Here the great yellow light flared all the time, and every one of the noisy creatures at whose hands he endured so much was within a few feet of him.
So he lifted up his voice and wept. And when he found weeping did not produce his gold-barred cot, and the little dangling tassels on the mosquito nets, he raised his voice two notes, and when even there Esther only went on patting his shoulder in a soothing way he burst into roars absolutely deafening.
Nellie dangled all her long curls in his face to engage his attention, but he clutched them viciously and pulled till the tears came into her eyes. Esther and Meg sang lullabies till their tongues ached, Judy tried walking him up and down the narrow space, but he stiffened himself in her arms, and she was not strong enough to hold him. Finally he dropped off into an exhausted sleep, drawing deep, sobbing breaths and little hiccoughs of sorrow.
Then Bunty was discovered asleep on the floor with his head under a seat, and had to be lifted into an easier position; and Baby, bolt upright in a corner, was nodding like a little pink-and-white daisy the sun has been too much for.
One by one the long hours dragged away; farther and farther through the silent, sleeping country flew the red-eyed train, swerving round zigzag curves, slackening up steeper places, flashing across the endless stretching plains.
The blackness grew grey and paler grey, and miles and miles of monotonous gum saplings lay between the train and sky. Up burst the sun, and the world grew soft and rosy like a baby waked from sleep. Then the grey gathered again, the pink, quivering lights faded out, and the rain came down—torrents of it, beating against the shaking window-glass, whirled wildly ahead by a rough morning wind, flying down from the mountains. Such a crushed, dull-eyed, subdued-looking eight they were as they tumbled out on the Curlewis platform when five o'clock came. Judy coughed at the wet, early, air, and was hurried into the waiting-room and wrapped in a rug.
Then the train tossed out their trunks and portmanteaux and rushed on again, leaving them desolate and miserable, looking after it, for it seemed no one had come to meet them.
The sound of wet wheels slushing through puddles, the crack of a whip, the even falling of horses' feet, and they were all outside again, looking beyond the white railway palings to the road.
There were a big, covered waggonette driven by a wide yellow oil-skin with a man somewhere in its interior, and a high buggy, from which an immensely tall man was climbing.
Esther rushed out into the rain. She put her arms round the dripping mackintosh and clung fast to it for a minute or two. Perhaps that is what made her cheeks and eyes so wet and shining.
"Little girl—little Esther child!" he said, and almost lifted her off the ground as he kissed her, tall though Meg considered her.
Then he hurried them all off into the buggies, five in one and three in the other. There was a twenty-five-mile drive before them yet.
"When did you have anything to eat last?" he asked; the depressed looks of the children were making him quite unhappy. "Mother has sent you biscuits and sandwiches, but we, can't get coffee or anything hot till we get home."
Nine o'clock, Esther told him, at Newcastle, but it was so boiling hot they had had to leave most of it in their cups and scramble into the train again. The horses were whipped up; and flew over the muddy roads at a pace that Pip, despite his weariness, could not but admire.
But it was a very damp, miserable drive, and the General wept with hardly a break from start to finish, greatly to Esther's vexation, for it was his first introduction to his grandfather.
At last, when everyone was beginning to feel the very end of patience had come, a high white gate broke the monotony of dripping wet fences.
"Home!" Esther said joyfully. She jumped the General up and down on her knee.
"Little Boy Blue, Mum fell off that gate when she was three," said she, looking at it affectionately as Pip swung it open.
Splash through the rain again; the wheels went softly now, for the way was covered with wet fallen leaves.
"Oh, where IS the house?" Bunty said, peeping through Pip's arm on the box seat, and seeing still nothing but an endless vista of gum trees. "I thought, you said we were there, Esther."
"Oh, the front door is not quite so near the gate as at Misrule," she said. And indeed it was not.
It was fifteen minutes before they even saw the chimneys, then there was another gate to be opened. A gravel drive now trimly kept, high box round the flower-beds, a wilderness of rose bushes that pleased Meg's eye, two chip tennis-courts under water.
Then the house.
The veranda was all they noticed; such a wide one it was, as wide as an ordinary room, and there were lounges and chairs and tables scattered about, hammocks swung from the corners, and a green thick creeper with rain-blown wisteria for an outer wall.
"O—o—oh," said Pip; "o—oh! I AM stiff—o—oh, I say, what are you doing?"
For Esther had deposited her infant on his knee, and leapt out of the waggonette and up the veranda steps.
There was a tiny old lady there, with a great housekeeping apron on. Esther gathered her right up in her arms, and they kissed and clung to each other till they were both crying.
"My little girl!" sobbed the little old lady, stroking, with eager hands, Esther's wet hair and wetter cheeks.
And Bunty, who had followed close behind, looked from the tall figure of his stepmother to the very small one of her mother and laughed.
Esther darted back to the buggy, took the General from Pip, and, springing up the steps again, placed him in her mother's arms.
"Isn't he a fat 'un!" Bunty said, sharing in her pride; "just you look at his legs."
The old lady sat down for one minute in the wettest chair she could find, and cuddled him close up to her.
But he doubled his little cold fists, fought himself free, and yelled for Esther.
Mr. Hassal had emptied the buggies by now, and came up the steps himself.
"Aren't you going to give them some breakfast, little mother?" he said, and the old lady nearly dropped her grandson in her distress.
"Dear, dear!" she said. "Well, well! Just to think of it! But it makes one forget."
In ten minutes they were all in dry things, sitting in the warm dining-room and making prodigious breakfasts.
"WASN'T I hungry!" Bunty said. His mouth was full of toast, and he was slicing the top off his fourth egg and keeping an eye on a dish that held honey in one compartment and clotted cream in another.
"The dear old plates!" Esther picked hers up after she had emptied it and looked lovingly at the blue roses depicted upon it. "And to think last time l ate off one I—"
"Was a little bride with the veil pushed back from your face," the old lady said, "and everyone watching you cut the cake. Only two have broken since—oh yes, Hannah, the girl who came after Emily, chipped off the handle of the sugar-basin and broke a bit out of the slop-bowl."
"Where did Father stand?" Meg asked. She was peopling the room with wedding guests; the ham and the chops, the toast and eggs and dishes of fruit, had turned to a great white towered cake with silver leaves.
"Just up there where Pip is sitting," Mrs. Hassal said, "and he was helping Esther with the cake, because she was cutting it with his sword. Such a hole you made in the table-cloth, Esther, my very best damask one with the convolvulus leaves, but, of course, I've darned it—dear, dear!"
Baby had upset her coffee all over herself and her plate and Bunty, who was next door.
She burst into tears of weariness and nervousness at the new people, and slipped off her chair under the table. Meg picked her up.
"May I put her to bed?" she said; "she is about worn out."
"Me, too," Nellie said, laying down her half-eaten scone and pushing back her chair. "Oh, I am so tired!"
"So'm I." Bunty finished up everything on his plate in choking haste and stood up. "And that horrid coffee's running into my boots."
So just as the sun began to smile and chase away the sky's heavy tears, they all went to bed again to make up for the broken night, and it was: six o'clock and tea-time before any of them opened their eyes again.
Yarrahappini in the sunshine, the kind of sunshine that pushes the thermometer's silver thread up to 100 deg.!
