It did not occur to her that he might wish to see Ninnis, who, when at the station, was usually about this time, in his office at the back of the Bachelors' Quarters.
After a time, she heard Colin's voice again in the yard, and his step on the Old Humpey veranda. He came now by the covered passage on to that of the New House, and advanced towards her.
He only came, she told herself, because it would have seemed too strange had he continued to ignore her existence.
And he was conscious of her resentment. By a curious affinity, his own spirit thrilled to the unquenchable spirit in her. Qualities in himself responded to like qualities in her. He admired her pride and pluck. Yet the two egoisms reared against each other, seemed to him—could he have put the thought into shape—like combatants with lances drawn ready to strike.
He believed that it was love which gave her strength—love, not for him, but for that other man whose influence he was now convinced had always been paramount, and who with renewed propinquity had resumed his domination.
Certain phrases in that letter he had read long ago on Joan Gildea's veranda, and which had been haunting him ever since Willoughby Maule's re-appearance, struck his heart with the searing effect of lightning. He felt, at the first sight of her there on the veranda, before she turned full to him, a passionate yearning to take her in his arms, and cover her poor little wasted face with kisses—to call her 'Mate'; to remind her of that wonderful marriage night under the stars. But when he saw the proud aloofness of her look, his longing changed to a dull fury, which he could only keep in check by rigorous steeling of his will against any softening impulse.
So his face was hard as a rock, his voice rasping in its restraint, when he came near and spoke to her. 'You have not had any more fever?'
He put two or three questions to her about her health—whether she had taken the medicine he had left for her, and so on, to which she returned almost monosyllabic replies, sufficiently satisfactory in the information they gave him.
'That's all right then,' he said coldly. 'I thought it would be, though I didn't at all like leaving you in such a condition.'
'Really! But it doesn't seem as if you had felt any violent anxiety about me since you came back. I heard you go to the bathroom a long time ago, and I saw you going up to the Quarters.'
He did not appear to notice the latter implication.
'I had to sleep,' he said curtly. 'I was dead beat.'
'Yes, I saw that,' she answered.
'A-ah!' The deep intake of breath made a hissing sound, and he flushed a brick red. 'You came and looked at me?'
'I went into the Office.'
'I didn't want you to see me. You must have loathed the sight of me. I was a disgusting object.'
She said nothing.
If he had glanced at her he would have seen a piteous flicker of tenderness pass over her face—a sudden wet gleam in her eyes. And had he yielded then to his first impulse, things might have gone very differently between them. But he kept himself stiffened. He would not lift his eyes, when she gave him a furtive glance. The expression of his half averted face was positively sinister as he added with a sneering little laugh.
'One can't look as if one had come out of a bandbox after fighting a bush fire.'
She exclaimed, 'Oh! what does it matter?'
He utterly mistook the meaning of her exclamation.
'You are quite right,' he retorted. 'When it comes to the end of everything, what does ANYTHING matter!'
For several moments there was dead silence. She felt as if he had wilfully stabbed her. He on his side had again the confused sense of two antagonists, feinting with their weapons to gain time before the critical encounter.
'Well?' He swung himself savagely round upon her. 'That's true, isn't it? The end HAS come.... You're sick of the whole show—dead sick—of the Bush—of everything?—Aren't you? Answer me straight, Bridget.'
'Yes, I am,' she replied recklessly. 'I hate the Bush—I—I hate everything.'
'Everything! Well, that settles it!' he said slowly.
Again there was silence, and then he said:
'You know I wouldn't want to keep you—especially now,'—he did not add the words that were on his lips 'now that bad times are coming on me,'—and she read a different application in the 'now.' 'I—I'd be glad for you to quit. It's as you please—maybe the sooner the better. I'll make everything as easy as I can for you.'
'You are very—considerate....' The sarcasm broke in her throat.
She moved abruptly, and stood gazing out over the plain till the hysterical, choking sensation left her. Her back was to him. He could not see her face; nor could she see the dumb agony in his.
Presently she walked to a shelf-table on the veranda set against the wall; and from the litter of papers and work upon it, took up the cablegram she had lately received.
'I wanted to show you this,' she said stonily, and handed him the blue paper.
There was something significant in the way he steadied it upon the veranda railing, and stooped with his head down to pore over it.
The blow was at first almost staggering. It was as though the high gods had shot down a bolt from heaven, shattering his world, and leaving him alone in Chaos. They had taken him at his word—had registered on the instant his impious declaration. It WAS the end of everything. She was to quit.... He had said, the sooner the better.... Well—he wasn't going to let even the high gods get a rise out of him.
He laughed. By one of those strange links of association, which at moments of unexpected crisis bring back things impersonal, unconnected, the sound of his own laugh recalled the rattle of earth, upon the dry outside of a sheet of bark in which, during one of their boundary rides at Breeza Downs lately, they had wrapped for burial the body of a shepherd found dead in the bush. Both sounds seemed to him as of something dead—something outside humanity.
He handed her back the telegram, speaking still as if he were far-off—on the other side of a grave, but quite collectedly and as though in the long silence he had been weighing the question.
'It seems to me that this has come to you in the nick of time, to solve difficulties.'
'Yes,' she assented dully.
'You've got no choice but to go as your cousin says. There's money depending on it.'
'Money! ... Oh, money!' she cried wildly.
'Money is apt to stick on to lawyers' fingers when they're left to the handling of it .... This is a matter of business, and business can't be put on one side—especially, when there's as large a sum as fifty thousand pounds in the proposition. I guess from this that you're wanted.'
'Yes,' she said again. She was thinking to herself, 'That's his Scotch carefulness about money; he wouldn't consider anything in comparison with that.'
'You had better take the northern route,' he went on. 'There ought to be an E. and A. boat due at Leuraville pretty soon—I'll look it out. ... Perhaps you'd like to make the start to-morrow?'
'To-morrow—oh yes, to-morrow—just whenever suits you.'
'I couldn't take you down myself. There are things—serious matters I've got to see to on the station. And besides, you'll allow it's best for me not to go with you. Ninnis could drive you to Crocodile Creek, and put you into the train; and Halliwell will look after you at Leuraville, and see you on board the steamer.'
'Oh, I wonder that you can spare Ninnis,' she returned bitterly. 'I suppose you'd want Moongarr Bill still more on the run. But there's Joe Casey—I daresay somebody else can milk the cows, and get up wood and water. Or there's Cudgee—I don't mind who goes with me.... I can drive myself.'
'My God! do you imagine I'd put a black-boy—or anyone but my own trusted overseer in charge of you! What are you thinking of to talk like that?'
He took a few steps along the veranda, moving with uncertain gait; then stopped and leaned heavily against the wall. In a few seconds he had recovered himself, and came back to her, speaking quietly.
'I will think out things and arrange it all. You'll be perfectly safe with Ninnis, I think it would be better for you to sleep one night at old Duppo's place. There's fresh horses for the buggy there—I've got Alexander and Roxalana in the paddock now—they're the best....'
Oh, how could he bear that those horses, of the dream-drive, should take her away from him! He went on in the same matter-of-fact manner. 'I expect the answer to the cablegram will get as quickly as if Harry the Blower took it, if you send it from Crocodile Creek yourself. And there's your packing—there's not much time, but you won't want to take a lot of things. Anything you cared about could go afterwards.'
'Go afterwards—What do you mean? I want to take nothing—nothing except a few clothes.'
'Ah well—it doesn't matter—As you said—nothing matters now.... Well, I'll go and see Ninnis, and settle about to-morrow.... Then there's money....' he stopped at the edge of the steps leading down to the Old Humpey, looking back at her—'what you'll need for the passage—and afterwards—I know what you'll be thinking; but I can arrange for it with the Bank manager at Leuraville.'
A mocking demon rose in her.
'Please don't let yourself be inconvenienced. I only want the bare passage money. And directly I get to England I will pay you back.'
His hands dropped to his sides as if she had shot him. His face was terrible. At that moment, she could have bitten her tongue out.
'I don't think—you need have said that, Bridget,' and he went slowly down the steps, and out of her sight like a man who has received a mortal hurt.
If purgatory could hold worse torture than life held on that last evening Lady Bridget spent at Moongarr, then neither she nor her husband would have been required to do any long expiation there. It would be difficult to say which of the two suffered the most. Probably McKeith, because he was the strongest. Equally, he showed it the least when the breaking moment had passed. Yet both husband and wife seemed to have covered their faces, hearts and souls with unrevealing masks. No, it was worse than that. Each was entirely aware of the mental and spiritual barrier, which made it absolutely impossible for them to approach each other in the sense of reality. A barrier infinitely more forbidding than any material one of stone or iron. Because it was living, poisoned, venomous as the fang of some monstrous deadly serpent. To come within its influence meant the death of love.
