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Project Gutenberg Australia
Title: Bindawalla: An Australian Story
Author: Thomas E Spencer
eBook No.: 2300931h.html
Date first posted: August 2023
Most recent update: August 2023
This eBook was produced by: Colin Choat
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Author Of "How M'dougall Topped the Score," "The Surprising Adventures of Mrs. McSweeney," "Budgeree Ballads," &c., &c.
N.S.W. Bookstall Co., Ltd.,
1. THE TOP ROAD OR THE TRACK
2. SQUATTER v. SELECTOR
3. VISITORs AT "OLD JOE'S FLAT
4. RUBY SINGS IN PUBLIC
5. HERR BATONSTEIN
6. STRANGE CONDUCT OF LESLIE RAYMOND
7. THE SHEARERs' CAMP
8. THE SHEARERS' STRIKE
9. THE FIGHT
10. TO THE WOOLSHED!
11. "SHEARERS AIN'T SAINTS, BUT THEY AIN'T DEVILS"
12. HERR BATONSTEIN REVEALS A SECRET
13. RUBY MEETS MR. POGSON
14. THE PHILHARMONIC CONCERT
15. OLD JOE'S FLAT AGAIN
16. RUBY VISITS BINDAWALLA
17. A VISIT, AND A RETURN VISIT
18. THE BARRIERS BROKEN
19. "THE LORD G1VETH AND THE LORD TAKETH AWAY"
20. THE LAW AND THE PROPHETS
21. THE PARSON HAS HIS HANDS FULL
22. RUBY SINGS BEFORE THE QUEEN
23. HOME AGAIN TO SUNNY NEW SOUTH WALES
24. "THE CROOKED SHALL BE MADE STRAIGHT"
25. MR. POGSON BECOMES A MARTYR
26. SIC TRANSIT POGSON
27. THE WELCOME TO BINDAWALLA
It was a perfect autumn day in the year 189-. Leslie Raymond was returning from a visit to Eugowra, which was the nearest township to his father's station. He was the only son of James Raymond, proprietor of "Bindawalla," the largest sheep station in the district.
Leslie was born at "Bindawalla," and, with the exception of a few years spent at the Sydney Grammar School, he had lived his whole life in the district. He was a typical Australian, tall and loosely built, straight as an arrow, but with broad shoulders and supple, sinewy limbs. He had brown hair, a slight drooping moustache of the same colour, and keen grey eyes, which gave one the impression of good humour, whilst his square-cut chin seemed to indicate the possession of of considerable firmness and power of will. He wore a pair of grey riding pants, a sac coat, no vest, and a soft silk shirt. He had on a pair of leather leggings carried in his hand a short riding whip. He was riding a superb bay gelding with black points. By its moist shining flanks, and the foam which flecked the bridle, it could be seen that the beautiful creature had been ridden hard; and by the tossing of its small handsome head, the dilation of its nostrils, and the impatient champing of the bit, it was evidently quite ready for another gallop.
Leslie Raymond, however, had no intention of indulging its desire, for he kept a tight hand upon the bridle while leaning forward and patting the horse's neck and endeavouring by soothing words to calm the irritability of his favourite.
"Steady boy, steady," he said. "No more galloping or jumping today. We must take it easy now. We have to keep in good fettle for the show. Jump there as you have jumped to-day, and there nothing betwixt here and Sydney that can prevent us from winning the hunter's prize. Steady now, steady!" And he checked the horse to a walk and proceeded slowly down the gully.
On each side of him was a low stony ridge, whilst in front the gully grew wider and more level, until it terminated in a fertile flat about a square mile in extent, in the centre of which, on a knoll of rising ground, stood a neat farm house. Leslie could just see the roof among the willows and fruit trees by which it was surrounded. It was the residence of George Sterling, whose farm occupied the whole of the flat. It was the most fertile spot in the district, and a running stream, which had never been known to fail, bisected the flat and provided a never-ceasing supply of pure, fresh water. The farm of George Sterling was known as the best for miles around, and the owner was considered to be a solid and substantial man.
As Leslie approached the little bridge at the foot of the gully he paused, hesitating for a moment as if in doubt.
"Shall I," he soliloquised, "keep to the track or shall I go round by the top paddock? The track leads right up to Sterling's door, and I can scarcely pass without stopping to say Good-day. I know that the Dad, with his old-fashioned notions and his bitter animosity against free selectors, objects to me calling, and yet—where's the harm? Sterling is an honest man and why should I he uncivil or go out of my way to avoid the house?"
He remained in doubt for a moment only, and then, shaking his bridle, he leisurely followed the track.
He had not proceeded far when his attention was attracted by the breaking of dry sticks and brushwood on the ridge to his left, and the trampling sound of hoofs. Looking up, he saw some cows trotting across the ridge.
The cows had scarcely made their appearance when Leslie heard the voice of the driver. She was alternately singing snatches of an old song, and urging the lazy cows towards the milking yard. The voice, though quite untrained, was of such power and sweetness that it might have been the voice of an angel.
Leslie was not in a hurry, in fact he had just been proposing to take things easy, and so he let the reins fall upon his horse's neck, and while Bunyip availed himself of the opportunity to sample some of the grass at his feet, Leslie sat and listened to the music of the girl's voice at is floated over the ridge.
'Twas on a simmer's afternoon,
A wee before the sun ga'ed doon,
My lassie in a braw new goon—
(Sool 'em! Sool 'em! Home! Home! Fetch 'em Brusher.)
My lassie in a brow new goon
Cam' o'er the hills to Gowrie.
(I'll give it to you Daisy. Fetch her Brusher. Good dog.)
The rose-bud tinged wi' morning shower,
Blooms fresh within the sunny bower—
(Sool 'em! Sool! Fetch 'em up. Now Brusher.)
But Kitty was the fairest flower
That ever bloomed in Gowrie.
At this moment the singer appeared above the crest of the ridge. Leslie at first caught a mere glimpse, but that was just enough to show him that she was riding an old grey stock-horse which he knew by the name of "Gaffer," that she was riding on a man's saddle, and in man fashion. He had barely time to note this much when she disappeared behind a rock. It was not a large rock. As the horse's tail disappeared on one side its head emerged from the other, but when the girl again came into view she was riding in the most approved feminine style, and the skirts of her dress—for she wore no habit—were neatly arranged around her ankles.
She cantered smartly down the ridge and soon reached the spot where Leslie loitered. She seemed surprised when ha raised his hat, to find that she was not alone.
"Good evening, Miss Sterling," said Leslie.
"Oh! Good evening, Mr. Raymond," said she, raising her eyes for a moment to his and then dropping them shyly.
She was about eighteen years of age, tall and well proportioned. She wore a pink cotton dress, which was evidently home made, a white sun-bonnet, and thick leather boots. Her black hair fell in wavy masses beneath the sun bonnet, the front of which nearly hid her cheeks, yet left enough of them bare to show that the clear olive skin was tinted with a soft rosy hue, while it did not hide, but rather accentuated the piercing glances of her laughing black eyes. The cows knew their way home, and as they were walking leisurely towards the fiat, Leslie rode for some momenta by the side of the girl.
"I am sorry to have interrupted your singing," said he.
"Were you listening?" The lashes lifted for a moment, and the dark eyes flashed a swift glance of interrogation. "I don't call that singing. I was only amusing myself. I can't sing. I wish I could."
"You ought to take some lessons. Your voice is worth cultivating."
"Oh, I have had lessons. I was taught at school. Old Mr. Spicer, the teacher at the half-time school, used to teach us. He paid me a great compliment, too. He said that I could sing higher and louder than any girl in the school."
"But I mean," said Leslie, smiling, "proper lessons from a qualified teacher."
"But there are no music teachers in the bush. There is one in Forbes, but Forbes is forty miles away. I have never been to Forbes in my life! but father has promised to take me in to the next show." Then, after a pause she added, "I play the piano, you know."
"Oh!" said Leslie; "then you have had some teaching?"
"No; I taught myself."
"Did you teach yourself to read music?"
"Oh, dear no. I don't read music. I only sing some old songs, when nobody is about, and accompany myself."
"You play by ear, then?"
"I don't think so. Of course I don't pretend to be a good player, but somehow I make the music fit in. I think I play by instinct."
"You must be very fond of music?"
"I am. But don't you think that everybody is fond of music? I do. And there seems to me to be music everywhere if we will but listen to it. To me there is always music in the bush. They say that Australian birds have no song but I find sweet music in the whistle of the magpie at sunrise, in the cawing of the yellow-crested cockatoo, the screaming of the parakeets, and the beautiful, mournful, cry of the curlew at night. To me there is music everywhere. In the rustling of the trees, in the mountain stream, tumbling over its rocky bed, even in the thunder and the crashing of the storm."
"Well," replied Leslie, "I am not much of a musician, although I was taught a little by the tutor we had at Bindawalla, and I was three years under a music master at Sydney. But that was four years ago, and as I have not kept up my practice, and, in fact, never took to it very kindly, I have succeeded in forgetting nearly all I knew. In fact, I seldom hear any music now, unless there is music in the bleating of a flock of fat wethers, or the clipping of the shears in the woolshed."
BY this time they had arrived at the house. The cows were yarded, and George Sterling, who had seen young Raymond coming, stood on the verandah to welcome him.
"Good evening, Mr. Raymond," said Sterling.
"Good evening, Sterling," answered Leslie.
George Sterling's greeting had been hearty enough, but he spoke a little less cordially as he invited his visitor to step inside.
"Ria!" called Mr. Sterling; "Ria! get Mr. Raymond a glass of wine and some cake."
It was in vain that Leslie protested that he woad rather not. Mrs. Sterling insisted, and he was forced to submit.
He ate some cake, and with difficulty swallowed a glass of the wine.
"How do you like my wine, Mr. Raymond," inquired Mrs. Sterling. "It is gooseberry wine. I made it myself from a recipe that I got from my cousin in Gippsland."
"It is excellent, ma'am," said Leslie.
"Take another glass," said Mrs. Sterling.
But Leslie protested that he had had enough, and not all Mrs. Sterling's persuasion could induce him to alter his determination.
As he rode towards Bindawalla, his thoughts ran thus:
"I suppose the dad would be angry if he knew that I had been drinking gooseberry wine at Sterling's place, and if it made me ill he would say it served me right. But Sterling seems a civil, decent sort of chap. His wife is kind and motherly, although her gooseberry wine is atrocious," and he made a wry face at the memory of it. "Then the girl, she is a curious creature. Shy, yet self-possessed. Merry, but with a natural vein of sadness. She has splendid eyes when one can get a peep at them, and, Heavens! what a voice."
And as he rode across the home paddock in the gathering twilight, he thought, for the first time in his life, that there was music in the whistling of the magpies as they sang farewell to the setting sun, and, as he smoked his pipe on the broad verandah after dinner (they were important people at Bindawalla, and dined late), he discovered mournful music in the cry of a curle from a distant hill.
While Leslie was listening to the cry of the curlew, George Sterling was also smoking his pipe on his verandah, and listening to Ruby as she sang some of his favourite songs inside.
When she had finished singing she joined him on the verandah. He smoked on in silence for some time, and then said:
"What brought young Raymond round this way this evening?"
"I don't know," said she, "but I think he is training Bunyip for the show, and he came this way instead of going by the road so that he could give him some practice over some fences."
"And I suppose if he breaks them down, I can put them up again, and if I don't, and our cows or horses get into his father's paddock, he'll pound them, eh? I don't want his company nor any of his people. They are too stuck up for me."
"Mr. Leslie doesn't seem to be stuck-up," replied Ruby, projecting her chin slightly forward, as was her habit when in a contradictory mood. "He seemed very polite, I thought."
"You thought," echoed Sterling, as he knocked the ashes from his his Pipe. "What do you know about it? Did you hear how I addressed him, and how he addressed me? I called him Mr. Raymond, as was quite proper from a host to a guest. How did he address me? He says, Good evening, Sterling, Not Mr. Sterling; just plain Sterling. Just the same as he would talk to his stockman or his cook, or his rouseabout. It's always the same. If I meet him on the road it's 'Good day, Sterling', or 'Fine weather, Sterling,' or 'Going to have some rain, Sterling.' Who's he, that he should 'Sterling' me? I'm as good a man as he is, or his father, either. I pay my way, and I don't want to be patronised by him."
"I don't think—" commenced Ruby.
"Nobody asked you to think," said her father. "There's 9 o'clock striking, and it's time for prayers."
So they went inside, and, as was the invariable custom, the family assembled for evening prayers. George Sterling took from its place in the corner an old tattered Bible, and after some time turning over the leaves and adjusting the loose ones, he cleaned his spectacles, and read a chapter. The whole family then knelt, Mr. Sterling near his arm-chair, Mrs. Sterling near the rocking-chair, and Ruby and her younger sister by the side of the couch.
George Sterling then offered up a long prayer in which he prayed that all their sins might be forgiven, that their hearts might be cleansed from all malice or envious thoughts, and that they might be disposed to live in charity with all mankind.
While he was praying Mrs. Sterling dozed, and Ruby and her sister fought for the sofa cushion, which Ruby succeeded in winning just as George Sterling pronounced the benediction.
The hardy pioneers who first penetrated to the vast territory lying to the west of the Blue Mountains led a kind of nomadic existence, and pastured their ever-increasing flocks and herds wherever their fancy led them, without neighbours to dispute their right, but also without any fixity of tenure. It was not until the year 1846 that they obtained from the Home Government the right to regular leases, and the pre-emptive right to convert their leases into fee-simples.
In 1852 and the years immediately following a great change took place in the conditions of life in Australia. It had remarkable and far-reaching results. This was the discovery of gold. The first announcement altered the whole trend of business methods, attracted the attention of the whole world, and it was at once followed by a large, influx of population. Many of the newcomers, finding their search for the precious metal uncongenial or unsuccessful, still desired to settle in the country and establish homes for themselves and families.
Thus arose a new class of claimants for the land, who, to distinguish them from the squatters, were called "selectors" or "settlers." To provide for the requirements of this ever-increasing class, new land legislation became an imperative necessity.
To meet this want, there was passed the Act known as the Land Act of 1881. The vital principle of the new Act was the provision, for free-selection, before survey. According to this provision, any person could select any piece of land not exceeding three hundred and twenty acres in extent, which had not been alienated from the Crown, or reserved by proclamation. The conditions were—continued residence upon the land for a period of three years from the date of selection, and the making, within that time, of permanent improvements to the value of one pound for each acre selected. The price was one pound per acre, twenty-five per cent. of which had to be paid down. Unlimited credit was given for the balance on payment of a small annual interest. The squatter's pre-emptive right to purchase was limited to an area of six hundred and forty acres, and the balance of his lease, amounting in some cases to hundreds of square miles, was open to selection.
The effect of the law was that in a few years three classes of selectors were brought into existence. First there was the bona-fide selector, for whose benefit the law was framed; the man who wished to take up ground for the purpose of founding a home. Next came the dummy selector, who was employed by the squatter to select land upon his lease with the understanding that he should sell out to the squatter on the termination of his period of residence. Last came the blackmailer, who selected land, not for a home, but with the purpose of annoying the squatter, in order that the latter might be induced to pay him to clear out, when, of course, he would be at liberty to repeat his tactics in some other direction.
To whichever class of the three the free-selector belonged, he was regarded by the squatter as an unmitigated nuisance; and the one who was probably looked upon as the greatest nuisance of the three was the bona-fide selector who came to stop, and who, with commendable forethought, generally chose the very best of the land, which the squatter called "Picking the eyes out of the estate."
This state of affairs established between the squatters and selectors a distinct line of cleavage.
In 1848, just after the establishment of regular leases, and prior to the discovery of gold, James Raymond's father, who held a commission in one of Her Majesty's regiments, was stationed with his regiment in Sydney. He was a younger son of an old English family, but, being a younger son, he had little to depend on except his pay as a captain; which, with the ever increasing responsibilities of a growing family; he found all too small for his requirements.
Having made several trips into the interior, and noted the vast possibilities of the new country, he sold out his commission and obtained the lease of a large area on the Lachlan river. He stocked it as well as his limited means would allow, and in a few years saw his flocks and herds increase and himself in a position of comparative affluence.
With the advent of the gold discovery came an immense increase in values, and the elder Raymond found that he not only possessed larger herds and flocks, but that each head of stock had doubled in value.
This state of prosperity continued for some years, and although Raymond had heard certain rumours of changes in the land laws, he paid little heed to them.
One day he found it necessary to visit a flat he had on the run, about two miles from the homestead, which be had always looked upon as one of his choicest possessions. In the driest season there was always plenty of grass on this flat, and the creek which ran across it contained an unfailing supply of water.
Carriers and travelling hawkers were common in those days, and he was not much surprised to see a team of bullocks grazing near the stream, and a young man, with his wife and child, taking their mid-day meal by the side of the tilted waggon.
The circumstance was forgotten by Raymond until he was reminded of it a week later by his stockman. The flat was called "Old Joe's Flat," after an old shepherd who discovered it, and the captain was told by the stockman that the bullocks were still grazing on Old Joe's Flat, that the waggon, the man, his wife and child were there, and moreover, that the man was splitting slabs with the evident intention of building a house.
To say that Captain Raymond was indignant would be to use a mild term. He was furious, he had a flock of wethers almost ready for market, and he had been reserving the grass at "Old Joe's Flat" to top them off.
"Where's Jim?" he shouted. "Send Jim here."
"Jim" was his eldest son, then a young man of about eight and twenty, his father's steward, manager, and general right hand man.
Jim was ordered to ride, down to the flat and to order the intruder off. On arriving at the flat Jim found that the stockman's tale was true, and that under the persistent labour of a young man about the same age as himself, the corner posts were in, and the construction of a slab hut was well under way. This was the first meeting of James Raymond and George Sterling.
Young Raymond demanded indignantly to know what Sterling meant by building a hut on his father's land, but Sterling quietly informed him that he intended to make his home there. In vain did James Raymond storm and threaten.
Sterling proved that he had the legal right to do what he was doing, and coolly informed Raymond that the corner post of the hut, which he was just ramming, marked the corner of his land, and that a line due east from that, and another line due north, marked the boundary of three hundred and twenty acres on Old Joe's Flat, including a portion of the creek, which three hundred and twenty choice acres were lost for ever to Bindawalla and the Raymonds.
Captain Raymond was furious. He vowed that he would muster the station hands on the morrow, and remove the intruders by main force. He would go to Forbes, and get the mounted troopers out; he would go to Sydney, and interview the Government; he would take the matter to the Privy Council!
However, after he had slept on it, and taken time for reflection, he did none of these things, but he wrote to Sydney at once for a copy of the Land Act. Upon reading this he found, of course, that Sterling was right, and that he was powerless in the matter.
Sterling went on, finished his house and fenced in his land. He grew vegetables and wheat, and kept cows: His wife raised poultry, and made butter; and, as a ready market for butter, eggs, vegetables, etc., was always to be found among the diggers on the Lachlan. George Sterling prospered.
But Captain Raymond never forgave him, and never missed an opportunity of impounding Sterling's horses or cattle. Any trespass by Sterling or his stock on the Bindawalla Station was resented and punished with the utmost rigour of the law. Just after one of Sterling's trips into Forbes Captain Raymond heard with indignation that Sterling was enlarging his hut to the southward. He at once ordered him to desist, as it was an encroachment on his lease; but Sterling coolly informed him that it was nothing of the sort. He had taken up another selection with three hundred and twenty acres for his wife. The same post marked the corner, but the boundary line ran south and east. The additional room was necessary, as his wife had to sleep on her own selection, and he on his. To comply strictly with the law, he had resolved to place the double bedstead on the boundary line between the two selections. As Sterling occupied the northern half of the bed, and his wife the side toward the south, they could occupy the same bed, and comply with the residence clause of the Act.
Captain Raymond fumed and swore. He said that females could not select land, and, as before, he threatened to set the law in motion and to generally make things awkward for Sterling.
But Sterling went on his way and prospered. He set men to work, and soon had the new selection, which he Called "Ria's Selection," fenced in. Time went on, and the same bitter feud existed between Sterling and the Raymonds. Several other parties took up selections on different parts of the estate, and Captain Raymond had to submit to the inevitable. In his eyes, however, Sterling was the ring-leader, and as long as the Captain lived he never forgave him for selecting on "Old Joe's Flat."
The Captain having paid the debt of Nature, his son James reigned at Bindawalla in his stead. He not only inherited Bindawalla, with its vast flocks and herds, but he inherited all his late father's pride of birth; his hatred of free selectors as a class, and of George Sterling as their prototype.
Many were the disputes with reference to broken fences, and straying or unbranded cattle, but on all these occasions George Sterling acted with the same cool stolidity which had characterised his actions from the first time he appeared at Bindawalla.
After one of these disputes, James Raymond was informed that Sterling was making another addition to his house. Raymond caused his manager to make inquiries, and upon the latter calling casually at Sterling's place, he was told the reason.
"You see," said Sterling, resting on his axe, and mopping the perspiration from his brow, "you see, it's like this. Little George is eight years old, and he is getting older. I've taken up three hundred and twenty acres for him. The old post will still be the corner post, and the boundary lines run from it north and west. I'm running up a skillion, so as we can break a door into it from our bedroom. We shall put his bed in the skillion, so's he can sleep on his selection, and yet be within hail, as it were."
"But," said the manager, "that will take in all the Flat on that side, down to the creek."
"A bit beyond the creek," answered Sterling, coolly. "It takes in the bit of alluvial on the other side, as far as the ironstone bridge."
In due time the size of the skillion was doubled. It was extended to the south. Another three hundred and twenty acres were secured, this time for the baby, Ruby, then about two years old. Her cot was placed in the south-west corner of the skillion. She slept on her own selection, and the letter of the law was vindicated.
Thus the whole of "Old Joe's Flat" passed from the possession of the Raymonds into that of the Sterlings. The original selection was called "The Old Selection," the second, "Ria's Selection," the third, "George's Selection," and the fourth and last, "Ruby's Selection." George had died when a youth, but he had lived long enough to complete his term of residence.
The old slab hut was now used as a store, and George Sterling, with his wife and two daughters, lived in a new and commodious stone house, with a shingle roof, and a broad verandah. Active warfare had long ceased between the families, and their present state, as exemplified by the heads of the families, was one of armed neutrality. James Raymond was fond of impressing on his son, Leslie, the fact that it was Sterling who first began to pick the eyes out of the estate, while Sterling told his daughters that the Raymonds were a conceited lot. He refused to be patronised by them or anybody else, paid his debts punctually, got the highest price he could for his wheat and wool, attended church regularly, had family prayers every evening, and swore regularly every morning at everybody who was not up before the sun.
The bitter feelings of the old people were not in any degree shared by the younger branches of the two families. Leslie Raymond had always been taught to consider himself a gentleman. He had received a good education, had always been liberally supplied with money, and when in town, moved in the best society. He naturally felt that he was very much superior to a common free selector, but he felt no personal animus against George Sterling, as an individual; and had been known to observe more than once that "The pater had a bee in his bonnet," and that he thought the Sterlings were "for their class," very decent people.
On the night our story opened, when prayers were over, and the inhabitants of Sterling's house had retired to their respective apartments, Ruby declared to her sister, Madge, that she believed "That the dad was a bit ratty about the Raymonds. I am sure," she continued with sonic warmth, and with her chin projected at a dangerous angle, "no one could be more polite than young Mr. Raymond was today. He even drank ma's gooseberry wine without making a face, although I could see he didn't like it. His horse is a beauty, and his eyes are real lovely."
The unsympathetic Madge, however, only remarked that she wanted to go to sleep, and threatened, if Ruby didn't keep her cold feet on her own side of the bed, that she would "sing out for Ma!"
One Sunday afternoon just as the Sterlings were about to sit down to afternoon tea two visitors arrived in the persons of Mr. Meredith and Mr. Pogson.
Mr. Meredith was the new clergyman, and a comparatively young man, of medium height, rather slender, and with a frank, pleasant face, which was full of good humour when he smiled, but which, in repose, wore a thoughtful expression, sometimes almost sad. He wore a sac coat, and black leather leggings. His vest was buttoned close up to his straight white collar, and his soft black felt hat had a wide brim.
He had only been stationed in Eugowra about twelve months; having been sent there immediately after his marriage, but he had already gained a name in the district for earnestness and zeal, and had consequently succeeded in making some friends and a few enemies.
Mr. Pogson was a storekeeper. He sold hardware, groceries, drapery, stationery, saddlery, furniture, musical instruments, and sundries. In connection with his establishment was a livery stable, where horses and buggies were for sale or hire, and he conducted funerals on the shortest notice.
He bought wool, fruit, butter, eggs, hides, sheepskins, marsupial and rabbit skins, and all sorts of farm produce. He was the holder of an auctioneer's license, and held sales of live stock once a week. He lent money on freehold or other approved security, and was special correspondent at Eugowra for one of the Sydney papers.
In appearance he gave one the impression of being a long man. His figure was long, his face was long, his legs and arms were long, his nose was long, and so was his rusty hair. This impression of length, as distinguished from breadth or depth, was further intensified on closer acquaintance with Mr. Pogson, for he talked slowly, and never by any possible chance used a short word when a long one would answer his purpose as well, or nearly as well.
Mr. Pogson was a Justice of the Peace, a member of the Licensing Bench, the Hospital Committee, the Committee of the School of Arts, and the local School Board.
He was also Honorary President of the Eugowra Temperance Society. It was true that the Society only numbered seven, four of whom came from Mr. Pogson's own establishment; but the paucity of membership will be easily understood when it is explained that the large majority of the inhabitants of the district were Scotchmen and Irishmen or their descendants.
Mr. Pogson and George Sterling were well known to each other, but Mr. Meredith was only known to Sterling by sight, so Mr. Pogson introduced him with a patronising air.
"It's a fine day," said Sterling.
"It is, a very fine day," said Mr. Meredith, as he sipped his tea.
"It really is an exceedingly beautiful day," said Mr. Pogson, "an exceedingly beautiful day. Thank the Lord."
"I suppose you have been holding Divine service somewhere," remarked Mrs. Sterling.
"I have been preaching at the little church at Byalong," answered Mr. Meredith.
"Yes," said Mr. Pogson, "Mr. Meredith has been preaching at the church at Byalong, according to the accepted doctrines of that branch of the Protestant community in which he holds Holy Orders. I, myself, have been expounding the Word to my brethren at Hogan's Hollow. As you are aware, I do not hold Holy Orders. Neither do I study my sermons, I trust to the Divine Inspiration for my discourse, and I thank the Lord that He has abundantly sanctified my labours in His vineyard."
"Although I do not belong to the Wesleyan Church," said Mr. Meredith, "I am always ready to admire and acknowledge any earnest effort made to spread the Gospel and the teachings of our Master."
"Amen!" said Mr. Pogson, "Amen! I entirely and cordially reciprocate your Christian toleration, Mrs. Sterling, allow me to compliment you upon the excellence of your scones. They are extremely delicious. There is about them that perfect amalgamation of lightness, and—if I may use the expression—solidity, which renders them at once gratifying to the taste and satisfying to the appetite. May I trouble you for another cup of tea?"
Mrs. Sterling helped Mr. Pogson to more tea, and Ruby handed the grapes to Mr. Meredith.
"And now," said Mr. Meredith, "it is time we explained the object of our visit."
"Yes," interrupted Mr. Pogson, "our visit is the result of a conversation that occurred between my reverend friend and myself. The subject of the conversation was a movement we have on foot in Eugowra, having for its object the augmentation of the financial resources of that excellent Institution for the amelioration of human suffering, the Forbes Hospital. The Hospital Committee, of which I have the honour to be a humble member, have (through me) requested the people in the town and district of Eugowra to make a special effort to subscribe a substantial donation to its funds, and the proposal is that it shall take the form of a tea meeting. After tea we propose to have a few short addresses, and some prayers."
"And some music," said the parson.
"And some music," added Mr. Pogson.
"I suppose," said George Sterling, "to make a long story short, you want me to furnish a table?"
"When Mr. Pogson and I met this afternoon," said Mr. Meredith, "he mentioned the matter to me, and I agreed with him at once that something ought to be done, and that we, could not act too quickly. I therefore suggested that we should come a little way out of our road to ask you to allow us to put your name on the committee."
"You may put my name on the committee if you think it will do any good there," replied Stirling, "but I don't know anything about arranging tea-fights and things. I daresay we might furnish a table though. What do you think, Ria?"
Mrs. Sterling looked inquiringly at Ruby, who was standing behind her father's chair, listening with much interest to the conversation.
Ruby nodded approvingly; so Mrs. Sterling said she thought she could manage it if she had time to make her preparations.
"You shall have ample notice when the date is fixed," promised Mr. Meredith, "and I must thank you sincerely."
"And I," said Mr. Pogson, "must also express my grateful acknowledgements for your sympathetic appreciation of our work and labours. I thank you for the Hospital Committee, and myself; for in the Words of our Master, 'Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it unto Me.' Therefore I thank you personally, for myself."
Mr. Meredith shifted uneasily in his chair, and Ruby noticed that for a moment his face wore an expression of pain. It was only for a moment, however, and the Cloud passed quickly. Then, in his usual cheery tone, he said:
"There is also another matter." Here he gave a quick glance at Ruby. "I am a firm believer in good, wholesome recreation, therefore wish to make the musical portion a special feature in the programme. I have been told," continued Mr. Meredith, "that one of your daughters sings very nicely, and I would like her to allow me to put her name on the programme."
"Well," replied Mr. Sterling, to whom the question was addressed, "my daughter, Ruby, sings to me sometimes, and I enjoy her singing. I'm no great judge of music, nor singing, but I can say that her singing always goes straight to my old heart. It may be because she's my lassie. It may be because I never have the chance to hear any one else sing by themselves. It may, be that I generally hear her singing when my day's work is over, and I am resting on the verandah, and smoking my pipe in peace, or it may be a hundred other things. But I have often thought that if the Angels sing sweeter than my Ruby, Heaven must be a real good place to live in."
"Then I hope that I may add Miss Sterling's name to the list," said Mr. Meredith.
"It lies with the girl herself," answered Sterling, glancing at Ruby. "If she sings, you won't be disappointed. What say, Rube?"
But Ruby did not speak. In spite of sundry nods and nudges from Madge, who had gone to her side, Ruby stood with her face partly hidden by her long black hair, her eyes cast down so that they were completely shaded by the long lashes that fringed them, while her fingers were busily employed in straightening out a piece of embroidery which ornamented her best Sunday apron.
"Would you not like to do something for the Hospital," said Mr. Meredith; kindly.
"I would like to do anything in my power," said Ruby, in a faltering voice, "but I am not a good singer. Father only thinks so, and I am sure I could never sing before a crowd of people."
"Will you think it over?" asked the parson, "and let me know. There is plenty of time, and I am sure that Mrs. Meredith would be delighted, if you could spare the time to run into Eugowra, to assist you to practise your song. In fact," he added, "if you cannot come to Eugowra, I will drive Mrs. Meredith over some day, and you can practise here. Will you think it over, and let me know?"
Ruby hesitated for a moment, and then, without raising her head or lifting her eyes, she said timidly, "Yes, Yes, I will think it over, and let you know."
"Thank you;" said the minister, heartily. "And remember that what we are doing is for the relief of those suffering one who are unable to help themselves."
After the parson and his companion had ridden away an animated discussion arose among the members of the Sterling family. Mrs. Sterling's thoughts were directed mainly to the furnishing of the promised table; George Sterling was principally concerned about the invitation to Ruby to sing; Madge was about equally interested in both matters, while Ruby's thoughts were in such a state of flutter and confusion that she could not concentrate them upon anything.
"I think," said Mrs. Sterling, "that some nice ham sandwiches, jam roll, plum cake and fancy cakes, with some of Ruby's sweet biscuits, and a few pounds of lollies from the store, and some custards and jellies, with some nice thin bread and butter, and plenty of fruit, ought to make the table look very nice."
"Nobody eats bread and butter at a tea-meeting," said Madge.
"Oh, we must have it on the table," replied her mother. "I suppose the people at Bindawalla will give a table, and I should not like theirs to look better than ours."
"There is no danger, old woman," said Sterling. "You can furnish a table with the best of them. How about some poultry?"
"I don't think it will be necessary," said she.
"I don't know," said Sterling, doubtfully. "The Raymonds might have poultry on their table. But what is Ruby going to sing?"
"And what are we going to wear?" asked Madge.
"There's time enough to settle about the eatables and the dress," said Sterling, "but Ruby has to practise her song after she has chosen it, and there ain't no time to be lost. Did the parson say that young Raymond was going to sing?"
"Yes," replied Ruby.
"Him sing!" exclaimed Sterling, with contempt, "I bet he can't sing for sour apples."
"He has had lessons," said Ruby.
"How do you know?" inquired Madge.
"He told me so, that day—last week—when he called."
"Oh, he did, did he?" said her father. "Just like all the Raymonds. They think because they're squatters that they con do anything. But lessons can't make a singer. You can't teach a horse to sing, or a cow, or a wombat. Why? Because they haven't got the voice. Now, that's what you have got. I'll back you to sing 'Oft in the Stilly Night' better than all the Raymond family put together!"
He mopped his forehead with his handkerchief, and looked around the room, as if he expected somebody to take up his challenge.
"But I didn't promise to sing at all," said Ruby, "I don't think I could sing before a lot of people."
"All stuff and nonsense," said her father. "There won't be many there that you don't know. You're able to sing, and what's there to be afeared of? Now, if it was me, it would be different. I know I can't sing, and it would be natural for me to be nervous. But you know you can, and that makes all the difference. Besides, it will only be like a family party. You are not asked to sing before the Queen!" Then, after a pause, he continued. "I can shear a sheep with here and there one, and I can take off all the wool without skinning the poor beggar, but although I know I can do it, I believe if I had to go into a Royal Palace, and shear a sheep before the Queen that I should feel a bit shaky. Doing anything would be difficult if you had to do it before the Queen, but you've got no cause to be nervous."
The words of her father brought vividly to Ruby's mind a vision she had had whilst swinging on a bough in the orchard that same afternoon. She had been reading of a little girl who had ultimately become a great personage and who had had the honour of appearing before Queen Victoria. She had envied that little girl, and kept wondering in her own mind how it must feel to be commanded to appear before the Queen, and, in a dreamy sort of way, she conjured up a pleasing vision of herself singing before Her Gracious Majesty.
"Sing before the Queen!" Why, they were the very words that had been ringing in her ears as she crossed the orchard. She thought of the good little girl, and wondered whether assisting to benefit the Hospital would make the vision any more of reality than before. She dreaded the ordeal of singing in public, for since her meeting with Leslie Raymond she had somehow lost faith in her own ability to sing. Truly, he had praised her voice, but he had told her that it wanted training and cultivating, and that she ought to take lessons. She pondered over the matter all the evening, and tried to frame all sorts of excuses for declining to sing, but none of them seemed to her sufficient. All the time a small voice seemed to whisper to her inmost soul that she would have to sing at the tea-meeting. Long after she had gone to bed, and after Madge was fast asleep, she argued the matter in her mind. Her reason said, "You cannot sing. You don't know how to sing. You are too nervous, and you will fail in the attempt. People will laugh at you." Her instinct said, in language quite devoid of reason, "You must sing. Fate has willed it that you shall sing. He will not laugh at you, for he praised your voice. Besides, some day you will sing before the Queen." And, with this last ridiculous argument in her mind, she yielded to the voice of instinct, and fell asleep.
The folks at Bindawalla did not furnish a table for the tea-meeting, but they sent a cheque which was quite as effective.
Mr. Meredith visited, pleaded, planned, and organised until his enthusiasm proved contagious, and the forthcoming tea-meeting assumed the proportions of a great event.
Ruby selected her song and practised diligently until her father said she sang it splendidly. Ruby was not quite so satisfied.
Mrs. Meredith made two calls, but on neither occasion was her visit an unqualified success. She was an accomplished musician, and passionately fond of music; she believed in doing everything correctly and precisely, and so she never played without the score.
The first time she called she found that Ruby had selected a song, but had not a copy of the music, and as Mrs. Meredith could not accompany her without, the visit proved abortive. Mr. Meredith, however, procured a copy from Forbes, and on Mrs. Meredith's next visit Ruby had her first practice. As she did not know a note of music, the printed score was useless to her, and the accompaniment, being played in exact accordance with the music, rather hindered than helped her.
In vain Mrs. Meredith pointed out that Ruby was singing the wrong time, that certain notes were quavers, not crochets, and asked Ruby to commence again. Ruby tried, but she had a confused notion that a quaver was a higher note than a crochet, so she sang out of tune, and the result was discord.
However, Mrs. Meredith was delighted with Ruby's voice, and it was agreed that Ruby should ride into Eugowra early on the day of the tea-meeting, lunch with the Merediths, and have a final rehearsal.
Leslie Raymond was still training Bunyip for the show, and, as it was absolutely necessary to train him over some stiff jumps, and none seemed to Leslie so suitable as those near "Old Joe's Flat," it became quite a common occurrence for Leslie to call at Sterling's house on his way home.
He laughed heartily when he was informed by Ruby that she was nervous.
"Why should you feel nervous?" said he. "By Jove, if I had a voice as good as yours, I would sing anywhere. Now, I can't sing at all. When I was boarding in Sydney, if I tried to sing the fellows used to shy things at me. I used to keep one eye on the music, and the other on the sofa cushions. I did not promise to sing at this tea-meeting.
"Mr. Meredith met the pater when he was driving into Eugowra with my sister Nell, and he asked Nell to sing. She can sing a little, but she said she couldn't, and promised him that I would. Of course I could not go back on Nell, so I suppose I must try. I shall keep a sharp lookout for the flying missiles, but I don't think I shall be nervous. It will be fun for me, but not for those who have to listen."
Ruby lunched with Mrs. Meredith as agreed, had her final rehearsal, and was still in doubt as to whether a crochet was higher than a quaver, or whether G. was louder than D., or only longer. As there was also in one part of the song two bars rest, and she had not the remotest idea when a bar was, she was in great trouble as to the result.
The School of Arts was a plain weatherboard building, standing on a fair-sized plot of land, which was enclosed within a split post and rail fence. It had a main hall about fifty feet by thirty, at one end of which was a raised platform. Behind the platform, communicating with it by two doors, were two small rooms, used on occasions such as this as dressing-rooms.
The tables were arranged in the large hall, and the hot water was prepared in a portable copper in the adjacent paddock. The resources of the School of Arts were taxed to their utmost extent. It is questionable whether such a gathering had ever before been known in Eugowra.
There was a hush of expectancy when the parson made his entry, and when he announced that Mr. Pogson would take the chair the applause was deafening. Mr. Pogson bowed his acknowledgements, and then said grace, after which the business began. The attack was sudden, vigorous and simultaneous, but the tables sustained the onslaught well, and, in spite of repeated demands for more sandwiches, more tea, and another piece of cake, the supply proved equal to the demand.
Mrs. Sterling's table was especially patronised, and deservedly so. Mr. Sterling was there, and as he had donned a starched shirt and collar for the occasion, and had, contrary to his usual custom, had a shave in the middle of the week, he looked as uncomfortable as he usually looked on Sunday, but much happier.
Leslie Raymond had just been praising some exceptionally fine fruit confections, and whether by accident or design, in addressing George Sterling, had called him Mr. Sterling. George Sterling unbent at once, and became as affable as his stiff cellar would allow him to be, and proudly explained to Leslie that the fruit confection was made by Ruby, with fruit grown on "Old Joe's Flat," The postmaster was at Mrs. Sterling's table, so was the bank manager, and with him a friend who happened to be up on a visit from Sydney.
This gentleman, being a visitor to the district, was about the only person in the room who was not known by sight to every other person; but, judging from his manner, and the shouts of laughter that occasionally burst from his end of the table, he did not feel at all lonely. He was a little, plump man, with a round, clean-shaven face, and long hair. He had bright, keen eyes, the brightness of which was enhanced by a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles, and he spoke with a German accent. He was telling funny little stories, and playing little practical jokes, while the other folks were eating and drinking. The meal being over, the hall was cleared, the seats were re-arranged, and Mr. Pogson having taken his seat on the platform the concert commenced.
The first item was a pianoforte solo by Mrs. Meredith. It was a classical piece, above the heads of the audience, and as the piano was slightly out of tune, her performance did not meet with the appreciation that it merited.
The chairman, having requested the people at the back to refrain from whistling and stamping their feet, called upon Mr. Leslie Raymond to sing "The Midshipmate." Leslie possessed a fair baritone voice, his sister accompanied him, and as he had sung the song hundreds of times to her accompaniment, and had never known what nervousness meant, he got through his task triumphantly, and was enthusiastically encored.
In vain did the chairman hold up his hand in a mute appeal for silence. The little German bumped his stick on the floor, the back portion of the audience stamped and whistled more than ever, and those outside, who had climbed up to get a glimpse of the proceeding through the windows, shouted "Encore!"
They did not desist until Leslie led his sister on to the platform again, and she smilingly took her seat at the piano. Leslie then sang, with much spirit, "Old Simon the Cellarer," which again brought down the house, although Mr. Pogson remarked, when he saw Mr. Meredith applauding the song, that "although he gave Mr. Raymond every credit for his good intentions, he thought the sentiments contained in tho song were hardly calculated to instil into the minds of the audience those principles of temperance and chastity which it ought to be the desire of every God-fearing man to inculcate."
Mr. Pogson then announced that Miss Ruby Sterling would sing a song. Many of the audience had heard that George Sterling's daughter could sing, some had even heard her voice at the little Presbyterian Church on Sundays, and so the announcement was greeted with great applause. There was a murmur of admiration as she was led on to the platform by Mr. Meredith, and one irreverent young stockman at the back was heard to exclaim to his mate, "By Jove, Jim, she's a plum."
The little German, speaking to himself, said, "Ach! By Jove," and settled himself in his seat to listen.
Ruby was dressed in white, in her hair a red rose, which was the only colour she wore. She had a roll of music in her hand, but this was for appearance sake, not for use. She stood, clutching it nervously, and once—only once—she raised her long, dark lashes, and stole a timid glance at the audience.
Mrs. Meredith played the prelude to the song, an old-fashioned, simple thing, that Ruby had sung to her father a score of times, but Ruby did not seem to hear her. Mrs. Meredith played the prelude again, and this time Ruby commenced her song.
