Part 6 out of 7
from her bed between the veranda eaves and the railings, looked
curiously dark and had a lurid tinge.
Lifting herself slightly, she became aware that Colin was in the
veranda with his back to her, looking out over the plain. The set of
his figure as he bent forward, with his hands on the railings and his
eyes apparently strained towards the horizon, reminded her of the
determined hunch of his square shoulders and the dogged droop of his
head when he had ridden away with Harris and the Organizer.
She called faintly, 'Colin.'
He turned round instantly and came to the bed. She stared up at him,
frightened at the look in his face. . . . Something dreadful must have
happened. She was too weak to go over coherently in her mind the
sequence of events and feelings. She only sensed a menacing spectre,
monstrous, terrifying. She could not realise her own share in the
catastrophe she felt was impending. She could not believe that Colin
could change so much in less than ten days. Everything had come about
with such incredible swiftness. His face looked haggard, ravaged. The
cheeks seemed to have fallen in. The features were rigid as if cut out
of metal. The whites of his eyes between the reddened lids were very
blood-shot and the eyes themselves seemed balls of blue fire. There was
not a shade of kindliness in them, only the gleam of a fixed purpose
which no entreaties would alter.
She could imagine that he might have looked like that, when, as a boy
he had beheld the mutilated bodies of his father, mother, sisters,
stretched stark, after the blacks had done their hideous work.
And it was true that he did feel now somewhat as that boy had felt, for
again to his tortured imagination that which he held dearest seemed to
be lying foully murdered before his eyes. She, his love, had been
ravished from him, and he could only regard her as dead to him for
'Colin,' she gasped. 'What is the matter?'
The muscles of his face relaxed, it seemed automatically, as if there
were no soul behind. He laughed a dry ironic laugh. 'Never mind. You
He felt her pulse, examined her as a doctor might have done--all
without a word, and straightened the blankets and pillows.
'You must have food,' he said, and went out. She heard him calling
Maggie. After a few minutes he came back with a tumbler of beaten egg
and milk, to which he had added brandy, and told her she must drink it.
Her hand was too weak to hold the tumbler. He put one arm under the
pillow, raised her head and held the glass to her lips until she had
drunk every drop of the mixture. All this with no show of tenderness or
one unnecessary word. She needed the nourishment and stimulant, and
after them felt better.
'I remember. . . . I must have been ill. What was the matter with me?'
'Dengue,' he answered shortly.
'I was out in the rain. . . . I got a chill I remember.'
'Oh, you were out in the rain!. . . I should have thought you could
have done what you wanted without that.' The bitterness of his tone was
gall-like. And again the ironic laugh.
She winced and drew her head aside. He took away his arm instantly from
behind the pillow and straightened himself, looking down on her, still
with that dreadful light in his eyes. She could not bear it, and turned
her head away from him.
'Don't look at me. . . . I'm going to get up.'
'No, I think you'll stay where you are.' His voice broke slightly but
hardened again. 'I won't talk to you. I won't let you speak a word
yet. . . that will come afterwards.'
'But I don't understand.'
'Better not now. I'll tell you this. You're through the fever. It won't
come back if you do as I tell you--You understand something about
dengue. You'll stop here till you're stronger. You've got to take the
brandy, eggs and milk till you feel sick of it. To-day you'll have
slops. I've told Maggie about preparing your food, if the fever comes
back--it won't if you keep quiet--but if it does--hot bottles--
blankets--laudanum--I've mixed the doses--until you get into a
sweat. Remember that. And you'll have someone in your room to-night.'
'In my room--YOU? What do you mean?'
'It won't be me--I'm going away.'
'Going away--what is it?'
She noticed that he turned and looked at the sky.
'Why is it so dark--and the heat so stifling?' she asked.
'These damned Unionists have fired the only good pasture left on
Moongarr. It's been burning since two o'clock this morning. I sent the
men out. Now I'm going myself--to save what I can.'
He left the room abruptly. In a minute or two she heard him outside
calling 'Cudgee. . . Harris'--and then giving the order to saddle up.
She got out of bed and tottered to the window. She could see now the
wide range of the disaster. The lurid haze was spreading. The horizon
shrinking, and the air was hotter than ever. The fire seemed still a
long way off, but there was nothing to stop the flames if once they
reached the great plain. The course of the river, here at best a mere
string of shallow waterholes, was quite dry. The rain of the other
night had been too insignificant and local to do any good. The brown
mud-strip round the lagoon below, was not perceptibly diminished. She
knew that the narrow water channels flowing from their one working
artesian bore, must soon be licked up by the flames. And the Bore in
process of construction, was at a standstill for want of workmen.
Bridget gazed out despairingly towards the shrinking horizon and upon
the parched plain with the rugged clumps of dun coloured gum trees
scattered upon it--the near ones looking like trees of painted tin,
sun-blistered. The swarms of flies, mosquitoes in the veranda offended
her. She disliked the cattle dogs mooching round with hanging jaws and
slavering tongues. The ferocious chuckle of a great grey king-fisher--
the bird which white people called the laughing jackass--perched on
the branch of a gum tree beside the fence, made her shudder, because
the bird's soulless cachinnation seemed an echo of Colin's laugh.
Ah! that was the bush, undivested of romance--hard, brutal,
vindictive, in spite of the mocking verdure of her honeymoon
spring. . . . And Colin was a part of the Bush. He resembled it. He too
could be strong and sweet and tender as the great blossoming white cedar
down by the lagoon, as rills of running water making the plain green--when
his desires were satisfied. And he could be brutal and vindictive
likewise, when anyone dared to thwart his will and defy his prejudices.
She staggered about the room, feminine instinct prompting her to
freshen her appearance, to change her soiled, crumpled nightdress, to
throw a piece of lace over her dishevelled head, to pull up the linen
sheets which had been rolled clumsily to the foot of the bed, so that
the blankets could be wrapped round her. But she sank again presently,
exhausted, on her pillows.
In a short time McKeith came back, booted and spurred, and stood as
before looking at her with forbidding sternness.
'You'd better have stopped quiet. I've told Mrs Hensor to come down and
look after you. She knows what to do.'
Bridget cried out passionately: 'I won't have that woman in my room.
How dare you tell her to come near me.'
'Dare! That seems a queer way to put it. However, you can order her out
if you don't want her. There's Maggie--and I'm sending Ninnis back
'When are you coming home?'
'I can't say. I've got things to do--and to think about.'
His words and his manner seemed to convey a sinister meaning.
'I see--you are angry about the black-boy. If you want to know I will
tell you exactly what happened.'
He laughed again and his laugh sounded to her insulting.
'Oh, I know what has happened. You needn't tell me. I had some
conversation with Harris this morning. I know EVERYTHING; and now I've
got to settle in my own mind how things are to go on.'
She went very white and repeated dully: 'How--things--are to go on?'
'Between you and me. You don't imagine, do you, that they can go on the
'No,' she retorted with spirit, 'certainly they can't go on the same.'
Maggie had come along the veranda and was at the French window.
'Mr Harris says he's ready, sir, and the horses. . . .'
'All right.' McKeith went out of the door, but turned and paused as if
he were going to speak to his wife. But he thought better of it and
walked rapidly away--perhaps because she avoided his look.
She supposed that he was infuriated with her because of her part in
Wombo's escape, and she thought his anger unjust. No doubt, too, he
suspected Maule's connivance, and she knew that he was furiously
jealous of Maule. But surely he would understand that she must have
sent Maule away. What more can a wife do in the case of an
over-insistent lover? And how should a husband expect an explanation
when he had literally thrown her into her lover's arms, or at least had
left her defenceless against his solicitations! Had he treated her
differently after the Wombo episode in the beginning, she might have
told him the truth about her former relations with Willoughby Maule.
As things had been, it was rather for Maule than for Colin that she
She was bitterly hurt and offended against her husband. Oh, yes. He was
right. They could never again be the same to each other. If he had come
back penitent, pleading for forgiveness, overwhelmed with contrition at
her dismissal of Maule, she might then perhaps have explained
everything and they might have become reconciled. But now, his vile
temper, his insupportable manner, his dominant egoism made any attempt
of conciliation on her part impossible. She had a temper too--she told
herself, and her anger was righteous. And she also had an egoism that
wouldn't allow itself to be trampled on. She had rights--of birth, of
breeding, to say nothing of her rights of wifehood and womanhood for
which she must insist upon respect. If he would not bend to her, even
to show her ordinary consideration and courtesy, then she would not
lower her pride one iota before him.
Thoughts of this kind went through her mind as she lay smarting under
the burning sense of outrage, until the reappearance of Mrs Hensor.
Then, the new effort she made in sending away the woman exhausted brain
and body and left her with scarcely the power to think--certainly not
But Lady Bridget did not know what had followed upon her husband's
home-coming. She had not been in a condition to realize how all night
through he had tended her, putting aside every other consideration,
giving no heed to the affairs of the station, refusing to see the
Police Inspector who had sent in an urgent message soon after his
Only when turning for a moment to the veranda and noticing the red
glare in the sky, had he been startled out of his absorption in his
wife's illness. In ordinary circumstances, he would have been on his
horse in a twinkling and riding as for life to fight the worst foe a
squatter has to face in times of drought. He knew that if the fire
spread, it might mean his ruin. As it was, he rushed up to the Quarters
to rouse Ninnis and send him with Moongarr Bill and all available hands
to do what he could in arresting the flames. But he himself dared not
leave Bridget till the fever was down, and the crisis past. That could
not be till she had awakened from the deep sleep into which she had
With the sight of her in that sleep, however, the pull on his forces
slackened, though he was still too strung-up to think of snatching even
an hour's sleep for himself. He watched, alternately, the Bush fire and
Bridget's face, thinking his own dour thoughts the while. Every now and
then, he would creep on tip-toe to the veranda railings and gaze out
upon the lurid smoke which it seemed to him was thickening over the
horizon. When the sun was risen he washed and dressed and went up to
the Bachelors' Quarters where Mrs Hensor was already about and gave him
tea and food, which he badly needed. From her he learned a considerable
amount of what had been going on at Moongarr. From the Police
Inspector, a little later, he learned a good deal more.
Harris' manner was portentous; he asked for a private interview in the
office, saying that he had stayed on purpose to see the Boss, because
his tale was impossible to write. Then he told his own version of the
capture and locking up of Wombo, taking blame on himself for having
left the key of the hide-house in Maule's possession.
'But you see, Boss, he twitted me a bit about not having a warrant, and
there's no doubt, wherever he's learned it, that the chap has got the
whole constabulary lay-out at his finger ends--besides having the ear
of the Governor and the Executive down in Leichardt's Town. He's got
money too, no end of it. They were saying in Tunumburra that his wife
left him a quarter of a million.'
