LADY BRIDGET IN THE NEVER-NEVER LAND.
Rosa Praed (1851-1935)
BOOK I FROM THE POINT OF VIEW OF MRS GILDEA
BOOK II FROM THE POINT OF VIEW OF LADY BRIDGET O'HARA
BOOK III FROM THE POINT OF VIEW OF COLIN MCKEITH AND OTHERS
FROM THE POINT OF VIEW OF MRS GILDEA
Mrs Gildea had settled early to her morning's work in what she called the veranda-study of her cottage in Leichardt's Town. It was a primitive cottage of the old style, standing in a garden and built on the cliff—the Emu Point side—overlooking the broad Leichardt River. The veranda, quite twelve feet wide, ran—Australian fashion—along the front of the cottage, except for the two closed-in ends forming, one a bathroom and the other a kind of store closet. Being raised a few feet above the ground, the veranda was enclosed by a wooden railing, and this and the supporting posts were twined with creepers that must have been planted at least thirty years. One of these, a stephanotis, showed masses of white bloom, which Joan Gildea casually reflected would have fetched a pretty sum in Covent Garden, and, joining in with a fine-growing asparagus fern, formed an arch over the entrance steps. The end of the veranda, where Mrs Gildea had established herself with her type-writer and paraphernalia of literary work, was screened by a thick-stemmed grape-vine, which made a dapple of shadow and sunshine upon the boarded floor. Some bunches of late grapes—it was the very beginning of March—hung upon the vine, and, at the other end of the veranda, grew a passion creeper, its great purple fruit looking like huge plums amidst its vivid green leaves.
The roof of the veranda was low, with projecting eaves, below which a bunch of yellowing bananas hung to ripen. In fact, the veranda and garden beyond would have been paradise to a fruitarian. Against the wall of the store-room, stood a large tin dish piled with melons, pine-apples and miscellaneous garden produce, while, between the veranda posts, could be seen a guava-tree, an elderly fig and a loquat all in full bearing. The garden seemed a tangle of all manner of vegetation—an oleander in bloom, a poinsettia, a yucca, lifting its spike of waxen white blossoms, a narrow flower-border in which the gardenias had become tall shrubs and the scented verbena shrubs almost trees. As for the blend of perfume, it was dreamily intoxicating. Two bamboos, guarding the side entrance gate, made a soft whispering that heightened the dream-sense. The bottom of the garden looked an inchoate mass of greenery topped by the upper boughs of tall straggling gum trees, growing outside where the ground fell gradually to the river.
From where Mrs Gildea sat, she had a view of almost the whole reach of the river where it circles Emu Point. For, as is known to all who know Leichardt's Town, the river winds in two great loops girdling two low points, so that, in striking a bee-line across the whole town, business and residential, one must cross the river three times. Mrs Gildea could see the plan of the main street in the Middle Point and the roofs of shops and offices. The busy wharves of the Leichardt's Land Steam Navigation Company—familiarly, the L.L.S.N. Co.—lay opposite on her right, while leftward, across the water, she could trace, as far as the grape-vine would allow, the boundary of the Botanical Gardens and get a sight of the white stone and grey slate end of the big Parliamentary Buildings.
The heat-haze over the town and the brilliant sun-sparkles on the river suggested a cruel glare outside the shady veranda and over-grown old garden.
A pleasant study, if a bit distracting from its plenitude of associations to Australian-born Joan Gildea, who, on her marriage, had been transplanted into English soil, as care-free as a rose cut from the parent stem, and who now, after nearly twenty years, had returned to the scene of her youth—a widow, a working journalist and shorn of most of her early illusions.
Her typewriter stood on a bamboo table before her. A pile of Australian Hansards for reference sat on a chair at convenient distance. A large table with a green cloth, at her elbow, had at one end a tray with the remains of her breakfast of tea, scones and fruit. The end nearest her was littered with sheaves of manuscript, newspaper-cuttings, photographs and sepia sketches—obviously for purposes of illustration: gum-bottle, stylographs and the rest, with, also, several note-books held open by bananas, recently plucked from the ripening bunch, to serve as paper-weights.
She had meant to be very busy that morning. There was her weekly letter for THE IMPERIALIST to send off by to-morrow's mail, and, moreover, she had to digest the reasons of the eminent journal for returning to her an article that had not met with the editor's approval—the great Gibbs: a potent newspaper-factor in the British policy of the day.
It had been an immense honour when Mr Gibbs had chosen Joan Gildea from amongst his staff for a roving commission to report upon the political, financial, economic and social aspects of Australia, and upon Imperial interests generally, as represented in various sideshows on her route.
But it happened that she was now suffering from a change at the last moment in that route—a substitution of the commplace P. & O. for the more exciting Canadian Pacific, Mr Gibbs having suddenly decided that Imperialism in Australia demanded his special correspondent's immediate attention.
For this story dates back to the time when Mr Joseph Chamberlain was in office; when Imperialism, Free Trade and Yellow Labour were the catch words of a party, and before the great Australian Commonwealth had become an historical fact.
THE IMPERIALIST's Special Correspondent looked worried. She was wondering whether the English mail expected to-day would bring her troublesome editorial instructions. She examined some of the photographs and drawings with a dissatisfied air. A running inarticulate commentary might have been put into words like this:
'No good ... I can manage the letterpress all right once I get the hang of things. But when it comes to illustrations, I can't make even a gum-tree look as if it was growing .... And Gibbs hates having amateur snapshots to work up .... Hopeless to try for a local artist.... I wonder if Colin McKeith could give me an idea..... Why to goodness didn't Biddy join me! .... If she'd only had the decency to let me know in time WHY she couldn't.... Money, I suppose—or a Man! .... Well, I'll write and tell her never to expect a literary leg-up from me again...'
Mrs Gildea pulled the sheet she had been typing out of the machine, inserted another, altered the notch to single spacing and rattled off at top speed till the page was covered. The she appended her signature and wrote this address:
To the Lady Bridget O'Hara, Care of Eliza Countess of Gaverick, Upper Brook Street, London, W.
on an envelope, into which she slipped her letter—a letter never to be sent.
A snap of the gate between the bamboos added a metallic note to the tree's reedy whimperings, and the postman tramped along the short garden path and up the veranda steps.
'Morning, Mrs Gildea ... a heavy mail for you!'
He planked down the usual editorial packet—two or three rolls of proofs, a collection of newspapers, a bulky parcel of private correspondence sent on by the porter of Mrs Gildea's London flat, some local letters and, finally, two square envelopes, with the remark, as he turned away on his round. 'My word! Mrs Gildea, those letters seem to have done a bit of globe-trotting on their own, don't they!'
For the envelopes were covered with directions, some in Japanese and Chinese hieroglyphics, some in official red ink from various postoffices, a few with the distinctive markings of British Legations and Government Houses where the Special Correspondent should have stayed, but did not—Only her own name showing through the obliterations, and a final re-addressing by the Bank of Leichardt's Land.
Mrs Gildea recognised the impulsive, untidy but characteristic handwriting of Lady Bridget O'Hara.
'From Biddy at last!' she exclaimed, tore the flap of number one letter, paused and laid it aside. 'Business first.'
So she went carefully through the editorial communication. Mr Gibbs was not quite so tiresome as she had feared he would be. After him, the packet from her London flat was inspected and its contents laid aside for future perusal. Next, she tackled the local letters. One was embossed with the Bank of Leichardt's Land stamp and contained a cablegram originally despatched from Rome, which had been received at Vancouver and, thence, had pursued her—first along the route originally designed, afterwards, with zigzagging, retrogression and much delay, along the one she had taken. That it had reached her at all, said a good deal for Mrs Gildea's fame as a freely paragraphed newspaper correspondent.
The telegram was phrased thus:
SORRY IMPOSSIBLE NO FUNDS OTHER REASONS WRITING BIDDY
Mrs Gildea's illuminative 'H'm!' implied that her two inductions had been correct. No funds—and other reasons—meaning—a MAN. She scented instantly another of Biddy's tempestuous love-affairs. Had it been merely a question of lack of money with inclination goading, she felt pretty certain that Lady Bridget would have contrived to beg, borrow or steal—on a hazardous promissory note, after the happy-go-lucky financial morals of that section of society to which by birth she belonged. Or, failing these means, that she would have threatened some mad enterprise and so have frightened her aunt Eliza Countess of Gaverick into writing a cheque for three figures. Of course, less would have been of no account.
Mrs Gildea opened the two envelopes and sorted the pages in order of their dates. The first had the address of a house in South Belgravia, where lived Sir Luke Tallant of the Colonial Office and Rosamond his wife—distant connections of the Gavericks.
Lady Bridget's letters were type-written, most carelessly, with the mistakes corrected down the margin of the flimsy sheets in the manner of author's proof—the whole appearance of them suggesting literary 'copy'.
Likewise, the slapdash epistolary style of the MS., which had a certain vividness of its own.
