The constables had started from Gangoil, on their way to Boolabong, a little after four, and from that time till he was made to get out of bed for his dinner Harry Heathcote was allowed to sleep. He had richly earned his rest by his work, and he lay motionless, without a sound, in the broad daylight, with his arm under his head, dreaming, no doubt, of some happy squatting land, in which there were no free-selectors, no fires, no rebellious servants, no floods, no droughts, no wild dogs to worry the lambs, no grass seeds to get into the fleeces, and in which the price of wool stood steady at two shillings and sixpence a pound. His wife from time to time came into the room, shading the light from his eyes, protecting him from the flies, and administering in her soft way to what she thought might be his comforts. His sleep was of the kind which no light, nor even flies, can interrupt. Once or twice she stooped down and kissed his brow, but he was altogether unconscious of her caress.
During this time old Mrs. Medlicot arrived; but her coming did not awake the sleeper, though it was by no means made in silence. The old woman sobbed and cried over her son, at the same time expressing her thankfulness that he should have turned up in the forest so exactly at the proper moment, evidently taking part in the conviction that her Giles had saved Gangoil and all its sheep. And then there were all the necessary arrangements to be made for the night, in accordance with which almost every body had to give up his or her bed and sleep somewhere else. But nothing disturbed Harry. For the present he was allowed to occupy his own room, and he enjoyed the privilege.
Kate Daly during this time was much disturbed in mind. The reader may remember — Kate, at any rate, remembered well — that, just as the doctor had arrived to set his broken bone, Mr. Medlicot, disabled as he was, had attempted to take her by the arm. He had certainly chosen an odd time for a declaration of love, just the moment in which he ought to have been preparing himself for the manipulation of his fractured limb; but, unless he had meant a declaration of love, surely he would not have seized her by the arm. It was a matter to her of great moment. Oh, of what vital importance! The English girl living in a town, or even in what we call the country, has no need to think of any special man till some special man thinks of her. Men are fairly plentiful, and if one man does not come, another will. And there have probably been men coming and going in some sort since the girl left her school-room and became a young lady. But in the bush the thing is very different. It may be that there is no young man available within fifty miles — no possible lover or future husband, unless Heaven should interfere almost with a miracle. To those to whom lovers are as plentiful as blackberries it may seem indelicate to surmise that the thought of such a want should ever enter a girl’s head. I doubt whether the defined idea of any want had ever entered poor Kate’s head. But now that the possible lover was there — not only possible, but very probable — and so eligible in many respects, living so close, with a house over his head and a good business; and then so handsome, and, as Kate thought, so complete a gentleman! Of course she turned it much in her mind. She was very happy with Harry Heathcote. There never was a brother-inlaw so good! But, after all, what is a brother-inlaw, though he be the very best? Kate had already begun to fancy that a house of her own and a husband of her own would be essential to her happiness. But then a man can not be expected to make an offer with a broken collar-bone — certainly can not do so just when the doctor has arrived to set the bone.
Late on in the day, when the doctor had gone, and Medlicot was, according to instructions, sitting out on the veranda in an armchair, and his mother was with him, and while Harry was sleeping as though he never meant to be awake again, Kate managed to say a few words to her sister. It will be understood that the ladies’ hands were by no means empty. The Christmas dinner was in course of preparation, and Sing Sing, that villainous Chinese cook, had absconded. Mrs. Growler, no doubt, did her best; but Mrs. Growler was old and slow, and the house was full of guests. It was by no means an idle time; but still Kate found an opportunity to say a word to her sister in the kitchen.
“What do you think of him, Mary?”
To the married sister “him” would naturally mean Harry Heathcote, of whom, as he lay asleep, the young wife thought that he was the very perfection of patriarchal pastoral manliness; but she knew enough of human nature to be aware that the “him” of the moment to her sister was no longer her own husband. “I think he has got his arm broken fighting for Harry, and that we are bound to do the best we can for him.”
“Oh yes; that’s of course. I’m sure Harry will feel that. He used, you know, to — to — that is, not just to like him, because he is a free-selector.”
“They’ll drop all that now. Of course they could not be expected to know each other at the first starting. I shouldn’t wonder if they became regular friends.”
“That would be nice! After all, though you may be so happy at home, it is better to have something like a neighbor. Don’t you think so?”
“It depends on who the neighbors are. I don’t care much for the Brownbies.”
“They are quite different, Mary.”
“I like the Medlicots very much.”
“I consider he’s quite a gentleman,” said Kate.
“Of course he’s a gentleman. Look here, Kate — I shall be ready to welcome Mr. Medlicot as a brother-inlaw, if things should turn out that way.”
“I didn’t mean that, Mary.”
