Monday arrived--last day of November and seventeenth anniversary of my birth--and I celebrated it in a manner which I capitally enjoyed.
It was the time of the annual muster at Cummabella--a cattle-station seventeen miles eastward from Caddagat--and all our men were there assisting. Word had been sent that a considerable number of beasts among those yarded bore the impress of the Bossier brand on their hides; so on Sunday afternoon uncle Jay-Jay had also proceeded thither to be in readiness for the final drafting early on Monday morning. This left us manless, as Frank Hawden, being incapacitated with a dislocated wrist, was spending a few weeks in Gool-Gool until he should be fit for work again.
Uncle had not been gone an hour when a drover appeared to report that XX thousand sheep would pass through on the morrow. Grass was precious. It would not do to let the sheep spread and dawdle at their drovers' pleasure. There was not a man on the place; grannie was in a great stew; so I volunteered my services. At first she would not hear of such a thing, but eventually consented. With many injunctions to conduct myself with proper stiffness, I started early on Monday morning. I was clad in a cool blouse, a holland riding-skirt, and a big straw hat; was seated on a big bay horse, was accompanied by a wonderful sheep-dog, and carried a long heavy stock-whip. I sang and cracked my stock-whip as I cantered along, quite forgetting to be reserved and proper. Presently I came upon the sheep just setting out for their day's tramp, with a black boy ahead of them, of whom I inquired which was the boss. He pointed towards a man at the rear wearing a donkey-supper hat. I made my way through the sheep in his direction, and asked if he were in charge of them. On being answered in the affirmative, I informed him that I was Mr Bossier's niece, and, as the men were otherwise engaged, I would see the sheep through.
"That's all right, miss. I will look out that you don't have much trouble," he replied, politely raising his hat, while a look of amusement played on his face.
He rode away, and shouted to his men to keep the flock strictly within bounds and make good travelling.
"Right you are, boss," they answered; and returning to my side he told me his name was George Ledwood, and made some remarks about the great drought and so on, while we rode in the best places to keep out of the dust and in the shade. I asked questions such as whence came the sheep? whither were they bound? and how long had they been on the road? And having exhausted these orthodox remarks, we fell a-talking in dead earnest without the least restraint. I listened with interest to stories of weeks and weeks spent beneath the sun and stars while crossing widths of saltbush country, mulga and myall scrubs, of encounters with blacks in Queensland, and was favoured with a graphic description of a big strike among the shearers when the narrator had been boss-of-the-board out beyond Bourke. He spoke as though well educated, and a gentleman--as drovers often are. Why, then, was he on the road? I put him down as a scapegrace, for he had all the winning pleasant manner of a ne'er-do-well.
At noon--a nice, blazing, dusty noon--we halted within a mile of Caddagat for lunch. I could have easily ridden home for mine, but preferred to have it with the drovers for fun. The men boiled the billy and made the tea, which we drank out of tin pots, with tinned fish and damper off tin plates as the completion of the menu, Mr Ledwood and I at a little distance from the men. Tea boiled in a billy at a bush fire has a deliciously aromatic flavour, and I enjoyed my birthday lunch immensely. Leaving the cook to collect the things and put them in the spring-cart, we continued on our way, lazily lolling on our horses and chewing gum-leaves as we went.
When the last of the sheep got off the Caddagat run it was nearing two o'clock.
Mr Ledwood and I shook hands at parting, each expressing a wish that we might meet again some day.
I turned and rode homewards. I looked back and saw the drover gazing after me. I waved my hand; he raised his hat and smiled, displaying his teeth, a gleam of white in his sun-browned face. I kissed my hand to him; he bowed low; I whistled to my dog; he resumed his way behind the crawling sheep; I cantered home quickly and dismounted at the front gate at 2.30 p.m., a dusty, heated, tired girl.
Grannie came out to question me regarding the sex, age, condition, and species of the sheep, what was their destination, whether they were in search of grass or were for sale, had they spread or eaten much grass, and had the men been civil?
When I had satisfactorily informed her on all these points, she bade me have something to cat, to bathe and dress, and gave me a holiday for the remainder of the day.
My hair was grey with dust, so I washed all over, arrayed myself in a cool white dress, and throwing myself in a squatter's chair in the veranda, spread my hair over the back of it to dry. Copies of Gordon, Kendall, and Lawson were on my lap, but I was too physically content and comfortable to indulge in even these, my sworn friends and companions. I surrendered myself to the mere joy of being alive. How the sunlight blazed and danced in the roadway--the leaves of the gum-trees gleaming in it like a myriad gems! A cloud of white, which I knew to be cockatoos, circled over the distant hilltop. Nearer they wheeled until I could hear their discordant screech. The thermometer on the wall rested at 104 degrees despite the dense shade thrown on the broad old veranda by the foliage of creepers, shrubs, and trees. The gurgling rush of the creek, the scent of the flower-laden garden, and the stamp, stamp of a horse in the orchard as he attempted to rid himself of tormenting flies, filled my senses. The warmth was delightful. Summer is heavenly, I said--life is a joy.