You'll have got my wire. Vancouver was right, I suppose. I sent it from Rome. Since then I have been at Montreux with Chris and Molly, and since I came back to England with them, I've been in too chaotic a state of mind to write letters. Really, Chris and Molly's atmosphere of struggling to keep in the swim on next to nothing a year and of eking out a precarious income by visits to second-rate country houses and cadging on their London friends gets on my nerves to such an extent that Luke and Rosamond's established "Colonial Office" sort of respectability is quite refreshing by contrast.
I should have loved the Australian trip. Your "Bush" sounds perfectly captivating, and, of course, I could do the illustrations you want. Besides, I'm stony-broke and, financially, the great god Gibbs appeals to me. I'd take my passage straight off—one would raise the money somehow—if it wasn't for—There! It's out. A MAN has come and upset the apple-cart.'
Mrs Gildea gave a funny little laugh. The letter answered her thought.
'"Oh, of course!" I can hear you sneer. "Just another of Biddy's emotional interests—bound to fizzle out before very long." But this is a good deal more than an emotional interest, and I don't think it will fizzle out so quickly. For one thing, THIS man is quite different from all the other men I've ever been interested in. The first moment I saw him, I had the queerest sort of ARRESTED sensation. He's told me since, that he felt exactly the same about me. Kind of lived before—"WHEN I WAS A KING IN BABYLON AND YOU WERE A CHRISTIAN SLAVE" idea. Though I'm quite certain that if I ever was a slave it must have been a Pagan and not a Christian one. Joan, the experience was thrilling, positively electrifying—Glamour—personal magnetism.... You couldn't possibly understand unless you knew HIM. Descriptions are so hopeless. I'll leave him to your imagination.
By the way, Molly annoyed me horribly the other day. "You know, dear," she had the audacity to remark, "he's not of OUR class, and if you married him, you'd have to give up US! For could you suppose," she went on to say, "that Chris and Mama—to say nothing of Aunt Eliza—would tolerate an adventurer who tells tall stories about buried treasure and native rebellions and expects one to be amused!"
OUR CLASS! Oh, how I detest the label! And that unspeakably dreadful idea of social sheep and goats—and the unfathomable abyss between Suburbia and Belgravia! Though I frankly own that to me Suburbia represents the Absolutely Impossible. After all, one must go right into the Wilderness to escape the conditions of that state of life to which you happen to have been born.
Well, that speech of Molly's came out of a fascinating account my Soldier of Fortune gave us of how he stage-managed a revolution in South America, and of an expedition he'd made in the Andes on the strength of a local tradition about the Incas' hidden gold. I call him my Soldier of Fortune—though he's not in any known Army list, because it's what he called himself. Likewise a Champion of the Dispossessed. He has an intense sympathy with the indigenous populations, and thinks the British system of conquering and corrupting native races simply a disgrace to civilisation. With all of which sentiments I entirely agree. Luke has taken to him immensely, chiefly, I fancy, because he was once private secretary to some Administrating Rajah in an Eastern-Archipelago or Indian Island, and as Luke is hankering after a colonial governorship, he wants to scrape up all the information he can about such posts.
I answered Molly that one may have a violent attraction to a man without in the least wanting to marry him, and that relieved her mind a little.
As for HIM, the attraction on his part seems equally violent. We do the most shockingly unconventional things together. He tells me that I carry him off his feet—that I've revolutionised his ideas about the "nice English Girl" (useless to protest that I'm not an English girl but a hybrid Celt). He says that I've wiped off his slate the scheme of life he'd been planning for his latter years. A comfortable existence in England—his doctor advises him to settle down in a temperate climate—an appointment on some City Board—rubber shares and that kind of thing—you know it all—a red brick house in South Kensington and perhaps a little place in the country. He did not fill in the picture—but I did for him—with the charmingly domesticated wife—well connected: the typical "nice English Girl," heiress of a comfortable fortune to supplement his own, which he candidly admitted needs supplementing.
Of course he's not a mere vulgar fortune-hunter. He must be genuinely in love with the nice English Girl. And that's where I upset HIS apple-cart.
In fact, we are both in an IMPASSE. I'm not eligible for his post and I shouldn't want it if I were. To my mind marriage is only conceivable with a barbarian or a millionaire. From the sordid atmosphere of English conjugality upon an income of anything less than an assured 5,000 pounds a year, good Lord deliver me! And you know my reasons for adding another clause to my litany. Good Lord deliver me also from further experience of the exciting vicissitudes of a stock-jobbing career!
Then again, apart from personal prejudices, I am appalled, quite simply, at the cold-blooded marriage traffic that I see going on in London. Any crime committed in the name of Love is forgivable, but to sell a girl—soul and body to the highest bidder is to my mind, the unpardonable sin against the Holy Ghost. Frankly, I'm petrified with amazement at the way in which mothers hurl their daughters at the head of any man who will make a good settlement. There's Molly's sister—she chases the game till she has corralled it, and once inside her walls the unfortunate prey hasn't swallowed his first cup of tea before she has wedded him in imagination to one of her girls—"How do you like Mr CHOSE?" "Like him? What is there to like? He's the same as all the rest of the men, and they're as like as a box of ninepins..."
"But what do you think of him...?" "But really there's nothing to think" ... "But don't you think he'd do for Hester?" etcetera, etcetera.
She has just married the one before Hester to what she calls the perfect type of an English country gentleman—meaning that he owns an historical castle in Scotland, a coal mine in Wales and a mansion in Park Lane. Heavens! I'd rather follow the fortunes of a Nihilist and be sent to Siberia, or drive wild cattle and fight wild blacks with one of your Bush cowboys, than I'd marry the perfect type of an English country gentleman! Give me something REAL—anything but the semi-detached indifference of most of the couples one knows. No. MY man must be strong enough to carry ME off my feet and to break down all the conventions of "OUR CLASS." Then, I'd cheerfully tramp through the forest beside him, if it came to that, or cook his dinner in front of our wigwam. Now, if my Soldier of Fortune were to ask me to climb the Andes with him in search of that buried treasure! But he won't: and—I confess it, Joan—I'm in mortal terror of his insisting upon my entering the sphere of stock-jobbing respectability instead, and of my being weak enough to consent. But we haven't got anywhere near that yet.
So far, I'm just—living—trying to make up my mind what it is that I want most. Do you know, that since my violent attraction to him—or whatever you like to call it—all sorts of odd bits of revelation have come to me as to the things that really matter!
For one thing, I'm pretty certain that the ultimate end of Being is Beauty and that Love means Beauty and Beauty means Love. The immediate result of this discovery is that I'm buying clothes with a reckless disregard of the state of my banking account.
I begin to understand and to sympathise with that pathetic striving after beauty which one sees in the tawdry finery and exaggerated hairdressing of a kitchenmaid—Rosamond Tallant has one who is wonderful to behold as she mounts the area steps on her Sundays out. Formerly I should have been horrified at that kitchenmaid. Now I have quite a fellow-feeling with her piteous attempts to make herself attractive to her young man, the grocer's boy or the under-footman I suppose. Am I not at this very moment sitting with complexion cream daubed on my face, in order that I may appear more attractive to MY young man. I know now how Molly's maid—who is keeping company with Luke's butler—feels when we all dine early for a theatre and Josephine gets an evening out at the Earl's Court Exhibition with her gentleman.
Sounds beastly vulgar, doesn't it? But that's just what I'm making myself pretty for—dinner there this evening at the French Restaurant with MY gentleman. It's quite proper: we are a party of four—the other two I may add are not in Rosamond's or Molly's set.
I've been interrupted—He has telephoned. The other pair have disappointed us. Will I defy conventions and dine with HIM alone?
Of course I will.'
The particular sheet ended at this point. Mrs Gildea laid it down upon the earlier ones and took another from the little pile which she had spread in sequence for perusal. She smiled to herself in mournful amusement. For she scarcely questioned the probability that her friend would in due course become disillusioned of a very ordinary individual—he certainly sounded a little like an adventurer—who for some occult reason had been idealised by this great-souled, wayward and utterly foolish creature. How many shattered idols had not Lady Bridget picked up from beneath their over-turned pedestals and consigned to Memory's dust-bin! On how many pyres had not that oft-widowed soul committed suttee to be resurrected at the next freak of Destiny! And yet with it all, there was something strangely elusive, curiously virginal about Lady Bridget.
She had been in love so often: nevertheless, she had never loved. Joan Gildea perfectly realised the distinction. Biddy had been as much, and more in love with ideas as with persons. Art, Literature, Higher Thought, Nature, Philanthrophy, Mysticism—she spelled everything with a capital letter—Platonic Passion—the last most dangerous and most recurrent. As soon as one Emotional Interest burned out another rose from the ashes. And, while they lasted, she never counted the cost of these emotional interests.
But then she was an O'Hara: and all the O'Haras that had been were recklessly extravagant, squandering alike their feelings and their money. There wasn't a member of the house of Gaverick decently well to do, excepting indeed Eliza, Countess of Gaverick. She had been a Glasgow heiress and only belonged to the aristocracy by right of marriage with Bridget's uncle, the late Lord Gaverick, who on the death of his brother, about the time Bridget was grown up, had succeeded to the earldom, but not to the estate.
