The Crooked Stick

Chapter V

Rolf Boldrewood

DURING the half hour bestowed on lunch the weather apparently devoted itself to falsifying Mrs. Devereux’s prediction, and raising Pollie to the position of a prophetess. It is a curious fact that in Australia few people are weather-wise. No one can tell, for instance, with any certainty, when it will rain. No one can say with precision when it will not rain. All other forms of weather, be it understood, are immaterial. Rain means everything—peace, plenty, prosperity, the potentiality of boundless wealth; the want of it losses and crosses, sin, suffering, and starvation. For nearly two years the hearts of the dwellers in that vast pastoral region had been made sick with hope deferred. Now, without warning, with no particular indication of change from the long, warm days and still, cloudless nights that seemed as if they would never end, that earth would gradually become desiccated into a grave of all living creatures, suddenly it commenced to rain as if to reproduce the Noachian deluge.

The larger creeks bore a turgid tide, level with their banks, on the surface of which tree-stems and branches, with differing samples of débris, whirled floating down.

As the hours passed by with no abatement of violence in the falling of the rain or the fury of the storm, in which the wind had arisen, and raged with tempestuous fury in the darkened sky, a feeling of awe and alarm crept over the minds of the two women.

‘There is not a soul about the place, I believe,’ said Mrs. Devereux; ‘Mr.Gateward is away, and every man and boy with him. During all the years I have been here I have never seen such a storm. Poor Bertram! I hope he has taken shelter somewhere. This cold rain is enough to kill him, with such thin clothing as he has on. But of course he will stay at Baradeen; it would be madness to come on.’

‘He said that he would be home to-night, wet or dry. Those were his last words, and he’s rather obstinate. Haven’t you remarked that, mother?’

‘I am afraid he is. It runs in the blood,’ the elder remarked, with a sigh. ‘But there will be no danger unless the Wawanoo Creek is up. It never rises unless the river does, and there’s not rain enough for that.’

‘There seems rain enough for anything,’ said the girl, shuddering. ‘Hark! how it is pouring down now. It will be dark in an hour. I do wish Bertram was home.’

The creek alluded to was a ravine of considerable size and depth, which, serving as one of the anabranches of the river, was rarely filled except in flood time, when it acted as a canal for the purpose of carrying off the superfluous water. Now it was almost dry, and apparently would remain so. It could be distinctly seen from the windows of the room where they were sitting.

At a sudden cry from the girl Mrs. Devereux went to the window. ‘What a wonder of wonders!’ she said; ‘the Wawanoo is coming down. The paling fence in the flat has been carried away.’

The fence alluded to was a high and close palisade across a portion of the flat, down which ran one of the channels of the said Wawanoo Creek. An unusual body of rain, falling apparently during one of the thundershowers, had completely submerged the valley, which, narrowing above the said fence, and being dammed back by it, finally overbore it, and rushed down the main channel of the creek in a yeasty flood.

‘The creek will be twenty feet deep where the road crosses it now,’ said Pollie. ‘If he comes to it he will have to swim. He will never think of its being so deep, and he might be drowned. I knew something would happen. What a lucky thing he took Guardsman!’

As she spoke her mother pointed to a spot where the track crossed the creek. The road itself was now plainly marked as a sepiacoloured, brown line winding through the grassless, herbless, grey levels of the drought-stricken waste. A horseman was riding at speed along the clearly printed track, through the misty lines of fast-falling rain.

‘It is Bertram coming back,’ cried Pollie.

‘I know Guardsman’s long stride; how he is throwing the dirt behind him! I wouldn’t mind the ride myself if I had an old habit on. It must be great fun to be as wet as he must be, and to know one cannot be any worse. Do you think he will try to swim the creek?’

‘He does not seem to dream of pulling up,’ said Mrs. Devereux. ‘Very likely he thinks it can’t be deep when he crossed dry-shod this morning.’

