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Title: Author: * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1500901h.html Language: English Date first posted: September 2015 Most recent update: September 2015 This eBook was produced by: Maurie Mulcahy 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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CHAPTER I.—THE FOUNDLING.
CHAPTER II.—THE DRUDGE.
CHAPTER III.—THE TYPISTE.
CHAPTER IV.—THE WIFE.
CHAPTER V.—THE ASSASSIN.
CHAPTER VI.—THE FORGOTTEN.
CHAPTER VII.—THE GHOST.
CHAPTER VIII.—THE DIVORCE.
CHAPTER IX.—THE GHOST MATERIALISES.
CHAPTER X.—"THE GOATHERD."
CHAPTER XI.—"THE ENIGMA."
CHAPTER XII.—THE PAL.
CHAPTER XIII.—THE OUTLAW.
CHAPTER XIV.—THE RIVAL.
CHAPTER XV.—THE HUNTED.
CHAPTER XVI.—THE NEXT OF KIN.
CHAPTER XVII.—"THE AVENGERESS."
Constable Conway, of the Queensland Police Force, tramping his beat in Ann Street, Brisbane, in the early morning of a June day, noticed a small bundle of clothing on the stone step of the old Protestant Hall. Picking up the bundle and examining it, he was surprised to find that it contained an infant, a little spark of forsaken humanity, but a few weeks old.
Though, the infant was warmly and comfortably clad, and well nourished, there was no clue whatever as to its identity. "Who the blazes——" Having said this and nothing more, Constable Conway, holding the infant tenderly in his strong arms, looked up and down the street as if expecting to find the infant's mother. Not seeing a soul in the dawn of this new day, he made a further close examination of the infant, and was surprised to find a piece of green ribbon tied around its little neck with a yellow card-board medallion suspended therefrom, on which was roughly printed "Loyal Orange Lodge of Australia."
"Now phwat d'yer think of that!" exclaimed the constable to himself. "The sacred green of ould Oireland and an orange emblem of her rotten inimies. Divil a bit do I know phwat the little colleen is—Sassenach or a Catholic. But it's a broth of a kid anyhow, and not a whimper out of it."
Constable Conway being a bachelor, did the only thing that his duty dictated him to do. He took the little foundling to the Roma Street Police Station, where it was gazed at in wonderment by all the members of the staff not then on duty. When, later, it cried for nourishment, it was passed over to the charwoman, who had an infant of her own at the Creche, and who temporarily wet-nursed it. Subsequently, one of female inspectors of the Orphanage Department took charge of it, and recorded its existence in the official register of the department. Then it was handed over to one of the several officially recognised foster-mothers, who care for State children under the surveillance of the Inspector of Orphanages. For want of a better name, and because of its unknown parentage, the little female derelict, picked up like a lost parcel out of the flotsam of a city's street, was christened "Lola," an official Christian name coined out of the initial letter of the phrase, Loyal Orange Lodge of Australia. For surname, it was given Conway, the inspiration of an official way, who remarked, grinning:—
"Well, wasn't that the name of the John who found it?" And so, from the concatenation of circumstances surrounding its finding, it was launched on the sea of life with the poetic name of Lola Conway.
The sleuths of the Criminal Investigation Department failed to trace the infants mother and thus was added another unsolved mystery to the many that often baffle the keenest intelligence of the police force. In the next annual report of the Director of Orphanages, it was classified among the infants of the State whose father and mother were unknown.
Reared and nurtured by a foster-mother whose love of children was an obsession, the little foundling grew in time into a little maid of beauty and promise. She had the wonderful violet eyes, soft fair skin, and dark wavy hair of an Irish colleen, though whether she was English, Irish, or Scotch was mere conjecture.
At the State school she made rapid progress. She was as intellectual as she was beautiful. When twelve years of age she won a State scholarship. At thirteen, she contributed short stories to the Children's Corner of the Saturday editions of the great dailies, for which she received payment. But at fourteen, she was, owing to the inexorableness of official regulations, sent out to service—hired out to be trained as a domestic. Before she was at her first place six months, a watchful inspector of the Orphanage Department was obliged to remove her, as her early beauty was found to be too great an attraction to the youths of the family with whom she was "hired."
Her next venture in the field of labour was more propitious. She was "hired" out to the wife of a dairy farmer at Samford. In this picturesque district among mountains and running streams, among horses and cattle, among scented gums and the perfume of wattles, she revelled in all the glory of wooded mountain and umbrageous scrub; in all the freedom of a filly unbridled. Here the inherited love of an Australian for a horse, broke out in her with all the joy of its galloping freedom. When the morning and evening milkings were over, she loved to feed the poddies with the skimmed milk, letting them suck her fingers as she held her hand in the milk-full bucket. But her greatest delight was to ride to the township for the mail, or on other errands. There were no other children at Coonan's farm and she became a general factotum. The Coonans—man and wife—made much of her. She had her own pony and her own saddle, and she soon learned to ride like a huntress. She had the balance and fearlessness of a born equestrienne and her lithe figure developed amazingly.
In the evenings she read and studied, for she was ambitious. She peopled the mountains and valleys with imaginary beings and wrote her stories for the magazines. These she read to the Coonans, who encouraged her. A Kindly editress suggested that she should learn typewriting and type her stories. Her ambition then was to obtain a typewriter. She saved her money to that end, and the Coonans helped her. She mentioned to Mick Coonan that typewriters could be bought on time payment. But Mick would not hear of that. "Cash down or nothing, Lola," he said. "You leave it to me." And she did. A month later when he returned from Brisbane, he brought with him a second-hand Smith-Premier, which he had picked up at Isles Love's, and which he had had overhauled. Lola's delight at the gift was unbounded, and practising assiduously, she soon became an expert typiste.
The Coonans were horse and cattle breeders as well as dairy farmers and Lola became initiated into the mysteries of breeding and procreation. She learnt what sex was and all that it meant. She looked upon the birth of foals and calves as one of the greatest mysteries of nature, and in her reasoning she understood how children were begotten. Her own origin puzzled her. Who was she? Who were her parents? Why was she abandoned? These questions confronted her but she received no answer to them. To have no mother or father to love her or whom she could love saddened her. But no one could vouchsafe her any information. She was worse than an orphan. She was a State child—a chattel, hired out like a sold slave. Though there lay before her all Australia, a continent, yet she was not free; she was chained to the state by laws and imprisoned by regulations. Until she became 18 she could claim no freedom. Even then she was under official surveillance until she was 21. Yet, withal, she was growing more beautiful every month that passed. Though she was shut out from love—the love of a child for a parent—by hard circumstance, it was not from unmeetness. If the mother who had abandoned her could only have seen her now, in all the beauty and mystery of budding maidenhood, surely, if she were human, she would have folded her in her arms and have cried out with bitter tears of repentance, "My darling, my angel, why did I forsake you!"
In her present environment Lola was not unhappy. Though she was not bush-born, she was being bush-trained. She loved the lonely paths meandering through the wild wood, and she translated into little stories the call of the birds, the cry of the native bear, and the weird laughing of the 'possums in the distant gums. She had heard people who called on the Coonans speak of the wonders of Mount Glorious, and she longed to make a trip to its wonderful summit. Her delight was unbounded when Mick Coonan mentioned one evening that he intended going up the mountain to inspect some scrub land that was advertised for sale as orchard blocks, and he would take her with him and his wife. They arranged to make the trip on the approaching Christmas Day, camp out for the night, and return on Boxing Day. Arrangements were made with a neighbour to attend to the milking in their absence.
Christmas morning dawned fair, and Lola was up at dawn. She helped with the milking and in preparing for the trip. With all the ardour of a first campaigner she made wonderful preparations, but Mick Coonan impressed upon her that they would have to travel light, as his little mare, which he called "Colleen," would have to pull them and the sulky up a mountain, where the pinches, the last three miles from the top, would tax to the utmost the stamina of his favourite mare. A reasonable compromise as to luggage and eatables was ultimately agreed upon, and everything was finally ready for the trip, including a nose bag for the mare.
Lola sat between Mick Coonan, and his wife, Margaret, and was radiantly happy. It was her first great adventure, as she termed it.
Mick Coonan had been up the mountains on a previous occasion, and he described points of interest along the road.
"That's where a car went over and was burnt. Yer might 'ave read about it in the paper," he said, pointing out a black splotch on the side of the range. "This culvert's where a bloke who took a girrul fer a joy-ride in his car got smashed up, killing the girrul, and she wasn't his mussus, either, begorra. You bet your life he got what fer when the missus heard about it."
"Och, the forward hussy," remarked Mrs. Coonan. "Them joy-rides in motor cars leads to no good. I'm tellln' yer, Lola, keep clear of fast men and motor cars."
The incident was tucked away in the store-house of Lola's memory. At the Highlands, Mick Coonan pointed out the banana plantations on the downward slope of the range, and the old deserted piggery where a city merchant with more money than sense, put down a cement floor in the styes, with the result that the pigs got cramp and died.
"Pigs must waller, Lola, and nozzle in the ground. Yer can't make 'em clean and perlite. Slosh is what they likes, plenty of slosh. Yer don't see cement floors in the styes down at Samford."
"No—only in the bails and the milkin' sheds, eh, Lola?" remarked Mrs. Coonan.
"And in the separator house," added Lola, who did not talk much. She was too enraptured with the scenic beauty of the winding road up the mountain, with its manifold hair-pin bends. On the right was dense scrub, and on the left banana plantations, running from the side of the road right down to the Valley below, where by a winding road at the bottom, flanked by a stream of purest water, nestled little homesteads, the blue wood-smoke from the cottage flues curling softly upwards on this lazy Christmas morning.
Now and then from below came the shouting of children at play, and above them, Lola heard the coo of the scrub pigeons, the sharp quick notes of the stock whip birds and the sweet tinkling calls of the bell-birds.
"Oh, Mr. Coonan, doesn't it seem wicked to cut down this beautiful scrub and turn it into a blackened ruin for banana plantations?" remarked Lola, sorrowfully.
"Bedad, that's one way of lookin' at it, Lola, but kids must have bananas. They can't live on scrub."
At the turn off to Mount Nebo, they spelled the mare and boiled the billy. The spot was a favourite camping ground beside a mountain stream. Away to the east could be seen the waters of Moreton Bay shimmering in the morning sunlight, and beyond Bribie Island and mighty Stradbroke. "I never dreamt it could be so beautiful," sighed Lola, looking out upon the wonderful panorama, with the eyes of a visionary and the soul of a poetess.
"That's nothin', kid. Gobs, you wait till we reach the top."
"It's very beautiful and wonderful," agreed Mrs. Coonan.
Having eaten and rested, they proceeded on their way. The scrub was left behind and they meandered upward through open forest country. The way was less even and more steep. To ease the little mare they got out of the sulky and walked up the steepest pinches, and Lola, with the keen activity of girlhood, had stones ready to chock the wheels when the mare was rested.
The sun was now almost overhead, and the sweat ran down the panting mare in streams. She stood with legs apart and nostrils distended and quivering, showing blood-red. Mick Coonan was proud of his little bit of horse flesh, and patted her and spoke to her encouragingly.
In places the road was cut out of the side of a mountain, and it was so narrow it would be impossible for two vehicles to pass. Luckily, they got through without meeting descending car or vehicle; but Lola shuddered in contemplation of what would be the result if a cart or car went over the side where there was a sheer drop hundreds of feet below.
At last they came to what is known as "Hill 60," the steepest pinch of all. At its base, gleaming in the bright sunshine, were the roadmakers' tents; now deserted, the navvies employed in cutting a deviation of the road round "Hill 60" having gone home for Christmas.
"Colleen will never take the sulky up that pinch, Mr. Coonan," said Lola, looking up the steep incline. "It will be cruel to make her."
"Begorra, that little mare has never jibbed at a pinch yet. It's Mick Coonan knows what she can do. You bet she'll do it," replied Mick proudly.
And she did. It was a gruelling pull, but the mare reached the top, where she stood, all aquiver with the fearful strain, her head hanging down to her knees.
"What yer think of her now, Lola? Ain't she worth her weight in gold?" asked Mick, patting his little mare fondly.
"You little pet," said Lola, putting her arms around the mare's neck, and placing her cheek against her reeking head.
It was three o'clock in the afternoon when they reached, without mishap, the clearing on the summit. Then the magnificence of the view made Lola gasp with astonished delight.
Miles away lay the city of Brisbane, and beyond the city the bay, with its island-girt loveliness; whilst all around and about was the dense jungle, dark, silent, majestic.
Under a giant fig tree Mick unharnessed the mare and rubbed her down with the nose bag, whilst Lola went to the creek running at the edge of the scrub for a billy of water. Mrs. Coonan unpacked the hamper and made the fire, while Mick indulged in the luxury of a smoke.
When they had had their meal, they went for a walk along the road through the scrub. To Lola it seemed fairyland. She gazed in wonder and admiration at the straight palms and great trees shooting skyward, some garnished with staghorns, orchids, and hare's foot ferns.
Scrub magpies (which Mick named currawongs) called loudly overhead, whilst rosellas, lories, king parrots, bright green parakeets (which Mick called "greenies"), blue mountainers (which Mick named "blueys"), flew about on the outskirts of the scrubs like flying chips hacked out of a mountain rainbow.
When the surveyed blocks had been inspected and they arrived back at their camp under the giant fig tree, the sun had gone down, and the darkness crept up from the valleys and covered the mountain with its enveloping pall.
The billy was boiled again, and having made a good meal of ham and cold fowl and Christmas dainties, the three sat together on an abandoned pine log and looked citywards. Twenty-five miles away over scrub and forest and couchant foot-hills, they saw the lights of Brisbane like distant fireflies gleaming brightly in the wonderful distance; whilst overhead, in a moonless sky, the stars of unnumbered worlds twinkled in the concave of a great immensity.
"Look, Mr. Coonan, away to the right are moving lights. What can they be?" asked Lola.
"Them's motor cars goin' up 'I'gate 'Ill. And look, Lola, you see them lights in a straight line? Well, them's the lights on Victoria Bridge, and if yer look away to the left, yer'll see more movin' lights. Them's more motor cars going over the hill at Nudgee College on the way to Sandgate."
And so they sat on, gazing at the magnificence whilst the wallabies hopped out of the scrub and the mopoke called to its mate from the height of a distant spur. The air on the mountains was cold, and while Mick Coonan built up the fire, his wife unrolled the rugs under the fig tree and made up a bed for Lola under the sulky. In a few minutes it was a sleeping camp.
The voices of the scrub called them at dawn, and what a gloriously wonderful dawn it was.
Softly, like the impalpable smile on the face of a soul soaring heavenward, it crept over the sky from the pearly gates of the east and lit up the mountain heights with its ethereal loveliness. Boiling billows of mist moved sluggishly over the valleys below, and broke into gossamer vapours as the light crept higher and higher from horizon to zenith.
Behind them was the background of the dense black scrub, where the palm fronds quivered in the gentle morning breeze, and where the wonga and the wompoo called from the Moreton Bay figs. The wallabies had hopped back to the thickets and the cheep of the scrub quail and the call of the region bird proclaimed that day had come.
In the East far over the distant sea and stretching along the horizon was a line of slate coloured clouds, whence rosy fingers of light pointed upward from the path of the unseen sun. Then, in a twinkling of time, a thin glint of gold topped the centre of the cloud-line, and ran like molten metal to right and left along its edge. Lola had awakened first and stood on the huge pine log, gazing in fascinated wonder at the marvellous revelations of the sky's untranslatable glories.
"Oh, Mrs. Coonan, look! Isn't that gold-edged cloud beautiful. It's like a long bright road."
"Indade it is, Lola," answered Mick Coonan, who appeared on the scene. "Shure it's the golden road to the Land O' Everlastin'." Turning back to the reality of things, Mick Coonan went to look for his mare, to give her her nose bag, while Lola gathered sticks to make up the fire.
After breakfast and while the dew was still heavy on the grass, they went up to the cleared area on the mountain where there was an old abandoned orchard, and gathered lemons and cape gooseberries and wild raspberries.
It was Boxing Day, and the morning was spent in idle wandering. The heat of the sun, notwithstanding the altitude of the mountain, was unpleasant. It was a dull, heavy heat, close and oppressive, which presaged a storm.
"I wouldn't be surprised, Mag," said Mick Coonan to his wife, "if we had a storm this evening! I don't like the feel of the heat. We'd better make an early start for home so as to be down the mountain, in case we get caught."
"Very well, Mick," replied his wife. "Lola and I will pack up while you harness Colleen."
It was two o'clock when they left the top of the mountain, and already there were indications of a coming storm. It was still a long way off; but they had a long way to go, and sometimes the storms in that latitude came up very quickly.
When they reached the Mount Nebo turn-off, Mrs. Coonan said; "The storm's coming, Mick. Listen to the thunder."
Mick Coonan gazed anxiously towards the west. The storm was approaching too rapidly to be safe. His one great desire was now to reach the bottom of the mountain before the storm struck them with the full force of its fury. He knew from experience the danger of being out on the Mountain road in the driving madness of a midsummer storm, and so he urged the little mare forward while the going was good. The thunder rolled louder and nearer and the heavy blue black clouds, tinged underneath with a dirty green, rose higher and higher in a great convex across the western sky. Lightning, at first in quick angry sheets and then in fitful flashes, like the glaring eyes of an angry lion, lit up the dense black cloud masses. Then, quivering lengths of chain lightning slashed the cloud in vertical flashes like naked, twisted scimitars. The force of the rising wind became greater and the tops of the great gums and bloodwoods swayed and bent under the fierce strain.
"We're goin' to ketch it, Mag, and there's no shelter between here and Mount O'Reilly."
"If it will only hold off until we reach Highlands we can shelter in the school hall," replied Mrs. Coonan.
"Yer ain't skeered, are yer? Lola?"
"Not in the least, Mr. Coonan, we're in for it together."
Away in the distance they could hear a heavy roar as the wind-driven rain surged over the tree-clad ranges. It was growing dark, but the vivid flashes of dazzling lightning lit up the road, while the little mare trotted gamely on the downward slope.
The thunder hitting the ranges with staccato crashes warned them that the lightning was too near to be safe. A sudden mighty burst of sound following almost instantly on a blinding flash of lightning startled the little mare, and it took all of Mick's most careful driving to keep the sulky on the road.
On the left was a high bank cut out of the mountain's side; on the right was a downward drop to the depths below. If the sulky went over, eternity lay at the bottom.
Following the last thunder crash the clouds were burst asunder with the mighty concussion and the rain fell in torrents. Mick made the mare walk, as he did not care, now that the road was slippery, to make her go faster. What he feared most was falling timber. If a tree were blown across the road, all hope of reaching home would have to be abandoned. Fortunately, there was no hail worth mentioning. From the greenness of the storm clouds, Mick Coonan predicted heavy hail. If it came he would have to get out of the sulky, and hold the spirited mare. If she were pelted with falling ice lumps, there was no knowing what would happen. Behind, glared the head lights of a car, and Mick Coonan had to pull in close to the bank to let the car pass. The driver thanked Mick but stopped when he noticed that he had two women with him.
"What about the ladies? Will they come with us in the car?" The driver asked with some concern.
"What about it, Mag? It might be safer for you and Lola."
"No, Mick, we'll stick together. I wouldn't rest if you were out in the storm alone."
"Will you go in the car, Lola?" asked Mick.
"And be a deserter? Not me Mr. Coonan. I'll stick with you and Mum."
"Thanks, Mister, we'll be stickin' together," said Mick Coonan to the driver.
"Right-O! Good luck! Hope you'll get home safely. Good night!" and the thoughtful driver accelerated and was soon lost in the darkness. The storm was now at its height and the flood waters rolled in cataracts down the side of the mountain. Intermittently, branches were wrenched off the trees by the force of the wind, and hauled down the ravines. There was still some distance to go before the bottom of the range was reached and Mick Coonan kept a sharp look out for washaways. They were drenched to the skin, but that only added to the romance of it all, as Lola regarded it. She and Dad and Mum, the only dad and mum (save her foster mother) she felt who ever really cared for her, were together, so what mattered anything else, storm or rain or lightning. The world about them was in convulsions. The lightning made savage gashes in the darkness, and the earth seemed to tremble as the thunder claps hit the ridges and reverberated along the mountain spurs. By careful driving and the exercise of great patience, Mick Coonan brought them safely to the foot of the last steep slope where there was a culvert through which the discoloured waters rushed like a mill race. The little mare snorted and hesitated as she stepped gingerly on the planking of the bridge, sensing danger in every uncertain footstep.
Near the school-house at the approach to the mountain road, a half-dead gum tree, torn from its insecure roots by the cyclonic force of the storm, fell with a terrific crash across the road just as they had passed. This startled the terrified mare and she bolted. Mick Coonan warned his wife and Lola to sit tight and not to jump out of the sulky. The mare had a hard mouth, and in the darkness unslashed by the lightning, it was hard work to keep her on the uneven road; but Mick Coonan held the reins grimly and spoke firmly but gently to the mare in the endeavour to calm her by his voice and to give her courage by his presence. She was easing in her mad gallop when the off wheel sank in a washaway at the side of the road and the sulky overturned. Mick Coonan held on to the reins while his wife and Lola were thrown clear of the sulky and rolled down the side of the road unhurt. The frightened mare tore herself free from the harness and dragged Mick Coonan, who instinctively held the reins in his left hand, along with her till his head struck a granite boulder.
Mrs. Coonan and Lola, with deadly apprehension, went to his assistance. A terrible fear seized them when they found that his head was cut and bleeding and he made neither move nor moan. Taking the rug, wet and sodden, from the overturned sulky, Mrs. Coonan made a pillow for his head, but from the dead weight of it she feared that her husband's neck was broken. She cried and moaned, "Oh, he's dead, he's dead," and Lola sat down beside her on the rain-soaked ground and put her arms around her and tried in her small way to comfort her and she too sobbed, saying in her grief, "Oh, Mum, Mum, he's gone to the Land O' Everlastin'."
The death of Mick Coonan changed the course of Lola's young life as a rock changes the course of a flowing stream.
By his will, under which he appointed the Equity Trust Company, Limited, his executor and trustee, he left a legacy of £1,000 to Lola to be paid to her on her attaining twenty-five years of age. The residue of the estate which was not inconsiderable, he directed to be sold, and the proceeds paid to his wife.
This meant the end of the farm at Samford and Mrs. Coonan went back to Ireland, whence she had come as an Irish Immigrant. She would have taken Lola with her, but this the Inspector of Orphanages would not sanction; nor was Lola keen to leave Australia. It was her country, not Ireland, as she expressed herself, and she would not leave it. The Coonans had sought to adopt her, but as she was over ten years of age when she was hired out to them, letters of adoption could not be signed, consequently Mrs. Coonan, though fond of her, could not legally claim her. Mick Coonan often lamented in his large hearted, good natured impulsive Irish way, "that the law was agin him making Lolo his legal if not his natural darter," but he made her the only recompense that he could for her fondness for him, by giving her a legacy of a thousand pounds. In this he was guided by the manager of the Equity Trust Company, when having his will made. The manager, in his vast experience, had a profound knowledge of State children, and the lives that they led or were forced to lead, and suggested to Mick Coonan that the legacy be not made payable to her until she attained her twenty-fifth birthday, as by that time, she would know her own mind and, if married, would know what sort of a man her husband was likely to be to her. In this Mick Coonan concurred.
Consequent upon the turn of events, Lola who was now sixteen years of age, was received back into the fold of the Orphanage until such time as she could be suitably hired out to some other mistress. In a sense she was a slave, a slave to a system, but it was a system forced upon the community by the ungovernable passions of sex, and by the stern persistence of society in ostracising the unfortunates who, obeying the instincts of love with which they are dowered and which must rule till they cease to be human, have had the temerity to mate outside the law. As the whole attitude of society is so intolerant, it is not to be wondered at that "one more unfortunate" leaves the fruit of her love on the door step of a city building, to be brought up as a State child by a paternal State, and in accordance with the strict code of its laws and regulations. Therefore until she became eighteen, Lola must submit and as there was a keen demand for State girls as domestics, it was not long before she was again hired out. This time she passed into the custody of a woman who claimed to be "in society," consequently, she was parsimonious, to wit, mean. Hers was one of those homes where eatables were kept under lock and key, and where domestics were treated with an intolerance that is only known in snobdom.
"Oh, your name's Lola, is it?" said Mrs. Wade-Smith, when she had landed Lola at her Ascot home from the Central Station, where she had gone to collect Lola and her belongings. "Well, it's too grand a name for a servant, and it's too long. You will be called Sue."
"Yes, marm. If it please you."
Mrs. Wade-Smith looked austerely at Lola as if not quite sure whether the girl was sarcastic, or just plain dull.
"Yes, just Sue, child. Who on earth ever gave you such a heathenish name as Lola, and don't call me marm. Say Mrs. Wade-Smith."
"Very well, Marm—Mrs. Wade-Smith, I mean. It's a grand name," said Lola, still hanging on to her black japanned hat-box, which contained her regulation kit, and standing guard over her typewriter.
"Do you think so, child? My husband's name was Smith, a common name. My maiden name was Wade. I made him change his name to Wade-Smith."
"You're clever at changing names, Mrs. Wade-Smith. You've now changed mine to Sue. Smith, Wade-Smith, Sue, Lola-Sue," said Lola mischievously memorising the names by ticking them off on her fingers.
"You are a presumptuous child. The name of Lola will be dropped absolutely. I repeat, henceforth, in this house you will be called Sue."
Unconsciously, Mrs. Wade-Smith had coined a name for Lola that was to stick to her throughout her life—Lola-Sue. Even her surname of Conway was rarely mentioned.
"Bring your things along, Sue, and I'll show you your room. Good gracious what are you hugging that typewriter about with you for?"
"I practise on it, Mrs. Wade-Smith."
"Practise on it," almost shrieked Mrs. Wade-Smith. "You'll find no time for practise here. Surely you don't imagine that a little drudge like you, without any education, is ever going to be a typiste?"
"I hope so, some day, Mrs. Wade-Smith."
"Well, you just get that out of your mind before you're a day older. Typiste, indeed! What next!"
Lola-Sue was shown to her room, a space partitioned off under the house which was built on high blocks, and under which John Wade-Smith parked his car.
This underneath part of the house was lit up by electric light, and besides being used as a garage, was also used as a laundry. The light from the electric bulb was of no effect as a means of lighting Lola-Sue's room. When its door was shut, all light was shut out, but she was given a meagre supply of candles, as her use of these could be regulated; whereas if the electric light had been installed in her room, she might make extravagant use of it. That, of course, was the reasoning of Mrs. Wade-Smith.
"I've provided you with a white cap and apron. You will wear them when waiting at the table and on my day-at-home."
"Yes, Mrs. Wade-Smith."
"And here's a written list of your duties which you must strictly observe."
"Very well, Mrs. Wade-Smith."
Mrs. Wade-Smith kept no other domestics. Lola-Sue was, therefore, a "general." She was called upon to scrub, wash, cook, run errands, and to wait at table. The Wade-Smith family consisted of John Wade-Smith, sub-manager of a mercantile firm, his wife, Miriam, three daughters—two older and one younger than Lola-Sue, and two boys both younger, and as Mrs. Wade-Smith was in society, Lola-Sue had her work cut out to run the Ascot household.
At dinner that evening Lola-Sue made her debut, the whole family being present.
When her back was turned and she was safely back in the kitchen, John Wade-Smith remarked:—
"What an astonishing beautiful child. Where did you pick her up Miriam?"
"From the orphanage. And you keep quiet. Don't put notions into the girl's head."
"What's her name, ma?" asked the oldest daughter, Marjory.
"Sue what, ma?"
"I didn't inquire. But she's to be called Sue."
"Oh, come, Miriam," said John Wade-Smith. "If she's a State child, she's subject to State regulations and she'll have a card or something on which will be printed her name and rate of pay."
"Well, yes, now I come to think of it, she did give me a card. Here it is," and Mrs. Wade-Smith took a card from the sideboard and handed it to her husband. "Lola Conway, aged sixteen," said John Wade-Smith, reading from it, "Lola, what a pretty name, Miriam; but why call her Sue? That's not her name."
"Lola's too high-falutin a name for a servant, so I've decided to call her Sue, and that's the name she's to go by in this house." This was said in such a dispute-if-you-dare tone, that there was all-round silence.
Then, after a pause.
"Oh, well, if you say so, Miriam, why, of course."
Then the meal proceeded apace. From the freedom of the bush and her sojourn with the Coonans to her present confinement as a drudge in the home of the Wade-Smiths, was as pitiable and as disastrous for Lola-Sue as was the fall of Lucifer from heaven to hell. Barely was she permitted to visit her foster-mother, who had brought her up from infancy with tender, if not loving care. She was never permitted to leave the house at night. That was a law of the Orphanage Department, and it suited her mistress to strictly enforce it. She had no girl friends outside the limited circle of her foster-sisters, and they were merely drudges hired out to other mistresses more or less kind. Boy friends were strictly forbidden, consequently her young life was one of tragic loneliness. From early morning until late at night she toiled and drudged and fretted with never a kind word from her mistress or a pat of approbation. The daughters of the household whom she was commanded to call Miss Marjory, Miss Joyce, and Miss Mavis, were little snobs of their mother's unhappy training, while the boys, Master Percy and Master George made her the butt of their boyish and sometimes cruel pranks. To complain to their mother was useless. She received no sympathy from that quarter. The only friend she had was John Wade-Smith, who pitied her, and in secret his heart went out to her. Many a box of chocolates he surreptitiously gave her with the injunction to keep her mouth shut and to say nothing. At meal time, her breakfast, dinner, or tea was carved and served with the others, but her plate was often forgotten until the food on it was cold and the others had almost finished. At time, John Wade-Smith intervened.
"Aren't you going to ring for Sue? Her dinner's getting cold."
And for answer he got from his snappy wife, "You're mighty concerned about the servant. She can take her plate when I ring for her to bring in the pudding."
"Yes, but why not be human? The child has feelings."
"Oh, shut up. You make me tired. What do you know about managing servants?"
And so tragedy and comedy for Lola-Sue went hand in hand. She was an orphan, a State child, and nobody's darling. Yet, notwithstanding the severity of her existence, she was growing more beautiful as the months went by. When the Miss Wade-Smiths had their tennis parties and Lola-Sue was called upon to assist in serving afternoon tea the young men were captured by her beauty, and her grace and dainty appearance. It was only on occasions such as this she was permitted to wear her glad rags. At all other times she was dressed like a drudge.
"Gee, that's a stunning maid you've got, Marjory. Where did you pick her up?" asked one of the tennis boys one Sunday afternoon.
"Oh, she's an incorrigible, a State child, a Miss Nobody of Nowhere, you know, sent to ma to be disciplined," was the reply he got.
"Poor little devil," remarked another of the boys. "She doesn't seem half bad."
Lola-Sue, in her demure, meek way, went about her business, seemingly unconcerned, noticing no one, speaking to no one. She didn't dare. But inwardly she was burning and boiling like a pent up volcano. Some days she felt that she would explode; but ever before her was the threat to send her to a "home" if she showed the least sign of insubordination, and as the home was a penetentiary for incorrigibles, Lola-Sue would submit to any ill-treatment, any degradation, rather than incur the penalty of being sent to a "home" to herd with girls steeped in inherited vice.
One cold winter's morning when the westerly winds cut like a knife, she was bidden to scrub the verandas. The water in the pail was ice cold. It had been taken from a tank exposed to the westerly blasts and was of the temperature of liquid ice. Her little hands ached, and the hot tears that fell on them was the only warmth that she experienced. John Wade-Smith happened along and saw her crying.
"What's the matter little Lola-Sue?" He was the only one who called her Lola-Sue, and then only when there was no one about.
"The water's so cold, sir, and my hands ache. I can scarcely hold the scrubbing brush."
"Damit, child, there's hot water in the bath, that will only run to waste. Go and get a bucketful of that."
"I daren't, sir, Mrs. Wade-Smith says I must use clean tank water, but it's so terribly cold."
"We'll see about that. Here give me that bucket." And John Wade-Smith (may he get a halo) went to the bathroom and brought the bucket back full of warm water. But he was caught in the act.
"What on earth are you doing with that bucket of water?" his wife asked with an evil glint in her eyes.
"Bringing it to Sue to scrub the floors with."
"And who asked you to interfere in the management of this house?"
"For God's sake be reasonable, Miriam. The child's crying with the cold and the hot water will only run to waste. She may as well use it."
"She'll do nothing of the kind. It's tap water, and useless for scrubbing. Why will you interfere?"
That was the end of the argument. John Wade-Smith felt that by being persistent and asserting himself, he would only make matters worse for Lola-Sue, so he capitulated.
Later, when Mrs. Wade-Smith made Lola-Sue go for a fresh bucket of water she called her a snivelling little cat, crying for the sake of earning sympathy.
But there came a day when John Wade-Smith really asserted himself. It happened on a holiday. His wife and children had gone with a party to Redcliffe to spend the day and he and Lola-Sue were home alone. It was arranged that when she had washed up the breakfast things and tidied the house, she could spend the day with her foster-mother, provided she came home early to get the tea. John Wade-Smith decided to spend the day on the links, and he said:—
"I'm going out to Yeerongpilly, Lola-Sue about ten. Hurry up with your work and I'll take you in the car as far as your foster-mother's."
"Thank you, so much, Mr. Wade-Smith. I won't keep you waiting."
Lola-Sue was more than delighted. It was the first time she had been asked to have a ride in the Vauxhall. A prying neighbour saw them leave together in the car and made a mental note of the proceeding. In due time, in the course of an over-the-fence conversation, she remarked confidentially to her next door neighbour:—
"Tell it not in Gath, but Mr. Wade-Smith has taken his pretty little maid for a joy ride. If his wife only knew. Goodness, these old men are all alike. They can't resist the flappers. And the maid above all!" In due time the incident was whispered to Mrs. Wade-Smith at an afternoon tea.
"It was so kind and thoughtful of your husband, dear Mrs. Wade-Smith, to take your little maid for a ride in his car, on St. Andrew's Day. They were away all day, and they came back about five in the evening," vouchsafed the prying neighbour.
"Yes, I think it just lovely that a man in Mr. Wade-Smith's position should be so insensible as to what people think, and to take his servant for an outing in his car. But then, she's such a pretty little thing," added neighbour number two.
Mrs. Wade-Smith was furious but remarked sweetly:—
"Oh, you know, my dears, my husband is so Bohemian in his tastes. He just loves giving pleasure to people in humble positions. That's one trait in his character I've always admired."
But that evening when John Wade-Smith arrived home from his office and had gone to his room to change before doing a turn in his garden, his wife followed him into the room. He sensed that something unpleasant was coming, and he had not long to wait.
"A nice sort of man you are to take your servant for a joy ride in your car on St. Andrew's Day. Where's your pride?"
"Who told you that yarn?"
"Never you mind who told me. I happen to know all about it, you two-faced thing."
"Don't be an ass, Miriam. I took Sue to her foster-mother's in the car, played golf all day, and brought her back in the evening. What's wrong with that?"
"What's wrong with that!" repeated Mrs. Wade-Smith sneeringly. "Why, it's the common gossip of the neighbourhood, you low brute. Anyway, though you do think her a little angel, she'll fly to-morrow, and not to heaven either."
"Why, what do you mean?"
"I mean that I'll bundle her back to the orphanage. She's no good. I'll put temptation out of your road."
It was then that John Wade-Smith saw red. "Look here, you damned jealous fool. If that child goes out of this house, I go, too, so please yourself. I'll give the neighbours something to talk about, blast them. When she packs up, I'll pack up, and we'll go together and damn the consequences. Haven't you enough sense to see that if you send Sue back to the orphanage, the neighbours will soon tumble to the fact that you're jealous and have taken their cock-and-bull story seriously."
Mrs. Wade-Smith became alarmed. She had brewed a storm that she could not calm. Never since their marriage had her husband turned on her like this. She began to cry. "I feel so humiliated. The neighbours think you are unfaithful to me."
"Good God, woman, have some sense. They say, what do they say, let them say! and be damned to them. I'm not a chicken stealer." Then the storm clouds passed over and blue sky appeared once more in the domestic firmament of the Wade-Smiths. Lola-Sue was not sent flying.
But for weeks and months she toiled and drudged in the kitchen, in the laundry, in the yard, under the cold merciless eyes of an austere mistress. In her early dreams, she had never dreamt of such a harvest of toil. Occasionally, on a Saturday morning, she was given a pass to a picture show. The first picture she saw after she had been some months at the Wade-Smiths was that of "Oliver Twist." This realistically portrayed her own drab, dull, and uneventful life. She, in common with Oliver Twist, was an orphan. This was the tragedy of her existence. How she longed for the dawning of her eighteenth birthday. Then she would be free from the official control of the State Children Department, free to wear clothes other than the left off garments of her mistress's daughters; free to wear georgette blouses and silk stockings, and all those delicate undies which are the dream of every girl of an inherently refined nature, free to be a living throbbing unfettered human being, full to the brim with aspirations soaring upward. From the depths of her domestic misery and drudgery, she looked forward to her eighteenth birthday as a plant in a darkened corner reaches out to the radiant sunlight. Then she would begin to be a girl in reality, to enjoy life, to choose work that was congenial to her; then she would reap the harvest that her present dreams portrayed.
She had now passed her seventeenth birthday, and gave every promise of a superb womanhood. She was strong and healthy, and her complexion untouched by the grease and powder and carmine of senseless flapper-hood, glowed with its natural exquisite colouring. The rich red blood of health and girlhood glowed in vermeil suffusions through the fair skin of her rounded cheeks; and in her soulful violet eyes were hidden depths of unrevealed mysteries.
In surreptitious moments, when her mistress was paying her social calls and she had the house to herself, she practised stenography from text books and wrote her stories on the typewriter. This was her one great deception, but she hugged it close. Her training in the Wade-Smith school made her as wise as a serpent, though as innocent still as the dove. To Mrs. Wade-Smith it was unthinkable that Lola-Sue should have aspirations above the wash-tub or the kitchen sink. She therefore, forbade her ever to touch her typewriter. "If you can find time to tap those horrid keys," she said to Lola-Sue one day, "you are neglecting your household duties. Such stuff and nonsense! Learning to type, indeed! Did you ever hear of such absurd notions! What next, I wonder!" And so Lola-Sue was forbidden to indulge in her greatest pleasure. At night time she was obliged to go to bed early as her candle allowance was too limited, and she valued her splendid eyes too much to strain them by the flickering imperfect light of a candle.
Her master, however, encouraged her, sub-rosa, in her desire to rise above the environment of sink and wash-tub. He brought her from his office silverburn and carbons, rubbers and ribbons. These she kept locked away, at the bottom of her japanned hat-box, in which she kept all her secret treasures. There, they were safely hidden from the hawk eyes of her mistress.
Occasionally, when opportunity offered, when the family were out at night at some function or the other, and John Wade-Smith was home alone in the quiet retreat of his "den," Lola-Sue would come to him and he encouraged her to unburden herself of her cherished desires. In him she recognised her one and only friend.
"You'll soon be eighteen, Lola-Sue. What then?" he asked her on one such occasion.
"A situation as a typiste Mr. Wade-Smith. There's nothing I would like better."
"Very well, Lola-Sue, we'll see what we can do for you when you are free from the control of the State."
"Oh, if you only would, Mr. Wade-Smith, I would remember your kindness always."
