ON the morning after his arrival the visitor, making his appearance at an early hour, had a short conversation with Mr. Gateward, whom he found at the horse-yard sending out his men for the day. ‘Of course I know nothing of this sort of thing,’ he said; ‘but I have come here to learn, with a view to investing a few thousands I have in a property, or station, as I think you call it. Now understand clearly that I shall be glad to help in the work of the place, in any way that I am fitted for. I can ride and drive decently, shoot, walk, keep accounts; in a general way do most things that other people can. Of course I can’t pick up the whole drill at once, but I don’t want you to spare me. I came to Australia to work, and the sooner I learn the better.’
‘All right, sir,’ replied the bronzed veteran, ‘I’ll see what I can do. If you ride about with me every day, and keep your eyes open, you’ll pick up as much in six months as most of the people know that own stations. It’s a bad year now, and we’re all in the doldrums, as the sailors say. But it’s not going to be that way always. The wind’ll change or the rain’ll come, and then we’ll be able to show you what Corindah looks like in a good season.’
‘Then we understand each other. I’ll take my orders from you, but, of course, from no one else—(‘Not likely,’ interjected Mr. Gateward, looking at the steady eye and short, proud upper lip of the speaker)—‘and early or late, wet or dry (if it ever is wet here), hot or cold, you’ll find me ready and willing. Give me a couple of good hacks, and I’ll soon have an idea of how you carry on the war.’
‘I’m dashed sure you will, sir, and I shall be proud to help a gentleman like you to a knowledge of things, that’s willing to learn, and not too proud to take a hint.’
‘Quite so. I suppose you remember my cousin Brian? I was very young when he left home, but I always heard that he was a hard man to beat at anything he chose to go in for.’
‘He was as fine a man as ever wore shoeleather,’ said the overseer. ‘Everybody respected him in these parts, and he was that jolly and kind in his ways, nobody could help liking him. If he hadn’t been cut off in his prime by that infernal Doctor—the cattle-duffing, horse-stealing hound—he’d have been one of the richest men in the district this very minute.’
‘He was shot by a highway robber?’ inquired Devereux; ‘what you call a bushranger in Australia, don’t you?’
‘Well, there are bushrangers and bushrangers,’ said the overseer. ‘This chap, the Doctor, hadn’t regularly took to the bush, as one might say, though he was worse than many as did. He belonged to a mob of cattle-stealers that used to duff cattle in the back country, and pass them over to Queensland. Well, Mr. Tracknell, one of the squatters in the back blocks, began to run ’em pretty close, and put the police on ’em. They heard he was to be in the coach from Orange on a certain day, and made it right to stick it up and give him a lesson.’
‘What’s sticking up?’
‘Well, sir, by what one hears and reads, it is what used to be called “stopping” on the Queen’s highway in England.’
‘Then they had no grudge against Brian Devereux?’
‘Not a bit in the world. He was known far and wide as a free-handed gentleman. Any one was welcome to stop at Corindah in his time, and no poor man ever went away hungry. The man the Doctor and Bill Bond wanted wasn’t in the coach as it happened. He’d got wind of it and cleared. But they heard there was a gentleman with a big beard going down the country, and made sure it was him. When they came up and saw their mistake, they’d have rode off again, only the Captain was that hot-tempered and angry at their stopping him, that he fired on them, and nearly collared the lot. They returned it, and rode off as well as they could, and never knew till days after that they had hit him. Them as told me said the Doctor was devilish sorry for it, and that he was the last man in the district they’d have hurt.’
‘What became of the Doctor, as you call him?’
‘Well, sir, he’s in the back country somewhere in Queensland yet, I believe. He served a sentence for horse-stealing of seven years; but he’s wanted again, and there’s a warrant out for him. He’s a desperate man now, and I wouldn’t be sure he won’t do something that’ll be talked about yet before his end comes.’
‘It’s to be hoped there’ll be a rope round his neck on that day,’ said Bertram; ‘scoundrels of that kind should be trapped or poisoned like vermin.’
‘Well, sir, the Doctor’s no chop, but there’s worse than Bill Bond, if you’ll believe me. The only thing is, now he’s hunted from pillar to post so, and he ain’t got half a chance to repent if he wanted ever so much, I’m afraid he’ll do something out of the way bad yet.’