“Did you not? Well, you can mean it if you please, as far as I am concerned. Has he said any thing to you, dear?”
“Not a word?”
“I don’t know what you call a word; not a word of that kind.”
“I thought, perhaps —”
“I think he meant it once — this morning.”
“I dare say he meant it. And if he meant it this morning, he won’t have forgotten his meaning tomorrow.”
“There’s no reason why he should mean it, you know.”
“None in the least, Kate; is there?”
“Now you’re laughing at me, Mary. I never used to laugh at you when Harry was coming. I was so glad, and I did every thing I could.”
“Yes, you went away and left us in the Botanical Gardens. I remember. But, you see, there are no Botanical Gardens here; and the poor man couldn’t walk about if there were.”
“I wonder what Harry would say if it were to be so.”
“Of course he’d be glad — for your sake.”
“But he does so despise free-selectors! And then he used to think that Mr. Medlicot was quite as bad as the Brownbies. I wouldn’t marry any one to be despised by you and Harry.”
“That’s all gone by, my dear,” said the wife, feeling that she had to apologize for her husband’s prejudices. “Of course one has to find out what people are before one takes them to one’s bosom. Mr. Medlicot has acted in the most friendly way about these fires, and I’m sure Harry will never despise him any more.”
“He couldn’t have done more for a real brother than have his arm broken.”
“But you must remember one thing, Kate, Mr. Medlicot is very nice, and like a gentleman, and all that. Bat you never can be quite certain about any man till he speaks out plainly. Don’t set your heart upon him till you are quite sure that he has set his upon you.”
“Oh no,” said Kate, giving her maidenly assurance when it was so much too late! Just at this moment Mrs. Growler came into the kitchen, and Kate’s promises and her sister’s cautions were for the moment silenced.
“How we’re to manage to get the dinner on the table, I for one don’t know at all,” said Mrs. Growler. “There’s Mr. Bates’ll be here; that will be six of ’em; and that Mr. Medlicot will want somebody to do every thing for him, because he’s been and got hisself smashed. And there’s the old lady has just come out from home, and is as particular as any thing. And Mr. Harry himself never thinks of things at all. One pair of hands, and them very old, can’t do every thing for every body.” All of which was very well understood to mean nothing at all.
Household deficiencies — and, indeed, all deficiencies — are considerable or insignificant in accordance with the aspirations of those concerned. When a man has a regiment of servants in his dining-room, with beautifully cut glass, a forest of flowers, and an iceberg in the middle of his table if the weather be hot, his guests will think themselves ill used and badly fed if aught in the banquet be astray. There must not be a rose leaf ruffled; a failure in the attendance, a falling off in a dish, or a fault in the wine is a crime. But the same guests shall be merry as the evening is long with a leg of mutton and whisky toddy, and will change their own plates, and clear their own table, and think nothing wrong, if from the beginning such has been the intention of the giver of the feast. In spite of Mrs. Growler’s prognostications, though the cook had absconded, and the chief guest of the occasion could not cut up his own meat, that Christmas dinner at Gangoil was eaten with great satisfaction.
Harry had been so far triumphant. He had stopped the fire that was intended to ruin him, he had beaten off his enemies on their own ground, and he was no longer oppressed by that sense of desolation which had almost overpowered him.
“We’ll give one toast, Mrs. Medlicot,” he said, when Mrs. Growler and Kate between them had taken away the relics of the plum-pudding. “Our friends at home!”
The poor lady drank the toast with a sob. “That’s vera weel for you, Mr. Heathcote. You’re young, and will win your way hame, and see auld friends again, nae doubt; but I’ll never see ane of them mair, except those I have here.” Nevertheless, the old lady ate her dinner and drank her toddy, and made much of the occasion, going in and out to her son upon the veranda.
Soon after dinner Heathcote, as was his wont, strayed out with his prime minister Bates to consult on the dangers which might be supposed still to threaten his kingdom, and Mrs. Heathcote, with her youngest boy in her lap, sat talking to Mrs. Medlicot in the parlor. Such was not her custom in weather such as this. Kate had been sent out on to the veranda, with special commands to attend to the wants of the sufferer, and Mrs. Heathcote would have followed her had she not remembered her sister’s appeal, “I did every thing I could for you.”
In those happy days Kate had been very good, and certainly deserved requital for her services. And therefore, when the men had gone out, Mrs. Heathcote, with her guest, remained in the warm room, and went so far as to suggest that at that period of the day the room was preferable to the veranda. Poor Mrs. Medlicot was new to the ways of the bush, and fell into the trap; thus Kate Daly was left alone with her wounded hero.
