a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership
Title: Collected Short Stories Volume 7 Author: Edward S. Sorenson * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 2001181h.html Language: English Date first posted: Most recent update: 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.
GO TO Project Gutenberg Australia HOME PAGE
A Black Plot
A Compromising Situation
A Moonlight Flit
An Amorous Bushranger
Her Photo Gallery
His Bush Heart
The Adventures of a Sydney Househunter
The Chalk Line
The Intrusion of Mr. Quinch
The Shanty in the Mulga
The Skipper of the Curlew
The Sliprail Shuffler
The Stolen Disc
Xmas on the Road
When Mat Conyers wasn't breaking his neck after a girl, or brooding over an ungracious charmer he had wooed and lost, he was a satisfactory mate. But these abnormal periods never lasted long, except when he was on the droving track; and even this work did not always keep his heart aloof from feminine influence. A pretty face or an attractive figure seemed to work on him as rapidly as an electric battery. His mate called it girlitis.
They were half-way through a trip from Logan Valley to Ramornie when a girl rode out from her selection to inquire about her brother Bob, who'd gone across the border with a mob of horses. She was not the belle of the bush, but she was nice. Conyers couldn't tell her anything about Bob; but when she had gone he told his mate there was good picking near her father's place, and they would spell their horses on the way back.
Throughout the day he rode around in an abstracted mood. At times he mentally lost the cattle, and when he woke he hustled them along impatiently. At night he whistled dreamy airs around them and sang them songs of love; but he didn't care to talk.
Next day he ascertained from Jim the mailman that her name was Charlotte Pine.
When the mob had been delivered, Conyers, with rebellious company pacing far behind him, made record time back to the beautiful bend near Pine's selection. After they had pitched their tent and made a fire, Mat strolled off up to the house to ask permission to camp there. He came back near midnight in a happy mood, and raised the ire of Murty Brown by singing softly to the blankets.
"Y' ought to take that voice outside an scrape it," Mr. Brown complained as he turned grumpily away from it.
For the first time in their travels together Conyers willingly did all the horse-hunting. He went hunting early in the morning; he strolled forth again soon after mid-day, and he sallied out once more at sundown. His exertions were not confined to their own horses. Seeing Charlotte steering for her docile moke, he fell through the fence in his rush to help her. The moke was dozing under a tree, but woke up suddenly and moved away, and when Conyers ran to block him he shook his head and trotted down to the bottom corner. Mat ran after him. He ran after him for half an hour, by which time the rogue had got back to where he started from. Mat hurried up, breathing like a winded sheep and wiping perspiration from his eyes. Then Charlotte held out her hand, saying, "Kerp, kerp!" at which he whinnied softly and walked up to her.
"I could have done that at first if you'd kept away," she informed the perspiring Conyers.
"Why didn't you tell me?" he humbly protested.
"You hunted him away," she said, a laugh in her eyes; "so I had to wait till you hunted him back."
The incident made Conyers feel small. When he returned to camp and saw Murty looking unusually happy, he felt worse.
"Long Alex Raven was here a while ago," said Murty, kicking the fire together.
"Oh! An' what's he got to talk about?"
"Said he could catch Charlotte's hack anywhere, an' was laughin' like a big boy at a circus."
"He had a fat lot to laugh at," Conyers snarled, and dived into the tent, where he began to put a fresh polish on his boots, which the grass had scraped bare.
"He'll just be in time to escort her down to the mail track," Murty threw after him.
"Have you seen the mokes anywhere?" Conyers asked, as if he wasn't worrying about anything else.
"Oh, they're all right," said Murty, easily. "The long 'un said he'd turn them back if be saw them past the house. He knew you'd be tired."
"Pity he couldn't mind his own business," Conyers growled.
Throwing the brushes down he got his bridle and set off with the long, firm stride of a man who was going to do something.
Ahead of him he spied a black gin, sauntering along the creek with a dilly-bag slung over her head. At once an idea came to him, and he set after her at full speed. Overtaking her near the crossing, he produced a shilling, which, after a short confab, he put back in his pocket. Then the gin sat down at the crossing, while Conyers planted himself in a thicket near by.
They had been there half an hour when long Alex and the girl came riding back. As the pair emerged from the creek the gin stood up with a delighted grin of recognition on her face.
"Hulloa, Alex!" she exclaimed. "Where you been this long time?"
Alex bent a searching, withering look upon her as he passed.
"Ugh!" said the gin. "You pflash pfeller now."
Alex's heels were digging into the horse's sides, but he did not speak.
"My word!" the gin called after him, "plenty you been gib it blanket 'fore you catch um white Mary."
The girl looked at her escort with inquiring, horrified eyes.
"The black cow!" muttered Alex. "I never saw her in my life before."
"Strange how she knows you," Charlotte said in frigid tones.
"She doesn't know me," Alex, protested. "She's mistaken me for someone else. Don't mind her."
Charlotte sat more upright than usual and looked straight ahead. Alex was anxious to get away from the unpleasant subject.
"Th' dance is on at Harry Batten's new house to-morrow night," he reminded her. "I'll call for you—"
"Don't bother; I'm not going," she broke in, speaking in a strangely hard voice. She shook up her mount and galloped away. Raven, after watching her awhile, slewed sharply round and rode back to the crossing, where he searched up and down muttering execrations. Finding no one, he departed in a ferment of explosive wrath.
The gin's head appeared above a bunch of ferns as Conyers cautiously emerged from under a bush.
"My word, saucy pfeller that one," the gin remarked.
Conyers, looking pleased, tossed a shilling to her, saying as he did so: "You git now, quick feller."
Such good use was made of the next 24 hours that Conyers inspected the new residence, chummed up with Harry Batten, got an invitation to the dance, obtained an interview with Charlotte and prevailed on her to go with him.
It was a house-warming, and everybody in the neighbourhood had a part in it. Long Alex, was among them, lonely and grim-looking. Mat Conyers, immensely proud of his new girl, paraded her before vengeful eyes and talked sentimental incoherencies into her pink ear. Several aborigines who had been attracted to the entertainment hung about the doors and windows. Murty was a bored spectator—until supper was ready, when he became an animated participator.
Up to this point Conyers had been moving in an earthly paradise. He had monopolised the buxom Charlotte nearly all the evening, and was definitely matched with her in the opinions of all the old people present. Strolling out on to the verandah together immediately after supper, he and Charlotte encountered a black gin, with a chubby piccaninny waddling about her.
"This one Matty," volunteered the piccaninny's mother, as she drew the kid tardily out of the way. "Little pfeller Mat."
Charlotte stopped short and looked down with sudden suspicion at the dirty-nosed toddler. "Why do you call him that?" she asked.
The gin laughed and nodded towards Conyers. "I been name him after Mat Conyers." she said. "Him father belonga this one."
Charlotte recoiled as though she had been stung. Conyers was too thunderstruck to speak. His mouth gaped and he went red and white by turns. Accepting these signs for guilt, the girl turned away disdainfully and rustled back to the dance-room.
Conyers eyed her stiffened back in blank dismay, conscious that the brand that had been dabbed on him would be hard to wipe off. Then he turned in spluttering rage to force the accuser to undo the mischief; but the gin had discreetly slipped away. It was useless trying to find her.
The music recommenced indoors. Conyers moved round to the back to look for Raven. He learned that the lonesome one had gone home. Conyers went round the house and got to the front in time to see Charlotte going away with her arm linked in Murty Brown's. He stared in amazement for a moment, then propped his back against a post and twisted his moustache reflectively.
There was nothing sentimental about Murty; but as Conyers was a great man with the girls, according to his talk, and had belittled him so often, Murty felt a touch of pride on finding himself in possession of Charlotte. He was not fascinated; only flattered. He resolved to make the best of his advantage, just to show his cobber what he could do when he liked. It would take some of the conceit out of him. Murty explained to Charlotte Pine that Matthew was a positive disgrace, he was ashamed of him.
Conyers mooched dejectedly camp, alone. The fact that Murty Brown had stepped into the girl's good graces he regarded as more favourable to himself than otherwise—until that interloper returned to camp. Murty came with beaming face, suggesting that he had been having a good time. He peered into his pocket-mirror for a space before undressing, while remarking that he'd been invited up to tea at the Pines' place on the following evening. He chiacked Mr. Conyers in a pleasant way, and generally acted as if a great happiness had suddenly befallen him. Conyers went to bed in a sullenly distracted frame of mind.
In the morning, Murty shaved himself, scrubbed his blackened teeth with powdered charcoal and cleaned his boots. He was proceeding to brush his best suit, when Conyers, in exasperation, left the camp. He rambled over hills and valleys into a virgin tract that was inhabited only by blacks. When he returned he looked as if the walk had greatly improved his constitution and brightened his outlook on life.
Murty left at sundown, first advising Conyers not to sit up for him, as he expected to be late. Mat grinned mysteriously as he stooped to lift the billy off the fire. Tea was ready at the Pines' house when Murty arrived. An inquiry appertaining to his mate's location opened the way for some scurrilous remarks concerning people who kept such disreputable company as long Alex Raven and Mat Conyers appeared to have been doing. Mr. Pine expressed strong views upon the matter. He said that if such a low white as Conyers came into his house he would regard the premises polluted thereby. Miss Pine, who had made some tasty scones and patty cakes for the occasion, was graciously attending on the guest when there came a knock. She opened the door, and to her disgust was confronted by an ugly gin, who was accompanied by seven half-caste youngsters.
"Good-night," said the black. "Is Mr. Brown here?"
"Ye-es," Charlotte answered, staring at her.
"I want to see him," said the visitor. "I'm Missus Brown."
"Wha-at!" gasped Charlotte, stepping back.
"Mr. Brown's wife?"
Charlotte drew a long breath and rushed in to her mother. There was a long, brisk conversation in shocked undertones, and then Mrs. Pine acted quickly. She brought the gin and the pics. to the dining-room, and broke up the blissful serenity therein with the abrupt announcement:
"This woman says she's Murty Brown's wife!"
"That's right," the gin asserted, meeting the astonished looks of the two men with a broad smile. "He marry me long time ago, an' all about piccaninny here belonga him."
"Well, by cripes!" gasped Murty.
Mr. Pine, recovering from his stupefaction, waved his hands and roared:
"Clear them out o' this! The idea o' bringin' them in here! Be off with you!" He leaped up and, clutching Murty by the collar, lifted him out of the chair. "You, too, you d——d hypocrite! Out you go!"
"You keep your hands to yourself!" Murty remonstrated. "There's no cause to get excited."
"Get out!" Mr. Pine yelled at him. "Go an' catch 'possums."
Murty protested loud and indignantly, but Mr. Pine shoved him into the night and shut the door. Murty made some caustic comments on the character of Mr. Pine and plodded back to camp, muttering and scowling as he went.
"Hulloa!" said Conyers, who was sewing on buttons. "Doesn't take long to spend an evening at Pines'?"
Murty threw his hat into a corner and proceeded with unwonted deliberation to rearrange his bedding.
"We'll be movin' on at daylight," he announced when he had finished. "There's too many out-o'-work blacks about this vicinity."
It was all the fault of the mailman.
He had met Pine's daughter, Charlotte, riding over the range to spend a day or two with friends on Logan River. She was coming back, she told him, "on Saturday or Sunday." She also told him that her father and long Alec Raven had gone north some time ago with steers, and she expected they would be home again about the week-end.
These items were, of course, passed on to everybody along the mailman's track, and to Mat Conyers they were more important than anything else just then. He reflected bitterly that Charlotte might have been his sweetheart now if Alec Raven had not come between them and maliciously defamed his good character. That he had done the same to Raven was a detail he overlooked. Knowing that he was not welcome at the Pine house, he had been trying to meet Charlotte accidentally, to clear the atmosphere.
That was why he was riding up the range when Charlotte was expected to be riding home. He had travelled slowly to the border, and his hopes were fading with the waning day as he rode down on the Queensland side. He was making for an old deserted hut that stood below the mountain jungle, whence a little grassy valley led to Logan waters. There his mate, who had turned off to see about a horse, would pull him up next day.
A cold night was closing in as he approached the hut. Smoke rising from the wooden chimney told that someone was before him. But that didn't matter. The door was closed, but just as he dismounted it was cautiously opened, and a face looked out that for a moment made him stare in speechless wonder.
The inmate was Charlotte Pine.
"You can't come in here," she said, in little more than a whisper, "and please don't make a noise, Dad's asleep."
"Why are you camping here?" asked Conyers.
"His horses knocked up," she replied.
As he turned to leave she stepped out, closing the door behind her.
"You needn't go a mile away," she said. "I'm dying for a drink of tea. We intended to be home to-night, so we brought nothing with us."
The words acted magically on Conyers. He stretched the horses' necks in dragging them to a camping-place near a clump of bushes, where he threw off the saddles, hobbled the mokes and flew about after firewood. In less than half an hour he and Charlotte Pine were picnicking together in the firelight. It was night now. Mopokes were calling near the scrub, and from a wooded ridge across the valley came the weird cries of bush curlews.
Conyers had never dreamed of a better opportunity, of a more enchanted world than that in which he found himself. He was most attentive, and when tea was over he concerned himself about her lodgings.
"Sure you've got enough bedding for yourself?" he asked her.
"I've got some grass and a fire," she answered, looking straight ahead.
"Oh, that's no good to you," said Conyers. "Here, take these two rugs o' mine; I've got plenty without them."
He had one thin blanket left, but there was plenty of firewood. He placed the folded rugs for her to sit on, and had settled down beside her for a confidential chat when hoof-beats sounded down the valley.
"Someone's coming!" she exclaimed. "Don't let them know who's in the hut."
With that she snatched up the rugs and bolted. Conyers was pondering over her parting injunction when the travellers arrived. The solution came with a shock, and at the same time plunged him into a quandary that bristled with misgivings and perplexities.
The travellers were Alec Raven and Charlotte's father.
"Hulloa, Conyers," said the latter. "Camping out?"
"Yes," Conyers drawled. "Nice an' fresh out here."
"You'll find it a bit too fresh before morning," Pine predicted. "I think we'll doss in the hut, Alec."
Conyers straightened up with quickened interest.
"There's a married couple in there," he informed them.
"Oh, is that why you're here?" said Pine. "I might know them."
"No; they're total strangers about here," said Conyers. "Never been in the district before."
"I think I could put them on to a job," said Pine. "I'll have a look at the bloke, anyway."
"Don't bother," Conyers advised him anxiously, "He's an uncouth sort. Don't want to see anybody, an' keeps the door shut."
They unsaddled then at Conyers' fire, and boiled their billies. While preparing for their supper, Pine picked up a tiny handkerchief. Written across one corner of it was a name that brought fresh fears to Conyers.
"How did this come here?" asked Pine, examining it closely.
"I picked it up on the road," Conyers answered.
"It belongs to my daughter," growled Pine.
"I know," said Conyers. "I was going to post it to her."
Mr. Pine seemed to be more thoughtful after that. Conyers was thoughtful too. He realised that he had compromised the girl if she had not already compromised herself, or he was an accessory to something or other. As she had told him a lie about dad, he really didn't know where he stood, except that he had made serious trouble for himself if Pine discovered the girl there or found her back in the morning.
The horse was sure to join the others if he was anywhere in the neighbourhood. This thought so alarmed him that he hardly dared to close his eyes. His companions, who turned in early, had been used to getting up before daylight. The intruding beast would have to shift before then. He waited till the drovers were asleep, then crept away to have a look around. It was a natural thing to do in the circumstances, but it only led him into further trouble.
The hack was with his pair, as he expected, but it was saddled and bridled. This staggered Conyers for a bit. He knew the hack, so there was no mistake about that; but what sort of game was Charlotte playing against him? When he tried to catch the beast he only set the bells jingling. For two hours he dodged about without success. Then he resolved to get a bridle and catch the rogue on horseback.
On his way to camp he suddenly became aware of an alarming blaze. The hut chimney was on fire. A log had probably rolled against the wall, and the fire had crept up the dry slabs. With a creepy sensation at the roots of his hair, his knees weakening under him, Conyers ran and stumbled over the intervening distance, and reached the hut too late to do anything but watch it fall to the ground.
Pine and his mate had been wakened by the flare, and their eyes turned on him searchingly as he hurried up.
"Where have you been?" asked Pine.
"Turnin' my horses back," gasped Conyers, breathing hard.
Pine jerked his thumb towards the ruin.
"Where's the married couple?"
"What's the good of askin' me?" snapped Conyers. His face was sickly white; a deadly fear was in him as he thought of Charlotte, trapped in the burning building. Old and ant-eaten, it was soon a smouldering heap.
Then Pine and Raven started raking with long sticks. They were looking for the married couple, whilst Conyers stood by with guilty conscience, fascinated with the dread mystery of it, expecting them to find Charlotte.
When they came to a blackened heap and prized up a corpse from under charred slabs he gasped audibly and his knees sagged. It was burnt to the bones, and there was a deep cleft in the skull like the mark of a tomahawk. A pair of scorched and shrivelled boots were on the feet, which had been partly protected by a solid slab.
Conyers stared at them for minutes, trying to recollect what sort he last saw Charlotte wearing. Then the split skull attracted him, and at the horrors it suggested he almost collapsed.
The other men continued searching till every little heap of debris had been probed and turned, and all the unburnt bits of timber had been dragged aside and used for lighting.
"There's only one." said Pine as he threw down his stick. "That one was murdered, an' it looks as if the hut was burnt to hide the crime."
"That's so," said Raven, looking suspiciously at Conyers. "Mat's the only person who can testify to two, an' he came out of the bush just after we discovered the fire."
"What do you mean by that?" Conyers demanded, aggressively.
"Oh, nothin'," said Raven. "I'm only just statin' a fact."
"It's a dirty, insinuatin' fact," Conyers snorted, and with the snarl of a kicked dog he shuffled down to his camp.
To his astonishment, he discovered one of his rugs, roughly bundled up behind his saddles. That told that Charlotte had escaped and, wearing the other rug for a shawl, had gone up the valley. That was some relief, but it made no difference to his position in regard to the tragedy. He recalled her words, "Dad's asleep." Was that her "dad", that half-cremated thing they had rescued from the embers? If so, he must have been some wicked tramp, thought Conyers, and the girl had struck him down in self-defence. That supposition left other riddles unsolved, riddles that made his brain reel. Only one thing was clear: he had dropped into a devil's own mess.
The two men came down soon afterwards, and Alec Raven at once went after his horse. Conyers was not surprised, when he returned, that he made no mention of Charlotte's hack. The girl had caught the rogue and gone back to her friend's to make another start and set up an alibi.
"Alec's goin' in to fetch the police," said Pine, "an' you'd better stay here till they come. 'T wouldn't look well to go away."
The words seemed to strike into Conyers' heart like a cold draught; his fibres tingled, and he stared dejectedly at the departing messenger, too miserable to speak. The night had been a sleepless torment, and when morning came his haggard look made Pine feel sorry for him. Mr. Pine also felt uncomfortable, and kept always at a little distance, as though he suspected Conyers of being a villain with a blood-stained tomahawk in his pocket.
Both looked down the track at intervals as the day wore on. Pine was watching for the police; Conyers was expecting Charlotte. He wanted to see her first, and for once the luck was his.