The autumnal season, with calm sungilded days, cool starlight, unclouded nights, and mornings fresh and exhilarating, as if newly ordered from Paradise, came gradually to an end. Lovely, passing fair, as weather in the abstract; but dry, dry, always dry, and as such lamentable and injurious. Then winter made believe to arrive with the first week in June. But how could it be winter, Bertram thought, when the skies were still cloudless and untroubled, the mid-day warm, the plains dusty, the air soft, the river low; when the flowers in the garden bloomed and budded as usual; when no leaf fell from the forest; when, save the great acacias in the backyard and the white cedars in the garden, all the trees at Corindah were green and fullfoliaged? The chief difference was that the nights were longer, cooler. There were sharp frosts from time to time; and when Bertram arose early in the morning, according to his wont, all things were covered with an icy mantle. On one occasion, when he met Mr. Gateward coming in from a long night ride, his abundant beard was frozen stiff as a stalactite.
The sheep died faster than ever, at which Bertram wondered much, but did not ask questions. ‘Everything comes to him who waits,’ was one of his favourite proverbs.
‘If it had been always thus,’ he told himself, ‘so many evidences of capital and prosperity would not be here. A change will come sometime, but I cannot hasten it by ignorant questions. I shall learn all about this extraordinary country in the course of time.’
His theory was sound. But Mrs. Devereux was neither so self-contained nor philosophical. She complained and bemoaned herself from time to time, as is the way of women. At the evening meal, when after the day’s duties the two young people and herself met with an affectation of social enjoyment, she made many things plain to the inquiring mind of Bertram Devereux, silent and incurious as he seemed to be.
‘It had not always been thus. In the old, happy days droughts had certainly occurred, but with intervals of years between. Now the seasons seemed to have changed. The year before last was a drought, and now—this was the most sore and terrible grass famine she had ever remembered. Their losses would be frightful, disastrous, ruinous.’
‘Was it on the cards that she would be actually ruined—lose all her property, that is—if the season remained unchanged?’
‘Well, not absolutely. She could not truthfully say that. Even if all the sheep on Corindah died, the whole fifty thousand, the land and fences would remain. But twenty or thirty thousand pounds would be an immense sum to make up. The very thought made her shudder. To think of the years it had taken to make and save it! No doubt she could get more sheep. Her credit, she was thankful to say, was good enough for that.’
‘I believe it’s all Mr. Gateward’s fault, said Pollie impetuously. ‘Why did he persuade you not to buy a station in the mountains last year, where there’s beautiful green grass and running water in the driest summer. That’s what is needed for the poor sheep now. And all for a thousand pounds.’
‘A thousand pounds is a great deal of money,’ said Mrs. Devereux. ‘He thought he could get some country cheaper, and in the meantime it was snapped up. I have been sorry for it ever since. But he meant well, as he always does.’
‘I know that. He’s as good an old creature as ever lived, and devoted to you and me, mother. I wouldn’t say a word against him for the world. But he’s too slow and cautious in matters like this, which need decision. Think of all the poor weak sheep, with their imploring eyes, that would have been kept alive if we had sent twenty or thirty thousand up to those lovely mountains.’
‘I suppose it’s too late now,’ said Bertram.’ Of course I know nothing as yet, but could not some of them—ten thousand or so—be taken away now?’
‘That’s where the misery is,’ said Pollie. ‘The snow has fallen on the mountains. Indeed, nearly all the sheep have come away. Those thirty thousand of Mr. Haller’s that passed here last week, and gave you so much trouble, had just come from there. And how nice and strong they were, do you remember? Our poor things are so weak that they couldn’t travel if we had ever so much green grass to send them to.’
‘It’s Napoleon’s Russian campaign over again—only, that our country’s too dry to hold us, and his was too cold. And is there no return from Elba?’
‘When the rain comes, not before. It may come soon, in a few months, this year, next year, not at all. So we’re in a pleasing state of uncertainty, don’t you think?’
‘And you are not all sitting in sackcloth and ashes, or fasting, or making vows to the saints, and what not! This is a wonderful country, and you are wonderful people, I must say, to take matters so calmly.’
‘We know our country and the general course of the seasons,’ said Mrs. Devereux. ‘In the long-run they prove favourable, though the exceptional years are hard. And we strive to have faith in God’s providence, believing that whoso trusts in Him will not be left desolate.’
