'I don't think any one of them would want to.' she laughed again tremulously. 'If it comes to that though, I fancy you'd have some trouble in disposing of me against my will.'
'Do you think I'd ever want you against your will! No. I'd sooner cut the whole show, and let you scorn me at a distance as much as you pleased.'
'I—scorn you! ... I wouldn't scorn you.'
'And even your scorn wouldn't kill my love,' he said, in that moved voice that was so unlike his ordinary utterance—'because there's nothing in the Universe, so far as I know it, that would be able to do that. Why, it seems to me that my feeling for you is as much a part of myself as the very blood in my heart. I knew you were the only woman in the world for me the moment I saw you—so slim and small and strange, the very contrary of what I'd always thought would be the kind of woman I'd be in love with—that day when you came walking along that gangway behind Lady Tallant. It was just a revelation, and then I bolted straight off to Alexandra City.'
'Which seems rather odd, doesn't it, in the circumstances?'
'No, it's this way. I had to take a few days for getting over the shock—for rubbing in the fact that what I wanted more than anything on God's earth, now I'd seen it, was utterly beyond my reach.'
'One might think I was an enchanted princess—a sort of Brunhilda guarded by a fiery dragon.'
'That's a good bit of how I looked on you—though I've never made much out of Wagner—he isn't human enough for me.... And how could I have dreamed then that you'd ever let me come as near you as I am this evening!'
'I must say, Mr McKeith, you haven't shown such extreme diffidence in approaching me.'
'Ah! Because you soon showed that Brunhilda's dragon was only pasteboard and blue fire after all—one of the shams you despise. I'm not afraid of him now.... Oh, it's wonderful.... It's beautiful....'
He took her other hand and held the two covered over by his own as he said with an odd solemnity:
'Lady Bridget O'Hara will you come away with me to the Bush, leaving everything else behind you?'
She stood very slender and erect, her eyes shining in the moonlight out of her small pale face and fixed upon him thoughtfully as if she were weighing his proposition. After a few minutes, she answered deliberately.
'Yes, Mr Colin McKeith, I will go away with you into the Bush, leaving everything else behind me—the old "Lady Bridget O'Hara" included.'
He gave an indescribable ejaculation—joy, surprise, triumph—all were in the utterance. Dropping her hands, he stooped to her and his arm went round her.
'Oh! Biddy ... darling.'
She knew he wanted to kiss her, and that he scarcely dared so greatly.... As his beard brushed her cheek, she shrank and moved a step from him. He, too, shrank, hurt by her rebuff.
'You mustn't be—ardent,' she said. 'You must give me time to get accustomed to—the fate I've chosen. You know the dragon isn't altogether a sham. He's got a few kicks in him—yet.'
On other occasions also Lady Bridget made McKeith feel that she preferred good fellowship to love-making. She was perfectly charming, always excellent company, and she had a sense of humour which delighted him, but she did not encourage effusiveness. She seemed to want to hear about the Bush a great deal more than she wanted to hear about his feelings towards herself, and appeared anxious to show him that she meant to be a thorough-going 'mate.' The phrase had taken her fancy.
There was not much opportunity however, for exchanging sentimental confidences. Everything was rush and hurry during the few weeks between the engagement and the marriage. It was plain that Lady Tallant wished to get the wedding over before she and the Governor started upon a tour of the important stations in the settled districts round Leichardt's Town, officially contemplated. Bridget had a shrewd suspicion, which she confided to Colin, that Lady Tallant was getting tired of her. Perhaps Bridget did not keep herself sufficiently in the background to please the lady of Government House. Her unpunctuality too often annoyed Sir Luke.
Another reason for not delaying the marriage was that the Leichardt's Land government was expected to go out of office on a Labour Bill, and that an appeal to the country would certainly follow its defeat. In that case McKeith's re-election would have to be considered, and an electioneering honeymoon in one of the out-back districts was an inspiring prospect to Lady Bridget. Then the preparation of a Bush trousseau needed thought and discussion. She had not much money, either, to buy her trousseau with. Bridget would have none of Sir Luke's suggestions of conciliatory letters and cablegrams to Eliza Lady Gaverick on the subject of settlements. She said she did not intend to cadge any longer upon her rich relative, and that she preferred to marry without settlements. Sir Luke was not satisfied with McKeith's views upon the financial question, and had some difficulty in getting him to tie up even the insignificant sum of three thousand pounds in settlement upon his wife. Colin pointed out that his capital was all invested in cattle, and that though things would be all right as long as there were good seasons, a bad one would cripple him, and he would need money to recoup his losses and buy fresh stock. Bridget took his view and Sir Luke frowned, but did what he considered his duty so far as the paltry settlement went. At all events, it was a satisfaction to Colin McKeith's shrewd Scotch mind that nobody insisted upon getting the better of him in the matter. He knew that Bridget never gave it a second thought. She was much more interested in the social and racial problems of this new country of her adoption, and especially in the blacks. What time she could spare from her trousseau she spent in reading books about them, which some of her official friends got her from the Parliamentary Library, and had already learned to think of herself as a 'bujeri* White Mary,' whose mission it might be to compose the racial feud between blackman and white.
[*Bujeri—Black's term of commendation.]
To Colin, knowing now the tragedy of his youth, she did not speak much on this subject. The time went with startling rapidity. The two were borne on the tide of Colin's wild elation and Bridget's more impersonal enthusiasms. They were like travellers steaming through strange seas, not knowing what they were going to find at the end of the voyage and too excited to care.
That was the way of Bridget O'Hara, but it was not the way of Colin McKeith.
Yet his closest intimates would scarcely have known him at this period. He was as a man bewitched, with intervals only of his ordinary commonsense. In these intervals the consciousness of glamour made him vaguely uneasy.
Had Joan Gildea been there she would have seen all this and would have observed signs of over-strain in Bridget—something faintly apprehensive yet obstinately determined. And Joan would have understood that when an O'Hara woman gets the bit between her teeth, she will not stop to look back or to consider whither she is galloping. Bridget kept herself continually on the go. Latterly, even Colin was warned by her nervous restlessness. When they were alone together, which was not long, nor often, her body seemed never still, her tongue rarely at rest. Sometimes her talk was brilliantly allusive; at others it was frothy chatter. One day it really irritated him. She had been fluttering about the sitting-room opening on to the terrace, which Lady Tallant had made over to her guest. An English mail had come in. She read him bits of a letter from Molly Gaverick and made explanatory, satiric comments upon those impecunious, aristocratic relatives who were on the fringe of the London smart set of which Bridget herself had lately formed a yet more outside part.
'Chris Gaverick has gone into the wine business, and they've taken a tiny house in Davies Street, Berkeley Square, and the Eaton Place house pays its rent ... You don't understand? ... No.... Molly and I talked it out when they were married. Of course, it seemed madness, with their means to take a house in Eaton Place. They ought to have had one in Bayswater. But it has answered splendidly. You see, they put their wedding presents into it and let it for the season, and managed to live rent free and have the use of other people's motors and all the going about they wanted without paying even for their food ... and no expense of entertaining, outside a dinner or two at Hurlingham.... Cadging!... In London Society everybody cadges except the millionaires—and they're cadged upon... You see, as Molly said, you can't entertain in Bayswater, or know the right people, and go about to the right houses, which is the most important thing for a poor couple who want to keep their heads up. Now the result is that Chris is able to bring in quantities of clients and gets a commission on all the wine he sells.... What's the matter, Colin? You look quite fierce.'
'And that,' commented McKeith, 'is an English belted Earl!'
'Irish—there's a difference. And are they belted—really? Isn't it a figure of speech?'
'I don't know, and I don't care.'
'But wouldn't you care to hear Molly's account of their visit to the Duke and Duchess of Brockenhurst to meet the King and Queen of Hartenburg? Molly is very sorry I wasn't there. She says that it would have made everything so much nicer for her and Chris, and that the King might have ordered some wine from his firm.'
She was teasing. He knew it, and it infuriated him.
'Oh, no doubt you're sorry too that you weren't there with the Duke and Duchess, and the King and Queen, and your cousins, the Earl and Countess,' he flung at her.
'They'll be your cousins too—by marriage. And if you ever become a very rich man and take me back to England, you'll have to "Chris and Molly" them and to give him a big order for wine....'
That mollified McKeith.
'And if I wasn't a rich man, and didn't give a big order, they wouldn't care a twopenny damn for me.'
'Molly mightn't—unless by chance you were taken up in high quarters and made the fashion—like Cecil Rhodes and "Doctor Jim," or some new edition of Buffalo Bill. Then she'd call you "one of nature's uncrowned kings." But Chris Gaverick isn't a bad sort, if his wife would let him be natural.... They hadn't got my cablegram about you, Colin, when this was written,' she went on. 'I wish I could have told the Queen myself. I'm sure she would have been sympathetic. And now I don't suppose I shall ever meet her again.'
He rejoined with clumsy sarcasm.
