“Now, Harold, you have compelled Sybylla to come here, you must not let the time drag with her,” said Miss Beecham.
It was the second day after my arrival at Five–Bob. Lunch was over, and we had adjourned to the veranda. Miss Beecham was busy at her work-table; I was ensconced on a mat on the floor reading a book; Harold was stretched in a squatter’s chair some distance away. His big brown hands were clasped behind his head, his chin rested on his broad chest, his eyes were closed, he occasionally thrust his lower lip forward and sent a puff of breath upwards to scatter the flies from his face; he looked a big monument of comfort, and answered his aunt’s remarks lazily:
“Yes, aunt, I’ll do my best;” and to me, “Miss Melvyn, while here, please bear in mind that it will be no end of pleasure to me to do anything for your enjoyment. Don’t fail to command me in any way.”
“Thank you, Mr Beecham. I will not fail to avail myself of your offer.”
“The absurdity of you two children addressing each other so formally,” said Miss Beecham. “Why, you are a sort of cousins almost, by right of old friendship between the families. You must call me aunt.”
After this Mr Beecham and I called each other nothing when in Miss Beecham’s hearing, but adhered to formality on other occasions.
Harold looked so comfortable and lazy that I longed to test how far he meant the offer he had made me.
“I’m just dying for a row on the river. Would you oblige me?” I said.
“Just look at the thermometer!” exclaimed Miss Augusta. “Wait till it gets cooler, child.”
“Oh, I love the heat!” I replied. “And I am sure it won’t hurt his lordship. He’s used to the sun, to judge from all appearances.”
“Yes, I don’t think it can destroy my complexion,” he said good-humouredly, rubbing his finger and thumb along his stubble-covered chin. The bushmen up-country shaved regularly every Sunday morning, but never during the week for anything less than a ball. They did this to obviate the blue — what they termed “scraped pig”— appearance of the faces of city men in the habit of using the razor daily, and to which they preferred the stubble of a seven-days’ beard. “I’ll take you to the river in half an hour,” he said, rising from his seat. “First I must stick on one of Warrigal’s shoes that he’s flung. I want him tomorrow, and must do it at once, as he always goes lame if ridden immediately after shoeing.”
“Shall I blow the bellows?” I volunteered.
“Oh no, thanks. I can manage myself. It would be better though if I had some one. But I can get one of the girls.”
“Can’t you get one of the boys?” said his aunt.
“There’s not one in. I sent every one off to the Triangle paddock today to do some drafting. They all took their quart pots and a snack in their saddle-bags, and won’t be home till dark.”
“Let me go,” I persisted; “I often blow the bellows for uncle Jay–Jay, and think it great fun.”
The offer of my services being accepted, we set out.
Harold took his favourite horse, Warrigal, from the stable, and led him to the blacksmith’s forge under an open, stringybark-roofed shed, nearly covered with creepers. He lit a fire and put a shoe in it. Doffing his coat and hat, rolling up his shirt-sleeves, and donning a leather apron, he began preparing the horse’s hoof.
When an emergency arose that necessitated uncle Jay–Jay shoeing his horses himself. I always manipulated the bellows, and did so with great decorum, as he was very exacting and I feared his displeasure. In this case it was different. I worked the pole with such energy that it almost blew the whole fire out of the pan, and sent the ashes and sparks in a whirlwind around Harold. The horse — a touchy beast — snorted and dragged his foot from his master’s grasp.
“That the way to blow?” I inquired demurely.
“Take things a little easier,” he replied.
I took them so very easily that the fire was on the last gasp and the shoe nearly cold when it was required.
“This won’t do,” said Beecham.
I recommenced blowing with such force that he had to retreat.
“Steady I steady!” he shouted.
“Sure O’i can’t plaze yez anyhows,” I replied.
“If you don’t try to plaze me directly I’ll punish you in a way you won’t relish,” he said laughingly. But I knew he was thinking of a punishment which I would have secretly enjoyed.
“If you don’t let me finish this work I’ll make one of the men do it tonight by candle-light when they come home tired. I know you wouldn’t like them to do that,” he continued.
“Arrah, go on, ye’re only tazin’!” I retorted. “Don’t you remember telling me that Warrigal was such a nasty-tempered brute that he allowed no one but yourself to touch him?”
