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Mrs. Drummond of Quondong by Mrs. Henry Day

 

IT is a year to-day since I first saw this place,--since I first saw her, I may as well say, for she is pretty well the centre about which all my thoughts have turned during this time; and yet I was not prepared to like her--rather the reverse, for the Creeks did not, and communicated their unfavourable view to me. Certainly I was agreeably disappointed when we met, but I don't think, when I try really to look back, that I was much struck by her in any way. I know I did not think her pretty, only graceful and refined, and far more pleasant in manner than I had anticipated. I could not help noticing that she was a different stamp of woman to Mrs. Creek; and I know the Grettan people were surprised, and I think a trifle displeased, that I said so little of my visit to Quondong. The fact is, I felt rather puzzled what to say. Knowing that the Drummonds were not liked, I could hardly praise them; and after the kind reception given me, I would not do the other thing. I went there again soon after Hope had been told off to bring back the cattle about which I had gone over on my first visit, but he asked me to take his place, as he hated going to Quondong.

I wondered as I rode along if I should find things pleasant this time, and began to be half sorry I had undertaken a duty that was not mine; for certainly many people said disagreeable things about the Drummonds, and possibly my previous reception was only good by accident,--there was nothing in me that I should get more courtesy than others. When I rode up to the house I found Mr. Drummond on the verandah, and I can't say his greeting was particularly cordial. He never offered to shake hands, or to get up; nor, though on seeing him I had jumped off my horse, did he ask me to sit down. He hardly said 'how do you do' before he began business.

'Come for the cattle? But I can't give them to you to-day. Jones is laid up, and none of the other men seem to know where to find them.'

'Will he be able to go out to-morrow?'

'Well, I hardly know, but I suppose you can come over again?'

'Of course I can come again, but I particularly want to get the bullocks to our place by to-morrow night. Molloy is taking down a mob for the butcher, and we want to add them to the mob; and if I get them early in the day, I could run them over to the station in time.'

'H'm,' he said, after a pause, 'you had better see for yourself. If you ride to Jones' hut, you can find out; and if it is worth while staying, he can put you up.'

I was savage as I unhitched my horse and rode away, and if I could have done as I wished, would have ridden back there and then; but work had to be done, and personal annoyance would hardly have been taken as an excuse if I returned without the cattle, and I could not trust the black boy with me to drive them by himself. The stockman had had what he termed 'a touch of the sun,'--assisted, I suspected, by a good share of bad rum,--but was better, and would be able, he thought, to turn out the first thing in the morning. Neither were other matters quite so bad as I expected. Jones was a married man, and his wife looked after an adjoining hut that was set apart for chance travellers, so my quarters were not so uncomfortable; and though the being sent off in that way rather rankled, still I was not sure I had any right to complain. So, after making an inward vow never to go again in another's place, I tried to make the best of it, and pass the afternoon as well as I could. Fortunately, after I had had something to eat, and had made my final arrangements with the stockman, I found a readable book, and the day being now pretty well advanced, I did not feel that I had so much to grumble about.

I was so absorbed in the book, Adam Bede, that I never heard steps approaching till a voice said, 'Mrs. Jones, I have brought you'--the speaker, who had just entered the door, stopped. I put down my book and jumped up, for it was Mrs. Drummond. I don't think she recognised me at first; evidently she had not thought any visitor was there, and was taken aback for the moment when she found the room occupied; but I knew her at once, and this sudden apparition of a pretty woman set my heart beating a little faster than usual. She did look awfully well in her light grey habit, something blue round her throat, and a knot of ribbon of the same colour under her shady hat; not as you see a riding costume de rigueur, but very suitable for the occasion, and it seemed to me also very becoming. I did not say anything, waiting for her to speak; besides, her unlooked-for appearance and the recollection of her husband's lack of courtesy rather confused me. She recognised me, however, almost immediately, and holding out her hand as she came forward, said,--

'What are you doing here, Mr. Verner? why did you not go at once to the house?'

I did not care to say I had been there, so answered as easily as I could, 'Are not these the strangers' quarters?'

'Yes; but no one we know stays here. Of course Mr. Drummond expects you to be with us.' I did not know what to say, but I know what I did--blushed like a girl.

You are very good,' I murmured, after a moment's uncomfortable pause; 'but as I start so early, it might be inconvenient for you.'

I fancy she guessed the real state of matters, or else blushing is contagious, for a pretty pink tinge came into her cheeks, while a look of annoyance passed over her face. She did not say anything more on this subject, but began to talk of her ride, saying she had seen a flower on the border of a scrub that had exactly the perfume of vanilla, but it was too high up for her to get it, or even to see it well. Nothing could be pleasanter than her manner, and though she did not stay above five or ten minutes, she left me with all my ruffled plumage smoothed down.

I had another visitor before long: Mr. Drummond walked in, in about an hour. 'My wife has been scolding me for letting you come here,' he said; 'so put on your hat and come back with me, or I shall have black looks all the evening.'

I daresay it would have been more dignified to have refused, but I forgot what was due to my pride, and did what I was told. I don't think he meant to be rude in the first instance. He simply did not care for my society,--why should he put himself out for a young nobody learning colonial experience?--so he sent me to the strangers' quarters; and he came for me because Mrs. Drummond made a point of having me at the house, and it was easier to do that than to thwart her. He is a man the sole motive of whose conduct is self. He regards it as a matter of course that life should be ruled by that principle, and acts up to it with a serene, unaffected simplicity that fairly astounds one.

When I say that I had not a vestige of regret for taking Hope's place,--felt, indeed, quite a glow of self-approval for having done a friend a good turn,--you may be pretty sure I did not find the evening disagreeable. Mrs. Drummond sang and played particularly well; perhaps her voice was not really so fine as Mrs. Creek's, but it had far more expression, and there was a tone in it that went straight to the heart. Her singing had the same sort of charm as her appearance and manner. It would be hard to put into words what that charm was, though there could be no difficulty about feeling it. As I have said before, she was not pretty, at least she did not strike you as being so at first; the only actual beauties she owned were her teeth, small, even, and white, and her exquisitely fair skin. Her other features were small and regular, but nothing remarkable; her mouth, indeed, was rather large, but the lips, fresh as a child's, were flexible and expressive to a rare degree, and when they smiled they lighted up her whole face. Mind, she was by no means prodigal of these smiles. The prevailing expression of her face had something of sadness in it, mingled with a certain air of hauteur, and it was this, and a somewhat reserved manner, that I fancy often repelled people; but when she chose to be pleasant, as I suppose she did this evening, nothing could be more natural than she was, simple, kind, and cordial, and so playful, so light-hearted, that it was hard to imagine she could be unpopular.

But I am bound to confess she was not always like this: sometimes her face was like a mask, with a set look on it that never varied, while her manner was chilling to a degree; then that hard expression would melt away, and a sudden softness come into her face. To see that change was as if the soul had come back to those limpid hazel eyes and that tender mouth. Her voice, too, had a hundred different inflections: occasionally it was almost harsh, while at another time there was a caress in its very tone. It was able to express those finer shades of feeling that words are often powerless to convey, and it had a natural pathos that appealed strangely to your sympathy. Of course no one is always bright or always dull. Most are attractive when lively, a few interesting when depressed; but in her it was not the mere change of spirits that charmed. She had very little of what is called vivacity, and her melancholy was less pensive than moody; but whatever her mood might be, her power of attraction never seemed to lessen.

She was a problem that one was always being forced to try and solve. Sometimes her whole nature seemed to open itself to you. It was the real living soul that spoke to you in those soft accents, that looked at you from those pure eyes and ever-varying countenance; then the veil fell, and it was a perfect woman of the world that met your eager glances with calm indifference; or she might chill you with a cold reception, and then by some subtle inflection of her voice call up a thrill of delight that was an ample atonement. Once favourably impressed by her, and I cannot imagine anything that could diminish her hold upon you. Her outward appearance charmed the eye, as her beauties seemed coyly to unfold themselves as if to you in particular; and her inner nature was one that compelled you to study it, while it could safely bear the closest investigation. You were puzzled, you were repelled at times by a crust of worldliness, by an assumed heartlessness, but never did you find an ignoble thought, a mean motive hidden there; rather was it a lurking enthusiasm, some shy, sweet goodness that lay concealed in those carefully guarded recesses; and she was so pure-minded that the basest man could not have dared to look at, or think of her, with a polluting thought.

Naturally it was not on this visit, or on many succeeding ones, that I formed my estimate of her. I am only trying to put into words--and what feeble, unsatisfactory ones I only can tell--the impression she produced on me during the short time I had the privilege--and the wretchedness--of knowing her. It would be useless for me to deny the feelings with which she inspired me. It was some time before I recognised them myself. I never willingly betrayed them to her, for she was not the woman I took her to be if I could have dared so to do. She may have guessed them, for I was too young to be so master of myself as never to show what I felt. But whether she did, whether in the remotest degree she shared them,--had, as it were, some tender pity for me,--I never knew; she had so strong a will, such an almost stern conscientiousness, that even if she had loved me,--and I did not think her an angel, only the noblest of women,--she would have died rather than owned her weakness.

But to return to this particular evening. It was not Mrs. Drummond only, but her husband too, who was agreeable. He could be a pleasant companion when he liked, and I suppose I did not find him the less so because he talked to me about myself. I felt rather disgusted afterwards when I recalled how I had prated away on that subject, which, if interesting to myself, could hardly be so to others. I was not particularly charmed either to have made a comparative stranger acquainted with all my affairs and plans, but I never thought of this till too late. However, I consoled myself in thinking that it would teach me more discretion the next time, not to say anything about better taste, and also that certainly I had not forced my concerns upon him; and as both had so kindly pressed me to come and see them again soon, I could not have been such an insufferable bore as I feared.

I often took advantage of this invite when I could get an idle afternoon, generally on a Saturday, when I would not return till the following evening, putting up for the night at Quondong. I certainly enjoyed these visits very much; after the noise of the children, the somewhat rough-and--ready ways of Grettan, the lack of neatness and order in things domestic there, the nicety that reigned at Quondong was very pleasant. It may not be of any great consequence, but it certainly is more agreeable to sit down to a table where everything agrees with the snow white cloth on which they are placed, where the dishes do not look as if they had got on haphazard, or the knives and forks sprawl about anyhow. Mrs. Drummond, too, in her fresh morning dress, a dark rosebud setting off the exquisite fairness of her throat, her slender hands moving amongst the dainty china cups and silver tea equipage, was a pretty object to regard.

After breakfast I used to go with her to feed her chickens; then, if it was not too late, we took a turn round the garden, or I helped her to water her plants in the back-house. We soon got on sufficiently easy terms to be under no restraint, no necessity to make talk; if we had anything to say we said it, if not we read, or simply remained silent. Time never seemed to lag, to me at any rate, and I ventured to flatter myself that Mrs. Drummond found even my society a relief to the very dull life she led.

Dinner was always early on Sundays, to let the maid-servants have a ride in the afternoon, so generally Mr. and Mrs. Drummond would walk with me on my return to Grettan as far as the crossing place, I leading my horse; and when I mounted they would wait till I rode away. How well I can recall her as she used to stand, resting her hand on her husband's arm, and turning her face to give me a parting smile, as, when I reached the top of the opposite bank of the river, I looked back before riding on.

The road to the ford was through a scrub which on one side was untouched, and ran in an unbroken wall of verdure, the other had been cut down, but had partly grown up again; while the climbers, taking advantage of the unusual light and air, had flourished mightily, and covered the young growth with their long vines, almost hiding their supports, and hanging in festoons from shrub to shrub, or creeping along the ground and concealing the fallen logs with their mantle of green leaves; farther on was the open flat where the station buildings were, that, luckily for the picturesque, one could only partially see; beyond them was a sloping hillside, treeless, but covered with long broad-bladed grass, which the rays of the setting sun tinged with the richest shades of golden brown and red. The dwelling--house, which was about a quarter of a mile away, was not visible from this point, which was perhaps as well, for it was hardly a pretty object, and only partially redeemed by the many fine shrubs that grew around it.

