Lady Bridget in the Never-Never Land
Rosa Praed (1851-1935)
Part 4 out of 7
everything was! How impossible the whole thing would have appeared to
her had any fortune-teller in Bond Street prophesied the end of her
And how, in the first moment of settling down, she had laughed with
Colin at the thought of what Chris and Molly Gaverick, and 'Eliza
Countess' would have said! But with what dauntless energy she had
worked in transforming her new abode and in making it reflect her own
personality. She had felt really grateful, she said, to the Union
delegates for having enticed away the builders before the inside
furnishings were complete. Soon they got hold of a bush carpenter, and
she was provided with occupation for a good many months.
Lady Bridget had been very happy in those early days. Colin had seemed
so thoroughly in the picture--strong, chivalrous, adoring--like a
Viking worshipping his conquered bride. The romance of it all appealed
tremendously to the Celtic blood in Bridget. It was her nature, when
she gave, to give generously. She had become genuinely in love with her
bush husband during that wonderful honeymoon journey.
Ah, that journey! What an experience! If she could have written it down
as a new adventure of 'The Lady of Quality,' how the great Gibbs would
have jumped at her 'copy!' Well, she had practically done so in her
letters to Joan Gildea--now back in her London flat. But the true
inwardness of the adventure was a thing never to be put into words.
No sign yet of the men. Lady Bridget ceased her restless pacing and
swung herself slowly to and fro in a hammock at the end of the veranda.
As she swung she traversed over again in her imagination the stages of
that honeymoon journey.
Two hundred and twenty-five miles of it, after the first camp out. Many
more nights under the stars. Then out of the gum forests they had gone
through the great western plains, covering ground fairly easily, for
McKeith had arranged to have fresh horses on the road, and they always
drove a spare pair ahead of the buggy. Occasionally they stopped at a
head-station. Once at night they pulled up at a bush house, and a
strange old man had put his head out of a window and shouted to them in
the darkness. 'If ye've come to see me, I'm drunk,' he had said, 'and
if you've come to drink, the rum-keg's empty, but ye'll find a pint pot
outside and a little water in the tank.' And then he had shut the
window again and refused further parley.
They had camped, hungry, in the paddock--for provisions had run out,
and on that account, and because the horses had strayed in the night,
they had to go again to the house. The old man, sober and ashamed,
captivated likewise by Lady Bridget's beauty and charm, apologised
almost on his knees--he made Biddy think of Thackeray's picture of Sir
Pitt Crawley proposing to Becky Sharp. Old Mr Duppo, it was--the
father of Zack Duppo, the horse-breaker, who had recently been breaking
in colts at Moongarr.
They stayed till the horses were found. Mr Duppo had a housekeeper--
now if Mrs Hensor had been like that housekeeper there could have been
no cause for jealous scandal. An aged dame, long, bony--dressed in a
short green petticoat and tartan jacket, with a little checked shawl
over her head and pinned under a bearded chin. She poured tea out of a
tin teapot and leaned over her master's chair at meal times to carve
the salt beef.
Lady Bridget sketched the pair. The old man roared over the sketch, but
the housekeeper bore her a grudge for it, and afterwards had not a good
word for the 'Ladyship' who had slipped out of her proper sphere into
the Never-Never country.
There were plenty of other small adventures which would have made the
hair of Lady Gaverick and her friends stand on end. A dream-drive
indeed, full of sort of 'Alice in Wonderland' episodes. Bush life Out
Back--a jumble of odd characters and situations. Fencers' camps,
cattle-drivers' camps, bullock-dray camps. There had been a baby born
unexpectedly under the tilt of a bullock-dray, on one occasion, the
night before McKeith's party appeared on the scene, and Lady Bridget
had a trunk down from the buggy, and there in the road tore up some of
her fine-laced smocks and petticoats to provide swaddling clothes for
the poor little scrap of mortality. And there were tramps 'humping
bluey' on the track likewise, and diggers carrying their picks. Bridget
liked seeing Colin hail-fellow-well-met with them all--sharing tucker
and quart-pot tea. She wished that her socialistic friends of the old
played-out civilisation could see this shrewd, practical humanitarian
of the Bush.
They came very close to each other in those long days of the
dream-drive. He talked to her as he had never talked before, and as he
talked rarely afterwards. He drew aside curtains from recesses of his
real nature, the existence of which she had not suspected, and, in
truth, at a later time, doubted. Then, if in broad sunlight the shy,
rough exterior of the man would close suddenly over those secret
chambers, when evening came, it would seem as though the camp fire
illuminated them once more.
After the first time or two, he allowed her to boss the camp 'lay-out.'
It was she who spread the blankets on Wombo's beds of grass tree tops
and dry herbage. Wombo and the 'big feller White Mary' (the adjective
used metaphorically as expressive of distinction) made great friends in
those days--out of which friendship sprang, alas! in due time, certain
tragic happenings. It was Lady Bridget who would set the billy boiling
and who, after one or two failures, succeeded in making excellent
johnny-cakes. She remembered her first performance in that line under
the eyes of a small group of admiring spectators--her husband 'just
waiting to see how the new-chum cook shaped,' and, as he said the
words, she, glancing up from the sheet of bark and the dough she was
kneading, caught a look in his face which was something she could never
in all her life forget. And Moongarr Bill with the horses' reins over
his arm, and the two black-boys agape, beady eyes twinkling, white
teeth glistening, emitting their queer guttural clicks of approbation,
and an occasional 'My word! Bujeri you, Lathy-chap,' the nearest they
could get to Moongarr Bill's accepted form of address. There was joy,
glory to Lady Bridget in this playing of the squaw and fending for her
man, ceasing to be the goddess and becoming the primal woman.
And the sports, and songs, and stories by the camp fire! Moongarr
Bill's yarns, Colin's exploring tales, Wombo's and Cudgee's dances and
corroboree-tunes--strange, weird music that had a fascination for Lady
Bridget. She, too, would get up and sing CARMEN'S famous air, and the
Neapolitan peasant songs of her mother's youth. Never, for sure, had
the gaunt gum trees echoed back such strains as these.
But time came when all the romance of barbarism seemed to have fizzled
out and only cruel realities remained--when work and worry turned
McKeith from the worshipping lover into the rough-tongued, irritable
bushman--when his 'hands' deserted him, his cattle died and things
generally went wrong, and when he showed himself something of the
hard-headed, parsimonious, ill-conditioned Scotch mongrel that
Steadbolt had called him. When, indeed, he seemed to have forgotten
that Lady Bridget O'Hara had graciously permitted him to worship her,
but had not bargained for being treated--well, as many another
out-back squatter--treats his help-mate. Then Bridget would tell
herself bitterly that it might have been better had she married a
civilised gentleman. There would sometimes be scenes and sometimes
sulks, and those times no doubt accounted for the hungry look in Lady
Bridget's eyes and the slight hardening of her mouth.
She was loyal though, in spite of her many faults, and 'game' in her
own way--and when Colin came out of his dour moods, she was generally
ready to meet him half way.
For, through all, the memory of the dream-drive honeymoon lingered. And
the bit of bark, sapless, brown, curled up by the heat into almost a
tube, and partially eaten by white ants--before the desecrating
assault had been discovered and the termites' nest destroyed with
boiling water--was still cherished as a sacred symbol.
While she swung in the hammock the memory pictures came and went like a
cinematograph show--the dream-drive presently merging into an
electioneering trip through McKeith's constituency a few weeks after
her bridal homecoming.
The 'Lady of Quality' might, had she been so minded, have also made
spicy capital out of the humours of that political contest--in which,
unhappily, the Labour Party had triumphed. Steadbolt had had his say on
the occasion, and there had been a free fight--Lady Bridget was not
present, and only heard darkly of the occurrence--when Steadbolt had
got the worst of it in an encounter with his late employer.
But all that was but a small side-show, and not likely to affect in any
great measure Lady Bridget's life. Except that the loss of McKeith's
seat in the Legislative Assembly made it no longer necessary for him to
spend at least part of the winter session in Leichardt's Town. Nor
would Lady Bridget have the opportunity to resume her old intimacy at
Government House. In any case, however, she was not destined to see
more of her old friend in Australia. A few months previously, Lady
Tallant had developed symptoms of grave disease--it was said that the
Leichardt's Land climate did not agree with her, and she had gone back
to England, leaving Sir Luke to perform his duties without her help.
At last, Lady Bridget heard the unmistakable sound of cattle in the
distance--the low, multitudinous roar of lowing beasts and tramping
hoofs and the reverberating crack of stock-whips. It came from the
gidia scrub. She knew that they had been mustering SCRUBBERS--
otherwise, wild cattle from the broken country at the foot of Moongarr
She left the hammock and went again to the veranda railing. Looking
along a side path from the Chinaman's garden she saw that Mrs Hensor
and her boy--the yellow-headed urchin of about six--were hastening
towards the Bachelors' Quarters. The woman carried a basket of
vegetables, the boy hugged a big pawpaw fruit which he held up proudly
as his mother responded in her free-and-easy, rather sulky fashion to
Lady Bridget's stiff nod. 'It's for the House,' cried the child. 'Fo
Wung said I was to bring it up.'
Lady Bridget made a wry face--she did not like pawpaws.
'Very well, Tommy, and if you're good you can have what's left
'That's all right,' responded Tommy in bush formula.
'Have you seen anything of your master--or the postman?' asked Lady
Bridget of Mrs Hensor.
'I believe Mr McKeith is coming on ahead with Harry the Blower,' said
Mrs Hensor. 'Look sharp, Tommy, the cattle will be at the yard
directly, and I've got my dinner to cook for the whole lot of them,
seeing that some visitors aren't good enough for the house.'
The woman pointed her last sentence by a malicious glance at the
mistress of Moongarr.
'I suppose that is what your master keeps you here for--to cook for
the visitors at the Quarters, Mrs Hensor,' said Lady Bridget, with
Mrs Hensor flushed scarlet, but she checked an impudent reply. Pulling
Tommy angrily along, she hurried up to the four-roomed, zinc-roofed
humpey and its lean-to kitchen, protected by a bough shade, which lay
between the head-station and the gully, with the stockyard close to it,
and which constituted her domain. It annoyed Mrs Hensor to hear McKeith
called her master. She always spoke of her late husband as having been
the Boss-mate on that--to him fatal--exploring expedition. Also, she
resented having all the bachelors 'dumped down'--as she phrased it--
on her, while the 'Ladyship's swell staff' was spared the trouble. At
present the Bachelors' Quarters was fairly full. Mr Ninnis,
store-keeper and overseer in the owner's absence, abode there
permanently, and just now, there were Zack Duppo, the horse-breaker,
and a young man from Breeza Downs--a combined cattle and sheep station
about fifty miles distant--who had come to help in the mustering and
to collect any beasts strayed from the Breeza Downs' herd.