There was not much more of the day to get through. Husband and wife both got through it in a fever of activity over details that seemed scarcely to matter. He busied himself with Ninnis—first explaining to the overseer as briefly as he could, the necessity for Lady Bridget's voyage to England—a necessity that appealed to Ninnis' practical mind, particularly in the present financial emergency. It surprised him a little that McKeith should not himself see his wife off; but he also recognised practical reasons—against that natural concession to sentiment. On the whole, it rather pleased him to find his employer ignoring sentiment, and he fully appreciated the confidence reposed in himself.
The two men went over questions connected with the journey, overhauling the buggy so that springs, bars and bolts might be in order, seeing that the horses were in good condition, sending on Cudgee that very hour, with a second pair in relay for the long stage of the morrow, when over fifty miles must be covered. There would be another pair at old Duppo's, and, after a day and night of comparative rest, Alexander and Roxalana would be fresh for the last long stage of the journey. They calculated that under these provisions the railway terminus at Crocodile Creek, might be reached on the eve of the third day. And there were many instructions, and much careful arranging for Lady Bridget's comfort during the journey.
Then there were letters to write, business calculations, a further overdraft to be applied for to the Bank, pending the cattle sales.... Would there be saleable cattle enough to meet demands and expenses of sinking fresh artesian bores—now that the fire had destroyed all the best grass on the run?
McKeith found no consolation in the prospect of his wife's riches. That only added gall to his bitterness, new fuel to his stubborn pride, new strength to the wall between them.
He sat brooding in his office, when the business letters were written—to the Bank-manager; to Captain Halliwell, the Police-magistrate at Leuraville; to the Manager of the Eastern and Australian Steam Navigation Depot, Leuraville, enclosing a draft to pay the passage; to the Captain of the boat advertised for that trip, who happened to be an acquaintance of his—all recommending Lady Bridget to the different people's care—all anticipating and arranging against every possible drawback to her comfort on the voyage—all carefully stating the object of her trip to England—business connected with the death of a near relative. Then, after the ghastly pretence of dinner—during which appearances were kept up unnecessarily before Maggie and the Malay boy, by a forced discussion of matter-of-fact details—looking out the exact time of the putting in of the next E. and A. boat at Leuraville—all of which he had already done, and pointing out to Bridget that she could catch it, with a day to spare.
There was food for the journey too, to be thought of, and other things to talk about. As soon as the meal was ended, McKeith went back to the office, and Bridget saw or heard no more of him that night. He did not come even to his dressing-room. She concluded that he was 'camping' on the bunk in the office, and when her own packing was done, she lay in wakeful misery till dawn brought a troubled doze.
Her packing was no great business—clothes for the voyage, and a big furred cloak for warmth, when she should arrive in England in the depth of winter—that was all.
Everything else—her papers, knicknacks, personal belongings—she left just as they were. Colin might do as he liked about them. She felt reckless and quite hard.
Only one among those personal possessions moved her to despairing tears. It was a shrivelled section of bark chopped from a gum tree, warped almost into a tube.
She placed this carefully in the deepest drawer of her wardrobe. Would Colin ever find it there—and would he understand? All the time, through these preparations, strangely enough she did not think of any possible future in connection with Willoughby Maule. The events of the past few days seemed to have driven him outside her immediate horizon.
When she came out in the morning dressed for her journey, she found her husband in the veranda waiting to strap up and carry out her baggage. Scarcely a word passed between them; they did not even breakfast together. He said he had been up early, and had had his breakfast already, but he watched her trying to eat while he moved about collecting things for her journey, and he poured out the coffee, and begged her to drink it. While he was there, Chen Sing brought in the basket of food he must have ordered for the buggy, and there was Fo Wung too, the gardener, with fresh lettuce and water-cress, and a supply of cool, green cabbage leaves in which he had packed a few early flat-stone peaches, and some Brazilian cherries.
Lady Bridget thanked them with the ghost of her old sweetness, and they promised to have the garden 'velly good—TAI YAT number one' and to 'make plenty nice dishes,' for the Boss during her absence.
While they stood at the French window, McKeith filled flasks with wine and spirits, and packed quinine and different medicines he had prepared in case of her needing them. Then after shewing her the different bottles, he took the supply out to Ninnis to be put in the buggy.
Everything was ready now—the buggy packed, the hood unslung so that it could be put up and down in protection against sun or rain—this last alas! an improbable eventuality. Alexander and Roxalana were champing their bits. Ninnis in a new cabbage-tree hat and clean puggaree, wearing the light coat he only put on when in the society of ladies he wished to honour, was standing by the front wheels examining the lash of his driving-whip. McKeith had given him his last directions. There was nothing now to wait for. McKeith went slowly up the steps of the back veranda, and in at the French window of the sitting room, where Bridget had been watching, waiting. At his appearance, she went back into the room. She stood quite still, small, shadowy, the little bit of her face which showed between the folds of her motor veil, where it was tied down under her chin—very pale, and the eyes within their red, narrowed lids, dry and bright.
'Are you ready, Bridget?' he asked.
He came close, and took a little bag she was holding out of her hands, carried it to the back veranda, and told one of the Chinamen to give it to Mr Ninnis—all, it seemed to her, to evade farewells. She called him back in a hard voice.
'Colin—I've left my keys,'—pointing to a sealed and addressed envelope on her own writing-table. 'There are a few things of value—some you have given me—in the drawers.'
'I will take care of them,' he answered hoarsely.
They stood fronting each other, and their eyes both smarting, agonised, stared at each other out of the pale drawn faces.
'Colin,' she said; and held out her hands. 'Aren't you going to say good-bye?'
He took her hands; his burning look met hers for an instant and dropped. There was always the poisonous wall which their soul's vision might not pierce—through which their yearning lips might not touch. For an instant too, the hardness of his face was broken by a spasm of emotion. The grip of his hands on hers was like that of a steel vice; she winced at the pain of it. He dropped her hands suddenly, and moved back a step.
'Is that all you have to say? All?'
He stuttered, helplessly. 'I—I—can't.... There's nothing to say.'
'Nothing! You let me go—like this—without one word of apology—of regret. I think that, at least, you owe me—courtesy.'
Her tone lashed him. He seemed to be struggling with his tongue-tied speech. When words came they rushed out in fierce jerks. 'I'll say this—though where's the good of talking.... What does it amount to anyway, when you're down on the bedrock, and there's nothing left but to give up the whole show and start fresh as best you can? I'll say this—I've never pretended to fine manners—I leave them—to others. I'm just a rough bushman, no better and no worse. Apology!—that's my apology—As for regret. My God! isn't it all one huge regret? No, I won't say that.... Because there are some things I CAN'T regret—for myself. For you, I do regret them. I was an insane ass ever to imagine that I and my way of living could ever fit in with a woman brought up like you. The incompatibilities were bound to come out—incompatibilities of temper, education, breeding—outlook on things—they were bound to separate us sooner or later, I'm glad that it's sooner, because that gives you a chance of getting back into your old conditions before you've grown different in yourself—dried up—soured—maybe lost your health, roughing it through bad times in the bush.... As it is, you'll get out all right—Never fear that I won't see you get out all right.'
'And you?' she put in.
'Me! I don't count—I don't care.... A man's not like a woman. I've always been a fighter. And I've never been DOWNED in my life. I'm not going to be DOWNED this time. I shall make good—some time—somehow. I'm not the sort of small potato that drops to the bottom of the bag in the big shake-up.'
She winced visibly. He read distaste in her slight gesture, in the expression of her eyes. It was true that the man's pugnacious egoism—a lower side of him asserting itself just then—had always jarred upon her finer taste. He recognised this subconsciously, and his self-esteem revolted at it.
'You needn't be afraid,' he exclaimed harshly. 'If I wanted to hold to my rights, and keep you here with me—what has happened would prevent me—I've got too much pride to hang on to the skirts of a rich wife. But you won't be harmed.... I don't know yet, but I believe there's a way by which you can win through straight and square—no smirch that you need mind—And if there is—whatever the way of it is, I'll do my best to bring you out all right.'
'You are generous.' Her eyes flashed but her voice was coldly bitter. 'May I ask what you propose to do?'
'There's no use....' he said heavily. 'I told you talking was no good—now. I've got my own ideas....'
