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Title: Short Stories Book 4 Author: Edward S. Sorenson * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 2000641h.html Language: English Date first posted: July 2020 Most recent update: July 2020 This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore and Colin Choat 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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The Hairy Man
The Water Test
The Girl and the Parrot
Going for the Mail
Murty Brown and the Kernel
A Courting Match
The Piano Doctor: A Bush Love Story
The Madness of Bill Studders: A Bush Comedy
Whiffs from the Pipe
"They are such a slow, ordinary lot about here," said Brenda Newn, looking up from her novelette, whence she got her inspiration and her ideals. "There is not a man I know who is not commonplace."
"You shouldn't judge men by appearances, nor take your models from stuff like that," Toby Carson protested, with a disdainful glance at the volume she held in her hand.
Toby, the son of a neighboring squatter, was young and good-looking, but awfully simple, as Brenda put it. He was very much in love with Brenda, the stationmaster's daughter, but that young lady treated him with good-humored contempt, as a man of no consequence. He was not smart at anything; he aspired to nothing beyond horses and cattle, and he hadn't the grit and energy to become a king even in that line. He had no ambitious spirit that would carry him out of the ruck of the commonplace. She would court the friendship of a crack jockey, or a brilliant cricketer; people applauded them; their names appeared frequently in the papers, and were known all over the country. But Toby was hopeless, and she had long given up the idea of making anything of him.
"My models," she returned, "are fine gentlemen. They are gallant, clever courageous; men who would 'do or die' for a woman's sake. Heroes—oh, how I would like a hero!" She gazed out upon the silent bushland, and sighed. It was all so monotonous.
"Hero worship is folly," returned Toby. "A fool can be a hero when the opportunity comes to him—that is, the mushroom kind. That sort of fame can be purchased for a song."
"You should buy some of it, Toby," suggested Brenda, with a scornful little laugh.
"It isn't impossible," answered Toby; and he, too, smiled scornfully at the thought of Brenda's fictitious heroes being pitted against him in pioneering work in the wild bush. Brenda was only 20, and these foolish fancies would in time leave her; but Toby feared if he delayed too long that her dream-love might one day appear in the flesh, and, though he might be in reality a worthless scamp, she would be ready to fall at his feet, and idolise him. That would never do. Toby would show that he was at least smart enough to get over the barrier that her ridiculous whims had raised between them.
Brenda toyed with the novelette, whilst her eyes wandered towards Crow Mountain. That blue height, rising majestically towards the fleeting clouds, was the only notable spot in the neighborhood she had not yet explored. To see the rising sun from its top was exquisite, she had heard, and she longed to see it for herself. There was nothing else worth seeing at Dulla Siding. And the camping out would be a delightful experience. She had already made arrangements for the trip, and Toby—tame insignificant Toby—was to be their guide and protector.
"We'll see how you shape on Saturday, Toby," she laughed. "We've decided to spend Saturday night on the mountain, and return on Sunday morning. Of course, you will be ready?"
"Of course!" Toby assented. "Who are the others?"
"Mrs. Hickett and her little brother, Tommy Kane. You'll bring a packhorse to carry our luggage and tents—"
"But that won't be camping out," protested Toby, to whom the mere thought of women's luggage was a horror.
"Oh, yes, it will," said Brenda. "We must have tents and rugs, and billycans, and pint-pots, and the rest. One horse will carry them easy enough. It's only 10 miles, and we'll have plenty of time."
"You won't be afraid of the banshee—the wild man that's up there?"
"Oh, that's nonsense! I don't believe a word of it. Every mountain in the country, according to local traditions, has its hairy man, or some such weird creature. It's only, a bushman's yarn to scare people—but it won't scare me. I hope you're not afraid, Toby?"
Brenda hadn't a very exalted opinion of Toby's courage. This he knew, and it piqued him; for no one, as a matter of fact, had ever known him to show the white feather.
"I've camped there before," he said, in rebuttal. "But, let me assure you that it isn't all skite about Crow Mountain. Old Marcus Croutt, the boundary-rider, who camps just, across the range, has seen the wild man, and he vouches for some strange doings there."
"Could he rope him in for our inspection, do you think? I should like to see him," laughed Brenda. "The old German has never come to any harm, at all events. And he lives there."
"Have you ever seen him?' asked Toby, quickly.
"Old Marcus? No. Could we pay him a visit?"
"N—no! I—he will be away, I think," said Toby, awkwardly.
"You have some objection to him. What is it?" asked Brenda.
"Oh, I don't know anything against the man," said Toby, hurriedly. "He's a bit eccentric at times, that's all. He wouldn't appreciate a surprise party, I'm sure."
"How far is his hut from Crow Mountain?"
"About a mile from the foot. But it's a stiff climb down to the flat."
Toby rode to the mountain next day, ostensibly to look for water and a camping-place. At all events, he was able to take them direct to a cosy spot by a small spring on Saturday afternoon. When the bells and hobbles were put on the horses, Brenda helped enthusiastically to unpack on the grass, and to pitch the tents. The hum of crickets and locusts, and the notes of a thousand bell-birds, rang in their ears as they worked.
At sunset a fire blazed before the tents, and when the billy boiled they sat down on the grass to tea. The mopokes called to them from the scrubs, and curlews screamed along the mountain spurs, while the jingling of hobble chains and the tinkling of horse-bells made music by the spring. It was all a novel, delicious experience to Brenda Newn. Her cheeks glowed in the firelight, and her eyes flashed luminously to the afterglow of a golden sunset. To Toby she had never looked so bewitching.
For awhile after they had packed away the provisions they chased 'possums about among the trees; then Toby surprised the company with a song. He was out to-night to win the heart of Brenda Newn, and he was a good enough bushman to know that a well-sung homely song there would make a lasting impression. He was, really a splendid singer, and standing under the light of a million stars he sent his voice in a flood of melody along the mountain. Brenda had never heard him sing, nor had she the least suspicion that he was gifted that way, and she stared at him with surprise and admiration. He was not so insignificant as she had thought; he was a fine, manly fellow—but still he was not heroic.
He had sat down, and was proceeding to fill his pipe, when there was a sudden stampede among the horses. They galloped with a furious jangling of bells to the top of the spring, where they stood snorting. Then footsteps were heard approaching over the dead twigs and withered leaves, and presently a grotesque looking man stepped out of the gloom, and stood blinking in the firelight.
He was built like an ourang-outang—squat and stooping—and he was clothed in a garb of 'possum skins, with a towering headgear of the same material. He held a revolver in each hand—old, rusty weapons, bound up with wire and greenhide.
"Oh, Lucy, it's the hairy man!" gasped Tommy, clutching his sister's arm and crouching behind her. The others did not speak.
"You make merry, my friendts," said the intruder. "I am glad you was happy. Can you spare me von hundred poundts?"
"What for?" asked Toby; while Brenda could only stare in speechless astonishment.
"I would be happy, too." said the stranger; "but I am so poor alretty. You are rich man—so happy!"
"I haven't a hundred pence!" protested Toby.
"Ah! vos that so? Then I must take der pretty lady away for der ransom. You lofe her, maybe; some peoples lofe her, I hafe no doubt. She is so pretty. They find the money quick, you bet my hat. They pudt it on der stump here, an' go away an' ask no question. Den I send her back."
He moved towards Brenda Newn, but Toby stepped between. "You put a hand on her, and you'll rue it," he said; and he struck a determined attitude that so accorded with Brenda's ideal champion that she forgot her own fears, and became a breathlessly interested spectator.
"You sit down, my little fellow, or you might, get hurt," said the man quietly, presenting the ancient firearms. Toby looked painfully embarrassed and indignant. He wasn't a little man, and to be treated with such contempt made him wild. But he was unarmed, and to place the other on an equal footing he must use strategy.
"It is you who will be hurt if you attempt to use those shooters," he replied, looking beyond the man. "My mate has you covered, my big fellow!"
The "big fellow" turned quickly to look behind him, and in an instant Toby sprang forward and clutched his arms. Brenda jumped up excitedly, and followed a few steps as the two men disappeared into the darkness, struggling and fighting for supremacy. A few yards from the fire was a deep chasm, and into this they deemed to have plunged. Brenda stood for awhile peering into the darkness, and listening with bated breath. She could still hear the clatter of stones, the rustle of bushes; and the breaking of branches; then there was a loud report, and with a shriek she ran back to her companions, who were now crouching in the tent.
"Oh, Lucy, Lucy, he's shot!" she cried! "Poor Toby's killed!"
"God help us!" said Mrs. Hickett, hoarsely. "What are we to do? He will come back and take us!"
Tears stood in Brenda's eyes, her face white as ashes. "It was my fault—it was all my fault!" she moaned. . . . "And he was so brave—so courageous!"
"Let's run away an' hide!" suggested Tommy through chattering teeth.
"Yes, Brenda! There's a scrub here where he won't find us," his sister added. "Let's go?"
They crawled under the back of the tent and stole quietly into the scrub. Through the bushes they could see the fire, and crouching together they watched for the return of the enemy. Five—10—20 minutes passed—minutes—minutes that seemed like hours. Then sounds reached them as of someone climbing over loose stones, and presently they heard the crushing of dry leaves and twigs on the level. Breathlessly they waited, holding the boughs apart with their hands; and when he appeared in the firelight they darted from their cover and ran delightedly to meet him. It was Toby—Toby tattered and torn, blood-stained, dust-covered, and exhausted. Brenda grasped his hands impulsively, her eyes aswim with tears and her lips trembling.
"Oh, Toby, you're a hero—a real hero!" she affirmed chokingly, and as Mrs. Hickett came up she sank on the grass and cried. Toby smiled faintly.
"You're not shot are you?" asked Mrs. Hickett anxiously.
"No," said Toby, taking off his hat and examining a bullet-hole through the brim. Brenda shuddered.
"Where is he?" she asked.
"He got away," said Toby; "but you needn't be afraid he'll come back. He had a couple of heavy falls, and was pretty badly hurt."
Of course, Toby had to tell them all about it, but he was tactful enough to be modest in the telling. His condition was eloquent testimony of the part he had played. And Brenda knew that it was for her!
There was little sleep for any of them that night, and in the morning they were more interested in looking for the horses than in watching the sun rise. Brenda was unusually animated on the way home, riding beside Toby all the way, but Toby appeared indifferent. He once asked her to say nothing about what had happened but that didn't suit Brenda's book at all. He had proved himself a worthy knight, and the world should know it.
Inside a week the story of his encounter had spread through the district, people called to congratulate him, and to hear the particulars, the police interviewed him and searched the mountain, and, finally, a full account appeared in the local paper. Brenda was delighted; but Toby was quite distressed at all this notice.
One day Marcus Croutt, the boundary-rider, called on him.
"I hear you was to be married, Toby. Was that so?" he asked.
"That's so," assented Toby.
"Ah!" said Marcus, rubbing his hands. "You marry th' pretty Miss Brenda, hein? I thought she would lofe you somehow. She admire a hero. Und you go away, Toby?"
"I'm going to Maoriland for three months," Toby answered grumpily.
"Ah! You go on der honeymoon, ain't it? Yes? Well, I am in some little difficulty, Toby," he added. "Can you settle that little account of mine?"
"You haven't said anything, have you?"
While Toby stood meditating and twisting his moustache, Marcus drew a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket. "I hafe set him down here," he explained.
Toby's cheeks turned pink as he read the items:—
"To bein' a hairy man, £1 0s 0d.
"Injuries received fallin' down a mountain, £1 0s 0d.
"To shock to my Sister, £1 0s 0d.
"And a 'possum suit which I destroy so nobody find out mit him, £l 0s 0d.
"To totals, £5; 0s 0d."
"You shouldn't have put this stuff on paper," Toby, complained. "You might have dropped it."
"I look oudt for that," said Marcus.
"If I recollect," continued Toby dubiously, "the amount agreed upon was £2. You've more than doubled it."
"You might also recollect, Toby" said Marcus, "that I didn't agree to be chucked myselluf off der mountain, und I didn't further agree some more to sustin der system shock. What you expect? Hav'n you win der girl? Coot gracious! She wort' payin' £5 for, ain't it? She is so beautiful. Und th' honor of bein' a hero! All for fife quid. Und you grumble! Goot gracious!"
Marcus looked as though his system had received another shock. Toby tore the bill into fragments, and paid the fiver.
He saw nothing more of Marcus for several weeks. Then the boundary-rider paid him a second visit—and it was Toby's wedding day.
"What is it now?' he asked, with ill-concealed annoyance.
"I am so sorry to trouble you, Toby—specially yoost now," said Marcus. "But I am in such a difficulty." He came nearer, and whispered. "Can you len' me fife pounds?"
It occurred to Toby at once that the old man intended to make capital out of their secret. Still he couldn't afford to haggle with him there. He was anxious that Brenda should not see him, so he paid the money to be rid of him, but he knew that the little difficulty would be recurrent. That thought became a burden, and he who should have been the happiest was the least happy of the wedding party. Everybody seemed to think it complimentary to make some allusion to the hairy man, and Toby hated the very mention of that person, and hoped he would never be hero any more. He saw plainly that he must confess all to Brenda to save his pocket, or submit to being continually bled by the boundary-rider to save his prestige. And he chose the former course.
It was in Maoriland, as they sat watching a geyser playing in the sunlight, that he told her the truth. Brenda heard him in silence, and when he saw the expression of her face for a moment he repented.
"Oh, Toby, how could you!" she exclaimed, regarding him fixedly with extended eyes.
"You told me to," Toby pleaded shamefacedly.
"If s the meanest thing I ever heard of," she went on, resentfully.
"I wanted to show you the folly of hero worship," he contended. "And, also, that such honor could be purchased—which you said it couldn't."
"But it was so deceitful, so—Really, Toby, I'd never have thought it of you."
"All's fair in love and war," Toby protested feebly.
There was a long silence, Brenda staring at the spouting water with unseeing eyes, with chin resting on her clenched hand. Toby felt miserable. He stole his arm round her waist—expecting her to throw it off. But she took no notice.
"Brenda," he said softly, "will you forgive me?"
"It's no use crying over spilt milk," she answered philosophically, and with a harsh little laugh. Then she turned to him with a commingling of amusement and pique in her expression. "And you're not too slow after all," she added.
As Toby expected, old Marcus called again soon after they had returned home. Another little difficulty had beset him. As it happened Toby was away, and Brenda had the interview.
"I believe you are the famous hairy man, Mr. Croutt?" she said.
Mr. Croutt started back in surprise. "So he hafe told you?" he exclaimed.
"Yes, he hafe told me," said Brenda quietly. "And let me tell you, Mr. Croutt, that it will go hard with you if it leaks out what you did that night. Do you know that your little joke is one of the worst offences in the criminal code? Robbery under arms—attempted abduction!"
Marcus turned pale. "My dear madame, I hafe no wish efer to mention it!" he said hastily. "Und I promise, you faithfully there will nefer be no more hairy mans. Nodt if I know it!"
That was the last they saw of old Marcus, and no one but the two principals and Brenda ever knew the truth about the mysterious inhabitant of Crow Mountain.
I had worked about a month for a cocky near Two Wharves, harrowing, drilling, and planting corn. He came to me one morning, when we had finished, looking as though be had "family trouble" on his mind.
"I s'pose you don't know of a job anywhere handy, Jim?" he asked.
"No," I answered, and waited tor him to proceed. I knew what was coming; it was the cocky's gentle way of breaking the news of dismissal.
"You didn't 'appen to hear, when you were at Casey's on Sunday night, if he wanted a man of your stamp?"
He plucked a blade of grass, and nibbled it.
"I'd like to keep you on altogether if I could manage it," he mused. "I'm afraid I can't, though. There's nuthin' purtikler doin' now, Jim; les'ways, nuthin' as a man ought to pay for; but if you like to potter about till I get some money to settle up with you—"
"When will that be?" I put in.
"Soon's th' corn's pulled."
He jerked his thumb towards the plantation. "Th' corn we've just sowd."
My talking apparatus seemed to clog for a moment; I could only swallow, and blink at him.
"This is December 6," he said, meditatively.
"1895!" I added, in a gasp.
"Correct!" he returned, serenely.
I altered the set of my hat, and kicked a chip away that wasn't doing me any harm. He also shifted his hat, and acquired a fresh bit of grass.
"You see. Jim—"
"Oh, don't apologise," I broke in. He looked pleased. "It's too bless-ed late for apologies." He looked sad. He was a sensitive person. "I'll look you up when I get back this way, an' if that four quid ain't ready, you take it from me old man, there'll be a happening about this neighborhood."
"Oh. that'll be all right, Jim," he assured me, with unruffled politeness, and, turning round, he eyed a little white speck on the southern horizon. "If that cloud means rain, it will just bring the crop up nicely."
"By-the-way," I interrupted, "I lent you two plugs of tobacco."
"Oh, yes. Yes, yes, so you did. Lemme see, on th' 21st an' 27th of November, wasn't it? I must put it down. I'm glad you reminded me—"
I lit out for the barn, and, when I had expressed my opinion of Corntossle to the few hens about, I rolled up my swag, rugged my billy, and started up the river, to exploit some more of the fraternity.
The banks weren't so well lined with farms then as they are now. Neither were there any defined roads across the black soil plains and boggy flats, where the foxtail grass grew six feet high, and the seeds stuck in the traveller's clothes till he looked like a walking sheaf of wheat. There were belts of scrub, too, melon holes and ti-tree swamps, where his wet boots kept up a tune of "swish-swhop" as he plodded laboriously along.
So, one dinner time, when Burke offered me fifteen shillings a week to chip corn I was glad enough to take the job. He didn't offer me any dinner, but said I could give him a hand "to put in the afternoon." I thought it was some crop he was going to put in, but it turned out to be a chock-and-log sty. They were big logs, every one of which, had to be lifted up and down half a dozen times before Burke, who hadn't served any apprenticeship to the building trade, and whose main tool was a blunt axe, was satisfied with the fit.
It was dark when we finished—after working like Kanakas. Then we chased pigs about for an hour in the dark, as there would be no time to "sty 'em to-morrer." When I had fed and watered them, Burke asked me to come and hold the slush lamp for him. He wanted to see if Speckly had all her chicks under her, and if the ducks had come up from the river, and the black pullet and the red rooster hadn't got the nightmare. Then "would I mind fetchin' in a armful o' wood for the mornin'?" I fetched it—and the afternoon was put in.
We had tea—salt junk, scones and cold pumpkin; and while Burke filled his pipe, he said:—
"Ye'll find it a bit lonesome 'ere by yerself, mate. Maybe as ye'd like to go down to th' barn wid us?"
"What are you doing in the barn?" I asked.
"Huskin' a few cobs o' corn, just."
