Every station hand from Five-Bob, male and female, had gone to the ball at Yabtree. Harold and his overseer had to attend to the horses, while the jackeroos started a fire in the kitchen, opened windows and doors which had been locked all day, and saw to the comfort of the gentlemen guests.
Aunt Helen and I shared the one bedroom. As we had not fresh dresses to put on we had to make the best of our present toilet.
I unplaited my hair (shook the dust out of it) and wore it flowing. We washed and dusted ourselves, and wore as adornment--roses. Crimson and cream roses paid the penalty of peeping in the window. Aunt Helen plucked some of them, which she put in my hair and belt, and pinned carefully at my throat, and then we were ready. Miss Beecham assured us there was nothing to be done, as the maids had set the table and prepared the viands for a cold meal before leaving in the morning, so we proceeded to the drawing-room to await the arrival of the other visitors. They soon made their appearance. First, two stout old squatters with big laughs and bigger corporations, then Miss Augusta Beecham, next Joe Archer the overseer, and the two other jackeroos. After these appeared a couple of governesses, Mr, Mrs, and Miss Benson, a clergyman, an auctioneer, a young friend of Harold's from Cootamundra, a horse-buyer, a wooll-classer, Miss Sarah Beecham, and then Miss Derrick brought herself and her dress in with great style and airs. She was garbed in a sea-green silk, and had jewellery on her neck, arms, and hair. Her self-confident mien was suggestive of the conquest of many masculine hearts. She was a big handsome woman. Beside her, I in my crushed white muslin dress was as overshadowed as a little white handkerchief would he in comparison to a gorgeous shawl heavily wrought in silks and velvet. She was given the best scat as though she were a princess. She sat down with great indifference, twirled a bracelet round her wrist, languidly opened her fan, and closed her eyes as she wafted it slowly to and fro.
"By Jove, isn't she a splendid creature?" enthusiastically whispered a gentleman sitting beside me.
I looked at her critically. She was very big, and in a bony stiff way was much developed in figure. She had a nice big nose, and a long well-shaped face, a thin straight mouth, and empty light eyes. If my attention had not been called to her I would not have noticed her one way or the other, but being pointed to as a beauty, I weighed her according to my idea of facial charm, and pronounced her one of the most insipid-looking people I had set eyes upon.
She was the kind of woman with whom men become much infatuated. She would never make a fool of herself by letting her emotions run away with her, because she had no emotions, but lived in a sea of unruffled self-consciousness and self-confidence. Any man would be proud to introduce her as his wife to his friends whom he had brought home to dinner. She would adorn the head of his table. She would never worry him with silly ideas. She would never act with impropriety. She would never become a companion to her husband. Bah, a man does not want his wife to be a companion! There were myths and fables in the old day; so there are now. The story that men like a companion as well as a wife is an up-to-date one.
This train of thought was interrupted by our host, who appeared in the doorway, clad from sole to neck in white. We steered for the dining-room--XX-two all told--thirteen men and nine representatives of the other sex.
Aunt Helen got one scat of honour near the head of the table and Miss Derrick another. I drifted to the foot among the unimportant younger fry, where we had no end of fun and idle chatter. We had to wait on ourselves, and as all formality was dispensed with, it was something like a picnic.
The heat was excessive. Every window and door were open, and the balmy, almost imperceptible, zephyrs which faintly rustled the curtains and kissed our perspiration-beaded brows were rich with many scents from the wide old flower-garden, which, despite the drought, brought forth a wealth of blossom.
When done eating we had to wash the dishes. Such a scamper ensued back and forwards to the kitchen, which rang with noise, and merriment. Everyone was helping, hindering, laughing, joking, teasing, and brimming over with fun and enjoyment. When we had completed this task, dancing was proposed. Some of the elderly and more sensible people said it was too hot, but all the young folks did not care a rap for the temperature. Harold had no objections, Miss Derrick was agreeable, Miss Benson announced herself ready and willing, and Joe Archer said he was "leppin'" to begin, so we adjourned to the dancing-room and commenced operations.
I played the piano for the first quadrille, and aunt Helen for the second dance. It was most enjoyable. There was a table at one end of the room on which was any amount of cherries, lollies, cake, dainties, beers, syrups, and glasses, where all could regale themselves without ceremony or bother every time the inclination seized them. Several doors and windows of the long room opened into the garden, and, provided one had no fear of snakes, it was delightful to walk amid the flowers and cool oneself between dances.