Right away in the distance on three sides was a blue hill line and blue soft trees.
And up near the house the trees were green and beautiful, and the flowers a blaze of colour.
But all the stretching plain between was brown. Brown burnt grass with occasional patches of dull green, criss-crossed here and there with fences; that ran up the little hills that in places broke the plain's straight line, and disappeared in the dips where rank grass and bracken flourished. The head station consisted of quite a little community of cottages on the top of a hill. Years ago, when Esther was no bigger than her own little General, there had been only a rough, red weather-board place on the hill-top, and a bark but or two for outhouses.
And Mr. Hassal had been in the saddle from morning to night, and worked harder than any two of his own stockmen, and Mrs. Hassal had laid aside her girlish accomplishments, her fancy work, her guitar, her water-colours, and had scrubbed and cooked and washed as many a settler's wife has done before, until the anxiously watched wool market had brought them better days.
Then a big stone cottage reared itself slowly right in front of the little old place with its bottle-bordered garden plot, where nothing more aristocratic than pig's face and scarlet geranium had ever grown. A beautiful cottage it was, with its plenitude of lofty rooms, its many windows, and its deep veranda. The little home was kitchen and bedrooms for the two women servants now, and was joined to the big place by a covered way.
A hundred yards away there was a two-roomed cottage that was occupied by the son of an English baronet, who, for the consideration of seventy pounds a year and rations kept the Yarrahappini business books and gave out the stores.
Farther still, two bark humpies stood, back to back. Tettawonga, a bent old black fellow, lived in one, and did little else than smoke and give his opinion on the weather every morning.
Twenty years ago he had helped to make a steady foundation for the red cottage that had arrived ready built on a bullock-dray.
Fifteen years ago he had killed with his tomahawk one of two bushrangers who were trying to pick up Yarrahappini in the absence of his master, and he had carried little trembling Mrs. Hassal and tiny Esther to place of safety, and gone back and dealt the other one a blow on the head that stunned him till assistance came.
So, of course, he had earned his right to the cottage and the daily rations and the pipe that never stirred from his lips.
Two of the station hands lived in the other cottage when they were not out in distant parts of the run.
Close to the house was a long weather-board building with a heavy, padlocked door.
"Oh, let's go in," Nell said, attracted by the size of the padlock; "it looks like a treasure-house in a book—mayn't we go in, please, little grandma?"
They were exploring all the buildings—the six children in a body, Mrs. Hassal, whom they all called "little grandma," much to her pleasure, and Esther with the boy.
"You must go and ask Mr. Gillet," the old lady said; "he keeps the keys of the stores. See, over in that cottage near the tank, and speak nicely, children, please."
"Such a gentleman," she said in a low tone to Esther, "so clever, so polished, if only he did not drink so."
Meg and Judy went, with Baby hurrying after them as fast as her short legs would allow.
"Come in," a voice said, when they knocked. Meg hesitated nervously, and a man opened the door. Such a great, gaunt man, with restless, unhappy eyes, a brown, wide brow, and neatly trimmed beard.
Judy stated that Mrs. Hassal had sent them for the keys, if he had no objection.
He asked them to come in and sit down while he looked for them.
Meg was surprised at the room, as her blue eyes plainly showed, for she had only heard him spoken of as the store-keeper. There were bookshelves, on which she saw Shakespeare and Browning and Shelley and Rossetti and Tennyson, William Morris, and many others she had never seen before. There were neatly framed photographs and engravings of English and Continental scenery on the walls. There was a little chased silver vase on a bracket, and some of the flowers from the passion vines in it. The table with the remains of breakfast on it was as nice on a small scale as the one she had just left in the big cottage.
He came back froth the inner room with the keys. "I was afraid I had mislaid then," he said; "the middle one opens the padlock, Miss Woolcot; the brass fat one is for the two bins, and the long steel one for the cupboard."
"Thank you so much. I'm afraid we disturbed you in the middle of your breakfast," Meg said, standing up and blushing because she thought he had noticed her surprise at the bookshelves.
He disclaimed the trouble, and held the door open for them with a bow that had something courtly in it, at least so Meg thought, puzzling how it came to be associated with salt beef by the hundredweight and bins of flour. He watched them go over the grass—at least he watched Meg in her cool, summer muslin and pale-blue belt, Meg in her shady chip hat, with the shining fluffy plait hanging to her waist.
Judy's long black legs and crumpled cambric had no element of the picturesque in them.
Mrs. Hassal unfastened the padlock of the store-room. Such a chorus of "ohs!" and "ahs!" there was from the children!
Baby had never seen so much sugar together in her life before; she looked as if she would have liked to have been let loose in the great bin for an hour or two.
And the currants! There was a big wooden box brim full—about forty pounds, Mrs. Hassal thought when questioned.
Bunty whipped up a handful and pocketed them when everyone was looking at the mountain of candles.
"Home-made! my DEAR, why, yes, of course," the old lady said. "Why, I wouldn't dream of using a bought candle, any more than I would use bought soap."
She showed them the great bars of yellow, clean-smelling stuff, with finer, paler-coloured for toilet purposes.
Hams and sides of bacon hung thickly from the rafters. "Those are mutton hams," she said, pointing to one division. "I keep those for the stockmen."
Pip wanted to know if the stores were meant to serve them all their lives, there seemed enough of them: he was astonished to hear that every six months they were replenished.
"Twenty to thirty men, counting the boundary riders and stockmen at different parts of the place; and double that number at shearing or drafting times, not to mention daily sundowners—it's like feeding an army, my dears," she said; "and then, you see, I had to make preparations for all of you—Bunty especially."
Her little grey eyes twinkled merrily as she looked at that small youth.
"You can have them back," Bunty said, half sulkily. He produced half a dozen currants from his pocket. "I shouldn't think you'd mind, with such a lot; we only have a bottleful at home."
On which the old lady patted his head, unlocked a tin, and filled his hands with figs and dates.
"And have you to cook every day, for all those men?" Meg said, wondering what oven could be found large enough.
"Dear, no!" the old lady answered. "Dear, dear, no; each man does everything for himself in his own hut; they don't even get bread, only rations of flour to make damper for themselves. Then we give them a fixed, quantity of meat, tea, sugar, tobacco, candles, soap, and one or two other things."
"Where do you keep the wool and things?" said Pip, who had a soul above home-made soap and metal dips for candles; "I can't see any shed or anything."
Mrs. Hassal told him they were a mile away, down by the creek, where the sheep were washed and sheared at the proper season. But the heat was too much to make even Pip want to go just then, so they attached themselves to Mr. Hassal, leaving little grandma with Esther, the General, and Baby, and went over to the brick stables near.
There were three or four buggies under cover, but no horses at all, they were farther afield. Across the paddock they went, and up the hill. Half a dozen answered Mr. Hassal's strange whistle; the others were wild, unbroken things, that tossed their manes and fled away at the sight of people to the farthermost parts where the trees grew.
Pip chose one, a grey, with long, fleet-looking legs and a narrow, beautiful head; he prided himself upon knowing something about "points." Judy picked a black, with reddish, restless eyes, but Mr. Hassal refused it because it had an uncertain temper, so she had to be content with a brown with a soft, satiny nose.
