Yarrahappini in the sunshine, the kind of sunshine that pushes the thermometer's silver thread up to 100 deg.!
Right away in the distance on three sides was a blue hill line and blue soft trees.
And up near the house the trees were green and beautiful, and the flowers a blaze of colour.
But all the stretching plain between was brown. Brown burnt grass with occasional patches of dull green, criss-crossed here and there with fences; that ran up the little hills that in places broke the plain's straight line, and disappeared in the dips where rank grass and bracken flourished. The head station consisted of quite a little community of cottages on the top of a hill. Years ago, when Esther was no bigger than her own little General, there had been only a rough, red weather-board place on the hill-top, and a bark but or two for outhouses.
And Mr. Hassal had been in the saddle from morning to night, and worked harder than any two of his own stockmen, and Mrs. Hassal had laid aside her girlish accomplishments, her fancy work, her guitar, her water-colours, and had scrubbed and cooked and washed as many a settler's wife has done before, until the anxiously watched wool market had brought them better days.
Then a big stone cottage reared itself slowly right in front of the little old place with its bottle-bordered garden plot, where nothing more aristocratic than pig's face and scarlet geranium had ever grown. A beautiful cottage it was, with its plenitude of lofty rooms, its many windows, and its deep veranda. The little home was kitchen and bedrooms for the two women servants now, and was joined to the big place by a covered way.
A hundred yards away there was a two-roomed cottage that was occupied by the son of an English baronet, who, for the consideration of seventy pounds a year and rations kept the Yarrahappini business books and gave out the stores.
Farther still, two bark humpies stood, back to back. Tettawonga, a bent old black fellow, lived in one, and did little else than smoke and give his opinion on the weather every morning.
Twenty years ago he had helped to make a steady foundation for the red cottage that had arrived ready built on a bullock-dray.
Fifteen years ago he had killed with his tomahawk one of two bushrangers who were trying to pick up Yarrahappini in the absence of his master, and he had carried little trembling Mrs. Hassal and tiny Esther to place of safety, and gone back and dealt the other one a blow on the head that stunned him till assistance came.
So, of course, he had earned his right to the cottage and the daily rations and the pipe that never stirred from his lips.
Two of the station hands lived in the other cottage when they were not out in distant parts of the run.
Close to the house was a long weather-board building with a heavy, padlocked door.
"Oh, let's go in," Nell said, attracted by the size of the padlock; "it looks like a treasure-house in a book—mayn't we go in, please, little grandma?"
They were exploring all the buildings—the six children in a body, Mrs. Hassal, whom they all called "little grandma," much to her pleasure, and Esther with the boy.
"You must go and ask Mr. Gillet," the old lady said; "he keeps the keys of the stores. See, over in that cottage near the tank, and speak nicely, children, please."
"Such a gentleman," she said in a low tone to Esther, "so clever, so polished, if only he did not drink so."
Meg and Judy went, with Baby hurrying after them as fast as her short legs would allow.
"Come in," a voice said, when they knocked. Meg hesitated nervously, and a man opened the door. Such a great, gaunt man, with restless, unhappy eyes, a brown, wide brow, and neatly trimmed beard.
Judy stated that Mrs. Hassal had sent them for the keys, if he had no objection.
He asked them to come in and sit down while he looked for them.
Meg was surprised at the room, as her blue eyes plainly showed, for she had only heard him spoken of as the store-keeper. There were bookshelves, on which she saw Shakespeare and Browning and Shelley and Rossetti and Tennyson, William Morris, and many others she had never seen before. There were neatly framed photographs and engravings of English and Continental scenery on the walls. There was a little chased silver vase on a bracket, and some of the flowers from the passion vines in it. The table with the remains of breakfast on it was as nice on a small scale as the one she had just left in the big cottage.
He came back froth the inner room with the keys. "I was afraid I had mislaid then," he said; "the middle one opens the padlock, Miss Woolcot; the brass fat one is for the two bins, and the long steel one for the cupboard."
"Thank you so much. I'm afraid we disturbed you in the middle of your breakfast," Meg said, standing up and blushing because she thought he had noticed her surprise at the bookshelves.
