The Crooked Stick

Chapter VIII

Rolf Boldrewood

AFTER the splendour and distinction of the Cathay, the voyage to New Zealand was a tame affair, voted so even by Mrs. Devereux. Both ladies were heartily glad when the wooded heights of the Britain of the South rose from the underworld, and they addressed themselves to the great question of disembarkation with earnestness.

Of their stay in the land of the Maori and of their enjoyment of the daily supply of delights and wonders, it were superfluous to tell; of Pollie’s reverential admiration for the first Rangatira whom she encountered—a grizzled, war-worn chief who had fought stubbornly against us at the Gate Pah, and had in his day killed (and eaten) many a tribal foe. Upon the brilliant verdure of the pasture refreshed by the perennial moisture of a sea-girdled isle, the hawthorn hedges, the roadside ditches, the old-world English look of so many things and people, she was never tired of expatiating. The people, the scenery, the climate, and the soil were new. The forests of strange glossy-leaved trees, of noble pines, of clinging parasites with crimson blossoms, held neither bird, nor beast, nor leaf, nor flower akin to those of the Australian continent.

‘What a wonderful region! So near to us—a few days’ voyage only—and yet so unlike. And what a sheep country! No dingoes, no eagles, no snakes, no crows! This last is simply incredible. Fancy a country without crows! There must be something wrong about it. What would Mr. Gateward say? And such grass! If we only could have “travelled” over here in the drought! It seems hard that Providence devoted all the intervening distance to water. Had it been dry land, it would have been worth all the rest of our continent.’

‘“The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof,” my darling,’ said the mother. ‘I don’t like to hear you talk lightly about such things. Seas and lands were doubtless arranged as they are for some wise purpose.’

‘I never meant to be irreverent, my dearest. I was only thinking what a pity this fine south latitude region should be useless. Only fancy, except this little New Zealand dot, there is no habitable land between us and the South Pole. Oh! I forgot the Crozets—those islands where the ship was wrecked, and the passengers were cast away nearly twelve months. All their hair turned white as fleeces. So complexion is only a matter of latitude after all.’

Their time was all too short when the route was again given, and the party with which they had amalgamated proceeded by tourist stages to the dream-region of Rotomahana.

Of the glories and triumphs of that wonderland who shall tell adequately, who depict with a tithe of the fresh brilliant colouring that Nature—earliest of Royal Academicians—has invented?

‘I will never go back,’ quoth Pollie; ‘here I will live and die. I will become a guide, like Maori Kate here—magnificent creature that she is! I will never be proud of civilisation again. What do we get by it forsooth? Headaches, neuralgia, nervous systems, toothaches, and shortened lives. These noble Maoris never have headaches, except from too much rum—which is only a transient, not a chronic ailment—but unfailing appetite, health, strength and activity; hair that doesn’t come out or turn bald and grey; teeth that serve to reduce food and not to enrich dentists. I say we are manifestly inferior to this noble people. Why do we want to conquer them or convert them?’

‘My darling,’ said Mrs. Devereux, ‘this air is too stimulating; I am afraid you are going out of your mind. It will never do for you to go on in England like this. Fancy what your father’s family would think!’

‘I shall sober down before we take our European tour,’ answered the young lady. ‘I shall have something to talk about, though, shan’t I? And we must go through Paris; I don’t want to be “bonneted” metaphorically (that’s rather neat, dear, between ourselves) because my headgear is not up to the fashionable cousins’ standard. But I think I could hold my own. I shall begin by being very simple, and having things explained to me that I have known all my life; then dawn on them by degrees.’

‘My darling, you only need to be your own dear, sweet self, and be assured you will be able to hold your own with any people you are likely to meet at home or abroad. I don’t wish my pet to affect anything, either below or above her. You have great natural gifts, a fairly good education, and what experience you are deficient in will always be made up by your unusual quickness of comprehension. That is your old mother’s honest opinion, and she would not deceive you for the world.’

‘And I care not two straws for anybody else in comparison, you dear old darling. You are ever so clever too—if you were not so unreasonably diffident about yourself. However, I will educate you when we reach England. You’ll see the firm of “Pollie and Mother” will achieve distinction.’

