Conversation became more general as champagne flowed and the courses proceeded.
Sir Luke, discreetly on the prowl for information, attacked Antipodean questions—the Blacks for instance. He had observed the small company of natives theatrically got up in the war-paint of former times, which, grouped round the dais on which he had been received at the State Landing, had furnished an effective bit of local colour to the pageant. Up to what degree of latitude might these semi-civilised, and he feared demoralised beings, be taken as a survival of the indigenous population of Leichardt's Land? Did wild and dangerous Blacks still exist up north and in the interior of the Colony?
'You'd better ask McKeith about that, your Excellency,' said the Premier. 'He knows more about the Blacks up north than any of us.'
The Governor enquired as to the amenability of the Australian native to missionary methods of civilisation, and one of the other Ministers broke in with a laugh.
'Bible in one hand and baccy in the other! No, Sir, the Exeter Hall and General Gordon principles aren't workable with our Blacks. Kindness doesn't do. The early pioneers soon found that out.'
Lady Bridget had stopped suddenly in her talk with Colin, and was listening, her eyes glowering at her companion.
'Why didn't kindness do?' she asked sharply.
'Yes; Mr McKeith, tell us why the early pioneers abandoned the gentle method,' said the Governor.
McKeith's face changed: it became dark and a dangerous fire blazed in his blue eyes.
'Because they found that the Blacks repaid kindness with ingratitude—treachery—foul murder—' He pulled himself up as though afraid of losing command of himself if he pursued the subject: his voice thrilled with some deep-seated feeling. Mrs Gildea, who understood the personal application, broke in across the table with an apposite remark about her own early experiences of the Blacks. Lady Bridget impatiently addressed McKeith.
'Go on. What do the Blacks do now to you people to make you treat them unkindly?'
'What do they do now—to us squatters you mean?' Colin had recovered himself. 'Why they begin by spearing our cattle and then they take to spearing ourselves.'
'Did they ever spear you?' she asked.
Colin smiled at her grimly.
'Well, you wouldn't have noticed, of course, that I've got just a touch of a limp—it's only if I'm not in my best form that it shows. I owe that to a spear through my thigh one night that the Blacks rushed my camp when I was asleep. And I'd given their gins rations that very morning.'
'And then?' Lady Bridget's voice was tense.
'Oh then—after they'd murdered a white man or two, the rest of us whites—there wasn't more than a handful of us at that time up on the Leura—banded together and drove them off into the back country. We had a dangerous job with those Blacks until King Mograbar was shot down.'
'King Mograbar! How cruelly unjust. It was his country you were STEALING.' She accentuated the last word with bitter scorn.
'Well! If you come to that, I suppose Captain Cook was stealing when he hoisted the British flag in Botany Bay,' said McKeith.
'And if he hadn't, what about the glorious British record, and the March of Civilisation?' put in Vereker Wells.
Bridget shot a scathing glance at the aide-de-camp.
'I don't admire your glorious British record, I think it's nothing but a record of robbery, murder, and cruelty, beginning with Ireland and ending with South Africa.'
'Oh! my dear!—I warn you,' said Lady Tallant, bending from her end of the table and addressing the Leichardt'stonians generally. 'Lady Bridget is a little Englander, a pro-Boer, a champion of the poor oppressed native. If she had been alive then she'd have wanted to hand India back to the Indians after the Mutiny, and now when she has made Cecil Rhodes Emperor of Rhodesia, she'll give over all the rest again to the Dutch.'
Bridget responded calmly to the indictment.
'Yes, I would—if Cecil Rhodes were to decline the Emperorship of all South Africa—which I should make his job.... But you'd better add on that I'm a Socialist too, Rosamond, because I've become one, as you know. I think the working man is in a shamefully unjust position, and that the capitalists are no better than slave-drivers.'
'Oh, not out here, my word!' exclaimed a Leichardt'stonian who happened to be one of the old squattocracy. 'The landowners and the capitalists are not slave-drivers, they are slave-driven. We've got to pay what the Trades' Union organisers tell us—or else go without stockmen or shearers. Fact is, our Labour War is only just beginning; and I can tell you, Sir, that before a year is out the so-called bloated capitalist and the sheep and cattle station owner will sing either pretty big or very small.'
'I don't think it will be very small—on MY station,' murmured McKeith. 'But it's quite true about the Labour War. They're organising, as they call it, already all along the Leura.'
The Governor asked to have the Labour situation explained from the squatters' point of view; and for a few minutes McKeith forgot to look at Lady Bridget. He was on his own ground and knew what he was talking about.
'It's this way,' he began. 'You see, though, I'm cattle—and I'm the furthest squatter out my way. But there are a few sheep stations down the river, and there isn't an unlimited supply of either cattle-hands or shearers, so we've got to look sharp about hiring them. Now, last year, we—of course I'm classing myself with the sheep-owners, for we all stand together—hired our shearers for seventeen shillings and sixpence a day. Then, up come the Union organisers, form a Union of the men and say to them: "You've got to pay ten shillings down to the Union and sign a contract that you won't shear under twenty shillings a day." The Organiser pockets the ten shillings, and makes three pounds a week and his expenses besides, so it pays HIM pretty well. Well then, the shearers go to the squatters. "All right," say they, "we'll shear your sheep, but it's going to be twenty shillings instead of seventeen and six." The squatters grumble, but they've got to have their sheep shorn, and they pay the twenty shillings. Next year, I'm told, the word is to go round that it's to be twenty-two and sixpence. Well sir, we're to see what's to happen then!'
The Labour talk lacked local picturesqueness. Sir Luke preferred the Blacks, and started the question of danger to white men in the out-districts. How far had officialdom penetrated into the back blocks? He understood that Mr McKeith had explored for the laying of a telegraph-line to the Big Bight. Could Mr McKeith give him any information about all that?
McKeith explained again. He had stopped a week, he said, at the last outpost of Leichardt's land civilisation. The telegraph master there lived in a hut made of sheets of corrugated zinc, raised on piles twenty feet high and fortified against the Blacks. The entrance to it was masked, spear-proof and had two men always on guard—there were four men at the post. McKeith told a gruesome story of an assault by the natives, and of rifles at work through gun-holes in the zinc tower.
Lady Bridget listened in silence. Now and then, she looked up at McKeith, and, though her eyes gave forth ominous red-brown sparks, they had in them something of the same unwilling fascination Joan Gildea had noticed in the eyes of Colin McKeith.
In the drawing room, before the men came in, Bridget talked to Joan Gildea. They hadn't yet had, as Biddy reminded her, a regular outpouring. The outpouring it should be stated, was always mostly on Bridget's side.
'When did you start Socialism?' Mrs Gildea asked. 'That's something new, isn't it?'
Biddy gave one of her slow smiles in which lips, eyes, brows, what could be seen of them under her towzle of hair—all seemed to light up together.
'Why, I've always been a Socialist—in theory, you know. I've ALWAYS rebelled against the established order of things.'
'But latterly,' said Joan, 'I haven't heard anything about your doings—not since you wrote from Castle Gaverick after—after Mr Willoughby Maule's marriage?'
The light died out of Bridget's face. 'Ah, I'll tell you—Do you know, Rosamond saw them—the Willoughby Maules before we all left. She met them at Shoolbred's—buying furniture. Rosamond said SHE was dragging after him looking—a bundle—and cross and ill; and that he seemed intensely bored. Poor Will!'
There was silence, Bridget's thoughts seemed far away.
'But about the Socialism?' prompted Mrs Gildea.
'Oh well, Aunt Eliza made up her mind suddenly to consult her new doctor—Aunt Eliza's chief excitement is changing her doctors, and she grows quite youthful in the process. They say that love and religion are the chief emotional interests of unattached women. I should add on doctors when a woman is growing old. Don't you think, Joan, that in that case, all three come invariably to the same thing?'
'Love, religion and doctors! As emotional interests, do they come to the same thing for elderly women?' repeated Mrs Gildea, as if she were propounding a syllogism. 'No, certainly not, when the elderly woman happens to be a hard-working journalist.'
'Oh, there you have the pull—I suggested the idea to Rosamond the other day and she gave a true Rosamondian answer. "They don't come at all to the same thing," she said, "because usually you have to pay your doctor and SOMETIMES your lover pays you." Rather smart, wasn't it?'
'Yes, but I think you'd better warn Lady Tallant that the Leichardt'stonian ladies are a bit Puritanical in their ideas of repartee.'
'Oh, Rosamond is clever enough to have found that out already for herself;' and the two glanced at Lady Tallant, who seemed to be playing up quite satisfactorily to the female representatives of the Ministerial circle.
'I suppose you made friends with some Socialists when you were in London?' went on Mrs Gildea.
'My dear, I would have made friends with Beelzebub just them, if he would have helped me to escape from myself.'
Bridget sighed and paused.
'But you ARE getting over it, Biddy—the disappointment about Mr Maule? You ARE growing not to care?'
'I don't want to grow not to care—though, of course, now I should prefer to care about someone or something that isn't Willoughby Maule, I feel inside me that my salvation lies in caring—in caring intensely.... But you wouldn't understand, Joan. You weren't built that way.'
'No,' assented Mrs Gildea doubtfully.
'But,' went on Biddy brightly, 'I think sometimes that if one could get to the pitch of feeling nothing matters, it would be a way of reaching the "letting go" stage which one MUST arrive at before one can even BEGIN to live in the Eternal.'
There seemed something a little comic in the notion of Bridget O'Hara living in the Eternal, and yet Mrs Gildea realised that there really was a certain stable quality underneath the flashing, ever changing temperamental sheath, which might perhaps form a base for the Verities to rest upon.
