As Harry said, they might all now lie in bed for a day or two. The rain had set aside for the time the necessity for that urgent watchfulness which kept all hands on the station hard at work during the great heat. There was not, generally, much rest during the year at Gangoil. Lambing in April and May, washing and shearing in September, October, and November, with the fear of fires and the necessary precautions in December and January, did not leave more than sufficient intervals for looking after the water-dams, making and mending fences, procuring stores, and attending to the ailments of the flocks. No man worked harder than the young squatter. But now there had suddenly come a day or two of rest — rest from work which was not of itself productive, but only remedial, and which, therefore, was not begrudged.
But it soon was apparent that the rest could be only for a day or two. The rain had fallen as from ten thousand buckets, but it had fallen only for a space of minutes. On the following morning the thirsty earth had apparently swallowed all the flood. The water in the creek beneath the house stood two feet higher than it had done, and Harry, when he visited the dams round the run, found that they were fall to overflowing, and the grasses were already springing, so quick is the all but tropical growth of the country. They might be safe, perhaps, for eight-and-forty hours. Fire would run only when the ground was absolutely dry, and when every twig or leaf was a combustible. But during those eight-and-forty hours there might be comparative ease at Gangoil.
On the day following the night of the ride Mrs. Heathcote suggested to her husband that she and Kate should ride over to Medlicot’s Mill, as the place was already named, and call on Mrs. Medlicot. “It isn’t Christian,” she said, “for people living out in the bush as we are to quarrel with their neighbors just because they are neighbors.”
“Neighbors!” said Harry; “I don’t know any word that there’s so much humbug about. The Samaritan was the best neighbor I ever heard of, and he lived a long way off, I take it. Anyway, he wasn’t a free-selector.”
“Harry, that’s profane.”
“Every thing I say is wicked. You can go, of course, if you like it. I don’t want to quarrel with any body.”
“Quarreling is so uncomfortable,” said his wife.
“That’s a matter of taste. There are people whom I find it very comfortable to quarrel with. I shouldn’t at all like not to quarrel with the Brownbies, and I’m not at all sure it mayn’t come to be the same with Mr. Giles Medlicot.”
“The Brownbies live by sheep-stealing and horse-stealing.”
“And Medlicot means to live by employing sheep-stealers and horse-stealers. You can go if you like it. You won’t want me to go with you. Will you have the baggy?”
But the ladies said that they would ride. The air was cooler now than it had been, and they would like the exercise. They would take Jacko with them to open the slip-rails, and they would be back by seven for dinner. So they started, taking the track by the wool-shed. The wool-shed was about two miles from the station, and Medlicot’s Mill was seven miles farther, on the bank of the river.
Mr. Giles Medlicot, though at Gangoil he was still spoken of as a new-comer, had already been located for nearly two years on the land which he had purchased immediately on his coming to the colony. He had come out direct from England with the intention of growing sugar, and, whether successful or not in making money, had certainly succeeded in growing crops of sugar-canes and in erecting a mill for crushing them. It probably takes more than two years for a man himself to discover whether he can achieve ultimate success in such an enterprise; and Medlicot was certainly not a man likely to talk much to others of his private concerns. The mill had just been built, and he had lived there himself as soon as a water-tight room had been constructed. It was only within the last three months that he had completed a small cottage residence, and had brought his mother to live with him. Hitherto he had hardly made himself popular. He was not either fish or fowl. The squatters regarded him as an interloper, and as a man holding opinions directly averse to their own interests — in which they were right. And the small free-selectors, who lived on the labor of their own hands — or, as was said of many of them, by stealing sheep and cattle — knew well that he was not of their class. But Medlicot had gone his way steadfastly, if not happily, and complained aloud to no one in the midst of his difficulties. He had not, perhaps, found the Paradise which he had expected in Queensland, but he had found that he could grow sugar; and having begun the work, he was determined to go on with it.
Heathcote was his nearest neighbor, and the only man in his own rank of life who lived within twenty miles of him. When he had started his enterprise he had hoped to make this man his friend, not comprehending at first how great a cause for hostility was created by the very purchase of the land. He had been a new-comer from the old country, and, being alone, had desired friendship. He was Harry Heathcote’s equal in education, intelligence, and fortune, if not in birth — which surely, in the Australian bush, need not count for much. He had assumed, when first meeting the squatter, that good-fellowship between them, on equal terms, would be acceptable to both; but his overtures had been coldly received. Then he, too, had drawn himself up, had declared that Heathcote was an ignorant ass, and had unconsciously made up his mind to commence hostilities. It was in this spirit that he had taken Nokes into his mill, of whose character, had he inquired about it, he would certainly have heard no good. He had now brought his mother to Medlicot’s Mill. She and the Gangoil ladies had met each other on neutral ground, and it was almost necessary that they should either be friends or absolute enemies. Mrs. Heathcote had been aware of this, and bad declared that enmity was horrible.