As the first notes of her voice broke upon the audience, every other sound was hushed. Even the distant buzz of conversation on the outside of the building ceased. She sang the first line, and although she sang crochets where she should have sung quavers, Mrs. Meredith waited for her. Then came the second line, where there were two bars' rest, in which there occurred a pretty little piece of accompaniment which Mrs. Meredith prided herself upon being able to play effectively. When Ruby leapt over the two bars, and continued straight on, Mrs. Meredith thumped a little to remind her. So Ruby stopped, and Mrs. Meredith kept on, which gave Ruby the impression that she should not have stopped, so she commenced the line again. By this time Mrs. Meredith had reached the end of the line, and hearing Ruby commence again, she ceased playing altogether.
Ruby sang a few more notes, and then, seeming to get frightened at the sound of her own voice, she faltered and ceased her song.
For a moment she stood as if dazed. Again she lifted her eyes and looked appealingly at the upturned faces in front. She saw the faces peering through the windows, and the glare of the kerosene lamps, and then she saw no more. She clutched convulsively at the music in her hand, and turned deathly pale. Then her grasp relaxed, the music fell to the floor, and her hands dropped helplessly to her sides. She reeled, and would have fallen, had not Leslie Raymond, who had been watching from the dressing-room, ran forward and caught her in his arms.
There was great excitement among the audience, and many pressed forward toward the platform, but the little German sat, leaning upon his stick, and gazing through his gold-rimmed glasses into space.
Under the tender care of her mother, Mrs. Meredith, and Miss Raymond, the colour soon returned to Ruby's cheeks. She felt ashamed of her weakness, and was bitterly disappointed at her failure, but Mrs. Meredith readily excused her, and endeavoured to take the blame upon herself.
Mr. Pogson delivered his exhortation, which took some time, and succeeded in thinning the audience considerably.
A special collection was made for the Hospital funds, Mr. Meredith pronounced the benediction, and the audience dispersed.
When the time arrived for saying good-night, Ruby thanked Miss Raymond for her kindness, but that young lady simply said:
"Fiddlesticks! What is there to thank me for? I am sorry you broke down. I would have given a pound if it had been Leslie instead, but he has a hide like a rhinoceros. He would never break down. How are you going home? Are you riding or driving?"
"I rode in," answered Ruby.
"But I don't think you ought to ride out," said Miss Raymond.
"Oh," said Ruby, "I can manage it all right. I could sleep on horseback."
"I dare say you could," said Nell, "when you are well, but you might be taken faint again. Leslie and I drove in, in the sulky. We pass your place. Suppose I ride your horse, and you take my place in the sulky? We can all go together, you know."
Ruby said that she did not know whether her father would agree.
"I'll soon settle that," said Nell, and away she went to lay her suggestion before George Sterling.
Sterling had no very kind feeling towards the Raymonds, but no real ill will. He had a great objection to being patronised by anybody, and a great faith in his own manly independence. He was always ready to resent an affront, especially if it came from those, who, by wealth, education, or social position, were likely to consider themselves his superiors, but he was too generous to repel a kindness. Leslie Raymond had called him "Mr." Sterling, and so placed him on a level of equality, and now Miss Raymond came with an offer, which he felt was prompted by nothing but kindness. He therefore responded in the same way.
"I have no doubt of Ruby being able to ride home all right," he said, "but if so be as you desire it, and she is willing, and it is agreeable to Mr. Raymond, I have no objection."
Nell went back, and it being found that it was agreeable to Mr. Raymond, it was arranged that Ruby should be driven home in the sulky, and that Nell should ride Ruby's horse.
So they started off in the moonlight. It was ten miles to Sterling's house, but it seemed to Leslie the shortest ten miles he had ever driven. He was careful to keep the rug well round Ruby, for fear that she should catch cold, and he rallied her so kindly and sympathetically about her failure, that long before she got to the house she was able to laugh at her own weakness.
Many a time, when the passing years had made that night a memory, did Ruby in her dreams recall to mind the alterations of light and shadow connected with that moonlight drive. The splashing of the horse as they crossed the creek, when the water was almost level with the floor of the sulky. The long, straggling line of fences, the shadow of the willows, the gaunt, spectral limbs of the dead gum trees, the melancholy note of the mopoke, and the far-off howl of a dingo, were all indelibly photographed upon her mind. So were the tinkle of the bullock bell near the cross roads where some teamsters camped, and the ruddy faces of the men, made more ruddy by the flickering of the camp fire, near which they sat and smoked.
All one stage of the journey Leslie lit a cigar. Ruby seldom in after life smelt the aroma of a cigar, but she fancied she detected in it the scent of the pine logs as they burned, at the teamsters' camp fire. To both Ruby and Leslie the ride seemed short; and yet in the minds of both it left sweeter and more lasting memories than any journey they had ever taken.
When home was reached, and farewells said, when Leslie and his sister had driven away, when Sterling had prayed, and, save for the moonbeam which threw a line of light across her bed, all was silent and dark, Ruby's thoughts reviewed the events of the evening, and she smiled as a small voice seemed to whisper, "He did not laugh at you. He was kind and sympathetic. He did not laugh."
About eleven o'clock in the forenoon, on the day following the tea-meeting, Ruby was busy in the dining-room. She was humming to herself as she wielded her feather-duster, very carefully dusting the picture of the Queen, and re-arranging the lyre-birds' tails with which it was flanked. She dusted the old American clock that ticked away upon the shelf above the fireplace, and the china shepherd boy and, girl that stood on each side of it. She dusted the old couch, and the chairs, flicked off a speck that still lingered on the stock of her father's double-barrelled gun that hung above the clock, and then went out into the front garden to cut fresh flowers with which to fill the vases.
She had cut a small bunch of late roses, and was stepping over the flower-bed to get within reach of some more, when she became conscious that somebody was watching her, for she heard a deep sigh, which was almost a groan, proceeding from the sliprail in the fence which divided the ground surrounding the house from the track leading to the main road.
There she saw a figure on horseback, and she had much difficulty in recognising in the rider the little German who had so amused the folks at the tea-meeting.
His hat was off, and his spectacles were missing. His coat sleeves were ruffled almost up to his elbows, his trousers were up to his knees, and below them was visible two fat calves, which wore burnt red with exposure to the sun. His feet were dangling near the stirrups, which they tried in vain to reach. With his elbows at right angles to his body, and his hands very wide apart, he grasped one end of the bridle in each hand. One end of his collar was unbuttoned, and stuck straight out before him like an arm on a semaphore, and his necktie had slipped round under his ear. His face bore an expression of intense suffering, which he tried in vain to conceal. He cut such a comical figure that Ruby could scarcely refrain from laughing outright, especially when she espied Madge crouching down behind the water cask, stuffing her apron into her mouth.
"Good morning to you," said the visitor, in rather shaky accents. "Good morning."
Then, as the horse whisked its tail to knock off a troublesome fly, he added tremulously, "Lie down, you brute. No, I don't mean lie down, I mean stand still." Then again addressing Ruby, he said: "It vas a very fine day this morning, ain't it?"
Ruby passed through the little wicket, and approached the sliprail.
"Yes," she replied, smiling, "it is a very fine day."
She put down the sliprails, and the horse walked in, while its rider literally fell on its neck and groaned.
They stopped before the garden gate, and Ruby stood waiting for him to dismount, but he did not attempt to do so. He sat looking at her for awhile, shifting uneasily in his saddle, and then, looking very solemn, and extremely sad, he said:—
"It vas a very fine day this morning, ain't it?"
"Yes," replied Ruby. She was wondering what to do or to say next, when, to her intense relief, she saw her father coming round from the back of the house. He bade the visitor good morning.
"Good morning," said the German; vainly endeavouring to suppress a groan, "it vas a fine morning, to-day, ain't it?"
Then he jerked out, rather than said:—
"You must, Ach!—forgive my impoliteness (groan). I can't raise mine—Ach! mine hat to you—because—I hafe lost it; und I can't gif you mine—Ach!—card, because—to gif you mine card—I must leave go, and if I leave go—Oh! dear! I shall fall off."
"Won't you get off?" said Sterling.
"I would like to get off, if I could, but I don't know if I could manage it," said the German doubtfully. "But if you vill keep der horse still I vill try."
Sterling caught hold of the bridle, and after several vain attempts the German lifted his right leg, knelt with his knee upon the horse's back, and dangled his left foot in a vain effort to find the stirrup.
Ruby, seeing his difficulty, was about to spring forward to his assistance, when the horse shook himself slightly, the law of equilibrium asserted itself, and the law of gravitation did the rest. The German landed safely and solidly upon his back.
The Moment the most chubby part of his anatomy touched the ground, he rolled quickly over upon his side, where he lay for some seconds, drawing his fat, red calves up and down, and groaning audibly.
"What's the matter?" inquired Sterling, uncertain, whether to laugh or to be alarmed. "Are you ill?"
"Oh! No," said the little man, "I vas not ill, and I vas not vell; but I am sore. Oh! so sore. I am sore all over. I am sore inside, and I am sore outside. I am sore at the top, and I am sore at the (ach!) underneath. Every tooth in mine head vas loose. Mine toe-nails, mine finer-nails, and mine eyebrows vas sore. I am sore all over. Oh! so sore! Vhy did I ever been persuaded to try such monkey tricks, and ride on horse's back!"
He struggled, with difficulty, to his feet, and as he straightened his trousers, George Sterling inquired whether this was his first attempt to ride.
"Yes," answered the German, as he accepted Sterling's invitation to come in, walking meanwhile very stiffly, and with his legs wide apart, "it is mine first attempt, and if I ever live to get back safe to Eugowra, you may bet your hat it vill be mine last."
Thy entered the house, and Ruby brought forward her father's large arm-chair, which had a soft cushion. The German sat down, very slowly and deliberately, and gave a sigh of relief.
"Ach!" said he, "thank you, mine dear. That vas good, very good."
Feeling at length that he had his hands at liberty, he produced his card case, and drawing out a card he handed it to Sterling.
George Sterling turned the card round once or twice. He looked at the front, and at the back, and then, handing it to Ruby, he said:
"Here, Rube, read what it says. I can't see without my specs."
Ruby glanced at the card, and read aloud, "Herr Batonstein."
"That is mine name," said the German, proudly. "Let me take the liberty to introduce mineself."
In spite of his stiffness, he rose and bowed to Sterling, and then ceremoniously to Ruby, and also to Madge who, with a very red face, had just entered the room.
Sitting down again, he told them that be had been very anxious about Ruby. He had heard her commence her song and her voice had charmed him—fascinated him. He was afraid she might be indisposed, and thought it his duty to inquire after her health. No other means of transit being available, he had been persuaded to accept the loan of the bank manager's horse.
"Ach! That horse!" he exclaimed, reminded of his fearful experience. "Ach! That horse!! That quadruped! With his shog shog. Oh! I am so sore. But I did not come to tell you I vas sore, I came to inquire after Miss Sterling's health."
"I am quite well to-day, thank you," said Ruby.
"I am delighted to hear it," said Herr Batonstein. "To know it will repay me for all mine sufferings. But I vas thinking of you all night. I did not sleep much for thinking of you but when I did sleep, I could hear you sing—and see you fainting in my dream."
Ruby blushed, and hung her head, which being noticed by Herr Batonstein, he chuckled, and then laughed boisterously.
"Vhy," he exclaimed, "did you think because I dream about you that I come to make love to you? If I vas a young man, who knows? But I am old enough to be your father, and then, Mrs. Batonstein who vas in Sydney, what would she say about it? No, mine dear, I am not such an old fool as that," and he laughed again, and rolled back In his chair, until suddenly reminded of his ride, in a manner anything but humorous.
Rising to bow to Mrs. Sterling, he discovered that his collar was all awry, and in loosening his vest to fasten his collar, he found his spectacles hiding inside.
He made a joke about his collar and another about his spectacles, but they were soon at their ease. It being nearly lunch time he accepted Mrs. Sterling's invitation to join them, and that lady, taking Madge with her, proceeded to the kitchen to make the necessary preparations.
"Now," said Herr Batonstein, "could I so far trespass on your kindness as to ask Miss Sterling to sing me a song? There is no need to be nervous now, you know there is nobody here, for I am nobody, and it would," he added, with a soft tone in his voice, "give me so much pleasure."
"Yes, do, Rube," said Sterling, who was glad for her to have the he opportunity of retrieving to some extent her failure of the previous evening. "Not the song you tried last night, but something else. Sing just as you do of an evening, and Mr. Batonstein and I will smoke."
"Yes. That will do splendidly," said the German, "we will smoke. I have some cigars somewhere."
He felt in several pockets until he discovered his cigar case.
"Here we are. Take a cigar, Mr. Sterling, and we will smoke while Miss Sterling sings."
George Sterling took a cigar, lit it after some trouble, leaned back in his chair, crossed his legs, and puffed away at his unaccustomed luxury. Blinking at the smoke, which would persist in getting into his eyes, he motioned for Ruby Proceed.
After some hesitation she sat down at the little cottage piano and sang "Ye Banks and Braes o' Bonnie Doon."
During the first verse of the song, the little German sat very quiet, beating time silently with his fingers upon the arm of his chair. Gradually he ceased, and sat like one in a trance until the last note of the song had died away.
"Thank you, my dear," he said, "thank you. It vas beautiful. Sing another."
Ruby, remaining at the piano, ran her fingers dreamily over the keys, and then sang "Oft in the Stilly Night." When she had finished Herr Batonstein sighed, and repeated softly, "Fond memory brings the light of other days around me."
Ruby, turning round, saw that his eyes, were moist with tears.
"Oh, please forgive me," she said. "My song has made you unhappy."
"No, no!" he replied, hastily, but with traces of emotion in his voice, "no, no. On the contrary, it makes me more happy than I can say. It is exquisite, charming. I am grateful to you. Very grateful."
Seeing that her song had made hint sad, Ruby, who had lost all trace of shyness or timidity, turned to the piano again and sang a quaint but merry little ditty, to a wonderfully appropriate, if somewhat inaccurate, accompaniment.
The German was delighted, and when she had finished her song all trace of his emotion had vanished.
"Your voice is wonderful," said he. "Who taught you to play?"
"Nobody," answered Ruby. "I just find the notes and make then fit in."
"Ach!" replied he, "I thought so. You learned your music in tha same school as the thrush and the lark and the nightingale. In the school of Nature. You have the true musical instinct, which is the foundation of Genius. But you want the culture, the training, the musical knowledge, and then you will be able to interpret the Old Masters, and put a soul and a spirit into their music that was never felt by those who made it. You must be trained, my dear, you must be trained. Such sweet sounds are wasted on the gum trees. The great world is waiting to hear you sing."
He threw his unfinished cigar out of the window and, taking her place at the piano, he said, "I can play a little. I vas trained at the Conservatoire Leipsic, but I have not your musical instinct."
He struck a few chords, after which he played something, the name of which Ruby did not know. It was the moat wonderful music that she had ever heard. Its harmony transported her. As the German played, she saw in her mind's eye a chapel or monastery in a strange land, such as she had read about. She saw glistening cascades, heard the sound of rushing waters, the wind sighing amongst the trees, the birds twittering, and the singing of the peasants as they laboured in the field. From the chapel came the sound of a choir chanting the vesper hymn. Then the sighing of the wind became a moan, and the hymn a funeral dirge. The scene became dark, and the gloom of the night hid the chapel and the glittering waters. Still slower and more mournful the funeral dirge went on. As it died away, she thought that one by one the stars appeared, the moon arose, and a blessed peace reigned over all. Suddenly the choir and peasants and birds is all seemed to blend their voices in one harmonious song of thanksgiving, and the music ceased.
And Ruby discovered her bodily self as Herr Batonstein turned on his seat, and smiled.
"I see," he said, "mine music has touched your heart. But we must not be sad." Turning again to the piano, he sang a song about "Three jolly, jolly sailor boys," who had just returned from South Amerikee. At the conclusion of his song, Mrs. Sterling announced that lunch was ready, and they adjourned to the dining-room, where the little German made the meal lively by a succession of comic little anecdotes, the fun of which was made more piquant by his quaint accent.
After the meal he had to face the problem of returning to Eugowra. He asked permission to come again, which was cordially granted, although he vowed that next time, if he could not get a vehicle, he would walk.
"Oh! That dreadful quadruped!" he said, as Sterling led his horse to the gate. "I shall be dead when I get to Eugowra."
They got him a chair to assist him to mount, and George Sterling shortened his stirrups for him. He was considerably relieved in his mind when he found that by resting his feet in the shortened stirrups he could greatly ease the rest of his anatomy, which was still very sore.
Sterling accompanied him across the first paddock, where they found his hat, and they parted at the roadside with mutual expressions of goodwill.
Nell Raymond was working in the garden. She was passionately fond of flowers, and although they kept at Bindawalla a gardener to attend to the flowers, lawns, and shrubberies, as well as a Chinaman whose duty it was to provide the house with vegetables, Nell's roses were her own particular hobby. Her task completed, she picked a few choice buds to take with her to the house. She tripped across the lawn, passed the fountain that threw a spray of water over the rockwork and ferns that surrounded it, and on to the broad verandah that extended along the front and two sides of the house. Seated on one of the lounges scattered about the verandah, with his arms folded over his breast, and a sullen look on his face, was her brother Leslie.
Nell selected her choicest bud, and placing the rest on a small table near at hand, she fixed it in Leslie's buttonhole. She had scarcely finished when he pushed her away impatiently, and resumed his former attitude.
"You ungrateful thing," said Nell, indignantly. "What do you mean by receiving my present like that? I have a good mind to take it away again."
Leslie, so far from showing any contrition, simply pulled the rose from his buttonhole, and threw it among the others on the table.
"Whatever is the Matter with you this morning," said Nell, as she looked at him in surprise, "aren't you well, Les?"
Rising from his seat, he thrust his hands into his pockets, and paced the verandah with quick, impatient strides.
Nell watched him with astonishment. She had never seen him in such a mood before. As he passed her for the third or fourth time, she linked her arm in his and walked by his side. He tried gently to disengage her arm, but she clung to him lovingly and said in a coaxing way:
"Now look here, Les. Something has happened to vex you, and I am going to know all about it. Tell me what is the matter, and let me help you."
"You cannot help me, Nell. Nobody can help me."
"Tell me and let me try. You are older than I, but since our mother died I have tried to fill her place to you as well as my own. If I had a sorrow I would tell you all about it. Won't you at least give me your confidence?"
"Nell," said Leslie, stopping abruptly in his walk, and looking her full in the face, "I have been badly treated, and grossly insulted. You say you have been a mother to me as well as a sister. I acknowledge all that. I have heard you say that you were proud of your brother."
"So I am," replied Nell, "I do not believe there is a better brother, a better son, or a braver man in all the world than my brother."
She looked up at him with a smile, but he laughed scornfully at her enthusiasm, and said:
"Yes; I don't think I am deficient in courage. I never remember feeling afraid of anything yet, but this morning I have been treated as a child. I have been spoken to in a worse manner than a blackfellow would speak to his dog. I have been threatened with a horse-whipping, and did not dare to retaliate."
"Why," said Nell, indignantly, "who has dared?" Then seeing the look of pain on his face, she kissed him affectionately and said, "Tell me all about it, dear."
"Nell, I swear that if any other man in all the world had spoken to me in the same way, and used the same threat, I would have knocked him down if he had been as big as a gum tree, or as strong as a bull. As it was, I had to swallow the insult and run away. Nell, it was the pater."
"Oh! Leslie," said Nell, in dismay, "whatever is the matter?"
"Well, it all arose out of his absurd prejudice against free selectors in general, and George Sterling in particular. He said I must understand that in future when going to, or returning from Eugowra, I must go by the top road. I asked him why. Then he burst out into a torrent of abuse about free selectors, and the differences in social status, and all that sort of rot. He said he saw me walking with George Sterling's daughter at the show, and dancing with her at the ball. He spoke of the strict rule that is always observed at the show ball of drawing a chalk line across the floor so that the squatters and their set may use one end of the room, and not be contaminated by too close a proximity to the selectors and tradesfolk, who use the other end. He told me that I had offended the Maxwells from Wallandool, and the Thorntons from Daroublegie, and insisted that I should apologise to them at the first opportunity."
"How did you offend them!" asked Nell.
"I asked Ruby Sterling to dance," said he, "and I took her across the chalk line, to the side where I had an acknowledged right to be, and joined a set of lancers in which were some of the Maxwells and Thorntons. They treated my partner with contempt, and when the time came to turn partners Wally Thornton ignored her presence, like the cad he is, and left the girl standing by herself. I took her away, and broke up their set. Apologise! The first time I meet him I intend to pull his nose. Think of the folly of it all. Thornton's ancestors were convicts, Wally was expelled from the Warrigal Club in Sydney for cheating at cards, and Mrs. Maxwell was divorced by her first husband before she married Maxwell. Imagine such people being disgraced by finding themselves in the same set with Ruby Sterling!"
"But, Leslie," said Nell, quietly, "you know it has always been the rule."
"Damn the rule!" said Leslie, adding hastily, "I beg your pardon, Nell, but it is an absurd, and an unjust one. The tradespeople pay the same price as others, many of them are better off than those in the other set—better off, and more cultured. And yet—"
"Is that all that occurred!" asked Nell, as he paused.
"No, it is not," answered her brother. "The dad insisted that I should apologise, and I flatly refused. Then he made an insulting allusion to Sterling's daughter, which I resented. He insisted that I should promise never to go near Sterling's house, nor speak to Ruby again, and I respectfully and firmly declined to give him such a promise. Upon that he broke into a most ungovernable rage. He called me all sorts of names, the mildest and most complimentary of which were idiot, puppy, whelp, cad, and so on. Then he threatened to knock me down.
"I believe I laughed. You know, Nell, I am nearly six inches taller than he, besides being three stone heavier and not half his age. When you remember that the last year I was at the Grammar School I took the prize for the best all-round athlete in the combined schools, it is no wonder I laughed when he said he would knock me down. But, by Jove, the old fellow was very much in earnest, for he welted up his riding whip, which was on the table in his office, and he would have horsewhipped me if I had not run away! Think of that, Nell, your big, brave brother RAN AWAY.
"What followed reminded me of a paper chase. Of course I had all the best of it. The office table was between us, and that gave the a start. I made for the door, and he after me. I ran along the hall, and he followed. I didn't think the old fellow was such a good sprinter, but his mettle was up.
"I dodged through the drawing-room, and almost upset your sketches that were on the easel. In trying to save them, he nearly caught me, but I bolted through the French light, and leapt the railing of the verandah on to the lawn. This checked him, but did not stop him, for he climbed over, and came puffing after me. I made for the avenue leading to the poultry yard, and this being a straight run, I had him at my mercy. When I got to the end I looked back, and he was sitting on the gardener's wheelbarrow, rubbing his shin with one hand, shaking the whip at me with the other, and swearing with as much volubility as he had breath for."
"What followed?" inquired Nell.
"Nothing," said Leslie, carelessly. "That was the last I saw of him. I believe he has since driven off to the woolshed."
"Oh! Leslie," said Nell, "I am so sorry that all this has occurred. But tell me. You do not care seriously for Sterling's daughter, do you?"
"I don't know," said he, "I have never asked myself the question." Then, seeing Andy in the distance, he called to him, "Andy, put the saddle on Bunyip."
"Where are you going, Leslie?" inquired Nell.
"I am going to George Sterling's," he replied, doggedly. "I promised Ruby—that is, Miss Sterling—that I would take her a magazine this morning, and I am going to take it."
"But think, Leslie. What will father say?"
"He must say what he likes, my dear. Do you think I am a child? There! Good-bye. Forgive me if I was rude."
So saying, he mounted Bunyip, and cantered away in the direction of Old Joe's Flat.
He found the family at morning lunch, and was invited to join them. After some conversation with George Sterling in which sheep formed the principal topic, Sterling sighed and remarked, "We are going to lose Ruby."
Leslie's hand shook as he replaced his cup and saucer on the table.
"Lose Ruby?" he echoed. "How? Where is she going?"
"She is going to Sydney," replied Sterling.
The information was so unexpected that Leslie did not know what to answer, so he simply stammered:
"Yes," said Mrs. Sterling, "she is going to study singing, and music, and all sorts of things."
"But this is sudden, is it not?" enquired Leslie, "How has it all been arranged?"
"Well," said Sterling, as he filled his pipe, "do you remember the little German who was at the tea-meeting at Eugowra?"
"What," said Leslie, "the little man with the gold-rimmed spectacles?"
"Yes," replied Sterling, "that is the man. It seems he is a professor of music. He is going to take Ruby in hand, as he calls it, and teach her to sing."
"But he is a stranger to you," said Leslie, "is he not?"
"What," laughed Sterling, "Batonstein a stranger? Not he."
"I thought you had never met him before the night of the tea meeting."
"No more we had," said Sterling. "He was a stranger then, but that was two months ago. He has been here dozens of times since then. The bank manager is an old friend of his, and says he is one of the greatest musicians living. He is very well off, too, and only plays or teaches now as a sort of hobby. Ruby is to live with her aunt and to spend all her time in study. I didn't like the idea at first, but they have talked me over."
"When is Miss Sterling going?" inquired Leslie.
"In about a fortnight," replied Mrs. Sterling, as she rose to help Madge clear the table.
"Ah, well!" said Sterling, "this won't get rid of the briars."
Lighting his pipe, he went out to attend to his work. Soon after, Mrs. Sterling and Madge retired to the kitchen to wash up, and Leslie and Ruby were alone. He sat, idly tapping his leather legging with his riding whip, and gazed at Ruby, who was struggling hopelessly with a dropped stitch in her knitting.
"So," he remarked, clearing his throat, "you are going to Sydney."
She nodded her head slowly, but did not reply or raise her eyes.
"What put the idea into your head?"
"I think," she answered softly, "that you first put it there."
"I?" he exclaimed in astonishment.
"Yes," she said, putting down her knitting in despair. "Don't you remember the day you met me up the gully driving home the cows? You told mo that I ought to take some lessons. I have been thinking of it ever since, and was delighted when Herr Batonstein offered to teach me. He is awfully good, and awfully funny, and they say he is a splendid teacher."
Leslie looked out of the window, across the flower garden, bright with many coloured Chrysanthemums, and at the distant hills, where the purple foliage was outlined against the sky in graceful undulations. He watched the sunlight dancing on the window, and he wondered whether the flowers would lose their perfume and brightness, and the sun its light and warmth when she was gone. He was aroused from his reverie by Ruby, who asked suddenly:
"Were you in trouble this morning?"
"Why?" he asked in surprise, "what makes you think so?"
"I thought you were," she replied; "in fact, I knew you were. It was about half-past seven o'clock. I was in the dairy when I suddenly felt faint and giddy. I had to sit down, and the dishes, the churn, the shelves, and the window all seemed to be turning slowly round. I covered my eyes with, my hand, and then certain pictures seemed to force themselves upon my imagination. I had a feeling that there was trouble of some sort, somewhere. Then the place appeared, and it was Bindawalla. After that I fancied that it was connected with you and then I knew it was. It also appeared to me that I had something to do with it, but I reasoned with myself that that could not possibly be, and so I dismissed the idea. Then I opened my eyes. Everything was the same as usual, but I knew that you were in trouble."
"My father and I had a slight difference this morning," said Leslie, "but it was nothing."
"About seven o'clock?" enquired Ruby.
"About that time."
"I knew it," she said. "Herr Batonstein says that I possess what he calls 'Second sight,' but it is not that. It is not sight at all. I see nothing, and hear nothing. I only feel a kind of warning. It is not even a tangible idea that comes into my mind; it is the merest ghost or shadow of an idea, but it teaches me, and I know."
Leslie listened in wonder, marvelling that she should have so nearly approached the truth; more nearly, in fact, than she herself thought possible; for, as he knew, she had been closely connected with his trouble of the morning.
"Miss Sterling," said Leslie, as he took her hand, which with all the simplicity of a child she allowed him to retain, "Shakespeare said 'There are more things in Heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.' That was true, and, as a truth is always a truth, it is true to-day. Since Shakespeare wrote, many secrets of Nature have been laid bare, and it would be arrogance on our part to imagine that we know all. We must be content to believe and wait. In the meantime, call this power of yours what you will, but cultivate it—if you can."
He dropped her hand, and rose to depart.
"I will not bid you good-bye—yet," said he; "I shall see you again before you go."
"Oh, I hope so," said Ruby. "I don't know what the great world is like, but ever since I have been thinking of going to Sydney, every tree and flower, every gully and ridge about the dear old place seems to develop a charm and beauty hitherto unfelt. But it is always so through life. We are always bidding good-bye to something. The old is always giving place to the new."
Leslie wondered whether the new friends would quite take the place of the old. He was tempted to say more to her, but dare not. What he had told his sister in the morning was the truth. Whether he loved this girl or not, was a question he had never asked himself.
His first ebullition of temper having cooled, James Raymond did not allude to the subject of the quarrel; and, as he heard that Sterling's daughter was going away, he congratulated himself that Leslie's temptation would he removed. He had no doubt but that his admonition would hate due effect, and as Leslie went about his work as usual, Raymond, absorbed in the completion of the woolshed, soon forgot the incident. He noted that, after Ruby's departure, Leslie seemed to put additional energy into his work. He took his share of the most arduous duties, and if a mob of cattle had to be mustered, and the fat ones cut out for market, Leslie would do the work of two stockmen.
From early morning until late in the evening he was away, visiting the out-stations, breaking in a colt, or at other times, superintending the construction of a dam, or the sinking of a well.
At last the woolshed was, finished. James Raymond had spared no expense in its erection, and he prided himself upon the fact that it was complete in every particular. Provision had been made for the shearing to be done by machinery, and the necessary power had been provided. There were hydraulic presses for pressing the wool, ample room for storing the bales when pressed, and space under the shed for keeping the sheep dry in case of rain. When the last nail had been driven, and the last coat of paint was dry, James Raymond was a proud man as he gazed upon the completion of his long cherished ideal.
The neighbouring squatters and many from a considerable distance drove to Bindawalla to see the famous up-to-date woolshed.
Mr. Raymond was congratulated upon his enterprise, and for some weeks the homestead was lively with visitors. The shed was completed in September, and was in ample time for the shearing, which commenced at Bindawalla in November. The regular station hands were busy bringing up the sheep from distant parts of the run so as to have them handy at shearing time.
From time to time, men with bearded and sun-tanned faces arrived at the station in twos and threes, to book for the season as shearers or rouseabouts. They came from all parts. Small selectors from Monaro, Adelong, Tumut, and Tumbarumba; diggers from Ironbarks, Hillend, and the Turon; fossickers from Lucknow and the Abercrombie; with rabbit trappers, kangaroo shooters, and copper miners from Walla Walla, Burrumbuttock, and Cobar. They were men who followed shearing during the season, and almost every other occupation, during the remainder of the year. Some there were who would carry home their hard-earned cheque to their distant families, and others who would knock it down at the nearest pub.
As he men arrived they called at the head station to see the overseer, and to place their names on the roll. After that, by order of Mr. Raymond, they were supplied with rations of flour, meat, tea and sugar, and went away to the camp. This was pitched about a mile from the head station, in the direction of Old Joe's Flat, and about half a mile from the new woolshed. There was plenty of fresh water near the camp, and the men had permission to pasture their horses in the adjacent paddock.
It was near sundown on one of the last days of October, and there were over a hundred men in the shearers' camp. The day had been hot, and the weather was very dry. The men had been spending a listless clay, some shooting, others lounging about, while some cooked at the camp tire.
"How's wheat up your way?" said a man with a long tawny beard, as he scraped the ashes from a damper.
"Fair to middling," said the man addressed, who was sitting on his haunches, nursing a small magazine rifle. "How's the reef?"
"Oh! the reef's all right," said the first speaker, "but the blinded gold dropped out of it."
He lifted the damper from the ashes, stood it on its edge to cool, then throwing a few dry sticks on the fire, he put the billy on to boil.
"What sport did you have?" he said, resuming the conversation.
"Well," remarked his companion, who rejoiced in the name of Walla Walla Will, because his name was William, and he came from Walla Walla, "I shot a couple o' wallabies an' a kangaroo rat."
Then, poising his rifle on his arm, he added, "There ain't much to shoot about here now. If there was, I could shoot it. I can kill a kangaroo on the jump with this at three hundred yards," and he patted the rifle affectionately, "and never miss."
"Yes," said Turon Jimmy, drily, "I've heard the likes of you before. I've seed 'em miss, but I've never heard of 'em missin'."
"Don't you believe me?" said Will. "Look here! You see that cove goin' down to the creek for water? I bet I'll put a hole through his billy as he comes up the bank, an' let the bloomin' water out, an' never touch him."
"Don't you do anything you might be sorry for," said the other. "That's Bob Baxter from the Yahoo. He can use his fists, and when he hits it ain't exactly like a blow from a feather duster. Take care what your do to Bob. He won't stand any paddymelon tricks."
"My troubles about his fists," said Walla Walla Will, But the water bearer returned to the fire with his billy safe and sound.
"What became of your mate?" inquired Turon Jimmy.
"Which mate?" said Will.
"The long cove with the cock eye. Him that used to ride the piebald filly."
"Oh! the duke! He went away to Queensland cattle droving. We always called him the duke on account of his Roman nose. I'm on my own this year. Great Ghost of Misery! Did you see that snake?"
"Where?" shouted Turon Jimmy, seizing a stick, and springing to his feet. "Where was he?"
"He went round by the hollow log, and into that tussock of grass. Look out! There he is again."
The exclamation of Walla Walla Will had attracted the attention of several men from the other camp fires, and each one seizing a stick, they joined in the chase of the snake.
"There he goes!" shouted a dozen voices, as the reptile glided swiftly down the hill in the direction of the creek. "Head the beggar. Don't let him get to the water!"
"Look out!" shouted Will, "leave him alone. Let him get out of the brushwood into the clear. He'll cross that sandy patch. There he goes. Look out!"
At that moment the snake came to the bare sandy track, and simultaneously there was a sharp report. The snake gave a convulsive spring, and then lay writhing upon the sand. Will's bullet had pierced its head, and he was praised on all sides for his excellent marksmanship, but by none more cordially than Turon Jimmy.
"Chris'mas!" said that individual, "if I hadn't 'a' seed it, I wouldn't 'a' believed it! I've heard of many a man shootin' a snake with a bullet, but I never seed it done before. Send I may live till I die! Clean through the head!"
He thereupon invited Walla Walla Will to join him at supper, and the invitation was cordially accepted.
The meal being ended, pipes were lit, and they composed themselves for a comfortable yarn.
They had not yarned long before two strangers approached and introduced themselves as Tom Smart, Member of the Legislative Assembly of New South Wales, a noted Labour champion, and Bob Hawkson, delegate of the Lachlan Branch of the Shearers' and Workers' Union.
Having asked the shearers to call the men around, both the newcomers harangued the camp on the rights of Labour and the tyranny of Capital until the crow seethed with sedition and were ripe for any mischief that might be brewed.
The morning following the meeting at the camp saw James Raymond busily engaged in his office. He had broken the seals of several letters, read them, and arranged them in their order of importance ready for reply. He noted with satisfaction that the fat stock market was firm, and that, according to the latest advices from London, wool had an upward tendency. There was a letter from the Pastoralists' Union stating that there were rumours of trouble with the shearers, but he smiled at this. Some people always had trouble with their shearers. He managed his affairs on better lines. He treated his men liberally, and those who had shorn for him once were always glad to come again. There were men enough at the camp now to make a full board, and next week shearing would be in full swing.
"If you please, sir, you're wanted." It was old Andy who spoke, and as he did so, he saluted in military fashion.
"Who is it, Andy?"
"It's some chaps from the camp, sir, I think," replied Andy.
"Oh! I am busy. Tell them to see the overseer, or the storekeeper, if they want rations."
Old Andy saluted again, and turned away. The office window was open, and James Raymond saw him shuffle along the verandah. Then he heard voices in conversation, and among them that of Andy.
"He says you're to see the overseer, or the storekeeper."
"But we want to see him."
"Well, you can't. He's busy."
"You go back, and tell him that our business is important, and that it is with him, not with the overseer, or the storekeeper."
"I won't go back," said Andy. "I've got my orders, and you've got my message."
"Why, what are you afraid of?" queried the speaker. "Do you think he will eat you? What are you afraid of?"
"I ain't afeered of nothing," said Andy, angrily. "Who ever knowed old Andy to be afeered? I've handled a musket, and wore the Queen's uniform, I have. I ain't afeered of anything, or anybody. I'm gettin' on for eighty year, but I'd tackle any man for forty mile round, age, weight, and size."
The first speaker laughed, and this made old Andy still more indignant.
"You can shut your 'tater trap, too," he said. "I've seed the time when I could 'a picked the likes o' you up under my arm, and dropped you into the nearest waterhole, you—"
But he was interrupted by the voice of his master.
"What's the matter, Andy?"
"It's the men from the camp," replied Andy, shuffling back, and speaking through the open window. "I told 'em your message, and' when they wanted me to come back to you, an' I wouldn't, they said I was afeered. You've knowed me a good while, sir, an' your father before you. Did you ever know me to be afeered of anything, age, weight, and size?"
"No, Andy, that I didn't," replied his master. "But if these men want to see me particularly, let them come in."
"There you are," snarled Andy, turning to those outside, "you can go in, but you hear what he says, he never knew me to be afeered."
The men filed into the office. There were four of them; Mr. Tom Smart, Mr. Hawkson, Turon Jimmy, and Walla Walla Will.
"Good morning, men," said James Raymond, cheerfully. "Sit down. What can I do for you?"
Turon Jimmy looked carefully into the lining of his hat. It was not a very clean hat. Be had used it to dust the ashes from innumerable dampers, as a kettle holder, and as a bellows to fan the fire into a flame when the twigs were damp. It had seen all sorts of weathers, and it had two small holes in it, for he had that morning thrown it into the air for Walla Walla Will to have a shot at it. It seemed to have developed a new charm, for he was absorbed in its examination.
Walla Walla Will sat near the open window in abstracted contemplation of the flower garden outside, while Mr. Hawkson was gazing with fixed attention at the picture of a racehorse which hung upon the wall.
The abstraction of his companions threw the onus of reply upon Mr. Tom Smart. He did not shrink from his responsibility.
He waved his hand gracefully, and said:
"Your man, sir, seemed to imagine that we wanted rations, but we have come to talk to you of rights, not rations."
"What rights?" inquired James Raymond.
"The rights of man, sir, and the rights of labour," replied Mr. Tom Smart. "We want to know, sir, what about the new shearing agreement?"
"I think," said Mr. Raymond, "that most of you know as much about the agreement as I do. What is wrong with it?"
"We want to know whether you are going to enforce it?"
"Of course," said Raymond, "if a man signs an agreement he will be expected to keep it. It will be time enough to talk about enforcing it when an attempt is made to break it."
Mr. Raymond turned to his papers, as a hint that he had no wish to prolong the discussion, but Mr. Tom Smart would not take the hint.
"You know what I mean, although it may suit you to appear dense," said he.
James Raymond looked at the speaker angrily.
"What do you mean?" he exclaimed. "What is the object of your interview? Out with it quick. I am busy."
"The object of our visit," said Tom Smart, as he drummed his fingers on the office table, "is this—"
"You will excuse me," interrupted Raymond, "but I cannot talk nor listen while you are drumming your fingers."
Tom Smart thrust both hands into his pockets, and leaned back in his chair, thus displaying to advantage the Parliamentary free railway pass Which dangled from his watch chain.
"The object of our visit is this," said he. "It is to tell you that the shearers will not accept the agreement. The only agreement the men will accept is that adopted by the Workers' Union."
Taking his hand from his pocket, he fingered the gold pass on his chain, and stared at James Raymond.
James Raymond, looking at Tom's hand, asked suddenly:
"Are you a shearer?"
"No, I am not," said Smart, "but I am the representative of the Shearers' Union."
"Then," said Mr. Raymond, "I cannot discuss the matter further with you. The terms upon which my shearing is to be done is the business of my shearers and myself. I will discuss it with no one else."
"But—" commenced Smart.
"I have nothing further to say," said Mr. Raymond.
"But I am speaking on behalf of the workers of Australia."
"I have nothing further to say to you," repeated Mr. Raymond. Turning to Mr. Bob Hawkson, he asked, "Are you a shearer?"
Mr. Hawkson withdrew his eyes from the picture of the race horse, and said, "EH?—yes. I've shorn a bit."
"Did you ever shear for me?"
"Well, not exactly for you," said Hawkson.
"What stations have you shorn at?"
"Well, not at any regular stations."
"Well, a bit here, and a bit there."
"Do you represent the Shearers' Union, too?"
"I am the delegate of the Lachlan Branch."
"Are you here looking for work?"
"Well, no, not exactly."
"Then," said Raymond, "I have nothing to say to you."
Turning to Turon Jimmy and Walla Walla Will, he said:
"I think I know you men. You were here last season, were you not?"
"Yes, sir," said Jimmy, still peering into his hat.
"Did you have anything to complain of?"
"You have signed on for this year, haven't you?"
"Were you satisfied with the agreement when you signed?"
"Well," said Jimmy, "I don't know as I had anything agin it." He tried to push his little finger through one of the bullet holes in his hat.
"What has happened since?"
"Well, you see, sir, a man don't like to be called a scab and a blackleg."
"It seems to me," said Mr. Raymond, "that you men are just the tools of these agitators."
"Begging your pardon, sir, I ain't no man's tool," said Jimmy, flushing, "but you squatters have tried to make us tools long enough. But we've joined the Union. That's straight, Mr. Raymond, between man and man. We are going to march, and carry the banner of victory, to—to—. Here—where are we going to carry it to? You know!"
He turned to Mr. Tom Smart, who was watching the scene with a look of amusement on his face.
"It appears to me—" began Mr. Smart.
"You will once more excuse me," interrupted Raymond, "but I have no more to say to you!"
"Very well," said Tom Smart, rising to his feet, "but I have this to say to you. The shearers' terms or none. Until they are conceded, the shearers are on strike." And he strode from the room, followed by his companions.
