As a matter of fact, none of those who talked knew anything whatever. Peggy confided in no one but Red Mick, and that worthy had had enough legal experience of a rough and ready sort to know that things must be kept quiet till the proper time. But by way of getting ready for action Red Mick and his sister one fine morning rode up to Cavan Blake’s office to consult him as to what they should do.
Blake was not at all surprised to see them. He, of course, had heard all the rumours that were afloat, and knew that if Peggy brought forward any claim he would be asked to act for her professionally. He had not quite decided whether he would act or not. In his hard commonsense mind he saw next to no possibility of Peggy having a bonâ fide case. He did not suppose for a moment that William Grant would have run his neck into a bigamy noose; and it would put the young lawyer in a very awkward position with Mary Grant if, after saving her life and posing as her friend, he carried on a blackmailing suit against her. At the same time, he felt that it could do no harm to either side to investigate Peggy’s case; there might be awkward things that he could help to suppress. So with expectancy and not a little amusement he saw his clients ride up and tie their horses to the fence outside his office, and watched Peggy straighten her ruffled plumage before entering.
They came in at the door with a seriousness worthy of the occasion. Peggy heaved a subdued sigh and settled in a chair. Red Mick opened the conversation.
“Mornin’ to you, Gavan,” he said.
By virtue of his relationship Mick was privileged to call his brilliant nephew by his Christian name. To the rest of the clans Gavan was Mr Blake.
“Good morning, Mick. Good morning, Peggy. Have you had any rain?”
In the bush no one would think of introducing discussion without a remark about the weather.
“Jist a few drops,” said Red Mick gloomily. “Do us no good at all. Things is looking terrible bad, so they are. But we want to see ye——” and here he dropped his voice, rose, and cautiously closed the door—“Peggy here, Mrs Grant, d’ye see,”—Mick got the name out without an effort—“she wants to see ye about making a claim on the estate. ’Tis time she done somethin’. All these years left to shift for herself——”
Here Blake broke in on him. He meant to probe Peggy’s case thoroughly, and knew that it would be no easy matter to get at the truth while she had Red Mick alongside to prompt her. He had not dealt with the mountain folk for nothing, and handled his clients in a way that would astonish a more conservative practitioner.
“Mick,” he said, “you go over to Isaacstein’s store and wait till I send for you.”
“I want Mick to be wid me,” began Peggy.
Blake blazed up. He knew that he must keep his ascendancy over these wild people by force of determination.
“You heard what I said,” he thundered, turning fiercely on Peggy. “You want this and you want that! It’s not what you want, it’s what I want! You do what you’re told. If you don’t—I won’t help you. Mick, you go over to the store, and wait till I send for you.” And Mick shambled off.
Peggy, still inclined to be defiant, settled herself in her chair. She had battled in north Queensland so long that she neither feared nor respected anybody; but her native shrewdness told her she had all to gain and nothing to lose by doing what her lawyer advised.
“Now, Peggy,” he said, “do you want to make a claim against William Grant’s estate?”
“On the ground that you’re his widow?”
“Yis. I’ll tell yer——”
“No, you won’t tell me anything. I’ll tell you. If you are to have any hope of succeeding in this case, you must furnish me with the name of the priest or parson who married you, the place where you were married, and the date. It must be a real priest or parson, a real place, and a real date. It’s no use coming along with a story of a marriage by a parson and you’ve forgotten his name, at a place you can’t remember where it was, and a date that’s slipped your memory. You must have a story to tell, and it must hold water. Now, can you tell such a story? Have you got any proofs at all?”
Peggy shifted about uneasily.
“Can I see Mick?” she said.
“No, you can not. You must out with it here and now. Listen to me, Peggy,” he went on, sinking his voice suddenly and looking hard at her. “I’ve got to know all about this. It’s no use keeping anything back. Were you ever married to William Grant?”
Peggy dropped her voice too.
“Yis. I was married twenty-five years ago at a place called Pike’s pub, out in the Never-Never country.”
“Who read the service, parson or priest?”
“Neither. A mish’nary. Mish’nary to the blacks.”
“Is he alive?”
“No, he died out there. He was sick then, wid the Queensland fever.”
“What was his name?”
“Was the marriage ever registered?”
“Sorra one of me knows. He give us each a bit of paper—our marriage lines. ’Twas written in pencil. He had no ink in the place, and he had no books wid him. He tore the sheet of paper and give us each half, wid the writing on it; his horses got stole and he had to camp there. He stayed round wid Pike and the blacks till he died.”