She cantered up as radiant as if she had no nasty memories of Mountain Hut. She did not seem to notice that the place had changed.
"Hulloa, Dad! What are you doin' here?" she called out cheerily.
Pine went to meet her with the air of a chief mourner at a funeral. With his hand on her horse's neck, he talked in undertones for several minutes. Conyers saw the girl's face blanch, and when she glanced across at him a horrified look was in her erstwhile laughing eyes. She became excited, and fired a string of questions at her father that further puzzled Conyers. Then she dismounted, and whilst her father led the horse down to a shady tree, Conyers seized his opportunity.
"I suppose he told you about the corpse?" he said abruptly.
"Yes," said Charlotte in a shocked drawl.
"What a terrible thing." Conyers eyed her keenly. "How did it happen?" he asked.
Charlotte's expression changed, as if he had hit her.
"I don't know anything about it," she answered.
"Who was in there with you last night?"
"There was nobody."
"Why did you tell me 'dad' was there—an' asleep?"
"Because I was alone, and afraid," she told him. "My horse stumbled an' threw me at the crossin'. I was dazed for a bit, an' when I climbed the bank the horse was out of sight. I looked for him till I was tired, an' when I reached the hut, near sundown, I decided to camp there till morning."
"An' what about the fire?" asked Conyers.
"I don't know. The place was all ablaze when I woke. I grabbed the rugs an' rushed out. I sneaked up an' dropped one rug near your saddles, so you'd know I'd left; the other one is at the crossin', under a leaning tree. I knew Dad and Alec Raven were with you, so I looked about for their horses. I guessed mine would be with them, if he hadn't gone back to the border gate. Then I went back to the friends I'd been stayin' with, an' arranged that I left there only this morning. You'll remember that."
"Hm!" said Conyers grumpily. "But how did you arrange about the corpse?"
"I know nothing about it," she declared. "There was no one else in the hut while I was there."
"He was in the fire, anyway," said Conyers grimly, "an I'm suspected of puttin' him there."
"But there's no evidence against you?" Charlotte queried.
"It's all against me," cried Conyers. "Only a miracle can save me from being hung."
The intervention of Mr. Pine prevented any further confidences. He had put on the billy in the meantime.
"You'd better push along as soon as you have had your dinner," he said to Charlotte. "There's no need for you to be mixed up in this."
"How could I be mixed up in it?" asked Charlotte, looking at Conyers. "I'd be afraid to go through the scrub by myself now. I'll wait for you."
Conyers said he would go and round up the horses. As he slouched along the valley he reviewed the ugly incidents again, and decided that, if he was on the jury, and Long Alec was in his shoes, on the circumstantial evidence against him, he would find Long Alec guilty.
When he got back to camp Long Alec had returned, and two policemen were examining the head of the skeleton. They immediately showed a marked interest in Conyers and his business. They asked him awkward questions about his movements and his intentions; they inquired at length about a married couple that didn't exist, what the myths had said to him, and what he had said to them; and they wanted to know his reasons for separating from his mate.
Conyers' flustered and hesitating replies were strengthening the base suspicions against him, and leading inescapably to his arrest, when one of the officers, looking again for some clue to the victim's identity, directed his attention to the unburnt extremities.
He pulled off the boots, and at once the whole thing was clear. The feet revealed that the man had been dead for months: and the body had undoubtedly been hidden under the slab floor.
A Moonlight Flit
At Mr. Clagg's request, his furniture and household effects had been loaded in the back lane "without noise and without talking." Then, according to instructions again, the removalist started off "around the corner to the right." It was the nearest corner, and as soon as they were safely round it Mr. Clagg inquired of the driver:
"Do you know of an empty house where we can put this load?"
The driver pulled up with a jerk. "Gorstruth!" he exclaimed. "Don't you know where you're goin'?"
"No," said Mr. Clagg. "I haven't the slightest Idea."
"Well, you're a beaut! What in the name of 'ell did you shift for?"
"There's a bailiff in the house I've just left, put in by a grasping landlord for a debt I repudiated two years ago. We had a party to-night, and while the bailiff was enjoying himself in the room we'd cleared for dancing, I cleared all the other rooms. You see, I've slipped out as a matter of principle, and I've had no time lo look for a place to shift into, as I only came home from work at tea time."
"An' do you expect me to hawk this dunnage round till we find a place to let?" asked the driver, now concerned about the financial question.
"I suppose you don't happen to know where there is one?" Mr. Clagg asked in return.
"There's an empty house in a side street about two miles from here, but I can't say that it's to let."
"If it's empty, it's all-right," said Mr. Clagg, brightening up. "Take me to it."
"The painters were there when I saw it."
"That doesn't matter. I won't knock over any paint pots if they're still on the job."
"But you'll have lo find the landlord," said the driver, dubiously.
"The missus will find him and take the place to-morrow, while I'm at work."
"After you've taken possession?" There was protest and surprise in the query.
Mr. Clagg nodded with the serene air of a man who saw through the entanglements ahead.
"This is no time for ceremony," he said. "My youngsters want to get to bed; and the wife is still entertaining the bailiff. I've got to be back before the party breaks up to get them away."
The driver chuckled as he shook up his team.
"This is a new one on me," he said. "In the bush we used to walk into any empty hut that was convenient, if we wanted a night's shelter. But that's not allowed here."
"I'll chance it," Mr. Clagg persisted, "I'm not going to camp in the streets, while there's a house vacant. Why should I, if I'm prepared to pay rent from to-night?"
"Well, it's your funeral, not mine," said the driver, as he swung around another corner. Mr. Clagg was thankful for corners; the more he swung around the more secure he felt.
"I always like to know where I'm goin' when I shift," the driver continued; "what sort of a bloated capitalist I've got to pay rent to; and whether Mrs. Stickybeak and old mother Gabbygutts live near. Darned hard to find a place well away from that pair! Then I like to know how the kids next door's been brought up; an' what the others are like that play hop-scotch and football in the vicinity. There's a lot about a house besides the smoky chimney and the leaky roof that you have to inquire into if you want to have a quiet life."
"So far as this place is concerned," said Mr. Clagg, "I'll be satisfied if nobody about knows me or my friend the bailiff."
"The landlord is sometimes an awkward proposition," said the removalist, meditatively. "The tenant wants a good landlord and the landlord wants a good tenant; but they often get coupled contrary wise. There's some that don't mind if you get behind a bit, an' don't stand meditatin' on the door-mat when there's nothing doin'; others ask nasty questions if you've only got excuses to offer, and very soon give you notice to migrate or seize your forty years' gatherin' for arrears. The worst of the tribe is the evictionist. He's generally a church-goer, too. Then there's the mean landlord, who'll never do anything to the place while you stop in it, even if it's falling down; and the party who'll do nearly anything you ask him, providin' it is reasonable, and put a bob or two more on the rent, just to recoup himself. There's other sorts, good and bad, but a man's better off if he can do without 'em."
"If the landlord doesn't suit me," said Mr. Clagg, grimly, "he won't have much profit to show for his unpopularity."
He was studying the places on each side as he travelled along, most of which showed attractive fronts, and a slinking into drab obscurity behind.
"Some places swarm with bugs and fleas," the driver went on. "Some are damp and mildewy; lots have been lived in by people with infectious diseases—consumption, cancer, leprosy and so forth; a few are haunted; and there's any amount where murders have been committed. I wouldn't live in a place where Deeming had lived, if they gave it to me rent free."
"But he didn't live in the place we're going to?" said Mr. Clagg, nervously.
"Perhaps not; but there may be other Deemings that haven't been found out yet. I shifted a very respectable family named Grinnan into a place not a great way from here; but they didn't stay long, and the next couple I shifted into it dug up a baby in the little back garden. There was a hunt for the Grinnans straight away, as the last occupants of the place, and they had no end of bother to get clear of it. Then the previous tenants were hunted up, and they had some bother, too. It got around at last that next Door had seen a woman diggin' there one night before the Grinnans shifted in—while the place was empty."
"Who was she?" Mr. Clagg inquired, uneasily, as the driver paused.
"They never found out. But it shows you the danger of goin' into places you know nothing about, Some jokers, when they've got a body they want to get rid of, choose the back of an empty house as the safest, because, suspicion generally rests on the last tenant. A house that's been a long time empty, and has a quiet back entrance, has a big chance of becoming notorious some time or other. Well, here's your mansion," he concluded, pulling up before a D.F.W.B.* standing a little back from the footpath. "Now you want to find the key."
[* double-fronted weatherboard]
Mr. Clagg got down with rather unnecessary deliberation, eyeing the place as if he expected sinister developments in its silent shadows. He didn't like the look of it; his courage had been shaken by the ghoul he had travelled with. But he had to house his sticks, whatever the consequence.
It was nearly 10 o'clock. The first neighbour, on being roused up, roared through the window that it was a nice bally time to be disturbing people about keys. The residents on the other side were strangers, and didn't know anything about the premises.
"We'll have to break the door in," said Mr. Clagg, desperately.
"Won't that make you liable for breaking an' enterin'?" inquired the removalist.
"Certainly not," said Clagg, impatiently. "I'm not going in to steal; I'm taking property into the place."
"All right, go ahead. I'll be untyin' the ropes."
Thus left to do the breaking-in job himself, Mr. Clagg charged the door, stern first, and landed in the hall, on the back of his head.
"Doesn't seem to be a very secure house," the removalist remarked. "With so many burglars about, you want doors and locks that will stand something more than the butt of a billygoat; and you don't want locks that your neighbours' keys will fit, either. Plenty of 'em do."
Mr. Clagg had no time for arguments about burglars. He rustled his belongings into the place and hurried back for his family.
By the time they were all under the new roof it was after midnight, and they were glad to turn into beds thrown down anywhere on the floor.
They were still under blankets early in the morning when a van-load of furniture stopped at the gate. At the same time a heavy-booted person walked into the front room and yelled to the occupants.
"Hey! What the devil's the meanin' of this?"
Mr. Clagg sat up smartly and rubbed his eyes.
"What's up?" he cried, in alarm. "What are you doin' in our bedroom?"
"This is my house, an' I'm shiftin' into it," said the intruder.
Mr. Clagg turned cold.
"You can't shift in here," he said. "I'm the occupier."
"Occupier, be d——d!" snapped the other. "I took this place a week ago, an' you've no right on the premises. What sort of a caper are you at, anyway?"
While Mr. Clagg, hopelessly flabbergasted by the awkward development, got slowly into his clothes, Mrs. Clagg gathered the blankets round her and rattled out an explanation of their unlucky predicament.
The heavy-shod person was unsympathetic. House piracy wasn't allowed in that municipality, and if he called in a policeman they might find themselves in more trouble.
"What am I to do?" wailed the occupier, helplessly. "I've got to get away to work, and I can't leave the family and furniture in the street."
"You can arrange with the carrier outside to put your lot on when he's got mine out," said the rightful tenant, "an' while he's loading it your missus can go to the house agents for a place."
Mr. Clagg shuffled slowly out to make the arrangement accordingly. At the gate he stopped short, and his eyes rounded like a startled owls.
The man unloading the furniture was the removalist who had brought him there!
Having a perplexing problem on his mind, Mat Conyers had taken a few glasses of stimulants in the course of a long, dull morning. These revived his flagging spirits and gave him fresh confidence in himself.
"Who told you Hilda Crowe was goin' to marry Joe Spudd?" he asked, after along silence.
He He was leaning on the horse-rail in front of the pub in Sleepy. Hollow, where Murty Brown was similarly engaged, waiting for the dinner bell to ring. Conyers had invited him to dinner.
"Some old woman who knows the family," Murty answered.
"Ugh!" said Conyers. "I thought you had better sense than to listen to old women's talk." There was a tone of relief in his voice. He lit a cigarette and tilted his hat back. "I am going up this afternoon to see Hilda—an' if I meet Joe Spudd there'll be a fight."
"Well, here's one that won't be in it," said Murty, as he fixed a twinkling eye on a passing cart.
"I might want you to hold my coat," Conyers remarked, tentatively.
Murty slewed round and placed his back against the rail.
"If you think it will get away, Mat," he said, "you'd better tie the bloomin' thing up here, before you start."
"A nice mate you are!" Conyers reproached. "Joe Spudd is sure to have someone to pick him up."
Murty suppressed a grin.
"If he'll want pickin' up you'll be all right," he returned. "But if it should be the other way about, what you'll want with you is a chemist's shop. I wouldn't pick a quarrel with Joe if I were you; He's got a fist like a donkey's hoof, an' it arrives before you know it's comin'."
"Do you think I'm frightened of Joe Spudd?" Conyers inquired with withering scorn.
"Don't trouble me whether you are or not," said Murty, quietly. "I'm neutral."
The dinner bell put an end to the argument. Conyers did not refer to the subject again, but in the afternoon he rode away in the direction of Crowe's farm.
Old Martin Crowe had certainly decided that Hilda was to marry Joe, and he was not an easy man to circumvent. Nearly always he was "poking about the place" when an unwelcome admirer wanted to steal a meeting with his daughter. He seemed to detect admirers when they were mere specks in the distance.
Knowing this, Conyers made a wide detour behind a hill, and approached from the opposite direction, where there was scrub-cover along the river to within half a mile of the house.
Here he tied his horse and, from a valise he carried on the front of his saddle, produced a woman's dress, a woman's felt hat, and a thick green veil. Having buried his identity in these, he crept along under the bank to a landing place where Joe Spudd was to row across from his farm, which was opposite, to meet Miss Crowe in the afternoon, when she rode down the paddock for the cows.
Conyers had spied this out previously while hanging around to get an interview with Hilda. Joe Spudd always arrived before the girl; he was so previous at times as to suggest that he spent more time courting than ploughing and Conyers, having an old score to settle with Joseph, determined on a desperate course that would throw an iceberg between the pair and give him a clear run.
His outfit for this purpose included a light gun and two very dead ducks, which he had obtained from a professional shooter who hadn't been able to sell them on his rounds a day or two before. The object of these was to account for the presence of a female on that part of the river bank. Some distance up the river lived two sisters of the Amazon type, whose guns were often heard along the water. If Miss Crowe mistook him for one of these, the man-eaters could settle that affair themselves.
He had arranged the exhibits conspicuously at the trysting place when Joe Spudd paddled across. He was softly singing a sentimental fragment, which continued until he had tied the boat up. Then he drew from his pocket a small round mirror, such as school-girls carry, and inspected himself. He straightened his necktie, brushed his eyebrows with his fingers, and arranged his hat with a slight tilt over one ear.
These preparations wrung comments from Conyers that had better not be repeated. As Joe came up the bank he Stepped into the open and beckoned him, as though he urgently required his services. Joe quickened his pace obligingly, and was led to a low gum log near the sporting display.
"Sit down, Mr. Spudd," said Conyers, in a squeaky imitation of a woman's voice. "I want to have a talk with you."
Mr. Spudd looked surprised. He also looked towards Crowe's house, and saw Hilda, saddling her horse. Instinctively he knew that the presence of this intrusive female would be inconvenient.
"I can't sit down," he said. "I've come to meet somebody."
"You're not going to meet her this afternoon," said the veiled impostor, drawing a revolver from the inside of a half-buttoned blouse. "Sit down, or I'll bring you down!"
The move startled Joe and, with a look of blank amazement, he sat gingerly down alongside the bushranger, peering hard at the slovenly garb of the figure as he did so. In his prosaic agricultural career he had never encountered anything remotely related to desperadoes before, and he became painfully nervous in the presence of his first acquaintance.
"What do you want me for?" he asked with grudging politeness.
"I'm the other girl you're carrying on with, which Hilda Crowe wouldn't believe, if she didn't see it with her own eyes."
The brutal nakedness of the reply took Joe's breath away. He turned a shade paler, and stammered a feeble remonstrance.
"I don't know, you from Mother Adam," he said, crouching as if in readiness to leap away. "Why do you want to make Hilda believe what's a mean lie?"
"Because you stole her from me." With which remark he lifted the veil and gave Joe a further shock. The blood rushed to his face, but at the menacing weapon it rushed back again. Squirming visibly on his seat, he glared in speechless and impotent rage.
"Now you know where you are, Joe," said Conyers. "You're doin' a spoon with me this afternoon, an' you won't discover Hilda till she gets up close; then you'll look round at her suddenly an', seein' who it is, you'll withdraw your arm from round my waist an' edge away a bit—"
"My arm's not round your waist," began Joe in protest.
"Put it round," said Conyers, "an' let her see how much you love me. Bear in mind, I've, got the gun on you all the time," he added, thrusting, the barrel against the inside of the blouse. "It's a little joke of mine, Joe, but if you betray me you'll get plugged quick."
"It's a mean, dirty trick," Joe exploded; then he shut up instantly and looked scared.
"All's fair in love an' war," returned Conyers. "You said so yourself when you stole my clothes—the time I swam the river for a horse, to take Hilda to the dance. That scurvy trick gave you my place, an' I'm just gettin' a bit of my own back now."
"There's a lot of difference between what I did an' what you're doing,", said Joe. "Plantin' your clothes was only a bit o' fun; but this is a criminal proceeding."
"You're the only one that knows about it, Joe," said Conyers.
"Hilda will know directly," Joe reminded him.
"Not at all," Conyers returned. "She'll think I'm a lady sport. But I don't know what she'll think of you when she finds you cannoodlin' with me."
"How long will she think it?" Joe demanded viciously.
"Always," said Conyers, with confidence. "Just put it to yourself. Suppose you told everything—who'd believe you? They'd say no man in his right senses would do such a preposterous thing as this. It's utterly incredible. I can scarcely believe it's real, myself. That's the beauty of this idea. Then there's the ludicrous spectacle of Joe Spudd embracing a man with a petticoat on. While everybody would reckon your yarn the hallucination of a lunatic, you'd be the laughin' stock of the whole district."
"It's funnier the other way," Joe obstinately answered. "Mat Conyers masquerading as a woman, an' compellin' a man, at the point of a revolver, to sit with his arm around him. If I had anything like that on my conscience, I'd leave the country."
"Mat Conyers isn't here," said that person. "He's playing cards all the afternoon in Lankey's hut, With Murty Brown. That's why I'm going to let you make any sort of an ass you like of yourself when I'm done with you—provided that you do as I wish here. Keep this popgun in your mind an' recollect that a man who resorts to these desperate measures isn't to be trifled with. You get me, Joe?"
Joe didn't say whether he did or not. He realised that he had an unscrupulous person to deal with and quite believed that the villain would carry out his threat, if thwarted.
"Put a little more life in that arm," Conyers urged him. "Feels like a dead eel round a person. An' lean over this way as if you're tellin' me all the sugared idiocies you were thinkin' about, comin' over in the boat."
A horse was now heard cantering across the paddock behind them. Conyers put his arm around Joe's neck and spoke further unloving sentiments into his ear.
"You'll say, 'Good day, Miss Crowe,' when you recognise her—"
"I call her Hilda," Joe corrected.
"If you do, I'll perforate your ugly carcase," hissed Conyers. "Then you'll say, 'How are you?' That's about all that will be required. Seein' the company you're in, an' understanding your true character, she'll tilt her nose an' ride off without speakin'."
The clatter of hoofs eased into a walk and, the next moment, stopped at the end of the log.