Perhaps it was as well that I could not make these pleasant visits as often as I could have wished, or I might have worn out my welcome; but not only had I rarely the leisure, but I fancied the Creeks rather resented my being a favourite with the Drummonds, and regarded my visits to them in some sort a going over to the enemy; so I had on several accounts to put a wholesome restraint on my inclinations. I have no doubt it only made me prize my visits more; certainly I was not sorry when business sent me one day unexpectedly to Quondong. I made a little plan in my own mind as I rode along, that I would stay the night, and ride back in the very early hours, for I knew there would be a bright moonlight. Mrs. Drummond would sing me my favourite songs, and I could talk over with her some news I had received by the last English mail, and show her the photos it had also brought me; but 'the best laid schemes of mice and men aft gang agley.'

I must tell you that two young lady visitors had just arrived at Grettan,--an unusual event,--and their expected arrival had been discussed the last time I met the Drummonds. I cannot say their advent had disturbed me much, and I had almost forgotten all about it when I entered the drawing--room at Quondong, where for a marvel on a week-day I found Mr. Drummond. Business did not take long to settle, and then some allusion was made to the new arrivals. Had they come when I left? Yes, I had caught a glimpse of female forms as I passed the verandah on my way to the stables, and Mrs. Creek had called me in and introduced me.

What were they like? Were they quite young and pretty? Did they seem nice girls? Surely I could tell them something about them?

Mrs. Drummond was unusually eager in her questions, for she was the most incurious of women as a rule. As to Mr. Drummond, he always put one through a course of inquiries, so his remarks did not surprise me.

'I only stayed half a minute. I know one is nothing to look at; the other, I think, is pretty,' I said.

'That must be Miss Brown. I saw her last year, and thought her extremely handsome. Don't you remember, Robert, we met her at the Finches?' said Mrs. Drummond.

'Yes,' he answered; 'didn't she talk about kiows? But I would not mind that, if I were you, Verner; as her father says, "she carries ten thousand bullocks on her back," and she's worth looking after.'

'Thanks,' I answered; 'but I don't think I shall trouble Brown pater to round up his daughter's fortune.'

'At any rate these visitors will make bush life less insufferable,' put in Mrs. Drummond, and then held her peace; and as she turned her head away she could not see the reproachful glance that I involuntarily gave her when she spoke of finding life--her own, no doubt--insufferable.

Not a word was said, as usual, about my remaining. I presume that Mr. Drummond took it for granted that as these people were at Grettan I should wish to go back; at any rate he said,--

'I suppose it is no use asking you to stay?'

I did not answer for a moment. I wanted her to ask me, for it was a fresh pleasure when she repeated the invitation with that kindly smile in her eyes, but she said never a word; so, after a pause, I replied stupidly enough, 'I suppose not.'

She was at the piano when I came in, and she remained there all the short time I stopped. When I made that last speech, she began a brilliant run, but blundering, broke off abruptly, and turning to me, said, looking full at me, 'Is it not provoking when one's fingers will go wrong over a passage; but I forget, not playing, you will not understand.'

I had no particular reason to make any answer, so held my tongue.

I never knew it so difficult to get on at Quondong as that day. Mr. Drummond was as usual, that is, he never put himself out to entertain,--indeed, he went away and had a smoke on the verandah, as he frequently did. But she was unlike herself, seemed preoccupied, and to have no welcome for me. It was plain both thought I had only come over on business, and would be eager to get back to those wretched girls, and with a sinking heart I felt that all my anticipations of a pleasant afternoon were as the 'baseless fabric of a dream,'--my much considered plans quite uncalled for.

I took my leave in a little while, and went back with very different feelings to those I had indulged in as I rode over. The horse, too, seemed determined to add to my annoyance: he always had a trick of boring to one side, and this afternoon he did it till I was downright savage with the brute. I know I made him gallop nearly the whole way home, as he insisted on going like a crab whenever I slacked my pace to a walk; the consequence of which little bit of temper on my part was, that I had to spend about an hour rubbing him down and getting him cool before I could turn him out.

I did find these visitors pleasant after all, though I regarded their arrival at first as something more than a bore, that is, when I returned from my curtailed visit from Quondong.

Miss Brown was really very pretty, and by no means the sort of girl Mr. Drummond's remark had led me to expect. Perhaps she did laugh a little more than was necessary, but she had such beautiful teeth that it did not matter, and one forgave the little twang for the sake of her bright eyes. The other, Miss Blount, had at any rate a fine figure, and was a jolly girl, good--natured, and quite willing to be pleased,--almost did more than her fair share, indeed, in the process. She sang, too, not so badly, though in rather a spasmodic style, only letting out her voice now and then in a way that was a trifle startling till you got used to it. Hope said he did not like it--too much of the minute-gun for his taste; but then Hope was always hard to please. I used to wonder if he ever enjoyed himself, he seemed to look at life only on the seamy side.

One evening it was arranged there should be a picnic on the following Wednesday,--this was Monday,--and that messages should be sent to our neighbours at Ashwood and Quondong, asking them to join us. As we were to be off duty on the chosen day, we had to do double tides on Tuesday, and I never got home till just before dinner. When we were sitting on the verandah afterwards, the black boy came round and gave Mrs. Creek a note. 'That's all right,' she said as she read it; 'the Grimes are coming, and will bring a Mr. Hall, as well as Scott and Hamley.'

'Have you any answer from the Drummonds?' asked Mr. Creek.

'By the bye, no. You got him paper along Quondong?' she said, turning to the boy.

'By Gar, I believe I forgot him altogether;' and Master Jacky, with a grin that showed his white teeth from ear to ear, produced the note of invitation--well wrapped up, I ought to say--from the bosom of his shirt, which served as pocket, and handed it over.

'Well, that is provoking,' remarked Mrs. Creek; 'but it is no use lamenting, we could not let them know now in time, could we?' turning to her husband.

'No,' he replied, 'it's out of the question; they must take the will for the deed.'

'I think I could let them know, if you care about it, Mrs. Creek,' I said.

'Thank you! Of course I should like them to come, but it's not worth the trouble.'

'It's not the least trouble; I could easily ride over on a bright night like this.'

'I don't see any necessity,' broke in Creek; 'I'm sure Drummond wouldn't thank you, and it's ten to one if Mrs. Drummond would care to come.'

'I'll chance that,' I said, and got up to go. Fortunately the horses were in a small paddock, to be at hand for the next day; so, taking a halter and a tin of corn, I soon caught old Billy, and, saddling up, started at once.

I could not but notice as I rode along what a lovely night it was--nothing broke the stillness but the curious 'gluck, gluck' of the frogs in the swamps; the sharp chirping cry of their brethren in the trees resembling far more the note of a bird than that of a reptile; the tinkle of a bullock bell; the sound of an axe, every blow of which rang out clearly.

The sky was absolutely cloudless, and though dimmed by the flood of silvery moonlight, myriads of stars could be seen faintly shining; Sirius still flashed and glittered, changing each moment as I looked from one vivid hue to another; the Southern Cross--that matchless constellation--gleamed brightly from the pale blue of the heavens. The shadows were sharply defined, but the melting light fell too softly for strong contrasts; the huge fallen logs, whole skeletons of long dead trees, though brought into perfect relief by the light resting on their barked surfaces, had nothing startling in their distinctness, but bore the same shadowy air as all around them.

But the strangeness of everything was what particularly struck me. Nothing bore the likeness that it did by daylight,--one seemed to look up long vistas where the trees overhead formed Gothic arches; on sloping lawns carpeted with turf smooth as velvet; on lakes into which the drooping branches dipped; on dark ravines walled in by steep rocks; grand avenues wound through wooded paths,--all was so changed, so unreal and yet so real, that it quite startled one.

The house, as I have said, was some little distance from the station buildings, and, as I rode up to it, the utter stillness, the hushed repose about the place, where the very roses that shone so white in the moonlight looked as if they were sleeping, made me think, almost for the first time, how late it was. I looked at my watch--nearly twelve. Well, I thought, it's no use stopping now, though I would have left the note at the station if I had thought of it before.

I tied up my horse, and going to the stables, tried to rouse the man who I knew slept there. Not a bit of use; I couldn't get the fellow to hear. I could not call out loudly, and I might have battered in the door with a paving--stone, supposing such a thing had been handy, without waking him from his slumbers. It would never do to go to the female quarters, for the most probable result of that step would be a series of squeals, and my being possibly potted by Mr. Drummond as a kind of colonial Tarquin.

I began to think I was doing an impertinent thing, and was a fool for my pains; but I could not go back now. Perhaps the best plan would be to go round to the sitting-room,--the French lights were pretty sure to be open in this weather,--and I could leave the note on the table, and disappear without disturbing the sleeping house. I did so as quietly as I could, though I fancied my step, generally light, made as much noise as a buffalo's. I opened the venetian shutters, the hinges as I did so giving a squeak that made me turn cold all over, put the note down on a table, and stole out.

Just as I was coming out of the window, I found myself face to face with a figure, whose approach had been so noiseless and so unexpected that for the moment it regularly dumbfounded me. In an instant I recovered myself, and saw it was Mrs. Drummond. She did not recognise me, for I was in the shadow.

'Who is it?' she almost whispered, for she was evidently frightened, as the tremble in her voice betrayed, in spite of her struggle to command it. Then, as I stepped on to the verandah, she exclaimed, in the utmost surprise,--

'Mr. Verner! But what is it? Is anything wrong at Grettan?'

'I really must beg your pardon. I am not robbing the house, only bringing you a note from Mrs. Creek. We have a picnic to-morrow, and want you to join us.'

'And you have come all this way at night simply to ask me? You are good!'

'Not at all; only I hope you will come.'

'I could hardly refuse after this, even if I had wished. Where do we meet?'

'At the Downfall, about noon. Now, I had better say good-night. I'm awfully ashamed of myself for disturbing you at this hour.'

'I--I can't ask you to stay,' she said in a hesitating way. 'Mr. Drummond is not at home.'

'Many thanks,' I answered, feeling confused, I didn't know why; 'I couldn't. I have to see to the things in the morning.'

'Thank you,' was all she said; but I would have ridden twice the distance to be addressed by her in such a tone. I could see she was not regularly dressed. She had on a long trailing robe (dressing-gown, I suppose), and over her head a light fleecy white shawl (what is called a cloud) was thrown. You can't imagine how childlike and pure her face looked under it. She was like the white roses that lay sleeping in the moonlight. When she put out her hand, as she did, and then withdrew it, to say good-bye, the movement stirred her skirts, and I saw the small foot was only covered by a slipper. It was not a very alarming object, that dainty little bare foot, but it sent a shiver through me, and I could not have met her eyes at that moment to save my life.

I had not much time for beauty-sleep after I got back; and I rather think I didn't bless Hope when he came stumping into my den, calling out, 'Hullo, Verner! do you know what the time is? There's the missis wanting you to help her pack; she won't take me at any price. Says I'm no more use than a fifth wheel to a coach.' But after I had walked down to the creek and had a good bathe, I was all right, and fit as paint.

We were lucky in the day, fine almost as a matter of course, but the cool breeze was by no means a blessing too often bestowed upon us. The place we had chosen was on the banks of the river, a grassy nook, sheltered on three sides by thick scrub that quite shaded us from the sun, while it was open to get the breeze from the river. Don't run away with the idea that a fine stream of water rolled below us. There was none at all visible from this place, only the broad empty bed covered with grass in high thick tufts, with half-dead reeds and clumps of bushes, and any amount of débris, great logs, broken branches, sticks and withered leaves lying piled up in tangled masses and curved ridges, as the last flood had left them. Through this ran a narrow channel, 'promiscuous like,' swerving now to this side, now to the other. It was hard to picture the whole of this wide space filled bank high with a rushing, swirling torrent; but the rubbish lodged among the branches of trees growing in it told a tale.

