Uncle Julius had taken a run down to Sydney before returning to Caddagat, and was to be home during the first week in September, bringing with him Everard Grey. This young gentleman always spent Christmas at Caddagat, but as he had just recovered from an illness he was coming up for a change now instead. Having heard much of him, I was curious to see him. He was grandmamma's adopted son, and was the orphan of very aristocratic English parents who had left him to the guardianship of distant relatives. They had proved criminally unscrupulous. By finding a flaw in deeds, or something which none but lawyers understand, they had deprived him of all his property and left him to sink or swim. Grannie had discovered, reared, and educated him. Among professions he had chosen the bar, and was now one of Sydney's most promising young barristers. His foster-mother was no end proud of him, and loved him as her own son.
In due time a telegram arrived from uncle Julius, containing instructions for the buggy to be sent to Gool-Gool to meet him and Everard Grey.
By this time I had quite recovered from influenza and my accident, and as they would not arrive till near nightfall, for their edification I was to be dressed in full-blown dinner costume, also I was to be favoured with a look at my reflection in a mirror for the first time since my arrival.
During the afternoon I was dispatched by grannie on a message some miles away, and meeting Mr Hawden some distance from the house, he took it upon himself to accompany me. Everywhere I went he followed after, much to my annoyance, because grannie gave me many and serious talkings-to about the crime of encouraging young men.
Frank Hawden had changed his tune, and told me now that it mattered not that I was not pretty, as pretty or not I was the greatest brick of a girl he had met. His idea for this opinion was that I was able to talk theatres with him, and was the only girl there, and because he had arrived at that overflowing age when young men have to be partial to some female whether she be ugly or pretty, fat or lean, old or young. That I should be the object of these puerile emotions in a fellow like Frank Hawden, filled me with loathing and disgust.
It was late in the afternoon when Hawden and I returned, and the buggy was to be seen a long way down the road, approaching at the going-for-the-doctor pace at which uncle Julius always drove.
Aunt Helen hustled me off to dress, but I was only half-rigged when they arrived, and so was unable to go out and meet them. Uncle Julius inquired for that youngster of Lucy's, and aunt Helen replied that she would be forthcoming when they were dressed for dinner. The two gentlemen took a nip, to put a little heart in them uncle Julius said, and auntie Helen came to finish my toilet while they were making theirs.
"There now, you have nothing to complain of in the way of looks," she remarked at the completion of the ceremony. "Come and have a good look at yourself."
I was decked in my first evening dress, as it was a great occasion. It was only on the rarest occasion that we donned full war-paint at Caddagat. I think that evening dress is one of the prettiest and most idiotic customs extant. What can be more foolish than to endanger one's health by exposing at night the chest and arms--two of the most vital spots of the body--which have been covered all day? On the other hand, what can be more beautiful than a soft white bosom rising and falling amid a dainty nest of silk and lace? Every woman looks more soft and feminine in a decollete gown. And is there any of the animal lines known pleasanter to the eye than the contour of shapely arms? Some there are who cry down evening dress as being immodest and indecent. These will be found among those whose chest and arms will not admit of being displayed, or among those who, not having been reared to the custom, dislike it with many other things from want of use.
Aunt Helen took me into the wide old drawing-room, now brilliantly lighted. A heavy lamp was on each of the four brackets in the corners, and another swung from the centre of the ceiling, and candelabra threw many lights from the piano. Never before had I seen this room in such a blaze of light. During the last week or two aunt Helen and I had occupied it every night, but we never lighted more than a single candle on the piano. This had been ample light for our purpose. Aunt Helen would sing in her sweet sad voice all the beautiful old songs I loved, while I curled myself on a mat at her side and read books--the music often compelling me to forget the reading, and the reading occasionally rendering me deaf to the music; but through both ever came the solemn rush of the stream outside in its weird melancholy, like a wind ceaselessly endeavouring to outstrip a wild vain regret which relentlessly pursued.
"Your uncle Julius always has the drawing-room lighted like this; he does not believe in shadowy half light--calls it sentimental bosh," said aunt Helen in explanation.
"Is uncle like that?" I remarked, but my question remained unanswered. Leaving a hand-mirror with me, aunt Helen had slipped away.
One wall of the drawing-room was monopolized by a door, a big bookcase, and a heavy bevelled-edged old-fashioned mirror--the two last-mentioned articles reaching from floor to ceiling. Since my arrival the face of the mirror had been covered, but this evening the blue silken curtains were looped up, and it was before this that I stood.