At the camp all was expectation. There was much speculation among the men as to the probable result of the deputation. Some of the more optimistic prophesied that Raymond would yield at once to the eloquence of Mr. Tom Smart. Others took a more moderate view. There was a small, wiry man from the Weddin Mountains. He knew James Raymond, and said:
"He ain't the kind that caves in at once. He ain't the sort of horse that shies at his own shadder. He may give in, but he won't give in without a fight."
The man from Yass was a pessimist. He predicted trouble.
"I wouldn't be surprised," said he, "if he set the bloomin' dogs on 'em. He'll be ropable. He's a snorter when he starts. I've seed him chuck his new hat down, and jump on it, just because the tar boy wasn't quick enough for him when a man nicked a sheep. Lor' lumme! I wouldn't take on their job for a fi'-pun-note."
They returned. Tom Smart as jaunty as ever, with Bob Hawkson in deep conversation by his side; and Turon Jimmy with Walla Walla Will, who bore the air of men who had done their duty, and borne the brunt of battle.
Tom Smart explained the result of their mission, and advised them to show a solid front. He told them that they had the workers of Australia at their back. If James Raymond stopped supplies, he would see that they had rations. He explained the method of organisation, and picketing, to prevent outside labour coming in. Above all, he exhorted them to obey the law.
"Don't hurt the blacklegs," he said, "if they should come this far. We shall try to block them at the other end, but if any should slip through, don't ill-treat them. Fetch them to the camp, and argue with them. Argue with them until you convince them. You will find some argument that will convince, but don't break the law. If they send the mounted troopers, don't resist them. It is hard to see the Myrmidons of the Law, paid out of the proceeds of your labour, supporting the Fat Man, but that's no reason why you should stretch wires across the road they are coming. A policeman might get hurt, and it's wicked to hurt a policeman. Be careful of your fires and your matches, and don't fire the grass. No matter how Mr. Raymond insults you, or tramples on your rights, don't burn down his new woolshed. It is true it is built out of your earnings. How many a back has ached, or how many gallons of sweat have been shed to build that woolshed, God alone knows! But don't burn it. The law would call it wicked. Above all, if your temper should get the better of your judgment, if a keen sense of wrong should raise the devil in you, so that you cannot restrain yourself, then for God's sake, don't get found out. I call upon all to witness that I have earnestly advised you to obey the law."
Thus commenced the strike at Bindawalla. For the first few days James Raymond was inclined to treat the whole affair as a joke. He talked the matter over with Leslie, but neither of them took a serious view of the situation. When, however, Monday morning came, and the shearers did not muster to their work, James Raymond began to get fidgety.
"This is damned annoying," he remarked to Leslie, on the Wednesday. "Beautiful weather, the sheep mustered, and bone dry; everything ready, and nothing being done. What are we to do?"
"I don't know," said Leslie, "unless we send to Sydney for men."
"I don't like to do that," said his father, after a pause. "I am inclined to concede their demand as to prices, if they waive the other absurd conditions. We are losing time, and I would sooner give the extra half-crown per hundred than lose any more of this fine weather."
"Shall I ride over to their camp and tell them so?" inquired Leslie, who, like his father, was anxious for the shearing to commence.
"I'll see after lunch," said James Raymond. Then he added "What the devil is that?" and he pointed towards the fence that bounded the home paddock.
Creeping along the fence was the figure of a man. He walked with difficulty, as though lame. As he approached the house he gained confidence, and discarding the crouching position, he hobbled quickly across the intervening space, and entered the enclosure leading to the servants' quarters.
"Why," said the elder Raymond, "the man's almost naked, and bleeding, and his trousers, which seem to be all he has on, are wet. Let us see what is the matter with him."
They found him in the men's hut with Andy, and upon examining him discovered that he had been very roughly handled. James Raymond at once called for bandages and hot water, and sent Andy to the store for dry clothes. When he had been washed and bandaged, and laid comfortably upon a bunk, James Raymond questioned him as to the cause of his plight, and the man told his story.
"I don't know if you remember me, Mr. Raymond, but I shore here last season. I came from Yass. I signed on for you the week before last, in Forbes. I was satisfied with the agreement until Mr. Tom Smart came along, and then I fell in with the crowd. But I got sick of it, and told 'em so this morning. I told them that I left my selection at Yass, an' my family, to come and earn a cheque, and not to loaf away my time in camp. I offered to come up and take my place if half-a-dozen more would come with me." He paused a moment, and turned over with a groan. "You'll excuse me, Sir, but it's awkward talking with two teeth loose, and your mouth all swelled inside. Let's see. Where was I? Oh! I know. I was a-standin' near Turon Jimmy's fire, and the first thing I knowed I was hit in the face with a 'possum skin. I turned round to see who throwed it, when a stick cafe whizzing from somewhere, an' hit me on the head. That made me see sparks, an' I swore a bit. Then somebody called me a blackleg, and just as I was answering of him, a sardine tin hit me in the mouth. I happened to spot the fellow who threw it, an' I went for him, but somebody tripped me up, and I fell on an old stump, and hurt my leg. By that time there was a crowd around, all singing out 'Blackleg! Blackleg!' and 'Scab! Scab!' One drags me this way, and another that, me kickin' and fighting all the while. They tore nearly every stitch of clothes off me, and dropped me in the creek. I managed to get out, and made a bolt for it with about forty of them yelling after me, and shotting sticks. If that's what they call the Brotherhood of Labour, I ain't taking any."
He passed his hand down outside the blanket, and rubbed his bruised and swollen leg.
Mr. Raymond ordered Andy to make the man as comfortable as possible, and he and Leslie went to lunch.
After lunch Leslie asked his father whether the was to ride to the camp, and carry his offer to the men.
"No," said his father, emphatically. "Ride into Eugowra, and wire to Sydney. Tell them to send me up fifty men at once. Then wire to Forbes, and tell the superintendent that I must have police protection for them. By Heavens! I will show the scoundrels who is the master of Bindawalla."
Leslie's road to Eugowra lay past the shearers' camp. As he approached it the men were amusing themselves in a variety of ways. Some were yarning, some playing cards, while others were lying indolently upon the grass. Occasional bursts of laughter came from the groups as some wag finished a funny story, but, as Leslie came near, the laughter and the conversation became more subdued.
Under other circumstances Leslie would have stopped for a chat, but now he thought it better to ride straight on and to take no notice. One small group were sharing the contents of a billy of tea.
"Have a drink, Mr. Raymond," said one of the men, holding up a battered tin pannikin as he spoke.
"No, thank you," said Leslie, as he continued to ride on.
"Let the young gentleman alone," said another. "Don't you see he's going on an errand? If he stops to talk to us the old man will get on to him. Don't get the young chap into trouble."
"He ain't going on an errand," said the first speaker. "Twig the rose in his buttonhole. He's going to see his girl. He's going down to Old Joe's Flat."
Leslie pulled Bunyip up with a jerk.
"Look here," he said, "I would advise you men to be civil, or not to speak at all."
"Hush, Bob," said the man who had spoken second, "you mustn't speak to him. Don't you know he's a squatter? Shearers mustn't speak to squatters. Shearers ain't men. They're only dogs. You mustn't speak to him."
"Every man is a man who acts as one," said Leslie.
"What do you mean?" queried Bob fiercely.
"I mean," he answered, "that a man is a man, whether he be squatter or shearer, so long as he acts a manly part. But when he acts as a cur, he ceases to deserve the name of man."
"Who's been acting as a cur?" asked Bob.
"Any man who joins forty or fifty others in an attack on one, is a cur," answered Leslie. "It is only the cur who fights a single enemy in packs."
"I suppose," said Bob, sarcastically, "you are alluding to the scab."
"I am alluding," said Leslie, "to the man you assaulted this morning."
"Well, what about him?"
"Nothing," said Leslie, "except that it was a mean, cowardly thing to do."
"He was a blackleg," said Bob, "and we chivvied him. Do, you think you could have stopped us?"
"If I had been here," answered Leslie, "I would 'have tried."
"Then," said Bob, "you would have bit off the biggest chunk you ever tried to chew."
"I would have risked that," said Leslie. "It was a shameful thing to do. If you want to fight, you might be men, and fight fairly."
"Look here, young 'un," said Bob, "my name is Bob Baxter, from the Yahoo. You may have heard of me, or you may not. That hasn't' got the least significance to me. But anybody that accuses Bob Baxter of unfair play is lookin' for trouble. I've fought a few battles in my time, and was never yet given out on a foul. If you've got any respect for your skin, go away, an' do your errand, or see your girl, or whatever you're goin' to do. Don't be givin' check to a better man than yourself. Get away while you're safe."
"I shall get away when I choose," said Leslie, "and before I go I say again that for forty men to ill treat one is cowardly."
"Mind what you're saying. Don't call me a coward," exclaimed Bob, jumping to his feet, "or you'll be sorry. If you was off that bloomin' horse, I'd make you swallow your words, an' if you give me any more cheek, I'll bally well pull you off."
"I'll not trouble you," said Leslie, jumping off Bunyip as he spoke. "I'll not only get off the horse, but I'll say what I think, if you are Bob Baxter from the Yahoo."
"By Ghost!" said Bob, glaring at Leslie vindictively, "I've a good mind to plug him. I s'pose there's no law agin killin' vermin on this estate?"
By this time, most of the men in camp, scenting trouble, had gathered round to listen. Leslie, however, faced the crowd without a tremor. At this moment Turon Jimmy touched Leslie on the arm.
"You'll excuse me, Mr. Raymond," he said. "Of course, it ain't my business, but if you take my advice, you'll clear out. Bob Baxter's no chicken, an' when he's roused he gets nasty. Don't rile him, or there'll be trouble. You'd have no chance against him."
"I suppose not," said Leslie, bitterly, "seeing that h would have the whole camp to assist him."
"No blinded fear," said Turon Jimmy, "nothing like that. If it came to a fight, you or any man would get fair play. If there's a fight in a shearers' camp, it's got to be a fair one."
"Did you call your morning's work fair?"
"That was different. It was a chivvy. It started in horse play, although it got pretty rough, but a stand-up fight's a different thing. The crowd would see fair play, but take my advice—"
"With fair play," said Leslie, "man to man, I am not afraid of Mr. Bob Baxter."
"Don't let it go any further, Mr. Leslie," said Walla Walla Will, intervening. "Bob Baxter's a pug. He's fought for money. It wouldn't be a fair go. He knows he could eat you."
Leslie, burning With indignation at the memory of the fugitive, hitched Bunyip to a sapling and threw his coat on the ground.
"By cripes!" said Baxter, "he's lookin' for stouche. Let him have fair play, and get a hurdle ready to send him home on."
"I am sorry for you, Mr. Raymond," said Turon Jimmy, "I'll go bail there'll be no interference, and' I'll pick you up, but for God's sake, sing out when you've had enough, or he'll kill you."
Leslie had his own opinion about that. It will be remembered that he held the prize as the best all-round athlete in the combined schools and, amongst his accomplishments as an athlete, boxing was not the least. As Bob Baxter doffed his shirt, Leslie could not but admire the splendid physique of the man. He was not quite so tall as Leslie, but he was probably two stone heavier, with an arm like the trunk of a young tree. As he stood waiting, with his arms folded across his great hairy chest, and a wicked smile on his thick lips, he appeared the embodiment of fierce brute strength.
Leslie, like most young men of his class, had a thin, lean face which, in comparison with that of his opponent, gave him an appearance of delicacy. When, however, be rolled up the sleeves of his silk shirt, it could be seen, that without an ounce of superfluous flesh, the muscles of his arm were as tough and flexible as the thong of a stockwhip. When Bob Baxter saw Leslie's biceps he began to realise the fact that Leslie was not quite so soft as he had anticipated.
"Now boys," said Turon Jimmy, "you all know Bob Baxter, and what he has done, and you are aware that Mr. Raymond is taking on a very foolish job. He'll probably be satisfied in the first round. Whether we have one round or twenty, it's got to be a fair go, and no hustling. I've given my word, and we're all agreed. Is that so?"
"Hear! Hear!" repeated the crowd.
"Very well, then," said Turon Jimmy, "form a ring. Front row sit down, so that the back row can see without pushing, and leave plenty of room. I nominate Walla Walla Will as referee an' timekeeper, and if there's no amendment I think we're ready."
The men faced each other in the ring for a few seconds while Turon Jimmy ran to his tent for a couple of towels. Bob Baxter, with a savage grin upon his face—which revealed an ugly gap where he had lost a tooth in a former fight—chafed at the delay, but Leslie waited as calmly as if he were but a spectator. The delay, however, gave him time to mentally measure his opponent, and perhaps it was as well so, for it prepared him to a certain extent for Bob's tactics.
Bob believed in forcing matters from the start, and had won many a fight by the suddenness of his attack. The word "Time" was no sooner uttered by Walla Walla, Will than he made a fierce rush at Leslie, who would have fared badly had he been taken off his guard. By a clever piece of side-stepping he got out of the way, and Bob's blows were wasted on the empty air. Twice Bob repeated the rush, but the only result was a sounding blow upon his own bare ribs at the second attempt, which left a bright red patch behind it, and caused the Yahoo champion to pause and spar a few moments for wind.
The crowd by this time began to get interested. They knew something about boxing, and admired Leslie's cool style and the skill and nimbleness with which he avoided the rushes of his powerful opponent. They began to see that Leslie was not quite a novice at the game.
Watching his opportunity Bob rushed again, but stopped for a fractional part of a second as Leslie stepped aside.
He instantly repeated the attack, and aimed a vicious blow at Leslie's face. Leslie parried quickly, but not quite quickly enough, and a flow of crimson from his nose gave first blood to Baxter.
Baxter's triumph was short, for Leslie immediately adopted the tactics of his enemy, and planting his right on the old red spot on Baxter's ribs, he landed a stinging blow with his left on Bob's right eye. Bob stumbled and fell, and Turon Jimmy claimed first knock down blow for Mr. Raymond.
The crowd were inclined to argue this point, as some said that Bob stumbled. Walla Walla Will cut the argument short by calling "Time," and the contest was resumed.
Again Bob tried to force the fighting, but with very little success. He was Leslie's superior in strength, but Leslie was as nimble as a cat. Several rounds were fought in this fashion. The Yahoo champion wasted much strength and energy, and although Leslie acted mainly on the defensive he succeeded in administering no little punishment upon his brawny antagonist. His blows, however, for all their apparent effect, might have fallen upon the trunk of an ironbark tree.
About the eighth round Bob's strength appeared to be failing him. His rushes were less frequent and not so fierce, and he seemed to be glad to act on the defensive. But there was a dangerous glitter in his eye, and those who knew him best said that he was only biding his time, and waiting for an opening. And they prophesied that if once he got the opening it would be all over with Leslie.
At length the opening came. Bob had been backing and retreating for some time, and Leslie had been following him, occasionally getting his right on Baxter's ribs or his left in close proximity to his eye; but growing tired of what seemed to be degenerating into a walking match, Leslie dropped his arms for a moment. This was the chance for which Bob had been waiting. Instantly his strength and vitality seemed to return. He leapt forward and got home a vicious blow upon Leslie's right temple which felled our hero as a blow from a sledge hammer would fell an ox.
As Leslie lay, still and apparently lifeless, a mighty cheer arose from the crowd. It had been a good fight, but the shearers to a man were glad their champion had won.
In accordance with orthodox custom Walla Walla Will began to count the seconds. "One," "Two," "Three," "Four," "Five," "Six," Leslie moved uneasily, "Seven," "Eight." Leslie sat up.
"Give him best, sir," said Turon Jimmy, "you are done. He knows too much for you. He's as fresh as when he started. He was only foxing."
"Nine," said Walla Walla Will.
Leslie rose to his feet, and Baxter instantly rushed again, but once more Leslie had sufficient agility to avoid the blow.
"Time," said Walla Walla Will, and the men were led to their corners.
"It's all over," said one of the bystanders, "the young fellow hasn't a show, but, by Gosh! he's game."
When, at the expiration of a minute, "Time" was called again, and the men faced each other, it seemed as though Bob Baxter had only to walk in and finish it. He evidently thought so too, for he advanced carelessly, with a smile on his swollen face, and aimed a savage blow at Leslie's jaw.
But the minute's spell had cleared Leslie's brain, and had to some extent restored his activity. As Baxter aimed his blow, Leslie ducked quickly under the arm of the champion, and then, turning like a flash, he dealt Baxter another deadly blow on the ribs, and followed it up by planting his right fist with terrific force on the side of his opponent's neck. The blow, added to the impetus of Baxter's rush, sent the Yahoo champion crashing to the ground upon his face, and another mad yell from the crowd rent the air.
Again did the referee count the seconds until he counted nine. At the word Baxter staggered slowly to his feet. He was dazed, and scarcely offered to defend himself.
"Now's your time, sir," said Turon Jimmy, "if you want to finish him. If you give him time to come round he'll beat you yet."
"I will not take advantage of him," said Leslie. "Let him get his wind."
"By Jingo!" said Jimmy, "that's generous, but it ain't tactics. He wouldn't let you get your wind."
But Leslie kept on the defensive for awhile, purposely giving his adversary time to recover. To his mind there was something revolting in the idea of striking a defenceless man. So he waited for Bob to renew the attack. He had not long to wait. The champion, game as ever, but with strength and vitality greatly impaired, rushed once more at Leslie. This time, Leslie's superior length of reach stood him in good stead. He met the rush, but instead of dodging it, he stopped it with a blow fair on Baxter's nose. Half stunned by the blow, the champion struck wildly about him, but without effect, while Leslie, cool as ever, planted blow after blow, now on the ribs of his adversary, now on his face, and again wherever an opening presented itself. Finally, as Bob Baxter dropped his guard, Leslie got right home on the point of Baxter's chin. The Yahoo champion fell in a huddled heap in the centre of the ring. Again Walla Walla Will counted the seconds. When he had counted ten Bob Baxter lay on the ground, a beaten man.
"Counted out," said Will, "and Mr. Raymond wins."
The announcement was received without enthusiasm. Neither was there any demonstration of hostility. The win was an unpopular one, but the crowd accepted the result in sullen silence. When Baxter's scattered senses slowly returned he could scarcely believe that he had been beaten. As he sat up and looked around him he presented a sorry spectacle. His eyes were rapidly closing, a stream of blood from a wound in his forehead trickled slowly down his face, while one side of his mouth was swollen to such an extent that it gave the face the expression of that of a snarling bull pup.
"Is it all over?" he exclaimed.
"Yes," said Will, "it was a game fight, and you was fairly counted out."
"Ghost!" said Baxter, as he tried to patch up a piece of loose skin that hung from his nose, "Ghost o' Misery! I've fought many a man, and I've bumped agin some tough 'uns, but this is the first time I tried to fight a bally thrashin' machine. Gimme my shirt."
Leslie Raymond went to Eugowra and wired to Sydney for men, and to Forbes for police protection for them. On his return journey he thought that, as the day was warm and the roads were dusty, a glass of Mrs. Sterling's cool milk would do him no harm. He threw his bridle over the gate post and was about to enter the gate when, from the open window of the cottage, there poured forth such a flood of melody that, for a moment, his heart seemed to stop its beating. He thought Ruby was in Sydney, yet it was her voice. She was not singing "The Lass o' Gowrie," she was practising her scales. Now commencing with a soft, low note and ascending slowly note by note until she reached two octaves, descending again in the same measured manner. Again, running quickly up and down the scales, jumping from a low note to a high one, or pausing on one note with a delightful trill. Leslie compared the sounds with those produced by a flute, or an old violin, but neither were quite satisfactory. He decided that the ingenuity of man had never yet produced an instrument so sweet, or capable of such varied intonations as a perfect human voice.
A long-drawn note, vibrated upon the evening air, so soft at first that Leslie was scarcely sure he heard it, then gradually louder and stronger, until it seemed to fill with melody the cottage, the garden, and the surrounding paddocks; and then slowly melting away. He did not know precisely when it ceased, but was still listening to catch its expiring tone when he saw her standing in the doorway, shading her eyes with her hand from the light of the setting sun.
"Good evening, Mr. Raymond."
"Good evening, Miss Sterling."
Opening the gate, he walked in. He gripped her small fingers convulsively, and for a moment held her hand in both of his own. He only relinquished it when he saw a rosy blush suffuse her cheeks.
She shyly invited him in, and took a seat in the little sitting-room.
"When did you come home, Miss Sterling? I had no idea. I thought you were in Sydney."
"I came home three days ago. Herr Batonstein said I must have a holiday soon, but I anticipated the time by a few weeks."
"And how are you progressing with your music?"
"Herr Batonstein says he is satisfied, but he is very hard to please."
"What! Is he unkind to you?"
"Herr Batonstein unkind!" and she laughed merrily. "Why, he couldn't be unkind. He is the dearest soul and the most indulgent man in the world! He takes me to see all the sights. No expense is too great, and no trouble is considered by Herr Batonstein, if he can show me something fresh, or make me happy. But when he closes the door of the music-room, he is not the same man. He is then Herr Batonstein, the musician, and all frivolity is left outside. He insists on absolute correctness. Sometimes he will make me sing a scale twenty times, until I please him. In the music-room I have to submit, but when I come out I have my revenge."
"What form does your revenge take?"
"Sometimes I pinch him. Sometimes I rumple his hair, although that is labour thrown away, because his hair is always rumpled."
"But what does Mrs. Batonstein say to this?" said Leslie. "Oh, Mrs. Batonstein helps me. She holds him down while I tickle him."
"I thought German ladies were very staid and precise?"
At this Ruby laughed again. The idea seemed to amuse her.
"Wait," said she, "until I describe Mrs. Batonstein. We will imagine that this is their sitting-room. On one side is a piano, on the other side an organ. There is a music stand in the corner, and behind it two violin cases; he plays the violin as well as the piano. In every corner of the room are piles of music. There is music on the chiffonier, music on the piano and organ, music on the couch, and under the couch. Music everywhere. The daily lessons are finished, and Herr Batonstein has been unusually severe. We reach the sitting-room as Mrs. Batonstein is removing the cosy from the teapot. She asks how the lessons have progressed. I tell her that he has been a tyrant. So she says that he must be punished. He protests that it is all necessary, and for my good. The Herr begins to dodge around the tables and chairs, and tries to bolt, but Mrs. Batonstein guards the door. Then, perhaps, I catch him by the coat tails, and he sinks on his knees, and begs for mercy. At that moment, Mrs. Batonstein pinions him from behind, and the poor Professor, helpless in her powerful grasp, lies panting on the floor. Then Mrs. Batonstein will shout, 'Now! At him! Sure I've got him gripped that way that he can't move a hand, barrin' his feet, and they're under the sofy. Murdher him wid the sofy cushion, but don't break his shpectacles. At him agin! Another one!! Poke your finger down his back, and tickle the life out of him, and don't let him shpake a wurrud until he's promised that if ever he gets cross agin he'll he as sweet timpered as an angel.' That is the exact imitation of Mrs. Batonstein. She has, to copy her own words, 'As shweet a brogue as ever called a pig out of a bog.'"
"She is Irish then?" said Leslie.
"Yes," she replied, "she is Irish—very. But she is a good soul, and she makes Herr Batonstein do everything she wants him to do, except when he is in the music room. She must not interfere there."
"Then you have been moderately happy in Sydney?"
"Happy? I have been as happy as the day is long. Never idle. Always doing something, or going somewhere. Studying hard five days a week, and taking a holiday on Saturday. Saturday is our picnic day. Then Mrs. Batonstein is in her element. She says she is never so much at home as when she is out picnicking."
"Then why," inquired Leslie, "did you anticipate your holiday?"
"I can scarcely tell," she replied, thoughtfully. She sat for some moments, beating her foot against the table leg, and then, looking at him with a smile, she added, "I suppose we must call it instinct. It was arranged that I should come home for Christmas, but suddenly one day last week, I felt that I must cone home at once. I don't know why. There was no reason, but here I am, you see. I had to promise not to sing any songs, and to practise my scales for an hour every day. I have just finished now."
They talked on a variety of subjects, and Leslie could not help noticing the improvement that a few short mouths had effected in Ruby. She was still a child of Nature, but there was about her an air of refined womanhood, and calm self possession he had not seen in her before. She seemed taller and more stately. Her face was slightly paler, but that only served to bring into more brilliant contrast the brightness of her eyes, the roses that still bloomed on her cheek, and the masses of wavy black hair that crowned her head, and clustered round her forehead. The Ruby Sterling he had known was a wild, untutored girl. This was the same Ruby Sterling, but instead of a wild bush-bud she was developing into a cultivated flower.
"And yet," he soliloquised, as be rode thoughtfully homeward, "she is only a selector's daughter." But her bright black eyes had sent their shafts into his very soul. His firm resolutions of the past few months were blown away, as the thistle seed is blown before the wind.
* * *
In due course, a message arrived from Sydney, stating that fifty men had been engaged, and would be dispatched by the evening train. The next day's mail brought a letter which said that of the fifty men only thirty-two had presented themselves at the appointed time. A later telegram from Bathurst stated that on the arrival of the train at that place, the men were interviewed during the wait for refreshments, with the result that nine men had taken their swags and left the train. The remaining twenty-three had started in the train for Molong. From Molong came a wire to say that the train had been met at that place by a crowd of shearers, headed by Mr. Tom Smart; that the latter had addressed the men, and induced some of them to join the Union. The balance had left in the coach for Eugowra with four mounted troopers to see them clear of the town.
There were two troopers stationed at Eugowra, but at present the police from Forbes had not arrived. When the coach, with thirteen survivors, arrived at Eugowra, James Raymond and Leslie were there to meet it. Leslie had ridden in on Bunyip, and his father had driven the brake, so that he could drive the men out again to the station.
There was a crowd waiting to meet the coach, and its arrival was greeted with cheers, hoots, and groans. The men alighted amid cries of "Scab, Scab," from the crowd outside the hotel, for half the men from the shearers' camp were there. On alighting, they were immediately surrounded and James Raymond tried in vain to get near them. Without any actual violence being used, the men were hustled by the excited crowd, and pushed this way and that, until they were hopelessly separated. Each was surrounded by half a dozen or more excited men, who alternately threatened them, and implored them to throw in their lot with the Union.
"Come out to the camp, an' be men, you wall-eyed scrapings of the Rocks' Push," said one excited individual.
"Let go my swag," said the man addressed, trying to extricate himself from the mob.
"Where are you shoving?" said a burly fellow with red whiskers, as James Raymond tried to reach the man's swag. "Do you want to commit a breach o' the peace? You keep your hands off me."
"Stand back there! Stand back!" The voice was a loud one, and spoke with a tone of authority. The crowd parted and admitted the burly form of Sergeant Blackwood who, at the head of six troopers, had just arrived from Forbes.
"Stand back! Stand back!"
Sergeant Blackwood was closely followed by his men, and they made a lane through the crowd.
"Now," said the Sergeant, "all those who want to go to the brake, this way."
After much hustling and pushing, seven men were got into the brake. The rest had been "persuaded."
With this number, James Raymond, in a very bad humour, drove off. He had four good horses in the brake, and as he was an accomplished whip, he sent them along at a good pace, and they soon left the howling mob behind.
When they arrived at the station the pickets there wanted to interview the men, but the sight of the troopers who had accompanied the party soon cleared the way, and they all landed safely at Bindawalla.
The man from Yass had, by this time, recovered and so, besides the regular station hands, James Raymond had eight men to start shearing. In the course of a week this number was increased by four more men. These were the survivors of eighteen who had been placed in the train in Sydney.
Several attempts were made by the strikers to interview the men on the station, but these were frustrated by the vigilance of the two troopers who remained on the spot to keep order. The discontent of the strikers was increased about this time by the non-arrival of a supply of provisions which hart been promised by Tom Smart when James Raymond stopped the issue of rations; and the firm, though meek, refusal of Mr. Pogson to trade upon any other than a strictly cash basis.
The shearing went steadily forward, each helping in some form or other. Even Nell and the cook and the housemaid were doing what they Could. Still, the process was slow, and by the time the shearing should have beep finished, but a small proportion of the sheep had been shorn.
The state of things at Bindawalla was but a sample of that all over New South Wales, and Mr. Tom Smart and his co-workers, notwithstanding liberal assistance from kindred organisations, had considerable difficulty in supplying the various camps with sufficient food to keep the men from hunger. But he was always full of encouragement and sanguine prophesies of success. He told them that large contributions were coming from Queensland and Victoria, that the teamsters had pledged themselves not to carry wool shorn by non-union labour, and that all scabs had been marked for future identification.
The employers were wavering, and a complete victory was only a matter of a few days or weeks. One night about five weeks after shearing had commenced, when it ought to have been finished, and but one-eighth of the sheep had been shorn, James Raymond paced the verandah with impatient strides. Leslie smoked his pipe in gloomy silence, while Nell was in the kitchen, helping the cook to set the sponge for the morrow's baking. The stars were twinkling overhead in a vault of blue, the perfume of roses filled the air, while away in the men's hut old Andy's quavering voice could he heard singing "The Soldier's Tear."
The air was hot and oppressive, and the croaking of the frogs in the lagoon, added to Andy's dismal falsetto, seemed to fill the atmosphere with vague forebodings. James Raymond was thinking of the retarded shearing, and breathing anathema against agitators in general and Tom Smart in particular.
Leslie, if the truth be told, was thinking of a pair of sparkling eyes and a row of pearly teeth.
Suddenly the attention of both father and son was arrested by the sound of horse's hoofs, in the direction of the shearers' camp.
"Who can that be, galloping in the dark among the fallen timber?" said Raymond.
"Probably one of the shearers," said Leslie. "He must be drunk to travel at that speed in the dark."
Nearer and nearer came the sound of the galloping horse.
"Whoever he is," said Leslie, "he is coming here. I heard him jump the brush fence. He must be drunk. I would not attempt that myself in the stark. Hear him now! Clattering and crashing among the dead timber in the lower paddock. Hark! He is down! No. I hear hint coming now, faster than before."
"Yes," said Raymond, "but the horse now seems to be galloping wildly, without a rider."
They both ran across the lawn, and along the carriage drive to the garden gate. As they reached the gate the horse galloped across the paddock on the other side. They only caught one glimpse of the animal as it passed them like a phantom, but that glance was enough for Leslie.
He shouted: "Good trod! Father, it is old Gaffer, Miss Sterling's' horse, and the saddle is empty."
Opening the gate, he ran across the paddock in the direction of the dead timber.
"Here! Wait and take a lantern," shouted his father, but Leslie was gone.
"I suppose, I had bettor take a lantern," he muttered. "What the devil does the girl mean by galloping about here in the dark like a mad woman. But I suppose we must see to her if she is hurt. Here, Nell! Got me a lantern, quick."
The track from the house led in a winding direction towards the right, through a gate in the fence, and then, turning to the left, it followed the gully to the shearers' camp. A straight line from the house would not follow this track, but would lead through a corner of the paddock, where there was a quantity of dead timber, across the brush fence and the stony ridge on the other side, and so, by a steep declivity, into the gully.
The new moon had disappeared, and the only light Leslie had to guide him was the light of the stars. He could distinguish the fallen limbs and branches, gleaming white in the semi-darkness like the bleaching bones of an extinct race of mammoths. While running between the two heaps of dead timber, he suddenly tripped and fell. He fell on the grass, and escaped without injury, and on turning to examine the cause of his tripping, he discovered a piece of fencing wire stretched tightly between two trees about a foot from the ground. Tie rightly conjectured that the wire which had tripped him had been the cause of old Gaffer's fall.
He searched along the wire, and about twenty yards from where he fell he found the senseless form of Ruby. She wore no habit, but was dressed in white, while her hair lay in a loose mass about her head and shoulders. She lay so still that at first he thought she must be dead, but on stooping to raise her he was gratified to find that she was breathing. He took her in his arms as if she were an infant, and carried her as fast as he could towards the house. He met his father half way, and James Raymond, grumbling, carried the lantern, and led the way to the house. Leslie carried her straight into the dining-room, where Nell was waiting, and they laid her on the couch. Nell applied such remedies as she had at hand, and Ruby soon showed signs of returning consciousness.
At first she stirred restlessly, then she opened her eyes, and stared wildly about her. She seemed to recognise Nell, for she closed her eyes again, and submitted patiently while Nell chafed her hands and wrists, and bathed her forehead.
Suddenly she started to a sitting posture, and cried wildly:
"To the woolshed! To the woolshed! Why do you stand here? You will he too late! To the woolshed, it is on fire!"
James Raymond stared incredulously.
"Stuff and nonsense," he said. "The girl's mind is wandering. Why, it is not two hours since we left the woolshed."
"Oh," moaned Ruby, clasping her hands before her face and rocking herself to and fro, "why do you stay here? I see flames. Why do you stay?"
James Raymond turned to look for Leslie, but he had gone. A moment later he heard his voice outside. He was calling to the men in the hut, bidding them bring buckets and to follow him to the woolshed. His father intercepted him as he was leading Bunyip from the stable.
"Don't you think you are foolish," he said, "to be taking notice of what the girl says? She is raving."
"Father," answered Leslie, "there is more in that girl's raving than you or I can fathom. She may not be able to explain, but she knows. If she says there is trouble it is not far away. Send the men after me quickly and tell them to be careful of the wires."
"What wires?" said his father. But Leslie was away.
Raymond walked round the house and peered in the direction of the woolshed but could see nothing, so he re-entered the dining-room, and found that Ruby had so far recovered as to be able to talk coherently.
In answer to Raymond's questions she said she was sitting on the verandah at home, when she suddenly felt faint. Upon trying, as she always did when she felt that sensation, to concentrate her thoughts, she thought of the new woolshed which she had never seen. Then of fire, with great red tongues, leaping and roaring. Without waiting to put on her habit or her hat she had saddled Gaffer and ridden to tell them, after telling her father to make haste to the woolshed. She had ridden straight as the crow flies. She had forded the creek, crossed the ironstone ridge at a gallop, and leapt the scrub fence. She remembered crashing through the fallen timber, but she did not mind, for Gaffer was as sure-footed as a cat, but suddenly he seemed to double up, and he fell. She remembered no more.
Raymond thought of Leslie's word, "Bid them beware of the wire."
Leslie proceeded cautiously across the paddock, and when near the dead timber he dismounted, and led his horse. As he expected, he found the fencing wire stretched right across the angle of the paddock. Untwisting one end from the tree, he left it lying loosely upon the ground. He then mounted, and rode quickly to the nearest ridge commanding a view of the woolshed. He could distinguish nothing but the roof of the huge building looming against the sky, but the sheep in the pens adjoining the shed were bleating, as though they had been recently, disturbed, and he fancied that he heard the sound of hoofs retreating over the ridge at the far side of the creek.
He listened for a moment, still keeping his eyes fastened on the woolshed, and he heard the sound of murmuring voices behind him. The men from the house were following, as he had directed them to do. He was on the point of calling to them to go back, when the roof of the woolshed seemed to grow blurred and indistinct. The clear-cut line of the ridge of the building grew crooked and distorted, and seemed to rise up in the centre. Then he realised that it was not the ridge, but a dense bank of smoke that was rising from the shed, and obscuring the stars beyond.
He coo-ed loudly to those behind, and galloped quickly down the hill and across the flat. When about half way he saw a red tongue of flame dart from the corner of the building, and run dancing along the eave. This was quickly followed by others, and before he reached the shed the flames had burst forth in half a dozen places. He tried to enter the building, but at each attempt was driven back by dense volumes of smoke.
Upon turning one corner of the shed, he saw a man tearing away the hurdles from the sheep pens, and on approaching cautiously he discovered that it was George Sterling.
"Where are the men and the buckets?" said Sterling. "Didn't my gal warn You?"
"They are coming now," said Leslie.
"Well," said Sterling, "the first thing to do is to let the sheep out of the pens, and let them clear before they get roasted. The men what did this job ain't got no more conscience nor a Barcoo buckjumper. If I had a bolt on one end of a rope, an' the other was round their necks, I'd lend a hand to pull 'em to the top o' the highest gum tree on the flat, an' I'd leave 'em there to pizen the crows. But this is no time for talkin', there's work to do."
And he went along the side of the shed from pen to pen, pulling down the hurdles and releasing the sheep as he went.
When the men arrived they, were formed into a line to the creek, and buckets of water were passed from hand to hand: But from the first their task was hopeless. The shed was ablaze in half a dozen places. The timber of which it was built was principally red gum and Lachlan pine, and being as dry as tinder, seemed to welcome the flames. In a very few minutes the men had to retire on account of the heat, and could not get near enough to throw the water on the fire. From end to end and from plate to ridge, the shed was a burning mass. Men ran hither and thither shouting hoarsely to each other, and cursing their own inability to fight the raging element.
For a mile around, the landscape was illuminated. Showers of sparks and pieces of burning wood were falling a hundred yards from the building, for the roof, with a sudden crash, had given way. The imprisoned flames, exulting in their release, leapt up with malignant joy towards the smoke-laden sky.
"Is there anything we can do, father?" said Leslie, who, with dishevelled hair and smoke-begrimed face, approached his father.
"I am afraid we can do nothing to save the building or the machinery," said Raymond. "It is doomed, but I was thinking we might save some of the wool. Don't let anybody get into danger, but save what you can. There is not a penny of insurance on any of it. Do your best, lads. We can none of us do more."
"The wool is all in this end," said Leslie. "We might make an opening. Here, boys! Five pounds to the man who will chop away that corner post."
"It 'ud be dear at fifty pounds," said the man from Yass. "The man that tried it 'ud get roasted."
"Could you save some of the wool if the corner post was down?" said old Andy, who had been listening to the conversation.
"I think so," said Leslie.
"Then it's got to come," said Andy. "Gimme the axe."
"No," said Leslie, "you stand back. It shall never be said that Leslie Raymond allowed an old man to do what he was afraid to try to do himself," and seizing the axe, he ran forward in the direction of the burning shed.
The fire was less fierce at this corner than anywhere else, but still the heat was intense. The post was a thick log of red gum and Leslie calculated that if it were chopped through, the end of the shed would fall, and they might be able to save some of the bales of wool that were stacked within.'
In spite of the smoke which was choking him, and the heat which blistered his face and singed his hair, Leslie laboured at the post until human nature could stand it no longer, and he had to reel, half roasted, away.
As he reached the spot where the rest were standing, the axe was snatched from his hand, and George Sterling ran towards the burning post. He chopped away with desperate energy for a few moments, until his shirt was ablaze, and he was forced to retreat before the victorious flames.
"Darn my rags!" he said, as he staggered back to the group, "it's blasted hot. If it's as hot as that in Hell, I don't wonder that the rich man wanted Lazarus to bring him some water. About six more chops would ha brought the blinded thing down. But it's worth a man's life to do it now.
"Well, there's a man here whose life ain't worth much, an' he's agoin' to do it," exclaimed Andy, seizing the axe.
"Come back, Andy," said James Raymond. "I will not allow it. Let it go."
"As a rule I always obeys orders, sir," said Andy, as he pulled his hat down over his scanty grey locks, "but for this once, beggin' your pardon, sir, an' meanin' no disrespect, I'll see you damned first. Your father saved my life once. You know how. I've had fifty years of it since an' it belongs to the family. I ain't afeered, an' there ain't a man within forty miles, age, weight an' size, as durst say I am. But that there post has got to come, or Andy's got to go."
His shirt sleeves were rolled up above his elbows, and through the open breast could be seen the powerful chest thickly covered with grey hairs. Without deigning to cover up his naked arms or chest, old Andy strode forward to the burning building, and soon the post was trembling beneath, his powerful blows. The flap of his hat impeded his sight, and he threw it off. Soon his long grey hair was alight, but still the axe rose and fell. In vain they shouted to him to desist. He took no heed, but smote the post the harder. Once he staggered back a yard, but rushing it again, he struck the post With blind fury. It swayed and tottered, and as he saw it fall, old Andy gave a wild exultant cheer. The next moment the end of the building fell outward with a crash, and old Andy was buried beneath the burning mass.
He had lived beyond the allotted span, and had never known what sickness was. He had injured no man, feared no foe, and was hearty, cheerful, and robust to the last. He had done his duty, faithfully and well. His last earthly sensation was one or victory and triumph, and in the moment of his exultation he had died. Many a more exalted man might envy old Andy his blameless, robust life, and his gloriously happy death.
They saved about sixty bales of wool and that was all. When the sun rose it shone upon a heap of smouldering ruins and the finest woolshed in the country was a mound' of ashes.
The overseer approached James Raymond and wrung his hands in despair. "Oh, Mr. Raymond," he said, "what shall we do now, sir?"
"Do, man," said Raymond, sternly, "why, build it up again. What did you think we should do?"
He turned to the men who were standing in a group, and thanked them for the efforts they had made.
"It is no use staying here," he said. "Go to breakfast and then get some rest. Nothing can be done to-day. Tomorrow we will see what we can do." Turning to the storekeeper, he added, "Let the men have anything they want today. Anything you have in the store, and don't charge it to them."
Looking round, he saw George Sterling turning away in the direction of Old Joe's Flat. Hurrying after him he took ham by the arm, while Sterling's face, blackened and stained with smoke and sweat, bore a look of astonishment.
"Come, Sterling," said Raymond, "come with me to Bindawalla. You can wash off the stains of the night's work up there. I want you to come and breakfast with me."
And a moment later, to his intense bewilderment, Sterling found himself walking towards the homestead, arm in arm with the Master of Bindawalla.
After breakfast George Sterling and Ruby went home together.
James Raymond had a long discussion with Leslie during the morning. Notwithstanding his pluck, he could not conceal from himself the fact that the situation was a serious one. The old shed was still standing, but it was dismantled, and consisted of the bare Walls only. A large amount of labour would be required to put it in order, and that labour he could not get.
The troopers had been away at Eugowra at the time of the fire, and had returned in time to see the smoking ruins of the woolshed. The charred remains of Andy were lying in the men's hut, awaiting the arrival of the Coroner and jury. His death had cast a gloom over Bindawalla, for he had been a part of the place, and nobody could imagine Bindawalla without Andy.
James Raymond was pacing his office impatiently, and Leslie was looking out of the window. While watching, he saw, approaching the house, no lesser person than Turon Jimmy. He was alone, and did not seem to be in a hurry. He paused at the gate for some seconds as if uncertain whether to enter or not. He walked along the fence and peered over into the garden. Then he walked slowly back to the gate, and leant on the post. He stood there some time, brushing the flies from his face with a small branch of eucalyptus, and peering among the shrubs in the garden. Leslie watched him for some time, wondering what new mischief could be brewing, until he saw Jimmy lift the latch of the gate and walk in. He then called his father's attention to Jimmy's movements.
