The Crooked Stick

Chapter III

Rolf Boldrewood

WHEN Mr. Charteris had concluded his ablutions, and sauntered into the verandah after a careful toilette, he there encountered Miss Devereux, who, having arrayed herself in a light Indian muslin dress, gracefully reclined upon one of the Cingalese couches. His lonely life of late may have had something to do with it, but his ordinary well-maintained equilibrium nearly failed him before the resistless force of her charms.

Her eyes involuntarily brightened as she partly raised herself from the couch and held out her hand with unaffected welcome. He took in at one rapturous glance her slender yet wondrously moulded form, her delicate hand, her rounded arm seen through the diaphanous fabric, her massed and shining hair, her eloquent face.

‘Oh, Lord!’ he inwardly ejaculated, as he afterwards confessed. ‘I used to wonder at fellows shooting themselves about a girl, and all that, and laugh at the idea. But I don’t now. When I saw Pollie Devereux that evening I could have done the maddest thing in the world for the ghost of a chance of winning her. And to win, and wear, and lose her again, as happens to a man here and there. Good heavens’ why, it would make a fellow—make—me—run amuck like a Malay, and kill a town full of people before I was half satisfied.’

But Mr. Charteris controlled those too impetuous feelings, and forced himself to remark, as he clasped her cool, soft hand despairingly while she expressed her frank pleasure at seeing him, ‘Always delighted to come to Corindah, Miss Devereux, you know that. Didn’t I see you near the gate as I drove up? Thought you might have come to meet me.’

‘Well, so I would,’ the young lady answered, with an air of provoking candour, ‘only I had been out to see the coach and find out if they’d brought our package from England—presents that came by last mail,—I was so hot and dusty, and thought it was time to go and dress.’

‘And I wanted to see how Wanderer looked, too,’ quoth he reproachfully; ‘you know I always think he could win the steeplechase at Bourke if you’d let me ride him and wear your colours.’

‘I couldn’t think of that for two reasons,’ replied the girl with decision. ‘First of all Wanderer might get hurt. Didn’t you see that poor Welcome, at Wannonbah races, broke his leg and had to be shot? I should die, or go into a decline, if anything happened to Wanderer. And then there’s another reason.’

‘What’s that?’ inquired Mr. Charteris, with less than his usual intrepidity.

‘Why—a—you might get hurt, Mr. Charteris, you see, and I can’t afford to lose an old friend that way.’

‘Oh, is that all?’ retorted Master Jack, recovering his audacity; ‘well, you could have me shot like Wanderer if I broke my back or anything. ’Pon my soul! it would come to just the same thing if you ordered me out to execution before the race.’

‘Now, Mr. Charteris!’ said Pollie, in a steady, warning voice, ‘you are disobeying orders, you know. I shall hand you over to mother, who has just come to say tea is ready. Mother, he is talking most childish nonsense about shooting himself.’

‘But I never talk anything else, do I Mrs. Devereux?’ said the young gentleman, running up to the kindly matron with a look of sincere affection. ‘Your mother’s known me all my life, Miss Devereux, and she won’t believe any harm of me. Will you, my dear madam?’

‘I never hear of you doing any foolish thing, my dear Jack,’ said Mrs. Devereux maternally; ‘and as long as that is the case I shall not be very angry at anything you can say. We all know you mean no harm. Don’t we, Pollie? And now take me into tea, and you may amuse us as much as ever you like. I’m rather low myself on account of the season.’

‘No use thinking about it,’ quoth Charteris, dashing gallantly into the position assigned to him. ‘That’s why I’m going to Sydney to have a regular carnival, also to be in time to get the wires to work directly the drought breaks up. I can’t make it rain, now can I? And I’ve a regular tough, steady overseer, a sort of first cousin to your Joe Gateward, with twice as much sense and work in him as I have. I mean to take it easy at the Club till he wires me: “Drought over. Six inches rain.” Left the telegram all ready written and pinned up over his desk. He’s nothing to do but fill in the number of inches and sign it, and I shall know what to do. That shows faith, doesn’t it?’

‘But isn’t it rather mad to go to Sydney with a four-in-hand and spend money, when you might be ruined, and all of us?’ said Pollie.

