'You put that woman before ME—before your wife?'
'There's not another woman in the universe I'd put before my wife. But that's no reason for my giving in to her when she does what I know to be folly.'
'I see. You call an act of common humanity folly—doing what one could to relieve the agony of a fellow creature. I am glad that I differ from you—and from your servant. Mrs Hensor refused to help that poor gin who had a spear through her arm and was shrieking with pain.'
'Oh, you don't know black-gins as well as I do. They'll pretend they're dying in agony just to wheedle a drop of rum or a fig of tobacco out of a white man; and they'll take it quite as a matter of course when one of their men bashes their head in with a NULLA-NULLA.'
'I suppose you'll allow that a spear wound may hurt a little,' said Bridget. 'I believe that you yourself suffered from the effect of one at least, you once told me so.'
And memory—so active these late days, brought suddenly back the vision of him as he had approached her that evening at Government House. What a great Viking he had looked!—in modern dress, of course, but bearing mark of battle in a slight drag of the left leg, only noticeable, she knew now, when he was shy and proud, and under, to him, difficult social conditions. But what a MAN she had felt him to be then, among the other men!
It seemed an outrage on her idealised image of him to hear him speaking in that dry, caustic manner.
'Ah, that's different. The Gulf natives have a nasty way of barbing and poisoning their spears. An ordinary spear-thrust is nothing to either black or white. Wombo could have pulled the thing out, and in a few hours the gin would have been all right again.'
'You think so—well in a few hours she was in a high fever. I took her temperature this morning when I re-bandaged the wound.'
McKeith laughed shortly.
'It wouldn't be surprising, if you had given her grog and tobacco and as much meat as she wanted. That what you did, eh?'
'Yes, it was. They were both starving.'
'Well, I wouldn't bank on your stock of medical knowledge, Biddy—not if I was down with fever or otherwise incapacitated. But that's not the point—which is that those blacks have been kept here against my express orders.'
'They've been kept here by MY orders,' flamed Lady Bridget.
McKeith's jaw squared, and there showed in his eyes that ugly devil which many a black and white man had seen, but never his wife before.
'Look here, milady—there can be only one boss on this station. And now you'll excuse me if I act according to my own discretion.'
Without another word he walked up the veranda and down the few steps connecting it with the Old Humpey. She heard him go into his office, and presently the door of it slammed behind him. She knew that he was going to the culprits in the hide-house, and wondered what punishment he would mete unto them. Had he gone to the office for his gun? At this moment, anything seemed possible to Lady Bridget's heated temper and excited imagination.
She stood waiting, absorbed in her fears, so abstracted from her ordinary outside surroundings that she was unaware of the approach of two horsemen from the Gully Crossing. They did not stop at the garden gate, but made for the usual station entrance at the back. One of them, lingering behind the other, gazed earnestly at Lady Bridget's tense little figure and bent head, poised in a listening attitude and conveying to him the impression that something momentous had happened or was about to happen. And just then, appalling shrieks, from the rear of the home, justified the impression.
Lady Bridget ran through the sitting-room to the veranda behind, which again connected on either side the new house with the Old Humpey and kitchen and store-wing—the hide-house standing slightly apart at the end of the store building. The shrieks in male and female keys came from the hide-house and mingled with McKeith's strident tones fulminating in Blacks' lingo. The noise brought Mrs Hensor and Tommy down from the Bachelors' Quarters, and the Chinese cook, the Malay boy and Maggie the housemaid from the service department. The three verandas and garden plot made a kind of amphitheatre; and now, into the arena, came the actors in the little tragedy.
From the hide-house, McKeith dragged the prisoners, and through the gateway in the palings which made the fourth side of the enclosure. With one hand he clutched Wombo, with the other Oola, who in her lace-trimmed petticoat and flowered kimono was truly a tragi-comic spectacle.
McKeith carried his coiled stockwhip in the hand which held Wombo. It was plain, judging from the state of Wombo's new shirt, that he had given the black boy a thrashing; Oola was unscathed. Of course, Colin could not lift his hand to a woman, though he was a brute and the woman only a black-gin. Lady Bridget felt faintly glad at this.
She watched the scene, half fascinated, half disgusted, all her attention concentrated on these three figures. She had but a dim consciousness of two men riding round the store-wing and dismounting. One of the two remained in the background screened by the trails of native cucumber overhanging the veranda end. The other—a wiry, powerful figure in uniform, with a rubicund face, black bristling moustache and beard and prominent black eyes, reminding one of the eyes of a bull—walked forward and spoke with an air of official assurance.
'Can I be of any use to you, Mr McKeith, in dealing with that nigger? A bad character, as I've reason to know.'
'No, thank you, Harris. I can do my own dirty jobs,' said McKeith shortly.
He had released the pair and now stood grimly surveying them. Oola was crying and squealing; Wombo stood upright—a scowl of hate on his face. His whole nature seemed changed. A flogging will rouse the semi-civilised black's evil passions like nothing else. There was something of savage dignity in the defiant way in which he faced his former master.
'What for you been take-it stockwhip long-a me? BA'AL me bad black boy long-a you, Boss. What for me no have 'em gin belonging to me? Massa catch 'im bujeri White Mary like it gin belonging to him. What for no all same black fellow?'
McKeith cut short the argument—sound logic it seemed to Lady Biddy—by an imperious, silencing gesture, and a sudden unfurling of his stockwhip, which made a hissing sound as it writhed along the ground like a snake. The black boy sprang aside. McKeith pointed to the gidia scrub and issued a terse command in the native language.
'YAN' (go). 'BA'AL YOU WOOLLA' (don't talk any more). 'YAN.'
Wombo turned appealingly to Lady Bridget.
'YAN,' stormed McKeith again, and, as Lady Bridget made a movement of sympathetic response towards the black fellow, he added sternly: 'You'll oblige me by not interfering in this business. The Blacks know that what I say, I mean, and I'll have no more words with them.'
Bridget stood quite still, her attitude and expression all indignant protest, but she said nothing. Her face was turned full towards the man hidden by the creepers, who was watching her with intense interest, but she was unconscious of his gaze.
Wombo retreated slowly. Oola, cowed, whimpering, behind him. Then, she made an appeal to Lady Bridget, stretching out her unbandaged arm imploringly.
'White Mary—you PIDNEY (understand). That fellow medsin man—husband belonging to me. Him come close-up long-a srub—throw 'im spear, NULLA-NULLA—plenty look out Wombo. BA'AL, Wombo got 'im spear—ba'al got 'im NULLA-NULLA. Suppose black fellow catch 'im Wombo—my word! that fellow MUMKULL (kill). Wombo—mumkull Oola—altogether BONG (dead). YUCKE! YUCKE! Lathychap suppose Massa let Wombo sit down long-a head-station—two day, three day—black fellow get tired—up stick—no more look out. No catch 'im Wombo. Lathychap!' she pleaded, 'BUJERI you PIALLA (intercede with) Boss.'
Lady Bridget came down the steps from the veranda and went up to McKeith.
'Colin, what the gin says is true. Her tribe will kill them, and they have no weapons and no means of protection. Will you, as a favour to me, let them stay for a few days? At least, till her arm is healed and the danger past?'
McKeith hesitated perceptibly, then the consciousness of weakening resolve made him harden himself the more, made his speech rougher than it might have been.
'No, I can't, Biddy. I never break my word. They've GOT to go.'
He turned fiercely on Wombo, who stood sullen and defiant again, and from him to Oola, who crouched in the dust, sobbing pitifully and rubbing her damaged arm.
'Plenty me sick, Boss—close up TUMBLEDOWN' (die), she wailed.
'Stop that! YAN—do you hear? YAN—YAN—BURRI—BURRI—' (go quickly).
The whip lashed out again. It stung Wombo's bare leg, and flicked Oola's petticoat. The two ran screaming lustily towards the rocks and scrubby country at the head of the gully.
Lady Bridget uttered a shuddering exclamation and made an impetuous movement with arms partly outstretched as if to follow the pair. Then her arms dropped and she stood stock still.
There was a dead silence. In all the relations of husband and wife, never had there been a moment more crucial as affecting their ultimate future. They looked at each other unflinchingly, neither speaking. McKeith's lips were resolute, locked, his pugnacious jaw set like iron. Here was the stubborn determination of a fighting man, never to admit himself in the wrong. And his eyes seemed to have a steel curtain over them—which, however, had Bridget's spiritual intuition been awake to perceive it, softened for an instant, letting through a gleam of passionate appeal.
But Bridget's soul was steel-cased also. He saw only contempt, repulsion in her gaze. The larger issues narrowed to a conflict of two egoisms. It seemed to both as though, in the space of that last quarter of an hour, they had become mortal foes.
The police inspector broke in upon the tense silence. Here was another egoism to be reckoned with—malevolently officious.
