SYDNEY DE LOGHE
“The Straits Impregnable”
ANGUS & ROBERTSON LTD.
W. C. Penfold & Co. Ltd., 183 Pitt Street, Sydney
Angus & Robertson Ltd.
WHO, AT SUCH A PLACE AS SURPRISE, HAS
BORNE THE HEAT AND BURDEN OF THE DAY
|I.||Where to Find Surprise Valley Camp||1|
|II.||How They Pass the Evening at Surprise||10|
|V.||The Hut by Pelican Pool||77|
|VI.||The Coach comes to Surprise||92|
|VII.||The Return to Surprise||118|
|VIII.||The Banks of the Pool||145|
|IX.||How the Days pass by at Surprise||159|
|X.||How the Days pass by at Kaloona||176|
|XI.||The Parting by the Pool||190|
|XII.||Selwyn hears some News||205|
|XIII.||The Journey to the Pool||221|
|XIV.||The Halt by the Road||233|
|XV.||The Parting of the Way||237|
|XVII.||The Errand to the Pool||250|
|XVIII.||The Bottom of the Valley||264|
|XIX.||The Selwyns return South||272|
|XX.||The Farewell by the Hut||282|
|XXI.||The Coming of the Rains||296|
|XXII.||The Meeting by the River||319|
CHAPTER IWhere to Find Surprise Valley Camp
Where the equator girdles the earth, the Indian Ocean and the amorous waters of the Pacific have their marriage bed. Afire with the passions of the tropics, excited by breezes from a thousand islands of palm, of spice, of coral, of pearl, jewelled for the ceremony with quick-lived phosphorous lights, the oceans move to each other, and mingle hot kisses under high red suns and fierce white moons. They have begotten many children; and one of these—the Sea of Carpentaria—leans deep into the northern coast of Australia, and wears itself against a thousand miles of barren shore.
As a young girl, dreaming her dreams, spends affection careless of the cost, so these romantic waters woo the stern northern land with warm and tireless embrace. And, as a man, busy on his own affairs, cares nothing for such soft entreaty, so the north land gives no sign; but remarks in silence the passage of the years.
Yet who shall say that passion has no place there—because a giant broods, dreaming a giant’s dreams? Who shall say—because long waiting may have brought crabbed age—that the north land has not its sorrows? Morose countenance it keeps, yet freely can it spend. Its pulse beats no feeble strokes. Fierce suns travel across it, the heavens are torn for its rains, its floods laugh at restraint, the drought is slave of its ill-humours.
Its face is rough with frequent ranges where scanty vegetation climbs, where barren rock-faces catch the sunlight, and clefts run in, and shadowy cave-mouths open out. Here the wallaby finds harbourage, the bat hangs himself in the shadows, the python unrolls his coils, and the savage stays a space for shelter.
Its face is smooth with dreary plain. Stunted trees find living there, and hold out narrow leaves to cheat the suns. The spinifex battles with the thrifty soil, and porcupine grass weaves its spikes for the unwary. Score of miles by score of miles the country rolls away, brown or red where shows the bare earth, grey or yellow or smoky blue where the sun weds the dried grassland, shining white where the quartz pushes out of the ground. Through half the hours the sun stares from the centre of the sky, the leaves hang unmoved, the grasses are [Pg 3]unstirred: silence only lives. The savage is dreaming of the feast to come, the kangaroo has taken himself to the roots of a tree in the dried water-course. The sun passes to the journey’s end: life again draws breath. The kangaroo seeks the tenderer grasses; the dingo rises in his lair to stretch, and loll his tongue; the parrot screams from the tree-top; tiny finches, in splendid coats, swing among the bushes; a brown kite takes high station in the sky. Yet the waste seems empty, and the white ants only may boast of conquest where their red cones rise everywhere about the plain.
A belt of greener timber stands out bravely from the faded vegetation to mark the river on its passage to the sea. To the parching waterholes the pelican comes at dawn to fish and to pout his breast: snowy spoonbills and divers splash in the lonely shallows. The alligator comes up to sun himself; the turtle bubbles from the hot mud; and the quick striped fishes play at hide and seek among the languid weeds. The kingfisher busies himself along the bank, and with evening the ducks push their triangles about the sky.
The conquest of this northern land will bring the fall of one of savagery’s last fortresses. Already the outposts of South and East press in. The ramparts are crumbling, and soon the gates[Pg 4] must tumble to a victor who never yet has been denied. The white man has turned here his covetous gaze. Vainly the burning winds and angry rains shall beat at the ashes of his first fires and shall scatter his first solitary bones. The silences shall not fright him, nor the lean places turn his purpose. Though he fall, yet will he come on again, for this foe is fashioned of stern stuff. In ones, in twos, already he toils over the face of the wilderness, seeking the kindlier ways for his herds: in ones, in twos, he passes about the hills and watercourses, wresting from their bosoms the objects of his avarice. Alike he invades the sternest and gentlest retreats, raising his shelters to mock at sun and storm. His long fences are breaking the distances, his beasts of burden trample the virgin waterholes, his iron houses defile the hermit vales. Not easily does he work his will. Lean and brown he becomes, and his women grow haggard before their time. But children patter upon the bitter places, and them the wilderness has less power to hurt.
The Sea of Carpentaria woos the north land. The north land gives no sign.
. . . . . . .
The mining camp of Surprise Valley lies in the folds of those ranges which break the long plains of the Gulf country. Ten years ago it[Pg 5] grew along the bottom of a cup of the hills, and since that season neither has waxed nor waned, being nothing troubled by the wilderness which marches to the door-ways of its tents and humble iron houses.
The traveller, by circumstance brought thither from the East, with ill grace leaves his steamer at the coast, boards the casual train, and presently finds himself jerking forward on the second stage of the journey. He bumps westward for five hundred miles. He moves through plains which—right and left—push into the horizon. The ocean has not seemed to him more immense. A curtain of heat is about their edges, a haze dwells about them. The clamour of his coming scatters sheep at their grazing, alarms the kangaroo at matins, sends the wild turkey into the taller grasses. For a night, for a day, for half another night, he is held in thrall. He alone appears eager for the journey end. He smokes, he reads, he eats: a dozen ways he sets himself to hurry time. The cool of the evening takes him to the outside platform of the car to reflect and watch the darkening of the skies—to remark the first white stars. At such hour maybe he takes his lot in better part.
Sunrise renews the stale prospect, and the heated air of noon finds him with sticky collar and drowsy brain. He dozes, wakes, dozes[Pg 6] again. Ever and anon the brakes grind, and the train jerks to a standstill. From the window he looks upon a siding, where a platform of blistered planks and an iron shed are emblems of railway authority. A dozen stockmen and loafers of the township crowd the patch of shade, to smoke and spit and await the train’s advance. First to the eye comes the hotel, beside it lies the store; and haphazard stand the wooden houses, with iron roofs glaring back into the sun’s fierce face. Never a church lifts up its cross as of old the tabernacle made signal in the wilderness. A dusty way leads into the plain, and along this presently the stockmen will turn their horses.
The second evening brings the journey-end. From his platform the traveller sees a township’s lights grow upon the plain—lights closer and redder than the stars that meet them. The iron rails have ended. Thankfully he gets down to stretch his limbs in the cool, wide night.
But a hundred miles still frown him from the goal. With morning he clambers into a seat of the mail coach—a battered carriage. His luggage has been strapped behind. He sits solitary beside the driver, who accepts him with easy familiarity. The reins run slack to the horses’ heads, and the five lean beasts draw him forward at even pace. The dust climbs up and hangs[Pg 7] upon the air. All day he rolls over empty plain.
The second afternoon brings the ranges marching from the horizon, and by evening the coach rises and dips upon a see-saw roadway. As the sun leans down to the horizon, the driver draws taut his reins before Surprise Valley Hotel. Surprise Valley ends the coach journey—ends the direct mail service—ends the bush parson’s endeavors—ends the travelling school-master’s rounds—ends civilization—ends everything. When humour so inclines them—which is seldom—the people of Surprise Valley may walk from their doorways into the great unknown of the West.
Fortune has given to Surprise the greenest fold of the western ranges. Easy hills stand up about the camp, tracing a zig-zag rim against the sky. The camp lies in the hollow, as in the bottom of a cup. It clambers about the lower slopes, following the whim of the latest comer. The hotel boasts a roof and walls of iron, that much boasts the store, that much the manager’s house. The staff barracks and the mine offices equally are favoured. Wooden piles lift the buildings high from the ground. Elsewhere stand weather-worn tents; and sometimes a bough shed, thatched with gum-leaves, serves its architect as parlour.
Towering over all rise the poppet-heads and[Pg 8] bins of the mine. Goats take a siesta beneath the scrubby trees, explore the rubbish heaps, and clamber about the dump; fowls of more breeds than Joseph’s coat knew colours, employ themselves in the dusty places, or keep the shade of the broken rocks. Here and there an optimist nurses a garden, and finds reward in a few drooping vegetables. Goats and fowls peer through the netting with evil in their hearts. This is Surprise Valley to the stranger eye.
Three score burnt men and a handful of shabby women here find living. They dig for the green copper hidden jealously in the bosom of the hills. From distant parts they have drifted, they stay awhile; again they drift; but the camp endures, and the wilderness is powerless to harm it. Forward and backward from the railroad, a hundred miles away, the weekly coach crawls on its journey, keeping open the track to civilization, and bringing such news and comforts as that world has leisure to send. The mail bags disgorge stale papers; the driver delivers stale news. Round and round turns the wheel of affairs. A whistle begins the day for this community: a whistle ends it. Deep in the earth the men labor with hammer and drill. Overhead the women bend at their pots and pans, and peg the weekly washings under cloudless skies. The children, untaught, unchecked,[Pg 9] patter among the stones and tussocks, and send abroad their cries. Summer follows winter. The suns climb up; in season the rains roar down; the frost comes in its turn. But the men of Surprise Valley dig always in the bowels of the hills, and the women busy themselves about their doors.
CHAPTER IIHow They Pass the Evening at Surprise.
The last week of October was ending. At Surprise seven red-hot days had crowded after one another; six breathless nights had brought men and women gasping to their doors. The seventh evening had seen, an hour since, the moon come up, white, round and full, behind the Conical Hill; and with the moon arrived a flagging breeze—not cold, not even cool, but with life left to turn the narrow gum-leaves, to move the tent walls and the hessian blinds on the verandahs of the iron houses. The moon had climbed the hilltop an hour since, and now was some distance in the sky. Falling with a broad white light over the ranges, and no doubt upon the plain beyond, it found a way to the valley holding the stifled camp. It picked out the iron roofs, and discovered the trees, to make of their leaves bunches of silver fingers: it counted the tents straggling down the distance, and on the journey wove many patterns of light and shade. The stones in the bed of the dry creek[Pg 11] shone with polished faces. The white ball in the sky numbered the panels of the yard, where the buggy horses—two greys, two bays—stood reflecting on their fate; and it numbered the crinkles in the stable roof.
The breeze had moved several times down the valley, and as often as it passed the people of Surprise turned gratefully in their seats. Mr. Robson, shift-boss, found heart to swear appreciation and light a pipe; Mrs. Boulder, brisk and brawny, reached from her chair to slap the youngest child; and Mr. Horrington, general agent—unappreciated cousin of Sir James Horrington, Bart., of Such-and-such Hall, England—pledged again his lost relatives in whisky and a dash of water. The members of the staff, telling smoking-room stories from their long chairs outside the mess-room, re-settled for something newer and choicer.
Two sounds were repeated, and helped to make the stillness live. They were the stamp of horses near the creek, and the cornet of Mr. Wells, storeman. The cornet player was feeling the way, with poor luck but an honest persistence, through the pitfalls and crooked ways of “The Death of Nelson.” He had reached the thirteenth verse. The thirteenth verse was the unlucky verse: unlucky for him, because he broke down, unlucky for his listeners, because he[Pg 12] repeated it. The notes fell slowly, uncertainly, mournfully upon the night. As the fourteenth verse began, Mr. Neville, manager of Surprise, swore with feeling.
The old man of Surprise sat in the recess of his verandah, on a full-length wicker chair, both legs at easiest angle, heavy walking stick at hand, a glass at his elbow, a pipe in his clutch. The hessian blinds, nailed to the woodwork, threw the place into gloom, unless crevices let in a beam of the moon. Old Neville sat back in the half-dark, a man of small and tough make, covered from collar to ankles in white duck, with brown, wrinkled face, bristling grey moustache, shaggy white eyebrows, and an aggressive manner. He was seventy; but he was to be reckoned with still. Behind him, two canvas waterbags hung midway from the roof, and the single small table, with the whisky bottle and the box of matches on it, he had taken for himself. He put out bony fingers for the matches.
“Damn that wretched fellow! I’ll hunt him off the place to-morrow.”
A girl and two men were his company. The girl sat between the men, and the three people leaned back in canvas chairs. The nearest man, who was dressed in riding clothes, was young—no more than thirty-five. He was tall, and of[Pg 13] a wiry make, and his skin was tanned. His face was clean shaven, with a trace of temper in it, while he had the manner of one well able to take care of himself. He gave his attention to a pipe. He was known through all that country as James Power of Kaloona Station.
The girl was dressed in white. She was not thirty years old, but the climate had not spared her. She was not tall, she was rather slight, and her face challenged no second glance; but he who looked closely might find thought behind her eyes, and humour in her mouth. The carriage of her head showed courage. Here was a girl with thoughts to think and with dreams to dream. A girl with a stout heart, who would be ready to drink deeply from the cups of joy and sorrow: a mate worth winning. Maud Neville was her name, and Neville of Surprise was her father. Just now, with both hands, she marked the fall of the cornet notes which continued their troubled passage.
The other man smoked a cigar in heavy content. He was growing middle-aged and stout. He breathed with deep breaths, but the sultry night excused him. A dark moustache covered his mouth. His face was filling with flesh; and his eyes were cold though rather wise. Just now he was well pleased with the world. He was John King, accountant of Surprise.
The girl spoke. Her voice was full of lights and shades.
“Don’t always be growling at Wells, father. He maddened me once; but I have accepted him long ago. He will learn something else soon. The cornet is new. He got it two or three coaches ago. Mr. King, do you remember the concertina last summer? The heat unstuck it or something. That’s why he sent for the cornet. One day I asked him why he was so persistent, and he put his hands on his chest very grandly like this and said—’Miss Neville, it is in here. It must come out.'”
The old man screwed up his face. “He can tell the flies that to-morrow when he takes the track.”
King took the cigar from his mouth very deliberately.
“Maybe we listen to more than a poor storeman—a lover, a poet rather. Who can say? A lover whose beloved has wandered afar: a poet born tongueless, whose breast must break with fullness. Then what do our ears matter, while he finds relief?”
Power laughed. “You’re an amusing idiot, King.” But the old man snorted.
“I’ve something else to even up with besides that trumpet. Every man jack on the place is doing what he likes with the water tanks these[Pg 15] last two months. They’re three part done. There’ll be a drought here ‘fore the rains come, sure as I sit here, there will. I believe half the women wash their brats in it. They’ve got the devil’s impidence. I watched Wells to-day carry half-a-dozen kerosene tins for Mrs. Simpson and Mrs. Boulder. I’d have seen he knew about it, if I’d been nearer. I’ll fix the lot of ’em up yet. I’ll settle them quick.”
“You’ll have to ration them,” Power said.
“Ration them! I’ll ration them till their tongues hang out. They can go to the pub for a drink.”
A chair creaked in the dark, grunts followed the creak, and Neville got to his feet. He steadied himself with his stick, and started towards the door into the house. On the threshold he paused and looked round.
“Ye know Gregory, the gouger from Mount Milton way? He was in at the store this afternoon. Says he’s struck a first class copper show on the river. He was blowing hard about it there, and had specimens with him. He was after gettin’ a lot of tucker on account; but I settled that. I may be wrong, huh, huh! but I reckon he wasn’t long from the pub.”
“Where’s his show?” King asked.
“On Pelican Pool. He’ll get drowned when the rains come.”
“He can have only just struck it. Nobody was on the hole a fortnight back,” Power answered.
“Is the show any good?” asked King.
“Bah! Of course not.”
“How do you know?” Maud cried.
“Of course it’ll be no good.”
“You don’t know anything about it.”
King put his cigar in his mouth, and it grew red in the dark. He took it away again. “Isn’t Gregory the fellow with the pretty daughter?”
The old man began to chuckle. “Huh, huh! I’ve heard more talk of Gregory’s daughter these last two weeks than of his copper show. If the show is as good as the gal, his fortune is made. She’s a fetching little hussy.” He wagged his head.
“You’ve seen her?” questioned Power.
“Three days back. I was down in the buggy looking at the pipe line. I told Maud about her. She’s something in King’s way. I hear he never misses anything.”
King shrugged his shoulders. “My name gone, you may send me along the pipe line as soon as you like.”
“Ye’ll have to look sharp. Half the fellers on the lease know about her.” The old man chuckled himself into the house.
“She has only been once to the store, and ill-luck kept me wrestling with accounts. Afterwards I heard she had passed through like some Royal Presence, moving so greatly every man under fifty that he gave up work for the afternoon.”
“And,” said Power, “my Mrs. Elliott’s story is that Mick O’Neill, our head man, has lost his head over her.”
King bowed reverently in the dark. “She must be wonderful—a poem of golden words, a melody of diamond notes. She must be fit to rank with those dead women generations of men have sung about. The Helen of Homer: Deirdre, princess of Ulster, whom four kings fought over, and for love of whom three brothers slew themselves: Poppæa, mistress of Nero, for whose bath five hundred asses let down their milk: a Ninon de l’Enclos, who rode abroad on early autumn mornings, while the poor brutal peasants covered themselves, believing an angel passed by. When I go down the pipe line, I shall take my fly-veil with me that my sight may not be destroyed.”
“You may meet me there, with or without a veil,” said Power.
“And now,” said King, leaning heavily forward in his chair which creaked out loud, “I think it becomes me to salute such loveliness.” He stretched a hand for the whisky and poured out a noble peg.
A bellow came from inside. “Power!”
“I want ye!”
Power got up. “I’ll see what is wanted. But first our pledge.”
The steps of Power died away, and King and Maud Neville were left alone. Nelson had died at last, and now the cornet asked, “Alice, where art thou?” One or two crickets beneath the house accompanied it. Presently King must have moved his chair, because there was a sudden creak.
“I am going to write a treatise on love to aid the beginner.”
“How many volumes?”
King shook his head. “You mock me. You think because my heart is widely proportioned, and because there are several little dead affairs stacked neatly on upper shelves, that each of those visitors cost nothing to admit, and that now one cannot be told from another. You are mistaken.” Again he shook his head. “Each of[Pg 19] those visitors left its footprints on the threshold, and memory can still find them in the dustiest, most forgotten corners. No, hide your smiles.”
“Go on, you stupid, I love listening to you.”
“Love comes always in the same way, whether it be the great affair that tramples ruthless and leaves us crushed on the road, or whether it arrives with hammer and chisel, playfully to knock off a corner of the heart. For love flows forward in a ripple of waters over which pass sweetest breezes. So slowly it moves, so gently it rises, that one is lost ere the danger be discovered. In the first sprays that dash the drowner’s mouth lie its best, its purest.”
“Alas! the tide brings refreshment with it, and lovers wake hungry, and what had seemed two shafts from heaven become a woman’s eyes. And so the descent to earth is trod again in steps of kisses.” He held out his arm. “Look at the moon slung there, a great silver platter! How many thousands of us have cried out for it? Yet it is only a barren mountain region, scarred and ugly. But we never learn this, because we do not draw near. Love is a mirage. Love is the dancing of the marsh lights. Therefore pursue, but do not draw near. For once you touch the shining thing its glamour shall[Pg 20] depart, and as the millstone of satiation it shall hang about your neck.”
“But I understand you never practise your preaching.”
“I am too eager in pursuit. I blunder on the shining thing, and then—” He shrugged his shoulders with infinite regret.
Maud Neville joined her hands behind her head. She frowned the least little bit. She spoke in a hurry.
“No, that’s not love. That’s anything you like; but it isn’t love. Love is quite a different thing. Listen to me. Love is the eye that takes no sleep, the foot that knows no stony road, the heart that bleeds and feels no wound, the brain that always understands.”
“I see,” King said.
A second time they had nothing to say. As they sat thus, the breeze journeyed again down the valley. It stirred the hessian blinds against the fly-proof netting. It came through the open doorway at the verandah end, and moved the water-bags behind Neville’s empty chair. The two opened their arms to it. It must have brought charity to the heart of Mr. Wells, for he packed up his cornet for the night: and it may have touched King’s tongue with eloquence. Soon it had gone by. But King got up and walked to the doorway to throw away his[Pg 21] dead cigar. He stood there some while looking over the country, and the moonbeams revealed him a stout man, past first youth. Maud Neville fell to examining him. Now the cornet no more made plaint, complete silence waited on the night. Something moved her to break the spell.
“How still it is,” she said. “How empty!”
The man at the doorway did not turn round; but he looked out into the open as though proving her words. “Still?” he said. His tongue strings were loosened. “Empty?” He pointed his hand. “Up there, this way, that way, hear the roar of worlds rolling through the crowded ways of space. Hear the bellowings of the furnaces, the shrieks of passage, the crash of collision! Worlds are growing fiery there, worlds are growing cold. Worlds are dying there. Worlds are finding new birth. The Angel of Life and his assistant the Angel of Death take no rest.
“Lift up your veil, O Night, for we would look in.
“Yes, joy is here, and sorrow is here; hunger is here and repletion is here; sin is here and righteousness here: hope and despair, love and hate, anger and forgiveness—all are here.
“The young lion roars in his triumph, and the old toothless lion has missed his kill. The nightingale sings from the cypress; and the mouse is[Pg 22] squeaking where the owl swooped down. In a hundred jungles the beast of prey fills himself; and in haunts of men the ravenous are abroad also. The lover cries that the couch is waiting, and in the shadow lurks the assassin. Where men are dying, mothers stand weeping; and mothers are writhing where men are being born. The student, pale with learning, trims his lamp and asks for the night to continue; and the tempest-torn mariner is praying for the dawn. The youngster smiles at his rosy dreams; and round his father breaks the shock of battle. The rich man toys with his heaped meats: and to a fireless garret has crept the pauper. The statesman toils in his chamber; and the well-dined burgher turns in his sleep. Age pulls the coverlet over a bony breast; and in the halls of vice youth spends its strength. In solitude the shepherd guards his flock; and in retreat no less lonely the miser counts his gold. And hairs are greying, and eyes are dimming, and babes are crowing. And voices are laughing, and voices are scolding, and voices are sobbing. How empty the night is? How still the night is? No! How crowded! How deafening!”
King came to a full stop. His hand fell to his side. He did not turn round, and presently he lit another cigar with irritating calm. All the while, the girl had not stirred in her chair. At[Pg 23] last King moved from the doorway, and at the same time Neville sounded his stick in the house. He appeared on the verandah with Power behind. The old man was chuckling to himself and holding out some keys.
“Huh, huh! I may be wrong; but I think I’ll settle that little crowd. See these? For the tanks. See ’em? I’ll be along and fix them up right away. To-morrow you can watch them line up with their tongues out. Old Horrington can live on whisky for a while. It’s done him before to-day. Mrs. Johnson can wash in last week’s water. It’ll make good soup for the baby. He, he! Huh, huh, huh!”
“What are you going to do, Father?”
“Lock the tanks, of course. What d’ye think I mean to do? Drink ’em dry?”
“You can’t do that.”
“Can’t? I may be wrong, but I reckon I can.” He wagged his head; and next gripped his stick and began to stamp down the verandah, but half way brought up short with a second nod. “Moon or no moon,” he said, “I shall do better with a lantern where I’m going.” He went indoors again.
At the same time King pulled out a watch. “I’ll get back.”
“The night is getting cool, and I haven’t slept for a week.”
Power looked at the moon. “What’s it? Ten?”
“Twenty to. We may get a change out of this.”
“I don’t think so,” Power said.
“At least we’ll hope next week is better,” Maud cried. “Let’s wish for a storm.”
“And after it the flying ants?”
“Oh bother them!” Maud said. “Where’s the romance of the wilderness?”
King answered her. “Romance is somewhere just out of sight. Some day I shall sit in a cooler country, having forgotten the taste of heat and flies, and I shall start sighing for the old romantic days at Surprise. And now for a nightcap before bed.”
“Mr. King, you are breaking rules.”
“But this is Surprise and we are in the last week of October. Much can be forgiven when you live at Surprise during the last week of October.”
“The rule is three, and that makes number five.”
“Well, never again.”
King put down his empty glass. “Good night.
He went through the doorway into the open and down the steps. His footfalls crunched on the bed of the dry creek. The return of Neville overwhelmed them. The old man held a lighted lantern, and fumbled impatiently at the wick. “Where’s King?” he demanded, lifting shaggy eyebrows over the top.
“Gone home a moment ago,” Maud said.
“Er! I knew as much. He knows what he’s about. I meant him to come with me.”
“He’s good company,” Power said, settling again in the old seat.
“I love him,” Maud said. “One moment he makes me laugh and the next he makes me think. I don’t know yet whether he is a wise man or a mountebank.”
“Where does he come from?” Power asked. “You said he was a solicitor, didn’t you?”
The old man snapped down the glass of the hurricane lamp.
“I heard tell he was a solicitor somewhere and got kicked out. As soon as he touches money he can’t go straight. He would sell his mother up. Huh, huh! He’s a gentleman to walk shy of while you’ve a few pounds to spare. Go to him for a goat, and he’ll sell you one of mine. He has done business over half the fowls on the[Pg 26] lease, though he never owned a feather. He, he! I can’t help respecting his abilities. He’s got a finger in most copper shows within fifty miles. The silly coves get him to draw up their agreements, and he takes care that his name comes in somewhere or other.” Neville chuckled himself to the end of his tale, then said, “You had better be away, Power. I’m going to bed when I get back.” He went through the door.
“Take care!” Maud called out.
A growl was her thanks. In course of time the old man had scrambled down the steps and across the creek.
“So much for our friend, John King,” said Power.
At Surprise Valley the rule is early to bed. First chop the wood and milk the goats. Then soothe or slap the baby to sleep. After tea, a seat in the doorway and a smoke. After a smoke, an exchange of maledictions on the weather. The lamps in the tents begin to go out by nine o’clock. The frustrated moths and flying ants betake themselves elsewhere, and the mosquito sings a solo requiem in the dark. On cool nights and nights of breezes, the people of Surprise put out lights at even an earlier hour, for sleep is likely to prove kinder mistress.[Pg 27] To-night already three parts of Surprise were sleeping. To be true, Mr. Wells was thinking of a last pipe; and Mr. Horrington, whisky bottle at elbow, was cogitating a nightcap. Also, a light burned yet in the latest rigged tent. Mr. Pericles Smith—travelling schoolmaster, arrived here on his rounds—after chopping the firewood, hunting the goats away, putting the kettle off the boil, and performing sundry other exercises, was snatching a few moments with the help of a candle at his monumental work on the aboriginal languages of Australia. Nowhere else lights pierced the walls. The moon fell over high land and low land, upon house and tent, and steeped in romance the dreary prospects of the day. The Man in the Moon looked down on a fairy city.
. . . . . . .
I have brought you now to the beginning of my chronicle: I have laid the stage and you are left with the chief players. The story is written in a thumbed volume of the Book of Life, and it is time to lift down the tome from its shelf. Look for no tremendous tale, for at Surprise the day wags through its journey as elsewhere—sorrow tastes as bitter here, pleasure drinks as sweetly, and the human heart beats time to old, old tunes. Look for no great story then, for I have it not to tell—you are to find two lovers,[Pg 28] you are to have the history of their loves, and learn how one was rude apprentice to the trade, and what apprenticeship had to teach him.
. . . . . . .
The man and woman on the verandah had tumbled into their own thoughts. But presently Power rose in his seat, and moved it beside Maud Neville. He sat down again—he leaned forward and raised one of her hands. Fingers closed on his own. “Kiss me, Maud,” he said, in no more than a whisper.
He bent close over the girl. His face approached hers until he and she saw each other clearly in the dark. They kissed with much passion. As Maud released him, she touched his forehead with her lips.
“I thought we should never be left alone. I was getting disgusted and going home. I came with a lot to tell you. I was full of ideas, but you were bent on avoiding me.”
“Poor fellow! As bad as that? You should have come earlier. I couldn’t get up and leave the others, you silly. Mr. King doesn’t come very often. What have you to say so important?”
“Maybe I’m not telling it now.”
He was laughed at for his pains. “You want coaxing? Is that what’s the matter?”
“And you are ready for Father?”
“He can’t refuse again. We’ve waited so long.”
“Then desperation will give me courage. Now for the promise.”
“I said nothing about a promise. You must think I am awfully fond of you.”
Power leaned forward again. Their faces came close together. Her eyes were wide open and looked straight into his. Fondness appeared in them, deep as the sea. Power began again to speak.
“It has become so lonely over there. I think about you all day long. The house has grown miserable. It has turned to a graveyard. If you appeared there, things would become what they were. You must marry me soon. I have been too patient.”
He stooped and, in place of speech, he began to kiss her hair, her face, her hands. Presently she put an arm about his neck, and kept him willing prisoner. “What about your promise?” he said once more.
She had not done with coquetry. “What makes you think I am so fond of you?”
“And don’t you like me a little bit? A little bit?”
“Perhaps a little bit.” She put both arms about his neck. “My good friend, you are everything in the world to me. My silly life begins and ends in you. This great love of mine has quite eaten me up. Why, what would I do without you. You came as a brand to a cold hearth and set it aflame. Something in my heart sings now all day long.”
Passion came over them as a surge of the sea, as a storm of wind. They bent close to each other, thinking no thought. Their breaths mingled. Their hearts marked one time.
At last she released her prisoner. Her eyes were shining in the dark. She began to speak in a low, eager voice. She might have been a messenger bringing glad tidings.
“You will never understand what this love has meant to me. You and I—we are different metals refining in the same furnace, and the fire does not treat us alike. My life at last has become easy to live. It is a simple and a grand thing. Think of Dingo Gap or Pelican Pool without sun or flies. Wouldn’t they be wonderful places? Well, I find life changed as much as that. The little happenings no more have power[Pg 31] to annoy. My eyes are strong to see straight ahead. In all matters I am undisturbed. This love of mine is a holy thing. It will brook no meanness. It will stoop to no crooked ways. Something cries out in my heart to grow and grow. I would bring you a wide-open mind. I would offer you a body as beautiful as that girl we talked of half-an-hour ago.”
She began again. “And now, my good friend—yes, you who look at me so fondly—I am going to hurt you a little bit. I am going to tell you you have brought me my moments of sorrow. For a long time now I have known that your love and my love are of different kinds. Bad hours arrived for me once when an evil spirit whispered that you did not understand me, and therefore you could not truly love me. The whisperer said Nature demanded you should go hungering after a woman, and there was no choice but me. The whisperer said until you knew me, and demanded me because of your new knowledge, that my affections were anchored in the sands.
“But I have pushed aside the whisperer. I love you, and that is all that matters. For love knows nothing of hunger and unrest, of hope grown old and other miseries. Love is the clear light, and those the winds that wrestle for it, that are not of it and can never hurt it. But[Pg 32] you will not test my strength? Answer me. You will not test it?”
“No, my girl. But your words could be kinder. I have no quick tongue like yours to tell my tale. I know this, that I am weary of waiting for you. Don’t let us waste more of life. We have the whole world to see, and when we have grown tired, we shall come back here. The old home I am so sick of will grow beautiful under your care. I shall ride away in the morning, knowing evening will find you waiting for me——”
“Yes, yes, I shall be waiting for you, and you will arrive hot and tired, and you will say ‘I won’t eat anything.’ But I shall coax you. And later on we shall sit together in the light of this same old moon, which will have travelled round a few times more, and will have become a little paler with watching. And we shall talk about olden days. And then we shall begin to grow old together, and I shall count your first grey hairs and—why, Jim, you are laughing at me!”
“Am I? Then give me my promise, for I must go home.”
“What am I to say, Jim? You know I want the marriage as much as you do. But father is an old man, and there is nobody but me to look after him. He wouldn’t think of giving up the mine to live with us. If you like, we can ask[Pg 33] him again to-night. Then if he says no, I shall stay with him a little longer, and at last we must tell him it is our turn to choose. That’s fair, Jim, isn’t it? No, don’t look sulky. I am quite right.”
“You won’t always put it off like this? I am growing bad-tempered over there.”
“You silly boy, you are only a few miles away. We see each other every week. But we may catch father in a soft moment. We must find him after he has locked the tanks. He’ll be in such a good humour at the thought of a fight to-morrow, that he may say yes. Let’s find him now. Go away, stupid, I want to get up.”
Maud rose to her feet, shook out her dress, and pushed her hair out with her fingers. She kissed Power for the last time, and they went down the steps into the moonlight. She ran ahead, taking little heed of her footing. The stones in the creek were thick and rough, and she trod them with quick feet while Power crunched behind. The stable was not far away, and they followed the fence towards it. The horses stood together with drooped heads at the lower end of the yard. All this quarter of the camp was picked out plainly in the moonlight.
A figure moved about the stable. It was Neville back from his rounds. Maud nodded her head in his direction.
“There’s father waiting for us,” she said. “Now Mr.-my-friend-Jim, are you feeling as brave as you were?”
“You must look after me.”
“Certainly not. I never pretended to be brave.”
“I shall find courage somehow.”
Old Neville’s voice arrived. “Be smart ye two. You’ve been an awful time. I expected ye gone long ago, Power. That fool groom has jammed the door so as I can’t get in. I’ll let him hear about it to-morrow. See if you can do anything. He, he! ye’ll have to do something, or ye’ll go bareback home. What did ye want to come along for, Maud? Can’t you let him alone for a minute? That’s the way to sicken a man of ye.” All three met outside the stable door. “D’ye see what I mean?” Neville said.
Power moved the door in course of time. The old man went in first with the lantern. “Take the saddle and hurry up. I want to get to bed.”
Power carried the saddle to the fence. Maud had taken the bridle and had gone in search of the horse which knew her and would stand. In a little while she was leading it back. Power had taken his opportunity.
“Mr. Neville, Maud and I talked things over to-night, and we want to get married. You won’t mind, I hope?”
The old man was rooting with his stick in a corner of the stable. “Er?” he said, looking up.
“We’re thinking of getting married,” Power said again louder.
“Have you still that in your heads? I told ye ‘No’ before. Here, come here. Look at that fellow! I’ll fire him off the lease before he’s any older. Look at him! Thrown it all in a corner. No, ye must wait. Ye’re both young, and I’m an old man. Goodness! look here! Maud’s an annoying girl, but I’d be put out without her. Here’s the mare. Come outside with ye. Maud, I hear you’re on again about gettin’ married. I won’t have it. Ye’ve plenty of time for that sort of thing.”
“You’re not fair, father. You’re not a bit fair. You won’t listen to reason. You never discuss anything. I’m not a child still. When will you realize that?”
The old man lifted his shaggy eyebrows over the lantern. He seemed rather surprised. “Listen to reason! And you come to me when everyone is in bed. Ye call that reason! It’s just like you. Bah!”
“Maud is right, Mr. Neville. You haven’t been fair about this.” Power’s temper was never hard to discover, and Maud frowned him quiet. The old man looked at the ground, and[Pg 36] scratched his head a moment or two and wagged it.
“I suppose, Power, ye’ll be round in a day or two?”
“I’m bringing cattle through the end of this week.”
“I’ll talk about it then. Now be away with you. Come home, Maud.”
The old man of Surprise blew out the lantern and began the journey to the house. Maud in meek mood followed him.
“Good night, Jim,” were her last words.
“Good night,” Power called back.
Power saddled the mare, and let down the slip-rail of the yard. His whip was coiled on his arm. In a moment he was mounted and had turned towards home.
CHAPTER IIIPelican Pool
Kaloona Homestead lies distant from Surprise fifteen Queensland miles, and the traveller by that road learns a Queensland mile is a mile and anything you wish beyond. The red track runs all the way—over outcrops of rock, across grassy levels and through dry creek beds, nearly to the gateway of the homestead. Kaloona Homestead stands among timber on one of the big holes of the river.
All the traffic of the neighbourhood takes this direction, and keeps safe the roadway from the teeth of the waiting bush. Once a week the mine buggy journeys to outlying shafts. Out of the distance crawl a pair of horses, an ancient four-wheeled carriage, two men seated up there in collarless shirts and khaki trousers, a swinging waterbottle and a following of dust. Once a month Mr. Carroll, timekeeper, armed with revolver and sustained with thoughts of a peg at the farther end, bumps along in the back seat[Pg 38] of the buggy with the pay for the smaller mines. Along this path the horse-driver bullies a groaning load to the mine furnaces, and wins the plain by ready tongue and a generous hand. His dogs shuffle in the shade of the waggon. The copper gougers come in from labours in the far places, and follow the red way to store and hotel; and the kangaroo shooter, astride his shabby beast, arrives with empty provision bags from lonely hunting grounds. But commonly you travel all day under a greedy sun, and meet none of these things. The plain rolls away, and no wayfarer appears, unless there leap up a kangaroo startled in his bed chamber.
Power took the homeward road with never a thought to its emptiness. He was no apprentice to the bush. He could read the signs of the way, be the time day or night. Now a moon was in the middle of the sky, the path was well trodden, a fair mount carried him, and the night cooled—the journey would be done in the turning of his thoughts. He rode with loose rein, idle spur, and seat easy in the saddle. Yet a clever horse might not have got the better of him.
The mare carried him at a fast walk, asking neither check nor spur. Single tents, tents in twos and threes, and rickety lean-tos rose up among the gullies on both hands, and quickly a score of them had fallen behind. In none burned[Pg 39] a light, and no greeting arrived other than the quick bark of curs. A bend of the road and the base of the hill cut off the camp. From now forward the journey would prove a lonely business. The creak of a saddle and the brief pad of hoofs in the dust were to be the song of voyage.
Afoot or on horseback, Power was a wide-awake man. He saw most of what was worth seeing. He could see, realize and do on the instant. But he had his moments of reflection. He was aware of the tents, the lean-tos and the rubbish on the ground. But he had fallen into thought before going far on the way. Were he devout lover, now was the scene and now the hour to delight in the virtues of his lady.
He loosened his feet in the stirrups to the tips of his toes, and lifted his hat from his head. A vague breeze moved across his cheek, and he turned gratefully to it; but it was dead as soon as it was born. Still, the night was cooling, and the plain was wide and free after the verandah at Surprise. The moon had taken station in the middle of the sky, frighting all but a few stars which gleamed wanly here and there. She was a lamp to all that great red country—by day full of majesty, now touched to beauty by her genius. The walk of the mare soothed him strangely.