'Then, if that's how you feel, the sooner I go the better pleased you will be,' she returned hysterically. 'Oh, I'm ready to go.'
He moved to the steps, not answering at once. Then he said:
'The buggy is waiting, will you come?'
He went down the steps in front of her, but stopped at the bottom to help her, for her foot had stumbled on the edge of the veranda. His strong arm upheld her until she was on the gravel. The touch of his fingers on her arm, brought home the incredible horror of it all—the suddenness, the brutality. She pulled her veil hastily over her face to hide the gush of tears. She could not speak for the choking lump in her throat. He released her at once and strode on. Not another word passed between them. Ninnis greeted her with gruff cordiality—began a sort of speech about the cause of her departure—condolence and congratulations stupidly mixed. McKeith impatiently cut him short.
'All right, Ninnis. Get up. And mind, the horses are fresh. They'll want a bit of driving at the start.'
He helped Bridget to her seat, tucked the brown linen coverlet round her knees. In doing so, he bent his head—she thought he had dropped something. Then through the thin linen of the covering, and her light summer garments, she felt the pressure of his burning lips as though they were touching her flesh.
She bent forward. Their eyes met in a wild look, just for a second. The horses plunged under Ninnis' hands on the reins. McKeith sprang back.
'Wo-oh! Gee on then!' Ninnis called out. 'Good-bye, Boss. You can trust me to look well after her ladyship.... Be back again as soon as I can.'
And if Colin spoke, the sound did not carry to his wife's ears. Her last impression of him as the buggy swayed and rattled down the hill was again the dogged droop of his great shoulders.
It was too late now. She felt that the Furies were pursuing her. Ah, but the end had come—come with such hideous misconception—every word spoken—and there had been so few in comparison with the immensity of the occasion—a hopeless blunder. It had been the tussle of two opposing temperaments, it was like the rasping steel of a cross-cut saw against the hard, heavy grain of an iron-bark gum log. Then the extraordinary involvements of circumstance. Each incident, big and little, dovetailing and hastening the onward sweep of catastrophe. It seemed as though Fate had cunningly engineered the forces on every plane so that there should be no escape for her victims. Like almost all the tragedies of ordinary human life, this one had been too swift in its action to allow of suitable dialogue or setting.
From Joan Gildea to Colin McKeith.
Written about a year later.
MY DEAR COLIN,
I find it impossible to recognise my old friend in the hard, businesslike communication you sent me from Leichardt's Town. I almost wish that you had allowed the lawyer you consulted to put the case before me instead; it would have seemed less unfitting, and I could have answered it better. But I quite appreciate your objection to taking the lawyer into your confidence as regards the personal matters you mention to me. It would be cruelly unjust—I think quite unpardonable in you to bring forward the name of Mr Willoughby Maule in connection with Bridget. Not that HE would mind that. I honestly believe that he would snatch gladly at any means for inducing Bridget to marry him. Whether she would do so, if you were to carry through this amazing scheme of yours, it's impossible for me to say. At present she certainly prefers to keep him at a distance. He has never been to Castle Gaverick. And except for a few visits on business to London that is where she has lived since she came over here.
Your letter followed me to Jamaica where I've been reporting on the usual lines for THE IMPERIALIST, but, of course I couldn't answer it until I had talked it over with Bridget and, as you desired, had obtained her views on the matter. It was a shock to her to realise that your reason for never writing to her and for refusing to let her write to you, was lest that might affect the legality of these proceedings, which I understand you have contemplated from the beginning of your quarrel. Bridget is too proud to show you how deeply she is wounded by your letter. All she has to say is, that if you really wish to take this action, she will not oppose it.
But Colin, do you really wish, it? I refuse to believe that you seriously contemplate divorcing your wife. You must know that you have not the accepted grounds for doing so. As for the law you quote which allows divorce in cases of two years' so-called desertion, I can only say that I consider it a blot on Leichardt's Land legislation. Divorce should be for one cause only—the cause to which Our Lord gave a qualified approval; and Bridget has never been unfaithful—in act or desire, to her husband. I would maintain this in spite of the most damning testimony, and you must in your heart believe it also. Besides, your testimony is ridiculously inadequate.
I am glad, however, that you have at last made your accusations in detail—in order, as you say—that I—and Bridget, incidentally, I suppose—should fully understand why you are adopting this attitude towards her. I'm glad too, that you do not mean to make any use of the evidence against her and are prepared to take all the blame for the unhappy state of affairs between you! I write sarcastically. Why, it would be monstrous if you had any other intention! Oh, how I hate this pedantic roundabout way of writing! I feel inclined to tear up these sheets—I've torn up two already. Really, you've made it so difficult for me to treat you naturally. If I could talk to you, I'd make you understand in five minutes—but I can't—so there!
Naturally, I had heard of your bringing Mr Willoughby Maule to the station, and when I learned what followed, naturally also, I concluded that you had discovered his identity with that of the man Bridget had once cared for. I blame myself horribly. But for my carelessness you would never have read that letter of Biddy's—she knows all about it now—and your insane jealousy would not have jumped to conclusions—at any rate so quickly. And perhaps if I had not bound you to secrecy you'd have had the matter out with her, which would probably have saved all this trouble. Anyhow, I can't imagine that you would have left her alone with him as you did—and with bad feeling between you—at the mercy of her own reckless impulses and that of Willoughby Maule's ardent love-making. She doesn't pretend that it wasn't ardent, or that he did not do his best to get her to run away with him—or that the old infatuation did not come back to a slight extent—Is it surprising after your conduct? No wonder she compared his devotion favourably, with yours. Colin, your leaving her in such conditions wasn't the act of a MAN, of a gentleman. I speak strongly, but I can't help it. I know your stubborn pride and obstinacy, but you were wrong, you have disappointed me—oh! how bitterly you have disappointed me!
Then there was that business about the blacks. What a fool you were—and how brutally self-opinionated! I don't wonder Bridget thought you an inhuman monster.
Now I have said my worst, and you must take it as it is meant and forgive me.
As for the true story of that night's adventures, out of which your Police Inspector seems to have made such abominable capital—I used to think Police Inspectors were generally gentlemen—but they don't seem to be, out on the Leura—I've got all the details from Biddy. A tragi-comic business—so truly of the Bush, Bushy! I could laugh over it, if it weren't for its serious consequences. Of course, Biddy got up to turn out the goats which were butting with their horns under the floor of her bedroom. I've often got up myself in the old days at Bungroopim, when stray calves got into the garden, or the cockatoo disturbed our slumbers. Do you remember Polly? and how she would keep shouting out on a moonlight night 'The top of the mornin' to ye'—because we'd forgotten to put her blanket over the cage—I believe there were several occasions when you and I met in midnight dishabille and helped each other to restore tranquillity. If anyone was to blame for Biddy's adventure, it was your wood-and-water joey—or your Chinamen—or whoever's business it may have been to see that the goats were properly penned.
Naturally, Mr Maule, when he was disturbed too, came and did the turning out for Bridget and shepherded the creatures to the fold.
Then meanwhile, she saw the black-gin sneaking in at Mr Maule's back window to steal the key; and WOULD it have been philanthropic, impulsive Biddy, if she hadn't helped in the work of rescue, and sent the two sinners, with a 'Bless you, my children!' off into the scrub? It was like Biddy too, to go and put the key back in Mr Maule's bedroom and to scribble that ridiculous note in French so that he shouldn't go blundering to the hide-house and hurry up the pursuit. I told Bridget how the Inspector had watched her go out of Mr Maule's room, and had grabbed the note afterwards, and shown it to you. She had forgotten altogether about that note—supposed that, of course, it had reached its proper destination. She couldn't remember either exactly what she had written—except that she wanted to word it so that if there should be any accident, nobody—except Mr Maule, for of course, they'd determined on the release before that—should understand to what it referred. So she didn't mention any name—she believes she dashed off some words he had quoted to her about Love triumphant, and securing happiness and freedom by flight. And then she put in something referring to a scene they'd had that day in which he had begged her to fly with him, and she had made him promise to leave next morning, pacifying him by a counter promise to write.
She told me about her fever and ague—you don't need proof of that after the state in which you found her—and how Mr Maule carried her to her room and left her there after a few minutes. She doesn't remember anything after that, until she came out of the fever and saw you—with the face and manner I can well imagine—standing by her bedside.
I am sure that Bridget began to 'find herself' then, and that the way in which she left Moongarr was one of those shocks which make a woman touch reality. It may be only for that once in her life, but she can never be the same again. You have put your brand on your wife, Colin—that is quite plain to me. She has changed inwardly more than outwardly.