“Oh well, then, I’m floored, and will have to put up with the consequences,” he good-humouredly made answer.
Seeing that my efforts to annoy him failed, I gave in, and we were soon done, and then started for the river — Mr Beecham clad in a khaki suit and I in a dainty white wrapper and flyaway sort of hat. In one hand my host held a big white umbrella, with which he shaded me from the hot rays of the October sun, and in the other was a small basket containing cake and lollies for our delectation.
Having traversed the half-mile between the house and river, we pushed off from the bank in a tiny boat just big enough for two. In the teeth of Harold’s remonstrance I persisted in dangling over the boat-side to dabble in the clear, deep, running water. In a few minutes we were in it. Being unable to swim, but for my companion it would have been all up with me. When I rose to the surface he promptly seized me, and without much effort, clothes and all, swam with me to the bank, where we landed — a pair of sorry figures. Harold had mud all over his nose, and in general looked very ludicrous. As soon as I could stand I laughed.
“Oh, for a snapshot of you!” I said.
“We might have both been drowned,” he said sternly.
“Mights don’t fly,” I returned. “And it was worth the dip to see you looking such a comical article.” We were both minus our hats.
His expression relaxed.
“I believe you would laugh at your own funeral. If I look queer, you look forty times worse. Run for your life and get a hot bath and a drop of spirits or you’ll catch your death of cold. Aunt Augusta will take a fit and tie you up for the rest of the time in case something more will happen to you.”
“Catch a death of cold!” I ejaculated. “It is only good, pretty little girls, who are a blessing to everyone, who die for such trifles; girls like I am always live till nearly ninety, to plague themselves and everybody else. I’ll sneak home so that your aunt won’t see me, and no one need be a bit the wiser.”
“You’ll be sun-struck!” he said in dismay.
“Take care you don’t get daughter-struck,” I said perkily, turning to flee, for it had suddenly dawned upon me that my thin wet clothing was outlining my figure rather too clearly for propriety.
By a circuitous way I managed to reach my bedroom unseen. It did not take me long to change my clothes, hang them to dry, and appear on the main veranda where Miss Augusta was still sewing. I picked up the book I had left on the mat, and, taking up a position in a hammock near her, I commenced to read.
“You did not stay long at the river,” she remarked. “Have you been washing your head? I never saw the like of it. Such a mass of it. It will take all day to dry.”
Half an hour later Harold appeared dressed in a warm suit of tweed. He was looking pale and languid, as though he had caught a chill, and shivered as he threw himself on a lounge. I was feeling none the worse for my immersion.
“Why did you change your clothes, Harold? You surely weren’t cold on a day like this. Sybylla has changed hers too, when I come to notice it, and her hair is wet. Have you had an accident?” said Miss Augusta, rising from her chair in a startled manner.
“Rubbish!” ejaculated Harold in a tone which forbade further questioning, and the matter dropped.
She presently left the veranda, and I took the opportunity to say, “It is yourself that requires the hot bath and a drop of spirits, Mr Beecham.”
“Yes; I think I’ll take a good stiff nobbler. I feel a trifle squeamish. It gave me a bit of a turn when I rose to the top and could not see you. I was afraid the boat might have stunned you in capsizing, and you would be drowned before I could find you.”
“Yes; I would have been such a loss to the world in general if I had been drowned,” I said satirically.
Several jackeroos, a neighbouring squatter, and a couple of bicycle tourists turned up at Five–Bob that evening, and we had a jovial night. The great, richly furnished drawing-room was brilliantly lighted, and the magnificent Erard grand piano sang and rang again with music, now martial and loud, now soft and solemn, now gay and sparkling. I made the very pleasant discovery that Harold Beecham was an excellent pianist, a gifted player on the violin, and sang with a strong, clear, well-trained tenor, which penetrated far into the night. How many, many times I have lived those nights over again! The great room with its rich appointments, the superb piano, the lights, the merriment, the breeze from the east, rich with the heavy intoxicating perfume of countless flowers; the tall perfect figure, holding the violin with a master hand, making it speak the same language as I read in the dark eyes of the musician, while above and around was the soft warmth of an Australian summer night.