The gully crossing lay below the boulders of rock at the head of the
lagoon. Presently, two horsemen appeared on the rise. One was McKeith;
the other Harry the Mailman--otherwise the Blower--a foxy, browny-red
little man on a raw-boned chestnut, carrying his mail-bags strapped in
front and at the side of his saddle.
Lady Bridget supposed they had met at the turn-off track just above the
crossing. McKeith was carrying a leather mail-bag, from which he
appeared to have extracted a bundle of letters, with one hand. He held
his bridle and coiled stock-whip in the other. He was listening to the
mailman, who seemed to be talking animatedly. As they neared the house,
he gave the usual COO-EE, that set all the dogs barking, and put the
Chinaman-cook and black-boys on the alert.
The riders passed by the end of the veranda where Lady Bridget stood.
McKeith looked up at her. He seemed preoccupied and angry, and merely
nodded to his wife, but did not take off his hat as he had done in
earlier days--and, somehow, to-day she noticed the omission.
'All right, eh, Biddy?' he called out casually. 'Here's your mail--
I've taken out mine,' and he pitched the leather bag, with the string
cut and the official red seal broken, on to the veranda at her feet. 'I
say--you might bring the whisky out to the back veranda. I daresay you
could do with a nip, eh, Harry?'
'That I can, Mr McKeith. Riding along these plains is dry work. Good
day, Ladyship. I'm a bit behind time, but I lost an hour looking for a
hole to fill my water bag at--And then I could not drink out of it--
for a demed old pleuro bullock had got there first and died in it. My
word, Boss, you'll be in a fix if it don't rain before long.'
McKeith made an angry gesture. He spoke sharply to the horses. The two
men rode round the kitchen-wing and dismounted at the paling fence,
which made the fourth side of the little square. The back veranda of
the new house, with steps ascending to it, in the middle, the Old
Humpey, with its veranda, along one side, the kitchen and store
building along the other, and a rough slab and bark outhouse beyond it.
Native-cucumber vines and other creepers partially closed in the older
verandas. In the centre of the square was a small flower bed with a
flowering shrub in the middle.
Lady Bridget brought the whisky decanter from the dining room to the
back veranda, and McKeith mounted the steps, the mailman remaining
beside them. A canvas water-bag, oozing moisture, hung from the
rafters, and there were tumblers on a table beneath it. McKeith took
the decanter from his wife's hand, too preoccupied, it seemed, even to
notice the little satirical smile on her lips. She was thinking how
funny it seemed that she should be playing Hebe to Harry the Blower.
She soon realised, however, that serious things had happened. As
McKeith mixed a liberal allowance of whisky with water from the
water-bag and handed it to the mailman, he asked curtly:
'This isn't one of your blowing yarns, Harry? You're positive about the
'Saw the thing with my own eyes, Boss. As fine a team as ever I'd wish
to own, lying with their throats cut, and the trees black with crows
all round. There was the dray-load all turned over, and two cases
prized open. I bet that the rum-kegs and spirits that couldn't be
carried off, are buried in some handy dry water-hole close by. I saw
two or three empty brandy bottles with the heads of 'em smashed to show
that the rascals had wet the wool before starting off.'
McKeith cursed in his throat. 'No sign of my men?'
'Scooted clean out of the scenery--the whole lot. I reckon that's what
they shook hands on with the Union chaps, and that the natural
consequences of absorbing your grog will be another woolshed or two
burned down before long. Here's your health, Boss, and the Ladyship's.'
And the mailman gulped down his 'nobbler' and turned to remount the
lean chestnut, which was standing hitched to the palings, observing
'Well, so long, Sir. Go'day, Ma'am. This sort of argufying ain't going
to carry my mail-bags along the river.'
'Go up to the Quarters and ask Mrs Hensor for a feed,' called McKeith.
'And look here, Harry, you can tell them at the Myall Creek out-station
as you go by, to have two good horses ready in the yard for me. I'm off
to Tunumburra to put the police on to those devils straight away.'
'All right, Boss. You'll find it will take some tall calculatin'
though. Them Unionists are getting too strong for the police to tackle.
Windeatt up at Breeza Downs is in a mortal funk, and sending word
everywhere for a squad of Specials to protect his woolshed.'
'It seems,' said Lady Biddy to her husband, when the mailman had gone,
'that there might be some use after all for Luke Tallant's Maxims.'
'It seems that Jim Steadbolt has been taking his revenge,' he answered,
'and that I must be in the saddle in an hour's time. Mix me a drink,
Biddy, and order in some grub, while I go and have a bath.'
He looked as if he needed one. The dust of the drafting camp was caked
upon his face and clothes. His was the appearance of a man who had been
riding hard after stock and sleeping, between his blankets only, under
Lady Bridget mixed him his drink and went to see Chen Sing in the
kitchen. When she came back, Colin was in the front veranda. He had
tumbled the rest of the letters and papers out of the mail-bag, and was
hastily and eagerly scanning the last LEICHARDT'S TOWN CHRONICLE.
'Any news, Colin?'
'I don't know, I was looking to see if the Government were going to act
against the strikers--I see they are sending troops.'
'And is Luke Tallant coming at the head of them, in official uniform,
to read the Riot Act?--if there is a Riot Act in Australia. I'd like
to see Luke maintaining the supremacy of the British Crown on the
He looked up at her in vague rebuke of her levity, and there was
suppressed tenderness in his eyes, notwithstanding his preoccupation
with his own troubles.
'No, no. But there's something in the paper about Lady Tallant being
ill and having an operation. Poor chap! He wouldn't have been bothering
much about strikes in the Never-Never and the supremacy of the British
Crown, any more than I should in similar circumstances. . . . Well,
there! I must go and bogey*.'
[*Bogey--in Black's language, 'bathe out of doors']
Sudden compunction overswept Bridget.
'Oh, Colin! You would care. . . really. . . even though they had cut
the throats of your four best dray-horses?' But he had disappeared into
a little veranda room, against which a corrugated iron tank backed
conveniently, and in a minute she heard the splash of water.
She picked up the paper and looked at the English Intelligence before
examining her own letters. It was quite true. There was a paragraph
stating that Lady Tallant's health had not improved since her arrival
in England, and hinting at the likelihood of an operation being
advisable. Bridget reflected, however, that Sir Luke would probably
have received a cablegram by this time, one way or other--which would
have put him out of suspense, and, presumably, there had been no later
A letter from Molly Gaverick confirmed that item of the English
Intelligence. Rosamond Tallant's condition was certainly far from
satisfactory. Molly, however, seemed much more taken up with a recent
illness of Eliza Countess of Gaverick than with that of Lady Tallant.
Being a tactless and absolutely frank young person, she had no scruple
in proclaiming her hope that 'old Eliza' would make Lord Gaverick her
heir. This was the more likely, wrote young Lady Gaverick, because the
old lady had lately quarrelled with her own relatives, and never now
asked any of her stuffy provincial cousins to share the dulness of
Castle Gaverick and of the house in Brook Street. If she did not leave
her money to Chris Gaverick, there was not, conceivably, anyone else to
whom she would leave it.
'By the way,' Molly continued, as if it had been an afterthought 'Old
Eliza is immensely interested in you and your cow-boy husband--
ranch-owner is what, I suppose, I ought to call him. She asked Mrs
Gildea so many questions about you both that Joan read her your account
of your honeymoon journey through the Bush, and all the rest of it. How
you can endure such a life is incomprehensible to me--but Aunt Eliza
says it shows you've got some grit in you, and that evidently your
husband has cured you of a lot of ridiculous nonsense--I am quoting
her, so don't be offended, and you needn't show this to Nature's
gentleman, which is what Aunt Eliza calls him. I can't help feeling
though, that it's rather a pity you didn't wait a bit before taking the
Irrevocable Step. I don't know whether you ever heard about Mrs
Willougby Maule's death--eleven months after their marriage.'
No, Bridget had not heard. Molly Gaverick was an uncertain
correspondent, and, no doubt, Joan Gildea and Rosamond Tallant, if they
had known of the event, had thought it wiser, in writing to her, to
suppress the news. For a moment, Lady Bridget sat meditating, and all
the blood seemed to rush from her brain to her heart--she could almost
hear her heart pounding. Then she went on again with Lady Gaverick's
'It was a motor accident--nothing serious at the time, but the baby
was born prematurely, and she lingered a week or two, and then died. I
must do him the justice to say that he seemed to feel her death very
much. It looked as though, after all, the marriage had been quite a
success. Her money gave him a lift and they were going out a good deal
in the political set. She left her quarter of a million to him,
ABSOLUTELY. I heard that some remote Bagallys were going to contest the
will, but they found that they hadn't a leg to stand upon. I wish now
that we hadn't been so sniffy about W.M. As Chris observed with
unconscious cynicism, there's a good deal of difference between a
penniless adventurer and the possessor of quarter of a million.
Unattached men with money can be so useful. As soon as Rosamond Tallant
gets better--if she does--I'll make her ask him to meet us. I know he
used to be a great friend of Luke's. . . . '
Lady Bridget had read so far when the door of the bathroom opened and
McKeith came out, clean again in fresh riding gear, and with a valise
ready packed and strapped in his hand.
The noise of the cattle became much louder, though the mob was not yet
'I wish I hadn't got to go off before the branding,' he said. 'These
Breeza Downs people always want to claim every cleanskin*. You might
tell Ninnis and Moongarr Bill, Biddy, to keep a sharp look-out. And now
let me have my grub--I'm sorry, dear, to have you hurry up your
dinner.' He strode along to the dining-room, too absorbed in his own
annoyances to notice his wife's face or to ask any questions about her
Lady Bridget gathered them up and followed him. The Malay boy waited at
table with the assistance of a servant girl from Leuraville, the only
female domestic--with the exception of Mrs Hensor--on the
McKeith swallowed his soup and ate the savoury stew prepared by the
Chinese cook with the appetite of a man who had been all day in the
saddle. Lady Bridget, who was an extraordinarily rapid eater, as well
as a fastidious one, had finished long before he was half-way through.
She sat silent at first, while he growled over the outrage upon the
horses. Then suddenly visualising the poor beasts lying stiff in
congealed blood, and the mailman's exaggerated description of trees
black with crows, she flamed out in wrathful horror, and was as anxious
as her husband that the perpetrators of the crime should be brought to
justice. He seemed pleased, and a little surprised at the ebullition.
'I thought you weren't taking it quite in, Biddy. I am glad you think
like me, though I expect yours is the humanitarian view and mine's the
practical one. This touches my pocket, you see. Well, anyway, you won't
be so keen now on defending the Unionists.'
'I think they've got as much right to fight for their principles as we
have for ours, but I don't think they've the right to torture horses,'
she rejoined. Her sympathy with oppressed shearers and dispossessed
natives struck always a jarring note between them. His long upper lip
closed tightly on the lower one, and he hunched his great shoulders.