'Go on--that's nothing to do with us,' put in McKeith gruffly.
'He's an old friend of her Ladyship's, I understand,' sniggered Harris.
'What the devil has that got to do with Wombo?' said McKeith furiously.
Harris drew in his feelers.
'I wouldn't swear that it had, Mr McKeith, and I wouldn't swear that it
hadn't. All I know is, that Mr Maule had the key of the hide-house in
his bedroom that night, and, being a close friend of her Ladyship's, he
was no doubt aware that she didn't relish the notion of Wombo's being
had up for theft and murder--I'm not saying who it was let out Wombo.
It's a mystery I don't take upon myself to fathom--I'll leave that to
'There's one easy solution of the mystery that doesn't seem to have
occurred to you,' said McKeith. 'The gin Oola could easily have stolen
the key--they're cunning as the devil--half-castes--and as
treacherous--I know them--I've had my own good reasons for not
letting one of them inside the fence of my head-station.'
'That may be--I can only say what I know, and you can form your own
'Say what you know then--I'm waiting to hear. But be quick about it,
man, I've no time to waste this morning.'
Harris began his tale--how he had watched at the window of his little
room, till after midnight, his gun ready, his eyes glued on the
padlocked door opposite; how overcome with drowsiness against which he
had vainly struggled--'for a man that's been pretty near two days and
nights in the saddle may be excused if his eyes begin blinking,' Harris
put it. He had dropped dead asleep--he confessed it--at his post.
Then, how on awakening suddenly, for no apparent reason, all seeming
quiet around, he had got up as he was, half dressed and in his boots--
had stepped across to the hide-house, had found the padlock intact and,
hearing no sound, had concluded the black-boy was inside safe asleep.
How then, with a relieved mind, he had been going back to his
stretcher, when the noise of a goat bleating had set him on the
look-out from his veranda. How, presently, looking at the veranda
opposite, he had seen the door of Mr Maule's bedroom open, and a woman
come out, how she had stood a few moments facing him, with the
moonlight straight on her, so that there was no possibility of his
making a mistake. Harris paused. McKeith glared at the man, who, had he
been quick at psychological interpretations, would have read an awful
apprehension underlying the ill-restrained fury in the other's face.
The question came in hoarse jerks.
'What--Who--Who was it you saw--?'
'It was the Lady Bridget, Boss. . . . I--'
Before he could proceed, a strong arm struck out and McKeith's hand
clutched at the Police Inspector's neck.
'You hound! You contemptible skunk! Take back that lie, or I'll
throttle it in your throat.'
Harris was of powerful build also, and, moreover knew some tricks of
defence and assault. He freed himself by a dexterous duck of his head,
and a sharp shake of his body, and stepped backward so that the office
table was between him and his antagonist.
His face was scarlet, his bull's eyes protruded from their full
sockets. But he was wary, and not anxious to provoke the devil in
'Wait a bit,' he said thickly. 'if you'll keep your hands off me, and
let me finish what I was going to say, I'll show you the proof that I'm
not telling you lies--though you're mistaking my meaning in regard to
her Ladyship. . . .
'Leave her Ladyship out of it, will you,' McKeith snarled, his teeth
showing between his tense lips.
'I would do that willingly, Boss, for there's no disrespect intended I
can assure you. Only it means that this Wombo business will have to be
reported, and if you can help me to the right evidence--well, so much
the pleasanter for all parties,' returned the Police Inspector
McKeith made a slight assenting movement of his head, but said nothing.
His brows puckered, and he stiffened himself as he listened, strung to
the quick, while Harris continued.
'Well--I did see--that lady,'--the volcanic gleam from McKeith's
eyes stopped him from pronouncing Lady Bridget's name. 'I saw her come
out of that room,' he jerked his thumb along the veranda. 'The moon was
right on her just then. I saw her give a shiver--she'd been out in the
wet. Then she walked up the veranda to where there's the covered bit
joining on to the Old Humpey, and I noticed her sit down on the steps--
'Stop,' broke in McKeith. 'If you were on the veranda over there, you
couldn't have seen as far as the steps.'
'Right you are, Boss. But I wasn't waiting on the veranda. When the
lady turned her back, I moved into the yard, and I was standing by that
flower-bush'--Again he jerked his thumb, this time to the centre bed,
and a young bohinia shrub covered with pink blossoms 'If you try
yourself from there, you'll find you can look slick through to the
front garden. That's where I saw Maule step out of--I guessed he'd
come round by the back of the Old Humpey. I guessed too, he thought she
oughtn't to be sitting out there in the damp--She was shivering again
--she'd put a rug that was lying on the steps round her. He just picked
her up in his arms, and carried her right along, and when I stepped
across I saw him take her into one of those rooms at the end of the
front veranda. . . .'
A muffled growl, something like the sound a hunted beast might make
when the dogs had got to touch of him, came from McKeith. Again he
stiffened himself; his lips hard pressed; his eyes on Harris' face. The
Police Inspector avoided his gaze; but he too was watchful.
'You see I was thinking of my prisoner, and wondering if there could be
anything afoot about him. So as I knew there was nobody then--in Mr
Maule's room, I went back and looked in. I wanted to make sure, if I
could, where the key of the hide-house might be. There was a candle
left alight, and I saw the key right enough on the chest of drawers
beside Maule's watch and chain. It never came into my mind then, that
anybody could have used it. I noticed a bit of folded paper under the
watch. That's it, Mr McKeith. There's the proof that I am not lying
about what I saw.'
Harris had taken out of his breast pocket, a piece of newspaper in
which was wrapped the leaf torn out of Maule's notebook, folded and
addressed. He opened it out, and laid it on the office table in front
of McKeith, keeping his own stubby finger on one corner of the sheet.
Still McKeith maintained his difficult self-restraint.
'So you stole--a private communication that had been left in another
person's room, and was intended for his eyes alone?'
'Come now, Boss. You know well enough that a constabulary officer who's
up against tricks to release a prisoner has got to keep his eyes
peeled, and mustn't let any clue to mischief escape him. How was I to
know that there wasn't some plot to cheat the law? How do I know that
there wasn't? That's why I'm showing you the paper. I'm not a French
scholar--I suppose that's French--and as I suppose you are, I'll ask
you to translate what's written there.'
McKeith pushed aside the man's finger, and taking up the paper carried
it to the window, where he stood with his back to Harris, spelling out
Lady Bridget's hurriedly written sentences.
He seemed a long time in getting at the sense of what he read. As a
matter of fact, he had only a limited acquaintance with any modern
languages except his own. He had picked up some colloquial German, and
once when laid up in hospital, had set himself to read Balzac's PERE
GORIOT with the aid of a dictionary. Thus he had acquired a fairly
extensive if somewhat archaic vocabulary. But Lady Bridget's veiled
intimation of Wombo's escape couched in up-to-date and highly idiomatic
French which would have been perfectly intelligible to Willoughby
Maule, conveyed little to him beyond the fact of a secret understanding
between his wife and a man whom he knew had once been her lover. That
idea drove every other into the background of his thoughts. He did not
care in the least how Wombo had escaped. It seemed clear to him that
Oola had stolen the key after Harris had gone back to his room, while
Maule and his wife were together--together in Lady Bridget's own
chamber. The blood surged to his brain, and his temples throbbed as
though they would burst. In the madness of his jealousy, the words of
the paper, combined with Harris' revelations were damnatory
confirmation of his wife's guilt. He felt now that he had foreseen what
would happen, from the moment that he had surprised the look on Lady
Bridget's face, when Maule had unexpectedly appeared before her. She
had given herself away then. And, a little sooner, rather than a little
later--as might have been the case had he not left them together--the
inevitable had come to pass.
Yes, through the agony of that conviction now brought home to him, a
dogged resolve formed itself in his mind--the determination not to
betray himself or her. It beat upon him with insistent force. Though
his goddess must be dethroned from her shrine in his heart, she should
not be cast down for a vulgar brute like Harris to gloat over her
shame. . . .
'Well, Boss,' the Police Inspector asked with affected nonchalance that
bordered on insolence. 'Can you make anything that's satisfactory to
you out of that?'
McKeith turned, Harris thought he was going to leap upon him in a fit
of blind fury, and started up from his seat by the office table.
McKeith's eyes blazed, his taut sinews quivered; his face was now quite
pallid, and the hand in which he held the piece of paper was clenched
so tight that the veins stood out like thick cords, and the knuckles
were perfectly bloodless.
But suddenly the pitch on his nerves was eased. His eyelids dropped,
and when he lifted them, the eyes were quiet and intently observant.
He moved into his usual office chair.
'Sit down again, won't you, Harris?' he said, and Harris resumed his
'What were you asking?' McKeith continued. 'Satisfactory to me is it?
Yes, perfectly satisfactory, thank you. . . . I'm only amused--as you
see. . . to find that I was quite right in my suspicions.' And he
laughed in what Harris thought a very odd way.
'Eh? I don't take your meaning.' Harris' manner was distinctly
McKeith gave him a sharp look, and his teeth went over his under lip.
Then, to the man's evident surprise, he laughed again, throwing his
head back so that the muscles of his throat showed under his beard,
working, as it were, automatically. It really seemed as if the man's
mechanical merriment were no part of himself. He was, in fact, gaining
time to propound an explanation which he did not believe in the least,
but which happened to be almost the exact truth.
He answered with an air of ironic indifference.
'Well, you know, I wouldn't go in for the detective line, if I were
you, Harris. You aren't subtle enough for it. You jump too quickly at
conclusions which have nothing to do with the main point. In fact,
you're a fool, Harris--a damned fool.'
Harris' puzzled expression turned to one of extreme indignation. 'Seems
to me, Mr McKeith, that it's you who are--well, damned queer about
this affair. I'm sure I don't know what you've got to laugh at. But if
you've found out who let the black-boy out of the hide-house, I'd be
glad to know, that's all.'
McKeith ceased from his mirthless laughing and his sarcastic bluff. He
leaned forward, facing Harris with his hands on the paper which he had
laid on the table before him. He picked up the other's last words.
'Yes, that IS all. It's the only part of this note which concerns you.
Well, I can tell you that it was the half-caste woman, as I thought,
who let Wombo out of the hide-house. She stole the key from Mr Maule's
room when HE was asleep, and let Wombo out when YOU were asleep--a
longer time perhaps than you imagined, Harris. The black-boy made for
the scrub, and I suppose they were in too great a hurry to think of
shutting the door. Oola sneaked back--they've got the cunning of
whites and blacks put together, those half-castes--and no doubt she
guessed there'd be a hue and cry directly the door was found open. So
she locked it again--and brought the key to her ladyship.'