‘You are too prudent but don’t look ahead—like most women, my dear young lady,’ replied Jack, in the tone of experienced wisdom. ‘Nothing like having a logical mind, which, I flatter myself, I possess. I always think the situation out, as thus:—If we are all going to be ruined—the odds are against it, but still it’s on the cards—why not have a real first-class time of enjoyment before the grand smash? The trifling expenditure of a good spree won’t make any appreciable difference in the universal bankruptcy. You grant me that, don’t you?—Yes, thanks, I will take some more wild turkey. Strange that one should have any appetite this weather, isn’t it?’

‘Not if one rides or drives all day and half the night, as you do, Mr. Charteris,’ said Pollie. ‘Even talking makes you thirsty, doesn’t it? But go on with the logic.’

‘Did you ever see me scowl, Miss Pollie? Beware of my ferocious mood. Now we’re agreed about this, that five hundred pounds, more or less, makes no difference if you’re going to be ruined and lose fifty thousand.’

‘I suppose not,’ reluctantly assented Mrs. Devereux. ‘Still it’s money wasted.’

‘Money wasted!’ exclaimed Mr. Charteris.’ I’m surprised at you, Mrs. Devereux. Think of the delights of yachting in the harbour, of the ocean breeze after this vapour from the pit of—of—Avernus. Knew I should find it in time. Then the evening parties, the dinners at the Club, the races, the lawn-tennis, the cricket matches! The English eleven are to be there. Why, I haven’t been down for six whole months. Don’t you think rational amusement worth all the money you can pay for it? Would you think a couple of years’ ramble on the Continent too dearly bought if we were all able to afford to go together?’

The girl’s eyes began to glow at this. ‘Oh mother!’ she said, ‘surely we shall be able to go some day. Do you think this horrid drought will stop the possibility of it altogether? If I was sure of that I believe I should drown myself—no, I couldn’t do that; but I would burn myself in a bush fire. That’s a proper Australian notion of suicide. Water’s too scarce and expensive. Think of the consequences if I spoiled a tank. I should like to see Mr. Gateward’s face.’

And here the wilful damsel, having at first smiled at the alarmed expression of her mother’s countenance, abandoned herself to childish merriment at the ludicrous idea of a drowned maiden in a bad season intensifying the bitterness in the minds of economical pastoralists with the reflection that a flock of sheep would probably be deprived thereby of that high-priced luxury in a dry country—a sufficiency of water.

Mr. Charteris laughed heartily for a few minutes, and then, with sudden solemnity, turned upon the young lady. ‘You never will be serious, you know. Why can’t you take pattern by me? Let us pursue our argument. Pleasure being worth its price, let us pay it cheerfully. I was reading about the Three Hundred, those Greek fellows you know, dressing their hair before Thermopylae; it gave me the idea, I think. Mine’s too short’—here he rubbed his glossy brown pate, canonically cropped. ‘But the principle’s the same, Miss Pollie, eh?’

‘What principle?’ echoed Pollie, ‘or want of it, do you mean?’

‘The principle of dying game, Miss Devereux,’ returned Charteris, with a steady eye and heroic pose. ‘Surely you can respect that? It all resolves itself into this. I’m going to put down my ace. If the cards go wrong I have played a dashing game. If the season turns up trumps I’ll make the odd trick. You’ll see who has the cream of the store sheep-market when the drought breaks!’

‘I admire bold play, and you have my best wishes, Mr. Charteris. You’ve explained everything so clearly. Don’t you think if you read history a little more it might lead you to still more brilliant combinations?’

‘If you’d only encourage me a little,’ answered the young man, with a touch of unusual humility.

‘Isn’t that Jack Charteris?’ said a man’s voice in the passage. ‘I’ll swear I heard him talking about his ace. May I come in, or is there a family council or anything?’

‘Come in, Harold, and don’t be a goose,’ said Mrs. Devereux; ‘you are not going to stand on ceremony here at this or any other time.’

‘I’ve had a longish ride,’ said the voice, ‘nothing to eat, half a sunstroke, I believe, and my journey for my pains. I’m late for tea besides, though I rode hard—takes one so long to dress. If I was any one else I believe I should be cross. I think you’d better all leave me, and I’ll join you in the verandah when I’ve fed and found my temper.’

‘Nothing of the sort, mother; you take out Mr. Charteris and give him good advice, while I see after Mr. Atherstone, and recommend him to begin with the wild turkey while I get him some Bukkulla. What’s the reason you’ve not been near us lately, sir?’