Power was a man of fair learning and [Pg 40]experience. He was a bushman born, but the South had given him education of some width. He had had a share of travel. He could remember other lands and fair cities. Men, now forgotten, had rubbed shoulders with him; and one or two women had passed in and out of his life with a few laughs and sighs. Seldom he called them to mind. Maud Neville only had brought him to captivity. Her brain was mate for his brain, her heart was mate for his heart: there would be bonds to bind them when passion had passed away.
His thoughts went back to her, where he had seen her last following the old man towards the house. He found himself thinking very tenderly of her. Soon now she would come across to brighten the old homestead, and life would never be quite the same again. He must pull his habits into shape. He must remember freedom would have to go in harness, and the curb might chafe at first. He must be abroad at dawn and home by nightfall, and give up this riding over the country as the humour took him. The cattle camp must see him less, the hearth must see him more; others could do the rough work, and they would do it as well as he.
There came to mind the first time he had seen Maud Neville, a day or two after the coach had brought her from the South. He had not [Pg 41]discovered her charm in the beginning. He put a high price on beauty always, and here was a girl but poorly favoured. But that she made the old man’s home bright there was no denying, and now he walked in willing captivity. He loved her, and she loved him almost too well. She read him to the last word, while her own face was covered with a veil which he had not the skill to pluck aside. She had said a little while ago that he had much to learn in the art of loving, and perhaps she had spoken the truth. His affection only had his spare time, and was shabby exchange for a spiritual love like her own. Yet she seemed content. Well, she should teach him in the days to come, and she would find him a ready student. Just now he was on the way home, and to-morrow was bringing a long day with cattle. There were other things for a man to do besides making love.
He tumbled back to everyday matters when the mare whinnied loudly. He looked about him. He found he had been carried into the plains. Behind, and on the left hand, ranges filled the horizon; ahead ran the dark belt of timber which followed the river. Power guessed at it rather than saw it. Pelican Pool was four miles away in a straight line; but the road bent in a little distance, and met the river several miles lower down.
All at once Power grew alert. The sight of a riderless horse called for more than a meander of thoughts. The animal stood a long way off in the shadow of a small tree near the track. It was saddled, and the reins hung to the ground. Power looked about the neighbourhood for the rider, and quickly found him, spread out in the middle of the road. At once he shook the mare into life and trotted forward. The horse under the tree whinnied at their approach; but there was no movement from the form in the path. At the last moment the mare took fright, and Power was hard employed to bring her to reason. He jumped presently to the ground and bent over the body. He found a heavy man in middle years lying on his back, breathing with deep snores. It was a matter for proof if the man were hurt; but there was no doubt of his drunkenness. A bottle of whisky filled a pocket. The fellow’s head was cut, and blood had dried on it; but search discovered no other injury, and Power took him by the shoulder and shook him—firmly at first, afterwards roughly. The snores turned into chokes, the chokes became groans. Power tired of such a tardy cure, and exchanged hand for foot. The fallen man opened his eyes.
“Day, mate. Wot do you think you’re doing to a cove?”
“Are you all right?” Power said.
“Right enough to stop a cove going through me pockets.” The fellow licked his lips. “It’s flamin’ hot, mate!”
“Get up,” said Power.
“Wot’s got you so blooming anxious?”
“I found you on the road just now. There’s the horse under the tree. It’s midnight. You’ll have to hurry some to be anywhere by morning.”
“I’m stayin’ here.”
“You’ll perish when the sun gets up.” There was a silence while they looked at each other. Then the man swore, struggled a little and sat up. “Have you far to go?” Power said.
“Are you Gregory?”
“That’s me when I’m home.”
Power lost patience. “Well, what the devil are you doing? Are you coming or staying?”
“You’re a nice bloke to help a sick cove.” Gregory came across the whisky bottle. He dragged it from his pocket, and waved it in the moonlight. “I reckon I’ve a thirst you couldn’t buy; no, not fer ten quid. Have one at the same time? No! I reckoned as much from a long-faced coot like you!”
“Get up,” Power said, “and I’ll give you a hand with the horse.”
The beast waited for Power to catch it.[Pg 44] Gregory had found his feet, and stood in the middle of the path looking at the whisky bottle. He proved very groggy; but recourse to the bottle put him in braver spirit, and he fell to cursing Surprise and all that lies within its gates.
“Here you are,” Power said. “Go steady. I’ll leg you up.”
It took trouble and a pretty play of oaths to bring about the lifting up. The horse stood like a rock. Gregory swore his leg was broken; but he gained the saddle, and afterwards kept balance in a surprising way. Power, in no good temper, turned things over, and decided to take him to the Pool. It meant a journey longer by five miles—bad luck which swearing wouldn’t mend.
“Come on,” he said. “I’m going your way. Shake up that beast of yours. I don’t want to be all night.”
He turned the mare’s head to Pelican Pool, and she started the journey, walking fast. The other horse kept company at a jog-trot. Gregory began a rough ride. But he held his attention to the whisky bottle, and had spilled a big part of it before they were a mile on the way. The empty bottle was thrown grandly to the ground. As time went by he turned very friendly.
“I’ll be showing you something in a mile or[Pg 45] two—my oath! yes—the best copper show in the Gulf, or in Queensland for that matter. There’s a fortune there, I say. D’yer hear me? I’ll be driving my buggy and pair yet. I’ll be buying more grog in a day than that cove at the pub sells in a year. No more blanky shovelling for me, you make no error. I’ll have all the buyers in the country there ‘fore the week’s out. Old Neville down at Surprise, he’ll be on his knees prayin’ me to sell it him. ‘Ear me?”
“I hear you,” Power said. And with the last bit of good temper left he added, “Are you far down?”
“Matter o’ thirty foot, and ore all the way. I tell yer I’ll be the richest man this side of Brisbane. ‘Ear wot I say?”
With spells of talk and spells of silence, they made the rest of the journey. Gregory was more master of himself on a horse than on the ground, and at the hour’s end the travelling was done. Where they approached it the river ran in the rains with a two-mile span; but now the bed was dry and filled with stones and sand. Many mean trees grew in this country. Over stones and sand the riders passed, and under trees bearing in their branches the rubbish of forgotten floods. As they went on, the timber became dense and grew to a noble size; and presently here and there among distant laced[Pg 46] branches showed the surface of Pelican Pool. The water was lit by the light of the moon. The Pool was shrinking every day; but it still covered a mile of country, and its breadth was a fair swimmer’s journey.
“Where’s the camp?” Power said.
“By the castor-oil bush.”
Thereupon they inclined to the right hand. Large reaches of the Pool were now plainly to be seen—very fair they showed in the moonlight, with weeds trailing about the water, and here and there a large white lily a-bloom. Small fishes leaped in the shallows. Trees leaned patiently over both banks, spreading knotted arms. Now the camp came out of the trees. Two tents were rigged side by side; and not very far off had been built a room of poles and hessian. About an open-air fireplace were the ashes of the day’s fire. A dog tied near the tents uncurled at their coming, and fell to barking with great good will.
“We’re here,” Gregory said. “The old woman must have turned in.”
“Better quiet the dog, then,” Power answered. “Go steady there. I’ll see you down.”
He jumped to the ground and threw a stone at the dog, which dropped its tail and stopped barking. He held Gregory’s horse, and Gregory climbed down. The man was fairly on his legs,[Pg 47] when a keen voice called from one of the tents—”Is that you, boss? Boosed, I suppose?”
“There’s a gen’leman here to see yer,” Gregory shouted.
“A gen’leman to see yer.”
“Aw, blast yer, come to bed an’ don’t wake me up.”
“I tell yer a gen’leman’s here.”
“Can’t yer shut it?”
“Gen’leman. I say. Gen’leman.”
A pause followed on this. At last the voice from the tent cried—”Get up, Moll, and see wot dad’s after. I’ve not had a square sleep fer a week.”
“Aw,” said somebody in the second tent.
But in that tent a person stirred. Gregory shouted again. “Be quick, Moll. Light a lantern. The moon’s no good to me in these durned trees.”
“Wait a minute, can’t yer?”
Power picked up the reins and remounted the mare. He had had his fill of the affair, and was riding away. “You’re right now,” he said to Gregory. “Good night.” The gleam of a lantern appeared through the canvas of the tent. “Good night,” Power called out a second time. The tent door was pushed aside, and a girl came[Pg 48] into the open, holding a lighted lantern above her head.
Power pulled up his beast. The girl that stood there was scantily dressed. Her hair fell down her back. She was very near him, and she held the lantern that she might look him over; but the rays of light fell all about her own head and shoulders. She stared at him, not a whit disturbed at the sudden meeting.
A moment had brought Power face to face with the great experience of his life. The girl’s beauty was beyond any imagining. He sat astride the mare with dropped reins, staring at her.
There, in a broken tent, in that forgotten place by the river, was one of those women who have commanded the tears and prayers of men since the world began to turn. The girl stood with the light of the lantern falling about her, with that in the carriage of her head for which a sage would forget his learning, with that in her eyes for which a saint would forego his hope of Paradise, with that in her form for which a poet would break the strings of his lyre. To look a moment on her was to grow hungry, to look long on her was to banish peace.
For that most cunning work of a great craftsman was a chalice holding the poisoned potion of desire; that rich body was an altar whereon[Pg 49] burned the fires of longing; that loveliness was doomed to linger as midwife to men’s tears. The spirit of all that is untamed made home in that form, and beside it dwelt the spirit of all that shall not find rest. And sight of that fairness brought taste of what man reaches for and may not touch, of what man climbs after to fall from with bruised knees.
Her figure was quick and strong and supple; her hair lay about her head as an aureole; her eyes were great and bright and deep; her feet were slender and without blemish; her lips waited on the coming of some supreme adventure.
Quite suddenly Power found the girl speaking to him. She held her head a little sideways and was looking over him.
“Are you camping here, Mister?” she said.
Power was startled out of his words. He sat up straight again. “No, thanks. I came along with your father. I’m going on now.”
“We can give you a shake-down. It’s no worry.”
“No, thanks. I must get home. I’m mustering to-morrow. Good night.”
“Good night, Mister.”
Power rode home at a foot pace. He thought of the girl all the way. Her beauty had moved him more than anything he had known.
Midnight had chimed at Surprise, and the camp was asleep. The party telling stories from their long chairs outside the staff quarters had been broken up an hour since in a last “A-haw.” Mr. Wells had forgotten his cornet, and Mr. Horrington, rather muddled, had found his stretcher and blown out the light. Houses, humpies and tents were in the dark. But outside, the pallor of the moon fell, making filigree work of the leaves on the trees, and staring coldly into the eyes of sleepy curs, which blinked back from their beds in the grasses.
The camp was asleep; but one person had stayed awake. The slight figure of a woman sat at the top of the steps leading down from the verandah of Neville’s house. She sat crouched up, chin in hands, so still as to be unearthly. She had sat thus with hardly a movement for a long time.
Maud had said good night to her father on their return. The house had seemed stifling. She went into her bedroom, drew the curtains wide from the window so that the room was filled with light, opened the door leading to the verandah, undressed, and went to bed. For more than an hour she lay awake, counting the moonbeams on the wall, and listening to the song of the mosquitoes. Then she gave up pretence. She sat up in bed, slipped a wrap round[Pg 51] her, and crossed to the window on bare feet. The night looked very charming outside, and soon she left the room, crossed the bare boards lightly as a night spirit, and came to a little balcony at the head of the steps leading down from the verandah. She sat down on the top step, putting her naked feet on the one below.
Yes, the night was charming out here—calm, empty and cooled by the ghosts of little breezes, which fluttered an instant on her face and fainted. There was pleasure in believing that she was the only one awake. It was strange to look on this slumbering camp, bearding the wilderness. She might have been a sentry watching that the hungry bush did not devour it in the hours of night. This habit of keeping the night watch had become a custom lately. The hour brought her more profit than any other of the twenty-four. She was not hot and fagged; she spoke the truth to herself; she could trust her judgments. The calm watered her soul as a shower of rain, so that it swelled up, and flowers broke from it. It was wonderful this growth of soul which lately had been her portion, this serenity brought about by losing herself in another. Sitting here, she told herself how thankful she ought to be. Night was very kind, like some nurse who whispers her child into sweet dreams.
This comprehension of life, this sureness of decision, had all grown up in two years. This renouncing of oneself that another might profit was the fountain from which gushed the purest waters at which the spirit could drink. Yet how many drank at that fountain? Instead, they sat at the windows of their houses in the streets of life, and remarked indifferently the pale faces glued to the panes across the way. Unless it happened that someone, sick with the bloodless silence, broke down one of those bolted doors and pushed inside, the faces sat always staring down the street, and the winds of desolation sweeping down the chimney at even, scattered the flames upon the hearth, and starved the watchers at their seats.
A good love was a wonderful thing, like the fire of the refiner, burning away the dross and leaving the pure metal. She had found it a philosopher’s stone, making life golden, giving her humour to laugh when her father was tiresome, leaving her proof against the little annoyances of the day. And better than that. No shortcomings in the man she loved caused her misgiving now. He was easy to anger; a little selfish sometimes; he was thoughtless often. But love had brought understanding of him, and understanding meant forgiveness. She blessed him as she thought of him on his way across[Pg 53] the plain, rejoicing that she might serve him, thankful to him for the growth of spirit he had caused in her.
The little breezes sighed, fanned her a moment and passed on, a few leaves turned on the trees; but she sat wrapped in the serenity of her contemplation.
CHAPTER IVKaloona Run
Power was abroad again before sunrise. Daylight moved over the country, and he bathed, dressed, and pulled on his boots while butcher birds called, and small finches bobbed and twittered in the bushes. As he made an end of his task, the sun rose with menacing countenance. He went outside, looked which way the breeze was, and next walked down the track to the stable. He stopped at the door, threw it open, and cried out loud, “Scandalous Jack! Hullo there!”
At the back of the stable sounded a shuffling, and a small man, with bristling beard and chipped yellow teeth set in a weather-worn face, came out of the shadow, broom in hand. He stood in front of Power, and put his hands together on top of the broom handle, spat carefully, wiped his hairy mouth and shouted—”Marnin’, Guv’nor. You’re late.”
Power nodded. “I was late back from Surprise last night. I’ll be away after breakfast though. Did they get in the black horse?”
“Aye, they brought him in yesterday. He broke from the mob and showed Mick his heels for two mile. He’s first rate—a bit soft maybe—and as cranky as ever. Ye must watch him or he’ll pelt you this side o’ the flat. Aye, aye, ye may ride above a bit, but I’m telling yer.” Scandalous jerked his head.
“I’ll look at him.”
“Come on then.”
The two men disappeared into the stable. They came to a stall at the end of a row, and there, tied to a ring in the manger, stood a grand upstanding horse, black-coated from poll to coronet, which met their coming with ears laid down and a white flash of teeth. It was an animal to fill the eye of any man. It stood at sixteen hands to an inch or so either way, ribbed up as a barrel, with great quarters and shoulders sloped for speed. Its head was delicate for all its other proportions, but there was that in the eye to tell a man to go about his business warily. It showed a fair condition for a first day’s stabling.
“Yes, he’s pretty right,” Power said. He called out to the animal to stand over, and went to its head, and he had looked it all about before coming away.
“Mick got off with his lot?” he said.
Scandalous Jack went on speaking at a shout.[Pg 56] “Aye, they were away be four in the marnin’. Mick says he’ll be mustered and have the mob at Ten Mile midday. You’re meeting him there, Guv’nor, for the cutting out, I reckon?” Power nodded his head. “Mick says to-night’s camp’s going up lower end of Pelican Pool.” Scandalous looked very wise.
“What do you mean?”
“Mick’s doin’ good work there.”
“You’re a fool, Scandalous.”
“I may be that. Some fools see more than wise men with spectacles. Have ye heard about the gouger’s girl there?”
“What about her?”
“Mick’s silly as a snake on her. They say she’s a daddy for looks.”
“I’m for breakfast,” Power said. “Give this horse a look over. I’ll want him in an hour.”
Power went to breakfast. It was ready for him in a low bare room, with fly netting on doors and windows. One door opened on a verandah, where creepers waged war with the climate. Mrs. Elliott, the cook, and Maggie, the maid of all other work, had found excuse to wait for him. He knew the sign of old, and prepared to be discreet. He nodded his good morning. “Breakfast in?” he asked.
Maggie answered with great good will. “It’s been getting cold this ten minutes.”
She was a handsome girl in the early morning, before the heat fagged her. Mrs. Elliott, in middle life, ample and beaming, busied herself briskly doing nothing, waiting to take the talk her way. The two women attacked him together.
“You must eat a good breakfast, Mr. Power. You’ve a long day before you. You were very late abed, Mr. Power. You can’t burn the candle at both ends.”
“He’s always late, Mrs. Elliott, when he comes back from Surprise.” The women shook their heads at each other. “And how was Miss Neville, Mr. Power?”
“She was very well, thanks. I must get a turkey or a wallaby. I’ve lost my appetite for curry and steak half the week, and steak and curry the other half.”
“And me so put about with the breakfast,” exclaimed Mrs. Elliott, twisting her apron. “All men are the same, ungrateful, every man jack o’ them. As soon look for gratitude from calves in a branding yard. Now I suppose as Miss Neville she’ll be turning over a date for the wedding?”
“You’re learning too many secrets, Mrs. Elliott.”
“I know more than other folk already.”
“And that means?”
Mrs. Elliott twirled her apron once more and looked wise. “I’m hinting nothing. I know where Mick O’Neill goes of a night.”
Power tipped himself back in the chair. “What are you cackling over this morning? I hope your news is fresher than last?”
“What’s he running after that gel for?”
“I’ve not heard of any girl.”
“He’s a good fer nothing fellow, and the little hussy’s no better.”
Maggie took up the tale. “They’re all stupid on her ‘cos she has a few looks. That’s all a man wants.”
“They’re not all like that, Meg. Mr. Power here, he has more sense. He took up with Miss Neville, and though she’s as nice as may be, her looks are nothing out of the bag.”
Power said something under his breath. He went on with his breakfast, and the women despaired of him. In the end, out of a full mouth, he said:—
“You had better see Scandalous Jack. I’m too hungry for talking. He wanted to tell me a lot this morning.”
“That nasty little man! I wouldn’t demean myself with him. I told him half an hour since I’d put a kettle o’ water over him if he showed his ugly face in at the door agen.”
The women withdrew routed.
In a little while Power followed them from the room. Standing in the verandah, he lit a pipe. His swag had gone on in the cook’s waggon, and there remained only a few minutes’ office work and he might get away. The old willingness to be in the saddle took hold of him. His heart was in the cattle work. The longest day made him more ready for the next. A good horse, a whip to his hand, the bellow of a mob in his ears—these things kept his heart evergreen.
Morning had come, the birds had whistled him from bed, the sun had climbed up; but the glamour of last night had not passed quite away. He found himself—and little pleased he was at it—he found himself more than once waking to the day’s affairs from dreams of a girl holding up a lantern at the doorway of a tent by a river.
Mrs. Elliott had forgiven the churlishness of breakfast, and waited with an ample lunch, secure from sun and flies. He promised to be back some day or other, took up a dripping water-bag and his whip, and passed to the stable. The black horse, saddled and waiting, fidgeted by the door, and Scandalous Jack was taking aggressive charge.
Scandalous thrust up his hard face to shout a warning.
“He’ll be shaking yer up, boss, I reckon. He fooled me half an hour ‘fore I had the saddle on him.”
“Wants a day’s work,” Power said. He looked over the girths and secured the water-bag. All he did was gentle and cautious. At the touch of the wet canvas the black horse snorted, reared up and swung about. Scandalous, very fond of his corns, retired in a hurry. With voice and a firm handling Power kept the beast in check. He had completed matters in a few minutes. Whereupon he coiled the whip on his arm, and drew together the reins. He went about the mounting with cunning, and when the moment of moments came, was in the saddle in one movement.
The black horse squealed, and its head went down between its legs as a stone from a catapult. It came high off the ground, all four feet together, in a great bucking plunge which tried all Power’s skill to ride. The ground fell away from him and spun about, there came to his ears a great straining of leather, and he knew a fierce shock as the brute went to earth. Instinct set him leaning back, with legs fierce gripping and toes down pointing. Horse and rider went up again, with a heave tremendous beyond belief, and there was an instant when Power stared down at emptiness. They were down and up in one breathing, and away with great bounds that threw them across the yard. A heave, a thud, a grunt and a swing brought them about, and[Pg 61] on the heels of it they were going up into the air again. Down then and up into space again, all four feet together, groaning with the effort, while the hot dust streamed into Power’s face. The rally was over in a dozen seconds, and the horse stood heaving, and Power settled himself in the saddle.
“Rough horse that!” Scandalous shouted from the fence.
“He makes it too hot to last.”
“Don’t take him cheap on that lay. He’ll be rid of yer yet. He’ll give yer all you know one of these days, and I’m taking no odds on who’s the better.”
It had just turned eight o’clock when Power began the ride, but already the sun was powerful, and the birds flagged at their songs. He journeyed at walking pace, watching the horse carefully the first few miles. Last traces of early cool were departing. A few threads of gossamer shimmered among the spikes of the grasses, and blundering hoofs tore them apart. A few feeding kangaroos sat at late breakfast. The homestead moved behind the trees, and he and the beast he rode were all that passed across the plain.
He grew contented at once now he had made a beginning of the day’s work. As another man forgets his ill-humours in the counting-house,[Pg 62] or the library, or his mistress’s bower, so Power turned for distraction to his saddle and his whip. A bushman’s heart was his birthright; a bushman’s cunning was the legacy of fiery summer afternoons on horseback, and frosty winter dawns spent abroad. In the dreariest page of Nature he found reading. His eye was quick to read the riddle of the ways. The fall of a hill, the sweep of a dry creek bed, a few patterings of passage in the dust—these answered most questions he asked. In that country was no better judge of where to come up with a mob of cattle, nor one, be it night or day, who rode straighter to a point. He passed over the plain sitting easy in the saddle, pipe in mouth, whip on arm, his head fallen forward, as a man sits asleep. But his eyes peered abroad, and his brain was active. He rode to muster as the knight of old rode to the tourney.
His way led by a short cut through the ranges. The trysting place lay just beyond. At a few miles end, he was entering a pass of magnificence. The ranges lifted up on either hand, with mighty boulders resting about their sides, and difficult caves—home of bat and wallaby—opening dark mouths. The way took him below stunted trees, and over brittle fallen boughs, and across stones which slipped beneath the horse’s feet. A second gully crossed the[Pg 63] head of the pass, and escapes led into the hills. Here was an old watch-ground of the blacks. The difficult part of the journey had come. Power left the saddle for the ground. The path turned left-handed, to clamber over a multitude of rocks to easier country. In the rains a waterfall swirled this way. Here and again here a pool of clear water was lodged in a basin of rock, and above one such pool Nature had scooped a shelter in the hill. Past tribes of men had left rude paintings on the wall. With snorts and steadying cries the journey was done, and man and beast came out into a wide timbered prospect.
It was a fair spot to hap on in that desolate country, with a good gathering of trees about a dry creek bed, and one or two late birds twittering in them, and a muster of insects going about their day’s work over the hot ground. There were grateful patches of shade. This was Ten Mile. At noon O’Neill had vowed to be at hand with the mob. Power looked at the sun and guessed at ten o’clock. He turned over whether to go farther; but a wait in the shade was better argument than a ride in the open. He took the saddle from the black horse, and tethered the beast in a cool place, and he himself lay down at hand for a pipe and his thoughts. Presently a thread of smoke curled into the hot[Pg 64] air, driving away disappointed the flies which came in their hosts a-visiting.
It was pleasant work lying here in the shade with nothing to disturb a fellow for an hour or two until the cattle came along, and the sunshine heat finding a way into the shadow to make a man drowsy. It was good to lie flat on one’s back, blinking at the sunbeams through the leaves. It was good, too, to suck at a pipe and watch the blue smoke go up. And again it was good listening to the twitter of a few birds, and—opening eyes—to see insects examining the ins and outs of the tree trunks. It brought memories of other such lazy hours, snatched between a hard morning and a hard afternoon. Give a man good health and work, and there was little else he wanted to bring content.
How the smell of the scrub lingered this morning. Ordinarily the sun drove it early away. If he lived too long and became an old blind man, he would get someone to lead him to a patch of scrub at early morning that he might sharpen memory there.
It must be hot in the open. The sunlight was burning him wherever a break in the boughs let it through. He was a lucky chap to own this great stretch of country, and every head of cattle on it, to have good horses to ride, and to be his own master. No doubt there were [Pg 65]unlucky devils who never had these good things. A man knew little enough of other men when all was said and done, and cared little enough for their troubles either, if truth be told.
Yet things were a shade out of tune to-day, pretend as he might; put the feeling by as he would. Presently he sat up. With an oath, he knocked out his empty pipe on a stone. He whipped himself for a fool. He was a man with a mind of his own, he was in love with another woman; and a girl twenty years old, who had not spoken a dozen words to him, was taking up his thoughts all day. Ah! but she was the most perfect thing he had known.
The heat of the day came into the spot of his choosing, the sun climbed into the sky, and he judged the hour towards noon. He rose to his feet, pushed a handkerchief about his face, and grew busy gathering sticks on a square of barren ground.
There came through the timber, after many minutes, a far-off murmur, such as might travel from a distant surge of the sea, or from a heavy wind moving in a hollow. It was vague, and many would have been at pains to pick it up; but the horse lifted ears to it, and Power came out of his brown study. It arrived as a murmur; but the passing minutes gave it volume. It was strangely exciting. Power knew it from the[Pg 66] beginning. It was the roar of a mob of cattle driven against their will.
Presently the sound turned to broken bellowing, and into the tumult entered the snapping of boughs, the bang of whips, and the fierce voices of men. Power stood up. The mob must round the foot of a hill before coming into view. He laid a hand on the horse’s bridle and waited for them.
They came in a little while—one or two as a beginning, afterwards the body of them. They dawdled forward, picking at the grass tufts, horning one another, and lifting heads to bellow. They showed to the eye a hardy, good-coloured mob of store cattle, the big part of them six-year bullocks, more ready for a doze by a waterhole than for this journey in the sun with men hanging at their houghs. They counted two hundred maybe, and three white stockmen and a couple of blackfellows handled them, turning them on the flanks, and hunting them forward in the rear. They were a suspicion nervous, and gave Power a wide berth; but the noon heat made them easy handling. By the time they were round the foot of the hill, a stockman, pulling about his horse, rid himself of their company and cantered across. The man pulled up a big chestnut animal a few yards from Power, and showed a happy, handsome face[Pg 67] under a big brimmed hat. He was a good figure of a man, riding his horse with a swagger. He had wide kneepads to his saddle, and long rusty spurs at his heels, a shirt wide open at the neck, and in his hand a whip. His skin was brown. Sitting there, he looked a hardy fellow, one to put a good day’s work behind him.
He had pulled his horse up from the canter. “Day, Mr. Power.”
“Good day, Mick. They came along all right?”
“Yes, boss. A strong lot. Good travellers. An’ quiet enough too. We’ll make Morning Springs Wednesday certain.”
Power nodded his head. “Did you cut those few out?”
“All bar a half-dozen. We can fix ’em at the camp to-night. There’s a roan bull to be dropped. I don’t know how he came with this lot. I didn’t see him when we picked ’em up. He wants watching. He’s cranky in the head.” So speaking, the man leaned over and pointed his whip at a beast on the outside of the mob. “I suppose we’re making camp here for an hour or two.”
“My oath, yes. I’ll get a fire going.”
Mick O’Neill turned his horse about and put it to the canter. Again he made a figure becoming his name as the daddy stockman for a[Pg 68] hundred miles about. Power filled a quart pot at the water-bag, and built and lit a fire. The flames rushed to embrace the hot wood. Others of the company arrived with filled quart pots and pushed them into the flames. The blackfellows held the cattle until they had drawn out and dropped to their knees. The horses were unsaddled and unbitted. The quart pots came from the fire. The tea was made. The sticks were trodden into the sand, and the company took themselves into the shade, to sprawl there, one eye waiting for the cattle, one hand waiting for the flies.
They kept to camp through the heat of the day, and little was spoken the while. They smoked and stared up through a lattice of leaves at the lofty sky. The fierceness of the sun was spent when Power gave the signal by sitting up. The horses were saddled, the men found their seats—there was galloping of hoofs, a banging of whips, and the mob flowed on the journey over the plain.
It was half-past six in the evening and the sun was down on the western sky, when the mob splashed into the shallows at the lower end of Pelican Pool. Cleanskin Joe, the lean rusty cook, who had spent a busy life darkening the doorways of most hotels in Queensland and New South Wales, had arrived there early in the[Pg 69] morning, steering a two-horse buckboard loaded up with swags, camp furniture and tucker bags. Cleanskin Joe had built his fireplace, had put his Johnnie-cake in the ashes, had talked half the day with Jackie the black horse-tailer, coming after him with spare horses. Now, with his stew simmering, he cast a hundred glances into the distance for the tardy cattle. His eyes, once quick to meet an emergency, were bleared a trifle from that constant darkening of doors. But finally they and his ears could not be deceived, and he peered into the camp oven and turned the contents with a long-handled ladle.
Now all the world knows that cooks from sheep stations give you grilled chops and curry and stew the round of the year, and cooks on cattle stations serve grilled steak and curry and stew until you turn aside in sorrow; but Cleanskin Joe was a man of resource, and every breakfast he chopped up rissoles, rolling them on the back of the buckboard where had gathered the grime of ten years’ honest service. Because of this, and because too many whiskies had cured him of a love of water, either for inside or outer use, he had won his name of Cleanskin Joe.
He was a man of history.
Once upon a time Cleanskin Joe and the Honourable So-and-so, both out at elbows with the world just then, had found a copper show a[Pg 70] round forty miles from the nearest hotel. They woke up one morning on bowing terms with wealth. They had broken a new lode going any percentage you like of ore. They stared at it without a word to say.
The Honourable So-and-so had a vision. He saw dogs and women and wine.
And Cleanskin Joe saw the price of a whisky.
And Mr. So-and-so saw horses and cards and more wine.
And Cleanskin Joe saw the price of another whisky.
And Mr. So-and-so saw freedom from the Jews, and green tables and yet more wine.
And Cleanskin Joe saw prices of endless whiskies.
Then said Mr. So-and-so, “Our one chance, old man, is to miss the hotel.” Cleanskin Joe wagged his head. Said Mr. So-and-so, “We must cut the waggon road to miss it by a dozen miles.”
They drove their road over rise and down dip, plying the tools with right good will because of that vision. One night Mr. So-and-so would say—”How about direction, dear fellow? Are we enough to the right?” And next night it was Cleanskin Joe. “I reckon we’re safe to miss that blankey place now, holdin’ left as we’re doing.”
But who shall win when Fate plays [Pg 71]hide-and-seek? On the hottest day of the hottest summer in man’s memory, they drove the road into a clearing of the bush where the doors of the Drink-me-Dry Hotel leaned open to meet them.
. . . . . . .
Cleanskin Joe blinked his eyes through the smoke when Power cantered up. “Evening, boss. I was lookin’ for yer an hour since. What time do yer want tucker ready?”
“Half an hour will finish us. There’s a bit of cutting out to do. What about a drop of tea?”
“Right on the spot. Take care. It’s durned hot.”
Power drank the tea, and urged his horse about. The bullocks straggled from the pool where they had been drinking. Power had given orders to keep the horses from water, and the cattle were rounded up on the way from the shallows.
Presently the mob was bunched. First there came a time of talking and shaking of heads. At the end of it, Power and O’Neill worked a way into the jumble of animals, looking this way and that for the half dozen cows, and keeping a wide eye for accidents. The beasts gave them fair roadway, backing over here and there with snorting and a sweep of the head. “Here we are,” Power said.
He leaned a little forward and with a nice movement dropped his whip on to the quarters of a red cow. On the instant the black horse answered the signal. Power gave the reins to its neck and sat back with waiting whip. Not far away O’Neill followed ready for what might come. The black horse moved to the red cow’s shoulder, and steered her with a pretty cunning to the outside of the mob, nor lost place a single time, though she twisted, turned and propped with skill. It was a game of trick and shift to liven the eye of any man. She came presently to the outermost circle, bellowing with nervousness and hurry. The black horse was at her shoulder goading her farther into the open. She lost her head and trotted a few paces from the mob, and that moment turned the scales against her. As the black horse got into his stride, Power let out his whip, and O’Neill came up behind with a hurry of hoofs. They fell upon her with a scramble of blows. She bellowed, threw up her head, tried to swing back to the mob, slipped, heard the bang of whips about her ears, and took to her heels across the plain, with both men at her tail. She showed them her heels for a quarter of a mile. “She’s right!” Power cried out.
The last of the cows was cut out as dusk began to settle. There remained only a few minutes to[Pg 73] dark. “There’s that bull yet,” Power said. He sat on a heaving horse, and lifted his hat from his head. The men pushed a passage into the mob again. The herd was showing rather nervous, and took handling to hold together. The roan bull met their coming with a bellow and a shake of the head. But the black horse stood to his shoulder, and the journey to the outside began. All the way the bull showed little liking for the hustling, but his efforts to trick the enemy availed him nothing, and he found himself of a sudden on the outside of the mob, and a black horse urging him farther into the open. In a flash he turned very ugly. It was the turn of a hair whether he rushed or not. There was no waiting to add up chances, a wasted moment meant his loss into the mob. Power brought his whip down, and a long broad mark curled up in the smoking hair. The bull roared and dropped his head. He was coming this time with no two meanings. Power swept up the reins to pull the horse aside. Ill luck was at his back. He found himself jammed in a press of cattle. He shook his feet clear of the stirrups. He made ready with the whip again. He cut into the bull again, and he felt the horse go beneath him, and himself falling back into a huddle of bellowing beasts. With all his might he pulled the horse[Pg 74] clear of the horns. Horse and bull and he came down in a scurry on the ground. He rolled clear of the saddle. He scrambled on to a knee. He spat the dust from his mouth. And then the mob at his back split, and O’Neill rode up in a fury, a whip waiting in his hand. The bull was on its knees, jerking to its feet. A hurry of blows fell about its face. It stumbled, slipped, and sprawled on its back. The whip stopped falling, and a man jumped from his horse to the ground. With great quickness he caught up the bull’s tail, and thrust a foot into a hollow of its hip. Thus he held it on the ground without any great effort. There was shouting as the men called to each other.
“Are yer orl right?”
“Can you get clear?”
On the words followed a scramble of hoofs and a heave as the black horse gained his haunches. Power was on his feet, and had thrown a leg across the saddle. Another scramble, another heave gave the horse its legs and Power a seat a-top of it. Power swung it to one hand with rein and spurs, and leant far from the saddle towards the horse standing by. “Let go when you can!” he cried out. “I have your horse!”
The man on the ground sprang clear of the bull. He clapped both hands on the arch of the saddle, and vaulted into the seat. Shaken, and with lost breath, the bull found its feet, but it had not thrown the sweat from its eyes before the whips fell on it with a cruel fury. Its courage was no more. It took to its heels across the plain.
“Close go that,” O’Neill said. “Are you hurt any?”
“No, I fell clear. You got me out of a hole. I’ll do as much for you some day.”
“All in a day’s work,” O’Neill said. “‘Struth! I reckon it’s time for a pipe.”
Quite suddenly the night stepped into the shoes of day. Darkness arrived in a hurry, and the stars pushed themselves out of the sky. The camp was chosen, the first watch was set. The horses, hobbled and with bells about their necks, moved musically into the shadows, the little company found the way to the cook’s fire. There was stew in the camp oven, and a ladle at hand. A pile of tin dishes was on the ground. The Johnnie-cake waited on a box, and the earth lay spread for a table. There is many a worse roof than the sky offers, and many a more restless bed than a mattress of grasses.
Supper ended, and there came the hour when pipes are pulled out. Power went out of the[Pg 76] firelight presently, and listened to the mob getting to camp for the night. There was a little bellowing from over there, and now and then sounds of scurry, but nothing to cause unquiet. He came back to O’Neill. “I’m going across to Gregory’s for a while,” he said. “He was talking about a copper show of his. I’ll be back for my watch. I don’t think you will have any trouble. Good night.” He thought O’Neill looked up over-quickly. “I don’t think you will have any trouble,” he repeated. “Would you sooner I stayed? I will if you like.”
“There’s no need, boss,” said the other indifferently. “I didn’t know you knew them over there.” The man began whistling.
“So long, then.”
“So long, boss.”
CHAPTER VThe Hut By Pelican Pool
Power picked up his whip by way of company, and took the road to the camp. The journey was done in ten minutes’ time. The moon had not risen, and he found the place in darkness, and from somewhere at hand came the sudden bark of the dog. The tents were empty, but the hessian building—a shabby affair—showed lamplight through half-a-dozen holes, and sounds of movement came from inside. The gouger called out roughly to the dog, but the brute barked on at full voice, backing away into the shadows. Power brought his whip-handle down on the door-post. The doorway was empty of a door, and he looked into a room lit by a couple of lanterns. He had time to see a table and seats, knocked together haphazard, and a woman of middle life bending over a basin at the farther end. Then the opening was filled by the gouger, who peered out into the dark.
“Good evening,” Power said.
“I’m camping on the Pool to-night. You told me to take a look at your show when I was round. I’ve come along on the chance. Maybe I’ve turned up at an off time. In that case it’s my own funeral, that’s all. Couldn’t get away before.”
“So that’s the lay. You’re right enough. I’ll fix you in a shake. It’s five minutes through the scrub. I can pick yer up a specimen or two what’s lying round about the shanty, if the women have let ’em be. But, but”——the gouger began to lose his words and screw his mouth up and finger his beard——. “Strike me,” he said. “Strike me if I know you.”
The woman had left her work, and now peered over his shoulder. She nudged him. “Yes, yer do, boss,” she said in a heavy whisper. “It’s Mr. Power, of Kaloona—him as brought yer back last night.”
“You aren’t getting at me?” said he of the beard in an aside.
Then Gregory, the gouger, turned very friendly.
“Mr. Power it is,” he cried out, rolling the upper half of his body, and showing his dirty[Pg 79] teeth. “It’s Mr. Power come for a look at the show. My eyes haven’t got the hang o’ the dark yet. Come inside, Mr. Power. I’m glad you found the way here, square and all I am.”
With something of a to-do the couple backed from the doorway, and Power went into the room. Two lamps, placed high up, gave the light, which was poor and depressing, and round about the globes beat frantically a great army of insects. Power went into the room, and the close air made him pause. He stopped to blink his eyes at the light. A moment later he looked up, and across the table, busy at some cups in a basin, he saw the girl he had dreamed of half the day.
The wonder of her beauty came over him again with a feeling akin to pain. She was looking him in the face with frank curiosity. He it was who felt embarrassed and first turned away. He laughed at his scruples next moment, and returned her stare for stare. He looked her over slowly to discover her secret. And he succeeded ill. For her loveliness was anchored to no this or that. She stood in the shabby room, a jewel of such price as asked no setting. Her beauty would never stale, having found the secret of the dawn which arrives morning by morning, ready and wonderful, though all else is passing by in the turning of the years. The[Pg 80] men, who presently would come to kneel in homage there, would wonder at this glorious body no less the last hour than the first.