But she is extremely reticent about her feelings towards you. That in itself is so unlike the old Bridget, and I have no right to put forward my own ideas and opinions—they may be quite wrong. Really, the news of Eliza Lady Gaverick's death, and of Bridget's change of fortune, coming just at that moment, is the sort of dramatic happening, which I—as a dabbler in fiction—maintain, is more common in real life than in novels. I am certain that if I had set out to build up the tangled third act of a problem play on those lines, I couldn't have done it better. All the same, I'm very sorry that this change of fortune didn't come off earlier or later, for I am well aware of how you will jib at it.
Well, I can tell you, on her own authority, that Bridget never wrote to Mr Maule as she had promised. She had no communication with him from the time he left the station until they met on the E. and A. boat. He joined her, as you know, at the next port above Leuraville. It was rather canny of him to go there—yet I don't see how, in the circumstances, he could have loafed round Leuraville without making talk—though I think it was a great pity he didn't. Of course he had his own means of communication with the township, and knew she was on board. No one was more surprised than she at his appearance on deck next morning. I don't think, however, that she saw much of him on the voyage. She said that she got a recurrence of the malarial fever off the northern coast and had to keep her cabin pretty well till they reached Colombo. Then she asked him to leave the steamer and take a P. and O. boat that happened to be in harbour—and this he did do.
I am bound to say that Willoughby Maule must have improved greatly since the time when young Lady Gaverick decided he was a 'bounder.' I daresay marriage did him good. I believe that his wife was a very charming woman. Or, it may be that the possession of a quarter of a million works a radical change in people's characters. Or, again, it may be that he is more deeply devoted to Biddy than I, for one, ever suspected. There is no doubt that given the regrettable position, his behaviour in regard to her now is commendable.
But Bridget, doesn't love him—never has loved him. I state that fact on no authority whatsoever except my own intuition. Also I am honestly of opinion she has cared for you more than she has cared for any man. You don't deserve it, and I may be wrong. But, nevertheless, it is my conviction. Make of it what you please. I have been, I candidly own it, surprised to see what discretion and good feeling she has shown through all this Gaverick will business. There has been a good deal of disagreeable friction in the matter. Lord Gaverick has not come off so well as he expected. He has got the house in Upper Brook Street, which suits young Lady Gaverick, and about fifteen hundred a year—considerably less than Bridget. The trouble is that Eliza Gaverick left a large legacy to her doctor—the latest one—and there was a talk about bringing forward the plea of undue influence. That, however, has fallen to the ground—mainly through Biddy's persuasion. I believe it is Bridget's intention to make over Castle Gaverick to her cousin, but this is not given out and of course she may change her mind.
And now, Colin, I think I have said everything I have to say. The main point to you is, no doubt, the answer to your question. As I said at the beginning of this letter, Bridget will not oppose any course you choose to take in order to secure your release from her—that is the exact way she worded it. But I cannot believe that, in face of all the rest I have told you, you will go on with this desertion—divorce business—at least without making yourself absolutely certain that you both desire to be free of each other. Remember, there has been no explanation between you and Biddy—no chance of touch between the true selves of both of you. Can you not come to England to see her? Or should she go out to you. I think it possible she might consent to do so, but have never broached the idea and cannot say. Yes, of course I understand that this might invalidate the legal position. But as only two years are necessary to prove the desertion—even if you should decide together that it is best to part—isn't it worth while to wait two years more in order to make quite sure? No doubt, you will say that I am shewing the proverbial ignorance of women in legal questions. But I can't help feeling that there must be some way in which it could be arranged. I do beseech you, Colin, not to act hastily.
You say that if this divorce took place, Bridget's reputation would not suffer, and that she could marry again without a stain upon her character as they say of wrongfully accused prisoners who are discharged. But again—is that the question?
I know nothing of your present circumstances—health, outlook on life—anything. Bridget once hinted to me that you might have your own reasons for desiring your freedom. She would give no grounds for the suspicion that there is any other woman in your life. I do not think anything would make me credit such a thing and I put that notion entirely out of court. I do not know—as your letter was dated from Leichardt's Town—whether you still live at Moongarr. It is possible you may have sold the place. I hear of severe droughts in parts of Leichardt's Land, but have no information about the Leura district. Now that Sir Luke Tallant has exchanged to Hong Kong, Bridget hasn't any touch with Leichardt's Land, and I have very few correspondents there.
Write to me—not a stilted, legal kind of letter like the last. Tell me about yourself—your feelings, your conditions. We are old friends—friends long before Bridget came either into my life or yours. You can trust me. If you do not want me to repeat to Bridget anything you may tell me, I will faithfully observe your wishes. But I can't bear that you, whom I should have thought so well of—have felt so much about—should be making a mess of your life, and that I should not put out a hand to prevent it.
Always your friend,
It was a long time before Mrs Gildea received an answer to her letter. She had begun to despair of ever getting another line from Colin McKeith, when at last he wrote from Moongarr, six months later.
MY DEAR JOAN,
Your letter has made me think. I could not write before for reasons that you'll gather as you go along. I shall do as you ask and tell you everything as straightly and plainly as I can. I feel it is best that you should know exactly the sort of conditions I'm under and what a woman would have had to put up with if she had been with me—what she would have to put up with if she were going to be with me. Then you can judge whether or not I'm right in the decision I have come to as the result of my thinkings. You can tell my wife as much as you please—of the details, I mean. Perhaps, you had better soften them to her, for you know as well as I do—or better—that her impulsive, quixotic disposition might lead her into worse mistakes than it has done already. Of course, she'll have to know my decision. I am sure that if she allows her reason play, she will agree it is the only possible one.
I'm not going to talk about what happened before she went away, or about that evidence—or anything else in that immediate connection. I was mad, and I expect I believed a lot more than was true. I don't believe—I don't think I ever did really believe—what I suppose you would call 'the worst.' But that doesn't seem to me of such great matter. It's the spirit, not the letter that counts. The foundation must have been rotten, or there never would have been a question of believing one way or the other—because we should have UNDERSTOOD. Explanations would not have been needed between true mates. Only we were not true mates—that's the whole point. There was too great a radical difference between us. It might have been a deal better if she HAD gone off with that man.
But to come now to the practical part of the situation. You know enough about Australian ups and downs to realise that a cattle or sheep owner out West, may be potentially wealthy one season and on the fair road to beggary the next. It will be different when times change and we take to sinking artesian bores on the same principle as when Joseph stored up grain in the fat years in Egypt against the lean ones that were coming. That's what I meant to do and ought to have done at any cost. But—well I just didn't.
The thing is that if I could have looked ahead, perhaps even six months, I might not have thought it acting on the square to a woman to get her to marry me. If I could have looked a year ahead, I wouldn't have had any doubt on the subject.
But you see I justified it to myself. One thousand square miles of country—fine grazing land most of it, so long as the creeks kept running—and no more than eleven thousand head of stock upon it, seemed, with decent luck, a safe enough proposition, though you'll remember I was a bit doubtful that day on your veranda at Emu Point, when we talked about my marrying. The truth was that directly I saw Bridget, she carried me clean off my head—and that's the long and short of it.
Besides, I'd been down south a good while, then, figuring about in the Legislative Assembly and swaggering on my prospects. I'd left Ninnis to oversee up here, and Ninnis didn't know the Leura like some of the old hands, who told me afterwards they'd seen the big drought coming as long back as that.
I remember one old chap on the river, when he was sold up by the Bank in the last bad times, and his wife had died of it all, saying to me, 'The Leura isn't the place for a woman.' And he was right. Well, I saw that I was straight up against it that spring when we had had a poor summer and a dry winter, and the Unionists started trouble cutting my horses' throats, and burning woodsheds and firing the only good grass on my run that I could rely upon. I didn't say much about it, but I have no doubt that it made me bad-tempered and less pleasant to live with.... That was just before the time Biddy went away. Afterwards, the sales I'd counted on turned out badly—cattle too poor for want of grass to stand the droving and the worst luck in the sale-yards I'd ever known.
First thing I did was to reduce the staff and bar everything but bare necessaries—I sent off the Chinamen and every spare hand. Ninnis and I and the stockman—a first-rate chap, Moongarr Bill—worked the run—just the three of us. You can guess how we managed it. A Malay boy did cooky for the head-station.