Meg asked for "something very quiet" in a whisper Judy and Pip could not hear, and was given a ruggy horse that had carried Mrs. Hassal eighteen years ago. Each animal was to be at the complete disposal of the young people during their stay at Yarrahappini, but the rides would have to take place before breakfast or after tea, they were told, if they wanted any pleasure out of them; the rest of the day was unbearable on horseback. Nellie was disappointed in the sheep, exceedingly so. She had expected to find great snow-white beautiful creatures that would be tame and allow her to put ribbon on their necks and lead them about.
From the hill-top the second morning she saw paddock after paddock, each with a brown, slowly moving mass; she ran down through the sunshine with Bunty to view them more closely.
"Oh, WHAT a shame!" she exclaimed, actual tears of disappointment springing to her eyes when she saw the great fat things with their long, dirty, ragged-looking fleece.
"Wait for a time, little woman," Mr. Hassal said; "just you wait till we give them their baths."
Cattle-Drafting at Yarrahappini
"To wheel the wild scrub cattle at the yard With a running fire of stockwhip and a fiery run of hoofs."
Pip could hardly sleep one night, a month after their arrival, for thinking of the cattle drafting that was on the programme for the morrow. He had been casting about for some fresh occupation, far he was a boy to whom variety was the salt of life. At first he had been certain he could never tire of shooting rabbits. Mr. Hassal had given him the "jolliest little stunner of a gun," and, Tettawonga had gone out with him the first day; and had been very scornful about his enthusiasm when he shot two.
"Ba'al good, gun do. Plenty fellow rabbit longa scrub, budgery way north, budgery way south; budgery way eblywhere. Ba'al good barbed wire fence do, ba'al good poison do. Bah!"
But Pip was not to be discouraged, and really thought he had done great good to the Yarrahappini estate by shooting those two soft, fleet brown things. He took them home and displayed them proudly to the girls, cleaned his perfectly clean gun, and sallied forth the next day.
Tettawonga took his pipe from between his lips when he saw him again and laughed, a loud cackling laugh, that made Pip flush with anger.
"Kimbriki and kimbriki, too! Rabbit he catti, curri-curri now. Boy come long with cawbawn gun, rabbit jerund drekaly, go burri, grass grow, sheep get fat-ha, ha, he, he!"
"To-morrow and to-morrow too! Rabbit, he go away quickly now. Boy come along with big gun, rabbit he afraid directly, go under the ground."
Pip understood his mixed English enough to know he was making fun of him, and told him wrathfully to "shut up for a Dutch idiot."
Then he shouldered the gun he was so immeasurably proud of and went off the other side of the barbed-wire fence, where was the happy hunting-ground of the little rodent that would not allow Mr. Hassal to grow rich.
He shot five that day, four the next, seven the next, but after a time he voted it slow, and went after gill birds, with more enjoyment but less certainty of a bag.
Every day was filled to the brim with enjoyment, and but for the intense heat that first month at Yarrahappini would have been one of absolute content and happiness.
And now there was the cattle-drafting!
Breakfast was very early the morning of the great event; by half-past five it was almost over, and Pip, in a fever of restlessness, was telling Mr. Hassal he was sure they would be late and miss it.
Judy had pleaded hard to be allowed to go, but everyone said it was out of the question—indeed, it was doubted if it were wise to allow Pip to face the danger that is inseparable with the drafting of the wilder kind of cattle that had been driven from great distances.
But he had forcibly carried the day, and dressed himself up in so business-like a way that Mr. Hassel had not the heart to refuse him. He came down to breakfast in a Crimean shirt and a pair of old, serge trousers fastened round the waist with a leathern belt, in which an unsheathed bowie knife, freshly sharpened, was jauntily stuck. No persuasions would induce him either to wear a coat or sheathe the knife.
The grey was brought round to the veranda steps, with Mr. Hassal's own splendid horse. Mr. Gillet was there on a well-groomed roan; he had three stock-whips, two quite sixteen feet long, the third shorter one, which he presented to Pip.
The boy's face glowed. "Hurrah, Fizz!" he said; standing up in his saddle and brandishing it round his head. "What 'ud you give to change places?"
He dug his heels into the animal's sides and went helter-skelter at a wild gallop down the hill.
It was a mile and a half to the cattle yards, and here was the strongest excitement.
Pip could not think where all the men had sprung from. There were some twenty or thirty of them, stockmen, shearers "on the wallaby," as their parlance expressed lack of employment, two Aboriginals, exclusive of Tettawonga, who was smoking and looking on with sleepy enjoyment, and several other of the station hands.
In the first yard there were five hundred cattle that had been driven there the night before, and that just now presented the appearance of a sea of wildly lashing tails and horns. Such horns!—great, branching, terrific-looking things that they gored and fought each other madly with, seeing they could not get to the common enemy outside.
Just for the first moment or two Pip felt a little disinclined to quit the stronghold of his horse's back. The thunder of hoofs and horns, the wild charges made by the desperate animals against the fence, made him expect to see it come crashing down every minute.
But everybody else had gone to "cockatoo"—to sit on the top rail of the enclosure and look down at the maddened creatures, so at length he fastened his bridle to a tree and proceeded gingerly to follow their example.
At a sudden signal from Mr. Hassal the men dropped down inside, half along, one side and half the other. The object was to get a hundred or two of the cattle into the forcing-yard adjoining, the gate to which was wide open. Pip marvelled at the courage of the men; for a moment his heart had leaped to his mouth as bullock after bullock essayed to charge them, but the air resounded with cracks from the mighty stock whips and drafting-sticks, and beast after beast retreated towards the centre with its face dripping with blood.
Then one huge black creature, with a bellow that seemed to shake the plain, made a wild rush to the gate, the whole herd at his heels. Like lightning, the men made a line behind, shouting, yelling, cracking their whips to drive them onward. Pip stood up and halloed, absolutely beside himself with excitement. Then he held his breath again.
Mr. Hassal and one of the black boys were creeping cautiously up near the gateway through which the tumultuous stream of horns and backs was pouring. Half a dozen mighty blows from the men, and the last leader fell back for an instant, driving the multitude back behind him.
In that second the two had slipped up the rails and the herd was in two divisions.
Two lines of stockmen again, whip-crackings, bellows, blood, horns, hide and heels in the air, and some forty or fifty were secure in a third yard, a long narrow place with a gate at the end leading into the final division.
Pip learnt from Mr. Gillet the object of these divisions: some of the beasts were almost worthless things, and had been assigned to a buyer for a couple of pounds a head, just for the horns, hides, and what might be got for the flesh. Others were prime, fat creatures, ready for the butcher and Sydney market. And others again were splendid animals, of great value for prize and breeding purposes, and were to be made into a separate draft.
The man at the last gateway was doing the all important work of selecting. He was armed with a short thick stick, and, as the other men drove the animals down towards him, decided with lightning speed to which class they belonged. A heavy blow on the nose, a sharp, rapid series of them between the eyes, and the most violent brute plunged blindly whither the driver sent him. All the day work went on, and just as the great hot purple shadows began to fall across the plain they secured the last rail, the battle was over, and the animals in approved divisions.
Pip ate enough salt beef and damper to half kill him, drank more tea than he had ever disposed of at one sitting in all his fourteen years, swung himself into his saddle in close imitation of the oldest stockman, and thought if he only could have a black, evil-looking pipe like Tettawonga and the rest of the men his happiness would be complete and his manhood attained.