'I see. The Queen of Hartenburg was an intimate friend of yours—the sort of chum who'd have been likely to drop in any day for a yarn and a cup of tea!'
'She often did when she hunted with our hounds in Ireland, and it IS true that the Queen of Hartenburg was quite an intimate friend of mine—for two winters, anyhow. But I assure you, it hasn't made me proud, and if the Queen of Hartenburg bores you, let us talk of something else.'
She gave another glance at the last sheet of Lady Gaverick's letter and thrust it into a pigeon-hole of the writing-table, then came back to the long settee on which he sat. All the time, his gaze had never left her. She saw that he was disturbed.
'What is the matter?' she asked again, and sat down, a little way from him, on the settee. He turned sideways to her, bending forward, one large hand twisting his fair beard. There was a hungry look in his eyes, but his passing ill-humour had melted into a deep, adoring tendeness.
'Biddy—my mate—will you answer me a question—truthfully?'
'I believe I can say honestly, that truth is one of my strong points,' she parried lightly.
'I want you to be serious. I mean it seriously. I want you to tell me what determined you on marrying a rough chap like me? That letter—thinking of you among those grandees, you talking a language that's worse than Greek to me, brings the wonder of it home. As I look at you, the thing seems just incredible.'
'I can't understand why it should seem so surprising.'
'WHY! You know what I mean. It's not only that your birth and bringing up are so superior to mine, and that you had a right to look for a husband in a very different sort of position—I can see plainly that is what Sir Luke thinks....'
'I don't care—a twopenny d-a-m-n—as you said—for what Sir Luke thinks. I've got my own ideas as to the kind of husband most likely to suit me.'
'There's the marvel of it. For you must have had dozens of men wanting you. You are so beautiful.'
'Oh, Colin, I've told you what I feel about the English marriage system. And, PAR PARENTHESE, I'm not beautiful. I don't come up in the least to the artist's standard. My measurements are wrong. I'm too small.'
'That's rot. There's a fascination about you no man can resist—or woman either. I see it in the people who come here.'
'If I happen to have drawn them into what Rosamond used to call my mysterious sphere of influence—which I seem to do without knowing it. I'm not sure, though, that either Rosamond or Luke approve of my drawing the Leichardt's Town people into my mysterious sphere of influence.'
'I think, if you ask me, that Lady Tallant is a bit of a cat, and Sir Luke more than a bit of a prig.'
'No. You mustn't say a word against them.' It was not in Bridget to be disloyal. 'They've given me the time of my life.'
'When you smile like that, you remind me of a photograph of a picture I've seen—a woman, I don't remember her name.'
'Mona Lisa—La Gioconda. I know—I've been told that before.'
'Yes, that's it. Mona Lisa. People have written about her.'
'Reams. Some day I'll read you what Pater says of her, unless you've read him already—by your camp fire.'
For he had talked to her, as he had talked to Joan Gildea, about his readings and his dreamings under the stars in the Bush.
'Eh! you shall teach me about these new writing chaps. I don't understand your up-to-date theories. I've always gone in for plain facts—standard reading—history—great thoughts of great minds—old books brought out in people's editions. I'm up a tree—downright bushed when you begin upon your queer ideas—all those new-fangled religions and notions—Theosophy, spooks—about the earth being alive, and thoughts making a sort of wireless telegraph system—I do believe in that, though—to a certain extent. And your Brotherhood of Man! Bosh! We're all like a lot of potatoes thrown into a sack and shaken about by circumstance. And the big ones come to the top, and the little ones—because they're little—sink to the bottom. I've always wanted to be one of the big potatoes, and mean to be.'
Bridget laughed. She had a ringing laugh when she was amused.
'Oh! go on, Colin. I grant that you're a very big potato and I'm a very little one.'
'You know I didn't mean it that way. You're the biggest potato in the whole bag as far as mind goes, and you make me feel the smallest. You're so wonderful that the marvel of your being contented to marry me is a bit staggering. And that brings me back to my question, which you haven't answered.'
'How have I brought myself to the incredible enterprise of marrying an Australian bushman? Do you know?'—she became suddenly serious—'I have asked myself that question once or twice, and I haven't been able to answer it.'
The light of adoration in his eyes faded a little.
'I've been afraid of that,' he said slowly. I've been afraid that you might be rushing into the business without reasoning it out—weighing all the sides of it.'
'If I were, it would only be the way of the O'Haras.'
His blue eyes became more troubled.
'I've been afraid of that,' he repeated. 'Bridget—suppose—my dear, suppose it was to turn out a mistake.'
'Well, I've made so many mistakes in my life and lived through them that one more wouldn't matter,' she rejoined lightly.
'This one would matter—because it would be irretrievable. Suppose that you were to find that you couldn't put up with the Bush life—I've told you that you are letting your imagination and your enthusiasm run a bit away with you, and that there may be hardships you don't reckon on. For though it all looks to me plain sailing now, and I hope it will only be a year or two before I can put on a manager, and give you the home and the climate that are more suited to you, one can't tell in Australia that there may not be a drought or that a cattle boom may not turn to a slump—do you see?'
'I shan't mind in the least, Colin—that is, I shall mind immensely, but if there comes a drought it will be quite exciting helping you to drag out the poor, thirsty beasts, when they get bogged into the waterholes as you were describing the other day.'
'YOU—helping to drag out bogged beasts! Why! they'd drag you in.'
'Well, there are other things. Riding! I could help you to break in horses. All the O'Haras are good on horseback'—at which he laughed immoderately and told her that when she had seen one, Zack Duppo, on a buckjumper, she would not be keen to try that game. But it might amuse her to help cut out a few tame bullocks on a drafting camp if she had a good old station mount that knew its work.
She shuddered. 'I love horses, but I should run away from the first bullock that looked at me. I'm frightened of beasts, and, on second thoughts, I should not want to pull out bogged ones. And I loathe cooking—domestic work—in a house. It would be different out of doors. You've promised to teach me the first time we camp out how to make—what do you call them—johnny-cakes?'
'Ah! The first time we camp out together. If you knew how I've dreamed of that. Biddy, I've got plans in my mind for that—' He caught her two hands in a fierce grasp, and as he looked at her, his eyes full of love, he would—greatly daring—have held her close to his breast and kissed the provocative lips, as yet almost virgin to his. But she made a shrinking movement, and he, acutely sensitive, dropped her hands, and the love that had flamed in his eyes gave place to the dour look she did not know so well.
'Why do you always keep me at a distance?' he said, and drew abruptly away from her.
'Dear man, you mustn't be importunate. It—it's constitutional with me. I've always hated love-making at close quarters.'
'Always! Does that mean that you've been in the habit of letting men kiss you?'
'Colin, you are rude—brutal.'
'D'ye think so? It seems to me that I'm only as Nature made me. Biddy—if you feel like that now—how will it be when you're my wife?'
She flushed a little, but as her way was, evaded him.
'Perhaps I shall have grown more used to it all by that time.'
'The time is not so long—only a fortnight from now. And when you hold me off from the touch of your hand—the feel of your lips—well, it makes me wonder....'
She gave a little alarmed shiver.
'Don't wonder, Colin. Don't worry.... And oh! before everything, don't drive me—it isn't safe with an O'Hara woman. I can see that you don't understand women—of a certain type.'
'Oh! I grant you women haven't stood for a great deal in my life, and the few I've known well have been of the humble, human sort. But I do know this, Bridget'—his face softened—'I do know that a proud, sensitive woman—which is what you are and what I love you for being—is like a thoroughbred mare, out the first time in harness. You must keep your hands tight on her and let her go her own pace. I can tell you, too, the cart-horse kind that has to be driven with a whip and a "gee-up" all the time wouldn't be the type for me.'
She laughed gain, but shakily. There was an appeal in her voice.
'Colin, you've told me a lot about breaking in young horses, and how patient one has to be with them. Be patient with me.... Now, I'll try and answer your question—truthfully. I only know in a very confused sort of way WHY I want to marry you.... I think you must understand what a lonely sort of life I've led, really—and what a dreadful muddle I've made of it—Well, I've told you how I hated everything. And though I can laugh, and be interested, too, in Molly Gaverick's way of looking at things, and in her determination not "to be out of the swim"—I was just as determined myself, when I had the mood to be in it—and though one side of me hankers after the push and the struggle and the worldliness—yet the other side of me revolts against it, and longs to be washed clean of all the sordid social grime. There! I've felt about marrying you that it would be a new baptism into a bigger, fresher, purer life—do you see?'
'Yes—I see.' His tone was doubtful. 'You've tried it before—that idea of bigger interests—a different kind of life—in other ways, Biddy, haven't you?'
'Oh! in ever so many ways. Of course, that wasn't only in the sense of love—hero worship, you know. It was the schemes, ideas, plans for living in the higher part of one. Tolstoy, Prentice Mulford—that kind of thing.... Colin, you blame me for not GIVING; yet, all my life, I've been blamed for giving too freely.'
'For giving too freely!' He repeated sharply.