Joe looked round, turned nine colors in half a second, and shrank, limply under the horrified gaze of Hilda Crowe. He tried to utter the specified greeting, but had to cough to clear his throat first; then the words came out in emotional jerks.
For a moment, Hilda glared at him in injured astonishment. Then she slipped from her saddle, and in three strides stood in front of him, tense, quivering and silent, her cheeks aflame, her eyes flashing fire.
Joe had no instructions for this emergency. He edged a little farther from the "other girl", who was looking fixedly at her toes, as a young woman would be expected to do in the circumstances. Joe didn't know where to look. He had never felt so uncomfortable before in his natural life.
Suddenly Hilda took another stride and, in a twinkling, had snatched off Conyers' veil and hat. His big feet and masculine hands had prompted the action.
The revelation staggered her for a moment. Before she could utter a word, Joe Spudd, taking quick advantage of the confusion, swung a lightning blow that knocked Conyers backwards off the log. Jumping after him, Joe grabbed the revolver, and as Conyers scrambled up, tried to fire at his feet, to frighten him. But there was nothing in the weapon, except a spider's nest—it was a useless thing that Conyers had picked up.
His anger intensified at the humiliation of being bailed up by a harmless weapon, Joe hurled it at him savagely and ran for the gun. That was another derelict, which Conyers had bought from a blackfellow for sixpence. The girl, alarmed at the threatening tragedy, took it from him.
Then Joe clutched the dead ducks by the necks, as Conyers rushed on to him with the fury of a wounded bull-ant. Joe smacked him across the eyes with one, but the other was torn from his grasp, and in a moment the two men were mixed up in a mad whirl of flying skirts and feathers.
Out of the tornado, Conyers dived suddenly over the log, his skirt dropping over his head. Following quickly, Joe grasped the ends, of the garment and, kneeling on Conyers' neck, he took a greenhide lace from his own boot and tied them together. Then he sat on Conyers while he explained, at great length, the whole embarrassing situation to Hilda.
By the time the desperado had torn his way out, Hilda was half way down the paddock and Joe was half way across the river.
Kate was a bush-girl with the happy faculty of seeing the humorous side of even a serious courtship. As girls were not as plentiful as gum-trees where she lived, she was not left, like the desert flower, to blush unseen. Some of the ardent bachelors who came to worship at her shrine made her crimson violently. Others provided fun and pleasant thoughts if they did not give her thrills.
She had varied recollections to con over in quiet moments when she opened up the little old photo-album. Some were exasperating, a few brought a wistful look to her eyes.
Every young bachelor around, who wanted to see her, contrived to arrive in her vicinity whatever the sentiments of the old man might be. The old man was generally a disgruntled person when he suspected somebody wanted to start courting. And having been in the game himself at one time he was not easy to circumvent. He assumed, in the initial stages, that every male visitor wanted to see him; and mostly the male visitor pretended he did. But after a time pretence was useless, and then progress depended on whether the old man liked the visitor or not.
First in the little old album was Tom, of Long Gully, a quiet, drawling, young man who had a reverential respect for father. He sat on his horse, with one leg over the pommel, or on the top rail of the fence, with the bridle reins over his arm, talking for the most part to the old man, whom he came to see about a strayed cow. When he got his horse tied up, before being met by the parental barrier, he squatted with his back against a verandah-post, and grinned through a haze of tobacco smoke every time he obtained a glimpse of the adorable within. Occasionally, when the old chap wasn't continuously there to engage him in a discussion on horses and dogs and the laying qualities of hens, he would lean against the doorpost with his legs crossed and make remarks about the weather.
Tom always showed that he was ah admirer, but he never said so.
From the next page the big, dull eyes of Sam, the timber-getter, looked out. Sam was a friend of the family and wore whiskers. He was accustomed to drop in after tea and liked the side of the fireplace, where he squatted for hours, interspersing a few words between silences and spitting in the fire. His happiest evenings were when he arrived early and helped Kate with the washing-up. That was congenial for spooning: but Sam wasn't a rusher. He dried a tremendous heap of miscellaneous crockery, and was a long while cleaning knives and turning the mangle without material developments, beyond occasionally dropping a spoon down her back, or flicking her with the towel. He was a homely, steady person, but too slow.
Another turn of the album and the handsome face of Harry, the stockman, held her eyes. Harry was an ardent but cautious "boy" who cut the old people out altogether and stole meetings at the sliprails. There were thrills in Harry. He kissed her and hugged her and teased her, without ever making any serious proposals. There was a lurking suspicion that Harry kissed other girls. He bought her silk handkerchiefs and chocolates, but never seemed to have any money in reserve for marrying. Kate hung on to him until he went away droving. There was a sweet spice of adventure in the starlit meetings that relieved the monotony of quiet bush days when she was seeing nobody and hearing nothing of the world beyond Dad Spinks's selection.
Very slowly she turned Harry over, and brought up Long Bob, of the mail change. But she smiled broadly at his dreamy features. Bob was a sentimental bloke with not much go in him, addicted to writing letters and amorous doggerel. Every event in Kate's life was enshrined in verse; every chance meeting was the inspiration of a mournful rhapsody. Kate liked riding down to the road for the mail. She seldom saw Bob, but he wrote her a very, loving letter twice a week—until Dad Spinks met the coach himself one day and discovered the correspondence. The epistle contained a slab of poetry that Bob had perpetrated while grooming horses. The old spoil-sport, after tearing off Kate's name, handed it to the coach-driver as something he'd picked up; and it made Long Bob so famous that he left the district without saying good-bye.
At the next page Kate smiled again; then for a moment she wondered what had become of Slocums' Jim who, for awhile, had made a neighbouring selection interesting.
Slocums' Jim had a way all his own. He called on all sorts of pretences by way of cultivating a desirable acquaintance. One day he had lost his dog (which he had taken the precaution to tie up in the scrub); another day he reported that some of Spinks's cattle were out (he had dropped the sliprails the night before); again, he came round to warn Spinks to look out for his grass, as he'd heard there was a bush fire about 40 miles down the road. But his favourite trick was borrowing things he didn't want, the returning of which provided him with a legitimate excuse for calling again. She admired his resourcefulness in getting to see her, but his stolid, bovine nature could hardly inspire a lively moment in a week. If his schemes to meet her had been coupled with a humorous disposition the situation would have been saved. Still, Slocums' Jim enriched her life by the amusing memories he left behind.
Again she turned the page, and Jerry of the Hills came up for review.
Jerry was a simple, affable chap; "good fun" when waiting for the mail, but impossible as a husband. They met at a bush dance, after which Jerry shifted his mailbox to the same place as Spinks's, which was two miles farther for him to go. His only mail was a weekly paper, for which he called twice a week; but he and Kate waited together for the coach, sometimes on their horses, sometimes sitting on a log. Always when he went to town he rode round by the outside of Spinks's selection, and seemed to derive immense satisfaction from seeing the sliprails or the roof of her house. At their meetings he revealed his sentiments and made known his fondest thoughts with conversation lollies. He had been known to ride ten miles overnight to get some for mail-day. When he had used and giggled over a hundredweight of lollies, he said:
"What about it?"
Kate answered that he should provide for the future before asking questions like that. Next mail day he told her he had made a start: he had seven dingo scalps.
His counterpart was Dick, from the sawmill, who rode up to the house, leading a horse with a lady's saddle and bridle on it. Kate was fond of horses, and a good hack, well groomed, was a temptation hard to resist, especially as she knew it was intended to become her own private property. He was a steady, saving fellow, almost a wowser. In a long acquaintance the only present he actually ever gave Kate was his photo; but he contrived to give Spinks many little things that Spinks valued, and which Dick said he had no use for himself. Sometimes he left the hack and saddle with Kate through the week—to keep him in remembrance. But while the turn-out was attractive, Dick wasn't. He had stumpy legs and a crooked nose—and Kate hated stumpy legs and crooked noses. Still she enjoyed many a happy ride with him—until Bill came.
Bill was the bad old man in her gallery of wooers. He blew in from Casey's pub, ignored any opposition there might be on the premises, and announced his intentions straight away.
"I'm going to elope with your daughter, Mrs. Spinks," he said to Kate's mother as he shook hands with her.
"The devil you are!" Mrs. Spinks exclaimed, surprised and amused. "When?"
"As soon as Kate consents."
Mrs. Spinks laughed.
"Is that true, Kate." she called to her daughter, "that you are going to elope with Bill Boney?"
"Indeed, it isn't!" Kate said, with a saucy pout. She remembered too the hot blush that rushed right up to the roots of her hair as the brute winked at her. "I don't know anything about Bill Boney."
"You'll soon know me," said Bill, confidently. "Everybody knows me. See here. You'll recollect Harry the stockman. I introduced him to a girl o' mine up country, and we swapped."
"What do you mean?" asked Kate with reddened cheeks.
"He took her, and I'm to have you." said Bill.
"Well, what a hide!" gasped Kate, "I like your chance."
Bill was unperturbed.
"Wait a bit till I put my horse in the yard." he said. Here Mr. Spinks thought it time to assert his authority.
"You'll have a rough track home if you leave it till dark." he insinuated. "They'll think you're lost."
"You lose yourself, old man," said Bill, "like you used to want your father-in-law to do. If you don't, there'll be an elopement, sure."
"You speak for yourself," snapped Kate from the background.
"That's all right, Kate," drawled Bill. "You and me'll understand one another before long."
Kate tossed her head and fluttered into the house.
Bill put his horse in the yard—and he stayed to tea. For Kate he was an alarming embarrassment. His cool impudence and abrupt bluff and dominating ways played on her feelings and kept her watching him. At times his audacity took her breath away. He gripped her as a big bear might a kitten; yet, in odd moments, when alone, he talked to her with the purring softness of a kid. An impressive personality was Bill. He impressed Mr. Spinks into a back seat, and established himself as president of the company. His vigorous animal battery imparted so many little thrills and sensations to Kate that he established himself also as the dominant factor in her thoughts.
So far as going to see her was concerned, he was a pretty casual sort of bloke He called any time, and not often: but when he did he let everyone know he was on the premises. Very soon Kate showed a great affection for the nice horse he rode. She wanted its photo, but Bill gave her his own instead.
"You old villain!" she muttered as she turned the leaf. But Bill came up again on the next page, and this time Kate was standing beside him in a bridal dress.
A shaky buckboard rattled up to Lankey's hut, and from it alighted Old Bob Conyers, of Willeroo. He shuffled towards the end of the building, where Murty Brown was trimming some bush timber and Abner Boker sat on the grass looking on.
"Well, what do you think you're doin'?" was the visitor's greeting.
"Goin' to stick up a bit of a shed," said Murty.
Old Bob took off his hat and mopped his face with a big red handkerchief. He was a tall man, with a billy-goat beard and a bald head that shone like polished coral, fringed with a tuft of curls above each ear.
"Seen that nephew of mine, anywhere?
"He was here not long ago," Murty informed him. "I think he's gone to see about a girl somewhere."
"Just like him," chuckled Old Bob. "Just like him."
He squatted against the wall and set his hat down carefully on the grass. After a while he said:
"I don't know what's the matter with Mat at all. He's done enough spooniwinkin' to have stocked a harem. But he don't go off somehow. He's over twenty-six now, an' he started courtin' when he was seventeen."
"He was lucky to escape," said Abner, whose married life was not all he had expected. "My old tart took care that I left off where I started, or I might 'ave got sense with experience. But seventeen's only calf love."
"Well, there were cows in it an' calves too, but mostly cows," said Old Bob. "An' the lowin' o' cows got to be one of the hauntin' associations, so to speak. We lived near Lapp's sawmill; an' Amy Lapp used to come to our yard in the morning with a billycan. She always brought a bun with her, too. Mat liked buns, an' encouraged her by givin' double measure an' leavin' me short. But seein' him always in the yard, I don't think she liked the smell of him an' froze off as soon as he started to show his improvin' regards, so to speak. Then her little brother came a few mornings with the can, but he didn't bring any buns an' got such small measure by way of discouragement that the Lapps left off sendin' for milk.
"That didn't worry Mat very much. In a day or two he was cultivatin' Marian Winks, the blacksmith's daughter. I got the first hint of that when Mat took his horse down to get it shod twice in one week. He got the front shoes put on first trip an' the hind shoes the next. Then he ran me up a bill of £9 for doin' up implements and one thing an' another that he'd damaged. If he went outside with the cart, the tyre would come off or a bolt would drop out, an' he'd have to take it to the blacksmith's. I wasn't very much gone on Marian myself. Her approaches were too expensive, so to speak. When I kicked up a fuss about the bill I got from her old man, Mat went an' got a job with him as striker. That lasted some months, an' ended in a bust-up between him and Marian because she was delayin' the butcher too long every time he came round. She was a strong-headed girl who believed in having her fling while she was Miss. She married the postman.
"Not long after Mat came back, I noticed him accumulatin' an extraordinary collection of things from the store. He spent all his income, as it came in, buyin' things he didn't want. An' he wouldn't go into that store, or ride past it in business hours, unless he was dressed up. You know, Mat's a bit stylish where there's girls. At work about home he was pretty often a picture for a comic artist; an' if a girl came along that he was sweet on, or was likely to be, he'd dive into a hollow log rather than be seen in his scarecrows. His shoppin' fit knocked him clean out of himself, so to speak. By an' bye I discovered that V.V., as we called Violet Vester, was behind the counter, an' Mat was buyin' to see her. He might have bought the store in time, but he wasn't toffy enough for V.V. She was a stylish little piece of goods, all beaming in the store, an' a frozen image that couldn't see you at ten paces outside.
"However, he didn't worry over Violet. He'd no sooner faded out there than he met Phyllis Green. Her father was timber-gettin' for the sawmill. I sold him some good trees in my paddock; an' while he was cuttin' there Phyllis brought him his dinner on horseback. That's how Mat came to notice that she had a shy twinkle in her eyes, a pretty dimple, an' a smile that was as sweet as honey. Perhaps that reminded him of bees' nests. A great longin' came on him for honeycomb. He wanted to find a sugar-bag badly, an' used to go off about the dinner hour moochin' round trees, instead of having his usual smoke-o on the verandah—an' always round where Green was workin'. Used to shave himself at all times of the week, too, instead of only on Sunday mornin'. Couldn't go down the paddock for the old cart-horse without shavin' himself first. An' it was surprisin' what a lot of things Green lost or mislaid in that paddock, includin' his pipe an' pocket-knife, a two-foot rule, a bullock-whip, an' some wedges. Mat found 'em one at a time where he'd planted them an' took them over to Green's house when he wanted to see Phyllis. An' after all she yoked up with a bullock-puncher who sometimes worked with her father. That was where he had the pull on Mat. He was on the spot, where it wasn't necessary to look for sugarbags or hide the bullock-whip.
"Then Mat reckoned our cows were goin' off their milk in the paddock. He turned them into the bush in the morning; an' they certainly did improve—in consequence of Mat milkin' 'em better. But he took a long time musterin' them in the afternoon. Often he came home with the horse in a lather o' sweat. I found that Ganter's cows were runnin' in the bush too; an' Madge Ganter used to go after them. Madge was real bush. She liked jumpin' logs; an' she an' Mat used to have jumpin' contests an' races till Dad Ganter caught them at it an' put a stopper on Madge's wild ridin' exercises.
"Mat was mopey for a bit after that. Couldn't eat his porridge in the morning an' took no interest in the rubber o' dominoes we used to play in the evening. He'd been having such good times with Madge an' missed her. But he wasn't euchred altogether.
"He took to goin' out at night to give the dogs a run after 'possums. There was always more fun, though, in chasin' 'possums near Ganter's than anywhere else. They soon got as scarce as bunyips, an' then Mat would shoot one near home, carry it up to Ganter's an' fire his gun off under a tree near the house. When Dad Ganter an' the boy an' Madge ran out to investigate, he'd pick up the 'possum he'd thrown down there as a guarantee of his bona fides, so to speak. He repeated that about fourteen times before Dad Ganter got suspicious and laid for him. That night he couldn't find a 'possum handy, so he got the one he'd shot the night before, which the crows had been pickin' at, an' gave it another funeral. That tickled Ganter more than anything, when he'd surprised Mat by risin' up unexpected from the woodheap. The dead finish was that a strange young man came out from the house to join in the laugh, an' he had his arm round Madge's waist.
"Mat felt a bit humiliated over that. It was nearly a month before he started to sing again or to admire the beautiful sunset from the back door. He'd got acquainted by that time with Agnes Finn. But he was too swift for Agnes. She was a serious sort of girl, with dark eyes an' dark hair. An' the serious sort of girl has to be approached with due regard to formalities. It's the playful, mischievous sort that you can grab hold of an' kiss. But girls were just girls to Mat, all for cuddlin' purposes, whether they were dark or sandy. We called at Finn's one afternoon while ridin' through that way, an' stayed for tea. In the dusk Agnes went out to catch some chickens that had taken to roostin' in the cart-shed; an' Mat went with her to hold the light. I engineered him into that because I rather liked Agnes. She was a great little housekeeper. But pokin' about with a pretty girl in the starry night and the perfumed air was too rapturous for Mat. He caught hold of her and kissed her; an' she retaliated like a snake that's been trodden on. Smacked him across the mouth. It was such a mighty swipe that she was inside some minutes before he'd found his hat; an' when he came in he was red an' bashful-lookin'. He kept screwin' his lips about as if they didn't fit properly. Agnes must have told her mother, for the old woman looked at him as if he was a dreadful person; an' she must have passed it on to Finn, for he became a bit offish, too, without explainin' himself. So we didn't stay long.
"We started visiting the Cowderys about that time, an' Mat an' Mrs. Cowdery got to be great friends. Her daughter, Pauline, was nice an' sociable, too; an' it looked like a steady progress to weddin' bells. But that smack from Agnes Finn had knocked all the initiative out of Mat's courtin'. He liked Pauline well enough, but only discovered that he wanted her an' thought she wanted him when he was thousands of miles away an' it was too late.
"What sent him adrift was the funniest thing that ever skittled his intentions, so to speak. The lady in the case was a gay little butterfly who called herself Pearl Brune. A fluffy-headed girl, with plenty of sparkle an' substance in her. She was masqueradin' as nurse-girl an' drill-sergeant of table manners, or something like that, in a newly-rich family of the Woop Woop class. She took a likin' to Mat straight away, an' gave him the time of his life. They rode to all the local sights an' shows together, an' sat on all the logs around at night-time. They walked out, too, Mat carryin' the baby or shovin' the pram. As she could play an' sing very nicely and he felt uncomfortably useless at indoor sociables, he touched me for a rise that he hadn't earned, an' started takin' music lessons. He did learn to play a bit, but got a grouch on me at times because I wouldn't buy a piano to make our old caboose more homely. I told him that instead of trainin' up to her, he ought to teach her Back Creek ways an' how to make pancakes. Not that I cared what sort of partner he took, as long as she was respectable; but more harmony can be got out of cooking utensils than out of pianos. Pearl Brune was new to country life, but she was enthusiastic an' wanted to learn all about the bush. Nothing pleased her better, when she had a day off once a week, than to visit bush camps an' have dinner with the men. Of course, Mat took the day off whether we were busy or not. Her wants were more important than mine.