'Well, that sort of argufying won't muster the cattle,' he observed
drily, plagiarising Harry the Blower. She changed the subject.
'Did you have a good muster?'
'Oh, fair! Between three and four hundred head. The water is running
still up in the range. We should have done better if that skunk Wombo
Lady Bridget leaned forward with interest.
'Oh! Then he HAS gone after the black-gin. Brave Wombo!'
'I wouldn't care a cuss whether he went after the black-gin or not;
she's a half-caste, by the way, and all the worse for that. And he
might stop with her, if it wasn't that he knows the country, and can
spot the gullies where the cattle hide. I've no use for sentiment--
especially black sentiment--when it's a case of a forced sale to keep
me going. My heavens! there's only one thing, Biddy, that could break
me, and it's drought. I believe we're in for a long one, and unless I
can make sales quickly and get money to sink new bores on the run,
things will go hardly with me. Harry the Blower spoke naked truth for
once in his life.'
'Oh! but there's sure to be rain soon. It looked so like it last
night,' she answered lightly.
'LOOKED so like it! Yes, and ended in wind and dust. Sure sign of
drought! I must be off. . . . Here, give me the LEICHARDT LAND
CHRONICLE, and don't expect me till you see me. . . . And by the way,
Biddy, I hear there's a Unionist Organiser going the round of the
stations and pretending to parley with the masters. Don't you be
philanthropic enough to let him open his jaws--I've told Ninnis he's
to be hounded off before he has time to get off his saddle.'
'Colin, you are unjust all round. You were very unjust to Wombo. Why
shouldn't the poor black-boy marry as well as you or anyone else?'
McKeith gave a hard laugh.
'I'm not preventing him from marrying. I only said I wasn't going to
have his gin on my station.'
'You wouldn't listen when he told you that he didn't dare go back to
his tribe--because his gin's husband threatened to kill him.'
'My sympathies are with the gin's husband. What business has Wombo to
steal another man's wife?'
'The husband broke her head with a nulla-nulla, and she loves Wombo and
Wombo loves her. I consider that any woman, whether she's black or
white, who lives with her husband while she loves another man is
committing a sin,' said Lady Bridget hotly.
McKeith stopped in the act of filling his tobacco pouch from a jar on
the mantelpiece and looked sharply at his wife.
'You think that, Biddy. I remember long ago you said something of that
sort to me. It isn't my idea of morality or of justice. But I'm one
with you this far. If I'd ever reason to believe that you loved another
man and wanted to go off with him--you might go--I wouldn't put out a
hand to stop you. And then. . . . '
'And then?' She had grown very white.
'Well, I think I'd make another notch in my gun first--and it would be
a previous one--for myself that time.'
'No, you wouldn't, Colin. Because you know I shouldn't be worth it--
and you are not the man to funk.'
'I'm not. But where YOU come in--Good Lord! Mate! What would there be
left for me to live for?'
Her heart thrilled to the old term of endearment, to which in their
early honeymoon days she had attached a sentimental value. Of late it
had fallen into disuse, and when she had heard him on occasions greet
the foreman, may be of some stray party of drivers or surveyors with
the bush formula: 'Good day, mate!' she had felt with deep aggrievement
that she no longer desired the appellative. She had not yet realised
that while the word 'mate' in Australese, like the verb AIMER in
French, may be used as a mere colloquial term, it implies in the deeper
sense a sanctity of relation upon which hangs the whole code of Bush
'Oh, Colin!' Her eyes glistened with tears. She felt ashamed of her
neurotic fancies and her resentment of his lacks in the matter of
conventional courtesies--of his outward hardness, his want of sympathy
with her ideals.
He came to her, taking her two hands while keeping his pipe in one of
his own so that the whiff of the coarse 'Store-cut' tobacco made her
wrinkle her nose and stemmed the tide of emotion. But he did not seem
to notice this.
'No, you're not going to put that theory into practice, Mate. . . . I'm
not afraid. So we'll leave it at that. And now what's this about the
black-boy to do with my being unjust to that Organiser? There's no
beastly sentiment in his case. He's out to make money, that's all.'
'You won't hear what he's got to put forward on his side any more than
you would listen to poor Wombo.'
'No, I won't. I'm not taking any--either in gins or in organisers. Let
'em show their faces here, and they'll pretty soon become aware of the
Lady Bridget took away her hands and moved to the veranda. Outside,
McKeith's horse was waiting. He strapped on his valise, finished
ramming the tobacco into his pipe, then going behind his wife, bent
downward and hastily kissed her cheek. She did not turn her head.
'Good-bye, Biddy. Don't you go worrying over the blacks or the
Unionists. And if you're dull and want a job there'll be a spice of
excitement in helping to tail that mob of scrubbers. I had to hire two
stray chaps, we're so short-handed.' He went down the steps to the
outer paling. Still she made no response, though now she turned and
watched him vault into the saddle. She also saw his face lighten at
sight of Mrs Hensor's boy with the great pawpaw apple. Tommy Hensor was
a favourite with the Boss.
'Bless you, boy, it's as big as yourself. Take it back to the Quarters
and tell your mother to give you a slice, or perhaps her ladyship will
cut it for you.'
He trotted off in the direction of the gully and of the roar of cattle.
Lady Bridget could see the heaving backs of the mob, and could hear the
shouts of the stockmen as they rounded the beasts to the crossing.
Tommy Hensor looked up pleadingly to her, holding out the pawpaw apple.
His yellow hair flamed to gold in the sunset, his blue eyes were as
bright almost as Colin's. Lady Bridget shook her head.
'No, I don't want you this evening, Tommy. Take that back to your
She settled herself in the hammock and read Molly Gaverick's letter
over again. Then she read one from Joan Gildea. Joan was in the full
swing of London journalism again. She gave Bridget rather fuller news
of Eliza Countess of Gaverick, and dwelt at some length upon the old
lady's interest in Bridget's wild life and in Bridget's husband.
'You may be sure,' wrote Joan, 'that I had nothing but good to say of
Colin, and oh! Biddy, dearest, how rejoiced I am to know that he is
making you so happy. I could read between the lines of all your amusing
descriptions and sketches of "the Dream-drive." I had my doubts and my
fears, as I never concealed from you, but I believe that you have found
the true, well-beloved at last.'
There was a good deal, too, in the letter about Rosamond Tallant, who
was in cheerful spirits, it seemed, in spite of the impending
operation, and would not hear of Sir Luke's asking for leave to be with
her--and so on--and so on. Not a word about Willoughby Maule and his
bereavement--which, after all, could not be so very recent. Why had
Joan never mentioned it? Was she afraid of rousing regret and of
awakening painful memories.
* Cleanskin--Unbranded calf.
McKeith's absence was longer than he had expected. Lady Bridget heard
from Harry the Blower on his return round with the down-going mails
that the little bush township of Tunumburra had become the scene of a
convocation of Pastoralists called to concert measures against the
threatened strike. The mailman reported that the district was now in a
state of great commotion, and the strikers, gathering silently in armed
force, prepared to defend their rights against a number of free
labourers whom the sheep-owners were importing from the South. The men
who had killed McKeith's horses were, according to the mailman,
entrenched in the Range, awaiting developments. It was thought that
nothing would happen on a large scale until the arrival of the free
labourers and the troops, which it was said the Government was sending.
Harry the Blower talked darkly of marauding bands, ambushed foes and
perilous encounters on his road, all of which waxed in number and
blood-thirstiness after the manner of Falstaff's men in buckram. But
nobody ever took Harry the Blower's yarns very seriously.
It would have been natural for Lady Bridget to work herself up into a
state of humanitarian excitement--the O'Hara's had always espoused
unpopular causes--but since the arrival of the English mail a curious
dreaminess had come upon her. She spent idle hours in the hammock on
the veranda, and would only rouse herself spasmodically to some trivial
burst of energy--perhaps a boiling water skirmish against white ants,
or a sudden fit of gardening--planting seeds, training the wild
cucumber vines upon the veranda posts, or watering the shrubs and
flowers within the rough paling fence that enclosed the house and
garden. A new-made garden, for ornament rather than for use, for the
staple produce was grown in the Chinaman's garden by the lagoon. Young
passion-fruit vines barely concealing the fences' nakedness, a mango, a
few small orange trees now in flower. A Brazilian cherry, two or three
flat-stone peach trees and loquets--all looking thirsty for rain--
that was all. The Old Humpey, as it was called, had creepers
overgrowing its roof, a nesting-place for frogs, lizards, snakes--and
Lady Bridget, brave enough for doughty deeds, could never overcome her
terror of horned beasts and reptiles. McKeith's office, where he
entered branding tallies and posted the station log, was in the Old
Humpey, and two or three bachelor bedrooms opposite the wing with
kitchen and store. But Lady Bridget lived chiefly in the new house--
less picturesque with its zinc roofing and deficiency of green
drapings, but, being built on sawn lengths of saplings, more or less
fortified against snakes. In front there was a great vacant space
between the ground and the floor of the house--pleasant enough in
summer, when a gentle draught could find its way through the cracks
between the boards, but cold in winter, though the northern winters
were not sharp enough or long enough for this to be a serious
Nor, when Lady Bridget slept alone in the new house, did she mind much
the dogs and harmless animals that couched under the boards, they gave
her a sense of companionship. But there was a herd of goats--some of
them old and with big tough horns--which McKeith had started in his
bachelor days to provide milk when, as sometimes happened, the milch
cows failed; also to furnish savoury messes of kid's flesh--a pleasant
change from the eternal salt beef varied with wild duck. Occasionally
it happened, especially in mustering times, that nobody remembered to
pen the goats in their yard by the lagoon, and on these occasions they
would get under the house, and the noise of their horns knocking
against the floor of her bedroom would so effectively destroy Lady
Bridget's chances of sleep that she would rise in the night and drive
them into their fold. These were incidents which added variety to the
monotony of her life in the Bush.
The head-station was very quiet one afternoon, most of the hands being
out with the tailing mob; and Lady Bridget, in a restless mood, went
for a roam through the bush. She walked past the Chinamen's garden and
Fo Wung, carrying up buckets of water to his young cabbages, stopped to
smile blandly and report on his produce. But she was in no mood for the
interchange of remarks in pidgin English.
It was lonelier at the head of the lagoon. She could hear the trumpeter
geese tuning up in shrill cornet-like notes and the discordant shriek
of native-companions, as the long-legged grey birds stalked
consequentially at the water's edge. She disturbed a flock of parrots
in the white cedar tree, and a covey of duck rose with a whirring of
pinions and a mighty quacking, shaking the drips off their plumage so
that they glittered like diamonds in the sun. From the limbs of the
dead gum tree hung flying foxes, their bat-like wings extended limply,
and a gigantic crane stood in melancholy reflection upon one leg.