The Ashwood people came up about the same time as we did, Mrs. Grimes looking wonderfully young (she was well up in the thirties) behind her black lace veil, under which her dark velvety eyes and white teeth flashed most becomingly. Old Grimes was in a suit of nankeen that had been so often washed that its colour was almost gone, while it had so shrunk that his legs and arms appeared to have grown since he began to wear it. The stranger did not take my fancy much; but apparently my sentiments were not shared by Mrs. Grimes, for his attentions--and he was pretty lavish of them--were received graciously enough. Hope went off, and I caught sight of him and Hamley planted behind a fig tree, and smoking like two steam-engines. Scott and Hall did the amiable to the ladies, and I helped Mrs. Creek. Miss Blount was good enough to come and assist after a little, and took me in charge, telling me where the things were to be placed, making me trot about under her orders, so I was kept tolerably busy; but I did not forget to keep a bright look-out on the road that led towards Quondong.

No sign yet of the Drummonds. When we were all assembled and the luncheon arranged, there was some faint opposition on the hostess's part to our beginning before the arrival of the missing guests; but her husband pooh-poohed the notion of waiting.

'Nonsense, my dear; they could be in time if they chose; and if they do come, they won't starve.'

I was not quite so sure of that, for I didn't think much of Mrs. Creek as a caterer, and I certainly did not like the idea of the Drummonds finding lunch half over when they came--when they came? Suppose they did not come at all! Perhaps the sky clouded over just then,--I know the place looked as dull as ditch-water for a few minutes,--and the view over the dry bed of the river, where the air quivered in the heat, and the flat beyond, sparsely scattered with gum trees, whose scanty greyish--green foliage hardly showed, had the dreariest air imaginable.

'Mr. Verner, you may sit down here,' called out Miss Blount. But before I could take advantage of her invitation, or rather permission, I heard the sound of a horse's hoof, and caught a glimpse of Folly's shining chestnut coat through the trees, and it was not long before I was helping her rider to dismount. 'Not pretty' had been the verdict passed on her the previous evening, when Mrs. Drummond was under discussion. 'Not proven,' I said then to myself, though I spoke out never a word; now I gave utterance, mentally, to a decided 'Not guilty.'

She wore her light grey habit, but in place of the shady straw hat she generally wore, she had put on a saucy little velvet hat that suited her fair hair and skin to perfection. She had a colour, too, with fast riding, and her soft hazel eyes and fresh lips were both smiling. Then her manner, simple, gay to playfulness, yet never overstepping the invisible bounds of good breeding, or losing its quiet dignity, was so different to that of the others; while her voice, with its modulated tones, fell so pleasantly on the ear, after the somewhat uncultivated accents of Mrs. Creek and her friends.

After I had found Mrs. Drummond a seat, I remembered Miss Blount's gracious offer, and the place being still vacant, took up my position by her side. She was not a silent individual, and had, besides, a very fair appetite. So between keeping her supplied with eatables and drinkables, and replying to her provocative speeches, I was not idle in mind or body. I managed, however, to see that my guest--for I felt as if I had a claim to her--was not neglected. I had no chance of saying much, but I glanced once or twice towards her, when my companion said anything particularly startling,--and she was rather given to uncommon remarks,--and we exchanged a momentary smile, more of the eyes than the lips.

We were certainly not a dumb party, and were so busily engaged eating and drinking, chattering and laughing about nothing, that none of us remarked the clouding over of the sky. We were not to remain long in ignorance, for soon there came a muttered growl of thunder, followed after one or two repetitions by a low rushing sound that betokened either wind or rain, perhaps both. Shelter there was none. Some kind of wraps were made for the ladies with what had been used to cover the things in the cart that carried the provisions, and I got Mrs. Drummond her cloud that she had brought with her, and had left fastened to her saddle,--I wondered as I carried it, was it the one I had seen her wear the previous evening,--to protect her hat, for the safety of which she was frankly solicitous. I wanted her to take my coat, but she would not hear of it. However, Mrs. Creek seeing it hanging over my arm, called out, 'If you don't mean to use that garment, you might as well lend it to me.' So I handed it over to her, catching as I did so a look of amusement in Mrs. Drummond's face that made me laugh at the discomfiture that my own must have betrayed.

Having made our preparations, such as they were, we awaited the coming storm. It did not keep us long in suspense. First came a gust of wind that bent all the branches in one direction, and then sent them tossing and whirling in the air, blew the twigs and dried leaves and bits of grass till they scampered about like living things, and filled the air with the noise of rustling foliage, and cracking, jarring branches. The blast blew over. There was a sudden stillness, almost startling after the late turmoil. Some great drops of rain splashed down, and then with a swish the shower was upon us. How it did rain! None of your pattering drops, but regular streams of water poured down upon our devoted heads. Another minute and it was gone, and we only heard its loud rushing sound, as we saw it, like a great grey curtain, sweeping away over the tree-tops.

We were not much the worse. Even Mrs. Drummond's little hat reappeared from 'under the cloud' safe from the threatened bath. Mrs. Creek gave me back my coat, which I am happy to say had been of no use to her. Mrs. Grimes took her handkerchief away from her face, 'her skin was so tender,' was the information she volunteered. I suppose it was, and that the rain hurt it, for I saw a pink stain on the white cambric. On the whole, the 'fair sect,' as Mrs. Brown has it, came off pretty well; and though we of the lower order of creation were wet through,--our shirts clinging like loose skins, our unmentionables defining our nether limbs more plainly than was altogether satisfactory to the vanity of some of us, our hats dripping,--there was nothing worth lamenting, and our plight only served to give fresh cause for mirth.

But the luncheon! The cloth was soaking and splashed with sand, the dishes half full of water, the remains of the viands plentifully besprinkled with leaves and twigs and gravel, the bread a sop; and I declare that a piece of bread on my plate was washed white. Fortunately the inner man had been satisfied with the substantials, and the rain had not got into the bottles at any rate.

Very soon the sun was shining out of a sky of the most intense blue, made still lovelier in colour by the contrast with masses of snow-white clouds. The quivering leaves were sparkling as if powdered with diamonds, as a cool breeze shook showers of raindrops off them at each moment. Birds sang and gurgled most musically; for, though Australian birds have no continuous song, some of their notes are exceedingly rich and sweet. Not all, though, as we had good proof, for suddenly one solemn old feathered biped, sitting near us on a dead branch, lifted up his voice with a preliminary giggle, and then burst into a roar of chuckling laughter, so inharmonious and so utterly absurd in sound, that we all followed suit and roared in chorus. After this we got up the horses; and while some stowed away the things in the cart, the others saddled them, and soon we were nearly all mounted.

Just as we were about starting a song was suggested. The idea took. But first we were to have a stirrup-cup, and as a suitable chant to follow that operation, 'Drink to me only with thine eyes' was selected. What a group we made! We were now standing, having left the scrub, among some huge green trees whose smooth trunks were still darkened by the wet; the cart was ready, and formed a prominent object; all the ladies were on horseback, but some of the men still on foot.

I was by Mrs. Drummond's mare, resting my hand on her neck, lest the noise might frighten her, and stealing a look up now and then into her rider's fair smiling face. Old Mr. Grimes, with his hat off, his scanty red hair glistening with wet, his damp spare garments bringing his meagre limbs out in strong relief, his little eyes twinkling with pleasure, was singing away, glass in hand, with all his might. The carter, inspired by the music, and probably the bottle of beer, was joining in with a very shamefaced expression, but an uncommonly sweet voice.

All the others were doing their best. Mrs. Drummond contributed a sweet, if not over strong second, to which I added my mite. Miss Blount, one small, gloveless hand holding the whip with which she marked the time, took a capital first, though she did overpower rather Mrs. Creek's pure silver-toned soprano. Hope, whose forte was not music, was very busy doing something to Miss Brown's stirrup, and that young lady was apparently too deeply engaged with the subject of its being lengthened or shortened to attend to her vocal duties.

We had all, in separate directions, some little way to go; but when some one struck up 'The days when we went gipsying,' it was irresistible, and off we all went into a singing chorus. 'Isn't it jolly?' I heard Miss Blount say to Mrs. Grimes; and the reply was, 'Yes, awfully; but it wasn't quite so jolly when you did go gipsying, a long time ago.'

After this we really made a start; and not too soon, for the long shadows showed that sunset was not far off. When Mrs. Drummond turned off, I, of course, prepared to accompany her.

'What are you thinking about?' called out Mrs. Creek; 'you are not going home, when Mr. Drummond does not return, you say, till to-morrow; you are to return with us.'

'I really must not. Robert might come back tonight; besides'--and she gave a meaning look at the already large party from our place.

'That's of no consequence,' replied Mrs. Creek, interpreting the glance. 'I can put the girls in one room.'

Mrs. Drummond still hesitating, Mrs. Creek said, 'Very well, if you won't come with us, we will go with you; so take your choice.'

'Then really in pure kindness to you I must accept your invitation, for I don't believe my larder contains anything but the remains of the chicken I had for dinner yesterday.'

So she came back with us. I had never seen her in such spirits, she was the gayest of us all. She made Folly prance and curvet, and jump over the fallen timber, and finished with a race with Miss Blount on some straight--running that led to the house. Most of us joined in this, so it was a regular hurry-skurry. In the confusion and gathering darkness we came (almost without seeing them) on the milking cows, which were lying down placidly chewing the cud. Helter-skelter we dashed in amongst them.

Miss Blount's horse gave a great shy, cannoning against Mr. Hall's (who had returned with us); in trying to escape be jumped over a reclining cow, or rather he tried to, for the cow, alarmed, tried to get up just at the moment, and in an instant nothing was to be seen but any number of legs apparently, sticking up in the air, for the cow, the horse, and the rider all seemed to be on the broad of their backs, and all flourishing their limbs about at the same time.

As to thinking of any danger to Mr. Hall, not one of us troubled our heads in the matter. We regarded the affair as got up for our especial amusement, and appreciated it with complete unanimity; and when the poor man, dusty and dirty, got into a sitting position and gazed around him with a most woebegone expression, it sent us off again into a fresh burst of laughter.

The fact is, the fellow was an utter cad, and we felt it would be a mere waste of sympathy to have any pity for an animal who left out all his h's. But no, I wrong him; he used the right number, but, like the confession in the Prayer-book, that which he ought to have done, he did not do; while he did do that which he ought not to have done. In reference to this failing, he tried us all fearfully at breakfast the next morning. In one of those pauses of silence that occur in a large party, his voice was heard saying,--

'I think it so dangerous to sleep on the bare ground, that I always take a h'air mattress with me into camp.'

'A hair mattress!' replied Mrs. Drummond, to whom he was talking, with a puzzled look. 'Surely that is very cumbersome?'

'Oh dear, no,' was the calm response; 'I only h-inflate it when it's wanted.'

I caught a glimpse of a look of horror on Mrs. Drummond's face. After that I dared not lift my eyes from my plate. There was a dead silence; the faintest suspicion of a giggle came from Miss Brown's direction. In another moment we should have broken down, when by good luck one of the youngsters dropped 'a plate, and we all broke out into a laugh that must have seemed perfectly idiotic to the real cause of our merriment.

I don't think I felt more amiable towards the fellow, as, a few hours after, I saw him going off with the rest of the visitors and Mrs. Creek towards Quondong. There he was, well mounted, and garbed in dazzling white, riding by Mrs. Drummond's side, and bending over towards her in earnest conversation; while I, scorched and grimy, and smothered in dust, was counting sheep in the yards.