'You mustn't misunderstand me. I said it hadn't only to do with men making love to me—my ideas about a different life. It was my general attitude—expecting to meet something great and being disappointed.... Of course, I've suffered—suffered horribly—in my heart—in my pride. And I've often found that my attitude towards things brought me into difficulties. The average person, if it's a man—supposes that because one has such ideas one must be a kind of abandoned creature. And, if it's a woman, that one has some mean, ulterior motive. I've always seemed to be looking for largeness and finding only what was small. You attracted me because you're like nature—big, simple, elemental.'
'Now, what the deuce do you mean by elemental?'
'Primal, unadulterated—closer to the heart of life and nature. It's a sort of cosmic quality. You are large—your surroundings are large.'
He laughed, only half comprehending, gauche in the expression of his deep-hearted satisfaction.
'One thousand square miles, two thirds of it fair grazing country in good seasons, and will be first-rate when I've worked out my artesian bore system. Plenty of space there for a woman to swing her petticoats, in—your riding skirt it'll have to be.'
'There! You see!' she cried. 'COULD one be mean or small in such conditions? It's glorious, the thought of riding over one thousand square miles—and tapping Mother Earth for your water supply! It will be just what I said—a new baptism—a washing in Jordan. But you will be patient, Colin; promise me that you will be good to me, and not ask too much—at first.'
There came a note into her voice which intoxicated the man with hope and joy. But he restrained himself. He would not frighten her again.
'Good to you! Biddy—you know you're sacred to me—I'll do everything—I'll be as patient as you could wish until you get so used to me that everything comes naturally. You understand? So long as you'll trust me and open your heart to me, I'm not afraid that you won't love me, my dear, in the end.'
'I WANT to love you, Colin.'
She moved a little closer to him and put her hand up, timidly, to his shoulder. His breath came quickly, but he did not lose his self-control. He knew that he must go gently with her. She drew her hand down his coat sleeve and let it rest like a snowflake on his—a contrast in its smallness and whiteness to the great brown hand beneath. She looked at that, smiling whimsically, and he saw her smile, and reddened. But he did not know that she found a pleasure in the sight of his hand—scrupulously kept, the nails as well trimmed as a bushman's nails can be, while showing the traces of manual labour.
'How ridiculous they are together!' she said softly 'But I like your hand, Colin. It's different from the other men's hands.'
He was glad she said 'the other men's,' and not 'the other man's'. Through all the gusts of passionate tenderness that went out to her, there was always rankling the thought of 'that other man.'
They had only one more talk, in the real sense, before their marriage, and that was an unpremeditated but natural outrush of the vague jealousy which slumbered at the core of McKeith's love. It was on the last evening, and it made an ineffaceable impression upon him.
They were standing, after dinner, close together by the balustrade of the terrace.
It was a clear night, with a young moon, and the stars set deep in blue so dark that the sky gave an impression of solidity. The air was full of scents and of a soft balminess, with the faint nip of an early May in the Southern hemisphere.
He had folded her light scarf round the child-like shoulders. The touch of his big hand stirred her—it had not often done so in that peculiar way. It roused something in her that she had thought dead or drugged to sleep, and took her back for an emotional moment to a certain late summer evening at Hurlingham, when she and Willoughby Maule had stood in the garden together under the stars. There came to her an almost fierce reaction against that moment. She felt a distinct emotion now, but it was different—less tumultuous, and bringing her a soft sense of enfoldment.
She slipped her hand gently into McKeith's, and they remained thus for nearly a minute without speaking. He was the first to break the silence.
'Bridget,' he said impetuously, 'we're going to be husband and wife to-morrow. It makes me tremble, darling—with happiness and hope, and with fear, too. What have I done, a rough Bushy like me—to win a woman like you? Well you know how I think about that. And I don't believe in a man belittling himself to the woman he loves, though it's just because he loves her so that he feels unworthy of her. And then it comes over me again—badly sometimes—how little I really know of you, and of your life, and of your feelings towards the other men you must have had to do with—one other man in especial, may be, that you've loved, or may have thought you loved. That's what I want to know about, my dear.'
Her face was turned from his as she answered:
'What's the good of your knowing, Colin? Whatever there was is past.'
'But IS it past. Over and over again, I've started to ask you and have pulled back. Now it's got like a festering sore in my heart, and I'm afraid it will go on festering unless I'm satisfied. There WAS somebody in especial—a man you cared for and might have married if he had been a finer sort of chap than he turned out to be?'
She looked at him sharply.
'How do you know? Has Rosamond Tallant been telling you?'
'No,' he said, with complete candour. 'There wasn't a word of that sort passed between us—and I wouldn't have heeded it if there had.'
'Joan, then? No, I'm sure Joan Gildea wouldn't have talked behind my back.'
'You may bet your life on that. Joan hasn't said anything about whatever love-affairs you may have had.'
'Every girl has had love-affairs. I'm no exception to the rule. There's been no real harm in them. Let them lie—buried in oblivion. They're not worth resurrecting.'
'No, but,'—he persisted—thinking all the while of that letter—'Bridget, I must ask you this one thing. Is there any man in the world you care for more than you care for me? I know,' he added sadly, 'that you don't love in the way I love you—in the way I'd like to be loved by you. I know that's too much to expect—yet.'
The melancholy note in his speech touched her.
'I told you that I do WANT to love you, Colin—only I can't help being what I am,' she said softly. She looked up at him in the pale brightness of the thin moon and myriad stars. He stood with the faint illumination from the open windows of Government House upon his fine head and his neat fair beard. It intensified the gleam in his earnest blue eyes, while it softened his angularities and bush roughness, and as she looked up at him, she could not help feeling what a splendid fellow he was! What a MAN! So much finer than that other man to whom she had nearly given herself! Ah, she had had an escape! Under all his show of romantic adventure, his ardent protestations, his magnetic charm, that other man had been utterly sophisticated, worldly, self-interested. He had shown this in his money-grabbing, in his disloyalty both to the woman he had professed to love, and to the woman he had married for her fortune. Thinking of him in this way, Lady Bridget felt that in time she might come to care a great deal more for Colin McKeith.
He caught up her last words.
'Yes, I know that you WANT to love me Biddy, and I hope with all my heart and soul that you will—or else—' he broke off, his face darkening.
'I don't know. It would be hell. I can't think such a thing at this moment. If it comes—well, I'll face it as I've had to face other ugly things. Don't let us speak of the possibility!'
She sensed some quality in him that she had not realised before.
'You frighten me a little, Colin. It's as if I may any day come up before something I wasn't prepared for; and yet—I rather like it.'
He smiled at her.
'I'm glad you like it, anyway. You seem to me such a child, Biddy, though you are always telling me you are such an old soul. I can't for the life of me make out what you mean by that.'
'Oh! A soul that has come back and back, and has lived a great many—perhaps naughty—lives.'
'H'm! Yes! Well, one life is good enough for me, and as we can't prove the other thing, what does it matter anyhow? I wouldn't want you in another life if you were going to be quite a different person. I want you as you are in this one. And so I reckon would any man who has ever been in love with you. Let us go back now to what I was asking you. Biddy, there WAS a man—one man that you did care for? You've admitted as much.'
'Yes—I suppose there was.'
'And not so long before you came out here?'
'I suppose that's true too.'
'Bridget!—do you know what's been festering in my mind—the thought that you might be marrying me in a fit of pique—a sort of reaction. Biddy—tell me honestly, my dear, if it's anything of that sort?'
She seemed to be considering.
'I don't quite know how to answer you, Colin—if I'm to be absolutely honest. And I'd always rather tell you the truth.'
'Thank God for that. Let there be truth between us—truth at any cost.'
'You see,' she said slowly. 'My whole coming out here—everything I've done lately, has been done in reaction against all I've done and felt before.'
'Would you have married that man—if everything had been on the square?'
'What do you mean by "on the square"? I've done nothing to be properly ashamed of!'
'No—no—I was thinking only of him, Biddy, did you love that man?—really love him?'
'I'm not sure yet whether I'm capable of what you'd call loving really. I had a violent attraction to him,'—he remembered the phrase—'I confess I did feel it dreadfully when he married someone else. Now it doesn't hurt me. And of course, he has gone out of my life altogether. I'm glad he has, and I hope he will keep on the other side of the world.'
'Well, let it stop at that.' He drew a breath of relief. 'I don't believe you really cared for him. If you had, you couldn't take it as you do. I'll never bother you again about that man. And, oh, my dear—my dear—it doesn't seem to me possible that you shouldn't come to love me, when I love you as I do—with my whole heart and soul—I worship you, Biddy. And I'll not say again that I'm unworthy of you—a man who loves a woman like that CAN'T be unworthy.'
He took her in his arms and kissed her. And this time she did not resist the caress.
They were married with much flourish of trumpets and local paraphernalia. Never before in the annals of Leichardt's Land had a wedding taken place from Government House. This one was regarded as quite an official event. The Executive Council—at that moment about to undergo the pangs of dissolution—attended in a body. There were a great many members of parliament present also. It became even a question whether the official uniforms worn at Sir Luke's 'Swearing In' should not lend eclat to the occasion. But Colin McKeith vetoed that proposition.