The new-comer was a very tall man, though he did not at first sight give you the idea of being much above the middle size, but Mr. Charteris, who was by no means short, looked so when they stood together. Then you saw that he was much above the ordinary stature of mankind. His frame was broad and muscular, and there was an air of latent power about his bearing such as gave the impression of perfect confidence, of physical or mental equality to whatever emergency might befall.

Mr. Charteris lingered, and seemed to question the soundness of the arrangement which divided him from the enchantress and reduced him to the placid enjoyment of Mrs. Devereux’s always sensible but not exciting conversation.

‘Look here, Jack, I can’t have you here while I’m dining, you know,’ persisted Mr. Atherstone, with a calm decision. ‘You’ve such an energetic, highly organised nature, you know, that calm people like me can’t sustain your electric currents. I perceive by the appearance of that turkey that I’m about to dine in comfort. Pollie has gone to bring in a bottle of Bukkulla. “Put it to yourself carefully,” as Mr. Jaggers says, that I have had no lunch. She will be quite as much as I can bear during such a delicate period. So out you go. Order him off, Mrs. Devereux, if you’ve any pity for me.’

‘Well, you are the coolest ruffian, I must say,’ quoth Mr. Charteris, as Pollie reappeared bearing a dusty bottle of the cool and fragrant Bukkulla. ‘Mrs. Devereux, you spoil him. It’s very weak of you. You’ll have people talking.’

‘We don’t mind what people say, do we, Harold?’ said the widow, as she watched him carefully draw the cork of the bottle, while Pollie sat near and placed a large hock glass before him. ‘Leave them alone for half an hour. I’m sure, poor fellow, he’s awfully tired and hungry. I know where he’s been; it was on an errand of mine; Mr. Gateward couldn’t go. Surely you can put up with my company for a little while.’

‘Poor Harold!’ grumbled Jack, ‘he is to be pitied indeed! Mrs. Devereux, you know I always say there’s no one talks so charmingly as you do, and I always say what I mean. Now isn’t there something I can do for you in Sydney?’

The symposium thus ostentatiously heralded did not take quite so long as might have been expected, and Pollie, making her appearance in the drawing-room apparently before its termination, went to the piano at Mr. Charteris’s instigation, and sang two or three of his favourite songs in a fashion which brought any lingering remnants of his passion once more to the surface. Mr. Atherstone was also good enough to express his approval from the dining-room, the door of which was open, and to request that she would reserve her importation from the metropolis until he came in. This exhortation was followed by his personal apparition, when the latest composition of Stephen Adams was selected by him and duly executed.

Among the natural endowments lavished upon this young creature was such a voice as few women possess, few others adequately develop or worthily employ. Rich, flexible, with unusual compass, depth, and power, it combined strangely mingled tones, which carried with them smiles or tears, hate, defiance, love and despair, the child’s glee, the woman’s passion; all were enwrapped in this wondrous organ, prompt to appear when the magician touched her spirit with his wand. Harold once said that in her ordinary mood all the glories of vocal power seemed imprisoned in her soul, like the tunes that were frozen in the magic horn.

Men were used to sit with heads bent low, lest the faintest note might escape their highly wrought senses. Grizzled war-worn veterans had wept unrestrainedly as she sang the simple ballads that recalled their youth. Women even were deeply affected, and could not find one word of delicatest depreciation that would sound otherwise than sacrilegious. This was one of her good nights, her amiable, well-behaved nights, Harold said. So the men sat and smoked in the verandah, with Mrs. Devereux near them; all in silence or low, murmuring converse, while the stars burnt brightly in the blue eternity of the summer night the season itself in its unchanging brightness an emblem of the endless procession of creation while the girl’s melodious voice, now low and soft, now wildly appealing, tender or strong, rose and fell, or swelled and died away ‘like an angel’s harp,’ said Harold to her mother, as she arose and came towards them; ‘and it is specially fortunate for us here,’ he continued, ‘as the season is turning us all into something like the other thing.’

‘Hush, Harold, my boy; have faith in God’s providence!’ replied Mrs. Devereux, placing her hand on his. ‘We have been sorely tried at times, but that hope and faith have never failed me.’