"Bear and suffer a little longer, child. Study as hard as you can at every possible opportunity and you'll make good. I'm behind you." The interest of John Wade-Smith in the future of this little lonely friendless orphan, was as a gleam of golden sunlight through the dark clouds of a raw winter's day. When he spoke to her in his encouraging kind way, the tears would dim the delphinium blue of her eyes and she would say, over and over again:—"If it weren't for your kindness and interest, sir, I couldn't bear this drudgery."
Then John Wade-Smith, who after all, was only human, would do what his wife would have crucified him for doing if she had been aware of it, draw Lola-Sue to him and kiss her softly on the tear-stained eyes and bid her be of good cheer pending the day of her freedom.
So, like a prisoner under sentence of death, hoping for a reprieve, Lola-Sue was buoyed up against the drudgery and insolence of her domestic slavery by the ultimate goal of her freedom. In the meantime, she bore and suffered and waited. At last, a long long last, she was eighteen—and free. No longer a slave, a drudge, a thing that was chained and manacled to the rules and regulations of a "system" but free to sell her efficient services—as a typiste if possible, as a domestic at any rate, in the open market of the world.
There was one office where she was known by reason of the will of Michael Coonan. That was the Equity Trust Company Limited. When she had gone there with Mrs. Coonan, she was fascinated by the busy clicking of the numerous typewriters and by the capable and business-like way in which the girls worked at their machines. If she could only receive an appointment to an office like that, she would be happy for ever. That was what she thought. She mentioned the matter to John Wade-Smith, and he said he would see what he could do. He knew the manager of the Equity Trust Company personally, and took him into his confidence. "Oh yes," said that official to John Wade-Smith when he spoke to him on the matter. "I know the little girl. In fact, I'm her trustee, and she's one of my cestui que trustants."
"Well, will you, when you have an opportunity, give the girl a trial?"
"I shall be only too pleased. In fact, I think she can be placed at once." He rang for the officer in charge of the typists division. "I think you mentioned, Miss Millner, that the typing of wills and succession accounts is in arrears owing to some of the girls being absent from influenza."
"Yes, Mr. Munro, the copying work is very much behind."
"Then I'll give you another girl immediately." Turning to John Wade-Smith he asked. "How soon will your protégé be available, Smith?"
"To-morrow, if you wish it."
"Very well, to-morrow then. And Miss Millner, when the girl arrives, give her your personal assistance and consideration. I believe she has had a rough spin."
It was a tremendously happy day for Lola-Sue when she left, for good, the service of Mrs. Wade-Smith. That aristocratic lady was bitterly sarcastic when her husband informed her that he was instrumental in getting Sue an appointment as a typiste in the Equity Trust Office; but the bitter things that are said to her husband concerning his unwarranted and unmoral interference in the destiny of her domestic drudge, were as nothing compared with her final parting with Lola-Sue. "You debased creature," she said when her husband had gone out, "how dared you to throw yourself at my husband. Not another night will you remain in this house. You can't be trusted. The street's the proper place for you."
It was then that the pent up fury of Lola-Sue broke loose. The ignominy that she had suffered, the degrading insults that she had put up with during her two years of slavery under an impossible mistress, made her eloquent in the denunciation of a woman whom she hated and loathed with all the ardour of her passionate nature.
"Mrs. Wade-Smith," she said, white with the tenseness of her passion and hate, "for the last twelve months I've prayed to God every night to free me from your hateful servitude, and now He, by His hand of time, has granted my prayer. I'm no longer your hireling or a child of the State. I'm more free than you are to go my way and I go from you and hating and loathing. If it hadn't been for the kindness of your husband, I believe I should have committed suicide. I love him as much as I hate you. He's been everything to me."
"I knew it. I knew it, you insolent and shameless hussy, and he'll pay for it—for his carryings on with you. How dare you."
"Stop, you shall not say that. Mr. Wade-Smith is a gentleman, one of the kindest and most honourable that ever lived. I cannot understand how he came to marry such a shrew as you, and I pity him."
This was too much for Mrs. Wade-Smith, who completely lost her dignity, and attempted violence; but failing in this, as Lola-Sue was too alert and active, she went to the girl's room and smashed her typewriter and threw her locked hat box which contained her scanty wardrobe, outside into the laundry. Lola-Sue then left the Wade-Smith's happy home for ever. She went to her old foster-mother and told her all that had happened. That night a taxi-driver called at the Wade-Smith's for her belongings, including the wrecked typewriter.
The next morning, clad in the best clothes that she possessed, she commenced duty in the Equity Trust Office. She was, however, ashamed of her shabby apparel, but during lunch hour she went to the State Children Department and requested payment of the one-fourth of her Savings Bank funds, which she was entitled to draw on attaining her eighteenth birthday. The other three-fourths she could not draw until she became 21. During the last twelve months of her servitude she was entitled to be paid 10s. a week. Of this sum 1s. 6d. a week was allowed her as pocket money and the balance of 8s. 6d. was paid to her credit in the Savings Bank. As she had been working since she was 14 years of age at an increased wage every year she had a fair sum to her credit in the Savings Bank. A wise "system," however, allowed withdrawals in sums not exceeding £5 at a time. But when Lola-Sue explained to the inspector her present circumstances he permitted her to draw £10. With this money she, under the guidance of her old foster-mother, and with her own innate instincts of neatness and taste, purchased an outfit which worked a marvellous transformation in her appearance.
When she appeared at the office next day the staff gasped, and several of the girl clerks and typistes were more than a little envious. Lola-Sue at 18 years of age with her willowy figure, her firm young breasts rounded and perfectly moulded, and shown to the greatest advantage by a tight-fitting bodice, her faultless complexion, her large soulful violet eyes, was a girl whom men turned round to gaze at. She had now realised in a measure her early craving for beautiful attire, georgette frocks which were soft and clinging, and creaseless silk stockings which showed to advantage her shapely legs beneath her short skirts. Though the strong firm hands were red and roughened by the hard work of a domestic they were not beyond repair, and when finances permitted it she intended purchasing a manicure set. In typing, her hands were constantly before her, and she was ashamed of them, but time and care she knew, would remedy their defects. But if her hands were coarse, her feet, with their arched insteps were perfectly moulded. Her bobbed hair thick, dark, and marcelled by nature, was a halo of lustrous glory. This is an imperfect description of Lola-Sue when she commenced work as a stenotypiste in the Equity Trust Office. Not having had the training in a business college that other girls on the staff had had, she was somewhat at a disadvantage. But she was a careful reader and an apt student, and she had moreover the will to succeed, the will to conquer. Being too proud to be backward, she attended night classes at a college and made rapid progress. Her heart was in her work. Moreover, she wanted to justify her appointment for the sake of Mr. Wade-Smith. He had confidence in her and her greatest desire now was to warrant that confidence. And she did. In less than six months she had become so proficient that she was placed in the Probate Division which was presided over by Wilfred Beaufort Stinson, generally known as Billy Stinson.
The Equity Trust Office for purposes of reorganisation was broken up into several divisions, and that presided over by Mr. Stinson was regarded as the most important, and it carried the highest classification. It was considered an advancement to be transferred to that division, and Lola-Sue felt honoured in being on its staff. She became Billy Stinson's special typist, and acquitted herself so well that she soon became indispensable to him.
Hitherto, Lola-Sue's experience of men was limited. Poor Mick Coonan she had known and trusted. Mr. Wade-Smith was to her an honourable and splendid gentleman, who had stood by her in the blackest hours of her existence. The orphanage inspectors she looked upon as mere officials, whom she regarded with no friendly eyes, as they were part of a "system" which was abhorrent to her. None of them had made love to her. But Billy Stinson was different to them all. He treated her with deference and consideration. He was the first young man to take a keen interest in her and to appraise her worth. But that was characteristic of Billy Stinson. He took a keen interest in all good looking girls and Lola-Sue had a charm and a fascination that were irresistible. Her laugh was low and throaty, and she had a fine sense of humour. She laughed with bubbling mirth when one day Billy Stinson told her a tale against himself.
"You know, I'm not an oil-painting, Lola-Sue, and this fact was brought home to me this morning. A lady came into my office seeking information about an estate. Looking at me she said, 'You remind me very much of Mr. Heywood, the solicitor. He's a very plain man, isn't he?' I looked at her and laughed. 'Indeed!' I replied. 'But you're not very flattering.' The lady felt that she had put her foot into it, and qualified her statement by saying, 'Oh, I didn't mean that exactly. There's a sort of attractive ugliness, you know.' Well, she really made matters worse, Lola-Sue, didn't she, now? If what she remarked be true, I'm an attractively ugly person." Lola-Sue laughed heartily at this joke at Billy Stinson's expense, but she admired him for the candid way in which he told the story.
"Oh, but you're not ugly, Mr. Stinson. At least, I don't think so. I think it was horrid of that lady to say such a thing about you," and she laughed again her deep throaty laugh.
Whether it was Lola-Sue's laughter or her admission that she did not consider him ugly, Billy Stinson could not say precisely, but he felt that he loved Lola-Sue. The daily contact with a beautiful girl who develops an interest in a man is fatal to both.
Lola-Sue had watched with considerable interest Billy Stinson's manner of dealing with clients and she appreciated his fairness and candour. Never mean, never hasty, never inconsiderate, she measured him with a generous rule. To her, he appeared not only as nature's gentleman, but as God's nobleman. Perhaps that was because, to her, he was always thoughtful, always regardful of little niceties that gave her pleasure. It is not to be wondered at that as time went on she placed him on a pedestal.
When a girl places a man on a pedestal her interest in him is more than regard. But as yet Lola-Sue gave no heed as to the composition of that pedestal. To her it was purest marble. She would have resisted any suggestion that it might be only ignoble concrete with more marl and sand than pure Portland.
As for Billy Stinson, he appraised Lola-Sue with the eyes of a connoisseur. She was what he termed a good-looker, and propinquity was responsible for the growth of a feeling that was more than friendship. He knew several girls whom he liked, and if he had been in daily association with any one of them as he was with Lola-Sue, it is more than possible he would have grown to regard her with the same desire for possession as he recorded Lola-Sue. The fact is, in Billy Stinson there were two men, the individual man and the comprehensive man. As an individual he loved Lola-Sue. As a comprehensive entity he loved women generally. As an individual, he was deeply sensible of his love for Lola-Sue. He made himself believe that she was all in all to him; the instinct inherited from the ages, an instinct that is as old as the world itself, as old as passion, even older than the dawn of human reason, the instinct of sex, the call of the male to the female.
It was this second man in him that regarded all well developed girls as possible mates. As yet he was only dimly conscious of this instinctive feeling. It came to him only at certain illuminating moments as when his mind was not centred on Lola-Sue, or when it had not lost control of itself.
Lola-Sue had been at the Equity Trust Office for 12 months, and she was now due for her annual recreation leave of three weeks. During the last three months, she and Billy Stinson were all in all to each other. There was no man in the world as supreme as Billy, and no girl in the world as matchless and divine as Lola-Sue. They spoke to one another in the superlative language of love, and indulged in the rhapsody of extravagant sentiment. In addition to what she had saved from her salary, Lola-Sue obtained a further advance from the Inspector of the State Children Department, and she and another girl of the company due for leave at the same time, arranged to take a coastal trip as far as Adelaide and back. She was eagerly looking forward to visit the great southern capitals, Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide; but she was very reluctant to leave Billy Stinson, for he and the office made up a centre around which her life now revolved.
"You know, Billy dear," she said, as she was bidding him good-bye, "I really hate leaving you, but you'll write to me often, won't you? I'll just live for your letters, for they'll be a little bit of you." As she said this her beautiful blue eyes grew liquid with welling tears.
"Lola-Sue, my own little Lola," answered Billy Stinson as he circled her shapely form with his left arm, "of course I'll write to you. You'll get a letter from me at each port of call, perhaps two."
"My word, my gentleman!" she replied, looking up at him and smiling, "if you disappoint me, look out. No excuse will be accepted. I've left a memo on your desk to remind you of the exact date I'll be in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, and back in Melbourne and Sydney. I'll call at the G.P.O. in each city."
Billy Stinson missed his little Lola-Sue very much. Without her the office seemed boring and uninteresting. On Christmas Eve he sent her a wireless, wishing her a Merry Christmas which reached her as the Levuka was steaming past Port Kembla.
"Just like the thoughtful dear," she soliloquised when she had read the message handed to her by "Sparks." When he received her second letter from Melbourne it commenced, "My dear, faithful Bill."
Christmas had come and gone and New Year's Eve found Billy Stinson at Southport. He had been cruising in the southern end of Moreton Bay with his boating pals, but he had insisted on calling in at Southport. From there he wired Lola-Sue at Adelaide wishing her for the new year and for all the years to come the supremest happiness and all the very best that life could afford. "My darling old faithful Bill," she wrote back, "the supremest happiness for me in all the years to come will be to live with you and to love you always and for ever."
Back in the office, after the holidays, Billy Stinson missed Lola-Sue more than ever; but as the days went by and the rush of work absorbed him, his longing for her become dulled. Propinquity, the dangerous jade, began her subtle intriguing. The office of the Equity Trust Company, Ltd., was noted for its pretty girls, and Margaret Deering, who temporarily took Lola-Sue's place as Billy Stinson's typist and stenographer, was another of the "good-lookers." Though she had not the superb figure of Lola-Sue nor her winsomeness, she was nevertheless dangerously lovely and more versed in the wiles of womanhood than the confiding and trusting Lola-Sue. She, however, exhaled an aroma of femininity which intoxicated the susceptible Billy, and when one day she looked at him with her great grey eyes she thrilled him. "My God, Margaret," he said, as he placed his hand on hers, "those eyes of yours are wonderful. They thrill me through and through."
Instead of resisting Billy Stinson's familiarity, she felt flattered, but discreetly made no reply. Next day, and the days that followed, Billy Stinson, with the adroitness of a born lover, made unmistakable but cautious love to Margaret Deering, with the result that she began to occupy a prominent place in his thoughts. He knew instinctively that his interest in her pleased her. She made no attempt to withdraw her hand from his firm strong grasp when she sat close to him at his desk, or when he twirled with shaking fingers the small soft curls that nestled at the nape of her shapely neck, for Margaret's hair was not bobbed, and the soft short curls lying at the back of her neck were enticingly alluring.
When Lola-Sue returned from her holiday south, and resumed her duties as Billy Stinson's typiste, almost the first words she said were, "Billy, you were a thoughtful dear to send me that wireless to the Levuka, and your New Year telegram to Adelaide, but you old sheik, why didn't you write to me to the G.P.O., Sydney, on my return? I expected six letters at least, but received only one, and that was a week old."
Billy Stinson smiled whimsically as he sat at his desk with Lola-Sue at his side and replied: "Well, since the New Year I've been as busy as a buzz-saw, and besides, old dear, I wasn't sure when you were returning to Sydney. You know, I did not want any of my letters to you to be unclaimed, and to be returned through the Dead Letter Office."
"Excuses not accepted, Billy. Own up, who is the girl?"
"You, dearest; you and only you. When you're away from me you're never out of my thoughts," saying which he drew Lola-Sue to him fondly and kissed her.
Lola-Sue believed every word that Billy spoke. Though she was well aware that he was very popular with the girls in the office, she had the utmost confidence in his loyalty to her.
Nevertheless, she said, half in jest, half in earnest, "If ever I catch you making love to another girl, I'll be sorry for you, but most of all I'll be sorry for the girl. I've a little automatic that Mick Coonan gave me and I can shoot, and shoot straight."
Billy Stinson got up from his chair, and leaning over, placed his head fondly against Lola's and replied, in all seriousness:—
"You hot-headed little darling. I believe you're Irish after all with the impetuous passion of the Celtic race. You've a temper, you know, you little devil, but you're adorable in your anger."
Then Lola-Sue became very serious. "Billy," she said, "I could never share you with any one else. You are my first man. If you double cross me I believe my mind would become unhinged, and God only knows what would happen then."
The engagement of Billy Stinson with Lola-Sue, when it was announced, caused a mild sensation in the office of the Equity Trust Company, Limited. Billy's reputation for philandering was well established, and the girls in the office wondered and talked among themselves. "What web had Lola-Sue spun to enmesh him? What secret spell had she thrown over him?" The answer after all was simple. Lola-Sue was as sweet and shapely as a rose upon its upright stem, and the bright radiance of her personality enthralled him. She was no flirt, and resisted all attempts at man-handling. She had been educated in the school of experience, and if Billy wanted her he could have her in one way only—as his wife.
This she made Billy Stinson understand from the beginning of an intimacy when it had passed beyond the friendship stage to that of an ardent romance. And Billy was quick to understand that here was a girl winsome and desirable—desirable beyond all the other girls of his experience. He must have her. Must possess her absolutely, body and soul, even if he had to marry her. To let someone else have her was unthinkable, and he knew that she had many admirers. The red flames of desire burnt through and through him, and her relentless "hands off" made these flames burn more fiercely. It was in this state of desire for absolute possession that forced him to marry her.
After the proposal, Lola-Sue showed Billy Stinson what her love for him really amounted to. She threw aside the shackles of her reserve and gave her love for him full sway. He was her first love, her first man, and she consumed him with the conflagration of her love. He was her hero, her God, and she now longed for the day of her marriage, so that she could give herself to him unreservedly and without restraint. With Lola-Sue love was an imperial passion, serious, all absorbing, all compelling. She now felt the rapture that a conqueror feels, and revelled in the glory, in the might, of her conquest. This man who was so much sought after was hers. She had bound him captive to the chariot wheels of her love. Hers was now the love of the billowy sea, not of the placid lake.
When Lola-Sue had sent in her resignation to the manager of the Equity Trust Company, Limited, and it was officially accepted, the lady members of the staff met and resolved to give Lola-Sue, who was a general favourite, even though she had "landed" what they regarded as the prize of the office, a luncheon party in honour of her approaching marriage. The ceremony was held in the large retiring-room allocated by a thoughtful management, to the lady clerks and typistes, of whom there were twenty-five, for their privacy and general convenience.
Invitations were issued to the manager, the sub-manager, and the several divisional heads, and Margaret Deering, who suggested the luncheon and organised it, presided. The male members of the staff to whom invitations had been sent, were the guests, as distinguished from Billy Stinson and Lola-Sue, who were the guests of honour. A toast list, interspersed with recitations by lady elocutionists, had been drawn up, and when the luncheon was almost ended, and the toast "The King" was duly honoured, Margaret Deering, amidst much applause, called upon Kathleen Bertinshaw to propose "The Bride Elect."
Kathleen had carefully prepared her speech, which she had committed to memory—as she thought—but in her extreme nervousness she broke down hopelessly, and finished by drawing her type-written speech from behind her and reading it to its conclusion. However, she on behalf of her fellow officers—male and female—wished Lola-Sue every happiness and prosperity, and felt assured that in Mr. Stinson, for whom they all had a very high regard (cheers) Miss Conway would find a loving and devoted husband, and one who, she was sure, would be loyal and true till death doth them part (Renewed and prolonged cheers.)
Billy Stinson replied on behalf of "The Bride Elect," and said how fortunate he was in winning the love of such a splendid and charming girl as Lola-Sue—er, Miss Conway. Then he went on to say, "If I, speaking personally, lose a most efficient typiste and secretary, I shall gain a still more efficient and loving wife."
This and much more he said in his fluent style, for he was an accomplished debater, and many admiring glances were cast in his direction by several members of the "Cat Brigade" as the female staff was designated by an office wag. After a recitation and a song to a ukulele accompaniment, Margaret Deering called upon Connie Gilchrist to propose "Our Guests," coupled with the name of the manager.
"They were," she said, "very happy in having as their chief such a capable and considerate gentleman as Mr. Munro. Under his able management the company's office in Brisbane was making very great progress. As for the sub-manager and divisional heads, they were held by the lady members of the staff in—in (here she hesitated and blushed), very, high esteem. (Applause.) They were gentlemen in the highest sense of the term, courteous and considerate, and always ready to look leniently on their mistakes."
Margaret Deering then called upon Nancy Hillcoat for a recitation, "The King's Jester." When this was very well rendered, the manager, Mr. Munro, was called upon to respond on behalf of "The Guests." When he rose to speak he was greeted with very hearty applause.
"Miss Deering, Miss Gilchrist, and fellow officers," he said. "I am delighted to be with you to-day, and I appreciate to the fullest extent the sentiment which prompted you to render honour and homage to your efficient and charming fellow officer, Miss Lola Conway. Though I congratulate her on her approaching marriage, I deeply regret her loss to the office. She has proved herself to be a gifted typiste, stenographer, and correspondent, and I feel certain that the admirable qualities which she possesses will be transferred from the realm of business to that of domesticity. Indeed, if I may say so, I have a grudge against Mr. Stinson for taking from us such a painstaking and conscientious officer." Turning to Connie Gilchrist, he said. "I must thank you, Miss Gilchrist, for the very nice and appreciative way in which you spoke concerning the chiefs, and I hope that the chiefs will live up to your estimate of them. And now," he continued after a pause, "I desire to take this opportunity of having a little heart to heart talk with you. This company, of which I have the honour to be the manager, has been built up by efficient service, not only efficient service to the company, but efficient service to the general public, whom we claim as our clients. You cannot render efficient service if you do not work for the love of performing your duty, but work simply because you are paid for your services. You must work with the knowledge ever before you that you are doing your duty not only to your employers but to the community, and to that community, as well as to the office, the slogan is 'Faithful and efficient service.' Remember always that your time between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. belongs to the company which pays you for that time, and if you go slow on your job, work with your eyes on the clock, you will have to answer some day to the Court Martial of Destiny. In conclusion, I desire to say this: You, Mr. Stinson, are about to take into your keeping a charming and beautiful young lady. We all love and cherish her. You, Mr. Stinson, are about to accept a trust higher and more noble than the most valuable trust that has ever been administered by this company, the trust of a loving human soul, and it is sincerely hoped that you will never fail in that trust."
Lola-Sue was not quite twenty-one when she became engaged to Billy Stinson. As she was a minor and a ward of the Inspector of the State Children Department, she had to obtain his consent before she could marry. That official's consent was not withheld when he learnt whom she was about to marry. Billy Stinson was well known in the social and athletic circles of Brisbane, and as he held a good position in the Equity Trust Company, Limited, the inspector mentioned to Lola-Sue that while he consented to her marriage with him, he had grave doubts as to wisdom of it.
"I may as well tell you, Lola," he said, "that Mr. Stinson's father is a wealthy wool and beef baron, and the owner of Moonbulla Station, in the Charleville district. I would suggest that you ask him if his people are aware of his promised marriage to you."
When Lola-Sue mentioned to Billy Stinson what the inspector had said, he replied: "Well, the fact of the matter is, beloved, I have not informed my people that I am marrying you. They are as proud as Lucifer, and I'm damned if I am going to invite them to interfere in a matter that concerns you and me only."
"But is it, Billy dear, a matter that concerns our two selves only? They will, naturally, want to know all about me."
"That's just the point, they will, and when they know, they'll sneer and call you a Miss Nobody from Nowhere. Oh, I know them."
"Of course, I don't mind what they call me, Billy. It's you I am marrying, not your people, and with me, it's you only who counts."
"Then that settles it, my Lola, you don't care and I don't care. Let talk no more about it."
And so the preparations for the wedding went on apace. Lola-Sue, in view of her approaching marriage, was given the balance of her money that was being held in trust for her until she attained her majority. With this tidy little sum, she purchased a trousseau that was adorably sweet if not costly. Her tastes were refined in the extreme, and she vowed that Billy would see her only in the most delicate of silken undies. There was nothing cotton or home-spun in her nature. Innately she was a little lady and if Billy Stinson had introduced her to his people she would probably have more than held her own with them. She was a lovable girl and passionately in love with her Billy; but even with the wonderful attributes that she possessed, she would have been weighed in the social balance and found wanting, because of her obscure birth and parentage.
"An illegitimate, my God!" Billy Stinson could almost hear his father exclaim.
And his mother: "Oh, Billy, my son, are you mad?"
It is therefore understandable that Billy Stinson, knowing and loving his Lola-Sue as he did, and knowing also his people, decided to marry her without consulting them. In this he followed the dictates of his own free will, and married Lola-Sue quietly and unostentatiously. She was not unmindful of his magnanimity and loved him all the more, if that were indeed possible, for what she considered his great renunciation in marrying her in spite of what people and his people in particular, thought. As Billy Stinson had imagined, there was a feeling of anger and consternation in the home of the Stinsons when they were informed of their only son's marriage. They had hoped that he, before long, would give up his billet in the city and return to the station to take charge and to become its active manager. He was born at Moonbulla, and had had his early bush training there.
Even in his boyhood he gave the promise of a splendid manhood. It was at Moonbulla he learnt to ride and shoot, to hunt the kangaroo and to trap the wily dingo. In the big station dam on the Langlo, he learnt to swim and as an all round athlete he was hard to beat.
When he was fourteen years of age and had got beyond the control of his tutor, he was sent to the Brisbane Grammar School and during his three years at that great school under the doyen of masters, Reginald Roe, he made rapid progress not only in learning, but in sport. Cricket, rowing, football, tennis, swimming, he excelled in them all. He would have been chosen as the Rhodes scholar for the year had he not stated his intention that he had no desire to leave Australia to waste years of his life in England, pursuing studies for which he had no inclination. At seventeen years of age, he was five feet eleven inches in height, and weighed 10 stone. Lithe and pliable as a twisted greenhide whip, he occasionally did a turn at the Stadium as an amateur boxer, and if he had followed the "ring" as a professional, he might have developed into a champion middle-weight, but instead, when the manager of the Equity Trust Company, Limited asked Mr. Roe to nominate a smart lad for his office, he nominated Wilfred Beaufort Stinson. He had no desire to return to Moonbulla as the life of the city had eaten into him, and he obtained his father's consent to take a billet in that reputable office. "The training in a business office will do the boy good. It will make him better fitted later on to take over the control of Moonbulla," confided Seymour Stinson to his wife. But when he had learnt of his son's marriage with Lola-Sue, he cursed the city and all that appertained to it. This, then, was the end of his dreams for his boy's future, and in his visions of that future, there rose up before him a splendid girl, Muriel Poingdestre, the daughter of his neighbour, Rupert Poingdestre, who owned Oonamurra Station, 60 miles to the south of the Warrego. "If he had only mated with her, instead of with a bastard, the ungrateful young dog. Oh, well, I'm through with him. He's made his bed, and, dammit, he'll lie on it." That was the trend of his disappointed thoughts.
But as the love of a mother for her son passeth all understanding. Mrs. Stinson could not become reconciled to an estrangement from her son Wilfred. She never called him or spoke of him as Billy. She considered the name too plebian. Her husband was, therefore, not surprised when she said to him one day, "I think we should take a run to Brisbane to look Wilfred up. He's too proud and independent to suggest that we invite him and his wife to Moonbulla."
"Don't care whether he comes or stays away," was the gruff reply of Seymour Stinson.
"Yes, I know how you feel about his marriage, Seymour, but after all, he's our son and we cannot lightly dismiss him from our lives. We shall have to make the best of his marriage, I suppose."
"Oh, well, have it your own way. You may go to Brisbane to look him up. I'm damned if I'll go."
A few weeks after this conversation, Billy Stinson received a letter from his mother, addressed to him at his office, informing him that she was about to leave for Brisbane and requested that he call on her at Lennon's Hotel. When he arrived home at his little bungalow at Indooroopilly on the evening of the day he received the letter, he said to Lola-Sue, kissing her fondly:
"Great news, Lola. Mother's coming to Brisbane to look us up."
The blood left Lola-Sue's face and her heart missed a beat.
"Oh, Billy!" she gasped. She had a mental vision of the type of woman she expected her husband's mother to belong. Mentally she compared her with Mrs. Wade-Smith, and she clung to her husband as if for protection.
"Bit of a shock, but we'll stand two square to meet the enemy, dearest. She's only to see you to love you."
"But, Billy, dear, she won't look at me through your eyes, you know. She's already prejudiced, and I feel that I'm prejudiced."
"Never mind, my Lola, hope for the best. When she sees our little crib and learns what a splendid little wife you are, she'll thaw."
A few days later Billy called on his mother at Lennon's where the aristocracy of the western runs usually forgathered when in Brisbane.
"Well, mother, how are you?" he said, kissing her.
"Well, Wilfred, and how are you?"
"Fit as whalebone. How are things at Moonbulla?"
"Very promising. The last shearing was excellent and the lambing a record. Didn't you bring your wife with you?"
"No, mother, though she's longing to meet you. I wanted you to see her for the first time in our little home. She's an ideal wife. Perfectly domesticated and all that."
"Umph!" grunted Mrs. Stinson, significantly. "Who is she? Who is the girl you've married?" she asked in a frigid manner. And Mrs. Stinson could assume that manner to perfection. She was domineering and haughty, and her square chin and thin lipped mouth gave one the impression of very strong will power.
"I thought I had made all that clear when I wrote to you."
They were in the hotel lounge, and several people were present and Billy Stinson said irritably:
"We can't discuss my wife here. Let's go to your room. What do you want to know about Lola-Sue?"
"Everything. In the first place who gave her that heathenish name?"
"Does her name really matter? She is now called Lola Stinson."
"Well, where does she come from? Who are her people?"
"I thought I had told you. She's a foundling. She has no people, only my people."
"I'm not so sure about that."
"Well I am. I've given her my name and if you are ashamed of her I'm not," said Billy heatedly.
"The situation doesn't demand that you should lose your temper."
"Well, so far as I can see, there's nothing to be gained by all this cross questioning. It's intensely unpleasant to me."
"You do not appear to have taken the trouble to consider how intensely unpleasant, to use your own words, your marriage to an unknown waif is to your father and to me."
"Well, mother, I wasn't aware that you considered it your duty to choose a wife for me. I think you will concede that I am the person primarily concerned, when it comes to that subject."
"That's all very well, you cannot live unto yourself alone. If you commit a rash act, you are not the only one who suffers. What about the feelings of your parents?"
"I am not going to admit that I've committed a rash act. I have already described to you, or attempted to do so, who Lola is, and what she looks like. To me she is the sweetest and most lovable girl in the world, and I'm not ashamed of her or to be seen anywhere with her. She's probably superior in every way to many of your society friends or to the daughters of your pure merino compatriots of the West."
"Don't be impertinent, Wilfred."
"Oh, well, you goad me on to saying things that are better left unsaid. See Lola, and judge for yourself."
"That's precisely what I've come to Brisbane for."
At "The Bungalow," Billy's home at Indooroopilly, Lola-Sue surveyed with pride and enthusiasm the dinner table to which she had just put the finishing touches. Her training as a domestic in the home of the Wade-Smiths now stood her in good stead. The silver, mostly wedding presents given to Billy Stinson, was polished to the utmost, and the linen of the table was of the whitest and finest. Lola-Sue had no cause to be ashamed of her dining-room, and she was now awaiting, expectantly, the arrival of her husband, with his pure merino mother, one of the great squattocracy of Queensland.
In the distance she heard the train stop at Taringa, and knew that in five minutes at the most it would arrive at Indooroopilly. It was only a six minutes' walk from that station to The Bungalow, and Lola-Sue tilted her resolute little chin and prepared to meet the enemy. Her dimpled cheeks glowed with a healthy colour, and her great violet eyes sparkled. She looked a little thoroughbred with her lithe, graceful figure, her alertness, and her sweet mouth with its small even teeth. She possessed a magnetism that drew men to her, though women of the type of Mrs. Wade-Smith and, possibly, of Mrs. Seymour Stinson could see nothing in her. She was alert, vivid, and sympathetic. Her early struggle along life's stony highway made her feel for the underdog. She mothered with forbearance and soft-hearted sympathy the little orphan maid whom she had obtained from the State to help her with her household duties. "If I can make the lot of one little orphan less forlorn in this unsympathetic world I'm going to do it, Billy." That is what she said to her husband when the question of a domestic help was discussed, and he, knowing what her early life had been, backed her up.
Then the latch of the front gate clicked, and Lola-Sue knew that her judgment hour had come. Would she stand the test according to the standard of Billy's mother? Would she be weighed in the balance of her discrimination and found wanting? She opened the front door and heard her husband say: "Lola, I want you to meet my mother!"
Lola bowed gracefully, smiled a welcome with her bewitching smile, and held out her hand. She didn't presume to hold her face up to be kissed. Mrs. Stinson held her hand almost above Lola-Sue's head and Lola had to reach up to grip it.
"How do you do, my child; Wilfred would drag me out here to see his home. How pretty you've made it look, child. It's like a doll's house."
"I'm awfully pleased you like it, Mrs. Stinson. Billy says it's the sweetest little nest that ever was."
"Billy! You must not call your husband Billy. His name is Wilfred."
"Oh, but he's Billy to me, Mrs. Stinson. It sounds ever so much more chummy than Wilfred."
"Chummy! Good gracious, child, Wilfred's not your chum. He's your husband."
Lola-Sue felt that she was not doing her best, and after these rebuffs, she was almost afraid to speak.
"Wilfred, dear, I'm afraid that you will have to teach your wife the little niceties of the English language."
"Oh, rot, mother! I'm always called Billy. I like it ever so much better than Wilfred. If Lola-Sue called me Wilfred I should feel that I had done something wrong. Wilfred Beaufort; you come here! That sort of style you know, mother."
Before Mrs. Stinson, could reply, the maid announced that dinner was served. That dinner lived in Lola-Sue's memory for ever. It was a strained meal, and the atmosphere was electric. It was not her fault that the dinner she had taken so much trouble over was more like a meal with a corpse in the next room than an agreeable and entertaining pastime. Though she and Billy did their best to help things along, Mrs. Stinson's manner was so correct as to be absolutely icy.
No doubt she acted as if she were giving her daughter-in-law a lesson in the correct deportment at dinner. When she was not making supercilious remarks, she sat and goggled, with the result that Billy's love for his mother received a severe jolt. When Billy returned from seeing his mother safely back to Lennon's he found Lola-Sue in tears.
"Oh, Billy, if I had to go through another evening like that I'd go off my mental balance and commit suicide."
"Never mind! Cheer up, old girl. The ordeal's over." And then to comfort her he said:—
"Why, any woman with sense would take to you, Lola-Sue, so don't worry. Going up to town I rubbed it in a bit, you bet. I said to her that it had been remarked that you were a long sight too good for me. Anyone could see that you were a lady born and bred."
In spite of the lump of lead in the region of her heart, Lola-Sue could not help smiling at what she termed a gross exaggeration, and they were soon their two merry selves again. For two years all went well with them. Billy was a model husband, and Lola-Sue made his home a snug retreat. The first great shadow that fell across their lives was the death of their first-born, who died under an anaesthetic whilst undergoing an operation for an enlarged thymus gland. The loss of her baby was a great shock to Lola-Sue, and Billy, in order to bring back the roses to her cheeks, invested in a British touring car, and they had week-ends at Southport and Coolangatta.
When Lola-Sue left the office of the Equity Trust Company, Limited, her place as Billy Stinson's typiste and confidential secretary, was taken by Margaret Deering. For twelve months or so, he did not fall to the lure of her, but close personal contact with her day after day, the charm, the perfume, the aura of her, had in time its effect. Billy Stinson became smitten with the love complex, and when he took an interest in a girl, such was the magnetism of his personality, he was hard to resist. It is true he was not an Adonis, but he was extremely well made, tall and straight as a blue gum sapling, with an ugliness, if his features could be termed ugly—that was really attractive. Be that as it may, he was a very great favourite with the girls. With the advent of the motor car, his pace with Margaret Deering became more swift. The office intimacy expanded into joy rides at night, and when Lola-Sue began to complain of his being away from home at night so often, he gave business as an excuse. This excuse held ground for a time, but when one odd day, Lola-Sue came across her husband and Margaret Deering having lunch together in a well known café, she became jealous and suspicious. Walking up to the table where they were seated, she said with her sweetest smile. "I hope I'm not intruding, Billy dear, but may I join you?" Then turning to Margaret Deering her manner changed instantly. Icily, and with extreme hauteur, she said:—
"It's so good of you, Margaret, to permit my husband to enjoy your charming company during my absence. The poor man feels very lonely when I'm not with him. How he must appreciate your goodness to him." Then turning sweetly to her husband: "And you do, don't you, Billy dear?"
Billy Stinson was caught, but he endeavoured to make the best of the situation. With a grin, though evidently ill at ease, he said:—
"Margaret and I met quite accidentally at the lift, and as she was going up for lunch, naturally, I asked her to lunch with me."
"Oh, naturally!" interpolated Lola-Sue.
"Well, Lola, it was only an act of common courtesy, one that any man would in a like situation extend to a lady of his acquaintance."
"Quite so," retorted Lola-Sue, sarcastically, "but are you quite sure that Margaret did not design the meeting?"
"Oh, don't be horrid, Lola. Billy—Mr. Stinson—and I met purely by accident. It was a coincidence, nothing more," said Margaret Deering, but the fact of her having spoken Billy's Christian name grated on Lola-Sue. It connoted an intimacy of long standing.
"Please say no more," said Lola-Sue, decisively, and abruptly walked away. From that day a change came over Lola-Sue. She became morose and suspicious, and her brightness and vivacity were dampened. Nothing that Billy did to bring her back to her old winsome self was of any avail. If he took her to the theatre and Margaret happened to be there also, she imagined an intrigue. Soon the sight of Margaret Deering became intolerable to her.
"But dear," Billy remonstrated, "a theatre is a public place. Surely Margaret has as much right to be there as we have."
There it was again, thought Lola-Sue. The old familiarity—his calling her Margaret—was again in evidence.
"That may be so," Lola-Sue replied. "But it seems to me more than a coincidence that no matter where I go with you, we come across her. When I see her I have the same repulsive feeling as when I come across a black snake."
"Oh nonsense, Lola-Sue. You mustn't let your jealousy obsess you. You know I belong to you. What more do you want?"
"I'm not so sure that I do belong to you, Billy. But I do know this. I'm not going to share you with any other girl or woman," snapped Lola-Sue determinedly. That was an indication as to how matters stood between them.
But notwithstanding Lola-Sue's strong dislike to Margaret Deering, Billy Stinson refused to give her up. Though he exercised the greatest discretion, he still continued to meet her secretly. At the same time he constantly endeavoured to reassure Lola-Sue that there was nothing of a sentimental nature between him and Margaret Deering, but in this he was not very successful. Lola-Sue had the uncanny intuition of a jealous woman.
There was no doubt that Margaret Deering loved Billy Stinson. She soon divined that he was not happy at home, and she made herself all the more agreeable to him. She gave to him the love that his wife now denied to him, and he was so constituted that he must love someone. Love with him amounted almost to a disease. He loved love, and could not live without it. Lola-Sue knew this, and waited to catch him in flagrante-delicto.
In one of her fits of ungovernable temper she said to him: "You'd make love to a nun if you were thrown in her way."
In the lives of most secret lovers and clever crooks there comes a time, when, notwithstanding the utmost precautions taken to cover their tracks, a simple mistake, a slight indiscretion, leads to their undoing. This was so in the case of Billy Stinson and Margaret Deering. It was Christmas time, the time for the giving and receiving of presents. A few days before Christmas Eve Billy Stinson was at the hosiery counter of a well known firm of drapers purchasing silk stockings, when a lady who was on visiting terms with Lola-Sue, chanced to come and stand by him.
"Goodness, Mr. Stinson!" she laughingly remarked. "What do you know about purchasing silk stockings?"
Turning round suddenly, he saw Mrs. Fortescue and felt that not much ever missed her hawk eyes. With some embarrassment, Billy replied:—
"At this time of the year, you know, Mrs. Fortescue, a married man must live up to his obligations."