‘Oh, look!’ cried the girl, with a longdrawn inspiration. ‘He has ridden straight in without stopping. What a plunge! They are both over head and ears in it. But Guardsman swims well. Mr.Gateward told me he saw him in the last flood, when he was only a colt. I can see his head; how he shakes it! Gallant old fellow! And there is Bertram sitting as quietly as if he was on dry land. They will be carried down lower, but it is good shelving land on this side. Now they are out, rather staggering, but safe. Thank God for that! Oh, mother are you not glad?’

As Bertram and the brown made joint entrance to the square opposite the stable-yard, dripping like a sea-horse bestridden by a merman, he saw a feminine figure in the verandah of the barracks gesticulating wildly to him, and in a fashion demanding to be heard.

‘Mother says you are to come in directly and change your clothes and take something hot, and not to stay out a moment longer than you can help.’

‘I must see Guardsman made snug first,’ answered the young man, with the same immovable quiet voice, in which not the slightest inflection betrayed any hint of unusual risk. ‘I really couldn’t answer it to my conscience to turn him out to-night. I won’t be long, however.’

.     .     .     .     .

‘When it does rain here it rains hard, I must admit!’ said Mr. Devereux an hour afterwards, as, completely renovated and very carefully attired, he presented himself at dinner. ‘Could not have imagined such a transformation scene of earth and sky. The plain has become a gigantic batter pudding, and the ludicrous attempt at a brook—the Wawanoo Creek—is a minor Mississippi. I thought the old horse would have been swept right down once.’

‘You will find our rivers and some other Australian matters are not to be laughed at,’ answered Pollie, with a heightened colour. ‘But mother and I are too glad to see you back safe to scold you for anything you might say to-night.’

‘Really I feel quite heroic,’ he answered, with a smile which was rarely bestowed with so much kindness; ‘I suppose people are drowned now and then.’

‘I should think so,’ said Pollie. ‘Do you remember that poor young Clarence, from Amhurst, two or three years ago? He was very anxious to get to the Bindera station, where they were having a party; he was told the creek was dangerous, but would try. His horse got caught in a log or something, and came over with him. He was drowned, and carried into the Bindera house next morning a corpse.’

‘Very sad. But men must drop in life’s battle now and then. There would be too many of us fellows else “crawling between earth and heaven,” as Hamlet says.’

‘What a cold-blooded way to talk!’ said Pollie; ‘but of course you really do not think so. Think of quitting life suddenly with all its pleasures.’

‘Pleasures?’ replied Mr. Devereux abruptly. ‘Yes! I daresay very young persons look at it in that light. After all it’s quite a lottery like other games of pitch and toss. Sometimes the backers have it all their own way. Then comes a “fielder’s” year, and the firstnamed are obliterated.’

‘Then do you really think life is only another name for a sort of Derby Day on a large scale, or a Grand National?’ demanded Pollie, with a shocked expression of countenance—‘at the end of which one man is borne in a shining hero, aglow with triumph, while another breaks his neck over the last leap, or loses fame and fortune irrevocably; and that neither can help the appointed lot?’

Her cousin regarded her for a moment with a fixed and searching gaze. Then a ripple of merriment broke over his features, and a rarely seen expression of frank admiration succeeded to the ordinary composure of his visage.’ I don’t go quite as far as that.

“There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
  Rough-hew them how we will.”

But I am afraid few of us live as if we thought so. That ever I should have found myself in Australia was at one time so unlikely, so all but impossible, that I may well believe in the interposition of a Ruler of Events.’

.     .     .     .     .

‘I believe they’ve had rain,’ is the usual answer to him who ‘speirs’ in Australia as to the pastoral welfare of a particular province, district, or locality. It is unnecessary to say more. ‘Man wants but little here below’ is comparatively true; but a short supply of the aqueous fluid on land parallels in its destructive effects the over abundance at sea. When the rain is withheld for a year or two years, as the case may be, losses accumulate, and ruin stalks on apace. The severity of the acknowledged droughts, not merely accidental drynesses, is comparative, and is often matter of conversation.