'They'll be hiding in the gully, Mr McKeith. No fear of them taking to the outside bush with the tribe hanging round. I'll just round 'em up and drive 'em into the scrub and strike the fear of the Law into them. I'll do it now before I turn out my horse into the paddock.'
'No,' flamed Lady Bridget. 'You'll leave those unfortunate creatures alone—or—if you molest them—whether it's by my husband's permission or not—well—you'll find I'm a bad hater, Mr Harris.'
The police inspector flushed a deep red.
'Maybe I'm not such a bad hater either, my lady—but with my respects....'
'That will do, Harris,' interposed McKeith. 'I told you that I'd do my own dirty jobs. There's no occasion for you to go against her ladyship's wishes.'
Harris touched his helmet to Lady Bridget and, leering with veiled enmity, replied:
'I'm never one to put myself up against the ladies, except where my duty comes first—and that's not the case—yet. But as I was saying, with my respects, my lady, Mr McKeith knows very well how to treat the blacks. He knows that you've got to keep your word to them, whether that means a plug of tobacco or a plug of cold iron.'
Lady Bridget drew back and looked at Harris for a second or two with an expression of the most withering haughtiness. Then, without a word she turned her back on him. The inspector infuriated, muttered in his throat. McKeith interposed sharply:
'Bridget, Harris is going to stay the night.'
'Ah! at the Bachelors' Quarters,' Lady Bridget smiled with distant calm. 'Of course, Mrs Hensor knows. I'm sorry I can't ask Mr Harris to dinner at the house this evening.'
Now, by the social canons of the Bush, the police inspector, being technically speaking of higher grade than the casual traveller, should have been accepted as a 'parlour visitor.' He would thus have occupied one of the bachelor spare rooms in the Old Humpey and would have joined the Boss and his wife at dinner. Harris had never before stayed the night at Moongarr, and he had confidently expected to be received with honour. Thus he regarded Lady Bridget's speech as an insult.
'Oh, I'm not one to force my company where it is not wanted,' he blustered. 'I'm quite content with a shake-down at the Quarters, though if I'd known I might have gone by the short cut with the Specials—it's rather late, however, to push on to Breeza Downs, where—though perhaps I say it as shouldn't—I'm sure of a welcome from Mr and Mrs Windeatt, being, so to speak—for law and order—the representative of His Majesty in the Leura district.'
Lady Bridget smiled with detached amusement, as she turned again and patted the head of an elderly kangaroo dog, which came up to her with its tongue out and a look of wistful enquiry in its bleared eyes, scenting plainly that something was amiss. 'Good dog, Veno,' she murmured.
'I'll bid you good evening then, my lady,' he said stiffly. 'No doubt, Mr McKeith, you'll spare me half an hour in the office by and by. Just to concert our measures for the proper protection of the Pastoralists and the safeguarding of the woolsheds this shearing season.'
'Yes, yes, or course,' McKeith answered mechanically. The spunk had gone out of him, as Harris would have phrased it; and the Inspector, looking at Lady Bridget, guessed the reason.
'And what now about the gentleman from Leichardt's Town, Mr McKeith? Will I be taking him up with me to the Bachelor's Quarters? Or may be,' Harris added unpleasantly, 'her ladyship won't object to having him in the house.'
McKeith muttered angrily, 'Damn! I'd forgotten.'
It was not like him to lose himself during working hours in even a momentary fit of abstraction—except, indeed, when he was riding without immediate objective through the Bush. His eyes were still upon his wife's slight figure as she moved slowly towards the veranda, with the air of one who has no more concern with the business in hand. Her graceful aloofness, which he knew to be merely a social trick, stung him inexpressibly, the faint bow she had given Harris when he bade her good evening had seemed to include himself. It galled him that he did not seem fitted by nature or breeding to cope with this kind of situation. The half consciousness of inferiority put him still more at disadvantage with himself.
'Biddy, wait please,' he said dictatorially.
She paused at the steps, her hand on the railings, her eyes under their lowered lids ignoring him.
He went closer and spoke rapidly in a harsh undertone.
'I didn't tell you—though I rode ahead on purpose—I met a man at Tunumburra who said he knew you. He's out from England—been staying at Government House, and brought a letter from Sir Luke Tallant. I hope that at any rate you'll be civil to him.'
She flashed a quick glance at him, and her eyelids dropped again.
'But naturally. I'm not in the habit of being uncivil to—my friends.'
And just then—Mrs Hensor, who loved cheap fiction, said afterwards it was all like a scene out of a book—there appeared in the space between the two wings, a man who had strolled unobserved from one side, out of the background of creepers, and who advanced with quickened step to where the husband and wife stood.
A striking individual. Tall—though not as tall or as massively built as Colin McKeith, firm boned and muscular, but with a sort of feline grace of movement. There was the unmistakable stamp of civilisation, and, at the same time, an exotic suggestion of the East, of wild spaces, adventure, romance. Not in the least a Bushman, but wearing with ease and picturesqueness, a backwoods get-up. Clothes, extremely well cut; riding breeches and boots; soft shirt and falling collar with a silk tie of dull flame colour knotted at the sinewy throat, loose coat, Panama hat. So much for the figure. The face ugly, but distinguished, sallow-brown in colouring. Nose long, fine, with a slight twist below the bridge; cheeks and chin clean-shaven, an enormous dark moustache concealing the mouth. Hair black, slightly grizzled, and when he lifted his hat forming a thick lightly frosted crest above his forehead. Eyes black—peculiar eyes, sombre, restless, but with a gaze, steady and piercing when concentrated on a particular object, as, just now, it was concentrated on Lady Bridget.
The gaze seemed compelling. Lady Bridget suddenly lifting eyes that were instantly wide open, became aware of the man's presence. The effect of it upon her was so marked that McKeith, watching her face, felt a shock of surprise. The change in her was noticed by the Police Inspector, with malevolent curiosity. So also by Mrs Hensor, a little further away.
The new-comer saluted her with a low bow, his hat in one hand, the other extended.
'You haven't forgotten me, I hope, Lady Bridget, though I should think that I am the very last person in the world you would have expected to see in these parts.'
Lady Bridget had turned very white. She stared at him as if he had been a ghost, and at first seemed unable to speak. But her confusion lasted only a few seconds. Almost before he had finished his sentence she had pulled herself together. Her hand was in his, and she spoke in her old fluty voice and little grand manner, with the old slow, faintly whimsical smile on her lips and in her eyes. It came over McKeith that he had not of late been familiar with this aspect of her, and that she was exhibiting to this man the same strange charm of her girlhood which had been to him, in the full fervour of his devotion, so wonderful and worshipful, but of which—he knew it now—the Bush had to a great extent robbed her.
She laughed as she withdrew her hand from that of the newcomer. And standing on the steps, her head almost on a level with his, met his eyes with challenging directness.
'Really, Mr Maule, you shouldn't startle a nervous creature in that uncanny way—appearing like the unmentionable Personage or the angel if you prefer it, only with this difference, that we weren't speaking of you. I hadn't the most distant notion that you were on this side of the equator. If my husband had mentioned your name I should not have been so taken by surprise.'
'Were you really so surprised? I thought I MUST have sent my shadow on before me—because I've been thinking so tremendously of you these last few days, and of the prospect of seeing you again. I daresay you know,' he added, turning politely to McKeith—'that I had the pleasure of meeting your wife when she was Lady Bridget O'Hara, one winter at Rome, with her cousins, Lord and Lady Gaverick. And later, we saw something of each other in London.'
'No, my husband doesn't know,' Bridget gave a reckless laugh, and her eyes challenged those of McKeith before he could answer. 'You see, Colin and I, when we married, came from opposite poles geographically, morally and mentally. He did not understand or care about my old environment any more than I understood—or cared about his. So we agreed to bury our respective pasts in oblivion. Don't you think it was a good plan?'
'Quite admirable. I admire your mutual courage in adopting it.'
'You think so! It has its drawbacks, though,' said McKeith dryly. 'I must apologise for having left you to announce yourself. The fact is, those Blacks put other things out of my head. They had to be taught they couldn't disobey orders without being punished for it.'
'Poor wretches! Yes! I know the popular idea of asserting British supremacy over coloured races, by the force of the whip. I have not always seen it answer; but then my experience has been with natives rather higher in the scale of evolution than the Australian aboriginal.'
'You believe in the power of kindness—as I do,' exclaimed Lady Bridget. 'My husband and I take different views on that subject. But we need not discuss them now. Come and have some tea, and tell me about the Tallants.'