Her hair was brown and shining, and heaped up about her head. Her eyes were of a dark colour, of great size, and moment by moment sleepy with dreams or bright with brief fires. Her mouth was heavy with passion and gaoler of a thousand quick moods; her lips were bright, and behind them little teeth gleamed white and charming. Her dress was open at the neck, where her firm throat swept to her bosom. Her arms, bare to the elbows, had taken their brown from the sun, but their shapeliness was a wonder and delight. Her hands were slender and quick as they moved in the water. What age was she? Twenty, it might be.
“Good evening, Mister,” she said.
“Good evening,” he answered.
Gregory and his wife were hovering at his back. It was “Sit down, Mr. Power,” and “Make yerself at home, Mr. Power. I wish we had a better seat for you, Mr. Power; but we haven’t been here above two week, and the boss isn’t for doing more graft than he need.”
“It’s that show, as I’ve told the old gel. It tires a bloke out,” said Gregory. The woman answered him with a curl of the lip.
Power sat down on an up-ended box. He[Pg 81] could put his elbow on the table, which had been knocked together slap-dash with a few nails. After further to-do Gregory sat at hand with a pipe in his mouth. The women started again on their business. In the pause in matters which came on this sitting down Power felt the staleness of the room. He had time to wonder why he had come. He took a second look at Mrs. Gregory. She showed the ruins of good looks which the climate and hard living had squandered. Her face was full of greed and craft. The man at his side was a mixture of rogue and fool. Power had given up a smoke and a yarn in the cool for this. For he didn’t care the crack of a whip for the show. His line was cattle, not copper. Then the girl had brought him here. And to-morrow he was to see the girl he loved. He was a fool for his pains.
He was a fool for his pains, yet he would not have been more content staying away. Something drew him here by roots deep down in him. How her beauty moved him! Here stood a savage child, with her longings crudely waiting on her lips, possessed of a body which was holy. Why was she here, growing up alone and unwatched, to age before her time? It was the law that painted the wings of the butterfly and brought the cripple into the world; the law,[Pg 82] jumbled beyond man’s following, that caused suns to blaze and worlds to groan in labour that meanest gnat might spin a giddy hour.
He must pull himself together.
“That was your mob on the road this afternoon, I reckon?” the woman asked, looking up of a sudden.
“Yes, we came from the Ten Mile.”
“A handy lot,” Gregory said, wagging his head, and spitting with a pretty skill through the doorway.
“Do you reckon to be long on the road with them?” the woman asked once more.
“I’m travelling to Morning Springs. We ought to be back inside the week.”
The washing had come to an end. The girl collected the clean crockery and grew busy at a shelf. The woman threw the water outside the door, and dried her hands on a rag. “You come for a look at the boss’s show?” she said as she finished.
“Yes, I heard one or two speaking of it, and thought I might come along.”
“Do you do anything in the copper way?”
“I’ve an interest in a show or two. I don’t go much on it.”
“The boss’s show looks A1. One of the Surprise men was down for a look round in the morning.”
“Ah, who was that?”
“Mr. —— Moll, what’s his name?”
“Mr. King,” said the girl.
“And what did King say about it?”
“He talked big enough,” Gregory put in. “But he seemed as interested in the gel there. He said he might be along agen.”
“Dad, yer tongue’s too big for yer mouth.”
“Well, he seemed uncommon shook on yer. I reckon he thought yer show better than my show. A-haw, haw, haw! A-haw, haw, he-haw!”
“Mr. King is a pleasant-spoken gentleman,” Mrs. Gregory said.
“And,” said Gregory, “I’d have thought him pleasanter if he had come to a bargain.”
The girl, Moll Gregory, came back from the shelf. She put both hands upon the table, and bent a little over it. Her great eyes looked into Power’s face. “Do you know Mr. King?” she said.
“I often run across him.”
“Wot is he like?”
“King’s a good fellow.”
“He says funny things.”
“What did he say?”
“Oh, he looked at me, you know, like men look when they’re after a lark, and he says: ‘I came to look at copper and I found gold.’ I[Pg 84] couldn’t take up his meaning quite, but I guessed he was trying to fool me.”
The woman interrupted. “Maybe you’re thinking of making an offer for the show?”
“Don’t rush him, old woman. Maybe I’ll hang on to it.”
“No, yer won’t. You’ll sell out and clear from the game. I want to see some life. I’m tired of these dull holes, I am. You’ll fool the thing up and get took down, as you’ve been a dozen times.”
Something in this sentence put Gregory on a new turn of thought, for he put his pipe on the table, clawed his beard a moment, and got up. “D’yer know anything of wire strainers?” He began to hunt in a corner and brought out parts of a clumsy machine, together with a tangle of wire. The woman flew at him.
“If you’d give by that foolery and do a bit of shovelling we might be better off. Who wants a wire strainer where there isn’t a fence for two hundred mile? You make me sick, yer do.”
“Steady on, mother.” Gregory fell into explanation, and in time brought out a potato digger of his invention, and illustrated that fortune was but a stay-away. Mrs. Gregory gave over talk, and drew an ancient illustrated paper from somewhere, and sat down to turn the leaves. The girl employed herself with one[Pg 85] thing and another, going in and out of the doorway, and seeming intent on her business; but Power knew she watched him, and he himself missed nothing she did. Her beauty was beyond the telling. Whether she walked, whether she sat, whether she stood a moment by the doorway peering into the night, she was so wonderful that nothing else was worth the looking.
What was happening to him to-night!
At last Gregory was persuaded to put his inventions back in their corner and light lanterns. “You’d better come along, gel,” he said. “We may want you to hold a light.” He and Moll Gregory and Power set out, and Power came to remember the journey as many pictures of one girl who passed from light into shadow and from shadow into light. She strode beside him with the free walk of a goddess. They arrived at the shaft, and she stood over the black mouth, holding a lantern to guide the downward clamber. From his station at the bottom, Power saw her bending overhead, with one hand on the windlass for support, and the stars of the sky gathered together for background. He looked here and there at the broken earth as Gregory bade him, and the dull green of the copper appeared in abundance. It was dirty work and hot, with ever a trickle of dirt down the back of the neck, and he wished himself well up at the top again.[Pg 86] They had climbed up presently, and very soon had made the road home. The close air of the hut gave them ill greeting. Gregory put down the lantern noisily on the table, blew a big breath out of his mouth, and ran a finger round the neck of his shirt.
“This weather’s no good for climbing about in,” he said.
The woman looked up from her paper with a keen face. “Wot did you think of the show, Mr. Power?”
“I don’t know much about that sort of thing, Mrs. Gregory. It looks thundering good.”
Gregory began to think. “There’s specimens about the place,” he said, “but durn me if I know where to come on them.”
“You left two or three by the pool, Dad.”
“Could you find ’em?”
“Have a look then, gel.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Power said.
“It will be no worry.” Moll Gregory picked up the lantern and was going out of the door. Power crossed the room of a sudden.
“I’ll come with you. It will save bringing them back.”
“Orl right, Mr. Power.”
They went out into the dark. The moon would rise in a few minutes; but now the night[Pg 87] was dark and still and close. The sky was filled with stars shining with the fierce heat of the tropics. The Southern Cross lay against the horizon; but in the North, Orion was climbing up, and the Scorpion curled his tail in the middle of the sky. The dog shuffled from the shadows after them, and very soon man and girl had passed between the trees by the bank of the waterhole. They were walking side by side, the girl bearing the lantern, and it was as they came upon the bank that Moll Gregory broke silence.
“It was round here,” she said, pausing to take bearing. “Dad left them one day when he couldn’t be bothered taking them home.”
She put the lantern this way and that, and they made careful search. But their trouble was empty of profit.
“This is where they was,” she said. “Maybe Mr. King lifted them. There’s been no one else this way.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Power answered. “The show was good enough.”
They were looking into the Pool, which the gloom made mysterious and of great size. The water was fretted with the images of stars. Big moths came out of the dark to beat against the lantern. Power spoke because it was impossible to stand there without a reason.
“A grand place this.”
“It isn’t so bad. Bit slow after Mount Milton.”
“Do you want people?”
“I’m not particular; but a gel wants a bit of life sometimes. It’s terrible weary of a time without a sight of anyone new. Sometimes I’m fair spoiling for a bit of fun.”
“What do you do with yourself? Do you read?”
“I’m no great hand at learning. I got no schoolin’.”
“Never been to school?”
“No, we always lived out back where there was none. I’ve not been christened neither. Never saw a church for that matter. There was a parson what came round our parts once with a pack-‘orse. I fair scared him out of his life when I let on about it. He was for fixing me straight then.”
“Why didn’t you let him?”
“Something happened. I forget.”
There came a space of silence. She lifted her great eyes. “Yes, I’m spoiling for a bit of life. I’m sick of seeing nothing. I reckon maybe you’ve moved about, Mister?”
“I travelled a bit.”
“That Mr. King, he’s been about a bit.”
“Did he say so?”
“Yes, he said—aw, it doesn’t matter what he said. It was something stupid.”
“What was it?”
“Aw, he only said as he’d been all over the world, but hadn’t met a gel to equal me. He said all the silks and satins in the world would never do me proper. He said as he’d be back in a day or two. Do you reckon he’ll come?”
It was Power who was put out of countenance. He said after a moment—”D’you want him to come?”
“I won’t be worried if he do. He knows how to talk a gel round.”
The moon began to rise. As it left the horizon it was as large as a cartwheel and as rich as a copper platter. Its light began to find a way into many places. The waters of the Pool grew very fair. But nothing in that prospect was fair as the girl at Power’s side.
Who knows what thoughts just then came knocking at the doors of his brain? Truth to tell he fell to frowning and nursing his lower lip. The girl was impatient before he came out of his brown study.
“I have to get back,” he said. “The moon is up. I am taking next watch.”
“Mick O’Neill is with you, isn’t he?”
“He is in charge now. I relieve him. D’you know him?”
“He’s often this way.”
They were on the way back to the hut. “Is he interested in copper, too?”
The girl looked up in a puzzled way.
“Well, copper or no copper,” Power said of a sudden, “you’ve a straight man there. I don’t know any better one. That’s about it.”
He fell into thought again, walking at no great pace with eyes upon the ground. His preoccupation brought a pout to the girl’s lips. She said: “You’re to be a week on the road, aren’t you?”
“That’s about it.”
“Will you be seeing us agen?”
“Would you like me to?”
“I reckon dad likes a yarn of a night.”
“And what about yourself?”
“Aw, yes.” Saying this she looked up and laughed.
“Listen, girl, here’s the camp. Stand still. King told you he had never met a girl to equal you. I can tell you more than that. I can tell you that no queen with her crown on her head and her throne underneath her ever held the power you hold. You can make the wise man foolish, and fill the fool with learning. You can take the clean man to the mire, and cause the[Pg 91] dirty man to wash his hands. Ah, girl! don’t listen.”
“Aw, get out,” she said.
“Back agen.” Gregory called out, pushing his bunch of dirty beard out at the door. “Did you tumble on them?”
“No luck,” Power said. “It’s no matter. There isn’t any doubt about the show. I’m back to say good night. I’ve my watch to stand over there.”
“Won’t you have a cup of tea,” said the woman, coming to the door.
“Not this time; I can’t wait. I’m sorry.”
“Ye’ll be back sometime?”
“Yes, I’ll look you up in a few days. Maybe you’ll have opened up the show a bit by then. Well, good night.”
“Good night, Mr. Power.”
“Good night, Mr. Power.”
“So long, Mister.”
CHAPTER VIThe Coach comes to Surprise
Next day Power kept his promise, and rode into Surprise as soon as he could. He let go the horse in a yard, and tramped the stony stretch which lies before the house. Outside the accountant’s office he came across Mr. Neville and Maud. He heard Maud’s cry, “Well done, Jim,” and the old man waved a stick in the act of pouncing on a passer by. Maud came up in great glee.
“How quick you’ve been. I was not expecting you till sunset.”
“I’ve had good luck. They’re a strong lot. Mick O’Neill is taking them to the hollow. You must ride out with me to-night for a look at them.”
“But I can’t, Jim. And I’d love to. These wretched people come to-day. Don’t you remember? I can’t leave them to father the first night.”
“I forgot them. Hang it! that settles it, I suppose.”
“We’re on the way to meet the coach now. Come along. You have nothing else to do, have you?”
“I’ll come, of course. You ought to pull that hat down, girl. Your face is getting burnt to bits.”
“You said you liked me brown.”
Old Neville was hard engaged with the passer by. The two people heard his harangue, and saw him blowing cigar smoke in a hurry. Soon he drove the enemy through the office door, pursuing him hard in retreat. At once Maud went close to Power.
“Jim,” she said, “I’ve been so nice to father all day. He is splendid just now. As soon as you get him alone, ask him about our marriage. He’ll be reasonable this time, I know. I’ll find you a chance. Why, Jim, what’s the matter to-day?”
“Matter with me?”
“Yes, you’re down on your luck, aren’t you?”
“You are always thinking something, Maud.”
The thread of talk was broken, and they wandered into the office with nothing to say. It was built of iron sheets, held together with wooden beams. Frequent ledgers and other dreary volumes took their rest upon the tables, and files of ageing papers dangled by strings along the walls. The dust of spent willy-willys[Pg 94] had found the upper shelves, and many an industrious fly had left a lifetime’s labour on ceiling and woodwork. The corpulent cockroach walked here after the heat of the day, and the spider spread his net in the loftier corners. For at Surprise a happy line is drawn between the must-be and the need-not, and the word “broom” is not used among the best people.
The place was full of a sickly heat, but the day was Saturday, and King only had stayed behind. They found him writing at the lower end. Half-way down Neville had secured his victim between a table and a chair. The person in this unhappy case was an elderly man of a very broken appearance. He might have been a gentleman a long time ago. His hair was grey, but a moustache of any colour you please drooped over his mouth. His eyes were pale blue, with a blink, and his chin grew a day-old stubble of beard. He wore round his neck a collar of many washings and a doubtful ironing, and a tie in a limp old age. He wore no coat, which is the summer fashion; his trousers were of khaki stuff and wrinkled meekly at his boots. The toes of his boots leaned up in search of something kinder than the stones. On the little finger of his left hand showed the signet ring of the house of Horrington, of Such-and-such Hall, England.
Prosperity and Mr. Horrington were coldly acquainted. Horrington was an idealist among men. Some pass their days mapping out new continents, others knit their brows over the printing press and the steam engine. Horrington had resolved on reading the riddle of how to build a fortune within call of a hotel and without hard work. He had met with poor success. He had eschewed hard work, and he had lived within reach of a hotel; but prosperity had shrugged shoulders at him. Devotion to an idea had lost him the affection of his cousin, Sir John; had found him a passage to Australia; had drifted him presently from town to bush. Unable to contend singly with ill-fortune, he had married a faded woman, who took him and his burdens, no one knew why. Mrs. Horrington painted a little, sang a little, worked her needle a little, played the piano a little—and these arts she taught the daughters of those parents who are not exacting if terms be cheap. So Horrington had kept constant to his idea. But the lean times had brought the pair to an alien land. For at Surprise they paint only when a new coat is due to the poppet-legs, and only ply the needle should a wall need repair. At Surprise the mouth-organ and the concertina soothe the ache for higher things.
The old man came to an end of his breath.
“Sir,” Mr. Horrington began with a certain dignity. “You will own I have heard you with patience.”
“Eh?” the old man grunted.
“And I repeat I have every right to complain on finding myself put on a beggarly allowance of water at a moment’s notice.”
“We may be doing a perish before the rains come.”
“Why, Good Lord! sir, what’s a kerosene tin of water to a family? My wife is not a strong woman, and like all women in poor health, she’s ready to blame others for her shortcomings. She has it at the back of her mind that I make a difficulty carrying the water; though, Good Lord! I’ve scraped my shins often enough on the tins. When I turned up with a single bucket this morning, and the goat had to go short, she put the blame at once on me. She wouldn’t listen until she saw for herself the tanks were locked. Then home she went to throw herself on the bed. ‘Never enough wood chopped to light a fire, now no water to wash with, not a soul to speak to, never anything to look at’—that’s what I listened to until I left the place.”
“Where did ye go to?”
“I had an appointment.”
“Near the hotel, I reckon.”
“Your joke, sir, could be in better taste. I had business with one of the shift bosses.”
“At the hotel?”
“We did happen to meet at the hotel.”
“Because I have been unfortunate, sir, I think there is no need for rudeness. In a politer country, where I have ridden my twice or three times weekly to my cousin’s hounds, I——”
The old man broke up the audience with a flourish of his stick.
King left his work when Maud and Power arrived. “Oh, Jim, I’ve just remembered.” Maud called out. “Mr. King was down at the river yesterday, and saw the pretty girl. You know whom I mean? Mr. King hasn’t been the same since. None of his balances came right this morning. He said she was the loveliest thing he had ever seen. Didn’t you, Mr. King?”
“I expect so.”
“Jim, you must see her, just to tell me it’s true what they say. Would you think her the loveliest thing in the world?”
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t look so glum over it. Will you go and see her?”
“I have seen her.”
“On the way home when I left you last time.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t think of it.”
“You stupid! And what was she like?”
“Like? Oh, she was very pretty.”
“Is that all you can say? Tell me about her. What was she doing?”
“Doing? I don’t know what she was doing. She had a lantern in her hand.”
“You want shaking, Jim! Mr. King told me much more. Didn’t you look at her? Mr. King said a hundred shadows were at hide-and-seek in her hair, and when he came to talk about her eyes, he sat down—the words in his mouth stopped his tongue moving.”
“Perhaps that is why Power says nothing now,” King said.
“I hope not,” Maud cried quickly. And she fell to teasing. “No, poor old Jim was thinking of his bullocks when he saw her.”
“What should I have thought about, the cattle or Moll Gregory?”
“Neither. You should have been thinking of me. I see you know her name.”
“Yes, I’ve learned that.”
King shut up the ledger with a bang. “That’s enough for Saturday. What’s next? A smoke, a drink or the coach? I vote a drink.”
“I vote the coach,” Maud cried.
“Here’s a cigarette,” said Power. “You must find it hot here of an afternoon.”
“I do. The sun gets round on to the wall, and I feel as charitable as a woman with an empty woodbox.”
“You ought to give up this uncomfortable bachelor life, Mr. King,” said Maud. “You ought to go down South and marry some nice girl.”
“Alas! my purse is not as full as once it was. A fool and his money are soon parted, they say. I should have to marry a girl with money, and a girl and her money are equally soon married—by someone else.”
Neville came up behind. “How ye do chatter, Maud. We’d better get along to that coach. Who’s coming? King, ye had better come along.” He jerked his head over his shoulder. “Hey, Horrington, ye can tell your wife she can have what water she wants and I’ll be by to see you carry it.” Marching four abreast, they passed out of the office.
Surprise is not a beautiful place. The hills holding it are the greenest in that country, and lean up and down in gentle curves. But the bottom of the basin has grown shabby with much use. Patches of sand cover it, in company with clumps of spinifex put out of repair by disillusioned goats. The tents and humpies of the[Pg 100] camp rise up on this in seedy and unordered rank, and low-born fowls doze at the doorways. In the middle of the congregation stands one building somewhat more gracious. A glittering roof protects it, and there is paint upon the walls. Above the doorway runs the legend—Surprise Valley Hotel.
On Saturday afternoon they keep holiday at Surprise. It is then the butcher kills for the second time in the week, and Mrs. Bloxham, Mrs. Johnson and Mrs. Niven meet at his lean-to for Sunday’s dinner and a half-hour gossip. They find talk until the coach arrives. About the same time, Bloxham, Johnson and Niven put an eye to their premises, pulling together a hole in the wall here, a slit in the roof there. They, in due course, turn steps to the hotel for the coming of the coach. At four o’clock, about that place, you find all the best people of Surprise.
The party from the office took the direction of the hotel. Old Neville with a great play of his stick held the lead. He kept the talk his way. Said he: “I can’t make out what this fellow is coming for. Bringing his wife, too. She’d as well been left behind. He wrote something about coming for a holiday, being in poor health or something. It beats me what he thinks to find here. He’ll be leavin’ by the first coach, I[Pg 101] reckon. I shan’t mind. I’ve too much on hand to be trotting round with beef tea. Maud will have to see to them.”
“Selwyn is the name, isn’t it?” Power said.
The old man nodded his head. “Huh, huh! There was an assayer of that name here once three or four year back. There was no houses then; didn’t scarce run a tent, and he and me and a couple of other fellows was camped where the stable is. He had some damned silver thing something like a flute, and one night a feller out of pity asked him to play it. It was the horriblest row ever you heard. The chap that asked him made some excuse and went so far away he nearly got bushed. He went on playing till near midnight, I reckon. When we were all asleep the damned row woke us up again. I sits up and lets fly in a great rage: ‘For God’s sake, man,’ I said, ‘a fair thing is a fair thing. We’ve listened to you half the damned night already. D’ye think,’ says I—and then I see all of a sudden it was the dingoes howling. He, he! Huh, huh, huh!”
“Father, you put a bit to that story every time.”
“And it’s not everyone knows how to do that, my girl.”
“Hullo, here’s a new place,” Power said. “You’ve grown it since last week.”
“Smith, the schoolmaster,” answered the old man with a jerk of the head. “He’s doing his week here. I mean to catch him home if I can. I’m the man for a gentleman that lets his horse into my feed-room.”
“Let him alone, father. He is hunted enough without you. You must have seen him, Jim. He’s the man that looks as though something is just about to happen. He’s married to a book and never gets past the first chapter. We ought to be sorry for him. He’s meant for a town. I don’t know what brought him here. Let’s be romantic. Perhaps he loved some girl and lost her.”
“In that case,” King said, “I’ll keep my sympathy. There are enough mourners for the man who has loved some woman and lost her. My heart goes out to the man who has loved some woman and can’t lose her.”
“Huh, huh!” cried the old man from the lead. “Ye needn’t pity him, Maud. He has some woman to follow him round.”
They had come to a couple of tents standing solitary. Neville rattled in the doorway of the first with his stick. “Hey, there, who’s home?” The tent door was open for the world to look inside. At a table, consisting of a large board placed on a couple of travelling bags, Mr. Smith sat writing. An armful of books was at his[Pg 103] elbow, and a litter of papers had tumbled round his heels. He was a man of fair complexion, going early bald on top. He sighed with great melancholy when the knock came, and put a hand to his forehead. On top of this he conjured up a mechanical smile and rose to his feet.
“You, Mr. Neville? Turned hot, hasn’t it? Can I do anything?”
“I suppose ye know your horse had its head into my chaff half the morning? The last ton ran me up eighteen shilling a bag.”
Mr. Smith shut his eyes. “I’ve driven it over the other way twice this afternoon,” he said. “I sat down five minutes ago.”
“I’m talking of the morning.”
“I was at school then.”
“That don’t put my chaff in the bag.”
Maud came to the front. “That’s enough, father. I hope the horse had a good dinner. It does the Company good to give away a little chaff. How is the book getting on?”
Mr. Smith shook his head. “According to the time-table the third chapter would have been finished this week, but everything is turning out against it. I am afraid this life isn’t conducive to study, and my unfortunate poverty precludes me from obtaining the necessary reference books. Directly I sit down, there’s the dog to[Pg 104] put out, or the cat to put in, and, honestly, as my name is Pericles Smith——”
“Perry!” a woman’s voice called from somewhere, “there’s a wretched goat at the flour.”
“Instantly, darling.” Mr. Smith closed his eyes. “I live in the hope of getting an hour to myself one day; but for ten years——”
“Perry, there’s another goat joining it.”
“At once, dear. I suppose I shall write the words ‘Chapter Four’ some day, but——”
“Well, I’m not going to stay here while you chatter any longer,” interrupted the old man, moving off, “and you, Smith, you look after that horse of yours or ye’ll find yourself reading a pretty long bill.”
They came away with Smith still in the doorway.
“I wish he wouldn’t make me laugh. I am so sorry for him,” said Maud.
King made answer. “It’s not the best of lives this, packing up for somewhere at the end of every week, knowing the sun will be at the back of your neck all day, and a dozen wild children wait at the journey-end for the ABC to be knocked into their heads. I am content to stay plain John King.”
“A man can say he has put a good day’s work behind him,” Power said, “and that’s as well. It helps to pull his thoughts straight at night.”
“Jim, you are taking life so heavily to-day. I had to cheer up Mr. King this morning because he looked too long at the pretty girl. Now you have caught the blues somewhere.”
The butcher’s shop stands on this side of the hotel, and on Tuesday and Saturday the butcher stands behind his block, and chops your fate up with the meat. Mrs. Niven, Mrs. Boulder and Mrs. Bullock grow very humble when they go a-shopping. It is “Mr. Simpson, and how’s the heat been using yer, and is there any chance of a bit o’ the silverside this time?” And “Mr. Simpson, and I suppose the flies is worrying yer a treat, and I take it it’s my turn for the undercut.” And Simpson, with a to-do of knife and steel makes answer. “Now, I’m givin’ wot there is, and I’m not givin’ nothing else, and if yer aren’t satisfied, yer can go elsewhere. I reckon the next butcher isn’t farther than Mount Milton, and I reckon Mount Milton isn’t more than seventy mile.”
“Aw, you are gettin’ at us, Mr. Simpson,” comes the timid chorus.
The bakery stands between the butcher’s and the hotel, presenting itself to the world as a building of wood and bagging of a very cutthroat appearance. Mr. Regan, baker, being a man of parts, turns a pleasant sovereign or two in the little “Crown and Anchor” saloon at the[Pg 106] back. A couple of nights a week the policeman looks in to run the bank for an hour or so. It’s “Now don’t stand feeling yer corns there as though yer ole woman was watching. Choose yer crown, and pick yer anchor. The dice aren’t loaded more than my old grandad’s gun was, and I never see him try to blow to bits anything stronger than his nose. Come on, gents, every throw a crown, and every chuck an anchor. An’ don’t forget time’s flying, as the monkey said when he ‘eaved the clock through the winder.”
They took their stand under the hotel verandah. In twos and threes Surprise strolled to the meeting ground. Neville waved his stick a dozen times and grunted a how-de-do and shouted. Mr. Horrington appeared presently, and later disappeared; and others of note swelled the congregation. In a doorway loitered Barcoo Bill, as graceful a hand at duffing a horse as you might find this side of the border. Into stout argument had fallen one-eyed Sal, who, armed with a crowbar, and fortified with a bottle of Dewar’s best, had once upon a time defeated the only policeman in a single round go-as-you-please affair. In a patch of shade kicked his heels Iron-jawed Dick, who, for the price of a drink, had lifted in his teeth a table laid for dinner. Other people—tall and short, lean and stout—took their stand up and down the way, and kept[Pg 107] ever the tail of an eye on the horizon. Dusty curs mooched about, and sat down suddenly to beat their stomachs with a back leg. At half the posts were hitched high-rumped horses with rusty saddles a-top of them.
The walk in the sun had left King a good deal the worse for wear. He pulled forth a handkerchief and pushed it about his face. “If,” said he, making an end, “things are ordered properly in the world to come, we shall have a special heaven to ourselves. There the sun will totter through the sky in a mild old age, the rivers will run water, the goats will come home to be milked, and the woodbox will never empty. And an angel will wait at the gates holding out a flypaper in place of a flaming sword.”
“Hey?” cried the old man in a sudden excitement. He was beating his stick at the distance.
. . . . . . .
The five goose-rumped horses, in a lather of sweat, and chastened with a great following of flies and dust clouds, had lumbered the coach to the top of the last rise, and the first tents of Surprise, and the poppet heads of the mine were marching into view, as Mrs. Selwyn stated for the third time on the journey that she did not know whether she was on her crown or her toes. From the box seat, Joe Gantley, mailman, steered his team with bored fingers, jerking his[Pg 108] head to the right now and then to clear his throat, and spitting the flies from his lips on occasion in an every-day sort of way. Selwyn and Mrs. Selwyn were packed beside him, where the sun leaned down, the dust climbed up, and there was perpetual prospect of heaving flanks and clicking hoofs.
Mrs. Selwyn had come to the struggle in a dust coat and a veil of many folds; and in face of a hundred difficulties that massive woman had lost no jot of dignity, remaining to the end a most inspiring spectacle.
Selwyn had made the best of a bad place at the end of the row. By a judicious play of elbow and hip he had widened his share of matters, and now could lean a little easier and find a bit of support for the hollow of his back. He had grown shabby from the funnel of dust rising from the top of the wheel, but he was not a man to be put about by small matters, as he was always very ready to let you know.
Hilton Selwyn, a director of the Surprise Copper Mining Company, and gentleman of no other special business, was at this time between fifty and fifty-five, but lean and active in spite of middle age. Cleancut in feature, upright in carriage, he suggested the military man, and his youthful step would have passed him as any age. It was only on discovery of the thinned grey[Pg 109] hair and close-clipped tobacco-stained moustache that one understood half a century had gone over his head.
Half a century had gone over his head and health had become treacherous. He could crawl through a swamp at dawn on the chance of an odd teal, and come home to a thumping breakfast; but two minutes weeding in the garden brought on sciatica. Similarly he could stand all day in a drizzle of rain persuading a trout to rise, and more than one biting July breakfast-time had found him half naked worming a way across the lawn of his country place to a flock of pigeon feeding in the timber; but indoors his only seat was right over the fire, where he took the warmth from everybody—as Mrs. Selwyn was often good enough to tell him.
It was to get himself into better fettle that he sought the present change of scene. He woke up one evening of last winter from his after-dinner sleep in the best arm-chair. The waking up was a delicate matter. He gave two long drawn-out yawns. He shot a fist into the air and stretched slowly, rolled himself into a sitting position, blinked once or twice, screwed up his face as though he had a bad taste in the mouth, caught hold of the mantelpiece and pulled himself on to his legs. He rocked about a little, screwed up his face again, and at last quite woke[Pg 110] up. His hair was like a storm at sea, his tie was crooked, his dress clothes were creased.
In the manner of a man announcing news of deep interest he spoke:
“I feel a little better now. I think I deserve a cigarette.” He felt in his pockets for his cigarette case. He looked on the floor, in the fender, and under the cushions of the arm-chair. “Dear me! Where’s my cigarette case?”
“You don’t think I have it, do you?” Mrs. Selwyn asked coldly. She had been playing hostess to a couple of friends while the host slept.
“I don’t know where it is; it’s not here, anyhow.” A terrific frown came over his face. “This accursed habit of tidying is making the house impossible to live in. One puts a thing down, and the next minute some interfering meddler picks it up and hides it, and then forgets where they put it. Curse everybody!”
Mrs. Selwyn grew very stiff. “Is this language meant for me? I shall not submit another moment to it. I am very pleased your cigarette case is lost. I hope it has gone for good. You are a perfect plague with your things. It is very good of anyone to touch them at all. In future they can lie where they drop as far as I am concerned.”
“I hope everyone else will be equally kind.[Pg 111] There may be a chance of finding things then. Life’s not worth living as it is, with a troop of women following one about picking up every little thing one puts down and then losing it.”
Selwyn shouted at the top of his voice. “Jane!” The parlourmaid came in. His smile was charming. “I’ve lost my cigarettes, Jane. They are nowhere to be found.”
“The case is on the mantelpiece, sir, in the library, where you left it this afternoon.”
“Ah!” Selwyn saved an awkward situation by finding a pipe and cleaning it. Mrs. Selwyn watched him keenly. He cried out suddenly.
“You women amuse me. You live in an agony of unrest in case a bit of ash gets on a chair or rug, and shorten your lives with the excitement of finding a fishing-bag with a few fish in it on a drawing-room sofa instead of in the kitchen. There never was a woman yet with a true idea of comfort. Hullo! chocolates here. They don’t look bad at all.” He proved his words by diving into the box and bringing out a handful, which he munched with obvious satisfaction.
“I believe in a man liking sweets. It shows he doesn’t drink.” He munched on a moment or two. Then he smiled with the charm that deceived guests into believing him a solicitous host. “Now who is going to play or sing? I am sure none of you are entertaining Harry as I[Pg 112] should have done had health allowed. By the way though, I did hear some music. I think I must have been asleep. It was that sherry we had at dinner. It’s a fatal thing to wet one’s whistle with. A glass or two of sherry followed by the genial blaze of a good fire on the pit of the stomach, and the case is hopeless. I expect these chocolates will play up with my hollow tooth. It’s a sad thing to arrive at my time of life and begin to feel oneself giving way everywhere. I can’t get about as I used to. A hard day’s shooting knocks me up.” He shook his head in deeply sympathetic manner.
“Haven’t you done enough talking about yourself?”
“I’m talking because I’m the only one here with any ideas of conversation. You are all sitting like a crowd at a wake before the whisky is passed round.”
“You give everybody a racking headache.”
“I’m very sorry. I don’t know why, but there it is, I never get headaches.”
“Nothing would ever kill you.”
“You needn’t be so annoyed about it. As a matter of fact I’ve not been at all well these last few months; only, unlike other people, I make no fuss about it. I’ve a thundering good mind to see a doctor to-morrow. I jolly well will.”
Great matters followed on that little upset.[Pg 113] The rocky state of his health came as a thunderbolt to Selwyn. His medical man said an entire change of scene and climate was absolutely needful. What better place than Surprise where every worry could be put behind? With a fishing-rod and a gun-case in the baggage a man should be good for a six-month’s stay. Mrs. Selwyn began with a stout refusal. She knew as well as she was alive the affair would end disastrously. She had a presentiment some calamity was waiting. She could foresee with her capable brain how unfitted Hilton was for the whole business. Her heart was in her mouth at the mere thought of the journey. And look at the expense. “Think of my purse!” she cried. “Think of my pocket!” Finally she fell into agreement, so as to be at hand to say “I told you so.”
Thus it came about that a fiery November afternoon found the Selwyns covering the last mile of the journey. The back of the coach was a-choke with wares. The mail bags shared the bottom with the Selwyn luggage, and a round dozen of other parcels held the hopes of as many women at Surprise. Mrs. Niven, Mrs. Bloxham, Mrs. Anybody-else-you-please, lured by a catalogue, had summoned them in a halting hand weeks before, and had spent spare time counting up the days to their coming. On top of this[Pg 114] bundle of wares, in no ways a bed of their choosing, were chained Selwyn’s proved bodyguard, the sharers of his board, almost the sharers of his bed. They were a mangy pointer of great age, and a terrier with a punishing jaw. The pointer had fallen into a miserable doze; but the terrier yet nursed hope of sudden calamity, and kept a quarrelsome eye at half-cock.
With a crack of the whip, a spurt from the goose-rumped horses, and a stir among the waiting congregation, the coach rolled to a standstill before Surprise Valley Hotel. Such was the manner of the Selywn coming.
. . . . . . .
That evening it wanted half-an-hour to the rise of the moon when Power left Neville’s verandah for his horse and the journey home. The lights were going out over all the camp. Maud followed at his side for a good-bye. The old man fussed after them as far as the back door.
“Don’t chatter too long, gel. I won’t be left with them people, d’ye hear? I may be wrong, but I think it won’t take me time to be sick o’ the pair of them. I may be wrong, huh, huh! Goodness! Look at the lid off the dustbin again. That woman don’t do a thing she’s told. Look at it! Some people breeds flies for a fancy.[Pg 115] Hope ye have a good trip, Power. See you again in a week.”
The hill begins at the very backdoor of the house, and lifts a wide breast of broken red rock into the cooler spaces. There are many seats about the top, and all breezes go that way. The poet, the refugee and the sighing swain thither may turn steps to find easement of their state. But few visit the hilltop, for the poet has no place on the books of the Surprise Mining Company, and the refugee need not take such a lengthy journey, while love ever keeps its hiding-places ready at hand.
The old man turned into the house, and Maud Neville put her hands on Power’s shoulders. “A few minutes don’t matter, Jim. This is our first time to-day. We’ll go up the hill a moment.”
They went up there, and sat down upon the warm, red rock. The camp was a few points of light in the dark; but many white stars filled the sky in old places—the Cross to the South, the Belt to the North, the Scorpion where you must crane the neck to find it. In such a dark lovers must sit closely if they would not be lost.
“Jim, to-day has been a failure, hasn’t it?”
“I didn’t mean it to be.”
“You have had the blues all day, and those wretched people came before I could cure you.”
“I shall be back in a week, Maud.”
“I had worked father so hard, and all for nothing. I know it was not your fault. There wasn’t one chance.”
“I’ll have a pipe now we have sat down.”
“See the stars marching into their old places. What a lot they see. Do you think they look right into us?”
“Let us hope not.”
“Do you love me, Jim?”
“Must I say it again?”
“As much as you say you do?”
“I forget how much I said.”
“Because sometimes … well … sometimes.”
“What happens sometimes?”
“Ah, Jim, is there always to be a ‘sometimes?’ Why do I have always the little stab at my heart? Is the whisperer true who says I do most of the loving?”
She heard no answer.
“Sometimes I am afraid of what waits for us. And always I love you very, very much. No, no, I am not afraid. I am now the wise woman. Along the road my heart has come I have found the thorny places, but I am learning to tread them with a shrug of pain and to march on where the way opens out. There are aloes in the sweet cake of love; but let us eat, for the spices will forget the aloes. The cook cooks well, but he has not all the ingredients to his[Pg 117] hand, and they go hungry who demand only the stars for food.” Her arms found his shoulders. Her kisses found his lips.
“What an eloquent little tongue you have, girl! How can I find the words to answer you?”
“Don’t talk a minute.” But she herself spoke again in a little while.
“Time goes by.”
“Two years ago we were strangers. We got along without each other. How funny that! What did you find in me to want me? Jim, aren’t you ever going to answer to-night?”
There was no answer.
“Friend Jim, do cheer up.”
“I’m cheered up. Things are wrong to-day. I don’t know why. These things happen sometimes. My fault, no doubt. The bush is a good enough place, girl, but it doesn’t do to start thinking there.”
He put silence to flight by getting to his feet. “I must stand watch by midnight. A week will bring me back again. We’ll say good night here. Good night.”
“Good night, Jim. Seven days are flying towards me on damaged wings.”
“Good night again, girl. Let your blessings follow me while I am away.”
CHAPTER VIIThe Return to Surprise
The week was beggared, and had borrowed two days from the next, when Power came riding back to Surprise. He had left the musterers and the cook’s waggon after breakfast to find their own way home, and a steady walk all day across the plain brought him at evening to the bottom of the long slope of Dingo Gap, and a bare half-dozen miles from Surprise. Man and beast had made small matter of the journey.
Power came back in better cheer. Reflection stays at the fireside when a man rides off at the heels of a mob of cattle, and Power came home with only the recollections of a summer madness to flick his memory. A mile of difficult travelling hid him from the crossways, and who denies Fate sits there sometimes pointing the path to follow?
