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Title: Gentlemen at Gyang Gyang Author: Miles Franklin * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 0900141h.html Language: English Date first posted: March 2015 Most recent update: March 2015 Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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Black Peter threw the reins of his saddle-horse over the horse-shoe on the snow-gum beside the grindstone and left the pack-horse to browse on the budding everlastings.
"Hey! I'm off now," he called. "Did the Boss leave any fresh orders?"
There was no reply save the conversational warble of magpies all around the horizon, and the ejaculations of a braw old rooster on the wood-heap, where he was looking for a handsome black snake, which earlier had disturbed one of the ladies of his harem. The man entered a rough slab structure roofed with mountain-ash palings and with a veranda fore and aft. A billy and a kerosene-tin boiled above the logs in the ten-foot hearth, otherwise the place was deserted. He whistled. A chained dog yelped in response—the Cook's second-best dog. All the others were with the men. The men were on Wild Horse Plain burning off winter tussocks. Smoke modified the blue of the ranges far away to the left.
A hawk out of the limitless blue settled in the blackbutt above the wood-pile and fixed a predatory gaze on some half-grown pullets. The rooster cackled hysterically. To be threatened from both ground and air was unnerving. The man disappeared into the main abode and reappeared with a gun.
Crack! The report rattled among the timber along the echoing ridges and seemed to enlarge the far-reaching, uninhabited silence. The cock's overhead enemy fell almost at his feet. A big white cockatoo screeched approval from a dead tree near the cowyard.
The January sun sparkled in a fleckless blue sky and shimmered in visible waves above Gyang Gyang Plain, where merinos nipping the blue tussocks were distinguishable only by movement from the outcropping grey slate and granite. Far and wide to the high blue peaks of the skyline, space and sunlight, sunlight and space, spring and vale, plain and rocks, daisies and tussocks and jumbucks reigned in a glory of solitude. Black Peter gazed all around with sweeping glances born and trained to distance, missing little, but there was no sign of the Cook. He cooeed preparatory to mounting. The Cook rose up from behind a tea-tree bush, all bridal with bloom, and approached with two kerosene-tins of water from the spring-head.
"Hey! You must have been jolly sound asleep."
"Asleep your grandmother! I was gettin' water."
"All right; you were getting water. Did the Boss leave any fresh orders?"
"He said you was to take the car to Goonara and bring back a passenger who's comin' through on the service car."
"Did he say if there would be much luggage?"
"He said you was to tell her he'll be home before dark. A wire come through just as the Boss was settin' out."
"Whew! a lady. Wonder where'll we put her. Old or young?"
"I dunno. Some kind of a pommy tart I reckon from what the Boss was sayin' on the telephone—come out from Paris on a ship."
"Scissors! She'll find Gyang Gyang a little off. You'll have to put a patch on your pants to keep your backside out of sight."
"Too right!" said the Cook with a grin. "An' you'll have to cut a few feet off your beard or you won't be able to kiss her good night without her gettin' lost in it."
"I'll leave that to the cuckoo geezers who are always after the girls. You'll have to give us coffee for breakfast and cakes for tea every day, and keep your cigar ashes out of the porridge."
"If she don't suit the grub, she can go and put up with ole Bluestone."
"Don't get shirty!"
"I ain't! The Boss said you might drop a match or two on Black Plain as you go by."
"Goodo! Chuck us a few boxes, will you?"
Black Peter dismissed the horses and went to the woolshed where the Boss's car was. As he brought the machine into the open, something like a large white pocket handkerchief adrift in a breeze descended from the dead tree near the cowyard. Cocky had come to inspect operations. She was a well-known identity on the station and arrived most summers in her cage in the Boss's car in company with the Pup. She settled on the steering-wheel and announced, "I laid an egg and sat on it, I did."
This was historical fact attested by eye-witnesses, but Cocky was more often referred to as he than she.
"You did no such thing. You couldn't. You're a blamed old rooster," said Peter, laughing.
"I laid an egg and sat on it, I did," the raucous voice insisted.
"Well, then, you're a sour old maid, and should be ashamed of yourself." The man seized the outgoing mailbag and took the steering-wheel from the bird, which flew back to her perch and screeched. He set off with throttle wide around the unofficial gradients of Gyang Gyang Hill, thence through a whole school of little crystal creeks across the tussocks of Black Plain and Telegraph Hill, and skirted Burnt Hut Range towards the main road—one of them—which leads to Adaminaby or Jindabyne, Cooma or Dalgety, Bega or Bombala, Bambooka or Buckley's Crossing, Billilingera or Bool Bool, Tumut or Tooma or Tumbarumba, or whither so the traveller wills in the commodious and airy loft of Australia.
Peter wished he was away on Wild Horse Plain poking fire-sticks in the tussocks to sweeten the grass, and any other man going to meet an unknown female. Not that he was bored by women. Far from it. They were disturbingly entertaining, but dangerous. The only way to be safe with the —— was to avoid them like a poison bait. If a man could be muzzled or tied up like a dog when poison was about it would be all to the good. It certainly would have been on one occasion when early disaster left him a complex as hard as the cancers on flooded gums, and as indissoluble by any influence that Black Peter had so far met. Prohibition was his precaution against repetition of catastrophe.
Doll Drew put a shade more powder on her pinched weather-beaten cheeks and looked along the road for the twentieth time that afternoon. It was mail-day. The service car might deposit someone on the dusty front veranda to break the monotony of existence in the community of one dilapidated pub, one general store, a police-station, a post-office and two or three drovers' homes clustered on the rough plain. Goonara was a god-forsaken stagnant hole, a hang-over from mining days long dead. No visible gardens lent amenity to the houses, no trees threw shade on the road that lay naked to the blazing sunlight. Why anyone dwelt there was a source of speculation, but no place is immune from some kind of animal or insect.
Doll and Mona, as well as Maggie their married sister, had been born in the old pub, the Crow's Nest, so were inured to their environment. Their father had seasonally gone shearing or droving, and at other times had been one of the regulars to uphold a veranda post or breast the bar. He used to talk of making a home somewhere down the country, but all he made there was a grave beside the flooded stream that drowned him. Mrs Drew remained in the Crow's Nest with her parents, old Bluestone and Grandma Bellingham, till she found a grave among the snow-daisies on the hillside near by, and her daughters continued with the old people.
Big events were unknown to the young women. They had not yet seen Sydney. All their hope of adventure, romance or a better way of life depended on some young man. They saw few, however, except the drovers who belonged to the place or came each summer. These did not attract them. Tourists flew through without staying for even a meal, if they could manage it, resentful of metropolitan tariff for deplorably primitive service and accommodation. Anyone who stayed longer was generally some compleat angler greedy for the big bag to be had in the unfished streams around Goonara, and men as a rule leave fishing to those ample of midriff and already anchored to compleat wives. The hopes of Mona and Doll therefore turned to Gyang Gyang, which each summer provided several desirable bachelors. There was Harvey Liddle, known as the Dude for his smart appearance and his predilection for girls. He had been the hope of every girl in the district two years before, but his friendly attentions grew no more nor less, and it was believed that his serious affections were placed on a dainty little maid in Bool Bool. Pending her surrender his car was open to all the girls for fifty miles around, and he was always ready for a dance or picnic to make a break in the long days shorn of all companionship but jumbucks and dogs, and far from neighbours.
There were one or two other bachelors regularly on the station, and this year there was Black Peter. Doll still had hopes of the Dude, but Mona had set her heart on Peter. He was tall and strong. Even the shaggy disfigurement mentioned by the Cook could not disguise his youth and claims to good looks, nor could his stern prohibition of women submerge his charm for them. Mona was given to pleasant expectations on mail-days. Now and again Black Peter took the short cut over Burnt Hut and rode for the mailbag. While waiting for it he would yarn a while with Granddad, who had known Peter's great-granddad (the old original Black Poole of Curradoobidgee) and his grandam, as he did those of everyone who claimed to be a true Monaro-ite. Mona would sit and look at Peter, though she could never make Peter look at her. She felt nevertheless that he was conscious of her, and his charm was not decreased by aloofness. Intuitively women knew it for aloofness rather than indifference.
Both girls' interest in the mail today amounted to trepidation owing to the lady passenger for Gyang Gyang. Would she be young and pretty and a menace to their chances with the Dude and Peter? Belle Leyden at the post-office had received the telegram and telephoned it to Gyang Gyang. She had connected Mr Labosseer with the Cooma Hotel and listened in while he dictated a message. From this she learnt that the lady was Mr Labosseer's goddaughter. Belle had passed this on to the girls at the Crow's Nest. They speculated together and hoped that a goddaughter would be rather old. All Mr Labosseer's real daughters were married and over thirty.
"If she's only a goddaughter she won't be able to stay there. Goddaughters don't have to be relations," said Mona.
"Perhaps she's some bird Mr Labosseer is sweet on himself," said Belle. "But they say that his daughters take fine care he shan't marry again."
"Aw, they couldn't stop him if he wanted to. I don't think anything could stop a man if he really wanted to, or make him if he didn't want to," said Doll. Mona sighed in agreement with the final sentiment and looked long and far along the rocky barren road sinking over the wide horizon and washed away into watercourses that were ruinous on tires.
"I reckon a man just plays about to suit himself unless he's cornered in some way," Doll added. She too gazed long and longingly down the dusty road. The girls' hearts chafed for something to happen, but no speck upon the wide skyline yet announced the mail-car. No speck upon the rifted hills of the razorbacked range with herringbone ribs called Goonara Plain in another direction could be mistaken for a messenger from Gyang Gyang. Nothing stirred about the spacious scene but the sheep; nothing broke the deep blue overhead but a pair of eagles high up attended by their baleful playboys the crows. Not a tourist to unfurl a line, not a drover to rub against a veranda post or breast the bar!
Bordering or within the Federal Territory may be a dozen geographical entities perpetuating the grey cockatoos of the pomegranate crests and genteelish screech, but the best known of them all is Gyang Gyang Plain, the summer run of Sylvester S. Labosseer, well known from Jindilliwah in the west country to the snow leases as one of the soundest and safest pastoralists old Monaro ever turned out.
Labosseer usually appeared at Gyang Gyang about November by way of the mountain where the peaks that wear his own name stand blue and wild on the right, and the road ascends from Bool Bool to the watershed by gradients that vary from one-in-eight to one-in-fifteen. From the crest, some of the rivulets tumble away with a voice like the wind to swell the Murrumbidgee, while others dash down to the Eucumbene, which marries the Snowy, famous for ever in song and story. There the world of Up Above, presided over by old Kosciusko, is dusted in summer with everlasting daisies—ivory and gold—and is creased far and wide with valleys boggy with spring-heads, or vocal with little creeks cutting key patterns amid the tussocks, and alive with trout, whose forerunners, when the size of tadpoles, Sylvester Labosseer himself had liberated from milk-cans a generation ago.
Old Bluestone's pub is a well-known landmark at the edge of Monaro proper, where the regulars may be heard interspersing advice about fishing with talk of flies blowing the sheep and the efficiency of "one-in-twenty" as against "one-in-thirty" for swabbing. Scattered like gems amid the clack are such names as Curradoobidgee, Eueurunda, Bibbenluke, Tintaldra, Gegezerick, Yarrangobilly, Gowandale, Kelly's Plain, Kiandra Plain, Gooandra Plain, Coolamon Plains—old and new—Charcoal Plain, Black Plain, Letterbox Crossing, Whipstick and Blanket Hills, and Whiskey Creek, while the Boggy Plains, Bullock Hills, and Flea Creeks are as plentiful as those that answer to the adjective of Red, or Little, or One-Tree, and distinguishable one from another only by their intimates.
Gyang Gyang Plain lies about half a day's ride from where the Gooandra sings over shelves of rock to join the Tantangara between two tiny bluffs of granite slates and the wedded streams steady into a trout hole and sheer to the left under a little hill. Speeding up again the waters hurry in hairpin twists far below Steep Sideling for ever singing a fairy lullaby, sweet as honey, chaste as dew, to glide quietly through Black Duck Swamp with its major orchestra of bullfrogs into old Mother of Waters as she rushes across Long Plain. Thence back with a wild free song by Currangorambla and Tantangara through the Gulf and all the roundabout world of the upper Murrumbidgee from Yauok and Gabramatta through Billilingera, Bredbo, Bumbalong, Cuppacumbalong and Timlinbilli, by Tuggeranong, Lanyan, Uriarra, Keba, Cuppinbingle, Yeumburrah, Oak Vale, Bombala, Good Hope and Goodradigbee and Coolgarbilli to Jugiong, to Gundagai and Wagga through Riverina to the Murray and the Bight.
The pilgrim bent on definitely locating Gyang Gyang Plain must not be seduced by the siren song of these waters but firmly head the other way. Only then is Gyang Gyang just half a day's ride from any point between the junction of the Tantangara and Gooandra and their confluence with the Murrumbidgee; but remember always that the bushman's day begins half a day earlier in the morning than that of the black-coated workers who languidly sip their execrable breakfast coffee in the boarding-houses of Bloomsbury, and that some bushmen ride at a steady jog and others at a dead run.
A track that cannot be missed is Dinnertime Creek all draped with the perfumed tea-tree and tea-tree heaths as it circles Eagle Hill; no vehicle track this, and down-the-country horses are nervous of its steeps and angles. Eagle Hill Paddock is next to the Ram Paddock, the outside boundary of which is only six miles from the horse-paddock sliprails, and through the Ram Paddock all the way to Gyang Gyang shearing-shed is a track that a pommy could hardly miss. That is if any really crave for Gyang Gyang. The majority are so addicted to jazz and jollity, so artificiliazed by cults or spurious culture, or so blighted with congenital inability to become en rapport with Nature, that perhaps they, like Bernice Gaylord, don't know or care where such a beastly hole may be.
Miss Gaylord's attitude towards Gyang Gyang was much that of some revolutionist on the way to Siberia, only the Siberian exile might have in his heart the fire of a cause with a sustaining determination to escape and continue his self-immolation. At the core of Miss Gaylord remained only ashes and a scourge of humiliation to provide her with a pulse and a temperature. While there is pain there remains that matrix of illusions—Life. For the present, however, Bernice Gaylord had reached a dead end which she mistook for the end of all things. The doctors spoke of a strained heart and hinted at T.B., a diagnosis welcome to Bernice. It camouflaged her secret and explained the suspension of her career to her family and the Australian public interested in her unusual promise, which had suddenly dried up. Her father's letter, preceded by a cable, had been so generous and entreating that she had consented to return to Australia.
Now she was desperately tired after a hot night journey in the train and thence in the mail service car to Goonara. Though she was at the end of all things, the deep cool gullies bowered in perfumed bloom of the big daisies (Podolepis acuminata) and the shrubs, with the sun striking in grand shafts between the barrels of the stately timber, had had a beneficial effect on a consciousness attuned to beauty, and she was soothed by the practical kindness and detached friendliness of the driver. She was given the front seat and comfort while the men passengers squeezed between parcels including cases of petrol, loaves of bread, and packets of cigarettes—all remembered by the mailman without a written list.
The last of the passengers got off at Waterfall Gully. The mailman said scarcely a word to Bernice, she never a word to him except in answer. At length they traversed Rocky Plain, crossed and recrossed a tributary of the Snowy, and the several roofs of Goonara shone like silver in the hot afternoon glare.
"I see the Gyang Gyang car coming over Herringbone," remarked the mailman. "You'll go out that way across Black Plain around Telegraph Hill." He tossed his head, which might have meant any of three directions to Bernice. She made a tiny sound of assent. "I believe it's Mr Laboss, come himself in his old Studebaker to meet you," the mailman continued as a car pulled into the township ahead of them and stopped at the pub.
A clear view was blocked by two unprepossessing youths flashly got up in the fancy dress of the cowboys in American films, with sombreros, bandanas, and long spurs, and mounted on heroic ponies of Monaro shagginess. They frogged their little day by riding on to the pub veranda and calling for drinks. They would have ridden into the bar, but were shooed therefrom by a large bristling broom fiercely wielded by a large hairy old man.
"The flims has got into their brains," observed the mailman. Their ambition was to impress Mona Drew, but her eyes were fixed unswervingly on the tall man who had alighted from the Studebaker. When the disguised drover boys moved away, the mailman added, "No, it ain't Mr Labosseer. It's Black Peter Poole."
The man stood by his car till the mailman came within hail.
"Good day, Poole! Here you are, miss! This is Mr Labosseer's overseer."
Bernice nodded slightly. The overseer raised his wide felt hat, disclosing that he was not an aboriginal, or even a half-caste. His hair was black as a horse's tail and his skin baked a rich brown, but Bernice noted a forehead of that blue-white which is the glory of certain brunette beauties. Eyes startlingly blue and teeth enviably white flashed in a thick black beard.
He handed his passenger to the front seat, arranged his parcels, and, with a few words to the mailman and a nod to the young girl on the pub veranda, started away across the plains where a slight trace of wheels amid the tussocks marked the way.
Mona withdrew to the shade of the black veranda, where Doll and Belle, who had been peeping from the front parlour, joined her.
"She doesn't look much, does she?" began Doll. "Her dress was quite long and dowdy; and did you ever see such an old hat? She must have bought that at a bargain sale at the time Nelson lost his eye; and not even got her hair shingled!"
"You can't tell," said Belle, who had been to Sydney. "Some of the dinky-di swells when they come up here put on any old thing. She looks pretty old, doesn't she? What do you think, Doll?"
"I don't know...I can't see why, but sometimes those queer-looking birds are just the most fascinating to the men."
Mona was watching the car, now a dot on the plain, and envying the stranger her drive with Black Peter, who never took any girl for a car ride, or asked one to dance, or presented her with chocolates, so far as Mona knew. Doll left her sister gazing wistfully across the plain while she went to receive another car, a Dodge, that arrived from the opposite direction. A young man stepped out of it.
"Have you a cool drink for me?" he inquired in a manner which immediately informed Doll that there might be other possibilities than the Dude. He asked for directions to Gyang Gyang and learnt that the Gyang Gyang car was hardly out of sight. He did not hurry after it but indulged in more than one cool drink and gathered miscellaneous information from Granddad. He also bantered Doll, who came out to the car and beamed upon him as he swung round on to the track recently taken by Peter.
That person pursued his way with nothing to say to the woman. She was a pommy, judging by her traps, and rather an uninteresting-looking piece, Peter reckoned; nothing lively about her, though it was a relief that she didn't mag-mag till she dizzied him about things that would interest no one but a jackass.
The miles lurched past, bumps not entirely due to the road. "We'll be lucky if this old bus gets us to camp," remarked its driver. "I should have asked you about having a snack at Goonara, but we all give old Bluestone the go-by if possible."
"I'm not hungry, thank you, but could I have a drink from one of those lovely little creeks?"
Creeks. Perhaps she was not a pommy.
"I'll boil the billy at the next one. The water doesn't always agree with strangers. It's a little too cold."
Sharply rounding the crest of Telegraph Hill downward to Black Plain he had to jam the brakes on to escape a rush of sheep across the track. Starting up again a little too summarily brought the car to a complete standstill. Peter got out to investigate, and verified his suspicions. "We've sheered an axle: entirely jacked up. I'll boil the billy."
A dainty fire of twigs sent up clear blue smoke and a delicious perfume beside a well-seasoned pot while Peter produced a tin of biscuits from among the mailman's parcels. When the water boiled he handed his passenger a pannikin of tea.
"This will be safer than the cold water, and here's some sugar too. I'm sorry that I'll have to ask you to wait here while I go for a horse for the rest of the way."
"Can't I go with you?"
"I'd rather you waited. It's ten miles. Nothing will harm you here. I might have the luck to flag one of the men if I cut along." He looked to the south where he had fired the tussocks on the outward journey. Several patches were still running and throwing a blue odorous veil on the day, but running away from the car.
"There wouldn't be someone passing?"
"We don't have anyone come this way once in a week. You'll see no one. There's nothing to harm you from here to Kossy but a snake or two, and they don't seem to be about this season yet. You can sit quite comfortably in the car."
His detached straightforward manner comforted her. His apparent lack of curiosity suited her present state. He, forsooth, thought her a rather safe-looking female. She was no obvious charmer, at sight of which he scuttled like a chased wombat.
"It might be three hours before I can get back, so you mustn't be frightened."
"I shan't be frightened," she said gravely.
He swung away around the bridle track in long agile strides without a backward glance, comely in sound shirt, riding trousers and leggings. Bernice sipped her tea with some of the flavour of the fragrant eucalyptus twigs and for ever set apart from common teas. She was in the middle of a treeless piece of country surrounded by hills crowned with timber. Away, away down a valley was a transcendant view of peaks, rising tier upon tier as blue as the skies above. From half a mile away she could have faintly discerned Kosciusko had there been someone to point it out.
She bathed her face and hands in the icy water of the little creek wriggling like a worm between tussocks and shrubs, jet-black at a certain angle above its basaltic bed. The earth showed dark between the tussocks; on the nearer hillsides the burnt patches were like mighty black blankets, and the boles of the blackbutts too showed black: there was a dark tinge all about as if the region had black blood in its veins. On every side were ramparts of rock like decapitated castles. Some of the big basaltiform boulders were level as tables and strewn carelessly as though the Great Stonemason had had much material to spare. Bernice found a seat on one of the boulders on top of the world amid the flowers and watched the shadows lengthen, and smelt the fragrance of the fired blore. There was a salt trough on the crest, and wherever she looked sheep dotted the slopes. What could people do with so many sheep!
The sunlight sparkled in undulating waves and burnt like fire. Magpies held meetings all round her in their own voluble and musical tongue, crows flew past with their baleful croak, and gyang gyangs were also in attendance. The latter were familiar through coloured calendars, and she regarded them with beauty-loving eyes. She culled the perfumed shrubs beside the stream and the bluebells and soldier buttons. It was wonderful to be in the air so clear and light. Black Peter had feared that she might be frightened. Frightened! where there might be but one passer-by in a week, and he a lonely bushman like Black Peter himself to whom the ateliers of Paris and London—even Sydney—were as unrealized as the sheep-tracks of the snow country had been to her until that hour. She began to be faintly glad—as glad as possible to one who never more counted upon gladness—that she had come to an isolation illustrated by the telegraph-wire stretching across the crest of the hill as the only connection with the seething world she had lately forsaken. Bliss to hide away here indefinitely from those of her own particular cliques in Paris and London who knew, well, what the doctors diagnosed as cardiac trouble and a tuberculous tendency. That erroneous diagnosis was a smoke-screen to outsiders, but no defence against those in certain artistic circles who found amusement in her story.
The sky remained unflecked, but a rumble that Bernice mistook for thunder disturbed the spacious quiet of the afternoon. In that region a dog sounded like a horse galloping and a motorcar like thunder. Presently the jumbucks were parting like a wave before a car that bumped and swung around the tussocky boulder-strewn hillside. The one passer for the week had evidently appeared. Reaching the Gyang Gyang car he stopped and got out to inspect.
"Can I be of service?" he inquired, descrying Bernice and approaching her. She saw a good-looking young man, tanned and lined, clean-shaven, dark-eyed, wearing city clothes, and of lively address.
"The car has broken down, and the gentleman who was driving me has gone for a horse."
"I'm the right man in the right place, then. My name is Spires."
Bernice bowed faintly but did not respond with her own name.
"I'm on my way to Mr Labosseer at Gyang Gyang and shall be delighted to give you a lift. I'd better take the luggage, too."
"Perhaps they will miss me and wonder what has happened."
"Can't miss on this track, I reckon," he replied, transferring the packages. Then he held the door open. "Now, madam, if you will honour me with your company."
Bernice stepped in, ignoring the "madam", which was a hint for her name. Spires was driven to further attempts to place her. His insatiable appetite for women was untempered by timidity.
"Mr Labosseer is a fine man, isn't he?"
"I haven't seen him since I was an infant."
"Oh! You haven't been at Gyang Gyang before?"
"I expect you'll find it rather primitive. I understand it is only a camp. Mr Labosseer's home is out west. He has a fine place there."
"You'll find Gyang Gyang very different from England."
Even this did not draw her.
"This is quite level except for the bumps. We seem to be on top of the big hills, I mean," she observed.
Hang the woman! She was a clam.
"Have you come all the way through from Sydney?"
They proceeded in silence till the roof of the woolshed could be seen about a couple of miles distant on the side of Gyang Gyang Hill. Here they overtook Peter.
"Well, I never! Hullo, Peter! It is Peter Poole, isn't it?" called Spires in his effusive way. The pedestrian turned, surprise giving place to a scowl so ominous that it fitted his nickname. "Didn't expect to see you here. Thought you were away in the Islands or the U.S.A. Jump up!"
A man on foot could not well refuse. He found a place amid the packages and fell as silent as Bernice.
"What have you been doing since we last parted?" The driver turned his head with the inquiry.
"Just mucking about."
The sun was a red eye between the trees as they reached the homestead. Men on horseback were nearing from several directions, some with a packhorse, none without a dog. A tall man of fresh complexion and clipped grey moustache, and with a cockatoo on his shoulder, came out of the house. Peter explained the breakdown to him and that Spires had come along. Labosseer acknowledged the information and turned to the newcomers.
"Well, Spires, where did you blow in from? It's a long time since I saw you. Make yourself at home. I'll see you later." With this he gave attention to his other guest.
"Welcome to Gyang Gyang! Come inside and leave everything to Peter. You must be tired."
"Pretty Cocky! Pretty Cocky!" said the bird on Mr Labosseer's shoulder, craning towards Bernice, and working his tongue like a black marble in his beak.
"You must see if we can't make as good a job of you as we did of your father before you were born," said her master, leading the way towards the main abode, a collection of box-like slab rooms roofed with shingles and liberal as to verandas. "We've made a camp on the side veranda, as the orders are that you are to sleep in the open air."
"Pretty Cocky! Pretty Cocky!" screeched that person.
"You must acknowledge Cocky or we'll get no peace."
"Pretty Cocky," said Bernice rather timidly.
"And here's the Pup come to welcome you." A handsome black-and-tan sheep-dog, larger and fatter than any in the camp, sprang about her while Mr Labosseer smiled upon him. Grand old Pup, of delightfully genial and hospitable disposition, he loved his master, but the sun was in his soul for all humanity. Bernice fondled him and then he transferred his attentions to Spires.
"Oh, I say!" That gentleman laughed. "It's easy to see this is the Boss's dog. Kept for ornament and past services, too fat to work."
"Don't you believe it," said Labosseer. "There's not a dog on the place can come up to him in any direction."
"My word, yes!" said another gentleman, coming from the house. "Not a word against the Pup if you wish to remain at Gyang Gyang. A good man was sacked last week in broad daylight for suggesting that the greedy old brute had fleas."
Labosseer laughed heartily and introduced Mr Burberry. He was left with Spires while Labosseer and Bernice proceeded to the side veranda. Bernice found a neat little bed such as illustrated in shop catalogues among "Shearers' Requisites". The only looking-glass the place provided larger than four inches across was on one petrol case, and a lantern on another. Tarpaulin afforded ambush at two ends, and the side was open to a long view of plain and mountain, reflecting the setting sun.
"Make yourself at home and have a little rest. The Cook's bell won't go till dark. Come on, Cocky and Pup."
"Thank you," said Bernice faintly, and sank upon the bed as soon as she was alone. She was unstrung and weak and wished she had plenty of money so that she could go into proper hiding to hug those secret wounds by reason of which she was at Gyang Gyang. The effort of meeting the camp and responding to her godfather's friendly kindness suddenly seemed too much.
The men went to saddle-shed or huts and the abode was quiet. Bernice's glances travelled down the valley to Fossickers' Range where a nest of peaks rose against a half-moon gap, and the reflected light of the sinking sun was casting a glow of purple and gold and green, and the sky above, between the great white clouds that had gathered, was turquoise—the turquoise that inclines to green.
Soon there was a racket of dogs being chained for the night, their masters next to be heard in rigorous ablution in sliced petrol tins outside the Cook's caboose. Those that were to appear inside had an extra session with shaving tackle and clean shirts.
When there was a woman or a very geebung man guest, certain members of the camp ate with the Boss in the general room of the main abode. Other times the whole turn-out took their grub in the kitchen to minimize work. They had to be their own housemaids and butler in the Boss's quarters. The Cook adhered rigidly to his own domain in housework. That evening discussion of the new arrival mingled with the banging of kitchen utensils.
"Well, Joe, what's the new piece like?" Bill Jamieson inquired of the Cook.
"Didn't git much of a squint at her. Looks rather a pasty-faced tart to me, an' her hair's a funny kind of grey."
"Aw hell, is she an ancient bird?"
"No, her hair ain't goin' grey. I betcher wot yer like," contested Peter Stockham—Red Peter, as he was called, another kitchen-man. "Some people's thatch looks like that always."
An oldish pasty-faced tart with grey hair! This, of unique ash-blonde beauty which set her apart in the studios of the old world!
"She may have gone grey with this disease she's come here to be cured from, but she's no old 'un, make no mistake about that," maintained Red Peter.
"Well, don't yous all lose yer heads at wonst with a whole live female right amongst us in our own backyard," said old Beardy Tom Holden.
"It's a chance for you, Beardy; a real grown-up tart with grey hair; none of these flappers," said Bill.
"Too right it is, Beardy," said the Cook. "Give out a contract to someone to grub out a little of your beard and you'll be right in the race."
"Wot with the basic wage an' the high price of livin', might cost too much," said Beardy, grinning. "An' all you young sparks has got such a turr'ble drooth on yez for the pooty faces and pink cheeks of girls that I'd have Buckley's of gettin' in the runnin'."
"You're so fond of the skirts, it looks as if your old woman muster run away from you to get a little rest," said Red Peter.
"An' Black Peter's so flaming scared of 'em that his tart must have walloped him till he had to skedaddle," contributed the Cook.
"It does look like that. Perhaps he'll mow his beard now. What in thunder does he grow a thing like that for—him a young man, an' one of the nobs, an' all?"
"You can hang me if I know," said Red Peter. "He can please himself as far as I'm concerned. He might be goin' to stay up rabbitin' this winter and it will keep him warm."
"I reckon a young bloke who lets his beard sprout must be as mad as a snake," contended Bill.
"Perhaps he does it to scare off the tarts. It makes him look like a blooming wowser all right," suggested another.
The Boss and his associate, Oliver Burberry of Myall Downs, and Harvey Liddle, alias the Dude, were among those confronting Bernice after the Cook's old bullock-bell had sounded. Spires was also of this company. Burberry and the Dude acted as butlers.
"I reckon you want to be in training for the championship to get the grub from the kitchen here before it is stone cold," remarked the latter, racing with a great meat-dish heaped with two legs of mutton.
Bernice sat on one side of Labosseer and Spires on the other. Black Peter did not appear till the pudding was being served, and sat as far down the table as he could, where the light of the kerosene lamp did not disclose to Bernice the ferocious scowl summoned to his face by Spires's pleasantries.
After dinner the men engaged in a game of five hundred. Bernice retired to her bed on the veranda to be guarded by the blackbutts and snow-gums, fairy-like in their perfumed blossom in the dim light of the stars, and the Southern Cross so near and kind that it seemed as if it could be plucked from the sky.
Peter refused to play and buried himself behind a paper. When Burberry and Liddle withdrew, Spires told his host that he was on Monaro picking up stray lots of stock on commission. Black Peter had a different idea of his machinations. He had been associated with Spires before today. He was not going to leave him alone with Labosseer any longer than necessary. Labosseer remarked that the last time he had seen Spires he had been working on Bringadah, the station adjoining Jindilliwah.
"Christmas! I was surprised to drop on to Peter today," Spires observed.
"You didn't know he was here?"
"No. He kidded me he was going to the United States about three years ago."
"Oh well, there is a spare bed in Peter's room and you can turn in there when you feel like it. Peter is not likely to object to an old mate."
"I hope not," said Spires suavely.
"He can have the whole room and I'll bunk in the hut," said Peter so decisively that Labosseer thought it politic to be silent.
"I don't want to turn you out, Peter, old cobber. I don't snore so badly as that," said Spires with a chuckle. It was all one where he bunked. Peter could not escape so long as he remained on the runs. It elated Spires to find him at Gyang Gyang. He took it as an omen that his lucky star had risen just when his coffers were empty. "The luck of a dead Chinaman to find him here!" he was thinking.
Peter eluded him all next day. Labosseer took Spires with him out on the runs, and towards dark Peter sat on the step at the door of the men's hut and read an ancient Bulletin till some time after the Cook's bell had croaked. He then gobbled his meal and with a lantern continued to read.
"Cripes!" said Beardy, who had grown grey in the service of Sylvester Labosseer, and knew the history of every man who had come to Gyang Gyang for the last thirty years. "Ain't Peter Poole just dead scared of a skirt! He's like a dawg that's been cot in a trap. I often wonder what wuz the trap that frightened the guts outer Peter."
"Aw, there's nothing to be afraid of in women," said Bill Jamieson grandly. "I reckon if you treat 'em offhand they fall for you, an' there ain't enough stuff in their skirts to hide wot they are these times. Wot's Black Peter actin' like a stung goanna for now?"
Labosseer was thinking much the same. Peter had been with him off and on ever since he left school. Labosseer had a high opinion of his capabilities and principles; but Peter had left him for periods amounting in all to several years, and Labosseer felt that during these absences something must have befallen the young man to account for his kinks. Labosseer nevertheless had such affection for him and found him so useful that he always secured him when available. Peter should by now normally have been married or on the way to marriage, and according to Labosseer's estimation of him, coupled with his willingness to advance him, have been in a managerial billet; but Peter sat back in the traces, and though women's glances followed him with approval, he wore a beard and fled from them with an occasional curse, which Labosseer neither upheld nor understood, it not having consonance with his own experience.
He was pondering if Peter's present "stung goanna" attitude did not have something to do with the arrival of Bernice or Spires. Had Peter a streak of jealousy amounting to madness? He had discussed it with Oliver Burberry as they rode out on the second morning after Spires's arrival to inspect the latter's paddocks on Whiskey Plain.
It was pleasant for Labosseer to have that season a colleague of his own generation with whom to compare notes. Burberry's life and outlook approximated that of Labosseer, only Burberry had been lured by the jazz and tinsel of the city to retire in his prime to those kill-time and companionship delights which are irresistible to bushmen as a contrast with the dull monotony and isolation of long days on the sheep-runs.
A few months of days in the surf or at the zoo, the moving pictures or the theatre, and Burberry's soul wilted like frost-bitten pumpkin-vines under the realization that he was of no importance in Sydney and had nothing to do.
"Good lord! I was like a cockatoo in a cage," he explained to Labosseer. "There isn't a blasted thing to do in those beastly suburbs. Nothing but that infernal idleness that rots a man, and among a crowd of bally imbeciles who don't know a gummy ewe from a two-tooth wether hogget, or a heifer from a cow, or a store beast from a fat, when they see it."
"I always think it must be pretty dull."
"Dull is no name for it. It is hell and damnation. It's no use, a man who is used to handling sheep all his life, the gambling with them and the pleasure of seeing them all white and clean from the shears—even the worry about drought or floods and flies and strikes—he can't do without it, that's all, or if he tries to, he won't live long, I reckon. That's what gave me indigestion, I'm sure. A man can't live in the suburbs I reckon unless he's been reared to it and is flabby from the start. If he falls into a flabby way of lying about after he's been as hard as nails, he's a goner."
To resist premature senility and to obey his physician Burberry had to return to the land.
"I'll put you in the way of securing a lease and a flock, and put you through your paces so that next year you'll be qualified for a job of rouseabout," Labosseer had said to him.
"Do you mean it?" Burberry had shouted at Labosseer; and there he was at Gyang Gyang the summer of Bernice's advent, handling sheep like any station-hand, only with a zest that brought him from his bed at 5 a.m. singing like a trombone, and took him through a twelve-hour day more like a boy than the colts, sustained with satisfaction to have escaped the purgatory of being idle and of no importance.
"What Peter needs is a good love affair," Burberry responded to Labosseer on that subject. "He's beginning to turn in on himself and go sour."
"I've often wondered if that wasn't it, myself. But he seems to have taken a dead set against women."
"Lots of young fellows think they have till some girl wings them. Peter might come a crasher any day now."
"I don't think he'll crash over poor little Mona Drew, though it's pitiful to see her look at him, like a kiddy at a bottle of lollipops."
"No, but we've got your goddaughter now. Some fun is sure to happen. Might be good for her, too, and it will make a break for us all looking on. A place needs a woman about it."
"I wish something like that might happen. There's no young man I know that I'd sooner go tiger-hunting with than Peter. I've never found him poling on any other man, or shady in principles, but every now and again he throws up everything and deserts. Nothing seems to stop him at such times, and it looks as if he's ripening for a break-away now. It irritates me, a flaw like that. There seems to be no reasonable explanation."
Spires could have furnished explanation had he been a psychologist, or release had he been a Christian. But Spires was an opportunist—and Peter increased in crankiness.
On the third morning of Bernice's presence, while the men were at breakfast in the kitchen, and she snug in her bed, a violent clap of thunder accompanied by blinding lightning shook the house and fused the telephone connection. A torrent of rain instantaneously poured down the valley, continuing for an hour or two so that the men remained in camp. Spires, efficiently protected by a great oilskin coat with armadillo shoulder reinforcements, and borrowed from Burberry, ran his quarry to earth under Burberry's car in the shearing-shed.
"Well, Pete, old dingo, I've not had the chance of a yarn with you so far. I didn't know you at first glance the other day with that horse's tail glued on your dial."
Peter clattered his tools savagely. If the horse-hair was ineffectual as a disguise there was no need longer to submit to its disfigurement.
"I'm hanged if I should have been sure of you when you turned round, only for your headlights, but there's no mistaking them."
Peter reflected with increasing rage that there was no way of dyeing his eyes or growing whiskers on them. Black goggles did not appeal to him. Spires rattled on.
"As a matter of fact, I'm as lucky as a dead Chinaman to find you here."
"I reckon the only luck a Chinaman would have near you would be to be dead," growled Peter.
"I'm in a bit of a hole and I'd rather you give me a leg out of it than ask a stranger."
Peter was unresponsive. Spires's latest turf transactions made it happier for him to be away from Sydney in places like Gyang Gyang or Blackfellow's Hollow.
"If you could let me have a hundred quid for three months..."
"Haven't got a hundred threepenny bits."
"But you could raise a hundred easy enough...three months at ten per cent. I'm stony motherless broke and it will be to your interest to raise it. You can do it easier than I can."
"You're a thundering sight smarter at taking people down than I am. You could raise a blister on a camp-oven. I'm only the mug that pays."
"Here's a fine chance for you to pay now, in consideration of which I'll overlook the mug business."
Peter arose from under the car and walked out into the downpour without a coat. Spires accompanied him as if it was the most natural promenade. Peter inspected the dog kennels cut in the hillside and roofed with logs and earth. He deepened the drains round one or two that were in danger of being flooded, then turned his back on Spires and strode away to the protection of the Cook's company. Spires's lips closed in a thin line and his eyes glinted and narrowed as he watched him.
"All right, old cock," he muttered. "Gyang Gyang is a safe neighbourhood for me till you shell out."
Heavy showers continued all day so that the men were jubilant concerning results that would follow on the burnt country. It was a day of pottering in the woolshed with the cars or pack-saddles and other harness, or of harassing the Cook in the kitchen.
Spires improved the idle hours with Bernice. She was confined to the general room and, not having a bedroom, had no place of escape. Any being clad in youth and femininity afforded entertainment to Spires, with further hope of sport. The only women who had terrors for him were the ascetic or intellectual. Bernice withheld all leads as to what or who she was. He could not be sure if she were clever or merely modern. There was always the chance that the latter rewarded pursuit. Some of them made life juicy without regrets or entanglements—just come and help yourself and when the game was played no hang-overs or biliousness.
"You will find life at a camp like this very different from what you have been used to," he ventured.
"Life is life everywhere, and that at Gyang Gyang particularly appeals to me for the present."
"But not for always?"
"That would be a great deal to expect of any sort of life."
"Too true, it would, but I have known livelier spots than this."
To this she did not reply. The talk fell apart again. Spires had rarely found a woman who couldn't be complimented on her beauty, be she never such a gorgon, and the cruder the compliment the better it seemed to vouch for the sincerity of the author.
"Coming from Paris, it is a wonder you have not cut your hair. You remind me of an old painting—that type of beauty, I mean." He had picked that up somewhere. He knew nothing of paintings old or new, or of beauty beyond that on chocolate boxes.
"You are discerning," said Bernice gravely. She puzzled him. Was she satirical, or was it possible that other people had told her that? Could it be an established fact? Were there people in cities—foreign cities where they had queer notions—who considered her a beauty? Her hair and skin had a strange silver sheen, and now that he was put to it, he recalled that her narrow face had seemed much better-looking the second morning than at first glance, and looked better now than yesterday. Would it go on improving and tantalizing a man till he found himself so firmly on the hook that he wouldn't want to get off? Whew! An interesting possibility!
The rain ceased at sundown but the air remained thunderously hot and moist. At bed-time a strange ground wind arose that roared like the sea all night long in the tree-tops without causing any destruction. The world of Up Above was wrapped in a dense white robe and at daybreak there came a gentle but saturating drizzle. Men and horses melted into it, hoof-beats magnified on the hollow basaltic ridges. Occasionally the mist turned golden but the sun was defeated all day.
Next morning the men all disappeared at daybreak again, leaving no one but Bernice and the Cook in camp. Bernice lay pensively watching the beauty of the rising sun dispersing the veils in the valleys till nearly eight o'clock, when a buzzing and droning made her fear an attack by bees. She called the Cook to her assistance. He bashed about the general room with his hardy tea-towel which at its inauguration had been clean, and closed the doors and windows.
"They ain't bees, miss. Blowflies, that's what they are. Beastly rotten stinkin' cows—I'm blamed if I can ever make out why they was created. Cripes! with the sun on top of a muggy day like this, an' the sheep wringin' wet, there'll be some fun, I reckon."
This prediction was verified at sundown when the men returned. Comparing notes welded the report. In all the paddocks from Whiskey Creek to Fossickers' Range, and Wild Horse Plain to Eagle Hill and Whipstick to Goonara, the sheep had been struck.
After dinner Labosseer awakened the telephone and compared notes around the immediate world from Peppercorn to Kosciusko, calling Adaminaby, Jindabyne, and as far afield as Currangorambla, Yarrangobilly and Kiandra. The storm had been patchy, he learnt. Certain tracts, though adjoining, were still thirsty, while towards the head of the rivers two inches had fallen. Some were immune from flies so far.
Then he called Gundagai to know if there had been rain Down Below to match the good fall Up Above. His triumph in his grass being burnt in readiness in a measure outweighed the plague of flies.
"Nothing but a scud Down Below," he said, turning to Burberry. Then back to the mouthpiece. "More than an inch here, and we had just burnt off about a thousand acres. It will respond marvellously now. If it dries up quickly we can soon handle those sheep that have been struck. I've often seen the fly in them one day, and gone the next, at this time of year. Yes, the rain is wonderful. It is to be hoped there will be a good fall Down Below before long."
There were further heavy showers during the night, and morning broke muggily. The men were off at the first streak of light armed with quart pots, tucker bags and oilskin coats and each carrying a pair of shears in a sheath, a pot of fly-dressing slung in twine or calico or protruding from saddle-bag, and attended by every dog on the place. It was a big day for all concerned, and a heavy thunder-shower during the afternoon put matters farther on the wrong side of the fence.
"I never saw such a mess," Black Peter reported of Eagle Hill and the Ram Paddock.
"Those old ewes I have on Whiskey Plain are struck on the shoulders, late-shorn and all as they are," interposed Burberry.
"Yes," added Poole. "Some of my lots already have streaks worked right down under the belly."
"It's the same on Fossickers'," chimed in the Dude, "and Beardy reckons it's worse on Wild Horse Plain."
"I know, I saw it myself on Black Plain and Whipstick and Block Twenty-five," said the Boss.
