But she had only gone a few steps, when out of the gidia scrub, came Oola the half-caste, her comely face bruised, her eyes wild with grief and terror, her head tied up in a blood-stained strip torn from Lady Bridget's lacy undergarment, the gaily-flowered kimono hanging in dirty shreds upon her brown bosom.
'White Mary! Lathy-chap!' she cried. 'Plenty poor feller Oola. Plenty quick me run. Me want 'em catch Lathy-chap before pollis-man come. That feller pollis-man take Wombo long-a gaol. Mithsis'—the gin implored. 'BUJERI you!—Mithis tell pollis-man Wombo plenty good blackfellow. No take Wombo long-a gaol.'
'What has Wombo been doing?' asked Lady Bridget. 'Did he steal the gun?'
'YOWI (yes). Wombo plenty frightened long-a ole husband belonging to me.' And Oola dropped and knocked her head upon the ground, wailing the ear-piercing death-wail of the Australian native women.
'Oola, you must stop howling!' said Bridget, alive to the seriousness of the situation. 'Has Wombo shot your husband with our gun?'
'YOWI, Mithis. That feller husband altogether BONG' (dead).
From Oola's broken revelations Bridget pieced the story. It appeared that the tribe had followed in hot pursuit of the fugitives, and, knowing his peril, Wombo had sneaked up to the head-station in the darkness, possessed himself of an effectual weapon, and fled away with the gun. The offended blacks had discovered the guilty pair on the outskirts of Breeza Downs, and Oola's husband, with a company of braves, had attacked their gunya. Then—to quote Oola—'that feller husband throw spear at Wombo—hit Oola long-a COBRA (head) with NULLA NULLA. Him close-up carry off Oola. My word! Wombo catch him PHO PHO. Plenty quick husband belonging to me TUMBLE DOWN.' And Oola wailed anew.
'Where's Wombo now?' Bridget asked.
'Blackfeller YAN (run) along-a pollis-man. Pollis-man close-up black's camp. That feller Harris catch 'im Wombo—fetch um long-a Tunumburra gaol. Mine think it stop to-night Moongarr. Close-up station now.'
Lady Bridget at once saw through the affair. Here was Harris taking a legitimized revenge on Wombo, and doubtless also on herself. Clearly, he had been patrolling the Breeza Downs boundaries in search of Unionist incendiaries, and seizing Wombo instead, had acted promptly without waiting for a warrant or consulting McKeith. Wombo would be charged at the township with theft of the gun and murder of Oola's husband. To a certainty he would be hanged if the matter ran its ordinary course. That it should not do, Bridget declared within herself—if she could by any possibility prevent it.
The half-caste woman and the white lady went swiftly through the gidia scrub towards the head-station. At the gully crossing, Maule, on his way back from the tailing-mob, overtook them, and dismounting, walked with Lady Bridget to the house. She forgot then all the scene of last evening, told him the black's story, begged him to help her in the rescue of Wombo.
He reflected for a minute or two.
'We're up against Harris,' he said, 'and Harris has a grudge against all of us. But Harris feels some respect for my knowledge of constabulary law, which, I take it, is pretty much the same in most countries where there are white settlers and native races.'
She looked up at him, letting him feel that she was relying on his astuteness and his strength. He went on:
'Ninnis is mustering with Moongarr Bill and the others, a good way off, and they're camping out to-night.... That leaves only Joe Casey and the other extra hand. Ninnis put me in authority here. Somebody has got to take command, and it must be either you, Lady Bridget, or myself. Perhaps I'm the best qualified of the two....'
She laughed shakily in assent.
'Anyway, I fancy that I know how to deal with this sort of affair better than you do,' he said. 'Will you let me manage it my own way?'
'I suppose I may assume that your husband left me in a position of some responsibility. And if I seem to be taking too much on myself—or, on the other hand, deferring too much to Harris, you'll trust me and not interfere?'
There was no time for discussion, had she wished to go against him. Oola was shrieking and pointing frantically to the track down from the upper slip rails, along which Harris and his prisoner were to be seen riding.
The Police Inspector, uniformed, burly, triumphant, exhaled the Majesty of the Law as he rode slightly in advance leading the black-boy. Now, as they pulled up at the fence, Wombo presented a sorry spectacle—a spear wound in his left shoulder, a spear graze on his leg, his wrists handcuffed and his feet tied to the stirrup-iron with cords so tight that they cut into his tough, black flesh.
Harris dismounted, tied Wombo's horse securely to the veranda post and then made his statement which coincided with Bridget's idea of what had happened. It was too late to push on to Tunumburra. He proposed to lock up his prisoner at Moongarr for the night. Could he have the hide-house?
Not long before, the Police Inspector had locked up a horse stealer, whom he had in charge, in the hide-house for a few hours while he took a meal.
To Bridget it seemed an irony that Wombo should be imprisoned in the very room he had so lately shared with his stolen gin.
She was quivering with indignant pity at sight of the sores on the black boy's legs made by the raw hide thongs, and Oola, who had crept up the off side of the black-boy's horse, was wailing anew. Maule checked with a look the angry protest on Lady Bridget's lip and answered the Police Sergeant in her stead.
'Why, certainly. I'm sure her Ladyship won't object. You'll let me see to that for you, Lady Bridget,' and, as she bowed her head, he addressed Harris again. 'Mr Ninnis and most of the others are camping out to-night on the run, and I seem to be the only responsible man in the place—of course you know that Mr McKeith asked me to stop and help look after things for Lady Bridget if necessary.' Then he complimented Harris genially upon his zeal. 'You've got your warrant, I suppose,' he asked incidentally.
The Police Sergeant looked a little uncomfortable.
'Well, fact is, I wouldn't waste time going back to Breeza Downs head-station for that. Mr McKeith's there and they had a bit of an alarm. Those Unionist skunks tried to fire the shed one night, but no particular damage was done, and they've dispersed. But Windeatt is in such a fright of their making another attempt on his head-station that he's pushing the imported shearers on with the shearing for all he's worth, and keeps any man he can get hold of on guard night and day round the house and sheds, while I and my lot have been doing a bit of riding after Unionists.... Now, if you please, we'll have the key of the hide-house,' concluded Harris. 'I'd like to get my prisoner stowed away safe before I take an hour's spell myself. I'm pretty well knocked up, I can tell you. No sleep at all last night watching that nigger who was tied up to a gum tree, and I've been in the saddle all day.'
Maule proffered the usual refreshment with a deprecatory reference to Lady Bridget, who stood stonily apart. Then on pretext of getting the key of the hide-house, he had a few words with her in the office.
'I'm going to take care of this,' he said, as she gave him the key of the padlock which secured the hide-house door, and he forthwith fastened it to the ring of his watch-chain. 'Of course you want the black-boy to escape?'
'I shall let him out myself,' she answered.
'That would only make McKeith more angry. I have a better plan, in which you need not be implicated.'
'I would rather do it myself,' she said. 'I'm not afraid. If it had been possible, I would have cut those horrible thongs straight away and let the poor wretch get into the bush. He'll be safe at the head of the gully in the gidia scrub.'
'I promise you that he shall be safe in the gidia scrub before sunrise to-morrow. Trust me.'
She shook her head. 'But I can't take services from you, after....' she began hastily and then stopped.
'You call that a service! Yes—to humanity, if you like. Oh, I know. After yesterday evening. NOW, you blame me for being true to myself.... All that has got to be settled between us, Bridget—for good and all. I thought it out as I rode behind the tailing-mob to-day. But for the moment,' he fingered the key agitatedly, 'Bridget, you MUST let me do this thing for you. Don't refuse me that small privilege, even if you deny me all others.'
She wavered—yielded. 'Very well. You can manage it better than I could. So I will accept this last favour.'
'The first, not the last. What have I done but cause you pain? ... If you knew the torture I have been going through....' He checked himself. She was staring at him, half frightened, half fascinated.
'No, no. There must be an end.'
'Yes. There must be an end. Later on, we'll decide what the end is to be.'
He went out to the veranda carrying the key. Bridget did not follow him. She had no power either to resent or to compel him. She sat waiting. When, after about a quarter of an hour, he came back, she was still in the office as he had left her, seated by the rough table on which were the station log, the store book, and branding tallies.
He came in triumphantly, exhibiting the key.
'Harris wanted to take possession of this. It was lucky I had put it on my chain. However, he's satisfied that Wombo is securely locked up and an extra glass of grog and a hint that, as he hasn't provided himself with a warrant there's no obligation on him to stand over his prisoner with a loaded gun, eased his mind of responsibility. The man is in a beast of a temper though, he evidently expected to be entertained down here. I hope Mrs Hensor will give him a good dinner. He insists on sleeping in the little room off the store veranda where he says he can keep watch on the hide house. I suppose it's all right?'
Bridget nodded. 'I'll tell Maggie.' Maule asked for ointment with which to dress the black-boy's wounds and abrasions, and she gave it and left him.
The afternoon was drawing in. Then came the sound of the herded beasts being driven to the yard at sundown and, by-and-by, of Joe Casey's stockwhip as he got up the milkers. The shorthandedness and disturbance of Harris' arrival made everything late, and the goats which should have been penned by now, were busy nibbling at the passion vines on the garden fence. But all this made little impression on Bridget's preoccupied brain. She had the thought of that coming interview with Maule before her. Oola's continuous wailing was an affliction, and she gave the half-caste a blanket and some food and told her to camp on the further side of the hide house where, with eyes and ears glued by turns against the largest chink between the slabs, she might see and speak to the prisoner.