Lady Bridget crossed the gully and roamed the borders of the gidia
scrub. Here, in an occasional open patch, were wattles breaking into
yellow bloom, and sandalwood trees already in blossom, scenting the air
faintly and making bright splashes upon the grey and black background
of the mournful gidia. She filled her arms with flowers and wandered
on, long past the stockyards, into the fastnesses of the gully, where
lay dark pools almost empty now and where grey, volcanic looking rocks
seemed to make a rampart between the scrub and the head-station.
She was sitting there, her back against a boulder, the forest behind
her, so motionless that inquisitive bower-birds and leather-heads came
quite close to her feet, her small pointed chin poked forward, her eyes
shadowy and mysterious as the still waterpools below. She was visioning
in space that man who had once undoubtedly cast a strong spell upon
her. The spell had been broken by his own infidelity--if it WERE
infidelity of the real man. For she could never believe that he had not
truly loved her. Broken, secondly, by the counteracting influence of
her husband. But now it seemed that the news of him in Lady Gaverick's
letter had started the old vibrations afresh. It was as if an iron wall
between them had suddenly been knocked down and he had gained access to
her inner self. For months she had scarcely thought of him. Last night
she had seen him in a dream, and he had spoken to her. He had said, 'Of
course, I loved you. I never loved anyone better, but I felt that you
were not of an accommodating disposition--that I could not give you
anything you really wanted, and that we should not be happy together.'
That was all of the dream she had brought back. But she KNEW that there
had been a great deal more. The impression had been so vivid that she
could not rid herself of the fancy that he was within actual reach of
her. It was impossible to imagine him fourteen thousand miles distant.
She did not try now to fight against this haunting, but yielded herself
to the power of the dream. When she heard a footstep in the forest
behind her, she started and turned and stared into the dim aisles of
the gidia, as though she expected to see his ghost.
'Mithsis--mithsis--me Wombo--plenty my been look out for you. Plenty
mine frightened to go along a head-station.'
Lady Bridget laughed hysterically. What a contrast between the romantic
hero of her dreams and the figure of the black-boy before her. Wombo
had been in the wars. Very little was left of the trim understudy of
Moongarr Bill. He was hatless; his Crimean shirt was torn into ribbons;
his moleskin breeches were covered with blood and dirt; the strap belt,
with its sheath-knife and various pouches, was gone, and this, judging
from the state of his legs and feet, had been forcibly removed.
A gash from a tomahawk disfigured his head; the woolly hair was matted
with blood. But there remained still something of the PREUX CHEVALIER
'Mine bring it gin belonging to me,' he announced with dignity, making
an introductory gesture towards what appeared almost an excresence upon
the black trunk of a gidia tree except for an old red blanket slung
round one shoulder, which only half covered a woman's dusky form.
'That Oola. Mine want 'im marry Oola. Black teller belonging to that
feller plenty COOLLA*. My been sneak camp. Me catch 'em Oola. Black
feller look out, throw 'im tomahawk, NULLA-NULLA*. My word! big feller
fight. Me YAN plenty quick. Oola YAN* plenty quick. Black feller come
after--throw 'im spear--close up MUMKULL*. BA'AL* can pull out spear,
Oola plenty cry.'
[*Coolla--in Blacks language, meaning Angry.]
[*Nulla-nulla--A black's weapon.]
[*Yan--To go away.]
Oola joined in with the black's plaintive wail.
'YUCKE*! Poor fellow, Oola!'
Wombo pulled her forward. A comely half-caste who, as a child, had been
partially civilised by a stockman's wife on one of the Leura
out-stations, but who had, later, gone back to her tribe and married a
Myall, as the wild blacks are called. She was very young, soft and
round of outline, with hair straighter and more glossy than is usual
among her kind, and large black eyes now raining tears. She wiped them
away with a sooty hand, pink in the palm. Her left arm hung limp by her
Lady Bridget jumped to her feet, all concern.
'Oh, you poor thing! You poor, poor thing,' she cried. For Wombo,
tweaking aside the concealing blanket, showed the smooth shaft of a
spear transfixed in the quivering flesh of Oola's arm, above the elbow.
He had broken off the long end of the spear to expedite their flight--
so he explained in his queer lingo--but Oola had cried so much that he
had not been able to draw out the rest of the shaft.
'BUJERI* YOU, white Mary!' pleaded Oola in the native formula. 'You gib
it medsin. . . . You gib it one old fellow skirt. . . . BA'AL, Oola got
'im clothes. . . BA'AL got 'im ration. . . plenty sick this
feller. . . .' And she beat her breast with the arm that was unhurt.
'Of course, I'll give you medicine--and food, and I'll look out
something for you to put on. Only for heaven's sake, stop crying,' said
Lady Bridget. 'Come along. You must have that spear pulled out and your
arm seen to. Come with me to the Humpey. Quick--MURRA* make haste.'
[*Murra make haste--To run quickly.]
But Wombo drew back, casting an affrighted glance down the gully
towards the crossing.
'Ba'al me go long-a Humpey--I believe Boss PHO-PHO*, Oola,' he said.
'Wombo, you are foolish. What for Boss shoot Oola?'
'YOWI*--I believe when Boss say PHO-PHO, my word! that one PHO-PHO.
Plenty black feller frightened.'
Bridget pushed the unhappy gin along the track.
'You needn't be frightened. Boss has gone away.'
'Boss no sit down long-a Humpey?' Wombo looked relieved, and while
Bridget reassured him, the three moved on towards the crossing. In
answer to Lady Bridget's questioning the black-boy told his story as
they went. She already knew of Wombo's passion for the young gin, who
was within the prohibited degree of relationship, therefore TABU to
him, and who, moreover, was already legitimately wedded to a warrior of
the tribe. She knew also that McKeith had forbidden the black-boy,
under pain of severe penalty, to seek the coveted bride. Of course, it
was all nonsense about his shooting the poor creature, though no doubt,
in ordinary circumstances, he would have sent them off the station. But
hard as he was--and Lady Bridget had learned that her husband could be
very hard, he would never be inhuman, and, naturally, Oola's wound must
Lady Bridget hurried them over the crossing and up the hill. The white
men were all out with the cattle. She needed assistance, and seeing Mrs
Hensor at the kitchen window of the Bachelors' Quarters, called to her.
'Please come out at once, I want you.'
The woman's face became sullen on the instant.
'I can't come now. I'm in the middle of my baking.'
'But don't you see? The thing is important. This poor gin has a spear
through her arm--it must be attended to immediately. Wombo is hurt
too. The wounds must be washed and dressed. . . . Look at the poor
Mrs Hensor contemptuously surveyed Wombo and his erring partner.
'Serve them right. He's stolen her from her husband and the Blacks have
given them what for. They don't need any fussing over, these niggers.
They are used to being knocked about.'
Lady Bridget's eyes blazed, but her tone was icy.
'I suppose you understand that I've given you my orders to attend to a
'Well, I don't call Blacks fellow-creatures. Do you suppose we should
not all be having spears thrown at us if the niggers weren't afraid of
Mr McKeith's gun?'
'You have my orders,' repeated Lady Bridget sharply, her wrath at white
'I take no orders from anybody but the Boss, and his orders were that
if Wombo brought the gin here, they'd got to be driven off,' retorted
'They will not be driven off. You will answer to your master for this
disobedience!' said Lady Bridget.
Mrs Hensor laughed insolently.
'Oh, I'm not afraid of Mr McKeith finding fault with ME,' and she
withdrew out of sight into the kitchen.
Lady Bridget made as dignified a retreat as was possible in the
circumstances. She could have slain Mrs Hensor at that moment. She took
the blacks to the veranda of the old Humpey and went to look in the
office for antiseptics, lint and bandages. Chen Sing, the Chinese cook,
came at her call, and rendered assistance with the bland phlegm of his
race. The spear had been pulled out of Oola's arm by the time Lady
Bridget came back with the dressings. In her spasms of East End
philanthropy she had learned the first principles of surgical aid. When
Oola's arm and Wombo's gashed head had been washed and bandaged, the
trouble was to know what to do with the pair.
Now that they were comfortable and out of pain, fed and given tobacco
to smoke and a tot of rum apiece, they had time to remember
superstitious fears kept at bay while they had been running for their
life. Both were afraid to show themselves in the open. On one hand,
there was the terror of McKeith; on the other, of Oola's husband. Lady
Bridget gathered that Oola's husband was a medicine man, and that he
had 'pointed a bone at his faithless wife and her lover.' To 'point a
bone' at an enemy--the bone having first been smeared with human
blood, and subjected to magical incantations--is the worst spell that
one aboriginal can cast upon another. It means death or the direst
misfortune. All that the afflicted one can do is to fly--to hide
himself beyond the sorcerer's ken and the reach of pursuit. For this
reason, Wombo and Oola had fled back to Moongarr. No outside black
dared venture within range of McKeith's gun. Now Wombo and Oola
besought Bridget to hide them from the vengeful furies. There was that
slab and bark hut at the end of the kitchen and store wing. Nobody was
likely at present to want to go into it. The door had a padlock, and it
was used as a store-house for the hides of beasts that had been killed
for the sake of the skins when in the last stage of pleuro. The key was
always kept hung up in McKeith's office.
Here Lady Bridget installed Wombo and Oola. She brought them cooked
meat, bread and a ration of tea and sugar, provided them with a pair of
blankets, and found for Wombo some old moleskins, a shirt, and a pair
of boots, while Oola almost forgot the medicine man's evil spell in her
puzzled delight over a lacey undergarment and a discarded kimono
dressing-grown, which had been part of Lady Bridget's trousseau. That
excitement over, the lonely mistress of Moongarr went back to her own
habitation. She ate her solitary dinner and paced the veranda till
darkness fell and the haunted loneliness became an almost unbearable
oppression. Vast plains, distant ranges, gidia scrub and the far
horizon melted into an illimitable shadow. The world seemed boundless
as the starry sky--and yet she was in prison! She had longed for the
freedom of the wild, and her life was more circumscribed than ever. A
phrase in an Australian poem, that had struck her when she had read it
not long ago came back upon her with poignant meaning. 'Eucalyptic
cloisterdom'--that was the phrase, and it was this to which she had
condemned herself. The gum trees enclosed for her one immense cell and
she had become utterly weary of her mental and her spiritual
incarceration. Oh! for the sting of love's strong emotion to break the
monotony. The most sordid sights and sounds of London streets, the most
inane babble of a fashionable crowd would be more stimulating to her
brain, sweeter in her ears than the arid expanse, the weird bush noises
--howl of dingoes, wail of curlews, lowing of cattle--that a year ago
had seemed so eerily fascinating.