I looked, and looked again in pleased surprise. I beheld a young girl with eyes and skin of the clearest and brightest, and lips of brilliant scarlet, and a chest and pair of arms which would pass muster with the best. If Nature had been in bad humour when moulding my face, she had used her tools craftily in forming my figure. Aunt Helen had proved a clever maid and dressmaker. My pale blue cashmere dress fitted my fully developed yet girlish figure to perfection. Some of my hair fell in cunning little curls on my forehead; the remainder, tied simply with a piece of ribbon, hung in thick waves nearly to my knees. My toilet had altered me almost beyond recognition. It made me look my age--sixteen years and ten months--whereas before, when dressed carelessly and with my hair plastered in a tight coil, people not knowing me would not believe that I was under XX. Joy and merriment lit up my face, which glowed with youth, health, and happiness, which rippled my lips in smiles, which displayed a splendid set of teeth, and I really believe that on that night I did not look out of the way ugly.
I was still admiring my reflection when aunt Helen returned to say that Everard and uncle Julius were smoking on the veranda and asking for me.
"What do you think of yourself, Sybylla?"
"Oh, aunt Helen, tell me that there is something about me not completely hideous!"
She took my face between her hands, saying:
"Silly child, there are some faces with faultless features, which would receive nothing more than an indifferent glance while beside other faces which might have few if any pretensions to beauty. Yours is one of those last mentioned."
"But that does not say I am not ugly."
"No one would dream of calling you plain, let alone ugly; brilliant is the word which best describes you."
Uncle Julius had the upper part of his ponderous figure arrayed in a frock-coat. He did not take kindly to what he termed "those skittish sparrow-tailed affairs". Frock-coats suited him, but I am not partial to them on every one. They look well enough on a podgy, fat, or broad man, but on a skinny one they hang with such a forlorn, dying-duck expression, that they invariably make me laugh.
Julius John Bossier, better known as J. J. Bossier, and better still as Jay-Jay--big, fat, burly, broad, a jovial bachelor of forty, too fond of all the opposite sex ever to have settled his affections on one in particular--was well known, respected, and liked from Wagga Wagga to Albury, Forbes to Dandaloo, Bourke to Hay, from Tumut to Monaro, and back again to Peak Hill, as a generous man, a straight goer in business matters, and a jolly good fellow all round.
I was very proud to call him uncle.
"So this is yourself, is it!" he exclaimed, giving me a tremendous hug.
"Oh, uncle," I expostulated, ?? wipe your old kisses off Your breath smells horribly of whisky and tobacco."
"Gammon, that's what makes my kisses so nice!" he answered; and, after holding me at arm's-length for inspection, "By George, you're a wonderful-looking girl! You're surely not done growing yet, though! You are such a little nipper. I could put you in my pocket with ease. You aren't a scrap like your mother. I'll give the next shearer who passes a shilling to cut that hair off. It would kill a dog in the hot weather."
"Everard, this is my niece, Sybylla" (aunt Helen was introducing us). "You will have to arrange yourselves--what relation you are, and how to address each other."
The admiration expressed in his clear sharp eyes gave me a sensation different to any I had ever experienced previously.
"I suppose I'm a kind of uncle and brother in one, and as either relationship entitles me to a kiss, I'm going to take one," he said in a very gallant manner.
"You may take one if you can," I said with mischievous defiance, springing off the veranda into the flower-garden. He accepted my challenge, and, being lithe as a cat, a tremendous scamper ensued. Round and round the flower-beds we ran. Uncle Jay-Jay's beard opened in a broad smile, which ended in a loud laugh. Everard Grey's coat-tails flew in the breeze he made, and his collar was too high for athletic purposes. I laughed too, and was lost, and we returned to the veranda--Everard in triumph, and I feeling very red and uncomfortable.
Grannie had arrived upon the scene, looking the essence of brisk respectability in a black silk gown and a white lace cap. She cast on me a glance of severe disapproval, and denounced my conduct as shameful; but uncle Jay-Jay's eyes twinkled as he dexterously turned the subject.
"Gammon, mother! I bet you were often kissed when that youngster's age. I bet my boots now that you can't count the times you did the same thing yourself. Now, confess."
Grannie's face melted in a smile as she commenced a little anecdote, with that pathetic beginning, "When I was young."
Aunt Helen sent me inside lest I should catch cold, and I stationed myself immediately inside the window so that I should not miss the conversation. "I should think your niece is very excitable," Mr Grey was saying to aunt Helen.
"Yes; I have never seen any but very highly strung temperaments have that transparent brilliance of expression."
"She is very variable--one moment all joy, and the next the reverse."
"She has a very striking face. I don't know what it is that makes it so."
"It may be her complexion," said aunt Helen; "her skin is whiter than the fairest blonde, and her eyebrows and lashes very dark. Be very careful you do not say anything that would let her know you think her not nice looking. She broods over her appearance in such a morbid manner. It is a weak point with her, so be careful not to sting her sensitiveness in that respect."
"Plain-looking! Why, I think she has one of the most fascinating faces I've seen for some time, and her eyes are simply magnificent. What colour are they?"
"The grass is not bad about Sydney. I think I will send a truck Of fat wethers away next week," said uncle Jay-Jay to grannie.
"It is getting quite dark. Let's get in to dinner at once," said grannie.