That evening the telephone was in use from six o'clock till bedtime. Sylvester S. Labosseer was the doyen of practical pastoralists on the snow leases. Son of Simon Labosseer, a splendid young Dutchman of good family, who in the fifties had established a home and family at Eueurunda not so many leagues from Gyang Gyang, he had been born on the Monaro plateau, where the family had remained till the mother had removed them downstairs to Coolooluk, upon the passing of her husband in his early middle age. Sylvester therefore knew the country in and out and round about, and many sought his advice or urged others to seek it.
Half a dozen times that evening he gave comfort to those unacquainted with the region. "Yes," he was heard to admit, "the flies are the one drawback of this country. It may be useless to try to treat your sheep individually. If these showers continue it looks like dipping. Though I want to avoid that myself, for if it keeps on raining it sometimes takes the poison down to the skin and results in a heavy percentage of losses, or in the wool coming off."
Again it was, "Yes. I use one-in-twenty for swabs. One-in-fifteen is too strong. It might bring the wool off. I'm treating my own in the open. I have no dipping plant here, for one thing. Treating them in the open doesn't cut the sheep up so much, but you can't be expected to manage if you are new to this country, and of course I have a wonderful dog to hold the sheep. Never saw anything like him, though he's an old dog now...Don't mention it. It's no trouble at all. I'm very glad to tell you anything I can. I'd go over and see what I could do only I'm in the same plight myself. We're at it hard while ever there's daylight."
That year, Up Above and all the rough ranges, by which it was reached like stairs, were literally infested with jumbucks driven up by the drought Down Below. From Coonamble and Connabarabran, and Narrabi and Hay and Junee and Wagga and Narrandera and Coota and such places they came to the haven and heaven at the head of the Murrumbidgee and Snowy. Sylvester Labosseer that season had charge of a hundred thousand head or more on combined leases under the supervision of Gyang Gyang station. He was manned lightly too, not at all for emergency. Others were in like situation and without Labosseer's experience.
A generation ago Labosseer, who had retained his inborn love of the area, had secured large tracts of the snow country through improvement and other leases at an upset price after there had been no bids at auction. That was in the pre-fencing days when men depended on the natural boundaries of water-courses and watersheds. Before the telephone and motor-car the country had been infested with duffers and dingoes, hard to work, at the end of everywhere and peopled only by two or three dozen intrepid settlers. Neither had stock been so valuable then, and Labosseer's acquaintances prophesied that he had secured a white elephant, but the very breath of those plains gave him joy.
They were worth what he had paid in aesthetic pleasure. He had a whole school of creeks of his own, which he adored. Among them, as a houri in a harem, his favourite was Dinnertime, veiled in perfumed heaths, and which had received its name because he loved to eat his midday snack on its banks, filling his quart pot from its crystal fountain to make his tea. When introducing the runs to visitors, if they expressed thirst he invariably advised them to wait till reaching this stream. Then he would dismount and present a pannikin of the peerless fluid: "There, the water from this creek is colder and tastes better than any on Monaro, and that is saying a good deal." A connoisseur in water was Sylvester Simon Labosseer, as those in vintage areas may be in wines. He liked, in this connection, to tell the story of an English jackeroo he once had, who returned at sundown complaining of thirst. "When the blooming ass had ridden all day amid the best water in the whole world he said, 'I didn't have a tumbler or anything to drink out of.' What do you think of that for infernal foolishness?" Labosseer would supply his own comment: "It makes me think there must be something wrong with education in those old places."
Labosseer had ringbarked thousands of acres and fenced against dogs. In time, stock had increased in value, the duffers and murderers had died out, the dingoes decrease. All that was left of the homes of the hardy original settlers were a few Kentish cherry, hawthorn, elder- or gooseberry-bushes amid the scrub, or a mound of stones where chimneys had held roaring fires of logs to keep them warm o' snowy nights.
Since the post-war boom in wool, and the consequent overstocking Down Below, there was brisk competition as relief country for the limited area, so well fenced and ringbarked and workable as it had been made by pioneer foresight. Labosseer was no longer considered a fool for his prudence. He was decried as a monopolist who hogged an area as big as an English county while other poor devils had their tongues hanging out for relief country.
The Cook's fire was invaded by boilers of fly-dressing and, the Cook being crowded off his hearth, Black Peter made a fire at the cowyard and took his long toms and bottles there under the superintendence of Cocky. The kitchen was left to the Boss and Burberry. Poole believed his decoction of arsenic of lanoline and bluestone to be infallible; the Boss swore by turps, whale oil, and kerosene as being more emollient than bluestone, and Oliver Burberry's specific was largely used car-oil. They were all as busy as boys with worms and fishing tackle.
"Great day tomorrow! We've got enough fly-juice to conquer the flies from here to Narrabi," gleefully announced Burberry at bed-time.
"Couldn't you do something to destroy the flies permanently, as the mosquitoes were exterminated at Panama?" inquired Bernice, who had volunteered, and with Spires was putting the Boss's and Burberry's ointments in a heterogeneous collection of containers.
"Tom tried something one summer at Jindilliwah," said Labosseer. There was a general laugh. Evidently a staple joke. Beardy arose in defence.
"I reckon if everyone had done wot I done, it woulda worked." He turned to Bernice. "A bullock busted through eatin' too much blue couch and trefoil so I took the insides outer him and filled him with fly-juice, made a boat of him and hung karersene-tins of juice all about on the trees with some of the insides in to make it nice and tasty for the blowflies. Lordy, they was dead knee-deep for yards around that bullock, an' I reckon if everyone done the same it would soon thin the flies. It could be easy worked by puttin' a bit of rabbit in the juice to make it hum."
Next morning Bernice was wakened from deep sleep while the Southern Cross still hung in front of her as if it could be plucked by hand from the tree-tops. The clank of spurs and the boots of the men on the boards raised on piles sounded as on a wooden drum. That coterie was unacquainted with lie-abeds whose need for sleep had to be considered. Bernice peeped out to see horses, men, and dogs departing ere the sun had shot the valley mists with rose and gold and turned the dewdrops on the tussocks and flowers to strings of gems. She waited impatiently for the Cook's summons that morning. She had an appetite and a desire to meet the day.
There was a supply of rain-water in the brave collection of cans and tubs set out against washing-day, and Bernice had been reared in the notion that rain-water was unexcelled for washing the hair. Here, in the privacy of twenty miles north and south, with sunlight like a spiritual cocktail, was an unrivalled opportunity to bring her ash-blonde mane to its proper sheen.
She strolled about during the forenoon making acquaintance with her surroundings. She found Gyang Gyang Creek, which gushes straight out of the hill behind the camp, and swerves under the peak where white gums and mountain-ash grow tall and stately. She discovered for herself that in their saplinghood these trees are graceful as lilies, with spear-pointed tops which in maturity spread out like fans. She found again the perfumed tea-tree heath with a tiny starry blossom and leaves as fragrant as the lemon-gum. She culled it to send to her father, but, as with so many of its compatriots, its glory was evanescent. To enter its paradise one must tread where it grows by the crystal waters where the rivers are made on the roof of the continent. She breathed the glory of a sparkling January day after rain amid the tall timber where there is no humus, no reek of stale perfumes, but all so delicately, aromatically fresh that it is less a perfume than an odour, less an odour than a breath. She sat on a grey boulder in a world of blossoming snow-gums making a heaven of perfume as if all the honey in all the flowers had been distilled into the sparkling air.
All the men, even Messrs Labosseer and Burberry, grandfathers and prosperous gentlemen, had concocted mixtures in tin cans and gone off into this arboreal paradise before sunrise to—kill flies! And they lived here in this queer camp a life that approximated that of boy scouts out to play Red Indians on a grand scale.
Bernice stretched her arms above her head and drew a long breath and emitted a little laugh. The kookaburras laughed with her. The magpies soliloquized about it plentifully. "This place is not real, that's what is the matter. I could almost believe I had passed out without knowing it."
A feeling of well-being was hers, the result of normal sleep and appetite, which she had not known for some time. London and Paris and old wounds and sordid mistakes seemed far and far away, and comfortingly unreal.
"Thank God," she breathed, and she had forgotten to offer such thanks for years. "Thank God for the kookaburras and magpies, for the sun and trees and whole world of blossom, and especially for the tea-tree and the creek, and all this wide and heavenly country with no awful people to drive one to distraction."
It was a wonderful day.
"I'm hungry and should like to wash my head," she announced at the kitchen door.
The Cook beamed upon her, his cigarette glued to his lower lip. "I'll soon have yer dinner, miss, and while you're eatin' it I'll heat a nice can of rain-water for you."
In the afternoon the hair cascaded over the back of a home-made deck-chair on the western veranda and dried to its unique sheen, which was not silver and not gold but something rarely between, and beyond the appraisement of Gyang Gyang. Fine and silky, it plaited closely, loosed it was a real old-fashioned mermaid head of hair, such as brought a girl of yesterday more admirers than she could cope with—so small a thing can turn the scale in sex attraction.
A woman with long hair today, if she is elderly, is dated and looks as frowsy to her sisters as does a man with a patriarchal beard; but there lingers unextirpated in masculine psychology a sentimentality that makes long hair still bespeak the old-fashioned amenable femininity which supplanted native womanliness. With the foundation of long hair a man can still conjure up a combination of childish innocence and mental deficiency which his particular ego has ever craved and ever tired of with incredible speed.
Spires, like many practising varietists, was incurably sentimental about good pure women unspotted by the world. By a contretemps he returned to camp early. So did Peter because of an accident with his fly-dressing. Peter arrived first and, coming round the corner noiselessly on the carpet of snow-daisies and tussocks under the blossoming trees, was startled to immobility. A crimson flush crept up under his jet-black beard. He felt convicted of a sacrilege to see what he saw. He turned away without a second glance from so intimate and thrilling a spectacle. So much for spontaneous innate delicacy.
He quickened his pace to find some fresh fly-dressing, thence to his horse and back on to the run at a hard gallop to escape. So much for the complexes of experience.
Bernice continued to recline drowsily in the sunlight, her thoughts on the man who at sight of her had taken to his horse. She was wondering what colour would best reproduce the colour of his eyes. It was incredible that they could be so blue as she remembered them, but always in reality they seemed bluer. Could they ever be captured with any justice? They were like the blue of the Swiss lakes, needing to be seen to be believed.
Spires came round the corner just after Peter had disappeared. He stood immobile even as Peter had done, transpierced by a delicious emotion promising better than he had experienced in a considerable time. He wanted to bury his face in those grey-green-gold-silver meshes. No bewilderment here.
He turned quickly in his tracks and approached from the other side. "Oh, excuse me, I see that I intrude," he said, affecting hesitation.
"Not at all," murmured Bernice. "I've only been washing my head in the wonderful rain-water."
"How marvellous to see such a head of hair these days," breathed Spires with greedy glances, and estimating that the woman was young, probably not more than twenty-four or twenty-five. "I think the girls have lost their womanliness by cutting off their hair, and as for the old birds—if they aren't unholy frights!" He and Peter in different ways were both as unmodern as a gridiron.
"I can't see how a woman's womanliness depends on the length of her hair," indifferently responded Bernice. "I retain my locks because I find them useful, but they are a heap of work to keep in proper condition."
She had a long line of neck and shoulder which made her beautiful to sophisticated eyes, even with her hair parted from nape to forehead and coiled in bumps over each ear. It went with her narrow oval face and straight nose. She had found she could achieve distinction by retaining her wealth of peculiar hair. She was a beauty in an unusual way, as attested by fifty amateur and professional studies of her gathering dust in London and Parisian studios; but it took the unsheafing of her hair for Gyang Gyang to suspect something of this.
Spires seated himself on the edge of the veranda and boldly noted that her cheeks had the same sheen as her hair. "Don't you want someone to brush it for you?" he volunteered. "I always do my mother's. I'm an adept."
"Thank you, but you are too late. I must plait it now," she said languidly.
He wanted to look in her eyes, also of rare tint, but she would never glance directly at him. She veiled her eyes with her thick white lids and the long silver-gold lashes which gave a virginal, withdrawn impression. She would not be drawn into talk and Spires sat quietly so that she would not hurry away. He had been following Peter and guessed why he had balked and bolted. He chortled underground. Simple, softy Peter! He would be worshipping from afar. The juxtaposition of Peter and this girl added zest to an idea of Spires's. Peter's humble adoration might prove a lever.
At dinner the men were all very clean, the stench of the wet sheep having made strenuous and complete methods necessary. Peter, Spires, and the Dude shone from their soles to their crowns. Peter was wearing a collar, though ordinarily he depended upon the ambush of his beard and the dim light.
To be sure that the girl was real, he indulged in one of the swift comprehensive glances of men of his training that can discern minute objects at incredible distances. Could it be true that those plaited coils could spray into such a mane as the fabulous and pictured mermaids combed in sea caves? Bernice looked at him repeatedly to be sure of the terrific blue of his eyes. Their glances met. Peter was so startled by this that he early escaped to the murk of the hut to collect himself. There he thought of her on the veranda bowered in hair. He had learnt from a remark dropped by the Cook that Spires had sat and magged to her. He felt instinctively that there was danger in a female who would sit with her hair flowing and be talked to by Spires. He must not think of her at all. The adjacent thought was Spires. He longed to punch that fellow's head. What did the flaming cow want hanging around Gyang Gyang? To bleed him, Peter, of course. Spires was a snaky devil who would to anything from punting to card tricks to get money without working for it. At all events he was not going to get any hundred quid out of him this time...but...then...a hundred pounds might be well spent to get rid of Spires at present. Peter was not going to part up, though, unless he could be sure of being shut of the cow.
After dinner the Boss straightened his tired back and went to the telephone. He could spring off his horse, and with the aid of Pup to hold the sheep, ring them in the open and catch an affected animal in one hand while carrying his shears and dressing in the other, and still make as good a tally as any man except the youthful cracks, but his years began to leave him weary after a big day. He called Gundagai first to know if there had been rain Down Below. Thus he kept his finger on the pulse of the stock-market. No man was cannier at getting ahead of the game in unloading his stock before a drought or in buying additional lots to eat his grass ere prices rose in a good season. He knew by these reports where a penny or a pound would go on to a beast or was likely to come off, and had the machinery for acting accordingly.
The day's report from most of the runs was that the flies had wrought lively havoc. The telephone rang with demands for extra men to meet the emergency. From Tumbarumba to Tumut and Bool Bool and Coolooluk to Currangorambla and Yarrangobilly men must be had as swiftly as telephone could summon and motor-car transport.
"Twenty-five bob a day—that's pretty stiff," reached the ears of Spires, deep in a game of poker with Burberry and the Dude.
"Haven't a hope of getting anyone for less," said Yarrango.
"If I must, I must," said Labosseer. "We haven't got the plant for dipping here."
He rang off, but the bell called him again immediately. He placed the receiver to learn that a fierce fire was raging on Boocal, one of the Labosseer places near Wagga. Ten miles of fencing were gone, as well as some sheep, and there was a struggle to save the homestead. The overseer had wired his anxiety, for the occupant, one of Labosseer's sons, was in New Zealand on his honeymoon. Labosseer turned to Burberry.
"Find Peter and ask him to come to me at once, please." Burberry flung down his cards and hurried outside, returning in a few minutes with Peter. He would not glance at Bernice, who was reading a paper.
"What state is my car in?"
"It can't be put in working order till we get that new part on Friday."
"That's no good to me. I want to start to Wagga now. Ten miles of fencing gone—worth a hundred and twenty pounds a mile or more." He completed the information of the telegram, and what he had done about men.
"I'm all right here," said Peter. "It's about a car. Mr Burberry's is not safe as it stands."
"Mine is at your disposal," said Spires quickly. "I was on the point of volunteering for work among the sheep. Peter can tell you I'm no new-chum—how about it?" His eyes were hard upon Peter.
"If you are not too soft and townified to stick to it," said Peter flatly.
Spires joined gaily in the laugh at his expense. "I'll have to prove that. I might be more useful to Mr Labosseer with my car."
"If you would run me as far as Bool Bool, I can get a car there, and you could come back and pitch in here, where you would be really useful."
Mr Labosseer went out for a final confabulation with Peter. Spires went like a shot to action. He was favourably impressing his host and Burberry by the way he filled the breach both with the car and in handling sheep.
"The infernal cow, just showing off till he gets himself wormed in," thought Peter, but he was biased. Spires rivalled either Black or Red Peter in speed and capability, only that instead of hard slogging he tried get-rick-quick gambles.
He primed his car, elated that everything seemed to be coming his way. A little beyond Goonara they overtook a car going down from Adaminaby. There was a spare seat in this to which Mr Labosseer transferred, releasing Spires for the fly war at Gyang Gyang.
Next forenoon three men came and were drafted out to Beardy, Peter, and the Dude. The whole turn-out was on the way to the fray at the first streak of day and the men returned each night at dark tired and dirty, reeking of the sheep, and with dogs footsore from the burnt tussocks. They ate with the Cook, saw to the necessary chores, and turned in without any social recreation.
"You just wait till we get past this spin, Miss Gaylord, and I'll teach you to ride so that you can get about, and it won't be so dull for you," said Burberry.
"As soon as we can take a breather, I'll show you the country in my car," offered Spires.
"I don't care much for cars: they whiz past all the pretty bits, and I just love to look and look."
Spires accompanied Burberry to the Whiskey Plains flocks and Burberry's golden opinions of his assistant's efficiency reverberated through the camp. Spires took fat satisfaction in hearing Burberry sound his praises. It was good that a girl with such a sheen on her hair should know what a dog he was. And he was earning twenty-five bob a day and his tucker, and a comfortable roof over him, and Peter's new bed under him, and safely hidden from pressing devils of Sydney. Things were none so droughty for Ced Spires.
Bernice's persistent unawareness of him was provoking to Spires and reassuring to Black Peter. Spires sought her attention. Peter continually thought about the immunity that a hundred pounds might purchase. Bernice's meek deportment, her silent self-effacement, added to her old-fashioned tresses, showed Peter a lamb endangered by a wolf. He was away off the bull's-eye. That demure, reserved exterior hid character and experience quite capable of exposing Spires as a crude galliard, valiant only with barmaids and bush servant-girls.
Peter grew so that he could look at her and make sure that her hair was a remarkable tint and not going grey. He liked to watch her talking to Burberry, whose winning manner could sometimes stir her to a smile, when Peter saw that her teeth had the prettiest little points and a pearly gleam like her eyebrows. The responsibility for her, as well as everything else, had devolved upon Peter when Labosseer was not in camp, so he lingered behind the others one morning and remarked, "I hope you are not lonely, Miss Gaylord. It's unfortunate that Mr Labosseer had to clear out just as you came. I have an old horse that is safe for a beginner and you can have a go on him as soon as I find a minute."
"Are you sure he wouldn't throw me off? Can I pet this one?" she asked, to detain him a minute or two because of the colour of his eyes.
The Cook was her stand-by in the first strange days when she was left entirely to her own resources. Mr Labosseer had ordered that the patient was to be well fed and have plenty of sunlight, and not to be left to loneliness. The Cook was extolled as the best chef from Cooma to Gundagai, or cursed as a rotten, useless, stinkingly dirty, wasteful cow, depending upon the angle of observation, the Cook's form, or how unrelieved the monotony of camp existence. But he was a good man and a kind companion to Bernice. He fed her on custards and chops, and on trout that he ran out and tickled from Gyang Gyang Creek; and when she saw that his apparatus was an unwieldy camp-oven and several blackened saucepans and boilers supplemented by kerosene-tins and billies hung on pot-hooks above logs on a hearth devoid of even hobs, she hailed him as an artist of resource and courage.
Bernice was at present weak and defeated beyond her associates' realizing. Shrinking from the society she had known in Europe, hiding from that which offered in Australia, she yet needed some companionship, and the simple friendliness of the Cook was most salutary. He confided to her his own family affairs without being guilty of curiosity in hers and was a factor in her return to purpose. Finding that she was not "stuck-up", he called her down to the kitchen for morning and afternoon tea. In the manner of the aimless and stricken she would linger, cheered by his chat of things as they appeared to him and his kindly estimation of bosses and fellow workmen. Her gaze rested so vaguely on his appointments, even on the formidable tea-towels, that it was free from intrusion.
"There's one thing about her, she ain't stuck-up or a stickybeak," he observed to Beardy.
"No, an' she don't put on airs when you say things, like that ole girl at the pub, who wouldn't let anyone say anything about blowflies. Reckoned they made her sick."
One day Bernice came from writing a letter. She had to keep in touch with the world by assuring her father that she was all right. She was using a drawing pencil and an unlined writing-pad. The sun was high above the sallies and snow-gums, sending a white shaft down the chimney and another through a rent in its shoulder.
As a little thing of four or five Bernice had been wont to lie on her stomach and draw men and animals of action and character. When still in her teens, and sent abroad by public subscription because of her promise, she met other budding geniuses contemptuous of her ability to catch resemblance: merely photographic, they said. She had succumbed to the fashion of portraying things seen in terms of things imagined—many of them evidently in nightmares or licentious orgies. She had for a time been infected with "modern" ideas, which had at least shaken her out of mere convention and the frustrations of an inartistic and middle-class environment. But the human mind will have to be recharged before the story-teller can dispense with the story, the composer eliminate melody, the singer triumph without a voice, or the artist ignore resemblance to outlines recognizable by the laity.
As naturally as breathing she fell to limning the Cook with his cigarette on his lip and his black felt hat with the bleached, shredded band. As she progressed she found the atmosphere of Gyang Gyang leading her back to first principles. The jargon of Parisian ateliers would avail her naught on the snow leases. Of small advantage there to picture the Gyang Gyang Cook at an angle to win encomiums in Chelsea or Montmartre unless the gentleman should also be recognizable by himself as the person thus listed on Labosseer's payroll and by all his mates that rode the sheep pads from Burnt Hut Range to the Bimberies and Bringenbrong, and back again from Murderers' Cave to Dinnertime and Bullock Hill!
The Cook peeped over her shoulder. "I'm blamed if it ain't me as large as life!" he exclaimed. "Christ! it's better than a photo I had taken in Tumbarumba last Christmas. Cripes, I'd be obliged if I could have that to give my tart!"
It would have been easy and lazy to satisfy the Cook and his mates. A higher inspiration thrilled Bernice. She must picture the Cook to the approval and delight of Gyang Gyang and Goonara—all she had absorbed in Europe was meretricious should she fail so basically: but she must also produce work to challenge her peers and superiors all round the globe from Etaples to Woodstock, N.Y. To combine the adoration of the unsophisticated and the admiration of the cognoscenti is the problem of the gifted.
"You wait," said Bernice, uplifted by the Cook's delight. "I'll do you a really nice one for your young lady as a souvenir of all your kindness to me, but you must promise me you'll tell no one. I'll work while they're away in the day."
"I don't need that. I'll never paint again," Bernice had said of a large ungainly package which her father had placed with her luggage.
"You wait, my dear," the little man had replied, "till you get up with Mr Labosseer in that wonderful air: everything will come right." Had not he himself, a weedy delicate youth, been taken by one of the Labosseers to the family base at Coolooluk and there restored to health?
The mailman had had to consider how to handle that package. Black Peter and Ced Spires and all the camp had been curious as to its contents and amused by its proportions. Bernice left the Cook whistling as he kneaded his brownie, and found herself with a buoyancy of soul that had been absent many moons as she hastened to the parcel. It had been compiled with judgment. Her father had sought the aid of an artist who knew Bernice's work and she was furnished to begin that very hour. She returned to the Cook and spent the afternoon in composing a bush interior.
Next morning she awakened with a feeling of something splendid in store.
The men were clouting about at four thirty preparing for their unrelaxing day. She waited impatiently for their disappearance till she could begin work.
A miracle had happened. The creative urge had replaced that searing humiliation which had dried up the springs of inspiration. Here it was welling up again like water in a drought-blighted plain.
She regarded her white toes with satisfaction in their shapeliness as she put them out on the weathered sheep-pen slats that boarded the veranda. A tiny sleek lizard ran past with action swift as a fish and rested upon the front door. It turned its dainty head and regarded her bird-like, a choice detail in decoration on the living grey of the mountain-ash which had stood the burning summer suns, the fierce rain and hail and snow for nearly thirty years without paint and without repair. Bernice noted its handsome grain, in one slab straight as ruled lines, in another the familiar water-waves. The small subjects of Australian hand-painted calendars, in bird and brush and flower were spread about her, embroidering the grand outline of blue ranges and wide rolling country with no other camp or homestead for miles in any direction.
The sun rose over Fossickers' Range at the nest of peaks in Half Moon Gap flinging aside the veils in the hollows and uncovering Gyang Gyang Creek writhing over its dark bed like a streak of gunmetal between the tussocks.
How to capture something of it, combining the big thing with its unique and matchless detail!
Existence was reilluminated. There was relish in the ordinary machinery of physical being.
As she awaited the men's departure she made a list of requisites and cogitated upon what combinations would produce the pastel-shades of the world of blackbutt and snow-gum. The gums were blue-grey with all the young leaves cut from galvanized iron. The blackbutts (or sallies) were of polished gunmetal streaked with apple- and cowslip-green where summer was bringing off the old bark.
There were those who maintained that this brilliant atmosphere could not be painted. That was typical of the unknown. The Australian atmosphere could not be painted, it was too brilliant; the life could not be convincingly told in fiction, it was too monotonous and lacking in that kind of action which the elementary reader calls plot. The need was for painters and novelists, as well as the ungifted, to break out of the established rut. A way must be found to suggest this different atmosphere both in picture and story—a fresh contribution must be made to technique. She set her shoulders to a surging inspiration which sprang up and away with her like a blood-horse newly saddled in spring.
She walked out in the dew-drenched tussocks under the gums standing like snow queens in perfumed bridal dress—never was such colossal yet honeyed loveliness for miles, and miles, and miles. She was out of herself with joyous excitement.
The long, long view of valley and mountain steadied her. There was something sublime in letting the sight roam to its full length, something restful and ease-giving in glances travelling in beauty till they evaporated in distance. She could never have enough of that free distance. She stood for a long time filling her soul with beauty, her attitude a prayer—a double prayer, of thanksgiving and of supplication to be worthy.
"This place is not real. It is surely only artistic fantasy. It can't be real. I must have fallen into a trance!" she exclaimed as the magpies began their morning soliloquies and the gyang gyangs flew past with genteelish screech in air that sparkled like soap bubbles. "I need two more arts—music and words—to give any fair idea of its difference." She was tormented by the gap that must ever lie between conception and achievement in art.
"This place isn't real, it's only a dream," she reiterated to the Cook when she went for breakfast.
"You'd think it was pretty real if you was out all day belting flies for your natural." He grinned indulgently.
"But that's what makes it unreal! A hundred thousand little jumbucks careering on the plains carrying wool for the dudes of Piccadilly, each with a clip in its ear to show its ownership and a travelling T on its little rump; and a dozen strong capable men suited to any hardship and emergency, brave gentlemen really, riding away each day at dawn like cavalry with a pair of shears instead of a sword in a scabbard, one ration of food and another of muck for killing flies on the saddle-bow. The suits of Bond Street and Saville Row and Unter den Linden, and the Bois de Bologne and Fifth Avenue on the hoof. It must be a dream!"
The Cook was a chum of the first water in those initial days. He never wearied of or laughed at her amateur questions about the life and landscape around her, and he never "stuffed" her, a form of humour rampant among bushmen towards pommies and townies.
Which is the more alluring, the art of the story-teller or that of the portraitist? What man so busy that he will not linger a moment for a story? Is there a man, whether potentate or pot-herd, immune to the allure of seeing himself or his acquaintances grow under the pencil?
The Cook looked at Bernice with a friendly grin. She responded with a smile of well-being. They were as happy as scout cubs with pop-guns. The Cook improvised an easel from the frame of a big deck-chair. A canvas was stretched and placed. A sheet of iron was removed from the chimney in the interests of lighting. The Cook set to work on his brownie; Bernice set to work on the Cook and his pots swinging in the shafts of sunlight falling like searchlights through various apertures, and on the tiny lizard like a signature in the corner, alert for prey and wary of the giants.
As her medium responded to her and her model enthused, purpose took form—to delight the folk of Gyang Gyang and bring to those of Piccadilly and elsewhere who wore finest wool a knowledge of this world where some of it summered. Here were ten or twelve men with facial outlines deeply marked by exposure, each with a quality unknown among the massaged English faces womanishly rubicund and unlined, each a separate challenge to an artist of character and originality. Here were horses, dogs, sheep, sky and mountains, plains and creeks, the shrubs that draped them, the birds that flew above them, the little lizard that kept her company, providing subjects such as but rarely found their way to the walls of the great galleries—a field to herself, and her very own. That ineradicable, irrational complex, love of one's birth land, took possession of her.
These men had suddenly become precious as the "properties" of attainment are to artists, surgeons, and others. When the Cook one day left her alone in camp while he sought the men with a telegram, she walked about evaluating the life lived at Gyang Gyang from November till April. Spartanly bare on the bedrock of essentials it rested. The beds were small with dark blankets, but clean as to linen, which the occupants could be seen laundering on Sunday mornings—emergencies permitting. Each man was furnished with shaving apparatus. Town suits and hats were preserved under Sydney Morning Heralds on the walls. Not a picture was on any wall, nor paint, nor paper, nor ornament. No easy chairs were to be seen. What use for easy chairs had men who went from bed to the saddle and back to bed again when night put an end to activity?
Here were gentlemen minus gentlemen's paraphernalia or ease, men whose daily routine approached that of soldiers on a lively campaign, who ate at a bare table of mountain-ash boards out of pannikins and tin plates. What a contrast to the prim little johnnies messing about Bloomsbury and Greenwich Village and Montmartre, who knew nothing of this community! Who did know of it in all the wide world outside of the few that lived in it, leaving no monument but the dog-proof fences running far across the rough plains, or the ringbarked timber on Whipstick, or Blanket or Herringbone Hills? Who knows this life sentinelled by the wild peaks of the Muniongs where is pastured from November to April some of the finest of the wool celebrated among experts from Germany to Japan, New York to France and Bradford?
Bernice was intoxicated with the idea of showing it all to Piccadilly, and Boul. Mich. and Washington Square—and Basil Vorotnikoff. A withering shaft of pain crumpled her, but it was of short duration today. There was something to replace it. Forsooth, she thanked Monsieur Basil. He it was who had driven her to Gyang Gyang. But for him she might have spent all her years in painting Parisian street-scenes or Sussex landscapes, or in picturing according to the modern schools a fifth-rate general or usurer or society matron.
"Oh, that my brain may have the power to conceive and my hand the cunning to execute," she prayed aloud where there were none to overhear but the black cockatoos, the grey and black-and-white magpies, the kookaburras and gyang gyangs, or those dogs whose day off it was.
She worked zestfully with but short breaks for meals, and ere the men could return from their magnum opus of cleansing sheep of maggots the Cook would hide hers in his own bunkroom, where he kept the reserves of cakes and potatoes, flour and soap. The torrential urge to create threatened to overwhelm her mere physical apparatus, so she was glad to lay down her brushes and walk abroad to let her emotions flow on a more manageable level. Glorious indeed it was to walk under the honeyed gums at sunset when the moths in a cloud of beauty circled round the wealth of blossom and the kookaburras laughed and laughed in full orchestra all around the horizon, and the night arose cool and crisp from the boulders and tussocks.
The hours of light were too few for Bernice, and when her Daddy, who never failed her, received her long list of requirements his heart lightened, though he had to postpone buying a light suit and new hat to meet the obligation. He asked no worrying questions and respected Bernice's desire for secrecy regarding her work and location. The materials gave evidence of all that he had hoped for in sending her to Mr Labosseer.
He had himself, when a clerk at an hotel and threatened with tuberculosis, been told by one of the Labosseers on a holiday in Sydney to pack up and come along and get well. He went and, fitting into station activities, had become a pet with the big super-capable Labosseer brothers. Though he was a weedy little townie they esteemed his tenacity and gratitude, his pluck beyond his strength, his courage in all circumstances. His unfailing good humour under the fire of chiacking to which he had been subjected had speedily endeared him to all. His delight in sun and air, running water, cattle and horses, in all the routine of outdoor existence, had been capital to him and a gift to his hosts. He had gone back to town a different being. True, he never rose higher than a book-keeper for a company, but when he married, Sylvester Labosseer had been at the wedding and later had been named as godfather to Bernice. Ernest Gaylord was the support beneath her. Such patient parents, wives, or mistresses are indispensable to genius, and rarely of the male sex. They are deeply rewarded when their mistletoes blossom with fruit and fame.
Sylvester Labosseer, returning after nearly a week's absence, came upon the kitchen unheard. He stood in the open doorway transfixed.
The Secret was out.
"By George, that's good! As real as life!" he exclaimed, showing Bernice where she stood in the realistic world of Gyang Gyang. Drawing back to greet her godfather and observing her work, she felt it would also stand the eye of technicians and impressionists.
"You must be feeling well!"
"I am, thank you. I wanted to surprise you, so Cook and I have worked in secret."
"You've surprised me very pleasantly. I've never seen such a good picture of what it sets out to be. When I come to think of it, I've never seen any painting of such a thing before. Artists seem to go more on English or foreign scenes that I know nothing about."
"It's high time that scenes that foreigners and English know nothing about were recorded for a change."
They went to the general room while the Cook made tea.
"I'm sorry the Cook was the only model left you. He'll feel so bobbish to have you hob-nobbing with him and painting him that he'll be asking me for a rise. How have you been getting on? Not lonely, I hope? You look a different girl already."
"I couldn't be lonely when there is not enough time in the days to work on all the wonderful studies that leap at me."
"Is that so? It will be interesting to me to see how it is done."
While they talked Bernice's work remained on its easel. The sunny days having dried the sheep and enabled the men to overtake the flies, Beardy, who had been out alone on the Twelve Mile, came home early and walked into the presence of the picture.
"Cripes!" he ejaculated, taking off his hat as in the presence of an altar. "My cripes, ain't that bonzer! Just as reel as life!" He gazed all around. "Did the little tart do that all by herself? Cripes, I wonder what she is goin' to do with it!"
"Aw, it ain't finished. That's only a study," said the Cook in a large way. Beardy continued to gaze.
"I wonder if I cud see her for a minute. Ain't it reel!" he breathed again. "Did you see that ole bird that was paintin' at Bluestone's? She never did nothing near as good as this. I'm blowed if you could reckonize it was the place she cracked it up to be, an' ole Bluestone wanted her to do him one the same, an' she wanted to lift eight quid from him for it. An' she was that particular she pretended she'd faint if you mentioned a blowfly or maggot." Beardy made a computation.
If a withered old bird asked eight quid for a picture of mere scenery that was not recognizable as the original, how much more could not a pretty young tart ask for a picture that was as natural as life? There was another element. Beardy wanted a picture of Tinker, and for the picture of his dog he reasoned it would be likely that he should pay the price of the dog. Beardy was wont to aver that he would not take twenty quid for Tinker. When he had a couple in he would not take fifty pounds, but perhaps a cold-blooded valuation would be ten pounds. He decided to offer ten of the precious quids he had accumulated through the years. Some, upon the advice of the Boss, he had put in the bank. He trusted the Boss but not the bank. What to do with those savings was not practical politics to Beardy. His mind did not go beyond patient saving, but he was ready to squander a whole tenner on his little dawg. He appeared with Tinker at the door of the abode.
"Hi, miss!" he called. "Cripes, miss, I see that picter you made of the Cook, an' I want that you'll make one of this here little dawg. Now, there ain't a dawg like Tinker from here to Queanbeyan, no, nor to Queensland. I'll give a tenner for a picter of Tinker. Hi, Tinker! Sit up, Tinker!"
Tinker was a tremulous little quadruped whose nights were short and whose days were endlessly hard. Bernice regarded him with compassion. "Poor little beastie! Why is he so emaciated? Why don't you give him enough to eat?"
"He works the flesh off of his bones, miss. Besides, if a dawg eats his bellyful he gits too lazy to work. I love that little chap like a child."
Tinker cringed as though love for him had been well dissimulated. He crept nearer to Bernice, trembling and flattening himself. She put her arms about him. Tinker responded deliriously as the fragile sensitive little kelpie can. He was frantic to be loved.
"I don't see why he need be so skinny and frightened, when the Pup is the best dog in the camp and he is as fat as a fool, and never timid," pursued Bernice. "Poor, poor little fellow! I'll make a sketch of him if you'll leave him with me for a few days"—Bernice had the womanly idea of enlisting the Cook and stuffing and petting Tinker and giving him a happy rest—"and I shouldn't want any money for that."
Here Labosseer remarked, "But Tom wants a real picture that might be worth more than a tenner, and Miss Gaylord will be able to do it all right. Tinker deserves to have his portrait painted."
"My cripes, he does that, all right!" agreed Beardy. Labosseer dismissed him and turned to his goddaughter.
"Come and sit down. I see I must have a good talk with you," he said kindly. "Now, my girl, it's this way. I don't know any more about art than a fowl knows about astronomy, but I've had a little experience of finance because I've brought myself to my present position by exercising what talent I have in that line, and of course by hard work and self denial——"
"Plenty of that in the artistic career, too," interposed Bernice.
"I suppose so. Impossible to get results in anything worth while without. But you've got to make those things pay dividends—capitalize them—that's financial common sense. Doing things for nothing is tomfoolery. It puts you in a hole and never does any good to the other fellow, because the man who expects something for nothing is either a thief or an unfortunate of some sort who should be in jail or some other kind of institution. As a beginning I advise you to do a picture of Beardy's dog and take his tenner."
"Oh, but the poor old man, and that little trembling dog..."
"He won't tremble any less if you don't charge for his picture. Wait till I lay it out before you. Here's an old fellow drawing the basic wage and his tucker and lodging, and living on a minimum. He has hoarded more money than he'll ever spend. He doesn't know how to spend it except on a spree once or twice a year. When he dies, his money will be claimed by a rubbishing nephew who will waste every penny in a month or two. I've never seen Beardy with a better opening to spend a ten-pound note without hurting himself, and it shouldn't come amiss to you."
"No. I must make money or I couldn't go on making pictures."
"There you are! And you needn't feel you are overcharging the working man today. If he can give three hundred pounds for a car and afford its upkeep, a few guineas for your work won't hurt him. As far as I can estimate, Australian life—and I suppose it's the same all over the world—rests on inflated values, and can't last.
"Take fellows in this district—young fellows sent to me to knock into shape. Any young man who will stick with me through the pretty stern spin I'll give him, and has any sort of a head on him, I can guarantee to place in a few years' time as an overseer or manager where he's on the way to work himself into a substantial home. Some of them do me credit, but most of them end up rabbiting. Fellows I've had here for the summer have stayed in the winter and made ten or fifteen pounds, even twenty pounds a week. And do they save that money to better themselves? Not a bit of it! A skin-buyer in Jindabyne tells me he has paid some of them fifteen pounds a week and by Thursday they are borrowing four or five pounds from him on account, and they are not any farther ahead at the end of the season than the man who in my young days took a contract of ringing and scrubbing from one and sixpence to two shillings per acre, and found himself."
While Labosseer and his guest were talking, other members of the camp returned and gazed in astonishment at the work which in catalogues thereafter was listed "The Cook at Gyang Gyang". They heard that the next work was to be Beardy's Tinker, and that Beardy was to shell out a tenner for it.
The camp was enlivened by a new interest as a saving grace in days of wrestling with maggots in sheep. It became the ambition of every man to have a portrait of himself as faithful as that of the Cook. The Cook was the man of the hour. The others, however, hankered to be depicted in their town togs, though they approached the project modestly by way of a dog or a horse. All were willing to pay handsomely. Bernice, glowing with inspiration and reinstated mental self-respect, had burst into a beauty overnight, and as such was not to be haggled with about the cost of her work by the gentlemen at Gyang Gyang. Besides, the elderly and caustic old bird at the pub at Goonara who had sickened at the mention of blowflies had created a precedent by demanding eight guineas for what Gyang Gyang considered a measly daub of scenery with but faint resemblance to the original.
No one was immune. Even the Boss brought forward the Pup. There was nothing shrinking about this gentleman in his tenth year. Under the aegis of the Boss he was used to attention. He and the Boss had done thousands of miles together in their old Studebaker and many more in trains, the Pup being as at-home in his box as his master in his sleeping berth or corner seat.
Labosseer was gifted with the faculty for personal spiritual friendships with animals, which rendered him comfortable under physical contact. No cat was too disreputable to be free with his shoulder, no cockatoo could annoy him by trying its beak on the best pieces of furniture; should Cocky extract the eyelets from his best boots it never failed to amuse him and did not prevent him wearing the boots. He never complained of the personal odour of dogs or kept them at a distance for fear of fleas. He dipped them for fleas and apparently accepted the odour. When he had a dog passenger in a car it was a lesson in high breeding to see them start. He would take a nervous, cringing little kelpie, inquire her name with the same care as he would that of a human, and apply it. "Wait till I make you comfortable," he would say, spreading his own overcoat or mackintosh, if no bag were available, and the look that dog would give him as she settled down in confidence and comfort was something to be tabulated among the beautiful contacts of existence on the earth plane. When a dog friend slobbered in joyous exuberance, the animal salts destroying the varnish of the car, Labosseer raised no complaint. It was a kind of coat of arms on his car door, and who knows that there may not be an ultimate alembic in which heraldic crests will not distil so richly as the treasured mark of a dog's saliva—who knows? Who the deuce knows anything of the deep sweet mysteries worth knowing?
"My dog," said the Boss, "was worth fifty pounds in the open market in his prime. I wouldn't take any money for him now—would as soon think of selling a human friend."
"He's a has-been, though," remarked Burberry. "He's too heavy. Greedy old brute, chases all the other dogs from the pan!"
"My word, Mr Burberry," said the Dude, "you must be wanting to leave the camp—talking like that about the Boss's dog!"
"Oh, he got out the wrong side of the bed this morning and is trying to pick a quarrel with me," said the Boss with a smile. "Just to show him up, the Pup shall show his points. Come on, old man!"
The genial old dog, unacquainted with a harsh word, disported himself with sticks, stood on his hind legs and so forth. All the men gathered with their dogs as zestful as youths and suddenly composed the well-known picture "Candidates." Here as decoration Bernice decided should be the gunmetal butts of the sallies streaked with vivid apple-green, with a gyang gyang or two above. While she regarded her models the tableau dissolved into another, known today as "The Dispute". A member of the canine staff called Lawrence or the Black Devil, and in training to replace the Pup, already at nine months was a dog in terms of the Act and in prowess. While retaining an engaging air of puppyhood he was a raffish galliard who had already achieved a cauliflower ear. He fell upon the Pup, though the Pup was in the embrace of the Boss himself. Beardy Tom and Tinker, the Cook and a poker, the Dude and Rover and several other pairs became involved in a gyration of snarls and yaps, but the tussle simplified into Lawrence and the Pup locked like bulldogs. The Boss had Lawrence by the tail. Black Peter seized the Pup's. Devil a bit of influence had they, though they lifted the contestants clean off the ground. It seemed as if the tails must give way.
The concentration of the Boss and Black Peter, the efforts of Burberry and Red Peter with whips, the elated interest of all the onlookers, as, amidst jovial shouts, the dogs were finally separated by buckets of cold water: this scene was marvellously captured by Bernice later. The setting was the snow-gum in her bridal bloom and her powdered grey-blue trunk and Alice-blue twigs beside the grey of the men's hut, with the grindstone in one corner and kookaburras above.
Those who delight in things after they become the rage always look now for the lizards or birds or blossoms in Bernice's bush studies: no distinctive Gaylord, they say, is without these inimitable touches. The critics acknowledge the artist's spacious and authoritative portrayal of life and landscape in a locality known only to a specialized and limited section of the Empire.
