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Title: Aunt Jo - A Love Story of the Cedar Scrubs Author: Edward S. Sorenson * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1403141h.html Language: English Date first posted: December 2014 Most recent update: December 2014 This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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It was the ninth of November, a day that was "kept up" at this time by a section of the people who had plenty of money and no work to do. Riding and picnic parties had been organised days before, and a dance arranged in Dumboon township for the evening. The feminine division, especially the love-lorn, looked forward to it hopefully, even anxiously. Dances were seldom held in that neighbourhood, and opportunities for match-making in a scattered, hard-working community were chance ones, with heart-breaking intervals between. Occasionally "Long Bill" would meet Amelia Jane in the bush while bullock-hunting, and they would say "Good day" to one another. Bill would ask Amelia Jane if she had seen anything of Battler in her travels; and Amelia Jane would make a similar inquiry concerning Strawberry. Then they would say "So long," and go their ways. There wasn't much satisfaction in that. Besides, Amelia Jane was barefooted, and her old print frock gaped at the back. It always did have a gape somehow when she met Bill. The consciousness of her shortcomings was discomfiting, and her manner towards him restrained in consequence. It was different when they met in the fine feathers, and it was night, and they could discourse with strangers, And hug them, too, by special license.
The ballroom, with its varied associations, communions, whirls and excitement, is responsible for much of the match-making in such country places. Masculine Dumboon was not wildly interested in the marriage question. It had gone its sober way so long that it seemed to have forgotten there was such a thing as a connecting link. Some of the girls were drawing perilously near the border of old-maidenhood, and were desperately anxious to change their condition. One or two had already ceased to have "birthdays," with a determination to remain young. They had been young a long while.
A spinster appeared to them like the black sheep in a flock. She was liable to be regarded as one about whom there is something amiss, and, in small places like Dumboon is usually a conspicuous person. She particularly desired the thrill and the intoxicating glamour of the ballroom to stir the devil in the other party and bring him to the scratch.
Amelia Jane was one of the neglected ones. Why, she did not know; she was as much a woman as any other. She was plain, sun-browned and toil-scarred; but who wanted good looks in a cedar scrub? She had the strength of a man, and was not afraid to use it. As her father, Peter Johnson often remarked, "She's es good a bit o' stuff in th' yoke es e'er a puncher put a brand on." But Amelia Jane didn't go off.
She had been running wild in the jungles from infancy, and had never taken any care of herself in the way that girls do. Being an only child, she acted as general rouseabout for her father, and often went with him to the mountain camps to cook and hunt the bullocks. She could climb like an aborigine, and her knowledge was principally of timbers, birds and animals. Only lately, when the sex instinct began to waken and incline her irresistibly towards the lengthy William, did she consult the looking-glass, and set to work to cultivate her rebellious hair, and to decorate herself with bits of ribbon and white myrtle flowers. Nor was this the only change in the jungle girl occasioned by the propinquity of Bill. From a bold romp, whose innocent eyes would flinch from no man, she became shy and reserved, and pensive glances took the place of the fearless stare of old time. Above all, there came a distaste for the masculine pursuits that had been the leaven of her jungle life, and a love for home that was decidedly feminine.
She chanced to meet Long Bill, otherwise "Crackshot" Sooley, this day near the township. For once she was walking. The pony had got out.
"Huloa, Bill!" she called from twenty yards off, making towards him.
"Whey!" roared Bill and his team came to a stand! He was a thin, sinewy giant, and his face was set in a perpetual grin.
"See yer got a new bullock in t'day," she remarked. "Where'd yer get him."
"Swopped Yallerman ter Abe Watts for him."
"Thought Yallerman was a clinker?"
"He could heave a trifle when he liked, but 'twas seldom he liked. Reckon I scored a p'int on Abe in that deal."
"Where's Abe now?"
"Comin' along behind. Ruther a close call he had th' other day. 'Tween me an' you an' that waggon, he was about the scaredest man as ever dived into water. We wur raftin' logs at Big Hole, an' had got one poised ready to let go down the slope, when Abe noticed a junk o' wood in the way, 'bout half-way down, that 'ad been dislodged by th' last log. We holds on while he jogs down the shoot, but just as he'd removed th' obstruction th' log slipped away from us, an' boomed an bounded down 's if it was a live thing with a special commission to flatten out Abe Watts. Seemed to whiz round an' jump more'n any log ever did. We let out a yell to warn him, an' he just shot one look at that revolving horror—only a roll or two from him then, an' cut like Charlie Samuels for the river. Couldn't have escaped any other way very well, as his time was purty limited, an' the rollin' ground bein' hollow, with, a dense brush on both sides. There warn't a man there but watched th' stampede with blanched face, an' scarce a one breathed as Abe dived wildly into deep water, an' the big cedar plunged with a mighty splash fair over him. I tell yer, we never expected to see him come up alive; but up he bobbed, sure enough, ten yards out, an' turned a scared face towards the dancin' log. 'Are yer hurt?' yells everybody at once. 'Not much!" says Abe; an' when he'd scrambled out he said th' log 'ad struck him hard on the soles of his boots, an' druv him to th' bottom. 'I'll take my solemn oath,' he ses, 'no logs go pile-drivin' me agin!' "
Bill spat into the grass. "See there's to be a bit of a flare-up in town tor-night," he remarked.
"Be orlright fun."
Bill drew snake tracks in the dust with his whip handle.
"Where'll yer be after tea?" he asked.
" 'T home."
"Might be round," Bill went on. "Think Ginger's runnin' near your paddick somewhere."
Amelia Jane made snake tracks in the dust with her big toe.
"I've got no mount," she said.
"I'll mount yer," Bill answered with sudden decisiveness. "This ole moke o' mine's jest in his nateral element under petticoats. Come third once in th' ladies' hacks at Grafton show."
How many 'orses was there in it?" Amelia Jane inquired.
"Three," said Bill, his eye dwelling admiringly on the veteran. " 'Ain't much to look at now, but he was a daisy them times. My oath, yes."
"What ar' you goin' to ride?" she asked.
"I'll rake up something 'tween now an' sundown," said Bill. "If I don't afore I'll be beat, I'll ride ole Brindle in th' pole there. I stuck a saddle on him up at the scrub one day, when I was pushed for a 'orse, an' he didn't shape too bad. Bit rough, an' stiffnecked when yer wanted to haul him round anyways sharp but he'd gee off an' come hither good enough where he'd plenty o' ground. An' quiet 's a lamb. Was comin' clitter-clatter down th' road to see M'Gurren about some logs I wanted to sell in a hurry. He was buyin' then. Just near Tillalee slip-rails a bald head shot up from behind a log, an' the next thing I knows, I'm rollin' under a cockspur bush, an' Brindle's peltin' back to th' mountains, with th' flaps o' the saddle floggin' him like two big wings; an' ther's Aleck M'Gurren divin' under th' fence 's if he was after something an' 'adn't much time to ketch it in. The old scamp 'ad been on his hands and knees squintin' up a holler log, lookin' for native cats. 'Losh!' he ses, leanin' across th' fence. 'Tis yesel', Bill Sooley!' 'Some of it is, I ses, unwindin' a yard o' yaller spider web from me neck, an' subtractin' th' prickles. 'Ye're a lucky mon, Sooley,' he ses. 'Ye're a varra lucky mon.' 'Where's th' dash luck come in?' I ses, wipin' the blood off me nose. 'Ye didna break ye' neck,' ses M'Gurren! 'If ye ken when ye're wul off, mon, yell step it hame.' Seein' as Brindle was only a speck on th' horizon, an' still makin' tracks, there warn't much choice about it. Never straddled him since; but I reckon I'm good for him ter-night if there's no prad to be got."
"I ken expect yer to call then, for sure?"
Amelia Jane smiled approval, and passed him slowly, looking down at her feet. Bill lifted his whip. "Whey, come 'ere, Roan! Gee Brandy!" The loaded jinker strained and creaked, the bullocks switched their tails as they bent to the yokes, and a dust-cloud floated between them.
"Crackshot" Sooley was one of the semi-civilised, way-back settlers of Yeerong Creek—the pioneers of a wild, wallaby-haunted region, reeking with the oaths of giant bullock-drivers, and a-tingle with the far-sounding notes of the bullfrog bells. These settlers had kept sturdily to their usual avocations and the ring of the axes and the roar of the whips were heard in the scrubs as on other days. Why should they go holidaying in honour of a princeling who was "no relation of theirs?" That was their philosophic view of the case, expressed in the rough jargon of their kind.
They were a rugged people. Of various nationalities, of many shapes and sizes; they displayed as great a diversity in their dispositions as in their opinions and appearances. Yet the majority were related, and bound together into one whole like the correlative inhabitants of Pitcairn Island. It was not safe for a stranger to speak ill of any one of them, though among themselves they would pull each other to pieces with the liberality of a married couple in a domestic squabble. Where there was no other relationship there was still the always ticklish point of an anticipatory connection. "Kilfloggin," otherwise George Wrightson, a teamster who had made a name in Dumboon by frequently getting drunk, was wont to go beyond this limit by saying, "His old man an' my bundle o' charms swopped dorgs, an' 'twas a fair an' square deal if they did palm off wasters on one 'nother, an' I'm not agoin' ter hear nothin' sed agin him. So look out."
Their main income was derived from the cedar trees that fringed the banks of the Yeerong, and contributed to the gloom of the adjacent scrubs. Team after team crawled regularly along the roads to Dumboon, where the logs were rafted, over bog holes, rocky gullies and corduroyed swamps. Everyone on the Yeerong could drive bullocks, even the settlers' wives and daughters; and everyone could exhort in the picturesque language of the ox-conductor without misplacing an expletive once in a week. They had been inured to it from the cradle; and, when some of the men succumbed to the attractions of Cadby's hostelry, Amelia Jane and "Sarah, from the Dairy" thought nothing of taking the teams out of town, while the postmaster and the storekeeper, and the publican and the policeman, stood looking at them in an idle, used-to-it sort of way.
Their homes were little slab humpies, with uneven earthern floors, and roofs of stringy bark, fastened to the rafters with strips of greenrhide. The doors hung on leather hinges often made out of the tops of old boots and were fastened with wooden pegs. Corn sacks hung over the square openings left in the walls for windows. Fowls and ducks ran in and out all day, and at night roosted in the surrounding trees. Long grass grew up to the doorsteps, whence narrow tracks zigzagged to the water-hole and the cockatoo yards. It wasn't very lonely, though it looked so in the daytime, when the men and boys, and sometimes the able girls, were away at work in the scrubs. There was scrub everywhere, thick, dark jungles, where brush turkeys and wonga pigeons abounded, running away back to bluecapped ranges. The only fences to be seen were little dog-leg squares, in which an old horse was kept for rounding up the bullocks. Among the hills, a short distance off the Yeerong, were a few settlers who formed quite a different class. They were farmers and small cattle-raisers. The elite, of course, were gathered together in Dumboon and none but the most respectable were received within their circle. Ladies who took in washing, and gentlemen who had been in gaol, were treated with scorn. Of those among the hills—or "The Hielans," as Aleck M'Curren, the rich bachelor laird of Tillalee, pleased to style them—three families had the privilege of entree. These were the Lyntons of Druton, the Battyes of Murrawang, and the Lethcotes of Fairymede. The Keatons of Gimbo, the only other homestead on the hills, were now almost forgotten personages. The triumvirate were copioneers of the district, and were respected both by the silvertails and coppertails, though some of them were near as rough and wild as their surroundings.
"Buit that's naething to fash aboot," said M'Curren when discussing the subject one day with old Edwin Lynton. "There's gude under th' rough exterior that appeals mair ta a mon thon softness o' speech an' gude luks. There's only one I dinna care muckle aboot, an' that's th' Widow Keaton. I canna stun' that wuman at a', mon. She's a vulgar wuman."
"She's had no learning," pleaded Lynton in extenuation. "That is the fault of those who were responsible for her bringing-up."
"She wasna brung oop at a'," said M'Gurren, viciously. "She was drug oop. But she needna hae sich a bad tongue for a' that. She has a varra wickit tongue. Why, mon, ye never hear her speakit weel o' ony one, not e'en o' her ain folk, 'cept it be Eustace. As for th' lad Mark, he's a gude-for-naething."
"Oh, Mark's all right," said Lynton, who was a widower. "He'll astonish some of you cynics one of these days, take it from me."
But M'Gurren shook his head. "It's not in him, mon, it's not in him," he said, with emphasis. "He's a neer-da-weel, an' he loafs on th' auld wuman. I dinna like that in ony man."
"He's a clever lad for all that, and he might be a blessing to his mother yet. Did you see his 'Ode to a Bullfrog' in the last paper?"
"Ood ta fiddlesticks!" cried M'Gurren, irascibly. "Wul his 'Ood ta th' Bullyfrogs' bring him bread, an' butter?"
"It would surprise you if it turned out to be the foundation of fame and fortune," Lynton argued.
"It wad," M'Gurren admitted. "Buit—losh, mon, I canna see it, I canna see't."
"Well, time will tell."
"'T wul," M'Gurren agreed. "They telt me his mither an' Kilfloggin keepit company—eh?"
"I think poor old George is more at home in the company of a rumbottle," said Lynton. "I laughed at him at the races last Boxing Day," he went on hurriedly. He didn't want to discuss the widow with Mr M'Gurren. Mark was a friend of his.
"Ah!" said M'Gurren, expectantly.
"You were away, I think?"
"Aye; I was owre on the Logan wi' me brither Tonald."
"Well, Kilfloggan and Sooley had taken a little too much of our friend Cadby's 'extra special' on board, and became troublesome. At last the trooper took them both, and chained them to a fair-sized log behind the booth, with the intention of releasing them when the races were over, if they were then sufficiently law-abiding to be at large. It was a blistering hot day, and the thirst of the prisoners soon grew to be unbearable, being aggravated by the gurgle of liquor through the bush wall that separated them from the bar. No one heeded their shouts and solicitations; their friends were too interested in the sports. 'Jumpin' Jemima! this is a bit too sudding,' says George. 'Must 'ave a beer somehow.' 'Kinder like to sample some meself,' said Sooley. George stood up. There was plenty of chain. 'Let's see if we can't breast th' bar, lock-up an' all,' he says. 'I ken manage my end of her. Hook on.' 'Purty heavy,' says Sooley, trying the weight. 'Fraid ye'll wobble an' drop her.' 'Don't you make no error,' says George. 'Ain't that shikkered. Kon only see one Bill Sooley yet, enyway.' ' 'D'ruther burn th' consarn 'an carry it,' says Sooley. 'Blamed thing's chockfull of ants.' 'Wonder wot they're in for?' says George, regarding the log as an official reformatory. 'Drunk an' dishorderly,' says Sooley, absently. A race started, and the clatter of hoofs put fresh vigour into George. 'Got a holt of her,' he says. 'Can't stand this caper ony longer.'
"They hoisted the lock-up on their shoulders, one at each end, and, staggering round to the front, banged it down on the bar. 'Beer!' gasps George. 'Bucketful' adds Sooley. They drank their beers saw the race out, had more beer, then shouldered their lock-up again, and hurried back with it before the trooper returned. He found them asleep some time later and when they woke up the chains were off, the log was gone, and the course deserted. 'Dunno who stole th' lockup,' said George, when I saw him a few days afterwards; 'but we took our discharge quick' n lively.' "
Though ignored by Dumboon society, and treated as a nobody by most people, young Mark Keaton was well received by the few families among the hills—with one exception. Mr M'Gurren could not tolerate him, despite the fact that he was handsome, prepossessing in manner, and clever in many ways. He was twenty-one, tall, slightly built, and fairly well educated. His father, Hugh Keaton, had made his pile in the cedar trade when the timber was handy, was easily got out, and brought a big price on the bank. With this he had purchased Gimbo. His predecessor was Patrick Monaugh, whose relict was the present Mrs Lethcote, who presided at Fairymede. Hugh had since pegged his claim in Necropolis, leaving his widow comfortably well off.
Besides Mark, there were two younger sons, Luke and Eustace, who had left their books for the teams and the scrubs when they had barely entered their teens. The lushful shadowlands were enchanting then but when the father died they sold out and went west. How they got on, or what they were doing there, no one on the Yeerong knew. Like most men who wander into the bush to look for work, they "never troubled to write."
Mark had always been a favourite with his father, and as he lacked the robust physique of his brothers, and was thus less fitted for the hardships of the cedar getter, he was allowed to follow his natural bent—"book learning." He was a perfect philomath compared with the others. He read and wrote, was always thinking, and never had much to say. That he had talent, that he was a colt of some promise, was admitted by his friends, though none accredited him with being a genius. Some of his poetic efforts had experienced the glare of print in the local paper, and those M'Gurren had sneered over, and cited Bobbie Burns, and snickered. He had also written three or four novels of enormous bulk, and teeming with hair-bristling incidents and utterly impossible things. The want of funds, he said, prevented his becoming famous on the spot, and those who had plenty held tight to it, and refused to recognise his claims. Mark was sorely wounded by this apathy and diffidence.
"If I could only get money enough to publish my first book," he exclaimed, "I would surprise some of these scurrilous cynics of Dumboon."
"Why don't yer go an' work for it?" his mother snapped. "D'yer 'spect to sit down an' whistle an' see it come rollin' up to yer?"
"Aint I working day and night!" Mark retorted.
"Phugh!" said his mother. "Th' most yer do is to sit in there, cooped up like a sittin' hen on wooden eggs, scribblin'. What in the name o' Patience's th' good o' that? You don't get nothing for it. An' yer call it work! Look at Luke an' Eustace, how they use ter buckle to it in the scrubs an' on the road. You work!"
"Mental work is harder than ordinary labour," said Mark, humbly.
"Get out! Can't I see the difference with me own eyes? Look how tired they use to come 'ome—regular knocked up. An' th' way they use ter sweat. Lord bless' me, when did I ever see you sweat. No," she iterated, " 'taint work at all simply a continyel worryin' o' the brain that'll put yer in Collan Park, or Yarra Bend, or Tarbon Crick, or Woogaroo. That's what bookworms come to. They go crazy."
That, Mark complained, was another handicap. He had, from a literary point of view, a bad mother. However much he studied and struggled, he got nothing but snubs and sneers for his pains. There were some who took an interest in him, and were sanguine that a prosperous future awaited him. These were mostly impecunious persons, who had nothing to give but advice. They made no charge for the advice. He confided in them, but never wholly in his mother. There was a time when she was his confidant, before she knew of the many difficulties a scribe has to contend with in his first attempts. She thought he was a wonder at that time, and rushed around, showing the neighbours what her boy wrote out of his own head. The utter failure of Mark's initial effort opened her eyes, and henceforth his productions were "useless rubbish." She was a querulous woman, a pessimist who found fault with the universe and the inscrutable ways of the Almighty; a selfish woman, who had an insatiable greed for money, coupled with a relish for scandal and gossip. This often caused Mark, a modest and sensitive young man, much embarrassment and confusion when in company of people of cultivated tastes. This occurred only at the races, however, when they stood in a crowd.
When the "Dumboon Express" began to blazon, his soulful effusions before the public eye, he thought his mother's prejudices would be swept away. He was disappointed.
"What's th' good o' writin' po'try?" she demanded. "There's enough o' that maudlin stuff writ to supply all creation till doomsday. If you was paid for it 'twouldn't be so bad, but yer never get a cent."
"The money will come by and bye," Mark protested.
"Phugh!" said his mother. "Fancy I see Bill Sooley an' Abe Watts an' Kilfloggin givin' their cedar away to anybody as would take it for the askin', an' say th' money 'ill come by an' bye. They're not such fools. They make sure o' the spons fust."
"One has to make a name in literature," Mark explained. "Any hoodlum can cut and sell cedar."
"He can't sell rubbish though," his mother retorted. "He can't sell mahogany for cedar. An' seems to me, your books is all mahogany, while them printer coves wants genuine cedar. 'Taint names they want to buy. It's quality stuff. I know. I've seen books with no names on 'em. An' yours 'ud go, name or no name, if they was the genuine cedar."
She picked up a mat and shook it viciously, then carefully replaced it.
"I see by th' last paper that cedar's riz, an' it's likely to go up more," she resumed. "Abe Watts an' Bill Sooley's makin' a good thing out of it these days. They know which side their bread's buttered. My word! An' here's you, stuck in the house day in an' day out, maunderin' like a lovesick fool about a girl's lovely blue eyes, an' her sweet red lips, an' her rosebud cheeks, an' her beautiful brow, an' her swan neck, an' her musical voice, an' her silken hair, an' her snow-white bosom—Yah! Can she bake a batch o' bread that yer ken eat, or make a shirt to put on yer back? You give me th' pip, you do."
Mark shouldered his gun, which he had been cleaning, and departed hurriedly. What was the use of talking? He could never make her understand. He felt that a crisis was approaching, and already in spirit he was wandering over the broad wild lands that spread around him, knowing that, like Luke and Eustace, he would soon be far away. And once away, he would be prepared to tackle any kind of work, and work hard; but here, where every child and every dog knew him, having set out on the inky way with a blare of trumpets, he could not bring himself to throw down the pen now and take up the tools of the cedar getter for such would be an admission of failure. Foolish pride! But Mark was only a stripling yet.
With his old dog for mate, he cut across to Druton Hill on the pretence of getting a duck. In reality the duck he was thinking of was known as Ethel Lethcote. He was so wrapped up in thoughts of her that all else was a blank; and presently when his foot and his eye lit simultaneously on what appeared to be the sinuous body of a snake, he leaped into the air with, an involuntary cry. Stepping cautiously back, with gun in readiness, he saw that it was only the thick part of a broken bullock whip, which had been placed reptilian fashion' across the track. As he kicked it into the grass, a low laugh from the road brought a flush to his cheeks. He was at the teamsters' camping grounds, and Abe Watts, lying in the bunk under the tail of his waggon, had been, watching him for some minutes.
"Seem to 'ave th' jumps purty bad t'day, Mark," he said, sitting up and wiping his eyes.
"Thought it was a, snake," answered Mark shamefacedly. "Didn't notice it till I was on top of it."
"Reminds me o' Kilfloggin," laughed Abe. "Come home purty late one night, half sprung as usual. Th' door of his hut (wot is Thompson's now) was open, an' as he steps in he stumbles agin something big an' hairy. It sed 'hee-haw,' tremenjus loud an' sudden, an' as George sprawls out, it bumps him in th' stomick an' purty nigh knocks th' roof off with him. 'Fore he ken drop back, a pesky old rooster makes a spring off o' some tin cans he was roostin' on, an' hits him agin, with th' gol-darndest clatter yer ever heard. Soon's George got his feet he cut for Cadby's pub like a barrel down a hill. He was purty wopsy for a week after, an' he wouldn't sleep in that hut agin for three beers. They told him 'twas only Thompson's donkey what'd fetched him one in th' bread-basket. But George couldn't swaller that yarn—not by a long sight. He punched that donkey though one day 'when it smelt at him through th' fence. 'Twarnt because he believed the critter 'ad anything to do with it but he jes' punched him on genrel principles."
"One gets a daddy of a scare at times from things that would hurt him no more than his own shadow," said Mark. "I'll never forget the time I went to get a drink at the Horseshoe Lagoon. I was lying on a big gum log, and stretching far over to reach the water, when up pops something wet and hairy right under my eyes. It gave me such a start that the bit of dead bark I was holding on to broke, and I shot head-first into the lagoon. I was out again as quickly as ever a man left water, not knowing yet what kind of aquarian horror I had encountered. Didn't even want to drink. When I'd been on dry ground long enough to get my breath back, I saw it pop up again under the reeds. It was the celebrated ornithorhynchus paradoxus, whose everyday name is platypus.
"I had a ripsnorter of a fright myself last week," said Abe. "Was comin' down with an extra big load on, an' jes' past Black Gully I pulled up to give th' cattle a blow. Was squattin' in th' shade, with me back agin a coolabah, when something limp an heavy comes whack on to me head an' begins to claw an' scratch about like fightin' tomcats. I got the bends out o' me, an' hollered, an' lit into new territory, all in one spontan-eous act. Then I sees a long black streak scratchin' gravel like billy-o for th' next tree an' 't 'adn't gone far up when down it comes slap-bang agen, through hookin' on to a bit of loose bark that give way. That blamed critter was th' celebrated varanus varius, which his everyday name is goana."
"I saw M'Gurren in a terrible funk one day with a goana," Mark rejoined. "It was about twelve months ago. He'd been putting a rail in his bottom line, and on the way home his dog flushed one from the grass, and there being no tree handy, it circled round M'Gurren and scurried up on to his shoulders. And there was the dog springing and barking at it, and Mac skipping about kicking at it and yelling to it to lay down. The goana had him clutched by the shoulder and by the nape of the neck, and Mac daren't lay hold of its tail to haul him off in case he took some shoulder and neck with him. He sidled around for about five minutes, squinting cautiously round, left and right, and perspiring like a cheap waterbag. The nearest tree was a hundred yards off, and at last, keeping the dog in front of him, he backed slowly towards it feeling his way, and wincing and screwing his neck up when the sharp claws pricked a little more than usual. When he got to the tree, he put his shoulder carefully against the trunk, and invited his goanaship to get aloft. As soon as it did, Mac rushed home for his gun, and pretty soon there was one goana less on the Yeerong."
There' d 'ave been another missin' at next summer's congress if I'd spotted that pet fright o' mine when I went back that way," said Abe. "Took th' rifle for that, special. But th' carrion 'ad removed an' left no address."
"Well, I must remove, too," said Mark. "Getting late."
He tucked the gun under his arm, and continued his way to Druton Hill. Reaching the crest, he paused awhile under a big ironbark, and looked wistfully towards the homestead. It was some satisfaction to see the duckhouse, even if the duck wasn't visible. Just then, however, the report of a gun echoed through the scrub below him. He ran down, and, picking his way through the underbush, came suddenly upon the man who had fired the shot. It was Kilfloggin. Mark had noticed his team on the road near Gimbo, where he had unyoked for the night. He had conceived a mild feeling of animus towards the pot-famous gentleman, and this inimical sentiment was unstintedly reciprocated by the Herculean bullock driver.
He was singing—
"Oh, what would you do if the billy boiled
Molly, O Molly, my lo-ver—"
"Hulloa!" cried Mark. "What are you doing here?"
"What's that ter do with you?" Kilfloggin demanded, calmly tucking a pigeon under his belt.
"It's a lot to do with me," Mark answered. His ears began to burn. "You're in Lynton's paddock, and he allows no one but me to shoot here."
"Well, that's his affair, not yours," said Kilfloggin, reloading.
"You mind yer own bizness, young un."
"I'll make it my business to report you. You're trespassing on our preserves."
Mark was angered. The man's insolence and sangfroid stung him.
"You're a bit sudding, young feller. Better mind yer aint too sudding," Kilfloggin returned as calmly as before.
"What do you mean by that?" asked Mark, mastering his temper. The other was a big man.
"I've got es much right ter bang around 'ere es you 'ave," the latter replied. "Who th' jumpin' adder are you, enyway? Jes' you get along, young 'un, an' hold yer gab. I don't want ter do yer eny injury—barrin' yer force me. Be a pity ter spile yer good looks. That bit o' skirt over th' hill wouldn't like it for one. Kinder 'urt her feelin's."
"It might be your own looks that would suffer," Mark retorted. The man took a step forward, and, leaning on his gun, said: "Look 'ere, me cockshaver, you come th' crawlin' informer bizness with me, an' by th' jumping Jemima, you'll fall in. I'll bundle you out o' yer home neck an' crop; see if I don't."
Mark regarded the big man with a new interest.
"Yais, I will. I ken do it, mind yer. There's no bloomin' gassin' about it. So don't be too sudding."
He turned abruptly and plunged through the scrub, with another burst of song:—
"My old bay 'orse run down th' hill;
If he hasn't come up he's down there still"
Kilflogsin was a bit of a mystery on the Yeerong, and for a moment after he had left him Mark wondered what power he could have over him or his. Then he laughed scornfully and walked away. Soon he had forgotten the incident.
Mark beat round so that his way home would take him by Fairymede House. Ethel was in the garden and saw him coming. As he approached a side gate that was well screened by trees from the house she came across the lawn and met him. He raised his hat with stiff formality. Ethel hated formalities.
"Good sport," she said, her eyes on the gun. "But where's the game?"
"Only had two shots," said Mark, "Didn't, hit anything, though."
"You are a duffer," she commented, laughing. "Reminds me of Abe Watts."
"How did you know him?" asked Mark.
"He used to be a rouseabout on Fairymede. Earned his team here. He was awfully fond of shooting, but could never hit anything he fired at. One day father was driving home from town, and met him in the paddock. Abe had nothing, as usual, though he said he had wounded some fine ducks and they dived. He always wounded something when no one was with him. Father twitted him. 'D'yer think you could hit un haystack, Watts?' he said. 'You throw your cady up,' says Abe, 'an' see if I can't hit it.' Father had a brand new white helmet on. He got out of the dogcart and threw it into the air. Abe squinted along the barrel as it went up and covered it while it came down, and when it lay on the ground—just a few feet in front of him he fired and blew a great tunnel through it. Abe has worn that helmet bullock-driving ever since, with the holes patched up with brown paper. They call him 'The General.' "
"Didn't he pay for it?" asked Mark.