Maule followed her to the door of the living room where she turned to give some orders to Maggie, the maid-servant, and to the Chinese cook. McKeith went off with Harris to see after the horses and have a talk with Ninnis at the stockyards. Thus, Maule was left alone for a few minutes to study and form his own opinion as to Lady Bridget's setting. She was a woman who, whatever her surroundings, must always impress them with her personality. This bush parlour was original in its simplicity. Walls lined with unvarnished wood which was mellowing already to a soft golden brown. Boards bare, but for a few rugs and skins. A fine piece of tappa from the Solomons, of barbaric design in black and orange, made the centre of an arrangement of South Sea Island and aboriginal weapons. Divans heaped with cushions flanked the great fireplace. Two writing-tables occupied spaces between French windows—one the desk of a business-like roll-top escritoire; the other, the flap of a Chippendale bureau, with a Chippendale arm-chair before it. There were a few other pieces unmistakable English. In fact, Eliza Countess of Gaverick, in addition to a handsome present of plate, had sent her niece the furnishings of her old room at Castle Gaverick. A few pictures and etchings hung on the other walls—among them several wild seascapes—reminding one a little of Richard Doyle's exquisite water colours—in which green billows and foamy wave-crests took the shape of sea-fairies. Also some weird tree studies—mostly gum and gidia, where gnarled limbs and bulbous protuberances turned into the faces of gnomes and the forms of strange monsters. Maule had no doubt that these were Lady Bridget's own. There was an upright grand piano—the alleged cause of Steadbolt's conversion to Unionism, and all about the place a litter of newspapers, books and work. The room was filled with flowers—sheaves of wattle and of the pale sandal-wood blossoms, as well as many sub-tropical blooms with which he was not familiar. Blending with, yet dominating the mixture of perfumes, a peculiar scent resembling incense, appealed to him; and this he did not a first trace to a log of sandal-wood smouldering on the open hearth more for effect than warmth, for the early spring evenings had scarcely a touch of chill. The French windows stood open to the veranda, a room in itself with its many squatters' chairs, hammocks and tables. Beyond, stretched the green expanse of plain, utterly lonely, the waters of the lagoon taking a reddish tinge where they reflected the lowering sun. It seemed an inconceivable environment to have been chosen by the Lady Bridget he had known in London, one of whose chief attractions to him had been that she represented a certain section of the aristocracy of Great Britain, decadent perhaps, but 'in the swim.'
She cam now along the veranda from the Old Humpey with the light, rather hurried tread he remembered, talking rapidly when she joined him.
'I've been seeing about your room. I suppose you know enough now of the Never-Never to understand that we are quite primitive in our habits. You won't find a spring mattress—or water laid on—or any other convenience of civilisation.'
'May I remind you that I've roughed it pretty well in the Andes.'
'Yes, but you have had so many luxuries since then that you will have forgotten what roughing it feels like—just as I've forgotten now that I was ever anything but a barbarian—I see you shave still.'
'Only that I discovered just now the white ants had eaten all the woodwork of the spare-room looking-glass. The thing crumbled in my hand and fell on the floor and was broken. A bad omen for your visit, isn't it?'
'I hope not. So you are superstitious as ever?'
'I haven't ceased to be a Celt—though I've become a barbarian. I'll borrow the overseer's looking glass for you.'
'Pray don't. I've got one of sorts in my razor case. Is dinner regarded in the Never-Never as a sacred ceremonial?'
'The men don't put on dress clothes, if that's what you mean. As for the repast, for a long time, as a rule, the menu was salt junk and pumpkin. We've improved on that a little since the Chinese cook and the Chinese gardener came back from the goldfields—there was another rush at Fig Tree Mount that fizzled out. To-night, you will have kangaroo-tail soup, and kid EN CASSEROLE. If you make believe very hard you might possible imagine it young venison.... Here, Kuppi!' The Malay boy brought in the tea-tray and she signed to him to put it on the table between the fire and the window.
'Tea,' she asked, 'or would you rather have whiskey and water? I can't offer you soda water because, till the drays come, we have nothing to run the seltzogene with.... Do you know that the Unionists cut our dray horses' throats? We're lucky to have whiskey in the store. They broke open the cases of spirits and stole a lot of things.... Vicissitudes of savage life, you see!'
She rattled on, scarcely pausing. She was seated on a divan, the tea before her—he in a squatter's chair with long arms, in which he sat silent, leaning forward, his hands on the chair-arms, his eyes fixed upon her. She avoided looking at him. Her small sun-browned hands fidgeted among the cups. If anything remained of her anger and emotion, she hid it under a ripple of absurd housewifely chatter, not waiting for him to answer.
'Well, is it to be tea or whiskey?'
'Tea, please,' and then at last she stopped and looked at him and could not turn her eyes away, or did not want to do so. His black orbs stared with a disquieting fixity—a sort of inhuman power—from out of his foreign-looking face. That stare was his chief weapon in the subjugation of women—they called it magnetic, and no doubt it was so. It increased the fascination of his ugly good looks.
The gaze of each one seemed to fuse in that of the other. Hers, at first coldly curious, tentative, caught light, warmth, intensity from the sombre fire of his. Suddenly he said:
'In God's name, Biddy, how did you come to marry that rough brute.'
'IS he a rough brute! It's very rude of you to say so. But do you know, just for a half minute to-day, I rather thought so myself. I don't pretend to agree with Colin's methods of treating the Blacks, though I'm told it's the only way to treat them—you know they did commit terrible atrocities up here.... Still to flog a black man, a wild, warlike, human creature, seems to me nearly as bad as shooting him. Do you know—the first thing I ever heard about Colin was that he had a great many notches on his gun, and that each one meant a wild black-fellow that he had shot dead.'
'And now he flogs tame ones,' Maule observed quietly. Her brilliant eyes searched his face for a sign of malevolent sarcasm, but not a muscle quivered. Her own eyes wavered under his steady look. She busied herself among the tea things.
But she paused, the tongs balanced in her delicate fingers.
'It is frightfully thrilling—life in the Bush.'
'What part of it? The shooting or the flogging?'
She burst out: 'You know I hated that. You know I was furious about the flogging. You know'—She pulled herself up.
'I know nothing—except that you must have changed enormously in a very short time to have been thrilled with anything but horror—by that sort of thing.'
'Yes, I have changed. But it isn't time that changes one. Time never counts with me. It's only feeling that counts. Oh, of course, I think it all horrible—about the Blacks up North. They're not allowed on this station—except one or two half civilised stock-boys—and this one fell in love and carried off his gin, and brought her here against my husband's orders.'
'Yes? And you had befriended them—I gathered that. But it doesn't explain YOU.'
She took up a piece of sugar with the tongs, holding it suspended as she spoke, jerkily.
'Why should I be explained? As for my finding life in the Bush thrilling.... I was dead sick of falsities when I left England, I wanted to be thrilled by something real.'
'And you found that—in your husband?'
'Yes; I did. He IS real, at least. He is true to himself. So few men have the strength of their goodness or the courage of their badness, when it comes to a big test.'
'Oh! I grant you. Yes; I know that's what you're thinking. I wasn't true to myself in the big test.... But YOU were to blame for my having been false to the higher ideal.'
'I! Oh—what makes you—' But she thought better of the impetuous questions that trembled on her lips, and went on in a different tone.
'What does that matter! I'm not saying anything about high ideals. What is high? .... What is low? .... You've just got to invoke truth and freedom—as far as your conception of them goes.... And there's a reason for Colin's hatred of the Blacks.'
'Ah! Is it permitted to ask the reason?'
'His family were all massacred by the natives—father, mother, sisters—all. Well, one admires a man steadfast in revenge—going straight for what he wants—and getting it—doing it—in love or in hate. Now I have answered your question.'
The gesture of her head seemed a defiance. She dropped the sugar into his tea, and he took the cup from her hands, and slowly drank it without saying a word.
It was she who broke the silence.
'You provoke me. You make me say things I don't want to say. You always did.'
'Ah! Then marriage has not changed you so immensely, after all!'
She bit her lip and rose abruptly.
'Do you want any more tea? No. Then come to the veranda and tell me how it is that Luke Tallant has allowed you to exchange Government House for the Never-Never?'
He had followed her through the French window.
'I see you haven't heard the bad news.'
'No—what? We only get a mail once a week.'
'I thought McKeith would have broken the shock. He came on, he said, to do so. Poor Lady Tallant.'
'Rosamond! The operation?'
'She died under the anaesthetic. Sir Luke got the news by cable the day before I left Leichardt's Town. He wired at once for leave and has started for England by this time.'
'Oh? poor Rosamond! Poor, poor Rosamond!'
'Is she to be so greatly pitied! She has been saved much suffering!'
Then as Bridget went on murmuring, 'Oh, poor Rosamond, she did love life,' he added gently. 'Life can be very cruel.... I myself have had cause for gratitude to Death, the great Simplifier. If my wife had lived she must have been a hopeless invalid doomed to continual pain.'
Lady Bridget gave him a swift look of reproach.
'Oh, do you expect me to congratulate you?' she exclaimed bitterly. 'Yes,' she went on, 'perhaps, to HER Death was merciful—but not to Rosamond. And Luke did care for his wife. He will be broken-hearted.'
She stood gazing out upon the plain, on which the mist was gathering. From across the gully sounded the cattle being driven home.