They saw him come slowly along the path until he reached the fountain. Here he made another long pause, and at one time he seemed on the point of retiring. He pulled off his hat and looked carefully at the inside and the outside. He seemed to be communing with it, and suddenly the conclusion seemed to have been discovered. He held it up by the rim, and spat into its crown an enormous quid of tobacco, and then, planting the hat firmly on his head, he squared his broad shoulders, stroked his red beard, spat in a determined manner into the basin of the fountain and, striding straight up to the door of the house, he rapped loudly with his knuckles.
Leslie went to the door, and demanded his business.
"I want to see Mr. Raymond," said Jimmy.
Leslie was about to reply, but was forestalled by his father, who called to him and ordered him to "Bring the vagabond in," that he might hear what he had to say.
On being ushered into James Raymond's presence, Turon Jimmy took his hat off, and picking up the huge hunk of tobacco that fell from its crown, he wiped it carefully upon the seat of his pants, and stowed it away in his pocket. He carefully examined the inside of his hat, straightened it out, and examined the outside; then, holding it by the rim and turning it slowly round and round, he made a minute examination of the tattered ribbon that surrounded its edge.
James Raymond, who had flung himself into his office chair, watched the man in silence, while Leslie stood with his hands behind him, leaning against the chimney shelf.
At length, finding the silence irksome, Jimmy, still inspecting the ribbon on his hat, cleared his throat, and said:
"Good morning, Mr. Raymond."
"What is your business?" said Raymond, shortly, not deigning to reply to Jimmy's salutation. "Out with it!"
"Well, sir," said Jimmy, "I've been appointed a depredation."
"What do you mean?" said Raymond. "Have there not been depredations enough? Perhaps you mean that you have come to give yourself up to justice. Did you set fire to the woolshed?"
"Struth!" said Jimmy, throwing his hat violently on the floor. "If I didn't say so! I said this mornin', I says, the boss is bound to think it's one of us chaps as did it."
"What else could anybody think?" said Raymond. "Nobody but one of you strikers would do it!"
"Well, Mr. Raymond," responded Jimmy, looking Raymond straight in the face, "if it was the last word I had to say on my dyin' bed, I'd say that it was the biggest bloomin' error that you ever made in your life to think so. Shearers ain't saints, Mr. Raymond, but they ain't devils, nor snakes, and whoever set fire to your woolshed is both. But, as I was sayin', I've been appointed a depredation. We drew sticks for it. I pulled the longest stick, and here I am."
He picked up his hat, and resumed his inspection of the ribbon.
"You mean, I presume," said Leslie, "that you are a deputation."
"You can call it that if you like," said Jimmy, doggedly. "Anyhow, here I am."
"And being here," said Raymond, "perhaps yon will tell us what you want."
"We don't want nothin', Mr. Raymond," replied Jimmy. "I wasn't sent to ask you for anything. But this mornin', when we heard that the woolshed was burnt, we had a meetin' at the camp, and we knowed that we'd prob'ly get blamed for puttin' of a fire-stick in it. There was two men missin' as was in the camp yesterday, but nobody knowed where they come from, or who they was, or where they are gone. We 'don't know 'em, and we don't want to know 'em. Blast 'em! I hope they'll break their blinded necks before they've gone ten mile, but we don't know 'em, Mr. Raymond, and we don't want to know 'em. Shearers ain't saints, but they ain't informers. But we felt, sir, that as men we had been disgraced, and every man in the camp solemnly and severally cursed the scalliwags that had disgraced us. So we one and all decided that somethin' must be done to show you that we ain't got no sympathy with arsonists, and scum that fight with fire-sticks, and hit below the belt, and we appointed a depitation—if that's what you call it—to see you, and tell you that there's seventy-five men down at the camp awaitin' your orders, and Mr. Tom Smart may go to Hell. That's my message, Mr. Raymond," and he pulled a hunk of tobacco from his pocket and stuck it in his cheek.
"But I do not understand," said Raymond, "what about terms?"
"I wasn't told to say anythin' about terms," said Jimmy, "It seems to me, sir, that the men in the camp knowed no more about settin' fire to the woolshed than they did about the men that lived when Adam was a boy, but they feel that somehow they'll get the blame, and they want to do somethin' to show they're sorry. Runnin' away wouldn't do it; barneyin' about terms wouldn't do it; passin' round the hat was no good, and so they thought that the only thing that would fit the case was for me to come and tell you that there's seventy-five men awaitin' your orders, all ready and willin', and that Tom Smart can go to Hell."
Jimmy planted his hat firmly on his head, and rose to his feet, as though to signify that his mission was at an end.
"If they are willing to work—"
"I tell, you they are willin', sir. Shearers ain't saints, but they ain't devils."
"If they are willing to work," continued Raymond, "they can come. I am inclined to believe you about the fire. Tell all those who are willing to work to come up to the station to-morrow morning."
"Right oh!" said Jimmy, "there'll be seventy-five of us here soon after sunrise, all ready and willin'."
Later in the day Mr. Pogson arrived in his capacity of coroner, to hold an inquest. After taking all the available evidence, he recorded the verdict that the fire was the wilful act of some person or persons unknown.
With regard to the death of Andy, seeing that Andy was not on the building when the fire occurred, a verdict was returned of accidental death. Mr. Pogson signed an order for burial, and then, in his capacity of undertaker, he proceeded to measure Andy for his coffin, which he promised to send out the next morning. These details being attended to, Mr. Pogson interviewed Mr. Raymond in his office, and offered, in his capacity of financier, to provide Mr. Raymond with any assistance he might require to enable him to re-erect the woolshed. In reply to this offer, Mr. Raymond said that he must think the matter over, but would probably see him in a day or two; after which, Mr. Pogson mounted his horse and returned to Eugowra.
Turon Jimmy was as good as his word, and the next morning the men from the camp presented themselves in a body at the station. The news of the burning of the woolshed created wide-spread indignation, and very soon James Raymond had as much labour as he could profitably employ, and the shearing went on, though under difficulties.
* * *
Christmas came and went, and the time approached for Ruby to return to Sydney to resume her studies.
The sun was sinking slowly, and had got so low that it threw its slanting beams right under the willows and on to Ruby, as she swung idly upon her perch on the swinging branch of the tree. She was thinking that she was probably swinging upon the favourite perch of her girlhood for the last time. To-morrow she was to return to Sydney, to Herr Batonstein, and her lessons, and to the preparation for that career which might lead her—where? Who could tell. Suddenly, in the midst of her reverie she became conscious that somebody was observing her. Turning quickly, she saw Leslie Raymond standing a few paces off. He had tied Bunyip outside the fence, and advanced noiselessly on the soft turf. He came forward, holding out his hand, as she turned.
"Good evening," he said. "Did I awake you from your dream?"
"I was not asleep," she said. "Do you think it is possible for one to dream awake?"
"That depends," said Leslie, "on what we call a dream. I think if our fancies run loose and lead us where they will, that we might, whether waking or sleeping, call that a dream. If that is so, and I think it is, I often have waking dreams." And he still retained the hand that he had taken.
"Will you come up to the house?" said Ruby, after an embarrassing pause.
"Yes," said Leslie, "presently. I hear that you are going away again to-morrow, and I have come to say—good-bye." He felt her hand tremble slightly as he said the word, "but first," he added, "I have something to say to you. Something that I must say, and which must be said to you alone. Can you guess what it is?"
Her heart said yes, but she shook her head in reply.
"My tale," said Leslie, "is a simple one. One that has been very often told. I could have told it many months ago, but did not dare. I don't think I should dare now, but you are leaving to-morrow, and the opportunity may not occur again for a long time. Ruby, the tale I have to tell is so short that it can be told in three words. It is—I love you."
Ruby stood, looking at the gnarled roots of the willow upon which her foot rested. Her bosom heaved quickly, and her face grew pale, but she answered never a word.
"Have you no word to say?" he asked. "I have loved you from the moment I saw you in the gully, when you were bringing home the cows, but my love has been growing stronger every day. I have battled with it, but in vain. I feel that without you life would be indeed a blank. Ruby, my love, give me leave to hope."
"Mr. Raymond," said Ruby, still keeping her eyes on the twisted root, "I thank you sincerely for the honour you do me, but it cannot be."
"Do you doubt my sincerity?"
"No, Mr. Raymond," she said, "I believe every word you say, but it cannot be."
"I thought you cared for me," said Leslie, "but I suppose the wish was father to the thought."
"It is not that," said she.
"Then," he exclaimed, catching at a straw, "you do care."
"Mr. Raymond," she replied, "I am sorry. I wish you had not spoken. Say no more. There are reasons."
"Reasons which it were best not to tell."
"Tell me one of them."
She paused a moment, and then, still looking at the root, she said:
"One great reason is the difference in our social positions."
"But surely," said he, "that is not a sufficient reason to part two lives that were meant to be spent in unison. If I am willing to make the—eh—to ignore the difference surely that should be sufficient."
"No," said Ruby, now looking him squarely in the face, "it is not sufficient. I know what you were going to say, and it was the better word. You were about to say that if you were willing to make the sacrifice, why should I object. I do not doubt your sincerity, and I appreciate your readiness to make the sacrifice, but for your sake and my own, I refuse to accept it."
"Ruby," he exclaimed, "you are wrong. It would be no sacrifice, to me. I should esteem your love the greatest triumph of my life."
She shook be head.
"Mr. Raymond," she said, "you are the son of a squatter and the future owner of Bindawalla; I, the daughter of a selector. The world would say that you had loved beneath your station."
"I should only prove to the world the sincerity of my love."
"That I do not doubt," said Ruby, "but if I am only the daughter of a selector I am proud. I know that deep down in your heart you think you are conferring an honour upon me by the offer of your hand. Is it not so?"
Leslie did not reply.
"I knew it," she continued, "I knew it. So you would be conferring an honour. But, as I said, I am proud. When I give my love to a man, if such a thing should ever be, it will have to be upon terms of perfect equality. Neither he nor the world shall say or think that he is conferring an honour upon me, except that its always an honour to be loved by a good and true man. That honour you have conferred upon me to-day, and I am proud of it, but it shall never he said by the world or by her husband that Ruby Sterling married for money, or social position or for anything but pure, unselfish love."
"Ruby," said Leslie, "you, are cruel. You do not know what your answer means to me. Life without hope."
"Please don't," she said, "I have no wish to be cruel. Some day you will know that my idea is right. One word more, and it must be the last on this subject. Believe me, that wherever I may go I shall remember your words with the deepest gratitude. I shall always pray for your welfare. I can say no more. Good-bye."
Clasping her hands tightly, she drooped her head, and Leslie, thought he saw a tear glistening in her eye.
"Is your answer irrevocable?" said he.
"Absolutely," she replied.
"Then," said he, "good-bye."
And then he did what he probably ought not to have done. He slipped his arm round her waist, and lifting her drooping head, he imprinted upon her lips one long, passionate kiss.
For one ecstatic moment—no more—she rested in his arms, then, blushing scarlet, she motioned him imperiously away.
"If it must be so," said he, "good-bye. May Heaven guide your footsteps, and help me to face my dreary life."
"Good-bye," she answered. "May God bless and prosper you."
He mounted Bunyip, and digging the spurs into the startled brute, he dashed madly across the paddock.
She watched him until he disappeared over the crest of the ridge, and then, falling against the twisted trunk of the willow, she buried her face in her hands and sobbed bitterly.
"Oh! God," she cried, "what have I done!" Then, as the fountain of her tears ran dry, she said, "I have done right. It is better so. It is better so."
Herr Batonstein was a musician from his toes to the tips of his flaxen hair. Music was his life and his hobby. No man was more fond of it, and few were better qualified to teach. From the first moment he had heard Ruby's voice, he had recognised its potentiality. It had long been the object of his life to train and introduce to the world a great singer, one whose name should be handed down to posterity as the greatest of her time, and with whom his name would be indelibly associated. In Ruby he saw the possible realisation of his dreams, and he resolved to spare no effort and no expense which could assist to make her triumph, and his, complete. It is but bare justice to him to state that with him Art was first, pecuniary considerations practically nowhere.
In Ruby he had found a fit subject for his Art. She had not only the natural ability to profit by his teaching, but an ambition scarcely second to his own, which made her capable of making any sacrifice to bring about its ultimate triumph. With a teacher so capable and earnest, and a pupil so apt and willing, it is small wonder that the lessons made great progress, and it perhaps needed the restraining influence of Mrs. Batonstein to prevent Ruby's health suffering from the strain. As a matter of fact, Mrs. Batonstein was as anxious as her husband to bring about Ruby's ultimate triumph, but she knew her husband, and she knew Ruby; and she felt that unless she interfered occasionally, that both master and pupil would be likely to become too engrossed in their all-absorbing object.
She therefore insisted on an occasional romp, or a run out into the suburbs, and always, when the weather allowed it, on the weekly picnic.
So time went on, each day seeing some marked progress. Ruby had already had a few months' teaching before her holiday, and progressed so successfully after it that by the time the autumn waned and the cool winter weather came, she could read almost any music at sight, and could make herself understood in either French or Italian. Her deportment had so far improved that all the old awkwardness had disappeared, and her every movement was grace itself.
By this time a whisper was heard in the musical world of Sydney that Herr Batonstein had a wonderfully promising pupil. But Herr Batonstein said little. When closely questioned upon the subject, he would rub his hands and smile in the style of a man who was perfectly satisfied with himself, and say, "You wait a little longer, just a few months, and then—you shall see what you shall see!"
It was quite in accordance with the rules of the professor's household that, the lessons for the day being finished, Mrs. Batonstein should be sitting in a cosily-padded chair, sipping a delicious cup of afternoon tea, that Ruby should be nestled up in the corner of a large, old-fashioned settee following her example, and that the Herr himself should be defying all the laws of propriety by puffing away at a big meerschaum pipe in the drawing-room, and in the presence of the ladies.
He puffed for some time in silence, beaming benignantly through his spectacles, but at length he spoke.
"I haf a leetle surprise I am going to give you. Guess me vot it vas."
"Faith," said Mrs. Batonstein, as she replaced her cup and saucer on the tray, "I have no notion at all, so I haven't, unless ye've been buyin' another dog, but ye needn't be bringing any more dogs home here. I'Il not have them. You know the last dog you bought from a man in William Sthreet. He tould ye it was a pure bred something or other that he'd bred himself, and gave ye his pedigree, and the next day ye were nearly being arrested, so ye was, for being seen wid a dog in your possession that had been stolen the day before ye bought it, to say nothing of it biting the milk boy, and costing ye a half-sovereign to compensate him. I'll have no more dogs about the house."
"No," replied her husband, "it vas not a dog this time. It vas something much better, much more important, something that will make some people sit up."
"Well, ye'll never make me sit up again," said his wife. "I remember the last time I set up for ye. If it was one o'clock that night it was half past two in the mornin' when ye came flounderin' in, thryin' to sing 'He's a jolly good fellow.'"
"Now you know, my dear, it vas not so bad as that."
"Oh, yes, it was, and worse. Don't I remember how ye threw your muddy boots into the four corners of the room, and wanted me to salute you, because they'd been makin' ye Grand Primo among the Rhinoceroses or something."
"The Buffaloes, my dear, The antediluvian Order of Buffaloes. They made me Grand Primo, and I was called Sir Batonstein."
"Sir Fiddlestick!" said Mrs. Batonstein, scornfully. "But whativer it was, ye'll not catch me sittin' up again for ye."
"Ach! It was not that sitting up at all. I mean the public, and the critics, and the whole of the musical world. I vill make them all sit up. I have promised to conduct a grand concert at the Town Hall for the Philharmonic Society. The Governor is to be there, and the Ministers, and the Mayor, and I am to conduct, and they vill all sit up. My word! Can you guess my surprise now?"
"Ah, ye shly divel," said Mrs. Batonstein, beaming with pleasure, "ye are goin' to let Ruby sing?"
"Yes," said Batonstein, rubbing his hands, "I am going to let Ruby sing. I am going to let them hear the sweetest voice that ever thrilled through that hall. They shall hear the Australian Nightingale, and my word! they will all sit up, I tell you. The Governor will sit up, the Mayor will sit up, and they will all sit up."
"And are you sure, my dear," said his wife to Ruby, as she embraced her tenderly, "are you sure you will not be nervous?"
Ruby smiled. "No," she said, "I shall not be nervous now. I have such faith in my dear old teacher that, if he says I can do it, I feel sure I can. He knows my power better than I do. He will not set me an impossible task, and I will not disgrace him."
"That vas spoken like Ruby," said Herr Batonstein.
"She will not be nervous. She knows her power, too. I will myself accompany her, and she will be triumphant. She knows now all I can teach her, and it is time she was heard." Turning affectionately to Ruby, he asked, "Why did not you guess what my surprise was to be?"
"I had no need to guess," said she, quietly, "I knew it."
"How did you know?"
"Something told me."
"Sure, ye are a sthrange child," said Mrs. Batonstein. "Somethin' tould ye. There do be always somethin' shpakin' to ye, and tellin' ye things."
"No," replied Ruby, smiling. "It does not speak to me. It tells me without speaking."
Soon after this conversation Ruby hurried off home to convey the news to her Aunt and Uncle, and to write to her father.
Ruby swept gracefully along the path which led across Moore Park to her Uncle's house. Her rich colour was intensified by the bright hopes that filled her mind. She was about to prove to the world that her teaching had not been in vain. She would prove that she, Ruby Sterling, a mere selector's daughter, could do what the Maxwells, the Thorntons, and the rest of their set could never do. She would command the applause and rouse the enthusiastic approbation of the best and greatest people in the land.
She would do more, she would force homage from the most exalted, and cause a responsive chord to vibrate in the hearts of the most humble.
She had reached the comparatively deserted region at the back of the Zoological Gardens. There were very few people in this part of the Park, two or three nurse-maids, a group of romping children, with here and there a man sitting upon a seat. These were all.
Ruby walked rapidly, too engrossed in her own thoughts to take much heed of her surroundings, and had just passed one of the seats when she was surprised to hear her own name pronounced.
"Miss Sterling! It has been truly said 'Wonderful are the dispensations of Providence.' Little did I think—little did I dream, when leaving the noisy town and all its bustling activity, I sought a little relaxation and quiet meditation in the comparative seclusion of the Park, that I should be rewarded by meeting you. Sydney owes a deep and lasting obligation to Old Joe's Flat, inasmuch as it has pleased Providence in its Divine Wisdom to remove from Old Joe's Flat its peerless ornament, and to make Sydney the richer by the exchange."
"Why, I declare," said Ruby, who was excited and pleased at the appearance of anything reminding her of her home, "if it isn't Mr. Pogson! How do you do, Mr. Pogson," she asked, extending her hand.
"I am not enjoying that robust health that I could desire," observed Mr. Pogson. "I don't know how it is, but there is something in the atmosphere of the metropolis, or in the food of the metropolis, that acts prejudicially upon my liver; and ever since I have been in town I have been suffering from an acute attack of bile. Did you ever suffer from bile, my dear?"
Ruby said she had never experienced that sensation.
"Then you are fortunate, my dear, for it is one of the most distressing ailments that poor frail humanity is heir to."
Mr. Pogson sat bolt upright upon his seat, with his hands resting upon the handle of the umbrella between his knees, and gazed at Ruby with a smile of intense admiration. Then, seeming to remember his bile, or something, he stiffened himself still more, and for a second or two he frowned at her fiercely. He passed his hand in a dazed manner across his face, and the action seemed to brush away the frown, for his features again relaxed into a smile, and he begged her to be seated.
Ruby sat down, as requested, by his side, and began to enquire eagerly after the folks at Old Joe's Flat. She thought that Mr. Pogson's voice sounded rather thick—but she attributed it to the biliousness—as he told her that at the latest period he had had the opportunity of observing, the inhabitants of Old Joe's Flat were in a perfect state of health, while Old Joe's Flat itself occupied its usual geographical position.
"And the folks at Bindawalla?" said Ruby.
"The folks at Bindawalla," replied Pogson, speaking with some asperity, "are much the same as usual. Mr. Raymond is busy supervising the re-erection of his woolshed, and has it nearly completed. He is as stuck-up as ever, and is as proud of his new woolshed as if, as if—it belonged to him." Once again be regarded Ruby with a severe frown.
"I thought it did belong to him," said Ruby, in some surprise.
"Ostensibly it does, my dear, but only ostensibly. If I chose to speak, and to betray business confidences, my dear, I could tell you who is the real owner of the woolshed, and perhaps he would not be far away from us; but in business there are ramifications and intricacies which the female intellect is incapable of fathoming. There are also transactions which, in accordance with business precepts, must he kept secret and inviolable. Locked, as it were, in the sacred repository of the human heart."
Mr. Pogson, waving his right hand, brought it down with a smart thud, upon his shirt front.
"And how is Miss Nell?" said Ruby.
"I do not, as a rule, see much of her," returned Pogson, "but I am in a position to say that she is as haughty as ever, and as inconsistent. She passes my store at Eugowra, and drives thirty miles to Forbes, or even sends to Sydney for her draperies, her millinery, her shoes, and household requisites, bestowing her patronage upon strangers, ignoring local commercial enterprise, and passing me by. Me! The benefactor of her family in their time of need. I am flouted, Miss Sterling, but I am not the man to reveal business secrets, and betray business confidences, even if I am flouted. Then, there is Mr. Leslie."
Here Mr. Pogson paused, while Ruby tapped her little shoe impatiently upon the ground. After unsuccessful search in several of his pockets, Mr. Pogson found a faded silk handkerchief, and blew his nose.
With the handkerchief he also drew from his pocket a crumpled piece of paper, which fell on the seat between Ruby and himself. This he hastily replaced, but not before Ruby's quick eyes had discovered that it was a music hall programme.
"Oh, Mr. Pogson," said she, "do you go to music halls?"
Mr. Pogson sat, blinking his eyes at her for some moments in silence, as though in doubt, then his face assumed an expression of injured innocence.
"Sydney is a wicked place," he said, "and full of evil-doers. Last night, as I was returning from a meeting of the Social Purity Society, while in deep and earnest cogitation on the influence of example, some evil disposed person or persons unknown must have placed that paper in my pocket. Miss Sterling, as a member of the Executive of the Social Purity Society, how could I go to a music halls. But, as I was saying—by-the-by—what was I saying?"
Ruby, who was digging holes in the ground with the end of her parasol, said, without looking up, "I think—it was something—about Mr. Leslie Raymond."
"Ah, yes. Leslie Raymond, so it was. Well, as you may have noticed, Leslie Raymond always had a style with him that might be appropriately described as short. In fact, the designation might be more correct if I were to stigmatise his style as snappy. Well, he is not improving. Ever since the burning of the woolshed he has been snappier than ever. He is a conceited puppy, and if I endeavour to extend to him those slight but pleasant amenities which are the very salt or essence of our social life, if I give utterance to those usual meteorological platitudes which are vulgarly known as passing the time of day, he even snaps at me. Me, Miss Sterling, who, as it were, holds his destiny in the hollow of my hand. Some day, perhaps, I will take the snappiness out of him. The sole cause of my presence in the metropolis at the present time is the necessity of personally supervising certain financial transactions, which I am not at liberty to divulge. For this, I am exposed to attacks of bile. For this I endure the malevolent machinations of evil-disposed persons, anal my reward is—snappiness. But I will never reveal private financial transactions. I am meek, Miss Sterling, and humble, and long-suffering. So long as the cheque for interest is paid promptly every quarter, and the cheques are duly honoured, so long will I refrain from putting down my foot. But should the necessity arise, I shall immediately renounce the lamb, and assume the lion. Then what will become of pride? Where will haughtiness be then, and of what avail will be snappiosity? They will be gone, gone, like—like last season's butter."
Mr. Pogson sighed mournfully, shook his head sadly, and groaned audibly as be pondered on the sin and wickedness of worldly-minded people. Then, once more glancing at Ruby, he smiled, and drew closer to her on the seat, saying:
"But why talk of pride and snappiness in the presence of youth and beauty? Why should we detract from the pleasure of this delightful meeting, by talking about people and things that are commonplace and unpleasant? Miss Sterling, you are a charming girl."
With a look that was intended to be very captivating, he drew still closer, and endeavoured to put his arm around her waist. Ruby, however, avoided his attempted familiarity, thanked him for his information, and said she must be getting home.
"Why this eagerness to be gone?" he said. "Why not stay a little? Let us talk of Old Joe's Flat. Let us talk of anything, so that you stay." Seizing her hand in both of his, he added: "Stay awhile, adorable one. Let us recall memories of the past. Do you remember how your father used to carry you in his arms into my store, and sit you on the counter while I fitted the new shoes on your pretty little feet? Have you forgotten how I used to kiss you, and give you lollies? I said you would grow up a fine woman, and you have verified my prognostication. You are a fine woman. I have always admired you, and now I admire you more than ever. You are adorable!"
"Mr. Pogson," said Ruby, "let my hand go. You will make me angry."
"I cannot let you go thus, sweet one," replied Mr. Pogson ardently. "At least, give me a kiss before you go. Just one, and promise to meet me again."
Ruby's face flushed, and her eyes blazed angrily.
"Let me go," she Said, rising to her feet, and striving to release her hand, which he still grasped. "Let me go at once. What would Mrs. Pogson say if she heard you?"
"Mrs. Pogson be—sugared," said he; "she is safe in Eugowra. What does Shakespeare say: 'She that is robbed, not knowing what is stolen, let her not want it, and she's not robbed at all.'"
"Your Shakespearean quotation," said Ruby, "is about as reliable as your sense of moral rectitude. Mr. Pogson, I firmly believe that you are drunk."
"What?" exclaimed Pogson, "me drunk? How could it be possible for me to be drunk? Me, the President of the Eugowra Temperance Society, the W.C.T. of the I.O.G.Ts., and a Worthy Patriarch of the S.O.Ts. 'Look not upon the wine when it is red, when it giveth its colour to the cup, when it moveth itself aright, for at the last, it biteth like a serpent, and stingeth like an adder.' No, my dear, 'Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging, and 'whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise.' How could you suppose that I could be drunk?"
"Well," said Ruby, "you look like it, you act like it, and you smell like it."
"That, my dear, is simply the medicine which I have to take for the bile. But everybody knows that Erasmus Pogson is a teetotaller, though, thank the Lord, he is not a bigoted one. But do not struggle so, and do not leave me. See yonder tram, it is going to Coogee. Let us go to Coogee, and sit on the rocks in the gloaming. Let us there blend our souls in sweet communion. Let us watch the silvery moon as it rises over the broad expanse of the Pacific. Let us—"
But Ruby would hear no more. She wrenched her hand free, and turned to go. He rose as if to follow, but Ruby, whose temper was now thoroughly roused, struck him in the breast with her clenched hand, and knocked him forcibly back into his seat.
"How dare you!" she exclaimed, stamping her foot angrily, "how dare you insult me!" She drew her supple figure to its full height, and clenched her gloved hands with an air of grim determination. "Attempt to follow me and I will knock you down. You mean, contemptible hypocrite. You parody of an honourable man. You dare, to talk disparagingly of those whose shoe-strings you are not fit to tie! You, whose whole life is a swindle, a lie, and, a cheat; you slander and vilify those whose integrity and honour you have not the moral sense to recognise. You mean, crawling reptile! Dare to speak another word, or to follow me, and I will kill you as I would a centipede."
As she turned and swept disdainfully away, she looked as though she was quite capable of putting her threat into execution. Pogson gazed after her until she disappeared through the wicket gate in the park fence.
His face wore a sickly smile so long as Ruby was in sight, but when she had disappeared, it changed to a frown. He straightened his necktie, pulled out the corners of his collar to their fullest extent, and, sitting very stiff, and upright as a Christian gentleman ought to sit, he leant his two hands upon the umbrella and gazed solemnly at the setting sun.
"Ah!" he soliloquised, "what an unsolved connundrum is woman! She is, as the poet stays, here to-day and gone to-morrow, and three parts of the time you don't know whether she is here or there, or whether it is to-day with her or to-morrow. She reminds me of the little pea that the man on the racecourse was showing me. Let me see. What was it he said? Oh, I know! He said 'now you see it, and now you don't,' and he was right. I was the victim of misplaced confidence, and came away five shillings poorer. And that was old Sterling's little Ruby. I used to fit her boots on for her, and now she called me a centipede, and threatened to kill me. Contrariosity, thy name is woman. What did the poet say? Let me see:
"'Oh! Woman, in our hours of ease,
Uncertain, coy, and hard to please,
I often wonder what you are,
Twinkle, twinkle, little star.'
"Fancy; Erasmus Pogson being killed like a centipede. Ugh!" He looked carefully around him in every direction, and then he drew from his breast pocket a little flask. Unscrewing the top he put it to his lips and elevated it gradually until it assumed a perpendicular position. He then wiped his lips, replaced the flask in his pocket, pulled his hat down to shade his eyes, and sitting bolt upright he gazed with an air of defiance at the setting sun.
The rumoured appearance of the Professor's favourite pupil aroused considerable interest in musical circles. Almost every day, if the weather was fine, Herr Batonstein would don his best frock coat and, with a fresh bunch of flowers in his buttonhole, he would saunter round the Block. In reply to the questioning of friends, he refused to be pumped, but said:
"Wait for the concert; then you will see what you will see."
But the answer was always given with such a confident toss of the head, that public curiosity was whetted.
In the meantime, a momentous question arose: "What was Ruby to wear?"
That became the all engrossing question. One thing only was settled quickly. Herr Batonstein was to pay for it. That he had insisted on from the first. There was to be no cheeseparing economy; Ruby was to be clothed as the importance of the occasion demanded. Herr Batonstein's ideas of the intricacies of female costume were somewhat vague, but there was one point upon which he was very insistent. It must be an artistic dress. Nothing commonplace or vulgar.
After a good deal of discussion it was agreed to commission a first-class dressmaker to produce a confection worthy of the occasion.
On the night of the concert the Town Hall was packed with a fashionably dressed audience. The Governor, with the Vice Regal party, arrived punctually at eight o'clock.
As they entered the hall the vast audience rose, while the choir, accompanied by the orchestra, sang a verse of the National Anthem. Then Herr Batonstein, who was already in his place, waved his baton, and the concert commenced.
The overture was smartly played, and the cantata a complete success. Herr Batonstein was recalled, and bowed his acknowledgments. Then, after a short interval, came the second part.
The orchestra played the overture to Rigoletto, a tenor sang a song, a violinist played an arrangement of Spanish dances, and then, amid a general hush of expectancy, broken only by the rustling of programmes, Herr Batonstein led Ruby on to the dais, and took his seat at the piano. For a few moments, while the Professor arranged his seat and his music, and fixed his gold-rimmed spectacles, Ruby stood, the focus of three thousand pairs of eyes. Hundreds of lorgnettes were levelled at her, and then, right round the immense hall, there arose a low buzz of admiration. "Isn't she beautiful?" "What a face!" "What a figure!" "What a lovely dress!" This latter remark was heard with much satisfaction by a plump, good-tempered looking little lady, who occupied one of the front seats in the southern gallery.
It was indeed a beautiful dress, and as tasteful and appropriate as it was beautiful. It was entirely of soft white silk, made plain, yet fitting Ruby's perfect figure to a nicety. There was real lace draped upon the corsage, and falling over the round white arms. She wore white kid gloves which reached to the elbows, and white satin shoes and, from among the masses of her raven hair, there peeped a small white rose. Round her neck was a string of small pearls and, depending from these, resting upon her white throat, was a small, glittering diamond pendant.
She stood, erect and motionless, with her eyes upon the roll of music she held in her hand, until Herr Batonstein had taken his seat. Then she raised her eyes, and gave one sweeping glance at the sea of faces before her, and as the Professor began to play the prelude to her song, the rustling ceased, the whispering was hushed, and the vast audience seemed to hold its breath.
The piece that Herr Batonstein had chosen for her was an Aria from Verdi's Opera, "Aida," entitled "O Cieli Azzuri," and as Ruby's wonderful voice reverberated through the Hall as she sang her song of love and anguish, the audience were spellbound. At the last notes of the sweet lament-died away, there was an impressive silence for a second or two, then, as Herr Batonstein rose from the piano, the spell seemed to break.
With one simultaneous accord, the vast audience broke into a roar of applause. Ruby's triumph was complete.
Again and again she bowed her acknowledgements, and, amid a storm of cheering, clapping, and waving of handkerchiefs, the proud Professor led his pupil to the dressing room below.
"Well done, my dear," said he, "well done. You sang it perfectly, and was as cool as a cucumber. Ach! I told them they would see what they would see, and they have seen what they have seen. Listen to them! By Jove! They will fetch the house down. Can you sing again, my dear? They are clamouring for another."
Ruby said she would do anything he wished.
"Very well, then, my dear. We will show them that we can be gay, as well as sad. You shall sing them 'Comin' through the Rye.'"
Her second appearance was, if possible, more successful than her first. Her perfect enunciation, combined with her sweet voice, and the arch way in which she rendered the words of the well-known song, fairly captivated the audience. She was again rapturously applauded, and was the recipient of a number of handsome bouquets. Herr Batonstein gathered them together, and as he took her hand to lead her off, he was almost hidden by the floral tributes he carried. Just as she was bowing her final response to the applause, another floral offering fell at her feet. It was not a magnificent one; only a single red rose, and that was partially faded, but she stooped quickly, picked it up, and pressed it to her lips. As she did so, she raised her eyes unerringly to the portion of the gallery from which the rose had descended, and saw, looking at her with eager, wistful eyes, the pale face of Leslie Raymond.
Herr Batonstein wondered why her hand trembled after singing "Comin' through the Rye," when she had been "as cool as a cucumber" when she finished the much more difficult Aria.
He also marvelled how it was, at the conclusion of the concert, that she could so ungrudgingly present Miss Smart with a spray bouquet that must have cost a guinea, give another splendid bunch to Mrs. Batonstein, and divide the others among this one and that, and yet clung so tenaciously to a trumpery half-faded red rose, now nestled among the lace upon her bosom.
The next day Ruby's name and the fame of her wonderful voice were all over Sydney. She and Herr Batonstein received letters of congratulation from hundreds of the best people, all expressing the wish that an early opportunity might be afforded them of hearing her again. Her voice was discussed at the clubs and at ladies' "At Homes," and those who had been fortunate enough to be numbered among the favoured three thousand who heard her sing, assumed an air of superiority over the rest of the community who were not so fortunate.
Herr Batonstein became more perky than usual, and when he did the Block in the afternoon, and received the greetings of friends and acquaintances, he beamed more benevolently than ever through his spectacles, and said:
"What did I tell you long ago? Did I not tell you that you would see vhat you would see, and didn't my words come true? 'Ach!"
Ruby received many valuable presents from people whom she did not know, and she was the recipient of several written proposals of marriage from men she had never seen, nor heard of, and in many other ways began to experience the pleasures and inconveniences that come to all those who are famous yet it is questionable whether anything, letters, congratulations, newspaper flattery, presents, or offers of marriage, gave her so much genuine pleasure as one poor little faded red rose, which she preserved so tenderly. And, as she kissed it for the hundredth time, she said, "He told me my voice was worth cultivating. He advised me to get lessons."
About three days after the concert the friends of Herr Batonstein missed his familiar figure from its accustomed haunts. No more did his glossy hat come bobbing round the colonnade of the Post Office, or his gold-rimmed spectacles peer into the music shops.
The Professor had gone away on a trip. He had decided that something definite must be agreed on as to Ruby's future career.
He had found by experience that to come to a definite understanding with George Sterling by written correspondence was a long and tedious process. The Professor could speak English better than he could spell it, and George Sterling's caligraphic attainments were not of the most brilliant order. So Herr Batonstein sent George Sterling a note to stay he was corning up the next day and, packing his valise, he took the train for Molong, en route to Eugowra and Old Joe's Flat.
There, he was heartily welcomed by George Sterling, and the two had a long discussion. Batonstein explained the brilliancy of Ruby's prospects, and backed up his explanation by reading copious extracts from the newspapers which described Ruby's first appearance.
"She must go to Europe," said the Professor. "I have taught her all I can teach her. She is now an accomplished musician! and a great singer. She only wants the polish—the finishing touches—which she can get nowhere else except in the capitals of Europe. Then, with her voice, her queen-like presence, and her natural ability, she will rank among the leading artists of the world. She will be the rage, and will command an income that a princess might envy."
It was only after many doubtful shakes of the head from George Sterling, much arguing from the Professor, and a few tears from Mrs. Sterling and Madge, that a reluctant consent was given.
"You know," said Sterling, as he smoked one of the Professor's cigars on the verandah, "the world is such a derned big place, and Europe is a long way off. Then there's the dangers of travelling; and there's a lot of temptation in the world for a gal, especially if she's pretty."
"Don't be uneasy," said Herr Batonstein. "Travelling is done nowadays with the maximum of comfort and the minimum of danger. She shall have everything she can wish for, and as to the temptation, well, I shall always be with her, and Mrs. Batonstein will be with us. She will be to us as our own child, and will never want a parent's care. Besides, Ruby can take care of herself. She is as good as she is beautiful, and as brave as she is good. I believe she is impervious to temptation. Dozens of men in Sydney—eligible and attractive men—have tried to make her acquaintance, but she keeps them all at arm's length, and will listen to none. She is devoted to her Art. You can trust Ruby. She is proof against temptation."
So it was agreed that she should be placed in the Professor's charge; always, of course, presuming, as George Sterling said, that the girl herself wished to go.
Herr Batonstein, having thus far settled his business satisfactorily, hastened back to town. George Sterling tried in vain to persuade him to spend a few more days at Old Joe's Flat.
The Professor was eager for the city, with its life and gaiety, but he promised that before their departure for Europe he and Mrs. Batonstein, with Ruby, would come up and spend a week or two with the Sterlings. Having made this compromise, he hurried hack to town.
A day or two after his return an announcement appeared in the papers that Miss Ruby Sterling, the talented young soprano who had created such a sensation at the late Philharmonic Society's concert, was about to proceed to Europe to finish her musical education under the best teachers that London and Paris could produce; but that, yielding to the popular demand, she had decided to give three concerts in each of the Australian principal cities prior to her departure. The first three concerts would be given in Sydney, and the dates shortly be announced. They would be under the management of Herr Batonstein, who, up to the present time, had been Miss Sterling's teacher, and who, with his wife, would accompany the talented young singer to Europe.
The three concerts in Sydney were given, and each one was more successful than its predecessor. People were turned away from each, and at the end of a month the name of Ruby Sterling was on every lip, her portrait had been published in each of the illustrated papers, and her photo was on sale in nearly every window. Herr Batonstein had been careful in the selection of her songs, and the result was that she never sang the same song twice, and was able to charm her audience with every variety of style. Each new performance was a revelation, now an impassioned selection from one of the Grand Operas, then a devotional piece from an Oratorio; again, a pathetic old English or Scottish ballad, and at times one of those semi-humorous productions which blend the pathetic and the comic so closely together, that her audience would smile even while the tears lingered in their eyes.
Miss Smart was in ecstacies of delight. She had designed and made for Ruby a new dress for each concert, and the dresses had been such a success, and so much admired, that she found herself the focus of much reflected light, and the recipient of considerable extra patronage, merely because it had become known that she made for Ruby Sterling.
The third concert was simply an ovation. The audience seemed reluctant to let her go. The Mayor presented her with a valuable souvenir on behalf of the citizens; and a present from the members of the Philharmonic Society. Flattering speeches were made, and the building shook with cheers; cheers that were re-echoed by the crowd outside; who were waiting to see her enter her carriage, which was filled with the floral tributes she had received.
As she drove away towards her Uncle's house at Moore Park, with the cheers and acclamations of the multitude still ringing in her ears, she was congratulated by Herr Batonstein upon possessing, in addition to her numerous presents, a sum of over a thousand pounds, all her own earnings. Ruby declined to admit that the credit was all, or nearly all, due to her, and insisted that the Professor must share the profits.
"No, my dear," said Batonstein, "not yet. All out of pocket expenses have been paid, and that is the balance. Some of it will be required for you education in Europe. When that is complete, and you begin to earn money—because this is only a trifle to what you will earn—when that time comes, you can pay your old teacher. Not before. In the meantime, he is more than paid by your success. To-morrow we go to Old Joe's Flat for a holiday. You shall romp and run as free as you like for a fortnight. You shall do what you like with me, so long as you do not ask me to ride a horse. I am sore now when I think of that quadruped; then, I will take charge again. We start for Melbourne, where we stay a week, and give three concerts, then away to Adelaide, where we give three more concerts, then we take the mail steamer for Europe, and there will be no more concerts until you have at least six months' hard study; and then—Ach! Then to take the world by storm, to turn the heads of the multitude, und to sing before the Queen."
"Yes," replied Ruby, "to sing before the Queen!" And for the rest of the journey home her eyes were closed, and although her body was in the carriage with Herr Batonstein, rolling over the wood-blocked streets, her spirit was swinging on a bough under the willows, at the foot of the orchard at Old Joe's Flat.
Ruby was proud of her success, and her enthusiastic reception by the public, but she was not proud in the sense some girls would have been. She was simply delighted and grateful. She was gratified, as she took her seat in the railway carriage the following morning, to notice that several people passing along the platform paused a moment to look at her, and she heard one young gentleman whisper to a lady who accompanied him: "That's Ruby Sterling."
She was pleased at the notice she attracted, and when a newsboy gave her the evening paper, and addressing her familiarly by name, told her to "never mind the penny," she threw him sixpence and smiled at him quite as sweetly as she had, on the previous evening, smiled at the Mayor when he made made her the presentation.
They arrived at Molonog in time for breakfast, and after breakfast took the coach for Eugowra, where they were met by Mr. Sterling with the buggy. He had on his best suit, with a stiff shirt and collar, and had evidently shaved himself just before starting, for he had a fresh gap in his chin.' And there was Mr. Pogson at the door of his store, looking Very solemn as he discussed some knotty theological question with the Captain of the Salvation Army.