Maule's and Lady Bridget's TETE-TETE dinner was an embarrassed meal, with Kuppi and Maggie hovering about the table. The man's eyes said more than his lips, and the woman sat, strained and silent, or else uttered forced commonplaces.
They were alone at last on the veranda, with night and the vast distances enfolding them. The air was close and hot, the sky banked with storm clouds, and, occasionally, there were flashes of sheet lightning and low growls of thunder. Before long the head-station was very quiet. Harris had inspected the hide-house and, having assured himself of the safety of his prisoner, had retired to the veranda room, making a great parade of keeping his door open, his gun loaded, and his clothes on, ready for any emergency. Joe Casey had gone to his hut, the Chinaman and the Malay boy to theirs, and Maggie, the woman servant, to her own tiny room wedged in between the new house and the kitchen wing.
But it was all early. At that hour, Maule laughingly reminded Lady Bridget, the dining world of London would scarcely have reached the dessert stage.
She would not waste time on banalities.
'I've been waiting to tell you something. My mind is quite made up. I can't go on like this any longer. You must go away to-morrow.'
'To-morrow!' he echoed in dismay.
'Yes. I've thought it out. You don't know the country, but the mailman will be here to-morrow, and he can show you the road.'
'You are very kind.... Why are you so anxious to get rid of me?'
'Surely you understand. You made me a scene yesterday. You'd go on making me scenes.'
She gave a hard little laugh. 'Oh! I—don't want to play any more.'
'You call it play! To me it's deadly earnest. I let you go once. I do not mean to let you go again.'
'But you are talking wildly. Don't you see that it is impossible we can be friends.'
'Oh! that I grant you. We must be everything to each other—or nothing.'
In spite of her cold peremptoriness he could see that she was deeply agitated. That fact gave him courage. His voice dropped to the tender persuasive note which had always affected her like a spell.
'My dear—my very dearest.... We made a great mistake once. Let us forget that. Death has opened the gate of freedom—for me, at least—and I can only feel remorseful thankfulness. We have again a chance of happiness. We will not throw it away a second time.'
'You seem to forget that if you are free I am married.'
'What a marriage? Call it a mad adventure.'
'That may be,' she said bitterly. 'But it doesn't alter the fact that I did care very much for my husband.' She brought out the last words with difficulty.
'DID care. You put it in the past tense. You don't care for him any longer. It would be astonishing if you did. One has only to see you together.... Oh, Biddy, it was so like you to rush off to the other side of the world, and ruin your life for the sake of some strange impracticable idea! I can follow it all....'
'You are mistaken,' she put in.
'I think not. You married in a fit of revulsion against the conditions in which you were living—the hollow shams of an effete civilisation—that's the correct phrase, isn't it? And—well, perhaps there was another reason for the revulsion.... And you thought you had found the remedy for it all. Oh! I admit that he is very good looking, and, of course, he worshipped you—until he had you secure, and then he reverted to the ways of his kind. "Nature's gentlemen" usually do....'
'Be silent, Will,' she exclaimed vehemently. 'You don't understand.'
'My dear, your very anger tells me that I do understand. Why! naturally your imagination was set on fire. The Bush was painted to you in its most glowing colours. No doubt, as you said, it's a Garden of Eden in good seasons. Wonderful vegetation, glorious liberty—no galling conventions—vast spaces—romance—and the will o' the wisp wealth of the Wild. Confess now ... are not my guesses correct?'
'Yes—partly.' She spoke with reluctance. 'But I remember that YOU used to talk to me about the joys of the Wild,' she added with sharp irony.
'Oh, yes, I know it all. I've been there myself. And it's only when El Dorado proves a delusion that one begins to hanker—I did before I met you—for the advantages of civilised existence.'
'Well, you have secured those. Why not go and enjoy them as I'm asking you to do.'
'They have no value for me, unless I may share them with you. Bridget, I can give you everything now that you once asked for.'
'With your wife's money?'
He drew back sharply. 'Ah! You CAN hit a man!' and there was silence for a few minutes. Then he leaned closer to her, and his fingers touched the gold cigarette case which lay on the arm of the squatter's chair in which she was sitting. He went on in a changed manner.
'Poor Evelyn left her fortune to me, knowing the truth. She was a noble-souled woman. I was not worthy of her. But unworthy as I may have been, Bridget, I deserved better of my wife than your husband deserves of you. At least, I did not deceive her.'
'What do you mean? Colin did not deceive me. That, at all events, is not one of his faults towards me.'
'Has he told you, then, why he keeps on his station that insolent woman and her yellow-haired blue-eyed boy?'
Bridget started visibly. He saw that his shaft had struck the mark. But she answered calmly:
'I don't know what you want to imply. I thought you knew that Mrs Hensor's husband was killed on one of Colin's expeditions, and that he looked after her and her boy on that account.'
'Oh, yes, I've heard that story. But it seemed common gossip at Tunumburra that there was another—less creditable—explanation.'
She turned fiercely upon him. 'You have no right to make such an abominable accusation.'
'I only mention what I heard. I went about a good deal there in bar saloons, and to men's gatherings. Naturally, I was interested in the district where, by the way, McKeith does not appear to be over popular. Of course, I attached no great importance to the gossip then. It only made me wonder. Oddly enough, to-day when I was out with the tailing mob, one of the men repeated it—I need not say that I stopped him. He said he'd had it as a fact from a man who was a long time in your husband's employ—a man called Steadbolt.'
Again the scene in front of Fig Tree Mount Hotel flashed before Lady Bridget, and Demon Doubt rose up clothed now in more material substance. Her voice shook as she answered, though she tried to be loyal:
'Steadbolt was discharged from my husband's employment. He is another of Mrs Hensor's rejected suitors. That speaks for itself.'
'Strange that Mrs Hensor should reject so many suitors without apparent reason,' said Maule.
Bridget did not seem able to bear any more. Her head drooped upon her hands, her shoulders heaved convulsively.
'I don't know what to do—I am alone. It's an insult to talk to me in this way.'
'I want to protect you from insult—I want to take you out of these miserable conditions—and there's only one way to do that,' he pleaded.
He took her hands in his and kissed them passionately. 'Oh, I love you. There's nothing in the world I would not do to make you my wife. Why should you hesitate? It breaks my heart to see you unappreciated, neglected, living the sort of rough life that might suit a labourer's daughter, but which is sacrilege for Lady Bridget O'Hara. A man had no right to condemn a beautiful, refined woman like you to such a fate.... Well there' as she murmured incoherently, 'I'll not say any more about that since it hurts you. You see, I respect your wishes. I'll even go away at once, if you command it, and leave you to form your own judgment. I will stay in Leichardt's Town—in Sydney—anywhere—until you have decided for yourself—as I know you must do—how impossible it is for you to remain here. Then I will meet you wherever you please, and we will go to Europe together—bury ourselves abroad—wait in any part of the world you may choose, until the divorce proceedings are over, and we are free to marry. You need not be afraid of scandal, the thing can be kept out of the English papers. It's so far away that nobody will remember you were married to an Australian. Besides, anything of the sort is so easily got over nowadays. My darling, why do you look at me with those tragic eyes? It is not like the old Biddy to be a slave to Mrs Grundy.'
She had been listening, sitting rigid in her chair, her hands still in his, looking at him in a strange fixed manner, almost like a person in the first stage of hypnotism. Now she snatched her hands away and gave a sobbing cry.
'Oh, I'm not the old Biddy. I never can be again.'
'Dear love—believe me, when I promise you that you shall never have cause for regret.'
He would have taken her into his arms, but she drew herself back.
'Will, you don't understand. And I don't understand myself, I can't see things clearly. It's all been so sudden—Colin going away—you—everything.... I want to be alone. I want to find myself.'
He moved aside with a slight inclination of his head as if to let her pass. 'I told you that I would do anything you wish.'
'You mean that—really? Then I wish you to go away at once. You said you would leave me to decide for myself. I take you at your word, and I shall write to you, by-and-by. Promise me that you will go.'
'I have no choice. Your will is law to me. But understand, dearest—I am only waiting.'
'It's good of you not to want to worry and argue.... Don't you understand?—I couldn't bear you to be here when Colin comes back. You must go to Tunumburra to-morrow.'
'Go to Tunumburra to-morrow?' he repeated blankly.
'It's on the way to Leuraville, and you can take the steamer from there. I will write to you in Leichardt's Town. Oh, it's quite simple. The mailman will be here early. You can leave a letter saying that you are recalled.'
'I understand.' Her definite planning gave him hope that she had already made up her mind, and that she would join him in Leuraville or Leichardt's Town. After all, that might be best. 'But I shall see you again. The mailman is not here yet. I have still a few hours respite.'
She made no answer at first. Then 'Good-night,' she said abruptly, and flitted like a small white ghost along the dim veranda.
'Lady Bridget!' His voice stopped her. It shook a little, but the manner was conventional, and she gained confidence from that and turned irresolutely.
'Lady Bridget. While we've been talking about ourselves, we've forgotten that unfortunate black-boy. I only want to tell you, that you may depend on your wishes being carried out. I shall go to my room and watch my opportunity. Trust me, that's all—in everything.'
'Thank you,' she answered simply. 'I do trust you.'