Gaverick Castle in the province of Connaught, which with the unproductive lands appertaining to it, had been in the possession of O'Haras from time immemorial, was sold by Bridget's father to pay his debts. His brother—the heiress' husband, who, unlike the traditional spendthrift O'Haras had accumulated a small fortune in business, was able by some lucky chance to buy back the Castle—partly with his wife's money—soon after his accession to the barren honours of the family. His widow inherited the place as well as the rest of her husband's property, and could do as she pleased with the whole. Thus the present holder of that ancient Irish title, young, charming and poor, stemming from a collateral branch, lived mainly upon his friends and upon the hope that Eliza, Countess of Gaverick, might at her death leave him the ancestral home and the wherewithal to maintain it.
As for Bridget's father, the last but one Earl of Gaverick, his career may be summed up as a series of dramatic episodes, matrimonial, social and financial.
His first wife had divorced him. His second wife—the mother of Lady Bridget—had deserted him for an operatic tenor and had died shortly afterwards. She herself had been an Italian singer.
Lord Gaverick did not marry again, and Mrs Gildea had gathered that the less said about his social adventures the better. Financially, he had subsisted precariously as a company promoter. There had come a final smash: and one morning the Earl of Gaverick had been found dead in his bed, an empty medicine bottle by his side. As he had been in the habit of taking chloral the Coroner's jury agreed upon the theory of an overdose.
Yes, Mrs Gildea could quite understand that apart from general views on the marriage question, Lady Bridget O'Hara might well shrink from further connection with City finance.
A naughty little gust—herald of the sub-tropical afternoon breeze that comes up the Leichardt River from the sea, blew about the typed sheets on the table, and, among them, those of Lady Bridget's letter, as Mrs Gildea laid them down.
While she collected the various pages of manuscript that had been displaced and was bundling them together, with a banana on each sheaf to keep it safe, there came a second snap of the gate and a man's voice hailed her.
It was the voice of a man who sang baritone, and his accent was an odd combination of the Bush drawl grafted on to the mellifluous Gaelic, from which race he had originated.
'Any admittance, Mrs Gildea, except on business, during working hours?'
'Yes, it is working hours Colin, but you happen to be business because you're just the person I'm wanting to speak to, so come along.'
'Good for me, Joan,' and the man came along, clearing the rest of the garden path and the veranda steps in three strides.
He gripped Mrs Gildea's hand.
'You're nice and cool up here, and you get every bit of wind that's going along the river,' he said. 'It's a good thing you kept this humpey, Joan—a little nest for the bird to fly home to, eh?'
'Yes, I'm glad, though it seemed a silly piece of sentiment ... and, as you say, I always FELT the old bird might want to fly home for a bit some day. Well, YOU look cool enough, Colin.'
'This is temperate zone for me after the Leura.... But it's a hot March because we haven't had a proper rainy season, and I'll just stand here and catch the breeze for a minute or two before I sit down.'
He balanced himself on the veranda railing: took off his broad-brimmed Panama hat and mopped his forehead with a silk handkerchief. Mrs Gildea surveyed him with interested admiration.
A big man—large-limbed, bony—a typical Scotcher in that—with thin flanks, a well-set up back and massive shoulders. His face was browny-red all over except where the skin ran white under the hair and there was a ruddier ring round the upper part of the throat. His nose was thin between the eyes, broadening lower, high-bridged and with high cut nostrils, showing the sensitive red when he was enraged—as not infrequently happened. He had large honest blue eyes, intensely blue, of the fiery description with a trick of dropping the lids when he was in doubt or consideration. They were expressive eyes, as a rule keen and hard, but they could soften unexpectedly under the influence of emotion. At other times, according to the quality of the emotion, they glowed literally like blue flames. He was considered queer-tempered, rather sulky, and his face often took on a very unyielding expression.
He had thick reddish-yellow eyebrows at the base of a slightly receding forehead—wanting in benevolence, phrenologists would have said, and with the bump of self-esteem considerably developed. His hair was yellow, pure and simple—the color of spun silk, only coarser, and it would have curled at the ends had he not worn it close-cropped. His moustache and beard were rather deeper yellow, the beard short, well-shaped—the cut of Colin McKeith's beard was almost his only vanity—there was one other, the 'millionare strut' in town—and he had the masculine habit of stroking and clasping his beard with his large open-fingered hand—spatulate tips to his digits, the practical hand—fairly well kept, though brown and hairy.
There were lines in his face and a way of setting his features—that a man gets when he has to front straight some cruel facts of human existance—to calculate at a glance the chances of death from a black's spear, a lost trail, an empty water-bag, the horns of a charging bullock or even worse things than these.
And such experiences had put a stamp on him, and distinguished him from the ordinary ruck of men—these and his undeniable manliness, and good looks.
He smiled as he glanced amusedly from the littered wind-blown papers on the table to his hostess' rather troubled face.
'Well you seem to have a pretty fair show here of what you call "copy,"' he said.
Mrs Gildea met his look with one of frank pleasure.
'That's what I want YOU for.'
'What's the job?' he asked. 'You ought to know that literary "copy" is not much in my line. Now if it had been yarding the fowls or cleaning up the garden, I'd feel more at home as a lady's help.'
'Colin, you take me back to Bungroopim—when it happened to be a slack day for you on the run, and when the married couple had levanted and I'd got an incompetent black-gin in the kitchen—or when the store wanted tidying and you and I had a good old spree amongst the rubbish.'
He laughed at a time-honoured joke.
'Stick sugar-mats and weevilly four-bins; and a breeding paddock of tarantulas and centipedes and white lizards to clear out. I WAS a bush hobbledehoy in those days, Joan. It's close on twenty years ago.'
Joan Gildea gave a little shudder.
'Don't remind me how old I am. There's the difference between a man and a woman. My life's behind me: yours in front of you.'
'I don't know about that, Joan. I've had my spell of roughing it—droving, mining, pioneering—humping bluey along the track—stoney-broke: sold up by the bank and only just beginning now to find out what Australia's worth.'
'That's what I said—you are just beginning. Roughing it has made a splendid man of you, Colin: and who would ever believe that you are four years older than I am. Colin, you ought to get married.'
'The Upper Leura is no place for the sort of wife I want,' he returned shortly.
'I don't see that. It isn't as if you were going to stop there always. When you're rich enough you can put on a manager. You've got an enormous piece of pretty good country, haven't you?'
'One thousand square miles—and a lot more to be got for the taking—mostly fair cattle pasture—now that we're going in for Artesian bores. But it means capital, sinking wells three thousand feet and more. It'll be three or four years at least before I can see a trip to Europe—doing the thing in the way I mean to do it.'
'Must you go to Europe for a wife? Aren't Australian girls good enough?'
'I've always meant to try for the best. You taught me that, Joan, I shall follow your example. You were an Australian girl.'
Mrs Gildea's face saddened. 'Well,' was all she said.
'You see,' he went on, and the eyes took their narrow concentrated look and suddenly blazed out as he straightened himself against the veranda post, 'I know something of what marriage in the back block means: and I've studied women—don't laugh—I mean theoretically—from books. I've read history—always managed a couple of volumes or so in my swag—nights and nights, by the light of a fat lamp and a camp fire. I've studied the women of great times—ancient and modern—they're always the same—and I've remarked the type of woman that's got grit—capacity for fine things—You understand all that as well as I do, Joan. Look at the women of the French Revolution for one instance—the aristocrats, you know—well, I've realised that it takes blood and breeding and tradition behind to carry a woman to the block with a sure step and a proud smile ...' Suddenly, he became aware of Joan's gaze, half surprised, wholly interested.... He reddened and pulled himself up gruffly.
'Sentimental rot, d'ye call it?'
'No, Colin, I believe in all that and so do you.'
'Blood and breeding and tradition—all the grand stuff that's been grown in them on the NOBLESSE OBLIGE principle—self-respect, courage, dignity—the stuff that gives staying power as well as the fire for making good spunk.... Not that I'd put a pure-blood racer to haul up logs for an iron-bark fence: any more than I'd set out to plant an English lady of that sort to rough it on the Leura.'
'Well, why not? Do you want your wife to be like a canary in a cage?'
'You know I don't hold with gilded cages and spoiling a woman who is there to be your mate. But all the same, I shan't look out for MY wife until I can afford to give her as good a show as she'd be likely to have if the stopped at home. You see, a real woman must be a sportsman in her way of taking life as much as a man, and I maintain as a general proposition that it's the English lady—even one of your sneered-at "Lady Clara Vere de Vere" lot who makes the best front against battle, murder, and sudden death—if it has to come to that.... Just because,' he went on, 'though she might have been brought up in a castle and never have done a hand's turn that could be done for her, she's still got in her veins the blood of fighting ancestors—men who were ready to lay down their lives for God and King and country and their women's honour—and of women too who'd maybe held the stronghold that had been their husband's reward, and kept the flag flying, when to fail or flinch meant death or worse.... Why, look at your Lady Nithisdales and your Lady Russells and your Maria Theresas....'
'And your Joan of Arc—who was a peasant girl—and your Charlotte Corday....'
'Oh, you beat me there.... And I wasn't intending to fire off a speech anyway.... And anyway, Joan, its awful cheek to think I could ever get the sort of wife I want, but if I can't, I won't have one at all.... I'll have my money's worth. Romance—Ideals—something more LIFTING than beef and mutton and cutting a bigger dash than your neighbour.... See?'