"However, the next development blew up the prospectus, so to speak. I picked up a notebook under a shady tree and, inquirin' into it, found some notes an' records of special interest to my amorous nephew. It belonged to Pearl Brune. She had jotted down an honest description of Mat and his mannerisms, what he had said to her at different times, an' how he had told her of his undyin' love. Very embarrassing particulars they' were; but she had similar records or nine other trustin' young men that her winnin' ways had captivated.
"Miss Pearl Brune was a lady-writer, of rich but honourable parents, who lived in a grand house, somewhere 'down below'—a house that it took half-a-dozen servants to look after, including the chauffeur an' the gardener. She was studyin' the home life of bush-settlers, especially the associations of young people an' the way they went about their courtin'.
"Poor Mat had been prospected for a bit of local colour, so to speak."
It was a meteorological circumstance that threw Melinda on to the sentimental path of Mat Conyers. Melinda was the charming daughter of Jacob Mole, a grumpy, hard-working road-contractor, whom the local paper described as one of the oldest residents of Sleepy Hollow.
She had been shopping and, while she did it, a heavy thunderstorm had put a foot of water in a wide depression that intersected the unformed street near her home. It was a quiet spot, with a paling fence on each side and an open flat in front. Straight ahead, through the water, it was only a couple of hundred yards to the house, but to go round it was over a mile, and that across a grassy, melonhole flat.
Melinda did not consider the alternative for a moment. She sat down and took her boots and stockings off. It was then that Mat Conyers came along. He had been shopping, too, and was returning to Lankey's Hut, where he and Murty Brown were spelling their horses after a droving trip. He sat down on the opposite side of the street and took off his boots and socks. Then he waited, looking at the barrier and alternately at the girl. Melinda waited, too, glancing furtively at the intrusive person, and screwing her extremities in the opposite direction.
Conyers knew her by sight. She was pretty enough to attract a passing eye, and he was too impressionable to fade away when it appeared to be a case of beauty in distress. He wanted to be made use of. Melinda was not the least concerned about wetting her legs, but she didn't want a strange man looking on. There was a dip in the centre of that pond, where it would be necessary to reveal a lot of leg.
The game of patience continued for 10 minutes. The water hadn't receded to any noticeable extent in that time; but Conyers observed Humphrey Hodge, the blacksmith's assistant, coming up the road, and he determined to act. He didn't like Humphrey, who was a reclusive individual, with a habit of mooching about alone when off duty; and he had heard that Humphrey was "shook" on Melinda.
Conyers crossed the road in a few strides. Melinda pretended to be very busy rearranging her parcels.
"Can I help you across?" he said ingratiatingly.
"I can get across, thank you," she replied, without looking up.
Conyers stooped invitingly.
"Get on my back an' I'll carry you over."
Melinda's face reddened.
"I can walk, thank you," she answered with increasing frigidity.
"Well, let me carry your parcels." He picked them up without waiting for permission and splashed amiably away with them just as the blacksmith came up. The blacksmith's only apparent business there was to "spoil sport."
Conyers was chuckling to himself at his smartness in anticipating Mr. Hodge: but when he looked back his feelings suddenly changed. The blacksmith was following in his tracks and was carrying Melinda. Conyers was sure he had not parleyed with her; he had taken his boots off and picked her up as if she were a child. Melinda's blushes and resentful looks implied as much.
Humphrey put her down alongside a tea-tree log. She straightened her hat and her hair and sat on the log. The two men looked at one another as a snake and goanna look at each other when they meet unexpectedly. Melinda wanted to put her boots on. She thanked them for the kind attentions they had forced on her, and intimated that she could manage without any further assistance. Neither made a move. Melinda looked distressed.
"Is there anything to pay?" asked Humphrey of the girl, and as he spoke he inclined his head slightly towards the resentful Conyers.
"If that's what you're waitin' for, I'm payin' for Miss Mole," Conyers interposed, diving his hand into his pocket. He intended to make a jingle, but discovered there was nothing there, and the hand remained stationary. Humphrey had a discerning eye.
"You haven't a bob to your name," he snarled, at the same time jingling some coins in his pocket as evidence of his own wealth.
"Is that the price you agreed to for this chap's services?" he asked Miss Mole.
"I didn't agree to anything," she snapped.
Conyers slewed sternly to Mr. Hodge, his expression betokening indignant surprise.
"So you've been takin' liberties, smithy?" he said, loftily.
"Don't you talk to me like that!" snarled the blacksmith, shaking his list. "If I hadn't good clothes on I'd duck you in th' swamp."
Conyers slipped into his boots as if he meant business. Then he gave an ominous hitch to his belt.
"If there wasn't a lady present. I'd punch you on the nose," he remarked, after these preparations.
The blacksmith glared ferociously. "She ain't stoppin' yer," he said, taking a step backwards.
Conyers kept a judicious curb on his bellicose ambition. The blacksmith was a big muscular-looking chap. "I know what's due to a lady if you don't," he said.
"Well," Humphrey returned, "one thing that's due to her is to get when you're not wanted."
Conyers stooped down to lace up his boots. As he straightened up again a daub of glutinous mud smacked him across the eyes and clung there, temporarily putting him out of action.
When he had clawed the thick of the plaster away, and washed off the rest, the blacksmith had put the swamp between them, and the girl was half-way home, hurrying like a timid creature escaping from desperadoes.
Conyers returned to Lankey's Hut in a vicious frame of mind. He thirsted for revenge. He determined to have a double revenge; he would thrash Humphrey first, and then win the girl. How he was going to do the latter he had no idea yet; but it could wait until he had knocked spots off the blacksmith. Girls liked a man who could do things like that.
He had a long talk with his mate, after which Murty Brown pocketed five shillings and strolled down the town. At the Boomerang Hotel he met Mr. Hodge, and asked him to have a drink. Over their glasses Murty told that he'd had some words with Conyers, whom he described as "a skite," who chased every pretty face he saw and couldn't get a girl of any sort. This pleased Mr. Hodge, and he shouted for Murty with enthusiasm. They sat down at the parlour table, and Humphrey gave a grossly exaggerated report of how he had humiliated Conyers at the swamp. Murty banged his fist on the table in great glee, and called for more drinks. So they talked and refreshed until the blacksmith's speech grew thick and his legs became unsteady. Then Murty led him forth like a lamb to the slaughter. Humphrey was more amiable in his cups, and confidential in a quiet way. He wasn't muddled, except in the feet; neither did he show any disposition to go to sleep round Murty's neck. They proceeded, like two old friends, along an empty street towards the smithy.
Suddenly Mat Conyers, who had been cooling his heels at the side of an old culvert, appeared before them. There was enough light from a half-moon to make recognition easy. Mr. Hodge seemed inclined to bury the hatchet, but Conyers was truculent.
"You're the swine that threw mud at me to-day!" he growled, and there being no lady present he followed the words with a punch on the blacksmith's nose. Humphrey staggered back, and tottered awhile before he recovered his balance. The onslaught had taken him unawares. In a moment he pulled himself together, and then he became a whirling torrent.
It transpired that Humphrey hadn't enough courage to fight a bantam when he was sober, but when he was drunk it took it good man to stand up to him. He thumped Conyers almost into insensibility, and when Murty interposed to save his mate from being killed, the blacksmith sailed into him and tumbled him over the culvert embankment. Then Mr. Hodge, grown steadier on his pins, brushed the dust of battle off his hat and mooched home.
Murty, recovering slowly from his astonishment, crept back to the road, and went to the assistance of Conyers, who was groaning in the gutter. He seemed in such a bad way that Murty led him to the doctor's house near by. He was further prompted in this by the fact that Conyers and "the doc" were old acquaintances, and had discussed many a friendly glass together in Sleepy Hollow and elsewhere.
Dr. Byng was of the rough-and-ready, hard-riding sort that is often met with in the backblocks. He was fond of his whisky, which occasionally made him unavailable when his services were needed; and as there was no hospital to provide him with a settled income, he was often hard up and seldom out of debt.
He spruced Conyers up in a few minutes, incidentally remarking that the blacksmith was a friend in need, as he'd had only one other case during the week, and he had to thank the influenza outbreak down-country for that. The scare made people look with suspicion on any kind of cold they got. The patient was Mrs. Mole. She had nothing more than a simple cold, but her considerate neighbours had led her to think it might be 'flu.
This recital acted as an inspiration to Conyers. He brightened up immediately. His interest in the case was immense, and he talked about 'flu for an hour. He spoke of the possibilities of influenza in that salubrious district, and related how an impecunious physician he had known had risen in his profession through a local epidemic of the kind. Finally he thrust a five-pound note into the doctor's hands, with an intimation that if he could make Mrs. Mole's complaint influenza it would he to their mutual benefit. The doctor was to visit his patient at 3 p.m. on the morrow.
Conyers went home with a feeling that his adventure had not been in vain; Murty, suffering his hurts as one who didn't deserve them, limped home with the determination to take no further part in the proceedings. At 3 o'clock next day Conyers presented himself at Jacob Mole's back door. He had called to borrow a hammer. Dr. Byng entered by the front door almost at the same moment. To the consternation of the family he diagnosed the case as influenza, and as he had come prepared, having had his suspicions aroused the previous day, the house was immediately quarantined in the interests of the community. The yellow flag was hoisted, and the inmates were warned that none of them must leave the premises until permitted to do so by law.
Constable Murphy, who represented the might and majesty of the law in Sleepy Hollow, said it was unfortunate that Mr. Conyers had dropped in at that moment, as it might be weeks before he could drop out again. But Conyers secretly shook hands with himself. He was a fixture in the girl's home, while the bumptious blacksmith would not be allowed to come near the house. Propinquity was everything with girls, and already Conyers began to plan dimly for the prospective union.
Old Jacob Mole didn't take the matter so cheerfully. He was heard to say that Conyers was a d——d infliction. He let him know at once that there was plenty to do about the place to put the time in—repairing harness, old drays and yards and sheds. The work would be something for his board and lodging. Conyers didn't mind. He took off his coat and went to work willingly. He worked till dark, gaining a grunt of appreciation from Jacob; and then with gladsome anticipations he tidied himself up for tea. He entered the sacred precincts a little nervously. Mr. Mole occupied the head of the table, Mrs. Mole sat at the foot, a bony maiden aunt poured out tea and beamed on the guest, two boys misbehaved themselves at one side, and Conyers was placed opposite, with the old maid for mate.
Where was Melinda? There was no place laid for her, and nobody seemed to be expecting her. Being a stranger he shrank from inquiring, but when the meal was ended and there was no appearance of Melinda he grew anxious. She wasn't mentioned once all the evening; and what with worrying over her, and the fact that he was accommodated with a rough shakedown, composed mostly of bags and old coats, in the cartshed, he had an uncomfortable night.
He was roused out at daylight to milk cows. Conyers detested milking cows, but he went to work as if he loved it. It was after he had finished milking that he got a word in private with the boys. They told him that Melinda had gone down to see their married aunt yesterday afternoon and, after the doctor's visit, word had been sent to her to remain there. Conyers was so affected by this information that he dropped down on the doorstep like a wet dishcloth, and had to be called three times before he came to breakfast.
Instead of cornering Melinda, he had cornered himself and left the amorous blacksmith with a free run. The doctor was a blundering fool, after all: he ought to have made sure he had all the family in the house before he quarantined it.
Conyers worked mechanically through the day, and when the doctor called late in the afternoon appealed to him to announce that he had made an error in the diagnosis. But the doctor said his professional reputation was at stake; he had declared the disease to be influenza, and influenza it would have to remain. Already the scare had brought him seven patients; everybody who had a cold or a cough rushed to him for examination. His business had never been so prosperous. That evening, in contravention of the laws, Conyers left the place in disgust, and stole back to Lankey's Hut. He found the door padlocked and Murty Brown, on being roused, up refused to open it.
"You can't come in here," he said decisively.
"Why not?" snorted Conyers.
"Because the presence of a contact is contamination," said Murty. "You've no right to be at large."
"Oh, talk sense!" rasped Conyers. "You know it's all guff."
"If I said what I know I'd get into trouble, an' I've had enough trouble lately," said Murty. "Better go away an' hide yourself."
Conyers collapsed on the grass, and he was sitting there, mumbling to himself, when Constable Murphy arrived in haste from Mole's.
He took the contact to the barracks, where he was confined in an isolated building and kept under observation.
Murty sent him a cheering message from time to time. He informed him that Melinda was also being kept under observation. The doctor appeared to be more interested in her than in anybody else, though she had not developed any symptoms. Sometimes he visited her twice a day.
When he was at last set free, the climax did not come to him like a bolt from the blue. He heard, sullenly, what Murty's information had led him to expect, that Dr. Byng and Melinda were engaged to be married.
Peter Maloney, shearer and rouseabout, had come from the back country to spend a couple of months on his uncle's farm, which adjoined Ryan's selection. Ryan was the recognised leader of the little community on Pintpot Creek; his daughter, Maggie, was the main attraction.
Peter often saw Maggie riding after the cows, and he admired her seat in the saddle. He admired her every day; but he was a painfully bashful person with women.
Dougherty, his uncle, wanted to see Peter settled on the creek. He lost no opportunity of praising Peter to Maggie and her father, and expatiating on his brilliant prospects. Still Peter made no progress.
Once they met in the paddock where he was fencing. The barking of Tracker, his dog, betrayed him, and Maggie cantered over to him.
"Did you see my cows anywhere, Peter?" she asked.
"I did," Peter answered. "Over there in the hollow."
"How long ago?"
"Three days ago."
"Oh! you mutton-head!" cried Maggie, crossly. "Didn't I milk them this morning?"
Peter looked all round the compass, and suggested that they might be down the creek. She sat awhile toying with her horse's mane. Peter found the silence awkward, and couldn't think what to do with his hands. Presently he took his hat off, and gave Tracker a drink in the crown of it from his water bag. Maggie took a deeper interest in Peter; he was evidently a resourceful young man.
"That's a queer way of watering a dog," she remarked.
"Always give him a drop that way on the wallaby," Peter informed her, his eye on Tracker.
There was another short silence.
"Why don't you settle down, Peter?" she asked.
Here was Peter's chance.
"I'm thinkin' about it," he said, and grinned.
"There's the Red Hill, you know. Why don't you take it up?"
"I'm thinkin' o; that, too," said Peter, and for a moment he plucked up. "Been thinkin' of it some time. But a man wants—"
"Well?" she prompted, as he paused in confusion.
Peter breathed hard. "He wants a team o' bullocks, Miss Ryan."
Maggie's lips puckered as she tightened her reins.
"I must get after the cows," she said. "Why don't you come over some night? Dad would be glad to see you."
Peter grinned and scratched his ear.
"I'll see," he answered.
On the following night Dougherty was surprised to see Peter come to tea in his best suit, and with a geranium in his coat.
"Thought I'd have a stroll," he explained, uneasily. "The nights are a bit long this summer."
He didn't eat much, and slipped away as soon as he could do so without appearing to be in a hurry.
Ryan was pleased to see him. He was fond of a yarn, and he monopolised Maloney all the evening. Mrs. Ryan, who sat between him and Maggie, put in a word now and again, and between them they made Maloney as miserable as a wet cat. He looked at the clock, and coughed several times, and fingered his hat a good while before he finally stood up, and said he must be making tracks. There had been no interchange of any kind between him and Maggie; but he expected to have a word or two with her at the door. So he said "good-night" to the old couple only, and moved away slowly.
"You have it moonlight, I think," said; Ryan, and with that he got up and saw the disconsolate lover to the gate.
Peter felt chagrined and depressed as he trudged home. Dougherty was waiting up for him. He was intensely interested in the new development.
"Am I to congratulate you, Peter?" he asked
"You needn't trouble," snapped Peter, dropping into a chair.
Dougherty eyed him curiously for a moment.
"Don't be downhearted, man," he said, encouragingly. "You can't expect her to rush into your arms on a first visit. There must be a continuity o' visits. That's courtin'."
"I'm not goin' there any more," said Peter, doggedly. "There's no p'ints in courtin' Ryan."
Dougherty sat down and laughed. His own wife was a farmer's daughter, and scores of times he had tramped over her father's farm, admiring the pumpkins and the pigs and the poddy calves, all for the sake of holding Kathleen's hand for a couple of seconds before he tramped home again.
"Why don't you pop the question, then?" he suggested.
"Oh! aye; it's all very well to say, why don't I pop it, but 'tain't so easy popped."
"Well, maybe, I could smooth the way for you," his uncle proposed.
"You could so!" Peter agreed, brightening up again. "You could have a chat with her on the quiet like, an' find out what she'd say if so I went poppin' that question."
Dougherty agreed to do so, and Peter retired at a late hour with a definite plan of campaign mapped out for him.
In pursuance of this arrangement, on the following afternoon, Dougherty went to work on the fence, whilst Peter mustered up Ryan's cows, then went to the top of the hill to reconnoitre.
Maggie was a long time turning up. Peter got tired of watching, and was hunting out a native cat in a hollow log when she passed down the flat. Meanwhile, Dougherty had got tired of fencing, and had gone to sleep. The cows had got through a gap he had left in the fence and were gorging themselves with young corn when Maggie arrived. She woke Dougherty with a crack of her whip; and by the time he had driven the beasts off his crops all the sentiment had been knocked out of him. He merely pointed out where his blackguard relative was fooling around and wasting his time, and left it at that.
They met by chance, a circumstance that embarrassed Peter.
"Some people have fine times," she said, pertly.
"Was lookin' at the Red Hill," he returned, his heart in his mouth as he noticed her severe look. "It's stickin' out a mile," he inwardly groaned; "Uncle Pat's lost me case."
"Are you thinkin' of selectin' it?" asked Maggie, coldly.
Peter reflected a moment, then said, decidedly, "Well, I am."
"It's a good spec.," said Maggie. "What t will you do with it?"
"I'll put a fence round it."
"And after that?"
"I'll put a hut on it."
"I'll live in it."
A peculiar little smile played on her lips, and she peered at him with some show of impatience.
"I suppose you'll be getting married then?" she said, a little sarcastically.
"Ye-es," Peter reddened and grinned, and nervously rearranged the set of his hat.
Maggie became interested.
"When is it to he?"
She waited for an answer, while Peter studied perspective landscape.
"You seem to be awfully abstracted this afternoon," she said at last.
"I was thinkin'," Peter said, kicking at a tussock of grass.
"It'll take all out three miles to fence the Red Hill."
"Indeed!" said Maggie, with a touch of irony. "Well, I must be going."
When she had gone he sat down and repeated the conversation to himself. He repeated it till sundown, and having put the best construction on everything, felt that he had made some progress.
Dougherty was fencing again next day, but Peter wasn't reconnoitring. After mustering the cattle, he remained close at hand to keep Dougherty awake. A girl friend had borrowed the pony this day, so Maggie came for the cows on foot. Peter saw her coming, and dived under a half-curled sheet of bark. Tracker sniffed after him and wagged his tail; then he ran to the other end, and barked, and commenced scratching. Dougherty threw clods at him and made him "lay down."
Maggie came up, and being hot after her walk, she sat down on the bark. It caved in the centre under her weight, but rested finally on something solid, and Maggie was comfortable. She inquired after Peter, as it was unusual for him not to be working sometimes. Dougherty coughed, and stood his shovel against the fence.