Labosseer was as inexperienced as the other members of the camp regarding an artist's work and life, but he was in his element bringing Bernice's venture to practical success. He had an inkling of the possible value of her work. Ernest Gaylord had written him a confidential document setting it forth. She had already won European status with one canvas in the Toulouse Museum, her picture of "St Paul's—Winter" (selected by the Trustees of the Chertsey Bequest for the Tait) and a portrait, one of the first works by an Australian to be purchased by one of the famous Parisian galleries. An English critic maintained that she had a technique equal to any demands on it, with a preference for certain subjects but not a limitation to them. Another spoke of her "suppleness, strength, delicacy and accuracy with the brush", while a Parisian critic (regarded by the artists of that colony of about forty thousand souls as the most prophetic and severe in Paris), had said of her in public print, "Her sense of design, of balance, is exceptional. She combines a woman's sensitiveness with a man's courage; and is rhythmical almost to mathematical truthfulness. The organization of her portraits and landscapes shows unexpected maturity; she is unpretentious but vivid; her work is rich, cool and strong. She will develop into something approaching greatness if she will go on as she has begun."
"Thus you will see, my dear friend," wrote Ernest Gaylord, "that she must not be allowed to fail now when she has only to keep on climbing the ladder to a high position." He entrusted her to his old friend with touching faith in his régime "to restore and save my little girl, not only for her own sake but for the credit her genius will bring Australia."
"Now, how are you going to finance this undertaking?" Labosseer inquired. "Humanly you can only accomplish so much, and you'll need to be floated till your work is ready for sale. I'd like to stand back of you."
"Thank you. If you'll only let me stay a long time and work quietly without anyone in Sydney getting wind of it—seclusion and time, that is what I need. There never was another chance in the world like this, if only I can seize it."
"My dear girl, you are more than welcome to that. But you can't stay here beyond April. Sometimes when the horses are left till June the snow is up to the roof of the veranda, and the drifts on Black Plain are easily thirty feet deep."
"What is the longest minute I can stay?"
"If the drought continues Lower Down we'll stay till May—weather permitting. You mustn't overdo, you know—strain your heart and chest."
"All that was the matter with my heart and lungs was that I was bogged as deep as your snowdrifts because inspiration dried up. I couldn't think out a picture. Nothing seemed worth while—and now suddenly I own a whole kingdom of my own. It's glorious."
"I suppose that is what is called the artistic temperament."
"Perhaps. When it is flowing, life is heaven. When it stops, the world is a desert of despair."
"In that case I'd just wait without chewing too hard on the bit till it started again."
"So I shall, another time, but I never had it fail to such an extent before. Just look at the sunlight, and those snow-daisies, and the shadows of the big white clouds on the hills, and the trees, and that mob of sheep spilling down the spur like wheat from a sack!"
"Yes, a storm is coming," said Labosseer laconically. "I expect the trouble was you didn't get enough sun over in those cramped, played-out old places. From what I can make out, it doesn't offer much of a life: just sitting around inside in the fog and gloom without anything to do but read a paper."
Bernice smiled. "It certainly is a little confined in some places compared with that!" She waved towards the valley. A storm had gathered on Wild Horse Range and travelled right across the view like a screen picture. "Fancy seeing a storm like that! If only I could do it justice! The splendid, wild, unlimited freedom in it!"
"The thing is to tackle it steadily and not run over yourself," said Mr Labosseer. "You'll want some place to work."
Two studios and a store room were quickly improvised, one in the corner of the woolshed, the other a large white motor-car tent enlarged by sundry tent flies and sheets of iron and a supply of mosquito-netting so that flies of various kinds should not sign the pictures.
Never was sail spread on a richer, more unusual sea for an artist of greater capacity for work with a practical brain back of her. Labosseer recognized that these pictures would be no mere sketches purchasable even for a tenner or two by the models. They would be such as hung in the Art Gallery in the Domain, with possibilities of a high property value, like the wool on the merinos spread about Gyang Gyang. Such an enterprise appealed to him, and this was the most interesting protégée he had had.
As the pictures progressed the combined opinion of Gyang Gyang was that they were a dashed sight better than any of them had ever seen.
There Bernice could have worked like a fury, while the light allowed, with what results the art reviewers and personal paragraphists would later connote, had no emotional ferment obtruded, but life never waits. It compiles daily, hourly complexities, unsought, unexpected, in the ever-present here and now, regardless of the past and future, which loom larger than reality though neither exists, one having dispersed and the other not yet having accumulated.
The only man in the camp or neighbourhood who stood aloof from the liveliest interest of the days was Black Peter, though subterraneanly it had more spiritual interest to him than to any man within its radius. He seemed immune from the egotism, so endearingly efflorescent in his colleagues, that craved perpetuation by the artist.
The man most boldly insistent was Spires. He had not previously come in contact with an artist at work. He contemplated spending the whole of the hundred pounds he was to levy from Peter on portraits of himself in striking poses and garments, and had not the wit to see that every one of these would be irritating to Bernice, to whom old Beardy Tom with his frayed sleeves and ferocious beard was a favourite model.
Spires was now a member of the staff. Burberry's glowing report to Labosseer on his return from Jindilliwah had resulted in this. Peter could not deny his capability and did not dare discount him on other scores. One of the men on Charcoal Plain, a paddock about twelve miles from headquarters, had to go to the hospital with blood poisoning. The Dude was drafted to fill his place and Spires stepped into the vacancy at Gyang Gyang. He rejoiced that all signs still set fair for him. Peter reflected fatalistically that they seemed bang against him; Spires could not have been sent to Charcoal, but had wormed himself into high favour with Burberry, and was apparently on the way to equal favour with Labosseer.
"What is to be, will be," he muttered, shut his jaw, and kept more sternly than ever away from the artist and from betrayal of interest in her work.
Spires was always ready for any activity. To him fell the chore of riding across Burnt Hut Range for the mail twice a week. The Misses Drew had no difficulty in delaying him for flirtation and gossip. It came naturally by way of a drink. Doll was more than content to substitute him for the Dude in her ambitions. His presence at Gyang Gyang was a guarantee. Mr Labosseer did not collect duffers and wasters. Mona left him to her sister while she continued to dream wistfully of Black Peter.
"Is Mr Pool still at Gyang Gyang?" she inquired one day. "He never comes for the mail now."
"Too much attraction in camp," replied Spires with a suggestive wink.
"You mean that lady who went through about three weeks ago—is she still there?" The girls had an intimate version of Gyang Gyang life from Red Peter Stockham, whose parental roof was in Goonara, but they feigned ignorance of this when with Spires or the Dude.
"My word, yes!"
"But she is too old for Mr Poole!"
"No bally fear! You should see her now."
"Is she making pictures of everyone?"
"Yes. She's going to do Black Peter in the nude—nothing on, you know. He's anxious to illustrate that it's only his temper and beard that are black."
"But that wouldn't be very nice," protested Mona. "I never heard of such a thing! What would Mr Labosseer say?"
"Oh, it's all the go among artists. You'll see all the pictures and statues when you go to Sydney. Any message for Peter?"
"Tell him he ought to be ashamed of himself!" said Mona.
"I'm getting up a picnic for next Saturday afternoon," said Doll. "Belle Leyden has a cousin staying with her from Cooma. We might go to Waterfall and fish. Will you and the Dude come? And Mr Burberry is very fond of fishing."
Spires left with a promise to join the picnic and to convey the invitation to the other members of the camp.
"Do you think that was true about painting people naked, or was he only pulling our leg?" said Mona when he had gone.
"I believe it's true. I'd believe anything of a woman with light eyelashes. They're always deceitful as the Devil; and artists are a fast lot."
"But she's Mr Labosseer's goddaughter; he wouldn't——"
"Oh, wouldn't he! You never can trust any man. They're all open for that kind of thing if they get half a chance. Perhaps it's only gammon that she's his goddaughter. I think it's disgraceful, and we ought to find out and do something. Wait till we see how many come to the picnic."
Bernice went on with her work unsuspecting of the flutter she was causing at Goonara. Having suffered one tumble, she was alert against another. To work without respite was exhausting, so she went abroad systematically to learn the country. Labosseer put her on a steady old packhorse and she soon learnt to jog about with confidence. When the men were away the Cook saddled her delicate charger, filled the saddle-bag with cookies and away she would go to dream in extenso on the glorious views she had noted when out with Labosseer and Burberry.
One sparkling morning in February she rode away about ten o'clock, taking the opposite direction from that of the men. She followed the track from the horse-paddock sliprails through the Ram Paddock and out of this to Eagle Hill where the heath tea-tree shades Dinnertime Creek, and mountain-ash and stately white gums rear their majestic trunks. She loved the song of the creek and the world of Eagle Hill which was still untamed. Charmed by the day, she went on to Old House Flat from which nearly a generation ago Labosseer had brought much of the material used in the abode at Gyang Gyang. The house had nestled among the trees under the shoulder of a spur. Before it rolled a plain intersected with rills on the Murrumbidgee slope. She lay in the sun musing on the lonely mother who had drudged out her days for a shy brood, reckoning it a gay life if they had a male visitor once in a month, and a carnival to see a woman. She fell asleep in the shade of the snow-gums, old Whitefoot tied near by, whisking and flinching and stamping the flies off him.
When she awake she felt that a good deal of the day had gone. Whitefoot had gone too, his bridle remaining on the snag. There was none of his kind to detain him in that paddock, and five or six miles distant on the homeward boundary he cropped the blue tussocks and awaited the chance of getting still farther on his way to his mates.
Bernice was not alarmed. She was a good walker and hoped someone would come to meet her. She was in a paddock of five thousand acres where mountain-ash and white gum had been ringbarked and the fallen giants made a tousled chequerboard from which it was most difficult to muster sheep. There was scarcely a season that stragglers were not missed in some pocket and left to freeze in or survive the snows. She attempted a short cut across the fallen timber and the rough surface of a slope. On the crest of a steep pinch she sat down for a breather and to gaze on the mighty mountains of white clouds, substantial-looking as piled snow, illuminated by a blazing radiance from within, and contrasted with a sky like Reckitt's blue. She lingered, wondering how such glory could be reproduced. Here was a sky excelling Italy's, while the famous white clouds of English landscapes were dull vapours by comparison. She worshipped the glory, too inexperienced to act upon its warning. Before she had gone half a mile farther the storm broke with mountain suddenness and violence. She could see it travelling up the valley, dark blue and green with vivid chains and forks and shimmering sheets of lightning upon it. The glory of white clouds and sunlight was veiled in a dark pall and the thunder seemed to shake the ground. It dismayed the city bird unused to the open. The lightning encircled her like a destroying fire and she was undecided whether to keep in the open or to seek the shelter of timber. She had never before felt lightning an actual danger, but here its angry tongues left nothing untouched.
Suddenly she was the centre of a flaming, roaring earthquake that lifted her from the earth and rendered her breathless as great splinters of timber whirled about her.
The fury ceased. She was astonished to find herself whole and safe, unblinded, only trembling so that for a moment she could not stand. Recovering her breath and hurrying from the spot, she caught her foot on a stake and sprawled down the slippery sideling amid rubble, biddy-biddies, and sticks. She recovered herself, shaken and scratched on the loose gravel and sharp outcropping slates, to find that she had lost her direction. Half a dozen ridges looked exactly alike and two creeks were discernible in the distance. Which was Dinnertime, and which a stranger? She deplored her faulty education, that she could not find her way in five thousand acres securely fenced.
She was sopped to the skin and water was running in rivulets from her hair. The downpour had slackened into steady rain which obscured the horizon. There was nothing to do but await a rescuer. When there was a slight pause she struggled on again and came among the hundred rams that were running on Eagle Hill till the burnt grass grew on Black Plain. Some of them were suffering from fly-dressings, had sore heads and bedraggled bodies, which magnified their masculine grotesqueries. Peter's youngest dog had yesterday refused to work them; whether she had been terrified of their hummocky over-virilized appearance or overpowered by the splendid stench of their wet wool, the frail little animal was not equipped to testify.
The ludicrous old warriors circled round Bernice in serried rows of horns, as terrifying as gila monsters. Expecting them to charge, she clambered on to a great stump for safety. One of them pursued her and climbed on the stump with his forefeet and bleated and lowered his fine branching horns. This was old Barney, a pet who had been banished from Jindilliwah because he had an unmerciful set on everyone but the Boss and was in danger of being shot by some outraged victim. Bernice shrieked with fright.
When favoured animals became too aged for efficiency on Jindilliwah, or through pronounced individuality grew cantankerous, Labosseer transported them with him to Gyang Gyang for the summer. Old dogs, old horses, old bullocks, old cats, loved him and were loved by him till the last. He grieved that the span of his dumb colleagues' lives was so short that he was compelled to part with them along the way. This faithfulness to old associates, quadruped or biped, had its return.
Labosseer was no goodfellow of the kind that is no one's enemy but his own. As old Beardy said, "He's a beggar for work, drives himself and his men like blazes. A hard-headed bloke wot couldn't be taken down by an axe in a deal, but you know where you are with him. He ain't everlastin' choppin' and changin' about. He gives his men pie if they ask for it, but it generally always has to be a earthquake afore he sacks a man out of hand."
The same men returned to him year after year. He had a picked squad of shearers that shore on all his places. The married men brought their sons to him as soon as they could handle axe or shears. He inspired in the berated native working men, who never thought of addressing him as "sir", a voluntary loyalty approaching that of feudal retainers shaped by generations of servitude.
In the evenings when the telephone wires of Monaro were not too heavily laden with discussion of blowflies and the state of the pastoral season, they carried complaints of the Federal Government's breeding ground for dingoes in the rough country within the Territory. Owners and managers in the area were organizing a deputation to go to Canberra to ask the Government to move in the matter, since the activities of Brother Wombat set dog-proof fences at naught and entailed losses unless there was eternal vigilance on the boundaries.
On the morning that Bernice set out on Whitefoot it so happened that most of the men had gone forth armed with axes and shovels and tie-wire to effect repairs where the wombats were playing Old Harry on the slopes of Fossickers' Range. The storm drove them to shelter and made further work amid the wombats impractical, so they reached home early.
Labosseer was met by the Cook's announcement that Miss Gaylord had been away since ten o'clock.
"Blooming ass!" he muttered, meaning the Cook. He said no more in that strain, but bent his thought to extrication. The Cook had no control over the actions of his goddaughter.
"Peter!" he called. Peter was speedily at hand. "Here's a pretty to-do. Miss Gaylord went out at ten and has not returned."
"She's run a risk of being struck in the storm," Peter replied. On a slope within view the freshly dead leaves of several trees showed the toll of lightning that season.
"Two men in a sulky was struck on Herringbone two years ago," said Beardy cheerfully to the men who stood about conjecturing.
Labosseer retailed the information supplied by the Cook and observed, "She could hardly poke about the Ram Paddock all day. She probably went into Eagle Hill or the Twelve Mile."
"She's very struck on the view towards the Twelve Mile," remarked Burberry.
"We'll muster the Ram Paddock first," said Labosseer, "and then half can tackle Eagle Hill while the others make for the Twelve Mile."
Spires here appeared. He had not been working on Fossickers' and on the way to camp his horse had torn his frog so badly that he had to be led home on three legs. Spires had left him inside a paddock two miles distant and was carrying his saddle. When he heard the news he sprang with the effrontery of a master to a servant toward Black Peter's horse.
The Boss and others smiled. Everyone enjoys a daring gallant.
Peter was first to his horse and seized the bridle. "I want my horse for my own use, if you don't mind," he drawled deliberately, but his eyes had the glint of grey steel as they met the daredevil black of Spires's.
"Get out of my way or you know what to expect!" Spires hissed like a villain in a melodrama.
"Go to hell, and don't fall out," growled Peter. While he had the bridle, Spires was helpless. Peter seized him by one leg and twisted him over the back of the horse with a roughness that might have injured a less agile man. Peter then sprang upon the animal and turned him at his enemy, but old All-the-Week was no party to the dispute, and reared aside.
"That was a little over the odds, wasn't it?" remarked Labosseer, as he and his head man rode away together.
"Flaming crawler! He'd take another man's skin and wear it if he got half a chance," was all the elucidation vouchsafed.
Labosseer rather liked the dash of Spires. He looked back while Peter flung down the sliprails and saw him on his feet and seeking a horse unabashed. Beardy would not relinquish his; not likely on those runs, which he knew more intimately than the Boss himself. When he had had more than his whack of looking for blinking old ewes and rams, was he to forgo his first opportunity for chivalry towards the pooty little tart who could dror such a wonderful picter of himself and Tinker? Burberry and the Cook likewise refused their nags, so did Red Peter Stockham and Bill Jamieson, but Spires succeeded with a casual hand lately come, and galloped away with the others.
The Boss went one way round the Ram Paddock, his men the other. Peter worked on a theory and made straight for Eagle Hill. The rails into that division were difficult and showed manipulation by a new-chum. He estimated that Bernice was somewhere in Eagle Hill and he defied old Whitefoot to escape him for long in a mere five thousand acres partly free from scrub. He went through and raked the surroundings with eagle glance. The horse was speedily descried at a farther sliprails, where he was meditating upon getting rid of the saddle, but an old attempt to roll with two hundredweight of salt on a pack-saddle had made him wary.
Peter proceeded towards Whitefoot, propping and slithering recklessly down greasy slopes. He was without a bridle. It indicated to Peter that the old nag had indulged his bad habit of casting it rather than that his rider had fallen. She was safe somewhere in the paddock—barring lighting, probably wet and frightened and completely bushed, for she was a mere townie, and had further deteriorated by foreign capers till she was on the level of a pommy.
Peter had seen pommies do some inconceivably foolish things. If this girl only had sufficient savvy to follow the fence to the sliprails she surely could not mistake those by which she had entered, nor forget the plain track all the way across the Ram Paddock, at present occupied by hogget ewes. But it was useless to expect even that spark of sense from a townie.
He moved at a good bat regardless of obstacles, and soon his lusty cooees brought an answer and led him to the stump upon which stood Bernice frantically waving her arms. The rams galloped off at his approach, even old Barney decamped, and Bernice, attempting to jump down, found that abrasions made this too painful. Thoroughly unnerved, she sat down and cried like a child.
Here was an unusual adventure for Peter. He lifted her down gingerly. "By George, I'm glad you are all right!" he exclaimed fervently. Some might have found amusement in her terror of the rams. Not Peter. He transferred his oilskin and hat to her person. "That blistering old Barney wants his throat slit. Mr Labosseer's daughter reared him by hand, and he's too big for his hide."
She told of the lightning, and Peter missed an ancient landmark. "The old dry mountain-ash by the salt-shed. You've had a lucky escape. I'll get you home and you'll be all right after a hot bath and a drop of spirits."
"Whitefoot took his bridle off and got away."
"Thundering old rogue! I saw him as I came. He can be mustered by one of the others."
She found herself too stiff and bruised to mount, even with assistance, but there was comfort in this capable man with his black beard and work-roughened hands, so that she was able to give way to tears unashamed. He divested himself of his coat and outer shirt and made a pad for the pommel, lifted Bernice on and mounted behind her. His great fat wide-chested brown was of the old school, bred by Labosseer at Gyang Gyang. A weight-carrier, and surefooted as a goat, with wind like Jove, he had earned his name. He stepped off with a ruffle of good cheer. Peter had his arms about Bernice.
"Does that hurt?"
"Not much, but won't the horse break down?"
"Not he! He won't notice anything additional. I often have one of those blithering old rams in front of me." Peter was glowing with satisfaction at having outdistanced Spires.
He was bare but for a tattered and sleeveless undershirt exposing most of his torso.
"You'll catch cold."
Peter laughed. "I'm tougher than that."
"But really, Mr Poole, as I am soaked already, why not put your big oilskin on and I'm sure it would shelter me too."
Her wet form steamed against his naked warmth, her head under his chin. She had her cry out and recovered through the comfort of Peter and the dignity of All-the-Week, who pressed on through the pelting downpour with assurance and good temper. The rain was so heavy and Eagle Sideling so slippery and steep that Peter sheltered a while in the shell of a burnt giant. His wisdom was justified when suddenly the rain turned to hailstones as big as marbles, which made All-the-Week hump himself tight against the tree while Peter stood over Bernice, holding her close the better to protect her. All the searchers would have to take shelter from this attack. They would be scouring the Ram Paddock or the Twelve Mile. Peter hoped Spires's horse might slip and break his rider's neck. It was stimulating to think of that infernal cow blithering about fruitlessly.
"This will clear it up," he remarked as he wrung his beard, which was acting as a runnel on to Bernice's head. "I'll have a clean shave next Sunday," he added. "I've been going to, and this settles it."
"Oh, please don't touch it till I paint it," said Bernice quickly.
"Paint it! Want to make a companion picture to old Beardy?"
"No. His beard is remarkable in its own way, but there are beards and beards."
This was better till Peter reflected that artists had views that were not complimentary to the chosen objects. There was a fellow named Hans Heysen, really able to make a flooded-gum look like a flooded-gum and not like a bastard oak or something seen on a windy night in the horrors—Peter had found his pictures in the Sydney and Adelaide galleries—only he painted those trees with cancers on them instead of beauties such as a man choose for splitting, or leave for ornament. It was a pity artists had this eccentricity. Some day he would ask Bernice about it. It would not be fair to worry her at present.
"I feel all right now. You won't tell anyone that I was a cry-baby, will you, and was afraid of the old pet sheep?"
"You had plenty of excuse to be unnerved when that tree was struck and you lost your horse; and many a man has been glad to climb out of reach of old Barney. We must arrange to miss the old varmint in the muster and leave him to freeze in the winter."
"I shouldn't like to be the cause of that!"
"We have to get rid of Mr Labosseer's pets by accident, or the place would be overrun. Miss Hope (that was) gave me a hint to lose Barney two years ago. She doesn't want him at Jindilliwah when she comes home with the kiddies. He devoured all her sweet peas and made a holy hash of the garden. If he gets into mischief up here as well, it's time he kicked the bucket."
"Don't let him be hurt till I paint him." Her mind was running on the grandeur of the storm with the rams and dead timber as "properties". It was a hideous old ram that attracted her as a model, thought Peter. He wondered what she thought of Spires as a model—blast him!
The hail eased into sleet. There was no break in the sky.
"It doesn't seem to be letting up, and we'd better push along and let you get to bed or it might be your death. This might turn to snow."
"It won't hurt me a scrap. I like it."
"If you have chest weakness..."
"I haven't. Not the slightest scrap."
"But I thought that was why you came up here for the sunshine and fresh air and rest."
"The doctors thought that, and I let them, for peace' sake, but I knew different. Rest was driving me mad. The minute I started to work again I was as strong as a horse. I'm doing enough now for two."
Peter had not till that moment thought of the making of pretty pictures in the category of work, but he had the sensibility to enter fresh spheres of understanding.
"You oughtn't to overdo it," he murmured.
"Can't, while my mind is set for it, because I can only paint in the day...What happened was that something so dished me that I couldn't work, and that got on my nerves. I thought I'd never be able to conceive a picture again, and now I can't work fast enough to keep up."
"It certainly must be the devil not to be able to work."
"Yes. My whole world crashed, and it didn't seem worth while going on...and now a new world twenty times better has taken its place. Gyang Gyang is wonderful!"
"It's not too dusty at times," said Peter, holding her closer while they traversed a bog. "It's fine country in the summer, but you can have too much of it seven days a week and twelve hours a day hard graft, and nowhere to go but old Bluestone's at Goonara, or three or four more just as good if you travel twenty-five or fifty miles for the pleasure."
"They seem to get about with cars."
"I never had a car of my own," said Peter quickly.
"Then I expect you might be bored with living here, but I shall always love it because here I started afresh when I thought all was finished."
Bernice could feel his heart beating against her shoulder. There was something wonderful in being thus comforted and warmed by this reticent bushman who made no slightest gesture to exploit the position. She felt she could ride from Kosciusko to Cape York with him without his outstepping his shy chastity and iron self-respect. Could such a man belong to the same species as the Vorotnikoffs? A feeling of spiritual enfranchisement invaded her.
"Did you ever have something happen to you so that it seemed as if you couldn't go on, and then suddenly, when you had given up hope, everything cleared up?"
Peter hardly knew how to answer this. He longed to get rid of Spires, and to free himself contemplated fleeing to the United States, but doubted if this were a parallel case. "I've often thought it's a pity that one mess should spoil a man's whole life. If he could only begin again he would know how to steer clear of things that end in a hole."
"Perhaps you've never been bashed right into the earth," proceeded Bernice. "Perhaps you'll be one of the lucky and sensible ones who will not bring brain-storms on yourself; but if ever anything like that should happen to you, take my tip and know that it won't be as bad as it seems at the time. You can shed it, whatever it is, and start again better than ever. I know. I've just been through it."
There was relief in talking to this man, though a comparative stranger. Something in his personality as well as the situation dismantled her usual reticence. She knew infallibly that he was temperamentally congenial and that her confidence was safe. Her veiled confession excited Peter. What on earth could have happened to her? It was just like a girl to set such store on painting a few pictures, when she could take photographs and have them enlarged and coloured like those in tourist bureaux. To his mind they were as good as paintings, and if she couldn't paint she could marry and have a good position and a man to give her everything she wanted. It was queer to get nervy over something that didn't matter. He wondered how she would shape with his own fight on her hands.
They met a few of the seekers on the way to camp. Peter sent one of them back after Whitefoot, but Labosseer had already found him and, leading him with a whip, was ransacking Eagle Hill with the Pup. The old dog was warranted to find any missing sheep within a mile, and his master had similar faith on this occasion. He rode about in the rain with Whitefoot blundering over logs and boulders and being admonished as a useless old mongrel not worth his keep and due to be shot for dogs' meat if he didn't mend his manners. His master cooeed till he was hoarse and was retrieved at dusk by Red Peter. Relief at Bernice's safety was outbalanced by annoyance that he had been an hour wasting his voice and being perished in the sleet.
When he reached home Bernice was sipping hot coffee and drying her hair before a fire lighted by Burberry. Labosseer fell upon Black Peter.
"Why the deuce didn't you cooee as you came out of Eagle Hill and I should have heard you? Letting me ride about and get battered in the hail was rather a rumtefoozle joke."
"I found Miss Gaylord. That was all I cared about," replied Peter insubordinately. "I was hoping that Spires would have found her horse—he's so damned smart and anxious—and would have blithered about Dinnertime till he cracked his skull."
Labosseer forbore to wrangle with a man apparently in love. His equanimity returned with dry clothes and some of the hot coffee, and the fun of seeing his goddaughter playing with the old bird, who screeched with excitement and self-importance as she swung in the long tresses. Poor old Cocky was so interested in the paintings that for their safety her liberty had to be curtailed, and Bernice liked to reward her in other ways.
Labosseer saw a new and desired development in Black Peter. Burberry saw it too and remarked it jocularly that evening as opportunity occurred.
"Peter seems to have risen on his hind legs at last. You noted that little play between him and Spires when we were setting out?"
"Yes. Looks rather promising."
"This might cure him."
"Or finish him."
"I shouldn't mind taking a bet that his beard comes off after this."
"It will be good to wipe things off the slate and start afresh."
The Boss by reason of his godfatherhood was privileged to enjoy Bernice's society while her hair was flowing. The others betook themselves to the kitchen. Bernice smiled at the pre-war delicacy of their withdrawal in times when virginity can show its knees without obliquity. The Cook loudly cursed them for getting in his way and flavouring the vegetables with the stench of sheep.
The camp was enlivened to see Black Peter shouldering Spires out of his track and flipping after him with his whip.
"Peter's got past the post ahead of us," said the Dude, who was in camp for the night.
"Too right!" agreed Bill Jamieson. "I reckon Spires would have given a quid or two to have been in Black Peter's oilskins."
"It was goodo," said Red Peter. "Carryin' her home inside his coat, he was, like a baby. Ha! Ha! Not too draughty, eh? Wouldn't have minded to find her meself. An' where was they durin' the hail?"
"Musta thought she was in Abraham's bosom, by the beard," volunteered the Dude, which pleased them all.
"I reckon Peter doesn't care how often she gets bushed in the sleet. Who'll take a bet on it?"
"Aw, Peter! He never looks at the tarts at all. Runs from 'em like an ole woman from a goanna," interposed the Cook.
"Don't you believe it! Peter ain't at all slow in everything else, and when the spasm takes him he's liable to take a real gutser over some tart."
"Which do you back—Black Peter or Spires?"
"I've got me money on Beardy," said Bill facetiously. "Next thing you'll see his beard come off."
"Too right, any man's beard has got to come off if he wants a chance with the women."
"Oh, but this one's gone on beards—always paintin' Beardy's."
"Too right! I was thinkin' of lettin' mine sprout to get in the running'—cheaper than buyin' chocolates at ten bob a box."
"Save a lot of trouble and tin."
"A man's only half a man without a beard," said Beardy complacently. "It'll be the only way a man can be told for what he is if the women keeps on shortenin' their skirts—pants will have to come next."
"If that was all that made a man, I reckon it would be a poor look-out."
"Your age is agen you, Beardy."
"Not it! He's only a weaner compared with some that goes off the hooks if they have a few thousands to help them."
"Too true! They like 'em old if they're rich. Beardy's got as good a chance as anyone in the camp barring the Dude—how about it, Harvey?"
"I know my depth," replied that tall, comely young man good-temperedly. "Miss Gaylord doesn't want any scrubber from these parts. She wants a town fellow from London or somewhere. Isn't that so, Beardy?"
"You're dead right," assented Beardy amiably. "But that doesn't pervent us all perkin' up and goin' a header at sight of her. Where there ain't enough girls to have a few left over, the men is that smittlesome they're just like a lot er ——"
What they were like was drowned by angry words outside. Peter and Spires were at it.
"I'll have no man flip at me with his whip!" said Spires heatedly.
"Any time you'd rather have fists or boots, I'm waiting," retorted Peter.
"This flashness will cost you an extra hundred quid—just that exactly," Spires returned, glaring.
"It's jolly well worth it, when you know what some things are going to cost you." Peter laughed exasperatingly as he turned on his heel and went to the hut to change. He stood a while in his wet clothes transported that he should have found the girl and brought her home in his naked bosom, so to speak, while Spires had blithered about the Ram Paddock. No matter what Spires might levy, he could never take that from him. Spires was for ever so much minus.
It was with him like the knowledge of a bank balance as he lay in the darkness later that night listening to the clut-tut-tut-tut-tut-tut-tut-tut of the plovers at the edge of the timber.
What had Bernice said: "You can shed it, whatever it is, and start again better than ever. I know. I've just been through it."
What had she been through? Nothing so ugly as that which Spires held over him! Supposing he should confide in Bernice. He needn't say it was his own case. He could say that in line with what she had said, he knew a fellow once who, etc. etc., and enveigle her into an opinion of such crimes as he had committed.
Supposing she should say, "What a foolish fellow to lie down under that! Look at the things the men did in the war—a hundred times as bad—and they boast about it, and have decorations for it!" How miraculous that would be!
The Boss, however, might not be so lenient. The Boss had not been to the war, was as decent as a woman, and judged by pre-war standards.
But what did it matter what the Boss or all the world thought if only Bernice could understand how certain things could overtake a man by accident—indecent lawless things—and still not tarnish his inner decency, though he might never recover his good repute. He had the bliss for ever of having sheltered her in the hollow tree during the hail and having ridden from Eagle Hill to Gyang Gyang with her clasped to his heart—Bernice who wanted to paint his beard. There would be other situations in which he again could be comforter and rescuer. Instead of slitting old Barney's throat he might use him as an ally. He could be placed to chase Bernice up stumps periodically.
Clut-tut-tut-tut-tut-tut-tut-tut-tut! The plovers on the edge of the plain were noisy that night. Some of the old hands swore by them. The dogs too were restless. Someone from the main abode with a whip threatened them authoritatively and they whimpered to silence. Heavy rain spilled on the roof for a lullaby. Dead quiet wrapped the camp. Insomnia was rare at Gyang Gyang even among the smittlesome.
A week later as the camp lay in its afternoon swoon—the Cook in his bunk; the dogs drowsing in the shade of their kennels; Cocky at the cowyard; the old cock and his hens comfortable in the wood-heap dust; the horses cropping right up to the veranda, and scratching themselves on the posts; Bernice still as a statue inside the window, and wrapped in mosquito-net against the droning blowflies, which came down the chimney when the doors and windows were closed—the click of spur and boot-heel on the veranda announced the early return of Labosseer.
"Well, how's the painting?" he inquired. After the blowflies the progress of the pictures was the liveliest general interest of the station. Bernice was regarded as great company for all. Each man returned looking for a glimpse of her about the premises and hoping for a word or smile.
"I'm trying to decide the right turquoise-green-blue for your eyes," she replied.
"That sounds interesting. I never knew that my eyes were anything but a muddy grey, but artists always seem to fake up things in the most wonderful tints. I shall be right in the swim with green eyes."
"We don't fake," said Bernice gravely. "We are the only people who see things as they are." She was a serious person ungiven to levity about her work. Her purposefulness had even induced the camp to speak of her painting as work.
"What are you going to do about Peter's eyes?" This was asked with a twinkle, but Bernice replied earnestly.
"They are like blue flame. I have never seen anything so vivid, not with jet-black hair and beard."
"They are rather blue, when I come to think of it."
"Yes, if I could do justice to Peter it would create a sensation."
"What are you going to do with Peter himself?"
"I'm going to put him in several studies. It's not often a young man has such a beard these days. That sets him apart."
"I often wonder why he grew it. A beard makes a frump of a man, I think—something out of a hollow log, like old Beardy Tom: but it wasn't that way I meant. What are you going to do with Peter personally?"
Bernice looked up inquiringly. "I—do with him?"
"You're not going to try and bluff that you don't know what you've done to Peter?"
"You don't mean Mr Poole, do you? Now if you had asked about Mr Spires I could understand. He piles on the soft soap till I'm bilious, and means about as much as an auctioneer does, but Mr Poole doesn't pay me half as much attention as Beardy Tom does. I never saw a man so indifferent."
"So you have noticed whether he is indifferent or not?"
"I could hardly miss noticing that he's the only man at Gyang Gyang who hasn't asked me to paint his horse or dog or himself."
"A blind wombat could see that that is not because he does not want you to. He's just holding himself in. I'm expecting him to tell me any day that he's leaving the district."
"I shall put it down to a hopeless love affair this time. I have come home to have a little talk with you."
"How could he know it was hopeless till he tried?" sprang to her lips, surprising her. She suppressed it in time and said, "If you think he's likely to bolt for any reason rational or otherwise, I'd best get to work on him at once. I don't know where I'd find another model with such eyes and beard."
"To be frank, don't you know what has happened to the man?"
"As far as I know anything, I have noticed no sign whatever—not that it entered my head one way or another."
"That's the point. You may be regarding him as something to fill up one of your pictures, but there is a death struggle going on in Peter under my eyes. He's losing weight and has a sore head like a bear, and I'm afraid there'll be murder between him and Spires."
"Is Spires indispensable?"
"I never allow any man to become indispensable. That would mean that I had given up the reins."
"Then why not send Spires away?"
"He's a useful man at present, and as far as I can determine he and Peter would not cross except for jealousy about you."
"How disgusting! I wish you would send them both away after I have painted Peter. I assure you I have done nothing to create this situation. It's not fair: all I wanted was to get on with my work free from that sort of abomination."
"It may be awkward; but there it is. It's fruitless to expect to escape the results of bringing a magnet among steel filings."
"But I didn't want such time-wasting capers. Bother them—that is, if it's true; but you're only funning, aren't you? I have noticed at Gyang Gyang that a favourite entertainment seems to be chaffing each other about the wildest and most farcical amorous possibilities."
"I never was more serious in my life. I am only telling you so as you can be on your guard. Otherwise you might inadvertently say something that would lead either of them to think he had a chance."
"I've been thinking of nothing but my work. I can't spare a moment from that."
"I understand that. I never realized till now how an artist needs to stick to it. But now that I have put you on your guard, you might say something that will show them that they have no chance."
"I doubt if old Barney, the ram, running head on could convey that to Mr Spires, and it would be gratuitous with Mr Poole, when he never says anything to me but 'Good morning!'"
"His eyes are never off you when he gets the chance. I've been taking the strength of it on the quiet. What did he say when he was bringing you home in the hail? You must have sheltered somewhere. That was a situation to ripen matters."
Bernice was glad that she never blushed visibly. "I told him I was too scratched to get on the horse and he did everything for me very kindly, but that was all."
"Well, the kindest thing to a man when he is hard hit is to give him no false hope and then he can straighten up and get over it with a minimum of damage."
"Do you really believe that there is anything but passing madness in that kind of love—that it lasts with anyone—especially men?"
"I had thirty-five years of happy married life myself, and I don't think a man really begins to live till he's married. You've not been in love or you wouldn't talk like that."
"It may be the very reason that I talk as I do." She spoke quietly, her eyes veiled.
"In that case I should say that it was not very deep."
"It was my whole depth: it couldn't be any deeper for me, could it?"
"Is it all past without meaning anything?"
"I thought it was the end of everything. I don't mind telling you as you are my godfather, but I don't want Daddy to know."
"It is safe with me, my girl."
"It nearly did for me. That is what was the matter. I let the doctors rattle about my heart and lungs. That was a good way of saving my pride—and now just a few months later, I'm glad it ended. The whole thing is over and I'm working as I never worked before. My work is going to be broader, and I can't conceive how that thing could have wrecked me as it did at the time. It seems a mere nightmare now."
"There wasn't a death?"
"Oh, no! The other party tired first, that was all," she replied frankly. "I was smashed, yet now I find that my art is bigger than that thing ever could have been."
"It might have been different if you could have had nearly forty years of happy marriage like I had."
"That was friendship." She gave him one of her rare smiles. "No. My art is bigger than the other thing could have been, even with equal return."
"That's very interesting, and if you could recover, Peter is bigger and uglier than you are and ought to be better able to take care of himself."
"I shouldn't want anyone to be hurt through me; so I'm showing you it is not serious."
Labosseer laughed. "It mightn't have been in your case, but I've seen too many men put right off or on the rails not to know that it is one of the biggest things that can happen to anyone in this life. I have known Peter since before he was born, in a way of speaking, and I always hope to see him make something more of himself than he has done so far. There's a bump somewhere that queers his wicket, and I've never been able to make out what it is. At any rate I am glad you have honoured me with your confidence. Peter must take his chance."
Labosseer liked to choose his material and make something of it. A young man who stood up to his rigorous routine was sure of a good berth in post-war days when more and more of the old pioneer holdings were falling to syndicates, which scourged the earth for the benefit of the shareholders, some of which had never seen a stringybark tree or a brigalow, and who knew no more about flies in jumbucks than they did of the boll weevil. There was a firm demand for young men brought up in the Labosseer school as overseers and managers. Labosseer had been born on the Monaro plateau fifty or sixty miles from Gyang Gyang, and though he esteemed the fat western country, where a man reared on the mountain runs found life a holiday, he could never endure the summer that reigned from the Barwon to Bogan to the lower Murrumbidgee. Summering in Tasmania or New Zealand or Melbourne likewise had given him the pip after the novelty wore off. His early curriculum had been without recreation or hobbies, so in later life he had no retreat either in dissipations, the arts, or intellectual occupations. It must be work from 5 a.m. till sundown, then attention to correspondence and conversation with his associates, if business per telephone permitted. By retreat to Gyang Gyang till the thermometer and the rainfall west of the Great Dividing Range determined, not only did he escape the deadly heat, but he was thoroughly occupied, and cleared up a sum deeply enough in four figures to have satisfied many a family as their total yearly income.
He was getting where the amassing of a fortune was not so imperative, especially since the death of his wife. He was often lonely and found a growing satisfaction in developing young men, and the human return it ensured. He liked life at Gyang Gyang, where except for telephones, motor-cars, wireless, tinned goods, and bakers' bread, conditions remained what they were in his boyhood and called for his all-round capability and resourcefulness, much of which remained unrequisitioned at Jindilliwah.
Bernice and her project, for her own sake and her father's, was especially entertaining to him, and he had a genuine affection for Peter.
Labosseer had given his goddaughter the most wakeful night she had had since coming to camp. She dismissed Spires as inconsequent and irritating; but the sombre, aloof Peter, could that be true? Surely not. It would be too ridiculous. All out of proportion. She had come by fortunate accident to his life and world, but he could no more enter her life and associations and ambitions than a land bird could become aquatic. She must get on with her undertaking, not allowing Black Peter Poole or anyone else to interfere in her career and life again. A plague upon the fellow! What right had he to regard her amorously? Did he? He exhibited no symptoms. He took no notice of her whatever, only when she needed succour; then he had appeared—capable, kind and self-effacing. Labosseer was wrong. Peter would surely be furious if he knew the tenor of their conversation.
But then, hadn't Peter been just a little tender as well as kind when rescuing her from Eagle Hill? Perhaps. There was a thrill in the possibility.
She plunged firmly into work next morning, but thought of Peter intruded. It persisted to such purpose that in the afternoon when the men were absent and the camp asleep she strolled about reappraising the life of the men of simple accoutrements.
Spires had more than the others, Spires in Black Peter's bed while Peter occupied a bunk in the men's hut. She inspected this today. There were half a dozen dishevelled bunks made of sacking on frames. Peter's was distinguishable by his coat. It was the only bed with sheets and a pillow-case. The only other furniture was petrol cases used as tables, and candlesticks made by auger holes in blocks of mountain-ash. Peter's was carved in a pattern of leaves. Bernice examined it with interest. Some bush artist had been at work with a pocket-knife.
Cobwebs hung from the rafters. The door would not close. There was no window. A couple of slabs had been knocked out to provide daylight and air.
The place was apart from the centres of art, from the ateliers of Europe and their gossip, their scandals, their conventions of unconventionality—and their men! Ugh! she was filled with sudden nausea to remember the soft-handed, sex-sated flâneurs fond of a bed and of...Of course, some of them had panned out well in the war, but the men at Gyang Gyang underwent a war training twelve hours a day, six and a half days a week—seven in emergencies. She compared the man who had rent her existence with Peter of the piratical beard and terrifically blue eyes. She sat upon the doorstep and fell into retrospect in the dazzling sunshine that sparkled for miles and miles on range and plain.
An apartment rose before her mind. It was on the Avenue des Fleurs. It was large and well proportioned. One wall was covered by Persian tapestry, the others by Oriental rugs and embroideries, pieces of china and pictures approved by the cognoscenti. The bed was a large divan piled with rich and varied pillows. The deep window-seats had pillows too, and marvellous jardinières, and curtains heavy with tinsel embroideries. There was a Persian carpet and a white wolfskin on the floor. A writing-desk had a quaint cushion for the feet. There was always a bowl or two of fruit and flowers—priceless bowls, costly fruits and flowers arranged with impeccable art. There were other delightful little pieces, a small stool of leather work, another carved, and a paper knife and book stand, and of course the piano—the splendid piano, unornamented, unhampered, at which Monsieur Basil Vorotnikoff sat to practise in garb as businesslike as an athlete's. That was when he worked. Oftentimes he played specially for Bernice, looking at her with his long glowing eyes half closed, clad in a flowered Chinese dressing-gown and gold-embroidered Turkish slippers. Monsieur Basil's person was perfumed—even his toenails were manicured, and his marcelled mane waved back from a white forehead. Oh, a sybarite, an exquisite, a genius, a social darling, a creature of beauty!
Bernice, devoted to music, had heard him play in a studio in Paris at the end of her first year there when all still was fairyland. He had singled her out and praised her gift of portraiture. He had come to her studio following this, or her share of the studio which she occupied with a girl from London. Monsieur Basil, the celebrated, young, handsome, reputedly nobly-born, was a large fish in that little aquarium.
Bernice, always an industrious worker, conscientiously bent on acquiring technique, experience, contact, and general culture to do herself justice and satisfy the Australian public to whom she belonged, had drawn aside for the first time for a little relaxation, which association with Basil Vorotnikoff provided.
She recalled today as she sat in the doorway of the men's rude comfortless hut at Gyang Gyang with the empty plains and hills stretching away in tussock garb for eighty miles or more, the thrill that had invaded her when, spending a sketching holiday on the Riviera, she had met Vorotnikoff again and he had royally entertained her and her friend at the Negresco in Nice.
"Mais, ma chère," he had whispered in parting, "this is public. You must come one day to my private apartment and I shall play for you only—you alone! I feel you shall inspire me to play, bigger, better, with all my genius in flower—till I shall be the greatest genius of my time. It is my due."