To describe the doings of the next fortnight in detail would require the space of a volume. George Sterling took Batonstein all over the farm, and initiated him into various mysteries, such as grubbing stumps, ringbarking, sheep-dipping, fencing, etc.
One day he would be deeply interested in watching George Sterling kill a sheep and divide its carcase into legs, shoulders, and chops. Another day be was just as interested in the shoeing of a horse.
After some explanation and tuition, Mrs. Batonstein actually milked a cow, all by herself, and what was more, she churned the cream, and made it into butter.
There were drives and picnics innumerable, Ruby nearly always acting as Jehu, while the Professor made himself handy in opening and closing the numerous gates they passed through.
And then, the music in the evening! Ruby sang all her father's favourite songs, and Sterling was delighted, although he remarked that she sang them differently; and he ventured to express an opinion that in some cases the old way, he thought, was the best.
They were all very happy, although it was noticed that several times during family prayers George Sterling's voice grew husky, and Mrs. Sterling's eyes grew moist, when he invoked a blessing upon loved ones, who were parted, or who might be parted hereafter.
One morning Ruby was just cleaning the table in the kitchen after baking when a light step was heard crossing the space between the house and the kitchen, and a moment afterwards Miss Raymond stood in the kitchen doorway.
She advanced to Ruby with quick steps, and would have embraced her, but Ruby laughingly warned her off.
"Take care, Miss Raymond," she said. "My arms are all over flour, and you would spoil your riding habit."
"Well," said Nell, "you must kiss me, or I shall risk spoiling it." She put out her lips, and Ruby, holding her hands behind her, and standing very far away, so that her floury apron might not touch and soil Nell's riding habit, advanced her lips to meet Nell's, and in that attitude they kissed.
It was a good solid, genuine kiss, and as its music rang through the kitchen a deep voice said, "Ach! My vord!" and they saw the Professor, with his face crimsoned by his late unusual exposure to the sun, peering benevolently through his gold-rimmed glasses, in at the kitchen window.
Ruby soon divested herself of all signs of the puff-paste, and took Nell into the sitting-room.
"You are a naughty girl," said Nell, taking Ruby's hand in her own. "You have not been to Bindawalla to see me, so I made up my mind to come and see you. How well you are looking."
They talked for some time about various unimportant subjects, and at length Nell said that she must be going.
"But before I go," she said, "I must tell you what brought me over at this particular time. I want to have a good long quiet talk with you. Why did you not come to see me?"
"I should have liked to have called over to see you, Miss Raymond," replied Ruby; "but you know, and you will forgive me for reminding you, that it is not usual for the daughter of a humble selector to visit the daughter of a rich squatter. You must be aware of the different social scale in which we move."
"Yes, I know," answered Nell. "I know that you and I have been reared almost side by side, and yet as strangers. But, believe me, I do not, nor did I ever, attach any importance to these so-called social distinctions. I suppose some distinction is necessary and inevitable, but it should be only the distinction created by merit and ability. I have read all about your triumphs in Sydney. I can see your beauty for myself. If there is any distinction between us, dear, and I feel that there is, it is I who am the inferior. Come to Bindawalla and see me. Put on your habit and get your horse, and ride back with me. I am all alone to-day. Leslie and the dad have gone to one of the out-stations, and will not be home until late. Come back and spend the afternoon with me. We will have a nice long cosy chat, and, believe me, my dear, I shall consider Bindawalla honoured by your presence. Will you come?"
Ruby could not resist Nell's kind invitation, so, after giving some minute instructions to Mrs. Batonstein about the puff-paste, she went with Nell to Bindawalla.
"I envy you your prospects. I envy you with all my heart," said Nell, as they sat on the broad shady verandah at Bindawalla. "To be going out into the great bustling world, with every promise of making yourself famous. It is grand. It is glorious. So very different from being cramped up here, where the most a woman can do is so little."
"But," said Ruby, "to reign at Bindawalla would seem to most girls a very happy position."
"I am not unmindful of my many advantages," said Nell, "but yet I often feel that I should like to be able to do some good in the world. I used not to feel like this, because we were very happy once at Bindawalla. Day used to follow day, each bringing its own duties and its own pleasures; but it is different now."
Nell let her hands and her embroidery fall idly upon her lap, and gazed wistfully across the garden, and away at the distant hills. She sat thus for a few moments, and Ruby noticed certain lines upon Nell's face that she had never seen there before. It seemed as though some hidden grief had left its trace behind.
"Why are things different now?" inquired Ruby. "Have you had some trouble? Some disappointment?"
"No," replied Nell, as, with a sigh, she resumed her work. "If I could tell the reason of the difference, I might do something to cure it. Somehow, we at Bindawalla, dad and Leslie and I, seem every day to be without apparent cause, drifting apart. At one time, if one of us had a hobby, we were all interested. If the dad had a new scheme in hand, he would explain it to Leslie and me, and we all took an interest in it. If Leslie had a horse in training for the show we were all as eager for its success as if we each owned it; while my roses and violets interested them as much as they did me. Now, the dad has no schemes, or if the has he keeps them to himself. He takes no interest in my flowers. Spends most of his time, when he is at home, in his office, and I am afraid he is in the habit of taking very much more liquor than he used."
"And how long have you notices this change in him?" inquired Ruby.
"Ever since the shearers' strike, and the burning of the woolshed," replied Nell. "But it is not only the dad who has changed. There is Leslie. At one time the merriest fellow alive. Not a day passed but he had some new idea to discuss with me. Now he, too, has grown morose. He trained no horses for the last show—said he couldn't be bothered. He never has a new idea now, and seems to be careless of everything."
"Why do not you broach some new ideas?" said Ruby.
"Bless you!" replied Nell, "I have broached them by the score. But it is all in vain. Only this morning I found the first bud on a new variety of rose tree that was sent to me from Sydney, and which I have been nursing so tenderly. Leslie was sitting on the verandah, in the very seat in which you are sitting now, and doing absolutely nothing but smoking his pipe in moody silence. I came rushing round from the garden in a state of breathless excitement, and called to him to come and see my beautiful new rose. And he shrugged his shoulders like a great Hottentot, and said he couldn't be bothered. Only fancy! 'Couldn't be bothered.' Oh! we are drifting apart. Drifting apart!"
Again Nell let her work fall on to her lap, and Ruby saw a tear glistening in her eye.
"And have you no idea," said Ruby, "of the cause of the change? Every effect must have a cause, and to discover the cause is sometimes tantamount to effecting a cure."
"I have tried to discover the cause," replied Nell, "and I have failed. Sometimes I think that dad is worried over financial matters. Not that he can be in real difficulties, you know, but he lost a lot of money over the shearers' strike. Then the woolshed was a tremendous loss. The price of wool is only a little more than half what it was a few years ago. Then there has been the drought. Sheep dying in thousands through there being no grass for them, and those that are left are so poor that they are practically unmarketable. Sheep have been sold at Mr. Pogson's scales lately at a shilling per head. I dare say all this helps to make dad unhappy, but trouble ought to draw us together instead of causing us to drift apart. As for Leslie, well! perhaps he may be dull from the same cause. But I should like to cheer them, and help them, and I feel my own inability very acutely."
"Miss Raymond," said Ruby, as she took Nell's hand in her and caressed it, "you said just now that you felt cramped up here, and that your opportunities were limited. Why, you have a sacred trust. Your father and brother are evidently troubled in some way. It is your mission to lighten their burdens, and bring them that loving consolation that, in a time of trouble, nobody but a woman can bring. That is woman's divine prerogative, bestowed upon her as a direct gift from God."
"But how am I to use it? God knows I am willing. Show me the way."
"Have patience, dear Miss Raymond, and hope, and faith," said Ruby. "You will find the way. And now, would you like me to sing to you?"
"Oh," answered Nell, "I should love to hear you sing, but I did not like to ask you. If you would—"
Ruby said of course she would, with pleasure, so Nell linked her arm in Ruby's, and they went together into the drawing room.
Ruby sang several songs, and Nell declared that she had never heard anything so sweet before. She predicted a great career for Ruby in Europe.
"May I ask a favour of you before you go?" said Nell. "I would like you to write to me from time to time, and to tell me all about your progress, the people you meet, and the things you see. Will you do so?"
"I will on one condition," said Ruby, smiling. "I will promise to write to you, if you will promise to write to me and tell me all about yourself and Bindawalla."
So a mutual agreement was made, and it was arranged that each should write to the other.
"Now," said Nell, as Ruby spoke of going, for the sun was getting low, "sing me one more song before you go, and I walk with you as far as the first gate."
Ruby took off the one glove that she had already put on, and, sitting down to the piano, she ran her fingers idly over the keys. She sat thus so long, playing nothing in particular, and yet improvising sweet music, that Nell grew impatient, and looking at Ruby, she noticed that, while her fingers still moved over the keys, her eyes were closed. Nell laid her hand on Ruby's shoulder, and said, "That is rather a long prelude, is it not?"
Ruby started, and opened her eyes, at the same time colouring slightly.
"It was not a prelude at all," she replied. "I was dreaming. I do not think I can sing any more now. There is someone coming."
Nell went to the door, and looked out across the home paddock.
"There is no one in sight," said she, coming back. "What made you think there was somebody coming?"
"I do not know," said Ruby, "I suppose it was instinct." Once more turning to the piano, she added, "What shall I sing?"
"Anything you like," said Nell.
So she commenced:—
'Twee on a summer's afternoon,
A wee before the sun ga'ed doon.
She sang one verse, and had got so far in the second one as the line which prophesies that the heroine will make "The brawest wife in Gowrie," when her voice faltered slightly, and she stopped. The ray of sunlight that fell across the piano had been momentarily darkened, and as she stopped singing, James Raymond entered the room.
"Don't leave off," said he, as he sank into a settee and began to unbuckle his leather leggings and to take off his spurs, "don't leave off. I just heard enough of your song to want to hear more."
"I must ask you to excuse me, please," said Ruby. "I am tired of singing, and must be getting home."
"Are you quite well?" said he, shaking her by the hand, "but there is no need to ask. You look the picture of health. 'The brawest wife in Gowrie' eh? But you don't want to be anybody's wife with that voice. You can do better than marrying, and settling down on a selection, to milk cows and make butter all the rest of your life. You can do better."
Ruby bit her lip. She knew that James Raymond meant to speak kindly. It was his creed that a selector's daughter should marry none but a selector if she married at all. So she told him she had no intention of marrying. She was already wedded to her art.
"I am glad to hear it," said he, "although I am sure you will not go short of offers, but you wouldn't like to settle down to farming after your town experience. Not but what you might get offers in town. Many a man, even men in good positions, would be attracted by your pretty face. But don't marry for money."
"I am not likely to do that," said Ruby. "Besides, it is not every man who seems to be in a good position who has money. There are many reputed rich who are not able to pay their debts. Some time ago, when I met Mr. Pogson in Sydney, he told me—"
"What did he tell you?" demanded Raymond quickly, starting from his seat, and confronting her with a fierce look, "what did he tell you? The scoundrel! If I thought—quick, tell me! What did he tell you?"
"He only told me," answered Ruby, smiling, "that there were ramifications and intricacies in financial matters which the female intellect was incapable of fathoming, and that many men, reputedly rich, were scarcely able to meet their liabilities. But you need not be alarmed for me, Mr. Raymond. If I ever marry—which I do not think at all probable—I shall marry the man I love. If he should happen to be a selector, that fact would not prevent me accepting him. If I do not love him I will not marry him even if he were a King!"
"I am glad to hear it," said Raymond hurriedly, "but was that all that Pogson said? Are you sure it was all?"
"Oh, no," said Ruby. "He said a lot more than that. He said," and she imitated Pogson's voice and manner to perfection, "he said, 'Look not upon the wine when it is red,' and he said that he was suffering from BILE, and that he had been to a meeting of the Social Purity Society. But I see you are tired, Mr. Raymond, and the sun is getting low. I must say good-bye."
She shook hands with him, and he heard her laugh merrily as she walked across the garden with Nell.
James Raymond stood at the door for a few moments, mopping his face with his handkerchief, then turned away in the direction of his office, muttering to himself:
"Well, I'm damned! What is the world coming to? To think that Sterling's youngster should stand up and talk to me like that! Why, it seems only the other day that I saw her, in a pair of thick lace-up boots, and her father's hat, carting fire-wood from the bush!"
Ruby and Nell walked to the gate, where Gaffer was already saddled and waiting. There they bade each other good-bye, and Ruby mounted her horse. At first she rode slowly. The track to Old Joe's Flat wound round to the right and then, passing through a slip-rail, doubled back along the other side of the fence. She had never been in this paddock since' the morning after the burning of the wool-shed, and she thought she would like to see the spot where her horse had fallen with her among the dead timber. So she wheeled to the left, and cantered across the grass. She rode through the dead timber, and leapt the fence in the corner of the paddock, and then, finding that the sun was not yet set, she decided that she would ride round by the new wool-shed, which she had not yet seen, and which had been built upon the site of the former one.
She cantered across the ridge, and down the slope to the flat, where the woolshed stood. The shearing season was just over, and all the extra hands had received their pay the week before, and those who had not left the district were "knocking down" their cheques in Eugowra. The shed itself and the huts and yards surrounding it, which a few weeks before had been a scene of bustling activity, now stood solitary and desolate.
So far as Ruby's knowledge enabled her to judge, the new building was a facsimile of the one which, a little more than a year ago, had been destroyed by fire. She was thinking that it was strange that no clue had been obtained as to the identity of the persons who had set fire to the previous building, for she had no doubt that it had been wilfully caused. Then she thought, with a sigh, of the mysterious change that seemed to be coming over the Raymond family. She decided that she would ride round the western end of the woolshed, and then make a bee line for home. There would be only three fences to jump, and it was easier to jump the fences than to be bothered with gates and slip-rails. Besides, she would save half a mile, and the sun was going down. The red glow shone full on her face as she rode down the long lane towards the western end. Everything was quiet and still, and except the cry of a laughing jackass from the ridge behind her, there was no sound nor sign of life.
"I wonder," she soliloquised, "what prompted me to come round this way instead of going by the track? There is nothing very handsome nor picturesque about a woolshed, anyhow and it is a lonely, creepy sort of spot. Some girls would be afraid to ride round here alone, especially after the scene which occurred here when poor Old Andy died." She shuddered at the thought, and urged Gaffer to a smart canter.
As she turned the angle of the building Gaffer nearly collided with another horse, which was tied by its bridle to the fence of one of the small pens adjoining the shed. It was Bunyip, and not two yards away, at the shed door, which he was just locking, was Bunyip's master.
Leslie started at her sudden appearance. Putting the key of the shed into his pocket, he advanced, and raising his hat with one hand, he extended the other in welcome.
"Miss Sterling!" he exclaimed, "what brings you here?"
"I don't know," Ruby said, shyly, "unless it was—" She paused, and flicked a fly off Gaffer's ear.
"Instinct," said Leslie, supplying the missing word. "Say it was instinct, and I will be content, and bless the instinct. But where have yeti been?"
"I have been spending the afternoon with your sister at Bindawalla."
"With Nell? I am so glad. Nell does not often see any lady friends now." She noticed as he spoke of Nell that his voice had a note of sadness in it, and that on his face were certain traces of care or sorrow similar to those she had detected in Nell's face. After a moment he continued. "But this is not your direct way home from Bindawalla."
"No," replied Ruby, "I came round to see the new woolshed."
There was an awkward pause. Neither seemed to know what to say, although his hand trembled slightly as he stroked Gaffer's mane, and Ruby's heart was throbbing violently beneath her close-fitting habit, which, by the way, belonged to Madge, and was therefore rather tight for Ruby.
Leslie was the first to break the silence which threatened to become embarrassing.
"It seems strange," he said, "to see you here, mounted upon Gaffer. I scarcely know whether I am speaking to Ruby Sterling, the little girl who used to make the bush melodious with her song, or the artist who, in the Sydney Town Hall, received the homage of the multitude. They seem like two separate individuals. I have never been able to reconcile them in my mind."
"And I have never been able to separate them," said Ruby, smiling.
"I suppose not," said Leslie, "I suppose I ought to congratulate you upon your magnificent success. Allow me to congratulate you."
"You did congratulate me," said Ruby. "Do you forget your floral offering?"
"My poor faded rose? It was the poorest offering of them all."
"And yet," said Ruby, "the one I prized the most."
"If that is so," said Leslie, "I will always consider a red rose as the queen among flowers. But is it true that you are going away to Europe?"
"Yes," replied Ruby; "we are going back to Sydney next week, from there to Melbourne, then on to Adelaide, and from Adelaide to Europe."
"And I," said Leslie, "have to live out my lonely life at Bindawalla."
With his riding whip he viciously cut the top off a nettle that was growing near the sheep pen.
"Why should you be lonely at Bindawalla?" said Ruby gently. "You have your sister, and your father. You have your horses and dogs, freedom, and space. Why, you ought not to know what loneliness means." Then she added: "Consider your position as the prospective master of Bindawalla."
"My position," said he, scornfully. "I hate my position, and I could sometimes find it in my heart to curse Bindawalla. It is my position, and the prospective ownership of Bindawalla, that stand between me and all I prize on earth. I wish I had been born the son of the meanest selector in the district. Then I could have hoped. But tell me, Ruby, is it yet too late to alter your plans? I will renounce Bindawalla, if you think our social positions are irreconcilable. I perhaps ought not to renew the subject we discussed twelve months ago, but I cannot help it. It is burning my heart out. I must tell you that if you can care for me I will give up Bindawalla and all connected with it. I am of age, and can please myself. There is room out West. Let us go West, and take up a selection. We can begin as your father began. It only means a life of work, and that I can cheerfully face. I will dig and delve, plough and sow. I will do anything to obtain the priceless reward of your love."
"But you forget your father, and Nell," said Ruby.
"What are they compared with your love?"
She said nothing for few moments, and seemed to be struggling with her own emotions, while he took her hand, and looked into her downcast eves with a pleading look, as t though his very life hung upon her words.
"You mean," she said, speaking very slowly, but very distinctly, "you mean that you are prepared to abolish the social distinction that exists between us by lowering yourself to my position?"
"I should not consider it lowering myself. But I am willing to do anything—to make any sacrifice—"
"Mr. Raymond," said Ruby, "what you suggest would be levelling downward, and if any levelling is to be done, I always believe in it being upward. What do you think my life would be worth if I thought, day by day, and year by year, that my husband had, in the eyes of his friends, and the world, and in his own estimation, lowered himself for my sake? No. A thousand times NO! What you suggest is impossible. Dismiss it from your mind, Mr. Raymond. Make the best and brightest of your life at Bindawalla. You, may some day meet someone who will cause you to forget this—this dream; and in the meantime, let me work out my—my destiny."
"You are cold! You are heartless!" exclaimed Leslie, passionately.
"No!" said she, kindly, "do not say that! You don't know! Do not let us part unfriendly," and she looked so wistful, so sorrowful, and yet so sweet, that Leslie relented at once.
"Forgive me," he said, "it is I who am selfish to want to spoil your career. But tell me—do you love someone else?"
"No," she answered emphatically. "I never had a friend near my own age but you. I wish to go away still feeling that you are my friend. I am deeply grateful to you for the sacrifice you offer to make, none the less grateful because I am unable to accept it. If the time should come when you wish to test my—my—friendship, call upon me. You know I am a strange girl and that I have strange notions. You told me once to cultivate my gift, or whatever it is. I have tried to do so, and I believe that there is something in telepathy. I believe that human hearts, or minds, or spirits—call them what you like—if tuned in unison, can communicate, ignoring space, along the lines of least resistance. If you are ever in trouble, real trouble, where the outlook appears to be dark and hopeless, call upon me. Call upon me with your whole heart and your whole soul, and I will come. My heart will receive the message, and I will come. And now, you see the sun is down. Good-bye, and God bless you!"
Touching Gaffer lightly with her quince rod, she cantered across the flat, leapt the three-rail fence that divided the woolshed paddock from her father's farm, and Leslie was alone.
And as the last rays of the setting sun disappeared from the tree-tops on the distant hills, it appeared to Leslie that the last rays of hope departed from his life. The gloom that settled over the landscape, and the deep shadows that gathered round the woolshed, were not more gloomy than Leslie's thoughts, and the night wind, moaning as it swayed the tops of the gum-trees, was not sadder than Leslie's heart.
A shrill sound disturbed him from his reverie. It was the cry of a curlew. He knew it well, but to-night it seemed to him like the voice of some malicious Spirit of the Bush, laughing spitefully at the torn remnants of his ruined hopes.
As the days and weeks flew by, the clouds at Bindawalla, instead of dispersing, seemed to increase in darkness and intensity.
James Raymond grew more surly and morose, and Leslie more miserable. As a consequence, Nell's anxiety increased. All the old frank confidence between them seemed to have gone, and an impenetrable air of mystery hung over all. Outwardly, things went on much the same as usual; the principal difference was in the members of the household.
The master of Bindawalla took his meals with his son and daughter, but rarely entered into conversation with them. When he was at home, and not at meals nor in bed, he remained shut up in his office, with his table strewn with papers of all sorts, and with a decanter at his elbow. There he would sit and brood by the hour, and yet, with all his brooding and studying, he seemed to get no nearer to the solution of his difficulties.
The fact was that James Raymond, for the first time in his life, was finding the greatest difficulty in making both ends meet. He was too proud to confide his troubles to his son, and so he brooded over them in silence, and sought consolation in the whisky bottle. Leslie suspected that his father had some secret anxiety, and had, once or twice, been snubbed when he had ineffectually endeavoured to ascertain the nature of it. This naturally made Leslie anxious, but he had a far greater trouble, or what appeared to him to be greater. He was madly, hopelessly in love.
Ruby had rejected his suit, and had gone. Gone to the other side of the world, where she would meet success, and be intoxicated with the notoriety that success would bring, and he would be forgotten. And yet her image was ever present in his mind, though, while he silently worshipped her, he sometimes cursed the weakness and perversity of his mortal nature which would not allow hint to forget. So he, like his father, sought refuge in solitude.
No wonder that poor Nell thought they were drifting apart, and felt that she was powerless. So, day by day, they drifted, each growing more silent, and helping to weave the web of melancholy which seemed to encompass them like a shroud.
It was six months after Ruby's departure. The days were getting short, and the evenings long and dreary, and in the mornings, before the sun was up, the hoar frost lay in the Bindawalla paddocks.
James Raymond had gone to visit one of the outstations, Leslie was away looking after some travelling sheep, and Nell was at home alone. She was sitting on the verandah, with some embroidery on her knee, alternately working and sighing, as she thought of the gloom that had settled over their once happy home.
Her meditations were disturbed by the clicking of the garden gate, so she looked up from her work, and saw Mr. Pogson enter the gate, and advance between the rose bushes to the house.
Noticing Nell, he raised his hat, and bade her "Good day." She returned his salutation rather frigidly, and he inquired whether Mr. Raymond was at home.
"He is not at home at present," said Nell. "I think he has gone to the woolshed, or to one of the out-stations. Is he expecting you to call?"
"Well! Miss Raymond," replied he, "that is a question I am not exactly prepared to answer definitely, either in the affirmative or the negative. If I were to say he is expecting me, I should be usurping a knowledge I cannot claim to possess, and if I were to say he is not expecting me, I should be asserting that which might he a perversion of the truth. I may say, I think, without being accused of prevarication, that he may be expecting me, or he may not."
"I do not think he can know of your coming," said Nell, "or he would be here."
"Never mind," replied Pogson, "I can wait. I can wait. Patience, my dear young lady, inexhaustible patience, is the duty and the inestimable privilege of every truly devout man and Christian woman. What a blessing it is, when we cannot get the object we desire, to be able to wait for it, with the sure and certain hope—er—I mean knowledge, that everything comes to him who waits. I can wait, my dear."
So saying, he sat down upon one of the verandah chairs, and put his feet upon another.
Nell did not reply, but went on with her embroidery. Pogson surveyed the garden and the fountain, and watched Nell's deft fingers flying to and fro. At length he heaved a sigh, and said, "Did you ever devote much thought, Miss Raymond, to the fallacy of human impressions?"
Nell said that she had not studied the matter.
"Nor," continued Mr. Pogson, "to the incongruities of contemporaneous literature."
"No," said Nell, "I have no time to study such abstruse subjects."
"Well, I have," said Mr. Pogson, "and I am led into this line of thought this afternoon by contemplating the scene upon which my eyes now rest, a scone which combines in itself all the elements of natural beauty, rural simplicity, and—if I may so express it—culture. On the other side of the world"—and Mr. Pogson waved his arm in a circle, as though desirous of pointing to the other side of tho world, but not quite certain as to the direction in which it was situated—"on the other side of the world, even in London, which may be regarded as the place from which all human knowledge emanates, there is a strong prevailing impression that the Australian Bush is a desolate wilderness, peopled only by savage border of spear-throwing and boomerang-manipulating blackfellows. This fallacious impression, contemporaneous literature does much to foster. And yet, see how erroneous it is. Here, at Bindawalla, we have culture, we have cultivation, and as much delicacy and female refinement as they find in Bethnal Green or any other aristocratic neighbourhood in the world's metropolis."
"I did not know that Bethnal Green was particularly aristocratic," said Nell. "Of course, I have never been in London."
"Nor have I," said Pogson, "but I have studied its history and its topography. Bethnal Green is where Buckingham Palace stands, and it adjoins the old, historic Palace of Whitechapel, where King Charles the First was executed."
"I thought he was executed at Whitehall," said Nell.
"Well," replied Pogson, "it is all the same. Merely a confusion of terms. Some call it a hall, others a chapel. This is another instance of the incongruity of contemporaneous literature, and goes to prove the correctness of my argument."
Soon afterwards Nell gathered up her work and begged Mr. Pogson to excuse her. She gave him some illustrated papers to help pass away the time, and then left him to his own devices.
When she had gone Mr. Pogson turned over the papers for a short time, and then he strolled round the garden, came back and promenaded the verandah, peeped curiously into the window of the cosy drawing-room, and then resumed his seat.
He rubbed his hands softly together, and then stroking his long beard, he thus soliloquised:—
"Yes! It's all very nice. All very comfortable and luxurious. Better than a stuffy store, where the air is permeated with the odour of kerosene and sheepskins. It is just the place where a man who has spent the best years of his life in business ought to be able to settle down, and pass the evening of his days in peace, rest, and tranquility. And it shall he mine. I'll do it. I can wait, but the time shall come when Erasmus Pogson will be master of Bindawalla, and the Raymond family, with all their pride and uppishness, will be nowhere."
How much farther his fancy would have led him it is hard to say, for at that moment his meditations went interrupted by the sound of a heavy footstep on the verandah, and a moment later James Raymond made his appearance.
"Halloo! Pogson," he exclaimed, as he caught sight of his visitor. "They say if you think of the devil you will hear the rustle of his wings. I was just thinking of you."
"Good afternoon, Mr. Raymond," said Pogson, bowing humbly. "I have just ridden over from Eugowra because—eh—it being such a fine afternoon, I thought it would not be out of place to remind you—"
"All right," said Raymond, "I know what you are going to remind me of, but don't do it here. I never talk business on the verandah. Come into my office, where we can be private, and then we can talk without being overheard."
He led the way to the office, Pogson following. Mr. Raymond indicated a chair, then, looking along the hall to see that no one was in sight, he closed the door, and locked it; saw that the window was shut, then sat wearily down, and motioned for Pogson to commence.
"Being such a fine afternoon," said Pogson, speaking with some diffidence, and keeping his eyes meanwhile on a brass paper-weight on the office table, "I thought I would ride over to remind you—that last Monday was the Fourth."
"Then," said Raymond, "you have taken a great deal of trouble for very little. I was quite aware of the fact."
"Then," said' Pogson, "perhaps you have forgotten that a cheque for interest was due on the Fourth?"
"No," replied Raymond, "I have not forgotten that fact either," and he laughed a painful laugh.
"Then perhaps you are not aware," said Pogson, "'that I have not yet received it!"
"Yes," said Raymond, wearily, "I am quite aware that you have not received it. The fart is, Pogson, that I have not got the ready money, and I cannot get it, and I am afraid I must ask you to wait until I get advices from London as to the sale of my last wool."
"Which I believe," said Pogson, looking at James Raymond for the first time, "is assigned to the Bank!"
James Raymond now shifted his glance to the paper-weight.
"There is some arrangement," said be, "by which the Bank has first claim, but there will be more than enough to satisfy them, and to pay your interest as well."
"The overdue interest to date," said Mr. Pogson, "amounts to over four hundred pounds, and that is increasing and accumulating as long as it is unpaid. Now, I wish to treat you, Mr. Raymond, in a purely Christian spirit. So far as the principal is concerned, I will wait, but the interest must be paid punctually. The security I hold is diminishing in value. What with the talk of Single Tax on land values, and of Government resumption of leasehold areas, the value of landed security is diminishing. I must either have my interest paid down on the nail, or I must have additional security. I don.'t want to have to put my foot down, Mr. Raymond, but you must give me more security."
"What other security can I give?" asked Raymond.
"There is the home station," said Pogson.
"It," said Raymond, "is already mortgaged to the Bank."
"I know it," said Pogson, "for two thousand pounds. But you can give me the equity of redemption. It is not worth munch as a marketable security, but, as I said before, I wish to deal with you in a Christian spirit, and don't want to bring my foot down if I can help it."
James Raymond groaned. It was maddening to him to be obliged to sit in his own office, and to listen to a man threatening to put his foot down on him, and for him to be unable to retaliate. So he closed the interview as quickly as possible by consenting to sign the equity of redemption, which Pogson promised to have drawn up in the strictest privacy.
It would be ready, he said, for Mr. Raymond's signature on Friday, so Raymond promised to call and sign it, and Pogson took his departure.
When he had gone James Raymond again locked the door, poured out half a tumbler of whisky, and drank it neat. Then, sinking into his seat, he buried his face in his hands.
As Mr. Pogson rode across the home paddock his lips wore puckered and he wore on his face the expression of a man who is wrestling with a problem. On reaching the stony ridge on the far side of the sliprails he checked his horse, and turning round in his saddle, be admired the prospect for some time in silence. Then he muttered to himself:
"Splendid property. Fine fattening country. Permanent water, and well stocked. Worth a hundred thousand pounds in the market to-morrow, in spite of the depression. Let me see! He owes me five thousand four hundred, principal and interest; ten thousand to the Bank, for which they have a lien over the last woolclip, which will fetch twice the money. Bah! he doesn't know anything about financing. But I'll do it. It's worth the risk; besides, I'll do it in such a way that there will he no risk. Yes! I'll be master of Bindawalla yet."
With that, he touched his horse with his whip, and jogged down the hill, whistling "Onward, Christian Soldiers."
* * *
About two o'clock in the afternoon of the Friday following the above interview, Mr. Pogson was sitting in his office. Mr.' Pogson's office was not an extensive place, nor was it furnished nor fitted very elaborately. It was simply a small space partitioned off from the back portion of the store. This space was bounded on two sides by the brick wall of the store, in one of which was an opening with a window in it, which commanded an extensive view of the stable, and a bark-roofed shed adjoining it, in which sheepskins, hides, and other miscellaneous farm produce were stored prior to being forwarded to Sydney.
This window enabled Mr. Pogson, whose desk faced it, to keep an eye on the operations of the men who were employed at the back of the premises, while the other two boundaries, being of glass, and facing the store, gave him the means of keeping the other eye on the men engaged there, and of taking note of all who entered or departed.
'Mr. Pogson was sitting on his chair, with two sheets of foolscap paper spread on the desk before him. Both sheets of paper contained some writing, but on one the writing was much closer together than on the other. Mr. Pogson sat carefully perusing the documents, one after the other. His spectacles were on his nose, and his lips were so puckered that he seemed every moment about to whistle, but he did not. He was so engrossed with his study of the documents before him that he did not hear his office door open, and was not aware that his privacy had been invaded until he felt a light hand placed upon his shoulder. He started violently at the touch, and hastily covering up the sheets of foolscap with a newspaper, he swung himself round quickly in his chair, and faced the intruder with a frown.
He seemed somewhat relieved when he saw that his visitor was his own wife.
"Louisa Mary," he exclaimed, "you exasperate me! Why will you persist in sneaking into my office in that manner? You should always knock. You know very well that I object to be sneaked on."
"I did knock, Erasmus," said his wife, meekly, "but you did not hear me."
"Then you should have knocked louder," said he. "What do you want?"
Mrs. Pogson, who had on her hat and cloak, and who was just pulling on a pair of white cotton gloves, replied that she came to tell him that the buggy was ready, and that, if they wished to get to Forbes in a reasonable hour, it was time to start.
"Well," said he, "I cannot start yet, I am expecting Mr. Raymond here to sign a paper, an equity of redemption, and I can't start until he has signed it. I expect him every minute, and as soon as he has gone I will start. You go and wait in the shop."
So Mrs. Pogson went and took her seat on a high stool behind the counter, near the glass partition of the office, taking with her a copy of the "Christian Messenger" to read.
When she had gone Pogson turned once more to his papers. He folded each one up carefully, and laying them side by side, he looked at them. Seeing that one was folded crookedly, he folded it again, and then compared them again. As they were folded, the whole of the writing was hidden, except on each sheet the word "Signature" and the word "Witnesses." He took a ruler, and dipping his pen into a bottle of red ink, he drew a line under the word "Signature" and two lines under the word "Witnesses." He then compared the two critically; and after blotting them carefully, he placed one in the inner breast pocket of his coat, and the other in the large iron safe.
Pushing the door to, he locked it, and then, resuming his place, waited calmly, with his head thrown back, and face turned to the ceiling, and softly whistled to himself:
What is our calling's glorious hope,
But inward holiness?
He had not whistled many lines when he heard the loud voice of James Raymond in the shop inquiring whether Mr. Pogson was in, and immediately afterwards the little office door was again pushed open, and Mr. Raymond walked in.
"Well, Pogson," said he, "I see you are busy, as usual."
"No, sir," said Pogson, "not very. I was meditating, Mr. Raymond, simply meditating. Will you take a seat, sir?"
He arose, handed the cane chair to Mr. Raymond, and closed the office door. Thea he added, "We are quite private here, Raymond. Although I can keep my eye on the store; and sound is shut out when the door is shut."
"Well," said Mr. Raymond, as he took the proffered seat, "I won't stay long, as I have several calls to make, and I must get home before dark. I have called, according to you, to sign that paper. Is it ready?"
"Yes, sir," replied Pogson, "it is all ready," and unlocking the safe, he produced the paper he had deposited there a few minutes previously. Then, adjusting his glasses, he said: "Shall I read it to you, or will you read it for yourself?"
"You can read it," said Raymond. "I suppose it is the usual legal tomfoolery?"
"It is very short," said Pogson, "and I would not trouble you to sign it at all, I would take your word, Mr. Raymond, but the Investment Society, whose agent I am, insist on all this formality."
"I thought," said Raymond, "that this business was merely a matter between ourselves?"
"So it is, Mr. Raymond; so it is. But to oblige you I have to borrow myself. I am not a millionaire, Mr. Raymond. I wish, sir for your sake, I was."
"Well, well!" said Raymond, impatiently, "I don't know much about these things. Of course, I'm very much obliged to you, and I hope to get square some day. But let us get it over."
"We will, sir," replied Pogson. "I will not detain you a moment longer than is necessary."
He read the document to Mr. Raymond, who expressed himself as quite satisfied, and took up the pen to sign.
"It will be necessary to have two witnesses," said Pogson.
"What for?" asked Mr. Raymond.
"That is the law, sir," said Pogson, shrugging his shoulders and smiling.
"Damn the law!" said James Raymond, irreverently, throwing down the pen. "Am I to let everybody know my business?"
"No, sir," said Pogson; "it is only necessary for the witnesses to see you sign the document. It is not necessary for them to know its contents."
Folding the paper as it was before, he said: "There! you can sign it now, and they can witness it, and they don't know what it is. I will get somebody to witness it. I see Mr. Meredith talking to Mr. Bingham outside. I will ask them to step in and witness your signature. Excuse me for one moment."
Taking the paper in his hand, he stepped out of the door of the store, and almost immediately returned, bringing with him the two gentlemen he had named. He apologised for the smallness of his office, and its scant accommodation, and then, producing the document, he remarked in a jocular tone of voice, solemnly winking at James Raymond as he did so:
"Mr. Raymond, gentlemen, has been making his will, and he wants you to be kind enough to witness his signature. I will not detain you a moment." Dipping the pen in the ink, he handed it to Raymond, and while the latter was signing, he remarked in a still more jovial strain, "I could not witness it myself, you know, because I am the principal legatee, and it would render my legacy invalid."
The formality of signing was soon over, and Mr. Meredith and Mr. Bingham left. Mr. Pogson arose, placed the document in the safe, locked the door, and put the key in his pocket.
"There," said he to Raymond, "that was soon settled. That was a good joke of mine about the will. Some people are very suspicious, you know, especially parsons and bank managers. Now, they will suspect nothing."
"But how do you reconcile a falsehood with your religious professions?" inquired Raymond.
"Don't call it a falsehood, Mr. Raymond," said Pogson, shuddering visibly. "Falsehoods are things which I abominate. I used the word 'Will' in its broad and general, sense, and not in the restricted sense in which it is sometimes used. Every time a man does that which he wills to do, he may be said, in a general sense, to make his will. I used the word in its general sense, and therefore I told no falsehood."
"Oh, well," said Mr. Raymond, "I do not understand these fine distinctions myself. But I thank you for all your kindness, and must now go."
"Good-bye, Mr. Raymond," said Pogson. "Make your mind easy about the accrued interest. It may run for the next six months if you like. I will not worry you. Goodbye, sir, and God bless you." Turning his face upward, and raising his hands with the palms outward, he closed his eyes and said; "May the blessing of Heaven be with us, and with all men, now and for evermore, Ah-men!" He then opened his eyes again, but only to discover that Mr. Raymond had gone.
Mr. Pogson gathered up his papers from his desk, took several more from his pocket, put them all in the safe, locked it, and put the key in his pocket. He put on his hat, took his overcoat from its peg, shut the office door, locked it, and pocketed the key, then, turning to his wife, who was still deeply engrossed in the pages of the "Christian Messenger," he said:
"Louisa Mary, I am ready."
So Mrs. Pogson put down her paper, and went to the door, where the buggy was in waiting. Pogson stayed to give a few final instructions to his principal storeman, cast his eye round the store to see that all was right, and then, kicking a dog that was sniping at a pile of sheepskins on the footpath, took his seat beside his wife in the buggy.
"Louisa Mary," said he, as he gathered up the reins, "it is a beautiful day. How thankful, we should be to the munificent Giver of all good things for fine weather, and the health to enjoy it."
"Yes, Erasmus," said his wife.
"It should make us meek. It should make us humble, and incline our hearts to universal charity and sympathy."
Just then the horse shied at a wheelbarrow, and Erasmus, letting the whip fall heavily upon the horse's flanks, and threatening to cut its liver out if it shied again, drove off quickly on the road to Forbes.
About a month after James Raymond's visit to Eugowra, the Bindawalla household had just risen from a dismal dinner, and Nell and Leslie were seated on either side of the fireplace, she gazing intently into the fire and he scanning a newspaper. Nell had been recalling Ruby Sterling's words about "a sacred trust at Bindawalla," and she was wondering if she had made any special endeavour towards bringing about a happier state Of affairs. She felt inclined to try what an active campaign might do since a passive one was evidently a failure. She was meditating upon the best method of attacking Leslie. She could not very well try to coax him, because her father had told her that a woman never coaxed without a selfish motive, and she did not want Leslie to think that. At last, acting more upon impulse than from any preconceived method, she kicked his foot, and said:
"Eh?" exclaimed Leslie, glancing up from his paper.
"I said Bear!" said Nell, "Bear! I called you a BEAR, and so you are. A great, big, selfish, morose, ill-tempered Bear. There!"
"Is that all you have to say?" said Leslie.
"No, it isn't," said Nell. "I have a great deal more to say, but I do not know whether to say it or not. It is not an easy matter to talk to a Bear."
"And why," said Leslie, "this sudden incursion into the realms of zoology? What has happened to upset you?"
For a few moments Nell did not reply. She took up some "work" and stabbed away viciously with her needle. Leslie was just about to resume his reading, when Nell again addressed him.
"I suppose," said she, "that when you went to school they taught you something about Grecian mythology?"
"A little," said Leslie, "not much. And what they did teach me I have forgotten. A sheep station is not the place to keep alive one's interest in mythology, except it may be it reminds one occasionally of the legend of the Golden Fleece. But why this sudden transition from zoology to mythology."
"I was wondering," said Nell, "whether you remembered how men and women used to be changed into birds and animals, and into trees, and flowers and rocks; how Arethusa was turned into a fountain, Philomela into a nightingale, and Tereus into a hawk. How Teiresias became a woman, Narcissus a flower, and how Circe transformed her visitors into swine?"
"I have heard something of it," said Leslie, "but you know that all those tales were mere myths."
"I used to think they were," said Nell, "but I have seen a modern metamorphosis as wonderful as any of them. And the modern one is no myth. It is real, painfully real."
"I don't know what you mean," said Leslie,
"Well, then," she answered, throwing down her work, and drawing her chair close to his, "I will tell you. There was once a girl who had a brother, and she loved her brother with all her heart, and her brother loved her, and she was as happy as the day was long. Between this girl and her brother there were no secrets. They shared their joys and their sorrows, as a brother and his only sister ought to do. And the girl was so proud of him that she thought no other girl had a brother so kind and so affectionate. Then it happened that a great change took place, for the girl's brother was transformed into a bear. The girl still loved him, but he ceased to love her. Now, don't interrupt me. He ceased to love her. He grew silent and morose, and ceased to confide in her. All the old trust was destroyed. There came a great gulf of estrangement between them, and the girl's heart was broken. Oh! Leslie, what have I done to forfeit your confidence, and how can I regain it?"
She rose from her chair and put her arms round Leslie's neck, and he answered her very gently.
"You have done nothing, Nell, and I have not ceased to love you. But I suppose I have changed. I know I have been very wretched, but it is not your fault."
"Tell me your trouble, Leslie, and let me share it if I cannot drive it away."
"You can do neither, Nell," said Leslie, sorrowfully. "My trouble is one that will be with me as long as I live. Why should you bother about it? Don't think I have changed to you; but one cannot be merry with a broken heart."