I didn't like to refuse, and seeing Miss Burke following the old couple, I took her in tow.
There was a fine big heap of ninety-day corn stowed in the barn. We husked at it till 11 o'clock. By the time we had cleaned the husks out with wooden forks and burnt them, it was midnight.
Before we went to bed, Burke said—
"Ye can sthart work in th' mornin'. Are ye an early riser?"
"Yes," said I. "I get up every morning at 9, sunrise or not." I was getting full of Burke.
"I don't kape a clock," said Burke, reflectively, "an' I don't take any stock in th' sun. Ye can't bate th' cock-crow for pun-shooality."
I retired with, a sigh.
Sometime in the night I heard an awful rattling of chains, and other things in the harness room, which adjoined mine, mingled with shouts of "Whoa, there! D—yer. Can't, yer stand still a minute?" to the horses, which Miss Burke hadn't run up yet. I was too sleepy to take the hint. It was so nice and comfortable in bed, and it seemed only five minutes since I had turned in.
Presently Mrs. Burke began rattling the crockery, and dropping tin dishes all over the place. Now and again she called loudly to the fowls, which wouldn't leave the roost; and hunted away the pigs, which were shut up in the sty. For shame's sake I got up. It was 4 o'clock.
"It's late ye are, bhoy," Mrs. Burke said. "Av coorse, Paddy will excuse ye, seein' it's yer first mornin'. But, for Hiveen's sake, kape th' back o' the fince as ye go to work, lest M'Guire's min should observe ye. They do be pokin' it at us whin we overslape ourselves. M'Guire's min will be comin' in to breakfast as ye go out. If they should see ye, ye might remark that we've been huskin' corn durin' th' forenoon."
Burke came running up. He gave me a rusty hoe with a crooked handle.
"Ye'll find Miss Burke down th' farm," He informed me. "She'll 'ave about siven rows chipped by this time. Just sthart forninst her in th' wan beyant, an' chip it clane, as ye may see her doin'."
I had got a few paces away when he called me. "I thought I might as well tell ye that Miss Burke don't like to be talked to when she's workin'."
Miss Burke was a gawky, bare-legged girl, of seventeen or thereabouts, who chipped right and left at a rattling pace. In trying to keep up with her I left a lot of uncut weeds covered up with cut ones, and nicked off a plant or two out of nearly every stool. These I stood upright, or buried, when Miss Burke wasn't looking. She looked pretty often. I discovered later that she was wondering it I had lost my tongue.
She did talk. She informed me that M'Guire's men were the best on the river. One was a stunner. Her father would like to have him. He woke M'Guire up one midnight after working a little later than usual, and asked for the loan of an axe to pass away a little while chopping wood till it was time to go to work again. "Father never got hold of any willin' coves like that."
After breakfast Burke told me I could have ten minutes smoke-ho—while I was going back to work. I was granted the same concession after dinner, and also after tea—going to the barn. "Ther's no two ways about it," he remarked, "ye can enjoy a pipe whin ye're sittin' down huskin'!"
On Sunday Burke said "we have some sport—shooting paddy-melons." The farm was overrun with them, which meant destruction to the young crops. We hunted through the scrub all day, which was mighty hard work, and returned after dark, too tired to look round at a cat fight.
Burke had great respect for a sporting man, and would even let him wash his soiled clothes on Sunday night instead of working. If he got hold of one who didn't care to chase paddy-melons on the Sabbath he would sack him on Saturday night and put him on again on Monday morning. That saved three meals.
I had just got a week in when Burke one afternoon saw me walking back about ten yards for my pipe. He came over to me.
"Ye seem to be doin' a lot o' walkin' about," he said; "do I pay ye to walk about?"
"Am I to crawl, or stand still?" I asked him.
"It's work ye have to do, an' work 'ard," he said. "Sure, it's the aisy billet you've been used to, I'm thinkin'."
"Don't I suit you?"
"Faith, ye don't."
"Then why do you keep me?"
"It's th' fool I am for kapin' ye. Come arn now, and I'll pay ye for the week's work ye haven't done."
He paid me, and with bluey up again I set off up river for Crampy's Dairy. M'Guire had told me that Crampy was always wanting men. It wasn't a very good recommendation, but I inspected the establishment. I was offered a job at twelve-and-six a week. All I had to do was to milk 60 cows before breakfast in a boggy yard; after breakfast, feed 200 pigs and 90 poddy calves; after which I would take gentle exercise in the canefield till 4. Then I'd milk the 60 cows and feed the 200 pigs and the 90 poddy calves all over again.
Old Crampy was explaining how easy it was when one of his men came up and asked for a holiday to go to town.
"I want to sell my blankets," he said. "I've got no use for 'em here."
Crampy asked for an explanation with his eyes.
"I've been used to proper hours and regular meals," he said. "Two suppers a night seems to be the custom hereabouts—one after dark and one before daylight. Better gimme my cheque."
"Which way are you going?" I asked him, when Crampy had bounced away in high dudgeon.
"Straight blanky bang to the back o' Queensland, where there's no cockies nor dairies," he answered.
"Right." said I, "I'm with you" and shouldering bluey again, we departed from Cockydom with gladness and celerity.
Tom Norley had returned unexpectedly after five years' mining in the West. His parents were getting too old for active work and required his sturdy hands on the selection and in the dairy. That was one reason, but not the only one that had caused him to quit the West. In her last letter to him his mother had mentioned that rumour had it that Molly Rayne was soon to be married to Dudley Barham, the jackeroo on Binong Station.
The Raynes kept a small store by the roadside. It was also the post office for the neighborhood, and Molly herself was the official receiver. The mail coach passed twice a week, and twice a week—five years ago—Tom had ridden over to the Raynes for his mail. He took two papers, though he could ill afford it then, and in neither of which could he find any earthly interest. But one came by the up-coach and one by the down-coach, so that he had an excuse to see Molly regularly every mail day.
They were fast friends then, more than friends; and, though he said nothing to her at the time of what was in his heart, he had reason to think that she was fond of him when he left to build a fortune in distant fields. He had done fairly well, and had dreamt of finding Molly watching and waiting for him. Then came the letter from home that told him she watched and waited for Dudley Barham.
Tom had known Barham slightly—enough to dislike him. He had come to Binong ostensibly for colonial experience and received remittances from 'home.' Molly had laughed at him heartily when she saw him riding, and had christened him 'The Jackeroo.' But five years was a long time to look back, and evidently they had wrought changes in Molly Rayne.
As he rode up to the store he noticed Rayne and Barham at the shed, examining a new spring cart. Molly was in the office sorting the mail. She was surprised, and a little embarrassed as she recognised her visitor. Tom was in a somewhat cynical mood.
"You might have written and told me," Molly reproached, looking shyly at him, as he held her hand. "I didn't know you were within a thousand miles of us."
"And didn't care by all accounts," added Tom.
"Accounts are sometimes conflicting," Molly returned. "We are always glad to see you."
"We? Does that include Mr. Barham?"
She laughed lightly. "Mr. Barham is here. Have you met him?"
"Yes; five years ago. Is he as big a fool as ever?"
"I didn't know he was a fool. I have always found him a gentleman.
"Of course. I forgot. I haven't the privilege of knowing him as you do."
"He was a newchum when you left. He has improved wonderfully since," Molly continued, ignoring his insinuation.
"So I should judge—since the mocker has became champion," Tom returned.
"I speak of a man as I find him," said Molly stoutly. "You were good friends, I think?" she added doubtfully.
"As friendship goes on a station," he rejoined. "But you and I were better friends. I thought we would one day be something dearer. Do you remember the day we were gathering quondongs on the hill?"
"I remember you offered to bend down a branch for me, and kissed me instead."
"You didn't mind either."
"Oh, but it was only play!"
"Perhaps—yet I have gathered quondongs in my sleep since then, and kissed that kiss a million times over."
"You must be quite an adept by now," laughad Molly.
"I had hoped to realise my dream at last," Tom rejoined. "But evidently lips, like ships, should be insured when you go on a long trip. Am I to congratulate you as Mr. Barham's intended?"
"I wouldn't if I were you!" She leaned against the desk, her eyes inscrutable, her lips smiling.
"But you are engaged?" asked Tom.
"Not yet—though mother thinks it's time I was."
"I see!" said Tom, brightening at the agreeable surprise. "So he's the white-haired boy with the old folks?"
"Oh, there's no one in the world like him. He's a gallant gentleman—quite a hero, in fact. He's been a soldier in India, and has done great deeds. They called him 'Dudley the Reckless'—he was so brave."
Tom laughed in derision.
"Brave?" he sneered. "I believe the fellow's an arrant coward. He was white to the gills and trembling like a leaf when ha mounted his first horse on Binong. It's all skite, Molly. Self-praise, you know, is no recommendation."
"But others praise him," Molly insisted. "And he would go through fire and water for me. He told mother so, only yesterday."
"By Jove! I'ds like to test him. I'd like to see him called upon to face that flood—"
"Oh, that blessed flood!" cried Molly in alarm. "The river's rising yards an hour, and I have to keep shifting the stake the punt's tied to, or we'll lose it—the punt, I mean. You'll be over next mail day?"
"That'll be decided presently. Let the punt go hang for a bit," said Tom, adroitly blocking the way.
"But I mightn't be able to reach it, if I delay any longer," Molly protested. "See where the water is now!"
"Never mind, I'll get it for you. Tell me about this gallant jackeroo."
"Oh, there's nothing to tell. He's desperately in love with me and everybody thinks he's a most desirable party. That's all."
"All? But what about yourself?"
"I suppose I should consider myself fortunate."
"Then I'm to consider myself a back number?"
"It appears so. They," with a nod towards the house, "think you're not fit to be in the same paddock with Mr. Barham."
"I don't think so, either—he ought to be in a back paddock. But—you don't speak for yourself. Do you wish me to discontinue coming here?"
"Oh! no. You—you'll be taking the papers again, won't you?"
"I think so."
"A newspaper is good company in the bush—something to look forward to," Molly hazarded. "And the ride over on mail days will be a change."
"Especially," added Tom, "if it was extended occasionally to the quondpngs."
"That might be lonely—unless—"
Her eyes flashed mischievously. "You would have to clip Mr. Barham's wings," she said.
Tom gazed out through the window at the flood, and the rushing water gave him an inspiration. He turned and placed his hand, on her shoulder.
"If you will trust your life to me, Molly, I will soon see what this bold jackeroo is made of. Unless he has greatly changed since I knew him, I think the test will disillusion your parents, and then, perhaps, I mightn't be such an objectionable creature, after all.
"What is it you wish to do?" asked Molly, still smiling.
"Go and see to your punt. When you get there the broad, calm sheet of water in the bend will entice you to row; you pull out and get into the current, and accidentally you lose both oars, and are helpless—at the mercy of the flood. Finding yourself being swept away, you coo-ee loudly for help. Then I'll give 'Dudley the Reckless' a chance to dash in and save you."
"Oh! Tom! I couldn't!" cried Molly, aghast at the proposal. "That current is stronger than you think, and the whirlpools would be too much for a horse. I saw one drowned in a smaller flood than this."
Tom half turned from her with a gesture of impatience.
"This is to be the decisive moment," he said resolutely, "the trial of the jackeroo. Go to your boat, Molly, the river's rising. I shall be waiting and watching. If I hear you coo-ee, and see you out in the rushing water, I'll know you love me; if otherwise—then, I will know that Dudley Barham has your hand and heart."
As she hesitated for a mere breathing space, he pushed her gently from the office. Then Molly, with the rich colour in her cheeks slightly faded, threw him a glance he could not interpret, and hurried away.
Tom was not quite certain what would happen. One instant he felt confident of Molly's love; the next he was less sanguine.
Molly was very womanly, and was steadfast and brave; and she had a way of playing tricks, and might, inadvertently, play into the hands of the jackeroo. Again, circumstances might favour that worthy; a catastrophe might happen, or the whole affair might end ludicrously, and to his advantage. One thing, if she followed his instructions, it would be at the risk of her life, and he meant to be early on guard.
Rayne and Barham were now standing at the fence where Tom's horse was tied, and when he joined them his left arm was carried in a sling. Barham was stand-offish in his demeanour; but Rayne showed a manly concern.
"What's happened your arm, Norley?" he inquired.
"Horse fell with me," answered Tom laconically; but he didn't add that such had happened seven years ago.
"You fellows are always getting hurt about here, and so simply, too, at times," said Barham, loftily. "I've never suffered any serious injury yet, and I've seen as much rough, wild life, I suppose, as any two ordinary men."
"You're one of the lucky ones," said Tom, twisting his moustache, and sweeping the river with an expectant glance.
"Perhaps I am," Barham acquiesced. "I've been in some tight places, at all events, and I've faced death a hundred times—"
"All eyes turned instantly towards the flood, and two at least were startled and amazed to see Molly Rayne standing helpless in a small punt, and shooting swiftly down on the frothing water.
"Help, help! I've lost my oars," she called to them.
She was far out in the whirling current, her hat was gone, and her brown hair waved in the stiff breeze.
Rayne was the first to move, hurrying towards the river, and he shouted to her to sit down, lest she should topple overboard.
Then spoke Tom Norley: "Jump on my horse, Barham, and save her! Quick! He's a good swimmer, and will carry you out!"
Barham, white and flurried, made several feints in as many directions, but finally reached the horse and swung into the saddle. As he galloped straight for the broad brown river Tom thought that the reckless spirit of his beast was in him, after all, and that the little plot for his downfall would be a signal failure. But at the first splash in the shallow water his courage seemed to fail him, and he pulled up quickly. For a moment he looked around him, then rode gingerly on, tapping his heels incessantly but harmlessly against the horse's sides, and holding hard on the reins, with his elbows at right angles.
Molly had grasped the top of a dead sapling and, kneeling in the stern, was holding on for dear life. The strain was too great, and Barham heard her call to him to hurry. He gazed affrightedly at the swirling water, and lifted his feet till his heels were level with the back of the saddle. Another step or two and the horse was all but swimming; then, against the protests and jeers of the men and Mrs. Rayne, the gallant Dudley Barham turned quickly round and rode out.
"Get a line and throw it to her?" he faltered. "It's madness to ride in there."
"Go on, you coward!" cried Tom. "That horse will carry you from bank to bank."
"Not in that current, he won't," said Barham, speaking excitedly, and at the same time dismounting. "It would be suicide to attempt it."
"An' ye the man they call 'Dudley the Reckless,'" sneered Rayne. "Ye the chap that can face death ''thout turnin' a hair.' An' it's affeared o' wettin' your feet ye are. Gi' me the horse, ye braggart! Old an' hobbled as I am, it's not a drop o' water that'll stop me from gettin' to Molly."
He would have gone, too, despite the protests of Mrs. Rayne, had not Tom forestalled him. He was scarcely in the saddle when Molly called out again. Looking round, he saw that she had let go the snag, and was spinning swiftly down stream.
Just below was a two-railed fence, and galloping at it, Tom was over in a bound, and flew along the bank until he was a hundred yards in advance of the punt. Then he turned sharply and plunged into the flood. It was a long, hard swim, struggling outward and upward against the current, till the punt was met; but the swim back was easy, though they were swept nearly a mile down ere a landing was effected. Rayne jogged breathlessly along to meet them, and was profuse in his thanks to the one-armed lad.
"You're a trump, Norley, a real trump!" he cried as he wrung his hand. "Ye shall have the pick o' my paddocks, Norley. That ye shall."
Of course, he meant the pick of his horses, but Norley chose to include all belonging to him in those paddocks.
"Right!" he said. "I'll pick Molly Rayne!"
"Molly Rayne?" the old gentleman repeated in perplexity. "Sure, I haven't a filly of that name."
"You have a daughter, though, and she's in the paddock." For a moment Rayne was staggered, and his eyes wandered searchingly towards Molly.
"Whom of the two would you pick, father?" she asked him. "The man who saved my life, or the great hero who wouldn't wet his boots for my sake? 'Tis your pick of the paddock now, father."
"Ah, well, Molly," said Rayne with a sly smile, "as ye put it so, I'll let you pick for me."
It was not till years afterwards that Molly and Tom told him how they had connived at the undoing of the jackeroo, and no one enjoyed the joke more, or laughed heartier, than the old gentleman.
Conyers was making home with the surveyors' plant when, opposite Muddle's farm, he was joined by Murty Brown.
"Jump up," said Mat, "I can see you're off to town."
"Goin' up to see what's become o' Jim," Murty explained. "Seems to me he's gettin' a bit thick with that old flame o' yours. Can't drag him out o' th' municipality nowadays."
"Meanin' Miss Martell?" asked Conyers.
"That's her...She was talkin' about you th' other day."
"What was she sayin' about me?"
"Reckons you haven't a hope with S'lina. Only wastin' your time."
"Pity she couldn't mind her own business," Conyers snarled.
"Seen anything of her lately?"
Conyers turned on him impatiently.
"How could I see her when I've been away surveyin' for th' last two months?"
"Didn't yer see her 'fore yer went out!" asked Murty, imperturbably.
"No; an' I've got no chance of seein' her now, unless we meet by accident."
"I can lay you on," Murty informed him. "She rides to Tatham every Saturday, for th' mail."
"'Tween two and three p.m. you'd ketch her."
"Not always. Know Malcolm Quinch, of Pintpot?"
"Know him well. Broke in some horses for him once. Jolly decent old chap."
"Well, he meets S'lina at Tatham when he's down this way, an' rides home with her."
"Friend of the family?"
"Most intimate friend. Expects to be a relation soon."
"He's stickin' up to S'lina."
"Him! What're you givin' us?"
"Why, blind his eyes, he's fifty if he's a day, an' bloomin' near as white as a flour-bag. Older than her father!"
"That's so," Murty assented. "But he's got young notions."
"An' you mean to tell me that old scallywag is runnin' after a young girl like Selina Saddler? Why, I wouldn't be found dead in the same paddock with him!" cried Conyers, still incredulous.
"Worse 'n that," said Murty, "old Saddler's burstin' himself to get 'em fixed up."
"He ought to be shot!" Conyers snapped, jerking the reins, and dropping the whip heavily on the horse.
"If I was you, Mat, I'd shake hands with meself, an' keep out of th' way."
"You see, a young titter like her couldn't have any love for th' likes of old Malcolm. Consequently, you'd be in high water, workin' on the' station after they're married, an' 'fore you're middle-aged you'd come in for th' widow, an' the station, an' a big bank account. Where could you find a better investment than that, I'd like to know?"
Conyers lit a cigarette, whacked the horse on general principles, and smoked sulkily for two miles. Then he made some trite observations about the weather, and enquired, in a disinterested way, how the Muddles Were getting on. He was not a man who was easily thwarted; he had effrontery enough for two; but he was up against a problem, just now, that required a lot of studious attention.
