On the day when Hugh and Mrs Gordon read Mr Grant’s letter at Kuryong, the train deposited at Tarrong, a self-reliant young lady of about twenty, accompanied by nearly a truck-full of luggage—solid leather portmanteaux, canvas-covered bags, iron boxes, and so on—which produced a great sensation among the rustics. She was handsome enough to be called a beauty, and everything about her spoke of exuberant health and vitality. Her figure was supple, and she had the clear pink and white complexion which belongs to cold climates.
She seemed accustomed to being waited on, and watched without emotion the guard and the solitary railway official—porter, station-master, telegraph-operator and lantern-man, all rolled into one—haul her hundredweights of luggage out of the train. Then she told the perspiring station-master, etc., to please have the luggage sent to the hotel, and marched over to that building in quite an assured way, carrying a small handbag. Three commercial travellers, who had come up by the same train, followed her off the platform, and the most gallant of the three winked at his friends, and then stepped up and offered to carry her bag. The young lady gave him a pleasant smile, and handed him the bag; together they crossed the street, while the other commercials marched disconsolately behind. At the door of the hotel she took the bag from her cavalier, and there and then, in broad Australian daylight, rewarded him with twopence—a disaster which caused him to apply to his firm for transfer to some foreign country at once. She marched into the bar, where Dan, the landlord’s son, was sweeping, while Mrs Connellan, the landlady, was wiping glasses in the midst of a stale fragrance of overnight beer and tobacco smoke.
“I am going to Kuryong,” said the young lady, “and I expected to meet Mr Gordon here. Is he here?”
Mrs Connellan looked at her open-eyed. Such an apparition was not often seen in Tarrong. Mr and Mrs Connellan had only just “taken the pub”, and what with trying to keep Connellan sober and refusing drinks to tramps, loafers and blackfellows, Mrs Connellan was pretty well worn out. As for making the hotel pay, that idea had been given up long ago. It was against Mrs Connellan’s instincts of hospitality to charge anyone for a meal or a bed, and when any great rush of bar trade took place it generally turned out to be “Connellan’s shout”, so the hotel was not exactly a gold-mine. In fact, Mrs Connellan had decided that the less business she did, the more money she would make; and she rather preferred that people should not stop at her hotel. This girl looked as if she would give trouble; might even expect clean beds and clean sheets when there were none within the hotel, and might object to fleas, of which there were plenty. So the landlady pulled herself together, and decided to speed the parting guest as speedily as possible.
“Mr Gordon couldn’t git in,” she said. “The cricks (creeks) is all up. The coach is going down to Kiley’s Crossing today. You had better go with that.”
“How soon does the coach start?”
“In an hour or two. As soon as Pat Donohoe, the mailman, has got a horse shod. Come in and have a wash, and fix yourself up till breakfast is ready. Where’s your bag?”
“My luggage is at the railway station.”
“I’ll send Dan over for it. Dan, Dan, Dan!”
“’Ello,” said Dan’s voice, from the passage, where, with the wild-eyed servant-girl, he had been taking stock of the new arrival.
“Go over to the station and git this lady’s bag. Is there much to carry?”
“There are only four portmanteaux and three bags, and two boxes and a hat-box, and a roll of rugs; and please be careful of the hat-box.”
“You’d better git the barrer, Dan.”
“Better git the bloomin’ bullock dray,” growled Dan, quite keen to see this aggregation of luggage; and foreseeing something to talk about for the next three months. “She must ha’ come up to start a store, I reckon,” said Dan; and off he went to struggle with boxes for the next half-hour or so.
Over Mary Grant’s experiences at the Tarrong Hotel we will not linger. The dirty water, peopled by wriggling animalculæ, that she poured out of the bedroom jug; the damp, cloudy, unhealthy-smelling towel on which she dried her face; the broken window through which she could hear herself being discussed by loafers in the yard; all these things are matters of course in bush townships, for the Australian, having a soul above details, does not shine at hotel-keeping. The breakfast was enlivened by snatches of song from the big, good-natured bush girl who waited at table, and who “fancied” her voice somewhat, and marched into the breakfast-room singing in an ear-splitting soprano:
“It’s a vilet from me—”
(spoken.) “What you’ll have, there’s chops, steaks, and bacon and eggs”—“Chops, please.”