‘This is the worst drought known for many years,’ was remarked to a young but war-worn pioneer.

‘Pretty well, but not equal to that of 187‒,’ he made answer.

‘Why do you think so?’

‘When that drought commenced,’ he said slowly, ‘we had nine thousand head of cattle on our run on the Darwin. When it broke up we mustered sixteen hundred, and on foot too: we had not had a horse to ride for eighteen months.’

From such merciless disaster was Corindah now saved. Prosperity was assured for at least two years, as well to that spacious property which comprehended 290,000 acres (and not a bad one among them, as Mr. Gateward was fond of asserting) as to a hundred similar pastoral leaseholds from the Macquarie to the Darr. An entirely new state of matters had suddenly arisen. In all directions telegraphic messages were speeding through space, withdrawing this lot of 20,000 ewes or that of a thousand store bullocks from sale; while eager forecasting operators like Mr. Jack Charteris had swept up the supply of saleable sheep, and left their more cautious comrades lamenting their inability to purchase except at prices which ‘left no margin,’ the alternative being to have tens of thousands of acres of waving prairie ‘going to waste’ for want of stock to eat it. The face of Nature had indeed changed. Within a fortnight the arid dusty plains, so barren of aspect, were carpeted with a green mantle, wondrously vivid of hue and rapid of growth. The creek ran musically murmuring towards the river, which itself ‘came down,’ a tawny, turbid stream bank high, and in places overflowing into long dry lagoons and lakelets. Even the birds of the air seemed to be apprised of the wondrous atmospheric change. Great flocks of wild-fowl soared in, migrating from undreamed of central wastes. The lakelets and the river reaches were alive with the heron and the egret. The bird of the wilderness, with giant beak and sweeping wing, was there in battalions; while the roar of wings when a cloud of wild-fowl rose from water was like a discharge of artillery.

Bertram Devereux was, in his heart, truly astonished at the wondrous change wrought in the outward appearance of the region, in the manner and bearing of the dwellers therein, in the tone of the leading newspapers, in everybody’s plans, position, and prospects, which had been wrought by so simple and natural an agent. He, however, carefully preserved his ordinary incurious, impassive immobility, and after casually remarking that this was evidently one of the lands known to the author of the Arabian Nights, and that somebody had been rubbing the magic lamp, and commanded a genie to fetch a few million tons of water from Ireland or Upper India, where it was superfluous, and deliver it here, made no other observation, but rode daily with Mr. Gateward over the sodden, springing pastures, wading through the overflowing marshes, and swimming the dangerous creeks ‘where ford there was none,’ as if he had always expected the West Logan to be akin to the west of Ireland as to soil and climate, and was not disappointed in his expectation.

On the morning after the flood Harold Atherstone had betaken himself to the metropolis, only to be forestalled by Jack Charteris in his rapid and comprehensive purchases of stock. Doubtless other pastoral personages had been duly informed by the magic wire of the momentous change, but even then, such had been the terror, the suffering, the dire endurance of every evil of a twofold ruin, that numbers of owners were found willing to sell their advertised sheep at a very slight advance upon the pre-pluvial prices. So might they be assured of the solvency and security which they had dreaded would never be theirs again. So might they again lay their heads on their pillow at night, thanking God for all His mercies, and for the safety of the future of those dear to them. So might they again be enabled to go forth among their fellowmen, strong in the consciousness that the aching dread, the long-deferred hope, the dark despair slowly creeping on like some dimly seen but implacable beast of prey, were things of the past, phantoms and shadows to be banished for ever from their unhaunted lives.