"He ain't feelin' quite himself lately," he said.
"What's the matter with him?" asked Maggie.
"Well," Dougherty drawled, meditatively, "he's been took queer some time. He can't put his mind to work, or to anything but mope lately. An' he was just on the p'int o' doin' great things, too. He was goin' to settle down here, as you might 'ave heard."
"He'll be doing a sensible thing," Maggie approved.
There was a short pause. Then Dougherty asked: "What do you think of him now, on yer 'onour?"
"Oh! he's all right," said Maggie, carelessly; "he's steady, an' he's not afraid of hard work."
"To be sure, he'd work himself blind, would Maloney, if he had a special object in view. 'Twould be an incentive."
"The making of a home is object enough, surely?"
"Ah! but 'tis a lonely place where nobody lives barrin' yourself. It's the lonely man is Maloney, colleen. You see, he might as well be on the track as on a hill without a mate. 'Tis a life-mate he wants."
Dougherty came away from the fence, and in his enthusiasm, he, too, sat down on the bark. Something like a suppressed groan came from beneath, but passed unnoticed.
"Look you now, colleen alana," he said with the soft blandishment of a pleasant Irishman, "'tis the love of a home you would 'ave on the Red Hill, an' next door to your own mother an' all. Could you do better on Pintpot?"
"Really, I couldn't say, Mr. Dougherty."
She flicked the dry leaves at her feet with a switch. A large goanna was crawling slowly towards a neighbouring tree where Tracker was lying. Neither noticed it.
"Mind you," continued Dougherty, more impressively. "Peter ain't a bad sort, take him all round. An' it's yourself he's dead shook on. He can't sleep for lovin' you. 'Tis that same what's ailin' him."
"Indeed!" said Maggie, her cheeks flushing. "You quite flatter me, Mr. Dougherty."
"It's the truth I'm tellin' you. He's fair ratty over you, so he is; but he's a bit bashful, d'yer mind; and seein' it's his first affliction, he's no end o' worried about it. Now, colleen, you might give the poor divil the least whisper of a hope to live on."
Maggie continued to flick at the leaves in silence. Dougherty became intensely earnest.
"Look here, Maggie Ryan," he said impulsively, "isn't it yerself has the fond regard for Peter Maloney? Tell me that now?"
"I have no fault to find with him, Mr. Dougherty," said Maggie, evasively.
"Of course, you haven't. But if Peter asked you now to be Mrs. Maloney, would you be her?"
Maggie stopped flicking the leaves, and looked him squarely in the face.
"If I'm worth having, Mr. Dougherty, I'm worth asking," she answered, and rose to her feet.
Dougherty hadn't time to reply. Tracker had spied the goanna, and made a sudden rush at it. The saurian, being cut off from the tree, made a dash for the bark. Maggie saw it coming, and sprang nimbly aside. The next instant there came a wild yell from beneath, followed by a violent upheaval of bark that caused Dougherty to dive into the grass.
Maggie stared in astonishment as the wild-eyed and dishevelled-looking object rose, gasping for breath, from the ground. The goanna, in its confusion, mistook it for a post, and clambered up its back. Then Tracker performed the feat of his life by springing to the rescue—and all three floundered into the upturned sheet of bark.
In the excitement, nobody knew where the goanna went; but Dougherty, and Maggie Ryan showed their sympathy for Maloney by laughing till the tears rolled down their cheeks.
"It's a fine day you're havin'!" growled Maloney, breathing hard.
"Oh! you varmint!" cried Maggie, wiping her eyes. "I never thought you could be such a sneak—indeed, I didn't!"
"You needn't think it now either," Peter retorted. "'Tis a stool I've been, not a sneak."
Dougherty and Maggie laughed heartily.
"I suppose I ought to beg your pardon," said the girl. "I didn't know I was sitting on you."
"Bad cess to you, Uncle Pat; you knew I was there," cried Peter, fiercely.
"Sure, I was carried away with the courtin' Peter," answered Dougherty.
Peter grew determined, and swallowing at the lump that rose persistently in his throat, he moved awkwardly towards her.
"It's the truth what he told you, anyway."
Maggie shrieked, and Dougherty went behind a tree to look for the goanna. Peter grinned distressfully, and made another attempt to swallow that lump. He caught her hand, and whispered, breathlessly:
"Maggie' darlin'—Lay down, Tracker, d—— yer eyes!" as that sagacious animal made a joyful bound against him. The dog seemed to understand, but was too precipitate in his congratulations. Maggie's serenity broke up again as Doherty bubbled behind the tree? "Will you do what Uncle Pat asked you?" Maloney concluded.
"What was that?" Maggie asked.
"Surely you haven't forgotten so soon?"
"He asked me so many things, Peter."
"Aye, the omadhaun! If he'd a gossoon sittin' on top of him, he'd 'ave come to the p'int sooner."
Maggie watched him with glistening eyes. Peter "stood a moment irresolute, a sickly smile on his face, his heart feeling like a thumping balloon. Then he half-whispered:
"'Tis Maggie Ryan you are!"
"Of course, I am."
"Will you be Maggie Maloney?"
Maggie hesitated, looking at him archly from under her long lashes. Peter breathed hard.
"That's a serious question," she said, edging closer.
"It's me that knows it. But it's a lot easier to answer than to ask. Sure, you needn't talk at all. You—"
Peter stopped and blushed. Then Maggie bent forward and laughed on his shoulder and Peter, grasping his courage in both hands, snatched the kiss he had been thinking of mentioning to her.
Stamps was our postmaster. He had the distinction of being the tallest man in One-horse Town, and being narrow-waisted and carried on spidery legs he was a conspicuous person. It wasn't his ungainly build that kept him single, for he was otherwise a good-looking chap and a likeable sort with everybody; he explained his unmarried state by saying that he was expected to live on the honour of his position.
As Stamps lolled on the verandah, looking at the empty street, and waiting for somebody to wander in and claim one of the pill pamphlets that littered a corner of the office, or dozed through the dull, hot afternoons in a hammock in a back room, he reflected that the dreariness of existence hardly compensated for the honour.
He had two spasms of exertion every week, when the mail-coach came in. Then the citizens and a few people from outside gathered on the verandah waiting for the mail to be sorted, and the premises really took on a lively, business-like air for an hour or so. Sometimes the coach arrived early in the afternoon, sometimes long after dark; but the post-office was always open till the waiting group got its mail.
Between these eventful days a straggler dropped in occasionally, and if the postmaster wasn't about the office, the man who wanted to buy a stamp hunted him up in the billiard-room or at Jerry Grum's, where he adjourned now and again for refreshments with his bosom pal the bobby.
Stamps was a fairly temperate man, and was never the worse for liquor between weddings. He performed nearly all the marriages in the district, and regularly, after tying the matrimonial knot, he had a little harmless spree as if in celebration of the event, when the wobble of his long legs and the complete thawing of his official dignity were pleasurable remembrances. Only for people getting married I don't think he would ever have had a relapse at all, for during one matrimonial drought he kept the dry, monotonous path for seven months. Then came two weddings on one day—the most memorable in his official career.
The first, which was in the morning, passed off without any entanglements. The second was in the evening. Stamps hadn't time to recover his official dignity for this event, but the contracting parties didn't mind as long as he fixed them up according to regulations.
They were Bill Saudoss, commonly known as Bill Sawdust, who was employed as trapper and rabbit-poisoner on Job Splinter's run; and Minnie Sully, a quarter-caste, who had officiated as housemaid at Jerry Grum's.
The ceremony was short and merry. It was performed in the commercial room of the Travellers' Rest, and merged or drifted somehow into skylarking and dancing. This was kept up till midnight, after which the "happy couple" stole a few hours' sleep and drove away on their honeymoon at daylight.
It was a little after 9 o'clock when Stamps opened the office. Then he made the awful discovery that there were no signatures in the book, and the documents were not in order. There had been so much joviality that formalities had hardly got a look in. Sawdust didn't know, as he had never been married before, and those with experience had been too intent on enjoying themselves to notice any irregularities.
In consternation Stamps rushed to his confidential friend.
"Here's a flamin' mess!" he exclaimed. "That pair's only half hitched. What am I to do?"
Constable Dunlop probed carefully into the matter, and advised "Stamps" to wire to the next telegraph office, which was twenty-four miles away.
"They haven't got to Milpa yet," he said, "and if you hurry you'll get ahead of them."
Stamps struck sparks from the blue metal, getting over the road, and ticked off the message in desperate haste. Then he sat back in a blue funk to await results. It wasn't the effect on Sawdust he feared, but the damage to his reputation as a trustworthy official, if any knowledge of the affair got to headquarters. A boy was waiting with the message at Milpa pub when the couple drove up. Sawdust was surprised when it was handed to him; when he read it he was astonished. There was only one line:—
Come back. You're not married.
"Gorstruth!" gasped Sawdust. "Not married! What the blazes does he mean?"
"He must think he's funny," said the bride.
"I'd make him funny if I had him here," Sawdust snorted. "What are we if we ain't married? what did I pay him for?"
He sat in his sulky and read the line over a dozen times, wondering what silly hoax was being played on him. The bride was inclined to be hysterical, but pulled herself together and said Stamps was a blithering liar.
They drove round to the telegraph office, only to be assured that the telegram was genuine, and their only course was to hurry back and get the job finished.
Sawdust was a rough, freckle-faced westerner of sulphurous volubility when anything annoyed him, and he was very much annoyed at this juncture. Over the twenty-four lumpy miles back he gave frequent and forceful expression to his injured feelings, and uttered threats that put the bride in a tremor of expectancy.
Besides the loss of time and the weary travelling to and fro, it was the humiliation of the whole thing that stung him. He smashed through three gates on the road, left all the others open, and finally pulled his horse up at the post-office in a lather of sweat.
"Where's that long-legged blunderin' galoot?" he cried as he leaped from the vehicle. "Let me at him!"
He strode up to the counter with sparks in his eyes, and let loose on Stamps. The constable, who had been having a quiet smoke in the corner, warned him to moderate his language; but Sawdust waved the telegram and asked in a loud voice what sort of a hybrid ass he called the variegated catastrophe behind the counter. He answered himself with another explosion, then leaped over the counter and chased the scared official round the letter-rack and over the pill pamphlets. The scramble was arrested by the constable, who tripped up the tornado, and then ran him in for riotous behaviour.
Stamps sat dejectedly on a stool until the constable returned.
"What next?" he asked with the apathy of despair.
"Fetch your paraphernalia down to the lockup and finish the beauties there," said the constable. "He's agreed, if I let him out as soon as you've done with him, to leave the town at once."
So the tying of the knot was completed in the lockup. It was a seriously formal function, and everyone concerned made sure there was no half-hitch about it this time.
"But see here, Stamps," said the constable when the unhappy couple had driven away, "provide enough interval in future to straighten yourself up between weddings."
Mr. Clagg's Experiences Were Strange but not Uncommon.
Mr. Clagg was not fond of shifting, though he was so frequently at it. Nor was Mrs. Clagg a quarrelsome woman, or one who made mischief among neighbours by telling what one said about another. In Mr. Clagg's long experience he found that nothing tended more to disturb the communal peace than the repetition of confidences. He was not perfect himself, for he was wont to say in bitterness, that if there were only three women left in the world, two of them would get together and talk about the other. Then both of them would go to the third and tell her what was said, after which the third would "face" the other two in turn, and in the end nobody would be speaking to anybody.
It was a caustic view to take, but Mr. Clagg was convinced that this particular factor was the bane of suburban life, wherever houses were clustered together. How much happier would life be, he was wont to say, if everybody would mind his or her own business and leave other people's affairs alone. He advised Mrs. Clagg, when they shifted into a new place, not to have any more to say to the neighbours than she could help, until she got their measure. They might be very good people, and they might be very bad people; in going into a strange place one never knew what class or character of people he was getting amongst. Sometimes he tried to find out before taking a house, but his inquiries were usually met with suspicion. They didn't know him; he might have a friend or even a relative somewhere in the vicinity.
Occasionally he struck an informative person, who warned him against this one or that one, and defamed the characters of half a dozen living around; and when the information was not intermixed with good words for others, the one who gave it was considered worth keeping away from. Once he heard his married sister grossly maligned in this way, and he was cautioned not to have anything to say to her. He did not repeat the uncomplimentary remarks, but he sought elsewhere for a house; at the same time concluding that nothing was to be gained by making inquiries among people he didn't know, whilst it was a risky matter to enlighten strangers about the failings of neighbours.
He had to find out for himself by living among them, and so the search for a suitable residence was one that occupied a long time, and engendered a good deal of shifting about.
THE VACANT ALLOTMENT.
Good neighbours was one of the principal essentials to a peaceful existence. He thought he had found it in a near suburb. There was a vacant allotment on one side and, on the other, a childless couple named Block. The vacant allotment soon proved to be a snare. All the children of the street and adjacent streets gathered there to romp and howl, day and night; cricket balls and footballs came bouncing over into the garden, and sometimes smashed a window, and if Mrs. Clagg didn't return the leather, or was nasty about the damage, they threw stones on her roof and clods on her verandah, and chalked on her fence when she wasn't looking.
She hoped somebody would build on the vacancy, which had appeared to her at first as a desirable breathing space. She now discovered that it required a wall round it. When it was temporarily vacated, and she let her fowls run there, every passing dog rustled off the road to chase and worry them, horses wandered on to it or were tethered there for the grass, and near-distant neighbours threw all their tins and rubbish on to it. The unfenced vacant allotment was a nuisance.
AN UNOBTRUSIVE FAMILY.
They stopped there because the Blocks were the quietest and nicest people they had got alongside of for a long time. Usually when Mrs. Clagg followed her husband's advice and kept to herself until she had ascertained who was who in the locality, she succeeded only in getting herself disliked from the jump. They said she was stuck-up, that nobody was good enough for her; and in various little ways made things unpleasant for her.
But the Blocks were different. They rather courted seclusion, and the unobtrusive Claggs just suited them. In time the icy barrier thawed between them and they became great friends. After a further lapse of time they occasionally visited one another. They had become resigned to the vacant allotment, and might have become a permanency but for the fact that burglars appeared to be giving the locality more than a fair share of attention.
One day, when Mrs. Clagg was in Mrs. Block's place, her house was entered and robbed. Money, clothing, bric-a-brac, and other articles of value were taken. This happened in mid-afternoon, yet nobody had seen the thief decamp with his bundle. It remained a mystery for a couple of months, and then the burglar was caught in a house a few blocks away, where his wife had been in the habit of visiting. The burglar was Block.
After that shock, Mr. Clagg went in haste after another house. He wanted one that was cheap, in a healthy and respectable locality, handy to train or tram, and not far out from the city. He also wanted a sympathetic landlord. There were any amount of houses that could produce all these credentials but one—they were not cheap. High-class neighbourhoods were expensive; respectability had to be paid for on a higher scale than Mr. Clagg could afford.
He knew there were thousands of poor but respectable people in Sydney; by, respectability he meant those that had a little tonyness or gentility and a full measure of honesty about them—like himself; but they were scattered like grains among the chaff. His quest was an unadulterated community of good souls who meddled with nobody else's affairs, kept their children from being a nuisance to others, and respected the feelings of those around them as well as themselves.
That wasn't difficult if he paid the price, or if he overlooked the hygienic aspect or the convenient situation. Anyhow, whatever the locality, he had to live there a time to find out who else lived there. The cheap house he had to cling to; that was imperative.
AMONG THE HILLS
He got alongside the tramline, in what looked like a decent situation. The neighbours were honest, hard-working people; they were jolly and good natured. But one and all grumbled about the dust and the noise, and they said it was a beastly place in wet weather—that was why the houses were cheap. As there was a good footpath and a good road, that prospect didn't worry.
The proof of the pudding came one night when a heavy storm overflowed the gutter. The house stood at the foot of a hill, and the floor was a little below the footpath—matters which Mr. Clagg had hitherto not taken into consideration when house-hunting. He had searched inside for traces of bugs, for dampness, for leakages, and for smoking chimneys; he had tried doors and windows, examined the stove and the tubs, but here he struck a new experience. When the flood water swept over the footpath, it rushed through all the rooms, covering the floor several inches deep. The aftermath was ruined carpets and linoleum, and a week's hard work cleaning out the mud.
No more houses under a hill, he told his wife. He took one on the very top. It was a select neighbourhood, with neat villas and bungalows around. He couldn't afford one of them; still he was among them, and out of the way of storm waters. His residence was a small jerry-built place facing a lane. It was quiet and peaceful; nobody about him seemed to know he existed. His wife found it lonely; otherwise, except that he had no views worth mentioning, he had found all he looked for.
It was breezy, despite its rearward situation. In fact, it was too breezy, and one night the breeze became a terrific gale. There were a few groaning protests from the cheap house, then the roof flew off and crashed into the lane. The rain poured down into the peaceful abode in drenching, pitiless showers. Mr. Clagg hurriedly thrust the children into the wardrobe, after which he and his wife spent the dark wet hours under umbrellas. The damage brought them to the brink of ruin, and Mr. Clagg vowed he would dwell on no more hilltops, for the hilltops got the worst of the winds.
He heard his better housed neighbours speculating in the morning as to how the matchboxes had fared down on the flats. By matchboxes they meant the small, cheap places on the flats. He went down to investigate, and found that none of them was damaged; the hills had protected them. That was another lesson he kept in mind when looking for his next house.
He selected one in the middle of a wide flat. It was a wet, muddy flat after rain, but the floor was high and the road was good. There was also an electric light right in front of the place. That seemed an advantage. The place would never be in darkness, which would keep night prowlers away.
Before he had been there a week he wished the light was up on the hill. Argumentative people, going home from the picture shows and elsewhere, stopped there to finish their controversies; children came there to play; and a school of young fellows played two-up and wrangled in its benign effulgence till nearly midnight.
He found that particularly annoying after bed hours, so he packed up once more. He sampled half-a-dozen houses in various situations, all of which had some complaint. The rooms weren't properly arranged, or they were draughty, or the kitchen was too small; or something else was the matter, inside or out. Ultimately he found himself alongside a travelling showman, who, when at home, kept a huge gorilla chained up in the back-yard.
One afternoon this animal broke loose and got into the street. After mauling a couple of inoffensive persons and making a great commotion in the neighbourhood, it walked unannounced into Clagg's residence. Mr. Clagg was dressing for an evening's outing. He saw the awful apparition in the looking-glass and, hardly waiting to look round, he took a wild leap through the window, nearly breaking his neck among the geraniums. His neighbour subsequently remarked that that was an adventure that was not likely to happen to more than one in a thousand, and once in a hundred years. But Mr. Clagg started looking for another house next day and, when last heard of, he was still in search of the ideal.
One of the principal functions of the year in our little town is the hospital ball. Everybody who can afford it attends as a matter of duty; and one would naturally expect that everybody would have a jolly good time, and nothing but the best sociable feelings would permeate the assemblage.
I took my best girl, with this idea in mind; but as soon as we had passed the doorkeeper the idea received a rude shock. The assemblage was divided into two classes—the Silvertails, occupying one end of the room, and the Coppertails the other. Some snob—or some humorist, I don't know which—had drawn a chalks line across the floor so that the Coppertails would not encroach beyond their proper domain.
