side, rise the eccentric gables of Colonel Barton-Darvall's mansion, Ningpo. Every inch of river, from the Three Sisters on the western to the Bottle Neck at the eastern end of the valley has been taken up. What remains is heavy scrubland and the stony foothills of the ranges.

A tape of white, dusty, rutted road climbs out of the valley and winds away to Pyke's Crossing. Nine years ago it was only a single pair of wheel-tracks, curving to avoid a stump or patch of bog, skirting the scrub in one place, plunging blindly through it in another. Even where stump, bog and scrub have given way to the settler the road keeps its curves and twists, each a record of some daring or enduring moment in Cabell's early days.

The road crosses the valley, bending in towards the various homesteads, and disappears among the gullies of the Three Sisters--a white snake meshing coils with the blue-black snake of river. Beyond it trails off north-west to lands more sparsely occupied, for the frontiers of settlement, always restlessly pushing out, are already far away in the treeless plains of the interior, many days' solid bullock-driving from here. The valley, recently wasteland, is now only on the fringe of the vast "outside", that ever-shifting, unknown, unconquered Never-Never.

The immediately noticeable thing about the road is that it avoids the homestead at Cabell's reach of the river like a plague-spot, although from its hill the house looks over the whole valley and catches whatever breeze is going. A traveller after a shakedown for the night will hurry past to make Dirk Surface's before sunset, or, if his horse knocks up, may even turn aside to surly old McFarlane's. Though there he has to get his tucker off a sheep's-head that has already fed the family, he will not regret the cake-like bread at Cabell's Reach, the piles of green vegetables fresh from the garden, the teal that Emma bastes in some unrivalled way so that it seems sweeter than turkey. He would have had to swallow more than his supper at Cabell's Reach, and a tough old bushman would rather sleep on an empty stomach.

For Cabell is a renowned Rusty Guts, the most objectionable of all types in the bush. At first he scares a visitor with a stiff-necked kind of politeness and formality. The man begins to finger his neck, where he ought to have a collar, discovers how long and shaggy his hair is and that his hands are not so clean as they might be. He glances uneasily at Emma, wriggles on the edge of his chair, and at last bursts out into wild talk. Cabell watches him in stony silence until a certain intonation in the visitor's voice, a word that seems to hide a double meaning, an equivocal look in his eye. . . . Ah, he had been waiting for it! Instantly he changes. Now whatever the visitor says maddens him. He falls on the poor wretch and tears his opinions to pieces with a bitterness that would make anyone believe Cabell had a special, personal loathing for him. To agree only makes matters worse. Then he takes up the arguments the visitor has dropped and rams those down his throat, talking at the top of his voice in clipped sentences, as all cattlemen do who spend their days on horseback in dust and heat and have no breath for unnecessary words, but in a domineering tone that goes only too well with his now notorious "aristocratic mug". After one or two visits the neighbours never come near Cabell's Reach again except on business. They see plainly that Cabell thinks them a poor lot and is anxious to impress on them their utter incapacity, their lack of any right, to judge him and what he does or says. No wonder he has become, as Martha Darvall writes to a friend in London, "the most hated man in the Colony".

It was by this incessant badgering that he got rid of Peters after having kept the old man off the spree for so long that he was within striking distance of his trip to England. A certain reproachful look in Peters's eye, a note of self-accusation in his voice made Cabell want to hurt and humiliate him. But Peters continued to shake his head sadly as though he knew he was only getting his deserts, and that made Cabell madder and madder, till one day a nasty slander slipped off his tongue. "You can talk," he challenged Peters, who hardly ever said a word. "You deserted your wife when you came out here, and left her to starve to death." That was more than Peters could stand: it happened to have a particle of truth in it. As he fled from the yard he shouted back: "A'd never let a wench make me murder a mate as ye did Gursey when 'ee kicked 'un out in the flood to be drowned. 'Tis more'n I'll have to answer for." Cabell was quiet for a month after that. Then one of the hands came back from Pyke's Crossing with a story of how Peters had drunk himself into an attack of barrel fever and was likely to pass out. He became worse than ever.

In this cantankerous mood he could argue even against the part of himself which longed for England, more alluring than ever now because it seemed unattainable.

There were, for instance, his constant bickerings with Barton-Darvall. The Colonel was a bombastic little man with a weak chin, washed-out shifty eyes, and the obstinate mouth that usually goes with such features. He strutted up and down the veranda of his fantastically inappropriate house romancing about the grandeur of the life he had lived in England. Dressed in thick-soled Wellingtons, a coat and waistcoat heavy enough for a European winter, formidable silver spurs, and a cartridge-belt from which hung a strange conglomeration of knives and revolvers, he had the satisfied air of being the only correctly dressed man in the valley. He knew Cabell's brothers and liked to recall that Cabell was a connection of the great Felsie family so that he could enlarge on his own position, from which some mysterious, cosmic injustice had ejected him. His rambling anecdotes of wars and hunt meetings, royal levees and horseraces warmed Cabell with their deferential assumption that he was in close touch with an aristocratic cousin whom he had never seen, known to intimates like the Colonel as "Bobo".

"What, Bobo never told you!" the Colonel would exclaim. Then he would launch into the story, striding up and down the veranda and barking out his words in a fierce, parade-ground style. "I and Bobo--fought together--Ningpo, Amoy--'forty-two.--Inseparable English milords, as the Emperor called us.--Conferred rare order Golden Tamarind.--Welcomed London, bands, flags, plaudits.--Conquering heroes, 'Chinese' Darvall.--Summoned before her Majesty.--Private chamber.--Kiss hand.--Glittering orders.--'Ah, Our Brave Sons!'--Noble throng--lords and ladies.--All at once--eye arrested!" The Colonel's eye was arrested on vacancy and he clapped a hand to his forehead. "Gad, sir, what do I see?--Maid-in-waiting--noble, ravishing--eyes like turquoise--love first sight!--blushing, coy.--Damme, sir, simple soldier--dare I hope?--Bobo transfixed.--What's he staring at?--Grape and grapnel!--Same goddess!!--Here's a pickle.--Bobo boiling--'By thunder, "Chinese" saved my life--Amoy, Ningpo--never forget.--Notwithstanding--only human.--Name the weapons!!'--Pistols--Hyde Park--dawn next morning.--Fire same instant.--Wounded shoulder.--Bobo identical spot!--Hearts overflowing.--'Bobo!!'--'Chinese!!!'--Touching reconciliation.--'Take her, "Chinese!"--Loves you.--Wedding present, deer park.--Only let me--worship distance.--Was inevitable--brothers, inseparables--God's will!'--Therefore--married her.--Consequence, court intrigue, lies, conspiracy, Royal displeasure!" The Colonel threw himself into a tragic gesture. "Hence--here--temporary exiles--this riff-raff. . . ."

Cabell stared at the floor. As usual he had begun to feel uneasy. Through the French lights of the sitting-room he could see the Colonel's wife, Martha Darvall, a straight-backed, white-haired lady of fifty years, and her two daughters, Aurelia, aged twenty-five, and Ludmilla, aged eighteen, bent over frames of embroidery. Moreover, as the Colonel had assured him only two days ago that in 1842 he was busy retreating from Kabul with Bobo and subsequently, with the aid of Bobo, recapturing Kabul and putting ten thousand Afghans to the sword, for which exploit he and Bobo had refused to be made Khans on the spot and had ever afterwards been known as "the Afghan Twins", while according to another anecdote he was at the same moment marching up the Indus with Bobo and Napier to invest Meanee, it was impossible to avoid the plain fact that the Colonel was a liar. And, this unpleasant truth borne in upon him, it followed, by incontestable logic, that he, too, was a liar, since he had entered into a conspiracy to create and sustain a fiction known as Bobo Felsie, his third cousin, son of Lord Felsie, with whom he was in intimate correspondence. True he had not said so, but his silence admitted as much. And, as it was clear that the Colonel lied so frenziedly to convince himself and the world that he was not here because he had embezzled regimental funds (Cabell had this from his sister), it became obvious suddenly to Cabell, humiliatingly obvious, that he himself was lying by implication for very much the same reason. Then he saw in the Colonel--this ineffectual, pathetic little ranter, with his ostentatious Tudor house built out of slabs of ironbark--a preposterous parody of himself. In self-disgust he turned on the Colonel. "Riff-raff? Come, these are fine fellows, let me tell you, Colonel!"

The Colonel rattled his spurs. "Never! Felons every man Jack. Keep their distance with Barton-Darvall, sir."

"Nonsense!" Cabell laughed in his face. "Wait till your daughters have married them. Dirk Surface out there or one of the McFarlanes."

The Colonel gasped. "What! Marry my daughters! Lilies of the Valley, sir. Kissed by the Queen Herself. No, sir. Knock down the first cut-throat who looks at them."

"You'll sing a different tune in a few years' time."

"My dear Cabell." The Colonel's voice was pleading. "You don't suppose--stay here--rest of my life?" He seized Cabell's arm and looked at him anxiously. "I understand--sheep--wool--grows on their backs--overnight--live abroad--put in a manager.--Stay ten years--not a day longer." He repeated the encouraging words more loudly. "Ten years--not a day longer!"

Cabell sniffed. "Ten years! That's what they all say. They're like men going into a gambling-room for ten minutes. There's always a new win and a new lose. They never get away." He glanced at the Colonel's agitated face and went on in a hard voice. "It's no good telling you there are droughts and floods. You won't believe till you see. But every one will seem the last. You'll put up fences and the fires'll burn 'em down. You'll build dams and the rivers'll smash 'em. You'll kill the dingoes by the hundred and tomorrow there'll be hundreds more. You'll burn out the poisonous grasses, and next year they'll spring up wilder and more poisonous than before. A few weeks' sun'll suck your land to the bone, so that the trees crack down the middle. Your sheep'll die of thirst. A few days' rain and they'll die from the green feed. A few days more and they'll die of foot-rot."

The Colonel tapped his foot irritably. "A little patience, my boy--not a fool--been tight corners before--Khyber Pass, Jellalabad, Chusan. . . ."

Cabell shook his head. "A little patience--a lot of patience--it's all the same. What you start with doesn't matter. It's what you become. Some make fortunes and go away. Very few. The rest of us"--he winced at the words and they irritated him as they were irritating the Colonel--"we just manage to keep above water. The bush stays as it was when we came--except for a handful of sheep that wouldn't last a day without watching, a house that's falling to bits as soon as it's put up"--he kicked a flake of wood off the veranda-post, showing the core ground to fine dust by the white ants--"a garden that would be choked by weeds if you left it for a week. No"--he bent his head and spat deliberately between his feet, like a stockman, enjoying with malicious satisfaction the look of surprise and disgust on the Colonel's face--"it doesn't change. But we do. I used to be reckoned like that cove David. Would you think so now? You wouldn't. Twelve years in the bush, fever, some trouble with the blacks, bullocking graft--and other things. It's changed the surface. But"--he pounded his chest--"it's changed me, too."

The Colonel's wrath bubbled over. "An Englishman and a gentleman, sir--same the world over--word his bond. . . ." He stopped and looked at Cabell, seeming to realize for the first time that there was little in this man which resembled a Cabell of Owerbury House, a brother of David Cabell, the dandy. "You're not trying to tell me--forget myself--standards--what's due to me--drift--this damned radical spirit?" he asked sharply. "Let me tell you, my man . . . er . . . my dear Cabell--shave every morning--as if--stone's-throw St James." He thrust out what he had of a chin and stroked it defiantly.

Cabell understood the enlightened look in the Colonel's eye and vindictively made his voice coarser. "If I'd gone on scraping my chin as I started I'd still be changed. I've done things--" He gestured. "Not gentlemanly things, Colonel. Not things your friend Bobo would approve of. And they're a part of me." He pounded his chest again and his voice rose. "You'll do the same things and they'll become a part of you, and change you. If you don't change you'll snap"--he broke a stick under the Colonel's nose--"like that. Then you'll cease to be an Englishman and a gentleman or you'll drink yourself to death--or go mad."

"Stuff and nonsense!" the Colonel exclaimed.

"Nonsense!" Cabell echoed to himself. "What are you saying?" But his voice continued. "Let me put you wise, Colonel. I no longer understand an Englishman when I see one. You look as strange as a foreigner to me. I don't ask you anything about England, you notice. Why? Because England doesn't interest me any more. In ten years' time it won't interest you."

The Colonel blew out his cheeks. "Preposterous!"

"Preposterous!" Cabell echoed furiously. But he prodded the Colonel's chest. "You were speaking of riff-raff. Let me tell you, Colonel, we're all here because England's chucked us out."

The Colonel winced now, choked up a laugh, and licked his lips. "Yes, yes--quite see--some honest fellows--severe penal code--poaching--loaf of bread--"

Cabell cut him short. "Don't run away with that idea. Leave it to our brats to find excuses. The fact is most of us are murderers, thieves, pickpockets and embezzlers. Those who weren't so before they came--it's ten to one they are by now."

This hit below the belt stretched the Colonel out in a chair, gasping "Lie--slander--conspiracy."

Only the sudden appearance of Mrs Darvall and the two girls saved him from an apoplexy. "Dear me, whatever's the matter now?" she demanded. "Felix, control yourself!"

Ludmilla, the younger of the girls, ran up to him and shook him. "Papa, dear. Oh, whatever has he been saying to you?" She flashed an angry glance from her big, bright eyes, and arched her splendid bosom--a fine picture of defiance. "Why must you torment father, Mr Cabell?" she cried indignantly. "Oh, papa dear--oh, don't look like that!"

Mrs Darvall, less spectacular, sighed and said "Go, get your father a glass of water, Aurelia," and the elder girl, a quiet, drooping, washed-out replica of her mother, who seemed to take only a detached interest in the scene, trailed off the veranda and returned in a few minutes with a glass, from which the Colonel slowly sipped himself back to consciousness.

After such a scene--many times repeated before the track between the two houses was given back to the weeds--Cabell did not know what he believed. He galloped home and shut himself in his room. But solitude was intolerable. He tried to lose himself in the company of other men. That too became quickly intolerable. There were his neighbours: soon the devils were dancing on the point of their needle again--a cryptic glance, a double-edged word, and another loud and futile argument. He was left with his men, Sambo, Herb and Andy . . . dogs, two-year-olds, the last spree at Pyke's Crossing, sheep. . . . Loneliness oppressed him; people nearly drove him out of his wits.

 

 

Chapter Thirty-four

EMMA

 

After the night of the flood we see Emma in fugitive pictures only--a little woman eternally occupied, leaning her flushed face over the camp-oven in the barn-like kitchen, peering through the window at an unknown stranger, setting out on horseback to answer the summons of another confinement at the Bellamys'--and always in a faded blue dress, plain and long-waisted after the old-fashioned style of the early 'forties. A woman who rarely speaks, but not at all a quiet woman. There is something insect-like in her obstinate, slow will.

Cabell fought it in vain, yet often with the illusion of victory. Their first contest was over the sheep he had promised Dirk, and Sambo preserved an admiring memory of her feeling the tail, along the back, looking into the mouth of each of the thousand ewes Cabell at last reluctantly drafted from his flocks, quietly and firmly rejecting every decrepit cull he tried to pass off. After this Cabell made every improvement in the house and their way of living a ground for battle. Without quite understanding, he felt the destructive power of the comfort she brought to Cabell's Reach--destructive to that part of him which lived most vitally in discontent.

He had built a house, almost as cramped as the old humpy. She wanted a bigger place. She did not complain, but invited Rosa Bellamy over and proudly showed off the two pokey rooms, the wooden floor, the ceiling.

Rosa tossed her childish head. "Jacob's going to build a house with five rooms and a veranda all round. We're going to have French lights in the parlour."

Emma stared. "I wouldn't know what to do in a house so big. This is good enough for us."

Rosa smiled pityingly. "Oh, five rooms isn't much. My mother's house at home has three storeys!"

"Did she think I was born in a barn?" Cabell grumbled when she had gone.

Emma lowered her eyes submissively--and he doubled the size of the house. Next time he went to Moreton Bay he bought windows, tables, chairs, even brass door-handles and paint. A feeling of satisfaction as he contemplated his handiwork, far outshining the new house at Black Rock, alarmed him. He promptly refused to buy an oil lamp and a china dinner service, but when Emma dropped a hint that Dirk was thinking of giving her these things for a Christmas present he could not get to Shamus O'Connor's store at Pyke's Crossing quickly enough. He hated his brother-in-law, renowned as the toughest drinker yet seen in Pyke's Crossing.

Against mosquito-nets, a vegetable garden, her good cooking, a mattressed bed, sheets, pillows and clean table linen he could make hardly any reasonable fight, though obscurely he felt that all these innovations were part of a great injustice that was being done him. It was the same as when she brushed against him in a doorway or stood where he could see her with the wind drawing the shape of her body through her dress. He submitted angrily.

Afterwards he would harden himself. He refused to buy a floor covering and did not give way this time when Rosa Bellamy boasted about the soft Turkey carpets she had been used to in the Old Country, or even at the look of surprise which Martha Darvall failed to suppress the first time she saw the splintery floor. The tough boards that rang under his heel and twisted his ankle occasionally were not likely to let him forget that he was in a crude, makeshift house.

Emma knew when to yield.

He noted the effect of a firm hand. Experimentally he forbade her to bring Dirk into the house again. When she obeyed and became more self-effacing than ever a light of hope began to break through his darkness. After all, an honourable return to England might not be so remote as it seemed. She was no fool: she would understand--if he was tactful, resolute. His Aunt Julie, his brothers--their very names must overawe her. If he helped Dirk more, left her fairly well off, she would have a comfortable home at Winbaggery, and all she wanted, according to her own words, was peace and security. In six, five years . . . why not? (He crossed his fingers.)

She watched him unbend, listened to the new note in his voice, a kind of bluff, we-understand-each-other friendliness. He began to broach the subject. Some day . . . couldn't say when, of course . . . five or six years . . . a trip to England . . . see his sister, his aunt, his brothers . . . she wouldn't understand, maybe, having no connections left over there, Dirk being here, doing so well, too. . . . She let him blow his bubble, then, when it seemed about to whirl him off out of the vile meshes that tangled his feet, drove her hidden steel right to the heart of it.

One evening he noticed a double row of holes round the house. "I dug them this afternoon," she said.

"More cabbages?" he asked, willing to be friendly as she showed she knew her place.

"No. Trees."

"Trees?"

"You said you liked oranges, so Rosa's giving me some of the plants Jacob brought up."

"I hope they'll grow." He took his month-old paper, made to sit down in the armchair (one of the snares to soft living she had sneaked into the house), repudiated it with a grunt, went out on to the hot veranda and sat on the stairs. The ants crawled over his neck and arms. He beat them off, wriggled irritably on the hard seat, then went back to the comfortable chair. After a bit an uneasy thought came between his attention and the paper. He lowered it and asked suspiciously, "These trees of yours--when do they start to bear?"

"Ten years. A little sooner perhaps."

"Ten years!" He frowned. "Well, here's one won't taste them."

She glanced up questioningly from a bundle of sewing.

"I won't be here in ten years--that's what I mean."

She lowered her eyes to her needle again and answered nothing, but her lips seemed to tighten--did he imagine it?--with the faintest flicker of a smile, challenging, assured, grimly amused, that was the sign manual of the dogged woman of the hessian curtains. And of the thousand ewes, the oil lamp, the dinner service, and the armchair, too, he remembered, jumping out of it quickly. Ach, that maddening, still face--the cunning behind it. What was she thinking now?

"I'll be ten thousand miles away," he persisted. But the words sounded peevish and unavailing against her stony silence. In a moment all his elaborate plans were exposed as insubstantial dream stuff. That he could even have hoped that she might release him--what a fool! Though he repeated, dropping mechanically into the chair and taking up his paper again, "I'll be in England in ten years' time. I told you my plan," he knew that it was not a plan, but only a pious faith in a miracle.

She did not bother to listen. She was on her way out of the room. In a minute or two she returned with his well-worn slippers, which she laid at his feet. Then she looked at his boots, as though she intended to go down on her knees to unlace them.

He crumpled his paper. "What're you doing now? Haven't I told you not to wait on me like a damned slave? I don't want slippers. Take them away. No, leave them"--as she began to obey--"I'll take them away myself." And she managed to make her return to her sewing look humble and docile.

Humility portended a sequel to the orange-trees--a trap sprung for him.

He hastened to get behind his paper.

After a long time she remarked, "Dirk's going down to Moreton Bay tomorrow. To see Pat Dennis--on business."

He pricked up his ears.

"You see"--she moistened the end of her wool and slowly threaded a needle--"Dennis is going to advance him a loan on his next six clips."

"Aha!" he exclaimed, impatient to triumph. "Didn't I tell you? Didn't I say he was buying a monkey with a long tail when he began wasting all that money on fencing. So now he's in the old fakir's hands, eh? And he won't get out in a hurry, either." He chuckled over a victory in a long tug-of-war. The age of the shepherds was passing away. Big fenced paddocks were taking their place. But fencing was costly and presupposed a far-projected plan of settlement. She had made Dirk fence, implying by her arguments that Cabell's Reach should be fenced, too. He had resisted another trap to bind him, with debt and mortgages, though almost yielding sometimes to a pang of jealousy when he saw the modern developments on Winbaggery that were putting his own run in the shade. Now he exulted. "You've got the precious young fool in a pretty pickle there. Don't say I didn't warn him."

She let him have his laugh out, and said, "It's not exactly that. You see, Dirk's decided to buy the river frontage."

He sat up. "Dirk's buying land?"

"Yes," she went quietly on. "That's what they advised him in Moreton Bay last time. They think that if they get a parliament they might make it so that you couldn't buy any more. So Dirk thinks it would be better to buy now while the land's cheap. Everybody says the gold can't last for ever, and there'll be a rush for land. The price will just go up and up, and so might the rents. They say the people are pouring out from England. When they renew the leases they might even try to cut up the holdings, so that's why Dirk is going to buy all the water."

He read an article through three times without getting the slightest idea what it was all about. Then, ironically, Flanagan's name caught his eye, and he saw that the whole column was devoted to Flanagan's views on the new State. "Mr Flanagan said--Mr Flanagan remarked. . . ." He pushed the paper aside. "Beggars on horseback," he grumbled. "They'll ride to the devil," and as her mouth showed that he had scored, he added, "Drunken young beast. He's hardly ever sober enough to sit on a horse, let alone carry a mortgage. I heard he brought that new tank up from Pyke's Crossing full of rum."

Her wrinkled forehead admitted disquiet and indecision here at least. "He'll settle down--he's only nineteen."

"Huh! Wonder you don't get him married. There's Aurelia Darvall. Plenty of money."

The point of the sarcasm must have missed her. "Yes, I thought of that. Ludmilla would suit him better."

"You think so? Well, he'd need all the money he could suck out of old Darvall to pay Dennis's interest. I won't lift a finger again to help him, I can tell you."

"Oh, the interest is quite small," she assured him. "Only fifteen per cent. Root, the woolbroker, would have given him twelve and a half, but he found out too late." Then, in an insinuating but detached voice, as she rolled up the socks she had darned and put them away in her basket: "He told Dirk he was very anxious to lend on wool. He said he'd lay out any amount in this district, it's so rich, and the interest would be even lower for you. . . ."

He stared hard at her glossy head and screwed up his left eye shrewdly. Ah, so that was it: she was going to try to make him buy the land, then. He took it as a declaration of war between them, a final repudiation of his overtures for a peaceful settlement, and defined his own aims by repeating firmly: "Well, all that doesn't concern me a scrap. My lease runs out in 'sixty-three. I won't want to renew it."

Her eyes seemed unaware of anything beyond the point of her needle. Perhaps they were. Perhaps neither of them knew consciously what they wanted just then. They thought it was only peace and security, yet they found each other, pursued each other, clung to each other, and tormented each other, so probably they wanted that, too--unrest.

The night of the flood when he thought that everything was over between them their life together really began. The very fact that birth, experience, everything set them so far apart, held them together, too, made them soon indispensable to each other. What she had suffered caused her to hate him for not being able to suppress a look of horror and disgust even when he was making love to her; but to trap him into an embrace gave her deepest satisfaction. Just because he felt like this and was unable to lie, he was a particularly satisfying victim to certain obscure impulses of revenge. She forgot the drunken settlers she had served and the three years with Mowlatt at Bundoon when she had Cabell in her arms, unwilling but incapable of withholding himself from her deliberate caresses--helpless, utterly helpless. To make his will a shadow of hers, to outwit the plan of returning to England he treasured so much--this was a dream that poured a warm and balmy oil over her humiliated heart. Thought lags so far behind these subterranean desires that she continued to imagine it was peace and security alone she wanted.

For him their painful intimacy served purposes even more complex. The covert, cunning spirit of the convict settlement, the degradation of women which he had heard of and imagined among the settlers, the unscrupulous individualism of his fellow expatriates--these he found made flesh in her. He wanted to have them always before his eyes, to remember that this was the essential Australia, so that he would not be tempted to give way to the treacherous stranger in himself, who had listened sympathetically to Gursey's talk about the future, to "the mob at Pat Dennis's", who pushed aside thoughts of England impatiently and said scandalous things to the Colonel. Who could tell?--one day this interloper might become his master unless he took care. Every triumph over Emma, therefore, became a triumph over his errant self. He was not, of course, conscious of this. He could not have put it into words any more than she could have explained why the same look in his eyes that angered her when she kissed him also gave her a fierce and thrilling joy. When she said, as she always found a malicious pleasure in doing, "I thought you were home. I heard you talking to yourself," he was angry, because he hated to believe that bushman's habits were gaining on him. But afterwards he was glad to have been put on his guard. When she asked him about his toothache he was annoyed to be reminded how his fine teeth were rotting away. But this made him renew his resolve to be quit of the country that was changing and consuming him, and in the making of a resolve there is always a daydreaming foretaste of pleasure to come.

But that was not nearly the whole truth, either, for in the end he did not go away. In fact, the harder he struggled the deeper he was entangled by possessions, interests, habits. And maybe that was what he wanted. Who can say?

 

 

Chapter Thirty-five

THE WAY OUT

 

But there was simply nothing to work for unless he could see a way out of the trap. With Emma blocking all roads into the future except one, he might have gone off his head like the Colonel, who had found his way out by shutting himself into his Tudor mansion of bark and pretending that the jealous Prince Consort had immured him in his country seat.

One night he sat on the veranda listening to Emma and Rosa in the sitting-room.

As usual, Rosa was weeping about Jacob. "He comes in at night," she was saying between snuffles and sobs, "and always asks the same old thing. 'What's happened today?' And nothings happened, of course. Nothing! Nothing! And even if I get into a scot and say 'Oh yes, the Lord Mayor's Show went up the creek and the Lady Mayoress came in for a cup of tea,' he only says 'Huh-huh' and goes on eating because he hasn't--hasn't been listening." A fresh gush of tears choked her.

Watching them through the French lights, Cabell was struck, as always, by the contrast between the fat, drooping, overdressed woman with perpetually swollen eyes into which six years of bush life had changed the gay young bride, and Emma, as gaunt and calm as on the first day he had seen her at Pyke's Crossing. She wore a simple blue dress, but Rosa was in fluffy cambric and decorated with rings and bracelets and gold chains. Her elaborate batiste and lace blouse, cut seductively low, her chamois-leather shoes, her heavy perfume, and, just visible under the hem of her dress, her stockings with coloured insertions, gave her melancholy a rakish air. To think of all this finery riding twenty miles of dusty road to pay a visit in a room where the floorboards had shrunk an inch apart was not without overtones of pathos. Here was another manifestation of the same malady that had made Peters drink himself into a premature old age, darkened the Colonel's wits and threatened Cabell's.

But he felt no fellow-feeling. It was the grim and unchanging strength of Emma which the contrast threw up. "Don't be a fool," she told Rosa impatiently. "You've got a home and children. What more do you want?"

"A home!" Rosa cried hysterically. "A stable! A cow-yard! And the snakes, the centipedes, the flies, the fleas!"

Emma sniffed. "Centipedes! Fleas!"

"Oh, Emma, if I was like you it might be different. But I'm not, and I never shall be. I'm wicked, wicked, wicked! I don't love my children as I ought. They come so quickly I can't tell one from another. And I--I can't love Jacob any more."

"Love!" Emma commented again.

"You don't understand, Emma. In England it was different. He was kind and wore nice clothes and was always making me laugh." Tears stopped her again. Through them she examined the set of her hair in a picture-glass and patted it straight.

"If you stayed out of this side of the valley and found some work to do at home you'd mighty soon get over your nonsense," Emma said, in a suddenly grating voice.

"Don't talk to me about duty," Rosa spat back. "Hasn't he got any duty towards me? Am I only a cow or a coolie? Oh, but that's not it." Her resentment collapsed. "If I only was a cow or coolie . . . he'd take some interest. But now. . . . Oh, it's just little things. His beard's never combed, his hair's all long and tangled. The tar sticks all over his clothes and he never cares. . . . But that's not everything, either." She dabbed her nose, and went on defiantly. "He didn't say it would be like this, and when I married him I didn't promise to spend all my days among dirty sheep. And I won't!" She stamped. "I won't! I won't! I'll--I'll run away. Yes, you can laugh. I've made up my mind, and if he tries to stop me I'll--I'll. . . . Oh, I don't know what." Her voice trailed off into angry sobs.

Emma watched coldly. "I understand well enough, Rosa. I'm no fool. You don't come over here so often when Dirk's away, I notice."

Rosa looked at her beseechingly. "Oh, Emma!"

"You leave my Dirk alone," Emma said harshly, "or I'll let your husband know what's been going on."

Rosa stiffened her face. "I don't care. I don't care. I'm going away. If he tries to stop me I'll . . . yes, I'll kill him."

Another scandal! was Cabell's first thought, but it gave way quickly to a feeling of keen sympathy for Rosa. He forgot that Bellamy was an amiable, kindly, middle-aged man who would have pampered and petted his wife like a child only he was always just on the point of discovering that perfect method of carrying meat to England which was to make his fortune. So years had passed and Rosa had grown blowsy with childbearing, though to Bellamy she seemed still the fresh young girl he had wooed in the suburbs of London.

"The poor little devil," Cabell muttered to himself. "Trapped like a rat. Hasn't she got a right to a higher kind of life? She doesn't care for him, either. Yet he still keeps her leg-roped there. Serve the beast right--if she did. . . ." And it came to him, seemingly as an afterthought, that he also was trapped and leg-roped, and he went on arguing to himself: "If I stop here I'll hang myself. I will go away. I will. Didn't I offer to treat her well? Then let her look to herself now. Is what happened my fault? Didn't she say once 'I don't blame you. I'm to blame'? Well, just let her try to stop me." And that night he dreamt that Jacob had locked Rosa in a room, and he went to rescue her. As she was escaping Jacob came in and tried to stop her, and Cabell wrestled with him and killed him.

He returned to his work, which he had been neglecting of late. Money--he must have that first. Then--"In six years!" he resolved, and again felt the gates opening before him.

After nine years in the valley he was still comparatively a poor man, for five bad years between 'fifty-one and 'fifty-six, years of a transition he had seen beginning on his way up from Moreton Bay, had left him little better off, in hard cash, than he was when he first settled. Restocking after the flood, which wiped out most of his flocks, had turned his small savings into an overdraft, the price of sheep having soared from seven to twenty shillings since the gold discoveries. Then the men cleared out overnight for the diggings--all except Sambo, Herb and Andy--and left the sheep to run wild in the valley, where dingoes slaughtered hundreds. One year half his stock went unshorn, and next year their wool was dry and saffron-coloured, worth next to nothing at a time of fabulous prices. As all the bullockies had rushed their drays to the diggings, he could find nobody to cart his bales, so he did that long journey himself again, three times in eleven months--2,400 miles of bullock-driving. By the end of 'fifty-five he was heavily in debt to the bank and the storekeepers--this at a time when the air was full of stories about fortunes made by a stroke of the pick, when squatters farther south, nearer to the goldfields or in more settled parts--such as Flanagan--were making money hand over fist, along with the likes of Dennis, who strutted the streets of Brisbane as a budding financier.

The luck certainly seemed against him, and he dated its turning from the day he married Emma. Nothing had prospered since.

But now, immediately he had remade his plans and set to work once more on the building of his fortune, the tide changed back. A cattle-buyer came over from the Riverina and paid him three pounds a head for five hundred stores that only a few years before he would have been glad to send to the pots for a third of the price. It was the turning point. Other buyers soon followed, from as far away as Ballarat itself, and soon their visit was regularly to be expected after the rains had freshened up the stock routes. They wanted mutton, too, but Cabell's sheep were all merinos, the small-bodied animal with the big ruffles that grows a weight of fine silky wool out of all proportion to its size, but has next to no meat compared with the big Border Leicesters and Lincolns and Southdowns, which have next to no wool. By bringing in good merino rams (at Emma's suggestion) he had already increased his wool yield from two and two and a half pounds to three pounds for each fleece; now he began cross-breeding from Southdown rams, getting a bigger sheep, attractive to butchers but yielding a slightly inferior wool. Then he bred back from the crossbred with merino rams and got a comeback to merino, but on a bigger scale. In this way he made money out of his sheep in both ways--from their wool and from their meat. He rigidly culled all weak strains, sometimes eliminating thirty per cent of his ewes from breeding, and the prices he got for his wool, rising to two shillings a pound, rewarded him. He began to fight the dingoes with the poison-cart and pushed them back into the ranges. The kangaroos, which the dingoes had preyed on, then multiplied and ate out his pastures, and he organized big battues and killed them off by the thousand.

At the end of 1856 he had paid off his debts and was a few hundred pounds to the good. In 1857 he had a balance of two thousand pounds. In 1858 he increased this to six thousand, and by the end of 1859 he had reached the long-dreamed-of goal--a fortune of ten thousand pounds in cash, besides another twenty or thirty thousand in stock. But now his imagination leapt forward to visions of greater wealth. After all, what was forty thousand pounds? They said that Dennis was worth half a million, that Flanagan had paid five thousand for the carriage and horses in which his wife drove about the streets of Brisbane, that Carney had lost twenty thousand in one afternoon at the Melbourne races. Yes, his hopes had been too modest. In two or three years he could double what he had. Prices were still rushing up. Why, a hundred thousand was not too much to aim for. To leave now, when the spade work of those early days was just coming to fruition, would be folly. Besides--there was Emma. He would need money to buy her off, money for Dirk, for Larry. . . . Three more years. He laid down most of his ten thousand in new breeding rams and stud bulls. In the private room he had built for himself off the end of the veranda he spent his evenings with his bank book on his knee, gave himself to audacious dreams of wealth and power.

Vigorous and far-seeing, he took every difficulty in his stride, and, as the by-product of an illusion, created the foundations of a great enterprise--the mechanism, probably, of all human achievement. When he entered Mother O'Connor's pub the crowd of squatters who were always there discussing the prospects looked at his stiff back with a certain respect. Sometimes they thought it worth a snub to ask his advice, but snubs became rarer as he began to understand that these thin-lipped, reticent men whom he feared really envied him. They came to buy rams from him and seemed unaware that a terrible disgrace hung over Cabell's Reach.

On closer acquaintance Cabell was surprised to find that they were not out of a jailyard either or from the slums of Dublin or London, but from very much the same stock as himself, many of them--younger sons of families whose wealth and importance had declined since the turn of the century, so that, disinclined to stagnate in genteel poverty at home, they had had to turn their eyes abroad. And what surprised him most was that they had deliberately chosen to come here--though all confided that their hope, like his, was a triumphant return to some little English village, which would be awestruck by the magnificence of the fortune the returning native, remembered by oldest inhabitants as an apple-cheeked boy setting out for foreign parts, would bring home.

