Lady Bridget asked suddenly:
'I want to know, Colin—what did that man mean by saying you had an insult ready for me at your Bachelor's Quarters? What insult?'
It seemed as though blue fire leaped from McKeith's eyes.
'Insult! Good God! Biddy you can't hold me responsible for the foul insinuations of a beast like that. Insult YOU! my wife!'
The passionate tenderness thrilling his voice, the honest wrath and bewilderment in his face must have silenced any doubt, had doubt existed in Lady Bridget's mind.
'I don't know, Colin. I don't even know what Bachelors' Quarters mean. Have you an army of Bachelors at Moongarr, and what do they do when they're at home?'
He laughed. 'It's a shanty I put up for the new-chums when I've got any—and for the gentlemen-sun-downers that come along, and visitors that I don't want to be bothered with at the House. There's a woman up there....' He stopped suddenly and his face grew grim again. 'That's it, I suppose—I'm sorry I didn't sling the whip harder and cut the fellow's cheek open. I would if I'd thought....!'
He stopped again.
'What woman? Have I a rival? This is becoming dramatic!' Lady Bridget's voice was amusedly ironic, but she carried her head erect. 'Tell me about the woman at the Bachelors' Quarters, Colin.'
'There's nothing to tell, except that's she's the widow of a man who went up with me on my last Big Bight expedition, and was killed—partly through his own, and partly through my, fault. That's why I've made a point of looking after her, and I built my Bachelor's Quarters chiefly to give her a job. I thought she was too young and too good looking to be drawing grog for diggers at Fig Tree Mount—which was what she set out doing.'
'I see.... So she's young—and handsome.'
'Oh, in a coarse sort of way.... No, I wouldn't say that; she's rather refined for her upbringing. Anyway, Steadbolt as well as a lot of other men fell in love with her—Steadbolt was pretty well off his head over it. She wouldn't have him at any price—naturally—and I had to give the fellow work outside the head-station to keep him away from her. That was before I went south. Very likely he's been trying it on again, and knew I should have to get rid of him as soon as I came back.'
'Why doesn't the woman marry again?'
McKeith shrugged. 'Too jolly comfortable perhaps—or perhaps the right man hasn't turned up. Florrie Hensor is several cuts above a malingering lout like Steadbolt. Well there, poor devil! Maybe, it's not unnatural that I should feel a sneaking sympathy for an unsuccessful lover. That abominable lie was a bit too strong though—and before you! The man must have been downright mad from drink and fury and bitterness. It—it's all funny—isn't it? One of the queer sides of the Bush. Good old Bush! I am glad to be back in it again, Biddy.'
He lifted his head and seemed to draw in the strong odour of the gum trees and the pure vitality of the weltering sun. His anger appeared to have left only compunction behind it. And again he begged her to forgive him for having subjected her to an experience so disagreeable. They were on a stretch of clear road now, and the roans trotted pleasantly along. Lady Bridget took up his words.
'Yes, it's all funny—that kind of thing—in this setting.... I never supposed that I should be howled at by a revolutionary mob in the Australian Bush.... A BAS LES ARISTOCRATS. It's quite exciting. I think I should have enjoyed the Reign of Terror.'
'Eh! You're only frightened of four-footed beasts. If you'd lived then, you'd have gone up to the block with that smile on your lips, and the proud turn of your little head—just as I used to dream of you...'
'You don't know—I'll tell you some day. I remember talking to Joan Gildea once.... It's queer.... But never mind now. D'ye like this, Biddy?'
'I love it. I wish we could drive on through the forest all day and all night—a dream drive. I think I might be able to place myself at the end of it.'
'To place yourself!'
'I've never been able to find my true pivot inside. All my life I've been howling in my soul and haven't known what I was howling for. I thought to-day that you might teach me.'
'Is it only to-day that you have thought that?' he said wistfully. 'Well, anyway, I'm glad of it.'
'Colin,' she said abruptly, 'wasn't it funking a little bit, don't you think—running away?'
'No—not with YOU beside me. You'll have other opportunities for seeing whether I've got much of the funker in me. No doubt those brutes will give trouble some time.'
'What can they do?'
'Fire my run—spoil my cattle sales—get hold of my stockmen....But I'm not so badly off as my "sheep" neighbours at Breeza Downs. They've got to have their shearing done.... Though I've had a lot of bother to-day,' his face became gloomy, 'and I foresee more ahead.'
She asked what other sort of trouble.
'Why! there's been no rain at Moongarr since I left it five months ago. And Pleuro means innoculation and short sales.... Ah well! ...'
He flicked the wheelers gently. 'Shake it up, Alexander! Look alive, Roxalana.... I named 'em when I was reading ROLLIN'S ANCIENT HISTORY, my dear ... my dear!' He looked down at the little woman by his side with deep tenderness in his blue eyes and a smile that banished the shade from his face. 'Oh, my dear, there ain't going to be any bush worries for us this blessed afternoon and evening. It's the poetry and romance'—he pronounced it romance—'of the bush that's got hold of me now. I'm just longing for us to strike the camping place—and then—just you and me together—just man and woman—alone with Nature!'
He put his hand on hers and she pressed it in return. The Woman in her thrilled to the Man in him.
Cudgee, on the hind seat with his back to them, broke the spell.
'My word, Massa! You look out, Mithsis—big feller goanner sit down along a tree.' And for the first time in her existence, Lady Bridget beheld a monster iguana dragging its huge lizard tail and turning its stately, brown crocodile head round at her from the safe vantage place of a thick gum branch.
After that, the way led off the main road, on by a less used track through wilder country. Here Wombo, the black boy, was waiting—Moongarr Bill having gone on with the pack horse to the camping place—and helped to unharness the two leaders which he drove before him ahead. The trees thickened, the buggy wheels caught on stumps. Cudgee had to get down at intervals and, with his axe, lop and clear fallen timber. Every mile the progress grew slower and the forest more lonely. No sign now of a selector's clearing, or of any human occupation.... But there was a pack of emus hustling and shaking their big bunches of feathers like startled ballet girls.
'I feel as if part of the Zoo had been let loose,' said Lady Bridget when again there bounded along in the near distance a pair of kangaroos with a little Joey kangaroo taking a lesson in locomotion behind its parents.
They were still in the gum forest, but now and then came a belt of gidia scrub—mournful trees with stiff black trunks and grey green foliage and a pale sort of wattle flower smelling like dead cattle when rain is about, as McKeith explained. But there was no rain about now, and, in truth, he would have welcomed the unpleasant odour. Perhaps it was that which made the ground so stark and bare beneath these trees where no grass will grow. The sun was lowering when they left the gidia. Out in the gum forest again, the birds were chattering before retiring to rest. All life is still in the bush at mid-day, but now there were curious scutterings among the grass tussocks, and the whirr of its insect population sounded all round. The country got prettier—swelling pastures and stony pinches and a distant outline of hills. They could see the green line of a water course.
'Plenty water sit down along a creek?' McKeith asked the black boy. But Cudgee shook his woolly head.
'Ba'al* mine think it, Massa. No rain plenty long time.'
[*ba'al—the Aboriginal negative.]
McKeith sighed. The dark shadow of coming drought is a fearsome spectre on the Never-Never Land.
A COO-EE sounded long, clear, vibrant. Moongarr Bill and Wombo, who had gone on ahead, were fixing camp. Lady Bridget's musical voice caught up the note. She answered it with another COO-EE, to Cudgee's delight.
'My word! Ba'al newchum, that feller white Mary,' said he.
They had rounded a knoll abutting on the green line of ti-trees and swamp oak. It was a barren hump; upon its crest, and alone in barbaric majesty, stood a row of grass trees silhouetted against the sunset sky. Weird sentinels of the bridal camp they seemed—tall, thick black trunks like palm-stems, from each of which spread an enormous tuft of gigantic grass blades green and upright in the middle, grey and jaggled and drooping where they hung over at the bottom. Out of each green heart sprang a great black spear many feet in height.
The stony knoll dropped sheer like a wall. On the other side of it was a space the size of an amphitheatre, a large part of it spread with soft green grass, like a carpet, and the rest of the floor scattered with low shrubs and big tussocks. Amongst them was a herb giving out a fragrance, when the feet crushed it, like that of wild thyme. The whole air seemed filled with a blend of aromatic perfumes.
Here was a roofless room, open on one side where a break in the ti-trees showed the sandy bed of the creek, which, at first, to Lady Bridget's fancy, had the appearance of a broad shallow stream. On this side, low rocks with ferns growing in their crannies, edged the stream. On the opposite shore, one giant eucalyptus stood by itself and cast its shadow across. Beyond, lay the gum-peopled immensity of the bush. The stony walls of the knoll, curving inward and sheltering a thick growth of ferns and scrubby vegetation, closed in the bridal chamber. Creepers festooned the rocky ledges and crevices. Here and there, a young sapling slanted forward to greet the morning sun when it should rise behind the hummock.
Moongarr Bill had undone the pack-bags and was building a fire between two large stones. The flames leaped up, the dead twigs crackled. Long years after, Lady Bridget could recall vividly the smell of the dry burning gum leaves—her first experience of a bush campfire.
Close to the fire, under the flank of the rocky knoll the tent was pitched, a roll of blankets and oilskin thrown just within it.
Presently, from the hummock above came the sound of Cudgee's axe. He had felled the youngest of the grass-trees, and was now chopping off its green tuft. Soon he appeared, carrying a huge bunch of the coarse blades of foliage, which he brought to the tent. With an odd mixture of emotions, Lady Bridget watched her husband take the grass tops from the black boy and spread them carefully on the floor of the tent, heaping up and smoothing the mass into a bed, upon which he laid the oilskin and then one of the blankets—they were new white blankets, fresh from the store. After that, he set the cushions from the buggy, covering them with the rug, at the head of the couch, making a bolster, and, over that, the one she had had at her back.
