Esther had gone to a ball, not in a dress of delicate colour with great puffed sleeves, and a dazzling neck bare and beautiful under its wraps, not through the darkness to a blaze of lights and swinging music.
She had gone, in the broad light of the morning, in a holland suit with a blue Henley shirt, a sailor hat, and a gossamer.
Under the front buggy seat where Mr. Hassal sat was a box containing a beautiful gown, all daffodil silk and delicate wavelets of chiffon. And there were daffodil shoes and stockings, a plume fan in a hat-box on her knee, and a lovely trained white underskirt with billowy frills of torchon, the very sight of which made Meg wild to be grown up.
But none of these things were to be donned for many an hour yet.
The ball was a neat little matter of fifty-five miles away, across country, so she had to start tolerably early, of course, in order to have comfortable time to "titivate," as Pip expressed it.
The children, as compensation for having no part in this pleasure, were to have a very, out-of-the-way kind of picnic all to themselves.
In the first place, the picnic ground was fourteen miles away; in the second, the journey was to be made, not in everyday buggies, or on commonplace horses, but on a dray drawn by a team of twelve yoked bullocks.
A boundary-rider had reported that a magnificent blue gum that they had long called King Koree had been blown down during a violent gale, and Mr. Hassal immediately declared that, whatever the trouble, it must be brought for the foundation of a kind of dam across the creek at Krangi-Bahtoo, the picnic spot. The fallen bush monarch lay twenty miles away from the station, and six beyond the place chosen for the picnic; so it was arranged the trolly should carry the party for the fourteen miles, leave them to picnic, go forward for the tree, bring it back, and deposit it near the creek ready for future operations, and bring the children back in the cool of the evening.
But for escorting his daughter to the ball, Mr. Hassal would have gone himself to the place and seen about it in person. As it was, he placed the great trolly in the charge of four men, with instructions to pick up a couple of men from distant huts to help in the task.
Krangi-Bahtoo—or Duck Water, as, less prettily, we should call it—was the name given to the head of the creek, which had scooped out the earth till it made itself a beautiful ravine just there, with precipitous rocks and boulders that the kangaroos skipped across and played hide-and-seek behind with hunters, and great towering blue gums and red gums, that seemed to lose themselves in the blue, blue sky-canopy above.
Tettawonga told of a Bunyip that dwelt where the trickling water had made a pool, deep and beautiful, and delicate ferns had crept tenderly to fringe its edge, and blackwood, and ti-trees grown up thick and strong for a girdle. The water-hen made a home there, the black swan built among the grass-like reeds, the wild duck made frequent dark zigzag lines against the sky. From the trees the bell-bird, the coach-whip, the tewinga, the laughing-jackass, the rifle-bird and regent, filled the air with sound, if not with music. And the black snake, the brown snake, the whip, the diamond, and the death adder glided gently among the fallen leaves and grasses, and held themselves in cheerful readiness for intruders. That was why a condition was attached to the freely granted picnic.
Everyone might go, and go on the bullock-dray, but the picnic was to take place above the ravine, and no one was to venture down, on pain of being instantly packed back to Sydney.
They all promised faithfully. Mrs. Hassal, tiny as she was, had a way of commanding implicit obedience.
Then an incredible number of hampers, brimming over with good things, was packed.
Mr. Gillet went, to give an appearance of steadiness to the party, and to see no one got sunstroke.
He had a Heine in one pocket against the long, unusual day, a bulging Tennyson in the other, and a sheaf of English papers under his arm as he climbed on the trolly, where the whole seven were already seated.
The SEVEN? Even so, Judy had refused to stir without the General, and had promised "on her life" not to allow any harm to come near him.
Mr. Gillet gave a glance almost of dismay when he found the whole number was to be present, without the subtraction of the mischievously disposed ones, or the addition of anyone but himself weighted with authority. For a moment he distrusted his own powers in such a situation.
Judy caught the doubting look.
"You're quoting poetry to yourself, Mr. Gillet," she said.
"I?" he said, and looked astonished. "Indeed, no. What makes you think so, Miss Judy?"
"I can hear it distinctly," she said. "Your eyes are saying it, and your left ear, not to mention the ends of your moustache."
"Judy!" reproved Meg, whom something had made strangely quiet.
He pretended to be alarmed—shut his eyes, held his left ear, covered his moustache.
"What can they be saying?" he said.
"'Oh that I was where I would be!
Then I would be where I am not:
But where I am I still must be,
And where I would be I cannot.'