"Broken fiddlesticks!" exclaimed Nell. "Your heart is not broken. People do not live with broken hearts!"
Her brother smiled scornfully, and said, "He jests at scars, that never felt a wound."
"You need say no more, Leslie," said Nell. "Your secret is a secret no longer. When a young man talks about his heart being broken, and follows that up by quoting Romeo, there is but one solution. He is in love, hopelessly in love. I have long suspected that this was the cause of your peculiar behaviour, now I know it. I have sometimes thought the fault might be mine. I am glad it is no worse."
"Good Heavens!" exclaimed Leslie, bitterly. "You speak as though I were a boy, and had got the measles or something! I tell you, Nell, my life is blighted."
"Poor fellow!" said Nell, soothingly. "'Alas, poor Romeo, he is already dead! Stabbed with a white wench's black eye; shot through the ear with a love-song; the very pin of his heart cleft, with the blind bow-boy's butt-shaft!' Ha! Ha! You see, Leslie, it was dangerous to quote Romeo. It was sure to remind me of Mercutio. But there, don't frown. I am not going to blame you for falling in love, but I do blame you for being so despondent over it. Your lady love lives, and while there's life there's hope. See! I have a letter from her. It only came yesterday."
"A letter from Ruby!" exclaimed Leslie. "Oh! good Nell, read it to me! Where is she? Is she well?"
"I will read it on one condition," said Nell, "and that is that there is to be no more secrecy nor coldness between us. Believe me, Leslie, I will not prove unworthy of your confidence. Is it a bargain?"
"Forgive me, Nell, I have been foolish. It shall not occur again. Since you have found out my secret—my only secret—I will promise that there shall be no more between us. Forgive me, Nell, and let us be as we used to be."
He kissed her fondly, and Nell, happier, and with a lighter heart than she had had for a long time, read Ruby's letter to him.
It described the voyage to Europe, and the wonderful places touched en route. She had spent a fortnight in London, and marvelled at its varied sights, and the people she had met. With the Professor and his wife, she had taken a trip to Ireland, to see Mrs. Batonstein's birthplace. Then they had been to Berlin, and to a little German town where Herr Batonstein had spent his boyhood, and where they found several of his school-follows still living, who had welcomed the Professor, and listened to his tales of the antipodes with much wonder. Then they had gone to Paris, and it was from that city that the letter was written. Ruby was studying there, and making such headway that her teacher—one of the greatest in the world—was delighted with her progress. Ruby concluded her letter by sending her best wishes to Nell, and to all at Bindawalla.
"Is that all?" said Leslie.
"That is all," said his sister. "What more did you expect? I think it is a very nice, long letter."
"She does not mention me," said he, sadly. "She has forgotten me."
"You goose," said Nell. "You know nothing about a woman's heart. Why, if my opinion is correct, you are the last person in all the world that she would mention when writing to me!"
From that time Nell and her brother were drawn together by a bond of mutual sympathy. He seemed to try, by his affectionate consideration, to atone for his past neglect, and she showed, in a hundred delicate, tactful ways, that she appreciated the change. If it had not been for the fact that her father grew more morose and surly day by day, Nell would have felt quite happy.
The winter was a very dry one, and the approach of summer saw the run almost bare of grass. The sheep had been kept alive during the winter by felling the young trees and saplings in various parts of the station, but they were in very poor condition. And still, day after day, the sun rose in a cloudless sky, and the rain came not.
One morning in August the mail had been delivered, and James Raymond had retired, as usual, to his office. He had not been there long when Nell heard him calling her by name, and quickly answered his summons. He inquired for Leslie.
"Send him in at once, my dear," said he "I want to speak to him."
He seemed to be excited, and she thought he spoke with unusual cheerfulness. Leslie was not far away, and at once went to the office.
"Sit down, my boy," said Raymond, "I want to have a chat with you. A great weight has been lifted from my mind, and I want to talk to you about it. I have dreaded to speak of it to you before, but the trouble is over, and I feel that I must talk to somebody about it," and he laughed in an excited manner. "We have been passing through a crisis, my boy, a terrible crisis. I have been losing a lot of money lately, and have had to borrow and borrow, until I was up to my neck in debt. The strike, the woolshed, the drought, the fall in prices, they all contributed to it, and I had to borrow to keep going. For the first time in my life I was in debt. I owed money to the Bank, and to Pogson, and several overdue accounts besides. Well, this morning I have received a letter from the Bank stating that a bank draft has been received covering the proceeds of last season's wool, and it is sufficient to pay off all my liabilities, and leave a substantial balance in hand. The tide has turned at last, and James Raymond can hold up his head again. Fortune, that has so long been against me, has at length worked in my favour. I have just been making a rough calculation, and I find that there will be something like twelve thousand pounds clear, after paying off the overdraft at the bank. The whole of my other liabilities only amount to seven thousand odd, and so you see, I can pay them all, and get out of old Pogson's clutches. My credit is saved, and a tremendous weight of anxiety is lifted from my shoulders."
Leslie congratulated his father, and told him that his trouble had been noted by both Nell and, himself.
"You may, tell her all about it, if you like," said his father. "I don't mind, now the storm is over. But I could not bear to speak of it before, my boy. However, it is past. I will go into Eugowra to-morrow, settle with Pogson, and get back the securities he holds. Then you and I will take a day and ride round the estate and see what improvements we can make."
Nell was delighted with the news, and lost no time in telling her father so; and that evening, at dinner, all the barriers seemed broken down. James Raymond was like his old sturdy, cheerful self again, and once more the Bindawalla household was united, and Nell's pillow was wet that night with tears of gratitude.
The next day James Raymond drove into Eugowra and proceeded straight to Pogson's store. He found the proprietor sitting in the little office at the back.
"Good day," said Raymond, cheerfully. "Still busy, I see."
"Always busy, sir," answered Pogson. "Like the busy, bee, sir, trying to improve each shining hour. But never too busy to attend to you, sir."
"Well," said Raymond, "I have come to get out of debt. I am obliged to you for all your kindness, and as I am now able to run alone, I have come to settle up. I have made out a cheque for the principal and interest, and as I want to show you that I am not unmindful of the assistance you have rendered me, I have included in it the interest up till Christmas next," and he took the cheque from his pocket book. "Now, if you will hand me over the securities and the equity of redemption, we shall be square."
Mr. Pogson shifted uneasily in his chair, and coughed once or twice before he spoke. At length he said, "Well, you see, Mr. Raymond, there are certain legal formalities. A cheque is only a promise to pay."
"Why," said Raymond, as he flung the cheque on the desk, "do you think, man, I would give you a cheque if I had not funds to meet it?"
"No, sir," replied Pogson, "certainly not, but—" and he hastily snatched the cheque. "Why! This is on the Austral Colonial Bank! Haven't you heard the news?"
"What news?" demanded Raymond.
"Why," said Pogson, "that bank suspended payment yesterday, during reconstruction."
"What do you mean?" said Raymond.
"I mean," replied. Pogson, calmly, "that your cheque is not worth the paper on which it is written. That if you have a hundred thousand pounds in that bank, you cannot get a penny of it. They closed their doors yesterday, and it is doubtful when they will open them again. It means that all who owe the bank money will have to pay, and that those to whom the bank is indebted will have to wait—probably for years. I am sorry for you, Mr. Raymond."
James Raymond sat for some moments like a man that was dazed. Then he broke out into a storm of abuse against the bank.
"Why!" he exclaimed, "that is robbery! Highway robbery. My money was paid in yesterday."
"They call it reconstruction," said Pogson.
"Reconstruction be damned!" roared Raymond. "Curse their fine phrases! They have my money, and by God! if there's law in the land, I'll make them disgorge."
"Patience, my dear sir!" said Pogson, "Patience is a virtue that enables us to—"
"Patience be damned!" said Raymond, as he seized the cheque and his hat, and rushed from Pogson's office.
That evening as Nell sat on the verandah awaiting the return of her father from Eugowra, and of Leslie from the stockyard, she felt that all the weight of anxiety that had hung round her like a millstone was removed. She sang softly to herself, thinking there was, after all, something worth living for; and when she heard the sound of wheels and saw her father driving up to the gate, she ran lightly to him. She opened the gate, and he descended cautiously from the buggy. As she ran forward to kiss him he held up his finger, as if to enjoin silence, and then looked eagerly across the flat in the direction from which he had come.
At length, seeming satisfied with his scrutiny, he said as he placed his arm around her, "It's all right, my dear. It's all right. He said he was reconstructed, but I gave him the slip." Then he stopped, and laughed boisterously. "Ha! Ha! What fools there are in the world! He thought I didn't know the difference between a bank manager and a crow!"
Nell, with a feeling of some indefinable dread in her mind, led her father to the verandah, and seated him on one of the settees.
"Did you have a pleasant drive, dad?" she asked, as she sat down beside him.
"Fairly pleasant, my dear," he replied, "fairly pleasant, except for the one-eyed fellow."
"What fellow?" said 'Nell.
"The one that was riding on a bale of wool," said her father. "There he is at the fence now!"
Nell looked at the fence in some alarm, but there was to one there. "There is no one at the fence, dad," she said.
"How dare you contradict me?" said her father, fiercely. "Do you think I am mad? Go and tell Pogson I want him!"
"But dad," said Nell, bursting into tears, "Mr. Pogson is not here."
"It's a lie!" said Raymond, furiously. "You are hiding him! I saw him saying his prayers behind the stable as I came through the gate. Go and fetch him round, and send him to my office at once. I want to settle with him, and then I'll take him to pieces and reconstruct him! I can reconstruct as well as he. Send him in to me at once," and so saying, he strode off to his office.
Nell was terrified, and did not know what to do. Her first impression was that her father had been drinking too much, but somehow, he did not look like that. There was an expression on his face, and a strange light in his eyes that she had-never seen there before. Calling to the man who had come to take the buggy to the shed, she asked him to ride over to the stockyard and tell Leslie to come home at once. Then, creeping timidly along the hall towards her father's office, she listened. He was pacing the room with a steady stride, and occasionally laughing and talking to himself. She heard him say:
"I know where he is. He's in the safe. I'll keep him there until Andy comes. I can hear him singing a hymn. I'll hand him over to Andy, and he can fatten him up for the show. If Andy fattens him there won't be anything like him for forty miles round, age, weight, and size. Poor old Andy. He's a long time coming, but he's getting old."
He paused, and Nell could hear nothing but the measured footstep. Then he burst into a loud laugh.
"Ha! Ha! Ha! Damn the woolshed! Let it burn. It's a glorious sight. Ha! Ha!"
Just then Leslie arrived, and Nell begged him to go in and see what was the matter. Leslie tapped at the office door.
"Come in, Andy," said Raymond, "I want you to catch a bunyip."
Then, seeing Leslie, he passed his hand in a confused manner over his forehead, and said, "Is that you, Leslie?" As Leslie did not immediately reply, he continued, "Go and tell Andy I want him. Old Pogson's up the chimney, and he's got the scab." Looking cautiously towards the chimney, he motioned Leslie to be quiet and, approaching him on tip-toe, he said, "Send Andy in at once; I want him to dip old Pogson. He's got the scab," and, smiling significantly, he motioned Leslie to leave the room.
In the hall Leslie found Nell waiting with an anxious face, and leading her into the drawing room, he put his arm around her.
"Nell," he said, "we have a trouble now that is greater than any we have known. My poor, dear Nell! Our father is mad!"
No time was lost by Leslie in procuring the best medical advice for his father, but the doctors who examined him were unanimous in their opinion that his reason was hopelessly gone. They recommended his removal to an asylum, but to this advice neither Leslie nor Nell would listen. He exhibited no violent or dangerous symptoms so long as he was not contradicted, and so he remained at Bindawalla, ostensibly managing its affairs, but in reality under the close surveillance of a man who had been specially engaged to watch him.
Ill news fly apace, and it was not long before Leslie learned, to his consternation, that the proceeds of the wool sale were locked up in the bank, and that, although their liabilities were increasing, there were no available funds to meet them. He had, of course, to undertake the management of the estate, and this, together with the care of his father, and the endeavour to evolve some sort of order from the financial chaos which existed, kept him occupied from early morning until late at night.
In all his work he was cordially assisted by Nell, to whom he confided everything, and whose advice he frequently found valuable. The credit of the well-known Bindawalla estate was not yet quite exhausted, and the Raymonds were not without friends, so Leslie was able to make certain temporary arrangements to carry them over the immediate future. Shearing time was again approaching, and though the Bindawalla wool was still upon the sheep's backs, it formed an asset not to be despised. A large number of sheep had perished during the drought, but Leslie estimated they could still muster a hundred and fifty thousand, the fleeces from which ought to average in weight five pounds each. This was worth at least sixpence per pound, so, although the money would not be available for many months, still it represented a substantial asset.
As the shearing season approached and preparations for it had to be made, Leslie's work increased, but he still found time to devote an hour or two in the evening to Nell. When work was done for the day, and their father was asleep, the two would foregather in the dining room, or on the verandah, and Leslie, having lit his pipe, they would discuss the events of the day, and the plans for the morrow.
Nell had received two more letters from Ruby, and in the last one she had stated that her lessons in Paris were nearly completed. Herr Batonstein was going to London to arrange for an afternoon recital, to which all the musical critics were to be invited, and at which Ruby was to make her first appearance in the metropolis of the world.
One evening Nell and her brother were sitting as usual, chatting and comparing notes. Leslie was tired, and Nell had offered to read him the news. So while he smoked she unfolded the Sydney daily paper which had arrived by that day's mail, and began to read. She read the reports on the weather, by which it appeared that it had been raining along the coast, although none had penetrated so far inland as Bindawalla. Then she turned to the telegrams and cable news, and running her eye down them, she suddenly said with an exclamation of surprise:
"Oh, Leslie, listen to this! Here is a cable message, dated London, Wednesday evening:
"'Miss Ruby Sterling, the Australian soprano, made her first appearance in London today. She met with a splendid reception from a large and critical audience. Her success is assured. It is expected that she will become the rage of the season.'"
Leslie took his pipe from his mouth, and, puffing a cloud of smoke from his lips, he watched it curling upwards in the lamp-light until it disappeared. Then he sighed, as he said:—
"I suppose suppose I ought to feel pleased, but I am a selfish mortal, Nell, and I cannot. Yet—I suppose it is better so."
Nell kissed him affectionately, and told him that, however hard it might be, they must try to think that all things were for the best.
From that time forward there was scarcely a paper received at Bindawalla that did not contain some reference to Ruby.
At one time it was announced that she had sung at a musical festival in Birmingham, then, that she had sung in Edinburgh, and had received an ovation. Another cable briefly mentioned her appearance at the Albert Hall, London, where she sang before six thousand people. In addition to the records of her actual proceedings, there appeared from time to time, rumours of what she was going to do. It was mentioned that she had been engaged for an extensive tour in America, for which she was to receive a fabulous sum of money. Then, this rumour was contradicted, and it was stated that she would appear on the stage in grand opera. Next, Dame Rumour went a step further, and intimated that Miss Ruby Sterling, the eminent soprano, had received many offers of marriage; and that more than one member of the British aristocracy had sought to bring about an alliance between an ancient and noble house and O1d Joe's Flat. But in Ruby's letters to Nell, although she said a great deal about the places and people she had seen, she said very little about her own successes.
It is, perhaps, easy to imagine, though difficult to describe, the conflicting emotions that passed through Leslie's mind as he read the newspaper paragraphs, or as Nell read to him extracts from Ruby's letters.
Shearing time came and went, and Leslie stuck to his work with energy and determination. James Raymond still wandered about the station, and gave instructions for improvements, which, had they all been carried out, would have involved an expenditure of millions of money. He never noticed that his orders were neglected, but he used to fly into an ungovernable rage if his authority was questioned or disputed. So Leslie and Nell would quietly assent to all James Raymond's propositions, no matter how absurd or impossible they were, and strict orders were given to all the station hands to do tho same.
One evening, some months after the shearing was over, James Raymond's attendant had gone to get his supper, and Leslie, as was his custom, had undertaken to remain with his father until the man returned.
The elder Raymond took a fancy to visit the stables, and so Leslie went with him. As they walked, he told Leslie that he had come to the conclusion that the carrying capacity of the estate could be vastly improved if the gullies were all filled up, and the hills rolled out flat, and as he was going away he instructed Leslie to see that this was done before he got back, and Leslie promised that he would attend to it.
"I am not going to take that man with me," said Raymond. "He interferes too much. He always wants to come with me wherever I go. But I'm going to give him the slip to morrow," and he chuckled artfully as he said so.
They turned the corner of the stables, and saw the boundary rider's horse hitched up to the fence, with its saddle and bridle on.
"Do you see that horse?" said Raymond.
"Yes," said Leslie, "that's Dave's horse."
"Do you think so?" inquired his father.
Leslie said he was sure it was.
"Then you are mistaken," said Raymond, "it's not a horse at all."
Then, whispering confidentially to Leslie, he said, "It's old Pogson."
Leslie, forgetting for a moment his usual caution said, "No, dad. That's Dave's horse."
"How dare you contradict me?" exclaimed his father, "Do you think I don't know what I am talking about? Look at the length of his head. You can tell by that who he is. And see, his knees. Can't you see that he is in the habit of saying his prayers? But you don't know a horse from a haystack. Go and fetch Nell. She knows a horse when she sees one. Go and fetch Nell at once."
Leslie hesitated, for he did not like to leave his father alone.
"Do you hear me?" shouted Raymond, evidently getting excited. "Go and fetch Nell at once, and we'll hear what she says about it."
Leslie ran quickly to the house, and fortunately found Nell in the garden.
"Come quick, Nell," he said. "The dad is alone. He has got an idea into his head that Dave's horse is old Pogson. He wishes you to decide. By the time you get there he may say that it is Napoleon Bonaparte. Whatever he says, do not contradict him. He will not allow it."
Leslie had not been absent from his father for two minutes, but when he and Nell turned the corner of the stable they saw that the horse was gone and that James Raymond was some distance away upon its back.
"Come along," he called to them, "come along. I'll show you how old Pogson can jump!"
So saying, he urged the horse forward at the stiff three rail fence that skirted the home paddock. The animal galloped to within a yard or two of the fence, and then balked. This would have unseated many a less expert rider, but James Raymond had spent the best part of his life in the saddle. He merely trotted the horse back for ten or a dozen yards, and then turned him again at the fence.
Leslie and Nell were still some forty or fifty yards away, and were powerless to interfere. The horse was an old one, and had never been renowned as a jumper, but Leslie yet hoped that he would clear the fence in safety, and he had so much faith in his father's horsemanship that he felt that if the horse cleared the fence, James Raymond would keep his seat.
Again he saw his father urge the horse forward until it approached the fence, but it balked once more, and then made an awkward attempt to scramble over it, struck the top rail with both fore-feet, and then tumbled head first over the fence, crashing heavily upon its rider as it fell. Then it struggled to its feet and bolted, but James Raymond lay still. He never moved again, for his neck was broken.
They carried the master of Bindawalla to the house, and, in accordance with custom, although they knew he was dead, they sent a man away on horseback for a doctor, who, on his arrival, had to perform the merely formal duty of declaring that death must have been instantaneous.
There was a knoll of rising ground about half-a-mile from the homestead at Bindawalla, where half an acre of ground was enclosed by a neat pallisading fence. In each corner of the enclosure stood a large Norfolk Island pine, and between the pines were a few laurels and some wattles. The enclosure had long since been dedicated as a cemetery, and a white marble obelisk in the centre marked the resting place of those members of the Raymond family who, since the first occupation of Bindawalla, had gone before.
It was in this peaceful spot that the body of James Raymond was laid. It was accompanied there by the usual cavalcade of coaches, buggies, and horsemen. There was not a family residing within thirty miles who was not represented, and Several of the neighbours, while expressing their sympathy with Leslie in his bereavement, took this, the earliest, opportunity of congratulating him upon his newly acquired dignity as master of the fine estate of Bindawalla.
The last to take his departure was Mr. Pogson. While the rest of the friends had been expressing their condolences and taking their leave, Mr. Pogson had been strolling round the homestead, meditating. The subject of his meditation was known only to himself. It may have been the complex problem of life and death; the frailty of the former, and the certainty and unerring fidelity of the latter, with the useful lessons to be derived therefrom. But, his meditation being at last ended, Mr. Pogson bade Leslie and Nell good-bye.
"Good-bye, my dear young friends," he said, "good-bye. In a day or two, when the first anguish of your grief is over, I shall see you on business. In the meantime bear those misfortunes you have with a stout heart, and pray for power to face those that are to come, with humility and resignation, and with a contrite spirit. Remember that the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. Let us endeavour to be thankful to Him for all His mercies. Let us ever pray that, when you at last awake to a full realization of your position, you may console yourselves with the blessed fact that He will temper the wind to the shorn lambs. Good-bye. Bless you."
So Mr. Pogson departed, and Leslie and Nell were left in the house which seemed so silent and empty, alone with their great sorrow.
A search among the papers of the late James Raymond failed to reveal anything in the shape of a will, and Leslie had written to a firm of Sydney solicitors, whom the knew his late father had employed in several business matters, asking their assistance in taking out letters of administration.
He had forgotten all about Mr. Pogson's promised visit, when, about a week after his father's funeral, he received a letter from that individual, stating that he would, with his Solicitors, drive out to Bindawalla the next day, and requesting Leslie to be at home, as the business was of vital importance.
Leslie showed the letter to Nell.
"What can he want?" said he. "I know he has some claim against the estate, but he ought to know that we can do nothing until letters of administration are granted."
"I suppose you will know his business when he comes," said Nell, "so in the meantime you must not worry about it. Perhaps he thinks you will employ his solicitor to assist you."
"It is too late for that now," answered Leslie. "I have already written to Scarem & Co." And he tossed Pogson's letter aside.
The solicitor who accompanied Mr. Pogson on the following day was a Mr. Callow, of Forbes, who was in the habit of visiting Eugowra once a week. He was known to Leslie and bore the reputation of being as honest as his profession would allow him to be. That is, he endeavoured, so far as he could, to promote the interests of those who paid him, without troubling himself too much to inquire whether his client's interest was the interest of truth and justice or not.
They arrived at Bindawalla about two o'clock in the afternoon. Nell was in the garden, and Leslie on the verandah. Both spoke to the visitors, and the lawyer shook Leslie warmly by the hand. After a few remarks about the weather he suggested that they should get to business.
"I am ready," said Leslie, and Nell turned to leave them.
"I would suggest, then," said Mr. Callow, "that we adjourn to a place where we shall be more private, and as my business, to some extent, concerns your sister as well as yourself, I would also suggest that she should accompany us."
Leslie, whose curiosity was somewhat aroused, called Nell, and with her, he led the way to the office.
They seated themselves, Leslie at the large office table, which was strewn with papers, Nell by his side, Pogson on a chair near the door, and the lawyer, who had a brown leather bag in his hand, sat near the end of the table, and laid the bag in front of him. He drew off his gloves, coughed once or twice as he did so, and then, leaning back in his chair, and tapping the tips of his fingers lightly together as he spoke, he said:
"I believe, Mr. Raymond, that Miss Raymond and yourself are the sole surviving members of the family of the late Mr. Raymond, your father?"
"We are," replied Leslie.
"You will pardon me asking the question," continued Mr. Callow, "but I wanted all parties interested to be present. It seems they are present. So far, so good."
During this preliminary conversation Mr. Pogson sat with his eyes fixed on the ceiling as though be was engaged in counting the knots in the varnished Lachlan pine of which the panels were made.
"Then," continued Mr. Callow, still tapping the finger tips of one hand lightly against the finger tips of the other, "as all interested parties are present, it is my duty, as a lawyer, to inform you that the law is paramount, and that we must all bow to the law. Now the law assumes, and I think quite rightly, that the ownership of all property is vested in the man to whom the property belongs. Another legal axiom is, that every man is at liberty to do as he likes with his own. In this country, where there are no laws of primogeniture, or entail, every man who is of sound disposing mind can bequeath his property to whom he likes and devote it to any purpose he likes.
"I am quite willing to admit the truth of all you say," said Leslie, "but, you will pardon me, I do not quite see where it is leading us."
"We will come to that in due course," said Mr. Callow, calmly. "I am glad that you admit the correctness of my legal axioms, because it may save any misunderstanding hereafter. I wish you to realize, Mr. Raymond, that I have to interpret the law as I find it. I am only the instrument, not the maker of the law. Now, the law says that if a man, in the full possession of all his mental faculties, of his own free initiative, and without undue influence, makes his will, it does not matter how ridiculous, how curious, nor how unfair that will may appear to be, it is irrevocable, absolutely irrevocable. Therefore, your father, the late Mr. James Raymond—"
"But it does not apply," interrupted Leslie. "My father made no will."
"Pardon me, Mr. Raymond," said the lawyer, "that is just what brings me here. Your father did make a will. I have a copy of it in my bag, and as I copied it myself, I am prepared to make a statutory declaration, if necessary, that it is a correct copy. Having, as a lawyer, examined the will, I am prepared to state that it is all in due form, signed, sealed, witnessed, and everything according to law. I will, if you desire it read you the copy, but there is one question I should like to ask first, as may information upon that point is not quite clear. Can you tell me whether your father's mind became unhinged suddenly, or gradually?"
"Suddenly," replied Leslie. "He left here in his usual health, and in better spirits than usual, in the morning; and when he returned in the evening, he was mad."
"Can you give me the date?" asked the lawyer, dipping his pen in the ink.
"The date is engraven on my memory," said Leslie. "It was the day after the bank stopped payment. The last cheque my father signed is here. He signed it on the 30th of August, and on that day he lost his reason."
"There can be no mistake about that date?"
"None whatever," said Leslie. "Nell here can swear to it if necessary."
"And did your father, prior to this date, ever show any signs of mental aberration?"
"Never," said Leslie.
"And I suppose Miss Raymond can corroborate that?"
"Certainly I can," said Nell.
"Well, then," said the lawyer, "the will was signed by your father on the third of June; nearly three months before he showed the first symptoms of mental aberration."
Still tapping his finger-tips together, the lawyer smiled at Leslie in an inquiring way, as though asking him what he had to say to that.
Leslie had nothing to say. He was astonished, and simply stared back at the lawyer. For awhile nothing was said on either side, Mr. Pogson being still engaged in his self-imposed task of counting the knots in the ceiling. At length Leslie, with a slight tremor in his voice, said:
"May I ask the purport of the will?"
"Certainly you may," said the lawyer. "Under the circumstances, I think the question a natural one, and I dare say that our friend Mr. Pogson will agree with me."
Mr. Pogson, who appeared to be whistling, although, his lips emitted no sound, nodded his assent, without removing his eyes from the ceiling.
"The will," said Mr. Callow, "is one of those short, concise wills which are impossible to misunderstand, and in which it is impossible to find a flaw. I will read it to you if you like, but I can tell you its purport in a very few words. By the will, of which this is a true copy, and which copy I am prepared to leave with you, the whole of the real and personal property, wherever situated, without any reservation whatever, is left to our dear friend, Mr. Erasmus Pogson, and the said Mr. Erasmus Pogson is appointed, by the late Mr. James Raymond, as the sole executor to this his last will and testament."
"And Nell and myself?" said Leslie.
"I regret to say," said Mr. Callow, "that no mention is made of Miss Raymond nor yourself."
"Then," exclaimed Leslie, passionately, "it's a lie! An infamous lie! My father would never have made a will like that! There is some plot—some fraud—about the whole thing."
"I am sorry to hear you speak like that," said the lawyer, "because your words are actually libellous. But, of course, allowances must be made, and I am sure my friend will make them."
"I am willing to make every allowance," said Mr. Pogson. "I anticipated that, no doubt, Mr. Leslie would be disappointed. But he must learn the lesson of humility and resignation, those twin virtues which go so far to soften the hard asperities of human existence. We must all bow, with a humble spirit, to the dispensations of Providence."
Leslie, with a passionate exclamation, started to his feet, at which Mr. Pogson retreated towards the door, but Nell placed her hand on her brother's arm, and drew him gently back into his seat.
"Keep your temper, Leslie," she whispered, "we must have advice and time to think."
After a moment's pause, and an evident struggle with himself, Leslie answered, "You are right, Nell. We must have time to think."
"My esteemed client," said Mr. Callow, "is perfectly willing to give you time. But you must remember that my client, being the owner of Bindawalla, is responsible for all liabilities contracted by your late father, and for any expenditure connected with the estate since his decease. It is therefore necessary that he should be represented here, and that his representative should see that no waste nor other maladministration is allowed. He is willing, however, to give you all reasonable time. He has decided that you and your sister may remain here for three days, so as to give you time to arrange for your future proceedings."
"I wish," said Mr. Pogson, who still stood with his hand on the door, "to act with the utmost Christian charity and leniency compatible with a due regard for the interests of my property and my estate. To prove my forbearance, I am willing to extend the time to six days."
"I shall do nothing, and say nothing until I have seen my solicitor," said Leslie. "He will be here to-morrow."
"I shall be happy to give him all the information in my power," said Mr. Callow, "but I am, sure he will agree with me that the will is good, and absolutely irrevocable."
"Be kind enough to leave us," said Leslie. "I do not believe my father ever signed such a will. If I thought he did, and was in his right mind, then I should lose my faith in all that was good and honourable, and would go at once. I would not sleep another night under this roof."
Mr. Pogson, who had been nervously fingering the handle of the door, seemed very glad to have the interview over, and so, acting upon Leslie's hint, he and Mr. Callow took their departure, the lawyer leaving the copy of the will for Leslie's perusal.
Leslie and his sister read the document over and over again, bu the more they studied it, the more perplexed they became. It was, as the lawyer had said, very short and concise. So brutally concise that it was capable of only one interpretation. It was, being a copy, of course unsigned, but the names of the two witnesses were written in pencil.
"Surely," exclaimed Leslie, "neither Mr. Meredith nor Mr. Bingham would lend themselves to a fraud. I must see them at once."
"Wait until to-morrow, Leslie," said Nell. "You have to meet Mr. Scarem in Eugowra to-morrow. See them with him then."
Leslie took her advice, and decided to wait. In the meantime, they were stunned by the blow. And yet, although the prospect of being severed from the home of their birth and their childhood was a bitter one, the thought that oppressed them more than any other was that, if this thing were true, it was the deliberate act of their father, whom they had loved so well, and who had always, so far as they could judge, loved them.
To divert his thoughts Leslie took up the Sydney paper, and glanced through its contents for some time without really understanding a word he read, until his attention was riveted by the following cablegram:
"The Prince and Princess of Wales held a reception tonight at Marlborough House. Miss Ruby Sterling sang two songs, and was personally complimented by His Royal Highness upon her exquisite singing."
After a sleepless night Leslie started for Eugowra to meet Mr. Scarem, who, in view of the magnitude of the Bindawalla property, had considered it worth his while to journey from Sydney to confer with Leslie as to the administration of the estate.
The lawyer was considerably surprised when he heard the new turn that affairs had taken.
"God bless my soul!" he exclaimed. "Why, it was only on the last occasion that your father visited Sydney that I was urging him to make his will, but he only laughed, and asked me if I thought he was going to peg out. There must be some mistake. Who were the witnesses?"
Leslie told him their names, and the lawyer suggested that the two gentlemen should be seen without delay.
"Shall I bring them here?" asked Leslie, as they sat in the snug parlour of the hotel at Eugowra.
"No," replied Mr. Scarem, "we will question them separately. If there is any collusion we shall then probably find out."
So they went first to the bank, and saw Mr. Bingham, who, while expressing his sympathy with Leslie, told his tale very frankly and plainly. He remembered perfectly the occasion of the will being signed. He was talking to Mr. Meredith in the street, when Mr. Pogson called them into his store, and asked them to witness Mr. James Raymond sign his will. They went in, and Mr. Raymond signed it, and he and Mr. Meredith witnessed the signature. That was all he knew. The whole affair did not take ten minutes, and James Raymond left immediately afterwards. In fact, he passed Mr. Meredith and himself at the door of the store.
"Did you know the contents of the will?" asked the lawyer.
"No," replied Mr. Bingham, "I did not. I asked no questions."
"Did Mr. Raymond acknowledge the document to be his will?"
"I don't think Mr. Raymond said so, in so many words," said Mr. Bingham, "but prior to his signing it, Mr. Pogson explained in his presence that it was his will, and Mr. Raymond did not contradict him. And now I remember that he also tacitly admitted that Mr. Pogson was the principal legatee."
"It seems," said the lawyer, "by this copy, that he is the only legatee."
They went next to Mr. Meredith, who simply corroborated Mr. Bingham in every particular.
Upon being asked whether Mr. Raymond appeared to be in his right mind, Mr. Meredith said that he conversed with Mr. Raymond that day, both before and after the signing of the will, and that he was as sane as a man could be.
Before leaving Eugowra, Mr. Scarem rang Mr. Callow, and was shown the will itself. Mr. Meredith and Mr. Bingham also saw it, and identified the signatures, so, there being nothing more to be done at Eugowra, Leslie and Mr. Scarem drove out to Bindawalla.
They discussed the matter far into the night. Mr. Scarem was particular in his inquiries as to the relations between Leslie and his father.
"Did you ever quarrel with him?" asked the lawyer.
"Not seriously," said Leslie.
"Oh, then you did quarrel?" said Mr. Scarem.
"Once, a long time ago," admitted Leslie, and then, thinking that perfect confidence was the best course, he told the lawyer all about the quarrel, and how his father had threatened to horsewhip him.
After hearing this and a few more explanations, the lawyer seemed to have made up his Mind.
"You know," he said, "your father was a very proud man, and he was intensely bitter against free selectors. I should imagine that he would be strongly opposed to the prospect of a free-selector's daughter becoming the mistress of Bindawalla. Depend upon it, the matter dwelt in his mind, and caused him to make the will the way he did."
"My father never knowingly signed that will," said Leslie, emphatically.
The lawyer shrugged his shoulders and knocked the ashes off the end of his cigar.
"I am afraid," said he, "that the evidence is all the other way."
"Well," said Leslie in despair, "what is your advice?"
"If you have a few thousands to spare, and a taste for litigation, you might contest the will. But it will be a costly affair."
"I have not a pound in the world," said Leslie. "I have always been dependent upon my father, and was always led to believe that, at his death, the estate was to be mine." Then, staring blankly at the solicitor, he added, "Unless this will is upset Nell and I are absolutely penniless."
"Then," said the lawyer, "however painful it may be for me to say and for you to hear it, is my duty to advise you, unless you can get fresh evidence of an important character, to accept the inevitable. So far as I can judge, the will is your father's will, and you have not a ghost of a chance of upsetting it."
Mr. Scarem left for Sydney the next morning rather annoyed to think that he had been wasting his time, and making an unprofitable journey. He had to wait in Eugowra for half an hour for the coach, so he took advantage of the delay to call upon Mr. Pogson, and assure him that, as his firm had always transacted the Bindawalla business for the late James Raymond, it would be equally happy to give its best attention to any business that the new owner of Bindawalla might be disposed to trust to it.
"What are we to do, Nell?" said Leslie, when Mr. Scarem had departed; "are we to give up the home of our childhood without a struggle?"
"What can we do?" said Nell. "The lawyers seem to think we have no legal claim. If Bindawalla belongs to Mr. Pogson we do not want to live here. We MUST give it up," and she burst into tears.
"Don't cry, Nell," said Leslie. "We must face the world, but at least we will face it together. I have not the slightest idea of the best way to earn a living, but I may be able to get the management of a station, or failing that, I must join the mounted police. I suppose I could ride well enough for that. The greatest difficulty will be to get through the interim that must elapse. Where can we go?"
They discussed this question for some time, without arriving at a satisfactory solution. They both knew that, a month ago, there was not a squatter's family within a hundred miles but would have been delighted to know that Leslie and his sister were coming to stay with them for a. month. But they also knew that entertaining the prospective owner of Bindawalla and his sister was one thing, and giving a month's shelter to two penniless outcasts was quite another. They both inherited a sufficient quantity of their father's pride to cause them to shrink from the ordeal. In fact, they shrank instinctively from the necessity of meeting old acquaintances under the altered circumstances. It would have been a relief if they could both have suddenly transported themselves to some unknown part of the world, where, among strangers, they could have begun life anew.
They had not decided anything as to their future, when a small buggy drove up to the gate. Out of the buggy stepped Mr. Meredith, who handed Mrs. Meredith out after him, and both walked up to the house.
"Good afternoon," said the parson, "Mrs. Meredith and I have taken the liberty of running over to call on you. We wished to offer you our sympathy in your trouble. I wrote three letters to you last night, but none of them seemed to me to express exactly what I meant, so Mrs. Meredith suggested that I should drive her over. I thought I would like a chat with you."
"And I wanted a chat with Miss Raymond," said Mrs. Meredith.
Leslie and Nell made an effort to appear pleased at the unexpected visit. Mr. Meredith discussed casual topics with Leslie for some time, while Mrs. Meredith talked to Nell, and admired her roses, the roses she was so soon to lose.
At length, just as they seemed to have exhausted all ordinary subjects of conversation, Mr. Meredith, laying his hand kindly on Leslie's shoulder, said:
"Mr. Raymond, I trust you will not think me inquisitive. I know all about your difficulties. Have you decided yet what you are going to do?"
"We have decided nothing," said Leslie. "We must, I suppose, leave Bindawalla. I must earn a living somehow. I am not afraid of that, but I am worried about Nell. I don't know what to do in the interim."
"That is one of the things I wanted to talk about," said the parson. "Your know, Mr. Raymond, that although I have been some years in Eugowra, we have not seen much of each other. I don't know why. We are not far off the same age, and should have many tastes in common. I recollect playing football with you, when we were both at school. Do you remember?"
Leslie said he had no recollection of having met Mr. Meredith on the football field.
"Oh, yes!" said Meredith, "you were playing for the Grammar School, and I for the High School. It was on the Association ground, the scores were equal, and time was nearly up. We had a scrum. One fellow got hurt."
"Was it Jenkins?" asked Leslie, evincing, for the first time, some interest in the conversation.
"Yes," said Meredith, "it was Jenkins, of the Grammar School. Just as he fell, he passed to you. You ran, and nearly scored, but I tackled you. You were bigger than I, but I downed you and got the ball out of bounds. Then we touched, and won the match."
"Were you the little beggar who downed me?" said Leslie. "My word! You were a game one."
"Yes," said Meredith, modestly, "I got no end of praise from my side. I don't think I was ever prouder of anything in my life."
Both men were silent for a moment, as their minds went back to the old schoolboy days. Then Mr. Meredith spoke again.
"I have often thought," said he, "that I would like a good chat with you about old times. The old boys are scattered now, and we don't often meet them. Before you leave Eugowra I should like you to come and spend a week or two with us, you, and Miss Nell. Our home is only a humble one, but if you can put up with the accommodation, it, will delight Mrs. Meredith and myself. And if you have to go away on business, you know, at any time, Miss Nell could stay as long as convenient to her. In short, I want you to—a—come and visit us."
The parson had tried to put the thing as delicately as he could. He and his wife had come with the intention of frankly offering the shelter of their roof to Nell and her brother in their trouble, and yet, Mr. Meredith did not want to wound their feelings, by causing them to think he was offering them charity. So he pleaded for the honour of their company, and pleaded so successfully that Leslie really thought he would be conferring a favour on the parson by accepting his invitation, and the parson and his wife went away quite proud of the success of their mission.
When they had gone, Leslie remarked to Nell that, under the circumstances, nothing could have been more fortunate than the invitation. "It will at least give us time to breathe," he said. "And really, Meredith seems a very nice sort of fellow when you come to talk to him. It is a wonder that a man of hi attainments and ability cares to bury his talents in Eugowra."
"His wife is extremely nice," said Nell. "She talked to me like a sister, or an old familiar friend."
"Well, we have crossed the Rubicon," said Mr. Meredith, as he got into the buggy after replacing the slip-rails at the first fence. "The die is cast. They will come, and now, for ways and means."
"I will be very careful in the house," said his wife, "and, of course, we cannot manage anything in the way of luxuries. Still, I suppose a cold joint will not last quite so long as it does now. But I have been thinking that if I alter the hat I wore last summer, and clean it, I can make it do again, and we can save the expense of the new one you wanted me to get."
"We'll see," said the parson. "I don't like the idea. I had set my mind on the new hat. Perhaps we might sell Daisy. She is worth five pounds, and we could buy our milk for a while."
Mrs. Meredith sighed, but said nothing.
"If I could only induce the people to make an effort to pay the stipend owing," said her husband, "we should be all right. But we must look forward with courage. We are doing the right thing, and it will all come right in the end. But I must steel my heart against all extraneous applications for charity. Our slender means will not stand them. The next tramp that comes along, mind, I am adamant!"
His wife smiled.
"I remember," she said, "hearing something like that before. Only last week you said the same thing, and yet, two hours afterwards, you gave away the only decent pair of boots you had, to a tramp."
"Yes, my dear, I know, but he was an old man, and his feet were sore." Then the added, with a twinkle in his eyes us he held up his right foot for her to examine, "I did not make a bad job of patching the old ones. They look quite respectable. I believe I could earn more money mending boots than I can at preaching."
Little did Leslie and Nell dream of the extraordinary expedients resorted to in order to find accommodation for them. When the Merediths reached home the parson took off his coat, and both he and his wife set to work to prepare for the expected visitors.
They had only two bedrooms in the house, but fortunately there was a little skillion room at the back, which was used as a receptacle for garden tools, harness, and old lumber of all kinds.
So they arranged that Nell should share Mrs. Meredith's room, and that Leslie should have exclusive possession of the spare room, while the parson himself proceeded to build a stretcher with some saplings and empty corn-bags and, after packing the tools and harness in one end of the lumber-room, he established his stretcher in the cleared space. Mrs. Meredith was afraid that the draught between the joints of the slabs might bring on an attack of his old enemy, neuralgia, but the parson guarded against that by pasting paper over the cracks. When he had done that, and improvised a patent button for keeping the door shut, he declared that it would do splendidly.
"I shall sleep here," said he, "as peacefully as possible. How many poor wretches have a worse sleeping place, and who shall say that I am more worthy than they? Besides, look at the convenience of the arrangement. If I should get a sick call in the night, I can get up and attend to it without waking the whole establishment. Why, it's grand!"