'Beelzebub didn't teach you that,' she said.
'No, quite the contrary. It all came out of my concentration studies and the Higher Thought Centre where I met some most original dears—Christian Scientists and Spiritualists—and then these Socialists—not a bit on the lines of the old Fabians and Bernard Shavians and the rest who used to believe only in Matter—specially landed property matter—and in parcelling that out among themselves. My friends are for parcelling out what they call the Divine Intelligence, which they say will bring them everything they need for the good of others and, incidentally, themselves. Of course none of them have a penny. But they do contrive to get what they want for other people—it was a soup kitchen this winter where they fed 11,000 starving poor. Only, when they begin, they never have the smallest idea of HOW it's going to be done.'
Lady Bridget was so absorbed in her subject matter that she did not notice the entrance of the men; but Mrs Gildea saw that Colin McKeith was making straight towards them. He halted behind Bridget's chair. Biddy went on in reply to a question from her friend.
'You see, they argue this way, "We don't know," they say, "the HOW of the simplest things in life, we don't know the HOW of our actual existence—how we move or think—not even the HOW of the most ordinary fact in science. We only know that there must be an Intelligence who does know and who has forces at command and the power to set them in motion."'
'And how do we know that?' asked Colin McKeith.
Bridget turned with a start and looked at him solemnly for a second or two.
'You paralyse me: you are too big. I can't speak to you when you are standing up. Please sit down.'
He went to fetch a chair. At the moment, Lady Tallant came up.
'Biddy, will you sing. Do for Heaven's sake make a sensation. Help me out! You know how!'
Lady Bridget had a funny inscrutable little smile and a gleam in her eyes which crinkled up when she was going to say or do something rather naughty.
'I'll do my best, Rosamond. But you don't think it would be a dangerous experiment, do you?'
Lady Tallant laughed, and told Captain Vereker Wells to take her to the piano.
'YOU know that Biddy does a lot of mischief when she sings,' said the Governor's wife, sitting down in Lady Bridget's vacant place beside Mrs Gildea. Colin McKeith, still on the outskirts with his chair, stood leaning upon it, watching the performer.
The piano was in such a position that Lady Bridget faced him.
A vain man might have fancied that she was singing at him, and that the by-play of her song—the sudden eye-brightenings, the little twists of her mouth, the head gestures, were for his particular benefit.
She was singing one of the Neapolitan folk-songs which one hears along the shores of the Mediterranean beyond Marseilles—a love song.
Most people know that particular love-song. Lady Bridget gave it with all the tricks and all the verve and whimsical audacity of a born Italian singer. Well, she was Italian—on one side at least, and had inherited the tricks and a certain quality of voice, irresistibly catching. And she looked captivating as she sang—the small pointed face within its frame of reddish-brown hair, the strange eyes, the expressive red lips, alive with coquetry. The men—even the old politicians, listened and stared, quite fascinated.
Some of the Leichardt's Town ladies—good, homely wives and mothers who, in their early married days of struggle, had toiled and cooked and sewed, with no time to imagine an aspect of the Eternal Feminine of which they had never had any experience, were perhaps a little shocked, perhaps a little regretful. One or two others, younger, with budding aspirations, but provincial in their ideals, were filled with wonder and vague envy.
A few of them had made the usual trip 'Home,' landing at Naples and journeying to London, via Monte Carlo and Paris, and these felt they had missed something in that journey which Lady Bridget was now revealing to them. Joan Gildea, whose profession it was to realise vividly such modes of life as came within her purview, felt herself once more in the blue lands girdling the Sea of Story—It all came back upon her—moonlight nights in Naples; on the Chiaja; looking down from her windows on sunny gardens on the Riviera, and the strolling minstrels in front of the hotel....
As for Colin McKeith who had never been in the Blue Land and knew little even of the British Isles except for London—chiefly around St Paul's School, Hammersmith—and the Scotch Manse where he had occasionally spent his holidays—even he was transported from the Government House drawing-room. Where? .... Not to the realm of visions such as he had seen in the smoke of his camp fire. Oh no. He had never dreamed of this kind of enchantment.
A fresh impulse seized the singer. She struck a few chords. A familiar lilt sounded. Her face and manner changed. She burst into the famous song of CARMEN. She WAS CARMEN. One could almost see the swaying form, the seductive flirt of fan. There could be no doubt that had the voice been more powerful, Lady Bridget might have done well on the operatic stage.
Yet it had a TIMBRE, a peculiar, devil-may-care passion which produced a very thrilling effect upon her audience. She got up when she had finished in a dead silence and was half-way across the room before the applause burst out. There was a little rush of men towards her.
'Beats Zelie de Lussan and runs Calve hard,' said the Premier who had made more than one trip to England and considered himself an authority in the matter.
Bridget skimmed through the groups of admirers, stopping to murmur something to Lady Tallant who had met her half way; then stopped with hands before her like a meek schoolgirl, in front of Mrs Gildea and Colin McKeith—he almost the only man who had made no movement towards her. Bridget sank into her former seat.
'The last time I sang that was at a Factory Girls' entertainment at Poplar,' she said... 'You should have seen them, Joan: they stood up and tried to sing in chorus and some of them came on to the platform and danced.... Mr McKeith you look at me as if I had been doing something desperately improper. Don't you like the music of CARMEN?'
Colin was staring at her dazedly.
'It seemed to me a kind of witchcraft,' he said.... 'I should think you might go on the stage and make a fortune like Melba.'
She laughed. 'Why my voice is a very poor thing. And besides, I could never depend upon it.'
'Everything just how you feel at the time, eh?' he said. 'You wouldn't care what you did if you had a mind to do it.'
'No,' she answered. 'I shouldn't care in the least what I did if I had a mind to do it.'
There was the faintest mimicry of his half Scotch, half Australian accent in her voice—a little husky, with now and then unsuspected modulations. She looked at him and the gleam in her eyes and her strange smile made him stare at her in a sort of fascination. Joan knew those tricks of hers and knew that they boded mischief. She got up at the moment saying that people were going and that she must bid Lady Tallant good-night.
Then the Premier's wife came up shyly; she wanted to thank Lady Bridget for her singing. It had been as good as the Opera—They sometimes had good opera companies in Leichardt's Town, etcetera, etcetera.
Lady Bridget made the prettiest curtsey, which bewildered the Premier's wife and gave her food for speculation as to the manners and customs of the British aristocracy. She had always understood you only curtsied to Royalty. But she took it as a great compliment and never said anything but kind words about Bridget ever after.
Colin McKeith escorted Mrs Gildea to her cab and as they waited in the vestibule, obtained from her a few more particulars of Lady Bridget O'Hara's parentage and conditions. But he said not a word implying that he had discovered her identity with the author of the typed letter.
'I'll come along to-morrow morning if I can manage it, and tell you about Alexandra City and the Gas-Bore,' he said carelessly as she shut the fly door. Joan wondered whether he had caught Lady Biddy's parting words in the drawing room.
'If Rosamond doesn't insist on my doing some stuffy exploration with her, I'll bring my sketches some time in the morning, Joan, and you can see whether any of them would do for the great god Gibbs.'
'And what are you going to do, Biddy? How long are you going to stay with the Tallants?'
'Until Rosamond gets tired of me—or I feel no further need of the moral support of the British Throne,' answered Lady Bridget lightly. 'I'm not sure whether I shall be able to stand Luke's Jingo attitude in regard to Labour and the Indigenous Population—all the Colonial problems in capitals, observe. He does take his position so strenuously; it's no good my reminding him that even the Queen is obliged to respect a Constitutional government.'
Bridget took a cigarette from a gold case with her initials in tiny precious stones across it, and handed the case to Mrs Gildea who shook her head.
'Still too old-fashioned to smoke! I should have thought you'd have been driven to it here to keep the mosquitoes at a distance....
'Do you like my case, Joan? Willoughby Maule gave it to me,' she asked.
'You didn't return it then?'
'Why should I have hurt his feelings? We weren't engaged.' A meditative pause and then suddenly, 'Evelyn Mary doesn't smoke. Nice girls don't!'
'Biddy, I shall be sorry for Evelyn Mary if the Maules are to live in London and you go back there again—which I suppose you will do.'
'You needn't suppose for certain that I shall go back.' She savoured her cigarette slowly. 'I can't go on with that old life, the sort of life one has to lead with Aunt Eliza and the Gavericks and their set. I can't go on pushing and striving and rushing here and there in order to be seen at the right houses and join the hunt after fleeing eligibles.'
She gave a bitter little laugh, and then her tone changed to that ripple of frivolity in which nevertheless Mrs Gildea discerned the under-beat of tragedy.
'Besides, even so, it's incongruous—impossible. I've come to the conclusion that the only things which make London—as I've known it—endurable are unlimited credit at a good dressmaker—Oh, and one of the beautiful new motor-cars. You don't mind travelling from Dan to Beersheba if you can do it in five minutes. But when you've got to catch omnibuses or take the Tube, dressed in garden-party finery—well it's all too disproportionate and tiresome.'
Mrs Gildea laughed. 'You must remember that I am out of all your fine social business—except when I go as a reporter or look on from the upper boxes.'
'It's abominable: it's stifling,' exclaimed Lady Biddy, 'it kills all the best part of one. You know I've tried time after time to strike out on my own individual self, but I've always been brought back again by my hopeless, hopeless lack of practical knowledge of how to earn a livelihood. The one gift I'd inherited wasn't good enough to be of any use—If my mother had only left me the whole of her voice, I'd have been an opera-singer. But I don't think I could have stood the drudgery—and I should have hated the publicity of it all.... Joan, how did you ever manage to make yourself independent?'