In that foreign tongue, even this frank self-appraisal had been glamorous, though away back in her native Sydney, where meiosos is good form, if a man dwelt on his own achievements he was put down as a "blow-hard" and became an object of ridicule. Bernice was ready to fall in with the French idea of this being British hypocrisy, because the Sydney blow-hards had nothing in themselves to extol so wonderful as the personality and genius of Basil Vorotnikoff. French after a year Bernice could understand, but expression in the language still retained its romance. Sentiments in that tongue were etherealized, and Monsieur Basil, pressing her hand—he could make a common handclasp a thrilling for-you-alone caress—had muttered an aside for her alone right under the ear of her chum as only those men can, who are reared where free social intercourse between the sexes is not innocently practised.
Vorotnikoff, practised in all such Continental finesse, liked to see the colour mount in that strange satin-silver cheek, the dawning light in her secluded amber eyes—from far Australia. There were Australian singers too, and musicians. These rough people, descendants of criminals, were rich in talent, but so crude, so barbarous—such clodhoppers. Their emotions must be raw and real. A new experience to stir one of them—good for himself—for her, incomparable! Monsieur Basil in distributing his amorous favour was ever as sure as a British Imperialist in imposing his form of government on lesser breeds that it was entirely beneficial to the underdog, and Bernice in cette galère was like a novice with a walking stick pitted against an exponent skilled with the rapier.
Vorotnikoff liked to imagine her unsophistication and innocence. He called her playfully his pretty barbarian. Bernice recalled every thrill of her first visit to his Nice apartment, the wonder of that old-world culture and artistic atmosphere—all the fine dressing which money, leisure, taste, and selection puts on the same human elements as lay open to observation at Gyang Gyang, transforming these elements, not infrequently refining them, but often, very often not ennobling them or taking them one inch farther on the road of higher humanhood. Sometimes very much the reverse.
She gave the afternoon to reliving the whole experience, sparing herself nothing.
Vorotnikoff had gone on a tour of South America after that and had been absent the best part of a year. He had however not forgotten his jolie barbare, his princesse lointaine. She became the possessor of a collection of Vorotnikoff photographs, each grandiloquently autographed. Fellow artists chaffed Bernice about that collection, which her chum insisted upon proudly displaying. There was also a collection of little notes on extravagant paper such as no short-haired clean-shaven Australian could have brought himself to use, notes delicately worded which meant nothing to the sophisticated—nothing but pretty notes, but they became the breath of life to Bernice.
Then one day there had been a telegram from Cherbourg followed by his voice on the telephone. He could not wait to see her. That very afternoon he was in her studio, hastily rearranged for his coming, full of spring flowers, with the girls' few best bits conspicuous. The chum was as flattered as Bernice. They both made sketches of Monsieur Basil as he lounged with incomparable grace in their old chaise-longue.
It was then that he commissioned Bernice to do a portrait of him. It had been a great lift to her artistic career to have a portrait of so celebrated a person in the Autumn Salon. Basil had a following among the intelligentsia and the plutocracy. They went to see the portrait of their pet, prepared to sneer at the work of a young barbarian from the antipodes—the suet-pudding—roast-mutton—wool-in-their-brains British antipodes too! They were astonished. Here was native power and disciplined technique combined with a complexion of the newest schools like finishing enamel. Hein! Monsieur Basil reaped another laurel for his discovery, while it established Bernice as an artist whose career was worth watching.
There followed enchanted experiences for Bernice. She appeared in the salons of the Avenue d'Eylau and elsewhere.
The sophisticated had a new story, exquisitely amusing. Would Monsieur Basil succeed as he had always succeeded; and how soon would he weary of his new toy? or would the stiff, heavy, unversed Britisher conquer him, herself being conquered only by marriage. Ah, but that would be one of the most amusing incidents since the war—Vorotnikoff with his pre-war Mrs Grundy gifted barbarian.
Bernice was not so pre-war as all that. For a considerable time she imagined that the musician would marry her, that she could endure nothing else. She had been so reared in the respectable suburb of Strathfield in provincial faraway Sydney. They laughed about her in Paris as a survival, a museum piece, with her great head of hair and outmoded code: but it gave her a year or two longer of rich artistic education and experience than she might otherwise have reaped.
There was a six months in Rome and another in Leipzig while Vorotnikoff toured Europe, and still people speculated if the barbarian had capitulated. At length the post-war point of view prevailed with Bernice. Vorotnikoff insisted that his genius must be free to flower without chains. What was the sordid array of wives of genius and of royalty lumbering history compared with the brilliance of the other ladies—the deathless affinities? Bernice ate of the apple of sophistication.
She nerved herself to recall her first occupancy of that choice apartment on the Avenue des Fleurs. She had been Lady Godiva there to Monsieur Basil's intense inspiration—yet the gentlemen at Gyang Gyang turned their eyes the other way if she sat with tresses unbound!
She had suffered qualms. The Mrs Grundy element in her upbringing for ever protested and taught her to envisage the days when this should end, but Vorotnikoff grew more ardent when she was all his. He piled upon her every tribute and token of affection, every honour. Always it was, "Other times I have wearied, but with you—three years now since I first met you, yet more and more you enslave me, till I am demented with my passion for you, which nothing will appease."
Bernice was not jealous of those other women whose portraits were to be found in the apartment. It was satisfactory to think that they had been able to inspire only a fleeting affair, which had waned ere consummation: so Monsieur Basil retailed it, apperceptively assuming the acceptable version for this gausche Britisher who had come to him unproven.
It was miraculous to possess all of this wonderful man, impossible almost, but still there were in history examples of Continentals being true till death. In a number of instances the women had tired first. Bernice recovered from her feeling of shame and desire for seclusion, seeing that the cliques in which she circulated regarded her triumph as one to be bannered abroad, and that numerous women, some of them from the great houses, and respectable mothers, tried by every art palpable and impalpable to supplant her. Success attended her. Her technique ripened and gained its own individuality. She had the same capacity for sheer hard work as the gentlemen at Gyang Gyang, and that had been all to the good.
Sydney had grown proud of its daughter. Mr Gaylord had become a person of importance at studio beanos, and deserved it, and was very proud and happy. No hint of the extent of his daughter's connection with Vorotnikoff was permitted to reach him.
Then Vorotnikoff signed a contract for an extensive tour of the United States and Canada, after which he was to think of Australia, that peculiar land of wool and convicts and droughts which could throw up a Bernice or a Florence Austral or a Melba or a Low or a couple of Lindsays or a Gilbert Murray to be conspicuous pebbles on the plages of Europe.
Bernice refused to go to the United States. Her upbringing forbade that she should parade herself round the English-speaking world with a man unwed, though it might well result in artistic fame and fabulous wealth. She could perhaps arrange to be in Australia at the same time as the pianist, though such circumspection would be necessary that probably Basil would consent to marriage as a convenience. She still hankered after marriage and expected it eventually, which showed how little she understood Vorotnikoff and the world she had blundered upon.
During Vorotnikoff's American tour she had gone to London to be with one of the foremost English masters. She worked furiously, to the admiration of her spectacular elder, so that when he had an exhibition her pictures were shown in the same room. Unspeakable honour!
The letters from the United States were not so devoted as those from the Argentine, but Bernice attached no importance to this. She was herself so occupied with the great master that she sometimes omitted to write till the last minute.
The blow began to fall when she found Vorotnikoff had been a week in Paris without communicating with her or crossing to London. Still she was too inexperienced to know that all was over, that Basil's references to herself and the master—who never treated her with anything but the honest affection of a great man for a pupil of genius—were intended as a graceful way out for her, while he himself escaped through another door.
It was blared in the papers one day, copied from the American press. Bernice went to the London office of the Chicago papers—it was in Chicago that it happened—and looked up the files. She herself was not mentioned except by one enterprising interviewer who had published a copy of her portrait of Vorotnikoff. He had always carried that about with him and must have lent it to the paper. It was captioned as the work of an unknown painter and Vorotnikoff was eulogized as one who gave such opportunities to obscure fellow artists. There was no mention that seduction was the only fee he had paid for the work.
The lady in the case was Mrs Cyrus Belton-Rummer, who by her marriage ten years earlier had united two families of steel and pork multi-millionaires. She had two normal children and an impeccable, if rather stuffy little husband and the "romance" rocked society from ear to ear. There were columns of guff. The wonderful lovers were to be married six months later in Paris as soon as Mrs Belton-Rummer's decree nisi was made absolute. Mrs Naidée Rawson Belton-Rummer already had an apartment in Paris and was to be seen there in the smart American set with the Princess Kastalsky, her cousin.
That should have put the tin hat on Bernice, but she was so unplucked that she had to take all of it, saving herself no pride wound, collecting no pelf as experienced participants would have done. She had flown to Nice to see her Basil for herself. She found another being in his shell. Pictures of the ripe and gorgeous Naidée abounded in the familiar apart. She recognized them from the newspapers. Basil was graceful, self-contained, gentlemanly from a technical point of view—and cold: it was like trying to melt diamonds.
An artistic shrug or two rather than words conveyed to her that she had enjoyed inestimable advantages by the liaison. It had made her. As for her broken heart, Vorotnikoff could not help that. Since his schooldays he had had this fatal fascination for the opposite sex. There was the poor little Russian dancer who had committed suicide, and the Italian opera singer who had suffered mental derangement—because he had denied them. What was a man to do who was so fatally dowered? "As for you, ma chérie, ma jolie barbare, ma princesse lointaine, I shall always place you among my fragrant memories. You would not wish to spoil that effect—you, an artist!"
Could this man, so cold, so calculating, so ineffably conceited, be her Basil, who had bathed himself in her hair and kissed her feet? This was some fiend in his semblance. Skilled as one of her breed could never be in exactly the same way, he had manoeuvred her to the door and, for the benefit of his femme de ménage, composed a graceful tableau. "Au revoir, chère mademoiselle!" He took her hand, but Bernice, all British in that moment, her dander savagely raised, smacked his cheek resoundingly with the hand he would have kissed, exclaiming, "You dirty little half-black puppy, don't ever touch me again!"
Vorotnikoff raised his shoulders with incomparable grace, completing a scene in which he was the exquisite, the sophisticated Continental, she the crude, the barbaric Briton convulsed by hysteria—le mouton enragé. Vorotnikoff was hardened to scenes with discarded amoureuses. Owing to his fatal fascination this sad task was always his. No one ever tired of him, alas!
Bernice tore down the stairs.
Greater relief that she stamped off like that without taking her two pictures with her. He had never paid a penny for either of them. One of his own race could never have been so remiss. These stupid English deserved their plucking. He waved a delicate handkerchief as if freeing the room of some unpleasant odour and murmured something about once a barbarian always a barbarian.
The femme de ménage upheld him volubly. The English were very heavy and stupid but they had the money in these terrible post-war days when all the nations had saved their thick skins and left France the burden.
"Not so stupid, then, madame! Hein?" said Vorotnikoff with a cynical smile. And the Americans, they were as stupid as the English, but they had even more money and should be made to pay. Stupid wasteful people! Canaille!
Vorotnikoff confided that he had one coming there presently. Rich, rich, rich! and again rich! Madame's little beady eyes glittered.
Vorotnikoff sat down and played a dainty caprice which reached the ears of Bernice as she retreated furiously, seared by humiliation. If only she had stuck to her own old codes! People like Basil might sneer at them but they did not lead to this.
The fierce regrets came back today in the sunlight of Monaro. If only she had not been so stupid! Had she been alert, she could have taken Vorotnikoff's suggestion about her and the English master and saved her pride. Her story got around among those who had known of her relations with the pianist. It would have passed in the daily gossip as the interesting happening of a week if only she had known how to play her cards.
"It served me right for having traffic in that sort of thing! I had been reared to something cleaner," she confided to the daisies about her feet. "And I have had my experience. It is not suspected here, thank goodness, and in those circles where it is known, where they think that inspiration for art must be rooted in a mess of sex, they won't be able to discount me as a daughter of Mrs Grundy who has had no experience but her inhibitions."
A smile flickered on her face as she looked at the hut behind her. What would Vorotnikoff do in such surroundings? How would these men act in the apartment on the Avenue des Fleurs? It was easy to picture them there, observant of every detail, self-contained and feeling their way, keeping their heads and their self-respect, liking much of it, contemptuous of the effeminacy, but giving Vorotnikoff his place for his gift and the pleasure it would bring them.
It was Vorotnikoff who would wilt in such an exchange. There was something parasitic in the artist, she reflected humbly. His products were amongst the luxuries, while the men at Gyang Gyang were occupied with basic necessities. Nevertheless, peoples who have no art have travelled no distance on the way to culture or idealism. Analysed, what part did culture or art really play in the climb to heaven or superhumanhood, when Vorotnikoff and many like him, brilliant artists and steeped in culture, could still be unmanly, ungenerous cads at core? Culture was sometimes an acquired polish on native nobility, and more frequently merely a veneer on spiritual gracelessness. Art was of more concrete definition—a tangible symbol of things unseen in the human soul but keenly to be felt.
Something more than culture, more than genius, was indispensable to make a man: There must be something true at the core. Vorotnikoff preened his feathers in forests of mental and artistic treasure which were only vague hinterlands to the men at Gyang Gyang, who lived as labourers. Their tasks were mostly arduous physical toil, yet it could not be denied that they were gentlemen. They could be depended upon to stand up with manliness and resource to each circumstance as it outcropped; was that not one sound test for men or gentlemen?
It came to her as distinctively as the blazing quality of the sunlight, while the gyang gyangs, kookaburras, magpies, wagtails, and other friends chattered about her, that these men, living so far from the world of exquisites, were gentlemen, entitled to association with other gentlemen at home or abroad.
Among nations, perhaps her own and New Zealand were the only two where ladies and gentlemen did much of their own manual labour—a commonwealth contribution in practical democracy. It came to her with the refreshment of a new idea. She effervesced in her favourite limerick:
"Il était un homme de Madère
Qui cassa le nez à son père,
On demandait, 'Pourquoi?'
Il répondit, 'Ma foi,
Vous n'avez pas cunnu mon père!'"
It was out of that day's meditations that one of Bernice's celebrated pictures took form. A bigger canvas than any she had hitherto used appeared at Gyang Gyang: it has been on view in the capitals and larger cities of the Commonwealth for nearly two years now. The doyen of Australian artists declared it "The soundest contribution to Australian art of its decade," and, on his advice, it has been purchased for the nation.
The picture as finally organized showed Black Peter to the left, shoeing All-the-Week. Almost off the map, on the right, the Dude was washing his motor-car. Centre forward, the Boss was putting an edge on an axe, with Red Peter turning the handle of the grindstone, while about the Boss's feet a couple of kittens rubbed with evident affection. This detail made the whole camp laugh, none heartier than Labosseer himself, who was so esteemed by even these half-wild creatures, which homed in the wood-heap, that they allowed him to handle them. Up stage the Cook was cutting Beardy's hair, while Oliver Burberry, Esquire, of Woollahara, late of Myall Downs, with his commanding profile to the spectators, was washing his pyjamas in a petrol tin, a favourite pipe in his face. The Pup lapped milk out of a tilted camp-oven short of a leg. These activities were set amid the snow-gums and blackbutts clustered before the kitchen, with the smoke blue above the chimney. For decorations there were gyang gyangs above, and the case which Burberry bestrode as he washed was set amid the gold and ivory everlastings. In the catalogue the picture is entitled, "Sunday Morning at Gyang Gyang", and the explanatory note states that the chores being done represent Sunday-morning recreation among the gentlemen at Gyang Gyang—emergencies permitting.
The artist was indebted to Black Peter for many useful hints.
It was an acute blow to Spires when he found he was not to appear in the picture. He offered Bernice fifty pounds and rose to a hundred, but she was deaf to his importunities.
"I have to be allowed to choose what models suit me," she said firmly, "and you do not fit in this case."
"You are not the typical bushman squatter type." He had been patronizing about the bushwhackers at the opening of their acquaintance.
"I may know the city, but I grew up in the bush and belong to it by rights."
"No one else at Gyang Gyang has been in Sydney for anything but a holiday or a little business."
"Then you'll have to paint me separately."
"I am not taking commissions for portraits at present, and you might think my terms exorbitant."
"What are they, may I ask?"
"Twenty guineas for a crayon study, but ten times that for a full length in oils."
"Have they all got to fork up like that?"
"They might put in a bill for services as models, only they won't." She smiled as she said to herself, "Because they are gentlemen at Gyang Gyang." They wouldn't keep two of her best pictures without paying for them. She wondered if Vorotnikoff still had her two pictures in the Avenue des Fleurs. They were a great bargain for someone to snap up now, while, according to rumour, she had retreated to the bush to die of lung trouble accentuated by heart strain brought on by overwork in the fogs of London and Paris.
She smiled broadly into the sunshine of Gyang Gyang, hoping that this rumour would cover her till she had done enough work to burst into a big one-man show. She had forgotten Ced Spires.
"Why are you so severe on me, when you know I am your slave?"
"You are used to being that kind of slave, aren't you?" Her tone was perfunctory.
"Never, 'pon my word! Never to such an extent."
"It always seems like that while it lasts, but it doesn't last long. You can take comfort in that."
"How do you know it doesn't last long?"
"By looking on. Am I blind or mentally deficient?"
"I expect, Miss Gaylord, you are a flirt, and many poor chaps——"
"Have you seen any tendency towards flirtatiousness in me?"
"Not with me, at any rate."
"No, the boot has been on the other foot."
"Don't try to escape by pretending I'm only trifling. I never was more real in my life."
"What a pity!"
"What do you mean?"
"But what does that mean?"
"What a pity that you were never more real, I suppose."
"Do you only favour the real way-back type for your pictures?"
"Dear me, no!"
"Then why do you rule me out so severely? I don't think it can be my lack of beauty, seeing that Beardy and the Cook are such favourites."
"There may be state and other reasons. You should be content with the state reasons," she said coldly, rising and walking away.
"Miss Gaylord, wait a minute. This isn't fair. Do you mean that you actually dislike me?"
"I dislike flirtatiousness. I am repelled by that form of social intercourse."
"But I assure you that the thought of flirting is far from me. You've got me entirely bowled over."
"In that case, Mr Spires, I advise you to get back to the perpendicular as quickly as possible. I must get on with my work."
"You can't live by work alone."
"My work is the most important thing in the world to me."
"But they all say that love is the most important thing in life to a woman."
"Men have made up that yarn because they want it to be so. Even so, I'm not a girl. I've had plenty of time for half a dozen love affairs."
"Is that it? Is your heart dead?"
"Quite the reverse. Since I came to Gyang Gyang it has embarked on a new phase—larger and stronger than ever before."
"Good lord! Who? Not Black Peter?"
"All the gentlemen at Gyang Gyang with their simple direct friendship and their kindness in helping me in my work, and this wondrous expanse of beauty, have contributed."
"But I don't understand."
"I don't expect you to. Your idea of love perhaps is personal and limited. You may even confuse it with another emotion."
Ced Spires had found lately that masterful he-man strokes copied from the films had success. Lunacy entered him. He seized Bernice's wrists dramatically. She was used to arguing with those wordy fellows to be met at studio and theatrical parties, to a few of which he had penetrated, but he would show her!
"You are not dealing with some town fellow who is all talk," he said masterfully. "I'm no milksop who sits on an office chair all day and pares my nails. I've been in some tight corners in my day, but always got what I wanted—by taking it." Bernice stood perfectly still and looked at him, amusement bubbling in her.
"The 'flims' have gone to your brain, as the mailman said of those poor little drover boys in the wide hats and long spurs, who rode their nags on to old Bluestone's veranda—only their exhibition was much more excusable."
"If you think I am to be trifled with, you've never been so mistaken," he retorted, pulling her to him and kissing her hurriedly.
"How dare you!" said Bernice. "I shall have to complain to Mr Labosseer. I cannot put up with this. I will not have my work interfered with."
A spectator of this was Black Peter who had come round the corner, stockwhip in hand. He caught the tenor of the dispute instantly.
"You needn't complain to Mr Labosseer; I'll attend to this myself at once," he said. A coil of the deadly whip was round Spires's throat. He let go his hold of Bernice, gurgling and struggling for air. Peter was an adept in the use of a stockwhip. His mates delighted in his skill.
"You dirty dog, I'll flay the hide off you!"
"Belongs to you, does she?" snarled Spires.
"By the Old Harry! I'll give you a proper lambing for that. I'll teach you that I shouldn't let you attack a black gin and get away with it, if I were around."
He took a piece out of Spires's hat. Spires rushed at him. Peter sprang off and flipped a piece from his adversary's ear. He then struck him across the shoulders and legs till Spires could have screamed with pain. He could not counter that dreadful thong, and those terrific blue eyes had the glare of the male creature when his female is menaced. Perhaps Bernice looking on found it a good study, like the fighting dogs. He would not ask for mercy or make terms with her a witness, though he had reason to fear for his eyes. Flight was the only refuge left him. He took it. He bolted around the hut. He was driven from that towards the woolshed. He thought he heard a feminine laugh as he fled. Hell was in his heart.
"Leave the camp at once and never come back, and I shan't say anything of this," commanded Peter. Spires's reply was fit for inclusion only in volumes of fiction accounted strong by their profusion of obscenities and blasphemous expletives. But nothing he said deterred this demented fool with the whip.
"Leave the camp at once, before the Boss comes back," Peter said over and over like Fate or one mentally deficient. A gash in Spires's cheek decided him to leave the field of battle for the present. Blood covered him. He feared disfigurement.
"I'll keep watch till I see you've gone, you ——" bawled Peter, retreating towards the house. There he tossed Spires's things through the window.
Spires bound up his face with the tail of his shirt, took his belongings, and soon his car was heard churning up the hill from the camp.
"You can make your own explanation of why you left!" shouted Peter.
Spires was almost too shaken to steer clear of the stumps, logs, boulders, and holes that abounded all the way round the hill and across Black Plain, but rage and hatred and lust for revenge steadied him eventually. First it was record driving to Cooma, where there was a good hospital and doctors, to see the extent of damage to his face. When Peter found himself arrested and charged with intent to do grievous bodily harm, he would laugh on the other side of his face.
Peter walked into the house to see how Bernice was. "Hope that cur didn't hurt you?"
"Oh, no. He didn't hurt me. I am very thankful to you, but I wish you hadn't been quite so severe. It wasn't necessary."
"I wasn't half severe enough. If you only knew him as I do."
"It will cause such a horrible fuss."
"No fear! We can sit tight and say nothing. I'm not supposed to be home. I don't think the Cook saw anything. He's generally snoozing at this hour. If not, I'll have to square him, that's all. Spires will have to explain why he left in such a hurry. I shan't, unless you want me to."
"Oh, no, No!"
"That's settled then."
"You always have to be rescuing me." She smiled at him.
"If you are satisfied, it suits me down to the ground." He smiled in reply, his teeth white in his black beard, a twinkle in his eyes. Then he turned to walk away.
"Let's have a cup of tea together. We want something to steady our nerves."
"Goodo! I'll rouse the Cook for the tea, if you'll set out the cups."
"And I'd like to call you Blue Peter, if I may—of course I mean when no one is listening," she said rather shyly.
Peter stopped still and smiled happily at her. "I should like that immensely," he said.
"I mean because of your eyes, and because the Blue Peter is my favourite flag."
"I thought you might have meant that I gave you the blues." He was at his ease now, smiling freely as he looked at her. "I think my eyes are vile. They might be right enough on a girl."
"Is that why you preserve such a large beard, so there'll be no mistake?"
"Not exactly. I've never been afraid of being mistaken for a girl."
"No. That need not be one of your worries!"
He went to the kitchen whistling a beautiful note.
"Poor Mr Spires, I think he must have been drinking," Bernice observed when they were seated before a fresh batch of cookies and the tea. "That is the only way to explain his foolish antics."
"There is nothing in the Ram Paddock, where he should have been, but the best water or the fly-dressing. Spires is much too fly for much drink. He might divulge something that would not be good for him if he had a little booze in."
"Hasn't Spires come in yet?" inquired Labosseer, as they assembled for dinner.
"No," Burberry replied.
After dinner Labosseer inquired again. It was an unwritten rule of the camp that if any man was missing at bed-time it had to be reported. It would have been easy for a man to be lying somewhere in that area with a broken leg or skull. The Cook said he had seen Mr Spires drive away about three thirty in his car. He could give no further information. Burberry reported that his things were gone.
"That's strange," said Labosseer. "Did you see him, Bernice? Did he say anything about going?"
"I saw him go, but he did not say anything to me about it." She did not trust herself to look towards Peter, who, contrary to custom, had come into the living-room and had his head in a newspaper to cover the delirious ecstasy that was flooding him.
"It's rather rumtefoozle that he didn't leave some message," remarked Labosseer. "I don't know what to make of it." He went to the kitchen to nurse the kittens and have a yarn with the Cook and the men. He knew nearly every one of them from childhood and was interested in their doings and reports of the day and plans for the morrow's work.
The doctor pooh-poohed the idea of the cuts in Spires's face being serious. "Not enough to spoil a girl's beauty," he observed, and applied a little sticking plaster.
Spires had cooled down on his run to Cooma and decided that he could not charge Poole without evidence. He could hardly call Bernice on his side. He was not such an unbleached gomeril as to let it come out that he had to run from a stockwhip because he insulted a lady; but if Peter thought he was going to get away with it, he had never put his foot in such a wombat hole in his life. Just wait! Also, in view of her part in his humiliation, he felt more hatred than love for Bernice, but not one whit less passion—a comfortless combination for all parties.
Labosseer was called from the kitchen to the telephone. He came with an armful of half-grown kittens. It was Spires explaining from Cooma that he had received an urgent wire.
"Very serious family matter. My sister. So stupid of me, I wrote a note, then forgot to leave it on the table. I'm more than sorry to rush away like this, Mr Labosseer, but I can't help it. I'm only thankful that the flies are not so bad now. I'll be back for the crutching—within a week at latest."
Spires was gambling on the silence of Peter and Bernice, and on Labosseer's not finding out from Goonara if a wire had really come, which would have been so easy to do.
Bernice looked at Peter this time. He returned her glance, his eyes blazing with a new radiance.
"That's the last we'll see of Mister Spires," he remarked to his chief.
"Why do you say that?"
"I have a feeling he's bunked."
"He is an alien element among the men at Gyang Gyang," observed Bernice.
"So you don't like him either!
"I don't think about him at all."
"You can move back to your own bunk," remarked Burberry.
"I shall," replied Peter, and reambushed himself behind his paper for safety's sake.
Labosseer settled the kittens more comfortably, one on his shoulder, another under his chin, and continued at the telephone for his nightly taking of the pulse of the weather Down Below and Lower Down and Farther Out, as well as Up Above.
Peter withdrew to rearrange his sleeping quarters and Burberry accompanied him. Bernice drew up to the fire, which was pleasant in the evenings 4570 feet above sea-level.
The wires that evening carried the reports of a new disaster. Caterpillars had taken possession of the west country and Riverina. They had eaten the face off Jindilliwah, travelling in an impenetrable belt twenty miles wide at the rate of three miles a day. They had taken the leaves off fruit trees and the fruit off the stones, and penetrated to greenhouses. There was not a blade of grass in certain districts for the sheep to face the winter. Those owners who had not removed their stock early were scouring the country in all directions for relief country. Some had already resorted to hand feeding, in a quandary as to whether it would not be better to let the sheep die now rather than later—when they might have eaten three times their value.
There was always the chance of rain.
"Well, that means we'll be late up here this year," concluded Labosseer. He made a few notes for wires to be sent next morning and then said to Bernice, "Have you had anything to do with Spires's sudden departure?"
"I might have had a little. You know you told me to be plain spoken."
"Oh, I see. That accounts for it. Is that what Peter meant—or did he know?"
"I don't think he knew what passed between Mr Spires and me—not unless Mr Spires told him, which is unlikely."
"Spires can take care of himself, I should judge, but don't you chase any more men out of the camp, with labour scarce and crutching coming on," he said with a smile.
"Not if I can help it." She smiled in return. "I want most of the others for my work too."
Crutching descended upon the community of Gyang Gyang. Not only were there the one hundred thousand merinos claiming Gyang Gyang as headquarters to be put through, but flocks on neighbouring leases also used the plant. The long days became more tightly packed with action than before. The rumble of the engines and the whirr of the machines announced the beginning of the day in the shed.
The Expert was the man of the hour, second only to the Cook. He was one of Labosseer's protégés and had grown up on Jindilliwah. He had not taken to sheep, but was a whale with machinery. The Boss revelled in his mechanical skill. When the shed did not claim him he burrowed into the vitals of the cars of Labosseer and Burberry and the Dude and made new powers of them. He erected an aerial in his spare time. The high camp echoed music and voices from Java and Japan and the men hung breathless on the progress of prize fights in Sydney and Melbourne. Marvellous this to old Beardy, a survival from the long, lone days when the mail came once a week and the silent telegraph-wire had been the only link with the outside world.
According to the Boss, Black Peter was coming out in flower. He whistled like a thrush and could be heard at daybreak joining Burberry in carolling "A Bicycle Built for Two", "After the Ball", and such standard ditties with which Burberry's repertory had closed. He looked at Bernice every time he met her and smiled openly. He took time, despite the press of work, to look at her paintings. He volunteered criticism. He had an eye for line and a sense of proportion, and could grasp what she was attempting happily and helpfully. If he told her she had a subject true to life, she could depend on his opinion and know she was free of technical mistakes as to the anatomy of animals and so on.
He never sounded an amorous note. Bernice persuaded herself it was for lack of opportunity that she did not follow her host's advice and illustrate that he had no hope. She would find those eyes of extraordinary blue, when they met her gaze, darkening as if they had absorbed a little black ink, in the way that white roses or carnations will become veined with green ink in honour of St Patrick's Day: the air would seem to be electric with his tenderness towards her. Away from his presence, without tangible evidence, she would recall that some of the most insensitive and vulgar men and women she had encountered could blush like peonies, and that the eyes of moral detectives, if they had a dash of the Celt, could darken and soften under emotion.
Peter was intoxicated. The man who has not "denied Life", as the caterwaulers express it, knows by experience what passion means, and how long it is likely to last, and though knowledge does not preclude avidity, it steadies it. Peter was surrounded by a great radiance which, lacking the intrusion of experience, was Paradise. He was unaware that, be the circumstances never so favourable, this heavenly delirium cannot be maintained for more than a strictly limited period.
To be rid of Spires, who had so long blackmailed him, lifted tons of depression. The nebulous radiance took the form of dreams of Bernice. The incompatibility of their ways of life was not apparent from Peter's point of observation. He was not educated to know that Bernice's skill could not be achieved or maintained in the environment she was depicting, that it was largely what she knew outside and beyond it that gave her her mastery and appreciation of it.
Immediately opportunity occurred he was going to be frank with Bernice about his past and hazard his luck for further action. There was at present no chance of a minute's seclusion for confidences. Bernice was more occupied than anyone. She was enraptured with the life of the shed, and devoted several canvases and whole notebooks to it. There were the Boss and Burberry as happy as ducks in a frog-puddle, the one at the wool-press and the other picking up for a disabled neighbour. The sunlight streamed in broad shafts on the board and the sheep-pens in an arena where the air was heavy with plaint of harried sheep and the odour of their wool, the yelp of excited footsore dogs, and the admonitions and adjurations of their masters.
Bernice painted the board manned, with the sun-bitten lineaments of the ringer in high relief, and others more in shadow, dragging a sheep from the pen or hurling it a crumpled, bewildered bundle down the slide to the tally-yard.
The ringer, Jack Denning, was worthy of record. There was a legend that ringers could crutch and wig or ring eight hundred sheep per day. Denning could do over six hundred any day. He did it while Bernice painted. Though he was fifty, not a young man could approach him. It was joy to watch the surety and skill of his strong right hand. Hour in, hour out, he never missed or bungled a stroke; unerringly, apparently tirelessly, he moved through the day. There was that super-certainty of attack, that co-ordination between hand and brain—strength plus skill—that makes the master.
"He ought to be shearing for the cinema, slow motion and full speed so that all the world could enjoy him," exclaimed Bernice. "His hand never falters. It is as if there was magnetism to keep the comb and the sheep together. Such exquisite skill reminds me of Kreisler's bow on his violin."
"Dear me," said Burberry, "I'm afraid we are blind to the wonders of Gyang Gyang, seeing them every day as we do. It needs Miss Gaylord to open our eyes."
Spires reappeared one evening just at dusk. Bernice was on the hillside enjoying a full orchestra of kookaburras laughing good night against the turquoise twilight as his car came round a turn. In view of the circumstances in which she had last seen him, and her part therein, she was, for his sake, embarrassed to confront him now. Embarrassment was superfluous. Spires applied the brakes, sprang out of the car and came towards her, raising his hat with his left hand, his right cordially outstretched. His punting during his ten day's absence had left him flush and in high spirits. He was enveloped in a grey silk motor coat. Smart riding breeks replaced the garments mutilated by Peter, a wide sombrero worn at a dashing angle was almost flashy but carried off by overweening self-confidence.
"Well, Miss Gaylord, how do I find you?" he inquired with complete self-assurance. "Glad to find you still here. Our heavy-handed lunatic might have devastated the camp in my absence. Is he still at large?"
Bernice could not refuse his hand without making a scene before the Cook, who had appeared at the door of his humpy and was laying tin plates on some rough planks under an awning of bags, where the shed workers had their meals. Bernice confined herself to "Good evening!" She felt there was the making of a Vorotnikoff in this material had it the requisite nurture.
The Boss, seeing the car, came down from the shed. "Well, Spires, so you got back? Hope your family affairs were all right."
"Yes, thank you. I think my sister is safe now. Sorry to have been a day or two longer than I expected."
"There's still plenty left to do," drawled Labosseer. "What's the matter with your face?"
"I had a narrow shave—the glass in my windshield..."
"You speed fiends—if you like to take your lives in your hand."
"I certainly had the pace up a little." Spires winked at Bernice. Resenting such camaraderie, she walked inside.
"I've brought some fruit. I heard you say you had a weakness for nectarines."
"I appreciate that," said Labosseer, taking the fruit tendered and beginning to eat. Spires was dumping articles on the veranda. "Peter moved back into his room. He did not expect you to return."
"I should never rely on him as a prophet. I expect he wanted his room. I brought a little tent in case of full house."
"That makes you independent. How's Sydney?"
"Very hot and dusty. I've brought the latest papers and the mail." He asked the right questions about the work and the programme for the morrow. Labosseer was well pleased with him.
It was Black Peter returning in the cool dusk from mustering stragglers in the Ram Paddock who felt his new-found confidence buckle. He stood a moment listening to be sure it was Spires's voice. This must mean that war was on, and he had more to lose now than previously. Well, war it should be, war to a finish if necessary. At least he could give Spires a whacking in a man-to-man encounter. There was stability in that realization. He strode loudly to his room. If Spires was there he should be thrown out. He wasn't. So far, so good. Peter was late and rushed through his cleaning to appear in the dining-room before the meal was done.
"Well, Peter, my friend, are you in a better humour than you were the day I left?" was Spires's greeting. The effrontery of it amazed Bernice. She watched Peter closely. He was apparently unperturbed.
"I thought it was you had the bots after you that day," he replied, taking a seat and asking the Dude, "Did you take two old ewes and a killer out of the Black Plain lot before they were put back?"
The reference to the bots was accepted as a witticism owing to Spires's sudden departure. He joined gaily in the laugh and continued talking to Mr Labosseer about the wool sales and other things.
Spires's effrontery amounted to pluck, Bernice conceded. Splendid to be so invulnerable to humiliation!
"I had a cup of tea at Goonara. Old Bluestone has started reforming," he rattled.
"Rather late, isn't it?" commented Labosseer. "What form does it take?"
"Some of them reckon he's getting childish."
"His childishness would be rather a barnacled kind."
"He's taken the old stool off the front veranda. Says he's tired of having the drunks there."
"Rather inconvenient for the real old possums and goannas," said Labosseer. "They'll have to lean against the posts or take to their hunkers. Spinning snake yarns on that stool was the only excitement they had."
"The old pub and some of the old hands would be a good subject for you, Miss Gaylord, and the Misses Drew are very curious about you. They have some weird ideas of an artist. You would be startled if you heard them."
"What are they?" inquired Labosseer. "We must educate those girls. The poor little devils don't get much chance there."
Bernice was relieved that he did not pursue the subject, but returned to Bluestone's reforms. The removal of the stool was an outrage of tradition and causing consternation among the regulars from Jindabyne to Tumbarumba. Men had sat and maudled on that veranda since the gold rush days of the sixties when the Crow's Nest had first been put together.
After dinner all the men who ate inside, with the exception of Spires, went to the kitchen to hear the wireless. Spires opened fire immediately he and Bernice were alone. He had brought her a supply of the publications of her craft. After protracted abstinence she was interested. Her heart slightly relented. After all, his passion and daring were a tribute to her, and he had suffered Peter's castigation with spirit. His intense vitality and other pleasing qualities gave him a good deal of charm of a certain kind. While Bernice turned the leaves he gossiped of a painting show he had seen in the New Gallery.
"I had tea in the studio of an artist friend of mine—great admirer of your work."
"Very kind of her," said Bernice, wary and suspicious. "Mr Labosseer assured me that none of his staff would discuss my work, as I wished to be quiet for a rest." Had this fiend babbled the secret of her retreat around Sydney? Swift hatred hardened her softening heart. She met the antagonism in the long narrow eyes confronting her—antagonism and the tiger light of passion, a merciless combination.
"You don't suppose I'd be such a melon mug as to give your show away," he said. She asked no questions, made no comment. Spires continued. "I also met another admirer of yours—knew you in Paris and London." Bernice had little present use for such acquaintances. She was increasingly uneasy but would not give Spires a handle by betraying it.
"It was little Jimmy Ticehurst. Do you remember him?"
Bernice masked her face. "Jimmy, was his name Jimmy?" She had several times put more in Jimmy's hat than she could afford. The little beast was one of those who dissipated his talents in drink and sent round his hat among his compatriots. Then when on his uppers he had no scruples in selling juicy paragraphs, authentic or otherwise, about the private amours of those who befriended him. He had been in Paris the winter Vorotnikoff had gone to the United States. How much of the atelier gossip had he heard? What had he told Spires?
"What is Jimmy doing now?"
Spires tipped his elbow. "He's rare fun when he's tanked up."
"A pity. He had talent."
"He would like to see what you are doing now. Astonishingly different from what you did over there, I gather. I saw a reproduction of that portrait of yourself—the Lady Godiva one."
Bernice remained outwardly passive. She hoped this cad was not going to show that study at the camp. It was of the nude, made at Vorotnikoff's suggestion and with his help at posing. What had created a furore and envy in the breasts of fashionable ladies in Paris would be differently regarded at Gyang Gyang. She was at a loss to estimate how Mr Labosseer might take such a thing. It would be awkward for him to be entertaining a goddaughter the original of such a picture. Curse this fellow's appearance to endanger her plans and upset her peace! He had the power to spoil both. She proceeded at his mercy.
If only she could finish her Gyang Gyang undertaking, she would not care. She would then be independent of local opinion and could say pooh-bah! to Spires and even to Sydney, but her past would be devastatingly crimson to these dear souls whose wives and sisters subscribed to pre-war bush codes. She must fight for the safe passage of her work as for a child; for its sake she must not further antagonize this man. She must dissolve his animus and work on his passion, a time-honoured method of warfare which has become almost legitimate and assuredly classic by constant employment in the battle of the ages. Surely she was a match for this fellow. If not, her European education had not very far advanced her.
"I'm sure it is good of you to take so much interest in my efforts. I wish you could have seen more and then you would be in a position to tell me if my present work shows any advance," she said politely.
"I'm afraid I'm no judge of art, but that Lady Godiva picture is stunning. After seeing it I came straight back to camp, though it really is financially disadvantageous to keep my contract with Mr Labosseer."
"I'm sure Mr Labosseer would not expect you to be a philanthropist."
"Perhaps not, but I had a double purpose. I was so interested in the portrait, thought it such a privilege to be associated with a lady of your genius, that I didn't want to leave you with such an impression..." He shrugged in quite good style. "And I couldn't sleep, Miss Gaylord, until I begged your pardon for what happened that day—for all I subjected you to myself, and through others. I assure you my...well...a man gets a bit above himself occasionally..." He halted. She felt that this was well spoken, but she did not help him.
"Well, at any rate, have I your forgiveness?" he finished.
"Certainly," she conceded, not uncordially.
"Are you really sure of that—I can begin on a new slate as if no ripples had occurred?"
"Certainly, I am not so ungenerous as to put a string on forgiveness."
He had wanted her to say there was nothing to forgive. "I'm sure you are not, but will you go further and give me practical evidence that I am forgiven?"
She was a bit sticky, but he was weary of the easily won. She saw he meant to apply the clamps and wondered which he had available. She merely gave him an interrogative glance, praying that Labosseer or Burberry would return, or that the telephone would ring.
"You know what I want?"
She shook her head.
"Well, you may think me vain and foolish, but I don't want to be left out of the pictures, not when I all along have appreciated your genius."
"It remains to be proved if it is genius—genius is a terrible word."
"Jimmy Ticehurst said you had all the hallmarks of genius, not alone in your work, but your life."
So Jimmy had been blabbing, she calculated by Spires's words and the menace of his cold sexy eyes. She hoped, however, that he had kept her whereabouts and present work to himself as something he would not give away to Ticehurst, and he appeared to be unaware that he had a good newspaper story in his hand. That was so much to the good.
"It is the irony of fate—perfectly ri-dicky-doodle-ous, as the kiddies say—that I should be excluded as a model, I who understand the Lady Godiva portrait, while these sheep...excuse me, I know they are good fellows, but you understand what I mean...you know how they would take the Lady Godiva portrait."
Still she did not help him. Apparently he did not know her value as a newspaper story and she was debating whether she should try to bluff him or merely flatter him. He was so childish about the portrait that perhaps he could be kept at bay through that till she was out of the snow-gums and blackbutts.
"I merely ruled you out because, as you see yourself, you do not fit. I'd have to do a studio portrait of you, and—I suppose I have a one-track mind—it is clean out of that groove now. I could not pull off the rails to go back to it without disturbing my present mood, and I'm afraid I was very cross with you—had been overworking. So you must overlook my irritability. Artists are like that, you know, if you thwart them."
"You will do a portrait for me, then? Of course I should prefer a studio picture."
"You'll have to wait till I get this out of the way." She knew she was being blackmailed and considered a portrait a small price to pay if it would keep him quiet on both scores. It was a two-edged bribe. She could do him as he would wish to see himself—fashionable artists mostly had worse subjects—calling it a conventional portrait, or she could portray him in accordance with her dislike, a malicious and clever study and pay her blackmail and punish him as he so well deserved.
Then, thank heaven, Mr Labosseer returned, the old cat and two kittens in his arms, and she was safe for the present. She calculated that Spires would not betray her prematurely. He would be in a better position by retaining his Godiva card than by playing it at once. She must work like a demon so that in case of accident her gallery should have progressed beyond defeat. She had been accredited a great worker in Paris and London where there was no escaping something of what social and educational life offered to filch one's time. Here there was not even a readable newspaper to detract her attention—nothing whatever from dawn till dusk but her work, or thought of her work, or rides about the land to see the life and scenery as it affected her work, and she had progressed prodigiously.
When Labosseer came in, Spires slipped out in search of Peter, but he, like Bernice, did not want Spires on his own. He stuck to his mates and Spires had to talk of generalities. Peter found the wireless a boon, though it was transmitting a lecture by a visiting scientist which was clean outside the beat of Gyang Gyang preoccupations, and dull in any case.
Spires was eager to begin on Peter. He was jealous of him and wanted money from him but he could never single him out owing to the commotion centering in the shearing-shed. Peter took advantage of it with Spires while regretting that it gave no opportunity for any chance of a talk with Miss Gaylord beyond his observations on her work. All the men employed were bunked and boarded at the camp and there was no secluded corner for anyone in those days, not even when heavy thunderstorms delayed proceedings.