At the same time Cabell began to understand that the gold-seekers pouring in from England were men of an altogether different spirit from the old hands, eager and adventurous as the Conquistadores, and with no festering sense of social injustice or cankerous hatreds born of suffering. He met some of these men and liked them. They came to buy cattle from him or with the shearers or looking for land, as the easy gold on the surface worked out. Their attitude to an early settler from whom they could expect a good tip was flattering. Also, they were jealous of one who had grabbed a plum in the race for land, and that flattered him, too, and hardened his pride of possession, making him instinctively tighten his grip on what he had against the rising agitation of the newcomers, who demanded that the rich estates should be cut up and divided equally among all. They told tales of famine and brutal inequality and the ugly life in the great, new industrial towns of England and talked a lot of enthusiastic rhetoric about liberty, these young men, as though in coming to Australia they had won a boon of freedom denied them in Europe, and this was the final shock to his conception of Australia, which he had continued to look on as a convict settlement still, not quite realizing that nearly twenty years had passed since the last shipload of convicts had arrived on the mainland.

All these signs and portents of the passing of an old, the birth of a new epoch came upon him suddenly. Withdrawn into himself, he had seen the first stirrings of change only as misfortune aimed from on high to injure him. Now he understood that a great social change was taking place, that an Australian was no longer a social outcast, and Aunt Julie's gibe about "the voluntary jailbird" lost its sting. When he compared Moreton Bay as it had been the day he lay in the dusty road waiting for Pete to be flogged and as it was now, the capital of a colony twenty times bigger than England, Pyke's Crossing that had grown into a town of stores and pubs (all owned by Mother O'Connor in the names of her numerous offspring) with the tumbledown shanty of Fritz Schmidt, the busy winding road with the virgin wastelands through which Gursey had guided him, the prosperous stations of the valley with the valley as he had seen it on the night of the corroboree, he perceived the progress of his own achievements not merely as his bank balance reflected it, but as part of the progress of a continent, and his imagination was stirred. His trials seemed to have a place in a pattern, to be not wholly without meaning.

In these good moments his feeling for Emma unconsciously softened and he talked to her about his work, boasted a little as he had done when they were first together.

There are certain days in Australia when the sheer clarity of the light, opening infinite perspectives of blue mountain and cobalt sky, seems to dissolve everything in radiance. The air seems to bubble like champagne. The leaden-grey bush which had weighted the spirit with its primeval strangeness is transformed by the billion twinkling points of mellow sunlight reflected in its metal leaves. The world around, that before had seemed merely too vast for men ever to force their wills upon it, now melts into depthless gaps of space, and they feel as though they have been released from all bondage of time and place. Irresistible emotions of confidence and optimism well up in their hearts, prompting them to dreams, recklessness and a passionate longing for mateship. On such days Emma and Cabell came closer together. Dark thoughts were impossible. England, with its shame and regrets, retreated from Cabell's mind, which was reconciled for the moment, by the dazzling beauty, to things that had seemed for ever alien and unlovable. His sense of power admitted difficulties nowhere, not even in the most incongruous, the most unbelievable possibilities: life with Emma, a family, far-projected plans for developing the valley. Not even the idea of spending the rest of his days at Cabell's Reach alarmed him then. A deep contentment possessed him. He felt at peace with the world.

He was up with the kookaburra and out all day among the cattle. It was a period of back-breaking, sweating, self-forgetful toil such as one searches, long afterwards, for the lost key to an enigmatic happiness. Then all at once some incident would change the whole colour scheme of his thoughts, and what before had seemed brightly promising would be overcast by the suddenly risen cloud of discontent and resentment. Sometimes it was an attack of homesickness, the fever that lies low for years to be stirred up by a fugitive scent, as, for example, when Rosa Bellamy trailed an invisible spray of lilac through the house, or by a glimpse of peach-trees raising bleak winter boughs against the evergreen face of the scrub. Again, it was an ugly death like Andy's, who was yoking an unbroken bullock when its horn pierced his eye and swung him round in the air for half a minute before he fell. Or a disaster, like the pleuro-pneumonic epidemic of 'fifty-nine, which killed off hundreds of cattle and two valuable Hereford bulls which he had just brought up from the south. At another time it was an echo of Black Jem's bushranging exploits on the roads round the goldfields which started him raging, aware that everyone must be pointing fingers at his back and calling him the cousin of that cut-throat, or some minor scandal nearer home, where Dirk broke from his sister's iron rule to paint the town red at Pyke's Crossing. Less frequently but more disastrously it was the reaction when once again Emma had broken down his celibate resolutions.

Then his eyes reopened to the crudity of the Australian scene. After Andy's death the life round him did not seem less pregnant of horror than when he had heard of a man being burned in half at Moreton Bay. When he was reminded of Black Jem, or Dirk threatened some disgraceful scandal, it signified nothing that Aunt Julie's gibe was out of date, since, tied to an old Factory hand, he was vulnerable to worse gibes and from hundreds of tongues as sharp as Julie's and nearer. That the new immigrants were adventurers instead of convicts was a curse, not a blessing, for honest men would despise him if they knew--and of course the scandalmongering swine in the valley, McFarlane and the rest, would see that they knew. The growth of the country and his own part in it appeared in a new light when he saw that men like Dennis and Flanagan prospered more than himself and got the kudos. Progress was an illusion when his cattle were dying like flies, and belief in his power to get what he wanted crumbled to pieces after Emma had twisted him round her finger and smiled up at him her grim, impenetrable smile.

Down at Pyke's Crossing they would again call Cabell Old Rusty Guts, and that was a sign for travellers to avoid the Reach. In these moments he looked ten years older than his thirty-seven years--with his purple scar, the saturnine wrinkles at the corners of his mouth, and his habit of talking through tightly clenched lips to hide the gaps in his teeth.

He neglected his work. Locked in his room off the veranda, he tramped up and down, day and night, the same crazy thoughts rolling about loose in his head like pebbles, till they seemed to have worn a hole and dropped out and he was dozing off. He dreamt that he was walking down Owerbury High Street with his mother and in his hand Emma's head, but he looked again and the head was his mother's and Emma was beside him, smiling with inscrutable mockery. He awakened to start off tramping again, the pebbles still clicking in his tired brain. He would leave her. He would. He would! But he saw her face staring up from among the pillows and groaned. "Let her try to stop me," he muttered. "By God, let her try. . . ." And he tramped harder to escape from his thoughts.

And though he seemed to escape them, yet when he came from the room with his mind again made up he was nervously aware that the shadow of some inevitable, tragic act lay more oppressively over the house. He looked guiltily, not like a man strong in virtuous resolution, and tiptoed across the veranda and down the stairs so as not to attract Emma. He hid himself in the thick scrub by the river, needing greater privacy for his thoughts. Striding about, gesticulating, hammering his palm, he harangued the trees. Hadn't she trapped him into marriage? Hadn't she admitted it? Hadn't she refused his overtures? Hadn't she shut him into a corner where he would go mad and do some irretrievable wrong? Impatiently he blackened the indictment, as though he saw his silent listeners wavering against him. She had made him throw Gursey out, and God alone knew what misfortune would come on him for that. She had fathered him with somebody else's brat--yes, everyone could see that Larry was no child of his, but Black Jem's. No blood of his. No responsibility of his. And now she was trying to get another child so as to fasten fresh ties on him. But here and now he would swear solemnly before God that never again, never, never again should she seduce him. In the next breath he blamed her for his childlessness: other men had families--Bellamy, McFarlane, Jardine, even the ineffectual Colonel--while his best years ran out and were barren. Then it was his lack of a home with which he reproached her, though he remembered to curse her also for the hundred and one little snares of comfort she had laid for him.

Next morning he returned to work with a reinvigorated greed. A flinty meanness now dominated him. He hoarded up rusty nails out of boxes, killed only the toughest old scrubs for meat, even, they used to say, went round with a bag to gather in the wool the sheep rubbed off against the trees. And, oppressed by an increasingly guilty sense of the stern and precise justice that sits on high and records and hears no pleas, he kept his fingers crossed in his pocket, always ran his eye quickly over the number of sheep in a pen to make sure it was not a multiple of thirteen, and cursed Sambo for shooting a wild black cat that had been playing hell with the chickens. Impulsive acts of generosity sprang from the same source. He paid to have an ailing swagman sent to Sydney for expert medical treatment, and kept a civil tongue in his head if he had to visit crazy Colonel Darvall to protest that the untended stock on Ningpo were luring his cattle into the scrub. With these expedients he hoped to placate "The Powers" for the guilt which weighed more and more heavily on him. In place of what he did not want to see he conceived his sin as a mere act of ingratitude to Gursey and Peters, managing thereby to keep his eyes off the dark cloud rising over the future.

But as the work swallowed him again these doubts, fears and evil designs dropped farther into the background, till visitors began to pass the fork of the road below the river once more and ride straight on to Cabell's Reach. For months he would be lost in the ever-expanding business of the run, to emerge suddenly for another bout of despair and angry resolves. With each cycle the period of absorption grew longer and the awakening proportionately more panic-stricken and bitter, his plans more explicit.

It was the same with Emma. Time blunted the memory of her humiliations. Whenever a baby was born at Narrow Gut or Black Rock or a child fell ill, they sent for her, and the women, lost creatures in the wilds, worn out by breeding and the monotony of their lives, threw themselves on her shrewd and fibrous strength. It did her good to be looked up to by these respectable folk. The insulted spirit's resentful pleasure in its own injury gave way to a ready, if still rather harsh, shy sympathy for others. It did her good, too, when Cabell's visitors praised her cooking and her house and invited her to visit their wives. Though Dirk kicked against her designs for his future, Winbaggery prospered and began to pay off its load of debt. A well-being such as she had never before known relaxed the lines of her mouth, lifted the shadows from her eyes, and seemed even to mould the gauntness of her face and body.

But, as with Cabell, a day was sure to come when her lips disappeared in a colourless line again. A bullock-dray passing had brought up Cabell's English mail. . . . Colonel Darvall had chased Dirk out of Ningpo with a whip when he went to ask Ludmilla to marry him. . . . Cabell had drawn away when she leant towards him. . . . Her shoulders smarted once more; she remembered the drunken settlers. Half vindictively, half in the effort to find her way out of the madhouse back into life, she laid her old traps for Cabell. And however much he pledged himself in the scrub, he always fell again, for he was a passionate man, easily set on fire.

Thus they both grasped after a life that would be finer, fuller. Illusive and contradictory, it evaded them. But time was rushing by, consuming them. Blindly they turned on each other.

 

 

Chapter Thirty-six

THE FENCE

 

One day towards the end of 1860 Cabell rode over to the Darvall's to complain, as usual, that the Ningpo scrubs were taking his cattle into the bush which the Colonel refused obstinately to clear. In virgin luxuriance it encompassed the strange house, already trailing vines and creepers across the gables, as if to help in hiding the Colonel from the curious world.

A dozen blacks were lounging in the yard watching a sheep roast, skin and all, over a smoky fire, and heaps of bones and sheep's heads around which clouds of flies buzzed showed that this feast was a regular thing. There was no sign of any white man about the place, for the Colonel thought that all white men had designs on his daughters and had chased them away.

Mrs Darvall was sitting with Ludmilla and Aurelia on the front veranda. "Must you really see the Colonel?" she asked. "He is not very well." She picked her words out as a person picks out the stepping-stones at a dangerous crossing, but her eyes were direct and ironical and her voice had a dry, hard humour.

"I've come to get my cattle back."

"Come, come, you're not the man to stand on ceremony, Mr Cabell," she rallied him. "I'd have thought you would just take them and ask afterwards." But her deprecating glance had a flash of entreaty in it.

"This time I'm going to insist the Colonel gets his cleanskins out of the Stony Creek scrub," Cabell said doggedly.

"Insist?" Mrs Darvall raised an eyebrow, half bantering, half doubtful. "Have you brought a pistol?"

"Certainly not. I've only come to reason with a--an obstinate man."

"A madman, you were going to say."

"Mamma!" It was Ludmilla who cried out. "How can you say such things?"

"Tut, tut, Ludmilla. Mr Cabell doesn't mince words usually."

Ludmilla's eyes blazed--big, brown eyes in a face strikingly like the Colonel's, only where the Colonel's eyes were shiftless and doggy hers were defiant, where the Colonel's mouth was merely mulish hers was firmly cut, and where the Colonel's chin ended hers began. "He would have spoken the vilest untruth," she flung at him, as though he had.

"Ludmilla!"

"Mamma!"

"You must control your wild, colonial feelings, dear child."

"People must control their tongues, dear mother." Her well-rounded body flexed under an orange silk dress ten years out of fashion. "That detestable Scotchman calls Papa a thief. Dirk Surface comes here drunk with his--his"--her Amazonian bravado hesitated and she blushed--"insulting proposals and laughs at Papa. And now you"--she looked Cabell witheringly up and down--"you dare to call him a madman. Oh, I wish I was a man!"

Mrs Darvall laughed. "If you were a man in this country, Luddy, you'd not dispute it. A person who doesn't understand better than your father how to look after his cattle must be mad, eh, Mr Cabell?"

"I didn't say so," Cabell replied, flushing. "I came to get my cattle back, that's all."

"It's not Papa's fault your horrible cattle come in our scrub," Ludmilla said, verging on tears now.

"If your father employed an overseer every beast on the place wouldn't be wild," Cabell remonstrated gently. "These blacks he's let in are no use whatever. Moreover, I ought to warn you they're dangerous. Ten years ago they were murdering my men."

Mrs Darvall's eyes betrayed her alarm, but Ludmilla laughed scornfully. "If the blacks harm anyone, it's likely to be those who injure them. For the rest, you can build a fence."

"But I'm the best judge of that."

"And we're the best judges of our own affairs, you horrid man," Ludmilla stamped.

Her sister Aurelia now raised her eyes for the first time from her sewing and flicked a lizard-like glance at Cabell's legs, planted wide apart in a horseman's stance and sharply outlined in his thin trousers. With untroubled vagueness, rather startling after the heated scene, she considered his face a moment and returned her eyes to her work. She was about twenty-eight years old, but in every way a contrast to her sister. Thin, sallow, listless, with modestly drooped black eyelashes, she looked Quakerish in a dark, plain dress clasped tightly to her long neck. Staring at her to avoid the bellicose gaze of Ludmilla, Cabell was surprised to discover that, while all her attention seemed on her needle, her hazy eyes kept flashing their lizard glances at him through their lashes.

But at this moment the Colonel rushed on to the veranda, attracted by their voices. "What's this?" he bellowed. "You here again!--Vile proposals--my daughters. Damme, where's the whip?" He disappeared into the house.

Ludmilla bit her lip and Mrs Darvall frowned slightly.

In a second or two he reappeared with a stockman's whip, which he proceeded to crack threateningly at Cabell, but the big lash, after whizzing perilously near his wife's head and upsetting a cup on the table, curled round his legs and sent him flying into the wall.

"Papa dear!" Ludmilla expostulated, red and breathless with anger and pity and shame.

"Enough, daughter. Enough!" the Colonel roared, picking himself up. "You shall be protected. You have me--if not enough, Queen herself! Yes, sir--Queen herself!! Those ruby lips--kissed by Majesty. But what am I doing? Ludmilla!--Aurelia!--Leave room.--This man--foul language--maidens' ears. Come, my children." And he hustled them off the veranda.

Ludmilla glanced back at Cabell with a sigh of exasperation.

"Now, my man." The Colonel rushed up to Cabell and shook a fist under his nose. "Speak! Sent here--poisonous gold of my enemies. I understand!"

A man miraculously aged by six short years of ordeal. Wasted to a skeleton, with a few grey wisps of hair fluttering over his ears, pockmarked from an attack of Barcoo rot--a kind of scurvy--he was indeed a pitiable sight. He was bowed and walked with bent knees, as though some enormous burden weighed on his shoulders. When he spoke an overplus of spittle ran down the corners of his mouth and dribbled over his chin. With a sudden self-consciousness painful to see he turned away and wiped his starched shirt-front dry.

"Come out of the sun, Felix," Mrs Darvall said quietly. "You know it doesn't agree with you. And, by the way, Mr Cabell just dropped in to see you about the cattle in our scrub."

"Lies. All lies," the Colonel fired up. "Can't deceive me. Tell your assassins--her blessed Majesty--extends personal protection. Yes, sir." He paused and chuckled, then whispered "He's dead--The Enemy. Mention no name. Mightiest in the land. Fallen. The name of Barton-Darvall shines clear again." He wrenched an invisible sword from its scabbard and waved it over his head.

Cabell frowned, but, catching Mrs Darvall's eye, inclined his head to the suddenly amiable burblings of the Colonel, who had quite forgotten in an instant that Cabell was the paid agent of the House of Saxe Coburg.

"My dear Cabell, we are leaving here--next week--Queen's Equerry expected any moment--Letters Patent--Ah, you saw it in the Gazette?--Peerage--public welcome--Forty-first recalled India--guard of honour--Triumphal progress--Old 'Lucknow' Darvall--"

Cabell interrupted by mumbling shyly "I came to ask if I could send my men over to get those cattle out of the scrub near Stony Creek."

"What's that? Cattle--scrub--creek?" The Colonel blinked, but failed to recall the features of a dream behind a dream. Instead, he fell back on a sense of grievance and shouted "Damme, you scoundrel, I won't permit it. My gad, sir. What next!"

The door opened and Ludmilla rushed out and seized his quivering arm. "Oh, Papa, Papa, don't shout so. Talk reasonably or they'll think you're not--not rational."

"Not rational? Me? Barton-Darvall?" He broke away and stared at them in amazement, his Adam's apple bobbing up and down his scraggy throat, which looked like a plucked chicken's, a dribble of spittle disregarded on his chin. "Ah! I see it all. They think I'm mad. Martha! Ludmilla! Did you hear? I am being traduced. I see it. I see it." He ran round in circles, beating the air. "You, sir"--he seized the whip--"shall be whipped to within an inch of your life, though the whole jury of German princes is behind you. Take that, renegade" . . . But the lash twisted itself round his body again, this time giving him a vicious flick across the cheek. He dropped the whip and covered his face in his hands.

Martha Darvall and Ludmilla ran to help him and hastened him off the veranda.

When she returned a few minutes later, Mrs Darvall remarked coolly: "There, now, you could have saved yourself a ride in the heat. Felix is only too pleased to have you do whatever you wish with the scrub."

"Thank you," Cabell said, and, shamefaced, added, "I'm sorry."

"Not at all. Nothing to be sorry about." Mrs Darvall laughed shrilly and tore at a knot in her cotton. "My best wishes to your wife. I'll come and see her some day. Isn't it lovely weather we're having? Quite like the Old Country. Good-bye. Good-bye."

"If I could be of any assistance . . ." Cabell said, drawn as always to this stiff-backed, cold woman, unlike any woman he had known for years.

"Assistance? What do we want assistance for, do you think? Merely a headache. I told you so once. It's the heat. This dreadful heat." She attacked her sewing with erratic stitches. "Now you'll write home and tell them you had to help us put him in a strait-jacket, I suppose. You have to find something to say in your letters, don't you? How's your sister? She should have married long ago. It's shocking. How's your brother-in-law? He wanted to marry Ludmilla. Can you imagine that? Ludmilla! Really . . . that's the limit. How we laughed! Well, good-bye, goodbye. You'll be late home if you don't go. If you see Dirk. . . . He's a nice boy. The Colonel always sleeps after lunch, you know. If he had any eyes in his head, that boy, he'd see Aurelia's much nicer. Good heavens, what are you gawking at? Have I got a smut on my nose? Don't dare! Don't dare to repeat a word. I'm joking, of course. Oh, go away." She grimaced at him. "What clods you Colonials are! No, no, don't go. I'm sorry. It's so close. It makes my eyes ache." She rubbed her tearful eyes and bent closer to her sewing.

Cabell turned his head away shyly. "Huh! I wasn't thinking that way," he grumbled. "What I meant, if you'd let me put in a couple of men and clear those blacks out--till the Colonel's well again . . . I'd be saving myself money, saving cattle. That's all I meant."

"I might have known you'd have something up your sleeve," she laughed hysterically. "Everybody knows what a hard man you are."

"I look after what's my own," he growled.

She hesitated a moment, trying to conceal the trembling of her lips, then said hastily, "Oh, yes, yes, you can do something, Derek Cabell. Fence your cattle in, can't you? Please. Please. Bellamy has done it. The Colonel won't. He doesn't quite understand, you see. We wouldn't have this scene again. Now good-bye. God bless you."

So Cabell built the first fence on the run. It was only a mile of posts and saplings, but the whole story of it would make a big volume. For it proved to be a touch-spark to long-festering grievances between himself and McFarlane.

It ran from the river to Red Hill, the end of the crescent of hills that was the boundary between Cheviot and Cabell's Reach. By some oversight of the fencers its corner-post penetrated three or four yards past the blazed tree that showed where McFarlane's property began. McFarlane pulled down three yards on each side of the boundary-post and Cabell put the fence up again, this time taking it past the boundary-post with a pig-headed deliberation that sprang from insults and fancies brooded over for ten years. McFarlane retaliated by building a three-mile boundary between Cheviot and Cabell's Reach, at right angles to Cabell's fence, but making Cabell's side of the marked tree the corner-post, and carrying the fence three feet inside all the other trees Cabell had marked in 'forty-nine. In this way he filched about a hundred acres of very stony, waterless land, really of no use to anyone, though the ridge as a whole was valuable because it gave the cattle a dry camp in the rainy season.

But Cabell did not think of this. He only remembered that McFarlane had said he was hand in glove with Black Jem, knew (so he fancied) about Emma's past, and told everyone who came into the valley. When he discovered the lie of the new fence he was just recovering from a fit of the blue devils. Next morning it was a line of charred and smouldering posts. That summer a mysterious bushfire destroyed just those four trees which marked Cabell's boundary. Cabell sought out and burned down the trees that marked McFarlane's boundary. In the subsequent markings and remarkings, scorings out and burnings all knowledge of original rights was lost. Cabell claimed that his boundary was the bottom of the ridge nearest to Cheviot. McFarlane claimed that the ridge was entirely his.

They were both stubborn, suspicious, unforgiving men.

"Och, I'll bide nae taunts frae the blackguard," McFarlane told his wife. "D'ye mind that bit of a mare was Luckie's mither eight years gone by? Weel, he was for stealing that off me if I hadna keept ma een wide. It's weel kent the sort of thievin' rogue he is." For McFarlane had transferred all the vices of Black Jem to Cabell, and really believed what he said about the mare.

"I'll make him sorry for the day he came sneaking round here," said Cabell with equal obliquity, when a few weeks later he received a demand for ten pounds, failing payment of which some cattle the Scotchman had impounded on the hills would be sold, according to law.

"You could buy the whole ridge for ten pounds," Emma said quietly. "That's the only way you'd have done with McFarlane."

"Buy it!"

"Well, Dirk says it will cost you twice as much in five years."

"Don't talk to me about that waster," he dashed off at a tangent. "He's been letting a slut named Lizzie Beck live with one of his Chinamen. Now he's going to bring up the parson to marry them. A white woman!" He snatched on his hat and, exclaiming "What a family! Dregs! Dregs!" got himself out of the house before she could say any more.

All that year there were impoundings and counter-impoundings and a few black eyes among the minor actors on both sides. Then Cabell sent down to Brisbane and consulted a lawyer--Maurice Peppiott, one of Peppiott's sons, a shrewd fellow. "Put your stock on the land and keep it there," Peppiott said. Cabell put a handful of sheep on the barren ridge. First he had to build a yard and dig waterholes, which was a very costly addition to an already costly business. But between McFarlane, the interested spectators in the valley, and Emma, who repeated monotonously "Buy! Buy! Buy!" there was no dignified way to draw back now.

McFarlane lay low for two months, then one morning early in 1862 Herb rode in to report that the Scotchman was pulling the fence down and driving the sheep to the pound. Cabell, Sambo and Herb went hotfoot across the valley and met the raiders near Stony Creek, on their way to Cheviot.

McFarlane emerged from the dust behind the sheep. "Dinna ye obstruct the course o' justice, Mr Cabell, or ye'll come off the waur!" he shouted.

"Justice, you old villain!" Cabell shouted back. "Why, I'll have a pretty dollop of damages out of you for that fence."

"Och, so ye will, will ye?" McFarlane answered, wiping his big, red face with the sweat-rag he always carried in his belt. And with out-thrust lower lip he seemed to consider this proposition seriously. At last he shook his head slowly and said "The dust must've got into ma brain, for I canna see for the life o' me how a sensible man the like o' you would expect a brass farthin'-bit."

"Mebbe it's for that clip in the eye I give that there alleged stockman down Pyke's Crossing last month," one of his men remarked, pointing at Sambo.

"'Ad all yer mob down, that's why," Sambo retorted. "Hit me wiv a bottle when me foot slipped."

"Ah, haud yer nonsense tongues," McFarlane interposed. "Let the gentlemon expoond," and with elaborate attention put his leg-of-mutton fist to his great flap of an ear and pushed it forward.

"No expounding needed," Cabell told him. "You won't deny these are my sheep?"

McFarlane nodded indulgently to his henchmen. "The gentlemon's richt. The wee bit, measly, scabby culls is plainly his. I winna deny it."

"And you got them from the ridge?"

"Richt again, mon."

"And you pulled down a part of the fence to do it?"

"Och aye, the gentlemen's unco canny this mornin'. He has it a' richt--so far."

"Well, I built the fence, didn't I?"

"That's partly true. Your minions and paid scabs did it for ye. But we'll let that be."

"Therefore you've broken and damaged my property. That's clear now, I hope."

McFarlane's brow wrinkled perplexedly. "It's sair wark followin' sic an explication. It's nae mair clear than a foggy nicht."

"Look 'ere, you old mutton-head," Sambo intervened. "Ain't that our fence?"

"Weel," McFarlane answered, stroking his stubbled chin, "as for your first observation, wha's the mutton-head and wha's no the mutton-head will be revealed unto ye i' the course o' time. As for the fence, weel I'll tell ye. It's ma ain. And ye wouldna suggest, as a leeberty-lovin' mon, that I canna pu' down a panel o' ma ain fence ony mair than ye'd suggest I canna put ma fute on ma ain hearthstane if I'se so disposed?"

"Your fence!" Cabell and Sambo exclaimed together.

"Aye. But ye seem verra surprised. Ye surely canna think I'd lay hands on what didna belong to me?"

"What new nonsense is this?"

"Och now, Mr Cabell, mon, ye wouldna ca' the orders and seals o' the land's meenisters nonsense, I hope?"

"I don't know what you're getting at," Cabell said, catching a sly wink McFarlane passed to his men. "Here, Sambo, get these wethers back on to the ridge. We've no time to waste jawing."

Sambo and Herb whistled up their dogs.

"Aweel, aweel," McFarlane sighed. "A wilfu' mon maun hae his way, e'en to perdition. Gie way, lads, and let him hang hisself, though it gars me feel sair to see it that I've done a' Christian could tae be neebourly. Back to the boondary wi' ye and no an inch farther."

And to Cabell's surprise he turned his horse and led his men grinning away. Sambo and Herb started the sheep, and they trotted in the wake of the raiders, over the track they had come.

But as soon as they were within sight of Stony Creek, which here watered some of the richest land in the valley, McFarlane and his men turned their horses again and planted themselves across the path.

The sheep scattered back. "Stand out of the way!" Cabell shouted. "You damned old nuisance. You know as well as I do you mustn't--"

"I mauna, mauna I?" McFarlane said in a changed voice. "Weel, cast your een ower that, ye conceited whelp," and riding over to Cabell he thrust a paper under his nose. Cabell took it and read.

 

Brisbane,
15th December 1862.

Dugald McFarlane, Esq.,
Cheviot,

Re Alleged Transcursion on Leasehold No. 5737. (Wastelands Act Amendment Act, 1847, of New South Wales.)

Dear Sir,

The Minister, having considered your complaint, and having examined in detail the plans of Leasehold 5737, taken out in your name under the above Act, with the Commission for Crown Lands the ----- District, in February 1850, and the plans of adjoining leaseholds in Cabell Valley, and having taken advice from the surveyors who made a preliminary survey of these lands in the period March 1856 to February 1857, and after mature deliberation and full agreement of Commission for Crown Lands in the said district of -----, is of opinion that the watercourse, marked Stony Ridge on the maps of the Preliminary Survey, lies wholly within your holding, as well as, therefore, the Ridge marked Stony Ridge in the abovementioned maps and the Waterhole marked Yamma Pond into which the creek empties; that your boundary is defined by an imaginary line running southward of Stony Ridge, at an average distance of two miles and thirty-eight chains therefrom, westward from Red Hill to Sugarloaf, ten miles and forty-three chains . . . that you may, if you so desire, assume full and complete possession of any structures, fences, wells, tanks, containers or other buildings or appurtenances whatsoever wrongfully erected on this land by the transcursor. . . . Transcursing livestock may be driven to the public pound, or, such not existing, may be impounded in your own yards and must be delivered to the owner immediately on payment of the poundage prescribed by law.

(Signed) M. J. FLANAGAN

(Minister of her Majesty's Cabinet for the Colony of Queensland.)

 

Cabell gazed for fully five minutes at a document which robbed him of thirty square miles of his finest land (not to mention the triumph it gave his arch-enemy) and, bitter coating to a bitter pill, added to the injury it did him the insult of Flanagan's flaunting signature below the Royal Coat-of-Arms.

So Flanagan was a Minister of the Crown. And the roan stallion was not forgotten yet.

He thrust the paper back into McFarlane's fist and wheeled his horse to ride away.

McFarlane chuckled. "Ye're satisfied the noo, are ye?" he asked. "I trust there'll be nae mair hirdygirdy and rampaugin' ower what's writ doon i' the law."

"The law!" Cabell shouted back. "You'll soon see what the law says about this. I'll have you back on the other side of those hills in six months."

"Awell, ye dinna take it like a gentlemen, and that's no surprisin', seein' what company you keep."

Cabell wheeled his horse again. "What's that?"

"Dinna rouse yeself that gate, mon," McFarlane said, winking at his men. "I'm no goin' to play Jack the Gravedigger wi' your past. It's your present's the talk o' the neebourhood this mornin'."

Obviously a major scandal was at work here. McFarlane chuckled and the men grinned at Cabell with malicious expectation.

"Yer wife's brither's gone and took up wi' Lizzie Beck that was Ah Fung, the China's whore," McFarlane roared at him. "Nay, mon"--hastily turning his horse--"dinna come another inch or I'll serve ye wi' a writ for trespass and hamesucken," and, putting in spurs, "Away wi' ye, lads," he called. "Let 'em ha'e their scabby lambs," and vanished into the scrub.

Locked in his room at the homestead once more, Cabell listened at the door to the story Rosa was sobbing into Emma's ears on the veranda--blackness on blackness!

"Stop snivelling, you fool!" Emma snarled--a voice he could not connect with the still-faced, self-assured woman whose designs never failed. "The Chinaman run away, did he?"

"Y-yes. He must have. They say he's frightened of Lizzie Beck. She used to beat him--"

"Yes--yes. Then what happened, for heaven's sake?"

"They waited, you see, and waited and waited," Rosa went on in an injured voice. "And they drank and drank till Dirk could hardly stand up. He was singing and shouting and kept kissing the bride. So Jacob said. Oh--oh--"

"I'll shake your head off in a minute," Emma said in a venomous whisper. "Get on with it!"

"Oh, he married Lizzie Beck. Emma. Oh!"

"But how, girl? How? I can't believe it. Lizzie Beck! A slut! Marry Dirk! My Dirk!"

Rosa mastered her sobs for a moment. "He had a bet he couldn't ride Squeejee, the cock-eyed bull he's got. And he did. He rode it for nearly half an hour till it fell down. Then he gave the money to Lizzie for a wedding present."

"She was drunk, too, of course."

"No; she doesn't drink. That's what she used to beat the Chinaman for. She was just standing in a corner waiting for the Chinaman to come."

"Well?"

"Well. . . . Oh, Emma! What shall I do?" Tears choked her again.

"Do, you madwoman? Go back home and thank your stars you've not got a shiftless fool like this on your hands. But go on, go on."

"Well, Dirk looked round and said 'Damn me if I hadn't forgot about the wedding. Where's the happy man?' And everybody laughed. 'He's half-way to Hongkong by now,' somebody said. And Dirk said that he'd go after him and drag him back by the pigtail. But it was getting dark, and when they went down to Ah Fung's hut they saw the fire was cold and he must have got four hours' start at least while they'd been drinking. So Lizzie Beck grabbed a revolver and vowed she'd shoot every Chinaman on the place. But Dirk put his arm round her and said not to take on like that, and said 'The boys are here. The booze is here. The parson's here. Damn the Chow, I'll marry you myself, and you'll have Mr Cabell for a brother-in-law.' Those were his exact words, Jacob told me."

"And then?"

"Oh, Emma, he d-did!"

It was Emma's turn to tramp. She swept up and down the veranda. "Where's my whip? My God, where's a horse? I'll send her about her business. Marry my brother, would she? The guttersnipe! The harlot! I'll show her." And a horse galloping out of the paddock a few minutes later told him that she was gone--as her frozen face told him next morning, when he emerged from his room after a night's restless tramping on his own account, that her will had found a knot it could not undo.

 

 

Chapter Thirty-seven

FLANAGAN HAS A TURN

 

The real calamity was the outcome of his quarrel with McFarlane. Dirk's disgraceful marriage only made it more urgent to retaliate against his triumphant enemies. That mob at Pat Dennis's! How they would be laughing now! He thought of compelling McFarlane at the point of his gun to give back twice as much land as he had stolen. He thought of rushing off to Brisbane and seizing Flanagan by the throat and throttling the breath out of him till he begged for mercy and signed an abject pardon that would be printed in all the papers and circulated throughout Australia. But these impracticable schemes gradually gave way to a determination to seek redress at law. Let them wait! He would go to the English courts if necessary--to the Privy Council itself. He would tell what he knew about Flanagan's early life in the Colony, about his wife and her first husband Duffy, how she was said to beat Flanagan with a stockwhip. He would publicly disgrace him, make a laughing-stock of him.

Apart from the injury to his pride, there were imperative practical considerations. The land in dispute, though furthest from the river, was among the best on the run because one of three open tracts. It had several big waterholes and a network of creeks, and in a good season carried a sheep to the acre. So in losing it he had to find room for nearly eighteen thousand sheep in other parts of the run, already well stocked. For the prudent husbandry of the last five years was just then coming to a rich fruition. With two more years of lease to run and good seasons promising a regular market for his cattle, his wool fetching high prices, a steady demand for his ewes from squatters stocking stations in the newly opened lands to the north, it was clearly the time for a last great push. To evacuate now was altogether out of the question.

He left three horses winded on the road to Brisbane, and arrived little better off himself. Avoiding Pat Dennis's Royal Hotel, where Flanagan's friends, the detestable Currys and Carneys, were to be found, big and boastful with prosperity, he took lodgings in a ramshackle pub kept by old Fritz Schmidt, who had once owned the shanty at Pyke's Crossing.

The dust of his journey removed, he hurried to the public offices and demanded to see Flanagan at once. But he might as well have taken fifty as five days over his ride for all that Flanagan was anxious to meet an old acquaintance. Minor officials, new-chums from England or town-bred men from Sydney, who wore starched shirts and shining boots, looked askance at a typical rough outback character with a ragged beard, a savage scar, dusty, old-fashioned coat reeking of wood-smoke, trousers stuffed in the tops of his boots, and, shamefully aware of such shortcomings, he glared back at them, stormed, thundered, countered evasive courtesy with round, cattleman's oaths, fumed about "nincompoops" and "limejuicers", but got no farther in a week than acquiring a certain renown among clerks and doorkeepers as "Old Damn and Blast You", the inevitable end to all their efforts to talk with him. For none of them seemed to think it important who owned thirty-odd miles of land in a country twice as big as Europe. The letters he poured in, each more peremptory than the last, only served to repay Flanagan many times for a stallion lost eighteen years before.