"Meg, I WISH you would stop treading on my toes."
So after that even Mr. Gillet grew gay and talkative, to show he was enjoying himself, and the bullocks caught the infection of the brimming spirits behind them, and moved a LEETLE bit faster than snails. When they had crept along over about ten miles, however, the slow motion and the heat that beat down sobered them a little.
"Miss Meg, that silver-grey gum before you, guileless of leaves, indicates Duck Water."
How glad they were to unfold themselves and stretch out their arms and legs on the ground at last. No one had dreamt riding behind a bullock team could have been so "flat, stale, and unprofitable," as it was after the first mile or two.
Then the trolly continued its course.
"I doubt if they will be back before the sun goes down, if they don't go a little quicker," Mr. Gillet said; "it is lunch-time now."
They were in a great grassed paddock that at one end fell abruptly down to the ravine and swamp lands known as "Duck Water."
A belt of great trees made a shade at one side, and along the other was the barbed-wire fence that showed they had not got away from the Yarrahappini estate even yet: higher up was the lonely bark hut of one of the stockmen.
They went up in a body to speak to him before he joined the bullock team, and to view his solitary dwelling.
Just a small room it was, with a wide fireplace and chimney, where hung a frying-pan, a billy, a cup, and a spoon. There was a bunk in one corner, with a couple of blue blankets on it, a deal table and one chair in the middle of the room. Over the fire-place hung a rough cupboard, made out of a soap-box, and used to hold rations. From a nail in the low ceiling a mosquito-net bag was suspended, and the buzzing flies around proclaimed that it held meat. The walls were papered with many a copy of "The Illustrated Sydney News", and "The Town and Country Journal"; there was a month-old "Daily Telegraph" lying on the chair, where the owner had laid it down.
A study in brown the stockman was, brown, dull eyes; brown, dusty-looking hair; brown skin, sundried and shrivelled; brown, unkempt beard; brown trousers of corduroy, and brown coat.
His pipe was black, however—a clay, that looked as if it had been smoked for twenty years.
"Wouldn't you like to be nearer the homestead?" Meg asked. "Isn't it lonely?"
"Not ter mention," the brown man said to his pipe or his beard.
"What do you do with yourself when you're, not outside?" asked Pip.
"Smoke," said the man.
"But on Sundays, and all through the evenings?"
"Smoke," he said.
"On Cwismas day," Baby said, pressing to see this strange man; "zen what does you do?"
"Smoke" he said.
Judy wanted to know how long he'd lived in the little place, and everyone was stricken dumb to hear he had been there most of the time for seven years.
"Don't you ever forget how to talk?" she said, in an awestruck voice.
But he answered laconically to his beard that there was the cat.
Baby had found it already under the kerosene tin that did duty for a bucket, and it had scratched her in three places: brown, like its master, it was evil-eyed, fiercely whiskered, thin as a rail; still, there was the affection of years between the two.
Mr. Gillet told him of the squatter's wish that he should go with the other men and help with the tree. He pulled a brown hat over his brow and moved away towards the bullock-dray, which had crept up the winding road by now, to the hill-top.
"Water in tub, nearer than creek," he muttered to his pipe before he went, and they found his tub-tank and gladly filled the billy ready for lunch.
Mrs. Hassal's roast fowls and duck tasted well; even though they frizzled on the plates as if the sun were trying to finish their cooking. And the apple tarts and apricot turnovers vanished speedily; and of the fruit salad that came forth from two screw-top bottles, not a teaspoonful remained to tell a tale.
Mr. Gillet had brought materials for a damper, by special request, and after lunch prepared to make it, so they might have it for afternoon tea.
"Pheough!" said Judy. "Is THAT how you make it? You need not give ME any."
It certainly was manufactured with surprising celerity.
Mr. Gillet merely tossed some flour from a bag out upon a plate, added a pinch of salt and some water; then he shaped it into a cake of dough, and laid it on the ashes of the fire, covering it all over with the hot, silver ash.
"HOW dirty!" said Nell, elevating her pretty little nose.
But when it was cooked, and Mr. Gillet lifted it up and dusted the ash away—lo! it was high and light and beautifully white.
So they ate it, and took mental marginal notes to make it in the paddocks at Misrule for each and every picnic to come.
They piled up two plates of good things and put in the brown man's cupboard, and Mr. Gillet laid his unread English papers on the chair near the cat.
"That 'Telegraph' is a month old," he said deprecatingly seeing Meg smile upon him her first smile that day.