'No down pillows or linen sheets allowed in a bush camp-out, my lady Biddy,' he said with a laugh, a half timorous glance at his wife, but her answering smile reassured him.
'You'll never sleep on a sweeter bed,' he said, sniffing the resinous fragrance of the grass-tree tops. He would not let her help him with the upper blankets when she wished to lend a hand.
'No, this camp is my own show. Go and look at the scenery until I've got our wigwam in order.'
And she submissively obeyed.
Against the other side of the rock wall, the black boys had built a second fire. The horses were hobbled and grazing along the green border of the creek. The buggy propped up, was covered with a tarpaulin. The pack-bags had disgorged their contents. A miscellaneous heap of camp properties lay on the ground. And now, Cudgee's axe was at work again, stripping a section of bark from a gum tree, for what purpose Lady Bridget did not divine.
She walked down to the creek and stood among the rocks at its edge. She had expected a rippling stream, and, to her disappointment, saw only a broad strip of dry sand, along which Moongarr Bill was mooching, a spade in his hand.
'What are we going to do for water?' she exclaimed.
'Dig for it, my ladyship,' answered Moongarr Bill. 'That's one of the upside-down things in 'Stralia. Here's two of them—mighty queer, come to think of it—the rivers that run underground and the cherries that grow with their stones outside.'
Lady Bridget observed that she was already acquainted with that oft-quoted botanical phenomenon. In her rides around Leichardt's Town she had been shown and had tasted the disagreeable little orange berry which has a hard green knob at the end of it and is, for some ironical reason, called a cherry. She also told Moongarr Bill that in England she had seen a dowser searching for hidden springs by means of a forked hazel twig carried in front of him which pointed downwards where there was water and asked why Australians didn't adopt a similar method. At which Moongarr Bill laughed derisively, and said he did not hold with any such hanky-panky.
'Bad luck, Biddy,' McKeith said behind her. 'If there had been the proper amount of rain in these last three or four months, we'd have had the one thing that's wanting now to make this the ideal camp I've had on the top of my fancy—a running creek of pure water. But never mind—the water's there, though you can't see it.... That's got it, Bill!'
For already the sand was darkening and moisture was oozing in the hole Moongarr Bill had been digging, and which he widened gradually into a respectable pool of water. When it had settled down, all the billies were filled and the horses driven to it, whinnying for a drink.
Lady Bridget watched the evening meal being prepared between the two fires—only watched, for she was sternly forbidden to set hand to it.
'No canned goods, nor cooked food,' McKeith said, were allowed at this lay-out. Moongarr Bill was first-class at frying steak. He himself was going to boil the quart-pot tea and would give Biddy a demonstration in johnny-cakes, made bush fashion at their own camp fire. The sheet of bark had been cut into sections—one sub-divided into small squares to serve as plates. The inside looked clean as paint, and smelled of Mother Nature's still-room. Colin mixed the flour and water upon the larger sheet and worked up a stiff dough. He kneaded it, slapped it between his broad palms, cut it and baked the cakes in the ashes; then, butter being the only luxury permitted, he split them and buttered them; and Lady Bridget found in due time that not even the lightest Scotch scones taste better than bush johnny-cakes.
Quart pot tea, likewise—made also in true bush fashion. First the boiling of the billy—Colin's own particular billy, battered and blackened from much usage—half the battle, he explained, in brewing bush tea. Then, regulation handfuls of tea and brown store sugar thrown in at the precise boiling moment. Now the stirring of the frothing liquid with a fresh gum-twig. Then the blending and the cooling of it—pouring the beverage from one quart pot into another, and finally into the pannikins ready for the drinking.
Proudly, round the rock-flank of the hummock, Moongarr Bill brought fried steak and potatoes steaming in a clean tin dish and done to a turn, then went to cook more for himself at his own camp. They ate off the bark plates. Salt, sugar and mustard came out of small ration bags. McKeith produced black-handled knives and forks—the last a concession. And good to taste were the fizzling johnny-cakes and the strong, sweet, milkless tea.
Such was Lady Bridget's real marriage feast.
They were hungry, yet they dallied over the repast. It was the most delicious food she had ever tasted, Bridget said. They made little jokes. He was entranced by her happiness. Joyously she compared this banquet with others she had eaten in great houses and European restaurants, which were the last word in luxury. Oh! how she loved the dramatic contrast of it. Nature was supreme, glorious.... Oh no, no! never could she hanker after that which she had left behind—for ever. Because, if ever she were to go back again to the old life, she would be an ugly dried-up old woman for whom the smart world would have no further use....
Then suddenly she became quiet, and busied herself in the tent, while McKeith took out his pipe and smoked in ruminative bliss. When she came back she had no more talk of contrasts or of her old life, no more fantastic outbursts. Indeed, there seemed to have come over her a mood of sweet sobriety, of blushing, womanly shyness.
'Mayn't I be your squaw and help you to wash up?' she said, when he collected the tin pots and pannikins and proceeded to get the camp shipshape. No, she was not to stir a finger towards the dirty work. It was HIS job to-night. Another camping-out time she might play the squaw if she liked. She was not on in this act.
He amused her greatly by his tidy bush methods. The billies were refilled, the ration-bags laid ready for the morning.
Now darkness had fallen. He put more logs on the fire, and the flames blazed up. Then he made up a little pile of johnny-cakes that he had not buttered, and covered it with the bark plates. 'We shall have to make an early start, and there'll be no time to bake fresh ones—and no more use for these things,' he said. The square of bark on which he had mixed the dough was in his hands and he was about the fling it among the bushes, but she stopped him.
'No—don't throw it away.... I—I want it for a keepsake, Colin.'
He stared at her in surprise. The red flames threw a strange glow on her face, and made her eyes look very bright.
'My dearest! A sheet of bark!' Then a great light broke on him. The strip of bark dropped from his hands. His arms went out and enfolded the small woman, lifting her almost from the ground as he crushed her against his breast and kissed her lips with the first passionate lover's kisses he had ever given her.... 'Oh, my dear—my sweetheart!' He gave a big, tremulous laugh.... 'There was never any woman in the world like you.... To think of your caring about just a sheet of bark!'
'You made me my first johnny-cakes upon it.... And to-night is the beginning of our married life—and oh, Colin, it is the first time I have felt really married to you, and I want a bit of the bush to remember it by.'
He kissed her again.... The miracle was accomplished. He seemed to have no words in which to say all that filled his heart.
The night sounds of the bush stirred the vast silence. For the first time, Lady Bridget heard the wail of the curlew—a long note, weirdly melancholy. It startled her out of her husband's arms. There were uncanny swishings of wings in the great gum tree on the other side of the creek. And now the clanking of the horses' hobbles which had been dilatory, intermittent, became sharply recurrent. A shout from Moongarr Bill cut short the monotonous corroboree tune which the two black boys had been singing at their camp some little distance away.
'My word, I believe YARRAMAN* break him hobble!'
At which the boys scampered off through the grass, and presently came the cracking of a stock whip among the trees.
'It's all right, Moongarr Bill's after them,' said McKeith, as his bride released herself from his arms. 'But if you don't mind darling. I'd better just see if anything has started the beasts.'
Lady Bridget watched him disappear round the knoll. The curlews went on wailing, and as if in answer a night owl sent forth his portentous HOOT—HOOT!... Apparently nothing was much amiss with the horses; they had quieted down again. Lady Bridget picked up the strip of bark and carried it in her arms into the tent, laughing to herself as she did so.
'Only a sheet of bark! What a fool I am—But it's quite appropriate, anyway.'
She put it beside her dressing-bag, and then went out once more into the night. Through the interlacing gum branches she saw a great coppery disk, and the moon rose slowly to be a lamp in her bridal chamber. How wonderful the stars were!... There was the Southern Cross with its pointers, and the Pleiades. And that bright star above the tops of the trees, which seemed to throw a distinct ray of light, must be Venus.... The moon was high enough to cast shadows—black—distorted. The low clumps of shrubs beyond the carpet of grass looked like strange couched beasts....
As she stood by the rocks at the creek edge, she heard her husband speaking to Moongarr Bill, who seemed to be walking down along the sandy bed.
'Horses all right, Bill?'
'Oh, ay—just a possum up a tree gev Julius Caesar a start.... Been digging a decent bath-hole for the ladyship in the morning, boss. There's plenty there.'
'I wish it was as near the surface at Moongarr, Bill. We shall have our work cut out making new bores, if the dry weather lasts.'
'My word, it's no joke going down three thousand feet. Amazing queer the amount of water running underground on this dried-up old earth.'
'But we can always strike it, Bill; no matter how dried up the outside looks, there's the living spring waiting to be tapped. And how's that in human nature too, Bill. Same idea, eh?'
Moongarr Bill emitted a harsh grunt.
'My best girl chucked me a month back, boss, and as for your darned sentiment and poetry, and sech-like—well, I ain't takin' any just at present.'
'Bad luck, Bill! Struck a dead-head that time, eh?... Well, good-night.'
'Good-night, boss—and good luck to you. I reckon your spring ain't a dead-head, anyway.... Say, Mr McKeith, me and the boys are shifting our fire over to the other side of the creek.... Keep the 'osses from hevin' any more of their blessed starts.... Handier for gettin' them up in the morning.'
Lady Bridget McKeith had been married about a year and a quarter. Winter was now merging into spring. But it was not a bounteous spring. That drear spectre of drought hung over the Never-Never Land.