He broke off with a laugh, and the wonderfully vivid light that came into his blue eyes made him look like an ardent youth.
'And you a democrat!' jeered Mrs Gildea. 'You, a champion of the people's rights; you, an Imperialist in the broadest sense of the term! Oh, I really must put you into one of my articles as a certain type of modern Australian. In fact, Colin, that's what I wanted to talk to you about.'
'All right, fire away. We'll drop the marriage question.'
'To be resumed later.' A quizzical look passed over Mrs Gildea's mouth, and then, 'Oh, what a pity!' she muttered to herself.
'What's a pity?'
'Never mind! The English mail's in—as you may see. I'll show you what Mr Gibbs says. He didn't like my last letter. He says he wants bones and sinews, not an artist's lay figure dressed in stage bushman's clothes. There, Mr McKeith, among your other cogitations on the subject of women, you may try to realise that the mission of a lady special correspondent is not all'—she looked round for a metaphor—'Muscat grapes and pineapple.'
'Or cooked-up information from heads of departments; or got-up shows of agricultural, mining and other industries. Or trips to the Bay to see the model island prison in which our weary criminals rehabilitate their enfeebled systems by cool sea-breezes and generous diet. Or ministerial picnics to experimental cotton and sugar plantations the size of your garden to prove that all tropical products can be raised to perfection without mentioning the difficulty in a White Australia of finding the labour to do it.'
'Oh, don't rub it in, Colin. I'm only a special reporter, and even special reporters can't know everything. Now, do just sit down and let me ask you questions. And first of all, do you want a whiskey peg or a cup of tea, or what?—I've had my late breakfast.'
'I'll have a smoke, please. Been swearing off store baccy now I'm down from the Bush. I'm trying hard to smoke cigarettes like one of your English toffs.'
He pulled out a copper cigarette case with some hieroglyphical letters and numbers stamped on it, which he regarded with a humorous smile.
'Only cost a shilling, but now I've my brand across, it looks fine. You know that by the Brands Act you've got to have a number and two letters on every head of stock—My brand's the Mark of the Beast 666 C.K. See?'
He fixed his cigarette into a new amber mouthpiece, made a wry face, and began to smoke.
'I don't think much of your quality of cigarettes,' said Mrs Gildea. 'On the whole, I prefer your tobacco.'
'All right. Give me my pipe any day—' And he pitched away the cigarette and produced an ancient pipe, which he filled with tobacco from an india-rubber pouch and lighted. 'Now, fire away.'
'Not for a little bit yet. You must read my rejected article and my official instructions, and then you'll have some grasp of the subjects I want information upon. Here they are—Mr Gibbs first.'
She handed him her editor's letters and pushed a small pile of manuscript towards his elbow.
'There. It will take you about a quarter of an hour to digest all that; and meanwhile, if you don't mind the noise, I shall go on typing something I've got to send off by to-morrow's mail.'
She settled herself at the typewriter, her back partially turned to him. The subject matter of what she was doing took all her attention. She worked hard for about ten minutes, hearing sub-consciously the rustle of papers under his hand and one or two faint ejaculations and a queer little laugh he gave once or twice as he read.
Presently he said:
'I say, there's a mistake here. I've gone through your editor's letters. He's sound; I think I can help you to get at what he wants. But these other sheets have got mixed up with something else. I thought at first it was a story you'd given me, and I went on reading and got interested; and now I see it must have been written by some young woman friend of yours'—if it's meant for a letter.'
Mrs Gildea turned with a dismayed exclamation.
'Good gracious! You don't mean to say that I've given you her letter?'
'Is it really a letter? Do women type letters? It reads to me much more like what the heroine of a novel would be supposed to say than an ordinary everyday girl. If that's a flesh and blood woman I'd like to know her.'
Mrs Gildea took from him the three typed pages he had in his hand. They were certainly part of Lady Bridget's letter—almost the whole of it, for only the end and the beginning ones were missing. In her hurried rearrangement of the wind-scattered sheets she had put these into the wrong bundle. She ran her eye anxiously over the badly-typed slips, which, with their marginal corrections and smart, allusive jargon of a world entirely removed from Colin McKeith's experience, might easily have misled him into the belief that he was reading literary 'copy.' Of course he knew that Joan Gildea wrote novels as well as journalistic stuff.
He read her thoughts.
'You needn't worry. There isn't the least clue to her identity—I suppose that's what you're afraid of. Not a surname anywhere—I couldn't have imagined a woman would write like that—give herself away—as she does. But it's fine all the same. There'd be nothing small about that woman, Joan. Do you know how it ended?'
'I don't know yet. But I can guess.'
'Eh?' He blew out rings of smoke with less than his usual deliberation. 'D'ye think she'll marry the chap?'
'No—she never does.'
'She's a flirt, then?'
'Bid—' Mrs Gildrea swallowed the rest. 'SHE would scorn such a commonplace suggestion. Do you remember that novel of Hardy's, THE WELL-BELOVED? She's like the man there, who was always in love with the same Ideal—under different forms—until he found that he'd made a mistake, and then the game began all over again.'
McKeith ruminated. 'SHE'S like that, is she? ... The fellow is what you'd call a bounder?' he exclaimed suddenly.
'So I imagine.'
'But she's in love with him—she must be, or she wouldn't write like that?'
'You don't know her. She can't do anything by halves—while she's doing it.'
'By Jove, that's what I like. There's a woman who'd never hang on the fence. And her ideas about love and all that: it's splendid.'
He brooded again a few moments, while Mrs Gildea sorted her papers afresh; then he exclaimed:
'It strikes me, she's one of the sort I was talking about just now.'
'Well, she WAS born in a castle.'
'I guessed it.... You won't tell me her name?'
'How could I—I ask you? After you'd read that!'
'No. All right. You can trust me not to find out.'
'Besides, she would never do for you.'
He laughed quizzically. 'Well, I'm a barbarian, and it's possible I may some day be a millionaire. But I'm not such a conceited cad as to imagine a woman like that would ever fall in love with ME!' His voice sank almost to a reverential tone. 'The only thing I do know is that if I got the chance, I'd show her I was strong enough to carry her off to my wigwam and she could do what she pleased afterwards. I'd be her slave so long as she cared for me—and I'd never live with a woman who didn't.'
'My dear Colin, you're not likely to get the chance. Please forget that you ever read that letter.'
'No, I can't do that; but as she's in London and we're over here, it's not much odds anyway. Well, have you found the right sheets? Give them to me if you have and then we can come to business.'
Colin McKeith had been gone some time and Mrs Gildea, primed with fresh ideas, had finished her article on the lines he suggested, before she again tackled Lady Bridget's love-affair.
The second letter (there is no need to reproduce the page of daring sentiment that closed the first) was dated from Castle Gaverick in South Connemara, and plunged straight into the tragic culmination.
'It's all over, Joan—was over soon after my last letter, but I've been too wretched ever since to write. If you had been in England you might have read in one of last week's "MORNING POST'S" that a marriage has been arranged and will shortly take place between Mr Willoughby Maule, formerly confidential adviser to His Highness the Rajah of Kasalpore—and Evelyn Mary, only daughter of the late John Bagallay, Esq, and the late Mrs Bagally of Bagallay Court, Birmingham.
Rosamond tells me that Luke told her that Evelyn Mary has been throwing herself at Will's head ever since they met last year on a P. & O. steamer between Singapore and Colombo. She and her chaperon went on a tour round the world, it seems, just before Evelyn Mary came of age. I wonder they did not get engaged then, and can only conclude—as there was no ME then to upset the apple-cart—that he did not know how rich she was going to be. Anyway, I feel certain that it was Evelyn Mary who was at the back of his plan for settling down as a respectable stock-jobber. Molly Gaverick—who is a cat—said she knew for certain Willoughby Maule came to England with the fixed intention of marrying for birth and position or for money, and that he fancied, in me, he'd found both—she says that he took his impressions of us from the paragraphs in the Society papers and thought us much richer an bigger than we are, and that now he knows better he thinks it safer to drop birth and make sure of money.
The Bagallays made theirs in nails. Last year Evelyn Mary came into a fortune of a quarter of a million. I'm told that it's absolutely at her own disposal. She was an only child. A quarter of a million would be an immense temptation to a poor and ambitious man.
And yet, Joan, I CAN'T believe that Will has been actuated by wholly sordid motives. He may be an adventurer, but he is not a mean one.
Rosamond Tallant thinks it much more likely that because I didn't introduce him to Aunt Eliza, and Chris and Molly never asked him to dinner, he got the idea that I considered him good enough to amuse myself with, but not good enough for serious consideration as a husband. And it's quite true that I always shirked that point when it was touched upon. If I must be perfectly honest with myself, I think I was afraid of his putting me at the cannon's mouth and telling me I must decide then and there to take him or leave him. Should I ever have had the strength to give him up? He's so frightfully dear to me, that I can't think of him now without a shudder at the thought of his belonging to another woman. I never really believed it would come to that. He once or twice hinted that there WAS a girl—the "nice English girl" that I had chaffed him about. I had an idea that it was his way of putting pressure on me.
