All the Saturday night Heathcote had been on the run, and he did not return home to bed till nearly dawn on the Sunday morning. At about noon prayers were read out on the veranda, the congregation consisting of Mrs. Heathcote and her sister, Mrs. Growler, and Jacko. Harry himself was rather averse to this performance, intimating that Mrs. Growler, if she were so minded, could read the prayers for herself in the kitchen, and that, as regarded Jacko, they would be altogether thrown away. But his wife had made a point of maintaining the practice, and he had of course yielded. The service was not long, and when it was over Harry got into a chair and was soon asleep. He had been in the saddle during sixteen hours of the previous day and night, and was entitled to be fatigued. His wife sat beside him, every now and again protecting him from the flies, while Kate Daly sat by with her Bible in her hand. But she, too, from time to time, was watching her brother-inlaw. The trouble of his spirits and the work that he felt himself bound to do touched them with a strong feeling, and taught them to regard him for the time as a young hero.
“How quietly he sleeps!” Kate said. “The fatigue of the last week must have been terrible.”
“He is quite, quite knocked up,” said the wife.
“I ain’t knocked up a bit,” said Harry, jumping up from his chair. “What should knock me up? I wasn’t asleep, was I?”
“Just dozing, dear.”
“Ah, well; there isn’t any thing to do, and it’s too hot to get out. I wonder Old Bates didn’t come in for prayers.”
“I don’t think he cares much for prayers,” said Mrs. Heathcote.
“But he likes an excuse for a nobbler as well as any one. Did I tell you that they had fires over at Jackson’s yesterday — at Goolaroo?”
“Was there any harm done?”
“A deal of grass burned, and they had to drive the sheep, which won’t serve them this kind of weather. I don’t know which I fear most — the grass, the fences, or the sheep. As for the buildings, I don’t think they’ll try that again.”
“Why not, Harry?”
“The risk of being seen is too great. I can hardly understand that a man like Nokes should have been such a fool as he was.”
“You think it was Nokes?”
“Oh yes, certainly. In the first place, Jacko is as true as steel. I don’t mean to swear by the boy, though I think he is a good boy. But I’m sure he’s true in this. And then the man’s manner to myself was conclusive. I can not understand a man in Medlicot’s position supporting a fellow like that. By Heavens! it nearly drives me mad to think of it. Thousands and thousands of pounds are at stake. All that a man has in the world is exposed to the malice of a scoundrel like Nokes! And then a man who calls himself a gentleman will talk about it being unEnglish to look after him. He’s a ‘new chum;’ I suppose that’s his excuse.”
“If it’s a sufficient excuse, you should excuse him,” said Kate, with good feminine logic.
“That’s just like you all over. He’s good-looking, and therefore it’s all right. He ought to have learned better. He ought, at any rate, to believe that men who have been here much longer than he has must know the ways of the country a great deal better.”
“It’s Christmas-time, Harry,” said his wife, “and you should endeavor to forgive your neighbors.”
“What sort of a Christmas will it be if you and I, and these young fellows here, and Kate, are all burned out of Gangoil? Here’s Bates.- -Well, Mr. Bates, how goes it?
“Tremendous hot, Sir.”
“We’ve found that out already. You haven’t heard where that fellow Boscobel has gone?”
“No; I haven’t heard. But he’ll be over with some of those Brownbie lads. They say Georgie Brownbie’s about the country somewhere. If so, there’ll be a row among ’em.”
“When thieves fall out, Mr. Bates, honest men come by their own.”
“So they say, Mr. Heathcote. All the same, I shouldn’t care how far Georgie was away from any place I had to do with.” Then the young master and his old superintendent sauntered out to his back premises to talk about sheep and fires, and plans for putting out fires. And no doubt Mr. Bates had the glass of brandy-and-water which he had come to regard as one of his Sunday luxuries. From the back premises they went down to the creek to gauge the water. Then they sauntered on, keeping always in the shade, sitting down here to smoke, and standing up there to discuss the pedigree of some particular ram, till it was past six.
“You may as well come in and dine with us, Mr. Bates,” Harry suggested, as they returned toward the station.
Mr. Bates said that he thought that he would. As the same invitation was given on almost every Sunday throughout the year, and was invariably answered in the same way, there was not much excitement in this. But Mr. Bates would not have dreamed of going in to dinner without being asked.
“That’s Medlicot’s trap,” said Mr. Bates, as they entered the yard. “I heard wheels when they were in the horse paddock.”
Harry looked at the trap, and then went quickly into the house.
He walked with a rapid step onto the veranda, and there he found the sugar grower and his mother. Mrs. Heathcote looked at her husband almost timidly. She knew from the very sound of his feet that he was perturbed in spirit. Under his own roof-tree he would certainly be courteous; but there is a constrained courtesy very hard to be borne, of which she knew him to be capable. He first went up to the old lady, and to her his greeting was pleasant enough. Harry Heathcote, though he had assumed the bush mode of dressing, still retained the manners of a high-bred gentleman in his intercourse with women. Then, turning sharply round, he gave his hand to Mr. Medlicot.