All these but lately altered circumstances were distinctly in favour of a quick and decisive operator, as was Harold Atherstone when he ‘saw his way.’ Not a plunger like Jack Charteris, he was firm and rapid of evolution when he had distinctly demonstrated his course of action. So when he returned to Maroobil after a month’s absence, he had as many sheep on the road, at highly paying prices, as would keep that ‘well-known fattening station’ and Corindah besides in grass-eaters for many a month to come. Mrs. Devereux was full of gratitude towards him for managing her delegated business so safely and promptly, and again and again declared that there was no living man like Harold Atherstone. He was always to be relied on in the hour of need. He never made mistakes, or was taken in, or forgot things, or procrastinated, like other men. When he said he would do a thing, that thing was done, if it was in the compass of mortal man to do it.

‘In short,’ said Pollie, before whom and for whose benefit and edification this effusive statement was made, ‘in short, he is perfection—a man without a fault. What a pity it is that paragons are never attractive!’

‘Beware of false fires, my darling,’ said the tender mother— ‘misleading lights of feeling apart from reason, which are apt to wreck the trusting, and to end in despairing darkness.’

Among the visitors to Corindah, who made at least a bi-monthly call, was the Honourable Hector MacCallum, M.L.C.

He was a prosperous bachelor, verging on middle age, with several good stations, and an enviable power of leaving them in charge of managers and overseers, while he disported himself in the pleasantest spots of the adjacent colonies, or indeed wheresoever he listed sometimes even in Tasmania, where he was famed for his picnics, four-in-hand driving, and liberality in entertaining. In that favoured isle, where maidens fair do so greatly preponderate, Mr. MacCallum might have brought back a wife from any of his summer trips; and few would have asserted that the damsel honoured by his choice was other than among the fairest and sweetest of that rose-garden of girls.

But then something always prevented him. He wanted to go to New Zealand. It was impossible to settle down before he had seen the wonders of that wonderland—the pink-and-white terraces, the geysers, the paradisiacal gardens, the Eves that flitted through the ‘rata’ thickets, the fountains that dripped and flashed through the hush of midnight. Something was always incomplete. He would come again. And more than one fair cheek grew pale, and bright eyes lost their lustre, ere the inconstant squatter prince was heralded anew.

But now it seemed as if the goodly fish, which had so often drawn back and disappeared, was about to take the bait.

Mr. MacCallum’s visits were apparently accidental. He happened to be in that part of the country, and took the opportunity of calling. He was on his way to Melbourne or Sydney, and was sure he could execute a commission for Mrs. Devereux or Miss Pollie. This, of course, involved a visit on the way back. He was a good-looking, well-preserved man, so that his forty odd years did not put him at much disadvantage, if any, when he came into competition with younger men. Indeed, it is asserted by the experienced personages of their own sex that young girls are in general not given to undervalue the attentions of men older than themselves. It flatters their vanity or gratifies their self-esteem to discover that their callow charms and undeveloped intellects, so lately emancipated from the prosaic thraldom of the schoolroom, suffice to attract men who have seen the world—have, perhaps, borne themselves ‘manful under shield’ in the battlefield of life, have struck hard in grim conflicts where quarter is neither given nor received, and been a portion of the great ‘passion-play’ of the universe. They look down upon their youthful admirers as comparatively raw and inexperienced, like themselves. Theirs is a career of hope and expectation all to come, like their own. They like and esteem them, perhaps take their parts in rehearsals of the old, old melodrama. But in many cases it is not till they see at their feet the war-worn soldier, the scarred veteran who has tempted fate so often in the great hazards of the campaign, who has shared the cruel privations, the deadly hazards of real life—that the imaginative heart of woman fills up all the spaces in the long-outlined sketch of the hero and the king, the lord and master of her destiny, to whom she is henceforth proud to yield worship and loving service.