During such interims some of the men went fishing and others duck-shooting and the camp lived high. Bernice did a series of swift sketches which made her as irresistible as muscat grapes to bees, and though Spires hung around her pretentiously he could find no opportunity to be familiar. Bernice exulted in the conditions, personally and artistically. If she could keep Spires at bay for the matter of a few weeks longer her work would be safe. Just a little time and her dear Mr Labosseer should come gradually to acceptance of the Godiva portrait.
But crutching came to an end. The jumbucks had all been returned to their runs from Gyang Gyang to Fossickers' Range, from Whiskey Plain to Tantangara and Nungar, to the burnt areas and the ringbarked timber from Eagle Hill and Whipstick Hill, to the Twelve Mile and Block Twenty-Five, and Spires had his chance with Peter.
They met well out in the Ram Paddock where none could overhear. Spires had his whip this time and remained on horseback.
"See here, Peter, I am not going to be taken unawares in future. There are a few points I want to lay out before you. If you ever make yourself a pest again when I'm talking to Miss Gaylord, you know what to expect."
Peter wheeled old All-the-Week to face him. His whip was curled in his hand, the handle resting on the pommel. "And as I told you before," he said, "if you think you can assault even a black gin in my presence and get away with it, you're a bigger damn mug even than you seem."
Spires sneered. "A nice lout you looked rushing in like that and striking an attitude." His whip was uncoiled ready for use.
"Whenever a lady needs me——" began Peter.
"Miss Gaylord doesn't need that kind of protection, no matter how much she might seem to you to do so. She's forgotten more than you'll ever know."
Peter said nothing.
"Now to business. I need two hundred pounds: if you like to advance it to me and leave the camp, I shall not say why you left."
Peter had lately wondered if he could not turn the tables on Spires. He had been thinking of getting a detective to help him, but such a step was beyond his experience, and his habit of going to cover within his own morbidity was hard to shake off.
"I'll give you a hundred quid and not say why you left the camp if you clear out within three days. That will give you time to get another urgent wire, and you'll have to sign a paper saying that you have no further claim on me, and in it I'll set out how much you have already bled me."
"You are not the one to make terms to me. I have nothing to lose."
"Neither have I, that's worth two hundred pounds, but I'd shell out a few quid to rid this camp of a noxious weed."
Spires knew better than to drive his victim too far. He believed Peter was smitten with Bernice though he could not gauge how deeply. Better let passion take firmer hold so that Peter could be bled on the strength of it. He could be routed as a wooer later through the Godiva picture and Jimmy Ticehurst's stories. Convince Peter that Bernice was a loose woman and he would flee from her in terror. Peter was not, however, so easily managed as of yore. He was supported by the knowledge that physically he was the better man of the two.
"Well, you know my terms—now or later," said Spires. "And keep away from Miss Gaylord. She's a little too spicy for you in any case."
This awakened Peter's berserker strain. "To blazes with you and your terms," he exploded, spurring his horse forward and lashing out. The whip fell around Spires's horse and sent him propping down the sideling. He was a Jindilliwah beast and not too happy. All-the-Week was on his native heath and went in pursuit as confidently as one of the granite rocks suddenly endowed with motion. Peter larruped horse and rider with skill. The thong round the beast's flanks maddened him. Down they went into Dinnertime Creek, the crack of shod hoofs on the boulders ringing like guns.
"I haven't any more time for you this morning!" shouted Peter. "You damned swine!"
"Next time we meet I'll have a revolver!" roared Spires with sizzling obscenities.
"Better get a little machine-gun, you b——"
Spires went about his business sore and shaken though Peter had spared his face this time. Murder was in his heart. Peter must be summarily cleared from his path one way or another, but if he could make him pay and torment him in the process there was no use in being precipitate. He estimated that the inexperienced Peter's feeling for Bernice was likely to take firm hold. He must not weaken that by too much gossip for the present. If he could himself win Miss Gaylord, well and good; if not, he would enjoy perhaps even better sport in holding her to ransom about her European life. He had found that most people had something in their past about which they were vulnerable. Discover that and it meant power. Strings could be pulled to make the dogs dance. Of course it only worked with those who remained conventional or timid at the core. Once they were hardened they were free. He fancied, however, it would still work with Peter in spite of his recalcitrance, and he was sure it would work with the Gaylord in the Gyang Gyang milieu.
On the day of the previous encounter the Cook had waked in time to put an eye to a crack beside his bunk, but he had not let Black Peter know that. He found pleasure and sometimes power in knowing more than he told at Gyang Gyang. But he and Bill Jamieson went courting in the company of Red Peter—to old Peter Stockham's, in Goonara. This made these three confidants. Bill had been mending a fence just at hand when the contest in the Ram Paddock took place, with the result that the Dude inquired of Spires that evening, "Say, Ced, were the bots having another go at you today? Bill Jamieson reckons he saw you charging down into Dinnertime as if something was tied to your tail." He winked at Peter, who preserved a cast-iron expression.
"Where was Bill? He should have come to my rescue," was Spires's unexpected reply. The Boss put the talk in a safer channel by dwelling on the prevalence of bots that season.
The Cook and Bill Jamieson retailed the gossip of the camp to the Stockham sisters without reticence. The girls were greedy for any stories of the strange artist woman and her reflex influence on the camp.
"There's hell to pay all right between Spires and Black Peter over Miss Gaylord," observed Bill next Sunday afternoon.
"Ain't the Dude gone on her too?" inquired Tottie Stockham.
"Not he," said Red Peter Stockham. "He's still after Edna Saunders."
It was established that Liddle's attentions were friendly only and free from danger to himself and the girls. He ensured his own safety by taking them in batches. A wideawake and sane young man was the Dude, thoroughly conversant with all the possibilities of his environment.
"Which do you reckon will get her?" posed the Cook.
"Aw, I reckon old Beardy is as much in the running as either," replied Red Peter.
"Ask the girls. They ought to know best about a thing like that," said Bill.
"I like Black Peter best," said Tottie, who was the Cook's desire. "And Mona casts sheep's eyes at Peter like a dying duck. It would make you sick to see a girl so soft about anything in pants."
"She's got a fat lot of chances to cast any sort of eyes at him these days," said Ella. "I don't believe he's been in Goonara since the day he met that lady. He's a nice-looking mark with that old-man beard. Wonder why he keeps it?"
"Mona has as much chance as the old Pup when he starts up a rabbit, and the sooner she finds it out the better, but the poor little devil looks mighty poor on it lately. Looks as if she's goin' like her mother." This was Red Peter's observation. Mrs Drew had been a victim of weak lungs.
"Mr Spires, the town bloke, has come for the mail nearly every day this long while," said Tottie to the Cook.
"I was too busy durin' crutchin' with all them to cook for, but I reckon Spires would be harder for a girl to ketch than Peter."
"Too true," agreed Bill. "More slippery. Doll will find herself ketchin' somethin' that's too much for her with a feller like that, if she don't look out."
"He's the sort a girl gets caught with and doesn't know it till too late," said the Cook.
"Aw, I reckon the girls know more than the men today. I reckon they don't want a good man. They're fly enough to do their own catching without danger to themselves, more fools they if they ain't," said Red Peter, guffawing loudly.
Amplification of such talk, and speculations and insinuations in keeping, retailed to the girls at the Crow's Nest by way of Ella and Tottie, brought about a crisis in Doll's brain.
Here was this awful woman at Gyang Gyang with her claws fastened in both Peter and Spires. Mona could moon about till she melted away in silent love for Peter if she liked, but as for herself, Doll liked action. She was sure this strange woman would never look at Peter while a smart town man like Spires was about. Spires represented to Doll all the glamour of Sydney life, continually in her day-dreams, and she meant to attain this at all hazards.
The wedded career of the elder Drew girl, married to Sid Brannigan near Jindabyne, gave Doll the idea for her campaign. Nothing venture, nothing win, was her slogan. Sid had at first refused to make an honest woman of Maggie. He had reckoned without old Bluestone, who was a remnant from gold rush days and used to construing the law without reference to judge or jury. Sid had resisted with braggadocio. Rumour had it that he tore up two of the pub's veranda posts as an expression of his defiance, but old Bluestone's unlicensed and rusty revolver rather than the parson's certificate had converted Maggie Drew into Mrs Sid Brannigan.
That hoary destrier's reputation behind the revolver had subdued Sid. Old Bluestone was the son of Brandy Mary and Peg-leg Bellingham, rough identities of digging days, about whom sinister things were whispered, things so sinister—connected with unexplained skeletons in the limestone caves of Monaro—that it would need another generation or two of irreproachable citizenship to expunge them from the name of Bellingham.
Doll counted upon Granddad being equally efficient in her case should it be necessary to enlist him. These emanations from a sordid, cunning little brain resulted in immediate action. She must first net Spires. He was easily netted by girls who did not demand marriage. The only men, in Spires's opinion, who wouldn't eat such fruit when proffered were the 'fraidy cats or those lacking red-blooded virility. Spires was not in either of these classes.
Doll brought matters to a head with the projected picnic. It was an established custom that once during the season the whole turnout from Gyang Gyang accepted the invitation of the Goonara-ites to a picnic, where racing or fishing was the main attraction, and wound up with a dance in the Crow's Nest garage, for which tickets were five shillings double and three and sixpence single, and the proceeds went to the Cooma hospital. Some of the gentlemen at Gyang Gyang gave articles to be raffled for this fund. There were four cars at Gyang Gyang that year, those of Labosseer, Burberry, Spires, and the Dude. With cunning for her purpose and to make it attractive to the patrons, Doll decided that this should be a fishing picnic to Waterfall Gully. Labosseer and Burberry were both ardent anglers and desirous of trying this famous creek under the tutelage of old Bellingham, who was unsurpassed in knowledge of the ways of trout.
Labosseer was to take Grandma Bellingham, and Mrs Leyden, from the post-office, in his car. Burberry was similarly accommodating to Mrs Stockham, while Spires and the Dude transported the girls. The Dude was specially good-natured and went far afield for several girls. Peter offered to stay at home to mind the camp but the Boss ordered all hands to appear, even Bernice.
"Look your very nicest and let those girls see that an artist is a normal lady. Those poor little devils of old Bellingham's are not the highest class, but how can they be anything else if they are not given a chance to improve themselves?" observed Mr Labosseer. "I'm sorry for the youngest one. She is a frail little thing and a real lady as far as she knows; and you'll find the Leydens first-class people, who will enjoy meeting you."
The day was perfect. The cars bumped across the sparkling plains strewn with sheep and daisies, each contingent contributing good things to eat and furnished with fishing tackle. By ten o'clock some thirty souls were gathering at Waterfall Gully on the other side of Goonara.
Spires invited Bernice to drive with him, but it was natural that Labosseer, with his back seat full of Beardy, Mrs Leyden, and old Mrs Bellingham, should demand a little lighter company in his front seat. Peter was with Burberry, and seeing that he too was separated from Bernice, Spires was content to seek any other sport that offered.
The men of Goonara rode the short distance to the Gully. This left Spires first choice among the girls. Burberry took care of Belle Leyden. Doll planted herself in Spires's front seat without awaiting invitation. He was inclined to rearrange this until Doll whispered something in his ear that so astonished him that his pulses stirred to pursue the matter.
"Holy sailors! Look at Doll!" whispered Tottie Stockham.
"Toffed up like a tea-roll," responded Ella.
"More like a sore toe in a fit. She could give that woman at Gyang Gyang some of the paint off her face for her pictures."
Doll had done her utmost sartorially, and her thin brown face was rouged and powdered and taut with excitement and determination. She concentrated on her own kettle of fish.
The most unusual interest for the other young women was the presence of Bernice. Here at last for close inspection was the yellow-haired tart who had seemed so colourless the day she arrived, and who had since assumed such proportions as a siren to rob them of their possible lovers—a loose queer woman, who painted pictures of naked men.
She was most unspectacular on near view, dressed in a smart coat and skirt with a shady hat below which her great plaits were coiled on her ears. She was polite, almost amiable, but nothing would ever induce Bernice to be purposely ingratiating. It was the Goonara-ites who were soon trying to win her attention.
She liked Mona and poor humble old Mrs Stockham, who called her "missus". She expressed a desire to try trout fishing and Mona offered to help her. Peter Poole also volunteered and these three went off together.
Burberry, ever a social soul, was enjoying the break in the monotony of dressing sheep for flies, and became the life of the party. He had a word for everyone, even for old Grandma Bellingham and old Mrs Stockham, and chaffed them about saving dances for him that evening. Labosseer was equally popular.
These two went away to pick up wrinkles in casting from Bluestone, and Spires found himself swiftly following Doll up a little stream that ran into Waterfall Creek. Doll was not too slow for Goonara. She exhilarated Spires. It was wonderful how a modern spirit spread even to a hole like Goonara, he thought, to a girl who had never been beyond Cooma.
When the company reassembled at twelve thirty for the picnic, Doll and Spires were missing. They did not appear till after one o'clock and were the only anglers without a fish.
"Did yez git lost?" demanded old Bluestone with a baleful expression. Doll left reply to Spires. He was glib and gay. Doll sat down beside Grandma, quiet and tense as if subduing some hidden excitement. Spires glanced at her once or twice, surprised that she did not respond. She was a deeper one than he had expected.
Red Peter, with a leer in his glance, sat down beside her and said, "I know a nice little creek where there are some overhanging rocks, where we could be all to ourselves this afternoon, Doll, if you're feelin' that way."
Doll looked at him suspicious of his good faith. "This is too sudden, and I have a headache."
"I just thought if you had room for more than one sheikh at a time, I'd let you know that I'm no wowser," he continued.
Doll paled uncomfortably under her paint. Red Peter had the reputation for letting nothing escape him. "Too many stickybeaks poking about," she said with significant asperity.
"Some other time, then, when their noses are not so long. I thought you might like to know that if there is any of that sort of thing going, I'm corn fed." Red Peter went away laughing. Doll was left pondering how he could be used for her great purpose instead of being allowed to spoil it.
The picnic passed without special incident. Bernice confined herself to Peter Poole and Mona, except at lunch. She was glad when the day ended. She was not attending the dance. Neither was Peter. Burberry, Spires, and the Dude, in addition to the men, were considered sufficient representation from Gyang Gyang.
It had been a wonderful day for Mona. Peter Poole and Miss Gaylord were both so good to her, and she loved looking at Miss Gaylord, and thought her lovely.
"I don't like your cough," Bernice said to her towards sundown. "You must have my scarf. You need it more than I do." It was woollen, of Fair Isle design, and she put it round the girl's shoulders, leaving it with her in spite of protest. Mona enjoyed it as much as a public decoration.
Burberry could not see very well at night, and a thick white fog obscured the glass in spite of patent wipers, so he accepted a seat home with Spires, and left his own car in Goonara till another day. Going home in the small hours the men discussed the community of Goonara, Spires without reserve in his remarks about the girls. When relieved of the presence of Poole, the Boss, and Bernice he had left himself go at the dance. Doll's offering had added swagger to his gait. It was testimony that he was a conqueror and that things were coming his way. Doll had been in an excited mood and danced with license, most of the time with Spires. It was a parade for her. Goonara buzzed about the attention Spires was paying her and hinted that no good could come of it.
The only other man Doll had danced with had been Red Peter and that under duress, because of what he gave her to understand he knew. Burberry, looking on, wondered if his high opinion of Spires didn't need modification. "You can never tell what's in a man till you see how he acts with girls of a certain class," he thought to himself, and recalled that the old-time Spires had been of rakehelly repute.
"These little sluts are all right in their way," he said in response to Spire's rattle, "but the Bellinghams have an unenviable record. I'd be very careful not to involve myself with Doll."
"By Christmas, so should I."
"Not seriously, of course, I know you have more sense, but in appearances. That sort of a girl—well, enough said, I reckon. I always find it best to distribute my favours and dance impartially with half a dozen of that kind of young woman, or used to do when I was your age."
"Thanks very much. I know what you mean, but you needn't fear, I'm not that kind of fool, though I may seem a bit free—anything for a break in the monotony of those stinking old sheep." Spires was relying on his own sophistication independent of any that Doll might exercise, and felt as safe as a monk in his cell.
Doll sat back and waited quietly. Time must elapse before her next move.
The camp went on with its work. Warm muggy days with thundershowers ensured grand sheep-feed on the burnt areas, even on the yellow tussocks, which the stock condescended to nip while they were young and sweet. The region was a paradise compared with the great plains northward from Riverina, where drought still held and the mortality among stock was heavy. The paradise, however, was full of blowflies. Never had there been a worse year. Nothing was safe, even saddle-cloths, woollen jackets, and underclothing were targets. Much food was wasted. It entailed the same monotonous, arduous routine every day. By the aid of such warriors as the Pup, Jack, Spot, Banjo, Bill, Lawrence, and Tinker the sheep were ringed against some fence or creek and the infected animals hauled out and dressed in the open. Late-shorn sheep and those crutched and ringed were not immune.
No picnic work this, and filthy wool cut from infected spots dotted the tussocks with the daisies—hundredweights of it. The dogs were worn out and footsore from working in the burnt tussocks, and poor little Tinker often turned turkey before a charge and limped yelping from the ruck only to return undaunted. The men, too, came home weary enough through climbing on and off their horses and running to catch the sheep, though not a man spoke of it as hard work. There would have been difficulty in determining what was hard work by Gyang Gyang standards; probably slogging at a bushfire or erecting fence-posts in a dry season.
Few men in the turnout could outdo the Boss or Burberry in spite of their years, and there was no quicker worker than Spires. Burberry and Labosseer extolled him. Spires wagered that he could dress four sheep to any other man's three, and Labosseer remarked of him that he could return from the day's work neater and jauntier than any other man.
"He doesn't hide his light in a gully," said the Dude. "He'll be a power in the final muster. If we put him on the side of the nest of peaks, I reckon he'd blow the sheep all the way up out of the gorges and the dogs could stay home for a spell."
"Perhaps he ain't so thorough," ventured Beardy. "Now, I ain't as quick as the j'ints as I was about the time that Mr Spires was keepin' his dad awake at nights yappin' for the bottle, but when I've cleaned up a sheep it'll have to be blowed in a fresh place afore I ever have to handle it again."
"I take no stock in those fellows that just slum through their work," said Labosseer, "but Spires is thorough too."
Spires was adding effort to natural celerity and had won his way with both Labosseer and Burberry. After a day or two Burberry did not think seriously of Spires's familiarity with Doll Drew. A young fellow with abounding energy often was a trifle lively in that direction. Both gentlemen were ready to recommend Spires for a post on a station when there should be an opening.
Bernice rejoiced in the conditions that secured Spires's disappearance at sunrise each morning, the only men left in camp being the Cook and whatever fortunate person she was employing in her work. This was a coveted honour and the basis of facetiousness about lovesickness and loafing. It might have irked them to hold a pose, but they would not have known it. Bernice found them inspiring and endearing models. Their patience and good humour, their ability to sit without moving for long stretches, and their appreciation of their part in the undertaking as a "lark" or a "spell" contributed to that atmosphere of affection and goodwill so conducive to progress in art.
Spires's speed resulted in his returning to camp at odd hours, leaving Bernice open to his advances. She appealed to Labosseer. "I do wish you could make a point of being home at the same time. I can't get on with my work with that bounder attempting to philander in the fashion of the Ark."
Labosseer smiled. "Do you prefer Peter?"
"Infinitely, if I must have a preference."
"Why, bless me, most girls would take it as a great compliment. He comes of a good family. Old Spires was Crown Lands Commissioner, and one of the nobs with my grandfather in his day. This fellow's father was a waster, but this man, I shouldn't mind wagering, is on the way to retrieving his family position. I have a request for a smart young manager now—came in by the last mail. It is for a married man. Which shall I put forward, Poole or Spires?"
"The best man, but as a matter of personal prejudice I should like to see Mr Poole win."
"As a matter of old association, so should I, but I can't depend on him. He has a way of letting go at the critical moment. A wife might correct that and settle him. Spires seems a smarter man and knows his way about the city too, which is all to the good. He has more ambition than Poole and he knows what he wants, and he'll go for it without being thrown off the track."
Bernice thought she had detected one of his ways of going for things not yet evident to her godfather.
"Well, now, which shall I settle, Poole or Spires?...I see you don't know yourself yet."
"Really, Mr Labosseer, I could never think of either of those gentlemen in that way, always supposing they desired me to. My work will take me back to Europe and I couldn't spare time to take on the ceaseless preoccupation with the material and mechanical side of life demanded of the mistress on a station. It seems to be more than most women can manage, without thinking of a career."
"But you won't want to paint all the time, and everyone needs a settled home."
All his own daughters were satisfactorily married and Bernice recognized a fatherly desire to settle her too. He could not conceive of a woman putting painting or music ahead of home and marriage. Such a thing was as clearly outside his orbit as understanding of the Godiva portrait. Here were Peter and Spires both on the way to positions equalling his own, and he in his sixties, since the loss of his wife, was aware of numerous candidates for the vacancy. Bernice knew she had to be careful: she would be diagnosed as afflicted with swelled head if she did not appreciate the eligibility of the gentlemen at Gyang Gyang.
"In reply to this request," continued Labosseer, "I can say that I have someone in mind, and if you don't mean to be kind to either Spires or Poole, I can try that young chap that married Burberry's daughter. He'd jump at the post, and so would his wife."
"Recommend him at once," said Bernice with her flickering smile.
"Have you someone in mind in Europe?"
"Good gracious, no! The competition there for any sort of a matrimonial berth is too terrific. A career is much to be preferred."
He did not refer to her own confession of having come a cropper amid this competition, but she knew the thought was with him in relation to Poole and Spires. She could not divulge what she feared against Spires.
He appeared not long after and improved the opportunity afforded through Labosseer's having ridden in the direction of the nest of peaks to look for a sheep that had fallen into a pot-hole. As usual Spires emitted half-baked innuendoes about post-war codes of morality. For this Bernice knew she had to thank Jimmy Ticehurst's gossip. It was excessively boring. Despite her grand-slam experience, which gave her unassailable standing in the other camp, she had no tendency towards promiscuity. Ticehurst had also enlightened Spires as to the probable fortune in Bernice's work. She was as good as an heiress and appealed to him accordingly. He brought from his tent the Godiva reproduction, full-page royal quarto, from Art, and hid it between the folds of a newspaper. He looked at it, grinned and gloated, then at Bernice, and pictured her limbs and body as they were in the portrait. He did this again and again so that Bernice's curiosity should be aroused. She was busy that day in the woolshed trying to finish her picture while the light fell at the angle she wanted. She pointedly ignored Spires's manifestations so that he had to speak.
"Holy sailors! Wouldn't I give something to see you at work on another picture like this. To look on while you paint the cracks in old Bill Jennings's dial is enough to give a man the pip."
He held the picture round for Bernice to see. She was startled to know he actually had it in camp, but retained her composure. He was not satisfied with the way she eluded him and felt he must give her a hint of his power.
"Oh," she said, "I lost my copy of that and have been wanting it for reference. Would you let me have it? It would be handy to me."
"You may have it; but I must keep it till I send for another copy."
This did not relieve her apprehensions.
"I could do so much better now. I was young and crude when I painted that," she said.
"I don't see how it could be improved. Rather daring, though, for Gyang Gyang—eh? If we put it up in the dining room it would take a rise out of old Burberry and the Boss. Holy sailors! I'd just like to see their dials. Also what do you think those little gaffers in Goonara would think of it?"
"They mightn't understand, and then again they might, if I explained." She was itching to get hold of that picture. It would take at least a week or ten days to get another copy from Sydney.
"It's wonderful what a construction they can put on the mere fact of you being an artist. It's unbelievable how behind the times people can be."
She would not betray her uneasiness. "I had an idea for your portrait the other day," she said with a smile, watching the effect.
"Oh, you had?" he said eagerly. "When do you think you'll start?"
Ah, ha! Here was his vulnerable point. "It depends entirely upon my mood. We artists are moody beasts, you know. If nothing puts me out of humour I might begin in a few weeks' time, but if anything puts me out the idea might disappear like a puff of wind. I've got a walloping lot of work to finish first, and you mustn't come talking to me and tempting me to waste time." She accompanied this by a full smile. He was appeased for the moment, she saw.
"That means I mustn't talk to you."
"Yes, you are much too disturbing," she said with a flattering inflexion. As he departed she felt sorry. With all his swagger he was easily fooled. If only she could get another full fortnight or three weeks in which he could not get her alone!
"Oh, la! la!" she carolled:
"A man of Madeira arose
And broke his progenitor's nose.
When folks asked him 'Why?'
He cried out, 'My eye!
You don't know the old man, I suppose!'"
Next morning Mr Labosseer proved an ally. In spite of Spires's brilliance, his old affection for Peter made him think that Spires was hogging opportunity, so he took him for the day to Fossickers' Range and told Peter to attend to a leak in the roof. Peter appreciated his luck and whistled as he collected his tools and fashioned a shingle or two. He always whistled when content, a thrushlike note especially melodious, once heard long remembered by those who delight in music.
He lingered on the way to the roof and gave Bernice the advice and criticism she invited. As he gained confidence, his judgments were valuable, but he never went outside them into personal territory. This was tantalizing. Why should Mr Labosseer persist in coupling him with Spires as amorous? She looked him over critically, noting the firm efficiency of his riding trousers and leggings, the cleanliness of his shirt, his neatly combed hair, and his well-tended nails on the tanned, roughened hands.
Peter had infallibly noted her every detail, the strange silver-satin of hair and skin, the dimples which came and went like shadows at the corner of her mouth, the bespattered painting smock. He had never before seen such an extraordinary garment. Then as continual wonder and refreshment there was her ability to reproduce life with a brush and some tubes of colour. Peter had enough of the artist in him shyly to delight in this gift.
On this day he brought her two or three bits of carving. Like many bushmen he had the habit of whittling on wet days or during dinner-time, only Peter's knife was many-bladed, of best steel, whetted to perfection, and his whittling always had an object. Where there were children he was a Santa Claus for toys, while most of his mates had a whip-handle of myall or yarran or tea-tree which they prized because of Peter's artistry. His own whip-handle was carved as a horse's foot, perfectly proportioned and with every detail, frog, shoe, and hair, correct.
"Did you do this?" Bernice asked, with delight in the craftsmanship.
"Yes. That is a very simple design: there's hardly a man but can do that if you give him a knife and a stick. There is more work in this. If you make a mistake it can't be covered up. This belongs to the Cook. I did it for a raffle for the Cooma hospital one year, and he won it."
He offered another handle which looked as if it was covered with plaited leather. So exact was the work, even to a Turk's head, that Bernice had to make sure that her eyes were not deceiving her. "I generally do them a bit if I have time and the right kind of wood is handy. Did you notice that pipe of Burberry's? I did that too." This had a pattern of grapes and leaves.
"This had given me more pleasure than anything for weeks," Bernice exclaimed with enthusiasm. "Have you had any training?"
"No. I just see a thing that takes my fancy and I cut it out. I often think if I had a decent light in the winter nights I could do something worth while...I was wondering if you'd like these. You seem to admire the gyang gyangs so much."
One of the pegs of Bernice's easel had been smashed in transit and a trusty stick substituted. Here were two splendid pegs carved with the heads of the beautiful birds that circled round the camp trees at all hours. Bernice ran her fingers over the work, enjoying its smooth hand-made surface.
"This is what I love, original Australian design. The grapes and horse's hoof are ancient designs, but there are so many of our own lovely things to be made known that one despairs of the few fleeting working years we have. You must help in your way. Woodcarving is one of the loveliest crafts."
"I could carve the whole of this," he said, running a great rough hand, but supple and muscular, over the new easel of white wood that had been imported for the large canvases.
"With native designs?"
"I was thinking of something as a souvenir of the pictures you painted here. All-the-Week's head, and the gyang gyangs and the daisies; and how about that tea-tree you are so fond of, or a sheep or two?"
"The tea-tree would be delicious."
"It's fine and a lot of work, but dead easy."
"Did you ever make furniture?"
"I've done some little stools and rocking chairs, but it takes a dooce of a lot of time. I could put in another support instead of the back piece and cover that with tea-tree for a start."
This was agreed upon between them—hard to gauge which enjoyed it most. To have gained such recognition in the craft in which he delighted was part of the intoxication which had crept upon Peter unawares, an unplumbed wonder.
The modesty of the man concerning his gift touched Bernice. Not so were the talented she knew abroad. Their terrible struggle to emerge had to be taken into account. Peter was able to satisfy Mr Labosseer as a candidate for a position demanding all-round capability and efficiency, yet Mr Labosseer had not mentioned this carving talent at all. Bernice knew many crafts-men and -women in Europe posing robustly on the strength of a lesser gift.
"I wonder if you couldn't do some pieces to appear at my big exhibition. An easel or two and some benches. You must have the right materials. I should love that. Do you draw your outlines first?"
"No. I just estimate with my eye how the space will work out and then go ahead. My mother used to do all the sort of things I do with a knife using a crochet needle and a reel of cotton. She never required a pattern. I used to take the prizes for drawing at the show in Cooma, and my old teacher used to say I ought to be taught more, but my dad said such idle lollipop notions ought to be belted out of me."
"Thank you very much for my gyang gyangs. I love them. Will you do something else for me, Blue Peter?"
"I can bet I will."
"Thank you. Well, Mr Spires has contracted a habit of getting home early to keep me company, and his ideas of art are not congenial."
"I'll lay him out!"
"Too much of a row altogether! Please don't ever get into a turmoil with him again, no matter how richly he deserves it. Couldn't you manage to come home when he does, and if you see him talking to me, always come right up too, no matter how much he acts as if you were intruding?"
"To butt in with a crowbar would suit me like good news from home."
"All right. Be sure you come if you see him alone with me. He can't say anything I want to hear, but I don't want to be rude to him as he is so highly esteemed by Mr Labosseer, and if I can only ward him off it will be better. I shan't be able to work if I'm disturbed. Don't be sensitive about intruding."
"I'll be delighted to have the delicacy of a ramrod in this case."
Peter sang like a windmill as he mended the roof, his mind a woof of the patterns that were to adorn the easel, or dreams of routing his adversary. There were dreams beyond even that. Only a few days since, the Boss had asked him what he would think of a first-class manager's job. "Only of course they want a married man, or one that is at least engaged," Labosseer had said, with an interrogative twinkle in his eyes.
"That puts me out," Peter had said.
"Haven't you any prospects?"
"No more than I have of being taken up to heaven in a bullock-hide chariot."
"A decent fellow always feels like that about prospects, but what about hopes?"
"Not a glimmer."
"Time you had, then, or are you going to be tamely bested by Spires?"
Peter cogitated upon what the Boss meant by that. Did he wish him to go in and win? If the Boss didn't think it preposterous when she was his own goddaughter...and then she had been so pleased with his little bits of carving—acted as if they were some great shakes.
When the roof was mended he flung a snack in his saddle pouch and sped away to the Ram Paddock, at present carrying to capacity aged ewes, which were, through their debility, in a sorry state. After running them into a corner he tied his horse on guard at one end and the Cook's dog at the opposite side. Then, with his own canine servant to round-about, the gummies were as easy to catch as if yarded. Maggotty wool soon lay all about the boreen and many a tortured creature chewed her cud with a new sense of well-being ere the sun dipped behind Razor Back and Eagle Hill and Peter rode home in the dusk that seemed to rise crisp and cold from the boulders and tussocks.
He had well nigh plunged two days' work into one and was ready for eventualities. Tomorrow Labosseer was going to inspect the men's work on the far end of the leases towards the upper Murrumbidgee and Master Spires would be kiting home early.
Labosseer and Spires had only just unsaddled as Peter neared the camp. Labosseer lingered to speak to his overseer.
"Had you time to look those old ewes over?"
"Pretty bad, I expect."
"You'd better tackle them again tomorrow. Want any help?"
"Not if I have the whole day at them."
"All right, then. Go ahead, and Spires can go to Black Plain."
Peter got away next morning while the other members of the staff were finishing their breakfast in the kitchen. The remaining infirm merino ladies received swift but efficient attention and went baaing away across the slope to where the tussocks were springing tastily on areas the burning of which had filled the world with smoke fragrance the day of Bernice's arrival. Peter remembered distinctly how he had looked ahead and wondering if the fires were getting away as he returned across Black Plain. Strange that Bernice had not seemed of any interest then. Spires could have had her for all he cared at that date. Curious how Spires had come along and seized her on that very first day. Was that prophetic? Would Spires finally go off with her in triumph, leaving him, Peter, disabled and stripped?
Spires had not carried her home in the wet against his naked chest!
Spires could not carve for her tea-tree and gyang gyangs!
He sighed. What was to be would be, he reflected in his unconscious philosophy: but all the cards were not yet played. There was no sense in throwing up the sponge without first giving Spires's tail a twist. He would rather it were Spires's neck. He felt able to screw it too, literally. There was pride in the thought of his superior strength. He sprang over the boulders down to Dinnertime Creek and slaked his thirst and washed his hands where it circled under Mountain-ash ridge, and then set to work on the easel.
Ah, ha! Neither could Spires do this for her, and she set such value on it.
He whistled at his work, sitting in the pleasant shade of a big white gum, raising his head now and again to enjoy the shimmer of the sunlight out on the plains where the old ewes were now peacefully grazing on a carpet of golden and ivory daisies. Peter knew a spot far away amid the blue peaks where the last of the big pink-and-white ones still grew, safe from the greedy, destroying sheep. He would collect them for her one day. Better still he could conduct her to that secluded spot miles away. Her pet shrub draped the winding Dinnertime here. It was a cross between a tea-tree and a heath and its bloom certainly was like honey. Delightful after the stink of those blamed old jumbucks!
It was a pity that a man could not reproduce the perfume of the tea-tree—leaves and blossom—and its colour. Perfume and colour both missing, only one element—shape—possible to him. Supposing a man could have only one element of the woman he loved, which would he choose? Would he take Bernice all still, only the shape of her, no movement, no colour? Sculpture. Or would it be better to have the colour and no shape? A picture. Now Bernice could make the colour of things but without shape—just flat outlines. He had not been given to such meditations. A new door was opening before him.
He would not like Mr Labosseer to know how he was employing he time he had earned from the day by his speed and strength. Mr Labosseer despised whittling as a waste of time, also reading. He often related how he had severely thrashed his own sons if they neglected their duties to read thrash. He expressed satisfaction in having early eliminated such unmanly tendencies. He placed love of reading on a level with love of drugs.
A thing of beauty grew under Peter's fingers. He made this an ambush of tea-tree in massed effect. Daisies and gum-blossom and birds and lizards could grow on the wider portions. This was simply a sample.
By the slant of the shadows he suddenly perceived that it was well on towards four o'clock. Wonderful what absorbing work it was. No doubt the Boss had a good case against reading and whittling. He must hurry lest Spires should have returned and Bernice be in need of her watch-dog. He roused old All-the-Week, who was dozing in the shade, and thundered away around the sheep pads, halting only to dispatch a big black snake with his whip.
He hid the board in the saddle-room for the present. Spires's saddle was on its peg, his horse away down at the creek. He must have been in camp long enough to be a pest. Peter strode into the living-room without compunction and inquired, "Any tea going?"
"Yes. You are just in time. I'll give you a cup and then I hope you'll excuse me, I must get on with my work."
Spires followed her to the veranda where she was working that afternoon. She glanced appealingly towards Peter. He responded immediately.
"I'll have a peep at how the work is going." He carried his tea with him. "There's can't be any more flies one place than another."
"As I was saying when we were interrupted, I think you'll find a great many more scenes worth painting over by Bombala and Eden. There's no variety here."
"But the whole plateau and its activities are unique; that is what makes it so fascinating. If I could only bring the quality of the sunshine to others as it affects me, I should have accomplished something."
Peter sat doggedly without attempting talk. Anything he would have to say to Bernice was not for the ears of this cow, not by long chalks. Purpose had hardened in him. If Spires split on him he would hammer him till he was shamed to appear before men and women. This was a stiffening thought.
The telephone rang. It could ring, thought Bernice, when she needed Peter's presence, but was silent when she ardently wished it to interrupt Spires. It was a long call too—telegrams. They could hear Peter assembling writing materials.
"That's a welcome relief," sighed Spires. "Isn't it marvellous how some people cannot see when their company is unwelcome."
"Quite marvellous," she cordially agreed.
"Why were you so amiable to him about the tea? He'll feel quite encouraged."
"Mr Labosseer thinks a great deal of Mr Poole."
"His esteem is wrongly placed this time. One word from me and the whole caboose of Black Peter's pretensions would be sadly moth-eaten."
"How appalling! Like a melodrama! Is he one of those wolves in sheep's clothing that the heroines of pictures are always entrapped by?"
"Any heroine who would be fascinated with him would need to have her head read."
"I've seen heroines devoted to men with far less to recommend than Mr Poole." Peter was busy transcribing telegrams about grass and fires at Boocal and the advisability of selling the hogget wethers off the shears during the coming season.
"You've seen his best side."
"I can't say that he has intruded upon me sufficiently to see anything but his exterior."
"Surely that's enough!"
"It's certainly magnificent, but I always inquire to know what the shell contains before it can interest me as anything but a model."
This was not what Spires had meant. If Bernice was trying to be perverse, she must be given a hint.
"I know Peter Poole inside out and upside down. His exterior is the best of him. That may appeal to you in this bushwhacker setting, but you would, I am sure, feel differently if you saw it at a studio tea. His eyes are enough. They are the real criminal blue according to statistics."
"Do you think so?"
"I'm sure. There's one way I think you could easily get rid of him: show him the Lady Godiva picture. He would either be horrified and run like a stung goanna, or it would make him offensive."
"Oh, the things that I could say!" thought Bernice, and held her tongue. She regarded the offender through lids narrowed by the brilliant sunshine dancing far away on Gyang Gyang Plain. The portrait would not make Peter offensive. Would it shock him? After today she felt he might understand, and was impelled to confide in him, but that might rouse Peter to tumultuous action while it would not debar Spires from showing the portrait around Gyang Gyang and making things unpleasant for Mr Labosseer and therefore hampering her progress by disharmony. No, she must play her fish.
The telephone messages ended. Peter returned to the veranda. Spires sat and sat. Peter sat and sat. Work in such an electric atmosphere and with two spectators was impossible.
Irritated to be wasting time, Bernice arose, none too graciously, turned her picture face to the wall, and went inside. When Peter saw her going to her tent he went about his tasks, calculating that Spires would not follow her there.
Spires went for the mail next day. He went in his car, having decided to take Doll for a spin. To a red-blooded varietist full of the uncontrolled urge, mere hopes were a flimsy snack. He was weary of being in leash. He must have some provender.
Doll refused a drive, to his intense surprise. She complained of a headache and said Grandpa would not let her go driving unless Mona went too. "Crikey, you should have heard the way he carried on about the picnic and the dance. If anything should happen he'd shoot you as sure as anything!"
"Nonsense, what could happen? You can't live in a glass case."
"I can go as long as Mona goes too."
"All right, then. We can take Mona a little way and then she can wait for us."
They set out under these conditions, but Mona had been instructed. She stuck like a biddy-biddy. Spires was intrigued. He had taken Doll for granted owing to her first spontaneous complaisance. She was poor tripe, but for that reason her resistance piqued him. She was holding back for a bribe, he thought, but various offers made no difference.
"I'm terrified," was all the explanation Doll would offer. "If Granddad knew, he'd shoot the two of us without thinking twice about it."
"You weren't fool enough to tell him, were you?"
"No. But he'd get to know if...and that Red Peter is an awful stickybeak...and I'm terrified."
"Well, you needn't be. I'm not a melon."
Doll was weaving her net and as intrepid as a small mongrel terrier. Spires had to withdraw and was so surprised that he was already thinking of his next attempt.
There were two letters for Bernice in the mail. Spires watched her obliquely when Mr Labosseer gave them to her, but she took them to her tent unopened. They were both anonymous. One bore a Tumbarumba postmark and was in messy writing, evidently the attempt of one scarcely literate to disguise his or her hand. The other was typed and had been posted in Sydney. The first contained obscenities about the morals of artists by one who evidently considered their lives an orgy of gazing on naked models.
This Bernice attributed to some local woman—probably one of those with whom Spires associated in Goonara. He might intentionally or unconsciously have instigated the letter. The other was of the same school of thought, but by a more advanced scholar. It said that the presence of a woman at Gyang Gyang, unless she was married or engaged to one of the men, was a scandal, and Mr Labosseer should be warned of the position it placed him in and the things that were being circulated about him.
"When stung, blame the nearest insect," remarked Bernice to herself and attributed this to Spires. The purport of the letters was evident. One resulted from the inflamed jealousy of an indecent and restricted intelligence. The other was meant to make her feel unsafe. They alarmed her only because Mr Labosseer might have received similar and they would create a pother and disharmony to interfere with her working atmosphere. Could she be sure that she only had received such notes, she chuckled to think how wasted they were. One line in a newspaper as to her activities would have upset her more than a whole basketful of aspersions upon her character. She decided to say nothing about them.
"Well, did you get some letters?" Labosseer inquired in his genial way at dinner.
"Only a couple of circulars," she replied. She was alert to Spires's expression, but he asked Burberry to cut some bread and turned his head away.
"You're about as lucky as myself," said Labosseer. Bernice felt sure that he had received no letter like hers, and there was no more mail for four days. Each day now meant so much towards safety.
March had taken February's place, beautiful weather, but chill at nights nearly five thousand feet above sea level, and it was pleasant to sit by the fire in the general room for an hour after dinner while the sap sizzled in the logs of green blackbutt and listen to the day's conversation full of precious information for her in relation to her work.
She had confided to Peter her desire to do a landscape embodying her first impression of the isolation of this plateau. Peter rode with her to choose the spot. It was his knowledge that guided her to the crest of Black Plain, called a plain because treeless, a stiff hill going up wide and open to the cold blue sky with already the menace of winter in its breath at sundown. Here she took an angle where a telegraph-pole was silhouetted on the horizon without sign of fence or dead timber to show man's other "improvements", the wire the one visible link with Cooma, with Sydney, with Europe. Here was a ring of wool of a sheep months dead and the bleached skull and horns of a bullock, and no live creatures but a lizard on the telegraph-pole and a pair of eagles circling far above. This was to be a study to satisfy herself regardless of popularity—full of solitude and space, stark with superb loneliness.
Bernice asked for Peter's help in this canvas. Labosseer readily contributed him. He was interested in the picture and more interested in what he perceived to be a hearty triangle. He wanted Peter to win and told him to leave other things and help Miss Gaylord all he could—flies permitting.
Peter sometimes thought he must have fallen asleep and was dreaming those luncheons when he boiled the billy while Bernice worked to the last moment. Just think of being sent abroad by the practical Labosseer to boil the billy and drive the car for a little girl while she painted a picture on Black Plain! A bonzer miracle and no mistake!
His carving went ahead again. Bernice knew how to be helpful without being hurtful. It was best, she considered, to leave him carving for a hobby, letting him absorb instruction. There was exceptional charm about his work as it stood. The eye of the bushman trained to note tiniest details was an incalculable asset, and the building and surveying that fell among his daily tasks had taught him a good deal of perspective. He did not find an easel an awkward piece of wood for effects. He put rams' heads at strategic points and filled in with flowers and leaves and birds. The fidelity of his reproductions touched Bernice profoundly. In a difficult medium he could outdo her in lifelike portraiture. Here without a chance to develop might be a greater talent than her own. He had none of the inflation of a conscious genius struggling for the limelight and swelling like Aesop's frog about every achievement. He was, too, a super-craftsman in other things. No man could excel him in anything from felling a tree to shoeing a horse or riding an outlaw, and he was proficient in the many-sided science of running a sheep and cattle station, as attested by Sylvester S. Labosseer of Jindilliwah.
She had been exclusively dedicated to her art by a self-sacrificing father since a child, while Peter had adolesced where his talent was regarded as a vice or at best a weakness. His life, however, was full of that beauty which it is the purpose of art to perpetuate and interpret, if possible illuminate. The free distance, the lighting of the midday fire, the fragrance of the curling smoke, the distinctive flavour of tea so brewed, the voices of bird and stream—everything from dawn till dark and all through the starry or moonlit night in lavish actuality was such as connoisseurs in far metropolises clutched at in small doses and sentimentalized over. Bernice sentimentalized over Peter, and when a woman grows sentimental over an eligible man she is lost.