Aunt Helen's slender fingers looked artistic among some pretty fancy-work upon which she was engaged. Bright butterflies flitted round the garden, and thousands of bees droned lazily among the flowers. I closed my eyes--my being filled with the beauty of it all.
I could hear grannie's pen fly over the paper as she made out a list of Christmas supplies on a table near me.
"Helen, I suppose a hundredweight of currants will he sufficient ?"
"Yes; I should think so."
"Seven dozen yards of unbleached calico be enough?"
"Which tea-service did you order?"
"Do you or Sybylla want anything extra?"
"Yes; parasols, gloves, and some books."
"Books! Can I get them at Hordern's?"
Grannie's voice faded on my ears, my thoughts ran on uncle Jay-Jay. He had promised to be home in time for my birthday spread, and I was sure he had a present for me. What would it be?--something nice. He would be nearly sure to bring someone home with him from Cummabella, and we would have games and fun to no end. I was just seventeen, only seventeen, and had a long, long life before me wherein to enjoy myself. Oh, it was good to be alive! What a delightful place the world was!--so accommodating, I felt complete mistress of it. It was like an orange--I merely had to squeeze it and it gave forth sweets plenteously. The stream sounded far away, the sunlight blazed and danced, grannie's voice was a pleasant murmur in my ear, the cockatoos screamed over the house and passed away to the west. Summer is heavenly and life is a joy, I reiterated. Joy! Joy! There was joy in the quit! quit! of the green-and-crimson parrots, which swung for a moment in the rose-bush over the gate, and then whizzed on into the summer day. There was joy in the gleam of the sun and in the hum of the bees, and it throbbed in my heart. Joy! Joy! A jackass laughed his joy as he perched on the telegraph wire out in the road. joy! joy! Summer is a dream of delight and life is a joy, I said in my heart. I was repeating the one thing over and over--but ah! it was a measure of happiness which allowed of much repetition. The cool murmur of the creek grew far away, I felt my poetry books slip off my knees and fall to the floor, but I was too content to bother about them--too happy to need their consolation, which I had previously so often and so hungrily sought. Youth! Joy! Warmth!
The clack of the garden gate, as it swung to, awoke me from a pleasant sleep. Grannie had left the veranda, and on the table where she had been writing aunt Helen was filling many vases with maidenhair fern and La France roses. A pleasant clatter from the dining-room announced that my birthday tea was in active preparation. The position of the yellow sunbeams at the far end of the wide veranda told that the dense shadows were lengthening, and that the last of the afternoon was wheeling westward. Taking this in, in an instant I straightened the piece of mosquito-netting, which, to protect me from the flies, someone--auntie probably--had spread across my face, and feigned to be yet asleep. By the footsteps which sounded on the stoned garden walk, I knew that Harold Beecham was one of the individuals approaching.
"How do you do, Mrs Bell? Allow me to introduce my friend, Archie Goodchum. Mrs Bell, Mr Goodchum. Hasn't it been a roaster today? Considerably over 100 degrees in the shade. Terribly hot!"
Aunt Helen acknowledged the introduction, and seated her guests, saying:
"Harry, have you got an artistic eye? If so, you can assist me with these flowers. So might Mr Goodchum, if he feels disposed."
Harold accepted the proposal, and remarked:
"What is the matter with your niece? It is the first time I ever saw her quiet."
"Yes; she is a noisy little article--a perfect whirlwind in the house--but she is a little tired this afternoon; she has been seeing those sheep through today."
"Don't you think it would be a good lark if I get something and tickle her?" said Goodchum.
"Yes, do," said Harold; "but look out for squalls. She is a great little fizzer."
"Then she might be insulted."
"Not she," interposed auntie. "No one will enjoy the fun more than herself."
I had my eyes half open beneath the net, so saw him cautiously approach with a rose-stem between his fingers. Being extremely sensitive to tickling, so soon as touched under the ear I took a flying leap from the chair somewhat disconcerting my tormentor.
He was a pleasant-looking young fellow somewhere about XX, whose face was quite familiar to me.
He smiled so good-humouredly at me that I widely did the same in return, and he came forward with extended hand, exclaiming, "At last!"
The others looked on in surprise, Harold remarking suspiciously, "You said you were unacquainted with Miss Melvyn, but an introduction does not seem necessary."
"Oh, yes it is," chirped Mr Goodchum. I haven't the slightest idea of the young lady's name."
"Don't know each other!" ejaculated Harold; and grannie, who had appeared upon the scene, inquired stiffly what we meant by such capers if unacquainted.
Mr Goodchum hastened to explain.
"I have seen the young lady on several occasions in the bank where I am employed, and I had the good fortune to be of a little service to her one day when I was out biking. Her harness, or at least the harness on the horse she was driving, broke, and I came to the rescue with my pocket-knife and some string, thereby proving, if not ornamental, I was useful. After that I tried hard to find out who she was, but my inquiries always came to nothing. I little dreamt who Miss Melvyn was when Harry, telling me she was a Goulburn girl, asked if I knew her."