The first time was the evening that I dined alone with him at the Exhibition. Heavens! I grow hot this moment thinking that he may have supposed I was in the HABIT of dining alone with men in French restaurants at popular Exhibitions. I don't know why I did for this man what I'd never done for any other, Partly, I fancy, because it never dawned upon me that he could misunderstand me. Rosamond says I idealised him too much, and that he's just the ordinary man and not the tiniest bit of the Bayard I imagined him. I daresay she's right, and that he may have laughed in his sleeve at my romantic rhapsodies.
All the same, I never can convince myself that he is a mere fortune-hunter. Perhaps the very fact that I didn't make the smallest effort to wrest him from Mademoiselle Croesus when he tried to make me jealous seemed proof to him that he was no more to me than a caprice. So, when we made each other an atrocious scene and I told him to go off to her, he simply took me at my word.
The scene began with my telling him about my sort of engagement to Aubrey Blaine—whom as you know, I was really nearer to marrying than I have been to marrying anybody. And yet, as I tried to explain to Will, I didn't WANT to marry Aubrey. Only the mischief with me is always that I can't hold back with one hand and give with the other... Will wasn't able to enter into my feelings about that affair in the very least or to understand how, when it came to the point, I realised that I COULDN'T sink to domesticity on seven hundred a year. Fancy taking a house in Pimlico or West Kensington, or one of those horrible places with a man to whom you have a violent attraction and consulting with your adored as to whether you could run to three maids and a Tweeny! The sordidness of it would be too disenchanting.
When I said something like that to Will, he flared up and we hurled nasty speeches at each other, and finally he walked off slamming the door—I used to hear that slam in my dreams sometimes—or it may have been Luke coming in late—the Tallants' hall door makes a particularly Kismetish bang. That was our real parting, though it wasn't the last. He wrote to me—a bitter sort of farewell. And I did a mad thing. I went to see him in his rooms. But when I got there, his manner—something he said which offended me—one can't explain the unexplainable—started the scene all over again. It was as if a mocking demon came up between us. That time it was I who left him. The next thing I heard was that he and Mademoiselle Croesus were engaged.
I wrote to him—I know it wasn't the proper sort of letter—I daresay he saw through my pretended indifference. He sent me back my letters as I had asked him to do—wrote me in quite the right strain—said he was not worthy of me—that I'd shewn him I was far above him—that he might not presume to think I could be happy with a man of his inadequate means and position—that he could never forget me—and so on—but that it was best as it is.
And now I've got to get what consolation I can out of my own inner conviction—that it IS best as it is, and that I ought to be thankful for being still Bridget O'Hara, mistress of my own fate, and free yet to sport about—sport!—oh, the irony of it—in what you call the stormy sea of my emotions.
I make over to you the copyright of my sufferings.'
The letter broke off abruptly. It was resumed on another sheet six weeks later at Gaverick Castle.
'Rosamond Tallant has just sent me a writing case I left at their house with these pages in it. I daren't read them over, but they'll give you an idea of my state of mind during those last dreadful weeks in London. My nerves are now in a little better condition. Since I came here, I've set myself resolutely NOT to think of Will—that is, not more than I can help; there are times when his ghost is extremely active. I'm putting out brain-feelers, for I know that I should go to pieces altogether if I didn't throw myself into some new interest. So that I'm trying a system for the development of one's higher faculties that was taught me by a queer old German professor I met at Caux last summer, who was interested in the odd little second-sight experiences I've had occasionally which I told him about. He made me do exercises in deep-breathing and meditation—you shut yourself up, darken your room and concentrate upon a subject—Beauty, Wisdom, Friendship, were some of the subjects he gave me—and you can't think how thrillingly absorbing it was. I worked frightfully hard at it for a bit, drinking only distilled water and living on vegetables—you CAN do that in Switzerland: you simply CAN'T in civilised society—And then came Rome and the Willoughby Maule episode.
Episode! Has it come to that!
Ah Joan, I have a horrible suspicion that however much I may try to persuade myself I'm concentrating upon some abstract theme, I've really all the time been thinking of him.
Yesterday I took Friendship for my study in concentration. You, dear thing, came up, naturally, and your image actually kept Will away for a clear five seconds. I thought what a help it would be to be with you, and afterwards I made the suggestion of an Australian trip on literary business to Aunt Eliza, but it was no good. She is deeply engaged just now in driving batches of stuffy relatives in a stuffy brougham—luckily there's no room for me in it—to still stuffier garden parties. And, besides, I don't feel that I can take any desperate step of that kind until the Irrevocable has been written in Destiny's Book.
Will Maule is not married yet.
Well, anyhow, the meditation on Friendship was comparatively successful. Wisdom I found beyond me, and Beauty awakened painful memories. To-day I mean to concentrate on wealth—one of my Professor's theories is that if you concentrate regularly on a thing you are bound in the long run to get what you set your mind upon, and I do find my position of dependence upon Aunt Eliza too unspeakably galling. What a monstrous injustice it seems that I—who if I had been born a boy, must have been Earl of Gaverick, should be at the mercy of an ill-tempered, miserly, old woman who may leave the home of my forefathers to a crossing-sweeper if she pleases. I suppose it ought to go to Chris, but one doesn't feel called upon to arraign Fate on behalf of a distant cousin who by rights has no business to be Lord Gaverick at all.
I'm concentrating on Art too. Every day I do some inspirational painting by the sea shore. I've made some studies of Wave-fairies for the Children's Story Book we planned to do together. It's quite invigorating to sport about with them in imagination, in a grey-green stormy sea, out of reach of human banalities. I can feel the cold spray as I paint and the sense of power and rest in the elemental forces—an almost Wagnerian feeling of great Cosmic Realities.'
Again Mrs Gildea smiled to herself. How like Biddy O'Hara!
She couldn't be so utterly heart-broken if she was able to practise deep breathing and concentration—Wealth, Friendship, Art—a pretty comprehensive repertoire—and to prate on Cosmic Realities and the Wagnerian feeling!
But presently the tragic note shrieked again. Bridget went on:
'I am in a fever of suspense and misery wondering whether Will's marriage will come off or if, at the last moment, it will be broken. He has been obsessing me these last days. He too—I am certain of it—dreads the Irrevocable, and regrets the rupture between us. I dream of him continually—such restless, tantalising dreams. And yet my mood is so contradictory. If the marriage WERE broken off and he stood before me, free, and offered himself!—
Could I bring myself to face our future together with all its depoeticising influences, its almost certainty of friction? No. Something deep down inside me says—has always said—"It would be a mistake; this is not the real thing: we are not suited to each other; the attraction might even turn to repulsion." Imagine the agony of that!
Life goes on here, all dribble, waste and fret—I cannot concentrate, I cannot paint—the Wave-fairies won't play—Your Bush gobies appeal more to my present humour. I feel a sort of nostalgia for the wild—though my nostalgia is mental, and not from any former association. Do not be surprised if some day you get a telegram saying that I am coming.'
'Will was married yesterday. I have just read the account of the ceremony—I can see it all—the usual semi-smart opulent wedding—palms lining the aisle, Orange blossom galore. The bride "beautiful in cream satin and old lace"—Evelyn Mary is simply a LUMP—Pages in white velvet—The fussy overdressed Bagallay crowd of friends—I hear there are no "in-laws," And the bridegroom's face—dark, cynical—I know the sort of miserable smile and the queer glitter in his eyes.—"I WILLOUGHBY TAKE THEE EVELYN MARY... FOR BETTER AND FOR WORSE...TILL DEATH US DO PART "... There! I'm a blathering idiot to mind...I ought to be dancing with joy at my escape. Let us end the chapter. The incident is closed, I'm going for a long tramp by the sea and shall post this on my way.
Mrs Gildea was too busy in the next two or three weeks to trouble herself unduly over Lady Bridget O'Hara's tragic love-affair. She had to report on the small holders of property in Leichardt's Land and made a trip for that purpose among the free-selectors in her own old district. The TWENTY YEARS AFTER letter she wrote about this expedition for THE IMPERIALIST was one of her best, and for that she was greatly indebted to Colin McKeith's commentaries.
Old associations with him had been vividly reawakened by this visit to the home of her youth. She remembered, as if it had been yesterday, how McKeith, a raw youth of eighteen with a horrible tragedy at the back of his young life, had been picked up by her father and brought to Bungroopim to learn the work of a cattle-station.... hitherto his experience, such as it was, had been with sheep in the, then, unsettled north. Joan was herself a girl in short frocks, three or four years younger than Colin McKeith, and with no apparent prospect of ever crossing the 'big fella Water,' as the Ubi Blacks called it, or of joining the band of Bohemian scribblers in London.
She remembered how quickly Colin had learned his work—remembered how the shy self-contained lad, with always that grim memory of his boyhood shaping a vengeful purpose in his mind and making him old for his years, had developed the flair of the Bush in his hardy Scotch constitution. She was compelled to own that he had developed, too, some of the worst as well as the best of those Scotch qualities inherited from his parents, expatriated though they had been, and from the staunch clansmen behind them. He had the Scotch loyalty; likewise, the Scotch tenacity of character which never forgot and very seldom forgave; the Scotch obstinacy of purpose and opinion; the Scotch acquisitiveness; a tendency too to 'nearness' in matters of small expenditure which combined oddly with a generosity amounting almost to recklessness in large enterprise. It was on the whole not a bad outfit for a pioneer who meant to get on in his world.