McKeith seemed to force the last words from between his teeth.
'Well, that's quite simple, isn't it?'
'Now, I shouldn't call it as simple as you make out, Boss. It appears
mighty odd to me that the gin should have worried round after her
ladyship when she might have sneaked back with the key to the place she
took it from. And then there's all the rest--the putting the key back
and fitting in times and all that. . . . Seems to me a bit too much of
the Box and Cox trick--a sort of jig-saw puzzle, d'you see.'
Manifestly, Harris was endeavouring to square probabilities. McKeith
still held himself in.
'I've given you the facts. You can figure out your details for
yourself. I've my own business to attend to, and I must be off on it.'
He got up, and folding Lady Bridget's note, deliberately put it in his
breast pocket. Harris stretched forth a restraining hand.
'Boss, I say--that's important--for my report, you know.'
McKeith's temper burst out.
'Damn your report. I'm a magistrate, and I've taken your report, and
the blacks are in the scrub and you can go and find them for yourself
if you choose. You have no warrant, remember. No, I'm not going to be
bothered any more about that black-boy. What. . . . Not I--with a fire
raging on my run, and not enough hands to put it out.'
'But her ladyship. . . .' spluttered Harris.
'Listen here you. . . .' McKeith's face and attitude were menacing. 'I
came back to find her ladyship down with dengue as bad as could be. It
was on her that night, and if she had to be carried to her room in a
fit of shaking, what business is that of yours? Understand me, Harris.
Don't you go mixing up my wife's name with this beastly black-boy
affair, or you'll have to reckon with me--and I can tell you, you
won't relish that reckoning.'
'There was no offence meant. I only wanted to do my duty,' protested
the Police Inspector, cringing after the way of bullies.
'You'll find opportunity enough for doing that if you ride back to
Breeza Downs and lend the Specials your valuable assistance in
protecting the sheep-owners against the Unionists. And I might remind
you, as I reminded that damned Organiser who's fired my run, that
there's a hundred pounds reward still waiting for anybody who catches
the men that robbed my drays and killed my horses.'
McKeith paused a moment before going out by the further door of the
office which looked out on the plain.
'I'll leave you now to run up your horse and make your own
arrangements. As soon as I can, I shall start to help in getting the
bush fire under. You can arrest that Organiser if you are keen on
arresting somebody. Send in when you're saddled up, and if I'm ready
we'll ride to the turn-off track together.'
McKeith went back to his wife's room. She was still sleeping. Then it
was that spasms of mortal agony began literally to rend the man. He
left her side and seated himself on the bed in his dressing-room. He
sat with his arms folded across his chest. His shoulders heaved. Deep
dry sobs shook his huge frame. He would not let a groan escape from
between his clenched teeth, but there was blood on his lower lip where
he had bitten it in the effort to control himself. Presently, he heard
a sound in the next room--a half moan--a name spoken. No, it would
not be his name that she would utter first on her return to
The man got up; stretched his long, lean frame, shuddering as if it had
been on the rack. He drew two deep breaths, braced himself, wiped the
blood from his lip, put on the stony mask which Bridget saw when she
opened her eyes and found him looking down at her.
Next morning, Lady Bridget was better and her mind clearer. There had
been no return of fever, and, though the physical weakness was great
and her temperature--had she taken it--would have been found a good
deal below normal, her fierce determination not to remain helpless any
longer gave her strength to get up and dress. She was not able,
however, to do anything but lie in a half-alive condition in the
hammock at the end of the veranda. All night the fire had blazed, but
more fitfully, and this morning the lurid glare had died down. Only a
murky haze, faintly red here and there, spread over the north-eastern
sky. Small, isolated smoke-clouds rose above the stretches of forest,
and an irregular-shaped tract of charred grass at the edge of the plain
showed how far the flames had encroached upon it before they had been
got under. One might well conceive with what almost superhuman
exertions the beaters had at length accomplished their task. A large
number of cattle had been driven by the fire on to the pasture beyond
the home paddock--a pasture that had so far been carefully nursed in
view of possible later necessity.
Bridget was bushwoman enough to comprehend the crippling effect upon
McKeith's resources of the calamity, had she allowed her mind to dwell
upon that aspect of affairs. But her mind was incapable just now of
dealing with practical issues. She felt utterly weak, utterly lonely.
Although she was glad Maule had gone, she missed his sympathetic
companionship to an extent that she could hardly have thought possible.
As the hammock swayed gently at the slight touch of her fingers on its
rope edge, her imagination drifted dangerously and her senses yielded
to the old drugging fascination. He seemed as close to her as had been
his bodily shape a few days previously. She was conscious of the pull
of his will upon the invisible cords by which he held her. If it were
an unholy spell, it was, now, at least, in her desolation, a consoling
one. He loved her; he wanted her. She knew that he was passionately
eager to devote his life to her. He would wait expectantly until she
wrote. With a few strokes of her pen she might end her irksome
captivity in this wall-less prison of desert plain--this wilderness of
gum and gidia.
As she lay there in the hammock, a child's clumpy boots pattered along
the garden path and Tommy Hensor came up the steps with a big cabbage
leaf gathered in his hand. He opened it out when he reached the veranda
and displayed three Brazilian cherries, the first fruits of a plant
growing in the Chinaman's garden.
'La-ship . . . La-ship! I got these myself. I made Fo Wung give 'em me
At any other time the child's offering would have been received, at any
rate, graciously. Now Tommy shrank away, startled by the look on Lady
Bridget's face and the forbidding gesture with which she warned him
'Go away! . . . Go away! . . .' she cried. 'I don't want you.'
Tommy's common, freckled little face crumpled up and his blue eyes
filled with tears. He dropped the cabbage leaf and the cherished
Brazilian cherries and ran down the steps again, blubbering piteously.
Lady Bridget got up as soon as the child had clicked the garden gate
behind him. She was ashamed of the spasm of revulsion that had seized
her. She wanted to cast away from her the dreadful thought his
appearance had suddenly evoked. She picked up the cabbage leaf with the
fruit and flung them over the railings into a flower bed, where the
butcher-birds and the bower-birds quarrelled over them, and the big,
grey bird in the gum tree on the other side of the fence cachinnated in
derisive chorus to Bridget's burst of hysterical laughter.
A little later Maggie came out from the bedroom with some letters in
'I've laid holt on your mail, Ladyship, turning out your room. I expect
you forgot all about it.'
Yes, she had forgotten, absolutely; it seemed years since Harry the
Blower had passed by and Willoughby Maule had departed. She languidly
inspected the envelopes. Nothing among them of any importance--except
It was a blue telegraph-service envelope, and had been forwarded on by
the postman from Crocodile Creek, the nearest telegraph station. In the
last fifteen months they had brought the bush railway a good deal
further up the river, and Crocodile Creek was the present terminus.
Thus the road journey was now considerable shorter than when Colin
McKeith had brought his bride home.
Lady Bridget read the several lines of the cabled message over two or
three times before the real bearings of it became clear to her
At last she grasped the startling fact that the cablegram was from her
cousin, Lord Gaverick, and that it had been despatched from London
about seven days previously. This was what it said.
'ELIZA GAVERICK DIED TWENTIETH LEAVES YOU CASTLE AND FIFTY THOUSAND
DIFFICULTIES EXECUTORS YOUR PRESENCE URGENTLY DESIRED WIRE IF CAN COME,
Lady Bridget let the blue form drop on her lap. She stared out over the
brown plain and the herds of lean beasts all shadowy in the smoky mist
over the horizon, then round, along the wilderness of gidia scrub, with
its charred patches afar off, from which there still rose thin spirals
Destiny had spoken. Here was the order of release. There was no gaoler
to keep the prison doors locked any longer--except--except--No, if
she wished to break her bonds, Colin would never gainsay her.
Late that night the men came back from fighting the fire which they had
now practically put out. Even in the moonlight they looked deplorable
objects, grimed, covered with dust and ashes, their skins and clothes
scorched by the fierce heat.
They seemed drunk with fatigue, and could scarcely sit their horses.
When they dismounted they could hardly stand.
Their feeble COO-EES at the sliprails brought out Ninnis, who had been
sent home in the afternoon and had been taking some well-earned repose
so as to be ready for the next shift--happily not required. He and the
few hands left to look after the head-station and the tailing-mob held
the men's horses when their riders literally tumbled off them. Ninnis
made McKeith take a strong pull of whiskey and supported him along to
the Old Humpey. For Colin had had strength to say that Lady Bridget
must on no account be disturbed. Ninnis led him to the room lately
occupied by Willoughby Maule, and was surprised at his employer's
vehement refusal to remain in it.
'I'll not stop here. . . . No, I won't go to my dressing-room. In God's
name, just let me stretch myself on the bunk in the Office and go to
He threw himself on a bush-carpentered settle, with mattress and
pillows covered in Turkey-red, which was used sometimes at mustering
times when there was an overplus of visitors. There he lay like a log
for close on twelve hours.
By and by, Lady Bridget, at once longing and reluctant, came softly in
to see how he fared.
A storm of pity, anger, tenderness, repulsion--the whole range of
feeling, it seemed, between love and hate--swept over her as she
looked at the great gaunt form stretched there. Colin was still in
riding clothes and booted and spurred. His moleskins were black with
smoke and charcoal; his flannel shirt, open at the neck, showed red
scratches and scorch-marks on the exposed chest and was torn over the
arms, where were more excoriations of the flesh. And the ravaged face!
How hard it was. How relentless, even in the utter abandonment of
bodily exhaustion! The skin was caked with black dust and sweat. The
darkened thatch of yellow hair was dank and wet. The fair beard,
usually so trim, was singed in places, matted, and had bits of cinder
and burnt leaves sticking to it.
A revolting spectacle, offending Lady Bridget's fine, physical
sensibilities, but a MAN--THE Man. She could not understand that
tornado of emotion which now made her being seem a very battle-ground,
for all the primal passions. She turned away with a sense of nausea,
and then turned to him again with a kind of passionate longing to take
him in her arms--brutal as she thought him, and unworthy of the
affection she had once felt for him--felt still alas!--and all the
romance she had once woven about him. . . . She saw that a fly was
hovering over the excoriated arm and drew the ragged sleeve over its
bareness. Then she noticed the mosquito net reefed up on a hoop above
the bunk, and managed to get the curtain down so that he should be
protected from the assaults of insects. But as she touched him in doing
this, he stirred and muttered wrathfully in his sleep, as though he
were conscious of her tenderness and would have none of it; she fled
away and came to him no more.
She had been racking her brain since receiving the cablegram as to what
answer she should return to it.