Half-way up the distance, where the road swings back upon itself, and a hurly-burly of rocks shuts the sight from climbing farther, where it takes a good man to steer a buggy—[Pg 119]there, I say to you, Power met Moll Gregory, astride a shabby horse, face to face. She was going down and he was going up, and they must halt their horses to divide the way.
At once the old sickness returned. Leech, thou hast tinkered with thine ointments, bring now the knife to heal. The beast was knock-kneed and at odds with age, with a moulding saddle across its back and a sack of goods hanging at either side. The girl was dressed in coarse stuff cut out with poor skill on some close night by the light of a hurricane lamp. A big hat, sitting on her head like a roof, spoiled the fury of the suns; yet that beauty found full forgiveness for the shabby setting.
The horses waited side by side, and Moll Gregory sat an arm’s length away; but the nearness cost her no effort, and she looked up unconcerned. The frown left Power’s forehead.
“Hullo, Mister; back again?”
“You are well loaded up,” he said. “Two tucker bags full to the throat.”
“I get the tucker now. Mum and me reckon to keep Dad home if we can. He’s too much trouble when he gets a drop into him.”
“It’s a long way round by the Gap.”
“It makes a change.”
“How has the show turned out?”
“A1. But dad isn’t over fond of a shovel.[Pg 120] He’s took up with the wire strainer again, and says there’s heaps of money in it when it gets going. You should hear him and mum on at it of a night.” She laughed. Her voice was charming when no words defiled it. She waved the flies away and lifted her hat a little. She may have thought Power looked at the hat overlong, for she said: “It isn’t great shakes, is it?”
“Better than getting burnt up.”
“The suns have took longer than I remember doing me harm. Anyway there wouldn’t be many to growl if I was spoilt. Maybe a gum-tree or two by the river, or old Bluey the dog might see a change. There’s none else to take notice.”
It was for Power to come forward with the compliment; but she received silence for her pains. She pouted charmingly as a child might do.
All the moods sat in her eyes, and a hurry of passions, grave and gay, waited on her ready lips. Had she been a little older, or read another page of life, she might have understood those silences, and taking pity, have set her horse upon the road. But she looked across to say:
“I reckon you don’t take much account of looks in a girl.” She failed again. A third time she tried. “Others do.”
“No,” came with a toss of the head. “All men aren’t like you, Mr. Power. Some knows a neat ankle, though it takes the best part of a dozen mile through the bush to find it.”
“And this bold knight, is he young and charming?”
“No, he isn’t. He’s fat, and sweats when he walks. But he knows how to talk a girl round, and he calls me his Princess.”
“Then it is a royal courtship on both sides.” She did not understand. “King is your courtier,” he said. “I’m glad we didn’t all forget you.” There fell a little pause and his forehead wrinkled up. Then he said earnestly: “Answer me, girl. I am not asking for nothing. Mick O’Neill is in love with you. Do you mean to run square with him; or is he to be the dog barking up the tree, and the ‘possum not at home?”
She showed a flash of temper for the first time.
“My name is Moll Gregory, my address is North Queensland, and I am not telling what I do to every feller stopping me on the road.”
But she met her better at this business. Power broke in on top of her. “He is a good man, and he’ll play you straight, whether you play him straight or don’t. He is my friend, that’s all.”
The anger went out of their faces. Power was searching for something to say, but she was the quicker.
“I’m not going to quarrel with you yet,” she said, her head to one side. “It’s too dead dull on the river to start scaring blokes away. When will you come along for another look at the show? Dad’s done a bit you know there. He’s dotty on the wire strainer. That’s what has slowed him up. What about to-night?”
“Not to-night. Another day. To-morrow, if you like.”
“To-night,” she said again, frowning.
“I reckon you don’t have too many manners, Mister. A girl don’t say to-night too often, you know.”
“I——oh, why won’t to-morrow do?”
“Very well,” she said, much put out and taking no trouble to hide it. “I’ll talk to meself to-night while mum and dad fights over the wire strainer. Only I reckon a girl don’t feel too good when she says to-night and a feller says to-morrow.”
“Then to-night it is.”
The smiles ran all about her face. “That’s a promise, Mister?”
“Not too late.”
She leaned a little out of the saddle, with her dainty teeth just apart. “They say you are a smart man among cattle, Mister.”
“That’s good news.”
“It takes a quick man to be a daddy stockman, don’t it?”
“Then I reckon all your quickness has gone into cattle,” she answered, and broke into another peal of laughter, and flicked the old horse awake, and so passed on down the road.
Power drew his reins together and finished the journey up the hill. You look upon a very fair prospect from the summit of Dingo Gap; long lines of hills lifting broad bosoms to the sky; far behind on the plain the broad belt of the river; ahead the broken pathway dipping downward to Surprise. Power was short-sighted that evening, and waiting up there to breathe his horse he fell into a brown study, and looked from a pinnacle of his soul down a valley long as the roadway of Dingo Gap. Mayhap he called himself turncoat, wearer of any man’s livery, weathercock to flap wings to every wind; sufficient it is, he left his thoughts presently, for the day grew old, and by sunset he had ridden into the beginnings[Pg 124] of Surprise. With a nod here, a good day there, he passed to the stable and spent the last minutes of daylight serving his horse. That matter to his mind, he turned steps towards the house.
Maud Neville sat before the house alone. At his coming, she jumped up in great good spirits. He guessed she had counted on the meeting, for she wore a dress he had noticed once. Yet he must remark the wear and tear of summer on her face, and fall out of humour at his own keenness of sight. He did his best to meet her mood. “Back once again,” he called out.
“You owe us two days,” she answered. And next she cried: “Jim, Jim, I’m so glad.” She left the kisses she had waiting for him till later on, as Messrs Boulder and Niven took the evening against the store across the way, pipe at mouth, the tail of an eye cocked for whatever might go forward.
Standing there at the doorstep of the house Power became suddenly aware that he had to his credit a long day’s ride, and that he was tired. The cries of the crickets and other evening insects entered his consciousness, and with surprise he remarked the afterglow of the sunset, and realised night would fall in a few minutes. This slight fatigue affected him suddenly and strangely. He saw with new vision the pure[Pg 125] soul of the woman who waited now ready to receive him. Always she met him with open hands, whether he came in good humour or in bad. She bore the tiring summer days without repining, and, more than that, from the daily course of affairs extracted a philosophy of life. He was tired after the day’s ride, and here she stood desiring only to banish his fatigue by her ministrations. She had had her own day’s work, but that was unremembered. She had learned that giving was more profitable than taking. He saw how often he hunted the shadow and missed the substance.
The cries of the insects began again while the afterglow faded in the sky. The promise he had made an hour since came to mind. He bent his brows at thought of it. Well, it was given now. It must be kept. Maud was leading the way into the house, and he was following her mechanically. In the dining-room a table was laid for one person. The cloth was clean; all was ready to hand. She had done this on the chance of his coming to-night. This joy of service was love. And he too claimed to love. Yet he had put himself out little enough when all was said and done—came much when he wanted, went much when he wished. What a good woman she was, yet he always had to be telling himself this. He was one of those heavy-eyed dullards who would[Pg 126] not believe in the butterfly because the chrysalis was a poor thing.
What was happening this evening that he was for ever dreaming? He had often enough been a bit tired; but it had not caused melancholy. Why shirk the point? The child on the road had moved him beyond all experience. She had put a torch to his thoughts. She had seemed an echo of all lovers who had tripped down the corridors of time.
“Wake up, Jim! You are tired, poor boy.”
“I have been at it all day. Give me something to eat.”
“See, we expected you. While you wash I shall have it all ready.”
He left the room, and a minute or two later he found the meal waiting for him, and she in a seat opposite, elbows on table, hands making a cup for her chin, her face gay and full of fondness. “Sit down, Jim, and begin at the beginning.”
He went through his examination, and at the same time made a good supper. He received a shake of the head or a nod, a pout or a frown according to the telling of his story.
“Jim, do you know what I did this morning? I woke up very early and found there had been a sudden change in the night. Quite a cold breeze was blowing. I had to get up at once. I[Pg 127] couldn’t help myself. When I was dressed I called out to father I was going for a ride, and went looking for old Stockings. It was breaking dawn, and sharp enough to remind you of winter. Stockings was quite lively for an old fellow. I went straight out into the plain past the Conical Hill. The sky was growing brighter all the time. The birds were singing as if it were winter, and the hoofs of Stockings rang out clear. Plenty of kangaroos were abroad, and one old man stood up and refused to budge as we went by. I pushed on across the plain as long as the sunrise lasted, looking back now and then to see I wasn’t losing Conical Hill. The cold stayed until the sun was over the horizon, and then I turned Stockings round and began to walk home. I was thinking that forty, fifty or sixty miles away you had seen this same sunrise, and felt the same cold in your bones. I understood then how much the life meant to you, and why you were always ready for a muster or a journey down the roads with cattle. Jim, I think a man working abroad has a better chance of reading life straight than a girl who belongs to the four walls of a house. A man must be a dunce to stay untaught by a morning like to-day. What’s making you frown?”
“I’m not frowning, and I don’t think you are right, Maud. When all is added up, a woman[Pg 128] sees her way surer than a man. A good dog has the best religion. He serves his master through fair weather and foul—he heels the cattle in season, he chews his bones in season, and takes his kicks in season. He knows the art of ready service. A woman comes next for quick learning; but a man doesn’t find the right way without hurt…. Maud, I have something to say. I want you to understand it now. The best man is ill put together. He may be brave, but he runs crooked in his dealings. He may be good at heart, and a pair of stranger eyes turn him off the course. Listen, girl … if things … well if ever I turn defaulter, put all of me in the scales, and maybe a thing or two will help pull the balance nearer straight.”
“Poor old Jim, don’t talk in that heavy way! You have been too hard at it this week. You are tired. I know of something to put you right.”
“Where are you going?… What have you there?”
A bottle of wine was held up to him.
“We have feasted the visitors since you went away. This is one of the last. Don’t tell father.”
“Not this time, Maud. Another day will do.”
“Do what you are told. Open it.”
“Fill both glasses and stand up.”
“What madness are you after?”
“I said, stand up. That’s right. Now hear what I have to say.” She lifted up her glass. She stood by the light of the window, but outside side darkness was falling fast.
“Drink, Jim, for these glasses have been filled in honour of the past as we have lived it, and of the future as it shall be shaped. The grape ferments, and the red wine results; lovers quarrel and good understanding is born. The orchard blossoms, the blossoms fall to the ground, but from the boughs come forth the fruit. Love arrives with spiced dishes, but when the meats have staled, on the table lies the bread of life. We are learning understanding; but other pages of that book remain for our reading. Drink to receive the clean heart, the straight purpose, and the good comradeship which walks with those things. Let cowardice be unknown between us. The mistake made, we will bare it in our hands, knowing the other will understand.”
Who knows what Power saw in that ruddy wine drunk in the darkened room? He pledged the toast to the end. With never a word more between them they put down their glasses.
“The others are in the verandah,” Maud said to break the spell, “you must talk to them for half-an-hour. Come along.”
She led the way. Darkness had fallen in a clap while he ate, and lamps had been brought[Pg 130] outside. In the distance Mr. Wells was testing his cornet for the evening’s work. From the verandah came sounds of raised voices, and at a first look about, the place was full of people. Neville had kept his old seat. At the other end Selwyn appeared well off. Mrs. Selwyn and King, with Scabbyback the mangy pointer, and Gripper the terrier, filled less important places. Somebody smoked good cigars.
The battle for supremacy between the two veterans had led to a division of honours. Neville had won his old place handy to the waterbags and the whisky, but Selwyn had the cigars and matches at his elbow, and was deep down in his chair, with feet resting at a great height against the wall, as behoved a man whose health was in a rocky state, and no mistake about it. Mrs. Selwyn endured a straight-backed chair; and King, who liked comfort, but who cared more for peace, was poorly served.
The talk was broken off for a moment when Maud led in Power. Selwyn rose to smile with great charm, and later sank back into the same seat with reluctance, apparently persuaded to keep it against his will. The talk flowed on again.
“You have wakened up since I was away, Mr. Selwyn,” Maud said.
“Yes, isn’t it a pest?” Mrs. Selwyn exclaimed. “We have had such a peaceful half hour.”
One thing remained to Selwyn from the ruins of his wrecked health. He could get his forty minutes’ nap after a good meal. “Now, look here,” he had said in the bedroom before dinner, shaking a tobacco-stained finger, “this absurd stand-on-ceremony is doing me harm. There was excuse for staying awake the first night or two; but my infernal good manners have carried things to an extreme. Now, look here,” said he, wagging the yellow finger, “when we have had dinner, sing to them, or talk to the girl about clothes, or do something else; but at all costs distract the family from me, so that I can get my sleep. I like hearing the gentle hum of voices when I’m comatose.”
“What’s your news, Power?” the old man grunted from his corner. “Morning Springs still in the same place, I expect?”
“Have you come from Morning Springs?” Mrs. Selwyn cried. “What a desperate place! I stood there in the blazing sun half the day waiting for the coach. The top of my head was coming off. The place was turning round me.”
“Did you see anybody?” said the old man.
“Milbanks was in. He says it is pretty dry out his way. Says things won’t be too good if the rains are late. Claney asked after you. He has[Pg 132] a silica show in tow. The Reverend Five-aces turned up at the hotel a couple of nights and seemed in form.”
“He sounds a gentleman to keep an eye on,” said Selwyn. “I think I shall button my pockets when he comes to shrive me.”
“You would do better with a sixth ace in your hat,” said King. “He may be out here one day soon. He’s due for a visit.”
“He lost a game when I was in,” Power went on.
“Hey!” cried the old man. “How was that, lad?”
“Half-a-dozen of us were at the hotel pretty late, and he made one of a bridge four. Upstairs a man was dying in the horrors. He had shouted out all night—very badly. As time went on he grew quiet. Mrs. Smith, the landlady, a good churchgoer, runs into the room presently. ‘Mr. Thomas, there’s a man upstairs very sick. He’s dying, Sir, or I’ll never live to tell another. Come upstairs, Mr. Thomas, and lend him the comforts of the Church.’
“Five-aces looks at her, and looks at his hand with the king and queen there and all the royal family, and he fingers his chin and says, ‘There’s no call for this fluster, Mrs. Smith. He has a pretty strong voice still. There’s no[Pg 133] call for an hour or two. Maybe I’ll take a look that way when we’ve played out the rubber.’
“Half an hour later Mrs. Smith comes in again in great bustle. Oh! Mr. Thomas as true as I mean to go light through Purgatory, he cannot last much longer. I tell ye he’ll be gone if ye wait.’
“‘Mrs. Smith,’ Five-aces then says very short, and frowning down his chin. ‘I have every card to my hand. Your business will keep as long as the rubber, it’s my belief.’
“Presently Mrs. Smith comes in again. Old Five-aces looks very black. ‘It’s no good, Mrs. Smith, I have just gone “no trumps.” I shall get a “little slam” out of this.’
“‘Ye needn’t put yourself about, Sir,’ says she. ‘There’s been a “grand slam” upstairs.'”
Mrs. Selwyn shuddered. “Mr. Power, how could you tell such a horrible story. I feel most unwell.”
“I am sorry, Mrs. Selwyn. I won’t offend again.”
“I pray the creature stays away until I’m gone.”
Neville chuckled again in his corner. “You would find him charming until you sat down to bridge. Many is the yarn we have had over a whisky. He can tell the best story for a hundred miles round. Maybe better men could be found[Pg 134] to pilot the soul to Heaven, but he can claim always to be at the pilot’s post, and that’s the Bridge. There’s a good one, Maud, gel. He, he! Huh, huh, huh!”
Mrs. Selwyn had not yet recovered. “I sincerely hope our other clergy have a better sense of fitness,” she said.
Neville was having trouble with his pipe. “A parson comes round these parts with a pack-horse or two every six months for a couple of days, and that is as good as one can expect. He don’t get two hundred a year wages, and has to feed himself and his horses. With chaff round our parts up to eighteen shilling a bag, I would shake my head at the job myself. He don’t get more than a dozen at his service, for half laughs at him, and the other half, that would go, laugh too because the first half laughs.”
“If he comes while we are here, I shall make a point of going,” Mrs. Selwyn said.
“Hey, Power!” cried Neville, jerking his thumb. “Here’s the whisky.”
“A good idea,” said King.
“Excellent,” echoed Selwyn.
“Father, your fight this afternoon seems to have cheered you up,” said Maud.
“What fight?” Power asked.
Selwyn sat up. “Did you get much sport on your trip, Mr. Power? There must have been some thundering good chances early in the morning. Nobody to blunder about and disturb the game from year end to year end.”
“A man doesn’t get much spare time with cattle,” Power answered. “He rides all day, and stands his two watches at night. He is inclined to leave hunting for another time. The cook took a rifle in the waggon, and got a turkey or two; but he sees double, and generally aims at the wrong bird. We had sport of another kind, though, which might have turned into something nasty.”
“Ah! How was that?”
“On the border of this run and the next is a stretch of timbered country called Derby’s Ten Mile. It is a good bit of country, with big holes holding water all the year, and Simpson, of Kurrajong, my neighbour, keeps it as a horse paddock. For all the fine trees by the river, the place has a bad name. You can’t get a man of those parts to camp there the night. There is a story of a swagman murdered on the big hole by his mate twenty years ago. I believe the tale is true, but whether or no, they say on calm nights something cries out in the paddock. This[Pg 136] time the cry will sound low down, the next time it will come from the air, and never twice in the same place. You can find a score of men to swear to this. Simpson assured me on moonlight nights he has known the horses stampede from the other side of the river.
“A carrier I knew told me an accident to his waggon once forced him to camp there one night. It was winter, freezing hard—as cold as the Pole—and you could hear a horse bell a dozen miles. He was sitting over the fire thinking of turning into bed, when he heard a queer screech by a clump of timber a couple of miles away. ‘Some blanky bird,’ he says. He had come round to thoughts of bed again, when he heard the screech a second time, and not more than a mile off, and on the top of it every horse came flying across the dry river bed. They went past him as though they weren’t stopping this side of the sea. In a shake the fellow had turned colder than the frost, and he was asking himself what was the trouble, when something shrieked at him, not the length of a bullock team off. He felt a breath of ice in his face——”
Behind the house a fowl gave a blood-curdling death-cry. Gooseflesh rose on the spine of the bravest there. Thanks to that self-command which had stood Mrs. Selwyn in stead on so many occasions, she exclaimed, “What’s that?”[Pg 137] and no more. But afterwards she owned that for five minutes she was turning hot and cold. The cry was repeated more faintly. Steps sounded outside, and at the same time came the voice of Mrs. Nankervis, the cook, exclaiming out loud. Her steps advanced in a hurry across the house. She burst through the doorway, all wind and heavy breaths, and hands pressed to her ample sides.
“Lord save us! There’s a python got the yaller pullet under the house.”
“Python!” cried Selwyn, clapping hands to the arms of his chair. “What size?”
“Ah! Like that!” Mrs. Nankervis threw her arms out right and left. “Twenty foot! Thirty foot!”
Selwyn scrambled to his feet. “What magnificent luck!”
“It don’t go twenty foot, nor half it,” said Neville, feeling for his stick. “The small ones turn up now and then. The big fellows sit tight in the bush. The pullet’s gone. That’s a pity. I reckoned on her turning out a good layer.”
There was a pushing back of chairs. Somebody took the lanterns from the wall. Selwyn, Mrs. Nankervis and the dogs went through the door at the one moment. The rest of the company followed at their heels.
But, beyond the light thrown by the lanterns,[Pg 138] the night showed very black, and the hurry of the party abated. The old man began to chuckle from the rear. “Go ahead,” he said. “I can see satisfactory from here. You have got a lantern, Mr. Selwyn. Ye can get under the house. Put the lantern round about the piles first. Unless the snake is half way to Morning Springs, I reckon it’s better to take the first look at him from the distance. Afterwards ye can wear him for a comforter round your neck. A-huh-huh-huh!”
“Hilton, I entreat you to moderate your excitement and consider what you are about. I don’t know whether I am on my crown or my toes.”
Selwyn trembled with anticipation. The cigar did a step-dance between his teeth. He seemed to grow lean before the eyes of the company. He held forward the lantern and re-gripped his stick. Step by step he advanced among the piles holding up the house. Bring all your eyes to look. The hunter has gone forth to slay. Pace by pace he made his ground. Inch by inch he obtained a more cunning hold of his staff. Gripper, the terrier, wrinkled at the nose and very stiff at tail, followed him to the field of battle; but Scabbyback the ancient pointer scratched in the shadows as though digging out the very sea-serpent itself.
“Get out of that, you mangy muddler,” Selwyn said, prodding him on the way.
The light from the lanterns thrust far into the shadows; and, behold, upon a patch of sand among the piles was discovered the python heaped in an evil mass and holding the dead fowl among his coils. Black he showed, and dark green in places, and supple and wicked and beautiful and fierce and fascinating and treacherous all in one glance, so that a man must look to admire, and yet turn his head in loathing.
“That’s him! That’s him!” said Neville. “And I reckoned he wouldn’t wait our visit.”
“Hilton, I implore you,” Mrs. Selwyn cried. That was her single moment of weakness.
Selwyn hooked the lantern on a convenient ledge, where the light fell in all corners of the battle-field. The python made no business of departure, but stared at this hurly-burly from cold eyes in a shovel head as big as a woman’s hand. Forward went Selwyn to the combat, taut and tucked up, but never a moment in doubt. All the while he talked to himself, assuring all who cared to listen, courage and a stout right hand must win, and that the gentle persuasion of a boxwood club at the nape of the neck must settle the account even of the serpent of Eden.
“A-ha, gently does it. Keep back, sir”—and a yelp told that Gripper had tested the weight of[Pg 140] his master’s staff. “Kindly, kindly, is my way. Bring a lantern this way—more to the right—more to the right. A-ha, my beauty, allow me to introduce the friend in my hand.”
Neville wagged his head from the back of affairs. “Power, ye had better see what he’s doing,” he said. “He’ll be getting into mischief. That will be a big feller when he’s pulled straight.”
As Power stepped forward, Mrs. Nankervis ran out of the house with the gun.
“There’s sense, woman,” said Neville. “Hey, Power, give him this.”
Power put Maud in charge of a lantern, and took the gun. “That’s rather a risky business, Mr. Selwyn,” he said. “He is too big for a stick.”
Selwyn stretched out a ravenous hand for the gun. He planted his legs wide apart and put it to his shoulder. The great serpent, head flattened down, stared from callous eyes. Gripper showed every tooth. Scabbyback had found business in the distance. Mrs. Selwyn closed her eyes and summoned all her fortitude. There was a moment when everybody waited. A roar sounded underneath the house. The snake whipped his head up and down again in a single movement. His coils fell apart in the twinkling of an eyelid, and riot was let loose. Selwyn,[Pg 141] scrambling back, knocked the lantern to the ground, and the light jumped up and went out.
The python thrashed the wooden piles, embraced them, rolled free again, knotted itself upon the ground, and fell in a writhing agony among the hunters.
“Give me the lamp, girl,” Power cried out, “and get out quick.”
Maud held out the lamp. Power took the lamp. Power bounded back. Something struck him across the leg. He leapt farther back. The python in hideous pain beat at the piles and at the air. Power heard Selwyn beside him mutter “Magnificent, magnificent.”
“Shoot, man; shoot!” Power cried. Selwyn raised the gun. Power pushed forward the lantern to make best use of it. Selwyn fired point blank. The uproar in the confined space was immense. There was a heave of the coils. The python was blown in half.
The company drew slowly near, and Selwyn fell into a grand attitude, “A-ha,” he said. “The old hand has not lost its cunning. A right and left, and there he lies. Fifteen foot if an inch, by Jove!”
Very terrible the python looked in death, torn about on the bloody sand with muscles yet twitching. Mrs. Selwyn closed her eyes.[Pg 142] “Hilton, every day you have less consideration for my feelings.”
“He’ll be a fair size stretched,” said the old man, poking with his stick. “I’m sorry about that pullet. Hold that lamp straight, Maud. Ye’ll have the glass smoked. Some of you had better get this mess cleaned before the ants come. Shall we go back to the verandah, Mrs. Selwyn? Snakes don’t get through the fly-netting.”
They persuaded Selwyn back to everyday, and Power and he were mourners at the funeral. While they went about the ceremony, Maud and King wandered a little way into the dark. They could watch the sextons going in and out of the lamplight, Power moving quickly about the matter, and Selwyn very full of his past performance. Their own employment—finding seats on the warm stones—was the better one, for the night was hot, as are most nights when you go to live at Surprise.
“Have you nothing to say to-night, Mr. King? Are a cigarette and the dark all you want these latter days? Be wise, and give up looking for copper by Pelican Pool. I tell you gold would not be worth the labour. Give by, give by, and gain your right mind among the ledgers over there.”
“There is more reading by the Pool than in all those dreary books.”
“A midsummer madness has seized you.”
“Yet I would not find cure for my folly.”
“But look at your ages. A girl of twenty has done this.”
“The young man to the matured woman; the old man to the maid. And this is the reason. The young man looks forward to what is to be, but the old man stares over his shoulder at what is slipping away.”
“It is a fancy that must pass. You say she neither reads nor writes.”
“She is a lantern by whose light I read the Book of Life.”
“Mr. King, are you serious this time or not?”
“Laugh at me if you like. I know what I am loving. She is young and wild—a flower of these hot grounds, quick come to bloom, quick to pass away, and without a soul, even as these bush flowers are without scent. She should sleep upon a couch of blossoms, and go abroad crowned with garlands; and I would play the elderly satyr and pipe her through the summer.”
Power came across. The funeral was over; but Selwyn waited yet by the grave, smoking a fresh cigar in honour of combat valiantly fought and splendidly won. King got up, and in the talk that started walked away.
“Sit down, Jim,” Maud said.
“Maud, I shall not be staying to-night. I’ll come across to-morrow, though.”
“What?” she answered coldly, and frowning of a sudden.
“I’ve work I must fix up. I am as sorry as you are. I shall be across to-morrow.”
“You have never had sudden work like this that wouldn’t keep.”
“Maybe there won’t be any again. Come, it can’t be helped. I must get away.”
“Good night, then.”
“Don’t be silly, Maud.”
“It is useless crying when a thing can’t be mended. So good night.”
“You’ll think better of things to-morrow. Then, there it is—good night.”
She kissed him coldly when he bent his head; but repenting in the same breath, she drew him to her. “Jim, you told me so suddenly, and I am horribly disappointed. Good luck to you until to-morrow.”
He had nothing to say.
CHAPTER VIIIThe Banks of the Pool
Power rode out of Surprise with the hag of reproach seated at the crupper of his horse. He would have proved poor company for a wayfarer; but fortune left him to follow the road alone, and he pushed his fagged mount to some pace, and ate up the distance to Pelican Pool.
The evening had aged when he arrived on the bank of the Pool. The hour was ten o’clock. We woo sleep early at Surprise, for she proves wilful mistress here, and Power believed himself too late. He heard the whimper of the dog, and a bark checked in the throat, and then the horse jumped under him in a difficult shy. He threw a glance into the dark for the cause, and, lo! Moll Gregory sat at the foot of a tree as still as the trunk supporting her. At once the hag of reproach left her seat. Moll rose from her waiting place and came forward with a little laugh of greeting. The jealous dark stole her countenance from Power’s eyes, but her figure defied[Pg 146] its embrace, and she came up to his horse young and careless and bewitching. He thought of a young tree starting on its journey towards the sky. He tightened the rein, the horse stood still, and he fell to staring down on her. Straightway he forgot time and the ill humours of the day.
“You are awful late, Mister?”
“It’s a long way from Surprise.”
“I was near giving you up, and then, Mr. Power, you would have caught it next time we met. I’m not a girl for a fellow to say yes and no to all the day.”
“But now I am forgiven, I must get down. What about the horse? There’s not a yard round here, is there?”
“Dad is always talking of putting up something, but I haven’t seen it yet.”
“He is quiet enough. I’ll hitch him here. There’s the saddle to come off. I won’t be long.”
When the saddle stood on end at the foot of a tree, and the bit hung loose, then Power made ready for what the hour would bring. The insects were busy, creeping down neck and ears, and crickets kept concert in all corners of the dark. It would grow no cooler until dawn, and soon afterwards the sun would start up into the sky. At a little distance, a light shone through the hessian wall of Gregory’s dining-room, and[Pg 147] sometimes a voice came from there. Power felt in no mood for the inside of the place.
“I have been riding all day. Where shall we sit down?”
He was led to a seat by the tree trunk. They sat down a little apart. Branches held a latticed canopy over them, and the lattice work let in the starlit sky. The dog mooched round as company.
“So you had given me up?”
“Yes, Mister. I’d been waiting there I forget how long. Dad and Mum started to row when we was washing up, and I flung out of the place in a temper. I set about a bit of fishing by the Pool. It isn’t bad fun these nights. Sometimes you get a bonza haul. But it’s awful dreary sitting by the bank alone. I don’t know what’s took me lately, but I get terrible tired of things. I reckon it’s since Mr. King told me of all there was to be seen away from here.”
They sat in a lap of land on top of the bank, where it fell sharp to the water, and just now a fish leapt in the shallows.
“Shall we fish, Mr. Power?” she said. “The rod is down there somewhere. They were too slow when I came out, and I gave it over.”
“They call you Moll, don’t they? I am going to be a friend of yours. May I call you Molly? I think it prettier than Moll.”
“Orl right, Mister. We won’t quarrel over it. I reckon the mosquitoes like fishing too. Do you fish ever?”
“Sometimes. I shoot most when there’s spare time. I like fishing though.”
“Struth! Something’s at me now. I won’t yank yet. These fellers give a good bite when they mean business.”
“Do you often come here? I’ve ridden by many times and watered my horse here; I’ve watered a good few mobs of cattle here, too. But I never knew how beautiful it was until I fished to-night.”
“Now and again I get fair sick of Mum and Dad, and then I come and fish or take a walk along the bank. I like listening to the things that move in the dark.”
“What do you hear?”
“Oh, the fishes are always jumping in the shallows, and sometimes a crocodile sticks his nose up, and times I surprise a turtle in the sands. There’s plenty of kangaroos thumping along for a drink—strike me! Hark at that fellow.”
“Yes, he’s noisy enough for an old man—Molly.”
“Can’t you get out ‘Molly’ easier? There’s no call to jerk your head over it.”
“It was not hard to say. It lies gently on the tongue. And so you make friends with the animals? If you are here in winter time you will find the pelicans fishing at dawn, and spoonbills, too, as white as snow. You have heard of snow, I suppose? It falls among the mountains down South in July and August—Molly.”
“It don’t come easy yet. I reckon Molly is no harder to say than ‘My Princess.'”
“Does it fall as kindly on the ear as ‘My Princess?'”
“I like ‘My Princess,’ and I like Molly. I can do with two friends since I was so long without one…. Now, what are you thinking of, Mister? You sit staring at the Pool and sucking yer pipe. Why don’t yer talk? You are as dummy as the fishes what won’t come at my hook.”
“I was thinking a week or two can make a queer change in a man’s fortune.”
“It do. Luck takes a turn times when things look dreadful hopeless. Straight wire. I tell you I’ve watched the water o’ nights, and thought about settling things up. And then, like a cow to[Pg 150] a new-dropped calf, you fellows came along to liven things.”
“We came along one day and found you here, and now all the roads on Kaloona run lean to Pelican Pool. Molly, do you know all you have done? Think, Molly, a moment. Have you kind word for my friend, Mick O’Neill? Or for Mr. King driving through the heat from Surprise?”
“Good enough for them what they get.”
“Don’t you believe in love?”
“Mr. Power, you are too fond of questions. I shall be giving you the rod soon to hold. Don’t you think a girl may have a bit of fun? It’s awful hard when a man likes you to tell him to clear out. Wake up, Mister; you are awful dilly sometimes. What do you see in the water to stare at?”
“Every ‘yes’ spoken now will take a deal of unspeaking later on. Tell me, are you a little fond of Mick?”
“I reckon there’s a bite. Look at the float, and the water rippling.”
“That bite can wait your answer.”
“He’s a good figure of a man, isn’t he?”
“He can sit a bad horse with the next man, can’t he?”
“He’s pretty slick through scrub, and isn’t the last on the heels of a mob. I reckon many a girl wouldn’t toss her head there.”
“And Mr. King?”
“He knows how to talk to a girl; but it don’t take his fat off him, do it? He’s as old as Dad; but he’s shook on me, and no error. He puffs terrible in the sun, but he comes as often as he can. He told me there would be something for me in a coach or two, but I said he could keep it. First I liked a bit of attention, it had been so dull; but now I can get as good elsewhere.”
“Send him gently about his business, then, for I think loving is easier than unloving.”
“There’s not going to be any sending about business. He can come if he wants, and he can stay away. I know how to be not at home, and he can try his hand talking to Bluey, the dog. Now, don’t start preaching, Mister. You can go on sucking that pipe. I’m not at the call of every feller of fifty who gets shook on me.”
“Your own troubles will come one day, Molly, and you will grow a little kinder because of them. The new boot is poor company for the foot, and the heart grows softer with a bit of wear and tear. And so you are ready to punish two men, and all their crime was looking overlong into your eyes. Are only your glances kind, Molly? Have the suns of twenty summers baked[Pg 152] your little heart? Haven’t you a memory or two of sorrow stored away to make you softer now? No, don’t pout.”
“Mr. Power, you seem uncommon interested in other people. I don’t see call for you to worry what I do. I reckon my comings and goings aren’t your concern. Mister, you can hear well from where you are. It’s time you took a hand at fishing.”
“Have you never found time to fall in love; or have you been too busy saying ‘no?’ Molly, you were born a candle, and men will come from all the corners, like the bush insects, to scorch in your flame. Where did you steal your hands? A sculptor would break his chisel despairing of them. What Paradise gave you them that the bush might stare them into decay? Molly, Molly, you must have a soul, or what sits in your eyes all day making men drunken?”
“Mr. Power, you’re a poor fisherman.”
“Have you never loved, Molly?”
“Maybe yes, and maybe no, and it’s not you, Mr. Power, I’m starting blabbing to.”
“Aw, you’d laugh.”
“There’s nothing to tell. Some’s been round[Pg 153] that I’ve laughed at and sent away, nor thought nor cared what came of them. And one or two I’ve liked a little. And one or two has made me cry. But when one fellow goes, there’s another to come after him.”
“Has a man held you in his arms? Have you ever been kissed into kindness? What are you laughing at? Don’t laugh, I say!”
“Of course a girl’s been kissed. I don’t think ever was a time I wasn’t kissed. Why a girl would go dummy with only an old dog as mate, and a kangaroo or two, and maybe an old goanna to watch. What are you frowning for? My lips aren’t kissed away.”
“The jewel that takes long getting is highest priced. Let’s go back to fishing. You have told me enough…. No, I can’t fish to-night. We might be a hundred miles away from anyone down here. Sooner or later you will go away; but I shall never ride past the Pool again without remembering you. I shall come here every year, when the castor-oil tree flowers, for it was flowering when first I saw Molly Gregory standing in the doorway of her tent, holding a lantern above her head…. Isn’t it still? The night is too close…. Molly, why are you so beautiful? Don’t you know the night is in love with you? That’s why the fishes are jumping. Don’t you know the kangaroo and his mate are stooping to[Pg 154] drink down there, that they may share the same pool with you? Molly, a man and a girl are only young once. It is all over in a few quick years. All life to live in that time. A world to see…. Molly, wake up. Don’t look into your lap. Your rich body is spoiling. The bush is jealous of beauty, and would claw the fairest works with her lean fingers. Molly, wake up and live.”
“Aw, talk, talk, and who is the better for it in the end? I can go back to the humpy more miserable, if that is what you want. Mr. King comes with his grand tales, and drives off in the buggy, leaving a girl to cry her eyes out in a room of bags. I hate the bush. I would spit it out of my mouth, as Dad spits the suckings of his pipe out at the door. What does the bush give you? Just gives you nothing. Never a man or a girl to speak to. Just wash up, wash up, wash up. And carry the water from the creek. And bail up the goats when you’ve got them. And a ride to the store as a treat. And make your Johnny cake half the week, because you haven’t the heart to make bread, or haven’t built the oven. And no schooling. And not a church to go to, even if you did want to. And just the clothes to wear as nobody will take in town. And growl, growl, growl all day from everyone round. And if you have a few looks, there’s nobody to tell you what they think of them. Oh,[Pg 155] you don’t know how sick I am of it. I fall dreaming sometimes, and think some man comes and takes me right away. And then Mum gets on to me for mooning. I’ll get married some day to a looney boundary rider, and live in a hut all me life, and have a pack of children, and grow as skinny as the best of them. If I have daddy looks then I’ll sell them to the first man who’ll pay me. The first man to take me away can have me, and he can drop me when he’s tired.”
“Don’t talk like that. Don’t dare to talk like that. You and I will fall out, girl, if there’s much of that spoken.”
“Turning parson, Mr. Power?… Listen, there’s Mum. Hallo! What is it?”
A voice came through the dark. “Mick O’Neill’s round for half-an-hour. Aren’t yer coming in? You’ll go ratty moonin’ there all night.”
The spell was broken. Power forsook fairyland for everyday. Moll Gregory and he walked towards the house through the close night. The spikes of the grasses bent under their feet, and insects voyaging through the dark brushed their faces. Gregory stood in the doorway of the hut, fingering his dirty beard and talking to O’Neill. “Hullo, Moll, got company?” he cried. “Why,[Pg 156] it’s Mr. Power. Come right in. There’s always a seat inside here waiting for Mr. Power.”
“Hullo, boss,” O’Neill said, “I thought you were down at Surprise.”
“I promised to look in some time or other. Good evening, Mrs. Gregory; you have late visitors to-night.”
The company found seats in the mean room, which was hard taxed to serve everybody. There was no change in the place since Power had gone away. On the rough table stood the wash basin. The shelf at the back held the crockery. The boxes stood on end for seats. The wire strainer and the potato digger lay in the corner. Power took all in as he filled his pipe again.
“I reckon you make the old place lively dropping in like this,” Mrs. Gregory began, looking from one to the other, and leering at Gregory when the time came. “Dad was saying you had been a long while away, and must be hitched up on the road.”
“Things went like wedding bells,” said Power. “We put in a couple of days at Morning Springs. That kept us.”
“A bit of a spree?” questioned Gregory.
“We are respectable men on Kaloona.”
Mick O’Neill had sat down, pushing his spurred feet in front of him across the room. He had brought a new shirt on his back and had[Pg 157] dressed his legs in clean trousers, belted with a bright knotted handkerchief. A hat with a gay dent in the crown had fallen upon the table. He had arrived pleased in advance with what might befall, a laugh prisoned in his mouth, a merry word harnessed to his tongue. He sat there, a man forgetting the past where the present was kind; a good fellow who must quicken the heart of any man or woman. Maybe so thought Power, who lost little of what went round.