'By drudging,' said Mrs Gildea dryly. 'Besides, I was born differently. And I was brought up with practical people.'
'Mr McKeith, for instance. He told me about his having been what he called a "cattle new-chum" on your father's station.'
'He wasn't exactly a "new-chum." His father had owned a sheep-station up in the unsettled districts. There was a tragedy—the place was sold up when Colin was a boy. He wanted to learn how we did things further south—and besides, he was left without a penny—that's how he came to be with us.'
'Oh! ... anyway, he's practical. But it isn't that side of him that appeals to me. He believes in Missions—in a sort of way.'
Mrs Gildea laughed uneasily. 'So you have discovered the streak of idealism in Colin. But'—she veered off hastily, 'I didn't want to talk about Colin McKeith. What I want is to hear about your own state of mind.'
'My state of mind! That's chaotic. The fact is, I feel in a horrible sort of transition state.... It's just as if one were trying to wind a skein backwards—taking up one end and finding a confusion of knots; then, taking up another and after forcing a few of the knots, giving the thing up in despair. One knows the right end is there, but how to find it through all that hopeless, woolly tangle!'
'Still, you must have learned something about how to wind your skein while you've been working through your various enterprises,' said Mrs Gildea. She took up one of Bridget's sketches which were on the table and looked at it thoughtfully.
'This is quite charming, Biddy—if only it wasn't too fine for reproduction. The block would cost more than the thing is worth.'
Biddy made a MOUE. 'Oh, I know. Like me isn't it? Impracticable. But I COULD do you some illustrations. I drew Rosamond entertaining the Ministerial Circle last night and showed it to Vereker Wells while we were waiting for breakfast. He nearly died with laughing. I couldn't have dared to let Luke see it.'
'That I can believe. And I should be murdered by the Leichardt'stonians if I allowed it to be published. But if you'd come with me through the Blue Mountains and caricature yourself exploring the Jenolan Caves—like the "Lady of Quality" in the Dolomite Country I could do something with that.'
Mrs Gildea alluded to their first and only collaboration as author and artist.
'Yes, I might. We'll think about it. And if I did perhaps I could make money enough to keep me out here for a year or two travelling about.'
Joan Gildea looked up in a startled way from the drawing she had been studying, and asked with some eagerness:
'Biddy, do you really mean that you are thinking of stopping out here for a year or two?'
'I do. I want to shake myself free from the old clogs. I want to be honest with myself and with—with the people who ARE honest with themselves. I've always envied you, Joan. Your life is real at least. You can put your finger on vital pulse beats. I should like to do as you are doing, study and learn from a country that has no traditions, but is making itself. I want to breathe Nature unadulterated—if I could only reach the reality of her. Joan, I have the feeling that if one could go right up to the Bush—far away from the Government House atmosphere and Luke Tallant's red-tapism and the stupid imitation of our English social shams—well, I think one might touch a more vital set of heart-beats than the heart-beats of civilization.'
'You are off civilization, Biddy?'
'Yes I am, I've had a horrible time. I was quite reckless and spent far too much on clothes and things—but that's not what matters—it's the effect on one's inner self that matters. And now I'm going through the pangs of revulsion, and just wondering where I can find anything that's true and satisfying. I believe it may be a kind of birth into a new life—coming out here you know and all the rest.'
She stopped, her long golden brown eyes fixed Sphinx-like on Joan, who returned the gaze, but did not answer in words. Biddy went on: 'YOUR work is practical—not idealistic. I believe the truth of it all is that the idealists haven't built up on a practical basis. There's too much POSE. Joan, I do think it's only the pinch of starvation that knocks down the ridiculous POSE of people.'
'True enough. Your cranks don't get much beyond POSE.—They think they do, but they don't.'
'Even the ones who believe in themselves—and who are in their way truly sincere. Joan, do you know, there were moments at the meetings I went to of those people—Christian Scientists, and my Spiritual Socialists, and all those philo-factory-girls and tramps, and philo-beasts, and philo-blacks and the rest of it—Moments when a ghastly wonder would come over me whether, if we were all stranded on a desert island with a shortage of food and water, it wouldn't be a case of fighting for bare existence and of Nature red of tooth and claw.'
'True for you, Lady Bridget. I like the way that's put,' broke in a voice from the other side of the veranda railing.
Lady Bridget started and looked round, a sudden flush rushing upon the ivory paleness of her face. If she had not had her back turned to the garden; if she had not left the gate open behind her, and if the wind in the bamboos had not then made a noisy rustling, she would have seen the visitor or heard his steps on the gravel path. Or if she had not been so absorbed in her subject and her cigarette she might have noticed that Mrs Gildea had looked up quickly a minute before and given a mute signal to the intruder not to interrupt the conversation untowardly.
Lady Bridget recovered herself as Colin McKeith mounted the steps and made the two ladies a rather self-conscious salute.
'I suppose you know that's a quotation,' she said.
'Weren't you a bit out?' he answered, and repeated the phrase. 'Excuse my correcting you.'
'Thank you. But I always thought men of action weren't great readers. How did you do your reading?'
'Some day—if you care to hear—I'll tell you.'
She looked at him interestedly. 'Yes, I should care to hear.'
'Not now,' put in Mrs Gildea. 'You've come this morning to tell us about the Gas-Bore at Alexandra City, and, as it's got to go into my next letter, I shall take some notes. Do look for a comfortable chair, Colin, and you may smoke if you want to.'
'This is good enough,' and he settled himself after his own fashion at Lady Bridget's feet with his back against the veranda post and his long legs sprawling over the steps.
Lady Bridget leaned out of the depths of her deep canvas chair and offered him her cigarette case.
He eyed it in amused criticism—the dull gold of the case, and the initials in diamonds, sapphires and rubies set diagonally across it.
Again the faint pink rose in her paleness.
'No, it's the writing of the person who gave it to me.'
'Was it a man?' he asked bluntly.
Bridget looked at him with slight haughtiness.
'Really, Mr McKeith, I think you are—inquisitive.'
'Yes, I am. And I've Bush manners—not up to your form. Please excuse my impertinence.'
'I don't mind Bush manners. They're—rather refreshing sometimes.... But'—again extending and then half-withdrawing her offering hand. 'You'd despise my cigarettes?'
He made an eager movement.
'No I shouldn't. Choose me one, won't you—two—if I may have one to keep.'
'Why to keep?' She selected two of the dainty gold-tipped cigarettes, and he received them almost as if they had been sacred symbols. One he placed carefully, notwithstanding her laughing protest, in a letter-case which he carried in an inner pocket. She tilted her face forward for him to light the other cigarette at hers, and he did so, always with that suggestion of reverence which sat so oddly upon him. Mrs Gildea watching the pair was immensely struck by it.
He smoked in silence for a few moments, his eyes still apparently fascinated by the glittering initials on the case which now Bridget attached to her chatelaine chain. She threw away the end of her cigarette.
'Well, so you've become the Governor's unconstitutional adviser?' she said. 'Joan, do you know that Luke Tallant kept Mr McKeith talking and smoking in the loggia just below my bedroom for hours last night after every one had gone—I know, because I couldn't get to sleep.'
McKeith had all compunction, 'I'm downright sorry for that, Lady Bridget. I'd have gone away if I'd only guessed your room was up above.'
'Oh, it didn't matter. I'd lots to think about—my own shortcomings and Luke's responsibilities.'
'He takes them—hard,' hazarded McKeith.
'I hope you gave him good advice,' put in Mrs Gildea.
McKeith's lips twisted into a humorous smile.
'Well, I told Sir Luke that I didn't think he need bother himself just yet awhile over that northern tour of inspection he's talking about.'
'He wants to make a kind of royal progress, Joan, through the Back-Blocks,' said Lady Biddy.
'It'll mean a bit of stiff riding,' said McKeith, 'but I've offered to show him round the Upper Leura anyway, and to find him a quiet hack.'
'Rosamond flatly declines the Royal Progress,' said Bridget. 'I'm coming instead of her.'
'Can you ride?' he asked.
'CAN I ride—Can any O'Hara ride! You needn't find ME a quiet hack.'
'All right,' said McKeith. 'But I wouldn't make sure of that by putting you on a buckjumper. It's a bargain then, Lady Bridget.'
'You promise to pay me a visit when the Governor makes his trip north—when he carries out his notion of establishing military patrols and a Maxim gun or two to put down Trades-Unionism and native outrages in the Back-Blocks?'
Lady Bridget looked at him thoughtfully. He had pulled out his tobacco pouch and was filling a well-worn pipe. 'You won't mind my pipe, will you—as you're a smoker yourself. Mrs Gildea likes it best—And so do I.'
Lady Bridget sniffed his raw tobacco and made a tiny moue. 'Well, if you prefer that—No, of course I don't mind. I see,' she went on, 'that you favour the Maxim gun idea, Mr McKeith. I understand that you're one of the Oppressors; and you and I wouldn't agree on that point.'
Mr McKeith returned her look, all the hardness in his face softening to an expression of almost tender indulgence.
'We'd see about that. I might convert you—but in the Back-Blocks.'
'Or I might convert YOU.'
He shook his head, and then laughed in a shy, boyish way.
'There's no knowing what might happen—but in the Back-Blocks.'
Lady Bridget leaned forward. 'Tell me about them—Tell me about your life in the Bush and what makes you hate the Blacks.'
'What makes me hate the Blacks?' he repeated slowly and the soft look on his face changed now to one very dour and grim.
'You do hate them, don't you? Mr McKeith, the Premier told me something about you last night, which simply filled me with horror. If I believed it—or unless I knew that what you did had been in honourable warfare, I don't think I could bear to speak to you again. Now, I'm going to ask you if it's true.'