He smiled happily as Mrs. Meredith impulsively drew his face down to hers, and kissed him. Then the two sat down to their humble supper with minds as peaceful and contented as many a Bishop and his Lady.
It was Saturday afternoon when Nell and Leslie bade a sorrowful farewell to the home of their childhood. It needed all Mrs. Meredith's Sisterly tact and kindness to keep Nell from breaking down entirely. As for Leslie, he was wretched.
He felt his misfortunes acutely but, in addition to his despondency, he was far from well. His mental sufferings were great, but his physical pain was greater, for he had a racking headache, and, although the weather was unusually warm, he complained of feeling chilly. He could not eat and apologised to Mr. Meredith for being such poor company.
"Don't apologise," said the parson. "Go to bed. You will feel better in the morning. I always go to bed early on Saturday night, because Sunday with me is a very hard day. To-morrow I have to preach, twelve miles away, at eleven o'clock. Then I have to ride eight miles, and preach at Cow Flat at three. I shall leave there at half-past four and have eleven miles to ride home, after which I preach in Eugowra, at seven. We have a practice of calling the Sabbath a day of rest," and he smiled, "but sometimes I am pretty well knocked up."
"And I suppose," said Leslie; "that the salary is not princely?"
"I get, if I am fortunate," said Mr. Meredith, still smiling, "about as much in a year as a shearer would during the shearing season. But don't think I am complaining. My heart is in my work, and I would not give it up if I could. But you are tired and ill. Let me show you to your room."
Leslie, whose temples were throbbing violently, and who felt unusually languid, went to bed. He felt rather ashamed of his weakness, and resolved manfully that he would pull himself together in the morning, and shake the feeling off.
But in the morning he found that this was not an easy matter, for he was more languid than ever, and his head was aching more than before. On Monday he was still worse. His tongue was dry and crusted, and his face flushed. His eyes looked heavy and dull, and his lassitude increased. Nell watched him anxiously and, on Tuesday, when he could scarcely lift his head, she insisted on calling in a doctor to see him.
When the doctor came he shook his head gravely, ordered Leslie to bed at once, and told Mr. Meredith confidentially that he feared Leslie was sickening for typhoid fever. The parson whistled, and put his hands into his pockets. He had three and sixpence there. It was all the money he had in the world, and he did not rightly know where the next was coming from, but he jingled it merrily and told the doctor that God was good, and that Leslie should want for nothing.
"What a good job," he remarked to his wife when the doctor had gone, "that we have not sold Daisy. The doctor says that he must have nothing but milk."
Glancing at his watch, he said that he would run over to the Post Office for the mail. In going there, he had to walk the entire length of the township. It was not far, only a few hundred yards, but he passed Mr. Pogson's store, the bank, the mill, the School of Arts, and the blacksmith's shop, and then he had to cross the bridge over the Lachlan. In crossing the bridge, he met George Sterling.
"Good day, Mr. Meredith," said sterling, as he pulled up his horse, and, dropping the bridle rein upon its neck, he began to mop his red face with his handkerchief. "By gosh! it's warm!"
"Yes," said Mr. Meredith, "rather sultry. And how is Mr. Sterling to-day?"
"Oh, Pretty so so," said Sterling. "Not so bad for an old 'un. I had a touch of lumbago last week, but it's better now."
Then, leaning over his horse's head, and speaking confidentially, he said, "This is a bad business about the Bindawalla estate. By gum! I don't know what could have come over old Raymond. What's the boy and gal goin' to do now? I hear they are stayin' down at your place!"
Meredith said it was a fact, and then he told Sterling about Leslie having been taken sick, and that the doctor thought he had typhoid fever.
"Is that so, now?" said Sterling. "Well, I'm derned sorry, and that's a fact. But you can't keep him there. He may be ill for a long time, and he'll want careful nursing."
"I think we can manage," said Meredith. "I have some knowledge of medicine, Mrs. Meredith is a capital nurse, and his sister is devoted to him."
"But it'll be derned expensive to you," said Sterling.
The parson smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
"The Lord has placed him in my hands, Sterling," he said, "He will find a way."
"Well," said Sterling, after meditating a few moments, "I believe in the Lord as much as any man. But, if I was you, I wouldn't leave it all to the Lord."
"For the present," said Meredith, "I have very little alternative," and he slowly jingled the three and sixpence in his pocket.
George Sterling stroked his chin thoughtfully. "Can you tell me," he presently said, "what a harmoner is?"
"A harmoner?" repeated Meredith. "No, I haven't the slightest idea."
"I think she said harmoner," Sterling said, feeling in his coat pocket. "I've got the letter here somewheres. Here it is, you can read it if you like, there ain't no secrets in it. It's from my Rube. Lor' sakes! She's havin' high old times in England! Dinin' with lords, dooks, herls, markises, and things. I knew she'd shake things up when she got there. She knocked the Prince o' Wales clean back with her singin'. Well, she writes to me, and she sends some presents for her Ma, and Madge, and me; and she encloses fifty pounds! Only fancy! Fifty pounds, and says she wants it distributed in benevolence about Eugowra, and I'm to be her harmoner."
"I see," said Meredith, "she says here that she wants you to act as almoner."
"Yes," said Sterling, "that's it." Taking back the letter from Mr. Meredith, he added, "Now the question is, what does she mean by harmoner?"
"She means," explained Meredith, "that the money is to be spent in some benevolent object or objects, and that you are to choose the objects."
"That I can do as I like with it?"
"Yes, so long as the object is a benevolent one."
"Then," said Sterling, putting his hand in his pocket, producing a roll of bank-notes, and selecting one, "I'll get you to help me. Take this tenner and spend it in looking after young Raymond. When it's gone, if you want any more, see me. Don't tell anybody where you got it, and if anybody asks, say the Lord sent it. See? Good day. I'll be in again next week, and I'll see you then. So long," and he picked up the reins, and jogged on.
The parson watched him as he jogged away, until he disappeared round the turn near the blacksmith's shop, feeling so dazed that he would have thought the whole affair a dream if it had not been for the convincing evidence to the contrary which he held in his hand in the shape of a crisp ten pound note.
He went to the Post Office and got the mails, and then returned home. But who could describe the lightness of his spirit as he passed the mill, and the School of Arts, and Mr. Pogson's store?
Mrs. Meredith must have thought there was something unusual in the sharp click of the gate, as he let it close behind him, for she came to the open door to meet him.
"Look, my dear," said he, as he flourished the banknote before her wondering eyes, "look, we are rich. The Lord has provided."
All that day and the next Leslie tossed upon his bed, fretting at his inability to get up and out. He had never been laid up with sickness in his life before, and the enforced idleness was, to him, well nigh intolerable. Yet he knew that he was really not able to rise, for his head seemed to be splitting in two, and he felt very low and languid. And all that night and the next he turned restlessly upon his pillow, and although he complained of feeling very tired, he could not sleep.
On the Thursday morning Nell put her cool hand upon his throbbing temples, and asked him how he felt.
"I feel very bad, Nell," he said, "I have not slept all night, and my strength seems ebbing away. What can it be. Do you think I am going to die?"
"No, my dear," said Nell. "You will be all right by-and-bye, but you are going to be very sick, I am afraid."
"Nell," he said, "what day is this?"
"This is Thursday," she told him, "the seventh of December."
"And what is the time?"
"It is about eight o'clock."
"Oh! Nell, I feel so tired, and yet I cannot sleep. All night I have been lying awake, and yet I have been dreaming, dreaming of what might have been. Nell, don't think me foolish, I cannot help it. I have been thinking of her, the whole long night through. Her spirit seemed to be hovering round the room, and I seemed to see her face, as plainly as I see yours now. I can't help it, Nell. Her image pervades my soul."
Nell spoke soothingly to him, smoothed his pillow, and arranged his coverlet, which he was continually tossing aside. Presently he closed his eyes, and Nell slipped noiselessly away to help Mrs. Meredith.
But Leslie was not asleep. He lay very still for a time, and then moaned painfully, and passionate words broke from his lips.
"Oh! Ruby," he said. "My love, my life! Why did you leave me? I was prepared to give my life for you. Why did' you go out of it? Come to me once again. You promised to come if I called you, and I am calling now, with all my heart, and with all my soul! If there is any power in your wonderful instinct, come, and let your bright eyes shine on me once more. If your spirit is in tune with mine, let it respond, and breaking down all barriers, let it come to me, and let me feel your presence. Come, and save me from death, or a life which is worse than death. Ruby, dear love, light of my soul, come to me!"
For a moment he stretched out his arms, and smiled faintly, and then they fell listlessly to the bed. When Nell entered the room a few minutes later Leslie was asleep. It was well that she was still by his side when he awoke, for he announced his intention of getting up at once. His face was flushed, and his eyes seemed to have lost their expression, and Nell soon discovered that he was wandering in his mind. He said he had to go down to the woolshed, and spoke incoherently of his father and Mr. Pogson.
From that time he had to be watched night and day. From five in the morning until eleven at night, Nell and Mrs. Meredith alternately took it in turns to watch the sick man and work about the house. The parson used to take the night watch, from eleven until five, because, as he truly remarked, he could get away to his stretcher in the lumber room, and snatch a few hours' sleep in the day time. Except attending to his other sick calls in the district, preaching and travelling on a Sunday, and attending to the usual number of his parishioners who came to him for the straightening out of their personal and private grievances, he had in the day time nothing to do but sleep, and run the errands!
Mr. Sterling was as good as his word, and called on the Merediths the next time he came to Eugowra. He had the spring cart with him this time, and, after inquiring about the patient, he said:
"I have brought in a few little things from Mrs. Sterling. She thought he might want a little extry nourishment. Here's a couple of dressed fowls, a box of eggs, a few pounds of butter, and some bottles of quince jelly. She thought he might like 'em."
"But he is not allowed to take anything but milk," said the parson.
"Well, now," said Sterling. "Snakes alive! I might have brought a cow!"
"We have Daisy," said Meredith. "She gives us plenty of milk."
"Oh! well," said Sterling, "I must leave the things. If the patient can't eat 'em, the nusses must."
"What is the latest news from Old Joe's Flat?" inquired Meredith.
"Nothin' startlin'," said Sterling. "The only news out our way is from Bindawalla. The storekeeper's left. Two of the boundary riders are leavin' next week and the Chinaman's talkin' of goin' too. Say they can't rekernise Bindawalla now Pogson's taken possession."
"Is he living there?" asked Meredith.
"No, not exactly," said Sterling. "He goes out for a few days at a time. Just to feel his feet like. Well, you'll let me know if you want anything, won't you?" Then, clicking to his horse, he added, "Well, so long!"
He drove off down the street, and left the parson to carry in the fowls, the eggs, the butter, and the quince jelly, as well as a couple of cases of fruit, and sundry other parcels which George Sterling had not thought it necessary to mention in detail.
When they were all carried in and Mrs. Meredith had examined them, her gratitude, as well as her husband's, was unbounded. It was doubtful whether their larder had ever been so well stocked.
Now, the parson, in spite of his habits of self-denial, had, like all men, one or two little weaknesses. Perhaps the most pronounced of these was one which had been bred in him as a child, which had clung to him through his youth and manhood, and seemed to grow with age. This was a weakness for home-made pork sausages, and when Mrs. Meredith opened one of the mysterious parcels that had not been described, and her husband saw that it contained about four pounds of beautiful pork sausages, made in Mrs. Sterling's best style, he exclaimed gleefully: "My dear, the Lord is very good. Let us be thankful to Him. We must have some of these for tea! How long will it be until tea time?"
Then, taking off his coat, and picking up the milk-bucket, the parson went away to milk the cow, whistling cheerfully as he went.
Wednesday, December the sixth, 189- was a memorable day in the life of Ruby Sterling, for on that day the dream of her life was to be realised.
There was to be a concert at Buckingham Palace in the evening, and Ruby had been commanded to sing before the Queen.
The day was bright and frosty, but Ruby did not mind tho keen air, so long as there was no fog. She wanted to be in her very best voice that night, and a fog might have interfered with it. So she was pleased as she sat in her snug sitting-room at, the Grand Hotel, Charing Cross, and watched the ceaseless traffic in the street below. From where she sat she could see Nelson's monument and Landseer's lions at the foot of it. She could see the fountains, and the front of the National Gallery. She was intolerably familiar with all these places now, for she had spent all her spare time during the past few months visiting the places of interest in the wonderful world of London.
Her face was aglow, for she had but recently returned from a drive in the Park, where she had been admiring the fine equipages, and the noble squires and dames who occupied then. But what she admired most of all, if the truth must be told, were the horses. She was passionately fond of horses, and if she could have been allowed to mount one of the many beautiful animals she saw, and gallop away through the Park at her own pace, taking the fences as she went, she would have been happy. Her mind always went back to Old Joe's Flat when she watched the horses, and she never saw a horse she admired without thinking of Bunyip. She adopted him as a standard of comparison. This horse was a beauty, and he was just as nearly as possible the colour of Bunyip; that one was much darker than Bunyip, and the other was not the same colour at all, he was a chestnut, while Bunyip was a bay.
From comparing the horses to Bunyip it was only a short stage to go to compare their riders with Bunyip's master, and so it happened that on this particular day her mind had been drawn by a kind of strange fascination to Old Joe's Flat, and to Leslie Raymond. She wondered what the folks at Bindawalla would say when the cable flashed them the news that she had sung before the Queen! She wondered what they were all doing now. Was Leslie practising Bunyip over the fences, or what? It was bright warm summer weather now at Old Joe's Flat. How she would enjoy a swing under the willows! Then she remembered what she had forgotten before, that the time at Bindawalla was different to the time in London. The lamps were already lit in the streets, the lights were twinkling as far as she could see. It was four o'clock. Why, it was already half-past two in the morning at Bindawalla! Half-past two to-morrow morning! How strange it seemed. If she had stayed at Old Joe's Flat, she would have been ten and a half hours older than she was now, and yet, how much was to happen during the next ten and a half hours! She was to sing before the Queen! As the attendant came to turn up the lights, she was just breathing a fervent prayer for all those at home, and especially for the one whose image had haunted her the whole day through, the young master of Bindawalla. She little thought that, while she prayed, he was tossing upon the pillow passing a sleepless night, and, with her spirit hovering round him, was dreaming waking dreams of what might have been.
The splendid concert room at Buckingham Palace had never been filled with a more brilliant audience than the one which assembled there that evening. Men and women were gathered there whose names were familiar wherever the English language was spoken, or read. Among than were some who bore names which had been familiar for ages to every student of English history, and others, who by their services to the Empire, had made comparatively new names famous.
And the centre of all attraction was the little widow lady, whose name, for more than half a century, had been the mightiest name on earth. She was surrounded by her brilliant Court, and several members of the Royal family, and was dressed in her usual sombre tints.
Herr Batonstein had been in a state of ferment for some days past, which state reached its zenith as the time drew near for Ruby's appearance at the Palace. As he drove with her there he implored her not to be nervous.
"Be calm to-night, my dear," he said, his own voice shaking, "and your fortune will be made. Only think of it! What did I say long ago! Think of the honour! Only four months out, and to sing before the Queen—by command. For Heavens' sake, be calm! Sing as you can sing, and your fortune will be made!"
"Don't be nervous yourself," said Ruby, smiling, "I am as calm to-night as if I were swinging on my old willow bough at home. Perhaps I ought to feel nervous, but to tell you the truth, I don't. I know I am in good voice, I fell that I shall do you justice to-night, and something seems to tell me that I shall put my soul into my song, and sing as I never sung before. My life's ambition is about to be realized, and I must sing to-night, if I never sing again!"
Her words were true, for when she faced the brilliant audience she might, for all the emotion she evinced, have been a beautiful automaton. And when she sang, her soul was in her song, and many a noble lord and courtly dame, who imagined, that by culture and fine manners they had killed all such vulgar things as human feelings and emotions, felt their hearts thrill, as they listened, with vague longings they had never felt before.
Ruby's highest ambition was realized. She had sung before the Queen and when she retired to the waiting-room allotted to the artists, she laughed merrily at Herr Batonstein, who was far more nervous than she. She was soon the centre of a group, and the recipient of numerous congratulations. She was, in the moment of her triumph, supremely happy, and received her praise with girlish delight. In the midst of her rejoicing, she was approached by a courtly gentleman in Windsor uniform. He was the son of a duke, the descendant of a score of dukes, and was himself heir to a dukedom and the other members of the group fell back at his approach. He was the bearer of a message from the Queen to Ruby; Her Majesty wished to convey through him the intimation that she had been delighted with Miss Sterling's singing. Her Majesty had further commended him to say that it was Her Majesty's wish that, at the conclusion of the concert, Miss Sterling should be presented to Her Majesty, when Her Majesty would doubtless take the opportunity to personally congratulate Miss Sterling.
When the descendant of twenty dukes had delivered his message, he bowed stiffly, and waited for a reply. But no reply came. Every eye in the brilliantly lighted room was fixed upon Ruby.
Prom the adjacent concert hall came the sounds of sweet music, as a violinist, reputed to be the most accomplished in the world, charmed the audience with the magic of his genius. But Ruby was apparently oblivious to all.
She stood, with one hand on her forehead, and the other pressed tightly upon her heart, as motionless as a statue. Her eyes were fixed in a steady stare upon a painting which adorned the wall of the apartment. It was Sir Joshua Reynolds picture of "Cymon and Iphigenia," but it was evident that she was not looking at the picture, but through it, for she looked like one who gazed upon a far off object. She seemed, also, to be listening intently, and yet she paid no heed to the words which Herr Batonstein addressed to her.
He lunched her lightly on the arm.
"Ruby," he said, "did not you hear what his Lordship said to you? He brings a message from the Queen."
"Hush!" she whispered as, dropping her hand from her forehead, she clutched him convulsively by the wrist, "Hush! Hush!"
Without another word, Herr Batonstein gently led her to a settee close at hand, upon which she sank; and then placed her two hands tightly upon her eyes, as though to shut out all her surroundings.
"What is the matter?" asked his Lordship. "Has the lady fainted?"
Herr Batonstein stood by Ruby's side, with his hand stretched over her head in an imploring manner towards the startled group.
"Your Lordship and ladies," he whispered tremulously. "Please to take no notice, and make no noise nor fuss. She is a strange girl. She sometimes sees strange things, and when she does she must not be touched nor spoken to. If you break the spell, you may break her reason with it, so please hush, for two—three—minutes. Then she will be as right as ninepence. Hush."
For about three minutes, which seemed an age, no one spoke nor moved. The professor still stood, looking like a guardian angel in spectacles, with his arm extended over Ruby's head, and the rest of the company looked on in a state of breathless excitement. A massive ormolu clock, which stood upon the mantel, chimed the half hour. Half-past nine! As its silvery tones echoed strangely loud through the apartment, Ruby dropped her hands. The professor, bending down, caught the words, which seemed like the merest echo of Ruby's voice, "I hear you."
Then she started to her feet, glanced quickly round at the assembled faces watching her curiously, and grasped the professor by the arm.
"Take me home," she exclaimed.
"But, my dear—'" began the professor.
"Take me home," she repeated, firmly.
"But his Lordship has a message—"
"Take me home," she commanded, imperiously. "I have sung my songs. Take me home at once. Do you hear? At once!"
"Take her home," said his Lordship, "take her home. She is excited. Poor girl, the strain has unnerved her. Take her home."
Summoning one of the royal attendants he bade him take Ruby and her guardian to their carriage, and they drove away along Birdcage Walk, and past the Horse Guards, and Whitehall, to their hotel at Charing Cross.
Herr Batonstein was terribly upset by this unlooked for termination of Ruby's triumph.
"Oh! My dear girl," he said, as the carriage sped on its way, and the twinkling lights flew by, "I am so sorry. You have spoiled it all. And it vas so grand! So magnificent! Und you would not listen to a message from your Queen, your beloved Queen."
There were actually tears of disappointment in the professor's eyes, and his pupil's hand crept into his.
"I could not listen," she whispered, "I could not! I was listening to a message from my King!"
She spoke no more until she arrived at the hotel, and then only to bid good-night to the professor and Mrs. Batonstein, who was waiting for the news. Leaving Herr Batonstein to enlighten her, Ruby retired to her room.
The next morning a thick fog hung over the great metropolis. Nothing was to be seen from the windows of the hotel but a dense brown mist, which seemed almost solid in its density.
Herr Batonstein was surprised, on entering the breakfast-room, in which lights were burning, to see Ruby already there, gazing dreamily into the fire.
"Why did you get up so early?" said he. "You ought to have rested after your excitement last night. But see, I have the morning papers. They are praising your singing again, und singing your praises. Eh? That vas not bad, eh?"
But Ruby was in no humour for the papers. She had been studying Bradshaw's guide.
She stood up as he approached the fire, and running her fingers through his long hair, she said, "Professor, I am going to give you a great shock."
"Good Heavens!" said he. "What vas the matter now? I haf not got over your last shock yet."
"I am going back to Australia," said Ruby, quietly.
"What?" exclaimed Batonstein, staring at her in blank astonishment. "Ach!! The girl vas mad. Go to bed again, my dear child, und I vill send Mrs. Batonstein to talk to you. You haf not slept well."
"I have slept my last sleep in London," said Ruby. "I am going back to Australia."
"But, my dear, it is impossible! You haf to sing tomorrow night at Exeter Hall, and next Monday at Park Lane. Then later on at Manchester, und in Christmas week in the Messiah at the Crystal Palace. Und, only this morning, I haf a letter offering twenty thousand pounds for a six months' tour in the United States. It is, I say, impossible."
"Professor, I shall sing at none of those places. I am going back to Australia."
"But," said Batonstein, losing his temper, "this is monstrous. This is absurd. This is vat I call dam foolish!"
"There is a train leaves Charing Cross to-night for the Continent, which will enable us to catch the Himalaya at Marseilles," she told him.
"You shall not go. Und I will not go. I will not stir a foot," he protested, angrily.
"If you don't come, professor, I will go by myself. I am called, and I MUST go. Don't think me unkind nor ungrateful. But my mind is made up. You must cancel all my engagements. I start for Australia to-night."
The professor argued, stormed, swore, and even wept, but all to no purpose. Mrs. Batonstein added her persuasion to his, but Ruby was inflexible:
"I am' going back to Australia," was the only answer they could get to all their arguments. The professor tried to reason with her.
"It is your good I am anxious for," he said. "Now, listen to me for one little minute. Let me show you what you are sacrificing. Your name is now known. For the past four months, you haf make a hundred pounds per week, and you can go on, and increase that. There are twenty thousand pounds awaiting for you in America. In a few years you could buy a castle, and marry a duke!"
Ruby listened quietly, and, when he had finished, she smiled and asked, "Is that all, professor?"
"GOdd Gott!" he exclaimed, "is not that enough?"
"Well, professor," said she, "I will put all your arguments into the scale. Now see! Here they go," and she held up one hand, and pretended to be filling it with the other. "See!! Into this hand I put your hundred pounds per week, then your twenty thousand pounds. Then in goes the castle—that weighs heavy. Next comes your duke and down goes the scales. But look! Into the other scale there climbs a little mischievous naked boy, and up goes the duke, and the castle, and all the money. The little naked boy outbalances then all!"
"Great Heavens!" said Herr Batonstein, "if there vas anything under the sun that vas balmy, that vas absurd and illogical, that vas dam stark staring mad, it vas a woman in love!"
But the professor found that, if Ruby was mad, she had method in it, and all day he had to drive about in the fog, cancelling engagements, and compromising threatened actions at law, swearing, puffing, and groaning, and when at night he bundled his wife and Ruby into the Continental mail train at Charing Cross Station, and, hungry and dishevelled, flung himself in after them, he declared that they were ruined. That of all the money Ruby had earned, scarcely two hundred pounds would remain when their passages were paid to Sydney.
"You may keep that for yourself," said Ruby.
"Ruby," said he, "you vas not mean to be unkind, but you are. Do you think I am a fraud. Do you think I grieve for mineself? It is you I am thinking of. I am satisfied for myself. I haf given to the world the sweetest singer it has ever heard, but you haf lost all the reward that you might haf had. You have dashed your brightest hopes to the ground."
"What are a woman's brightest hopes!" asked Ruby, but the professor was sullen, and would not reply.
As for Mrs. Batonstein, she did not seem at all sorry to be going hack to Sydney, and attempted to console the professor.
"Pappy," said she, "perhaps it's all for the best, as Tim Rafferty said whin the cow put her foot in the milk pail. Sure, I can't be sorry that we're goin' back to Sydney. We'll get out of this bastely fog. I'm sick of jerrymanderin' round the wurruld, wid no place of one's own to rest the sole of one's fut. I could never take kindly to the cookin' in the big hotels, where they niver put saysonin' enough in the food. Me heart's yearnin' for me home, so it is, and it's mighty thankful I'll be to be able to sit down, wid me fate on me own carpet, and to feel that the roof that shelthers me is me own fireside, so I will."
Christmas at Eugowra saw Leslie Raymond still hovering between life and death. Christmas was no holiday for the parson; it increased his duties, yet his voice had a cheery ring as he reminded his hearers of the message of Peace and Goodwill towards men.
The heat showed no signs of diminishing, and the drought continued. On his bed of sickness, Leslie moaned and groaned. He was wasted to a skeleton, and was very weak and low. Still, the doctor did not give up all hope. He shook his head gravely, but he spoke of the sick man's splendid constitution, and said that the nursing was all that could be desired.
"And after all," he added, "the whole case depends upon the nursing."
The days wore on. The New Year came and went, and the doctor grew more hopeful. He said that the crisis had passed, and that with care the patient might pull through. Each day would probably see an improvement, although, to prevent a relapse, greater care than ever was necessary.
One night—it was the end of the first week in January—the parson kept his lonely vigil by Leslie's side. The heat was more than usually oppressive and, although the windows were wide open, not a breath disturbed the muslin curtains that hung within them.
It was about two o'clock in the morning, and the parson was thinking, as he sat, of the terrible drought, and wondering what would become of the sheep and stock if rain did not soon fall.
From all parts of the country came the same news, not a blade of grass, and stock dying by thousands. Farmers and squatters alike saw nothing but ruin staring them in the face. Sheep were a drug upon the market. Everybody wanted to sell, and nobody wanted to buy, because although, owing to the losses by death and disease, all the stations had less than their normal stock, still they had no food for those that were left.
The parson was thinking of all these things when he heard a distant rumbling noise. He listened for a moment and thought it must be a vehicle crossing the wooden bridge. Another rumble! Yes, it must be some benighted wayfarer. Still another, louder than before, and then, pat-pat on the galvanised roof of the cottage. He listened again. Yes, there it was, only faster, pat-pat-pat. It must be rain!
He rushed out into the garden, and could hear it falling gently everywhere. He turned his face up to the murky sky, and let the blessed drops fall upon it. He opened his mouth to catch the moisture, he drew a long breath to inhale the perfume which rose in thankfulness from the parched earth. And then he went softly to the door of his wife's room, where she and Nell were both asleep, and although he knew that they were tired and weary, and nodded sleep, he could not resist the temptation to rouse them from their slumbers, and to bid them listen to the welcome sound of the blessed rain.
All through the remainder of the night he revelled in the sound, and kept walking in and out to make sure that it was not a mere passing shower. And when the morning broke, and he saw that the sky was grey and moist, and noted that what little wind there was blew from the southwest, and that the rain was still falling steadily upon the now moist earth, he lifted up his voice in thankfulness to God that it was so.
For nearly a week the life-giving moisture descended and the greedy earth swallowed it. Creeks that had long been dry commenced to run again, damns were full to overflowing, and Jimmy Green, who had for months been driving a lucrative trade in carting water from the Lachlan to fill the tanks at the houses round the town, sat smoking idly in the blacksmith's shop, for all the tanks were running over, sad Jimmy's occupation was gone.
The rain fell not only at Eugowra, but all over the colony, and strangers, as they met on the road, laughed gleefully as they shook the moisture from their hats and congratulated each other upon the fact that the drought had broken up.
In a few days the brown face of the earth assumed an emerald tint, and in the towns out West, the principal inhabitants met, and in accordance with time honoured custom, they cracked bottles of champagne, and drank joyfully to Jupiter Pluvius.
Mr. Pogson, being still the president of the Eugowra Temperance Society, did not drink champagne but he rubbed his hands gleefully as he gazed from the window of the late Mr. James Raymond's office at Bindawalla—now Mr. Pogson's office—for he could literally see the grass grow. Sheep had gone up in value in a week by five shillings per head and as the stations were all understocked, there were buyers in plenty, but nobody wanted to sell. Mr. Pogson had made a calculation, and he found that the increase in value on a hundred and fifty thousand sheep would amount to a sum sufficient to pay off all the liabilities on the Bindawalla estate, and leave a nice little margin to spare. So Mr. Pogson pursed his lips, and rubbed his hands gleefully.
He had been debating a certain point in in his mind, and had arrived at a conclusion satisfactory to himself. He had been, for the past month, valuing the Bindawalla property and the liabilities connected with it, so that he would be able to apply for probate of the will. He had valued the property before the rain came, and had put the sheep down at four shillings per head. He could now sell them, if he were so disposed, at ton shillings per head.
The question that had been agitating him was this. Would the Government accept probate duty on the smaller valuation, or require it to be paid upon the larger? Upon this point he had consulted his solicitor, and that gentleman had advised him that the valuation must be based on the value at the time of Mr. Raymond's death. The difference in the duty would amount to quite a large cheque and so Mr. Pogson was gratified, and he made up his mind that as soon as the weather got settled, he would go to Sydney and make the necessary arrangements to prove the will.
Although Mr. Pogson was, at this time, residing at Bindawalla, Mrs. Pogson remained at the store at Eugowra. She bad evinced no wish to change her residence, and her husband had remarked that it would be time enough after he had been to Sydney and obtained probate of the will. But first he had several matters to attend to at Eugowra, in connection with the financial institution of which he was the agent.
Before his departure from Bindawalla he sent for such of the station hands as were within easy access, and gave them instructions as to what they were to do during his absence. He set to each man an allotted task, and gave them all plainly to understand that he would expect to find upon his return that the work was done.
He intimated, in unmistakable language, that a new regime for Bindawalla was to be inaugurated, and told them that, from this time forth, they were paid to work, and not to loaf, as they had done during the tenure of the late owner.
This being done, he collected his luggage, which consisted of a spare shirt and an umbrella, and ordered the groom to put the horses in the trap and drive him in to Eugowra.
In driving to Eugowra Mr. Pogson followed the shortest road, and this was the track that passed through Old Joe's Flat. He noticed that the farmer's buggy, with the horse ready harnessed, was at the gate. He told the groom to pull up, just as Mrs. Sterling, hearing the sound of wheels, came out, and he accepted her invitation to step indoors and have a cup of tea.
He found George Sterling in the sitting-room, partaking of a cup of tea and some bread and butter, and he noticed that Sterling was dressed in his Sunday suit, and wore a stiff shirt and collar. It was also obvious that he had been shaving himself, although it was the middle of the week.
"Good day, Mr. Sterling," said Pogson, "We have had some magnificent rain."
"Yes," said Sterling, speaking with his mouth full. "Sit down and have a cup of tea."
"Thank you," said Mr. Pogson, "I will." Then, in reply to Mrs. Sterling, he added, "Sugar and milk, if you please. Thank you. Are you going on a journey, Mr. Sterling?"
"Why, Yes," said Sterling. "I've 'got to. It's rather inconvenient just now, because I wanted to get a lot of briars out while the ground was soft, but I guess they'll have to wait. I've got to go into Eugowra to meet my gal."
"What girl?" asked Pogson.
"Why, my Rube. Her that's been singing before the Queen, and takin' the shine out of 'em all in the old country."
"What? Is she coming back?" said Pogson, in surprise. "I thought she was going to stay for a long time."
"Well, for the matter of that," admitted Sterling, wiping the crumbs from his whiskers with his coat sleeve, "so did I. But I got a telegram yesterday from Adelaide. Quite a long 'un. It must have cost three or four shillings to send it. This is it," and adjusting his spectacles, he read it.
"'Adelaide, Monday. Just landed from the Himalaya. Leave here to-night. Coming by train, via Melbourne, Albury, and Murrumburrah, to Cowra. Will drive from there, via Goolagong, to Eugowra. Meet me Wednesday afternoon. Ruby.'
"That's all. Not another blessed word. The last letter she wrote, she was talking of singin' before the Queen. Then we seen by the papers that she had sung before the Queen. Then another cable message said that after singin' before the Queen she was indisposed, and that, after cancelling all engagements, she had started for the Continent. Now, she pops up suddenly at Adelaide. Blest if I can understand it. Mr. Meredith drove out with the telegram, which was kind on him, and he can't understand it. It's a blinded mystery. That's what it is. I say, Ria, did you put that cream into the buggy, and the turkeys and the bacon? That's right, I'm takin' in a few things for young Raymond. He cone to his senses yesterday mornin', and I suppose he'll be able to peck a bit. He'll want somethin' to make up for lost time. He's as thin as a whippin' post."
"I think," said Pogson, "that indiscriminate charity is a mistake. When people have been stuck up, and snappy, they ought to be taught a lesson; and be made to feel the full weight of their trials and tribulations."
"If I comes across anybody sufferin' from the weight of trials or tribulations," said Sterling, "I tries to ease a bit of the weight off of 'em, if I can. And it don't seem to make my load no heavier, neither."
"But," said Pogson, waving his hand, and growing virtuously eloquent, "I call it sacrilege. When tribulations come to proud and snappy individuals it is merely the chastening hand of the Almighty. If the Almighty drops his chastening hand heavy on an individual whom he wishes to chasten, what right have you to interfere with the will of the Almighty by trying to soften the blow? It is sacrilege, Mr. Sterling! sacrilege!!"
"Well," said Sterling, unabashed, "when I see a pusson in trouble I tries to get 'em out fust, and mebbe I asks 'em how they got there afterwards, mebbe I don't. It was only last Monday I seed a cow bogged in the creek. It was too weak to get itself out, so I spent half a day, and spoilt a suit of clothes a-getting of it out. But I did it, and it wasn't my cow, neither. Some people might argufy that the Almighty put her into the bog. I don't know how she got in, and I don't care a damn. I got her out. Them's my lights, Mr. Pogson, and if it's all the same to you, I'll go on afollerin' of 'em. Ria! Did you see my pipe? Oh! It's all right. Its in my mouth."
He cut up some tobacco and filled his pipe, and Mr. Pogson, having finished his tea, put his hand over his eyes and said grace in an undertone, after which he departed for Eugowra, leaving Sterling to jog along after him.
Upon arriving at Eugowra Mr. Sterling drove straight to the rectory, and delivered his parcels. He found Mr. Meredith at home, and as the coach from Goolagong would pass that way, he accepted the parson's invitation to put the horse in his stable.
He was glad to hear that Leslie was progressing satisfactorily, and that he had passed a good night. It wanted an hour to the time when the coach would be due; and, as the roads were heavy after the late rains, there was every probability of it being late. Sterling was just telling Mr. Meredith that he would take a walk up the street, and be back in time for the coach, when, to his surprise, he heard the the loud cracking of the coachman's whip, and the vehicle itself, came into view.
"By Gosh! She's early," said Sterling, looking at his watch and, waving his hand to the coachman, he made dart for the gate, where he arrived as the driver pulled up his steaming team in front of it.
"You're early, Jim," said Sterling to the man, as he opened the gate.
"Broke the record, Mr. Sterling," said Jim, proudly. But just then Ruby, having caught sight of her father, leapt from the coach. In a moment, she had her two arms round his neck, and was hugging and kissing him to such an extent that George Sterling literally gasped for breath. When, at length, she released him, and he was able to look at her at arms' length, he exclaimed:
"Well! By gosh, Rube, I wouldn't ha' knowed you. Why, you've growed into the finest, handsomest woman I ever seen. No wonder you had hearls and things a-runnin' arter you. And what brought you back so soon? Did you come to run away from the hearls, or did you bring one with you? And where's the Batonsteins?"
"Faith!" said a voice from the interior of the coach, "the Batonsteins are not far away, all that's left of them, and that's not much! I'd get out and shake hands with you, but the coach has shook me up that way that I don't know which side of me is up and which is down. Every bone in me body's a jelly, and me arms are that stiff, I don't belave I'll be able to put me fut to the ground. Sure, it's a wreck I am; wid a crushed hat, and a red nose, and the two best feathers gone out of it, and me hair shuk up that way that it's all fallin' down!"
"And where is Mr. Batonstein?" asked Sterling, as he presented his smiling red face at the back of the coach.
"Ah! He's here, so he is," said Mrs. Batonstein, speaking with some difficulty, for her mouth was full of hairpins, "here he is, where he fell last, between the seats, with two portmantles and a mail-bag on top of him, Pappy, get up out of that. Here's Mr. Sterling inquiring afther you."
There was a movement among the luggage and mail-bags, and at length the professor struggled to a sitting posture, and presented to George Sterling a haggard face, with unkempt hair, spectacles awry, and a portion of a very-much-crumpled shirt front.
"Vas that you, Mr. Sterling?" he muttered, "und vas this Eugowra?"
"Yes," said Sterling as he reached into the coach and removed some of the luggage from the top of Herr Batonstein.
"Then take your daughter off mine shoulders," said the professor, with a sigh of relief. "She is a good girl, Sterling, a very good girl, and I love her as if she vas mine own, but I will never take her on my shoulders any more. I vill never take another woman on my shoulders! Travelling is like music. If you want to enjoy it, you must keep time, not too fast, nor yet too slow. For the last month, there has not been time for anything. There has not been a single bar's rest, nor a pause. It has been all allegretto and staccato."
By this time George Sterling and Ruby had, with much difficulty, assisted Mrs. Batonstein and her husband from the coach.
"Where's the buggy, Pa?" said Ruby when they had propped Mrs. Batonstein up against the fence, and the professor had sunk wearily down on a stone at her side.
"The buggy's in Mr. Meredith's yard here," said Sterling. "I called here to bring a few little things for Mr. Raymond."
"What Mr. Raymond?" exclaimed Ruby, eagerly.
"Why," said her father, "him that's sick. There's only one Mr. Raymond now, you know, since the other died."
"Died!" repeated Ruby, turning deadly pale, "died? Oh! Pa, please tell me all about it. You know I have been travelling. I don't know. Tell me!"
"Well, come and sit down," said Sterling. "You are tired. You don't look well."
"I am quite well, Pa. We will walk along the road, where it is quiet. Now, tell me."
She took his arm, and he felt that she was trembling violently.
"Well, then," said he, "didn't you hear about Mr. Raymond breaking his neck?"
"No, Pa, I have heard nothing. You forget I have been travelling Which Mr. Raymond? How did it happen?"
"He was jumpin' a fence, and the horse fell with him, and when they picked him up his neck was broken. He was as dead as a doornail."
"Which Mr. Raymond?" cried Ruby. "Oh! Pa, will you never tell me? Which Mr. Raymond?"
"Why, of course I'll tell you," said Sterling, looking at her in some alarm. "It was old Mr. Raymond."
"Thank heaven!" ejaculated Ruby.
"What!" exclaimed Sterling, stopping abruptly, and staring at her in mingled astonishment and alarm. "What's come over the gal? Thankin' Heaven because a man has broke his neck! Why, Rube, what do you mean?"
"Oh! You don't know, Pa, you don't understand." said Ruby. "I was not thanking heaven because Mr. Raymond was killed, but—because—it was not the other Mr. Raymond." and she buried her face on her father's shoulder and sobbed violently.
George Sterling looked very solemn, and said "Oh!"
What George Sterling thought will probably never be known. His face bore a stolid expression, which afforded no possible clue to his thoughts, as he simply said "Oh!" and clasped her affectionately to him, until her sobbing, subsided. Then he led her a little farther along the road to a spot where the fence ceased, and where, near a group of wattles, there was a fallen tree.
Seating her on the true-trunk, he sat by her side and, in answer to her inquiries, he told her all.
How James Raymond had died (she had already learned, from Nell's last letter, that he had lost his reason), how the property had all been left to Pogson; how Leslie and Nell were homeless and penniless, and how the parson had invited them to stay with him. Then came the account of Leslie's sickness and how he had, for over a month, hovered between life and death, but was now considered to be practically out of danger.
Then George Sterling commenced to tell her how her mother was, and how Madge had grown, and what pleasure it would give them both to see her again. But Ruby had risen to her fret with a suggestion that they should go back to the Rectory and, going back, she walked so fast that her father had to put his best foot forward to keep pace with her.
She was welcomed heartily by the parson and his wife, and affectionately by Nell and, after a cup of tea, which they found waiting for them, and which was being shared by the Batonsteins, who had been rescued and taken charge of by Mr. Meredith, Nell demurely asked Ruby whether she would like to see Leslie?
The only reply Nell received was a tight squeeze of her hand, and so she led Ruby to Leslie's room.
"You will find him much changed," Nell whispered, sadly, "but he is better than he was, and he now has his reason, which is such a blessing."
She went into the room first, leaving Ruby at the door, and a moment later beckoned her in.
"Here is Miss Sterling, Leslie," said Nell.
Ruby had sunk before the Queen without a tremor. She had deliberately, bearing down all opposition, thrown all her expectations to the winds, and had come, travelling by the shortest possible route and the fastest means, with one object in view—to see Leslie. Her quest was over, and she saw him; and yet she trembled as she had never done before. To answer his call, and see him face to face she had travelled twelve thousand miles, and yet all she could do now was to hang her head shyly, and say:
"How do you do, Mr. Raymond?"
And he had called her to him. With all his heart, and with all his soul, he had summoned her to come, and now—she was here, by his side. And all he could say, after moistening his dry lips several times with his tongue, was:
"I am pretty well, thank you. How are you?"
At this moment Nell asked them to excuse her, leaving them, as she wished to help Mrs. Meredith, and as neither of them expressed any objection, she went out, and left them alone.
For some time neither spoke a word. Ruby stood by the bedside, with her hands clasped, and her face drooping. She knew that he had a bright flush upon his wasted face, and that his large eyes, seeming much larger than they were by contrast with his hollow cheeks, were fixed eagerly upon her face. And yet, she dare not look at him. Her long dark lashes hid her eyes from view, and it was not until a hot tear fell from one of them, and dropped upon his wasted hand, which rested upon the coverlet of the bed, that Leslie broke the silence.