The beginnings were small, but indicative of the trend of his career. He contrived, even when he was earning no salary but working only for his 'tucker,' to get together a horse or two, a cow or two, a specially good cattle-dog or two, which last he made the nucleus of a profitable breed. The cows and bullocks he left at Bungroopim when the time came for him to push out, reclaiming them after they had increased and multiplied in those pleasant pastures like Jacob's herds in the fields of Laban.
Not that there was any seven years matrimonial question. There had been no Leah. Or if Joan Gildea had ever played the part of Rachel in Colin McKeith's sentimental dreams, those boyish dreams had left no serious mark upon him. He had gone north to a newly-formed station and had there out-bushed the bushman in his knowledge of the idiosyncrasies of cattle and sheep and his amazing faculty for spotting country suitable for either. Here no doubt his descent from generations of herdsmen had stood him in good stead.
He sold his knowledge to rich squatters in the settled districts who employed him to take up new country for them and to manage the hundreds of square miles and the thousands of stock from which they derived the best part of their wealth. But he only managed for other men until he had made enough money of his own to take up and stock new country for himself.
In a few years he had acquired a moderate-sized herd and established himself with it on the almost unexplored reaches of the Upper Leura. Life on that river never lacked dangerous adventure. McKeith's father had owned a station on the Lower Leura—the bank took it in payment of their mortgage after the catastrophe occurred. That station had been the scene of one of the most horrible native outrages in the history of Australia. The tragedy had set its mark on Colin McKeith. Left a penniless boy after having worked his way to independent manhood he had made it his purpose to pursue the wild black with relentless animosity.
All along the Upper Leura to the fastnesses at the river's head where his new station stood on the boundaries of civilisation he had gone, mercilessly punishing native depredations.
He had been put on trial by a humanitarian Government for so-called manslaughter of natives, and had been acquitted under an administration immediately succeeding it. Afterwards he had at the peril of his life, made an exploring trip across the base of the northern peninsula of the colony with the intention, as he phrased it, of 'shaking round a bit.' He 'shook round' to some purpose, penetrated to the Big Bight, and got on the tracks of a famous lost explorer. Colin McKeith solved the mystery of that explorer's fate and had his revenge on the Government which had impeached him by pocketing the reward which it had offered any adventurous pioneer following on the lost explorer's steps.
Later, McKeith was given a mission to explore and develop a certain tract of fertile country between the heads of the Leura and the Big Bight—the particular Premier instigating the mission being a far-sighted politician who realised that a Japanese invasion of the northern coast might eventually interfere very radically with the plan for a White Australia.
Colin McKeith threw into his own scheme of life a trip to Japan, by way of India and China. He volunteered, too, for the Boer War, and did a short term of service with the Australian Contingent in South Africa.
He dreamed more and more of becoming an Empire-maker—a sort of Australian Cecil Rhodes. But he was wise enough to realise that all Empire-making cannot be on the Rhodesian scale.
He realised that his personal fortune must first be secured. Without money one can do nothing. Cecil Rhodes had had the natural wealth of Rhodesia at his back. McKeith had set himself the task of opening up the fine country out West, which he knew only needed a system of irrigation by Artesian Bores to defy drought, the squatters curse. That object once accomplished—he gave himself with luck and good seasons five or six years—there would be nothing to stop his becoming a patriot and a millionaire.
But Colin went slowly and cannily—and that was why the Leichardt's Land Government believed in him. He had the reputation of never spending a penny on his private or public ambitions where a halfpenny would serve his purpose, and he was known to be a man of deep counsels and sparing of speech. Thus, no one knew exactly what was his business down south at this time. Only the general remark was that Colin McKeith had his head screwed on the right way and that some day he would come out on top.
But that there was deep down a spring of romance beneath that hard Bushman's exterior, Joan Gildea, herself a romance writer, guessed easily. And her intuition told her that a little thin bore had been made in the direction of that vital spring of romance by his inadvertent reading of Lady Bridget O'Hara's letter.
Joan saw that McKeith was extremely anxious to know more about the writer of that letter and the progress of that love-affair, though he had given his word of honour that he would not try to find out her identity. But he put subtle questions to Joan about her friends in England and her acquaintance with the higher circles of society in London. Once, he asked her straight out whether she had heard again from her typewriting correspondent, and if the Soldier of Fortune had proved himself a Bounder, as they had suspected?
'Yes,' Joan answered unguardedly. 'I'm thankful to say that he is married to his heiress.'
The eager light which suddenly shone in McKeith's eyes startled Mrs Gildea.
'You don't mean to say that you're thinking of her like that?' she exclaimed. 'It's no use, Colin.'
'Probably not,' he answered composedly. 'Tell me, how does she take it?'
'Deadly seriously. She's practising Deep-breathing and Concentration to try and drive the man from her thoughts.'
'What! Oh, you mean Theosophy and that kind of thing. I went to hear Mrs Annie Besant lecture once, and I couldn't make head or tail of it.'
'No. You wouldn't. But it was a German Professor who taught B—— No. I will NOT tell you her name.'
'Anyway, I know that it begins with a "B." And I know that she's got one relation called Molly, and another called Chris, and a friend whose name is Rosamond—likewise that Rosamond is the wife of Luke.... By Jove!' He stopped short and looked at Mrs Gildea with sharp enlightenment.
They were in the veranda of her cottage, and he was seated on the steps smoking, his long legs stretched out against one veranda post, his broad back against another. 'Seen the paper this morning?' he asked.
'No. If you pass the CHRONICLE Office, I wish you'd lodge a complaint for me against the vagaries of their distribution department. Twice lately I haven't had the paper till the afternoon.'
He pulled it from his pocket, and, leaning across, handed it to her.
'Read the English Telegrams,' he said.
Joan stopped cleaning her typewriter and examined the column of latest intelligence.
'Good gracious! So they've appointed Sir Luke Tallant new Governor of Leichardt's Land!'
'Luke!—A coincidence you'll say. No good telling me that. SHE wrote that "Luke" was hankering after a colonial governorship.'
'Well, he's got it,' replied Mrs Gildea noncommittally.
'And if you read the leading article you'll see that the CHRONICLE is justly outraged at so important a post as that of Governor of Leichardt's Land being given to an unknown man who has never served outside the Colonial Office in London and who doesn't even belong to the noble army of Peers.'
'That's all nonsense. Luke Tallant's a friend of Chamberlain's, a thorough Imperialist and a very good man for the post.'
'You know him then?'
'I know OF him.'
'HER! Has it come to HER! Colin, if anyone had told me that you would ever be fool enough to fall in love with a woman you've never seen, I should have laughed outright. You don't even know what she's like.'
'I can see her in my mind's eye, as I used to see the women I read about by my camp fire. You'd never believe either what a queer idealistic chap I can be when I'm mooning about the Bush. Don't you know, Joan'—and his voice got suddenly grave and deep-toned—'you ought to, for you were a bush girl and you've had men-kind out in the Back Blocks—Don't you know that when a man has got to go on day after day, week after week, year after year, fighting devils of loneliness and worse—with nothing to look at except miles and miles of stark staring gum trees and black, smelling GIDGEE* and dead-finish scrub—and never the glimpse of a woman—not counting black gins—to remind him he once had a mother and might have a wife. Well, can't you see that his only chance of not growing into a rotten HATTER* is to start picturing in his imagination all the beautiful things he's ever seen or read about—the sort of lady-wife he hopes to have some day and in making such a companion of her that she seems to him as real as the stars and far more real than the gum trees. So as he'll keep saying to her always in his thoughts: "I'll keep myself sound and wholesome for your sake. I'll never forget that I'm a gentleman, so as YOU won't shrink away from me in horror if ever I've the luck to come across YOU down here on this Earth."'
[*Gidgee—Colloquial pronunciation of gidia, an Australian tree.]
[*Hatter—A white man who prefers the society of blacks.]
He stopped, fitted another cigarette from the copper case into the holder and, before beginning upon it, said without looking at Mrs Gildea:
'I wouldn't spout like that to anybody but you, Joan. My word! Though I see by your writing that you've a fair notion of how this cursed, grim, glorious old Bush can play the deuce with a chap—body and brain and soul—if he doesn't wear the right kind of talisman to safeguard himself.'
'Yes—I understand. And your talisman, Colin? What was your picture of the lady-wife? Describe your Ideal and I'll tell you if SHE is the least bit like it.'
McKeith smoked ruminatively for a few moments, his eyes narrowed. The lines in his forehead and round his mouth showed plainly. He was gazing out into space, far beyond the sun-flecked Leichardt River and the Botanical Gardens, and the glaring city and the range of distant hills on the horizon.