"Not he," said Ethel. "Abe thinks no end of that helmet. When the bullookies chaff him about his shooting Abe pulls off the old helmet and shows the holes as proof that he can shoot. When he tells the yarn, though, the helmet's in midair when he 'plunks it.' 'You ask old Myles didn't I,' he says, as a clincher."
"Bill Sooley's a goot shot, I've heard," Mark observed, by way of saying something.
"Oh, he's ratty," said Ethel. "He shoots bees and beetles on the wing with bullets. When he goes fishing and wants bait he shoots his grasshoppers whilst they're flying—also with bullets."
"I've heard of that kind of shooting," said Mark. "Never saw it, though. There was Stamps our postmaster in Dumboon. According to his talk, he never missed a shot once in a blue moon. His greatest ambition was to shoot the first snipe at the opening of the shooting season. Leonard Lynton swears that he used to crawl about the moorlands from midnight till sunrise to catch the early bird. He gained the distinction for three years in succession, but the fourth year Leonard, bent on beating him, potted his bird the day before, and hung it in a bush. A bare-legged youngster, with a bridle on his arm, observed the manœuvre, and, awaiting his chance, took the bird and presented it to Stamps. The latter was out early as usual next morning, deposited the dead bird in a tussock, and then concealed himself behind a log to watch. About dawn, Leonard came along, fired at the bush, and, with a comically-set face, searched around for the game that wasn't there. Suddenly another echoing report rang out, and Stamps came forward with a triumphant smile. 'Beat you, Lynton, old chap!' 'Where?' asked Leonard shamefacedly. 'Fell in that tussock.' Leonard rushed it; but at the tussock he stopped, and his face became radiant. Stamps pulled up a second later with a sickly grin. The first snipe was stiff and cold, and covered with a regiment of ants!"
"I saw Leonard the day before yesterday at Murrawang," said Ethel. "I was spending the day with Mrs Battye, and Leonard was over for the mustering. Leila Battye and I helped to muster one paddock in the afternoon, and then we helped in the yard, perched up on the cap, working two of the drafting gates. It was great fun. When I was coming home, I saw Amelia Jane in the Ironbark Paddock. She was riding full gallop after a dingo, her hat hanging from her neck, and brandishing a long stick. Poor dingo was cutting for his natural, his long red tongue lolling out, and his eyes glaring; but he hadn't pace enough. The pony would rush up with its ears back, and then you'd hear that stick whiz; but he'd dodge under the pony's neck and make off in another direction. He'd get about twenty yards start before she could haul round, then down on him she'd ride again like a charging lancer. At last he plunged into Long Swamp, and Amelia Jane plunged in after him. It was deep, too, and weedy. So you can imagine the state she was in. She caught him half way over, and brained him in the water. Then she towed him ashore by the tail, and hacked off his scalp with a tomahawk she had in a pouch hanging to her saddle. 'What a glorious chase you've had, Amelia,' I says to her. 'And what a glorious pickle you're in!' 'Oh, that's nothing,' she says. 'You should a seen me when I collapsed with the emu eggs.' 'How did that happen?' I asked. 'Had half a dozen or 'em stowed in the bosom o' me dress,' she says, an' was joggin' along home quite pleased, when th' pony puts its hoof in a hole an' soused me. I dropped right on them eggs. Talk about squash! Th' blessed yolk run all over me. An' sticky! I tried to scrape it off with a bit o' shell, but that only spread it about more. Had to get in th' crick, clothes an' all, when I got home.' "
"Wonder that girl doesn't break her neck," said Mark.
Ethel laughed. She was a pretty girl of eighteen, with dancing blue eyes, and long brown hair, and she had a brisk, piquant style that was pleasing. Often had young Keaton looked with longing and admiration upon her sweet face, and he was enraptured when she smiled upon him. She was one of the smiling sort; her pleasant countenance was like a sunbeam. Yet her life was not a happy one, the consequence of her father's second marriage. She was but a mere child when her mother died, and her father, Myles Lethcote, worried with the care of his daughter and his house, and haunted with financial difficulties, became fascinated with the happy future pictured for him by the widow Monaugh, who, though ungainly, and horribly ignorant, was endowed with a fair fortune. Still he dangled a long while at the bait, but ultimately he was hooked and landed. He regretted the step ever afterwards, for Biddy soon got the upper hand of him, and at Fairymede her word was law. The fortune for which he had married her he never saw, but he very soon lost sight of the little he had left of his own.
To begin her new state of existence properly, and in accordance with the dictates of social conscience, Biddy considered it necessary to have a lady's companion, and so brought her first husband's sister,' Johanna Monaugh, out from Dumboon. She was an antiquated spinster, not at all good-looking; indeed, in her natural state, she might be described as ugly; but, unlike Biddy, who had a brogue that would trip a donkey, she spoke with the accent of the native born. She possessed one good quality: she loved little Ethel, and the girl had learned to call her "Aunt Jo." This did not accord with the tastes and wishes of Biddy, who subsequently endeavoured to expel Miss Monaugh, but that good lady resolutely refused to be expelled.
"Lavinia Lethcote was my dearest friend, and I'm going to stay here to look after her daughter,'" she said, with a great many nods and twirling of fingers. "That was her wish."
"Ugh!" said Biddy, indignantly. "D'ye think now, Jo, I'm not able to look afther th' colleen just as well as you? Bedad, I'd ate me hat if I couldn't do that, anyway."
"You could if you liked, Biddy. But you know you don't love the child. And children want love—girls above all. They can't live without it. I've had an opportunity of judging."
Miss Monaugh almost invariably ended her arguments in this way. She knew exactly how things should be, or would be, from previous experience. It aggravated Biddy more than anything, but, for all that, she had to put up with it.
So this ill-assorted family continued to live together at Fairymede until Ethel had grown into the fine young woman that Mark Keaton saw her—in a loose, white dress and a broad sun hat, and a mass of wavy brown hair flooding her back.
"How have you enjoyed your holiday?" he asked her, rubbing an imaginary rust spot off the barrel of his gun.
"Didn't have one," answered Ethel. "Been working all day."
"Helping Aunt Jo with her flounces, and tucks and pleats, and ribbons and laces, and goodness knows what not. It beats me why some people can't go out of doors without carrying a milliner's shop front with them. It makes such a lot of work and I don't particularly love work. However, tonight is my own."
"You are going to the dance?"
"Of course. Aren't you?"
"I don't think so—unless——"
"—Unless you are going—alone?"
"Alone?" cried Ethel. "Now, wouldn't I look well going alone. All through that dark bush, and running against some rough scrubber at every turn. That would be nice. If I could ride or drive like they can, and was used to their gipsy life like Amelia Jane, I might manage all right without a chaperone. But, you see, I can't. Another thing, I haven't Amelia Jane's brazen cheek."
"Then may I hope for the pleasure of your company?"
"Oh, Aunt Jo is going in. Mr M'Gurren will drive—"
"I see!" said Mark, with ill-concealed displeasure. M'Gurren was frequently in Ethel's company. Consequently, Mark didn't like M'Gurren. He would tell himself that the Scotchman was a moulty old bird, while Ethel was only a chicken; but the ugly thought would obtrude that wealth covereth many defects and forgiveth many sins, and he would be filled with resentment. M'Gurren, moreover, was a favoured guest at Fairymede. He dropped in at all times of the day—in fact, the dogs had ceased to bark at him. But Mrs Lethcote did not want Mark. Like M'Gurren, she had no liking for him. Though the warmest friendship existed between him and the other inmates of Fairymede, the despotic and unctuous Biddy was Governor-General, and that closed the portals against indigent persons. Still, it did not prevent occasional meetings between the young couple. Where there's a weakness there's a loophole.
"Of course, you'll be there," she added, after a brief silence.
Mark shook his head, tracing figures on the rail with his fingers.
"Everybody will be going," Ethel went on, "that is, everybody of any consequence."
"Well, I'm not of any consequence, it seems," he returned. "No one will miss me. And there's not much fun in dancing—unless you can take someone, you like."
He looked at her meaningly.
"What about Amelia Jane or Sarah from the Dairy?" asked Ethel, mischievously.
Mark threw the gun across his shoulder with savage energy.
"I hope you'll have plenty of fun," he said, doffing his hat again. "Goodbye!"
Ethel was annoyed, and leaned across the gate, gazing after him. They had known each other from childhood, and had tramped to school together. She had always liked him. He was kind and good-natured and so different from the brawling tatterdemalions who frequented their road. He had often carried her over the cowals and muddy places so that she would not soil her dainty shoes. He received no thanks for those little attentions from her stepmother; but her own little heart was filled with gratitude. They had gathered wild flowers together along the slopes of Fairymede's hills; had studied head against head under the sheltering gums, where he had coached her through difficult lessons with a patience that was inexhaustible, so that she might keep at the top of her class and pulled among the lilies and the moaning reeds on the lagoon in the evening. These were sweet memories now that the days were so far away. Though Ethel was to all appearances heart and pocket light, and fancy free, at eighteen, she often felt the same regret as Mark, and could murmur in chorus with him:—
The days we lived in the bygone
We'd live if we could again;
We'd pass once more into childhood,
That knoweth no ill or pain;
And we'd romp again as we used to,
So glad on the cool green lea,
And confide our thoughts to each other
In the shade of the old gum tree.
Ethel had just turned from the gate, and was picking a bouquet for herself, when she was joined by Mr M'Gurren.
"Weel? lassie, are ye na ready for the dance ta-nicht?"
"No, Mr M'Gurren, I'm not ready. I'm not quite decided whether I'll go or not."
"Not gang to the dance! Oots, lassie! What nonsense have ye got in yer hud noo?" Mr M'Gurren exclaimed, no little astonished at the change in Ethel; for, until this evening, she had been all enthusiasm regarding the ball.
"You may call it nonsense, Mr M'Gurren," answered Ethel, "but I'd rather stay at home. I'm sure I wouldn't enjoy myself a bit if I went."
"An' whee not?" He bent forward, and his bushy brows knitted.
"I expected Liola Battye over; but at the last moment she sent word that she was going with my cousin Leonard. Then Mark told me just now that he wouldn't be there. So I am disappointed."
"I see!" said M'Gurren, with that strained look on his face that comes of trying to appear unconcerned when something has gone against the grain.
"I wasna 'ware th' lad Keaton cam ta Fairymede," he added.
"He passed here on his way home," Ethel explained.
M'Gurren looked doubtful. "Ye' mither dinna ken ye meetit?" he said, his glance half questioning, half reproachful.
"Perhaps you will tell her, Mr M'Gurren," said Ethel, with a defiant challenge in her eyes. He flicked a pebble hard with his walking stick. It flew through the palings and knocked a fowl's eye out.
"You have only to mention it, you know," Ethel went on, "to stop Mark from coming through here."
"Ye spek varra familiarly o' th' mon, lassie," rasped M'Gurren. "Om I ta understund ye are abboot ta mak a match o' it?"
"There no reason for you to do so, Mr M'Gurren," said Ethel, tartly. "I have known Mr Keaton all my life; and I have always called him Mark. Why shouldn't I? We were children together."
"That's a' varra weel, lassie. Buit ye never call me Aleck. Ye ha' kent me syne ye wur a wee thing in short frocks, an' mony's th' time I dancit ye on my knee, an' sung ye ta sleep. Da ye ken hoo glud ye used tae be whun I singit 'Bonnie Doon' an' 'My Luv She's Buit a Lassie Yet'? Ye liked them, lassie, ye liked them. Ye didna look awa owre the hielans whun I'd have a wad wi' ye, buit ye'd rin am' sit yesel' doon on' my knee. Ye wur a buxom lassie then, buit I'm afeart something's gang agley wi' ya o' late. What is it, lassie? Come, mak a clean breast o' it. Dinna fear I'll telt ony one."
"There is nothing to tell, Mr M'Gurren," Ethel answered. "I am only disappointed."
"Aye, an' a' on account o' young Keaton, not ganging awa' wi' ye ta th' dance. Ye're foolish, lassie, verra foolish. I've naething ta sey agin th' lad, buit, for a' that, I wadna like ta see ye marrit ta him."
"Why not?" she asked, subduing the rebellious spirit that rose to demand what it was to him whom she married.
"Because ye've been used ta luxury an' gude coompany. Ye'd want ta be amang cheerfu' folk, an' in a gude hame. He cudna gi' ye ony o' them, hooever muckle he'd like ta. He's verra poor, an' ye ken he spends ta muckle o' his time wi' his books. If th' lad wad gang awa' an' ploo his lan' and graw something, 'twad be better for him thon a' his books. He 'll ne'er mak a bawbee wi' his scribblin', ne'er a bawbee." And Mr M'Gurren shook his head, and drummed his fingers on the palisading.
Ethel offered no comment. She was a patient little soul, and preferred to await developments rather than to argue with a stubborn man, for M'Gurren was stubborn, and no amount of reasoning could change his opinions once they were formed. He had a secret dislike, as before stated, for Mark, and did his best, in his own cunning way, to prejudice Mrs Keaton against her son's literary efforts. Ethel knew this, and so the futility of attempting to defend him. Besides, she did not wish the Scotchman to know that she took an interest in the doings of Mark Keaton. M'Gurren had long been an admirer, and had the full sympathy and support of Mrs Lethcote, who put it pretty plainly to the girl that she would be better pleased with her room than with her company, and that marriage with him would make them all rich.
At that moment Miss Monaugh put her head—adorned with curl papers—out of the window and called to Ethel.
"Gang awa', lassie, an' get yesel' ready," said M'Gurren. "Dinna fear, there 'll na be plenty o' laddies there wi'oot Mark Keaton. I'll dreeve ye there an' bock safe an' soond, an' maybe I'll do a hop wi' ye mesel' afore th' nicht is owre—if ye wul gi' me one. Eh?"
"Certainly if I go. I'll see what Aunt Jo says."
"A'richt, lassie. I ken she'll bring ye alang wi' her. She wadna like ta gang alone wi' me, as that wad set folks talkin' aboot us."
"And might they not talk about you and me?"
"Not at a'. Dinna be afeart o' that. Ye're a wee laesie yet, an' they'll ken ye're ta young ta be coortin' for a wee. An' Mistress Jo wul be wi' us. 'Twul be protection in their e', ye ken. An' I'm only th' dreever. Sa get yesel' ready, an' I'll gang awa' an' help ye' faither wi' th' dog-cart."
Lethcote was already engaged in harnessing up the horse at the stables. Ethel saw now that she had spoken too late. She feared a scolding from her stepmother if she made known her wish to stay at home, for that worthy dame had arranged with M'Gurren that they two should go together, and Aunt Jo— at her own invitation—was to accompany them as chaperon.
It was not her first dance; but her father had taken her on all previous occasions.
M'Gurren walked round the trap and the horse, tugging at a strap here, and altering a buckle there, making a purring noise the while with his lips, which was the nearest approach he could get to a whistle. Old Myles inwardly resented his interference, and eyed him in the way that a snake looks at a goana when they meet in a hollow log. He was nominally lord and master of all Fairymede, including the trap and the bob-tail nag; but, according to M'Gurren's demeanour, he was only a flunkey, and the Scotchman was boss. It was his thoughtless way.
"Has he hud a drink, mon?" asked Mac, patting the horse.
"Take un down an' try un," growled Myles, giving the bellyband a savage jerk that made the horse jump, and the point of the shaft prodded M'Gurren in the ribs before he could get out of the way.
"Carefu', be carefu'!" he cautioned, while Myles glared. He caught hold of the off wheel and shook it; then went round and treated the near side wheel in the same way.
"A drap o' ile wadna do her ony 'arm, Lethcote," he suggested.
"Put'n on then, put'n on," snapped Myles, and he bustled round as though he had suddenly received a new consignment of energy. Mac examined the stop, and said it wanted screwing up. Myles gasped, and his eyes almost shed sparks.
Mac wasn't done yet. He surveyed the turnout as a whole, standing back and looking under it and round it. "I maun sey it's a dirty trop ta gae ta toon wi'," he remarked, cheerfully. "A drap o' water—"
Myles didn't hear any more. He remembered an engagement elsewhere, and left in a great hurry. Mac completed the arrangements, and tied Bobtail to a post, wondering what had come over Myles to make him so "onfreendly."
"I dunno the reason on't, Jo, but Biddy—she try to shove me in th' corner when old Mac's here," Mr Lethcote explained, seating himself shortly afterwards on the verandah and lighting his pipe. He was an Englishman and, to look at him, one would take him to be a perfect gentleman; but, as Miss Monaugh averred, he spoke like a thrall, and was, to those not used to him, difficult to understand. He was a silent member, for the most part. He liked to sit in a quiet corner, with his pipe, and listen. But he was not to be ignored. He took umbrage if the speakers did not occasionally look or direct a word his way. Not that he desired to take any part in the conversation. He did not want them to talk to him individually, only to talk at him now and again to show that he was included in the company. M'Gurren was a constant offender in this respect; his manner was such as to imply that he was ignorant of the old man's existence.
"Baint as I care for meself; baint fair to Etty," he went on. "I be her father, Jo."
"So you are," Jo admitted.
"Doant want to have nowt to do wi' un but . . . if un come pokin' arter Etty, I'll crack un bald head for un, I'll warrant!" And the old gentleman shook a formidable fist at the atmosphere.
"You are ridiculous, Myles," said Miss Monaugh. "Mr M'Gurren has no such intentions."
"I hope not, Jo; but . . . drat un, what un allers comin' here for? Dratty nigh live here now," Myles exclaimed, scowling across his shoulder.
"He's an old friend of Biddy's, and comes here simply for company. There's nobody at Tillalee but his man-servant. (And Biddy thinks there's no one in this place when Mr M'Gurren's not here.) But don't be alarmed, Myles. He's not infatuated with Biddy—nor with Etty either. You forget that I am one of the household."
Myles gazed thoughtfully at the grass trying to understand the situation. When he looked round again she was gone.
Miss Monaugh was standing before a large mirror in her own room, her head aslant, and both hands engaged in untwisting one of the notable curlpapers above her ear. A few tresses hung in crumples, a few twisted papers lay on the table among a various assortment of toilet requisites. The door opened, and Ethel entered.
"Why, child, what a time you’ve been! I thought you were never coming. Have you become so very interested in Mr M'Gurren all at once? One would really think so."
"No, Auntie. At least, I am interested in him in one way."
"And that is?"
"I want to get rid of him. Auntie, do me a favour to-night. I don't want to go to Dumboon."
“Don't want to go! Goodness, child, what's come over you?" cried the spinster, dropping into a plush-covered chair. Her deft fingers worked with increased speed.
"Auntie," said Ethel, kneeling on the carpet, and clasping her hands on Miss Monaugh's lap, "Liela is not coming for me, and Mark isn't going. So I have no one to take me but—"
"He is taking me, child. You go with us."
"Does mother know of that?" asked Ethel, dubiously.
"It doesn't matter a pin what she knows, or what she doesn't know. Let it suffice that we know it."
"But it wont suffice."
"It will have to."
Ethel leaned her head against her hand.
"Auntie," she said, gently, "you don't understand. M'Gurren doesn't come here merely as a friend."
"Of course not. I know that." Miss Monaugh was emphatic on that point.
"But you don't know the truth. Mother," said Ethel, lowering her voice, "mother wants me to marry him."
"Wants you to marry him?"
"Are you mad?"
"No, Auntie. She hasn't spoken to me about it. But she has hinted. So I don't want to go with him to-night."
Miss Monaugh had let go her curl-papers, and looked at her niece with something like dismay depicted in her face. She was a tall, slight woman, with bent shoulders; and her face, never beautiful, was faded and withered in advance of her forty years. Some of her acquaintances accused her of being older but Aunt Jo never owned to more than thirty-two, and that, she said, was a shocking age for an un-married woman. Had it not been for her own skill, in the elaborate use of rouge and prunella, and the constant and lavish application of cream and buttermilk, Aunt Jo would not only have been unable to compete on something like equal terms with her more bounteously-endowed sisters, but would have been irrevocably doomed. As it was, she kept herself in fair order, and could manage on a pinch to win a smile from the young ones still. She had a horror of cold winds, of hard water, and more particularly of a hot sun, which brought out the freckles like mushrooms after a shower. And this was a sore trouble to her if there happened to be no buttermilk or lemons handy, in which case she would resort to vinola, or glycerine and cucumber, or other mysterious concoctions. She was a good woman at heart, despite her feminine weakness in the matter of looks but she dearly wanted to become Mrs Somebody, for people were wont to call her the old maid, and point her out as one who had missed her mark, and so was fated to be "miss'd" for the rest of her days. She had started on a husband's track at sixteen—sweet sixteen—and had pursued it diligently for twenty-four years without meeting the desired party. Some had smiled upon her, and loitered awhile in her company then passed on into the world of the rhodomontadist to tell of their adventures with "Aunt Jo." This was the only complimentary title she had achieved outside her own home circle. Her life had been one long routine of disappointments. Only lately a glimpse of hope had come to gladden her poor old heart. She had come upon his shadow, and with a little diplomacy, a little tact and patient vigil, she might gain her end, and in the near future be Mrs—
"Come here, child." Ethel had sat down on the carpet. "You have nothing whatever to fear. Never mind what your mother wishes. Treat it as a farce. It is nothing more. Come here. I want to tell you a secret. I can talk to you while you are doing my hair for me."
"I didn't know you had any secrets, Auntie," said Ethel, taking up a position behind the spinster's chair. The latter coughed an aristocratic little cough and smoothed out her dress.
"Oh, yes, Etty; I have a great secret," she said, nodding her head in a way that put the papers in shivers. "I have never breathed a word of it to anyone, and I wouldn't have it known for worlds."
"Then don't tell it to me, Auntie," Ethel advised.
"I must, Etty. I must confide in you for your own sake; to show you that you needn't be afraid. Be careful with that kiss-curl, dear. It's a favourite. Someone admired it last Sunday. If you notice, it curves so nicely and naturally. Do you think I have put enough of the golden fluid on?"
Oh, yes, your hair has a nice glow. It's like a picture."
"That's a bad simile. Pictures are painted artificial, in fact."
"So's your hair, Auntie—" Ethel stopped abruptly, abashed at her own slip. Jo coughed again, and pretended not to notice.
"I'm so sensitive that I'd be worried all night if I thought it didn't look natural," she resumed. "Women take notice of these things and pass remarks. Men don't mind so much."
She toyed with her curling tongs for a moment as if irresolute. Ethel said nothing, but pursued her task with skill and rapidity. Only, the rustle of the paper was heard. Then, Miss Monaugh said:
"You are not the romping, gadabout little thing you used to be, Etty. You are older, and you're getting sense. You are growing into a woman. And a very nice young woman you'll be. I think you ought to marry well. But I have noticed that you have grown very grave lately. I know the cause. I have grown grave too. But you don't know the cause. That is the secret I am going to tell you. Do be careful of that curl, child. It's the only good one I have."
"If I damage it, Auntie, I'll buy you another," said Ethel, smiling in spite of herself.
"Now, don't be laughing at me, child," said the spinster. "I hate to be laughed at."
She had a full view of Ethel's face in the mirror, which that young lady had momentarily forgotten. She was always in a buoyant mood in her aunt's company, for Jo was not only her best friend and only confidante, but her shallowness and over-estimation, of her own importance amused her. Indeed, Aunt Jo considered herself a very aristocratic personage—a step above anything on the Yeerong as well as an authority on all important matters that vex a woman's mind. She loved a little romance, and would have been in the empyrean of happiness could she have drawn around her a veil of mystery without losing her character, and become the envy of her common, sisters, and the cynosure of masculine eyes.
"I am not laughing at you, Auntie," Ethel replied.
"I saw you smiling, child," Auntie reproved.
"I was thinking of what Mr M'Gurren said," Ethel answered, unblushingly.
"Ah! M'Gurren—What did Mr M'Gurren say?"
"He was talking a lot of rot to me this evening. I believe he's getting childish. He wants me to call him 'Aleck.' "
Aunt Jo bit her thin lips, and clenched her thin hands. Then she said: "I am surprised that Mr M'Gurren should have so far forgotten himself as to make such an improper request. It would be indelicate—impudent. No lady addresses a gentleman by his first name, unless he be some near relation, or, better still, her betrothed. I am sure you are not betrothed to Mr M'Gurren?"
"Indeed I am not," said Ethel, with an indignant little pout."
"You have a lover, I think, Etty. Have you not?"
"Perhaps," said Etty, modestly. "He's only a shadow yet, a phantom that lurks outside the castle walls."
Aunt Jo didn't quite grasp her meaning. She said "If you have a lover, why don't you let him in?"
"Oh, no, nothing like that!" mischievously. "It is sometimes better to keep him out. Absence, you know, makes the heart grow fonder."
Jo shook her head slowly. "Tis always the pretty girls that play the deuce with the boys. I was pretty once—very pretty. I hope, when you are my age, you won't regret lost opportunities." And Miss Monaugh sighed. "With regard to Mr M'Gurren," she went on presently, "do you think he wishes you to be his—er—sweetheart?"
"Tut, tut, child! Don't talk nonsense. Mr M'Gurren has been like a god-father to you, like an uncle. He has known you since you were a baby and naturally he takes an interest in you. He has, I believe, some intention of becoming—er—related to the family, and— Perhaps that is why he wishes you to call him 'Aleck,' " she interrupted herself as this idea occurred to her.
"Very likely," said Ethel, with a grimace.
"Ah, yes, there is some likelihood," the spinster continued, and a pleased expression settled on her face. Ethel was puzzled.
"In what way do you think he intends to become related to our family, Auntie?" she inquired.
"By marriage, of course. You know, he's been coming here very frequently the last few weeks. He has lost his heart, Etty. That's the long and the short of it. I've had an opportunity of judging. I've taken an interest in Mr M'Gurren, and have found out a thing or two. He's a kind, fatherly sort of man, Etty, and one who could love deeply—and I am sure he does. He's not over fifty; just in the prime of life. His beard is a little grey—such a nice beard, though—and his hair thin—
"Very!" Ethel interrupted. "In fact,
'He has no wool on the top of his head,
The place where the wool ought to grow.' "
"Ethel, please don't It's rude. And do be careful of that curl," said Jo, peevishly. "I am sure Mr M'Gurren is a very nice man, considering. He has his faults, like the rest of us. No one is perfect, and never will be. But he has such nice legs, if he is a bit awkward with his hands—or arms. And he has such a nice manner. He speaks so nicely. I've had an opportunity of judging. A least bit more of a turn to that curl, dear. That's it."
"Your hair will be beautiful tonight, Auntie," said Ethel, soothingly.
"Do you think he'll admire it?"
"Oh! Well, he ought to."
"Yes?" I— I can trust you, Etty?"
"Of course you can."
"You will never tell a soul?"
"Nor whisper it even to yourself?"
No. I can think of it just as well. What is it?"
"I—I love him!"
"Oh, Auntie! You!"
"I am sure, child, there is nothing shocking in that," said the spinster, frowning.
"Not the least. But I am so surprised. I never thought—I never dreamt of such a thing. It seems so strange."
"A woman's love strange! All women are born to love."
"Very often they love in vain."
"I shall not love in vain. You will see to-night. That is why I am so anxious to go. What a chance! He has never had hold of me yet—as he must hold me when we're dancing. He may even propose. He has hinted—and looked— You know the way they look. I am sure he cares for me. I've had an—
"Ain't you two nearly ready yit? Bejabers, one 'ud think ye were goin' to a prize show, or something. How much longer are ye goin' to be, now thin?" cried Biddy, bursting unceremoniously into the room.
"We'll be ready in a few minutes, Biddy. I'm just finishing my hair."
"'H'm!" Biddy sniffed. "D'ye think there'll be room in th' cart for you, Jo?"
"Goodness, Biddy, do I take up so much room that a cart won't hold me?"
"There's only wan sate."
"Quite sufficient for three, I should think, especially when none of us can be accused of being afflicted with obesity. If you were there—"
"I won't be there. So just spare your 'ifs,' Johanna, if you please. An' I dunno phwat th' divil an old scrag like you wants to be goin' to balls for, ayther. I niver wint. Indade, I could always get a husband whin I wanted wan widout goin' to balls."
"Indeed, Biddy," cried Jo, bristling up, "if I had been through the mill as often as you I am sure I wouldn't boast of it."
"You have nothing to boast of at prisent, onyway," snapped Biddy.
"And if I was a married woman, I'd respect my husband," Jo continued. "I wouldn't have people coupling my name with another man's."
"'Twould be the height of flattery to you if they did," Biddy retorted. "And who may the other man be?"
"I won't mention names," Jo answered.
"Thin don't mintion your dirty insinuations," Biddy returned. " 'Tisn't me that's kapin' the other man from couplin' wid you, enyway. He wouldn't look at ye if I was dead."
"Who?" asked Jo, with frigid innocence.
"Ugh" said Biddy, turning away. "Don't think I can't see y'r drift. 'Tis as plain as you are, Jo."
Ethel accosted her as she was retreating. "Mother, let me stay. I have no wish to go. I—I have a headache."