The bridal party drove straight from the Church to that same extemporized wharf by the Botanical Gardens which had been put up for the Governor's State Landing. It had been re-constructed and redecorated for to-day's event. Thus the embarcation of the bride and bridegroom, of the viceregal party and the wedding guests, in the Government yacht, which was to take the new-made pair to the big mail-boat in the Bay, was almost as imposing a ceremony as the Governor's Entry into his new kingdom. The day was glorious—an early Australian winter's day, when the camellia trees are in bud, and the autumn bulbs shedding perfumes, and garlands of late roses, honeysuckle and jasmine are still hanging on trellis and tree.
As the bridal party came down the avenue of bunyas, and the band played the Wedding Chorus from LOHENGRIN a feeling of dream-like incongruity came over Bridget. She laughed hysterically.
'What a pity Joan Gildea isn't here!' she said. 'Think of the "copy" she might have made out of this!'
Lady Tallant had conceived the original idea of having the wedding breakfast on the deck of the Government yacht, while it steamed down the forty miles between Leichardt's Town and the river bar, beyond which, in those days, large vessels could not pass. There, the repast was laid on tables decorated with white blossoms and maidenhair fern, under an awning festooned with flowers and exotic creepers, and supported apparently, by palm trees and tree ferns which had been taken from the Government Gardens.
The bride looked small, pale, and quaint in her white satin dress and lace veil, now thrown back and partly confining the untidily curling hair. Some of the reports described her as being like an old picture; others as a vision from Fairyland. She came barely up to her husband's shoulder as they stood together, and the adoring pride of his downward gaze at her, stirred all the women's hearts and roused a sympathetic thrill in the men's breasts. Colin made a good show in the regulation bridegroom's frock coat, and with a sprig of orange blossom in his buttonhole. There was no doubt that he was extremely happy. He gave a short manly speech in response to Sir Luke's rather academic oration proposing the health of the wedded pair. The Premier too made a speech, and so did the Attorney-General, who was best man. Bridget's bridesmaids had been selected from the daughters of the Executive with as much attention to precedence as though she had been a royal princess. All this had delighted the Leichardstonians, and when Sir Luke read out the congratulatory cablegrams received that morning from the Earl and Countess of Gaverick, Eliza, Countess of Gaverick, and one or two other members of the British aristocracy, the enthusiasm was great.
The speeches were over; the wedding cake had been cut; the river-bar and the liner were in sight, when Lady Bridget went below and changed into sea-going blue serge. The mail-boat, beflagged in honor of the occasion, dipped a salute. The Governor led the bride along the gangway, introduced the captain of the mail-boat, and there were more congratulatory speeches, and still more of official ceremony as the bride passed by a line of inquisitive and admiring passengers—fortunately there were not many—and down to the state-room prepared for her. Then the curtain seemed to fall that divided her from her past, and when the Governor stepped again on to the Leichardt's Land yacht, and the last farewell had been waved, Lady Bridget felt thankfully that she had become a private individual at last. Only just Bridget, wife of Colin McKeith, Bushman, now starting upon her voyage towards the Wild.
She could not get away from the bewildering sense of unreality. It dominated every other feeling. She did not even reflect that there was no going back; that her fate was sealed, and that the Bush was henceforth to be her prison or her paradise.
All the way up the river, Rosemary Tallant congratulated herself upon having done the best that was possible for poor Biddy the failure. It was all entirely satisfactory. She wove a halo of romance round Colin McKeith, and, after reading her laudation of him, and her description of Bridget's send off, old Lady Gaverick and the impecunious Chris and his wife declared to each other that Biddy had done as well for herself as the family had any reason to expect.
Eliza, Lady Gaverick, was highly pleased, though she would not for the world have let her niece by marriage know it. Being Scotch herself she approved of the Scotch bridegroom, and began now to think seriously of the alteration she subsequently made in her will.
It was a four days' passage to Leuraville the port at which the McKeith's were to be dropped. Not being a good sailor Lady Bridget retired to her berth when the steamer got into a choppy sea.
Of course she had no maid. Colin unpacked the cabin trunk and dressing bag and arranged things so far as he could understand his wife's dainty toilet equipments, and his mistakes made them laugh and got them over the first awkwardness of close quarter.
Then he said:
'Now I'm going to stow away my own traps. My cabin is just facing this and you've only got to call out if you want anything. Eh, but my word! Biddy, it's a fine thing to be marrying from Government House. The Company has done us both proud.'
They were landed at Leuraville on the evening of the fourth day. A tender took them off with the mails—as it happened, they were the only passengers for that small sea-township. Ordinary business folk going north, preferred the smaller coasting steamers which put in at every port. The postmaster, the portmaster, the police magistrate, and a few local notables were waiting to receive them at the wharf. McKeith greeted them all heartily and rather shyly introduced them to his bride. The local men were shy also. They mostly addressed her as Mrs McKeith. The police magistrate—Captain Halliwell, lean, dark, sallow, with a rather weak mouth, but more carefully dressed than the others, and with an English voice, called her Lady Bridget. He was a retired officer of the ROYAL ENGINEERS. She had been told and now remembered that men in the ROYAL ENGINEERS were popularly said either to be religious or cranks. This man was a Christian Scientist which he announced when apologising for not offering the hospitality of his house, a new baby having arrived the day previously, ushered into the world, he explained, by prayer and faith and without benefit of medical skill.
Bridget knew something about Christian Scientists. She plunged at once into faith-healing ethics with the police-magistrate, while Colin saw about getting the trunks off the tender. How odd it seemed to be talking about London and Christian science in a place like this!
Leuraville too seemed part of a dream. But her face soon lost its bewildered look. She became interested in her surroundings, although there was no suggestion here of savage freedom or romantic adventure.
Leuraville showed low and hot and ugly. A red sun near its dropping, drew up the miasmic vapours from the mangrove-fringed reaches stretching on either side of the wharf. Some light crafts were moored about. A schooner was loading up with cattle—wretched diseased beasts. Bridget watched them with shuddering repulsion—being hoisted up and slung aboard with ropes. The men at their task swore so abominably that the police-magistrate stepped up to them and remonstrated on the plea of a lady's presence. Bridget had never heard such swear-words. She was used to the ordinary 'damn,' but these oaths were so horribly coarse. Colin, who was asking local questions of the other men appeared to take it all as a matter of course. The men stopped their work to stare at Lady Bridget. They wore dirty corduroys hitched up with a strap over flannel shirts that were open at the neck and left their brawny breasts exposed. There were other loafers in flannel shirts, hitched up trousers and greasy felt or cabbage-tree hats, and there were two or three blacks of the demoralised type seen in coast townships. Now, one of the bullocks got loose and rushed blindly down the wharf, and Bridget shrieked and clung wildly to her husband's arm until it was headed back again.
Colin laughed at her terror.
'It's all right, Biddy. But how's that for a Bushman's wife. You'll see lots of cattle up at Moongarr.'
Moongarr was the name off his station which was to be her future home.
'I hate cows. Once I was charged by a wild cow and I've been afraid of them ever since.'
'That isn't a cow. It's Mickey Field's poley-tailed bullock being shunted off to the Boiling-Down Works on Shark Island,' said a local man.
The police-magistrate found his opportunity.
'You wouldn't be afraid, Lady Bridget, if you realised that cow as an expression of the Divine mind.'
Bridget laughed. Her sense of the queerness of it all was almost hysterical. She had the Irish wit to make the men grin at her prompt answer, which when it became bruited up and down the Leura, earned her the reputation of being sharp at repartee.
'But do you think,' said she confidingly, 'that the cow would be after realising ME as an expression of the Divine Mind?'
'Eh, you needn't think you're going to knock spots off my wife, any of you,' cried Colin delighted at the sally. And now he walked and talked like a man on his own soil again, as more of the townsfolk came about—extraordinary people, Bridget thought. Loose-limbed bush-riders, really trim, some of them, in clean breeches and with a scarlet handkerchief doing duty as a belt, unkempt old men, a Unionist Labour organiser addressing a knot of station-hands out of work—even a Chinaman—a Chinky, McKeith called him, who, it appeared kept a nondescript store. That was in the days before the Commonwealth and the battle cry of 'White Australia.'
All of them showed the deepest interest in the small, pale, picturesque woman walking by Colin's side.
It seemed incredible to Biddy that she should be walking like that beside the big Bushman, in this sort of town, and that he should be her lawful protector.
The street they walked up began from the wharf with two-storied respectable buildings—the Bank, the Post-Office, the police-magistrate's residence, some dwelling houses, within palings enclosing gardens—clumps of bananas, pawpaw apple trees, a few flower beds, bushes of flaunting red poinsettia, and so forth. There were stores, public houses, meaner shanties straggling along a dusty road that lost itself in vistas of lank gum trees.