Even her marriage! The romance of it had faded, as it were, into the
dull drab of withered gum leaves. The charm of primal conditions had
been overpowered by their discomfort. Nature had never intended her for
the wife of a backwoodsman. At times she felt an almost unendurable
craving for the ordinary luxuries of civilisation. The bathing
appliances here--or rather, the lack of them--were often positive
torture to her. She hated the food--continual coarse beef varied by
stringy goats' flesh or game from the lagoon. She had come to loathe
wild duck--when the men had time to shoot it. She could never bring
herself to destroy harmless creatures, and was a rank coward over
firearms. Talk of the simple life! Why, it was only since they had got
Fo Wung that there had been any vegetables. And the climate--though
the short winter had been pleasant enough as a whole--was abominable.
The long summer heat, the flies and the mosquitoes! What had she not
suffered the first summer after her marriage! And now the hot weather
was coming again. That was not the root of the trouble, however--
Bridget was honest enough to confess it. The root lay in herself--in
her own instability of purpose, her mercurial temperament. She had been
born with that temperament. All the O'Haras loved change--hungered
after strong sensation. She was spoiling now for emotional excitement.
Well, the little human drama of the Blacks' camp had taken her out of
herself for an hour or two. It had been so funny to see Oola stroking
the lace frills of Lady Bridget's old petticoat and looking up at Wombo
with frank coquetry as she mimicked the 'White Mary's' gestures and
gait. Lady Bridget meant to stand by the savage lovers. She would not
allow Colin to treat them badly when he came back.
Ninnis, the overseer, broke upon her restless meditations. He was a
rough specimen, originally raised in Texas, who, after knocking about
in his youth as a cow-boy in the two Americas, had come to Australia
about fifteen years previously, had 'free-selected' disastrously, and,
during the last five years, had been in McKeith's employ. He was
devoted to his master, but he looked upon McKeith's marriage as a
pernicious investment. His republican upbringing could not stomach the
'Ladyship,' and he persisted in calling Lady Bridget Mrs McKeith. He
considered her flighty and extravagant in her ideas, and was always
divided between unwilling fascination and grumpy disapproval. To-night
he was in the latter mood and this incensed Lady Bridget.
'I've been writing up the log,' he began in a surly, aggressive tone,
'and I thought I'd better make a note of Wombo and that gin having come
to the head-station, in case of there being trouble with the Blacks.'
'Why should there be trouble with the Blacks?' she asked, in manner
'Well, ye know--though, I daresay, it wouldn't seem of much
consequence to you--Wombo's gone agen the laws of the tribe, and
that's a serious matter. If they know he's skulking here under
protection, they'll be spearing the cattle, and the Boss won't like
'I'll explain to Mr McKeith,' said Lady Bridget haughtily.
'Well, I reckon it's best not to keep them on the head-station against
the Boss's orders,' persisted Ninnis.
Lady Bridget set her little white teeth. 'Naturally, Mr McKeith's
orders don't apply to ME--as I had to tell Mrs Hensor.'
'Mrs Hensor knows the Boss better than most people,' said Ninnis, at
which Lady Bridget flashed out.
'We need not discuss that question, Mr Ninnis.'
Ninnis' jaw stiffened underneath his shaggy goatee.
'Well, I guess you know your own business, Mrs McKeith, and it's up to
you to square things with the Boss.'
Lady Bridget reared her small form and bent her head with great
'But I'll just say, though,' went on Ninnis, 'that I hear Harris of the
police is coming along. And what Harris doesn't think he knows about
the heel of the law being kept on Blacks--and every other darned unit
in the creation scheme'--muttered Ninnis in parenthesis--'ain't
entered in the Almighty's Log-book.'
Ninnis expectorated over the veranda railings--a habit of his that
jarred on Lady Bridget.
'Well, what about Harris?'
'He's had his eye on Wombo and would be glad of an opportunity to best
him--on account of a little affair about a colt Wombo rode for him at
the last Tunumburra races--and lost the stakes--out of spite, Harris
'Oh, I know about that--and I told Mr Harris what I thought about his
treatment of the Blacks. But he can't punish Wombo if I choose to have
him here. I don't think Mr McKeith would bring Harris to Moongarr--he
knows I can't bear him.'
'Well, I reckon that's up to you to square with the Boss,' repeated
Ninnis surlily. 'I'm told Harris is on the look-out for desperate
characters going along the Leura--these unionist organisers--dropping
in at stations on pretence of getting rations and spying out the land,
and calling on the men to join them. There was a boundary rider from
Breeza Downs to-day--caught us up with the tailing mob and fetched
back their new chum and Zack Duppo, leaving us awful short-handed--so
that if Joe Casey doesn't fetch in the milkers so early to-morrow
you'll know it's because I've had to send him out herding. They're
doing their shearing early at Breeza Downs with shearers Windeatt has
imported from the south, and he wants police protection for them and
Lady Bridget laughed.
'Harris and his two constables will have enough to do if they are to
protect the district.'
'That's just what Windeatt has been clamouring about. Now the
Government have sent up a military patrol, I believe. But they say it
isn't strong enough, and all the able-bodied men on the Leura are
enrolling as specials. No doubt, that's what been keeping the Boss. You
may be sure if there's fighting to be done--black or white--he'll be
Lady Bridget angered Ninnis by her apparent indifference, and he bade
her a cross good-night. Had it been anybody else she would have
encouraged him to stay and talk. As it was, she resumed her lonely
pacing, and did not go to her room till the whole station was abed.
When at last she went to sleep she dreamed again vividly of Willoughby
McKeith returned, without warning, the following afternoon. He was not
alone, but had spurred on in advance of the other two men he had
brought with him. Lady Bridget, reading in her hammock at the upper end
of the veranda, heard the sound of a horse approaching, and saw her
husband appear above the hill from the Gully Crossing. She got to her
feet, expecting that he would ride up to the veranda, calling 'Biddy--
Biddy,' as he usually did after an absence. But instead, he pulled up
suddenly, turned his horse in the direction of the Bachelors' Quarters,
and passed from her line of vision.
She supposed, naturally, that someone at the Quarters had attracted his
attention, then remembering that Ninnis and the white men were out with
the cattle, wondered, as the minutes went by, who and what detained
Tommy Hensor, running up from the garden with his evening dole of
vegetables, enlightened her.
'Boss come back, Ladyship. I can see him. He is up, talking to Mother.'
Lady Bridget was too proud a woman to feel petty jealousy, nor would it
have occurred to her to be jealous of Mrs Hensor. Her sentiment of
dislike towards that person was of quite another order. But she was
just in the mood to resent neglect on the part of McKeith.
She went to the veranda railing, whence she had a view of the
Bachelors' Quarters, and was able to see for herself that Tommy's
report had been correct. She called to the child:
'Go at once, Tommy, and tell the master that I am waiting.'
Tommy flew off immediately on his small, sturdy legs, and Lady Bridget
watched the scene at the Bachelors' Quarters. McKeith had dismounted,
and with one foot on the edge of the veranda, was facing Mrs Hensor,
who looked fresh and comely in a clean blouse and bright-coloured
skirt. The two seemed to have a good deal to say to each other, though
Lady Bridget heard only the voices, not the words. Her Irish temper
rose at the thought that Mrs Hensor might be giving him her version of
the Wombo episode. She felt glad that the black-boy and his gin were
comfortably sleeping off the effect of their wounds, and of the
plentiful meals supplied them in the hide-house, and thus were not in
evidence. When McKeith spoke, it was in a dictatorial, angry tone--
that of the incensed master. Clearly, however, Mrs Hensor was not the
object of his wrath. Lady Bridget saw little Tommy run excitedly up to
deliver her message, and almost cried out to him to keep away from the
horses' heels, to which he went perilously near. As things happened,
the beast lashed out at him, and Tommy had a very narrow escape of
being badly kicked. Lady Bridget heard Mrs Hensor shriek and saw her
husband drag the child to the veranda and examine him anxiously, Mrs
Hensor bending with him. Then McKeith lifted up Tommy and kissed and
patted him almost as if he had been the boy's father. It always gave
Bridget a queer little spasm of regret to see Colin's obvious affection
for the little fellow. He was fond of children, specially so of this
one. Lady Bridget knew, though he had never said so to her, that he was
disappointed at there being no apparent prospect of her having a child.
And she--with her avidity for any new sort of sensation, although she
scoffed at the joy of maternity--felt secretly inclined sometimes to
gird at fate for having so far denied her this experience. She herself
liked Tommy in her contradictory, whimsical fashion; but now, the fuss
over, the boy--who clearly was not in the least hurt--made her very
cross, and she became positively furious at seeing McKeith delay yet
further to unstrap his valise and get out a toy he must have bought for
Tommy in Tunumburra. Then, his grievance aparently coming back on him,
he put the child abruptly aside, and leaving valise and horse at the
Bachelors' Quarters, walked with determined steps and frowning visage
down the track to the veranda. There, his wife was standing, very pale,
very erect, her eyes glittering ominously.
McKeith was through the gate and up the flight of steps in three or
He seemed to sense the antagonism in her, and demanded at once, without
waiting to give her any greeting.
'Biddy, what's this I'm hearing about Wombo and that gin?'
'I think you might have asked me before going to Mrs Hensor for
information,' she answered with equal curtness.
He stared at her for a moment or two as if surprised; his face
reddened, and his eyes, too, glittered.
'I don't know what you mean. I had to speak to Mrs Hensor about beds
being wanted up there, and of course I asked her how things had been
'And did she tell you that she had been inhuman and insolent?'
'Inhuman. . . Insolent!'
'She spoke to me impudently. She defied my orders.'
'I am given to understand that she was carrying out mine,' said McKeith
slowly. 'And if that's so, Mrs Hensor was in the right.'
'You put that woman before ME--before your wife?'
'There's not another woman in the universe I'd put before my wife. But
that's no reason for my giving in to her when she does what I know to
'I see. You call an act of common humanity folly--doing what one could
to relieve the agony of a fellow creature. I am glad that I differ from
you--and from your servant. Mrs Hensor refused to help that poor gin
who had a spear through her arm and was shrieking with pain.'
'Oh, you don't know black-gins as well as I do. They'll pretend they're
dying in agony just to wheedle a drop of rum or a fig of tobacco out of
a white man; and they'll take it quite as a matter of course when one
of their men bashes their head in with a NULLA-NULLA.'
'I suppose you'll allow that a spear wound may hurt a little,' said
Bridget. 'I believe that you yourself suffered from the effect of one
at least, you once told me so.'
And memory--so active these late days, brought suddenly back the
vision of him as he had approached her that evening at Government
House. What a great Viking he had looked!--in modern dress, of course,
but bearing mark of battle in a slight drag of the left leg, only
noticeable, she knew now, when he was shy and proud, and under, to him,
difficult social conditions. But what a MAN she had felt him to be
then, among the other men!