I must say I was very glad they did not stop as they passed; and yet, as I caught a last glimpse of a lithe figure in a grey habit, I felt as if there was something almost unkind in riding by without a word of farewell.

The riding party did not return till late, for not only had they seen Mrs. Drummond home, but they had gone round by Ashwood, where they had left Miss Brown and Mr. Hall.

I expect the unwonted dissipation had something to do with it, but for some cause or other we were not festively inclined this evening. Music was tried; Mrs. Creek would sing 'Some day,' and plainly expected me to join with the others in saying how much better she sang it than Mrs. Drummond; but I didn't think, and would not be made to say so. It was very absurd, I know, that this trifle irritated me. I could not but acknowledge that Mrs. Creek had a finer voice, but its clear silvery tones had not a particle of expression, and beautiful as they were, never touched your heart; and I felt not only that there was an injustice in giving her the palm in the rendering of a song the very raison d'être of which was feeling, but that there was a certain spice of ill-nature towards the rival singer in giving the award.

Then Mrs. Creek went off to her babies, and Miss Blount took her place; but that would not do at all. She was tired, I suspect, and screamed like a peacock. The worst of it was, the others, taking advantage of my being installed as leaf-turner, cleared out, and I had to do the civil till I wished the girl at--well certainly anywhere but where she was. Then cards were proposed; but a round game for love, when there is no one whose love you care about, not being enticing to people arrived at years of discretion, the idea fell through, and very soon we all retired to try the effects of 'Nature's sweet restorer' in putting us into a pleasanter mood.

One day I had rather a queer adventure. I was riding home from an out--station, when, a mile or two from the house, I met Miss Blount and Kitty. Without vanity, I think I may say the former was very glad to see me, for she was not at all fond of solitude, and the little girl went for nothing. On my own part, I was pleased enough. It's awfully dull riding by yourself mile after mile through the bush, where one tree is exactly like the other, and each gully and ridge cries ditto to that you have just crossed.

This is not a very complimentary way to speak of Miss Blount; but, indeed, though I could hardly fancy a fellow losing his heart to her, she was capital chaff, and good enough to take the trouble of entertaining into her own hands.

We plunged at once into a kind of mimic warfare that raged between us--the cause of our mock dissension this time being the comparative merit of our steeds--till we came to a crossing place over the river, about a mile from the house.

Here my horse, being thirsty, put down his head to drink, my companions riding on. Sepoy was very dainty in his tastes, and the shallow water crossed by the others being muddled, he sniffed disdainfully at it, and insisted on going to a place where the stream ran clear. This took some little time. The others had gone over, mounted the bank, and were disappearing out of sight, the land falling beyond. Sepoy, having slaked his thirst, lifted up his head, champing his bit, and shaking the wet off his muzzle. I was about to follow the others, when I thought I heard a voice calling me by name,--a man's voice, too,--so there was nothing wrong with the girls. I looked round, but could see no one, and gathered up my reins for a rush up the bank, a favourite proceeding of Sepoy's, hastened by Kitty calling out in impatient tones, 'Do make haste, Mr. Verner!'

But there could be no mistake this time about the strange voice--'Verner, Verner, for God's sake don't go!' Guided better by the sound, now my eyes caught sight of a pale face peering round a tree not far distant.

'What's the matter?' I said, staring in amazement at the scared countenance from which the voice had evidently proceeded. I did not go towards it at first; for if I had any ideas at all on the subject, it was that my interviewer was a madman, and that it would be as well to carry out the old adage as to discretion. Sepoy, taking advantage of my inattention, now made a move forward to follow his mates.

'Stop!' almost shrieked the owner of the head; 'I'm Hall, I have lost my clothes;' and in his anxiety getting from behind the kindly shelter of the tree, it was very evident that some awkward accident had befallen his garments, for not a rag had he on save a hat.

'All right!' I called out, turning my horse and going towards him; 'only get out of sight again, my good fellow.'

But my warning came too late, for a shrill voice (Kitty's) exclaimed, 'Oh, goodness gracious!' and I caught a glimpse of the little girl's figure--she had evidently turned back to see what delayed me--in full retreat. Quite sure now that the coast was clear, I could listen with a tranquil mind to the tale he told.

It seems Hall had stopped on his way from Ashfield to Grettan, at the Downfall, at the large waterhole close to where we had had our picnic. Here the water looked so deliciously cool as it splashed over the little ledge of rocks forming the miniature cascade from which it had its name, that he thought he would have a bathe. Now, a few days before, when indulging in a similar luxury, he had been stung by some large ants that had got into his clothes as they lay on the ground To avoid this danger, he strapped them together, and fastened them on to his saddle, and then hitching his horse securely to a sapling, proceeded with an easy mind to disport himself in the crystal stream.

So far so good. But when he came out again, no sooner did he approach his horse than the latter started back with an affrighted snort. Like a fool instead of standing still and speaking so as to reassure the animal, he rushed forward to grab the reins before they broke; the natural result was that terrified still more at the antics of this strange object the horse plunged wildly, the head-stall gave way, and off he went, carrying the clothes along with him. He did not go very far, though, but wheeling round, stopped in his flight, and, with uplifted tail and expanded nostril, gazed at the cause of his alarm.

Taught discretion, Hall advanced more carefully this time, trying, by addressing him in soothing tones, to calm his fear; but in vain. No sooner was he almost within touching distance, than the horse would gradually back, give a snort, and, wheeling round, trot off again. Again he advanced, and in terms of dulcet flattery--'Whoa, good horse; good boy; coop, coop, come along; gently, old fellow; poor old boy'--strove to calm the truant steed.

But the result was another failure; and so it went on, the horse letting him approach to just beyond catching distance, and then at the moment he thought he had him, sheering off. Once he stalked him, and creeping up behind actually got hold of one of the legs of his trousers. The horse, startled afresh, started forward. Hall held on, and as the animal was not only stronger, but had a base of four to Hall's two, the man toppled over, and as he scrambled up he found himself in the possession of about as much of his nether garments as would encircle his ankle, and saw his horse disappearing in the distance, carrying away the rest of his attire in triumph. There he was, in a nice predicament. He tried at first to run after his horse, but soon pulled himself up with a barked shin and a scratched face, having tumbled into the head of a fallen tree. What was he to do? He wasn't very far from Grettan, for his horse had headed that way; but how on earth was he to make his appearance in such a plight? He shuddered at the bare idea (no pun meant). Yet he could not stay where or how he was.

He thought of our first parents; but thatching himself with branches did not seem a feasible plan; and as to using single leaves, the only kind that were at all suitable were those of the nettle tree in the scrub, and they certainly would not do, for as much as these leaves excel in size those of the nettle of our ditches, so do they excel them in the virulence of their stinging properties.

At last he determined to make his way to the crossing place, and wait in concealment there, on the chance of some one passing. He got to where I found him at last with no little difficulty, for his feet were cut by sticks and stones, and, indeed, I did pity him when he held them up for my inspection, for their state proved what rough usage they had had, although his rueful expression, and the surroundings in general, were so ludicrous that I could hardly keep my countenance.

Here, planted behind a big tree, he had waited, shivering with cold and stiff with fatigue, and almost wild with the attacks of mosquitoes, who came in crowds to partake of the feast so bounteously spread for them. The sound of our advancing horses had fallen like the sweetest music on his ear. Judge, then, his dismay when he caught sight of two female forms. Crouching behind the tree, he had gathered himself into the smallest space, not daring to move lest his presence might be betrayed, all his hopes of a rescue being lost in the fear of being seen.

When, however, I lingered behind, it seemed like a special interposition of Providence in his favour; and he was in such an agony of fear lest I should not hear him, that he could scarcely control his voice sufficiently to call out. Of course his troubles were to a certain extent over now. I could not give him any garments there and then, because I hadn't more than was absolutely necessary for myself, one's toilet in the bush being distinguished more for simplicity than abundance; but I rode back as quickly as I could, and returned with a led horse and wherewithal to clothe him, not forgetting something to comfort the inner man.

Nothing could induce him to face the fair females. Indeed, he was so utterly done up, and in such pain from his bruised and swollen feet, that bed was about the best place for him. So I gave him up my room, as it was on the verandah, and he could crawl to it without being seen, except, indeed, by one or two of the boys, who had evidently learned something of the affair from their sister, and whose looks were certainly not expressive of pity as they watched him hobbling along.

When I made an agreement with Mr. Creek to take me as a new chum, my services and a certain premium being accepted as an equivalent for the opportunities given me of acquiring a knowledge of station matters, of course it was for a fixed time. This time had now nearly expired, and though my present work was what is more usually entrusted to more practised hands,--naturally leading me to suppose that some little value was attached to my services,--Mr. Creek had so far said nothing as to my remaining, or rather, as I should say, as to my receiving any salary. He talked of plans to be carried out, and spoke as if I were to take a share in their execution, so I had no reason to conclude that he wished me to leave at the end of my term; but he made no allusion as to any change in my position.

I, on my part, had certainly no desire to go--to do anything that might sever the pleasant relations that existed between me and the Drummonds; yet, all the same, I had not the slightest intention of working any longer without pay. Not only did I feel that I was worthy of my hire,--and I don't see how any one who has his wits about him, and really tries to do his best, can be ignorant in that respect,--but I held it unfair to my father not to relieve him of the burden of my keep as soon as I could; and the conviction that my inclinations led me to remain near Quondong, above all things, served but to make me feel the more keenly what was due to him.

So it came to pass that I was a good deal exercised in my mind on this matter. I shrank from speaking, thinking that any proposal ought to come from Mr. Creek, and because I dreaded taking a step that might end in my having to leave this neighbourhood; yet I fretted and reproached myself for remaining silent.

Things went on in this uncomfortable state for some time; day after day went by; chances of opening the subject were lost, the present ever seeming an inopportune moment; my period of pupilage had come to an end, and yet nothing had been decided. Of course I suffered for this shirking--one always does. Had I spoken at once, as I ought to have done, not only would I have been easier in my mind, but I should not have been placed in a position that gave others the right, as I could not but own it did, to consider I had acted unfairly towards them. Not that I had so acted, and therein lay the sting, for surely never is an unjust imputation so hard to bear as when you feel that, though guiltless, yet your conduct has seemed to give grounds for the accusation.

The whole affair was settled, as these long-pondered affairs generally are, unexpectedly, and in quite a different way to what I had supposed. I was spending, as I so frequently did, the Sunday at Quondong, when Mr. Drummond, turning to me in his abrupt way, said,--

'How much does Creek give you?'

'Nothing,' I answered.

'How's that?'

Then I told him how matters stood; and being very full of the subject, doubtless enlarged considerably on it.

'I think you are making a great mistake in staying, he said, interrupting me after he had listened silently for some time. 'You are worth pay, of course, or Creek wouldn't keep you on; but it isn't fair to your father to give your services for nothing.'

'You would advise me, then, to ask for a salary?'

'Well, I don't advise you at all in the matter, that is your own affair; but I'll tell you what I'll do. I will take you on in Gardiner's place. I won't promise you the same pay, because you are not an old station hand like him, but I'll do what's fair.'

Seeing that I hesitated, for the idea of being actually at Quondong startled me into silence, he continued,--

'It's better than staying at Grettan even with a screw, with the sheep I have, and my management. Creek knows about as much as a black fellow about sheep; you will learn far more here. Of course, though you take Gardiner's place, you will be on a different footing. The fact is, I want some one I can trust to act immediately under me, and I think you will do.'

Then he stopped and went on smoking, not looking directly at me; but I could see that his sharp little eyes were watching me furtively all the same.

'It is very good of you,' I answered slowly, 'and I should like the billet.'

'Then why don't you take it?' he said quickly. 'The screw shall be (and he named a fair enough sum), and your quarters--at the station, though,' adding the last few words after a momentary pause.