"You have, indade! Well, take it wid you. I promised to let you go, an' go you will. So just hurry up."
Ethel was about to expostulate when Aunt Jo tacitly enjoined her to keep quiet. Biddy tossed her head, with an audible sniff, and passed into the dining-room. Aunt Jo finished her hair, whilst Ethel gathered up the pieces of paper she had strewn about.
"Etty, just hand me the things as I want them," said she, smearing her face and neck with an unlabelled cream. "Take this, and give me the hare's foot and that pot of pink rouge."
Having put a bloom into her cheeks—fading away gradually to the faintest tint under the eyes—with this, the lady of punctilious and scrupulous taste requested the powder puff. Next the eyes and eyebrows were delicately embellished with a water cosmetique.
"Now give me that stick of lip salve. There—that's it. Now, I'm ready. How do I look?"
"Oh, charming," said Ethel.
Jo stumped to the end of the room and back. "How's my carriage?" she asked.
"As graceful as a yard of pumpwater," answered Ethel.
Jo looked doubtful. She turned and twisted before the mirror, holding a smaller one in her hand to see the back of her head. "I think it will do nicely," she concluded.
"It ought to fetch 'em," Ethel rejoined. "Don't use such vulgar expressions, child," Aunt Jo reproved. And please don't insinuate that I am titivating myself up to catch—er—something opposite. . . . Men are brutes."
"Men are brutes," Miss Monaugh repeated, still smarting from Biddy's cruel stabs. "I've had an opportunity of judging."
"I see," said Ethel; "all men are brutes but the man I want. For him I dress—"
"No, dear I dress to please myself."
Ethel laughed softly as she passed into the dining-room on the old maid's arm. Biddy was furious. Myles smiled from his corner.
" 'Tis a wondher, Jo," said the irate lady, "you don't commince in th' mornin'. It takes you such a whoile to doll yeself up that it's hardly worth goin' at all whin ye're ready to shtart. 'Pon me sowl, I niver saw the like of you. Sit down an' have your tay, for God's sake. I'll pass th' cups meself."
"I'm sure there's no occasion for such hurry," the spinster expostulated. "You needn't get yourself out of breath over nothing. We've got the whole night before us."
"Indade you haven't. The half of it's gone now. Begob, whin I was a young girl I've often popped on me duds an' had a fly round, an' been back agin afore me mistress—me mother—missed me from th' house at all."
"That was wrong to go away without leave."
"Indade! An' who gave you leave, pray?"
"I am my own mistress," Aunt Jo replied defiantly.
"Well," said Biddy from her vantage by the side-table, "ye're old enough to be, God knows."
"I understood you to say you never went to balls," Aunt Jo returned, icily.
"It's thrue for me, I didn't," said Biddy. " 'Twas visitin' me frinds I wint, not leg-sparrin' in a ballroom. 'Twas me dad had th' derry on thim places. ' 'Tis the ballrooms ruin the gals,' he used to say. I mind him well,"
"Then why are you so anxious for Etty to go?" Miss Monaugh inquired.
Biddy suddenly struck a listening attitude. "Was that th' cart runnin' away wid th' horse, Myles?" she asked.
"It warn't," said Myles.
"I heard something like wheels rattlin', enyway," Biddy persisted.
"Old hen floppin' off roost," Myles explained, and peace followed.
That night all was bustle and excitement in Dumboon. As a rule the town was as dull as the Old Man Plain, with scarcely a pedestrian to be seen along the grassy side-walks and only teams of struggling oxen and creaking timber trucks, filing at intervals through the streets, and raising clouds of dust in passing. To-night there was a fair crowd at the principal corner, and in front of the pub, which stood opposite the "Assembly Rooms," a noisy lot from the Upper Yeerong—the "Cedar Push"—had congregated.
A mixed few were gathered in the ballroom. The instruments—a violin and a concertina—were already screeching and screaming when the dogcart from Fairymede drove up, and there alighted from it Mr M'Gurren, Ethel and Aunt Jo. The first dance was just concluded, and the two ladies had hardly dismembered themselves of their wraps when the Master of Ceremonies requested the gentlemen to "S'lect partners for the fust set o' quadrilles."
"This is oor dance, lassie," said M'Gurren, as Ethel entered on Aunt Jo's arm. The spinster frowned, and looked furtively around her, in search of a probable partner. It would be so embarrassing to have the companionship of Ethel taken from her. There were several men present whom she had smiled with in her time, but these had their quantum of female. For a small back-block town, there was a distressing quantity of female to be provided for, wherever they came from.
"I wish you would excuse me, Mr M'Gurren," said Ethel. "I've hardly had time to get my breath yet, and I'd rather sit it out. I don't like the figures, and there's such a crowd geting up—I'm afraid there will scarcely be room. Do let us rest awhile—or, perhaps you and Aunt Jo—"
The sentence was concluded with an appealing look towards the latter lady. Of course, it was a preconcerted arrangement that Aunt Jo was to have the monopoly as far as possible in the matter of dancing with the laird of Tillalee. She saw that her aunt would have a poor chance of obtaining a better chevalier among that assemblage, whose majority was composed of the roughs, and, ever indulgent to her, Ethel was prepared to forgo her own desire to dance rather than be an obstacle to her aunt. But M'Gurren was obdurate.
"Oots lassie, ye mauna sit doon in the cauld. Coom alang noo, an' dinna brek y'r promise. I ken your auntie winna lack for a partner th' nicht."
He spoke with some asperity; there was even anger in his voice. Ethel, without further demur, took his proffered arm and permitted him to lead her away. Soon the music started, and she was mixed in the rapidly-moving throng, passing in and out in a continual dizzy maze.
"It's a strange thing," mused Aunt Jo, sitting down to wait until good fortune should attend her, "that a man is always chary of the one he loves on these occasions. Now, if he had loved Etty he would have asked me to dance and ignored her. I don't quite understand it—I suppose I will some day. Perhaps he doesn't want the public to know he cares for me, though, forsooth, he needn't be ashamed of me. Perhaps he wants to try me, to make me jealous. But he needn't trouble—I'm not jealous." And she tossed her head in scorn.
Seated on her left were Bill Sooley, in hob-nailed bluchers, and Amelia Jane, in thirsty 'lastic-sides—the elastic much stretched. She moved closer to address Amelia Jane, when both got up to fill a vacancy in the squares left by the retirement of a couple at the far end. Aunt Jo could scarcely conceal her annoyance. Everybody, it seemed, was going to dance. She was the only wallflower, the only one destined to look on in silence, denied the unique privilege and the rare pleasure associated with the dance. It could not be the fault of her looks—there were many there who were plainer; her hair was done up in faultless style, her dress was perfect and becoming yet she was the only woman there unasked.
She sat it through, contenting herself with the self-assurance that Mr M'Gurren would take her up in the next. It was a schottische, and, next to a waltz, that was a favourite with her. She heard him ask Ethel for it, and heard her tell him that she was engaged, though it did not appear to her that such was the case. Then, with glaring eyes, she saw him lead the extra-corpulent, red-faced Mrs Cadby, the publican's wife, down the hall! Aunt Jo was fairly vexed, and sought relief in an ante-room. About the middle of the dance her privacy was intruded upon by two persons whom she had not wished to meet there. They were Ethel's cousin, Leonard Lynton, and Miss Liela Battye.
"Why, Jo, what are you doing here?" the latter exclaimed, and her cheeks went a deeper pink.
"I came in here for a little peace, Liela. I feel so tired after my drive. I don't know how it is, driving tires me dreadfully of late. It didn't use to. And those men are so persistent. When one tells them she doesn't want to dance, isn't that enough? You would think so. But they won't take no for an answer. No less than seven begged me to get up with them in the schottische. It's very annoying. So I had to run away and hide myself. They're such a nuisance. Are you not dancing, Liela?"
"Oh, yes. But we have only just arrived; and we're a little too late," answered Liela, who was a pretty little coquette of nineteen or twenty, the one ewe lamb of Braxton Battye, of Murrawang. Leonard's uncle, Edwin Lynton, a gentleman-farmer of moderate means, was Battye's nearest neighbour.
"I think we'll remove to the ballroom, Liela," said Leonard. "Won't you take a turn at all to-night, Jo? I'm surprised to see you running away from the boys. You'll never get a husband if you do that."
"Oh, Leonard, you shock me! A husband! Do you imagine for a moment that I'd have a husband?"
"Why not? You surely do not intend to die an old maid?"
"I am not otherwise minded, Leonard. There is no disgrace in that. An old maid, I should think, is deserving of the respect of all good people. Her state is a credit and an honour. It shows strength and courage in having resisted the temptations of the vulgar sex."
"Not always," said Leonard, practically. "Many become virtuous old maids through the want of temptation. In any case, it's against Nature. You are shirking your duty to her. It may be in you as in any other woman, to contribute the strong hand that is always wanted at the country's helm."
"Ah!" said Aunt Jo, smiling demurely, "if all men were like you, Leonard, I might be prevailed upon to change my mind. But they are unjust and cruel. They consider themselves woman's superior in everything. She is man's slave. He commands, and she must obey. Do you call that fair?"
"She has the power, by her finer qualities, her natural gentleness and love, to make man all that could be desired," said Liela, smiling sweetly into Leonard's face. Aunt Jo felt envious, a little bitter.
"Ah, yes." she said, most girls at your age fall in love—they have no control over themselves; and they are apt to exaggerate far too much for their future happiness. They see things only with a lover's eyes and you know Cupid attaches an invisible though beautifying lens to the orbs of his victim and each in her clientele thinks she has found an angel, and that the world is a paradise. By-and-bye the veil will be torn away, and they'll wake up as from a dream. I've had an opportunity of judging."
"Miss Monaugh," said Leonard, gravely, "you are a traitress—you are a mistake! Liela, I can't allow you to remain longer in such company. Miss Monaugh, I trust, will change her views and join us presently. Otherwise, the finger of scorn will be pointed at her."
"Do you really think, Leonard, she means what she says?" Liela asked as they left Aunt Jo to her own thoughts. Leonard laughed.
"She'd buckle up this minute if she had the chance. She's as ugly as virtue, and as flat as a slab. Only a marooned ourang-outang would get enthusiastic over poor old Jo."
But the old maid thought she had scored a point. She could not for a moment have it supposed that she remained single for want of an alternative. To the general public she must appear a woman of rigidly moral principles, who considered it contaminating to hold intercourse or associate frequently with the opposite sex when such was avoidable. She was in reality a little pious—as little as she could afford to be. She liked truth, honesty and goodness in others; but never scrupled to tell a white lie herself when the truth was inconvenient.
She sat listening to the music, and the trip of many feet—sounds that intensify a woman's feelings, and fill her with longing. Presently she heard voices near her, and the language was a jarring discord.
"By gosh!" said a deep bass voice, "I'm sweatin' like a 'orse. Been on the go ever since I come. Reg'lar flyer that larst piece I 'ad. Hang me if I could hold her times. Thought it was a she wallaby I'd bumped agin. Dyer know her, Crowbar?"
"Never clapped eyes on her afore. Wot dyer think o' Dick th' Walloper?"
"He's goin' it 'ammer an' tongs. An' twig th' capers o' Roarin' Tom! Blow me if I could keep it jiggin' at that pace. Think you could, Doodlum Buck?"
"Not me. Doan b'lieve in it. 'D ruther 'ave a long shandy."
"Doan mind if I do. Works wants a bit o' lubricatin' after swingin' them heifers."
"Ribuek. Hulloa here's' Kilfloggin. Tip us yer flipper. An' how yer poppin' up?"
"Fusrate. How goes it with you coves?"
"Tip-top. How's Sarah from th' Dairy tickle yer fancy eh?"
"Yum-yum! Too sudding. Arst her up jest' now, an' got a look that was frosty enough to make hair grow on a window pane. She's collared on Abe Watts—stickin' to him like a leech. No one else es got a look in. Not es I care a hang personly. I'm off her."
"Wal, le's go an' 'ave a drink, an' a pull o' the pipe."
Aunt Jo returned to the ballroom, which was now pretty well crowded. It was a strange medley, and everyone seemed to be dancing and enjoying themselves except Aunt Jo. She felt extremely small, and began to fancy that every-body was looking at her, and laughing at her solitude. She was sorry she had come; she vowed she would never come again.
"There's too much larrikinism and impropriety going on at diversions of this sort," she remarked to a young woman who sat near her, fanning her flushed face. Just then a tall bullock-driver, in corduroys, striped shirt and black coat, accosted her. "Hingaged, miss?"
"I am not dancing, thank you," said Aunt Jo, with much satisfaction, for Mr M'Gurren had just come up in time to hear the words that were interchanged.
"Whee lass, I havena seen ye oop once ta-nicht," he exclaimed.
"I didn't feel in the humour for dancing, Mr M'Gurren," she answered in her sweetest manner. "I've been enjoying myself looking on."
"Buit ye maun shake a leg ta," said M'Gurren. "Wul ye have a short squeeze' wi' me? Eh?"
"Certainly; Mr M'Gurren." Jo assented, with a most enravishing smile. "I have refused everyone till now. But you are the only one with whom I care to dance. We are used to each other. And in a crowded room like this one wants a good partner. It's not an easy task getting round without a mishap of some sort."
"Dinna be afeart aboot that. I wadna ask ye at a' if I thought there was a danger. I've been roond mony a time the nicht, an I ken there's room for a'. Ye maun ken the step, that's a."
Aunt Jo was in raptures as she joined the throng of enthusiasts for the first time that long and tedious night; but the next instant she nearly dropped to the floor as she caught the words of the bullock-driver, whom she had refused a moment before.
"Say Kilfloggin, d'yer see that wry faced old hag bobbin' about there?"
"Eh? Why—that's—Aunt Jo!"
"Yais. The old tomcat told me jes' now she didn't darnce. Only arst her out o' pity—she looked so lonely holdin' the wall up be herself. An' look at her with Moneybags! S'pose I warn't good enough for her. Aint got enough beans. Wot won't money do, eh? By cripes, she do make me laugh!"
Other remarks were made about the way she hopped, and some of the younger girls even giggled as she panted past them, and altogether made things unpleasant for Aunt Jo. The rough-shod scrub men bumped her heavily, and once she was knocked off her feet. M'Gurren, in trying to save her, went down on top of her. The building shook, and several couples dropped on to the seats in paroxysms of laughter.
"I theenk we'd better sit down, lass," said M'Gurren, kindly. But Aunt Jo wouldn't hear of it. She whirled on furiously, with tears of indignation in her eyes, and swung hard against every female she could reach, especially the married ones. The timber-getters took up the gauntlet, and bumped her more than ever. They went out of their way to meet her, and each collision was accompanied by ribald jest. One would yell out, "Whoa there! wild cattle from the Mooni!" Shortly another would send her reeling towards the centre, and shout as he swung on, "Gee off, Bismarck!" A third would swing out arid drive her back to the tune of "Stand over, Brown!"
Finally, Kilfloggin, who had been watching the proceedings with a sullen look, bumped one of the jokers heavily on the jaw, and the dance ended in a short but gory fight. Kilfloggin gained the victory also a black eye.
Aunt Jo, having lost Mr M'Gurren in the confusion, retreated hurriedly to the ante-room, panting like a knocked up dog. She said she would never again be induced to go among the libertines that convene at a bush dance. And she wasn't.
A few days later Leonard called at Gimbo. The house, which had a garden all round it, with two large mulberry trees in the back corners, and a front awning of grape vines and honeysuckle, stood on the prettiest of the Yeerong hills. It looked out upon a long stretch of moorland, near the head of the lagoon which coursed round Fairymede. A raised red road ran across it between the boundaries, over which the cedar teams passed into Dumboon. That red road was engraven on Mark's memory. He and Ethel used to meet and part there when they went to school.
As usual, Mark was sitting behind a plodding pen.
"Now then, old boy," said Leonard, haven't you had enough of that for one day?"
"Never have enough of it," answered Mark. "Think I was born for it."
"Don't know how you stick to it like you do," Leonard went on. "One day would kill me."
"You weren't intended for a novelist," said Mark. "I've been at it for years, and I love it now more than ever."
"Have you heard from the publishers yet?" asked Leonard.
"Got a letter yesterday," answered Mark.
"How did the first book get on?"
"It's waiting for postage to come back."
"And the second?"
"It wants postage too."
"What about the third?"
"It also wants postage."
"Must cost you a tidy sum for stamps," Leonard remarked.
"A good bit," Mark admitted. "That's the result of living in the bush."
"What are you doing now?"
"Better chuck it, old man," said Leonard, kindly.
"No," said Mark. "I'm confident I'll succeed some day. I've been assured by two or three who saw my work that they've often read worse. I don't allow everyone to see them. I like a man who'll tell me exactly what he thinks, not seek to flatter me with undeserved praise."
"Quite right," his friend agreed. "I've read some of your tales, and I can assure you I spoke my mind concerning them. If you take my advice you won't write any more like them." Mark tried to look pleasant. "I told you The Sundowner was too serious," Leonard went on. "I don't say it couldn't be read through if a man put his mind to it but there are books, you know, that are harder to read than chopping wood. Another thing, your hero gets mixed. 'Dunno where he are' half his time. But—we've had enough of books for once"—with an impatient half-turn on his heel. "Let's go for a walk. I've got something to tell you, and perhaps I'll be able to do you a good turn." He nodded towards Fairymede.
Mark was putting on his coat when Mrs Keaton came into the room.
"Are you off, Leonard?" she inquired, standing in the doorway.
"Have an appointment at the bridge," Leonard answered.
"Oh!" said the widow archly, "is that the way the wind blows? Goin' to see Ethel Lethcote. I thought she was Mark's girl."
"I didn't know she was anybody's girl," Mark said, sulkily.
"Well, she ain't yours, it seems." She made a wry face and looked towards the red road. "You're too quiet for her—an' too slow to catch a cold."
Mark hurried away. He was a little afraid of his mother. As they turned their backs to the gate, a whip-crack bounded in the distance. Leonard looked up and laughed.
"Was thinking of Abe Watts," he said, and chuckled again.
What about him?" asked Mark.
"One of his bullocks—Yellowman, he called him—was lying down in the yoke as I crossed the road. Abe was prodding him and twisting his tail and cursing him by turns. Couldn't get so much, as a grunt out of him. 'That fellow would be better in a cask than in the team,' I said to him. 'It's a bloomin' pity Bill Sooley warn't in th' cask with him,' says Abe viciously. 'Swopped me that crawlin' cow for a spankin' good steer. Sed he could pull like Bill Beach. By cripes, I'll be one with him. You'll see!' Sooley came along behind, singing:
'If I 'ad a 'orse an' he wouldn't go,
Wouldn't I whack him—no, no, no!'
" 'Wot th' jiggins d'yer do with a bullock that won't go?' says Abe, sulkily. 'Tell yer fusrate plan,' says Bill, leaning on his whip. 'Put yer mouth to his ear an' whistle. Takes his mind off everything else, an' fetches him to his feet in one act.' Abe took hold of Yellowman's ear, and, thrusting his mouth through the hair, blew a sharp and sudden blast down the orifice. Yellowman snorted, and, swinging his big head round, struck Abe on the jaw and knocked him sprawling in the dust. Then he jumped up and kicked Abe in the commissariat department, and rushed into the yoke so hard that he shifted the jinker himself. 'Heerd tell that was a good dodge,' said Sooley. 'Ye'll know how to manage Yellowman now.' Abe got up slowly, rubbing his stomach, and spitting out dust. He scowled across his shoulder as he brushed his helmet, then, walked away in dead silence."
"Ominous," said Mark. "He'll get back on Sooley before many days."
"I bet he will," said Leonard. "The other evening Abe went fishing in Big Hole. Half an hour afterwards Sooley strolled down for a dip, and found him asleep, with the line hitched to his leg. He stripped behind a bush, hauled that line up, and cut the hook off; then he gripped the sinker in his hand, and dived quietly into the hole with it. A couple of tugs woke Abe, and in a second or two he was on his feet, bristling with excitement, and hauling in hand over hand. 'By cripes,' he says, as he gets the full weight of it, ' 's th' old man cod what's been nabbin' hooks 'ere for th' last forty year.' Bill wriggled and twisted a bit to show he was a live fish but 'twas like hauling up a log all the same. He had no propelling force where his tail should be, and he wanted a pull at the atmosphere pretty bad. He shot up close to the bank, threshing the water like a harpooned whale. His head and face were covered with weeds, and as soon as he's out he rears over the first ledge of bank and astonishes Abe with a snort that would have shamed a koala. Abe's eyes bulged. 'What in thunder ken that be!' he gasped, backing away. 'Bow-wow-wow!' barked the fish, making a scramble after him. Abe dropped the line and cut up that bank like a whipped dog. Bill washed the mud off himself, and followed with his clothes under his arm. Abe was at the camp, wildly excited, telling the other men about the monster. By this time it had red eyes, as large as saucers, a green mane and tail, four tremendous legs, and claws ten inches long. 'Never saw th' like of it,' says Abe. 'Never heerd th' like of it. 'Twarnt no known animal, I'll swear.' Bill walked up. 'Here's your tackle, Abe Watts,' he says. 'Darned hard lines if a man can't go for a dive 'thout gettin' hooked an hauled up like a blamed fish!' The men roared, and poor Abe slunk away to hide himself."
"A day or two later, when they'd finished rafting, Abe called out to Sooley, who was paring a lash for his whip. 'Hey, Bill, look 'ere!' He pointed out a boomer kangaroo, standing bolt upright about two hundred yards away. 'What about some 'rootail soup?' Bill whipped in and got his rifle. 'He's mine, first pop,' he says, dropping on his knee. He fired at the chest, but, the roo didn't fall. It never moved. 'Must 'a' been something wrong with that cartridge,' says Bill, puzzled. He examined the next, put it in carefully, and fired again. Same result. 'Why, I thought you could shoot!' says Abe. 'Danged if I ken make it out,' says Bill. 'Swear them shots hit.' 'Strange he didn't move,' says Abe. 'Didn't so much as wince.' 'Never saw a blamed 'roo stand fire like it,' says Bill. 'Mus' be hard o' hearin',' says Abe. He's lookin' straight at us, whether-or-no,' says Bill. 'Mus' be par-blind, too,' says Abe. Another slug was presented to him. Still he stood. 'Well, that beats all!' says Bill. ' 'S either paralysed with fright, or he died standin'. Reckon I'll alter his attitude 'fore I'm done with him.' He walked towards the animal, loading as he went. Fifty yards off he fired again. No impression. Then he walked right up, sidled round him, prodded him with the gun fore and aft, and peered into his eyes. Then Bill pulled him savagely by the ear, and his head fell over, showing the top of a stake and some dry grass sticking up through the skin. When Bill came back, he was about the maddest man ever seen around Big Hole."
They had barely crossed the house paddock when Kilfloggin thumped into Mrs Keaton's front room. He had lately taken an interest in that lady.
"Seen yer son, an' 'air gaw'n Fairymede way," Kilfloggin remarked, flopping into a chair, and spinning his hat under the table. S'pose yo'll soon be 'avin' a weddin' in th' fam'ly?"
"Why—who's there to get married?" asked the widow, surprised.
"Phugh! He can't keep himself, let 'lone a wife. He's stuck in that room there, an' not a word out of him, from jackass to mopoke, an' from mopoke to jackass agin. I tell him if ever he gets married his wife 'ill run away from him the fust week."
"Too much edjecation, missus, too much on't. 'S all very well for them as is rich an' ken afford to put on airs an' live up to it, but for a poor man it spells ruin. Spoils him every way yer look at it."
"It's spoilt him, 't any rate. I told th' old man it would at th' outset. I sed as sure as eggs wasn't onions he'd be a ruined man if he got too much edjecation. An' wasn't I right?"
"You was, missus. There's no two ways about that."
"There's Luke an' Eustace." the widow went on. " 'S there anyone on the Yeerong can drive bullocks or use a cross-cut saw better'n they can?"
"There ain't. They was real bobby-dazzlers, them boys."
"An' you should just hear Luke singin'!"
"Heerd him, missus. Fine singer, Luke,"
" 'Way down upon th' Swanee River' was a great favourite of his. He could sing it grand. I used to sit on that doorstep, a nights listen in' when Eustace 'ud be on th' woodheap with th' concertina, an' Luke 'ud be lyin' on his back on th' grass, singin' th' 'Swanee."
"Could play the jews-harp a bit, too," Kilfloggin added, spitting on the cat; and wiping his mouth with his arm. "Use ter like ter hear him."
"He was the jolliest of the fam'ly, th' only one with any music in him. The others couldn't so much as whistle a toon. Luke was full o' fun. Plenty o' life in th' place when he was 'ome."
"Aye, Luke was the rollickin' sort."
"Bit fond of his nip, like his father. That's his only fault. We'd all been well off if 't 'adn't been for Hugh drinkin' so, an' fillin' that boy's head with a lot o' rot. 'S right enough, I use to tell him, to have enough learnin' in the fam'ly to make up a log, but we've got no use for any more. 'S like learnin' 'Melia Jane to play the goana, as old Peter was talkin' o' doin' once. Ah, well, he's gone now, poor old feller, an' there's no use stirrin' up old sores."
"Not a bit o' use."
"I only hope Luke won't turn out like the old man. One thing, he's got Eustace with him, an' that might keep him straight."
"Aye, Eustace 'll keep a pull on him. They'll be comin' 'ome some day with a good stockin' for y'r."
"God send they will. I'd be sure 'o' what Eustace had. He was always good-hearted, an' never kept a penny from me. Luke's seldom got any to give. Fools it away. Mark's the stingy one. He'd skin a flea for its hide. But he wont work 'cept at them books. He'll go mad over 'em yet. Mad as a hatter."
"He will; no two ways about that."
"He hasn't enough edjecation to be a real scholar, an' too much to be a man."
"That's it. Ye've jus' sed it, missis. He ought to go out an' jine his brothers. They're th' coves 'ud make a man of him. P'rhaps they'll take him out when they come."
"I wish to God they would."
"Le's 'ave a drop on the strength of it, missus," said Kilfloggin, with a shy look, at the same time extracting a flask from his pocket.
"You're a terrible man, George," the widow reproved. "You're goin' from bad to worse." And she shook her head and looked sad.
George grinned;. "Come on," he said persuasively. "Wish 'em luck in a good old nobbler."
"It's the curse o' the country, George," she said, eyeing the bottle. "It's been the ruin o' many a good fam'ly, but—" Her lips were getting dry. —"Still, there's no 'arm in havin' a glass now'n agin. Does good at times if taken in mod'ration."
"Them's my sentiments. 'S all right es long's yer know when to put the peg in."
"What I use to tell the old man," said the widow, rising. " 'Now Hugh,' I'd say, it's time to put the peg in.' 'S all right, Mary,' he 'd say. 'We'll put him in by'n-bye.' He would, too."
"When the keg was empty," added George.
"When the keg was empty," the widow repeated, swallowing as the dryness went down her throat. "Them kegs was the devil's own. Ye'd see one strapped on top of every jinker that went out after pay day, an' there'd be carousin' an' fightin' to no end up at th' mountains. Th' old hands swallered more cedar logs that way an' ever you seen, George. 'Twas th' drunkenest crick this as ever run water."
George shook the bottle and held it up to the light.
"Good head," he said.
"Wait till I get the tumblers, George," she enjoined, and bustled out.
Mark and Leonard waited at the log bridge that spanned an arm of the lagoon separating Fairymede from Gimbo. Here was a cluster of willows overhanging the water, a few rustic seats, and a family boat moored at the end of a rough plank. It was an old trysting place, where, as Biddy put it, "many a poor fool had sowed trouble for future rapin';" and it was here that Aunt Jo dreamt her dreams of the sweet by-and-bye.
"We are too early," said Leonard, lightning a cigarette. Mark did not smoke. He was too mean, his mother said.
"Whom are we here to meet?" he asked.
"Girls," said' Leonard. He threw himself down on the grass under the willows. "I've been wanting to tell you a secret ever since the ball," he went on. "You missed a treat by not going—and Ethel missed you."
"D'you think so?" asked Mark, quickly.
"Sure of it. Why didn't you come?"
"Because old Mac carried too many guns. Seems to have the inside running, confound him."
'"You're making a bloomer," said Leonard. "Your chances are as good as mine were. I carried my heart in my boots, as you are doing now. But while the knot's untied there's hope. I pegged away—quietly; and to-day I'm the happiest sinner on the Yeerong."
"So you have won the monopoly?" said Mark.
"Yes, old fellow; she's my copyright," laughed Leonard.
"You're lucky," said Mark, seriously, while his mind pictured all manner of delightfully amorous scenes, and his eyes wore that envious look of a fruitless lover listening to the rhapsodies of a more fortunate swain. "She's a good little girl—the second best about here."
"The second best! Who, then, is the best?"
Leonard smiled. "Of course," he said, "every man considers his own bit of property the nonpareil. She is par excellence the sweetest and dearest on earth. We'll not quarrel over that. It's only natural that you and I, running on separate tracks, should hold different opinions on this subject."
"Just as well it is so," said Mark, "or we would both be in love with Ethel. That would be a misfortune."
"Rivals can never be friends. We'd be cutting each other's throats."