Ah, health and wealth, happiness and youth, joy and light, life and love! What a warm-hearted place is the world, how full of pleasure, good, and beauty, when fortune smiles! When fortune smiles!
Fortune did smile, and broadly, in those days. We played tricks on one another, and had a deal of innocent fun and frolic. I was a little startled one night on retiring to find a huge goanna near the head of my bed. I called Harold to dislodge the creature, when it came to light that it was roped to the bedpost. Great was the laughter at my expense. Who tethered the goanna I never discovered, but I suspected Harold. In return for this joke, I collected all the portable clocks in the house — about twenty — and arrayed them on his bedroom table. The majority of them were Waterburys for common use, so I set each alarm for a different hour. Inscribing a placard “Hospital for Insane”, I erected it above his door. Next morning I was awakened at three o’clock by fifteen alarms in concert outside my door. When an hour or two later I emerged I found a notice on my door, “This way to the Zoo”.
It was a very busy time for the men at Five–Bob. Waggons were arriving with shearing supplies, for it was drawing nigh unto the great event of the year. In another week’s time the bleat of thousands of sheep, and the incense of much tar and wool, would be ascending to the heavens from the vicinity of Five–Bob Downs. I was looking forward to the shearing. There never was any at Caddagat. Uncle did not keep many sheep, and always sold them long-woolled and rebought after shearing.
I had not much opportunity of persecuting Harold during the daytime. He and all his subordinates were away all day, busy drafting, sorting, and otherwise pottering with sheep. But I always, and Miss Augusta sometimes, went to meet them coming home in the evening. It was great fun. The dogs yelped and jumped about. The men were dirty with much dust, and smelt powerfully of sheep, and had worked hard all day in the blazing sun, but they were never too tired for fun, or at night to dance, after they had bathed and dressed. We all had splendid horses. They reared and pranced; we galloped and jumped every log which came in our path. Jokes, repartee, and nonsense rattled off our tongues. We did not worry about thousands of our fellows — starving and reeking with disease in city slums. We were selfish. We were heedless. We were happy. We were young.
Harold Beecham was a splendid host. Anyone possessed of the least talent for enjoyment had a pleasant time as his guest. He was hospitable in a quiet unostentatious manner. His overseer, jackeroos, and other employees were all allowed the freedom of home, and could invite whom they pleased to Five–Bob Downs. It is all very well to talk of good hosts. Bah, I could be a good hostess myself if I had Harold Beecham’s superior implements of the art! With an immense station, plenty of house-room, tennis courts, musical instruments; a river wherein to fish, swim, and boat; any number of horses, vehicles, orchards, gardens, guns, and ammunition no object, it is easy to be a good host.
I had been just a week at Five–Bob when uncle Julius came to take me home, so I missed the shearing. Caddagat had been a dull hole without me, he averred, and I must return with him that very day. Mr and Miss Beecham remonstrated. Could I not be spared at least a fortnight longer? It would be lonely without me. Thereupon uncle Jay–Jay volunteered to procure Miss Benson from Wyambeet as a substitute. Harold declined the offer with thanks.
“The schemes of youngsters are very transparent,” said uncle Jay–Jay and Miss Augusta, smiling significantly at us. I feigned to be dense, but Harold smiled as though the insinuation was not only known, but also agreeable to him.
Uncle was inexorable, so home I had to go. It was sweet to me to hear from the lips of my grandmother and aunt that my absence had been felt.
As a confidante aunt Helen was the pink of perfection — tactful and sympathetic. My feather-brained chatter must often have bored her, but she apparently was ever interested in it.
I told her long yarns of how I had spent my time at the Beechams; of the deafening duets Harold and I had played on the piano; and how he would persist in dancing with me, and he being so tall and broad, and I so small, it was like being stretched on a hay-rack, and very fatiguing. I gave a graphic account of the arguments — tough ones they were too — that Miss Augusta had with the overseer on religion, and many other subjects; of one jackeroo who gabbed never-endingly about his great relations at home; another who incessantly clattered about spurs, whips, horses, and sport; and the third one — Joe Archer — who talked literature and trash with me.
“What was Harry doing all this time?” asked auntie. “What did he say?”
Harold had been present all the while, yet I could not call to mind one thing he had said. I cannot remember him ever holding forth on a subject or cause, as most people do at one time or another.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54