He reached home as tired as "a dozen dogs and a dingo," and entertained his sisters and Bunty with a graphic account of the day's proceedings, dwelling lengthily on his own prowess and the manifold perils he had escaped.
The next day both Esther and Judy rode with the others to the yards to see the departures.
The best of the contingent, which Mr. Hassal had only wanted to separate, not to sell, were driven out through the gate and away to their old fields and pastures stale.
The "wasters," some hundred and fifty of them, with half a dozen stockmen mounted on the best horses of the place told off for them, were released from their enclosure in a state of frenzied desperation, and, with much cracking of whips and yells, mustered into a herd and driven across the plain in the direction of the road. And some hour or two later the best "beef" lot were driven forth, and quiet reigned at Yarrahappini once more. During the two days of excitement the children all decided upon their future professions, which were all to be of a pastoral nature.
Pip was going to be a stockman, and brand and draft cattle all the days of his life. Judy was going to be his "aide-de-camp", provided he let her stay in the saddle, and provided her with a whip just as long as his own. Meg thought she should like to marry the richest squatter in Australia, and have the Governor and the Premier come up for shooting and "things," and give balls to which all the people within a hundred miles would come. Nell decided the would make soap and candles, coloured as well as plain, when she arrived at years of discretion; said Baby inclined to keeping paddocks full of pet lambs that never grew into sheep.
Bunty did, not wax enthusiastic over any of the ideas.
"I'd rather be like Mr. Gillet," he said, and his eyes looked dreamy.
"Pooh! no books and figures far me; give me a run of Salt Bush country, and a few thousand sheep," said Pip.
"Hear! hear!" chimed in Judy.
"Stoopids!" said Bunty, in a voice of great scorn. "Doesn't Mr. Gillet keep the store keys—just think those currants and figs."
The Picnic at Krangi-Bahtoo
Esther had gone to a ball, not in a dress of delicate colour with great puffed sleeves, and a dazzling neck bare and beautiful under its wraps, not through the darkness to a blaze of lights and swinging music.
She had gone, in the broad light of the morning, in a holland suit with a blue Henley shirt, a sailor hat, and a gossamer.
Under the front buggy seat where Mr. Hassal sat was a box containing a beautiful gown, all daffodil silk and delicate wavelets of chiffon. And there were daffodil shoes and stockings, a plume fan in a hat-box on her knee, and a lovely trained white underskirt with billowy frills of torchon, the very sight of which made Meg wild to be grown up.
But none of these things were to be donned for many an hour yet.
The ball was a neat little matter of fifty-five miles away, across country, so she had to start tolerably early, of course, in order to have comfortable time to "titivate," as Pip expressed it.
The children, as compensation for having no part in this pleasure, were to have a very, out-of-the-way kind of picnic all to themselves.
In the first place, the picnic ground was fourteen miles away; in the second, the journey was to be made, not in everyday buggies, or on commonplace horses, but on a dray drawn by a team of twelve yoked bullocks.
A boundary-rider had reported that a magnificent blue gum that they had long called King Koree had been blown down during a violent gale, and Mr. Hassal immediately declared that, whatever the trouble, it must be brought for the foundation of a kind of dam across the creek at Krangi-Bahtoo, the picnic spot. The fallen bush monarch lay twenty miles away from the station, and six beyond the place chosen for the picnic; so it was arranged the trolly should carry the party for the fourteen miles, leave them to picnic, go forward for the tree, bring it back, and deposit it near the creek ready for future operations, and bring the children back in the cool of the evening.
But for escorting his daughter to the ball, Mr. Hassal would have gone himself to the place and seen about it in person. As it was, he placed the great trolly in the charge of four men, with instructions to pick up a couple of men from distant huts to help in the task.
Krangi-Bahtoo—or Duck Water, as, less prettily, we should call it—was the name given to the head of the creek, which had scooped out the earth till it made itself a beautiful ravine just there, with precipitous rocks and boulders that the kangaroos skipped across and played hide-and-seek behind with hunters, and great towering blue gums and red gums, that seemed to lose themselves in the blue, blue sky-canopy above.
Tettawonga told of a Bunyip that dwelt where the trickling water had made a pool, deep and beautiful, and delicate ferns had crept tenderly to fringe its edge, and blackwood, and ti-trees grown up thick and strong for a girdle. The water-hen made a home there, the black swan built among the grass-like reeds, the wild duck made frequent dark zigzag lines against the sky. From the trees the bell-bird, the coach-whip, the tewinga, the laughing-jackass, the rifle-bird and regent, filled the air with sound, if not with music. And the black snake, the brown snake, the whip, the diamond, and the death adder glided gently among the fallen leaves and grasses, and held themselves in cheerful readiness for intruders. That was why a condition was attached to the freely granted picnic.
Everyone might go, and go on the bullock-dray, but the picnic was to take place above the ravine, and no one was to venture down, on pain of being instantly packed back to Sydney.
They all promised faithfully. Mrs. Hassal, tiny as she was, had a way of commanding implicit obedience.
Then an incredible number of hampers, brimming over with good things, was packed.
Mr. Gillet went, to give an appearance of steadiness to the party, and to see no one got sunstroke.
He had a Heine in one pocket against the long, unusual day, a bulging Tennyson in the other, and a sheaf of English papers under his arm as he climbed on the trolly, where the whole seven were already seated.
The SEVEN? Even so, Judy had refused to stir without the General, and had promised "on her life" not to allow any harm to come near him.
Mr. Gillet gave a glance almost of dismay when he found the whole number was to be present, without the subtraction of the mischievously disposed ones, or the addition of anyone but himself weighted with authority. For a moment he distrusted his own powers in such a situation.
Judy caught the doubting look.
"You're quoting poetry to yourself, Mr. Gillet," she said.
"I?" he said, and looked astonished. "Indeed, no. What makes you think so, Miss Judy?"
"I can hear it distinctly," she said. "Your eyes are saying it, and your left ear, not to mention the ends of your moustache."
"Judy!" reproved Meg, whom something had made strangely quiet.
He pretended to be alarmed—shut his eyes, held his left ear, covered his moustache.
"What can they be saying?" he said.
"'Oh that I was where I would be! Then I would be where I am not: But where I am I still must be, And where I would be I cannot.'
"Meg, I WISH you would stop treading on my toes."
So after that even Mr. Gillet grew gay and talkative, to show he was enjoying himself, and the bullocks caught the infection of the brimming spirits behind them, and moved a LEETLE bit faster than snails. When they had crept along over about ten miles, however, the slow motion and the heat that beat down sobered them a little.
"Miss Meg, that silver-grey gum before you, guileless of leaves, indicates Duck Water."
How glad they were to unfold themselves and stretch out their arms and legs on the ground at last. No one had dreamt riding behind a bullock team could have been so "flat, stale, and unprofitable," as it was after the first mile or two.
Then the trolly continued its course.
"I doubt if they will be back before the sun goes down, if they don't go a little quicker," Mr. Gillet said; "it is lunch-time now."
They were in a great grassed paddock that at one end fell abruptly down to the ravine and swamp lands known as "Duck Water."