“Things aren’t much changed here, are they, Mr. Power?” said Gregory in a minute or two. “A man don’t feel much like putting a house ship-shape at night after a day’s shovelling. That show has got me beat. Gone down into rock now.”
“It’s time I kept my promise of a hand,” said Mick. “I reckoned for you to be half way under the river.”
“No buyers since we were away?” Power asked.
“Mr. King still has it in his eye; but it’s gaff, and he has found a better show than mine. A-haw, haw, haw! A-haw!”
“We’ve missed you gentlemen since you went,” Mrs. Gregory followed up, looking hard at the visitors. “Haven’t we, Moll?”
“Dunno. What’s this, Mick? Did you bring along your music? Good lad!”
O’Neill picked up an accordion from the floor. “You said you liked a bit of fun. I thought to knock a tune or two out later on.”
“That’s what we want here,” cried Gregory very loud. “Do you think you could find mine, mother; or was it broke up?”
“Have a look in the tent. It was under the stretcher last.”
In a little while Gregory came from the tent blowing the dust from his accordion, and the rest of the evening passed on speedy heels with song and tune and dance. The dust was kicked out of the earth floor by stepping feet, and sounds of “hurrah” startled the elderly night. Faces flushed; voices grew loud. Gregory swung on his box, opening and closing his arms, knocking the sweat from his forehead, and sending abroad his “A-haw.” Mrs. Gregory grown amiable watched from the back, and busied herself presently boiling a kettle of water.
Power left the hut for the homeward road ere the merrymaking was worn out. The music followed him through the dark, as he saddled and bitted his horse. He had made ready soon, and had turned the beast home. A soft bed waited him at Kaloona instead of the couch of grasses that had been his portion for the week. But maybe he was to sleep no better because of it.
CHAPTER IXHow the Days pass by at Surprise
Every day of the week, at fall of dark, I grope my way here into my tent at Surprise, light the hurricane lamp, hook it to the beam overhead, find paper and pen, and spur myself to the telling of a page more of this story. Sometimes a timid breeze comes through the doorway to cool the rising temper of the night; oftener the tent walls droop on their wooden framework; and neither pipe nor cigarette will bring me cheer.
The night wears on; the mosquito sharpens his appetite, and a fringe of the great army of flying things which moves abroad in the dark, flutters, jumps and creeps in at the doorway to the light. By half-past eight the attack has begun. Crickets in sober grey coats, black-banded on the legs, lead the advance; large crickets and small crickets. Great green grasshoppers follow; long and narrow grasshoppers, broad and deep-chested grasshoppers. Purple grasshoppers arrive on their heels; and now they[Pg 160] come, large and small and in all habits. At nine o’clock they cover the ceiling, staring at the lamp with big stupid eyes; and strange moths and flies and flying ants have begun the Dance of Death about the globe.
Tilt back the chair; find the towel; neck and ears must be covered for the rest of the sitting. When the clock shows half-past nine, pack up the papers again, and step to the doorway awhile that contemplation may bring better humour. Then to bed.
At last my story is well begun, and a few days must wear out at Surprise and Kaloona before the tale moves much forward again. The cook puts the pot to boil. Little is to show when the lid first is lifted but the water is heating nevertheless.
Power came riding into Surprise now and again, and little he seemed altered, unless his temper had grown crotchety. The camp endured at Pelican Pool. Maud Neville went about the day’s work as before and, if she was troubled ever so little so that she rose in the morning with a faint clutch at her heart—well, few at Surprise are without their crosses. Mr. Horrington, clambering off his stretcher, rather rocky in the morning, finds his eye filled with the wood-heap at the back door and a blunt axe standing by the wall, and hears Mrs. [Pg 161]Horrington, clinking a billycan, crunch behind him along the path to the goat pen. Few would believe how unwell a man can feel at half-past six in the morning with a poor night’s sleep behind him, and a wood-heap at his elbow.
Come morning then, come night; come laughter, come sorrow—the day’s work goes forward. Saturday brings the coach bumping from Morning Springs. Monday, eight o’clock, hears the whistle beginning again the week. Shabby little camp set down in the wilderness, yours is the soul of the drudge, who finds brief time for singing at her labour, who finds still less time for tears.
On Monday mornings they do the washing at Surprise. Mrs. Bullock, brisk and brawny, sitting up in bed to rub her eyes, nudges Bullock from his last ten minutes’ sleep.
“Don’t forget the copper, dad. Yer left me with two sticks last time. Yer don’t expect a woman to swing an axe as well as wash and bake and run after you from morning to night.”
Mrs. Niven, dyspeptic and dolorous, wakes Niven with her high-pitched tones.
“Is it going to be the same this week? What does it worry you if a woman kills herself at the tub while you snore there all day? Look at Boulder, Bloxham and Bullock bin up half-an-hour, I reckon, runnin’ round for their wives.[Pg 162] And women come to me and say—’My! Mrs. Niven, you looks very poorly lately,—and I got to say the heat has took me dreadful, but it’s runnin’ after you, lifting tubs of water, and scratching on a wood-heap for wood that isn’t there that done it.”
Boulder, Bloxham and Johnson are rising up elsewhere.
Through the morning is great bustle and to-do, a filling of pitchers, a lifting of buckets, a running in and out of the sun to open-air fireplaces, a prodding of clothes in coppers with sticks, wringings, beatings, rinsings, re-wringings. The morning is gone as soon as begun.
By noonday whistle the clothes are spread on line and bush and fallen log; and Mrs. Bullock, Mrs. Niven and Mrs. Boulder, rather short of breath, and distinctly short of speech, are dishing up the dinner a minute or two late. Coming home from the mine it is well to be discreet. Sitting down to lunch at Mrs. Simpson’s bush boarding-house I talk very small on these occasions.
The wash dries early at Surprise and by three o’clock Mrs. Bullock, Mrs. Niven and Mrs. Boulder are abroad again plucking the strange things down. When the whistle blows at five o’clock the irons are put by and the heaviest day of the week is over.
On Mondays they wash, and on Mondays by another law, the men go forth in clean clothes. If you are one to notice such things, you can tell the week in the month by the shirts going to work. Mr. Carroll, timekeeper, is especially regular this way. First and third Mondays bring him to the office in blue tie and white trousers with an iron mould in the seat; second and fourth Mondays show him in spotted tie and blue trousers weary at the knees. Simpson, the butcher, clips his moustache every first Sunday in the month, and changes from a man of walrus appearance to a brigand with shabby brown teeth.
But every day of the month the single boot-last of Surprise is in demand, as one or other person sits down with a pair of half-soles from the store to patch his boots against the ill-humours of the stones.
Now and then of a morning, between breakfast wash-up and the midday cooking, Mrs. Bullock, Mrs. Niven and Mrs. Simpson slip across to the store for a packet of this or that, and any news that may be running round. It happens often that luck chooses them the same ten minutes; and Mrs. Boulder and Mrs. Bloxham may be passing by just then. Mr. Wells, storeman, agile and anxious, very quick at a piece of news, very slow at totting up an account,[Pg 164] puts hands wide on the counter and gives a brisk “Good morning. Turned dreadful hot, Mrs. Simpson. Looks like summer come at last.”
“It do,” says Mrs. Simpson, casting an eye about the place.
Mrs. Bullock, leaning far across the counter, takes a look behind the scenes; and Mrs. Niven, standing a little out of the press, lifts her hat upon her head, drops it down again and makes speech.
“I was took bad agen last night before bed. This is no place for a woman, I tell you that short. I’ll take another box of pills, same as last.”
“All gone, Mrs. Niven,” says Mr. Wells, bringing his hands off the counter with a jump and shaking his head. “Not a box or bottle of medicine nearer than Morning Springs. The last lot was very popular. There’ll be something else with the next team sure.”
“You never do have a thing in when it’s wanted; that’s speaking straight,” joins in Mrs. Boulder, leaning farther over the counter. “I’ll have that packet of spices down there. It’s the last there is, I dare say, and a pound of tea and two of matches, and that’s all.”
“Good morning, Mrs. Bloxham. Good morning, Mrs. Boulder.”
“Good morning. Good morning. Good morning.”
“I was took bad agen last night before bed,” says Mrs. Niven, “and now I come here and find not a dose of anything in the store. This is no land for a woman, I say, and I’ve said it before, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I say it again.”
“Well, Mrs. Boulder,” says Mrs. Simpson, “is it true Mr. Regan won’t give Kerrisk any bread since they had the row two day back? I heard something about it, but couldn’t make a story of it. Seeing that you came across that way, I thought you might have heard.”
“Small things don’t worry me,” says Mrs. Boulder, of stately and severe aspect. “Live and let live when you’re out these ways is what’s to do. I heard something last night of someone here that would be a shame to repeat.”
“Mrs. Boulder?” comes the chorus.
“Mr. Wells, when it comes to my turn I’ll have five of sugar and a pair of bootlaces, and see that it’s a better pair than last. They didn’t stay whole two days,” continues Mrs. Boulder.
“Mrs. Boulder, what was that you heard tell?”
“It would do better with keeping, Mrs. Simpson. Mr. Wells, that was a beautiful tune you played last night. Yes, Mrs. Simpson, my news would do better with keeping, but we’re all friends here. Well I heard say Mr. King over[Pg 166] at the office there was doing a deal too much running up and down to the river lately. It don’t take much guessing to know what that means.”
“Quite likely, Mrs. Boulder. And he isn’t the only one, I dare say. Leaving him, what do you reckon brought them two at the house up to these parts for? Selwyn the name is. Come from Melbourne, I hear. I heard say he was one of the heads of the Company, though I wouldn’t go much on him doing a day’s work.”
“No need, Mrs. Simpson. That sort only wear white collars and sit round a table and talk big. Mrs. Nankervis, the cook up there, told me he and Mrs. don’t hit it off, not a bit. She says it’s a fact.”
“When is the girl and Mr. Power from Kaloona comin’ to a point? He’s kept her waiting long enough.”
“They say he’s not too keen, but she’s keeping him to it.”
“There’s no telling, Mrs. Bloxham. The old man would find a change looking after himself. I wouldn’t be surprised if he looked round on his own account then. They say he was pretty gay thirty year back. Back for home agen, Mrs. Boulder? Good morning to you. My turn now, Mr. Wells.”
They open up the office between eight and[Pg 167] nine of a morning, and Mr. King, accountant, pushes up the window before finding his seat behind the table at the far end; while Mr. Carroll, timekeeper, a mild elderly man, takes the broom from behind the door and meekly strokes the floor from end to end. He, too, then finds his seat. The day’s work begins pleasantly, with not undue wear and tear, as is the genial custom at Surprise. The satisfying swish of ledger pages and the scratch of pens are all the sounds to wake the spiders in their webs in the high corners.
But ruder sounds will break that cloistral peace. Old Neville, stick in hand, the first pipe of the day in his clutch, steps down that way from breakfast on most mornings of the week as a start on the daily round.
“Hey!” cries he, waving his stick in at the doorway of a sudden, “What sawn timber have we on hand?”
Mr. King, at his ledger at the far end, thinks a long moment and makes answer. “They had the last from the store a week ago. There’s nothing on the place until the next waggon is in.”
Half-way down, Mr. Carroll, at his time sheets, feels his chin and deprecates the whole affair.
“I made a memo we were running out a month back,” says Mr. King, very even tempered, and twisting his moustache a little. “They have got through that last lot very soon.”
“Robson is a fool,” breaks in the old man, wagging his head and coming into the office. “I’ll put him to the right-about pretty quick one of these mornings. Goodness! Look under the shelf there. You’ve a colony of white ants come. Ye’d have the place eaten down. Carroll, get the kerosene, and give it them right away. Are you on anything that won’t keep, King? I’m going underground in a few minutes. Ye might come along and see what’s become of that sawn timber. You’ll find Mrs. Robson has told Robson to board her kitchen with it. I’ll have it up agen, if I handle the crowbar myself. I may be wrong, huh! huh!”
“It gets hot early in the morning now,” says Mr. King, rising slowly, and leaning across to the wall for his hat.
When you take the left-hand pathway at the office door, which leads towards the poppet-legs standing up stiff half-a-mile away, and the firewood stacks near the engine-house—when you take this path, you begin to pass by much of interest. Mrs. Boulder camps here, and stands[Pg 169] at her doorway to remark who goes down the red path. Beyond her camp two bachelors, beneath a sheet of calico on poles. Two stretchers stand there, two boxes for seats, and among some ashes outside is a forked stick thrust into the ground on which a billy hangs.
Farther on—and on the right hand—Mr. Pericles Smith, travelling schoolmaster, occasionally pitches his tent for his monthly stay. By six or seven o’clock of an evening, after tea has been cleared away, he sits in the first tent for all the world to see, getting forward with his monumental work on the aboriginal languages of Australia. Sometimes, indeed, he is otherwise employed.
“Did you remember about the currants when you came by the store?” says a woman’s voice.
“That must be indeed delightful, dear,” murmurs Mr. Smith, turning over the page.
“You might listen sometimes. I said, did you——”
“I said, did you——”
Mr. Smith leaps from his seat on the box. “What is it? What is it? What is it? Goat in or out? Kettle on or off the boil? Wood chopped or wood not chopped? Here I am. What was it? What is it? What will it be? Let us do it all now before I sit down again.”
“You are so disagreeable lately, dear. I hardly dare speak to you.”
Mr. Smith closes his eyes. “What is it?”
“I said, did you remember the currants?”
“A bar of soap, a packet of candles, three pounds of rice, and currants if they have them. No, dear, I forgot, but I shall do so shortly.” He finds his seat again, wearily. “I was at the most important place in the chapter. Now I must find the threads again.”
Silence falls. “I think from the look of the sky there’s going to be another hot day to-morrow, dear.”
“I have done so, I am doing so, and I am about to do so again,” murmurs Mr. Smith, putting out a hand for Mathew on “Eaglehawk and Crow.”
Farther yet along the road there stands a house of hessian roof and walls—of a moulting appearance, and yet faintly genteel as houses are considered out this way. It stands a little apart and a little up the hill as though it has not grown used to the vulgar neighbours of the hollow. Within are two rooms with floors of earth beaten flat; but the path, beginning at the doorway, is paved with red stones. There is a pen built of wooden palings at the back, where a goat despairs out loud all night, and near it the[Pg 171] clothes-line sags from tree to tree waiting for the throat of the foolish. They hang the washing at the back of this house, lest Philistine eyes spy upon it.
Morning by morning, about nine o’clock, Mr. Horrington, general agent of Surprise, may be found on the red stone path in his shirt sleeves, blinking eyes in the sunlight. It would seem he finds the new day less depressing thus begun. An ungracious liver, a treacherous purse, an invalid wife and Surprise to look on through the year—these things are not pleasant to reflect on when a man has left fifty behind some years ago.
Every morning Mr. Horrington stands here blinking in the sunlight while the weakly tread of Mrs. Horrington in the kitchen jars unkindly on reflection. Every evening he stands here while the sun goes down, a little melancholy, it may be also a little muddled in thought. To hear once more the shuffling of Mrs. Horrington must surely not sooth a spirit on edge. If women can spin out work through a whole day, is it good taste insisting a man should know it?
He stands on the red steps when Mr. Neville and Mr. King go by at nine o’clock of the morning, blinking, very drooped at the moustache, hunting up a full pipe of tobacco from the corners of a pouch.
“You are along early to-day, Mr. Neville, and you too, Mr. King. I discover I have run a bit short of tobacco until I can find the time to get down to the store. How about a pipeful? Thanks, Mr. King. It is a pleasure to taste again the stuff you smoke. What they sell here comes hard on a trained palate.”
Old Neville brings his head round to listen.
“It’s an extraordinary thing about women,” goes on Mr. Horrington, planting his stick in the dust as he marches, and keeping his eyes on the toes of his boots which lean up in sympathy. “It’s an extraordinary thing, which you must have noticed, that a woman will give you a hammer and a couple of odd-sized nails, send you to the wood-heap and say—’Produce me Saint Paul’s Cathedral.'”
“Did you ever do it for them?” says the old man. “How’s your wife? Is she standing the heat better this year? Maud will be along this afternoon, she was saying.”
“My wife will be glad to see her. She gets too lonely there with me engaged away all day. I don’t think she is going to be a bit better this year than last. Every day she finds a new complaint. Last night she had a pain in the back brought on by the washing. Mrs. Niven gave[Pg 173] her some iodine, and I painted her before bed. This morning she says she can taste the iodine. Really, I have sympathized myself to a standstill.”
You reach the first of the firewood stacks, and as you shun it on the right, a path leans to the left hand to the main path and wanders a little downhill and across the flat to the hotel. Along this path Mr. Horrington branches every morning.
Mr. Robson, underground manager, stands by the engine shed, scratching his chest reflectingly with a slow, lank hand. He is tall and narrow and dreary-looking, with a big round hat like a halo on his head, and a lean tuft of beard at his chin. He comes to life with a jerk as Mr. Neville and Mr. King round the corner of the firewood stack.
“Mr. King says you had the last of the sawn timber a week back, and there’s not another foot of it on the place. What have ye done with it, man?” shouts Neville from the distance.
Mr. Robson grows taller and leaner, and jerks his body at many angles and plucks his beard, and nearly stirs himself to anger and immediately grows meek again. “That’s gone re-timbering the bottom of the shaft. There’s a lot of work done there, and there wasn’t much timber.”
“There was timber, I tell you. Mr. King says so too. You let the men take it from you to build their camps with. You are a fool. You’ll have to wake up. Look at that feller in the engine house! If he goes on spilling grease like that he’ll have the Company bankrupt.”
“Mr. King,” says Mr. Robson, as the old man trots round the engine house wall, “I won’t be spoken to like that. I’ve stood enough of it, I have. Mr. Neville will have to choose his words better from now on, or things will be doing. One more word like the last from him and——”
“Hi, Robson, what’s this? Gracious, man, were you born with eyes shut?”
“Coming, Mr. Neville,” cries Mr. Robson, crumpling up into a run.
And so the day wears on at Surprise; and the seven days go round and make the week; the four weeks add up into the month. Seven summer months and five months of winter walk in close procession until the year has turned a circle. The cry of the new-born child may startle the camp, and Mrs. Bullock, Mrs. Boulder and Mrs. Niven will repair to the scene with kind hearts and right good will, that pangs may be lessened in the hour of trial. The dead man may be laid in his red grave among the saplings on the hill, and the clock will stop an hour that brief blessing may be read. The birds[Pg 175] sing and love make in their season. Fever comes with burning hand in its season. And thus and thus the days spin out.
Little lonely camp, set down to war with the wilderness, not much longer must you keep guard unaided. Presently across the plain the first thin railway line will come, and with it will arrive timid spirits who dared not leave such things behind. They shall make and re-make, hammer and twist you, giving you food to grow out and out. Your roofs shall glint in the sun, your streets shall be set with gardens; the hum of traffic shall be your voice going up to the wide skies. Little shabby camp, swelling presently into a great city, in the long years which wait for you, when you have grown great and weary and sick, it may be you will peer back into the past and covet forgotten days.
CHAPTER XHow the Days pass by at Kaloona
The long days of early summer went by on Kaloona Station. While the last stars were leaving the sky, Jackie, the black horse-tailer, let down the slip-rails of the house paddock and cantered into the dusk, whip in hand, the sound of his horse dying slowly and solemnly in the distance. The stars would faint, the first glow of dawn would spread behind the trees upon the river, one or two birds would tune their throats a little while. Light would grow. Presently, advancing horse-bells cried across the distance, Jackie’s whip banged out in the stillness, and the thud of many hoofs striking the ground rumbled from afar. With a brave chiming of bells, the horses would come home.
Mrs. Elliott, the cook, and Maggie, the maid of all other work, arose betimes on these long days. There was much to do. Mr. Power would come looking for breakfast; breakfast called for a lighted fire. There was the woodbox to visit, and horrid little Scandalous Jack to[Pg 177] dress down should it be empty. Mrs. Elliott, ample and beaming, and very gay when you knew her well, pushed her stout leg from the sheets of a morning while the world was still grey. “Come on, Meg; it’s time we was moving.”
The place was well awake when the sun looked over the edge of the plain; a clatter going forward in the kitchen, the parrots whistling in their cage by the window, the gins yabbering at the doorway of their hut, the voices of men raised down at the yards. There Power gave O’Neill the orders for the day, and Scandalous Jack moved everywhere, full of importance and loud talk. The horses stood in the yard, and a man or two went about the morning feed.
Kaloona stands upon the river in a noble stretch of timbered country. The timber shelters the homestead on three sides, and falls back to the brink of the water. At high noon on a summer day you will find cool places under the trees where a man may lie in fair content. There is always a bird or two flitting among the boughs, with a bright call in his bill.
Very fair grows Kaloona by moonshine or by starshine on summer nights; the water sleeping, the night loud with insect voices, the sound of splashes in the shadows.
Summer finds it a fair spot; but winter brings it loveliness with both hands. The breath of the frost comes down at night, and sends a man abroad at dawn blowing his fingers, and throwing an eye to the East for the lie-a-bed sun. It comes at last, big and red, tumbling over the country in long jolly beams. Now in tree and bush begin the birds, calling, whistling, crying, mocking. The pelican is pouting his breast in the river, and the spoonbill shovels in the mud.
After breakfast comes the saddling up, and many a clever rider can lose his seat when the frost is in the air and the young horses leave the yards.
Spring is nigh as lovely. The parrot flashes his colours in the sun, the bright-breasted finches swing in the bushes. The slim black cockatoo sweeps overhead, and the sulphur-crest screams in the high branches. A fair spot is Kaloona by the river.
Life has ups and downs there. Much work there is to do sometimes—hard days in the saddle, with short rations now and then, and a bed at the end under the sky. Slack times come in their turn, when the hours arrive empty-handed—and those first long summer days, when the musterers had come back from Morning Springs, supplied little employment after the bustle round in the morning. It was the[Pg 179] season for a man to look about and put himself in repair; mend his whip, teach his dog manners, patch his boots and the like. When the sun was in the middle of the sky, and the iron roofs of the homestead and the huts cracked out loud in the heat, a man could lie on his back and smoke a pipe, and so find content until evening.
It was never Power’s way to hang about the homestead, unless work kept him there; but some evil spell had fallen on him these latter times, causing him to prowl at home at idle end. He grew crotchety these days, hard to please and poorly pleased even when things were well. There were mornings when he saddled a horse and rode over to Surprise, returning as gloomy as he went, and again, as evening came on, he rode away, leaving those behind him to guess his errand.
“Mrs. Elliott,” said Maggie one breakfast, putting her hands to her hips and talking very straight, “the boss has turned cranky of a sudden. There’s no getting yes or no out of him. It’s no good to me. I’ll be letting fly.”
Mrs. Elliott gave answer. “Don’t be in a flurry, Meg. All men are alike. They get took that way now and then. They’re as hard to get forward sometimes as a full-mouthed ewe in the dipping yards. Don’t be too quick on him yet.[Pg 180] Maybe he’s fell out with Miss Neville at Surprise, and is in the sulks.”
Unlucky Scandalous pushed his face through the kitchen doorway. “What’s come to the boss of a sudden? He’s as cross-grained as you like. Took it out of me just now because he reckoned the place was untidy down there.”
“And a good thing too,” said Mrs. Elliott, turning sharp about. “If you spent more time on the woodheap, instead of sneaking up here minding other people’s business, you might be took up less often.”
One morning at breakfast, when Mrs. Elliott had bustled to put something special on the table and had not had “Good morning” for her pains, as Power sat gloomy, despising his food and chewing thought, she took him to task.
“Mr. Power,” she said, putting down a new cup of tea, and taking up a stand before him, “what’s come on you that you give up the horses and stand twiddling your thumbs?”
“There’s no work outside.”
“That’s the first time that’s ever been. What are them horses doing in and out of the yards every day, and not a leg put across them?”
“It’s too hot to ride about for nothing.”
“Nothing? The best horses in the country hanging their heads because nothing doing? I never heard of a run which wasn’t the better for[Pg 181] looking after. Do you know what they say at Surprise? They say Simpson gets half his meat uncommon cheap, so cheap that it only takes him a quiet ride at times when Kaloona’s asleep to fill his yards for the morning. They say he is a quicker man at hiding a branded beast than any feller on Kaloona is at finding one.”
“I’ve heard that story. He doesn’t get many, and he’ll drop in in good time.”
But Mrs. Elliott had her way, though, like a wise woman, she raised no flag of victory. Breakfast over, Power found the way to the yards, caught a horse, saddled it, took a waterbag, some midday tucker and a whip, and rode away at a foot pace across the plain. He spent all day in far places, leaving the homestead when the sun was low, and finding himself several miles away from home when the sun again was climbing down the sky. He never pushed his horse beyond walking pace, but neither did he rest it; and many miles were put behind before the day was done. He passed from point to point, wherever there was water or a clustering of timber, wherever there was chance of coming up with a mob of cattle. He knew that wide country as another man knows the floor of his office, and when he wished kept course as the arrow flies. Once or twice he drew taut the rein, and stared at faint prints upon the ground; and such halt[Pg 182] might bring change of direction. He spent the middle of the day on his back in a fair clump of timber, but saddled up again while the sun was far up in the sky.
He judged it to be five o’clock at last, and he was still an hour’s ride from home. He was heated to his bones by the long journey in the sun, the coat of his horse was curled with sweat; he was jaded, fagged and thirsty.
He took his hat from his head, and pushed it between the surcingle and the saddle. The sun was losing strength at last; a breeze was finding the way from the South. His shadow and his horse’s shadow were growing longer; the crickets were tuning their orchestra against the evening, but in spite of their shrill cries, the plain, which had been hushed all day, had grown more hushed.
He looked again at the sun, which was a bare half-hour from its going down. The red glare dazzled him, and when he dropped his eyes, the white stones on the ground changed to blue. He looked up to get the light from his eyes, and found he was passing under the crag of one of those sudden hills which climb high out of the plain all over that country. It stood above him, lofty, sheer and lonely, grass-covered for a hundred feet of the journey, thence forward to[Pg 183] the summit, piled with immense bare boulders, carrying a few shrunken trees.
Looking up, a freak of mind urged him to stand on the highest point there. He slacked rein and got to the ground. A bush stood convenient to hand to secure the horse. He took off the saddle, and rubbed away the saddle mark. Then he turned for the ascent.
The hill lifted up abruptly from the plain, several hundred feet towards the sky. There was no gentle slope of beginning, and Power began a heavy clamber over giant boulders, shabbily clad with coarse clumps of grass. Immense fat spiders watched him from the middle of giant webs strung from rock to rock, lizards and insects hurried in and out of crevices, and shrill voices of crickets met him from above, and came after him from below. The southern breeze was bolder as the journey advanced. Half way up the steep, where the grassed boulders ended and the bare rock began, he stood still for new breath. Already he had gained a strange world, high out of the plain, and the horse was far and puny, among the tumbled rocks, which broke like surf at the foot of the hill.
The summit was high above him yet. He began the journey again, using his hands as well as feet for the last pinch. He was on top at last[Pg 184]—a broad, flat space, where a little grass and a few bushes grew, with a patch or two of fine sand among the tumble of rocks. On three sides the hill fell down in steep faces, up one of which he had climbed; but to the South it dropped sheer in a hundred foot precipice to grassed rocks piled up to meet it. Because the sheerness of the fall fascinated, and because that way the breeze blew steadily into his face, Power sat down on the edge of the cliff, with the sun sinking on his right hand.
He who was so used to great distances was filled with wonder and delight. He stared from his high seat. He looked upon an ocean torn up in storm; but it was larger than the seas of his travels. The waves of this ocean were hills cast up from the lap of the plain, as the sea wave is scooped high up by the rage of winds. The resemblance was exact. The country swept up and down for miles and tens of miles, everywhere heaping up its waves and striking them immovable as they leant to their fall. The mellow light of evening turned the bare pasture into ocean green. Only was lacking the grind and swish of waters in rage. It was ocean conceived by giant mind and struck still by giant hand.
Presently, as the first wonder passed away, Power took the details into his eye. It was not[Pg 185] all green country on closer look. There were patches of grey and patches of slate where the long sunbeams fell on tall rock faces. There were veins of shining white quartz pushing from the ground, hinting at unknown copper, which one day would be torn from its hiding place. There were red patches of bare earth, which the green seas were seeking to devour. There were greens and greener greens, but, look ever so long, the effect of ocean remained.
It was far down there to the foot of the precipice and to the top of the rocks; and there were other rocky places infinitely farther down, as though making part of another world. Dwarf trees sucked a living from them, and the sunbeams stole the roughness from their face. They would be warm to the touch. At the mouth of every cleft and cave sat a wallaby with pricked ears and black face, performing toilet before moving abroad for the night. Sometimes the little beast sat on a point of rock, holding paws neatly before him, squinting at the sun and turning suddenly to nip his back. Not one took notice of the strange man who watched from so far above.
Power was high up—high up. The tops of all those other hills were nearer earth than he. There was nothing between him and the sky.[Pg 186] Two or three small birds, black with white tags to their tails, skimmed to and fro overhead and twittered cheerily. Other birds were fluttering and squabbling in the bushes, as though this hill was their nightly bedchamber. Strange and happy thing a bird; able to choose its walks on mountain or in meadow, able at will to breast fierce winds of high places, or pipe a lay in gentle noontide bower. Strange and happy thing a bird to throw care away, clap wings and seek new worlds.
Power was high up—high up, and only these skimming birds between him and the sky. He had left the world behind him when he took in hand the climb; but like a fool he had brought his bag of care slung upon a shoulder. He had forgotten it a minute or two when first he looked from here; but now he found it again, full stuffed to the throat.
How would this struggle end? Was he soon to perish in a tempest of longing and self-hate? Was this thing called love? Did love stop the clock of a man’s day, and leave him to wag his hands like a dotard in the chimney corner?…
Look again and again—the idea of ocean stayed with this wide scene. For miles and tens of miles the waters heaped and fell. He had seen the resemblance always, whenever he looked from one of the hilltops, and the sight[Pg 187] had pleased before. Now it annoyed. Why so? Easy the answer. Torn sails and a banging rudder—a rage of winds and a lee shore—a frowning night and an unknown port—that was a man’s life….
The breeze was strong and cool up here—steady, straight-blowing from the South. It passed across the hill and went on its way. The sun was hurrying westward. Ah, to snatch wings from these skimming birds, and ride with the breeze, or hurry on the heels of the sun as it brought morning to new lands….
The sun was aged and kindly now; the great country was hushed. The birds were at their good-night hymn, the insects accompanied it from the ground. The little furry animals below were leaping from their dens, and stretching limbs in the warmth. Peace everywhere but in him. Fool! there was no peace down there. The birds made glad song as they made supper; but what of the flies they hunted down? And were those little beasts below better off? Somewhere the dingo yawned; and the python waited at the waterhole. They might not all return in the morning. What was happening to the tiny things which found a world in the grasses and under the stones? Peace? It was like some fair face from which you tore the loveliness to discover the skull behind….
The little black birds had flown away leaving him alone there. The other birds in the bushes had given up their squabbles. In a minute the sun would touch the horizon, and the sky would drink of his last glances. There would be a brief darkening before the stars leapt into their places. But he sat on, unready of purpose….
Why had he chosen to war with great forces? What was he better than a herder of cattle, with few thoughts beyond the needs of the day? Such terrors were gathered against him as might have assailed a prophet of olden time, scowling at the mouth of his cavern.
There was a soul in the body, or why did he deny the pleadings of the body? There was a soul in each body which endured while its house rusted, a light burning steadily in a chamber While a storm outside beat and aged the walls. Yet he could not deny the body to aid the soul.
His love for this young girl was like a great wind passing through a house, clashing and clanging casements and doors. If he sheltered from it assuredly he would perish. He would soon be ill in body as now he was sick in mind. One hour a night he rode down to the Pool, and for that one hour he endured the day.
She was making him mad. She walked with him on tops of mountains. She led him by the hand into cavernous places awful with [Pg 189]lightnings. She sat on the lips of Spring, dropping blossoms through her fingers. She was a perfume from the East. She was a wine from a land of grapes. The dreams of a world looked from her eyes. The passions of a world waited on her lips….
The sun had set and but a minute of time gone. In another such instant darkness would have dashed a mantle round the earth, and the stars would have leapt out of the sky. The way to the bottom was stony. He must be home….
Day had done its business and departed, and he sat wringing hands as it rushed away. Not again—if he would call himself man to-morrow.
Good-bye. It had a hollow sound. Good-bye—never again to see her. To ride no more the road to the river. To forget October brought blossoms to the castor-oil tree. To clap shut his ears when her voice called….
The descent was rougher than the climb. Was he bruising his hands because the day had darkened, or because dark had come down on his hope?…
Once more to saddle his horse. Once more to take the road to the Pool. Once to say good-bye.
CHAPTER XIThe Parting by the Pool
Now his mind was made up, he felt weakness leave him. Trouble never nagged when there was work to do. The horse waited to be saddled at the bottom of the hill, which task he did with the speed of long custom. He had chosen for the day’s work the little chestnut mare which carried him from Surprise the night he met Moll Gregory. He had chosen well, for she was staunch and willing—without airs and fancies. Once he turned her towards the river, she held the way like a prim Miss travelling to school.
The sky was green as he came down the hill; colour faded from it; darkness fell upon the whole country. The stars took their places in the sky, and began the slow turning which he had watched so many years now that they told him the month and the hour as might a clock.
The breeze had lessened to a tremble as he climbed down to the plain, and the night clapped a warm breath upon him. Distant summer[Pg 191] lightnings flicked across the lower skies. The feet of the stepping mare trod evenly upon the pebbles and on the bare earth. He chose her often for the day’s work because of the speed of her walk; but to-night she seemed turned sluggard to enrage him. Yet the road was falling behind. The hill he had climbed was far over his shoulder. The Conical Hill of Surprise had risen on the horizon. Now the green belt of timber was hinted at a few miles ahead. Now he saw it with distinctness. Thought took hold of him again until he found himself in the desolate strip of country where the floods ran in the rains. The warm night was wrapped about him. Crickets shrilled everywhere. Several times sounded the thump of startled kangaroos. Lightnings flickered without pause above the outline of the hills. It seemed to him he was part of great music working in crescendo.
Here was the Pool. He knew it was the Pool; but it was too dark to discover the waters. She lived here. He would see her in a few moments. He would see her. He would see her in a moment. He lived through the long day that he might see her a little while in the night. He would see her again when this slow beast had trodden a little farther.
Suddenly he grew cold with such a greediness of cold as the passion of the tropic night could[Pg 192] not appease. He had come to say good-bye. In half-an-hour he would be moving away from the Pool, nevermore while she lived there to ride that way. He could not do that. No, not he. He was but a man. His shaking body was a man’s body. He was unworthy to be battleground of contending right and wrong. Not to-night. He could not make an end to-night. To-morrow, but not to-day…. A moment ago he rode by the beginning of the Pool, and now he passed the castor-oil tree. The trees were breaking apart. There stood the hut and the tents.
From a chaos of fancies he presently took hold upon realization. In the doorway of the hut, looking towards him through the dark, stood Moll Gregory. Lamplight from inside passed her and pierced the night with a long beam. She held an empty basin in her hands. The dark was clear to him who had ridden half-a-dozen miles through it; but she looked before her in a puzzled way.
“Is that you, Mr. Power?”
He believed he shook when he spoke to her. She was a draught of water, chilled by snows from high peaks, offered into the hands of a dying man. How she impassioned the night with her loveliness. He would never find her[Pg 193] beauty staling, though he looked on her for ever. All the moments of a day brought new emotions watching from her eyes, new passions sitting upon her lips. He never knew how holy beauty might be until he looked upon her. How the light shone on her brown hair, lying coiled on her head and brooding round her brows.
He found he had pulled up the mare in the doorway.
“I’ve come to see you, Molly.”
Why did she not answer, instead of standing like that, tapping the basin on her knee and looking first at him, and then away, and then at him again? Did she understand at last he loved her? Another man kneeling in homage to her. She was frowning a little bit. He found himself dismounting. The dog, grown friendly now, came forward with waving tail. The hut was empty.
“Mum and Dad went over to the shaft a while back,” she said just then. “There’s nobody here.”
He led the mare a little way away; tethered her; unsaddled her. She drooped her head after the day’s work. Another hour he would have led her to drink; but now where was the time?
The girl had gone indoors when he returned to the hut. She stood by the table putting the crockery into the basin. The room was heavy with heat. The lamp wick was untrimmed,[Pg 194] smoking a little and lending a needy light. Nothing was changed.
“Them is to wash up,” she said.
He was living again, standing thus beside her. Yet he was weary with knowledge that he waited on her for the last time. He grew entranced with her quick hands in the basin. She nodded her head to the dish-rag hanging on the wall. He took it and faced her across the table, and together they began to wash up.
He knew then that whatever waited for him in the long years to be lived before he became an old man—whether there were other women to meet and other lands to travel—these moments he was living now would walk with him in memory to the very shadow of the grave. That strange mood visited him, which sometimes comes to a man, when he stands out of himself and views the scene as onlooker. He peered into future years, when Maud and he journeyed kindly down the road together, and the worst wounds of this summer madness were crusted over. But he knew there would be hours when certain winds blew, or certain scents drifted out of the scrub, or certain words were spoken, when he must go apart a little while until memory slept again.
The mood passed as instantly as it arrived, and once more he stood before her weary and[Pg 195] miserable. She would tire of a glum face soon. He had carried a long face lately when they walked together. Beauty she, and he the Beast. Strangely she had passed it by. She was still wilful and careless, yet now she had moods when she was thoughtful and a little kind. Never was she heavy-hearted; though to-night she frowned just a little and was as silent as himself. He heard a rattle of cups. Within his heart—growing and growing with the moments—feeling was in torrent, until it seemed excess in him must overflow and fill her barren little heart. They chanced to look up at one moment from their work—up and out at the door—and a great white star fell down the sky.
“Do you know what people say, Molly? Every falling star is a soul hurrying from earth.” She shrugged shoulders with faintest movement. “I think a man’s soul dies, Molly, when hope dies. Perhaps some man’s hope has died to-night.”
For an instant she turned wide grave eyes upon him, then she went back to work, moving her hands deftly in and out of the basin.
“Molly, you could get along without me, couldn’t you? If I had to go away for a while and could not come back, you would not be lonely with other friends to look after you. You have been a good little comrade to me; but I think our friendship was not meant to die of old[Pg 196] age. You could get along without me, couldn’t you—and Molly, you wouldn’t forget me just at first?”
“I asked you not to call me Mister. Say Jim.”
She had finished washing up. She went out into the dark and threw away the water. She found a second cloth, and began quickly to dry the cups he had lingered over.
“You aren’t so slick to-night,” she said. “You are pretty slick at this kind of thing for a man.”
“I was round the run to-day. I came here from across the other side. The Pool is shrinking fast, Molly.”
“The rains should be here, Christmas.”
