For the first mile between the wool-shed and the house Heathcote and the two ladies rode without saying a word. There was something so terrible in the reality of the danger which encompassed them that they hardly felt inclined to discuss it. Harry’s dislike to Medlicot was quite a thing apart. That some one had intended to burn down the wool-shed, and had made preparation for doing so, was as apparent to the women as to him. And the man who had been balked by a shower of rain in his first attempt might soon find an opportunity for a second. Harry was well aware that even Jacko’s assertion could not be taken as evidence against the man whom he suspected. In all probability no further attempt would be made upon the wool-shed; but a fire on some distant part of the run would be much more injurious to him than the mere burning of a building. The fire that might ruin him would be one which should get ahead before it was seen, and scour across the ground, consuming the grass down to the very roots over thousands of acres, and destroying fencing over many miles. Such fires pass on, leaving the standing trees unscathed, avoiding even the scrub, which is too moist with the sap of life for consumption, but licking up with fearful rapidity every thing that the sun has dried. He could watch the wool-shed and house, but with no possible care could he so watch the whole run as to justify him in feeling security. There need be no preparation of leaves. A match thrown loosely on the ground would do it. And in regard to a match so thrown, it would be impossible to prove a guilty intention.
“Ought we not to have dispersed the heap?” said Mrs. Heathcote at last. The minds of all of them were full of the matter, but these were the first words spoken.
“I’ll leave it as it is,” said Harry, giving no reason for his decision. He was too full of thought, too heavily laden with anxiety, to speak much. “Come, let’s get on; you’ll want your dinner, and it’s getting dark.” So they cantered on, and got off their horses at the gate, without another word. And not another word was spoken on the subject that night. Harry was very silent, walking up and down the veranda with his pipe in his mouth — not lying on the ground in idle enjoyment — and there was no reading. The two sisters looked at him from time to time with wistful, anxious-eyes, half afraid to disturb him by speech.
As for him, he felt that the weight was all on his own shoulders. He had worked hard, and was on the way to be rich. I do not know that he thought much about money, but he thought very much of success. And he was by nature anxious, sanguine, and impulsive. There might be before him, within the next week, such desolation as would break his heart. He knew men who had been ruined, and had borne their ruin almost without a wail — who had seemed contented to descend to security and mere absence from want. There was his own superintendent, Old Bates, who, though he grumbled at every thing else, never bewailed his own fate. But he knew of himself that any such blow would nearly kill him — such a blow, that is, as might drive him from Gangoil, and force him to be the servant instead of the master of men. Not to be master of all around him seemed to him to be misery. The merchants at Brisbane who took his wool and supplied him with stores had advanced money when he first bought his run, and he still owed them some thousands of pounds. The injury which a great fire would do him would bring him to such a condition that the merchants would demand to have their money repaid. He understood it all, and knew well that it was after this fashion that many a squatter before him had been ruined.
“Speak a word to me about it,” his wife said to him, imploringly, when they were alone together that night.
“My darling, if there were a word to say, I would say it. I must be on the watch, and do the best I can. At present the earth is too damp for mischief.”
“Oh that it would rain again!”
“There will be heat enough before the summer is over; we need not doubt that. But I will tell you of every thing as we go on. I will endeavor to have the man watched. God bless you! Go to sleep, and try to get it out of your thoughts.”
On the following morning he breakfasted early, and mounted his horse without saying a word as to the purport of his journey. This was in accordance with the habit of his life, and would not excite observation; but there was something in his manner which made both the ladies feel that he was intent on some special object. When he intended simply to ride round his fences or to visit the hut of some distant servant, a few minutes signified nothing. He would stand under the veranda and talk, and the women would endeavor to keep him from the saddle. But now there was no loitering, and but little talking. He said a word to Jacko, who brought the horse for him, and then started at a gallop toward the wool-shed.
He did not stop a moment at the shed, not even entering it to see whether the heap of leaves had been displaced during the night, but went on straight to Medlicot’s Mill. He rode the nine miles in an hour, and at once entered the building in which the canes were crushed. The first man he met was Nokes, who acted as overseer, having a gang of Polynesian laborers under him — sleek, swarthy fellows from the South Sea Islands, with linen trowsers on and nothing else — who crept silently among the vats and machinery, shifting the sugar as it was made.
“Well, Nokes,” said Harry, “how are you getting on? Is Mr. Medlicot here?”
Nokes was a big fellow, with a broad, solid face, which would not have condemned him among physiognomists but for a bad eye, which could not look you in the face. He had been a boundary rider for Heathcote, and on an occasion had been impertinent, refusing to leave the yard behind the house unless something was done which those about the place refused to do for him. During the discussion Harry had come in. The man had been drinking, and was still insolent, and Harry had ejected him violently, thrusting him over a gate. The man had returned the next morning, and had then been sent about his business. He had been employed at Medlicot’s Mill, but from the day of his dismissal to this he and Harry had never met each other face to face.