"Quite romantic," said aunt Helen, smiling; and a great thankfulness overcame me that Mr Goodchum had been unable to discover my identity until now. It was right enough to be unearthed as Miss Melvyn, grand-daughter of Mrs Bossier of Caddagat, and great friend and intimate of the swell Beechams of Five-Bob Downs station. At Goulburn I was only the daughter of old Dick Melvyn, broken-down farmer-cockatoo, well known by reason of his sprees about the commonest pubs in town.
Mr Goodchum told us it was his first experience of the country, and therefore he was enjoying himself immensely. He also mentioned that he was anxious to see some of the gullies around Caddagat, which, he had heard, were renowned for the beauty of their ferns. Aunt Helen, accordingly, proposed a walk in the direction of one of them, and hurried off to attend to a little matter before starting. While waiting for her, Harold happened to say it was my birthday, and Mr Goodchum tendered me the orthodox wishes, remarking, It is surely pardonable at your time of life to ask what age you have attained today?"
"Oh! oh! 'sweet seventeen, and never been kissed'; but I suppose you cannot truthfully say that, Miss Melvyn?"
"Oh yes, I can."
"Well, you won't he able to say it much longer," he said, making a suggestive move in my direction. I ran, and he followed, grannie reappearing from the dining-room just in time to see me bang the garden gate with great force on my pursuer.
"What on earth is the girl doing now?" I heard her inquire.
However, Mr Goodchum. did not execute his threat; instead we walked along decorously in the direction of the nearest ferns, while Harold and aunt Helen followed, the latter carrying a sunbonnet for me.
After we had climbed some distance up a gully aunt Helen called out that she and Harold would rest while I did the honours of the fern grots to my companion.
We went on and on, soon getting out of sight of the others.
"What do you say to my carving our names on a gum-tree, the bark is so nice and soft?" said the bank clerk; and I seconded the proposal.
"I will make it allegorical," he remarked, setting to work.
He was very deft with his penknife, and in a few minutes had carved S. P. M. and A. S. G., encircling the initials by a ring and two hearts interlaced.
"That'll do nicely," he remarked, and turning round, "Why, you'll get a sunstroke; do take my hat."
I demurred, he pressed the matter, and I agreed on condition he allowed me to tie his handkerchief over his head. I was wearing his hat and tying the ends of a big silk handkerchief beneath his chin when the cracking of a twig caused me to look up and see Harold Beecham with an expression on his face that startled me.
"Your aunt sent me on with your hood," he said jerkily.
"You can wear it--I've been promoted," I said flippantly, raising my head-gear to him and bowing. He did not laugh as he usually did at my tricks, but frowned darkly instead.
"We've been carving our names--at least, I have," remarked Goodchum.
Harold tossed my sun-bonnet on the ground, and said shortly, "Come on, Goodchum, we must be going."
"Oh, don't go, Mr Beecham. I thought you came on purpose for my birthday tea. Auntie has made me a tremendous cake. You must stay. We never dreamt of you doing anything else."
"I've changed my mind," he replied, striding on at such a pace that we had difficulty in keeping near him. As we resumed our own head-wear, Good churn whispered, "A bulldog ant must have stung the boss. Let's ask him."
On reaching the house we found other company had arrived in the persons of young Mr Goodjay from Cummabella, his sister, her governess, and a couple of jackeroos. They were seated on the veranda, and uncle Jay-Jay, attired in his shirt-sleeves, was appearing through the dining-room door with half a dozen bottles of home-made ginger ale in his arms. Dumping them down on the floor, he produced a couple of tots from his shirt-pockets, saying, "Who votes for a draw of beer? Everyone must feel inclined for a swig. Harry, you want some; you don't look as though the heat was good for your temper. Hullo, Archie! Got up this far. Take a draw out of one of these bottles. If there had been a dozen pubs on the road, I'd have drunk every one of em dry today. I never felt such a daddy of a thirst on me before."
"Good gracious, Julius!" exclaimed grannie, as he offered the governess a pot full of beer, "Miss Craddock can't drink out of that pint."
"Those who don't approve of my pints, let 'em bring their own," said that mischievous uncle Jay-Jay, who was a great hand at acting the clown when he felt that way inclined.
I was dispatched for glasses, and after emptying the bottles uncle proposed a game of tennis first, while the light lasted, and tea afterwards. This proposition being carried with acclamation, we proceeded to the tennis court. Harold came too--he had apparently altered his intention of going home immediately.
There were strawberries to be had in the orchard, also some late cherries, so uncle ordered me to go and get some. I procured a basket, and willingly agreed to obey him. Mr Goodchum offered to accompany me, but Harold stepped forward saying he would go, in such a resolute tragic manner that Goodchum winked audaciously, saying waggishly, "Behold, the hero descends into the burning mine!"