After that pitiable sight of her husband, Bridget moved restlessly
about the house, with intervals of lassitude in the hammock, for she
still felt weak and ill. But quinine was keeping the fever down, and
she resolved that her husband should not again be required to nurse
her. She did not go into the Office any more, but busied herself in a
defiant fashion upon little cares for his comfort when he awoke. He
should see that she did not neglect her house-wifely duties--at least
while she remained there to perform them. The qualification was
significant of her mood.
Thus, she gave orders that the veranda of the Old Humpey should be kept
free from disturbing footsteps, and saw that the bathroom was in order,
and a change of clothing set ready for him when he should awake. Also
that there should be a meal prepared.
He did not wake till the afternoon. She heard him go straight in to
take his bath, and hastened to have the dining room table spread. But
she saw him go out of the bathroom--all fresh and more like himself--
and cross the yard on his way to the Bachelors' Quarters, making it
clear to her that he wished to avoid the part of the house she
occupied. Bridget went back to the front veranda in a cold fury,
pierced by stabs of mental pain. She watched him from the end of the
veranda go into the living room of the Quarters, and thought bitterly
that he would ask Mrs Hensor for the food he required. No doubt too, he
would obtain from Mrs Hensor, information as to how she herself had
been getting on during his absence, and Mrs Hensor would give him a
garbled report of her own dismissal from the sick room. . . . How dared
he--oh! how DARED he treat her, Lady Bridget, his wife, with such
cruel negligence, such marked insult!
It did not occur to her that he might wish to see Ninnis, who, when at
the station, was usually about this time, in his office at the back of
the Bachelors' Quarters.
After a time, she heard Colin's voice again in the yard, and his step
on the Old Humpey veranda. He came now by the covered passage on to
that of the New House, and advanced towards her.
He only came, she told herself, because it would have seemed too
strange had he continued to ignore her existence.
And he was conscious of her resentment. By a curious affinity, his own
spirit thrilled to the unquenchable spirit in her. Qualities in himself
responded to like qualities in her. He admired her pride and pluck. Yet
the two egoisms reared against each other, seemed to him--could he
have put the thought into shape--like combatants with lances drawn
ready to strike.
He believed that it was love which gave her strength--love, not for
him, but for that other man whose influence he was now convinced had
always been paramount, and who with renewed propinquity had resumed his
Certain phrases in that letter he had read long ago on Joan Gildea's
veranda, and which had been haunting him ever since Willoughby Maule's
re-appearance, struck his heart with the searing effect of lightning.
He felt, at the first sight of her there on the veranda, before she
turned full to him, a passionate yearning to take her in his arms, and
cover her poor little wasted face with kisses--to call her 'Mate'; to
remind her of that wonderful marriage night under the stars. But when
he saw the proud aloofness of her look, his longing changed to a dull
fury, which he could only keep in check by rigorous steeling of his
will against any softening impulse.
So his face was hard as a rock, his voice rasping in its restraint,
when he came near and spoke to her. 'You have not had any more fever?'
He put two or three questions to her about her health--whether she had
taken the medicine he had left for her, and so on, to which she
returned almost monosyllabic replies, sufficiently satisfactory in the
information they gave him.
'That's all right then,' he said coldly. 'I thought it would be, though
I didn't at all like leaving you in such a condition.'
'Really! But it doesn't seem as if you had felt any violent anxiety
about me since you came back. I heard you go to the bathroom a long
time ago, and I saw you going up to the Quarters.'
He did not appear to notice the latter implication.
'I had to sleep,' he said curtly. 'I was dead beat.'
'Yes, I saw that,' she answered.
'A-ah!' The deep intake of breath made a hissing sound, and he flushed
a brick red. 'You came and looked at me?'
'I went into the Office.'
'I didn't want you to see me. You must have loathed the sight of me. I
was a disgusting object.'
She said nothing.
If he had glanced at her he would have seen a piteous flicker of
tenderness pass over her face--a sudden wet gleam in her eyes. And had
he yielded then to his first impulse, things might have gone very
differently between them. But he kept himself stiffened. He would not
lift his eyes, when she gave him a furtive glance. The expression of
his half averted face was positively sinister as he added with a
sneering little laugh.
'One can't look as if one had come out of a bandbox after fighting a
She exclaimed, 'Oh! what does it matter?'
He utterly mistook the meaning of her exclamation.
'You are quite right,' he retorted. 'When it comes to the end of
everything, what does ANYTHING matter!'
For several moments there was dead silence. She felt as if he had
wilfully stabbed her. He on his side had again the confused sense of
two antagonists, feinting with their weapons to gain time before the
'Well?' He swung himself savagely round upon her. 'That's true, isn't
it? The end HAS come. . . . You're sick of the whole show--dead sick--
of the Bush--of everything?--Aren't you? Answer me straight,
'Yes, I am,' she replied recklessly. 'I hate the Bush--I--I hate
'Everything! Well, that settles it!' he said slowly.
Again there was silence, and then he said:
'You know I wouldn't want to keep you--especially now,'--he did not
add the words that were on his lips 'now that bad times are coming on
me,'--and she read a different application in the 'now.' 'I--I'd be
glad for you to quit. It's as you please--maybe the sooner the better.
I'll make everything as easy as I can for you.'
'You are very--considerate. . . .' The sarcasm broke in her throat.
She moved abruptly, and stood gazing out over the plain till the
hysterical, choking sensation left her. Her back was to him. He could
not see her face; nor could she see the dumb agony in his.
Presently she walked to a shelf-table on the veranda set against the
wall; and from the litter of papers and work upon it, took up the
cablegram she had lately received.
'I wanted to show you this,' she said stonily, and handed him the blue
There was something significant in the way he steadied it upon the
veranda railing, and stooped with his head down to pore over it.
The blow was at first almost staggering. It was as though the high gods
had shot down a bolt from heaven, shattering his world, and leaving him
alone in Chaos. They had taken him at his word--had registered on the
instant his impious declaration. It WAS the end of everything. She was
to quit. . . . He had said, the, sooner the better. . . . Well--he
wasn't going to let even the high gods get a rise out of him.
He laughed. By one of those strange links of association, which at
moments of unexpected crisis bring back things impersonal, unconnected,
the sound of his own laugh recalled the rattle of earth, upon the dry
outside of a sheet of bark in which, during one of their boundary rides
at Breeza Downs lately, they had wrapped for burial the body of a
shepherd found dead in the bush. Both sounds seemed to him as of
something dead--something outside humanity.
He handed her back the telegram, speaking still as if he were far-off--
on the other side of a grave, but quite collectedly and as though in
the long silence he had been weighing the question.
'It seems to me that this has come to you in the nick of time, to solve
'Yes,' she assented dully.
'You've got no choice but to go as your cousin says. There's money
depending on it.'
'Money! . . . Oh, money!' she cried wildly.
'Money is apt to stick on to lawyers' fingers when they're left to the
handling of it . . . . This is a matter of business, and business can't
be put on one side--especially, when there's as large a sum as fifty
thousand pounds in the proposition. I guess from this that you're
'Yes,' she said again. She was thinking to herself, 'That's his Scotch
carefulness about money; he wouldn't consider anything in comparison
'You had better take the northern route,' he went on. 'There ought to
be an E. and A. boat due at Leuraville pretty soon--I'll look it out.
. . . Perhaps you'd like to make the start to-morrow?'
'To-morrow--oh yes, to-morrow--just whenever suits you.'
'I couldn't take you down myself. There are things--serious matters
I've got to see to on the station. And besides, you'll allow it's best
for me not to go with you. Ninnis could drive you to Crocodile Creek,
and put you into the train; and Halliwell will look after you at
Leuraville, and see you on board the steamer.'
'Oh, I wonder that you can spare Ninnis,' she returned bitterly. 'I
suppose you'd want Moongarr Bill still more on the run. But there's Joe
Casey--I daresay somebody else can milk the cows, and get up wood and
water. Or there's Cudgee--I don't mind who goes with me. . . . I can
'My God! do you imagine I'd put a black-boy--or anyone but my own
trusted overseer in charge of you! What are you thinking of to talk
He took a few steps along the veranda, moving with uncertain gait; then
stopped and leaned heavily against the wall. In a few seconds he had
recovered himself, and came back to her, speaking quietly.
'I will think out things and arrange it all. You'll be perfectly safe
with Ninnis, I think it would be better for you to sleep one night at
old Duppo's place. There's fresh horses for the buggy there--I've got
Alexander and Roxalana in the paddock now--they're the best. . . .'
Oh, how could he bear that those horses, of the dream-drive, should
take her away from him! He went on in the same matter-of-fact manner.
'I expect the answer to the cablegram will get as quickly as if Harry
the Blower took it, if you send it from Crocodile Creek yourself. And
there's your packing--there's not much time, but you won't want to
take a lot of things. Anything you cared about could go afterwards.'
'Go afterwards--What do you mean? I want to take nothing--nothing
except a few clothes.'
'Ah well--it doesn't matter--As you said--nothing matters now. . . .
Well, I'll go and see Ninnis, and settle about to-morrow. . . . Then
there's money. . . .' he stopped at the edge of the steps leading down
to the Old Humpey, looking back at her--'what you'll need for the
passage--and afterwards--I know what you'll be thinking; but I can
arrange for it with the Bank manager at Leuraville.'
A mocking demon rose in her.
'Please don't let yourself be inconvenienced. I only want the bare
passage money. And directly I get to England I will pay you back.'
His hands dropped to his sides as if she had shot him. His face was
terrible. At that moment, she could have bitten her tongue out.
'I don't think--you need have said that, Bridget,' and he went slowly
down the steps, and out of her sight like a man who has received a
If purgatory could hold worse torture than life held on that last
evening Lady Bridget spent at Moongarr, then neither she nor her
husband would have been required to do any long expiation there. It
would be difficult to say which of the two suffered the most. Probably
McKeith, because he was the strongest. Equally, he showed it the least
when the breaking moment had passed. Yet both husband and wife seemed
to have covered their faces, hearts and souls with unrevealing masks.
No, it was worse than that. Each was entirely aware of the mental and
spiritual barrier, which made it absolutely impossible for them to
approach each other in the sense of reality. A barrier infinitely more
forbidding than any material one of stone or iron. Because it was
living, poisoned, venomous as the fang of some monstrous deadly
serpent. To come within its influence meant the death of love.