Lady Bridget stood by the railing of the veranda at Moongarr, looking out for two expected arrivals at the head-station—that of her husband, who had been camping out after cattle—and of the mailman—colloquially, Harry the Blower—who this week was to bring an English mail.
Perhaps the last arrival seemed to her at the moment most important of the two. The bush wife had long since begun to feel a sort of home sickness for English news. Yet, had you asked her, she would have told you that barbarism still had a greater hold than civilisation.
There did not, however, appear to be much of the barbarian about Lady Bridget. She still looked like an old picture in the high-waisted tea-gown of limp yellow silk that she had put on early for dinner, and she still trailed wisps of old lace round her slender shoulders. There was the same touzle of curly hair, like yellow-brown spun glass or filaments of burnished copper, which was shining now in the westering sun. The finely-modelled brows and shadowy eyes were as beautiful as when Colin McKeith had first beheld his goddess stepping on to Australian earth.
But for all that, a change had taken place in her—a different one from the indefinable yet significant change which is felt in almost every woman after marriage. There is usually in the young wife's face an expression of fulfilment, of deepened experience—a certain settled, satisfied look. And this was what was lacking in Lady Bridget's face. The restless soul within seemed to be peering out through hungry eyes.
She could see nothing human from the veranda except the blue-smocked figure of Fo Wung, the Chinaman, at work in his vegetable garden by the lagoon. There was one large water-hole and a succession of small ones, connected by water-courses, now dry, and meandering from a gully, which on the eastern side broke the hill against which Moongarr head-station was built. The straggling gum forest, interspersed with patches of sandal-wood and mulga, that backed the head-station, stopped short at the gully, and beyond, stretched wolds of melancholy gidia scrub. Looking up from the end of the veranda, Lady Bridget could see an irregular line of grey-brown boulders, jagged and evidently of volcanic origin, marking the line of gully. These gave a touch of romantic wildness to the otherwise peaceful scene.
Lady Bridget's gaze went along a track skirting the gidia scrub, and crossing the lower end of the gully near the lagoon, to the great plain which spread in front of the head-station. Except for some green trees by the lagoon, a few ragged belts of gum and sandal-wood or single isolated trees dotted about, the plain was unwooded to the horizon. There were also silhouetted upon the sky the grotesque-looking sails of one or two windmill-pumps. In the foreground the plain was intersected by lines of grey fencing, within which browsed straggling herds of lean cattle, mostly along the curve of the lagoon.
Neither plain nor lagoon formed altogether pleasing objects of contemplation just now, for they spoke eloquently of the threatened drought. When Lady Bridget had come up a bride, the plain had been fairly green. The sandal-wood blossoms were out and wild flowers plentiful. The lagoon was then flush with the grass, and its water, on which white, pink and blue lilies floated, had reflected the vegetation at its edge. Now the lagoon had shrunk and the water in the gully was in places a mere trickle. Of course, the trees were there—ti-tree, flooded gum, and so forth—but they looked brown and ragged. One standing by itself, a giant white cedar, which in spring was a mass of white and mauve bloom and in winter of scarlet berries, had a wide strip of brown mud between it and the water that had formerly laved its roots.
Lady Bridget had thought that the rocky gully, the lagoon and the vast plain made as pretty a landscape as she had ever seen, when she had first looked upon it in the early morn after her homecoming. Now, as she paced up and down the veranda—for she was in a restless mood—her mind went back to that bridal homecoming. They had not arrived at the head-station till after dusk, but it had been visible from the plain a long way off, and she had examined it with ardent curiosity through her field-glasses in the clear light of sunset.
She had seen a collection of rough buildings backed by the forest, and from different points of view, as they drew nearer, had made out that the three principal ones formed three sides of a square. Two of these—the side wings—were old and of primitive construction—slab walls, bark roofs, and low verandas, overgrown with creepers. Colin explained that these were the Old Humpey—as he called the original dwelling house—and the kitchen and store building opposite. Lately, the New House had been put up at right angles with the old buildings, and fronting the plain. It had been begun before his trip south and practically finished during his absence. Colin was very proud of the New House.
It was made of sawn wood and had a high-pitched roof of corrugated zinc, turned to gold by the sunset rays upon it. There was a deep veranda all round the New House, and it was much taller than the wings, being raised on blood-wood piles, that had been tarred to keep off white ants, and with a flight of wooden steps leading up to the veranda.
The details of Moongarr head-station became familiar enough later to its new mistress. Besides the dwelling houses were various huts and outbuildings. The stock-yards lay on a piece of level ground behind at the side of the gully, and between the yards and the House stood a small slab and bark cottage—the Bachelors' Quarters.
Even though glorified by the sunset, it had given Lady Bridget a little shock to see how crude and—architecturally speaking—unlovely was her new home. But her Celtic imagination was stirred by the weirdness of the grey-green gum forest, and of the mournful gidia scrub, framing the picture.
Then, as dusk crept closer, and the great plain, along which the tired horses plodded, became one illimitable shadow out of which rose strange sounds of beasts and eerie night cries of birds, the spell of the wilderness renewed itself and she felt herself enveloped in world-old mystery.
She remembered how the lights of the head-station against the forest blackness had looked like welcoming torches and how she had roused herself out of her weariness at the last spurt of the equally weary buggy horses. Then the jolt in the dark over the sliprails, the slow strain of the wheels up the hill, the cracking of Moongarr Bill's stock-whip, and the sound of long drawn COO-EES. Also of dogs barking, of men running forward. Then how Colin had lifted her down and half carried her into the parlour. She remembered her dazed glance round and the rushing thought of how she could soften its ugliness. Yet it had looked welcoming. A log fire blazing, the table spread, a Chinese cook in baggy blue garments—pigtail flowing; a Malay boy; her bewildered question—was there no woman in the establishment? Then Colin's strident call from the veranda—'Mrs Hensor. Where's Mrs Hensor!' And the appearance presently of Florrie Hensor—youngish, tall, a full figure; black hair, frizzed and puffed, a showy face, red cheeks, redder lips, rather sullen, flashing dark eyes—who had received Lady Bridget almost as if she had been her equal, and of whom the bride had at once made an enemy by her frigidly haughty response. From the first moment, Lady Bridget had disliked Mrs Hensor. But she had felt a vague attraction towards the little yellow-headed, blue-eyed boy clinging to Mrs Hensor's skirts. As for any uneasiness on the score of Steadbolt's insolent insinuations, she had absolutely dismissed that from her mind.
Yes—that bridal homecoming—how strange it had seemed! How rough everything was! How impossible the whole thing would have appeared to her had any fortune-teller in Bond Street prophesied the end of her marriage journey!
And how, in the first moment of settling down, she had laughed with Colin at the thought of what Chris and Molly Gaverick, and 'Eliza Countess' would have said! But with what dauntless energy she had worked in transforming her new abode and in making it reflect her own personality. She had felt really grateful, she said, to the Union delegates for having enticed away the builders before the inside furnishings were complete. Soon they got hold of a bush carpenter, and she was provided with occupation for a good many months.
Lady Bridget had been very happy in those early days. Colin had seemed so thoroughly in the picture—strong, chivalrous, adoring—like a Viking worshipping his conquered bride. The romance of it all appealed tremendously to the Celtic blood in Bridget. It was her nature, when she gave, to give generously. She had become genuinely in love with her bush husband during that wonderful honeymoon journey.
Ah, that journey! What an experience! If she could have written it down as a new adventure of 'The Lady of Quality,' how the great Gibbs would have jumped at her 'copy!' Well, she had practically done so in her letters to Joan Gildea—now back in her London flat. But the true inwardness of the adventure was a thing never to be put into words.
No sign yet of the men. Lady Bridget ceased her restless pacing and swung herself slowly to and fro in a hammock at the end of the veranda. As she swung she traversed over again in her imagination the stages of that honeymoon journey.
Two hundred and twenty-five miles of it, after the first camp out. Many more nights under the stars. Then out of the gum forests they had gone through the great western plains, covering ground fairly easily, for McKeith had arranged to have fresh horses on the road, and they always drove a spare pair ahead of the buggy. Occasionally they stopped at a head-station. Once at night they pulled up at a bush house, and a strange old man had put his head out of a window and shouted to them in the darkness. 'If ye've come to see me, I'm drunk,' he had said, 'and if you've come to drink, the rum-keg's empty, but ye'll find a pint pot outside and a little water in the tank.' And then he had shut the window again and refused further parley.
They had camped, hungry, in the paddock—for provisions had run out, and on that account, and because the horses had strayed in the night, they had to go again to the house. The old man, sober and ashamed, captivated likewise by Lady Bridget's beauty and charm, apologised almost on his knees—he made Biddy think of Thackeray's picture of Sir Pitt Crawley proposing to Becky Sharp. Old Mr Duppo, it was—the father of Zack Duppo, the horse-breaker, who had recently been breaking in colts at Moongarr.
They stayed till the horses were found. Mr Duppo had a housekeeper—now if Mrs Hensor had been like that housekeeper there could have been no cause for jealous scandal. An aged dame, long, bony—dressed in a short green petticoat and tartan jacket, with a little checked shawl over her head and pinned under a bearded chin. She poured tea out of a tin teapot and leaned over her master's chair at meal times to carve the salt beef.
Lady Bridget sketched the pair. The old man roared over the sketch, but the housekeeper bore her a grudge for it, and afterwards had not a good word for the 'Ladyship' who had slipped out of her proper sphere into the Never-Never country.