She came back a few steps, and he met her in the middle of the veranda. In one of her swift transitions of mood a humorous element in the situation seemed to appeal to her, and she said with a laugh:—'It's comical, isn't it? The two tragedies, black and white—we two here—those two out there!'
Just then the black curtain of cloud, that had been rising slowly and obscuring the stars, was torn by a strong flash of chain lightning. It threw up her face in startling clearness and he saw, in strange blend with the conflicting emotions upon it, the wraith of her old whimsical smile.
He did not answer her laugh. In truth, the man's nature was stirred to a more deep-reaching extent perhaps than ever in his life before. It may have been the flash of lightning recalling a momentary flash of illumination that had once shone upon his own soul.
That had been when he was kneeling by the bedside of his dying wife, and her last words revealed to him a magnanimity of devotion for which he had been wholly unprepared. He had thought her merely amiable and stupid—except in her love for him—and his sentiments towards her had been a mixture of boredom, and the tolerant consideration due to the bestower of substantial benefits. Nevertheless, she had awakened, during a spasm of remorseful self-abasement, some nobler quality latent in the man.
And now—as that flash of lightning illuminated Bridget's face and made him keenly sensitive to the charm of her personality—her wayward fascination, her inconsistencies, her weakness, her temperamental craving for dramatic contrast, her reckless toying with emotion—by a curious law of paradox, there came back upon Willoughby Maule that scene with his dying wife, and he had again the flashing perception of something sacred, unexplainable, to which his own nature could not reach.
It sobered him. He had had the impulse to snatch her to his breast, to seal the half-compact with a lover's kiss, so passionate that the memory of it must for ever bind her to him.
But the impulse was past. They stood perfectly silent, stiff, in the interval—it seemed a very long one—between the lightning flash, and the distant reverberation of thunder which followed it.
Then he said mechanically, like one walking out of a dream? 'There's going to be a storm. Are you frightened?'
'No,' she answered. 'I'm never frightened of storms!' and added, 'besides, Colin would be so glad of rain.'
Before he could reply, she had glided away again and he was alone.
He thought it strange that she should be thinking of her husband and his material interests just then.
It must have been a little while after midnight when Bridget was awakened by more thunder and lightning and a confused tornado of sound. She had been dreaming that Harris was throwing her from the gully cliffs on to the boulders in its bed—only it seemed to her bewildered senses that the boulders rose towards her instead of her descending to meet them. Next she discovered that rain was pattering on the zinc roof, and that the violent concussions she felt beneath her must be due to the horns of goats knocking up against the boards of her bedroom. Ah! she thought, the men had forgotten to pen the goats, and they were sheltering from the rain in the open space under the floor of the house. There could be no more sleep for her that night, unless they were dislodged.
She waited through the din until there came a lull in the storm, then got up and put on her shoes and a waterproof coat over her nightdress. It was not the first time by any means that, when sleeping alone, she had been obliged to rise and drive away stray animals that had been inadvertently allowed means of entrance.
She went out to the back veranda, which was connected by steps with the verandas of the other two wings. The moon was full and shed occasional pale gleams through the scudding clouds. The close heat had given place to a chill wind and the rain came down intermittently but in no volume—it could not make much difference to the parched earth. There was not a light visible anywhere. The goats were still making a noise under the house.
Lady Bridget got a stick from a heap of sandal-wood boughs stacked against the veranda, and passing to the front, where the piles supporting the house were higher, proceeded to belabour an elderly nanny, who, with her mate, was now nibbling twigs of the creepers. But she was surprised to see only two or three goats, she had thought there must be many more. The animals were refractory, and her beatings of no avail. Now, suddenly, she was seized with a fit of nervous shivering and realised that she felt physically ill. It was of no use for her to try and drive off the goats. She sank down on the veranda steps of the Old Humpey, and afterwards thought she must have fainted.
The sound of Maule's approaching footsteps and his alarmed ejaculation seemed to bring her to herself. He appeared to have come round the back of the Old Humpey. He was horrified at the sight of her convulsive shivering.
'You mustn't stop here,' he exclaimed. 'I was afraid the goats would disturb you, and I've been getting them out as quietly as I could. Most of them are shut up in their fold.'
She saw that he was almost fully dressed. With an effort she controlled her terror, and asked:
'You've not been asleep.'
'Oh! off and on. I've been keeping my eye on Harris' room,' he pointed across the yard to the kitchen and store-building opposite—at the end of which Harris had installed himself—to the squat outline of the slab and back hide house. 'My ear, too,' he went on, 'for Harris' slumbers are neither silent nor peaceful. When he's not snoring, he groans and stirs, and the worst of it is that he's got his door wide open on to the veranda and his bed right across the window that looks straight at the door of the hide house. I thought I'd take advantage of the thunder, but it was no good. He was awake and looking out. Now he has lain down again, and as soon as I hear him snoring I shall try once more.'
A fresh fit of shivering seized Bridget.
'This won't do,' he said, and went hurriedly into his own room which opened a few doors down on to the veranda, and coming back with an opossum rug on his arm and a glass of brandy and water in his hand, he made her drink the spirits and wrapped the rug round her. Presently the shivering ceased.
A moon-gleam between two clouds closing on each other showed her his eyes glowing with sombre passion. She saw that he was holding himself under stern restraint. Though where they were, the veranda running between the end of the Old Humpey and the new house, made a kind of passage so that they were in shadow, there was a possibility of watchful eyes discovering their whereabouts.
'Will you go back to your room, and I'll get rid of these goats,' he said, trying to speak in a matter-of-fact way. 'I supose there isn't a yard where I could put them, nearer than their own by the lagoon.'
'I don't think so,' she answered dully, and without stirring from where she crouched upon the steps. When he urged her anew to go back to bed, she answered petulantly:
'Oh, do let me be. I like the wind and the rain—they're soothing. And I couldn't sleep now until I know that Wombo is safe in the scrub.'
He made no further protest, but set to work shepherding the goats. She watched him drive them out of the gate till his dark form and the piebald shapes he was driving before him were lost in the night. She knew that it would take some little time to pen them all securely in their fold. But the night was young yet.
From shivering, the fire of the brandy and the warmth of the fur rug had turned her temperature to fever heat. She felt keenly excited; the blood in her veins seemed boiling, and the occasional raindrops and moist wind were pleasant on her face. She had gone to the end of the veranda and stood there with long withes of the native cucumber vine that grew over the Old Humpey swaying around her in the breeze. There was not a light in the place. Even moon and stars were now veiled. Her brain raced round desperate and futile schemes for eluding the vigilance of the Police Inspector. She wished now that she had thought of asking him to dinner and putting opium into his coffee—that was the sort of thing they did in novels. She did not know that a less developed brain than her own was working at this moment to the same end, on an inspiration from the bush DEBIL-DEBIL, or such savage divinity as watches over the loves of the Blacks.
She saw what at first she had thought part of the shadow of a neighbouring gum tree cast on the strip of grass that ran at the back of the Old Humpey. But the lesser shadow moved, halted, and the greater shadow was stationary and grew denser as the moon sailed again across a clear patch of sky.
Then Bridget realised that the moving shadow was the half-caste Oola, shrouded in the dark blue blanket she had given her, and that the gin had halted at the casement window of Maule's bedroom. Now, Oola, with her hands on the sill, curved her lithe body, drew her bare feet to the window ledge and dropped within.
Bridget ran along the grass to the window, and from there watched Oola move about the room and in the almost darkness fumble among the objects on the dressing-table. Then Bridget could hear the little click of the tongue and the guttural note of exultation a black tracker gives when he comes upon a trail. Bridget drew aside against the wall, so that Oola, again springing over the window sill, did not observe her. But Bridget saw the watch and chain with the iron key attached to it which the gin had stolen, and seized Oola's arm as the dark form crouched upon the grass again. The gin uttered a smothered shriek. Bridget took the watch from her hand, detached the key from the chain, and slipped watch and chain into the pocket of her coat, while Oola, clutching Lady Bridget's knees, pleaded chokily:
'Mithsis—you gib me key—no make im noise. No tell pollis-man me let out Wombo. My word! plenty quick he YAN long-a scrub. BA-AL pollis-man catch Wombo. Mithsis—BUJERI White Mary! You gib it key to Oola.'
The key was in Oola's hand. 'BA-AL me tell,' whispered Bridget. 'You go quick.'
She, too, bent her body and followed Oola, who sped like a hunted hare round the comer of the Old Humpey. Now she wriggled in the shadow of the yard railings. Now she crept stealthily past Harris' window—and—oh! DEBIL—DEBIL be praised! the Police sergeant's stertorous snoring was clearly audible.
Blessed, likewise, be the retiring moon and the sweeping clouds! Lady Bridget, every nerve a-quiver and the rushing blood throbbing in her temples, also crept noiselessly beneath the window in the wake of Oola, crawling like Oola, but more to the back of the hide-house into the shelter of its drooping bark eaves.
Bending cautiously round the slabs, she watched, as the gin, with a swift wriggling motion like that of a snake, drew herself along the sunken earth floor beneath the eaves and then, softly raising herself to the level of the padlock, put in the key. There was a muffled grating of iron under the gin's hand, as the padlock unclosed and the hasp dropped, then a creak of the door on its hinges, while it opened and shut behind the undulating shape in the aperture. Then a low throaty ejaculation—the black's call of warning. And now with a quickness incredible, the wriggling movement of two blanket-shrouded serpentine shapes round the hide-house—in and out among the grass tussocks and the low herbage, now hidden for a moment by friendly gum shadows in the dimness, now dark moving blurrs upon the lesser darkness, and now altogether invisible....