* * *
Ignoring Murty's good-intentioned advice, he arrived at the post-office much earlier than the time specified. There was no sign of Mr. Quinch, though the publican on the opposite side or the road remarked that he thought Mat was that person in the distance, as it was about his time to be down again. To this, a bystander added that there was no fool like an old fool and another enjoined that "there ought to be a law agin it." Which evidence that the projected mesalliance was public property, together with the fact that a knot of idlers had collected in front of the two places, embittered Conyers against the whole community.
A little before three Selina, Saddler rode up. Half a dozen made a move forward to hold her horse, and as many more were as ready to lift her off, which gave Conyers the impression that they were all on the same errand as himself. He unhooked his horse, mounted, and rode off slowly along the road she had come. In a quarter of a mile the road dipped deep down to a small gully. Here he pulled up, unbuckled his girths, and put in half an' hour fixing and re-fixing his saddle-cloth. Then he commenced a search for pebbles in his horse's hoofs, and was so engaged when Selina at last rode down the hill. His aped-surprise at seeing her was superb.
"Is it really you?" he cried, with stress on the dis-syllable. "It's really me," she answered. "You're quite a stranger, Mat." Her eyes were bright and merry as she gave him her gloved hand, with a quizzical expression on her radiant face that had often charmed him when he knew her at Dulla Station. He held her hand a little longer than was necessary, and squeezed it gently before he relinquished it.
"That is my misfortune," he rejoined. "But it's not my fault; I've strained my eyes lookin' for you."
"Have you! And is this the first time you've seen me to-day?"
"The first time for months—long, long months—"
"Oh, you fibber! I saw you back there at the hotel."
"Did you?"—with unruffled serenity. "Well, you didn't show it."
"Oh! you did see me then?"
"Of course I saw you. I was waitin' for you; I wanted to have a talk with you; but I had no chance there with all those gallant jokers hangin' around."
"I thought it strange that you should go away without speaking."
"Strange!" Conyers iterated. "For me to do a thing like that, Lena, would be most remarkable. It would be more like me to ride a thousand miles to see you."
"A thousand yards!" Lena said, with cynical emphasis.
"A thousand miles," Conyers repeated. "If you said come, I'd come, if I had to crawl."
"I'm sure!" She smiled, so sweetly that Conyers at once raised the limit.
"Five thousand miles!" he said. "I'd walk it barefooted over cobblestones."
Lena did not speak for a moment. Then she asked:
"Mat, how far do you call it from here to Dulla?"
"A hundred miles."
"I left a love of a parrot there. It was out of its cage, and I couldn't find it when I was coming away. Mrs. Carson used to say she never heard a bird talk like it."
"What a pity!" Conyers said, with genuine sympathy.
"You wouldn't believe how I miss it—being so used to it, you know!"
"Yes, of course."
"Would you go up and get it for me?"
"Eh?" The jump from the romantic to the practical was startling.
"Would you go up and got it for me—say, next week?"
She spoke seriously, as though she had every confidence in Conyers.
"Er—are you sure it's still there?"
"Oh, it's there. Mrs. Carson wrote and told me so."
"How long since?"
"Let me see. About three months ago."
"Three months! Why, the whole gamut of accidents could happen to a parrot in that time."
"Oh, nothing's happened it," she returned, easily. "She would have written at once and told me so if such was the case."
Conyers realised with chagrin that he was getting into a corner.
"If she was any sort at all," he complained, "she'd 'ave sent it down to you."
"How could she?" Lena questioned, "there's no way of sending it."
"By parcels post."
"But there's only a mailman, and he doesn't carry parcels—the only way is to go for it—"
She stopped, as a clatter of hoofs bounded behind them.
"It's Mr. Quinch!" she said, in a low voice.
Conyers hardly knew at the moment whether Quinch or the parrot was the more unwelcome; but the slight shade of annoyance that overspread his companion's pretty face somewhat reconciled him to the position.
Mr. Quinch was a big man; he was fairly tall; he was more than fairly bulky; but his beauty was marred by a polished lane across his midriff, and a boil-like wart behind his ear; and he wore a wispy beard, which was nearly white. He was a big man socially, being a pastoral magnate and a J.P.
"Just a few minutes too late to catch you," he announced, as he drew up on her stirrup side. "And how's the little girl?" He patted her on the shoulder in a fatherly fashion, looking under her hat, his red face aglow and wreathed in smiles. The little girl said:
"Quite well, thank you; and how are you, Mr. Quinch?"
Mr. Quinch informed her he was never better in his life, and enquired about the welfare of "her ma" and "her pa;" and these formalities dispense with, he noticed Mr. Conyers for the first time.
"God day, Conyers."
"Good day, Quinch."
The old gentleman's head wont up with a jerk. Mat had always, with due deference, called him Mr. Quinch when he was breaking in for him on the station, and when he had met him since. He did not speak again for a quarter of a mile. Then he asked:
"Going our way, Conyers?"
"I'm going Miss Saddler's way, Quinch," Conyers answered. His head wont more rigidly erect and, with one fat hand doubled on his thigh, and his gaze fixed fifteen degrees above the horizon, he rode along whistling.
The bottom fence of Saddler's big paddock was just in front. Conyers nudged Selina and signed to her to keep close beside him. By this means he drew her a little to one side, so that Quinch pulled up at the right end of the sliprails. They waited for him to got off; but Mr. Quinch wasn't in a hurry. His gaze came down out of the atmosphere, and fixed on the obstruction.
"You're the youngest, Conyers," he suggested.
"You're the oldest, Quinch," Mat returned.
"And you're the nearest;' Mr. Quinch," Selina added, sweetly.
Mr. Quinch saluted, and responded with fine gallantry:
"It's a pleasure to put down sliprails for you, Miss Saddler."
He put them down and, when he had led his horse over, he stood by and, as soon as Selina was through, he slipped them up in Conyers' face. He chuckled with satisfaction as he rejoined Selina, who had ridden on.
"The rouseabout's not as smart as he thought he was," he remarked and laughed aloud.
Selina glanced over her shoulder and her pink cheeks went scarlet. Conyers sat on the wrong side of the fence, his leg thrown over the pommel, twisting his moustache. A little further on she glanced at him again, then suddenly wheeled round and rode back.
"Let me through, Mat," she requested. Her eyes flashed angrily, and there was a firm set about her lips. Mat obeyed with alacrity.
"We'll ride round by the top sliprails," she added.
"God bless you, old girl!" said Conyers, fervently. His head, for the moment, whirled with the intoxication of a lover's triumph.
"I would never have thought that of Mr. Quinch," she went on. "He was very rude."
"He's an old pig!" Mat declared, viciously.
"Oh, don't say that," Selina protected. "He has always been very gentlemanly until now."
Mr. Quinch remained whore she had left him; he stood looking after them for several minutes, then cantered on up the paddock.
"I suppose there'll to a row over this," Selina continued. "If he's got any of the pig in him, he'll show it now....My troubles!"
"That's right, Lena," Conyers approved. "Don't you be put about for any old fossil. You shape your own course."
"I intend to," she assured him. "Now, about my parrot, Mat."
Mat's ego had boon soaring away up in the firmament, breathing ambrosia; now it came back to earth with a sickening drop.
"Let me see," she went on, meditatively. "Can you meet me again at the post office this day week?"
"With pleasure!" said Mat. "I'll meet you every day."
"I'm only down on Saturday," she informed him, coldly.
"What about Sunday?"
"I go to church on Sunday."
"Do you ride, or walk?"
"My father and mother, and myself."
"Ah! that knocks the church out. I was going to reform."
"You sinner!" she denounced, but with a piquant accentuation that made it seem to Mat like a compliment.
"Well," she resumed, "I'll bring you a letter for Mrs. Carson. Then, if you start away next morning, you could be back by the following Saturday. Couldn't you?"
"Ye-es," Mat admitted grudgingly, "I could, but the trouble is, will they let me come back?"
"I'll tell you. I saw Carson not long ago, an' he tried very hard to get me to go back to Dulla. 'I have a lot of colts I want breakin' in, Conyers,' he says. 'You always gave me satisfaction; in fact, you suit me better than anyone I know an' I'd like you to do them for me. 'Sorry,' I says, 'but I've got a good steady billet just now. 'Well, look 'ere, Conyers,' he says, 'I'll put you on permanent as overseer. The salary is four pound a week. What do you say?' 'I'll write an' let you know,' I says, wishin' to let him down easy. 'I won't decide now.' He pressed me, an' argued for a long time—dead bent on gettin' me, an' I 'ad a precious hard job to shake him off. Result of bein' thought so much of. So you may depend, when I land out there, he'll move heaven and earth to keep me there. Wouldn't to surprised if he didn't poison the parrot."
"Mr. Carson wouldn't do anything like that," she averred, "and he couldn't delay you when you are on a special commission for me. He'd offer to send some one else. He might even come himself."
"Pigs might fly," laughed Selina. "You must tell him I won't trust any one else. The station men are too careless; they wouldn't feed it and look after it properly."
"It's no use," thought Mat. "I'm hooked for that blamed parrot."
She explained how he was to feed it, and what he was to feed it on; what he was to do when it got the cramps or the colic, and how he was to care for it in varying weathers and temperatures; while Mat endeavoured to look pleasant and interested.
By this time they had crossed the boundary. Mat now made the most of his time to the house-paddock gate, which was hidden from the house by a clump of wattle. This was the end of his tether. He opened the gate slowly, enquiring meanwhile who had made it, and showing much general interest in it; he shut it and fastened it with elaborate care, remarking the neat fit, and would gladly have leaned on it for the rest of the day. But Lena did not dully. A final word or two, a grip of hands across the interesting gate, while their eyes spoke what their lips dared not utter, and they parted, Lena cantering briskly home, and Mat riding leisurely back, thinking tenderly of an absent but obtrusive bird.
He was half-way to the sliprails, when Hugh Saddler, mounted on Quinch's sweat-stained horse, rode out of a patch of scrub and intercepted him. 'Long Hugh,' as he was called, was a solidly-built, powerful man, with thick, reddish-brown beard, and small, fierce eyes. He wasted no time in preliminaries.
"What are you doin' here?" he demand.
"I've been helpin' Miss Saddler through the paddock," Conyers replied.
"Helpin' her through the paddock, have you? I'll help you through, you dog." He spurred up to him, swinging a heavy stockwhip, "I'll learn you to sneak round after my daughter, an' insult my friends!"
Mat dodged the whip. The horse didn't. With a frantic snort, it plunged forward, and bolted. It bolted all the way to the sliprails. Long Hugh was bolting close behind, still swinging the whip, and threatening dire consequences when he got near enough; so the leader turned and continued its bolting career along the fence. It was a substantial two-rail fence, that offered no facilities for getting through in a hurry.
They turned the corner and measured the top line with great strides. Long Hugh began to drop back before the next corner was reached, and derisive roars and thunderous whipcracks now added to the clatter and crash of hoofs over the brittle dead wood and dry bark. The back line ran into a deep lagoon. Conyers ran into it too, taking a great leap that carried him head under and lost him his hat. Long Hugh pulled up on the bank, and laughed mockingly, and cracked his whip again.
Mat dismounted on the other side and, tying his horse to a sapling, threw his coat off and rolled his sleeves up.
"Come on, you big cur!" he cried. "Come an' fight me like a man!" He spat on his hands, rubbed them together, and shaped up, stepping this way and that way with lightness and agility. "Put yer whip down, an' come an' fight me!"
"Yh!" said Hugh, and wheeling his horse round, galloped away.
* * *
On the following Saturday Conyers was at the post office in good time. He was there all the afternoon. Selina did not come; but towards sundown Long Hugh appeared instead. They looked defiance at each other, but did not speak.
When he had gone, Mat entered the office, and asked if there was a letter for him. There was, and the mere sight of it softened the disappointment he felt at not seeing the girl.
Opening it round the corner, he read:
Dear Mr. Conyers,—This is to tell you that
all is over between us, and you must not seek to meet me again. I
have decided to marry Mr. Quinch.
The first reading of that epistle left Mat in a cold sweat; with the second perusal he recovered a little; the third scrutiny left him quite comfortable, and a subsequent study evoked a cunning grin.
"You're a little bit too previous, Mr. Saddler," he remarked, the grin widening. "We ain't got that far yet—an' you've left out the dashed parrot!"
Conyers had begun to despair of ever seeing his girl again, when the post brought him the long-expected letter. It was concise and non-committal, as follows:
Dear Mr. Conyers,—I enclose the letter
which you are to deliver to Mrs. Carson. I regret I could not
communicate with you earlier.—Yours faithfully,
P.S.—What do you think? Mr. Quinch and me are not speaking now.—S.S.
Conyers was thankful for that postscript. In high spirits he sought Murty Brown.
"Will you do me a favour, Murty?" he asked.
"Well," said Murty cautiously, "I'd like to hear it specified 'fore I make any rash promises."
"It isn't much," Conyers assured him, "an' it's worth a fiver to you."
Murty's interest quickened; he loved fivers. Still, he waited to hear more.
"I want you to ride to Dulla, and back."
"An' bring down a parrot that Miss Saddler left there. I promised to get it for her, but I can't get away."
"Just a little, wee thing—one o' those greenleeks," Conyers pacifically explained. "It'll be in a tiny cage—so big." He measured with his hands the size of a cigar-box. "Weighs just a few ounces. You can sling it over your shoulder with a strap—you'll hardly know you've got it. The only' thing is, you must look after it. It's valuable."
"What lookin' after does it want?"
"Oh, just feed it when you feed yourself, give it clean water an' some gum blossoms, an' shelter it at night an' when it rains"
"That's simple enough," Murty reflected, "but I dunno if I've got a horse fit for the journey."
"I'll lend you old Yabbati."
"Is he quiet?"
"Quiet 's a lamb."
"Used to parrots?"
"Used to anything."
"Right. I'm ready."
* * *
Murty started away next morning, and on the third day he reached Dulla and delivered his message. So far he had every reason to to satisfied with his bargain; but when he saw the object of his trip, his face lengthened, his eyes rounded like saucers, and his remarks wore appropriate, but not necessarily complimentary. The little, wee thing had developed into an aggressive, screeching galah, and was confined in a galvanised-wire cage, a yard high. At first Murty declined to accept the responsibility. He wouldn't have come with less than a buggy and pair, he told the men, if he had been dealing with an honest man; and his chagrin was not lessened by the fact. that the men persisted in reminding him every five minutes that he had been properly had.
Murty turned in as soon, as he got to the hut.
"Ain't you goin' to 'ave a game o' cards tonight, Murty?" asked one of the men.
"I didn't come up here to play cards," Murty replied, sulkily.
"Ah! dealin' exclusively in little tldgy-widgy greenleeks now?"
The men laughed softly. Murty answered never a word.
"Thought, you wur goin' to 'ave a yarn with us, not seein' you for such a long time," another man remarked.
"I s'pose I can please meself," Murty snapped. "I'm me own boss, ain't I?"
The night's sleep refreshed Murty, and at the same time reconciled him to the increased size in parrots. Reflection showed him that he must take it or lose his money; so he took it.
In the meantime another letter had come from Brown's employer:
Dear Mr. Conyers,—When you get the bird,
come straight down to the house with it. I will be at home any
Conyers' hair fairly bristled at that. "Straight down to the house!" he cried in consternation. "Straight into a violent grave!...She can't know her old man's opinion of me, surely, or she wouldn't precipitate a conflict like that...An' it looks bad, fightin' with your girl's father...I must write an' tell her when Brown comes back; I'm supposed to be at Dulla now."
Murty arrived a day late. He was in a sorry plight; he was a wreck. So were the bird and the cage, the former bedraggled and seedy, the latter dinted in half a dozen places. He thrust it at Conyers.
"Is that a greenleek?" he demanded.
Conyers looked, at it with surprise. "That ain't th' bird Mrs. Carson gave you, is it?" he asked in return.
"There ain't no question about that," Murty informed him with feeling. "It's th' one S'lina left up there in this identical galvanic hen-coop. But it's evidently growed a yard or two since you saw it. Things do grow surprisin' in th' Logan climate. Shouldn't wonder if the spur I lost ain't an anchor when I drop on it again."
"Well, Murty," said Conyers, apologetically, "I understood from what she told me that it was a midget."
"Of course," Murty rejoined, with moderating sarcasm, "when you put it alongside a full-grown emu, it is a midget...I hope it cements th' love-bonds anyway."
"That's right," said Conyers, soothingly. "Tell us how you got on."
Murty coughed, and swallowed.
"Am I to talk all day with me tongue hangin' out?"
"I beg yours," said Conyers. "Come an' have one."
Outside of "three fingers" Murty was more congenial.
"I'll tell you how I got on, also how I got off," he commenced. "For the first fifty miles I carried th' squawker in front o' me, balanced on th' pommel. I got tired o' that, specially as I couldn't go out of a walk anyways convenient, and th' varmint kept climbin' up an' nippin' me fingers when I wasn't lookin'. Never saw such an obstropulous fowl, always fidgetin' about an' lookin' for mischief. So I got a strap an' hung th' cage to th' crupper staple. As Yabbati didn't seem to mind th' change, after a mile or two, I reckons I'll do a bit of a canter. The jump off upset Squawker an' th' flutterin' an' screechin' he did gettin' his balance gave Yabbati such an all fired start there was no holdin' him. The faster he went th' more th' cage bumped, till it began to swing over the crupper. "'Twould whang him hard on one flank, then swing over an' whang him on the other; an' that bird in a devil's own stew all th' time tryin' to find out in a great hurry which was right side up, an' to sort himself out from th' tins that 'ud broke loose. One moment he'd be on his head on th' top end o' th' cage, an' th' next on his back on th' bottom, an' screechin' for all creation to come an' look at his gymnastics.
"Pretty soon that horse was a cyclonic disturbance married to an earthquakes. He just whiz! God love a duck, I was glad to be off him. I dismounted in a cookspur bush—head fust, an' when I'd separated from that, Yabbati 'ad disappeared down the river with th' poultry. I wouldn't a minded to much if 't 'ad been early in th' day; but it was near sundown, 'an' th' next gate was ten mile ahead. I must have daylight to keep th' tracks, to pick up what was left o Squawker if he got slung. I reckoned, by th' lively trip he was havin', that was his only chance of survivin'. "'T any rate, I camped at dusk—just dropped down under a tree. Had nothin' for supper, an' th' same for breakfast; an' at sunrise I sets off again. Th' long grass hung over th' track, an' I was soppin' 'fore I'd gone a mile. I kept whistlin' 'Sweet, Pretty Joey,' an' other melodious airs, an' sayin' 'Hulloa, Cocky!' where th' vegetation was too thick for me to see him if he was hangin' round.