There were plenty of other small adventures which would have made the hair of Lady Gaverick and her friends stand on end. A dream-drive indeed, full of sort of 'Alice in Wonderland' episodes. Bush life Out Back—a jumble of odd characters and situations. Fencers' camps, cattle-drivers' camps, bullock-dray camps. There had been a baby born unexpectedly under the tilt of a bullock-dray, on one occasion, the night before McKeith's party appeared on the scene, and Lady Bridget had a trunk down from the buggy, and there in the road tore up some of her fine-laced smocks and petticoats to provide swaddling clothes for the poor little scrap of mortality. And there were tramps 'humping bluey' on the track likewise, and diggers carrying their picks. Bridget liked seeing Colin hail-fellow-well-met with them all—sharing tucker and quart-pot tea. She wished that her socialistic friends of the old played-out civilisation could see this shrewd, practical humanitarian of the Bush.
They came very close to each other in those long days of the dream-drive. He talked to her as he had never talked before, and as he talked rarely afterwards. He drew aside curtains from recesses of his real nature, the existence of which she had not suspected, and, in truth, at a later time, doubted. Then, if in broad sunlight the shy, rough exterior of the man would close suddenly over those secret chambers, when evening came, it would seem as though the camp fire illuminated them once more.
After the first time or two, he allowed her to boss the camp 'lay-out.' It was she who spread the blankets on Wombo's beds of grass tree tops and dry herbage. Wombo and the 'big feller White Mary' (the adjective used metaphorically as expressive of distinction) made great friends in those days—out of which friendship sprang, alas! in due time, certain tragic happenings. It was Lady Bridget who would set the billy boiling and who, after one or two failures, succeeded in making excellent johnny-cakes. She remembered her first performance in that line under the eyes of a small group of admiring spectators—her husband 'just waiting to see how the new-chum cook shaped,' and, as he said the words, she, glancing up from the sheet of bark and the dough she was kneading, caught a look in his face which was something she could never in all her life forget. And Moongarr Bill with the horses' reins over his arm, and the two black-boys agape, beady eyes twinkling, white teeth glistening, emitting their queer guttural clicks of approbation, and an occasional 'My word! Bujeri you, Lathy-chap,' the nearest they could get to Moongarr Bill's accepted form of address. There was joy, glory to Lady Bridget in this playing of the squaw and fending for her man, ceasing to be the goddess and becoming the primal woman.
And the sports, and songs, and stories by the camp fire! Moongarr Bill's yarns, Colin's exploring tales, Wombo's and Cudgee's dances and corroboree-tunes—strange, weird music that had a fascination for Lady Bridget. She, too, would get up and sing CARMEN'S famous air, and the Neapolitan peasant songs of her mother's youth. Never, for sure, had the gaunt gum trees echoed back such strains as these.
But time came when all the romance of barbarism seemed to have fizzled out and only cruel realities remained—when work and worry turned McKeith from the worshipping lover into the rough-tongued, irritable bushman—when his 'hands' deserted him, his cattle died and things generally went wrong, and when he showed himself something of the hard-headed, parsimonious, ill-conditioned Scotch mongrel that Steadbolt had called him. When, indeed, he seemed to have forgotten that Lady Bridget O'Hara had graciously permitted him to worship her, but had not bargained for being treated—well, as many another out-back squatter—treats his help-mate. Then Bridget would tell herself bitterly that it might have been better had she married a civilised gentleman. There would sometimes be scenes and sometimes sulks, and those times no doubt accounted for the hungry look in Lady Bridget's eyes and the slight hardening of her mouth.
She was loyal though, in spite of her many faults, and 'game' in her own way—and when Colin came out of his dour moods, she was generally ready to meet him half way.
For, through all, the memory of the dream-drive honeymoon lingered. And the bit of bark, sapless, brown, curled up by the heat into almost a tube, and partially eaten by white ants—before the desecrating assault had been discovered and the termites' nest destroyed with boiling water—was still cherished as a sacred symbol.
While she swung in the hammock the memory pictures came and went like a cinematograph show—the dream-drive presently merging into an electioneering trip through McKeith's constituency a few weeks after her bridal homecoming.
The 'Lady of Quality' might, had she been so minded, have also made spicy capital out of the humours of that political contest—in which, unhappily, the Labour Party had triumphed. Steadbolt had had his say on the occasion, and there had been a free fight—Lady Bridget was not present, and only heard darkly of the occurrence—when Steadbolt had got the worst of it in an encounter with his late employer.
But all that was but a small side-show, and not likely to affect in any great measure Lady Bridget's life. Except that the loss of McKeith's seat in the Legislative Assembly made it no longer necessary for him to spend at least part of the winter session in Leichardt's Town. Nor would Lady Bridget have the opportunity to resume her old intimacy at Government House. In any case, however, she was not destined to see more of her old friend in Australia. A few months previously, Lady Tallant had developed symptoms of grave disease—it was said that the Leichardt's Land climate did not agree with her, and she had gone back to England, leaving Sir Luke to perform his duties without her help.
At last, Lady Bridget heard the unmistakable sound of cattle in the distance—the low, multitudinous roar of lowing beasts and tramping hoofs and the reverberating crack of stock-whips. It came from the gidia scrub. She knew that they had been mustering SCRUBBERS—otherwise, wild cattle from the broken country at the foot of Moongarr Range.
She left the hammock and went again to the veranda railing. Looking along a side path from the Chinaman's garden she saw that Mrs Hensor and her boy—the yellow-headed urchin of about six—were hastening towards the Bachelors' Quarters. The woman carried a basket of vegetables, the boy hugged a big pawpaw fruit which he held up proudly as his mother responded in her free-and-easy, rather sulky fashion to Lady Bridget's stiff nod. 'It's for the House,' cried the child. 'Fo Wung said I was to bring it up.'
Lady Bridget made a wry face—she did not like pawpaws.
'Very well, Tommy, and if you're good you can have what's left tomorrow.'
'That's all right,' responded Tommy in bush formula.
'Have you seen anything of your master—or the postman?' asked Lady Bridget of Mrs Hensor.
'I believe Mr McKeith is coming on ahead with Harry the Blower,' said Mrs Hensor. 'Look sharp, Tommy, the cattle will be at the yard directly, and I've got my dinner to cook for the whole lot of them, seeing that some visitors aren't good enough for the house.'
The woman pointed her last sentence by a malicious glance at the mistress of Moongarr.
'I suppose that is what your master keeps you here for—to cook for the visitors at the Quarters, Mrs Hensor,' said Lady Bridget, with incisive sweetness.
Mrs Hensor flushed scarlet, but she checked an impudent reply. Pulling Tommy angrily along, she hurried up to the four-roomed, zinc-roofed humpey and its lean-to kitchen, protected by a bough shade, which lay between the head-station and the gully, with the stockyard close to it, and which constituted her domain. It annoyed Mrs Hensor to hear McKeith called her master. She always spoke of her late husband as having been the Boss-mate on that—to him fatal—exploring expedition. Also, she resented having all the bachelors 'dumped down'—as she phrased it—on her, while the 'Ladyship's swell staff' was spared the trouble. At present the Bachelors' Quarters was fairly full. Mr Ninnis, store-keeper and overseer in the owner's absence, abode there permanently, and just now, there were Zack Duppo, the horse-breaker, and a young man from Breeza Downs—a combined cattle and sheep station about fifty miles distant—who had come to help in the mustering and to collect any beasts strayed from the Breeza Downs' herd.
The gully crossing lay below the boulders of rock at the head of the lagoon. Presently, two horsemen appeared on the rise. One was McKeith; the other Harry the Mailman—otherwise the Blower—a foxy, browny-red little man on a raw-boned chestnut, carrying his mail-bags strapped in front and at the side of his saddle.
Lady Bridget supposed they had met at the turn-off track just above the crossing. McKeith was carrying a leather mail-bag, from which he appeared to have extracted a bundle of letters, with one hand. He held his bridle and coiled stock-whip in the other. He was listening to the mailman, who seemed to be talking animatedly. As they neared the house, he gave the usual COO-EE, that set all the dogs barking, and put the Chinaman-cook and black-boys on the alert.
The riders passed by the end of the veranda where Lady Bridget stood. McKeith looked up at her. He seemed preoccupied and angry, and merely nodded to his wife, but did not take off his hat as he had done in earlier days—and, somehow, to-day she noticed the omission.
'All right, eh, Biddy?' he called out casually. 'Here's your mail—I've taken out mine,' and he pitched the leather bag, with the string cut and the official red seal broken, on to the veranda at her feet. 'I say—you might bring the whisky out to the back veranda. I daresay you could do with a nip, eh, Harry?'
'That I can, Mr McKeith. Riding along these plains is dry work. Good day, Ladyship. I'm a bit behind time, but I lost an hour looking for a hole to fill my water bag at—And then I could not drink out of it—for a demed old pleuro bullock had got there first and died in it. My word, Boss, you'll be in a fix if it don't rain before long.'
McKeith made an angry gesture. He spoke sharply to the horses. The two men rode round the kitchen-wing and dismounted at the paling fence, which made the fourth side of the little square. The back veranda of the new house, with steps ascending to it, in the middle, the Old Humpey, with its veranda, along one side, the kitchen and store building along the other, and a rough slab and bark outhouse beyond it. Native-cucumber vines and other creepers partially closed in the older verandas. In the centre of the square was a small flower bed with a flowering shrub in the middle.
Lady Bridget brought the whisky decanter from the dining room to the back veranda, and McKeith mounted the steps, the mailman remaining beside them. A canvas water-bag, oozing moisture, hung from the rafters, and there were tumblers on a table beneath it. McKeith took the decanter from his wife's hand, too preoccupied, it seemed, even to notice the little satirical smile on her lips. She was thinking how funny it seemed that she should be playing Hebe to Harry the Blower. She soon realised, however, that serious things had happened. As McKeith mixed a liberal allowance of whisky with water from the water-bag and handed it to the mailman, he asked curtly:
'This isn't one of your blowing yarns, Harry? You're positive about the fact?'