“Upon my word,” said Harry, “I sometimes think that friendship is more so. I suppose I’m fitted for bush life, for I want to see no one from year’s end to year’s end but my own family and my own people.” And yet this young patriarch in the wilderness was only twenty-four years old, and had been educated at an English school!
Medlicot’s cottage was about a hundred and fifty yards from the mill, looking down upon the Mary, the banks of which at this spot were almost precipitous. The site for the plantation had been chosen because the river afforded the means of carriage down to the sea, and the mill had been so constructed that the sugar hogsheads could be lowered from the buildings into the river boats. Here Mrs. Heathcote and Kate Daly found the old lady sitting at work, all alone, in the veranda. She was a handsome old woman, with gray hair, seventy years of age, with wrinkled face, and a toothless mouth, but with bright eyes, and with no signs of the infirmity of age.
“This is gey kind of you to run so far to see an auld woman,” she said.
Mrs. Heathcote declared that they were used to the heat, and that after the rain the air was pleasant.
“You’re two bright lassies, and you’re hearty,” she said. “I’m auld, and just out of Cumberland, and I find it’s hot enough — and I’m no guid at horseback at all. I dinna know how I’m to get aboot.”
Then Mrs. Heathcote explained that there was an excellent track for a buggy all the way to Gangoil.
“Giles is aye telling me that I’m to gang aboot in a bouggey, but I dinna feel sure of thae bouggeys.”
Mrs. Heathcote, of course, praised the country carriages, and the country roads, and the country generally. Tea was brought in, and the old lady was delighted with her guests. Since she had been at the mill, week had followed week, and she had seen no woman’s face but that of the uncouth girl who waited upon her. “Did ye ever see rain like that!” she said, putting up her hands. “I thought the Lord was sending his clouds down upon us in a lump like.” Then she told them that some of the men had declared that if it went on like that for two hours the Mary would rise and take the cottage away. Giles, however, had declared that to be trash, as the cottage was twenty feet above the ordinary course of the river.
They were just rising to take their leave, when Giles Medlicot himself came in out of the mill. He was a man of good presence, dark, and tall like Heathcote, but stoutly made, with a strongly marked face, given to frowning much when he was eager; bright-eyed, with a broad forehead — certainly a man to be observed as far as his appearance was concerned. He was dressed much as a gentleman dresses in the country at home, and was therefore accounted to be a fop by Harry Heathcote, who was rarely seen abroad in other garb than that which has been described. Harry was an aristocrat, and hated such innovations in the bush as cloth coats and tweed trowsers and neck-hand-kerchiefs.
Medlicot had been full of wrath against his neighbor all the morning. There had been a tone in Heathcote’s voice when he gave his parting warning as to the fire in Medlicot’s pipe which the sugar grower had felt to be intentionally insolent. Nothing had been said which could be openly resented, but offense had surely been intended; and then he had remembered that his mother had been already some months at the mill, and that no mark of neighborly courtesy had been shown to her. The Heathcotes had, he thought, chosen to assume themselves to be superior to him and his, and to treat him as though he had been some laboring man who had saved money enough to purchase a bit of land for himself. He was, therefore, astonished to find the two young ladies sitting with his mother on the very day after such an interview as that of the preceding night.
“The leddies from Gangoil, Giles, have been guid enough to ride over and see me,” said his mother.
Medlicot, of course, shook hands with them, and expressed his sense of their kindness, but he did it awkwardly. He soon, however, declared his purpose of riding part of the way back with them.
“Mr. Heathcote must have been very wet last night,” he said, when they were on horse-back, addressing himself to Kate Daly rather than to her sister.
“Indeed he was — wet to the skin. Were you not?”
“I saw him at about eleven, before the rain began. I was close home, and just escaped. He must have been under it all. Does he often go about the run in that way at night?”
“Only when he’s afraid of fires,” said Kate.
“Is there much to be afraid of? I don’t suppose that any body can be so wicked as to wish to burn the grass.” Then the ladies took upon themselves to explain. “The fires might be caused from negligence or trifling accidents, or might possibly come from the unaided heat of the sun; or there might be enemies.”
“My word! yes; enemies, rather!” said Jacko, who was riding close behind, and who had no idea of being kept out of the conversation merely because he was a servant. Medlicot, turning round, looked at the lad, and asked who were the enemies.
“Free-selectors,” said Jacko.
“I’m a free-selector,” said Medlicot.
“Did not jist mean you,” said Jacko.
“Jacko, you’d better hold your tongue,” said Mrs. Heathcote.
“Hold my tongue! My word! Well, you go on.”