Naturally there was much aggressive bumping and other unpleasantness on that frontier, and occasionally individuals of the two parties came into more serious conflict, which led to warm invitations to come outside.
As the Coppertails predominated, the secretary, with an eye to business, was not constituting himself a buffer between the opposing groups. He didn't know any rule pertaining to the chalk line.
On the next occasion the Silvertails, who called it the "toe-rags' ball", kept away, and subsequently they had a select dance to themselves, which was a frost. There were so few of these super-beings that their actions served to ostracise them socially from the general community.
It was therefore necessary to mix with the common herd on-ball night; but again there was unpleasantness for, in the square dances, Mrs. Buckram ignored the hand of Mrs. Leatherneck, whereat Mrs. Leatherneck tossed her head and sniffed, and inquired loudly, who was Mother Buckram. The latter was then accidentally bumped all over the premises until she was forced indignantly to retire.
It was a ludicrous state of affairs in a little centre that was so far removed from other centres that it was to everybody's interest to work and play amicably together. In this way, each could add something to the other's enjoyment of life, whereas the chalk line only took something away.
At last we have reached a stage of peace and good will among men, but there is an air of tolerance about it which makes one feel sorry for human nature. It is so plainly a tolerance that abides a time when the select currency can safely separate itself from a toe-rags' ball.
Mat Conyers was making home with the surveyor's plant, and thinking of the one-and-only, after impatient weeks of dragging the link-chain about the bush, when he was joined by Murty Brown, who was also driving towards Sleepy Hollow, with a load of wood for himself on a borrowed cart of the scrap-heap type.
"Your uncle was in town yesterday," cried Murty from the top of his load, "an' he's got a lamentation that I think he must be settin' to music—'They're all gettin' married but Mat.' Our friend Jim Webb, you know, has struck a match with that old flame of yours. Can't drag him out of the municipality nowadays."
"Miss Martell?" queried Conyers.
"That's the peach. She was talkin' about you the other day. Reckons you haven't a hope with Selina. 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 the last two months?"
"Didn't you see her before you 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 Deep Creek every Saturday for the mail. Know Malcolm Quinch, of Pintpot?"
"Know him well. Broke in some horses for him once. Jolly decent old chap."
"Well, he meets Selina at the post office when he's down this way, which is pretty often, an' rides home with her."
"Friend of the family?"—intensely eyeing his happy informant.
"Expects to be more than a friend soon. He's stickin' up to Selina—an' it's common talk that her father's helpin' him."
Conyers' demeanour in respect to Mr. Quinch changed abruptly. He swung round with a quick flash of annoyance and alarm.
"Why, blind his eyes, he's older than her father, an' bloomin' near as white as a flour-bag!"
"That's so," Murty assented pleasantly. "But he's got young notions."
"The maudlin old blighter ought to be lynched!" Conyers snapped, jerking the reins and dropping the whip heavily on the horse.
"If I were you. Mat, I'd sit back an' wait. Before you're middle-aged you'd come in for the widow, an' the squattage, an' a big bank account. What better investment could you have than that?"
Conyers lit a cigarette, whacked the horse again on general principles, and smoked sulkily for half-a-mile. Then he made some trite observations about the weather, and inquired in a disinterested way how his venerable uncle was 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.
He studied it exclusively at the week-end, determining at last to contrive an accidental meeting with Selina.
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 of the road remarked that he had mistaken Mat for that person in the distance—it was about Quinch's time to be down again. To this a bystander added that there was no fool like an old fool, and another subjoined that "there ought to be a law against 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 3 o'clock Selina Saddler rode up. Half-a-dozen hopeful rustics made a move forward to hold her horse, and as many more were 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 into 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 to 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 dissyllable.
"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 at Dulla squattage, away up on happy Logan River, ages and ages ago, it seemed to Conyers. He held her hand much longer than was necessary, and squeezed it in a way that wasn't necessary at all.
"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—or is it years?"
"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 a way without speaking."
"Strange!" Conyers iterated. "For me to do a thing like that would be most remarkable. Surprising. It would be more like me to travel a thousand miles to see you."
"A thousand yards!" Selina said with cynical emphasis. But she smiled so sweetly that Conyers at once raised the limit.
"Five thousand miles!" he said. "If you asked me I'd walk it barefooted over cobblestones."
Selina did not speak for a moment. Then she said:
"Mat, how far do you call it from here to Dulla?"
"About 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. 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 get 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?" he parried.
"Oh, it's there. Mrs. Carson wrote and told me." She stopped as a clatter of hoofs sounded behind them.
"It's Mr. Quinch," she said in a low voice. Conyers hardly knew at the moment whether Mr. 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, physically and socially, being a pastoral magnate and a J.P. But his beauty was marred by a polished lane across his summit, and a boil-like wart behind his ear; and he wore a wispy billygoat beard that was nearly white with honoured years.
"Just a few minutes too late to catch you," he announced as he drew up on the near-side. "And how's the little girl?" He patted her on the shoulder in a fatherly fashion, looking under her hat, his red face 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 inquired about the welfare of her "ma" and her "pa", after which he noticed Mr. Conyers for the first time.
"Good day, Conyers."
"Good day, Quinch."
The old gentleman's head went up with a jerk. Mat had always, with due deference, called him Mr. Quinch when he was breaking-in for him on Pintpot squattage, and whenever 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.
The squatter's head went more rigidly erect, and with one fat hand doubled on his bulky thigh, and his gaze fixed 15 degrees above the horizon, he rode along whistling, whilst his companions talked in secret with their stirruped feet. It was plain that the big man considered it impertinent for Conyers to continue in their company, instead of politely retiring. Conyers, on the other hand, regarded Mr. Quinch as a presumptuous interloper. But what was troubling him was that he must eventually surrender Lena to the usurper. He was not welcome at Saddler's. He was sure he would not be asked in if he went to the house; and he was wondering how he could withdraw without Quinch having the laugh at him, when that gentleman made a false move and played into his hands.
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 get off; but Mr. Quinch wasn't in a hurry. His gaze came down out of the atmosphere, and fixed languidly 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.
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 farther 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. "We'll ride round to the top sliprails," she added.
Mat obeyed with an alacrity that astonished his horse. 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, as they rode away. "He was very rude."
"He's an old pig," Mat declared viciously.
Mr. Quinch remained where she had left him; he stood looking after them for several minutes, then cantered on up the paddock. For a little while Selina watched him with a troubled face. Then she shook off the cloud and said:
"Now, about my parrot, Mat."
Mat's ego had been soaring away up in the firmament. It came back to earth with a sickening drop.
"Let me see," she went on meditatively. "If you meet me at the post office this day week 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. "But wouldn't it be better to write to Mrs. Carson first?"
"Why?" For a moment her beautiful eyes were fixed wonderingly on his contemplative countenance.
"To make sure that it hasn't died from neglect since you left," said Conyers.
"Mrs. Carson would have let me know if it had."
"It's no use," thought Conyers. "I'm booked for that blamed parrot."
She explained how he was to feed it, and what he was to do in varying weathers and temperatures, while Mat endeavoured to look pleasant and interested in parrot culture.
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, inquiring meanwhile who made it: he shut and fastened it with a deliberate care that indicated great respect for gates, and would gladly have leaned on it for the rest of the day, and talked about the sublime scenery in her father's paddock. But Selina did not dally. A final word or two of no consequence to anybody else, a lingering grip of hands across the interesting gate, while their eyes told secrets that their tongues would utter some other time, and they parted. Selina cantered briskly homeward, and Mat rode leisurely back, thinking tenderly of an absent yet obtrusive bird. But there was the consoling thought that Lena was his for the asking, and it was Mr. Malcolm Quinch who was wasting time.
He was half-way to the sliprails when Long Hugh Saddler, mounted on Quinch's sweat-stained horse, rode out of a patch of scrub and intercepted him. Long Hugh was a solidly-built, powerful man, with thick brown beard and small fierce eyes. He wasted no time in preliminaries, but spurred up to Conyers, swinging a heavy stockwhip.
"You prowling dingo!" he flung at him in a savage growl. "I'll learn you to sneak round after my daughter an' insult my friends!"
Conyers 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 giant 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 at the bank, and cracked his whip again. Then he wheeled his horse round and galloped away.
Conyers was not discouraged. He persuaded himself that it was better to avoid a conflict than to thrash his girl's father. She would never forgive him if he did that. But he hoped she would not be told how he escaped from committing that unpleasantness.
On the following Saturday he was at the meeting place in good time. A crowd of people were gathered about the pub—a jovial crowd that spread across the road. Selina was not among them, but there was a letter for him at the post office. Lolling against a post he read it.
Dear Mr. Conyers—This is to tell you that all is over between us, as I have decided to respect my father's wishes, so you must not seek to meet me again—Yours truly, Selina Saddler.
The first reading of that epistle left Mr. Conyers 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. "We haven't got that far yet—an' you've left out the d——d parrot."
His reflections were interrupted by a man who approached him from a group on the road.
"Why weren't you at Quinch's wedding to-day, Mat?" he asked. "You missed all the fun."
Mat turned cold again; and then he noticed that the road was white with rice.
"I didn't know anything about it," he said in a harsh voice.
"He married Hughie Saddler's sister at the pub here to-day," the man informed him. "Selina's aunt, you know. Did it grand, too. Gave a great spread to everybody, an' left a fiver in the bar for the crowd to swamp. You've missed a treat."
"Blast it!" muttered Conyers, in a self-castigating whisper. "I've gone and made an enemy of my prospective rich uncle-in-law through listenin' to idle gossip."
A small crowd of gold-diggers stood in front of Lowry's shanty as a horse and sulky rattled up the sand track through the mulga. The driver was Lowry, and a murmur of excitement ran through the group when it was seen that he had a young woman beside him. Lowry's shanty, glorified by the name of the Golden Peg Hotel, was the only one in a little mining camp that had sprung up, mushroom-like, in the midst of a mulga wilderness, and Lowry was the only man in the camp who had a wife. It was known that he had gone to get a companion for her, but what he brought was unexpected in that remote community of bachelors and widowers.
The men crowded round as the trap drew up, and the companion turned scarlet as she found herself the cynosure of all eyes. Once her cheeks paled, and once her eyes flashed with a light of pleasant recognition. Two of the men had recognised her. One was Ike Raymond, a shady character, who was familiarly known as Crooked Ike. The other was Roy Binny, a powerfully-built young fellow, who stood in the background with bared arms folded across his chest. He was startled at first. She was the last woman he had expected to see in a place like that.
She was a pretty girl, on the right side of thirty, with a neat, full-formed figure, and a certain air of refinement about her. Apparently a cheerful little soul. She smiled on all impartially, while half-a-dozen bearded gallants scrambled round the vehicle to carry her box. It was only a one-man load, but they all managed to hamper one another by giving a hand with it.
When the girl entered the shanty and took stock of her new surroundings she was shocked and disgusted. She had expected to find the appointments in keeping with the locality, but she had not expected to find in her mistress a half-caste Maori. Worse still, the woman was of the big, coarse, masculine type, with a face that was scarred, wrinkled, ugly. Still, she did not betray her feelings, and presently, at the invitation of Skinny Frank, she joined the men in a drink, and afterwards took a hand at cards. She was just the stamp of girl, thought Lowry, that would suit the mining camp. Her face was captivating, and she was pleasant, intelligent, and "not too particular."
Drinking was heavy that evening, for Letitia Brice, the new attraction, was "lady help" behind the bar. Besides, it was Christmas week, when Lowry looked for a big roll-up. It was a noisy, but jolly, crowd that faced her--until Ike Raymond asked the girl to drink with him. She refused, and when later she declined to play partners with him, he got nasty.
"I s'pose I'm not good enough for yer?" he sneered. "You're not a saint, anyway. I know--"
"What do yer know?" demanded a hairy person at his elbow.
"I know she's no better than she ought to be," said Raymond.
"You're a liar!" cried the other man, and immediately he collapsed on the floor to a back-handed blow from Crooked Ike.
"That's one fancy bloke overboard," he remarked, rising.
Letitia rose, too, like a shot, and her bejewelled hand flung out and landed with a resounding smack on his mouth. With a muttered epithet he clutched her by the arms, but Roy Binny sprang over the table, and the fight started. Two of Raymond's mates joined in, which drew others quick-fisted into the conflict. In the resulting confusion the table was overturned, the lamp crashed on the floor, and the room was plunged in darkness. Suddenly there was a flash and a loud report, followed by a general exodus.
When Lowry came back with a lighted lamp he saw Roy Binny lying among the wreckage on the floor, and sitting near him were two partially-disabled diggers, one with his head through a broken chair. Binny was laid on a rug outside, where he soon recovered. Raymond and his mates had disappeared, for which Lowry was thankful.
Letitia, after bandaging his broken scalp, remained with Binny, sitting beside him in the starlight. She was pale and troubled.
"Whatever induced you to come to such a place as this?" he asked her.
"I've been had, Roy. Can't you see?" she answered bitterly.
"Then you won't stay?" he Questioned.
"I don't know what to do," she answered. "But this place is no good to me. I knew when I saw Crooked Ike that something would happen. I knew him when I was barmaid in Perth. He threw a glass of whisky in my face one night, and I knocked him down with a bottle. He said he would 'corner me' if ever he got the chance. He'll gel it here."
"Not while I'm about. Say the word, an' I'll soon get you out of it. Skinny Frank has a good trap and horse. He's driving to Lake Way in about a week, and he'd be glad of your company."
She looked at him sharply.
"Aren't you going?" she asked.
"I'd follow on the bike," he replied. "What do you say?"
For answer she bent down and kissed him. One morning, a week later, the camp collected to see her off. Only Ike Raymond was absent. Though disappointed at losing her, they gave her a cheer as Frank drove away. Binny did not start till hours later, expecting to pull them up early in the afternoon. But they were pulled up earlier in an unexpected way.
Frank had not gone many miles when Ike Raymond stepped out of a patch of scrub and a revolver was levelled at him.
"You hop down, Skinny," ordered Ike, "an' do the quick-step along that track."
His hand shook from recent heavy drinking, and that made Skinny fear the menacing weapon more than if the bushranger had been strictly sober. He got down and moved away slowly. Crooked Ike, clutching the reins and watching him, fired a shot at the ground behind him. Then Skinny took to his heels, and ran for his life.
"Now, Letty, my dear, you an' me will have a little drive on our own," said Ike as he climbed into the trap.
She sat like a stone, speechless and horror-stricken, as he whipped the horse into a trot. At the first break in the timber he turned off the road, and drove her through trackless bush. He drove with desperate haste, but his course was erratic. Late in the afternoon she realised that he was lost when, without noticing it, he crossed his own track. An hour afterwards he crossed it again, and a little later the exhausted animal jibbed in a bed of sand. Whilst he tried impatiently to urge it forward with the whip, Letitia deftly slipped the revolver from his pouch, and hid it in her dress. The horse would not budge.
"Get out," he said, as he jumped down to lead it.
Letitia quickly obeyed and, with a little basket in her hand, stepped over to a thick-topped tree, and sat down under it. Crooked Ike zigzagged the horse along a few paces, and called to her to follow.
"This is my roof to-night," she answered.
He turned back, his face ugly and determined. Then she produced the weapon, and pointed it at him.
"You come near me and I'll give you a pill of your own making." she warned him.
His hand went mechanically to his belt and then he stiffened in sudden surprise.
"So that's your game!" he snarled. "Clever young lady, ain't you? 'Dept at pickin' pockets?"
He returned to the vehicle and, giving the horse some mulga, tied it to a tree. His eyes searched the bush uneasily, dreading pursuit. But when darkness fell he knew he was safe till morning; and if he could disarm the girl he would have no fear of the man that he knew was somewhere on his track. He approached her again.
"You needn't be afraid, Letty," he said, in a conciliatory manner. "I'm not going to to touch you. I'm dead beat. What did I do back there? I was drunk...mad. I'll take you back to-morrow, an' give myself up. I must 'ave a sleep."
Letitia, afraid of dozing, paced up and down for a couple of hours, the man stealthily watching her. Then she sat down again mapping out plans for to-morrow. Raymond after a while, turned over, so that his back was towards her. She waited until he appeared to be asleep, then climbed cautiously into the tree, the numerous offshoots affording her foothold. Among the thick branches she settled herself securely, and hung the basket above her head. The man had not stirred, and assured that her movements had not been observed, she reclined against the thick cluster of branches, tying one arm, with her handkerchief, to a limb and went to sleep.
It was daylight when the cracking of twigs and a light shaking of the tree awakened her. Crooked Ike was climbing stealthily towards her, a light axe, which had been strapped to the back of the trap, thrust through his belt. She covered him quickly.
"If you're not down in one minute I'll fire," she threatened.
"Ain't you clever!" snarled Ike, with more venom than admiration in the remark. But he slipped back, and as his feet touched the ground she fired into the air. She surmised that Binny would not be far away, and if he heard the report of the gun it would bring him to her quicker than by following the wandering tracks of the vehicle.
Ike's face betrayed some signs of fear at the action. Then he commenced to chop away the offshoots round the butt of the tree. A third, and a fourth time she fired, and a little later, in shifting her position, she accidentally exploded the fifth cartridge. Ike chuckled, and began chopping at the tree. Letitia understood, and a cold fear crept over her. The other charge had been fired the previous day to expedite Skinny's departure.
The chips flew thick and fast from the axe strokes, and soon the tree was more than half cut through. Then he started on the other side, whilst the girl prayed that the ring of the axe would bring Binny to the place, in time to save her from a crushing fall. Deeper and deeper the blade went in. When the tree was almost tottering, he paused and looked up.
"Goin' to come down?" he demanded.
She hesitated, looking helplessly around, seeking for a sign of pity where there was none, and wondering how long Binny would be. Where was he? How far were they from the road? Had he ridden on without noticing that the vehicle had turned off? Or did Skinny turn back and tell him?
"Two more strokes does it," cried Ike. "Are you comin' down?"
She hesitated, looking helplessly around like a scared 'possum for a means of escape.
"What are you going to do with me?" she asked, parleying to gain time.
The sun was rising, and a crow in a neighbouring tree watched the tethered horse and the woman-hunter.
"Take you back." said Ike. "Are you comin'?"
"I can go back myself if you leave me," she said.
He spat on his hands.
"I'm sorry," he returned, "but if you won't take the easy way you'll 'ave to crash."
As he swung the axe a cry escaped the girl, now clinging desperately, as if for protection, to the branches. The persecutor faltered, and the blow fell harmlessly; but, with set teeth, he swung it again. While it hung in the air the crack of a rifle sounded sharply from a sand ridge near by, and Crooked Ike, carried by the force of his abortive stroke, fell forward with a shattered wrist.
Then the girl climbed slowly down, and fell into the arms of Roy Binny, while Skinny Frank was hard riding on a skinny horse a quarter of a mile behind.