When she turned to him, her eyes were full of tears.
'I think I'll go now.' She said simply. 'Colin will show you your room. He's there—coming up from the lagoon.'
She went through a French window lower down the veranda into her bedroom, and Maule descended the steps into the garden and presently joined his host.
A little later, McKeith having tubbed and changed his riding clothes, came to his wife's room. He looked very large and clean and fair, and the worst of his temper had worn off in a colloquy with Ninnis, and the imparting and receiving of local news. But his eyes were still gloomy, and his mouth sullenly determined. And he had remembered with remorse that he should have softened to Bridget the sudden news of her friend's death. The sight of her now—a small tragic figure with a white face and burning eyes, in a black dress into which she had changed, deepened his compunction.
'I am very sorry, Biddy.' He tried to put his arm round her shoulder, but she drew back.
'What are you sorry for, Colin—that Rosamond Tallant is dead, and that you forgot to tell me, and let me hear it from—Willoughby Maule?' She paused perceptibly before pronouncing the christian name, 'Or that you behaved like an inhuman monster to those wretched Blacks, and refused me the only thing I have asked you for a good time past?'
Her tone roused his rancour anew.
'I think we'll drop the subject of the Blacks; there is no earthly use in talking about them, I make it a rule never to threaten without performing, and I'd punish them again, just the same—or more severely—under similar circumstances.'
'Very well. You will do as you please, and I shall do as I please, too.'
'What do you mean?'
'Just what I say. I agree with you that there's no use in discussing things about which we hold such different opinions. Quite simply, I can't forgive you for this afternoon's work.'
'Biddy, you exaggerate things.'
'Perhaps. But I don't think so in this case. Let me go out, Colin. Dinner must be ready by now.'
'No. I've got something to ask you first. I want to know why you looked so upset—as if you were going to faint—when that man came up to you to-day?'
'Naturally, I was startled. I had no idea he was in Australia.'
'But why should that have affected you. One might have imagined he had been your lover. Was he ever your lover, Biddy? I must know.'
'And if he had been, do you think I should tell you,' she answered coldly.
McKeith's face turned a dark red. His eyes literally blazed.
'That's enough.' He said, 'I shall not ask you another question about him. I am answered already.'
He stood aside to let her pass out into the veranda, and she walked along to the sitting-room.
Dinner went off, however, more agreeably than might have been expected. Lady Bridget's manner was simple and to the guest charming. The black dress, the touch of pensiveness was in keeping with the shadow of tragedy. But she spoke in a natural way, and with tender regret of Lady Tallant—questioning Maule as to when he had last seen her, and learning from him how it had been at Rosamond's instigation that he had cabled proposing himself as a companion in Sir Luke's loneliness. It had been only a week after his arrival in Leichardt's Town that the blow had fallen.
'You know, Tallant and I always hit it off very well together,'he observed explanatorily, addressing McKeith. 'It was at their house that I used to meet Lady Bridget during the few months that I had the honour of her acquaintance in England.'
McKeith looked at his guest in a resentful but half puzzled way. A spasm of doubt shook him. Suppose he had been making a fool of himself—insulting his wife by unreasoning suspicions? A vague contempt in her courteous aloofness had stung him to the quick. And the other man's easy self assurance, the light interchange of conversation between them about things and people of which McKeith knew nothing—all gave the Australian a sense of bafflement—the feeling that these two were ruled by another social code, belonged to a different world, in which he had no part. He had been sitting at the head of his table, perfunctorily doing his duty as host, wounded in his self-esteem—almost the tenderest part on him, morose and miserable. Now he snatched at the idea that he had been mistaken, as if it were a life-buoy thrown him in deep waters. He began to talk, to assert himself, to prove himself cock of his own walk. And Maule suavely encouraged him to lay down the law on things Australian, while Lady Bridget withdrew into herself, baffling and enraging McKeith still more hopelessly. He did not seem now to know his wife! A catastrophe had happened. What? How? Why? .... Nothing was the same, or could be the same again.
It was a relief when dinner was over. The men pulled out their pipes in the veranda. Lady Bridget, just within the sitting room window, smoked a cigarette, her small form extended in a squatter's chair, listening to, but taking scarcely any part in the conversation. The two outside discussed local topics—McKeith's failure to trace the perpetrators of the outrage on his horses. Maule's impressions of Tunumburra—where he had met McKeith in the township hotel, and the two had apparently, in the usual Bush fashion, got on intimate terms—the rumours of an armed camp of Unionists, and the expected conflict between them and the sheep owners and free shearers at Breeza Downs, whither the Government specials were bound. Lady Bridget gleaned that Maule had placed himself under McKeith's directions.
'What are your immediate movements to be?' he asked his host. 'Remember, I am ready to fall in with any plans you may have for making me useful.'
McKeith did not answer at once. He took his pipe from his mouth, and knocked the ashes out of it against the arm of his chair, while he seemed to be considering the question. Then, as if he had formed a definite determination, he leaned forward and addressed his wife in a forcedly matter-of-fact tone.
'I don't suppose you know much about what has been going on, Biddy. The same boat that brought up the specials brought a hundred or more free labourers, and they're on their way up to the different sheep-stations along the river—a lot of them for Breeza Downs, where Windeatt has begun shearing. Windeatt is in a blue funk because a report that a little army of Unionists, all mounted and armed, are camped that way and threatening to burn down his wool-shed and sack his store. The burned old Duppo's wool-shed last week.'
'He's a skinflint, and I'm sure he deserved it,' put in Lady Bridget indifferently.
McKeith check a dry sarcasm. He became aware of Maule's eyes turning from one to the other.
'Well—' He got up and leaned his great frame against the lintel between Maule and Lady Bridget. 'The Pastoralist Executive at Tunumburra have asked us cattle-owners who—are more likely to be let alone than the sheep-men, to help in garrisoning the sheep-stations; and I've promised to ride over to Breeza Downs to-morrow and do my share in protecting the place. Harris and I are going together.'
Lady Bridge seemed more interested in blowing smoke-rings than in her husband's news.
'I may have to be away several days,' continued McKeith. 'Then there's the new bore we're sinking—the water is badly wanted—cattle are dying—I can't run any risk of the bore-plant being wrecked. The men who are working there must be sent off because we're short of rations—thanks to those murderous brutes keeping back the drays—and the muster has to be stopped for the same reason. I won't answer for when I can be back.' ... As she made no answer, he asked sharply: 'Do you understand, Biddy?'
'Yes, of course. I have no doubt, Colin, that you'll find it all highly stimulating. And perhaps you will be able to shoot somebody with a clear conscience, which will be more stimulating still. Really Mr Maule, you are lucky to have come in for a civil war—I heard that in South America that was your particular interest. Do you carry civil wars about with you? Only, there's nothing very romantic in fighting for mere freedom of contract—it seems so obvious that people should be free to make or decline a contract. I wonder which side you would take.'
Her levity called forth an impatient ejaculation from McKeith.
'I'm afraid in my wars it's generally been what your husband would consider the wrong side,' said Maule with a laugh. 'I've usually fought with the rebels.'
'Then you'd better not go to Breeza Downs. You'd better stop and fight for me,' exclaimed Bridget.
'That's just what I was about to propose your friend should do,' said McKeith in hard deliberate tones. He looked straight at his wife—shoulders and jaws squared, eyes like flashing steel under the grim brows. The expression of his face gave Bridget a little sense of shock. She raised herself abruptly, and her eyes flashed pride and defiance too.
'How very considerate of you, Colin—if Mr Maule LIKES to be disposed of in that way. HE is to be allowed freedom of contract I presume, though the shearers are not.'
'You needn't be afraid that I shall strike, Lady Bridget,' laughed Maule. 'It will suit my general principles to keep out of the scrimmage. I don't know anything about the rights and wrongs of your labour question, but I confess that, speaking broadly, my sympathies are usually rather with Labour than with Capital.'
'Capital!' echoed McKeith derisively. 'It's blithering irony to talk of us Leura squatters as representing capital. We're all playing a sort of battledore and shuttlecock game—tossed about between drought and plenty—boom and slump. A kick in the beam and one end is up and the other end down. There's Windeatt, who will be ruined if his wool-shed is destroyed and his shearing spoiled. No rain, and the banks would foreclose on most of us. Take myself. Two years ago the skies were all smiling on my fortunes. This last year, it's as if the hosts of heaven had a down on me.'
'The stars in their courses fought against Sisera,' murmured Lady Bridget.
'I'm Sisera, am I?' He gave her a fierce look and crossed to the veranda-railing, where he began cutting tobacco into the palm of his hand. 'Well, there is something in that. But the stars have never licked me yet. Sisera was a coward, or they wouldn't have DOWNED him.'
'Ah, but there was Jael to be reckoned with,' put in Maule softly.