The bustle and hurry of the little town, where everyone was going somewhere or doing something, did not soothe Cabell. Wealth was pouring into the new Colony from every corner of the globe. Expeditions were setting out to find pastures in the untouched hinterlands. Bullock drays hourly arrived from the stations up-country. On the roadsides agents ripped open the bales with their knives and bartered with the owner for thousands of pounds' worth of wool. Those who had made sales and stowed away fat cheques in their boots broached kegs of rum and magnums of the "swells' tipple" for passers-by to drink their healths in. Other bullock-drays lumbered up the street with tottering back-loads of stores, suites of furniture, bales of fencing wire, and gilded pianos. Old friends met who had been buried for years in the heart of the red country behind the Great Divide, roared greetings above the clamour of cattle and men coming in and going out along the western road. Groups of immigrants stood by and watched with eyes full of wonder and hope, all their worldly possessions in little bundles to which they clung tightly for fear of legendary bushrangers and convicts. Carriages made to run the smooth circles of Hyde Park jolted through herds of half-wild cattle. The coachmen exchanged curses with the lean, brown stockmen, and the ladies inside were not above putting their heads out to add a little competent sculduddery of their own. A bystander informed Cabell that one of these ladies in a carriage that would have flattered a grand duke was the wife of Mr Flanagan, the Minister, taking her daughter Jennis to enjoy the weekly public spectacle of Brisbane--the arrival of the boat from Sydney.

At night the noise of wild celebrations proceeded from the Royal Hotel, where squatters and the planters of cotton, who were beginning to profit by the American Civil War, shouted the town to champagne at two pounds the bottle and afterwards roamed the streets till daybreak, fighting and singing and firing off their pistols. Money flowed like water. Diamond rings glittered on the fingers of men in dirty moleskins who could not sign their names to the mighty cheques they cashed.

In the bars the sturdy and independent diggers who had left the goldfields in search of land now that the easy days of puddling were over banged their pots in argument, railed against the greedy squatters who had picked the eyes out of the country, blew about the nation they had made at the Eureka Stockade and the glorious future it had. On every tongue the word "gold", in every eye the seeking look of the adventurer, in every footstep haste and impatience, everywhere exuberance, energy, self-confidence--the stirring of a new vulgarity and a new vitality.

"Zey don't know what I know," Fritz Schmidt said to him one afternoon, as they were watching the crowd in the street. It was the very street in which Cabell had lain waiting for Pete to be flogged eighteen years before. Now a babble in every language under the sun rose from it. There were men, in stiff collars and black coats and belltoppers, from the public offices; Chinamen with flowing pantaloons, running with little steps, baskets of vegetable produce yoked to their necks; slouching aborigines, in cast-off moleskins and blankets, whose degeneration and disease vouched for it that civilization had arrived; kanakas in bright cotton loincloths from the plantations, their skins the colour of old mahogany; negroes; Yankees in vast hats; fair-skinned English; and a scattering of thin-jowled, grey-eyed Currency Lads, who looked like brothers and alone of all the eager crowd seemed to have nothing to do except lean against veranda-posts and make disparaging comments on the passers-by.

"Come easy, go easy," Fritz said. "Zey think it all last till ever. But it's jampagne at Pat Dennis's today; next week come to old Fritz and get one glass of rum on dick. Ach!" He rubbed his fat little hands angrily on his bald head. "'Don't you never learn nossings?' I say them. 'Look at me. What you zink, eh? Poor old Fritz, eh? Don't you seen nossings? No, you damfool. One time, two times, three times I make a fortune, see. First time in Sydney in 'thirty-eight. I buy land, I sell it. Ten tousand pounds, see? I buy more land. Drought come. Goot!

"'Next time I buy one station. Plenty money. Fifty, sixty tousand. Shake hand mit Governor. Lend him five tousand pound. Rain come. Sit on table. Zen on roof. Zen climb tree.

"'Next time 'fifty-six. Go to Bendigo mit one shovel and one lizence. Dig three day--gold. Dig harder--more gold. Harder, harder--more, more gold. I say me: 'Zis too damn slow, Fritz." Sell ze gold, sell ze claim, buy shares. What you zink, eh?'" He sighed. "Well, sell ze shovel and walk to Mebourne."

"Bad luck," Cabell sympathized.

"Nein, nein, damfool," Fritz said. He pointed into the street. "See zat man mit ze big hat. I seen him light his pipe mit one ten-pound note in Ballarat. Now he's waiting till someone buy him a drink." He leant over the veranda-rail and beckoned the man in. "Say, you, Wilhelm Prosser, you have one drink on me zis afternoon. Zen you go away. Vat you zink? I ain't ze free jarity."

The man touched his forehead. "Thankee, boss. You'll be the first to see the colour of my gold."

"Zat man, he don't know much yet," Fritz said. "He spent one fortune on booze and woman. Anosser on race-horses. Zinks he get one more chance." He spat on to the heads in the street. "Everyone damfool. Zey can't wait. Always going somewhere else after ze gelt. Buy ship, zen zink 'Damn this. More money mit cattle.' Buy cattle, zen zink 'More money mit business.' Buy business, zen zink 'Better to buy ship.' Live here, zink 'Better zere.' Live zere, zink 'Zis dead hole. Go some other place.' Never want to stick at nossings. Zat's us Australians."

"We all want to go back home and life's so short."

"Bah! When we go back home, zen want to come back here."

"Oho!" Cabell laughed. "Give me half a chance."

"Ah so?" Fritz said sceptically. "It was ze same by me. Go home in 'fifty-three. All ze way I zink 'Kommt Deutschland. Wunderschönes Deutschland.' Zen Deutschland kommt. Ach, it is terrible. So much peoples. So much 'Don't do zis and don't touch zat.' And poor mans mit kein brot. And must hat raise to everyone. And immer, immer regen. And sunshine like water in ze beer. And in meiner heimatstadt all ist dead--mutter, vater, schwester.

"I say my old friend Hans Baucher: 'Dat's not a goot way for shear ze ship. Try zis way.' He just say: 'Mein grossvater do zis before you was born.' And I say him: 'Damfool Hans. Zis is better.' And he answer: 'Dummerevelkopf, zis is better. Mein grossvater' . . . 'Kreuzhimmeldonnervetternocheinmal!' say I. 'Damn your grossvater.' Zen we fight and it is so lonely in meiner heimatstadt. 'Dam funny, Fritz,' zink I. 'You zink it were lonely in Pykes Crossing; Ah, wunderschönes Australien! Wunderschönes Pyke's Crossing, where no man hat einen grossvater.' And when I shut meine augen and zink about Pyke's Crossing it is what I used to zink about Deutschland when I shut meine augen in Pyke's Crossing!"

In silence for a moment he considered this strange phenomenon, while his melancholy eyes, which blinked so fast that they looked like little mouths snapping at the flies, grew hazy with sentimental tears. "Ah, Deutschland," he muttered. "Ah, das bien! Die bäume! Der liebe Schwarzwald!" He sighed again. "Ja, ja. One day next time I make one fortune maybe I . . ." He paused, looked guiltily at Cabell, whose eyes also had a hazy sentimental film, and mumbled. "Time I began mixing gut-rot for ze boys tonight," and shuffled out.

While he kicked his heels outside Flanagan's door during the following fortnight Cabell got some satisfaction out of reflecting on what seemed to him to be the moral of Fritz's maunderings--that every dog has his day. That a dog was enjoying his day at the moment was an instance of the tail-chasing futility of human intercourse which did not occur to him. He was full of a sense of purpose just then. The excitement that was sweeping the whole country, the faith in a golden future that seemed to be dawning for everyone with hands to work, had infected him. Roads were to be laid down, railways built. . . . Now was the time he had waited for. He only had to settle this trouble of the boundary, then in two years. . . .

Meanwhile he bustled about the public offices. But in the newest of countries he found the oldest and most circuitous of administrative rituals. Soon he was a leading voice in the hymn of hate sung by impatient old shellbacks kept hanging about government waiting-rooms.

"These damnable Whitehall dudes," he grumbled, with his eye on an office full of starched and ironed clerks. "It'd rub some of that damn-fool shine off them to do a day's honest work in a drafting yard."

"Hear, hear!" the shellbacks applauded a sentiment that revealed a true sheep and cattle man from outside--one of themselves.

The under-secretary, Mr Pethick Gubbins, with whom Cabell tried to do business in a stockman's terse style, was a lizard of a man from the Colonial Office in London. He hated colonials, who thought that any question could be adequately answered with a yea or a nay, a principle which threatened the holiest joy of Gubbins's life, which was to write a memorandum, have it copied, re-copied, signed, counter-signed, handed from secretary to secretary, department to department, collecting other memoranda on the way, until it returned a fully fledged file which could be forthwith pigeonholed and forgotten. That his cupboards were not stuffed with claims a century old was to Gubbins a more distracting revelation of the wilderness of the country he had been thrown into than the cockroaches which chewed up his boots or the flies that shared his dinner with him.

Could Cabell have seen himself as Gubbins, fresh from the foggy sidewalks of Whitehall, saw him, he would have been shocked. For in conflict with this fossil he unconsciously manifested all the gruff characteristics of the national psyche that was then beginning to show itself, on mining-fields, in the shearing-sheds, in fact, wherever colonials of a few years' standing foregathered.

The leading feature of this embryo soul was an aggressive resentment of any attempt by an "outsider"--an Englishman--to dictate or advise. "Never been out of England. What's he know about the bush?" Cabell grumbled after another futile interview with Gubbins, as once a squatter in "that mob at Pat Dennis's" had said "Let him try and bring a load of wool where I came last month." It was the same attitude. Had they not carved their possessions out of the bush for themselves? What could an Englishman know of bushfires, droughts and floods? "All these forms and long words, what's it amount to? We're not in England now," Cabell fretted, and recalled Fritz's complaint that in the Old Country there was too much "don't do this, don't touch that". "How do they think we'd have opened up the country if we'd had to fill in these damn forms first?" he growled, as under the deprecating eye of a spruce young English secretary his work-stiffened fingers struggled with an unfamiliar pen and splashed ink liberally across the paper.

"When I came here first there was hardly anything better than bark. The lags brought the corn up from the fields in a cart, yoked with chains. There wasn't all this fuss. You could hear them working the treadmill up on the hill there. Now it's about as much as your life's worth getting across the street on foot--all these carriages and traffic. . . . Out my way the blacks skinned a man. They're still ugly at times. Lot of use these pen-pushers would have been. They'd have eaten that fellow in the collar there alive." He scowled. "And now they think they can come in and bamboozle us, damn and blast them!"

To this dislike of interference from outsiders was bound a complex hatred of being commanded, that echoed partly from the old convict days of emancipists asserting their rights to liberty and equality outside the jailyard, came partly from political theories then strongly in the air, but largely, in men like Cabell, was the independence which every settler won in the lonely fight of pioneering.

Finally there was the conviction, common in varying degrees of rancorous intensity to all transportees alike, voluntary and involuntary, to Cabell as well as Gursey, that England had done them a hard injustice when she cast them into this land, where everything was topsy-turvy and wild. Well, they had learnt to make the best of it. Twelve thousand miles of ocean separated them from the little island in the North Sea, and Australia was a continent into which fifty such islands could be crammed. It was theirs. They would manage things differently now they had a chance. So overboard with the old traditions and rituals in which their independence could only perish, overboard with the tyranny of the past as it was exemplified in Gubbins. A new future was breaking across the dark continent, and that future was theirs. Of course they stole backward glances towards the Land of Cockayne, which gave form to their inevitable human illusions, but the vision was so different from the other concept of England, the tyrannous England, of unjust criminal laws, of the fathers and families who had pushed them out to fight for themselves, that the two could hardly be compared.

Nineteen years had assimilated Cabell closely to this slowly emerging national type, in which old jailyard resentments mixed with adventurous hopes, Irish fire with slow Scotch smoulder, day-dreaming with decisive realism, the hollow restlessness of men who have nothing to hope for with the solid ambitions of men remade by their ordeals. Even he himself began to be aware of this fundamental change which he had long tried to disregard, and in angry revolt against the tactics of Gubbins, who talked to him condescendingly, evasively, bewilderingly, he faced the fact with a satisfaction that would not otherwise have been possible. Yes, thank God, he was a plain sheep and cattle man, he thought, lining himself up with the other settlers in contrast to Gubbins and his English lieutenants. It was the first time he had admitted his accord with a group of typical bushmen, their ideas of England, of what constituted a man, and of how a country should be governed, and he found himself agreeing, rather grudgingly perhaps, that there was something to be said for the life in the outback which made fellows like these. "Come to think of it, England must be chock-a-block full of slippery jacks like Gubbins and Co.," he told himself. "I suppose I'll get broken in to it." He thought of the squatters who hailed him at Pyke's Crossing, the men who came to buy ewes from him, the sturdy diggers who asked his advice about stock. Hmn, perhaps he wouldn't feel so much at home with his brother David, who was always brushing an imaginary piece of fluff off his trousers, or with Victor, who thought it was a hard ride to chase a tame deer ten miles across an open flat.

Suddenly he was seized with a lonely longing to be back at Cabell's Reach. As he sat about waiting on the pleasure of Gubbins and Flanagan and their satellites, suffering the unaccustomed torment of the stiff collar and uncomfortable clothes into which he had changed, wearied by the din of the hustling little town, which after a week grated on his nerves and gave him violent headaches, he kept thinking how pleasant life was, really, in the valley. There he was lord of everything and men rushed to obey when he ordered. In the day every hour was fruitfully occupied. At the end of it there was a cool bathe in the river, a supper of well-cooked food, then a quiet hour on the veranda, watching the big, pulsing stars, listening to the breeze that rustled through the orange and lemon trees . . . his tired feet in slippers, his body relaxed in the comfortable rocking-chair . . . far off the pleasant sound of his cattle lowing, the nightbirds, somebody playing the concertina in the men's hut. And, stirring through his blood, a sense of achievement as he thought back over the day and pieced its work into the developing plan of his life. Here, in town, on the other hand, crowds jostled him in the bars, dirty, surly waiters thrust plates of greasy food at him, everything was gritty with dust rising in clouds from the incessant parade of bullock-waggons on the street, beds were verminous, and as days stretched into weeks and his business got no farther forward he began to feel depressed and futile. Thus he admitted a feeling for Cabell's Reach that was different from any he had ever felt before. It had ceased to be a camp and had become a home, though he needed a hard jolt to realize that consciously. What he knew was a vague but potent sentiment, compounded of confused memories of the fifteen years since he had driven his flocks into the valley, which transcended and reinforced the indignation that had brought him here to combat the outrage on his property rights.

 

 

Chapter Thirty-eight

THE BLACK YEAR BEGINS

 

That the years had changed Cabell Flanagan saw at a glance when he got tired of showing his power from a distance and, like the great man he was, sent in a lordly manner for the beggar at his gates.

Cabell, as he entered the luxurious room, the like of which he had not been in for many, many years, saw only Flanagan's triumphant smile, though there was a look of doubt in his eyes, too, as they took in Cabell's hard face, with its rapacious beak of a nose, its indrawn lips, its cold eyes, bespeaking a man of obstinate, passionate, perhaps dangerous, will. A different man from the panic-stricken youth of Murrumburra or the irresolute one he had encountered in Pat Dennis's pub later on. A man it would be well to handle carefully.

"If I seemed a bit uncivil, my boy, it wasn't for want of remembering the old times and the many obligations between us," he welcomed Cabell, rising to slap his back. His merry lips smiled and his cheeks, now fat as butter and as shiny as a fresh apple, dimpled with pleasure. Even those strangers, his eyes, were pressed to give a momentary twinkle. Grunting a little, for he had become as obese as a priest, he reached out and pushed a box of cigars towards Cabell. These years had changed him, too, but in a very different way. He had spent them mostly in the big southern cities or on official trips to England, leaving the management of his affairs to his wife--perforce, if gossip was true. There was not much of the colonial about his manners and dress, which had reformed themselves on the correctest mode of London official society. In contrast to Cabell's wiry beard, his face was cleanly shaven; his teeth were white and stopped with gold, where Cabell's were black with gaps between; his soft red mouth looked boyish compared with Cabell's. On the little finger of his white hand he wore a heavy ring with a crest, and a diamond pin fastened his cravat to his collar. The shop-made clothes which Cabell wore so awkwardly brought out the graceful lines of his English frock-coat and pantaloons. A faint perfume came from his sleekly brushed hair, and he held a cigar between the tips of thumb and forefinger to show off his manicured nails. Since the day seventeen years before when they had drunk together in Pat Dennis's shanty the two men might almost have changed skins: Flanagan looked like a stranger in the crude, wild land, and Cabell like a native born and bred. Flanagan belonged not to the new colonial type, but to another type as new--the democratic politician. Quick-witted and suave, he brought out by contrast the slow manual toiler in Cabell, the labourer who gets his ends by strength and endurance rather than by craft.

In the years since his outburst at Dennis's shanty Cabell had learnt how to wait and hold his tongue. At least, he thought so. Now, instead of pouring out his grievance in a burst of angry talk, he sat down and waited to see what Flanagan would say. Flanagan chattered on, giving the impression of a shallow cheerfulness which, with his flabby body and slightly affected clothes and his dandified burnsides, was calculated to make Cabell believe he had a tamed man to deal with. Really neither of them had changed so completely. For all his plumpness Flanagan was still a tough fellow, and under Cabell's hard exterior there was still a lot of emotion he had never learnt to control and not a little cunning. Flanagan's eye still penetrated farther in such matters than Cabell's.

"You're like a breath of youth to me," he chuckled. "Why, it seems only yesterday I saw you lolloping up Queen Street on a fine beast you had off the old rogue McGovern. Ah, you were always a deep one, Cabell. And a damned good eye you had for horseflesh."

Cabell waved these compliments aside. "My time's short, Flanagan. I want to get to the bottom of the trouble about my boundary."

"Ahem." Flanagan turned serious. "The devil a bottom there seems to be to it. Or none that we're able to come at."

"My rights are perfectly plain."

Flanagan grunted. "Plain! I'm glad ye think so. I've studied the papers and nothing seems plain at all." He flicked over a few pages in a bulky file. "The gist of it seems to be that ye've slipped a finger of land off the Scotchman. So he says."

"He's a liar."

Flanagan took up a paper. "Well now, here's the man's first application for a lease, February eighteen-fifty. Have ye got anything to show you were in before that?"

"Don't my papers show it?"

"Your papers? Why, that's the devil of it, man. There isn't the blink of a paper from you at all."

"What? My application, my rough map."

"Never a sign."

"They must have been destroyed, then," Cabell said accusingly.

"Not a doubt of it," Flanagan replied with a gleam in his eye. "Destroyed they were. For that blathering old Major Black who was Commissioner at the time didn't think twice of lighting his pipe with a proclamation from the Queen herself."

"That be damned for a yarn!" Cabell flared, but he lowered his voice again to argue, "There are my cheques and receipts. They show I paid rent on ninety-six thousand acres of land."

"But which ninety-six thousand?" Flanagan inclined his head and rubbed his hands together blandly. "You see, lad"--he spread a map out on the table--"there's the river. There's your homestead. Now here's fifty thousand acres of unoccupied land around you. Mightn't it be that, or some of it, you're leasing? That's the way the Scotchman made us look at it."

"But that's all timber. It would need a fortune to clear. Why should I have taken that when there was open country?"

Flanagan shrugged. "Don't get angry at me now, old boy. I'm only showing you the pickle ye're in. But"--he winked--"no one ever yet said Flanagan let an old mate down. And by Jove he won't do it now!"

"I want my plain rights. Nothing more," Cabell answered coldly. "If I can't get them here I'll get them some other way."

He meant by appealing to law, but Flanagan wilfully misunderstood him. "Come, come"--he held up his hand--"I won't see ye put your head in the noose that way. The old times when it was all in and the quickest man gets the most, that's all done with. It's got to be all done legally fair and square now."

"And why not?"

Flanagan dug a fat thumb in Cabell's ribs and chuckled. "Get along with ye. Can't blarney your old mate. Haven't I seen you in just such a pickle before? And did you go for a policeman to get ye out of it? No, of course ye didn't. For you're a devil in defence of your own, and if you lose a horse ye'll soon have another."

Cabell stared at him. "I didn't come here to talk about horses," he grumbled.

"But it's horses ye'll talk about," Flanagan insisted softly. "For it's horses that got the Scot that bit of land and is like to lose you a lot more in case we can't lay our heads together."

"You're talking in riddles."

"Well then, and I hope ye won't be offended"--Flanagan leant forward and tapped Cabell's chest--"this Scotchman says you've hooked yourself up with a gang of horse-duffers. To tell the truth, that was what turned the scales against you when it was a question who'd jumped the land."

Cabell stiffened, but urbanely Flanagan waved him quiet, stubbing his cigar with an air of finality. "Cabell, my boy, your time's short and so's mine. Don't misunderstand me. When I say you're one of the old-timers I mean I'm proud to know ye, but at the same time, being one of the old-timers myself, I'm fly to all the tricks." He shrugged. "Of course, that and all the Scotch in the colony wouldn't have made me lift a finger against you. For haven't we been in plenty tight corners I could mention?" His eyes warmed with amiable cunning. "But there was this affidavit. That's what did the trick. For Colonel Darvall is a gentleman with connections high up and a power of strings for pulling at his elbow," and he threw a paper across the table which proved, to Cabell's amazement, to be an affidavit which McFarlane had elicited from the Colonel, stating that Cabell had stolen more cattle from him than he could count and had given the Colonel grounds to suspect he was a member of a dangerous gang, that on one occasion the Colonel had actually had to drive him off Ningpo with a stockwhip.

"The devil he did! Why, don't you know this man's raving mad?" Cabell demanded.

Flanagan shook his head regretfully. "I'd like to say they were all mad and to hell with him. But what if they proved differently in a court of law? Where would I be then? See, it's like this, friend. You could put your hand in my pocket and take out what you liked, but when it's a case of my duty as her Majesty's Minister. . . ."

Cabell jumped indignantly to his feet, but he met Flanagan's mocking eyes and bit his lip. "Very well, then," he muttered. "Now I see where I stand." He took up his hat and turned to go.

"One more word--"

"I'll bandy no more words with you," he flared up.

Flanagan spread his hands and sighed. "If ye won't, ye won't. You were always a headstrong lad, so it's no use telling you to skelter home and keep your head out of the ants'-nest--by which I mean the law courts--for I see that's what you've got in your mind, eh?"

Cabell turned to the door. "Don't worry, Flanagan," he called back. "There are places where you can be stung, too."

Flanagan's contented laugh followed him downstairs. Given rope enough, he saw, Cabell was still the man to hang himself.

He was right. The accumulated impatience of weeks broke loose in Cabell after this abortive interview, obliterating the voice of reason which warned him, as it had done so many times before: "Wait. Wait. Think a bit. Is a public court the best place? Perhaps there's another way. Write to the Governor. Petition the Colonial Office." But he swept aside expedients that promised only more futile waiting. Time was running by. His sheep were crowded on inferior pastures. He must get the land back quickly.

He hurried to Maurice Peppiott's office in Queen Street. The matter must be brought before a court at once. At once!

Maurice Peppiott stroked his beard doubtfully. "Strikes me that's just what Flanagan wants. He's got something up his sleeve."

"An affidavit from a madman! And my stockman can swear McFarlane out of court. He's been with me from the first."

But Peppiott was not convinced. He had good family reasons to know that the fairness of the fairest character in town was likely to be hardly more than a slapdash coat of whitewash. Cabell had powerful enemies--Flanagan, Dennis, and their friends, the men who owned the place. There might be only an atom of truth in what was said about him--that he had stolen cattle off Murrumburra, married a notorious woman, helped a convict to escape and sheltered him, a serious offence--but even a little of that sort of thing went a long way in a country where so many people defended a dubious claim to respectability by being always hard on the sins of others. He glanced at Cabell's scarred face and his misgivings redoubled.

They were justified. Before the case was a day old the town was laughing over the downfall of that "cocked-up skite" Cabell. Through his agents Flanagan managed to extract quite a lot of evidence utterly irrelevant in a simple trial of land rights. McFarlane poured out a terrible story of the way Cabell had deceived him by pretending to be friendly, and how afterwards he had discovered that Cabell was hand in glove with the Surfaces, was actually living with the woman. Then he had brought the young harum-scarum brother to live in the valley, and nobody's property had been safe since, as the affidavit from Colonel Darvall went to show. What sort of people these were Cabell was joined to they could see when they looked at what Black Jem had been doing round Ballarat. Wasn't there a price on his head now?

This was bad for Cabell. Strictly speaking, it did not prove that the land was McFarlane's, but it was strong presumptive proof of twisty character to simple people who had no reason to love cattle-duffers or men like Black Jem. McFarlane, on the other hand, seemed the very soul of honesty. He believed everything that he was saying and made everybody else believe it.

But worse was to come. As the case developed Cabell found himself forced to tell how he had met and married Emma so as to disprove McFarlane's charge that he had been in league with Black Jem, then a dangerous horse-thief, as many men knew, when they crossed tracks on the plains near Pyke's Crossing. Emma was referred to as the "well-known Emma Surface", "an emancipist", "the heroine of the scandalous affair at Bundoon", the whole sordid story of which was unearthed to blacken Cabell's character by its reflected shadows and delight those who had often been offended by his manner.

But the more such things came out the more defiant he was. He even went to the Royal Hotel one evening to show Pat Dennis and "that mob" how much he cared for what they might be thinking. His scar, which tipped up the left corner of his mouth into a permanent sneer, his slit eyes, his fleshless face gave him such an inflexible front that even those milder spirits who might have been well disposed out of dislike of the Flanagan faction were convinced at last that Cabell was "cocked-up" sure enough and that, to democratic minds, was proof positive of all other charges against him. His harsh answers sent even good, old Fritz Schmidt off with a bee in his bonnet, and he was left to pass the time in the solitude of his little room, six feet wide, ten feet long, and just high enough to stand up in--companioned by cockroaches and a sickening reflection of himself in a cracked mirror.

A scurrilous Sydney paper, in which Pat Dennis was known to have a big interest, published an account of the case, with a history of Emma Surface and Black Jem. By an ironic coincidence a copy of this sheet reached Cabell at the same time as a letter from his sister. He opened the paper and found in flaring headlines:

 

A DEEP SURFACE UNCOVERED

STORY OF RICH SQUATTER AND HIS CONVICT MISTRESS

 

And underneath, all garbled and distorted, the story of Emma's dreadful life, of Jem's exploits, and of Dirk's marriage. There was also an account of himself, full of cunning innuendoes. For example, he was represented as a rich man, five times richer than he was really, and alongside this was set a minutely accurate description of his stock, so that, without any more comment, readers could infer that Cabell had other sources of income, obviously dishonest ones. Perhaps--they were bound to think after reading the article--he was still an associate of Black Jem. For that desperado had disappeared from the roads after a daring coup in which he had stuck-up a gold escort and carried off several thousand pounds' worth of gold. Nothing more had been heard of him for a year. Might he not now--so one might read between the lines--be sheltering at Cabell's Reach? Of course, men who knew Cabell, even those who disliked him, were not likely to take this very seriously. But some of the mud was sure to stick. Already behind the eyes of people who seemed merely to be laughing at him Cabell had glimpsed a look of doubt.

What he had felt after the night he discovered the truth about Emma was nothing to what he felt now. He could see the eyes not merely of his neighbours but of the whole country on him. Even in England the facts of his marriage would be known, even in Owerbury! In the privacy of the room his heart failed him. He sat on the edge of the bunk and beat his knuckles against his forehead in a frenzy of shame. For a moment he felt as though he could never show his face before people again. But the torment of purely local disgrace was blunted by the thought of what his brothers would say, those sticklers for a code of honour based on the punctilio of appearances--Clement, Bishop of Barminster, David, the dandy, Victor, the colonel of a crack regiment. . . . He thought of Aunt Julie's biting tongue, and saw her as she had stood over him in the garden the day she caught him crying. "The voluntary jailbird!" He thought of his sister, and his heart ached as though a cold stone hand had torn open his chest and crushed it.

He leapt up and tramped the room, stumbling blindly against the chair and table. A burst of laughter from the bar downstairs halted him. He trembled, feeling that he would never be able to leave the room and run the gauntlet of those derisive eyes. So clearly did he then envision the great social organism from which his disgrace set him apart that he began to feel some of the guilt that was imputed to him. Out of this came a vague acknowledgment that for all that had happened he alone was to blame, not his brothers who had sent him here, not Emma who had snared him, not Gursey who had deceived him, not fate, but he himself or that secret part which for a long time he had felt working within and against him, shaping his actions, subtly, inscrutably driving him deeper into a labyrinth, using the very hopes and illusions by which he tried to escape to lure him on, to trap, to destroy him. But this flash of understanding was still so indefinite that he interpreted it, in the end, only by a sensation of doom overshadowing all the plans of his life. Against this an idea, inspiriting for a second, that the world was wide, that he could run off and hide himself in America, a comparatively rich man, faded away. He stopped tramping, suddenly tired out, and sank back on to the bed.

Imagining the eyes of the whole world fastened disapprovingly on him and seeing himself alone, driven out, he suffered again the agonies of his childhood, when he had had to hold his own against the greed and indifference of his brothers. And as then he had brought himself out of fits of despair by defiant rage, promising a great and bloody revenge some day when he should be grown up and powerful, so now he flung aside his paralysing hopelessness, and, springing off the bed again, shook his fist dramatically at the window under which a crowd of busy, happy, prosperous people was patrolling the streets. Despise him, laugh at him, would they? Let them wait another two years. He would be rich. He would go back to Owerbury. He'd flaunt his money in his brothers' faces. He'd show Aunt Julie what wealth was. He'd teach them! He'd teach them!

How often already he had pushed out his chin and made that defiant resolution, that "Just let them wait. I'll show them!" only to find that it led him into scrapes more entangling than ever, as though it was the very instrument of the dark demon he used it to evade. When he finally cut the painter at Owerbury by defying the overtures of his Aunt Julie, when he defied his own conscience at Murrumburra and again at the massacre of the blacks, when he defied the opinion of his brothers by marrying Emma, when he defied McFarlane in the quarrel over the boundary and Flanagan and Peppiott afterwards, each outburst had carried him a step farther from the dream of life he had hoped it would help him to fulfil. So he had plunged on, like a man driven blindly to his own destruction (thus he came to see the process afterwards), to the final decisive events on the threshold of which he now stood.

In the change of feeling he snatched up the letter from his sister which he had pushed aside before, too depressed to read.

 

Dear Brother [it said]:

It is more than twenty years since you set out that morning to take the London coach at Dorchester. Farmer Treven's boy whom you passed on the road is Farmer Treven now. Our father is in the graveyard of St Matthew's, and now I have to tell you that Victor is there, too, having taken a heavy fall when out with the Daylesbury last month, not living more than an hour after they brought him in. The others, like your sister, are old now. Aunt Julie lies in her sick-bed and talks sarcastically of her nephews, saying that they all hoped to inherit her money "and won't have the spunk to see her into her grave." When I remind her of you she says: "Ay, Derek. Drunk himself to the dogs in a penal settlement, I suppose. If not, why doesn't he show his face in Owerbury?" So, dear brother, you must hasten back to us at once, for it is the finger of Providence, answering the prayers I started the morning you climbed Three Barrow Down, which now points this way.

Your ever-loving sister,

Harriet Cabell.

 

He glared at the floor. Pieces of the torn newspaper flung up the black headlines.

 

. . . HIS CONVICT MISTRESS . . .

 

He crumpled the letter into a ball and flung it from him. Then he collected the pieces of paper, put them in an envelope, and wrote with angry flourishes:

 

What I've told you before I repeat: I will not return to England to gratify the spleen of an old woman who has always lived for the day when she would see your mother's son begging to her. When I come back, as I shall before you're much older, it will be in a condition that requires charity of no one. So that you shall not let partiality blind you to the true facts about your brother, I am sending you the enclosed fragments of a reasonably accurate history. Give them to Aunt Julie with my compliments and tell her I invite her derision and hope that my frankness proves my contempt for it.

 

(He knew the widow of his cousin Francis in Sydney would see that they got a copy of the paper, anyway.)

A few days later the court delivered judgment--against him. Now he was full of fight, for he saw his enemies rubbing their hands with satisfaction and everybody agreeing that there must be something in the charges made against him.

The case must be brought into a higher court, he told Peppiott. It was monstrous, unjust! But Peppiott was gloomy, even, Cabell detected in his sensitiveness to what people about him were thinking, a trifle unfriendly. "You'd best go back home and let the thing drop," Peppiott said apologetically. "They're a dirty lot." The truth was that the virulent exposure of Cabell's life had alarmed him, particularly the article in Dennis's paper. There was that business of his own mother. . . . And Pat Dennis had never been overfriendly to him. After all, a man owed it to himself to see on what side his bread was buttered. . . .

"Go back and let them walk off with eighteen thousand acres of my best land! That would look fine, wouldn't it? Why, I'd have to give away a third of my stock!"

Peppiott clicked his lips impatiently. "That would be better than losing everything."

"Everything?"

"Can't you see, man? Flanagan is looking for some excuse to refuse to renew your lease. This story of McFarlane's. It's just the thing, if he can keep public opinion behind him. But three and a half years is a long time. People forget, if you avoid the limelight."

"I don't want my lease renewed, I've told you fifty times already. I'm going back to England in three years' time."

Peppiott could not help staring. He remembered his own father, who had committed suicide rather than go back to England and face men he knew.

"Well?" Cabell snapped. "What are you staring at?"

"Nothing, nothing," Peppiott said quickly.

Cabell's face darkened. "Let me tell you you've got no call to look smug, young man. . . ."

So in the middle of all his troubles he had to find a new lawyer. In a small town, where powerful men were against him and others had gathered from all the recent slander that he was not quite sound somehow, this was no easy job. He had to be content with a little, quick-eyed Jew named Samuelson, who had an office in a turning off Petrie's Bight.

Samuelson came from America. He was not afraid of Flanagan or Dennis, but he took in the situation at a glance. "Why waste your money in law courts?" he asked. "How much you have, eh?"

"About eight thousand ready money."

"Uh-huh. How many stock?"

"Forty-five thousand sheep and round two thousand cattle."

Samuelson made some calculations on a paper. "Mortgage your stock for six thousand, take six thousand out of the bank and we'll buy the river frontage. Then they can't turn you out, because the rest of the land ain't no use without the water, huh?"

"What an idea!" Cabell repudiated it. "I won't buy a stick."

Samuelson spread his hands. "There now, you waste a lot of money on law and they kick you out in three years. What's that for a game? You forget what you lost, buy now, spend two or three thousand clearing new land, and in ten years' time you got a fine property and no debts. All you need is to leave it to Samuelson. I know where to buy land orders from immigrants--eighteen shillings for every pound's worth, eh?"

But Cabell would have none of it, and the appeal was lodged.

Out in the streets a golden haze of dust rose from the feet of packhorses, from the wheels of bullock-waggons pushing into the bush. Energy--enterprise--wealth--the pulse-beat of a new epoch.

The scene made him frantic. Money. Money. Money. He must make money! Quickly. Quickly. He would get the land back, double his stock, and in three years. . . .

The summer was drawing in and lambing-time was near.

Thankfully he shook the dust of the town from his boots and took the westward road.

But every step deepened a sense of impending doom. What if he lost the appeal after all? It would cost a lot or money, Samuelson had said. To win he might cripple himself so that in two years he would not be rich but in debt. He pushed the thought aside. No, he must win. He must. On this depended not merely the gratification of his pride, but life itself, that long-cherished aspiration towards a graceful existence far, far away across the sea, where he could rest and forget.

 

 

Chapter Thirty-nine

OMENS

 

As he rode north and west he looked anxiously for those stretches of water which made travel a hell at this season of the year but promised good times to come. He saw only the rolling downs of last year's grass, with patches of red earth where the sheep had eaten out. The rains were late, but the sky remained like a dome of bone, and in the last burst of summer the earth pulsed and throbbed, throwing up heat-veils, like swathes of silk stirred by a wind, behind which trees and rocks seemed to be reflected in a distorting mirror. Sometimes it was so hot that the stirrup-irons burnt his feet through the soles of his boots. At sundown the stars flashed out of a colourless sky, great, breathing stars. From time to time a steady beat of wings broke the silence as birds passed southwards. A threat hung over the plain, the sheep panting in the shade, the cattle standing belly-deep in the waterholes to cool themselves, and Cabell trailing a cloud of dust along the deserted road.