"Indeed, yes, I wish my husband were as generous as you, Mr. Stinson." So saying, she laughingly passed on.
Two days after Christmas Day, when Lola-Sue was having one of her "at homes," where half the tragedies of life are brewed by gossiping tongues, the conversation turned on the subject of presents, and what each had received in the way of Christmas boxes. Lola-Sue mentioned that her husband had given her a string of pearls and a sum of five pounds to purchase a pair of evening shoes and a pair of silk stockings to match her new frock.
"But didn't he give you two pairs of 'As You Like Its,' Mrs. Stinson? I saw him in Finney's buying them."
Lola-Sue, though her jealousy flamed up anew, was loyal to her husband, and said, with sudden Inspiration, "Oh, no, Mrs. Fortescue, he brought me home two pairs on approval; but as neither suited I suggested that he give me the money instead, when I would buy my own stockings."
That evening when Billy returned home, there was a scene. Lola-Sue (her uncontrollable jealousy over-riding all reason), accused him, in a tempest of flaming anger, of buying silk stockings for Margaret Deering. Billy strongly denied the accusation, on the principle of never admitting an indiscretion; but as he was too ingenious to lie brazenly, Lola-Sue knew that he was telling a lie.
Among the many traits that went to make up Lola-Sue's highly strung nature, that of jealousy was the most dominant. If her baby had lived, she might not have been so obsessed by the thoughts of her husband's unfaithfulness. She would have had something very dear to her (she was passionately fond of children), on which to lavish her affections. But not having that solace she had no one but her husband on whom to lavish her affection. He was her all in all, her world, her one great possession, and the thought of his passing her over for some one (in her opinion) less worthy was to her gall and wormwood. Her jealousy became an hallucination, and she magnified every little inattention on the part of her husband into the crime of unfaithfulness. She was proud, superlatively proud, and her indignity at the thought of being cast aside for another was unbearable. Before her eyes she seemed to see silk stockings dangling, and when she went into town, she carried her automatic pistol with her. For what reason she scarcely knew, only that its presence in her handbag, was a source of comfort.
Jealousy does not cure but incenses an erring husband, and on New Year's Eve, Billy Stinson got out his car and informed Lola-Sue that he would not be home until late, as he was going out to the Yeerongpilly Golf House to assist in arranging a series of tournaments for the New Year. He would, however, be home in time to see the old year out and the new year in.
Some little time after he had gone, Lola-Sue rang up her friend, Hilda Fortescue, and asked her if she and her husband would come and sit out the old year with her.
"I'm dreadfully lonely," she said, "bored almost to tears. The maid's gone out and I do not expect Mr. Stinson back until late." She had explained where he had gone.
The Fortescues came in their car and as it was a glorious night, with the moon nearing its full, David Fortescue suggested that they should run to Sandgate. "We'll be back before 11—in time to welcome in the new year," he said.
Lola-Sue was delighted at the suggestion, because as she said, "I'm fed up with being alone."
In less than half an hour, they arrived at Sandgate. The tide was at its full, and from the Upper Esplanade they could see, across the moonlit waters of the bay, the lights of Woody Point.
"Oh, it is good to be alive and out on a night like this," exclaimed Lola-Sue in the ecstacy of the glorious scene. "It calls to mind another superb night that I spent on Mount Glorious some years ago, when I was about 14. Poor Mick Coonan likened the gold-edged clouds before the rising of the sun, to the golden road leading to the 'Land O' Everlastin',' and as I sit here and gaze at the track of the moon on the shimmering waters of the bay, it, too, seems to be a golden road running right up to the 'Land O' Everlastin'.'"
"That's a very pretty sentiment, Mrs. Stinson," said David Fortescue. "I believe you have the soul of a poet."
"Didn't you know, David," remarked his wife, "that Mrs. Stinson is a poetess and an author. When her husband is absent at night on duty—bearing the white man's burden, she beguiles her loneliness by writing verses and sketches for publication in the magazines. From what she has told me, she has met with a very fair amount of success."
"Is that so, Mrs. Stinson? Well, I'm not surprised. Loving life and nature as you do, it is but natural that you should give expression to the thoughts arising from your gifted soul."
"Indeed, I wish I were gifted, Mr. Fortescue," replied Lola-Sue; "but you know a soul cannot march to the scrubbing of floors and the washing of dishes, and that has too often been my lot in the past—a past that I am glad is now shut out and blotted for ever. Sometimes I seem to cry out for a touch of the palpitant world, for the glory of battle, the proud wave of the banners, the gleam of the spears."
"Well, you are young yet, not more than a child, after all, Mrs. Stinson. Who knows what the world may have in store for you. Something grand and glorious, I hope. But come. Let's go round to Burtons, and have some supper. I could do with a plate of oysters."
This suggestion was agreed to without demur.
When they arrived at the well-known resort, they found that there were others there before them, judging by the many cars parked outside.
"That looks like your car over there, Mrs. Stinson," said Mrs. Fortescue.
"Yes, it does, doesn't it?" answered Lola-Sue. A hand with fingers as cold as ice seemed to grip her by the heart, but steeling herself to a dangerous and deadly calm, she made no further remark, but went inside the restaurant with the Fortescues.
At Burtons there were several alcoves and cubicles designed for faithful—and faithless—lovers, and Lola-Sue, an avenging Nemesis, looked quickly but carefully into each as opportunity offered, until in the remotest cubicle she found what she was looking for—her husband and Margaret Deering. They were too absorbed by their mutual regard to see Lola-Sue enter; but Billy Stinson, sensing an intruder, suddenly looked round and saw his wife. Instantly he removed his arm from Margaret Deering's shoulders and faced tragedy. Hastily rising to his feet he stumbled over a chair and fell. This probably saved his life. A revolver shot rang out, and Margaret Deering fell forward over the table and then crumpled up on the floor, shot in the chest.
Arrested for attempted murder, Lola-Sue collapsed mentally and physically. The over excitation of her brain functions by jealousy and domestic unhappiness was followed by serious mental aberration. She became irrelevant in conversation and gave random and incoherent answers to questions put to her by her doctor. At times she became violent in her conduct and—needed controlling and watching. Loss of sleep and general exhaustion followed. Her doctor prescribed absolute rest.
"Unless," he said, "she can get plenty of sleep, the recuperation of her brain cells was unattainable. It was a case of idiopathic insanity."
But the law, inexorable in its majesty, compelled Lola-Sue to stand her trial. Counsel in her defence, argued from the standpoint that responsibility for crime may be destroyed by insanity. On the plea of insanity, he was supported by the evidence of alienists, which clearly proved to the satisfaction of the Court, that at the time of the shooting of Margaret Deering, the accused was labouring under such a defect of reason from disease of the mind as not to know, or to seriously comprehend, the nature and quality of the act she was doing; or if she did know it, she did not know that she was doing wrong. In his summing up, the Judge stated that there is no criminal act, when the actor, at the time of the offence, is in a state of unconsciousness, or morbid disturbance of the mind, through which the free determination of the will is excluded.
On the evidence so ably placed before them by counsel for the defence, together with the lucid and cogent remarks from the bench, the jury found the prisoner not guilty, on the grounds of insanity, if not of justifiableness; but she was ordered to be detained during His Majesty's pleasure. This meant the intervention of the Home Secretary, who ordered Lola-Sue to be detained in a hospital for the insane as a criminal lunatic.
Even as the wind is tempered to the shorn lamb, the mind of Lola-Sue, in its then state, was incapable of realising all the horror of her terrible sentence. Though the scene of her trial was vivid and distinct enough, she did not realise all the stark and tragic details. She appeared to be in a state of coma. Her beautiful violet eyes, beneath whose ocean depths lay the blighted hopes of her crumpled soul, wavered abstractedly around the Court room, with all its paraphernalia of law; but she had no realisation of her unenviable situation.
Now and then a smile, half mocking, half triumphant, flickered across her lips—lips that were framed and fashioned for caresses—as if some gleam of a great and satisfied understanding had penetrated her benumbed and disordered brain. The perfunctory announcement "Not Guilty!" had left her unmoved; and when she was taken away in a car to the Hospital for the Insane at Goodna, she regarded the proceedings as a joy ride and not an excursion to a place of living death.
"During His Majesty's pleasure!" That might be for years or for the term of her life. It was a sentence worse than any meted out to a criminal because of its indeterminateness. No part of it could be manumitted for good conduct. It meant years of damnable torments in an earthly hell. Shut out from freedom, the beauty, the glory of a world in which she had hitherto revelled in the very ecstacy of living, she had now to pay a price that was beyond and above all reckoning.
When the great gates of the asylum closed behind her, she stood face to face with never ending details of loathsome associations, of miserable discomforts, of haggard dreariness, and of pointless routine. Henceforth her life was a blank. The days and the weeks and the months would go by unheeded, and the years would creep like a flowing tide over the sands of time, levelling the shore of her life into an even, uneventful sameness, because of a man's inconstancy, and a maid's desire of conquest.
And that man!
For him it meant the loss of his position, the alienation of sympathy, and the nightmare of public reprobation. Under the penetrating cross-questioning of the law, all that was reprehensible and abhorrent in him, was laid bare. Though the world may profess to love a lover, the philanderings of the lover may not be exposed to its withering gaze. So Billy Stinson, too, paid the price; but it was as nothing compared to that which his beautiful and loving wife had to pay.
And that maid!
Though the passing of time brought recovery, Margaret Deering in travail of soul, sought obscurity in other lands. In the silent watches of the night, when she stood face to face with her conscience, or when her pillow was wet with her tears of repentance she cried:
"What shall I do with my life now I live? Could there be restitution.
"Then there were something to live for, a guerdon to strive for, and win.
"Is there no hope, and must life be henceforth, a slow dissolution,
"Passive and tearful, purgative of soul from unspeakable sin?"
Following on the tragedy begotten of his inconsistency, Billy Stinson was weighed down by remorse. He was about to leave the State when his father wrote him:
"As you have made such a mess of your life in the city you had better pack up and return to Moonbulla to regain your manhood. I want a new manager."
His mother also wrote him:
"I am not surprised at what has happened. Had you taken my advice this disgrace would not have been brought upon us. But what gratitude could you expect, what happiness hope for from a nameless nobody and a marriage so profoundly beneath you?"
There was not a word of pity nor a sigh nor a tear for the beautiful clean-souled girl-wife who had been so infamously treated. In a few weeks when remorse began to lift from his volatile nature Billy Stinson pulled himself together and took a fresh outlook on life. The city was now no place for him, and so he decided to go west. The home of his youth called to him and he obeyed the call. It was not so much that his father and mother needed him; it was because he longed for the untrammelled freedom of the western runs. He felt that his life in the city has been artificial. It was not, after all, what he had been trained to, and he looked back to his boyhood days. He longed for the feel of a good horse under him and for the grip of a gun stock. He recalled the nights slept under the stars when out mustering with the stockmen, and the days of withering heat when a drink from an ice-cold water-bag was an unforgettable luxury. Then, too, such was his irrepressible nature, there dawned upon him the vision of a long-legged girl with bright black eyes and raven hair, with whom he had played tennis, hunted the kangaroo, and swum the Langlo. Yes, he would go west and renew the experiences of his boyhood.
His welcome back to Moonbulla was a cordial one. He arrived in a buckboard from Charleville, and old Joe Sigley, groom and coachman and general factotum, had made the pace a merry one. Driving four of the breed of ponies for which Moonbulla was noted, and which Cobb and Company had made famous, the seventy miles from Charleville to Moonbulla was covered in record time.
It was a case of the return of the prodigal, and he was made much of. What had happened in the past was permitted to be forgotten. His marriage was regarded as an unpleasant episode not to be mentioned. Among the welcome home party were Muriel Poingdestre and her military looking father, who had served in the Indian Army. Major Poingdestre had come up from Oonamurra at the express wish of the Stinsons to be present at the coming home for good of their son. It had been an unexpressed hope between Major Poingdestre and Seymour Stinson that Muriel and Billy would form an alliance and establish a pure merino dynasty. Billy's marriage had relegated that unexpressed hope into the limbo of unsatisfied ambitions.
But when Billy the impressionable, saw Muriel Poingdestre he was startled. It was years since he had seen and played with her as a long-legged raven-haired kid, shapeless and unattractive, but now he beheld a transformation. Tall and graceful, with black eyes and black arched eyebrows and an olive tinted complexion that resisted the Queensland sun, she appealed to Billy's aesthetic taste for a well developed girl. He learnt that she was known as the Langlo Queen, and found that she was as accomplished as she was beautiful.
In the social life of the western stations she was a general favourite, and the jackeroos worshipped her as an unattainable goddess. At the Charleville picnic races and at the race ball, she queened it over all and was acknowledged belle. She had taken a keen interest in the tragedy of Billy Stinson's married life and admitted with open frankness when she was shown a photo of Lola-Sue, that she was indeed beautiful, and remarked that "Billy had good taste."
In time, Billy Stinson learnt a good deal about Muriel Poingdestre, and he gave way to much introspection. If he had only met her earlier in her present transformation! In the rough outback he found her to be fearless and cool, a girl who won men's souls with her wondrous charm. When the dingoes raided the station flocks, she joined in the hunt with the best riders of the west. Her shoulder was inured to the rifle's kick and her fingers trained to the quick pull of the sensitive trigger. When the brumby stallions whinnied to the station mares to win them from their allegiance, she would join in the round-up and back her aim with a sight so quick that gave no chance to a careering outlaw. But, with all her gameness and fearlessness, she was so tender and sympathetic that she'd shed a tear with all the pity of a girl who cares over a lonely dingo pup when its mother had been found and killed in her lair.
In these hunts with men who knew neither fear nor danger, Billy Stinson played his part. He had not forgotten his early training on Moonbulla, and he was just as quick to shoot as he was to love. He proved himself to be a just manager and possessed magnetism that drew men to him as well as women.
In Muriel Poingdestre he found a staunch pal. They were together as often as opportunity permitted. At tennis, at golf, at hunting, at shooting, they generally paired, and it became general knowledge that had circumstances permitted, their marriage to each other would have been an ideal consummation. She was not more than twenty-one and he but six years her senior, but marriage was out of the question. The grim walls of the asylum, and the forsaken soul within them, kept them apart as inexorably as the wedding ring that Billy Stinson had placed on Lola-Sue's finger, a wedding ring on which he had engraved in the then surge of his love, "For ever."
But Billy Stinson was not the only Richmond in the field of Muriel Poingdestre's conquests. There was Humphrey Pryor of "Contraband," who looked with extreme disfavour at the growing intimacy between the two. He was, however, somewhat reconciled by the fact that Billy Stinson was married, whereas he was unencumbered. At any rate he vowed that if he could not get Muriel Poingdestre no one else would, and he was a dangerous rival. Regarded as fearless and unscrupulous, his holding—"Contraband"—was in the heart of the Carnarvon Ranges. Being a cattleman he loathed sheep and sheep men, and there was no love lost between the merino earls and the beef barons. He was reported to be wealthy, and the fact that he owned several racehorses that had done remarkably well at Eagle Farm, gave colour to the rumour of his affluence. There was not a great deal known about him, save that report had spun around him a web of romance.
The police hinted that he was the head of a band of cattle duffers who, secure in the remoteness of the Carnarvon Ranges, raided the runs of the squatters from the Maranoa to the Diamantina. Being a superb bushman and having around him men as lawless as himself whom he could trust, he regarded the law of ownership where cattle were concerned, with supreme contempt. Well mounted and knowing every inch of the country, he and his men worked and raided in secret, and the station owners wished him in hell or a worse place if one existed.
Before Billy Stinson had returned to Moonbulla, Muriel Poingdestre had been attracted by the romance that surrounded Humphrey Pryor, and by the compelling attentions he paid to her. The cool insolence of his daring, the quick glances from his agate-brown eyes, had a fascination for her as the reputed fascination of a snake to a bird. When his hand clasped hers it had the feel of iron in his grip. She admired his strength, his alertness, and she was thrilled by the magnetism of his strong personality. He owned two imported blood stallions, Ercanil and Libertine, and he carried on the breeding of racehorses with considerable success. More than one of the Contraband colts had won a classic race in Brisbane, and one had pulled off the Sydney Cup. At the picnic races at Charleville he was a noted figure, and his black colt Satan, which he had nominated in the name of Muriel Poingdestre, had won the ladies' bracelet at the last meeting. He himself was the rider, and as Muriel Poingdestre was so delighted with the horse's success and with the admirable and skilful manner in which he was ridden, he made her a present of the horse as well as of the bracelet.
Like most Australian girls brought up on a station, she was an excellent judge of a horse and knew how to handle one. Though she was diffident in accepting such a valuable gift from a man who was really nothing to her and whom the conservative Major Poingdestre regarded with disfavour, her love for the splendid animal surmounted all scruples. She accepted the gifts of horse and bracelet in a manner so charming that forced Humphrey Pryor to remark, "If she had loved him just one half as much as she appeared to love Satan, he would feel well repaid."
"But you're the very devil yourself, aren't you, Mr. Pryor?" Muriel replied.
"Only in that I am always delighted to give you a devil of a good time," was his answer. "Come," and he led her to the refreshment booth where he sealed the gift of "Satan" over a bottle of champagne.
"It's really too generous of you to give me a horse that you set such store by, and if I do not love the giver as much as I love his gift, I appreciate his generosity very much indeed."
"Then, though you do hold me lower in your estimation than you do 'Satan,' I am at present quite satisfied in that you appreciate the gift, Miss Poingdestre."
"I do, indeed. One may love a beautiful horse as one loves anything beautiful, but the word love in that sense is not applicable to a man's love for a woman, or a woman's love for a man. That's a different thing altogether; but we can at least be very good friends, you and I, Mr. Pryor."
"Yes, but friendship is not very satisfying where you are concerned, Muriel." It was the first time he had called her by her Christian name and she felt embarrassed. "I want more than that, I want you. I want your love. I am obsessed with the desire of making you my wife, and I usually get what I want."
Muriel Poingdestre didn't like that last remark, and she said, somewhat haughtily:
"Is that a threat, Mr. Pryor?"
"No, a warning. It must be love or hate, nothing between."
The daring of the man almost took her breath away. She did not know whether to feel flattered or annoyed, so she said.
"Oh, come, Mr. Pryor (she could not get herself to call him Humphrey)," "you're speaking in superlatives. Love cannot be coerced. It's a beautiful flower that grows in the garden of appreciation, watered by the rains of worth, and kissed by the soft dews of purity."
"On the contrary, it is a flower that is forced into a gorgeous loveliness by the fertilising influence of a dominant mind over one less powerful."
"For instance?" Muriel Poingdestre inquired looking at him sideways, flicking her riding whip.
"Well, you know how the black fellow weds his lubra. He chases her, bangs her on the head with his nulla-nulla, and drags her back to his tribe by the hair, a conquered bride. That's savage domination. The aim of my life is to dominate yours, and when the domination is consummated, I shall then claim your sweet surrender."
"Who knows," replied Muriel meditatively, hitting her right leg gently with her whip. "The future is in the lap of the Gods."
Then they walked slowly away and sat under pepperina tree, where the conversation was resumed.
"Is it not possible to forestall the future, dearest, by deciding in the present? I love you more than you realise. I want you, want you. My God, Muriel, you appeal to me so much that I feel I cannot live without you." He seized her right hand in his iron grip and his voice was low and tense, vibrating with passion.
"Not now, Mr. Pryor, not now——"
"Oh, cut out the Mr. Pryor, Muriel, and call me Humphrey. It's a dud of a name, I know, but better than this mister business."
"Well, then, Humphrey, I cannot answer as you wish. Some day, perhaps, but not now."
Introspectively, she envisaged her future with this man whom she admired, yet feared. Out of her envisioning there arose the face of another man whom she also admired but did not fear. That man was Billy Stinson, who had recently come back into her life as it were from the past. Him she could not marry. To her he was unattainable and the unattainable has often a fatal attraction.
This, also, was what Billy Stinson thought. At the time of the picnic races he was down the Paroo looking for relief country to depasture some of the Moonbulla sheep. The western country was in the grip of a severe drought, but down towards the New South Wales border there was still good grass and the merinos of Moonbulla were too valuable to be allowed to die.
As he rode along the dry banks the Paroo with his black boy Wombie, his thoughts were not of Lola-Sue but of Muriel Poingdestre. He was aware that Humphrey Pryor was her satellite and was in a position to marry her, whilst he, Billy Stinson, though craving her love, was shut out by inexorable fate, and was forced to stand aside while another man made love to her. To him the position was intolerable. He knew he could win Muriel Poingdestre from his rival, Humphrey Pryor, if the starting had been equal, but he was handicapped out of the race, and an accusing conscience whispered:
"It is because thou hast sinned."
Though he may have repented, the ghost of his repentance pointed its skeleton finger at the law which forbids a man to have two wives.
In the meantime Lola-Sue lived in the dead world of her defective mentality. Physically, she had not suffered. She was as beautiful as the day on which she had married Billy Stinson. Time, instead of ageing her with creeping insidiousness, seemed to stand still. Mentally, however, she was no better. Her case interested the professional alienists and she was transferred from Goodna to Willowburn, in the hope that the more genial climate of Toowoomba, with its greater elevation, would help to waken her out of her mental darkness. Five years had passed since her admission as a patient to the mental hospital at Goodna, and Billy Stinson got tired of the negative answers of the medical superintendent to his letters of inquiry as to the hope of his wife's early recovery. He, therefore, ceased to make further inquiries. Then it dawned on him that he, under the divorce laws of Queensland, could now petition the Supreme Court for divorce; but until he had awakened to the fact that he was now in love with Muriel Poingdestre, he had had no thought of exercising his legal right in that direction. Of late, however, his desire to possess Muriel Poingdestre, to hold her against all-comers, began to tear his honour by the roots, and to force him to break his vow to love and to cherish Lola-Sue "For ever."
Out in the undisturbed silence of the illimitable west, miles away from the head station, where he had gone to superintend the deepening of an artesian bore, Billy Stinson communed with himself.
Was it right to sacrifice himself on an altar of sentiment, to continue tied to a living negation? Surely that was not demanded of him. He was still young, not yet in the prime of his life. Could any sane person argue that he must go on living until the end of his days, possibly far remote, a loveless, mateless life like an emasculated eunuch? God, it was unreasonable.
It was spring time everywhere. Quickening nature was calling. In the bush, the burgeoning of the trees, the mating of the birds, the rutting of the cattle. In the city, the gay life of the palpitant world, the glamour of evening, the allurement of night, with soft arms entwining. Must he shut his eyes and steel himself against all the joys of existence, or stare with lacklustre eyes into a lonely future and behold a vista of loveless years? Such a predicament would be intolerable. Life without love brought man down to the level of a soulless brute. He could not live for ever on the memory of a past love. In that way lay madness or death.
In this frame of mind, he had ever before him the mental vision of Muriel Poingdestre. No, come what may he could not let her go. In this he determined. Duty? But did he not owe a duty to himself? What would it profit him, profit Lola-Sue, if he went on living a life of self abnegation? No, a thousand times no. The law could give him his freedom, and was not a law which gave a man a right to his freedom after five years in cases of insanity, a wise and humane law? Assuredly. Well then he would take advantage of that law. It was framed for such cases as his. He would go to Muriel Poingdestre and explain all to her, plead with her until she came round to his way of thinking.
Even as he resolved, sitting in the shade of a coolabah by the bore drain, which ran down a natural hollow which was once the dry bed of a creek, there came to him the swift thuds of kangaroos hopping, and the barking of excited dogs. Looking up he saw Muriel Poingdestre on the galloping Satan, in all the excitement of a kangaroo hunt. She was alone. He had half expected to see Humphrey Pryor with her. The dogs had cut out a grey old man from the fleeing mob and were running him down. The hunted brute was beginning to tire, and the dogs were gaining. To his surprise, Billy Stinson saw the kangaroo making straight for him and the tree under which he was sitting, as if instinctively courting his protection. As he got up and moved away, the kangaroo stopped at the coolabah and faced the dogs. With his back to the thick trunk of the tree, the 'roo stood to fight for his life. The first dog leapt at the kangaroo's throat, only to be hurled back ripped by the great metatarsal toe from throat to chest. Before the second dog had a chance to spring, Billy Stinson, pitying the terrified brute that seemed to look to him for protection, drove the dog off with his hunting crop, and shouted to him to lie down. Relieved from the pursuit of the dogs, the kangaroo hopped away through the Mulga and was soon lost to view. Muriel Poingdestre riding up was surprised to see who had appeared so suddenly on the scene. To Billy Stinson she seemed the embodiment of grace and beauty. Her olive cheeks were flushed with the excitement of the hunt, and she sat the great "Satan" with the ease and suppleness of a girl accustomed to a life in the saddle.
Dressed in a close fitting silk blouse, riding breeches, and puttees, with a soft felt hat on her well-shaped head, she looked very young and boyish.
"Billy!" she exclaimed, "who ever dreamt of running across you out here. But look at poor 'Larry' with his throat and chest ripped open."
Instantly, she dismounted, throwing the reins on the ground, when the well trained 'Satan,' lathered with sweat, commenced to graze.
"Oh, Billy, what can we do for the poor dog?" and the tears welled up into her sympathetic eyes.
"Have you by any chance a strong needle and thread?" he asked.
"Thank goodness, I have," and she took from the band of her felt hat, a strong needle threaded with linen thread. Muriel held the dog while Billy stitched up the gaping wound.
"If he could only lick it, he would be all right. When you get him home dress the cut with carbolic oil. But what lucky chance brought you out here, miles from anywhere?"
"Dad asked me to ride down to the bore drain to see if the water was running into the paddock at the Twelve Mile where his stud rams are paddocked. For company I brought with me my two kangaroo dogs 'Larry' and 'Lady.' When near the boundary of your run, the dogs gave chase to a mob of kangaroos and so—well, here I am."
"To me, dear, it seemed as if you had dropped down from heaven. I was dreaming daydreams of you when I heard the thudding of the kangaroos and the yelping of your dogs."
"Then your dream materialised, eh?"
"Well, you did; but whether my dream in which you were a prominent figure, will ever materialise, I cannot say."
Billy Stinson said this so wistfully, that Muriel Poingdestre was intrigued.
"Tell me more, Billy. I'm interested."
It was intensely hot. They had moved to a clump of mulga where there was more shade. Out in the open the heat waves danced and shimmered and a flock of rose-breasted galahs broke the silence with their noisy screeching.
"It is the same old recurring nightmare, Muriel—the tragedy of my life. It was of that I was thinking before you rode up."
"I know, and I'm sorry for you, Billy. But how do I figure in the picture?"
"You're the centre piece. Since my return to Moonbulla, I have realised what a mistake I have made. What I have lost. I never anticipated that you would develop into such a splendid girl. Coming back to the West, I have known what it is to love again. You are to me the one priceless being on earth."
"Yes, Muriel, I am not philandering. I'm serious. Out here in the lonely heart of the West, a man seems to gain understanding. Sometimes, as in my case, it has come too late. In the cities, one seems to treat love lightly. There it is more of a pastime than a passion. But not here where men are face to face with the realities, not the artificialities of life, love seems to have a grander, a profounder meaning. In the vastness of these spaces, it seems as immeasurable as the depths between star and star, as sublime as the thundering crash of tempests. Oh, I know, Muriel, I have no right to speak to you of love; but believe me dear, there's never a day that dawns or a night that falls, but some fond thought of you, beloved, calls. I have tried, God knows how often to blot you out of my thoughts but it is no use. You are with me wherever I go. The very birds seem to call your name. Even the wind in the trees seems to make a whispering of you. Muriel, Muriel, Muriel."
"Don't, Billy, don't. I'm sorry, but it's no use. More sorry than you can imagine," saying which she looked at him with tear suffused eyes and placed her sun-browned hand tenderly on his.
"Don't touch me, Muriel. I can't bear it. See, my hands are blood-stained with 'Larry's' blood. I am unclean, and my conscience is blood-stained too since that fatal night at Sandgate, over five years, ago."
"In time, Billy, you will throw off this morbid feeling. Out here there is plenty of work for a man to do, and work, you know, is a great mind healer."
"No. There is only one panacea, Muriel. Your love. Without it, without you, the future holds nothing worth while. Looking right down the long lane of the years I see no vision splendid that does not contain you in it. I seem to be living under a cloud, and I can see no way of getting back into the light. Without being blasphemous, I look to you and say, 'Lead, kindly light.' If I hadn't come back to Moonbulla and learnt to love you, perhaps I should not have cared so much. Loving you makes it so hard to live without you."
"But, Billy, isn't that the way with men? They seem always to love the unattainable. It is the anticipation that lures. It you possessed me, you might find in time that I would fall like a curse at your feet."
"Yes the unattainable. You are that, all right, Muriel. But isn't that also the way with women too? Isn't it a trait of human nature? Do not women, do not you (and Billy Stinson, as he asked this looked earnestly into Muriel Poingdestre's eyes) feel at times the bitter-sweet wine of desire and the pain of unsatisfied longing?"
"They do, Billy. God knows, they do. But women hide their feelings better than men, until some great happening, some sudden danger to the one they love, breaks down the barriers and lets the flood of their pent up love loose. Then they stand confessed."
"Then let me stand confessed. Before you rode up, glorious in your hunting, I had resolved to take steps to break the legal bonds that hold me from you. I had decided to petition the court for a divorce. The law gives me the opportunity. Why should I not take it, Muriel?"
"For what purpose, Billy?"
"To marry you, my Muriel."
"No, Billy, not your Muriel. That can never be." But as she said this, as if in contradiction to her words, she placed her arm around him ever so lovingly. Then in words of great solemnity she said, speaking low and earnestly, "I may be the desire of your heart, the throne of your attainment, but not in that way can I go to you. The soul of a woman, like a menacing ghost, seared into mindless darkness by the passion of her great love for you, would always stand between us. Though the law may be clothed in the semblance of justice, to me it would seem too much like the garments of expediency. It would be a sin, and when sin attains its desire the longing for it dies. You know, Billy, there's a Divinity that shapes our end. Life goes on to its end no matter how we may fashion and strive, according to an immutable rule. But, come, it's getting late. We have a long way to go. Throw away dull care, and for the love of Mike, Billy, give me a drink out of your water bag. I'm parched." So saying, she got up, laughing, and held out her hand to assist the morose Billy to his feet.
The weeks and the months sped by and the drought lay like a curse on the land. The ninth year cycle had come round and a lean time followed a fat. So it has ever been in the meteorological history of Queensland. The sheep and the cattle on the grassless runs began to die off, first in hundreds, then in thousands, then in tens of thousands, until the western downs were thick inlaid with patines of bleached-white bones. The Government came to the assistance of the wool earls and the beef barons, and long trains heavily laden with starving stock, groaned eastward and southward to wherever relief country could be found. Even the sugar cane fields of the North carried their quota of starving sheep that grew fat again on the cane trash. The maize growers, on the Burnett and the Atherton Tableland, waxed rich on orders for maize for stud sheep, and the golden grain was scattered from motor cars over the paddocks and the hungry sheep rushed to the purring of the car as the lambs run to their dams.
Where mulga was plentiful, the ravages of the drought were warded off for a time, but scrub cutters were hard to get and so every available man on the stations was put on to cutting down mulga. The sheep licked up the dry leaves and waxed fat while the mulga lasted, but the drought showed no signs of breaking and in time even the mulga would give out.
For weeks men were camped out on the runs, scrub cutting; and rations were brought to them by buck-board and motor car from the head stations. It was a desperate attempt to keep alive as many of the sheep as possible. When the drought broke, and restocking commenced, a hundred thousand merinos would be worth a King's ransom. Billy Stinson worked with the station hands, the jackeroos, and as many rouseabouts as could be roped in, in the desperate attempt to keep alive the Moonbulla sheep by feeding them on the Mulga. It was a battle and a gamble with the adverse forces of nature with the odds piled up against the squatters. If the squatters won, fortunes were saved, and made. If they lost, it meant ruin and starting all over again from the very bottom. Men, who could write cheques for a hundred thousand pounds when the seasons were good, could not write a cheque for a hundred pence when the drought ended. The banks and the great land, mercantile and finance companies closed down on them, and their brief reign as wool earls and beef barons was at an end.
Though the work of scrub cutting in the intense heat was strenuous, night, with its cooling break, brought rest and silence beneath the infinitude of the starry dome of the heavens.
It was on such nights as these, that the thoughts of Billy Stinson ran to Muriel Poingdestre. If the sun-drenched cloudless days brought the mocking mirage of mirrored lakes and translucent waters, the nights brought mental visions of Muriel Poingdestre that also mocked him. He repeated to himself over and over again: "The law points the way, but she will not have me that way. If I invoke the aid of the law, shall I be any nearer my attainment of her? No matter. It is a risk I must take. But it is a risk. If I claim her through bonds snapped by the law, shall I not court the full measure of her loathing. Undivorced, I cannot marry her. Divorced, I may not. But, divorced, some chance circumstance may weigh in my favour. Am I justified in my own sight? What are the facts. She is young and beautiful, and has all the world to choose from. Would to God it were so with me. Have I any worth in her sight? That has to be definitely proved. Knowing me as I am, can I hoodwink myself into the belief that were all things equal, she would marry me? That too, is a risk I must take. There can be no half measures. She is worth a great risk—a great fight. It is better to scheme, to risk all than to slumber."
A week later, his solicitor in Brisbane received a letter requesting him to petition the Supreme Court for a divorce. When the petition was drawn up it set forth, omitting all formal parts, that Lola Conway, from the date of her confinement had not been released or discharged from the asylum for the insane; that she was not likely to recover; that she had been a lunatic for a period of five years and longer; the petitioner, therefore, humbly prayed that his marriage may be dissolved, that he may have such further and other relief in the premises as the court may seem meet.
Then followed the issue of the writ, and as the law is exacting in its formulae, a copy of the writ, with a statement of the plaintiff's claim for a dissolution of his marriage, with the defendant, Lola Conway, was formally served on her (notwithstanding her total inability to comprehend what it was all about) with the intimation that she was required within twenty-one days to file in the court her defence to her husband's petition.
But as this was impossible, another legal fiction was evolved, in that the Curator in Insanity, the guardian ad litem, of the defendant, gave all and sundry notice that he as such guardian ad litem had entered an appearance for the defendants the action of Wilfred Beaufort Stinson, plaintiff, and Lola Stinson, defendant.
On the hearing of the petition, the court found the facts proven, and in the absence of collusion or connivance, granted a rule nisi for the dissolution of the marriage, returnable in three months, when the rule nisi was made absolute.
The fact of Billy Stinson's having obtained his divorce soon became common knowledge, and people began to talk and to speculate. Usually, a man such as he, and circumstanced as he was, applies for a divorce for one purpose only—to marry again—and gossip soon linked his name with that of Muriel Poingdestre. This was gall and wormwood to Humphrey Pryor, who saw Muriel Poingdestre slipping from him. "By the blod of Christ he'll never get her," he exclaimed when he had heard of the divorce and learnt the ostensible purpose for which it had been obtained.
This oath was repeated to Bill Stinson by one of his own stockmen who was present at the mail change on the road to Augathella when Humphrey Pryor made the remark. The driver of Cobb and Company's coach, which carried the mail from Charleville north along the Warrego, was the first to acquaint Pryor of the news of the divorce. The Stinsons and the Poingdestres were people of note in the Warrego district, and any event that concerned them was always interesting gossip and the mailman who brought the papers and correspondence from the settled to the unsettled districts, were always welcome. Billy Stinson merely smiled when he heard what Pryor had said. He had no fear of his great rival and was as quick to hate as he was to love.
"You tell 'The Yellow Streak' when you next see him, Batham, that I'll back my chances at any odds against him in the winning of Miss Poingdestre."
This was not altogether bravado, for Billy Stinson, though perhaps not such a superb horseman as Humphrey Pryor, was no mean antagonist. As a rifle shot he was quite as expert as Pryor, and as a pugilist he was probably his superior. He would face any danger coolly and with courage, and was not a man to take second place where Muriel Poingdestre was concerned.
Neither was Humphrey Pryor. The name that he was known by in the west, "The Yellow Streak," would seem to imply that he was a coward and would not stand up to his man when cornered. But that was not so. The police had christened him "The Yellow Streak" because he was too wily for them, though they had done their best to take him and his men red-handed in lifting stolen stock. His knowledge of the country comprised within the boundaries of the Warrego, Mitchell, and Gregory districts, was unsurpassed, and he never rode a bad horse. He would be at one place on one day and a hundred miles away on another.
Habitually, he and his men carried firearms, rifles, as well as revolvers. As stockmen, horse-dealers, and cattle duffers they were matchless riders and bushmen, and because of his desire to give the police a wide berth, he was nicknamed "The Yellow Streak." Police and strangers were not welcomed at Contraband, which was a secluded holding in the heart of the Carnarvon ranges, and what cattle or horses went into that great pocket, never came out again until they all bore the Contraband brand. If they went in as clean skins the branding irons were soon got ready. If they had brands it was not hard to fake them or to alter ear-marks.
When Billy Stinson's divorce was made absolute, he purposely avoided Muriel Poingdestre. He did not, for appearance sake, want to make it appear that he was too interested in her, though he was eating his heart out for her. Moreover, by not pressing his company on her he hoped that time would work in his favour and make her look upon his action in obtaining a divorce with a more lenient eye.
However, when he was made aware of Humphrey Pryor's direct challenge, he decided to stay away from her no longer. He did not wish Pryor to have the notion that he stayed away from Muriel Poingdestre because he was afraid of him, consequently he made opportunities to see her as often as possible and to wait the psychological moment when he could ask her to marry him.
In the bush, more especially in the wide flung spaces of "the never never," where station is linked up to station and homestead to homestead, with a central exchange by primitive lines of telephones, which enables one settler to listen in on another's conversation, gossip quickly spreads, and Muriel Poingdestre soon learnt of the feelings of both men towards her and of the deadly enmity that existed between them.
Billy Stinson with some of his men were camped at No. 3 bore, at the north-west corner of Moonbulla, where they were still scrub cutting. The loneliness of the life palled on him, and Muriel Poingdestre drew him as the magnet draws the steel.
Early one morning, before the sun had crept up out of the east, he said to one of his men, John Kimber:
"Kimber, I'm going to Oonamurra. I want you and the men to carry on for a week or so till you are relieved."
"Sir," replied Kimber, "I know why you go to Oonamurra and I wish you luck."
"Thank you, Kimber. As you know so much, I may as well mention that I'm going to get 'Yes' or 'No' from the Langlo Queen."
When Billy Stinson had rolled his valise and turned to ride down the bore drain south by west, his men gave him a rousing cheer, for they, too, would have ridden to hell and back for a smile from the Langlo Queen, the darling of the Warrego. When Billy Stinson had gone an hour, John Kimber called to Jimmy Dare, one of the Moonbulla's jackeroos, and suggested to him that it might he as well to ride over to Macnade's homestead, to phone Oonamurra that Mr. Stinson is riding south. Miss Poingdestre will then know he is on the way.
Whether it was an inspiration, or the ordering of the Divinity, that shapes the destinies of mankind, that prompted John Kimber to suggest phoning Oonamurra, it is hard to say; but when Jimmy Dare reached the Tanbar Gate on the stock route south to New South Wales via Cunnamulla and Wooroorooka, he met Humphrey Pryor and some of his men on their way north to Contraband. They were armed as usual. In the course of a desultory conversation the jackeroo mentioned that his boss, Mr. Stinson, had left No. 3 bore that morning at daybreak for Oonamurra. He might have mentioned also that he was riding over to Macnade's homestead, startled at the effect his statement made on Humphrey Pryor.