Letter from Miss M. A. Devereux to Miss Clara Thornton, Fairoaks, Edgecliffe, Sydney:—
MY DARLING CLARA—I hope you think of me daily, nightly, at breakfast and lunch time; also at midnight, when you can look out of your bedroom window, and see that lovely South Head beacon-light and the star-showers gleaming on the wavelets of the bay; when you can inhale the strong sweet ocean breath, and dream of far-away tropic isles and palm groves, coral reefs, pirates too, and all the delightful denizens of the world of romance. How you ought to pity me, shut up in poor, dry, dusty Corindah!—the weather going from bad to worse; Mother and Mr. Gateward looking more woebegone every day; and the poor sheep dying at such a rate that even as we sit in the house odours are wafted towards us not exactly of Araby the Blest. Bertie calls it ‘bouquet de merino.’
Who is Bertie? Did I not tell you before? He is the English cousin that has come to live with us and learn how to make a fortune by keeping sheep in Australia. ‘What is he like?’ of course you ask. Well, he is not a great many things. So he is not a hero of romance, ready made for the consolation of your poor friend in this famine year. He is not handsome, nor tall, nor clever that is, brilliantly so. Not a particular admirer of his poor Australian cousin either. He is very cool and undemonstrative; lets you find out his talents and strong points by degrees, accidentally, as it were. If I were to describe him more accurately than in any other way that occurs to me, I should say he is different from everybody else I have ever seen in this colony—extremely well able to take care of himself under all circumstances, and quite careless as to the effect he produces.
He is very well educated—cultured, I might say; reads and speaks French and German. So, as we have absolutely nothing to do in the evenings, he reads with me, and I get on a great deal faster than any of us did at Miss Watchtower’s. You know I have always had a passion for what is called ‘seeing the world ‘; it seems to be born in me, and I can recollect when I was quite a little thing being far more interested in books of travel than any other reading. I really believe that if anything led to the station being sold, and we have any money left after these frightful droughts, that I should persuade mother to take me ‘home,’ as we Australians always say, and then have a good, satisfactory, leisurely prowl over Europe. Now, do you see what I am coming to? What is the use of seeing everything in dumb show? I intend to work hard, very hard, at languages now I have the chance. Then I shall be able to enjoy life and instruct my mind fully when I do go abroad. Abroad! Rome, Paris, Florence! The idea is too ecstatic altogether. I shall die if it is not realised. I feel as if I should die of joy if it is.
I am writing at my little table in my bedroom. As I look out the moonlight makes everything as clear as day. There is a slight breeze, and I can actually see the dust as it rises on the plain, midwinter though it is supposed to be. I couldn’t live here all my life, now could I? Not for all the cattle and sheep in Australia! I don’t feel inclined to go to bed. But I suppose I must say good-night to my dearest Clara, and remain your too lonely friend,
After the first month or two of the excitement caused by the arrival of a ‘new chum’ at Corindah on the experience ticket, as the vernacular of the West Logan had it, much of the mingled curiosity, doubt, or disapproval with which the emigrant gentleman is usually regarded in a distant provincial circle died away. Of this last attribute of the neophyte Mr. Devereux had incurred but little. Studiously careful of speech, habitually courteous in bearing, and wholly indifferent to general opinion, but few men of those with whom he was brought into contact could find anything upon which-to found depreciatory opinion. The utmost that professional carpers and cynics could aver amounted merely to an inability to ‘make him out,’ as they phrased it, coupled with a lurking suspicion that he ‘thought himself a deuced deal too good for the district of West Logan and the people that belonged to it.’
‘Confound him!’ said Bob Barker, who posed as a leading society man and arbiter elegantiarum, ‘what right has he to come here and look down on the lot of us as if we were small farmers or country bumpkins? Suppose he was in the Guards, there’s nothing so wonderful about that. I know his mother was a lady in her own right, but a gentleman is only a gentleman, and other people have relatives in the aristocracy as well as him.’
Here Bob twisted his moustache and looked proudly around the company—squatters, magistrates, and others, a select party of whom, this being Court-day at Wannonbah, had assembled in the parlour of the principal hotel.