"More likely you'd be cutting your own in the background," said Leonard. "Old M'Gurren's got you flogging now—and I'd treat M'Gurren as a joke." Mark glared at the lagoon and chewed grass. "You are too backward; too slow, in fact," Leonard continued. "A woman likes a cheerful, fearless man. Ethel is naturally gay, but she's hobbled. She's at the beck and call of a heartless duenna. Why don't you stiffen your backbone and oust M'Gurren?"
Mark's face flushed, and his cheeks quivered for an instant. "Do you mean to tell me," he cried, "that he would marry Ethel?"
"Of course—if he could."
"He can't though?"
Mark bit his lip. A flock of parrots swooped over them. Their screechings sounded afar off. "I don't believe it!" he said, with suppressed passion. "Ethel's got too much spirit to marry an old reprobate like him. He's old enough to be a child's playmate, and she's not mercenary enough to take his wealth into consideration. There's nothing mercenary in her nature."
"There is in her stepmother's. She got on the soft side of Myles Lethcote for his stocking, and she'll sell Ethel for M'Gurren's."
"And would you stand by and see her do it?"
"How can I interfere?"
"You are Ethel's cousin."
"That doesn't give me the right to oppose her father and stepmother."
"Surely her father is not a party to it?"
"He's only a mere automaton. He has to lump what Biddy likes. He owns up."
"Then he's no man!" Mark asseverated.
"He's good-hearted, but he's got no backbone," Leonard interposed.
"A henpecked husband is a contemptible creature." Mark persisted. "I'd like to see the woman who would get the better of me."
"Don't crow," said Leonard. "Seems to me you're just about beaten now." He nodded towards Fairymede. "You are letting Ethel drift further and further from you, while M'Gurren follows her like a poodle. I'd like her to be your wife, but if you dally much longer you'll lose her. There's too much procrastination about you for good-fortune to be your hand-maiden. Buck up to her as if you owned creation. There's only one road to take in love—straight ahead. Doesn't matter how much you stumble and blunder. The main thing is to keep on."
Mark was accustomed to this kind of plain speaking from Leonard. He remained silent for some time, pulling blades of grass and nibbling them, his brow knitted in meditation. Leonard did not interrupt him. He hoped he had at last instilled some determination in this fluctuating lover.
Presently he said: "Tell me how you did it—what you said, and what she said."
"Don't remember exactly," said Leonard. "Proposals are usually foolish—as seen by others."
"As seen by cold-blooded mortals and useless old prudes," corrected Mark. "You've been through the mill. I might profit by your experience."
"I don't think you would," said Leonard. "Frankly, I had my little speech prepared six months beforehand. I used to be proposing morn, noon and night. I'd lay awake half the night thinking about it, and mope around all day talking to myself. I practised an anticipatory dialogue smart, witty and complimentary what I would lead off with, what she would be likely to reply, and what I would say to that; and so on till I got her in my arms."
"Yes?" said Mark, brightening up.
"All wasted effort," said Leonard. "Ready-made speeches are the hardest to say when you get the girl in front of you. And she doesn't say the things she ought, and her actions don't fit. She's got you bogged in five seconds. Best way is not to think anything till the opportunity occurs—then jump into the first opening she gives you—say whatever comes handy."
"What did you say?"
"Well, we were looking at the stars (astronomy's a fine supplementary subject when you're courting; study astronomy), and she remarked that it was a beautiful night. That was an opening—and I braced myself up at once and jumped in. 'Everything's beautiful where you are,' I said."
"What did she say to that?"
"She said, 'That'll do you now!' and looked at me sideways, and tittered a little bit, you know. That was encouraging, I could see she was pleased."
"Yes but what did you say then?"
"I said, 'I mean it.' Then I put my arm round her quickly, and said, 'Liela, I love you!' "
"Ah! And what did she say?"
"She said, 'Oh, get out!' and tried to pull away."
"I said, 'I do, really.' "
"And what did she say?"
"Nothing. Only hung her head, looked pleased—and blushed."
"What did you do then?"
"Hugged her and kissed her."
"Good What did she say to that?"
"Only looked more pleased, and blushed furiously."
"And what happened next?"
"Her old man happened, next. He popped round the corner suddenly, and he said, 'Hulloa what are you doing here?' I was a bit flabbergasted, and could only grin. You know the fierce way he fixes his eyes on you, and stares, with his head thrust forward. He made no wriggle. We were always first-rate friends, Battye and I, though he was going to help me off his premises with a stockwhip once for taking the loan of a horse of his without asking. I reckoned he'd just about shoot me for taking his daughter. But seemingly the daughter wasn't as important as the horse."
"You were always a lucky beggar," said Mark, enviously. "If Biddy had caught me like that with Ethel, I'd have been poll-axed on the spot."
"Here they come!" Leonard interrupted.
Mark gazed up the track for a moment with flushed cheeks. Ethel and Liela were coming towards them, leading Aunt Jo and M'Gurren by nearly half a mile.
"Looks dainty enough to touch the heart of a wheelbarrow," he said, admiringly.
"Yes, she's a fine girl," Leonard agreed. "Are you going to put it to her?"
"Go up to her and spit it straight out. Girls like spirit."
They met. A few trite remarks and some maidenly tittering followed, then Leonard marched off with Liela. Mark stood alone with Ethel, looking as cheerful as a bear with a sore head. His heart was thumping into his neck; five minutes later it might have been a brick he had swallowed by the cold, dead feel of it.
And Leonard, happiest of mortals, dawdling slowly homeward with his little sweetheart under his wing, and admiring the beauty of the evening, and everything mundane, never guessed that Mark's love, like his manuscripts, had been declined with thanks."
Miss Monaugh and Mr M'Gurren strolled slowly towards the willow trees. The spinster was in excellent spirits, and talked more flippantly than was her wont. She felt that this was a triumph not to be lightly passed over—her walking along with the bird of Tillalee when Ethel was going the same way. He knew nothing of the plans that had been carefully concocted before leaving Fairymede House, or perhaps the two younger ladies would not have eluded him so easily and gone on ahead.
"We'd form quite a delightful procession from the tryst if we all went afoot," said the spinster meaningly. "Three couples, one behind the other."
"I canna see more'n two," said M'Gurren, looking suspiciously in front.
"We are not all paired yet," the spinster answered. "Mark and Leonard are under the willows. See, the girls are now joining them. Don't you think, Mr M'Gurren, that they would make two excellent matches—Leonard and Liela, and Mark and Ethel?"
"I ken Leonard an' Miss Battye are engeeged ta be marrit, buit I dinna ken muckle aboot th' relationship o' the other twa. Buit she wadna be sa foolish as ta rin after one o' his ilk, wad she?"
"Surely you have nothing to say against Mr Keaton? He's a good, honest young fellow, and a gentleman every inch of him. I know that for certain. I've had an opportunity of judging."
"That's richt enou', buit he's poor, varra poor."
"What of that? Were not the best of Scotland's heroes poor? Was not Robbie Burns poor?"
"Dinna coompare a skit o' a mon like that wi' Rabbie Burns. He was a guid laddie ta his parents. He didna loaf on them like this mooncalf here. I wadna gi' a bawbee for a mon that cudna earn a bannock wi' the pattle or the whop, or one that cudna gang awa' frae his mither's appron strings."
" 'He's a man for a' that,' " the spinster quoted. "As to not being able to earn a bannock—whatever that may be—let me say, Mr M'Gurren, that Mark works harder than many of those who accuse him of being a loafer. He's a clever man, and he'd be an excellent match, I consider, for Ethel. They are so much of an age. He may be poor as a bandicoot now, but he has good picking before him."
"I canna see it," said M'Gurren. " 'Tis mair likely he'll ga ta the dogs a'tagither. He's not unco strang ta work."
"He's not built for a navvy or a cedar-getter but he's got brains. He's following the avocation that Nature fitted him for. I hope, Mr M'Gurren, it isn't prejudice that makes you speak so disparagingly of Mark Keaton?"
"Na, na. I hae varra mickle agin the lad. I dinna like ta see him carryin' on wi' Ethel in this fashion, that's a'. Her mither wad make muckle ta do if she kent they meetit at the breedge."
"I actually believe, Mr M'Gurren, that you are jealous."
"Na, na; dinna say that," M'Gurren protested hurriedly.
"You give me that impression," the spinster returned vengefully. "There's no more impropriety in her meeting Mr Keaton at the bridge than there is in our walking together. He didn't meet her by appointment either. It was merely chance. He came, it seems to me, for an outing with Leonard."
"Buit he mauna kent Leonard was camit ta meet his sweetheart. I speer Leonard telt him ta cam ta make luv ta Ethel."
"What if he did?" said Miss Monaugh, defiantly. "If Mark is not a proper person to make love to Ethel, who is? I can think of no one more suitable for her among the people of the Yeerong. As I said, he's just the age—about three or four years her senior. I hold that no woman should think of marrying a man who is more than four years older than herself until she has reached the age of—er—thirty. It isn't proper; it's often a sin. Many who have passed their prime, for instance, like to marry young girls. There is no love in such matches, only a morbid desire on the part of the beastly male person. The girl is sacrificed on the altar of Mammon. It's slavery, pure and simple. Does he not buy the girl? And is she not in bondage for life? God grant that Ethel will never be made the victim of such heinous practices. Let her have love in a bark hut rather than be a slave in a castle. There's no happiness in ill-assorted marriages. Money can't buy it. I've never been married myself, but I've had an opportunity of judging."
They had now reached the bridge. Leonard and Liela had gone on, waving their adieux from a distance, and Mark and Ethel stood with downcast faces behind the willows. The spinster had a quick eye, and she discerned in an instant that the subject under discussion was a serious one. She took little heed of this, for Mark was generally grave and meditative, even when others were rippling with merriment. Her attention was more occupied with Mr M'Gurren. He was angry, she could see, and he watched the young couple with an ugly frown. Even when mere civility demanded a reply to some frivolous question, he spoke in an altered tone to her, and shot glances their way that were like flashes of fire. She was puzzled, and was conscious of a chilly fear creeping over her. She dreaded something, but she hardly knew yet what that something was. She had a vague idea that things were not progressing as she wished, that M'Gurren's fancy was riveted on Ethel—not on her. In confirmation of this, there cropped up the remembrance of his preferment of Ethel at the ball, and the recollection of a remark passed by the unscrupulous Kilfloggin, that "Ol' Porridge-pot was breakin' his blamed neck after th' little piece o' Lethcote's." Many other little incidents she recalled, giving credence to her suspicions; but she trusted Ethel too implicitly to suspect her of any conspiracy. If Ethel was a rival at all, it was unwittingly. She was aware that Biddy had base designs on "Moneybags," but the thought that he would be willing to gratify that sordid desire had never entered her mind. She must speak to Ethel. This evening they two would be alone, and she must be acquainted with everything, or—
"Fetch the lassie alang noo, Mis Monaugh, an' I'll get the boat ready," M'Gurren broke in abruptly, bustling about and knocking himself out of breath in his eagerness to get the ladies on board as quickly as possible.
The bottom of the boat was strewn with willow leaves which had to be cleaned out; the rowlocks had to be fixed in their places, and the oars got out, and the seats cleaned. Aunt Jo, instead of joining Ethel, sat down on one of the rustic seats and watched operations. This exasperated M'Gurren, who was now very red in the face, and perspiring like a water-cart. He didn't speak, and Jo was too pre-occupied to make any comment. She wished to leave Mark and Ethel together till the last moment, and then to have a word with the young man before they started to row round to Fairymede. But when she turned round, intent upon that object, she found herself face to face with Ethel, and saw Mark, already out of earshot, hurrying homewards. Then M'Gurren, thinking they were yet in company, and before he had hardly completed his task, cried out sharply:
"Noo then, cam alang wi' ye, an' let's gang awa' hame. The nicht i' camin' on, an' we have a lang pull, I ken."
"Don't you think, Mr M'Gurren, that it would be better to leave the boat where it is and walk back?" Ethel protested. After her interview with Mark, she dreaded being shut up in that small boat under the eyes of Aunt Jo and M'Gurren. It would occupy the latter an hour to pull round, and that time now would seem a week to Ethel.
She was sorry for Mark. She was pale and excited, and waves of emotion swept through her at times choking her utterance. She wanted to get home, to be in her own room, where she could think it all over, and perhaps "have a good cry." But M'Gurren was not to be denied. He pulled the boat well up to the landing, and held it there so that they could step in safely. When they were seated, and the boat had been pushed off, M'Gurren, taking a precautionary look around him by way of preface, gave vent to his pent-up feelings in an abusive outburst against the "moon-calf," holding forth that it was ungentlemanly; illustrative of ill-breeding, in fact, "to rin awa' wi'oot e'en a word or a nod to a body. Heigh!" continued the irate M'Gurren, "nin buit the roughs o' Yeerong wad da sich a thing. Ta rin awa' wi'oot takin' leave o' a body! Weel, weel, that beats a'!" And he laughed, a low, gurgling laugh that had little of mirth in it.
Twice Ethel essayed to speak, and each time a lump seemed to rise in her throat. At last she broke down, and tears trickled silently through her fingers as she sat bowed in the stern of the boat.
For a moment M'Gurren stared, then swung his oars savagely. Unfortunately, he missed the water on each side, and fell on his neck over the seat. Jo laughed. She couldn't help it. M'Gurren, very red in the face, and breathing like a half-winded horse, scrambled up, and got into swing again with the energy of a bull-ant on a hot shovel.
Aunt Jo monopolised M'Gurren as much as possible, to allow Ethel to regain her composure. She had never before been in such perplexity, and her heart was weighted with doubts and misgivings. She was certain of four things: That Ethel loved Mark Keaton; that they had quarrelled and parted; that M'Gurren loved or wanted Ethel; and that the course of her own true love thenceforth could not run smooth. She was angry with both. And M'Gurren was morose and taciturn. Consequently the conversation was difficult, and intervals of painful silence were frequent. He was uncertain and jerky in his rowing, and twice went near to capsizing the boat. The lagoon was not an easy course for an amateur to take a boat over patches of reeds and water-lilies frequently intervened, in which one or other of the oars would become entangled. Now the left would be dipped far down into the water, while the other would skim over the surface, and M'Gurren would nearly go on his neck again; then he would run her nose into a clump of reeds, and bring down a shower of furry blossoms that smothered their heads and stuck to their dresses. Nor was this all. At every second or third stroke a shower of water went flying over them; and the climax was reached when M'Gurren, by an awkward lurch, let one of his oars drop in the stream.
"Dear me," cried Aunt Jo, unable to restrain herself any longer, "what a treat you are giving us! Hadn't we belter pull ashore? We'll have an accident."
"Bide a wee," said M'Gurren irritably. "We're gettin' alang fine—considerin' I havna hondled a blade for twa months. We'll be hame in guid time, lassies. I maun be mair heedfu' o the weeds, that's a'."
He paddled back as one would paddle a canoe, and then Aunt Jo picked up the floating oar. M'Gurren held out his hand for it, but Aunt Jo had no intention of surrendering it.
"I am going to help navigate this craft," she announced, with decision.
"Dinna trooble, lass, dinna trooble yesel'," M'Gurren objected. "Ah can pull her hame mesel'."
"No, you can't. "It's sundown—or very near it and this is a dangerous place to be benighted in. We are wet too. We'll catch our death of cold if we don't hurry."
It was a cruel little speech, and M'Gurren looked pained.
"I'm sorry, lass, ta have wet ye," he said, with genuine contriteness. " 'Twa on accoont o' the weeds. But there's a clear stretch ahud noo, an' I'll pull her hame wi'oot a splash."
"No, you wont," said Aunt Jo stoutly. "The exercise is good for me, and I'm going to pull an oar."
She sat down beside the disconcerted Scotchman, and commenced to use the oar with more dexterity and vigour than he was able to show. Ethel, alone in the stern, and finding it trying to her nerves to remain inertly facing the rowers, took up a short plank that lay at her feet, and with this improvised rudder steered the craft safely through the intricacies of the winding, reed-grown lagoon.
M'Gurren was ill-pleased at the change. He showed it in his face, and in the manner of his rowing. To be deprived of an oar was a slur against his ability as a waterman, and to he ousted from his position of a leader by a woman was, before Ethel, a degradation not to be permitted to pass unavenged. He watched his opportunities, and when a huge clump of rushes loomed up before them, or a snag appeared dangerously near, he threw all his strength into his stroke to slew the boat round so that she would strike. He didn't care if he perished himself, as long as he succeeded in wrecking "that pree-posterous woman." But, to his chagrin, he saw them passed untouched. Aunt Jo appeared to be pulling with the greatest ease; he was exerting himself to the utmost. He grew redder in the face, and breathed hard and short. Yet her simple, easy stroke counterbalanced his, and try as he would to force her round, the boat sped serenely on. At last he paused from sheer exhaustion.
"Losh, wuman, I maun sey ye pull a fine strook," he panted, looking in a dazed and wondering manner at his companion's slender arms. "I dinna ken hoo it is," he continued, with a mystified air. "Ye dinna seem ta put muckle power int' ye strook, an' yet I canna mak ony mair impression on her thon yesel', an' I maun sey I pull unco hard. I canna mak it oot at a."
"Have you been trying to force her round to show that your strength is greater than mine?" Jo asked indignantly.
"Well, I'll telt the truth, I have. I cudna stund bein' beaten by a wuman," M'Gurren confessed, wiping the teeming perspiration from his heated face.
"You've knocked yourself up," said Jo, placidly. "I thought you were getting rather short in your strokes."
"I kepit time." M'Gurren returned. "Buit I cudna get her roond."
"You were silly to try. You know, M'Gurren," pursued Aunt Jo in her most affable manner, "brute strength is little use when pitted against science. I've had an opportunity of judging."
M'Gurren had forgotten that Ethel was steering the boat, otherwise he might have been tempted to try his brute strength against the spinster's science. She was glad when a diversion occurred. Round a sharp point they came abreast of an old man fishing on the bank. This was Myles Lethcote, seated under a broad straw hat, his rod across his knee, complacently smoking a short pipe and waiting with his accustomed patience for a bite. Fishing and reading absorbed most of his time when Biddy wasn't in her tantrums and giving him the rounds of the kitchen.
"Weel, mon, have ye cochit ony fush the day?" asked M'Gurren, grasping the excuse for a rest with enthusiasm.
"Five on 'em," Myles answered.
"Guid, varra guid!"
Myles had four very little ones behind a tussock, and one big one. He held up the big one as a sample put it down and held it up again, repeating the performance until he had apparently shown five different fish.
"Losh, they're fine specimens," said M'Gurren. "What i' aboon the weicht o' them?"
"Purty near three pun, I'll warrant," said Myles. "Nowt t'what unhooked while ago. Fetched un all but top an' lost un. Didn't let'n take un far 'nough 'fore I gin haul un in. Been chuckin' round for hour or more, spectin' he'd come back. Baint seen nowt on him since, though."
"He wont coom bock, mon," said M'Gurren, with the air of a man who knew all about the ways of fish. "Get aboord here, an' we'll tak' ye alang hame wi' us. Ye cochit enough the day."
Myles shook his head, and shifted the pipe to the other side of his mouth. "E'll come back," he said. " 'N' if I get half a chance at un, I'll nab un next shot."
"Why, pa, it may be a bunyip," Ethel suggested, laughing for the first time since they had started.
"Shugh!" said Myles, and shifted his pipe again.
"He dinna b'lieve in the bunyip," said M'Gurren, chuckling.
The fisherman's back seemed to straighten. "Didna ever see bunyip, Mac?" he asked.
"Na, I canna sey I've seen one; buit I've heard tellit o' 'whops of 'em. I ken th' bunyip i' the big fush that awa's gets awa, mon."
Aunt Jo saved the situation for Myles. "There's some awfully big eels in this lagoon, though, and they come up from the bottom after sundown. Let's be getting home."
"Oots, wuman!" said M'Gurren. "Are ye afrud of an eel? They winna da ye the bit o' harm."
Aunt Jo shrugged her shoulders. "I shouldn't like to try them," she said. "They're horrid things."
They lay to their oars again and left the old man fishing, a satisfied smile making curves round the stem of his pipe. At the boatshed they disembarked. M'Gurren and Ethel went homewards together! They dawdled along, at the former's request, to allow Aunt Jo to draw away from them. This she did with more readiness than might have been expected but Aunt Jo had "good reasons." When she had got beyond earshot, M'Gurren took Ethel's arm in a fatherly fashion and said:
"Ye didna seem varra hoppy this afternoon, lassie. Did ye fa' oot wi' the lad frae Gimbo?"
"No, Mr M'Gurren," Ethel answered simply.
"Ye creed i' the boat, lassie!"
"Have ye ony trouble?"
Ethel refused to be drawn out. M'Gurren was at a loss for an explanation. She kept her face persistently from him, and he was obliged to stoop his broad shoulders when speaking to her. Mrs Lethcote, bubbling over with excitement and expectancy, at this interesting juncture was standing on tip-toe at the lattice window, which commanded a full view of the long straight path, and watching every movement of the approaching twain. Aunt Jo, somewhat flurried, and panting from the prodigious exertion of walking up the incline, came in and joined her.
"The Lord bless ye, Jo! Ye did fine to come away an' lave thim together," Mrs Lethcote ejaculated. "He's proposin', Jo! D'ye see how he's bindin' over her. That's how y'r brother Pat—God rist his bones—bint over me whin he popped the question—his hand just so, his head a bit av a skew. Ah! now she's squintin' at him. Lord bless us, say yis, darlint! Ye've got your chancer now. Pon me sowl, she'll be Mrs M'Gurren afore the year's out. Ah, they've shtopt! Didn't I tell you so? They're havin' the usual bit av a blarney, d'ye mind. Ah—good! Ooh drat him, he's put his hands behind him—no! Well done, me boy—he's comin' agin! Be jabers, he's too slow for a funeral. Why th' divil don't he hug the colleen!"
Aunt Jo's heart was going pit-a-pat, and she observed the movements of the loiterers with envious eyes. If he would only bend over her like that; if her ears could catch the tender words meant only for Ethel; How slowly the time seemed, to drag away. Each moment seemed an hour, and it appeared that the time when she would be alone with Ethel would never come. But she heard it all at last, and it gave her a problem to solve.
At the moment when she had seen them stop, M'Gurren was saying;—
"It's na use talkin', lassie, I ken ye na hoppy wi ye mither. She's varra poor, an' I wad like ta help her. I have a fine hoose owre the loch, buit it's unco lonely by mesel'. I want a wife o' my ain, d'ye ken. Wul ye coom, lassie, an' share it wi' me?"
"Oh, Mr M'Gurren, please don't ask me!" Ethel cried affrightedly. "I can't leave my father yet. He's very good to me."
"Then let's get marrit, an' ye can be guid ta him. I am a wee bit auld, lassie, buit I am rich, an' I'll gi' ye enough for a'. He'll live in coomfort an' peace wi' ye mither then, an' Aunt Jo wul bide wi' us at Tillalee. They telt me yestreen that onless ye marrit money ye'd have ta gang ta service, an' ye faither maun wuk like Kilfloggin an' Abe Watts."
"Who told you that?" Ethel cried, almost fiercely.
"Ye mither tauld me," M'Gurren answered her. "I'd be laith ta see ye baith wukin' awa' like flunkies whun there's na need ta. An' ye can dreeve aboot yesel' in fine frocks instud. I spuk ta ye mither yestreen, an she consentit. Sa ye have only ta sey th' wad, lassie, an' ye troubles wul be owre."
"My troubles are only just beginning," said Ethel, in a low voice.
She was agitated. The crisis she had long dreaded was upon her. Various pictures of the future, resultant upon this or that decision, flashed through her mind. Poor Ethel! She recognised the impossibility of remaining longer with her step-mother if she refused to marry money now that it was offered her. The thought that poor old pater should have to give up angling for "big uns," and go scrub-cutting or something, was the sorest point. For him she had rejected Mark Keaton. But Myles would sooner be shot than see her married to M'Gurren. He wanted her near him; but her presence could not save him from the threatened cropper if she did not respect the wishes of his better-half. She felt weak.
"Dinna fash aboon troubles, lassie," M'Gurren rejoined. "Gi' me ye bond, an' I'll mak ye my bonny bride. I'll dreeve ye owre the hielans in the gig, an' row ye owre the loch; an' evra nicht I'll singit ye auld favourite sangs—'My Lav She's Buit a Lassie Yet,' an' 'Auld Robin Gray.' "
"I know you mean well, Mr M'Gurren, and—if you really love me—"
"Dinna doobt it, lassie," M'Gurren broke in gleefully. "I canna spak as I ought ta, buit—I luv ye. I luv ye!"
"Then have pity—spare me. Oh, spare me!" Ethel cried, breaking down.
M'Gurren's jaw dropped as though someone had hit him. "Oots, lassie," he said, roughly, "ye canna ask for mair'n I wad give ye."
"I am too young to marry," she went on, piteously. "Don't ask me till I'm twenty. I'll give you my answer then. Grant me that—if only that,"
M'Gurren did not respond. He was looking down, and tapping his foot on the ground. Ethel sighed, and continued:
"My step-mother would force me to marry for money. She doesn't like me. She wants to get rid of me—wants to sell me. She's cruel and selfish. If you love me, don't be her cat's paw—don't buy me."
M'Gurren stared at the landscape, looking stunned.
"Tell her nothing of what's passed between us," Ethel went on, "or she'll pay me out somehow. I didn't mean to tell you this—I don't know what I'm saying. Let it end here—till—till I'm twenty."
"Bide a wee. Gin I promise ta mention it na mair tul ye twenty, wul ye promise ta drap a' intercourse wi' the lad frae Gimbo?"
"All intercourse between us has already ceased."
"Varra quid. Ye ha' my promise."
"And you won't tell my step-mother what took place here this evening?" asked Ethel, speaking with a little more calmness, though there was still a frightened look in her eyes. M'Gurren pitied her. She looked such a helpless little thing standing there, timid and trembling. He took her hand and fondled it between his own.
"Na, lassie," he answered, more tenderly. "I wad like ye ta be my ain, buit I dinna want ye ta be onhoppy. Sa have ye way, lassie, have ye way."
"Thank you," said Ethel. As soon as she reached her room Mrs Lethcote rushed after her.
"Phwat did he say?" she whispered excitedly. "Phwat was he sayin?"
"He was telling me about the beautiful house he has at Tillalee."
"And he asked me would I like to live there."
"Good! An', you towld him—"
"I thought I would like it."
"Good agin! Phwat did he say to that?"
"Some day I might. I was too young yet."
The lightning change in Biddy's face was almost pathetic.
"Too young yet!" she shrieked. "God sake, does the blitherin' old fool think ye'r a grane sugar plum or something that 'ill spile be pluckin'! Too young at aighteen! 'Tis precious little he knows about wimmen. The owld shrimp!"
"When I was twenty he would ask me to share it with him," Ethel hurried on.
"Share phwat?" asked Biddy.
"His beautiful house," said Ethel.
"His beautiful fiddleshticks!" Biddy snorted. "Whin ye're twinty indade!"
"Yes, mamma," Ethel answered.
"The loggerjowl! Phwat's he thinkin' about at all, at all?"
She stood frowning at the wall, her hands on her hips. Ethel, timid and anxious, toyed with her bangle. She feared, not so much her step-mother's imperiousness now that a compromise had been arranged with Mr M'Gurren, but that her duplicity would be discovered if she were subjected to much cross-questioning.
Presently Biddy inquired: "Phwat did you say to him thin?"
"I didn't say anything," Ethel answered.
"Ye couldn't 'ave sed much less, indade," Biddy retorted. "Bedad, ye deserve to go to th' washtub, ye do. Whin an illigant squireen comes a-courtin' ye, an' ye shtand like a booby an' let him think ye're a bit av a chicken. Did I ever hear th' like of it!" And the old lady swung sharply, and stamped away with fireworks in her heels.
Ethel heaved a sigh of relief, and flew to the motherly arms of Aunt Jo.
Mark had become more solitary in his habits than ever, and, like Myles, spent much of his time fishing. It wasn't a very exciting diversion for a jilted lover, but it led him to a discovery that stirred the devil in him. He was sitting in a shaded nook, where he was screened from view by overhanging lillipillies and wild cherry trees, nursing a crooked rod, and watching a monotonous floater. Presently voices disturbed his quietude, and a moment later he recognised Kilfloggin and "Crowbar." They were on the same errand as himself, both carrying their whipsticks, the whips being rolled tightly round them, and a fishing line dangling from the small end of each. This saved the trouble of cutting special rods.
Mark looked about for a means of escape. He didn't want to meet those kind of people. They always asked him, with a grin up their sleeves, "hadn't he got a job yet?" It was humiliating to admit even that he wanted such a low thing as a job. He hauled in his lines quickly, and, not having time to slip away unseen, he hid himself in the thick undergrowth. To his chagrin, they threw down their tackle close by, and commenced fishing. Under the circumstances, he could do nothing but remain like a crouching rabbit until they went away, as discovery now would be doubly embarrassing. They were in a talkative mood, and soon he was listening attentively.
"So yer goin' ter spend yer Sunday at Gimbo," Crowbar was saying; "Whatcher little game there?"