'Jael!' McKeith plugged his pipe energetically. 'The more fool Sisera for not giving Jael a wide berth. He should have gone his way and kept her out of his affairs.'
A hard little laugh rang from the depths of the squatter's chair. Maule got up and strolled into the sitting-room, where he seemed engrossed in the pictures on the wall. Just then Cudgee, the black boy, hailed McKeith from the foot of the steps.
'That fellow pollis man want'ing Massa. He sit down long-a Old Humpey.'
McKeith looked into the parlour. 'My wife will entertain you, Maule. I daresay you've got plenty to talk about. I'll see you later.'
Presently they heard him outside speaking to the Police Inspector. 'Come into the office, Harris, and have a smoke and a glass of grog.'
Lady Bridget and Willoughby Maule were alone again. She got up from the long chair, and as she did so her cigarette case dropped from her lap. He picked it up and it lay on his open palm, the diamonds and rubies of her maiden initials glistening on the gold lid. They looked at each other across it.
'I gave you this,' he said, 'and you have kept it—used it?'
He seemed to gloat over the bauble.
Her fingers touched his hand as she took the case from him, and he gave a little shiver of pleasure.
'Let me have it; I want another cigarette.' She selected two and gave him one of them.
They moved to the divan near the fireplace, where some red embers remained of the log of sandalwood. Its perfume lingered faintly in the atmosphere.
'That's good,' he said. 'It's like you; the only thing in the god-forsaken desert that IS like you.'
'Oh, you don't know me—now.'
'Don't I! Well, your husband has given me the chance of knowing you—better—and I warn you that I shall not scruple to avail myself of the opportunity.'
She shook her head dubiously. 'Give me a light.'
He stooped and lit his own cigarette, then, bending, held its tip to her. They both inhaled a few whiffs in silence. Presently, he said:
'I find it difficult to understand McKeith.'
'Don't try. You wouldn't succeed. I observe,' she added, 'that you must have become rather friendly at Tunumburra?'
'Oh, yes. I can generally get on with open-air men. Besides, I wanted him to like me. I wanted him to ask me here.'
'Well—and what do you thing of it, now that you are here?'
'Great heavens! What do you imagine that I should think of it! The whole thing seems to me the most ghastly blunder—the most horrible anomaly. You—in these surroundings! Married to a man so entirely beneath you, and with whom you don't get on at all.'
'You have no right to say that.'
'The thing is obvious; though you tried to carry it off before dinner. Your manner to each other; the lack of courtesy and consideration in him; his leaving you....'
'Stop,' she interrupted. 'There's one thing you MUST understand. I don't mind what you say about yourself—I want to hear that—but I can't allow you to criticise my husband.'
'I beg your pardon. It isn't easy in the conditions to preserve the social conventions. I will try to obey you. At any rate, you allow me to be frank about myself.... It was sweet of you to keep this—more than I could have dared hope for.'
He fingered tenderly the cigarette case on her lap.
'I suppose I ought to have sent it back to you. But I didn't want to. You see it was not like an engagement ring.'
'No, worse luck.'
'Why, worse luck?'
'The ring would have been the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual bond. If you had been really engaged to me—formally, officially engaged, you couldn't have thrown me over so easily.'
'I—throw you over! Is it quite fair to put it that way?'
'No, I admit that. Let us be honest with each other—this once.'
'This once—very well—but not at this moment. I daresay there will be time for a talk by and by.'
'I wait your pleasure.'
'There are some things I should like to understand,' she went on, '—about you—about me, it doesn't matter which. And, after all, I only want to know about you out of a sort of perverse curiosity.'
'That's so like you. You always managed to infuse a bitter drop into your sweetness. And you COULD be so adorably sweet... If only I could ever have felt sure of you.'
'Where would have been the use? We never could spend an hour together without hurting or annoying each other. It's a very good thing for us both that neither cared enough to make any real sacrifice for the other.'
'There you wrong me,' he exclaimed. 'I did care—I cared intensely. The touch of your hand—the very sweep of your dress thrilled every nerve in me. I never in all my life loved a woman as I loved you. That last day when you walked out of my rooms....'
'Where I never ought to have gone. Fancy the properly brought-up English girl you used to hold up to me doing such a shocking thing as to visit you alone in your chambers! ... Oh! Is that Colin back again?'
For Maule had started visibly at the sound of quick steps mounting to the veranda, and McKeith's towering figure appeared in the doorway, looking at them.
Lady Bridget turned her head, her cigarette in her hand, and glanced up at his face. What she saw in it might have made a less reckless or less innocent woman feel uneasy. She was sure that he must have heard that last speech of hers about visiting Maule in his chambers. Well, she didn't care. Besides Colin hadn't the smallest right to resent any action of hers before her marriage... She did not turn a hair. Maule admired her composure.
'BON SANG NE PEUT MENTIR,' he thought to himself, and wished they had been talking in French.
'You look as grim as the statue of the Commander,' said Lady Bridget. 'What is the matter?'
'Lady Bridget and I have been exchanging unconventional reminiscences,' put it Maule with forced lightness.
McKeith took no notice of either remark, but strode across the room to the roll-top escritoire, where he usually wrote his letters when in his wife's company. He extracted a bundle of papers from one of the pigeon holes.
'This is what I came for. Sorry to have interrupted your reminiscences,' and he went out again, passing along the back veranda.
Maule had got up and was standing at the fireplace. Lady Bridget rose too.
'I'm going to bed. We keep early hours in the Bush.'
'What! Already!' he exclaimed in dismay.
'I was up at six this morning. Well, I hope you won't be too uncomfortable with the white ants in the Old Humpey—they are perfectly harmless. Your room is next to the office, as I daresay you've discovered. And you'll find Colin there I suppose, with your friend the Police-Inspector.'
'Don't call that man Harris my friend. We've had one or two scraps at each other already. He was pleased to take it for granted that I'm what he calls a "new chum," and didn't like my shewing him that I knew rather better than he does what police administration should be in out-of-the-way districts.'
Lady Bridget nodded. 'Then we're both under ban of the Law. I DETEST Harris.... Good-night.' And she flitted through the French window without giving him her hand.
The station seemed in a state of unquietude till late into the night. The lowing of the tailing-mob in the yard was more prolonged than usual. And the horses were whinnying and answering each other down by the lagoon as though there were strangers about. Lady Bridget, lying awake and watching through her uncurtained windows the descent of the Southern Cross towards the horizon, and the westward travelling of a moon just out of its first quarter, could hear the men's voices on the veranda of the Old Humpey—that of Ninnis and the Police Inspector; Maule seemed to have retired to his own room.
McKeith was evidently busy upon preparations for his absence from the station. He must have been cleaning guns and pistols. There were two or three shots—which startled and kept her in a state of tension. At last she heard the interchange of good-nights, and the withdrawal of Ninnis and Harris to the Bachelor's Quarters. Finally, her husband came to his dressing-room—not along the front veranda, as would have been usual, but by the back one, through the bathroom. Even this deviation from habit seemed significant of his mood—he would not pass her window. He moved about for a time as if he were busy packing. Then came silence. She imagined him on the edge of the camp bed, so seldom used, smoking and ruminating.
Whiffs from his pipe came through the cracks of the door between the two rooms, and were an offence to her irritated nerves. She had grown accustomed to his tobacco, but, as a rule, he did not smoke the last thing at night. He had seemed to regard his wife's chamber as a tabernacle, enshrining that which he held most sacred, and would never enter it until he was cleansed from the grime and dust of the stockyard and cattle camp, and had laid aside the associations of his working day. That attitude had appealed to all that was idealistic in both their natures, and had kept green the memory of their honeymoon. It angered her that to-night, of all nights, he should disregard it.
In personal details, she was intensely fastidious, and at some trouble and cost had maintained in her intimate surroundings a daintiness almost unknown out-back. Her room was large, and much of its furnishings symptomatic of the woman of her class—the array of monogrammed, tortoise-shell backed brushes and silver and gold topped boxes and bottles, the embroidered coverlet of the bed, the flowered chintz and soft pink wall paper, the laced cambric garments and silk-frilled dressing gown hanging over a chair. When service lacked, and there was no one to wash and iron her cambric and fine linen, she contrived somehow that the supply should not fail, and brought upon herself some ill-natured ridiculed in consequence. The wives of the Leura squatters thought her 'stuck-up' and apart from their kind. If they had known how much she wanted sometimes to throw herself into their lives—as she had thrown herself into the lives of her East-End socialistic friends! But the stations were few and far between, and the neighbours—such as they were—left her alone.
Letting her mind drift along side-tracks, she resented now there having come no suggestion from the Breeza Downs women that she should accompany her husband and share the benefits of police protection, or—which appealed to her far more—the excitement of what might be going on there. Of course, though, there was nothing for her to be nervous about here—she wished there might have been. Any touch of dramatic adventure would be welcome in the crude monotony of her life.
But the adventure promised to be of a more personal kind.