“It might be a pool of love, and all the drinks men take from it shrink its rim. Molly, are you as clever as you pretend at forgetting? If something happens, so that I come no more to the Pool—when you go alone to fish or when you go with others, will you remember that once or twice you fished with me?”
“You aren’t to go away. Sometimes I think you couldn’t.”
The work was done. She turned with a graceful movement of her body as she said the last words, and was putting the cups and saucers on the shelf, and the spoons with a rattle into a box.
“Hang up the cloth, Jim, and wake up. You aren’t always asleep. I heard something about you yesterday. They say you are such a daddy man with horses that when you camped out Brolga way, the brumbies came down from off Mount Sorrowful to sing to you. Ah, Mister, I have got you smiling.”
“I’m not Mister.”
Silence fell again, and once more he grew conscious of the little sounds that accompanied the flight of time—the flutter of wings round a lamp; the swish of a girl’s dress; the cries of insects from the dark. It was like standing by a river filled to both banks, which swept swiftly and smoothly to the sea, and hearing the small voices of multitudinous waters…. What did she say now?
“I found them specimens this morning. They was a little higher up the bank. Do you want to see them? They aren’t far.”
“We went to find them the first day I came here, Molly. Do you remember? It does not matter now. I shall remember we never found them. Come outside. I have a lot to say to-night. It will be cooler there, and talking is easier under the trees.”
Then he found himself walking among the trees. She was on his right hand, and water[Pg 198] glimmered in the distance. Summer lightnings were flickering in the skies. This night was as last night had been. Last night was as the night before had been. He could not believe they walked together for the last time. Yet Time moved out here, and Death found work to do. A clumsy beetle had blundered out of the dark, finding harbourage upon her fair hand. She had crushed it with a little blow, and the body had fallen in the grasses to wait the busybody ants. How much was starting and finishing just now over all the wide world?
They passed up the Pool with only a word or two spoken between them, searching the water when the fishes jumped, listening to the creatures pushing through the undergrowth, staying to look at strips of water starred with white lilies. Her sober mood passed away as they went on. Wantonly she dropped to her knees and gathered up twigs to cast into the water. He heard her laughter in the dark like a peal of low bells. Then he found they had reached the end of the Pool, and the hut was far away.
“Molly, this is the end. The water finishes here. I have something to tell you. Are you listening, Molly? It only takes a moment to say. Good-bye. That’s a strange word, isn’t it? Have you heard it before? Well, to-night we are saying good-bye.”
Until the word was spoken he felt he might never need to say it; but now it was said, and the night had turned deaf ears on his call for mercy. He saw her plainly in the dark standing before him petrified, in all her wonderful beauty, alert as though about to flee, with her great eyes wide open looking at him. She had clasped her hands together in front of her.
“What’s took you now, Mr. Power? No, stay there. I can hear where I am.”
“Don’t start, Molly … I have something to tell you…. I didn’t mean to tell you. But why not tell you?”
“Stay there, Mister. Don’t look like that. I don’t want to know. Let’s go home. Don’t look like that. You——”
“Stop your sweet chatter, Molly. Listen, I say. I love you. I am starving for want of you. Feel my hand, Molly. It trembles like the hand Of a man in fever. Feel it, I say.”
“I am burning. I am burning inside and out. Let me touch your hand. Give me your hand a moment to cool me. Give it to me, I say.”
“Mr. Power, don’t make me cry. I don’t——”
“I am going away. Do you hear me. I am going away never to see you again. Other men are to have your kisses. Your bosom is to beat on the breasts of other men. My lips shall go[Pg 200] unwashed. My heart shall thump in an empty drum. Do you hear me?”
“Don’t talk so loud, Mr. Power. Don’t look like that. Mr. Power, don’t come so near. Please, Mister; please!”
“I am going away, Molly. I told you that, didn’t I, just now? I have come to see you for the last time. I have—Molly, all the fires of heaven and hell are lighted in your eyes. You are doomed to live burning men’s hopes to ashes. Molly, the breeze is in your hair. It flutters there, as your little soul flutters somewhere in your lovely body. Let me touch your hair once—oh, so softly it shall be. Once.”
She was in his arms. He never remembered how they came together. But all the parched streams of spirit and body were loosed in a flood of waters. He was kissing her lips. He was kissing her eyes. He was kissing her throat. Her hair touched his hair. Her hair was in his mouth, and the sharp taste of it made him mad. He began to kiss her in frenzy, until she ceased to struggle and lay in his arms sobbing and laughing. He crushed her to him. He kissed her mouth again. He kissed her eyes again. Again he kissed her hair. He kissed her brows.[Pg 201] He kissed her throat until the red marks rose in the brown skin. He pressed his head against her bosom where her heart struck wildly. He felt her tiny teeth against his lips. He buried his face in her coils of hair. He held her two hands and covered his eyes with them. He kissed their palms. He laid soft kisses in her eyes. He lifted her from the ground. He fell upon his knees and laid her in the grass, and himself fell down beside her. He interlaced her fingers with his. He drew each open hand of hers slowly about his cheek. He lifted her from her grassy bed and pressed her to him. The coarse stems of plants pushed about his face. Great grasshoppers leapt from their beds into the dark. The stars seemed to blink and flash. He pressed his mouth to hers again, and held her there through an eternity. And then he fell down beside her with his face in the grasses, hearing her tiny sobs, and, more tremendous than that, the shrill of the insects, and more tremendous than the chorus of insect voices, the living stillness of the night.
After an age, he raised himself on both hands, lifting his head above the grass stems. She lay close by, her face turned away, and her heavy hair ragged with little leaves and tiny twigs. She was sobbing very quietly. It seemed to Power he and she lay at the bottom of a deep pit[Pg 202] whence he and she had tumbled in headlong flight from the stars. Brave boasts fled in wind. Big words gone in sound. “Traitor” seared in red letters across his soul. A harvest to reap from this sowing. What harvest to reap? Would this child learn to love him as he loved her? No. He believed already her little heart beat to other time than his. Well, the draught had proved too bitter for his tasting. He had put down the cup as it touched his lips.
He raised himself to his knees and bent over her. “You must get up, child. It won’t do to lie like that. Crying has never mended matters since the world began.”
He found her hand and she answered his touch, rising slowly, and presently standing up. He stood beside her and tenderly picked the rubbish from her hair. She stooped to smooth her dress, and afterwards he kissed her once, and they turned towards home. They did not speak all the journey by the water; but he thought the stars stared down on them like dismal virgins whose virtue has grown strong with loveless years. Sometimes he held a bough aside that she might go by. At the end of a long time they were by the castor-oil tree, and light from the hut shone through the dark.
He saddled the mare in brief space. He could look into the distant lighted hut; but it was empty. She was not there. He drew the reins together on the chestnut’s neck and gained the saddle. When the mare found her head turned home she started away primly at her swift walk. He gave the reins to her neck. But they had not put behind half a mile of the journey when the steps of a second horse approached, and a whinney came through the dark.
They pulled up with one accord. He saw O’Neill in the dark, wearing a wide-brimmed hat, a shirt open at the neck, riding trousers and leggings below, and long spurs strapped at his heels. His happy smile had departed, and Power knew he was face to face with the first reaping of his harvest.
“I haven’t got back yet,” he said. “I went as far as the big hole past the Ten Mile, and then round Mount Dreary way. There were a couple of mobs by the water—doing right enough.” He came to the end of what he had to say. O’Neill sat gloomily, tapping the arch of his saddle with his fingers. “I looked in at the Gregory’s a bit on the way back.” Power added.
Anger blazed in Power’s face. He felt a weight upon his chest and the chords of his throat tighten. But he had caught hold of himself before the words left his lips. After a long moment he said almost gently: “Fast talking won’t do us good, Mick. It looks that the road is pretty rough for you and me just now. We were friends before ill-luck sat down between us. It is a poor crush that won’t hold the beast when the branding starts.”
O’Neill stared gloomily at the neck of his horse. “Boss, it’s no game I’m playing there, I swear. It’s no come-and-go affair with me.”
“And how is it better for me?”
The man flashed up his head. “Miss Neville,” he said.
The pain in Power’s face told the rest of the story. A moment later Power spoke.
“A man has his life to live, and wins or loses as his turn comes. One of us must finish on top; but it needn’t break our friendship.”
“Straight wire you mean it, boss?”
He found the mare, fretful of delay, was moving down the road. O’Neill had gathered up his reins. Without more talk they were moving—each going his way.
CHAPTER XIISelwyn hears some news
The sun climbing round the base of Conical Hill at daybreak next morning, found Selwyn already abroad, and in the very best of humours. The gentle trickle of last night’s nightcap down his gullet had warmed the very cockles of his heart, so he told a mud-lark discussing an early worm among the saplings. He was outside before the day was properly alight, standing on the front verandah, hands deep in pockets, legs set apart, sniffing the remnants of a night breeze, which had not yet fled the sun’s wooing. Finding his spirits insisted upon more active affairs and discovering no prospect of breakfast for a while, he picked up his stick, which he only exchanged for gun or fishing-rod, and took a turn round the back premises, where there might be matters to occupy a fellow until people thought fit to give up slugging in bed. Rheumy-eyed Scabbyback, rising morosely from a sack, was prodded good morning, and Gripper was[Pg 206] accorded even more gracious welcome, being unchained and allowed to follow on the march of discovery.
Selwyn called out good morning to old Neville, as he passed towards the mine on early business, and presently seduced into talk Mrs. Nankervis as she bustled in and out of the back door on the work of breakfast. He presided at a difference of opinion between Gripper and a blue billygoat with the beard of the Prophet, which ruled the tattered herds of Surprise. He had just come to an end of everything, including his good humour, when news arrived that breakfast waited.
Mrs. Selwyn and Maud were already in the dining-room. Hands came out of his pockets. “By Jove!” he said. “Good morning. Here you are at last. It is wonderful how people like to loaf in bed.”
“It is the only morning you have been down first for a week,” Mrs. Selwyn answered sharply.
“What about ‘a man’s work may be early begun; but a woman’s work is never done,’ Mr. Selwyn?” Maud said.
Selwyn changed the conversation. He put on his most genial smile. “Your father out again to-day? I suppose he won’t be back yet? Am I to preside again, Miss Neville?”
“If you won’t mind. Shall we sit down?”
Maud took her place at one end of the table and poured out tea. Selwyn, with a good deal of noise, pulled up a chair at the other end and began to lift dish covers. Mrs. Selwyn found her seat half-way down and prepared to be as gracious as possible, in spite of feeling most unequal to the task. What she endured daily at this ghastly place, nobody could possibly comprehend. And she had foreseen it all so clearly with that capable brain of hers! Never again should Hilton overrule her.
A first inspection of dishes revealed, besides a noble ham, procured from the coast in honour of visitors, eggs, a wallaby stew, and lastly—red, rich, and done absolutely to the last turn—a thick piece of rump steak, beyond any doubt the best bit Selwyn had ever seen since leaving the South. Quietly the cover went down upon that dish.
“Now, who will have wallaby stew?” said the master of ceremonies, with the charm of manner which beguiled so easily the uninitiated. “You will have some, of course, dear?”
“I shall have nothing of the sort. I shall have an egg.”
“Very well, dear; but you are making a mistake. Miss Neville, you will have some, of course.”
“Don’t pester the wretched girl with it every morning.”
“Of course she would like it,” came irritably from the president. “Wallaby is a great luxury. You ought to be very glad I am able to get it for you. This is the only place I have heard of where they want to throw it on the midden.”
Selwyn began to heap a plate.
“If I must have it, Mr. Selwyn, not so much, please,” Maud said.
“I don’t know why you pester everyone to eat your things,” said Mrs. Selwyn, continuing the attack.
“I hate seeing everything I shoot wasted,” Selwyn replied, testily.
“Then let the dogs have it.”
“No. I like seeing friends enjoy it.”
“Then eat it yourself.”
“I can’t. It doesn’t agree with me in the morning.”
Maud made peace by accepting the dish. Mrs. Selwyn cracked an egg. Then—then only—Selwyn uncovered the rump steak.
“By Jove!” he said. “I’m sorry. There was steak here had anyone wanted it. I am afraid I’m rather late for you now.”
He put the fork gently and deeply into the juicy square of meat, and lifted it bodily on to his plate—regretfully, as though only good[Pg 209] manners persuaded him to choose the untasted dish. Next, collecting round him the necessaries for an ample breakfast, he settled to his task.
Breakfast over, Selwyn decided on a stroll. It was too late in the day for a shot, and he could take a turn with a gun in the evening. A stroll was better than hanging about a house trying to amuse two women. He visited the back again and loosed his bodyguard. The mangy pointer in its dotage sprang heavily upon him in joyous good morning, and tested the weight of his stick. Gripper led the van. The momentary irritation of breakfast had gone, and Selwyn felt benign with all the world.
Pipe in mouth, stick in hand, he took the red road which turns left-handed from the office door. Mrs. Boulder relinquished household matters to watch him go by. The sun was rising in the sky, and when he drew opposite the Horrington humpy, he began to tell himself that a man was looking for trouble who went for walks in this country. Mr. Horrington stood in his doorway, gently musing after his morning custom before setting forth to win the daily bread; and Selwyn, from the roadway, sent him a cheerful salute, which brought him along the path to the road.
“Good day, Mr. Selwyn. You are abroad early this morning. Which way are you going?”
“Nowhere in particular. I was out for a stroll.”
“Will you come along with me? I seldom get anyone to talk to. I have some business in the township.”
“Splendid!” cried Selwyn.
Up the road they went at steady pace, Selwyn carrying his fifty years on springy steps, Mr. Horrington planting his feet ponderously in the dust. Mr. Horrington pulled out his pipe in a little while, and found to his chagrin his tobacco-pouch was empty.
“Damn it! I find I have run out of fuel until I can manage to get back to the store,” he said, blinking his pale blue eyes. “Would you mind lending me a fill? Thanks. Ah, this is something like tobacco. The stuff they sell here comes hard on an educated palate.”
“Fill your pouch up. I have plenty at home.”
“Thanks very much. I am always meaning to send for some decent stuff. Yes, thanks very much. I shall look forward to a luxurious evening. Here you are. I am afraid I have rather taken you at your word.”
“Not at all,” answered Selwyn with downcast countenance.
Just before the firewood stacks, they took the branch road turning to the township. The nearing hotel roof glared in the sun. Selwyn, [Pg 211]foreseeing the inevitable, put a cautious hand into his pocket for what discovery might discover. The nimble half-crown rewarded his search. Several malignant goats cropped the pasturage at the cross-roads. Mr. Horrington eyed them sullenly.
“Who owns all these goats?” said Selwyn, put in better spirits by the find.
Horrington blinked his eyes. “That is what nobody knows. They walk round a man’s house, and break the way inside if there’s a crust on the place; or get tangled in the dustbin just as a man is falling asleep. You can stand all day shouting for an owner, and not a soul on the lease turns an ear. But if you go mad and shoot one, every man and woman in the camp comes running up to claim it.”
“You don’t care for goats?” said Selwyn.
Mr. Horrington put the back of a hand across his drooping moustache. “They are charming animals for little girls to fondle in books; but you have to live with them to know them. Were I a well-to-do man I would keep two or three, and wander down of an evening to the paddock to sprinkle a little bread over them. But when you must wrestle a goat round a bail before you can have breakfast, the glamour wears. By gad! a man soon gets hot walking these mornings. Ah, here’s the hotel. I hope you will take[Pg 212] the dust out of your throat with me. It will help square our tobacco account.” Mr. Horrington laughed a rusty laugh.
They passed through the open doorway of the hotel, turned right-handed, and went into the bar. It was cool indoors after the sun. The room was large and low, and full of the breaths of departed roysterers; and was empty except for a battered barmaid in curl papers who dusted behind the counter. Upon the floor were many signs of yesterday. Selwyn felt poorly inclined for refreshment. Mr. Horrington took off his hat and wiped his brow, bowing good morning to the barmaid, who smiled bitterly and came forward. He laid his stick along the counter, and leaning an elbow beside it, fell into a noble pose, the outcome of a lifetime’s practice.
“What’s it to be, Mr. Selwyn?”
“Anything, thanks; a whisky,” said Selwyn, coming forward and smiling a charming good morning.
“That will do for me,” Mr. Horrington agreed. “Two whiskys, please.”
Mr. Horrington plunged a hand into his right trouser pocket. Afterwards he plunged a hand into his left pocket. Once more he tried the right pocket. He blinked his eyes. He took up the whisky bottle and poured himself out a stiff peg. He shook his head at a suggestion of[Pg 213] dilution. He sipped the peg to taste its quality. He seemed about to add a little more, had not the barmaid put the bottle from harm’s way. He watched paternally the pouring out of Selwyn’s nobbler, and when it was set down ready, he said pleasantly:—
“I am afraid I have left every penny of loose cash behind. Wretched nuisance! Never remember doing that kind of thing before. I hope you won’t object to settling this little matter now, and we can fix up between ourselves another day.” Leaning over, he added in a heavy whisper: “They are not too agreeable here—don’t care to run accounts.”
Selwyn had met his master. He saw it; he was a wise man; then and there he surrendered.
“Of course,” he said, and brought forth the half-crown. “We are up against it this morning. This is all I happen to have with me.”
He put the half-crown on the counter, and Mr. Horrington blinked suspiciously at him.
The out-of-curl barmaid went away in a little while, and Mr. Horrington suggested lighting pipes and sitting down a few minutes on the seat running along the wall. Selwyn, hopeless of escape just then, acquiesced. They crossed the floor and sat down.
“Have you a match?” said Mr. Horrington as a start in matters. Selwyn obediently handed[Pg 214] over the box. “Business is very slack this year, very. I find time hang heavily sometimes. Practically never a man of culture to speak to. I often mean to get up one or two decent books from down South.”
“Sorry haven’t got one with me,” said Selwyn, counting the flies on the ceiling.
“Yes,” went on Mr. Horrington, shaking his head. “I have to hang round this wretched rattletrap township all day. Fellows turn up any time from the bush with skins to sell, or samples of ore. It wouldn’t do to be away. A man might lose custom. But it is sickening for a man of culture listening to their petty squabbles and affairs. By the way, that reminds me, I heard a fair shocker the other day; a fair shocker I can tell you. No need to say this is strictly between you and me. Of course you knew Neville’s girl was engaged to the Power who owns this station?”
“Met him several times.”
“No doubt. Not a bad chap you would think,” said Mr. Horrington. “Well, it is all over the place now he is running a double affair.”
“Yes. They say the other girl is somewhere on the river. A girl with striking looks. No doubt that’s the attraction, though I have never seen any looks in these parts.”
“What!” said Selwyn, this time coming down from the flies and scowling.
“Yes, pretty sickening thing to hear. I am very sorry for Neville’s girl. Charming girl. There seems no doubt about it. I’ve had it from half-a-dozen sources since. Moreover the girl’s father was here a day or two back. Drinking pretty freely. I happened to be there, and he said a good deal more than I liked listening to. He mentioned other names; but it’s as well to let them be. Nasty story. Yes, nasty story.”
“Man, it can’t be true.” Selwyn exclaimed at last.
“Damn it, how beastly!”
“Yes. Fair shocker.”
They talked together in the stale room for some time until Selwyn grown desperate, rose firmly to his feet. “Well, must be getting back. Have a bit of business to do. Enjoyed our chat. Suppose we shall run across each other again pretty soon.”
Selwyn continued to move firmly towards the door. Mr. Horrington rose also. He blinked. He swept the edge of his drooping moustache with his tongue lest a spare drop of whisky remained. He looked longingly but unprofitably at the row of bottles on the shelves. Lastly he picked up his stick as Selwyn had picked up[Pg 216] his. They went outside into the sun. Scabbyback and Gripper rose from a small island of shade, and Gripper trotted forward very ready for the start. At the hotel entrance they said good-bye. They said it soon—Selwyn lifting his stick jauntily in the air, and Mr. Horrington blinking reply.
Good-natured kindly fool that he was, he was thoroughly upset by that infernal old sponger’s scandal. Just his luck to be told a darned awkward piece of news just after breakfast, so that he was likely to be annoyed with it all day. He was too thundering good-natured, that’s what he was. He must adopt another line in future. Why the deuce should he worry over people’s affairs? What the devil was a fellow to do in such infernally awkward circumstances—keep his mouth shut? Perhaps he ought to tell his wife. She might as well know, in case anything ever came of it. What’s more he could shift the business on to her that way. It was a woman’s job. They were pretty thick-skinned in that kind of thing. They’d be certain to try and drag him into it; but he’d be jolly careful they didn’t. Yes, he was too darned considerate of others.
He reached home as he was growing unpleasantly hot. Spying Mrs. Selwyn reading on the shadiest verandah, he made for her and threw himself into a canvas chair close by. The[Pg 217] bodyguard flopped upon the floor at his feet, and the party fell to heaving up and down. The sudden assault caused Mrs. Selwyn to look over the edge of her book.
“Hilton, how soon are you going to learn a little consideration for others?” she said sharply. “No single other man I could name would throw himself and two smelling dogs down in the one spot we are trying to keep cool.”
Selwyn, tumbled pell-mell from high thoughts, turned very sour.
“It seems a little hard that a fellow mayn’t crawl into the shade for a minute or two. I am the only one here with sufficient spirit to take a decent walk of a morning. The rest of you gasp about in easy chairs expecting to be waited on.”
Mrs. Selwyn made no reply and resumed her reading. Selwyn and his retainers gave a little time to the recovery of their breaths. Finally Selwyn braced himself to his task.
“I met that old humbug Horrington on the road. He gave me a pretty beastly bit of news.” Mrs. Selwyn again looked over the top of her book. “He told me Jim Power is running a double affair, and is tied up in a knot with a girl somewhere on the river. A good-looking girl, old Horrington said. Probably the girl they joke King about. He says it’s all over the place.” Mrs. Selwyn shut up her book and laid[Pg 218] it in her lap. Next she looked severely at the flooring of the verandah. “Beastly nuisance!” Selwyn followed up again feebly.
“Was he quite certain of his story?”
“Seemed infernally sure of it.”
Mrs. Selwyn resumed the study of the flooring. After a moment or two she said—”I feel most unwell. I think at least you might have had the decency to keep it from me.”
“Damn it, I thought you would be put out if you weren’t told. Besides you are a woman. I thought you would have a suggestion to mend matters.”
“I shouldn’t for one moment think of interfering. It is essentially a matter between Mr. Neville and yourself.”
“Neville? Damn it, don’t you try and drag me into it.”
“I entreat you to moderate your violence a little.”
Selwyn said something under his breath. He was getting ruffled, and don’t you make any mistake about it. It was the old story. He was too darned infernally good-natured. Too beastly unselfish. He had lived too long letting people thrust their blasted wishes down his timid throat. But he’d start a new tack from to-day. By Jove! yes, a new tack from to-day.
While he lashed himself into noble rage, Mrs.[Pg 219] Selwyn continued to admonish. “It is exactly what I expected. The course is perfectly clear, and you come running to me. And as usual you try and shift the matter on to me with high hand and bluster.”
Selwyn had flogged himself to white heat. “Here am I, a supposed big man of these parts, nagged at and brow-beaten and driven to the point of madness by a houseful of idle matchmaking women.”
“I entreat you——” began Mrs. Selwyn.
“They can carry their own dirty linen to the wash themselves. I’ve been the public pack-animal for the last time, and I tell you so now. The girl can get herself out of her own tangle.”
“Do you realise the whole camp may be listening?”
“Damn the camp!”
Selwyn threw himself to his feet. “It’s the last good turn I try and do. Power can keep a harem for what I care. I suppose you are content now you have driven me away?”
Mrs. Selwyn made no reply, but resumed her reading. Scowling terrifically, Selwyn plunged down the verandah steps, the bodyguard pattering at his heels. There were the sounds of steps, very sharp and dignified, dying away down the[Pg 220] path, followed by silence. Mrs. Selwyn closed her book and proceeded to consider matters in all their aspects.
CHAPTER XIIIThe Journey to the Pool
Coming up from the yard near the creek where the goats were herded, Maud Neville stood a moment in the darkened dining-room; and, standing there, she heard Selwyn begin his story. She dreamed while the first words were spoken, soothed by the change from sunlight to the shadows and quiet of indoors; then understanding arrived, and she stood wide-eared to the end.
Waiting by the table, clad in a cool dress, with a wide straw hat upon her head, she happened upon the telling of that tale, and stood listening until the final word was spoken. In that space life lived and done with. A book opened; the story read. Truth told which could not be untold. And she must rouse herself from daydreaming in this quiet room, for outside a sun was shining, and earth still rolled through high heaven.
She lingered among the shadows a little while yet, while the greedy sunlight crept under the[Pg 222] verandah roof seeking a way to climb in. Her light fingers moved among the household gods, settling and re-settling them with old skill.
Give her strength to find the way into the sunlight white and fiery. Winter must thaw there, and these tongues of slander wither and roll up black. He loved her! Who dared to deny he loved her? Yet now he came less often. He came with gloomy face and brow old with frowns. Truth was too true! Love had learned unloving.
Stay, he loved her a little still and therefore he grieved to speak the truth. He came and came again that he might kill her gently, and lay dead love to sleep upon its broken flowers. Let her thank him for this kindness which had kept her glad a little while. Surely Death thus gently come was not a fearful visitor?
She shook. This was rage assailing her. Hot rage, this moment. This moment, icy hate. Come and gone in fierce breaths. Now storm had passed away, and she stood quiet, trembling a little.
Not to-day this message. Let him love her once more to-night. Let him kiss back her kisses, and she would be strong to-morrow.
She showed no signs of hurt when presently she came out of the quiet and began the tasks set to do in the brief space of morning that remained. One asked her were she tired. One warned her summer was but begun, and only those who started prudently would last through to the end. She laughed and said she would cause all to look to their laurels. When lunch was ended, to prove the heat of the day had small fright for her, she renounced the verandah for her bedroom, and her cool dress for a habit. At the last moment, when there remained only the saddling, she sought out her father and told him she would be away until sundown. The old man cocked his head to one side in dismay.
“What’s taken ye, girl?” he said. “Why not wait for evening and the cool?”
“I’m sick of indoors. I am going now, father.”
“Well, it’s you to do the riding, girl, and not me. Don’t be stopping out after sunset and scarin’ us. Where are you going?”
“To the river.”
The old man grunted, and she turned and left the house. She saddled Stockings, the chestnut with four white legs, she mounted him, and he moved freely down the road, reefing a little at[Pg 224] the beginning from good spirits. She checked him to a walk, and presently he ceased to fret and plodded down the way with head drooping lower as each mile was put behind. Presently hills stood between the camp and her. Presently she was far into the plain. The sun was high up in the sky; the air was hot and without breeze. The red hill sides glared back into the sun’s face. The baked bunches of spinifex pushed up their spears from the ground. At the end of several miles she began to fag, although all her task was to sit astride this big horse. Purpose held her moving along the road. The green belt of the river grew up upon the horizon.
Rage and bitterness had spent their hours in her heart and had passed to where such things pass. Now Care came, a lonely child, to suck at her breast. Came too this desire to look upon that beauty which could command men to cast all away and follow—a desire to stare upon it from her high seat on this beast.
The green belt marking the river came out across the plain. The big horse carried her into the shabby country which sheltered the higher trees from the broad face of the land. Rubbish of old floods, long run to the sea, waited in the branches, and here and there high watermark showed above her head. Now she rode among the nobler timber.
It was gentle here among the trees, where quiet shadows laid their cheeks against the path. A lonely bird fluted in the boughs. Water peeped ahead through bending branches. It seemed the Pool had shrunken much after these rainless months.
Presently, when she had passed a long way through the trees, she pulled up Stockings on the bank and looked down into the water. The face of the Pool stared back into her own, and she could mark the lean fishes lolling in cool places, and discover a world of weeds nodding below. Last great lilies of the year bloomed lonely upon the brow of the water. To right hand, to left hand, the face of the Pool extended. Guardian ranks of trees followed all the way, bending over in many places to stare at their countenances. Sunlight slipped among their tops, and tumbled into the gloom of their boughs, and splashed upon the water with noiseless splashes. Shadows with dusky faces peered round the tree trunks to know who came thus to look with sad face upon the slumbers of an afternoon.
She had drawn quietly to the bank, and now she discovered wild birds dozed upon the bosom of the Pool. Fat ducks floated, with bills laid to rest in gorgeous plumes. Divers paddled in loneliest places and sank among the weeds.[Pg 226] Strange birds shovelled in the hot soft mud. And in all corners—melodiously hidden—butcher birds called and called again, tiny birds with canary breasts flitted in the boughs, and sharpened their bills on the roughness of the bark; and kingfishers skimmed the water on shining, whirring wings.
She laid the reins upon the neck of the big horse which stood so still, and as she looked the message of peace laid a quiet finger upon her heart. She told herself the beautiful child who had so harmed her had a home by this gentle place, and so she could not be a stranger to kindness. She would undo the damage wrought. He who had wandered away after false gods saw every day this fair scene, and his heart must still have understanding. She turned Stockings from the Pool right-handed, and threaded a way along the bank. She began to wonder what to do when she would find herself face to face with the girl. She wondered if rumour had mistold of her beauty, and she grew bitter with her own poor body which could ill afford challenge. What would she say to this child if she had to speak to her—tell her to go down to the Pool and there find a book printed with much learning? She would tell her gently she had played robber, and this stranger had ridden across the plain to receive back what she had lost. It was[Pg 227] simple to give back where value was not. Value was not? A new thought to stab. This young girl who lived among the silences of the timber might love too, and fight for her love with the weapons of the savage. Beauty and passion come to do battle against her own dowdy armour.
What a coward heart she held! Here was the camp coming through the trees. Did she arrive on the service of love to peer and eavesdrop, and to smile out of her white face while rage filled her heart? Ah, there the child lived. What a lowly house the man she loved had stooped to knock at! Her own stout roof and safe walls could not keep him. Her nerves were tight drawn to-day. Stockings had whinnied loud, and the blood raced to her heart. The hut was not deserted. An unfriendly dog ran out to challenge the approach. In a moment the girl might cross the threshold, and find her without wit or speech. Stockings neighed again—and was that a horse answering beyond the hut? A horse was there. A horseman must be here. Shame! His horse stood there. She was near the doorway. She must ride on or turn back. She might be found there. Such thing must never be. He might find her there, and think she spied upon him. He might come outside, and with him the child who had stolen him away.[Pg 228] They two might look fondly at each other. No—not that.
She was clumsy. She had waited too long. He stood in the doorway. He was coming outside. He stood still. He had seen her. They were staring into each other’s eyes. It seemed they could not leave off looking. They looked into each other’s hearts and read all that was written there. His face had grown hard; he was frowning, his face black. Come, she must rouse herself from enchantment. She could not speak to him now, and there was only left to turn Stockings on the road home.
Ah, who is this come out beside him? Tall, like a young tree. Who is this come to stand beside him and stare out of wide eyes? Eyes set under a brow harnessed with thick brown coils of hair. Young and careless and lovelier than all the beauty that slumbers through this summer afternoon. What fields of lilies yearn for her to seek them, that her slim white feet may crush among their stems, and they meet death from one lovelier than themselves? What woods of greedy violets sigh for her to pass among them that they may steal her fragrance and make the world sick with a sweeter sweetness? Ah, what a poor tongue has legend. This was she whom rumour said bloomed lovely by the river. Beauty born humbly, but not so[Pg 229] humble that pale pilgrims did not glide through the silences to lift the clapper of her door. Beauty housed humbly in a shabby temple; but beauty itself not humble. The flame that burnt! Ah, rescue him!
She drew tight a rein and turned away; and as she passed again among the trees the birds were fluting in the boughs and on one hand the face of the waters twinkled in sunshine and in sleep. Once she thought his voice came after her, commanding her to wait; but she scorned to turn about lest imagination mocked, and again she saw that hut set among the trees. It seemed Stockings turned sluggard for this homeward journey, and in rage she plunged sudden spurs into his sides. He snorted loud and rose high into the air, and she must lean upon his wither to persuade him to earth. Thereafter he turned fretful, seeking to reef the reins from her hands. They passed among the trees until the last ribbons of water were hidden. Hark! On the edge of the timber and the empty land a hurry of hoofs reached her ears. Quickly it grew loud. Some madman rode. It was he come after her. He would ride at her side in a moment. Give her strength to meet him manfully. Fool he to seek her out now. She hated him with a hate as great as the love he had murdered.
“I called out I would ride back with you. I had to saddle up. What was the hurry?”
“To tell the truth I didn’t know I was needed. I set out to ride alone, and thought to finish the journey alone. But we can ride together now if you wish. The way lies side by side a mile or two. As well to practise again this art of riding side by side, lest it be quite forgotten. One—two—three—weeks, since we had last lesson. And once we used half the days of the week in mastering the art. Why these scowls, friend Jim?”
“Come, don’t talk riddles, Maud. I’m not in humour to read them. If you have things to say, say them now while we have the place to ourselves. Say what must be said. Big words can drop and break here, and lie well broken. My ears are on edge for listening. But don’t give me riddles.”
“‘Jim Power has tied himself up in a knot with some girl on the river.’ Soft words, Jim, to have flung at me this morning…. Oh, how could you do this?”
“Gently? No, any word but that. Speak up, Jim. What knots your tongue? Cry at me doubter, liar, shabby tattler of tales. The bitterer your words, the sweeter I shall hear them. Where is your tongue? Say you are[Pg 231] sick with me for doubting. Say the taste of this day will never leave your mouth, Jim. Frowns won’t feed me.”
“Stop. I am at the end of what I can bear.”
“You won’t answer? Jim, it isn’t true?”
Then fell upon those two riding side by side in the radiant afternoon the majesty and the melancholy of that wide red land. The little sounds of passage were born and died and put away forgotten. There lived upon the breast of Time the sharp steps of two horses crossing the rubble on the ground. There lived the clink of bits when heads were tossed. There lived the tiny groans of leather. And in the bunches of spinifex punctual insects tuned their throats against the evening. But he and she passed away from all these things, and after much journeying came hand in hand into some rare atmosphere where they kneeled together, two mourners at the bier of dead love. He who was so quickly moved to anger, she who but a space ago had been cold in rage, felt now only a great purifying pity move through them that such a fair comrade had been laid in a narrow bed. Desires, remorses, rages, strifes—those ragged clothes his spirit must often wear—were laid aside on the threshold of this high wide chamber, and he was re-robed in cool garments for the hour of vigil. As their spirits waited[Pg 232] there, on either side of the bier where Love was laid out among her fading blossoms, their bodies rode across the plain, and presently the long road lay before them, where she must turn right-handed to Surprise and he ride left for Kaloona. There they stayed a little while and spoke together.
CHAPTER XIVThe Halt by the Road
She was the first to speak.
“Jim, we can’t ride like this for ever. A good thing if we could! I am over the first sharpness. Don’t choose your words. We can’t ride on like this.”
“No, Maud, we can’t.”
“Do you love her?”
“How did it come about?”
“As such things come about.”
“What do you mean?”
“How do such things come about?”
“Does she love you?”
“What have you said to her? Does she know you care?”
“Ah, as far as that?”
“You were parched?”
The horses stood with drooped heads, muzzle to muzzle. The hours were growing old, and long shadows climbed across the grasses. A wide hat sheltered her from the sun; but he thought she looked tired and worn, and he wondered which lines summer had drawn there and which he had traced. Next he fell to asking himself if sorrow could sharpen eyesight, for he found himself looking past her body upon her good spirit. It would find food for new growth out of this hurt. Two years ago they had knelt together and received an equal gift. What a good housewife she had proved! What a spendthrift he!
“The afternoon is nearly gone, Jim. I made a promise to be back by sunset. I don’t know what to say. I must go on feeling for a little while and then I shall be able to think. I don’t understand a man’s love. He can put it off and on like a cloak. He wears a woman’s livery for a season to find it shabby after that time and himself in need of a newer one. You have worn mine through two seasons and no doubt I should be duly glad.”
“I am raw still. Too sick and sorry to[Pg 235] stoop about picking up soft words. No, forget what I said. You have made me angry and hurt and scornful, and, if you will have it, jealous; but you have not the art to make me love you any less. Nothing can unteach me what I have learnt through you. You can never make me unhappy as you have made me happy.”
“What am I to say?”
“I must be going home.”
“Listen to me. Because of what has happened, don’t think I’m such a dullard that I don’t know the worth of what I had. What ails me! Soon I’ll be past caring. I’m at odds with my shadow. I’m too full of ill humours to pull myself on to a horse’s back, too sick with things to try a day’s work. If you want revenge you can be satisfied.”
She saw his face grow keen with sorrow, and last traces of bitterness against him left her. In place arrived a great pity, and a greediness to heal his hurts. She turned away, and thoughtfully with her light fingers began to thread the mane of the big chestnut horse. She laid the hairs this way and that with care, but little she knew of her work. She was thinking with all her might.
She loved this man, and what was love but service? She must serve him now he was in such evil case. What were her wounds but red lips opening in her side that they might speak[Pg 236] his wounds and tell them balm was coming. This was the highest hour of their love, when love was to be crowned with understanding. Let her be speedy and not spend all day debating. A poor passenger was fallen sick by the way, and here was she, loaded with her ointments, who had talked much of her skill. What was love but service, and she said she loved this man?
“What are we to do?”
“There is nothing to do.”
“Are you going home?”
“I told her I would go back.”
“It’s time I started home, Jim.”
“Don’t look so serious. You are in worse case than I am. I can laugh at myself and I doubt that of you. Before I go, promise me you will still come to Surprise. It’s a sleepy place. You won’t find things changed there.”
“And now you have promised that, will you come to-morrow? A square promise, fair weather or black, a day’s work to do or nothing on hand.”
The old horse moved away when she gathered up her reins.
CHAPTER XVThe Parting of the Way
Power kept his promise. The afternoon sun was still high in the sky when he let loose his horse in the stable yard at Surprise and walked across the stones to the house. He approached in view of the shadiest verandah where the household had come together after lunch. In the amplest chair lay Selwyn lost to all the ill humours of the heat; but Mrs. Selwyn interrupted her reading to give him a searching glance, and Neville shot up shaggy eyebrows and cried “Hello!” Maud came down the steps. She wore a big hat as protection from the sun; but she looked up to speak and showed Power the lines of care that twenty-four hours had drawn upon her face.
“Come this way, Jim. It’s shady up the creek, and there are too many inside.”
They passed together a little way up the bed of the creek, clambering once and again over sharp faces of rock where fair pools of water rest after the rains. They reached a spot where a[Pg 238] sapling throws a broken shade upon a shelf of stone. They sat down. The prospect is gentle here as prospects are judged at Surprise. Below, stands the house peering round the bank of the rise—above, the creek climbs up into the hills.
“Come, don’t look so cut up. It isn’t fair to me. I’ve spent all day looking things in the face and you must help.”
“I’ve come here as you asked. What is there to say?”
“Do you still feel the same about her?”
“Yes. It will always be the same.”
“We have come to the end of things. Is that it?”
“It needn’t be that. There is friendship left.”