"Jes' wait awhile. Got a good thing on. Sumthin' better'n roughin' it in them man-killin' scrubs," Kilfloggin replied.
"I see!" said Crowbar. "Hangin' yer hat up to ther widder, eh?"
"Got it on th' peg, me boy. Goin' ter be spliced soon. This is strickly confidential, mind yer. Whatcher think of it?"
"Wal, dang me if it don't beat cockfightin'. A wild scrag of a scrub warrior like you puttin' th' yoke on Widder Keaton. S' must be kinder 'ard up."
"Hard up be hanged! Reckon I'm good enough for Widder Keaton eny day. She's not one o' them as goes in for finery, an' puttin' on airs, an' that sort o' tomfoolery. 'S rough an' ready as they make 'em. Jes' my style to a T. Ye'll see me spare-chainin' her up ter parson's 'fore long. Won't I cut a shine then!"
"Wot about Lord Muck, th' pote? He'll bite a bit, I reckon."
"He'll bite sumthin' purty hard, you make no error. Wait till we're hitched up all tight an' square, an' I'll let him know wot for. I prog-nos-ticate there'll be a lively-bust-up in that fam'ly. 'Tween me an' you an' th' gate post, I've put up with a' lot of his foppishness for th' sake of old Mary. Why, dynamite his eyes, he's too almighty big to look th' way we're goin'. Like Mad Sambo down at th' dairy. Sacked th' best qualified worker he ever 'ad 'cause th' feller was too much of a white man to crawl round him like a grovellin' worm. . . . I only took th' job to oblige him while I was spellin' me bullocks."
"Oh, you was th' bloke wot flung th' dish o' butter over Sambo?"
"I was. By th' jumpin' Jemima, it took a fall out of him. Lapped round his mug bewtyful."
"Did yer go back for yer wages?" asked Crowbar.
"I didn't. Wouldn't touch his dirty stuff if he brought it to me," Kilfloggin answered. "But Mr High-an'-mighty Mark Keaton Esquire needn't try that game on," he resumed: I'll 'ave it all out of him, take my tip. Got a spare team, 'n if he don't like to go an' portify that he ken put a coil in his bluey an' get. I'll 'ave none of him. 'S a bit too sudding for me."
"Time he chucked th' titty-bottle onyway," said Crowbar.
"I mean ter yoke up th' widder," Kilfloggin went on. "But darn me if goin' to find grass for th' whole herd of 'em like some do."
"Ye'd be a chump if yer did," Crowbar rejoined. "I wish yer luck, ol' man. That's more'n we're 'avin' 'ere, so wot's 'say if we shift?"
"Jes' as well. Bitin' tarnation slow ter-day. Wanted ter get a couple extra purtikler too. Ol' gel likes fish, she do."
When they had gone Mark stepped out of his hiding place, filled with loathing and disgust for his prospective stepfather and angered with his mother for contemplating the espousal of "a fellow like that."
As he plodded over the hills he encountered Leonard, who was on his way home from Dumboon.
"Great bit of fun yesterday," he said, dismounting.
"What was that?" asked Mark, absently. He was still thinking of the threatened increase in the family.
"You know, Abe Watts has been breaking his neck for some time to get home on Sooley. Same time he didn't allow it to be suspected that he bore any malice, being on the most friendly terms with the long person. Sooley has the faculty of grasping his opportunities at a moment's notice, but Abe is a slow mover, and the amount of brain work he did after that crowning indignity on Red Road was prodigious. The inspiration came when he saw Peter Johnson driving home from town with a horse called Stopdead in the shafts of the spring cart. That horse has one characteristic the thought of which so pleased Abe that he even patted Yellowman as he unyoked him at the campingplace. The bullocks were turned up the flat by Peter's selection for the night. Abe took them up, and rode back on Stopdead. Said he'd bought him for fifteen quid. Sooley said he was a fool; the horse was no good. 'Jes' get on an' try him,' says Abe. Canters like a racin' 'orse, an' ken jump anything with hide on. Dirt cheap, I reckon.' Sooley got on, smoking, and took a twist or two out of him. 'Fair ter middlin' he says. Bit hard in the mouth.' 'Try him at th' gutter.' says Abe. 'Go over like a bird, ye'll find.' The gutter was about ten feet wide, with a foot or two of water in it, covered with weeds, and very boggy. Bill went a long way back, and pelted at it with arms and legs and reins swinging. Doesn't ride as well as he shoots. Abe was standing near the take-off, and just as Stopdead was going to leap, he yells out 'Whey!' sharp and sudden. The old horse acted up to his name. He stopped dead—but Sooley didn't. He shot head first into the gutter like a frog off a rail. Abe just waited to see him regain his perpendicular—with a heap of mud and weeds dripping from his head. Then he remembered that Johnson wanted the horse at 6.21 sharp, and raced away to keep the appointment."
"Thought he bought the horse?" queried Mark, as cheerfully as Bill Sooley might have said it after he had combed the weeds and crayfish out of his hair.
"Bought him be hanged! Just borrowed him to chuck Sooley. Didn't get back till midnight, having spent the evening exaggerating the circumstance to Peter Johnson. Sooley was in bed, and Abe was getting in very quietly when his feet touched something deadly cold. It was a warm night, but the contact made him feel like an iceberg. If you remember, he had seven years' growth frightened out of him once in the scrubs. Woke up one night and felt a snake crawling under his shirt. Had to lie mighty still while Sooley got a light and a waddy and as soon as Sooley saw the shirt move he gave Abe a most unmerciful welt across that part of him where his supper was digesting. Explained afterwards that he'd forgotten, in his excitement, that Abe was under the snake. Abe upended like dynamite, knocked Sooley through the tent, and stood over the fire till the snake was rooted out and exterminated.
"Well, feeling the cold thing the other night, his hair bristled, and he bounded out double quick, and yelled out to Sooley to light up. But Mr Sooley was in an extra heavy sleep and didn't hear. He snored loudly in confirmation. Abe got the lantern and a stick, and searched carefully all round then he turned the blankets back very gently with the stick, and discovered a wet shirt, the one Sooley had taken his mud bath in, tightly rolled up. Abe clutched it vengefully, and was tip-toeing towards Bill's bunk when the long one sprang out and cut away through the bush like a startled emu. Abe after him with the wet shirt; but Sooley had too much foot. Chased him half way to Johnson's, then went back and chopped up a lot of horsehair and sprinkled it in Bill's bunk. Bill was very restless after he turned in again, and got up earlier than usual. They cried quits at breakfast time."
Mark walked along in moody silence. He rarely fraternised with the bullockdrivers, and the yarn only riveted his mind on the horrible idea of calling Kilfloggin "father."
"I want you to come with us tomorrow," Leonard said, after a long pause. "I'm taking Liela and Etty to the mountains for a ride."
Mark shook his head. "We don't speak now," he explained.
"What! has it come to that?" cried Leonard. "What's happened?"
"She declined me—I mean," Mark stammered, "she won't have me."
"The deuce!" said Leonard, pacing steadily, through the grass. "I'm sure she cares for you. I could stake my life on it."
"She has a queer way of showing it," Mark rejoined.
"It's as I tell you; she's tied to M'Gurren. You must wrest her from him. Keep your pecker up. A woman's 'no' means nothing."
"Then how can a woman's promise be relied upon?"
"Oh, they always mean 'yes.' I'll try and get to the bottom of this first time I'm alone with Etty. I'll put Mac's pot on if there's a possible, anyway."
It was nearly dark when they separated; and Mark received another shock when he reached home. His mother had a visitor for supper, and that visitor was his now deadly enemy, Kilfloggin. On the table stood a black bottle, explaining the cause of his mother's flushed face and garrulity. Mark's brow clouded, and there was an ominous look in his eyes as he approached the table. He stopped near the bibulous visitor; and, looking from one to the other, said:
"What is the meaning of this, Wrightson? Is it your intention to make my mother a hog like yourself?"
Wrightson guffawed. "It 'ud take Goramighty to make a hog of a sow," he said. "Eh, old woman?" Then he turned slowly round in his chair and faced the old woman's son. "Look 'ere, young' un, if I am a drunkard it's me own money I get drunk on. You make no error about that. I'm not a sponger, strike me blue blind if I am. An' there's no 'arm es I ken see in havin' a friendly nip with yer mother. She was jes' tellin' me es how she's got a letter from Luke an' Eustace, who's out Mackinlay way breakin' 'orses, an' makin' two quid a week an' we've been drinkin' their good healths."
"Luke an' Eustace are both well off, while you've 'ardly a boot to yer foot," his mother added. "Ye'd better go to work now while ye've got the chance. George says he's got a spare team, an' he'll give you the job o' drivin' it."
"Mr George is very anxious to get me out of the way no doubt," said Mark. "I happen to know his intentions. Before I'll lift a whip for him I'll go barefooted."
"It's what ye'll soon have to," his mother retorted. "Ye'll have to go an' do something. I can't keep you.
"Would you see me driving bullocks for a fellow like that?"
He pointed a scathing finger at the oxen proprietor, while keeping his gaze on his mother.
"An' who are you that you shouldn't drive bullocks?" that lady demanded. "Your poor old father wasn't too stuck up to do it."
"He was a man, he was," said George. "Twas an honour ter drive on th' same road with him."
"The honour was very much one-sided," Mark returned.
Kilfloggin drew his feet in and threw his head forward. "Young feller," he said, "yer ought ter be ashamed o' yerself. Go an' buckle to it like a white man, not be a loafer all th' days o' yer life—"
Mark's fist shot out suddenly. George blocked it neatly with his mouth, and fell over a chair. He staggered to his feet, looking ugly. Mark picked up the chair and poked him through the doorway with the leg of it.
"Now take yourself off," he cried. "And don't dare put a foot inside my paddock again."
"Don't bust yourself, young feller. You're rather sudding—"
Mark slammed the door, and strode back to the dining-room.
"Mother, why do you encourage that brute here?" he demanded. "Is it possible you can entertain the thought of marrying such a man as that? Do you want to make yourself an object of ridicule?"
"Shugh!" cried his mother, with a flourish of her skirts. "I'm goin' to marry George Wrightson, an' I don't care a fig for what you or anyone else says. You pack up your duds an' clear. I've had enough of you an' your cuss-ed books."
"Right!" said Mark. "That settles it."
He went to his room. She heard him packing up, but did not go near him. At daylight he was gone. Two hours later the widow entered his room, and found a note on the packing-case table. It was short.
"Mother, I am going into the bush. If you marry Wrigntson you will never see or hear from me again. Good-bye, Mark"
Then the silence, the heavy stillness, of that great lonely house was broken by a mother's sobs. Mark was really gone.
Amelia Jane, while riding across the hills at the back of Fairymede, was surprised to see smoke issuing from the chimney at Nolan's Hut. It had been empty for two years. Standing back off the road, and screened by the scrub, it was never visited by travellers. She bore down, beating a tattoo on the ribs of her grey pony. The traveller who had broken the repose of Nolan's Hut was getting grass for a bed. He was a young man, and new chumish in appearance.
"Campin'?" she asked.
"Campin'," he answered.
"Been 'ere long?"
"Lookin' for a job?"
"Not exactly. Prospecting."
"Oh! Y' a gold digger," she cried. "Get ony gold?"
"Haven't tried this neighbourhood yet." he answered.
"Where'd yer try larst?"
"Must be a good way down."
"Why?" She was looking at his white hands and whiter neck. "Y' seem to've had a longish spell 'tween jobs," she answered.
The prospector hacked off more grass. The pocket-knife was blunt, and his hands reddened.
"I'm lookin' for Strawberry," the girl volunteered after watching him awhile.
"Who's Strawberry?" he asked, indifferently.
"One o' father's bullocks. Reg'lar cow ter poke away."
He straightened up again. "You're Miss Johnson, I think?" he said, thoughtlessly. Then he bit his lip and bent again.
"Amelia Jane Johnson," she amended. She eyed him more critically, and a look of intelligence came suddenly into her weather-beaten face.
"Oh! Why you must be th' cove wot writes portry 'bout bullyfrogs an' things er—Mark Keaton?"
"Yes," he admitted, crimsoning. "My name's Mark Keaton."
She became reserved at once. She seemed to understand the situation, and gathered up her reins. "Must find Strawberry," she said, and went off with her back hair bobbing up and down to the rough canter of the old grey.
Her recognition of him was sufficient assurance that the news would soon spread, and he wasn't a bit surprised when next day Miss Monaugh paid him a visit. She left Myles on the road with the dogcart, and walked across.
Mark expected a warm lecture from the spinster but she only laughed, and expressed a hope that he would like the change of quarters.
"The quarters are right enough," he said. "It's this what's troubling me just now." He handed her an open letter, which he had received that morning. "It concerns 'The Sundowner.' They will publish if I pay part of the cost price. It's a good chance, but I'm afraid I must let it go."
"That would be a pity," said Aunt Jo, wrinkling her forehead and frowning as she read the missive. She laid it down carefully and drummed her fingers on the table. Presently she said: "The amount, is only sixty pounds. You'll get two-thirds of the profits—if there are any."
"There's bound to be a profit," said Mark, confidently.
"How long do you think it would take to recoup your outlay?" she asked.
"Depends," said Mark. "Might be only a few months, might take years."
"Do you think it's worth the risk."
"I'd risk ten times the amount tomorrow if I had it," said Mark, impatiently.
"Hem! How much—you'll excuse the question—how much have you on hand?"
"Oh!" said the spinster, with a twitch of her lips. "You only want fifty-eight pounds more."
Only fifty-eight pounds more," Mark repeated seriously.
"It seems to me," she said, meditatively, "you were too precipitate in leaving home, Mark. Parents often quarrel with their children. That's nothing. It doesn't take long for the breach to mend. I've had an opportunity of judging."
"You don't know the nature of the quarrel," said Mark, gravely.
"Yes, I know all about it," Aunt Jo interposed.
"Of course! Nothing spreads like scandal," he remarked grimly.
"There's some talk of your mother marrying George Wrightson," Jo went on, "and you think it would be scandalous for her to do so. You make a great mistake. It is her duty. She's been a widow long enough. Let her marry."
"But, Miss Monaugh, the man is a sot—low, vulgar, and as ignorant as the proverbial pig."
"We are not all wiseacres. Besides, you must remember your mother is not—er—refined. She's getting old, too, and she's lonely, and poor as a bandicoot. You can't keep her, and the other boys are missing quantities. All good reasons why she should accept George Wrightson. Marriage will be to their mutual advantage. The single state to a woman, let me tell you, is not an unmixed blessing. I've had an opportunity of judging."
"Do you know anything of Wrightson's antecedents?" he asked her.
"His antecedents are all right," she answered easily. "Don't you worry over that. He's led a wild life, I know. But he's a hard-working man—when he working—and as honest as circumstances will permit. His worst fault is a weakness for drink. Plenty of people drink."
"So they do," Mark admitted. "But that doesn't make George Wrightson any more respectable."
"George isn't as black as he's painted," she responded. "I could tell you something that might alter your opinion of him. But not now—some other time. For the present, rest, assured that she will he marrying into a good family—a very good family indeed."
She stood up and brushed the front of her dress with her hands. "I would like you to meet me on the hill," she continued, "say Friday afternoon."
"What time?" asked Mark.
"Let me see! I'll be here about four—with Etty."
Mark started. "Couldn't you come alone? I'd rather not meet Miss Lethcote. We—We—"
"Didn't she tell you?" Mark was embarrassed, and found difficulty in explaining himself.
"Oh, yes," Miss Monaugh replied. "She told me. I made her."
"You know, then, it wouldn't do—"
"Don't be a fool!" she broke in. "I can assure you Ethel won't be displeased to see you. I've been speaking to her."
"I'm sure I'm much obliged to you." said Mark, a little irritably. "But I couldn't think of forcing my society on to a girl—"
"Again I say don't be a fool!" Miss Monaugh interrupted. "Your besetting sin, Mark, is false pride. You stand too much on dignity. You are too vulnerable, too sensitive; you are so easily wounded. The average bushman, in your shoes, with the chances you had, would not have walked off at the first rebuff with defeat stamped all over him in large capitals; he would have shown a bold front, and talked her out of her silly little caprices. It only wants a little pluck, a little determination. The lack of those qualities in a man is hateful to a woman. I've had an opportunity of judging."
"You think I am a coward," said Mark, flushing. "Because I would not press my suit, when I had no home to offer her, when I hadn't the price of an engagement ring; and there is the fact that the family is against me—"
"Deuce take the family!" Miss Monaugh interjected fiercely. "Biddy is against you tooth and nail; but she isn't as numerous as that. She may be captain of the ship, but she's got a mutinous crew, and one of these fine days she'll find herself drooped overboard. I'm one of the family, and you depend on it, when Biddy reckons without me she makes a false calculation. You be on the hill on Friday afternoon, and if there is need of a ring after you've seen Ethel, I'll buy you one. As for the home, the consummation of the marriage you are kicking against may put that over your head. But never mind that now. All in good time. You meet us without fail."
Mark pondered irresolute, and while he pondered Abe Watts rode up. He peered in with a grin, then gave a violent start, looked serious, and departed hurriedly without having said anything. But he carried a bolt in his quiver, and was bursting to throw it out when he reached the camping-ground, where Bill Sooley had just turned out for the night.
"By cripes!" he cried, tilting his battered white helmet to the back of his head. "Wot d'yer think, Bill?"
"What?" Bill was all attention. Abe's manner betokened something above the ordinary.
"Mark Keaton's took up his residence in Nolan's Hut."
"Go on!" cried Bill. "Is that a fact?"
"An' ol' Johanna's keepin' house for him."
"Straight! Jus' seen 'em with me own eyes." said Abe. " 'Melia Jane told me mornin' he was there, an' I called round, thinkin' to chiack him a bit. Looks in, an' there they are, the two of 'em, as thick as flies on a dead 'orse."
"Wot sort o' furniture 'ave they got?"
"They've got a table wot used ter be th' door; a block an' a gin-case, a billycan, a bottle of ink an' a pen, an' a lot o' writin' paper."
Bill chuckled, and jerked his head like a dummy at a Punch and Judy show. "That beats all!" he said. "Never thought Jo 'ud come ter that."
"She's been, splittin' her blessed self to get a bloke ever since she ar-rove," Abe went on. "Warn't over purtikler neither. 'Ad serious designs on yours truly, let me tell yer, time I was workin' on th' station."
"Y' orter copped out on her, Abe. Been well brung up, they say. Play th' melodium an' all. Why, ye'd been purty near respectable with a woman like that,"
"Couldn't stand her 't any price. Too boney."
"Don't think Jo's bad lookin' though, when y'r come to know her," Bill persisted.
"Ye must know her a dash sight better' n I do then, if ye've seen enything good-lookin' about her," Abe returned. "Her face 'ud blunt an' axe. An' she's as silly 's an old ewe in a dry paddock. Never reckoned th' pote 'ud rub chins with her. Thet knocks me bandy."
"Must be goin' to fetch him out," Bill surmised. "Kinder like to hear 'em holdin' forth over there."
"Warn't sayin' much when I peered in," said Abe. "Looked 'bout as eloquent as a pair o' Quakers at a wake. Might a been-ex-orsted though."
"Hang me if I don't lose some bullocks round that way ter-morrer," Bill declared. "Kinder like to see 'em."
But Bill had his trip for nothing. Mark was a hatter, looking as happy as a sick crow in a storm. He went back later to make sure; but still there was nothing of a suspicious character to be picked up. After that the long gentleman who shot bees and beetles had a suspicion that Abe Watts had been pulling his leg. Others went straggler hunting round by Nolan's Hut, and seeing no sign of the prude Johanna, they were unanimous in their opinion that Abel was an inventor. Thus Aunt Jo's good character remained untarnished.
That night Miss Monaugh, after a short consultation with Ethel and her father, shut herself up in her room. Seating herself at a side-table, she unlocked a small escritoire, and took from it a pile of letters. Old and musty letters they were, some older than Jo, and were tied up with faded red tape. She carefully untied it, and selected two sealed missives from the packet. The first had found her at Nanango on the occasion of her only absence from Gimbo during her brother's ownership of that place. She returned immediately, and had never since paid a visit to her parents' home. Since that hurried journey her father had been planted on Baramba Creek, and her brother among the hills of Yeerong; Gimbo had passed into the hands of the Keatons; her sister-in law, the redoubtable Biddy, had yarded Myles Lethcote, and Fairymede had become her real home.
A big sum of money had been paid for Gimbo by Hugh Keaton, and what had become of it was a mystery, and the sorest of points to Biddy. She suspected that he had buried it somewhere, and had forgotten to tell her; and the thought that a fortune—which should be hers—was hidden somewhere near at hand was galling in the extreme. She had often spoken of this, and in a hundred places she had made the sceptic Myles dig for the hidden treasure, and a hundred times had he carried his spade home and reported that he had seen "nowt on't."
"Ye don't dig dape enough," Biddy would say. "'Tis only bandicootin' ye are. 'S well sind an old hen to scratch about as you."
"Better," Myles conceded. "There be worms for th' hen. There's nowt else. Onreasonable," he said. "No un 'ud bury money in a hole 's if 'twas a dead cat, an' say nowt. No good un diggin'."
"Phwat th' divil's become o' the money thin?" cried Biddy. "Tell me that if you know so much about it. Now, thin."
"He mought a spent un," Myles suggested.
"No, he didn't spend it," Biddy rejoined. "Not a skerrick he'd spend but I'd know it. Divil a fear."
"They mought'n paid un—"
"They did pay him. He told me he was goin to put it in th' bank, he did, an' I thought he had. But whin I looked for the resates I couldn't find thim, an' whin I wint to th' bank the sorra a cent of it had he put there at all. He went off so suddent—bad luck to it—that I hadn't time to get things in ordher, an' be told where this was, an' where that was. 'Twas meself searched th' house high an' low, but th' divil o' use o' sarchin'. 'S well look for a nadle in a haystack. So where can it be but buried undher a tray?"
"Naw" said Myles. "Nowt but a gawk ud put un underground. He warn't a fool, Pat Monaugh. He wouldn't bury un."
Biddy believed otherwise. She had dreamt of it, and each morning she led him to a fresh spot that a shadowy hand had pointed out as the repository. Myles came to dread late suppers, as that made Biddy dream something awful. He believed she ate heavily on purpose to dream; and she put all sorts of things under her pillow, including Pat's photo with a sovereign tied to it. But nothing came of it, and after a time she desisted in her fruitless pursuit, and ultimately ceased to talk about it.
All this and many other incidents, were recalled to mind by these two mouldy, time-worn letters, the first of which ran:—
"My Dear Friend,—I wish, you would come down at once. If I could leave my little Ethel in good hands, and know that she would be well cared for, I could die happy. I wrote to my brother, Reginald Courtenay, and to my sister, Theresa Lynton, and begged them to take her and bring her up with her cousins, Leonard and Adeline. They replied that they could not receive a Lethcote into the Courtenay family. You know, I married against my father's and brothers' wishes; married beneath me. It is hard on her, but it can't be helped. So, my dearest friend, I appeal to you to take charge of my little girl, and bring her up in the best way possible. You are yourself but a girl; but you have influence—you have wealthy relatives. I will leave you £200 to use on her behalf. Myles has been a good husband and a loving father; but, as you know, a man isn't fitted to take sole charge of child, particularly of a girl. Moreover, he is easily led, and might be persuaded to give her to some woman who would neglect her, and even be cruel to her. Therefore I give her wholly into your charge, with authority to act as you think right in all matters pertaining to her welfare. But I do not wish you to separate her from her father unless it becomes absolutely necessary. Watch over her unobtrusively—like a guardian angel. Never desert her, and heaven will reward you. —Your sincere friend, Lavinia Lethcote."
"Poor dear Lavinia!" Miss Monaugh murmured, refolding the sheet. She suspected that Myles would marry again. She wished him to marry me for Ethel's sake. I was young and hopeful then. But poor brother Pat followed Lavinia, and Biddy, of course, must step in and cut me out. It was just like her. She was always selfish and designing. But my day will come yet, and— Sigh! I'll snap my fingers at her."
Mechanically she flipped her fingers above her head, and tossed the letter back into its receptacle. Then she lay back in her chair, and gave way to a more sober train of thought.
"Yes, I've done my duty," she cogitated. "No one, not even Ethel herself, knows of that money which I have kept in the bank so long. Nor does Ethel think that the money I give her from time to time—in presents—is in reality her own—the accumulated interest on her own capital. Perhaps I ought to tell her—no; it's too soon yet. She's doing all right. But I'd pity her if she had no better guardian than Biddy. A nice one she is to have charge of another's child. A nice one, indeed. I'll spoil her little game, trust me. Leonard and Liela will soon be married now, and Ethel and Mark must come together—if I know how many beans make five. They've been very foolish. Just like young people. But I'll fix that up. Only let me get this satisfactorily settled, and Widow Keaton and George Wrightson married, and it won't be very long after before I am mistress of Tillalee. This' is leap-year, and— Well, I've had an opportunity of judging."
She was rocking herself to and fro, with a contented smile on her face; but now paused as she suddenly bethought her of something else?
"Let me see," she soliloquised, as the clock was striking eleven. "Mark's business must be disposed of first. If I'm not greatly mistaken, that will be an easy matter. I must run over Pat's last letter to begin with." She took it up and read:
"My Dear Sister,—I received the final instalment of £1000 yesterday for Gimbo. Last night I buried it at the spot I showed you and this morning, whilst our furniture was being removed into Dumboon, I planted a willow tree over it. The other £2000 I sent to the old people. We will never miss it. My wife will be well provided for when I go. I told her I invested part of the Gimbo money in mining, and by-and-by I shall have to invent another story to the effect that my mining speculations failed, and that I went into it deeper to recoup my losses and lost all. She's a spendthrift, and the money would be ruthlessly squandered were it left to her. It gives me more contentment to divide the bulk of it between my mother and sisters, knowing it will make them comfortable. When I am gone you can dig up the money and bank it. Don't be too hasty, however, for your sudden acquisition of wealth would arouse Biddy's suspicions. I have done my best for all in a quiet way. Our cottage will soon be finished, and then I would be glad if you would come and live with us again.—Your affectionate brother, Pat."
With her elbow on the table, and her chin resting on the palm of her hand, Miss Monaugh sat for many minutes poring over her brother's letter. The town house, she remembered, had been left to Biddy, and was sold by her after her marriage with Myles Lethcote. During all the years since then the buried money had never been touched. Often the spinster had decided to remove it and put it to some profitable use, and as often again decided to leave it alone. So the time passed, and the willow grew till now a great tree with far-spreading roots stood, a silent sentinel, over her treasure. It might have been better for her had she possessed herself of it, and so enhanced her own position, and drawn after her a coterie of followers—mostly of the indigent order. But a woman never does know what to do with money, and indecision is often the bane of her life.
However, Miss Monaugh had now determined to utilise her fortune, and after accomplishing her various missions, if she failed to tempt the Laird of Tillalee—well, people often advertised for wives. She could answer one of these advertisements. There would be no harm in that; in the event of failure, she could live with Ethel, or return to Nanango. She had corresponded regularly with her mother, who frequently asked her to return. But Miss Monaugh would not go back to her home. The why and wherefore of this was the secret which she never allowed to pass her lips—the secret of a first love and a dark past.
The house of the Monaughs stood on Baramba Greek. With them lived Miss Helen Crogan, who was Johanna's aunt, and only two years her senior. This young lady paid constant visits to a station in the vicinity, the attraction being the squatter's son, Gerald Trevors. Gerald was at the time engaged to Miss Monaugh, then on her first visit to Gimbo. She was only eighteen then; Gerald was twenty. The families, said rumour, were instrumental in bringing about the betrothal. There wasn't much love in the match, unless it were on the weaker side. She, however, on returning and learning the true state of affairs, broke off the engagement for the sake of her aunt, and likewise to preserve the good name of the Monaughs. The sacrifice of a lover was not a very serious matter then; Eighteen has time and opportunity, Forty has neither.
Gerald eloped with Helen, and Johanna fled to the Yeerong. That episode had long ago died out, and Miss Monaugh thought that if Fortune did not attend her now she could return to Nanango without fear of any humiliation. Having come to this definite conclusion, she rose and put away her letters. It was past midnight when she retired to her virtuous couch to dream of Aleck, who just now appeared to be her last desperate hope. She always called him Aleck in Dreamland. Once he had kissed her there. Others had kissed her, too. Ah; the lovers she had known—in her sleep.
Once she had been nearly married. She stood at the altar with—she could never think who the man was; someone she had picked up on the way to church. There was no church in Dumboon and no parson. The postmaster officiated in matrimonial matters. But she was sure this place was a church. She stood in her bridal robes—resplendent, triumphant. The parson opened his book, and was about to grant the license demanded by Mother Grundy when in waltzed Biddy.
"Phwat the divil's this she cried," aghast.
"Sh, woman!" said the parson.
"God be good to us!" Biddy exclaimed. "Is it a dirty Chow she's goin' to wed!"