'Well,' he said at last, slowly, 'you can laugh at me if you like, but I'll tell you how I see HER. She is tall—got a presence, so that if SHE'S there, you'd know it and everybody else would know it, no matter how many other women there might be in the place. Most big men take to their opposites. Now, though I'm a big man I've never fancied a snippet of a girl. Five foot seven of height is my measure of a woman, and a good ten stone in the saddle—What are you laughing at, Joan? I'm out there, I suppose?'
Mrs Gildea controlled her muscles.
'No, no, not in the least. In fact, your description fits the Ideal Wife perfectly. Go on, Colin. Five foot seven and a good ten stone. How is the rest of HER? Fair or dark—her hair now—and her eyes?'
'Her hair—oh, it isn't fair—not yellow or noticeable in colour—like those dyed beauties you see about. Her hair is dark, soft and cloudy looking. And she's got a small head set like—like a lily on its stem—and her hair is parted in the middle and coiled smoothly each side and into a sort of Greek knot....'
'In short, she's a cross between the Venus of Milo and the Madonna.'
Mrs Gildea was smiling amusedly.
'Perhaps.... Something of that sort. Dignity and sweetness, you know—those are what I admire in a woman. But not too much of the goddess or of the angel either. I shouldn't want always to have to load up with a pedestal when we shifted camp, and the only shrine I'd keep going for her would be in my heart. It's a Mate I'm wanting, as well as an Ideal.... Now you're laughing again.'
'No, I'm not. I agree with you entirely—and so would SHE.'
'There! You needn't tell me. I shouldn't wonder if I'd got the second sight where SHE'S concerned.'
Again Mrs Gildea smiled enigmatically.
'I shouldn't wonder, Colin. But you haven't finished your personal description. What about the colour of her eyes?'
'Now I don't believe I could say exactly the colour of her eyes any more than of her hair. They're the kind, to me, that have no colour. Soft and melting and sort of mysterious—Deep and clear and with a light far down in them like starlight reflected in a still lagoon.... I say, Joan, you remember the old Eight Mile Water-hole on Dingo Flat—middle of the patch of flooded gum and she-oak—that the Blacks used to say had no bottom to it? HER eyes seemed to me a bit like that water-hole—No bottom to her possibilities.'
'That's true enough,' assented Mrs Gildea. 'There's no bottom to HER possibilities.'
'I could tell it from her letter. She seemed to write flippantly about things—but that was just because she hates insincerity and flummery, and the world she lives in doesn't satisfy her. Why, it was as if I read slick through to her soul. That woman would go through anything for a man she really loved.'
He had a way of lowering his voice when he spoke of love—as if he felt it a sacred subject; and this in him surprised Joan. She was discovering a new Colin McKeith. She answered softly.
'Yes. I think she would—IF she really loved him.'
'What I haven't been able to make out is whether she did care—does care—for that chap. You see, that would make a difference.'
'A difference! How? What do you mean?'
'I mean that I don't believe I should feel about her as I do if I wasn't going to meet her. Look here, Joan, you've as good as told me—and if you hadn't, I'd be pretty thick-headed not to have put two and two together—that the Luke of her letters is Sir Luke Tallant, our new Governor. Well, if she was staying with him in London, and his wife is a friend of hers, why shouldn't she come and stay with them out here?'
The idea had already presented itself to Mrs Gildea, but she tried not to show that it had, or that there had ever been any question of the sort in Bridget's mind. Colin had not read the opening sheet of her letter.
'I suppose more unlikely things than that have happened,' Joan said neutrally. 'But really, Colin,' she went on with strenuous emphasis, 'I can't understand this phase of you. You—a hard-headed Bushman, to be dreaming romantic dreams and falling all of a sudden over head and ears in love with—with a figment of your imagination—just because you happen to have read by mistake some sentimental outpourings of a woman you know nothing about and who would never forgive me if she knew I'd let you see her letter.'
'She won't know—You have my word of honour that I'll never give you away over that letter—not under ANY circumstances, so you can set your mind at rest on that score, Joan. And as to my falling in love with—a figment of my own imagination'—he spat the words out savagely—'we'll see how far your remark is justified when She does come out and I recognise her—as I am convinced I shall do directly I set eyes on Her.'
Mrs Gildea burst into rather hysterical laughter, which manifestly offended Colin McKeith.
'We'll drop the subject, please,' he said stiffly. 'And now, Mrs Gildea, I'm quite at your service for any information you desire about the Big Bight country and the probability of a Japanese invasion so soon as our future Commonwealth comes to crucial loggerheads with the Eastern Powers on the question of a strictly White Australia.'
After that Colin pointedly abstained from allusion to the Ideal Wife and to Joan Gildea's Typewriting-Correspondent, as he had called her. He was very busy himself at this time in connection with a threatened labour strike that was agitating sheep and cattle owners of the Leura District. Likewise with a report he had been asked to furnish of a projected telegraph line for the opening of his 'Big Bight Country'. Colin McKeith appeared to be deep in the confidence of the Leichardt's Land Executive Council and to have taken up his abode for the winter session in the Seat of Government, though he seemed to regard his recent election for a Northern constituency as an unimportant episode in a career ultimately consecrated to the elucidation of far-reaching Imperial problems.
Joan Gildea found him excellent 'copy,' and the great Gibbs cablegrammed, in code, approval of her lately-tapped source of information.
She almost forgot Bridget O'Hara in her absorption in colonial topics. But three weeks before the expected arrival of the new Governor of Leichardt's Land a cablegram was shot at her from Colombo which made her feel that there was no use in setting oneself against Destiny. This was the wire:
EXPECT ME WITH TALLANTS BIDDY.
She said nothing to Colin McKeith about the message—partly because his movements were erratic and he was a good deal away from Leichardt's town just then. Thus Mrs Gildea did not know whether or not he had read the flowery description telegraphed by a Melbourne correspondent who interviewed Sir Luke Tallant and his party at that city and wired an ecstatic paragraph about the beautiful Lady Bridget O'Hara who was accompanying her friend and distant relative, the Honourable Lady Tallant.
Anyway, McKeith made no references to the newspaper correspondent's rhapsodies when he paid Mrs Gildea a short visit two or three days before the landing of the new Governor. But his very reticence and something in his expression made Joan suspect that he was puzzled and excited, and would have been glad had she volunteered any information about Lady Tallant's companion. Joan, however, kept perverse silence. In truth, she felt considerably nervous over the prospect. What was going to happen when Colin McKeith set eyes on Bridget?
Joan Gildea was a simple woman though circumstances had made her a shrewd one, and she had all the elementary feminine instincts. She believed in love and in strange affinities and in hidden threads of destiny—all of which ideas fitted beautifully on to Bridget O'Hara's personality, but not at all on to that of Colin McKeith.
The first dinner-party given by Sir Luke and Lady Tallant at Government House included Mrs Gildea and Colin McKeith.
These two met in the vestibule as they emerged respectively from the ladies' and gentlemen's cloak-room. Both held back to allow certain Members of the Ministry to enter the drawing-room before them, which gave opportunity for an interchange of greetings.
'Well!' both said at once, and the tones in which the monosyllable was uttered and the glances accompanying it held volumes of hidden meaning. 'I haven't seen you since the Governor arrived,' Joan went on. 'Where have you been all these three weeks?'
'At Alexandra City, close on the desert, where they bored for water and struck ready-made gas—the whole place now is lighted with it. If you like, I'll give you material for a first-rate article upon an uncommon phenomenon of Nature.'
'Thank you. I shall be grateful. Colin'—hesitatingly, 'I did think you'd have come and looked after an old friend at the big Show in the Botanical Gardens when the Governor made his State Entry.'
'State Entry! Good Lord! Sir Luke Tallant has got a bit too much red tape and too many airs about him to suit the Leichardt'stonians.'
'You WERE there, then?'
'Started for Alexandra City that afternoon.'
'But you saw—Colin did you see—the Tallants and—their party?
His face changed: it looked positively angry, and his jaw under the neatly trimmed, sandy beard, protruded determinedly. But at that moment a footman came towards them, and Mrs Gildea was handed on to an imposing butler and ushered through a wide palm-screened doorway into the large inner hall which had a gallery round it and the big staircase at one end. Joan saw that the room, formerly stiffly furnished and used chiefly as a ballroom, had been transmogrified with comfortable lounge chairs and sofas, beautiful embroideries, screens, a spinet and many flowers and books into a delightful general sitting-room. It seemed quite full—mostly of official Leichardt'stonians. Joan looked for the new Governor and his wife, or at least for Lady Biddy, but none of them had yet put in an appearance. A handsome, fair-moustachioed young aide-de-camp, looking very smart in his evening uniform with white lapels, was fluttering round, his dinner list in his hand, and introducing people who already knew each other. He looked distinctly worried, so did the private secretary—sallow-faced, of a clerkish type, and obviously without social qualifications—who was also wandering round and trying ineffectively to do the right thing. The aide-de-camp rushed forward to shake hands with Joan, exclaiming in a relieved undertone:
'Oh, Mrs Gildea, do help me. I believe I've made an awful hash of it all. People out here,' he murmured, 'ain't used to viceregal etiquette as she is interpreted in Ceylon—that was my last post you know. They seem to think his Excellency ought to have been standing at the door to receive THEM, instead of their waiting to receive HIM.'