The Postmaster hoped that Mr McKeith's lady would not find the hotel too rowdy. It was one of the two-storied buildings, and had a bar giving onto the street, and a veranda round both upper and lower storey. A number of Bushmen and loafers were drinking in the bar, and others were on the edge of the veranda dangling their legs over it into the street. All of them stopped their talk and their drink to stare at Lady Bridget. The landlady—a big, florid Irish-woman in black silk, with a gold chain round her neck came out onto the veranda and greeted McKeith as an old friend, holding out her hand to Lady Bridget. She took the husband and wife up to their rooms, a parlour opening on the balcony, a bedroom over the bar and a little room at the back of it.
'It's a rough sort of shop, Biddy,' said Colin, when the woman had departed. 'But it will do for a shake-down for to-night. If the steamer had come in earlier I'd have taken you straight up to Fig Tree Mount, where the buggy will be waiting for us; and after that we'll begin our camping out, and you'll be in the real Bush. But we've lost the train, and must wait till daylight to-morrow. You'll be tired my dear—and you must be feeling strange,' he added kindly. 'I'll go and have your traps brought up and leave you to fix yourself. I want to see one or two chaps and find out whether my drays are down as far as Fig Tree for stores and what's going on up along the Leura.'
Bridget noticed that the change in McKeith seemed yet more accentuated. His manner was more curt and decided—rougher than before. He appeared to have taken on the tone of the Back-Blocks. Yet she admired him. She did not dislike the roughness.
But she felt a womanish aggrievement at his having left her to undo her own things. And the rooms were horrible—the meagre appliances—the course cotton sheets, the awful Reckitt's-blue colouring of the painted walls. And then the dreadful noise of the men drinking below in the bar! If this was the Bush! But Colin had said it was not the Bush.
He left her again after dinner which was horrible likewise—burned up steak, messy fried potatoes and cabbage, an uneatable rice pudding. He did not seem to mind. The result of his enquiries had left him grim and preoccupied. Yes, he had taken on the Bushman, and had more or less dropped the lover. The practical Scotch side of him was uppermost, and he appeared more disturbed over station affairs than at her want of appetite. She resented this unreasonably. She had not wanted him to play the lover in these surroundings, they would have been fatal to romance, but she had not bargained for his glumness. He was angry at the non-arrival of his draymen and the probability that they were drinking at a grog-shanty on the road. He would certainly sack them, he said if that were the case. And he had disquieting news from Moongarr. Pleuro had broken out among the cattle. What was Pleuro? Lady Bridget wondered, but she was not sufficiently interested in cattle to ask the question. And the Unionist labour men were making themselves a nuisance—going round the stations burning the grass of squatters who employed non-Union stockmen and shearers—in one instance, threatening to burn a woolshed. And there hadn't been any rain on the Leura for a month past, and weather prophets were predicting a drought.
It was dreadfully prosaic and boring. After he had gone out again to transact further business, Lady Bridget went to bed and squirmed between the cotton sheets, remembering ruefully the luxuries of Government House. Never in all her life had she slept between cotton sheets or washed herself in an enamelled tin basin. The noise in the bar became intolerable. She could hear the swear-words quite distinctly. They were disgusting. She tried to stop her ears .... Oh what a dreadful life this was into which she had plunged so recklessly!
Her thoughts went back to the old-world—to the luxurious veneer covering the younger Gavericks' petty economies—stealing the notepaper at country-houses for the sake of the address—cadging for motors and dinners—'keeping in' with the people likely to be of use; pulling strings in a manner which Bridget knew would have been too utterly galling to Colin McKeith's self-respect. And she thought of her father and his financial unscrupulousness! But none of these could have conceived of life without certain appurtenances of that position to which they and she had been born. The only one who was self-respecting among the lot was old 'Eliza Countess' as they designated her. It struck Bridget that Eliza Countess and Colin McKeith had points of character in common—it was true they both came from Glasgow. She thought of the parsimonious rectitude—which had of course included linen sheets and fine porcelain and shining silver—of old Lady Gaverick's establishment, of its stuffy conventionality—though that had been soothing sometimes after a dose of Upper Bohemia; and Bridget wept, feeling rather like a wilful child who had strayed out of the nursery among a horde of savages.
At last she could bear it no longer. They were singing now—a terrible thing with a refrain of oaths and GEE-UPS, and whistling noises like the cracking of whips—a bullock drivers' camp ditty. Bridget shudderingly decided that a row in Whitechapel could be nothing to this in the matter of bad language. She got up and paced the sitting-room in her dressing-gown, wondering when her husband would come and rescue her from these beasts. Watching for him she could see through the uncurtained French windows the starry brilliance of the night, and the moon now in its middle quarter. And down below, the houses and shanties along the opposite side of the street, the fantastic tufts of the pawpaws, the long white road stretching away into the ragged blur of gum-forest.
Presently a firm step sounded on the veranda and came up the stairs.
When Colin opened the door, he saw standing by the table, which had a kerosene lamp on the red cloth, and, even at this time of the year, winged insects buzzing around, and sticking to its greasy bowl—a small white figure like an apparition from another world, in its wonderful draperies of lace and filmy white, the little pale face framed in a cloud of shining hair, and the strange eyes wide, scared, and with tears glistening on the reddened lids.
She cried out at him.
'How could you have left me alone here with those horrible drunken men down there making such a noise that I thought every minute they would break in on me? And swearing! I've never dreamed of such dreadful language; and I can't stand it—I won't stand it a moment longer.'
'You shan't. It's abominable, I've been a thoughtless beast.'
He swooped out through the open door, down the wooden stairs which creaked under his wrathful steps. Bridget heard him call the landlady, 'Mrs Maloney! Come here!' in a voice of sharp command. Presently she heard him speaking to the men in the bar, not abusively, indeed almost good humoured tone, but imperatively.
'Look here, mates.' The uproar stopped suddenly. 'You're decent blokes I know, and you've all had mothers if you haven't had wives. Well, there's a lady up there—she's my wife, and she's never heard bullock-drivers swear before, and you've scared her a bit. Just you stop it. Shut up and be off like good chaps.'
Some dissentient voices arose; an attempt at drunken ribaldry, strident hisses, 'Sh! Sh!' Cries of 'Shame.' 'Chuck it!' Then again, McKeith's voice, this time like thunder. 'Stop that I say—one more word and out you go, whether you like it or not.'
On that, came the noise of a scuffle and the fall of a heavy body across the veranda. And of McKeith, once more breathing satisfaction:
'All right! I haven't killed him—only given him a lesson .... But just you understand I'm not taking any of your bluff. You've GOT TO GO. If you don't, it'll be a case of the lock-up for some of you. And if you do—quietly mind, there'll be a shout all round for the lot of you to-morrow. Drink my health and my wife's, d'ye see? Here Mrs Maloney, chalk it down.'
In five minutes he was back in the sitting room, looking rather dishevelled, and with his coat awry. But there was silence below except for the putting up of shutters, the sound of shuffling feet along the road and snatches of the bullock drivers' chorus which gradually died away in the night.
McKeith went up to his wife who was still standing by the corner of the table, and put his arm round the little trembling form.
'Oh! Biddy—my darling. I've been a brute. I'm not fit to take care of you. I ought to have thought of all that. But one gets used to such goings-on in the Bush, and they aren't bad chaps—the bullockys, and you've got to discount their lurid language a bit. I don't know whether it is that bullocks are more profane than most animals, but it's certain sure that you can't get them to move without swearing at them.'
Then, as she said, half crying, half laughing, 'I see. So this is my baptism into the Bush! You should have taught me the vocabulary, Colin, first.'
'Don't be too hard on me. You won't have this kind of thing at Moongarr. That's the worst of these cursed coast townships. I shouldn't have left you alone, but if I hadn't, we couldn't have got off properly to-morrow, and I'd set my heart on having things ship-shape for our first camping out. Everything's fixed up now—I've been wiring like mad up the line .... The buggy's at the Terminus all right, and I've got the black-boys there, and the tent and all that. It's going to be an experience you'll never forget. THAT'S to be your baptism into the Bush, my dear .... If only there's water enough left in the Creek yet .... But if there isn't we can dig for it. Oh, Biddy, think of it—a night like this—moonlight and starlight—MY starlight—MY star, that I used to look up at and wonder about, come down to earth. No, no, I won't maunder, I won't be a romantic zany—not till to-morrow night—I know the very spot for our camp ....'
He began to describe it—a pocket by the river bed—pasturage for the horses—then pulled himself short. No! He wanted it all to be a surprise .... She was to have just the very thing she had often said to him she would like best .... And now it was getting late and they must be up in good time to-morrow. Would she go to bed and try to sleep....