A belt of great trees made a shade at one side, and along the other was the barbed-wire fence that showed they had not got away from the Yarrahappini estate even yet: higher up was the lonely bark hut of one of the stockmen.
They went up in a body to speak to him before he joined the bullock team, and to view his solitary dwelling.
Just a small room it was, with a wide fireplace and chimney, where hung a frying-pan, a billy, a cup, and a spoon. There was a bunk in one corner, with a couple of blue blankets on it, a deal table and one chair in the middle of the room. Over the fire-place hung a rough cupboard, made out of a soap-box, and used to hold rations. From a nail in the low ceiling a mosquito-net bag was suspended, and the buzzing flies around proclaimed that it held meat. The walls were papered with many a copy of "The Illustrated Sydney News", and "The Town and Country Journal"; there was a month-old "Daily Telegraph" lying on the chair, where the owner had laid it down.
A study in brown the stockman was, brown, dull eyes; brown, dusty-looking hair; brown skin, sundried and shrivelled; brown, unkempt beard; brown trousers of corduroy, and brown coat.
His pipe was black, however—a clay, that looked as if it had been smoked for twenty years.
"Wouldn't you like to be nearer the homestead?" Meg asked. "Isn't it lonely?"
"Not ter mention," the brown man said to his pipe or his beard.
"What do you do with yourself when you're, not outside?" asked Pip.
"Smoke," said the man.
"But on Sundays, and all through the evenings?"
"Smoke," he said.
"On Cwismas day," Baby said, pressing to see this strange man; "zen what does you do?"
"Smoke" he said.
Judy wanted to know how long he'd lived in the little place, and everyone was stricken dumb to hear he had been there most of the time for seven years.
"Don't you ever forget how to talk?" she said, in an awestruck voice.
But he answered laconically to his beard that there was the cat.
Baby had found it already under the kerosene tin that did duty for a bucket, and it had scratched her in three places: brown, like its master, it was evil-eyed, fiercely whiskered, thin as a rail; still, there was the affection of years between the two.
Mr. Gillet told him of the squatter's wish that he should go with the other men and help with the tree. He pulled a brown hat over his brow and moved away towards the bullock-dray, which had crept up the winding road by now, to the hill-top.
"Water in tub, nearer than creek," he muttered to his pipe before he went, and they found his tub-tank and gladly filled the billy ready for lunch.
Mrs. Hassal's roast fowls and duck tasted well; even though they frizzled on the plates as if the sun were trying to finish their cooking. And the apple tarts and apricot turnovers vanished speedily; and of the fruit salad that came forth from two screw-top bottles, not a teaspoonful remained to tell a tale.
Mr. Gillet had brought materials for a damper, by special request, and after lunch prepared to make it, so they might have it for afternoon tea.
"Pheough!" said Judy. "Is THAT how you make it? You need not give ME any."
It certainly was manufactured with surprising celerity.
Mr. Gillet merely tossed some flour from a bag out upon a plate, added a pinch of salt and some water; then he shaped it into a cake of dough, and laid it on the ashes of the fire, covering it all over with the hot, silver ash.
"HOW dirty!" said Nell, elevating her pretty little nose.
But when it was cooked, and Mr. Gillet lifted it up and dusted the ash away—lo! it was high and light and beautifully white.
So they ate it, and took mental marginal notes to make it in the paddocks at Misrule for each and every picnic to come.
They piled up two plates of good things and put in the brown man's cupboard, and Mr. Gillet laid his unread English papers on the chair near the cat.
"That 'Telegraph' is a month old," he said deprecatingly seeing Meg smile upon him her first smile that day.
A Pale-Blue Hair Ribbon
She in her virginal beauty As pure as a pictured saint, How should this sinning and sorrow Have for her danger or taint?
The reason our sweet pale Margaret had been reluctant of her smiles was on account of the very man who alone missed them.
Quite a warm friendship had sprung up during the month between the little fair-faced girl, who looked with such serene blue eyes to a future she felt must be beautiful, and the world-worn man, who looked back to a past all blackened and unlovely by his own acts.
He rode with the two girls every-day, because Mrs. Hassal did not like them going long distances alone; and, seeing Judy seldom walked her horse, and Meg's steed had not a canter in it, it fell out that he kept beside the slow and timid rider all the time.
"You remind me of a little sister I had who died," he said slowly to Meg once, after a long talk. "Perhaps if she were alive now I should not be quite so contemptible."
Meg's face flushed scarlet, and a shamed look had come into her eyes. It seemed altogether terrible to her that he should know she knew of his failing.
"Perhaps it makes her sorry now," she said in a whisper he scarcely heard, and then she grew pale at her boldness, and rode on a little way to hide her distressed looks.
On the way home the pale-blue ribbon, that tied the strands of her sunny plait together, blew off. He dismounted and picked it up. Meg stretched out her hand for it, but he untied the bow and folded it slowly round his big hand.
"May I keep it?" he said in a low voice. "For my blue ribbon? I know the conditions that attach."
"If you would—oh, if you would!" Meg breathed rather than said. Then Judy galloped up and they rode home three abreast. It was such happiness to her all the hot, long days that followed; to a girl just entering life there can be no purer, deeper feeling of pleasure than that brought by the knowledge that she is influencing for good some man or woman older than herself, more sin-worn and earth-wearied. Poor little Meg! Her tender rose dreams had pictured her big protege a man among men again, holding up his head once more, taking his place in the world, going back to the old country, and claiming the noble lady her fertile imagination had pictured; waiting so patiently for him; and all this because she, Meg Woolcot, had stepped into his life and pointed the way he should go.
And then she went to swing in a hammock on the back veranda, and all her castles came tumbling about her ears, dealing her sharp, bitter blows. There was a thick creeper of passion-fruit vines behind her, and through it she could hear Tettawonga talking to the cook.
"Marse Gillet on the burst agen," he said, and chuckled through the side of his lips where his pipe did not rest.
Meg sat up in horror. Since she had been at Yarrahappini she had heard the phrase applied to too many of the station hands: not to know that it meant a reckless drinking bout.
"Lor'! I'M not surprised," the woman said, "he's been too sober late days to keep it up; s'pose he's been trying to last the visitors out, but found it too much. Who's got the keys?"
"Mis' Hassal," he said, "you to helpin' her—ba'al good for stores to-day, Marse Gillet—he, he, ha, ha!"
So that was what had happened to him all these three days she had not seen him! She had heard he had ridden over to the next station on business for Mr. Hassal, but had not dreamed such 'a thing had overtaken him. The fifth day she had seen him in the distance, once coming out of the storeroom and looking exactly like himself, only his shoulders stooped a little more, and once smoking outside his own door.
The sixth day was the picnic.
Just as light-hearted and merry as the others she could not feel, with this disappointment at her heart, this shaken trust in human nature.
How weak he was, she thought, how ignoble!
All her pity was swept away in a young, large indignation.
She had hardly shaken hands when they had met in the morning, and all the long drive she was persistently cold towards him.
After lunch the party became scattered. Judy took the General and went over to the belt of trees; Pip and Bunty occupied themselves with catching locusts; Baby and Nell gathered wild flowers. Meg knelt down to collect the spoons and forks: and put the untouched food back into the baskets away from the ants.