Suddenly, she jumped out of bed and softly slipped the bolt of the door into her husband's dressing room. She did it on a wild impulse. She felt that she could not bear him near her to-night. He should see that she was not his chattel.... But, perhaps, he did not want to come.... Well, so much the better. In any case, she wanted to show him that she did not want him. She wondered if he would venture.... She wondered if he did really care....
He appeared in no hurry to test her capacity for forgiveness.... Or it might be that the minutes went slowly—laden as they were with momentous thought. She lay in a tumult of agitation, her heart beating painfully under the lawn of her nightgown. She had a sense of gasping wonderment. She felt, as Colin had felt, that something tremendous had happened—and with such bewildering suddenness—altering all the conditions between them.
Yet, through the pain and bewilderment, her whole being thrilled with an excitement that was almost intoxicating—like the effect of an insidious drug, or the fumes of heady wine. She knew it was the old craving for sensation, the fatal O'Hara temperament awake and clamouring. Try as she would—and she did try in a futile fashion—she could not shut off the impression of Willoughby Maule—the sombre ardour in his eyes, the note of suppressed passion in his voice. There was no doubt that this unexpected meeting had restarted vibrations, and that his influence was a force to be reckoned with still.
If Colin had acted differently—if he had not behaved so brutally to those poor blacks—if his manner to her had not been so hard and overbearing. And then his leaving her alone like that with Willoughby Maule! Of course, he was jealous. He had jumped at conclusions. What right had he to do so? What could he know? He must suspect her of horrible things. His questions had been insultingly dictatorial. Now, he wanted to shew her that he flung her off. He would not put out a finger to hold her to him. Had he not said something like that before their marriage! ... It was abominable.
The whiffs of tobacco smoke came no more. He was moving about again. She heard him in the bathroom. After a minute or two he came to the door and tried to open it.
'Biddy,' he said. Then in a deep-toned eager whisper, 'Mate!'
She sat up in bed; she had the impulse to go and open the door, but some demon held her back. She lay down again on her pillow.... The bed had creaked.... He must have known that she was awake.... He waited a minute or two without speaking ... knocked very softly.... She was silent.... Again she heard him moving about in his dressing-room, and, after a little while, she heard him go out, passing along the back veranda. He did not return. It was dawn before Bridget dropped into the heavy morning slumber, which follows a night of weeping.
FROM THE POINT OF VIEW OF COLIN MCKEITH AND OTHERS
When Lady Bridget awoke, it was then near the hour at which they ordinarily breakfasted. Finding, when she had dressed, that all was silent in the next room, she looked in.
It was empty, the bed had not been slept in, but there were signs that McKeith had got into his riding clothes and that he had packed a valise.
Maule was waiting in the dining-room, and Maggie, the serving maid, gave a message from McKeith that he had had his breakfast at the Bachelors' Quarters with Mr Harris and that they were both going to start for Breeza Downs immediately.
Bridget made no pretence of breakfasting. She told Maule to forage for himself, and, after swallowing a cup of coffee, made the excuse of household business—to see if the Chinaman had put up his master's lunch—if the water-bags were filled—what were to be the proceedings of the day. She had a hope that McKeith might say something conciliatory to her before he left. The remembrance of that disregarded appeal—the word 'Mate' to which she had given no response, weighed, a guilty load, upon her heart.
But she was sore and angry—in no mood to make any advance or stoop to self-justification. He was outside the store, where Ninnis was weighing rations for Harris, and McKeith's and the Police Inspector's horses, ready saddled, with valises strapped on, were hitched to the paling.
Harris sulkily touched his helmet to Lady Bridget, but McKeith had his back to her and seemed wholly absorbed in some directions he was giving.
'You'll see to it, Ninnis, that six saddle-horses are kept ready to run up, in case the Pastoralist Executive sends along any message that's got to be carried down the river—there's that lot of colts Zack Duppo broke in, they'll do. And you can get in Alexander and Roxalana from the Bore pasture, in case the buggy should be wanted—and one or two of the old hacks that are spelling out there. Of course, her ladyship's horse mustn't be touched, and you'll see Mr Maule has a proper mount if he wants it—the gentleman who'll be here for a bit—a friend of her ladyship's from England—you understand. You'll keep on those new men for the tailing mob, though I'm not sure they mightn't be Unionists in disguise. Anyway, Moongarr Bill is a match for them.... And you'll just mind—the lot of you—that it's my orders to stockwhip blacks off the place, and that if any Unionist delegates show their faces through the sliprails they're not allowed to stop five minutes inside the paddock fence.'
'Right you are, Boss,' responded Ninnis, and there was a change of grouping, and McKeith strode out to the yard to look into some other matter, all without sending a glance to his wife.
Presently Moongarr Bill came up, chuckling mysteriously, 'Say, Boss, I believe there's one of them dashed organising chaps coming down now from the top sliprails.' And as he spoke, a man rode to the fence, harmless enough looking, of the ordinary bush type.
He was about to get off his horse in the assured manner of a bushman claiming the usual hospitality, but McKeith—big and grimly menacing—advanced and held up his hand.
'No, wait a bit. Don't unsaddle. I'd like first to know your business.'
'I'm an Organiser,' said the man defiantly, 'and I'm not ashamed of my job. Trades Unions are lawful combinations, and I've come to have a talk with your men....' He ran on with professional volubility. 'My object in going round your district is to bring about a peaceful compromise between employers and employed—Do you see....?'
'Stop,' thundered McKeith. 'I'd have you understand that there's an organiser on this station already. I'M the Organiser here, and I'm not taking stock in Trades Unions at present.'
'But you'll let me have a talk with your men?—No harm in that.'
'No, you don't,' said McKeith.
'Well, I can spell my horse an hour or two, can't I?'
'No, you can't. You'll ride off my station straight away.'
'I've been off tucker since yesterday,' said the man, who seemed a poor-spirited creature. 'Anyhow, Boss, you'll give me something to eat.'
'Yes, I'll do that.' The laws of bush hospitality may not be violated. Food must be given even to an enemy—provided he be white. McKeith called to the Chinaman to bring out beef and bread. A lump of salt junk and a hunk of bread were handed to the traveller.
'Now you be off, and eat that outside my paddock,' said McKeith. 'See those gum trees over there?—You can go and organise the gum trees.'
The man scowled, and weakly threatened as he half turned his horse's head.
'Look here, Boss, you'll find yourself the worse for this.'
'Shall I. In what way, can you tell me?'
'You'll find that your grass is burned, I daresay.'
'I'm obliged to you for the hint. I'll take precautions, and I'll begin by shepherding you straight off my run,' said McKeith. 'Harris, if you're ready now, come along here.'
The Police Inspector stepped off the store veranda, where he had been standing, a majestic and interested onlooker. The Organiser—after all, a mere man of straw, crumpled under his baneful stare.
'You can't give me in charge—you've got no warrant—I've done nothing to be given in charge for.'
'Some of your people have, though, and here's a bit of information for any skunk among your cowardly lot,' said McKeith. 'I've offered one hundred pounds reward for the scoundrels who cut my horses' throats and robbed my drays on the road to Tunumburra. There's a chance for you, if you're mean enough to turn informer.'
'I know nothing about that,' said the Organiser.
'Eh? Well, if my grass is burned, I shall know who did it, and so will this Police Inspector. And I am a magistrate, and will have you arrested. Get on your horse, Harris, we'll start at once, and ride alongside this chap till he's over my boundaries.'
Harris unhitched his horse and mounted, but not sooner than McKeith was he in the saddle. Then McKeith looked at last towards the veranda where Bridget stood, white, defiant, with Maule at the French window of the dining-room just behind her.
McKeith took off his hat, made her a sweeping bow, which might have included his guest, turned his horse's head and rode in the direction of the sliprails, Harris and the sulky Organiser slightly at his rear.
Bridget never forgot that impression of him—the dogged slouch of his broad shoulders—the grim set of his head, the square, unyielding look of his figure, as he sat his horse with the easy poise of a bushman who is one with the animal under him—in this case, a powerfully made, nasty tempered roan, one of Colin's best saddle-horses—which seemed as dogged tempered as its master.
Maule showed tact in tacitly assuming the unexpected necessity for McKeith's abrupt departure—also that he had already bidden good-bye to his wife.
Lady Bridget made no comment upon her husband's scant courtesy to his guest when she rejoined Maule after an hour or two spent in housewifely business. They strolled about the garden, smoked cigarettes in the veranda, she played and sang to him, and he brought out his cornet, which he had carried in his valise, being something of a performer on that instrument.
