Here goes for a full account of my first, my last, my only real sweetheart, for I considered the professions of that pestiferous jackeroo as merely a grotesque caricature on the genuine article.
On making my first appearance before my lover, I looked quite the reverse of a heroine. My lovely hair was not conveniently escaping from the comb at the right moment to catch him hard in the eye, neither was my thrillingly low sweet voice floating out on the scented air in a manner which went straight to his heart, like the girls I had read of. On the contrary, I much resembled a female clown. It was on a day towards the end of September, and I had been up the creek making a collection of ferns. I had on a pair of men's boots with which to walk in the water, and was garbed in a most dilapidated old dress, which I had borrowed from one of the servants for the purpose. A pair of gloves made of basil, and a big hat, much torn in struggling through the undergrowth, completed my make-up. My hair was most unbecomingly screwed up, the short ends sticking out like a hurrah's nest.
It was late in the day when, returning from my ramble, I was met on the doorstep by aunt Helen.
"While you are in that trim, I wish you would pluck some lemons for me. I'm sure there is no danger of you ruining your turn-out. A sketch of you would make a good item for the Bulletin," she said.
I went readily to do her bidding, and fetching a ladder with rungs about two feet six apart, placed it against a lemon-tree at the back of the house, and climbed up.
Holding a number of lemons in my skirt, I was making a most ungraceful descent, when I heard an unknown footstep approaching towards my back.
People came to Caddagat at all hours of the day, so I was not in the least disconcerted. Only a tramp, an agent, or a hawker, I bet, I thought, as I reached my big boot down for another rung of the ladder without turning my head to see whom it might be.
A pair of strong brown hands encircled my waist, I was tossed up a foot or so and then deposited lightly on the ground, a masculine voice saying, "You're a mighty well-shaped young filly--'a waist rather small, but a quarter superb'."
"How dare anyone speak to me like that," I thought, as I faced about to see who was parodying Gordon. There stood a man I had never before set eyes on, smiling mischievously at me. He was a young man--a very young man, a bushman tremendously tall and big and sunburnt, with an open pleasant face and chestnut moustache--not at all an awe-inspiring fellow, in spite of his unusual, though well-proportioned and carried, height. I knew it must be Harold Beecham, of Five-Bob Downs, as I had heard he stood six feet three and a half in his socks.
I hurriedly let down my dress, the lemons rolling in a dozen directions, and turned to flee, but that well-formed figure bounded before me with the agility of a cat and barred my way.
"Now, not a step do you go, my fine young blood, until you pick up every jolly lemon and put them away tidily, or I'll tell the missus on you as sure as eggs."
It dawned on me that he had mistaken me for one of the servant-girls. That wasn't bad fun. I determined not to undeceive but to have a lark with him. I summed him up as conceited, but not with the disgusting conceit with which some are afflicted, or perhaps blessed. It was rather an air of I-have-always-got-what-I-desire-and-believe,-if-people-fail-it-is-all- their-own-fault, which surrounded him.
"If you please, sir," I said humbly, "I've gathered them all up, will you let me go now."
"Yes, when you've given me a kiss."
"Oh, sir, I couldn't do that!"
"Go on, I won't poison you. Come now, I'll make you."
"Oh, the missus might catch me."
"No jolly fear; I'll take all the blame if she does."
"Oh don't, sir; let me go, please," I said in such unfeigned distress, for I feared he was going to execute his threat, that he laughed and said:
"Don't be frightened, sissy, I never kiss girls, and I'm not going to start at this time of day, and against their will to boot. You haven't been long here, have you? I haven't seen you before. Stand out there till I see if you've got any grit in you, and then I am done with you."
I stood in the middle of the yard, the spot he indicated, while he uncurled his long heavy stock-whip with its big lash and scented myall handle. He cracked it round and round my head and arms, but I did not feel the least afraid, as I saw at a glance that he was exceedingly dexterous in the bushman's art of handling a stock-whip, and knew, if I kept perfectly still, I was quite safe. It was thanks to uncle Jay-Jay that I was able to bear the operation with unruffled equanimity, as he was in the habit of testing my nerves in this way.
"Well, I never! Not so much as blinked an eyelash! Thoroughbred!" He said after a minute or so, "Where's the boss?"
"In Gool-Gool. He won't be home till late."
"Is Mrs Bossier in?"
"No, she's not, but Mrs Bell is somewhere around in front."
I watched him as he walked away with an easy swinging stride, which spoke of many long, long days in the saddle. I felt certain as I watched him that he had quite forgotten the incident of the little girl with the lemons.
"Sybylla, hurry up and get dressed. Put on your best bib and tucker, and I will leave Harry Beecham in your charge, as I want to superintend the making of some of the dishes myself this evening."
"It's too early to put on my evening dress, isn't it, auntie?