'Saw the thing with my own eyes, Boss. As fine a team as ever I'd wish to own, lying with their throats cut, and the trees black with crows all round. There was the dray-load all turned over, and two cases prized open. I bet that the rum-kegs and spirits that couldn't be carried off, are buried in some handy dry water-hole close by. I saw two or three empty brandy bottles with the heads of 'em smashed to show that the rascals had wet the wool before starting off.'
McKeith cursed in his throat. 'No sign of my men?'
'Scooted clean out of the scenery—the whole lot. I reckon that's what they shook hands on with the Union chaps, and that the natural consequences of absorbing your grog will be another woolshed or two burned down before long. Here's your health, Boss, and the Ladyship's.' And the mailman gulped down his 'nobbler' and turned to remount the lean chestnut, which was standing hitched to the palings, observing cheerfully:
'Well, so long, Sir. Go'day, Ma'am. This sort of argufying ain't going to carry my mail-bags along the river.'
'Go up to the Quarters and ask Mrs Hensor for a feed,' called McKeith. 'And look here, Harry, you can tell them at the Myall Creek out-station as you go by, to have two good horses ready in the yard for me. I'm off to Tunumburra to put the police on to those devils straight away.'
'All right, Boss. You'll find it will take some tall calculatin' though. Them Unionists are getting too strong for the police to tackle. Windeatt up at Breeza Downs is in a mortal funk, and sending word everywhere for a squad of Specials to protect his woolshed.'
'It seems,' said Lady Biddy to her husband, when the mailman had gone, 'that there might be some use after all for Luke Tallant's Maxims.'
'It seems that Jim Steadbolt has been taking his revenge,' he answered, 'and that I must be in the saddle in an hour's time. Mix me a drink, Biddy, and order in some grub, while I go and have a bath.'
He looked as if he needed one. The dust of the drafting camp was caked upon his face and clothes. His was the appearance of a man who had been riding hard after stock and sleeping, between his blankets only, under the stars.
Lady Bridget mixed him his drink and went to see Chen Sing in the kitchen. When she came back, Colin was in the front veranda. He had tumbled the rest of the letters and papers out of the mail-bag, and was hastily and eagerly scanning the last LEICHARDT'S TOWN CHRONICLE.
'Any news, Colin?'
'I don't know, I was looking to see if the Government were going to act against the strikers—I see they are sending troops.'
'And is Luke Tallant coming at the head of them, in official uniform, to read the Riot Act?—if there is a Riot Act in Australia. I'd like to see Luke maintaining the supremacy of the British Crown on the Leura.'
He looked up at her in vague rebuke of her levity, and there was suppressed tenderness in his eyes, notwithstanding his preoccupation with his own troubles.
'No, no. But there's something in the paper about Lady Tallant being ill and having an operation. Poor chap! He wouldn't have been bothering much about strikes in the Never-Never and the supremacy of the British Crown, any more than I should in similar circumstances.... Well, there! I must go and bogey*.'
[*Bogey—in Black's language, 'bathe out of doors']
Sudden compunction overswept Bridget.
'Oh, Colin! You would care... really... even though they had cut the throats of your four best dray-horses?' But he had disappeared into a little veranda room, against which a corrugated iron tank backed conveniently, and in a minute she heard the splash of water.
She picked up the paper and looked at the English Intelligence before examining her own letters. It was quite true. There was a paragraph stating that Lady Tallant's health had not improved since her arrival in England, and hinting at the likelihood of an operation being advisable. Bridget reflected, however, that Sir Luke would probably have received a cablegram by this time, one way or other—which would have put him out of suspense, and, presumably, there had been no later bad news.
A letter from Molly Gaverick confirmed that item of the English Intelligence. Rosamond Tallant's condition was certainly far from satisfactory. Molly, however, seemed much more taken up with a recent illness of Eliza Countess of Gaverick than with that of Lady Tallant. Being a tactless and absolutely frank young person, she had no scruple in proclaiming her hope that 'old Eliza' would make Lord Gaverick her heir. This was the more likely, wrote young Lady Gaverick, because the old lady had lately quarrelled with her own relatives, and never now asked any of her stuffy provincial cousins to share the dulness of Castle Gaverick and of the house in Brook Street. If she did not leave her money to Chris Gaverick, there was not, conceivably, anyone else to whom she would leave it.
'By the way,' Molly continued, as if it had been an afterthought 'Old Eliza is immensely interested in you and your cow-boy husband—ranch-owner is what, I suppose, I ought to call him. She asked Mrs Gildea so many questions about you both that Joan read her your account of your honeymoon journey through the Bush, and all the rest of it. How you can endure such a life is incomprehensible to me—but Aunt Eliza says it shows you've got some grit in you, and that evidently your husband has cured you of a lot of ridiculous nonsense—I am quoting her, so don't be offended, and you needn't show this to Nature's gentleman, which is what Aunt Eliza calls him. I can't help feeling though, that it's rather a pity you didn't wait a bit before taking the Irrevocable Step. I don't know whether you ever heard about Mrs Willougby Maule's death—eleven months after their marriage.'
No, Bridget had not heard. Molly Gaverick was an uncertain correspondent, and, no doubt, Joan Gildea and Rosamond Tallant, if they had known of the event, had thought it wiser, in writing to her, to suppress the news. For a moment, Lady Bridget sat meditating, and all the blood seemed to rush from her brain to her heart—she could almost hear her heart pounding. Then she went on again with Lady Gaverick's letter.
'It was a motor accident—nothing serious at the time, but the baby was born prematurely, and she lingered a week or two, and then died. I must do him the justice to say that he seemed to feel her death very much. It looked as though, after all, the marriage had been quite a success. Her money gave him a lift and they were going out a good deal in the political set. She left her quarter of a million to him, ABSOLUTELY. I heard that some remote Bagallys were going to contest the will, but they found that they hadn't a leg to stand upon. I wish now that we hadn't been so sniffy about W.M. As Chris observed with unconscious cynicism, there's a good deal of difference between a penniless adventurer and the possessor of quarter of a million. Unattached men with money can be so useful. As soon as Rosamond Tallant gets better—if she does—I'll make her ask him to meet us. I know he used to be a great friend of Luke's....'
Lady Bridget had read so far when the door of the bathroom opened and McKeith came out, clean again in fresh riding gear, and with a valise ready packed and strapped in his hand.
The noise of the cattle became much louder, though the mob was not yet in sight.
'I wish I hadn't got to go off before the branding,' he said. 'These Breeza Downs people always want to claim every cleanskin*. You might tell Ninnis and Moongarr Bill, Biddy, to keep a sharp look-out. And now let me have my grub—I'm sorry, dear, to have you hurry up your dinner.' He strode along to the dining-room, too absorbed in his own annoyances to notice his wife's face or to ask any questions about her letters.
Lady Bridget gathered them up and followed him. The Malay boy waited at table with the assistance of a servant girl from Leuraville, the only female domestic—with the exception of Mrs Hensor—on the head-station.
McKeith swallowed his soup and ate the savoury stew prepared by the Chinese cook with the appetite of a man who had been all day in the saddle. Lady Bridget, who was an extraordinarily rapid eater, as well as a fastidious one, had finished long before he was half-way through. She sat silent at first, while he growled over the outrage upon the horses. Then suddenly visualising the poor beasts lying stiff in congealed blood, and the mailman's exaggerated description of trees black with crows, she flamed out in wrathful horror, and was as anxious as her husband that the perpetrators of the crime should be brought to justice. He seemed pleased, and a little surprised at the ebullition.
'I thought you weren't taking it quite in, Biddy. I am glad you think like me, though I expect yours is the humanitarian view and mine's the practical one. This touches my pocket, you see. Well, anyway, you won't be so keen now on defending the Unionists.'
'I think they've got as much right to fight for their principles as we have for ours, but I don't think they've the right to torture horses,' she rejoined. Her sympathy with oppressed shearers and dispossessed natives struck always a jarring note between them. His long upper lip closed tightly on the lower one, and he hunched his great shoulders.
'Well, that sort of argufying won't muster the cattle,' he observed drily, plagiarising Harry the Blower. She changed the subject.
'Did you have a good muster?'
'Oh, fair! Between three and four hundred head. The water is running still up in the range. We should have done better if that skunk Wombo hadn't bolted.'
Lady Bridget leaned forward with interest.
'Oh! Then he HAS gone after the black-gin. Brave Wombo!'
'I wouldn't care a cuss whether he went after the black-gin or not; she's a half-caste, by the way, and all the worse for that. And he might stop with her, if it wasn't that he knows the country, and can spot the gullies where the cattle hide. I've no use for sentiment—especially black sentiment—when it's a case of a forced sale to keep me going. My heavens! there's only one thing, Biddy, that could break me, and it's drought. I believe we're in for a long one, and unless I can make sales quickly and get money to sink new bores on the run, things will go hardly with me. Harry the Blower spoke naked truth for once in his life.'
'Oh! but there's sure to be rain soon. It looked so like it last night,' she answered lightly.
'LOOKED so like it! Yes, and ended in wind and dust. Sure sign of drought! I must be off.... Here, give me the LEICHARDT LAND CHRONICLE, and don't expect me till you see me.... And by the way, Biddy, I hear there's a Unionist Organiser going the round of the stations and pretending to parley with the masters. Don't you be philanthropic enough to let him open his jaws—I've told Ninnis he's to be hounded off before he has time to get off his saddle.'
