But Absent Friends are Soon Forgot
We received a great many letters from Gertie for a little while after she went up the country, but they grew shorter and farther between as time went on.
In one of grannie's letters there was concerning my sister: "I find Gertie is a much younger girl for her age than Sybylla was, and not nearly so wild and hard to manage. She is a great comfort to me. Every one remarks upon her good looks."
From one of Gertie's letters:
Uncle Julius came home from Hong Kong and America last week, and brought such a lot of funny presents for every one. He had a lot for you, but he has given them to me instead as you are not here. He calls me his pretty little sunbeam, and says I must always live with him.
I sighed to myself as I read this. Uncle Jay-Jay had said much the same to me, and where was I now? My thoughts were ever turning to the people and old place I love so well, but Gertie's letters showed me that I was utterly forgotten and unmissed.
Gertie left us in October 1897, and it was somewhere about January 1898 that all the letters from Caddagat were full to overflowing with the wonderful news of Harold Beecham's reinstatement at Five-Bob Downs, under the same conditions as he had held sway there in my day.
From grannie's letters I learnt that some old sweetheart of Harold's father had bequeathed untold wealth to this her lost love's son. The wealth was in bonds and stocks principally, and though it would be some time ere Harold was actually in possession of it, yet he had no difficulty in getting advancements to any amount, and had immediately repurchased Five-Bob.
I had never dreamed of such a possibility. True, I had often said were Harold a character in fiction instead of real life, some relative would die opportunely and set him up in his former position, but, here, this utterly unanticipated contingency had arisen in a manner which would affect my own life, and what were my feelings regarding the matter?
I think I was not fully aware of the extent of my lack of wifely love for Harold Beecham, until experiencing the sense of relief which stole over me on holding in my hand the announcement of his return to the smile of fortune.
He was rich; he would not need me now; my obligation to him ceased to exist; I was free. He would no longer wish to be hampered with me. He could take his choice of beauty and worth; he might even purchase a princess did his ambition point that way.
One of Gertie's letters ran:
That Mr Beecham you used to tell me so much about has come back to live at Five-Bob. He has brought his aunts back. Every one went to welcome them, and there was a great fuss. Aunt Helen says he (Mr B.) is very conservative; he has everything just as it used to be. I believe he is richer than ever. Every one is laughing about his luck. He was here twice last week, and has just left this evening. He is very quiet. I don't know how you thought him so wonderful. I think he is too slow, I have great work to talk to him, but he is very kind, and I like him. He seems to remember you well, and often says you were a game youngster, and could ride like old Nick himself.
I wrote to the owner of Five-Bob desiring to know if what I heard concerning his good fortune was correct, and he replied by return post:
My dear little Syb,
Yes, thank goodness it is all true. The old lady left me nearly a million. It seems like a fairy yarn, and I will know how to value it more now. I would have written sooner, only you remember our bargain, and I was just waiting to get things fixed up a little, when I'm off at great tracks to claim you in the flesh, as there is no need for us to wait above a month or two now if you are agreeable. I am just run to death. It takes a bit of jigging to get things straight again, but it's simply too good to believe to be back in the same old beat. I've seen Gertie a good many times, and find your descriptions of her were not at all overdrawn. I won't send any love in this, or there would be a "bust up" in the post-office, because I'd be sure to overdo the thing, and I'd have all the officials on to me for damages. Gather up your goods and chattels, because I'll be along in a week or two to take possession of you.
I screwed the letter in two and dropped it into the kitchen-fire.
I knew Harold meant what he had said. He was a strong-natured man of firm determinations, and having made up his mind to marry me would never for an instant think of anything else; but I could see what he could not see himself--that he had probably tired of me, and was becoming enamoured of Gertie's beauty.
The discordance of life smote hard upon me, and the letter I wrote was not pleasant. It ran:
To H. A. BEECHAM, Esq., Five-Bob Downs Station, Gool-Gool, N.S.W.
Your favour duly to hand. I heartily rejoice at your good fortune, and trust you may live long and have health to enjoy it. Do not for an instant consider yourself under any obligations to me, for you are perfectly free. Choose some one who will reflect more credit on your taste and sense.
With all good wishes, Faithfully yrs, S. Penelope Melvyn.
As I closed and directed this how far away Harold Beecham seemed! Less than two years ago I had been familiar with every curve and expression of his face, every outline of his great figure, every intonation of his strong cultivated voice; but now he seemed as the shadow of a former age.
He wrote in reply: What did I mean? Was it a joke--just a little of my old tormenting spirit? Would I explain immediately? He couldn't get down to see me for a fortnight at the least. .
I explained, and very tersely, that I had meant what I said, and in return received a letter as short as my own:
Dear Miss Melvyn,
I regret your decision, but trust I have sufficient manhood to prevent me from thrusting myself upon any lady, much less you.
Your sincere friend, Harold Augustus Beecham.
He did not demand a reason for my decision, but accepted it unquestionably. As I read his words he grew near to me, as in the days gone by.