'I should be only too happy to get it,' I replied; 'but I can hardly leave Creek so abruptly, and you say Gardiner goes at once.'

'I thought you told me just now that it was over a month since your agreement terminated?'

'Yes; I suppose had he wanted me he would have spoken?'

'Not a doubt of it. I don't see any need for hesitation on that score.'

'Perhaps not; though I should not like to offend him by accepting another billet before I had fairly left him, or even spoken of leaving.'

'Then don't say anything about it; the agreement is finished, and there's an end of it.'

The upshot of the matter was, I did take the billet, subject to the condition that I should not inconvenience Mr. Creek by leaving him hurriedly.

Mrs. Drummond wasn't present when this conversation took place. She had gone down to the station to see a sick woman, and her husband and I were waiting for her, sitting on a fallen log a little way off.

Nothing was said about it when she rejoined us; and it was not till just before I left, and she and I were alone together, that I mentioned that I was to be one of the Quondongs.

'Did you or Robert propose it?' she said, with a sudden harsh inflection in her voice.

'Mr. Drummond, certainly; even my impudence would not have been equal to that.'

She did not say anything more; but her remark, and the tone it was uttered in, took me aback not a little, for I thought she would have been pleased, and had secretly reckoned on a look of pleasure in her face when I told her.

I puzzled a good deal over her speech on my ride home; and between that and thinking how I should tell the Creeks of my new plan,--I need hardly say that I never for a moment meant to follow Mr. Drummond's advice,--I can't say that my meditations were exactly agreeable; and I began to regret that I had been so communicative, and so led to the offer being made.

The lights were out in the sitting-room when I got back, so my determination to have no more delays--for I could not but feel how much more pleasant it would have been to have spoken to Mr. Creek before--was useless. My troubles did not keep me awake, but they set me dreaming, and amongst other uncomfortable things I thought Creek would insist on taking away my clothes to prevent me going. My objection to this stripping process awoke me, and I found the foundation for my vision in the fact of Hope's kangaroo dog having planted himself on the end of my blanket which had fallen down, and whose descent he was assisting by some rapid turns preparatory to curling himself up in its folds.

I got through the affair during the day, and found it sufficiently disagreeable. Creek chose to consider himself an aggrieved person, and that I ought to have spoken to him before I made any agreement. Perhaps I ought; but I thought also that he ought to have proposed something it he had wished me to stay on, seeing that he knew very well when my time as a 'new chum' came to an end. He did not say much, but his manner was nasty, to say the least of it. I was half-savage at the time, that I could not find any words in which to resent it and yet not betray temper; but I am glad now that my wit failed me, for a sharp retort would probably have led to a quarrel, and I should have much regretted such a finale to a period of, on the whole, pleasant intercourse.

I found, as soon as I met Mrs. Creek, that she had heard the news, and I felt it too, for though she treated my departure as a matter of no consequence (nor, indeed, was it), she contrived to say more unpleasant things during the short time I remained than was at all agreeable to listen to; so that, both hurt and annoyed at the curt, ungracious way Mr. Creek put aside my offer to stop as long as suited him, I was not sorry that my stay was to be of short duration. I have alluded before to the jealous dislike the Creeks had for the Drummonds, and it was this feeling that was at the bottom of Mrs. Creek's manner to me. She had always resented my being on such friendly terms with her neighbours, and now that I was fairly leaving Grettan for Quondong, she seemed to take it as a case of desertion to the enemy.

I could not flatter myself that she had any regret at my leaving on my own account, for I was not ignorant that I was not a favourite with her. Perhaps for that reason I was not drawn towards her. She was clever and amusing, a capital wife to Creek, who thought her perfection, and good--natured to the young fellows (myself included) at the place; but I don't think she was particularly sincere, or that her standard of honour was a high one; certainly her sense of truth was not, if I may judge from the tarradiddles she told now and then.

And whether it was that I unconsciously betrayed my estimate of her character, or for what she was pleased to term my fastidiousness, at any rate I was not exactly in her good graces. She gave me a Parthian shot as I was leaving, congratulating me on the difference I should find between their 'poor fare and rough-and-ready ways,' and the luxury of the Drummonds' house.

'But you see, Mrs. Creek, I am going to live at the station.'

'Oh!' with a tone of malicious surprise, 'are you to be counted amongst the men, then?'

'I suppose so.'

'I thought you were far too great a favourite with Mrs. Drummond to be sent down to the station.'

'Most likely,' I answered, 'she knows nothing about it. Naturally they would not care always to have a stranger with them.'

'It's fortunate our sensibilities are not so delicate,' she rejoined, 'as we have had to put up with having a stranger with us.'

I felt very much, at this retort, like the man who never opened his mouth but to put his foot in it, and that I had better keep mine shut and let my antagonist retire with all the honours of war. Perhaps this small triumph mollified her; for when we next met she received me graciously enough, and we have always been on very fair terms since.

I did not see very much of Mrs. Drummond. I never went to the house without an express invitation; and, moreover, I had very little leisure. My new boss not only knew what was to be done, but he had a knack of making others do it. Finding that I was pretty good at figures, he got me to help him with the books, as well as the outdoor work--not the regular accounts, which he managed entirely himself, there being no book-keeper on the station, but for some extra returns he was making out on a plan of his own.

I could not but be amused at the way he got me to do them. He began, as we were riding out together to a sheep station, to discuss them. I did not think much of his method, though I thought the idea might be carried out with advantage; and being naturally concerned in all that related to sheep, I was much interested in the question, and ventured to propose a few alterations, giving my reasons for these changes. Of course I only put these forward as suggestions, not being quite such a fool, though I was a new chum comparatively, as to be at all sure that any notion of mine could be of any use to an experienced man like Mr. Drummond.

After what I have said of him, you would hardly imagine he was the sort of person to let a youngster and a subordinate discuss, and in a mild manner even criticise a plan of his; but that is just what he would do. When he had a scheme in petto, he liked to talk it over with any one he met, and what's more, to listen to the remarks made on it. Out of these different opinions he used to form his course of action; and if he was not clever in originating, he certainly was in choosing the best from the various views he elicited--in making the wisdom of others work for his ends.

It sounds ill-natured, but I believe it was his thorough selfishness that was at the bottom of this unusual disregard of his own views; the intense hold that his interests had on him would not let him treat his own thoughts with any especial favour, so that he was never, as most people are, influenced unfairly by a scheme because it had been evolved out of his own internal consciousness.

But to return. After I had talked for some time, and had shown, I suppose, not only an interest, but some slight insight into the matter, he said, turning towards me with quite the air of bonhomie with which people generally confer a favour,--

'I tell you what it is, Verner, you shall make them out for me yourself. Put them into some shape to-night, and to-morrow evening come up, and we can look over the plan, and see if it will work.'

I think I did murmur something like an assent, but I doubt if he heard me: he certainly never heeded. He seemed to consider that for the present he had done with the matter,--that it was out of his hands;--for when I made some further remark on the subject, feeling, indeed, rather nervous at the responsibility, and desirous of more information, he made no answer, and began, almost before the words of my question were fairly uttered, to give me directions on another business. That done, he lighted his pipe, and smoked on without speaking a word till we reached the sheep station.

Here he broke out into a fine storm. The shepherd, a Chinaman, not expecting a visit, as he had only got his rations the previous day, had coolly brought home his flock quite early in the afternoon, and the wretched animals were yarded, to remain for some fifteen hours without food or water; while the ruffian was comfortably stretched out in his bunk, and, a savoury smell proceeding from a pot on the fire, was evidently going in for an afternoon of quiet enjoyment.

You should have seen the boss's face as these things dawned upon him. He made one jump off his horse, throwing the reins to me, dashed into the hut, and the next minute out came, first the pot and its steaming contents, then John himself, followed by a shower of pannikins, damper, sugar, tea, and, finally, a blazing fire-stick; after this emerged Mr. Drummond, with a very red face, and blowing like a porpoise. I fully expected he was going to follow up his attack, and was preparing to lend a hand in demolishing the child of the Flowery Land, who, having taken refuge behind a big gum tree, was loudly vociferating in the nasal high-pitched twang of our yellow brethren; but whether he was explaining matters or breathing forth vows of vengeance, I can't say. I expect he got back, in his state of high pressure, to his mother tongue; at any rate, the only words I could make out were, 'You savey.' But the boss never even looked towards him, but, taking the reins out of my hand, mounted and rode off, turning round after he had ridden a few steps to call out to me,--

'Just wait till the other shepherd comes in, and see if the sheep are all right. I expect that (adjective) scoundrel has lost some.'

As soon as he was out of sight the culprit ventured into the opening, and began picking up the fragments, with a smile that was childlike and bland.

By the time the other fellow had returned, and the sheep were counted, it was pretty late, so that, when I had got home and had something to eat, I didn't feel much inclined to tackle the returns. But I knew it was now or never, that the next day I should have no time, and I did not mean to lose a pleasant evening up at the house; so I set to work, and once fairly at it, found my fatigue vanish, and was quite surprised, when I had done my task, to see how late, or rather how early it was.

When I went up in the evening I found a new arrival there, in the person of Miss Blount, who was making a regular round of visits in this part of the country. Mr. Drummond had been speaking lately of a visit he would have to pay shortly to a station he was thinking of buying, and he had brought the young lady over from Ashwood that she might remain with his wife during his absence. I must say I was glad to see her. She was so lively that she seemed to set us going, as it were. Not that I had much chance of benefiting by her presence on this occasion, for the boss took me off almost at once to his sanctum, and kept me grinding away till it was so late that I began to think he did not intend to let me return to the drawing-room. As it was, I could only stay a very short time; and I cannot say that a little chaff that I exchanged with the visitor quite compensated me for the pleasure I had anticipated--a pleasure that certainly was in no way connected with Miss Blount.

But I was to see more of her, as well as her hostess, than I had at all expected. The afternoon just before Mr. Drummond left, the three rode into the station yard as I too came in, though from an opposite direction. So we stopped to exchange a few words. An allusion was made to Mr. Drummond's departure, and I said something about being glad Mrs. Drummond would have a companion, but I wished the house had not been so far from the other buildings.

'All the more glory for you,' answered Miss Blount, 'for having sole charge of two forlorn females.'

'I'll do my best, Miss Blount; but don't you think we had better establish a code of signals?'

'Why? What do we want signals for?'

'How else am I to know the dangers you might be exposed to? Suppose a particularly large spider' (her especial aversion) 'put in an appearance, if you hoist a flag half-post high, then I'll rush--rush to the rescue.'

'I don't understand. Where are you to be?'

'Here, I presume,' I answered, pointing to my quarters.

Miss Blount stared at me for a moment, and then turned round short on Mr. Drummond.

'You don't mean to say,' she exclaimed, in the utmost indignation, 'that we are expected to stop up there by ourselves! Indeed, I will do nothing of the kind. I would rather sleep on a shelf in the store. Of course, I supposed Mr. Verner would be at the house while you are away.'

Mr. Drummond, rather taken aback at this unexpected attack, muttered something about his wife having often been alone there.

'More shame for you, then!' was the retort. 'But certainly I won't.'

Mr. Drummond, looking as if he felt convicted of having been neglectful of his wife's feelings, and yet hardly caring to give in, evidently did not know what to say. Mrs. Drummond, with an amused smile on her face, though she never raised her eyes, played with her reins. Miss Blount was unaffectedly in earnest in her protestations. I wished myself anywhere but where I was, while I mentally most heartily endorsed what the latter had just said. After a short pause, and a look of inquiry at his wife which she would not see, Mr. Drummond said in a hesitating way,--

'Perhaps, Verner, Miss Blount is right. You had better go up to the house.'