The summer joys passed all too quickly. Why cannot one remain in fairyland? Perhaps as the years rolled on we should hear one morning a dismal summons. The faces of our gay companions would undergo a terrible alteration. The dread messenger had arrived who was to exact ‘the teind for hell.’ Thus it ran in the old ballad. So True Thomas found it. The fairy flowers withered, the fay faces changed. All was pale, awesome. The day of payment for pleasure unstinted and unhallowed joys had arrived.

There is always a day of reckoning, a reactionary change from pleasant sojourns. True Thomas lies beneath the ‘knowe’ at Ercildoune. Our modern fairies are clad in tulle and tarlatan; are seen beneath electric lights. Old faiths are crumbling. They lie—like ‘ancient thrones’—in the workrooms of scientists and positivists. Yet still is there a flavour of the old-world belief which clings about us. Remorse and regret, passion and despair, survive. And even as we return from the land of pleasure along paths of duty, the refrain sounds sadly in our ears that all earth’s joys are fleeting; that the ocean of eternity must be the end of life’s bark; that its tideless waves may ever be heard, deeply dirgeful, in the intervals of vanity and madness.

So, when the first Australian winter month—that of May—found the travellers again en route for Corindah, where everything bade fair to be as quiet and peaceful as on the day they left, Pollie’s first feeling was one of indefinable regret. ‘I could almost wish we had never left home, mother,’ she said; ‘everything will look so quiet and dull till we regain our eyesight. It looks mean and ungrateful to the dear old place and our friends to go back to them as a kind of pis aller after having exhausted the pleasures of vagabondising. I suppose we shall drop into our old sleepy ways again by degrees. We are such creatures of habit.’

‘For my part, I am thankful to get back,’ said Mrs. Devereux. ‘My dear garden will be looking so well, as I see that they have had rain. I quite pine for a little needlework, too. I miss my steady pursuits, I must say.’

‘Garden!’ said Pollie disdainfully; ‘a pretty garden it will look after the bright rata and laurel thickets, the ancient groves of totara and kauri, the ferny dells of Waitaki! It seems like growing mustard and cress upon a yard of damp flannel, as I used to do in my childhood. However, as I said before, our tastes will recover themselves I hope.’

.     .     .     .     .

Corindah once more. Again the endless grey-green plains—the sand-hills—the myall—the mogil—the familiar, not ungraceful, but sparse and monotonous woodland—the wire fences stretching for scores of miles on every side—the gates all of the same pattern—the hundreds of thousands of merino sheep, each unit undistinguishable from another save by the eye of experience—the blue heaven—the mirage—the boundary riders—the men—the horses—the collie dogs—all moving in unvarying grooves, as if they had never done anything else since the travellers departed, and were incapable of change, emotion, or alteration.

However, as the buggy from the station drove through the well-remembered gate, Harold Atherstone, with Bertram and Mr. Gateward, were there to meet the homereturning travellers. The evident pleasure in each face touched the girl’s heart, and she pressed the gnarled hand of the overseer with considerably more cordiality than she was in the habit of putting into her greetings, as she replied to the general expression of welcome.

‘Thought you’d followed my advice and taken the New Zealand mail-steamer for England,’ said Mr. Devereux, with his usual calmness of intonation, though a flush on his ordinarily pale cheek betrayed suppressed emotion. ‘I should have done so in your case I know.’

‘I daresay they have only come home to pack now,’ said Harold. ‘A taste for travel, once acquired, is never shaken off—by women at any rate. The West Logan must look like the Soudan after your late experiences.’

‘You are all very unkind,’ said Pollie; ‘that is, except Mr. Gateward, who is too glad to see us to make rude speeches. Don’t we enjoy coming home like other people with hearts? We are not going away for years, are we, mother?’

‘Not if my wishes are consulted, my dearest,’ said Mrs. Devereux, stretching her neck to look over the garden paling. ‘I want rest, and time to think my own thoughts and enjoy a little quiet life again.’

‘You have come to the right “shop” for that, as I heard one of the boundary riders say to-day, my dear Mrs. Devereux,’ said Bertram. ‘Anything more uniform, not to say monotonous, than our lives here in your absence cannot be imagined. Nothing ever happens here, now that the excitement of the drought is over.’