Lady Bridget knew that in five minutes, once they could be upright again, the fugitives would have reached the gully, and after that the gidia scrub. Then security from the terrors of a white man's gaol would be almost assured to them.
Lady Bridget waited—waited, it seemed to her an eternity, in reality it was barely over the five minutes she had mentally given the two blacks for their escape. That five minutes had been full of alarms, and she could feel her heart thumping, so tense was the strain. She had to consider the possibility of Harris being awakened; also, of Maule's return and an attempt on his part to free the hide-house prisoner. Also there was the danger of the clouds breaking before she had done her work.
She heard a movement of the sleeper in his bed below the open window opposite. Harris might have been aroused, and perhaps have stirred without awakening.... But the snoring had ceased.... She did not think, however, that he could be fully awake.... Presently the snoring recommenced.
She crept very slowly along the earthen floor, drawing her hands along the slabs as she went. A splinter from one of them ran into her finger—but that did not matter. Now she touched the door, which lay back towards her, for the blacks had not waited to close it. She pushed it very softly, holding her breath at the creak of the hinge and listening intently for the recurrent snore which sounded through the window only three paces from her.
At last the thing was done—the padlock fastened, the key turned in the lock, and now in her pocket. She dropped flat on the earth, her cloak drawn lightly between her knees, and wriggled snake-like, as Oola had done past Harris' windows, then pushed herself on hands and knees along the ground, squeezing her body against the palings of the yard, till she reached the Old Humpey on the opposite side. Once round that corner, she got on to her feet, feeling sick and giddy but intensely relieved. She leaned against the gum tree which had protected Oola, and now realised that it had been raining in a driving gust and that she was wet to the skin.
The bleating of a kid, which had been left under the house and had found its way into the yard, startled her anew. She thought that she heard sounds in the wing near the hide-house—steps on the veranda. Was Harris stirring? Had he discovered the flight of his prisoner?
She waited again till all was quiet. By this time, there was a watery radiance just overhead. She looked towards the lagoon, but there was no sign of Maule. She felt the shivering begin again, though her head seemed burning, and she could hardly think collectedly. Her chief idea was to get back to bed.
But she was able to reason to herself that Maule must somehow be informed of the escape. She did not think he could have got back yet to the spot where he had left her. Or he might come straight to his room and miss the key and his watch. In any case, these must be restored to the place from which Oola had taken them.
She lifted herself to the window-sill as Oola had done, and in a moment was inside the room. It had been an easy enough business, only that in clutching the window frame, the jagged end of the splinter she had run into her hand caught and tore her flesh. The room was of course empty.
She lifted a candle—which, with matches, stood on the dressing table—and put back the watch and chain, and the key now separate from them. That fact would show Maule that it had been tampered with. But she must find some more exact means of conveying what had happened. Premature action on his part might give the alarm. Her brain worked in flashes. She had vivid ideas, which in her fevered state she could not hold properly. She must write to Maule. A notebook that he must have taken from his pocket lay on the table also. She tore out a leaf—paused—She must write so that only he would understand. An accident might happen to the paper.
There must be no definite statement to implicate him or herself. Some words in French occurred to her. She wrote them down and continued the note in that language. At the close she begged him to act so that there should be no ground for suspicion—reminded him of his promise to go away on the morrow—said she would write to him at the Post Office at Leuraville. She did not sign the sheet, but folded it across—addressed it to Maule and laid it under the watch on the table.
A fresh spasm of shivering seized her. Suddenly she remembered the opossum rug she had left. She opened the door leading from Maule's room into the veranda, and went out. She stood bewilderedly, looking across the faint-lit yard to the dim veranda of the kitchen wing opposite, as she fought against the sick faintness that threatened to overcome her. Then she walked along the veranda to the place where she had parted from Maule. The rug was lying there, and she threw it round her, and waited on the steps with chattering teeth and shaking limbs.
In a minute or two, he joined her. She saw by the fitful moonbeams that he was wet and muddy—truly in a worse plight than herself. She could hardly speak for the rigor. Seeing her condition, he took her up in his arms, and carried her along the veranda towards her own room. The clasp of his arms, the warmth of his body, even through his wet clothing helped her to steady herself. She continued to tell him of the great achievement.
'Wombo has escaped—I saw Oola taking the key out of your room. Harris was asleep—snoring. She let Wombo out, and I locked the door of the hide-house again afterwards, and put the key back in your room. It's all right—nothing can be found out till the morning. They're safe in the scrub by now.'
'Well, I'm thankful for that at any rate,' he answered. 'But at this moment I cannot think of anything or anyone but you. My dearest—I'm so afraid of your being ill—what can I do?'
'Nothing. I have sal volatile in my room—stuff to take for a cold. I only want to get off my wet things and go to bed—I can sleep now. Don't be frightened about me.'
She staggered when he put her gently down inside her own door, but recovered herself courageously, lighted her candles, laughed at her own disordered appearance, bade him go at once and look after himself.
He kissed her hand reluctantly.
She looked at him alarmedly. 'Will! But you have promised me. You are going away to-morrow.'
He did not reply. His eyes were roving round the chamber, dimly lighted by the two candles. He was observing the feminine details the untidinesses so characteristic of her; the daintinesses, equally characteristic—all in such odd contrast with inevitable bush roughnesses. He noticed the silver and ivory on the dressing-table; the large silver-framed photographs—an autographed one of the Queen of Wartenburg—Molly Gaverick and Rosamond Tallant in Court veil and feathers, Joan Gildea at her type-writer—the confusion of books, the embroidered coverlet on the large bed, the bush-made couch at its foot upholstered in rose-patterned chintz on which she had seated herself.
'You have GOT to go,' she urged. 'WHATEVER happens, you are leaving here with the mailman to-morrow.... Promise—on your word of honour—that NOTHING shall hinder you.'
'Of course, I shall keep my promise, though it breaks my heart to leave you like this. But I know—I feel that the parting will not be for long.... Yes....' as she slowly shook her head and a strange fateful look shadowed the feverish brightness of her eyes. 'I COULDN'T leave you if I didn't feel certain of that.'
'Oh, I'm tired out. I'm tired—dead tired—' Her face was ghastly, her lips like burning coals. 'I can't argue any more. And now it's good-night—good-bye.'
'Not good-bye. At least there will be time to-morrow for that.'
'You MUST go—Good-night.'
He left her, but waited in the veranda, reassuring himself by the sound of movements on the other side of the closed door. When all was silent, and the candles extinguished, he went back to his own room.
He saw on the dressing-table his watch and chain with the key detached beside them—a confirmnation of the truth of what Lady Bridget had told him. But she had forgotten to tell him of the note she had left also, and, naturally, he did not look for it. Had he known and looked he would have discovered that the note was gone.
Lady Bridget always looked back upon the next few days as a confused nightmare. She awoke in the grip of fever—that malarial kind which is common in Australia—tried to get up as usual, but fell back upon her bed, faint and dizzy. Her brows ached. She had alternations of burning heat and icy coldness. There came active periods in the dull lethargy which is often a phase of fever, and from which she only roused herself at the spur of some urgent call on her faculties. One of these was Willoughby Maule's anxious message of enquiry conveyed by Maggie, to which she had the presence of mind to return the answer that she had caught cold, and was staying in bed for the present, but would no doubt be quite well shortly. Also that she was sorry not to bid him good-bye, but begged that he would not think of postponing his departure.
She heard as in a dream the sound of the mailman's arrival, and presently, of the saddling of horses in the yard, and then the CLOP-CLOP of their feet as they were ridden past her end of the house to the Gully crossing. There were two horses. So Maule had left the head-station with Harry the Blower, as she had bidden him do. She was conscious of relief.
She realised in bewildered fashion, that Maule was gone out of her life at Moongarr, and connected the sound of his horses' departing feet with the thud of Sir Luke Tallant's hall door, when he had left her at the first interview which had led to their final quarrel.
From that effort of memory she sank again into mental coma. Maggie took it to be natural sleep, and laid the mailbag just brought by Harry the Blower, on her mistress' bed to await her awakening. Much later in the day, on the return of Mr Ninnis and the other men from their cattle-muster, finding the bag still untouched, Maggie broke the seals at her mistress' dazed order, and having sorted out Lady Bridget's letters, carried away the bag for Ninnis to take his own mail.
But Lady Bridget paid no heed to her letters, and thus it happened that for the time being, she was quite unaware of an event which was of great importance to her.
She had been scarcely even distantly conscious of the hue and cry, and general excitement at the head-station, when it was discovered that the prisoner had escaped. Harris had his own suspicions—it might be said, his certainties, but the man's crafty nature bade him keep his accusations for an opportunity when he ran less risk of being worsted. He meant to wait until McKeith's return. Meanwhile what he had not been prepared for was Willoughby Maule's departure with the mailman before he himself came back from an unsuccessful hunt after the fugitives. That move had lain outside his calculations. He had gleaned enough from Mrs Hensor, as well as from his own observation, to feel sure that Maule and Lady Bridget were in love with each other, and he had never supposed that they would part so abruptly.