"I will do this—you look hot, Miss Meg; sit down quietly," Mr. Gillet said.
"Thank you, but I prefer to do it myself," Miss Meg said, with freezing dignity.
She did not look at him, but there was a certain tightness about her lips that made him know the light in her clear young, eyes was a scornful one.
He did not offer again, but sat and watched her pack up the things with an untranslatable look on his face. When she had almost finished he took something out of his pocket.
"I have to give you this again," he said, and handed her the blue length of ribbon, folded smoothly, but showing the crease where it had been tied.
She took it without lifting her eyes, crushed it up in her hand, and slipped it into her pocket.
"I had almost hoped you would say I might keep it, in spite of everything," he said, "just as a talisman against the future, but your lips are too severe, Miss for me to cherish the hope longer."
"It would be as useless as it has been," she said stiffly. Her hands moved nervously, however, and she wrapped up the remains of a duck and a jam tart together.
"Then I am not to have another chance?" he said.
"It would be no use," Meg repeated, gathering up bananas and oranges with a heightened colour.
He does not realize how wicked he has been, he thinks he ought to be forgiven at once was her thought.
He emptied the billy slowly on the ground, he put on its blackened lid and tied the newspaper around it. Then he looked at her again, and the way her soft hair fell on her forehead made him think of his young dead sister.
"I BEG you to give it to me again, little Miss Meg," he said.
Meg's heart and head had a rapid battle; the former was tender and charitable, and bade her take the little ribbon and give it to him instantly; the latter said he had sinned greatly, and she must show him her disapproval by her manner, even if she yielded what he asked her in the end. The head won.
"My influence is evidently useless—that bit of ribbon would make no difference in the future," she said very coldly.
He leaned back against the tree and yawned, as if the subject had no more interest for him.
"Ah well," he said, "I dare say you are right." Meg felt a little taken down.
"Of course, if you really want the ribbon you can have it," she said loftily. She took it from her pocket and tendered it to him.
But he made no effort to take it.
"Keep it to tie your hair again, little girl," he said; "after all, I don't suppose it would be any use."
Meg continued her packing with burning cheeks, and he filled up his pipe and smoked it, watching her idly the while.
"It's an odd thing," he said, more as if making an observation than addressing her, "but the gentlest-looking women are nearly always the hardest."
Meg opened her mouth to speak, but found nothing to say, so closed it again and began to count Mrs. Hassal's forks for the fourth time.
"I wonder would you mind if I gave you a little advice, Miss Meg, in return for all you have given me," he said, taking his pipe from his mouth and looking at it as if he were trying to find out the lettering on its nickel plate.
She laid down the bundle and looked at him with calm, surprised eyes. "Say whatever you please, I do not mind in the very least."
He sat up and played with the handle of a strap while he spoke.
"You have brothers," he said; "some day they will go a little astray—for it is only women like you, Miss Meg, and angels who can keep to the path always. Don't be too hard on them. Don't make an effort to show them the difference between your whiteness and their blackness. They will see it right enough, but they won't like you to draw their attention to it. Try and look gentle and forgiving—they'll feel quite as miserable as you could wish them to feel. The world has a beautiful frown of its own, and an endless vocabulary of cold words—wouldn't it do if the little sisters left it the monopoly of them?"
"Oh-h-h!" said Meg. Her cheeks were crimson, and all the dignity had oozed out of her voice.
He buckled the strap round nothing with infinite care, and went on again in a low tone:
"Suppose Pip did something very wrong some day, and the world flung stones at him till he was bruised all over. And suppose feeling very wretched, he came home to his sisters. And Meg, because wickedness was abhorrent to her, threw a few more little stones, so that the pain might teach him a lesson he could not forget. And Judy, because he was her brother and in trouble, flung her arms round him and encouraged him, and helped him to fight the world again, and gave him never a hard word or look, thinking he had had plenty. Which sister's influence would be greater, Miss Meg?"
Meg's little soft mouth, was quivering, her eyes were on the ground, because the tears would have splashed out if she had lifted them.
"Oh-h-h!" she said again. "Oh, how very horrid I have been—oh-h-h!"
She covered her face with her hands, for one of her quickly gathered tears was trembling on her lashes.
Mr. Gillet dropped the strap and the pipe, and looked across to her with tender eyes.
"I am more than twice your age, Miss Meg, old enough nearly to be your father—you will forgive me for saying all this, won't you? I was thinking, of my sister who died. I had another little sister, too, a year older, but she was hard—only event to her once. She is one of the best women in England now, but her lips are severe. Little Miss Meg, I could not bear the thought of you growing hard."
Half a dozen big tears had fallen down among the forks. Meg was crying because it was borne upon her what a very hateful creature she was. First Alan lectured her and spoke of his sister, and now this man.
He misinterpreted her silence.
"I have no right to speak to you like this, because my life has been any colour but white—that is it, isn't it, Miss Meg?" he said with great sadness.
Meg dropped her sheltering hands.
"Oh, no," she said, "oh! how CAN you think so? It is only I am so horrid." She rummaged in her pocket and brought out the ribbon.
"Will you take it again?" she said—"oh, PLEASE, just to make me feel less horrid. Oh, please take it!"
She looked at him with wet, imploring eyes, and held it out.
He took it, smoothed its crumpledness, and placed it in his pocket-book.
"God bless you," he said, and the tone made Meg sob.
Across the grass came a little flying figure, Judy in a short pink frock with her wild curls blowing about her face.
"Are you a candidate for sunstroke—where IS your hat, Miss Judy?" Mr. Gillet asked.
Judy shook back her dark tangle:
"Sorrow a know I knows," she said—"it's a banana the General is afther dyin' for, and sure it's a dead body I shall live to see misself if you've eaten all the oranges."
Meg pushed the bag of fruit across the cloth to her, and tried to tilt her hat over her tell-tale eyes.
But the bright dark ones had seen the wet lashes the first moment.
"I s'pose you've been reading stupid poetry and making Meg cry?" she said, with an aggressive glance from Mr. Gillet to the book on the grass. "You really ought to be, ashamed of yourselves, SICH behaviour at a picnic. It's been a saving in oranges, though, that's a mercy."
She took half a dozen great fat ones from the bag, as well as four or five bananas, and went back with flying steps to the belt of trees, where the General in his holland coat could just be seen.
He was calmly grubbing up the earth and putting it in his little red mouth when she arrived with the bananas.
He looked up at her with an adorable smile. "BABY!" she said, swooping down upon him with one of her wild rushes. "BABY!"
She kissed him fifty times; it almost hurt her sometimes, the feeling of love for this little fat, dirty boy.
Then she gathered him up on her knee and wiped as much of the dirt as possible from his mouth with the corner of his coat.
"Narna," he said, struggling onto the ground again; so she took the skin from a great yellow one and put it in his small, chubby hand.
He ate some of it, and squeezed the rest up tightly in his hands, gleefully watching it come up between his wee fingers in little worm-like morsels.
Then he smeared it over his dimpled face, and even rubbed it on his hair, while Judy was engrossed with her fifth orange.
So, of course, she had to whip him for doing it, or pretend to, which came to the same thing. And then he had to whip her, which did not only mean pretence.