I fell to hopin' he was hangin' round on th' landscape somewhere, an' not on Yabbati, as otherwise that moke would go to th' Lord knows where. 'Twasn't no easy matter list'nin' for Squawker's musical voice either. It was feed-time with th' parrot fam'ly, an' if there was one, there was forty million in th' trees, all jabberin' at once, an' lettin' out a top-notch screech every half-minute. None of 'em was a bit like Squawker, but they all had his sweet voice, more or less.
That started me lookin' up, thinkin' he'll get out; an' whenever I heard a bigger row than usual, I plodded over to investigate, feelin' sure they'd found the immigrant, an' was puttin' him through th' language test. There never was a mortal so concerned about parrots as I was that mornin'.
"I found him at last. I'd come about seven mile then. He was still in his residence, which was all skew-whiff, an' layin' on its side under a tree, but he wasn't takin' much interest in anything goin' on. Looked 's if he'd been on a long bust an 'adn't oombed his hair since he got up. 'Poor old cocky!' I says, crookin' me finger at him. He only backed away, openin' his eyes an' shuttin' 'em. Seemed to thinK I'd done him an injury some time or other.
"Well, I lugged him along and pretty soon I meets a horseman, leadin' Yabbati. The brute had lost both reins and the quart-pot so I 'ad to fix up with saddle straps.
"What 're yer doin' with that?" says th' chap, meanin' Squawker.
"Carryin' him," I says.
"Fetched him far!"
"Goin' much further?"
"Thirty-three mile." He stared.
"What's his speciality?" he asks.
"Squawkin'," I says.
"He looked considerably mystified.
"What are yer transportin' him for?" he asks me.
"For a friend o' mine," I says.
"Well, by gum," he say, startin' off.
"I've met him at last!"
"Met who?" I sings out after him.
"The biggest fool on the river!"
"That made me feel small; but 'twasn't no use arguin', he was gone. Ten minutes later I reckoned that chap was about right. Squawker looked in such bad repair that I set about feedin' him straight away. Couldn't get him to eat out of th' tins, seemed to 've lost his appetite; so caught him an' tempted him with a bit on th' point o' me tongue, th' way I've seen women do. He tasted it very cautious once or twice then, all of a sudden, he let out a screech an' laid hold, an' gunbust me if he don't near take th' piece out. By cripes, I was near screwin' his worthless neck, I can tell you. Tongue's sore yet...Mine's another of the same."
"How did th' horse go after that?" asked Conyers.
"Fine; he's a good leader," Murty answered.
Conyers now wrote to Seiina, explaining that though her father had the warmest feelings for him they were of an aggressive kind, and he desired, for her sake, to avoid bloodshed. To which came the impatient reply:
Dear Mr. Conyers,—Please bring the bird down to the house.—Yours sincerely, SELINA SADDLER.
In a wondering, doubtful, frame of mind, Conyers sought counsel of Jim Webb, who was supposed to possess some acumen in delicate situations of this sort.
"May I enquire, Mr. Conyers," said Jim, in his usual elaborate style, "on what terms you were with Miss Saddler when you last had the honour of being in propinquity with her?"
"We were th' best o' friends—I may say, we were 'more than friends."
"Bordering on the sentimental, in fact?"
Jim wore an air of judicial gravity.
"Now, you never played any lark on her that would cause her to seek revenge?"
"Play a lark on her?" Conyer's look and tones conveyed a scathing rebuke.
"Did you over do anything—unintentionally, or in fun—that caused her to say; 'All right, old boy; I won't forgot you for that?"
"Never! Why, I'm doin' her a tremendous favour.
"Very well. Now, about the letter. Is it genuine?"
"It wouldn't be dictated?"
"Very good." Jim summed up in profound silence. "Your course is clear," he concluded. "Put your faith in the girl. She has some surprise in store for you."
"Why," cried Conyers, uncomfortably. "That's what I've been expectin'!"
"Some agreeable surprise," Jim added more explicitly.
"Oh! By jove, I think you're right."
"Haste ye to the tryst, Matthew, and, take the ring with you."
Matthew hesitated. Profiting by Murty Brown's experience, he drove down in a buggy. A man stopped him on Tatham Bridge.
"I heat Long Hugh's lookin' for you, Conyers," he said.
"What's he want me for?" asked Conyers, uneasily.
"I believe he's got a hat of yours, the man answered, grinning.
"Oh! You're very funny, ain't yer?"
Conyers drove on, thinking hard.
Half-way up the paddock he met Long Hugh, riding outward, a stockwhip coiled in his hand.
Both pulled up.
"Goin' to th' house?"
"Yes, got a parcel for Miss Saddler."
Long Hugh nodded approval. "Didn't see any cattle outslde, did y'?"
"Lost a roan heifer somewhere. Must 'ave swum th' lagoon."
Conyers glanced at him sharply, but he was looking down the road with a set face.
"Well, so long!"
"There's been alterations here, sure enough," Conyers mused, driving on. "Can't make it out."
"As he drove up in front of the house, Selina, smiling prettily, came out to meet him.
"An' you've really got my little birdie!" she cried. "Oh, that is good of you!...But...What's happened to him?"
The parrot chipped in: "Oh, you blessed son of a gun!"
Selina looked horrified.
Conyers answered: "The horse pulled away from me comin' down, an' did a bit of a fly round."
"Poor Joey!" said Selina, compassionately. "An' they tumbled, you about, did they?"
"Damaged his feathers a bit, that's all," said Conyers, lightly. "He'll soon get over that."
The parrot interrupted: "Shut yer squawk, yer blistered swine."
Selina, with a shocked expression, stared at the bird, and then at Conyers. "Did you hear it! My goodness, wherever did it learn such language?"
"Seems to have been in bad company," remarked Conyers, painfully embarrassed.
"I never-heard that bird utter a bad word before. Did you have much, trouble with it?"—suspiciously. "None at all!" said Conyers, which was perfectly true.
The parrot interpolated: "Stuff yer hungry gizzard, you cow!"
"O dear!" cried Lena. "The bird's ruined."
"God's truth," muttered Conyers under his breath, "that man Brown's been usin' some nice talk to it on the road."
"How can I keep such a bird?" Lena went on, distressedly, "and I thought such a lot of it, too."
"It'll forget all that in a month or two," Conyers predicted.
"I do 'hope so. I can't think how it could have picked up such expressions. It wasn't in the men's hut, was it?"
"No, at the house."
"Was Mrs. Carson at home?"
"Has she been away?"
"It's strange!" She stared at it in dismay and wonder.
"Take it inside, Lena; I want to have a talk with you." Conyers was anxious to be rid of the whole subject.
She took it round to the back, and when she returned, he said:
"Lena, why did you tell me to come down?"
"To bring the parrot, of course."
"But what's made such a change in your father?"
"Don't ask me." Her cheeks flushed, and her eyes drooped under his gaze.
"I want to know," he insisted.
"I'll tell you another time."
He shaped a fresh course. "Malcolm Quinch, Esq., has left off comin' here?"
"Yes; he precipitated matters that evening, and I refused him."
"An' there's no other?"
"There's no other."
"Lena"—Mat took a long breath and at the same time drew a ring from his pocket—"will you wear it for me?"
Her eyes questioned him.
"I love you," he answered them, his arm stealing across her shoulders.
After a hesitating moment, with head bent and face puckered, she held out her finger. He grasped the hand impulsively and, tilting her chin with it, kissed her on the lips.
* * *
"He stayed for tea that night, at the invitation of Long Hugh and, just before he left, standing by the buggy in the moonlight, Lena completed the story.
"The week after you were here, father went down to the post himself," she began. "On the following Saturday morning I said to him: 'Father, I want to go down to-day with an important letter.' 'I'll take it,' he said. 'I prefer to post it myself,' I told him. 'For Mat Conyers, I suppose?' he said. We had a row over you and Mr. Quinch a fortnight before, and I was that wild I let him think we were engaged. 'Yes,' I replied, 'it's for Mat Conyers.' He got the needle then. He said: 'If you go outside my paddock, you'll stop outside.' 'Very well,' I said, 'I'll go now. Will you send my box down to the hotel?' 'Not a step!' he answered. 'Well, I'll take what I can carry, and leave the box,' I told him. I bundled up some things there an' then, put on my hat, an' went to him again. 'Good-bye, father,' I said, 'I'm going.' It was only bluff; if he had held out, I don't know what I'd have done.
"But he was all of a tremble, and I knew he was fond of me. 'Don't be a fool, Lena,' he said, choking. 'Put your things back.' 'Who's going to the post office?' I asked him. 'You can go,' he replied. I determined then to go the whole hog, as the saying is. I said: 'Will you let Mr. Conyers come and see me if he wishes? It's no use being nasty, father. If Mr. Conyers can't come to me, I'll go to him—and you know you can't stop me.' 'All right, my girl,' he said, have it your own way.' 'Thank you dear,' I said, and then I broke down.
"He kissed me, and told me he wouldn't be nasty any more, and then he saddled my horse and lifted me on."
"Splendid!" Conyers cried, in breathless ecstacy, while his arm tightened around her. "You're a real brick."
FOR several weeks Jack Norrey and Doris Wynton had been in the habit of meeting twice a week the post-office—which was a candle-box nailed to a tree on the mail track, equidistant between Norrey's and Wynton's selections. Doris was a graceful little girl of nineteen, and Jack a sturdy young bushman, who had made a bit of money at droving, and invested it in a few acres of good grazing land. He had built a comfortable hut thereon, and had been supremely happy in his bachelor home until Doris crossed his path. Then for the first time it occurred to him that the place was lonely; and thenceforth it grew lonelier and lonelier, despite the improvements he put on it.
The fresh, sweet face of Doris Wynton had at once attracted Jack's notice; he grew fond of her—desperately fond, indeed—he had long confessed to himself that he was passionately in love. But be had not told Doris; he had only gone so far as to request the favour of seeing her at a certain hour on mail day at the post-office, to which Doris had graciously acquiesced.
It was on a calm, warm night at the selection, while Jack sat staring into the moonlight, desirous, yet shy, with Doris reclining on a rough lounge beside him. He had asked her suddenly, with his gaze still down the track, and she had answered him laughingly, with her face averted.
He considered that a conquest in itself, and had contented himself with a half-hour's chat at their meetings by the road. He was waiting for a sign of increasing fondness on her part, or so he explained to his conscience when it Questioned his courage; but Doris appealed always the same, always smiling and pleasant, always non-committal in her speech. She addressed him always as Mr. Norrey, with conventional politeness, and he called her Miss Wynton. To the coach driver, and other passers-by, who saw them constantly going to the mail or waiting together, she was known as "Norrey's Girl." Thus matters stood when, one evening, he pulled up at the mailbox to find that she had been and gone.
At first be felt discouraged. He was only a few minutes late; and, surely, if she cared for him at all, she would have waited that little while to see him. He gazed up the track, but there was no sign of her. Apparently she had come early, and his spirits went down with a run as he thought she had done it on purpose to avoid meeting him. But why? He flattered himself that he was not the sort of person that a girl of nineteen would go out of her way to avoid. Then his spirits went up again. Perhaps she had come early that they might wait together a little longer, but the coach had come early too, and it wasn't proper to wait then for a laggard lover who had not yet "said anything." There was a ray of hope in this view—but retrospection failed to discover an amorous glance, or a suggestion in anything she had ever said or done to back it up. So that wasn't satisfactory either.
A new idea occurred to him and with it came fears for her safety. A bush fire was raging around him; it came from the direction of Wynton's selection, and was rapidly approach-ing the mail road. This, then had caused Doris to hasten back. But had she got safely home?
"It isn't far to the house," he mused, "and anybody could call round and inquire as a mere matter of courtesy. It's a jolly good excuse—"
He broke off as he turned towards Wynton's, and put his horse into a canter. The air was thick with smoke; on each side of him the ground was black, the flames roared in adjacent hollows, and logs and trees blazed everywhere.
The house stood behind a low hill. On rounding this he came face to face with Mrs. Wynton. She was coming from the sliprails, leading the little chestnut mare that Doris always rode. Instinctively he knew that something serious had happened, and his heart gave a jump as he jerked his horse to a standstill.
"What's the matter?" he asked breathlessly.
"Oh, Jack, have you seen Doris?" asked Mrs. Wynton in the same breathless manner.
"No! Hasn't she come home?" His face paled as he noted the dust on the mare's side, the cut knees, and soiled saddle, which told too plainly that she had fallen. Then where was Doris? He had seen no sign of her along the burnt track.
"Kitty galloped up to the sliprails a few minutes ago with the reins swinging," Mrs. Wynton explained, her face the pallor of his own.
"How long is it since she left here?" asked Jack.
"An hour or more. I told her to hurry an account of the fire. My God! I hope—"
"You go back to the house, missus," said Jack hastily, "and send Wynton and the boy Jim after me. I will find Doris."
"Go for your life, man. The fire!" she cried after him.
"I don't think there's anything to fear, missus; the mare has pulled away from her," he shouted as he galloped away. But Mrs. Wyn-ton knew better than that. The signs on the mare were as plain to her as they had been to him.
It was nearly sundown now, and he made all haste through the blackened bush. He kept to the right of the track, examining each heap of burning bark and each blazing log in the dread of finding her smouldering there. Down to the mailbox he galloped, but without success. Then, hot and doubly anxious, he sped back on the left side of the path, till he met Wanton and Boy Jim. Wynton, who was mounted on the carthorse and armed with a useful waddy, looked at him minutely.
"No sign of her along the track." Norrey volunteered. "Had she anywhere else to go after getting the mail?"
"She wouldn't turn off to see if a cow had calved, for instance?"
"No; she was to come straight home. She's had a buster, there's no two ways about that; an' if she was hurt, an' that fire caught her—Have yer been along the lagoon?" he asked with a tremor in his voice.
"No, it's a good bit off the road," Jack answered.
"Still, the fire might 'ave drove her there. It seems queer, though, she ain't turned up afore this. Anyhow, you go down this side, an' coo-ee as yer go along. Jim an' me 'll foller the other side."
Through the gloom, by the light of a burning tree, Jack caught sight of the anxious mother hurrying down the track on foot. His lips quivered with emotion then, and he rode quickly away, fearing that she would hail him.
Over the burnt earth, through the thick timber, and down by the long, still lagoon, rode the two men and Boy Jim, anon venting a loud coo-ee that startled the wildfowl from the darkened waters, while far away through the night rang the loud shrill call of Doris's mother. One fear possessed them all—that the girl had been crippled, and had perished miserably in the grass fire. Jack shared the mother's heart-burnings to the full as the coo-ees echoed through the timber and no answering shout came back. The silence was ominous, and suspense deepened as time went by.
A preconcerted signal for the concentration of the searchers was three calls delivered in quick succession. Wynton, being on the less wooded side, was far down in the lead when that signal at last rang across the dark la-goon, and went thrilling through him with a mingling sensation of fear and hope.
Boy Jim, with the quick spirits of youth and the keener eye for intervening branches, at once plunged ahead, and rounded the water at a brisk canter, despite his father's intermittent warnings of "Steady, boy!"
"Hold 'ard, Jim!" varied occasionally with "Wait for your father, Jim!" But Jim pushed on, with bowed head, eager yet fearing to learn what Jack had found.
Far up in the timber the call was answered in a plaintive tone, long and shrill, like the cry of a kooloo (stone plover). "That's poor moth-er," muttered Jim as he eased into a trot along the steep bank.
"Caw-whey!" a hoarse about half a mile below him.
"That's father gettin' lost," he added, still pressing ahead.
"Hulloa, there!" he cried presently.
"Here!" answered Jack.
He was standing on the edge of the bank, holding his horse and staring down at the water. Jim sprang from his horse, and, run-ning to his side, followed his gaze in silence. Nothing could be seen in the dark depths, and no sound came up. Jim breathed heavily, dreading to ask the question that was in his mind.
"Hey-yer!" the lost voice in the wilderness interrupted. "Where are yer all?"
"Here," Jim responded. "Look out where yer goin'!"
Wynton came panting up.
"Have yer found her?" he cried. "Found Doris?"
"Yes," Jack answered shortly.
"Wynton lurched heavily from the saddle and strode to the brink.
"Well?" he asked.
"She's safe, old man; safe as the bank."
"Thank God!" Wynton murmured. "Where is she?"
"Under where we're standing—in a cave."
"Well, I'm blessed!" He leaned over. "Ye're there, Doris?"
"Is that you, dad?" came faintly from below.
"Aye. Are you 'urt?"
"No—only a few scratches. But, oh, I'm so cold."
"Poor old girl! She must 'ave had a duckin'," said Wynton, stepping back. "We'll have to get a rope, Norrey, to haul her up with. That bank there drops sheer twenty feet to the water. A rattlin' bit of a fall, an' no mistake."
"We can't drag her up the face of that rough rock with a rope," said Jack feelingly. "It would be cruel."
"She'll have to come up it whether or no," Wynton rejoined. "It's too far a swim across the lagoon, an' she might get hooked in the weeds."
"What length is that long ladder of yours?" asked Jack.
"About fifteen feet, if I reckerlect. Bit shickery, too."
"It will do us, anyhow. We can sling it with our stirrup-leathers. Do you think we could manage to carry it down on horseback?"
"W'y, yes; we could do that."
Wynton again leaned over the bank.
"Doris, we're goin' for the ladder. Yer mother an' Jim will stop 'ere. Ye're not in any danger, are yer?"
"Well, just wait there till we come back."
Jack had already bustled Jim on to his horse.
"Find yer mother, boy—she's flounderin' about th' bush somewhere—an' bring her here," his father commanded. "Then light a big fire."
As Boy Jim started away the two men mounted and turned towards Wynton's house. On the way up Jack related how Doris had got into her peculiar position. The fire had crossed the track, and was roaring towards the lagoon, as she rode back with the mail. Putting her horse into a gallop, she raced along between the fire and the lagoon, and would have won through, but for a wombat hole that brought the mare down heavily, flinging her rider into the grass. Kitty was first on her feet, and, taking fright at the rapidly-approaching line of fire, immediately galloped away. The grass was long there, and the flames were too high for Doris to get through. So she ran to the lagoon, in-tending to throw herself into the water. She was only a poor swimmer, but reckoned she could cling to the bank until the fire burnt out above. Long-thick vines hung over the rock, by the aid of which she descended to a very narrow ledge at the bottom. An unfortunate slip precipitated her into the deep water, from which she emerged like a half-drowned rat.