Clearly, the aide-de-camp had failed to please, though he looked spruced and his manners were beautiful. The Premier of Leichardt's Land, a red-faced gentleman of blunt speech, was grumbling audibly to the Attorney-General. Mrs Gildea caught snatches of discontent as she passed from one to another.
'Damned impertinence, I call it. A salaried official, no better than any of us, giving himself royal airs.... May do in India... won't go down in a free country like this.'
The AIDE finished pairing his couples.
'Mrs Gildea, you're to go in with the Warden of the University. Of course you know Dr Plumtree? Literature and learning is an obvious combination, but' (in a confidential aside) 'if you KNEW the job I've had to find out the right order of precedence. Mr McKeith, the Governor will be so glad to meet you. Will you take in Lady Bridget O'Hara? She's not down yet. You see,' he explained again to Mrs Gildea, 'we're strictly official to-night and Debrett's out of it.'
'So am I,' put in Colin McKeith. 'I guess that Lady Bridget would be better pleased if she wasn't handed over to a rough bushman.'
'Now, there you ARE quite out of it,' laughed the aide-de-camp. 'Lady Bridget asked specially to be sent in with you,' and at Mrs Gildea's enquiring smile, he explained once more: 'Sir Luke was speaking about Mr McKeith, said his name had been mentioned at a meeting of the Executive yesterday. Oh! you're top hole, Mr McKeith, I assure you.'
The AIDE broke off suddenly.
There was a rustle of silk on the grand staircase—the slam of a door above, the sound of a laugh and the patter of little high-heeled shoes on the parquet floor of the gallery. The AIDE darted to the foot of the staircase and all eyes turned upward.
The new Governor and his wife came down in slow and stately fashion, arm-in-arm, Sir Luke looking very impressive with the Ribbon and Order of St Michael and St George. He was a handsome man, clean-shaven but for a heavy dark moustache, and carried his dignities with perhaps a little too conscious an air—'Representative of the Throne' seemed written all over him and no greater contrast could be imagined than the new Governor presented to his predecessor, an elderly, impoverished marquis who had the brain of a diplomatist and the manners of a British farmer, and who with his homely wife had been immensely popular in Leichardt's Land.
Nor a greater contrast than the new Governor's wife to the fat, kindly, old marchioness. Lady Tallant was a London woman, of about forty-five. She had been excessively pretty, but had rather lost her looks after a bad illness, and her worst affliction was now a tendency to scragginess, cleverly concealed where the chest was no longer visible. Obviously artificial outside, at any rate Lady Tallant was, as Mrs Gildea had reason to believe, a genuine sort underneath. She had a thin, high-nosed face of the conventional English aristocratic type, a good deal rouged to-night, but with natural shadows under the eyes and below the arch of the brows which were toned to correspond with the evidently dyed hair. Her dress, a Paris creation of pale satin and glistening embroidery, was draped to hide her thinness, and her neck and throat were almost covered with strings of pearls and clusters of clear-set diamonds. Judging from the way in which the Leichardt'stonians stared at her as she came down the stairs, it seemed probable that none of them had ever before seen anyone quite like Lady Tallant.
Joan Gildea's eyes passed quickly from Sir Luke and Lady Tallant to a third figure behind them, on the half-landing, but first she realised in a flashing glance that Colin McKeith's gaze had been all the while riveted upon that figure. Not in astonishment—a proof to Joan that he had seen it before—but in a kind of unwilling fascination, most upsetting to Mrs Gildea's sense of responsibility in the matter.
The Visionary Woman of the camp-fire! And she had let Colin McKeith believe that Bridget O'Hara was the embodiment of his Ideal—height five foot seven at the least: weight ten stone or more: smooth-parted, Greek-coiled hair: a cross between a goddess and a Madonna—that was Colin's Ideal—Good Heavens! What did he now behold? A very little woman. One of the snippets he despised. Not an ounce of the traditional dignity about her. Lady Bridget gave the impression of an old-fashioned, precocious child, dressed up in a picture frock of soft shining white stuff, hanging on a straight slender form and gathered into a girdle at the waist, with a wisp of old lace flung carelessly over the slight shoulders. She stood for a moment or two on the half landing, then, as the aide-de-camp murmured in the Governor's ear at the foot of the stairs, she came close to the bannisters and looked down amusedly at the party in the hall. Her face was a little poked forward—a small oval face, pale except for the redness of a rather thin-lipped mouth—the upper lip like a scarlet bow—and the brilliance of the eyes, deep-set under finely-drawn brows and with thick lashes, golden-brown, and curling up at the tips. Peculiar eyes: Mrs Gildea, who knew them well, never could decide their exact colour. The nose was a delicate aquiline, the chin pointed. An untidy mass of wavy chestnut hair stuck out in uneven puffs and insubordinate curls, all round the small head. At this moment Mrs Gildea remembered a suggestive charm sent to Lady Bridget by her cousin, Chris Gaverick, one Christmas, of a miniature gold curry-comb.
It was a vivid brief impression, for the girl moved on immediately, but Joan noticed that Colin McKeith had arrested Lady Bridget's wandering gaze. That was not surprising, for his great height and the distinctiveness of his appearance, made him more likely than anyone else present to attract her attention. Then, as she caught sight of Joan, the interested, startled look changed to one of bright recognition, the red lips smiled, showing dimples at their sensitive corners.
'His Excellency and Lady Tallant,' said the aide-de-camp, and Bridget seemed hardly able to keep herself in the background while Sir Luke and his wife advanced to greet the assembled guests. This, Lady Tallant did with quite enchanting courtesy, making an apt apology for having kept them waiting, which almost mollified the irate Premier. Bridget came with a swift gliding movement to the side of her friend, squeezed her hand and held it, while she talked in a soft rapid monotone.
'How cool you look. I've never been so hot in my life. And the mosquitoes! Rosamond is in despair. She says she really can't afford to lose more flesh. Do you see how she has had to make herself up to hide the mosquito bites? Luckily, I've got a skin that insects don't find palatable....'
They had of course met since the Landing. Joan had paid her formal visit, had lunched at Government House, and was now on intimate terms with the new people. Also, Lady Bridget had found her way to the cottage on Emu Point.
She looked round at the different groups and gave a cynical little shrug.
'Why! it's like everything one had left behind! I might be at a party to the Colonial Delegates in London for all the difference there is. Where's your barbarism, Joan? ... I'm pining for a savage existence.... That's an excessively good-looking man'—her eyebrows indicated Colin McKeith—'I do hope he is the man I asked for to take me in to dinner—I told Vereker Wells that I wanted a new sensation—that man looks as if he might give it to me—No, don't tell me: there's excitement in uncertainty.'
She went on in eager monologue, giving no time for replies.
'It seems we've put the official backs up. Vereker Wells was determined to follow Indian vice-regal precedents—so ridiculous—as I told him: and as for Luke, he's got it on the brain that his mission is to uphold the dignity of the British Throne. Like a NOUVEAU RICHE—terribly afraid of doing the wrong thing and showing every moment that he's new to the great Panjandrum part.... Ah so!' ... an ejaculatory trick of Bridget's. 'He IS my fate!'
Captain Vereker Wells brought up Colin who was holding himself stiffly, limping just a little, as he did when he was nervous, and looking very big and strong and masterful—likewise extraordinarily well-groomed and tailored.
'Lady Bridget O'Hara, let me present Mr Colin McKeith.'
Lady Biddy looked up at Colin and he looked down at her.
'Do you think I can POSSIBLY reach your arm?' as he held his elbow crooked to about the level of her shoulder. 'You know I asked to be sent in with you—it was rather bold of me, wasn't it? But if I had known how VERY tall you are!'
Mr McKeith lowered his arm, stooping over her, and Mrs Gildea heard him say in a voice that sounded different somehow from his ordinary deep drawl:
'I wonder why I was chosen for this honour?'
And Bridget's reply:
'I'd been told that you were an explorer—that you're a kind of Bush Cecil Rhodes—I don't know Mr Cecil Rhodes, but I have an adoration for him—I wanted to talk to a real Bushman—I always felt that I should like Australian Bushmen from Joan Gildea's description of them.... And you....'
The rest was lost, as the groups converged and the long line of couples went forward.
It was not an altogether successful party. The dinner had portentous suggestiveness; the Leidchardt'stonians were at first rather difficult. Sir Luke a little too conscious of his responsibilities towards the British Throne: Lady Tallant so brilliant as to be bewildering. But except as it concerns Lady Bridget and McKeith, the Tallant's first dinner-party at Government House is not of special importance in this story. Mrs Gildea, very well occupied with Dr Plumtree, only caught diagonal glimpses of her two friends a little lower down on the opposite side of the table, and, in occasional lulls of conversation, the musical ring of Lady Bridget's rapid chatter. Colin did not seem to be talking much, but every time Mrs Gildea glanced at him, he appeared absorbed in contemplation of the small pointed face and the farouche, golden-brown eyes turned up to him from under the top heavy mass of chestnut hair. Lady Bridget, at any rate, had a great deal to say for herself, and Mrs Gildea wondered what was going to come of it all.