"Jesus Christ!" blasphemously exclaimed Pryor. "The blighter will never reach there if I can stop him."
Turning to his men he said, "You go on to Contraband while I go south to track that bloody mormon. I'd track him over the coals of hell to stop him marrying the Langlo Queen."
Then he turned his horse south and rode with the easy grace of the long-limbed, small-waisted men of the west, who spend the greater portion of their time in the saddle.
He knew he would have to ride long and hard to overtake his quarry; but he knew his horse, fed on Mitchell grass, and knew also from experience how hard he could push him without knocking him up.
The country was as an open book to him, and he had no difficulty in picking up Billy Stinson's tracks and following them. At Windula he was told that Stinson had passed through less than an hour ago.
In the meantime, Jimmy Dare, regretting that he had mentioned to Pryor the destination of his boss, sensed trouble, and he too, rode fast on to Macnades to telephone to Oonamurra that not only was Mr. Stinson riding there, but that "The Yellow Streak" was following fast on his tracks, well armed.
Mrs. Macnade and a black gin were the only people at home, her husband and a black boy being away scrub-cutting. They were surprised to see Jimmy Dare ride to the slip-rails on a foam-lathered horse. Dismounting and throwing the reins on the ground, he asked permission to use the telephone. Alarmed at the evident haste and the apparent importance of the message, Mrs. Macnade asked: "Is there any trouble at Moonbulla, Mr. Dare?"
"No, but there might be, Mrs. Macnade," and he mentioned to her all that had happened.
"He's a passionate man, that Humphrey Pryor, but none so bad after all I'm told. He generally gets what he wants. I would n'a like to cross him. Ah, well, it's the same old story, lad. Twa stallions fight for a filly, two bulls for a heifer, twa men for a maid. I'm thinkin' Humphrey Pryor 'd as lief shoot Mr. Stinson to gain Mistress Poingdestre as not. But there I'm detainin' ye. Telephone at once."
It was nine o'clock that morning when Muriel Poingdestre answered the phone message from Macnade's, four hours after Billy Stinson had left No. 3 bore. It would be some considerable time yet, she thought, before he reached Oonamurra. In the intense heat of the day he could not travel fast on the one horse. He would have to spell him occasionally otherwise he would knock up. A terrible fear possessed her when she learnt that Humphrey Pryor was tracking Billy Stinson south. She knew what that meant. A quarrel, a fight in the lonely bush, perhaps a rifle shot and no witnesses to prove anything.
There was no time to lose. She must do something. She knew the track along which Billy Stinson was riding. She would ride north and warn him. Her father was out on the run with the men. There were only the bookkeeper and her black boy at the station.
"Combo! Combo!" she called, going out to the stables.
"Yowi, missy, what you want?" replied the black boy, coming out of the harness room.
"Saddle up Satan. Plenty hurry. Baal sit down."
"Yowi, missy, me bin plurry slick, you bet."
Going into the office, she said to the bookkeeper:
"If father comes in before I return, tell him I'm riding north to meet Mr. Stinson and Mr. Pryor."
Taking her rifle which the black boy handed to her when she had mounted, she rode north in a loping canter. In the meantime, riding hard and obsessed by his intense hatred of Billy Stinson, Humphrey Pryor came to the deserted homestead on Candu grazing selection. Here Billy Stinson had rested and boiled his billy, and Pryor found the ashes still hot. Without pausing, though his horse was tuckered up and weary, he pushed on, knowing that before long he would overtake his man. The nearness of his quarry gave zest to the hunter and he spurred with rowels of hate the tiring horse. The country over which he rode was flat and sun-baked, broken here and there by patches of mulga and clumps of lignum. From his horse he could see a long way ahead and he kept a sharp look out for his rival. Not far away was the soak at Mulga Bend, where there was always water. If he did not catch up to Billy Stinson before the soak was reached he knew he would find him there spelling his horse.
Up from the south rode Muriel Poingdestre, also making for Mulga Bend with her rifle's butt held firmly to her right thigh as she rode, her drawn and anxious face, tanned to a deeper hue by the hot winds, betokened the fear that possessed her heart. Without bite or sup she had left Oonamurra because of a 'phone call. Never in her life had she ridden as she rode that day, and her splendid Satan proved equal to the task set him.
It was the irony of fate that she rode the gift of Humphrey Pryor to save Billy Stinson from harm at the giver's hands. What made her do it? Subconsciously she loved Billy Stinson and her love from smouldering embers burst into a sudden flame at a suspicion of danger to him.
Though the heat was intense and the sun-cracked earth seemed to grin up at her like a fleshless skull, she rode on, with only a stolen pause to rest awhile and to wet the quivering nostrils of her horse from her water-bag.
"The Yellow Streak." To her he had never seemed that; but she called to mind his open boast that no man but he would marry her, and now, in her newly discovered love for Billy Stinson, this boastful assurance of Humphrey Pryor revolted her.
It had been reported to her that one day at the coupling of her name with that of Billy Stinson's, when in a mild, mad mood at the Ellengowan Hotel at Augathella, he had wagered his soul he would have her yet, or swing for the life of his hated foe.
So, riding hard, she breathed a prayer that she might be in time to reach Mulga Bend, or to warn Billy Stinson, before Humphrey Pryor caught up to him.
Another half-hour's ride brought her to the soak. It was a depression in the creek that, in rainy seasons, emptied into the Warrego. Clumps of lignum dotted the approach and a few twisted coolabahs with their thick trunks stood like rheumatic sentinels along the banks of the dry creek up and down from the soak.
Through the heat haze she saw a man riding in a fast canter towards the bend. Then she saw him dismount on the other side of the soak and walk stealthily towards the waterhole. She, too, dismounted and, fastening her horse to a mulga, moved silently forward, taking advantage of all the cover that the ground afforded. She saw Billy Stinson in the hollow, stooping over the soak to get a billy of water, all unconscious of the nearness of Humphrey Pryor.
Stilling her fear, she cupped her hands and hooted the call of the boobook owl. Instantly Billy Stinson rose, alert, only to meet the levelled rifle of Humphrey Pryor.
"So you thought to beat me to the Langlo Queen, did you, Stinson? Hell, no! But I'll take to her as a souvenir the bay and accoutrements of the bloody mormon. Keep your hands up, you bastard, and take the count. At ten I fire, and if your bloody corpse is ever found I'm no bushman."
As he counted Muriel Poingdestre from across the waterhole heard the staccato numerals—one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. Then her heart seemed to stop beating, but with firm fingers on trigger she sighted her rifle.
She fired, and a bullet from a gun unseen smashed through the right shoulder of Humphrey Pryor.
Both men were startled. It was a bolt from the blue. Then they saw Muriel Poingdestre calmly walking towards them with her smoking rifle in her hand.
As Pryor fell from the shock of the bullet, Billy Stinson ran to Muriel Poingdestre.
"Muriel," he exclaimed, "wherever did you spring from?" and he went to embrace her; but she evading him, went up to the fallen man and said: "I'm sorry, Mr. Pryor, but I had to save the man I love from your hate."
And then she proceeded to render first aid.
"You infernal tiger cat. I'll get even with you yet," was all the thanks that she got for her pains.
Then turning to Billy Stinson she said. "Come, Billy, its getting late. Help Mr. Pryor on to his horse. He'd better make tracks for the nearest hospital to have his wound attended to."
"You're well named 'The Yellow Streak,' Pryor, but we now know where we stand," said Billy Stinson, as he helped the wounded man on to his horse.
"We do," replied Pryor, livid with rage and loss of blood. "But the next time we meet, you may not have a woman to protect you."
"It's all right, Pryor; but you'd better watch your steps. At any rate, I'm going to keep your rifle as a little memento of this, to you, painful and embarrassing episode, but to me a glorious interlude in my life."
As Muriel Poingdestre and Billy Stinson rode away in the direction of Oonamurra, they came to a common understanding. In their love, now confessed, they felt neither hunger nor fatigue. When Billy Stinson asked her how it happened that she was at Mulga Bend at such a critical moment, she told him.
"And when I got that phone message from Jimmy Dare, I knew that I loved you, Billy, and rode to save you. Now I experience the rapture that a conqueror feels."
"And I, beloved, owing my life to you, surrender it to you for ever."
Out of the distance, a voice seemed to shout in mocking tones "For ever!" and the reverberations of its echoes seemed to run throughout the universe. For ever! For ever! until it died away in the vastness of illimitable space, for had he not joined himself to Lola-Sue for ever, and sealed that vow with a circlet of gold inscribed For Ever.
The marriage of Billy Stinson with Muriel Poingdestre was duly consummated.
It was Muriel's wish, in view of the fact that Billy was a divorced man, that the marriage should be a quiet one. She did not court any undue publicity, though the society papers made much of the event. It was a little bit of social history that they did not choose to overlook. One well-known influential weekly, much read in the west and throughout Australia, put it this way:—
"A western wedding, which created a considerable, amount of interest in pure merino circles, took place quietly at the English Church at Charleville. It linked together pretty Muriel Poingdestre, daughter of Major Poingdestre of Oonamurra, and Wilfred Beaufort Stinson, only son of the Moonbulla Stinsons, whose tragic first marriage was recently dissolved by the court."
This set tongues a-wagging, and gossip reared itself on its hind legs and gesticulated. The very thing that the Stinsons did not desire, was any allusion to their son's former marriage, or, as they termed it, his mesalliance; but the Press is no respecter of family skeletons and lo! theirs was dragged out in all its hideous nakedness to a gaping world.
The proud and haughty Muriel Stinson felt the sting in the tail of the Press paragraph. Strong in her love for her husband, she had fondly believed that the tragic story of his first marriage had passed into the forgotten limbo of all unpleasant happenings, but she had to learn that gossip has a long and tenacious memory.
Wherever she went she seemed to be followed by the spectre of Lola-Sue. It followed her on her honeymoon to the southern cities, and it seemed to creep between them when they went to bed at night.
It was horrible. If Lola-Sue had been dead it would have been different, but she was alive, alive. God! What if she recovered and came to her and said, "This man you are committing adultery with is my husband. No law can separate us. He is mine. Give him up."
What could she do? Nothing.
She did not mention her fears to her husband. As usual he was buoyant irrepressible, and lived every minute of his life with her. In his every action he showed that he loved her, just as at first, in his every action he showed Lola-Sue that he loved her. So far as he was concerned, Lola-Sue was as good as dead, forgotten, The memory of her did not haunt him in the least. He was a splendid animal. All that concerned him was the present. To be mated with a lovely woman was to him the highest gratification, life's greatest consummation. If it wasn't Lola-Sue, it was Muriel. If it wasn't Muriel, it would be some one else, so long as that some one else was beautiful and appealed to his sexual instincts. He was always in season. He could not satisfy his desires by hugging a memory, so, now that he was mated to Muriel, who satisfied to the full all his sensuous desires, the memory of Lola-Sue had no haunting terrors for him.
In this way, he metaphorically waltzed through his honeymoon and ate, drank, and slept with a light heart. His love for his wife was an opiate that brought him blissful peace.
But it is the woman who suffers—and pays. Though Muriel gave herself to her husband willingly and exquisitely, the joy of him was cloyed with perpetual fears. For her, there was no dreamless repose of assurance such as her husband experienced.
There would recur to her, no matter how hard she tried to thrust it aside, the beautiful face of Lola-Sue as she had seen it from a photograph, and her heart went out to her with an ineffable pity. Then she would think to herself: "Here am I, an usurper, experiencing all the joys and pleasures that were hers, should be hers. But no, I couldn't give her back her man even if she came to claim him. He is mine, mine. He has sealed me to him with his glowing burning kisses, with the strong firm pressure of him, limb to limb, body to body, face to face."
In this mood, they returned to Brisbane from the south. It was early August and carnival week, the only carnival Brisbane ever knows save when royalty visits it, when they arrived.
The Exhibition at Bowen Park was in full swing and it seemed as if the country had emptied itself and poured into the metropolis. The sheep men and cattle men from the north and the west foregathered at the great hotels and money flowed like water. It was a time of pleasure, a time of spending, and a time of hectic excitement. Pedigreed stock held the ring and the pens, and the squatters and farmers had come to view, to criticise, and to speculate.
The rains had been generous and the season's good, and the pulse of the Stock Exchange had a healthy throb. The prices of wool, of wheat, of maize, of butter, was a dominant subject, and the rains responsible for the success and splendour of carnival week. Probably in no country in the world does the topic of rain enter into the conversation of the people as it does in Australia. The difference between points and inches is the difference between penury and affluence.
Clear sunny days, and zephyr cooled nights, star studded and still, characterised Exhibition week. It was Queen's weather, in a climate unsurpassed in Australia, if not in the world. At night the theatres were packed to overflowing, and, if anywhere, there was carking care, it was thrust into the background. It was a time of trysting, a saturnalia of glory and brightness. Major Poingdestre, cursing his widowed loneliness since the marriage of his daughter, had come to Brisbane to the show. With him had come the Stinsons from Moonbulla. They were all staying at Lennon's, and when they found out that Billy Stinson and his bride had just arrived by the Ly-ee-moon from the South, and were staying at the Gresham, they soon forgathered. The reunion was a happy one, and at dinner that evening champagne was drunk liberally. After, they made up a theatre party, and arranged that next day they should all meet at Ascot, Major Poingdestre remarking that he had two good tips for the Metropolitan and the Carnival Handicaps.
The Wednesday of Exhibition week at Ascot was a typical Queensland day, a bright sun shining from a cloudless sky, and a cool north-easter fluttering the flags on the flagpoles above the grandstands.
It was on the lawn that friend met friend after, perhaps, years of separation; where the pure merino squatters hobnobbed with the bucolic farmers; and where the wealthy grazier, with field glasses across his shoulder, shook hands with the stipendiary stewards and the Q.T.C. committee.
It was on the lawn where Billy Stinson and his wife saw Humphrey Pryor, who had his horse, Laocoon, by the imported, sire, Trojan Priest, entered for the Metropolitan Handicap.
It was on the lawn where Billy Stinson met and introduced to his wife, the Medical Superintendent of the Hospital for the Insane at Willowburn. Luncheon was over and the bookmakers were crying the odds in the Metropolitan Handicap. Several of them were laying the double—the Metropolitan and the Carnival Handicaps.
"I know you have a dark horse for the Metropolitan, dad, what's your tip?" asked Muriel Stinson of her father.
"I have it on the authority of the owner, Toby Earl, that the horse that beats his colt, King Cole, will, win," replied the Major.
"Who's riding him?" questioned Billy Stinson.
"That's good enough for me, Major. The best jockey that's ever ridden at Ascot," remarked Billy Stinson.
"And for me, too," interpolated Seymour Stinson. "I see he's had one win to-day already. But what are the odds, Poingdestre?"
"We might get twelve to one if we get in early before the punters get going."
"Then we'll make up a hundred among us. Here's fifty, Billy, for your mother and me. You hop in and book the bet with Barrington," and Seymour Stinson handed his son £50.
"Very well," said Major Poingdestre. "Then Billy, Muriel, and I will make up the other fifty."
"No, I'm not going in," said Muriel Stinson. "I don't like King Cole's colour. He's black like myself," and she laughed. "You men make the bet. I'll have a flutter on my own."
"Be Gad, the devil you will, Muriel, and what's your fancy?"
"Oh, nonsense, Muriel. He's a rank outsider and his performance to date doesn't inspire confidence," said Billy Stinson.
"Yes, but look at his breeding, Billy, a Trojan Priest colt. Besides, Humphrey Pryor is as cunning as the devil, and he wouldn't have entered his big chestnut for this and the Carnival Handicap if he didn't think he had a chance for one of the races. Put a tenner on him for me, Billy, at the longest odds you can get."
"Very well, beloved; but it's throwing good money away," said her husband ungraciously.
Billy Stinson duly booked the bets. The best odds he could get on "King Cole" was eight to one. He got fifty to one against "Laocoon." From the strident calls of the bookmakers and the throng around the ring, they went on to the grandstand to view the race. The Stinsons, father and son, and also the Major were good judges of horses, and they carefully watched and criticised each horse as it did its preliminary canter.
"Who's riding Humphrey Pryor's horse, Muriel?" asked Mrs. Stinson.
"Gannon, an apprentice, mother. What do you think of him?"
"The jockey or the horse?"
"Oh, the horse, of course. Isn't he a beauty?"
"B' Gad, you're right, Muriel. His action is free and graceful."
"But can he last the mile and a half?" queried Billy Stinson, who wasn't too pleased at his wife's backing Pryor's horse.
"That remains to be seen," replied Muriel.
"All the Trojan Priest progeny have been remarkable for their staying powers," casually remarked Seymour Stinson, closely watching each horse through his glasses. "But I must say King Cole is the pick of the field and he's trained to a hair."
The horses were lined up at the barrier.
"Look, dad," excitedly exclaimed Muriel Stinson, "'Laocoon' is number one on the rails."
"But that does not matter much in a mile and a half race, Muriel."
"I'm not so sure about that, dad. If he's a stayer and gets a good start, its equal to more than half a stone off his handicap. By the way, what is 'Laocoon's' handicap?"
Referring to her race book, she exclaimed, "Why, he's got only seven stone four!"
"Quite enough weight for him to carry a mile and a half," interjected Billy Stinson. "And King Cole, a much better horse, has only eight stone ten."
The Stinson-Poingdestre party were only interested in two horses, King Cole and Laocoon, and while the horses were being got into position by the starter the bookmakers made a move to the side of the grandstand. Above the hum of voices they heard one raucous voice yell out, "Six to one King Cole."
"He's shortened in the betting," remarked Seymour Stinson.
"Twenty to one Laocoon," shouted another bookmaker.
"Good God," said Major Poingdestre. "Pryor's horse, too, has come down in the betting. What's the big idea?"
"And you got fifty to one from Harrington, Billy," exclaimed Muriel, excitedly turning to her husband.
Looking towards the bookmaker who had called "Twenty to one Laocoon," she saw Humphrey Pryor go up to him and book a bet. Immediately thereafter the bookmaker—it was Maddern—shouted "Fifteen to one Laocoon." And then "seven to one King Cole."
To those interested it seemed as if there were only two horses in the race, King Cole and Laocoon.
"Did you see that, dad?" said Muriel Stinson. "Immediately Humphrey Pryor snapped up twenty to one on Laocoon the odds came down with a run. I'm sure he's backed his horse heavily."
"He is known to be a plunger," replied the Major.
A great shout went up and further remarks were stilled for the moment. All eyes were now on the race. The colours of Laocoon's Jockey were old gold, cerise cap, and Muriel Stinson kept her keen black eyes glued on that bit of colour, with a passing glint at the black, white sleeves, and pink cap of King Cole's jockey.
Passing the six-furlong post the field was strung out, but King Cole was running second and his jockey had him well in hand.
"Four to one King Cole!" shouted a bookmaker above the hum of excited voices.
"Twenty to one Laocoon!" shouted another when he saw through his glasses that Laocoon was running sixth, and Muriel Stinson's heart missed a beat when she saw her fancy not too well placed in the race, and King Cole going strongly in second place.
Entering the straight King Cole and the cavalier colt Prince Rupert, which started second favourite, were going great guns, almost neck and neck.
"King Cole! King Cole! Come on, you beauty," was shouted amid tremendous excitement by his backers. "Prince Rupert wins! Prince Rupert wins!" was yelled in wild frenzy by that colt's patrons. Then above the roar came the cry "Laocoon! Laocoon! Look at him coming up on the outside, making the field look like hacks!" shouted a backer of the big chestnut. Then others took up the cry, "Laocoon! Laocoon!"
A furlong from the winning post the placed horses were King Cole, Prince Rupert, and Laocoon. Prince Rupert's jockey plied the whip and he shot a neck ahead of King Cole, but the effort was not sustained, as King Cole, running gamely and consistently and ridden with excellent judgment by Hayes, passed him half a furlong from the judges box. Then the crowd shouted themselves hoarse, "King Cole! King Cole!" Then Gannon, almost sitting on Laocoon's neck, rode the race of his life.
"Billy, if I had a weak heart I'd drop dead. I see nothing but old gold, old gold," cried Muriel Stinson, holding on to her husband in the tenseness of her excitement.
"That damned chestnut will win," said Seymour Stinson, shaking with apprehension. Prince Rupert seemed to drop back, but it was Laocoon overtaking and passing him.
"King Cole!" "Laocoon!" "Laocoon!" "King Cole!" were shouted alternately.
The crowd on the grand stand stood on the seats.
Neck to neck the two horses raced to the winning post, and flashed a moving streak past the judge's box.
"King Cole wins! King Cole wins!" was the dominant cry because he was the favourite and carried a fortune in bets.
"Laocoon! Laocoon!" was shouted by a lesser number, among whom was Muriel Stinson.
"I'm sure Laocoon won," she said, white and trembling.
From the grandstand it was not possible for the crowd to see what horse had won, and it waited breathlessly for the numbers to go up. After a short pause as if there was an element of doubt on the part of the judge, the numbers appeared:—9, 2, 4.
Laocoon, King Cole, Prince Rupert. The crowd read the numbers, turning to their racebooks for verification of the numbers. Major, Poingdestre testily doubted the judge's decision. So did Seymour Stinson. Billy Stinson was glum, and made no comment, but his wife said, rubbing it in, in the delirium of her excitement. "Of course Laocoon won. Any one with a glass eye could see that."
When it was officially announced that Laocoon had won by a short head in the record time of 2 mins. 31½ secs. for Queensland, the backers of King Cole accepted the inevitable which was confirmed by the shout of the 'books. "I'll pay Laocoon!"
"Well, that's that," remarked Seymour Stinson as he left the grandstand, his wife, Major Poingdestre, Billy Stinson, and Muriel following. "Collect my bet, Billy, there's a dear," said Muriel handing her husband the ticket. "I'll wait for you near the bandstand." Then turning to the others she said: "Billy and I will join you later for afternoon tea. My shout. We'll pick you up at four, opposite the jockey-board in the members' enclosure."
The crowd of bettors around the bookmakers was large and Billy Stinson had to wait a considerable time to collect his wife's bet. In the meantime, while Muriel Stinson awaited the arrival of her husband, she heard a voice from behind her: "Well, tigercat, how are you?"
Turning at sound of a familiar voice, she saw Humphrey Pryor and coloured.
"I'm very well, Bushranger, thank you."
"Yes, you have all the elements of one, you know; and the characteristics, too, if it comes to that."
"I'm afraid I've developed a reputation."
"You have, and not an enviable one. By the way, how is the shoulder?"
"Quite all right. Dr. Rowe, of Augathella, soon fixed me up. But you have branded me for life. I was a clean skin until you attempted murder."
"A clean skin, perhaps, but not a clean reputation, eh, Mr. Pryor? Besides, I did not attempt murder. I hope I am too skilled in the use of my rifle for that. I did just what I tried to do—temporarily disable you."
"You succeeded very well. But would still prefer that you should call me Humphrey, notwithstanding what has happened. I bear you no ill will."
"You are generous, are you not?"
"No, I'm reconciled to the fact that you fought for your man. Only I should have preferred to have been that man and not the villain in the piece. But where is the great lover?"
"If it's my husband, you mean, he's collecting my bet."
"What! Did you back Laocoon?"
"I did at fifty to one. I put a tenner on him. That nets me five hundred pounds."
"You were lucky."
"I was. It was a great race, and I congratulate you on your win."
"Thank you, Muriel."
Seeing that she looked at him as if about to protest, he continued:
"I may still call you Muriel, may I not?"
"Oh, since you bear no ill will, yes."
After a pause:—
"Is Laocoon running in the Carnival handicap?"
"No, I've scratched him. He's done very well for to-day. So have I. I've not only taken a bit from the books, but I've met a very dear friend who is willing to let the dead past bury its dead."
"Then you bear no resentment?"
"None whatever. You're another's now, above and beyond me. After the 'Dead March' it's 'The Girl I left behind me,' so why sigh after the unattainable?"
"You're philosophical, very."
"Life is too short to spend any part of it in sackcloth and ashes. Let us eat, drink and be merry, for to-morrow we go our own separate ways. But, seriously, Muriel, I loved you and still love you, notwithstanding I've been supplanted by another."
"Then are you, too, going to play the role of the great lover?"
"No, but one never knows one's fate. With you, I could have gone a long way on the road of better dealing. But now, as things are, I'm—well, I'm still a bushranger. Good-bye. I may see you again some day. Strange happenings occur on life's broad highway. But in all sincerity, Muriel, I wish you every happiness."
"Thank you, Humphrey. In my heart I believe you do. Good-bye and good luck."
There was no smile on Muriel Stinson's face when she said this, and her dark eyes with their unfathomable depth's, had in them a wistful look. And he, Humphrey Pryor, bared his head as he grasped her hands at parting in a firm, friendly clasp, for he, notwithstanding his questionable mode of living, akin to that of bushranger, could, when it so pleased him, be a very gallant gentleman.
Muriel Stinson was glad he had left her before her husband's return, and she was beginning to wonder what had detained him. The next race was about to start and the bell closing the totaliser had been rung, yet still he did not come. There was a reason. When Billy Stinson had collected his wife's bet, and was about to return to her, the Medical Superintendent at Willowburn, Dr. Beath, who had come to Brisbane for the carnival, catching sight of him, caught him by the arm and said, as they walked away from the crowd: "Excuse me for a moment, Mr. Stinson, but I've something to tell you. I do not know how you will take it. It is about your wife—your first wife, I mean. She's regaining her sanity—becoming normal."
"The devil she is. That's awkward, doctor, you know I've married again."
"Yes, that's why I wanted to put you on your guard."
Billy Stinson felt the world crashing. This was a complication he had not taken into his consideration.
"My God, doctor, what you tell me is serious. If Lola is discharged it will have a terrible effect on my present wife. I know, though she hasn't said anything, that the possibility of Lola's recovery is a ghost that haunts her."
"Still, the situation must be faced, Stinson. She is still a very beautiful woman, more lovely, if anything, than she was on her admission. It would be a cruel wrong to detain her a day longer than is necessary. She is very bright and has not heard of your remarriage."
"Does she discuss me at all, doctor?"
"No, she never refers to the past; though I am convinced she knows all that has happened."
"How long will it be, do you think, before she is liberated?"
"A month at most."
"A month's respite," groaned Billy Stinson. "I feel like a condemned man, doctor. I suppose I ought to be glad that the poor girl is recovering, but I'm not. If I hadn't married again the case would be different."
"Don't anticipate trouble, Stinson," said the doctor, kindly, placing his hand on Billy's shoulder. "It may turn out all right in the long run. Good-bye."
As the medical superintendent walked away, the glory of the sunshine of the perfect August day seemed to become dim to Billy Stinson. The roar of the books, shouting the odds, had a far away distant sound, and he found himself muttering, "What will the end be?" His thoughts reverted to Lola-Sue and he had a mental vision of her on the day—and it seemed so very far away—when he had married her, when she, radiant, elated, seemed clothed with joy as an angel of grace, when true happiness seemed to shine like the sun from her eyes. Now his was the curse of an inward reproving. He had been living the last few years in a fool's paradise. He had now been awakened to a world of illusion, and the future with all its terrible import, must be faced. It was a chastened Billy that went up to his Muriel.
"Why, Billy, whatever is the matter?" she remarked smiling. "You look as if you'd lost a fortune on the Metropolitan."
"I've had disconcerting news, Muriel," he answered, without beating about the bush. "I've just been talking to Dr. Beath, the medical superintendent at Willowburn. He informs me that Lola is recovering. In a month at the most she'll be discharged."
If Billy Stinson had struck his wife, he could not have paralysed her mind more than by his utterance of this merciless news. It was what she had feared from the day of her marriage. Now she was face to face with the stark terror that had haunted her, she who had just sipped at the cup of love and of happiness.
"Lola recovering!" she whispered with white lips. "God! Billy, what's to become of me? In spite of the law you must take her back. Our marriage must be annulled."
They wandered away under the trees across the beautiful sward, sightless to the thoroughbred tread of the horses on the velvety turf as they were walked and pranced backward and forward in front of their stalls. On a seat under a weeping fig they sat down. Billy Stinson took his wife's hand. It was cold and supine in his grasp.
"Dearest, I will never give you up," he said—"I've done with the past forever. Our marriage shall not be annulled. I will see that Lola shall not want, of course. I will explain all to her. I will tell her everything."
"Billy, dear, I should go from you when Lola comes out; but oh! I can't. I'm a mass of contradiction. I know you are mine, mine, dear, and I will not let you go."
"That is the way I want you to talk, my Muriel. Everything looks black at present, but some providence may find a solution of the problem. Come, let us join the others for afternoon tea. All may yet be well. There's nothing to be gained by meeting trouble halfway."
Listlessly and sadly Muriel Stinson got up from the garden seat on the lawn, saying. "I have no heart for further gaities, Billy, I shall be glad to be home again."
Then there came to her like an inspiration the philosophy of Humphrey Pryor. "Life is too short to spend any part of it in sackcloth and ashes. Let us eat, drink, and be merry, even if to-morrow we separate." Then she mused.
"That is the philosophy of the bushrangers, the Gardiners, the Kellys, Ben Hall, Captain Thunderbolt."
So, in a more equable frame of mind, she turned to her husband and said, "But there, we musn't be cast down, Billy, dear. Let us meet sorrow with laughter. Have I not read somewhere 'What doth it profit to gaze on the mists of Hereafter.'"
"That's the way I want you to look at things, my sweet contradiction. Keep up that spirit and all will be well. I will try to emulate you." When they joined the others for afternoon tea, no word of the recovery of Lola-Sue was mentioned. It was not meet that they should spoil the remainder of their day.
When they came out of the refreshment room the bell clanged for saddling up for the last race of the day—the Carnival Handicap. It was the race on which Major Poingdestre and Seymour Stinson hoped to retrieve their losses in the Metropolitan.
"Look here, by Gad," said the Major, "we'll plunge on a rank outsider. What say, Stinson."
"I second that," replied Seymour Stinson.
"Carried!" exclaimed Billy.
"What shall it be?" asked the Major, consulting his race book.
"Laocoon's scratched. There are nine left in the race."
Whilst they were making up their minds, Humphrey Pryor happened to pass, on his way to the Members' Stand accompanied by the Chairman of the Q.T.C. He was not in good favour with the Poingdestre-Stinson crowd and merely recognised them by raising his hat, but as the chairman of the Q.T.C. was well known to the Major and also to Seymour Stinson, he stopped to say a few words and perforce Humphrey Pryor was obliged to stop also.
"I congratulate you on your win in the Metropolitan, Pryor. It was a great race."
"Thanks, Major. Did you back Laocoon?"
"No, unfortunately. We backed King Cole."
"Then back 'Queen of Hearts,' 'King Cole's' full sister for a place in the Carnival Handicap. A mile's her distance." So saying he raised his hat and walked on as he had no desire to have any further conversation with Muriel Stinson nor to let it be known that he had already spoken to her. Still less, had he any wish to hold converse with her husband. They were not kindred spirits.
The horses were already lining up for the last race of the day, and Stinson was commanded to hurry and place all the money they could raise among them, which amounted to fifty pounds, on Queen of Hearts; both ways. He got sixty to one for a straight-out win, and twenty to one for a place.
By the time that he got back to his party at the stipulated place on the grandstand, the race had started. Son of a Gun, the favourite, was well in the lead, closely followed by Boomerang and Abelard. The colours of Queen of Hearts' jockey, black, white sash and white cap, were flashing in the ruck, and it did not seem then that the mare had a chance. At the leger post, the position of the horses had changed considerably. Abelard was in the lead with Boomerang and Son of a Gun running neck and neck a length behind, while Queen of Hearts was running well on the outside clear of the field.
Four furlongs from the winning post a great "Oh!" was heard by the fifty thousand spectators, women shut their eyes, and men clenched their hands and teeth, a horse in the carriage paddock had broken loose, jumped the fence into the course, and maddened by the lashing harness, galloped madly down the course towards the racing horses. The position was dramatic, the consternation intense. On came the thundering galloping hoofs as if nothing mattered. The jockeys saw the terrible danger, but it was too late to avert disaster. Right into the racing field galloped the runaway. Then came the crash. Three horses were down and their jockeys strewn along the course. Then came the cry of disappointed backers, "Sun of a Gun's down," and the field smashed up. Two of the fallen horses got up and ran riderless along the course.
The ambulance galloped to the scene of the disaster. The crowd, heedless now of what horse won, ran towards the prostrate jockeys. One was killed and another had his leg broken. But the race was continued by the survivors as if nothing had happened.
Queen of Hearts running wide at the time of the smash, escaped unhurt, and was now in the lead. The disaster was already forgotten. "Queen of Hearts wins! Queen of Hearts wins!" was shouted on all sides. But the race was not yet won. Boomerang was also safe and running strongly on the rails. "Come on Boomerang, come on Boomerang," was excitedly shouted by his backers.
Seymour Stinson following the race with his glasses said: "It's all over bar shouting. Nothing can catch 'Queen of Hearts.'"
"Gad! You never know till the numbers are up," snapped Major Poingdestre, leaning so heavily on his walking stick in his excitement that it broke.
"Hooray! Hooray! she wins, Billy!" shouted Muriel Stinson forgetting her gloom of a few minutes before. She, though born in India, loved a horse race with all the ardour of an Australian native. On came the gallant little mare, closely followed by Boomerang and Coolabunia, another outsider. But the weight was too much for Boomerang, and Queen of Hearts won by a clear length from Boomerang, with Coolabunia half a length behind him, third.
It was a great win for the backers of Queen of Hearts, but as outsiders had won the two principal races of the day, backers generally lost heavily, and the books paid out willingly to the few who had backed Queen of Hearts at long odds.
Major Poingdestre, his broken walking stick notwithstanding, was in high glee over their handsome win, and Seymour Stinson said, "It was damn lucky that Pryor had given them the tip." But Billy Stinson and his wife were wondering, now that the excitement was over, how their respective parents would take the report concerning the immediate recovery of Lola-Sue, and her imminent discharge.
The visiting justice, an ex-politician, had completed his periodic inspection of the Hospital for the Insane at Willowburn, and, as always, was favourably impressed by the wonderful organisation and scientific management of that great institution. He had interviewed patients and listened carefully to their complaints. Some were serious, some trivial, and some very annoying. In the office of the medical superintendent he discussed his notes with Dr. Beath.
"I have had a long interview with patient Stinson, doctor," he said, "and she begged me to sign an order for her release. Though I'm not an alienist, she appears to me to have fully recovered her sanity and is now quite normal."
"Yes, Merritt, she has made a wonderful recovery," replied the medical superintendent, "but I think that a little longer detention would be safer. I would like to see what the effect of the news of the remarriage of her husband will have upon her before discharging her."
"Well, as it would be more than cruel to keep her in this place a day longer than is necessary, may I suggest that you mention the matter to her before I leave for Brisbane? She looks to me, apparently, to get her out."
"Not a bad suggestion, Merritt. I will get her in."
Ringing for an attendant, he said, "Have patient Stinson brought in here."
Whilst they were waiting, the visiting justice remarked, "I have never seen a more beautiful girl, doctor. Though she has been here six years she seems still quite a girl."
"That is so. Her mind has been asleep, just lying dormant from the great shock that she received. It seems as if her body has been asleep, too—like waking up out of a long sleep, refreshed and reinvigorated. Here she comes." Instinctively, as if paying tribute to her beauty and wonderful personality, the doctor and visiting justice rose to receive her.
"Sit down, patient," said the doctor curtly (it was his official manner). "The visiting justice informs me that you are very desirous of being discharged."
"Oh, yes, please, doctor. I feel quite well. Really I do," said Lola-Sue fervently, looking at him appealingly with her deep violet eyes.
"Have you not wondered why your husband has not called to see you since you became convalescent? I have told him that you were recovering."
"No, doctor. I have had a long time to think over the past. It would have surprised me if he had come."
"Yes, can't you understand, doctor, that he does not now want me. If it rested with him I should be kept here for ever."
"Oh, nonsense, child, you have no grounds for making such a statement," replied the doctor sternly.
"I know my husband better than you do, doctor. He cannot live without love. That's his failing. Besides (after some hesitation) the love I had for him is dead."
"You wouldn't be surprised, then, to hear that he is married again?"
"But how could that be, doctor? I am still his wife, even though we do not love one another."
"Tell her, Mr. Visiting Justice," said the Medical Superintendent turning to that official.
"Mrs. Stinson, according to the marriage and divorce laws of Queensland, if a woman be confined in a mental hospital for five years or longer, that is a legal ground for divorce."
"Then, sir, on that ground my husband has divorced me?"
"Thank God for that. If I am glad, doctor, Mr. Visiting Justice, do you know what that means?" Lola-Sue got up from her chair and stood facing them. "It means," she said with flushed cheeks, "that I am now back again to where I was before I married. It means that I am free, free; that I have expiated my offence by my long years of imprisonment in this—this horrible place. Now God has given me back my reason to enjoy again to the full, my new-found freedom. Oh, God, how I thank thee." Then she sat down, hid her face on her arms on the table and sobbed. The doctor got up and motioned the visiting justice aside, saying softly:
"That cry will do her more good than all the treatment that this institution can give her. I am quite satisfied, Merrit. You may sign an order for her discharge as soon as you obtain the consent of the Home Secretary as representing 'His Majesty's pleasure.'"
And so, on a golden day in June, when the world was full of sunshine and glory, Lola-Sue walked out of the great mental prison, to begin her life anew. Billy Stinson was there with her old foster-mother, and together they brought her to Toowoomba to catch the mid-day train for Brisbane. "Dear," said her foster-mother fondly as she got into the waiting buggy beside her child (as she called her). "Now we'll take good care of her, won't we, Mr. Stinson?"
"She'll never want, while I live, Mrs. Sturgess."
"Do you hear that, Lola? By-gones is by-gones."
"Yes, by-gones is by-gones, mother, as you say; but I'm going to live my life without any help from Billy. He's taken the high road, and I've taken the low, so it's good-bye Billy, for good when we get to Brisbane. I'm not your wife now, Billy," she said, turning to him with the old bewitching smile that had captivated him only a few years ago.
She was again the vivacious beautiful Lola-Sue of Billy's office days, and he felt almost as if he desired her again.
"Don't, Lola-Sue. I'm very sorry for all that has happened, but we can still be friends. I will see that you do not want for anything."
"No, Billy. We are at the cross roads," Lola said, as the horse trotted along in the buggy. "You've married again and I do not blame you, but the less we see of one another the better."
When they boarded the train at Toowoomba, Lola-Sue wrapped herself in a mantle of reserve. She gave monosyllabic answers to questions put to her. Remarks made to her by Mrs. Sturgess and Billy Stinson often passed unheeded. She nestled back in a corner of the carriage and closed her eyes.
Mrs. Sturgess leant over to Billy Stinson and whispered:
"Let the poor dear rest, Mr. Stinson, and don't weary her by talking."
Passing Harlaxton in the descent of the range, Lola-Sue opened her eyes to gaze upon the wonderful view that unrolled before her. Mountains and valleys and the distant sweep of the blue-veiled ranges engrossed her. It was all so strange and wonderful, and she was a living entity in the glory of it all. It seemed to her as if she had stepped out from the noisome horror of a bottomless pit into a world of untranslatable glory that was waiting, with open arms, to receive her.
"You're free again! You're free again! You're free again!" That, she thought was what the wheels were saying, as the train thundered on, on its downward track.