So it was settled, and on the boss's departure I was installed as watch--dog. I can't say I had much cause to complain. I found my evenings pass very differently to what they usually did. Miss Blount and I were soon on our old footing of friendly war; and though it was hardly fair of Mrs. Drummond to go over to the enemy as she did, still they were neither very remorseless foes.

Of course, now that I was to a certain extent in charge of the station, I was fully occupied all day, often having to be out on the run before my hostess and her guest had left their rooms; but my evenings were always free, and I certainly did find them pleasant. I enjoyed being with Mrs. Drummond above all things, preferring her society to that of any one else; but Miss Blount's presence in no way interfered with that pleasure; nay more, I think it enhanced it. It took away all feeling of restraint, and somehow I always was to a certain extent embarrassed when alone with her, and she used sometimes then to put on a cold, indifferent manner that seemed to freeze my ideas; but now we were all together, she had not a trace of it; indeed, I think we all felt in some degree like children when the master is away.

We got up little concerts, with ourselves as audience. We played at whist, Mrs. Drummond and Miss Blount against dummy and me: such whist, where revokes and leading questions made startling variations in the game. We started a species of drawing-room tennis, till the ball was within an ace of bringing the lamp to grief; and one evening we had a dance. Mrs. Drummond was at the piano, when suddenly she dashed into a gallop. She did not generally play dance music well, but she was in the humour, I suppose, to-night, for nothing could be more spirited than her way of rendering the music.

'Really, it is too bad,' called out Miss Blount; 'it's positively aggravating to listen and be still.'

'Why are you still?' answered the player.

Miss Blount half rose.

'All right,' I said, jumping up, and the next minute we were pironetting round the room; but naturally the place wasn't arranged for that sort of thing, and we found chairs and tables somewhat hard objects to come against. So we had to stop and clear the gangway, and on we went again. We stopped the second time by the piano.

'Go on!' cried Mrs. Drummond. 'I am not at all tired.'

I think my partner was quite willing, but I thought it was hardly fair to give the other all the work, we taking the pleasure for ourselves, so I daresay I lagged a little in starting, for she said,--

'We will have one more turn, Mrs. Drummond, and then I'll play.'

It was a very short turn, I confess; and then after a pause (for Miss Blount wanted the music-stool altered, and to take off her rings, and to get into position generally), with a preliminary crashing chord or two, she began her part, and settled down to a rattling gallop. But no, Mrs. Drummond wanted a waltz, and what do you suppose her guest chose?--'The Pilgrims of the Night.' But hymn tune or not, it makes a delicious waltz, and we began.

I have danced pretty often, and with a fair number of good partners, but I never had such a dance or such a partner. She had a perfect ear, and, lithe as a willow wand, she seemed to be one with the music and her fellow--dancer, turning to the slightest move of the guiding arm, swaying to the melody as if she was literally floating on the strain. My arm clasped her rounded slender waist, my breath stirred the soft hair on the pretty head that drooped towards me. I could feel the beating of her heart--I felt a wild desire to go on for ever.

Involuntarily I drew her closer to me, and held her hand with a tighter clasp. I looked down at the face that was so near, but she would not raise her eyes; I could only see the long lashes lying on a check tinted with the tender hues of a sea-shell, and as I gazed I utterly forgot myself, and whispered her name. Then with a sudden clash the music ceased, and quick as thought Mrs. Drummond had glided out of my arm and from the room.

'What has become of Mrs. Drummond?' exclaimed Miss Blount, as she turned round and saw only one of the performers. 'You were dancing a minute ago.'

'And we only stopped a minute ago, when you did.'

'Yes, I did that on purpose; people generally look so delightfully silly when pulled up with a round turn. Now I feel ill-used.'

'Thank you. I am sorry, of course, for your disappointment, especially after your admirable playing.'

'Thanks; but for my own part I prefer dancing.'

'I need not tell Miss Blount that I, too, prefer her as a partner.'

'No, you need not, for I should not believe you. But you, you poor boy, you are quite tired out. You are as white as a ghost. Mrs. Drummond, she called out to her hostess, who had just returned to the room, 'it's really too bad of us; we altogether forgot that Mr. Verner has been out after cattle all day, and have nearly danced him to death.'

Mrs. Drummond made no answer. For myself I felt horribly guilty. I must have been mad to have ventured on such an impertinence, and I did not dare to face her lest I should read my fate in her eyes. I busied myself putting the music into the stand. I suppose I was making rather wild work of it, for Miss Blount, seeing what I was about, exclaimed,--

'Pray, don't put the music like that. One would think you were "Buttercup" mixing the babies, the way you are jumbling everything up. We strive so hard to keep our belongings apart.'

'Never mind,' answered Mrs. Drummond, 'we can separate them to--morrow; let us sit on the verandah--this room is stifling.'

The tone of her voice reassured me; there was no anger in it--if anything, it was softer than usual. She was very silent the rest of the evening, leaning back in her chair, her hands lying clasped in her lap, and with a dreamy, almost sad expression in her face, that looked so white and still in the moonlight.

Miss Blount was in high spirits, and talked for all of us; and, of course, I did my best to keep up the ball, not that I felt particularly bright, and indeed answered her sallies almost at random, but I was restless and excited, and anything seemed better than dwelling on the folly I had committed. I had not dared to speak to Mrs. Drummond; but seeing that the moonlight seemed too bright for her, I got a little screen from the room and offered it to her. She took it without a word, without once raising her eyes, and after that I too grew silent. I suppose our companion found a solo rather slow, for, stifling a yawn, she got up, saying as she did so,--

'So many angels have been passing over the house in this last half-hour that there must be a regular procession of them. I vote to seek the balmy.'

The next morning I was obliged to be out early, and did not return till dinner-time; indeed, I was rather late, so that I was not a little surprised to find myself in sole possession of the house. They had gone out riding, the servant told me, but had said nothing as to where they were going, or any likelihood of being detained. As time went on I got anxious, and went out to see if I could get any information as to their movements at the station, for no one up here seemed to have any idea in what direction they had ridden; but as I was going out at the gate I heard the sound of approaching hoofs, and saw Mrs. Drummond cantering up. She was alone, and answered my look of inquiry by saying, 'Miss Blount found a letter at Grettan to say her mother is very ill. Fortunately, Mr. Creek was starting for town this afternoon, so she went off with him in little more than an hour after she got the news.'

'That was lucky. But did they let you ride back by yourself?'

'There was no one there. Even Mrs. Creek was away. Besides, Folly is as quiet as a sheep; and even I, stupid as I am in that matter, could not miss my way.

'At any rate, you have not; that is the main thing.'

I think Miss Blount would have been flattered had she known how much we missed her. Dinner, instead of being the cheerful meal it had been, was as dull as a funeral. I seemed to have hardly an idea at command, and those I did get out were stupidity itself. Even my hands shook in the embarrassment, for my carving, never good, was to-night a miracle of clumsiness. I had a wild duck to perform upon. Now this wretched little bird was a proof of how often our most coveted desires are only a mockery when gained.

Mrs. Drummond having expressed a wish to taste this particular kind, I had spent some hours in the early morning wading through a very muddy swamp in pursuit of it, and had counted myself a fortunate man when it fell a victim to my by no means unerring aim. Yet I ended by pouring anything but blessings on its head; for, trying in my nervousness to carve with easy rapidity, my fork slipped, and away went the duck with a jump, as if alive, right out of the dish, sending a shower of gravy in all directions, and leaving me with the fork in the air, looking the biggest fool imaginable. As to the attendant Hebe, she first gave a little squeal as a great splash of gravy struck her full in the face, and then went off into a splutter of laughter that she had to run out of the room to hide.

One good thing, my little accident had the effect of setting us more at ease for the rest of the dinner, and the evening promised to pass with somewhat less of stiffness than it had begun. I don't know why I should have felt so stupid, for I had often to all intents and purposes spent the evening alone with her. Mr. Drummond frequently, when I was up at the house, went off to his den for most of the time.

I was sure now--indeed, I was sure since I gave her the screen--that she had forgiven me my folly,--possibly she had not noticed it; but no, I did not care to take that view,--it was not this that bothered me. What troubled me now was, whether I ought to stop up at the house since Miss Blount had gone. It did not seem to me quite right to remain, yet how could I say anything? Moreover, I did not think she should be left with only the protection of the servants.

Naturally this state of uncertainty made me uncomfortable, and I can't help thinking she was debating the same question in her own mind, for she was unmistakeably embarrassed, and the temporary case that had followed my carving mishap soon gave place to fresh restraint after we went into the drawing-room. She made hardly any effort to second my attempts at talking; got up several times and sat down again without doing anything save move aimlessly about the room; went to the piano, but after trying to sing or play, and failing decidedly in both, shut down the instrument with an impatient gesture; then took up some needlework, and, bending over it, seemed determined to become absorbed in her occupation.

I got a book; but if she didn't do more work than I did reading, her embroidery was not much the better for her devotion. I wonder how long we sat there, both silent and seemingly so occupied. I for my part, though my eyes wandered mechanically over the page of the book before me, hardly saw the words, certainly did not take in their meaning; while I heard every rustle of her dress, the very sound of her needle as it passed through the stuff she was embroidering.

I could not but think what a pretty picture she would have made as she sat there, the light falling on her bending head, with its shining tresses, on the milk-white throat, on the soft curves of her slender form; a colour far more bright than the faint pink that generally tinged her cheeks, gave her complexion an unusual brilliancy, and made one notice more than ever the exquisite purity and fairness of her skin. Nothing could be more easily graceful than her pose, drooping slightly over her work, or prettier than the quick, deft movements of her small hands, and their rounded, pliant wrists.

Gazing at Mrs. Drummond seemed a quite sufficient and pleasant occupation. I only, it is true, ventured a glance now and then, but these stolen glimpses filled up the time in a thoroughly satisfactory manner. The approach of a servant (Mary had a pair of uncommonly pretty feet, and the tramp of an elephant) made Mrs. Drummond look up, and break the silence that had lasted so long. Her remark was about nothing in particular, but her voice struck me; it reminded me of the time when I rode over to ask her to the picnic, and met her as she came out of the French light; it had a curious strained tone, as if she could only steady it by a strong effort. But I am not sure if it was not fancy on my part, for when she spoke again, it sounded as usual.

My chapter of accidents had not yet come to an end. As I was giving her a glass of water, my hand in some awkward way touched hers; either I, confused at my blundering, let go the glass too soon, or she relaxed her hold; at any rate the tumbler fell, both of us made a dart to save it, and only escaped as by a miracle from knocking our heads together. This set us off laughing; and this fallen glass not only broke itself, but the ice that had formed between us.

Next morning things were as usual, and at dinner it seemed quite a matter of course that we should sit tête-à-tête; that afterwards I should pour out the tea for her, as well as carry her her cup; stand by her side as she sang, asking for and hearing all my favourite songs; read to her as she worked. Both book and embroidery were the same as on the previous night, but I had no lack of interest now with her for a listener, to exchange sometimes a few words of appreciation or criticism, sometimes only a glance of sympathy; while I think her embroidery was rather a sufferer.

In the course of the evening she told me she had heard from Mr. Drummond, who was to return in at most two days. A little while after this piece of news, that I can't say honestly rejoiced me exceedingly, she began to talk about a flower she had once seen on the border of a scrub, that had exactly the scent of vanilla. I remembered perfectly her speaking of it the day her husband had so curtly sent me to the bachelors' quarters at the station, and I proposed that the next afternoon we should ride in search of it.

Neither of us said as much; but I am sure we both felt the search was not to be put off if we really wanted to carry it out, for Mr. Drummond was not much given to wasting his time in excursions with his wife in search of flowers or scenery; and he took good care not to let me be spoiled by idleness--for which last I by no means blame him, quite the reverse. By good fortune I had not much work the next day; and if I had, I am pretty certain that for this once--and I don't mean to say that it was such a very unusual occurrence--duty would have yielded to pleasure.