'If what is true? Lady Bridget, I'll tell you the truth if you ask me for it, about anything I've done. But—I warn you—ugly things happen—in the Back-Blocks.'
'The Premier said that you were the terror of the natives. He told me about a gun you have with a great many notches on the barrel of it, and he said that each notch represented a black-fellow that you had killed.'
'I never killed a black-fellow except in fair fight, or under lawful provocation. Many a time one of them has sneaked a spear at me from behind a gum tree; and I'd have been done for if I hadn't been keeping a sharp look-out.'
'But you were taking their land,' Lady Bridget exclaimed impetuously, 'you had come, an invader, into their territory. What right had you to do that? You were the aggressor. And you can't judge them by the moral laws of civilised humanity. They fought in the only way they understood.'
'Lady Bridget, there are moral laws, which all humanity—civilised or savage understands. I'm not saying that no white man in the Bush has ever violated these laws, I'm not saying that the Blacks hadn't something on their side. I'm only saying that in my experience—it was the black man and not the white man who was the aggressor. And when you ask me what made me hate the Blacks—well—it isn't a pretty story—but, if you like, I'll tell it to you some time.'
'Tell me now,' she exclaimed, 'Oh, Joan ... Won't your notes keep?'
Mrs Gildea had got up, a sheaf of pencils and a reporter's note book in her hand.
'Yes, for a few minutes. But I've just remembered something I've got to refer to in one of Mr Gibbs' letters. Don't mind me; I'll be back presently.'
McKeith seemed to take no heed of her departure; his eyes were fixed on Lady Bridget; there was in them a light of inward excitement.
'Please go on,' she said, 'I want so much to hear.'
He thought for a few moments, shook the ashes from his pipe and then plunged into his story.
'I've got to go back to when I was quite a youngster—taken from school—I went to St Paul's in the Hammersmith Road—just before I was seventeen. You see before that my father had scraped together his little bit of money and we'd been living in West Kensington waiting while he made out what we were all going to do. He wasn't any great shakes, my father, in the way of birth, and fortune. I daresay, you guessed that, Lady Bridget?'
She tossed her head back impatiently. 'Oh what DOES that matter! Go on, please.'
'He'd been a farmer, Glasgow way'—McKeith still pronounced it 'Glesca,' 'and my mother was a minister's daughter, as good a woman and as true a lady as ever breathed. But that's neither here nor there in what turned out a bad business. Well, we all emigrated out here, and, after a while, my old dad bought a station on the Lower Leura—taken in he was, of course, over the deal, and not realising that it was unsettled country in those days. So the whole family of us started up from the coast to it.... He drove my mother and my two sisters just grown up, and a woman servant—Marty—in a double buggy, and Jerry the bullock driver and me in the dray with him and taught me to drive bullocks. There were stock-boys, two of them riding along side.
'It took us three and a half weeks, to reach the station, averaging about thirty miles a day and camping out each night.
'I'd like you to camp out in the Bush sometime, Lady Bridget, right away from everything—it'ud be an experience that 'ud live with you all your life—My word! It's like nothing else—lying straight under the Southern Cross and watching its pointers, and, one by one, the stars coming up above the gum trees—and the queer wild smell of the gums and the loneliness of it all—not a sound until the birds begin at dawn but the HOP-HOP of the Wallabies, and the funny noises of opossums, and the crying of the curlews and native dogs—dingoes we call 'em.... Well, there! I won't bother you with all that—though, truly, I tell you, it's the nearest touch with the Infinite I'VE ever known.... Lord! I remember the first night I camped right in the Bush—me rolled in my blanket on one side of the fire, and Leura-Jim the black-boy on the other. And the wonder of it all coming over me as I lay broad awake thinking of the contrast between London and its teeming millions—and the awful solitude of the Bush.... I wonder if your blood would have run cold as mine did when the grass rustled under stealthy footsteps and me thinking it was the blacks sneaking us—and the relief of hearing three dismal howls and knowing it was dingoes and not blacks.'
'I'd have loved it' murmured Bridget tensely. 'Go on, please.'
'Well, I've got to come to the tragedy. It began this way through an act of kindness on our journey up. We were going through the bunya-bunya country not far from our station, when out of the Bush there came a black gin with two half-caste girls, she ran up and stopped the buggy and implored my mother's protection for her girls because the Blacks wanted to kill and eat them.'
'O ... oh!' Biddy made a shuddering exclamation.
'Didn't I say the Blacks hadn't everything on their side—I ought to explain though that in our district were large forests of a kind of pine—there's one in this garden,' and he pointed to a pyramidal fir tree with spreading branches of small pointed leaves spiked at the ends, and with a cone of nuts about the size of a big man's head, hanging from one of the branches.
'That's the bunya-bunya, and the nuts are splendid roasted in the ashes—if ever that one gets properly ripe—it has to be yellow, you know—I'll ask Joan Gildea to let me roast it for you. Only it wouldn't be the same thing at all as when it's done in a fire of gum logs, the nuts covered with red ashes, and then peeled and washed down with quartpot tea....'
'Quartpot tea! What a lot you'll have to show me if—if I ever come to your station in the Back-Blocks.'
'Different from your London Life, eh? ... Your balls and dinners and big shows and coaching meets in Hyde Park, and all the rest of the flummery! Different, too, from your kid-glove fox-hunts over grass fields and trimmed hedges and puddles of ditches—the sort of thing you've been accustomed to, Lady Bridget, when you've gone out from your castle for a sporting spree!'
'A sporting spree!' She laughed with a child's merriment, and he joined in the laugh, 'It's clear to me, Mr McKeith, that you've never hunted in Ireland. And how did you know, by the way, that I'd lived in a castle?'
'I was led to believe that a good many of your kind owned historic castles which your forefathers had won and defended with the sword,' he answered, a little embarrassed.
'That's true enough.... But if you could see Castle Gaverick! My old Aunt is always talking of restoring it, but she never will, and if my cousin Chris Gaverick ever does come into it, he'd rather spend his money in doing something else.... But never mind that.... I want to hear about the black gin and the half-caste girls, and if your mother saved them from the cannibals ... and why the blacks wanted to eat their own kind. Dog doesn't eat dog—at least, so they tell one.'
'It's this way. Our blacks weren't regular cannibals, but in the bunya season they'd all collect in the scrubs and feed on the nuts and nothing else for months. Then after a bit they'd get meat-hungry, and there not being many wild animals in Australia and only a few cattle in those outlying districts, they'd satisfy their cravings by killing and eating some of themselves—lubras—young girls—by preference, and, naturally, half-castes, as having no particular tribal status, for choice.'
'Half-castes!' She repeated, a little puzzled.
'These ones had Chinky blood in them—daughters of a Chinaman fossicker.... We're not partial to the Chinese in Australia—only we don't eat them, we expel them—methods just a bit dissimilar, but the principle the same, you see.... Anyway, of course we took on the gin and her girls, and for about a year didn't have any particular trouble at the station with the blacks—though there was a shepherd speared in one of the out-huts.... That was his fault, however, poor devil—the old story—but it don't matter. The trouble came to a head with a black boy, called Leura-Jimmy, that Jerry the bullock-driver brought up with him and left at the station where he went down to the township for store supplies—He took me with him—I told you I was learning bullock-driving....'
McKeith paused, and the dark look came upon his face.
'And Leura-Jimmy?' put in Bridget.
'Oh, he was a fine, big fellow—plausible, too, and could speak pidgin English—he was never weaned from his tribe, and he was a treacherous scoundrel at heart.... As a precautionary measure, my father forbade the blacks to come up to the head-station. But Jimmy fell in love with the eldest of the half-caste girls. She encouraged him at first, then took up with one of the stock-boys....
'It was the bunya season again, and the girls' old tribe, under their King Mograbar—a devil incarnate in a brute—I sent him to Hell afterwards with my own hand and never did a better deed'—McKeith's brown fists clenched and the fury in his eyes blazed so that he himself looked almost devilish for a moment. His face remained very grim and dour as he proceeded.
'Jimmy had got to know through the half-caste girl about our ways and doings, and he made a diabolic plot with King Mograbar to get the blacks into the house.... Every living soul was murdered ...surprised in their sleep ... My father ... my mother ... my sisters ... God! ... I can't speak of it....'
He got up abruptly, jerking his long legs, and went to the further end of the veranda, where he stood with set features and brows like a red bar, below which staring eyes were fixed vacantly upon the avenue of bunya trees in the long walk of the Botanical Gardens across the river. But they did not see those bunya trees. What they saw was a row of mutilated bodies, lying stark along the veranda of that head-station on the Leura.
Bridget was leaning forward in her squatter's chair, her fingers grasping the arms of it, her face very white and her eyes staring too, as though they also beheld the scene of horror.
Presently McKeith came back, pale too, but quite composed.
'I beg your pardon,' he said stiffly. 'Perhaps I should not have told you.'
'It's—horrible. But I'm glad to know. Thank you for telling me.'
He looked at her wistfully. There was silence for a moment or two.
'And you ... you ... where were you?' she stammered.
'Me! I was with the drays, you know. We got back about noon that day.... If we'd been twelve hours sooner! Well, I suppose I should have been murdered with the rest.... The blacks had gone off with their loot.... We ... we buried our dead.... And then we ran up our best horses and never drew rein for forty miles till we'd got to where a band of the Native Police were camped.... And then ... we took what vengeance we could.... It wasn't complete till a long time afterwards.'