“I am glad to see you at Gangoil,” he said; “I was not fortunate enough to be at home when you called the other day. Mrs. Medlicot must have found the drive very hot, I fear.”
His wife was still looking into his face, and was reading there, as in a book, the mingled pride and disdain with which her husband exercising civility to his enemy. Harry’s countenance wore a look not difficult of perusal, and Medlicot could read the lines almost as distinctly as Harry’s wife.
“I have asked Mrs. Medlicot to stay and dine with us,” she said, “so that she may have it cool for the drive back.”
“I am almost afraid of the bush at night,” said the old woman.
“You’ll have a full moon,” said Harry; “it will be as light as day.” So that was settled. Heathcote thought it odd that the man whom he regarded as his enemy, whom he had left at their last meeting in positive hostility, should consent to accept a dinner under his roof; but that was Medlicot’s affair, not his.
They dined at seven, and after dinner strolled out into the horse paddock, and down to the creek. As they started, the three men went first, and the ladies followed them; but Bates soon dropped behind. It was his rest day, and he had already moved quite as much as was usual with him on a Sunday.
“I think I was a little hard with you the other day,” said Medlicot, when they were alone together.
“I suppose we hardly understand each other’s ideas,” said Harry. He spoke with a constrained voice, and with an almost savage manner, engendered by a determination to hold his own. He would forgive any offense for which an apology was made, but no apology had been made as yet; and, to tell the truth, he was a little afraid that if they got into an argument on the matter Medlicot would have the best of it. And there was, too, almost a claim to superiority in Medlicot’s use of the word “hard.” When one man says that he has been hard to another, he almost boasts that, on that occasion, he got the better of him.
“That’s just it,” said Medlicot; “we do not quite understand each other. But we might believe in each other all the same, and then the understanding would come. But it isn’t just that which I want to say; such talking rarely does any good.”
“What is it, then?”
“You may perhaps be right about that man Nokes.”
“No doubt I may. I know I’m right. When I asked him whether he’d been at my shed, what made him say that he hadn’t been there at night-time? I said nothing about night-time. But the man was there at night-time, or he wouldn’t have used the word.”
“I’m not sure that that is evidence.”
“Perhaps not in England, Mr. Medlicot, but it’s good enough evidence for the bush. And what made him pretend he didn’t know the distances? And why can’t he look a man in the face? And why should the boy have said it was he if it wasn’t? Of course, if you think well of him you’re right to keep him. But you may take it as a rule out here that when a man has been dismissed it hasn’t been done for nothing. Men treated that way should travel out of the country. It’s better for all parties. It isn’t here as it is at home, where people live so thick together that nothing is thought of a man being dismissed. I was obliged to discharge him, and now he’s my enemy.”
“A man may be your enemy without being a felon.”
“Of course he may. I’m his enemy in a way, but I wouldn’t hurt a hair of his head unjustly. When I see the attempts made to burn me out, of course I know that an enemy has been at work.”
“Is there no one else has got a grudge against you?”
Harry was silent for a moment. What right had this man to cross-examine him about his enmities — the man whose own position in the place had been one of hostility to him, whom he had almost suspected of harboring Nokes at the mill simply because Nokes had been dismissed from Gangoil? That suspicion was, indeed, fading away. There was something in Medlicot’s voice and manner which made it impossible to attribute such motives to him. Nevertheless the man was a free-selector, and had taken a bit of the Gangoil run after a fashion which to Heathcote was objectionable politically, morally, and socially. Let Medlicot in regard to character be what he might, he was a free-selector, and a squatter’s enemy, and had clinched his hostility by employing a servant dismissed from the very run out of which he had bought his land. “It is hard to say,” he replied at length, “who have grudges, as against whom, or why. I suppose I have a great grudge against you, if the truth is to be known; but I sha’n’t burn down your mill.”
“I’m sure you won’t.”
“Nor yet say worse of you behind your back than I will to your face.”
“I don’t want you to think that you have occasion to speak ill of me, either one way or the other. What I mean is this — I don’t quite think that the evidence against Nokes is strong enough to justify me in sending him away; but I’ll keep an eye on him as well as I can. It seems that he left our place early this morning; but the men are not supposed to be there on Sundays, and of course he does as he pleases with himself.”
The conversation then dropped, and in a little time Harry made some excuse for leaving them, and returned to the house alone, promising, however, that he would not start for his night’s ride till after the party had come back to the station. “There is no hurry at all,” he said; “I shan’t stir for two hours yet, but Mickey will be waiting there for stores for himself and the German.”
“That means a nobbler for Mickey,” said Kate. “Either of those men would think it a treat to ride ten miles in and ten miles back, with a horse-load of sugar and tea and flour, for the sake of a glass of brandy-and-water.”
“And so would you,” said Harry, “if you lived in a hut by yourself for a fortnight, with nothing to drink but tea without milk.”