The Curlew was an old paddle-boat, fitted up as a peregrinating general store, and owned and commanded by Enoch Caddow, master mariner. She puffed slowly up and down an eastern river once a week, relieving farmers and selectors of stored-up eggs and other small produce, and distributing groceries and cheap draperies in return. She did a good trade, having regular calling places where she stopped a few hours or a night. The best business place was Toontop, which Captain Caddow generally contrived to reach on Saturday, and where he stopped till Monday. He did good business there throughout Sunday, settlers coming down in carts and slides from outlying parts; and while the women bargained, the men sat on the bank and exchanged opinions on the weather and the crops. Some played quoits, or exulted in the refined excitement of a dog fight, while the more apathetic lay drowsing under the wild cherry trees.
It was a dull, commonplace corner, yet the one place of all the earth that impressed itself on the sensibilities of Enoch Caddow. He was a man of forty-five, harsh of speech as a nor-wester, spare of height, but of immense rotundity; he was bow-legged and bald-headed, with a scraggy, iron-grey beard, and a rubicund bloated face. His upper lip was shaven, and his round, ferret-like eyes were shaded with ruffled, bushy brows. He was not a very dignified little man; his ways and actions made people laugh: and he was treated with more familiarity than courtesy.
Among his best customers at Toontop was a middle-aged widow, by name, Rebecca Dunn, who met him regularly with a kerosene-tin of eggs, and carried away jams, candles, and other luxuries from the Curlew. Caddow, usually gruff and immobile of countenance, always had a smile for the little widow. He was exceedingly attentive to her at the counter, gave her over-weights, and little presents to boot. Often he carried her purchases across the gangway. He was not a brilliant conversationalist, but he made an extra effort to be amusing and entertaining when Rebecca was about—and succeeded immensely in so far as his efforts appealed to lookers-on.
At night, when the Curlew lay in the silent shadows of the cherry trees, Enoch Caddow would go ashore for a stroll—and he strolled up and down in front of the cottage where dwelt Rebecca Dunn. The light of the window interested him, and when a dark shadow intervened his interest was tremendous. The scent of the geraniums in the green-painted tins on the verandah was delicious. He had never smelt such sweet geraniums anywhere else. He also admired the delicate tracery of the curtains. Once he heard her sing. He was enraptured, and went back to his floating warehouse intoxicated with a flood of new emotions. He sought the engineer, Dick Tobin, his confidential companion of numerous voyages on the winding river, and broached a bottle of port.
"It's come to me lately, Dick," he said, reflectively.
"What has?" questioned Tobin, wonderingly.
"That it's mean an' selfish to be runnin' single all your mortal days," the Captain concluded.
Dick Tobin, a long, raw-boned man of forty, straightened himself with a jerk, and stared at his captain for a moment with mouth open.
The Captain emptied his glass.
"It's this way, Tobin," he said, "I'm getting up in years now, an' it seems to me unnatural to go alone from port to port, instead of combinin' with an opposite, as Nature intended every man should."
"Well, if the other party's willin', Capt'in," drawled Tobin, "I don't see as there's anything to stop yer."
Tobin was inwardly convulsed; while Caddow was in dead earnest. Tobin had been smiled upon by a neglected damsel or two in his better days, and the recollection made him vain and conceited; he considered it a matter for laughter for a man of the captain's calibre to woo where he himself had hung his cap. The Captain had been unfortunate; no gentle creature had ever deigned him an amorous glance, though he had hungered for love for half a lifetime. Tobin considered him fair game to play with. Being more attractive in appearance, and more at home in female society, he was rather patronising at times in tendering advice, and secretly delighted in leading Caddow on to make a fool of himself.
"I'm tired of this rovin' life," the Captain went on, following the train of his own thoughts. "I'll give it up, Tobin, and settle on a farm."
Tobin stared. The idea of Captain Caddow, who had been all his life a sailor, settling on a farm, and raising eggs and pumpkins, brought a smile to his face. He let the Captain go on.
"I've found out that the farm belongs to her father, so I think I could get it reasonable. There's money in pigs, Tobin, an' eggs seem to grow well hereabout—"
"What's her name?" asked Tobin, who had no interest in eggs and pigs.
Tobin gave a little start, and stared harder than before. "That's the widder?" he asked.
The Captain nodded.
"She's a tidy little woman," Tobin declared, trying to hide his amusement. "Your star's set lucky if it steers you to a mate like her."
"She sings well," the Captain rejoined, weakly.
"When's it to be?" asked Tobin.
"We haven't come to any understanding yet."
"But you've got yer clearance papers, which is to say, you're sweethearts?"
"No," said Caddow, dejectedly. "There's been nothing said. But I think she likes me."
Tobin reflected. "If I might make a suggestion," he said, "I think I can put you on a course where there's no breakers, an' a safe port ahead."
"It's a pilot I want, Tobin," said Caddow, quickly.
"You buy the farm first, an' tackle the widder after," Tobin advised. "The old man has been a sea dog himself, an' might take this craft off your hands as part payment. I 'appen to know he's sweet on the Curlew."
"You think that would be the best beginning?"
"Certain. The widder is bound to be wrapped up in a place where she's lived for years, an' findin' it yours, an' you waitin' to tow her in—why, she'd snap you up like Jack Shark would a lump o' pork. The great p'int with women is to make a show."
Caddow brightened up. "I believe that's a good idea, Tobin. I'll buy the farm to-morrow, an' next trip up I'll have a little talk with Rebecca."
"That's the tack," said Tobin. "She's a craft worth the winnin', an' I wish yer heaps o' happiness when yer get command of her."
The Captain had just dressed himself in his Sunday best next morning when Mr. Caleb Stokes, the owner of the farm, came on board and, immediately, Dick Tobin slipped ashore and made a bee-line for Widow Dunn's. He spent an interesting hour in the cottage, and when he returned, the Captain and Caleb Stokes were on deck, examining the fittings of the Curlew.
"Been lookin' for grasshoppers," he volunteered, producing a pint bottle with two hoppers in it from his pocket. Dick sometimes fished from the stern of the vessel.
The Captain coughed.
"This is your new master," he said.
"Eh?" said Tobin', coming to a sudden halt.
"I've bought the steamboat," Caleb Stokes explained.
"I've bought the farm," added Captain Caddow.
"Good biz!" grinned Tobin. "When's the change to be?"
"Everything will be handed over to Mr. Stokes on our next trip to Toontop," said the Captain.
"You'll continue as engineer?" said Stokes.
"Certainly," answered Tobin, delighted. "You'll be captain, I s'pose?"
"That's so. My daughter, Mrs. Dunn, will also be aboard—to look after the store."
Caddow's jaw dropped an inch, and Tobin turned away. He saw foul weather ahead for Enoch Caddow, and chuckled in anticipation.
The Captain attended to business as usual through the day, and in the evening went ashore, presumably, for his customary stroll. But, after a preliminary turn or two in front of Rebecca's cottage, he mustered courage to saunter up to the door. Rebecca answered his knock immediately, and gave an involuntary start on seeing her visitor. He was about the last man at Toontop she had expected to see that night at her door.
"I hope you will pardon the intrusion, Mrs. Dunn," he said, humbly; "but—er—I—I thought I might look in."
"Why—yes—of course, Captain. Come in. I intended to ask you up," she continued, as the Captain seated himself, "but I feared you would be too busy to have a thought to spare for a poor nobody like me."
"You misjudged me, ma'am," said Captain Caddow, seriously. "To tell you the truth, you have all my thoughts. I—I have a great regard for you."
"Indeed, you flatter me, Captain," said Rebecca, colouring. "I am sure I don't deserve it." It was a womanly bait for a compliment, but Caddow wasn't a very gallant courtier.
"You know yourself best, of course," he answered, still seriously.
Rebecca smiled icily.
"The main point is," continued Caddow, "I'm coming to live here, and—I don't want you tot go away on the Curlew."
Rebecca drew a long breath.
"What would you have me do, Captain?"
"Remain as my mate. I can make you happy."
A knock at the door interrupted him. Rebecca sprang up, and as she reached the door it opened, and the Captain was surprised to observe that the caller was Dick Tobin. The latter had eyes only for the woman.
"Well, Becky, how is it?" he asked, beamingly. "The little scheme worked, eh? Old Bowlegs—" He stopped, with a quick catch of his breath, as though a phantom hand had struck him on the back of the neck, as his eyes lit on the astonished face of Enoch Caddow. There was an awkward silence. Rebecca's cheeks were ashen white, and there was a fire of hate and rage in her eyes as she looked at Tobin.
"Beg pardon," said the latter, "I didn't know you'd left the boat, Captain."
"Doesn't matter," said Caddow, rising. "I will get back. Good-night, ma'am."
He doffed his cap as he passed her, and in a moment was swallowed in the darkness.
Then Rebecca turned in a fury to Tobin.
"You blitherin' idiot, what do you mean?" she cried, and her little foot struck the floor with a thud that shook the windows. "What do you mean by coming here to-night?"
Tobin ensconced himself in the nearest chair, looking hurt.
"Yer should 'ave give me the tip, Becky, that you expected him."
"I didn't expect him," she snapped. "And you needn't insinuate that I did either. It's the first time Captain Caddow has called at my house—and you must come blunderin' in and spoil all!"
"Don't be unreasonable, Becky. Didn't I run the Captain on to buy the farm 'cause your father was stiff an' wanted to turn you out an' let it? An' didn't I get him the Curlew, as he's been hankerin' after for a year or more? He'll 'ave money an' a business, an' you'll 'ave a comfortable home with me an' him. All together always. A happy little family."
"There's nothing signed—and won't be now," Rebecca snorted. "The Captain expected to get me with the house. You have ruined us."
She was pacing the floor, her hands plucking blindly at her breast, her face white with passion. The display was a shock to Tobin, though he admitted the provocation. He had long looked upon her as his own, and confidently expected that she would become his wife as soon as she was installed with Caleb Stokes on the Curlew. Then a half-share In the business would be easily acquired, and a comfortable future assured. It was for this Tobin had been fishing. He had no fears of being deposed by Enoch Caddow. Rebecca had so often spoken of him as a ridiculous little man, and when he informed her of the captain's infatuation she had laughed heartily and called him an old fool. She would laugh over this incident, too, by-and-bye.
Her foot came down crash again, and interrupted the happy thoughts.
"For goodness sake, go!" she cried, fiercely, "Haven't you done enough mischief without sittin' here makin' it worse?"
Tobin took his departure abruptly. On reaching the Curlew he found the Captain on deck, smoking, and apparently brooding.
"The widder was put out at yer leavin', Captain," he said, diffidently.
"I didn't know I was encroachin' on your preserves, Tobin," Caddow returned, dryly.
"Neither yer was, if it comes to that. There's nothing atween me and the widder. Never was. We've always been great friends. I call her Becky—knowin' her so long—an' she call's me Dick. That's when nobody's about, an' it don't signify."
"I see," said Caddow. "And when nobody's about, it doesn't signify whether I'm Captain Caddow or Old Bowlegs?"
"That was only a joke," said Tobin. "She thinks such a precious lot of you that I like to tease her about yer. Just in fun."
"And what's this little scheme that's worked so well?" asked Caddow.
The question took Tobin unawares; but after a momentary stagger he gave a plausible answer.
"Why," he said, "her old man was dead set on gettin' the Curlew, but he had no money to buy her. Knowin' as you wanted a farm, I promised to use my influence to gratify both parties. Of course, it was unbeknownst to her that I was match-makin' at the same time."
Caddow did not pursue the subject further, and his returning good humour was evidence to Tobin that he was satisfied with the explanation. In truth, Captain Caddow had a strong suspicion that Tobin was not acting straight, and decided to play a bold stroke that would upset the engineer's calculations, however it might result to himself.
Just before the hour of departure next morning, Rebecca came on board, flurried but radiant. She had discovered that she was clean out of sugar.
Captain Caddow dived into a corner, where he remained hidden behind some cases of soap for a minute, and when he reappeared with the sugar, which he forgot to weigh, he handed her a small package.
"A few preserves," he said. "Take them home."
The Curlew was heading down stream when Rebecca opened the package in her front room. It contained, besides preserves and conversation lollies with sentimental inscriptions, a hastily-written note, which ran:
Rebecca,—Is it to be me or Tobin? If me, I will expect you to be at Bangor to marry me on my arrival there on Thursday. If you are not there I will know it's Tobin, and the Curlew will never return to Toontop.—Enoch Caddow.
The Curlew on the up-trip steamed from Bangor to Toontop in a day; but on the downward journey she made calls at numerous wharves for trade, and so occupied nearly four days in going down. It was only a few hours' ride between the two places by land, but it was a long way by water.
To Caddow that trip seemed like four weeks. A hundred times over he pictured Rebecca opening and reading his message, and the more he pictured it the more impertinent and silly it seemed, and his chances of success more remote. There was the disagreeable thought that she was "in with Tobin," and the pair were making a laughing stock of him. He was sorry he had written.
He lost all patience for counting eggs and, steaming disdainfully past the minor wharves, he brought the Curlew to her moorings at Bangor early in the afternoon.
Rebecca was there! By her side stood Caleb Stokes, and this to Caddow indicated "with father's consent."
It was a surprise to Tobin to see them there: he was more surprised when Rebecca passed along without noticing his presence, and shook hands warmly with that ridiculous little man, Enoch Caddow.
The explanation came from Caleb Stokes. "Captain Caddow and my daughter are to be married to-night."
"Is that it?" gasped Tobin and his face blanched. "He kep' it pretty dark, anyway." he added, sulkily.
He left the Curlew soon after the bridal party, and they never saw him again.
A man knocking about the bush samples a good many kinds of mates, and each has some singularity. In most of the essentials that count in mateship, Little Peter could be classed A1 at Battlers. He never tried to shirk getting wood and water, making the fire, or hunting for horses; and in ordinary circumstances he was dependable. In our travels together I discovered only one blemish in his otherwise estimable character.
The long, winding road up the Maranoa was crossed at intervals by squatters' and selectors' fences, several occurring close after one another as you got near homesteads. The practice where dismounting was necessary was for mates to manipulate barriers turn about, because one might be light, clean and handy, and another heavy, muddy sliprails in a boghole.
Some men didn't like getting off, especially on a drizzly day when the saddles were dry and warm. I knew two who started out together with good intentions, but whose mateship lasted only a day through the golden rule respecting fences not being strictly adhered to. One was very willing; he urged his horse forward when there was anything to open or put down. All day he did this without a sign of remonstrance. But next morning he said:
"You go your way now and I'll go mine."
A familiar type of mate was one who wanted to do all the opening at the start. He was quite pleased to be of use, and even protested if not allowed to be the blackboy. But it wasn't long before his enthusiasm evaporated, and he was cutting up tobacco or lighting his pipe when a fence was reached.
Peter was neither of these. He wasn't lazy, and if he avoided any unpleasant duty he did it in a way that imparted no suspicion of design to the casual observer.
I had ridden a long way with Peter before I noticed certain subtle peculiarities about his horses. When there was an easily-opened gate ahead they stepped forward briskly as if they thought it was the day's end. When it was a rickety affair that had to be lifted back, or one that obviously collapsed on being unfastened, they acted differently. If the structure opened to the left, they liked to be on the near side of my horses; and if the concern opened to the right, they preferred the offside. In each case it brought me up against the gatehead. But when they saw sliprails in front they didn't seem to care if they never got there, and sometimes they were startled by something wholly imaginary, and plunged off the road.
Generally a gate was opened by the leader and closed by the one following. Some were self-closing affairs that had to be followed and held back; others, as on rabbit-proof fences, were heavy-weight sliders. I became aware that Peter was an expert who classified them at a distance. But it wasn't till we reached a pair of light sapling rails that I was particularly impressed.
"These are the sort I like," said Peter; "they're as handy as a bad gate." And ranging alongside he leaned over in the saddle and dropped one end of the rails. Then he rode on, leaving me to put them up.
A few miles farther on we came to a sharp turn in a patch of scrub where Peter, who was slightly in advance, was not expecting impediments; but suddenly he noticed heavy split rails with a puddle underneath. At the same instant the halter on his packhorse slipped out of his hand, and he had to turn round and do some manoeuvring to recapture the quadruped. Then he stopped a moment to overhaul the headgear, and to ascertain if the pack was firm and in proper position on the moke's back.
I got interested in Tittle Peter. He was a man of ideas, who never used the same trick twice in a day. If his special aptitude for dodging sliprails was appealed to twenty times in twenty miles, he always had something fresh. He rarely resorted to such ordinary practices as filling his pipe, or dropping things to get behind, and only once did a flying-ant get in his eye.
We called at a squattage not long after negotiating the puddle and, when leaving, we had to pass through a yard which presented two high tiers of heavy rails.
"Something to put down here," Peter remarked, and urged his horse forward.
I was as much surprised as pleased at this departure, when all at once his packhorse jumped back and pulled away. Peter had sprung a new one on me.
By chance, as he rode through, I noticed a spot of blood where his spur had pricked the horse in the chest.
From this place a stockman accompanied us across two paddocks. He knew Peter, and as there was not room for five horses abreast on the bush-track, I jogged along behind. It was a foregone conclusion the new man was to be blackboy, and I was curious to see how Peter would accomplish it, as most stockmen were up to the tricks of sliprail shufflers.
The first barrier was a new gate, which was leaning against the posts waiting for its hinges. Peter observed its unfinished condition several rods away, and just then he recollected that he had lost a horse somewhere on the run when going down with cattle. He did not know the name of the place but, taking out his pocket-book, said he would make a sketch of the locality so that the stockman might keep a lookout when mustering there. He was intensely absorbed in tracing roads and creeks and lagoons when the horses came to a standstill. The stockman got off, but there was a grin on his face as he lifted the obstruction from the track.
The next obstacle consisted of low slip-panels in ordinary split posts. The buckle on the end of Peter's reins had just come undone, letting one drop, when the stockman pressed his hat down and, racing at the barrier, went over like a bird. Waving his hand to us on the other side, he cantered off into the bush.
Peter was too flabbergasted to return the courtesy.
"There's some mean blokes about here," he growled as he dismounted.
The local paper had been impressing upon the young men of Sleepy Hollow, that it was their duty to enlist or get married. Nearly all the young men had rushed to the colours at the first call. There were only two of military age in the whole community who were not in uniform, and the printed discourses seemed to have special reference to these. Sibby Brune was particularly sensitive. He determined to get married, and in pursuance of this manly resolution he called on little Myra Lewin with a gold ring and asked her if she would wear it for him. To his delight she accepted the token, and promised to be his ownest for ever and ever.
Colly Smith, the other young man, was also an admirer of Miss Lewin. He came along one evening as Sibby stood with his arm around the adorable's waist. It was a disagreeable surprise to Colly Smith, but he had less sentiment, and more cunning in his nature than Sibby Brune.
"Hulloa, Sibby," he said, flamboyantly. "Aren't you goin' to enlist?"
Sibby's sudden frown was eloquent testimony that he disapproved of the question.
"Why don't you enlist yourself?" he demanded, sourly.
"I'm waiting for you," Colly laughed, "There's a recruiting meeting round the corner; I'll go an' enlist now if you'll come with me."
Sibby glared at him.
"My duty is here," he said, his hand on Myra's arm.
"Oh, don't let me stop you," Myra interposed quickly, at which Sibby's mouth gaped. He turned cold, not at the prospect of going, but because his girl, whom he had expected to cling to him passionately, had metaphorically given him a shove as if she didn't care for him.
"But we're going to get married?" he protested.