The rain had often been later without causing anxiety. But now, when he saw his future so precariously at the mercy of the fates (who must know how little he deserved to have his hopes fulfilled), he was afraid. What if there was a drought?

He had a special reason to worry. The loss of the Stony Creek land had overstocked his run, and that would be really serious if the rain held off much longer. When for five days he had met southward-trending birds and herds of kangaroo he changed a plan to avoid Pyke's Crossing, hoping to hear there what people round the district thought of the prospects.

He entered the township on the sixth day. Prosperity had magnified it since Fritz Schmidt's time. Ten low-roofed buildings--general store, blacksmith's forge, wheelwright's, Lands Office, police station and doctor's house--sprawled along the single, dusty street, empty when Cabell rode in at midday save for a few dogs crushed in the sliver of shadow against north walls. Pippin faces of a third generation peered at him from doors and windows on either side, like clusters of new apples. The place might have been called O'Connortown, for that fecund tribe entirely possessed it. Everybody there was an O'Connor, except the doctor, and he was married to one. From that matriarchal old Mrs O'Connor, who ruled the town with a rod of iron, to the smallest, molasses-crusted pippin face peering out between the barrels in Shamus's general store, there were forty-six O'Connors in Pyke's Crossing. Luke, who had gone to Sydney and become a priest, and Pat, who had never returned from the goldfields--had, so it was said, been in some bad business with Black Jem--were the only two missing. The old man had been dead for years, but Mrs O'Connor was as tough as greenhide. And rich enough, people guessed, to write her cheque for six figures. An exaggeration. The O'Connor stores provisioned twenty stations, sold hundreds of miles of fencing wire, six thousand pounds' worth of cheques were melted annually at the Travellers' Rest, and Mrs O'Connor had known how to use her money: she might have been able to lay her hands on fifty thousand.

The pub was almost empty when Cabell arrived, for this was a busy time on the stations. A cattle speculator named Davison shook his head over the rain, thinking to get some of Cabell's stock on the cheap. "Give you fifteen bob a head for a thousand of them ewes I looked at last year."

Cabell laughed at that. The sheep were worth a pound each, if he had been willing to sell, which decidedly he was not, for he counted on taking at least eight shillings' worth of wool from every animal in the next two years, besides two lambs apiece.

"In three months' time I wouldn't give you a dollar," Davison warned.

The mere possibility of such a calamity was enough to make Cabell's blood run cold, but Nick O'Shea, one of Jardine's boundary-riders, broke in to reassure him. "It was beginning to come down cats and dogs when I left the Narrow Gut last month," he said.

Davison shrugged. "The last time I saw a sky like this was in 'thirty-nine. A lot of good men were on the wallaby after that."

While he was swapping drinks with the two men, feeling much lighter of heart for Nick's news, Mrs O'Connor came into the bar. She grabbed him by the arm as though she expected him to run away. "I thought it was your mag I was hearing," she said. "Have ye seen him then, have ye?"

"Seen who?"

"Lord and saints preserve ye, for I wouldn't," she shouted, "ye stony-hearted, black-souled, nigger-driving old--By the glory, what ye've got to answer for! Did ye drive him off with a stockwhip then, did ye?"

Cabell stared. She was even more agitated than usual and had been weeping.

"Come in here from these spies and pimps. Though what's the use of me wasting words on a lump of granite the way ye've become? But in with ye, in with ye." She dragged him through the bar into the room behind, where the droppings from generations of pet cockatoos covered everything an inch deep in guano. There she collapsed on a chair and beat her forehead. "Oh, honey," she started, "is the Day of Judgment coming or what? Oh, my Pat, my Pat!"

"What's wrong? Has he come back?"

"Come back?" she shrieked. "Oh, ye wretch! D'ye think I'd be howlin' the head off me the way I am? No; wouldn't I be after lammin' hell out of the young crook, teachin' him not to run away from his poor old mother?" She threw her apron over her face and let out piercing wails. "It's that Peters," she told him. "He's come back."

"Peters! Where from?"

"From the Diggings. And he saw my Pat!"

"Where's he now?"

"He's just after leavin' for the Reach." And wiping her eyes, she jumped up and shook a bony fist under his nose. "And don't ye never, never put foot in the shadow of this house if ye don't feed and shelter the poor old brute like he was a royal guest."

"Of course, I'll feed and shelter him," Cabell said vaguely, wondering what could have brought proud little Peters back after all these years.

But Mrs O'Connor did not listen. She was wound up about something. "Ye mane, wicked man," she cried. "What'll ye do when your time comes? Oh, ye mane, cruel, wicked man! No, don't make believe ye don't know what it is I'm talkin' about. There's that poor one ye hoofed out in the flood-time--he's gone raving off his pannikin in Sydney with the guts half crushed out of him in them devil's holes at Ballarat."

Cabell's heart missed a beat. "Do you mean Gursey? Gursey alive?"

She clawed the air in front of his face. "And no thanks to ye he's breathin' still," she screeched. "If he'd rotted in the mud that flood-time, poor soul, little ye'd have cared. Never thinkin' beyond what the price of sheep will be or what a man owes ye. Never sayin' a decent word. But it's yeself ye're doin' in by the same. I'm tellin' ye. The saints above won't stand for such doin's as ye put on that poor loon after the way he stuck by ye. See what's happened in the courts just now. And that won't be the worst, neither. Yer ill-got money'll be burnt up to a heap of white ashes and all ye sheep'll go cranky and run into the river and be drowned and ye cattle'll stampede and tramp ye down into the earth. So they will, too. Unless, unless--" She dropped her hands on to his chest. "Oh, Mr Cabell, yer Honour, it's meself I'm talkin' about. A miserable old muckrake of a woman, sittin' here stickin' dough in me stockin' and poor little Pat hidin' away down there like a scared rabbit." Her voice became soft and wheedling. "Won't ye go and bring Gursey back home now, won't ye? He helped my Pat, ye see, and maybe he'd say where the boy is now. Ye will do that, won't ye, darlin'?"

Cabell licked his lips. The old woman had frightened him. Her cracked voice, dishevelled hair and burning eyes gave a sybillic significance to her dreaded words. "I hope it won't be as bad as that," he said, smiling nervously. "I've got troubles enough of my own without you wishing me more."

"Wish ye more!" she cried. "Oh, honey, I'd cut me tongue out. Why, didn't I spit a big black gooley into that Scotch basstid's liquor when he rode through last week, didn't I? And if ye're wantin' money, haven't I told ye before where to find it?" But the thought of money started her off again. "Oh, Pat," she moaned. "Is the boy off his pannikin, too, puttin' his neck in the squeezer for a few mangy lumps of gold when there's more at home than you could spend in a lifetime? Oh! Oh!"

Cabell resisted making any definite promises about Gursey, but went on in rising spirits. A weight had flown from his mind. How heavy it had been he realized only now that it was gone. For years a guilty doubt had nagged at him. Had Gursey died in the flood and was he to blame? After Peters had accused him of murdering Gursey the fear had suddenly taken hold of him that for such an act of ingratitude he would have to pay dearly. He had always pitied Gursey, but the feeling of guilt had nothing to do with that. It came from those superstitions and vague mystic fears he had inherited from his father and mother. The fight for a footing in a new country had left him little time to think about life and the forces that moved it. He accepted without analysing it a conception of an inherent justice in the affairs of men--a precise and all seeing justice which meted out to them precisely as they meted out. He was conscious of a great unworthiness in himself--the stigma of a youngest son in a family of strong and contemptuous elders. He had to be careful, to observe certain rites, certain formulae, as his father had always been careful to nurse a black cat or spit on a horseshoe the night before a race. An evil thought could bring bad luck, and everything depended on luck in the mysterious, incalculable bush where no one could foresee the fatal vagaries of rain, fire, wind and flood. The thought that he might be called upon to pay for the death of Gursey had tormented him when there was any difficult business on hand--at the lambing-down, at shearing, when the wool teams set out or the rains began. And it had cast its gruesome shadow over the events that had followed his quarrel with McFarlane. Now, unbelievably, he was delivered from it all. He had not killed Gursey by sending him away that night! Therefore the powers could not punish him. Was the news that Gursey was still living an omen of better fortune, then? Why otherwise should it come just at this moment? That Gursey, poor devil, was in trouble and that he was as responsible as he would have been had Gursey perished in the flood did not at first occur to him. Poor old Joe, was all he thought, he'd had a tough row to hoe.

As he approached the valley he thanked his lucky stars for the shower Nick had spoken about. The yellow-green shoots of the new grass was coming through nicely and the torrid heat that would have sucked the moisture out of the soil had changed to a humid north-easter with a taste of more rain in it. The great cumulus cloud-banks that swept down annually from the tropics were at last packing up on the skyline, and birds were gathering at the waterholes--ducks, native companions, ibis and noisy cockatoos. He had never seen them so nervous or so excited. What was that a sign of?

Peters was in Sambo's hut blowing about the wonders of the diggings. He had forgotten bygones. "D'ee know me?" he shouted to Cabell. "D'ee know old Monkeyface?"

"Peters!"

"Ay, thought the old mug'd stick--like a burr in your backside."

"You never went back to England?"

Peters shook his head slowly. "Brats died or got married. So I went to the diggings along with the rest."

"You didn't find much gold?"

"No more'n'd cover a sixpenny-bit."

Sambo chuckled. "Could've told you that before you went. All them yarns they spin yer about lumps of gold in the ground--huh!" He spat.

"Lookee," Peters told him, "I seed nuggets took up as big as your head."

"Garn!" But Sambo's recent visit to Brisbane for the land case had rather shaken his parochial contempt for wonders. There he had discovered that humpies built on top of each other really did exist--two, three storeys high! He scratched his head and sucked in the corner of his mouth where his black tooth used to be. In a world where two-storeyed houses were not the dream of a madman what was impossible? "You reckon this here gold stuff's in that there hill?" He pointed through the door towards the Three Sisters.

Peters banged the table, and Cabell became aware of a strange glint in his eye. He knew what that meant--Peters had become a prospector. "Ay, that I do." Peters challenged them to deny a holy truth on which all his hopes of salvation were founded. "And I'll be bottomed, washed and jiggered if I don't find it, too." He pushed Cabell to the door and pointed at the lowering mass of Black Mountain. "Look at they outcrops, lad," he cried. "Down along Bendigo there's a hill the dead spit of that'un. The Jumping Jenny mine's on it. Worth millions."

Sambo grimaced and tapped his forehead.

Cabell agreed mentally, looking at the old man's withered face as he talked of gold, the fortunes he had just missed by a stroke of the pick, of the wealth that would certainly be his in the near future. "You're getting a bit old for this, Peters," he said when Sambo had left them. "Wouldn't you like to settle down and be storekeeper here?"

Peters drew his hand thoughtfully over his cheek. If he had looked like a monkey before, he looked like a monkey preserved in spirits now, so wrinkled, so scarred, creased and shrivelled was his brown skin. "Ay, time's getting along," he admitted. "All the old boys are slipping their wind now. There's old Mickey O'Connor gone. And old Joe Gursey--"

"He's not dead?"

"Not what 'ee'd call dead," Peters said, coming out of his reverie with a quick look at Cabell. "But mighty near it."

Cabell gestured shamefacedly. "You saw him, eh?"

"Didn't we waltz Matilda together, work a claim together, and sweat our guts out together on wages in Ballarat for a cove the name of Bill Penberthy?"

"Not Bill Penberthy who was here?" Cabell said, hoping to turn the conversation, for Peters's steady gaze made him uneasy.

"The same. But he's near a millionaire now, and the rights he was always gassing about is all on t'other foot. It was down his claim Joe come by his broken leg and crushed innards, and t'old bastard wouldn't part up a copper to help him." And Peters went on to tell how Joe had been seriously injured in a fall of earth and had lain in hospital for months before he could drag himself out, and how at this moment he was penniless and friendless in Sydney, half off his head with an absurd fear that he would be recognized by some Old Hand and sent back to prison. "Got himself into the thick of the racket at Eureka a-hollering after liberty and republics and such likes. Then he went and did a rash thing helping young Danny O'Connor to escape when the Jacks were on his trail. Lost sight of him a year or two then, and when I seed him next his nerve's gone on him. The accident must've started him off again, for he seemed to have lost his fears at the diggings. But he's in a bad way now."

"Hmn," Cabell said. "That's pretty rotten."

"Ay, a hell of an end to come to," Peters fired up, "seeing the fine mate he was to some of us--and no names mentioned."

"True enough," Cabell said, plucking his beard nervously.

"Why don't 'ee bring 'un back and give 'un a home, then?" Peters challenged.

"I'll see. I'll see."

Peters was remorseless. "Who's to blame he's not a free man this day? Yes, he told me what happened at Murrumburra. And if 'ee didn't drown 'un that night 'ee've sent him off his cracker since. Mind that, will ye?"

Cabell kept his mouth shut. These reproaches were beginning to madden him. For the fact was, he realized, he hated and feared Gursey and, far from wishing to have him back, hoped never to see him again. Since those nights when he sat and listened to the man's ravings Gursey had represented, even more definitely than Emma, whose sufferings he had never let himself see too clearly, an ugly, rotten, half-mad, outcast sub-stratum of life which revolted and, through Gursey's resentful eyes, seemed to threaten him. He remembered the tramps and Gipsies who used to peer through the gates of Owerbury House when he was a little boy and mutter threats and curses, for his father was hard on poachers. He would run and hide himself in his mother's skirts and cry till she locked all the doors and windows and drew the blinds. He had begun to understand then that there was a dark underworld which menaced him somehow, a world of hungry eyes. The thought of Gursey, whose personality was soaked in the sordid misery of jailyards, who, he had realized after the incident of the snowscape and the robin, passionately envied him the prospect of going back to England, now re-awakened these old fears. He wanted to be safe. He wanted to be inside the warm, secure, graceful society of his class in England, which he sometimes imagined to be as warm, secure and graceful as that room where his mother had protected and soothed him. He loathed the underworld. He wanted to shake off its contaminating touch. And had not Gursey once already tried to injure him? Emma's face confronted him to show the magnitude of the attempt, which still hung ominous question-marks over the future. Lately he had watched the lines of her mouth tighten as she sensed that the hour of decisive battle was drawing near. If Gursey returned, what alliance might they not form again?

But at the same time he was afraid of his own pity. He had once been so deeply moved by the picture of Gursey's life that he would have pledged himself to almost any sacrifice to atone for the injury he had imagined himself guilty of. Even now, when he thought of Gursey alone and in misery, he nearly gave way and sent Peters off to bring him home. But his pity for Gursey was bound up with pity for Emma, against which so far he had managed to protect himself by always harping on the trick she had played him. If he softened to Gursey he would soften to her. He understood this intuitively. Since the day he first saw her at Pyke's Crossing he had felt sorry for her. The mark of a tragic life stamped on her face had first fixed his attention. But he had snapped a steel lock on his compassion after the night of the flood. He did not trust himself to let it out. God knew how much of his precious resolutions would remain if he did.

But at night, when a possum scampered across the roof and he started awake thinking the rain had come at last, only to see the stars glittering with hard, dry fire through the window, what Peters had said and, even more forcibly, Mrs O'Connor's words, would return to his omen-ridden mind, posing a torturous moral problem. Was he to blame for the wreck of Gursey's life? Was it a black mark against him in the Book of Fate? And he would argue himself giddy for hours on end in his anxiety to know whether or not the news which Fate had chosen just this moment to send was a warning, a sign of evil impending unless he made retribution.

He called back to memory, as clearly as he had seen it seventeen years before, the scene in the humpy at Winjee Creek during the long-drawn-out moment when Gursey had stared at the pistols on the table. In the chalky face, the tense mouth, the transfixed eyes, he read the thoughts that raced through the man's mind--the yearning for revenge, the fear of the hazards, the hopeless choice between death on the gallows or from McGovern's pistol. Cabell saw himself in the doorway, leaning forward between the heads of the horses, but what thoughts had raced through his mind were less clear. What had he wished for? Had he wanted Gursey to pick up the pistols and fire? If so, was it not rather out of sympathy for Gursey and dislike of McGovern than from any conscious plan of his own? He tried to fix the precise meaning of a gesture of impatience, yes, perhaps of annoyance, which had escaped him when minutes had passed and Gursey had done nothing. And when Gursey had raised his head at last, smiled, and walked away from the table, had he been angry? On his feelings during these seconds the whole interpretation of his responsibility rested. If he had wanted Gursey to kill McGovern, consciously wanted it, then all that went before had been not a series of accidents driving him on despite himself, but a plan worked out deliberately step by step.

Here he grasped at the idea which Emma had once expressed--that in the whole world there were no sinned-against, only sinners. Even admitting that he had fixed on Gursey as the one unbroken spirit on Murrumburra to help him destroy McGovern, had Gursey tried to withdraw? No; rather had he foreseen what Cabell would do and had used it to stoke up those fires of hatred which were somehow necessary to him, sweetening as they did the time to come when he would take a mighty revenge, giving him strength to endure all his servitude with his insolence and rage. Had he not helped McGovern to make Cabell act? ("You'd do anything." "You think anything you do to us is right.") Cabell remembered that in the convict settlements there had been men who sought out punishment, over and over again committing some one foolish crime, making no attempt to conceal it, and always being flogged. This had bewildered him till he had begun to see that the hatred which flared up in a man after a flogging was like strong drink; it roused him out of the idiot apathy of dull convict life by setting his blood on fire and thus helped, if he was a strong man, to save his sanity. Had not Gursey used him in the same way? he asked. If so, Gursey was responsible for his own fate. It could not be marked up against Cabell.

He got out of bed to watch the sun rise into a sky as dry and hard as amethyst. Every morning the cloud-bank formed along the range, every noon slid out of sight. The summer hung on: it was getting hotter again. Travellers said that the drought looked like settling in on the plains out west. The price of sheep had begun to fall in the district. "You're overstocked," they warned him. "Better sell."

Then two events that had long cast shadows before broke over the outwardly peaceful valley. The first was the climax of Rosa Bellamy's discontent. She ran away with an engineer who had been helping Jacob in his meat-preserving experiments.

Jacob emerged, mouse-trap mouth agape and eyes blank with amazement, from a fanatic dream of brine-pumps, frozen cylinders and floating ice-chests. "Why?" he demanded of Emma, to whom he flew for advice, and he clung to her hand as the only solid thing in a world become suddenly unsubstantial. "She says I neglected her! Me! Neglect little Rosa! I worshipped her!"

As always when anyone appealed to her, Emma was gentle and compassionate. "She was lonely," she said. "She wanted somebody to talk to her and make a fuss."

"But I did talk to her. I told her everything. All about the experiments. My God, I only lived through the day to tell her about it in the evening."

Emma comforted him. But in her heart she felt sorry for Rosa, too. Now that she had done this thing and everybody was running her down, Emma felt closer to her, knowing what it was to be outcast. And something else in herself understood Rosa's passionate need for love. Almost angrily she said "Oh, couldn't you find anything except carcasses to talk about? Her dresses, herself. . . ."

"I thought. . . ." Words came heavily off his tongue. He was a lump of a man with genial, dreamy eyes. Now he gazed round him like a child who has been struck suddenly by a hitherto indulgent parent. Evil was abroad in the world. He sensed it for the first time. "She didn't seem lonely. She seemed so merry." His brows contracted. "She was always larking about. She used to pretend to be frightened of the cattle so as to--"

"But she was frightened."

"What? Little Rosa frightened? That's nonsense."

"Nonsense, yes. But she wasn't a stockman--she was a woman. She wanted to be petted. You petted her enough before you were married. Then you couldn't think of anything else but brine-pumps. Ach, you men! If it's not brine-pumps it's something else. And perhaps you won't find out how to preserve meat after all? You'll be old and so will she. What's the good of all your fussing then? The world can get along without your meat, but Rosa's only got one life to live."

Her vehemence, which brought the blue veins out on her forehead and flushed her gaunt cheeks, made him feel guilty. "But it was all for her," he protested. "I wanted to make a fortune for her--take her to England--build a mansion--carriages, theatres. . . ." These old dreams gripped him again. He jumped off the chair. "But I'll find her. Yes, by the living God. I'll bring her back. I'll explain about the experiments. She'll understand. The new freezing chamber. The steam pumps. She'll help me. Yes, yes, she'll come back. . . ."

He returned in a month without Rosa.

"Poor old Bellamy, he's boozing," Dirk told Emma, who had accepted a tentative truce with Lizzie Beck so as to visit her brother.

Lizzie sniffed and tch-tched through thin lips. "Oh, that woman!" she exclaimed, revealing in her stiff back and righteously cold eye the impassioned application of a new devotee to a cult. "Fancy running off like that! Must be--Oh, reglar fly-by-night!"

"It's an ill wind," Dirk said. "He might let his brood mares go cheap if he's going back home. I'll slip across and see him."

"Nothing of the kind. You go--drink--I go. Tch-tch!"

"Aw, Liz, what's a drink?"

She looked like a bird, with her precisely preened feathers, folded wings, beady eyes, and twittering exclamations. "Drink! Drunk! Disgusting!" she pecked at him.

"Aw, righto," he grumbled. A sad, subdued, sober Dirk.

The dramatic collapse of Bellamy depressed Cabell deeply. He had seen him when he came to tell Emma, and the bewildered look of the man had touched him. He felt sorry. Neither of them, he thought, was really to blame. After all, Bellamy was no brute. And Rosa. . . . He contrasted the happy girl who had come to the valley with the woman the hard life had made of her. In this disastrous misalliance he saw, as he was beginning to see in everything, a sign of the might and ruthlessness of that same destructive principle which threatened him. Was this a warning, too? he wondered.

But a darker shadow eclipsed it. Sambo told him one morning that he had heard shots at Ningpo and that all the blacks had taken to the bush. Cabell sent him over to see if the Darvalls were in trouble, not going himself because he was still angry with the Colonel about the affidavit that had played such an important part in the case against him. Sambo returned in a few hours with a curious story. He had found the bodies of two blacks in the scrub near the house. Both had been shot through the back of the head. He had knocked at the door of the house for a long time without getting any answer, but as he was trying to force a window to see what mishap had fallen on the family Ludmilla had flung it open and confronted him with a pair of ancient horse-pistols and had threatened to blow his brains out unless he got off the place at once.

Cabell went over to see for himself. In the scrub he saw the bodies, peppered with shot. The homestead was silent. Nobody answered his knock. As he listened the house enfolded him in its dank atmosphere of decay. Bleached bones and rubbish littered the yard, where a fence built to keep out the wild cattle, which were a menace to anyone going about on foot, was falling down. Clots of cow-hair hung from the rails. The steps were gapped. White-ants had eaten through the veranda-posts and the root was sagging. A skinny mongrel wandered about the yard sniffing the empty horse-troughs. A quarter-Scotch collie, three-quarters dingo, it pointed the picture of dissolution. This was how the bush dealt with the weak and unfortunate: swallowed them up, devoured their possessions, spread its weeds across their clearings, obliterated their tracks. For nineteen years it had been trying to do the same with him. Would it succeed?

Suddenly he heard the voice of the Colonel muttering in the house. He knocked again and called. After a long while the door opened a little and Mrs Darvall looked out. She was dressed in old-fashioned clothes, and wisps of grey hair fell untidily over her eyes. "I thought it would be you. Go away," she said in a quick whisper, glancing back over her shoulder.

"Is anything wrong?" he asked. "Can I help?"

"Yes, mind your own business."

"Is it--is the Colonel--ill?"

She reached out and pressed her hand against his chest as he moved closer. "Oh, Derek Cabell, if you have any memory of your own troubles--" Her lips began to tremble and tears flowed over her cheeks and filled the deep lines at the corners of her mouth. "Oh, go away at once!"

The change in her face made him stare. The pride and courage had gone from it. All at once she had become a broken, bedraggled, humiliated old woman.

While he was fumbling for words feet came quickly down the passage and the face of Ludmilla, also changed--to stone, not to tears--thrust over her mother's shoulder. "You!" she cried. "Get out of here this instant. How dare you send spies! How dare you!"

"Ludmilla!" Mrs Darvall protested weakly.

But Ludmilla pushed her mother roughly aside. "Never cross that boundary again," she said. "Understand? I'll shoot you. I will. I'll shoot anyone who comes near the house. I will. I will."

He believed her. She seemed to have aged ten years since he last saw her. Her face and body had lost their soft lines and her voice had deepened. She was no longer a haughty girl, but a woman of intimidating will. As he looked at her the door slammed between them.

He walked to the edge of the veranda wondering what he ought to do, when peevish wailing started in the house. At first he did not understand the sound. Then he heard Ludmilla say harshly, "Stop its mouth, can't you?" And the truth flashed on him. Aurelia! The blacks! And simultaneously he remembered her covert, lingering glances at him, Mrs Darvall's hint about Dirk, in which at the time he had thought there was a strange note of desperation.

"Let me out!" he heard the Colonel shouting. "I'll kill her. I'll. . . . Martha! Ludmilla! I command it. I--your father--your husband--Colonel Barton-Darvall. . . ." His voice died away . . .

Cabell rode home slowly. That such things could happen? Good God, what devils must watch over the destinies of men! But his mood was less of pity for the Darvalls than superstitious dread for himself. The incident shed its horror over his own affairs, sharpening his alarms. He saw it as a culminating manifestation of the evil force of fate, misfortune, ill-luck--there were a dozen names for it--which he now knew was threatening him. First, the failure of the rains, then the collapse of Bellamy, finally this: so the finger pointed. He no longer doubted what it meant. As soon as he arrived at the homestead he sent Sambo to fetch Peters from Black Mountain, where he had been prospecting. Next day the old man left for Sydney to bring Gursey home.

It was the last turning-point in Cabell's affairs. But at first it seemed as if he had rightly divined the way to be saved. The day after Peters left the rain came. It rained steadily for two days, then stopped. The sky cleared and winter came in with piercing winds. New grass began to spring up. A successful lambing-down was assured.

 

 

Chapter Forty

THE STAGE IS SET

 

Cabell hardly recognized Gursey. He was nearly fifty years old now, cadaverous, shrunken, just, in fact, hanging on to life. His hair had gone white and he walked doubled up and leaning on a stick. He made a pathetic figure against the background of young men who were always passing through, the people of the new era. In the contrast one sensed some of the sturm und drang of the bad old days.

Cabell avoided him at first, the change in Gursey moved him so. If the man had flown at him with reproaches or even scowled he would have felt easier. But Gursey was like a whipped dog--humble and broken.

"I might be able to find you some kind of a job," Cabell grumbled when they met in the yard a few days after Gursey's return. "That's if you think you can do it." He hoped Gursey would resent the way he spoke, but Gursey kept his eyes on the ground.

"I can do a good day's work at pretty well anything," he promised, as though he expected Cabell to kick him out unless he did. There was a hunted look about him.

Cabell softened his tone, seeing it. "There's no need to worry, Joe. You're safe as a house here." Something in the furtive way Gursey glanced round then made him say, "Why, that old cutthroat McGovern must have been bedded with a pick and shovel long ago. I never heard of him after he went to the Sacramento, did you?"

"Not more than you told me," Gursey mumbled.

Cabell laid a hand on his shoulder. "Come, Joe. That's all forgotten years ago. I told you McGovern would never come back." Some of his confidence, the confidence of a man talking about another he has beaten, seemed to get into Gursey. He glanced at Cabell's face and a smile flickered across his lips. "That's right," Cabell rallied him. "Stop worrying. I'm damned sorry I did what I did. But I'll see you through now. You shan't want for anything."

"Thank you. Thank you," Gursey muttered, backing away, like a beggar.

Cabell watched him go, a deep sadness in his heart. So this was the man who had thought he was going to help make a new nation in which all the old injustices and cruelty and degradation were to be forgotten! Once so proud and defiant, he would be grateful now if they let him stay and clean out the pigsties. For a visionary moment Cabell felt the pathos of all human illusion and striving, and asked himself if his own fight had been more successful than Gursey's, really. All men seemed to carry about an idea of a better way of life, and they struggled tooth and nail to get at it. But their struggles only took them farther off--coarsened some, weakened others, broke many completely. He, too, it had been made plain to him of late, was changed and remade. Even if he won his appeal, had two good seasons, sold out at a top price and took a fortune home to England, he would not be doing as he had always dreamed of doing. For one thing, he would not be young any more, as on that day he stood under the lilac-tree with Phillipa Mayne. And Phillipa Mayne? She was married and had six children. Yes, and all these other people whom he always imagined as young and friendly--they'd be changed, too. Perhaps, he had to admit, many of them would be old now and indifferent. There would be new faces, people who did not know him or care a twopenny damn for him. To the new generation he would be an outsider--even, he thought, running a finger down his scar and wiry beard, a rather rum bit of fauna from down under. Hmn! there'd most likely be a lot of young jackanapes who'd stare at him like those clerks in Brisbane. "Well, I'm damned if I'll wear one of those nail-can hats," he told himself.

The sun was just setting behind the blunt peak of Black Mountain. The air was crystalline, the sky a pale blue, the distant hills magenta. The homestead flock was coming in. Cabell walked to the corner of the yard and leant over the fence. Was it possible, he wondered, that he would be lonely in Owerbury? And he felt, what lately, despite himself, he had grown more and more aware of--the subtle threads of attachment to this place. The idea was wordless, a stab of feeling--of proprietorship, of achievement, of indignation at those who were trying to rob him. Over there on Black Mountain where Peters was prospecting now they had killed the blacks. The winding tape of road that was everybody's highway to Pyke's Crossing had grown out of the rut of his wheels. The scar on the thick bark of the flame-tree took him back to the night of the first lambing when he got these burns on his arm. The white skull on the door of Sambo's hut was the skull of the old roan stallion, the great-great-grandfather of all his horses. In that scrub over there he had emptied his pistol into Dan's head. That tumbledown cartshed was the old homestead humpy, recalling Cranky Tom, Bill Penberthy, Gursey's fever, the night Emma knocked the lamp over, the night of the flood. . . . This was the rock Tom had buttressed his cannon with. Every ironbark and bloodwood rail of that stockyard he'd cut out with his axe. And so on, through sixteen years of his life, till he began to realize, what he was later to see quite plainly, that ordeal and suffering might tie a man to a place more closely than happiness. Happiness? Wasn't it, perhaps, just the memory of ordeals and difficulties endured and overcome?

He watched the sun go down. It was that moment of evening when Nature seems to brood pitifully over Man as she rings down the curtain on another of his days in sad splendour. Morning challenges him, noon oppresses him, but in the evening, when the birds come down from the peak of the sky to twitter companionably round the house and the sunlight throws a gauze of gold over miserable, makeshift buildings, then she draws the lonely creature closer to her. So Cabell thought, and a sentimental mood, half pleasant, half of discontent, swept over him. Doors to the secret of ineffable peace, on which he had been knocking for so long, seemed about to give way. But as he waited expectantly he saw the day pass and an irrevocable fragment of life was gone from him. . . . On the one hand his immense dreams, called from the cellars of his mind by the mystic tenderness of the hour; on the other a glimpse of himself scrambling against a background of flickering nights and days. . . .

The cold evening settled. Through the door of Sambo's hut he saw Gursey leaning over the fire to warm his hands. Again Cabell remembered him as the young fanatic of Murrumburra and asked "Can this be the same man?" The answer was as cold as the night. It made him revolt against the mood of the moment before. Nature was not kind and pitiful. What an idea! In this country she hated men. She tried to starve them out, dry them out, burn them out. She'd had nineteen years of his life and what had she given him in return? Nothing. Literally nothing. The fortune on which he counted--was it his even yet? If he lost the appeal, if there was a drought and bushfires he would be no better off than when he first came. Not an iota. Why, he'd be worse off. He was thirty-nine, past the half-way mark of his life. What was left to him now, even with wealth, except old age? Where was the love of a beautiful, passionate woman he had always longed for? Where were children? Where was a home? Where was position? Where was his good name? Stolen from him by this land of sin, sweat, sorrow and treachery. What it had done to Gursey, the Darvalls, and Rosa Bellamy it was trying to do to him. And every day it became more powerful, because every day it gained accomplices. Each spirit it broke became its accomplice, out of envy, malice and hatred of those who were not broken. Emma. . . . Yes, she was its chief instrument. And he reaffirmed his angry threats. If he could not get away from here what had he to live for? Could he dishonour himself more than he was already dishonoured, even if he--killed her?

He clapped his hand over his mouth. God, what was he saying? It was not for him to threaten if he wanted the Fates to deal well by him. And he turned hastily from these bitter thoughts, trying to recapture his earlier feelings of compassion for Gursey, which surely would help to weigh the scales in his favour.

In the weeks that followed he tried to show, by many kindly acts, that he wanted to atone for the injury he knew he had done. But, although his pity was genuine enough, he began to regret that he had brought Gursey back. He began to imagine that Gursey was plotting against him, though on the face of it this seemed absurd. What could the man possibly do, aged and weakened as he was? And why, indeed, should he try to do anything? Whatever resentments he might brood over he was now, nevertheless, in a safe billet after ten years of drifting about the country, living from hand to mouth apparently, in pain and in fear of his life. But the idea persisted, drawing its vitality from Cabell's own guilty feelings.

Certainly it did seem that Gursey was not as humble as he tried to make out. A glance caught in passing, the tone of his voice overheard talking to the men in the store one morning when he thought Cabell was out on the run--sharp and querulous, not at all the tone he used when Cabell was near--these things were disturbing evidence of it. The voice recalled the Gursey of old, but without the ring of fanatic hope and mockery it sounded just nasty. Why should Gursey be deceiving him? He must have something up his sleeve. A strong intuitive suspicion made him try to question Gursey about his wanderings, for it turned out that Peters had been with him for only five years on and off and knew nothing about the other years at all, except that Gursey had moved about a lot.

But Gursey was obscure, and Cabell left him with doubts stronger than ever. In the end he found nothing better than his own feeling to base these on, but he was to recall his intuitions afterwards and to curse himself for not taking the wind and fleeing for his life. As a matter of fact, he exaggerated their power then, as people usually do: they were merely vague and fantastic suspicions at the time, to be dismissed in healthy moments of broad daylight as figments of his nerves, which all the troublesome contingencies round him had set on edge. It was time for the rams to go in. Unless heavy rain fell soon over the country generally squatters who usually came for breeding ewes would be reluctant to stock up, butchers would find all the sheep and cattle they wanted nearer to their market, and he would be left more overstocked than ever. The one bright spot was a letter from Samuelson in Brisbane telling him that he had managed to instruct a notable Sydney barrister to appear in the appeal, fixed for hearing in June, two months away, and that he had no doubts they would win with this man's help. Cabell scanned his winter-thin pastures, which would soon be carrying three times as many sheep as they could support for long. "One good downpour at the end of this month," he prayed, like a besieged general praying for reinforcements.

Meanwhile Gursey lived like a prisoner in the storeroom, where Cabell had installed him as nominal storekeeper. Good food and rest had recuperated his body a little, but he did not lose the hunted look, was watchful, always at the window looking down the road towards Pyke's Crossing, which could be seen winding here and there through patches of scrub till the foothills of the range swallowed it. Savage thoughts were printed on his face when Cabell was not about, and fear and physical pain tormented him.

Emma watched him, from a distance at first. Then she came to the store when Cabell was away. They eyed one another suspiciously, each waiting for the other to speak.

"It's kind of you to have me here, missus," Gursey began at last in a servile voice. "An old piper like me--no good to anybody."

She walked across to the window and stared out, but answered nothing.

"If there's anybody can afford to be kind it's you," he wheedled, "you're getting on that fine. Dirk, too. He's got a bonanza over there. He'll be a big man one day."

She glanced sideways at him and his head drooped, like a dog's expecting to be kicked. "What's the matter, missus? Why, you're not cranky with me, are you? I mean it well. I've done you and yours a good turn in my time. You wouldn't be hard on an old man, would you?"