"It is rather early; but you can't spare time to change twice. Dress yourself completely; you don't know what minute your uncle and his worship will arrive."
I had taken a dip in the creek, so had not to bathe, and it took me but a short time to don full war-paint--blue evening dress, satin slippers, and all. I wore my hair flowing, simply tied with a ribbon. I slipped out into the passage and called aunt Helen. She came.
"I'm ready, auntie. Where is he?"
"In the dining-room."
"Come into the drawing-room and call him. I will take charge of him till you are at leisure. But, auntie, it will be a long time till dinner--how on earth will I manage him?"
"Manage him!" she laughed; "he is not at all an obstreperous character."
We had reached the drawing-room by this, and I looked at myself in the looking-glass while aunt Helen went to summon Harold Augustus Beecham, bachelor, owner of Five-Bob Downs, Wyambeet, Wallerawang West, Quat-Quatta, and a couple more stations in New South Wales, besides an extensive one in Queensland.
I noticed as he entered the door that since I had seen him he had washed, combed his stiff black hair, and divested himself of his hat, spurs, and whip--his leggings had perforce to remain, as his nether garment was a pair of closely fitting grey cloth riding-breeches, which clearly defined the shapely contour of his lower limbs.
"Harry, this is Sybylla. I'm sure you need no further introduction. Excuse me, I have something on the fire which is likely to burn." And aunt Helen hurried off leaving us facing each other.
He stared down at me with undisguised surprise. I looked up at him and laughed merrily. The fun was all on my side. He was a great big man--rich and important. I was a chit--an insignificant nonentity--yet, despite his sex, size, and importance, I was complete master of that situation, and knew it: thus I laughed.
I saw that he recognized me again by the dusky red he flushed beneath his sun-darkened skin. No doubt he regretted having called me a filly above all things. He bowed stiffly, but I held out my hand, saying:
"Do shake hands. When introduced I always shake hands with anyone I think I'll like. Besides, I seem to know you well. Just think of all the apples you brought me!"
He acceded to my request, holding my hand a deal longer than necessary, and looking at me helplessly. It amused me greatly, for I saw that it was he who did not know how to manage me, and not I that couldn't manage him.
"'Pon my honour, Miss Melvyn, I had no idea it was you, when I said--" Here he boggled completely, which had the effect of reviving my laughter.
"You had no right to be dressed like that--deceiving a fellow. It wasn't fair."
"That's the best of it. It shows what a larrikin Don Juan sort of character you are. You can't deceive me now if you pretend to be a virtuous well-behaved member of society."
"That is the first time I've ever meddled with any of the kitchen fry, and, by Jove, it will be the last!" he said energetically. "I've got myself into a pretty mess."
"What nonsense you talk," I replied. "If you say another word about it, I'll write a full account of it and paste it in my scrapbook. But if you don't worry about it, neither will I. You said nothing very uncomplimentary; in fact, I was quite flattered."
I was perched on the high end of a couch, and he was leaning with big careless ease on the piano. Had grannie seen me, I would have been lectured about unladylike behaviour.
"What is your uncle at today?" he inquired.
"He's not at anything. He went to Gool-Gool yesterday on the jury. Court finishes up today, and he is going to bring the judge home tonight. That's why I am dressed so carefully," I answered.
"Good gracious! I never thought of court this time as I wasn't called on the jury, and for a wonder hadn't so much as a case against a Chinaman. I was going to stay tonight, but can't if his worship is going to dine here."
"Why? You're surely not afraid of Judge Fossilt? He's a very simple old customer."
"Imagine dining with a judge in this toggery!" and he glanced down his great figure at his riding gear.
"That doesn't matter; he's near-sighted. I'll get you put at the far end of the table under my wing. Men don't notice dress. If you weren't so big uncle or Frank Hawden could oblige you."
"Do you think I could pass muster?"
"Yes; after I brush you down you'll look as spruce as a brass penny.
"I did brush myself," he answered.
"You brush yourself!" I retorted. "There's a big splash of mud on your shoulder. You couldn't expect to do anything decently, for you're only a man, and men are the uselessest, good-for-nothingest, clumsiest animals in the world. All they're good for is to smoke and swear."
I fetched a clothes brush.
"You'll have to stand on the table to reach me," he said, looking down with amused indulgence.
"As you are so impertinent you can go dusty," and I tossed the brush away.
The evening was balmy, so I invited him into the garden. He threw his handkerchief over my chest, saying I might catch cold, but I scouted the idea.
We wandered into an arbour covered with wistaria, banksia, and Marechal Niel roses, and I made him a buttonhole.
A traveller pulled rein in the roadway, and, dismounting, threw his bridle over a paling of the garden fence while he went inside to try and buy a loaf of bread.