‘What a lovely, glorious, heavenly night!’ said the girl, stepping out on the broad walk which wound amid the odorous orange-trees, still kept in leaf and flower by profuse watering. ‘What a shame that one should have to go to bed! I feel too excited to sleep. That is why you fortunate men smoke, I suppose? It calms the excitable nervous system, if you ever suffer in that way.’

‘Ask Jack,’ said Mr. Atherstone; ‘he is more delicately organised. I suppose I like smoking, because I do it a good deal. It is a contemplative, reflective practice, possessing at the same time a sedative effect. It prevents intemperate cerebration. It arrests the wheels of thought, which are otherwise apt to go round and round when there’s nothing for them to do mills with no corn to grind.’

‘I never heard so many good reasons before for what many people call a bad habit,’ said Pollie. ‘However, I must say, considering the hard work you poor fellows have to do at times, I think a man enjoying his pipe after his day’s work a dignified and ennobling spectacle.’

‘Quite my idea, Miss Pollie,’ said Jack. ‘I really thought my brain was giving way once in a dry season. If I hadn’t smoked, should have had to fall back upon drinking. Dreadful to think of, isn’t it? A mixture of Latakia and Virginia I got from a fellow down from India on leave saved my life.’

‘I think we are all sufficiently soothed and edified now to go to bed,’ said Mrs. Devereux, with mild, suggestive authority. ‘Dear me! nearly twelve o’clock too. The days are so long now that it is ever so late before dinner is finished and the evening fairly begun.’

.     .     .     .     .

The parcel from England to which reference had been made on the occasion of Pollie’s excursion to Mogil Mogil clump had arrived safely, and its contents been duly admired, when a letter received by the next mail-steamer contained such exceptional tidings that all other incidents became tame and uninteresting.

This English letter proved to be from Captain Devereux’s elder brother, with whom, since the former’s death, Mrs. Devereux had kept up a formal but regular correspondence. The members of her husband’s family had proved sympathetic in her hour of sorrow. They had possibly been touched by the passionate grief of a relative whose letters after a while commenced to exhibit so much sound sense and proper feeling. From that time the elders of the house of Devereux never omitted befitting attention and friendly recognition of the far-off, unknown kinswoman.

And now, it seems, they had despatched Mr. Bertram Devereux, late lieutenant in Her Majesty’s 6th Dragoon Guards, who, from force of circumstances, reckless extravagance and imprudence no doubt, but from no improper conduct, had been compelled to quit that crack corps and the brilliant society he adorned. He had a small capital, however, several thousand pounds fortunately, the bequest of an aunt. Having decided upon a colonial career, he was anxious to gain the requisite experience on the estate of his cousin, Mrs. Brian Devereux. If she had no objection, would she lay them all under a deep obligation by receiving the young man into her family, and by acting a mother’s part to one who was forced to quit home and native land, perhaps for ever?’

This last enclosure was from Lady Anne Devereux, a lady in her own right, who, much to the distaste of her friends and family, had been fascinated by the handsome Colonel Dominick Daly Devereux, one of the military celebrities of the day. In the main the tone of the letter was proud and cold; but there were a few expressions which so plainly showed the mother’s bruised heart, that Mrs. Devereux could not resist the appeal.

‘I fear he will be a troublesome inmate in one sense or another,’ she reflected. ‘He is hardly young enough to take kindly to station life. Then again, how will my darling girl be affected by his companionship? But I can enter into a mother’s feelings. I cannot refuse hospitality to my dear husband’s nephew. We must make the best of it. He will not be worse, I suppose, than other newly arrived young men. They are an awful bother during the first year. After that they become like other people. I hope Mr. Gateward will take to him.’

And now the stated time had been overpassed. The Indus (P. and O. Service) had arrived; a telegram had been received; and Mr. Bertram Devereux was hourly expected by the mail-coach. This fateful vehicle did actually arrive rather late on the evening specified, it is true, but without having, according to Pollie’s prophecies and reiterated assertions, either broken down, upset, or lost its way owing to the new driver taking a back track which led into the wilderness and ended at a lately finished tank, far from the habitations of civilised man.

As the coach swung round the corner of the stock-yard and drew up underneath a wide-branched white acacia which shaded a large proportion of an inner enclosure, the driver received a douceur which confirmed him in the opinion which he had previously entertained of his passenger being ‘a perfect gentleman.’ He therefore busied himself actively in unloading his portmanteau and other effects, deposited the station mail-bag, and without further loss of time took the well-trodden road to the township. As the eyes of his late fare rested mechanically upon the fast-departing coach, he saw little but a cloud of dust outlining every turn of the road, amid which gleamed the five great lamps, which finally diminished apparently into star-fragments, as they traversed the unending plain which stretched northward and northward ever.