Emma turned quickly. "You sly dog," she half whispered vehemently, "what are you trying to do?"

"Do?" Cunning eyes peered out through his innocent surprise, measuring her. "What should I do? I'm an old man. I only want a home. I earned it. Didn't I bring him here and help to make him rich? Didn't I give you a leg-up by keeping my trap shut? You're not going to kick me out now, are you? I'm only an old man."

"If you only wanted to hide, why did you come back here?" she demanded. "There are better places."

"But he sent for me, didn't he? He sent Peters."

"Liar. You sent Peters. Peters told me himself. You sent him here with a yarn to get you back. The old fool told me because he thought it would make me soft to see you begging."

"What if I did?" Gursey said mournfully. "I couldn't stand the racket any longer. I'm old and sick. I only want a place to lie down and die in. If I'd come on my own hook Cabell would have sooled the dogs on me. Anyway, I couldn't come. I had no dough."

"You chose a good time, didn't you? When his back is up against the wall. I suppose you read it in the papers."

"Sure! I read the papers." His manner had relaxed. He was servile no longer, but insinuatingly confidential. "I read how rich he'd become. I thought if he was as well off as that he could spare me a roof over my head." He came nearer. "Don't turn dog on me, Em. I stood up for you before. I'm not asking much now."

"I don't trust you an inch, Joe Gursey," Emma said quietly. "You told me you'd stick a knife in him some day, and I think you will if you get a chance. I don't believe the yarns you tell Cabell. I'd like to know what frightened you all of a sudden. You were at Ballarat and Bendigo with Peters and you never tried to hide yourself. And it was four years after that before you sent Peters here. I'd like to know who it was you saw meanwhile. And why he didn't hand you over to the police."

That was a shot in the dark, as Gursey knew. He rubbed his chin and grinned. "You're deep, Em," he said approvingly, "but you're barking up the wrong tree this time. It wasn't him. He's never been heard of since the day he went to America. The fact is I just got scared. I'm old. That's what it is. My nerve's gone back on me."

She looked at him sceptically.

He grinned again and patted her arm familiarly. "See here, Em. What's biting you? Anybody'd think you were mad about Cabell, instead of loving him no more than I do. He's treated you like a dog. Peters told me what happened after I left. And he'll treat you worse yet. See if he don't." He prodded his chest with his thumb and his face darkened. "Look at me. You saw the dose of cold gruel he gave me. Kicked me out to sink or swim. And it was me who led him to this place. By rights all this is half mine. Yet he thinks he's doing me a charity to have me here and give me a bottle of rum and a plug of stale snout once a week." He dropped his voice a tone and leant nearer. "He'll drop you just the same as he dropped me. Quick and lively. Why? D'you know? Because we're both in the same bag as far as he's concerned. We're both dirt. He's an aristocrat. A big bug. He won't feel any conscience about anything. Because we're just the scum of the earth in his eyes. Don't you think you can alter that by working for him. He was taught it in his cradle. I stuck to him through thick and thin for seven years and he did the dirt on me just the same. Nothing could change him short of seeing the inside of the Academy like we did." His dead-grey eyes seemed to light up at the thought, but he shook his head. "I don't count on that ever happening though. His kind never gets in the pen. So you look out for yourself, lass. He's waiting for the day when he sees the sods piled on you. And he wouldn't think it a sin if he had to put the wooden coat on you with his own hands."

Emma leant against the counter, biting her nails thoughtfully. She had not changed much in the fourteen years since she first met Cabell, for she was one of those fleshless women on whom age lays a light hand. She had been spared the endless child-bearing that had told on the softer Rosa Bellamy. Her gipsy skin took little harm from the sun. And the constant opposition of Cabell and her scheming and plotting had kept her bright and vital, though it had cemented the lines about her mouth and fixed the look of tight-lipped obstinacy upon her.

Their conflict had now reached the point where it would be settled once and for all, she knew. The attack on his land rights, the revelation in the courts, the approach of middle age, with which he saw his brightest hopes slipping away, and along with this the suspicion that life was coarsening him and changing him to a disagreeable type--all these were forcing the climax upon him. And upon her, she realized, for since his return from Brisbane his manner had been restless, lacked the domineering tone she knew so well. She read the signs of an uneasy conscience and guessed that he was planning to break with her.

She knew that in certain moods he was dangerous and that what Gursey said was true, but she was not afraid. She believed that, as so many times before, she could outwit him, and faith in herself made her even feel sympathetic towards him. For she had come to understand that he genuinely suffered in his opposition to her and his longing for England, and, though the insulted part of her got a morbid kind of pleasure from this, it appealed also to what was deeper--her impulse to protect and coddle those near her. After ten years, studying him closely, seeing him in every variety of his changeable moods, she seemed to catch, behind the eyes of the man, glimpses of a shy, eager, lonely boy. So gradually it began to dawn on her that Cabell was by no means as self-assured as he seemed. She saw him shuffled to and fro by the shifts of these two personalities, now towards one end, now towards the opposite. Compared with her own steady aim--narrow and stubborn--his seemed pitifully uncertain. Her attitude began to change. She began to feel a tolerant contempt for one less strong and cunning than herself. In a detached way she even began to appreciate his longings for England. But that made no difference. She knew what was best for him, and through his childish contrariness he could easily be led or driven.

Out of her own ambitions she had built up a great future for him. The very thing in him that affronted her, the rather smug, conventional, socially safe Englishman, "the aristocratic mug", she longed at the same time to be allied with. This element of his personality still had power to move her, even when she knew that she was stronger than he. It had stood out clearly in the polyglot gathering at Fritz Schmidt's the first day she saw him, it had often made her want to hurt him, and it had always attracted her. To be respectable, in a secure social position where people would look up to her as the wife of a rich squatter with high connections in London--this was what she wanted. The exposure in Pat Dennis's paper had been a terrible blow to her, but it only made her more determined in the end. And why should she not hope? After all, people necessarily had a short memory for such things in Australia. Success, money, power blotted out the past. Hadn't Pat Dennis himself risen from the lowest cesspools of life to be a power in the land? Let Cabell become rich and no one would remember the past. Then, she imagined, the warm, comfortable feeling which people must have who had lived the sheltered lives she envied would be hers.

The fiasco of her plans for Dirk had quickened this train of thought. It was her anxiety for Dirk's future which drove her to Cabell after he had shown that he could protect her. How she had planned and struggled to save her brother from the kind of life she had had to suffer, to make a brilliant position for him in a new country! She had forced Cabell to stock Dirk's land, to help him with hands at lambing and shearing and in carting his wool. Against Dirk's own erratic temperament she had made him work and develop Winbaggery according to a big plan for the future. And when, in spite of himself, Dirk had begun to grow wealthy, she had outmanoeuvred Rosa Bellamy and looked round to get him a wife who would bring him what she wanted for herself--position, stability, a good name. It seemed a vain hope. The kind of woman she imagined for her brother's wife did not immigrate to the backblocks of Australia. So the Darvalls had seemed providentially sent. In Ludmilla she recognized a woman of her own kind. Though innocent of the world, a lady from high reaches of society, as Emma saw her, still the disgrace of the Colonel had hardened her, given her the kind of spirit Dirk needed to manage him. She would stand no nonsense and backsliding, Emma thought. She had had her taste of shame. But Ludmilla frightened Dirk: his harum-scarum marriage was not perhaps so reckless as it seemed; he might have had a mind to protect himself.

The marriage was a frightful shock to Emma. Lizzie Beck, a Chinaman's whore! So all her care had gone for nothing. Her dreams of seeing Dirk a conservative flock-master like some of the great men in the south who could write Sir or Honourable before their names came tumbling. That Lizzie Beck was as hard-bitten and ambitious as herself she did not realize: she could only contrast her with haughty Ludmilla. Also, the marriage reacted on her own affairs. "What a family!" Cabell had once exclaimed. "Dregs. Dregs." Ah, if only Ludmilla had married Dirk he might have changed his mind about that.

But the debacle made her more determined than ever to fight, for it set a new factor in motion. Lizzie Beck soon showed her that one mistress only was to reign at Winbaggery. A sharp tussle the day after the wedding had decided that. Besides, Lizzie was a symbol of Dirk's revolt. He was tired of being reproached, bullied, loaded with responsibilities.

Emma had returned home with a hollow feeling in her breast. On whom was she now to lavish the half-blind, half-shrewd but always passionate impulse to protect and succour which Dirk had carried the main weight of for years? It was necessary to her character, a ruling instinct. Years before, her father, then Jem had leant upon it. At first it was a superabundance of vitality, but it became after her convict years a sort of avid hunger to live a new life through her brother, whom she tried to shape to an ideal pattern that was really her own deep longings for herself. She did not brood over her failure though--she was too much alive--but seized on the clay ready at her hand. Her own son Larry, neglected by Cabell because he was afraid of taking on responsibilities that might bind him, by Emma herself because all her thoughts had been wrapped up in Dirk, now became her absorbing interest. To assure his future, to build up position and wealth for him was now the centre of her plans for Cabell.

Larry was ten years old at this time. A quiet, self-effacing, grave boy, much as Cabell himself had been, he grew every year more like his father, though Cabell managed to believe that there was no likeness at all. Perhaps it was this likeness which in the beginning had made Emma cold-shoulder him. He seemed more Cabell's child than hers. She was not unkind. She saw that he was well clothed and fed, and arranged with Rosa Bellamy to let him share the governess at Black Rock.

But now she saw him in a new light. For one thing the collapse of the Bellamy menage threw him more in her way. She found under the fine-drawn features of the Cabells many reflections of herself--a chestnut tint in his hair, her gipsy darkness of skin, a small-boned body that promised to be nearer her size than Cabell's. Even at this age he was a reckless climber of trees after wild honey and breaker-in of ponies. She began to look on him as a younger Dirk, one half tainted with the dangerous old leaven. But--she tightened her mouth--at least he was half Cabell. His own father should not run off and desert him. He must be cared for. He must be properly educated. He must have a tutor of his own, like the sons of other wealthy squatters. He must be made into a man of high estate.

Emma had been on the alert for some weeks before Gursey's return, watching for dangerous developments on all sides. There was Cabell's shifty manner, the threatening drought, the appeal, all of which darkened her future. The homecoming of Gursey pushed these alarms into the background. She hated Gursey, as a reminder of the world which she was always struggling to escape and as one whose malicious cunning her own tortuous mental processes were calculated to appreciate. She had talked with Gursey a great deal when she first came to Cabell's Reach, and had learnt the depths of his grudge against Cabell, not only from his words and her own understanding of the wrong Cabell had done him, but also through the way in which Gursey had been willing to sacrifice himself in keeping her secret so that Cabell should marry her and be injured. She did not feel grateful for what he had done: rather she suspected him more because of it. And feared him: he menaced all she had and hoped to have. She would gladly have turned him out now, wreck as he was, to hobble off and find new quarters or die on the road. He had said he would pay Cabell back some day, and she was certain he had come to do so. From her own heart she well understood the type of mind that would destroy itself for revenge. She asked herself the same questions that hovered on the brink of Cabell's mind, and they did not seem fantastic to her. But what was she to do? Warn Cabell? She had nothing definite to warn him of, and, anyway, he was not likely to listen to what she said. She could only wait.

Cabell noted her watchful quietness. It diverted his thoughts from Gursey. Here was a more credible danger.

 

 

 

V

A Perilous Crossing

 

 

Chapter Forty-one

THE OVERSEER AT NINGPO

 

It was towards the end of May that Emma's sharpened suspicions began to take notice of a certain stranger in the valley.

One evening she ran short of matches and went down to the store, where the men were sitting round on the barrels talking to Gursey. While he rummaged in the shelves after what she wanted Sambo said: "Seen that bloke Farrar pokin' about down the dip 's'afternoon again. If I didn't know where he come from I'da chipped him. Rummy-lookin' cove."

Gursey glanced at Sambo, then at Emma, as though he wanted to draw her attention to something. He took the matches down and held them in his hands while he asked Sambo: "This here Farrar or whatever he calls himself--he wouldn't be a chap near my height, would he?"

Sambo closed an eye. "Reckon he would. About fifteen hands."

"Wouldn't be bandy, would he?"

"Could shove a barrel between his legs without touchin'."

"Huh. Well, you're not going to tell me he's got a ginger beard as well?"

Sambo slapped his knees. "That's him. Farrar. The new overseer at Ningpo. Ain't no mate of yours, Joe?"

Gursey gazed at the ceiling and stroked his chin. "Not what I'd call a mate," he said, "but I knew him once. A long time ago." He looked at Emma. "But I guess he won't have forgotten me." Then, seeming to remember the matches, he pushed them hastily into her hands with a "Sorry, ma'am. I was forgetting you were waiting." But his eyes kept a sardonic expression that could not fail to fix in her mind what had passed as the vehicle of some significant meaning.

Pondering, she took the matches and went back to the house. Cabell was away, making a belated search for agistment lands on which to shift some of his overcrowded stock. Since he left she had heard several times of a stranger who struck up cheerful conversation with the hands and asked a lot of questions about the homestead at the Reach. She had been suspicious at once, but it soon turned out that the man was one of the hands Ludmilla had brought to Ningpo, where a great overhaul was going forward. She was mustering and shooting the wild scrubbers, clearing the bush and trying to put her neglected, tragic house in order. A rumour that she intended to buy sheep would explain why her overseer was riding round the stations of Cabell's Reach so much.

So Emma thought at first. But out of her memory now leapt a picture of McGovern, as both Cabell and Gursey had vividly described him--a big, bandy man with a red beard and a cheerful voice. Could this be the way he intended to introduce himself? For that he was somewhere near Emma did not doubt. Gursey was up to some mischief. She was sure of that; indeed, since their conversation he had made hardly any effort to conceal the fact. Rather, by sly, insinuating words, glances, gestures, he had seemed to invite her to deeper confidence.

Any plot to injure Cabell must involve McGovern, Emma thought, for that was the only way Gursey could get at him. And she recalled how Gursey had often said McGovern might return some day and even wished that he would. What she could not see so clearly was whence and how McGovern would come and, more baffling, what Gursey's part in the conspiracy could be. Was it possible, she asked herself now, that this overseer at Ningpo was McGovern, just waiting, perhaps, till Cabell returned to pounce on him? On the other hand, might not Gursey be trying to deceive her? Might there not be a graver danger than she had so far suspected?

The outcome of these speculations was an effort to get at close quarters with Farrar. She could not visit Ningpo, as the homestead had been closed to her since the Colonel kicked Dirk out of the house. But hearing one afternoon that the Ningpo hands were mustering in the Stony Creek scrub, she took a ride along the fence that had caused so much trouble and got a glimpse of the man Sambo had described. He was talking with Ludmilla and watching a sharp struggle between the stockmen and a mob of hump-back cleanskins they were trying to cut off from the scrub. Every now and then a beast broke back near where he was sitting on his horse and he cracked his whip and stirred himself to turn it into the mob again, but it always escaped him. Emma got an impression through the dust of a powerful frame run to seed. He was fat and flabby, and alongside the vigorous young stockmen and Ludmilla, who chased an errant steer occasionally and always brought it back, rather ineffectual-looking. Not the man she had imagined McGovern to be from Gursey's stories, not dangerous-looking at all. His beard was neatly clipped and he wore a waistcoat without a coat, a kind of dress that always makes a man look a scoundrel. But he struck her as the sort of scoundrel who hangs round bars in second-class grog-shanties, playing off the three-card trick on green station-hands--not in any way a match for Cabell. But the thought did not comfort her long. Her mind kept returning to Gursey. He was the one she feared.

At last, unwillingly, she had to accept the invitation he kept throwing out. One morning she went down to the store. "I see your game now, Joe Gursey," she said. She attacked him point-blank, so that he would not think she wished to commit herself to any liaison with him.

He shuffled to the door and looked round the yard, then came back and pushed his chalky face impudently close to hers. "That's a lie, sister," he told her. "You don't see no such thing. Nobody sees my game but myself. I'll tell you this much, though. It's your game as well as mine. But you're beginning to tumble to that, eh?"

She ignored the suggestion. "This so-called Farrar--I know who he is. I've heard him described before."

He nodded. "That's so. It's our old friend McGovern. But what then? You'll slip Cabell the wink, eh, and help him to go back to England? He'll take you with him, won't he? Just out of gratitude!" He chuckled.

"He wouldn't run away--not just now."

Gursey winked. "He couldn't. The best part of his dough's tied up, ain't it? But still you can't be sure. He might. Say he couldn't get them agistment lands. Say the sheep begin to peg. Say he sees a long drought ahead. Say he loses heart. Say he has ten thousand in the bank. What then, eh? He might have a mind to slip off one night. And where'd you be then? You'd have the stock, you say. Thirty or forty thousand monkeys all told, not reckoning cattle and horses. That's a fair dollop. Granted. You could live comfortable--if the drought left you alone. And if it didn't maybe Lizzie Beck'd give you a shake-down in your brother's house, eh?" He paused to see how she took this, then tapped her arm with the stem of his pipe and went on more seriously. "I'm just putting it to you. You might get soft-hearted, see. You might listen if he made you a proposition like that. You mightn't put up a proper fight for your rights. You might slip the buckle and let him go. I'm just warning you."

She stared back at him, trying to penetrate the motives of this game. "Blackmail, is it?"

Gursey closed one eye and nodded. "Picked a pretty time, ain't he? Mr Bloody Cabell'd be in a fine pickle if it came out just now that he'd helped an old fakir like me to escape and was sheltering him. There's a stiff stretch for that, or used to be. Think of it--Cabell in darbies for a change."

Contradictory emotions stirred in Emma. The satisfaction which showed fleetingly on her face, making Gursey smile, gave way to fear. "He'd have to pay," she murmured.

"And give up all he's wrung the marrow out of himself and everybody else to get? Give up going back to England?"

"He couldn't," Emma agreed. "He wouldn't."

Gursey rubbed his hands briskly. "You're right there. He wouldn't."

She looked at him. "Well?"

Gursey seemed stuck for an answer. He sucked his empty pipe for a moment, then took it out of his mouth and folded his bottom lip over the top. "That's the point," he said. "That's just what we can't be sure of. He might cash in and sling his hook. He might." He rubbed his cheek thoughtfully. "And again he mightn't."

"What does McGovern want, then?"

"A stiff price. You can lay on that. The papers in Sydney were harping on the dough Cabell had socked away. One of the best-greased men in the North, they reckoned. And that's what fetched McGovern. Cabell'll have to pay handsome if he wants to keep that glib shut. With the appeal coming on and all. If McGovern stops short of bleeding him it'd be a wonder."

Emma walked to the door and looked out. Supposing Cabell did not run away, but paid, what future would be left for her even then? The drought threatened a heavy loss of stock unless he won the appeal. In three years' time his lease ran out and rumours said that his old enemies in Brisbane would try to prevent him from renewing it. If they succeeded after McGovern had milked him dry and the drought had cleaned him out, where would she be?

Gursey guessed her thoughts. "There's no way out on that side, lass," he said. "Pay or not pay, the old man's up the spout and you with him. If you're thinking Cabell might go south and start all over from the bottom, you'd better think again. Isn't he more likely just to sell what the bleeder leaves and skedaddle? Wouldn't he know that, whatever he greased McGovern's palm with this time, he'd always come back for more--as long as one of us was still alive?"

A new but obvious thought struck Emma, confusing her. So far she had thought of Gursey as a confederate of McGovern. Now she asked herself what Gursey expected to get from all this. Money? Revenge? And it began to dawn on her as plainly absurd that either could make him play such a dangerous game. For if Cabell refused to pay, as Gursey seemed anxious to believe he would, was the man going to have the police put on his own track just to make trouble for Cabell? Unbelievable. Besides, looking at Gursey, whose overstrained eyes showed signs of the most intense nervous stress, she could not doubt that he was as much afraid of what would follow exposure, even after twenty years, as when she first saw him. Then she had learnt that his one obsessing dread was of being sent back to prison, perhaps hanged for his part in the conspiracy against McGovern. It was a fear she could well appreciate: she knew that in him was an avid hunger for life like her own.

She felt a detached pity for him. Old and penniless, how could he hope to get anything more out of life now? And by coming here, to the very place where he was likely to lose the little he had, his liberty? But the enigma only became more tortuous as she probed it. "If your game is my game, as you say, why don't you tell me what it is?" she challenged him, but without hostility.

He grinned knowingly. "It's so simple you wouldn't believe me," he said. "Though it might mean one of a lot of things to you, and you're pretty sure not to lose if I've calculated right."

"I might lose, eh?"

"So you might. If you let Cabell get away you'd lose, as I've shown you. If he paid, you'd lose."

"And if he stayed and didn't pay? And McGovern gave him away? And Cabell was beaten in the appeal and they took the station from him in two years' time? What then? Seems to me I'd lose then, too. And you? You wouldn't stand to gain much."

"There's more than one way to kill a cat, isn't there?"

"Yes?"

He spread his hands. "Who knows? You might get a leg-rope that'd hold Cabell for good and all. That'd be something, wouldn't it? Or you might inherit ten thousand in hard cash. And that'd be worth having, too, eh?"

"And what would you get?"

The harassed look spread across Gursey's face again. "I want to lie down and sleep without dreaming that ginger bastard's smelt me out again and is planted on the other side of the door to grab me when I come out. I want to go in the street without holding my breath for fear of what's round every corner. I've got a few more years to live. I want to live them in peace. That's all I want."

"Ah, so he's found you out once already, has he?" Emma caught him up. "Why didn't he give you away then? Why are you frightened of him now?" She paused and narrowly searched his face. For a moment her earlier suspicion that he was in league with McGovern returned. She speculated swiftly on the gaps in his life about which nobody seemed to know. What had he been doing all those years? But she dismissed the idea that there could be any complicity, for understanding of his real purpose was beginning to dawn on her. To cover her thoughts, from herself as much as from him, she burst out impatiently: "You've got some rig I can't make head or tail of, Joe Gursey. But it's dirty. I can see that."

He waved his hand in her face and went back to his seat at the window. "If you've got any nous . . ." he muttered, turning his back on her.

In the following days, while she waited for Cabell to return, Emma went over and over what Gursey had said. Was it possible? After eighteen years? Surely they could do nothing to Cabell now? These were her first thoughts when she had recovered from the shock of finding that just that had come to pass which she had instinctively feared from Gursey. It had all happened so long ago, she argued, and things changed quickly in Australia. Men had no time to waste on the past. Already the days of convict settlements and convict shepherds were half forgotten, so much water had flowed under the bridge since then. Everybody knew that there were wealthy men in Australia who would be in a tight corner if they had to explain how they came by their liberty. Ballarat had been full of Vandemonians who had escaped from "t'other side". Some of these had struck it lucky and today were important people in the community. Anyway, surely everyone had agreed to let those bygones of a shameful time be bygones. It was only Gursey's barmy fears which magnified the danger of McGovern. If it came to a show-down, what could he do?

But the more she thought about it the less these reflections comforted her, for nothing could alter the fact that Cabell had helped a convict to escape after trying to kill an overseer and had harboured him for years. Settlers had got long terms of imprisonment merely for sheltering escapees in the old days, and, whatever changes had come about since then, people so disposed could still make out an ugly case against Cabell. And there were people so disposed--powerful people--on the look-out for any ways, fair or foul, to blacken his character. Wouldn't Flanagan and Dennis grab the chance McGovern could put in their way? A few years ago things might have been different, and that would explain perhaps why McGovern had left Cabell alone before. Now he knew that Cabell was up against the wall. He looked the kind of man to make the most of that.

Whichever way she looked she saw trouble for Cabell, though she was concerned principally for herself and Larry and what would become of them if Cabell were to take the easiest way and clear out with his money or, on the other hand, were to lose the case and his money, too. But she decided that he was unlikely to make a break from McGovern. Certainly, as she had often seen, he had a dreamy streak--perhaps even a streak of weakness--which ran away from pain and conflict, but his sense of possession was greedy. It was altogether out of the question that he would abandon fifty thousand sheep and lambs and several thousand cattle and horses while he had any chance of realizing money on them. And, with the threatening drought, that would take time. She would be able to make up her mind what she ought to do when she saw what he intended to do.

Thus for some time she managed to avoid thinking to the core of the situation as Gursey had laid it bare to her, while drifting towards a tacit agreement that her welfare and his hung by the same thread, that nothing was to be gained by interfering, and that matters should be allowed to take their course according to the characters of the two men. The ultimate issue on which the success of this laissez-faire depended she did not face at first, for, hard and realistic as life had made her and urgent though her hopes were and unsentimental her feeling for Cabell, yet she shrank from this design of an apparently crazy man which seemed full of the direst possibilities. At first she tried to argue that McGovern might change his mind if he found Cabell ready to fight. The man she had seen was no fighter. But this hopeful reasoning collapsed. That McGovern had chosen just this moment when Cabell was least able to defend himself, that he was spying out the land so carefully before he acted--here she saw signs of a cunning no amount of mere bravado would turn aside. And, though she still did not admit that perhaps the only way out was the murder of McGovern, that this and this only Gursey had been hinting at, a new feeling crept into her thoughts of Cabell, a guilty feeling.

Subconsciously she foresaw his long, dreary future in the shadow of an undetected crime--the constant watchfulness, doubt, suspicion--the life that had ruined Gursey. So profoundly did these half-smothered thoughts oppress her that she began to speculate upon the very action which Gursey and her own idea of her welfare had argued against. She began to ask herself whether it might not be better after all to warn Cabell what was hanging over him and, by pointing out the possibilities, quicken his own first impulse to escape. She could beg him to go back to England and leave the management of the station to her till she could sell the cattle and sheep. They could surely agree on some division of the property. After all, he was not a monster: he would admit some responsibility for Larry's future, even if he was prepared to abandon her.

But she rejected the idea scornfully at once. He'd be likely to do what she urged, wouldn't he? And if he did, why should she and Larry be content with a few problematical leavings while he got off to England with a fortune? A year of drought and there'd be precious little left to divide. No, that wasn't good enough. Cabell must be made to stay and face it out. Was it her fault McGovern was able to come and bleed him? Was it her fault he was in difficulties over the land? If he'd bought when she advised him there would have been no difficulties. Why must she sacrifice herself for his mistakes? He'd have to get himself out of the muddle in the only way that seemed left to him. And once he was out, let him try to desert her! She'd give him a taste of the screw then. Little room he'd have for sneering at her and throwing the past in her face.

Now by brooding over all the slights Cabell had put on her since Jem told him the truth, she whipped herself into a white-hot anger that covered her uneasy feelings for the moment. She seemed to have forgotten the future she had hoped to build on his good name and only to have waited all these years for just such an opportunity to injure him. But her bitterness was not so much against him really as against life itself, which made her a tangle of many and conflicting desires, filled her with a longing for a fine thing yet threatened to deny it to her except through and mixed with evil.

 

 

Chapter Forty-two

YEARS HAVE CHANGED THEM

 

When Cabell came home early in June without having found anywhere to feed his surplus sheep, Emma said nothing, but waited, expecting to see McGovern on the doorstep at any moment. A week passed and nothing happened. She had to talk with Gursey again. He was worried, too. "The damned rat. He's funked," he said. "He knows what's coming to him if he makes a false step. Cabell nearly got him once, and the big galoot hasn't been the same since."

Cabell had forgotten everything but his sheep, and did not notice how worked up these two were. He was beginning to see that he would have to fight hard to get through the drought. It was a thin year rather than a drought, and only for the loss of the Stony Creek land he would have pulled through with a pinch. But after the lambing he would have nearly fifty thousand sheep on the run, besides cattle and the horses. The land could carry a sheep to the acre in a good season, but they made almost twice that now.

There was water enough in the river and the holes, but the ground was as dry and bare as a billiard table. So far the sheep had managed to keep fat by burrowing out the root of last season's luxurious berang, but that could not go on for ever, and there was not much prospect of rain in the next three months, for they were now in the driest part of the year. Squatters expected a poor season. The clip would be bad. Some wise ones who had been overstocked like Cabell had taken advantage of the few days' rain in early April, which had freshened up the stock-routes, to get the bulk of their sheep away to agistment in the south, where the outlook was better. But Cabell had held on, hoping against hope that the drought would break and the buyers come as usual to help him balance up. He was gambling. He reckoned he would clear his hundred thousand if things went well.

But he had waited in vain. The country was in a state of siege, looking anxiously towards the approaching summer when the rains might fail again and drought descend in grim earnest. Weather prophets held forth on seven-year rain cycles and many doubtful signs and portents, and all agreed that it was no time for new investments. The rush for land halted a moment, and there was less exuberant drawing of corks in the bar of the Royal in Brisbane. The helpless fear and exasperation which takes hold of men when they come up against Nature in a destructive mood oppressed everyone. Cabell saw that his only hope now was a successful issue to the appeal; but Samuelson wrote to say that the court had postponed its sittings till July, that there was a heavy list, and that he could not hope for a hearing before August at the earliest.

Meanwhile he began to lose sheep. Soft mud ringed the shrunken waterholes. The sheep were bogged when they went in to drink, and, with the fatalism which made it a constant fight to keep them alive in the best of times, they just waited to die. The crows, massing in the trees with a prophetic instinct for death, swooped down and picked out their eyes and livers before they had stopped breathing.

So when Ludmilla rode over one afternoon to ask if he would sell her five thousand ewes and five thousand lambs he grabbed at a god-sent relief.

Mounted on a fine grey mare she had recently bought from Bellamy and dressed in a simple frock with a pair of heavy Wellingtons, her hair pushed out of sight in a business-like way under a Californian hat, she made a figure that could not fail to rouse his sympathy. She was thinner and all the colour had gone from her face and lips. Her fine body had become flat and mannish, her skin raw from sun and wind, her voice deeper. If trouble had broken the rest of her family, it had made a strong character of her, he told himself at a first glance. But as he looked at her he remembered how his sister had said that the Darvall girls had been marked out for fine matches and a brilliant future. Yet here was Ludmilla, her beauty gone, preparing for years of drudgery in the bush. "What hasn't she had to give up, poor girl!" he thought, and it seemed to him that Ludmilla's victory was a hollow one after all. "I'd rather have died myself," he thought.

But he switched his mind back to business, and looking at her with a colder eye he speculated on the possibility of getting rid of some old ewes he had just made up his mind to kill for their skins. A green girl this, he told himself.

But Ludmilla only smiled, a smile that had some of her mother's dry humour in it. She knew he had to sell, and she had her eye on five thousand of his best breeding ewes. She offered him seven-and-six a head for them. A few months before he had refused fifteen shillings. A year before he had got twenty shillings a head easily. He fumed, swore he'd be damned if he would, but accepted. There was nothing else to do.

"And if you were wise you'd try to make another bargain and send me ten thousand or so on agistment. I might consider that on halves."

Halves meant that she would take half the wool and half the increase.

After several interviews he accepted that, too. The deal relieved the pressure at the Reach, but he felt very bitterly about her. He saw his chances of clearing a hundred thousand at the end of two years slipping away. Oh well, fifty thousand wouldn't be so bad, he thought.

A few mornings later Ludmilla rode in to say that she was ready to take delivery. Her men were down at the Fig Tree station where Cabell kept the ewes. He saddled up and went with her to see the sheep counted out. Cabell's shepherds had yarded the mob and were lounging about with the Ningpo men waiting for Cabell.

"Mr Farrar, my overseer." Ludmilla indicated a man standing apart from the rest.

Cabell gave him a casual nod and rode past to send the men to work. The sight of the sheep he was about to lose annoyed him and he drew off to the far side of the yard while the counting out began. Soon they lost sight of each other behind the clouds of dust that rose from the sheep scurrying into the race. He could make out Farrar from behind, sitting on the rails and counting the hundreds as the sheep went through the gate. It must have been this damned fellow who put Ludmilla up to fleecing him, he decided.

A few minutes afterwards Ludmilla sang out and had the men close the gates. She had noticed sheep coming through that had no right to be there. As a matter of fact, Cabell had dropped his men a hint the day before to cull over the Fig Tree mob and keep the best of it aside.

"What's the matter now?" he demanded, ready for battle.

"These are not the sheep I bought," Ludmilla said. "The flock must have been sorted since I saw it."

"What's wrong with them?" He studied the sheep huddled in the yard. "They look all right to me."

"There are a lot of wethers, for one thing. Half of them are wool-blind, for another."

"That's the dry feed," he grumbled. "They always need wigging when they've been long on dry feed. Perhaps you didn't know that?"

"The mob I saw and bought didn't need any wigging," she insisted, "and that's only a week ago. You must have sorted them since then, Mr Cabell."

"Ach, what do you know about it, you silly girl," he said testily. "Meddling with things that don't concern you. There's nothing wrong with the sheep."

She called to the overseer, who was sitting on the fence taking no notice. "Come here a minute, will you?" She called sharply, for it was Farrar's business to be at her side now.

He climbed down slowly and crossed the yard. His hat was pulled over his eyes and he seemed slow to come near.

"Come along." Ludmilla beckoned him. "I want to talk to you. Mr Cabell says these are the same sheep we saw last week."

Cabell scowled at him, taking general stock of his flabby appearance, instinctively despising a lazy man who looked as though he might impose on an inexperienced girl like Ludmilla. He waited for him to speak, ready to pounce on him.

"Well," Farrar said, after pretending to examine the sheep in the yard, "might be a few wethers mixed in. The rest look right enough."

"But half of them are wool-blind!"

"Never seen a better lot of crossbreds, just the same," Farrar said. "Wigging won't cost you anything."

"There! That's what I told you," Cabell exclaimed, looking at Farrar, who kept his face half turned away, with a new interest and a little more contempt. The sheep were plainly the inferior part of the flock. What did the man mean?

Ludmilla turned her horse. "Oh, very well." She rode off, but doubtfully.

Farrar started to go back to his post, hesitated, then lifted his face to Cabell with a cautious look.

Cabell thought he was going to speak, and pulled his horse back. He stared again. For the first time he saw fully the red face, the beard, the blue eyes, the full, red lips--all as they had been indelibly printed on his memory in the old days, but subtly changed by the years and indulgence and the development of the man's character. There were loose bags under the eyes, rolls of fat round the powerful neck, the lips were thick and rubbery, the jaw had a brutal set and the face as a whole was coarser and more bovine. Something was missing, though. It was the bantering smile, the intimidating self-confidence, the immense assurance of indestructibility. McGovern had seen hard times since the Murrumburra days: they had printed a careworn line across his forehead and taken the edge off his lusty spirits.

Squeezing his lower lip between thumb and forefinger, he had the indecisive look of a bull that cannot make up its mind whether to charge or turn. "Don't you know me?" he began with something of his old bonhomie, which changed to a doubtful smile as Cabell continued to stare down with the frown his forbidding face took on whatever emotions were stirring underneath. "Maybe I've changed a bit," McGovern went on apologetically. "You have." His voice had a distinctly respectful note in it now and he looked a bit uneasy, as though he would be hard put to it for something to say unless Cabell soon spoke. Plainly he felt the physical disadvantage of a man on foot looking up at a horseman. But what kept him guessing, as his eyes showed, probing for a break in the armour, was the look of supercilious disparagement which Cabell's features, hardened to skin and bone, had perfected in the stressful years since they had last seen each other.

Cabell instinctively understood the hesitation of this man he had once already outmanoeuvred and when he was still a limejuicer, and began to recover from his shock. "You're changed. Certainly," he said. "I wouldn't have known you from a crow." And the way he said it was not complimentary.

"I had a bout of blackwater last year," McGovern explained. "It was near the end of me. I've just come out here to get on my feet again."

"Hmn," Cabell grunted.

But Ludmilla was calling from the other side of the yard, where she waited for her overseer to begin work again. He went back to the gate, obviously glad of the excuse to get away.