It seemed an outrage on her idealised image of him to hear him speaking
in that dry, caustic manner.
'Ah, that's different. The Gulf natives have a nasty way of barbing and
poisoning their spears. An ordinary spear-thrust is nothing to either
black or white. Wombo could have pulled the thing out, and in a few
hours the gin would have been all right again.'
'You think so--well in a few hours she was in a high fever. I took her
temperature this morning when I re-bandaged the wound.'
McKeith laughed shortly.
'It wouldn't be surprising, if you had given her grog and tobacco and
as much meat as she wanted. That what you did, eh?'
'Yes, it was. They were both starving.'
'Well, I wouldn't bank on your stock of medical knowledge, Biddy--not
if I was down with fever or otherwise incapacitated. But that's not the
point--which is that those blacks have been kept here against my
'They've been kept here by MY orders,' flamed Lady Bridget.
McKeith's jaw squared, and there showed in his eyes that ugly devil
which many a black and white man had seen, but never his wife before.
'Look here, milady--there can be only one boss on this station. And
now you'll excuse me if I act according to my own discretion.'
Without another word he walked up the veranda and down the few steps
connecting it with the Old Humpey. She heard him go into his office,
and presently the door of it slammed behind him. She knew that he was
going to the culprits in the hide-house, and wondered what punishment
he would mete unto them. Had he gone to the office for his gun? At this
moment, anything seemed possible to Lady Bridget's heated temper and
She stood waiting, absorbed in her fears, so abstracted from her
ordinary outside surroundings that she was unaware of the approach of
two horsemen from the Gully Crossing. They did not stop at the garden
gate, but made for the usual station entrance at the back. One of them,
lingering behind the other, gazed earnestly at Lady Bridget's tense
little figure and bent head, poised in a listening attitude and
conveying to him the impression that something momentous had happened
or was about to happen. And just then, appalling shrieks, from the rear
of the home, justified the impression.
Lady Bridget ran through the sitting-room to the veranda behind, which
again connected on either side the new house with the Old Humpey and
kitchen and store-wing--the hide-house standing slightly apart at the
end of the store building. The shrieks in male and female keys came
from the hide-house and mingled with McKeith's strident tones
fulminating in Blacks' lingo. The noise brought Mrs Hensor and Tommy
down from the Bachelors' Quarters, and the Chinese cook, the Malay boy
and Maggie the housemaid from the service department. The three
verandas and garden plot made a kind of amphitheatre; and now, into the
arena, came the actors in the little tragedy.
From the hide-house, McKeith dragged the prisoners, and through the
gateway in the palings which made the fourth side of the enclosure.
With one hand he clutched Wombo, with the other Oola, who in her
lace-trimmed petticoat and flowered kimono was truly a tragi-comic
McKeith carried his coiled stockwhip in the hand which held Wombo. It
was plain, judging from the state of Wombo's new shirt, that he had
given the black boy a thrashing; Oola was unscathed. Of course, Colin
could not lift his hand to a woman, though he was a brute and the woman
only a black-gin. Lady Bridget felt faintly glad at this.
She watched the scene, half fascinated, half disgusted, all her
attention concentrated on these three figures. She had but a dim
consciousness of two men riding round the store-wing and dismounting.
One of the two remained in the background screened by the trails of
native cucumber overhanging the veranda end. The other--a wiry,
powerful figure in uniform, with a rubicund face, black bristling
moustache and beard and prominent black eyes, reminding one of the eyes
of a bull--walked forward and spoke with an air of official assurance.
'Can I be of any use to you, Mr McKeith, in dealing with that nigger? A
bad character, as I've reason to know.'
'No, thank you, Harris. I can do my own dirty jobs,' said McKeith
He had released the pair and now stood grimly surveying them. Oola was
crying and squealing; Wombo stood upright--a scowl of hate on his
face. His whole nature seemed changed. A flogging will rouse the
semi-civilised black's evil passions like nothing else. There was
something of savage dignity in the defiant way in which he faced his
'What for you been take-it stockwhip long-a me? BA'AL me bad black boy
long-a you, Boss. What for me no have 'em gin belonging to me? Massa
catch 'im bujeri White Mary like it gin belonging to him. What for no
all same black fellow?'
McKeith cut short the argument--sound logic it seemed to Lady Biddy--
by an imperious, silencing gesture, and a sudden unfurling of his
stockwhip, which made a hissing sound as it writhed along the ground
like a snake. The black boy sprang aside. McKeith pointed to the gidia
scrub and issued a terse command in the native language.
'YAN ' (go). 'BA'AL YOU WOOLLA ' (don't talk any more). 'YAN.'
Wombo turned appealingly to Lady Bridget.
'YAN,' stormed McKeith again, and, as Lady Bridget made a movement of
sympathetic response towards the black fellow, he added sternly:
'You'll oblige me by not interfering in this business. The Blacks know
that what I say, I mean, and I'll have no more words with them.'
Bridget stood quite still, her attitude and expression all indignant
protest, but she said nothing. Her face was turned full towards the man
hidden by the creepers, who was watching her with intense interest, but
she was unconscious of his gaze.
Wombo retreated slowly. Oola, cowed, whimpering, behind him. Then, she
made an appeal to Lady Bridget, stretching out her unbandaged arm
'White Mary--you PIDNEY (understand). That fellow medsin man--husband
belonging to me. Him come close-up long-a srub--throw 'im spear,
NULLA-NULLA--plenty look out Wombo. BA'AL, Wombo got 'im spear--ba'al
got 'im NULLA-NULLA. Suppose black fellow catch 'im Wombo--my word!
that fellow MUMKULL (kill). Wombo--mumkull Oola--altogether BONG
(dead). YUCKE! YUCKE! Lathychap suppose Massa let Wombo sit down long-a
head-station--two day, three day--black fellow get tired--up stick--
no more look out. No catch 'im Wombo. Lathychap!' she pleaded, 'BUJERI
you PIALLA (intercede with) Boss.'
Lady Bridget came down the steps from the veranda and went up to
'Colin, what the gin says is true. Her tribe will kill them, and they
have no weapons and no means of protection. Will you, as a favour to
me, let them stay for a few days? At least, till her arm is healed and
the danger past?'
McKeith hesitated perceptibly, then the consciousness of weakening
resolve made him harden himself the more, made his speech rougher than
it might have been.
'No, I can't, Biddy. I never break my word. They've GOT to go.'
He turned fiercely on Wombo, who stood sullen and defiant again, and
from him to Oola, who crouched in the dust, sobbing pitifully and
rubbing her damaged arm.
'Plenty me sick, Boss--close up TUMBLEDOWN ' (die), she wailed.
'Stop that! YAN--do you hear? YAN--YAN--BURRI--BURRI--' (go
The whip lashed out again. It stung Wombo's bare leg, and flicked
Oola's petticoat. The two ran screaming lustily towards the rocks and
scrubby country at the head of the gully.
Lady Bridget uttered a shuddering exclamation and made an impetuous
movement with arms partly outstretched as if to follow the pair. Then
her arms dropped and she stood stock still.
There was a dead silence. In all the relations of husband and wife,
never had there been a moment more crucial as affecting their ultimate
future. They looked at each other unflinchingly, neither speaking.
McKeith's lips were resolute, locked, his pugnacious jaw set like iron.
Here was the stubborn determination of a fighting man, never to admit
himself in the wrong. And his eyes seemed to have a steel curtain over
them--which, however, had Bridget's spiritual intuition been awake to
perceive it, softened for an instant, letting through a gleam of
But Bridget's soul was steel-cased also. He saw only contempt,
repulsion in her gaze. The larger issues narrowed to a conflict of two
egoisms. It seemed to both as though, in the space of that last quarter
of an hour, they had become mortal foes.
The police inspector broke in upon the tense silence. Here was another
egoism to be reckoned with--malevolently officious.
'They'll be hiding in the gully, Mr McKeith. No fear of them taking to
the outside bush with the tribe hanging round. I'll just round 'em up
and drive 'em into the scrub and strike the fear of the Law into them.
I'll do it now before I turn out my horse into the paddock.'
'No,' flamed Lady Bridget. 'You'll leave those unfortunate creatures
alone--or--if you molest them--whether it's by my husband's
permission or not--well--you'll find I'm a bad hater, Mr Harris.'
The police inspector flushed a deep red.
'Maybe I'm not such a bad hater either, my lady--but with my respects.
. . . '
'That will do, Harris,' interposed McKeith. 'I told you that I'd do my
own dirty jobs. There's no occasion for you to go against her
Harris touched his helmet to Lady Bridget and, leering with veiled
'I'm never one to put myself up against the ladies, except where my
duty comes first--and that's not the case--yet. But as I was saying,
with my respects, my lady, Mr McKeith knows very well how to treat the
blacks. He knows that you've got to keep your word to them, whether
that means a plug of tobacco or a plug of cold iron.'
Lady Bridget drew back and looked at Harris for a second or two with an
expression of the most withering haughtiness. Then, without a word she
turned her back on him. The inspector infuriated, muttered in his
throat. McKeith interposed sharply:
'Bridget, Harris is going to stay the night.'
'Ah! at the Bachelors' Quarters,' Lady Bridget smiled with distant
calm. 'Of course, Mrs Hensor knows. I'm sorry I can't ask Mr Harris to
dinner at the house this evening.'
Now, by the social canons of the Bush, the police inspector, being
technically speaking of higher grade than the casual traveller, should
have been accepted as a 'parlour visitor.' He would thus have occupied
one of the bachelor spare rooms in the Old Humpey and would have joined
the Boss and his wife at dinner. Harris had never before stayed the
night at Moongarr, and he had confidently expected to be received with
honour. Thus he regarded Lady Bridget's speech as an insult.
'Oh, I'm not one to force my company where it is not wanted,' he
blustered. 'I'm quite content with a shake-down at the Quarters, though
if I'd known I might have gone by the short cut with the Specials--
it's rather late, however, to push on to Breeza Downs, where--though
perhaps I say it as shouldn't--I'm sure of a welcome from Mr and Mrs
Windeatt, being, so to speak--for law and order--the representative
of His Majesty in the Leura district.'
Lady Bridget smiled with detached amusement, as she turned again and
patted the head of an elderly kangaroo dog, which came up to her with
its tongue out and a look of wistful enquiry in its bleared eyes,
scenting plainly that something was amiss. 'Good dog, Veno,' she
'I'll bid you good evening then, my lady,' he said stiffly. 'No doubt,
Mr McKeith, you'll spare me half an hour in the office by and by. Just
to concert our measures for the proper protection of the Pastoralists
and the safeguarding of the woolsheds this shearing season.'
'Yes, yes, or course,' McKeith answered mechanically. The spunk had
gone out of him, as Harris would have phrased it; and the Inspector,
looking at Lady Bridget, guessed the reason.