‘Are you quite sure that he does look down, as you call it, upon all of us fellows, Barker, or did you only think it was ten to one he would?’ said one of the assembled magistrates, a native-born Australian, with a slow, monotonous intonation which did injustice to a shrewd intellect and keen sense of humour. ‘You know we are rather rusty, some of us. We’ve been so long away from England.’ Here the speaker bestowed a wink of preternatural subtlety upon a good-humoured looking, middle-aged man who occupied the chair at the head of the table.
‘Rusty be hanged!’ said Mr. Barker. ‘I could go home and take my position in society to-morrow as if I had never left. I don’t want any young military puppy to teach me manners.’
‘But what—did—he—do, Barker?’ inquired the other squatter; ‘or—what—did—he—say—that—put—your—monkey—up?’
‘Well, of course he didn’t do anything, and as for saying, he was infernally polite; but somehow I knew by the quiet, simple way he spoke what he was thinking of. And then, when we were playing whist, Atherstone and I with Miss Devereux and the old lady, he looked on until I asked if he was approved of our play. He smiled faintly, and then begged to know whether “out here” we were always in the habit of leading from our longest suits? I could have kicked him on the spot.’
‘But—perhaps—he—only—wanted—to—know,’ pursued his tormentor, who now appeared honestly desirous of extracting information. ‘You’re—so—very smart—Barker, yourself—you—know.’
‘Oh, I dropped down to him,’ said Barker. ‘They’ve got some confounded new-fangled way of calling for trumps in these London clubs, and of course, like all English people, he thinks we never hear anything or read anything, and have never seen any society men for a century but himself. Why, wasn’t General Burstall here the other day on leave from India? Saw my brother at Simla just the week he left. However, wait till this season’s over. That’ll take some of the starch out of him.’
‘It’ll—take—the—starch—out—of—some—of—us—too,’ replied the first speaker, ‘if—it—doesn’t—break—up—soon. I’ve—lost—six—thousand—pounds—worth—of—cattle—already. Everybody—says—your—frontage—looks—frightful—Bar—ker—eh?’
The intense gravity and slow solemnity with which this sudden assault was performed upon Mr. Barker, impugning the character of his run, and by implication his probable solvency, appeared so overpoweringly ludicrous to the company, that a diversion was effected in favour of Mr. Barker’s pasturage, who therefore permitted the personal questions to lapse.
Letter from Bertram Devereux to Captain Goodwood, 6th Dragoon Guards:—
CORINDAH, NEW SOUTH WALES, AUSTRALIA,
MY DEAR CHARLIE—Partly on account of a weak promise to let you and one or two more of the old set into the secrets of my other-world life when I said goodbye after that fatal Derby that proved such a smasher, partly because one has such enormous quantities of spare time in the desert here, I am going to produce a respectable despatch may even go the length of becoming a regular correspondent while quartered here.
My jottings down, apart from any personal interest which may yet survive the writer’s departure, ought to possess a certain value as tidings from a far country—descriptions of a mode of life and state of society of which no one I ever met in England had the faintest idea. It is odd, too, for how many youngsters from good families that we know have emigrated within the last ten years! And with one or two exceptions there was no gleaning any information from their friends. Either the fellows didn’t write or had done indifferently, and so the less said the better, or else the friends hardly could tell whether they lived in Victoria, Western Australia, New South Wales, or Tasmania, which is much as if the whereabouts of a continental traveller should be described as indifferently as in Belgium, Berlin, Switzerland, or Sicily. There is a want of exactitude about our countrymen, I must say, in all matters that do not concern their own immediate interests, most painful to persons gifted with a love of method—like you and me, for instance. No wonder we English are always caught unprepared when we go to war, and get laughed at all over Europe—till we begin to fight, that is. The reaction sets in then.
However, revenons à nos moutons—a strictly appropriate tag, inasmuch as this lodge in the wilderness is surrounded by enormous estates, leasehold, not freehold, by the way, all devoted to the production of the merino variety of the ovine family. Millions of them are bred in these great solitudes. In favourable years I gather that one is enabled to export about one-half to a fourth of their value, in the shape of wool. This brings a good price, is as negotiable as gold, and the fortunes of the returned colonists that we used to see in London society are thus compiled. Of course there are details, the which I am setting my mind to master. But they would hardly interest you. One trifling fact I may mention, lest you may imagine the progress of fortune-constructing too ridiculously easy. It is, that there has been next to no rain for more than a year, strange, almost incredible, as it may seem to you of the rainy isles. In consequence, the country looks like a desert, and tens of thousands ot sheep are dying here, and for hundreds of miles in every direction. Occurrences of this kind, you will understand, delay indefinitely and perhaps wholly frustrate one’s too obvious purpose of gathering a competency and hurrying out of the strange country as fast as may be.