He disclaimed the trouble, and held the door open for them with a bow that had something courtly in it, at least so Meg thought, puzzling how it came to be associated with salt beef by the hundredweight and bins of flour. He watched them go over the grass—at least he watched Meg in her cool, summer muslin and pale-blue belt, Meg in her shady chip hat, with the shining fluffy plait hanging to her waist.
Judy's long black legs and crumpled cambric had no element of the picturesque in them.
Mrs. Hassal unfastened the padlock of the store-room. Such a chorus of "ohs!" and "ahs!" there was from the children!
Baby had never seen so much sugar together in her life before; she looked as if she would have liked to have been let loose in the great bin for an hour or two.
And the currants! There was a big wooden box brim full—about forty pounds, Mrs. Hassal thought when questioned.
Bunty whipped up a handful and pocketed them when everyone was looking at the mountain of candles.
"Home-made! my DEAR, why, yes, of course," the old lady said. "Why, I wouldn't dream of using a bought candle, any more than I would use bought soap."
She showed them the great bars of yellow, clean-smelling stuff, with finer, paler-coloured for toilet purposes.
Hams and sides of bacon hung thickly from the rafters. "Those are mutton hams," she said, pointing to one division. "I keep those for the stockmen."
Pip wanted to know if the stores were meant to serve them all their lives, there seemed enough of them: he was astonished to hear that every six months they were replenished.
"Twenty to thirty men, counting the boundary riders and stockmen at different parts of the place; and double that number at shearing or drafting times, not to mention daily sundowners—it's like feeding an army, my dears," she said; "and then, you see, I had to make preparations for all of you—Bunty especially."
Her little grey eyes twinkled merrily as she looked at that small youth.
"You can have them back," Bunty said, half sulkily. He produced half a dozen currants from his pocket. "I shouldn't think you'd mind, with such a lot; we only have a bottleful at home."
On which the old lady patted his head, unlocked a tin, and filled his hands with figs and dates.
"And have you to cook every day, for all those men?" Meg said, wondering what oven could be found large enough.
"Dear, no!" the old lady answered. "Dear, dear, no; each man does everything for himself in his own hut; they don't even get bread, only rations of flour to make damper for themselves. Then we give them a fixed, quantity of meat, tea, sugar, tobacco, candles, soap, and one or two other things."
"Where do you keep the wool and things?" said Pip, who had a soul above home-made soap and metal dips for candles; "I can't see any shed or anything."
Mrs. Hassal told him they were a mile away, down by the creek, where the sheep were washed and sheared at the proper season. But the heat was too much to make even Pip want to go just then, so they attached themselves to Mr. Hassal, leaving little grandma with Esther, the General, and Baby, and went over to the brick stables near.
There were three or four buggies under cover, but no horses at all, they were farther afield. Across the paddock they went, and up the hill. Half a dozen answered Mr. Hassal's strange whistle; the others were wild, unbroken things, that tossed their manes and fled away at the sight of people to the farthermost parts where the trees grew.
Pip chose one, a grey, with long, fleet-looking legs and a narrow, beautiful head; he prided himself upon knowing something about "points." Judy picked a black, with reddish, restless eyes, but Mr. Hassal refused it because it had an uncertain temper, so she had to be content with a brown with a soft, satiny nose.
Meg asked for "something very quiet" in a whisper Judy and Pip could not hear, and was given a ruggy horse that had carried Mrs. Hassal eighteen years ago. Each animal was to be at the complete disposal of the young people during their stay at Yarrahappini, but the rides would have to take place before breakfast or after tea, they were told, if they wanted any pleasure out of them; the rest of the day was unbearable on horseback. Nellie was disappointed in the sheep, exceedingly so. She had expected to find great snow-white beautiful creatures that would be tame and allow her to put ribbon on their necks and lead them about.
From the hill-top the second morning she saw paddock after paddock, each with a brown, slowly moving mass; she ran down through the sunshine with Bunty to view them more closely.
"Oh, WHAT a shame!" she exclaimed, actual tears of disappointment springing to her eyes when she saw the great fat things with their long, dirty, ragged-looking fleece.
"Wait for a time, little woman," Mr. Hassal said; "just you wait till we give them their baths."