"And what do you think I found?" she cried through chattering teeth. "A great big cave! The vines had hidden it. I got into it at once—I was a little frightened at first—it was so very dark; and I'm sure there must be a thousand bats there. Well, it was lucky for me I did. The vines burnt oft at the top and dropped into the water—a seething mass. Then I look-ed up and saw that I was a prisoner."
Boy Jim had come and interrupted the narrative there; but Doris confessed afterwardsthat on making this discovery she sat down and cried.
Carrying the long ladder down was an irksome task. Jack rode in front, with one end, on his shoulder; Wynton, under the other end, re-gulating his horse's pace to suit the leader.
Still it shook and twisted a lot and chafed the shoulders of the bearers, bringing a muttered imprecation at times from the lips of the elder man.
"Find her weighty?" asked Jack.
"Want a spell?"
"No; keep on."
As the timber was thick and the night dark, their progress was necessarily slow; and it was with a sigh of relief that they lowered it at last to Boy Jim and his mother, standing in the glare of a huge fire on the bank. Then stirrup-leathers were at once buckled together, and the ladder swung over the steep bank till the foot grated on the ledge below. The leathers were made fast to a sapling, and Jack climbed down to test its security. Striking a match, he stepped into the cave, and found poor Doris crouching against the side, shivering with cold and ducking from fluttering bats.
"Oh, Doris!" he cried involuntarily, hastening towards her as she straightened up. "I thought I had lost you!"
Doris smiled bravely, and said, with a quick, shy glance, "But you never had me, Jack!"
The match went out, and in the darkness he caught her in his arms, for those words, had told him all he wanted to know.
"Doris," he said, his voice low and full of tenderness, "if you love me as I love you—in the words of that song you sing—'let your answer be a kiss!"
"Coo-ee!" came loudly from above.
"Hulloa!" cried Jack.
"Ain't yer got it fixed yet?" asked Wynton.
"Just about!" Jack answered.
Wynton, of course, meant the ladder, but Jack found it appropriate in another sense.
Both laughed softly, and far down in the gloom of that cavern, looking out upon the firelit water of the broad lagoon, their lips felt the first caress of true love. Then he guided her to the ladder, and waited below until Wynton had lifted her safely to the top. When he presently joined her there, Wynton said:—
"By Jove, Norrey, that cave must be a deuced awkward place to get out of?"
The young couple exchanged glances.
"The fact is," Jack explained, "Doris and I have come to an understanding—"
"Which means," added Wynton, dryly, "that there'll be a clergyman wanted by-and-by, eh?"
"That's about it," Jack admitted.
Doris, her flushed face to the fire, became suddenly interested in drying her skirts.
"Well, Norrey," said Wynton, "'twas a queer time and place yer chose for love yarnin', an' tween me and you and the ladder, that place 'ill be Norrey's Cave from this out."
"But where does Doris come in?" asked Jack.
"Why, hang it," said Wynton, "doesn't she come in for Norrey?"
A general laugh greeted him, and presently they strolled off to the house, where all made merry for the rest of the night.
As for Wynton's prediction, the name has come to be synonymous with the neighbourhood generally, and the coach driver has always a yarn to tell when passing the mailbox on which is painted "Norrey's Cave."
THE Muddles were sitting down to tea when two visitors, whose appearances were eloquent of a smash-up of Some kind, presented themselves in the doorway. They needed no introduction; all in Big Bend knew Murty Brown and Jim Webb—drovers and general bush workers.
"Talk of the devil, an' he's sure to appear!" Octavius exclaimed. Then his mouth gaped, and he looked at them wonderingly. So did Sarah, in whose face there was a half startled, half-pained expression.
"Sit in, lads. You're just in time," said Muddle senior. "Where's your horses?"
"Over the trickle; we're stopping at Woram to-night," Jim replied, speaking with apparent effort. "Been down Woodburn way with cattle from the Logan Valley," he added in explanation.
"You've just missed Bill Tarkalson," said Muddle. "He started up that way on Monday. I think, by what he said, he's got something in view at Crowlong—Brody's place."
"We'll circulate in that neighbourhood," said Jim, "and if I can keep Mr. Brown properly regulated, I dare say we shall amalgamate eventually. He's a little bit disorganised just now."
Jim was a heavy-boned but supple-jointed young man of twenty-six, as fresh looking as a frosty morning. In deference to an extravagant style of language he affected, he bore the nickname of Webster. Murty was middle-aged—a light-limbed, tough-looking warrior with a monkey shave and a humorous smile that was contagious. That smile was a feature. It illuminated his remarks, it filled a void when he had nothing to say, it beamed on friends and strangers alike. Sometimes it became ascetic, as when Murty found himself in a tight corner, or when Jim's unflattering perorations embarrassed him; but still it beamed.
"What's 'appened to you?" asked Octavius. "You look as if you've been in th' wars."
"We have," Jim confirmed. "Murty will tell you all about it. Being disabled at the commencement of hostilities, I didn't see as much active service as he did."
"Fact is," Murty interposed, "th' disablement was mostly on th' jaw. Consequently it's no end o' stiff yet, an' hurts."
"What happened to it?" asked Sarah, impatiently.
"Please to elucidate, Mr. Brown," Jim requested, with a peculiar, pained twist of the mouth.
"It was this way," said Murty. "We'd come within a mile o' Tatham Bridge when we meets a procession o' forty men, all under arms, marchin' four deep. Bein' peaceable times, an' a quiet bush track, it sort o' took us back a bit. They were mostly farmers an' selectors, with a few toffs among 'em from Sleepy Hollow, an' they had th' queerest collection of arms vou ever clapped eyes on—breech-loaders an' muzzle-loaders, pistols, revolvers, pea rifles, carbines, muskets, blunderbusses, tomahawks, spears an' boomerangs, an' other implements of warfare. Tommy Saucepan, th' blackfeller, was in front, proud as a starched shirt; an' Daghorn, who was the only cavalry they had, rode on th' left flank, in supreme command. He was Genrel. The rearguard was a waggonette, loaded with ammunition an' the canteen. There was no doubt they had something of powerful importance on. You could see it stickin' out of th' whole regiment, from Corporal Saucepan to the bugleboy. I was forgettin' him; he was behind, barefooted, with a catapult, an' a cow's horn polished an' mounted. "'Mr. Brown,' sez Jim—he'd been starin' at th' military pageant for a quarter of a mile—'what do you surmise?' 'I'm fair flummoxed,' I sez, pullin' wide to review the march past. 'Looks as if the population's mobilising,' sez Jim. 'Good day, Kernel!'—to Saucepan. Th' old darky grinned an' saluted, and' his pride got so he could scarcely bend. He 'ad a frock coat on, no boots, an' a tall silk hat. He didn't stop to talk; he was too important for that.
"Then we comes up with Genrel Daghorn. His old wrinkled phiz was fresh-shaved, an' that everlastin' smile of his seemed brighter than ever. He stood back in his stirrups, an' yelled out, 'Ha-alt!' Th' contingent halted. Some stopped short an' straight as reg'lars. Others bumped into them, then staggered back an' bumped th' musketeers behind 'em, an' there was some mutinous remarks in the ranks. Seemed a few of th' rank an' file 'ad been doin' canteen duty 'fore they started for th' front. "'What's the disturbance?' asks Jim. Th' Genrel saluted, an' sez, in th' tone an' voice of authority, "Join us! Th' river's declared war against the universal enemy, an' we're wanting recruits.' "'Where's the enemy?' "'Only a couple o' miles further.' "'Is he numerous?' "'Thousands strong.' "'Gee-whiz!' sez Jim. 'What's his definition! "'Come an' see; you're just the volunteers we're looking for,' sez Daghorn. 'Right about, now.' Then he sings out, 'March!' an' th' battalion proceeded. They were all as jolly as could be, all blowin' about what they were goin' to do, an' what they had done—especially what they had done, which was wonders. We enlisted, an' moved with them for the theatre of war.
"'Say, Genrel,' I sez, after list'nin' awhile to th' measured beat o' th' trampin' feet, 'have you a spare howitzer about y'?'
"'Not a howitzer!' he answers.
"'Well,' I sez, 'what's the use of a man goin' warrin' without a weapon?' "'Plenty o' use,' sez the Genrel. 'The reserved corps don't want weapons; as th' attacking force gets thinned out, th' reserves fill th' gaps. In th' meantime you'll follow with waddies and despatch the wounded.' "'Is this th' openin' engagement?' I asks him.
"'No,' he sez. 'We started the campaign on Monday night. We had an army of a hundred then.'
"'Where's the others?'
"'Some deserted, some in hospital.'
"Kernel Saucepan was now signallin' from the front.
"'Berrer make a row with less noise now, he sez. 'Close up camp, mine think it. Yo' smell 'em?'
"The brigade lifted its head and sniffed. 'Strong !' sez twenty of 'em. 'Poo-o-o!' sez the other twenty. Th' Genrel was likewise samplin' the atmosphere. So was we—smellin' an' thinkin' hard; but we couldn't see daylight yet.
"We come to a fence just after, an' while the infantry was gettin' through we ties our horses up to posts an' leaves them there with the canteen.
"From this out th' whole regiment was lookin' up trees, an' pretty soon we understood. We saw th' enemy, in fact. If there was one of him, there was forty thousand, all dead asleep, an' hangin' head down from th' branches."
"Hah!" laughed Sarah. "Flying foxes!"
"That's th' varmints. We were honory members of th' Flyin' Fox Extermination Society. I can t say as we were proud of th' distinction; 'taint everybody cares to have personal dealin's with them critters, they're so out-an-out obnoxious that if they just brush a peach with th' tip of a wing that peach is ruined. It 'd float to London an' back without spillin' th' effluvia; an' when you set about dispersin' a colony of 'em, the smell is that almighty powerful you can most nigh see it. Seems they were gettin' so pestiferous there was no livin' on the river with them. So this society was formed, a seketary appointed, proclamations issued, an' a petition sent to the Gover'ment for ammunition. Whether the Gover'ment shelled out or not I didn't hear.
"At any rate, we were on th' battlefield. The artillery spread round th' trees, th' detachment with clubs got underneath, an' hostilities began. While they kept in that position th' casualties were nothing to speak of; but when th' dense masses were dislodged from their barracks, an' hundreds o' wounded were flutterin' low an flappin' along th' ground, the excitement got so tremenjus that you couldn't turn anywhere without meetin' a flyin' waddy, or a clubbed gun, or something. An' there was collisions round bushes, an' sprawlin over logs an' sticks, an' tumblin' into holes, an' over one another. Some of them seemed to think there was no necessity for a lot o' th' knocks an' busters, an' only for the tact of th' Genrel they'd 'ave become undisciplined. In less'n an hour there wasn't more'n half a dozen o' th' squadron fit for service. The others were in th' hospital, or makin' for it. Didn't take much of an injury to send any of 'em there towards th' end; th' hospital was in th' same place as th' canteen. But th' enemy was routed with great slaughter.
"There was a big chap there they called th' Wag, manager of an out-station somewhere in th' neighbourhood. When we'd refreshed he comes up to me and he sez, 'Murty, I've got a couple of parcels here for Mrs. O'Hagan. Her place is just the other side o' that bit o' brush—about a mile an' a half from here. I can't go down myself in this state.' He 'ad some of his complexion missin', an' one leg of his trousers ripped up to the knee. 'Will you an' Saucepan take them down for me?' 'Certainly,' I sez; an' th' Kernel being willin', we sets off. Th' Kernel knew th' way, so it wasn't very long before we were at th' door. I hands over the despatches to Mrs. O'Hagan, an' waits for a reply, as instructed. She took them inside, an' I hears a great rustlin' o' paper for a minute or two, then a lot o' talkin' in two languages; an' presently she comes out again, lookin' quite different. "'What is your name, me man?' she asks me.
"'Brown,' I sez. 'Murty Brown.'
"'Where do you come from?'
"'Saddler's Paddock—at present.'
"'What are ye doin' there, may I ask?'
"'Havin' a bit of fun with the enemy—th' flyin' foxes.'
"'Oh! Is that so!' She swung round to th' Kernel.'"An' who are you, pray?'
"Th' Kernel grinned.
"'Me? Baal, you know it me?'
"'Indade I doan't!'—coldly.
"'Me Tommy Tsaucepan, belongs Tsandy Crick.'
"She turned to me again. 'Come inside, Mr. Brown,' she ses, quite affable. 'Come on in, Saucepan.'
"As soon as we're in, she locks th' door an' puts th' key in her pocket.
"'You're havin' a bit o' fun with the enemy, are you?" she ses, quite nasty. 'Bad scran to you, you actually have the impudence to own up to it. Th' brazen cheek to stand at me door to hear what I'd say. 'Twould be your deserts If I throwed scaldin' water over th' pair of ye. By th' holy saints, I'll give ye fun. 'Tis my turn now to have some fun. 'Twill be wan for the enemy.'
"By cripes, I was knocked all of a heap. 'Excuse me,' I ses; I don't quite get th' hang o' this—' She eyed me with the blackest scowl I ever seen on a human face, then turned from me in silent, witherin' scorn. I felt all shrunk up.
"Now thin Pat!' she screeches, an' a wild-lookin Irishman comes out of the next room with an old shotgun in his hands. 'Move a finger, an' I'll blow th' black scalp off ye,' he ses, presentin' it at th' Kernel.
"'Lash him up, Bridget!!' Th' Kernel's eyes bulged, an', 'fore he hardly knew what was happening, Bridget 'ad strapped his hands behind him, an' slipped a pair of greenhide hobbles, shortened to one link, round his ankles. Then she turns to me with a sim'lar set o! fixin's. I reckoned 'twas about time to start an argument.
"'Shut up, you dog!'
"'What's the meanin' o' this outrage?'
"'Outrage? Ugh! Ye ought to talk of outrages, th' pair o' ye, after what ye did on Monday night. Th' dirty, low spalpeens that ye are. As if it wasn't enough to hang dead flyin' foxes on my peach trees, an' pile them at my floor, an' stale th' best clutch of eggs I 'ad for sittin', but ye must come insultin' me agin to-day with more of your filthy varmin. I'll make you pay dear for it, you take it from me. 'Twill be wan for the enemy.
"No mistake my hair bristled at that. I wanted to say so much at once that I darned near choked. If th' Wag 'ad been there I'd a choked him—cheerfully. A man that 'ud put a job like that on another, an' think it a joke, wants crucifying. I don't say it was him decorated th' premises with the foxes—Mother O'Hagan, I heard tell, 'ad a neighbour or two as wouldn't think twice o' doin' her a bad turn—but he was one o' th' troop in th' first aid, an' knew nil about it. Th' mean swine 'ad sent us to stir up bull ants with our eyes shut.
"'Madam,' I sez, 'we've been had—'
"That's true,' she sez, fixin' a scintillatin' eye on me, 'we have you, and don't you rastle with me, or I'll forget what's due to me, an' knock ye stiff.'
"'I'll stiffen him for ye, if there's any shinanikin,' see Pat. 'Lash him up, Bridget.'
"He'd put th' gun away (that was only to frighten th' Kernel with), an' was makin' a great show of rollin' up his sleeves. He was a tough warrior, too, thirteen or fourteen stone—an' Bridget was twenty if she was an ounce. There was no p'ints in one man gettin' up a rebelllion there. So, pretty soon I was handcuffed an' short-hobbled like th' Kernel.
"'Now, you get away, Pat,' sez Bridget, 'an' bring th' traps.'
"Pat was gone in a minute, full gallop. Bridget stood watchin' him for a bit, then bustled through th' back way to hunt a fowl out, leavin' th' front floor open. Th' Kernel signalled with his head an' eyes, an' we shuffled through as quiet as we could. But there was a heap o' spare hobble rings attached to us, which we couldn't muffle no how. The clatter o' Bridget an' th' fowl served us at th' start, but she was after us 'efore we were off th' v'randah.
"'Come on!' sez th' kernel, an' off he goes across th' paddock, jumpin' like a kangaroo. I was shufflin' fit to disjoint meself, but it wasn't no use. I couldn't go a mile, in a week. T' 'ave any hope all, I see I must do the kangaroo jump too. So I makes a leap—an' pretty near topples over. Th' loss o' me arms—or the use of 'em—was too recent yet. Old Bridget closed up a heap 'efore I could take off again, 'an I made three desperate bounds without stoppin'. The first was A1, th' second put a bit of a bend on me, an' th' third nearly put me on my head—th' consequence o' not having a tail to balance with.
"I lost precious seconds gettin' regulated again, an' had to put in some fancy work next. I'd leap sideways, just as Mother O'Hagan would go to grab me, then make three more hops, an' after gettin' me balance, spring the other way, an' bound on again. Talk about graft! It beat all the killingest bullockin' I can think of. 'Twasn't the athletics only; them greenhide hobble straps hadn't seen a bit o' grease since they were alive, an' they give me sore fetlocks 'fore I'd gone twenty yards. An' hot! You could see smoke comin' out of me. An' the old girl, all the while, was bustlin' here, an' rushin' there, an' abusin' me something awful.
"About 50 yards from the house was a dog-leg fence. Th' Kernel cleared it at a bound. No mistake he was a champion in hobbles. He'd take a dozen jumps right off—quick an' high like a startled wallaby, an' cover more ground in one go than I could in two.
"When I got to that dog-leg my knees was bucklin' under me. Hadn't a jump left In me. I made a desperate dive at it—took a pile of it with me, in fact, an' lost my good looks pullin' up on the other side. Lord love a duck! I was fair blown out, an' you could scarce see me for blood an' sweat.
"Bridget was surroundin' me in a jiff, but she wasn't speechifyin'. Just puffin'. After a bit, she hoisted me on to my knees, an' right then I grasped th' great solution. If I wasn't th' two ends an' th' middle of the stupidest blamed ass goin', don't tell me. By just sittin' back on my heels I could undo th' hobble straps with my fingers as simple as gettin' into trouble. I felt refreshed at once. But I wasn't done with her ladyship yet.
"'Mrs. O'Hagan,' I sez, 'I'm gettin' sunstruck.' I wanted me hat, you know.
"'Good enough for you,' she snaps. 'I feel like dyin'.'
"'Small loss if you did.'
"'I was thinkin' of you,' I sez. 'You'd be had up for manslaughter. See what you've done....Will you get me a drink, an' wash this blood off?' She considered for a minute. Th' sight o' th' hurts I'd collected in my travels 'ad a softening effect on her. An' I wasn't puttin' it on a little either. As she seen me, I was a jolted-up, broken-down, haggard, an' melancholy-lookin' wreck.
"'If I lengthen th' hobbles,' she sez, 'will you walk back to th' house?'
"'Certainly,' I sez. 'I'd sooner die in a house than in a paddick.'
"'It would be just like th' pestilence ye are,' she sez, 'to go an' die on the place, an' make more mess an' trouble for me. 'Tis a great pity ye didn't die a week ago.'