"Jo looked round, and was horrified to see beside her a grinning Mongolian, with shaven head and pig-tail as long as a cable—the ugliest Chinaman she had ever looked at. Then she saw that she, too, wore a pig-tail, and the two were tied together. This was the nuptial knot, only wanting to be drawn tight to make them one until the Divorce Court doth them part. But the bubble burst, and next day she almost hated Biddy. As it was only in Dreamland it didn't matter what her husband was. She felt that Biddy had robbed her of a great opportunity of judging. It was just what Biddy would do, in any case.
On the day appointed Mark set out for Druton Hill. He walked slowly, his eyes bent on the ground in meditation. So many things had happened during the last few weeks, and a great deal more was expected to happen in the near future. Strange to say, his mother held the foremost place in his thoughts. He wondered how she was getting on all alone in that big house, and half regretted, in spite of all he had said to Leonard and Miss Monaugh, that he had not been more patient and considerate.
In an uncertain mood he climbed the hill. From west to south he could trace the sinuous course of the Yeerong, and on the flat he saw Leonard and Liela, arm-in-arm, approaching Druton garden from the hill. They got into a trap, and he watched them drive away in the direction of Murrawang. They had evidently left the summit but a few minutes before he reached it. They would soon be husband and wife, and Mark thought of the approaching nuptials with horror. They would want him to be best man, or something, and he would rather see Leonard lose his girl than go through that ordeal just now. He had a notion of shifting from Nolan's Hut into some unfrequented jungle, and lying low until the trouble was over. It did seem annoying that a man could not take a wife to his bosom without so much fuss and bother.
Just then he descried Aunt Jo coming from Fairymede, and observed the patient Myles dodging about after the calves. They met in the little home paddock but Mark did not know what was said till long afterwards.
"Goin' up hill, Jo?" said Myles, interrogatively. Jo said she was.
"Will you see un there, think you?" Myles continued.
"Oh, yes," she answered. "He won't fail to keep his appointment. That is one good point in Mark Keaton."
"I like un," Myles declared. "Like un to marry my little gel. Where be she?"
"I expect to meet her on the hill. She's been spending the day with Liela."
"So she be," Myles agreed. "I want to get un away from here, Jo. Leonard an' Liela will take un on they honeymoon. That 'ull be summat. Baint enough, though." He edged nearer. "Y' see, Biddy wants to yoke un on to Mac, cos he's got a pun or two. Mus'n let un do that, Jo. 'D ruther see un tied to Crackshot!"
"Don't you worry, Myles. Mr M'Gurren will never marry Etty." Aunt Jo spoke with a firmness that reassured Mr Lethcote.
"Good!" he said, his eyes twinkling with pleasure. "Good on you, Jo. Do 'ee think she an' Mark will make a match on't?"
"Oh, yes," said Jo. "I know she likes him."
"He's dead gone on her."
"Good!" said Myles, rubbing his hands. "Do yer best for un, Jo. If un want t' 'ave a word alone wi' Etty—why, let'n 'ave it."
"N' if un seem bit backward, Jo, why—" He nudged her meaningly with his elbow. "Help un along, Jo. 'D ruther see it fixed up 'fore un goes away. An' Biddy won't know nowt on't."
"It will give me pleasure," said the spinster, "to spoil her little schemes. She's treated Ethel very badly. Poor child! For her sake I have often regretted that you married that woman."
"Drat un," said Myles, who also regretted that circumstance. "She bewitched me, Jo. Dunno how. She baint a takin' sort—when 'ee come to look at her. . . I didn't know you so well then, Jo. If I was single—"
"Never mind that, Myles. It's too late now."
"So 'tis, drat'n all. Mought live long while yet too," said Myles, reflectively. "But we make, un chew cold cabbage yet, I'll warrant."
He went on with his calves, and Mark from his coign of vantage watched the spinster treading cautiously through the grass. She had a horror of snakes. She encountered them frequently, but, beyond further surprising them with a sharp scream, and an impromptu skip and hop, did them no harm. Such circumstances, however, were detrimental to Miss Monaugh, for horrible snake dreams was the inevitable result to each encounter, and Aleck was never at hand to pull the reptiles off her. At times she would stop short, or spring aside, and when it transpired that the cause of her trepidation was only a crooked stick, resume her way in the same preoccupied manner. Mark smiled at her groundless alarms and unnecessary caution. He liked the old maid. Despite her many shortcomings, she was a good woman in the main. Presently his attention was diverted by a sweet voice singing in the scrub. He listened. The trilling notes drew nearer, and the voice became more familiar. He heard the words—
'Twas the last rose of summer,
Left blooming, alone;
All her lovely companions
Are withered and gone—"
Long, long ago he had heard that song, and then it was from the lips of Ethel. Surely it was her voice he heard now! Jo had promised to bring Ethel with her. Perhaps she had formed some plan for a reconciliation, and caused Ethel to precede her for that purpose. She had assured him that Ethel would he glad to see him.
He started forward, knowing the meeting must naturally be a trifle embarrassing for both, and determined to have it over before Jo arrived. His blood pump worked prodigiously as he approached the outskirts of the scrub, and heard her step on the withered leaves. A scrub, with its dulled light, its commingling of aromas, its bird notes, and everlasting greenery, was a delightful place to meet a pretty girl in. He quickened his pace, but an unsympathetic lawyer vine gripped him and tore his immaculate courting pants. The next moment Ethel emerged from the screening foliage, holding her hat by a ribbon in one hand, and a bunch of ferns in the other. Her cheeks went pink at the sight of him. Beyond that she evinced no surprise. On the other hand, Mark was shy, and felt awkwardly out of place.
"I've been hunting for ferns," she explained.
The ice was broken, and she spoke with a suavity that encouraged him.
"I know where there are some pretty ones—if you will come," he rejoined.
"It's too late now," said Ethel. "Perhaps another day we shall have more time."
This was promising, at all events. Mark was in a measure delighted.
"I'm waiting for my aunt," Ethel continued. "I—I suppose you're looking for Leonard?"
"Oh—not exactly! Er—your aunt's coming up the track," Mark stammered. "Shall we go and meet her?"
"We'll go to the top of the hill if you like."
There was considerable restraint yet on both sides; so different from the freedom of past days.
They climbed slowly up the hill in silence, and when they had almost reached the top he spoke with an abruptness that startled her.
"Ethel, did you intend that I should accept the answer you gave me at the bridge as final?"
She did not speak.
"You'll excuse my speaking of it again," he continued tremulously. "I'm going away—soon—perhaps for good."
"Where are you going?" she asked in a low voice.
"Over the border?"
"Far over. I thought I might have taken you unawares—that you spoke without knowing your true feelings," he said, reverting to the vital point. "I think—I was dear to you once. Am I to understand that I am no longer so?"
"No, Mark," Ethel replied. "I'll always be your dearest friend—"
"What's the use of that?" Mark interrupted, desperately. "I love you, Ethel—passionately. My whole future's centred in you."
They had reached the top of the hill, and stood face to face in the shadow of an ironbark. She was grinding a leaf into the ground with the ferrule of her parasol. He took the gloved hand in which she held the bunch of ferns, and placed his arm around her shoulders.
"Ethel, do you care for me?—I know you do!" he cried passionately.
She felt his lips suddenly touch her cheek, and drew away abashed. The ferns were scattered at their feet.
"No, no; call me Mark. Ethel, dearest, you are mine!" He bent over her. "It's your father's wish that you should be my bride."
"He never told me so," Ethel answered. "It would be his downfall."
A change came over Mark. They were standing a little apart again.
"You are determined," he said, "to marry money?"
"I haven't determined anything. I'm too young yet. Money alone can save my father."
"And if that money is forthcoming?"
"I am free!"
He clutched her arm in a fierce grip that made her wince.
"Ethel, tell me frankly, do you love me or not?"
"Oh, do not ask me! Let me go!"
"Mar—Mr Keaton, you are hurting me."
She was frightened. Her lips trembled as she straggled vainly to free herself. Her hat was hanging from her hair; her parasol lay on the ground.
"Tell me—I will know!" cried Mark wildly. "Do you wish to cast me from you for ever?"
"It would be better so."
"That's what your judgment tells you. But your heart—Can you say under heaven you do not love me?"
Silence. He turned her so that she faced him.
"Ethel, can you?"
"Then you are mine—mine! Nothing will ever tear you from me—nothing!"
He clasped her fiercely to him, and covered her face with kisses. Ethel, breathless and trembling, lay limp and unresisting in his arms. He lifted her face gently; And then, like a timid child, she looked up with swimming eyes, hesitated—then put her lips to his. And while they stood there, intoxicated with the lingering sweetness of love's first thrilling kiss, Miss Monaugh, who had crept up behind the tree, her own heart palpitating, surprised them. Ethel broke away, blushing. Mark, flushed and excited, looked blankly at the elder lady.
"I am glad!" she said, simply. She grasped his hand. Ethel turned away to pick up her ferns.
"It's all right now?" she added in a whisper. "I told you so, didn't I? Ah! I had an opportunity of judging."
Mark clutched her arm. His manner, wild and strange, startled her.
"All right now?" he repeated. "Miss Monaugh—My God, I've bought her!"
She thrust him rudely aside. "Fool!" she whispered fiercely. Then, as Ethel came forward: "My dear child, let me congratulate you. I am exceedingly glad. You have realised your father's fondest wish. God bless you!"
She kissed her, then walked away to gather some flowers she didn't want. She gathered them till sundown, and sat on a log by herself, arranging them till dusk.
As the dusk deepened she led them slowly homeward, watching the ground for snakes, and never saying a word. At the sliprails, opening into the little home paddock, she spoke:
"We will leave you here, Mark. Good-bye!"
And again she turned away to let them kiss good-night.
Tuesday was an eventful day. Leonard and Liela were that morning united in the holy bonds of matrimony. Miss Monaugh was not present at the ceremony, but presided over the breakfast table in the big room at Murrawang, where the gentility of Dumboon and most of the Hill's folk were assembled. She was a gorgeous quantity of white satin, paint and frizzled hair, and smiled upon everybody with the utmost Urbanity. To Widow Keaton and George Wrightson, whose presence was due to the courtesy of Mrs Battye, she was particularly gracious, and she had successfully contrived to effect a reconciliation between the former and her son. The widow was penitent, and begged him to return home.
"It's so lonely," she said. "I'll go mad If I stop there much longer. I've got Sarah from th' Dairy stayin' with me now. Such a one to talk an' sing y'r never heard. When I'm too busy to mind her, she'll sit an' crotchet like anything, with th' music box goin' all the time—for hours at a stretch. She makes things hum a bit, she do. But th' house don't seem th' same with no man in it. Seems dead an' holler. Abe Watts comes some nights, but he only comes after Sarah. An' they sit out on the log, muggin' and titterin' till all hours. Come 'ome an' get a good job on th' crick. Don't be a fool."
But Mark said he had already made arrangements to go to Brisbane, and would be off in a few days. She didn't mention the subject again. Mark was headstrong, and at a time like this she did not wish to run the risk of another quarrel. He had been down in the dumps all the morning. A long separation from his sweetheart, but recently won, was a matter that weighed heavily on a man like Mark. Ethel was going away with the newly-married couple, and it would be months before he would see her again at Fairymede, even should circumstances enable him soon to return to his old haunts.
Shortly he went in search of her. He found her with Miss Monaugh and Liela at the side of the buggy, which stood waiting, with old Myles standing at the heads of the horses. He drew her aside.
"I'm glad you're going away from here," he said softly; "and yet—I can't tell you how sorry I am to part from you so soon. We've been engaged such a little while."
"But we'll soon see each other again," said Ethel, more hopefully. "You are going away yourself, and I consider it a blessing I am not left here alone with that horrid old man. I know mother is watching us now. She doesn't like to see us together."
Miss Monaugh, having taken leave of Leonard and Liela, now came back to the lovers. She had opened her umbrella, and, holding it so that it screened them from view of all but a few in front whom they did not mind, said: "There now, no one will be the wiser. I know you wanted to—both of you. Kiss her, Mark— Lors, child, how you blush!"
Still Ethel did not mind Aunt Jo; she was a motherly old person. But it seemed to her improper to kiss a man before the eyes of others. But there was no help for it. They could not be further screened, and she could not leave Mark with a simple handshake. Their lips met, lingered rapturously, tremulously; then she hurriedly disengaged herself from his embrace, and treating her aunt to a stage kiss (which was too quick for the spinster, who only smacked at the air as Ethel was drawing back), sprang nimbly into the vehicle. It was all over in a moment, yet many eyes had witnessed the erotic scene, and ere another day had passed, half as many tongues had told the tale, and by the end of the week all Dumboon and all the Yeerong knew that Ethel Lethcote was betrothed to Mark Keaton.
The bridal party were delayed by the over-generous Biddy, who brought out a tubful of grapes, and insisted on stowing them in the buggy.
"There's no tellin' but ye might get hungry an' thirsty on the road where there's no shanty to be callin' at. The fust day do make ye thirsty, an' there's nuthin' like a grape or two to give relafe to a body, so there isn't. I'm sure the horse can pull thim. Just shtick thim undher the sate, you bosthoon. There that's it. Couldn't ye've done that before? Now, off you go, an' good luck be wid the lot of you."
"Good-bye, Liela," said Mrs Battye kissing her daughter. "You'll come an' see me sometimes, drat—" And then she burst into tears; and while she was still "sniffin'," as Mrs Keaton stoically remarked, they drove off through a shower of old boots, shoes slippers and rice. The horses reared and plunged, and all the old hens and ducks came cackling and quacking after the scattered grain.
"God save us th' mokes have bolted!" Biddy was heard to exclaim above the general laughter. "Avast, ye bosthoons, don't ye see they've bolted! Howld 'em tight, acushla."
"They're a' richt, mistress," was the reassuring response from Mr M'Gurren. "Dinna see th' lad i' whoppin' them oop ta get oot o' th' fire?"
"Aye," said Myles, chipping in. "There's nowt to be feared on when Leonard got holt o' the reins. He'll pull un back, I'll warrant."
"It's a hidiotic pro-sading, anyway." Biddy persisted. "I can't see how it's lucky to get a whack on the shpine, or a clout on the jaw wid an owld boot. Where's the luck come in at all?"
"I dinna ken, mistress," said M'Gurren, his eyes on the departing trio. "Maybe Misstress Keaton can telt us o' the guid that i' in't?"
"I dunno eny good in it," was the prompt rejoinder. "I think it 'ud be more sensible to toast 'em 'an to pelt 'em with shoe-leather."
"There ye've sed it!" Mr Wrightson affirmed. "Them's my sentiments to a T."
When the principals had disappeared the guests gathered in knots to discuss the prospects of the marriage. Many stayed all day, dancing and merrymaking, but the greater number made an early move for home. Among these were the Fairymede people. Mr Wrightson and his intended bride stayed to "see it out," the former being ultimately removed under protest to the Red Road. Biddy and Myles drove back in the dogcart, but Mr M'Gurren and Miss Monaugh elected to walk.
The spinster had enjoyed herself immensely and was in a very good humour. From Murrawang to Fairymede was a long walk, but she would gladly have walked it a dozen times over under the same conditions. The presence of Mr M'Gurren seemed to lessen the distance by half, and rendered her proof against fatigue.
"Did you ever notice, Mr M'Gurren," she said, "that one marriage always leads to another, and very often two or three? This one will be no exception. It's a certainty that at least three more weddings will be coming off shortly."
"Heigh, lass, that's guid for Dumboon! Wha are th' parties?"
"The first, I think, will be Abe Watts and Sarah from the Dairy. Abe is an old acquaintance of mine. The next won't be very far from Fairymede."
"Ah!" said Aleck, looking slyly at the old maid. "Is it yesel' that wul gang ta the altar in a breedal robe?"
Miss Monaugh sighed. "Oh, no," she answered. "Nobody would take that much interest in me. I am left in the cold. I'm afraid I am getting too old and faded."
She was fishing for a compliment, but the laird was not a gallant man.
"Aye, lass," he rejoined. "I'm afeart your time hae slipit awa'. Ye're ta auld for the young ones noo."
Miss Monaugh shut her parasol with a snap, and drove it viciously into the ground at every step. "They are not all young," she said, tartly. "I know some old men who would marry, but somehow they have an intemperate desire to wed youth. That is very wrong. Age and youth cannot connubially cooperate happily. It would blight a young girl's life like a touch of frost on a summer flower. There is nothing of that nature in the matches to which I allude. Mrs Keaton is a middle aged woman—a widow and in George Wrightson she has chosen one in her proper sphere—a man in every way suited to be her husband."
"Is't true they're ta be marrit?"
"Ah cudna believe it."
"He's sich an awfu' drunkard. He'll swallow oop Gimbo in whusky afore a twa'-month."
"I can assure you he'll do nothing of the kind. Widow Keaton will keep him under control—and reform him."
"I hope she wul, lass. I hope she wul," said M'Gurren, with the air of one who believed that she wouldn't.
"Wha i' the other coople?" he inquired a moment later.
"Mark Keaton! Losh," cried M'Gurren, laughing outright. His levity aggravated the dignified Miss Monaugh.
"Indeed, Mr M'Gurren," she said, with some acerbity, "I can see nothing to laugh at. There's' nothing ludicrous in Mark getting married. He's the finest looking man on the Yeerong."
"That's richt enough. Buit what's the guid o' a mon bein' fine lookin' if he canna keep himsel'? The lad i' verra poor."
"Oh, what's the use of talking!" cried the spinster with an impatient shrug. M'Gurren's frequent references to Mark's poverty irritated her. "I have told you," she continued, "that Mark has prospects. He'll be a rich man before many years—and a great man. While a man is down keep him down is the motto of a good many, and I am sure it's no credit to them. Poor men, particularly the working class, are often of the most sterling worth. I can't say so much for the majority of the rich. They have no sympathy with their less fortunate fellows. I've had an opportunity of judging." She paused for an instant while she again put up her parasol. "Yes," she resumed, "I consider Mark, from a social standpoint, the most eligible parti on the creek. He'll be the most envied, too, for his betrothed is sans pareil."
"Canna telt a body her name, lass?" said M'Gurren, pettishly.
"Oh, yes, certainly. But you must promise me faithfully that you will tell no one. Their little affaire d'amour is only known to a select few, and we' don't want it to reach Mrs Lethcote's ears above all persons. Do you promise?"
"Aye—dinna fear I'll telt ony one."
"You know, Mr M'Gurren, Mark and my niece were reared within coo-ee of each other. They were playmates together, schoolmates together—and naturally became much attached to each other. It is very gratifying, therefore, to reflect that a union so auspiciously begun in childhood, and deepened into the warmest affection they grew to man and woman—"
"The Lud bless us—"
"Mark and Ethel are now engaged," Miss Monaugh concluded imperturbably.
"Engeeged ta be marrit!" her companion gasped, stopping short, and regarding her with kindling eyes. In the expression of his face one saw a mingling of incredulity, surprise and dismay, as when a thing long sought and looked upon as a certainty is suddenly blown away like a straw in a gale. With his broad acres, his fine house and magnificent gardens, his huge fortune, and the all-powerful, indomitable Biddy to back him, he had made dead sure of Ethel. He had not pressed himself upon her of late. He had proposed to her, and she had not rejected him; she had promised to acquaint him of her decision on the day when she would be twenty years of age. He had admitted the reasonableness of her wish not to become a wife before she had grown out of her teens. He did not expect that. Therefore her request had been met with a ready acquiescence. Since then he had been given no cause to complain, and had met with no rebuffs from Ethel. She had been the same towards him as formerly, and he had been satisfied. But Miss Monaugh had thrown another light upon the matter, and a great fear permeated him that some intrigue was at work. Either Ethel was false and tricky, or Miss Monaugh was a designing minx, bent upon working out some villainous scheme having for its object the advancement of her own precious ends. He was afraid of Miss Monaugh. She had a way of saying and doing things that discomfited him. Besides, she had been courting him outrageously, which gave him the impression that she had a hankering after his money, but for which she would think no more of him than she did of the meanest of the scrubbers. In reality, Miss Monaugh was not of a sordid turn of mind. She merely had an antipathy for the condition of an old maid. Had another, qualified by approximation of age and social standing to her own, presented himself within reasonable distance of Fairymede, she would have angled for him as energetically as she did for the Laird of Tillalee. She had made up her mind to acquaint him of Ethel's engagement that he might understand the hopelessness of his suit, and give a little more of his attention to her. It was out now, and her heart was in a flutter; yet she was a strong woman.
"Yes," she answered, "I believe they will be married about the end of the year. By then he should be drawing an income sufficient to keep her in comparative comfort. He's not so 'varra poor' as you imagine. He will be rich, take it from me. I've had an opportunity of judging."
"If he is a mon," said M'Gurren, angrily, "he wad bide a wee, an' get marrit whun he cam' inta th' big fortune ye talk aboot. Whee shud he marry on naething whun he may hae enough for a' if he wad bide a wee? He hasna got a hame ta tak her ta—"
"Oh, yes, Mr M'Gurren," Miss Monaugh interrupted. "He will shortly come into possession of a splendid property."
"Whaur aboot? Wha hast noo?"
"Oh," said the spinster, looking straight ahead, "that's a matter I am not yet at liberty to divulge."
M'Gurren eyed her suspiciously.
"I've hud aboon that afore, lass, buit I doot it—I varra, muckle doot it."
"Of course you do," said Miss Monaugh, crossly. "You have a grudge against him, and it wouldn't suit your purpose to see him come into property."
Aunt Jo was quit content to let the matter rest at that, and she was glad when Amelia Jane suddenly shot across in front of them on the old grey pony.
"Did yer see Strawberry enywhere?" she called out, slackening for an instant.
"I dinna ken onything aboot un," M'Gurren snapped.
"He's a blister'd swine, that Strawberry. 'S always away, an' nobody never sees him," Amelia Jane complained, as she whacked the grey into his paces again. Aunt Jo stopped dead, with a sudden straightening of her shoulders, and stared after Miss Johnson with her mouth open.
"That woman has a vulgar tongue," M'Gurren commented.
"Dear me!" Miss Monaugh said, and walked on.
During the rest of the way M'Gurren, contrary to his usual custom, was taciturn and thoughtful whilst Miss Monaugh chatted about the wedding festivities, the dresses and the presents, and such congenial topics. She could afford to discourse on such matters; she felt that she had gained another point, and was nearer the state of matrimony than she had been for a long time.
A dark and stormy night, with heavy rain clouds hovering overhead and low rumblings of thunder in the distance. The windows and doors at Fairymede were barred against the fierce wind. The willows bowed and sighed, and the dead leaves fell in showers. A night to hug the fireside, yet two figures stood under the swaying branches by the bridge. Both were closely muffled, and their cloaks flapped and twined like living things about their legs. They were a man and a woman, and that woman was Miss Monaugh. In one hand she held a huge umbrella; in the other a bull's-eye lantern.
"Jumpin' Jemima! this is a lovely night to bring a feller out in." the man grumbled. "Couldn't yer leave it till ter-morrer?"
"No. I want a hundred pounds before six o'clock to-morrow morning. I have nowhere to get it but there; an; as no one must know of this plant, it must be accomplished to-night at all hazards. Have you got the tools?"
"Then get to work. The sooner it's done the better. It shouldn't take you very long."
"Dunno so much about that. I ain't a steam engine. Aint got eyes like a mopoke neither. How's a feller to see what he's a doin', I'd like ter know?"
Miss Monaugh turned on the light, which enabled her companion to find the pick and shovel he had been groping for.
"Where's the spot—the eggs-akt spot, mindger. I ain't goin' to turn the whole darned paddick upside down lookin' fort. 'F I don't drop plump on to't fust shot I claims another fiver. That's straight wire."
"Now George, don't be unreasonable. Five pounds will pay you very well. And, bear in mind, I didn't bring the storm."
"No one sed you did. But you ought 'ave knowed 'twas comin'. I could see it dinner time when them white fleeces was bowlin' up from back o' Dumboon."
"Well, I couldn't."
"That's queer. Warnt so sudding that you couldn't 'ave 'ad a hopportunity o' judgin'."
"I don't take any interest in the weather, George."
"Don't it stir up your pet corns when there's rain comin'?" George inquired. "It do mine."
"For all that," Miss Monaugh proceeded, ignoring the rudeness of her companion, "I am sorry it has turned out so unpropitious for us—"
"So unfavourable," Miss Monaugh explained.
"Wal," growled George, who was in a cantankerous mood, "why couldn't yer say so. What's th' use o' chuckin' yer jaw-breakers at me? Jumpin' Jemima, if this aint a bull-snorter of a black perisher, tell me."
"At the worst," said Miss Monaugh in a conciliatory tone, "we'll only get a drenching if it does rain. We're not sugarsticks that will melt. And there's a chance of its holding off till we're finished—if you would only get to work. Look at the time we're wasting!"
"Where's the eggs-akt spot, that's the question?" Miss Monaugh gave a little cough, and commenced to examine the root of the tree under which they were standing. "Have you the axe?" she asked.
"Holy wars!" he exclaimed. " 'S not stuck under that spiflicated tree, is it?"
"Fair under that tree, George."
"Wal, that's a nice go if yer like."
"I'm afraid you'll have to grub it out. It has such a cluster of roots that to undermine it would take too long. A pity—a great pity! But there's no help for it. It must come out."
George swallowed an oath. Then he said "Look 'ere, Jo, this is a bit sudding. There was nuthin' about tree-grubbin' in the contrak, an' 'less the terms is altered I'm goin' ter strike. Why, 't'ill take ter Sunday mornin' to finish it an' I doesn't work on Sunday. Make no error about that. I wants a fair deal, else we'll 'ave to squash the 'greement an' go 'ome. Them's my sentiments. So there you are."
"Goodness me" cried Miss Monaugh crossly, "what an aggravating fellow you are. If I give you a hundred pounds, what would be the use of it to you? You'd only go and drink it."
"An' what's it to do with you if I did? What do you want with th' money, eh? I'll tell yer. You wants to buy off a rival, so yer ken cop old spooneywinks. See! I'm up to you. So jes' fork out, an' none o' yer funny bizness. Aint I kep' yer secret all these years so them bobtail swells wouldn't sniff at yer? What 'ud they say if they knowed—"
"We can dispense with speculations of that kind—please."
"Right-o. Stump up, an' I'm dumb. What's th' bargain?"
Miss Monaugh picked up her skirts, and fidgeted with the lantern. She was very angry, but to some extent succeeded in controlling her temper.
"If you get me that money in one hour," she said, I'll—I'll double the honorarium though I must say it's very extortionate."
" 'Onor-rary-orum! Ex-tor-shin-it! Purty good, them!" George mumbled as he peeled off his coat. "One hour, eh? Yer too sudding, Jo—too sudding!"
With these vague expressions the dilatory George spat on his hands and rubbed them together. "Ye'll soon 'ave yer darbies on it, Jo," he said, more agreeably. "I ken work like anything when I start."
The first, half-hour made little impression on the matted roots, which appeared to defy the repeated assaults of pick and axe. Miss Monaugh stood by, holding the light, now breaking the monotony with little coughs, now humming fragmentary songs, to keep up her patience. At last George, with a long sigh, stood up to straighten his back. He leaned on his pick handle, and looked at his companion.
"What th' buckjumpin' adder did he shove it under there for? Must 'ave 'ad white ants or beetles in his socks, or something."
"I beg your pardon?" said Miss Monaugh, icily.
"Beg yer parding!" George repeated with scorn, and spat on his hands again—impressively.
"George," said Miss Monaugh, sternly, "you should speak respectfully of the dead."
"He showed respect for th' livin', didn't he?" George retorted. "He helped me when I come 'ere fust, didn't he? Him with his thousands; me without a shirt to me back. What was th' use of it to him after all? Had t'leave it behind him. So will you. An' who'll get it? Who'll 'ave th' pleasure o' splashin' it up? That herrin'-gutted' old geyser, I s'pose?"
"I ken understand a man plantin' spuds," George went on; "but good money. . . . That ain't the aggreeculture wot pays, Jo. You make no error. Why don't yer splash it up an' enjoy yerself? I'd help yer—willingly."
Without waiting for a reply he drove the axe into the roots with a vicious thud. Minutes passed. George worked hard, now with the pick, now with the axe, till at last, with the assistance of a gust of wind, the tree came down. The second thrust of the pick in the hollow struck the iron box in which the treasure was secreted. With a little leverage he hauled it out, and Miss Monaugh, with much show of excitement and exultation, proceeded to inspect it.
She had hardly scraped the clay off the rust-eaten top when she heard a footfall close behind her, and, springing round, threw the light full upon the face of an unexpected intruder. One glimpse of his face sufficed, and both uttered an involuntary exclamation on recognising Mark Keaton!
For a moment he stood looking from one to the other, and from them to the tree they had felled. Then he said, in a voice husky with anger:
"Miss Monaugh, what is the meaning of this? Why are you destroying my property in this ruthless manner?"
"It had to be destroyed, Mark," said Miss Monaugh, desperately. "I'll explain directly."
"That won't replace the tree. I wouldn't have had it destroyed for a hundred pounds. It was under that very tree my father sat the last time he was here. And didn't Eustace, perched in its branches, sing to you, 'Woodmen, Spare That Tree?' And you've cut it down!"