The shifting panorama passed before her, now hidden by cuttings, now obliterated by tunnels. It was the dark of the tunnels she hated most. It seemed as if she were going back into the bottomless pit, and she shuddered as the whistle screeched at the entrance of each of the tunnels. Then when the train rushed out again into the dazzling sunlight, she realised that she was not dreaming, realised to the full that the terrible nightmare of the last six years had passed away for ever. She had emerged from the depths and would begin anew to revel in the joy of existence. Then she seemed to awaken to the fact that the man sitting opposite her had been her lover—her husband. She shuddered. That time was so long ago, and she really wondered if it had ever existed. Of one thing she was now sure. The man opposite her had no attraction for her. If anything, he repelled her. It was he who had thrust her into the pit. He did not recall pleasant memories, only troubled dreams and repellent fears. She would be beholden to him for nothing. He could forget her so completely as to remarry again. God! and she thought she loved him once. Women to him were but human toys.
He played with them for a while, then, like a whimsical child, he threw them aside. First it was she. But was she the first? He made her believe so.
But then all men are liars. There may have been many others. At any rate there were she and Margaret Deering (poor Margaret, she pitied her now!) and now his present wife. How long would she last, she wondered. Bah! How she hated men! No, not all men. Her thoughts travelled further back. There was Mick Coonan. She did not hate him. He was always good to her, always straight and honourable. Then there was Mr. Wade-Smith. He, too, was good to her at a time when she had not a living soul to turn to in all the world. There was also (she had almost forgotten) Mr. Munro, the manager of the Equity Trust Company, Limited. She recalled how nicely he had spoken at the luncheon party given by the girls in her honour, and how he had enjoined Billy Stinson to guard her as his most sacred trust. And how had he fulfilled that trust? God! she thought, what are men's promises worth! Could she ever trust one again! Could she ever submit herself to be again bound by the invisible chains of marriage. Then the wheels of the train awoke her from her reveries.
"You're free again! You're free again! You're free again!"
At first they told her she was free from the mad house. Now they told her she was free of the man sitting opposite her. She had, therefore, come into a double freedom, and it seemed to be too good to be true. She was still young, and strong, and she would have to begin life all over again. But she had gained experience and it would be a cleaner, a stronger beginning. Well, she had all Australia before her and the strength and will to make good. Less than a hundred miles away was the city where she had suffered so much. But back of the Great Dividing Range she had just crossed, Australia stretched for thousands of miles westward to the setting sun. Plains and undulating downs, sheep lands and cattle lands, wheat lands and maize lands, making up an Empire of illimitable wealth, were there calling and she would answer the call. Somewhere in those great spaces, she would find a retreat where she could revel again in the joy of existence.
Then with a puzzled frown on her brow, she wondered what her next move would be. She couldn't go back to typing. She had had enough of confinement. She must live in the open. The blood of the nomads seemed to course through her veins. She recalled that when she was at Samford with the Coonans, her greatest delight was to go riding over the country on her pony, and she yearned for a horse. She recalled also the rides that she and her husband had had when they were first married, on horses hired from a livery stable. He had admired her seat on a horse, and had complimented her on her fearlessness. But, perhaps, that was lies, too. No, she knew she could ride and she could make a companion of a horse. It would be a better companion than a man. Yes, she would have a horse and a dog. But where was the money to come from. Then she remembered. She was now twenty-six years of age. When she became twenty-five, she was entitled to receive Mick Coonan's legacy—a thousand pounds. It seemed to her a fortune. This realisation of a pleasant fact gave her a new outlook on life.
She would, as soon as possible, call at the Equity Trust Office and inquire about the legacy. With accumulated interest it would have accounted to considerably more than £1,000. This ensured her independence. Truly she would begin life again, a clearer, a stronger beginning. Arriving at Brisbane, she parted with Billy Stinson without any regrets. So far as she was concerned he was a back number. He wasn't limned in the landscape of her future.
"Then I can do nothing for you, Lola?" he inquired at parting.
"Nothing, thank you," was her laconic reply.
"You are very independent—and bitter, aren't you, Lola?"
"Independent, yes, but bitter, no—only just. Your duty is to your wife, Billy. Give her all your care. She will need it. Regard me as if I had never existed."
"But if at any time you should need help, Lola?"
"I shall not need it from you. You had the right once, to provide for me. In remarrying, you have forfeited that right. Now you have no claim on me, nor I on you. Good-bye, Billy, for ever. It is my turn now to use those words. See, here is the wedding ring you gave me. Inside it you had engraved 'For Ever,' which means for all eternity. How grotesque! No more lasting than if the words had been engraved on the seaside sands. Take the ring, Billy, I have no further use for it."
Without a quiver of her lips or a flutter of her eye-lids, Lola-Sue handed the ring back to her whilom husband, and if there were any regrets they were his. It began to dawn upon him that here was a superb being who counted him as nothing. He felt humiliated, hurt. The honours were with her, not with him. The foundling, the drudge, the girl who should have felt honoured by his marrying her, was nobler, greater than he, and he felt it. She was sublime, he was inglorious.
There was nothing more to be said. He turned and left her, realising at last what a mess he had made of things. If she had clung to him with tears and beseechings he could have afforded to be magnanimous and it would have satisfied his egotism. Instead, she had cast him off as a being unworthy of consideration. She had no further need of him, him who had been the idol of women. It was the first time that he had ever been repulsed by a woman, and by a woman who was once his, to do what he liked with. He never imagined that she would still be so beautiful. The passing years had not aged her. The artificialities of life had not dimmed the rich colour of her cheeks nor engraved a wrinkle around her eyes. She was still his Lola-Sue, the Lola-Sue of his early infatuation. This, and her regal independence, her scorn of him, made him desire her again. He had for a moment an impulse to take her in his arms and crush her to him, to kiss her mouth, her eyes, her firm full neck. But he was afraid. He feared her scorn, feared the foundling, the drudge, the little nobody who once worshipped him. Well, he had got what he deserved. It was in his favour that he recognised what a mistake he had made.
The space of a few years makes many changes in the staff of a large office, but Mr. Munro was still manager of the Equity Trust Office at Brisbane. To him, Lola-Sue went as soon as she had got over the strangeness of her freedom, to ask about her legacy.
The story of the tragedy of her young life and of the remarriage of her husband was well known to Mr. Munro, and to the members of the staff, who were her contemporaries, and they welcomed her with every kindness and consideration.
Mr. Munro not only paid her legacy with its accumulated interest, to her credit in the Savings Bank, but he advised her as to her future. When he learnt that she had no desire to be dependent on the bounty of her former husband or to resume typing, but preferred to be her own mistress, he placed several propositions before her. The one that appealed to her most was a goat farm on the Ward River west from Charleville. The previous owner had recently died and his estate was in the hands of the Equity Trustee Company for sale. An early sale was necessary to close the estate.
Mr. Munro pointed out to her that on the western plains where the goat gets the same conditions which suited his forefather, the antelope, he will thrive and pay on country unsuited for sheep and cattle.
"But the goats must be Angoras," he said. "And they must be grazed for their mohair and skins. There's good money in it, too, Mrs. Stinson, and not too much labour involved. Now there's a mob of three hundred Angoras, forty acres of freehold, and a hundred thousand acres of Crown land adjacent, where your goats may roam at will. They need very little shepherding, and as a business proposition I have nothing better to offer. You can just walk in and start right away."
Lola-Sue, from her previous experience in the Equity Trust Office, had learnt not to take too much for granted. To the proposition submitted to her, she said:
"Thank you ever so much, Mr. Munro, for your very good interest in me, and for putting this proposal before me. I will think it over and will let you have my decision in a day or two. Will that do?"
"Yes, think it over and call on me again," Mr. Munro replied.
In the meantime, Lola-Sue went to the Department of Agriculture and Stock and made certain judicious inquiries. She was informed that in Western Queensland with its warm dry climate, Angoras did remarkably well. They did not pay to rear for their meat in a country where sheep are so plentiful, or even for their hides—only for their fleece, the mohair being worth from eight pence to a shilling per pound. Though they were not so profitable as sheep, she was told, mohair had a slight advantage over wool in that it loses very little in scouring. There was no grease in it. The goats, moreover, could be run and worked the same as sheep except that they required a tighter fence.
In the end Lola-Sue decided to acquire "Goatlands," as the place was called, and in due course its title, with all improvements, was transferred into her name. She had no misgivings as to the loneliness of the life she was about to lead. The loneliness appealed to her. She desired more than anything else to go away to some remote, picturesque corner of Queensland where she and her past would be absolutely unknown. She wanted to begin her life all over again.
She facetiously called "Goatlands" her station, and she ran it single-handed, save for a black boy and his Mary, whom she had obtained through the instrumentality of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals.
The black boy was named Boompa, and she named his gin Minns, because she had the laughing black face and strong white teeth of the model of that famous Australian portrayer of aboriginal life.
From the Commissioner or Police to whom she appealed, and who commended her for her pluck, she purchased a black colt, by the blood horse "Black Battalion," which she named "Battle." The colt was 16 hands high, and was jet black save for a white star on his forehead and a white front fetlock. Bred at Consuelo, whence came all the famous horses of the Queensland mounted police, he was a colt that was generally admired. And Lola-Sue's riding outfit of black corduroy breeches and black silk shirt with deep sports collar, black cloth riding coat, and small soft black felt hat, matched her mount.
The homestead at "Goatlands" was a small four-room cottage built of cypress pine with a front veranda and a lean-to skillion at the rear, covered with galvanised iron. The rooms were lined and ceiled with strong unbleached calico to reduce the heat from the iron roof. At the rear, connected with the cottage by a covered way of curved galvanised iron, was the kitchen, with its wide open fire-place made of stones and rubble and chimney of hardwood slabs. The only outbuilding was a shearing shed, with harness-room, horse-stall, and man's room, all under the one iron roof.
Around the cottage was a wire netting fence, goat proof, and in this enclosure, Lola-Sue cultivated a garden which was irrigated by water pumped by a windmill from a lagoon in the river. Around the shearing shed were a few pepperina and bottle trees which gave grateful shade from the scorching sun. But the spot that appealed to Lola-Sue most of all was a corner of the lagoon about a quarter of a mile away from the little homestead hidden from outside view by weeping myalls, that framed a natural swimming pool.
Here in the early morning, before the sun was up, she would indulge in her morning dip. At such an hour there was no one about and she dived into the cool clear water innocent of bathing suit, and revelled in the exercise of swimming, splashing the water over her naked body in the pure joy of living.
Minns, she taught to cook, to wash, and to scrub. She admired her white mistress and marvelled at her perfect upright figure and her firm round breasts. "By cripes, Misses, you gibbet me stays make me budgery fellow bingey belongum you, mine scrubbit floor, my word," Minns said to Lola-Sue one day when Lola-Sue was getting dressed to ride into Charleville.
"Never mind, Minns," Lola-Sue replied laughingly. "Bime-bye you die, go down into ground black fellow you, then bime-bye jump up white fellow you, all same me."
With this assurance, Minns was content, but Boompa, who was standing by holding Battle, which he had groomed and saddled for his mistress, joined in and with his broadest grin, showing his red gums and strong white teeth, was not sure and said, "Baal mine tinket that Battle, he black horse, him die, come up white horse, no plurry fear. Mary she die, come up black pickaninnie all right." These blacks, children of nature and loyal, afforded much amusement to Lola-Sue. She was never lonely when they were about.
Then there was shearing time when her goats were shorn and the mohair baled and sent away to Charleville for shipment abroad. The bales were branded "Lola" and the brand became famous. She soon learnt that the best nannies for crossing with pure Angora bucks were those with small heads, no horns, and smooth coats. After the fourth cross, each goat sheared from three to four lbs. of good mohair eight inches long of fine lustre and clear white colour.
Lola-Sue had no difficulty in getting shearers to shear her goats, or men to do casual work on "Goatlands." She was a man's woman, and the men who knew nothing of her history, admired her pluck, but most of all, they admired her frank winsome manner, her bonhomie and her democratic outlook on life and things in general. She was no snob and was never conscious of her fascinating beauty. She treated men as friends, but with proper reserve, and they respected her. They sensed that she was not a girl to be trifled with, and the unwritten law of the bush that invariably guards the honour of its women, was her protection.
Soon gossip got busy concerning Lola-Sue. Who was she? Whence had she come? Who were her people? Were questions asked by busy-bodies without satisfactory answers.
Attracted by her beauty, several men paid court to her, but she guarded all advances with a maidenly reserve. Her experience of life and of men now stood her in good stead. She sought for no affair, and discreetly held herself in leash with more than prudent reserve.
Like Nanna, the Moon maid, wife of Balder the Beautiful, she also rode a bright horse, and tender was she and fair. Always neatly dressed and as well groomed as her black colt, she excited the envy and maliciousness of the women who posed as members of western society.
"That girl's an enigma. I'm sure she has a past," was a remark passed by one of Charleville's fair matrons when her husband mentioned that he had never seen a more superb horsewoman.
"She's always well dressed. I wonder where she gets her money. I'm sure she never makes it out of her beastly goats," averred a girl to her "boy" with whom she was walking along the bridge over the Warrego, when he raised his hat in recognition of Lola-Sue's bow. "Perhaps not. But is it our business anyway?" replied the girl's companion.
"Oh, you've fallen for her too, have you?" said the girl, nettled by the apparent rebuke.
"No, but I must say she's an acquisition to the district. I met her at the Langlo."
"What's her name?"
"Well, really, I didn't think to ask her and she never mentioned it."
"Oh, then, you weren't introduced to her?"
"No, she merely asked me my opinion of the pick of a litter of kelpies that old Stigant was showing her at the Langlo. I just happened to be there at the time on my way back from Mount Morris. That's all, she doesn't even know my name."
"But she recognised you just now?"
"Well, yes. Just the usual 'Good-day' friendly greeting of the bush, you know."
"The bold creature!"
Though Lola-Sue lived in comparative isolation, she excited considerable curiosity when she rode into Charleville on business. As there were many only too willing to be friendly to her, the uncharitable remarks of the felines often reached her. She smiled and discreetly held her peace. "Naturally," she thought, "knowing nothing about me they're sure to think the worst." Latterly, she had been having trouble over her goats. In their browsing they often travelled far afield and neighbours who had no time for her, began to lodge complaints with the sergeant of police. Her 40 acre paddock was not large enough in which to graze her flock and as there were thousands of acres of unoccupied land adjacent to her homestead, she considered she had as much right to let her goats have the run of these unoccupied lands as the neighbours had to use them for their sheep and cattle. But she had the wives and daughters of the scattered community against her and they influenced their husbands and fathers.
"She's no good, that one."
"She gives herself too many airs."
"I don't know what the men see in her."
"You mark what I say. Her reps. up to putty."
These and others of a similar nature were the remarks whispered and sometimes shouted in the ears of her male admirers.
As the result of the agitation against her goats, Lola-Sue received a visit from the local officer in charge of police, Sergeant Conway. Fate had again taken a hand in the game of life's mix up and had thrown him once more in her way. Twenty-seven years ago he had picked her up in Ann Street, Brisbane. He was then Constable Pat Conway. He had, in the years between, advanced in the force, and he was now Sergeant Patrick Conway, who, unconsciously, had given Lola-Sue her surname.
As the police are said to be omniscient (whether the force deserves that credit is by the way) Sergeant Conway was aware that Lola-Sue's correct name as officially registered, was Lola Stinson, but he did not connect her with the little foundling of 27 years ago, nor had she the remotest idea that he was the constable who had picked her up from the steps of the Protestant Hall.
"Now look a-here, my gurll, them goats of your must be kept paddicked. Yer can't be havin' them runnin' over the landscape," said the sergeant truculently to Lola-Sue.
"But, sergeant, what harm are they doing? Sheep and cattle are roaming freely over the common, why not my goats?"
"Well, go-ats is go-ats, and not sheep or cattle. The settlers don't like 'em. Yer must rigister them all."
"But sergeant, how can I keep them in. You must know that no kind of temporary fence is of the slightest use."
"Put triangles on them, begorra, then they won't break throo yer fences."
"Triangles, Sergeant! I'd have to buy up a timber yard to make triangles for all my Angoras!"
"Divil a bit do I know about that, but yer must keep yer go-ats paddicked. Either that, or yer must translate thim to an island off the coast with a good strip of sea betweeen," and Sergeant Conway grinned at his own wit and departed.
Lola-Sue was angry. She recognised the unjustness of the sergeant's edict and resolved to take no notice beyond getting Boompa to round up the goats occasionally and to drive them into the forty-acre paddock.
There's nothing a well-trained police officer hates more than the defiance of his authority. The discipline of the force is rigid, and disobedience is the cardinal sin. Even as he has to obey his superior officer whether sergeant, inspector, or commissioner so must the undisciplined public with whom he comes in contact, be made to obey the orders of the police. The ignoring of his order by Lola-Sue incensed Sergeant Conway beyond measure. It hurt his official dignity. It was, therefore, a very angry sergeant who again interviewed her.
"If I ketch thim go-ats outside them finces, I'll have them driven to the pound and cut their blarsted throats, so I will."
Instead of being conciliatory, Lola-Sue met the sergeant with defiance. If she had cajoled him, being an Irishman, he might have relented. Every true Irishman is susceptible to beauty, more especially beauty in distress. "You go to the devil. You can do your damndest. I'll not keep them off your beastly lawn. You dare touch one of them!" and she stamped her foot in frenzy. Boompa and Minns were awed spectators of Lola-Sue's open defiance of the sergeant.
It was not often she swore. She wasn't that sort. But Sergeant Conway with his official air of brief authority, seemed to rub her the wrong way.
"By cripes, Misses, that pfeller bobby 'im King Billy all right. Too much 'im yabba yabba," said Boompa, and Minns chimed in with: "Black gin 'im no like. Yowi, white Mary face like it pink mushroom eyes like it pongo. 'Im like, Yowi. Why kill um goat then? Next 'im kill um 'Battle,' Yarraman."
"No fear, Minns, she kill 'im first. Bad Gubimint man."
"He's a beast, Boompa. If he kills my goats, he's worse than a dingo. But he wouldn't dare touch 'Battle,' Minns."
"Jumback, 'im run about, Yarraman 'im run about, cow 'im run about, goat 'im no run about. Why 'im no run about?" asked Boompa.
"Search me, Boompa, I don't know. Plenty wicked people make noise, make much yabba, yabba. Tell policeman. He come here make row, what for? I don't know."
Even the unsophisticated savage recognised the injustice of it all. "Sheep, horses, cattle are permitted to roam at will over the Common, then why not my goats?" said Lola-Sue to herself. "It's a conspiracy, and the women are behind it. The cats. All because I refuse to gossip with them and tell them who I am and what I am. Well they can go on guessing. They're a jealous lot, but I'll live my life in spite of them. While unregistered sheep and cattle are permitted to graze on the Common, I'll not register a single head, nor keep them paddocked."
Having come to this decision, Lola-Sue dismissed the trouble from her mind. Next morning, before the sun was up, she went for her usual swim in the Lagoon, safe in the remoteness and seclusion of the spot; she discarded her kimino and stood erect, like a sculptured goddess, on her improvised spring board, naked and unashamed.
It was the morn of a summer's day, and the heat waves had not yet begun to dance. In another hour, the sun would have licked the dew from the grass and thrown long shadows across the lagoon. Now, the breath of the morn was as sweet and as fresh as that of a healthy child, and Lola-Sue, cutting her way through the clear cool water with long swinging overhand sweeps of her shapely arms, forgot all her troubles and worries in the enjoyment of her healthy exercise. There was not a sound, save the call of a bird, or the chirp of an insect. Her swimming was so gracefully easy, that the water rippled from her shoulder as it cleft the surface like the nose of a graceful canoe. Then she climbed once more on her springboard for one final dive before returning home.
She stood up, bending gracefully forward on the balls of her small arched feet; with her two arms raised above her head preparatory to diving, a man crept through the trees and watched her, spellbound. He had come upon her unawares.
"And there in indecision, he beheld the glowing vision
Of a sculptured marble goddess the age of Pericles."
Was she Artemis or Diana? And was she like up to the famous rider of the fabled Acheron? Unwittingly he had come upon her, and as he gazed, his thoughts and feelings were elemental. Had he lingered there, he thought, he would deserve to be hunted like the dog-torn classic hunter, Actaeon, so he discreetly turned away from the Psyche at her bath.
Lola-Sue all unconscious of the unknown eyes of admiration, finished her swim, and drying herself, got into her kimono and walked home just as the sun was glinting over the long flat surface that ran to the eastern horizon.
Humphrey Pryor, in charge of a mob of five hundred fat bullocks from "Contraband" for the trucking yards at Charleville, had camped for the night some miles higher up the river. Two of the stock horses, bred on the Lower Warrego, had broken their hobbles and cleared out. He knew that they would make for the place where they had been bred, and decided to lose no time in following up their tracks. In going the early rounds of the camp, before the cattle had stirred, he had missed the horses and told his drovers that he would ride on and look for them. In the meantime, as soon as it was sunrise, and they had breakfasted, they could bring the cattle along and he would join them later.
Riding south, he, with the tracking instinct of an aboriginal, picked up the horses' tracks which led to and past the lagoon where Lola-Sue bathed. Approaching the lagoon, he saw clothing on the bank. Dismounting, he tied his horse some little distance away to a gum sapling and moved cautiously forward through the myalls that edged the lagoon and almost hid it from view. It was then that he saw Lola-Sue emerge and stand on the springboard for her final dive. When she had dived, he went quickly back to his horse and rode on.
Though his reputation was anything but good to those who thought they knew him, his sense of decency suggested that he should not make himself known to her under such embarrassing (for the lady) circumstances. But as he rode on after the missing horses, he wondered who the Naiad was and whence had she come.
Without mentioning the episode of that morning, he made discreet inquiry and soon found out all that was known about her. He felt intrigued. A girl with such an independent mind, so beautiful, and living such a lonely life in the bush, was worth knowing, and he would not leave Charleville until he had seen and talked with her.
A few days later, the opportunity came. When Sergeant Conway found that Lola-Sue meant to defy him, his official importance received a rude shock. He instructed his assistant, Constable Treloar, to take one of the black troopers and round up fifty of her goats, and drive them to the pound. "When ye've done that, cut their blasted throats. I'll be over to superintend the dade later on."
The round up of the goats was accomplished in a little less than two hours. When they were yarded in the pound, Constable Treloar did a little revolver practice and shot a score. Then he told his trooper to buck in and cut the throats of the remainder. This the darky had no hesitation in doing. It delighted the heart of the savage to see the red blood spurt as he drew his sheath knife across the bleating throats of Lola-Sue's Angoras.
From the day that Sergeant Conway had threatened to kill the goats, Boompa had kept a sharp look out. He mistrusted the sergeant and felt that his mistress had been foolish in defying "Gubiment." Like all blacks in the unsettled districts, Government was embodied in the uniformed police. Consequently the blacks feared the police and slunk away from them whenever possible. When Boompa, who had been reconnoitering in the bush, saw Constable Treloar in khaki and a black trooper in his dark blue uniform with red stripes and red striped cap ride out with two kelpies and start rounding up the goats, he raced off, hell for leather, to inform his mistress.
Lola-Sue was dressed ready to ride into Charleville. Her riding togs fitted her perfectly. She had dressed with particular care, as she wanted to look her best on this special occasion to show her enemies that this was a free country and that she feared neither them nor the police. She was on the point of calling Boompa to saddle up "Battle" when that streak of darkness unceremoniously rushed into the cottage shouting in his excitement, "Miss Lola, Missy Lola, plurry 'leeceman, plurry trooper 'im bin drive um goats to chokey. Hurry up, plenty quick, me been hear um bang! bang! Constable 'im shoot goat quick."
Commanding Boompa to saddle her colt, which he had brought in and groomed before he went reconnoitering, she, taking her hunting crop, rode off at a brisk canter towards the distant pound. She arrived on the scene too late to do any good. Fifty of her prized Angoras were lying in the pound yard, dead. The trooper had commenced to pile the slaughtered animals prior to burning them, and the sergeant and Constable Treloar sat on their horses outside the pound, looking on at the ghastly scene. Lola-Sue rode up to them.
White with ungovernable passion she said:—
"You'll regret this to the end of your days, sergeant. If it's ever in my power to do you an injury I'll do it without the slightest compunction. I'd shoot you like the dingo you are, you cur!"
There was such concentrated fury in this deliberate threat that the sergeant, to maintain his dignity, replied:
"I'll arrist ye fer usin' threatenin' langwidge, so I will. Ye'd better 'ave a care pfwhat yez say, me bold beauty."
"If you dare lay your blood-stained hands on me, you cruel brute, I'll thrash you with my hunting crop and accept the consequences with pleasure. You arrest me! You daren't do it! And you know it! Now you've carried out your dirty orders I suppose you're satisfied. But you'll regret it. We'll meet again some day, never fear, then you look out!"
With this parting prophecy, Lola-Sue rode away slowly with a dignity she was far from feeling. She had now no heart to ride on to Charleville, so headed her horse for home. Then the reaction set in. She cried bitterly over the massacre of her goats. She had got to love them. Now, in her despondency, she felt that there was not a soul in the world who loved her, not a human being, save her black boy and his gin, to whom she could turn for sympathy. She felt that she was an outcast and her lovely buoyant disposition began to curdle.
Then came her destiny, determined in the shape of Humphrey Pryor. Failing to meet her in the orthodox way, he determined to ride out to "Goatlands" and to call on her at her little weather-board home in the west. When he arrived to ask for a drink from her water bag, he found to his very great disappointment, that she was not at home. Instead he met the grinning Minns, who informed him that Missy Lola had ridden over to the pound to rescue her goats.
"Baal yan, Missy Lola, she come soon," she said as Humphrey Pryor turned to ride towards the pound.
"Bad p'leeceman. I'm no good Gubbimint man. 'Im shoot goats, bang! Missy Lola she get mad," continued Minns, but Humphrey Pryor rode on to meet her whose vision of naked perfection had haunted him since he had gazed upon it.
Lola-Sue rode slowly and dejectedly towards the setting sun when, suddenly out of the haze of the sunset appeared Humphrey Pryor. As he reined in his horse before her, she seemed to awaken out of a sombre dream. Instantly, she pulled herself together and gripped herself in a vise of reserve. "Who was this man mounted on such a splendid horse?" That was the thought that flashed through her brain. "I've never seen him before. Who is he?" Humphrey Pryor held a somewhat similar mental conversation with himself. "Who was this beautiful creature so superbly accoutred and mounted, and who sat her well bred horse with the easy grace of a born equestrienne?" Raising his slouched felt hat much worn, he said:
"Pardon. Are you in trouble?"
He had noticed her dejection. Looking more closely at her, he noticed that she had been crying. He noticed, too, the fine violet eyes suffused with tears, set wide apart under a broad intellectual forehead.
Lola-Sue brought her horse to a standstill, and "Battle" and the unknown horse, she noticed, nozzled each other in friendly fashion.
"Yes," she merely replied and moved as if to ride on.
"But I say, you know, you must let me help you. What's the trouble?" And Humphrey Pryor, too, turned his horse as if to ride in the direction Lola-Sue was going.
"It's very kind of you to offer, sir, but I do not know that you can do much good—now," and she rode on slowly.
"Is it as bad as all that? Is the trouble past mending?" he asked as he rode beside her.
"Yes, you cannot bring my goats back to life!"
"Your goats? I don't understand."
"I'm the owner of 'Goatlands' and breed Angoras. The sergeant of police and his satellites have impounded fifty of them and killed them."
His exclamation impressed her. He was so genuinely startled.
"Yes, ride over to the pound, and see for yourself. See the poor slaughtered brutes." She said this so bitterly that he sensed the rage that tore her.
"But I don't understand. Why should the police kill your goats?"
"Oh, don't ask me! How should I know? The sergeant mentioned something about General Order 42X or some other number, and said I must keep my goats off the Common. I refused. Go over to the pound and see the result."
"Yes; I'll go and I'll interview that sergeant; but not just yet. Believe me I want to help you. Tell me all about it?"
Lola-Sue was impressed. Here was sympathy least expected and it appealed to her. In this instant of her lonely misery, it was what she hungered for. So, with eyes of blazing glory, she told him as they rode on together, what had led up to the massacre, told him the story with the ardent graphic tenseness of a soul in blind revolt. When she had finished he said:
"What a damn shame! I've no love for the police. That blundering sergeant will regret this."
"That's just what I told him."
So interested were they in one another that they had reached "Goatlands" almost before they were aware of it. The sun had set but the twilight of the western Downs, a merger between light and dark made the evening softly beautiful, turning the wedgewood blue of the sky into a purple haze before it passed into the velvet softness of a star-studded night.
"I hope we shall meet again," Humphrey Pryor said as he was about to go. He had no wish, at this early stage, to press his company upon her.
"Oh, you mustn't go till you've had some tea. Minns will have it ready. Boompa!" she called. "Look after this gentleman's horse and put 'Battle' in his stall." Dismounting, she handed the blackboy the reins, and Humphrey Pryor did likewise. Then he followed her into her little home which he noticed was marvellously neat and clean.
Whilst having tea he said:—
"To me it has been very interesting meeting you, but you don't know who I am. My name's Pryor—Humphrey Pryor. Funny name, Humphrey, isn't it?"
"Well, it's uncommon, but it seems to suit you, somehow," Lola-Sue said smiling, and Humphrey Pryor was glad to see that smile. It lit up her face in such a way that she seemed to him more lovely than ever.
"And you? What is your name?" he asked.
"Oh, I? I'm just Lola-Sue. That's a funny name too, isn't it?"
"Well, it's pretty. But Lola-Sue what? It sounds like a chink's name, but there's nothing of the chink about you."
"Well, I should hope not, indeed," Lola-Sue replied, still with her fascinating smile, as she poured him another cup of tea, while Minns was peeping round the back door grinning.
"Do you know what they call you in Charleville?"
"Well, perhaps, I am a bit of an enigma to everyone but myself; but I have given no one here my confidence. The women-folk here don't seem to like me. Living here all alone they seem to think I have a past, that I'm not—well—how shall I put it—square. Oh, the men are all right, I get on very well with them."
"Then that's the fly in my lady's ointment. The women are jealous of you, first because you don't court their friendship, second, because you are attractive and all men like attractive women. That means the women about here are jealous of you."
"Oh, but you mustn't say that. I'm not attractive by any means, and I have a past, a very sad past but not the kind of past they mean."
"I'm sure of it. That's why I want to help you—Lola-Sue. You see, I can't call you anything else—yet—because I know you by no other name, and I want to see you often, Lola-Sue, may I?"
"You may, Humphrey Pryor. You see (she said this mischievously, using his own words), I can't call you anything else because I know you by no other name. But what do you mean by 'yet?'"
"That's for the future to decide, so good-bye for the present 'Enigma,' but I like Lola-Sue better," he said, rising to depart.
Humphrey Pryor was disturbed.
The five hundred fats that he had brought down from "Contraband" had been safely trucked at Charleville—some for the saleyards at Enoggera, and the remainder for the meat works at Redbank and Pinkenba—but he stayed on at Charleville. This was unusual for him. Hitherto, when he had completed his business, he hurried back to the Carnarvon Ranges—to "Contraband." Charleville then had no lure for him. It was hot, dusty, flat and uninviting. He was more at home in the heart of the bush than in the heart of a town. But now he lingered on, and men—and women, too—who knew him well, wondered. They considered him to be too lawless for the towns where the police stations were, for he and the police had nothing in common. Frequent complaints had been made to them by selectors and graziers concerning stolen stock and suspicion fell on Humphrey Pryor and his men. Earmarks had been faked and brands defaced, but no positive proof had been sheeted home to them. Though they were lawless, they kept within the law in that they were not found out.
Though, in a general sense, he had nothing in common with the police, he did not intend to leave Charleville until he had had a word with Sergeant Conway on the subject of the slaughter of Lola-Sue's goats. But it was not this that disturbed him.
Though his shunning of the police had earned for him the name of "The Yellow Streak" there was nothing "yellow" about him or in him when he rode up to the police station at Charleville and gave the sergeant a piece of his mind over the killing of Lola-Sue's goats.
"You may have had the law on your side, Conway," he said, with asperity, "but it was a dastardly act on your part to order the killing of that poor girl's goats, and I wanted to tell you so."
"Pfwhat the 'ell is it ter do with you, Mr. Pryor? Has the gurrl constitooted you her champeen?" replied the irate sergeant.
"No, Conway, but I'm doing what it is the duty of the police to do—to champion the weak against the strong."
This aspersion on his "duty" was more than Sergeant Conway could stand. "Look-a-here, Mr. Pryor, though your rich and ride a good horse, yer repootashun as a cattle thief is well known and some day I'll nab yer, then ye'll see who's protectin' the weak, begorra."
Humphrey Pryor looked the sergeant full in the face and countered.
"Some of the Queensland police, sergeant, are good bushmen and fine men—men who would not stoop to kill a lonely girl's harmless goats. But the police at Charleville are not of that kidney. They're not clever enough or bushmen enough to catch me or any of my men in cattle duffing. Good-day."
With this parting shot, Humphrey Pryor rode away, leaving Sergeant Conway sourly ruminating over this reflection on his reputation as an officer of the law and his prowess as a bushman. Then he rode in the direction of "Goatlands" and when he arrived at the pretty little homestead, the sun had set.
Boompa was the first to see him ride up and went and informed his mistress that "Pryor Boss 'im been come."
Lola-Sue went out to meet him and welcomed him not effusively but with naive simplicity.
"Boompa," she ordered. "Take the saddle off Mr. Pryor's horse and rub him down well until he shines like the moon, then turn him loose in the horse paddock. See that there's water in the trough."
"Oh, but I say, Lola-Sue, I'm not staying long. I just called to tell you that I've given that sergeant a piece of my mind."
"You're coming in to entertain me for an hour. Then you may go, Sir. Minns boil up the kettle. Mr. Pryor will have some tea."
"Thanks, Lola-Sue, I really could appreciate a good cup of tea. What bushman couldn't?"
Though Lola-Sue looked alert and capable when dressed up in her riding togs, she was very seductive and sweet in her cool soft frock of blue organdie with its blouse low cut to show off to advantage her plump shoulders and a suspicion of well curved busts. Her thick bushy hair fell on the nape of her fair white neck in curls, brown and soft, with a glint of burnished copper through the tresses. She was a charming Eve, thought Humphrey Pryor, who wondered if anyone could be more naively seductive, more innocent, or more youthful looking and artistic.
"I'm interested in you, Lola-Sue. Won't you tell me the story of your life—in confidence, you know," he begged, when he had finished three cups of tea.
"Well, yes, in confidence, mind. If a woman asked me for the story of my life—in confidence, I shouldn't tell her. A man is different, that is, if he is a man. Men, as a rule, do, not break confidences."
"Then your trust in men is greater than your trust in women?"
"Yes, ever so much. But first of all what did you say to that brute of a sergeant?"
"Oh, something very uncomplimentary, I assure you. He won't rest till he gets my scalp. But never mind him. It's you I want to hear about."
They were sitting in squatters' chairs on the veranda, facing the east, he smoking, and she just resting.
The moon just past its full, was rising, and brought with it a cool breeze which was more than welcome after the heat of the day. Away in the lagoon bull-frogs croaked and from a distant tree came the persistent call of the boobook owl. All was silent and peaceful, the only discordant sound being the creaking of the windmill as it pumped water into the tank from the semi-artesian bore; but every now and then the galvanised iron on the roof crackled as the cooling night air contracted it after its expansion by the day's heat. Amid these surroundings Lola-Sue told Humphrey Pryor the story of her life. To him it was a revelation of infinite suffering and of fortitude under adversity; and in the telling never did heart of man reach out to heart of woman as his reached out to hers. He pitied her, felt for her, and longed to take her under his protection. She appealed unconsciously to his better nature. It was years since he knew what home was and what it stood for, and now he wanted home with her. Since his disillusionment over his passion for Muriel Poingdestre he had resolved to cut women out of his life. Domesticity, he had decided, was not for him. His must be the life of the nomad, the free-lance bushman, the raider, the liver of double and triple lives, a polished gentleman and sportsman when at the clubs in Brisbane, a bushranger and outlaw when eluding the vigilance of the police after a successful raid of northern runs, with his men like tempered steel, a successful drover overloading cattle from the Territory to Adelaide, adding to them surreptitiously as he travelled the stock routes down the Georgina, the Diamantina, and the Cooper, into New South Wales.
Now a new element had gripped him within the space of an hour—sympathy for, and interest in, a fellow human being, who, like himself, was up against the social order of things, but who unlike himself, must inevitably go under unless supported by some one strong enough and willing enough to fight for her. The incident of the slaughtered goats was but the beginning. It was a case in point. To-morrow or the next week or the next month, other incidents would occur which would prove to her inexperienced nature, that no woman, young and beautiful, even thought she have means, can live solely in the world of her own creation, without in some state or form being up against the social order. If she didn't do or say things, they would be done and said for her. She, even though as pure as the dawn, would be scared by some stigma invented by malice. If she did not affect the humility of a dependent, war would be declared against her and a hundred malicious little persecutions would be brought to bear upon her. Such were the thoughts that punctured the brain of Humphrey Pryor as he listened, not unmoved, but terribly intently, to the dramatic story of Lola-Sue's young life.
Though she spoke simply and plainly without passion and without heroics as if the events that had happened to her were now of no account but merely incidents that were passed and done with for ever, her story was of intense interest to her listener.
When she came to that chapter of her life which covered her marriage to Billy Stinson, he could contain himself no longer. Getting up from his chair he walked with agitated steps along the veranda and exclaimed: "My God, with him of all men!"
By the dim light of the moon she could not see his features and learn therefrom how seriously he was listening to her recital; but his sudden getting up and the exclamation which followed, made her pause and ask: "Why, do you know him?"
"Yes, yes, but go on. Never mind about him—now."
He resumed his seat, but did not relight his pipe. He was too disturbed to smoke and so she continued to the end. It was getting late and he saw that she was tired. "I must be moving on," he said. "But from what you have told me I am convinced that you cannot live this lonely life without sooner or later suffering for it. You must have someone to stand by you, some stanch friend."
Then, taking her small hand in his strong grasp, he continued after a short pause: "I should like to be that friend. Will you let me?"
Lola-Sue did not reply immediately. She thought for a moment, looking down at her feet, then raising her head and looking at him, her eyes searching his in the semi-dark for some evidence of trust, which she seemed to find, she answered: "Yes; but I should like to see you again to hear, in turn, your life's story. When are you leaving for Contraband?"
"I do not intend to leave Charleville until I can decide upon some way of fully protecting you."
"Oh, but I need no protection. I have a rifle and a revolver and I can shoot."
"I don't mean that sort of protection altogether. The killing of your goats proves that you do need protection, and I'm going to see that you have that protection. Good-night, Lola-Sue, but I'm coming again. To-morrow, perhaps, or the next day for certain."
As he left to get his horse, Lola-Sue went with him to the slip-rails leading to the horse paddock. He called and his horse came to him.
"Does every one come to your call like that?" she asked, smiling.
"Well, yes, as a rule," he replied as he saddled up.
"I must practice that. If I call you at any time, should I need you, will you come?"
"Instantly. From to-night, you are she who must be obeyed. Good-night Lola-Sue."
She watched him as he rode away into the night.