There was not much more of the day to get through. Husband and wife
both got through it in a fever of activity over details that seemed
scarcely to matter. He busied himself with Ninnis--first explaining to
the overseer as briefly as he could, the necessity for Lady Bridget's
voyage to England--a necessity that appealed to Ninnis' practical
mind, particularly in the present financial emergency. It surprised him
a little that McKeith should not himself see his wife off; but he also
recognised practical reasons--against that natural concession to
sentiment. On the whole, it rather pleased him to find his employer
ignoring sentiment, and he fully appreciated the confidence reposed in
The two men went over questions connected with the journey, overhauling
the buggy so that springs, bars and bolts might be in order, seeing
that the horses were in good condition, sending on Cudgee that very
hour, with a second pair in relay for the long stage of the morrow,
when over fifty miles must be covered. There would be another pair at
old Duppo's, and, after a day and night of comparative rest, Alexander
and Roxalana would be fresh for the last long stage of the journey.
They calculated that under these provisions the railway terminus at
Crocodile Creek, might be reached on the eve of the third day. And
there were many instructions, and much careful arranging for Lady
Bridget's comfort during the journey.
Then there were letters to write, business calculations, a further
overdraft to be applied for to the Bank, pending the cattle
sales. . . . Would there be saleable cattle enough to meet demands and
expenses of sinking fresh artesian bores--now that the fire had destroyed
all the best grass on the run?
McKeith found no consolation in the prospect of his wife's riches. That
only added gall to his bitterness, new fuel to his stubborn pride, new
strength to the wall between them.
He sat brooding in his office, when the business letters were written--
to the Bank-manager; to Captain Halliwell, the Police-magistrate at
Leuraville; to the Manager of the Eastern and Australian Steam
Navigation Depot, Leuraville, enclosing a draft to pay the passage; to
the Captain of the boat advertised for that trip, who happened to be an
acquaintance of his--all recommending Lady Bridget to the different
people's care--all anticipating and arranging against every possible
drawback to her comfort on the voyage--all carefully stating the
object of her trip to England--business connected with the death of a
near relative. Then, after the ghastly pretence of dinner--during
which appearances were kept up unnecessarily before Maggie and the
Malay boy, by a forced discussion of matter-of-fact details--looking
out the exact time of the putting in of the next E. and A. boat at
Leuraville--all of which he had already done, and pointing out to
Bridget that she could catch it, with a day to spare.
There was food for the journey too, to be thought of, and other things
to talk about. As soon as the meal was ended, McKeith went back to the
office, and Bridget saw or heard no more of him that night. He did not
come even to his dressing-room. She concluded that he was 'camping' on
the bunk in the office, and when her own packing was done, she lay in
wakeful misery till dawn brought a troubled doze.
Her packing was no great business--clothes for the voyage, and a big
furred cloak for warmth, when she should arrive in England in the depth
of winter--that was all.
Everything else--her papers, knicknacks, personal belongings--she
left just as they were. Colin might do as he liked about them. She felt
reckless and quite hard.
Only one among those personal possessions moved her to despairing
tears. It was a shrivelled section of bark chopped from a gum tree,
warped almost into a tube.
She placed this carefully in the deepest drawer of her wardrobe. Would
Colin ever find it there--and would he understand? All the time,
through these preparations, strangely enough she did not think of any
possible future in connection with Willoughby Maule. The events of the
past few days seemed to have driven him outside her immediate horizon.
When she came out in the morning dressed for her journey, she found her
husband in the veranda waiting to strap up and carry out her baggage.
Scarcely a word passed between them; they did not even breakfast
together. He said he had been up early, and had had his breakfast
already, but he watched her trying to eat while he moved about
collecting things for her journey, and he poured out the coffee, and
begged her to drink it. While he was there, Chen Sing brought in the
basket of food he must have ordered for the buggy, and there was Fo
Wung too, the gardener, with fresh lettuce and water-cress, and a
supply of cool, green cabbage leaves in which he had packed a few early
flat-stone peaches, and some Brazilian cherries.
Lady Bridget thanked them with the ghost of her old sweetness, and they
promised to have the garden 'velly good--TAI YAT number one' and to
'make plenty nice dishes,' for the Boss during her absence.
While they stood at the French window, McKeith filled flasks with wine
and spirits, and packed quinine and different medicines he had prepared
in case of her needing them. Then after shewing her the different
bottles, he took the supply out to Ninnis to be put in the buggy.
Everything was ready now--the buggy packed, the hood unslung so that
it could be put up and down in protection against sun or rain--this
last alas! an improbable eventuality. Alexander and Roxalana were
champing their bits. Ninnis in a new cabbage-tree hat and clean
puggaree, wearing the light coat he only put on when in the society of
ladies he wished to honour, was standing by the front wheels examining
the lash of his driving-whip. McKeith had given him his last
directions. There was nothing now to wait for. McKeith went slowly up
the steps of the back veranda, and in at the French window of the
sitting room, where Bridget had been watching, waiting. At his
appearance, she went back into the room. She stood quite still, small,
shadowy, the little bit of her face which showed between the folds of
her motor veil, where it was tied down under her chin--very pale, and
the eyes within their red, narrowed lids, dry and bright.
'Are you ready, Bridget?' he asked.
He came close, and took a little bag she was holding out of her hands,
carried it to the back veranda, and told one of the Chinamen to give it
to Mr Ninnis--all, it seemed to her, to evade farewells. She called
him back in a hard voice.
'Colin--I've left my keys,'--pointing to a sealed and addressed
envelope on her own writing-table. 'There are a few things of value--
some you have given me--in the drawers.'
'I will take care of them,' he answered hoarsely.
They stood fronting each other, and their eyes both smarting, agonised,
stared at each other out of the pale drawn faces.
'Colin,' she said; and held out her hands. 'Aren't you going to say
He took her hands; his burning look met hers for an instant and
dropped. There was always the poisonous wall which their soul's vision
might not pierce--through which their yearning lips might not touch.
For an instant too, the hardness of his face was broken by a spasm of
emotion. The grip of his hands on hers was like that of a steel vice;
she winced at the pain of it. He dropped her hands suddenly, and moved
back a step.
'Is that all you have to say? All?'
He stuttered, helplessly. 'I--I--can't. . . . There's nothing to
'Nothing! You let me go--like this--without one word of apology--of
regret. I think that, at least, you owe me--courtesy.'
Her tone lashed him. He seemed to be struggling with his tongue-tied
speech. When words came they rushed out in fierce jerks. 'I'll say this
--though where's the good of talking. . . . What does it amount to
anyway, when you're down on the bedrock, and there's nothing left but
to give up the whole show and start fresh as best you can? I'll say
this--I've never pretended to fine manners--I leave them--to others.
I'm just a rough bushman, no better and no worse. Apology!--that's my
apology--As for regret. My God! isn't it all one huge regret? No, I
won't say that. . . . Because there are some things I CAN'T regret--
for myself. For you, I do regret them. I was an insane ass ever to
imagine that I and my way of living could ever fit in with a woman
brought up like you. The incompatibilities were bound to come out--
incompatibilities of temper, education, breeding--outlook on things--
they were bound to separate us sooner or later, I'm glad that it's
sooner, because that gives you a chance of getting back into your old
conditions before you've grown different in yourself--dried up--
soured--maybe lost your health, roughing it through bad times in the
bush. . . . As it is, you'll get out all right--Never fear that I
won't see you get out all right.'
'And you?' she put in.
'Me! I don't count--I don't care. . . . A man's not like a woman. I've
always been a fighter. And I've never been DOWNED in my life. I'm not
going to be DOWNED this time. I shall make good--some time--somehow.
I'm not the sort of small potato that drops to the bottom of the bag in
the big shake-up.'
She winced visibly. He read distaste in her slight gesture, in the
expression of her eyes. It was true that the man's pugnacious egoism--
a lower side of him asserting itself just then--had always jarred upon
her finer taste. He recognised this subconsciously, and his self-esteem
revolted at it.
'You needn't be afraid,' he exclaimed harshly. 'If I wanted to hold to
my rights, and keep you here with me--what has happened would prevent
me--I've got too much pride to hang on to the skirts of a rich wife.
But you won't be harmed. . . . I don't know yet, but I believe there's
a way by which you can win through straight and square--no smirch that
you need mind--And if there is--whatever the way of it is, I'll do my
best to bring you out all right.'
'You are generous.' Her eyes flashed but her voice was coldly bitter.
'May I ask what you propose to do?'
'There's no use. . . .' he said heavily. 'I told you talking was no
good--now. I've got my own ideas. . . .'
'Then, if that's how you feel, the sooner I go the better pleased you
will be,' she returned hysterically. 'Oh, I'm ready to go.'
He moved to the steps, not answering at once. Then he said:
'The buggy is waiting, will you come?'
He went down the steps in front of her, but stopped at the bottom to
help her, for her foot had stumbled on the edge of the veranda. His
strong arm upheld her until she was on the gravel. The touch of his
fingers on her arm, brought home the incredible horror of it all--the
suddenness, the brutality. She pulled her veil hastily over her face to
hide the gush of tears. She could not speak for the choking lump in her
throat. He released her at once and strode on. Not another word passed
between them. Ninnis greeted her with gruff cordiality--began a sort
of speech about the cause of her departure--condolence and
congratulations stupidly mixed. McKeith impatiently cut him short.
'All right, Ninnis. Get up. And mind, the horses are fresh. They'll
want a bit of driving at the start.'
He helped Bridget to her seat, tucked the brown linen coverlet round
her knees. In doing so, he bent his head--she thought he had dropped
something. Then through the thin linen of the covering, and her light
summer garments, she felt the pressure of his burning lips as though
they were touching her flesh.
She bent forward. Their eyes met in a wild look. just for a second. The
horses plunged under Ninnis' hands on the reins. McKeith sprang back.
'Wo-oh! Gee on then!' Ninnis called out. 'Good-bye, Boss. You can trust
me to look well after her ladyship. . . . Be back again as soon as I
And if Colin spoke, the sound did not carry to his wife's ears. Her
last impression of him as the buggy swayed and rattled down the hill
was again the dogged droop of his great shoulders.
It was too late now. She felt that the Furies were pursuing her. Ah,
but the end had come--come with such hideous misconception--every
word spoken--and there had been so few in comparison with the
immensity of the occasion--a hopeless blunder. It had been the tussle
of two opposing temperaments, it was like the rasping steel of a
cross-cut saw against the hard, heavy grain of an iron-bark gum log.
Then the extraordinary involvements of circumstance. Each incident, big
and little, dovetailing and hastening the onward sweep of catastrophe.
It seemed as though Fate had cunningly engineered the forces on every
plane so that there should be no escape for her victims. Like almost
all the tragedies of ordinary human life, this one had been too swift
in its action to allow of suitable dialogue or setting.
From Joan Gildea to Colin McKeith.
Written about a year later.