After Christmas I left Ninnis and Bill to look after the place. I had to go to Leichardt's Town. I had been thinking things out about Biddy all that time—you know I'm too much of the Scotchy to make hasty determinations. Well, I had that Parliament Bill, allowing divorce after two years desertion in my head, from the day Biddy left me. It seemed the best way out—for her. I had heard about that fellow going Home in the same boat with her, and never guessed but that it was a concerted plan between them. That note Harris showed me made me think it was so. I don't think this now—after what you told me.
But what did rub itself into me then was that I ought to let her marry him as soon as she decently could. I couldn't see the matter any other way—I don't now. He has lots of money—though a man who would buy happiness with another woman out of the money his wife had left him—well, that's a matter of opinion. Besides, she has got the fortune the old lady left her and can be independent of him if she chooses. There's nothing to prevent her living any kind of life that pleases her—except me, and I'm ready and willing to clear out of the show. One thing I'm sorry for now, and that is having torn up the draft she sent to pay me back her passage money, and putting the bits in an envelope and posting them to her without a word. I suppose it should have been done through a lawyer, with all the proper palaver. Perhaps she didn't tell you about that. I somehow fancy she didn't. But I know that it would have hurt her—I knew that when I did it. And perhaps that is why I did it. You are right. I haven't acted the part of a gentleman all through this miserable business. But what could you expect?
For you see, my father worked his own way up, and my grandfather was a crofter—and I haven't got the blood of Irish kings, on the other side, behind me.
Now I'm being nasty, as you used to say in the old Bungroopim days when I wouldn't play. YOU were my Ideal, in those days, Joan—before you went and got married. I've been an unlucky devil all round.
Well there! I had to try and arrange things for an overdraft with the Bank in Leichardt's Town, but I went down chiefly to consult lawyers about the divorce question, so that it should be done with as little publicity and unpleasantness as possible. It appeared that it could be done all right—as I wrote you. What would have been the good of my havering in that letter over my own feelings and the bad times I had struck? It never was my habit to whine over what couldn't be helped.
Luck was up against me down there too. I got pitched off a buckjumper at a horse-dealers', Bungroopim way. I had been 'blowing,' Australian fashion, that I could handle that colt if nobody else was able to. The end of it was that the buckjumper got home, not me. I was laid up in hospital for close on two months, with a broken leg and complications. The complications were that old spear wound, which inflamed, and they found that a splinter from the jagged tip had been left in. Blood-poisoning was the next thing; and when I came out of that hospital I was more like the used up bit of soap you'll see by the COOLIBAH* outside a shepherd's hut on ration-bringing day, than anything else I can think of.
[*Coolibah—a basin made from the scooped out excrescence of a tree.]
As soon as I could sit a horse again I went to work at Moongarr. I had found things there at a pretty pass. Not a drop of rain had fallen up to now on the station for nearly nine months. YOU know what that means on the top of two dry seasons. As soon as I was fit, we rode over the run inspecting—I and Ninnis and Moongarr Bill. There's a lot of riding over one thousand square miles, and we didn't get our inspection done quickly. Day after day we travelled through desolation—grass withered to chips, creeks and waterholes all but empty, cattle staggering like drunken men, only it was for WANT of drink. The trees were dying in the wooded country; and in the plains the earth was crumbling and shrinking, and great cracks like crevasses were gaping in the black soil where there used to be beautiful green grass and flowers in spring.
The lagoon was practically dried up, and the little drain of water left was undrinkable because of the dead beasts that had got bogged and dropped dead in it. They were short of water at the head-station, and we had to fetch it in from a waterhole several miles off that we fenced round and used for drinking—so long as it lasted. When we were mustering the other side of the run, it came to our camping at a sandy creek where we could dig in the sand and get just enough for horses and men. The water of the Bore I'd made, was a bit brackish, but it kept the grass alive round about and was all the cattle had to depend on. You can think of the job it was shifting the beasts over there from other parts of the run which was what we tried to do, so long as they were fit for it.
We were selling what we could while there was still life left in the herd, but the cattle were too far gone for droving. We managed to collect a hundred or so—sent them in trucks from Crocodile Creek Terminus, for boiling down and netted about thirty shillings a head on them. That was all. I guess that—by this time, out of my eleven thousand head with No. 666 brand on them I'd muster from four to five hundred. The mistake I made was in not selling out for what I could get at the beginning of the Drought. But it was the long time in Leichardt's Town that had me there.
It was bad luck all through from first to last. Mustering those beasts for boiling down started that old spear wound afresh. Until it got well again, there was nothing for it but to sit tight and wait.
Moongarr Bill left to make a prospecting trip on my old tracks up the Bight—took Cudgee and the black-boy with him. He had an idea that he'd strike a place where we'd seen the colour of gold on our last expedition, but weren't able then to investigate it. I've never been bitten by the gold fever like some fellows, and I daresay that I've missed chances. But I thought cattle were a safer investment, and I've seen too much misery and destruction come from following that gold will o' the wisp, for me to have been tempted to run after it.
Old Ninnis was the next to leave, I made him take the offer of a job that he had. When it came to drawing water five miles for the head-station, and keeping it in an iron tank sunk in the ground, with a manhole and padlocked cover for fear of its being got at, the fewer there were of us the better. Now the station is being run by the Boss and the Malay boy, who is a sharp little chap, and more use in the circumstances than any white man. We've killed the calves we were trying to PODDY*. And the dogs—except one cattle dog—Veno—Biddy would remember her; how she used to lollop about the front veranda outside her room. Now, what the deuce made me write that!—Well, the dog goes with me in the cart when I fetch water, and takes her drink with the horses at the hole.
[*Poddy—to bring up by hand.]
I'm getting used to the life—making jobs in the daytime to keep myself from feeling the place a worse hell than it really is. There's always the water to be fetched and the two horses and the dog to be taken for their big drink. If you could see me hoarding the precious stuff—washing my face in the morning in a soup plate, and what's left kept for night for the dog. When I want a bath I ride ten miles to the bore. Then there's saddlery to mend, and dry-cleaning the place and pipes between whiles—more of them than is good for me. Stores are low, but I've still got enough of tobacco. I daresay it's a mercy there's no whiskey—nothing but a bottle or two of brandy in case of snake-bites—or I might have taken to it.
Thank God I've got a pretty strong will, and I've never done as I see so many chaps do, find forgetfulness in drink—but there's no saying what a man may come to. It's the nights that are the worst. I'm glad to get up at dawn and see to the beasts. And there's that infernal watching of the sky—looking out all the time for clouds that don't come—or if they do, end in nothing. You know that brassy glare of the sun rising that means always scorching dry heat? Think of it a hundred times worse than you've ever seen it! The country as far as you can look is like the floor of an enormous oven, with the sky, red and white-hot for a roof, and all the life there is, being slowly baked inside. The birds are getting scarce, and it seems too much trouble for those that are about to lift their voices. Except for a fiend of a laughing-jackass in a gum tree close by the veranda that drives me mad with his devilish chuckling.
Well, how do you think now, that her ladyship would have stood up against these sort of conditions? Many a time, walking up and down the veranda when I couldn't sleep, I've thanked my stars that there was no woman hanging on to me any more. Most of the men on the river have sent away their women—stockmen's wives and all. There was one here at the Bachelors' Quarters, but I packed her off before I went to Leichardt's Town.
I'm just waiting on to get Moongarr Bill's report of the country up north—how it stands the drought, and what the chances are for pushing out. As for the gold find—well, I'm not banking on that. As soon as I hear—or if I don't hear in the course of the next two or three weeks—I shall pull up stakes, and burn all my personal belongings, except what a pair of saddle bags will carry.
Before long, I'm going to begin packing Biddy's things. They'll be shipped off to her all right.
When the divorce business is over, I shall make new tracks, and you won't hear of me unless I come out on top. I've got a queer feeling inside me that I shall win through yet.
Well, I'm finished; and it's about time. I've run my pen over a good many sheets, and it has been a kind of relief—I began writing this about three weeks ago. Harry the Blower—that's the mailman—comes only once a month now, and not on time at that.
I suppose the drought will break sooner or later, and when it breaks, the Bank is certain to send up and take possession of what's left. So I'm a ruined man, any way.
Good-bye, Joan, old friend. I've written to the lawyer, and Biddy will be served with the papers soon after this reaches you. I'm not sending her any message. If she doesn't understand, there's no use in words—but YOU know this. She's been the one woman in the universe for me—and there will never be another.
He signed his name at the end of the letter; and that was all.
Harry the Blower came up with his mails a day or two later. Among the letters he brought, there were three at least of special importance to Colin McKeith.