A young man, whose Crimean shirt and absence of necktie denoted to the traveller the presumed abandon of bush life, advanced from the door of a species of shop for general merchandise, as it seemed to the stranger, and dragging in the mail-bag, saluted him courteously. ‘Mr. Devereux, I think? Please to come in.’

Meekly following his interlocutor through the ‘shop,’ as he termed it, he found himself in a smaller and more comfortable room. Looking around at the somewhat ‘cabin’d, cribb’d, and confin’d’ section, he answered, ‘My name is Devereux. I have come to remain. May I ask which of these rooms is to be allotted to me?’

The storekeeper smiled. ‘You didn’t think this was the house, sir? This is the overseer’s place, the barracks, as we call it in the bush. If you come after me I’ll show you the way. Your luggage will be brought to you if you will leave it here.’

The new-comer had not, in truth, troubled himself to consider what Australian dwellings might resemble. He expected nothing. He had made up his mind to the worst. Therefore he would not have been in the least surprised if his aunt or cousin had issued from one of the small apartments which opened out from the larger room; had directed him to occupy another; had then and there placed a kettle on the smouldering wood fire for the purpose of providing him with refreshment after his journey.

He therefore mechanically followed his guide through a passage and along a verandah until they reached a white gate in a garden paling, when the young man in the light raiment quitted him with this farewell precept—

‘The front entrance is between those two large rose-bushes, and the first room to the right of the hall. Mrs. Devereux or Miss Pollie sure to be there.’

Proceeding along the path as he had been directed, Bertram Devereux commenced to experience a slight degree of surprise, even curiosity. He was evidently in an aesthetic region, short as had been the distance from the sternest commonplace. The borders had been carefully kept. Flowers were blooming profusely. Oranges and limes shed a subtle and powerful odour around. The stars gleamed on a sheet of water which had evidently helped to create this oasis in the desert. The whispering leaves of the banana brought back memories of tropic glories of foliage. Turning between two vast cloth-of-gold standards, the blooms of which met and clustered about his head, he ascended a flight of steps and found himself in a broad verandah furnished with cane lounges and hammocks.

The hanging lamp, which illumined a wide and lofty hall, showed ferns of various size and foliage, the delicate colouring of which struck gratefully upon his aching and dust-enfeebled eyes. A book, a few gathered flowers, lay upon a small table with some half-executed ornamental needlework. All told of recent feminine presence and occupation.

As he lingered in observation of these novelties, a lady passed into the hall from a side-door and advanced with a look of kindly welcome.

‘You are Bertram Devereux, I know, and oh! though your hair and eyes are dark’—here she looked wistfully in his face—‘I can see the family likeness to my darling husband. You are the only one of his relations I have seen. You may think how welcome you are at Corindah. But it is a lonely life. I am afraid you will miss the society you have been accustomed to. My husband could never have endured it but that he hoped to make a fortune.’

‘And so do I, Aunt Mary,’ said the young man, with a quiet smile. ‘Had I not expected great things I should never have come so far from civilisation. But I should not talk so,’ he added, looking round. ‘You seem to have everything one has been used to, conservatories and all.’

‘We have always tried to live in reasonable comfort,’ replied Mrs. Devereux. ‘As to the fortune, it is sometimes a long time in coming. And a dry year like this delays it still more. Now, having told you how glad we are to see you, you will be anxious to be shown your bedroom. In half an hour the bell will ring for tea. We do not dine late, but I can promise you something substantial after your journey.’

After a bath and a leisurely change of toilette in the very well appointed bedroom where he was installed—the flowers upon the dressing and writing tables betokening the expected guest—the pilgrim commenced to take a more tolerant view of Australian prospects than up to this period he had deemed possible.

‘Quiet, yet dignified and refined woman, my new aunt,’ he soliloquised. ‘Very far from the bustling farmer’s wife I had expected. Handsome in her youth—very—must have been. My erratic cousin was by no means such a fool as we all thought him. And her fair daughter, too—how about her? A beauty and an heiress, they all say. I never bargained for that. Seems as if there were women wherever one goes—wherever I go, at least. Just my luck.’