He took her to the door of her room .... Was she as comfortable as she could be here, anyhow? .... He knew it must seem cruelly rough to her; but it wouldn't be his fault in the future if she didn't have things as she liked them—so far as conditions would permit .... And after all, there women who enjoyed a wild life with their husbands. There was Lady Burton—and scores of other women—Biddy had asked him to have patience—and he meant to be patient—he worshipped her too much not to be patient. Well, she must be patient too with him, and with this queer old Bush which she would get to feel as much at home in as he did himself—in time.
He left her at her bedroom door, kissing her hand with the native chivalry that sat well upon him, and went back to his pipe and the waking dreams of an ardent but self-restrained lover who had practical as well as romantic considerations to weigh. Bridget went to sleep with the smell of his tobacco—and yet did not seem to mind it in the least—coming in whiffs through the door cracks and filling her nostrils. She too dreamed—a vivid dream, but by some law of contrariety, not of any idyllic camping ground in the Never-Never Land. She dreamed that she was seeing the Carnival at Nice—a medley of dancing waves, azure sky, palms, gold-laden orange trees and white green-shuttered houses—flowers, CONFETTI, masks, grotesque pageantry, the merry music of the South. And though he had never been with her at Nice, Willoughby Maule came into her dream. They were doing impossible things—dancing together in the Carnival crowd, flinging confetti, bobbing and grimacing before the comic masks. Then the carnival scene seemed to turn flat, and to become a painted picture on the drop curtain of a stage, and she started up at the sound of knocks such as one hears before the curtain rises in a French theatre.
Her husband was at her door calling her in the grey of dawn. He had everything ready he said. She dressed fumblingly as if she were still in her dream, and they walked to the station-shed whither the baggage had already gone. The sun was only a little way above the horizon when they took their places in the bush train that was to bear her on the second stage of her journey into the Unknown. Such a wheezy, shaky little train, and such funny, ugly country! Sandy flats sparsely grown, mostly with gum trees, where there were no houses and gardens. Near the township there were a good many of these wooden dwellings with corrugated iron roofs—some of the more aged ones of slab—and with a huge chimney at one end. They were set in fenced patches of millet and Indian corn or gardens that wanted watering and with children perched on the top rail of the fences who cheered the train as it passed. Sometimes the train puffed between lines of grey slab fencing in which were armies of white skeleton trees that had been 'rung' for extermination, or with bleached stumps sticking up in a chaos of felled trunks, while in some there had sprung up sickly iron-bark saplings.
Now and then, they would stop at a deserted-looking station, round which stood a few shanties, and the inevitable public house. Maybe it had formerly been a sheepfold, abandoned when the scab had destroyed the flocks; and there were enormous rusty iron boiling-pots to which a fetid odour still clung, and where the dust that blew up, had the grittiness and faint smell of sun-dried sheeps' droppings.
At one of the more important stopping places, they had early lunch of more fried steak, with sweet potatoes and heavy bread and butter and peach jam. Most of the other passengers got out for lunch also.
There was a fifth-rate theatrical company cracking jokes among themselves, drinking brandy and soda at extortionate prices, and staring hard at Lady Bridget. Colin pointed out to her a lucky digger and his family—two daughters in blue serge trimmed with gold braid, and a fat red-faced Mamma, very fine in a feathered hat, black brocade, a diamond brooch, and with many rings and jangling bangles. There were some battered, bearded bushmen who seemed to be friends of Colin's, though he did not introduce them to his wife, and who talked on topical subjects in a vernacular which Lady Bridget thought to herself she would never be able to master. There was a professional horse-breaker whom McKeith hailed as Zack Duppo, and to whom he had a good deal to say also. There were some gangs of shearers or stockmen or what not, who appeared to be the following of two or three rakish, aggressive looking males upon whom the bushmen scowled. Union delegates, Strike Organisers, McKeith explained.
After that station, marks of civilisation diminished. The Noah's Ark humpeys in their clearings became few and far between, and the long lines of grey two-railed fences melted into gum forest. Now and then, they saw herds of cattle and horses. Once, a company of kangaroos sitting up with fore paws drooping and a baby marsupial poking its head out of the pouch of one of the does. Then, taking fright in a second, all leaped up, long back legs stretched, tails in air, and, in a few ungainly bounds they were lost to sight among the gum trees. Early in the afternoon the train reached the temporary Terminus, for the line was being carried on by degrees through the Leura district. This was a mining town called Fig Tree Mount—why, nobody could tell, for there were no fig trees, and not a sign of a hill as far as the level horizon—except for the heaps of refuse mullock that showed where shafts had been sunk. A good many years ago, Bridget was told, there had been a rush to the place, but the gold field turned out not so good as had been expected, and it was only lately that the discovery of a payable reef had brought the digging population back again. From one direction came the whirr of machinery, and there was in the same quarter a collection of white tents and roughly put up humpeys. Otherwise, the township consisted of a long dusty street cutting the sandy plain and, out of the two score or so of zinc-roofed buildings, twenty were public houses.
Lady Bridget had been very silent all day. To Colin's anxious enquiries she answered that it was enough to take in so many new impressions without talking about them. Through the crude blur of these impressions her husband stood out definitely, a dominant influence. She seemed to be only now beginning to feel his dominance. Yet all the time, she could not get away from the sense of living in some fantastic dream—an Edward Lear nonsense dream. The sight of the kangaroos in the Bush brought a particular rhyme of her childhood to her mind. She half said, half sang it to an improvised tune:
'Said the Duck to the Kangaroo, "Good gracious! how you hop! Over the fields and water too, As if you never would stop!"'
She caught her husband looking at her in a fascinated, puzzled way, and paused and gave him her funny little smile.
'That's a very pretty song,' he said. 'But I can't make out what it means. What is it about a duck or a kangaroo? They're nonsense words, aren't they?'
'Nonsense—oh yes, frightful nonsense. Only it struck me that there's sometimes a lot of truth in nonsense. Listen now,' and she went on:
'"My life is a bore in this nasty pond, And I long to go out in the world beyond. I wish I could hop like you!" Said the Duck to the Kangaroo.'
He still looked puzzled—but adoring.
'You've got no sense of humour,' she said, 'Don't you see that you and I are as incongruous as the duck and the kangaroo?'
'That is so,' he answered gravely. 'But I'll be a kangaroo with pleasure if it makes the Bush more attractive to you.'
She fell suddenly silent again, and sat gloomy and staring at the endless procession of gum trees as the train lumbered on through that fantastic forest, which made her think of all kinds of ridiculous things. And she was conscious all the time of his furtive watching from the corner opposite, and of his readiness to spring forward at the least indication of her wanting anything. It bewildered her—the strangeness of being alone with, entirely dependent upon this big man of the Bush, who had the right to look after her, and yet of whom she knew so little.
He did look after her with sedulous care. He had natty bush dodges for minimising the discomfort of the hot, dusty train journey. He manufactured a windsail outside the carriage window, which brought in a little breeze during the airless heat of mid-day. He contrived to get cool drinks and improvised for her head a cushion out of his rolled up poncho, a silk handkerchief and a large cold cabbage leaf against which she leaned her hot forehead. In all his actions she watched him with a curious blend of feelings. There was a satisfaction in his largeness, his commonsense, his breeziness. She liked hearing his quaint Bush colloquialisms, when he leaned out of the window at the small stations and exchanged greetings with whomsoever happened to be there—officials, navvies, miners, even Chinamen—most of whom saluted him with a 'Glad to see you back, sir!' ... or a 'Good-day, Boss. Good luck to you,' as if they all knew the significance of this wedding journey—which no doubt they all did.
Bridget kept in the background and smiled enigmatically at it all. She was interested in her husband both in the personal and abstract sense, and was a little surprised at herself for being pleased when he paid her any attention or sat down beside her. At moments, she even hankered after the touch of his fingers, and had a perverse desire to break down the restraint he was so manifestly putting upon himself. Once, when he had been sitting very still in the further corner, thinking she was asleep, she had looked at him suddenly, and had found his eyes fixed on her in a gaze so concentrated, so full of intense longing, that she felt as if he were trying to hypnotise her into loving him. She knew that if he were, it must be unconscious hypnotism on his part. There were no subtleties of that kind in Colin McKeith. No, it was the primal element in him that appealed to her, dominated her. For she was startled by a sudden realization of that dominant quality in him as applied to herself. In their courtship it had been she who dominated him.
He reddened guiltily when he caught her eyes. His long upper lip went down in obstinate resistance to impulse. But if he had kissed her then, she would not have rebelled.
'Colin, what are you thinking of?' she said, and he answered in a tone, husky with pent emotion.
'I was thinking of our camp to-night—of how we should be alone together in the starlight.... And of how I want to make you happy and of how wonderful it all is—like some impossible dream.'
'Yes. I've been feeling too that it is like a dream,' she replied gravely.
'A bit of nightmare so far, I'm afraid, for you, Biddy,' he said shaking himself free from sentiment. 'But this part of it will soon be over.'
He got up, pulled the blind down behind her, and readjusted the cabbage leaf under her head. Just then, the train pulled up at a station where there were selectors' holdings, and a German woman was lugging along a crate of garden produce. He jumped out and bought another cabbage from which he shredded a fresh cool leaf for her pillow. And at that they laughed and he relapsed into normal commonplace.