MY DEAR COLIN,
I find it impossible to recognise my old friend in the hard,
businesslike communication you sent me from Leichardt's Town. I almost
wish that you had allowed the lawyer you consulted to put the case
before me instead; it would have seemed less unfitting, and I could
have answered it better. But I quite appreciate your objection to
taking the lawyer into your confidence as regards the personal matters
you mention to me. It would be cruelly unjust--I think quite
unpardonable in you to bring forward the name of Mr Willoughby Maule in
connection with Bridget. Not that HE would mind that. I honestly
believe that he would snatch gladly at any means for inducing Bridget
to marry him. Whether she would do so, if you were to carry through
this amazing scheme of yours, it's impossible for me to say. At present
she certainly prefers to keep him at a distance. He has never been to
Castle Gaverick. And except for a few visits on business to London that
is where she has lived since she came over here.
Your letter followed me to Jamaica where I've been reporting on the
usual lines for THE IMPERIALIST, but, of course I couldn't answer it
until I had talked it over with Bridget and, as you desired, had
obtained her views on the matter. It was a shock to her to realise that
your reason for never writing to her and for refusing to let her write
to you, was lest that might affect the legality of these proceedings,
which I understand you have contemplated from the beginning of your
quarrel. Bridget is too proud to show you how deeply she is wounded by
your letter. All she has to say is, that if you really wish to take
this action, she will not oppose it.
But Colin, do you really wish, it? I refuse to believe that you
seriously contemplate divorcing your wife. You must know that you have
not the accepted grounds for doing so. As for the law you quote which
allows divorce in cases of two years' so-called desertion, I can only
say that I consider it a blot on Leichardt's Land legislation. Divorce
should be for one cause only--the cause to which Our Lord gave a
qualified approval; and Bridget has never been unfaithful--in act or
desire, to her husband. I would maintain this in spite of the most
damning testimony, and you must in your heart believe it also. Besides,
your testimony is ridiculously inadequate.
I am glad, however, that you have at last made your accusations in
detail--in order, as you say--that I--and Bridget, incidentally, I
suppose--should fully understand why you are adopting this attitude
towards her. I'm glad too, that you do not mean to make any use of the
evidence against her and are prepared to take all the blame for the
unhappy state of affairs between you! I write sarcastically. Why, it
would be monstrous if you had any other intention! Oh, how I hate this
pedantic roundabout way of writing! I feel inclined to tear up these
sheets--I've torn up two already. Really, you've made it so difficult
for me to treat you naturally. If I could talk to you, I'd make you
understand in five minutes--but I can't--so there!
Naturally, I had heard of your bringing Mr Willoughby Maule to the
station, and when I learned what followed, naturally also, I concluded
that you had discovered his identity with that of the man Bridget had
once cared for. I blame myself horribly. But for my carelessness you
would never have read that letter of Biddy's--she knows all about it
now--and your insane jealousy would not have jumped to conclusions--
at any rate so quickly. And perhaps if I had not bound you to secrecy
you'd have had the matter out with her, which would probably have saved
all this trouble. Anyhow, I can't imagine that you would have left her
alone with him as you did--and with bad feeling between you--at the
mercy of her own reckless impulses and that of Willoughby Maule's
ardent love-making. She doesn't pretend that it wasn't ardent, or that
he did not do his best to get her to run away with him--or that the
old infatuation did not come back to a slight extent--Is it surprising
after your conduct? No wonder she compared his devotion favourably,
with yours. Colin, your leaving her in such conditions wasn't the act
of a MAN, of a gentleman. I speak strongly, but I can't help it. I know
your stubborn pride and obstinacy, but you were wrong, you have
disappointed me--oh! how bitterly you have disappointed me!
Then there was that business about the blacks. What a fool you were--
and how brutally self-opinionated! I don't wonder Bridget thought you
an inhuman monster.
Now I have said my worst, and you must take it as it is meant and
As for the true story of that night's adventures, out of which your
Police Inspector seems to have made such abominable capital--I used to
think Police Inspectors were generally gentlemen--but they don't seem
to be, out on the Leura--I've got all the details from Biddy. A
tragi-comic business--so truly of the Bush, Bushy! I could laugh over
it, if it weren't for its serious consequences. Of course, Biddy got up
to turn out the goats which were butting with their horns under the
floor of her bedroom. I've often got up myself in the old days at
Bungroopim, when stray calves got into the garden, or the cockatoo
disturbed our slumbers. Do you remember Polly? and how she would keep
shouting out on a moonlight night 'The top of the mornin' to ye'--
because we'd forgotten to put her blanket over the cage--I believe
there were several occasions when you and I met in midnight dishabille
and helped each other to restore tranquillity. If anyone was to blame
for Biddy's adventure, it was your wood-and-water joey--or your
Chinamen--or whoever's business it may have been to see that the goats
were properly penned.
Naturally, Mr Maule, when he was disturbed too, came and did the
turning out for Bridget and shepherded the creatures to the fold.
Then meanwhile, she saw the black-gin sneaking in at Mr Maule's back
window to steal the key; and WOULD it have been philanthropic,
impulsive Biddy, if she hadn't helped in the work of rescue, and sent
the two sinners, with a 'Bless you, my children!' off into the scrub?
It was like Biddy too, to go and put the key back in Mr Maule's bedroom
and to scribble that ridiculous note in French so that he shouldn't go
blundering to the hide-house and hurry up the pursuit. I told Bridget
how the Inspector had watched her go out of Mr Maule's room, and had
grabbed the note afterwards, and shown it to you. She had forgotten
altogether about that note--supposed that, of course, it had reached
its proper destination. She couldn't remember either exactly what she
had written--except that she wanted to word it so that if there should
be any accident, nobody--except Mr Maule, for of course, they'd
determined on the release before that--should understand to what it
referred. So she didn't mention any name--she believes she dashed off
some words he had quoted to her about Love triumphant, and securing
happiness and freedom by flight. And then she put in something
referring to a scene they'd had that day in which he had begged her to
fly with him, and she had made him promise to leave next morning,
pacifying him by a counter promise to write.
She told me about her fever and ague--you don't need proof of that
after the state in which you found her--and how Mr Maule carried her
to her room and left her there after a few minutes. She doesn't
remember anything after that, until she came out of the fever and saw
you--with the face and manner I can well imagine--standing by her
I am sure that Bridget began to 'find herself' then, and that the way
in which she left Moongarr was one of those shocks which make a woman
touch reality. It may be only for that once in her life, but she can
never be the same again. You have put your brand on your wife, Colin--
that is quite plain to me. She has changed inwardly more than
But she is extremely reticent about her feelings towards you. That in
itself is so unlike the old Bridget, and I have no right to put forward
my own ideas and opinions--they may be quite wrong. Really, the news
of Eliza Lady Gaverick's death, and of Bridget's change of fortune,
coming just at that moment, is the sort of dramatic happening, which I
--as a dabbler in fiction--maintain, is more common in real life than
in novels. I am certain that if I had set out to build up the tangled
third act of a problem play on those lines, I couldn't have done it
better. All the same, I'm very sorry that this change of fortune didn't
come off earlier or later, for I am well aware of how you will jib at
Well, I can tell you, on her own authority, that Bridget never wrote to
Mr Maule as she had promised. She had no communication with him from
the time he left the station until they met on the E. and A. boat. He
joined her, as you know, at the next port above Leuraville. It was
rather canny of him to go there--yet I don't see how, in the
circumstances, he could have loafed round Leuraville without making
talk--though I think it was a great pity he didn't. Of course he had
his own means of communication with the township, and knew she was on
board. No one was more surprised than she at his appearance on deck
next morning. I don't think, however, that she saw much of him on the
voyage. She said that she got a recurrence of the malarial fever off
the northern coast and had to keep her cabin pretty well till they
reached Colombo. Then she asked him to leave the steamer and take a
P. and O. boat that happened to be in harbour--and this he did do.
I am bound to say that Willoughby Maule must have improved greatly
since the time when young Lady Gaverick decided he was a 'bounder.' I
daresay marriage did him good. I believe that his wife was a very
charming woman. Or, it may be that the possession of a quarter of a
million works a radical change in people's characters. Or, again, it
may be that he is more deeply devoted to Biddy than I, for one, ever
suspected. There is no doubt that given the regrettable position, his
behaviour in regard to her now is commendable.
But Bridget, doesn't love him--never has loved him. I state that fact
on no authority whatsoever except my own intuition. Also I am honestly
of opinion she has cared for you more than she has cared for any man.
You don't deserve it, and I may be wrong. But, nevertheless, it is my
conviction. Make of it what you please. I have been, I candidly own it,
surprised to see what discretion and good feeling she has shown through
all this Gaverick will business. There has been a good deal of
disagreeable friction in the matter. Lord Gaverick has not come off so
well as he expected. He has got the house in Upper Brook Street, which
suits young Lady Gaverick, and about fifteen hundred a year--
considerably less than Bridget. The trouble is that Eliza Gaverick left
a large legacy to her doctor--the latest one--and there was a talk
about bringing forward the plea of undue influence. That, however, has
fallen to the ground--mainly through Biddy's persuasion. I believe it
is Bridget's intention to make over Castle Gaverick to her cousin, but
this is not given out and of course she may change her mind.
And now, Colin, I think I have said everything I have to say. The main
point to you is, no doubt, the answer to your question. As I said at
the beginning of this letter, Bridget will not oppose any course you
choose to take in order to secure your release from her--that is the
exact way she worded it. But I cannot believe that, in face of all the
rest I have told you, you will go on with this desertion--divorce
business--at least without making yourself absolutely certain that you
both desire to be free of each other. Remember, there has been no
explanation between you and Biddy--no chance of touch between the true
selves of both of you. Can you not come to England to see her? Or
should she go out to you. I think it possible she might consent to do
so, but have never broached the idea and cannot say. Yes, of course I
understand that this might invalidate the legal position. But as only
two years are necessary to prove the desertion--even if you should
decide together that it is best to part--isn't it worth while to wait
two years more in order to make quite sure? No doubt, you will say that
I am shewing the proverbial ignorance of women in legal questions. But
I can't help feeling that there must be some way in which it could be
arranged. I do beseech you, Colin, not to act hastily.
You say that if this divorce took place, Bridget's reputation would not
suffer, and that she could marry again without a stain upon her
character as they say of wrongfully accused prisoners who are
discharged. But again--is that the question?
I know nothing of your present circumstances--health, outlook on life
--anything. Bridget once hinted to me that you might have your own
reasons for desiring your freedom. She would give no grounds for the
suspicion that there is any other woman in your life. I do not think
anything would make me credit such a thing and I put that notion
entirely out of court. I do not know--as your letter was dated from
Leichardt's Town--whether you still live at Moongarr. It is possible
you may have sold the place. I hear of severe droughts in parts of
Leichardt's Land, but have no information about the Leura district. Now
that Sir Luke Tallant has exchanged to Hong Kong, Bridget hasn't any
touch with Leichardt's Land, and I have very few correspondents there.