“Fall from first to second place? How dare you ask me that…. What makes you like this? She has nothing more than her looks. She has no education. She can have only a child’s experience of life.”
“It makes no difference.”
“And where will you be when the glamour has gone?”
“It will be time to see when that happens.”
“But they say she isn’t even a good girl. A girl must be so weak to let men do as they like with her.”
“We have said enough.”
“And what am I to do? Make the best of things I can? Take off my love like an old coat and throw it away because it is out at the elbows? Jim, you don’t know what love is. That’s why this thing has happened.”
“Talking won’t mend things.”
“There’s no more to say; is that what you mean? We have come to the parting of the ways. I’m to understand that, am I? The house I built has tumbled on top of me, and I am to get clear of the ruins as best I can. In a little while this affair of yours will be over, and where shall we both be? Can’t you see what a priceless thing we are ready to waste?”
“Of course I see it; but it makes no difference. I was a man a month ago, able to take or let alone. Now … I love the child. There’s the beginning and end of it.”
“We had a hundred things to help us over the difficult bits of life and now because you are tired I am asked to feel the same. That’s where the laugh comes in. I find I can’t do it.”
“What a cad you make me!”
“She doesn’t love you. You told me that yesterday. How are you going to get over that?”
“She may change.”
“Have you thought what I have to face?[Pg 240] ‘There goes Maud Neville who was found wanting and now takes second place to a girl whose lips are plastered with the kisses of a dozen men.’ Some day the words may not seem much; just now, my friend, they have a harsh sound. How dare you bring me to this?”
“Would you have us marry as things are?”
“No, I wouldn’t. I must eat my humble pie. But as yet I cannot make myself believe that we are at the end of things. It’s not easy to speak out the truth even to you. I ought to cut you for good. But I just can’t do it. Love takes a lot of killing. The world will think me a girl of poor spirit; but better that than that this thing should come to grief in haste. I must have time to think things out. I owe this to you and to myself…. What are you looking at the sun for? Do you want to get away?”
“I have to meet O’Neill at three o’clock.”
“Meet him at three so as to be in time somewhere else later on—I suppose that’s it. Well, so be it.”
“Are you coming to the stable?”
“No. I’m going to stay here a little while. Jim, this mustn’t be our good-bye. Before you go, promise me you won’t quite forget us here. Come when you can.”
CHAPTER XVISummer Days
In this far country spendthrift November used up one by one its days. Each fiery noontide pulled the sun a little higher into the sky. His way was set in a wide field of blue, where seldom came one timid cloud to loiter an hour and float fearfully away. The season of the rains drew near; but as yet was no sign of the storm wrack, which drifts up evening by evening and drifts away—a herald of the deluge which presently shall burst upon the land. Night, hot and passionate, followed night, hot and passionate—each night roofed with high white twinkling stars. The Scorpion was falling from his lofty place, and Orion carried his sword and belt up from the horizon.
In the mornings of those long November days as the eight o’clock whistle blew shrill from the engine house, the men of Surprise Valley descended into the bowels of the hills, there to drive and to stope, to put up their rises and put down their winzes, to employ hammer and drill in the[Pg 242] damp places and in the hot places, to push their trucks, to set their fuses, to batter with their spluttering machines until the day was worn out, and the five o’clock whistle called them to the surface. A strange land theirs of gloomy tunnelled ways; a land of shadows dancing before moving candles; a land of roofs which dipped and soared; a land of grim, cheerless walls and floors, patched with damp, where black holes opened out and ladders led up and ladders led down; a land of changing colours as here and here the green copper looked out from its hiding place. In such a country lived the men of Surprise Valley between the two whistles of the day.
At the house of Mr. Neville, manager of Surprise, November was accepted with small complaint. Many a dawn of day, every set of sun found Selwyn striding like an honest man into the bush. Lean and pinched he showed at early morning, hat tilted jauntily forward, cigarette end pushed out below his clipped moustache, trusty gun under hooked right arm. Leaner still he looked at evening, as he followed his long shadow across the ground, marching towards a gully in the hills, where one might blunder on the Lord knew what—kangaroo, wallaby, or even a python. A python, be Gad! at one’s very back door!
Each November morning Mrs. Selwyn, after privately counting off one more day to departure, took a book to the verandah, and sat in the cool to read a little and observe a good deal more. She was discreetly watching for evidence of the truth of Hilton’s news. It was more than likely that he had got hold of the wrong end of the stick; still it was worth while discovering if there was anything in the story. If there was truth, the girl certainly had no inkling of the matter. She looked a little tired and worried now and then; but this impossible country would wear anyone out. It was a shame to think of her buried here indefinitely. She must think about asking her down for the summer. Thank goodness half the stay was over. Their rainy season began next month, and she was going to make certain of not being cooped up here then.
Of that household only Maud Neville found November more miserly of the hours than October. She was living her tragedy alone.
She explored the frailties of the human spirit—found the heights it could climb in a courageous hour, and followed it down into dark ways. It seemed angel and devil waited on her, clanging in turn for entrance. When she opened to the kind spirit she grew careless of her own hurts, and only was glad that she loved a man[Pg 244] who was in trouble and whom she might have skill to help. When the demon came in at the door he whispered her she was a woman who loved a man, and who had been loved by him once upon a time. Now, with lips which had kissed her, the man kissed the robber who had stolen him away, and held that robber in the arms which once supported her. At such times she cried she was learning to hate this turncoat. If presently he would come riding up to sit beside her with long face, she would cry, “Begone to your child who bids you click and unclick her gate.”
One terrible minute spent at this time with her father, more than all her resolutions, saved her from the melancholy which was falling upon her, and determined her to carry abroad again an untroubled face. She stood in the dining-room before lunch, trifling the moments away, when the old man stamped in, hat cocked to one side, pipe in mouth, heavy walking-stick in clutch. He was flushed from the sun and short of breath; but he blundered to the attack.
“Hey, Maud, what’s this that’s running round the place? Jim Power playing the double business with you. In a mess with that girl of Gregory’s. I may be wrong, but I reckon I know how to settle that kind of thing. I may be wrong, huh, huh! No man plays fast and loose[Pg 245] with a girl of mine. I’ll have the blackguard kicked off the lease next time he——” The old man came to a standstill.
She had shown him a face grey with rage. Her words were colder than drops of ice falling upon snow.
“How dare you come in like this, father, blustering your way into a business where you have no concern! Jim and I can keep our house in order, and our very best thanks to you. How dare you come in like this, father, without apology to us?”
The old man took his pipe from his mouth the better to meet the attack. His shaggy white eyebrows bristled. “Goodness! girl, don’t lose your head like that. I heard wrong, I reckon, in the town just now.” He put back the pipe in his mouth and gathered confidence. “Well, that’s all to be said about the matter, Maud, only a bit of news to remember is—nobody plays the game of do-as-you-please with my daughter. I may be wrong, huh, huh!” Then he scrambled about and went out of the room.
While the slothful lips of November counted away the days—if at that time Maud plucked all the strings of the lyre, and sounded high melody and awaked rough discord; if she fingered all the stops of feeling, the man she loved made music no less wild. As hope shuttered her lodge[Pg 246] behind him, as despair came as neighbour to his street, he grew careless of opinion, thoughtless of the future, and with an appetite eager only to lap clean the dish of the present. Love was revealed as a light, blinding him who looked there to all but its brightness. As he stumbled towards it, calling out loud for a veil, it moved away. All his hurry and loud cries brought him no nearer, as a man may climb mountain upon mountain and never reach the stars.
As he grew mad, he grew wise with a cheerless wisdom. He rode to the river; he rode away; again he rode to the river. To-night he held in his arms the child he loved, and covered her with kisses. To-morrow he would hold her thus again. But ever Love fled him as he came. Ever Love turned in flight to mock him. Ever Love danced away on rosy toes. Strange teaching this—that a man can own the House of Love, and stamp adown the house from garret to cellar, and not on one couch find Love awaiting him. This child would lie in his arms through long minutes, would kiss back his kisses at his command, and press back his embraces—and all the passion spent on her passed over her, as when the clouds open on an autumn day, and the sun runs across the waiting field. As he sealed her eyes with kisses, behold they were sleepy with dreams another had laid there;[Pg 247] as he stopped her mouth with his mouth, the taste of another’s lips sweetened her own. Who knows that if her shallow little soul had cried to him then down the distance that his spirit might not have found sight and seen the poor thing it pursued. So Love might have wearied in the chase. But because this small thing fled him, he must snatch up his torch to follow, and among the high shadows of its leaping fire, surely one was the shadow of the thing he hunted.
He grew a tattered hermit of the woods who said good-bye and stole back as the night grew old to glide among the trees and watch the light fall from her doorway. Hither and thither he passed, that he might hear her laugh from here, that his ears might woo her voice from there, that now her shadow might cross the window as ointment for his eyes. The flying-foxes saw him at his watch, and high above the tree tops white stars stared down.
The light would go out in her hut, and for a little while the ghost of a light would peer through the pale wall of her tent. Did she pray in those few moments as she robed herself for sleep? Was she kneeling in that poor tent at her rough bed, vestured in white with her shining hair fallen unlooped about her? Did her straight white narrow feet push under the[Pg 248] hem of her gown, with toes bent upon the surly ground? Did she remember him in the little prayers that fluttered up to God? Did she whisper a man loved her, who was in sore need of help? No. In her brief life she had scarce heard the name of God. Her rich body was her prayer.
Hush! The light behind her wall is quenched. She is folding herself for sleep. The stars lift their thousand candles above her. The forest shall be the posters of her bed. These great bats fluttering across the dark shall carry her kind dreams from utmost places. Hush! Another pilgrim comes among the waiting trees, but not to stay like him with lean face peering among the trunks. This pilgrim steals into the open and raises the soft doorway of that darkened chamber. See her go in with warning finger, poppies wreathed about her hair, poppies climbing up her staff. She has gone in, and on the drowsy lips of that young child has placed the largest poppy of all to rub out his rough kisses of the day.
Aye, now the child sleeps, and no longer need he creep wakeful here, fingering the rough bark of trees, and stepping clumsy on loud twigs. He can take himself home, and from his own tumbled bed shout loud on timid Sleep to remember him.
Sweet child who lies secure there, where now is your little soul fleeing? What ripe field does it find for its walks? What wide-armed trees hold out their shade to meet it? What flowers lift up their perfumed cups to spy who passes? What painted birds cast out their crystal notes from bush and briar to hail it? What purple hills pile up behind to hide the shabby land where by day it is compelled to dwell? Sweet child, in pity tell this tattered watchman that he may lace winged sandals to his feet, and in a brighter country sweep forward in the flight.
CHAPTER XVIIThe Errand to the Pool
On the afternoon of the last of those November days Maud Neville chose again the road to Pelican Pool. She had learned of Power’s banishment until dark to a corner of the run, and so might take the way without fear of a meeting. Time, if a slow leech, was proving of service, and misery had been exchanged for a jog-along content.
The picture was discovering its proportions, and, from the chair of justice, she could examine it and pronounce verdict. It was crudely drawn when studied thus. A man ran crying for a prize which he would throw away as soon as gained. He demanded the meagre thing because it stayed out of reach. There was humour in the picture if one was in the mood to see it.
To-day an idea had come, building itself to shape during the morning. As a result, when lunch was over, she had saddled the chestnut horse again and taken the road to the river.
As she left the stable, Mr. King crossed to the office. He waited for her in the path, and she pulled up the horse.
“Aren’t you very energetic so early in the day?”
“One has to do something for a change, even if one becomes energetic. Life is rather like those travelling shows that find the way here sometimes. You have to clap and laugh loud in case you yawn your head off.”
“I would sooner yawn than clap on a day like this. Where are you off to?”
“Somewhere. Anywhere. As the spirit shall move.”
She felt friendly towards this man, who stood wrinkling his face at the sunlight—a little slow, a little stout, and rather middle-aged. He too was tangled in this stupid net. Could he have guessed it, she was in no better case than he. He might have guessed it. The laugh might be his as much as hers.
“Sometimes life moves fast enough to prevent one yawning,” he said.
“So you have told me lately. Then you still look for copper by Pelican Pool? You are a good miner, Mr. King. You follow the lode to its end.”
“Did you think the fool ever learns from his folly?” he said.
“As much as the wise man garners from his wisdom.”
“What, the sage is the fool grown old and bloodless?”
“Why not the spectator who leaves the arena to watch from the box.”
“But will he seek the box, before he has lost in the arena? First, must he not be broken by the other wrestlers, and come second in the footrace?”
“Perhaps so, Mr. King.”
“I must get under the tree, here. The sun never agrees with me after lunch. That’s better. Now I am ready for your profoundest philosophy. Have you any for me?”
“Mr. King, I want you to be serious for once.”
“What do you want?”
“Now don’t be angry. Do you think it right to run after this girl? She is very young.”
“Right? There are no such things as right or wrong.”
“I said be serious.”
“I am serious. There are no such things as right or wrong. Mark me the virtuous one. Find me the sinner. Some are born godly—a fig then for their virtue. Some have no wish for narrow ways. Who shall point a finger at them? Some struggle and win or lose. They who win have been lent strength—where then their[Pg 253] virtue? They who lose were denied aid. Where is their vice? Foolish human souls all of us, given the hopes of angels and the bodies of beasts.”
“Fine big words, Mr. King.”
“And if virtue exists, where is its reward? Does the gardener turn his spade from the worm that tills his garden. Does the fowler cast less wide his net lest he trap the song bird that soothed him overnight. The old ox to the shambles. The old horse to the knacker.”
“Come, I am not to be bluffed. Don’t you think you ought to leave such a child alone?”
“But why must I let be and others go on? Besides, her arms are very wide.”
“How can you talk like that, Mr. King. I thought you were fond of her. You have made me angry now.”
She drew the reins together and Stockings passed at a fast walk across the plain. Presently the green belt of the river had risen out of the horizon, and later they had come among the first trees. As she was carried into the nobler timber, and saw the ribbons of water among laced boughs, and met the pleasant play of light and shade, and felt the cooler ways, and heard the call of birds in hidden places, the charm of this quiet spot beside the river affected her magically as it had done three weeks before. Indeed,[Pg 254] this time she felt better able to face circumstance. Then she had been an untried soldier, firm enough of purpose, but one whom the first whistle of bullets had shocked. Three weeks of war had proven her.
She rode’ to the edge of the water. She found the fair scene had no whit altered—unless the margin of the Pool had shrunken—unless the great white lilies had tired of blooming, and slept now beneath the water until another year should revive them—unless the sun, climbed higher in the sky, stared down more unkindly.
After a space spent thus, with Stockings standing beneath her like a rock, she turned over what was to be done. She frowned a little and nursed her lip. It was not a pleasant errand she had come on, nor one with a beginning easy to find. She had come to talk with the girl that lived here, and bring her to a decision. She must give Jim yes or no. Let her have him if she wanted; but let her say so. This could not go on. His character was being sapped away. Let the girl take him and he would have what he wanted, or let her send him away and he must pull himself together. It did not matter to her—Maud. Things had gone too far. The worst had been over a long time, and she could look the future in the face. She was sure she did not care now as acutely as once she had[Pg 255] done. She would do him this kindness for old times sake, and then she must begin to put him out of her life. But it was a hateful business. She might meet scorn at the girl’s hands—worse, Jim might hear of her errand and think she was willing to throw pride away, if by hook or by crook she could clutch back his affection. Well, love must go on many services, and the trusted servant travels always by unkindest ways.
She ordered Stockings forward, and he backed from the edge of the Pool into the trees and followed the bridle path where soon the camp would discover itself. The gentle birds piped them down their passage. The hut came out among the trees. It looked mean and shabby from long wooing by the weather. The hessian walls were drooping and the tents had crumbled.
She pulled up the horse before he had carried her from the shelter of the trees. She was disturbed again as to what to do. She must pretend to come that way by chance. And how do that? She might ride up to the door and ask for a cup of water. And then father or mother might open to her. Well, things would happen as they would happen, and wit was the serving man to enlist.
When she was ready to give Stockings the[Pg 256] signal to advance, he lifted his ears. She followed their direction and discovered she was watched. Next instant she found the watcher was the girl she had come to find. The child must have gone among the trees to gather dead branches for firewood, and now stood there among the trunks, as still as they, staring at her boldly. The figure might have been a dryad pausing on the instant before flight. Its loveliness wounded her as though a dart had been cast at her. Who could look upon such beauty and after be content with less? She touched the flank of her big horse, and he carried her across the space still to traverse. He came to full stop when she tightened the reins.
She must be the first to speak. The girl had stood unmoved the while, looking her boldly in the face. She wondered if she guessed her name from hearsay.
“That must be hot work for the middle of the day. It would have waited for evening. But I’m setting no better example, am I, riding about the country like this? I was glad to find these trees.”
She looked the girl over from head to foot. She judged her to be eighteen years old or no more than nineteen, but a flower which had come quick to bloom. She looked her over with uncharitable eyes, but nowhere found fault. She[Pg 257] gave up the task to tell herself never had she seen such beauty. The girl returned stare for stare.
“I was gettin’ a few sticks together,” Moll Gregory answered. “Dad went off without chopping a thing this morning, and we’ve run short.”
“Are you in a hurry to be back with them?”
“I’ve made myself hot. This looks a nice place to spend a minute or two. Will you keep me company a little while? I must soon go on.”
Maud dismounted, the better to push matters forward. As she patted the old horse she looked about for a seat. A fallen tree lay at hand, and she dropped the reins upon the ground and sat down upon it. Moll Gregory stood where she was, her eyes wide open. It seemed solitude had not taught her to be shy. It occurred to Maud she must not delay. At any moment the father or mother might come out of the doorway and opportunity be gone.
“You have a lovely place to live in,” she said. “But you must find it out of the way. It’s a long fag to Surprise.”
“It’s a treat for us. There isn’t too much doing round here.”
“I dare say. But loneliness has not kept you quite hidden. You are better known than you[Pg 258] may think. I had heard of you before we met to-day. You are Moll Gregory, aren’t you? You know a friend of mine. Mr. Power, of Kaloona. He told me about you once. He said he had met you in his travels.”
The eyes which looked at her big with curiosity fell asleep all in a moment. But the change made their loveliness no less lovely.
“Yes, I know Mr. Power.”
“I’m a great friend of his. We have been friends a long time. Almost brother and sister. We tell each other most secrets.”
She wished the girl would say something. But instead, Moll Gregory continued to stand before her, beautiful and sulky. It was the sense of hurry in the matter that found her courage to go on. “Yes, we are pretty staunch friends,” she said desperately. She took courage in both hands. “He told me how fond he had become of you lately.”
“Mr. Power is a poor sort of feller to go running about with tales.”
The insult brought speech crowding into her mouth. “When you know Mr. Power a little better you will find him to be no very expert merchant of stories. Friend to friend is an honest enough matter. And as a matter of fact——” She stopped. She had not courage to say she had been her own bloodhound.
“Well, and what about it?”
“I suppose there’s not much to say about it, is there, since it’s no affair of mine? But I hear my friend has little enough to be glad over, for it seems you don’t care much for him. I’m his friend, and so I’m sorry. That’s all.”
“He thinks that, do he?”
“And is it true?”
“That’s my business, isn’t it?”
“It’s nobody’s business that I have ever heard to let a man make himself miserable, and for his pains give him neither no or yes.”
“A girl don’t always ask a man to come crying after her. You don’t expect a girl to nurse every man that runs at her skirt.”
“There is such a thing as kindness.”
Moll Gregory shrugged her shoulders.
“Don’t think Mr. Power sent me here to plead for him. He can look after himself in most cases I have found. But I am so great a friend of his that it distresses me to see him so unhappy. The quicker he is sent about his business the sooner he will find cure. I hate to interfere; but it was for old acquaintance sake I came along to-day to ask you to help me put things into better shape. I tell you Mr. Power is a changed man this last month. It hurts me keenly to see him come to this.”
“I will tell him the worry he’s givin’ you.”
“You must never say a word about this visit.”
“Why not? You are a kind friend.”
“You must not say one word.”
“Not say Miss Neville called? The Miss Neville as was going to marry him.”
She could have cried aloud at the hurt, and the next moment a cold courage possessed her. “You cannot hurt me like that,” she said in a level voice, “and I have done my best to take care of your feelings. True, I am engaged to Mr. Power, and we should have been married had he not become fond of you. I have spent a good many unhappy hours lately, as no doubt you suppose; but no anxieties of my own would have brought me here to haggle and bargain. That might have happened when I lost my head in the beginning; but I have had long enough to look things in the face and accept what must be. Understand me then, I am still fond of Mr. Power in spite of what has happened and I want to do what I can to help. If you have ever loved a man, you will believe me. If you don’t know what love is, you will have to think as you like, and I suppose I shall be none the worse or better for the verdict.”
“There’s others have been in love besides you, Miss Neville. There’s others have had their kisses.”
“Kisses! I mean something more than kisses.[Pg 261] When you are older you won’t weigh love by kisses. You will find love grows deeper down than the kisses that stop in the doorway of your mouth. You will find love sending you on errands like this one I am come on to-day, and you will be grateful enough to run them, though all you buy is rudeness and scorn. Love is a queer plant when you sow it properly. It makes shade for some one man, and you find yourself glad to sit in the open and watch it grow. Come, I am talking wildly again.”
“Have him if he’s to be got. I’m not breaking my heart what comes.”
“Don’t let us quarrel. I know you’ve not asked for my visit. I shall be glad enough to find it done; but we have come together, and let us see together a little while. I have made a bad beginning. I meant to speak gently.”
Moll Gregory turned away impatiently. It seemed they had come to a deadlock; but help was at hand. There were the sounds of steps, and a man of moulting appearance with tools upon his shoulder came out of the trees towards the hut. He was passing out of their direction, but he threw a glance over his shoulder before going far on the way. He saw them at once, and stopped.
“Hullo, Moll, gel, out of doors? And a visitor, too. Why, it’s Miss Neville from Surprise.” He[Pg 262] came across at a clumsy, fawning run. “It’s Miss Neville, and I’m very pleased to meet you. You may have heard of me from the old gentleman your father. As nice an old gentleman as one would meet in a day’s work. Miss Neville, to be sure, doin’ us this honour. Miss Neville come our way.” A dirty hand was pushed forward. Gregory began to hump his shoulders, pluck his beard and swell his chest. “Well, Miss Neville, and what can have brought you all this way in the heat?”
“I was passing and thought it looked cool among the trees. But I must be away again. I’ve rested long enough.”
Maud moved towards the horse; but Gregory became more friendly. “You won’t be gettin’ back yet, Miss Neville? Oh, no, Miss Neville, we can’t let you go. The missis is inside there. Moll here can get tea going in a minute. Mother! Are you there?”
The woman came out of the house, and stared in their direction.
“Miss Neville from Surprise has come our way. You can give her a taste of tea, can’t yer? Come inside, Miss Neville. Yes, we folk will be in a bad way when we have no seat for Miss Neville. A-haw, haw, haw! A-haw, haw, he, haw!”
“Come, Miss Neville, it’s not many visitors ride our way. We’ve not much to offer, but its our best when you comes. The show has gone down into a hundred foot of rock, and storekeepers aren’t too flash with tick just now. But there’s always our best for Miss Neville.”
There seemed a press about the horse, but Maud was firm in purpose and mounted. She hated the greedy face of the man. She liked no better the lovely features of the girl. She was in a rage with herself for considering the undertaking. The man and the woman in the doorway of the hut were exchanging glances at her back.
“Good-bye,” she said, as she drew together the reins. “You mustn’t think me rude, but I have to get along.”
She would have walked over the man had he not stepped out of the way.
CHAPTER XVIIIThe Bottom of the Valley
When the same afternoon had worn to evening, Power rode down to the river. His comings and goings at the hut passed unremarked. Gregory kept always ready his loud welcome, and his wife asked no questions and made no difficulties.
Power arrived every evening at sunset, and spent by the Pool the first hours of dark. For this end he endured the remainder of the day. He walked now on the very bottom of the valley into which he had descended. He rode no more to Surprise, and, calamity on calamity, he was losing Mick O’Neill, his friend. Gloom bestrode a third horse when they rode together on the work of the run, until by one accord they sought each other out as little as need be; and in mute agreement came to visit here, the one when the other should be gone.
The sun had gone down on the edge of the plain when Power reached the Pool. As he entered the trees darkness was falling, and the[Pg 265] stars were coming out. When the horse brought him into the clearing the lamplight looked from the doorway of the hut in a broad beam and voices met him from indoors. He tethered the beast in an old place and put the saddle on end at the foot of a tree. Before he had done Moll Gregory was standing in the doorway of the hut.
“Is that you, Jim?”
He went across to her. Father and mother were within. Gregory swung on his seat in anxious welcome, and the woman nodded good-night. The four of them talked together for a little while.
“Round agen to see us?” cried Gregory. “Been about the run to-day I reckon from the look of you. Hot work moving about in the middle of the day. It don’t seem to cool off at night now. The rains must be coming.”
“It looks like it,” Power answered.
“Have you heard what’s happened?” said the woman. “The boss here ran into Mr. King yesterday. Mr. King won’t touch the show since it went into the hard stuff, and says the boss owes him twenty quid or something and has a paper to show it.” She turned bitterly on Gregory. “You always was a fool rushing to sign things.”
“I had to keep going somehow, mother.”
Moll raised her head. “I’ll fix it, dad, when he’s round next.”
“I suppose things aren’t too good lately?” Power said.
“I reckon they aren’t. Since the show turned out a fake, there’s not a bob to be raised anywhere. They’re turning up tick at the store; too. They growl if you ask for a tin of dog.”
“I reckon, Dad, Mr. Power might give us a hand until things was better, if it was put to him,” said the woman.
“Is that what you are after?” Power answered.
“A-haw, haw, haw! We wouldn’t say no if you made the offer,” said Gregory, showing his dirty teeth.
“I’ll think about it.”
“There’s a gentleman for you, mother! Put it here, Mr. Power.” Gregory pushed out a dirty hand.
“It’s early yet,” Power answered from the doorway.
Presently Power and Molly were wandering among the trees—the night fallen upon them, dark, hot and murmurous with tiny voices.
They wandered along old ways, and said again old sayings, and did again old deeds. Who shall answer why she was ready to wander with him night by night through these majestic ways,[Pg 267] taking his kisses, lying within his arms, and caring nothing for him? Lips set upon lips—no more could his kisses mean to her. Perhaps she had grown so lonely that she could bid no one begone. Perhaps twenty years of that hot land had set in flames her little heart. Perhaps it was her doom to fan fever and make men mad. Why did he come and come again, a threadbare lover, the despised even of himself? Why was he so unwearying with his embraces, unless it was because he had become an amorous wandering Jew, who had scoffed once at pure lips, and must now kiss for ever, and for ever fail to set passion afire.
They sat down presently on a fallen tree lying among the climbing grasses at the upper end of the Pool. Night by night he and she from their seat there had remarked the margin of the water shrink from them. To-night they sat down again—he to wonder at his madness, she to do a hundred wanton acts—to tease the dog, to toss boughs upon the water and hark to the sudden splash.
“Molly, what did you mean just now when you said you would make things right with Mr. King? Twenty pounds is twenty pounds to him and always will be.”
“Aw, I didn’t mean much. I know how to fix him. That’s all.”
“Child, you don’t have dealings with him now, do you? You told me you never saw him.”
“I can’t help it if he comes. He’s not this way too often.”
“What terms are you on with him? Tell me the truth.”
“It’s not to do with you, I reckon, what our terms are. I’ve been kind to you when you asked me.”
“You don’t understand. All men are not like me. I sit here night by night hanging my hands, too fond of you to do you harm. But other men——. Tell me. I won’t be angry. Has he ever persuaded you too far?”
“A gel only lives once. You told me that yourself.”
“Molly! If half the world comes knocking on your door must you let them all in?”
“You could have had as much as him. Wake up, Jim. There’s news for you.”
“I don’t feel like news just now.”
“We had a stranger round these ways to-day. Guess who.”
“I am a poor guesser.”
“Man or woman?”
“Well,” he said coldly after a moment. “What have you to tell me?”
“There’s nothing to tell. I thought it news for you, that’s all.”
“She must have ridden this way for a change. She often rides.”
“She came to see Moll Gregory, and she saw Moll Gregory.”
“What is it you are wanting to tell me? Be quick if you mean to say anything.”
“That’s not the way to ask for news.”
“Very well. We won’t discuss her further.”
“You and she is too grand for us poor people. She came here on a like high racket to ask me to give you yes or no, and she tells me it’s not on her account she’s come; but because she is sorry for you. She says if I have loved somebody I’ll know what she means. I can count a feller for every feller of hers.”
“Enough said. We’ve talked enough of this.”
“Turning sulky now. Miss Neville will be kind to you if you go back.”
“Molly, there’s a good child, don’t tease my temper any more. We’ll talk of what you like, but forget this one thing. Why should I say a word in her defence? How does she need it, who is so far from our reach that you can’t understand her, and I haven’t the skill to price what I have lost? If you want to learn what love is go to her with your lesson books. All I have done has been of no account. You and I, child, could kiss on and on for ever, and with us all the crying lovers who count love a mere spending of kisses; and all those kisses kissed would fly up in the scales when what she had to bring was laid in the other balance.”
He fell into a sudden black mood—an evil habit he had learned lately. He remembered he sat upon the fallen tree, and at his feet in the coarse grasses lay the loveliest woman he would ever look upon. The night was shrill with tiny voices, and endless lightnings opened and closed the skies, but for the time these things did not affect him.
It seemed he was coming to the bottom of the cup whose rim his lips had held for so long. The last drops were against his mouth and the sediment was on his tongue. And, lo! it appeared as if some virtue in the sediment quickened the eyesight of the spirit, for at last he could point a finger and say there was substance and there[Pg 271] shadow. Lo! what he had once thought substance was now revealed as shadow, and what he had believed shadow was assuredly substance.
He woke up when the child laid a hand in his own. “Say something, Jim, or I am going home.” He kissed her very gently and started to talk to her. But from that hour his passion began to die.
CHAPTER XIXThe Selwyns return South
November counted away its days, and tramped down the long stairs of Time. At its heels arrived December. Now was Summer at last begun in this far land.
Seven days of every week a fiery sun rolled through a wide, high, empty sky. Seven noons of every week discovered that sun mounting a little higher. All day long the roofs of the iron houses glared across the distance, and the walls answered hot to the touch. But Surprise—and all that lies within its gates—was not dismayed. Evening by evening, when the sun was getting to bed, frowning clouds banked upon the horizon, and Mrs. Boulder, Mrs. Bloxham and Mrs. Niven, gasping in the doorways of their humpies, looked southward and said the rains were coming. And Boulder, Bloxham and Niven put an eye to the roof here, and an eye to the wall there, and thoughtfully picked up hammer and twine. But always in the morning,[Pg 273] when the sun rolled out of the East, the least cloud had fled away.
Round went the wheel of affairs at Surprise Valley. The whistle blew shrill at eight o’clock, and the waiting cage emptied the men into the dark ways of their subterranean world. Overhead the women bustled about their doors, and the children, grown a little browner and a little harder, pattered about the burnt places and sent abroad their calls. Mr. Neville, manager, made his tumultuous early round. Mr. Horrington, general agent, made his nine o’clock march to the hotel. The teams groaned in with firewood. The weekly coach rolled in and out again. The same goats examined once more the same thread-bare strips of ground. The same long-tongued curs dropped down in familiar patches of shade.
Early in December Mrs. Selwyn put her foot down finally and to good purpose. She would not be cooped up in this desperate place with a prospect of presently drowning. If Hilton would not come he could stay behind and take the consequences; but she was going by the very next coach. How they would survive the journey in this heat was beyond her powers of comprehension. Landing her here without an idea for getting her away was exactly what Hilton was capable of.
Selwyn bowed to his wife’s decision. Here he was, asked to pack up traps for home just as the river was at its lowest and there was some thundering good crocodile shooting to be had. Soft-hearted fool that he was!
As a result there fell about a great packing up of rods and guns, and a strapping of trunks; and a grey December dawn found the Neville homestead up and awake and hard engaged upon the utmost business of departure. A fire kept vigil in the kitchen, conjured there by Mrs. Nankervis who had forsaken bed to speed a favourite guest. There was coffee in the dining-room, and a generous breakfast of bacon and eggs, though Mrs. Selwyn could not touch a thing. Fortunately Selwyn was better able to prepare against the rigours of the day.
Breakfast proved an uneasy meal, disturbed by comings in and goings out, with Selwyn wandering between the window and the table, and Neville strolling round, stick in one hand and coffee cup in the other.
“Well,” said Selwyn presently, feeling considerably better now he could boast a decent lining to his stomach, “you people have given us a first-rate time here, and you wouldn’t have got rid of me yet had I my way. Gad! I’m a different fellow.” He smiled benignly on the assembled company, and presently met Maud’s[Pg 275] answering smile. “Some day we may have the good luck to find the way here again. In any case we are soon to see you down South I hear?”
“I promised to come next month.”
“I wish we could tempt you too, Mr. Neville,” Mrs. Selwyn said.
“Eh?” said the old man, jerking about. “Thanks, but I’ve no time to be running round the country.”
“Yes,” said Selwyn, taking hold of the conversation again. “I think perhaps I shall be wise to have another go of marmalade and toast. There’s nothing like starting a journey well supplied. A couple of months back I couldn’t touch a thing. Not a thing. Now I feel another man. I——”
“Haven’t you a little pity for us at this hour of the morning?” Mrs. Selwyn enquired.
A terrific frown settled on Selwyn’s face.
“I was listening,” said Maud. “I was very interested.”
Selwyn beamed again.
“You had better get on with the toast then,” said Neville, “or ye’ll be waiting another week. The fellow doesn’t like keeping his horses hanging about. He’ll be away without you. I may be wrong. Huh, huh!”
Mrs. Selwyn scorned a buggy, and insisted[Pg 276] upon walking to the coach. The clock pointed the final minute. Selwyn dodged to the back premises to say his most charming good-bye to Mrs. Nankervis, and with the last hand-shake slipped the smiling sovereign into her clasp. After something of a to-do he brought the dogs round to the front where the rest of the party waited, and they set out upon the journey to the coach. Mr. King had turned a deaf ear to the amours of bed and joined them upon the road; and the company made a bold line advancing across the drowsy distances of Surprise.
Day had arrived, but the sun still delayed its arrival.
“It seems perfectly incredible to be awake in this place and not see the sun,” said Mrs. Selwyn.
Selwyn shook his head in deep appreciation of himself. “You had my example.”
The day was still in swaddling clothes; but already the men and women of Surprise were waking up. Surly fires were growing here and there. Mrs. Boulder was in time to peer from her doorway at the backs of the retreating company; Mrs. Niven stopped her discourse to Niven as she heard voices across the distance; and Messrs. Bullock and Johnson, who were outside their camps at a morning wash, stayed in the towelling of their faces to view the noble[Pg 277] sight. It was the week for the visit of Mr. Pericles Smith, travelling schoolmaster, and his two tents stood erect and stiff by the side of the way. As the party of five marched by, a woman’s voice was raised.
“Perry, aren’t you very late this morning? There was not a stick of wood chopped last night.”
From the other tent came answer: “In one moment, dear.”
“Ah, Perry, you are not wasting time at that rubbish, already?”
But this time came only a groan and the sound of someone rising to his feet.
The harmony of excursion was nowise upset until the party had arrived within near view of the hotel, before which stood the ancient coach and the five goose-rumped horses asleep in the traces. Then Selwyn, on the flank, started back. The eyes of all turned to the doorway of the hotel. Mr. Horrington stood upon the step, stick in one hand, empty tobacco pouch in the other—perhaps a little seedy, perhaps a little depressed, because of the early hour; but firm in the intention of giving his friend bon voyage.
Selwyn’s hand glided towards a pocket and there found comfort.
“You ask for the loan of half-a-crown,” said Neville, jerking his head. “He, he! Huh, huh, huh!”
Mr. Horrington lifted his stick in majestic salutation. “You didn’t expect me, I dare say. However, I had no intention of letting an old friend slip away without a handshake.” He laughed his rusty laugh. He recalled suddenly the empty tobacco pouch in his hand. “Here’s the result of coming away in a hurry. I neglected to replenish this morning. Five minutes ago I was thinking of stoking up the first pipe of the day when I saw what had happened. How about the loan of a pipeful? I am always covetous of a dip into your pouch, Mr. Selwyn. Really, I must get the address of your tobacconist before you are off.”
Then indeed it seemed that Mr. Horrington led that party of three men through the doorway of the hotel, and later that Mr. Horrington drank three times at the expense of other people. Later still, when the quartette came out into the open, where the sun’s rim was climbing over the horizon, it seemed that Selwyn’s eye was shining and himself full of a sudden energy, that Mr. King stepped more briskly than was[Pg 279] his wont, and that old Neville’s laugh was a trifle loud.
Time would not listen to delay, and there arrived the final moments. The Selwyn luggage was strapped secure beside the mail-bags, and Scabbyback and Gripper now found an uncharitable seat atop there. Joe Gantley climbed into the driver’s seat and shook the team awake, when they changed to other legs and dropped their heads once more. Mr. Horrington ran his tongue along the edge of his moustache again. Joe Gantley picked up his whip, put it down, picked it up a second time, and gave the signal for passengers to mount.
The company gathered close beside the coach. There arose many exclamations and much shaking of hands. Last thanks were said. Last promises were made. Last advice was given. Mrs. Selwyn mounted without misadventure beside the driver. She still felt most unwell. She did not know whether she was on her crown or her toes. Selwyn took his seat at the end of the room, and discreetly and regretfully elbowed the way into a good position. Everybody gave more last advice. Mrs. Selwyn nodded her head graciously and finally. Selwyn smiled his most charming smile. Maud laughed. Neville chuckled. Mr. Horrington raised his stick augustly. King called out good luck.
Joe Gantley drew the reins together and cracked his whip. The team jerked into wakefulness and fell into their collars. The coach jerked forward. Mrs. Selwyn and Selwyn jerked forward. Scabbyback and Gripper jerked forward. There were a tapping of hoofs and a groaning of wood, and the coach rolled towards Morning Springs.
“Well,” said the old man looking after it, “I may be wrong, huh, huh! but I reckon we can get along without them. I may be wrong, huh, huh!”
Such was the manner of the Selwyn going.
Even as the coach rolled over the first mile of the journey, and grew pigmy in the distance so that the loitering dust cloud concealed it—even as it bumped across the outskirts of the camp—the crimson sun cast savage glances across the valley, slashing the iron roofs to life, livening the dingy walls of humpies and tents, and wooing the first flies from sleep. Over all the camp breakfast fires were growing, and men and women moved in and out of doors on the primal matters of the morning.
December, following the teachings of November, began to spend its days, holding them out one by one and tossing them into the mouth of Time. Each day proved a little longer and a little hotter to the people of that[Pg 281] courageous camp. But though the season drew presently towards the height of the summer, Power found the days too short for the journey to Surprise.