The head-station was very shorthanded in the absence of Ninnis and the stockmen, and Harris had been obliged to go out by himself on the man-hunt. He did not know the country at the head of the gully, where he concluded that Wombo was hiding, and lost himself in the gidia scrub. Thus, he was in a very disagreeable temper, when he at last arrived at the Bachelors' Quarters.
To Lady Bridget the day passed, and all the seemingly distant noises of it, like a phantasmagoria of vision, sound, impressions—the echoes of station activity; the Chinamen's pidgin English as they weeded the front garden; Tommy Hensor's voice when he brought the cook a nestful of eggs some vagrant hen had laid in the grass-tussocks, the men going forth with the tailing-mob—and at intervals the scorching recollection of that hinted scandal concerning Colin and Mrs Hensor of which Maule had told her.... Horrible... unbelievable... and yet....
Then, after a long while, with lucid breaks in the dreamy stupor, she heard the roar of Ninnis' incoming mob of wild cattle from the range. She could even wonder whether he had been able to muster that herd of five hundred or so for the sale-yards. She knew that her husband was counting upon the sale of these beasts—probably at 6 pounds a head—to enable him to fight the drought, by a speedy sinking of artesian bores. She felt herself reasoning quite collectedly on this subject, until the roar of beasts turned into the roar of the mighty Atlantic, breaking against the cliffs below Castle Gaverick.... She saw the green waves—real as the heaving backs of the cattle—alive, leaping.... And she herself seemed tossed on their crest... she saw and felt the cool embrace of the wave-fairies she had once tried to paint for Joan Gildea's book.... Oh! she had never fully appreciated the strength of that now inappeasable longing for the Celtic home, the Celtic traditions which had been born in her. She had never known how much she loved Castle Gaverick... how much she loathed the muggy heat, the flies and the mosquitoes now brought by last night's rain, the fierce glare beating upon the veranda, the sun-motes dancing on the boards....
The appearance late that evening of Mrs Hensor, who having heard the mistress was ill, had come down partly from curiosity, partly from genuine humanity to see what might be amiss, was the next thing that roused Lady Bridget from her fever-lethargy.
'Maggie told me you'd been out in the rain last night, and had caught cold, and I thought Mr McKeith would wish me to ask if I could do anything,' Mrs Hensor said.
Lady Bridget sat up in bed, for the moment her most haughty self.
'Thank you; but there's no occasion for you to trouble, Mrs Hensor. I would have sent for you if I had required your services.'
'And I'm not aware that I was engaged to give them,' snorted Mrs Hensor. 'It was out of consideration for Mr McKeith that I came. I've got quite enough to do at the Quarters, and I'm really glad not to have to trouble myself down here—what with Mr Ninnis wanting extra cooking, and Mr Harris in such a rage over Wombo's getting away—I'm wondering if you heard anything last night, of that, Lady Bridget? And Harris is put out, too, over Mr Maule going off with Harry the Blower, while he was hunting for the black-boy. However,' Mrs Hensor concluded, 'the master will be here tomorrow to see into the rights of things.'
'How do you know that the master will be here to-morrow?' asked Bridget sharply.
'Harry the Blower brought me a letter from Mr McKeith,' replied Mrs Hensor with malign triumph. 'I suppose he thought you'd be too busy doing things with Mr Maule to bother over the station affairs, and that Mr Ninnis might be out on the run—and so he wrote to tell me what he wanted done as he often used to before.'
Lady Bridget closed her eyes, and leaned back against the pillows trying hard to control the muscles of her face, and not to betray her mortification. Moreover, she was certain that Mrs Hensor had stated the exact truth.
'I should prefer to be alone,' she said, feeling the woman's eyes upon her.
'Then I'll go, as you don't want me,' returned Mrs Hensor. 'But if I was you, Lady Bridget, I'd take a dose of laudanum, and get myself into a perspiration, for I believe it's a touch of dengue fever you've got the matter with you.'
A touch of dengue in tropical Australia may be serious or the reverse—sharp and short and critical, or tedious and less dangerous. Lady Bridget's case was the sharp, short kind demanding prompt treatment. When McKeith came home the following day, he found her delirious, and incapable of recognizing him.
Worn out as was the strong man's frame—not only with wild jealousy and tortured love, but with sleepless nights of patrol work, days in the shearing-shed, sharp fighting with a second conflagration—fortunately put out before much damage had been done—and a final dispersion of Unionist forces, Colin never for one instant relaxed his watch by Bridget's bedside.
All night he tended her, fighting the fever as he had fought the fire at Breeza Downs, plying her with continued fomentations, dosing her with quinine, laudanum and the various medicines he had found efficacious. For never was a better doctor for malarial fever than Colin McKeith—he had had so much experience of it. When towards morning she fell into a profuse sweating, and he had to change and wring out the blankets in which he had wrapped her, he knew that the fever danger was past.
She awoke at mid-day from a deep, health-restoring sleep, so weak however, that her bones felt like water and her face looked as white as the pillow case. But her brain was clear.
She saw that there was no one else in the room, which was still in great disorder. The blankets, hot and heavy, were almost unbearable, but she had not strength to fling them off. It felt frightfully warm for the time of year and the air that came in through the open French window seemed to be blowing from an oven. The sky, as she glimpsed it from her bed between the veranda eaves and the railings, looked curiously dark and had a lurid tinge.
Lifting herself slightly, she became aware that Colin was in the veranda with his back to her, looking out over the plain. The set of his figure as he bent forward, with his hands on the railings and his eyes apparently strained towards the horizon, reminded her of the determined hunch of his square shoulders and the dogged droop of his head when he had ridden away with Harris and the Organizer.
She called faintly, 'Colin.'
He turned round instantly and came to the bed. She stared up at him, frightened at the look in his face.... Something dreadful must have happened. She was too weak to go over coherently in her mind the sequence of events and feelings. She only sensed a menacing spectre, monstrous, terrifying. She could not realise her own share in the catastrophe she felt was impending. She could not believe that Colin could change so much in less than ten days. Everything had come about with such incredible swiftness. His face looked haggard, ravaged. The cheeks seemed to have fallen in. The features were rigid as if cut out of metal. The whites of his eyes between the reddened lids were very blood-shot and the eyes themselves seemed balls of blue fire. There was not a shade of kindliness in them, only the gleam of a fixed purpose which no entreaties would alter.
She could imagine that he might have looked like that, when, as a boy he had beheld the mutilated bodies of his father, mother, sisters, stretched stark, after the blacks had done their hideous work.
And it was true that he did feel now somewhat as that boy had felt, for again to his tortured imagination that which he held dearest seemed to be lying foully murdered before his eyes. She, his love, had been ravished from him, and he could only regard her as dead to him for evermore.
'Colin,' she gasped. 'What is the matter?'
The muscles of his face relaxed, it seemed automatically, as if there were no soul behind. He laughed a dry ironic laugh. 'Never mind. You mustn't speak.'
He felt her pulse, examined her as a doctor might have done—all without a word, and straightened the blankets and pillows.
'You must have food,' he said, and went out. She heard him calling Maggie. After a few minutes he came back with a tumbler of beaten egg and milk, to which he had added brandy, and told her she must drink it.
Her hand was too weak to hold the tumbler. He put one arm under the pillow, raised her head and held the glass to her lips until she had drunk every drop of the mixture. All this with no show of tenderness or one unnecessary word. She needed the nourishment and stimulant, and after them felt better.
'I remember.... I must have been ill. What was the matter with me?'
'Dengue,' he answered shortly.
'I was out in the rain.... I got a chill I remember.'
'Oh, you were out in the rain!... I should have thought you could have done what you wanted without that.' The bitterness of his tone was gall-like. And again the ironic laugh.
She winced and drew her head aside. He took away his arm instantly from behind the pillow and straightened himself, looking down on her, still with that dreadful light in his eyes. She could not bear it, and turned her head away from him.
'Don't look at me.... I'm going to get up.'
'No, I think you'll stay where you are.' His voice broke slightly but hardened again. 'I won't talk to you. I won't let you speak a word yet... that will come afterwards.'
'But I don't understand.'
'Better not now. I'll tell you this. You're through the fever. It won't come back if you do as I tell you—You understand something about dengue. You'll stop here till you're stronger. You've got to take the brandy, eggs and milk till you feel sick of it. To-day you'll have slops. I've told Maggie about preparing your food, if the fever comes back—it won't if you keep quiet—but if it does—hot bottles—blankets—laudanum—I've mixed the doses—until you get into a sweat. Remember that. And you'll have someone in your room to-night.'
'In my room—YOU? What do you mean?'
'It won't be me—I'm going away.'
'Going away—what is it?'
She noticed that he turned and looked at the sky.
'Why is it so dark—and the heat so stifling?' she asked.
'These damned Unionists have fired the only good pasture left on Moongarr. It's been burning since two o'clock this morning. I sent the men out. Now I'm going myself—to save what I can.'
He left the room abruptly. In a minute or two she heard him outside calling 'Cudgee... Harris'—and then giving the order to saddle up. She got out of bed and tottered to the window. She could see now the wide range of the disaster. The lurid haze was spreading. The horizon shrinking, and the air was hotter than ever. The fire seemed still a long way off, but there was nothing to stop the flames if once they reached the great plain. The course of the river, here at best a mere string of shallow waterholes, was quite dry. The rain of the other night had been too insignificant and local to do any good. The brown mud-strip round the lagoon below, was not perceptibly diminished. She knew that the narrow water channels flowing from their one working artesian bore, must soon be licked up by the flames. And the Bore in process of construction, was at a standstill for want of workmen.