He almost choked, and Miss Monaugh knew from experience that his eyes were filled with tears.
"Oh, Mark, I'm sorry—I couldn't help it—it had to be done—"
She stopped, panting. Then she turned to the dark figure crouching against the fallen trunk. "George, I wish you would gather up these implements and—and go home."
"Go home!" repeated the low, deep voice of Kilfloggin. "That's what we say to dorgs—Go home! That's my thanks. An' yet we's—old acquaintances! Too sudding, Jo, too sudding!"
When he had gone Mark said, as he took up the box at its owner's request: "Is that man a special friend of yours?"
"N—no!" she replied, with a hesitation that Mark did not fail to notice. "I employed him to do this work for me."
"To uproot my favourite tree for this worthless box," said Mark, reproachfully. "Jo, you have done me an injury."
"Oh, Mark, don't say that! At least, say it is reparable."
"How can it be? If the tree were replanted it would wither and die. I can only preserve its precious wood. Even that must be entrusted to other hands, for I'm going away in the morning. That's why I am here tonight. My mother asked me to come and have tea with her. I wish now I hadn't come."
"Mark, listen to me," said Miss Monaugh. She was almost crying. "That box isn't so worthless as you think. It contains a—a thousand pounds in gold."
"Good heavens! Are you so rich?"
At other times Mark would not have been so impertinent as to ask such a question; he was carried away by the astounding announcement of the opulence of the spinster whom he had always regarded as being in straitened circumstances, and dependent on her relatives.
"Yes, she replied. "I am passably rich, though nobody knows it, and I can well afford to give you a hundred pounds for the damage I have done. I intended from the first to give you that, as I could not get my money without injuring you. You need it too. It will enable you to bring out your book. So you may consider it a streak of good luck."
Mark was silent and thoughtful, and Miss Monaugh realised with pleasure that she had succeeded in accomplishing her generous wish without hurting his sensitive feelings.
"Now," she continued, with something of her usual buoyancy, "I'll give you this sum before you go away, so that you won't be under any inconvenience. And I must ask you as a favour not to betray the perpetrators of that deed, or reveal your knowledge of the facts. Old Biddy would be ramping if she knew the truth. Myles and I will cut up the wood and preserve it for you and I'll plant a sprig of the old tree on the same spot, and it will have a history more important than the others. Ten years hence, when you are master of Gimbo, and a man of wealth and fame, let us hope, you may sit under its branches and tell the tale to your little wife, and thank me for cutting down the old one."
"That sounds like a fairy tale," said Mark. "Too good to be true."
"We mustn't talk any more," she whispered. "I want you to sneak that into my room for me as quietly as possible. I'll have to hide it in my big box."
The storm burst on them before they reached the house, and two miserably wet creatures crept in like burglars going to crack a crib. He put the box down by the side of Jo's spotless bed, while she brought out a bottle of wine. The room smelt of lavender, and it was cosy and warm. A sleek-coated cat (pet and comfort of the old maid) purred drowsily on a white goat-skin; and on her dressing table stood a statuette of the Virgin Mary.
"You're the only man that's ever been in here," she remarked, with a blushful smile as she handed him a nobbler-glass.
Mark drank it off and left hurriedly.
* * * * * *
Early as it was, Miss Monaugh was in Dumboon before the coach departed with Mark on the box seat. He went away with a radiant face, and she returned to Fairymede in time for breakfast, conscious that she had been of service to at least one fellow creature.
"Are ye goin' out this mornin', Jo?"
"Yes, Biddy. I'm going over to Widow Keaton's," Miss Monaugh replied as she came in to breakfast, her hair in curl papers. It was nearly nine o'clock, and Biddy was completing the table arrangements. Mr Lethcote was in the garden, "potterin' about." Biddy did all the morning work indoors, and Miss Monaugh officiated during the rest of the day. The scrubbing, washing, and such laborious work was done by a black gin—the only servant Biddy could afford nowadays.
"Sure, I knew ye were off for a galivant," said Biddy, with an arch smile, which she generally put on when in a good humour. " 'Tis aisy to tell whin I see you bobbin' about like a paper facthory. It bates me phwat you see in frizzlin' yer thatch so. 'Twould look as well in a plait."
"Ah!" the spinster sighed, pressing back a rebellious curl over her ear. "My hair is a great trouble to me since Etty's gone. It takes such a time, and is so tiresome and awkward."
" 'Tis a waste of time, it seems to me," said Biddy. "Takes somethin' more'n a bit of curly hair to do the thrick. So it do."
"Really, Biddy, you try me out of all patience," cried Miss Monaugh, testily. "According to your idea, I should cut my hair off and go naked."
"Faith, ye'd be more attractive if ye did," Biddy answered.
Miss Monaugh tossed her head, a look of dull disdain in her face.
"An' ye're goin' over to Widow Keaton's?" Biddy pursued presently.
"I am," Miss Monaugh replied, nodding.
"Phwat in th' world are ye goin' over there for at all?"
"I arranged to meet George Wrightson there. I have a little business to transact with him. Also, I wish to speak to them about the approaching nuptials."
"Th' Lord save us! Is she goin' to make up to him?"
"Is he going to marry her, you mean. I don't know when it's to be, but I shall know all about it before lunch."
"Of course you will. An' here I'm left to do all th' work an' Mr Lynton comin' over for a day's fishin' wid th' old man. He's beginnin' to ramble, to be sure. I s'pose he finds it lonesome like now Leonard's gone."
"I suppose so," Miss Monaugh returned. "I'll be back for lunch, so you'll have all the afternoon and evening to gossip with him."
" 'Tis yeself ought to be a little attractive to him," said Biddy. "He's a decent man, an' rale good company, Jo."
"So are others," Jo replied, darkly. She picked up a serviette and examined the ivory ring. Biddy brought the tea in and set it on the side board.
"Sing out to the old man, Jo. He's clanin' th' flowers out of the wades somewhere."
"Cleaning the weeds out of the flowers, you mean," Jo corrected.
"Indade I don't," said Biddy. "The old amhadaun dunno a flower from a wade. He just makes a guess at it, an' 'tis a fade to a shmell he guesses wrong. There was me bed o' what-d'yer-call-'ems, wid some pigwade growin' in it. I showed him which was pigwade an' which was what-d'yer-call'ems; an', bedad, whin I wint to see how he was gettin' along wid his job, there was all me lovely what-d'yer-call-'ems pulled up be th' roots, an' th' dirty pigwade left in the bed. Sure, the old fool's goin' off his chump."
"Bat you must remember, Biddy," said Jo, more leniently, "Myles isn't an experienced horticulturist. He does his best—"
"He do—in the distructin' line. That's about all. Sind a yell out o' the windy there. Sure, the tay 'ill be cold, an' th' day's goin' an' nothin' done."
Myles came in, wearing bo-yangs, and dragging his feet like a working bullock. He sat down at the head of the table, took up the carving-knife, examined it carefully, and ran his thumb along the edge.
"D'ye want th' grindstone?" asked Biddy, watchin' him with arms akimbo.
"Whar's steel?" asked Myles.
"In th' yard where ye left it whin ye killed lasht," said Biddy. " 'Tis lucky yer head's screwed on. So it is."
Myles picked up another knife, and, having slashed the two together, proceeded with the carving of a cold joint.
Breakfast over, Miss Monaugh immediately betook herself to Gimbo. The punctual George was ensconced in a big, cushioned chair, toying with a piece of cotton, while a kitten lay on its back at his feet clawing at the lower end of it. Little things like that amused George. Already he looked upon Gimbo house as his own, and made himself thoroughly at home.
The widow was sitting at the sewing machine, preparing her own trousseau, as Miss Monaugh remarked, on entering.
"I'm getting a few things ready," the widow admitted. "I've 'ardly got a dress fit to go to a dog-fight in, an' yer want to look something decent at a time like this."
"Of course," her visitor assented. "This is an occasion that occurs but once in a lifetime to most people. With some, like yourself, for instance, it—it repeats."
"Aye, George chipped in, "an' with some people it's a 'casion that don't occur at all. Now, that's darn curious, ain't it?"
The spinster winced, and her dark eyes flashed angrily. "Getting ready for marriage is a momentous thing for maidens," she went on: "They're in a flurry all the while, and don't know half they want. With you, of course, it's different. As I said, you've been married before, and know by experience what's required."
"She's 'ad a hopportunity o' judgin', which you haven't, Jo," said George. Jo pretended not to hear him, and went on in a dry, matter-of-fact way:
"I'm very glad to hear that you have decided to change your name again, and must take this opportunity of congratulating you. I'm sure I wish you every happiness, though, I suppose, it will be a little hard for you to lose the old home."
The widow shifted uneasily, and looked quickly at George, on whose face there was a puzzled expression. It was no secret to Miss Monaugh that George coveted the widow's property, that is, Gimbo homestead and lands; nor was it unknown to her that he possessed nothing apart from his teams and a small selection. She had an idea of helping him to build, but that was a kernel that was not advanced enough to burst from its casement yet.
But for his drinking and gambling proclivities, George might have been a rich man. He repented sometimes, when he was alone, and his thoughts took that course. But invariably he ended his cogitations with the reflection that it was all in a lifetime, and a man might as well have all the enjoyment he could while he lived. He would be a long while dead.
Miss Monaugh smiled. She took it for granted that nothing now would part them, and was confident of her ability to do with George as she wished.
"What game now Jo?" asked that gentleman. Jo's only response was a stony stare. The widow looked up, resting her arms on the stand of the sewing machine.
"Did you ever see the will?" she asked.
"Often," Miss Monaugh replied. "You know, Mr Lethcote is one of the executors."
"Yes—Lethcote; Brexton Battye an' Edwin Lynton. Don't you think it's a fool of a will to go an' make?"
"Oh, dear no. I consider it very sensible will:"
"But where's the sense come in.?"
"Don't you see, your marrying again is to be considered as more unfavourable than otherwise to your children. The property would be at the mercy of your husband." She looked meaningly at George. "Mr Keaton did quite right in protecting the interests of his sons; and he naturally expected that, if you married again, you wouldn't require the place, as your husband would provide a home for you."
"A bark hut in th' scrub," the widow sneered. "I reckon half th' wimen are better single. They ken dress themselves decent, if they do 'ave to go to service. An' they 'ave comfortable rooms, an' good tucker, an' money of their own to spend as they like—go to a dance or a play, or anywhere else, for th' matter o' that. But when they're married they've scarce got a stitch to put on. Always in rags, always slavin' an' stuck everlastin' in one place like a lamp-post."
"Of course, it's nice to have some independence, and fine clothes," Miss Monaugh assented. "But that isn't everything in the making of happiness. Fine clothes, after all, are only dead adornments. There is more satisfaction in having a man than stagnating in fine clothes."
"Now yev've said it, Jo," cried George, repeating it slowly to himself. "Ruther like them sentiments. 'More sat'sfaction havin' a real live man than bein' a stag eatin' fine clothes.' Must r'member that, Jo."
Jo looked at him with withering scorn.
"You was talkin' about a will," George resumed, unabashed. "Isn't this place your'n, Mary?"
"Yes, 's long's I'm a widder, but when I chuck off the weeds it goes to Mark."
The widow nodded.
"Why didn't yer say so before?"
"What's it matter?" the widow demanded. She faced him sharply. "Is it me or the 'ouse you want?"
"You, of course!" George answered with emphasis. "But it kinder 'urts me feelings to see th' old place goin' to him. He'll never work to keep it together."
"Mark Keaton works harder than you do, George, and is already making money," Miss Monaugh informed him.
"Must 'ave started purty recent," George remarked.
"Mark has always been diligent," Miss Monaugh reproved severely.
"I'm not sayin' enything agin his intelligence," George drawled. "He's got enough o' that to keep away from hard graft. Him an' work fell out at the fust go off. 'S regards splosh, I ain't got nuthin' to blow about, but I'd back my forty years' gatherin' agin his, for all that."
"Yer might' fall in th' pot like yer did th' other day," the widow snapped with sudden ire.
"Don't you make no error!" cried George, and his back seemed to stiffen.
"Dear, dear!" said Miss Monaugh. "I hope you two are not going to quarrel. It would be so inopportune. By the bye, when is the wedding to be?"
"I dunno—an' I don't care," the widow snapped. "I don't see th' use o' gettin' married at all." She turned over the hem of a dress, and ran it under the needle. George drew a long face, and remained silent.
"I am sure you would be happier as George's wife than living here by yourself," said Miss Monaugh, consolingly. "George, I must tell you, is my cousin—"
"Your cousin!" the widow exclaimed; dropping her work. This was the spinster's trump card.
"That knocks her!" said George, grinning. "Ruther surprises 'er to hear as I'm 'ighly connected. Worst of it is," he added, scratching his head, "they won't own me."
"Good gracious!" said the widow, somewhat conciliated. "I never knowed that before."
"Nobody else knowed it. Jo took care of that."
"And I don't wish it to be known now till after the wedding," Miss Monaugh rejoined. "You are so indecorous, George—"
"Jumpin' Jemimah!" cried George. I knowed I was a purty bad egg, but never reckoned I was enything like that. In-de—what th' — is it agin?"
"I am ashamed of you," Miss Monaugh went on. "You are never respectable; you make no effort to better yourself."
"You an' me warn't made for th' same track." George returned. "Ye're doin' all right in this country, Jo. Don't you leave it."
"You are a plebeian. Your own family are ashamed of you," Miss Monaugh continued severely.
"Dunno what a flea-bean is," said George, rubbing his chin. "As fer th' High-an'-mightys bein' ashamed o' me, that's nuthin' new. I'm used to that sort o' thing. 'Twouldn't surprise me if I was to be ashamed o' meself someday."
"It would surprise me," Miss Monaugh declared with a brisk inclination of the head. "You ought really to conduct yourself better—being my Aunt Mary's child. Poor dear! Do you ever hear from her?"
"Me?" cried George, chuckling at the bare idea. "No," he drawled, "I ain't quite stylish enough for them. Neither Crogans nor Wrightsons ever trouble me."
"Your aunt was a Miss Crogan?" said the widow, addressing Miss Monaugh. "Is she George's mother?"
"Unfortunately, she is."
"Dear me! To think of that now!" said the widow, musingly. "They, are such high people, too, I've heard."
"I'll tell you how it happened," said Miss Monaugh, answering the widow's inquiring gaze. "George was always a scapegrace. He ran away from home when a boy—went off with a swagman. They travelled as father and son, right away into the wilds of Queensland—"
Something like a muttered oath from George interrupted her. He ducked suddenly, and whipped up the leg of his nether garment.
"What's bit yer?" the widow asked.
George screwed a bristly shank round and searched energetically under the folded tweed, making a lightning grab at one place, and scratching vigorously at another. "Flamin' bug or something's assaultin' me," he said.
"There's no bugs 'ere— unless you brought 'em," the widow dissented.
"Must be a flea, then," George surmised, baring more leg. He had no socks on.
"Might be fleas," the widow admitted. "Pincher's always layin' about inside."
"George!" the spinster cried in shocked tones.
"How dare you!"
George continued in pursuit of the insect. "Can't stand fleas," he said. "Makes you feel like a blackfeller's dorg."
He had another exhaustive look round, then gave it up. "Must 'ave got away," he concluded.
The spinster coughed softly, and resumed: "Mr Wrightson in the meantime was searching high and low for Master George. He found him six years after when overlanding with cattle. He was then stock-riding on a station three hundred miles away from his home. He was brought back, and everything was done to repair the evil effects of his wandering. But George was not to be repaired. He soon ran away again. His father followed him to the Dawson River, and there lost sight of him. Seven years passed, and one day a ragged tramp called at Mr Wrightson's and asked for a situation. A stray word or two aroused the old gentleman's suspicions. 'Who are you?' he asked. 'Who are me?' cried the tramp. 'Well, that's pure, that is. Fetch out th' old woman an' see if she'll say who are yer? She'd know me old hide if she seen it hangin' out on th' fence. I'm George Wrightson!' It was indeed the prodigal son. His father gave him some clothes and money, and told him to go. 'Go!' cried George, abashed. 'Doncher want me?' 'No,' his father answered. 'You have chosen your bed, so lie on it. Henceforth you are no son of mine.' George smiled grimly. 'You—you're a bit sudding, old feller,' he said, 'too sudding.' He never went home again."
"Well, that beats all I ever heard!" said the widow, looking at George in a new light. "You never said anything about that. What 'ave yer got to say for ye' self?"
George jerked his thumb towards Miss Monaugh. "Ask Jo," he said.
"I forbade him to speak of it," she explained. "Now, of course, it doesn't matter, so far as we are concerned. I considered it my duty to inform you of these facts on hearing of your engagement. Now that you know, I hope you don't think any the worse of him?"
"Worse, no! I think more of him. Ye're quite a hero, George—an' Miss Monaugh's cousin, too! Well, I declare, if that ain't as good as I've heard since I dunno when."
"At least," Miss Monaugh rejoined, "he's to be made a hero, for Mark's book is founded on his adventures in the bush. He's the sundowner."
"How did Mark know?" asked the widow.
"I told him the adventures as being those of a Queensland acquaintance of mine, and instructed him to take Kilfloggin as a model."
"Jumpin' Jemima!" cried George. "In a book—makin' fine speeches, doin' wonders I couldn't manage nohow, an' muggin' some purty gel I never knowed—Too sudding, Jo!"
"Do you really think he'll ever do any good at it?" the widow inquired with a little enthusiasm; and Miss Monaugh was glad to see that there was a little motherly pride in this woman after all.
"There is abundant reason to hope for the best results," Miss Monaugh replied. "I've had an opportunity of judging."
The widow leaned meditatively on the machine, her hands interlaced, staring into vacancy. Presently she said: "Mr M'Gurren was tellin' me yesterday it was no use goin' into that sort of thing without capital."
"He often comes here now. He's not a bad old sort, an' he amuses me th' way he talks."
Miss Monaugh made a grimace, and looked at her watch.
"Dear me, it's after twelve! I really must be going."
She rose and smoothed out her skirt.
"Won't you stop to dinner?" the widow asked graciously.
"No, I thank you. I promised to be home in time for lunch, and Mrs Lethoote will be annoyed if I keep her waiting. I had no idea it was so late."
"Mindger come to th' weddin', Jo!" George bawled after her. "Yer mightn't 'ave another charnce."
George chuckled as Jo put up her parasol and departed.
From time to time letters came from Mark and Ethel. The latter was having a jolly time at Nanango. She asked after Mr M'Gurren. How was the old fogey spending his time? He was spending a great deal of it in Widow Keaton's company, she was informed, and it was rumoured that they were engaged.
"He comes to Fairymede very seldom," Miss Monaugh wrote. "It seems to me that I have only succeeded in ridding you of him at the cost of losing him myself. He is flirting outrageously with the widow, apparently out of spite. Mrs Keaton shows very bad form in allowing it, considering that she is engaged to George Wrightson, and cannot possibly hope to hold her head any higher. Mr M'Gurren may one day regret his behaviour. I am not going to be trifled with. I have Other admirers; as Mr M'Gurren may yet find to his sorrow. I shall only wait for him another year."
It was good news to Miss Monaugh to hear that Leonard was going to manage Woorowolong Station on his return.
"I always told Leonard he could get that billet if he exerted himself a little," Miss Monaugh asserted. She was seated in the stern of the boat, her hand trailing in the water. Mr Lynton of Druton was plying the oars. He rowed up the lagoon to the bridge. Here the boat was moored, and Mr Lynton courteously assisted his expectant companion to land.
"I just want to see how my tree is doing," Miss Monaugh explained. "Neglect at the start is the cause of most trees not doing well here."
"Have you found out anything with regard to the old tree?" Mr Lynton asked, looking at the few leafless branches that remained, and Miss Monaugh answered unblushingly, "Nothing." She was loosening the soil around the young tree.
"I believe," he added, "there is a little romance attached to these trees that make them so much thought of by the people here."
"Yes; each one has its own little story," she replied, and her eyes grew wistful.
"I should like to hear them," he went on. "Will you take me round Miss Monaugh, and tell me what they are?"
"With pleasure. There's very little to tell, and nothing to interest anyone but those concerned. This one was planted by my dear brother, Pat, on the spot where he confessed his love to Biddy O'Meilly who is Mrs Lethcote now. Pat dug the hole, and Biddy put the tree in. Then each took a sprig and kept it as a memento. Poor Pat is dead now, and Biddy is married again. That second tree, near the bridge, marks the spot where she used to meet Myles Lethcote while she was staying with the Keatons. Do you see that little mound at the lower side? They sat there, and Myles, following Pat's precedent, planted a tree when they were betrothed. The third was planted by Lavinia Courtnay. She was staying with the Battyes, you know. She came over with Mr Battye and Leonards mother, then a girl, to look at Fairymede. The two latter pulled round in the boat, and Myles, and Lavinia walked across. While waiting for the others, he proposed to her there. She was a good woman, the best friend I ever had. The next tree was planted by Ethel; and, strangely enough, it was under its branches that Mark first asked her to be his wife. That is all."
"Very pretty," said Mr Lynton, "each one having an amorous meaning, and the whole forming a Lover's Walk, or, as Mr M'Gurren calls it, 'The Tryst.' But you have only spoken of four. There was a fifth, which, thanks to the unknown vandals, has made way for this mite. Had that one no little secret attached to it?"
"No-no!" She was leaning on his arm, dawdling along the slope towards the boat. He stopped where the young tree was planted.
"This, I believe, Miss Monaugh, was grown by your own hands. It would be a pity to let it grow up without being distinguished. 'T'wouldn't be in keeping with the rest, and lovers would pass it by as a lonely thing, beneath their notice. Let us consecrate it. Like that tree, we are two lonely souls. Let us throw our lots together, and be man and wife."
"Oh, Mr Lynton—I—I never thought of such a thing!" Miss Monaugh cried, blushing furiously. In reality she had expected it as soon as she had begun to speak. There was something in his manner, in his glances that warned her. But it was all so new and pleasing, this sudden realisation of a lifelong dream to receive a proposal of marriage from a man—a real, live man,—that she was startled out of her wits. She was overwhelmed; she was agitated—frightened. She stood there irresolute, with heightened cheeks, her eyes afire and her heart in a flutter. Mr Lynton was a cool, bold man. There was nothing of the passionate ardour and impulsiveness of the youthful lover about him. He had long grown out of that period, and spoke with a calmness and sobriety that a young girl might take for indifference, not to say cold-bloodedness, and perhaps resent. But to Miss Monaugh it was as the dulcet voice of a sylvan idyll whispering in the bowers of Dreamland. And yet she had never thought of him as a lover!
"What does it matter whether you thought of it or not? We are well suited for each other, and I'm sure you'll learn to love me if you do not now. We are not young and foolish. We look for more than love. You'll want for nothing at Druton. I'll be a devoted husband. There's no more to be said. The question is, will you or will you not?"
"It's so sudden, Mr Lynton, that I really don't know what to say," she answered breathlessly. "You have taken me by surprise. And it's a question that needs some consideration. It doesn't do to act in a haphazard fashion. I like to look before I leap. Besides I have been so happy—single—that I don't think I can be any better off by changing my present state."
"Oh, nonsense! A single woman is only half a woman. It's time you had a husband of your own— that is—I mean, a home of your own. All women do, you know."
"Yes, it's expected of us that we should. I don't know why it is. But men can be bachelors to the end of their days, and be just as much respected as the benedicts; but if a woman comes to be an old maid she is ridiculed. All sorts of nasty things are said about her. It's a shame. Woman has just as much right to remain single as a man."
"I beg to differ from you there. Woman is man's companion. He has to feed, clothe and shelter her. Many a man finds it difficult to support himself; others, though comfortable enough themselves, are not sufficiently well off to keep a wife as she should be kept, and are too honourable to drag her lower than the position in which he finds her. Such men deserve credit for keeping to themselves. For woman there is no excuse. Unless she is morally bad, or what we term 'fast,' she will find some worthy one willing to espouse her, and the offer of that man should not be rejected."
Miss Monaugh maintained a breathless silence. If she could have rushed away and had a "good think"! If she could have consulted with Ethel, or Myles, or even with Biddy! She felt incompetent in the matter of deciding for herself. She might accept him; but, then—what about M'Gurren? He might come round again when he had got over his disappointment in regard to Ethel, and propose at any moment. If she engaged herself to him while betrothed to Edwin Lynton, her misdemeanour would be bandied from mouth to mouth. They would call her a jilt, and she could not be called a jilt. She must at all hazard maintain her dignity and honour in the eyes of the public of Yeerong.
"I am waiting for your answer, Miss Monaugh," Mr Lynton reminded her. She started and coloured to the eyes. Would this big man put his arm round her and kiss her if she said "yes?" Would it seem indelicate, or worse, if she snapped him up at the first asking, when there had been no courtship?
Then she stammered, while she felt that she would like to be married at once: "I am sorry, Mr Lynton, but I can't give you an answer to-day. If you will—er—call the day after tomorrow I—I will tell you."
Miss Monaugh regretted having made the request almost as soon as the words were uttered. The day after to-morrow seemed such a long way ahead. She might have lessened the agony by some hours had he pressed her but Mr Lynton was a patient wooer, and nodding acquiescence, he commenced to talk about the beauty and sweetness of gum blossoms.
They strolled slowly homeward, and when he had taken his departure Miss Monaugh, over the supper table, recounted to Biddy and Myles exactly what had happened during the afternoon.
"Begob, thin, we ought to chalk it up," was Biddy's unfeeling remark, which evoked a chuckle from the delighted Myles. He had a soft spot in his heart for Jo, and he liked to see her have her proper share of the world's good things. "An' why' th' divil didn't you say 'yis' at once, you fool?" she demanded in an altered tone.
"I wanted to ask your opinion," Miss Monaugh returned.
"My opinion indade! Phwat 'ave I to do wid it? Ugh! You ought to think yeself lucky to get th' chance o' marryin' widout anybody's opinion at all. But some people are niver satisfied. If ye give thim a pig they want a shtye to put him in."
"Oh, there's no need to make a fuss over it," said Jo, testily. "I haven't rejected the man."
"You haven't, so; but thin he mightn't come agin."
"Don't reject un, Jo," Myles advised. "I've knowed un goin' on for twenty year, an' baint seen nowt about un to pick at. He'll make 'ee a good mate, I'll warrant."
"The Lord save us, where could she get a better?" cried Biddy, wrathfully. "She ought 'ave rushed him, so she ought. Beggars can't be choosers, mind that, an' nixt time he comes spooneywinkin' around yer if ye ken fetch him on agin—just clinch th' bargain there an' thin, an' none o' yer palaverin' about it."
"Indeed," said Miss Monaugh with some asperity, "I have more strings than one to my bow."
"Ye'd better fasten on to wan of thim thin," Biddy retorted. "They're shlippery things, Jo, an' ye're gettin' purty stale now."
In the course of further conversation Miss Monaugh learned that Mr M'Gurren had made a call in her absence, and in declining an invitation to dinner the following evening, gave as an excuse that he was engaged to dine with the widow at Gimbo.
"Big George be hangin' fire wee bit long," said Myles. "If un doan' watch unself Mac 'ull 'cut un out."
"Bad cess to him, he's always shtuch over there," cried Biddy, frowning. "Phwat do he want to be pokin' over there for at all? He niver wint next or nigh th' place while Etty was here. 'Tis to be hoped she'll be back soon. 'Twas a fool I was, lettin' her go. We're a dhry lot, Jo. There's no more magnetism in us than there is in a fish bone. So there isn't."
"I don't think it is Ethel's absence that has effected him. He must have found some stronger attraction at Gimbo," Miss Monaugh suggested.
"Has he!" Biddy retorted. "That's all you know about it. Just wait till she comes back, an' you'll see him flyin' over here, begob, like a shtreak o' scared lightnin' tumblin' down a graised lamp-post."
"H'm!" Miss Monaugh had her own opinions on the matter. She decided at once how to act with regard to the refractory M'Gurren.
"Things are coming to a crisis." she soliloquised. "I shall soon know the truth."
On the pretence of seeing Wrightson, Miss Monaugh called upon the widow the following afternoon. M'Gurren was there; but there was no sign of George.
"Dear me, how unfortunate! I made sure I would find him here."
"Ye a' mair likely ta find him in his humpy owre yon," said M'Gurren. "Loh, I was owre there yestereen lookin' for a stirk I'd lost, an' there he was on th' brud o' his back, readin' Ned Kelly, an' sich a fine day to be oot amang the timber ta. Heigh, he's an eedle mon."
"I have always found him industrious," said Miss Monaugh, coldly.
"Oots, wuman, ye ken as weel as I dae the mon's an awfu' drunkard. Evra bawbee he maks gangs ta the publican. He wadna fash himsel' muckle aboot wairk at a' if he cud get his liquor wi'out it. Th' mistress can telt ye hoo he used ta cum here wi' his bottles, an' gang awa' hame in th' middle o' th' 'nicht drunk as a lud. Buit he winna cam here ony mair."
"I hope you have not quarrelled, Mrs Keaton," Miss Monaugh said, in some doubt, focussing the latter's downcast face.
"Oh, no," answered that lady. "But the fact is— Aleck, you'd better tell her. I must see to my bread."