"She steered me for a cask that stood at th' back of the skillion, and as soon as we gets there I flops down on my knees. She shortened th' hobbles again before she gave me a drink. Then she spruced me up like a mother, put ointment on my nose, an' straightened my hat. I was rested by that time.
"'Thank you, Mrs. O'Hagan,' I sez, an' springin' up, I cut for me natural.
"'Och, you dog, you,' she gasps. That was all I heard from her. She was too flabbergasted to say any more.
"When I get back to th' garrison the Wag was just comin' to his senses, an' the General was pourin' brandy and water down his neck. Kernel Saucepan had laid him out with a nulla.
"Pat O'Hagan? He was sittin' with his back against a wheel, tryin' to pick up a box o' matches he'd spilt. Th' flyin' column had blocked him, an' he was court-martialled at th' canteen."
"Talkin' of big floods," said Scully, "reminds me o' the only bit o' romance I was ever mixed up in. I was workin' on contract at the time with a chap be the name o' Mat Conyers. Don't 'spose yer knew him?" He was addressing Captain Carrab, whose raft was tied up in a neighbouring bend, waiting for the turn of the tide, and who had just come up in dripping oilskins. "Come down from Brewarrina way. Only a handful he was, but tall, an' a reg'lar tiger to work when the fit took him. Could skite a bit, too, an' smoke cigarettes to no end. We'd swagged it together, an' bullocked together, off an' on, for years. Rippin' good mate.
"Hadn't been long on this contrak though, 'fore he took to wanderin' off by himself. Never did that before. Said he'd dropped across an old acquaintance—farmer chap, name o' Bill Maynard. Don't s'pose yer knew him? Come from down Condobolin way. Struck me he was doos'd fond o' old Maynard. Useter stop out blatherskitin' purty near all night sometimes.
"Bye-'n'-bye, I discovers the old chap's got a rather good-lookin' filly, Her front name was Harriet. It's Harriet yet, by the way. Felt sorry for Matthew when I heard that. He was dead shook on her—anyone with half an eye could seeyyan' that meant dissolution for us if it came to a head. Best mate I ever had too—barrin' Bill Tarkalson.
"One day Maynard asked him to bring his mate over for Sunday dinner. Didn't like goin' at fust; but Mat reckoned 'twould look unsociable if I refused. Also told ms in confidence that he wanted me to talk to old Bill while he mashed Harriet. Seemed to me a man ought to do that much for a mate. The old chap's always a meddlin' sort of a person when yer pokin' round after his daughter. Seems to want to be courted all the time himself. So I greased me boots, an' put on a clean flannel, an' dolled meself up gen'elly, an' we went to dinner.
"Fust sight of Harriet upset me turrible. She was purty as paint could make her, an' as fetchin' in her ways as a stump extractor.
"Long before we got back to camp I begin to wish there was no such person as Matthew Conyers in creation. We nwr such good mates, too. But gurls is gurls—an' ev'ry man gets a feelin' about him sometime or 'nother that he wants one of 'em to keep. I wanted Harriet Maynard, dead sure.
"Weil, I got into the habit of goin' to see old Bill then—just as Mat did, in a manner o' speaking. Mat didn't like it, an' every day we discovered some bad p'ints about each other that we'd never guessed before. We didn't pitch now as we useter, an' we never mentioned the Maynards in one another's hearin'. Mat would go off alone after tea, without sayin' a word, an' he'd be smokin' a pipe with Bill when I'd drop in. Not likin' to int'rupt the conversation, I'd jine the missus an' Harriet. That 'ud nark Mat. By-'n'-bye he'd pretend not to be goin' out and 'ud lie down on his bunk till I left; then he'd drop in jest as old Bill 'ud got me fixed with a long dreary yarn 'bout nothin' in purtikler. Fair murderin' t' ave to sit quiet an' look pleasant, an' 'pear int'rested, while he'd be jabberin' be the furlong, an' me wantin' to see the gurl an' knowin' Mat was makin' up to her somewhere all the time.
"Didn't get home on me more'n twice though. I'd stroll off. If he wouldn't go fust, I'd sit behind a log till Mat got ahead, then drop in a bit later an' cop Harriet. That useter kill him dead. Still he never mentioned the subjek. Seldom spoke at all, an' 'twas plain we'd go different tracks once that contrak was over.
"By-'n'-bye he got another chap on the job to talk to old Bill. Dan Doracy his name was. Don't 'spose yer know him? Come from down Deniliquin way. Then me an' Mat 'ud sit one on each side of Harriet, scowlin' at one another like two strange dogs. Warn't much talkin' either. Harriet useter get durn tired of it, an' go out to hear Dan pitchin'. So Mat dropped Dan.
"We useter live purty cheap, me an' Mat—goin' about in jest bare coverin', an' wearin' 'em 's long 's they'd hold together. Courtin' put a set on that economy. He started fust with white shirts an' stand-up collars—reglar ear-props, an' neck-ties, an' a brand new suit, an' a straw hat. Of course, I 'ad to foller suit to be in the runnin'; an' there was a washin' an' ironin" bill every week to pay. Useter wash our own duds in a bucket afore that. Then he gets high-heeled boots, an' brushes an' black'nin' to clean 'em; an' a silk han'kerchief an' o-dy-kolone; an' a glass an' comb an' hair brush, an' bees-wax for his moustache. I 'ad to get them dashed things too: wouldn't even lend me a boot brush. Harriet was makin' things purty expensive, I tell yer. Begun to wonder' if the contrak would pan out courtin' expenses. But Mat warn't done yet.
"He spek-u-lates next in a tooth brush, an' useter scrub his grinders every evenin' at a waterhole: then a gingham, bless yer soul; an' a silver-mounted pipe, an' a tobacco pouch; an' a Waterbury—an' Heaven knows what he didn't get. Darn near broke me keepin' pace with him. An' wearin' the dashed things was fair crucifyin'. Them starched shirts was something awful, an' the stand-up collars ringbarked me till I couldn't chew without hurtin'. As for them small-sized, high-heeled boots—they was the quintessence of the Inquisition. Got that worried an' sore, I useter wear me big bluchers till I got close to the place, an' carry me coat an' vest an' courtin' boots an' gingham under me arm. Why he wanted a gingham at night, I dunno; but as he took it I lugged mine along, too, jes' to show as I had one. But Matthew warn't done yet.
"He begins buyin' presents next for Harriet—fruit an' lollies an' chocolates by the barrer-load, fancy-colored silk han'kerchiefs (an' they're expensive things, yer know), bottles o' scent, gloves, boxes o' pins, needle cases, manicure sets, an' such like. Pesky nigh had me bankrupt now. We wur playin' nap for that bit o' skirt. I'd go one better 'n him, then he'd go one better 'n me agin, an' so on. Ruther feared he'd wind up with a pram-yoo-later, or something o' that sort. But the flood come an' put a sudden stop to it all. Warn't sorry, I assure yez.
"We'd finished our job when the wet set in, an' soon 's we wur settled with, Mat goes off on his own without so much as good-day to me. Seen a chap next day name o' Jack Thompson. Don't s'pose yer knew him? Come from down Gilgandra way. Tells me Mat's goin' to work for Maynard's soon 's the weather took up a bit. That hit me hard. It's a big handicap when the other fellow's on the premises. Reckoned he had a long pull on me anyhow, an' I felt putty glum as I strolled over on the Sunday.
"The flood was at its highest then, an' shiftin' camp wasn't to be thought of. Had a notion o' poppin' the question that day—'fore Mat had time to get anything like a lead on in the courtin'. Know'd he'd put my pot on with old Bill if he got the least show.
"Well, when I gets there, I sees there's a bit of excitement goin' on. Harriet was adrift in an old flat-bottomed punt that belonged to the place. She'd been paddlin' about with one oar, an' let it slip somehow. It was floatin' near shore, but the punt was driftin' out into the current. Mat was nearly bustin'—tearin' up an' down shoutin' to Harriet to do this, an' yellin' to Maynard to do that. Just then a heap o' cedar boards, lashed together in the form of a triangle, floated round the point of the hill. I plunged in an' got aboard it, an' was paddlin' with me hand towards the oar, when in jumps Mat an' collars it. Meets me with it an' climbs on to the craft, an' starts pullin' like Bill Beach. Didn't seem to notice me at all. I didn't say anything, but pulls out a short plank an' gives a hand. Was rather risky to Harriet to be squabblin' just then as to who had the most right to save her.
"The punt was a long way ahead of us, an' we could see Harriet kneelin' agin the seat, holdin' on to the side with one hand, an' wavin' the other to us, encouragin' like. We 'ad our work cut out from the jump to steer that blamed three-cornered craft through the trees an' the floating timber an' rubbish. Last we got fairly out into the stream, but the punt was still half a mile ahead, an' driftin' straight for a scrubby island. Looked purty serious then. The scrub was half-covered, an' yer know how water shoots an' curls round obstructions of that kind. Reckoned there'd be a disaster, dead sure.
"We was paddlin' all we knew when there was a mishap on board, an' another dose of excitement. The three cornered fakus fouled a whirlpool, an' he was whusk round an' round like greased lightnin'. Mat warn't a good sailor, an' purty soon he was pitched overboard, an' sucked under. Thought he was a gorner for a bit; but he popped up drekly, an' I hauled him in with the plank. The whirlpool, though, 'ad shook up the craft turrible, an' the planks begin to bulge an' scatter; an' out from between 'em comes a swarmin' regiment o crawlin' critters. She carried more ants an' beetles an' caterpillars an' scorpions an' san-ty-pees an' lizards an' other pesky insects to the square inch than old Noah 'ad ever dreamt of. Stoppin' to brush 'em off our legs, an' shunt them, as wur extra objectionable, overboard, took up a lot o' time.
"Steppin' back from one travellin' pizen fact'ry, I went-overboard meself. Mat could 'ave easy reached me with the oar when I came up, but he 'adn't missed me, seemly. Yelled out to him, but he was hard o' hearin' on water, somehow. Never turned his head, an only stopped for a second now 'n' agin to make a swipe at a bull-ant or somethin'. Warn't a square go, that.
"Anyway, I shaped for the trees on the island, an' swum like Dick Cavill. Mat was rods ahead, an' runnin' a bit wide o' the island. Harriet was swallowed in the scrubs somewhere. Seen Mat clutch a bush, but it broke, an' he swept out o' sight round the island. I brightened up considerable then. Had purty straight cuttin' for Harriet—barrin' she warn't dead. Brutal hard swimmin' though. 'T any rate I managed to hit that island 'bout the middle, an' climbed along the trees, peerin' round. By-'n'-bye I hears something, an' coo-ees.
"'Come quick!' ses Harriet. 'I can't get out o' the water—there's snakes in the boughs.'
"'Stop where y' are a minute,' I ses to her. 'I'm comin'.'
"The trees wur party thick, an' not too bushy: an' I chimb along like a fiyin' fox till I gets nigh her. She was clingin' to a tree that stood aaway a bit by itself—her blouse torn away from the shoulder, an' her wet hair hangin' round her neck. I swum out to her an' got her on to a limb, so she could rest a while. I hadn't been there long when I twigged Bare-footed Tom spinnin' by in a boat—a long way off. Don't s'pose yer know him? Come from down Quirindi way. Didn't bother singin' out. Hadn't been long enough there to make impressions yet.
"'Twas summer time, an' though 'twas pourin' rain, an' all the island was covered 'cept the tree tops, an' there wur snakes there an' creepin' things be the million, an' nothin' to eat, I reckoned Harriet wouldn't come to no harm for a week or so; an' it 'ud be something for her to remember me by. Seemed to me I had best right to her now. 'T any rate, I was ready to fight for it if Mr. Matthew turned up in the scrub.
"Near dusk we climbed down agin, an' swum along together to the opposite side o' the island. Picked a good clump o' trees for a camp, an' gathered up a heap o' dead timber from the water to make a sort o' platform. Then I broke off armsfuls o' soft bushes an' made a comfortable bed for Harriet. Sat by her there for hours, keepin' the rain off her face. Hadn't that bloomin' umbrella with me when it would a been o' some use. The wind fair howled through them trees, an' the water roared round like Niagara. People wur shoutin' an' screamin' from housetops, cattle wur lowin' away south of us, an' lights wur flashin' here an' there as rescue parties roved about over the farms. Night was that thick black too, yer could scarce hear yerself talk through it.
"Harriet warn't too good in the mornin'. Courtin' in wet tree tops didn't agree with her.
"'We're in a purty tight fix, Harriet,' I ses. 'Wouldn't be so bad if we could get down an 'ave a walk. I'd ruther walk than swim.'
"'It's awful!' ses she. 'How ever are we goin' to get out of it?'
"'Don't, you worry,' ses I, easy like. 'You an' me's goin' to be happy together, Harriet.'
"'We deserve to be after this,' ses she.
"'An' after this,' ses I, stealin' me arm round her neck an' me hand under her chin, 'shall I tell th' parson?'
"'What'll yer tell him?' ses she.
"'We've a job o' tyin' up for him to do,' ses I.
"'Is it a weddin', yer mean?' ses she, lookin' bashful an' pleased same time.
"'Eggs-ackly,' ses I.
"'Do yer want me true?' ses she, shy-like.
"'My oath!' ses I.
"'Yer ken ask mother,' she ses.
"'Never mind mother,' ses I. 'She's got an old man of her own. Say the word, an' we'll chance all about her.'
"'All right!' ses she, an' T was that durned pleased meself, I forgot where I was an' kotched her up, hard an' sodden. Crash went the danged platform, an' we tumbled through into the water, kerplunk. Warn't pleasant that, but it kinder made the happv moment easier t' remember. Climbed into a big tree then, an' soon after sunrise we sees Jack Ford an' a nipper cruisin' round an' pickin' up things. Don't s'pose yer knew him? Good singer: come down from Maitland way. Hollered fit to bust now. Wanted to get off that island extra quick. Gettin' purty hungry. Stiff too.
"Thought he warn't goin' to tackle it fust; but after pullin' a long way up, he turned sudden an' shot out into the current. Soon swept down, an' in half an hour or so we wur aboard.
"Two hours' hard, pullin' landed us at Morris's. Don't s'pose yer know him? Farmer chap from Balranald way. Give him two quid for that job—last I had. Courtin' Harriet dead broke me after all. Had to pawn that gingham when I got home, an' the Waterbury, glued shirts, toilet reck-wisits, silk han'kerchiefs, an' lots o' other things that warn't no use 'cept to bustle Matthew Conyers. Had to take more contracks, too, an' warn't able to tell parson, for a year or more. Guv him the vital intelligence at last, though. He wur a stoopv chap with soup whiskers—name o' Wilson. Don't s'pose yer knew him? Come down from Bungendore way.
"Matthew Conyers? Oh, yes; Matthew turned up 'bout a month after. Didn't stay long though—an' never sed so much as good day to me. Cleared out to—goodness knows where. Useter be a purty good mate too; but gurls is gurls an' there's no denyin' a man must 'ave one of 'em to keep. Feel much better now, anyway."
Rosengrath came to Gibbaburra in the spring of 1900. He was a Pole, but his speech scarcely ever betrayed his foreign birth; a big, handsome man, with roguish, laughing eyes, and a dark-gingery beard, whose good nature and flamboyant spirit made him welcome among all classes and all ages. He could play marbles with the street urchins, or "chasings" with the school girls, as gracefully and with the same whole-souled enjoyment as he would engage in a game of tennis on a squatter's lawn, or a game of cricket with the town champions. He was at all times ready, too, for a game of cards or billiards at the hotel, and, though he drank with the other players, he never got drunk. He was always respectable, and always careful of his appearance. A gentleman who had broken loose from the unbending rigour of social conventions, and was heartily enjoying life in the free, untrammelled way of the bushman. He was about twenty-eight, well-educated, and musical in his finger-tips.
His profession was piano tuning. Gibbaburra possessed only five instruments, being but a small mining town, hundreds of miles back from steamers and railways; but there was another at nearly every squattage homestead in the surrounding district, and these mostly needed his attentions when he called round. In such situations as this, he was usually engaged at his hotel and driven out in a shanghai, being returned in good order and condition when he had completed his contract; or, perhaps, he would go from one squattage to another, either by vehicle or by foot.
He had never owned a horse or a trap, and it was only when he had a long stretch of pianoless country to cross, and had a few pounds to spare, that he patronised coaches. He preferred to walk, carrying his swag and billy, like any other wanderer on the track. In this guise, wearing slop clothes and heavy boots, one was more apt to take him for a shearer than for a musical genius—until, from his abundant swag, he produced a violin or a tin whistle, or some other instrument and, squatting on the ground in the light of the camp fire, awakened the sleeping denizens of the wild with a flood of sweetest melody. His favourite was a unique instrument he had made himself, which consisted of half a kerosene tin, fitted with a long neck like a violin's, and a single string, with a piece of rough iron for a bridge.
That instrument was a revolution. With an ordinary bow he could make it talk. At an impromptu concert among a band of travelling shearers or teamsters it was a pronounced success. Often, too, he would produce a series of flute-like notes in the manner of the South Coast aborigines, simply by means of a green gum leaf.
When he called at a house by the roadside to enquire about the health of the family instrument, he was in his best holiday attire, and carried a handbag in place of the tea billy. He was known as Rosy, the Piano Doctor. On the lonely roads he travelled, many of the settlers knew of him long before they saw him; so it was only necessary for him to mention his name where his services were required, to be invited to walk right in and make himself at home.
Selectors did not require him very often. He could usually pick his marks by the appearances of the houses. But when he stopped one evening at Bob Grayne's, two miles out of Gibbaburra, he was not looking for business. That drab little hut of two rooms, with half a skillion at the back, was one of the last places in the wide west where he would have looked for anything in his line. Yet it was the turning point in his career.
The front room, which had a wide fireplace at the end, was a generally-useful apartment, being used as a kitchen, dining-room, smoking-room and for other purposes. A rough bunk behind the table indicated that the occupier, or somebody else, also slept there.
It was not till after tea, when Grayne opened the door to get a kerosene lamp, which, he said, he seldom used when alone, that Rosengrath obtained a view of the other room. About the first thing his astonished eyes rested upon was a fine piano. Facing a three-quarter-bed, and crowded among other bedroom furniture, its out-of-placeness in that dingy little hut was tragic in its significance.
Grayne placed the lamp on the table, then lit his pipe, and stretched himself on the bunk. He was a moody old man. If not talked to continuously he seemed at times to get into a train of thought that carried him away till he forgot all about his companion. The latter was eager to grasp the opportunity for an hour of song and music. "I see you have a piano here," he remarked.
"A relic of better days," Grayne replied. "Do you play?"