‘All this is very well,’ I hear you say; ‘but what about the social system? Why doesn’t he tell me about her?—for of course there is a woman somewhere within the orbit of his existence. Wonder what they’re like out there. Must be some, I suppose.’
With your usual acuteness, which I have rarely known at fault, unless confronted by a plain unvarnished robbery like the doing to death of the favourite (and very nearly the backers) in our fatal year, you have hit the gold.
Well, somehow or other, there is a she. How strange it seems that one’s life, whether
or in the midst of cities, or even in the comparatively assured and fortified privacy of a messroom, should never be wholly free from the invasion of womankind. A book, a photograph, a souvenir of the slightest kind, is sufficient to arouse the tempestuous motives of those who are doomed to be ‘the prey of the gods’ in this peculiar fashion. How much more so the perfect human form, ‘ripe and real,’ when it comes before your eyes in all the unconscious temptation of virgin youth and beauty scarce unfolded morning, noon, and night. Add to this that I’m at present habitans in sicco, and you will conclude, with the swift logical subtlety so proverbially yours, that as a latter-day hermit I may compare favourably with St. Anthony.
Heaven knows I did not rush into danger. Languid and prostrated as I was after the overthrow of all my worldly hopes; worn and despairing when the one devouring, passionate love of my life had disappeared, and it was like the last scene of a tragedy, when nothing is left for the spectators but to wrap their cloaks around them and go home—I deemed that I was coming to a land where there were no women, except black ones or those required for culinary purposes.
How little we know of these new lands and their inhabitants, all English as they are, as if in the Midland Counties, yet of manner strangely fresh! All is high development and new material. How I am shut up with a magnificent young creature, with a face like Egeria, and a figure like the huntress maid, burning with enthusiasm, talented, cultured, full of all noble feminine attributes; dangerous with the fascinations of fresh, innocent womanhood, yet ignorant of the ways of the world, and childlike in her unsuspicious confidence!
How I wish I was young again! I do really, Charlie. Could I but blot out the years that have intervened—not so many—but what Dead-Sea fruits have I not tasted during their stormy course? What a burnt-out volcano is this heart of mine! Could I but recall the past and be like one of our schoolboy heroes!
What empires and kingdoms would I give—supposing them to be mine—to revert to that position, and so prove myself worthy of the fresh heart, the petals of which are about to open before my graduated advance, like a rose in June! That I shall be the favoured suitor, despite of the opposition of a good-looking, stalwart, provincial rival, my experience assures me. With women l’inconnu is always the interesting, the romantic, the irresistible. In despite of myself, I can see clearly my future position of jeune premier in this opera of the wilderness. It might be worse, you will say. That I grant. But you know that Helen of Troy would never control this restless, wayward heart of mine in perpetuity.
For the rest, the life is bearable enough, free, untrammelled, novel, with a tinge of adventure. My days are spent in the saddle. There’s just a hint of shooting, no hunting, no fishing. We dress for dinner, and live much as at a shooting-lodge in the Highlands, with stock-riders for gillies. So we are not altogether barbarous, as you others imagine. This letter is far too long, and imprudently confiding, so I hasten to subscribe myself yours, as of old,
So much for the impression Pollie was capable of producing on a worn, world-weary heart.
It was a strange fate which had thus imprisoned this beautiful creature, so richly endowed with all the attributes which combine to form the restless, tameless, unsatisfied man, amid surroundings so uninteresting and changeless. Eager for adventure, even for danger, she was curious with a child’s hungering, insatiable appetite for the knowledge of wondrous lands, cities, peoples; hating the daily monotone to which the woman’s household duties are necessarily attuned. Capable of the strongest, the most passionate attachments, yet all-ignorant as yet of the subtle, sweet, o’ermastering tone of the world-conquering harmony of love. In the position to which she appeared immovably attached by circumstance, she seemed like a strayed bright-plumaged bird, a foreign captive, taken in infancy and reared in an alien land.