Aleck! The truth flashed upon the mind of Miss Monaugh, and her heart seemed to jump into her mouth. She felt cold and white.
"Weel," said Aleck, throwing one leg over the other, and complacently stroking his beard, "the fact is, she's na longer th' Widow Keaton she hae changed her name."
"She is married?"
"Aye. She i' th' Mistress M'Gurren. We were marrit twa days syne."
"Good heavens!" the spinster exclaimed, completely forgetting herself in the astonishment that this announcement occasioned her. Her face was the hue of a scraped pig, her nervousness painfully manifest. All the bitterest feelings of her nature for a moment held sway; spitefulness, envy, hatred against the widow—now widow no longer, but the helpmeet of the one she had ear-marked for her own, had striven to gain, had cast all modesty to the winds, and gone beyond the limits of decency, in her unwomanly wooing, only to discover on a sudden, when there had appeared no obstacle in the way of achievement, that she had ignominiously lost; This low, vulgar woman, in her tawdry, indecorous flimsies, had ousted her; the pessimistic female, who had neither breeding nor accomplishments, whose obesity and rubicundity were the results of inebriation and gluttony; this illiterate, shameless, brazen old trollop had caught the wealthy laird in her indifferently cast net, whilst she—the proud and stately Johanna Monaugh, with all her utilitarian views and disregard of conventionalities—had been contemptuously ignored—spurned—scorned! Her pride was deeply wounded; her hands clenched as though they itched to scratch the wretch who had so basely insulted her; and she was filled with sickly qualms as she conceived the base character of that woman who, practising the role of a confidential friend, had surreptitiously cajoled her, and appropriated that to which her claim was the most infinitesimal. Only a few hours before she had breathed ambrosial sweets, now the flames of hell raged within her breast, and she glared at M'Gurren and the slattern he called wife, with the bitter hatred of a scorned woman.
"Ye dinna congratulate me, lass," Mr M'Gurren reminded her. This was adding fuel to an already blazing fire.
"Congratulate you!" she cried, with flashing eyes. "Do you know what you have done? Are you aware that this woman was all but married to George Wrightson?"
"I ken she was engeeged ta him, buit that was bruk off long syne."
"Indeed it was not. George Wrightson does not know at the present moment that his affaire d' amour is at end. Only the other day she was preparing her trousseau under his very nose, and arranging for the wedding. What day it was fixed for I don't know. But it must be near at hand. The poor fool will come to claim her, as he has a right to, and find her your wife! She has treated him abominably; and you, who are her confederate, have acted a part wholly at variance with the conduct of a gentleman. I'm— Really, I'm thoroughly disgusted with the whole business."
"I canna see hoo it concerns ye, lass," said M'Gurren quietly.
"How it concerns me!" the spinster screeched. "George Wrightson is my cousin, and naturally I take an interest in his affairs. Marriage would have been his salvation. Now he will be ruined. He will drink himself to death. That will be your doing. You don't know yet half the mischief you have done. Do you know the old adage: 'Marry in haste, repent at leisure?' You will repent in a very short time. Retribution will come, mark me, and you'll get your desserts. I know it. I've had an opportunity of judging."
Mrs M'Gurren came in, carrying a small parcel in her hand. "Miss Monaugh, this is some of our weddin' cake for yerself an' Mrs Lethcote."
"Indeed, madam." said the spinster, bristling again, "as you didn't consider it worth your while to invite us, after all our kindnesses to you and Mr M'Gurren, you can keep your cake.''
"Oh, dear!" said Mrs M'Gurren, firing up at once. "Yer needn't get into such a mighty tear about it. Yer not the only one, madam."
"Oots, wuman, ye mauna quarrel noo," M'Gurren interrupted. "I'll telt ye th' truth, lass. Ye ken th' folk aboot here wadna lookit kindly on oor nuptials. Sae I tuk Mark alang wi' me ta toon last nicht, an' we were marrit at the registry. There was na party at a'."
"You told me you were married two days ago?" said Miss Monaugh, coldly.
"Sae I did, lass. I was just ha'in' a joke wi' ye. Take the cakes, lass, an' dinna let there be a difference batween us."
"Thank you. If it pleases Mrs Lethcote I will send a servant for it."
"A servant!" cried M'Gurren, indignantly. "It may be harder, lass, ta find th' flunkey thun ta carry the cake home wi' ye."
"Make no mistake on that point, Mr M'Gurren," she returned with an emphatic little bow. "I wish you a good afternoon."
Then, without further words, and still in a temper, Miss Monaugh bounced out of the room. As she passed through the broken gate she heard Mrs M'Gurren humming, in evident satisfaction:—
"Alas and alack,
An' she'd a naughty little twinkle in her eye."
The spinster tossed her head in scorn, and hurried homewards with a flutter of skirts, and oscillation of ribbons and laces, there to confide to Biddy "the disgraceful conduct of Moneybags and that female."
Biddy at first was speechless with rage and horror, then she stormed and raved, and stamped her foot on the floor till everything in the room shook and rattled. Old Myles retreated quietly into the next room, and there be shook hands with himself with much enthusiasm, and chuckled in secret over the good news. "Etty 'ill have nowt to fear from un now," he soliloquised, tossing his head waggishly, "an' she'll be right slap glad on't, I'll warrant."
At dinner Biddy denounced him as a viper, and a two-faced thing.
"There's no mahn in him; he hasn't th' spirit of 'a louse. He's only a thing," she raved. "He shall niver come anigh my house agin—niver! Myles, I strictly forbid ye ever to spake to th' spalpeen agin, mind that."
"Doan want to speak to un." Myles beamed with delight.
"I should think not, indade! After all he used to say about Mother Keaton—runnin' her down to the lowest, an' goin' on about Mark so—to turn round an' marry the owld cow. The Lord save us! An' th' way he used to talk to me about Etty an' I dunno how many times he asked me for her. Johanna, take care she niver associates wid him. By the grace o' God, she shall niver be polluted be sich company. Niver will she spake to him—or I'll spiflicate her. Just moind that now, Johanna."
Johanna answered nothing. She was intent upon her own dismal thoughts. They were in nowise lightened by the mornings mail, which brought her a note from Mr Edwin Lynton stating that he had been called upon to act as deputy for Leonard until that young gentleman returned from the north, and consequently could not hope to see her again for some time, unless she favoured him with a visit to Woorowolong. It was not a love letter, merely a formal announcement that might have been written by anybody. Her heart sank within her as the thought struck her that he had mistaken her procrastination for dismissal, and had abandoned his suit for her hand. It was feasible, for could he not have called on his way to the station—if only just to obtain her answer. She had asked him to come, and regretted more than ever that she had done so. It made her feel so small and mean. Perhaps he was indifferent. Old age does not become infatuated with a woman's charms like youth. He may have only proposed in a moment of generosity and gallantry, perhaps out of devilment, thinking that she was already another's, and would, of course, refuse him.
She carried the letter to her room and wept over it, reread it and wept again.
"Oh, why did I hesitate!" she lamented, her elbows on the dressing table, and propping her chin up with her palms. "Why didn't I snap him up, and thus have made sure of one? I have learned a lesson. Never again will I put off till to-morrow a man I can have to-day. I could have been Edwin's darling this moment but for my folly. Now I may lose him. Even if he is sincere, he may not be courageous enough to ask twice. Well, I could speak— Ah, I have it! I will reply to his note, and give him an answer. There is nothing improper in doing that."
She brightened immediately on grasping this brilliant idea, and, without loss of time, produced pen and paper and dashed off a billet doux to Mr Lynton:—
"Your note brought with it much disappointment. I was expecting and wishing for you every minute when I received it. Since I saw you last I have discovered that my heart is not my own. I have learned the truth of the old saying that absence makes the heart grow fonder. It does seem an age since we separated, each day drags away so wearily. I am lonely without you. Do come, or write.— Yours for ever, Johanna."
"That ought to fetch him." she mused, after reading it over to see that it was all right and proper. Her musings carried her along the old beaten of the expectant woman. She spoilt many envelopes by addressing them to her future self, "Mrs Lynton" and "Mrs Johanna Lynton" and "Mrs Edwin Lynton, Druton," and she sketched a postage stamp in one corner, and two or three imaginary postmarks on the back and front, just to see how it would look. Then her thoughts ran on wedding dresses and bridesmaids, and all the silly appointments with which modern custom surrounds the application of the connecting link that makes man and woman one indissoluble whole, till she had almost forgotten the letter.
She re-read the precious document again, then sealed it carefully, and at the first opportunity despatched it to her "Dear Edwin." How easy it was to transfer that term of endearment from Aleck to Edwin!"
Meanwhile, the bibaceous Kilfloggin called on the false widow at Gimbo to see to the final arrangements for their wedding. He was passably sober, and had donned a clean shirt and dispensed with his bo-yangs.
"How dyer do, Mary? Come to see if yer had things shipshape for the parson."
"Oh, yer needn't trouble yerself about th' parson. He's not wanted eny more."
"Not wanted!" cried George. "Surely ter God y' ain't goin' to jib on it now?"
Look here, Mr Wrightson," said the widow, bracing herself, "it's no use beatin' about the bush. I might's well tell yer the truth at once. I thought it over, an' I ses, 'Well, I won't do it without my boys' consent.' So I wrote to 'em, an' they said, 'If you want to marry, take Aleck M'Gurren. He can give you a good home, an' keep you like a lady. George Wrightson drinks, an' he's got nothing.' "
"Got nuthin'!" cried George. How do they know what I got? Might 'ave a darned sight more'n they have. I'll take my oath I ken make a better splice than old Aleck M'Gurren, enyway."
"They've knowed Mr M'Gurren since they wur kids, an' I reckoned it was good advice," she went on.
"Marry th' old Scotchman!" George iterated. "Jumpin' Jemima! y'r must kid yerself. Why, a bloke like him 'ud never think o' lookin' yer way, Mary! Though he ain't worth pickin' up as a man, he thinks th' goldarned sun rises out o' one of his boots an' sets in th' other."
"Not so fast, if you please. An' don't call me Mary. If me husband heard yer—"
"My husband," she repeated, nodding her head.
"Well, by cripes!" he gasped. "Where'd yer get him?"
"I am Mrs M'Gurren," she informed him, reddening.
For a full minute George stood staring at her in speechless amazement. Presently he laughed, and drew a flask of whisky from his pocket.
"Here, 'ave a nip, old gel. 'T'll put yer in better humour."
But the old girl made a grimace, and waved him aside.
"Don't come near me with any o' that stuff, or I'll smash th' bottle on the stones," she said, and there was venom in her voice.
"What, not havin' any?"
"Indeed I'm not!"
Again George stared at her. Then he said:
"Mrs M'Gurren, eh? By gum, missus, this is a bit sudding."
"We won't haggle over that," she said. "An' I don't think Mr M'Gurren would like to see you here."
"My troubles about M'Gurren!" said George. "There'll be precious little of him left after you've had him a year. But don't fret about me, missus. My shadder 'll be kep' off Gimbo grass. You make no error!"
With these valedictory expressions he departed. He whistled softly, as though he didn't mind but he was hard hit. Down the flat he lifted his voice suddenly:—
Oh, my heart is broke—
God knows it is!"
He stopped abruptly, as he had commenced, and thereafter, as a musical genius, he was silent. What became of him may be told in a few words. Now and again he would deliver a load of timber, and Bill Sooley or Abe Watts, and sometimes Amelia Jane, would take the team out for him, while he remained in Dumboon "knocking his cheque down." At times he got paralytic; again he "saw things," and dodged them wildly among the trees on his way to camp. In the scrubs he sobered up, and would be moody till he got back to the pub. One day the expected happened. George had paid another teamster to load his waggon for him, and went out, drunk, to bring it in himself. Crossing a gully he fell off his horse, and the wheel went over him. Amelia Jane was riding behind, and hurried to his aid.
"Yer hurt, George?" she inquired.
"Put yer cluver on, 'Melia; I'm goan ter take yer out," said George, with a sickly smile.
"Why, split me if he ain't gone stark mad!" Amelia Jane exclaimed. "George, you've gone an' busted yer biler dead sure!"
"Stand over, Brown!"' said George, breathing hard. "Bang yer eyes—mind to knock yer down!"
Amelia Jane got frightened, and coo-ee'd for help. Three or four bullockies ran up. George smiled bravely, and even tried to sing—
Wrap me up in me stockwhip an' blanket,
An' bury me deep down below,
With me saddle an' quartpot for comp'ny,
Down where th' coolabahs grow."
"What's the matter?" asked Sooley, breathlessly.
"Ol' jinker's knocked me out," George answered. "Ruther sudding, wasn't it? Too sudding—"
That was the end of Kilfloggin, and Miss Monaugh swore that she would never forgive M'Gurren and that "disreputable female" for having driven him to the deadly bottle.
Midwinter saw Leonard and his wife domiciled at Woorowolong. Ethel and Mark returned with them, the latter taking the billet of book-keeper at the station as a pot-boiler. Mr Lynton returned to his old haunts. Miss Monaugh had called on him at the station, and, going home across the bush, she encounted Amelia Jane, who was hard riding as usual on the old grey pony. She pulled up sharply, and slewed a little off her course to meet the spinster.
" 'D yer see Strawberry enywhere?" she asked, dropping the reins to do up her back hair.
"No, Amelia," said Miss Monaugh. "Have you lost that troublesome beast again?"
"Oh, he's a swine," Amelia Jane averred. "He won't stop like another bullock, but pokes away in th' scrubs on his ace every time he's let go. Dunno why father don't pole-axe th' cow. Got me rode blind pretty near."
Miss Monaugh was sorry, and hoped the refractory bovine would soon be found. She did not want to talk today. She was eager to get home to unburden herself of a great secret to Biddy. But Amelia Jane was bristling with news just now, and hung on to her.
"Hear about Abe Watts?" she asked.
"What about him?" asked Jo.
"Spliced," said Amelia Jane.
"Go on!" cried Jo, a little interested.
"To Sarah from the Dairy," Amelia Jane went on.
"When did it happen?"
"Larst night. Great dance."
"Well, I'm glad they're happy." The spinster always took it for granted that people were happy when they got married.
"Me an' Bill was there," Amelia Jane continued.
"How did you get on?"—absently.
Amelia Jane tittered, and pulled at the horse's mane. "Asked me to say when," she said.
"Did he? And when is it to be?"
"Next time he comes in."
"Oh! I'm very glad, Amelia. I congratulate you. You were sensible. Procrastination is the thief of love. I've had an opportunity of judging."
"I s'pose you know Bill?" Amelia Jane inquired.
"I have seen him a few times," Miss Monaugh replied.
"Ain't a bad old stick when yer come to know him proper. Real smart, too. Y' orter hear him performin' when he's stuck. Cripes, he do jump an' holler, an' cracks like guns goin' off."
"He's a good shot, I've heard," Miss Monaugh remarked.
"Oh, rippin'. Hits th' bull's-eye every pop. But I meant th' way he cracks his whip. There's none of 'em comes up to him at that. Never heard nobody swear like him neither."
"It's very wrong to swear," Miss Monaugh reproved. "You must use your influence with him, Amelia, and try to reform him."
"But Bill's a champion," Amelia Jane protested. "It's just lovely to hear him."
Miss Monaugh smiled sweetly. "I am so glad you are going to be settled," she repeated.
"I'll be done jiggin' about after Strawberry enyway," Amelia Jane responded. "Must get along."
She whacked the old pony on the ribs and went off full speed again. Miss Monaugh brushed along as rapidly as her dread of snakes would permit, her dear old face radiant, and her heart throbbing with goodwill to all creation. The hills and the scrubs had never charmed her eyes as they did now and the warbling of the magpies, and the chirrupping of parrots—every sound fell like sweetest music on her ears. Her erstwhile prosaic world was an enchanted land, and the palescent sunset was a dream of Heaven. The quiet old cows browsing on the hills, the foals gambolling on the flat, and the croak of the black shag down by the lagoon, all touched responsive chords—associations of home and of long ago—and filled her with, an indescribable happiness.
On reaching home she rushed in to Biddy to entrust her immediately with her wonderful secret.
"Would you ever believe it, Biddy," she gasped, dropping breathlessly into a chair.
Biddy regarded her with a frigid stare. "Got 'em again," she said.
"I'm engaged!" Miss Monaugh concluded, swallowing huge gulps of the atmosphere.
"Engaged!" repeated Biddy, contemptuously. "Indade, haven't you enough to kape you widout goin' to service? I thought so, anyway. Phwat's it ye' re goin' to be?"
Miss Monaugh pursed her lips in contempt. "Do you imagine I could degrade myself by going out to service?" she demanded.
"I don't" Biddy answered. "I imagine ye'd better ye'self a lot. I've seen more women 'an you at service. You sed you were engaged?"
"So I am."
"In what capacity, thin?"
"In a matrimonial capacity—if you'll have it that way. I am going to be married."
Biddy threw up her hands and laughed loudly. "Ooh, the Lord save us! Are ye goin' off 'at lasht?"
"Do you mean, am I going away, Biddy?"
" 'Tis off the shelf I mane. Sure, 'tis a harrowin' time ye've been on it."
Miss Monaugh was annoyed, but tried to look as though she did not care. "Mr Lynton, you know—"
"Oh, it's Mr Lynton thin! Ye did get him?"
"Biddy, how rude you are. I'm surprised."
"So am I, bedad. I didn't think th' old crony had that much generosity in him."
"Indeed, the generosity is on the other foot, if there's any generosity about it," Miss Monaugh retorted. "It is not the first time Mr Lynton has asked me."
"Well, no," Biddy admitted, slowly. " 'Tis a dhry old shtick he's gettin', all the same."
"Is he!" sullenly. "I'm no dryer than you are, if it comes to that."
"Whin's it comin' off, Jo?" asked Biddy in a more pacifying tone.
"Whenever I like," Jo answered, triumphantly.
"Did he tell you that?" cried Biddy, with distended eyes.
"He did," said Jo, trying to appear calm while fumbling with her gloves.
"An' ye're shtill Johanna Monaugh?"
"I'm still Johanna Monaugh, of course."
"Wal, afther that!" cried Biddy, her face eloquent of dissent. "I'd like to see the bold cockshaver who'd say that to me if I stud in your boots. I'd give him th' crook of me arm pretty shmart, an' I'd say to him, ses I, 'Come on, me bhoy; there's no time like th' prisent.' Men are kittle cattle, an' there's nothin' like takin' 'em on the hop."
"That would be bad form, Biddy," said Miss Monaugh, severely. "Though I'm not a stickler for conventionalities, I believe in observing the proprieties in cases of this sort. There are people who would be glad of something to say about the indecent haste and that sort of thing. Mother Grundy is a nasty old cat in matters of this kind. If a person in my position were to go and marry at a moment's notice, she would turn up her snub nose and talk scandal. But she won't have the chance. Everything will be strictly formal and proper, and I'll get there in good time, never fear."
"Ye'll niver do it younger, Johanna," Biddy said.
Miss Monaugh, highly indignant, bounced out of the room. She found a more sympathetic listener in Myles, and with him expatiated on the many estimable qualities of her fiance and the amiable Myles expressed himself as being delighted to know that she had succeeded in "hookin' summat arter all."
Meanwhile, Biddy was much exercised as to what was to become of Ethel. In her heart she was glad that Johanna was to be taken away to Druton, for then Ethel would not be so much under her baneful influence, and would therefore be more tractable and obedient to her stepmother. She assisted Miss Monaugh all she could in her preparations, and did not trouble herself much to conceal her anxiety to be rid of her.
"Of course she doesn't like me," Miss Monaugh confided to Myles, "because I've upset so many of her plans. But she'll miss me when I'm gone. If she knew the truth about Ethel she wouldn't be in each a hurry to kick me out. It serves her right."
It was about sunset on Saturday when Mr Lethcote, who had gone to the station the day before to meet his daughter, drove her home in the dogcart. Miss Monaugh had returned some hours earlier, and now assisted the young lady to alight.
''You look happy, child—so contented." she said, roguishly but only Ethel knew the meaning of the wink and smile that accompanied the words.
She had benefited immensely by her trip. She was a little sunburned certainly, but there was a healthy sparkle n the dear blue eyes that gave her whole face an animated appearance. She was at times delightfully piquant and her brisk manner was a source of pleasure to her father and Aunt Jo. But her repartees, her fearlessness, occasionally disconcerted her stepmother. The latter realised now that Ethel had grown into a woman, and was not to be so easily cajoled as she had expected. It was all Johanna's fault, of course. She had made her "old fashioned," self-willed and rebellious.
But Biddy did not despair. She'll do my biddin' whin Jo's gone," she declared, "or be th' grace o' God I'll knock shpots off her. I'll let her understand widout eny equivocatin' who's boss of this establishment. Take it from me now."
"How old are you, Etty?" Biddy asked on the Monday morning.
They were in the drawing-room. In a little sitting-room adjoining were two gentlemen. They had been smuggled in there by Miss Monaugh.
"Just keep quiet till you're wanted," she enjoined them. "You know your role. Pop in at the right time. We'll have a little drama—or perhaps I should say comedy to finish up with. It's the best way to get out of the difficulty."
"I'm afraid ther'll be something of the tragic element in it," said the elder of the two gentlemen.
"Of course there will. Biddy will be in an awful rage. I wouldn't be surprised if she has a fit. But it will soon pass over. Just follow my instructions, and all will be well."
She returned to the drawing-room.
"I am nearly twenty;" Ethel answered. Then, after a pause, she added, "Leonard says I do not look it."
"You mightn't look it," said her stepmother, "but, for all that, you have the way wid you that tells pretty plain that ye warn't born yesterday, it's time, Etty, ye begun to think o' settlin' down. It bates me now what we're goin' to do for you. There was Mr Fogarty—a very nice young man. He's just married Miss Cadby, th' publican's daughter. He always admired you, did Fogarty, an' if ye 'adn't gone away, I'm sure she wouldn't 'ave got a bit of him. An' ye lost M'Gurren (the old bog-throtter) ye lost him through, your own foolishness, so ye did."
"I didn't want Mr M'Gurren, mother. I'm glad he's out of the way," Ethel returned. "There are better men than Mr M'Gurren on the Yeerong—one, at least."
"Who is that, pray?"
"Phugh! He's not worth his salt. He might own Gimbo (thanks to old M'Gurren), but what's he got to kape it goin'? He won't work, an' phwat's the use of his writin'?"
Miss Monaugh tossed her head and passed into the hall.
"He's going to work at the station," Ethel replied. "His writing is bringing him in money already. In a few years he'll be rich, or I'm greatly mistaken."
"I think you are. It ud take half a lifetime at least to make onything at that game nowadays. Mr Lynton told me so, and he ought to know. Who th' divil would marry a bookworm on that spec, enyway?"
"That question is out of date, mother. He's married."
"Mark Keaton is?"
Mrs Lethcote dropped her hands over her lap, still holding her work—some white material she was sewing. Ethel was slightly nervous.
"The Lord be thanked for that much!" said her stepmother, fervently. Her gaze wandered through the open door. Across the flat, along the Red Road, a few teams were passing. Twining wreaths of vapour rose like snowclouds from the hills beyond. The sun shone out, and insect life began to waken, and to relieve the monotonous stillness of the July morning.
Ethel looked up timidly. "You are glad, mother?" she questioned.
"Of course I am," her step-mother replied. "I didn't think he'd do it. but 'tis as well he has. He's beyond harm-doin', enyway."
"There was never any harm in Mark Keaton, I am sure," said Ethel, picking up a book that lay on the table. "If he is poor, he is honest."
"I always thought ye had a fancy for th' bosthoon," said Biddy. "I hope ye've got over that—now."
"No, mother," said Ethel, slowly. Her eyes were fixed on the book. "I always loved him—I love him dearly."
She spoke very tenderly, her face half-hidden in the thick folds of the curtains. Biddy was horrified.
"Love him!" she cried. "Are ye mad? How can ye say such a thing! Ye don't know what ye're talkin' about, goose. Ye ought to be ashamed of ye'self, so ye ought. To say ye love a married man! Did I iver hear th' like of it!"
"Would you have me hate him?"
" 'Twould be betther so. I wouldn't have ye love him if he was single, but—married! God forbid! Ye must be crazy, child. Phwat would his wife think at all, at all?"
"She thinks it quite proper," Ethel answered in a low voice.
"To love her husband?"
"The Lord be good to us! I donno phant sort of a woman she can be."
Biddy went on sewing very rapidly for a few seconds. Suddenly she put it down again. "Who did he get holt of, for God's sake? Some wicked adventuress in Brisbane. I s'pose?"
"No, mother," said Ethel, with reproach in her eyes and voice. "He married in Nanango."
"Indade! An' who is his wife?"
"God be good to us! You-u!"
"Yes. mother, I am Mark's wife."
"God forgive you!" said Biddy, hoarsely. Her face was white, and her eyes flashed with an angry glare. "An' ye feel mighty proud, no doubt? Ye think ye'ye done a shmart thing to marry that jackanapes? Th' dirty scamp!"
She sprang up and stamped her foot oh the floor. "By the powers, if he ever comes into this house I'll throttle him! I'll knock him down wid the saucepan! I'll scald the dog, I will!"
"I'll sphlit his skull open wid the tay-pot—"
Biddy stopped short. Mark Keaton stood on the threshold, looking calmly at her.
"Begging your pardon, madam," he said, "were you alluding to our marriage?"
"Indade I was, thin. Drat you for an impudent pup! I'll have ye presecuted!"
"What wrong have I done?"
"Wrong!" screeched the infuriated woman. "Phwat right did ye ever do ye dog! Didn't ye take my daughter away an' marry her against my will! 'Tis abductin' ye've done. She' undher age. Dyer know that?"
"I do. I obtained permission from the proper authority to marry Ethel."
"The proper authority! An' who th' divil's the proper authority, I'd like to know?"
The side door opened, and Aunt Jo entered.
"I am," she said, with an emphasis that greatly disturbed the curl papers.
"Now, Biddy, don't make a fuss over nothing. Just listen to me. Before Ethel's mother died she made me the guardian of her child. I have the deed here." She tapped a paper which she held in her hand. "I would have told you this long ago, and let you know all about Mark and Ethel's engagement if you had acted properly towards her. But you tried your best to sacrifice the poor child for M'Gurren's money. So we had to indulge in a little game of checkmate."
"Indade!" cried Biddy, wrathfully. I'll take good care I'll checkmate you for th' future. As ye think so much of her fine husband, ye can get him to kape yez. I won't, so there."
"You never have, Biddy. I've kep myself—although," she added, as an afterthought, "I am indebted to you for the shelter of your most, hospitable roof"
"Ye won't be any longer thin. I'll stake me sowl on that much."
"I won't. I have a home of my own."
"Have you? 'Tis mighty racent ye've found it thin."
"I'm to be married on Wednesday Biddy, to Mr Lynton, and—"
"Lord save us! Do ye mane it?"
"Certainly. And I should like to be married here. Mr Lynton wishes it."
Biddy sank into a chair, hardly knowing whether to laugh or to cry. The clouds were passing over, and Mark, noting the favourable signs stepped forward.
"Mrs Lethoote," he said, "we have not been on the best of terms in the past, which was my reason for not asking your permission to marry Ethel. I knew you would dismiss me at once. We have always loved each other, Ethel and I, and, for fear of being parted, we agreed to marry in secret. I have already made a name, and am in a position to keep her as she should be kept. So I trust you will forgive us our little delinquency, and be good friends."
He held out his hand. Mrs Lethcote accepted it in silence.
"There now," said Miss Monaugh smiling blandly; "you will be proud of him yet, Biddy. Of course you could tear my hair out, and all that, but you'll come to look at it as we do before long. These sort of matches mostly turn out happily. I am quite satisfied this one will. I've had an opportunity of judging."
She threw the door open, and, with many smiles and courtesies, and a modest little blush, announced Mr Edwin Lynton.
"My dear Mrs Lethcote," said that gentleman, pompously, "let me congratulate you. I am very glad things have turned out so happily. Are you not delighted now? Come?"
"Well," said Biddy, reluctantly, "it might 'ave been worse."
"Of course it might," Mr Lynton assented, patronisingly. "But," he added slyly, "it could scarcely have been better. Your son-in-law, my dear madam, is the lion of the Yeerong."
Mrs Lethcote smiled, and drew her stepdaughter to her. "I hope ye'll be happy, Etty," she said, and kissed the young wife on the cheek.
"Happy!" said the excited and delighted Myles, who had been beaming on the company through the window all the while, and enjoying Biddy' confusion. "She's got nowt to trouble un now. She'll be 's happy 's a sandboy, I'll warrant."
"There is only one more act to make all complete," said Mr Lynton, with sly glance at Miss Monaugh, who blushed modestly and slapped him playfully on the shoulder.
"Ye're goin' to take Jo away from us?" Biddy broke in. "That's it of course. Ye don't think she kept that bottled up, do you?"
"Certainly not. I particularly requested her to tell you. I hope you have no objection—"
"Indade I haven't. Take her an welcome. Bad cess to her, phwat hasn't she done since she's been here! But niver mind. A bad indin' often has a good beginnin'. I forgive you, Jo, an'—the best of luck be wid you."
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