“I’m pretty well, thank ye, Mr. Heathcote. I hope you’re the same, and the ladies. The master’s about somewhere, I take it. — Picky, go and find the master.” Picky was one of the Polynesians, who at once started on his errand.
“Have you been over to Gangoil since you left it?” said Harry, looking the man full in the face.
“Not I, Mr. Heathcote. I never go where I’ve had words. And, to tell you the truth, sugar is better than sheep. I’m very comfortable here, and I never liked your work.”
“You haven’t been at the wool-shed?”
“What, the Gangoil shed! What the blazes ‘d I go there for? It’s a matter of ten miles from here.”
“Seven, is it? It is a longish seven miles, Mr. Heathcote. How could I get that distance? I ain’t so good at walking as I was before I was hurt. You should have remembered that, Mr. Heathcote, when you laid hands on me the other day.”
“You’re not much the worse for what I did; nor yet for the accident, I take it. At any rate, you’ve not been at Gangoil wool-shed?”
“No, I’ve not,” said the man, roughly. “What the mischief should I be doing at your shed at night-time?”
“I said nothing about night-time.”
“I’m here all day, ain’t I? If you’re going to palm off any story against me, Mr. Heathcote, you’ll find yourself in the wrong box. What I does I does on the square.”
Heathcote was now quite sure that Jacko had been right. He had not doubted much before, but now he did not doubt at all but that the man with whom he was speaking was the wretch who was endeavoring to ruin him. And he felt certain, also, that Jacko was true to him. He knew, too, that he had plainly declared his suspicion to the man himself. But he had resolved upon doing this. He could in no way assist himself in circumventing the man’s villainy by keeping his suspense to himself. The man might be frightened, and in spite of all that had passed between him and Medlicot, he still thought it possible that he might induce the sugar grower to co-operate with him in driving Nokes from the neighborhood. He had spent the night in thinking over it all, and this was the resolution to which he had come.
“There’s the master,” said Nokes. “If you’ve got any thing to say about any thing, you’d better say it to him.”
Harry had never before set his foot upon Medlicot’s land since it had been bought away from his own run, and had felt that he would almost demean himself by doing so. He had often looked at the canes from over his own fence, as he had done on the night of the rain; but he had stood always on his own land. Now he was in the sugar-mill, never before having seen such a building. “You’ve a deal of machinery here, Mr. Medlicot,” he said.
“It’s a small affair, after all,” said the other. “I hope to get a good plant before I’ve done.”
“Can I speak a word with you?”
“Certainly. Will you come into the office, or will you go across to the house?”
Harry said that the office would do, and followed Medlicot into a little box-like inclosure which contained a desk and two stools.
“Not much of an office, is it? What can I do for you, Mr. Heathcote?”
Then Harry began his story, which he told at considerable length. He apologized for troubling his neighbor at all on the subject, and endeavored to explain, somewhat awkwardly, that as Mr. Medlicot was a new-comer, he probably might not understand the kind of treatment to which employers in the bush were occasionally subject from their men. On this matter he said much, which, had he been a better tactician, he might probably have left unspoken. He then went on to the story of his own quarrel with Nokes, who had, in truth, been grossly impudent to the women about the house, but who had been punished by instant and violent dismissal from his employment. It was evidently Harry’s idea that a man who had so sinned against his master should be allowed to find no other master — at any rate in that district; an idea with which the other man, who had lately come out from the old country, did not at all sympathize.
“Do you want me to dismiss him?” said Medlicot, in a tone which implied that that would be the last thing he would think of doing.
“You haven’t heard me yet.” Then Harry went on and told of the fires in the heat of summer, and of their terrible effects — of the easy manner of revenge which they supplied to angry, unscrupulous men, and of his own fears at the present moment.
“I can believe it all,” said Medlicot, “and am very sorry that it should be so. But I can not see the justice of punishing a man on the merest, vaguest suspicion. Your only ground for imputing this crime to him is that your own conduct to him may have given him a motive.”
Harry had schooled himself vigorously during the ride as to his own demeanor, and had resolved that he would be cool. “I was going on to tell you,” he said, “what occurred that night after I saw you up by the fence.” Then he described how he and his boy had entered the shed, and had both seen and heard a man as he escaped from it; how the boy had at once declared that the man was Nokes; how the following day he had discovered the leaves, which Nokes no doubt had deposited there just before the rain, intending to burn the place at once; and how Nokes’s manner to him within the last half hour had corroborated his suspicions.
“Is he the boy you call Jacko?”
“That’s the name he goes by.”
“You don’t know his real name?”
“I have never heard any other name.”
“Nor any thing about him?” Harry owned, in answer to half a dozen such questions, that Jacko had come to Gangoil about six months ago — he did not know whence — had been kept for a week’s job, and had then been allowed to remain about the place without any regular wages. “You admit it was quite dark,” continued Medlicot.
Harry did not at all like the cross-examination, and his resolution to be cool was quickly fading. “I told you that I saw myself the figure of a man.”
“But that you barely saw a figure. You did not form any opinion of your own as to the man’s identity.”