'Colin, you are unjust all round. You were very unjust to Wombo. Why shouldn't the poor black-boy marry as well as you or anyone else?'
McKeith gave a hard laugh.
'I'm not preventing him from marrying. I only said I wasn't going to have his gin on my station.'
'You wouldn't listen when he told you that he didn't dare go back to his tribe—because his gin's husband threatened to kill him.'
'My sympathies are with the gin's husband. What business has Wombo to steal another man's wife?'
'The husband broke her head with a nulla-nulla, and she loves Wombo and Wombo loves her. I consider that any woman, whether she's black or white, who lives with her husband while she loves another man is committing a sin,' said Lady Bridget hotly.
McKeith stopped in the act of filling his tobacco pouch from a jar on the mantelpiece and looked sharply at his wife.
'You think that, Biddy. I remember long ago you said something of that sort to me. It isn't my idea of morality or of justice. But I'm one with you this far. If I'd ever reason to believe that you loved another man and wanted to go off with him—you might go—I wouldn't put out a hand to stop you. And then....'
'And then?' She had grown very white.
'Well, I think I'd make another notch in my gun first—and it would be a previous one—for myself that time.'
'No, you wouldn't, Colin. Because you know I shouldn't be worth it—and you are not the man to funk.'
'I'm not. But where YOU come in—Good Lord! Mate! What would there be left for me to live for?'
Her heart thrilled to the old term of endearment, to which in their early honeymoon days she had attached a sentimental value. Of late it had fallen into disuse, and when she had heard him on occasions greet the foreman, may be of some stray party of drivers or surveyors with the bush formula: 'Good day, mate!' she had felt with deep aggrievement that she no longer desired the appellative. She had not yet realised that while the word 'mate' in Australese, like the verb AIMER in French, may be used as a mere colloquial term, it implies in the deeper sense a sanctity of relation upon which hangs the whole code of Bush chivalry.
'Oh, Colin!' Her eyes glistened with tears. She felt ashamed of her neurotic fancies and her resentment of his lacks in the matter of conventional courtesies—of his outward hardness, his want of sympathy with her ideals.
He came to her, taking her two hands while keeping his pipe in one of his own so that the whiff of the coarse 'Store-cut' tobacco made her wrinkle her nose and stemmed the tide of emotion. But he did not seem to notice this.
'No, you're not going to put that theory into practice, Mate.... I'm not afraid. So we'll leave it at that. And now what's this about the black-boy to do with my being unjust to that Organiser? There's no beastly sentiment in his case. He's out to make money, that's all.'
'You won't hear what he's got to put forward on his side any more than you would listen to poor Wombo.'
'No, I won't. I'm not taking any—either in gins or in organisers. Let 'em show their faces here, and they'll pretty soon become aware of the fact.'
Lady Bridget took away her hands and moved to the veranda. Outside, McKeith's horse was waiting. He strapped on his valise, finished ramming the tobacco into his pipe, then going behind his wife, bent downward and hastily kissed her cheek. She did not turn her head.
'Good-bye, Biddy. Don't you go worrying over the blacks or the Unionists. And if you're dull and want a job there'll be a spice of excitement in helping to tail that mob of scrubbers. I had to hire two stray chaps, we're so short-handed.' He went down the steps to the outer paling. Still she made no response, though now she turned and watched him vault into the saddle. She also saw his face lighten at sight of Mrs Hensor's boy with the great pawpaw apple. Tommy Hensor was a favourite with the Boss.
'Bless you, boy, it's as big as yourself. Take it back to the Quarters and tell your mother to give you a slice, or perhaps her ladyship will cut it for you.'
He trotted off in the direction of the gully and of the roar of cattle. Lady Bridget could see the heaving backs of the mob, and could hear the shouts of the stockmen as they rounded the beasts to the crossing. Tommy Hensor looked up pleadingly to her, holding out the pawpaw apple. His yellow hair flamed to gold in the sunset, his blue eyes were as bright almost as Colin's. Lady Bridget shook her head.
'No, I don't want you this evening, Tommy. Take that back to your mother.'
She settled herself in the hammock and read Molly Gaverick's letter over again. Then she read one from Joan Gildea. Joan was in the full swing of London journalism again. She gave Bridget rather fuller news of Eliza Countess of Gaverick, and dwelt at some length upon the old lady's interest in Bridget's wild life and in Bridget's husband.
'You may be sure,' wrote Joan, 'that I had nothing but good to say of Colin, and oh! Biddy, dearest, how rejoiced I am to know that he is making you so happy. I could read between the lines of all your amusing descriptions and sketches of "the Dream-drive." I had my doubts and my fears, as I never concealed from you, but I believe that you have found the true, well-beloved at last.'
There was a good deal, too, in the letter about Rosamond Tallant, who was in cheerful spirits, it seemed, in spite of the impending operation, and would not hear of Sir Luke's asking for leave to be with her—and so on—and so on. Not a word about Willoughby Maule and his bereavement—which, after all, could not be so very recent. Why had Joan never mentioned it? Was she afraid of rousing regret and of awakening painful memories.
* Cleanskin—Unbranded calf.
McKeith's absence was longer than he had expected. Lady Bridget heard from Harry the Blower on his return round with the down-going mails that the little bush township of Tunumburra had become the scene of a convocation of Pastoralists called to concert measures against the threatened strike. The mailman reported that the district was now in a state of great commotion, and the strikers, gathering silently in armed force, prepared to defend their rights against a number of free labourers whom the sheep-owners were importing from the South. The men who had killed McKeith's horses were, according to the mailman, entrenched in the Range, awaiting developments. It was thought that nothing would happen on a large scale until the arrival of the free labourers and the troops, which it was said the Government was sending. Harry the Blower talked darkly of marauding bands, ambushed foes and perilous encounters on his road, all of which waxed in number and blood-thirstiness after the manner of Falstaff's men in buckram. But nobody ever took Harry the Blower's yarns very seriously.
It would have been natural for Lady Bridget to work herself up into a state of humanitarian excitement—the O'Hara's had always espoused unpopular causes—but since the arrival of the English mail a curious dreaminess had come upon her. She spent idle hours in the hammock on the veranda, and would only rouse herself spasmodically to some trivial burst of energy—perhaps a boiling water skirmish against white ants, or a sudden fit of gardening—planting seeds, training the wild cucumber vines upon the veranda posts, or watering the shrubs and flowers within the rough paling fence that enclosed the house and garden. A new-made garden, for ornament rather than for use, for the staple produce was grown in the Chinaman's garden by the lagoon. Young passion-fruit vines barely concealing the fences' nakedness, a mango, a few small orange trees now in flower. A Brazilian cherry, two or three flat-stone peach trees and loquets—all looking thirsty for rain—that was all. The Old Humpey, as it was called, had creepers overgrowing its roof, a nesting-place for frogs, lizards, snakes—and Lady Bridget, brave enough for doughty deeds, could never overcome her terror of horned beasts and reptiles. McKeith's office, where he entered branding tallies and posted the station log, was in the Old Humpey, and two or three bachelor bedrooms opposite the wing with kitchen and store. But Lady Bridget lived chiefly in the new house—less picturesque with its zinc roofing and deficiency of green drapings, but, being built on sawn lengths of saplings, more or less fortified against snakes. In front there was a great vacant space between the ground and the floor of the house—pleasant enough in summer, when a gentle draught could find its way through the cracks between the boards, but cold in winter, though the northern winters were not sharp enough or long enough for this to be a serious discomfort.
Nor, when Lady Bridget slept alone in the new house, did she mind much the dogs and harmless animals that couched under the boards, they gave her a sense of companionship. But there was a herd of goats—some of them old and with big tough horns—which McKeith had started in his bachelor days to provide milk when, as sometimes happened, the milch cows failed; also to furnish savoury messes of kid's flesh—a pleasant change from the eternal salt beef varied with wild duck. Occasionally it happened, especially in mustering times, that nobody remembered to pen the goats in their yard by the lagoon, and on these occasions they would get under the house, and the noise of their horns knocking against the floor of her bedroom would so effectively destroy Lady Bridget's chances of sleep that she would rise in the night and drive them into their fold. These were incidents which added variety to the monotony of her life in the Bush.
The head-station was very quiet one afternoon, most of the hands being out with the tailing mob; and Lady Bridget, in a restless mood, went for a roam through the bush. She walked past the Chinamen's garden and Fo Wung, carrying up buckets of water to his young cabbages, stopped to smile blandly and report on his produce. But she was in no mood for the interchange of remarks in pidgin English.
It was lonelier at the head of the lagoon. She could hear the trumpeter geese tuning up in shrill cornet-like notes and the discordant shriek of native-companions, as the long-legged grey birds stalked consequentially at the water's edge. She disturbed a flock of parrots in the white cedar tree, and a covey of duck rose with a whirring of pinions and a mighty quacking, shaking the drips off their plumage so that they glittered like diamonds in the sun. From the limbs of the dead gum tree hung flying foxes, their bat-like wings extended limply, and a gigantic crane stood in melancholy reflection upon one leg.
Lady Bridget crossed the gully and roamed the borders of the gidia scrub. Here, in an occasional open patch, were wattles breaking into yellow bloom, and sandalwood trees already in blossom, scenting the air faintly and making bright splashes upon the grey and black background of the mournful gidia. She filled her arms with flowers and wandered on, long past the stockyards, into the fastnesses of the gully, where lay dark pools almost empty now and where grey, volcanic looking rocks seemed to make a rampart between the scrub and the head-station.