The old lady and Mrs. Heathcote were soon seated on the grass, while Medlicot and Kate Daly roamed on together. Kate was a pretty, modest girl, timid withal and shy, unused to society, and therefore awkward, but with the natural instincts and aptitudes of her sex. What the glass of brandy-and-water was to Mickey O’Dowd after a fortnight’s solitude in a bush hut, with tea, dampers, and lumps of mutton, a young man in the guise of a gentleman was to poor Kate Daly. A brother-inlaw, let him be ever so good, is after all no better than tea without milk. No doubt Mickey O’Dowd often thought about a nobbler in his thirsty solitude, and so did Kate speculate on what might possibly be the attractions of a lover. Medlicot probably indulged in no such speculations; but the nobbler, when brought close to his lips, was grateful to him as to others. That Kate Daly was very pretty no man could doubt.
“Isn’t it sad that he should have to ride about all night like that?” said Kate, to whom, as was proper, Harry Heathcote at the present moment was of more importance than any other human being.
“I suppose he likes it.”
“Oh no, Mr. Medlicot; how can he like it? It is not the hard work he minds, but the constant dread of coming evil.”
“The excitement keeps him alive.”
“There’s plenty on a station to keep a man alive in that way at all times.”
“And plenty to keep ladies alive too?”
“Oh, ladies! I don’t know that ladies have any business in the bush. Harry’s trouble is all about my sister and the children and me. He wouldn’t care a straw for himself.”
“Do you think he’d be better without a wife?”
Kate hesitated for a moment. “Well, no. I suppose it would be very rough without Mary; and he’d be so lonely when he came in.”
“And nobody to make his tea.”
“Or to look after his things,” said Kate, earnestly. “I know it was very rough before we came here. He says that himself. There were no regular meals, but just food in a cupboard when he chose to get it.”
“That is not comfortable, certainly.”
“Horrid, I should think. I suppose it is better for him to be married. You’ve got your mother, Mr. Medlicot.”
“Yes: I’ve got my mother.”
“That makes a difference, does it not?”
“A very great difference. She’ll save me from having to go to a cupboard for my bread and meat.”
“I suppose having a woman about is better for a man. They haven’t got any thing else to do, and therefore they can look to things.”
“Do you help to look to things?”
“I suppose I do something. I often feel ashamed to think how very little it is. As for that, I’m not wanted at all.”
“So that you’re free to go elsewhere?”
“I didn’t mean that, Mr. Medlicot; only I know I’m not of much use.”
“But if you had a house of your own?”
“Gangoil is my home just as much as it is Mary’s; and I sometimes feel that Harry is just as good to me as he is to Mary.”
“Your sister will never leave Gangoil.”
“Not unless Harry gets another station.”
“But you will have to be transplanted some day.”
Kate merely chucked up her head and pouted her lips, as though to show that the proposition was one which did not deserve an answer.
“You’ll marry a squatter, of course, Miss Daly?”
“I don’t suppose I shall ever marry any body, Mr. Medlicot.”
“You wouldn’t marry any one but a squatter? I can quite understand that. The squatters here are what the lords and the country gentlement are at home.”
“I can’t even picture to myself what sort of life people live at home.” Both Medlicot and Kate Daly meant England when they spoke of home.
“There isn’t so much difference as people think. Classes hang together just in the same way; only I think there’s a little more exclusiveness here than there was there.”
In answer to this, Kate asserted with innocent eagerness that she was not at all exclusive, and that if ever she married any one she’d marry the man she liked.
“I wish you’d like me,” said Medlicot.
“That’s nonsense,” said Kate, in a low, timid whisper, hurrying away to rejoin the other ladies. She could speculate on the delights of the beverage as would Mickey O’Dowd in his hut; but when it was first brought to her lips she could only fly away from it. In this respect Mickey O’Dowd was the more sensible of the two. No other word was spoken that night between them, but Kate lay awake till morning thinking of the one word that had been spoken. But the secret was kept sacredly within her own bosom.
Before the Medlicots started that night the old lady made a proposition that the Heathcotes and Miss Daly should eat the Christmas dinner at Medlicot’s Mill. Mrs. Heathcote, thinking perhaps of her sister, thoroughly liking what she herself had seen of the Medlicots, looked anxiously into Harry’s face. If he would consent to this, an intimacy would follow, and probably a real friendship be made.
“It’s out of the question,” he said. The very firmness, however, with which he spoke gave a certain cordiality even to his refusal. “I must be at home, so that the men may know where to find me till I go out for the night.” Then, after a pause, he continued, “As we can’t go to you, why should you not come to us?”
So it was at last decided, much to Harry’s own astonishment, much to his wife’s delight. Kate, therefore, when she lay awake, thinking of the one word that had been spoken, knew that there would be an opportunity for another word.
Medlicot drove his mother home safely, and, after he had taken her into the house, encountered Nokes on his return from Boolabong, as has been told at the close of the last chapter.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55