Harry Heathcote was as honest as the sun. Much as he disliked being cross-examined, he found himself compelled not only to say the exact truth, but the whole truth. “Certainly not. I barely saw a glimpse of a figure, and, till I spoke to Nokes just now, I almost doubted whether the lad could have distinguished him. I am sure he was right now.”
“Really, Mr. Heathcote, I can’t go along with you. You are accusing a man of committing an offense, which I believe is capital, on the evidence of a boy of whom you know nothing, who may have his own reasons for spiting the man, and whom you yourself did not believe till you had looked this man in the face. I think you allow yourself to be guided too much by your own power of intuition.”
“No, I don’t,” said Harry, who hated his neighbor’s methodical argument.
“At any rate, I can’t consent to take a man’s bread out of his mouth, and to send him away tainted as he would be with this suspicion, either because Jacko thought that he saw him in the dark, or because —”
“I have never asked you to send him away.”
“What is it you want, then?”
“I want to have him watched, so that he may feel that if he attempts to destroy my property his guilt will be detected.”
“Who is to watch him?”
“He is in your employment.”
“He lives in the hut down beyond the gate. Am I to keep a sentry there all night, and every night?”
“I will pay for it.”
“No, Mr. Heathcote. I don’t pretend to know this country yet, but I’ll encourage no such espionage as that. At any rate, it is not English. I dare say the man misbehaved himself in your employment. You say he was drunk. I do not doubt it. But he is not a drunkard, for he never drinks here. A man is not to starve forever because he once got drunk and was impertinent. Nor is he to have a spy at his heels because a boy whom nobody knows chooses to denounce him. I am sorry that you should be in trouble, but I do not know that I can help you.”
Harry’s passion was now very high, and his resolution to be cool was almost thrown to the winds. Medlicot had said many things which were odious to him. In the first place, there had been a tone of insufferable superiority, so Harry thought, and that, too, when he himself had divested himself of all the superiority naturally attached to his position, and had frankly appealed to Medlicot as a neighbor. And then this new-fangled sugar grower had told him that he was not English, and had said grand words, and had altogether made himself objectionable. What did this man know of the Australian bush, that he should dare to talk of this or that as being wrong because it was unEnglish! In England there were police to guard men’s property. Here, out in the Australian forests, a man must guard his own, or lose it. But perhaps it was the indifference to the ruin of the women belonging to him that Harry Heathcote felt the strongest. The stranger cared nothing for the utter desolation which one unscrupulous ruffian might produce, felt no horror at the idea of a vast devastating fire, but could be indignant in his mock philanthropy because it was proposed to watch the doings of a scoundrel!
“Good-morning,” said Harry, turning round and leaving the office brusquely. Medlicot followed him, but Harry went so quickly that not another word was spoken. To him the idea of a neighbor in the bush refusing such assistance as he had asked was as terrible as to us is the thought of a ship at sea leaving another ship in distress. He unhitched his horse from the fence, and galloped home as fast as the animal would carry him.
Medlicot, when he was left alone, took two or three turns about the mill, as though inspecting the work, but at every turn fixed his eyes for a few moments on Noke’s face. The man was standing under a huge caldron regulating the escape of the boiling juice into the different vats by raising and lowering a trap, and giving directions to the Polynesians as he did so. He was evidently conscious that he was being regarded, and, as is usual in such a condition, manifestly failed in his struggle to appear unconscious. Medlicot acknowledged to himself that the man could not look even him in the face. Was it possible that he had been wrong, and that Heathcote, though he had expressed himself badly, was entitled to some sympathy in his fear of what might be done to him by an enemy? Medlicot also desired to be just, being more rational, more logical, and less impulsive than the other, being also somewhat too conscious of his own superior intelligence. He knew that Heathcote had gone away in great dudgeon, and he almost feared that he had been harsh and unneighborly. After a while he stood opposite Nokes and addressed him.
“Do the squatters suffer much from fires?” he said.
“Heathcote has been talking to you about that,” said the man.
“Can’t you say Mr. Heathcote when you speak of a gentleman whose bread you have eaten?”
“Mr. Heathcote, if you like it. We ain’t particular to a shade out here as you are at home. He has been telling you about fires, has he?”
“Well, he has.”
“And talking of me, I suppose?”
“You were talking of having a turn at mining some day. How would it be with you if you were to be off to Gympie?”
“You mean to say I’m to go, Mr. Medlicot?”
“I don’t say that at all.”
“Look here, Mr. Medlicot. My going or staying won’t make any difference to Heathcote. There’s a lot of ’em about here hates him that much that he is never to be allowed to rest in peace. I tell you that fairly. It ain’t any thing as I shall do. Them’s not my ways, Mr. Medlicot. But he has enemies here as’ll never let him rest.”
“Who are they?”
“Pretty nigh every body round. He has carried himself that high they won’t stand him. Who’s Heathcote?”
“Name some who are his enemies.”
“There’s the Brownbies.”
“Oh, the Brownbies. Well, it’s a bad thing to have enemies.” After that he left the sugar-house and went across to the cottage.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01