"I'll wait till you come back," Myra declared, stoutly. There was a sparkle in her eyes as she looked into his gloomy face.
"A man who wouldn't fight for his girl wouldn't be worth thinkin' about," added Colly, beaming on Myra, who smiled back at him in a way that made Sibby feel like a simmering volcano.
"Some people ought to mind their own business," he said, viciously. He swung an important fist in the atmosphere. "I'm ready to fight for Australia any day."
Colly Smith grinned maliciously.
"Come along with me," he invited.
"Go an' put on khaki; then you'll have a right to ask me," Sibby retorted.
It was a view of the situation that for a moment staggered Colly Smith. His little scheme was directed towards supplanting his rival. He had, as a matter of fact, volunteered at the beginning of the war, but had been rejected on account of flat feet and insufficient height. Colly was bread and fat, with puffed cheeks, which earned him the name of "Puddin'-face." He didn't expect to be honoured with a uniform; in fact, he was certain he would be turned down again, and then, while Sibby went abroad, he would make the best of his chances with Myra Lewin.
The girl unconsciously came to his assistance.
"Let me ask both of you," she said winningly. "I joined the girls' league the other day, and each of us is pledged to secure at least one recruit." She took Sibby by the lapels of his coat, and looked meltingly into his flabbergasted countenance. "I know you won't fail me, will you, Sibby?"
"Strike me purple!" Sibby groaned inwardly. "I thought I'd found my saviour, an' I've struck a bloomin' recruitin' agent!"
He desperately reviewed the position. He had once tried to get into the railway service, but had failed in the eye test. This recollection vastly improved the outlook. He was positive his eyes had not improved since.
"Come on!" he said, suddenly bracing himself up.
Myra clapped her hands gleefully, a fact which did not raise any enthusiasm in Sibby, whose idea was that a girl should feel more tearful at the thought of her sweetheart going away to the war.
A crowd of patriotic citizens cheered loudly as the pair, with heads high and chests thrust forward, strode up to the platform. They were promptly rushed away, amid pleasantries, to the the proper officials. To their dismay they were both accepted. The announcement left each in turn momentarily dazed. They came back looking' as if they had been convicted of murdering each other. But when they met subsequently they bubbled with mutual congratulations, and said they would have a good time and see a bit of the world. It was the chance of a lifetime.
They saw a good bit of the world in the next twelve months. Sibby was duly impressed, but he grew more and more homesick and lovesick as the months dragged away. The year seeded an age, and the war "was a fair cow."
About that period he and Colly Smith were resting in a small dugout after a hard day's fighting. Whilst Colly smoked his pipe, Sibby stretched his weary limbs on the damp ground and dropped off to sleep. Colly studied him through the smoke. The face of Myra Lewin was still with him; his mind still schemed with the ulterior object of calling her his own. A few yards away was a dead comrade, whom he had known as Dicky Starr. He looked from one to the other for a few minutes, then he got up, and quietly removing Sibby's disc, exchanged it with the dead soldier's. The papers from Sibby's pockets were also transferred to the other man's.
"It wont make any difference to either of them," he said to himself as he sat down again. "Sibby's bound to get knocked out in the long run, an' if Myra hears that he's gone under now, she'll be over it an' will 'ave a welcome for me when I get back. If he's taken prisoner, or becomes missing I'll be on velvet just the same."
Half an hour later the stretcher-bearers removed the dead; and in due course Sibby Brune was reported "killed in action."
Sibby, blissfully unconscious that he was dead, saw some stupendous fighting in the next few days. He bore his share of it well without getting a scratch. Colly Smith came out of it minus half a foot. He was invalided to England and four months afterwards sent home as unfit for further service.
Colly didn't mind leaving half his toes behind if he gained the hand of the girl he wanted. As he had anticipated, she was already reconciled to the loss of Sibby Brune. She was one of the first to welcome him back, for naturally she wanted tidings from the mate of the man she had kissed good bye.
"Tell me all about Sibby," she begged at the first opportunity.
"He stuck it good to the end." said Colly, in a spasm of generosity.
"Oh, I knew he'd do that." said Myra; "but how--"
"I see the end of him." Colly told her, truthfully.
Being an old admirer and a returned hero, he soon got her in tow again. He was in a hurry to get married. After a very brief interval, he proposed an immediate alliance, but to this she was not agreeable.
"We must wait till poor Sibby's been dead a year," she insisted.
He argued that a year or ten years wouldn't make him any deader than he was, but she was obdurate. She owed at least that much respect, she said, to his memory. What Colly feared was that the year would make his old rival less dead. It was a puzzle to him that the mistake had not been rectified ere this. Nobody had received a word from him after his reported death. Colly Smith lived in dread that a letter would come which would upset all his plans. Nobody would know that he had been the villain of the piece, but he would be cast out all the same if Sibby wrote home and said he wasn't dead. Once Myra was Mrs. Smith it wouldn't matter for, at the worst, it could only be set down as a regrettable mistake.
There came at last a belated announcement that "Richard Starr" had been severely wounded. The real Dicky Starr was known in Sleepy Hollow, for he had been living with a bachelor uncle in an outlying part of that district; but only Colly Smith knew that the casualty wasn't the person reported. The case, by this time, had him guessing all round the compass. Why Sibby had not resurrected himself and straightened out the tangle was incomprehensible. He must surely have discovered the change in his number, or that he was called by a false name.
One thing appeared certain: now that he was in hospital he would write to Myra. Among other things he would tell her that their mutual friend, Dicky Starr, had been killed in the presence of himself and Colly Smith. That would, at least, look suspicious. He became desperately eager to make Myra Lewin his wife. It would be easy to explain about Dicky afterwards. He didn't care to say thing about it until the young man had been officially reported as killed. That would be a satisfactory excuse. It would show feeling and consideration for the relatives. But he must lead the blushing Myra to the altar before Sibby dropped his bombshell in their midst.
Myra, however, refused to be led. All his persuasiveness and blandishments failed to shorten the prescribed interval. Colly, in consequence, lived through weeks and months of gnawing anxiety, dreading the arrival of every mail. But the expected exposure didn't come.
Sibby's wound was a peculiar one. A piece of shell had shaved off his right ear. The blow had rattled his brain box so much that he couldn't remember who he was, or where he belonged to; and he accepted in good faith the name of the man whose disc he was wearing. These particulars were communicated to his supposed uncle in reply to inquiries made through the Red Cross. In a measure, they allayed Colly's anxiety. There would be no danger of a letter unless the patient suddenly regained his menial communications.
Colly sought an acquaintance with Mr. Starr, and courted it assiduously, so that he would be kept informed of any developments. In this way he learned that "Dicky" was to be sent home. Except that he didn't know anything about himself, he appeared to be all right, and looked well. This was disquieting news to Colly, especially as the date of sailing was about seven weeks before the date of his marriage with Myra. The uncle was also confident that old scenes and familiar faces, and the voices of loved ones, would effect a complete recovery. He said that recoveries in such cases were generally sudden.
This talk impressed Colly so much that he entreated Myra to change the date to a fortnight earlier. He had an urgent business matter to attend to up north, and it would be convenient to take it on their honeymoon. Myra's inquisitiveness nearly got Colly tangled up among the details and he narrowly escaped having a tiff over it. That was the only result of of his impatience.
The day drew near and Dicky's uncle was in town preparing a welcome home to the returning soldiers. There were half a dozen of them but, with the exception of the young man who had lost himself, they were passing through a neighbouring town. To Colly's consternation, he ascertained that they would arrive on the morning of his wedding day he set to work desperately to make his preparations and to guard against any possible hitch. He got everything ready for a hast departure from the church door.
The miracle happened before the homecoming party reached Sleepy Hollow. They were a merry party—perhaps too merry; and were being driven briskly along in a squatter's drag. The road ran close to a stone quarry and, as they were passing, a big blasting charge was fired by the quarrymen. At the report, Sibby Brune, alias Dicky Starr, leaped up and, with the simultaneous plunge of the horses, toppled, over onto the road. When his mates ran back to him, he was sitting on the ground, gazing about him in a bewildered manner.
"Way." he said as they lifted him to his feet, "This isn't France. This is like home." He had found himself.
Some of the quarrymen ran over to the road. They welcomed Sibby as one returned from the grave. Then one blurted out that his old mate, Colly Smith, was getting married that day to Myra Lewin. Sibby stared blankly for a moment then leaded into the conveyance.
"Drive like hell!" was all he said.
The citizens of Sleepy Hollow were waiting at the bridge with a bras band. The conveyance dashed through them at top speed. When they had brought their eyebrows down to the normal alignment and recovered their speech, they asked one another what it meant, and finally marched after the dust cloud in a bad temper.
The ceremony had already begun when the party charged into the church. The bride and bridegroom stood facing the altar. The general commotion, caused by the hurried entrance of the soldiers, brought them round sharply. Myra's startled eyes met Sibby's, and with a scream she collapsed into her bridesmaid's arms. In the excitement that followed, nobody knew what became of Colly Smith. When they looked for him he was gone.
In the vestry, Sibby had a stormy interview with Myra. Soldering had made a different man of him. He took possession of her and command of the proceedings.
"Strike me purple!" he said, "if you are in such a hurry for a wedding, you shall have it. Come on: I'm ready."
He bounced her and, finally, half-dragged her to the scratch, and they were married by special licence.
The banquet that had been prepared by the outraged citizens was a welcome and a wedding breakfast in one. Among the guests was Mr. Starr, who was still trying to sort himself out when the function closed. Sibby salved the situation by adopting him as his uncle.
"We left Kihl, on Koopa Creek, in early summer with 700 bullocks, and on Christmas Eve were drawing toward Mitchell, on the Maranoa. We had good country, but we also had a wilting heat wave and a plague of flies. We were wearing veils, and had veils also on our horses. The pest had reached the joking limit.
"They've been terribly had along the river since the rain," said a traveller. "I was ridin' across a low sandhill a few miles above Mitchell when I noticed a big kangaroo sittin' in a clump of cypress pine, all alone an' very busy. For a while I couldn't make out what he was at. I keep the flies off my face, an' when I got up close I saw the kangaroo was doin' the same. He had a pine branchlet in his hand, an' was usin' it like a lady uses a fan."
The previous day a boy rode up to our camp with a huge plum duff, which Boss Swiker had purchased at Donnybrook Hotel. In the exuberance of his feelings, Wire Whiskers, the cook, greeted us with a burst of song:
Christmas time is coming and the geese are getting
Please put a penny in the old man's hat.
The spirit of Christmas dwelt even on the overland. Well I remembered the morning that our second-in-charge left to catch the mail coach for some little selection place four hundred miles away. His departure had filled everybody with a strange unrest. There was nothing around us but the virgin bush, not even a boundary fence as an outward symbol of civilization; but the season had its pull there on the roving camp, the same as in well-settled districts. It was partly the result of custom, for Christmas time for country families was generally marked by the home-coming of the scattered flocks. The boys, on account of the distances between places, usually became more widely scattered than was the case with those who lived in cities. They visited home at intervals, and more or less regularly; but there were many, such as drovers, who worked so far away that only an annual visit was practicable.
Every bush mother looked for the chickens that had left the nest to return to her at Christmas time. Whether they were married or not it was all the same, she liked to have them around her then. Thus some of the family reunions, when they all rolled up, made a considerable gathering. Sometimes there were friends as well as relations, so that the old house had to stretch a point, and miracles had to be performed, with bedding to accommodate everybody. And how hard the hostess worked on those festive days, how strenuous was her "Happy Christmas!"
About the time that the second-in-charge left us we knew she would be making preparations for the return of the wanderers—turning things out, putting things in order, while washing, polishing, papering the walls, and summer cleaning, in and out. She had more scrubbing and washing to do in that December week than in any other week in the year. There was a keg or two of hop beer to make, or perhaps honey mead would take its place if a wild bee's nest had been discovered and robbed, about then. There was usually a hunt for sugar bags in mid-December, and when the boys reached home, a couple of days before the 25th, there were shooting expeditions also. The scrubs, lagoons and swamps supplied the Christmas game, where settlements were not too close together. Girls occasionally took a hand in shooting when the scrubs and swamps were near, or shared the thrills of a wild chase with reckless hunters.
Now and again, as our mob moved slowly down the Maranoa, a homing rider passed, with pack-horse jogging by his side, and evoked a laugh with the old, familiar greetings of the season. But we watched him wistfully till he had faded in the distance, thinking of other years and other places when we, too, had turned our horses' heads for home.
The incidents threw on the mental screen the picture of a quiet home away down east, where no near neighbours lived, and only winding tracks suggested other habitations somewhere along the creek or over the silent hills. Just a rough bush domicile, with mulberry and peach trees about it; but it was snug, and dear with childhood memories, and the inmates were happy and content with their own little role. Always had it been the boys' haven with the fall of night—until the boys went droving. There was nothing to take them out after dark, except to hunt for 'possums. They played or read or yarned by the fireside, and so the hearthstone and the old roof were full of meaning to them. The bush home had an individuality, and the capacious fireplace, with its big back log, was an indoor sample of the roominess and freedom that was everywhere about it.
In the great, silent spaces, following the cattle from dawn to dusk, and watching them from dusk to dawn, memories of old Christmases came flocking back, and found expression when the yarns were going round the camp fire. Some pertained to wild days at a western caravansary, where drovers tarried while a lonely policeman kept an eye on the browsing cattle. The policeman would be sympathetic when the cattlemen made merry for a brief space at that rugged haven after weeks or months on the outer fringe. No doubt, their jamboree relieved the dull monotony for him. But we had drifted into a region where the shanty-keeper's daughter only beckoned from the back of yesterday. We picked up some liquid refreshment where we got the pudding, and with that had to pass on to Nowhere. We had days of good travelling, lazy days through glorious open forests, where the wild dog was a close companion, trotting round the cattle as indifferent to our presence as the cattle were to him.
We made an early camp on Christmas Eve, in a sweet position near the head of a long lagoon. The spare hours we spent in cutting one another's hair, in washing clothes and swimming.
Darky Lane, a bow-legged nugget from Langlo River, had already sampled his Christmas cheer, and roused tile ire of Wire Whiskers by draining the yeast bottles. He was a rough stick; most of his years had been spent on the long trails; but he had a soft heart for girls.
At sundown he was sitting on an oil drum, gazing moodily at the dead road when a shapely girl in a pink dress and pink hat, and carrying a pink parasol, stepped into view from no one knew where. His head went up with a jerk, and two admiring eyes swept her from her ankles to the heavy pink veil that hid her face and strapped down the sides of her broad hat.
"That's what I call sweet," he said to Wire Whiskers.
"Sweet's no name for it," said Wire Whiskers. "She's voluptuous. If I knew where she lived, I'd go an' buy some eggs for the brownie."
Darkly was musing over a proposition that had suddenly struck him.
"A nice little haven to drop into, an' sweetness to give you a smile an' a kiss after a long trip would be just the the thing. Strike me lucky, I'll go an' marry her."
He jumped up at once, dabbed on his hat, and went briskly after her, whilst Wire Whiskers stood, with a big wooden spoon in his hand, staring in an attitude of petrified amusement.
In a few minutes Darky was alongside the pink attraction.
"Good afternoon," he said, beaming on her with all the ardour of a hungry soul.
She looked at him sharply. She had never seen him in her life before, and her response was frigid. But Darky was used to making love to strangers and meeting with rebuffs.
"Nice day for walkin'," he remarked.
"Yes," she answered. "That's why I'm walkin'."
That was better.
"I'll see you along a bit," Darky volunteered. "There's some wild cattle in this mob. Dangerous beasts."
"They won't catch me," said the girl. "I can get up a tree quicker than you can."
"Well, that's exercise!" Darky exclaimed. "Strike me lucky, girl, you're just the style that suits my stipulations. Bush-bred Australian, eh?"
She laughed softly, looking down at the road, and punching it with her parasol as she stepped along.
"Look here," he continued, "I've been years an' years on the overland, an' I want to make a cosy little shack in Mitchell, where I can have a spell an' the comforts of a home between trips. Will you marry me?"
Something like a gasp came from behind the veil.
"I don't know you," she said bashfully.
"Darky Lane's my name," he returned, clapping a hoary hand on her pink shoulder. "I'm better than I look, I promise you. Give me yourself for a Christmas box an' I'll get busy right away with a cosy to keep you in."
"You go too fast," she answered. "You don't know me yet."
She slewed away from the arm that was stealing round her waist and, untying her veil, turned towards him and threw it back.
The action was like an electric shock to Darky. He stopped, and stared with parted lips. She was handsome, but her face was black, with a little touch of ruby showing in the cheeks. She was an aboriginal girl who had been reared and educated by white people.
"I think you'd sooner have your Christmas box whitewashed," she said, and went on, whilst Darky stood, as if struck speechless, staring down the road till she had vanished in the falling night. Then, with a sour grin on his face, he turned and slouched back to camp.
The-other men were having tea.
"Well," said Wire Whiskers, "are you married yet?"
Darky picked up a pannikin and filled it from the bucket standing by the fire.
"You can have her, Jim," he replied, "I'm not the right complexion."
Some ducks had been shot in the afternoon, and they were plucked in the firelight, while a big brownie was baking in the ashes. Things were assuming a Christmas-like aspect, and those travelled sons of the open were in high spirits. One man sang a comic song, and commenced a step-dance on a sheet of tin which was used to protect the fire in wet and windy weather. The unusual spectacle and clatter startled the cattle into a mild rush, which brought vociferous protests from the man on watch. It was not the (purple) place for pantomimes and comic operas, so the entertainment ended abruptly.
The cook set off very early next morning with the waggonette to get into camp in time to cook dinner—his masterpiece for the trip. The mob was off camp before the morning star had disappeared, dawdling along in the dim light to meet the dawn. Only about four miles were travelled, the cattle being turned then into a bend of a big lagoon.
Wire Whiskers had already pitched his tent, the front of which was decorated with green bushes. The "table," set between two broad-topped trees, had a large bunch of wild flowers in the centre. The vase was a piece of a small, hollow log, set in the ground through, a hole in the bag table, and partly filled with water. Overhead, suspended from a low branch, was a mistletoe for flies to settle on.
There, the drovers sat down to their Christmas dinner of roast duck, potatoes, tinned peas, plum pudding and red currant sauce, topped off with a gallon of draught beer. With a grin quivering his wiry whiskers, the cook poured the liquor from the oil drum, which Darky had used for a seat, and the contents of which he thought was water for camp use.
We were playing cards in the afternoon when a well-dressed, good looking half-caste rode up with a big cardboard hat-box in front of him.
"Man here called Darky Lane?" he asked.
"That's me!" said Darky, jumping up.
"Mrs. Naylor sent you this for a Christmas box," said the visitor.
"How did she know me?" asked Darky, taking the gift as if he suspected it of being an infernal machine.
"My wife told her," was the reply. "You know, the girl in pink."
The cook lay back and roared.
"A pink hat for Christmas!" He spluttered.
Darky looked sheepish, and with somewhat vengeful fingers he snapped the strings and hauled out a bundle of paper ribbons. Then he paused and smiled. In the box was a beautifully decorated Christmas cake.
"Well, strike me lucky," said Darky. "Pinky's a jewel after all!"