Bridget gazed out despairingly towards the shrinking horizon and upon the parched plain with the rugged clumps of dun coloured gum trees scattered upon it—the near ones looking like trees of painted tin, sun-blistered. The swarms of flies, mosquitoes in the veranda offended her. She disliked the cattle dogs mooching round with hanging jaws and slavering tongues. The ferocious chuckle of a great grey king-fisher—the bird which white people called the laughing jackass—perched on the branch of a gum tree beside the fence, made her shudder, because the bird's soulless cachinnation seemed an echo of Colin's laugh.
Ah! that was the bush, undivested of romance—hard, brutal, vindictive, in spite of the mocking verdure of her honeymoon spring.... And Colin was a part of the Bush. He resembled it. He too could be strong and sweet and tender as the great blossoming white cedar down by the lagoon, as rills of running water making the plain green—when his desires were satisfied. And he could be brutal and vindictive likewise, when anyone dared to thwart his will and defy his prejudices.
She staggered about the room, feminine instinct prompting her to freshen her appearance, to change her soiled, crumpled nightdress, to throw a piece of lace over her dishevelled head, to pull up the linen sheets which had been rolled clumsily to the foot of the bed, so that the blankets could be wrapped round her. But she sank again presently, exhausted, on her pillows.
In a short time McKeith came back, booted and spurred, and stood as before looking at her with forbidding sternness.
'You'd better have stopped quiet. I've told Mrs Hensor to come down and look after you. She knows what to do.'
Bridget cried out passionately: 'I won't have that woman in my room. How dare you tell her to come near me.'
'Dare! That seems a queer way to put it. However, you can order her out if you don't want her. There's Maggie—and I'm sending Ninnis back to-night.'
'When are you coming home?'
'I can't say. I've got things to do—and to think about.'
His words and his manner seemed to convey a sinister meaning.
'I see—you are angry about the black-boy. If you want to know I will tell you exactly what happened.'
He laughed again and his laugh sounded to her insulting.
'Oh, I know what has happened. You needn't tell me. I had some conversation with Harris this morning. I know EVERYTHING; and now I've got to settle in my own mind how things are to go on.'
She went very white and repeated dully: 'How—things—are to go on?'
'Between you and me. You don't imagine, do you, that they can go on the same?'
'No,' she retorted with spirit, 'certainly they can't go on the same.'
Maggie had come along the veranda and was at the French window.
'Mr Harris says he's ready, sir, and the horses....'
'All right.' McKeith went out of the door, but turned and paused as if he were going to speak to his wife. But he thought better of it and walked rapidly away—perhaps because she avoided his look.
She supposed that he was infuriated with her because of her part in Wombo's escape, and she thought his anger unjust. No doubt, too, he suspected Maule's connivance, and she knew that he was furiously jealous of Maule. But surely he would understand that she must have sent Maule away. What more can a wife do in the case of an over-insistent lover? And how should a husband expect an explanation when he had literally thrown her into her lover's arms, or at least had left her defenceless against his solicitations! Had he treated her differently after the Wombo episode in the beginning, she might have told him the truth about her former relations with Willoughby Maule.
As things had been, it was rather for Maule than for Colin that she found excuse.
She was bitterly hurt and offended against her husband. Oh, yes. He was right. They could never again be the same to each other. If he had come back penitent, pleading for forgiveness, overwhelmed with contrition at her dismissal of Maule, she might then perhaps have explained everything and they might have become reconciled. But now, his vile temper, his insupportable manner, his dominant egoism made any attempt of conciliation on her part impossible. She had a temper too—she told herself, and her anger was righteous. And she also had an egoism that wouldn't allow itself to be trampled on. She had rights—of birth, of breeding, to say nothing of her rights of wifehood and womanhood for which she must insist upon respect. If he would not bend to her, even to show her ordinary consideration and courtesy, then she would not lower her pride one iota before him.
Thoughts of this kind went through her mind as she lay smarting under the burning sense of outrage, until the reappearance of Mrs Hensor. Then, the new effort she made in sending away the woman exhausted brain and body and left her with scarcely the power to think—certainly not to reason.
But Lady Bridget did not know what had followed upon her husband's home-coming. She had not been in a condition to realize how all night through he had tended her, putting aside every other consideration, giving no heed to the affairs of the station, refusing to see the Police Inspector who had sent in an urgent message soon after his arrival.
Only when turning for a moment to the veranda and noticing the red glare in the sky, had he been startled out of his absorption in his wife's illness. In ordinary circumstances, he would have been on his horse in a twinkling and riding as for life to fight the worst foe a squatter has to face in times of drought. He knew that if the fire spread, it might mean his ruin. As it was, he rushed up to the Quarters to rouse Ninnis and send him with Moongarr Bill and all available hands to do what he could in arresting the flames. But he himself dared not leave Bridget till the fever was down, and the crisis past. That could not be till she had awakened from the deep sleep into which she had fallen.
With the sight of her in that sleep, however, the pull on his forces slackened, though he was still too strung-up to think of snatching even an hour's sleep for himself. He watched, alternately, the Bush fire and Bridget's face, thinking his own dour thoughts the while. Every now and then, he would creep on tip-toe to the veranda railings and gaze out upon the lurid smoke which it seemed to him was thickening over the horizon. When the sun was risen he washed and dressed and went up to the Bachelors' Quarters where Mrs Hensor was already about and gave him tea and food, which he badly needed. From her he learned a considerable amount of what had been going on at Moongarr. From the Police Inspector, a little later, he learned a good deal more.
Harris' manner was portentous; he asked for a private interview in the office, saying that he had stayed on purpose to see the Boss, because his tale was impossible to write. Then he told his own version of the capture and locking up of Wombo, taking blame on himself for having left the key of the hide-house in Maule's possession.
'But you see, Boss, he twitted me a bit about not having a warrant, and there's no doubt, wherever he's learned it, that the chap has got the whole constabulary lay-out at his finger ends—besides having the ear of the Governor and the Executive down in Leichardt's Town. He's got money too, no end of it. They were saying in Tunumburra that his wife left him a quarter of a million.'
'Go on—that's nothing to do with us,' put in McKeith gruffly.
'He's an old friend of her Ladyship's, I understand,' sniggered Harris.
'What the devil has that got to do with Wombo?' said McKeith furiously.
Harris drew in his feelers.
'I wouldn't swear that it had, Mr McKeith, and I wouldn't swear that it hadn't. All I know is, that Mr Maule had the key of the hide-house in his bedroom that night, and, being a close friend of her Ladyship's, he was no doubt aware that she didn't relish the notion of Wombo's being had up for theft and murder—I'm not saying who it was let out Wombo. It's a mystery I don't take upon myself to fathom—I'll leave that to you.'
'There's one easy solution of the mystery that doesn't seem to have occurred to you,' said McKeith. 'The gin Oola could easily have stolen the key—they're cunning as the devil—half-castes—and as treacherous—I know them—I've had my own good reasons for not letting one of them inside the fence of my head-station.'
'That may be—I can only say what I know, and you can form your own opinion.'
'Say what you know then—I'm waiting to hear. But be quick about it, man, I've no time to waste this morning.'
Harris began his tale—how he had watched at the window of his little room, till after midnight, his gun ready, his eyes glued on the padlocked door opposite; how overcome with drowsiness against which he had vainly struggled—'for a man that's been pretty near two days and nights in the saddle may be excused if his eyes begin blinking,' Harris put it. He had dropped dead asleep—he confessed it—at his post. Then, how on awakening suddenly, for no apparent reason, all seeming quiet around, he had got up as he was, half dressed and in his boots—had stepped across to the hide-house, had found the padlock intact and, hearing no sound, had concluded the black-boy was inside safe asleep. How then, with a relieved mind, he had been going back to his stretcher, when the noise of a goat bleating had set him on the look-out from his veranda. How, presently, looking at the veranda opposite, he had seen the door of Mr Maule's bedroom open, and a woman come out, how she had stood a few moments facing him, with the moonlight straight on her, so that there was no possibility of his making a mistake. Harris paused. McKeith glared at the man, who, had he been quick at psychological interpretations, would have read an awful apprehension underlying the ill-restrained fury in the other's face. The question came in hoarse jerks.
'What—Who—Who was it you saw—?'
'It was the Lady Bridget, Boss.... I—'
Before he could proceed, a strong arm struck out and McKeith's hand clutched at the Police Inspector's neck.
'You hound! You contemptible skunk! Take back that lie, or I'll throttle it in your throat.'
Harris was of powerful build also, and, moreover knew some tricks of defence and assault. He freed himself by a dexterous duck of his head, and a sharp shake of his body, and stepped backward so that the office table was between him and his antagonist.
His face was scarlet, his bull's eyes protruded from their full sockets. But he was wary, and not anxious to provoke the devil in McKeith.
'Wait a bit,' he said thickly. 'If you'll keep your hands off me, and let me finish what I was going to say, I'll show you the proof that I'm not telling you lies—though you're mistaking my meaning in regard to her Ladyship....
'Leave her Ladyship out of it, will you,' McKeith snarled, his teeth showing between his tense lips.
'I would do that willingly, Boss, for there's no disrespect intended I can assure you. Only it means that this Wombo business will have to be reported, and if you can help me to the right evidence—well, so much the pleasanter for all parties,' returned the Police Inspector craftily.