"What made you come back to Australia?"
"You called me," she murmured, "and I am here."
"Then," he said, wonderingly, "you heard my call?"
"It is because I heard it that I am here."
He stretched forth the attenuated hand and she placed hers in it.
"And have you heard the news?" he asked, "how all is changed and I am homeless and penniless? That when I am better, if I ever do get better, I shall have to face the world, without a trade or profession, to earn my bread?"
"I know all," said Ruby.
"Yet I have sometimes," said Leslie, "been weak enough to dream of what might have been. You know the hope that once possessed my soul. Fate has willed that it shall never be."
"Why shall it never be?" she asked, quietly.
"Do you think that I could now ask you what I asked you twice before? I could not. It would be cruel, and unmanly, to ask you to make the sacrifice, even if you were willing, it can never be."
"Do you think that I should be making a sacrifice?" said Ruby.
"How can you ask the question? I have beard of your marvellous success. You have the world at your feet, and I have—nothing."
"And you really think," she said eagerly, "that if—if—I were to become your wife, that I should be making a sacrifice?"
"Such a sacrifice," said he, "as no woman ever made."
"Leslie," she said softly, "yon love me, I know you do. You have told me so, twice, and I know it is true. I do not want to ask you to be my husband, but—I want you to ask me again—to be your wife."
"Ruby!" he exclaimed, passionately, "is it true? Will you, knowing everything promise to be my wife?"
"I will," she said.
"God bless you, my darling!" he said, fervently. "How can I ever repay you?"
"By getting better as soon as you can," she said, bending down and kissing him on the forehead. Then she added, "Leslie, the object of my life is achieved. It was for this I studied. It was for this I toiled. It was not for the sake of the money, nor the applause, nor the renown. It was to make myself worthy of you."
Presently Ruby told him that her father was waiting to drive her out to Old Joe's Flat.
"When shall I see you again, my love?" he asked her.
"You shall see me every day," she answered. "I must go home to-night to see my mother and Madge, but to-morrow I will come age and unless you drive me away, I will never leave you any more. I am going to nurse you, and make you well again."
"But, my dear, people will talk and I cannot allow it. A woman has a right to nurse her husband, but to nurse her affianced husband is a different matter."
Ruby smiled down at him.
"It is usual, isn't it, Leslie," she said, "for a woman to name the day?"
"Yes, my dear, but—"
"Then I will secure the right to remain by your side and nurse you, Leslie. I will talk it over with my parents to-night, and I will see you to-morrow, and exercise nay prerogative. And, as there is a parson in the house, prepare for a very short notice! Now I must go. Poor boy, you cannot lift your head, so I suppose"—she bent her face down to his—"there. Now I am going to call Nell, and you can tell her. Leslie, I am the happiest girl alive to day!"
When Nell came in she was prepared for some sort of development, she scarcely knew what, but when her brother, with a quiet smile, introduced Ruby as his affianced wife, Nell nearly collapsed.
"Well, of all the mad people in the world!" said she. "But I am not surprised. Oh, no! I have been hearing how she dragged those two poor people round the world at such a pace that she has nearly killed them. How she gave the coachman a sovereign on the understanding that he should break the record! I might have known that she would not let the grass grow under her feet. But do you know all, dear? Do you know the sacrifice you will have to make?"
Ruby clasped Nell to her and kissed her. Then she said:
"A woman who gives up the whole world makes no sacrifice if she gains the man she loves."
"Oh!" sighed Nell. "How happy we could be if we only had Bindawalla! You will not turn me away from you, will you?"
"My dear," said Ruby, "we shall be happy wherever we are. And as for turning you away, I want you to be my sister, and to stay, with me always until you find somebody who will love you better. Do not fear for the future. I have no fear."
George Sterling felt very happy that night, as he sat on the verandah at Old Joe's Flat, and listened to Ruby as she sang.
He smoked, and talked to Herr Batonstein about the glorious change in the weather, and the professor said "Yes" to everything Sterling said. Then Mrs. Batonstein came out to bid Mr. Sterling good-night as she was very tired, and her husband yawned and said he would go to bed too. So George Sterling was left upon the verandah alone, and Ruby crept out quietly, and sat close by his side.
Then she told her father everything. George Sterling looked very grave, and said it was a serious matter, and he would think about it. There wasn't any hurry.
"I don't know," he said, "that I have any great fault to find with young Raymond. The only thing I ever had agin him was the fact of his bein' a Raymond, and a squatter. Barrin' them, he was always a good all round young fellow enough. He couldn't help bein' a Raymond, and he ain't a squatter now. But I'm glad he asked you when he was a squatter, because it shows it's not a new notion he's got since he's been broke. Of course, you've knowed each other, on and off, as the sayin' is, all your lives. He's got nothin', but he's as well off as I was when I married your mother, and better, because he's better eddicated. But anyhow, I'll think it over. There ain't no hurry."
"But there is hurry, Pa," said Ruby. "He is sick. His sister and Mrs. Meredith, and Mr. Meredith too, are all worn out with constant nursing. Now, if I am to be his wife—and I am, that's settled—if I am to be his wife, it as my duty to nurse him, to be by his side, and to bring him back to health. I want to have the legal right to do my duty."
George Sterling argued, but his logic could not compete for five minutes with that of Ruby. His every objection was over-ruled, and his arguments were all exploded. He loved Ruby and was very proud of her, although, at times, he almost doubted whether this tall, imperious, handsome, dark-eyed woman was his own little Rube.
And he could not forget that she had lately been moving in the highest society, and that knowledge overawed him. He admitted to himself that she knew a great deal more about these matters than she did, and he therefore treated her opinions with due deference.
The result was that she brought her father entirely round to her way of thinking, and he admitted that she was right. If she was going to marry young Raymond, it was her duty to nurse him and, if she was going to nurse him, he supposed it was just as well that she should marry him, and have done with it.
So, instead of being her opponent he became her ally, and it can be easily understood that if Sterling could not resist Ruby's attack, Mrs. Starling had no chance against their combined forces. Although she stated that it was both impossible and absurd, that it was unheard of and monstrous, besides being to the last degree, inconvenient, Ruby carried one line of defence after the other, until her mother took her last stand in the trench of public opinion.
"What will the neighbours say?" she asked to be informed. "Have you absolutely no respect for public opinion?"
"Oh! Damn public opinion," exclaimed George Sterling, "wouldn't you take our Rube's opinion before public opinion? Damn public opinion!"
Whereupon Mrs. Sterling capitulated.
As for Madge, she declared that the whole thing was disgraceful. The idea of a wedding without proper clothes, and a cake, and a party. They needn't ask her to be bridesmaid. She wouldn't, not if they went down on their knees to her! She wouldn't be anybody's bridesmaid, unless she had proper clothes, and gloves and things, and a shower bouquet, the gift of the bridegroom. They could get married if they liked, and she wouldn't stop them, not she! But she wouldn't go a foot to the wedding, that she wouldn't. There!
Ruby took this announcement calmly, and said that under such circumstances Madge could stop and mind the house while everybody else went to the wedding, which remark reduced Madge to tears and the confession that they ought to know better than to take any notice of what she said when she was upset!
George Sterling drove Ruby into Eugowra the next day, saw Leslie, and had a long chat with him; then he talked the matter over with Mr. Meredith. The parson said that the marriage could be arranged, and while he and George Sterling were speaking about it, Leslie and Ruby were discussing it with Nell and Mrs. Meredith.
The result of it ail was that Ruby had only been back three days when she was Ruby Sterling no longer, but Mrs. Leslie Raymond, and had the legal right to nurse her husband back to health again.
News in the Australian bush travels slowly, and so it happened that when the tidings of Ruby's sudden return permeated the district, the announcement of her wedding followed closely behind.
The Maxwells and the Thorntons shrugged their shoulders in surprise, and said that the girl was a fool, that, with her ability and talent, and the opportunities she must have had in London, she must be mad to marry a man who was really dependent upon charity, when she might have secured a real good bargain in the matrimonial market.
Ruby heard nothing of these remarks, and would not have heeded them if she had. Her whole mind was devoted to one object—to nursing Leslie. A week after the wedding he was able to go out for a few hours daily on to the verandah of the cottage. He looked very thin and gaunt, and his clothes were a great many sizes too large for him, but he was delighted to be able to get out into the fresh air again, and he rejoiced that each day brought some small addition to his returning strength. Ruby would read and talk to him by day, and sing to him in the evening, and when he could think only of the present, and keep his thoughts from speculating upon the future, life seemed like a pleasant dream.
One evening, about nine days after the wedding, Ruby was singing as usual, and her rich voice floated through the open window and out to the garden gate, where the parson stood, enjoying the evening air, and watching the twinkling stays above. He was fond of star-gazing, was the parson. There was something in the sublimity and wondrous order and regularity of the heavenly bodies that fascinated him and seemed to draw his soul from earth to Heaven. He was gazing at his beloved stars, and listening to Ruby's song when he heard his name called in a low voice, a little above a whisper.
"Mr. Meredith! Mr. Meredith!"
The parson started and looked round. At first he could distinguish nothing unusual, but the call was repeated, and upon turning his eyes in the direction of the sound, he saw the outline of a woman's' form crouching against the fence.
The parson opened the gate and went along the path to where the figure crouched.
"Who is it?" he asked. "Why do you hide, and call my name? What do you want?"
"Hush!" she said, as he approached her, "hush! I want to speak to you, but I must not be seen. I am afraid."
"Afraid of whom?" said Mr. Meredith. Then, as on a closer scrutiny he recognised the crouching figure, he said:
"Is that you, Mrs. Pogson? Why, what is the matter?"
"I have something I want to say to you. Something very important, but I cannot say it here. Come after me along the road," and she turned, and keeping still within the shadow of the fence, she led the way along the road. Mr. Meredith hesitated a moment, and then followed her. When she arrived at the end of the fence she turned the corner, stopped, and waited for him; and when he reached her side he noticed that she was deeply agitated.
Laying her hand upon the parson's arm, and speaking in a low, hurried voice, she said:
"I have something to tell you, something that may be of vital importance, or it may not; but before I tell you, I want you to promise me that you will never repeat what I shall say. Will you promise?"
"I don't quite know," said Mr. Meredith, "how far I should be justified in making such a promise."
"I would not ask you to premise anything wrong," said she. "You may make what use you like of my information, but you must promise that you will keep the source of your knowledge secret, and that you will never tell anybody that I told you. Will you promise? I have a good reason for asking, which you will know later on."
"Give me some idea of the nature of your information," said he.
"Mr. Meredith, the information I have to give has been gnawing at my conscience for some time. I am only a simple woman, but I try humbly to do my duty. My duty to my conscience and my God demands that I should tell you what I know, and leave you to do what you conceive to be right. But to tell you what I know may seriously injure my husband. I don't want him to know that I have given you the information. Will you promise me that he never shall know?"
"Yes," said Meredith, "if you leave me free to use my judgment in the matter, I will promise that this interview shall be confidential, and that the source of my information shall remain unknown."
"That is all I want. And now, come back a little, where the shade is deeper. On a certain day in June you signed a document which you believed to be Mr. Raymond's will!"
"It was Mr. Raymond's will. I have seen it since, and the signature is there."
"Listen, then. It is of that document I wish to speak. Don't interrupt me and I will tell you all I know."
"On the day the document was signed I was waiting for Mr. Pogson to drive me into Forbes, and I went to his store, to tell him that the buggy was ready. I knocked at the door, but he did not hear me, so I turned the handle and walked in. He was deeply engrossed in the study of two documents that lay on the table before him, and did not know I was there until I placed my hand on his shoulder. I saw the two papers he was reading. They were both of the same size, and alike; except that there was more writing on one than on the other. The one with the most writing on was marked on the top, in large writing, 'Last Will and Testament,' the other, 'Equity of Redemption.' Mr. Pogson covered them with a newspaper when he knew that I was there, and I thought nothing of the papers until subsequent events brought them vividly to my mind, and since then they have haunted my dreams! He told me to go and wait outside, as Mr. Raymond was coming to sign an Equity of Redemption. Remember that. Mr. Raymond was coming to sign an EQUITY OF REDEMPTION. I went outside, and Mr. Pogson remained in the office. Through the glass partition I could see him from where I sat. I did not watch him or spy on him—I did not dream that there was anything to spy, but I looked at him through the glass, and saw him fold the papers exactly alike, then he put one into his inner coat pocket and the other in the safe. Soon after that Mr. Raymond came in. The door was closed, and I could not hear, but I saw Mr. Pogson take the paper from the safe and read it to Mr. Raymond, and I saw that it was the paper with the least writing on, and therefore, the equity of redemption. When he had read it, he folded it up, and left the office to call you and Mr. Bingham in. As he passed me in the shop, I saw him take the folded paper from the inner pocket of his coat, and put into its place the one he had read to Mr. Raymond. Then you all went back, and the paper was signed. That afterwards proved to be Mr. Raymond's will. I did not know at the time how much depended upon that document, but I know it now, Mr. Meredith. If Mr. Raymond thought, when he signed that document, that he was signing the paper that Mr. Pogson had just read to him, he was deceived, for I saw Mr. Pogson change them as he passed me in the shop.
"Now, Mr. Meredith, you know the secret that has been weighing on my mind. If an injustice has been done, you may be be able to make it right. But, oh! Mr. Meredith! Mr. Pogson is my husband. Spare me the humiliation of thinking I have done him harm. You have my secret. If I have done wrong in telling you, may God forgive me, but I could not rest. Now I must go back home. Remember your promise."
Before Mr. Meredith could answer she had glided away, and was proceeding at a rapid rate towards her home.
The parson walked slowly back and took up his old position at the gate. Ruby's voice still came floating through the open window, and the stars were still looking down with their serene eyes. But it was not of the celestial bodies that Mr. Meredith now thought, his mind was fixed on earthly matters.
His brain reeled as he tried to grasp the significance of what he had heard. Could it be possible that there was some mistake? And if so, if there had been a mistake, or something worse, what could he do? He could not let the matter rest where it was. A great responsibility had been suddenly thrust upon him, and he must not shirk it. He must face it, for Leslie's sake, for the sake of his beautiful young wife and for the sake of something infinitely greater, God's truth and His Divine justice!
He must do his duty. But what was his duty? What was the best course to take? He paced backward and forward in deep thought, while Ruby's voice, filling the garden with melody, sang:
Every valley shall be exalted,
And every mountain and hill made low,
The crooked straight, and the rough places plain.
"Louisa Mary," said Mr. Pogson, when he had finished saying grace and had helped himself to a liberal allowance of fried tomatoes, "when I have finished my breakfast, I am going round to the office."
"Yes, Erasmus," said Mrs. Pogson.
"I shall be back in a quarter of an hour, and I shall expect to find my bag packed ready for me to start."
"You need not lock it. I am going to get some papers to take with me, and I shall want to put them in. So you need not lock it."
"Very well, Erasmus."
"Whatever are you doing, Louisa Mary?" exclaimed Mr. Pogson, as his wife upset a cup of coffee over the white table cloth. "I declare that you are as awkward as a cow in harness! What ails you this morning?"
"I don't know, Erasmus. I did not sleep very well last night, and I just caught sight of Mr. Meredith passing the window."
"You should mind what you are doing, Louisa Mary. How often have I expostulated with you upon the peculiar pertinacity with which you will persist in poking your proboscis into places where its presence is prohibited? Have I not done so repeatedly?"
"Then don't let it occur again."
Mrs. Pogson meekly promised to mend her ways, and then proceeded to pack her husband's bag, while Mr. Pogson, having finished his meal, departed for the store. There he found Mr. Meredith waiting for him.
He bade the parson a gruff "Good morning," and was passing on, but Mr. Meredith detained him, and requested a few minutes' private conversation.
"I regret exceedingly," said Pogson, "that I have no time left to converse with you this morning. I am going to Sydney. Upon my return, should circumstances be favourable, I shall be happy to attend to you."
"I must speak to you at once," said Mr. Meredith, firmly.
Mr. Pogson was about to reply, when, for the first time, he looked in the parson's face. It was very pale, and his lips were compressed with an air of grim determination, while his eyes shone with an almost supernatural lustre. Mr. Pogson saw at once that Mr. Meredith was unusually grave, and grimly determined about something, so, without another word, he led him into the office and closed the door.
He sat down on his office chair, and motioned Mr. Meredith to be seated also, but the parson took no notice of his invitation, and looked down upon him with an air of such supreme gravity that Mr. Pogson began to feel quite uncomfortable.
"Now then," he said, "you may speak. I can't stop long, as I am going to Sydney."
"Mr. Pogson," said Mr. Meredith, suddenly gripping Pogson's shoulder with a vyce-like grip, "there will be no necessity for you to go to Sydney. Your fraud is discovered."
"What fraud? I have committed no fraud. How dare you insult me?"
"Pogson," said Meredith, in a tone of contempt, "you profess to believe in Almighty God, and in an existence after death. Refrain from burdening your soul with any more falsehoods. They are worse than useless. I tell you that I know."
"It is a lie," said Pogson. "You are only doing this to frighten me. Leslie Raymond sent you."
"He does not know I am here," said Meredith. "Nobody knows but myself." Then, seeing Pogson's hand furtively approaching a heavy ruler on the office table, he placed it out of Pogson's reach. "Don't attempt any violence," he advised quietly, "I am an old footballer, and as hard as nails. If you attempt any violence with me, I shall forget the sacred character of may calling and break your neck."
The parson looked so very much in earnest, that Mr. Pogson shrank back from him in affright. But he tried to nerve himself to maintain his position, and said, in a tone of injured innocence:
"Mr. Meredith, you have been listening to the vile calumnies of some vituperative enemies of mine. How could I commit a fraud? And yet you come into my own office, and charge me—ME—with fraud! Why, you are exposing yourself to an action for libel. What fraud do you fancy I have committed?"
"I don't fancy anything, Mr. Pogson, I know. I know that you obtained the signature of the late James Raymond by fraud, and you must make restitution, or go to gaol."
Mr. Pogson looked furtively at Mr. Meredith, but dropped his eyes nervously when Mr. Meredith looked at him. Mr. Pogson did not like to hear the word "Gaol" It made him feel extremely uncomfortable.
He would have given anything to know how much Mr. Meredith knew, and where he had obtained his information.
Now, although Mr. Meredith knew much, he could prove very little. He had been anxiously considering the matter all night, and he had decided to adopt a bold course, hoping that the suddenness of the charge might so upset Pogson as to induce him to confess his guilt.
He therefore watched Mr. Pogson closely, and although the latter tried to put a bold face upon the matter, he looked so uncomfortable at the mention of the word gaol that Mr. Meredith felt convinced that Mrs. Pogson's tale was true, and that a fraud had been committed. He resolved to follow up the slight advantage he had obtained, so, fixing Pogson with his eye, he said sternly:
"Mr. Pogson, it is no use for you to prevaricate. I know all. The offence you have committed is punishable by many years' imprisonment, with hard labour, Mr. Pogson. Breaking stones, and making mats. Think of it!"
"But," said Pogson, trying to bluster, "you can't put me in gaol without some proof! What do you know? How do you know that I have done anything?"
"Listen to me," said Meredith, "I will tell you what I know, and then you shall judge whether it is better to make restitution or to go to gaol. I know that the late James Raymond never made a will."
"But—" interrupted Pogson.
"Silence, sir!" said Meredith. "Listen to me. I know that the late James Raymond never made a will. He came here under the impression that he was going to sign an equity of redemption. He left under the impression that he had signed it. You prepared the will without his knowledge, and changed the papers after the equity of redemption had been read to him. He signed the one, thinking it was the other, and you hoped by that means to transfer the Bindawalla property from its rightful owners to yourself. You see I know all."
During the parson's speech Mr. Pogson's face had been a study. Attempted indifference, surprise, impotent rage, each fought its way into the sanctimonious expression fixed there by the habit of years. And before Mr. Meredith concluded, another look had crept into Pogson's eyes, and cast its pallor upon his cheeks. The parson recognised it as fear.
"But how did you find out, I mean I thought, that is—" Mr. Pogson pulled himself together. "I must have time to think this matter over," he said. "I will not discuss it now. You are trying to make me incriminate myself."
"You have said quite sufficient," said Mr. Meredith, "to incriminate yourself. But I will give you time. You shall have five minutes," and he pulled out his watch. "It is now twenty-five minutes past nine. If you have not delivered that bogus will into my hands by half past I will send for the Sergeant of Police."
"But you would not dare. Mr. Meredith! Think of my reputation!"
"I have thought of it," said Meredith, "and there is one thing I would recommend you to think of. Think how it will feel to be driven into Forbes with handcuffs on your wrists. There is one minute gone."
"Is there no alternative?"
"The will or the handcuffs. No other. One minute and a half gone."
"But suppose I were to give you the will, mind, I only say 'suppose,' what guarantee have I that you will not still tell the police?"
"You have my word," said Meredith. "My object is restitution, not punishment. I am willing to leave your punishment to God and your conscience. Two minutes gone."
"But, my dear Mr. Meredith," said Pogson. "We are quite alone. Listen. Can't we arrange this matter? There are a hundred thousand pounds involved, and nobody knows. You are a poor man, and I will give you five per cent. Only fancy! Five thousand pounds! And nobody knows."
"God knows," said Meredith. "Three minutes gone."
"I will give you ten per cent, Mr. Meredith! Twenty per cent! You shall have half! Surely that is fair? Share and share alike. Come, Mr. Meredith. Religion don't fill your pockets, and it is not every day you can make your fortune! Let us strike a bargain. Don't be foolish and obdurate, Mr. Meredith!"
"Four minutes gone," said Meredith, sternly. "Only one minute left."
"Can I say nothing?" said Pogson, whose face was ashen white, while the perspiration stood in large drops upon his forehead. "Can nothing move you? Make me an offer, a suggestion."
"The time is up," said the parson, as he closed his watch with a snap. "I will send for the police," and he turned towards the door; but a slight movement behind him caused him to turn quickly.
Pogson was just rising to his feet; he had a wolfish glare in his eyes, and in his hand he held a loaded revolver which he had just taken from a small drawer in his writing desk.
As the parson faced about, he was within a yard of the revolver's nuzzle. He looked at Pogson, with a glance in which contempt was not unmixed with pity, and, folding his arms, he said:
"So you would add murder to your other crimes? You would add the gallows to the handcuffs? Fire, if you dare! There are three assistants in the shop, and four customers, seven witnesses in all. Fire—if you DARE!"
For a moment Pogson seemed to hesitate, and the two men faced each other in silence; then, slowly, like a beaten dog, Pogson sank into his seat. With a trembling hand, he replaced the revolver in the drawer, and dropped his face upon his hand.
He started suddenly as the parson placed his hand upon the handle of the door and, sliding from the chair to the floor, he literally grovelled at Mr. Meredith's feet.
"For mercy's sake, Mr. Meredith!" he pleaded, "do not be rash. Do not send for the police."
"Will you give mo the will?" demanded Mr. Meredith.
"Is there no other way?" begged Pogson, piteously.
"None," said the parson.
"Then," said Pogson, with a sigh, "I will give it to you. But, Mr. Meredith, think of my position. Think of my dear wife and daughter. Think of everything you can, Mr. Meredith. Act in a spirit of Christian charity, and don't give me away!"
"I have already told you," said Meredith, "that my object is restitution and not punishment. Give me the paper and I will go."
With trembling hands, Mr. Pogson produced his keys and, opening the safe, he took from it a bundle of papers. Among these were two very much alike. So much alike when folded, that if it had not been for the signatures on one, it would have been difficult to detect any difference. As Mr. Pogson was separating them, Mr. Meredith quietly stretched forth his hand, and took possession of them both.
"Allow me," said he and then, opening them, he added, "Yes. Just as I thought. The document he signed, and the one he thought he signed. I will take them both."
He took up it pen, and wrote in bold characters across the face of the will, "the signature of the late James Raymond attached to this document was obtained by me under false pretences." Then, handing the pen to Mr. Pogson, he bade him sign.
"But you are asking me to incriminate myself. I thought—"
"Sign it!" said the parson. "I will keep the document, and it shall never be produced unless you make some claim to the Bindawalla estate. If it is ever produced, it will be your own fault."
"But," protested Pogson, "what guarantee have I that you will keep your promise?"
"You have," said Meredith, "the word of an honest man. Sign."
Pogson signed, and Mr. Meredith witnessed his signature. Then the parson put the papers into his pocket, and opened the office door.
"One moment," said Pogson. "What am I to say? How am I to account to the world for relinquishing my claims to the estate?"
"Say anything you like," said Meredith. "Account for it in any way you can. I will not contradict you."
So saying, the parson strode out of the store, and skipped rather than walked towards the Rectory, where Leslie was reclining on the verandah in the best of spirits. He had just received an answer to a letter he had written some days before, applying for the position of manager on a small sheep station out on the Darling River. The answer was satisfactory, for it informed him that his application had been successful, that he could proceed to the place as soon as he was well enough, and that the salary was one hundred and fifty pounds a year, with quarters. So Leslie was elated. The future was not all a blank. And the parson, thinking that one joy at a time was enough, congratulated him warmly, while he kept his hand, for safety, upon the breast pocket of his coat in which he carried a certain precious document.
When Mr. Pogson was left alone he shut the office door, and sank back into his seat; and, with his chin on his hand, and his elbow on the desk, he sat for a long time, gnawing at his finger nails and thinking. Finally he arose, locked up the office, and went round to his house. Mrs. Pogson met him at the door.
"Wherever have you been, Erasmus?" she asked. "You said you would not be long. Your bag has been packed for an hour."
"I shall not require my bag, Louisa Mary," said he. "My contemplated journey to the metropolis is indefinitely postponed; indeed, I may say it is abandoned."
"But how about the will?" said she; and then she added, in some alarm, "You don't look well, Erasmus. What has happened?"
"Louisa Mary," exclaimed he, "I am a martyr, a self-made martyr. I have voluntarily immolated myself upon the altar of my Christian principles. I have sacrificed myself for the gain sake of blessed charity. 'What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?' Louisa Mary, you behold in me a man who may henceforth be cited as a shining example of all professing Christians, one, who relinquished his claim to a vast estate at the dictates of that inward monitor, his conscience! I have renunciated, and abdicated, and my conscience is vindicated. I discovered at the last moment, Louisa Mary, that I could not reconcile it with my conscience to avail myself of the late Mr. James Raymond's kindness to myself. I have decided, therefore, that I will not prove the will, but allow young Raymond to take undisputed possession of his father's estate."
"Is it true, Erasmus? Have you really and truly renounced your claim to the property, voluntarily, and for conscience sake?"
"Really and truly," said he, "for Conscience sake."
"Noble Erasmus!" exclaimed his wife, and she threw herself into his arms, and wept copious tears of joy; while her conscience smote her for having suspected her husband of wrong-doing. She wished she had not spoken to Mr. Meredith, and resolved to take the earliest opportunity of explaining to him that her suspicions were wicked and unfounded.
Mr. Pogson released himself from his wife's embrace, and said:
"Control yourself, Louisa Mary, and do not try to make me vain. I am impervious to vanity. And now, I wish to seek the seclusion of my bed-chamber for a little quiet meditation. Do not permit my meditations to be disturbed."
"Very well, Erasmus," said Mrs. Pogson, as she wiped her eyes.
But her Husband's meditations had only lasted about half hour, when she knocked timidly at his bedroom door. Mr. Pogson demanded angrily to know who was there.
"It is I, Erasmus," said his wife. "A boy has brought a letter for you which he says must be attended to immediately."
Mr. Pogson opened his door and took the letter. He had evidently been lying down, for he was without coat or vest and his boots were off. He may have been suffering from an attack of bile, for there was a peculiar odour in the air and his wife noticed that his face was unusually red.
He broke the seal of the letter with unsteady fingers and saw that it was written on the official paper of the investment society which had the honour of being represented in Eugowra by him. It ran as follows:
E: POGSON, ESQ.
The bearer, Mr. Terret, is our authorised auditor. He is deputed by us to examine your books, and all vouchers, documents, and securities. You will kindly afford him every assistance.
(Signed) JACOB BLAND,
Mr. Pogson read the letter through, then ran his fingers over his head and face in a bewildered manner. He sank on a chair, and tried to read the letter again, but his hand was trembling to such an extent that the writing appeared blurred and indistinct. Then he said:
"Louisa Mary, a glass of water!"
His frightened wife brought the water, which he swallowed at a gulp. Then, still running his fingers through his hair' he said, evidently speaking with an effort:
"Tell the messenger to inform the gentleman that I will be with him in ten minutes. And now, Louisa Mary, leave me to restore myself to my personal habiliments."
So saying, he shut the door, and Mrs. Pogson went to convey his message to the boy who was waiting for it.
About twenty minutes after Mr. Pogson had retired to restore himself to his personal habiliments, the auditor was still waiting at the store, and Doctor Miasma was playing billiards at the hotel.
Doctor Miasma was a duly registered medical man, but he had no fixed place of practice. He was at present travelling with an insurance agent, but he had tried his hand at a variety of things.
Sometimes he was locum tenens for a doctor who was sick, or who wanted a holiday; and sometimes he could be found on the racecourse, where he was in the habit of earning an honest shilling by way of commission. He gave "tips." He ran no risk, and as he generally "tipped" all the horses in the race to different individuals, he usually returned from the racecourse richer than he went thither.
He was about forty, short and stout, with a round face, thick lips, red nose, and a heavy moustache.
At the present time he was travelling with an insurance agent and, at the moment this chapter opens, he was playing the insurance agent billiards for drinks. The doctor was leading, and seemed to have the chances of the game in his favour, when it was interrupted in the most annoying manner by the landlady of the hotel, who rushed into the room in an excited manner, exclaiming, "Doctor! You're wanted!" The doctor muttered something not distinctly audible, for he had missed an easy cannon and, dropping the cue, he saw that the landlady was followed by a dishevelled young woman, who came closely upon her heels.
"Ay! sir," cried this young woman, "are you the doctor? Oh! Please come at once, we're in such trouble as never was! Never mind your hat, sir. I had to come as I was, I had no time to change my dress, or put my other shoes on, nor anything, so don't take any notice of me. Oh! Poor Papa! He's so bad, and I'm sure he'll be dead if you don't hurry!"
"Who is your papa?" asked the doctor, "and what has happened to him?"
"Papa has taken poison," said she. "My papa is Mr. Pogson, and he has taken poison!"
"Hush, you foolish girl," said the doctor, "you must not say things like that. You don't know what is the matter with him. Nobody but a medical man can say what is the matter with him. Lead the way, and I will follow."
The rumour that Mr. Pogson had poisoned himself spread rapidly, and the occupants of the hotel were consumed with a devouring curiosity until the return of Dr. Miasma, which event did not take place for over an hour.
"Well, Doctor," said the local miller, who happened to be in the bar when the doctor came back, "what has old Pogson been doing? Is it true that he has poisoned himself?"
"No," said Doctor Miasma, "it is not true. But he is very bad. He has apoplexy."
"He didn't look like a man who would get apoplexy," said the miller.
"Sir!" said Doctor Miasma, "do you doubt my veracity, or my capacity?"
"Neither, sir," said the miller.
"I am glad to hear it, sir," said the doctor. "And now, sir, what will you take?"
In the afternoon the doctor went again to visit his patient and this time he stayed with him for some hours. When he returned to the hotel he reported that Mr. Pogson was dead.
"He never regained consciousness," said the doctor. "His seizure was sudden, but his end was peace. His poor stricken wife held one hand, while I held the other, and he passed away as peacefully as a child."
"Will there be an inquest?" asked the landlady,
"An inquest?" repeated the doctor. "No, madam, decidedly not. I have given a certificate of death, and he Will be buried to-morrow."
"Poor man," said the landlady. "There is one comfort, he was very religious, and so he was prepared."
"Yes," agreed the blacksmith, who was in the bar, "he was a real grafter at prayer-meetings, and things like that. He was a bit close-fisted, although perhaps I oughtn't to say it, now he's gone, but he was great at praying. There ain't much doubt about where he's gone."
"I don't know about that," said the doctor, irreverently. "It wouldn't be a safe bet. I gave a certificate of the cause of death, but I wouldn't guarantee where he has gone."
After which speech, the doctor went to look for the insurance agent, as he was anxious to finish the game at billiards. And when it was finished, and the drinks swallowed, the insurance agent was considerably astonished to receive from the doctor an intimation that he was about to sever his connection with the insurance business.
"What is the matter?" asked the agent.
"Nothing, my dear fellow," answered the doctor. "I am simply tired of knocking about."
"But what are you going to do?"
"Going to Sydney to buy a practice."
"Where are you going to get the money?" said the agent.
"MY dear fellow," replied the doctor, "you shouldn't attempt to probe people's private affairs. It's dem'd impertinent!"
The insurance agent said no more. But it may be inferred that, however close-fisted Mr. Pogson had been during his life, his death had not been without profit to Doctor Miasma.
Mr. Pogson's funeral was the largest ever seen in Eugowra, for his vices had been so well hidden, and his virtues so well displayed that, to the simple people of the district, who were apt to take things at their face value, Mr. Pogson only required a halo to make him a saint; and this halo his sudden death supplied.
Therefore, the town suspended business for the occasion, and people followed the funeral in buggies and on horseback, as well as on foot. The Good Templars were there in regalia; so were the Sons and Daughters of Temperance. The Christian Endeavourers were there, and the Sabbath School children, and they deposited wreaths and flowers upon the grave, and sang hymns around it.
There were not many tears shed, but the paucity of tears was compensated by the prodigality of floral tributes.
As Mr. Pogson had lived a fraud, so he was buried an impostor, and the people he had hoodwinked in life he bamboozled as they committed his mortal remains to the dust. Had Mr. Pogson's spirit been hovering round the grave and suddenly become visible, we may feel certain that one eye would have been partly closed, while a spectral hand would have been extended, with its thumb upon his nose, anti its lingers spread out.
When the auditor came to examine the books and vouchers left behind by the late Mr. Erasmus Pogson, it was found that he had been peculiarly absent-minded with regard to such mundane things as debits, credits, and cash balances. The auditor said that on account of this absence of mind, the entries in the books, together with the vouchers and securities, showed a deficit of several thousands of pounds. But it must be remembered that this was an ex parte statement as Mr. Pogson was not there to explain, which he could doubtless have done had he been present.
Then, a number of common people complained, and said that, knowing Mr. Pogson's reputation for Christianity, they had, upon various occasions, entrusted to his keeping diverse sums of money, upon which they had been promised interest at a high rate. For these sums of money they had received no acknowledgment, but Mr. Pogson's word. As, however, there appeared no entry in Mr. Pogson's book, the word of these common people was generally doubted.
In any case the number of those who had lost money was small in comparison with those who had not; so Mr. Pogson's memory was revered, and the white marble tombstone erected to keep it green remains to this day, a monumental tribute to his many virtues.
The insurance company in whose office Mr. Pogson's life was insured for a thousand pounds, with that callous indifference to the sanctity of the tomb and the feelings of the bereaved ones which occasionally characterizes financial bodies, refused to pay the money unless the mortal remains or Mr. Pogson were exhumed and examined. But Mrs. Pogson strongly resisted this attempted violation of Mr. Pogson's grave, and nobly surrendered her claim to the money rather than allow her husband's resting place to be disturbed.
Consequently, in addition to his memory being kept green, the mortal remains of Pogson were allowed to repose in peace; and the following tribute to his memory, written by his daughter, and cut deeply upon his grave stone, is as simple as it is true, and as true to-day as it was on the day it was written:
Long time he battled on life's troubled shore,
He is not dead, he's only gone before.
Ir is needless to say that Leslie Raymond did not accept the position on the Darling. He had a better position much nearer, for, thanks to the parson, Bindawalla was his home again.
Mr. Meredith never told Leslie all the details of the recovery of the will, but he told him sufficient to show that the will had not been made by his father, nor signed by him as a will.
Leslie was naturally delighted to find that, there being no will, he and Nell were the owners of Bindawalla, as heirs to their father, but they were both equally pleased to know that the memory of their beloved parent was freed from the stigma of injustice, which they had deplored even more than the loss of the property.
Leslie's convalescence was rapid. Under the stimulating influence of the good news, and the tender care of his devoted wife and loving sister, he was soon able to give some attention to business matters. He then found that the late splendid rains had borne magnificent results. Food for stock was abundant, and the season promised to be the best for years. The bank also had resumed business and the locked-up capital was released, so Leslie found that all liabilities could be paid, and the estate left free from incumbrance.
Perhaps the walls of the Bindawalla homestead had never enclosed so jovial a party as that which assembled to celebrate the home-coming of Leslie and his bride. The whole affair had been arranged by Nell, who insisted that as there had been no pomp nor ceremony at the wedding, they would make up for it in some measure at the welcome home.
"For very many years," said Nell, when she was advocating her project, "I have been housekeeper and mistress at Bindawalla. I am about to had over my keys, and with them the duties and responsibilities of the position, to another. Let me have the privilege of doing it in my own way."
She said it so lovingly and wistfully that nobody could refuse, and she was given carte blanche to do exactly as she liked in the matter. The first thing she did was to drive out and hold a conference at "Old Joe's Flat," and as Mr. Meredith drove her, and Mrs. Meredith accompanied them, and as the Batonsteins were still staying with the Sterlings, they had a fairly representative meeting. The immediate result was that everybody seemed to get very busy. Nell sent away a number of letters and telegrams, and in the course of the next few days made several special trips to Bindawalla.
George Sterling, with a very red face, was rushing hither and thither, while the kitchen at "Old Joe's Flat" burst suddenly into a state of unwonted activity.
Then, in a few more days, mysterious parcels and boxes began to arrive. Some of these were dispatched to Bindawalla, while others were kept at the Rectory. And all the while a great air of secrecy hung over everything, and Leslie and Ruby had to patiently await events, for Nell would tell them nothing.
But, as Mr. Pogson once remarked, "All things come to those who wait," and to Leslie and Ruby the day of the home-coming at length arrived. Nell had once asked Ruby, casually, how she would like to go out to Bindawalla, and Ruby had said, if she had a good horse, she would love to ride out. So it happened, on the morning, of the home-coming, that the man from the hotel led two horses into the yard of the Rectory. One was Bunyip, and the other was a beautiful chestnut mare, which, twelve months before, land been specially broken in for Nell's own use. On the chestnut mare was a splendid new embroidered side-saddle, with trappings to match. At the same time Ruby received a note from Nell, who had gone out to Bindawalla the day before, asking her to accept the mare as a wedding present.
The parson, with his wife, having driven ahead, Leslie and Ruby were left to ride out together. For the greater part of the way, their route was the same as that taken on the night when Leslie had driven Ruby home from the tea-meeting, and once again they passed the old familiar places.
There were the fences, the gum trees, and the creek; and there were some teamsters camped at the old spot. These men had an inkling of what was happening, so, as Leslie and Ruby passed, they rose from their meal at the camp fire, and with one accord, they shook the gum trees with a mighty cheer.
The reception at Bindawalla was an unqualified success, which it owed to the splendid organising tact or Nell. Everybody Present had been deputed by her to manage some particular department in connection with the day's proceedings and, therefore, each felt a certain amount of responsibility. As the whole affair was successful, each individual felt a thrill of pride; and considered, of course, that the success was due, in a great measure, to their own particular labour or skill.
Herr Batonstein thought that the supreme moment of the day was reached when Leslie led Ruby by the hand along the garden path to the house, while the professor payed the Wedding March upon the piano, which had been wheeled out on to the verandah for the occasion.
Mr. Meredith may be excused for thinking that he was one of the principal actors, for it was he who, in a few eloquent sentences, welcomed the young master of Bindawalla to his home again, and invoked the blessing of Heaven upon him and his fair young bride.
Madge's chief interest was centred in the moment when the bride and bridegroom entered the dining-room, followed by their guests, and gave vent to a simultaneous exclamation of surprise as they admired the wonderful manner in which, by means of fern fronds, evergreens, lilies of the valley, and flowery mottoes, it had been transformed into a veritable fairy bower.
By this time the majority of those present were supremely happy, for they had received their meed of praise. There were, however, one or two faces which still bore an expression of anxiety.
Mrs. Sterling and Mrs. Batonstein both looked a little nervous as the guests took their seats, but their nervousness vanished when Leslie praised the magnificence of the feast, and the beautiful table decorations. Mrs. Sterling was so happy that she shed tears of joy when George Sterling proudly declared that every ounce of food on the table was the product of "Old Joe's Flat," and had been prepared under the personal superintendence of Mrs. Sterling.
"And who decorated the table so artistically?" asked Leslie.
"That," said Herr Batonstein, "vas mine wife. It is vat you call cosmopolitan. My wife haf travelled. She got one idea from Berlin, another from Paris, this from London, that from Dublin, and so on, und the result is as you see."
"It is charming," said Leslie, "and I congratulate Mrs. Batonstein."
Mrs. Batonstein blushed, and raised her eyes from the tablecloth, where they had been modestly fixed. She tried to calm her emotion, but the red ostrich feather in her hair trembled visibly as she said:
"And it's a proud woman I am to hear you say so, Mr. Raymond. And it's glad I am to be here, so I am, and I wish that Mrs. Raymond and yourself may live long and die happy. May the fountain of your joys burn with undiluted lustre, and sail calmly down the vale of life until it rises to the realms of everlastin' bliss!"
Mr. Bingham was not present at the welcome-home at Bindawalla. He was enjoying a well-deserved holiday, and had gone on a trip to the United States. It would have been scarcely necessary to mention this, were it not for a curious passage in a letter of his, addressed to Mr. Meredith and received by the latter some weeks after the home-coming of Leslie and Ruby. It was as follows:
"And now I wish to mention a ridiculous incident which occurred in San Francisco. Two days after our arrival, Mrs. Bingham and I were riding on a street car. When we entered the car, there was a man sitting on the end of same seat, whose face and figure seemed very familiar to me. When we got on the car he pulled his hat over his eyes and turned his head away, and, at the first place the car stopped, he jumped off and disappeared in the crowd. Mrs. Bingham was as much struck as I at the remarkable semblance, for, had it not been for the fact that I saw his coffin lowered into the grave with my own eyes, we could both have sworn that it was Mr. Pogson."
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