A little exertion on such a night made us very hot. After the third dance the two old squatters, the horse-buyer, the clergyman, and Mr Benson disappeared. Judging from the hilarity of their demeanour and the killing odour of their breaths when they returned an hour or so later, during their absence they must have conscientiously sampled the contents of every whisky decanter on the dining-room sideboard.
I could not dance, but had no lack of partners, as, ladies being in the minority, the gentlemen had to occasionally put up with their own sex in a dance.
"Let's take a breeze now and have a song or two, but no more dancing for a while," said some of them; but Harold Beecham said, "One more turn, and then we will have a long spell and a change of programme."
He ordered Joe Archer to play a waltz, and the floor soon held several whirling couples. Harold "requested the pleasure" of me--the first time that night. I demurred. He would not take a refusal.
"Believe me, if I felt competent, Mr Beecham, I would not refuse. I cannot dance. It will be no pleasure to you."
"Allow me to be the best judge of what is a pleasure to me," he said, quietly placing me in position.
He swung me once round the room, and then through an open window into the garden.
"I am sorry that I haven't had more time to look after you today. Come round into my room. I want to strike a bargain with you," were his words.
I followed him in the direction of a detached building in the garden. This was Harold's particular domain. It contained three rooms--one a library and office, another an arsenal and deed-room, and the third, into which he led me, was a sort of sitting-room, containing a piano, facilities for washing, a table, easy-chairs, and other things. As we entered I noticed the lamp, burning brightly on the table, gleamed on the face of a clock on the wall, which pointed to half past ten.
We stood beside the table, some distance apart, and, facing me, he said:
"It is no use of me making a long yarn about nothing. I'm sure you know what I want to say better than I do myself. You always are wonderfully smart at seeing through a fellow. Tell me, will it be yes or no?"
This was an experience in love. He did not turn red or white, or yellow or green, nor did he tremble or stammer, or cry or laugh, or become fierce or passionate, or tender or anything but just himself, as I had always known him. He displayed no more emotion than had he been inviting me to a picnic. This was not as I had pictured a man would tell his love, or as I had read of it, heard of it, or wished it should be. A curious feeling--disappointment, perhaps--stole over me. His matter-of-fact coolness flabbergasted me.
"Is this not rather sudden? You have given me no intimation of your intentions," I stammered.
"I didn't think it wise to dawdle any longer," he replied. "Surely you have known what I've been driving at ever since I first clapped eyes on you. There's plenty of time. I don't want to hurry you, only I want you to be engaged to me for safety."
He spoke as usual in his slow twangy drawl, which would have proclaimed his Colonial nationality anywhere. No word of love was uttered to me and none requested from me.
I put it down to his conceit. I thought that he fancied he could win any woman, and me without the least palaver or trouble. I felt annoyed. I said aloud, "I will become engaged to you;" to myself I added, "Just for a little while, the more to surprise and take the conceit out of you when the time comes."
Now that I understand his character I know that it was not conceit, but just his quiet unpretending way. He had meant all his actions towards me, and had taken mine in return.
"Thank you, Sybylla, that is all I want. We will talk about the matter more some other time. I will go up to Caddagat next Sunday. You have surprised me nearly out of my wits," here he laughed. "I never dreamt you would say yes so easily, just like any other girl. I thought I would have a lot of trouble with you."
He approached me and was stooping to kiss me. I cannot account for my action or condemn it sufficiently. It was hysterical--the outcome of an overstrung, highly excitable, and nervous temperament. Perhaps my vanity was wounded, and my tendency to strike when touched was up in arms. The calm air of ownership with which Harold drew near annoyed me, or, as Sunday-school teachers would explain it, Satan got hold of me. He certainly placed a long strong riding-whip on the table beneath my hand! As Harold stooped with the intention of pressing his lips to mine, I quickly raised the whip and brought it with all my strength right across his face. The instant the whip had descended I would have smashed my arm on the door-post to recall that blow. But that was impossible. It had left a great weal on the healthy sun-tanned skin. His moustache had saved his lips, but it had caught his nose, the left cheek, had blinded the left eye, and had left a cut on the temple from which drops of blood were rolling down his cheek and staining his white coat. A momentary gleam of anger shot into his eyes and he gave a gasp, whether of surprise, pain, or annoyance, I know not. He made a gesture towards me. I half expected and fervently wished he would strike. The enormity of what I had done paralysed me. The whip fell from my fingers and I dropped on to a low lounge behind me, and placing my elbows on my knees crouchingly buried my face in my hands; my hair tumbled softly over my shoulders and reached the floor, as though to sympathetically curtain my humiliation. Oh, that Harold would thrash me severely! It would have infinitely relieved me. I had done a mean unwomanly thing in thus striking a man, who by his great strength and sex was debarred retaliation. I had committed a violation of self-respect and common decency; I had given a man an ignominious blow in the face with a riding-whip. And that man was Harold Beecham, who with all his strength and great stature was so wondrously gentle--who had always treated my whims and nonsense with something like the amused tolerance held by a great Newfoundland for the pranks of a kitten.