When she got out at Fig Tree Mount, he took her across the sandy street to the nearest and largest of the public houses which had 'Station Hotel' printed on it in big blue letters—a glaring, crude, zinc-roofed box with a dirty veranda that seemed a receptacle for rubbish and a lounge for kangaroo dogs, to say nothing of drunken men. The dogs took no notice of the male loungers, but started a vigorous barking at the sight of a lady. There was the usual bar at one end, the usual noise going on inside, and the usual groups of bush loafers outside. Several riding horses were hitched up to the palings at a right angle with the Bar, and a bullock dray loaded with wool-bales—on the top of which a whole family appeared to reside under a canvas tilt—was drawn up in the road. The beasts were a repulsive sight, with whip-weals on their panting sides, their great heads bowed under the yoke and their slavering tongues protruding. Bridget looked at everything with a wide detached gaze, as she followed her husband along the hotel veranda. McKeith, motioning to his wife to proceed, stopped to peer at the faces of two men lying in a drunken sleep on the boards.
'Not my men, anyway,' he said, rejoining her. 'But that will keep.' The place seemed deserted and in disorder. There were glimpses through the open windows of unmade beds within, and, on the veranda, lay some red blankets bundled together. Colin took his wife into a parlour, where flies buzzed round the remains of a meal and some empty whisky bottles and glasses. After considerable shouting and knocking at doors along the passage, he succeeded in arousing the landlady, who came in, buttoning her blouse. Her obviously dyed yellow hair was in a dishevelled state, her eyes were heavy and her face sodden. She had evidently been sleeping off the effects of drink.
'Had a night of it, I suppose, Mrs Hurst?' observed McKeith glumly. 'This is a nice sort of place to show a lady into.'
The woman burst out on the defensive, but McKeith silenced her.
'That'll do. Clear away all that mess and let us have a clean cloth and some tea. And I say, if you have got a decent room for my wife to wash the dust off and take a bit of a rest in, I'll be obliged.'
The landlady blinked her puffed eyelids, muttered an uncourteous rejoinder and went off with some of the debris from the table. Bridget laughed blankly. She looked so small and flower like, so absolutely incongruous with her surroundings, that the humour of it all struck McKeith tragically.
'Good Lord! I wonder what your opinion is of this show! Here is the beginning of what is called the Never-Never Country, my dear. Do you want to go back again to Government House?'
'No, I don't,' and she touched him to the heart's core by putting her little hand in his.
'That's my Mate,' said he, his blue eyes glistening. 'But I'll tell you what I think of your splendid pluck when we're quit of these beastly townships, and have gone straight into Nature. Now, I've got to go and see after the buggy and find my boys, and I shall have all my work cut out to be ready in an hour. You just make the best of things, and if the bedroom is impossible spread out my poncho and take a rest on that sofa there, and don't be frightened if you hear any rowdiness going on.'
The bedroom was impossible, and the sofa seemed equally so. Bridget drank the coarse bush tea which the landlady brought in, and was glad that the woman seemed too sulky to want to talk. Then she sat down at the window and watched the life of the township—the diggers slouching in for drinks, the riders from the bush who hung up their horses and went into the bar, the teams of bullocks coming slowly down the road and drawing up here or at some other of the nineteen public houses 'to wet the wool,' in bush vernacular. She counted as many as twenty-four bullocks in one of the teams, and watched with interest the family life that went on in the narrow space between the wool bales and the canvas roof above. There were women up there and little children. She saw bedding spread and a baby's clothes fluttering out to dry, and tin pannikins and chunks of salt beef slung to the ropes that bound the wool bales together. Then, when the wool was wetted, or when some other teams behind disputed the right of way in lurid terms which Lady Bridget was now beginning to accept as inevitably concomitant with bullocks, the first dray would proceed, all the cattle bells jingling and making, in the distance, not unpleasant music.
It was the horses that interested Lady Bridget most, for, like all the O'Haras, she was a born horsewoman. Though she was moved almost to tears by the spur scars on the lean sides of some of them—spirited creatures in which she recognised the marks of breeding—and by the unkempt condition of some that were just from grass, she decided within herself that there could never be a lack of interest and excitement in a land where such horseflesh abounded.
Presently she had her first sight of the typical stockman got up in 'township rig.' Spotless moleskins, new Crimean shirt, regulation silk handkerchief, red, of course, and brand new, tied in a sailor's knot at the neck, leather belt with pouches of every shape and size slung from it, tobacco pouch, watch pouch, knife pouch and what not. Cabbage tree hat of intricate plait pushed back to the back of the head and held firm by a thin strap coming down to the upper lip and caught in two gaps on either side of the prominent front teeth—there are very few stockmen who have kept all their front teeth. Stockwhip, out of commission for the present, with an elaborately carved and beautifully polished sandal-wood handle hanging down behind, a long snake-like lash coiled in three loops over the left shoulder.
Lady Bridget knew most of the types of men who have to do with horses—huntsmen, trainers, jockeys, riding masters and the rest, but the Australian bush-rider is a product by itself. She liked this son of the gum forest-tanned face, taut nerves, alert eyes piercing long distances—a man, vital, shrewd, simple as a child, cunning as an animal. And the way he sat in his saddle, the poise of the lean, lanky muscular frame! No wonder the first stockman seemed to the wild blacks a new sort of beast with four legs and two bodies. And the clean-limbed mettlesome creature under him! Man and beast seemed truly a part of each other. Lady Bridget O'Hara's soul warmed to that stockman and to his steed.
He was looking at the windows of the bar-parlour. As soon as he saw the lady, the cabbage tree hat was raised in a flourish, the horse was reined in, the man off his saddle and the bridle hitched to a post.
Now the stockman stepped on to the veranda.
'Mrs McKeith—or is it Lady McKeith I should say—I haven't got the hang of the name if you'll pardon me—Mr McKeith sent me on to say that he'll be here with the buggy in a minute or two.... I'm Moongarr Bill.... Glad to welcome you up the Leura, ma'am, though I expect things seem a bit rough to you straight out from England and not knowing the Bush.'
Lady Bridget won Moongarr Bill's good favour instantly by the look in her eyes and the smile with which she answered him.
'I'm from Ireland, Moongarr Bill, and if we Irish know anything we know a good horse, and that's a beauty you're riding.'
'Out of a Pitsford mare by a Royallieu colt, and there's not a finer breed in the Never-Never. My word! you've struck it there, ma'am, and no mistake,' responded the stockman enthusiastically. 'I bought 'im out of the yard at Breeza Downs—that's Windeatt's run about sixty miles from Moongarr, and I will say that though it's a sheep-run they've beat us in the breed of their 'osses.... Got 'im cheap because he'd bucked young Windeatt off and nearly kicked his brains out, and there wasn't a man along the Leura that he'd let stop on his back except me and Zack Duppo—the horse-breaker who first put the tackling on 'im.'
After the interchange of one or two remarks, Lady Bridget had no doubt of being friends with Moongarr Bill, and Moongarr Bill decided that for a dashed new-chum woman, Lady Bridget had a remarkable knowledge of horseflesh.
The quick CLOP-CLOP of a four horse team and a clatter of tin billys and pannikins—as Lady Bridget presently discovered slung upon the back rail of an American buggy—sounded up the street.
'There's the Boss,' said Moongarr Bill. 'Look alive, with that packhorse, Wombo.'
Lady Bridget now perceived behind the stockman a black boy on a young colt, leading a sturdy flea-bitten grey, laden with a pack bag on either side. He jumped off as lightly as Moongarr Bill and hitched his horses also to the veranda posts. Except that he was black as a coal, save for the whites of his eyes and his gleaming teeth, he seemed a grotesque understudy of the stockman—moleskins, not too clean and rubbed and frayed in places, fastened up with a strap; faded Crimean shirt exposing a wealed and tattooed breast; old felt hat—not a cabbage tree—with a pipe stuck in its greasy band; an ancient red silk handkerchief with ragged edges, where whip crackers had been torn off, round his neck, and a short axe slipped among a few old pouches into the strap at his waist. He jumped on to the veranda, clicked his teeth in an admiring ejaculation as he gazed at Lady Bridget.
'My word! BUJERI feller White Mary you! ... new feller Mithsis belonging to Boss. My word!' Then as McKeith drew up his horses in front of the hotel, Wombo and Moongarr Bill sprang to the heads of wheelers and leaders.
It seemed to Bridget that there was a change in her husband even since he had left her. He looked more determined, more practical, wholly absorbed in the unsentimental business of the moment. He had changed into looser, more workmanlike rig—was belted, pouched, carried his whip grandly, handled his reins with a royal air of command, as if he were now thoroughly at home in his own dominions, had already asserted his authority—which she found presently to be the case—and intended the rest of the world to knock under to him. There flashed on Lady Bridget an absurd idea of having been married by proxy—like the little princesses of history—and of being now received into her lord's country by the monarch in person. Her face was rippling all over with laughter when he joined her in the veranda.