(singer continues.) “Sainted mother’s—”
(spoken.) “Tea or coffee”—“Tea, please.”
While she ate, Miss Grant had an uneasy feeling that she was being stared at; all the female staff and hangers-on of the place having gathered round the door to peer in at her and to appraise to the last farthing her hat, her tailor-made gown, and her solid English walking-shoes, and to indulge in wild speculation as to who or what she could be. A Kickapoo Indian in full war-paint, arriving suddenly in a little English village, could not have created more excitement than she did at Tarrong. After breakfast she walked out on the verandah that ran round the little one-storey weatherboard hotel, and looked down the mile and a-half of road, with little galvanised-iron-roofed cottages at intervals of a quarter of a mile or so, that constituted the township. She watched Conroy, the policeman, resplendent in breeches and polished boots, swagger out from the court-house yard, leading his horse to water. The town was waking to its daily routine; Carry, the butcher, took down the clumsy board that passed for a window-shutter, and McDermott, the carter, passed the hotel, riding a huge rough-coated draught horse, bare-backed. Everyone gave him a “Mornin’, Billy!” as he passed, and he returned the greeting as he did every morning of his life. A few children loitered past to the little school-house, staring at her as though she were some animal.
She was in a hurry to get away—English people always are—but in the bright lexicon of the bush there is no such word as hurry. Tracey, the blacksmith, had not by any means finished shoeing the coach horse yet. So Mrs Connellan made an attempt to find out who she was, and why she was going to Kuryong.
“You’ll have a nice trip in the coach,” she said. “Lier (lawyer) Blake’s going down. He’s a nice feller.”
“Yes?” Miss Grant politely responded.
“Father Kelly, too. He’s good company.”
“Are you staying long at Kuryong?”
“Some time, I expect.”
“Are you going to teach the children?”
“No, I’m going to live there. My father owns Kuryong. My father is Mr Grant.”
Mrs Connellan was simply staggered at this colossal treasure-trove, this majestic piece of gossip that had fallen on her like rain from Heaven. Mr Grant’s daughter! Going out to Kuryong! What a piece of news! Hardly knowing what she did, she shuffled out of the room, and interrupted the singing waitress who was wiping plates, and had just got back to “It’s a vilet” when Mrs Connellan burst in on her.
“Maggie! Maggie! Do you know who that is? Grant’s daughter! The one that used to be in England. She must be going to Kuryong to live, with all that luggage. What’ll the Gordons say? The old lady won’t like it, will she? This’ll be a bit of news, won’t it?” And she went off to tell the cook, while Maggie darted to the door to meet Dan, and tell him.
Dan told the station-master when he went back for the next load, and when he had finished carting the luggage he got on a horse and went round telling everybody in the little town. The station-master told the ganger of the four navvies who went by on their trolly down the line to work. At the end of their four-mile length they told the ration-carrier of Eubindal station, who happened to call in at their camp for a drink of tea. He hurried off to the head-station with the news, and on his way told three teamsters, an inspector of selections, and a black boy belonging to Mylong station, whom he happened to meet on the road. Each of them told everybody that they met, pulling up and standing in their stirrups to discuss the matter in all its bearings, in the leisurely style of the bush; and wondering what she had come out for, whether the Gordons would get the sack from Kuryong, whether she would marry Hugh Gordon, whether she was engaged already, whether she was good-looking, how much money she had, and how much old Grant would leave her. In fact, before twenty-four hours were over, all the district knew of her arrival; which possibly explains how news travels in Africa among the Kaffirs, who are supposed to have a signalling system that no one has yet fathomed; but the way it gets round in Australia is just as wonderful as among the Kaffirs, in fact, for speed and thoroughness of information we should be inclined to think that our coloured brethren run a bad second.