Write to me--not a stilted, legal kind of letter like the last. Tell
me about yourself--your feelings, your conditions. We are old friends
--friends long before Bridget came either into my life or yours. You
can trust me. If you do not want me to repeat to Bridget anything you
may tell me, I will faithfully observe your wishes. But I can't bear
that you, whom I should have thought so well of--have felt so much
about--should be making a mess of your life, and that I should not put
out a hand to prevent it.
Always your friend,
It was a long time before Mrs Gildea received an answer to her letter.
She had begun to despair of ever getting another line from Colin
McKeith, when at last he wrote from Moongarr, six months later.
MY DEAR JOAN,
Your letter has made me think. I could not write before for reasons
that you'll gather as you go along. I shall do as you ask and tell you
everything as straightly and plainly as I can. I feel it is best that
you should know exactly the sort of conditions I'm under and what a
woman would have had to put up with if she had been with me--what she
would have to put up with if she were going to be with me. Then you can
judge whether or not I'm right in the decision I have come to as the
result of my thinkings. You can tell my wife as much as you please--of
the details, I mean. Perhaps, you had better soften them to her, for
you know as well as I do--or better--that her impulsive, quixotic
disposition might lead her into worse mistakes than it has done
already. Of course, she'll have to know my decision. I am sure that if
she allows her reason play, she will agree it is the only possible one.
I'm not going to talk about what happened before she went away, or
about that evidence--or anything else in that immediate connection. I
was mad, and I expect I believed a lot more than was true. I don't
believe--I don't think I ever did really believe--what I suppose you
would call 'the worst.' But that doesn't seem to me of such great
matter. It's the spirit, not the letter that counts. The foundation
must have been rotten, or there never would have been a question of
believing one way or the other--because we should have UNDERSTOOD.
Explanations would not have been needed between true mates. Only we
were not true mates--that's the whole point. There was too great a
radical difference between us. It might have been a deal better if she
HAD gone off with that man.
But to come now to the practical part of the situation. You know enough
about Australian ups and downs to realise that a cattle or sheep owner
out West, may be potentially wealthy one season and on the fair road to
beggary the next. It will be different when times change and we take to
sinking artesian bores on the same principle as when Joseph stored up
grain in the fat years in Egypt against the lean ones that were coming.
That's what I meant to do and ought to have done at any cost. But--
well I just didn't.
The thing is that if I could have looked ahead, perhaps even six
months, I might not have thought it acting on the square to a woman to
get her to marry me. If I could have looked a year ahead, I wouldn't
have had any doubt on the subject.
But you see I justified it to myself. One thousand square miles of
country--fine grazing land most of it, so long as the creeks kept
running--and no more than eleven thousand head of stock upon it,
seemed, with decent luck, a safe enough proposition, though you'll
remember I was a bit doubtful that day on your veranda at Emu Point,
when we talked about my marrying. The truth was that directly I saw
Bridget, she carried me clean off my head--and that's the long and
short of it.
Besides, I'd been down south a good while, then, figuring about in the
Legislative Assembly and swaggering on my prospects. I'd left Ninnis to
oversee up here, and Ninnis didn't know the Leura like some of the old
hands, who told me afterwards they'd seen the big drought coming as
long back as that.
I remember one old chap on the river, when he was sold up by the Bank
in the last bad times, and his wife had died of it all, saying to me,
'The Leura isn't the place for a woman.' And he was right. Well, I saw
that I was straight up against it that spring when we had had a poor
summer and a dry winter, and the Unionists started trouble cutting my
horses' throats, and burning woodsheds and firing the only good grass
on my run that I could rely upon. I didn't say much about it, but I
have no doubt that it made me bad-tempered and less pleasant to live
with. . . . That was just before the time Biddy went away. Afterwards,
the sales I'd counted on turned out badly--cattle too poor for want of
grass to stand the droving and the worst luck in the sale-yards I'd
First thing I did was to reduce the staff and bar everything but bare
necessaries--I sent off the Chinamen and every spare hand. Ninnis and
I and the stockman--a first-rate chap, Moongarr Bill--worked the run
--just the three of us. You can guess how we managed it. A Malay boy
did cooky for the head-station.
After Christmas I left Ninnis and Bill to look after the place. I had
to go to Leichardt's Town. I had been thinking things out about Biddy
all that time--you know I'm too much of the Scotchy to make hasty
determinations. Well, I had that Parliament Bill, allowing divorce
after two years desertion in my head, from the day Biddy left me. It
seemed the best way out--for her. I had heard about that fellow going
Home in the same boat with her, and never guessed but that it was a
concerted plan between them. That note Harris showed me made me think
it was so. I don't think this now--after what you told me.
But what did rub itself into me then was that I ought to let her marry
him as soon as she decently could. I couldn't see the matter any other
way--I don't now. He has lots of money--though a man who would buy
happiness with another woman out of the money his wife had left him--
well, that's a matter of opinion. Besides, she has got the fortune the
old lady left her and can be independent of him if she chooses. There's
nothing to prevent her living any kind of life that pleases her--
except me, and I'm ready and willing to clear out of the show. One
thing I'm sorry for now, and that is having torn up the draft she sent
to pay me back her passage money, and putting the bits in an envelope
and posting them to her without a word. I suppose it should have been
done through a lawyer, with all the proper palaver. Perhaps she didn't
tell you about that. I somehow fancy she didn't. But I know that it
would have hurt her--I knew that when I did it. And perhaps that is
why I did it. You are right. I haven't acted the part of a gentleman
all through this miserable business. But what could you expect?
For you see, my father worked his own way up, and my grandfather was a
crofter--and I haven't got the blood of Irish kings, on the other
side, behind me.
Now I'm being nasty, as you used to say in the old Bungroopim days when
I wouldn't play. YOU were my Ideal, in those days, Joan--before you
went and got married. I've been an unlucky devil all round.
Well there! I had to try and arrange things for an overdraft with the
Bank in Leichardt's Town, but I went down chiefly to consult lawyers
about the divorce question, so that it should be done with as little
publicity and unpleasantness as possible. It appeared that it could be
done all right--as I wrote you. What would have been the good of my
havering in that letter over my own feelings and the bad times I had
struck? It never was my habit to whine over what couldn't be helped.
Luck was up against me down there too. I got pitched off a buckjumper
at a horse-dealers', Bungroopim way. I had been 'blowing,' Australian
fashion, that I could handle that colt if nobody else was able to. The
end of it was that the buckjumper got home, not me. I was laid up in
hospital for close on two months, with a broken leg and complications.
The complications were that old spear wound, which inflamed, and they
found that a splinter from the jagged tip had been left in.
Blood-poisoning was the next thing; and when I came out of that
hospital I was more like the used up bit of soap you'll see by the
COOLIBAH* outside a shepherd's hut on ration-bringing day, than
anything else I can think of.
[*Coolibah--a basin made from the scooped out excrescence of a tree.]
As soon as I could sit a horse again I went to work at Moongarr. I had
found things there at a pretty pass. Not a drop of rain had fallen up
to now on the station for nearly nine months. YOU know what that means
on the top of two dry seasons. As soon as I was fit, we rode over the
run inspecting--I and Ninnis and Moongarr Bill. There's a lot of
riding over one thousand square miles, and we didn't get our inspection
done quickly. Day after day we travelled through desolation--grass
withered to chips, creeks and waterholes all but empty, cattle
staggering like drunken men, only it was for WANT of drink. The trees
were dying in the wooded country; and in the plains the earth was
crumbling and shrinking, and great cracks like crevasses were gaping in
the black soil where there used to be beautiful green grass and flowers
The lagoon was practically dried up, and the little drain of water left
was undrinkable because of the dead beasts that had got bogged and
dropped dead in it. They were short of water at the head-station, and
we had to fetch it in from a waterhole several miles off that we fenced
round and used for drinking--so long as it lasted. When we were
mustering the other side of the run, it came to our camping at a sandy
creek where we could dig in the sand and get just enough for horses and
men. The water of the Bore I'd made, was a bit brackish, but it kept
the grass alive round about and was all the cattle had to depend on.
You can think of the job it was shifting the beasts over there from
other parts of the run which was what we tried to do, so long as they
were fit for it.
We were selling what we could while there was still life left in the
herd, but the cattle were too far gone for droving. We managed to
collect a hundred or so--sent them in trucks from Crocodile Creek
Terminus, for boiling down and netted about thirty shillings a head on
them. That was all. I guess that--by this time, out of my eleven
thousand head with No. 666 brand on them I'd muster from four to five
hundred. The mistake I made was in not selling out for what I could get
at the beginning of the Drought. But it was the long time in
Leichardt's Town that had me there.
It was bad luck all through from first to last. Mustering those beasts
for boiling down started that old spear wound afresh. Until it got well
again, there was nothing for it but to sit tight and wait.
Moongarr Bill left to make a prospecting trip on my old tracks up the
Bight--took Cudgee and the black-boy with him. He had an idea that
he'd strike a place where we'd seen the colour of gold on our last
expedition, but weren't able then to investigate it. I've never been
bitten by the gold fever like some fellows, and I daresay that I've
missed chances. But I thought cattle were a safer investment, and I've
seen too much misery and destruction come from following that gold will
o' the wisp, for me to have been tempted to run after it.
Old Ninnis was the next to leave, I made him take the offer of a job
that he had. When it came to drawing water five miles for the
head-station, and keeping it in an iron tank sunk in the ground, with a
manhole and padlocked cover for fear of its being got at, the fewer
there were of us the better. Now the station is being run by the Boss
and the Malay boy, who is a sharp little chap, and more use in the
circumstances than any white man. We've killed the calves we were
trying to PODDY*. And the dogs--except one cattle dog--Veno--Biddy
would remember her; how she used to lollop about the front veranda
outside her room. Now, what the deuce made me write that!--Well, the
dog goes with me in the cart when I fetch water, and takes her drink
with the horses at the hole.
[*Poddy--to bring up by hand.]
I'm getting used to the life--making jobs in the daytime to keep
myself from feeling the place a worse hell than it really is. There's
always the water to be fetched and the two horses and the dog to be
taken for their big drink. If you could see me hoarding the precious
stuff--washing my face in the morning in a soup plate, and what's left
kept for night for the dog. When I want a bath I ride ten miles to the
bore. Then there's saddlery to mend, and dry-cleaning the place and
pipes between whiles--more of them than is good for me. Stores are
low, but I've still got enough of tobacco. I daresay it's a mercy
there's no whiskey--nothing but a bottle or two of brandy in case of
snake-bites--or I might have taken to it.