Mr. Devereux had scarcely enunciated this disheartening truism, with a mildly resigned, not to say desponding expression of countenance, when the bell of which he had been warned rang out a peal. Placing a rosebud of Gloire de Dijon in his button-hole, he sought the drawing-room, of which he found himself the sole occupant.

He had observed that it was handsomely furnished, in a style not noticeably different from the fashion of the day, being not wholly devoid of china, having a few rare plaques and Moorish brass-ware—there was even a dado, also a magnificent grand piano by Erard—when two young people came through one of the French windows which ‘gave’ into the verandah.

‘I shall never agree with you, Harold,’ the girl was saying to her companion; ‘not even if we lived here for the next twenty years—and I shall drown or otherwise make away with myself in that case.’

‘There are worse places than Corindah,’ replied a young man who followed her in. ‘You may live to be convinced of the fact.’

‘I should hate any place,’ retorted the girl, in playful defiance, ‘if I had to live there all my life. I quite envy my cousin Mr. Devereux, who has only just come. Everything will be so nice and new to him. Cousin Bertram,’ she said, advancing and holding out her hand, ‘I am charmed to welcome you. Mother and I have been talking of no one else for the last week. Let me introduce Mr. Harold Atherstone, a near neighbour and a great friend of ours. He will be able to give you advice and information beyond all price.’

The two men bowed gravely, as is the manner of freshly acquainted Britons, and looked steadily, if not searchingly, into each other’s eyes. The new-comer spoke first.

‘I can’t tell you how pleased I am with everything—and everybody,’ he said, after a slight pause; ‘so different from what I had expected. I feel as if I had found a home and relations instead of leaving them for ever. Most happy to meet Mr. Atherstone, and hope to profit by his experience and other people’s.’

For the few seconds that passed while the new friend and the old one confronted one another the young lady regarded them keenly. Nor was her mind idle. ‘As far as appearance goes,’ she thought, ‘Harold has certainly the best of it. Tall, well-proportioned, with nice brown hair and beard, and those honest grey eyes—what most girls would call a splendid fellow, and so he is. Why am I not fonder of him? Bertram is certainly distinguished looking, but he is only middle-sized and almost plain—dark hair and eyes, rather good these last. I feel disappointed; I don’t know why. He smiles nicely—that is, he could if he took the trouble. We must wait, I suppose, till his character develops. I hate waiting. I see mother coming. We had better go in to tea.’

This last observation was the only one audible. The other results of lightning-like apprehension had only been flashed by electric agencies from eye and heart to brain there registered, doubtless, for future verification or erasure, as circumstances might determine. Mrs. Devereux had entered. Pollie offered her arm to her cousin, whom she piloted to the dining-room, leaving Mr. Atherstone to follow with her mother.

If the young émigré had been previously astonished at the tone of the household arrangements, he was even more surprised as he surveyed the well-lighted room and marked with much inward satisfaction the well-served repast, the complete and elegant table appointments. The tea equipage at the head of the table, over which Mrs. Devereux presided, determined the character of the repast; but the general effect was that of a sufficiently good dinner, with adjuncts of light wine and the pale ale of Britain, which neither of the young men declined. Both ladies were becomingly dressed in evening costume—Mrs. Devereux plainly and unobtrusively, while her daughter had donned for the occasion a sea-green mermaiden triumph of millinery, which subtly suited the delicate tints of her complexion, as also the silken masses of her abundant hair.

In the trial of first introductions, unless the key-note be swiftly struck and more than one of the talkers be enthusiastic, the conversation is apt to languish, being chiefly tentative and fragmentary. Now Poltie was eagerly enthusiastic, but her burning impatience on a score of subjects awoke no responsive note in the incurious, undemonstrative kinsman. He was apparently ready to receive information about the customs of a country and people to him so novel, but did not press for it.

He studiously avoided committing himself to opinions, and made but few assertions. On the other hand, Harold Atherstone declined to pose as a didactic or locally well-informed personage, contenting himself with remarking that those intending pastoralists who possessed common sense acquired information for themselves; to the other division advice was useless and experience vain. This cynical summing up of the Great Australian Question merely caused the stranger to raise his eyebrows, and Pollie to pout and declare that Mr. Atherstone was very disobliging and quite unlike himself that evening.