During the meal I took an opportunity of studying the appearance of Everard Grey. He had a typically aristocratic English face, even to the cold rather heartless expression, which is as established a point of an English blue blood as an arched neck is of a thoroughbred horse.
A ringer, whose wife had been unexpectedly confined, came for grannie when dinner was over, and the rest of us had a delightful musical evening. Uncle Jay-Jay bawled "The Vicar of Bray" and "Drink, Puppy, Drink" in a stentorian bass voice, holding me on his knee, pinching, tickling, pulling my hair, and shaking me up and down between whiles. Mr Hawden favoured us by rendering "The Holy City". Everard Grey sang several new songs, which was a great treat, as he had a well-trained and musical baritone voice. He was a veritable carpet knight, and though not a fop, was exquisitely dressed in full evening costume, and showed his long pedigreed blood in every line of his clean-shaven face and tall slight figure. He was quite a champion on the piano, and played aunt Helen's accompaniments while he made her sing song after song. When she was weary uncle Jay-Jay said to me, "Now it's your turn, me fine lady. We've all done something to keep things rolling but you. Can you sing?"
"Can this youngster sing, Helen?"
"She sings very nicely to herself sometimes, but I do not know how she would manage before company. Will you try something, Sybylla?"
Uncle Jay-Jay waited to hear no more, but carrying me to the music-stool, and depositing me thereon, warned me not to attempt to leave it before singing something.
To get away to myself, where I was sure no one could bear me, and sing and sing till I made the echoes ring, was one of the chief joys of my existence, but I had never made a success in singing to company. Besides losing all nerve, I had a very queer voice, which every one remarked. However, tonight I made an effort in my old favourite, "Three Fishers Went Sailing". The beauty of the full-toned Ronisch piano, and Everard's clever and sympathetic accompanying, caused me to forget my audience, and sing as though to myself alone, forgetting that my voice was odd.
When the song ceased Mr Grey wheeled abruptly on the stool and said, "Do you know that you have one of the most wonderful natural voices I have heard. Why, there is a fortune in such a voice if it were, trained! Such chest-notes, such feeling, such rarity of tone!"
"Don't be sarcastic, Mr Grey," I said shortly.
"Upon my word as a man, I mean every word I say," he returned enthusiastically.
Everard Grey's opinion on artistic matters was considered worth having. He dabbled in all the arts--writing, music, acting, and sketching, and went to every good concert and play in Sydney. Though he was clever at law, it was whispered by some that he would wind up on the stage, as he had a great leaning that way.
I walked away from the piano treading on air. Would I really make a singer? I with the voice which had often been ridiculed; I who had often blasphemously said that I would sell my soul to be able to sing just passably. Everard Grey's opinion gave me an intoxicated sensation of joy.
"Can you recite?" he inquired.
"Yes," I answered firmly.
"Give us something," said uncle Jay-Jay.
I recited Longfellow's "The Slave's Dream". Everard Grey was quite as enthusiastic over this as he had been about my singing.
"Such a voice! Such depth and width! Why, she could fill the Centennial Hall without an effort. All she requires is training."
"By George, she's a regular dab! But I wish she would give us something not quite so glum," said uncle Jay-Jay.
I let myself go. Carried away by I don't know what sort of a spirit, I exclaimed, "Very well, I will, if you will wait till I make up, and will help me."
I disappeared for a few minutes, and returned made up as a fat old Irish woman, with a smudge of dirt on my face. There was a general laugh.
Would Mr Hawden assist me? Of course he was only too delighted, and flattered that I had called upon him in preference to the others. What would he do?
I sat him on a footstool, so that I might with facility put my hand on his sandy hair, and turning to uncle, commenced:
"Shure, sir, seeing it was a good bhoy yez were afther to run errants, it's meself that has brought this youngsther for yer inspection. It's a jool ye'll have in him. Shure I rared him meself, and he says his prayers every morning. Kape sthill, honey! Faith, ye're not afraid of yer poor old mammy pullin' yer beautiful cur-r-rls?"
Uncle Jay-Jay was laughing like fun; even aunt Helen deigned to smile; and Everard was looking on with critical interest.
"Go on," said uncle. But Mr Hawden got huffy at the ridicule which he suspected I was calling down upon him, and jumped up looking fit to eat me.
I acted several more impromptu scenes with the other occupants of the drawing-room. Mr Hawden emitted "Humph!" from the corner where he grumpily sat, but Mr Grey was full of praise.
"Splendid! splendid!" he exclaimed. "You say you have not had an hour's training, and never saw a play. Such versatility. Your fortune would be made on the stage. It is a sin to have such exceptional talent wasting in the bush. I must take her to Sydney and put her under a good master."
"Indeed, you'll do no such thing," said uncle. "I'll keep her here to liven up the old barracks. You've got enough puppets on the stage without a niece of mine ever being there."
I went to bed that night greatly elated. Flattery is sweet to youth. I felt pleased with myself, and imagined, as I peeped in the looking-glass, that I was not half bad-looking after all.