‘I heard some news by telegram before I came over,’ said Harold, ‘which is likely to cause a stir in the district. It’s rather bad of its sort, and may lead to worse results even.’

‘Thank God for it, anyhow!’ said Bertram; ‘anything is better than the dead level of dulness we have lately been reduced to. What is it?’

The other man looked grave. ‘It’s not a matter to be lightly treated. Two bushrangers are “out.” They shot dead one of the escort troopers from Denman Gaol to Berrima, overpowered the others, and are now at large at no great distance from Wannonbah.’

‘Oh!’ said Mrs. Devereux, turning pale, ‘I am so sorry. Not that I feel frightened; but now that they have shed blood, and must suffer if taken, they are desperate men, and will scarcely be taken alive. Do you know their names?’

‘The younger man is Billy Mossthorne; as for the other, I don’t know. He is an old offender. The police are, of course, all over the district. Sergeant Herne passed Maroobil in an old slouched hat and plain clothes, but one of the men knew him and told me. He will run them down if any one can. Every trooper in the North-West is out.’

‘But what chance in a country like this will he have?’ said Bertram. ‘The outlaws are miles away by this time, and can easily cross the border into Queensland. I’d take short odds they are never seen again.’

Mr. Atherstone smiled. ‘He has the chance of the sleuth-hound on the trail of the deer. The police force of this colony is well organised. Mossthorne is a horseman, a bushman, and a dare-devil not easily matched; but there are as good men as he on his track.’

‘If the brutes would only come into the open,’ said Bertram, with his quiet sneer, ‘one would be saved the bother of thinking about them. They haven’t pluck enough for that, I expect.’

‘To do them justice,’ replied Atherstone, ‘they don’t lack the old English virtue of bulldog courage, as any one will find that meets them under fire. Personally, I should not be grieved if they got away to the “Never Never country,” and were not heard of again. Mossthorne worked for me once. He was a fine manly young fellow, and I have always regretted deeply that he got into bad company and worse ways. In the front of a line regiment or on a quarter-deck, Billy would have shown what stuff he was made of, and his country might have been proud of him.’

‘I have no sympathy with such ruffians, old or young,’ said Devereux. ‘The sooner they are hanged or shot the better, and I should like to have the chance of putting a bullet into either of them.’

‘I daresay I shall shoot as straight as any one else if it comes to a scrimmage,’ said the other; ‘but I can’t help mourning over a good man spoiled. That they will not be taken alive, we may make tolerably sure.’

At the commencement of the conversation Mrs. Devereux had turned pale. The sad memories of the past were awakened. She took the first opportunity of retiring with her daughter, leaving the young men to their argument.

.     .     .     .     .

‘And what have you done with yourself all the time?’ said Pollie to her cousin, as they sat at breakfast next morning. ‘It does seem so hard to have been shut up here while we were in Fairy-land—were we not, mother?’ she said, appealing to Mrs. Devereux, who sat in her place with rather an abstracted air.

‘What were you saying, my dear? Oh! yes, delightful, was it not? I was just thinking that we need not have hurried back. Did you go anywhere, Bertram, or see any society in our absence?’

‘I went to Bourke for a fortnight?’ he answered, with a smile in which there was more sarcasm than merriment. ‘I was afraid to trust myself within the fascination of real civilisation, so I declined Melbourne or Sydney.’

‘And what did you think of that desert city?’ inquired Pollie, with mock humility. ‘Did Your Royal Highness find anybody fit to talk to?’

‘It struck me as a queer place,’ he said. ‘You could not expect me to have seen anything like it before. But it wasn’t bad in its way. The weather was glorious. The men were better than I expected. Rather fast, perhaps. Their manners lacked repose. They took care no one else should have any, as they kept it up all night most of the time I was there. One young fellow jumped his horse over the hotel bar—a thing I had previously taken to be pure fiction, on the American pattern.’

‘That’s rather old-fashioned bush pleasantry,’ said Pollie; ‘he must have been very young. How did the horse like it?’

‘I don’t know, but he did it cleverly. I expected to see both their necks broken and the smash general; but all came right by a miracle, and the fellow won his bet—twenty pounds. I heard him make it.’

‘And was that the only style of society you encountered?’ queried Pollie, with a disdainful and disapproving air. ‘You could have enjoyed that at Wannonbah.’