Thank God I've got a pretty strong will, and I've never done as I see
so many chaps do, find forgetfulness in drink--but there's no saying
what a man may come to. It's the nights that are the worst. I'm glad to
get up at dawn and see to the beasts. And there's that infernal
watching of the sky--looking out all the time for clouds that don't
come--or if they do, end in nothing. You know that brassy glare of the
sun rising that means always scorching dry heat? Think of it a hundred
times worse than you've ever seen it! The country as far as you can
look is like the floor of an enormous oven, with the sky, red and
white-hot for a roof, and all the life there is, being slowly baked
inside. The birds are getting scarce, and it seems too much trouble for
those that are about to lift their voices. Except for a fiend of a
laughing-jackass in a gum tree close by the veranda that drives me mad
with his devilish chuckling.
Well, how do you think now, that her ladyship would have stood up
against these sort of conditions? Many a time, walking up and down the
veranda when I couldn't sleep, I've thanked my stars that there was no
woman hanging on to me any more. Most of the men on the river have sent
away their women--stockmen's wives and all. There was one here at the
Bachelors' Quarters, but I packed her off before I went to Leichardt's
I'm just waiting on to get Moongarr Bill's report of the country up
north--how it stands the drought, and what the chances are for pushing
out. As for the gold find--well, I'm not banking on that. As soon as I
hear--or if I don't hear in the course of the next two or three weeks
--I shall pull up stakes, and burn all my personal belongings, except
what a pair of saddle bags will carry.
Before long, I'm going to begin packing Biddy's things. They'll be
shipped off to her all right.
When the divorce business is over, I shall make new tracks, and you
won't hear of me unless I come out on top. I've got a queer feeling
inside me that I shall win through yet.
Well, I'm finished; and it's about time. I've run my pen over a good
many sheets, and it has been a kind of relief--I began writing this
about three weeks ago. Harry the Blower--that's the mailman--comes
only once a month now, and not on time at that.
I suppose the drought will break sooner or later, and when it breaks,
the Bank is certain to send up and take possession of what's left. So
I'm a ruined man, any way.
Good-bye, Joan, old friend. I've written to the lawyer, and Biddy will
be served with the papers soon after this reaches you. I'm not sending
her any message. If she doesn't understand, there's no use in words--
but YOU know this. She's been the one woman in the universe for me--
and there will never be another.
He signed his name at the end of the letter; and that was all.
Harry the Blower came up with his mails a day or two later. Among the
letters he brought, there were three at least of special importance to
One was from the late Attorney General of Leichardt's Land, in whose
following he had been while sitting in the Legislative Assembly, and
whom he had consulted in reference to the Divorce petition. This
gentleman informed Colin that proceedings were already begun in the
case of McKeith versus McKeith, and that notification of the pending
suit had been sent to Lady Bridget at Castle Gaverick, in the province
of Connaught, Ireland.
The second letter was from the Manager of the Bank of Leichardt's Land,
regretfully conveying the decision of the Board that, failing immediate
repayment of the loan, the mortgage on Moongarr station must be
foreclosed and that in due course a representative of the Bank would
arrive to take over the property.
The third letter was from Moongarr Bill, dated from the furthest Bush
township at the foot of the Great Bight, which had formed the base of
Colin's last exploring expedition. A mere outpost of civilisation it
was--that very one which he had described at the dinner party at
Government House where he had first met Lady Bridget O'Hara.
Apparently, in Moongarr Bill's estimation, its only reason for
existence lay in the fact that it had an office under the jurisdiction
of the Warden of Goldfields, for the proclamation of new goldfields,
and the obtaining of Miner's Rights.
Moongarr Bill's epistolary style was bald in its directness.
Dear Sir-- he began:--
The biggest mistake we ever made in our lives was not following up the
streak of colour you spotted in that gully running down from Bardo
Range to Pelican River. If we had stopped, and done a bit of stripping
for alluvial, for certain, we should have found heavy, shotty gold,
with only a few feet of stripping. But I've done better than that--got
on the lead--dead on the gutter. To my belief, that gully is the top
dressing of a dried up underground watercourse. It's a pocket chock
full of gold.
You see, it's like this:
Here followed technical details given in local gold-digger's
phraseology which would only be intelligible to a backwoods prospector
or a Leichardt's Land mining expert. McKeith read all the details
carefully, turning the page over and back again in order to read it
once more. There was no doubt--making due allowance for Moongarr
Bill's exaggerative optimism--that the find was a genuine one.
The writer resumed:
'I've pegged off a twenty men's ground, this--being outside the area
of a proclaimed goldfield--our reward as joint discoverers. The ground
joins on to your old pegs; and the wonder to me is that nobody has ever
struck the place. However, that's not so queer as you might think, for
there has been very little talk of gold up here--in fact the P.M. does
Warden's work. Besides, the drought has kept squatters from pushing
out, and it's too far off for the casual prospector. Luckily, the
drought has driven the Blacks away too, further into the ranges; and I
haven't seen any Myalls this trip like the ones that went for us last
time. It's a pity Hensor pegged out then. He'd have come in for a slice
of luck now--we three being the only persons in the world--until I
lodged my information at the Warden's office this morning--who had
ever raised the colour in this district or had any suspicion of a show.
I reckon though that if the find turns out as I think, you'll be making
things up to little Tommy.
I'm to have my Miners' Right all properly filled up to-morrow, and
shall make tracks back to the gully at once, so as to leave no chance
of the claim being jumped. I've named it "McKeith's Find" so your name
won't be forgotten. I don't count on a big rush at first--all the
better for you--but I shall be surprised if we are not entitled at the
end of four months to our Government reward of 500 pounds, as there are
pretty sure to be two hundred miners at work by that time.
I'm writing to Ninnis--though I don't know if he has done his job yet
--telling him to lose no time in getting here; and you won't want
telling to do the same. I reckon that whether the drought has broken by
this time or not, it will pay you better to start for here than to wait
at the station until there are calves coming on to brand and muster.
Ninnis will be in with us all right, and it would be a fine thing if
you came up together. He's a first-rate man, and has had a lot of
experience in the Californian goldfields. Poor luck, however, or he
wouldn't have come over to free-select on the Leura.
It took me a good three weeks to get as far as the Pelican Creek, and I
couldn't have done it in the time if there had been Blacks about.
Knowing the lay of the country too, made it easier than it was before
for us. Cudgee has turned out a smarter boy than Wombo was. No fear of
Myalls with their infernal jagged spears being round without his
sniffing them. One of the horses died from eating poison-bush. Don't go
in for camping at a bend in Pelican Creek, between it and a brigalow
scrub, first day you sight Bardo Range going up the Creek, where
there's a pocket full of good grass one side of a broken slate ridge--
IT'S NO GOOD. But I wouldn't swop the other horses for any of
Windeatt's famous breed. There's some things it would be well for you
and Ninnis to bring, and a box of surveyor's compasses would come in
Here followed half a page on practical matters, and then the letter
McKeith pondered long over Moongarr Bill's letter, as he sat in the
veranda smoking and watching a little cloud on the horizon, and
wondering whether rain was coming at last. . . . If Moongarr Bill was
right, the gold-find would mean a fresh start for him in his baulked
career. At any rate, it behoved him to take advantage of the chance and
to go forth on the new adventure without unnecessary delay. But the
savour was gone for him from adventure--the salt out of life. The
stroke of luck--if it were one--had come too late.
And now the Great Drought had broken at last.
Next evening there came up a terrific thunderstorm, and a hurricane
such as had not visited the district for years. It broke in the
direction of the gidia scrub, and razed many trees. It passed over the
head-station and travelled at a furious rate along the plain.
Hailstones fell, as large as a pigeon's egg, and stripped off such
leafage as the drought had left. Thunder volleyed and lightning blazed.
Part of the roof of the Old Humpey was torn off. The hide-house was
practically blown away. The great white cedar by the lagoon was struck
by lightning, and lay, a chaos of dry branches and splintered limbs,
one side of the trunk standing up jagged and charred where it had been
riven in two.
Upon the hurricane followed a steady deluge. For a night and a day, the
heavens were opened, and poured waterspouts as though the pent rain of
nine months were being discharged. The river 'came down' from the heads
and filled the gully with a roaring flood. The lagoon was again almost
level with its banks. The dry water-course on the plain sparkled in the
distance, like a mirage--only that it was no mirage. No one who has
not seen the extraordinary rapidity with which a dry river out West can
be changed into a flooded one, could credit the swiftness of the
Then the heavens closed once more. The sun shone out pitilessly bright,
and the surface earth looked, after a few hours, almost as dry as
before. But the life-giving fluid had penetrated deep into the soil;
the rivers and creeks were running; green grass was already springing
up for the beasts to feed upon. The land was saved. Alas too late to
save the ruined squatters. There were so few of their beasts left.
Nevertheless, the rain brought new life and energy to the humans.
Kuppi, the Malay boy fetched buckets of water from the replenished
lagoon, and scoured and scrubbed with great alacrity. He came timidly
to his master, and asked if he might not wash out with boiling water
the closed parlour and Lady Bridget's unused bedroom. He was afraid
that the white ants might have got into them.
McKeith's face frightened Kuppi. So did the imprecation which his
innocent request evoked. He was bidden to go and keep himself in his
own quarters, and not show his face again that day at the New House.
Since Lady Bridget's departure, McKeith had slept, eaten and worked in
the Old Humpey, his original dwelling.
But Kuppi did not know that the white ants had not been given a chance
to work destruction upon 'the Ladyship's' properties. Regularly every
day, McKeith himself tended those sacred chambers. Bridget's rooms were
just as she had left them.
He had done nothing yet towards dismantling that part of the New House
in which she had chiefly lived. He had put off the task day after day.
But since receiving Moongarr Bill's letter, and now that the drought
had broken, and the Man in Possession a prospect as certain as that
there would come another thunderstorm, he knew that he must begin his
preparations to quit Moongarr.
To do this meant depriving himself of the miserable comfort he found
during wakeful nights and the first hour of dawn--the time he usually
chose for sweeping and cleaning his wife's rooms--of roaming,
ghost-like, through the New House where every object spoke to him of
her. In the day time, he shrank from mounting the steps which connected
the verandas, but in the evenings, he would often come and stroll along
the veranda, and sit in the squatter's chair she had liked, or in the
hammock where she had swung, and smoke his pipe and brood upon the
irrevocable past. And then he would suddenly rush off in frantic haste
to do some hard, physical work, feeling that he must go mad if he sat
still any longer.
To-day however, after Kuppi had fled to the kitchen, he went into his
old dressing room and stood looking at the camp bed, and thought of the
day of Bridget's fever when Harris had given him her note to Maule, and
he had sat here huddled on the edge of the bed wrestling dumbly with