When he had gone and she was alone with her thoughts, she communed with herself. What manner of man was this who had come so suddenly and so opportunely into her life? He seemed manly, honest, straightforward. Could he be relied upon? She thought so. She liked him. His directness pleased her. She was intrigued by the championship of her cause in the matter of the goats. Now that he had referred to it, could she continue to live this lonely life, to play the lone hand in the face of social ostracism? This was a problem that had to be faced and seriously considered. To sell out, to give up, would be to admit defeat. To her independent nature this would be intolerable. Still, the position had to be faced. The outlook did not appear to be too hopeful. With her limited experience in life's great problems, she needed experienced guidance. Like an exhausted swimmer she needed a helping hand to assist her to the firm banks of social safety. To her in her hour of need had come a man (and she was glad it was not a woman), who had thrown out that helping hand. As she visualised him she saw that he had a strong face, burnt almost to blackness, clean cut like a cameo. His eyes were brown, sharp, and compelling, his mouth determined, his chin resolute. Tall and lean, with the narrow hips of a sprinter, his legs were slightly bowed through overmuch riding and a life spent mostly in the saddle. There was assurance in his walk and energy in the firmness of his tread. She imagined him a bad enemy, but a firm friend, ruthless, but considerate where women were concerned.
Then she contrasted him with Billy Stinson. Both were men of fine physique, but Humphrey Pryor had lived the harder life. If Billy Stinson had the weaker mouth, Humphrey Pryor certainly had the stronger. She liked the vehement way it shut like a trap when she told him of the action of the police in killing her goats. Now that she had had some experience of men, she would sooner trust herself with Humphrey Pryor than with Billy Stinson. This she felt instinctively, though Billy Stinson had the more fascinating way and a manner with women that was almost irresistible. But that way did not appeal to her now. She had experienced its falseness. Given her choice between the two men, she would now unhesitatingly choose Humphrey Pryor. He looked dependable and strong.
When she went to bed that night, she turned in with a greater sense of security than she had felt for some time, though why, she could not precisely explain where she asked.
The next day, Humphrey Pryor did not call on her. Though she busied herself with her domestic affairs, she had a restless and lonely feeling. She divided her attention between the house, the garden, the fowls, the cow, and Minns followed her about like a pet lamb. Then she went to her little den which she called her library—a lean-to at the back of the cottage, which had formerly been used as a spare room, and tried to write. She still kept up her connection as a freelance contributor to the southern weeklies and magazines. She could not discipline her thoughts to write a single sentence, and the clinking of her typewriter irritated her. Getting up in despair, she went and sought companionship with "Battle." Between her and her colt was a mutual sympathy and a mutual understanding. She put her face against his head, circled it with her right arm, and smoothed the velvety softness of his nose with her left hand.
"Whatever happens, 'Battle,' I'll never part with you," she cooed in her gentle tones, and the colt with his neck arched, his long, thin ears pricked forward, and his great full eyes looking calmly into the distance, rubbed his head up and down against the soft face of his mistress as if in comprehension.
The day following Humphrey Pryor called and had lunch with her. It was a dainty, well prepared meal, and its culinary perfection and spotless damask appealed to him. He compared the meticulous care with which it had been prepared and laid out to his own rough way of living at Contraband with old Granny Hutton, a Chinese cook, and a couple of lubras to attend to all household matters.
What a different place Contraband would be if he had her there to superintend matters and to exercise a general governance. After lunch, he smoking and she hatless, carrying a dainty sun-shade, they strolled along to the lagoon and sat in the cool shade of the weeping myalls. The ground was almost bare of grass, but dead leaves formed a clean carpet, and a dead tree trunk, deposited where it lay by past flood-waters, made a clean if not too comfortable seat.
"This is where I come for my morning dip. Over there is my springboard and near it are the gidyea steps that make coming out clean and easy," remarked Lola-Sue by way of making conversation. Her companion was not in a talkative mood. He seemed to be burdened with unspoken thoughts. As he went on smoking she continued, "It's fairly deep out there by the opposite bank. I don't know who made the springboard and the steps. They were here when I came, but I make good use of them. What do you think of the spot?"
"To me it is sacred," he replied, seriously.
"Sacred!" she could not understand.
"Yes, sacred, because it is your sanctuary; because those waters there have held you in their embrace."
She looked at him, still not comprehending, but her heart seemed to miss a beat. Was he really interested in her? and the thought thrilled her. She lowered her head so that he could not see her face lest he see there a story not yet ready for the telling. To hide her embarrassment, she kept prodding the ground with the point of her sun-shade. Then he said suddenly.
"Lola-Sue, look at me!"
She turned her head slowly and looked up at him, a smile dimpling her still incarnadined cheeks.
"Now, tell me. Can you trust me?"
Looking at him with her beautiful fearless eyes, she answered after a pause:
"Yes, Humphrey, I trust you. But why do you ask?"
"Because you know nothing of me, nothing of my life. I'm not looked upon as a good man. Most people knowing me, would say that you run a great risk in being in my company."
"Does it matter so much what people say? I've read somewhere: 'They say. What do they say? Let them say.'"
"That's all very well so far as it goes; but you are a young woman whom any man should be proud to know. You cannot afford to ignore the afternoon tea chatterings of Mother Grundy. In being friendly with me you run the risk of social ostracism."
"But there is no one interested in me. I'm all alone in the world. I've no one to please but myself."
"Well, you should not be all alone. You're not the type that should live and blush unseen. You're not an outlaw, banned from the society of your kind by any crime. Life for you should be beautiful and brimful of happiness. God knows, you've had enough of unhappiness, you, a beautiful flower grown up amid the rubble and refuse of life's dumping ground."
Lola-Sue was startled by the impassioned way in which he spoke. Then she too became very serious. No man had ever spoken to her like that.
"Yes, I suppose I've had a rough spin. If I'm not an outlaw, I've suffered enough to make me one. But you, you're not an outlaw are you?"
"Almost. I should be—quite, if I had been found out."
As he said nothing further, there was a pause. Each was burdened with unspoken thoughts that strained for expression. Lola-Sue was the first to speak.
"Look at me, Humphrey?"
Turning he caught her two hands in his and looked at her as if he would devour her.
"Now you tell me. Can you trust me?"
"Trust you! My God, yes. If I'm an interpreter of character, Lola-Sue there's not a false note in your make up."
"Then tell me the story of your life. You said you knew Billy Stinson. Naturally I'm curious."
"Well, like yourself. I am practically alone in the world. When I was seventeen, I got a position as jackeroo on a station. It was there I learnt all about cattle and sheep. But I never had any time for sheep. When I was eighteen my father died and my mother followed him into the unknown a year later. I have a brother somewhere in Sydney and a sister married in Melbourne. But we are as strangers to one another. Families drift apart and brothers and sisters are as if they did not exist. They are not united by common interests and each goes his or her own way. The years go by and no letters pass between. We each had a little money left. I went in for droving and got together a drover's outfit. I had some good contracts and got to know Queensland from end to end. I have taken mobs of cattle from the Territory as far as Adelaide. Several times I have overlanded them to Sydney. Then I took up some country in the Gulf south of Normanton. This I stocked with cattle, but they weren't my own cattle. I stole them from adjacent runs and put my brand on them. With my men whom I can trust, I've raided the runs of station owners in the Gulf country by moonlight and cut out all the clean skins and branded them. I've even obliterated brands and faked ear-marks. I'm what is known as a cattle duffer. Even when I've bought stock on the square on a bang-tail muster my men and I have bang-tailed very many more that were not mustered.
"Oh, I know it's thieving and all that, but I'm not alone in that sort of business. Many reputed respectable men in Queensland have become wealthy in the same way. When the Gulf Country became too hot for me—the police had their suspicions and I was carefully watched—I sold out and bought 'Contraband,' which I now own. There I go in for horse breeding and cattle raising, but the surrounding run owners would be glad to be rid of me. Like a confirmed pickpocket or burglar, I find it hard to break off the raiding habit. It's a life of adventure and I like it. That's one side of my life—the bad side, the side that is against the law, the side of me that is known in the unsettled districts of Queensland. The other side is that of a well to do Queensland grazier and bloodstock breeder—a prince of the turf and a club man, the side of me that is known to the fashionable society of the cities and to well-known Government officials with whom I have a certain amount of influence. It is this side of me that gives me the right of entry into the homes of the pure merinos of the West—the squatters, the home of men like the Stinsons, of Moonbulla, and Poingdestre, of Oonamurra, and of many others. It's a funny old World, Lola-Sue. No matter what a man's reputation may be, if he is rich enough and presentable enough, and no matter what his bad record may be, his riches and personality gain him an entry where a poor man, no matter what his good record may be, is not burdened with invitations to the homes of the exclusives. As a rich man I am on friendly terms with many who may whisper behind my back that I'm no good. Even the police, who are ever on the alert to catch me cattle lifting, assume an attitude of cordial friendship. But I'm not deceived. Some day, if it's made worth their while, they'll frame me. You don't know what that means? Well I suppose you don't. In a bad sense it means that they will invent or fabricate something false that has a semblance of truth to incriminate me, and will rely upon evidence of their devising to bring about a conviction. There are plenty willing enough to help them, and among them Mr. Wilfred Beaufort Stinson."
Lola-Sue listened with intense interest to her companion's rough outline of his life, only occasionally interjecting at intervals, but when he mentioned the name of Billy Stinson, her interest was quickened and she immediately asked.
"But why should he aid the police against you?"
"I'm coming to that, Lola-Sue. I've lived a pretty clean life where women are concerned. In fact, I've been so much occupied with the pastime of raiding runs and breeding horses, that I have not had much time to spare for raiding the hearts of women and breeding children. But at Charleville, some time ago, I met a girl whose grace and beauty and splendid seat in a saddle, caught my fancy, and I wanted more than anything on earth to marry that girl. I'm glad now that I didn't."
"Why?" For her dear life Lola-Sue could not help rapping out that interrogation.
"Because I've since met some one whom I seem to know better—some one who to me is more beautiful and more graceful in the saddle—some one who I feel convinced would be a truer mate, a stauncher pal."
"Perhaps she, too, has only caught your fancy. Men are so fickle, so changeable," remarked Lola-Sue haltingly, half divining what he meant.
"In the case of Muriel Poingdestre, it was not I who changed. It was she."
"Muriel Poingdestre! What a pretty name. What became of her?"
"She married your former husband, Billy Stinson."
Lola-Sue had not heard the name of Billy Stinson's second wife before, and it came as a revelation to her. She was amazed.
"What! He married the girl you wanted! Oh, Humphrey, no." It seemed to her incredible.
"Yes, Lola, yes. It hurt, I can tell you. But after all, I think it was my pride that was hurt more than my heart. I wanted to kill him, shoot him like I'd shoot a dingo, but she, she saved him. She shot me instead," and he told her of the incident at Mulga Bend.
"How she must have loved Billy," Lola-Sue said, thoughtfully.
"Perhaps," replied Humphrey Pryor, doubtfully; "but I think he fascinated her as he must have fascinated you, as a snake is said to fascinate a bird."
"Yes, perhaps he did. But if she had discernment, such as that which has since come to me, and which, some day, may come to her, she would not have thrown you over for Billy Stinson," said Lola-Sue seriously.
"Why?" It was his turn now to rap out a sudden interrogation, and he waited breathlessly for an answer. It came slowly and meditatively.
"Because—well—because you are the better man."
"Lola-Sue, you wonderful girl! Do you mean that, after what I've told you about myself, the good side and the bad side?"
"I do," answered Lola-Sue seriously.
"Then that paves the way for what I came out here to-day to tell you, Lola. Just now I told you that I was glad I didn't marry Muriel Poingdestre, glad because I'd since met someone who, to me, is more beautiful, more wonderful; someone who, as I have said, would be a truer mate, a stauncher pal. That someone is you, Lola-Sue. This time it is you I want more than anything else on earth. Will you marry me?"
Lola-Sue was thrilled to the core with his confession. Though her womanly instinct impelled her to the belief that Humphrey Pryor loved her, though in what manner she did not know, nevertheless she was hardly prepared for the downright tenseness and abruptness of his sudden proposal. She was too overwrought to answer immediately. If, as has been said, the incidents of a life-time flash through the brain of a person conscious of imminent death, the incidents of her own life flashed through the brain of Lola-Sue following the abrupt proposal of marriage. She was on the brink of a new life and she knew it. What would she answer? With a sense of detachment she saw a crane rise from the far end of the lagoon and wing its way southward as a flock of teal circled and lighted gracefully on the unruffled surface of the water whence the crane had flown. The westering sunlight filtered through the lattice-like leaves of the trees tempering the glare of the waning afternoon, and still she sat on with hurricane thoughts racing through her mind and the vital question still unanswered. She seemed dazed, like a soul on the dubious bank betwixt waking and slumber.
"Lola, beloved, do you find it so very hard to answer?"
As if waking from a dream, Lola-Sue heard the pleading voice of her companion and trembled as his left arm encircled her and drew her to him. "Yes, very hard, Humphrey. There's an invisible barrier between us—the barrier of my own life, and I cannot move it aside. Though I trust you, believe me, Humphrey, I do. No, please. Just let me say what I am impelled to say. I married once and I trusted my husband so. Before we were married I thought that life for all time—with him, would be a happiness too great to be borne. You see, I had such an unhappy past that I clung to Billy Stinson as a lost soul clings to the Rock of Ages. But I was disillusioned and my faith and trust in men fell with a crash. It upset the balance of my reason, and I suffered over five years of undiluted hell. I have often thought since that if we hadn't married, if we had just been mates together, living together, he and I, as lovers, without the binding obligation of the law, the crash would never have come. But marriage made him too sure of me. I couldn't break away (he knew I wouldn't want to), but he could. That is man's selfishness. That is his extreme egotism, and he broke away. I am not spiritless and I resented his deceit, his faithlessness. If I hadn't been married to him and he broke away from me I wouldn't have minded so much because there would have been no binding promise, no legal obligation, I should have been free to choose another mate. Do you wonder then why I hesitate when you ask me to marry you, Humphrey? I feel and believe that as mates you and I would get on together ever so much better than if we were married. I could not survive another breakaway.
"Oh, I know you will promise constancy and eternal love, and all that, but men are men. They cannot change their natures. In his heart no man is monogamous. If he is, he is afraid to be polygamous, and it is the woman who suffers. With women it is different. If she is treated properly she will be constant always. She will give to her husband the fidelity of a dog. But no woman can forgive unfaithfulness. If she does, the forgiveness is only superficial. At most it is but a patched-up truce.
"Yes, I know that some women break up the happy home. But as a rule they are neurotics and suffer from erotomania. Or perhaps they are unbalanced in some other way. The desire to captivate, for example, such as the Delilahs, the Jezebels, the Aspasias, the Cleopatras of every age, the women who take the cash and let the credit go, nor heed the rumble of a distant drum."
"Then again, if I consented to marry you, Humphrey, you would never be proud of me; I have no name, no family history. I am a nobody. I was picked up out of the street like a stray mongrel. How then could you introduce me to your fellow clubmen, to the pure merinos of the squattocracy? I was humiliated once by Mrs. Seymour Stinson. I have lived and suffered since then. I do not wish to court a repetition of such an intolerable humiliation. You are wealthy and free to choose a wife from among the fairest and best born of the land. Then why pick on me? You are a breeder of thoroughbreds. You do not mate your stallions with brumby mares. In a sense I am a brumby. You cannot mate with me.
"No, Humphrey. I like you too well to let you burden yourself with a nobody. Indeed, I am not sure that I love you—yet. But of this I am sure. There is no one whom I would look to for protection and assistance in preference to you, though I admit my choice is limited. You have made me understand that I shall have to give up this life at Goatlands. Well, I will sell out and go hack to the city, though I should hate it. I love the country so. But one must live, and I know I could earn enough to keep myself by writing for the magazines. If I should want assistance of any kind, I shall, as I have said, ask you to help me. I shouldn't like to lose your friendship ever. That is your answer, Humphrey."
There was a quiver in Lola-Sue's lower lip when she said this, but she turned away her head so that Humphrey Pryor should not see the welling tears.
"Look at me, Lola-Sue."
"No, Humphrey, please."
But he insisted and made her turn her head. When he saw her tear-dimmed eyes, he was overcome. He caught her to him in his strong arms and kissed her wet eyes and quivering lips.
"Beloved, I will not let you go. Though you have made out a strong case against yourself, it does not weigh with me. I want you. All that I have I will share with you. I will blot out with my love the misery of your past life and make you happy. Together we will overcome your invisible barrier, you with your beauty and charm and broadmindedness and I with my power and influence. If you desire it I will give up this rough life that I am living, and retire to some respectable suburb near Brisbane, where we shall start afresh and build up our own circle of friends. Though you call yourself a nobody, I will make you a somebody. Among a mob of brumbies there is often a thoroughbred of an unknown sire, a horse that stands out supreme among the mob. Though your parentage be unknown to me, beloved, you are a thoroughbred. There is no girl or woman among the many I know who is your equal. I am judging you by what I have seen, and by your broad and commonsense outlook. If you do not love me now, you will in time. Are you broad-minded enough to throw up everything and come with me to Contraband to be my mate. I will protect you with my life, Lola. I want you. Come, my love, my pal, Lola."
"Dear," she replied, with her dignified smile, "I will leave all and follow you—as a pal—on a gentleman's agreement."
"And while we remain pals, I shall honour that agreement."
This was the genesis of the coming together of Lola-Sue and Humphrey Pryor. At heart they were akin in their love of freedom. Both loved the untrammelled life of the sparsely settled west; a life unrestrained by the strict rules of conduct and of conventions cloying rotes. Their mateship was not orthodox, but they had no one to please but themselves, and it stirred Lola-Sue's imagination. It was a life that suited her in her present rebellious mood. She owed nothing to society, and if she became an outlaw, that was her concern. It would be what, after all, society had made her. The law had dealt with her once, but she had paid its price. She now owed it nothing. Moreover, she had no kith to concern themselves over her future conduct. In this, perhaps, she was fortunate.
It was, therefore, with a light heart and a debonnair toss of her lovely head, that she set out with Humphrey Pryor on the road to "Contraband." If he were an outlaw, she would be one too. She left the disposal of Goatlands to him. He placed its sale in the hands of a well known auctioneer at Charleville, with instructions to sell for the best price obtainable. But whether it sold or whether it remained ownerless, didn't concern him. Whatever sum it realised, would be a bagatelle to him. Lola-Sue would share with him all that he had, and the proceeds from the sale of her property were of no great moment. He decided to place a sum of money to her credit in the Queensland National Bank at Charleville, and she could draw against it whenever she pleased. When the account was exhausted, he would replenish it. In agreeing to this arrangement, Lola-Sue, however, made one stipulation. She would not part with Boompa or Minns. They must go with her to "Contraband." In this Humphrey Pryor readily acquiesced.
"A nigger or two more at Contraband would not matter very much. They could be put to good use," he said; and Lola-Sue was pleased. There was nothing that Humphrey Pryor would not do to please her. She was the most fascinating companion that a man could have. They left "Goatlands" for the Carnarvon Ranges in the early morning in a buckboard drawn by four splendid ponies. The buggy was loaded up with goods, on the top of which sat Minns. Boompa followed riding Battle. Lola-Sue brought with her all her priceless possessions, including her type-writer. She opined that at Contraband she would find plenty of material for interesting stories and snappy paragraphs.
"At Contraband, beloved, you will find the life rough."
"I'm prepared to rough it, Humphrey," his companion said as they rattled along, "but is it usual to call a pal beloved?" she said, mischievously.
"The mateship is of your choosing, beloved. I am your lover, no matter what you say to the contrary."
Lola-Sue was pleased at this remark, though she did not comment on it. She was interested in watching the skilful way in which he handled the reins and cracked his whip.
"There will be no one to pry on us at Contraband. There'll be no society there, Lola, only the society of my men. You will find them rough, but they're all good native-born Australians, and no foreigners, consequently you'll have nothing to fear from them."
"I'm not courting society at present, mate, I shall be quite interested in the doings of yourself and your men. I shall have a lot to learn and a lot to do to make all recognise that Contraband is home. But what about Granny Hutton?"
"Oh, she does her best; but she is 80, you know, and can only order, but she sees that her orders are obeyed. That woman is a well preserved marvel, but she is obsessed by a fear of the police. She hates them. There is an interesting story behind her 80 years, but she will never speak of her past. You may get her to do so some day, but she shuts up like a trap when questioned. She trusts no one."
"How interesting. Where did you pick her up?"
"I picked her up, beloved—pal, at Eidsvold. Her husband—or the man she was living with, George Steele Hutton, a bullock driver, was gored to death by one of his working bullocks. I wanted a woman whom I could trust to hold her tongue, to look after the domestic side of Contraband, and she was recommended to me. She has been a faithful housekeeper, but her fear of the police was her best credential."
And so, this is how Lola-Sue came to Contraband.
She found the homestead nestling in a pocket in the ranges, redolent with the sweet scent of trees and flowers. Scrubs of dogwood covered the sides of the hills and a creek tumbling down from the gorge above, purled through the long valley to join the Barcoo. The song of birds and the bellowing of cattle were to her like the call of the wild. They brought her back to those happy days she had lived with the Coonans at Samford. "The creek is named Silver Sand," Humphrey Pryor enlightened her, "and here among the ranges, there is always grass even in drought time."
"And Contraband, did you name it that?" she asked.
"Yes, when I bought the place it was called Wallaroo, but I renamed it Contraband, as being more appropriate. Most of the cattle running are Contraband, you know, pal."
"Oh, I see," Lola-Sue replied smiling, showing her small even teeth. "You're a bit of a humorist, aren't you?"
After these few brief explanations, Humphrey Pryor informed her "that this was her kingdom over which she was to reign as queen, and my men and the blacks about the place, and even Granny Hutton will give you their allegiance."
In the evening when the men had drifted in, she was introduced to them as the new mistress of Contraband. There were six of them and each was named in turn, Jack Crane, Tom Jones, Steve Meehan, Ted Meenin, Bill Shuttlewood, and George Pottinger. They were typical bushmen all, and Lola-Sue preserved them from oblivion by taking a group photograph of them.
"Men," she said with her bewitching smile, that no man could withstand, and she won them with her smile,—-"Mr. Pryor has engaged me to look after his and your welfare. I hope I shall succeed. I hope we shall be mates. Mr. Pryor has spoken well of you to me and said that you are all dinkum Australians, whom I can safely trust. Whatever I can do for your comfort and well being, I will do. Let it go at that."
This simple but direct appeal was to their liking, and they cheered her. It bucked them up to have a young and beautiful woman ministering to their wants and they appreciated her genuine friendliness towards them. She made herself one of them, sharing with them their dangers and inuring herself to their rough life and their casual bush ways. She became their darling and there was not a man among them but would guard her with his life. Clad in khaki riding breeches and a khaki blouse astride her black horse, Battle, she helped them in the mustering when they rounded up a mob of fats to truck from Charleville; or in their leisure moments she pitted her skill with her Winchester against their Carbines. In this way she became a skilful markswoman and kangaroo shooter, and the men were proud of her. They called her "Little Wonder." At the annual muster when the whole of the stock on the immense run were rounded up and counted for the Government stock return, she took her place, camping out with them and sharing with them all the hardships of the undertaking. To them she was a marvel and she loved them all for their mateship.
But Humphrey Pryor kept a close watch over her lest she meet with some accident. He would never let her ride the run unless he was with her. Though he was in the throes of love's desire, he kept strictly to his "gentleman's agreement" until the time should come when she would declare herself, and he felt that that time would come some day. Though how it would come he could not say. In the meantime he was content to wait. That she was with him always was enough for the present. The future was on the knees of the gods. As for the present, well, she loved the life that she was leading. She looked upon it as a great adventure; but what pleased him most was the way in which she mothered him. If any slight accident happened to him, she was most solicitous. Unless she cared for him, she would not show such tender concern.
Matters were going very well and he would not spoil her present happiness by again pressing her to marry him. She had her own ideas, learnt in the bitter school of experience, and he would respect them. All that he could do and would continue to do was to respect her and to make her more and more dependent upon him for her happiness. She was a child of nature, bubbling over with health and life and interest in all that was his. But she could be calmly dignified and terribly in earnest when the occasion warranted. This was of greater protection to her at any attempt at familiarity than the revolver which she always carried in its holster at her hip.
Humphrey Pryor had some misgivings as to how Lola-Sue would be received by old Granny Hutton, who professed to be very religious.
"Granny," he said, when introducing her. "This is Lola Conway, but we all call her Lola-Sue. The story of her life is probably as interesting as yours. Perhaps, if you are nice to her, she may tell it to you some day. However, I have brought her here to help you run Contraband."
"Indeed, sir. It is about time you brought someone to sanctify this den of iniquity. I'm too old to influence you, sir, or your men. But she's a bonny lass, and I hope you mean well by her Humphrey Pryor."
Notwithstanding her eighty years, Granny Hutton's eyesight was remarkably clear and penetrating, and she was electrified by the close resemblance that Lola-Sue bore to her own daughter, whose tragic disappearance Lola-Sue was to learn late.
"Granny, I am more than pleased to meet you," said Lola-Sue, holding out her hand and capturing the heart of the old matriarch by her winsome smile, "From now on, you're to live a life of undisturbed ease. Look upon me as your daughter."
"Not my daughter, my child, rather my grand-daughter. I had a daughter once. God bless her, and you remind me of her—the same bonny smile, the same blue eyes and the same love for the free and open life of the bush. God bless you and keep you in His keeping."
Later Lola-Sue remarked to Humphrey Pryor.
"What a splendid woman Granny Hutton must have been in her youth. Is she native born?"
"I think not, but her life I believe, has been lived in Australia. From words that she has let drop, she's a relic of the old bushranging days. She was a young woman in the sixties and lived a great part of her life on the old gold diggings in Victoria and New South Wales. The men here think a great deal of her."
The months went by, and the autumn of Lola-Sue's arrival gave place to winter, and winter to the early warmth of spring. It was mating time, and the surges of man's desire ran like liquid fire through Humphrey Pryor's veins. Lola-Sue had awakened in him a passion that was unquenchable, a consuming fire that could only be extinguished by the absolute possession of her. All round him he saw the rejuvenation of nature by the satisfying of desire. The trees wooed the sap from their roots, the instinctive forces of nature were at work, everywhere for the earth's replenishment. Birds called to birds, and the lowing of cattle and the whinnying of horses were as mate calling unto mate to reproduce their kind. The manhood in him called out to the womanhood of Lola-Sue. It was nature's law, and therefore, God's law. He was no anchorite but a dominant male crying out instinctively for a no less dominant female.
The questing after cattle had lost its force and he became restless and perturbed. Lola-Sue noticed his moodiness and his disinclination to leave the homestead when she remained at the head station. He could not bear to let her out of his sight. If she divined his purpose, she gave him no encouragement. The time for her was not yet ripe. Having given herself once to a man with disastrous results, she was not in a hurry to repeat the experience. She felt that she must not only be sure of herself, but sure of the man who desired to possess her. She would not yield her body until she felt that she could yield her soul, until she felt that she could go to him and say with certitude: "Here I am. Take me. I am yours, body and soul."
Humphrey Pryor had resolved to honour his "gentleman's agreement," but the strain upon him was becoming too great. He felt that he must get away from the present environment or he would not answer for himself. Though Lola-Sue appealed to his senses more than any woman had hitherto appealed to him, he would commit any act rather than force himself upon her. In view of her past suffering, it would be sacrilege to force himself upon her. If he broke faith with her, he would deserve to be damned for all time. He couldn't get away with it without retribution in some shape or form overtaking him. He wondered why something terrible had not happened to Billy Stinson for casting aside and trampling upon the love and affections of such a splendid girl. But he, was he fair to her in asking her to live this lonely, unconventional life at Contraband? His conscience began to lash him. She was fitted to grace any society, and he had brought her to these uncouth surroundings, she who was a beautiful flower, some gorgeous desert pea, making heavenly the drabness of this austere and lonely desert of his life. He must end all this. He must give her a taste of real life, a peep of the world of unbounded pleasure. "Lola, beloved pal," he said to her one evening, when he had finally made up his mind, as they sat together on the wide veranda of the station bungalow in the cool of the evening, he smoking and she drinking in the beauty of the star-studded cup of the sky, content to be with her self-chosen mate, "I'm taking some blood yearlings to Brisbane to sell and would like you to come with me for a good holiday. What say?"
"I'm quite content to remain here with you, mate mine; but if you must go, I should be happier to be with you, though I've no very great desire to live the gay life."
"Perhaps not, heart's desire, but I want to exhibit you. I'm proud of you and want to make men envy me the possession of you."
"Yes, but you know, my mate, what an uncharitable old world it is. It will name me your mistress. That I am no such thing will not be believed for a moment. It's not the men I'm thinking of, but the women. Is it fair to you to have yourself talked about?"
"Oh, damn! I've no reputation to lose. What little I may have had has vanished long ago. I'm regarded as little less than a bushranger. What I am or what I do is really of no moment to any one. Is it to you?"
"No, Humphrey," replied Lola-Sue seriously. "I've already vowed: Whither thou goest I will go. Your ways will be my ways."
"Then that settles it, and I'm glad. We'll leave here as soon as everything is ready. We'll have a holiday together in Brisbane, and return in time for the Longreach carnival."
"But Granny Hutton has become so dependent upon me, Humphrey, I shall hate to leave her. Though the gins can do all the heavy work, she must have some reliable white woman to stand by her."
"Then I'll ride over to Tambo and wire Wright's Agency at Charleville to send me a reliable woman at once. I can trust old Dan Wright." So everything was arranged for carrying on Contraband temporarily during their absence. The men who were spoken of as the Pryor gang, were left in charge of Jack Crane; but as they were all old retainers of Humphrey Pryor's, and well treated by him, no trouble was feared from them during the absence of their chief. No adventure was ever entered upon unless Pryor was there to lead it himself, consequently he knew there would be no raiding whilst he was away.
When the woman arrived from Wright's Agency, they left for Charleville to catch the western mail for Brisbane, but before leaving Contraband, Lola-Sue handed over Battle to Boompa, with strict instructions to look well after him. In bidding Granny Hutton good-bye, she took her two hands in hers—hands like withered autumn leaves—and said: "I'll come back again, Granny, never fear."
"I'll be very lonesome without you, dearie," said the poor old soul of 80, kissing Lola-Sue, "but, I've been left alone before, so often, I shall not mind so long as we have no visit from the police. When they're about trouble is not far away."
"The police have nothing on you, Granny, never fear," replied Lola-Sue, encouragingly, "Good-bye."
All hands had assembled to wave them good-bye as if they were off on their honeymoon. Boompa and Minns knelt down at the outer rails.
"What you two doing?" asked Humphrey Pryor.
"Wese preyin' boss for Missie Lolum to come back to Coonaband."
Tears came to Lola-Sue's eyes at this incident of love and faithfulness.
"I'll come back all right and bring you plenty fellow presents you two. So long."
The four fast ponies drawing the station buckboard went away at the word of command with a rattling trot. Bill Shuttlewood went with them as far as Charleville to bring the turnout back.
When Humphrey Pryor and Lola-Sue arrived at Brisbane, they put up at the Australian, where Humphrey Pryor was well known.
"Now, mate mine, the first thing I want you to do is to go to Walker's and order whatever gowns or frocks you want. Never mind the expense, I'll see to that. And don't forget evening frocks and wraps. When we go back to Longreach for the carnival, I want to dazzle the western merinos and their women folk with your charm and beauty."
It was a novel experience and a fascinating one for Lola-Sue to be in a position to order what she wanted and considered appropriate regardless of expense; and in Mrs. Walker's capable hands, allied with her own good taste and natural aptitude, the costumes that were designed were to work a transformation. Then she went to a beauty specialist, and had her hair dressed and her face made perfect by the magic touch of an artist which made a surprising difference in her appearance. When she returned to the hotel for lunch, Humphrey Pryor, who had been to Story and Ramsays to arrange for the stalling of his thoroughbreds when they arrived, was startled by the difference in her appearance.
"Beloved," he whispered, in ecstasy, "you were beautiful before, but you are now positively ravishing. What will you look like when your frocks are ready?"
In the afternoon they went out together, she superlatively neat and sweet, and he in a suit of grey, well made and fitting him perfectly. She liked the misshapen soft felt hat that he wore and the careless ease with which he, all deference, walked beside her. He was just as much at home in the city as in the bush, and she appreciated his cosmopolitanism. There was nothing bushy about him, and this pleased her. "This is our day of shopping, matey," he said pausing before Hardys, "and I want you to come in and choose for yourself a few little gifts to cement our mateship."
Almost reluctantly she went into the shop with him for she was afraid of his liberality. If he loaded her with jewels, it would seem as if he were buying her. She loathed an over display of jewellery. It would make her look like his mistress rather than his pal, and that would be intolerable. But she misjudged his good taste and miscalculated his sense of the fitness of things.
"You do the choosing, Humphrey, but please permit me to have the final decision," she pleaded.
"Then for that lovely neck of yours, what about a string of pearls?"
"I should like that. In this your taste coincides with mine."
"Then what about one of these diamond rings?"
"No, please, Humphrey, not diamonds—not yet."
"Very well. Just as you wish. But you must have a ring to bind our mateship. Do your own choosing."
"Well, then," she said, entering into the earnestness of his mood. "I choose this ring with the beautiful black opal."
"But are you not suspicious? Opals are reputed to be unlucky."
"Not black opals from Lightning Ridge. Am I not right?" she asked the attendant.
"Quite right, miss, all our best black opals come from Lightning Ridge."
"Now, nothing more, Humphrey, please."
"Let me show you this necklace, sir," said the attendant, noticing Lola-Sue's violet blue eyes. He took out of a showcase a magnificent necklace of lapis lazuli alternately strung with small cut and polished crystals.
"Just the thing to match your eyes, Lola. You must have that."
So that was settled.
When they had left the shop, Lola-Sue said, placing her hand on her mate's arm:
"You are really too good to me, Humphrey. You have made life seem so different, so brilliant, so full of sunshine to me. How can I ever repay you?"
"In pleasing you, dear, I am more than repaid," was his answer.
Their holiday in the city lasted three weeks. To Lola-Sue it was three weeks of supreme happiness. Races, theatres, motor tours, it was for her all one whirl of pleasure. She had never spent such a pleasant time.
She was introduced to many of Humphrey Pryor's acquaintances, men of standing, who invited them to their homes. Her unconventional relationship with her friend was never questioned. They knew he was an eligible bachelor, wealthy, and a keen sportsman. His western reputation was not dominant in the city. There he was appraised at his proper worth, and his manly independence gained for him a host of friends. Whom he saw thought fit to honour by his friendship was his concern and Lola-Sue was accepted as his cherished, if not fortunate, fiancée and he did not disabuse their minds on that point. He was proud to see her so well received by the women folk, and their taking it for granted that she was engaged to him, made the circumstance of their holiday in the city all the more pleasurable.
Though the time flew on rapid wings, Lola-Sue was not altogether sorry when the day arrived for their return to Contraband. The yearlings auctioned at Story and Ramsay's brought excellent prices on account of their classic breeding, and Humphrey Pryor determined to make his mate one more present before he left Brisbane for the West. He purchased for her a six cylinder British touring car which he had insisted on her learning to drive before he had it railed to Longreach.
There was another gift which he had purchased unknown to Lola-Sue and which he held in reserve. It was an exquisite diamond engagement ring. That he had anticipations, signified his prophetic soul. Before returning to Contraband, Humphrey Pryor determined to see the Longreach carnival through. Now that Lola-Sue was well stocked with fine clothes, and all the exquisitely beautiful feminine things which gladden a woman's heart, he wanted to show her off to the aristocrats of the west. In his opinion (it may be that he was prejudiced) she would be incomparable. If the pure merinos of the outback wanted to stage a beauty competition with their wives and daughters as exhibits he would nominate Lola-Sue and give her his backing. It was this pride of him in her that urged her to have her photo taken before leaving Brisbane, and he was more than gratified by the result. The glory of her hair, her wide apart eyes, her well-shaped nose, her sweet mouth, her determined rounded chin, her full neck, curving gracefully from her shoulders, and her superb bust, all were faithfully reproduced from the original. It was a picture that pleased him and he was proud to have the original under the aegis of his protection. She was his beautiful outlaw.
Longreach, the capital centre of a great squatting district, was en fete. Within a circle whose radii reached out to Townsville in the north, Rockhampton in the east, Charleville in the south, and Boulia in the west, some of Queensland's wealthiest wool kings had their stations, and few of them cared to miss the annual carnival. Their wives and daughters, resplendent in jewels and costly apparel of the latest vogue, vied with one another in the elegance of their attire. Though the appointments of the racecourse and show grounds were not those of a Flemington, a Randwick, or an Ascot, the beauty and fashion of western femininity at the gay carnival would not have disgraced a meeting at any of the capital cities.
On the third day of the carnival, the great race meeting of the Longreach Jockey Club was held. The attendance was a record one, and it was estimated that as many motor cars were parked within the vicinity of the course as were parked at Brisbane's Ascot on a holiday race day. Owing to the comparatively flat surface of the western downs and the long distance to be travelled, motor cars enter largely into the life of the people of the west, and there was more than one Rolls Royce among the number parked at this annual carnival.
If the women vied with one another in the richness of their apparel, men, rich with the wealth of a record wool clip, vied with one another in the lavishness of their hospitality. Champagne was the fashionable drink, and its sparkle was only equalled by the flashing light in women's eyes and the twinkling of western stars.
The day was perfect, rich with the richness of summer, but cooled by the breezes of spring, and there was every prospect of a most successful meeting.
"Lola, dear, you must look your best to-day," remarked Humphrey Pryor to his beloved mate at breakfast on the morning of the meeting.
"The Stinsons are in town and old Major Poingdestre. You're bound to meet them, if not on the course, at the race ball to-night."
"I'm not afraid, my pal. I shall do you justice, I hope."
"I am sure you will. But there's another matter I haven't mentioned. Unknown to you, I've entered my mare Minerva in your name for the Ladies' Bracelet."
"My name, Humphrey! Which one?" Lola-Sue said, surprised, but laughing.
"Not the one that was lent to you for a time and then taken away. To me, until you see fit to change it again, you are Lola Conway, my unconventional mate."
"And who's riding her?"
"I am. It's a condition of the race that horses entered for the Bracelet must be ridden by amateur riders approved by the committee."
"But will you not be too heavy?"
"No; I can ride 11.7 and that's Minerva's weight."
"Can she carry it? What's the distance?"
"A mile, and she can do it."
"But have you had her in training?"
"Yes. I've had her in training at Rockhampton. Though she has never won a race, she's made some wonderful gallops, so my trainer tells me. I rode her myself yesterday morning and she's in splendid nick."
"What's the field against her?"
"Ten, unless some are scratched. Look, here's a race book. Read for yourself the names of the horses and the ladies entering them."
Taking the book, Lola-Sue, who was very interested, scanned the page. Then she gave a sudden start.
"Why, look here, Humphrey. You didn't tell me. Here's a horse, 'The Galah,' entered in the name of Mrs. W. B. Stinson. That must be Billy Stinson's horse."
"Yes, looks like it, doesn't it?" answered Humphrey Pryor dryly.
"Did you know?"
"No, not until I arrived here. It's going to be interesting."
"Who's riding The Galah, I wonder?"
"I don't know, but I think Stinson will ride him himself. He can ride, you know."
"Oh, I know he can. And look! The Galah is carrying the same weight as Minerva." After a meditative pause Lola-Sue continued, "But I don't think Billy can ride 11.7."
"I think he can, since he's come west he's reduced his weight considerably. We're about the same build, you know."