‘Permit me. I did not enjoy it; I only observed it. But there were really some nice fellows, who had just come over from Queensland—Lord Harrowsby’s younger brother, and Thoresby, a Suffolk man, whose cousin I was quartered with once. They had just been investing in a sugar plantation, and were going to make a fortune in three years. One of the local men asked us all out to his place. Drove four-in-hand, too. We had a famous week of it. I never expected to enjoy it so much. Lived in a really good style.’

‘Wonderful, when you come to think of it,’ said the girl saucily, ‘that any one should have a decent establishment in Australia! But you’ll make discoveries by degrees.’

‘I’m afraid you’re laughing at me,’ he said gravely. ‘I am not of a sanguine disposition, I own. I didn’t expect anything when I came here. But perhaps I shall have fewer mistakes to retract than if I had been imaginative.’

‘I am not laughing at you; indeed, I think you wonderfully wise and prudent for the time you have been out. By and by you will know everything that we do ourselves. But what always entertains me about you recent importations is the mild air of surprise with which you regard the smallest evidence that the men that preceded you, and built up these great cities, this wonderful country, were of much the same birth, breeding, and social status as ourselves.’

‘But many were not, surely? That must be admitted.’

‘The majority were; the leaders, certainly, in every branch of civilisation: how else would the miraculous progress have been effected? The rank and file were much like other people—good, bad, and indifferent.’

.     .     .     .     .

Once more the old life was resumed at Corindah. Once more the succession of easy tasks and simple pleasures obtained. The walks by the river-side—the rides and drives—the history readings—the French and Italian lessons—the peaceful mornings when tranquil Nature seemed assured against change, disturbance, or decay—the dreamy afternoons—the long, quiet evenings divided between books, music, and an occasional game of whist for Mrs. Devereux’s entertainment when Harold Atherstone came over. As the weeks glided on, Pollie could not believe that she had ever left Corindah, that the voyages, the travel, the strange people and incidents were unrealities, fashioned of ‘such stuff as dreams are made on.’

She had resumed her quasi-friendly relations with Bertram Devereux, who apparently had not noticed the alteration of her feelings towards him. With his accustomed patience he had accepted the position, and merely set himself to overcome her doubts and maidenly scruples. In this attempt his knowledge of the subject assured him that he would ultimately succeed.

Harold Atherstone certainly came pretty frequently. He was not a man to be lightly regarded as a rival. ‘What a stir he would have made in some places that I have known!’ thought Devereux to himself. ‘That grand seigneur air of his, the height, the stalwart frame, his Indian-chief sort of immobility, joined to his consummate skill in all accomplishments of an athletic nature. Here,’ he said to himself, with a sardonic smile, ‘he is thrown away. The type is more common than with us, and he has the fatal drawback, in the eyes of our prima donna, of too early, too familiar, too brotherly an intimacy. She knows him like a book. With the perverse instinct of her sex, she despises the well-read, dog’s-eared volume, full of high thought and purpose, and longs for a newer work inferior, possibly, as it may be, but with uncut pages. I shall win this game, I foresee, as I win the odd trick at our little whist tournaments—by superior science, even against better cards. Well, what then? As the husband of the handsomest woman of her year, with Corindah for her ultimate dowry, and a handsome allowance, I suppose one could live in London. Ah! would it not be life again? Not this vegetable existence, which one can stand for a year or two, but dull, dismal, à faire peur, after a while.’

Had the intensity of the feeling which Bertram Devereux had reached reacted upon the girl’s sensitive organisation? No alteration of manner, or one so trifling that it could hardly be perceived, had taken place. Still, like the swimmer on the smoothly gliding tide which leads to the whirlpool or the rapids, she felt conscious of a hidden force, which became daily more difficult to analyse or resist.

Had any one told her, upon the arrival of Bertram Devereux at Corindah, that her heart would eventually be forced to surrender at his summons, the proud beauty would have laughed the prophecy to scorn. But now, when with pensive brow and thoughtful air she searched its recesses, and examined the feelings which held possession of her waking thoughts, she could not deny that the image of the stranger had no rival to fear, no refusal to dread, in the fateful hour which would decide two destinies.