We had an early lunch, and started shortly after two, Folly, as skittish as a colt, tossing her head, arching her neck, curveting and prancing, pretending to shy at every fallen bough; even Sepoy, usually the most staid as he was the most trusty of steeds, indulged in a big jump or two, to show how much he appreciated--imitation being the sincerest of flattery--the graceful gambols of his equine companion.

Australian scenery does not strike at first, but its beauty grows upon one. This, I think, is partly owing to its depending so much on the weather, as it is on the atmosphere its beauty mainly rests; for that on a fine day is so exquisite, that it gives a singular charm even to an ordinary landscape. So on this day, as we rode along, our admiration was continually excited, though it would have been hard by description to justify our praise.

The air was so clear and limpid, the play of light and shadow so lovely and varied, that a sunny glade where groups of trees were arranged by Nature's carelessly graceful hand, had the air of a vista in a royal park; a narrow gully in which banks of fern were shimmering in the sunshine; the fringe of wattle covered with their fragrant blossoms of paley gold along a watercourse; a little valley winding away towards the hills, the long blady grass with which it was overgrown tinged with golden brown, and waving and swaying before the slightest breeze, till you could almost suppose some invisible hand was bending it down as it passed softly over it; a group of gum trees, their giant trunks white as milk and lustrous as satin, rising straight and branchless for more than a hundred feet, their shadowy foliage looking ghost-like against the pale blue sky,--a score of such objects, trifling in themselves, but made lovely by an atmosphere luminous with soft light that surrounded them, attracted us at every turn.

Some of the views were indeed beautiful in themselves. There was one crossing place where, as we rode down the steep bank, we were nearly shut out from the garish light of day by some noble chestnuts that grew in the channel, their pale green delicate leaves only letting the sun glint down here and there, enough to show the crystal clearness of the water, not above our horses' fetlocks, as it ran sparkling along, forming an ever-changing network of light and shade over the sandy bottom. To our right the broad lagoon spread out, perfectly still, reflecting like a mirror the scrub that clothed its banks, and formed perfect walls of the richest and most varied verdure.

Tinkle, tinkle went the little bell-birds, like fairy chimes ringing in the wind; then the long-drawn liquid note, ending in a sudden chirp, that has earned for its utterer the name of coach-whip, would he heard. And again, as we rode under a big spur that projected from the range as it rose up above us, clothed to its summit in unbroken forest, its crest came out against the sky as if carved, so clear was every curve, so distinct each ragged pine; but there was no sharpness or hardness, the wonderful transparence of the atmosphere was softened by the golden haze that floated over all, that filled each ravine, and lay like a veil on the wooded sides.

Involuntarily as we looked up our eyes met, and hers told me, a thousand times better than the most eloquent words, how the beauty of the sight touched her. But we were not voiceless as a rule. Mrs. Drummond, generally rather silent, was to-day as gay as a child; indeed, we were neither of us very far from girlhood and boyhood; and any one who had seen us racing over the big plain, and heard her ringing, musical laugh as she came in the winner by a few yards, might have supposed we were two youngsters out for a holiday.

One incident was hardly cheerful, though. At Cedar Crossing we went over the river again. This was a very different place to the first ford. The western bank was high, though the edge of a small flat; and as the bed of the stream was narrow, we seemed to be going into a dark trough as we rode down. The water was shallow, but black from the dense shadow of the trees after which the place was called, and with its sluggish flow gave it a sullen look. On the opposite side flood water seemed to have broken down the bank, and as we came out of this miniature ravine we found ourselves on a bare ridge, only a few stunted iron-barks being scattered over it.

There, on one side, were the remains of a hut, a couple of chained posts still standing, slabs lying about, the traces of a fireplace still visible. On the other side of the track was a small mound, not a blade of grass grew on or near it; the rains had washed away the loose earth, so that it looked more like a heap of coarse gravel than anything else. But no, there was no mistaking it, though not a post or a stone, not an attempt at enclosure, marked out this lonely grave. Mrs. Drummond gave a little cry, as our horses, jumping up from the water-worn ascent, brought us suddenly in full view of this dismal object.

'It's not a cheerful sight, is it?' I said, as we pulled up and looked down; 'nor is it connected with a pleasant story. A German shepherd lived in the old hut, and he used to make his wife work like a nigger. The poor woman was, it seems, in wretched health, but the brute thrashed her if she did not do everything he wanted; so, though she could scarcely crawl about, she managed for some time to get through her tasks. But one afternoon a boundary rider going up to the hut found the woman lying dead not far from it, an axe still in her hand.

'Horrified, he galloped up to the hut to see if any one was in. There was the shepherd coolly eating his supper. "Don't you know your wife is lying dead close by?" he called out. "Yes, I do know my woman is det, because when I came home there is no fire." "But you don't mean to leave her there?" "And why not? I don't vant a det womans in the hut mit me." Luckily Barker wasn't likely to stand that sort of thing, and as he was big enough to eat the fellow, he made him bring the poor creature into the hut, and the next day they sent out from the station and had her buried.'

'But how was it,' asked Mrs. Drummond, 'that no one interfered before? Robert could not have known.'

'Most assuredly he did not; the men, most of them at any rate, did, but the right of a man to beat his wife, if he so pleases, seems quite a recognised thing. The women talked a little, or rather a great deal at first; but as the brute was married again in less than two months, I suppose they thought that the fault lay in the woman for dying, not in the man's ill--treatment of her.'

We were not so lively after this, though we did not say much more about it; but I did not find any particular fault with the change, for Mrs. Drummond became almost confidential, telling me about her childhood and early girlhood. Her mother had died when she was very young. Her father was in India. So she had been brought up by an uncle, also a widower, a hard man, who showed no more affection to her than to his own child, a girl a little younger than she was. This child, who was extremely pretty, was always being held up to her as a rival, against whose superior charms she had little chance.

'I could not tell you,' she said, 'what pangs of mortification I was made to endure about Ella's superiority. I did think her quite lovely, but would not have owned it for worlds, I felt so indignant at its being so thrust upon me. I don't think I resented the downright criticism of the old butler, "that I could not hold a candle to his young mistress," half as much as I did the taunts of the maids, that I should never be married till Miss Ella had made me walk behind her as bridesmaid. I often laugh at the plans I used to form that I might escape such ignominy.'

'Surely,'--I began, but somehow could not find words to express my surprise at her not being considered pretty, quite forgetting my own first impression. I suppose, though, I looked my thought, for she frowned a little, and said coldly,--

'Oh, pray don't pay me compliments. I only speak of the past, I am not at all humble-minded now;' then changing her tone, she continued, 'Was it not lucky I met Robert? for I was capable of taking Blue Beard, mysterious chamber and all; and you can't imagine,' giving me a saucy look, 'what a model lover Robert was. Even old nurse, who snubbed me on all occasions, had to own the power of my much-despised charms. "It must be your fair hair," she used to say, eyeing me wonderingly. I suppose she thought my light tresses had some magical glamour in Robert's dark eyes.'

'Is your cousin married?'

'Yes, and dead. I wish they had not made such mischief between us. Perhaps if we had been let alone we should neither of us have married so young. That sounds odd,' she added, colouring with a vivid blush, 'but I do think one hardly knows one's mind at eighteen; and possibly if Ella and I had been the friends we might have been, she would not have made the foolish match she did, throwing away all her chances, and then fretting herself into a decline because she had only got a mere mortal in exchange,--though for that matter I fancy no one is quite satisfied.'

But the flower--we were so occupied with other things that we had both quite forgotten the very object of our ride, and with true feminine ingenuity Mrs. Drummond put the whole blame of the oblivion upon me.

'Mr. Verner,' she said, 'where is my flower? You brought me out on purpose to let me show it to you, and you have never even thought of it.'

Of course I confessed my guilt, and humbly declared that if she would only give me some clue as to where it was to be found, I would do my best to get it; but that was just what she could not do. We were at the right scrub, of that she was sure, but her recollection of the situation of the plant seemed to be of the most hazy description. Half a dozen times she was certain she recognised the tree on which it grew; but when we rode nearer, the result of a closer inspection was not satisfactory, and at last she had to own that her memory had not retained any mark that might guide her in the search. So, as it was getting late, we had to turn back, and the question as to whether this flower did or did not belong to a true vanilla orchid, is an unsolved mystery to this day.

Mr. Drummond did not come home for many days after the time he had named for his return, though he knew Miss Blount had left, his wife having written to tell him so. I have often wondered since how he could have lingered. Had he become so accustomed to my presence, as to be unconscious of the equivocal position his wife was placed in by my being thus alone with her; or had he, if aware of it, such complete trust in her as to be regardless of remarks?

Under no circumstances, however, do I hold him blameless. He must have known what would be said, and for her sake, if heedless himself of the opinion of others, he should have let nothing stand in the way of putting an end to so unfair a position. Even to myself, enjoying a most exquisite happiness in this close and daily companionship with a woman always attractive, and to me inexpressibly so, this dread was the one bitter drop in my cup; and I have sometimes reproached myself that I, on my part, did not put an end to it. And yet how could I; would not any such attempt from me have savoured of absurd vanity and presumption?

Almost as soon as he returned, Mr. Drummond sent me out to his new purchase in charge of sheep; and when I came back, both he and Mrs. Drummond had gone to town, where they were to remain some little time. It was rather dreary work living up alone at the house where I had passed such pleasant hours in Mrs. Drummond's society, and I found how much her presence must have sweetened my work, that now wearied me at times almost beyond endurance. I had a few letters from her; and though I own she did not excel as a correspondent, and that her short epistles gave no idea of the writer, still I came to reckon the day the mail man passed as the only one worth counting, the rest being mere blanks.

It so happened that we had a very dry season, and were getting anxious about the stock, as the feed was fast being all scorched up. Of water we never feared any actual scarcity; but some of the creeks were dry, and the river only ran as a thread where there was usually a fair stream. The day the mail was due was a fearfully hot one; but a coppery hue on the horizon, and towards evening a great bank of clouds showing to the south-west, gave hopes of rain, and the promise made us endure the heat almost with satisfaction.

I was at the station when the bag was brought in, and I opened it with as much fear as expectation, for on the two previous occasions I had been disappointed; but no, I was not doomed to that fate this time. There was the welcome letter showing out from amongst the others like a dove in the midst of crows. Possibly to most eyes it might have appeared like an ordinary envelope, but to me, as I have said, it was something wholly apart. I did not read it at once, putting off its perusal till I was alone at the house; and I had no time to waste if I wanted to get there dry.

A strong breeze, though only coming in gusts, was blowing; the bank of clouds had surged up high above its former place, and was fast breaking and flying in great trailing masses right in the teeth of the wind, as if to oppose the long, low-lying, stream-like looking clouds that were advancing swiftly from the opposite direction; a low growl of distant thunder would be heard now and then, and a venomous streak of lightning dart zig--zagging across the sky; a grey vapour, too, under the clouds, now fast melting out of sight, told a welcome tale, and I saw with no little pleasure that the drought would soon be broken up.

The letter was as usual interesting to me because penned by her hand and dictated by her mind, though in itself not very much. But there was a postscript, and that did not lack matter, at any rate, for this was what was written in it,--

'Since I began writing, Robert has come in. He has had letters that will oblige him to go home at once. We leave on Friday so as to catch the mail steamer at Melbourne. I may not see you again, but I must--I will--write before we finally start. Good-bye.'

On Friday--this was Tuesday. If I rode day and night I might still be in time, for see her again I would if it were in the bounds of possibility. I started up, indeed, with some vague idea of setting off at once; but if I had really entertained any such notion, the rushing sound of the rain that was now pouring down in torrents would have put it out of the question. All night long it kept on, now in one almost unbroken sheet of water, now dashed against the house by the fierce gusts of wind that shook and tore at the shutters, and flung themselves upon the walls with such force that several times I thought they would yield to the fury of the storm.