He beat her with a stick he found near, he smacked her face and pulled her hair and bumped himself up and down on her chest, and all in such solemn, painstaking earnestness that she could only laugh even when he really hurt her.
"Dood now?" he said at last anxiously. And she began to weep noisily, with covered face and shaking shoulders, in the proper, penitent way. And then he put his darling arms round her neck and hugged her, and said "Ju-Ju" in a choking little voice, and patted her cheeks, and gave her a hundred eager, wide, wet kisses till she was better.
Then they played chasings, and the General fell down twenty times, and scratched his little knees and hands, and struggled up again. and staggered on.
Presently Judy stood still in a hurry; there was a tick working its slow way into her wrist. Only its two back legs were left out from under the skin, and for a long time she pulled and pulled without any success. Then it broke in two, and she had to leave one half in for little Grandma and kerosene to extract on their return.
Two or three minutes it had taken her to try to move it, and when she looked up the General had toddled same distance away, and was travelling along as fast as ever his little fat legs would carry him, thinking he was racing her. Just as she, started after him he looked back, his eyes dancing, his face dimpled and mischievous, and, oh! so dirty..
And then—ah, God!
It is so hard to write it. My pen has had only happy writing to-do so far, and now!
"You rogue!" Judy called, pretending to run very quickly. Then the whole world seemed to rise up before her.
There was a tree falling, one of the great, gaunt, naked things that had been ringbarked long ago. All day it had swayed to and fro, rotten through and through; now there came up across the plain a puff of wind, and down it went before it. One wild ringing cry Judy gave, then she leaped across the ground, her arms outstretched to the little lad running with laughing eyes and lips straight to death.
The crash shook the trees around, the very air seemed splintered.
They had heard it—all the others—heard the wild cry and then the horrible thud.
How their knees shook what blanched faces they had as they rushed towards the sound!
They lifted it off the little bodies—the long, silvered trunk with the gum dead and dried in streaks upon it. Judy was face downwards, her arms spread out.
And underneath her was the General, a little shaken, mightily astonished, but quite unhurt. Meg clasped him for a minute, but then laid him down, and gathered with the others close around Judy.
Oh, the little dark, quiet head, the motionless body, in its pink, crushed frock, the small, thin, outspread hands!
"Judy!" Pip said, in a voice of beseeching agony. But the only answer was the wind at the tree-tops and the frightened breathings of the others.
Mr. Gillet remembered there was no one to act but himself. He went with Pip to the stockman's hut; and they took the door off its leather hinges and carried it down the hill.
"I will lift her," he said, and passed his arms around the little figure, raising her slowly, slowly, gently upwards, laying her on the door with her face to the sky.
But she moaned—oh, how she moaned!
Pip, whose heart had leapt to his throat at the first sign of life, almost went mad as the little sounds of agony burst from her lips.
They raised the stretcher, and bore her up the hill to the little brown hut at the top.
Then Mr. Gillet spoke, outside the doorway, to Meg and Pip, who seemed dazed, stunned.
"It will be hours before we can get help, and it is five now," he said. "Pip, there is a doctor staying at Boolagri ten miles along the road. Fetch him—run all the way. I will go back home—fourteen miles. Miss Meg, I can't be back all at once. I will bring a buggy; the bullock-dray is too slow and jolting, even when it comes back. You must watch by her, give her water if she asks—there is nothing else you can do."
"She is dying?" Meg said—"dying?"
He thought of all that might happen before he brought help, and dare not leave her unprepared.
"I think her back is broken," he said, very quietly. "If it is, it means death."
Pip fled away down the road that led to the doctor's.
Mr. Gillet gave a direction or two, then he looked at Meg.
"Everything depends on you; you must not even think of breaking down," he said. "Don't move her, watch all the time."
He moved away towards the lower road.
She sprang after him.
"Will she die while you are away?—no one but me."
Her eyes were wild, terrified.
"God knows!" he said, and turned away.
It was almost more than he could bear to go and leave this little girl alone to face so terrible a thing. "God help me!" she moaned, hurrying back, but not looking at the hot, low-hanging sky. "Help me, God! God, help me, help me!"
When the Sun Went Down
Such a sunset!
Down at the foot of the grass hill there was a flame-coloured sky, with purple, soft clouds massed in banks high up where the dying glory met the paling blue. The belt of trees had grown black, and stretched sombre, motionless arms against the orange background. All the wind had died, and the air hung hot and still, freighted with the strange silence of the bush.
And at the top of the hill, just within the doorway of the little brown hut, her wide eyes on the wonderful heavens, Judy lay dying. She was very quiet now, though she had been talking—talking of all sorts of things. She told them she had no pain at all.
"Only I shall die when they move me," she said.
Meg was sitting in a little heap on the floor beside her. She had never moved her eyes from the face on the pillow of mackintoshes, she had never opened her white lips to say one word.
Outside the bullocks stood motionless against the sky—Judy said they looked like stuffed ones having their portrait taken. She smiled the least little bit, but Meg said, "Don't," and writhed.
Two of the men had gone on superfluous errands for help; the others stood some distance away, talking in subdued voices.
There was nothing for them to do. The brown man had been talking—a rare thing for him.
He had soothed the General off to sleep, and laid him in the bunk with the blue blanket tucked around him. And he had made a billy of hot strong tea, and asked the children, with tears in his eyes, to drink some, but none of them would.
Baby had fallen to sleep on the floor, her arms clasped tightly around Judy's lace-up boot.
Bunty was standing, with a stunned look on his white face, behind the stretcher. His eyes were on his sister's hair, but he did not dare to let there wander to her face, for fear of what he should see there. Nellie was moving all the time—now to the fence to strain her eyes down the road, where the evening shadows lay heavily, now to fling herself face downward behind the hut and say, "Make her better, God! God, make her better, make her better! Oh! CAN'T You make her better?"
Greyer grew the shadows round the little but, the bullocks' outlines had faded, and only an indistinct mass of soft black loomed across the light. Behind the trees the fire was going out, here and there were yellow, vivid streaks yet, but the flaming sun-edge, had dipped beyond the world, and the purple, delicate veil was dropping down.
A curlew's note broke the silence, wild, mournful, unearthly. Meg shivered, and sat up straight. Judy's brow, grew damp, her eyes dilated, her lips trembled.
"Meg!" she said, in a whisper that cut the air. "Oh, Meg, I'm frightened! MEG, I'm so frightened!"
"God!" said Meg's heart.
"Meg, say something. Meg, help me! Look at the dark, Meg. MEG, I can't die! Oh, why don't they be quick?"
Nellie flew to the fence again; then to say, "Make her better, God—oh, please, God!"
"Meg, I can't think of anything to say. Can't you say something, Meg? Aren't there any prayers about the dying in the Prayer Book?—I forget. Say something, Meg!"
Meg's lips moved, but her tongue uttered no word.
"Meg, I'm so frightened! I can't think of anything but 'For what we are about to receive,' and that's grace, isn't it? And there's nothing in Our Father that would do either. Meg, I wish we'd gone to Sunday-school and learnt things. Look at the dark, Meg! Oh, Meg, hold my hands!"
"Heaven won't—be—dark," Meg's lips said. Even when speech came, it was only a halting, stereotyped phrase that fell from them.