Why Mr. MacCallum did not marry all this time—he owned to thirty-seven, and his enemies said he was more like forty-five—the dwellers in the country towns on the line of march exhausted themselves in conjecturing. The boldest hazarded the guess that he might have an unacknowledged wife ‘at home.’ Others averred that he was pleasure-loving, of epicurean, self-indulgent tastes, having neither high ambition nor religious views. They would be sorry to trust Angelina or Frederica to such a guardianship. Besides, he was getting quite old. In a few years there would be a great change in him. He had aged a good deal since that last trip of his to Europe, when he had the fever in Rome. Of course he was wealthy, but money was not everything, and a man who spent the greater part of the year at his club was not likely to make a particularly good husband.

The object of all this criticism, comment, and secret exasperation was a squarely built, well-dressed man, slightly above the middle height, and with that indefinable ease of manner and social tact that travel, leisure, and the possession of an assured position generally produce. He was kindly, amusing, invariably polite, and deferential to women of all ages; and there were few who did not acknowledge the charm of his manner, even when they abused him in his absence, or deceived him for their own purposes. In spite of all he was popular, was the Honourable Hector, a man of wide and varied experience, of a bearing and general tournure which left little to be desired. In the matter of courtship he knew sufficiently well that it was injudicious to force the running; that a waiting race was his best chance. He took care never to prolong his visit; always to encircle himself with some surrounding of interest during his stay at Corindah. He pleased Pollie and her mother by being in possession of the newest information on all subjects in which he knew they were interested. He was good-natured and bon camarade with the young men, at the same time in a quiet way exhibiting a slight superiority—as of one whose sphere was larger, whose possessions, interests, opportunities, and prospects generally, placed him upon a different plane from that with which the ordinary individual must be contented. This, of course, rendered more effective the habitual deference which he invariably yielded to both the ladies whom he wished to propitiate, rightly deeming that all the avenues to Pollie’s heart were guarded by the mental presentment of her mother.

‘Really, we quite miss Mr. MacCallum when he leaves Corindah,’ said Pollie one day, as she watched the well-appointed mail-phaeton and high-bred horses which that gentleman always affected, disappearing in the distance. ‘He’s most amusing and well-informed; his manners are so finished—really, there is hardly anything about him that you could wish altered.’

‘So clever and practical, too,’ said Mrs. Devereux. ‘He showed me in a few minutes how he was going to lay out the garden at the new house at, Wanwondah. Really, it will be the most lovely place. And the irrigation is from a plan of his own.’

‘It’s almost a pity to be so extravagant there, isn’t it?’ said her daughter. ‘He told me he never saw it except in the winter and spring. He always spends the summer in some other colony. This year he will go to the hot springs of Waiwera, and see all that delicious North Island, and those unutterably lovely pink-and-white terraces. How I should like to go!’

‘Quite easy,’ said Harold Atherstone, who had been standing by the mantlepiece apparently in a fit of abstraction. ‘You’ve to say “yes” to the Honourable Hector’s unspoken prayer, and he’ll take you there, or to the moon, when Mr. Cook discovers a practicable route. He’s not more than twenty years older than you are—hardly that.’

‘So you think I am likely to marry for the new house at Wanwondah Crossingplace?’ retorted Pollie. ‘Also for the power of going away and leaving all you stupid people to be roasted and boiled during the long dismal summer? Poor things! what would you do without me to tease you all? But it’s a strange peculiarity of society, I believe, that a girl can never make any personal remark but invariably the next idea suggested to her by her friends is, “Whom is she trying to marry?” That being so, why shouldn’t I marry Mr. MacCallum? Not that he has ever asked me.’

‘But he will—you know he will—and if you allow yourself to be carried away by dreams of luxury and unlimited power of travel, which is more likely, you will regret it once only—that is, all your life after.’

‘But say you are not serious, my darling,’ said her mother, with a half-alarmed look. ‘Really, I will take you to Tasmania, or even New Zealand, though it’s dreadfully rough—anywhere, rather than you should be tempted to act against your better judgment. Mr. MacCallum is extremely nice and suitable—but he is far too old for you.’