One was from the late Attorney General of Leichardt's Land, in whose following he had been while sitting in the Legislative Assembly, and whom he had consulted in reference to the Divorce petition. This gentleman informed Colin that proceedings were already begun in the case of McKeith versus McKeith, and that notification of the pending suit had been sent to Lady Bridget at Castle Gaverick, in the province of Connaught, Ireland.
The second letter was from the Manager of the Bank of Leichardt's Land, regretfully conveying the decision of the Board that, failing immediate repayment of the loan, the mortgage on Moongarr station must be foreclosed and that in due course a representative of the Bank would arrive to take over the property.
The third letter was from Moongarr Bill, dated from the furthest Bush township at the foot of the Great Bight, which had formed the base of Colin's last exploring expedition. A mere outpost of civilisation it was—that very one which he had described at the dinner party at Government House where he had first met Lady Bridget O'Hara. Apparently, in Moongarr Bill's estimation, its only reason for existence lay in the fact that it had an office under the jurisdiction of the Warden of Goldfields, for the proclamation of new goldfields, and the obtaining of Miner's Rights.
Moongarr Bill's epistolary style was bald in its directness.
Dear Sir— he began:—
The biggest mistake we ever made in our lives was not following up the streak of colour you spotted in that gully running down from Bardo Range to Pelican River. If we had stopped, and done a bit of stripping for alluvial, for certain, we should have found heavy, shotty gold, with only a few feet of stripping. But I've done better than that—got on the lead—dead on the gutter. To my belief, that gully is the top dressing of a dried up underground watercourse. It's a pocket chock full of gold.
You see, it's like this:
Here followed technical details given in local gold-digger's phraseology which would only be intelligible to a backwoods prospector or a Leichardt's Land mining expert. McKeith read all the details carefully, turning the page over and back again in order to read it once more. There was no doubt—making due allowance for Moongarr Bill's exaggerative optimism—that the find was a genuine one.
The writer resumed:
'I've pegged off a twenty men's ground, this—being outside the area of a proclaimed goldfield—our reward as joint discoverers. The ground joins on to your old pegs; and the wonder to me is that nobody has ever struck the place. However, that's not so queer as you might think, for there has been very little talk of gold up here—in fact the P.M. does Warden's work. Besides, the drought has kept squatters from pushing out, and it's too far off for the casual prospector. Luckily, the drought has driven the Blacks away too, further into the ranges; and I haven't seen any Myalls this trip like the ones that went for us last time. It's a pity Hensor pegged out then. He'd have come in for a slice of luck now—we three being the only persons in the world—until I lodged my information at the Warden's office this morning—who had ever raised the colour in this district or had any suspicion of a show. I reckon though that if the find turns out as I think, you'll be making things up to little Tommy.
I'm to have my Miners' Right all properly filled up to-morrow, and shall make tracks back to the gully at once, so as to leave no chance of the claim being jumped. I've named it "McKeith's Find" so your name won't be forgotten. I don't count on a big rush at first—all the better for you—but I shall be surprised if we are not entitled at the end of four months to our Government reward of 500 pounds, as there are pretty sure to be two hundred miners at work by that time.
I'm writing to Ninnis—though I don't know if he has done his job yet—telling him to lose no time in getting here; and you won't want telling to do the same. I reckon that whether the drought has broken by this time or not, it will pay you better to start for here than to wait at the station until there are calves coming on to brand and muster. Ninnis will be in with us all right, and it would be a fine thing if you came up together. He's a first-rate man, and has had a lot of experience in the Californian goldfields. Poor luck, however, or he wouldn't have come over to free-select on the Leura.
It took me a good three weeks to get as far as the Pelican Creek, and I couldn't have done it in the time if there had been Blacks about. Knowing the lay of the country too, made it easier than it was before for us. Cudgee has turned out a smarter boy than Wombo was. No fear of Myalls with their infernal jagged spears being round without his sniffing them. One of the horses died from eating poison-bush. Don't go in for camping at a bend in Pelican Creek, between it and a brigalow scrub, first day you sight Bardo Range going up the Creek, where there's a pocket full of good grass one side of a broken slate ridge—IT'S NO GOOD. But I wouldn't swop the other horses for any of Windeatt's famous breed. There's some things it would be well for you and Ninnis to bring, and a box of surveyor's compasses would come in handy.
Here followed half a page on practical matters, and then the letter ended.
McKeith pondered long over Moongarr Bill's letter, as he sat in the veranda smoking and watching a little cloud on the horizon, and wondering whether rain was coming at last.... If Moongarr Bill was right, the gold-find would mean a fresh start for him in his baulked career. At any rate, it behoved him to take advantage of the chance and to go forth on the new adventure without unnecessary delay. But the savour was gone for him from adventure—the salt out of life. The stroke of luck—if it were one—had come too late.
And now the Great Drought had broken at last.
Next evening there came up a terrific thunderstorm, and a hurricane such as had not visited the district for years. It broke in the direction of the gidia scrub, and razed many trees. It passed over the head-station and travelled at a furious rate along the plain. Hailstones fell, as large as a pigeon's egg, and stripped off such leafage as the drought had left. Thunder volleyed and lightning blazed. Part of the roof of the Old Humpey was torn off. The hide-house was practically blown away. The great white cedar by the lagoon was struck by lightning, and lay, a chaos of dry branches and splintered limbs, one side of the trunk standing up jagged and charred where it had been riven in two.
Upon the hurricane followed a steady deluge. For a night and a day, the heavens were opened, and poured waterspouts as though the pent rain of nine months were being discharged. The river 'came down' from the heads and filled the gully with a roaring flood. The lagoon was again almost level with its banks. The dry water-course on the plain sparkled in the distance, like a mirage—only that it was no mirage. No one who has not seen the extraordinary rapidity with which a dry river out West can be changed into a flooded one, could credit the swiftness of the transformation.
Then the heavens closed once more. The sun shone out pitilessly bright, and the surface earth looked, after a few hours, almost as dry as before. But the life-giving fluid had penetrated deep into the soil; the rivers and creeks were running; green grass was already springing up for the beasts to feed upon. The land was saved. Alas too late to save the ruined squatters. There were so few of their beasts left.
Nevertheless, the rain brought new life and energy to the humans. Kuppi, the Malay boy fetched buckets of water from the replenished lagoon, and scoured and scrubbed with great alacrity. He came timidly to his master, and asked if he might not wash out with boiling water the closed parlour and Lady Bridget's unused bedroom. He was afraid that the white ants might have got into them.
McKeith's face frightened Kuppi. So did the imprecation which his innocent request evoked. He was bidden to go and keep himself in his own quarters, and not show his face again that day at the New House.
Since Lady Bridget's departure, McKeith had slept, eaten and worked in the Old Humpey, his original dwelling.
But Kuppi did not know that the white ants had not been given a chance to work destruction upon 'the Ladyship's' properties. Regularly every day, McKeith himself tended those sacred chambers. Bridget's rooms were just as she had left them.
He had done nothing yet towards dismantling that part of the New House in which she had chiefly lived. He had put off the task day after day. But since receiving Moongarr Bill's letter, and now that the drought had broken, and the Man in Possession a prospect as certain as that there would come another thunderstorm, he knew that he must begin his preparations to quit Moongarr.
To do this meant depriving himself of the miserable comfort he found during wakeful nights and the first hour of dawn—the time he usually chose for sweeping and cleaning his wife's rooms—of roaming, ghost-like, through the New House where every object spoke to him of her. In the day time, he shrank from mounting the steps which connected the verandas, but in the evenings, he would often come and stroll along the veranda, and sit in the squatter's chair she had liked, or in the hammock where she had swung, and smoke his pipe and brood upon the irrevocable past. And then he would suddenly rush off in frantic haste to do some hard, physical work, feeling that he must go mad if he sat still any longer.
To-day however, after Kuppi had fled to the kitchen, he went into his old dressing room and stood looking at the camp bed, and thought of the day of Bridget's fever when Harris had given him her note to Maule, and he had sat here huddled on the edge of the bed wrestling dumbly with his agony. The association had been too painful, and in his daily tendance he had somewhat neglected this room and had usually entered the other by the French window from the veranda. Thus, he saw now that a bloated tarantula had established itself in one corner, between wall and ceiling, and an uncanny looking white lizard scuttered across the boards, and disappeared under a piece of furniture, leaving its tail behind. A phenomenon of natural history at which, he remembered now, Bridget had often wondered.