"There's nobody else here; I'm all alone."
"I can play," said Rosy. "Piano-tuning is my profession."
"That bit of furniture is never opened, mate. Thank you all the same."
Rosengrath thirsted for information, but he did not question him further. Grayne, however, when he had smoked his pipe, sat up on the bunk, and told the story in a few words.
"You mentioned just now," he said, "that you had come from Binong. I used to own that place. Bad seasons ruined me, and bit by bit everything went till all I had left was this selection, and a few hundred sheep. We came to live here then—my daughter Tarella and I. All the furniture was sold but the few things you see here, and the piano. Tarella wouldn't part with that, because it had been her mother's, and her mother had learned her to play on it. But debts still accumulated, and I was forced in the end to part with it. The poor little girl took it badly. She had begged me to keep it even if I let everything else go. She said that her mother seemed to talk and sing to her out of it when she played. I tried to show her that it was no use here, and that we must keep a home over our heads. She said it was her only comfort, and when it went out of the place she would go out too. She would go to service, she said, and work till she had earned the money to buy it back. I didn't take much notice of that. It was hard to go against her, but I thought it would all blow over in a little while, and she would get used to being without a piano. What did any sane person want with a piano in a selector's hut? That's what I was always asking myself; that's what I'm asking myself yet. Anyhow, it went, and poor little Tarella sat on the doorstep there, and cried while they were carting it away. She didn't have any tea, and she didn't kiss me 'goo'-night' as she used to. Neither did she have a word for me next morning. I had to go to the back paddock that day, I remember, to repair the fence. When I returned she was gone. That was two years ago, and I haven't heard a word of her from that day to this.
"How is it the piano is here now, when you say it was sold and taken away?" asked Rosengrath.
"Well, when my little girl left me, I was so cut up and worried about it all that I determined to get that old music-box back and stick to it, whatever happened. The few bales of wool I have a year, which I shear myself, to save expenses, only just keeps me. So I went shearing on the stations, and took other jobs—anything—and saved and scraped till I'd got the price. It's twelve months now since I brought it back, and for twelve months it's been silent, and will remain so till her own fingers strike it into life again. Perhaps if she knew it was here, she would come—"
Then he lapsed into one of his thoughtful moods.
Rosengrath saw him many times afterwards. He spent several months in Gibbaburra, having obtained a few pupils at different places in the neighbourhood, besides the tuning of a dozen pianos. He had made lasting friendships in the town, and was not in a hurry to leave it.
"Why should I?" he said. "I am doing all right here—and it's a long way to the next piano."
Nevertheless, within twenty-four hours after he had uttered those words he was travelling down country on the mail coach. His hurried departure caused no little surprise and a good deal of comment in Gibbaburra. Then it leaked out that he had drawn first prize in a big swoop on the Melbourne Cup, and Gibbaburra was satisfied with the explanation.
All the same, Gibbaburra was wrong.
On the day preceding his departure he had been to Grayne's hut, and Grayne had, for the first time, shown him a photo of his daughter. Though he had said nothing then indicative of what was in his mind, on his way back to town he muttered many times to himself: "Tarella Grayne" and "Ella Gray," and in his room that night he wrote down the name "Tarella Grayne." Then he drew his pen through the first three letters of the Christian name, and through the last two of the surname.
"That's good enough," he concluded. "I'll book for Forbes right away." And to Forbes he went.
A travelling theatrical troupe was performing in the town when he arrived. Despite his weariness from long travel, he attended the first night, sitting well up in front of the hall. The opening part of the performance did not interest him, but presently, when the plaudits of the the audience announced the appearance of the star actress, he craned forward eagerly, and his pulses quickened as his gaze wandered lingeringly over her features. She was a beautiful and graceful girl. Her professional name, as he saw on the programme, was Ella Gray.
As soon as the performance was over he went to the hotel where she was staying. He had met her long before, when she was governess on a station. The family was fond of private theatricals, and the manager of the troupe she was now travelling with, being a guest on one occasion, was so impressed with her acting and singing that an engagement almost immediately resulted. She had begun with a modest song part; now she was the star of the troupe.
"I have always known you as Ella Gray," said Rosengrath, "but isn't your proper name Tarella Grayne?"
"Yes—how did you know?" she asked, with a quick look of surprise.
He told her of his visits to the selection, and of the silent piano.
"Oh, I am so glad he got it back!" she exclaimed, a great joy lighting her whole countenance. "Poor old dad! Of course, he wouldn't play himself, he can't; but it's strange he wouldn't let you."
"Ella," said Rosengrath, gravely; "don't you know you are shortening your father's life by treating him the way you are doing? He is away out there by himself, always fretting for you. If you wrote to him it would do something; but he doesn't know whether you're alive or dead. I came down expressly to ask you to go back to him, and open that music-box and bang the deuce out of it."
Tarella laughed, with tears in her eyes.
"I'll go out and see him next week," she said; "and if I can persuade him, I'll bring him down with me."
"That's good. Now, will you do something for me?"
"Of course I will. What is it?"
"Give up the stage and be my wife."
Her laughing expression changed with the suddenness of a shock. Yet there was amusement in her startled eyes.
"Is—is that all?" she asked demurely.
He put his arm gently round her waist.
"Ella," he said, "I've loved you since the first day I clapped eyes on you...I have no need to travel about any more; the only piano-doctoring I'll do for the future will be in my own home. And if you fetch the old piano there, the doctor will always be handy when it gets out off sorts...will you?"
"I'll tell you when I come back. Will that do?"
"No, it won't. You've got to tell me now—right here."
"Oh, well..." Her eyes were laughing again. "I suppose it will to best for the piano."
Bill was seventeen, a big, strong lad, sun-browned and barefooted, in a ragged shirt and a dilapidated fell; hat, through one side of which his ear protruded. He was, the mainstay of the selection. He had fenced it, built the yards, and put a skillion on the hut. He looked after the cattle, and carted wood and water for his mother; and it was her who ring-barked the flats, built the calf-pen, and put up the gallows. Occasionally he broke in horses for the neighbours, and now and again he gave Bucknell a few days to keep the pot boiling, while his father was away shearing or droving. At times old Studders would to absent for months at a stretch, and, with money scarce, they had to to sparing with the provisions, and Bill felt it. His mother fished the waterholes, and his sister Liz hunted for sugarbags and duck eggs, and snared birds, to save killing another beast when the meat-cask got low. There was always a big feast and a time of plenty for a couple of months after Studders came home; but he didn't come home often enough for Bill's, liking.
Ho would not have minded so much if his father had given him a few pounds occasionally for all the hard work he did on the selection. It would have given him heart, and made him feel like other young fellows, who rode past sometimes on flush horses, and with bright spurs jingling at their heels. He could then have got himself at least one decent suit of clothes and a pair of elastic sides for Sunday, and a hat that wouldn't let his ear stick out in the sun. His ear looked so conspicuous when it got sunburnt. He wanted a tie also, and a silk handkerchief like Tim Traynor wore. There were a lot of little things that Bill wanted.
He often felt ashamed when he went over to Bucknell's and sat down at their table in his rags, or with his big, brown feet sticking up while they smoked on the verandah. Bill always smoked at Bucknell's, and for a day or two after he got back; then there would be a tobacco hunger added to the other hunger.
His clothes wouldn't have mattered so much, but Maudie Bucknell was sixteen now—just the age to take notice. She was a pretty little girl, and Bill had a soft heart, and somehow she made him feel miserable and out of place, when she talked to him. For one thing, his feet, in his own eyes, always looked three times bigger at Bucknell's than they did at home.
He was patching the boundary fence one day, when young Bob Bucknell rode up. The Bucknells could sport horses and, though Bob rode barefooted, and with his old felt doubled under at the sides, he was clean and neat, and he had good things to cut a dash in on special occasions. Bill envied him.
"Well, Bill?" he said, pulling up, and throwing his leg over the pommel.
"Hulloa, Bob. Doin' a bit o fencin'?"
"Yes, a bit." A pause. "How's yer sister?"
"Oh, she's orlright. How's your'n?"
"Oh, pretty fair. Hot, ain't it?"
Bob looked at the sky.
"Yas; think we'll have a storm." Another pause. "Hear about Colly Smith?"
"Rolled up, an' hooked it for Solferino diggings."
"Go on! 'Ave a row?" Bill propped himself against a post to listen better.
"No; just wanted a change. Bet he'd 'ave a blow-out 'fore he went far, too. They're not well off, the Smiths. But, seein' as he was leavin', his mother raked him up a reg'lar load o' rations an' tuckr—more 'n Colly 'd ever had the handlin of at one time in his life. She's not bad-hearted, mother Smith."
Bill's mouth watered, and his eyes glistened. He leaned on the rail, shuffling the brown gum loaves, on the ground, with his toes. All the rest of the afternoon he was thinking of Colly Smith, and of the grand new life that was before that intrepid youth; new scenes, adventures, freedom, wealth! He thought of his own sordid surroundings, the monotony, of his existence, working month after month, and getting nothing for it but a chronic appetite. It was time he was earning something now, and sprucing himself up a bit. Maudie was getting a year older every summer, and he had noticed the stockmen from the station were beginning to take short cuts through Bucknell's paddock when mustering this part of the run. They always seemed to be thirsty, too, and preferred the water in Bucknell's cask to that in the creek. He knew it was stale at times from standing, and full of green frogs and "live things;" but they didn't mind little matters like that when sweet sixteen brought out the pannikin, and stood by to take it again. What chance had he against those gay knights of the stockwhip? And his eyes wandered again regretfully to his big, brown feet. Those unfortunate feet were eyesores to Bill.
He was unusually silent and abstracted all that evening, and his mother wondered what had come over him, and asked him "wasn't he feeling well?" He left them early, but some time afterwards his sister found him sitting on the floor, and making desperate attempts to thread a needle by the light of a slush lamp. "My word!" she said; "Bill's got 'em bad—he's making something out of a lot of old rags. You ought to see him sewing!"
Mrs. Studders laughed. It was probably something for use on the selection. Bill had been accustomed to act for himself, and never confided much in his mother and sister. He was more moody than ever next day, and became irritable when spoken to. He seemed to have something on his mind. The women watched him closely; they couldn't understand this sudden change that had come over Bill.
He went to his work as usual, but he had lost all interest in the fence. Liz, while looking for a poddy calf along the creek, saw him sitting under a bean tree, sowing again at the something that had puzzled her last night. She watched him for some minutes while Bill's arm went out into apace and back again, as he drew the long length of thread through the mystery. Then her curiosity conquered her, and she went towards him.
"What the dickens yer makin' Bill?"
Bill hastily concealed his material, looked confused and silly.
"I believe yer actually makin' a doll, or something, for Maudie Bucknell,' said Liz, trying to steal a look at the mystery.
"You clear out o' this!" said' Bill, reddening to the eyes.
"Well, you are a mollycod after that!" Liz went on, unperturbed. "I'll tell Maudie, first time she comes over; see if I don't!"
"If you don't want sousin' in the crick, you'd, better do a get!" said Bill, angrily. "Go an' look after yer own business."
When he got home in the evening he knew Liz had told his mother, by the way she looked at him. Ho felt embarrassed and ashamed. He had nothing to say, and kept aloof as much as possible. This caused Mrs. Studders a good deal of anxiety! She had never seen Bill like this before. His movements and actions were unaccountable. He showed resentment, and snapped at Liz when she discovered him putting a wire handle on a fruit-tin at the back of the calf-pen; and he slunk away from her when she caught him smuggling some old straps into his room. They heard him working there, with the door shut and pegged, when they wont to bed, and his light was still burning when they wont to sleep.
It was after midnight when Mrs. Studders weko from her first sleep, and the working of the grindstone at the end of the hut caught her ear. Slipping out of bed, she tip-toed to the wall, and pulled some bagging out from between the slabs. Peeping through the crack, in the faint moonlight she was horrified to see her only son grinding an old tomahawk. He was very intent on his work, and now and again he paused to try the edge of the blade with his thumb. Occasionally he made light chops at the air, as a man does when trying a new handle, or the fall of a new axe.
Mrs. Studders was faint with horror as she tottered back to the bed, and her trembling hands grasped Liz by the shoulder.
"Lizzie, Lizzie," she whispered, "for the love of God, get up!"
Liz turned over sleepily. "What's up?" she asked.
"Sh!" said her mother softly, placing a warning finger on her lip, and pointing with the other hand towards the sound. "Bill's gone mad, an' he's grindin' the tomahawk to murder us!"
"Oh, mother!" gasped Liz, springing out, "Surely it ain't come to that!"
Mrs. Studders breathed hard. "He's been strange this sev'ral days," she whispered nervously. "Oh, whatever are we to do?"
"Put yer frock on quick," said Liz, "an' we'll slip out an' hide somewhere an' watch. It might go off him d'rectly."
They crept out into the trees about fifty yards away, and from behind the bole of a grey gum they watched the slow and deliberate grinding of the axe. The metallic ring of it on the freestone made them shudder.
"I wish yer father was home," Mrs. Studders lamented.
"Fancy Bill goin' like that!" mused Liz.
"I heard yer father say as how one of his people was took that way once, and they had to put him in a straight-jacket every full moon." She looked up at the moon. "Ain't quite on the full yet—he'll be gettin' vi'lent about Thursday. It runs in fam'lies, I've heard say—but I never dreamt poor Bill would break up so young. He do look queer, poor feller!"
"And his eyes!" said Liz. "They're like Strawberry's looked when she was bogged in Yaller Waterholes."
Mrs. Studders sat down with her back to the tree, and sighed.
"He's done grind'in'," said Liz, presently. "He's gone in to look for us."
She watched to see him come out at the front, but Bill' didn't come out any more. He had gone to bed, blissfully ignorant of the scare he had caused. The women continued to watch, dreading to leave the screening trees. The mopokes called intermittently along the creek, and at intervals a plover's scream came from a far-off flat. The hours dragged away, and one by one they saw the stars set. When the morning star showed in the east they stole back to the verandah, and sat on an adzed log till daylight. The kookaburras greeted them from the trees and the magpies began to warble their morning song while Liz was reconnoitring. She came back with the reassuring news that Bill was lying asleep. Then the worn-out women went back to their room.
Bill slept late that morning. Liz was getting breakfast ready when she heard him stirring, and tiptoed at once to the partition to see if he "looked safe now that the moon was down." He looked anything but dangerous; he was whistling softly to himself but there was surely a screw looose somewhere.
"Mother," she said, her wide eyes full of excitement, "Bill's rollin' up his swag. Go an' look."
Mrs. Studders went very gingerly to the door, her heart thumping loudly. Her son and heir had become an ogre in the night. His few things were already rolled up in a blue blanket, and the tomahawk was thrust through one of the straps. She took courage.
"Yer goin' away, Bill?" she asked, softly.
Bill felt ashamed of himself; it looked mean to him now to be going like this.
"Yes, mother," he said, "for a little while. Yer won't mind, will yer?"
"No, Bill; whatever you think is best." She was afraid to give offence. Mad people were easily excited, she had heard. Bill was no less surprised than delighted. He had expected strenuous opposition and reproaches and he called himself a fool for having been so secret in his preparations.
"It's this way, mother," he said, and she wondered much at his calm, rational way of speaking; "there ain't much to do here now, an' I want some money to get clothes. You an' Liz want some togs, too; so I thought I'd have a fly round the diggin's, an' see if I could make a bit."
"You ought to 've told us, Bill," she said very gently, "I'd 'ave cooked yer something to take."
"I can cook on the road," he answered, "I'll have plenty o' time. I thought if I told yer, the thinkin' about it would only keep yer awake at nights. But yer can put me a bit o' flour, an' some tea, an' sugar in those bags."
Then Liz understood what he had been sewing, and she began to think that her brother was not so mad after all. Still, his conduct was not exactly what it should be. Madmen were cunning, her mother said.
"Did yer put in yer clean shirt, Bill—the striped one?" the latter asked.
"An' yor other flannel?"
"Yer want a towel, too."
"Oh, me shirt 'll do, I got all I want."
They shook hands with him at the door; then they stood on the verandah watching him until he disappeared in the creek. Tears welled in Mrs. Studders' eyes as she stood with her hands clasped under her big, white apron. She had often watched her husband away—but Bill was different. It was his first time of leaving home, and his brain was affected, too, poor fellow.
"Why did yer let him go, mother?" asked Liz, swallowing the lump in her throat.
"I thought it safer ter let him have his way. They get rampin', if you try to master 'em," Mrs. Studders replied, her thoughts running on lunatics. "Your father will soon fetch him back when he comes home, He's been gone five months on We'n'sday." And she stared out into the trees.
* * *
Five months were nothing to Studders senior. He was used to the bush, and to travelling alone in strange places. But Bill was used to home, and the companionship of his mother and Liz. He had looked back often while the place was still in sight, and he thought of many happy evenings he had spent in the hut, and of the lonely little, fire that would burn beside him to-night. There was a dull throb deep down in his heart, and even the weight of the ration bag did not cheer him. It was hard leaving the old familiar scenes and faces to go among strangers in a strange country. And then there was Maudie. He would like to have said good-bye; but he couldn't go there the way he was. So he beat round Bucknell's selection, and at the back corner he stopped. It was very hot, so he would make some johnnie-cakes here, and go on when it got cooler.
He cut a piece of bark from a spotted gum, and was busily mixing up his dough on it, when, as he told it afterwards, who should ride up but Maudie Bucknell, looking fresh and sweet in a grey dress, and wearing a man's felt hat. She laughed heartily, which made Bill Studders blush, and shamefacedly he told her what he was doing and where he was going. She stopped laughing, a quaint look of surprise and concern on her face.
"An' you never come to my good-bye!" she reproached him.
"I didn't think you'd care," he stammered.
She twisted her fingers in the horse's mane. "It'll to lonely when you're gone," she said.
Bill's heart rose towards his throat, increasing in its thumps.
"Will—will yer miss me?" he asked, timorously.
"Of course," she answered, "It won't seem the same."
He went nearer, and patted her horse on the neck.
"If yer ask me to stop," he said bashfully, "I won't go."
"Well, I ask you to stop," she responded, smiling.
Bill patted the horse again.
"For—for your sake?" he enquired.
"For my sake, yes."
"That settles it, then," said. Bill. "I'll be home to-night."
"Let me carry your bluey for you," she said. "We can go right down our back line. There's a gap near the creek—and I'll take it right to the door for you."
"Help me cook the johnnies first," he stipulated "We can have a drink o' tea while they're doin."
Laughingly she dismounted, and set to work with an enthusiasm that pleased him. They lunched together in the shade, and meanwhile he told her of his prospects. He was going to ask his father for five shillings a week when he came home; and when he broke in the next lot of horses he would get a suit of clothes, and a hat, and a pair of 'lastic sides—like the stockmen wear. She said he would look nice then, and promised to go riding with him the first Sunday he put them on.