'What! Another delicious black boy! He looks like a Christy Minstrel. I thought you hated blacks, Colin.'
'So I do. You've got to have 'em though for stock boys, and I keep my heel on the lot at Moongarr. Wombo and Cudgee aren't bad chaps so long as they are kept clear of their tribe. How do you like the new buggy, my lady? A dandy go-cart, eh?'
He looked as pleased as a child with a new toy carriage. The buggy was quite a smart bush turn-out—comfortable seats in front—a varnished cover, now lying back; a well behind, filled with luggage; a narrow back seat whence Cudgee—a smaller edition of Wombo—sprang down. Cudgee, too, stared at Lady Bridget and clicked his teeth in admiration, exclaiming:
'Hullo! New feller Mithsis.'
Afterwards, Lady Bridget remembered the greetings and wondered why the black boys had said: 'New feller Mithsis!' Who had been the old feller Mithsis? she asked herself.
McKeith sternly quashed the black boys' ebullition and told them to mind their own business. Bridget agreed that the buggy was first rate and became enthusiastic over the horses, four fairly matched and powerful roans.
'Oh! what beauties! I'd like to go and make friends with them.'
He was delighted. 'Good 'uns, ain't they? But wait and make friends when you're behind 'em. We've twenty-five miles to do before sundown. Got your traps fixed up? That's right. Here, Bill, take her ladyship's bag and stow it safely at the back of the buggy. Handle it gingerly—it's full of silver and glass fallals—not what we're much used to on the Leura.'
The stockman grinned and carried the dressing-bag—one of Sir Luke's and Lady Tallant's wedding presents—as if it were dynamite. Colin seemed anxious to impress his wife's dignity upon her new subjects. She felt still more like a queen of comic opera. He helped her into her dust cloak, paid the bill, cut short the landlady's sulky apologies—she had done her hair and recovered herself a little. Then he settled Lady Bridget into the buggy after the manner of a bush courtier—her feet on a footstool, the rug over her knees, a cushion at her back. His whole air seemed to say:
'This is the Queen, and I, the King, expect that proper homage be paid her.'
The loafers at the bar all came out to see the start. The family on the top of the bullock-dray peered forth from under the tilt. The barkeeper shouted, 'Good luck to you and your lady, Mr McKeith.' The drunken reprobates, awakened from their slumber on the boards, called out, too, 'Goo-luksh!' There was an attempt at a cheer, but before McKeith had got out his answering, 'Thank ye—Good day, mates,' a shower of opprobrious epithets rained upon him from a little band of discontented bush rowdies—the advance guard of that same Union delegate who had come up with them in the train from Leuraville.
Three of these men lurched on to the bar veranda, and, so to speak, took the stage. In front was a stumpily-built bullock driver with a red, truculent face, a ragged carrotty beard and inflamed narrow-ridded eyes. A little to the rear stood a lanky, muscular bushman in very dirty moleskins, with a smooth loose-lipped face, no eyelashes, and a scowling forehead, who was evidently the worse for drink; next to him, a shorter man of the drover type, older, eagle-beaked and with sinister, foxy eyes. This one hailed McKeith.
'Yah! Look at him and his spanking team! What price honest labour, you blamed scab of a squatter? Just you wait a bit. It'll be our turn soon to burn all you blanked capitalists off the Leura.'
The lanky bushman took up the jeering note.
'Pretty flash turn-out, ain't it! My word, you think yourself a bloated fine gentleman now you've married into the British hairystocracy, don't you, Mister Colin McKeith? You can take it from us, boys, he's the meanest cuss that ever downed a harmless nigger.... Ask him what the twenty-five notches on his gun stand for?'
'And I tell YOU what it is, Steve Baines. There'll be another notch on my gun, and it won't be for a nigger, if you give me any more of your insolence,' said McKeith coolly. 'Get out of the way, men. Let the horses go, Cudgee. Ready, Biddy?'
But Cudgee, out of malice or stupidity, did not let the roans go or else someone else put a restraining hand on the reins. The man with the ragged beard roared out.
'Ho, you think you're going to ride over us!—you and your fine ladyship! Wot do we care about the British hairystocracy. What we're asking for is the rights of labour, and we mean to have 'em. Do you want to know what he's done to us boys? Fired us out straight away cos we was 'avin' a bit of a spell and a drink to keep the life in us after we'd close up killed ourselves lifting that there ladyship's blanked hundred-ton weight of pianner on to the dray....'
Moongarr Bill's chivalrous instinct flamed to a counter attack. He had just mounted, but swung down from his saddle and made a rush at the speaker. McKeith's stern voice stopped him.
'Don't be a fool, Bill. Let the brutes alone and push on with the pack. This is not the time for a row. As for you, Jim Steadbolt—you know me, and you know that if this was any other sort of occasion, you'd pay on the nail for your infernal cheek.... Leave go of those reins. D'ye hear'; for the man of the ragged beard was jerking the near leader's bit and putting the mettlesome animal on its haunches.
'Damn you! Let go.'
He leaned forward to strike at Steadbolt with his riding whip, but the lash had caught round the pole-bar of the buggy, and he could not extricate it. Bridget tried to help him. He turned to her for an instant, a soft gleam of tenderness shining through the steely anger on his face.
'No. Keep still, my dear. Don't be frightened.'
'I frightened!' She gave a little laugh. Her form stiffened. The small pale face poked forward between the folds of her motor veil, and all the O'Hara spirit flashed as she spoke to the group of malcontents.
'How dare you! Stand back. I thought Australian men were men, and that they didn't insult women.'
There was an uproar in the veranda, and more cries of 'Shame, Steadbolt, you! ... You just git, Gumsucker Steve. We ain't got no use for you, Micky Phayle.... Can't you see a lady as is a lady?' sounded from the bar and parlour. It was the landlady who asked the last question. The two reprobates who had been asleep, lunged off the veranda, and made a feeble assault on Steadbolt, who still clung to the reins. The man, lashed to fury by the scorn ringing in Lady Bridget's voice, made a last envenomed attack.
'It ain't us GENUINE Australians that insults you.... Takes a mongrel Scotchy for that.... Say, Ladyship, just you ask your husband what a sort of an insult he's got ready for YOU up at his Bachelor's Quarters at Moongarr.'
The words had not left his mouth when McKeith's driving whip whizzed in the air and raised blood on the speaker's cheek. Steadbolt dropped his hold of the roan leader's bridle and fell back screaming imprecations. At a touch, the buggy-horses bounded forward.
'Sit tight, Biddy,' said her husband. 'Up you get, Cudgee,' he shouted. The black boy leaped to the back-seat, and in a moment the buggy swerved by the bullock-dray that was drawn up a little further down the road, and the excited horses galloped past the nineteen public houses and the zinc-roofed shanties, past the new quarter of tents and whirring machinery, past the deserted shafts and desolate mullock heaps, then way out along the sandy wheel-track into the unpopulated Bush.
For the first mile scarcely a word was exchanged between husband and wife. The horses were fresh and McKeith had enough to do to keep them from bolting. Moreover, even in emotional phases, he was always silent while chewing the cud of his reflections. Bridget was thinking, too. She had an uneasy sense of startlement, without exactly knowing why she felt startled in that inward way. It was as though some great obscene bird of flight had brushed her with its wings, and brought vaguely to her consciousness unpleasant possibilities. But presently she became interested in watching Colin's handling of the team. She had often sat behind such a team, but never beside such a splendid whip. Impulsively she made some such remark, and he looked down at her, the hard face breaking into a smile.
'That's good.... Wait a bit, my dear, until they've steadied down again.... Y'see they take a lot of driving, and I don't want to lay an accident on top of that unholy shindy....' He spoke in jerks. The roans were inclined to 'show nasty' as Moongarr Bill came abreast of them, and Wombo's pack jingled behind. McKeith gave Moongarr Bill directions about the camp in Bush lingo, which again turned Bridget's thoughts. The black boy and the stockman spurred on as the roans slackened pace. McKeith was able to relax the strain.
'My word! we scooted pretty quick out of that piece of scenery,' he said. 'I felt downright mad at your being let in for such a disgraceful bit of business. I hadn't time to tell you that I'd sacked those men half an hour before. Found them in the lowest of the grog shanties, their horses not looked after, dray only half loaded, and the three of them—Gumsucker Steve was to have come and taken off our leaders when we got into broken country—thick with the Union delegates and sticking for higher wages. I paid them off and filled their places on the spot with two chaps off a wool-drive.... So I left the brutes vowing vengeance, and I suppose they thought they'd lose no time in giving me a taste of it.... Well, they're no loss.' He had been explaining things in jerks while he brought the team to an harmonious jog-trot along a piece of uneven road. 'That fellow Steadbolt is a wrong 'un—not good even at his own job of wood and water joey—which means, my dear, the odd cart-driving on a place—and not to be trusted within ten miles of a public house.'