He opened the door of communication—where on that memorable night, he had knocked and received no answer—and passed through it treading softly as though he were visiting a death chamber. And indeed, to him, it was truly a death chamber in which the bed, all covered over with a white sheet, might have been a bier, and the pillows put lengthwise down it, the shrouded form of one dearly loved and lost. He gazed about, staring at the familiar pieces of furniture, out of wide red eyes, smarting with unshed tears. In her looking glass, he seemed to see the ghost-reflection of her small pale face with its old whimsical charm. The shadowy eyes under the untidy mass of red-brown hair, in which the curls and tendrils stood out as if endowed with a magnetic life of their own; the sensitive lips; the little pointed chin; and, in the eyes and on the lips, that gently mocking, alluring smile.
There were a few poems that Colin had taught himself to say by heart, and which he would recite to himself often when he was alone in the Bush. THE ANCIENT MARINER was one, and there were some of Rudyard Kipling's and he loved THE IDYLLS OF THE KING—in especial GUINIVERE. Three lines of that poem leaped to his memory at this moment.
'THY SHADOW STILL WOULD GLIDE FROM ROOM TO ROOM AND I SHOULD EVERMORE BE VEXT WITH THEE IN HANGING ROBE AND VACANT ORNAMENT.'
He went to the wardrobe where her dresses hung as she had left them, only that daily, he had shaken them, cared for them so that no hot climate pest should injure them. And in so doing, he had been overwhelmingly conscious of the peculiar, personal fragrance, her garments had always exhaled—an experience in which rapture and anguish blended.
How he had loved her! ... God! how he had loved her! ... And yet, latterly, how he had got to take his supreme possession of her as a matter of course; had allowed the joy of it to be blunted by depression and irritability over sordid station worries. He remembered with piercing remorse how often he had neglected the trivial courtesies to which he knew she attached importance. How he had been prone to sullen fits of moodiness; had been rough, even brutal, as in that episode of the Blacks.... Brutal to her—this dainty lady, his fairy princess! ... And now he had lost her. She was gone back to her own world and to her own kin.
If only he had yielded to her then about the Blacks! If he had curbed his anger, shown sympathy with the two wild children of Nature who were better than himself, in this at least that they had known how to love and cling to each other in spite of the blows of fate! He had horse-whipped Wombo for loving Oola, and swift retribution had come upon himself.... That he should have lost Bridget because of the loves of Wombo and Oola! It was an irony—as if God were laughing at him. He set his teeth and laughed—the mirthless laugh which had startled Harris.... Well, whether it were automatic or planned retribution on the part of the High Powers, the trouble could be evened up and done with. 'I was a damned fool,' he said to himself; 'and I've been taught my lesson too late for me to benefit by it. Except this way—I'm not going to be DOWNED for ever. I'll go through my particular piece of hell, on this darned old earth if I must, and then I'll wipe the slate and come out on top of something else that isn't love. There's possibilities enough along the Big Bight to satisfy most men's ambition. And it's not much odds any way, so long as SHE isn't seriously hurt.'
With that summing up of the matter, he seemed to gain stoic energy. Now he went back to his dressing room, and pulled out to the veranda a couple of worn portmanteaux. Into these he put a variety of personal belongings. Among them, pictures from the walls, and old photographs in frames that had been on the dressing table. It was significant that none of these were portraits of his wife. The portmanteaux he dragged along the veranda to the side of the steps leading down to the front garden. Then, instead of returning to Lady Bridget's room, he attacked an escritoire in the parlour in which he had kept family and private papers, and which flanked her Chippendale bureau. He brought out another collection—notebooks, papers, bundles of letters dating much further back than his occupation of Moongarr—salvage from the wreck of his old home. His mother's workbox; his father's SHAKESPEARE; the family Bible—a piteous catalogue. He looked long at the book and the photographs. These last were portraits of his father, his mother and his sisters, who had all been massacred by the Blacks, when he was a boy. He separated all such relics from the general lot, placing them, and also two or three packets of papers upon a shelf-table in the veranda—it was that table where Lady Bridget had laid the cablegram from Lord Gaverick, which she had shown him the day before she had left Moongarr. Now it seemed to him an altar of sacred memories. He brought various other small things out of the parlour—things he had not the heart to destroy—all belonging to his youth—and placed them there. As he looked at them, a sudden thought seemed to strike him, and a wave of emotion passed over his face, softening its hardness for an instant. But the grimness came back. He made a quick movement back to Lady Bridget's room; and when, after a minute or two, he came out again, he was carrying a curious object which he had taken out of the deep drawer beneath her hanging wardrobe. It was a dry piece of gum-tree bark, shrivelled and curled up at the sides, so that the two edges almost met. At first he put it on the heap that he had turned out of the portmanteaux for destruction. His grim thought had been to top with this strange memorial of his marriage-night, the funeral pyre he had intended to build. But again the spasm of emotion contorted his features. His shoulders shook, and a dry choking sound came from his lips. He took up the piece of bark too, and laid it with the daguerreotypes on the table. He seemed afraid to give himself time to think, but went from room to room here and in the Old Humpey, dragging one thing after another out on to the veranda. Some of the heavier articles he had to hoist over the steps connecting the two verandas, and then to drag them down the other steps into the front garden, where they strewed the gravel round the centre bed.
In spring and summer, when the Chinamen had been there to water and Lady Bridget to superintend the planting and pruning, this bed had always been gay with flowers, banking a tall shrub of scented verbena the perfume of which she had been particularly fond of. Now there were weeds—most of them withered—instead of flowers. The verbena bush had long been dead, and the dry leaves and branches, beaten down by the late storm, made a bed of kindling.
Never was there garden so desolate—the young ornamental trees and shrubs all dead; the creepers dead also; even the hardy passion vines upon the fence, mere leafless, fruitless withes of withered stems.
McKeith paused after lugging down two squatters' chairs—the first house carpentering he had done for his wife after their arrival at the head-station, and in which, he had resolved, no future owner of Moongarr should ever sit. That was the thought fiercely possessing him. Rough chairs and tables and such-like that had been there always, might remain. But no sacrilegious hands should touch things made for her, or with which she had been closely associated. They should be burned out here in the deserted front garden, where not even Kuppi—the only other occupant of the head-station—would witness his preparations. He himself would lay and kindle the funeral pyre, and to-night, when there would be only the stars to see him, he would light the first holocaust.
He stood considering. Sweat dropped from his forehead. His gaunt frame was trembling after his effort, which had been heavy, and he leaned against one of the tarred piles supporting the veranda to rest. But only for a few minutes. Then, his feverish activity recommenced. He piled up the wooden furniture on the bed of withered verbena branches, filled the interstices with dead leaves that he collected from the garden, laid the smaller things—books, papers, pictures—where they would assist the conflagration, and did not stop until the pyre had reached to the level of the veranda railing. He reflected grimly that there was a chance of sparks setting fire to the house itself, and calculated the extent of the gravel between, deciding that if he was there to watch there would be no danger.
All the time, the old kangaroo dog, Veno had been nosing round him, sniffing at the objects lying round, then looking up at him with bleared, wistful eyes, and evidently unable to understand these strange proceedings. Once or twice, he had roughly pushed the dog away, but, when he had finished the work and seated himself from sheer fatigue on the veranda steps, Veno came and squatted beside him, the dog's head upon his knee. He filled his pipe and smoked ruminatively; the exertion had had one good effect; it had dulled the fierceness of his pain.
As he sat there—a faint breeze that had risen with the approach of sunset, cooling his heated body—he thought again about Moongarr Bill's letter. He looked at the great pyre in front, and caught the gleam of the lagoon below through the bare branches of the trees the little ripple on its surface, the freshening green at its marge. Then he gazed out over the vast plain towards the horizon. From his low position on the steps, the middle distance was hidden from him. Through the reddish tinge cast by the lowering sun, he could discern, far off likewise, the unmistakable signs of new-springing grass and the course of the river, for so long non-existent. From the gully he heard the sound of rushing water. It had been a roaring torrent just after the storm, and he knew that a flood must have come down from the heads.
Yes, the Drought had broken. The plain would soon be green again. Flowers would spring up as they had done for Bridget's bridal home-coming. If the rain had fallen a few months sooner the station might have been saved.
And even now, with the remnant of three or four hundred cattle, provided there were no crippling debt, no spectre of the Man in Possession, he might still hang on, and in time retrieve his losses, lie low, sink artesian wells, make the station secure for the future.