A demon of reckless gaiety seemed to have entered into Lady Bridget. Watching McKeith disappear behind the gum trees, she had said to herself:—'I can be determined, too. I have as strong a will as he has. He did not choose to say one regretful word. He was too stubborn to own himself in the wrong. He left me in what—if he believed his suspicion to be true—must be a dangerous position for a woman—only it shall not be dangerous to ME. I know exactly how far I am going—exactly the amount of excitement I shall get out of it all. Neither Willoughby nor he deserve an iota of consideration. I shall amuse myself. So! No more.... But he can't know that. He has never thought about ME. He has thought of nothing but his own cross-grained pride and selfish egoism. No man of ordinary breeding or SAVOIR-FAIRE would have gone off like that!'
She forgot in her condemnation of Colin to make allowance for the primal nature of the man; for a certain kinship in him with the loftier type of savage, whose woman must be his wholly, or else deliberately relinquished to the successful rival, and into whose calculation the subtleties of social jurisprudence would not naturally enter.
Nor did she remember at the moment that Maule had been described by her own relatives as a person of neither birth nor breeding—a fortune-hunter—not by any means a modern Bayard. He at least was a man of the world, she thought, and would appreciate the situation. He had lost that touch of unaccustomedness—she hardly knew how to describe it—which had often irritated her in their former relation. In their talk that day he seemed much more at home than she was in the world she had once belonged to. He spoke of 'personages' with the ease of familiar acquaintance. Apparently, he had got into quite the right set—a rather political set, she gathered. He told her that he had been pressed to stand for a well-nursed Liberal Constituency, and implied that but for the catastrophe of his wife's death he would now be seated in Parliament, with a fair prospect in the future of place and distinction. Of course, it was the money which had done it, she told herself, though he had undoubted cleverness, she knew, and, as he pointed out, his experience in a particular South American republic—very much to the fore just now in European diplomacy—stood to his advantage. His marriage had given him opportunity. He alluded without bad taste to his dead wife's generosity. She had left him her entire fortune unfettered. He was now a rich man. He explained that she had had none but very distant relations and that, otherwise, charitable institutions would have benefited. She had been a very good woman, he said—a woman with whom nine hundred out of a thousand decent men would have been perfectly happy. He let it be inferred that he was the thousandth man. His eyes, not his lips told her the reason why.
Their talk skimmed the surface of vital things—the new awakening in England; the threatenings of a socialistic upheaval; his individual aims and ideas—she recognised her own inspirations. He spoke of his political ambitions. Suddenly she said:
'I wonder why you made the break of coming out to Australia—why you did not stay in England and follow on your career?'
'There are bonds stronger than cart ropes which may drag a man by force from the path he has marked out for himself. Surely you must understand?'
'Really, Mr Maule.'
'Why will you be so formal!' he interrupted impetuously. 'It is absurd. Women nowadays always call men they know well by a PETIT NOM.'
'Do I know you well! I often think I never knew you at all.'
'That is what Lady Tallant used to say to me, latterly, about you and myself—that we never really knew each other.'
'Oh, poor Rosamond! It makes me miserable to think of her. You became friends, then—latterly?'
'She was very nice to me when she came back from Leichardt's Land. And besides, she was anxious for me to come out to Luke and help him a bit.... She told me about your marriage. She knew I could settle to nothing—of course, the world in general thought it was because of that tragedy—my wife's death—and the child—you understand?'
Bridget nodded slowly.
'Lady Tallant knew the truth—that I was tormented by one ceaseless longing—after the impossible. I fancy she thought that if I could realise the impossibility, I might get over the longing.... But—Bridget, it's no use pretending—I did try to do my duty. I think I succeeded, to a certain extent, in making my wife happy—but there was always the same gnawing regret....'
'You must put all that out of your head,' she interrupted curtly.
'I cannot. A man doesn't love a woman like you, and, because she is married to another man, put her out of his head—in two years or ten—or Eternity, for that matter.'
She laughed joylessly. 'Eternity!' she scoffed.
They were in the veranda after luncheon, she swinging slowly in the hammock, playing with a cigarette, he smoking likewise, scarcely attempting to suppress the stormy feeling in his face and voice. For her, the crude brown-grey landscape rose and fell with the motion of the hammock, and jarred with the exotic memories he evoked. She had been called back to the varied emotional interests of her girlhood, and realised, in a rush, how deadly dull was life in the arid wastes of the Never-Never. Nothing more exciting than to watch the great parched plain, with the dry heat-haze upon it, getting browner every day, and the shrinking lagoon and its ever widening border of mud. Nothing, when she turned her eyes to right and left, but ragged gum trees and black gidia forest. What a dead blank wilderness it was!'
She gave a little gasp as if for breath. He seemed to read her thoughts.
'Do you remember Rome—and the Campagna, that first day we went to Albano?—And our walk through the woods down to Lake Nei?—It was then I first knew that I loved you.'
'Will—if you are going to stay here you mustn't talk like that. It's not playing the game.' She spoke pleadingly.
'Does your husband play the game?' Maule retorted. 'Is it playing the game to leave you here alone with me, when he must know—or at least, guess—how things have been between us?—Do you think I didn't notice yesterday that he suspected me—suspected us both? I should have been a blind mole not to see by his face and manner how he felt. Upon my soul, he would have no defence—if....'
She stopped him with a gesture.
'I must ask you again not to discuss my relations with my husband; they do not concern you.'
'Do they not!' And as she rose abruptly from the hammock, 'I beg your pardon,' he added humbly, 'I will do my best not to offend again.'
He got up too and stood, his back against the veranda railings.
'Lady Bridget, you mustn't be angry with me. I suppose I am a little off my balance, you must remember that this is—for me, a rather staggering experience.'
'Shall we go for a ride?' she asked suddenly. 'I don't suppose you have much idea of what a wild western station is like.'
'Oh, I'm fairly well acquainted with life on big pastures,' he answered lightly, taking her cue. 'You would be surprised, perhaps, at the list of my qualifications as an "out-back squatter."—I'm a bit of a rancher—had one in the Argentine—a bit of a doctor—a bit of a policeman—I was in charge once of a constabulary force out in British Guiana. That's where I got a rise off Harris—a bit of a law breaker, too—in fact a bit of everything. Yes, I should enjoy a ride round here with you immensely.'
'Then do you mind looking for Mr Ninnis, the overseer, you know.'
'Yes, I know Ninnis. Had a yarn—as he'd say—with him last night while your husband was talking to Harris. Ninnis doesn't get on well with Harris—another point of sympathy. We're quite friends already. Ninnis and I—he's been in South America, too.'
'You'll find him somewhere about the Bachelors' Quarters, and I'll go and put on my habit,' she said.
Lady Bridget appeared as Maule and Ninnis were finishing saddling the horses. Ninnis had stayed near the head station, and was keeping a sharp look-out for bush fires, he said. Otherwise, there appeared to be no elements of disquiet. Lady Bridget noticed with surprise that Ninnis seemed to defer to Maule, which was not his usual attitude towards strangers. She attributed this to a community of experiences in South America, and also to Maule's undoubted knack of managing men.
They rounded the lagoon and skirted the gidia scrub. Maule was on a Moongarr horse, Bridget rode a fiery little chestnut. Maule had already had opportunity to admire the famous O'Hara seat. They had hunted together once or twice on the Campagna, that winter when they had met in Rome. It was difficult to avoid retrospect, but Bridget seemed determined to keep it within conventional limits. They found plenty, however, to talk about in their immediate surroundings. Perhaps it was the effort to throw off the load on her heart that made Bridget gaily confiding. She drew humorous pictures of the comic shifts, the almost tragic hardships of life on the Leura—how she had been left servantless—until Ninnis had got up Maggie from the Lower Leura—when the Chinamen decamped during the gold rush. She described the chivalrous SUNDOWNER who had on one occasion helped her through a week's washing; and Zack Duppo the horsebreaker, whose Christmas pudding had been a culinary triumph, and the loyalty of faithful Wombo, who had done violence to all his savage instincts in acting as house-servant until the advent of the Malay boy Kuppi. She told of her first experience of a summer out West. The frying of eggs in the sun on a sheet of corrugated zinc, so intense was the heat. The terror of snakes, centipedes, scorpions. The plagues of flies and white ants. Then how, during the servantless period, in utter loneliness and Colin's enforced absence at the furthest out-station she had had an attack of dengue fever, and no woman within forty miles of her.
'And your husband allowed this? But where was that barmaid-looking person who seems to keep house here for stray gentlemen—and, who has the yellow-headed and blue-eyed little boy?'
Bridget's lip curled.
'Mrs Hensor had accepted a temporary situation at an hotel in Fig Tree Mount—the only time I've regretted her absence,' and the musical laugh seemed to Maule to have acquired a note of exceeding bitterness. 'Perhaps you don't know,' she went on, 'that Mrs Hensor is a sort of Helen of the Upper Leura—though unfortunately as yet no Paris has carried her off—I wish there was one bold enough to do it. She had to be asked to take a change of air because there was rivalry about her between the buyer of a Meat Preserving Establishment and the chief butcher at Tunumburra. Fair Helen scorned them both. Result: The two buyers bought beasts elsewhere and, as you would understand, on a cattle station, butchers may not be flouted. Though I daresay,' Lady Bridget added with a shrug, 'if I could have had the butchers in the house—I draw the line only at Harris—and had sung to them and played up generally, I might have scored even off Mrs Hensor. But they wouldn't come until after she had gone and there was no further danger of a duel taking place outside the Bachelors' Quarters.'