Bill was at the zenith of happiness as he raced down the back fence by the side of her little chestnut. Approaching the house, she rode to the front, and quite startled Mrs. Studders by throwing the swag down on the verandah.
"That's part of him," she said, laughing; "the other part's coming."
"Bill?" Mrs. Studders enquired anxiously.
Maud nodded. "I've brought him back," she said.
Mrs. Studders stepped off the verandah.
"How is he? Is he orlright?"
"Of course! Do you think he's been bushed?"
"No, no; it's about his intelleck."
Maud looked puzzled, and just then Bill himself strode through from the back. Liz threw her arms round his neck, and kissed him as though she had not seen him for a month. She was glad he had changed his mind and come back to them, and she hoped he would soon be his old self again. That set Bill thinking a bit; but the way his mother eyed him and held aloof quite worried him. He thought she was disgusted with him.
"I got thinkin' how lonely yer'd be here by yerselves, an' how something might 'appen, an' all that," he explained apologetically.
His mother was still uncertain. She was "a bit dense" and it was hard to root out prior convictions.
"Yer, ain't goin' to hurt us, Bill, are yer?" she asked timidly.
For a moment Bill gasped for breath.
"Hurt yer! Wot the devil would I hurt yer for?"
"I dunno, son. Yer head don't feel queer, do it?"
"Yer ain't got anything on yer mind, son, have yer—nothing worrying yer?"
"Why, dash it, what's the matter with yer all?" Bill's distended eyes glared stupidly from, one to the other. Suddenly he remembered how they had boon watching him about while he was secretly making preparations for the road, and the truth flashed upon him.
"By cripes!" he said, looking up at Maud. "Just as well I come back. Here's a bloomin' lunatic asylum, an' it wants a caretaker!"
Maud Bucknell laughed merrily as she turned her horse for home.
"Ain't there no doors where you come from?"
Sarah, ironing at the table, looked quizzically out of the corners of her eyes as Bill Tarkalson entered, leaving the door wide open.
Doors of country homes are more often open than shut, but to-day a cool wind was blowing in and that made Sarah's irons cold.
"No, Sarah," he replied. "Only sliprails."
"Well, don't you pub them up after you?"
Bill closed the door. Sarah took another iron from the fire, spat on it to try its temperature, and rubbed, it on a bag which did duty for a hearthrug. After executing a few rapid curves and circles with it on her father's shirt front, she slapped it noisily on the stand, and said:
"You don't mind if I smoke, do you?"
Bill had just lit his pipe, but the query surprised him so much that he nearly let it go out again.
"That's what Mr. Garry always says when I'm present," Sarah added, without looking, at him; and there was a peculiar movement about her lips as she resumed ironing.
Then he saw the point.
"Well," he said, "that blamed old chimney's smokin' fit to drive a person outside, an' he ain't apologis'n' any either. Seems to have an ambition to outsmoke any other chimney on the river...An' when you can stand him, the little whiffs from my old dudeen ain't worth mentioning.
"Two evils don't make one good," Sarah returned. "'An' the chimney only smokes when the wind blows from that quarter. You're, always smokin', wind or no wind. It's a beastly habit, smoking'. I don't know what you men can see in it. It doesn't do you any good."
"Maybe you're right, an' maybe you ain't. I know tines when it does a power o' good."
"Well, I remember when I was a boy, an' I did anything that promised a hidin', I always kept out of sight till the old man had his his pipe. I was safe then. Many a time I've crept round the house, after they'd finished tea, peepin' through th' cracks to see if th' peacemaker was about, afore I'd venture in. That's one o' th' times when th' pipe does good, an' every boy, whose dad is a smoker, knows it.
"I remember, too, when a flood put our house in quarantine, an' the guv'nor ran out of tobacco. For three days he was the grumpiest person around. He made the whole house miserable. Not that he was jawin' or growlin' at anybody; he was mostly sittin' about moody like, with a look on him 's if he'd lost half-a-crown an' found sixpence; an' he sort o' soured on the rest of us. When the flood went down he waded through three miles o' bog an' slush, an' came back happy. He'd lost all his crops, an' there was muck an' ruin everywhere, but we were all crackin' jokes that night, all as cheery as could be, specially the guv'nor—'cause ha was puffin' out smoke again.
"An' I knew a selector who was burnt out of pretty nigh everything he possessed; an' when night came, an' he sat down alongside a stump, which was the only bedroom furniture he had just then, he' said, 'Ah. well! I've got a plug of tobacco left.' An' there's no doubt that plug helped him over th' crisis, when a non-smoker would 'ave been thinkin' o' suicide. An' I knew a poet outback—rather clever cove he was—who could scarcely find a rhyme for goanna 'less he smoked it out.
"'Twa'n't exactly as you'd smoke a bandicoot out of a log; but it seemed to stir up his thinkin' apparatus. An' when it comes to mateship, give me the man who loves his pipe—providin' he ain't short, o' tobacco more'n five days a week. The pipe, too, can fill a breach in th' conversation with a natural ease that nothing else can. Look at two smokers holdin' a quaker's meetin', an' two non-smokers doin' th' same, 'an' you'll notice th' first two are comfortable, while th' oher two chaps seem to be wishin' that a cart would bolt an' run over a dog. Th' pipe soothes an' comforts when a man's worried or troubled; it's a help when time crawls, an' a good companion in lonely places."
"Half the men are quite satisfied with the company," said Sarah, viciously. "They'd certainly give up anything else before the pipe—even their wives. If I couldn't marry a man without marryin' a smoky companion too, I think I'd rather die an old maid. If a woman can get through her worries in loneliness without turning herself into a smoke-stack, then she's comfort an' company enough for his lordship."
"Well, maybe you'd strike a prize, an' maybe you wouldn't. Gen'rally speakin', th' smoker is a better all-round man than the other kind. More sociable, more generous. Always seems to me there's something dash mean about th' chap who's content to chew a blade of grass 'tween meals. An' that reminds me, smokin' is good for indigestion. Lots o' people start smokin' by the doctor's orders. Did the doctor order you to smoke?"
"No-o; I can't say he did. I'll tell you how I started. I picked th' pipe up comin' home from school. 'Twas a short clay, soaked black, an' strong enough to knock me over now, seasoned an' all as I am. But I didn't' know any different then. I thought it was a treasure. I washed it in th' river; an' polished it with a bit of rag; an' when I got home I hid it in a mortice-hole of a big round post at th' corner of the yard. I was pretty well a week gettin' enough tobacca to fill it. Th' strongest black twist it was, too, an' I put that in th' mortice-hole along with a box o' matches.
"I waited till a Saturday, when I had to go down th' river with a message to a religious old dame, who had seven prim daughters on the bargain counter. I mention them because girls was an embarrassment to me in those days. Near th' house was a patch o' scrub, an' in there I lit up. Th' tobacca was a bit lumpy, as I'd cut it up with my thumbnail, an' it only took first in one corner. Smokers know what that means. I didn't. I was quite content as long as I could blow a cloud. My! but I was proud—perched on a log, with my back against a small tree, an' restin' th' bowl between my fingers.
"There's two occasions in every young man's life when his head's too big for his hat; when he blows his first whiffs from the pipe, ah' when he kisses his first girl."
"Oh!" in shocked tones from Sarah. "Bil-l...Tarkalson!"
Bill crossed over in a stooping attitude to spit in the fire. At this, Sarah chipped in again.
"That's another dirty habit of smokers—spitting. If there's one thing that disgusts me more than another it's a man spittin' about the floor—an' rubbin' it in with his boot. Could anything be more filthy?" Then, after a short muse: "Who was the first girl you kissed? I didn't think you were that sort." Sarah was jealous. That was as plain as the iron in her hand, to the cunning eyes that watched her without seeming to do so. He went on:
"I smoked about half a pipeful, as near as I recollect, an' left th' pipe an' matches on th' log so as to have another draw comin' back. Felt all right till I'd delivered the message. Then I began to feel queer, an' got anxious, an' tried to get away without showin' I was in a hurry. But they were hospitable folks; they were just agoin' to 'ave afternoon tea, an' insisted on me sittin' in too. I said I'd had afternoon tea 'fore I started, an' another on th' road what I brought with me. But they wouldn't listen. Wasn't often they saw me, they said, an' I mustn't go rushin' away like that. An' all th' time I was gettin' worse.
"The old lady was a gossipy sort; wanted to know all the news from up our way, from the current history of the family to th' state o' the' crops an' th' layin' activity o' th' poultry. There was no shakin' her off, once she got warmed up to it. An' I was still gettin' worse.
"She noticed my strange manner first, an' then how white I was. Did I feel ill? I said I had a bit of a headache. Ah, she knew there was something; I couldn't deceive her. She'd get her salts bottle, an' that 'ud relieve me. Just then five of the daughters trooped in an' they, wanted to know whose cat had kittens, an' what' sort of dress Melinda wore at Bayley's dance. An' I was goin' on gettin' worse.
"I was in the middle o' shakin' hands with them, an' the old lady was bearin' up with th' salts bottle, when th' squalmishness developed with a jump. 'Twasn't any use tryin' to explain; I hadn't a second to spare. I snatched up my hat an' bolted for th' scrub like all possessed. I could see them from where I stopped—where I had to stop—all grouped outside, starin' after me. I never called there any more. I've been seasick since; I've had the barcoo, an' other upheavals; but that first smoke eruption lay over 'em all. I thought I was dyin'."
"Did you go back for the pipe?"
"I did, an' I heaved it right out into the river."
"How did you get on when you got home?"
"I had to find an excuse for bein' sick, an' I hit on one that didn't fit the case. I said I'd eaten' a lot o' wild cherries.
"An' how did they know you hadn't?"
"They didn't know. The guv'nor mixed a packet of Epsom salts in a cup of water, an' I' had to drink it without sugar."
"Good enough for you—Oh!" Sarah gave a jump as she turned again to her work, and snatched the iron from the table. "Deuce take you an' your old pipe!" she cried crossly. "I've burnt father's shirt."
She held it up, and examined it critically and with much concern.
"That's your smoking again, Bill Tarkalson. If you ain't out of this with your beastly pipe in two jiffs, I'll burn a hole in you."
As he went out, laughing, Sarah addressed the damaged shirt with considerable vim:
"From all human chimney-pots, good Lord deliver me!"
Next mornin' Bill stood ready to start up country. He shook hands with them all, and made a feint to hoist his swag—but put it down again.
"Think I'll have a drink first," he said, and walked round to the cask at the back of the house. The men were sitting on a stretcher on the verandah. Sarah stood at the door, looking miserable. Turning, she shoo'd an imaginary fowl from the back room, and on that pretext she joined bill at the cask as that person dipped up a pannikin of water and poured it back again.
"How long are you goin' for this time, Bill?" she asked, making pleats and tucks with the hem of her apron.
He reflected a while.
"Say six months at the outside. I'm goin' to be a lot more frequent in this part for th' future. He was moving away."
"Ain't—ain't you going to fill your pipe?"
The operation permitted of three minutes' talk. It was lit at last, and he held her hand in a firm grip.
"So Jong, Sarah!"
"So long, Bill!" He hesitated a moment as he looked into her moistened eyes, then, catching her round the shoulders, bent down quickly and kissed her hard on the mouth. And Sarah gave no sign that she even noticed the smell of the tobacco.
[* Prad: a horse. (Colloquial, Australia and New Zealand)]
"I never travelled with a horse but once, that is, a horse to ride," said Tarkalson, "an' I don't want any more of him. He's a nuisance on a dry track an' they're mostly dry out at th' back o' Beyond. You're always askin' about grass, an' lookin' for grass; an' when you've got grass there's bound to be no water there. I reckon a bushman's never troubled with want o' work an' tucker—his greatest concern is findin' grass. When he strikes a patch he's got to hobble out whether he likes it or not. Then, instead of feedin' to keep his condition up, the brute goes ramblin' around, takin' a mouthful about every ten yards. You think he's makin' off, an' turn him back. When you're asleep he'll go some other way—you don't know where. Best way is not to turn him back at all. If he's a rambler, hobble him short, or sideline him with a bullock chain. In the mornin' you'll see his track. Of course you'llknow where to find him—at the other end of it.
"A good campin' horse is like a good mate—precious by virtue of his scarcity. Mostly you're up all night listenin' for th' bell, an' it's surprisin' what a variety of sounds resembles that bell o' your'n. It's a burden on your mind all night. In the mornin' you go to ketch him—where you heard his bell just before daylight—an' he ain't there. You walk back ten miles, to the last gate you came through, an' find him with his head hangin' over th' fence; or he's standin' in a clump o' bushes an' keepin' that bell dead still. You've tramped a day's journey after him—if he's broke his hobbles you can run yourself blind ketchin' him, an' you lead him a day's journey to camp. Then you start.
"This cuddy of mine was a pot-gutted bay. Called him Nugget. He was a great horse—in size. Frisky as a possum, an' could gallop like a Cup winner—if you wanted to yard him. Ridin' him—he was too slow for a funeral. You never saw such a p'inter. An' he was always watchin' an' takin' mean advantages. If he saw I was absorbed in th' scenery, an' sittin' a bit careless like, he'd jump two ways at once without givin' any notice. If that shifted me, which it mostly did, he'd down with his head an' give three sudden bucks. No occasion to give more'n three. By that time I'd have my second seat, an' be spittin' out some o' th' dirt an' grass I'd gobbled unintentional. I once bit a caterpillar in two, spearin' down on him sudden like. I had a great respect for Nugget in them days.
"Travellin' from Dulla to Tenterfield put a set on him. Terribly dry it was, with not as much grass as would keep a billy-goat. Chuck a log on that fire, mate. Gettin' a bit chilly.
"Well, Nugget got that blamed poor that he had to stand broadside to the sun to make a shadder. Then he'd try to get in it, an' when he lost it by turnin' end on, he'd whinny for it. He was a bit shook up in his intellect. An' his head—it looked the size of a house, with a lip on th' end of it that ud trip a bullock waggon. Worse 'n all, he'd got a sore back, an' swelled wither, an' puffed legs, an' tender feet, an' was girth-galled both sides. I useter have him padded too, fit to break him down. Tried all sorts of remedies—from axle-grease to Stockholm tar—but couldn't effect a cure nohow. 'Stead o' bein' a testimonial to me, he was th' ruin of my business; for I was travellin' as a vet'in'ry surgeon at this tame.
"I never went through a town without a dread o' bein' had up. As for Nugget, he would sidle into every house. If a woman came out he'd whinny at her, an' stand. I'd ask th' way to th' baker's, pretendin' I'd called on purpose. If I sat there talkin', Nugget would look round mournfully, an' I'd fancy he was sayin' 'Why th' deuce don't you get off.' He'd smell my boots, first one an' then th' other; and by 'n' bye he'd cop one in his mouth an' try to pull it out o' the stirrup-iron.
"I'd start him again, with some considerable persuasion, an' he'd sidle across to th' next place. I'd ask for th' butcher's shop. When I'd asked for every blessed place in th' town, I'd get off an' drag him out of it. Bet you, I'd talk to him some outside the municipality. I was ashamed o' that moke if ever a man was. Seemed to do them kind o' humiliatin' tricks on purpose. When no one could see him he'd go first-rate. Soon 's anyone come along he'd slow down to a crawl. Never met a horseman that hadn't to haul round Nugget. Everyone would say, 'Yer nag looks poor.' Looks poor! 'Struth, they useter have me fairly jumpin'.
"Then we come into flat, swampy country—plenty o' green feed. I gave him a spell there—an' he got the scours. That left him so weak that he staggered when I put th' saddle on him. Of course he wasn't really that bad; no boy as ever wanted to stop home from school could put it on better 'n him without talkin'. Th' darndest impostor!
"I led him for a week, an' carried th' pack myself. When we got to dry country again, the clods an' stones bruised his feet till he couldn't scarcely walk. Th' swamps 'ad softened 'em, an' he limped an' grunted somethin' awful. I made up my mind to sell him. I called on th' next dozen settlers, an' pretty nearly all wanted to know what I called it. You'd 'ave thought some of 'em 'ad never seen a horse before, th' way they looked at him. I said I called him Nugget. 'Well, try an' get him outside th' paddock before he dies.' That was th' windup of th' negotiations.
"I useter envy the footmen—walkin' calmly by with bluey up. Seemed like Heaven to have no worry about grass an' knocked-up horses. Got any tea in that billy?
"One day I was ridin' up to a house for bread. Nugget was goin' splendid. He must 'ave thought it was home, seein' ladies outside. I'd got close up to them when—down goes Nugget. Turned me a terrible spank among the petticoats! An' how they did yell! 'O, dear, I hope he's not hurt!' says one. 'Oh, look at that poor horse!' says another. 'Poor, poor thing!' An' everybody looked at Nugget. His legs were spread out, his head down, an' his bottom lip hangin' a foot. I asked them if they could tell me if a person named Ephrain Smith lived about there, which they said he didn't. Then I hauled Nugget round, pulled him down the road, an' let him go for another spell. After you with that firestick.
"I use ter notice flash blokes wavin' han'kerchiefs to girls as they went along. Seemed fine fun to me, an' I reckoned I'd 'ave a joke, too. Hadn't as much sense then as a respectable man ought to have. There was a house half-a-mile off, an' a girl at th' door. Just th' thing! I hauled out a sweat rag an' waved it. She waved back, then run inside. Presently she comes out again, with th' old woman—puttin' on her specs—the old man, three more girls, an' Lor' a-mighty knows how many kids. I felt scared, but was just liftin' the sweat-rag for another shake when down goes Nugget again. Dash his old hide, he shot me sommersetttn' through the dust like a tumblin' Tommy. Dunno how they took it. Didn't look. Slipped on in a hurry, an' stared straight ahead for hours. Darn me! but that did make me feel small.
"The last squattage we passed, me an' Nugget, was Ellangowan. Was close to the Condamine then. There was a hut on the bank, so I reckoned on havin' a week's spell—ketchin' cod. I fastened the reins to the stirrup iron, so 's he'd dodder along in front.
"Tell you what a cantankerous cuss he was! He tried to bolt with th' pack the minute he was out o' reach. He did get away—into a swamp. He's there yet. Bog! It 'ud bog a duck. In two minutes all yon could see was his head an' th' top o' th' pack. I got that out. The poor brute whinnied to me, too. Thought he was bein' let go. But it was no use. His bones are there still, not a rifle-shot from Ellangowan.
"I've stuck hard an' fast to Blucher ever since. He's slow, but he's sure; an' that's what you can't say of anything else when you've got to travel bad country."