I closed my eyes, and before my mental vision there arose an overgrown old orchard, skirting one of the great stock-routes from Riverina to Monaro. A glorious day was languidly smiling good night on abundance of ripe and ripening fruit and flowers. The scent of stock and the merry cry of the tennis-players filled the air. I could feel Harold's wild jolting heart-beats, his burning breath on my brow, and his voice husky with rage in my ear. As he wrote that letter I could fancy the well-cut mouth settling into a sullen line, as it had done on my birthday when, by caressing, I had won it back to its habitual pleasant expression; but on this occasion I would not be there. He would be angry just a little while--a man of his strength and importance could not long hold ill-will towards a woman, a girl, a child! as weak and insignificant as I. Then when I should meet him in the years to come, when he would be the faithful and loving husband of another woman, he would be a little embarrassed perhaps; but I would set him at his case, and we would laugh together re what he would term our foolish young days, and he would like me in a brotherly way. Yes, that was how it would be. The tiny note blackened in the flames.
So much for my romance of love! It had ended in a bottle of smoke, as all my other dreams of life bid fair to do.
I think I was not fully aware how near I had been to loving Harold Beecham until experiencing the sense of loss which stole over me on holding in my hand the acceptance of his dismissal. It was a something gone out of my life, which contained so few somethings, that I crushingly felt the loss of any one.
Our greatest heart-treasure is a knowledge that there is in creation an individual to whom our existence is necessary--some one who is part of our life as we are part of theirs, some one in whose life we feel assured our death would leave a gap for a day or two. And who can be this but a husband or wife? Our parents have other children and themselves, our brothers and sisters marry and have lives apart, so with our friends; but one's husband would be different. And I had thrown behind me this chance; but in the days that followed I knew that I had acted wisely.
Gertie's letters would contain: "Harold Beecham, he makes me call him Harry, took me to Five-Bob last week, and it was lovely fun."
Again it would be: "Harry says I am the prettiest little girl ever was, Caddagat or anywhere else, and he gave me such a lovely bracelet. I wish you could see it."
We all went to church yesterday. Harry rode with me. There is to be a very swell ball at Wyambeet next month, and Harry says I am to keep nearly all my dances for him. Frank Hawden sailed for England last week. We have a new jackeroo. He is better-looking than Frank, but I don't like him as well.
Grannie's and aunt Helen's letters to my mother corroborated these admissions. Grannie wrote:
Harry Beecham seems to be very much struck with Gertie. I think it would be a good thing, as he is immensely rich, and a very steady young fellow into the bargain. They say no woman could live with him on account of his temper; but he has always been a favourite of mine, and we cannot expect a man without some faults.
Aunt Helen remarked:
Don't he surprised if you have young Beecham down there presently on an "asking papa" excursion. He spends a great deal of time here, and has been inquiring the best route to Possum Gully. Do you remember him? I don't think he was here in your day. He is an estimable and likeable young fellow, and I think will make a good husband apart from his wealth. He and Gertie present a marked contrast.
Sometimes on reading this kind of thing I would wax rather bitter. Love, I said, was not a lasting thing; but knowledge told me that it was for those of beauty and winsome ways, and not for me. I was ever to be a lonely-hearted waif from end to end of the world of love--an alien among my own kin.
But there were other things to worry me. Horace had left the family roof. He averred he was "full up of life under the old man's rule. It was too slow and messed up." His uncle, George Melvyn, his father's eldest brother, who had so often and so kindly set us up with cows, had offered to take him, and his father had consented to let him go. George Melvyn had a large station outback, a large sheep-shearing machine, and other improvements. Thence, strong in the hope of sixteen years, Horace set out on horseback one springless spring morning ere the sun had risen, with all his earthly possessions strapped before him. Bravely the horse stepped out for its week's journey, and bravely its rider sat, leaving me and the shadeless, wooden sun-baked house on the side of the hill, with the regretlessness of teens--especially masculine teens. I watched him depart until the clacking of his horse's hoofs grew faint on the stony hillside and his form disappeared amid the she-oak scrub which crowned the ridge to the westward. He was gone. Such is life. I sat down and buried my face in my apron, too miserable even for tears. Here was another article I ill could spare wrenched from my poorly and sparsely furnished existence.
True, our intercourse had not always been carpeted with rose-leaves. His pitiless scorn of my want of size and beauty had often given me a sleepless night; but I felt no bitterness against him for this, but merely cursed the Potter who had fashioned the clay that was thus described.
On the other hand, he was the only one who had ever stood up and said a word of extenuation for me in the teeth of a family squall. Father did not count; my mother thought me bad from end to end; Gertie, in addition to the gifts of beauty and lovableness, possessed that of holding with the hare and running with the hound; but Horace once had put in a word for me that I would never forget. I missed his presence in the house, his pounding of the old piano with four dumb notes in the middle, as he bawled thereto rollicking sea and comic songs; I missed his energetic dissertations on spurs, whips, and blood-horses, and his spirited rendering of snatches of Paterson and Gordon, as he came in and out, banging doors and gates, teasing the cats and dogs and tormenting the children.