Cabell tugged his beard. "Here's a bad job," he muttered. "That's the last thing I expected," and for several minutes trembled inwardly at the thought of the catastrophe about to swallow him. "It's a plot. Flanagan's sent him. They're going to bring it up at the appeal. I'm done for!" But gradually his judgment cleared. "No, why should Flanagan send him? That wouldn't be necessary. They would only need to produce McGovern in court. Besides, Flanagan wouldn't do that. He was mixed up in the Murrumburra business, too. And yet . . . I wonder if he knows Gursey's here?" A moment's reflection left him no doubt on that point. Then his suspicions of a few weeks before rushed back to him, and he thought he saw the whole thing clearly. There must be some blackmailing scheme between Gursey and McGovern. That was it. And he recalled how Gursey had once said that McGovern would return some day for sure, and hoped that he would. Ah, the swine--bleed him, would they? But here, thoughts crowding in upon his mind, it struck him, as it had struck Emma, that Gursey was playing a curious rig if he intended to expose himself to injure Cabell. And like Emma he immediately dismissed the possibility, though for a less explicit theory that they were going to try to bluff him out of money. Hmn, so that was it? He studied the back of McGovern's neck, where three folds of fat bulged over the collar, and his confidence stiffened. Just let them try. "I'll hammer hell out of that slug," he promised himself. "And as for Gursey"--he speculated on the ungrateful duplicity of his old mate--"I'll kick him out this very day!"

Still, although these first thoughts persisted, that a league between Gursey and McGovern really protected him, since they could not hurt him without injuring themselves, or Gursey anyway, he began after a while to see how vulnerable he would be were it not so. With this case coming on, success so imperative, and on top of all the muck they threw last time. . . . Good God, he couldn't stand any more scandal. Besides, they might trump up some charge against him in Brisbane. After all, Flanagan had not been in so deep as himself, and it would be difficult to prove that they had put their heads together twenty years ago, that he had only tried to get his own sheep back.

The sweat on his face went cold, and he took a deep breath, feeling that he had had a narrow escape. What, he asked himself, would he have had to do? Pay? He tightened his lips at McGovern's broad back. No, by Christ! The scoundrel wouldn't have had a penny-piece out of him. He'd have seen him in Hell first. At the same time he wondered how much they were going to ask. "I'll be interested to see how far their blasted impertinence goes," he muttered his thoughts aloud.

But here Ludmilla came complaining about the sheep again, and for the next half-hour he was kept busy bullying and pacifying her.

McGovern's part in these arguments puzzled Cabell a lot. He always managed to throw his weight on Cabell's side while seeming to agree with Ludmilla, in a most disagreeable, ingratiating way. A theory of imminent blackmail did not explain a strategy which assisted him to defraud Ludmilla.

Examining McGovern again, he noted one or two details which had escaped him before--the clipped beard, that used to struggle across the chest Vikingwise, a clean collar where his shirt-band had always been crusted with dirt and grease, a watch-chain with a two-ounce nugget hanging from it, pomaded hair with a butcher's forelock over the right eye, and generally an air of hopeful, blustering dandyism. A proper spieler and pub bully, Cabell thought, recognizing the type as Emma had done. A nasty type, too, once it got the upper hand.

The Ningpo men were getting the sheep from the pen now. Ludmilla watched them set out, then rode off towards Ningpo, leaving McGovern to settle a few details with Cabell.

He came back to where Cabell was sheltering from the bitter westerly wind pretending to make some notes in his stock-book.

"That's a fair mob," he remarked, nodding after the slowly moving haze of dust.

"Fair."

McGovern smiled. "I won't say you haven't got better."

Cabell considered in silence a remark that drew his attention to a favour.

"Still and all," McGovern went on, continuing to smile knowingly, as between two who understood each other, "if we old-timers don't stick together, who will, eh? We weren't dropped yesterday, eh?" As Cabell still said nothing, he drew nearer. "Now, about those rams, Boss--now don't lose any sleep about them. Those old-stagers that're due to be pensioned off up the Three Mile--they'd do good enough for her to play round at sheep-breeding with. She'll take my word for it."

"She'll get the rams I sold her, of course," Cabell said dryly. "You can have them tomorrow."

"Don't pucker up, old boy," McGovern protested. "Aren't I doing you a good turn?"

"Yes?" Cabell said sceptically, without raising his eyes from the stock-book.

"Ah," McGovern laughed. "You were always as shy as a possum, man." He held out a soft hand. "See here, Cabell. I'm no backbiter. Let bygones be bygones. I wouldn't hurt a hair of your head, and that's my solemn oath. I know Joe Gursey's up at your place. But what of it? Damn it all, man, that's a long time ago. Live and let live. The poor devil's worried himself barmy, they say. Well, tell him from me he's dead already as far as I'm concerned. Tell him that. As a favour to me. I particularly want him to be clear on that."

Cabell let a wondering side-glance escape him.

Encouraged, McGovern lifted his hand to slap Cabell's shoulder, but thought better of it. "I'll have to be moving now," he said, becoming more genial every moment. "See you soon about those rams. Better take my advice, though. She won't know any different. I can always work the oracle for an old cobber." And with a wink that expressed an almost pathetic eagerness to please, swung his horse round, waved, and cantered away down the track, leaving Cabell to scratch his chin in profound and suspicious quandary.

 

 

Chapter Forty-three

"TRUST ME"

 

Emma and Gursey were surprised to see Cabell reappear at the homestead a few hours later apparently as calm as when he left it. They had both heard Ludmilla say that her overseer and men were waiting for him at Fig Tree and had expected the shock of meeting McGovern to overwhelm him. That the two had met and had talked with each other in private for some time Emma learnt from one of the Fig Tree shepherds who came in with Cabell.

The news excited Gursey. "Was it me they were talking about?"

"He didn't hear."

"What's he waiting for?" Gursey grumbled. "In a month's time Cabell will be done with the courts. He won't care so much then." He ran his fingers through his white hair. Suddenly the bones seemed to melt in him. He sagged across the counter, crushed by a terrible despair which scored haggard lines down his face. "He won't do it," he muttered. "He's scared of Cabell. He hasn't got the guts."

"I'd like to think so," Emma said worriedly.

He stiffened up again with that characteristic flare of energy in which he seemed to lose control of himself. "That's right. You'd like to think so. But what about me? Me!"

"What about you?"

Her keen eyes sobered him.

"I can't see how that can upset you," she persisted. "If McGovern is frightened of Cabell, as you say, and goes off without doing anything, surely that's enough for you, isn't it? He wouldn't turn dog unless he tried Cabell first and got nothing. He wouldn't do it just out of nastiness."

"He might."

Emma sniffed. "Why didn't he give you away when he met you before, then?"

"I've told you fifty times I never set eyes on him."

"Liar." She eyed him for a moment or two. "Oh, I'm sick of this plotting," she said. "And I don't trust you. It's clear as daylight you're holding something back. I've a mind to tell Cabell everything."

"That wouldn't do you any good," Gursey said, alarmed.

"He'd kick you out. That would be some good."

"But it wouldn't change what McGovern'd do if he was game. As long as I'm breathing he can put the screws on Cabell, whether I'm here or where I am. Besides--" He took hold of her wrist and pulled her nearer. "Listen. I'll tell you. I did run into McGovern, the bastard." He looked as though he would fly off into a rage again, but he controlled himself and went on. "It was in Sydney. I had a bit of money. He fleeced me for every penny--every penny!"

"When was this?"

"Last year."

"How much money did you have?"

"A few quid. What did you expect--thousands?"

She shook her head vaguely.

"But that's just what McGovern thinks. Thinks I struck it lucky at Chinaman's Flat."

She saw the impossibility of getting the whole truth out of him. It was hidden somewhere in those years which nobody knew about. "If that's so, why doesn't he try to blackmail you if he's frightened of Cabell?" she asked.

Gursey brought his fist down on the counter. "And that's what he'll do. He'll come after me if he can get me without running into Cabell."

"Well?" Emma said.

"But I haven't got a bean. He wouldn't believe me. He'd chirp just the same in the end." He shook his fists in her face with exasperation. "Can't you understand? You wouldn't gain by it. Everything would come out. Before the appeal, too, most likely if Cabell turfed me out now. Cabell might even be jailed. If he didn't make a break," he added slyly.

Emma shrugged. What Gursey had admitted did not at the moment seem very significant. She turned her thoughts back to Cabell and the reason why he should accept McGovern so coolly. Surely he could not doubt the man's purpose here and be deceived by any eyewash. For, though she despised McGovern as a type, she saw that he had a deep cunning and a dangerous card to play. Cabell was not born yesterday; he must know that, too. Why this seeming indifference, then? It exasperated her. Did the man think he could always get his own way so easily?

As a matter of fact, Cabell had felt like laughing at himself on the way back from Fig Tree. All these years he had imagined McGovern as a terrible man of iron, when he was no more than a fat and greasy pub crawler really. To think that he had once been afraid of this fellow, had actually come near to running away from Murrumburra and leaving his sheep behind! Well, the boot was on the other foot now. McGovern was plainly frightened of him--wanted to placate him. The invitation to swindle Ludmilla, the way he had helped Cabell with the ewes--yes, he was intimidated. But, as Emma said to herself, Cabell was not a fool. McGovern's ingratiating manner strengthened his confidence, but it did not deceive him entirely. The man had not come all the way out here for nothing. It was not a coincidence that he had arrived at the same time as Gursey and that they had chosen just this moment when he was most likely to pay to shut their mouths. Oh, no. That was plain enough.

After a lot of thought he came to this conclusion: they hoped to blackmail him, but they were hesitating because they were afraid. Gursey had always said that he would do anything to protect his property, anything, and they no doubt credited him with more decision and ruthlessness than he had really felt at Murrumburra. Sooner or later they would pluck up courage and make a halfhearted attempt to get a few hundreds from him. They were both down on their uppers and a hundred pounds would seem like a fortune to them. They would probably even beg it from him. Anticipating a craven attack of this kind, he was not afraid, though it would be wrong to say he was quite easy about it. When he remembered nervously how very open to attack he was, he reassured himself that they could only bluff, anyway.

At first he had been enraged. He had thought of throwing Gursey out, telling Ludmilla what sort of a man she had in McGovern, even of giving McGovern a good trouncing. But his indignation passed. It would be wiser, he decided, to let them hope for a while. If he threw Gursey out they might quarrel. Then McGovern could blackmail him in earnest. Also, if he trounced him, McGovern might turn nasty and sell him out of spite. He did not overlook the possibility that Gursey, in his weak physical condition, might die on the road to Pyke's Crossing, and so end all danger if he were turned out and McGovern threw him over, but he was ashamed of this idea when he cooled off, for such was the strange duality of his feeling for Gursey that he still felt a genuine pity for the man, a pity that was also slightly contemptuous and belittling. What could Gursey do--Gursey who had threatened and raved at him for so many years? With some reason, he admitted. He had done Gursey a wrong in the beginning, but surely he was making up for it now? To keep him here even while he was plotting--that would be a real atonement.

But underlying all this was a weightier consideration; one very characteristic of Cabell, too. He thought of McGovern's offer about the rams and of the ten thousand sheep he would be compelled to send Ludmilla on agistment. He felt sorry for Ludmilla in a peculiarly intimate way: she was a woman, she came from his own class, and she was caught in the trap he had feared for twenty years. He would have liked to make things easier for her, give her good advice, warn her against McGovern. But there were the sheep. . . .

Here an altogether different man, an unscrupulous and conscienceless fellow, elbowed him aside and took hold of his thoughts. Ludmilla be damned! Was she to take sharp advantage of his misfortune and pick the eyes out of the flocks he had taken years to build up? A mere girl! What could she do with them? Let McGovern walk off with them, most likely. Viewing the situation in this light, he soon began to speculate how he could use McGovern. At last he evolved a scheme by which, with McGovern's help, he would pasture an extra ten thousand sheep on Ningpo without any cost. Scattered round ten outstations, they would not be so very noticeable. Ludmilla could not count every sheep on the place. In two months he would have the Stony Creek land again and could take them back. A small bribe to McGovern, perhaps, and a saving of hundreds of pounds to himself. First, he decided, he would test the overseer's friendliness with the rams. So next day he ran in the veterans from the Three Mile.

"Mighty fine," McGovern said, without bothering to get off his horse to inspect. "Five guineas apiece wouldn't've been paying through the nose for them." The sight of the old rams seemed to put him in a good humour. They betokened an accessible human being behind Cabell's stiff mask. "Now you see there's no reason why we shouldn't be friends, Cabell. I'm an easy sod."

Cabell nodded ambiguously.

"We might do a lot together," McGovern pointed out, "but flying at each other's throats won't get us anywhere. Eh? Now don't take me up wrong. I'm not trying to get anything out of you. Understand? I wouldn't ask you the loan of a deaner. It's just like this"--he dropped his hand to his thighs with a gesture of resignation--"when a man gets older he sees things a bit different. They say you're talking about going back to England. Good luck to you, I say. Me--I'm thinking of settling down, too." He shifted on his saddle and a preposterously sheepish grin stretched his mouth. "I'm thinking of getting married."

"Yes?" Cabell's surprise forced up his eyebrows. It was McGovern's air of anxiously seeking to confide in him rather than the proposition itself which surprised him.

"Fact is, I'm fed up with knocking about," McGovern went on, as though in a hurry to answer Cabell's first and natural thought that some new rascality was on foot. "I've soldiered and I've tailed sheep and cattle and convicts and nigger slaves. I've washed out pounds of pay-dirt on the Sacramento and the Ovens and let it all slide through my fambles again. I've been near slipping my wind three times--once when I fell overboard off the Horn and floated about for three hours, picked to bits by the albatrosses, the second time when a mate knifed me in a joint in the Ratcliffe Highway, and the last time--that was a close shave, too. So that's how it is."

Cabell could not help smiling to himself at the idea of such a life ending in peaceful marriage. But McGovern seemed to be telling the truth. Cabell got the impression that he was doing so because, for some obscure reason, he had to.

"It's the straight and narrow for me from now on," McGovern was saying, with palpable eagerness to be believed. "I'm ready to forget the past if it forgets me."

"Look here, McGovern," Cabell said, on the spur of the moment, "what did you come out to this place for, then?"

McGovern pondered. "That's a long story," he said cautiously, then blurted out: "The gist of it is I came to see Gursey."

"Gursey?"

McGovern fiddled the nugget that dangled on his paunch. "Well, not exactly from the start maybe. But things have taken a turn in the last week or two." He ran a nervous finger round the inside of his collar. "It's this way. There's that matter you know all about. Gursey's got it fixed in his barmy nut that I'm trying to bleed him to keep my mouth shut. As a matter of fact, I'd like to be friends with Joe. You see"--he glanced at Cabell--"I wouldn't be living so far from here if I'm buckled. Might be awkward if that crazy loon took it into his head some fine day to--God knows what. A respectable house, you understand. A man'd have to watch his step there."

Cabell stared. "Gursey's afraid you'll bleed him? Gursey?"

"Sure." He gestured deprecatingly. "I told you I'd forgotten all about that. But you can't tell him. He's like a cat on hot bricks whenever I show up. I did borrow a few quid from him once in Sydney. That's true. But I was hard up then. I don't want any of his lousy dough now."

"Gursey's got money, you say?"

"Oho!" McGovern chuckled. "So that's something you didn't know, eh? Thought as much." A faint ghost of his old bantering smile flickered across his lips. "Sure he's got money. Thousands, they reckon."

"Where on earth did he get it?"

McGovern plucked his lips. "Now that's a question. Some say he struck it lucky up at Chinaman's Flat. Others say. . . ." He hesitated. "Aw, what's it matter? It don't concern me."

Cabell sensed a trap. "Well?"

McGovern stroked his beard, considered, then leant down confidentially from his saddle. "Mind you, I wouldn't stake my oath. It's only what they say." He glanced at the homestead. "Did you ever know a cove named Red Pat--Red Pat O'Connor?"

"I knew Pat O'Connor from Pyke's Crossing."

"That's the one. He's known to have been thick with Black Jem?"

Cabell grunted noncommittally.

"It's only what I heard," McGovern said, with another apologetic gesture, "but they reckon that Gursey helped Pat to make a getaway in Bendigo once. So when Pat and Black Jem stuck up the escort a year or so back and Gursey came in soon after with a lot of cash. . . . Well, there was near fifteen thousand pounds in value of gold on the coach. . . ." He waved his hand. "Well, you know how these sods gas. Most likely there's nothing in it. It's a cert Gursey sank dead on the gutter at the Flat. It'd be hard to prove he was Jem's Adam Tiler."

These words, spoken in a fruity, ingratiating voice, affected Cabell most disagreeably. It was as though a fat domestic animal had unexpectedly shown its teeth. McGovern was not showing his teeth, however. On the contrary, his pudgy face hung over Cabell with a look of deep solicitude. "I hope you're not taking that up wrong. I mean it friendly. I wouldn't let a whisper out--trust me."

That "trust me" sounded slightly ironic: there was no one Cabell was less likely to trust. Still, on second thoughts, he felt reassured. There was something provisional about the words. "Leave me alone and I won't interfere with you," McGovern seemed to say. On those terms Cabell was ready to make any bargain at the moment. "I'll have a word with Gursey," he promised.

McGovern rubbed his hands together. "Ah, yes," he said unctuously. "For everybody's sake." But hastily he added, "I don't mean to say--well, what I mean. . . . Fact is, I feel real sorry for Joe. Hell of a life planting himself out here when he might be enjoying that dough."

Cabell frowned but said nothing.

"Now, if you were to make it clear. . . . See, six months ago I was on a different lay. Fact is I borrowed a lot of money off Joe." He sweated from a difficult effort of diplomacy. "I--"

"You bled him," Cabell said bluntly.

"Yes, if you like. But I've done with that now," he reassured Cabell quickly. "Can't a man change?"

"What d'you expect Gursey to say to that?"

McGovern paused indignantly in the act of mopping his brow. "Damn him, he wouldn't believe it--not if I told him. He's barmy. He's. . . ." He stole a furtive glance at the store and dropped his voice a tone. "He's nasty, too. If he knew I was . . . er. . . ."

"Settling down in a respectable house," Cabell sneered.

"Exactly. A most proper sort of a place, I tell you. And naturally every cove's got something he doesn't want spread about--every cove," he repeated in an extremely tentative manner.

"Naturally," Cabell agreed.

"All in all, the three of us'd be much better off if he, say, went away--or died."

"Died?"

"Well?"

 

 

Chapter Forty-four

A PROBLEM OF CONSCIENCE

 

What was a mere problem of diplomacy for McGovern made a problem of conscience for Cabell. He temporized over it for two days, consigned it to the future, raked it up in the dead of night, put it behind him again, and on the third day he found himself in the store more or less at a loss for words.

But Gursey seemed relieved to be questioned about McGovern. He had been waiting anxiously for this interview ever since it became plain that the overseer at Ningpo was trying to placate Cabell. Yes, he admitted at once, with an air of abject and terrified penitence, he had lied about McGovern in the first place. That was because he thought Cabell might refuse to keep him on the run if he knew the truth. And the money? Well, he had made a few quid at Chinaman's Flat, but McGovern had taken it from him. Every penny, he insisted, his bony hands straying nervously about the neck of his shirt, a baggy garment that exposed rather than covered the emaciated body underneath. He had been starving when he ran into Peters in Sydney. Peters would swear. . . .

"'Cabell's a soft, decent sort of cove underneath.' That's what Peters said," Gursey went on with that humble eagerness which depressed and angered Cabell. "'He'll take you back when I tell him you haven't got much longer to live.'"

Cabell turned his head away and scowled through the window.

"And that's the truth," Gursey muttered. "See for yourself. I've got one foot in the grave."

Cabell interrupted this flood of protestation with a brusque gesture. But he said nothing, staring gloomily at the distant road, which seemed to epitomize, with its great curves sweeping redundantly through the scrub, the dreary aimlessness of a wanderer in inhospitable space. He cleared his throat violently to break the prolonged silence, which took an embarrassing quality from Gursey's complete obedience. Out of the tail of his eye Cabell could see him standing with his mouth half open. He had the impression Gursey would stand like that for the rest of the day unless he spoke. Rage possessed his tongue. "Live?" he shouted. "You live like a pig! Look!" He pointed to the bundle of straw beside the counter where Gursey slept. "Who asked you to stink in that? You do it on purpose. Spite. That's what it is. Sheer spite."

Gursey looked with mild surprise at the filthy palliasse. "I'm used to it," he mumbled. "I've slept in worse places." The flood of words burst free again. "I've been glad to doss with Chows since I left here. I've been a bone-raker. That was after I ran away from McGovern. I used to feed off the garbage-tins behind the pubs in Sydney. Lucky my guts'd been crushed. I didn't need much. This--why I didn't think I'd end my days in anything like this." He waved his hand round the storeroom, and the sleeve of his ragged and greasy shirt slipped over the ends of his fingers.

In an excess of outraged innocence Cabell took hold of the cuff and held Gursey's arm in the air. "See that," he cried, as if demonstrating a subtle act of diabolical injustice to an audience. "Look at that. Why don't you get a new shirt? Didn't I tell you to? Do you want me to go down on my damned knees?"

Gursey snatched his arm away and buttoned up the neck of the obscene garment where Cabell's attack had torn it open. "It suits me," he said in a surly voice. "Leave me alone." One hand covered his chest with an instinctive movement of protection, as if to ward off Cabell's stare, piercing his grotesque wrappings with physically tangible beams of angry light.

"Leave you alone!" Cabell growled in a tone of peevish self-pity. "You won't leave me alone. Damn you!" His eyes wavered off Gursey, abject, apologetic once more, and fastened with relief on a sack of meal at the far corner of the shed which was disgorging its contents from a hole. He rushed at the bag and began lugging it on to a pile out of harm's way, but he dropped it between his feet again and glared at Gursey. "You know you did it on me at Murrumburra. You egged me on. There was another overseer before me who got himself killed. I suppose you egged him on, too."

Gursey returned his stare reproachfully. "I only had to wait a few months. He rubbed danna in my mug. He chased me with his tape. I didn't do anything."

"Ach!" Cabell kicked the sack and the grains began to trickle through the hole in a yellow stream. He bent and put his hand over the hole, and when he removed it they began to trickle again. He gazed at the sack in moody, impotent silence for a moment before he remarked, "I was just a brat. Hardly teethed. You--why you had the accumulated cunning of every jailyard in New South Wales in you. It's--it's preposterous!"

"You had your sheep," Gursey put in humbly.

"And my aristocratic conscience, eh?" Cabell snarled back. He abandoned the sack and strode to the counter. "Let me tell you this, when you're sneering I'd do anything for a few sheep, and pretending I've treated you like a dog--sleeping on that filth, wearing that shirt--let me tell you I wouldn't have brought you back here now if it hadn't been for my--" He stopped short and drew his hand slowly across his mouth in a gesture of dumbfounded embarrassment.

Gursey's mouth twitched. "Conscience?" he queried softly, ducking his head slightly as if he expected a blow for his impertinence. Cabell gave his beard a sharp tug. "Pity!" he spat angrily. "Pity!"

Gursey caught at the word. "That's right. Pity. 'Out of the kindness of your heart.' That's what Peters said."

Cabell glanced round, as though he expected to catch Gursey grinning sarcastically.

But the long, sad face, bleached in the underground darkness of the mines of the Coal River to a pallor that had withstood twenty-five years of sunlight, stared at him with impenetrable gratitude, while the squeaky voice hastened on, giving its testimony against a hundred threatening despots who were anxious to muzzle it. "Pity--it's not wasted on me. There were worse lags than me. Pat Dennis and Carney and Penberthy--see what they are now. I didn't rob anybody. I put a man up to asking for what were his rights in wages. That's what they call a 'Champion of Liberty' nowadays. But they sent me out for life. And after that--well, you know about the mines and the Limeburners and everything. I told you about that on Murrumburra. How I escaped once and came back, because I knew a man couldn't escape. I told you that because I knew you'd understand. See, I knew you were a right one, a soft-hearted sort of cove. Just as Peters said. I trusted you. . . ." A glint in his eyes died out again. "Then I brought you here. You've made your pile and now you'll go back to England. This won't seem any more than a bad dream to you then. You've got a good forty years left you. As for me. . . ." He drew his fingers expressively down his wasted cheeks. "I'll remember you as long as I breathe, anyway," he said. "Remember you with thanks."

His voice died in a scarcely audible hiss and the silence fell on them again. Cabell seemed hardly to have noticed that the barb of an ironical intention had at last escaped Gursey's attempts to suppress it. The weight of Gursey's testimony, calling up vividly a picture of a hapless life, overwhelmed him. In a shamefaced way he went back to the sack of corn and lifted it to the top of the pile. "Damn McGovern," he thought. "The man will die any day. Leave him alone."

"What's this about you and Pat O'Connor and that gang," he asked offhand. "They say you were with them and got money."

"McGovern says. It's just an excuse for you to turf me out. He thinks he can squeeze more money out of me if he gets me away from here. But he's wrong."

"Who said anything about turfing you out?" Cabell snapped.

"That's what he wants. He might make it hot for you, too. But if you did none of us would be any better off. Can't get blood out of a stone. What would he do then, the bastard? Squeal. Put the dirt in on both of us."

"He says you had thousands," Cabell growled. "It was well known."

"He knows a lot. Perhaps he told you where I'd planted it?"

"He didn't say that. No."

Gursey laughed shrilly. "It might be here, eh? Is that what he told you?" He slapped his chest. "Or perhaps he thinks I carry it in my belt, eh? Somewhere he could get at easily?"

Cabell repressed a gesture of impatience.

"Thousands. Huh!" A sardonic grin changed the servile cast of Gursey's face. "True enough I've got thousands under my shirt. Thousands of chats." He leant across the counter. "See here. You've cut your eye-tooth, Cabell. Where would I be now with a swag? Here? Where he can get me? Or in America?"

"Yes, yes," Cabell muttered gruffly, but unable to meet Gursey's eyes. "I'm not blaming you. That is . . . well, it's no affair of mine. Only keep out of that fellow's way and mind your own business. Understand? If you don't--You'd better. That's all." He got himself out of the store quickly then before that whining tirade, which might have been mistaken for a tirade of abusive sarcasm had it not been for Gursey's watery and eloquent eyes, could break out again. It was a relief to be out of the man's sight. "I didn't promise McGovern anything," he thought. "Nothing immediate, anyway. Something might happen. Something."

But nothing happened. The immense stillness of a dry midwinter lay over the bush. The birds had gone. Only the crows remained, white-eyed and patient. It was the silence of primeval fortitude, an endurance sinewed by ages of suffering. Its implications exasperated time-bound human hearts. They revolted against the blank fatalism of Nature, its resignation, its indifference.

McGovern began to get a look of lean anxiety. Now what the hell! . . . That cussed bag of bones up there, he might have been on his way to America by now--or some other place.

"Can't see what difference he makes to your affairs," Cabell grumbled. "If Ludmilla's set on it, as you say. . . . She's got eyes in her head."

"It ain't as though there was all that much to see," McGovern said with pique. "Don't pretend I'm a saint. It's that damned Colonel. He's so toplofty he'd take a fit if he heard what Gursey could tell him about me."

"Yes," Cabell agreed doubtfully.

Aurelia Darvall to marry McGovern! Still and all, it was just credible, with what he knew! If he could be certain that it was only for this reason McGovern wanted him to send Gursey away. . . . Ludmilla had sworn him to secrecy, McGovern said. "Particularly, don't say a word to Cabell."

"Naturally it'll be all over the place when the sky-pilot comes up. The hands will talk. I wouldn't care to see Joe paying me a call. I'm after a quiet life. And I'm going to get it," he added with a little more spirit.

Cabell noted the tone--grunted.

Another facet of uneasy conscience reflected a paradoxical feeling of relief at the thought that he had not seen Ludmilla since McGovern announced his honourable intentions. "Might be difficult if she did tell me for certain," he admitted to himself. "Those sheep and all." ("Those sheep" were five thousand ewes McGovern had found room for on Ningpo.) "Besides, a man ought to help a lonely girl like Ludmilla, advise her, warn her. . . . That is, well, ought to. . . ."

"Seems to me some coves don't know what side their damper's buttered on," McGovern was muttering sulkily. "I show you how we can get rid of him and--"

"Get rid of him?" Cabell flared in a startled voice. "We? How d'you mean?"

"Aw then, send him to America."

"Yes, America if you like. Yes. . . ." Cabell glanced at him. "Of course I'd have to find the cash. He's penniless, you know. I'm certain of that. Certain."

"Bah!" McGovern spat impatiently. "Anyway, America--or the Devil. What's it matter so long as he slings his hook?"

They exchanged a shifty look.

 

 

Chapter Forty-five

GURSEY AND McGOVERN

 

When the historian reviews the chain of circumstances leading up to any given fait accompli he is moved to pity and contempt. The wilful blindness, the exaggerated fears, the stupid miscalculations of the obvious that have kept the actors running round in circles, starting at their own shadows, over and over again passing by, deliberately it would seem, the very thing they are looking for. . . . They are not so much like wanderers lost in a fog as like children playing some macabre game of blindman's buff on the edge of a precipice. But, after all, how little the historian can understand. For him it is all a static picture, whereas for each of those frenzied creatures there was a multitude of conflicting hopes and longings to be reconciled within the unalterable space of each minute's sixty seconds.

"Could McGovern have changed his mind? Could he not intend to do them harm?" So Emma questioned herself when another fortnight had passed in peace. The propitious moment for blackmail would soon be gone.

But Gursey laughed. "Does a dingo change into a house-dog? Does a crow change into a turtle-dove?"

Emma agreed perforce: men like McGovern did not change.

The weakness in Gursey's reasoning was its too strict logic. It took no account of the irrationality of events and men. It was such reasoning as only the victim of a fixed idea could have followed through the maze of human motive and counter-motive to its syllogistic and absurd conclusion. Certainly that in itself was a desperate kind of madness in a world where the unexpected alone seems normal.

For a while he had lost the dread of being discovered in the chaotic ant-heap of Ballarat, where there were hundreds of Vandemonians who should have been serving across the water. Then came his stroke of luck. Gold! Every possible dream was within his reach. His accident had crippled him, he was old; but he could still think of beginning a new life. The only trouble was that after thirty years or so of hope and disappointment the lavish inconsistency of fortune seemed slightly sinister when his first flush of excitement had passed.

On every hand he saw rapacity, jealousy, impatient greed. Men slit each other's throat for less gold than he took up with each shovelful of dirt. What could he expect from them when Cabell had been ready to sell him for a few sheep?

His meeting with McGovern at Chinaman's Flat a few months later (there was no more likely place for a spieler just then than "the richest field since Eaglehawk") seemed to have been a logical and foregone conclusion. He could protect himself against McGovern, at a price, but he could not protect himself against the ruthless development of a train of thought. It seized him with the irrefutable logic of its fatalism, that kind of fatalism which creates its own calamities. McGovern might have passed him by after their first meeting (there was plenty of gold about and Gursey did not look particularly prosperous) had not Gursey sought him out again and again, driven by the necessity to know what McGovern was thinking. When in an extremely tentative fashion McGovern began to bleed him, for McGovern had always been a shade doubtful of Gursey, it was almost a relief. Within a month he had made McGovern into his exclusive, insatiable parasite.

He escaped once. He put eighty pounds' weight of gold-dust in his swag, his boots, and a wash-leather lining to his undershirt and started on foot for Sydney. He may have intended to ship for America, but the idea would have halted at the logical impossibility of escaping--from logic. McGovern would certainly give him away now. There were policemen who watched outgoing ships. . . . Again the irresistible desire to know overcame him. If he went back, found McGovern, gave him half his gold--if he had not already spoken. . . . So he deliberately retraced his steps, weighed down by that monstrous burden of his good luck, and hunted McGovern up in a low grog shanty where he had philosophically returned to his marked cards and cogged dice. McGovern was only too ready to abandon these hazardous enterprises. He had not betrayed Gursey, but in a solicitous whisper he questioned the wisdom of Gursey coming back to a place where his safety was in constant jeopardy. "Three troopers plugged, too--there'd be a stiff stretch. I doubt you'd see it through." Gursey heard then that Pat O'Connor and Black Jem had held up the gold escort since he left. Many old-timers had recalled, trying to explain why he had abandoned a good claim, that he had been thick with Pat O'Connor in Ballarat. McGovern, with a knowing wink, professed to believe that there was something in it. He drew Gursey's attention to the placards announcing a reward of one thousand pounds for information that might lead to the arrest of any of the gang.

The distressing possibilities of this development drove all other thoughts out of Gursey's head for the moment. Anyway, he was worn out and sick. They went to Sydney together, and McGovern took him to a room in a disreputable pub at the Rocks--a relic of a vanished underworld of convict days. He asked for no money, but his vigilance was unrelenting. Unnecessarily so, for Gursey could not have torn himself away just then. Apart from the sheer agony of moving his legs, he had to be near to see what McGovern was going to do. Nothing apparently, except talk and chuckle and wait. He was fat and friendly, but to Gursey, lying on the bed with his precious swag clutched to his body, he looked like an overgorged carrion-crow.

He recovered some of his old bantering humour--sadly battered by the hard knocks of life, though. He often discussed whether he wouldn't make more money by claiming the thousand-pound reward before it was too late, and one of his favourite jokes was to pretend to lose his patience, snatch up his hat and rush out of the room, leaving Gursey in a torment of suspense. The fun was to see Gursey's relief when he came back alone.

McGovern also talked about Cabell and read out what the papers were saying about the case in Brisbane. Cabell was a rich man it seemed and was in danger of losing a lot of property. "Now, there's a fine chance to get that sod on the hip. If only. . . ."

"If what?"

"Oho, a find kind of an heir you must think I am!" He patted Gursey's knee affectionately. "Don't you worry, my hearty, I'll be here to put the flowers on."

He was not as confident as he sounded. The look in Gursey's eye had always troubled him. He took the precaution to lock the door at night and sleep in another room. Gursey took the precaution not to sleep at all. At last McGovern did lose his patience. He came in just before dawn one morning and made a grab at Gursey's swag. Gursey slashed out with his knife and McGovern leapt back bellowing, from fear rather than pain, though the cut was deep and clean and stretched him, helpless and cursing, on his back, with ten stitches in his side. He did not threaten Gursey, however, but followed him with a craven look wherever he moved about the room.

Gursey came and stood by the bed and stared down at him, lost in thought. After a while he shuddered, turned away, picked up his swag and dragged himself out of the room. McGovern sent a sigh of mingled exasperation and relief after him.

For days Gursey skulked about the city with the load of gold making every step a painful effort. He stood at the doors of banks and goldsmiths' shops, paralysed by the logic of the fear that nobody would believe a half-starved tramp had come by gold honestly. He might have gone back to the bush, but he told Emma that the idea of trying to escape McGovern for good and all never occurred to him. It stood to reason that McGovern alive was inescapable. Take to the bush--and then what? Society was life, solitude death. He had admitted that twenty years before, when he voluntarily returned to prison. And society with all its complex ramifications was on McGovern's side, of course.

His fatalism was not resignation, though. In the blackest days at the Mines and at the Limeburners he had fought in his heart against the malignancy and injustice of his fate, and he fought against it now. The struggle was not so much for a way of escape as to avoid the way of escape his fate seemed determined to thrust upon him. It had nearly trapped him at Murrumburra; it was tempting him with the same delusion now. Take care. . . .

But irresistibly he was drawn back to McGovern--by the unanswerable logic of his thoughts. Nothing short of death could stop McGovern from denouncing him or from tracking him down and killing him. This must be settled--settled quickly. He had really meant to settle it months ago. For that reason, he realized suddenly, he had hung round McGovern at Chinaman's Flat, had gone back after escaping him, and stabbed so fiercely the other night. Yes, he must return once more. For the last time. He must hurry. He felt as though he had only to unclench his jaws to fall down and die. Die? With that tangible assurance of future security pressing its golden weight against his body!

The thought gave him energy to shed the stupor of weariness and starvation and shuffle through the streets again. At the Quay he paused to rest and watch, longingly, the passengers being rowed out to ships in the stream. It was here that the meeting took place which, coming at this crucial moment, seemed so plausibly another link in the chain of circumstances that had ordained his meeting with McGovern at Chinaman's Flat. Peters, bustling down the steps to take a rowing-boat to embark on a ship for Brisbane, stumbled over Gursey and cursed him roundly for ten seconds before he recognized his old mate.