She was sitting there, her back against a boulder, the forest behind her, so motionless that inquisitive bower-birds and leather-heads came quite close to her feet, her small pointed chin poked forward, her eyes shadowy and mysterious as the still waterpools below. She was visioning in space that man who had once undoubtedly cast a strong spell upon her. The spell had been broken by his own infidelity—if it WERE infidelity of the real man. For she could never believe that he had not truly loved her. Broken, secondly, by the counteracting influence of her husband. But now it seemed that the news of him in Lady Gaverick's letter had started the old vibrations afresh. It was as if an iron wall between them had suddenly been knocked down and he had gained access to her inner self. For months she had scarcely thought of him. Last night she had seen him in a dream, and he had spoken to her. He had said, 'Of course, I loved you. I never loved anyone better, but I felt that you were not of an accommodating disposition—that I could not give you anything you really wanted, and that we should not be happy together.' That was all of the dream she had brought back. But she KNEW that there had been a great deal more. The impression had been so vivid that she could not rid herself of the fancy that he was within actual reach of her. It was impossible to imagine him fourteen thousand miles distant.
She did not try now to fight against this haunting, but yielded herself to the power of the dream. When she heard a footstep in the forest behind her, she started and turned and stared into the dim aisles of the gidia, as though she expected to see his ghost.
'Mithsis—mithsis—me Wombo—plenty my been look out for you. Plenty mine frightened to go along a head-station.'
Lady Bridget laughed hysterically. What a contrast between the romantic hero of her dreams and the figure of the black-boy before her. Wombo had been in the wars. Very little was left of the trim understudy of Moongarr Bill. He was hatless; his Crimean shirt was torn into ribbons; his moleskin breeches were covered with blood and dirt; the strap belt, with its sheath-knife and various pouches, was gone, and this, judging from the state of his legs and feet, had been forcibly removed.
A gash from a tomahawk disfigured his head; the woolly hair was matted with blood. But there remained still something of the PREUX CHEVALIER about Wombo.
'Mine bring it gin belonging to me,' he announced with dignity, making an introductory gesture towards what appeared almost an excresence upon the black trunk of a gidia tree except for an old red blanket slung round one shoulder, which only half covered a woman's dusky form.
'That Oola. Mine want 'im marry Oola. Black teller belonging to that feller plenty COOLLA*. My been sneak camp. Me catch 'em Oola. Black feller look out, throw 'im tomahawk, NULLA-NULLA*. My word! big feller fight. Me YAN plenty quick. Oola YAN* plenty quick. Black feller come after—throw 'im spear—close up MUMKULL*. BA'AL* can pull out spear, Oola plenty cry.'
[*Coolla—in Blacks language, meaning Angry.]
[*Nulla-nulla—A black's weapon.]
[*Yan—To go away.]
Oola joined in with the black's plaintive wail.
'YUCKE*! Poor fellow, Oola!'
Wombo pulled her forward. A comely half-caste who, as a child, had been partially civilised by a stockman's wife on one of the Leura out-stations, but who had, later, gone back to her tribe and married a Myall, as the wild blacks are called. She was very young, soft and round of outline, with hair straighter and more glossy than is usual among her kind, and large black eyes now raining tears. She wiped them away with a sooty hand, pink in the palm. Her left arm hung limp by her side.
Lady Bridget jumped to her feet, all concern.
'Oh, you poor thing! You poor, poor thing,' she cried. For Wombo, tweaking aside the concealing blanket, showed the smooth shaft of a spear transfixed in the quivering flesh of Oola's arm, above the elbow. He had broken off the long end of the spear to expedite their flight—so he explained in his queer lingo—but Oola had cried so much that he had not been able to draw out the rest of the shaft.
'BUJERI* YOU, white Mary!' pleaded Oola in the native formula. 'You gib it medsin.... You gib it one old fellow skirt.... BA'AL, Oola got 'im clothes... BA'AL got 'im ration... plenty sick this feller....' And she beat her breast with the arm that was unhurt.
'Of course, I'll give you medicine—and food, and I'll look out something for you to put on. Only for heaven's sake, stop crying,' said Lady Bridget. 'Come along. You must have that spear pulled out and your arm seen to. Come with me to the Humpey. Quick—MURRA* make haste.'
[*Murra make haste—To run quickly.]
But Wombo drew back, casting an affrighted glance down the gully towards the crossing.
'Ba'al me go long-a Humpey—I believe Boss PHO-PHO*, Oola,' he said.
'Wombo, you are foolish. What for Boss shoot Oola?'
'YOWI*—I believe when Boss say PHO-PHO, my word! that one PHO-PHO. Plenty black feller frightened.'
Bridget pushed the unhappy gin along the track.
'You needn't be frightened. Boss has gone away.'
'Boss no sit down long-a Humpey?' Wombo looked relieved, and while Bridget reassured him, the three moved on towards the crossing. In answer to Lady Bridget's questioning the black-boy told his story as they went. She already knew of Wombo's passion for the young gin, who was within the prohibited degree of relationship, therefore TABU to him, and who, moreover, was already legitimately wedded to a warrior of the tribe. She knew also that McKeith had forbidden the black-boy, under pain of severe penalty, to seek the coveted bride. Of course, it was all nonsense about his shooting the poor creature, though no doubt, in ordinary circumstances, he would have sent them off the station. But hard as he was—and Lady Bridget had learned that her husband could be very hard, he would never be inhuman, and, naturally, Oola's wound must be dressed.
Lady Bridget hurried them over the crossing and up the hill. The white men were all out with the cattle. She needed assistance, and seeing Mrs Hensor at the kitchen window of the Bachelors' Quarters, called to her.
'Please come out at once, I want you.'
The woman's face became sullen on the instant.
'I can't come now. I'm in the middle of my baking.'
'But don't you see? The thing is important. This poor gin has a spear through her arm—it must be attended to immediately. Wombo is hurt too. The wounds must be washed and dressed.... Look at the poor creatures.'
Mrs Hensor contemptuously surveyed Wombo and his erring partner.
'Serve them right. He's stolen her from her husband and the Blacks have given them what for. They don't need any fussing over, these niggers. They are used to being knocked about.'
Lady Bridget's eyes blazed, but her tone was icy.
'I suppose you understand that I've given you my orders to attend to a wounded fellow-creature.'
'Well, I don't call Blacks fellow-creatures. Do you suppose we should not all be having spears thrown at us if the niggers weren't afraid of Mr McKeith's gun?'
'You have my orders,' repeated Lady Bridget sharply, her wrath at white heat.
'I take no orders from anybody but the Boss, and his orders were that if Wombo brought the gin here, they'd got to be driven off,' retorted Mrs Hensor.
'They will not be driven off. You will answer to your master for this disobedience!' said Lady Bridget.
Mrs Hensor laughed insolently.
'Oh, I'm not afraid of Mr McKeith finding fault with ME,' and she withdrew out of sight into the kitchen.
Lady Bridget made as dignified a retreat as was possible in the circumstances. She could have slain Mrs Hensor at that moment. She took the blacks to the veranda of the old Humpey and went to look in the office for antiseptics, lint and bandages. Chen Sing, the Chinese cook, came at her call, and rendered assistance with the bland phlegm of his race. The spear had been pulled out of Oola's arm by the time Lady Bridget came back with the dressings. In her spasms of East End philanthropy she had learned the first principles of surgical aid. When Oola's arm and Wombo's gashed head had been washed and bandaged, the trouble was to know what to do with the pair.
Now that they were comfortable and out of pain, fed and given tobacco to smoke and a tot of rum apiece, they had time to remember superstitious fears kept at bay while they had been running for their life. Both were afraid to show themselves in the open. On one hand, there was the terror of McKeith; on the other, of Oola's husband. Lady Bridget gathered that Oola's husband was a medicine man, and that he had 'pointed a bone at his faithless wife and her lover.' To 'point a bone' at an enemy—the bone having first been smeared with human blood, and subjected to magical incantations—is the worst spell that one aboriginal can cast upon another. It means death or the direst misfortune. All that the afflicted one can do is to fly—to hide himself beyond the sorcerer's ken and the reach of pursuit. For this reason, Wombo and Oola had fled back to Moongarr. No outside black dared venture within range of McKeith's gun. Now Wombo and Oola besought Bridget to hide them from the vengeful furies. There was that slab and bark hut at the end of the kitchen and store wing. Nobody was likely at present to want to go into it. The door had a padlock, and it was used as a store-house for the hides of beasts that had been killed for the sake of the skins when in the last stage of pleuro. The key was always kept hung up in McKeith's office.
Here Lady Bridget installed Wombo and Oola. She brought them cooked meat, bread and a ration of tea and sugar, provided them with a pair of blankets, and found for Wombo some old moleskins, a shirt, and a pair of boots, while Oola almost forgot the medicine man's evil spell in her puzzled delight over a lacey undergarment and a discarded kimono dressing-grown, which had been part of Lady Bridget's trousseau. That excitement over, the lonely mistress of Moongarr went back to her own habitation. She ate her solitary dinner and paced the veranda till darkness fell and the haunted loneliness became an almost unbearable oppression. Vast plains, distant ranges, gidia scrub and the far horizon melted into an illimitable shadow. The world seemed boundless as the starry sky—and yet she was in prison! She had longed for the freedom of the wild, and her life was more circumscribed than ever. A phrase in an Australian poem, that had struck her when she had read it not long ago came back upon her with poignant meaning. 'Eucalyptic cloisterdom'—that was the phrase, and it was this to which she had condemned herself. The gum trees enclosed for her one immense cell and she had become utterly weary of her mental and her spiritual incarceration. Oh! for the sting of love's strong emotion to break the monotony. The most sordid sights and sounds of London streets, the most inane babble of a fashionable crowd would be more stimulating to her brain, sweeter in her ears than the arid expanse, the weird bush noises—howl of dingoes, wail of curlews, lowing of cattle—that a year ago had seemed so eerily fascinating.