A chamois in a sheepfold, a leopardess in a drawing-room, a red deer in a trim and close-paled enclosure, could not have been more hopelessly at war with surroundings, more incongruously provided with food and shelter. Day after day a growing discontent, a hopeless despair of life, seemed to weigh her down, to take the savour from existence, to restrain the instinctive sportiveness of youth, to hush the spirit-song of praise with which, like the awakening bird, she should have welcomed each dawning morn.
‘Why must it be thus?’ she often asked herself when, restless at midnight as at noonday, she gazed from her window across the wide star-lit plain, in which groups of melancholy, swaying, pale-hued trees seemed to be whispering secrets of past famine years or sighing weirdly over sorrows to come.
‘Will it always be thus?’ thought she, ‘and is my life to trickle slowly along like the course of our enfeebled stream, until after long assimilation to this desert dreariness I become like one of the house-mothers I see around me? Ignorant, incurious, narrow, with an intelligence gradually shrivelling up to the dimensions of a childhood with which they have nothing else in common! What a hateful prospect! What a death in life to look forward to! Were it not for my darling mother and the few friends I may call my own, I feel as if I could put an end to an existence which has so little to recommend it, so pitiably small an outlook.’
In all this outburst of capricious discontent the experienced reader of the world’s page will perceive nothing more than the instinctive, unwarranted impatience of youth, which in man or woman is so utterly devoid of reason or gratitude.
What! does not the vast, calm universe wait and watch, weak railer at destiny, for the completion of ‘Nature’s wondrous plan,’ counting not the years, the aeons, as the sands of the sea, that intervene between promise and fulfilment? Hast thou not enjoyed ease, love unwearying, anxious tendance, from the dawn of thy helpless, as yet useless being; and while all creation suffers and travails, canst thou not endure the unfolding of thy fated lot?
Applying, possibly, some such remedies to her mental ailment, life appeared to go on at Corindah much as it had done, Pollie thought, since the earliest days she could remember as a tiny girl. She could almost have supposed that the same things had been said by the same people, or people very like them, since her babyhood. Wonderings whether it would rain soon, by the mildly expectant; doubts whether it would ever rain again, by the scoffers and unbelievers; assertions that the seasons had changed, by the prophets of evil; superficial, sanguine predictions that it would rain some day, by the light-minded; hope and trusting confidence in the Great Ruler, by the devout, that He would not suffer his people to be utterly cast down and forsaken, that the dumb creatures of His hand would have a bound set to their sufferings—all these things had she heard and experienced from time to time ever since she could recall herself as a conscious entity. Then after a less or greater interval the blessed rain of heaven would fall, plenteously, excessively, perhaps superfluously, without warning, without limit, and the long agony of the drought would be over.
Something of this sort had Pollie been saying to her cousin, as they sat at breakfast one gusty, unsettled, red-clouded morning. He had been inquiring satirically whether it ever rained at Corindah.
‘He had been here six months and had never seen any. Would all the sheep die? Would all the watercourses dry up? Would they all be forced to abandon the station? And was this a sample of Australia and its vaunted bush life?’
‘Things are not quite so bad generally,’ laughed Pollie; ‘though I cannot deny that in these months, unless the weather changes, it will be what you call a “blue look-out.” Poor mother is more anxious every week, and Mr. Gateward’s face is becoming fixed in one expression, like that of a bronze idol.’
‘It hardly seems like a laughing matter,’ said he gravely. ‘The loss of the labour of years, of a fortune, and then “Que faire?”’
‘I am laughing in faith,’ retorted Pollie; ‘so that really I am in a more religious frame of mind than all the solemn-faced people who despair of God’s goodness. Of course, it will rain some time or other. It might even rain to-night, though it does not look the least like it. Again, it might not rain for a year.’
‘What a terribly incomprehensible state of matters to exist in!’ said Bertram. ‘I little thought, when I grumbled at a rainy week in England, what blessings in disguise I was undervaluing. And what would be the case if a small deluge took place?’
‘All the rivers would be in flood. A few shepherds and mail-men, poor fellows! would be drowned, and the whole North-West country, say a thousand miles square, would be one luxuriant prairie of grass nearly as high as your head. Mr. Gateward would sing for joy as far as his musical disabilities would permit him; and poor mother’s bank account would be nearly twenty thousand pounds on the right side within a few weeks.’