Peter was a trophy that might be worth collecting. It gave her one of the delicious pangs of what is called the tender passion to feel he might be hurt when she wearied of him being lashed to her easel. Again she would harden and reflect that women for ever supplied this kind of sustenance in unbroken succession to male artists. Why should not women's art similarly benefit? All was fair if done for art, whose products remained after the little amours that made fuel for the artist were spent.
Then she would be halted by want of any declaration on Peter's part. He did not seem a malleable specimen. She must not be led astray by Mr Labosseer's notions.
Peter went about in a nebulous radiance. Just to be in her presence and maintain his footing against Spires, that was achievement enough for him. His passion was of the inexperienced order that is satisfied with immolation. He was humble. He laid a secret worship on the altar of oblations. He did not for an instant realize that he was tantalizing Bernice.
Spires moved in a different world. There was nothing nebulous about his amours. A furious jealousy consumed him. The Black Plain picnics infuriated him.
"There'll be a scandal if you don't take care," he said to Labosseer.
"Artists have special privileges, and scandals are not so easily hatched as they used to be in my young days," Labosseer said equably, amused by what he considered legitimate jealousy. "I'll send you out as gooseberry," he suggested with his quiet smile.
"Have you seen enough of my work and know enough of my antecedents to recommend me? I know of a good berth that will be open in a few months."
"Certainly. As a matter of fact, I was about to advise you in that direction myself."
"And would you have any objections to me as a godson-in-law?"
"Not that I know of at present; but what does the goddaughter say about it? Have you put it before her?"
"With what result?"
"I'm in hopes she's just beginning to think about it."
"She's a young lady who's been about the world and knows her own mind. Do you think you could put up a better tale than all those fellows in foreign parts?"
"I don't know. I reckon she ought to have enough sense to prefer an Aussie; and the only way to get anything worth while is to go all out for it."
"That's the spirit," commended Labosseer. "You have my good wishes. Give Peter his chance now. Yours will come."
"Peter is not the bird I'd have hanging about my sister."
"You're prejudiced. What's wrong with Peter—his beard?"
"Well, that's enough to show he's a lunatic in these days."
"I don't know so much about that. I'd like a beard myself—save a lot of time and trouble scratching and scraping, but I'm not as strong-minded as Peter to go against the fashion."
Spires gauged that depreciation of Peter would be taken as jealousy. He must work in other ways to oust his rival.
Bernice could not escape Spires always. Cold drizzling days with the peaks and plains wrapped from view confined her to camp. She could not paint in the rain and it was a matter of manoeuvring to get in first from the runs. One day Spires won.
"Ah, at last I get you alone. I was thinking I'd have to abduct you to enjoy a talk with you."
"I saw you at dinner last night."
"So did the common herd."
"Safety in numbers."
"Exactly. That is why I want to warn you against Black Peter as a guardian. I don't want to lose him his job. Men are very careful about that sort of thing with each other, so I've been keeping quiet, but I'd let no sister of mine be running about Gyang Gyang alone with a fellow like that."
"He seems very capable."
"He's not even that. If you'll remember the first day you came here, he left you sitting alone on Black Plain till I picked you up and brought you to camp. If I mentioned certain things to Mr Labosseer, he wouldn't let that fellow remain long in camp, and as for having him capering about with you...the men are saying things already."
"The sort of things that such people say would quite add to my status in art, I'm sure."
Now just what did she mean by that? "How do you mean?" said Spires.
"I know enough of the world to know what you insinuate, and to know that such evil-minded aspersions are of no more account in relation to my finished work than the offensive odour that the wet sheep have here is the finished woollen fabric as it is worn by the dudes in Piccadilly—and that is, not a snap of the fingers. My work matters so much to me that I never have time to know or care how my pursuit of it may be misunderstood by malicious or ignorant minds."
"It would matter to Mr Labosseer, though. I value Mr Labosseer's esteem very highly. If he knew that I know what I do and failed to tell him, it might place me in a very awkward position."
"If Mr Poole told all he knows it might also be awkward."
She was getting out of hand. He was exasperated. "I think you have reason to know that my judgment can be trusted about when to keep silent." He looked at her meaningly.
He had no idea of her news value, she calculated, and she wondered what Peter had done. Had he committed some Gyang Gyang equivalent of her Godiva self-portrait? Bernice estimated that Spires thought more heavily on the sins of others than on his own.
"I have been putting up with a lot because his gorilla beard has been useful to you as a model, but there is a limit to what flesh and blood can stand. A pity he hasn't some biddy-biddies in it and it would complete the effect. His great-granddad had such a fierce black beard that he used to be called the old black gorilla. This fellow is only called Black Peter, but he's the dead ring of the original old black gorilla of Curradoobidgee. You ask old Bluestone. There used to be rumours that the old gorilla was sent out for sheep stealing, or something."
"Rather hard to go back to a man's great-granddad, isn't it?"
"People go back like a shot if the old boys do anything to be proud of, but the other thing is just as likely to come down—it has in this case."
Bernice did not attempt any defence of Peter. She calculated it would only do him a disservice by deepening Spires's animus. Anything that he could hint would count rather in favour than against her ally. How was she to get rid of this pest and get on with her work? Even at Gyang Gyang the course of art could not be free from obstruction.
"It's more than a red-blooded man can stand," burbled Spires.
Bernice felt it was certainly too much for an intelligent woman. It was positively indecent that her time should be wasted by such a fellow hanging around making crude overtures. Let him attempt it elsewhere on the strength of the Godiva portrait and the gossip of Jimmy Ticehurst and he would find he had caught a tartar. The situation at Gyang Gyang, however, was circumscribed by conventions and her necessity to observe them. It was laughable to the sophisticated Bohemian and too much to endure except to further some obsessing purpose. She said nothing and Spires was compelled to continue.
"Yes, to have to batten down and see favours going to that fellow which he is too bucolic to appreciate..." Spires was pleased with the word bucolic. He felt the use of it lifted him from Peter's sphere. "Never a caress or handclasp to me—I'm left out in the cold."
"If you imagine I have time or inclination for such nauseating——" she began, temper in her tone.
"No, my little Lady Godiva, I know it is the grand slam with you when the conditions are right, and they could..."
Bernice weighed whether it would not be easier to endure the scandal following an exhibition of the Godiva picture than to suffer this fellow.
"I'm at a loss to understand you," she said coldly.
"Don't pretend that you are too innocent to know when a man is hipped on you."
"That, I should fancy, might be his problem, not mine," she said, but with a lift of her eyes that contradicted her tone.
"You are just trying to provoke me further."
She had decided against open rupture with him. Patience, and she would be out of danger. Spires would be de la moutarde après dîner. Already there was a nip in the air. If there was rain Lower Down, April was the month of the great exodus. If she could ward Spires off just a little longer, there would be none but a few Goonara-ites to hear his scandals, no spectators of the startling portrait but the rabbits and wombats and foxes.
"Provoke you?" She smiled at him like sudden sunshine through clouds. "It is you who provoke me when I want a mind free for my work. I have never done anything so broad, so entirely Australian before; can't you realize the concentration it entails, and leave me free?"
"I could be self-restrained if I thought you cared for me, and that presently I should have my reward."
"You shall have all that I promised."
"Yes, but what did you promise to a famishing man? It doesn't seem that you have promised anything."
"I promised to make you the subject of a portrait which may some day hang in a famous gallery and make you immortal."
"I'd risk all the fame for one little kindness on account now."
"Mushiness went out with the war. You should be more modern."
"I'm willing to dispense with the mush and start on the real thing any moment."
"And what may that be, pray?"
"If you are modern, as the evidence proves, you don't need me to tell you."
"There are different degrees of modernity. We are all only modern in streaks, I suspect. I am ferociously modern in putting my career first; in that I am like a man, everything else is secondary. My art is the real thing to me."
"And you are the real thing to me, so what are we to do about it?"
"I have outlined my position. I have nothing to add."
"But you won't be able to stick to that always. It's not natural for a woman. Wait till you get old and lonely."
"I'll always have my work while I can see and hold a brush. I'm sure I'll be more happily occupied than those dreadful old tyrant grandmother flappers I see, groaning about their loneliness and making a problem for some daughter or daughter-in-law."
"I'm not necessarily talking of marriage."
"If you are discussing irregularity, it does not interest me. I am as old-fashioned as Eve there, and subscribe to the doctrine of monogamy."
"Your record doesn't read that way."
"You know nothing whatever of my record."
"That picture would satisfy most people. Just try what old Beardy or the Cook would think of it."
"Don't be silly!"
"A man is always silly when he is in love. Only the cold-hearted remain cold-headed."
"You should know the difference between evidence and gossip," she continued with her precision of spoken speech.
"If you are conventional, I am more than willing to be conventional too."
"What would you do with an unnatural female who thought of nothing but painting? The conventional Australian ideal is a woman who squirms all day long about her housework and whose highest mental preoccupation is with doilies and cake-beaters and some such trash. If ever I marry it will be a man who can help me in my career."
"Where are you going to pick him up?"
"The best things are found unexpectedly at hand sometimes, like miracles." She thought of him with the eyes of terrific blue who could draw infallibly with a knife and a piece of wood.
Spires sprang forward and clasped her to him with desire. "Yes, he is here. I am the one to help you. I understand all about this life you are painting and know how to appreciate your work. I know places all over Australia, down the South Coast and in Queensland and on the northern rivers, forty times as good to paint as this hole, and I can get a position any day where you'll have nothing else to do but make pictures all day."
"Nothing else—are you sure?" she said mockingly, struggling to be free.
"Well, you'd just have to be nice to me and look after the house, but that would leave you lots of time. Don't you think it sounds goodo?"
Bernice thought it sounded like the babbling of a selfish, sensual adventurer inflated with egotism and ignorance who had no slightest intuition of her needs or requirements, but she did not say so.
"I have no thought for anything but my work," she persisted. "The remaining hours of sunlight are all too few. I'd rather the companionship of Beardy than the overtures of Adonis at present, if Beardy would sit as a model and Adonis only waste time with adolescent mush."
"So long as the real thing from my point of view is only postponed—and that is to go on with." He had seized her off guard and pressed greedy kisses upon her.
At this inopportune moment Peter arrived round the corner, his step unheard on the mats of daisies. He stopped dead. Bernice's back was to him, but Spires saw him and manipulated the situation. Peter backed out of sight but awaited any murmur that would summon his aid.
"Please, please forgive! I'm so sorry!" Spires pleaded in a desperate whisper. "I'll not transgress again. I'll be a monk till you get your work done. I'll be a slave, but if I was to be cut to pieces I can't help myself in your presence. You've got me where you want me and I don't care if it's mush or if all the world knows it. I've told Mr Labosseer. Now, please forgive me."
A man attractive and young with the nerve to plead as Spires did is generally forgiven by women. Bernice was rather more excited than angered. "Only on condition that you keep your distance in future," she said.
"All right, I'll do my best. I'll certainly have to keep my distance." He was elated. She had made no commotion. "I'll tear myself away now for I see the camp stickybeak's shadow."
Peter, waiting, heard no protest to justify intervention, yet he had seen what he had seen. He retreated like a shadow indeed, mortally wounded. Spires presently strolled in his direction so boisterously inflated in mien that a man needed no such evidence as Peter had to interpret it as conquest with a woman.
Next day was fine. Bernice prepared for the continuation of the picture. Peter was nowhere to be found. The Boss suggested that the Dude should take his place, but the ever-alert Spires stepped in. Bernice retreated. Labosseer was amused. "I'll have to go myself," he said.
"Yes. I shan't go unless you or Beardy take me, and I must get on with my work."
"That means I shall have to go, because Beardy can't drive the car."
Bernice was pleased with this, though she feared Mr Labosseer might be restless. He had not Peter's occupation and he did not read. He agreed, however, to write overdue letters to his family.
"You are afraid to trust me," whispered Spires. "That is very cruel."
"Mr Labosseer will be more soothing—better for my work," she replied, not ungraciously, amazed by Peter's unaccountable defection. It was not flattering of him to have forgotten. What could she have done? Had that abominable Spires been crowing? Even so, she did not expect Peter to be thrown off the rails so easily, which shows she did not sufficiently take into account the lunacy of the tender passion.
She had a pleasant day with her godfather with his sympathetic interest in her work, but it did not preclude her missing Peter and wondering why he had so overlooked her.
"Have you been playing them off against each other, so that Peter took the needle?" he inquired.
"Impossible. He has never said a word to me, so that I could say anything in return. I haven't seen him to talk to for three days."
"That's the trouble I've found with Peter myself, in bigger things. He'll just melt away at the critical moment. It makes him undependable when by every test he seems as true as the gospel. I don't like Spires nearly so well, but there is something game and daring in the way the fellow sticks to things."
"His effrontery is invincible."
"You are prejudiced to call it effrontery. Looked at squarely now: you're in a situation, say, where you have no others to call on, and Spires is there willing and eager for the call and Poole has melted away—which in justice is the most useful man?"
"From a man's point of view, of course, Spires would come first; but there are different considerations altogether in other circumstances. Have you ever seen a man balk at the dependable girl, the commonsense choice, and prefer the other? I could imagine it working that way with these two men."
"Very likely. But as a matter of character study, I wish you'd ask Peter why he slumped off and see what he has to say for himself. This is only a small matter but it might throw light on why he goes a-missing in bigger contingencies."
"I expect he's simply forgotten."
"I've never found his memory defective."
Peter did not appear at dinner. He came in from the runs after the meal was over, in which case the men got something from the Cook in the kitchen. He stayed talking to the Cook and others and left the upper chamber to the Boss and Bernice and Spires and Burberry.
Spires was enchanted to see the virus working. Just let him get his wedges in a little deeper and kangaroo-dogs wouldn't catch Peter. About half-way through the evening he heard Peter go to his room, though he went quietly. The only interruption to a game of cards was a telephone call telling Labosseer that the dingo deputation to Canberra had come to a head and urgently requesting him to join a few other leading pastoralists at Cooma on the morrow. When the others retired he asked his goddaughter if she preferred to work, or would like to take a run with him to see the famous new city in the scrub which had caused all the controversy.
"Time is so short. I must stick to my work, but I can only do that if Peter can take me out on the Black Plain picture. I don't care so long as Spires is not about."
"Does that mean that Spires's cake is entirely dough?"
"It means that work is entirely impossible with a fool about trying to be a grand Lothario."
"I'm not sure that I know what that is, but if he is such a billygoat, supposing I ask him to drive me and leave you to make what you can of Peter?"
"That would be topping."
Spires rather suspected Bernice in the arrangements, but was too wily to show it. He could not refuse the Boss's request. He acceded with alacrity, consolidating his position there.
"Peter, I have to join this deputation about dingoes in Cooma today. Spires will take me in his car and I'll get a seat from there with the others. That means I can leave my car for Miss Gaylord to get on with her picture. I'll leave her to you."
"Righto!" was all that Peter replied.
Labosseer got away at daybreak. When Bernice appeared, Peter said in a direct, distant manner, "Good morning, Miss Gaylord, Mr Labosseer has left his car. If you want to go on with the Black Plain picture I am to drive you out there."
"Thank you. I'd like to start as soon as I've had breakfast."
He took care of everything for her as usual, but spoke only when addressed. There was nothing of the huffy lover about him, seeking the delight of a tiff. He was simply an aloof gentleman. When her canvas was set up, he did not bring out his carving. He produced an axe, spade, and some wire.
"I'm going up the gully about a mile to fix up after the wombats, but I'll be back in time to boil the billy."
Bernice made no demur. Mr Labosseer might have set this task. She waited for dinner-time to see if he would make any explanation of his lapse yesterday. He made none. He was silent, but did everything with a vibrant alertness that could not be concealed by a lonely young man to whom a young woman had come as a revelation.
Bernice smiled tenderly as she observed him. It was not dislike, indifference or forgetfulness that had caused his neglect. There would be no loss of dignity in taking the lead with Peter. He was torn between the delight of an adored presence and the ocular evidence that she was merely a pitfall to be shunned.
"You failed me yesterday?" she said gently.
He did not prevaricate. "Mr Labosseer took care of you."
"I did not mean only with my work. You left me unguarded, and, well...Blue Peter, if you are my chum at all, you must not leave me in the company of that ghastly abomination."
Overhanging blackness rolled off Peter's day. He did not say what he had witnessed. That would be unworthy.
"Next time I have to give him a lambing, it will be murder."
"You mustn't be so violent. He's not worth it. I suffer to the limit to avoid danger. The simplest way out of the difficulty, without worrying me and disturbing my working form, is for you always to be around."
Peter growled deeply in his beard.
"Have you finished the carving?"
"It looked so rotten that I'll have to get you another easel. I hope no one has seen it."
"No. I have kept it for my very own, so far."
"It's a bally mess."
"That's a good sign. There always comes a time when a picture looks like a tar painting on a fowlhouse. Writers feel the same with their novels, they tell me. Men artists are in a better position. They always have a worshipping wife to mother them through the slumps or to act as a chopping block for their distemper, and mistresses to reinspire them. Women have to swallow their temperaments—except in the case of young actresses and prima donnas, and take to the woods of commonsense. That's what I've done with my big undertaking. You'll have to get married."
"No hope of that."
"Why?" She was daubing away demurely.
"What's the matter with her?"
"She wouldn't look at me except as a crow scarer."
"Have you asked her?"
"Why don't you?"
"There are reasons why I must remain single."
"Do they hold water?"
"Enough to drown me sometimes."
"You'll have to instal a scientific drainage system."
"Too great an area involved."
"There is no such word as impossible in the new psychology. You're not suffering with incipient insanity, are you, or any other incurable malady?"
"I'm as strong as a horse, but the lady in question might think it full-blown insanity if I said anything about——"
"So there is a specific lady?" She looked at him now provokingly from out her long golden lashes, laughter sparkling in her amber-brown eyes and running in shadow dimples over the silver-satin of her cheeks.
Peter returned her gaze magnetically, flushing a dark red, which his tan and beard could not entirely conceal. "Yes, there is a lady much too special for a common boob of a fellow like me."
Bernice lowered her lashes and her glances travelled over the figure before her in the way of women's glances with a man good in their sight. "Perhaps she doesn't think you a boob. Women have their own ideas about the men they want."
"There is a real barrier."
"A barrier from your point of view might be nothing at all from the woman's."
"It wouldn't matter perhaps from any other woman's point of view, but there happen to be special circumstances surrounding this lady."
"Would you like to tell me about it? I'm a safe father-confessor and have run into a lot of experience roaming around unprotected."
"Yes, I should like to tell you," he said seriously.
Here was his chance to get rid of his burden and perhaps for ever break the power of Spires. He trusted Bernice. What man in love does not trust even the treacherous or vapid little streel whom the very crows on the fence would recognize for what she was? Without such delusion the great illusion would not accomplish its purpose.
He would see how she would take the exhibition of his cupboard skeleton and judge whether he should divulge that she was the special lady. It was an indecent story to bring before his divinity. A man could not begin to babble it inconsequentially, and the fire had to be built to boil the billy. Bernice did not hurry him. There was plenty of time and space and the privacy of the great solitude stretched around for miles, the loneliness which she was capturing with a skill and insight amounting to genius by a telegraph-pole and the bones of a beast bleaching in a wintry atmosphere.
They opened their lunch and settled themselves on the sunny side of a big grey rock. Peter was turning his tale about and screwing his courage to the starting-point when he descried a horseman afar on the rim.
"Hullo! There's the Cook. Wonder what has happened in camp?"
The Cook had followed the car tracks till they turned off the road, and was now coming to the smoke of their fire. It was the lonely telegraph-wire that had caused this intrusion.
"There's a wire just telephoned through asking the Boss to get off that lot of sheep on Burnt Hut to reach the trucks in Cooma by Thursday. I thought you'd have to muster today to get anyways near the time, so I thought you'd want to know."
"Thanks, Joe. There's no time to lose. You might mobilize Beardy on your way back. He's in the Ram Paddock."
"Goodo!" said the Cook, retracing his steps without further to-do. He was interested only in those pictures in which he himself appeared.
"I could come for you at sundown if you want to go on working," Peter said. "But I must wallop into this."
Opportunity and mood for confession was dispersed.
"No, thanks. I can work at home just as well for the rest of the day, as Mr Spires is safely out of the way."
She accompanied this with a smile, which acted as a satisfactory explanation of the tableau he had seen two days since.
No other opportunities for confidences appeared. All was bustle and early departure each day from the camp, not only for the dispatch of the sheep on Burnt Hut Range, but others followed. Several of the blocks of Gyang Gyang, strewn with fallen timber, were difficult to muster and entailed vigilant search against stragglers. March was running out and some of the owners were uneasy about leaving their flocks too long in the snow country. Those flocks which had summered in the gorges ringing the plateau of the pocket handkerchief plains went home early that year in expectation of a severe and premature winter. Those owners Lower Down who had resorted to irrigation and hand-feeding liked to get away in advance of the great push to have the best of the stock-routes.
The activity of mustering was as efficacious as crutching to protect Bernice from Spires. The resounding weatherboard box under Gyang Gyang Hill was admirably constructed to frustrate illicit amour or the expression of romantic love. The general room was surrounded by a number of sleeping compartments in which every snore or whisper could be heard, and the verandas were open to the gaze of kitchen or huts. Not so desirable for encouraging a balking lover, but Bernice's desire for Peter was not so devouring that it could not be subordinated to her artistic ambition. She had been man-reared to put her career before all so long as a thread of reason remained to her. She worked like a fury against time, exulting in her reach.
Not a day but a contingent arrived to take delivery of some lot. The neighbourhood was alive with drovers and drovers' dogs and packhorses and cook-carts. The flame of drovers' fires leaped high and invitingly among the trees of the horse-paddock in the dawn, silhouetting dark forms in oilskins turning up their collars against the bracing air.
"When I was a boy," Labosseer explained to Bernice, "the sheep would stream along the great stock-routes in mobs of ten thousand, sometimes nearer twenty thousand. I remember once when I was a kiddy seeing twenty-five thousand pass. They were going all day outside our garden at Coolooluk and everything was covered in dust. They travel in miserable driblets of three or four thousand now. Eight or ten thousand is quite a big lot, and I've known the drovers today lose between ten and twenty sheep between Neangen, Down Below, and the trucking yards at Bool Bool, on a good piece of straight road fenced on both sides. In the old days there were no fences. The drovers had to sleep across the road and stay on watch all night. Labour has deteriorated in quality and trebled in price since those days, but you've got to put up with it, that's all. If you dismiss these fellows you have to whistle your teeth out for others, and as likely as not get worse."
"But still and all you and I haven't done too badly out of jumbucks," chuckled Burberry.
"No, we've been able to afford three square meals a day and keep out of the poorhouse so far," agreed Labosseer. "But goodness knows what is ahead, if these red-raggers are let get the upper hand." Labosseer was inclined to that school of political economy which believes that commercial salvation depends largely upon labour working longer hours for lower wages.
Conditions were easier for the sheep as well as the men since the post-war boom in wool. There was a dearth of drovers that year. Younger members of the fraternity found rabbiting more profitable and less arduous, but Sylvester Labosseer had a number of old retainers not overly circumscribed by trade union dispensations, and suffered no shortage.
There is a deal of cynical babble up and down the country that money and money only talks and counts. To hear it, a stranger might fancy that no advice but Iago's was ever given ear. But there remain many souls still ballasted with sentiment or affection who in an illusive existence crave some abiding. These liked to work for Sylvester Labosseer. Not that he paid a penny more than the market rate, he was too acute a financier for that, but they felt he remembered them and liked to see them year after year. He did. He knew their affairs. They knew his, and his ways. They asked after his family by their Christian names, dropping prefixes without offence. "Father's circusful of old cobbers, two-legged and four", was a joke among his sons and daughters.
Bernice delighted in the count-out and found in it inspiration for another canvas. It was a job that Labosseer rarely delegated. He always stood on one side of the little counting gate, the head drover on the other. The indispensable Pup "held" as the sheep ran out. Peter and the drover's mate in the crush yards stirred them up when they coagulated. The Boss called each hundred, the head drover echoed it. It was acknowledged stentorianly and tallied on a stick by both the drover's mate and the Boss's man, the latter generally being Burberry, and Cocky high aloft would screech commendation or admonition.
Bernice chose that moment of intense concentration on the part of those counting as the sheep came through in fours and fives, gambolling, propping, leaping like salmon in the near haze of dust, the blue hills faint in the background. Peter as well as the Boss was to be in view, and the Pup and the head drover. Peter supervised all the positions. Bernice wanted him constantly. If the man would only declare himself!
The exodus proper was in full swing. The roar of the motor-lorries distributing hay and chaff was loud in the land. Streams of little quadrupeds like breaking dams belched forth from the snow leases on to the great stock-routes that connected Monaro and Riverina and poured silently all day long as sheep can with the rhythm of grey waters in level country, their voices raised only as they descended upon the feed camps. By Talbingo and Tumut, Coolooluk and Bool Bool, Neangen, Mungee, Broken Cart, Yellow Boy and Tumbarumba from Monaro to Riverina and Farther Out and Lower Down they went, harried by motorists, polluting the grass and leaving a filthy attendance of blowflies and dust and malodour, with the poor stragglers gamely limping in the rear or falling out, with men and dogs fore and aft and the cook- and tent-carts accompanying.
Soon, very soon, the world of the pocket handkerchief plains of Up Above with its daisies and tussocks would be under the snow, summer denizens all gone, summer activities past till November again ushered in Spring.
Only a matter of weeks and Bernice would be safe. Spires would have no power to annoy her. She began to feel kindly towards him because he was not taking advantage of his power to disconcert her as she had feared.
She intended to keep in touch with Poole. She had a tremendous amount of work to be finished from memory and notes, which would necessitate a studio in Sydney. She would have Peter there and do an intimate portrait of him, particularizing his eyes and what she hoped they expressed for her. All the squattocracy went to the city at least annually. She would be better able to decide the fate of Peter in relation to herself after she saw how he shaped in an urban environment. Increasingly she thought of him as a possible permanency rather than a temporary adventure.
Lack of personal meetings drove Spires to write burning epistles. Some of these partly thawed Bernice. It was difficult to be stone before such ardour, while the other man never penned her a line or shaped a tender phrase, though his eyes, if they were true, registered complete surrender.
The days drove late into March with chill winds from the mighty south-east, and here and there a frost so that the drovers' tents among the tussocks were sometimes too stiff to roll up o' mornings. Labosseer had counted all the lots that acknowledged the suzerainty of Gyang Gyang, with the exception of his own. The travellers had likewise gone from Moonbah and Eucumbene, Tabletop and Gridiron, and Snowy Plain and Rocky Plain, and Curradoobidgee and Gowandale and Currango and Yarrango and Jounama and Kosciusko, spilling like grain from open sacks down the mountain-sides from the plateau to Down Below, thence hoofing their way to the trucks along the routes which for weeks had been well flogged out.
The telephone informed Labosseer that a scud or two on Jindilliwah had made a little spring in the grass after the passage of the caterpillars. Fifty points would help things along to a good sheep-pick in the fat western lands, and Labosseer determined to chance a late stay on the snow leases. A native son of Monaro, he knew all the moods and tenses of all its resources and its every bridle-track and water-shed. With him were Beardy Tom and Peter Poole of similar education, and the fiat was that twenty thousand of his merinos should remain at Gyang Gyang and get the benefit of the burnt areas until the advent of snow made removal imperative.
Bernice was delighted to have the month of April, and probably May, added to her time of work and retreat. Labosseer had been a little dubious about her remaining. "We'll be glad of your company, but your health mightn't stand it. It gets pretty cold here, I can tell you."
"I'm so strong and happy I can stand anything now," she declared. "I'm dying to stay till the last possible moment, but of course I don't want to be a nuisance."
"How about it, Peter? You had to muster the horses on snow-shoes three years ago and get them out. Could you manage to muster Miss Gaylord in similar circumstances?"
"If it will help Miss Gaylord's work to stay, and she is game to rough it, I'll see that she gets out, even when the snow is so deep that we can look down the chimney."
"That settles it," said Labosseer. Bernice beamed like a solemn child promised a tea party.
Spires was left a bad second in this. He had been born near Gundagai and had never worked in the snow country till that season, whereas Peter was always a champion if he appeared at the snow sports at Kiandra or Kosciusko. On two occasions when tourists had been lost in the snow he had rescued them.
The personnel was reduced to Labosseer and Poole, Spires and old Beardy. Burberry was returning to Sydney for the show and autumn races. Stockham, Jamieson, the Cook and others had gone a-droving and would pick up something till the early sheds out west.
Spires had asked Labosseer if he could remain, as a boarder if not as an assistant. Labosseer therefore decided to keep him and let the Dude proceed to Jindilliwah.
"I don't want to leave now," Spires frankly confessed.
"You still have hopes? You seem to me to be a long time bringing matters to a head."
"She won't make a decision while this painting bee is in her bonnet. She says her work comes first."
"What sort of a wife would she be if her painting always came before her real work?"
"Oh, but it couldn't. She'll settle down. A lot of this is just to provoke me and lead me on. I know women."
"I don't think any man knows too much about them, and what about Poole? I think he has a better chance than you."
"That melon! He daren't take any chance while I'm about, and he knows it. I know too much about him."
Looking on, both Labosseer and Burberry felt sure that Poole had met his Waterloo but were puzzled by his behaviour. They discussed it prior to Burberry's departure.
"Peter is so winged he can hardly breathe in her presence, I'm sure of that," asserted Burberry. "A blind wombat could see it. No man who has ever been touched himself could fail to see what's hurting Peter."
"Then why in thunder doesn't he get it off his chest and be done with it?"
"Perhaps she won't let him. She knows more about the game than he does, or something stuck in his craw is stopping him. If we knew what that was we might be surprised."
Beardy acted as wood-and-water joey and firelighter. Labosseer was a martinet about each man in camp doing his whack, and he and the other two served their turn as cooks. Labosseer was sure he could eclipse Mrs Beeton as a porridge maker. The camp was rather over- than under-manned. Peter stepped naturally into the position of chef de cuisine. He was a crack camp cook. Spires cursed his luck. Cooking was a chore he had always managed to impose upon lower mortals. So it was Peter who returned first in the afternoons to prepare the evening meal, in which Bernice assisted when the light failed, while Spires was kept abroad with Labosseer inspecting the sheep for any signs of dingo or fox, and moving them about to the most sheltered and grassy hollows now that they had the world to themselves.
Spires took fright at Peter and Bernice left cosily preparing dinner together. Propinquity plus a reduced personnel must be immediately counteracted. It was all very fine for Bernice to crack about Peter as a model. That might be accepted in relation to Beardy, but not with Peter. Spires was naturally evilly suspicious of private association between a young man and woman. He was enraged to illness with Peter's form and eyes in the pictures while he himself did not appear once—not once! There had he been stuck in this god-forsaken hole, which was only fit for crows and rabbits, just because there was proceeding an enterprise to make any man connected with it famous for life, yet he was not recorded once, though even old Beardy appeared at least half a dozen times. How could he—Spires—explain thereafter why he alone had been excluded? There was still time for him to be used as a model if only Bernice would be amenable.
Labosseer advised the removal of the pictures before the track became impassable. They had to be packed and crated with skill under Bernice's supervision. Peter and Spires both volunteered and Labosseer superintended. Spires had zeal and industry, and was a fair bush carpenter, but here again he had to take second place to Peter, who was a genius with his hands. Carpentry was ABC to those work-roughened hands, which had once been beautiful. Their shapeliness was marred with callouses and scars and one or two knotted joints, but their skill was unimpaired. Then he had such strength and reach. He could handle the precious pictures with an ease that assured Bernice of their safety. Labosseer had engaged a lorry to take the consignment to Cooma whence they were dispatched to the delighted Ernest Gaylord to store secretly.
When the crates were on the lorry, Labosseer asked his goddaughter whom she preferred for the job of transit to the railway and overseeing of the trucking there. She promptly chose Peter. He agreed with characteristic unselfishness that made it so easy for the old and weak to appeal to him. He sat beside the driver as the lorry lurched away round the elbow bends of Gyang Gyang Hill.
"I hope they won't overturn and smash up my work," observed Bernice, watching till the last the fruits of her industry.
"You can be sure of its going all right with Peter," said Labosseer. He had this trust in his lieutenants which evoked their best. A trusted person has something to live up to.
"Yes, he seems a worthy cook and drayman, but a little like a performing bear as a lover, I should guess," said Spires sotto voce to Miss Gaylord, who lingered.
She felt out of the trees now with her work safely on the way to Sydney and no one but Beardy Tom left with whom to whoop up a scandal about her. She looked at Spires coldly. "He is a very capable gentleman, I should say."
"And what sort of a lover?"
"I cannot hazard an opinion, having no opportunity of observing."
"Go on! You can't look me in the eyes and swear that."
"You presume, Mr Spires," she said cuttingly.
"I knew you couldn't swear it."
"Perhaps I don't wish to. Mr Poole seems to me a gentleman who doesn't make distasteful advances to people."
Spires ignored the inference. "A good reason why. He acts lover all right, mugging about and casting sick sheep's eyes till the crows know what is the matter with him, but he'll never get any farther than that while I am about."
"Are you master of his destiny?"
"Peter has made it impossible to approach any lady of standing except as a servant while I am about to warn people, and he knows it and keeps his place."
"How dramatic! But he may have reformed. Do you think it is a Christian course to pursue?"
"Christianity is all right for the parsons and women on Sundays, but it is no good in practical life."
"Reverse the position. What would you think if someone had the whip hand of you, and you cared for some girl and had no inclination to slip into the old way again—whatever it might have been—and you were debarred from happiness by the idle vindictiveness of some man?"
"Peter can marry anyone he likes so long as he keeps out of my range and doesn't interfere with old family friends whom it is my duty to inform."
"What is your range?"
"You are, at present," he replied, with customary daring. "You promised to give me an answer when your work was out of the way, and it is whizzing along to Cooma now, unless the smart Peter has tipped it into the bogs of Black Plain, which wouldn't surprise me."
Bernice silently watched a wintry storm approach up the valley.
"Well, what is my answer?"
"The answer, as they say in Parliament, is in the negative."
"If you think I've been cooling my heels and living like a black and a rabbiter around this rotten hole for the climate..."
"I'm sure your motive was not philanthropy or social reform, seeing the sentiments you have just expressed."
"My sole motive was you, and you know it."
"What about painting my portrait?"
"That was a definite undertaking and I always fulfil such when humanly possible."
This reply surprised and mollified. "When are you going to begin?"
"It was to be studio work if you remember, and I can't start till I get back to Sydney."
This put a different angle on the situation for Spires. If he was to give hours of sittings alone in her studio, to his mind that could not mean that her negative was final. He simply had not wooed enough yet to satisfy a clever girl of her travels and experience. It did not, however, allay his jealousy. Peter must be removed from his path at all hazards, unless of course he could find out that he was an object of indifference except as a model, like old Beardy, and she defended him purely out of coquetry. Ah, he knew girls, did Ced Spires. He was beaming with hope and overflowing with audacity. He had found the classical adjuration about l'audace always efficacious.
"I must know your sentiments towards Black Peter."
"I regard that question as impertinent."
"Yes, but have mercy. I'm green with jealousy of him."
"Why, if you consider him a mere drayman and villain?"
"Women have such queer fads for criminals."
"Then you should not risk casting a criminal nimbus about him."
"Honestly now, do you like him better than you do me?"
"Did you ever know a man or woman in my position who would answer that truthfully?"
"You would, if you liked me best."
"I might, and then again I mightn't." She was feeling for equivocations which might best help Peter.
"I have no use for a man who isn't game to tell a lady he likes her, even if he knows he has no chance, have you?"
"I never consider any man under obligation to propose to me willy-nilly. I think he is entitled to self-determination."
"You are a most adorably provoking little minx. I wish you'd tell me what you intend to do with me."
"Could I be any franker than I have been?"
"Then how are you going to treat me?"
"Entirely in accord with your deserts."
"Then I shall be in clover, for you couldn't treat me warmly enough to balance the way I feel about you."
"I mightn't have meant that."
"I mean this from the bottom of my heart." He cupped her face in his hands, drawing it to his.
Bernice drew away sharply. "If ever you act like that again I shall have to appeal to Mr Labosseer. I've put up with more than enough to avoid a fuss, but I reached the end of endurance long ago."
Even Spires was disconcerted. He drew away immediately.
"Just a little caress!"
"When a caress is unwelcome it assumes the character of an assault."
He was immediately contrite. His face paled with the stress of passion, but it did not touch Bernice. She had had her scorching in that fire. No matter how touching its pretensions or ravages might seem, she knew it for the wolf it was; when stripped of its false glow, as cruel, as selfish, as relentless as the breath of the Arctic.
"If you knew the depth of my feelings for you, you'd understand."
"It is because I know exactly the depth and quality of them that I protest."
She walked away from him to the company of Labosseer. Spires stood a moment abashed. It was so dashed difficult in that infernal camp to secure privacy, and when he did he never seemed to get any further with her. If he could rout Peter he was sure he could make progress. At any rate she had not withdrawn her undertaking about painting his portrait. The way was still open while that was to come. He must step carefully. To remove Peter became an obsession.
Peter next mail received an anonymous letter of abuse for consorting with a loose woman who, like all artists, had the morals of an alley cat. The expressions used were too opprobrious for repetition.
Spires could not estimate how Peter was affected by this. He gave no sign.
April was a perfect month Up Above. Frosty nights with all the stars ablaze like diamonds in cloudless skies were followed by sunny days free from wind. The season might continue like that till June, and reports from Jindilliwah and Boocal were such that Labosseer was content to remain where he was.
At night Spires, Beardy and Poole set rabbit-traps and reaped a golden harvest with skins that year six and seven shillings per pound and four or five skins to the pound.
The days closed all too quickly, robbing Bernice of daylight; so, to utilize the wonderful light of the great fires of snow-gum and green sally, she made a picture of Peter in the glow with a pan of johnny cakes in his hand. This aggravated Spires's jealousy. He proceeded to act against Poole. He opened a fresh attack one day when they found themselves together in Eagle Hill, where old Barney the ram came towards them bringing his long pet's tail and flock behind him.
"You remember what I said to you about money! You haven't shelled out yet."
"If you wait till I shell out again, you'll wait till hell freezes."
"You are going to take the consequences this time, are you?"
"If I do, you'll take them too." Peter's eagle glances were fixed afar on Razor Back, which reared its splendidly unarable ramparts beyond the boundary of Labosseer's domain. He fancied he could descry cattle on the move from the high peaks in that direction.
"Perhaps you think Miss Gaylord admires criminals, as you are so game."
"Is that the reason you think she thinks so much of you?"
"She has you nicely bluffed. You think——"
"Shut up about what I think! That's known only to myself."
"You haven't confided in Miss Gaylord, then?"
"And she hasn't confided in you, and if you start any of your lies about her I'll welt you to a jelly: so don't say I haven't warned you."
"Well, if I'm a liar, what about this?" Spires produced the magazine page with the Godiva portrait and tacked it to a tree. "I could have put this up long ago, but I didn't because of favours received."
"If that's anything about Miss Gaylord, I'll cut it down with my whip."
"Better keep it as a souvenir and ask her about Basil Vorotnikoff. She prefers him to the louts of Gyang Gyang, though their beards are picturesque. Ta, ta, darling! See you later."
Spires capered off airily, leaving Poole to inspect Barney and his mates. This was the only way to ensure that Poole would look at the picture. He ignored it and rode in the direction of the high point towards the boundary.
Yes, the cattle were making in from the lofty peaks to the more sheltered hollows adjoining the Eagle Hill run. Not a cloud threw a speck upon the sparkling day, but Peter Poole, born on Monaro, trusted the cattle. Horses were fools about the weather and not unlikely to be trapped by snow, but bovines were dependably vaticinal.
Spires had disappeared towards camp miles away across the plains so Poole on his return inspected the picture. It was a shock to him at first glance, but he quickly recovered. He had always frequented the art galleries and was not so unsophisticated regarding the nude as many. The adjustment necessary was towards finding it demonstrated by someone with whom he was in contact—the young woman who for the moment illuminated the riddle of existence for him.
He took the paper down carefully and read what of the article appeared on the other side with the smaller reproduction of her portrait of Vorotnikoff, one of the most brilliant musical geniuses of Europe. It revealed that Bernice had a status in a sphere entirely removed from Gyang Gyang and the jumbucks. He had been fool enough to dream of her, of all women! As for Spires's insinuations, he knew that dirty-minded dog. He had been aspiring, as he never could refrain from doing with a divinity or a drag, and was spiteful because he had been put in his place. Poole suspected that the putrid hints about favours received were Bernice's endurance of advances to avoid a hubbub.
He took a despairing determination, that of the man who must lose in love and to whom the world, while this despair lasts, is of no more account than a broken horseshoe. But love he must, to the end, regardless of disclosures concerning his adored one. He folded the paper carefully and put it in his shirt pocket against his heart, where it would be safe from obscene eyes. He finished his work in Eagle Hill and rode home through the Ram Paddock the way he had taken Bernice, also against his heart. Well, he had that to remember always. He could look at her from afar, and he had no memory of her that wasn't softly kind and friendly. She had been "chums" with him, had called him Blue Peter, and appealed to him for protection against Spires, had been enthusiastic about his carving, had painted him in ever so many ways. He was uplifted to discover that the one woman he had loved was worth it. She was a somebody in the eyes of the world, one who upheld Australia in the great world—no mere barmaid or other gassy little girl such as the Dude and others ran after, who when caught a few years settled down into the dull domestic moke. The artist in him calling to his kind had given him dreams of some bird of paradise little related to the domestic fowls of his association. This woman was the embodiment of the dreams which had been his occasionally in spite of the rigours of life on the land where dreams except of the price of fat stock or of winning a ticket in Tatt's would be discounted as softening of the brain.
Spires was awaiting him at the saddle-shed when he returned to camp. A cynical grin was on his face. "Hullo, Peter! How did you like the picture? Pretty nifty, isn't it?"
Peter unsaddled his horse and let it go. He waited to watch it roll. This operation had a new interest since Bernice had painted him carrying the saddle and bridle away from All-the-Week on his back with his heels in the air and the shafts of sunlight streaming on the spotted trunks of the snow-gums. Bernice had consulted him about the action of the horse. It had been difficult to catch and he had taken several snapshots to help. Always now, such scenes would compose themselves with a different interest. Association with Bernice had enriched his life. That, he supposed, was what it was to be cultured.
He put his bridle and saddle on its peg and turned towards the house.
"A face as long as a wet week—given you the sulks, has it? What have you decided to do? You know my terms well enough."
There was a deadness about everything to Poole. He felt as if life had stopped and his machinery was merely proceeding by the exhaust. One spot was vividly alive. He was to assist Bernice for some days yet and see her work.
"I'm leaving the camp and Australia as soon as we get the sheep away and close up. You can make what you damn well like of that."
Spires was elated. Peter had thought better of his insubordination after he had looked at the picture. Ah, ha, he had known how it would be! He was on velvet now. "It will suit me better if you leave immediately," he said as one with the right to dictate.
"I shan't leave till everything is shipshape."
"You are superfluous. Beardy and the Boss and I are more than enough to turn the sheep over to the drovers."
"They're not turned over to the drovers yet." Poole looked away across the wide valley by the nest of peaks in the half-moon gap of Fossickers' where far away the edge of great white thunderclouds was piling above the rim—the first that had broken the royal blue arch for days.
"If you leave instanter I'll knock fifty quid off that advance."
Poole turned from him without reply. Spires barred the way. "You can hear what I have to say here privately or in the house where everyone can overhear. You can take your choice."
"Take yours. It doesn't matter to me."
"If you pay up you can give your own account of why you are clearing out. If you go without paying I give mine to both Miss Gaylord and Mr Labosseer."