"Oh, Humphrey, I should hate him to beat you. To me it would be a humiliation."
"You won't be humiliated if horsemanship can help it. For your sake, my pal, I'll ride the race of my life."
"I think I shall be too excited to watch the race. If you are beaten, Billy's wife, the Stinsons, will arise triumphant. Oh, Humphrey, I don't think you should risk it."
"I'd risk more than that for you, dear. If I thought I had no chance, I would scratch 'Minerva.' I know the other horses pretty well, but 'The Galah' I do not know. Anyhow he'll have to be pretty good to beat my mare."
"Don't think I haven't faith in you, Humphrey, I have. If it will help you to win, you have it in armsful, my mate."
"Then your faith, my beloved, will be my whip and spur. It will give the mare stamina and me courage. I'm not riding stiff, cheer up." When Billy Stinson learnt, as he soon did learn, when he was handed a race book, that the top weight in the Ladies' Bracelet was a brown mare named "Minerva" and that she was entered in the name of Miss Lola Conway he was so surprised that he stopped dead as if shot through the heart.
"What the devil does it mean?" he asked himself. He was walking from the Club to the hotel where he and his wife and his father and mother and Major Poingdestre had taken rooms. "Must be some mistake, or someone with the same name, surely," he thought. In perplexity he accosted one of the committee.
"I say, Kershaw, who's this Miss Lola Conway who has entered 'Minerva' for the Bracelet?"
"I've never met her, Stinson; but the mare is owned by Humphrey Pryor, and I believe he's riding her. Why do you ask?"
"I knew a girl of that name once, and I was just wondering whether it could be the same. However, it doesn't matter, I'll soon find out," and Billy Stinson walked on to his hotel. Arriving there, he found his wife with a puzzled expression on her face and his mother with a still more puzzled look. They had been discussing the Bracelet.
"I'm sure that was the maiden name of Billy's first wife. He called her Lolo-something. I can't just remember, but it was like the name of a Chinaman."
"Wasn't it Lola-Sue, mother?" asked her daughter-in-law, Muriel Stinson.
"Yes, that was it, Lola-Sue Conway."
"But, mother, it can't be possible that she's the same. How ridiculous!" exclaimed Mrs. Billy Stinson, trying to make herself believe it was ridiculous.
"It certainly does seem preposterous, my dear, but we'll soon find out."
At this juncture Billy Stinson strolled into the lounge, and his mother called to him.
"Come here, Wilfred, I want you. Who is this Lola Conway who is entered in the Bracelet as the owner of Minerva?"
"I don't know, mother; I haven't seen her."
"But who is the real owner of Minerva?"
"Humphrey Pryor!" almost shouted Muriel Stinson. "Where on earth did he pick her up?"
"Ask me something easy, Muriel. Blowed if I know. But we're not sure she is identical with Lola-Sue."
"Who is riding the mare?" asked his wife almost fiercely.
"I'm told Humphrey Pryor is," answered her husband.
"Then you are riding for me, and Humphrey Pryor for Lola Conway?" she volunteered incredulously.
"It looks like it," was the laconic reply of Billy Stinson.
"The mystery thickens, mother. What are we going to do about it?" questioned Muriel Stinson.
"Do about it!" answered Mrs. Seymour Stinson. "What can we do about it? It's an outrage! An impertinence! Is she his mistress or what?"
"Stop, mother! You mustn't talk like that. You mustn't jump to conclusions. In any case, we're not sure yet that she is—is Lola-Sue," said Billy Stinson indignantly. Then he continued, to change the subject, "If you want to be in time for the first race, you'd better get a move on. I must be off."
Seymour Stinson and Major Poingdestre with two other squatters, Mr. Ashton and Mr. Nagel, came into the lounge and joined Mrs. Stinson and her daughter-in-law. They were all known to one another and conversation became general.
"We've just come from the club," remarked Mr. Ashton, "and we found Mrs. Stinson, that your son's horse, The Galah, is favourite. Nagel here put £100 on him at five to one. What do you think of his chances, Mrs. Muriel?" he asked, turning to Muriel Stinson.
"Well, with my husband riding him, what should I think? He'll win, of course."
"Good girl! That's the way to talk," interpolated Mr. Dick Nagel from the Cunnamulla district.
"Well, we'll see you on the course. Good-bye for the present," said Mr. Tom Ashton from Windorah, as he and Dick Nagel raised their hats and took their departure.
When the Stinsons and Major Poingdestre arrived in their car at the parking area, and were leaving for the saddling paddock, they passed Humphrey Pryor who had just handed Lola-Sue out of her Vauxhall. He was immaculately dressed for the occasion, and Lola-Sue looked her very best. This was his moment of triumph. The Stinsons couldn't very well, without being absolutely rude, ignore him altogether, so they bowed in recognition. Raising his hat, Humphrey Pryor stopped them.
"Permit me to introduce to you my protégée, Miss Lola Conway," and he named each in turn. Mrs. Stinson senr. bowed frigidly; Mrs. Stinson, jun., bit her lip and bowed haughtily. Seymour Stinson and Major Poingdestre looked on puzzled. Lola-Sue smiled charmingly and bowed graciously. In the supreme consciousness of being well gowned, this was her moment of triumph. No one spoke for the space of a moment. Then Mrs. Stinson, sen. said icily, "You are—er—a stranger to the west, are you not—Miss—er—Conway?"
"Not exactly, Mrs. Stinson. I've lived in the Charleville district for some time."
"Yes, that's where I met her and we chummed," interjected Humphrey Pryor with grim satisfaction.
"Oh you chummed, did you?" remarked Mrs. Stinson, jun., "Is that what you call it?"
"Well, at the time we met, Miss Conway was sorely in need of protection, and I gave her what protection I could—the protection of Contraband."
"Indeed, and I'm very grateful to Mr. Pryor for it," said Lola-Sue, backing him up. "To me he's been the kindest, the most generous, and the most loyal friend in the world. I can I never repay him for his goodness."
"Then I'm glad Mr. Pryor has made the amende honorable where women are concerned."
This remark made Lola-Sue furious, but old Major Poingdestre, who was keenly watching the situation, and was apprehensive of a scene, said gallantly, "No man, not even Mr. Pryor, with his reputation, could act dishonourably towards such a charming young lady. I congratulate Mr. Pryor on his most admirable taste."
"Thank you, Major. That's very nice of you. Miss Conway has confided to me the story of her life, and I now want to succeed with her where others have failed. I'd be more than a brute to betray her trust and confidence." Major Poingdestre, if he dared, would have chuckled. He, too, knew the story of Lola-Sue's life, and a great deal of his sympathy went out to her.
He thought to himself:
"I wonder would Pryor have said that if Billy Stinson had been present. Anyhow, it was a smashing reply to the old girl."
In her heart Muriel Stinson felt that the remarks of Humphrey Pryor were in a sense justified, and she felt humiliated; but all the same, she considered it bad taste on his part to give expression to such thoughts when he knew that she was Billy Stinson's wife. Making the best of the situation, she turned to Lola-Sue and said:
"I congratulate you with all my heart, Miss Conway, in finding such a staunch and honourable friend (she emphasised honourable). Mr. Pryor can be a firm friend. He can also be a deadly enemy. You don't know him like we people in the west do."
"Mrs. Stinson. I know him well enough to trust myself with him," replied Lola-Sue, bowing. "Good-bye. Perhaps we shall meet again." She took Humphrey Pryor's arm with all the sense of possession, and walked away as the men raised their hats. Involuntarily, they paid a tribute to her freshness and beauty. Major Poingdestre felt that Lola-Sue was pure, and it must be confessed he had a genuine feeling of satisfaction that Humphrey Pryor had made himself her protector and champion. It was quite otherwise, however, with Mrs. Seymour Stinson. She measured the standards of others by her own meticulous code of morals, and the sniff with which she expressed her disapproval of Humphrey Pryor's relationship with her son's divorced wife was eloquent disapproval of a conduct that did not satisfy her pecksniffian code. Her husband was of the same opinion. He had never had much time for Humphrey Pryor, and he had less for his son's first wife. He had disapproved of her entirely, and her present relations with Pryor meant only one thing. She was his mistress, and his daughter-in-law, although she did not say so, had come to the same conclusion.
"So she's living at Contraband with him. Well, all I can say is, she seems perfectly satisfied with herself," remarked Muriel Stinson, with a suspicion of jealousy in her tone of speech. It was not too flattering to her that Humphrey Pryor, for whom she once had a genuine affection, had so soon forgotten her. But the most amazing thing was that he should have come across Lola-Sue—her husband's first wife—and have become so infatuated with her. With her womanly instinct, she divined that Humphrey Pryor's attitude towards Lola-Sue was that of a lover. What Lola-Sue's attitude towards Humphrey Pryor was, well, her thoughts in that direction were expressed by her mother-in-law when she said:—
"That girl's an adventuress if there ever was one. You can't make me believe, my dear, that her friendship with Humphrey Pryor is purely platonic. She snared Wilfred and now she has snared him."
"If he marries her, then I'll believe his story of honourable protection," vouchsafed Muriel Stinson, as they walked towards the grandstand.
"Stuff and nonsense, Muriel. Men like Humphrey Pryor do not marry the girls that they pick up by the wayside. Notwithstanding his reputation, he with the glamour of romance around him, and with his wealth, could pick and choose from among the fairest girls of the west. What do you say, Major?"
Major Poingdestre, who was walking on the right of Mrs. Seymour Stinson, was not paying much heed to the catty conversation of her and his daughter, but when appealed to so directly, said, bluntly:—
"Gad, I'm not so sure. Muriel turned him down, anyway. Though he may be a sinner in some respects, he may be a saint in others, you know."
"Muriel turned him down when a better man appealed to her, Major," interposed Seymour Stinson. "Isn't that so, Muriel?"
"Oh, of course, Mr. Stinson," answered Muriel Stinson, laughing. "I was always a bit afraid of Humphrey Pryor. He's too much of an outlaw for my liking."
By this time the crowd on the racecourse and the grandstand had become too dense for further conversation of a private nature, and interest centred on the different races. The Longreach Jockey Club had catered well for its patrons, and a splendid list of racing events had been provided. The Longreach Grassfed Racing Club and the Longreach Amateur Grassfed Racing Club had combined with the Jockey Club to make this year's carnival a tremendous success, because it was the first occasion in the history of the township, that the Governor and his suite had honoured it with their presence. But the race that interested the ladies most was that for the Ladies' Bracelet. All the riders in that event were well known amateurs, the minimum weight being ten stone. When the saddling bell rang, the excitement among the ladies became intense, and when the horses with their riders, each in their registered colours, were paraded before the grandstand, speculation was rife as to which horse would win.
As there were no scratchings a full field of ten did their preliminary canters and faced the barrier.
Considerable amusement was caused by the several riders riding jockey fashion, a style which they were not used to. But as all the riders were superb horsemen, who were as much at home in the saddle as on foot, the ladies knew that the race would be well ridden, but to two of the ladies present and to two of the riders, the race meant something more than a mere event. Lola-Sue and Muriel Stinson looked upon it from the point of view of rivals, and Billy Stinson on The Galah and Humphrey Pryor on Minerva, both gentlemen riders of repute, were surcharged with a feeling or jealous hatred. Whoever lost would regard it as a humiliation, whoever won a triumph over a despised rival. Owing to the want of practice at the barrier, there was considerable delay in the riders lining their mounts up, and Lola-Sue, who watched the race from a front seat on the grandstand with a few of Humphrey Pryor's more intimate friends to whom she had been introduced, and who were not acquainted with their relationship, was nervously excited. If she were asked then if she loved Humphrey Pryor, she would have answered "Yes." In a daze and almost reeling, she heard the shout "They're off!" Then she controlled her agitation and watched the squadron of horses sweeping on. They flashed past her and were gone. As she watched, tense and thrilled, she seemed to hear a far away murmur punctured with a running staccato of hoof strokes. Then she heard over all the shouts of the ring, the bookmakers' roar: "Three to one, Minerva!" "Four to one, The Galah!" This was when Minerva was leading the field by a head at the half-mile, with The Galah running at her girth.
The murmur of the crowd swelled to a roar, when a horse on the outside, "Silver Chimes," ridden by Geoffrey Ware of Moonjarrie, crept up foot by foot and passed both Minerva and The Galah. A length in front he thundered along, but Lola-Sue, who knew how to ride and whose eyes were glued on Humphrey Pryor, noticed that he had Minerva well in hand. The mare was running strong, and the reins were taut. It seemed as if Humphrey Pryor had difficulty in curbing her pace.
"Damn it, Pryor's pulling Minerva's head off. Why the hell doesn't he let her out?" shouted a backer of Minerva standing next to Lola-Sue.
In her excitement Lola-Sue forgot herself and hit back. She turned half round and said: "Who's riding Minerva, you or Mr. Pryor?"
"Sorry, miss, but she's carrying my money."
"She's carrying more than my money; she's carrying my heart's desire."
And the man beside her wondered.
"Even money Silver Chimes! Even money Silver Chimes!" was shouted by a raucous bookmaker. Lola-Sue went pale, but she never for one moment lost faith in her judgment of Humphrey Pryor. At the start of the race she saw that he kept well in the background; but after the first furlong he began to forge ahead. Billy Stinson was then leading him, Geoffrey Ware on Silver Chimes was half a length behind Minerva, and other good riders and fine horses were close up, all racing to win. Every rider had a fair favourite whose wrist was waiting for the bracelet and for the look and hand pressure that went with it.
As the horses entered the straight, Lola-Sue heard behind her an excited voice shouting "Ride, Billy! Ride for your life!"
Looking behind her for one instant, and flashing a look, she saw that the voice was Muriel Stinson's. Turning to the field, all her soul within her burning, all her being aflame with rivalry, she saw that Silver Chimes was still leading. The Galah a length away behind, and Minerva going strong on the rails, right in front of The Galah.
"If they cut him off, Pryor's cake's dough!" yelled the man who had his money on Minerva.
"Oh, shut up for God's sake!" flashed Lola-Sue in the tenseness of her feelings.
Then the judgment of Humphrey Pryor manifested itself. It seemed as if he had heard the warning shout and saw what would happen if he did not let Minerva have her lean game head. Still on the rails, with his horse a head clear, he leaned forward, slackened the reins slightly, and let the mare have her head. The effect was instantaneous. Minerva shot along the rails, passed The Galah, and was soon running neck and neck with Silver Chimes.
"Silver Chimes! Silver Chimes!"
The excitement was intense. The crowd shouted itself hoarse.
But Billy Stinson was not beaten yet. With whip and spur he urged The Galah on till his girth was at the shoulder of Silver Chimes.
"The Galah! The Galah!"
"Ride Billy! Ride!"
It was magnificent horsemanship. Neck and neck! Head and head! Hoofs beating lightning strokes on the sandy course. The Galah and Silver Chimes raced, stride for stride, barely half a length behind Minerva. The pace was terrific, the yells frantic. White faces of women stared. Parched tongues attempted to lick dry lips. Nails cut into soft palms. Eyes ached with the tenseness of the staring.
Twenty yards from the winning post it was anybody's race. A dozen yards from it, Humphrey Pryor with hands down, in a final urge, shot to the front. Silver Chimes and The Galah were a dead heat for second place.
There was a wonderful glory on the face of Lola-Sue as she hurriedly left the stand and hastened to the lawn where his Excellency, Lord Leamington, with the chairman of the Jockey Club, was waiting to congratulate the rider of Minerva. As Humphrey Pryor dismounted from the reeking mare, her brown chest dappled with flakes of white foam, Lola-Sue ran forward and with the impetuousness of her impulsive nature, threw her arms around Humphrey Pryor's neck and unabashed before thousands kissed him in the presence of the cheering crowd.
His Excellency, smiling as he shook hands with Humphrey Pryor, said "Faith, Mr. Pryor, the Bracelet was worth winning for that kiss alone. I congratulate you."
Humphrey Pryor, sweat stained, dirty and with blood-shot eyes, replied: "Thank you, your Excellency. It is an unexpected reward for a hard race. Permit me to introduce to your Excellency, Miss Conway, in whose name I entered my mare."
"I've met many charming girls in Queensland, Miss Conway, since my arrival here, may I add you to the list?" said his Excellency, shaking her hand. "And if you're at the ball to-night," he continued, "may I claim the privileges of the first dance with the wearer of the bracelet?"
Lola-Sue, smiling, looked appealingly to Humphrey Pryor. His Excellency noticed the look. "Er—that is—of course, if Mr. Pryor permits," said his Excellency, laughing.
"Your wish is a command, your Excellency. Miss Conway will, I am sure, regard it as such."
"You do me too much honour, your Excellency. I had thought that Mr. Pryor would have claimed that privilege, but as he waives it, then, so be it," said Lola-Sue flushing with pleasure.
The Governor, Humphrey Pryor and Lola-Sue were the cynosure of all eyes, and when Billy Stinson saw her for the first time since she had come west, he was startled to find her more beautiful than ever. Whether it was her clothes, or the way in which she wore them, or her elation over Humphrey Pryor's win, he could not say, but his glance of appreciation was unmistakable. It revolted him, however, to see her so friendly with a man of Humphrey Pryor's reputation, and instinctively he resented it. He wondered what the feeling was between them. Though he had divorced Lola-Sue in the firm belief that she would never again be a wife to him, he marvelled at the trick fate had played him, and at the million to one chance that had thrown her in the way of Humphrey Pryor. Their close relationship, the apparent fondness of her for him was gall and wormwood, not only to him but to his wife as well, for Muriel Stinson was not happy at the appearance of Lola-Sue in this drama of the west. She almost hated her husband for being the unwitting cause of her humiliation, for, indeed, she felt deeply humiliated. That her husband's divorced wife should now turn up and parade her beauty and her apparent fondness for a man who had been her lover, before her was intolerable. If she hadn't looked such a little aristocrat, she would not have minded so much. And now the triumph of Humphrey Pryor in winning the Bracelet in a race in which her husband was a competitor, and his evident fondness for Lola-Sue, was an additional insult to her outraged feelings, and she resented exceedingly the turn of events, so galling to her patrician pride. After witnessing the defeat of The Galah, the Stinsons had had enough of the races and were about to take their departure when their party was joined by Mrs. Coleraine O'Neill of Kurrajong Downs.
"Now, sure, it's too bad that Billy was beaten at the post," she said in her rich Irish brogue, "and me puttin' a tenner on his mount, bad cess to it. But I might have known, sure, that it would take the divil himself to beat Humphrey Pryor. Did yer ever see such wonderful riding?"
She would have gabbled on good-humouredly, but Mrs. Stinson, whose nerves were in shreds, cut in with:
"I would rather have seen any one win than that man. He should have been barred by the club. He's not respectable."
"Not respectable, is it? But then, yer know, Mrs. Stinson, he's got lashing's of oof. But wirrah! Any unmarried man with tons of money is always rispictable. And d'yez know who the bould colleen was who kissed him? Oh, yes, I know the race book says she's Lola Conway, but let me enlighten yez, she's the 'Ernigmur.'"
"The what, Mrs. O'Neill?" interjected Muriel Stinson, now all attention.
"The 'Ernigmur, at laeast, that's what they called her in Charleville."
"Then you know her, Mrs. O'Neill?"
"The divil a bit. But no wan could mishtake the beautiful 'Ernigmur.'"
"She owned a little place down on the Ward called 'Goatlands,' where she lived all by herself, and owned a broth of a horse. Och! All the girruls hated her, the proud little divil, and they do be sayin' she's Irish, with the name of her and the eyes of her. But shure yer know the men they all fell for her, and that's why all the girruls ticked her off."
"Then she's not respectable, Mrs. O'Neill?" questioned Mrs. Stinson.
"Shure now, as to that, Mrs. Stinson, I've niver heard that she wasn't. If she's Irish she is," and Mrs. O'Neill laughed, good humouredly, as they walked towards their respective cars. "But the only thing agin her is her takin' up the 'Yaller Streak.' Faith, where did she pick him up, anyhow?"
"You mean, where did he pick her up, Mrs. O'Neill?" said Muriel Stinson.
"Sure; isn't it the same thing, anyhow? That's the only thing agin her reshpectability. But yer talk as if yer don't like her, Mrs. Billy?"
"No, I do not, Mrs. O'Neill. And I may as well tell you—you'll find it out sooner or later—she's Billy's divorced wife."
"Glory be to God, yer don't tell me?"
"I do tell you, Mrs. O'Neill. She was picked up in the street when she was a baby by a constable named Conway, and that's how she got her name."
"Well I niver! Begorrah, it's quite a rhomance. And now she's lobbed out here among yez all. Well I niver!"
"You may well be surprised, Mrs. O'Neill, but it's damnable, damnable!" exclaimed Muriel Stinson.
"Muriel, Muriel, control yourself," remonstrated her mother-in-law.
"Oh, mother, how can I? Don't you realise my position?"
"Faith an' I do. Anyway, me dear," said Mrs. O'Neill sympathetically. "It is dahmnable and the girruls too dahmnable attractive, anyhow. Yer son has an oye for beautiful women, Mrs. Stinson, meaning Muriel, here, and—and—that other wan there, begorrah. How-an-iver she's Mrs. Stinson too! Arrah now, what do yez think of that?"
At the race ball that night, the story of Lola-Sue was on everyone's lips. Some were for, but many were against, her. The fact of her living at Contraband with Humphrey Pryor told heavily against her. But when she entered the ballroom, simply but beautifully costumed, the exquisite daintiness of her took the breath away from most. That she was adorably pretty, everyone admitted.
When Humphrey Pryor introduced her to his fellow clubmen, men whom he regarded as his friends, they were a little self-conscious, but they filled her dance programme nevertheless. They sought to cover their embarrassment by an exaggerated cordiality towards both her and Humphrey Pryor. But later, when they were with their wives or lady friends, and met Humphrey Pryor and Lola-Sue, they felt awkward when their wives gave her a frigid stare or a patronising nod, though the women-folk were friendly enough towards Humphrey Pryor.
When Lord Leamington redeemed his promise and opened the ball with her, the tide of envy and malice rolled heavily against her. Though Lola-Sue was aware that there was a feeling of antagonism towards her, she kept her head and affected not to notice it. Her conduct in the ballroom was irreproachable, and many had to admit that not even the beautiful Muriel Stinson, who had supplanted her, and who also had danced with the Governor, was her peer. Though they were rivals in beauty, they were not rivals in love. Lola-Sue, knowing the manliness of Humphrey Pryor and his goodness to her, would not have exchanged him for Billy Stinson, even if that were possible.
If Muriel Stinson had obeyed the dictates of her heart and not her mother-in-law's reasoning, she would not have attended the ball.
"It would never do, dear," her mother-in-law said to her, "to let people see that you cared. Probably after to-night we shall not see her again. She can't be up to much if Humphrey Pryor will not marry her. Men of his reputation soon tire of their favourites. So look your best, and be your brightest for all our sakes."
But the most serious and the most subdued man at the ball that night was Billy Stinson. When he saw Lola-Sue, exquisite and beautiful, enter with Humphrey Pryor, a surge of jealously flooded him. Though she had borne a child to him, she still had a virginal appearance, and he marvelled. A child to him!
This face now rose up and faced him, and he saw the nakedness of his soul.
Though Lola-Sue was not aware of it, Humphrey Pryor had used her as an instrument to further his schemes of revenge, and so far, he had been successful. He had desired not only to rise triumphant over Billy Stinson and his wife, but he had desired to make Billy Stinson realise that in casting aside Lola-Sue for Muriel Poingdestre, he had, so to speak, backed the wrong horse.
He had reasoned that if Lola-Sue's life had so affected him, it would also affect most right-thinking persons, and that a tide of human sympathy would flow towards her. In this, his reasoning was correct.
When the story of Lola-Sue's life became known (and Humphrey Pryor saw to that) there would be a revulsion of feeling against Billy Stinson and his wife, and a corresponding feeling of pity for Lola-Sue. The beauty of her, the engaging impulsiveness of her, and the sweet simplicity of her, allied with the cruel circumstance that brought about the dissolution of her marriage, won for her many kind and pitying hearts, than whom none was kinder and more sympathetic than Mrs. Coleraine O'Neill, who championed her cause, notwithstanding she was a personal friend of the Stinsons.
During a heart to heart talk with Mrs. Seymour Stinson the day after the ball she said:
"Mind yez, I don't say as Billy was roight, and I don't say as he was wrong, but I sez to O'Neill, sez I, that Billy was a bit too 'ager to claim the roights of the law to divorce his wife and to marry Muriel. Shure, she may have been a nobody, but look at me and look at O'Neill. Faith, wer'n't we nobodies, but is there wan of yer pure merinos who ain't proud to be welcomed at Kurrajong Downs by the O'Neills."
And this was true, as Tim O'Neill, by hard work and shrewd speculation in sheep and country in drought time, was now the owner of one of the largest stations in South West Queensland, and he was also the owner of Kumbarilla, in the Riverina district of New South Wales. He was a huge man with a large red face surrounded by a ring of sandy whiskers, but he and his eloquent Irish wife, who was almost as largely built as her husband, had hearts of gold. And the sentiments they expressed in regard to Lola-Sue were the sentiments of many of those within the circle in which they moved.
In winning the Bracelet, Humphrey Pryor had triumphed over such a well-known rider and racehorse owner as Billy Stinson. In bringing Lola-Sue under the aegis of his companionship into the very heart of western society at the time of its greatest carnival, where her grace and charm would be noticed and commented upon, he triumphed over the Stinsons, and most of all over Muriel Stinson. But he had done more than this, though he was not aware of it at the time. He had made Lola-Sue look so attractive, that Billy Stinson was again enamoured of her and he almost regretted his second marriage. If he could have reversed the revolving wheel of time and have brought it back to the period before filing his petition for divorce, he would have done it. But now, he must go on with the tragedy of his life. Lola-Sue was to him a living reproach. His present marriage was to him a disastrous error. The laughter and joy had gone out of his life, and his present wife felt her position more keenly than he ever realised.
The honours were added up in favour of Lola-Sue.
That, at any rate, was the feeling of Humphrey Pryor when he brought her back to Contraband.
He was more in love with her than ever, but she still denied him though her obstinancy was beginning to crumble. Since her return from the Longreach Carnival she clung to him more and more, and when he informed her not long after their return, that he had to take his men to the Gulf to lift a thousand head of steers and spayed cows from Vanrock, she pleaded with him to let her go with him. This, however, he refused to do. Though he was loth to deny her anything he would not let her share the hardships of the undertaking. He loved her too well. Besides, in this expedition, he had certain objects in view which, for reasons he did not want her to know. When she realised that he must go without her, and that he would be away for some time, she threw herself on her bed and wept like a spoilt child. It was the first time that he would be away from her for weeks at a stretch, and she would miss him terribly. "Oh Minns," she said, wiping away her tears when her gin came into her room to see what was the matter, "I hate the boss to go away and leave us. There'll be only Granny left and the blacks."
Then Minns slipped silently away like a prowling dingo and jumping on a horse that she took from the stable, rode, bare-backed, after Humphrey Pryor who was riding north with his men and the droving outfit, and said, when she caught up to him.
"My word, boss, that fellow Lolum-Sue, she bin lub you all right. She bin cry, cry. Mine tinkit, she bin no cry you come back." Without hesitation, Humphrey Pryor said to his men.
"I'm going back to the homestead, you go on. I'll catch you up."
When Lola-Sue realised that he had returned, she was ashamed of her weakness.
"It was silly of me to give way, my mate, but I am realising already how lonely I shall be without you. I shall punish Minns for a traitress," she said, smiling again, without any intention of doing anything of the kind.
When Humphrey Pryor drew her to him, she made no effort to resist. Words came easily, swiftly to his aid, words which made her realise his desire for her. In spite of her resolve to be firm, to stand by her theory of mateship, she moved to him, thrilling, and he was conscious that his desire for possession was mutual.
"When I return, Lola," he said seriously, pressing her to him, "this farce must end. You must marry me. To go on living together like this is impossible. I cannot stand it. I'm only human."
Acknowledging each vibrating sentence he addressed to her, realising his strong love for her, she replied, "I too am beginning to realise, Humphrey, that there is a power stronger than our framed resolutions. If I could only learn that I am entitled to a name I may claim as a right, I should hesitate no longer."
"Well, my beloved you must learn that before I return," he said, placing his cheek against hers. "If not, then I claim you absolutely, name or no name, marriage or no marriage."
Not daring to trust himself with her any longer, he kissed her passionately and went swiftly away, mounting his waiting horse, and riding as if furies possessed him. For a minute after he had gone, Lola-Sue swayed as if intoxicated. There was a radiant look on her flushed face, and she pressed her hands to her bosom as if to ease the rapturous pain within her.
A fortnight after the droving party had gone north, Lola-Sue was standing with Granny Hutton on the broad veranda of the homestead looking down the long narrow valley that ran to the offing of Contraband. In the far distance she saw a horseman riding up the valley, and cross the silver sand at the ford near the slip-rails of the homestead enclosure.
"There's someone coming, granny. I wonder who he can be?"
"It's not a policeman, is it, dearie?" asked Granny Hutton with some trepidation. "You know I hate the police, dear. I hate the sight of khaki."
"I'm not sure, granny, I'll run and get the glasses."
Returning almost immediately, Lola-Sue focussed the glasses on the stranger. "It's not a policeman, granny. It's someone who is familiar to me, but I can't just make out who it is."
"Thank—thank God it's not the police," quavered Granny Hutton. "It would be just like them coming here prying when Mr. Pryor and his men are away."
"But surely, granny, you have now no fear of the police. What could they possibly do to you?"
"You can never tell. I've been chased by them all my life. When I'm face to face with one of them, he always looks at me, as if he's going to say, 'Granny Hutton, what's at the back of your mind? What are hiding from me? Come, out with it?'"
"Oh, yes, I know what the third degree means."
"Nonsense, granny. You mustn't think such things," said Lola-Sue, reassuringly, but in her own mind, she had come to the conclusion that Granny Hutton's fear of the police was a form of insanity.
By this time, the stranger had ridden nearer, and Lola-Sue, looking through the glasses, exclaimed suddenly.
"Goodness! It's Billy Stinson!"
"Now what does he come here for when the boss is away?" asked Granny Hutton. "It's not right that he should do so." Granny Hutton had been told the story of Lola-Sue's life and had no love for Billy Stinson for treating her "child," as she termed Lola-Sue, so badly.
"We'll soon learn the reason of his visit, granny," remarked Lola-Sue as she stepped off the veranda to walk towards the slip-rails to meet her former husband.
"Billy, this is a surprise, but Mr. Pryor is not at home," said Lola-Sue going up to him.
"I didn't come to see Pryor, Lola. I came to see you."
"Indeed," replied Lola-Sue, with hauteur. "Are you still interested in me?"
"I am, Lola. May I come in?"
"Certainly," Lola-Sue coo-eed for Boompa, who came running. "Boompa, take Mr. Stinson's horse round to the stable, unsaddle him, and rub him down. Give him a drink and a feed."
"Yowi, Missy Lolum," grinned Boompa, as he led the horse away.
As they stepped on to the veranda, Lola-Sue introduced Billy Stinson to Granny Hutton, who said:
"But you have no call to come here, Mr. Stinson, when Mr. Pryor is away."
"Well, that's why I have come. If I hadn't learnt that he had gone to the Gulf district, I shouldn't have been here."
"Well, you're here for no good then, Mr. Stinson. I would just as soon see a policeman as you."
"You're very candid, Granny, but I've called to see Lola-Sue for old time's sake, but I'd like to see her alone if you don't mind."
Granny Hutton took the hint and went inside, growling like an old watch dog.
"Sit down, Billy, you've had a long ride."
"I'd ride longer and further to see you, Lola. I'm not happy."
Billy Stinson did not look happy as he dropped wearily into a squatter's chair.
"You look tired. Let me give you a nip."
Presently Lola-Sue returned with a cut-glass bottle of whisky out of a tantalus and a glass jug of cold water.
"Help yourself," she said, handing him the whisky and a glass. "Feel better?"
"Much, thanks. It's a little like old times, Lola. It's good to see you again."
"Is that what you're here for, Billy?"
"Candidly, yes. I'm disturbed about you."
"But why? You needn't be."
"What sort of life are you living here with Pryor?"
"Does that concern you?"
"My God, yes. Since the Longreach Carnival I seem to have wakened from a nightmare. You are in my thoughts by day and in my dreams at night. I love you. I want you back again. I want to atone."
"But that's impossible. Are you mad?"
"Sometimes I think I am. I'm mad when I see you with that fellow Pryor. You're too beautiful, too white-souled to be his mistress."
"How dare you say that. I'm not his mistress. No man has been familiar with me since you had that privilege."
"No one would believe that Lola. Pryor is not the man to live with a woman like you without taking his full of you."
"And you want me, knowing in your heart that I am Humphrey's mistress?"
"Yes, even though you were steeped in sin to the uttermost. I want to take you away from that man."
"That man, as you call him, is nobler than you. He wants me, but he is waiting until I am prepared to go to him in infinite surrender. When I do go to him I will give him everything, my love, my soul, my body. You think you know what love is? You don't. What you imaging is love, is physical desire of possession. You've always been the same."
"No. I'm changed Lola. The old lure of you has overwhelmed me. When I think of the nights when I held you in my arms, when I devoured you with my love, when, exhausted after passionately kissing me, you said, 'If this is love, Billy, may it continue for ever.' God, Lola, I want all those nights back again. I want to start loving you all over again, to be your Billy once more as if no tragedy of years had passed between—dearest Lola."
"It's no use, Billy. That sort of feeling that I had for you once, is dead. The memory of it doesn't even thrill me, doesn't even appeal to me. The old heart in me is dead. You killed it. A new heart has grown to take its place, and in it you have no place. Go back to your wife, Billy. I am content to remain here."
Billy Stinson got up and walked up and down the verandah. He had an appalling feeling of defeat. In the fondness of his conceit he believed that if he offered to Lola-Sue all the old love that he had had for her, she would relent and give herself back to him. Even now, the thought came back to him that if he could induce her to break with Humphrey Pryor she would remember the early happy days of their married life, and go away with him. If she did, he would clear out and take her away from the west, go to another State—anywhere. He would strive to that end. It was only her environment here with Pryor that influenced her. She could not love him. In time he would grow tired of her and throw her over.
In this he judged Humphrey Pryor by his own standard. He had grown tired of Muriel. She had given him a hell of a time since Lola-Sue had out-rivalled her at the Longreach carnival and he contrasted her sullen ill-tempered mood with the refreshing, sparkling, impulsive nature of Lola-Sue, the alluring fairness of her with the swarthy features of his present wife. It was now the nature of Lola-Sue called to him, not the nature of his wife.
"Then you won't come with me, Lola? I can give you all and more than Pryor can give you. We will travel and see the world together."
"What you ask, Billy, is impossible. There's your wife. I'm not going to come between you and her. Besides, I owe ever so much to Humphrey Pryor. I couldn't be disloyal to him now. He trusts me so."
"But if in time he throws you over?"
"He'll never do that, Billy. I've learnt a lot since I was Mrs. Wilfred B. Stinson. In my wider experience of men I have learnt that a sensible woman can make herself indispensable to a man she loves."
"Then you do love him?"
"Yes, with all my soul."
"Then there's nothing more to be said. I am going."
"Oh, no you're not. I'm not so inhospitable as to let you go on your long lonely ride back to Moonburra without resting. Stay her for the night and return in the morning."
"Do you really wish me to?"
"Of course I do. Let us now be sensible and be like old friends. Take a look round the place and inspect the stables and the garden. If you would like a bathe, there's a pool over here in the gorge where the creek falls down from the rocks above. In the meantime, I'll run in and see to things."
"Thanks, I will have a dip, Lola. I feel grimy."
"Minns, Minns," called Lola-Sue.
"Yes, 'um," said Minns appearing as if from nowhere.
"Get Mr. Stinson a bath towel and soap."
In the evening Billy Stinson and Lola-Sue sat down together to a dainty meal, waited on by Minns, who had been well trained. Dining together, as they had in the past done so often, the memory of the past came most poignantly back to Billy Stinson, and Lola-Sue, in a spirit of mischief, seemed to interpret his thoughts.
"This seems like old times, Billy," said she smiling.
She was dressed daintily in a soft blouse of georgette, her beautiful bust and arms and shoulders gleaming in the light of the incandescent lamp hanging overhead.
"Don't remind me, Lola. If you do, I shall forget myself and take an old time privilege of kissing you, you look so lovely. You don't seem to have aged a bit. A little fuller, a little riper, and a little more brown perhaps, but still the same pretty dainty Lola-Sue."
"This western life agrees with me, Billy. Up here in the ranges, the temperature is delightful. In fact, I haven't time to grow old. There's so much to do to look after Contraband."
"I suppose so," replied Billy Stinson. Then suddenly he asked:
"What's become of the old snort?"
"Oh, granny," laughed Lola-Sue. "She goes to bed with the fowls. She's such an interesting old dear, but I'm afraid she's breaking up. She hasn't been at all well lately."
"She seems to have me set."
"Oh, well, you know, Billy, she knows the story of my life, and I'm the apple of her eye. The only time she is cross with me is when I tell her to mind her own business, when she suggests that I should marry Humphrey."
"The damn old matchmaker. I hope you'll never do that."
"Do what, Billy?"
"Well, we won't discuss that, since the subject is so disagreeable to you. We won't mar the serenity of the only evening that, perhaps, we shall ever have together again."
"Then you don't bear me any ill-will?"
"Not the slightest."
And so they sat together talking until Lola-Sue suggested to Billy Stinson that as he had ridden long and far, he would probably like to turn in. Then she went inside, but returning presently with a suit of Humphrey Pryor's pyjamas, said:
"I've made you a shakedown on the camp bed on the veranda. I think you'll find it comfortable, Billy. There are no mosquitoes at Contraband."
"Where do you doss, Lola?"
"In the little veranda room on the north side of the bungalow."
Then, after a formal good-night, they retired.
But Billy Stinson could not sleep. He was consumed by the Devil of self-contemplation. Introspectively he held an inquest over Lola-Sue's dead love. His self-conceit had received a severe shock, yet he couldn't make himself believe that his power over her had gone for ever. He had had his surfeit of pleasure of her in the days when his desire for her was strong, but, his appetite sated, he turned elsewhere. It had not grown with the feeding, and the lust of his eyes had fastened on others. From Margaret Deering it had fallen on Muriel Poingdestre. In each case, the joy of attainment was comparatively brief. He was unstable in his love. With him it was a passion to be gratified, then the desirableness died. Then he had again looked upon Lola-Sue and had seen that she was fair and his old love for her and his desire for her blazed forth anew. Now it consumed him. In the fondness of his conceit he could not believe that his kisses would fall on a passionless mouth. He could not believe that she had forgotten all the supreme moments of bliss that she had had with him.
When he thought of her all alone in her little room clad in her silken night attire (she was always dainty and sweet in her robes of night) he became restless and feverish. His mouth was parched and he threw out his arms as if to enfold her. His desire for her was a flaming hell—a hell that could only be quenched by his absolute possession of her.
"What damned nonsense," he muttered to himself. What if he had divorced her! It was all a mistake. She was still his wife. He had married her. What matter if the law had separated them. Surely there was no impropriety in a man taking up again with his divorced wife. A married woman could not be a prude, and Lola-Sue was no prude. If she were, she would not have thrown in her lot with Pryor. If he could enjoy her, why could not he, her own husband? Damn him and her too. For this night at any rate he would claim her as his.