At last, however, Tracey had finished shoeing the coach horse, and Miss Grant, with part of her luggage, took a seat on the coach behind five of Donohoe’s worst horses, next to a well-dressed, powerfully built man of about five-and-twenty. He looked and talked like a gentleman, and she heard the coachman address him as “Mr Blake”. She and he shared the box-seat with the driver, and just at the last moment the local priest hurried up and climbed on the coach. In some unaccountable way he had missed hearing who the young lady was, and for a time he could only look at her back hair and wonder.
It was not long before, in the free and easy Australian style, the passengers began to talk to each other as the coach bumped along its monotonous road—up one hill, through an avenue of dusty, tired-looking gumtrees, down the other side through a similar avenue, up another hill precisely the same as the last, and so on.
Blake was the first to make advances. “Not much to be seen on this sort of journey, Miss Grant,” he said.
The young lady looked at him with serious eyes. “No,” she said, “we’ve only seen two houses since we left the town. All the rest of the country seems to be a wilderness.”
Here the priest broke in. He was a broth of a boy from Maynooth, just the man to handle the Doyle and Donohoe congregation.
“It’s the big stations is the roon of the country,” he said. “How is the country to go ahead wid all the good land locked up? There’s Kuryong on ahead here would support two hundred fam’lies, and what does it employ now? Half a dozen shepherds, widout a rag to their back.”
“I am going to Kuryong,” said the girl, and the priest was silent.
By four in the afternoon they reached Kiley’s River, running yellow and froth-covered with melting snow. The coachman pulled his horses up on the bank, and took a good, long look at the bearings. As they waited, the Kuryong vehicle came down on the other side of the river.
“There’s Mr Gordon,” said the coachman. “I don’t think he’ll try it. I reckon it’s a trifle deep for me. Do you want to get across particular, Mr Blake?”
“Yes, very particularly, Pat. I’ve told Martin Donohoe to meet me down here with some witnesses in a cattle-stealing case.”
“What about you, Father Kelly?”
“I’m go’n on to Tim Murphy’s dyin’ bed. Put ’em into the wather, they’ll take it aisy.”
The driver turned to the third passenger. “It’s a bit dangerous-like, Miss. If you like to get out, it’s up to you to say so. The coach might wash over. There’s a settler’s place up the river a mile. You can go and stay there till the river goes down, and Mr Gordon’ll come and meet you.”
“Thanks, I’ll go on,” said the lady.
Preparations for crossing the river were soon made. Anything that would spoil by getting wet, or that would float out of the coach, was lifted up and packed on the roof. The passengers stood up on the seats. Then Pat Donohoe put the whip on his leaders, and calling to his two wheelers, old-seasoned veterans, he put them at it.
Snorting and trembling, the leaders picked their way into the yellow water, the coach bumping over the rubble of the crossing-place. Hugh Gordon, watching from the far-side of the river, saw the coach dip and rock and plunge over the boulders. On it came till the water was actually lapping into the body of the coach, roaring and swirling round the horses’ legs, up to their flanks and bellies, while the driver called out to them and kept them straight with voice and reins. Every spring he had a similar crossing, and he knew almost to an inch at what height it was safe to go into the river. But this time, as ill-luck would have it, the off-side leader was a young, vicious, thoroughbred colt, who had been handed over to him to be cured of a propensity for striking people with his fore-feet. As the horses worked their way into the river, the colt, with the courage of his breeding, pulled manfully, and breasted the current fearlessly. But suddenly a floating log drifted down, and struck him on the front legs. In an instant he reared up, and threw himself heavily sideways against his mate, bringing him to his knees; then the two of them, floundering and scrambling, were borne away with the current, dragging the coach after them. In a few yards they were off the causeway; the coach, striking deep water, settled like a boat, and turned over on its side, with the leaders swimming for their lives. As for the wheelers, they were pulled down with the vehicle, and were almost drowning in their harness.
Cool as a cucumber, Blake had turned to the girl. “Can you swim?” he said. And she answered him as coolly, “Yes, a little.”