McKeith made a slight assenting movement of his head, but said nothing. His brows puckered, and he stiffened himself as he listened, strung to the quick, while Harris continued.
'Well—I did see—that lady,'—the volcanic gleam from McKeith's eyes stopped him from pronouncing Lady Bridget's name. 'I saw her come out of that room,' he jerked his thumb along the veranda. 'The moon was right on her just then. I saw her give a shiver—she'd been out in the wet. Then she walked up the veranda to where there's the covered bit joining on to the Old Humpey, and I noticed her sit down on the steps—'
'Stop,' broke in McKeith. 'If you were on the veranda over there, you couldn't have seen as far as the steps.'
'Right you are, Boss. But I wasn't waiting on the veranda. When the lady turned her back, I moved into the yard, and I was standing by that flower-bush'—Again he jerked his thumb, this time to the centre bed, and a young bohinia shrub covered with pink blossoms 'If you try yourself from there, you'll find you can look slick through to the front garden. That's where I saw Maule step out of—I guessed he'd come round by the back of the Old Humpey. I guessed too, he thought she oughtn't to be sitting out there in the damp—She was shivering again—she'd put a rug that was lying on the steps round her. He just picked her up in his arms, and carried her right along, and when I stepped across I saw him take her into one of those rooms at the end of the front veranda....'
A muffled growl, something like the sound a hunted beast might make when the dogs had got to touch of him, came from McKeith. Again he stiffened himself; his lips hard pressed; his eyes on Harris' face. The Police Inspector avoided his gaze; but he too was watchful.
'You see I was thinking of my prisoner, and wondering if there could be anything afoot about him. So as I knew there was nobody then—in Mr Maule's room, I went back and looked in. I wanted to make sure, if I could, where the key of the hide-house might be. There was a candle left alight, and I saw the key right enough on the chest of drawers beside Maule's watch and chain. It never came into my mind then, that anybody could have used it. I noticed a bit of folded paper under the watch. That's it, Mr McKeith. There's the proof that I am not lying about what I saw.'
Harris had taken out of his breast pocket, a piece of newspaper in which was wrapped the leaf torn out of Maule's notebook, folded and addressed. He opened it out, and laid it on the office table in front of McKeith, keeping his own stubby finger on one corner of the sheet.
Still McKeith maintained his difficult self-restraint.
'So you stole—a private communication that had been left in another person's room, and was intended for his eyes alone?'
'Come now, Boss. You know well enough that a constabulary officer who's up against tricks to release a prisoner has got to keep his eyes peeled, and mustn't let any clue to mischief escape him. How was I to know that there wasn't some plot to cheat the law? How do I know that there wasn't? That's why I'm showing you the paper. I'm not a French scholar—I suppose that's French—and as I suppose you are, I'll ask you to translate what's written there.'
McKeith pushed aside the man's finger, and taking up the paper carried it to the window, where he stood with his back to Harris, spelling out Lady Bridget's hurriedly written sentences.
He seemed a long time in getting at the sense of what he read. As a matter of fact, he had only a limited acquaintance with any modern languages except his own. He had picked up some colloquial German, and once when laid up in hospital, had set himself to read Balzac's PERE GORIOT with the aid of a dictionary. Thus he had acquired a fairly extensive if somewhat archaic vocabulary. But Lady Bridget's veiled intimation of Wombo's escape couched in up-to-date and highly idiomatic French which would have been perfectly intelligible to Willoughby Maule, conveyed little to him beyond the fact of a secret understanding between his wife and a man whom he knew had once been her lover. That idea drove every other into the background of his thoughts. He did not care in the least how Wombo had escaped. It seemed clear to him that Oola had stolen the key after Harris had gone back to his room, while Maule and his wife were together—together in Lady Bridget's own chamber. The blood surged to his brain, and his temples throbbed as though they would burst. In the madness of his jealousy, the words of the paper, combined with Harris' revelations were damnatory confirmation of his wife's guilt. He felt now that he had foreseen what would happen, from the moment that he had surprised the look on Lady Bridget's face, when Maule had unexpectedly appeared before her. She had given herself away then. And, a little sooner, rather than a little later—as might have been the case had he not left them together—the inevitable had come to pass.
Yes, through the agony of that conviction now brought home to him, a dogged resolve formed itself in his mind—the determination not to betray himself or her. It beat upon him with insistent force. Though his goddess must be dethroned from her shrine in his heart, she should not be cast down for a vulgar brute like Harris to gloat over her shame....
'Well, Boss,' the Police Inspector asked with affected nonchalance that bordered on insolence. 'Can you make anything that's satisfactory to you out of that?'
McKeith turned, Harris thought he was going to leap upon him in a fit of blind fury, and started up from his seat by the office table. McKeith's eyes blazed, his taut sinews quivered; his face was now quite pallid, and the hand in which he held the piece of paper was clenched so tight that the veins stood out like thick cords, and the knuckles were perfectly bloodless.
But suddenly the pitch on his nerves was eased. His eyelids dropped, and when he lifted them, the eyes were quiet and intently observant.
He moved into his usual office chair.
'Sit down again, won't you, Harris?' he said, and Harris resumed his former place.
'What were you asking?' McKeith continued. 'Satisfactory to me is it? Yes, perfectly satisfactory, thank you.... I'm only amused—as you see... to find that I was quite right in my suspicions.' And he laughed in what Harris thought a very odd way.
'Eh? I don't take your meaning.' Harris' manner was distinctly objectionable.
McKeith gave him a sharp look, and his teeth went over his under lip. Then, to the man's evident surprise, he laughed again, throwing his head back so that the muscles of his throat showed under his beard, working, as it were, automatically. It really seemed as if the man's mechanical merriment were no part of himself. He was, in fact, gaining time to propound an explanation which he did not believe in the least, but which happened to be almost the exact truth.
He answered with an air of ironic indifference.
'Well, you know, I wouldn't go in for the detective line, if I were you, Harris. You aren't subtle enough for it. You jump too quickly at conclusions which have nothing to do with the main point. In fact, you're a fool, Harris—a damned fool.'
Harris' puzzled expression turned to one of extreme indignation. 'Seems to me, Mr McKeith, that it's you who are—well, damned queer about this affair. I'm sure I don't know what you've got to laugh at. But if you've found out who let the black-boy out of the hide-house, I'd be glad to know, that's all.'
McKeith ceased from his mirthless laughing and his sarcastic bluff. He leaned forward, facing Harris with his hands on the paper which he had laid on the table before him. He picked up the other's last words.
'Yes, that IS all. It's the only part of this note which concerns you. Well, I can tell you that it was the half-caste woman, as I thought, who let Wombo out of the hide-house. She stole the key from Mr Maule's room when HE was asleep, and let Wombo out when YOU were asleep—a longer time perhaps than you imagined, Harris. The black-boy made for the scrub, and I suppose they were in too great a hurry to think of shutting the door. Oola sneaked back—they've got the cunning of whites and blacks put together, those half-castes—and no doubt she guessed there'd be a hue and cry directly the door was found open. So she locked it again—and brought the key to her ladyship.'
McKeith seemed to force the last words from between his teeth.
'Well, that's quite simple, isn't it?'
'Now, I shouldn't call it as simple as you make out, Boss. It appears mighty odd to me that the gin should have worried round after her ladyship when she might have sneaked back with the key to the place she took it from. And then there's all the rest—the putting the key back and fitting in times and all that.... Seems to me a bit too much of the Box and Cox trick—a sort of jig-saw puzzle, d'you see.'
Manifestly, Harris was endeavouring to square probabilities. McKeith still held himself in.
'I've given you the facts. You can figure out your details for yourself. I've my own business to attend to, and I must be off on it.'
He got up, and folding Lady Bridget's note, deliberately put it in his breast pocket. Harris stretched forth a restraining hand.
'Boss, I say—that's important—for my report, you know.'
McKeith's temper burst out.
'Damn your report. I'm a magistrate, and I've taken your report, and the blacks are in the scrub and you can go and find them for yourself if you choose. You have no warrant, remember. No, I'm not going to be bothered any more about that black-boy. What.... Not I—with a fire raging on my run, and not enough hands to put it out.'
'But her ladyship....' spluttered Harris.
'Listen here you....' McKeith's face and attitude were menacing. 'I came back to find her ladyship down with dengue as bad as could be. It was on her that night, and if she had to be carried to her room in a fit of shaking, what business is that of yours? Understand me, Harris. Don't you go mixing up my wife's name with this beastly black-boy affair, or you'll have to reckon with me—and I can tell you, you won't relish that reckoning.'
'There was no offence meant. I only wanted to do my duty,' protested the Police Inspector, cringing after the way of bullies.
'You'll find opportunity enough for doing that if you ride back to Breeza Downs and lend the Specials your valuable assistance in protecting the sheep-owners against the Unionists. And I might remind you, as I reminded that damned Organiser who's fired my run, that there's a hundred pounds reward still waiting for anybody who catches the men that robbed my drays and killed my horses.'
McKeith paused a moment before going out by the further door of the office which looked out on the plain.
'I'll leave you now to run up your horse and make your own arrangements. As soon as I can, I shall start to help in getting the bush fire under. You can arrest that Organiser if you are keen on arresting somebody. Send in when you're saddled up, and if I'm ready we'll ride to the turn-off track together.'