Maule took her cue again and laughed as if the matter were one to jest about. But as he looked round, his face did not suggest merriment. Nor for that matter did the landscape. They were riding at the edge of the immense sandy plain, patched with brown jaggled grass and parched brambles and prickly lignum vitae—nothing to break the barren monotony but clumps of stunted brigalow and gidia, a wind-mill marking the site of an empty well with the few hungry-looking cattle near it.
Now they dipped into a scrub of dismal gidia.
'This is the most depressing country I have ever ridden through,' he said.
'You don't know what a difference three inches of rain makes,' she answered. 'Then the grass is green, the creeks are running, and at this time the dead brambles are covered with white flowers. But it doesn't rain. There's the tragedy.'
'The tragedy is that you—you of all women should be wasting your youth and beauty in this wilderness. How long is it going to last?'
She shrugged again, and for an instant turned her face up towards the sky. 'You must ask the heavens?'
'Meaning, I presume, that like most of the Australian squatters, your husband hasn't capital enough at his back to stand up against continued drought?'
'Precisely.' She looked at him, with her puzzling smile.
'But you couldn't have understood his position when you married him?'
'No, I didn't—altogether. But I should really like to remind you that I am not in the witness box.'
'I think you owe me the truth!' he said, passionately.
'What do you call the truth?' she asked, reining in her horse and meeting his eyes straight.
But she had to turn hers away before he answered, and he as well as herself was conscious of the compelling effect his gaze had upon her.
'I could have made you marry me if I had been strong enough to persist,' he said.
'Cannot any man do what he is strong enough to do—if he wishes it enough to persist?'
'I should have put it this way. If I had thought less of you and more of myself. But after what you said that day, when you jeered so contemptuously at the kind of environment in which, THEN, I should have had to place my wife—what could I do—except withdraw? But you suffered, Bridget,' he went on vehemently. 'Not so much as I did—but still you suffered. You thought of me—I felt it, and you must have felt too, how continually I thought of you. I used to try and make you think of me—dream of me. And I succeeded. Isn't that true?'
'Yes, it is true,' she answered in a low voice.
'Only lately, since I have been in the district, it has seemed to me that the invisible wires have been set working afresh. Isn't that true also?'
'Yes, it is true,' she said again, as if forced to the acknowledgment.
'Then, can there be any question of the bond between us? You see, it's independent of time and space! for you WERE sorry—you DID care. That's the truth you owe me. If after—after we parted in that dreadful way, I had gone back, had thrown up everything, had said to you, "Come with me ANYWHERE, let us be all in all to each other—on the slopes of the Andes, on an island in the South Seas—you would have come?"'
'I always told you,' she said with her puzzling smile, 'that the slopes of the Andes appealed to me.'
'Peru would have been more picturesque than this, anyway. Is that all I can get out of you—that grudging admission? Well, never mind, I am satisfied. You have owned up to enough. I won't tease you now for more admissions.'
'I have admitted too much,' she said gloomily. 'The curse of the O'Hara's is upon me. Almost all of them have gambled with their lives, and most of them have lost.'
She gave her horse the rein as she spoke, and they cantered on over the plain. After that, she resolutely forbade sentiment.
Mr Ninnis was gratified by an invitation that evening to dine at the Home, and came down in his best dark suit and his most genial mood.
Bridget sang. She had not been singing much lately. Colin's gloom over the evil prospects of squatting on the Leura re-acted upon her spirits. And besides, the piano had been attacked by white ants, and the tuner had not been so far up the river for a long time. It was inspiring to learn that Maule added to his gifts that of getting a piano into tune. Ninnis promised to rummage among the tools for a key that would serve.
Ninnis had never admired Lady Bridget so much as he did this evening. Certainly he thought her more flighty and incomprehensible than ever, but he could not deny her fascination. It seemed quite natural to him that she should be in high spirits at seeing an old friend from England, who appeared to know all her people. Ninnis had taken immensely to Maule. Beside Maule knew parts of the world where Ninnis had been. It was curious to see the American-isms crop out. Ninnis considered Maule a person of parts and of practical experience. He said to himself that the Boss had done wisely in leaving Maule at the head-station while they were short-handed. Maule showed great interest in Bush matters—said he wanted to learn all he could about the management of cattle—thought it not improbable that he might invest money in Leichardt's Land. Ninnis agreed to show him round, and Maule begged that he might be made useful—even offered to take a turn with the tailing-mob, so that Moongarr Bill and the other stockmen might be free to muster more cattle.
Nothing was heard of the Blacks during the next day or two, but one morning Ninnis discovered that an old gun, which the station hands and the black-boys were allowed to use on Sundays for shooting game in the lagoon, had disappeared in the night. Circumstantial evidence pointed to Wombo as the thief. Cudgee owned to having seen him skulking among the Gully rocks. A deserted gunya was found near a lonely, half-dry waterhole in the scrub, and there were rumours of a tribe of wild blacks having passed towards the outlying country in the Breeza Downs direction.
No news came, however, of either racial or labour warfare. McKeith sent not a word of his doings, and Harry the Blower was not due yet on his postal, fortnightly round.
McKeith had been gone a week, and the time of his absence seemed like that sinister lull which comes after the sudden shock of an earthquake and the tornado that follows upon it. Then, one day, something happened.
All the men except the Chinamen were out. Moongarr Bill, Ninnis, and the stockmen on the run, while Maule—a book and a sandwich in his pocket—had gone herding with Joey Case and one of the extra hands.
A sense of mutual embarrassment had that day driven them apart. He had been afraid of himself, and she too had felt afraid. During these seven days she had rushed recklessly on as though impelled by a fatality, never pausing to consider how near she might be to a precipice. Whenever possible, she had ridden out with Maule and Ninnis, or with Maule alone. She found relief from painful thoughts of Colin in the excitement and emotion with which Maule's society provided her. She went with him on several occasions behind the tailing-mob, though ordinarily, she could not endure being at close quarters with cattle. But it interested her to see Maule ride after and round up the wild ones that escaped; to watch his splendid horsemanship which had the flamboyant South-American touch—the suggestion of lariat and lasso and ornate equipment, the picturesque element lacking in the Bush—all harmonizing with his deep dark eyes and Southern type of good looks.
To-day, she had preferred to remain at home alone. She had been pulled up with a startled sense of shock. Last evening when they were walking together on the veranda he had begun again to make love to her, and in still more passionate earnest—had held her hands—had tried to kiss her. She had found herself giving way to the old romantic intoxication—then had wrenched herself from him only just before the meeting of lips.
At last, she had realized the strength of the glamour. She fought against it; nevertheless, in imagination gave herself up to it, as the opium-smoker or haschisch-eater gives himself up to the insidious FANTASIA of his drug.
Yes, Bridget thought it was like what she had read of the effects of some unholy drug—some uncanny form of hypnotism.
For she knew that she did not really love Maule—that her feeling for him was unwholesome.
There was poison in it acting upon her affection for and trust in her husband. Maule made subtle insinuations to McKeith's detriment, injected doubts that rankled. There were no definite charges, though he would hint sometimes at gossip he had heard in Tunumburra. But he would convey to her in half words, looks, and tones that he had reason to believe Colin unworthy of her—that her husband had led the life of an ordinary bushman, and had fully availed himself of such material pleasures as might have come to his hand. The veiled questions he asked about Mrs Hensor and her boy, brought back a startled remembrance of the scene outside the Fig Tree Mount Hotel and Steadbolt's vague accusation. She had almost forgotten it—had never seriously thought about it. Yet now she knew the midge-bite had festered.
Could it be that there was a chapter in Colin's life of which she knew nothing? Was it not too much to believe that he had always been faithful to his ideal of the camp fire? Ah! Maule would have jeered at that—would have been totally incapable of understanding the romance of that dream-drive—a dream in truth. But how beautiful, how sane, how uplifting it seemed, compared with the feverish haschisch dream in which she was now living. Restless under the obsession, she wandered up the gully and, as she sat among the rocks, wrestled with her black angel—and conquered. Clearly there was but one thing to do. She must send Maule away at once before Colin came back. As for Colin, that trouble must be faced separately. Maule must ride back to Tunumburra—he knew the track. Or, should he wish to explore the district further, Harry the Blower was due with the mail to-morrow, and could guide him to any station on the post-man's route which might appear to Maule desirable.
Bridget knew that Maule would leave the tailing-mob before the other men that afternoon, and would probably come to look for her here. So having arrived at her decision and wishing to put off the inevitable scene as long as possible, she set forth by another route for the head-station.