"I've not gone yet. When I get ready to go, you will go the night before." There was such a look in his eyes that Spires should have been warned. He was resting fatuously on his estimation of the effect of the nude on Poole.
"You know my terms."
"Hell knows you've yapped them often enough. You're like an old ram without the bottle. You can tell all you think you know, but two can play at that game."
"Too right they can, if they have the goods, but you haven't, and your room would suit me better than your company."
"Don't get nervous, sissy. I'm leaving all right, and the reason is entirely my own business; but listen to this, and don't say I didn't serve fair notice. Go ahead with your revelations, but on the day that you tell a word about me to Miss Gaylord or Mr Labosseer, I wallop you till your own mother wouldn't know you, and then I lay you on the veranda outside Miss Gaylord's room like one of the skinned rabbits."
"What would be the matter with me if I'd let that happen?" inquired Spires jauntily.
"What has always been the matter with you—a damned measly, little weazened, snakey, sneaky, lop-eared, cowardly...lying swine, very brassy with your tongue, but you know where you'll end in the man-to-man bust-up, and I serve fair warning..."
Labosseer came out of the house. "Oh, Peter, there you are! I want you to come to the woolshed and give me a hand with my car."
"Goodo! Very goodo!" said Peter following. He was feeling relieved by the tone of his ultimatum.
Spires went into the house, but the light was past for painting, and Bernice had disappeared. Since the exodus she had a little room and had moved inside.
"I don't like the look of the weather," Peter remarked. "We are due for an early fall of snow any day. I think you had better get the sheep downstairs as soon as you can now."
"Oh, I don't know. This weather might take us to June without snow. It does more often than not."
Labosseer was content to remain where he was a little longer. The crisp days agreed with him superbly, and he pleasured in the frosty night skies with the Southern Cross blazing like crown jewels above the trees, with the evenings by the big fires with an occasional game of cards in the light of the kerosene lamp, and always the telephone with its report of the weather all around his world and the effect of it on the stock market. Also he wished to give Bernice as much time as possible in the area, and was entertained by the contest between his assistants.
"I shouldn't trust it; besides, Mr Labosseer, I'd be obliged to get away as soon as the sheep are delivered."
"Aren't you coming with me this year?"
"Of course if you can better yourself..."
"It's not that, Mr Labosseer; I'm thinking of running over to South Africa."
"Is that so? I'm disappointed. The directors of the Australian Stations and Mortgaging Company have asked me to find a manager for Midgall, and I had you in mind."
"Thanks very much. I appreciate all you have done for me, but they would want a married man."
"The job doesn't fall due till September, and they'd give you six months' grace as long as you were engaged."
"That cuts me out. The married life is not for me."
"Has your girl given you the cold shoulder?"
"I've never had a girl, Mr Labosseer, and never expect to have."
There was such a cold depression about the man that Labosseer forbore to say more on the subject.
After dinner while Spires and Peter were around their traps, Labosseer spoke to his goddaughter. "What have you said to plunge Black Peter in the blues?"
"Well, he has given me notice."
"Going to leave you!" The blankness of her tone showed that the news was an unpleasant surprise.
"Wants to leave at the first possible moment. You are sure you have said nothing to account for such a decision?"
"Quite sure. He has said nothing outside the demands of civility to me, though I have tried to be friendly with him because I like him."
"How much do you like him?"
"Very much indeed."
"And you cannot account for his leaving?"
"No. He has been quite friendly. If it was because I was a trouble to him and he has not liked being a model, it is late to find it out now."
"It's just Peter's way, I'm afraid. I mentioned it to you before. Once or twice he has left me in the middle of something urgent. This time he says he wants to wait till the sheep are delivered, but he wants me to hurry away as soon as possible. Supposing you ask him why he is leaving and see if you can throw any light on his behaviour."
Bernice felt it had something to do with the confidence with which he had been going to entrust her and to which he had never reverted since the Cook had interrupted them on Black Plain.
"Did he say where he was going?"
"Something about seeing the world as he is never going to marry. Sounded to me as if he had just been refused."
"Not by me, I assure you."
That night she did some work on her fire study, and for about a quarter of an hour she and her model were alone. Looking up from her canvas, she found Peter's eyes on her with a such a look that she could not doubt what he was feeling.
"Peter, my own Blue Peter, you have something to say to me, something that I want to hear." She put down her palette and stretched forth her hands. He dropped his pose and came towards her.
"My dear——" was on his lips, but he suppressed it. "Yes," he said, "but I must tell you something else first and see if you would wish me to go farther after that."
"Tell me. I don't think you need fear."
A step on the threshold. Spires entered inflamed by the shadow he had caught. He took up a position by the fire. Labosseer came almost on his heels and carried Peter off to the general room to discuss his departure. Old Beardy was out in the sparkling night going round his traps. Spires felt that audacity was necessary. He began at once.
"Another portrait of that fellow and not a line of me! It's not fair. I've been very patient."
Peter's interrupted declaration and what she was sure it meant filled Bernice with tenderness towards all the world, especially towards this lover about to be discarded. After all, he could not help his peculiarities. He had been very ardent. He had withheld the Godiva portrait. He evidently had not divulged her whereabouts to Jimmy Ticehurst or any other news tout. He was deserving of reward. He should have a portrait.
"I'm going to start on your portrait while I'm here if I have time."
He was so naïve in this business as to be almost endearing. "I don't believe you," he said, sitting down dejectedly. "You're only having the loan of me. Everyone else but me has been honoured."
Bernice was contrite. "I'll give you a written promise if you like."
"I don't think you like me well enough to paint me. You'll make me a scarecrow just to get rid of me."
Increasingly contrite because of what she had contemplated, Bernice was overcome with generosity. "No, I'll do a portrait that you can be proud of, one that I can enter for the Archibald prize."
"What does that mean?"
Bernice explained the full extent of the honour should she be successful. Spires's blood danced with triumph, but he retained his dejected manner. "How can I believe that you are not just stringing me along, like you've done all summer?"
"What would satisfy you that I mean what I say?" she inquired gaily out of her suddenly acquired wealth.
"A kiss," he promptly replied.
"Ah, I knew you didn't mean it."
"Oh yes, I do. I'm game even for a kiss so long as you do not misunderstand and store it up against me as what is called encouragement."
The alert Spires detected an approaching step and clattered his chair so that Bernice should not hear also.
"Take your silly kiss and be done with it, and don't waste my time."
"No, you must kiss me. I couldn't trust myself. I'm ready to eat you," he whispered, a famishing he-man. A happy woman could scarce refuse such a crumb to one about to be cast out.
"Well, there, now are you satisfied?" she said, dropping a kiss on his forehead.
"No. No! It must be a real one."
It was thus Peter saw them and turned into the frost.
That night April departed and Gyang Gyang celebrated by one of its ground winds that roared all night like a surging sea. Peter lay awake disturbed also by an equal surge in his soul. It was possible that Spires had something on his side in regard to Bernice. Artists apparently had different ideas. However, it mattered not though all that Spires suggested were true, it could not damp the fire that possessed Poole. It could only rend him. His passion was heaven mingled with the pangs of parturition. He would go to Bernice the minute that the sheep were safe, then to the Boss and wipe his slate clean and clear out for ever. It would at least be something to be for ever shut of Spires and his power to expose him. Satisfaction and a blank grey sea besides.
The wind dropped at daybreak and the snow country like a roof was wrapped in heavy white mist in which the trees stood as hauntingly still as those in the old-time stereoscopic views. This continued all day, and was the same on the second morning.
"I'd feel safer if the sheep were well on the way to the trucks. It will never clear up without a good fall of snow," Poole said to his chief.
"There'll be a fine day tomorrow," predicted Labosseer.
On the morrow the mist had disappeared but left leaden skies from horizon to horizon.
"What did I tell you?" said Labosseer.
"Looks like a snow flurry before night," persisted Peter. "I have never seen the cattle mistaken."
Labosseer thought Peter was whooping for snow so that he could be off. Nevertheless, he directed him and Beardy to bring in the sheep from Eagle Hill, while he and Spires went to Wild Horse Plain towards Fossickers' Range, with the intention of having the whole flock mobilized as near as possible to the main stock-route.
Peter being the directing force with the Eagle Hill lot they were brought well out towards the other flocks before the day had gone. When Beardy saw the cattle right down on the boundary fence in the lower ground beyond Eagle Hill he agreed with Peter about the prospect of snow.
"It can hardly be anything but snow, too late for rain, and I never see a beast make a mistake yet unless it was a cow held back with a calf just dropped. Horses, now, are —— fools and make farther out to where they'll get froze, but never a beast. It's never a beast's skeleton you see in the tree-tops up by Kossy side, through flounderin' about on the top of the drifts. It's allus a horse."
"Yes, cattle have twice the sense of horses."
Labosseer felt no urgency. He and Spires went along steadily. He though the sun would be out tomorrow. Spires, knowing little of the locality, agreed with him. He was full of his intention to expose Peter and thus depose of him.
"Peter Poole is clearing out to South Africa when he leaves here."
"Has he told you?"
"I told him it was the best thing he could do."
"Ah! What do you mean by that?"
"Poor old Peter made a mess of things once. He's always afraid of his record coming out," said Spires.
"Rather a nasty story—mixed up with a girl, and something else as well."
"I've known Peter all his life, and have no reason to think such a thing would be true," protested Labosseer.
"Perhaps not. I'd rather say no more about it."
"It's not quite the thing to drop a damaging hint about a man and not clear it up."
"I recognize that. You can ask Peter himself. He won't attempt to deny while I am about. I think it's time you knew. I haven't been able to tell you because it would look like jealous spleen on my part, and, besides, I didn't want to put him among the unemployed, but he's doing the best thing by leaving the country altogether."
"Knowing Peter as well as I do, and having regard for him, I can't permit you to say a thing like that without clearing it up. Unless you retract, the only thing to do is to bring you and Peter together," Labosseer said.
"Any time you like, only it will be so unpleasant for Poole that I'd rather he would get away."
Diversion was caused by the approach of a horseman, a rare sight on the broad horizon of Wild Horse Plain at that date when the camp at Gyang Gyang was the last of the season.
"A rabbiter or old Beardy coming with a telegram," ventured Spires.
"Looks like old Bluestone from Goonara, only I couldn't make out what he'd be doing here...That's his old ring-boned grey or I'm not a Dutchman," Labosseer affirmed as the horseman neared, an intrusive speck in the wide distance of a bleak and empty world. The old man rode into clear view, then into speaking distance.
"Good day, Mr Labosseer. The woman you keep at the camp told me which way I might find you," he announced.
"Good day," said Labosseer without his usual geniality, resenting the old sinner's offensive reference to his goddaughter.
"I come to see this bloke here." Bellingham waved a peremptory hand at Spires, who draw away with him feeling uneasy under the greybeard's beady black eyes glaring from fierce white cockatoo eyebrows.
Labosseer rode over a spur where the Pup was busy with the muster. He had no gout for old Bluestone. The old ruffian's notion of pleasantry was aimed to discomfort rather than amuse.
"I've come about my granddaughter Doll. Yer got to make a decent woman of her at onct or I'll put a bullet in yuz with no more fuss than I'd slug a dingo," he said without prelude.
A pang of dismay entered Spires for a moment, but he didn't show it. "Come, come, I don't allow myself to be spoken to like that," he said in the tone of a superior to a servant.
"Yuz don't, don't yuz? I'm sorry for yuz, yer —— son of a ——. The first thing yuz'll learn in talking to me is to keep a civil tongue inside yer —— head. I've dealt with yer sort before. There's nothing uncommon about you."
"I've no doubt you are a hardy blackmailer, but your methods give you away. They would deceive nothing but a drunk or a ——"
"None of that! I warned yuz. If yuz'd rather go to court, I've got the evidence, but court or no, I always settle me family affairs in me own way."
"You must be mistaking me for some other man."
"The sneaking dingo breed of mongrel always says that in these cases. Yuz may have got away with a whole skin before today on that, leaving some gomeril to hold yer kid, but it won't work this time. I never allow a girl I have any holt on more than one —— at a time so there can be no mistake."
"Perhaps you are doing your granddaughter an injustice. I can assure you..."
Spires was feeling safe. His sophistication had hitherto preserved him even when he was the only gallant in attendance.
"It don't matter what yuz assure me. Yuz might as well try to choke a dawg swallerin' hot butter as get me ter swaller anything outer yer flaming gob. Doll has been off her nut fer weeks an' it all came out the other day. There's them that saw yer can be called as witnesses."
"Of course if she's that kind of ——" Doll had said something about Red Peter being a stickybeak. They might have something framed up.
"None er that! The only kind er man yuz'll be if yuz don't shut up and toe the line is a dead one."
Spires was now thoroughly alarmed concerning the proportions the case was likely to assume. The patriarchal beard and glittering eyes confronting him were more cunning than venerable. He had since the Waterfall picnic heard many tales of Bluestone which, had he heard them earlier, would have made him chary of the granddaughters. He cursed the apparent change in his luck. For a thing like this to break about him now was utterly pestiferous, but he would not haul down his flag till compelled.
"You'll get nothing out of me by court proceedings. I'm already in debt up to my neck."
"Other cases, eh? It's marriage I'm after, an' marriage it's gotter be or ye'r a still one. I'll not shift from that. The sooner yuz get that wrapped up in yer head the better."
There followed some twenty minutes of vile language and violent threats on the part of Bluestone, and cutting defence, in which he never uncovered, on the part of Spires, at the end of which Bluestone announced, "I'll ride over an' lay it afore Laboss. All the Labosses has allus been straight men as I knowed 'em, an' I'll see what he thinks er thus. It will take a rise outer me if he doesn't uphold me rights with me girl."
This disconcerted Spires. He was willing to offer money or anything to hush it up till Bernice could be got away to Sydney, where he could put his own version before her in that studio where he hoped to cut a considerable figure. At any price he must keep it from Bernice now.
Bellingham was in deadly earnest. According to his lights he was acting with parental decency. No bribe would induce him to forgo marriage. His granddaughter was no serf who could be paid for.
"It ain't any good er yuz offerin' me anythink. Come on back with me an' fix up a weddin'. I haven't time to talk about anything else."
"You don't want your granddaughter disgraced, do you? There is no point in publishing this about her to Mr Labosseer."
"Oh, ain't there! I don't care who knows the disgrace so long as you marry Doll within the week."
Whew! There was a situation for Spires. He would stick at nothing to keep this old hell-fire-flamer quiet for the next week or two. He wouldn't mind leaving him with the impression that marriage was within the range of practical politics so long as no one overheard him.
"I'll come to Goonara the day after tomorrow and see your granddaughter. I can't believe she is so mad as to accuse me. Will you let it stand till then?"
"Yes. But first I tell Laboss. Yuz is one of these slippery coves I wouldn't trust half as far as I could sling a dead rabbit."
The old man went relentlessly towards Labosseer. Spires followed.
"Here, Mr Labosseer, I want yuz as a witness!" he shouted.
"I mightn't want to be a witness," said Labosseer without cordiality.
"Yuz'll have to hear whether yuz like it or no. This cove here has played up with my Doll, motherless an' all as she is, an' I've gave him a week to make it square or I'll see he ain't able for any more er the same dog's tricks."
"This is a serious charge, Bellingham, if I grasp what you mean."
"It ain't difficult to be grasped. He marries my Doll within a week or I settle the case me own way. He's got to get that well wrapped up in his head."
"Spires, this is a strange thing. What have you to say?"
"It's a bolt from the blue to me. I'm utterly bewildered."
"He's a slick dingo, he is! Just now he was willin' to talk marriage so long as yuz didn't hear."
"Anything to calm a dangerous lunatic with firearms," said Spires. "I didn't want you worried, but as it has come to this, I'm glad to have you as a witness. I can swear that nothing of this is true. I cannot allow myself to be put upon any farther. As a first step I shall call in medical evidence—this is some blackmail bluff."
"Medical evidence is certainly the first step. Old Dr Hartington of Cooma is the most reliable."
"Yes, an' while that's goin' on, his nibs would do a bunk—not fer me!"
"I'm sure Mr Spires is most anxious to have this cleared up."
"Rather!" agreed Spires.
"Well, then, do yuz think yuz can keep yer eye on him? Ye'r more trustin' than me, if yuz can."
"This must be cleared up decently and in order," said Labosseer. "You cannot roar about a law-abiding community threatening to shoot people or bullying them into marriage at the point of the revolver, Bellingham, I couldn't be a party to that."
"Ye'r stickin' up for him because his granddad was one of yer swell cobbers, that's why I have to take the law inter me own hands! Doctors—yuz would have them bribed to say what yuz wanted."
"That's a thing your own common sense will tell you can't be denied for long. You can't expect to bully a man into marriage on your bare say-so."
Spires was a daring gambler. He had not been near Goonara for several weeks and still depended on his sophistication to have saved him.
"Mr Labosseer, will you advise me? What am I to do to clear myself?"
"I should certainly insist upon a doctor as the first witness."
"If you think I'm goin' to lug me poor motherless girl to Cooma..."
"I have business there. Mr Spires could run us all over in his car?"
"If yuz can undertake that he won't do a bunk."
After some wrangling, and upon Labosseer's undertaking to tell him over the telephone that Spires had not decamped, old Bellingham relented.
"That's a nice mess!" observed Labosseer to his companion when they were alone. "How has it come about? I omitted to tell you when you came to me that I have a set of rules in this matter since ever my wife and I set up housekeeping nearly forty years ago. I always expected every man on my place, my sons included as soon as they grew up—to conduct himself so that there never could be any shadow of cause for such an accusation, and I always put the burden of it on the men. It was no use their trying to blame the women. I have found it act as straight as a string. Every man knows what he is up against when he comes to me, and it teaches him to be careful. What were you doing in the direction of old Bluestone's women?"
"Unfortunately I listened to the girls' plea to give them a little spin in my car one day—they looked so forlorn. I had them both with me, and yet this is the result. Some other man who has got away, I expect, and the old devil has picked on me. Deuced unfortunate! I never dreamt of being in such a fix. You know the sort of girls I've been used to and grew up with—no thought of such a thing ever entered my head. The proof is that I have been dead nuts on your goddaughter ever since I set eyes on her, and you understand how that acts."
"Rather funny when you were talking to me of Poole, that old Bellingham should tear up and pitch into you. Perhaps Poole was the victim of some mistake like this. He would be simpler than you in getting into one, I should imagine."
"He couldn't be any simpler than I am, 'pon my word. Holy sailors, isn't it awful that a man couldn't just do a kind act to two poor miserable little cattle that he wouldn't..."
"It will make you more careful in future, all right."
"I don't know that care would save a man. I've been sickened by the gossip going on in that quarter about you and your goddaughter. They actually hinted that—oh, well, it makes a decent man sick, but even you have not been immune from those people's evil suspicions."
"By George, why didn't you tell me?"
"You know how I feel about Ber—Miss Gaylord—and I wouldn't for the world have let a breath of anything come to her that would upset her. She doesn't want to know anything of such things."
"I should think not! I should not want her to know of this, but understand that you must clear yourself satisfactorily before you approach her again."
"Rather! That's why I have been so careful not to let the insinuations about yourself and her spoil the happiness of her stay here."
"She had better go to Sydney perhaps and be out of this mess, no matter which way it goes."
"It might be just as well." Spires was encouraged to note his effects. Get Bernice out of the way first, then so long as Peter cleared for South Africa he was willing to let him go now without further challenge. Ground had slipped from under him; to get possession of Bernice now alone remained.
Altogether an amusing situation, but not to Spires. Its fun for Labosseer too was blighted by Spires's latest allegations. There was little to be done with an old outlaw like Bluestone, but the Drew girls could feel the weight of ostracism if there was some opportunity to apply it. He was irritated with Spires for being in such a mess, though his sense of justice made him struggle against condemnation until guilt was proved. They rounded up the sheep and left them on Wild Horse Plain, a matter of some twelve or fifteen miles by rock and ridge from Gyang Gyang camp.
"Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof," remarked Labosseer. "If we have to waste time on old frogabollow tomorrow, Peter and Beardy no doubt will be well enough ahead to come on here. I'll see what can be done by telephone first. It's a rumtefoozle mess, as we might have to leave any day now."
"I hope it keeps fine. I can't tell you how upset I am that you have been dragged in, but if ever a man was grateful for a friend in need, it's me. I little dreamt that this would have been the end of giving a wretched little piece of tripe a spin out of kindness."
"Oh, well, we must face it. I suppose every man is open to that sort of accusation. If you give a man a lift, he can sue you for damages in case of accident, and if you are giving him a lift and ask him to open a gate, he can sue you for a day's wages. I don't know what the country is coming to. Women, of course, have always been a dangerous business. It's best to give them a wide berth unless you are proposing and mean it."
"But, hang it all, a man might as well lock himself up altogether. In that case you could not have Miss Gaylord here."
"I suppose I was running a risk as it was. I banked on her being like her father, and, by what you say, evil minds have been at work as it is."
"I shouldn't let on that I heard them," said Spires piously. "It's getting chillier," he added as he noticed the wind ploughing furrows in the fleeces of the flock.
Bernice that day came to a full stop in her work. Gyang Gyang was a summer country. Summer was dead. She was swept by a wave of depression, the reaction from seventeen weeks of creative work at concert pitch. She cleaned her brushes wondering would she ever use them again in that locality. She decided she could now do more in Sydney than by continuing with Mr Labosseer.
In the afternoon the mist disappeared and she strolled about in farewell mood. Behind was the brow of the hill, before, the long wide prospect of blore and valley called Gyang Gyang Plain, with a far boundary of hills divine. There was rest and peace to the mind and soul in those mighty vistas down which the sight could travel in beauty till it evaporated in distance. She could never have enough of that free distance. She stood a long time allowing her soul to fill. Life was so uncertain; it might be long or never till she could stand there again.
She sat upon a dry log and fell into meditative review. All about were the birds, the black-and-white magpies soliloquizing volubly, their grey cousins of solemn dignity calling, "Gather-up! Gather-up! Which waay? Which waay?" It was Beardy who had put words to many of the bird notes for her. Hawks and eagles soared aloft, and crows, like weeds in plenty, swooped past on wings of ebon sheen. Blue smoke curled from the humpy chimneys at the edge of the timber, the sound of an axe carried afar; Cocky was aloft on her perch from which she sentinelled proceedings. Within that wide horizon, strangely primitive as to human accommodation, imperial in extent and natural glory, there were only such sights and sounds as intensified solitude and silence, space and emptiness.
How inspiring it had been to watch the big white thunderclouds pile in the sky and cast lovely shades on the mountains; imperishably transporting to see rain travelling over the far view of God's own screen theatre and sometimes approaching till it enveloped. Widely different from Paris or London facing a soot-blackened clammy wall at a distance of a few feet.
Bernice Gaylord's enjoyment of it amounted to rapture. "For which thank God! and rejoice alway!" she exclaimed, rising and starting to walk. There was a sharp nip in the air now. The colours were much the same but did not seem the same without the summer heat.
Crisply, clearly, the sun sank back of Gyang Gyang Hill casting gold reflections on Fossickers' Range and Wild Horse Peak. How often she had watched the shadows play on the nest of peaks in the half moon gap in that direction, the shadows cast by the hollows and feathery crests transpiercing her artist's heart with that ache of beauty which is torment and ecstasy intermingled, so beyond human power and technique is it ever wholly to capture or illuminate all that the senses enmesh.
Had she been furnished the power even to suggest the glory of air and sky and the blazing quality of the sunlight sufficiently for any to understand what it meant to her? Just a little while now and public judgment on her work would inform her.
Beardy and Peter returned about an hour ahead of Labosseer and set to work on dinner. Bernice did not assist them. She sat by the fire in the main abode, drowsy and relaxed.
"Now what about the weather? A fine day tomorrow!" said Labosseer as he entered for dinner.
"Fine fall of snow, more like," replied Peter. "I have never seen the cattle mistaken."
Bernice was quiet and absent all through the meal. Spires felt it decorous to be unobtrusive. Conversation was left to Peter and Labosseer.
"I wonder when it would be convenient for you to dispatch me?" Bernice inquired when the table was cleared.
"Any day you like," said Labosseer. "It might be safer to get away now. A car can't pull in more than about eighteen inches of snow."
"If the day after tomorrow would suit you," said Bernice, "I could be ready by then. I must begin on the Sydney end of my exhibition now. It has been simply gorgeous to be here—nothing to interrupt work."
Labosseer was not going to allow her to be disturbed by those dirty little cats at Goonara, if he could help it.
The camp retired before eight thirty, Labosseer still predicting fine weather and Peter persisting in snow. It was a grand night for sleeping. After the roar of the wind for so many hours there was dead quiet. Not a dog yelped in his kennel, not a bird twittered in the snow-gums and sallies about the house. Most of the birds appeared to have departed—probably moved downstairs for the winter.
Bernice fell into the heavy dreamless sleep of exhaustion after tense effort. Spires was the wakeful one that night, planning as many dodges and feints as Aesop's fox to extricate himself from the danger threatening. Labosseer lay awake a little while too, but after all it was Spires's picnic, and he turned over and went to sleep. Peter also slept well, having determined his course. He had been on kitchen service when Bernice discussed departure and had not yet been disturbed by that news.
Exclamations were general at daybreak. All the plains from Goonara to Fossickers' and beyond were wrapped in a mantle of soft white snow, and it was still falling like a beautiful lace curtain.
Twenty thousand merinos in the valley of Wild Horse Plain, where drifts had been known to be thirty feet deep. The spot had been named for the numbers of brumbies that were wont to perish there of old, confined in the deep yards of snow they had trampled till they ate each other's manes and tails and then died of cold and starvation.
No action was possible while the snow continued to fall so densely. If it continued, the sheep would be entirely buried before another morning. The men were confined to camp all day doing what they could about firewood and supplies and shovelling the snow off the verandas. In stiff winters the residents of Goonara were able to look down their chimneys from the snow piled against the houses.
Old Bellingham rang Labosseer during the day to inquire if Spires was safe.
"It looks as if the sheep as well as himself will be buried," replied Labosseer. "I cannot do anything more about that business till I am out of this with the sheep."
"I might give a hand. It will be a snow-shoe case and I know the lay of the land better than any."
"Thanks. I'll call on you if I need you."
Urgently to gum-boots and overcoats and horses was the order next morning. The skies held up for the moment but looked too heavy to clear without more snow falling. It was so soft that the men sank almost to the waist between house and caboose. Peter assumed the lead. He got out his skis—called snow-shoes on Monaro—and went to yard the horses.
"Can you set me up, too?" inquired Bernice.
There was a second pair of palings used by one of the Labosseer girls years before. Bernice buckled them on and sailed away. She had been a number of winters to St Moritz, Davos, and other snow resorts of Europe and had become as proficient in winter sports as is possible to an adult outsider. She looked about her with renewed inspiration at a completely transformed landscape—a winter world different from any other winter world she had known.
Beardy came second after Peter in proficiency on his palings. Labosseer did not operate them, but he was at no loss on a great grey horse, which like All-the-Week he had bred at Gyang Gyang. He took the Pup in front of him and set off. Peter took All-the-Week and a packhorse with tent and provisions and snow-shoes on top. Beardy was similarly equipped.
"Spires, you don't know anything of working in snow." He caught Bernice's look and finished, "How do you feel about coming out?"
"I can follow you till I get my bearings."
"Bernice, you won't be frightened to stay here alone, will you? I'll be back tonight."
"No. I love it. I want to do some work on this."
"There is plenty of wood and water under cover," said Peter.
"Thank you. I'm glad this happened before I left."
They found the sheep deeply bogged. Here was a pickle, fifteen or twenty miles from the main road. Twenty-five or thirty thousand pounds' worth of jumbucks there if the coming season should be good, and how to move them out of the snow! The men tried a bridge of bushes, but for twenty thousand sheep for fifteen miles, mostly across treeless country ridged with deep drifts, it was not to be done. The sky promised more snow rather than frost. The dogs grew piteously tired breaking through.
"Our only hope is to bring cattle and beat a road out for them," said Labosseer.
"That's all that can be done," agreed Peter and Beardy.
"Old Jamieson and Joe Stockham at the sawmill might lend us their bullocks. They must have fifty or sixty between them and old Peter Stockham and Leyden at Goonara have some milkers and poddy steers. We might raise nearly a hundred altogether," said Peter.
He and Beardy set out for the sawmill on the road to Jindabyne and Labosseer and Spires went to Goonara, all bent on borrowing cattle.
Spires was eager to get Doll by herself to learn if she would be more amenable to purchase than her grandad, but Doll was not forthcoming.
"She's ill in bed with nervous prostration," Mona informed him, "and poor old Grandma is too ashamed to appear."
In response to an onslaught from the old man, Spires stuck to his demand for medical evidence. He remembered the time of his misdemeanour and was not to be stampeded. Bluestone was of necessity forced to bide. He spoke of coming out with the cattle and offered the loan of half a dozen dry milkers, but Labosseer coldly refused.
Doll's wizened little face, more pinched than usual from the strain she had been undergoing in her purpose, had been pressed against the icy window-pane as she attempted to catch a glimpse of her desired through a little chink. She was half terrified, half exultant. The threat of medical interference did not dismay her. She felt she might deceive the doctor. Her tenacity and daring might have made her a heroine in many a war situation.
Labosseer returned on the first evening to see how his guest was faring and found everything snug in the snow-packed abode. Bernice had yarded the cow and calf. She got about better than Labosseer himself and was breathlessly interested in the plight of the snow-bound sheep.
"Couldn't I go to see them and take some tools? Do let me if it's not too much trouble."
"If you can ride the packhorse and take your snow-shoes and keep warm I don't see why it couldn't be managed."
"I'll ride the cow and carry the calf if you'll only let me go."
She arrived on the scene the same day as the cattle and received inspiration for one of her canvases entitled "The Rescuers". The picture has met with some incredulity for its snow scene. On that score some of the uninformed dispute its Australianness, unaware that the roof of the continent may sometimes carry more snow in its season than the United Kingdom in its. There has never been anything but ardour for the masterly fidelity with which the men engaged are depicted. From their old felt hats and oilskins to their stockwhips, they are typical as goannas or wombats. The picture shows the suffering sheep (merinos and snow is another unusual point of difference) on Wild Horse Plain with a shoulder of Fossickers' as a background—a snow-buried world with the blackbutts darkly outlined and no colour but the scarlet of Beardy's muffler, the flame blue of Peter Poole's eyes, and the quieter carpet shades of the cattle.
About a hundred beasts were driven towards the sheep to stamp down the soft snow to make a road. This was an epic undertaking. The beasts were at first recalcitrant. Men, horses, dogs, and whips had small effect.
"What about that big blue bullock—he looks as if he had some brains," observed Labosseer.
"That's Tom Jamieson's crack leader!" said Beardy. "Cripes, to hear Tom skite about him is enough to deafen you! Tom reckons he'll lead anywhere better than a human. Tom swears he understands every word that is said. I reckon Tom thinks more of that bullock than of his old woman."
"Perhaps he's more useful," said Spires.
"Probably," agreed Labosseer. "It's just as difficult to find a leader among stock as it is among people, and it's equally necessary. What's the old chap's name, do you know?"
Labosseer depended upon animals in a brotherly fashion, treating them with dignity in addition to affection, and was punctilious about the name of bird or beast.
"Bluey, I think—er course—Bluey," said Beardy.
Labosseer got off his horse and walked towards his new associate. "Whoa, Bluey, old man! You're nice and wide between the horns and look as if you were full of sense and good temper. Stand up, old man. Whoa, Bluey. Come here, Bluey!"
A dignified giant with many a scar of an arduous life on his mighty strawberry hide turned and looked whence came a new but friendly voice. Wide of horn, mild of glance, Jamieson's leader was one of the gentlest and most sagacious personalities on Monaro. Near-side leader of one of the few remaining bullock teams of the region, he had heard the click of many a tourist's Kodak.
"Come here, Bluey! Whoa! Stand up!" Labosseer had driven the station bullocks in his boyhood. The big beast turned and looked at him. "Come here, Bluey! Stand up! Whoa!" Bluey stepped out from the ruck with an inquiring, "Moa!"
"Stand up, Bluey! Fine, old man! That's the style!"
Bluey had placed himself in position near Labosseer and looked around for his offsider.
"I'm not going to yoke you, old man. You'll just come after me to show these other duffers the way to do it." Labosseer remounted his sizeable charger, talking pleasantly the while to Bluey. "Come here, Bluey!"
He went forward in the snow. It was girth deep, as if the Clerk of the Works on High had emptied down on the plains and hollows all the bags of salt that had ever been or ever could be packed about Monaro.
"Come on, Bluey! Come here, Bluey!" Labosseer walked his horse steadily at the pace and distance of a teamster from his leaders, all the way across the ridges and around the sidelings of Goonara and Burnt Hut Ranges, Charcoal Plain, Whipstick, Boggy Plain, and other spots. Bluey followed bravely, lowing occasionally and being answered by the herd. If Bluey flagged, a word or two from Labosseer and on he went again churning through the wastes of coarse damp salt. If the herd faltered, dogs, whips, men and horses forced them on. Thus they came to the grey little bedraggled castaways. The Pup had been in charge here. There was little danger of any group becoming detached and buried in the drift or flurry while he was responsible.
"Old Barney would be a godsend now," remarked Peter.
Barney was with the Eagle Hill contingent and some miles on the way towards Goonara. A packhorse was taken for him. He arrived at nightfall, his temper not improved by his uncomfortable journey. He was too stiff to stand, but Peter limbered his joints by hand, when Barney with ireful bleat made a rush at Spires and sent him sprawling in the snow. Bernice fled to her horse, remembering her imprisonment on a stump in Eagle Hill.
"By gosh, ain't he a hard case!" chortled old Beardy. "His head hangin' down, the blood has rushed to it and made the old bloke snorty. Cripes, I've never seed anything funnier!"
Spires picked himself out of the snow jarred by the impact and enraged by the reverberating guffaws of enjoyment of Beardy, but it was the satisfaction on Peter's face and his remark, "Barney knows what he's about," that put the devil in him.
Even the Boss had a smile of pleasure on his face and Spires wished to God the old ram would give him one; he deserved it. Barney blared raucously, fierce to ease his irritation with anything.
"Come, Barney, old man, don't get excited. Don't waste your strength, you'll need it all," said the soothing voice of Labosseer, but even he might not have been spared only the Pup thought it his duty to round Barney to the flock, and the object of combat was changed. "Be careful!" shouted Labosseer. "Don't let him hurt the Pup or we should be in a fix!"
Beardy and Peter seized a horn each and put the old warrior among his fellows, where, after a few noisy protests about his outraged dignity, he settled down. The two men then took the cattle back where there was a possibility of a mouthful from tall tussocks and Spires returned to Gyang Gyang with Bernice and Labosseer.
From four in the morning till ten at night the succeeding days in the snow lasted. While the Boss went back to Gyang Gyang, Peter, Beardy, and Spires took the cattle to a valley where long tussocks gave a little feed and then hoisted their tent and lay down on a bed of snow.
"Tom, you're as tough as a hickory axe handle," Peter remarked, rising out of a bath of melted snow one morning.
"You ain't too stinkin' yourself," said Beardy with a grin.
Labosseer stood it as well as any of them and Bernice was sustained by the spirit of adventure. Spires worked in the rear, sticking gamely, though many summers in warmer regions and certain dissipations had left him more vulnerable than the others. Old Bluestone, too, came out almost daily on an uninvited tour of inspection to see that Spires had not fled. This was unendurable to Spires. The snow also tried his eyes terribly though the absence of sun most of the time saved all of them. Spires was driven to desperation by the superstition that his luck had changed and by physical discomfort and exhaustion. All the other members of the party seemed entirely absorbed and not so uncomfortable that they mentioned it.
Back and forth tirelessly as a treadmill trudged the Boss leading Bluey, and Bluey leading the herd. When they had beaten a track the Boss enjoyed another triumph. With a handful of bread and salt he persuaded Barney to step after him and the other sheep stepped after Barney. Thus they went day by day, by inch and foot and yard and mile, all the way to meet the Great Stock Route.
"Cripes! All the Boss wants to complete his circus is old Cocky on his shoulder tellin' us about the egg he laid," said Beardy.
"He might lay us an egg for breakfast if Mr Labosseer only asked him," Peter answered.
"I wish I had him here," said Labosseer. "He would cheer us all up."
"And you want a kitten peeping out of each pocket," said Bernice. It is her cartoon of him furnishing a refuge for bird and beast that Labosseer keeps as one of his treasures in the station office at Jindilliwah.
"Just think of the mess I should have been in if I had listened to all those who talked of slitting Barney's throat. He's worth any half dozen members of Parliament to me today. I'll bring him up again every year, if he has to come in the car with me and the Pup."
Even Peter felt ashamed of his intention to lose Barney among the stragglers so that he might perish of cold and such hunger that it drove tortured creatures, even when they survived, to devour each other's covering.
"And as for Bluey, I wouldn't take the Premier for him. He'll never want a home or be killed for beef while I'm alive."
"He'll want a truck each soon for some of his blasted old animals," said Beardy. The Boss overhearing, smiled.
"They're worth it, and if they need a special train they'll have it."
Bernice, comfortable in her Switzerland sports apparel, made notes that were pictures in themselves.
"I'm thinkin' them red and strawberry cows, and that black polled Angus will make an awful pooty bit of colour on the snow," observed Beardy, inspecting her work.
"Yes, Tom, what an artist you are! And your red muffler, I'm making a note of that."
"My cripes, who'd a thought er that!"
The miracle of the pictures had become everyday routine at Gyang Gyang. Feats that would figure in records of the artist's life till the end of her days had ceased to astonish. More wonderful to the camp staff was the demonstration that making pictures was sheer hard work requiring grit and industry.
Bernice had earned her place as one of the circle of hard sloggers. Old Beardy Tom could not have been more cheery on a summer picnic. If he was hungry, cold, or fatigued he did not seem aware of it. Labosseer likewise had time to point out the scheme of things to his charge and to descant upon Bluey, Barney, and the Pup. Spires, it was evident, was suffering acutely. Virulent chilblains had attacked his feet and hands and his eyes were red-rimmed and strained. A form of grit composed of pluck and vanity and jealousy kept him up.
"You'd better take a day in camp with Miss Gaylord to nurse you," the Boss suggested.
It would have been heaven to rest with Bernice, but to be taken care of by her who had taken to outdoor days working with the best of them, while Peter was free from even a red nose—blast his beard!—there was indignity in the suggestion!
"If that blasted old Bluestone came and found me absent, he'd think I'd bolted," he replied confidentially.
"I like the pluck of Spires, though he is foolish not to give in for a day," remarked Labosseer to Bernice as they ate a snack beside a snow-gum hollowed by some bushfire, where Peter had lit a fire of dead sticks collected on horseback from the trees and started by newspapers and kerosene carried for the purpose. It was above the stringybark level.
"He doesn't seem much of a physical specimen beside you and Beardy—both twice his age. Being a he-man has pulled him down a little, I expect."
"He may not be as hardy, but his spunk will keep him going and probably land him as manager of Midgall," said Labosseer, narrowly watching Bernice, "while Peter with all his strength bolts like a rabbit in sight of the goal. Physical strength won't take a man any height without a brain inside the machinery."
"Peter has a better brain than Spires."
"It's not much use to him if he always bolts."
"That's a pity, certainly. I wonder why."
"You haven't found out yet?"
"There's such a turmoil that I never have a chance."
Peter was ever at hand when she wanted help. His glances responded to hers like a benediction. She felt it was his unconfessed secret that was about to exile him, for while he was in her presence she could not doubt that he loved her, and his silence had made her hungry to have him declare himself.
"You were going to tell me something once," she said to him one day when he rode around to inspect her notes. "I wanted to hear it. Perhaps I could help you. Opportunity for a talk has run away from us."
"It doesn't matter now, but as a matter of satisfaction I am going to tell you before I leave."
"Why should you leave? I shall be desolate."
"Plenty better to fill my place."
"Not for me. One needs a chum—a congenial in art. You have been that to me in the biggest thing perhaps I'll ever do—life is so frantically short when it comes to working time. Australia can never be the same place without you; in fact, I don't think any place in the world would be as good without you now that I have once had you, Blue Peter."
She could feel the colour surging all over her. If he didn't accept such glaring encouragement she could go no farther. Peter started to speak, balked, looked as a fallen archangel might look gazing on the gem of paradise for the last time, and walked away. He stood with his face towards the hills, the horizon foreshortened by the snow, where the blackbutts and snow-gums were outlined on a solid world of white. Nothing broke the silence but the complaining bleat of a sheep here and there, the yelp of a dog that did not work so silently as old Pup, and the bellowing of the weary hungry cattle. The Pup was not at that moment on duty. He was old and heavy and a bit sprung in the hind legs so that big days were cruel on him and he had to be saved for special crises. He was now having a snooze on the Boss's undercoat where he had been tied with a whip to rest.
Peter looked towards the familiar hills in their disguising foreshortening winter mantle without seeing them. He saw only paradise renounced. He turned towards Bernice again. "Miss Gaylord, when you say a thing like that to me, I feel I..."
"Whoa, Bluey, old man! They're poling on us. Stir 'em up a little on the other side, Peter." It was the voice of the Boss. Peter said, "Excuse me," regained his saddle, and set to the emergency at hand.
Several days in the snow and the strain of her artistic and emotional position so fatigued Bernice that she retired to the camp to recuperate. Spires still refused a rest though he was patently almost at the end of endurance. The other three were tireless and apparently invulnerable against cold, fatigue, and other forms of strain and discomfort.
Bernice, supplied with food and fuel under cover, was quite comfortable. A couple of rabbiters, protégés of Mr Labosseer, had arrived to give an eye to the buildings and have the use of the kitchen. These had instructions to see to Miss Gaylord's wants and to bake her a damper now that the bread supply per mail had failed.
It took three weeks altogether to get those twenty thousand frail little merinos from where the snow buried them to the trucking yards. The task was accomplished with only fifteen per cent of losses in jumbucks and the death of two dogs. They arrived upon the stock-route in surprising condition seeing the extent of their fast, bogged in the snow. Only a matter of four or five more days and they would be met by hay vans and fed and spelled to fit them for their train experiences.
Seeing them safe at the first camp outside the Gyang Gyang runs, Labosseer decided to go to old Bluestone at Goonara, for it would be more comfortable than batching at Gyang Gyang. He invited Spires to go with him, leaving Beardy on guard with Peter.
"No, I want to see the thing out," said Spires. "Beardy was born before me. You are putting me on the level of a pommy. I'll let up in a night or two."
"All right, if you feel like that; but I think you are foolish. You will break down, that will be the end of you."
Beardy was therefore dispatched to Gyang Gyang to see how Miss Gaylord was faring, since the telephone connection with Goonara had been broken for several days, and he wanted to go around his precious traps.
The two young men were left at the sheep camp on the side of the hill with its writhen, stunted trees and the little stream as it fell away to the Eucumbene and thence to the Snowy, gurgling under the melting snow and icicles. The sky was leaden grey, the pinched and bedraggled sheep toning in with the outjutting drab of the great rocks, on one side clear of snow and completing a bleak landscape.
A fire had been lighted beside a log on the lee of the rocks, and fire more dangerous flamed wickedly in the men who hated each other and remained on the job together principally to vent their passions as primitively as jungle beasts.
They went around the sheep, pulling up any that were likely to crowd and smother and then prepared for the night by eating their tucker and each erecting a tent. Peter refused to share a shelter with Spires. He secured the best position, slinging his tent between two accommodating sallies. Spires put his up at a little distance. They each scraped a hollow in the snow and depended on the protection of their oilskins against a bath.
The night was windless and heavy and comparatively mild, with a thaw. Peter was wakened by the snow water running down his neck. He sat up cursing his folly not to have raised his head higher on some stones. He sought the fire which he had left well banked with green timber. Spires was there ahead of him. He had not been able to sleep at all. He was not as good a bushman in the snow as Peter, and the torture of his hands, feet, and eyes was maddening. The sight of Peter was too much. He broke upon him wildly.
"I've got to the last of my endurance with you. Five hundred quid is the least I'd take now, and you leave this very night or I'll break your —— neck!"