McKeith went back to his wife's room. She was still sleeping. Then it was that spasms of mortal agony began literally to rend the man. He left her side and seated himself on the bed in his dressing-room. He sat with his arms folded across his chest. His shoulders heaved. Deep dry sobs shook his huge frame. He would not let a groan escape from between his clenched teeth, but there was blood on his lower lip where he had bitten it in the effort to control himself. Presently, he heard a sound in the next room—a half moan—a name spoken. No, it would not be his name that she would utter first on her return to consciousness.
The man got up; stretched his long, lean frame, shuddering as if it had been on the rack. He drew two deep breaths, braced himself, wiped the blood from his lip, put on the stony mask which Bridget saw when she opened her eyes and found him looking down at her.
Next morning, Lady Bridget was better and her mind clearer. There had been no return of fever, and, though the physical weakness was great and her temperature—had she taken it—would have been found a good deal below normal, her fierce determination not to remain helpless any longer gave her strength to get up and dress. She was not able, however, to do anything but lie in a half-alive condition in the hammock at the end of the veranda. All night the fire had blazed, but more fitfully, and this morning the lurid glare had died down. Only a murky haze, faintly red here and there, spread over the north-eastern sky. Small, isolated smoke-clouds rose above the stretches of forest, and an irregular-shaped tract of charred grass at the edge of the plain showed how far the flames had encroached upon it before they had been got under. One might well conceive with what almost superhuman exertions the beaters had at length accomplished their task. A large number of cattle had been driven by the fire on to the pasture beyond the home paddock—a pasture that had so far been carefully nursed in view of possible later necessity.
Bridget was bushwoman enough to comprehend the crippling effect upon McKeith's resources of the calamity, had she allowed her mind to dwell upon that aspect of affairs. But her mind was incapable just now of dealing with practical issues. She felt utterly weak, utterly lonely. Although she was glad Maule had gone, she missed his sympathetic companionship to an extent that she could hardly have thought possible.
As the hammock swayed gently at the slight touch of her fingers on its rope edge, her imagination drifted dangerously and her senses yielded to the old drugging fascination. He seemed as close to her as had been his bodily shape a few days previously. She was conscious of the pull of his will upon the invisible cords by which he held her. If it were an unholy spell, it was, now, at least, in her desolation, a consoling one. He loved her; he wanted her. She knew that he was passionately eager to devote his life to her. He would wait expectantly until she wrote. With a few strokes of her pen she might end her irksome captivity in this wall-less prison of desert plain—this wilderness of gum and gidia.
As she lay there in the hammock, a child's clumpy boots pattered along the garden path and Tommy Hensor came up the steps with a big cabbage leaf gathered in his hand. He opened it out when he reached the veranda and displayed three Brazilian cherries, the first fruits of a plant growing in the Chinaman's garden.
'La-ship ... La-ship! I got these myself. I made Fo Wung give 'em me for you.'
At any other time the child's offering would have been received, at any rate, graciously. Now Tommy shrank away, startled by the look on Lady Bridget's face and the forbidding gesture with which she warned him off.
'Go away! ... Go away! ...' she cried. 'I don't want you.'
Tommy's common, freckled little face crumpled up and his blue eyes filled with tears. He dropped the cabbage leaf and the cherished Brazilian cherries and ran down the steps again, blubbering piteously.
Lady Bridget got up as soon as the child had clicked the garden gate behind him. She was ashamed of the spasm of revulsion that had seized her. She wanted to cast away from her the dreadful thought his appearance had suddenly evoked. She picked up the cabbage leaf with the fruit and flung them over the railings into a flower bed, where the butcher-birds and the bower-birds quarrelled over them, and the big, grey bird in the gum tree on the other side of the fence cachinnated in derisive chorus to Bridget's burst of hysterical laughter.
A little later Maggie came out from the bedroom with some letters in her hand.
'I've laid holt on your mail, Ladyship, turning out your room. I expect you forgot all about it.'
Yes, she had forgotten, absolutely; it seemed years since Harry the Blower had passed by and Willoughby Maule had departed. She languidly inspected the envelopes. Nothing among them of any importance—except one.
It was a blue telegraph-service envelope, and had been forwarded on by the postman from Crocodile Creek, the nearest telegraph station. In the last fifteen months they had brought the bush railway a good deal further up the river, and Crocodile Creek was the present terminus. Thus the road journey was now considerable shorter than when Colin McKeith had brought his bride home.
Lady Bridget read the several lines of the cabled message over two or three times before the real bearings of it became clear to her fever-weakened intelligence.
At last she grasped the startling fact that the cablegram was from her cousin, Lord Gaverick, and that it had been despatched from London about seven days previously. This was what it said.
'ELIZA GAVERICK DIED TWENTIETH LEAVES YOU CASTLE AND FIFTY THOUSAND DIFFICULTIES EXECUTORS YOUR PRESENCE URGENTLY DESIRED WIRE IF CAN COME, GAVERICK'
Lady Bridget let the blue form drop on her lap. She stared out over the brown plain and the herds of lean beasts all shadowy in the smoky mist over the horizon, then round, along the wilderness of gidia scrub, with its charred patches afar off, from which there still rose thin spirals of smoke.
Destiny had spoken. Here was the order of release. There was no gaoler to keep the prison doors locked any longer—except—except—No, if she wished to break her bonds, Colin would never gainsay her.
Late that night the men came back from fighting the fire which they had now practically put out. Even in the moonlight they looked deplorable objects, grimed, covered with dust and ashes, their skins and clothes scorched by the fierce heat.
They seemed drunk with fatigue, and could scarcely sit their horses. When they dismounted they could hardly stand.
Their feeble COO-EES at the sliprails brought out Ninnis, who had been sent home in the afternoon and had been taking some well-earned repose so as to be ready for the next shift—happily not required. He and the few hands left to look after the head-station and the tailing-mob held the men's horses when their riders literally tumbled off them. Ninnis made McKeith take a strong pull of whiskey and supported him along to the Old Humpey. For Colin had had strength to say that Lady Bridget must on no account be disturbed. Ninnis led him to the room lately occupied by Willoughby Maule, and was surprised at his employer's vehement refusal to remain in it.
'I'll not stop here.... No, I won't go to my dressing-room. In God's name, just let me stretch myself on the bunk in the Office and go to sleep.'
He threw himself on a bush-carpentered settle, with mattress and pillows covered in Turkey-red, which was used sometimes at mustering times when there was an overplus of visitors. There he lay like a log for close on twelve hours.
By and by, Lady Bridget, at once longing and reluctant, came softly in to see how he fared.
A storm of pity, anger, tenderness, repulsion—the whole range of feeling, it seemed, between love and hate—swept over her as she looked at the great gaunt form stretched there. Colin was still in riding clothes and booted and spurred. His moleskins were black with smoke and charcoal; his flannel shirt, open at the neck, showed red scratches and scorch-marks on the exposed chest and was torn over the arms, where were more excoriations of the flesh. And the ravaged face! How hard it was. How relentless, even in the utter abandonment of bodily exhaustion! The skin was caked with black dust and sweat. The darkened thatch of yellow hair was dank and wet. The fair beard, usually so trim, was singed in places, matted, and had bits of cinder and burnt leaves sticking to it.
A revolting spectacle, offending Lady Bridget's fine, physical sensibilities, but a MAN—THE Man. She could not understand that tornado of emotion which now made her being seem a very battle-ground, for all the primal passions. She turned away with a sense of nausea, and then turned to him again with a kind of passionate longing to take him in her arms—brutal as she thought him, and unworthy of the affection she had once felt for him—felt still alas!—and all the romance she had once woven about him.... She saw that a fly was hovering over the excoriated arm and drew the ragged sleeve over its bareness. Then she noticed the mosquito net reefed up on a hoop above the bunk, and managed to get the curtain down so that he should be protected from the assaults of insects. But as she touched him in doing this, he stirred and muttered wrathfully in his sleep, as though he were conscious of her tenderness and would have none of it; she fled away and came to him no more.
She had been racking her brain since receiving the cablegram as to what answer she should return to it.
After that pitiable sight of her husband, Bridget moved restlessly about the house, with intervals of lassitude in the hammock, for she still felt weak and ill. But quinine was keeping the fever down, and she resolved that her husband should not again be required to nurse her. She did not go into the Office any more, but busied herself in a defiant fashion upon little cares for his comfort when he awoke. He should see that she did not neglect her house-wifely duties—at least while she remained there to perform them. The qualification was significant of her mood.
Thus, she gave orders that the veranda of the Old Humpey should be kept free from disturbing footsteps, and saw that the bathroom was in order, and a change of clothing set ready for him when he should awake. Also that there should be a meal prepared.
He did not wake till the afternoon. She heard him go straight in to take his bath, and hastened to have the dining room table spread. But she saw him go out of the bathroom—all fresh and more like himself—and cross the yard on his way to the Bachelors' Quarters, making it clear to her that he wished to avoid the part of the house she occupied. Bridget went back to the front veranda in a cold fury, pierced by stabs of mental pain. She watched him from the end of the veranda go into the living room of the Quarters, and thought bitterly that he would ask Mrs Hensor for the food he required. No doubt too, he would obtain from Mrs Hensor, information as to how she herself had been getting on during his absence, and Mrs Hensor would give him a garbled report of her own dismissal from the sick room.... How dared he—oh! how DARED he treat her, Lady Bridget, his wife, with such cruel negligence, such marked insult!