When told to take him out his glass of wine, and when conscious that no one followed her, she felt herself to have been guilty of some great sin, and was almost tempted to escape. She had asked her sister for help; and this was the help that was forth-coming — help so palpable, so manifest, as to be almost indelicate! Would he think that plans were being made to catch him, now that he was a captive and impotent? The thought that it was possible that such an idea might occur to him was terrible to her. She would rather lose him altogether than feel the stain of such a suggestion on her own conscience. She put the glass of wine down on the little table by his side, and then attempted to withdraw.
“Stay a moment with me,” he said. “Where are they all?”
“Mary and your mother are inside. Harry and Mr. Bates have gone across to look at the horses.”
“I almost feel as though I could walk, too.”
“You must not think of it yet, Mr. Medlicot. It seems almost a wonder that you shouldn’t have to be in bed, and you with your collar-bone broken only last night! I don’t know how you can bear it as you do.”
“I shall be so glad I broke it, if one thing will come about.”
“What thing?” asked Kate, blushing.
“Kate — may I call you Kate?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“You know I love you, do you not? You must know it. Dearest Kate, can you love me and be my wife?” His left arm was bound up, and was in a sling, but he put out his right hand to take hers, if she would give it to him. Kate Daly had never had a lover before, and felt the occasion to be trying. She had no doubt about the matter. If it were only proper for her to declare herself, she could swear with a safe conscience that she loved him better than all the world.
“Put your hand here, Kate,” he said.
As the request was not exactly for the gift of her hand, she placed it in his.
“May I keep it now?”
She could only whisper something which was quite inaudible, even to him.
“I shall keep it, and think that you are all my own. Stoop down, Kate, and kiss me, if you love me.”
She hesitated for a moment, trying to collect her thoughts. She did love him, and was his own; still, to stoop and kiss a man who, if such a thing were to be allowed at all, ought certainly to kiss her! She did not think she could do that. But then she was bound to protect him, wounded and broken as he was, from his own imprudence; and if she did not stoop to him, he would rise to her. She was still in doubt, still standing with her hand in his, half bending over him, but yet half resisting as she bent, when, all suddenly, Harry Heathcote was on the veranda, followed by the two policemen, who had just returned from Boolabong. She was sure that Harry had seen her, and was by no means sure that she had been quick enough in escaping from her lover’s hand to have been unnoticed by the policemen also. She fled away as though guilty, and could hardly recover herself sufficiently to assist Mrs. Growler in producing the additional dinner which was required.
The two men were quickly sent to their rest, as has been told before; and Harry, who had in truth seen how close to his friend his sister-inlaw had been standing, would, had it been possible, have restored the lovers to their old positions; but they were all now on the veranda, and it was impossible. Kate hung back, half in and half out of the sitting-room, and old Mrs. Medlicot had seated herself close to her son. Harry was lying at full length on a rug, and his wife was sitting over him. Then Giles Medlicot, who was not quite contented with the present condition of affairs, made a little speech.
“Mrs. Heathcote,” he said, “I have asked your sister to marry me.”
“Dearie me, Giles,” said Mrs. Medlicot.
Kate remained no longer half in and half out of the parlor, but retreated altogether and hid herself. Harry turned himself over on the rug, and looked up at his wife, claiming infinite credit in that be had foreseen that such a thing might happen.
“And what answer has she given you?” said Mrs. Heathcote.
“She hasn’t given me any answer yet. I wonder what you and Heathcote would say about it?”
“What Kate has to say is much more important,” replied the discreet sister.
“I should like it of all things,” said Harry, jumping up. “It’s always best to be open about these things. When you first came here, I didn’t like you. You took a bit of my river frontage — not that it does me any great harm — and then I was angry about that scoundrel Nokes.”
“I was wrong about Nokes,” said Medlicot, “and have, therefore, had my collar-bone broken. As to the land, you’ll forgive my having it if Kate will come and live there?”
“By George! I should think so. — Kate, why don’t you come out? Come along, my girl. Medlicot has spoken out openly, and you should answer him in the same fashion.” So saying, he dragged her forth, and I fear that, as far as she was concerned, something of the sweetness of her courtship was lost by the publicity with which she was forced to confess her love. “Will you go, Kate, and make sugar down at the mill? I have often thought how bad it would be for Mary and me when you were taken away; but we sha’n’t mind it so much if we knew that you are to be near us.”
“Speak to him, Kate,” said Mrs. Heathcote, with her arm round her sister’s waist.
“I think she’s minded to have him,” said Mrs. Medlicot.
“Tell me, Kate — shall it be so?” pleaded the lover.
She came up to him and leaned over him, and whispered one word which nobody else heard. But they all knew what the word was. And before they separated for the night she was left alone with him, and he got the kiss for which he was asking when the policemen interrupted them.
“That’s what I call a happy Christmas,” said Harry, as the party finally parted for the night.
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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01