I jumped up, frightening the horse so that it broke away, pulling off the paling in the bridle-rein. I ran to bring a hammer to repair the damage. Mr Beecham caught the horse while I attempted to drive the nail into--the fence. It was a futile attempt. I bruised my fingers. He took the hammer from me, and fixing the paling in its place with a couple of well-aimed blows, said laughingly:
"You drive a nail! You couldn't expect to do anything. You're only a girl. Girls are the helplessest, uselessest, troublesomest little creatures in the world. All they're good for is to torment and pester a fellow."
I had to laugh.
At this juncture we heard uncle Jay-Jay's voice, so Mr Beecham went towards the back, whence it proceeded, after he left me at the front door.
"Oh, auntie, we got on splendidly! He's not a bit of trouble. We're as chummy as though we had been reared together," I exclaimed.
"Did you get him to talk?"
"Did you really?" in surprise.
When I came to review the matter I was forced to confess that I had done all the talking, and young Beecham the listening; moreover I described him as the quietest man I had ever seen or heard of.
The judge did not come home with uncle Jay-Jay as expected so it was not necessary for me to shelter Harold Beecham under my wing. Grannie greeted him cordially as "Harold, my boy", he was a great favourite with her. She and uncle Julius monopolized him for the evening. There was great talk of trucking sheep, the bad outlook as regarded the season, the state of the grass in the triangle, the Leigh Spring, the Bimbalong, and several other paddocks, and of the condition of the London wool market. It did not interest me, so I dived into a book, only occasionally emerging therefrom to smile at Mr Beecham.
He had come to Caddagat for a pair of bullocks which had been fattening in grannie's home paddock. Uncle gave him a start with them next morning. When they came out on the road I was standing in a bed of violets in a tangled corner of the garden, where roses climbed to kiss the lilacs, and spiraea stooped to rest upon the wallflowers, and where two tall kurrajongs stood like sentries over all. Harold Beecham dismounted, and, leaning over the fence, lingered with me, leaving the bullocks to uncle Jay-Jay. Uncle raved vigorously. Women, he asserted, were the bane of society and the ruination Of all men; but he had always considered Harold as too sensible to neglect his business to stand grinning at a pesky youngster in short skirts and a pigtail. Which was the greatest idiot of the two he didn't know.
His grumbling did not affect Harold in the least.
"Complimentary to both of us," he remarked as he leisurely threw himself across his great horse, and smiled his pleasant quiet smile, disclosing two rows of magnificent teeth, untainted by contamination with beer or tobacco. Raising his panama hat with the green fly-veil around it, he cantered off. I wondered as I watched him if anything ever disturbed his serenity, and desired to try. He looked too big and quiet to be ruffled by such emotions as rage, worry, jealousy, or even love. Returning to the house, I put aunt Helen through an exhaustive catechism concerning him.
Question. Auntie, what age is Harold Beecham?
Answer. XX-five last December.
Q. Did he ever have any brothers or sisters? A. No. His birth caused his mother's death. Q. How long has his father been dead?
A. Since Harold could crawl.
Q. Who reared him?
A. His aunts.
Q. Does he ever talk any more than that? A. Often a great deal less.
Q. Is he really very rich?
A. If he manages to pull through these seasons he will be second to none but Tyson in point of wealth.
Q. Is Five-Bob a very pretty place?
A. Yes; one of the show places of the district. Q. Does he often come to Caddagat?
A. Yes, he often drops in.
Q. What makes his hair so black and his moustache that light colour?
A. You'll have to study science to find that out. I'm sure I can't tell you.
Q. Does he--?
"Now, Sybylla," said auntie, laughing, "you are taking a suspicious interest in my sunburnt young giant. Did I not tell you he was taking time by the forelock when he brought the apples?"
"Oh, auntie, I am only asking questions because--"
"Yes, because, because, I understand perfectly. Because you are a girl, and all the girls fall a victim to Harry's charms at once. If you don't want to succumb meekly to your fate, 'Heed the spark or you may dread the fire.' That is the only advice I can tender you."
This was a Thursday, and on the following Sunday Harold Beecham reappeared at Caddagat and remained from three in the afternoon until nine at night. Uncle Julius and Frank Hawden were absent. The weather had taken a sudden backward lurch into winter again, so we had a fire. Harold sat beside it all the time, and interposed yes and no at the proper intervals in grannie's brisk business conversation, but he never addressed one word to me beyond "Good afternoon, Miss Melvyn," on his arrival, and "Good night, Miss Melvyn," when leaving.
I studied him attentively all the while. What were his ideas and sentiments it were hard to tell: he never expressed any. He was fearfully and wonderfully quiet. Yet his was an intelligent silence, not of that wooden brainless description which casts a damper on company, neither was it of the morose or dreaming order.