'And what now about the gentleman from Leichardt's Town, Mr McKeith?
Will I be taking him up with me to the Bachelor's Quarters? Or may be,'
Harris added unpleasantly, 'her ladyship won't object to having him in
McKeith muttered angrily, 'Damn! I'd forgotten.'
It was not like him to lose himself during working hours in even a
momentary fit of abstraction--except, indeed, when he was riding
without immediate objective through the Bush. His eyes were still upon
his wife's slight figure as she moved slowly towards the veranda, with
the air of one who has no more concern with the business in hand. Her
graceful aloofness, which he knew to be merely a social trick, stung
him inexpressibly, the faint bow she had given Harris when he bade her
good evening had seemed to include himself. It galled him that he did
not seem fitted by nature or breeding to cope with this kind of
situation. The half consciousness of inferiority put him still more at
disadvantage with himself.
'Biddy, wait please,' he said dictatorially.
She paused at the steps, her hand on the railings, her eyes under their
lowered lids ignoring him.
He went closer and spoke rapidly in a harsh undertone.
'I didn't tell you--though I rode ahead on purpose--I met a man at
Tunumburra who said he knew you. He's out from England--been staying
at Government House, and brought a letter from Sir Luke Tallant. I hope
that at any rate you'll be civil to him.'
She flashed a quick glance at him, and her eyelids dropped again.
'But naturally. I'm not in the habit of being uncivil to--my friends.'
And just then--Mrs Hensor, who loved cheap fiction, said afterwards it
was all like a scene out of a book--there appeared in the space
between the two wings, a man who had strolled unobserved from one side,
out of the background of creepers, and who advanced with quickened step
to where the husband and wife stood.
A striking individual. Tall--though not as tall or as massively built
as Colin McKeith, firm boned and muscular, but with a sort of feline
grace of movement. There was the unmistakable stamp of civilisation,
and, at the same time, an exotic suggestion of the East, of wild
spaces, adventure, romance. Not in the least a Bushman, but wearing
with ease and picturesqueness, a backwoods get-up. Clothes, extremely
well cut; riding breeches and boots; soft shirt and falling collar with
a silk tie of dull flame colour knotted at the sinewy throat, loose
coat, Panama hat. So much for the figure. The face ugly, but
distinguished, sallow-brown in colouring. Nose long, fine, with a
slight twist below the bridge; cheeks and chin clean-shaven, an
enormous dark moustache concealing the mouth. Hair black, slightly
grizzled, and when he lifted his hat forming a thick lightly frosted
crest above his forehead. Eyes black--peculiar eyes, sombre, restless,
but with a gaze, steady and piercing when concentrated on a particular
object, as, just now, it was concentrated on Lady Bridget.
The gaze seemed compelling. Lady Bridget suddenly lifting eyes that
were instantly wide open, became aware of the man's presence. The
effect of it upon her was so marked that McKeith, watching her face,
felt a shock of surprise. The change in her was noticed by the Police
Inspector, with malevolent curiosity. So also by Mrs Hensor, a little
The new-comer saluted her with a low bow, his hat in one hand, the
'You haven't forgotten me, I hope, Lady Bridget, though I should think
that I am the very last person in the world you would have expected to
see in these parts.'
Lady Bridget had turned very white. She stared at him as if he had been
a ghost, and at first seemed unable to speak. But her confusion lasted
only a few seconds. Almost before he had finished his sentence she had
pulled herself together. Her hand was in his, and she spoke in her old
fluty voice and little grand manner, with the old slow, faintly
whimsical smile on her lips and in her eyes. It came over McKeith that
he had not of late been familiar with this aspect of her, and that she
was exhibiting to this man the same strange charm of her girlhood which
had been to him, in the full fervour of his devotion, so wonderful and
worshipful, but of which--he knew it now--the Bush had to a great
extent robbed her.
She laughed as she withdrew her hand from that of the newcomer. And
standing on the steps, her head almost on a level with his, met his
eyes with challenging directness.
'Really, Mr Maule, you shouldn't startle a nervous creature in that
uncanny way--appearing like the unmentionable Personage or the angel
if you prefer it, only with this difference, that we weren't speaking
of you. I hadn't the most distant notion that you were on this side of
the equator. If my husband had mentioned your name I should not have
been so taken by surprise.'
'Were you really so surprised? I thought I MUST have sent my shadow on
before me--because I've been thinking so tremendously of you these
last few days, and of the prospect of seeing you again. I daresay you
know,' he added, turning politely to McKeith--'that I had the pleasure
of meeting your wife when she was Lady Bridget O'Hara, one winter at
Rome, with her cousins, Lord and Lady Gaverick. And later, we saw
something of each other in London.'
'No, my husband doesn't know,' Bridget gave a reckless laugh, and her
eyes challenged those of McKeith before he could answer. 'You see,
Colin and I, when we married, came from opposite poles geographically,
morally and mentally. He did not understand or care about my old
environment any more than I understood--or cared about his. So we
agreed to bury our respective pasts in oblivion. Don't you think it was
a good plan?'
'Quite admirable. I admire your mutual courage in adopting it.'
'You think so! It has its drawbacks, though,' said McKeith dryly. 'I
must apologise for having left you to announce yourself. The fact is,
those Blacks put other things out of my head. They had to be taught
they couldn't disobey orders without being punished for it.'
'Poor wretches! Yes! I know the popular idea of asserting British
supremacy over coloured races, by the force of the whip. I have not
always seen it answer; but then my experience has been with natives
rather higher in the scale of evolution than the Australian
'You believe in the power of kindness--as I do,' exclaimed Lady
Bridget. 'My husband and I take different views on that subject. But we
need not discuss them now. Come and have some tea, and tell me about
Maule followed her to the door of the living room where she turned to
give some orders to Maggie, the maid-servant, and to the Chinese cook.
McKeith went off with Harris to see after the horses and have a talk
with Ninnis at the stockyards. Thus, Maule was left alone for a few
minutes to study and form his own opinion as to Lady Bridget's setting.
She was a woman who, whatever her surroundings, must always impress
them with her personality. This bush parlour was original in its
simplicity. Walls lined with unvarnished wood which was mellowing
already to a soft golden brown. Boards bare, but for a few rugs and
skins. A fine piece of tappa from the Solomons, of barbaric design in
black and orange, made the centre of an arrangement of South Sea Island
and aboriginal weapons. Divans heaped with cushions flanked the great
fireplace. Two writing-tables occupied spaces between French windows--
one the desk of a business-like roll-top escritoire; the other, the
flap of a Chippendale bureau, with a Chippendale arm-chair before it.
There were a few other pieces unmistakable English. In fact, Eliza
Countess of Gaverick, in addition to a handsome present of plate, had
sent her niece the furnishings of her old room at Castle Gaverick. A
few pictures and etchings hung on the other walls--among them several
wild seascapes--reminding one a little of Richard Doyle's exquisite
water colours--in which green billows and foamy wave-crests took the
shape of sea-fairies. Also some weird tree studies--mostly gum and
gidia, where gnarled limbs and bulbous protuberances turned into the
faces of gnomes and the forms of strange monsters. Maule had no doubt
that these were Lady Bridget's own. There was an upright grand piano--
the alleged cause of Steadbolt's conversion to Unionism, and all about
the place a litter of newspapers, books and work. The room was filled
with flowers--sheaves of wattle and of the pale sandal-wood blossoms,
as well as many sub-tropical blooms with which he was not familiar.
Blending with, yet dominating the mixture of perfumes, a peculiar scent
resembling incense, appealed to him; and this he did not a first trace
to a log of sandal-wood smouldering on the open hearth more for effect
than warmth, for the early spring evenings had scarcely a touch of
chill. The French windows stood open to the veranda, a room in itself
with its many squatters' chairs, hammocks and tables. Beyond, stretched
the green expanse of plain, utterly lonely, the waters of the lagoon
taking a reddish tinge where they reflected the lowering sun. It seemed
an inconceivable environment to have been chosen by the Lady Bridget he
had known in London, one of whose chief attractions to him had been
that she represented a certain section of the aristocracy of Great
Britain, decadent perhaps, but 'in the swim.'
She cam now along the veranda from the Old Humpey with the light,
rather hurried tread he remembered, talking rapidly when she joined
'I've been seeing about your room. I suppose you know enough now of the
Never-Never to understand that we are quite primitive in our habits.
You won't find a spring mattress--or water laid on--or any other
convenience of civilisation.'
'May I remind you that I've roughed it pretty well in the Andes.'
'Yes, but you have had so many luxuries since then that you will have
forgotten what roughing it feels like--just as I've forgotten now that
I was ever anything but a barbarian--I see you shave still.'
'Only that I discovered just now the white ants had eaten all the
woodwork of the spare-room looking-glass. The thing crumbled in my hand
and fell on the floor and was broken. A bad omen for your visit, isn't
'I hope not. So you are superstitious as ever?'
'I haven't ceased to be a Celt--though I've become a barbarian. I'll
borrow the overseer's looking glass for you.'
'Pray don't. I've got one of sorts in my razor case. Is dinner regarded
in the Never-Never as a sacred ceremonial?'
'The men don't put on dress clothes, if that's what you mean. As for
the repast, for a long time, as a rule, the menu was salt junk and
pumpkin. We've improved on that a little since the Chinese cook and the
Chinese gardener came back from the goldfields--there was another rush
at Fig Tree Mount that fizzled out. To-night, you will have
kangaroo-tail soup, and kid EN CASSEROLE. If you make believe very hard
you might possible imagine it young venison. . . . Here, Kuppi!' The
Malay boy brought in the tea-tray and she signed to him to put it on
the table between the fire and the window.
'Tea,' she asked, 'or would you rather have whiskey and water? I can't
offer you soda water because, till the drays come, we have nothing to
run the seltzogene with. . . . Do you know that the Unionists cut our
dray horses' throats? We're lucky to have whiskey in the store. They
broke open the cases of spirits and stole a lot of things. . . .
Vicissitudes of savage life, you see!'
She rattled on, scarcely pausing. She was seated on a divan, the tea
before her--he in a squatter's chair with long arms, in which he sat
silent, leaning forward, his hands on the chair-arms, his eyes fixed
upon her. She avoided looking at him. Her small sun-browned hands
fidgeted among the cups. If anything remained of her anger and emotion,
she hid it under a ripple of absurd housewifely chatter, not waiting
for him to answer.
'Well, is it to be tea or whiskey?'
'Tea, please,' and then at last she stopped and looked at him and could
not turn her eyes away, or did not want to do so. His black orbs stared
with a disquieting fixity--a sort of inhuman power--from out of his
foreign-looking face. That stare was his chief weapon in the
subjugation of women--they called it magnetic, and no doubt it was so.
It increased the fascination of his ugly good looks.