Medlicot came as far as the wool-shed, and then said that he would return. He had thoroughly enjoyed his ride. Kate Daly was bright and pretty and winning; and in the bush, when a man has not seen a lady perhaps for months, brightness and prettiness and winning ways have a double charm. To ride with fair women over turf, through a forest, with a woman who may perhaps some day be wooed, can be a matter of indifference only to a very lethargic man. Giles Medlicot was by no means lethargic. He owned to himself that though Heathcote was a pig-headed ass, the ladies were very nice, and he thought that the pig — headed ass in choosing one of them for himself had by no means taken the nicest.
“You’ll never find your way back,” said Kate, “if you’ve not been here before.”
“I never was here before, and I suppose I must find my way back.” Then he was urged to come on and dine at Gangoil, with a promise that Jacko should return with him in the evening. But this he would not do. Heathcote was a pig-headed ass, who possibly regarded him as an incendiary simply because he had bought some land. This boy of Heathcote’s, whose services had been offered to him, had not scrupled to tell him to his face that he was to be regarded as an enemy. Much as he liked the company of Kate Daly, he could not go to the house of that stupid, arrogant, pig-headed young squatter. “I’m not such a bad bushman but what I can find my way to the river,” he said.
“Find it blindful,” said Jacko, who did not relish the idea of going back to Medlicot’s Mill as guide to another man. There was a weakness in the idea that such aid could be necessary, which was revolting to Jacko’s sense of bush independence.
They were standing on their horses at the entrance to the wool-shed as they discussed the point, when suddenly Harry himself appeared out of the building. He came up and shook hands with Medlicot, with sufficient courtesy, but hardly with cordiality, and then asked his wife as to her ride. “We have been very jolly, haven’t we, Kate? Of course it has been hot, but every thing is not so frightfully parched as it was before the rain. As Mr. Medlicot has come back so far with us, we want him to come on and dine.”
“Pray do, Mr. Medlicot,” said Harry. But again the tone of his voice was not sufficiently hearty to satisfy the man who was invited.
“Thanks, no: I think I’ll hardly do that. — Good-night, Mrs. Heathcote; good-night. Miss Daly;” and the two ladies immediately perceived that his voice, which had hitherto been pleasant in their ears, had ceased to be cordial.
“I am very glad he has gone back,” said Heathcote.
“Why do you say so, Harry? You are not given to be inhospitable, and why should you grudge me and Kate the rare pleasure of seeing a strange face?”
“I’ll tell you why. It’s not about him at this moment; but I’ve been disturbed. — Jacko, go on to the station, and say we’re coming. Do you hear me? Go on at once.” Then Jacko, somewhat unwillingly, galloped off toward the house. “Get off your horses, and come in.”
He helped the two ladies from their saddles, and they all went into the wool-shed, Harry leading the way. In one of the side pens, immediately under the roof, there was a large heap of leaves, the outside portion of which was at present damp, for the rain had beaten in upon it, but which had been as dry as tinder when collected; and there was a row or ridge of mixed brush-wood and leaves so constructed as to form a line from the grass outside on to the heap. “The fellow who did that was an ass,” said Harry; “a greater ass than I should have taken him to be, not to have known that if he could have gotten the grass to burn outside, the wool-shed must have gone without all that preparation. But there isn’t much difficulty now in seeing what the fellow has intended.”
“Was it for a fire?” asked Kate.
“Of course it was. He wouldn’t have been contented with the grass and fences, but wanted to make sure of the shed also. He’d have come to the house and burned us in our beds, only a fellow like that is too much of a coward to run the risk of being seen.”
“But, Harry, why didn’t he light it when he’d done it?” said Mrs. Heathcote.
“Because the Almighty sent the rain at the very moment,” said Harry, striking the top rail of one of the pens with his fist. “I’m not much given to talk about Providence, but this looks like it, does it not?”
“He might have put a match in at the moment?”
“Rain or no rain? Yes, he might. But he was interrupted by more than the rain. I got into the shed myself just at the moment — I and Jacko. It was last night, when the rain was pouring. I heard the man, and dark as was the night, I saw his figure as he fled away.”
“You didn’t know him?” said Miss Daly.
“But that boy, who has the eyes of a cat, he knew him.”
“Jacko knew him by his gait. I should have hardly wanted any one to tell me who it was. I could have named the man at once, but for the fear of doing an injustice.”
“And who was it?”
“Our friend Medlicot’s prime favorite and new factotum, Mr. William Nokes. Mr. William Stokes is the gentleman who intends to burn us all out of house and home, and Mr. Medlicot is the gentleman whose pleasure it is to keep Mr. Nokes in the neighborhood.”
The two women stood awe-struck for a moment, but a sense of justice prevailed upon the wife to speak. “That may be all true,” she said. “Perhaps it is as you say about that man. But you would not therefore think that Mr. Medlicot knows any thing about it?”
“It would be impossible,” said Kate.
“I have not accused him,” said Harry; “but he knows that the man was dismissed, and yet keeps him about the place. Of course he is responsible.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01