“And where is the certificate? Have you lost it?”
“I sint mine down to Mick to keep for me—jist a bit of paper written in pencil it was—and it got lost some ways; but I have a copy of it I med at the time.”
“Where is the copy now?”
“At Mick’s place.”
“You must tell Mick to bring it in. Now where is this place, Pike’s?”
“Out this side of the opal-fields. It’s wild and rough now, but what it was then—well ’twas more like a black’s camp nor a white man’s place at all.”
Blake thought the story had gone far enough. He did not believe a word of it.
“Look here, Peggy,” he said. “You have given the place, the date, the name of the parson, and everything. Now you know that if you are telling a lie it will be easily found out. They will soon find out if there was such a missionary, and if he was up there at the time, and if Mr Grant was up there; and if you are caught out in a lie it may go hard with you. Have you any witnesses?”
“Martin Doyle was there, Black Martin’s son.”
“What! Martin Doyle that’s out at the nine-mile?”
“Yis. He was up driving the buggy and horses for Grant. He can swear to the wedding.”
Blake sat back in his chair and looked at her. “Do you mean to tell me,” he said, “that you can show me a certificate and a witness to your marriage with William Grant?”
Peggy looked doggedly down at the floor and said, in the tones of one who is repeating the burial service or some other solemn function, “I can prove the marriage.”
Blake was puzzled. He had known the mountain folk all his life, and knew that for uneducated people—or perhaps because they were uneducated people—they were surprisingly clever liars. But he never dreamt that any of them could hoodwink him; so he put Peggy once more through the whole story, made her describe all her actions on the day of the wedding, where she stood, where the witness stood, what the parson said, what her husband said. He went through the whole thing, and could see no flaw in it. He knew that Peggy would not scruple to lie to him; but, with the contempt of a clever man, he felt satisfied that he could soon upset any concocted story. This story seemed to hold water, and the more he cross-examined her the more sure he was that there was something genuine about it; at the same time, he was sure that it was not all genuine. Then a thought occurred to him.
“Would you settle this case if they offered you something?” he said.
“I’ll do whatever you say,” said Peggy, rising. “’Tis for you to say what I ought to do.’Tis not for the like of me, that is no scholar.”
“Leave it to me,” said Blake. “I’ll do what is best for you. Send Martin Doyle in to see me, Martin that was the witness. And about this copy of the certificate, tell Mick to bring it in here. Now you go home, and don’t you say to one living soul one word of what has passed in here. Tell them you are going on with the case, but don’t say any more, or you may land yourself in gaol. Do you hear me?”
And the cowed and flustered Peggy hurried away to join her brother, who was far too wise to ask questions.
“Least said soonest mended,” he said, when told that Blake required silence.
After his clients had gone, Gavan Blake sat for half an hour almost dazed. If Peggy’s story was true, then Mary Grant was an outcast instead of a great heiress. And while he had become genuinely fond of her (which he never was of Ellen Harriott), he had no idea of asking her to share his debts with him. He puzzled over the affair for a long time, and at last his clear brain saw a way out of all difficulties. He would go over to the old station, put the whole case before Mary Grant, and induce her for peace’s sake to give Peggy money to withdraw her claim. Out of this money he himself would keep enough to pay all his pressing debts. He would be that much to the good whatever happened, and afterwards would have an added claim on Mary Grant’s sympathies for having relieved her of a vast lawsuit in which her fortune, and even her very name, were involved.
This plan seemed to him the best for all parties—for himself especially, which was the most important thing. If he could get a large sum to settle the case, he could make Peggy give him a big share for his trouble, and then at last be free from the haunting fear of exposure and ruin. He felt sure that he was doing quite right in advising Mary Grant to pay.
Again and again he ran over Peggy’s case in his mind, and could see no flaw in it. In the old days haphazard marriages were rather the rule than the exception, and such things as registers were never heard of in far-out places. His trained mind, going through the various questions that a cross-examiner would ask, and supplying the requisite answers, decided that, though it might seem a trifle improbable, there was nothing contradictory about Peggy’s story. A jury would sympathise with her, and the decisions of the Courts all leaned towards presuming marriage where certain circumstances existed. By settling the case he would do Mary Grant a real kindness. And afterwards—well, she would probably be as grateful as when he had saved her life. He saw himself the hero of the hour: ever prompt to decide, he saddled a horse, and at once rode off to Kuryong to put the matter before her.