Towards morning the gale abated, and at daylight a narrow streak of greenish sky to the westward, that rapidly increased as a high west wind came up, showed that all chance of more rain was over for the present. I was up before dawn, and, rousing one of the men, sent him to bring in the horses. Very likely the noise of the storm had disturbed the people, for they all seemed sleepy as owls, and so slow in their movements that everything got behind-hand; and I was nearly maddened by the delay, knowing as I did that every moment was of consequence to me if I hoped to carry out my journey.

There was one crossing place that I especially feared, and cross it I must, or my ride would be only a waste of time,--the one near Grettan where Hall had hidden; but the creek was always rather slow in coming down, so that if I could only get to it quickly I might cross it without difficulty. At last I got off, riding a station horse, a mounted black boy leading Sepoy, to keep him fresh as long as possible. But a few miles from the crossing place my horse cast a shoe, so I had to mount Sepoy at once and send the other back. I got over the remaining ground at a smart canter, but was too late. When I reached the river, it was, as I feared, flooded. I can't say I liked the look of it as it went tearing between its banks, its turbid, foaming surface broken by the tops of the submerged bushes, that were all bent down by the stream, save when, now and then, a change in the current would let them lift their heads for a moment, to be dashed down again the next instant by the swirling torrent.

Had I been obliged to go straight over, it would have been quite madness to think of crossing; but somewhat lower down the opposite bank shelved, and fell back, moreover, into a kind of shallow bay, and if I could manage to guide my horse sufficiently to land there, I should be all right. If I were carried farther down, it would be a case of u p with me, for not only did the channel narrow beyond, making the water rush along like a mill-race, but a huge flooded gum had toppled over, and if I got caught in its head there would not be much doubt as to the result.

But there was no time for hesitation. The flood was rising still, and if I did not cross now, there was no chance of reaching my destination before the steamer left. I knew Sepoy was a capital swimmer, for he had carried me more than once over rather bad creeks, though never such a one as this, and I could trust to his powers once more. The poor beast did not seem to relish the idea himself; he went in very unwillingly, snorting and turning round and refusing several times, trembling all over, as he would lower his neck, sniff at the water with neck extended, and then start back from the stream, that, rushing and tumbling along, made such a deafening din as to over-power every sound but its own.

Just as I succeeded in fairly getting him in, I caught a glimpse of two mounted figures on the opposite bank, frantically gesticulating and waving me back; but even had I wished, it was too late now. No sooner was Sepoy afloat than he struck out at once for the other side. We were in the current almost immediately, and then return was an utter impossibility. It had not looked very inviting from the bank, but I had no idea what it was like till I encountered the full force of the stream. It seemed to seize upon my horse and myself and fling us along as if we had been two broken twigs. The rush and roar of the water, as it tore past in great swirling masses, the hurry and sweep of the swift, ever-changing current, now gliding in a smooth unbroken surface, now breaking and chafing against some obstacle, now whirling round in quick raging eddies; the wooded bank, the trees on which seemed to be flying by me--these utterly confused me. I was stunned and half-blinded by the rapid movement and ceaseless turmoil. I did not seem to know where we were, or whither we were going. Dizzy and bewildered, I could only mechanically grasp the pommel of my saddle.

I had but so much sense left as not to interfere with my horse, who, I was conscious, was striving to make for the landing place I have spoken of. Whether he could have reached it I can't say. I doubt if he could have stemmed the force of the boiling flood; at any rate, the sight of the narrow channel, into which we seemed to be fast drifting, proved too much for my self-command. I tried to turn Sepoy's head too quickly with the rein; the next instant he rolled over, and I was under the water.

I had kicked my feet out of the stirrups before starting, so I was at once free from the horse. Instinctively I struck out, felt something touch my hand, and grasped it; it was the top of one of the flood-swept bushes. The current catching my extended body as I hung on to the branch, swung me suddenly and violently to one side. Luckily it wrenched apart my grasp, for I was flung out of the fierce strength of the rushing waters into a comparatively calm part, and a few strokes put me into safety. I scrambled somehow on to the bank, and then fell down. I expect I must have become unconscious, for I don't remember anything more till I looked up and saw Creek's face bending over me.

'Where's my horse?' I said, croaking like a raven with a sore throat, for I didn't seem to have my own voice at all.

'Not here, certainly, for he's in the head of the big tree, and as dead as a herring; the only wonder is you are not the same,' was Creek's answer.

When I got up the water seemed yet to be sweeping and eddying by me, and the roar still in my cars; but I was soon able to steady myself, and the stockman giving me up his horse, he going at my request to see if by any chance Sepoy could be saved, I rode on with Creek to the station, fortunately quite near, where I got a dry suit of clothes, and the cook set me up with a cup of half-scalding coffee. Mrs. Creek was not at home, much to my relief, for I by no means cared to face those sharp eyes of hers, or to evade the questions she would have had small scruple in putting as to why I was so eager to go on,--for go on I was determined to do.

Creek made some sort of remonstrance; but, of course, it was no business of his, and I don't suppose he ever troubled himself enough about it to find any motive for my determination. He lent me a horse, and told me I might take it on if I could not get a remount at Bishop's. He gave me one queer look as he shook hands when we parted, that I recalled afterwards with a certain annoyance, but said nothing after his first few words. I did get a fresh horse at the inn, and after a few hours' spell went on again, reaching town a little after ten on Thursday night. It was about time, for I was dead beat, and had almost to be lifted off my horse. I managed, though, to ask when the steamer was to leave.

'She doesn't go till Saturday morning,' was the welcome reply.

I could not eat, but I got a big drink of bitter beer, and turned in boots and all, for I woke up at dawn and found myself fully dressed outside the bed. A Turkish bath put me to rights; and as I had a portmanteau in town, I was able to make myself look fairly presentable. When I went to the hotel where the Drummonds were staying, I was told that they were absent, and would not return till the afternoon. It was a bitter disappointment, but this unexpected reprieve of a day made it less hard to bear than it would otherwise have been; and as I improved the shining hours by falling fast asleep and remaining in that happy state of unconsciousness for a considerable time, it was not so grievous as I had at first thought.

When I presented myself again at the hotel Mrs. Drummond was in, and I soon found myself in her presence. She gave a little cry as I entered unannounced, for the waiter seemed to think that quite an unnecessary ceremony; and though she never came forward or said a word, I could not doubt that I was welcome. I don't know how I crossed the room, I only seem to remember holding her hand in mine and seeing my own feelings reflected in that agitated face. I daresay it was not many seconds that this silent greeting lasted. (There are occasions when our old enemy is nowhere, and we measure by some other standard than time.)

Then Mrs. Drummond seemed to pull herself together, as it were, and I found myself sitting down trying to talk on ordinary subjects, and not to be bewildered by the sudden change in the face opposite me. Every trace of the expression that but a moment ago, it seemed, had almost made me forget everything but how much I loved her, had vanished, and neither in look nor manner was she more than friendly, scarcely that; for her eyes avoided mine, and when compelled to meet them without actual rudeness, there was something hard, almost defiant in them.

She told we what I already knew, that they did not start till the next day--and in all probability would never return to the colony, as the news received by the last mail did away with any necessity for again leaving England. I daresay she spoke about other things; but I felt dazed, and paid, I suppose, but little attention to what else she said, for I cannot recall the rest of our conversation.

While we were talking some strangers came in, and soon after Mr. Drummond and Mrs. Creek. The former gave me, for him, a cordial greeting; the latter began immediately to ask me the particulars of my adventure in the river.

'What's that?' exclaimed Mr. Drummond, looking at me in surprise; for from what he said on seeing me first, he had evidently thought I had come down on business, not knowing they were about to leave, and that I had made the journey in the usual way and time; and I had made no attempt to undeceive him, feeling, indeed, at that moment as if all and everything were a matter of utter indifference. 'What's that?'

'Hasn't he told you?' she said. 'Why, he was within an ace of being drowned. I have just got a telegram from Mr. Creek. Here it is, "River up--Verner nearly lost in crossing--Horse drowned."'

Who does not know that singular sensation when you see everything at a glance, while at the same time you seem hardly to have raised your eyes. That is how it was with me then. I saw Mr. Drummond dart one quick suspicious glance at his wife,--saw Mrs. Creek's malicious smile as her eyes followed that look,--saw Mrs. Drummond smiling as she went on talking to one of the strangers. Had she heard? Surely not; for even had she not guessed why I had thus risked my life, she would have shown some feeling in the matter. But she did hear; for after a little while she turned to me and said, in a tone of complete indifference and rather flippantly, 'I think young men imagine they have as many lives as a cat.' Her speech did not need any answer; and if it had I could not have given it, for something seemed to choke me.

I went away soon, and did not see her again that day. Mr. Drummond asked me to dine with them, but his wife reminded him that they were engaged to dinner at Government House. But though I did not see her, I did hear her again; for as I was mooning about that night, restless and unhappy, the idea struck me to make one of the staring crowd about the gates that led to Paradise, and so perhaps catch a glimpse of her. As I stood there hidden by the shadow of the gatehouse, a carriage that was coming out stopped, and a gentleman, getting out, said,--

'Thank you, but here is my trap. Good-bye! I wish you a pleasant voyage. You must be uncommonly glad to return to the civilised world.'

'Yes, perfectly delighted, of course,' answered the voice I knew so well. 'Life there has one advantage--you have no time to think.'

'H'm,' said the stranger, as the cab drove on, and evidently speaking aloud unconsciously,--'got a crumpled rose leaf somewhere.'

I should not have had courage to go to their hotel next morning without some excuse; but, meeting Mr. Drummond, he sent me there with a message about a missing trunk that had turned up; but I did not see her, she was in her room, and I had to give the message by deputy. It did not seem as if I had gained much by my wild ride. It was almost a pity I had not shared poor Sepoy's fate, I thought bitterly, as I turned away from the door.

It was now ten, and at eleven they were to go; and long before the first bell rang I was down at the steamer. I must see her again; and though but a little while past I had felt that the game was hardly worth the candle, I would have swum twenty flooded rivers now, rather than miss that last look. At the wharf I met Hope, who had come down, he told me, with Mrs. Creek.

'Had a narrow escape, I hear,' he said. 'Must be more careful another time, my lad. One might find a worse fellow if one tried very hard.'

I thought the Drummonds would never come; and as I was roaming restlessly about, consumed with an anxious fear that I should not have time to speak to her, I came suddenly on Mrs. Creek, talking, and not in a suppressed tone, to a friend. She stopped abruptly as I came up; and though the phrase 'over-did it' had no meaning for me, I could not but fancy I was the subject of the conversation.

At last they came. Mrs. Drummond was deadly pale, but very animated. I don't think I ever heard her laugh so much or so unmusically. She greeted me with a smile, hardly addressing me; but when it was time to go she suddenly turned to me as I stood silent by her side, put her hand on my arm, and said, with a break in her voice,--

'Take me on board.'

She did not remove her hand for the few minutes before the steamer started. There was a crowd round us, and she needed some protection against a chance push, for her husband was fully occupied with the luggage. She never spoke or even looked at me; but I fancied she drew nearer, and that the hand on my arm trembled; possibly my own heart throbbed too violently for me to tell.

Then the warning bell rang. All her friends crowded round to bid her 'good-bye.' Mr. Drummond came up.

'Now, Verner,' he said, 'you must be off. Just write a line now and then to say how Powell is getting on.'

I don't think any looker-on would have noticed our farewell. I took her hand and muttered some unintelligible words. She made no answer--never lifted her eyes. All she said was,--

'Robert, I have given Folly to Mr. Verner.'

Then she walked away.

 
 
 

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