He was standing behind Bridget's chair, his eyes still gazing beyond the river. He did not notice that she leaned back suddenly, and her hands fell nervelessly to her lap. He felt a touch on his arm. It was Mrs Gildea, who had come out to the veranda again. 'Colin,' she said, 'I want you to go and bring me my typewriter from the parlour. And then you've got to dictate "copy," about the Alexandra City Gas-Bore. Please go at once.'
He obeyed. Mrs Gildea bent over Lady Bridget.
'Biddy! ... You're not faint, are you?'
Lady Bridget roused herself and looked up at her friend rather wildly.... 'No.... What do you take me for? ... I said I wanted real things, Joan ... And I've got them.'
She laughed a little hysterically.
'All right! But we shall give you a taste of real Australia that isn't quite so gruesome. That some of the tragedy belongs to the pioneer days.... I could tell you things myself that my father has told me. ... But I won't.... Mind, Colin McKeith is no more of a hero than a dozen bush boys I knew when I first knew him. Yes, put it there, Colin, please.... And now, if Biddy doesn't mind, we'll proceed to business, which is my IMPERIALIST Letter. I suppose you haven't brought back any snapshots of Alexandra City and your wonderful Gas-Bore that Mr Gibbs could get worked up for his paper?'
That was not the only time Lady Bridget and McKeith met on Mrs Gildea's veranda. In fact, Biddy, reminiscent of wild sea-excursions along the shore by Castle Gaverick, developed a passion for what she called tame boating on the Leichardt River. She found a suitable skiff in the boat-house—the Government House grounds sloped to the water's edge, and would row herself up and down the river reaches. It was easy to round the point, skirt the Botanical Gardens, and, crossing above the ferry, land below Mrs Gildea's cottage, then climb up the bank and enter by a lower gate to the garden. Thus she would often turn up unexpectedly of mornings for a chat with her friend in the veranda study.
At this time, Colin McKeith contracted a similar habit. He showed a still greater interest in Mrs Gildea's journalistic work and professed a strong desire to enlighten British statesmen, through the medium of Mr Gibbs' admirable paper, on certain Imperial questions affecting Australia—the danger of a Japanese invasion in the northern waters—the establishment of a naval base by Germany in New Guinea—the Yellow Labour Problem and so forth. He would intersperse his political dissertation with racy bits of description of life in the Bush, and would give the points of view of pearl fishers, miners, loafers, officials in out-of-the-way townships, Labour reformers, sheep and cattle owners—all of which vastly amused Lady Bridget, and was valuable 'copy,' typed unscrupulously by Mrs Gildea. In fact, she owed to it much of the success which, later, attended her journalistic venture. Mrs Gildea thought at first that the 'copy' would be more easily obtainable in the intervals before and after Lady Bridget's arrival, or on the days when she failed to come. But, finding that Colin was distinctly at his best as a narrator with Biddy for an audience, she artfully arranged to take her notes under those conditions. This lasted two or three weeks, during which period Sir Luke and Lady Tallant conscientiously improved their acquaintance with the new sphere of their labours. They visited hospitals, inspected public buildings, inaugurated social schemes, and, to the strains of 'God Save the Queen,' performed many other insignificant public functions, from which, as often as not, their guest, Lady Bridget, basely cried off.
On one such occasion, Joan, arrayed in her best, had patriotically gone forth on a steaming March day to support their Excellencies, fondly expecting that, as arranged, Lady Bridget and Colin would meet her. But Lady Tallant, looking distinctly cross, accompanied the Governor alone. Bridget, it appeared, had come down, just as the carriage drove up, in her morning frock and garden hat, saying that she had a bad headache and meant to spend the afternoon in a hammock by the river bank. As for Colin, there was no sign of him.
But when Mrs Gildea got home very tired, and hot she was made extremely angry by hearing the voices of Lady Bridget and McKeith in the veranda where they were drinking tea and, it seemed, holding a confidential conversation. Mrs Gildea's gorge rose higher. She had to stop a minute to try and recover her temper. Here was Biddy disburdening herself to Colin of her family troubles and short-comings, showing herself and them in the worst light, singing small to a man with whom it was highly desirable she should maintain her dignity. Instead of that, she was deliberately pulling down the barrier of rank and social position which should exist between Lady Bridget O'Hara and the Factor's son, the Out-Back squatter—Colin McKeith.
Biddy was saying: 'Oh, but you're as bad as that sort of person who can't be made to realise that the oldest peerage in Ireland counts for nothing in comparison with an oil-king's millions and being able to entertain the right set.... And besides, really Mr McKeith, there's no difference at all between us. You talk such a lot about YOUR grandfather having been a Scotch peasant. Why! MY mother's father was an Italian beggar—Ugh! haven't you seen them with their crutches and things on the steps of the churches?—And my mother sang in the streets of Naples until a kind musician heard her and had her trained to be a opera singer.'
'My mother! That's where my CARMEN comes from—only that my voice, I'm told, isn't to be compared with what hers was.... But that's not the worst about my mother. Not that I blame her. I think that a woman has a perfect right to leave her husband if she has ceased to care for him, and that it's far more moral to live with a man you love and can't marry, than with a husband you hate.'
Mrs Gildea cut short Lady Bridget's exposition of her views on morality before McKeith had time to answer. Her voice was sharp as she went up the steps and arraigned the pair.
'Really, Biddy, I do call this too bad of you. May I ask how you and Mr McKeith come to be drinking tea together in my veranda?'
'Sure, and it's by accident intoirely,' answered Biddy, with a whimsical look and the touch of the brogue she sometimes put on when a situation became embarrassing.
'A prearranged accident!'
'No it wasn't, Joan. As a matter-of-fact, we were the last persons either of us expected to meet.'
'Honour bright,' put in McKeith. 'I'd forgotten all about the Pineapple Products Exhibition, and I just dropped in at Government House to pay my respects after a pleasant dinner two nights ago—What you'd call a visit of digestion.'
'And since when, Colin, have you become an observer of social obligations?' jeered Mrs Gildea.
He grinned, 'Ah! you have me there. Anyway, I asked for Lady Bridget, and found her down by the boat-shed.'
'And we thought it would be cooler on the water, so he rowed me round the point. It was the most natural thing in the world that we should discover we were thirsty, and that we should come up the garden and ask your old woman to give us some tea. Don't be a cat, Joan. You never used to be grudging of your hospitality.'
Mrs Gildea quickly recovered her usual genial demeanour. She poured herself out a cup of tea, and remarked that it was refreshing after the pine-apple syrups and other concoctions she had, as in duty bound, sampled at the Show. Lady Bridget rattled along with questions about the Function and the behaviour of the Government House party. Had Sir Luke been too over-poweringly pompous? Was Lady Tallant really cross? and had Vereker Wells made any more blunders? and so forth. But she did not enlighten Mrs Gildea much about her doings with Colin McKeith, and presently said she must go and make her peace with Rosamond. McKeith accompanied her—naturally, since he had to row her back to the Government House landing. There was something in the manner of the pair that Mrs Gildea could not understand. Of course, Colin was in love—that she knew already. But was Biddy merely playing with the big primitive-souled bushman—or was it possible that she, too, could be in love?
The next time Biddy came, Joan tackled matters boldly.
'Biddy, I've had my marching orders. Mr Gibbs finds Leichardt's Land a bit stale. I take train to Sydney next week and tour the Riverina, the Blue Mountains and the country along the railway line to Melbourne. Are you coming with me?'
Bridget gave a deprecatory laugh. 'I don't know what Rosamond would say.'
'She'd recognise the necessities of the situation. Besides, you could come back again.'
'I haven't been here a month. And I don't find Leichardt's Land stale. On the contrary, I find it extremely stimulating. No, I think the Riverina and the Blue Mountains will keep, as far as I'm concerned.'
'But I won't keep. Mr Gibb and the drawings for THE IMPERIALIST won't keep. The question is whether you want to make some money or not?'
'It's the one thing I've WANTED to do all my life, and have never yet succeeded in doing except when we collaborated in "The Lady of Quality."
'Here's your chance for a continuation series, "The Lady of Quality in the Bush." How does that sound?'
'Rather clumsy and long, don't you think? "Lady Bridget in the Bush" would be more alliterative and catching. Only I should be giving myself away.'
'I think you're doing that already,' said Mrs. Gildea.
'How do you mean, Joan? I don't see it.'
'Yes, you do. Look here, Biddy. Colin McKeith isn't Mr Willoughby Maule.'
'He's a hundred times better man, Joan.'
'That you needn't tell me; and I'm glad you recognise the fact. But from the point of view of "The Lady of Quality," would he be a better husband?'
'You forget, my dear, that I'm not the genuine article. I'm nothing but a pinchbeck imitation of the real "Lady of Quality." If HIS grandfather was a peasant, remember that my maternal grandparents were peasants too. I told him so yesterday.'
'Has it come to that? You go fast, Biddy. But I warn you—Colin McKeith isn't the man to be trifled with. He knows his own mind. The question is whether you know yours.'
Biddy nodded her head like a Chinese Mandarin.
'Two months ago you were wildly in love—or, at least, from your letters one might have judged so—with another man,' said Mrs Gildea.
'No—no—don't call that love.'
'Call it a violent attraction, then. I suspect the man could have made you marry him if he had chosen. So far as I can understand, you quarrelled because neither of you would face matrimony on what you considered an inadequate income.'
'Middle-class respectability—living in Pimlico or further Kensington,' scoffed Biddy. 'Ordering sprats and plaice for dinner and pretending they're soles and whitebait. Perambulators stuffing up the hall; paying your own books and having your gown made at home! No, thank you. 'Possum skins and a black's gunya—that's Australese for a wigwam, isn't it?—appeal to me infinitely more.'