‘And the sheep?’
‘A few hundreds would die—the wet and cold would kill them, being weak. All the rest would wax fat, and perhaps kick in a month.’
‘Truly wonderful! I must take your word literally, but really I should hardly believe any one else.’
‘You may always believe me,’ the girl said proudly, as she stood up and faced him, with raised head and erect form, her bright blue eyes fixed steadfastly upon his, and almost emitting a flash, it seemed to him, from their steady glow. ‘Promise me that every word I say shall be accepted by you as the absolute, unalterable truth, or I shall speak to you no more about my native land, or anything else.’
‘I promise,’ he said, taking her hand in his own and reverently bowing over it; ‘and now I am going for a long ride, to the outer well; I must be off.’
‘To Durbah, forty miles and more?’ she said. ‘Why did not you make an earlier start? What are you going to ride?’
‘Wongamong,’ he said. ‘He is a wonderful goer, and seems quieter than he was.’
‘He is a treacherous, bad-tempered brute,’ she returned answer, rather quickly, ‘and nothing will ever make him quiet. Besides, I think there’s some break of weather coming on. The wind has changed for the third time since sunrise, and the clouds are banking up fast to the west. We might have a storm.’
‘What fun!’ said the Englishman; ‘I should like it of all things. The climate here does not seem to have energy enough for a right down good storm.’
‘You don’t know what you are talking about,’ she said; ‘you haven’t seen a storm, or a flood, or a bush-fire, or anything. Take my advice and ride a steady horse to-day. Something tells me you might want one. Promise me that you will.’
There was an unusual earnestness in the girl’s voice as she spoke, as, placing her hand on his shoulder, she looked in his face. A low muttering roll of thunder seemed to accentuate her appeal. The young man smiled, as he answered, ‘My dearest Pollie, I should be sorry to refuse the slightest request so flatteringly in my interest: I will seek me a charger practised in the ménage in place of the erratic Wongamong.’
In a few minutes more, as she stood by the open window, she saw him ride through the outer gate on a dark bay horse, whose elastic stride and powerful frame showed him to be one of those rare combinations of strength, speed, and courage, of which the great Australian land holds no inconsiderable number.
‘Dear old Guardsman! I’m so glad that he took him. I didn’t know that he was in. I wonder what makes me so nervous to-day. It surely cannot be going to rain, or is there an earthquake imminent? I believe in presentiments, and if the day is like the others we have had this year, I never shall do so again. There goes another clap of thunder!’
That morning was spent by Pollie Devereux, it must be confessed, in a manner so aimless, so inconsistent with her mother’s fixed principles on the score of regular employment for young women, that it drew forth more than one mild reproach from that kindly matron.
‘My dear, I can’t bear to see you going about from one room to another without settling to anything. Can you not sit down to your work, or practise, or go on with some historical reading, or your French, in which Bertram says you are making such progress? You’re wasting your time sadly.’
‘Mother!’ said her daughter, facing round upon her with mock defiance, ‘could you sit down to your work if there was going to be a shipwreck, or a cyclone, or a great battle fought on the plain? Though, really, you good old mother, I think you would, and thread your needle till the Roundheads marched in at the outer gate, as they did in “The Lay of Britomart,” or took down the slip-rails, as it would be in our case. But do you know, there is an electrical current in the air, I am sure, and so I, being of a more excitable nature, do really feel so aroused and excited, that I can’t keep quiet. Something is going to happen.’
‘Now, my dearest Pollie, are not you letting your imagination run away with you? What can happen? There may be a little wind and rain—what the shepherds call “a nice storm”—but nothing else, I fear.’
‘“Something wicked this way comes,”’ chanted Pollie, putting herself into a dramatic attitude. ‘See how dark it is growing! Look at the lightning! Oh, dear, what a flash! And down comes the rain at last—in earnest, too.’
‘The rain will have to be very earnest, my dear,’ said Mrs. Devereux, ‘before poor Corindah feels the benefit of it though that certainly is a heavy shower. Early in the season too; this is only the 8th of February. There is the lunch-bell. Come along, my dear. A little lunch will do you good.’
‘How wet poor Bertram will be!’ said Pollie, pityingly. ‘He said we couldn’t have storms here.’