He had been so fond of the place. He had taken up the run with such high hopes; had so slaved to increase his herd, to make improvements on the head-station. He had looked upon this as the nucleus of his fortune; the pivot on which his career as one of the Empire-builders would revolve.... And now....
Well, some clever speculator no doubt would buy it at a low price during the Slump, stock it with more cattle, work it up during a good season or two, and, when cattle stations boomed once more, sell it at an immense profit. That was what he himself would have done had he been a speculator in similar conditions. Even still, he could do it with a small amount of capital to supply a sop for the Bank.... Now that the Drought had broken they would be more likely to let him go on.... He thought of the 3,000 pounds Sir Luke Tallant had made him put into settlement on his marriage. He had not wanted to do that at the time; his Scotch caution had revolted against the tying up of his resources, and his instinct was justified. If only he had command of that money now! It was his own; his wife was rich; that was the one benefit he could have taken from her.... But it was impossible to broach the question.
Suddenly the dog stirred uneasily, sniffed the air and leaped to the gravel walk where it stood giving short, uncertain barks, as though aware of something happening outside for which it could not account.
McKeith lifted his head, bent in the absorption of his thought, and looked about for the disturber of Veno's placidity. But Kuppi was nowhere in sight, nor was there sign of other intruder. Where he sat, the garden fence, overgrown with withered passion vines, bounded his vision, and had anybody ridden or driven up the hill through the lower sliprails, he would not have seen them, probably would not have heard them. For there were no longer dogs, black boys, Chinamen or station hands to voice intimation of a new arrival. All the old sounds of evening activity were hushed. No mustering-mob being driven to the stockyard; no running up of milkers or horses for the morrow; no goats to be penned—they had been killed off long ago; no beasts grazing or calling—no audible life at all except that of the birds, who, since the rain, had found their notes again and were telling each other vociferously that it was time to go to bed. Indeed, the silence and solitariness of the once busy head-station had enticed many of the shyer kinds of birds from the lagoon and the forest. Listening, as he now was, intently, McKeith could hear the gurgling COO-ROO-ROO of the swamp pheasant, which is always found near water—and likewise rare sound—the silvery ring of the bell-bird rejoicing in the fresh-filled lagoon.
But Veno was still uneasy, and Colin got up on to the veranda. He stood there, listening all the while, strained expectancy in his eyes as if he too were vaguely conscious of something outside happening....
And now he did hear something that made him go white as with uncanny dread. It was a footstep that he heard on the veranda of the Old Humpey—very light, a soft tapping of high heels and the accompanying swish of drapery—a ghostly rustle—'a ghostly footfall echoing.'... For surely in this place it could have no human reality.
It approached along the passage between the two buildings, halted for a few seconds, and then mounted to the front veranda.
The man was standing with his back to the Old Humpey. He would not turn. A superstitious fear fell upon him and made his knees shake and his tall, lean frame tremble.... He DARED not turn his head and look lest he should see that which would tell him Bridget was dead.
But the dead do not speak in syllables that an ordinary human ear can hear. And Colin heard his own name spoken in accents piercingly clear and sweet.
To him, though, it was as a ghost-voice. He stood transfixed. And just then the dog bounded past him. It had flown up the steps barking loudly. That could be no immaterial form upon which the creature flung itself, pawing, nosing, licking with the wildest demonstrations of joy.
He heard the well-remembered tones:
'Quiet Veno.... Good dog.... Lie down Veno—Lie down.'
The dog seemed to understand that this was not a moment for effusiveness. Without another sound, it crouched upon its haunches gazing up at the new-comer.
Then Colin turned. Bridget was standing not a yard from him. A slender figure in a grey silk cloak, with bare head—she had flung back her grey sun-bonnet and shrouding gauze veil.... He saw the face he knew—the small, pale face; the shadowy eyes, wide and bright with an ecstatic determination, yet in them a certain feminine timorousness; the little pointed chin poked slightly forward; the red-brown hair—all untidy curls and tendrils, each hair seeming to have a life and magnetism of its own. It was just as he had so often pictured her in dreams of sleep and waking.
He gazed at her like one who beholds a vision from another world. And then a great sob burst from him—the pitiful sob of a strong man who is beaten, broken with emotion. The whole being of the man seemed to collapse. He staggered forward, and such a change came over the gaunt, hard face, that Bridget saw it through a rain of tears which fell down her cheeks.
'Oh, Colin—Won't you speak to me?'
'Biddy!' He went close to her and gripped her two wrists, holding her before him while his hungry eyes seemed to be devouring her.
'It's you—it's really you. You're not dead, are you?'
'Dead! Oh no—no.... I've come home.'
'Home!' He laughed.
'Oh don't—don't,' she cried. 'Don't laugh like that.'
'Home!' he repeated, grimly. 'Look round you. A nice sort of home. Eh?'
'I don't care. It's the only real home I've ever had.'
She followed his eyes to the great pyre in the garden, with the dead leaves, and the pieces of furniture, the squatters' chairs, the little tables he and she had covered together, the hammock that he had cut down leaving the ropes dangling—many other things that she recognised also. Then her gaze came back to the veranda. To the open portmanteaux; the different objects still strewing the ground; and then to the shelf-table against the wall near the hammock, and, there, to his most cherished possessions. She knew at once his mother's work-box, the shabby SHAKESPEARE—the portraits, and, on top of all, the piece of gum-tree bark.
She snatched her wrists from his grasp, darted to the shelf, seized the shrivelled pice of bark, and pressed it against her bosom as though it had been a living thing.
'Oh, you COULDN'T burn this! ... You were going to burn it with the rest—but you COULDN'T—any more than you could have burned your mother's things.... I thought of it all the way—I knew that if you could burn this, too, there would be no hope for me any more. I PRAYED that you might not burn it.'
'But how—how did you know I was going to burn the things?' he stammered bewilderedly.
'I saw it all—I saw you—just like this, on the veranda—so thin and hard and miserable—and so proud, yet—and stubborn—I saw it all—saw the bonfire ready—And I saw this piece of bark—And then something made you stop and you put it with your mother's things instead. You remembered—Oh! Mate, you DID understand? You DID remember—that first night by the camp fire—and we two—just we two'—she broke off sobbing.
'You saw—you saw—' he kept saying. 'But how—how did you know? Tell me, Mate.'
'I saw it all in a dream—at Castle Gaverick. Three times I dreamed the same dream; and I felt, inside me, that it was a prophetic warning. We're like that, you know, we Irish Celts. And you—though you're a Scotchman—you used to laugh at such things! But they're true; they're true—I've had glints of second sight before. Joan Gildea understood. When I told her, she believed it was a warning God had sent me, and she said I must go to you—go at once lest it should be too late. She wanted to come with me, but it would have been difficult for her to leave her work, and I didn't want her—I wanted to come to you all on my own.'
'And then?—then?' he asked breathlessly.
'Oh, then I left Castle Gaverick at once, and, in London, I took my passage—there was an E. and A. boat just going to start. Of course I knew the route. I got out of the steamer at Leuraville, and came straight on by train—I didn't wait anywhere. I thought I'd get out at Crocodile Creek and pay somebody to drive me up here. But you've got the railway brought nearer, and when I got out at Kangaroo Flat there was a most extraordinary thing—Then, I knew why the voice inside had been urging me on so quickly.'
'An extraordinary thing—? What was it?' he said in the same breathless, broken way.
'It was Mr Ninnis. He was there, standing on the platform just off his droving trip—he was going to take the next train to Leuraville. If I had stayed there as Captain Halliwell wanted me to, I should have missed him. He'd got a letter from Moongarr Bill—Oh, I know all about that. But it doesn't matter—it doesn't matter in the least. You can go if you like and find the gold—I'll stop at Joan Gildea's cottage in Leichardt's Town and wait for you—I don't care about ANYTHING if you'll only let me be your Mate again. But Colin—' she rushed on, for he could not speak, and the sight of a great man struggling with his tears is one that a woman who loves him can scarcely bear to see. And yet the sight made Bridget happy for all its pain—'Colin, when I first saw Ninnis, do you know what I thought—? That you had sent him to meet me. That you, too, had been warned in a dream?'
'No, I wish I had been—My God, I wish I had been.'
'What would you have done, Colin?'
'I'd have been there myself,' he said simply. 'It would have been me, not Ninnis, that you saw at Kangaroo Flat Station.'
She held out her arms. The roll of bark dropped on the boards of the veranda. In a moment he was pressing her fiercely to his breast, and his lips were on hers.
And in that kiss, by the divine alchemy of true wedded love, all the past pride and bitterness were transmuted into a great abiding Peace.