Even her marriage! The romance of it had faded, as it were, into the dull drab of withered gum leaves. The charm of primal conditions had been overpowered by their discomfort. Nature had never intended her for the wife of a backwoodsman. At times she felt an almost unendurable craving for the ordinary luxuries of civilisation. The bathing appliances here—or rather, the lack of them—were often positive torture to her. She hated the food—continual coarse beef varied by stringy goats' flesh or game from the lagoon. She had come to loathe wild duck—when the men had time to shoot it. She could never bring herself to destroy harmless creatures, and was a rank coward over firearms. Talk of the simple life! Why, it was only since they had got Fo Wung that there had been any vegetables. And the climate—though the short winter had been pleasant enough as a whole—was abominable. The long summer heat, the flies and the mosquitoes! What had she not suffered the first summer after her marriage! And now the hot weather was coming again. That was not the root of the trouble, however—Bridget was honest enough to confess it. The root lay in herself—in her own instability of purpose, her mercurial temperament. She had been born with that temperament. All the O'Haras loved change—hungered after strong sensation. She was spoiling now for emotional excitement.
Well, the little human drama of the Blacks' camp had taken her out of herself for an hour or two. It had been so funny to see Oola stroking the lace frills of Lady Bridget's old petticoat and looking up at Wombo with frank coquetry as she mimicked the 'White Mary's' gestures and gait. Lady Bridget meant to stand by the savage lovers. She would not allow Colin to treat them badly when he came back.
Ninnis, the overseer, broke upon her restless meditations. He was a rough specimen, originally raised in Texas, who, after knocking about in his youth as a cow-boy in the two Americas, had come to Australia about fifteen years previously, had 'free-selected' disastrously, and, during the last five years, had been in McKeith's employ. He was devoted to his master, but he looked upon McKeith's marriage as a pernicious investment. His republican upbringing could not stomach the 'Ladyship,' and he persisted in calling Lady Bridget Mrs McKeith. He considered her flighty and extravagant in her ideas, and was always divided between unwilling fascination and grumpy disapproval. To-night he was in the latter mood and this incensed Lady Bridget.
'I've been writing up the log,' he began in a surly, aggressive tone, 'and I thought I'd better make a note of Wombo and that gin having come to the head-station, in case of there being trouble with the Blacks.'
'Why should there be trouble with the Blacks?' she asked, in manner equally unconciliatory.
'Well, ye know—though, I daresay, it wouldn't seem of much consequence to you—Wombo's gone agen the laws of the tribe, and that's a serious matter. If they know he's skulking here under protection, they'll be spearing the cattle, and the Boss won't like that.'
'I'll explain to Mr McKeith,' said Lady Bridget haughtily.
'Well, I reckon it's best not to keep them on the head-station against the Boss's orders,' persisted Ninnis.
Lady Bridget set her little white teeth. 'Naturally, Mr McKeith's orders don't apply to ME—as I had to tell Mrs Hensor.'
'Mrs Hensor knows the Boss better than most people,' said Ninnis, at which Lady Bridget flashed out.
'We need not discuss that question, Mr Ninnis.'
Ninnis' jaw stiffened underneath his shaggy goatee.
'Well, I guess you know your own business, Mrs McKeith, and it's up to you to square things with the Boss.'
Lady Bridget reared her small form and bent her head with great stateliness.
'But I'll just say, though,' went on Ninnis, 'that I hear Harris of the police is coming along. And what Harris doesn't think he knows about the heel of the law being kept on Blacks—and every other darned unit in the creation scheme'—muttered Ninnis in parenthesis—'ain't entered in the Almighty's Log-book.'
Ninnis expectorated over the veranda railings—a habit of his that jarred on Lady Bridget.
'Well, what about Harris?'
'He's had his eye on Wombo and would be glad of an opportunity to best him—on account of a little affair about a colt Wombo rode for him at the last Tunumburra races—and lost the stakes—out of spite, Harris declares.'
'Oh, I know about that—and I told Mr Harris what I thought about his treatment of the Blacks. But he can't punish Wombo if I choose to have him here. I don't think Mr McKeith would bring Harris to Moongarr—he knows I can't bear him.'
'Well, I reckon that's up to you to square with the Boss,' repeated Ninnis surlily. 'I'm told Harris is on the look-out for desperate characters going along the Leura—these unionist organisers—dropping in at stations on pretence of getting rations and spying out the land, and calling on the men to join them. There was a boundary rider from Breeza Downs to-day—caught us up with the tailing mob and fetched back their new chum and Zack Duppo, leaving us awful short-handed—so that if Joe Casey doesn't fetch in the milkers so early to-morrow you'll know it's because I've had to send him out herding. They're doing their shearing early at Breeza Downs with shearers Windeatt has imported from the south, and he wants police protection for them and himself.'
Lady Bridget laughed.
'Harris and his two constables will have enough to do if they are to protect the district.'
'That's just what Windeatt has been clamouring about. Now the Government have sent up a military patrol, I believe. But they say it isn't strong enough, and all the able-bodied men on the Leura are enrolling as specials. No doubt, that's what been keeping the Boss. You may be sure if there's fighting to be done—black or white—he'll be in it.'
Lady Bridget angered Ninnis by her apparent indifference, and he bade her a cross good-night. Had it been anybody else she would have encouraged him to stay and talk. As it was, she resumed her lonely pacing, and did not go to her room till the whole station was abed.
When at last she went to sleep she dreamed again vividly of Willoughby Maule.
McKeith returned, without warning, the following afternoon. He was not alone, but had spurred on in advance of the other two men he had brought with him. Lady Bridget, reading in her hammock at the upper end of the veranda, heard the sound of a horse approaching, and saw her husband appear above the hill from the Gully Crossing. She got to her feet, expecting that he would ride up to the veranda, calling 'Biddy—Biddy,' as he usually did after an absence. But instead, he pulled up suddenly, turned his horse in the direction of the Bachelors' Quarters, and passed from her line of vision.
She supposed, naturally, that someone at the Quarters had attracted his attention, then remembering that Ninnis and the white men were out with the cattle, wondered, as the minutes went by, who and what detained him.
Tommy Hensor, running up from the garden with his evening dole of vegetables, enlightened her.
'Boss come back, Ladyship. I can see him. He is up, talking to Mother.'
Lady Bridget was too proud a woman to feel petty jealousy, nor would it have occurred to her to be jealous of Mrs Hensor. Her sentiment of dislike towards that person was of quite another order. But she was just in the mood to resent neglect on the part of McKeith.
She went to the veranda railing, whence she had a view of the Bachelors' Quarters, and was able to see for herself that Tommy's report had been correct. She called to the child:
'Go at once, Tommy, and tell the master that I am waiting.'
Tommy flew off immediately on his small, sturdy legs, and Lady Bridget watched the scene at the Bachelors' Quarters. McKeith had dismounted, and with one foot on the edge of the veranda, was facing Mrs Hensor, who looked fresh and comely in a clean blouse and bright-coloured skirt. The two seemed to have a good deal to say to each other, though Lady Bridget heard only the voices, not the words. Her Irish temper rose at the thought that Mrs Hensor might be giving him her version of the Wombo episode. She felt glad that the black-boy and his gin were comfortably sleeping off the effect of their wounds, and of the plentiful meals supplied them in the hide-house, and thus were not in evidence. When McKeith spoke, it was in a dictatorial, angry tone—that of the incensed master. Clearly, however, Mrs Hensor was not the object of his wrath. Lady Bridget saw little Tommy run excitedly up to deliver her message, and almost cried out to him to keep away from the horses' heels, to which he went perilously near. As things happened, the beast lashed out at him, and Tommy had a very narrow escape of being badly kicked. Lady Bridget heard Mrs Hensor shriek and saw her husband drag the child to the veranda and examine him anxiously, Mrs Hensor bending with him. Then McKeith lifted up Tommy and kissed and patted him almost as if he had been the boy's father. It always gave Bridget a queer little spasm of regret to see Colin's obvious affection for the little fellow. He was fond of children, specially so of this one. Lady Bridget knew, though he had never said so to her, that he was disappointed at there being no apparent prospect of her having a child.
And she—with her avidity for any new sort of sensation, although she scoffed at the joy of maternity—felt secretly inclined sometimes to gird at fate for having so far denied her this experience. She herself liked Tommy in her contradictory, whimsical fashion; but now, the fuss over, the boy—who clearly was not in the least hurt—made her very cross, and she became positively furious at seeing McKeith delay yet further to unstrap his valise and get out a toy he must have bought for Tommy in Tunumburra. Then, his grievance aparently coming back on him, he put the child abruptly aside, and leaving valise and horse at the Bachelors' Quarters, walked with determined steps and frowning visage down the track to the veranda. There, his wife was standing, very pale, very erect, her eyes glittering ominously.
McKeith was through the gate and up the flight of steps in three or four strides.
He seemed to sense the antagonism in her, and demanded at once, without waiting to give her any greeting.
'Biddy, what's this I'm hearing about Wombo and that gin?'
'I think you might have asked me before going to Mrs Hensor for information,' she answered with equal curtness.
He stared at her for a moment or two as if surprised; his face reddened, and his eyes, too, glittered.
'I don't know what you mean. I had to speak to Mrs Hensor about beds being wanted up there, and of course I asked her how things had been going on.'
'And did she tell you that she had been inhuman and insolent?'
'She spoke to me impudently. She defied my orders.'
'I am given to understand that she was carrying out mine,' said McKeith slowly. 'And if that's so, Mrs Hensor was in the right.'