‘I don’t see that at all,’ replied the young lady petulantly. ‘I like some one I can look up to. All women do. He knows the world of society, letters, politics—not only of these colonies either. Most other girls would—perhaps the phrase is vulgar—“jump at him.” Besides, he is most amusing. Not a mere talker, but full of crisp, pleasant expressions and suggestions. He is a new magazine, with the leaves uncut. Not like some people, gloomy and abstracted half the time.’

‘You don’t see him when he’s off colour—excuse my slang,’ answered the young man. ‘He is not always amusing, people say. But that’s not my affair. If age and experience are the valued qualities, I’m sorry I was not born a generation earlier. And now I must say good-bye; I’m wanted at the back-block Inferno, and have no idea when I shall see you again.’

‘If you are not here this day fortnight,’ said the young lady, with a solemn and tragic expression, ‘and at tea-time, see to it.’

‘But there’s all sorts of trouble at Ban Ban. The dogs are showing up. All the sheep have to come in. There are no shepherds to be got. My working overseer is laid up with acute rheumatism. How can I——’

‘Shepherd or no shepherd,’ persisted the girl,— ‘rain or shine—rheumatism or not—this day fortnight, or you will take the consequence.’

‘I suppose I must manage it,’ quoth the unfortunate young man. ‘Do you remember your Ivanhoe: “Gurth, the son of Beowulf, is the born thrall of Cedric of Rotherwood “? Seems to me that villenage is not extinct, even in this colonial and democratic community.’

‘And a very good thing too,’ retorts this haughty, undisciplined damsel. ‘The feudal system had an amazing deal of good about it. I don’t see why we shouldn’t revive it out here.’

‘Looks rather it at present!’ grumbled Harold. ‘Good-bye, Mrs. Devereux. Fortunately the rain’s general, so we can stand a good deal of oppression and intimidation.’

.     .     .     .     .

In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love,

sang the laureate. And the parallel is sound. Of course it always rains in spring in England.

But suppose it didn’t—as in Australia? He would find that things went differently. The ‘wanton lapwing’ would not get himself another crest, and the poet would have to furnish himself with another example.

In the absence of rain we can assure our readers that things are much otherwise, even with the dumb and feathered tribes. The wild-fowl do come down in a serious, philosophical sort of way. But what they do in effect is this:—

They say—‘We have ciphered this thing out, and have come to the conclusion that it is not going to rain, that it will be a dry spring. That being the case, we are not going to pair, or build, or lay eggs, or going through the ordinary foolishness, in anticipation of rain and certain other adjuncts to matrimony, which will not come.’

And they do not pair.

How are such things managed? Who teaches the birds of the air? How do they know it is going to keep dry?

Yet the results are as I state. There is no young family to provide for, no presents, no trousseaux—and a very good thing, too, under the circumstances.

So with the social and amatory enterprises of the human inhabitants of the dry country; the phenomenon of six inches of rain or otherwise makes all the difference. Mr. Oldhand had promised to build his youngest son Dick a new cottage at the Bree Bree station, which he had managed for him successfully for several years, after which Dick’s marriage with Mary Newcome was to take place, they having been engaged, as was well known to the neighbours here, for the last three years. But the season ‘set in dry.’ Dick had a bad lambing, and lost sheep besides. So the cottage can’t be built this year, the marriage is put off, and Dick’s manly countenance wears an air of settled gloom.

Ergo, it follows that immediately upon the supervening of a period of unexampled prosperity, consequent upon the abnormal rainfall which ‘ran’ Wawanoo Creek in half an hour, and narrowly escaped devoting Bertram Devereux to the unappeased deities of the waste as a befitting sacrifice, proposals of marriage were thick in the air, and matrimonial offers became nearly as plentiful as bids for store sheep.