When Peters left him a few hours afterwards, having fed him, found him lodgings, given him money, and sworn never to wash another pan of dirt till he had persuaded Cabell to bring Gursey home, the plan was formed in Gursey's mind. In its simple, logical design it seemed as inevitable as sunrise--a machination of the Devil, not of his own will.

Something might be said for that idea of satanic possession if one personified the greed and fear of the two men. And the diabolically tangled desires and dreads of Cabell and Emma. Gursey would as soon have doubted the reality of the precious wadding in his shirt as the overmastering power of the rapacity it inspired in McGovern. McGovern would follow him to Queensland all right. He would even welcome the chance of killing two birds with one stone. A whole legion of devils seemed to be conspiring for Gursey now. Flanagan's and Dennis's, for example. Dennis's paper, the Hawk, had just published its exposure of Emma and her connection with Black Jem.

As for Cabell, he had no doubt whatever, after what Peters had told him, that Cabell would take him back. Or of what Cabell would do when McGovern arrived. He would do anything. . . . Hadn't he said?

And Emma? Gursey had special expectations of Emma. A woman of his own kind--sinewed and embittered by experience. He felt the need of someone to confide in and trust. He had thought about her a great deal since he left Cabell's Reach.

An eminently logical train of thought. As such it could not have foreseen that McGovern, after fifty years of vagabondage, might abandon the strenuous part of murderee, which he was to play with the docility of a puppet, and give way at the first temptation to a perfectly genuine desire to settle down as a respectable citizen, at peace with the world, Gursey included. Equally it had not considered the possibility that Emma, after her embittering life and thirteen galling years with Cabell, with every motive of hatred and interest to satisfy, could, under certain contradictory impulses, think of throwing herself at Cabell's feet, begging him to go back to England at once, forfeiting all her claims on him. But so, in the sober and seemingly illogical fact of a sane world, it had come to pass, quite otherwise than a madman had calculated.

A part of her which was not quite sane, the injured, vindictive woman, whose outrage blotted everything from her mind but the longing to hurt, had indeed listened, and still in moments listened. But this woman was her enemy, the devil of which, she felt without quite understanding, she must be cleansed. It would destroy her, drag her back into the muck of the past. To see Cabell a murderer, to hold that over him for the rest of his days, was a stirring temptation, but she shuddered away, as her vision cleared, from the arid picture of the future this evoked. The fear, the mutual suspicion, the irremovable, unseen barrier between themselves and other people, intolerable hatred of each other and conflict. . . . No, it was a devil's compact. The security it promised was an illusion. She wanted something different--an end of strife, a home, children. . . .

But what was she to do to save him--and herself? If McGovern, afraid of Cabell, was scheming now to blackmail Gursey and Gursey had no money, ruin seemed inescapable. Should she warn Cabell, so blind and over-confident? And if she did and he listened (was that likely?) and refused to send Gursey away, would McGovern go off in peace or would he not rather take the bull by the horns then and tackle Cabell? And what escape was there from that except the act Gursey hoped for? Except--yes, she could beg Cabell to clear out, could free him from all obligations to herself and Larry.

This impulse of self-abnegation, coming upon her with the imperative urgency of an inspiration, had something in common with the longing to confess that takes hold of criminals. It promised an exquisite joy in release from the strain of her thoughts--the torment of years of anxiety. Had she been religious she would have heard the voice of God promising a recompense of spiritual peace out of all proportion to the sacrifice. As it was, her eyes being set on earthly hopes, the impulse tempted her with a paradoxical lure of gratitude from Cabell.

But a gesture from Gursey, charged with a mad energy scarcely credible in that wasted body (it might have suggested a corpse indecently galvanized by fitful currents of electricity), brought her back with a rush to a despairing sense of Cabell's helplessness between two evil men. Even supposing him ready to run away, and she doubted that in his present frame of mind anything she could say would make him do that, at once, were they likely, with all their cunning, to let him escape? "Ah," she flew at Gursey, "why did you come back here? Why didn't you die? You're half dead already. You'd be out of your misery."

Gursey covered his chest with both hands and looked at her in dismay.

"Well? What have you got to live for?" she said, half to herself, wondering at the tenacity of his grip on life, the passion of his hope for the future, in a darkness incomparably darker than her own. Physically wrecked, old, incapable of work, penniless. . . .

"I won't die," Gursey said at last. "Cabell needn't bank on that."

"No," she agreed, from a profound conviction of the stupid injustice of life. "You won't die." And yet--As she said it she wondered, catching her breath at the impact of a startling idea, and her eyes fell to his hands, which were still holding his shirt with a grip that whitened the knuckles.

He repeated her words slowly, as if to reassure himself. "No, I won't die." Then in one of his spasms of energy snarled, "But that's what Cabell hopes. It's the only reason he doesn't hoof me out this minute. If I died on the premises. . . . He thinks I've got money on me. Thousands. It's a damned lie--"

"Ah!" The exclamation came out on her suddenly released breath, cutting him short.

Cautiously following her gaze and finding it fixed on his hands, he put them quickly down, but irresistibly they stole back again. "You don't think. . . ?" He shook his head.

"What? That you'll die?"

He scowled that aside. "I mean money. I told you before."

"Ah, money! That would explain living, anyway--or dying. . . ." Her eyes moved from his hands and rested on the distant road winding, as she envisioned it, for lonely miles through scrub and hills before it reached Pyke's Crossing. And he thought McGovern would try to blackmail him! Or did he? She smiled to herself, an enlightened, an almost happy, a subtly cruel smile. . . .

That night when Cabell came in Emma stopped him on his way along the veranda to his room, where he had virtually lived since his return from Brisbane, exchanging only the most necessary words with her. "Wait," she said quickly when he tried to hurry past, and laid her hand on his arm. "I want to speak to you."

He withdrew a step and leant against the wall. His face looked drawn and tired in a streak of light that fell across it from the dining-room lamp.

"I saw you talking to McGovern this morning down by the yards. Of course I know it's McGovern. Gursey told me."

He grunted morosely.

"I've seen you talking to him before. You could be as thick as thieves, to see you together."

The words might have pricked him. He made to speak but shut his mouth and shrugged.

"You're a fool," she said impatiently. "You leave things go on, hoping for the best till there's nothing left to do but--something you might be sorry for."

"You don't know what you're talking about," he growled.

"Don't I? If you'd listened to me before there wouldn't have been half this trouble. You wouldn't be losing land and sheep now."

He stiffened up again. "Yes, and having my name dragged in your dirt. Least said about that the better."

"Then don't go back to it," she warned him. "You've told me enough that I'm less than nothing to you."

"Don't worry. I've said it for the last time. I'm finished with you. Year after next I'm going back to England. You can do what you like--out of my sight. I'll pay you."

She walked to the edge of the veranda and leant her face against a post to cool it. Far away across the valley she could see the lights of Dirk's homestead, which she never visited now. The frosty clearness of the stars made the surrounding darkness vaster and emptier. The poignant shrill cry of a curlew echoed round the hills.

He grunted again and started towards his room.

Emma tore herself away from her thoughts. "Wait a minute!" she called after him harshly. "Do you want to do a murder?"

He stopped dead and stared at her.

"A lot of England you'll see if you don't watch your step," she muttered. "You'll have little to throw in my face then."

He stroked his beard for an interminable time before he demanded, "What's your nonsense now? Listening to Gursey, I suppose."

"Listening. And using my eyes."

"Huh!" He gestured towards the window of the store down the slope where the glimmering of a candle showed. "He's mad."

"Not so mad he doesn't know what he's doing."

"Gursey?"

"Oh, are you blind? What d'you think he came back for?"

Another protracted silence fell between them while he leant against the post drumming his fingers nervously on the railing. "It's what happened at Murrumburra. He seemed to think he'd got some claim on me. Damn it, I wasn't his wet nurse . . . I could have done with one myself."

An ironic tenderness crept into her voice as she replied, "You could do with one now."

"Anyway, he didn't come back like that," Cabell added. "You know how I sent Peters to fetch him. I admit I was sorry for him. And am."

"Peters is an old woman," she interrupted contemptuously. "Gursey pulled his leg properly. The truth is. . . ." She lowered her voice and edged along the railings. "Gursey came back because he thought you'd get rid of McGovern for him--do him in."

He laughed shortly. "Well, somebody's leg has been pulled."

"It's not so amusing," she snapped. "McGovern didn't come for the good of his health, I suppose. Have you asked yourself why he's so smarmy? It's not the best of times for you to receive visitors like him."

"He's got his reasons."

"That's true. He's looked at you and decided it mightn't be worth the risk to trifle with you about money. That's one."

His long shadow, sprawling across the yard in the dining-room light, waved an arm as thick as a limb of the flame-tree. "You're talking in the dark," he said impatiently. "I tell you he's got reasons--secret reasons."

"You'd take his word for that?"

His quick glance sideways detected a faint smile on the star-lighted lips. "A man can change. That's possible." He put it forward argumentatively. To himself, it would seem, for he answered after a pause, "Of course!"

"Does a dingo change into a house-dog?"

"Well--and it might if. . . ." His impatience mastered him again. "You don't know the facts, damn it all. McGovern intends to--well, marry."

"Well?"

"He's marrying--anyhow, he couldn't afford to play any tricks with me. . . . If you want to know, he's marrying Aurelia Darvall."

"That stuck-up mob! Who told you?"

"He did."

"And you believed him?"

"It's reasonable. A man might get tired of moving about. God knows, I can understand that. There's a fine property. Nobody to look after it. A fellow comes along. . . . They grab him."

"As they grabbed Dirk?"

"Dirk--pah! Anyway, you don't know everything." Reflection on that seemed to strengthen him. "There are reasons. You'd believe, too, if you knew."

She stared. "You might have had a touch of the sun. But I see how it is. You don't believe it either. Only you want to. That's like you."

In exasperation he brought his fist down on the rail. "It's true, I tell you. I believe it because--it's true."

The curlew began again down by the river. Its passionate melancholy seemed to distract their thoughts for the moment while they leant against the rail peering into the darkness. The ensuing silence sharpened into a subdued laugh from Emma.

"Ach! There's no arguing with you." He turned to go, but came back to her side and went on in a persuasive voice: "The man's no angel. He's only out for what he can get--if you like. It's all a question what he can get with the least trouble. Naturally he doesn't want to quarrel when he can get a fair picking without any trouble. Now that's reasonable, isn't it?"

She nodded slowly, and after a pause demanded: "You know Gursey's got money on him? Thousands, perhaps?"

"What's that got to do with it?" he asked sharply.

When she did not reply he added hastily, as an afterthought: "But it's not true, anyway. I went into that. He swore Peters found him starving. You saw him when he arrived."

"So did you. But you asked him, just the same."

"I didn't ask him--not in that way. I never believed a word of it."

"Ah, I thought so," she exclaimed triumphantly. "McGovern told you. Didn't he, now? And you--Oh, you obstinate, soft fool!"

"You mind your own business," he retorted. "I've told you--I don't want you interfering. See? Gursey's got no money. It's--preposterous." He licked his dry lips. "And what if he did tell me? What of it?" His voice had dropped to a whisper suddenly.

"He's got money right enough. Here." She laid a hand on her breasts, as she clearly pictured Gursey clutching his shirt. "You know it. McGovern knows it. And Gursey knows you both know it."

"I didn't--I don't know it," he muttered. "I don't believe it."

"That's as maybe. He told you, though. Why? Some 'secret reason'?"

"No, no," he said, in unconcealable agitation. "What nonsense! He's going to marry. You know what old Darvall's like. Naturally he's uneasy. He did bleed Gursey once. He admits that. And Gursey stuck a knife into him."

"So he's asking you to--do what?"

Cabell did not answer. The piping of the curlew sounded from far away now, distorted to a macabre wail by the distance. The shadow in the yard plunged its gargantuan arm into the valley as though grasping after that offensive bird to wring its neck.

Emma began deliberately, as if driving a lesson into the head of a perverse child. "He's after 'what he can get with the least trouble'. He's beseeching you not to make him quarrel with you. I watched him this morning. But you--Oh!" A sudden indignation made her beat her fists together. "What gets into you? I never heard anybody call you soft, nor blind neither. It's certain you've never been with me. But this damned scum, who's never said a civil word to you, who's sworn he'd put a knife into you some day--you'd throw everything out of the window to save him. From what? From what would be the best thing for him in the long run." She raised her voice above his efforts to make himself heard. "He's mad. He's crippled. He's diseased. What would it matter if he did--yes, come out into the open with it--die? What business is it of yours? Whereas where do you get with driving McGovern too far? If he turned would you part up with your money? I can see you. So what's left?" She shuddered. "Apart from everything else, it wouldn't be so easy. It's got so that you can hardly shoot a black out here now without a trooper coming to poke in every heap of ashes." She took a deep breath and went on cryptically in a lower, resentful voice: "If I've got to be a widow, I'd rather be a grass widow."

"I don't understand half you say. You gabble like an old woman," Cabell muttered through his teeth. "Haven't I told you he doesn't want Gursey's money? Gursey can be in hell as far as he's concerned."

"He said that? Just those words?"

"Good God, it's only a way of talking!"

She shrugged.

"Lies," he cried, "all lies!" and tore himself away from her. At the door of his room he paused and looked back. "Bitch! Ah, you must think I'm as evil as yourself."

Her contemptuous silence and inexpressive face, which might have been carved from grey stone, infuriated and alarmed him, but he could not make himself slam the door as he wanted to do. With his hand on the knob he stood staring at her, helplessly rather than in anger.

Almost appealingly, as she saw it--out of her own strength, the clear understanding of what she wanted, and her instinctive urge to protect and succour. Her exasperation at his evasions gave way gradually to pity as more clearly than ever she saw through the sun-dried mask to that in him which was no more than a frightened, indecisive boy. To realize that took the sting out of his words, filled her with a feeling almost of love.

But she sighed, perhaps a little impatiently, as she turned to leave the veranda and saw the glimmer of Gursey's light at the bottom of the yard. Must the heavy work always fall on her shoulders?

 

 

Chapter Forty-six

COMEDY OF ERRORS

 

What makes the pale criminal pale? Not the deed but the thought of the deed.

The ironic outcome of Emma's efforts to save Cabell by showing him how much he would gain if he sent Gursey away was that, after having determined to do so, he now changed his mind. How woefully Emma had misunderstood him when she thought it a sign of weakness that he put things off and off till their accumulated effects forced him to act! Just that was his resource against the paralysis of thought. . . . Unfortunately, he knew that Gursey had the money. There was really no getting away from that, although he would have tried to deceive himself up to the last by giving Gursey a few hundred pounds when he turned him out. In forcing him to see it, Emma laid bare his doubts of McGovern.

He had to reckon with those gods or demons of relentless justice. They would mete out to him as he meted out. When he looked at Gursey, the wreck of an ill-starred life, he hated him. Gursey might have brought all his suffering on himself purposely out of spite, from the way Cabell thought about it: a malicious act of hara-kiri to attract the evil spirits to Cabell's Reach. For would it not all be laid at his door because of what had happened at Murrumburra? Would he not have to pay for it in some incalculable stroke of misfortune? He still tried to deny that he was to blame, but Gursey had driven home the truth. It was inescapable.

In making up his mind to give in to McGovern and send Gursey away he had at least been able to avoid the implications of the truth. Was Gursey happy here, at peace? Obviously no. He would wait for McGovern to do him some injury until he could wait no longer. Then he would try to bring on a crisis himself. And then? Anything might happen to him. It would surely be safer for him to go to America, say. . . .

Jesuitical reasoning that collapsed when Emma had made it clear just why he should send Gursey away. If now he vanished on the road to Pyke's Crossing what hideous retribution might he not expect? There was his appeal in a month's time--the impending drought--Emma. . . . Characteristically he did not think of the alternative Emma had suggested.

But he avoided McGovern, stayed in his room as much as he could. The door locked, a curtain across the window shutting out the light, created an illusion of security to which were attached memories of his mother's room in Owerbury House, her hands, the reassuring rustle of her dress. Strangely the sound of Emma's firm step going about comforted him.

The atmosphere of nerves and expectation is rather comical, of course. A kind of comedy of errors--one of those farcical situations begotten of pig-headed misunderstandings. The most comic figure is the fat, apprehensive overseer of Ningpo, contemplating for the first time in his life the advantages of an honest livelihood and meeting only distrust that seemed bent on driving him back to villainy. He hovered about the homestead waiting for Cabell to come out, but never venturing any nearer than the bridge, for he could see Gursey perched on his seat at the window of the store, like a gaunt and ominous bird of revenge. Apparently he had a notion that if they both together got hold of him he was as good as done for.

If only the three pairs of eyes that watched him could have understood what a timid and aspiring soul had sprung to life under that dapper waistcoat! There would have been a different story. That is not mere speculation. Documentary evidence exists in the journal of a Mr Charles Gribble, a missionary minister of the Gospel who had some time before quartered himself at Pyke's Crossing, that on the afternoon of July the twenty-eighth 1863 he received an invitation to visit Ningpo station and perform a marriage ceremony there. But bushfires delayed him on the road, and by the time he arrived the situation had quite changed. An accident had intervened upon the comedy at Cabell's Reach.

Early on the morning of July the twenty-fifth, the very day the messenger left Ningpo for Pyke's Crossing as it turned out, the scrub at the Three Mile caught fire. There was no wind at the time, and, though all the bush was now as dry as straw and the flames were soon licking the tops of the trees, this patch of gums stood by itself in the gully and the blaze threatened nothing. Emma was surprised when Cabell went off with all the hands about the homestead, though there was little he could have done among the big timber. She sat down for a moment to think about it. . . .

A few hours later she was talking to McGovern at one of the new Ningpo out-stations where she had hunted him down.

"You know me?" she asked.

"You'd be Cabell's missus. Yes."

Emma had on a white starched sunbonnet and her floury apron, which she had forgotten to change in her hurry. She smoothed it absently over the pommel of the saddle as she deliberated, scraped off a piece of dough and rolled it between her fingers. "I've seen you and Cabell," she said at last. "You're wasting your breath."

The nostrils of McGovern's flat nose twitched like a retriever's. "Curse him," he said, in a voice of self-righteous anger. "He's trying to ruin me. Ruin me, I tell you. That's what he'll do." In the excess of his feelings he doubled his pudgy red fist and shook it in Emma's face. To have this frail-looking woman from Cabell's Reach before him was a welcome opportunity to let go emotions and opinions that had to be strictly bottled up in the intimidating presence of Cabell himself. Also, it was a backhanded chance to let Cabell see that he was not a fellow to be trifled with for ever. His voice deepened and his neck swelled, creating the unpleasant illusion that the tight collar was slowly cutting his head off.

"By God, he's tried me near enough," he told her.

"What could you do?"

"Do?" McGovern spread his shoulders and his gold teeth flashed in the sun. Some of his youthful bravado got into his laugh. 'There's an old score between us. It's the increase of nearly twenty years on six thousand jumbucks and a thousand steers he lifted off me. I've given him fair warning."

"You'd blackmail him?"

"Would he have a leg to stand on?"

She agreed.

McGovern pulled back his sleeve and looked admiringly at his arm. "If you've got a mind to save the shirt on his back you'll make that clear, lass."

"It's no use warning him," Emma said. "So I've come to warn you."

"Me?"

"Just because he wouldn't have a leg to stand on. . . ." She rolled the pellet of dough between her thumb and forefinger and squeezed it flat.

McGovern's gaze shifted from her enigmatic lips to her fingers, which rolled the pellet and squeezed it again. "As far as that goes. . . ." he began in a bluster, but, her strong fingers and hard mouth recalling suddenly a sense of realities that had momentarily escaped him, he added in a lower one: "I wasn't saying I would. Only. . . ." He put out his hand appealingly. "Can't you see I'm not threatening no one? Just let him get Gursey off the place. That doesn't hurt nobody."

Emma cut him short. "You could talk till Doomsday. Just that is what he won't do. He's a fool." She added less bitterly, "A gentleman, too."

A solitary fly buzzed about the red tip of McGovern's nose. He swiped at it and growled resentfully "He's not the only one. Colonel Darvall's such a toff a man needs to doss in a nail-can hat to please him, damn it." The thought seemed to give him a more hopelessly clear vision of the hard and thorny path of virtue. He clutched the white collar, which was swelling the veins in his neck with its terrible stranglehold. "A man doesn't put on a squeezer like this for fun," he muttered. "Cabell ought to think of that--if he's got any doubts left." He stared at her with the exasperation of one who has testified with his hand in the fire and still been disbelieved.

"He doesn't doubt," Emma said scornfully.

"Damn it all, woman--you'll see."

Emma chuckled. "I'll see pigs flying and that old Lord Muck handing his precious Aurelia over to a--well, you."

He made a frantic grab at the air, and the persistent buzzing of the fly stopped abruptly. Lowering his closed fist gingerly, he stared at it in slight surprise, commented "Ah" and with elaborate care and satisfaction extracted the insect from the creases of his damp paw, slowly pulled off its wings, and threw it away. The action seemed to relieve the pressure of his feelings a bit, for he went on confidently, "The old man won't know till the parson arrives. Then Ludmilla will handle him. She knows how."

"Ludmilla!" An image of the disdainful virago recurred suddenly to Emma. She saw Mrs Darvall, too, the bridge of her nose like a knife, her long fingers always as cold as ice, saw the three women together on the Ningpo veranda pricking invisible stitches into samplers of damask, surrounded, it seemed to Emma, by a slight aura. Her gaze was fastened, meanwhile, upon McGovern's plebeian nose, a contrasting background, as it were, for this dreamlike picture of women from a far, fortunate, practically inaccessible world. The vision answered a startling question to which McGovern's energetic sincerity had opened her mind for an instant: "Could it be possible?" Then all at once the little red hairs growing out of his nostrils, the thick dewlaps under his chin, the three great rolls of flesh on the back of his neck which squeezed white whenever he threw back his head seemed so comic that she had to laugh. At the same time she felt a kind of jealous anger at his presumption. The mere possibility that they should accept him when they had rejected her brother! "I'd nearly be willing to believe you had given up spieling, McGovern. You must have been a clumsy hand, judging from the yarns you spin."

"Me a spieler!" he exclaimed, shocked. "There, Gursey's been telling you. That old fakir's no better'n a brown snake. He bites for the fun of it."

"And he'll poison us all before he's done--and gone, gold and all," Emma added.

"He can go, gold and all, as far as I'm concerned."

"Preferably to America, eh?"

"Preferably to hell!"

"Ah, yes?"

The tone of one who has reached the crux of a difficult piece of manoeuvring drew McGovern's eyes suspiciously. "You didn't come to pass the time of day," he mumbled. "What's all this driving at?"

"I came because you're a lot of children, you men, having to be led by the hand everywhere."

He said nothing.

As though his stupid silence had strained her patience past its limit, Emma burst out: "But you both needn't think I'm going to do it for you besides." A flush died out of her sallow cheeks as she went on more quietly, "Well, I admit it might look funny me coming here to warn you. Not so funny if you think what I stand to lose if you and Cabell fall out. You've got an even chance of being made a ghost and I've got two of being made a widow--three, perhaps."

McGovern licked his lips and slumped heavily on his saddle. The look in his eyes changed gradually to an expression of bewildered appeal such as Cabell had given her. The resemblance was so close and so expected that she smiled.

McGovern, however, sighed. "What can I do?" he asked. The dry leaves rustled overhead. The wind was rising. A faint aromatic smell overlaid the smell of dust. The horses tossed their heads and sniffed. A ghostly shadow floated across the ground, and, looking up, they saw a wreath of smoke in the sky and high above it a kite, the firebird of the bush.

Emma turned her horse towards home. "There's a fire at the Three Mile," she told him. "This wind won't help to put it out." She paused while she tightened the bonnet-strings under her chin. "Everybody's out there--except Gursey and me!"

McGovern's saddle squeaked. "What good is that? He wouldn't listen to me--not if I licked his boots."

"Perhaps he'd run away and hide--on two gammy legs? Or stand up and wrestle with you--with his match-stick arms?"

"I wouldn't put it past the lot of you," McGovern exclaimed, suspicious again. "He knifed me once. It is damned funny. Bush-fire--huh!"

"As for that--Cabell had to take what God sent. I mean"--she answered a questioning glance--"just suppose Gursey has cleared out when he comes in tonight--just disappeared--" She blew in the air. "What d'you expect? A man doesn't run after the snake to give it another chance to bite him?"

"He wouldn't disappear," McGovern muttered gloomily, as one on whom the sheer impracticability of miracles was beginning to dawn.

"He might drop dead, though, when you walked in through the back door suddenly. He's got so used to watching the road for you." She tucked the fluttering ends of her ribbons into the top of her dress and took the reins in her left hand. "Or perhaps you haven't had time to find the path from Stony Creek yet? It comes right up to our back gate."

McGovern tore at his collar again, as if he intended to get rid of it this time, and a host of other stifling impediments besides. But he only managed to swallow a chestful of smoke that had swirled down on the wind suddenly.

Thus, gasping and beating the air like a landed fish, Emma left him.

When she got back home the sun was a lightless ball of copper behind the smoke which lay in a thickening haze over the valley. In this brown twilight the landscape looked drab and grim. She noted with satisfaction that the fire showed no signs of dying and returned to her interrupted work in the kitchen. It was Friday and she was preparing the dough for the week's bread. Sometimes she paused to listen to the fire crackling in the dry trees at the Three Mile. Above that din, she reflected, again with satisfaction, one could hardly expect to hear.

But she did hear, as she was wrapping the dough in towels to be left over the oven to rise, the sound of the gate opening and a horse's hooves in the yard. She started and glanced at the clock. Four. In the next breath she cursed the unmitigable ineptitude of men. Mechanically she went on knotting the towel, her eyes on the door, waiting for Gursey to shout.

Instead there was a knock on the veranda.

It was Ludmilla. She looked more haughty and defiant than ever. She wanted to speak with Cabell--urgently she added when Emma had wiped her floury hands on her apron for fully half a minute without replying.

"He's at the fire," Emma told her. "I doubt you'd find him."

Ludmilla stared back hard at Emma, but her own eyes dropped first and she became unexpectedly confused. "I'd better go find him--if I can," she said hurriedly and wheeled her horse. But she hesitated, as if she had something more to say, while Emma snatched a look at the path from Stony Creek and rubbed her hands on her apron till they burned.

"You never come and see us now," Ludmilla said, blushing. "We wish you would."

"I'm busy."

"Of course."

"I'm busy now," Emma persisted. "I'm baking."

"I only wanted to tell you . . ." Ludmilla pulled the brim of her Californian hat down over her eyes, which were red and watery from the smoke, "Father wasn't well then . . . hasn't been for a long time. . . . I'm going to give Mr Cabell an affidavit about the cattle. . . . Mother liked your brother very much--too."

The effort it cost her to get that out escaped Emma's attention in her dismay at discovering that their voices had attracted Gursey to the back door of the store.

Ludmilla reluctantly started her horse. "I'll go find Mr Cabell, then," she said to the back of Emma's head, and when Emma glanced round she was going.

Emma slammed the door and went to the front-room window to watch Gursey. He limped out into the yard, stared after Ludmilla, pulled down a branch of a peach-tree and put his nose to the solitary blossom on it, then began to cough in the smoke and returned to the store.

Emma sighed and went out to the kitchen once more. . . .

An hour later she stood straining her ears at the door when she heard the thud of a horse's hooves again. She ran to the window and saw Cabell ride out of the fog and up the slope. His hands were raw, his shirt burnt in patches, his face black. In her vexation she buried her fingers in her hair and hissed a breath out through her teeth. Then she was on her way to the gate to stop him from coming in.

"Don't get off," she commanded, holding the catch down with both hands.

Blind from the smoke, he blinked at her. His eyes were red-rimmed and sparklingly bright against the sooty mask. "What's happened?" he demanded.

"You come back now!" Emma fumed. "Have you put your fire out, then?"

"McGovern hasn't been here?" he asked quickly.

She did not answer, but continued to hold the gate against his efforts to force her hands off the catch. He gave up the struggle and vaulted into the yard. Seizing her by the arm he whispered, "You bitch. Ludmilla Darvall saw you with him this morning. What have you done?"

"That's right. Turn on me now."

He thrust her away. "Oh, you've done for me!" For a moment he stood looking up into the sky as if he expected some wrathful sign. Showers of sparks flew by on the smoke wrack, like handfuls of seeds sown upon an earth ploughed for destruction. He struck his forehead and groaned.

Emma stared scornfully. "Saved you, you mean. You can go back and put your fire out now. Only," she added, pushing him towards the gate, "go at once."

Her attack brought him out of his trance. He looked round the yard, saw the back door of the store open, tried to dodge her outstretched arms, then struck out blindly and sent her staggering against the fence with the black print of knuckles on her cheek.

Emma seized his arm again, but the shirt, rotted by the sparks that had fallen on it, tore and left her with a piece of dirty rag in her hand. She followed him a few yards towards the store, but stopped with her hand to her cheek. . . .

Cabell ran into the store a moment after McGovern's sorely tried patience had given way before the pig-headed inability of Gursey to understand that McGovern was pleading, not threatening; telling a plain, unvarnished tale, not tormenting him before slitting his throat. It was the last straw when Gursey dragged off his shirt and flung it on the pile of gold-dust he had already poured on the counter from the swag he had unearthed among the filthy straw in the corner of the shed. A full minute of silence followed, broken only by the strenuous grunts of McGovern as he struggled to get his fingers between his collar and swollen neck. At last he succeeded in ripping off that wilted symbol of a dream, an illusion, that was doing him to death, flung himself on the half-naked, cringing figure of Gursey, and began to pummel his head against the bark wall.

At the service of whatever virtuous resolution this brutal act was committed, it looked to Cabell uncommonly like murder as he burst in. He shouted and picked up a crowbar that was lying on the floor.

McGovern spun round, saw his burning eyes, dropped Gursey, grabbed at his belt for the pistol he had come conspicuously armed with, saw it out of reach at Gursey's feet, saw his stockwhip on the counter, seized it, shouted "Stand back! Stand back!" and swept a circle round the room with the heavy lash--all in a second or two.

Down came tins and bottles from the shelves, a lamp-glass smashed as the whip whined through the air.

Cabell staggered, clutched at the counter, turned completely round, then flung his left arm across his eyes and let out a piercing falsetto yell.

McGovern and Gursey gazed with fallen mouths at his black face, streaked by a sudden torrent of tears.

"Christ," Gursey said, "you've blinded him!"

 

 

Chapter Forty-seven

McGOVERN COMES BACK

 

Ludmilla had been looking for McGovern all the morning. In her thoughts, too, he appeared as a wily fish to be played with the utmost care. The keenest eye would not suspect her bait, she thought, unless. . . . A glimpse of Emma riding off into the smoke answered her deepest fears, and the surly look McGovern gave her when she found him a few minutes later, goggling tearfully after Emma, did not reassure her. What was that woman doing here? What woman? There hadn't been no woman. A blatant lie and a lapse from the style of a squatting gentleman fallen on hard times which Ludmilla had to let pass. . . . She was looking at his muscular neck with an eye that had learnt to tell the points of a good bull.

Clearly he had a depressing thought on his mind, and remained torpid even after she told him that she had sent for the parson.

Could that woman suspect what she was planning and have come out of malice to defeat her? Ludmilla took a bold step. She had gone to Cabell's Reach ready to placate, to throw herself on Emma's mercy--if she was not too late. But she had not counted on having to shout it all out in the middle of the yard with a madman listening. So, slightly hysterical, she had come to Cabell, offering to revoke all the Colonel's accusations about cattle-stealing that were being used against him in Brisbane, tearing her pride to shreds with humiliating admissions, beseeching him to keep secret for ever, somehow to make Emma keep secret, what he had stumbled on at Ningpo. For Aurelia was about to be married! To McGovern? McGovern? No, to Mr Farrar, the overseer!

Ludmilla went home uncertain whether her words had stung Cabell with shame for guilty intentions or angered him or pleased him, or whether, indeed, he had understood at all. His strange cry, "Jesus, you'll ruin me among the lot of you!" was inexplicable.

Anyway, she consoled herself, she could send the overseer away till the parson came. She had heard of some stud rams for sale at a station fifty miles to the north.

But he was nowhere to be found next morning or at noon. She had just sent hands out to search the scrub when Sambo rode in with a message than an accident at Cabell's Reach was keeping him. Cabell had been thrown into a bush and blinded, it seemed.

A note to Emma offering help got no answer. McGovern did not return next day or the next. For a week he sent evasive replies to her messages. Her pride revolted against an impulse to go and beg him to return. Also life was making her cynical: she thought she knew what this development really meant. Her last resort was to send his belongings and a note discharging him.

The simple rouseabout who took the things blushed when Ludmilla asked what McGovern said. She sacked him, too--on the spot.

"One heifer at a time!" McGovern had roared, putting his arm round Emma's waist. The rich, deep laugh seemed to leap from his throat like a thing tasting freedom long denied. "I'll come over one of these days and see that cat-lap sister of hers--and her, too. Promise her that."

The messenger stared at a stranger masquerading in the features of the late overseer of Ningpo--a discreet and sober man who had been dead scared of the missus. The collar that had set him apart from the rest of the hands was gone and his shirt was open on a broad chest where golden hair grew as thick as lambswool in a mat of tiny ringlets. A smell of rum and sweat surrounded him for three yards, his hair was dishevelled, his waistcoat spotted with liquor and grease, and his beard, once clipped as smooth as a thoroughbred's mane, had a swaggering untidiness to go with his gestures. He strutted about the veranda, a mug of rum in one hand and a cigar of Cabell's in the other, spat on the floor, blew his nose through his fingers, talked and laughed continually--a booming sound that echoed through the silent house like the obscene ribaldry of a demon desecrating a tomb.

But there had been a moment when McGovern had whimpered. . . .

Emma had rushed into the store, torn Cabell's arm away from his eyes, and called on Gursey and McGovern to hold him down while she poured oil on to his eyeballs, from which the blood was trickling down the side of his nose and into his mouth.

McGovern had dropped the whip and stared at the ghastly sight, unable to move. His teeth chattered as he explained, over and over, appealing to Gursey to bear him out, that it was all an accident.

There was no need to hold Cabell. Immediately he felt Emma's hands on him he submitted quietly and the oil relieved his pain at once.

Gursey got an old shirt from the house and tore it into bandages, and five minutes after Cabell had entered the store he was stumbling across the yard between Emma and Gursey, followed by McGovern, the most visibly affected of the three. The stout overseer's breath was hardly equal to climbing the three steps to the veranda and his handkerchief was soaking wet from mopping his empurpled face. He continued to call on God to witness that he had come without evil intentions that afternoon. His protestations were the only sound in the house, except the creaking of the dry floorboards as Emma hurried to and fro attending to Cabell. But his voice gradually died away as she elbowed him into a corner behind Cabell's writing-table, where he flopped into a chair, utterly prostrated by the awful turn events had taken.

He got up courage after a while to glance hastily at the bunk where Cabell lay, his head swathed in the ragged, oil-soaked bandages. The uncovered lower jaw and mouth looked strange: McGovern had to picture the eyes gazing at him contemptuously to remember what Cabell looked like.

Just then Cabell reached out a hand and groped in the empty air. Emma's back was turned and she did not see that he wanted the glass of water she had left on a chair beside the bunk. He would not ask for it (after his first piercing yell he had not opened his lips, which seemed to be sealed by the brown scale of blood caked on them), and now he clutched at the overpowering vacancy the world had suddenly become, trying to assure himself, perhaps, that all power had not been taken from him.

The sight of the hand feeling about helplessly tickled McGovern's sense of humour, even in the midst of his sorrows. He chuckled shortly to himself.