The gaze of each one seemed to fuse in that of the other. Hers, at
first coldly curious, tentative, caught light, warmth, intensity from
the sombre fire of his. Suddenly he said:
'In God's name, Biddy, how did you come to marry that rough brute.'
'IS he a rough brute! It's very rude of you to say so. But do you know,
just for a half minute to-day, I rather thought so myself. I don't
pretend to agree with Colin's methods of treating the Blacks, though
I'm told it's the only way to treat them--you know they did commit
terrible atrocities up here. . . . Still to flog a black man, a wild,
warlike, human creature, seems to me nearly as bad as shooting him. Do
you know--the first thing I ever heard about Colin was that he had a
great many notches on his gun, and that each one meant a wild
black-fellow that he had shot dead.'
'And now he flogs tame ones,' Maule observed quietly. Her brilliant
eyes searched his face for a sign of malevolent sarcasm, but not a
muscle quivered. Her own eyes wavered under his steady look. She busied
herself among the tea things.
But she paused, the tongs balanced in her delicate fingers.
'It is frightfully thrilling--life in the Bush.'
'What part of it? The shooting or the flogging?'
She burst out: 'You know I hated that. You know I was furious about the
flogging. You know'--She pulled herself up.
'I know nothing--except that you must have changed enormously in a
very short time to have been thrilled with anything but horror--by
that sort of thing.'
'Yes, I have changed. But it isn't time that changes one. Time never
counts with me. It's only feeling that counts. Oh, of course, I think
it all horrible--about the Blacks up North. They're not allowed on
this station--except one or two half civilised stock-boys--and this
one fell in love and carried off his gin, and brought her here against
my husband's orders.'
'Yes? And you had befriended them--I gathered that. But it doesn't
explain YOU. '
She took up a piece of sugar with the tongs, holding it suspended as
she spoke, jerkily.
'Why should I be explained? As for my finding life in the Bush
thrilling. . . . I was dead sick of falsities when I left England, I
wanted to be thrilled by something real.'
'And you found that--in your husband?'
'Yes; I did. He IS real, at least. He is true to himself. So few men
have the strength of their goodness or the courage of their badness,
when it comes to a big test.'
'Oh! I grant you. Yes; I know that's what you're thinking. I wasn't
true to myself in the big test. . . . But YOU were to blame for my
having been false to the higher ideal.'
'I! Oh--what makes you--' But she thought better of the impetuous
questions that trembled on her lips, and went on in a different tone.
'What does that matter! I'm not saying anything about high ideals. What
is high? . . . . What is low? . . . . You've just got to invoke truth
and freedom--as far as your conception of them goes. . . . And there's
a reason for Colin's hatred of the Blacks.'
'Ah! Is it permitted to ask the reason?'
'His family were all massacred by the natives--father, mother, sisters
--all. Well, one admires a man steadfast in revenge--going straight
for what he wants--and getting it--doing it--in love or in hate. Now
I have answered your question.'
The gesture of her head seemed a defiance. She dropped the sugar into
his tea, and he took the cup from her hands, and slowly drank it
without saying a word.
It was she who broke the silence.
'You provoke me. You make me say things I don't want to say. You always
'Ah! Then marriage has not changed you so immensely, after all!'
She bit her lip and rose abruptly.
'Do you want any more tea? No. Then come to the veranda and tell me how
it is that Luke Tallant has allowed you to exchange Government House
for the Never-Never?'
He had followed her through the French window.
'I see you haven't heard the bad news.'
'No--what? We only get a mail once a week.'
'I thought McKeith would have broken the shock. He came on, he said, to
do so. Poor Lady Tallant.'
'Rosamond! The operation?'
'She died under the anaesthetic. Sir Luke got the news by cable the day
before I left Leichardt's Town. He wired at once for leave and has
started for England by this time.'
'Oh? poor Rosamond! Poor, poor Rosamond!'
'Is she to be so greatly pitied! She has been saved much suffering!'
Then as Bridget went on murmuring, 'Oh, poor Rosamond, she did love
life,' he added gently. 'Life can be very cruel. . . . I myself have
had cause for gratitude to Death, the great Simplifier. If my wife had
lived she must have been a hopeless invalid doomed to continual pain.'
Lady Bridget gave him a swift look of reproach.
'Oh, do you expect me to congratulate you?' she exclaimed bitterly.
'Yes,' she went on, 'perhaps, to HER Death was merciful--but not to
Rosamond. And Luke did care for his wife. He will be broken-hearted.'
She stood gazing out upon the plain, on which the mist was gathering.
From across the gully sounded the cattle being driven home.
When she turned to him, her eyes were full of tears.
'I think I'll go now.' She said simply. 'Colin will show you your room.
He's there--coming up from the lagoon.'
She went through a French window lower down the veranda into her
bedroom, and Maule descended the steps into the garden and presently
joined his host.
A little later, McKeith having tubbed and changed his riding clothes,
came to his wife's room. He looked very large and clean and fair, and
the worst of his temper had worn off in a colloquy with Ninnis, and the
imparting and receiving of local news. But his eyes were still gloomy,
and his mouth sullenly determined. And he had remembered with remorse
that he should have softened to Bridget the sudden news of her friend's
death. The sight of her now--a small tragic figure with a white face
and burning eyes, in a black dress into which she had changed, deepened
'I am very sorry, Biddy.' He tried to put his arm round her shoulder,
but she drew back.
'What are you sorry for, Colin--that Rosamond Tallant is dead, and
that you forgot to tell me, and let me hear it from--Willoughby
Maule?' She paused perceptibly before pronouncing the christian name,
'Or that you behaved like an inhuman monster to those wretched Blacks,
and refused me the only thing I have asked you for a good time past?'
Her tone roused his rancour anew.
'I think we'll drop the subject of the Blacks; there is no earthly use
in talking about them, I make it a rule never to threaten without
performing, and I'd punish them again, just the same--or more severely
--under similar circumstances.'
'Very well. You will do as you please, and I shall do as I please,
'What do you mean?'
'Just what I say. I agree with you that there's no use in discussing
things about which we hold such different opinions. Quite simply, I
can't forgive you for this afternoon's work.'
'Biddy, you exaggerate things.'
'Perhaps. But I don't think so in this case. Let me go out, Colin.
Dinner must be ready by now.'
'No. I've got something to ask you first. I want to know why you looked
so upset--as if you were going to faint--when that man came up to you
'Naturally, I was startled. I had no idea he was in Australia.'
'But why should that have affected you. One might have imagined he had
been your lover. Was he ever your lover, Biddy? I must know.'
'And if he had been, do you think I should tell you,' she answered
McKeith's face turned a dark red. His eyes literally blazed.
'That's enough.' He said, 'I shall not ask you another question about
him. I am answered already.'
He stood aside to let her pass out into the veranda, and she walked
along to the sitting-room.
Dinner went off, however, more agreeably than might have been expected.
Lady Bridget's manner was simple and to the guest charming. The black
dress, the touch of pensiveness was in keeping with the shadow of
tragedy. But she spoke in a natural way, and with tender regret of Lady
Tallant--questioning Maule as to when he had last seen her, and
learning from him how it had been at Rosamond's instigation that he had
cabled proposing himself as a companion in Sir Luke's loneliness. It
had been only a week after his arrival in Leichardt's Town that the
blow had fallen.
'You know, Tallant and I always hit it off very well together,'he
observed explanatorily, addressing McKeith. 'It was at their house that
I used to meet Lady Bridget during the few months that I had the honour
of her acquaintance in England.'
McKeith looked at his guest in a resentful but half puzzled way. A
spasm of doubt shook him. Suppose he had been making a fool of himself
--insulting his wife by unreasoning suspicions? A vague contempt in her
courteous aloofness had stung him to the quick. And the other man's
easy self assurance, the light interchange of conversation between them
about things and people of which McKeith knew nothing--all gave the
Australian a sense of bafflement--the feeling that these two were
ruled by another social code, belonged to a different world, in which
he had no part. He had been sitting at the head of his table,
perfunctorily doing his duty as host, wounded in his self-esteem--
almost the tenderest part on him, morose and miserable. Now he snatched
at the idea that he had been mistaken, as if it were a life-buoy thrown
him in deep waters. He began to talk, to assert himself, to prove
himself cock of his own walk. And Maule suavely encouraged him to lay
down the law on things Australian, while Lady Bridget withdrew into
herself, baffling and enraging McKeith still more hopelessly. He did
not seem now to know his wife! A catastrophe had happened. What? How?
Why? . . . . Nothing was the same, or could be the same again.
It was a relief when dinner was over. The men pulled out their pipes in
the veranda. Lady Bridget, just within the sitting room window, smoked
a cigarette, her small form extended in a squatter's chair, listening
to, but taking scarcely any part in the conversation. The two outside
discussed local topics--McKeith's failure to trace the perpetrators of
the outrage on his horses. Maule's impressions of Tunumburra--where he
had met McKeith in the township hotel, and the two had apparently, in
the usual Bush fashion, got on intimate terms--the rumours of an armed
camp of Unionists, and the expected conflict between them and the sheep
owners and free shearers at Breeza Downs, whither the Government
specials were bound. Lady Bridget gleaned that Maule had placed himself
under McKeith's directions.
'What are your immediate movements to be?' he asked his host.
'Remember, I am ready to fall in with any plans you may have for making
McKeith did not answer at once. He took his pipe from his mouth, and
knocked the ashes out of it against the arm of his chair, while he
seemed to be considering the question. Then, as if he had formed a
definite determination, he leaned forward and addressed his wife in a
forcedly matter-of-fact tone.
'I don't suppose you know much about what has been going on, Biddy. The
same boat that brought up the specials brought a hundred or more free
labourers, and they're on their way up to the different sheep-stations
along the river--a lot of them for Breeza Downs, where Windeatt has
begun shearing. Windeatt is in a blue funk because a report that a
little army of Unionists, all mounted and armed, are camped that way
and threatening to burn down his wool-shed and sack his store. The
burned old Duppo's wool-shed last week.'
'He's a skinflint, and I'm sure he deserved it,' put in Lady Bridget
McKeith check a dry sarcasm. He became aware of Maule's eyes turning
from one to the other.
'Well--' He got up and leaned his great frame against the lintel
between Maule and Lady Bridget. 'The Pastoralist Executive at
Tunumburra have asked us cattle-owners who--are more likely to be let
alone than the sheep-men, to help in garrisoning the sheep-stations;
and I've promised to ride over to Breeza Downs to-morrow and do my
share in protecting the place. Harris and I are going together.'
Lady Bridge seemed more interested in blowing smoke-rings than in her
'I may have to be away several days,' continued McKeith. 'Then there's
the new bore we're sinking--the water is badly wanted--cattle are
dying--I can't run any risk of the bore-plant being wrecked. The men
who are working there must be sent off because we're short of rations--
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