Hoodwinking himself with the belief that his reasoning was unanswerable, he got up quietly and walked round the veranda to Lola-Sue's room. He found the door partly open but kept in position by a wedge. It was easy for him to pass through.
"Perhaps she expected me," he thought, entering softly. He knew by her breathing that she was sleeping peacefully. Kneeling down by the bed he put his left arm across her and kissed her on the half open mouth. The kiss wakened her. Startled and alarmed she sat up and exclaimed in her fear.
"Who's that?" For answer she got:
"For God's sake, please, don't make a noise. It is I—Billy."
"Oh, go away. Please! Please! Billy are you mad?"
"Almost. I can't sleep for thinking of you. I want you, Lola."
"No, no, you must go, Billy. What do you take me for?" she urged and pleaded as she jumped out of bed.
"For my own wife whom I want back again."
"No, no, that's impossible. You must go—go. You mustn't touch me."
"Don't be a fool, Lola. Where's the harm?"
"Harm! Are you a madman or a beast?"
"Madman, if you like, but I want you more than anything on earth," and he made as if to take her in his arms.
"No, no, stand back or I'll shoot." In an instant she picked up her revolver from her dressing table which was near the bed, and pointed it at him.
"You'd shoot me like you tried once before, would you?"
"Yes," she said, with deadly composure, "and there's no Margaret Deering to get in the way this time." And he knew that she meant it and that she was not afraid.
"Put that damn thing down," he said fiercely. "I'll go."
When Lola-Sue saw him turn as if to go, she lowered the revolver.
Instantly, Billy Stinson swung round and with a sudden rush, caught her in his arms and the revolver exploded.
"Now I've got you, you beautiful devil," he said.
"No? my God, you haven't," said a determined voice behind him.
Turning in alarm, he faced Granny Hutton and a levelled carbine.
"A nice nest of bushrangers this is," he sneered, leaving the room.
"I've been a bushranger's wife and take nothing for granted. I suspected what you were after and like all bushrangers, slept with one eye open. Now you clear out before I drill you, you coward," said Granny Hutton, determinedly, still covering him with the carbine.
Billy Stinson, dressing himself, cleared out. He went to the stable and saddled his horse. When later, he faced the "opaline deeps of the dawn" he was miles away.
When he had gone, Lola-Sue broke down and sobbed in Granny Hutton's arms.
"Oh, Granny, what did he take me for?"
"Not for an honest woman, my darling. You must have a man give you his name to protect you, or men will hunt you."
It was a very sober Lola-Sue that faced the dawn following the night of Billy Stinson's attempted raid.
Granny Hutton had gone back to her own room after satisfying herself that there was no longer any danger to her favourite, and collapsed.
Away in the distant ranges a bull roared and cows bellowed. Nature was awakening. A butcher bird from the topmost branch of a dead tree piped its melody to the new born day. It flew away and its place on the branch was taken by three Kookaburras, who laughed a roulade to the rising sun. Outside the opened casement of Lola-Sue's bedroom, a willy wag-tail, hopped and cheeped in sprightly fashion, for all the world like a fussy little gentleman in a dressy suit. It seemed to be calling to her, to get up to revel in the glory of the awakening.
And for Lola-Sue it was a great awakening, but not in the sense of the breezy call of incense breathing morn. As she lay awake with a soft breeze coming through the casement, gently swaying the curtains, she looked out into the beautiful morning, into the glory of the empurpling sky, and murmured in her heart-ache, "Where every prospect pleases, and only man is vile."
And so she lay thinking desperately until Minns brought to her her morning tea. Rousing herself she surveyed her disordered room, and rearranged her disorded night attire. Her revolver lay on the floor and she shuddered as Minns picked it up and put it on her dressing table.
What if she had shot Billy Stinson! Would her mind have given way as it had done when she had shot Margaret Deering? She placed her hands over her face as if to obliterate the horror of such a thought.
"Cripes, Lola-Sue you bin look scared," remarked Minns. "What you bin do with that fellow gun?"
"Oh, nothing, Minns. How's Granny this morning?"
"She bin bad but say not wake you. Where that pfeller Boss Stinson?"
"He's gone home, Minns. Went away early."
Having made a hasty toilet, Lola-Sue went to see how it fared with Granny Hutton. She found her very ill and in a state of collapse.
"Oh, Granny, dear," she said as she knelt down by her bed and took her withered hand like dry parchment in hers. "Are you not well?"
"No, my child. The shock of last night's happening has been too much for me. I'll be all right by and bye. Just leave me, dear. How are you after last night?"
"Oh, I'm all right, Granny," replied Lola-Sue smiling cheerfully. She did not desire that the poor brave old soul should see that she was any the worse for the horrible disturbance. "You just lie still and I'll bring you your breakfast."
But as the day advanced she got worse instead of better, and Lola-Sue suggested that she should send Boompa to Augathella for the doctor. This, however, Granny Hutton would not countenance.
"No, dear," she said. "No doctor on earth can do me any good now. I know this is the end, and the time has come when I must tell you the story of my life. I have kept my past a secret because I've been afraid of the police—always afraid of them, dear."
"No, no, granny. You mustn't talk. Just lie still and rest."
"I tell you, child, I must talk before it is too late. I must tell you who you are. I was afraid, for fear of the police, to tell you before. When I am dead it will be too late."
The day had been hot, and it was drawing to a close. Storm clouds were gathering in the west and fitful flashes of lightening slashed the gathering darkness as if cleft by twisted scimitars. In the room an old-fashioned clock ticked on with the relentless swing of its pendulum, and each tick, tock seemed to pulse the staccato heart beats to eternity.
"The police, Lola! The police. Don't let them come near me! Promise me!"
"I promise you, Granny," said Lola-Sue with tears in her eyes, sitting by the bedside holding the boney hand of Granny Hutton tightly as if to reassure her.
"Listen then, dear, and mark what I say."
Then she paused as if to gather her scattered thoughts. Time was ending for her, or was it about to begin? Who knows. But we know this (because Lola-Sue had typed out the story of Granny Hutton's life after it was told to her) that she had lived an eventful life—a life that was now drawing to its close. Her life's ledger had been posted up to the last page and its invisible folios were inscribed with deeds of romance that have helped to make Australia's history. The debits and credits ran side by side and her ledger of life was about to be balanced by the Great Accountant. Whether it would show a profit or a loss is for the Supreme Auditor to say when the seas are called upon to give up their dead.
When, eighty years ago at Kidgate, England, a day in June launched her on the sea of existence, the first page of her life's ledger was a clean and unsullied as the soul of a new born babe.
Now, looking back down life's corridors the years seemed to unroll like a veil from the face of time. She visioned the past with all its stirring events which were indelibly etched on the tablets of her memory. Eighty years ago she, too, was a little girl with the violet blue eyes of Lola-Sue. As she grew to maidenhood she became a romping little Lincolnshire lass of a midland farming country, roguish, and bubbling over with mischief. She loved horses even as Lola-Sue loved them and hankered after excitement. To her, the story of Robin Hood and Little John and all their merry men in Lincoln Green was the greatest and most enthralling romance that was ever told. Now, as she lay dying at Contraband, her mind carried her back to the past, and she plucked bright flowers from the fields of her memory. She saw herself at twenty years of age, a bush beauty, a superb horsewoman and a fearless adventuress.
In the early sixties, all Australia, or the fringe of it that was people, rang with the exploits of Frank Gardiner, bushranger. In the backward flash of her memory she saw herself as Annie Elizabeth Janny at Burrangong. A ball was being held at the Lambing Flat Arms and she, young, gay and twenty, was the acknowledged belle. Frank Gardiner was there, too, and he had a marvellous fascination for this high-spirited and impetuous bush beauty.
As a young native-born, Gardiner at that time, had earned notoriety by his exploits at the Victorian diggings. He was arrested for horse-stealing, tried and found guilty at Geelong, and sentenced to five years' penal servitude in Pentridge Stockade.
Escaping, he turned up in the Tarago district, where he was again arrested and convicted for horse-stealing. He was sent to Goulburn gaol for seven years. On the termination of this sentence he opened a butcher's shop at Womba Flat, where he gathered around him the worst characters of the young native-born, who afterwards became notorious as the Gardiner Gang.
One of the gang, Michael Lawler, had learnt that a warrant had been issued for Gardiner's arrest for cattle stealing. Learning that he was at the ball at the Lambing Flat Arms, he rode in galloping haste to warn him to clear out. Dismounting and reconnoitring in the moonlight, he saw and recognised Annie Janny with a man he did not know. It subsequently turned out that he was a detective in disguise, who had gone to the dance for the purpose of obtaining information that would lead to the arrest of Gardiner for obtaining certain cattle "on the cross." Waiting his opportunity, Lawler whispered to Annie Janny to let Gardiner know quietly that the police were on his tracks.
"I remember it all so well," quavered the poor old voice of eighty. "I found Gardiner at the bar, drinking, telling of his escape from Pentridge, and laughing at prison bars. When he saw me making signs he understood and came to me. I was his bush telegraph. When I whispered what Lawler had told me, he just turned to the men at the bar and said with his whimsical smile, 'Excuse me, boys, going for a moonlight ride into the ranges.'"
"Then the Robin Hood of my girlish dreams took me in his strong arms, and calling me his little 'Bush Telegraph' kissed me on the eyes, and mouth and neck, as only a strong man can kiss, and said, 'Good-bye for the present, my Annie, we shall meet again.'"
"The boys wondered why he had left so suddenly, but when they asked me for news I merely laughed, though there were tears welling up behind my laughter, and I ran out into the road to wave him a fond good-bye as he rode away into the night. I can see him now, turning on his galloping black horse and waving his hat as the hoof beats died away on the road, leading to the Abercrombie Ranges."
There was a knock at the door, and Granny Hutton stopped suddenly in her recital. Looking furtively towards the door with a scared look in her wrinkled face, she said:
"Don't let the police in. I know they're waiting for me somewhere, but I'll cheat them yet." But it was only Minns who had knocked to inquire if Granny Hutton or Lola-Sue needed anything.
When Minns had gone and the door was again closed, Granny Hutton resumed her life's story, and told of the robbery of the Government gold escort from the Lachlan diggings in '62. The incidents connected with this hold-up were photographed so vividly on her memory that it appeared to Lola-Sue, who was listening intently, as an event of yesterday.
"That was the saddle," she said, looking towards a side-saddle on a wooden peg sticking out from an ironbark stud in a corner of the room, "that I used on my long ride from Forbes to Gardiner's camp in the Weddin ranges. I had heard when the escort in charge of Sergeant Condell and three troopers was to start and thought Gardiner should know. The police knew that I was intimate with Gardiner and I was closely watched. They thought they would get him through me. But love is a great strategist and I loved Gardiner, dearie. I rode out from Forbes on a thoroughbred that Gardiner had given me. Day had not yet dawned, and the morning star shone brightly in the east. By its light alone I made my way through the trackless bush. The country was an open page to me and I knew my way through the bush better than the police. For two years I had been the gang's spy and bush telegraph. When I reached Gardiner's camp in the ranges, I had to be lifted from the saddle, I was too exhausted to get off my horse. Gardiner was delighted with the news I brought. 'Annie,' he said, holding me in his arms and kissing me, 'if we pull this off I'll marry you.'
"The gang was composed of Gardiner and seven men. The escort was held up at the Engowra Rocks close to the crossing over Mandagery Creek. The road had been blocked by two bullock teams which had been held up. When the escort reached the spot, the gang fired from behind the rocks. Two constables fell wounded. The sergeant and remaining constable fired their carbines and rode off into the bush. The coach horses bolted and the coach was capsized. The gang secured the gold and rode off into the ranges. At the Pinnacle the gold was divided. After this hold up, Gardiner retired and married me under an assumed name.
"In the corner over there is an old trunk. Remove it, Lola, dear, and you will find a loose board. Take it up and underneath there is an iron box. Bring it to me, but be sure there're no police about. Waking and sleeping they haunt me. If they knew what's in that box, they'd arrest me. But they'll never know now. The jewels, they are mine, mine, every one of them. Each is a gift from Gardiner for a letter delivered or a warning received. Pottinger and his police were everywhere. But it was owing to my watchfulness that Gardiner was never captured. Through storm and tempest, cold and heat, down the Lachlan and over the ranges, along the gorges and across the ravines I rode bringing news of the police and of coaches to be held up. It was only when he deserted me that he was captured. I had shielded him with my love. He was good to me and the gang were my subjects. They, too, were good to me, and I was loaded with jewels that had been taken from passengers in the old coaching days.
"Take this key dear, and open the box for me," continued the old soul, buoyed up and made strong by the memories of the past, removing a key attached to a piece of black braid from around her neck.
"In the box there are, besides jewels, old letters from my daughter Frances, the only child I ever had, and Gardiner was her father. She was a beautiful girl, fearless and independent. When she was old enough I sent her to a boarding-school at Toowoomba, where she was well educated. Leaving school at eighteen, she, on the recommendation of the principal, went as governess to two young children of a squatter who had a station on the Maranoa. His name was Richard Garrick. She had been at Lannercost, Garrick's station, two years, when Mrs. Garrick broke her neck riding her hunter over the hurdles at the Roma Show. Garrick then married Frances, but when, later, it became known that he had married the daughter of a bushranger, a gaol-bird, his pure merino friends cut her. This infuriated her and marred the happiness of her life. She loved Garrick, and though he stuck to her in spite of all, things seemed to go wrong. Garrick, whose station was mortgaged to the bank, suffered heavy losses in the great drought and the bank foreclosed. Not long after he was found dead near a wire fence, shot through the heart. It was given out that the hammer of his gun had caught in the wire as he was getting through the fence, and that his death was an accident, but Frances in a letter to me that you will find in the box, believed that he had committed suicide. There was very little left when his estate was wound up, and Frances with a baby a few months old was left destitute. Garrick's people took charge of his children by the first marriage but they refused to do anything for Frances and her child. They accused her of trapping Garrick into marrying her. This uncharitableness hurt her deeply, and she cleared out with her child and went to Brisbane. At the time I could do nothing for her. She wouldn't let me if I could. You see, dear," and Granny Hutton's eyes were dimmed with tears, "when Gardiner, in disguise and under an assumed name, left New South Wales for Queensland, he deserted me and cleared out with the wife of John Byrnes Brown, one of his own gang. We, Brown and I, followed him him to Queensland, but we could not find him. Brown was good to me and always loved me, but I preferred Gardiner. When he ran away with Brown's wife, I became Brown's mistress, and shared his fortunes. We kept a shanty at Hell Hole, near Chinchilla. There we made money, and I could afford to educate my daughter. She was the living link that still chained me to Gardiner, but she was not aware that I was living with Brown. I couldn't let her know that.
"Then we heard of Gardiner's capture under the name of Christie at Apis Creek on the road from Rockhampton to Peak Downs where he and Mrs. Brown kept a store. He was brought to Sydney and committed for trial, but as no murder could be proved against him, he was convicted of highway robbery and sentenced to 32 years' imprisonment, the first nine years of it in irons.
"God, how I raved when I heard of that terrible sentence. Gardiner was still my hero. It is hard to kill a woman's love for a man, dear. Even his unfaithfulness was forgiven, blotted out by that savage sentence. I knew only too well what it meant to a man of his mettle. But I have one consolation. Gardiner had broken prison before. He would do it again. He was incorrigible. If he could not get free he would die or rebel. But he was too well guarded. When he had served eight years of his sentence, his friends, for he had many, got up an agitation for his reprieve. They were successful, but his freedom was conditional on his leaving Australia. He was taken to Newcastle, and placed on board the Charlotte Andrews. Thence all trace of him was lost. It was said he found his way to California, where he kept a saloon and was killed in a gambling brawl."
Granny Hutton ceased speaking and closed her eyes. She was becoming weaker. Lola-Sue, who, through this long narrative, had sat as if entranced by the romantic story of the old woman's life, fearing to speak lest she break the continuity of her story, leaned forward and placed her cool hand on Granny Hutton's brow. At this, she opened her eyes.
"Water, water, give me a drink, my mouth's parched. I feel choking."
Lola-Sue held a glass of whisky and water to the failing woman's lips, and she, having drunk a few mouthfuls, continued:
"I haven't told you all yet, dear. With the passing of Gardiner, the romance of my life ended. Though I still lived with Brown, Gardiner lived in my heart. Brown, too, was afraid of the police. He feared discovery as one of Gardiner's gang. It was this fear that made him give up the shanty at Hell Hole. Then we moved on to the goldfields at Eidsvold, Cania, and Monal Creek. He bought a bullock team and carried loading from Rockhampton and Gladstone to the mining camps. Then he, too, passed out of my life. Loading timber for the sawmill at Gladstone, he was crushed by a log and died in the Gladstone hospital."
Granny Hutton again paused. Her eyes were closed as if in sleep. The old wooden clock in her room ticked on. The day had ended and the thunder of the rising storm shook the windows of Contraband. A sudden crash of thunder made her open her eyes again and Lola-Sue induced her to sip some more of the whisky and water.
"Open the window, dear. I want to see the quivering lightning and to hear the roar of the wind in the gums. I know I am dying. There! Did you see those flashes? They seem like golden slip-rails let down for my waiting soul to pass through to the green fields of eternity."
"To the Land O' Everlastin', Granny, where we must all go," remarked Lola-Sue with tear-dimmed eyes. "But don't talk any more. Just rest awhile."
"No no, my child. I must finish. When Brown died, I took up with George Steele Hutton. Men were my mates always. Hutton married me but Brown didn't. His wife was still living. Life with Hutton was hard. I made a mistake in marrying him. He drank and gambled and we were very poor. He got to know somehow that I had jewels hidden, and tried to force me to give them up. I denied that I had any jewellery. I was afraid of the police getting to know, so I lied. The jewels in that iron box were too valuable to be seen. If people got to know I had them, they would start questioning, and the police would hear of it."
The storm was now at its height, and peal upon peal of thunder reverberated through the ranges.
"The police won't come on a night like this, dear. I'm not afraid now. Open the box and you will find a letter which you must read. It was the last I had from my Frances."
Lola-Sue opened the box and was started to see the jewels it contained. In her amazement she forgot all about the letter. Taking them out one by one she held up a priceless necklet of diamonds and rubies.
"That," said Granny Hutton, "was taken from the strong box belonging to the Bank of New South Wales at the time of the great gold escort robbery, and that," she said feebly, pointing to a gold locket encrusted with diamonds, set in the shape of a dove, "was taken from a lady when the mail coach was robbed on the Cowra road in '62. Oh, child, if each one of those rubies were drops of my heart's blood, and each of those diamonds my last dropping tears, I would give them all to live those days over again when I was queen of the road and the bush, and the secret messenger of Gardiner. But the letter, the letter, read it again to me before I die."
Minns had come in with some tea for Lola-Sue and had lit the lamp. But so absorbed was Lola-Sue in the drama that was being unfolded before her that the tea remained undrunk, and the food untasted. Taking a letter out of a soiled and faded envelope, Lola-Sue read slowly by the light of a kerosene lamp:—
I have learnt the story of your life. As the daughter of Gardiner the bushranger, I am not ashamed, but as the daughter of a mother who goes by the name of Mrs. Brown, I am. In losing faith in you, I have lost faith in God—in everything. I feel that I am thrown on the world as a waif of shame. Destitute and alone with my baby girl, with no one caring what becomes of us, I am desperate. I have resolved to end it all. But how, or by what means, no one will ever know. I will leave no trace by which I can be tracked. But my baby girl, my little blue-eyed darling, I will leave to the world. It is all I have to leave to it or to anyone.
To-night I lose my present identity for ever. In the morning my baby, my little Mavis, will be found in the street by someone. The world is sometimes charitable to foundlings, and I know that my baby will be cared for.
You will think me mad. Perhaps I am. I have suffered so much. In the room where I am writing this, I have found a card-board medallion inscribed 'Loyal Orange Lodge of Australia.' I am hanging this around my baby's neck, with the green ribbon to which the medallion is attached. That will be a clue if you wish to follow it up. I also enclose the certificate of my darling's birth.
Good-bye for ever.
Your desperate Frances.
Lola-Sue, white, silent, and paralysed, dropped the letter and its enclosures, and looked at Granny Hutton. In the flash of a thought than which nothing is more instantaneous, she realised what that letter meant to her—name, parentage, legitimacy. Then in a paroxysm, she threw her body across the dying woman. "Oh, Granny, Granny, it is unbelievable," she sobbed. "You belong to me and I to you. We are akin, you and I, just we two in all the world. You are my real Granny and you never knew it. Oh, it's wonderful, wonderful!" and Lola-Sue kissed the wrinkled face of the old woman, who just looked vacantly and stared. Then she spoke, jerkily as if in unison with the tick, tock of the old clock.
"I did—know it. From the time—I heard your story—I knew you were my Frances' child."
"But, Granny, why did you not tell me?" asked Lola-Sue with a puzzled questioning look.
"Because, because, I was afraid. Yes, afraid. It was—a story—that couldn't be—hidden and—and I was afraid, afraid of the police. That's why. That's why in all—these years—I never—claimed you—never let on who—was—your mother. If—I—had—the police,—the police would have hunted me—down—as they—had hunted—Gardiner."
The last word was spoken in a gasp, like a dying exclamation and Granny Hutton who had raised herself up on one elbow as if to give greater emphasis to the climax of her story, fell back on the pillows, exhausted, and apparently, lifeless. Lola-Sue thought she was dead and cried out as she took the lifeless body in her arms.
"Granny, granny, don't die now just as we've found each other."
Lola-Sue's pleading voice brought the dying woman back to a bitter realisation.
"The police! The police!" she wailed. "Don't tell them—anything. Let—me die—in peace. It's too late now. The jewels—the jewels,—the jewels will never be claimed. My—little girl. My—darling. Forgive me. It's so long—so long ago."
Outside the storm was dying away in the distance and the distant thunder still rumbled. Then death, with soft, silent, invisible fingers drew a sable curtain across the stage of Granny Hutton's life and shut out the mirrored years.
When Billy Stinson, defeated, rode away from Contraband the morning after his expulsion, he swore that he would leave no stone unturned to take Lola-Sue away from Pryor.
His desire for repossession of her was characteristic of him. He was always after the unattainable. Besides, it hurt his pride, his sense of ownership, to think that Lola-Sue should now prefer to consort with Pryor than with him even though he had divorced her.
What if he had married Muriel Poingdestre! Damn it all, what difference did that make! Lola-Sue had been his wife. For decency's sake, he could not, on that account, abandon Lola-Sue to Pryor. She must be reclaimed, and the only way to do that was to get Pryor out of the road. At present she was infatuated with him. Well, the infatuation must be broken.
These thoughts occurred to Billy Stinson over and over again, until he made himself believe that it was his duty, that it was up to him, to bring about Lola-Sue's reclamation, or her redemption, or both.
Then he began to consider how this was to be brought about. He thought hard and long until an idea, a scheme, occurred to him. He would frame him, and on the faked evidence have him arrested.
He was aware of Pryor's hobby for thoroughbred horses, and as he was a noted horse stealer and cattle duffer, he, Billy Stinson, would steal some colts from Consuelo, the stud station of the Commissioner of Police, and plant them on Contraband.
No sooner had he decided on this scheme than he set about to carry it out. From the Brand's directory he learnt what Pryor's brand was and got his blacksmith to make a set of branding irons. When everything was ready, he and two of his men whom he had taken into his confidence with an undertaking to stand by them in case of trouble, rode over to Consuelo to reconnoitre. This took some days, as they had to hide in the bush and to keep away from beaten tracks.
When they had carefully explored the country and had marked the colts that they would steal, they waited for a night when the sky was clear and the moon at its best. They had not long to wait, for cloudless, moonlit nights are not uncommon in Central Queensland. They decided to make the steal after midnight, and by splendid horsemanship and hard riding they rounded up three colts that had been partly broken in and branded and cornered them in a paddock in a secluded part of the run, where they had improvised with saplings and wire a small stockyard. Fixing a strong halter on each, they rode quickly away across country keeping to the bush as much as possible, until they reached Contraband. There, in one of the gorges of the ranges they blotched the Consuelo brand and put Pryor's brand on the colts. But Lola-Sue, on Battle, was, with Boompa, also riding the ranges in search of straying cattle, when they came across the horse thieves at their work. Billy Stinson and his men, however, were always on the alert, and when they heard ridden horses coming up the gorge, they mounted and and cleared out, taking care to hide the branding irons.
Lola-Sue was too far away to recognise the men, but she rode up to the spot where they had camped to fake the brands and saw the three colts, which she knew did not belong to Contraband.
The keen-visioned Boompa, however, noticed the new brand and said:—
"By cripes, them pfella, make plenty gammon. Him Yarraman no belonga boss. Put boss brand on, make gammon, belonga boss. Too plenty gammon, my word."
Lola-Sue was puzzled. Who were these men and what were they doing on Pryor's horses, but as she could not solve the problem, she rode back home.
Arriving at the station homestead, one of Humphrey Pryor's black boys gave her a message from his boss.
"Beloved mate," he wrote on a leaf torn from his pocket book.
"By to-morrow evening I hope to be at Contraband. Ride out to meet me. Am coming by way of Babbiloora.
Trip to the Gulf a great success. Am bringing fourteen hundred of steers to stock up Contraband.
Longing to see you again.
Men all well but dead beat.
With all of my love,
When the black boy had been given a good feed and a fresh horse, Lola-Sue sent him back with a note in reply.
Have been so lonely without you. Have missed you terribly. Will ride to meet you as desired. Lots to tell you.
Granny Hutton is dead and buried. I miss her very much, but she told me a wonderful story. I am somebody after all. Will tell you all when we meet.
Am counting the hours until then,
Your own mate,
When the black boy was ready to start back, Lola-Sue, in giving him the note, asked:
"Boss, him bin all right, Jacky?"
Jacky, grinning and wiping his nose, replied, "Yowi, Lolum-Sue, him bin budgeree." Then looking at the note, he asked, "What this pfella talk?"
"Him bin say you good Jackey. Plenty bacca belongum you by and bye."
Jackey grinned as he put the note in the pocket of his shirt—then Lola-Sue asked:
"Boss, him bin come with plenty cattle, Jackey?"
"My word, cripes, millions!"
"Well, close up fifty."
When Humphrey Pryor received Lola-Sue's note, he wondered—wondered what the great news was to which she alluded. That it was something momentous, he guessed.
That night as he camped beneath the stars, his love for her became overwhelming, and in the surge of it, he took stock of himself. Was he, a cattle duffer and horse thief, a fit mate for her, the flawless. Was it meet that he, who was watched with more than suspicion by the police, should link the pureness of her, the sweetness of her, with such a life as he had been leading, and was still leading. Though he had bought a thousand head of cattle he was now droving, on the square, he and his men by means of a faked bang-tail muster, and other means, had got together five hundred more on the cross. Each run that they passed on the stock route, they had gleaned by the way, picking up a number of the Contraband stock from the runs nearest, to save long droving. Meteor Downs, Babbiloara, Bogarella, Hoganthulla, all paid unconscious toll to his expert generalship and the skill of his stockmen.
Along the barren stock routes, he had nursed the starving stock, droving skilfully and carefully, but now he was growing impatient. He longed to be back at Contraband.
In the still watches of the night when he took his turn with his men in watching the cattle lest some sudden noise, the fall of a limb, the hop of a frightened kangaroo rat, would start a rush, his thoughts were always of Lola-Sue. With the memorised words of her note ever before him, he came to a firm resolve. This would be his last venture on the cross. In future he would go straight for her sake and he sealed the resolution with an oath.
When he neared Contraband, he was concerned to find that a bush fire had started, and the country around him was ringed with fire. It had not rained for some time, and the intense heat of the day was added to by the heat from the fire. The situation was dangerous in the extreme. Though he knew there were water and grass in plenty on Contraband among its gorges and valleys, still he had not yet reached there. The cattle were tired, thirsty, and restless. From experience he knew that tired and thirsty cattle were more prone to rush than when rested and well fed and watered, consequently he warned his men to be on the alert. If the cattle smelt water and were startled, they would rush in all directions, and there would be no holding them. It was, therefore, with a sigh of relief that he kept the stock in hand until they neared the long valley that ran between the ranges through which ran Silversand Creek. Then the unexpected happened. As if by instinct the mob stopped, with heads up and nostrils pointed, they sniffed and became restless. The stockmen spoke to them encouragingly. "Whoa there! Whoa there!" as they rode behind and beside the herd. All might have been well, but at that inopportune crisis, a dingo, probably driven from the hills by the bush fires, ran in front of the cattle and startled them. Instantly they were off in a mad wild rush, heading up the valley towards Contraband.
Lola-Sue, on Battle, had left the homestead some hours previously to meet her beloved pal. Riding leisurely along with her thoughts on her meeting with Humphrey Pryor, she suddenly heard a sound like muffled thunder. Reining up in startled wonder, she looked at the sky, but there was no sign of a storm. She couldn't make it out. Urging Battle into a canter, she rode ahead, and turning round the point of a spur, she saw a sight that instantly galvanised her into action. Rushing straight towards her in a mad stampede was the maddened, frenzied mob of fifteen hundred cattle, blind, senseless, irresistible. Turning, she spurred Battle forward. The cattle were almost upon her. It was a race for life and the horse knew it. No whip or spur was now needed. Lola-Sue leant forward and spoke with a voice that the horse knew. He gamely responded as he led the charging steers in a race of life or death.
Humphrey Pryor saw the danger that his Little Wonder was in, and with his men rode as if pursued by demons in their brave endeavour to turn the rushing mob. With stock whips cutting, searing, like the lightning strokes of fate, the men galloped their horses heedless of danger or death in their desperate attempt to head the panic. Down the steep banks of the Silversand they rushed and there the stockmen gained on the mob. On the opposite bank they headed the cattle and stopped the rush, but not before a hundred or more had been killed or so badly maimed that they had to be shot.
When the rushing madness had been turned and stopped, Humphrey Pryor looked for Lola-Sue and saw her riding back to meet him, her horse reeking with sweat and foam, and she pale and shaking from the terrible race. When he knew that the danger was over and that she was safe, he sighed with a fearful gladness. Dismounting he held out his arms, and she slid off her horse into them.
"Thank God, you're safe, my Lola-Sue," he said passionately, as he crushed her to him.
And there came to Lola-Sue as her lover held her in his close embrace, peace and contentment, and a knowledge that was now above and beyond all questioning, the knowledge that she had a legal name to proclaim to the world, and there was no further obstacle in the way of her marrying the man whom she loved in a measure beyond all understanding.
Leaving his men to bring on the sobered cattle and the droving outfit, Humphrey Pryor rode on to Contraband side by side with Lola-Sue. They were intensely happy in their reunion. Riding slowly homeward both felt that their mateship was made eternal by the sharing of a common danger.
In Humphrey Pryor there was a sense of an all-abiding love, almost too deep for words. He saw in Lola-Sue's eyes a hundredfold welcome, and all that he craved for now was the peace and quiet of Contraband with his beloved ministering to him with her impulsive yet dainty ministrations.
In Lola-Sue there was a new assertiveness born of the consciousness that she was not, after all, base born. This gave her a rapturous outlook on life and filled her with a jubilant wonder.
As they rode together on their tired horses through thickets of dogwood, Lola-Sue told Humphrey Pryor all that Granny Hutton in her dying hours had said to her, and he marvelled at the strange coincidences that were revealed to him.
"Truly, Lola, mine," he said, "there's a Divinity that shapes our ends."
But of one thing Lola-Sue made no mention. That was of the visit of Billy Stinson to Contraband. She, however, told him of the three colts and of the three unknown men whom she and Boompa had surprised, branding them, away in a remote gorge of the run.
This news caused him considerable concern. He questioned Lola-Sue closely.
"Think, dear. Had you seen the men before? Were they at all familiar?"
"No, Humphrey. They were too alert. Before we could get near them in the thick dogwood, they rode up the gorge and were soon lost to sight round the bend of a spur. What do you think of the matter?"
"I think it is an attempt by the police at a frame up. You will remember that I mentioned to you if they could not catch me red-handed at horse stealing or cattle duffing, they would frame me. This looks like my surmise coming true."
"Oh, but I'm sure the men weren't the police, Humphrey. They looked more like expert stockmen."
"Oh, well, we'll wait and see. But I don't like the looks of things. I'm sure it's a plant."
"Well, neither you nor your men planted those colts on Contraband. You can prove an alibi, and Boompa and I can swear that the men were strangers."
"No use, Lola. Neither you nor I would be believed. The men who planted those colts on Contraband had an object in doing so—to get me—and they'd swear anything to do that."
Then Lola-Sue saw red.
"My God Humphrey if the police attempt to arrest you, there'll be something doing. If they attempt it they won't get away with it. So there!" And her little white teeth snapped together like a steel trap.
"My Beauty," said Humphrey, laughing in spite of his concern, when he saw the fighting glint in Lola-Sue's eyes. "What on earth could you do? The majesty of the law is unassailable."
"Is it! Well the men who seek to uphold it are not. I have heard the story of Granny Hutton's life. I am a grand-daughter of the bushranger Gardiner. If you're arrested, your past record will go against you. You might be sent up for years. If you're taken, what's to become of me? I could not live if you were gaoled. We've been happy together, you and I, and there is only one thing left to consummate that happiness—our marriage. Now that I'm no longer a nameless nobody, I'll marry you whenever you like. Do you think I'd let them take my man from me? My God, no. You've been more than good to me, and more than patient. You've played the game. You've honoured your agreement. Now I am yours whenever you like to claim me."
Humphrey Pryor was amazed at this vehement outburst on the part of Lola-Sue, and was overwhelmed by her passion, by her terrible earnestness. He was more than glad that he had not forced her love. This filled him with immeasurable happiness. Riding close up to her, he put his right arm around her and almost drew her out of her saddle.
"You beautiful, fair-minded, loyal little soul, how I love you! To-day is the copestone of my happiness. I believe you would fight with tooth and claw for the man you love, and I am proud to be that man. It is love such as yours that raises man above the brutes and makes him akin to God."
Humphrey Pryor had not long to wait before his fears concerning the matter of the colts were realised.
A few days after he had returned from his droving trip, he and Lola-Sue rode out to inspect a bore that showed a diminished flow, and were riding back to the homestead when, some distance away, they saw riding up the valley towards them, two constables, in khaki, accompanied by a black boy leading a pack horse.
A sense of deadly danger instantly impelled itself upon Humphrey Pryor when he saw the trio cross the Silversand, making for the homestead. Perhaps it was because his conscience was not clear. If not in the matter of the colts of which he knew he was not guilty, then, possibly as regards the cattle that he had recently lifted from Bogarella and Babbiloara. However, he would wait and see. Whatever it was the officers of the law required of him, he would stand his ground.
Lola-Sue, concerned for the safety of her mate, turned pale, but she was deadly calm. Her lips were pressed closely together, and she screwed her eyes half shut, which was a bad sign. Then she hissed out between her teeth:—
"My God, if they dare arrest you, the fighting blood of Gardiner the bushranger will avenge you."
"No, Lola, beloved, you mustn't take the law in your own hands. You must not interfere. It will be better to keep cool. Wait and see."
When the constables came closer, Humphrey Pryor and Lola-Sue both recognised Sergeant Conway, and with him was Constable Treloar, both armed with rifles.
"Mr. Pryor," said the sergeant, riding up. "I've a warrant for yer ahresht," and he proceeded to read it.
The sight of Sergeant Conway, whom she had never forgiven for the slaughter of her goats, turned Lola-Sue's brain, and she became homicidal. If it had been any other officer but Sergeant Conway who had been deputed to arrest her lover, she might not have taken the matter to heart so much. But that he of all men should dare to take her mate into custody was beyond the limit of her understanding. She assailed him with a torrent of abuse. Then turning Battle she galloped to the homestead in a race for love and mate. She did not spare the noble horse. When some of the men saw her ride up on a steaming foam-flecked horse, they anxiously inquired what was up. Lola-Sue briefly told them as she dismounted quickly, ran to her room, and took her rifle down from its hide-loops on the wall, loaded it with hate, and threw her cartridge bandoleer across her left shoulder. The men ran for their rifles and wanted to come, too, but she forbade them.
"No—you men keep out of this," she commanded. "This is a matter that concerns me and Mr. Pryor only."
The men did not like the look of things. There was madness in the terrible earnestness of their "Little Wonder," and they knew that if she shot she would shoot to kill.
Returning with the faithfulness of a dog for its master, she noticed that Billy Stinson had, during her short absence, ridden up and joined the police. Instantly, with a lover's unerring intuition, she now knew who had planted the colts, and was responsible for the frame up, Billy Stinson was jealous of Pryor and wanted to get him out of the way for good.
"Well that was the way of it, was it?" she said to herself. Then smiling a smile in which there was no mirth, she continued her soliloquy. But he reckoned without considering Lola-Sue. That was the weak link in his chain of scheming. Well now he must take the consequence. How dare he interfere with her Humphrey! "He had been taught his lesson when he interfered with her. Now it was a more serious matter. God damn and blast his soul!"
Dismounting and letting Battle's bridle trail, she took up a position behind a boulder. Looking carefully, she saw that Humphrey Pryor had moved as if handcuffed. Raising her rifle, she sighted carefully and shot Billy Stinson dead.
Sergeant Conway turned swiftly, but before he had time to raise his rifle or speak, he too fell, shot through the head. Constable Treloar slipped behind a tree and raised his rifle.
"Great God! Don't shoot, Treloar!" yelled Humphrey Pryor, who knew that it was Lola-Sue who had fired. But the command came too late. His rifle cracked, and its bullet sped across the Silversand, chipping the boulder behind which, only half concealed, crouched Lola-Sue, and pierced her left shoulder below the collar bone and above the heart. The blackboy, feeling his presence there an error, gave a frightened yell and bolted into the timber. He ran, and kept on running, as he dodged with native cunning like a sinner chased by demons, down the corridors of hell.
Constable Treloar unlocked the handcuffs, and he and Humphrey Pryor ran to where Lola-Sue lay bleeding. She was badly hurt, but she looked up with a beautiful smile when she saw Humphrey Pryor leaning over her and holding her in his arms. Bending down and kissing her, he said, with a voice of intense agony:—
"Lola, Lola, my own darling, why did you do it?"
Then turning to Constable Treloar he said, with snarling bitterness, "May you be damned beyond forgiveness. You've shot the most loyal and faithful little soul that ever lived."
"But I did not mean to hit her," said the penitent constable, as he and Humphrey Pryor between them tried to stop the flowing blood. Lola-Sue had fainted, and Constable Treloar ran to the creek and brought some water in his hat. Taking out his handkerchief, he dipped it in the cool water and bathed her face. Opening her eyes, she said weakly, "I could not bear to see you . . . but . . . I did my best to free you, my heart's mate. . . . . Kiss me once again, dear."
Humphrey Pryor, pressing her to him, kissed her softly, tenderly on lips that were turning blue.
"Look, Lola, your engagement ring," he said, trying to speak cheerfully, notwithstanding the agony of his soul, and he placed the diamond loop on her finger.
She looked at it and smiled wistfully. "You darling," was all she said. After a pause, she continued slowly, scarcely above a whisper, "We were to be married, my mate . . . but to die . . . loving is, perhaps, better. Who knows? They who have . . . wronged me, I might . . . in the joy of your love . . . have forgiven. But, Humphrey . . . . there is no forgiveness . . . for those who wrong you . . . . I'm sorry, dear. . . . The hate in me . . . . is dead. Only love for you remains through . . . . Eternity . . . in the Land O' Everlastin'."
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