The little schoolhouse and residence in the scrub was lighted brightly in the midst of the ‘close’, solid blackness of that moonless December night, when the sky and stars were smothered and suffocated by drought haze.
It was the evening of the school children’s ‘Feast’. That is to say that the children had been sent, and ‘let go’, and the younger ones ‘fetched’ through the blazing heat to the school, one day early in the holidays, and raced—sometimes in couples tied together by the legs—and caked, and bunned, and finally improved upon by the local Chadband, and got rid of. The schoolroom had been cleared for dancing, the maps rolled and tied, the desks and blackboards stacked against the wall outside. Tea was over, and the trestles and boards, whereon had been spread better things than had been provided for the unfortunate youngsters, had been taken outside to keep the desks and blackboards company.
On stools running end to end along one side of the room sat about twenty more or less blooming country girls of from fifteen to twenty odd.
On the rest of the stools, running end to end along the other wall, sat about twenty more or less blooming chaps.
It was evident that something was seriously wrong. None of the girls spoke above a hushed whisper. None of the men spoke above a hushed oath. Now and again two or three sidled out, and if you had followed them you would have found that they went outside to listen hard into the darkness and to swear.
‘Tap, tap, tap.’
The rows moved uneasily, and some of the girls turned pale faces nervously towards the side-door, in the direction of the sound.
The tapping came from the kitchen at the rear of the teacher’s residence, and was uncomfortably suggestive of a coffin being made: it was also accompanied by a sickly, indescribable odour—more like that of warm cheap glue than anything else.
In the schoolroom was a painful scene of strained listening. Whenever one of the men returned from outside, or put his head in at the door, all eyes were fastened on him in the flash of a single eye, and then withdrawn hopelessly. At the sound of a horse’s step all eyes and ears were on the door, till some one muttered, ‘It’s only the horses in the paddock.’
Some of the girls’ eyes began to glisten suspiciously, and at last the belle of the party—a great, dark-haired, pink-and-white Blue Mountain girl, who had been sitting for a full minute staring before her, with blue eyes unnaturally bright, suddenly covered her face with her hands, rose, and started blindly from the room, from which she was steered in a hurry by two sympathetic and rather ’upset’ girl friends, and as she passed out she was heard sobbing hysterically—
‘Oh, I can’t help it! I did want to dance! It’s a sh-shame! I can’t help it! I—I want to dance! I rode twenty miles to dance—and—and I want to dance!’
A tall, strapping young Bushman rose, without disguise, and followed the girl out. The rest began to talk loudly of stock, dogs, and horses, and other Bush things; but above their voices rang out that of the girl from the outside—being man comforted—
‘I can’t help it, Jack! I did want to dance! I—I had such—such—a job—to get mother—and—and father to let me come—and—and now!’
The two girl friends came back. ‘He sez to leave her to him,’ they whispered, in reply to an interrogatory glance from the schoolmistress.
‘It’s—it’s no use, Jack!’ came the voice of grief. ‘You don’t know what— what father and mother—is. I—I won’t—be able—to ge-get away— again—for—for—not till I’m married, perhaps.’
The schoolmistress glanced uneasily along the row of girls. ‘I’ll take her into my room and make her lie down,’ she whispered to her sister, who was staying with her. ‘She’ll start some of the other girls presently— it’s just the weather for it,’ and she passed out quietly. That schoolmistress was a woman of penetration.
A final ‘tap-tap’ from the kitchen; then a sound like the squawk of a hurt or frightened child, and the faces in the room turned quickly in that direction and brightened. But there came a bang and a sound like ‘damn!’ and hopelessness settled down.
A shout from the outer darkness, and most of the men and some of the girls rose and hurried out. Fragments of conversation heard in the darkness—
‘It’s two horses, I tell you!’
‘It’s three, you——!’
‘Put the stuff up!’
A clack of gate thrown open.
‘Who is it, Tom?’
Voices from gatewards, yelling, ‘Johnny Mears! They’ve got Johnny Mears!’
Then rose yells, and a cheer such as is seldom heard in scrub-lands.
Out in the kitchen long Dave Regan grabbed, from the far side of the table, where he had thrown it, a burst and battered concertina, which he had been for the last hour vainly trying to patch and make air-tight; and, holding it out towards the back-door, between his palms, as a football is held, he let it drop, and fetched it neatly on the toe of his riding-boot. It was a beautiful kick, the concertina shot out into the blackness, from which was projected, in return, first a short, sudden howl, then a face with one eye glaring and the other covered by an enormous brick-coloured hand, and a voice that wanted to know who shot ‘that lurid loaf of bread?’
But from the schoolroom was heard the loud, free voice of Joe Matthews, M.C.,—
‘Take yer partners! Hurry up! Take yer partners! They’ve got Johnny Mears with his fiddle!’