Upon this it appeared to Mrs. Devereux to interpose an apologetic observation concerning the state of the country, including the roads, live-stock, and pasturage; to which their guest made answer that he had always believed Australia to be a dry and parched region, and had supposed this to be a normal state of matters.

‘Oh! we’re not quite so bad always as you see us now,’ exclaimed Pollie, suppressing a laugh. ‘Are we, Harold? You would hardly believe that these dusty plains are covered with grass as high as a horse’s head in a good season, would you now?’

Mr. Devereux did not believe it. But he inclined his head politely and said that it must present a very pleasing appearance.

‘Yes, indeed,’ continued the girl. ‘In the old days the shepherds were provided with horses, because the grass was so tall that the sheep used to get lost. Men on foot could not see them in it.’

The listener began to feel convinced that the facts related were approaching the border of strange travel and adventure so circumstantially described by one Lemuel Gulliver, but he manfully witheld utterance of the heresy, merely remarking that they would think that very strange in England.

‘I’m afraid you’re cautious,’ quoth his fair teacher, trying to frown. ‘If there’s anything I despise, it’s caution. It’s your duty as a newly arrived person to be wildly astonished at anything, to make quantities of mistakes, and so gradually to learn the noble and aristocratic profession of a squatter. If you’re going to be unnaturally rational, I shall have no pleasure in teaching you.’

‘If you will undertake the task,’ replied the neophyte, with a sudden gleam in his dark eyes which for an instant lighted up the somewhat sombre countenance, ‘I will promise to commit all the errors you may think necessary.’

‘As to that, we’ll see,’ answered the damsel, with a fine affectation of carelessness. ‘I make no promises. We shall have plenty of time—Oh, dear! what quantities of it we do waste here—to find out all one another’s bad qualities. Shall we not, Harold?’

‘I have never made any discoveries of the sort, Miss Devereux,’ said the young man; ‘I can’t answer, of course, for the result of your explorations.’

‘I couldn’t find anything bad in you,’ said the girl eagerly, ‘if I tried for a century. That’s the worst of it. You always put me in the wrong. Doesn’t he, mother? There’s no satisfaction in quarrelling with him.’

‘Why should you quarrel if it comes to that?’ queried the matron, with a wistful glance at her child. ‘You only differ in opinion occasionally, I observe.’

‘Why, because quarrelling is one of the necessities—I should almost say luxuries—of existence,’ retorted the young lady. ‘What would life be without it? Think of the pleasure of making it up. I should die if I didn’t quarrel with somebody now and then.’

‘Or talk nonsense occasionally, as your cousin has doubtless by this time observed,’ answered her mother. ‘I think we may adjourn to the drawing-room.’

The drawing-room in this case meant the verandah, in which luxurious retreat the little party soon ensconced themselves.

‘Really,’ remarked Devereux, as he lit a cigar and abandoned himself to the inner depths of a Cingalese chair, ‘if there was a little motion, I could fancy we were in the Red Sea. Same sky, same stars, same mild temperature, and tobacco. This is very different from the stern realities of colonial life I had pictured to myself.’

‘We don’t give ourselves out as industrial martyrs,’ remarked Atherstone placidly, ‘but you will probably find out that bush life is not all beer and skittles.’

‘Hope not,’ replied Devereux. ‘That would be too good to last, obviously. Still I can gather that you have extenuating circumstances. I certainly never expected to spend my first evening like this.’

Atherstone made no answer, but apparently permitted his pipe reverie to prevail. The other man reclined as if somewhat fatigued, and smoked his cigar, listening indolently to the running conversational comment which his cousin kept up, sometimes with him, sometimes with Atherstone, whose answers were chiefly monosyllabic. The girl’s fresh voice falling pleasantly upon his ear, with the lulling effect of rhythmic melody or murmuring stream, Mr. Bertram Devereux was led to the conclusion, by his novel and interesting experience, that an evening might be spent pleasantly, even luxuriously, at this incredible ‘distance from town,’ as he himself would have expressed it.

With this conviction, however, and the termination of his cigar came a distinctly soporific proclivity, so that, pleading fatigue and declining further refreshment, the newcomer was fain to betake himself to bed, in which blessed refuge from care and pain, labour and sorrow, he shortly ceased to revolve the very comprehensive subject of colonial experience.

The Crooked Stick - Contents    |     Chapter IV

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