Poole was likewise uncomfortable with fatigue and discomfort, but he held himself within reason as he replied with a terrible oath, "I see this job through in decent order before I budge."
"The job is through now. The drovers ought to meet us some time tomorrow. There's no more need of you."
"I'm likely to let a —— like you dictate to me!"
"You know my terms. You can just be gone in the morning——"
"Go to hell, and stop yapping, or I'll wring your neck!"
"I'll wring yours. You know my terms!" screamed Spires, making a kick of sheer irritation at his adversary.
"And you know mine too!" yelled Poole. "If you want that welting I promised you, take it now. I'm sick to death of hearing you for ever bleating like old Barney. I'll be gone in the morning right enough, and, by God, the reason will be that I've stopped your noise for good and all." A gust of uncontrollable rebellion overwhelmed him as he seized his enemy.
Spires's jeer died on his lips. There was that which was affrighting on the face of Poole. The long, lanky, peace-loving youngster over whom the older boy had gained domination in their first onslaught on the world, and whom he had ever since intermittently badgered and bled, was no longer discernible. A terrible, implacable figure of vengeance, with which no further terms could be made, had taken his place.
A terror such as Spires had never known ran through him like electricity. He was no match for Poole physically. His instinct was to abandon argument, defence, and flee for his life, but the horses were away at the other side of the drab sea of sheep. He took the defensive with a cry of rage and panic: there was no one to hear it but the dumb beasts as Poole, with unleashed fury, fell upon him in the arena of grey primordial rocks.
Bernice was awakened from deep sleep by a thunderous knock on her door. She had not heard the approach of Peter's gumboots in the snow-deadened abode. She was very tired and turned drowsily in the cosy bed of feathers under the wallaby rug, which Peter had contributed for her comfort. Her thoughts ran on him out in the snowy night. His voice recalled her to the surface as she was sinking in a comfortable lake of sleep, to the drip of melting snow from the roof.
"Miss Gaylord, don't be alarmed. It's only me—Peter."
"All right. I'm awake. You must be perished. You'll find plenty of food in the safe, and the fire won't have gone out yet."
"I don't want that, thanks, but I must speak to you."
"Come in. I'll light the lamp," she replied, thoroughly aroused by the urgency of his tone. "Has there been an accident to Mr Labosseer or one of the others?"
"No, not an accident—something else."
She lit the lamp—the oil had not frozen that night—and returned shivering to the depths of her nest. Peter entered, a big figure in his great oilskin and high gum-boots, a muffler, and woollen gloves, the two last mentioned being his only concession to the snow in addition to ordinary winter attire. He had taken off his hat showing his ebon hair in a wild taffle.
His bearing informed Bernice that he was struggling with some momentous excitement. He knelt beside the bed. She raised herself on an elbow and drew the cold head against her. He shivered as a man will when passion is spent.
"Peter, my darling, tell me. What is it?"
"I must tell you it all. It goes back a long way to when Ced Spires and I were boys..." He paused as though he had difficulty with his breathing, and the drip of the melting snow sounded like a clock. With effort he plunged into narrative.
"When I was seventeen and he nearly twenty we thought ourselves no end of guns and got a job at the same time, he on Bringadah—that's the next station to Jindilliwah—and I on Jindilliwah with Mr Labosseer. The job was all right, but there was nothing to do at night but poke about or play cards. I used to carve a few whip-handles. It was Spires who found something livelier. Ten years ago there were still a few bullockies left. There was one belonging to Bringadah. His wife had left him, and his daughter—a girl about sixteen—kept the hut for the old man. I often think she was a bit short. At any rate she was no good. She didn't know how to take care of herself among men. Spires soon found a new entertainment for about half a dozen of us. We looked upon him as a smart trick and couldn't be left behind...We were all as bad as one another, I suppose, just the ordinary dirty young dogs: we didn't know any better."
"I understand," said Bernice gently.
"Well, by and by there was trouble and the old man was out with a gun. He had us all thoroughly scared, though I don't think, looking back, he wanted anything but money and drink. He was a regular old swamp hog...Well, it doesn't matter what happened but a thing like that would be a wash-out if it was fixed on half a dozen, so the upshot was that they all got clear but me. I didn't know as much as the others or I might have been missing too. Some of the men were old enough to know better. Ced Spires and I were the kids. I was the boob. I was in it and the man who hasn't wits as smart as the other fellows has to put up with it. The point is, I not only had to buy off the old man. The girl, I think it was, picked on me and wanted me to marry her. I was so scared and felt such a cowardly brute that I was ready to do it too. But the old man evidently knew that wouldn't wash with a kid of my age. It would have got to my dad and he would have aired the rights of it. The bullocky worked on me, bled me to keep it from my parents. My old dad would have beaten the life out of me—he's a fierce old josser—and never would have let me see Mother again, and that would have killed her, as she has a weak heart."
Bernice noted that here was a nice simple male to be kept in subjection by a mother or wife with a weak heart. She rubbed her fingers caressingly through the scrub of dark hair and pressed his head to her.
"It took me all I could do to pay up. I never had time to get into that sort of mischief again, but it ran me into worse trouble. I not only had to pay the bullocky but I had to pay off Spires."
"Poor darling, why did you let them get their claws into you like that?"
"I was a boob and I deserved it. Spires had a great time at my expense. If I had anything he wanted, he just took it and threatened to tell my father. I would have done anything to prevent that. Spires at last came to me for more money than I could part up. I did not know how to get any more money. Spires laid the plans.
"This was a year later and I was well into the work on Jindilliwah and Spires was back at Bringadah. Mr Labosseer was always bringing me along and treated me as a member of his family, that's what makes it worse. He let me drive his big motor-car—there weren't so many of them about eight or nine years ago as there are now, when even the rabbiters have them.
"There were a lot of girls and men at the hotel in Narrabri wanting to get to some races that were going on and Mr Labosseer was in Sydney. Ced Spires arranged it. If I would take the crowd for the day they would pay thirty bob a head—about ten pounds altogether. Hell knows why I did it: I didn't want to; sometimes it happens that some will outside seems to work instead of our own."
"Well I took the car. Spires got his ten pounds. I was safely on the way home. I had handled the car carefully and was going to clean it up—not much harm would have been done, many a good man has done worse, but the devil was against me again. As we came round a bend in the dark a drunk crashed into me: it was his own fault. I didn't know whether he was hurt or not. I couldn't afford to get out and see, as it would give my show away. I meant to land the car and then gallop back to see where the drunk was, but around the bend came some fellows in a car that you could hear being pursued a mile away, and they were limping. They were a gang of city toughs and welshers from the races. They didn't say any by-your-leave or anything like that: they offered me a sum to get away from the police. I refused. They flung me out of the car and took it and tore on their way. I went back to the drunk and found it was the horse-breaker of Bringadah—a man with five kids. His leg was so badly smashed that he was never any more use for his old job. There was a subscription got up for him. There was an anonymous donation of ten pounds every now and again."
"Poor old Blue Peter!"
"Mr Labosseer's car was found by the police next day—the remains of it. It had evidently caught fire and they abandoned it and it had jumped over a cutting and capsized, and he hadn't insured it. By some miracle my connection with it never came out. No one split on being in Mr Labosseer's car. I don't think they knew whose it was, as we took the number off.
"The police were hotly in pursuit of the gang. The police theory was that some of them stole Mr Labosseer's car and had it waiting. They were blamed for running over the horse-breaker too. Spires was scared, too, for a bit, I think, and did nothing to excite suspicion. The affair made a sensation in the district at the time. The gang far outdistanced the police, and though the Sydney bobbies might have known who they were, it could never be sheeted home to them. I was never suspected and time passed. Ced Spires grew cocky again. The thought of the affair seemed to puff him up. It cowed me."
"He would make a good soldier, Peter mine, while you are an artist."
"I couldn't think of the lame breaker, though that was his own fault. I nearly died with shame to meet Mr Labosseer and see his trust in me. A hundred times I wanted to tell him but somehow I never could. I seemed to go all paralysed when I tried. This was great for Ced Spires. He had me in a special kind of hell and he had the key. I couldn't stand Mr Labosseer's kindness and yet I could never confess. I simply up and went away. He couldn't make out why I left him. I went to Queensland. Out there I ran across Ced Spires again and he kept his hold over me. I always kept to myself as much as I could so that when it came out I shouldn't be so conspicuous. Being lonely like that, I thought more of Mr Labosseer. I've gone back to him two or three times and always meant to confess, but never could. The whole thing hung about and when I could stand it no longer I cut away again. Mr Labosseer wonders why I am a rolling stone, but good and all as he is, he is a stern man—he wouldn't be the one to understand or overlook a thing like that.
"Well, I came back to Jindilliwah this last time with the intention of getting it off my chest. I hadn't heard of Spires for ages and began to feel pretty safe, when I'm hanged, that day you came, if Spires shouldn't turn up again too, as fresh as paint, and more of a cormorant than ever.
"Then you complicated matters. You weren't here long until I'd have given a chance of life hereafter to have had a clean record."
"Peter, why didn't you tell me that day on Black Plain? It would have saved you weeks of suffering. Didn't you love me?"
"Love you!" The two words expressed the abandonment of his passion.
"You've wasted a lot of time, but you must waste no more."
"You love me!"
"Of course, you great silly dear, more than ever for all you have suffered." The temptation to exploit him free of the totality of marriage had left her.
Peter groaned so mortally that she put her arms about him regardless of the chill air and clasped him to her, terror at her heart. "Peter, what is it? What have you done?"
"I've killed Spires."
"Peter, oh, Peter! How? When?"
"I killed him and came straight to you. Day in and day out he gave me no peace. He was going to tell you and Mr Labosseer. I could stand it no longer. I said I'd finish him and tell you myself, and have peace."
"My poor lost darling, you need not have done it. All you need have done was tell me, and Spires was immediately defeated."
He remained as if carved in wood, all life gone out of him. He had undergone terrible mental strain of late, and the fierce physical experience of the last weeks had brought him to a dead end.
"How did you kill him, Peter?"
"I just killed him—choked him and welted him."
"I don't believe he's dead at all!"
"Oh yes, he is. I flung him in the fire where he would smother or burn in any case, even if he didn't freeze."
"Did you throw him right in the fire?" she asked, veiling her horror.
"I think so—must have been pretty near it. I just threw him."
"The fire wouldn't get any bigger and perhaps would not set him alight in this snow," she said with relief. "The warmth has probably saved his life. Come, we've wasted nearly half an hour talking. We must go and save him at once." She sprang up with the propensity of women to proceed about the impossible unregardful of the facts of logic in which men may have enmeshed it.
"Matches, blankets, spirits! Old Whitefoot is in the shed. You saddle him like lightning. I'll be ready in five minutes."
"It's no use. I'll give myself up in the morning. It's a relief to be free of it all. I could sleep and sleep."
"You poor darling! You are worn out, no wonder. I must save you in spite of yourself. Go and get Whitefoot!"
While speaking she had been attiring herself for the open, Peter watching half consciously the long plaits of hair swinging about her. She deftly disposed of them, clapping on a fur coat and woollen cap and propelling Peter out of the room.
He roused himself and went for the horse while Bernice raked the coals together in the fireplace of the general room and provided a thermos of boiling coffee and milk and gave Peter some of the same brew before they set out.
It was moonlight and though the sky was heavy with snow the world could be plainly seen, a wide grey world devoid of shadows. The rabbiters came in from their rounds as Bernice and Peter were ready to start. It was Bernice who issued orders.
"There has been a serious accident at the sheep camp. Will you come at once? We'll want your help. I'm going to see what can be done. It's Mr Spires."
"Righto, miss! What shall we bring? We'll be along as soon as we can git a horse. What happened?"
"A bad fall. Mr Spires is stunned and unconscious. Bring anything that may be useful."
"Crikey, she's a spunky little —— ain't she?" said one of the men as the pair clattered away. "Settin' off in the snow. I reckon that's bonzer. But I can't make out how that bloke could git himself stunned in all the snow."
Peter led on mechanically, steering by the contour of hills and avoiding drifts by instinct—his own and All-the-Week's. Bernice followed without hesitation—her own or Whitefoot's. The fire was beside a sizable log and its light could be seen afar like a star of hope as they swiftly approached the sheep camp.
As Peter lifted Bernice from the saddle she put her arms tightly round his neck and her cheek against his as she slid to the ground. "Now, Blue Peter mine, remember this was an accident. I am in it too, now, and you have nothing more to fear unless—well, let us get to work."
They found Spires with his face to the skies just as he had been flung. Bernice noted with mounting hope that he had escaped the fire and was lying in a dry space amid the ashes. "His eyes are closed comfortably. He's not stiff. It looks as if he had only fainted or been stunned. He hasn't been here long enough to freeze in the dry ashes beside the fire...Oh, thank God...You've saved other men from freezing. You know just what to do, and I'll help."
They laid him in a blanket beside a big log, not too near the fire. Peter set to work, his volition for the time dependent upon Bernice. He chafed the unconscious man's feet and hands and face with snow. Bernie forced a few drops of hot coffee and brandy down his throat. It did not regurgitate. She was encouraged.
"If he's dead, I can't stand any more lies. I shall give myself up to the police," said Peter as he worked.
"But he isn't dead," said Bernice cheerfully. "I'll think out the version of the accident that I want, and he will have to stick to it. Believe me, I've had a taste of dear little Cedric, too. He's held the whip over me."
"What on earth could you have done?"
"Oh, there's a picture of me in circulation, nude, and he let me know he'd show it at the camp—rather unpleasant for Mr Labosseer, as it might be easily misunderstood in the non-artistic mid-Victorian world."
"He also had me scared that you would be horrified about it, and I would have done anything to keep it from you till I showed it to you myself."
"Do you mean the Lady Godiva picture?"
"What do you know about it?"
"I have it here in my inside pocket now."
"Good gracious! How did you come by it?"
"Spires tried to scare me off with it."
"The——the——well, he deserves to be dead," said Bernice pausing in her task of supplementing circulation, "only he would be more useful to us alive at present," she added, beginning to rub again. "I gave the swine a kiss to keep him quiet about that, and all the while he had sold me!"
"Is that how he worked, um?"
"What did you think of the portrait? Did it scare you off?"
"In a way. It showed me you were in a world farther away from my brumby-beat than I had realized."
Bernice halted in her chafing again to regard him. "Oh, Peter, I shall love you always for being so dear and silly as that. You'll be an ornament in that world yet, or any other, and Spires shall look on at us green with envy. We must keep him alive for that, if nothing more. The little beast simply mustn't die. Tear up a blanket for hot cloths. Rub him harder. You don't think you broke his neck really, do you?"
"I don't know. I hammered him and choked him and chucked him down as roughly as I could. I reckon he's pretty dead, curse him!"
"No. We must not curse him. He's down and out, and can't hurt us any more except by being dead. Those stones in the fire must be hot. Wrap them in bags and put them round him while I keep on rubbing."
After an hour the rabbiters appeared, eager to be of service. Bernice retained one of them to help and sent the other to the pub to knock up Labosseer.
"Tell him what has happened and that we hope Mr Spires is only stunned. Mr Labosseer will know what to do about a doctor."
"I reckon we'd better try to get one from Cooma. Last week the mailman could only git in by walkin' up the creek, as he busted one of his snow-shoes. He was near froze all right when he got there. Now they have cut a way about twenty-five feet deep through that big drift the other side of Goonara."
"She's dead gone on this Spires," remarked one rabbiter to the other, when out of hearing, "or else must be a nurse. I reckon that's why Black Peter come and lugged her outer bed and dragged her here, don't you?"
"Blame me. I can't make head or tail of them. Old Bluestone is after this cove for Doll, and Red Peter Stockham told my sister he see this tart here kissing Spires on the veranda one day at the camp. There's not much gits by Red Peter. I reckon it's a funny turn-out for a woman to be here anyhow and think so much er makin' a few pictures. You'd think she could make plenty er them in some nice place where she could be comfortable and have all the blokes in swell togs."
"It's not pictures, if you arsk me, it's some man," said his mate. "That's generally always the nigger in the wood-pile with anything, an' it's no good er tryin' to change human nature."
"I believe I can feel a slight heart movement," said Bernice a little later. "Let's keep going. Oh, Peter, he must live!"
On the previous evening the mailman had reached Goonara through the cuts in the drifts about the township made by the residents eager to maintain communication with the world. Before setting out to the sheep camp, Labosseer spoke to the doctor in Cooma, for telephone connection still held by that route. The doctor promised to try to get through next morning.
Day was breaking as Labosseer reached the sheep camp. Bernice by this time had made up her mind that Spires was alive. She took her godfather aside and confessed to him that Poole and Spires had been quarrelling and Spires had lost his footing and fallen on the rocky ledge beside the camp.
"I have much to tell you that no one else must ever know," she said. "But first we must pull Spires through safely, and I wish Peter could be out of sight when Spires comes round."
"The first thing is to get Spires to the pub. Poole can take charge of the sheep till they are trucked," said Labosseer, calmly taking charge. First consideration was transit to Goonara. Stretcher work was too much, with melting snow in some places to the armpits. Poole improvised a slide of saplings with bags, ropes, and a few nails and his and Spires's oilskins, and set off. Labosseer and a rabbiter helped in turn, riding between whiles and doing much by grace of Whitefoot's ample tail. Bernice went too. Poole had brought her skis and she was too anxious about Spires's recovery to relax vigilance.
They came at length to Bluestone's hostel where Doll was waiting in a fever of excitement. Mona too was exalted by the adventure which brought Peter to her presence.
Grandma undressed Spires with the aid of a rabbiter to do the lifting, and Doll, who rushed forward like a terrier to her whelp. Spires was placed in a bed heated with an army of smoothing and other irons. After running her hands over him Grandma gave her opinion.
"He'll soon be as good a man as ever with not so much as a little toe or finger froze off of him——" and she was supposed to know as much as any doctor. The old beldam in her day had seen many men recover from being half frozen in the snow, or stunned by falls from horses, or maddened by the bluestone and painkiller whiskies served at the Crow's Nest and the similar little man-traps of her experience, the potency of whose beverages had earned her old man his sobriquet.
"Looks as if you have the b—— where you want him now, and mind yuz gets him well roped while he's down," said old Bluestone to Doll, with a leer. "That's the thing to keep well wrapped up in your head."
Bernice, in her joy at hearing of the likelihood of Spires's recovery, though not normally demonstrative exclaimed, "Oh, Mrs Bellingham, you are a dear! He must live! He must! It means more to me than everything else in the world at present!"
Doll here rushed at Bernice. "Get back! Get back! Keep away from him. You've done enough harm with your vile wickedness leading him astray." She fairly spat this at Bernice.
Bernice was bewildered and sufficiently fatigued to be led away by Mr Labosseer to the parlour where a fire and breakfast had been prepared for them by Mona.
"What on earth does that creature mean?"
"A bit off her head, evidently," said Labosseer, making up his mind for a stern session with Bluestone. "You have some breakfast and take a rest. The old woman can do all there is to be done, and I'll keep an eye on them."
Mona tried to persuade Peter to eat a little breakfast too. "You needn't go into the parlour if your boots are wet," she said coaxingly. "I'll give you something in the kitchen."
Peter seemed like a sleepwalker. He thanked her automatically and went back the way he had come without accepting so much as a cup of tea.
Bernice would not agree to lie down till she could be sure that Spires was really alive. After a little breakfast, which they ate in the parlour decorated with dried everlastings—raspy as thistles—and out-of-date calendars, Bernice sought Grandma again. That person had taken Bernice's outburst regarding Spires as evidence that he was her young man. This to her, as well as to the rabbiters, was the only acceptable explanation of her tenacious sojourn at Gyang Gyang. Had not she and the young gent arrived the very same day? And Red Peter had reported that he had been seen kissing her to beat the band one day on the veranda.
"Them pictures were only a blind. The swells has a few things like that to cover up their antics, but they're just the same as the lowest underneath; often a good deal worse," she said to Bluestone. He profanely and obscenely agreed. Nevertheless Mr Labosseer had ordered her to suppress further outbursts and said that Miss Gaylord knew nothing of Spires's alleged connection with her granddaughter. Grandma was ready to avoid dissension when dissension was unprofitable.
"How is he now?" Bernice asked with undisguised solicitude.
"About the same," said the old woman sullenly. Doll sobbed in a corner. Mona looked on with gentle fawn-like eyes, longing to be kind to Bernice, and envying Doll. How splendid to have one's love brought on a hand-barrow, reduced to helplessness so that one could serve and save him.
"I shall be the happiest woman on earth if he only lives," said Bernice fervently.
"Some people only thinks of their own happiness and don't care what they bring on others, but it's to be hoped their ways will be revenged on them," said Grandma.
Doll glared at Bernice malevolently. She could not control herself. "You'll never have him. Never! Never!" she shrieked. "He's mine!"
This gave Bernice something to work on. She faced Doll haughtily. "Behave yourself with a little common sense and decency. You seem to have some foolish idea that I want Mr Spires. Nothing is sillier or further from the truth. If you have any claim on him I shall be delighted to further it and wish you all happiness. I only want him to live because his death by accident like this at the close of my stay here would throw a shadow over everything."
"Ain't you been runnin' after him as your young man?"
"Don't be silly! He's the last person in the world I should consider in that connection, though in these parts you don't seem able to imagine any other connection between ladies and gentlemen," she said in cold reproval.
Grandma mouthed a few septic fangs and retorted, "Ladies and gentlemen! I have lived longer than you, an' precious other connection have I ever seen between men and women if they wasn't watched as close as a cat with a mouse."
"Well, for once you are wrong. I shall be delighted to see this young person—your granddaughter, I presume—married to Mr Spires, if he is agreeable. It is just what he deserves! If she will let me know I shall send her a wedding present as evidence of my goodwill."
Bernice had sufficient sense of humour to feel that she could chuckle over this situation as soon as Spires should be out of danger. She retreated to Mr Labosseer as soon as she felt that everything possible had been done. She asked for hot water and went with Mona to get it. When they were alone in the kitchen she questioned the girl, who was wax in her hands.
"Your sister seems fond of Mr Spires. Does she know him very well?"
"She knows him terrible well. He came for the mail ever so often and took her driving. Now Doll is in trouble and she says she'll kill herself, an' Grandpa is going to shoot Mr Spires if he doesn't marry her. It's terrible!"
"Good gracious! How is it that no one has heard a word of this till now?"
"Everyone has heard of it. All Goonara was talking about the scandal and how poor Doll would get herself left. Mr Labosseer knows."
"Mr Labosseer knows?"
"Yes, of course. He was going to take Doll to the doctor only the snow stopped it."
"Do you mean he knows all about Doll and Mr Spires?"
"Yes, everything. Doll was going to tell you if ever you came near her. She's been terrible mad about you taking her sweetheart and her being that way."
"I don't see how I should be mentioned at all."
"Well, you see, it has been put about that you and Mr Spires was engaged. Is it true?"
"Not the slightest grain of truth in it. I like someone else better."
"That's Peter Poole, isn't it? I always knew it couldn't be anyone else while he was about. I knew it as soon as I saw you together the day of the picnic. I saw that he worshipped the ground you walked on. Oh, I think he's lovely...and...I hope you'll be very happy."
Mona's acumen and observation had taken Bernice off her guard. Her face, ere she masked it, was a clear affirmative. She looked at little Mona and saw a stricken fawn. Compassionately she noted the transparent features and the delicacy of the work-marred fingers trembling as they handled the kettle. She looked at Bernice heroically, her story in the ebbing blood leaving a pallor that betrayed the magnitude of the internal wound.
Why, thought Bernice, wincing, should the rose of pleasure for one be nearly always so deep-rooted in another's pain? Experience came to sustain her. She had felt like little Mona when Naidée had taken Basil Vorotnikoff, yet now Basil seemed no more than a last season's skin to a snake. Nevertheless she grieved for the present wound to so gentle a soul. She could not help her much. Youth must burn its fire of pain to ashes. Only experience knows that the toy so feverishly desired today may tomorrow have lost its charm, and the comfort of such knowledge is filched from the raptures of inexperience.
Mona sank to a chair as though she would faint. Bernice longed to comfort her but felt the girl would like to be alone. She took the kettle and left the kitchen. Mona looked towards the little window where the thawing snow hung like a blind, but she did not see it. She could only feel the knife turning round in her heart. If only she were in Doll's case she would have something which disgrace and suffering could not outweigh, but Peter had not cared enough for her even for that.
"You'd better try and have a few hours' sleep," advised Labosseer. "I can't have you breaking down."
"I shan't rest till all is explained. We've been hiding things from each other foolishly, it seems. There are certain things I must tell you at once, if you are not too weary to listen."
"Go right ahead, if you can stand it yourself. I had four solid hours before the man got here, and could go till this time tomorrow if put to it."
Peter had agreed to give himself up entirely to Bernice's judgment in the situation. She felt sure of Labosseer. That had been bred in her owing to her father's regard, and had been borne out by her own experience of the practical and tireless way Labosseer had helped her with her artistic enterprise at Gyang Gyang. Peter naturally did not feel so confident. Labosseer was no sentimentalist. He meted out justice where it was due. None could be sterner than he if a man betrayed his trust. He could send such out into the wilderness without tears, and Peter felt that his misdemeanour had been very grave. What measures Labosseer would have taken at the destruction of his car he could not conjecture. He might have allowed the culprit to retrieve himself, but it was the long years of deception that Peter feared to confess.
"I have solved the whole mystery of Peter," Bernice began, as she put the kettle on the hob. "I can tell you the reason of the curious breaks and the seeming inconsistencies of his actions and character. It all came out tonight. But before I tell you I want you to promise that you will forgive Peter, and help him. If you don't poor Peter is lost, and he has suffered so." Bernice's voice got out of control. She buried her face in her coat-collar.
"Don't you think you'd better turn in and tell me tomorrow?"
"No. I can't rest till we are sure that Spires is not dead. Peter is in dreadful trouble and it all depends on you to save him."
"I think you can depend on me doing all I can for Peter. That has always been my endeavour."
Bernice unfolded the story from the beginning as Peter had given it to her. Labosseer was a good listener. He did not interrupt with questions or comments. Bernice could not estimate his attitude, but her dependence on the general largeness of her godfather was such that she suffered little uneasiness.
"It all depends on us resuscitating Spires," he observed when she had finished. "If he succumbs it will be a serious situation. Let us take another look at him now."
"He ain't dead," said Grandma Bluestone with assurance when they appeared. "He's warm, and all them bruises on his face wouldn't have come out like that if he'd been killed dead."
"The terrible thing about this is that Peter didn't come to me at the beginning about the motor-car," said Labosseer when they had returned to the parlour. "I might have given him a rough spin and made him pay up, but I should not have ruined him or taken any public proceedings against him."
"He felt himself a criminal and an outcast, and it appears his father is rather a snorter."
"I can't get over the way he kept it secret all this time and kept coming back to me—taking advantage of me, I consider it."
"Yes, but please do understand and forgive. I'll guarantee to pay back the price of the car out of my pictures."
"I'm not afraid of losing that. He should have known enough to make a clean breast of it. No one likes to be treated like that."
"No. And if he had only told me about Spires this last mess could have been escaped too."
"I'm afraid he's a weak fool—doesn't seem to have any brains at all."
"He just went wrong at the start by accident and then the thing grew upon him till it got him down."
"When I get the full strength of it, the less I like it."
"But you will help to get him entirely free, won't you? There won't be any more of that buckling in a crisis that you told me of. Spires has been his curse. An unscrupulous fellow like that...to think of his audacity hanging round me and at the same time to be destroying a little wretch like this one here!"
"That, of course, hasn't been proven against him yet. Any man is at the mercy of a certain class of woman. I rather liked the plucky way Spires stayed to face it. It is a matter of Doll's word against his, and I shouldn't take a word of a granddaughter of old Bluestone against any man without further evidence."
"Well, you see, I of course have that."
"Spires is the kind of man who has only one attitude towards young women. He couldn't be alone with one and keep his hands off her. I had to enlist Peter to get a little peace from him."
"Do you mean that? Why didn't you tell me?"
"You seemed to think so much of him; and how long did you know of his capers with the girl here?"
"Just the other day. It broke like a thunderclap."
"Oh." There was relief in the exclamation. "Well, you see, he held a threat over me as he did with Peter. I once did a portrait of myself—it is called Lady Godiva—and that will explain it. It ranks quite highly in artistic circles where they take the nude as a matter of course. But he threatened to show that in camp, and I felt it might be awkward for you. I got filthy anonymous letters too, that I believe emanated from Spires."
Labosseer was quiet for a space. He had a sense of injury in not being confided in when he had a deep-rooted affection for Peter and a practical desire for his advancement.
"It appears to me that we have all been fools playing at blind-man's-buff. A little more confidence all round would have prevented all this tommyrot."
"Yes," agreed Bernice, "but poor Peter has been the greatest sufferer. He had no one to help him. There are no charts of life. The psychologists are trying to make some now—but how was Peter to understand the tangle he was getting into? I feel just as disturbed as you do that he couldn't have trusted me."
"What are you going to do?"
"Oh, I'm going to marry Peter as soon as I have time—vogue la galère!"
Labosseer suppressed a smile and speech. He had not had such an exhilarating night for a long time. The big adventures of marriage, a family, making a fortune, were past. His financial operations did not lack savour, though he often asked himself what he wanted with any more money. Cocky, Bluey, and Barney and the loyalty and intelligence of the Pup gave him more pleasure than anything. Gastronomically, sartorially, and otherwise he had kept the austere habits of his young days. He had elements of the teacher and liked to develop young people and help them find their feet. Here was an enterprise that promised uncommon interest.
"If you are going to do all that for Peter—have forgotten that other fellow you told me about, I must keep my end up, too."
"You will tell Peter that!"
"See here first. We don't know yet if Spires is going to pull through."
"But he must!"
"Just to be prepared, supposing he doesn't?"
"Well, of course I shall stand by Peter."
"So shall I."
"Thank heaven! But I knew you would."
"Yes, but wait a moment. We don't mean the same thing, perhaps. If Spires should go out, Poole will have to tell the truth. I can have no part in concealing manslaughter. There can be no more of this deception. You see what it has led to in the first place."
"Oh, but Spires must not die! Let us go and see how he is now."
Old Grandma illustrated with a mirror that Spires breathed. Bernice was overjoyed and consented to go to bed and rest.
The doctor struggled through next day in a sloppy thaw and found the patient breathing heavily. A few days later a capable nurse was imported to supplement Doll and Grandma. Doll had fastened fiercely upon her prey and was not to be detached. It made her a great help to the nurse, who was past the romantic age and welcomed such assistance. Her interest in the case was also that of the doctor, to wit, the incompatibility of the bruises about the neck and face with a fall from the rocks, which had apparently been accomplished without the breakage of a single bone but the right forearm. It was the patient's neck and eyes that gave the most trouble. He could scarcely see, and complained of any light. His efforts to speak gave intense pain, and speechlessness rendered him helpless in the hands of Doll, who maintained her position intrepidly. Bernice's attitude further entrenched her.
Labosseer returned to Gyang Gyang, which was easy of access on the big grey. He left Bernice at Goonara for obvious reasons.
Peter supervised the passage of the sheep to the trucks. Bluey and his team mates had made a passage by dragging trees along the highway till they were out of the deep snow.
The wires were down from Goonara to the outside world and repairs were tardy. Bernice sent a wire and letter to Peter by the doctor on the visit when he brought the nurse. These went via Cooma to Sydney and back to Bool Bool, addressed to McHaffety's Hotel, which was patronized by Labosseer, but Peter never went near that "first-class family hotel" with its guaranteed attention and accommodation for man and beast. He stayed with the sheep and the drovers, and the telegram and letter remained in the office of McHaffety's.
He tried to get through to Gyang Gyang and Goonara by telegram but learnt that they were cut off by a fresh fall of snow and he was left in doubt as to Spires's condition. The drovers hardly knew what to make of him. They looked at him askance. After four days of paddling in the snow lifting weak sheep and camping in a bath they were given to urgent profanity and explosive obscenity to offset irascibility. Peter walked among them like an animated corpse, but with the relentless efficiency of a demon. They had never endured so exacting a boss or one who performed more major feats of endurance himself, but without one superfluous monosyllable, one word of commendation, recrimination, or irritation.
The strain of his position was terrible. He pitched his hopes low—the probable giving of himself up to justice, and the loss of paradise, which could have been his had he spoken earlier. But supposing Spires were not annihilated, and Bernice coming to him, he a goose turned swan and donning his robe to enter the kingdom of the princess!
He must not let his mind dwell on this lest it might be delirium. His safeguard was to keep on doggedly trucking as big a percentage of jumbucks as possible in the circumstances.
"That girl with the faded hair has given that bloke a sollicker under the ribs, if you ask me. It's driving him up the pole to think of her nursin' and cuddlin' that other fellow," remarked one of the drovers. "Either that or he's goin' off his onion pure and simple."
"Aw, he oughter take Clement's Tonic and be done with it."
When he had finished at the trucking yards he tried to get through to Goonara again, but finding it was still cut off there was nothing for him but the heavy journey back with All-the-Week and the packhorses.
During his eleven days' absence the case at Goonara had progressed considerably. Many things about it puzzled doctor and nurse. Why did Miss Gaylord seem to be financing it, and why was she so wildly eager for Spires's complete recovery, though Doll had now boldly announced herself as about to be married to him, and Miss Gaylord's inferences confirmed this?
Miss Gaylord's stay at the Crow's Nest was diplomatic and cleared away all the scandals which restricted minds had woven about her. She was putting in time on a portrait of Mona, called "Snow Daisies." She was eager to do honour to the little girl in some way and in a measure compensate her for what she was suffering. It was an appealing study accentuating the gentle spirit of the subject against a background of everlasting daisies. It is a favourite among Miss Gaylord's portraits today, though fragile little Mona never had the glory of seeing it in a metropolitan gallery. The explanatory note in the catalogue of the exhibition says it is the portrait of a young friend of the artist, who sleeps on the treeless hillside of Goonara in the little enclosure where the immortelles, ivory and gold, blow in thick carpets in the summer safe from the invading hordes of merinos, which stream by from November to April, cropping flower and tussock to the roots.
Spires, still speechless and with his arm in splints, was unable to divert his destiny. The doctor was sending him on to Sydney for more special advice and he was to be taken away while the road was clear of deep snow. The further falls of June might confine him till September or October. Bernice could not be sure what he thought or felt. His morale seemed broken. Doll was to accompany him to Sydney and, with the connivance of Granddad, there be married as soon as Spires could speak.
Bernice was defraying a major part of the expense, which she said she felt fully entitled to do on Peter's behalf. What legal or other action Spires might take when he was himself again was open to doubt. Labosseer washed his hands of the case as soon as Spires was out of danger. He had not relished Spires's behaviour towards himself and resolved to have no further association with him.
"But I don't like this affair with Doll Drew," he confided to Bernice. "His sisters and brothers won't want a miserable little drab like her amongst them, and she may be wrongly accusing him."
"Hardly likely," said Bernice. "My sympathies will be with Doll matrimonially."
"I shall tell his family the state of affairs without rendering myself open to libel, and they can come up and take charge in Cooma, and approve of the marriage or resist it, or do what they like. Considering their old-time connection with my family, and as this affair hatched while Spires was with me, they might think it rather rumtefoozle of me not to give them a word of warning."
This he proceeded to do and later received word that two members of the family were on their way to Cooma to take charge of Spires.
"That, at any rate, clears my skirts, and I'd like to see what they will make of Doll and the old man as prospective family members," he said with a smile.
The editor of the up-country Courier was eager to get the rights of the story, about which Dr Hartington was characteristically discreet. Not so the mailman. A week after the accident the worthy journal had a delectable story. In it much was made of the rescue of Mr Spires by Mr Peter Poole, the well-known son of Monaro, who had saved others unacquainted with the snow region. Stress was laid on the courage of Mr Poole in taking the injured man to Goonara on an improvised slide, and in bringing Miss Gaylord to attend him. She had done work towards the end of the war as a V.A.D. and was well suited to her part as rescuer. The editor indicated that the young lady, goddaughter of Mr Sylvester Labosseer of Gyang Gyang, had been spending a holiday amid the trout streams of the plains to be near Mr Poole, and had been caught in an early fall of snow. To while away the time, the young lady, who was quite gifted with sketching materials, had amused herself by making little sketches of the locality, including portraits of men and dogs, which had proved quite popular. The editor had seen one or two of these and considered they showed quite a gift. The young lady was one of the sweet womanly kind, all too rare in these days, alas! who was content to keep her beautiful long tresses, one of Natures' most precious gifts to the fair sex.
When Bernice saw this amiable and antiquated screed, Spires was fully alive and, her anxiety being relaxed, she snorted indignantly and in no sweet feminine spirit. "Old simpleton! Holiday! When I worked like fury, while he, I suppose, sits down and smokes and shoos the flies, and writes a sloppy paragraph, and goes for a drink and gossips an hour giving his Noah's Ark ideas, and thinks he is working. He must be one of those antique troglodytes who is sure that long hair for women is a dispensation of God and not of the barber or utility. Pretty little sketches indeed! Quite gifted my godfathers! Passing the time be damned! Rendered myself popular huh! Sweet womanly humbug—I'd like to show him..."
However, she calmed down when reflection showed that the tenor of the article was evidence that her identity and retreat were not suspected.
"Think what Peter must be suffering! I wish we could send him a message. I hope he got my letter and telegram," Bernice said to her godfather one day when he rode through to Goonara to see how the case was progressing.
"It will do him good: he deserves a bit of a spin for being such a blooming ass. I can't get over his not coming straight to me over Spires's head."
Bernice nearly offered in exculpation her own weakness in allowing Spires to browbeat her for fear of the effect of the Godiva portrait in that circle. She stopped on the brink. Nothing so alienates a man's sympathy as to discover that he is so feared as to scatter pluck for confession.
"Peter thinks so much of you that the risk of losing you out of his life paralysed his will."
"He was much more in danger of losing me by acting as he has done."
"That is what makes it so tragic for him and so irritating for you."
Anxiety that Labosseer might let Peter sink was groundless. He had too much imagination and affection for that. He had been more interested in Bernice's art enterprise and Peter's chequered romance proceeding under his eye than he had been in anything for years. Happening within the unique and isolated confines of Gyang Gyang it was particularly enlivening and became his affair.
Peter in due time returned to Gyang Gyang.
It was dark when he reached the abode. He tied All-the-Week in the harness shed and went to the kitchen. A fire burnt there but the rabbiters were away around their traps. A pale light streaming on the veranda announced that the Boss was in camp.
Would Bernice also be there?
Peter stood in the snow a while before facing it. Had Spires gone out, or did he still linger precariously? The possibilities were beyond the fatigue of his mind and body. He damped down emotion and strode to the door, entering in the custom of inside members of the camp without knocking.
Labosseer was at the table writing letters, a half-grown kitten asleep on his shoulder, Cocky dozing on the back of a chair near by. The old bird suffered cramps in the feet and had to be kept warm. She opened a cunning, judicial eye as Peter entered and said, "Hullo! Who are you?"
"Good evening," remarked Labosseer, who was unfailingly punctilious in such salutations.
"Good evening," responded Peter. He wanted to ask if Spires was still alive, but the tension was too tight. All those deep ditches he had for years been excavating between himself and this friend and employer had been impassably uncovered between them since their last meeting. It was for the elder man to speak first.
"What's the joke—eh?" inquired Cocky, getting off her perch and officiously strutting round the table to Peter and, after examining his boots, climbing up on him. Triumphantly perched on his shoulder she announced, "I laid an egg and sat on it, I did."
Peter blessed the bird in his heart and laid a caressing hand upon her, whereupon she put her old head against Peter's cheek making a sucking sound and demanding, "Kiss Cocky. Pretty Cocky."
Labosseer with difficulty suppressed a smile. Any precocity on the part of his pets gave him intense delight. Cocky had broken the ice inimitably, affectionately.
"Have you heard from Goonara since you left?"
"Then you'll be relieved to know that Spires hasn't so far pegged out."
The relief was too great, the reaction too violent. Peter could only bow his head. He could think of nothing to do but scratch Cocky under her imperial yellow crest. He could not ask if Spires were out of danger, or how and where was Bernice.
"You've been a blooming ass," said Labosseer, looking at him. "A nice way you have treated me all these years. I don't know when I have felt so angry with anyone. You deserved all you have gone through for your lunacy in not coming to me long ago."
Peter again bowed his head in acknowledgment. Labosseer saw that speech was beyond him. There is a limit to the endurance of the most unselfconscious and hardy.
"Pretty Cocky! Pretty Cocky!" said the bird in seductive cadence, caressing Peter engagingly and assuring him that with at least one friend there was no ostracism. Peter felt a longing for the Pup. Gracious to all, the old dog would have welcomed him home were he about, but he had been left in Goonara to keep Bernice company. Mr Labosseer never could look upon one of his pets as anything but a delight as a guest. He was enchanted with Cocky's part in relieving the present awkwardness, hardly less difficult for him than for Peter.
Peter betrayed his tension by his nervous manner of caressing the cockatoo.
"Oh, well, there's nothing that cannot wait till tomorrow. You must be all in. Better go and have something to eat and turn in."
Peter nodded again and turned to go. Cocky resisted being deposited.
"Better take Cocky with you as he seems to have made up his mind."
"Thanks," said Peter, returning the bird to his shoulder. He went out thus. Labosseer halted him on the threshold.
"As Cocky and Miss Gaylord have made up their minds to stand by you, I expect I had better fall in line, too, but you have been a blooming rumtefoozle ass."
"Thanks," was all Peter could say. He went out clasping the bird tenderly. He unsaddled and freed the horses, thence to the kitchen. He was too tired to eat or grasp the glorious prospect and romance of his position. He threw a log on the coals and himself in the Cook's roomy old chair, deck pattern with a kangaroo hide for canvas. Cocky took up a perch on the head-rail.
That blistering Spires was alive!
Strange that this news should drown him in relief, when this man's presence on the earth had been his curse for so many years.
The Boss...he must always feel ashamed in the presence of the Boss.
Cocky and Miss Gaylord standing by him...
Bernice! Bernice! There she was like a sun of bliss to be achieved—presently. Back of her was joy, life, love, all that a man wanted—rest, peace, sleep...
Sleep at that moment was heaven with the door open, and no longer to be denied.
An hour later Labosseer had finished his letter and the kitten was mewing for its family. He put it tenderly inside his coat and went through the frost to the kitchen.
Peter lay asleep, his head on his chest, breathing deeply. Labosseer put the kitten in the cat-box and as noiselessly as possible put another log or two on the fire. The rabbiters would be home about midnight and they would probably waken Peter and he could have a snack with them and turn in properly.
The man did not rouse, but Cocky opened an eye and announced, "I laid an egg and sat on it, I did." Labosseer put out his finger and his old pet climbed stiffly on to it. He snuggled her against his face so that she would not become too talkative.
"Blooming ass," he murmured, affection dispossessing resentment as he regarded the sleeping figure. He closed the door softly and went back to his own apartment. He set Cocky on the high head-rail of his lounge chair and stretched out before the splendid fire, comfortable physically and stimulated emotionally.
Tomorrow promised savour in the part he would be accorded in the affairs of the young people. It was satisfactory to have discovered the cause of Peter's kink and to be in a position to disperse it happily. Bernice's picture show would be a real lark, something novel and not commonly available. It was great luck that old Ernest Gaylord had sent her up for the summer. He must go to Sydney just as soon as Gyang Gyang was closed and have a day or two with old Ernest. It would be amusing to see his enthusiasm. He would have more faith than ever in the Labosseer powers to set people on their feet and see them through.
Poor Cocky was trying to step from the back of the chair to his shoulder, but was a little too rheumaticky, so Labosseer set her tenderly on his knee and let her beak her way to his shoulder.
"Now, old man," he said, as Cocky wheedled round his gills, "tell us about that famous egg you laid; big as a cannon ball, wasn't it? You're a great bird, all right; not an albatross, or an emu, or a turkey, or a tom-tit to match you from here to Timbuktu!"
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