Mrs Gildea threw up her hands.
'Biddy, you haven't the faintest notion how dull and uncomfortable—how utterly unpoetic—how sordid the life of a struggling bushman can be.'
'No! You know, Joan, I think that it might be perfectly fascinating—if one really cared for the bushman.'
'Really cared! Have you EVER really cared for any man? COULD you ever really care?'
'That's what I've been asking myself. It would have to be someone quite different from all the other men I've liked—something altogether above the ordinary man, to make me REALLY care.'
'You said that Mr Willoughby Maule was different from any man you'd ever met. Each man you've ever fancied yourself in love with has been different from all the rest.'
Lady Bridget laughed rather uneasily.
'How tiresomely exact you are, Joan! Of course, they were different. Everybody is different from everybody else. And I attract marked types. Will was more marked and more attractive—as well as attracted—that's all.'
'His attraction doesn't seem to have been as strong as self-interest, any way,' said Joan, with deliberate terseness.
The girl's small, pale face flushed to deep crimson for a moment.
'Joan, you are cruel! You know that was the sting! And it wouldn't have stung so if I hadn't cared. Sometimes I feel the maddest desire to hurt him—to pay him out. I never felt like that about any of the others—the ones I really did ALMOST want to marry. And then—at other times I'd give ANYTHING just to have him again as he used to be.'
'I'm certain you weren't really in love with him,' exclaimed Mrs Gildea.
Bridget seemed to be considering. 'Wasn't I?—I'm not so sure of that. No—' she went on impetuously, 'I was not REALLY in love with him. He had a magnetic influence over me as I told you. Perhaps I might get a little under it again if he were to appear suddenly without his wife—it turns me sick to think of a married man having a magnetic influence over me.... Even if there was no wife—now. So, when you've idealised a person and can't idealise him any more: C'EST FINI. There's nothing but a ghost to come and make you uncomfortable sometimes—and that CAN'T last.... Besides, I've been breathing the strong clear air of your gum trees lately. It's a case of pull devil—pull bushman. Do you see?'
'I see, my dear, that you're idealising Colin McKeith, and let me tell you that a bushman is very far removed from the super-man. Oh, Colin is a fine enough specimen of a pioneer in a rough country. But his rough life, his bush surroundings, and all the rest—why, he'd jar upon you in a hundred ways if you were alone with him in them. Then—he's not of your order—though I hate the phrase and I hate the kind of man. All the same, Biddy, you may pretend to despise the men of your own class, but I fancy that, after a spell of roughing it with Colin on the Upper Leura, you'd hanker after something in them that Colin hasn't and never will have.... And then,' Joan's swift imagination carried her on with a rush, 'you don't know in the least the type of man he is. You'd have to give in to him: he'd never give in to you. He's domineering, jealous, vindictive and reserved. Before a month was out you'd quarrel, and there would be no chance of your ever making it up again.'
'I must say, Joan, that for a friend of his you're not an enthusiastic advocate.'
'It's because I'm so fond of Colin that I hate the thought of your making him miserable. Anyway, however, you're bound to do that.'
'I don't see why.'
'If you flirt with him and then drop him, he'll suffer, though he'll be too proud to show it. And as for the alternative, it's out of the question. You must see that it would be sheer folly.'
'I've committed a great many follies,' said Bridget wistfully.
'But, so far, none that are quite irrevocable.'
'Well, he hasn't asked me yet to commit this one.'
'You're leading him on to it. Biddy, it is abominable of you to encourage him as you do—coming here with him that day.... And you let him take you riding....'
'Yes, he knows now that I CAN ride.'
'And he's at Government House nearly every day—I can't think what Lady Tallant is about to ask him so often to dinner.'
'She likes him because he takes Luke off her hands. You know we've nick-named him the Unconstitutional Adviser.'
'That's rubbish. You sing to him.'
'What harm is there in my singing to Colin McKeith?'
'As if you didn't know well enough that you're perfectly irresistible when you look at a man while you're singing those Neapolitan things. Biddy, it won't do. Give it up.'
'I can't do that, Joan.' She spoke with a strange earnestness. 'Don't you see that it's giving me a chance.'
'Of forgetting Mr Willoughby Maule!'
'Yes.... But it's more than that.'
'More than that.... Do you mean ... can you mean that you could love Colin McKeith—for himself?'
'Love is a big word, Joan. I've never said to any man—"I love you."' She spoke the words now as if she were uttering a sacred formula. Her voice reminded Mrs Gildea of something—the same note in the voice of Colin McKeith when he, too, had spoken of love. Yet what she had said was true. Bridget had talked often enough of falling 'in love'—which she had always been at pains to define as a mere transitory condition—not by any means the 'real thing,' and she had freely confessed to violent attractions and even adorations. But, as she had sometimes solemnly stated, she had never 'loved.'
'I can't explain,' she went on. 'I know you think me a heartless, emotional flirt. Yes, I am. I admit it. But there's a locked door in the inner chamber—a shrine that no one has desecrated. The Goddess is there, waiting—waiting to reveal herself.'
'And so—all the rest have been—experiments?'
'No, The Quest of the Ideal through the Forest of Illusion. I've often thought, Joan, there was a lot in the motive of that novel of Thomas Hardy's THE WELL BELOVED. But I seem to be mixing up my metaphor, and it's time I went back to Government House.' She got up and began putting on her gloves.
Mrs Gildea laughed hysterically. Somehow, she could not imagine Colin McKeith producing the golden key and masterfully taking possession of Lady Bridget's locked shrine. She could only think of him as tricked, deceived and suffering hideously at the end. She stammered out her fear, beseeching Biddy to be merciful, but Biddy's mood had changed, and she only smiled her Sphinx smile.
'I think he's quite able to look after himself,' she said. 'And if he isn't, sure, he must take the consequences.'
Mrs Gildea could get nothing more out of Lady Bridget. She attacked McKeith in a more tentative manner, but Colin was doggedly reticent. He was taking the thing hardly. His way of facing a serious situation was by setting his teeth and saying nothing. After these unsuccessful attempts, Joan made opportunity, before leaving, for a private word on the subject with Lady Tallant. But Rosamond Tallant treated the matter, at first, very lightly.
'Dear Mrs Gildea, you needn't worry, it's only Biddy's way. She must have some excitement to keep her going. If it isn't one thing, it's another. In London, I tried to interest her in Society, or Politics, and the Opera—and now Luke is trying to interest her in Colonial questions—but she always drifts back to—Men. She can't help it. And the funny thing is, I don't believe that in her heart she is capable of a serious attachment.'
'I'm not so sure of that,' answered Mrs Gildea.
'If so, she has had plenty of opportunities of proving it. But I wasn't ever afraid even of Willoughby Maule. I was certain that would fizzle out before real harm could come of it. And mercifully it did. He's married a woman with a quarter of a million and the right to dispose of it absolutely as she pleases. I heard that she signed a will on her wedding day, leaving it all to him in the event of her death. Too great a temptation, wasn't it? Though I do think if Biddy had chosen she might have kept him in spite of Miss Bagalay and her money. As it is, Colin McKeith, or else the novelty of it all out here—has driven him out of her head. I felt sure of that when I asked her to come. You needn't worry about her.'
'It's not so much about Biddy that I'm worrying as about my old friend, Colin McKeith,' said Mrs Gildea. 'It isn't fair that he should be made a victim.'
'Oh, well, it isn't altogether Biddy's fault that she attracts all types of men.' And then Lady Tallant made exactly the same remark as Lady Bridget. 'I think Mr McKeith is quite able to look after himself. I don't pity him in the least. Didn't somebody say of Lady Something or Other that to love her was a liberal education?'
'Steele said it of Lady Elizabeth Hastings.'
'I call it a liberal education for Colin McKeith to love Lady Bridget O'Hara,' laughed Lady Tallant.
Mrs Gildea changed her tactics and voiced her other fear—a more insistent fear.
'Has it ever occurred to you that Lady Bridget O'Hara might fall in love with Colin McKeith?'
'Why, my dear, she's wildly in love with him already,' rejoined Lady Tallant, to Joan Gildea's surprise.
'You've seen it?'
'I'm not blind, and I know Biddy. But I've seen that she's taking this affair differently from the others, and that's what makes me think it has gone deeper. A very good thing for Biddy.'
'You can't mean that it would be a good thing for Biddy to marry Colin McKeith?'
Lady Tallant's social manner was rather full of affectations. Underneath it, however, lay commonsense and sympathy. She became suddenly simple and direct.
'Well, now, Mrs Gildea, let us look at the matter without prejudice. You are fond of Biddy and so am I, but we know her drawbacks. Naturally, it wouldn't be a good thing under ordinary conditions, but is she likely to do much better?'
'She has had plenty of chances.'
'And thrown them all away. And though she looks so young, she is close on thirty. Of course, with her looks and her fascination she ought to have married well. I'm sure her friends have tried hard enough for her. But what can you do with a girl who throws herself at the heads of ineligibles, and when one trots out an unexceptionable PARTI and does one's best to bring them together, goes off at a tangent and lets the whole thing drop through. You know how it was with....' Lady Tallant enumerted names.
Mrs Gildea acquiesced mournfully. Lady Tallant continued:
'The truth is, Biddy has tired out the patience of her relatives and friends. Molly and Chris Gaverick got the hump over Willoughby Maule—who would have done well enough if he had only had more money. Old Eliza'—so Lady Tallant irreverently styled the Dowager Countess of Gaverick—'told me herself that she was going to wash her hands of Biddy. I shouldn't wonder if she didn't leave her a penny. And, after all, it was her own fortune, and she has a horde of needy relatives. She will consider that she has done her duty to the Gavericks if she lets Chris have the Castle. When all's said and done, I don't see that it would be such a bad thing for Biddy to marry a rich Australian squatter.'