At that instant his eyes met Gursey's, which also had been watching the hand. The look on Gursey's face reminded him that here was the author of all his trouble. He was about to say so when Gursey, after another hopeless glance at the hand, turned and literally dashed from the room.

A movement of the hand distracted McGovern's attention. It clenched suddenly with chagrin, seemed to threaten him, and dropped heavily on to the bunk.

He ran forward to offer the glass, but Emma brushed him aside, so he returned to his corner and watched Cabell drinking, one hand over Emma's, his head half raised, like a child.

The sound of dogs barking as the homestead flock came in reminded him that it was time he went back to Ningpo. The thought that he could get away from here was a relief. He felt automatically for his collar and, remembering that he had torn it off in the store, sneaked out of the room to get it.

And here the metamorphosis seems to have begun--that change which brought the bully back to life in him as irresistibly as the cannibal springs to life in the dingo when it senses the weakness in its mate. It was a change over which he had no control, for what are men but the creatures of each other's power or helplessness?

The storeroom door was locked. He rattled the catch impatiently and Gursey's voice came through the slabs threatening to blow his brains out if he didn't go away. He went away quickly, but in the middle of the yard stopped as it came to him that Gursey must have rushed from the room after their eyes met and locked himself in out of fear. Of him! The thought mildly surprised McGovern and had a sedative effect on his shaken nerves. It recalled, too, an image of Cabell on his bunk, groping helplessly in the air, drinking water from Emma's hand like a child. For a long time he stood there in the yard, thinking.

Emma roused him by calling Gursey to tell Herb to saddle up a good horse and come to her.

McGovern stared at the doorway through which she had vanished, rubbed his chin, then went down the slope and told Herb that Emma wanted him to go to Pyke's Crossing for the doctor.

He stayed down at the pens till darkness had fallen. The wind was dying away. The pall of smoke blotted out the stars. A red glow at the Three Mile melted gradually into the opaque night. The air was turning cold.

He climbed the slope and stood under the flame-tree watching the two people in Cabell's room. The figure on the bed never moved except from time to time to reach for the glass which the hand had now learnt to find. Emma sat out of the light with her elbows on her knees, her head in her hands, watching. Occasionally she murmured but got no answer. The crackle of the fire in the fireplace and the musical sound of beetles beating against the lamp-glass came through the open window.

After a long time Emma got up and went along the veranda to the kitchen. Cautiously, like one driven by curiosity to test a theory, McGovern tiptoed up the stairs. For several minutes he stood in the doorway scrutinizing the rigid face that seemed to have set its eyes on an absorbing, ugly vision. Its eyes! Like slits, staring down superciliously, hard, suspicious and calculating--as McGovern remembered them. So intimidating had they been that even now he hesitated to enter the room, as though he feared that they were staring at him through the bandages. Eyes--the power of a man reaching out into the world, informing and directing his greed and hatred and courage. Without them he is nothing--a blind worm on the wind-shaken tree of life. Again McGovern had a strong impression he was looking at a stranger; the mouth and jaws of the man on the bunk seemed so unfamiliar divorced from their eyes. He tiptoed tentatively into the room.

Cabell moved suddenly, sat upright on the bunk, but the pain made him take his head in his hands and lean against the wall, breathing through his teeth. With a mutter of indistinguishable curses he lay down again, his fists clenched at his side in suffering and impotent rage.

McGovern drew a little nearer.

The clock on the shelf over the fireplace ticked hoarsely. To Cabell its beat was the mocking sound of time galloping away from him into impenetrable night. To divert his thoughts with the only action left to him, the only assurance of power in his blind limbs, he reached for the glass.

Quick as the idea came to him, McGovern snatched it away. Doubtfully, as though he suspected that some trick was being played on him, he watched the hand groping across the seat of the chair, with increasing impatience, resting for a moment, then starting again to explore every empty inch of wood.

The glowing embers in the fireplace caught McGovern's eye. An impish smile loosened the tense curiosity of his face. Tiptoeing again, he crossed the room, took a piece of wood from the flames, and went back to the chair.

His face expressing the suspended relief of one who conducts an experiment, he leant over and held the stick, ember down, within reach of the hand, which circled about it, touched the wood, fingered it doubtfully, then impatiently closed on the burning end. An appreciable time passed before the message of pain reached Cabell's brain. With a sharp intake of breath he flung the stick away and clutched his hands together.

McGovern's face relaxed. He smiled, then threw back his head and laughed.

 

 

Chapter Forty-eight

TRAPPED

 

One eye was blind for ever. The other might be saved with care, the doctor said.

Blindfolded in his bandages, Cabell lay and longed for utter darkness--such a darkness as would be if no sun or moon or stars had ever been created and no living thing with memories, thoughts and regrets. What an agony if a man were to die and his brain go on dreaming of inaccessible hopes by the mere chemical action of undecomposed cells! Just so, to Cabell, it seemed to have happened.

The light of sardonic memories flooded his vision, infinitely clearer and more seductive than in reality. He saw the luminous green of Owerbury beechwoods arched over his head, the cool froth of the sea dabbling the pebbles just beyond the reach of his feet, the soft white muslin of a girl's dress fluttering in a summer breeze he could not feel. He smelt the dust as the sheep went out of a morning, smelt the smoke of bushfires, heard horses galloping and cattle bellowing, pictured the waste of his fortune; but could not move an inch without a hand to guide him. From a nightmare a man can escape by waking up. A day-dream vanishes from opened eyes. Tormenting thoughts give way to action. But he could not wake. His eyes were open. All he could do was raise himself on his elbow and listen. . . . The mopokes crying, the crack, crack, crack of the iron roof expanding and contracting in the heat and cold, McGovern laughing and ranting. . . . He lay down again. The scent of flowers came into the room. It must be evening. The peach-trees were in bloom. He could see them--clouds of pink coral with the little green-and-gold budgerigars in the branches scattering the petals.

How alive the world seemed now--this world he had thought so arid and dull! How the shadows changed on the hills, from grey to blue to deepest purple! How fine it was to be out in the moonlight after scrubs and come home dog-tired in the glassy dawn with the silent, friendly men! How fine to be at work under a bleached sky with the sun like a bronze fist beating you between the shoulder-blades! . . . He shivered. He was cold. Even with the fire blazing he was cold. He grumbled at Emma to stoke it up. He opened his shirt and let the heat burn on his body--a tangible evidence that he could feel, was not dreaming in his grave.

He longed to sleep, but never seemed to. There were no gracious gaps in the long procession of taunting images of life. Oh, why hadn't he gone when he had time! Two, even three years ago he could have taken a fortune back to England. Why had he waited? Even ten years ago he could have gone. He could have bought a little house by the sea. A little house of red brick with white shutters and lawns sweeping down to the sea. It was August now. In August mists enchanted the sea. He would be lying on the warm pebbles watching the illusion of brown sails now! Oh, the hell of that unending now! What viciousness of Chance had made McGovern pick up the whip instead of the pistol. . . .

But he was soon able to find his way about the room, knew every inch of it by the twist of a slab under his finger, the peculiar creaking of a board under his feet. His table, as he expected, had been rifled, his pistols taken. His thought of them was not, however, an impulse of despair but of hope. Ah, that undying hope! It seemed to him that when he lifted the bandages and pressed his face against the window he could see the light. In a month perhaps he would be able to make out the shape of a bulky man standing against the light. That would be September. His case had been put back to October.

But Emma would not bring the pistols. "Fool! What d'you expect? A miracle? You'd have less chance than a fly." She spoke to him as if he were a peevish child. "Now sit down. It's time for your drops."

He let her unwind the bandages and wash his eyes.

"There's one way if only you'd listen," she told him. "You've got eleven thousand in the bank. Why can't you drop the case now and let Samuelson buy the land?"

"You've always got some scheme!"

"What is there, then? Murder. That's what it would be. Just murder. Even if nobody ever knew. You think you could go back to England and talk and laugh and be a fine gentleman then?"

"I don't think of being a gentleman any more. That's done with."

"I wish it was," she said impatiently. "For your own sake. It would be one maggot less. You'd be able to see what was good for you. You wouldn't be dreaming your time away thinking about green fields and princesses. You'd put all that behind you. Look at Flanagan and Carney and Dennis. What couldn't you do here?"

"If I never have eyes to see it again, I'm going back to England," he swore. "Yes, by God--if it kills me."

"It'll kill you--if you do what you're thinking of," Emma said. "Oh, don't you see? You think you're young. You think you could live it down. But you're not that kind. You'd never be easy again."

A heavy step on the veranda made her stop talking and hasten to finish bandaging Cabell's eyes.

McGovern came in mopping his brow. His face was purple from drinking, but he looked thinner and anxious. Swaying drunkenly in the doorway, he stared at them for half a minute before he smiled. Then he kicked up a chair beside Cabell's and with a forced bravado and brutality asked, "How's he now? Still blind as a bat?"

Emma's hands took the strain off Cabell's nerves. He relaxed in his chair and held his hands out to the blaze.

McGovern wriggled uncomfortably in the overpowering heat. But his straying eyes showed that it was their silence which made him uneasy. His stiff smile died away gradually, and in a surly voice he demanded: "What's the idea, sending all the men and monkeys up the Three Mile? You needn't try no funny tricks."

Emma glanced into the empty yards and frowned.

McGovern grinned. "You're a fly one, Em. That's well known. But you can't take me in. No, sirree." He spat at Cabell's feet. "You're a bit late. You'll never do it, and he can't."

Emma forced a smile of assurance as hollow as his. "If you mean. . . . We hadn't even thought of it. It won't be necessary. You're not dangerous enough."

"Oho, not dangerous enough! I might drop the key of Gursey's padlock and let you get at him, eh?"

"Gursey's time has come," Emma said. "I heard him groaning in the night."

McGovern nudged her. "It's a pity to disappoint you. He's took a turn for the better this morning. I'll soon have him nursed up as fat as a poddy calf."

Emma kept up a derisive front. "I don't doubt it improves his health being locked in and having you take his gold and talk about sending for a trooper from Pyke's Crossing."

He winked. "You know what puts new life into him. You know what he hopes."

"Poor devil, he always hoped too much. He'll die hoping."

"Maybe. But not just yet."

They went silent for a long time then. The flat light of afternoon saddened the landscape, sweeping away to dun-coloured horizons. Against the brown of the parched earth the peach-trees blazed with a theatrical brightness, emphasizing the desolation of the land. The two who could see, gazing through the window, felt anxiously the emptiness of the place, full of ugly possibilities for each of them. Emma's face went tight and dry. McGovern's cheeks hung down like a pug dog's.

Against their oppressive silence he lifted himself on the arms of the chair and roared suddenly: "Can't you see, damn it all? You haven't got a leg to stand on."

This exasperated expostulation had something of an appeal in it. It put him in the role of a nervous executioner remonstrating with a dangerous victim who refuses to lay his head on the block. His thunder died away and left him gasping and them more obstinately unmoving--Emma with her eyes on the yard, Cabell bending over the fire.

In contrast to Emma, standing behind the chair with one hand lightly on his shoulder, Cabell looked pathetic, dependent. The firelight shone through his thin hands. This ludicrous hunger for warmth in a sweltering afternoon struck the sane mind of McGovern as a manifestation of idiocy. The picture gave him heart to lean forward and push his face close to Cabell's, enfolding him in the reek of rum and sweat and tobacco. "Not a leg, my hearty," he repeated with a chuckle. "I could pluck you to the bone, I could. And I might, if you're not civil. I've got the law on my side. The law and Flanagan and public opinion. You'd be lucky not to do a good stretch for harbouring Gursey. Worse, attempting murder and making him escape. Wouldn't the boys down in Brisbane get a good laugh out of that--to see the high-and-mighty stick-in-the-mud up before the Beak! Ah--"

He jumped back in his chair as Cabell sprang suddenly to his feet and punched at the air. The force of the blow, just missing McGovern, threw him off his balance and he would have fallen but for Emma.

Trembling with rage, at his helplessness, the preposterous futility of his gesture, the crude delight of McGovern at trapping him into this exposure of his weakness, he beat Emma's hands away and, leaning his elbows on the mantelshelf, buried his face in his arms.

 

 

Chapter Forty-nine

THE TEMPTER

 

An embarrassed silence fell on them suddenly. McGovern wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, grunted, and walked to the window.

Emma busied herself noisily at the fire.

Cabell was crying. He cried as a child cries, irresistibly, from weary anger at its helplessness in a world of omnipotent giants. But the tears did not ease the hard lump of hatred burning in his throat. He could feel Emma and McGovern looking at him in amazement, and that angered him more than ever. The fit passed in a few seconds and he felt his way back to the chair.

Emma found an excuse to break the awkward silence by saying "I'd better get your tea. It's time." And she went, reluctantly, after a glance at McGovern, who stood scowling into the yard.

Gradually the squabbling of birds in the flame-tree died away, and Cabell knew that night was falling. A gust of wind stirred the peach-trees and brought the smell of dust and flowers into the room. He shuddered.

McGovern was peering at the motionless figure beside the fire. Its face was lifted towards him with that uncanny effect of following his slightest movement which the intense, hostile listening of the blind gives. A nervous quiver twitched his fat cheek. He moved away from the window, cursing under his breath as he felt across the room in search of the lamp on the table. Having lit it, he returned unsteadily to his chair near Cabell.

They sat facing each other in silence.

The fire caught a log and crackled up the chimney. Its bright flames deepened the impassivity of Cabell's face with black shadows in the hollows of the cheeks. He sensed McGovern so vividly that he forgot he was gazing into darkness. Precisely as they were, he pictured not only each feature of the gross body, with its purple neck ringed in white folds of fat, the red lower lip thrust out sulkily, the eyes lurking in their weed-fringed sockets like a pair of vicious little stoats, but he followed as well the man's heavy gestures as he brought out his half-chewed plug of tobacco, cut it into the palm of his left hand, filled his pipe, and felt his pockets for matches. He saw him reach into the grate, heard him break a twig from the woodheap, and accurately imagined him squatting with drunken insecurity over the fire, waiting for the pipe-lighter to catch, his broad back towards the chairs, the veins swelling under his ears as the heat forced the blood into his head. He heard the lips puffing at the pipe, caught a whiff of the smoke, and heard him grunt as he settled back into the chair. Long weeks of thought about McGovern's smallest movements and the possibilities they laid open had refined Cabell's nerves to such a pitch of sensitivity that he could now examine in detail even the expression on the face before him as his imagination--informed by the peculiar way McGovern was sucking his pipe or growling to himself or shuffling his feet--presented it. He correctly judged that at such and such a moment the pipe would go out from neglect and McGovern would jerk his chair a few inches nearer and break into drunken threats and arguments again.

"You could sit a crow out, blast you," McGovern duly began. "But you won't get rid of me so easily, I tell you. I can wait till your eyes drop out from trying to spot me through those blinkers."

He sucked noisily at his cold pipe and lit another twig. He seemed to understand that this outburst put him in a false position and he pumped out a sour chuckle. But a glimpse of Cabell's stolid face, as the flame sprang up in the twig, made him throw the twig away and begin again, more irritably than ever, driven by the need to reassure himself. "Yes, sit there like a stuffed mummy, damn you, but I'll make you talk. That I will. I'll give you something to snivel about. I've broken better men than you. Ask the old hands. Down Moreton Bay . . . I was a fair terror. . . ." His rambling rant faded against the silence of an inhumanly unappreciative audience. It failed to convince even himself. When he went on, after poking the fire and breaking a fresh twig, it was to plead: "What did you start off on, anyway? Why, my sheep. You owe me something. Now, I'm not a bastard. Let us come to terms." Reproachfully he added, "Besides, what would become of Joe? Say they sent him back to chokey. That'd be tough on him after sticking to you."

So by turns he reasoned and bullied, and with insults and ridicule tried to make Cabell break out again. What was he up to, sitting there like a damned fox at a rat-hole? When Cabell let McGovern's badgering carry him away the big man felt sure of himself. He knew where he was if it came to blows and that these futile exhibitions of violence bore in on Cabell the hopelessness of resisting.

Cabell knew it, too. Though he hardly listened, he was perfectly aware of all McGovern said from the changing inflexions of his voice, which ran on and on through the back of his mind as one might hear the sound of a danger approaching while one thought only of a way to escape. He was like a fugitive hesitating on the brink of a desperate leap, pressed by his pursuers behind, facing across the abyss a promised land of assured safety. . . . "A perilous crossing . . . a perilous looking back, a perilous trembling and hesitating." Just one gigantic effort. Now! One last straining of the muscles, gritting of the teeth and leap. Now! Every lovely chimera of the past and future enticed him on. For the moment he could see only the brilliant scene on the other side of the darkness round his feet. Then he saw himself there, looking back with a triumphant smile, as though the thing had been done, all the malice of life defeated, the fullness of all good things inherited at last. But still he hesitated. He was afraid to hit out and miss--afraid of being hurt, killed, perhaps, but more afraid of being made to understand how helplessly he was cornered.

Night and day for weeks that brutal rant had been going on at his elbow. The stink of the man's body, his crude habits, his evil power, had revived in Cabell's mind the first idea he had conceived of McGovern at Murrumburra, as the personification of a whole system of soul-destroying deviltries. It seemed to him that in this struggle the whole struggle for escape from the grind and ugliness and shame of Australia which had absorbed him for the last twenty years was concentrated. In his blind helplessness escape had seemed at first so incredible that merely to think of it was to imagine absolute freedom. Freedom from all the trammels in which life had ever enmeshed him. Suppose some miracle, some gracious act of fate were at this instant to wipe McGovern from the face of the earth! Ah, nothing would remain to do except to gather those golden apples from the tree of life which for so long he had been waiting to fall. The omnipotence of McGovern dwarfed every other problem: the case in Brisbane, the drought, even Emma. His imagination could conceive the future, free of McGovern, only as a day-dream of all wishes fulfilled. Indeed, it could not conceive the future at all except with McGovern dead. Unless that miracle happened there could be no future. "I'd rather cut my throat," Cabell told himself. As he had told himself so often before when the possibility of having to spend the rest of his days with Emma had seemed the blackest disaster that could befall him. The angry resolutions he had allowed to form in his mind then had prepared him for desperate expedients now. He was fighting for life itself. What act could be unjustifiable?

Night and day McGovern's voice had gone on, and time had gone on, and the vision of the freedom that would assuredly be his if only he could take the leap had become more and more clear, more imperative. So clear at last, indeed, that it sometimes made him forget the danger and he felt that he needed to take only a single short step forward to be that smiling conqueror on the bright side of the abyss. Only a single, short step. Now!

Leap!

The breeze rustled the peach-trees again, made the lamp splutter, flicked the pile of old newspapers on the table. He sat on the edge of his chair, bent slightly forward over the stooping figure of McGovern. Could he grab the axe from the woodheap, throw an arm round his neck, brain him with the poker? Three seconds passed, three deliberate challenges from time, spreading the space between the leaden ticks of the clock on the mantelshelf while McGovern put his face close to the blackening embers and blew the green twig into a flame.

Emma's footsteps echoed through the house. Cabell heard her tiptoe down the veranda, look into the room, then go across the yard to the store.

McGovern stopped talking and shouted after her that it was past the time for tucker, damn her eyes. Then, spitting at Cabell's feet to signify that a futile conversation was suspended in anticipation of that event, started in a more businesslike way to get his pipe alight.

A moth kept fluttering against the lamp-glass. Cabell turned his head to listen. The wings beat faster, faster. Fancying the unendurable heat of their radiant tempter, he shuddered. The tinkling ceased, the flame of the lamp sizzled and the strained silence closed over the room again.

McGovern sighed, puffed his pipe, and moved. Cabell felt him swaying across the glow of the fire as he began to rise.

Now!

His heart stopped beating, his breath stopped. As usual at this critical moment, a terrible dreamlike weakness seized his arms. He tried to get on his feet.

A glass toppled from the mantelpiece and bounded across the hearthstone without breaking. McGovern was pulling himself up by the shaky ledge. Cabell heard his joints crack.

Ach, he was too late again!

 

 

Chapter Fifty

ESCAPE

 

Always too late!

He sank into the chair and bitterly reproached himself: "Do I want to cut my own throat, then? Would I think twice if I had to stamp on a scorpion?" The tears of chagrin welled into his eyes once more. "I'm lily-livered. I deserve to go under."

He jumped to his feet. He wanted to be alone with his self-pity. In his haste he blundered heavily into McGovern, whose ponderous body still hung precariously from the mantelshelf. The collision knocked the big man sideways. The ledge tore away and he fell, bringing down clock, medicine-bottles and crockery.

Instinctively Cabell threw out his hands to protect himself. They struck against McGovern's shoulders, supported him a moment, then slipped up on to the back of his neck and fastened there. He felt the rolls of fat and the flat ears and threw all his weight down. It was an automatic reflex to fling off the abominable thing. But, as he fell, McGovern grabbed and fastened his fingers in Cabell's hair and they went over together, each trying to tear away from the other. McGovern twisted Cabell's head till his neck cracked, and Cabell buried his nails in McGovern's neck and made another frantic effort to throw him off. The man's knee slipped from under him and he dived forward, striking his head on the iron coping of the grate and dazing himself.

A shower of sparks bit Cabell's left hand, but he hung on to McGovern's neck, pressing down with all his weight, trying to break the hold on his head. Under this weight the iron grate fell open suddenly. A sharp pain shot up Cabell's fingers and a spurt of sizzling flame, as when fire suddenly catches a patch of dry grass, spat at his face. The pungent smell of burning hair filled his throat as he gasped aloud at the pain in his hand. But he tightened his grip, blindly intent now on keeping the plunging body down, not aware of its shouts, of a chair flying from its heels, of its hand in his hair. All he knew was a sick physical hatred of the texture of the flesh under his fingers. It seemed all at once to have distilled a viscous sweat, like grease, and he had to dig his little fingers into the earholes to keep his hands from slipping apart. He gripped his knees in the fat trunk and bit the air with an aimless, animal instinct to fasten his hold more securely. But the fingers on his left hand were beginning to stiffen. Against his will his hand opened lifelessly and slid down into the fire, and a flame ran up his arm and scorched the side of his face.

Then he felt himself lifted into the air as the body rose under him and staggered to its feet. He pressed his knees in as though he was riding a wild horse, and McGovern staggered across the room with him, rolling from side to side, knocking chairs over, making the lamp rock and rattle on the table. Twice up and down the room he went, without a sound except the shuffle of his feet on the rush mats, while Cabell kept in his seat, scarcely realizing that they had moved from the floor, unaware of what had happened and the incredible horror of his game of pig-a-back.

McGovern, too, seemed unconscious of the limpet weight on his shoulders. His knees gave way and he sprawled on his hands, to raise himself again and continue stumbling round the room, full tilt into the walls, clawing the boards, but never uttering a sound, until at last his choked-up breath burst out of his lips and at long-drawn intervals of silence he gave three anguished roars, hoarse, bestial and penetrating. They began with a quick hiss through his teeth, followed by a guttural moan growing louder and louder and dying out, far away among the hills, in a series of falsetto quavers.

Cabell dropped to the floor as though someone had wrenched him off from behind. Holding on to the table, he stopped breathing to listen. The clock, he noticed, had ceased to tick, but he did not understand why. It merely seemed as though the intervals between its last tick and the next was being arbitrarily prolonged by time especially to horrify and frighten him. Panic took hold of him. He tried to run to the door, but he had lost his sense of direction. Nausea brought a cold, prickling sweat out all over his body. His legs began to crumple under him, so that he had to go back to the table to save himself from falling.

McGovern roared a second time. And a third. Then, reaching out, his hand closed on the lamp and he lifted it, dashed it to pieces on the table, and started off again, blundering over the fallen chairs, with one hand outstretched before him. He passed so close that Cabell felt the bristling hairs of the forearm on his face and started away. The movement pulled him out of his trance, and in a flash he understood what he had done.

The need to act at once brought back his strength. He must stop the noise. It would bring the men in from the Three Mile. He imagined it waking McFarlane, ten miles away. He would be caught and hanged. "Oh, get me out of this and I'll never ask for anything more," he prayed. "Never wish for anything more if I come safely out of this." And he was crawling about on the hearth feeling for the tomahawk. He tore the bandages off, but the room remained black before him. All the while he sobbed with fear without knowing it and was unconscious of shouting distractedly to McGovern: "Shut up! For Christ's sake, shut your mouth!" Running up and down with the insane persistence of an animal just put into a cage, McGovern tripped over his feet at every turn, rose and ran on till he butted his head into the wall, then turned and ran back, bellowing all the time.

At last Cabell's fingers closed on the haft of the axe. Instantly a frenzied cunning possessed him. He stopped shouting and muttered to himself as he stretched out his legs and waited for McGovern to come back. Each time McGovern fell he struck at him with the axe, trying to kill him, feeling a ghastly delight as the axe thudded on the fat body, which tore itself from the fingers of his burnt hand but always returned and tripped again. But the axe was blunt and generally he missed and the blade stuck in the floor. Once he got in a slanting blow on the side of McGovern's head as the man was rising and stunned him for a second or two. He scrambled across the floor, bawling at the top of his lungs "Just you wait now. I'll show you." He put his hands on the crusted forehead to feel where it lay, took the axe in both hands and brought it down with a fierce grunt of satisfaction. But McGovern had rolled aside and the axe wedged deep in between the floorboards. Cursing and raving, he tried to tug it free, but could not move it. He was quite crazy, no longer felt the pain in his hand and arm, in his eyes, was unaware of the smoke stifling him and the fire leaping up in the pile of paper on the table and the rush floor-mats, where the breeze was fanning the paraffin flames from the overturned lamp. The need, the pleasure of killing McGovern engrossed him. He seized the man by the throat and began to throttle him.

How Emma had stood in the doorway for two minutes watching with inscrutable eyes, seeing the fire take hold of the dry floorboards, lick a calendar off the walls, spread tentative fingers towards him--how she had turned away with her hand on the knob of the door and, still hesitating, turned back, a quivering at the end of her lips breaking their expression of vindictive purpose--how she had seen him fall when a blind swipe from McGovern caught him on the point of the jaw and lie without moving among the flames, which began to nibble at his elbows and trouser-legs like timid mice--and how suddenly, with a cry of mingled anger and despair, she had rushed into the room, wrenched the axe from the floor, killed McGovern with it, and dragged Cabell into the yard--these were gaps in his memory of that dreadful night which he never sought to fill.

But the mystery of them for ever after deepened the enigma of her face, sometimes frightening him, often repelling him, but always filling him with unspeakable gratitude. He would remember how, as he lay in the yard with his head in her lap listening to the fire crackling in the dry house, bursting the sappy branches of the flame-tree, startling the birds, the hand to which he had clung as the only stable thing in his dark world had been icy cold. Pity and remorse overcame him when he thought about it and remembered what her life had been and how she had struggled after peace and forgetfulness. Yet, after all. . . .

He could feel those chilly fingers again, and they called up dimly things he had trained himself to forget. He would scowl at her then. Perhaps she had taught him really to hate her the night the homestead burnt down.

 

 

Chapter Fifty-one

RENUNCIATION

 

"This is the last you'll hear of me," Cabell wrote to his sister in 1864. "I've made up my mind. I'm one of the lost souls. You'd better forget me. Don't think I expect there to be any weeping over that. Confess it, my dear Harriet, even you will be a little relieved. You'd begun to worry how you would excuse my rough jailbird manners when people came in and saw me eating with my fingers--and my feet up on the table, too, most likely. You weren't far wrong. I've picked up some queer ways. God, if the Bishop of Barminster was to hear just half the things I've done in the last twenty years--if that fop David could smell my clothes--why, if you just saw me you'd faint away, sister. It would be easier to make yourself kiss old Sam the fisherman than me. That's what's happened to your little brother. He's died. And everything about him is forgotten. Even in this 'jailyard' there are some who'd wipe their hands after if they had to shake hands with me. . . .

"Now you'll pray for me. I suppose you'll think I'm brokenhearted because I'll never set eyes on Owerbury again. And on Aunt Julie, and David, and Clement! A lot of pleasure I could get out of living there now--wearing a nail-can hat, rigging myself out to go and trot a tame hack over the Downs after a fox. . . . Here, when a dingo shows its nose we ride it down over country your dainty feet couldn't walk in, and kill it with the stirrup-iron at the gallop. . . . And then there'd be your farmers with their handfuls of sheep and cows suffering from indigestion and their little bits of land--and the parson with his sermons I'd have to listen to every Sunday--and a man would be expected to talk politely to every Tom, Dick and Harry. And not room to open your elbows in the poky place. . . . Of course I did say I wanted to come back home. But all that is changed. I'd be worse than a fish out of water there now. . . .

"I've just bought fifty square miles of land here. Why, I could put the whole of your parish in my place twenty times. There are thirty thousand sheep on the run now, and next year there'll be fifty thousand--God willing. What do you think of that? When I came here it was a blackfellow's country. Now men know about my sheep wherever you would mention my name. They come from a thousand miles away to buy them. Cabell Valley, Cabell Road, Cabell River--the country will have something to remember me by when I'm gone. If I wanted to I could make myself a big man here. So you needn't go troubling yourself about me. . . .

"I know you pity me. You have no right. How can you know what goes on? There are some women you would not look at who would be worth ten of a doll like Phillipa Mayne. A woman has to have a strong pickling. Some things happen in life that aren't anybody's fault. At least, you might say they were everybody's fault. I've reason to thank God Emma is what she is. I tell you that. You'd scream at the sight of a mouse. I can't explain it. There's nothing to pity me for, anyway. What if I was a cattle thief--or even worse. You'd hold up your hands in horror. You couldn't help it, never having put your nose out of Owerbury.

"They talk about justice. The wrong must be punished by justice. Bah! If you gave them justice they ought all to be hanged by rights--by cold justice. Understanding is what people need. Not pity. Not justice. What's the use of looking at just what's happened. You would have to trace it all back to the beginning and then everyone would understand. It might all have begun with something not wrong at all--a man might have been trying to keep what was his own. Go farther back--yes, a wrong might have been done to him: he might have been kicked out of his own home neck and crop. What happens later might look bad, but if you could see all the little steps that led up to it--We're all blind as bats, anyway. . . .

"The world is not all like Owerbury, let me tell you, sister. You can't tell what is going to happen tomorrow--next minute. And when the next minute comes you won't be able to go back. A man might hold a gun at your head. What would you do? Let him kill you? And say someone stepped in and took half the blame for what happened? But never mind--you couldn't understand. Not down in Owerbury. Everything was worked out and settled there long ago.

"So I won't see you any more. We are both getting on. You say nothing has changed. The same downs and sea and beechwoods. I can see it as plain as yesterday. I remember going out in the garden one night--that night after you caught me kissing Phillipa. The apple-trees were out. It was spring. Do you recollect? Wandering about there I had all sorts of silly notions. Nothing was clear in my head, but I was sure some great thing was going to happen to me. That was the time I used to think I was marked out to be another Napoleon. Funny what things a boy will think about. . . . That's a long time ago--twenty-three years. A man has to take stock. You can have this, and you can't have that. What use is it crying for the moon? If people learnt to resign themselves a bit. . . . Not that I've got anything to resign myself about, mind you. I'm going to build a new house--the first stone house in the district. The furniture is coming up from Sydney. I only want a bit of quiet now. When a man has been as lucky as I have he ought to settle down and take it easy. You can't go on asking for things without end. Besides, you get tied to a place--all things considered. A man might want to go back where he had been happy, but it would stop at that. Where he's had his hard times--that is where he stays. . . ."

He wrote this sitting at the window of the hut the men had run up after the fire. It was one of those bright days common in our district in early winter before the winds have come and the lush growths of the rainy season begun to wither. The rain-washed air makes the hills so blue that they lose themselves in the sky. The labyrinthine gullies lie in purple shadow, the sun showers its medallions on the river, here and there a gum splashes the crimson of new bark across the scrub. On such a day the bush seems to dream on its own beauty.

Cabell looked out at the landscape as a man might look at a lovely mistress when his eyes had miraculously opened after a long illness. He forgot every imperfection and grudge in the sheer joy of gazing. The valley had never seemed so green before. How many times he had stood on this spot and groaned to himself in an agony of boredom at the monotonous grey of the bush! But it was not monotonous at all. From second to second it changed. The purple haze overflowed in the gullies and washed across the hills, turned to violet, magenta. Now the river was a cold steel mirror, now a sheet of bronze, now spangled, now turbid and yellow. A cloud-shadow raced across the flats for miles, like a great brush scoring out the glitter on billions of leaves, on the mica face of a bare hill, on pools of water, and after it came the scythe of sun cutting away the scum from the brilliant face of things. A breath of wind passed over the boxwood scrub and turned up the white underside of the leaves, so that they seemed suddenly to burst into flower.

Cabell felt that he was looking at a place he had never seen before. The freshness of the grass, covering the scars of drought and bushfires, even the ashes of the homestead, deepened his illusion that life could be begun anew. There was the past--a procession of memories, some fine, some ugly. Then there was the wall of darkness dividing the past and all its longings and plans irretrievably from the present. "All that is over and done with," he told himself, thinking of his sister and Owerbury, and he felt relieved in a way. A weight lifted from his mind that had lain there since the day he landed in Australia. His act of renunciation cut the knot of a thousand and one difficulties, and things which had baffled and tormented him before fitted together into a simple design. Seeing Gursey and Emma in a new light, he was delivered all at once from the misery of barren regrets. "Perhaps I always meant to stay," he thought, and when he dwelt on the idea he seemed to have known all along that things would end so, seemed deliberately to have planned and worked for it. Or had he been the victim of blind circumstances subtly reshaping him against his will, one grain of sand in a million grains of sand buffeted by wind and sea? Sometimes he thought that life was like a great river with the flood of time rushing him on, sucking him down. A man had no time to think where he was going in that cataract. He just grabbed at any straw, any expedient, pulling himself up on the backs of others, drowning some. . . . A miracle had happened to him. He had got his feet on dry land at last. He could rest awhile. . . .

But just now he preferred to think that he had willed it all. That made certain things seem less cruel and blameworthy and quietened certain doubts. He glanced across the yard at Gursey, who sat in the doorway of the storeroom aimlessly whittling a stick. A silent, morose old man. It was an ugly business right enough--what had happened the night the homestead burnt down. But hadn't he been forced to do it to save Joe? There was no need for that to lie on his conscience. But what of Emma? No doubt he had done her a great wrong, but wasn't he ready to make great amends?

He could hear her moving about behind him, but did not turn to see her still face and secretive eyes. Impatiently he pushed aside an evil thought about those eyes. It was he who had decided--who had bought the land--who was writing this letter to England. It was he who had willed it so. The idea consoled him.

But in the back of his mind a faint sense of loss persisted. Only, for a moment, the relief of waking from a nightmare, the sensual joy of seeing again kept it there, made him content. "I'm rich. I've got a fine property. I'm not old yet. I'm sound as a bell. Nine men in ten would give half their lives to be in my shoes. I can sit back now and take it easy."

The picture of himself, standing in the garden at Owerbury one spring night twenty-three years before, flashed across his mind again. He was looking up at the stars, gripped suddenly by the magnificent promise of life. In the certainty of youth's inexplicit hopes he had dedicated himself to deeds as vague and glorious as the Milky Way.

The picture faded slowly into the vast panorama of waving grass. He shook his head slowly and repeated, "I'm satisfied. To be what I am. Where I am."

As though Life the sorceress could be so easily disarmed! He did not know what temptations she was laying out for him in the future of a land of opportunity. The lodes of gold and silver still uncovered--the prosperous towns that would spring out of the bush--the wealth they would shower on him through no will of his own, at once awakening old dreams and forging stronger ties. In his present mood of contentment he could not foresee the time when he would look out on this same scene with disillusioned eyes, rich beyond any limits he had ever imagined but possessed once more by doubt and disappointment--how even then, when he thought he had learnt for good and all the futility of hoping, new mirages would rise to wring a few more years of living and struggling out of him.

But now for the moment he drowsed, between the ghosts of yesterday and the unborn passions of tomorrow, to the sound of wind in the she-oaks.

 

 

THE END

 

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