Near the end of February 1857, I think about the 20th or so, though it don’t much matter; I only know it was near the latter end of summer, burning hot, with the bushfires raging like volcanoes on the ranges, and the river reduced to a slender stream of water, almost lost upon the broad white flats of quartz shingle. It was the end of February, I said, when Major Buckley, Captain Brentwood (formerly of the Artillery), and I, Geoffry Hamlyn, sat together over our wine in the veranda at Baroona, gazing sleepily on the grey plains that rolled away east and north-east towards the sea.
We had sat silent for some time, too lazy to speak, almost to think. The beautiful flower-garden which lay before us, sloping towards the river, looked rather brown and sere, after the hot winds, although the orange-trees were still green enough, and vast clusters of purple grapes were ripening rapidly among the yellowing vine-leaves. On the whole, however, the garden was but a poor subject of contemplation for one who remembered it in all its full November beauty, and so my eye travelled away to the left, to a broad paddock of yellow grass which bounded the garden on that side, and there I watched an old horse feeding.
A very old horse indeed, a horse which seemed to have reached the utmost bounds of equine existence. And yet such a beautiful beast. Even as I looked some wild young colts were let out of the stockyard, and came galloping and whinnying towards him, and then it was a sight to see the old fellow as he trotted towards them, with his nose in the air, and his tail arched, throwing his legs out before him with the ease and grace of a four-year-old, and making me regret that he wasn’t my property and ten years younger; — altogether, even then, one of the finest horses of his class I had ever seen, and suddenly a thought came over me, and I grew animated.
“Major Buckley,” I said, “what horse is that?”
“What horse is that?” repeated the major very slowly. “Why, my good fellow, old Widderin, to be sure.”
“Bless me!” I said; “You don’t mean to say that that old horse is alive still?”
“He looks like it,” said the major. “He’d carry you a mile or two, yet.”
“I thought he had died while I was in England,” I said. “Ah, major, that horse’s history would be worth writing.”
“If you began,” answered the major, “to write the history of the horse, you must write also the history of every body who was concerned in those circumstances which caused Sam to take a certain famous ride upon him. And you would find that the history of the horse would be reduced into very small compass, and that the rest of your book would assume proportions too vast for the human intellect to grasp.”
“How so?” I said.
He entered into certain details, which I will not give. “You would have,” he said, “to begin at the end of the last century, and bring one gradually on to the present time. Good heavens! just consider.”
“I think you exaggerate,” I said.
“Not at all,” he answered. “You must begin the histories of the Buckley and Thornton families in the last generation. The Brentwoods also, must not be omitted — why there’s work for several years. What do you say, Brentwood?”
“The work of a life-time;” said the captain.
“But suppose I were to write a simple narrative of the principal events in the histories of the three families, which no one is more able to do than myself, seeing that nothing important has ever happened without my hearing of it — how, I say, would you like that?”
“If it amused you to write it, I am sure it would amuse us to read it,” said the major.
“But you are rather old to turn author,” said Captain Brentwood; “you’ll make a failure of it; in fact, you’ll never get through with it.”
I replied not, but went into my bedroom, and returning with a thick roll of papers threw it on the floor — as on the stage the honest notary throws down the long-lost will — and there I stood for a moment with my arms folded, eyeing Brentwood triumphantly.
“It is already done, captain,” I said. “There it lies.”
The captain lit a cigar, and said nothing; but the major said, “Good gracious me! and when was this done?”
“Partly here, and partly in England. I propose to read it aloud to you, if it will not bore you.”
“A really excellent idea,” said the major. “My dear!”— this last was addressed to a figure which was now seen approaching us up a long vista of trellised vines. A tall figure dressed in grey. The figure, one could see as she came nearer, of a most beautiful old woman.
Dressed I said in grey, with a white handkerchief pinned over her grey hair, and a light Indian shawl hanging from her shoulders. As upright as a dart: she came towards us through the burning heat, as calmly and majestically as if the temperature had been delightfully moderate. A hoary old magpie accompanied her, evidently of great age, and from time to time barked like an old bulldog, in a wheezy whisper.
“My dear,” said the major; “Hamlyn is going to read aloud some manuscript to us.”
“That will be very delightful, this hot weather,” said Mrs. Buckley. “May I ask the subject, old friend?”
“I would rather you did not, my dear madam; you will soon discover, in spite of a change of names, and perhaps somewhat of localities.”
“Well, go on,” said the major; and so on I went with the next chapter, which is the first of the story.
The reader will probably ask:
“Now, who on earth is Major Buckley? and who is Captain Brentwood? and last not least, who the Dickens are you?” If you will have patience, my dear sir, you will find it all out in a very short time — Read on.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52