When Hector MacCallum therefore, as became him, gallantly took the lead as representative of the marrying pastoral section, no one wondered. Speculation and conjecture doubtless, were evoked as to where the many-stationed Sultan might deign to cast his coveted kerchief. In despite of interprovincial jealousies, however, no one was much astonished when reliable information was disseminated to the effect that he had been on a visit of nearly a week to Corindah, had been seen driving Mrs. and Miss Devereux to points of interest in the neighbourhood in his mail-phaeton, that his groom’s livery was more resplendent than ever, and that the famous chestnuts had been replaced by a team of brown horses, admirably matched, thorough-bred, and said to be the most valuable turn-out in work on this side of the line. Acidulated persons, as usual, made exclamation to the effect that ‘they never could see what there was in that girl; some people had wonderful luck; boldness and assurance seemed to take better than any other qualities with the men nowadays,’ and so on. But when gradually it oozed out that there was no triumphant proclamation of engagement after all, that Mr. MacCallum was going to England, could not be back for two or three years, etc.—all of which certainly pointed to the fact of his proposals having been declined, impossible as such a fact would appear—the clamour of the hard-to-please contingent rose loud and high. ‘What did the girl want? Was she waiting for a prince of the blood? After having befooled all the men within her reach, from Jack Charteris to the parson, and ending up with a man old enough to be her father, and who certainly should have known better, was it not heartless and indecent to treat him as she had done? Would not the whole district cry shame upon her, and she be left lamenting in a few years, deserted by every one that had any sense? A vinegary old maid in the future—it would be all her own fault, and that of her mother’s ridiculous vanity and indulgence.’

All unknowing or careless of these arrows of criticism, the free and fearless maiden pursued her career. Mr. MacCallum had, at a well-chosen moment, made his effort and pressed with practised persistence for a favourable answer. But in vain. Under other conditions, men of his age and attributes have been frequently successful, to the wrath and astonishment of younger rivals. But circumstances have been in their favour. Poverty, ignorance of the world, ambition on the part of the girl’s friends, gratitude, have all or each conspired in such case to turn the scale in favour of the wealthy and adroit, if mature, wooer. And so the contract, often a fairly happy one, is concluded.

But in this case Love, the lord of all, had fair play for once. Pollie had distinctly made up her mind, since she was conscious of possessing such a faculty, that she would never marry any one unless she was in love with him ardently, passionately, romantically, without any manner of doubt. People might come and try to please. She could not help that. It was hardly in her nature to be cold or rude to anybody. But as to marrying any one she only liked, she would die first.

She liked, she respected, she in every way approved of Mr. MacCallum; but no! She was much honoured, flattered, and pleased, and really shrank from the idea of giving him so much pain. Mr. MacCallum exaggerated his probable agonies in such a way that a weaker woman might probably have given in—from sheer pity. But as to marrying him, it was out of the question. Her answer was ‘No,’ and nothing could ever alter it.

So the Honourable Hector had to depart in a more disappointed and disgusted frame of mind than had happened to His Royal Highness for many a day. Drought, debts, dingoes, travelling sheep, were all as nothing to this crowning disaster. Everything else being so flourishing, it was a thunderbolt out of a blue sky, crushing his equanimity and self-satisfaction to the dust.

Not his happiness, however. A middleaged bachelor with a good digestion and enviable bank balance is not—whatever the sensational novelist may assert—usually slaughtered by one such miscalculation. He does not like it, of course. He fumes and frets for a week or two, and probably says, ‘Confound the girl! I thought she really liked me.’ Then he falls back upon the time-honoured calculation—a most arithmetically correct one—of those ‘other fish in the sea.’ Claret has a soothing effect. The Club produces alleviating symptoms. And the Laird of Cockpen either marries the next young lady on his list, or, departing to far lands, discovers that the supply of Calypsos and Ariadnes is practically unlimited.

MacCallum, like a shrewd personage, as he was, held his tongue and took the next mail for Europe, reappearing within two years with an exceedingly handsome and lady-like wife, who did full justice to his many good qualities, was very popular, and made Wanwondah quite the show country-house of the neighbourhood.

The Crooked Stick - Contents    |     Chapter VI

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