While Maud lived her life at Surprise and gave events into the keeping of Time, Power still rode to Pelican Pool, but his passion was near its end. As his brain cooled, as his malady abated, he comprehended his position with tragic clearness, and saw the high price of what he had thrown away. His wealth was spent on other wares, and he could not hope to buy it again. So be it. He had chosen a bed of thistles because the flower had seemed soft and gracious, and he would lie on it without complaint. And still he rode day by day to the river.
December grew middle-aged, and every sunset painted once more the swelling cloud wrack in the South, until the evening arrived when Mr. Horrington borrowed from the staff messhouse the single boot-last of Surprise, borrowed from the engine driver a piece of leather belting, borrowed from elsewhere a hammer and cobbler’s nails, and sat down to re-sole his boots against grievous days.
CHAPTER XXThe Farewell by the Hut
There dawned at last a day hotter and longer than any the summer yet had sent. With break of morning banks of sullen clouds were rolling out of the South into an empty sky. The sun sulked overhead, showing a fitful fiery face, and the air rose steaming from the ground. Little winds came out of the South, blew brief nervous breaths, and like silly spendthrifts wore themselves to death. Before evening was come, the men and women of Surprise had stood again and again in their doorways to eye the sky, to snuff the air, and to declare the rains must break before morning.
In the teeth of these warnings, when afternoon wore out to evening, and dark came down to shroud the stifled day, when in the high sky not one star could find a porthole to look through, Power rode down to Pelican Pool. Kaloona, as well as Surprise, had read the signs of the heavens, and Power judged the storm would burst before dawn. Dark had fallen [Pg 283]half-an-hour when he guided his horse among the trees by the river.
He drew rein on the edge of the clearing in the timber, and from his seat in the saddle looked across the open. Through the doorway of the hut, in a long bright beam, the light came to divide the dark. Molly sat upon a box in the doorway against a background of light. Black she seemed, and around her was a radiance of light, and outside the light waited the steaming dark. She sat in a reverie, her elbows on her knees, her chin in her hands, and when the sounds of the horse reached her, she gave no sign other than calling out, “Is that you, Jim?”
“Yes, Molly.” Power took the saddle from his horse, and came into the eye of the lamp. The hut was empty when he glanced inside. “Alone to-night, Molly? Are they over at the shaft?”
“No, they went to Surprise this morning. They reckoned to be home by dark. I thought you might be them. Maybe Dad is soaked. Mum takes a drop times, too.”
“They had better be back soon if they mean to be back dry. The rains are here at last.” A mutter of thunder began very far away. “Listen!”
Power took off his hat and tossed it on the[Pg 284] table in the hut. His dress was a shirt wide open at the neck, and his sleeves were rolled up above his elbows. But the night grew hotter moment by moment. Molly, on the box, kept her chin in her hands and stared out into the dark, and he felt no more talkative than she. He leaned back against the doorpost. As he did so a second mutter of thunder began very far away. The trees were wrapped from sight in the dark. Not one star peered from the sky.
“What’s the matter, Molly? Have we left you too long alone? Your little tongue has gone to sleep, thinking there was no more use for it to-night.” She did not answer, and he thought she shivered. He bent down this time and spoke sharply. “What’s making you shiver, child? You have not a touch of fever, have you? You had better wrap up quick and get away from the open.”
“It isn’t fever.”
Something in her voice made him stoop down until they were face to face. “What’s the matter? You are changed to-night.”
“Aw, nothing is the matter.”
She would not look round, and must stare on into the dark. Power sat on his heels on her right hand. He lit a pipe and waited for the strange mood to pass away. He was damp with perspiration, and the sultriness of the night[Pg 285] rested on him like a weight. Then he heard a voice.
“The old dog died to-day.”
“Bad luck for Bluey. He was very old.”
“I reckon I shall miss him.”
“Did you bury him?”
“I couldn’t find the shovel. I chucked him in the trees over there. Dad can fix him to-morrow.”
“Is that what you have been thinking of all to-night?”
She ignored him again. The light from the doorway showed every line of her perfect profile, and by putting out a hand he could have touched the hair lying about her brows. Though he looked upon her beauty every night, he never found it grow less wonderful; but now he discovered with a curious sense of shame that he contemplated it with the calm born of dying passion. He would never see again so rare a work of art as this casket, but alackaday! he had opened the lid, and the delicate thing was empty.
“What have you got in your head, child?”
“Maybe I am talking moonshine; but I can’t get the notion off me that I won’t be long following the old dog.”
“Don’t talk nonsense, Molly.”
She shrugged her shoulders in the brief fashion he found so charming. The growl of thunder came a third time from the distance, grumbling louder and enduring longer than the claps which had sounded before, and on the echo of this final rumble a feverish breeze sprang up, and wooed the hair upon her forehead and laid a kind breath against his cheek. Power looked in the track of the storm and saw only the black sky. He began to doubt if the burst would wait for midnight. He wanted to rouse the child into better spirits, but himself must first summon courage to shake off the oppression of the night. Now she was speaking again—to herself as much as to him.
“Maybe it isn’t hard to die. The old dog was curled round quiet and easy when I found him. Sometimes when I get fair sick of hearing mum and dad and of doin’ the same old things, I think it easier to be dead than to start to-morrow.” She broke without warning into low, charming laughter. “When we have sat a few weeks [Pg 287]inside there with the rain coming through every crack of the roof and each of us fair tired of looking at the other, we’ll reckon it a better game to be dead than alive.”
“Wise men say there is another life to be lived when this one is done with, Molly.”
“I’ve heard that story before, Jim. There was a parson round our ways once with a pack-horse. He reckoned there was more business when we had done with this place. I got him talking, for I hadn’t seen a feller for a month. But I expect there isn’t too much in the tale. What do you think, Mister?”
“Why Mister again?”
“If there is, let us hope we make less muddle of things next time.”
“Phew! it’s hot. See the lightning. You will have a wet skin to go home in. No, I don’t want to die yet. Some things don’t happen too bad. I’d be sorry not to ride a horse again or to go fishing or to hear the birds. It isn’t too bad of a morning when the sun first comes over the plain, and it isn’t too bad to hear the noises in the scrub of a night.” She stopped to smile. “And I don’t want to say good-bye to you fellows.”
“So you like us just a little bit after all?”
For the first time she gave up watching the[Pg 288] dark and looked round at him out of grave eyes. He was startled at their solemnity and wondered what she was going to say. She laid a hand upon his arm.
“Jim, you and me are near come to the end of things, aren’t we? You aren’t always fretting to kiss me now as you was. I reckon soon you will be quite through with me.”
“Yes, it is true.”
He said nothing, but presently he moved beside her and put an arm about her. She was staring into the dark again, and he laid his cheek against her cheek, and they looked together in the direction where the storm was rolling up.
“It is time to talk about things, Molly, and there is nobody to disturb us. When the rains come, this riding to and fro will have an end. What is to become of us all—tell me, child? Time never stops, you know. Life never stands still. And it looks, doesn’t it, as if a man or woman can never go back, can never stay still even, but must go on? A long while now three men have come day by day to offer you all they have, but not to one of them have you yet nodded your head. I wish time knew how to stand still, so that we could have stayed as we are for ever, as though love like some enchanter had touched us with his wand; but time is in a[Pg 289] hurry, and I think at last you must choose one of us and send the others gently about their business. Molly, whisper it. Who is it to be?”
“If you was a girl that lived alone all day with only an old dog as mate, you wouldn’t find it easy to shake your head when a man said he liked you. Why are you always thinking and worrying so? Why don’t you let things be?”
“It is time, it is not me, who won’t let things stand still.”
“Jim, talk straight with me. You are through with me, aren’t you?”
“Molly, I would ask you to marry me, but I know we wouldn’t be happy very long.”
He felt her take her cheek away as though he had startled her. Presently, when she spoke, her voice was more gentle than he had ever known it.
“You are a good fellow; but it don’t make any difference, nor make me think other of what I know. You have come to the end of me, and it is only because you are a good fellow that you talk of marriage. There’s no need to worry over what has gone by. Kisses don’t last long after they are kissed, and a girl wouldn’t come to much harm with such as you.” She laughed again. “Fancy me the wife of the boss of Kaloona. Mum and dad have been rowing me about it since the start. You are a good fellow[Pg 290] to come here with a long face and talk about marriage, but you always was a bit soft and none the worse for that.”
While she was speaking the breeze wore out in a final timid flutter, and the heat returned to the night, and then, while he sat there acknowledging with a certain grim humour her words left him unmoved, he felt her nestle against him.
“I would not marry you if you wanted, but I will give you a kiss instead, for I know you are a straight fellow, and that is not forgetting what has happened with you and Miss Neville. Come, Mister, look this way.”
He bent his head and they kissed where the beam of light clove the dark, and it seemed to him there was less passion and more fondness in that kiss than in all the kisses they had kissed before. Presently he took his lips from hers, and she laid her head upon his shoulder.
“What has made you so kind to-night, Molly?”
He was forgotten again. She was looking into the dark as though her sight pierced it and regarded something beyond. He could see only the outline of her head; but in imagination he looked into her eyes which were sleepy with dreams. A flutter of wind sprang up again in the South—a flash of light opened and shut the heavens—there followed a row-de-dow of[Pg 291] thunder. The sudden commotion no whit disturbed her; but a moment after she was speaking.
“Mister, I’ve got a queer feeling. It won’t let me be. Something is going to happen.” She shivered again. “Do you reckon there are things that come and go, and we can’t see them?”
“No, silly child. We have behaved badly to you. We left you alone all day, and your little brain, which was not meant for hard thinking, has been run away with by big thoughts. Come, we still have our talk to finish. We are to tell the truth to-night, and the time has come for you to choose one of us. Whisper me the name…. Molly, I am waiting for it…. Molly…. Then I shall have to tell you. Mick is the name that tangles up your tongue.”
“Poor Mr. Power.”
“I have always known.”
“And now you are glad.”
“Are you going to marry him, Molly?”
“Some day maybe.”
“He is a straight man, child. You couldn’t choose a straighter one.”
Once more the wind had fluttered itself to death. She lifted her hair from her brows to cool her forehead.
Now, in a mysterious way, the night began to cool, and a rush of wind leapt up and swept towards them from the distance. It broke upon the timbered country with a loud cry, clapping and clashing the boughs together. And presently it plucked at the hair of his head and snatched at the folds of her dress. And then it had swept by, leaving the night cooler for its passage.
“What are you thinking of, Molly?”
“That was how you liked me, and now it has all blown away.”
“Don’t talk like that.”
“When are you going to see Miss Neville?”
“I never see her now. Things have become muddled past straightening out.”
“But you will be seeing her soon, I reckon?”
“No. I tried to sit on two stools, and I have fallen between them.”
She laughed gently, and put a hand into one of his. “Why are you so stupid sometimes? You are always so fond of questions. It is my turn. Jim, you are in love with Miss Neville, aren’t you?”
“Then what’s wrong?”
“A good deal seems to be wrong, child.”
“When you sit there with a long face, I can’t help teasing you. I reckon you haven’t learnt too much about girls yet. There’s something I can tell you, and don’t frown and scowl at once. Miss Neville was round these ways again this afternoon. Don’t look like that, I said.”
“Go on, but be kind.”
“I won’t tell you why she came nor what she said; but I didn’t take her up short this time. I was glad to see her, for the old dog dying had made me lonely. When she was going away, she asked if I was marrying you, and I thought to do you a daddy turn at last, for sometimes you are a good fellow. I told her you was through with me, and that you wanted her again only you was too high and mighty to go back. This is straight wire, Jim.”
Silence fell between them. All the while now lightning opened and shut the dark, and a grumble of thunder sounded in the sky. Molly was the first to break the spell.
“It’s getting late. You had better be making home. The storm will bust soon by looks of things, and you’ll be washed off the road.”
“I don’t like leaving you by yourself.”
“You’d better get. Dad and Mum will be back soon.”
“Perhaps you are right, Molly.”
They rose and walked together to the horse, which he saddled. He did not unhitch the rein from the branch. Instead, he turned and drew Molly close against him.
“I shall never forget you, whatever happens to us. I shall always remember you as something very lovely and evasive. Whenever I see a tree in blossom, I shall think of you with a lantern in your hand. Whenever I see a star fall down the sky, I shall think of the first kiss I gave you. But, child, it is time we gave by our kissing. Your kisses are for someone else, and I must ride my own roads. We shall often see each other again, but this must be our real good-bye.”
“Jim!” was all she said, though she leant closer to him.
They kissed their last kiss by the shrunken margin of Pelican Pool. The cloud wrack blotted out the stars; but the trees lifted wide arms above them. They kissed their last kiss in the heat and passion of the young night, while the flying foxes glided on quiet wings over the tree tops, and the insect armies fluttered on their many errands about the dark. As Power felt her lips laid against his own, he experienced a surge of regret and thankfulness—regret for what this summer madness had cost him—thankfulness for the widened vision he had[Pg 295] gained. Presently he took his lips from her lips, and bending again, laid a chaste kiss upon her forehead. Then he had drawn himself from her embrace, and had taken the bridle rein in his hands.
CHAPTER XXIThe Coming of the Rains
The storm burst in the middle of the night. A rush of wind came with a high call out of the South and tore at the hessian walls of Surprise with multitudinous fingers. It fell with upraised voice upon the timbered country of Pelican Pool and swung together the heads of the trees. It leapt in rage upon the staunch homestead of Kaloona so that the timbers groaned beneath the buffet. There blazed through the dark a sheet of light and the ghost of day stood an instant naked and trembling. There sounded a roar of thunder. And at once the sky was torn from end to end to let down the rains.
The waters struck the iron roofs of Surprise and Kaloona with the shock of a cataract. They flogged the bleached walls of the tents. They lashed the ground, tearing the small stones from the soil. Ever and again lightning ripped in shreds the dark and thunder pealed in the skies. The wind came and went in giant claps.[Pg 297] The minutes wore out without any wearying of this rage.
A sheet of water crept about the face of the country, exploring and claiming the hollows of the land. Tiny torrents tumbled wherever the ground was broken. Dry creeks woke to life and swept upon the journey to the river. The grasses were beaten to the ground. The saplings cowered and wrung their limbs. And ever new lightnings tore the dark in pieces, and thunders cracked in the skies; even the voices of drumming waters called in the dark in answer to the shouting of the wind.
The storm thrust a way into the tenderer places of Surprise. It pushed through the patches in the canvas roofs, and crept through the crevices of the walls, streaming across the floors while Mrs. Boulder, Mrs. Niven and Mrs. Bloxham, wakened from sleep, peered upon it from their beds.
Said Mrs. Boulder, putting forth a heavy hand for the matches and nudging Boulder awake. “Stow that, man, and get to it. There’s something doing, I reckon.”
Mrs. Niven, striking a match upon like scene, lifted up dolorous voice. “Are you never goin’ to raise a finger to help me, but’ll stay snorin’ there till the place falls in atop of us? There[Pg 298] won’t be a dry inch in another half hour, an’ not two sticks of wood chopped, I’ve no doubt.”
Over all the camp dismal lights flicker up behind the walls where Bullock, Bloxham and Johnson pass barefooted upon their errands.
At Kaloona the storm lasted through the hours of dark. The rain roared up and down the iron roofs. The lightning flamed outside the windows. The thunder bellowed in the sky. Ever and anon a hurricane of wind clapped hold of the house and shook it, or for an instant the roar of rain died, as though a sudden giant hand had plucked away the heavens. As each blaze of lightning wrenched the landscape from the dark, Power from his standing place by the window, and Mrs. Elliott and Maggie from the security of bed, looked upon a country over which crept a wide reach of water.
Power was considering bed when the storm began and set him thinking of other things. He lit a pipe and stood before the window spectator of events. He stood for a long time without turning round, but left his post presently, picked up the lamp from the table and made the way down a passage. He stopped before a door and hammered upon it until it opened. By the light of the lamp Mrs. Elliott was discovered confronting him, more ample than ever in her wide[Pg 299] nightgown. He shouted at her above the cry of the rain.
“How are you doing in there? Nothing coming through yet?”
“O.K. to date, Mr. Power. Don’t you worry for us. It looks as though the whole place’ll bust and go up in a cloud of smoke, don’t it?” Mrs. Elliott beamed upon him.
“I’m just round the corner. Call me if you want me.” He nodded good-night and the door shut. Back in the sitting-room he put the lamp on the table and took a stand once more by the window.
He gave up all thoughts of bed. The cries of the storm and the lights blazing through the window keyed up his nerves. He became full of fancies of which Molly Gregory was the beginning and the end. He reproached himself for not remaining until the others came back. In the face of this tumult it seemed a brutal thing to have left the child alone. But now the others would be back, and his fancies did no good. Once more repenting the event!
Then his thoughts made their way to Surprise. Was his punishment coming to an end? If he went back and asked forgiveness, would he be forgiven? Molly had told him yes. He had no right to hope for such a thing, yet Maud knew now he loved her. And in truth he loved her as[Pg 300] he had not known how to love a woman a little while ago—loving her body, because it was her body; but counting it of small value beside the spirit. Hope was coming back to him to-night with the reviving influence of a cool wind searching the forehead of a castaway in a desert place.
The door by the verandah steps swung wide open. The storm swept inside the house in a greedy gust. The curtains at the windows were caught up in the air. The light leapt up the chimney of the lamp and went out. He was in the dark. He ran across and pushed the door to. It buffeted him on the shoulder. A glare of lightning lit up the house. He bolted the door, came back and lit the lamp, and wiped the rain off his face.
The endurance of this storm was remarkable. Commonly the rain was spent within an hour and a lull came. If this did not abate the river would be coming down. They were safe up here on the rise, but it was another matter with the hut on Pelican Pool. Every few years there came a flood which covered all that country. Surely Gregory could look after himself. He was a bushman even if he was a fool. What was he—Power—worrying about? He was depressed because he was damp and circulation went down at this time and the jumping light[Pg 301] thrown by the lamp would give any man the blues.
Finally, while Power stood there at odds with himself, the storm ceased as suddenly as it had begun.
The hush following on the heels of the tumult brought him abruptly out of his thoughts. He left the room, pushed open the wire door, and stood upon the verandah steps. The sky was covered with clouds over all its face, causing the night to be pitch dark. The air was very cool. A light wind felt the way hither and thither among the nodding boughs of the saplings; and in all places were countless small voices of dripping waters.
A frog croaked from the direction of the river. A frog replied to it. There followed several croaks, then many croaks. Presently in tens, presently in scores, presently in hundreds were raised the voices of the frogs. The chorus rose up everywhere. A-rrr! A-rrr! Mo-rrr-e! Mo-rrr-e! More water! More water! More water! Then the thunder began again in the South, and the lightning leapt across the dark. The second storm rolled out of the horizon and broke upon the land.
Later on Power found the way to bed; but he slept badly and quite soon it seemed to be morning.
Kaloona household woke up to a cheerless day. In a lull between the storms light crept into the sky. Power from his window, Mrs. Elliott and Maggie from the kitchen, stared upon a strange country. Heaven was choked with frowning clouds looking down upon a broken land. Pools of water filled the depressions. The higher country was beaten and furrowed. Many boughs had been torn from the timber by the river. The saplings bent piteously before the morning wind. Moisture dripped from the leaves down and down until it reached the ground. In all places tiny streams trickled about the country. A thousand small voices of dropping waters murmured in open and hidden places. Louder than the voices of the waters rose the concert of the frogs.
“Meg,” said Mrs. Elliott, coming into the damp kitchen first thing, “we’ll be drowned yet, mark me, before this is done.”
“It don’t look too good,” said Maggie.
“It don’t. There’s worse to come,” went on Mrs. Elliott, taking a look into the wood box. “What’s more, there wouldn’t have been a dry stick in the house if that horrid little man had had his way. I don’t know what the boss keeps him for.”
“The boss himself is got pretty cranky,” said Maggie. “It’s time he took a pull on himself.”
“It is, Meg.”
The storms pursued each other from dawn to the middle of the day. In the space of moments the sky would blacken, thunder would peal out and a flare of lightning split the heavens. The rain would drum again on the iron roofs. There fell lulls when Power idled on the verandah looking over the country; but towards noon, when the sky was clear for a space, he picked the way to the stables. The ground was filled with pools of water, and the higher land was a morass. There was a bitterness in the air that persuaded him to keep hands in his pockets. He felt dispirited and on edge.
When he pushed open the stable door Scandalous Jack was fussing round the stalls. The big black horse was in a box, and near it a chestnut horse of O’Neill’s. Scandalous Jack stopped working with great readiness and shouted salutations of the day.
“Marnin’, gov’nor, and a bad one at that! I reckon we’ll be carrying our swags to Surprise this time to-morrow if things don’t take a pull. Yer see I kept these two inside. They’ll do better in than out, and it will be a fool’s game running horses for a bit! The black feller don’t look bad, do he?”
“He’s pretty well,” said Power, looking the black horse over.
“He’s that!” shouted Scandalous, “and I was the man to do it. The lip that woman gives at the house would make you think there was nothing to do but run after her. I’ll let her have it one day—her, and the gel too, hot and strong.”
“Then you are a braver man than I am, Scandalous,” Power said, moving on. “Keep the horses in. They may be wanted.”
O’Neill kicked his heels in the yards at the back of the stables, pipe in mouth and an expression on his face to match the day. Power nodded.
“Pretty heavy fall,” he said. “The river will be down by evening—and pretty big too.”
O’Neill shook his head. “Do you reckon they are all right at the Pool? There’s times the water fills that channel behind them, you know.”
“They are right enough if Gregory knows his business. I’ve a mind to go across in the afternoon if the weather lifts.”
Power glanced overhead. Another storm was spreading across the sky. He started to return to the house. The day was quickly darkening and the prospect looked dismal beyond contemplation. Half-a-dozen unoccupied people loitered in sight, and the single patch of colour was where the gins in brilliant rags smoked in the doorway of their hut. He[Pg 305] went indoors with the hump. Maggie was laying lunch in the dining-room. “Twelve o’clock?” he asked.
Maggie went out of the room. He fell into contemplation by the window until Mrs. Elliott bustled in on a household errand and brought him to his senses.
“Don’t moon about like that,” she cried at sight of him. “Get some work to do.”
“Find it for me,” he said, turning towards her.
Mrs. Elliott confronted him in battle array. “Mr. Power, it’s time you took a hold on yourself. This running to and fro every night in the dark isn’t no good to you nor to Miss Neville, nor to me for that matter. You’ll make a mess o’ things soon and I’m old enough to be your mother.”
“Perhaps the mess is made.”
“Now, Mr. Power, I’m talking straight. Things won’t be too mixed to put right if you start now. All men are the same and I know a deal about them. They can get themselves boxed up as easy as sheep in a yard, but they are not so quick at the untangling.” Mrs. Elliott came closer and grew confidential. She lifted a fat finger. “And I’ll tell you something more, Mr. Power. All gels are much of a kind too. You may have a split with them, but if you go[Pg 306] back and drop the soft word into their ears you can get them kind again.”
Maggie came in with the dishes, and a moment after the storm burst above the house.
The women went out of the room and he began a solitary meal. The rain flogged the iron roof. Presently Maggie appeared to change the dishes and afterwards he was sitting before the finished meal listening to the tumult and feeling too out of temper to light a pipe. On one thing his mind was made up. He would ride to the Pool in the afternoon if he was washed off the road in the attempt. The river would come down in the evening. The family must be brought back and the world could wag its tongue. He was getting the blues for ever debating on the child’s safety.
Without warning the rain was snatched back into the sky. The sudden silence confounded him. Then he threw back his head. Far away rose the voice of tremendous waters. One deep note without rise or fall was being played. He listened with all his might. He could not be mistaken. The river had come down.
He pushed back his chair and got to his feet. The verandah was a few steps away. The storm was hurrying out of the sky and the day had brightened once more. All over the country arose again the gentle melodious cries of [Pg 307]dripping waters. He leant on the rail by the verandah steps. Now the thunder of the river was distinct, and among the trees he saw here and there widening sheets of water. He had not made a mistake.
His depression left him in a moment. He began to think very quickly. The river must have reached the Pool two hours ago. He had never known such a sudden flood. By this time the water would be all over that low country. The Gregorys would be without a home. What if the fellow had proved a fool and taken risks? He must satisfy himself. He must go without delay.
He went inside again. He found his spurs and pulled on an oilskin. Mrs. Elliott came running down the passage.
“The river is down, Mr. Power. A regular old man flood.”
He answered walking past her. “I heard it. I shall be away in a minute. I may bring back those people on the river. You had better have something ready.”
“Don’t dare bring ’em inside the place!” cried Mrs. Elliott, but the door was shut on her words.
As Power left the house a man on horseback was coming through the gate of the homestead paddock. The horse had been pushed to the[Pg 308] limit of its strength. It breathed with sobs and trembled as it walked. The rider rolled in the saddle. Man and beast were plastered with a coat of mud. It covered them from the crown of the man’s hat to the hoofs of the horse. Then the rider spat clear his mouth and called out. It was Gregory.
“The river has come down! The gel is drowned!”
Power felt a sudden rage seize him by the throat; but he answered in a level voice. “What’s that you say?”
“The river’s down. The gel’s drowned!”
“What were you doing?”
“I was at Surprise with the missus. We was on a bit of a spree. We wasn’t back last night. I rode down an hour since. The river was down then and the hut going to bits. The water had come round the back of the place. There wasn’t a sign of the gel. She’d have tried to cross and got washed away. Aw, Gawd, what’s to be done?”
“Get out of the way!” Power said. He moved towards the stables at a walk that was becoming a run. Scandalous Jack bobbed about the doorway. “Saddle my horse!” he called out.
Scandalous threw up his head in surprise. “You’re not mad enough to——?”
“Saddle that horse!” he shouted. Scandalous bobbed inside.
Power began to call out for O’Neill. The man came out of the doorway of his hut. With common consent they ran towards each other. “Gregory is here. The child is drowned!” The two men began to run faster and towards the stable. “We might be in time. I am going now.”
Scandalous was coming out of the stable door with the black horse. It threw its head this way and that, snorting loudly. Scandalous, very full of respect, nursed his corns. Power took the reins. O’Neill was running for a saddle.
“Scandalous, listen to me. The river has come down at Pelican Pool. There’s been an accident. Gregory’s girl may be drowned. I’m going there now. Send Jackie after the buggy horses. You must bring the buggy as fast as you can. Bring anything useful. Bring some rope. Bring blankets. Bring whisky. Find Jackie now. Jackie!”
He gathered the reins in one hand and put the other on the saddle. The wind arrived and blew his oilskin into the air. The black horse sent a blast from its nostrils and reared high; but as it came to ground he was gaining the saddle. He picked up the stirrups and drew the reins together. The wind was in his face. Far away,[Pg 310] but loud, sounded the roar of the river. The beast beneath him reefed at the reins. The small paddock was covered in a score of bounds. He found he must use both hands to check the animal. Pools of water splashed under them and the mud sucked at its hoofs. Clods of earth leapt upon his back. The gate demanded a halt. He pushed open the gate with his foot.
The Pool was distant only a few miles; but travelling was so bad he dared not force the pace. He left the gate wide open, and turned towards the river. He took the reins in both hands. He bent his head a little. A stream of lightning flooded the sky. A rush of wind hit him a buffet in the face. The day began to darken. He felt the animal’s mouth with firm hands. It answered the signal.
It plunged away, leaning hard on his hands. It was the most powerful beast he rode, yet he hesitated to give it head. He knew the spur must be used before the end of the journey. The country was a bog. Sheets of shallow water covered the plain. It was a struggle to win a foot of the rough ground. They rode for a spill. Every yard of travelling splashed him to the top of his head. On the higher ground, uncovered by the water, clouts of mud struck him behind.
The day had turned black. Lightning poured out of the clouds. Thunder stamped upon the sky until it trembled. Here and here a starved sapling stood up in the water. There and there a broken tuft of spinifex lifted up its sodden spikes. He looked once over his shoulder to see O’Neill labouring half-a-mile behind. A second rush of wind, fiercer than the first, beat him in the face. The new storm was about to break.
He wondered what he was thinking of, and he found he was not thinking. Instead, he was filled with a grievous sense of tragedy. He was late. Once more he was late. He had left her alone to die.
In the teeth of better judgment he tightened the reins and signalled greater speed. A blaze of lightning tore the sky in half; the thunder shattered overhead and the rains rushed out of the sky. He thought the shock had thrown the beast off its feet. It propped on the instant and swung around. Good luck and skill held him in the saddle. He strove to turn it around, but it would not answer him. His nerves were worn raw and his temper got the better of wisdom. He fell upon it with whip and spur.
It came round at last and began to thrust sideways through the downpour. The rains scourged them. The water leapt from his shoulders back into his face. The landscape was[Pg 312] blotted out. In an instant the lower half of him was wet through. He could not see. He could hear nothing but the rain. He felt the suck and draw of the animal’s hoofs as it rolled along. Again and again the lightning thrust its arms about the sky. He rode through the rain-burst for a very long time. Without warning he passed out on the other side. The rain stopped, the storm rolled behind him, the day grew bright again.
He had covered most of the journey. The river was a mile away, but his horse was done. He himself felt dazed and his clothes held him with clammy fingers. The passing of the storm had left the world very still. He rubbed the water from his eyes. Someone was ahead of him. A buggy advanced to the edge of the timbered country. It contained only the driver, who was crouched over the reins. He thought he recognised King.
Something farther away than King arrested his vision. Half of the journey had been made across a sheet of shallow water; but over there, where the higher trees began, the water eddied and tossed, betraying the edge of the river. He looked on the highest flood in his memory. The timber concealed the great body of water; but far away on the other side of the trees climbed the flood. A deep note came across to him; the[Pg 313] voice of the river hurrying to its marriage with the sea.
He did not remember finishing the journey. He bullied a spent horse the rest of the way. After a long time they reached the edge of the timber where a minute or two before the buggy had come to a halt.
He pulled up the horse beside the buggy. Mr. King had got down and was standing in the water. They did not trouble to greet each other, and he thought King looked out of his mind. They stood on the edge of the flood waters. Half-a-mile away the body of the river roared on its journey. In the intervening space the trees stood out of the sluggish water shaking their damaged boughs in the wind. The shaded ways, the quiet places had gone; there was no sign of Pelican Pool.
His breath came back, and with his breath returned his presence of mind. He forgot the man beside him and stared over the ears of the horse. One by one old landmarks were picked up, and at last his eye found the wreckage of the hut. It was a third of the way across the river. The main body of water swept beyond it, but an arm of the river had come in this way. Horror laid a hand upon his heart.
A terrible cry rang out beside him. “My Princess! My Princess!” Mr. King was [Pg 314]looking at the hut. Of a sudden he began running towards it. He ran stumbling a long way and stopped only when the water reached his knees. He threw his arms before him and cried again in the terrible voice: “My Princess! My Princess!” The roar of the river came back in answer.
Power touched the horse with his heel and it began to walk forward through the water. As the depth increased, the beast snorted and threw about its head. They had advanced a little way, when O’Neill overtook them, and the two men moved side by side towards the broken water.
Power believed now Molly Gregory was dead. The child had sat all night in the hut after he had left her listening to the storms breaking outside. No doubt she had been filled with fancies which had mocked at sleep. To-day she had watched the water climbing towards her door with greedy lips. She had fled at last in panic to the land, and the blundering river had seized her in its arms.
He believed she was dead, and here he sat on horseback guiding the beast forward, holding it tight when it stumbled, avoiding the driftwood, and bending his head beneath limbs of trees. She was dead and he moved forward towards the body of the river, while the gentle waves of[Pg 315] this back channel crept up the legs of his horse so that now they licked its belly. He did this calmly and with a cool brain. Was he over quick at forgetting, or had too much sorrow defeated itself, as one pain is cured by another?
She was dead, but the three men that had loved her were still condemned to use the eyes that had looked upon her, to employ the arms that had supported her, to move the lips that had been pressed by her kisses.
There came an end to the advance. A stone’s throw beyond the halting place began the current. The river swept on its journey with a high tremendous cry. Far among the timber on the other bank brown currents surged and boiled. Trunks of trees whirled down from distant forests; rubbish from a hundred places hurried out of sight. The lesser trees danced their leaves upon the waves. Like a barbarous giant the river thundered to the sea.
Somewhere in that yeast of waters the child’s fair body hurried away. From the tumult of the river it was passing to the amorous embraces of a coral sea. The scarlet lips where so many men had left their kisses would be caressed anew by the gentle lips of an ocean. By day and by night that slender form would float on its final journey, peering into the mouths of solemn caverns, stroked by the tresses of love-sick[Pg 316] weeds, secure from the greedy suns staring hungrily through the blue roof, and followed by the curious moon as she looked to see what radiant thing took its walk by dark along the ocean bed.
The brilliant fishes would arrive to peer at this rare thing, the loathsome octopus beneath his ledge of rock would hide his shame behind a sepia curtain, and presently the brown pearl-fisher, descending from his bobbing barque, would halt in wonder at a pearl larger and more lustrous than all his toils had brought him.
Where had fled the little soul? Perhaps as a tiny jewelled bird already it fluttered through celestial fields, quick and charming and bright, but a thing of small account. In that new country where sight was keener, it would not again be priced above its worth.
The flow and hurry of the river was drugging Power’s mind. He broke the spell by a jerk of the head, and looking behind him saw King not very far away deep in the water. King was suddenly an old man. Power turned to the horseman beside him. O’Neill stared at the broken hut. His head was thrust forward, and he sat huddled in the saddle. The water had climbed to the saddle-flap, and the ends of his oilskin played with the waves. He began to speak at that moment.
“I reckon I’d have a chance of getting across. I could go higher up and beat the pull of the current.”
“You wouldn’t,” Power said. “And no use if you could. She isn’t there. We shan’t see her again.”
“Gawd! I must go across! I can’t stay here!”
“It will do no good, Mick. She has escaped us.”
Power drew his horse beside the other man, for the clamour of the river made speech difficult. He began to speak more intimately than ever he remembered doing.
“Once I loved her in a way it will be hard to love anyone else. Then passion seemed to go away—somewhere, I don’t know where; but she taught me so much I shall never be out of her debt. She has made me look on life with new eyes.
“I have something to tell you. I was down here last night before the rain began. She had been alone all day, and she was quite strange—so serious. We talked about a lot of things, and I asked her which of us three she loved. She said it was you. The three of us fought over her, and in the middle she slipped away and it seems we have lost her; but because she loved you, she left you her best behind.
“We must go back and get dry. There is nothing else to do. To-morrow, if the storms keep away, we can look for her lower down; but we won’t find her. Just now the world seems to have come to an end. Things will be straighter in a bit, and we’ll find there is something to be got out of this. To reach for a thing and to get it may be good enough, but a man grows quicker by stretching for the thing beyond his hand. We shall always remember her as a fairy thing out of reach, and looking for her to come again will help a fellow to growl less in the summer, give him more patience to teach his dog manners, hurry him through the day’s work. Come, we must get back.”
Power brought his horse about. He heard O’Neill splash behind him. He went across to King, and King turned up a haggard face.
“We must get back. There is nothing to do.”
The three men began to splash towards the land. Two more buggies had arrived on the bank. Scandalous Jack was getting down from one, and the other was drawn by the white buggy horses of Surprise. The old man sat in the driver’s seat and beside him was Maud Neville. Power met her glance across the distance. The three men reached the bank.
CHAPTER XXIIThe Meeting by the River
Power dismounted. He was full of tiny pains and the cold was beginning to eat into his bones. Neville had pulled up the buggy near at hand. The old man was plastered with mud to his shaggy eyebrows.
“Hey, Power!” he shouted out. “What’s become of the gel?”
“We were too late.”
“Goodness, that’s a nuisance! Get out, Maud, gel. I want to get down.” The two people got down from the buggy. “Now that’s annoyin’,” went on the old man, feeling under the seat for his stick. “Nearly killed ourselves getting here, too. I may be wrong, but I reckon the horses won’t be much good for a day or two, huh, huh! Here’s what I was after. It’s looking a bit more settled over there now. The rain may be gone for a while.”
Scandalous arrived across the mud.
“The gel’s drowned after all, then, Power?”
“You would have thought a gel like her would find sense to look after herself. No sign of her anywhere about?” The old man cast glances up and down the bank.
“We’ll search lower down to-morrow.”
“Yes, I reckon that’s all there is to do. It’s not much use hanging round here gettin’ cold. The river came down pretty quick and pretty big. Gracious! What’s up with King! Goodness, he’s badly hit!”
The old man trotted away after King.
Maud stood beside the buggy. She was looking at the river. Power found himself watching her. She was wet through and blown about by the wind; but her gaze was steady as it followed the rush of the current. Of those who had hurried here in panic, she only was serene; yet the schoolmaster had set her the severest tasks. It must be she was the aptest pupil. Power tried to follow her thoughts. She was finding a symbol in the river. It had rushed down with a great cry upon this quiet place, snatching away the old landmarks. Its fury would wear out presently, and over the wrecked country a[Pg 321] kindly growth of green would make its way. That was what she saw.
Power fell into reflection. Two months ago he had found Gregory sleeping a drunken sleep on the road, had taken pity on him and had led him home. In the doorway of a shabby tent beside the river he had seen Molly for the first time. Two months had gone by since then, and for sixty days he had lived life more acutely than he had believed possible. He would not wish to live life so keenly again. He seemed to have travelled in every country. He seemed to have lived in every climate. He seemed to have climbed every height and to have gone down into every dark way. All books had been opened that he might look inside. All strings of experience had been plucked that he might listen to new notes.
These two months were at an end, and there seemed no more countries to visit, no more climates to test, no more heights to climb, no more depths to descend. The books were being shut. The strings of experience were growing mute. Instead of turning his ears to siren voices, he listened again to the speech of everyday. In place of fields of asphodel, he trod again the highway. It was time to see where he stood—to add up gains and subtract losses.
Strange that the metal must pass through the[Pg 322] fire before the artificer will receive it. Strange that a man must experience sorrow before wisdom will shape him to its ends. Yet such burnings need not be considered punishment, such sorrow need not be counted degradation.
He had served his apprenticeship to love and now might call himself craftsman. He knew where to chisel with his tools—not in the poor material of the human body, but in the enduring fabric of the spirit. He had learned this craft, and the fee of apprenticeship had been that he had put aside unrecognised the finest material that would come under his hand.
He came out of his reverie and found Maud watching him. He went towards her through the pools of water.
. . . . . .
My tale is told. While nine months have been wearing out, I have come back, night by night, to this tent, a scribe who would beguile the hour with the telling of a story. The tale is told to the last word. Put down the pen; run in the horses and saddle up. It is time to seek new places. The railway line creeps across the plain to Surprise; and growth and change will fall upon the camp to devour it. Take down the tent, fill up the tucker-bags and load the pack-horse. It is time to be gone.
W. C. Penfold & Co. Ltd., Printers, 183 Pitt Street, Sydney.#ENGLISH