'Colin McKeith is not rich.'
'Oh, he will be. Sir Luke has been hearing all about him.'
'He's not her equal. His father was just a land bailiff, and his grandfather a crofter.'
'Oh, what DOES that matter! In these days any of us would marry the roughest of rough diamonds, provided he was decently well off. Biddy has always been mad after adventure and an open-air life. She's an original, and everything would be in keeping.' Lady Tallant went on briskly. 'She would enjoy living among the blacks, provided they did not murder her, and I suppose one could trust Mr McKeith for that.'
'Oh, there's no danger from the blacks now,' put in Mrs Gildea.
'And then she needn't be buried for ever in the Bush. Luke tells me that Colin McKeith is certain to come to the fore in politics—I daresay he will be Premier of Leichardt's Land before long. Biddy would like bossing the show and airing her philanthropic crazes.'
Mrs Gildea shook her head doubtfully.
'Colin wouldn't agree with them. Besides, she would be expatriated.'
'Oh no. The big men over here are always taking trips to England, being feted and made much of in Downing Street—Imperialist Policy and that sort of thing—I can see Biddy at it.'
Mrs Gildea was silent. She scarcely knew Lady Tallant in this downright mood.
'There's no use blinking matters,' said that lady. 'At home, Biddy has been a failure. That was why I persuaded her to come out with us. I knew she wanted a fresh start badly.'
It was quite true. Mrs Gildea remembered Bridget's confidences to herself. She could not help feeling that Lady Tallant was right in the main, and put forward no more objections. But she explained her own plans and the necessity for her immediate departure from Leichardt's Land—how she had hoped, too, to take Biddy with her and interest her once more in literary and artistic work.
'Biddy won't go, she told me so, and I don't mean to let her,' said Lady Tallant decidedly. 'We're short-handed till the new Private Secretary gets here, and she helps me with my notes and things generally. And if it wasn't for Biddy's singing, our dinners would be too deadly dull for words.'
Joan gave up in despair. She suspected that Lady Tallant's affectionate candour was not unadulterated with selfishness. Finally, Rosamond promised that she would interest and amuse Lady Bridget to such an extent as would deter her from rash love-making for want of counter excitement. Then, Joan reflected, Colin was pre-eminently a prudent business man, and, as he had told her some time before, would have to go back to the Upper Leura before the strenuous work of the Session came on. This was always supposing that the present Ministry kept in without going to the country upon certain Labour measures unacceptable to the large land-owners, in which case it was just possible McKeith might be thrown out of his seat.
Events lay in the lap of the gods. Mrs Gildea wound up matters at the Cottage and took train south, where she was soon wholly occupied in describing the wonder of the Jenolan Caves and the wild gorges and primaeval gum forests in the Blue Mountains. She was really too busy in the interests of the IMPERIALIST to worry over her friend's love affairs. In fact, she gleaned most of her information as to the Leichardt's Town Government House Party from the newspapers she happened upon at bush hotels. For Lady Bridget was evidently in a reactionary mood as regards letter-writing and Colin McKeith never put pen to paper, if he could avoid doing so, except on business.
It was at Mossvale that she read a florid paragraph in the Ladies' Page of a Sydney Journal, telling of the engagement of 'that intrepid Pioneer and future Empire-builder, Mr Colin McKeith, to the Lady Bridget O'Hara, niece of the late, and cousin of the present, Earl of Gaverick'.
Next post brought her three brief and characteristic letters. She opened Lady Tallant's first:
'Government House, Leichardt's Town.
'DEAR MRS GILDEA,
I do hope this may catch you before the newspapers, which I find announced the engagement rather prematurely last week. I am still of opinion that Biddy might do much worse than marry Colin McKeith, though, ENTRE NOUS, the settlements—or rather want of them—for Mr McKeith tells us that he needs all his capital for making wells and buying cattle, and he won't injure his prospects and Biddy's by tying it up—does not at all please Sir Luke, who, before he would countenance the marriage, insisted upon a cablegram being sent to the Dowager Lady Gaverick. Her answer: "Not my business, must do as she pleases," only confirms what I said to you, and I am afraid Biddy's chances are worth nothing in that quarter.
The wedding is to be early in May, from Government House, of course, and I need scarcely say how much we all hope you will come back for it.
P.S.—No doubt, Biddy is giving you full details.'
But Biddy did not indulge either in details or rhapsodies. She began:
'They say hanging and wiving go by destiny, and clearly my destiny is to become the wife of Collin McKeith. I've always felt that the only thing which could reconcile me to marriage would be marrying a MAN; and at last I've found one. I want to tell you, Joan, that we've made an agreement to ask each other no questions about respective Pasts. The black-fellows he has slain—the one jarring note between us—are never to be resuscitated. The men whose hearts I have broken and VICE VERSA are dead and buried on the other side of the Equator, under a monument of inviolable silence. Such are the terms of the marriage contract: and you in especial must respect them. I need say no more, except this: Have no fears for the happiness of
From Colin in telegraphic conciseness:
'Tremendously happy. She's absolutely my Ideal—in everything but size.'
All very satisfactory and conclusive. But—Mrs Gildea could not escape from a vague misgiving. She was not afraid of the ghost of Mr Willoughby Maule: indeed, she argued favourably from the baldness of Bridget's letter in comparison with the reams of sentiment she had written upon the previous occasion. Nor did she feel uneasy on the score of any others of Lady Bridget's bygone passions. But had this complex, fastidious, physically-refined creature the least comprehension of what life on the Upper Leura might mean? And how about an Ideal dethroned from her pedestal and plumped down amid the crude realities of the nethermost Bush?
Mrs Gildea did not get to the wedding. She was ordered to report on the mines of Western Australia, and was on the other side of the continent when the marriage took place. In fact, it seemed doubtful whether she would again meet Lady Bridget before her mission as Special Correspondent ended. But the McKeiths were to spend their honeymoon in travelling to his station on the Upper Leura, a distance of some hundreds of miles from the nearest port, and quite out of THE IMPERIALIST programme.
She read, however, circumstantial accounts of the wedding, and there were portraits of the pair—in which Colin looked grumpy and Lady Bridget whimsically amused—snap shots, too, of the wedding cortege, in which Sir Luke Tallant, fathering the Bride, appeared a pompous figure in full uniform; and Lady Tallant in splendid panoply, most stately and gracious. A long account followed of the bride's family connections, in which the biographer touched upon the accident of sex that had deprived her of the hereditary honours; the ancient descent of the Gavericks, with a picture of the old Irish castle where Lady Bridget had been brought up—and so forth, and so forth. Mrs Gildea sighed as she read, and pictured in her imagination the wild wastes of the Never-Never Land and the rough head-station which was to be Lady Bridget's home.
FROM THE POINT OF VIEW OF LADY BRIDGET O'HARA
It was the way of the O'Haras to do things first and to consider afterwards whether it were well or ill that they should be done. Many a ruined O'Hara might have fared differently in life's battle had he thought before he acted.
Lady Bridget was no exception to the rule of her family. She had accepted Colin McKeith in a blind impulse of escape from the old hedged-in existence of her order, of which she was quite tired and where-in she had proved herself a failure. She had been attracted by the idea that he represented, of wide spaces and primitive adventures. She had always longed to travel in untrodden ways, and had loved stories of romantic barbarism. And then, too, some queer glamour of the man had got hold of her. She was intensely susceptible to personal influence—his bigness, his simplicity, his strength and daring, and the feeling that he was quite capable of mastering her, not only by brute force—which always appeals to a certain type of woman—but by power of will, by a tenacity of passion which she recognised even through the shy reserve with which McKeith tried to cloak his adoration. For she was goddess to him, as well as lady-love—and that she realised plainly. A look from her would make him go white and his large hands tremble; an unexpected grace from her would fill him with reverent ecstasy.
The thing happened one soft moonlit evening after dinner at Government House, when she had strolled out alone to a secluded part of the terrace, and he had followed her after the men left the dining-room. She was in a mood of tempestuous raging against her ordained lot. Letters had come from England that day which had irritated her and made her wonder how she could endure any longer her galling state of dependence. Eliza Countess of Gaverick had sent her a meagre cheque, accompanied by a scathing rebuke of her extravagance. Some cutting little sarcasms of Molly Gaverick's had likewise annoyed her, and she fretted under the miserable sense of her inadequacy to the demands of a world she despised and yet hankered after. Then Sir Luke had been tiresomely pertinacious over some small dereliction on Bridget's part from the canons of Government House etiquette, which he had requested should not be repeated. Rosamond Tallant had been tiresome also and had made her feel that even here she was no more than a dependent who must conform to the wills of her official superiors. Joan Gildea might have served as a safety-valve, but Joan was away in or near the Jenolan Caves, and could not be got at unless Bridget chose to throw up other things and go to her, which Bridget was not inclined to do.
The whole thing was a tangle. If only it were possible to find a way out that would not prove still more painfully complicated.
At the moment the ting-tang of a steamer bell bound outward to the northern coast, borne to her on the river-breeze, intensified her desire for escape from conventional limitations. Oh! to find herself under totally new conditions! The heavy fragrance of magnolia and gardenia blossoms seemed freighted with exotic suggestion. The tropical odours blended with the perfume of autumn roses, which made a trellis over her head and overran the balustrades. The subtle mingling of perfumes that float in the clear air of an Australian garden, when the fierce heats of summer are gone, gave her a sense of almost intoxication.