"If it's all gold and diamonds, I don't want to go!" The child was crying now. "Oh, Meg, I want to be alive! How'd you like to die, Meg, when you're only thirteen? Think how lonely I'll be without you all. Oh, Meg! Oh, Pip, Pip! Oh, Baby! Nell!"
The tears streamed down her cheeks; her chest rose and fell.
"Oh, say something, Meg!—hymns!—anything!"
Half the book of "Hymns Ancient and Modern" danced across Meg's brain. Which one could she think of that would bring quiet into those feverish eyes that were fastened on her face with such a frightening, imploring look?
Then she opened her lips:
"Come unto Me, ye weary, And I will give you rest, Oh, bl—
"I'm not weary, I don't WANT to rest," Judy said, in a fretful tone.
Again Meg tried:
"My God, my Father, while I stray Far from my home on life's rough way, Oh, teach me from my heart to say Thy will be done!"
"That's for old people," said the little tired voice. "He won't expect ME to say it."
Then Meg remembered the most beautiful hymn in the world, and said the first and last verses without a break in her voice:
"Abide with me, fast falls the eventide, The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide. When other helpers fail, and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me!
Hold Thou Thy Cross before my closing eyes, Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies. Heaven's morning breaks, and earth's vain shadows flee In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me!
"Oh! and Judy, dear, we are forgetting; there's Mother, Judy, dear—you won't be lonely! Can't you remember Mother's eyes, little Judy?"
Judy grew quiet, and still more quiet. She shut her eyes so she could not see the gathering shadows. Meg's arms were round her, Meg's cheek was on her brow, Nell was holding her hands, Baby her feet, Bunty's lips were on her hair. Like that they went with her right to the Great Valley, where there are no lights even for stumbling, childish feet.
The shadows were cold, and smote upon their hearts; they could feel the wind from the strange waters on their brows; but only she who was about to cross heard the low lapping of the waves.
Just as her feet touched the water there was a figure in the doorway.
"Judy!" said a wild voice; and Pip brushed them aside and fell down beside her.
"Judy, Judy, JUDY!"
The light flickered back in her eyes. She kissed him with pale lips once, twice; she gave him both her hands, and her last smile.
Then the wind blew over them all, and, with a little shudder, she slipped away.
"She seemed a thing that could not feel The touch of earthly years."
"No motion has she now—no force; She neither hears nor sees; Rolled round in earth's diurnal course, With rocks and stones and trees."
They went home again, the six of them, and Esther, who, all her days, "would go the softlier, sadlier" because of the price that had been paid for the life of her little sweet son. The very air of Yarrahappini seemed to crush them and hang heavy on their souls.
So when the Captain, who had hurried up to see the last of his poor little girl, asked if they would like to go home, they all said "Yes."
There was a green space of ground on a hill-top behind the cottage, and a clump of wattle trees, dark-green now, but gold-crowned and gracious in the spring.
This is where they left little Judy. All around it Mr. Hassal had white tall palings put; the short grave was in the shady corner of it.
The place looked like a tiny churchyard in a children's country where there had only been one death.
Or a green fair field, with one little garden bed.
Meg was glad the little mound looked to the east; the suns died behind it—the orange and yellow and purple suns she could not bear to watch ever again while she lived.
But away in the east they rose tenderly always, and the light crept up across the sky to the hill-top in delicate pinks and trembling blues and brightening greys, but never fiery, yellow streaks, that made the eyes ache with hot tears.
There was a moon making it white and beautiful when they said good-bye to it on the last day.
They plucked a blade or two of grass each from the fresh turfs, and turned away. Nobody cried; the white stillness of the far moon, the pale, hanging stars, the faint wind stirring the wattles; held back their tears till they had closed the little gate behind them and left her alone on the quiet hill-top. Then they went-back to Misrule, each to pickup the thread of life and go on with the weaving that, thank God, must be done, or hearts would break every day.
Meg had grown older; she would never be quite so young again as she had been before that red sunset sank into her soul.
There was a deeper light in her eyes; such tears as she had wept clear the sight till life becomes a thing more distinct and far-reaching.
Nellie and she went to church the first Sunday after their return. Aldith was a few pews away, light-souled as ever, dressed in gay attire, flashing smiling, coquettish glances across to the Courtneys' pew, and the Grahams sitting just behind.
How far away Meg had grown from her! It seemed years since she had been engrossed with the latest mode in hat trimming, the dip of "umbrella" skirts, and the best method of making the hands white. Years since she had tried a trembling 'prentice hand at flirtations. Years, almost, since she had given the little blue ribbon at Yarrahappini, that was doing more good than she dreamed of.
Alan looked at her from his pew—the little figure in its sorrowful black, the shining hair hanging in a plait no longer frizzed at the end, the chastened droop of the young lips, the wistful sadness of the blue eyes. He could hardly realize it was the little scatterbrain girl who had written that letter, and stolen away through the darkness to meet his graceless young brother.
He clasped her hand when church was over; his grey eyes, with the quick moisture in them, made up for the clumsy stumbling words of sympathy he tried to speak.
"Let us be friends always, Miss Meg," he said, as they parted at the Misrule gate.
"Yes, let us," said Meg.
And the firm, frank friendship became a beautiful thing in both their lives, strengthening Meg and making the boy gentler.
Pip became his laughing, high-spirited self again, as even the most loving boy will, thanks to the merciful making of young hearts; but he used to get sudden fits of depression at times, and disappear all at once, in the midst of a game of cricket or football, or from the table when the noise was at its highest.
Bunty presented to the world just as grimy a face as of old, and hands even more grubby, for he had taken a mechanical turn of late, and spent his spare moments in manufacturing printing machines—so called—and fearful and wonderful engines, out of an old stove and some pots and rusty frying-pans rescued from the rubbish heap.
But he did not tell quite so many stories in these days; that deep sunset had stolen even into his young heart, and whenever he felt inclined to say "I never, 'twasn't me, 'twasn't my fault," a tangle of dark curls rose before him, just as they had lain that night when he had not dared to move his eyes away from them.
Baby's legs engrossed her very much at present, for she had just been promoted from socks to stockings, and all who remember the occasion in their own lives will realize the importance of it to her.
Nell seemed to grow prettier every day. Pip had his hands full with trying to keep her from growing conceited; if brotherly rubs and snubs availed anything, she ought to have been as lowly minded as if she had had red hair and a nose of heavenward bent.
Esther said she wished she could buy a few extra years, a stern brow, and dignity in large quantities from some place or other—there might be some chance, then, of Misrule resuming its baptismal and unexciting name of The River House.
But, oddly enough, no one echoed the wish.
The Captain never smoked at the end of the side veranda now: the ill-kept lawn made him see always a little figure in a pink frock and battered hat mowing the grass in a blaze of sunlight. Judy's death made his six living children dearer to his heart, though he showed his affection very little more.
The General grew chubbier and more adorable every day he lived. It is no exaggeration to say that they all worshipped him now in his little kingly babyhood, for the dear life had been twice given, and the second time it was Judy's gift, and priceless therefore.
My pen has been moving heavily, slowly, for these last two chapters; it refuses to run lightly, freely again just yet, so I will lay it aside, or I shall sadden you.
Some day, if you would care to hear it, I should like to tell you of my young Australians again, slipping a little space of years.
Until then, farewell and adieu.