The clock struck eleven.
"A less stinging rebuke would have served your purpose. I had no idea that a simple caress from the man whose proposal of marriage you had just accepted would be considered such an unpardonable familiarity."
Harold's voice fell clearly, calmly, cuttingly on the silence. He moved away to the other end of the room and I heard the sound of water.
A desire filled me to tell him that I did not think he had attempted a familiarity, but that I had been mad. I wished to say I could not account for my action, but I was dumb. My tongue refused to work, and I felt as though I would choke. The splash of the water came from the other end of the room. I knew he must be suffering acute pain in his eye. A far lighter blow had kept me sleepless a whole night. A fear possessed me that I might have permanently injured his sight. The splash of water ceased. His footfall stopped beside me. I could feel he was within touching distance, but I did not move.
Oh, the horrible stillness! Why did he not speak? He placed his hand lightly on my head.
"It doesn't matter, Syb. I know you didn't mean to hurt me. I suppose you thought you couldn't affect my dark, old, saddle-flap-looking phiz. That is one of the disadvantages of being a big lumbering concern like I am. Jump up. That's the girl."
I arose. I was giddy, and would have fallen but for Harold steadying me by the shoulder. I looked up at him nervously and tried to ask his forgiveness, but I failed.
"Good heavens, child, you are as white as a sheet! I was a beast to speak harshly to you." He held a glass of water to my lips and I drank.
"Great Jupiter, there's nothing to worry about! I know you hadn't the slightest intention of hurting me. It's nothing--I'll be right in a few moments. I've often been amused at and have admired your touch-me-not style. You only forgot you had something in your hand."
He had taken it quite as a matter of fact, and was excusing me in the kindest possible terms.
"Good gracious, you mustn't stew over such a trifling accident! It's nothing. Just tie this handkerchief on for me, please, and then we'll go back to the others or there will be a search-party after us."
He could have tied the handkerchief just as well himself--it was only out of kindly tact he requested my services. I accepted his kindness gratefully. He sank on his knee so that I could reach him, and I tied a large white handkerchief across the injured part. He could not open his eye, and hot water poured from it, but he made light of the idea of it paining. I was feeling better now, so we returned to the ballroom. The clock struck the half-hour after eleven as we left the room. Harold entered by one door and, I by another, and I slipped into a seat as though I had been there some time.
There were only a few people in the room. The majority were absent--some love-making, others playing cards. Miss Beecham. was one who was not thus engaged. She exclaimed at once:
"Good gracious, boy, what have you done to yourself?"
"Looks as if he had been interviewing a belligerent tramp," said aunt Helen, smilingly.
"He's run into the clothes-line, that's what he's done," said Miss Augusta confidently, after she had peeped beneath the bandage.
"You ought to get a bun for guessing, aunt Gus," said Harold laughing.
I told them to put the clothes-lines up when they had done with them. I knew there would be an accident."
"Perhaps they were put up high enough for ordinary purposes," remarked her nephew.
"Let me do something for you, dear."
"No, thank you, aunt Gus. It is nothing," he said carelessly, and the matter dropped.
Harold Beecham. was not a man to invite inquiry concerning himself.
Seeing I was unobserved by the company, I slipped away to indulge in my foolish habit of asking the why and the wherefore of things. Why had Harold Beecham (who was a sort of young sultan who could throw the handkerchief where he liked) chosen me of all women? I had no charms to recommend me--none of the virtues which men demand of the woman they wish to make their wife. To begin with, I was small, I was erratic and unorthodox, I was nothing but a tomboy--and, cardinal disqualification, I was ugly. Why, then, had he proposed matrimony to me? Was it merely a whim? Was he really in earnest?
The night was soft and dark; after being out in it for a time I could discern the shrubs dimly silhouetted against the light. The music struck up inside again. A step approached me on the gravelled walk among the flowers, and Harold called me softly by name. I answered him.
"Come," he said, "we are going to dance; will you be my partner?"
We danced, and then followed songs and parlour games, and it was in the small hours when the merry goodnights were all said and we had retired to rest. Aunt Helen dropped to sleep in a short time; but I lay awake listening to the soft distant call of the mopokes in the scrub beyond the stables.