But in the intervals of distrust which disturbed her mind—and there were many—one question invariably asserted prominence, one dark spirit of doubt refused to be laid. She knew that Bertram Devereux had lived much in society in early life; had been of the haute volée of the great world both in England and abroad. Was it possible that he should have been a recognised figure in those luxurious, exclusive circles without having given his heart to some one of the fascinating personages which there abounded?

Were it so, would it be possible that he had pledged himself, unalterably, irrevocably, to return from Australia and fulfil his promise within a certain time? Englishmen often did this, and when time had altered their ideas, or loosened the bonds which in good faith should have remained inflexible, married some girl that took their fancy in the colonies, and quietly settled down for life in the land of their adoption. But such a lover should not be hers, she told herself. He who for gold or light love forfeited his pledged word was a forsworn coward. She could not for an instant brook the idea of being mentally compared with the former occupant of a heart every pulse of which should beat for her and her alone. She knew that every thought, every aspiration, every fibre of her being would be blended in the existence of her lover. Proud, sensitive, unconsciously exacting, even jealous, the fierce blood she inherited from Brian Devereux boiled up as she thought of the indignity, the degradation of sharing in such a sense the affections of any living man. She did not rise from her long musing fit on that still, dreamy, silent eve without telling herself, that in the probable case of Bertram Devereux declaring himself, he should satisfy her fully upon this point, or hand of hers should never clasp his before the altar.

While the great hope which arises in every human breast was perfecting itself—that flower which blooms so fair, or pales and fades untimely, was daily ripening, tending towards fragrance and fruition—the little world of West Logan was apparently stationary. The vast green prairies were commencing to grow yellow before the warm breezes of the early summer; the days were lengthening; the dark-blue gold-fretted nights were shorter; the dawn followed midnight with lesser interval. All things appeared calm and changeless as a summer sea. The stormy ways of evil deeds, crime, and death seemed as improbable as messages from another planet.

Strangers came and went, but they were principally camp-followers of the great armies of sheep which from time to time, being mobilised for various reasons, marched from one end of the territory to the other, or to the borders of other colonies. But one evening a shabbily-dressed man, on a rough-looking horse, rode into the stable-yard, where he encountered Mr. Gateward, whom he engaged in serious conversation.

‘Who in the world can that be?’ asked Bertram irritably, from his seat in the verandah. A book of Rossetti’s poems was before him. He had been reading aloud to his cousin. Her work lay unheeded on the Pembroke table. ‘Another of those confounded sheep “reporters”! I wish they would stay at home for a time. I am sure Gateward and I are sick of the very sight of travelling sheep.’

‘Wait till I take a peep at him,’ said the girl. ‘He does not look altogether like a sheep man.’

Pollie walked to the end of the verandah, and peeping over the lemon hedge which bounded the garden, examined the stranger with a searching and practised eye.

‘His bit and stirrups are rusty. He has an old slouched felt hat, and only one spur. He stoops as he sits in his saddle. Mr. Gateward is looking very serious. What do you make of all that?’ she said archly, as she came back to her companion.

‘Working overseer—thirty or forty thousand sheep—to be at our boundary gate to-night. Wants to go the inner track, where Gateward is saving the grass. No wonder he looks serious.’

‘It would not be a bad guess if matters ran in their ordinary groove; but I see signs of a change, with danger signals ahead. That quiet-looking man is Miles Herne, one of the smartest sergeants in the police force. He has been on the track of the two bushrangers. I saw him two or three years ago, and I don’t forget people that interest me. He is here to get information, or to give some that may be important.’

‘That man a sergeant of police!’ exclaimed Bertram, surprised out of his usual equanimity. ‘You must surely be mistaken, or he is a consummate artist in disguise.’

‘It is the man himself,’ persisted she. ‘We Australians have sharp eyes—savage attributes, you know. He has captured many a cattle-stealer, they say, in that unassuming bush attire. There is a good deal of talent among our New South Wales troopers. There was Senior-Constable Ross, who used to be told off to catch sly grog-sellers. His get-up was wonderful. Once, Harold told me, he went as one of a pair of blackfellows, and quite outdid the real aboriginal, securing a conviction too. Go down and see the sergeant. I am uneasy about his errand.’

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