In fact, Bridget was in the mood for any desperate leap into the Unknown. Such was her unconscious thought as she crunched a spray of verbena in her fingers and inhaled the scent which had always a faintly heady effect upon her imagination. She was leaning on the stone kerb of the balustrade, vague emotions stirring her, when she heard McKeith's step on the gravel. Presently he stood beside her, his tall form, in the well-cut evening suit which always became him best, towering head and shoulders above her small stature. It was always a satisfaction to Lady Bridget, fastidious in such masculine details, that he was particular about his tailoring, and tonight he exhaled the scent of one of Sir Luke Tallant's excellent cigars. There used to be a good deal of chaff between them about one of his personal predilections which jarred a little upon Bridget—his pipe and, particularly, the quality of his tobacco. But he did not change it in spite of her chaff. She was beginning to find a certain mule-like obstinacy about him in unimportant details.
'If you object to this, what WOULD you say to the store tobacco smoke when I'm in the Bush?' he said. And then he had explained that, when camping out with the stockmen on their expeditions after cattle, he always smoked the same tobacco that he supplied to his hands. That was according to HIS rule of social equality by the camp fire, he said.... And where was all Lady Bridget's vaunted socialism if she jibbed at such a simple illustration of the first principles of socialism? Of course, Bridget had taken his banter in good part, and with a pretty grimace had told him she would get out a consignment of the stuff her Aunt Eliza gave at Christmas to the old men in their Irish village and present him with it.
He threw away the butt end of Sir Luke's cigar when he joined her. For several moments he stood watching her—the picturesque little figure in its dainty frock, the grace of the small head with its crop of untidy hair, the pale pointed face—chin resting in the cup of one flower-like hand, red lips—the upper one like Cupid's bow—slightly parted, strange deep eyes gazing across the dark expanse of river to the scattered lights on the high land opposite. Above, the Southern Cross, set diagonally, in the dark clear sky gemmed with its myriad stars.
There could be no doubt that Colin McKeith was in the grip of an infatuation such as he had never known before in his life. It staggered him. His breath caught in his throat and ended in an uncertain laugh. He stuttered in sheer awkwardness.
'I—I say ... you seem to be up in the clouds. You've been awfully down in the mouth—all through dinner. Won't you tell me? Is anything the matter?'
Bridget turned and looked at him. Her eyes were softly glistening, her lips trembled. He thought of her as of a child seeking sympathy in a strange land, where nobody understood her and somebody had been unkind. He was intensely stirred by her impulsive appeal.
'Oh! I'm worried. I'm so alone in the world. Nobody wants me—here or in England either. I was just wondering if I couldn't go off and join Joan Gildea.... But she wouldn't want me either, perhaps.'
He went closer, stooping over the balustrade. Magnetic threads seemed to be drawing them to each other. He wanted to say, 'I want you,' but dared not. He blurted forth instead?
'What is it? I'd cut off my right hand if that would be of any use to you. Good Lord! That does sound cheek! Only—you know—I'm big enough to bully the whole of Leichardt's Land from the Governor down—and I'd do it if you wanted me to. Just tell me what's worrying you?'
'It's everything—the whole set of conditions from the day I was born into them.'
'Conditions are easy enough things to break, if you're determined to do it. Look here—talk it out.... you can trust me.'
Then she recklessly set the flood gates open—laughed with tears in the laughter; drew a tragically amusing picture of her life—her anomalous position, her dependence, her hatred of the pretences, the shifts, the sordid bravado by means of which her impoverished Gaverick relatives clung on to their social birthright, the toadying of the Dowager, the worldly admonitions of Rosamond Tallant and her set—she used some of the phrases he had himself read in that letter. Had he been in any doubt as to its authorship that doubt must now be at rest. But he would never tell her of that episode. For one thing, his promise to Joan bound him. Like a stab came the remembrance of that man of whom Biddy had written—the man towards whom she had confessed a violent attraction—and who had behaved as a cad and a fortune-hunter would naturally behave. That he could have weighed money in the balance with THIS! She could not have cared for the fellow, or he MUST have thrown over everything else for her. Was it possible that she had cared—that she still cared?
'Tell me,' he asked hoarsely. 'Is it that you are fretting after somebody over there who—someone you can't marry? There must have been a lot of men in your life. Perhaps there was one who—whom you—loved.'
His voice dropped, as it had a way of doing when he touched the sacred subject.
'There have been a lot of men,' she admitted frankly. 'But there has never been one true Man among them. I've never really in my heart wanted to marry any of them, if that's what you mean—I don't like marriage—OUR system of marriage—a bargain in the sale shop. So much at such a price—birth, position, suitability, good looks—to be paid for at the market value. Or else it's just because the man happens to have taken a fancy to one, and while the fancy lasts doesn't think whether or not it's a fair bargain—on either side. I've seen people fall madly in love and marry like that. Then before very long the love turns to hate and it's a case for the Divorce Court.'
'Nothing of that is—love—not as I—and you—understand it.'
She gave him one of her inscrutable looks and then turned again to the stars. There was silence; Colin thought she must hear his heart thumping, but she seemed lost in her dreams. He put out his big hand and timidly, reverently, took hers, crushed verbena and all, as it lay on the balustrade. It rested like a prisoned bird within his; he could feel the nervous twitch of the little fingers.
'There's another system of marriage—a better one, I think—where the man doesn't ask for anything but the right to love until—until he has compelled the woman's love in return.'
'Compelled! I like that word. I could yield to my master. But he would have to prove himself my master.'
'Will you let me try?' McKeith said boldly. He grasped her hand tightly as he spoke; she gave a little cry, for he had hurt her. He was all compunction and gentleness in a moment.
'Oh, you are strong!' she said. 'I almost think you could make me do anything you chose.'
'No—that isn't what I meant.' He seemed trying to steady himself. 'I'm damned if I'd ever give up my free-will to anybody, and I wouldn't like even the woman who was my mate to do it either. But love—that's a different thing....'
'Your mate!' she repeated.
'You don't know the Bush idea of a real mate—shoulder to shoulder, back to back—no getting behind one or the other—giving up your life for your mate, if it came to a pinch.'
'And that's your idea of—love?'
'Something like it, only closer, dearer—a thing you couldn't talk about even to your mate—unless your mate was your wife—a flower that blooms once in your life, and that would never—if it were cut off—come to bloom again. Look here,' he said fiercely, 'have you ever felt for any one of the lot of men you spoke about just like that?'
'N—no,' she answered slowly.
'If you told me you had, I'd walk away now down those steps—' he pointed to the flight of stone steps leading from the terrace to the drive—'and you wouldn't see me any more.... But I'm not going to leave you now, I mean to stick on for all I'm worth, so long as I see the faintest chance of your giving me what I've set my heart on.'
'Yes—well?' She stared at him in a fascinated manner.
'Well—Bridget—I can't milady you. We're man and woman and nothing else to-night....'
She interrupted. 'I like you to say that. I feel now that WE, at least, are real—not social shams.'
'Bridget—you said you'd never found yet a Real Man to love you. Here's one.' He patted his broad chest with his open palm. 'I'm a rough Bushy and there's not a frill about me, but I'm bed-rock if you come to Reality. I'm a lode you've never struck in your life before. There's payable gold here, if you choose to work me.'
She laughed nervously, considering him.
'Mr McKeith, I'm sure that you're a perfect Mount Morgan, and you certainly have a most original way of putting things. Do you happen to own a gold mine, by the way?'
He drew in his breath slowly, as if he were considering the check, then he took her cue.
'Oh, well! I have pegged out a good many claims in my time and never got much more than my tucker out of any of them—though there was a show I came on once up the Gulf way that I've always been a bit sorry I didn't stop and look into. But rations were short and the Blacks bad.... However, that's neither here nor there, now. Gold mine or not, I'm positive that I shall be a rich man before many years have passed—all the richer for a true mate to stand by me.'
'Yes, of course,' she said hastily—'I wasn't thinking of that—whether you were rich or not, I mean.'
'I know you weren't. All the same, I suppose your grand relations would consider me a presumptuous boor for daring to lift my eyes to you. And yet, if I could make you love me, it wouldn't count for a blade of grass that your father was born in a castle and mine in a crofter's cabin.... Only—you know too—' he became timid and hesitant again—'you know it isn't that I don't feel you as far above me, almost, as those stars in the sky....'
'Oh don't, don't, Mr McKeith. It isn't true, you know. I've told you how I despise all that—all the life I've led.'
'Yes, I know. There's not such a difference between us when we stand as we are now, right on the bed rock. You're like me in having a strain of working-folk's blood in you. It's Nature you're hankering after—God's sweet air and the breath of the gum trees and freedom for your soul.'
'Freedom for my soul! How strange that you should understand.'
'I understand better than you might think. You want more than freedom to make you content. You want a kind of bondage that is the truest freedom—Love—a strong man's love, a strong man's worship. And that's what I'd give you, Bridget. Are you angry with me for saying it?'
'No.' She turned her face straight to him without any shadow of embarrassment. 'Mr McKeith, I'm too honest to pretend that I didn't half expect this. I felt you were beginning to care for me, and I was wondering whether I ought to let you go on.'
'Whether you ought to let me! As if you would be able to hinder it! Why, you couldn't stop me loving you. You might as well try to dam up the river Leichardt with this little hand I'm holding.'
She would have withdrawal it, but could not.
'No, no. It isn't strong enough—this tiny, trembling hand, which I could break to bits in mine if I wanted to. And could you prevent me from taking you in my arms—you wee great lady—and carrying you right away—away, out into the Bush where I'm on my own ground and where not one of your swell men folk would have a chance to find you.'