“Well, put your hands on my shoulders, and leave everything to me.” Just then the coach settled over with one final surge, and they were in the water.
Away they went with the roaring current, the girl clinging fast to his shoulders, while he gave his whole attention to dodging the stumps and snags that were showing their formidable teeth above water. For a while she was able to hold on. Then, with a sickening sense of helplessness, she felt herself torn from him, and whirled away like a leaf. The rank smell of the muddy water was in her nostrils, the fear of death in her heart. She struggled to keep afloat. Suddenly a blood-streaked face appeared, and Blake, bleeding from a cut on the forehead, caught her with a strong grip and drew her to him. A few more seconds of whirling chaos, and she felt land under her feet, and Blake half-carrying her to the bank. They had been swept on to one of the many sand-banks which ran out into the stream, and were safe.
Half-hysterical, she sat down on a huge log, and waited while Blake ran upstream to give help to the coachman. While the two had been battling in the water, the priest had stayed with the coachman to cut the horses free, till at last all four got clear of the wreck, and swam ashore. Then the men followed them, drifting down tne current and fighting their way to shore at about the same place.
Hugh Gordon drove the waggonette down to pick up the party when they landed. The scene on the bank would have made a good picture. The horses, dripping with water and shaking with cold, were snorting and staring, while the coachman was trying to fix up some gear out of the wreck, so that he could ride one of them. The priest, his broad Irish face ornamented by a black clay pipe, was tramping up and down in his wet clothes. Blake was helping Miss Grant to wring the water out of her clothes, and she was somewhat incoherently trying to thank him. As Hugh drove up, Blake looked up and caught his eye, and there flashed between the two men an unmistakable look of hostility. Then Hugh jumped from the waggonette, and walked up to Miss Grant, holding out his hand.
“I’m Hugh Gordon,” he said. “We only got your father’s letter today, or I would have been down to meet you. I hope you are not hurt. Jump into the trap, and I’ll run down to the Donohoes’, and get you some dry things.” Then, turning to Blake, he said somewhat stiffly, “Will you get in, Mr Blake?”
“Thanks,” said Blake, equally stiffly, “I can ride one of the mail horses. It’s no distance. won’t trouble you.”
But the girl turned and put her hand into Blake’s, and spoke with the air of a queen.
“I am very much obliged to you—more than I can tell you. You have saved my life. If ever I can do anything to repay you I will.”
“Oh, nonsense,” said Blake, “that’s nothing. It was only a matter of dodging the stumps. You’d better get on now to Donohoe’s Hotel, and get Mrs Donohoe to find some dry things for you.”
The mere fact of his refusing a lift showed that there was some hostility between himself and Hugh Gordon; but the priest, who had climbed into the Kuryong vehicle as a matter of course, settled the matter off-hand.
“Get in the trap,” he said. “Get in the trap, man. What’s the use for two of ye to ride the mail horses, and get your death o’ cold? Get in the trap!”
“Of course I’ll give you a lift,” said Hugh. “Jump in, and let us get away before you all get colds. What will you do about the coach and the luggage, Pat?”
“I’ll borry them two old draught horses from Martin Donohoe, and they’ll haul it out. Bedad, some o’ that luggage’ll be washed down to the Murrumbidgee before night; but the most of it is strapped on. Push along, Mr Gordon, and tell Martin I’m coming.”
With some reluctance Blake got into the waggonette; before long they were at Donohoe’s Hotel, and Mary Grant was soon rigged out in an outfit from Mrs Donohoe’s best clothes—a pale-green linsey bodice and purple skirt—everything, including Mrs Donohoe’s boots, being about four sizes too big. But she looked by no means an unattractive little figure, with her brown eyes and healthy colour showing above the shapeless garments.
She came into the little sitting-room laughing at the figure she cut, sat down, and drank scalding tea, and ate Mrs Donohoe’s cakes, while talking with Father Kelly and Blake over the great adventure. When she was ready to start she got into the waggonette alongside Hugh, and waved good-bye to the priest and Blake and Mrs Donohoe, as though they were old friends. She had had her first touch of colonial experience.