“Now, I wonder what Tom got up by the coach,” reflected the man on top, with a lazy mental effort. “It was too light for groceries, and it can’t be fancy goods.”
There were three huts on the siding of a spur of the ridge that came down to the corner of Log Paddock. One, a one-roomed bark hut, with the chimney and door in an end, stood down close to the road, within stone-throw of the claim. The other two were up the hill a bit, to right and left, the one on the left a two-roomed bark hut, the other had four rooms, a skillion, and a shed, and whitewashed slab walls, and was called a house—“Mrs. Foster’s House,” or “Mrs. Foster’s Place,” or, for short, “the Fosters’.” Mrs. Foster’s husband and sons were away mostly, working with the drays—tank-sinking, dam-making, etc.—and her daughter was in service with the old land-grant family who owned Log Paddock—several thousands of acres of good, clear, level creek and river frontage land—and did nothing with it, while the selectors broke their backs and hearts trying to make farms in the barren ridges. Mrs. Foster was just a gaunt, practical bushwoman, who, in long years of hardship, drought and struggle, had lost the faculty of bothering about things. She kept some cows and fowls and sold eggs and butter, and assisted at bush confinements gratis. She worked hard always—it was a habit she couldn’t break herself of; besides, there was nothing to rest for. She took the good, old, quiet Australian Journal—they had got into the habit of subscribing for it years and years before—and when it came she read it by snatches, between mending and patching, or over a lonely cup of tea, as if it were a less important part of her work, or duty, yet a part. She gave tramps their allowance of tucker, too, as a matter of course, as though she regarded them as details of ordinary bush life, in the ordinary bush day’s work. And so they were.
The woman who lived in the two-roomed hut was quite a young woman—thirty-two or thirty-three—and quite good-looking. She had in her grey eyes something that was past being haggard, and past being haunted, and past being contemptuous; an expression—if you might call it an expression, or the ghost of an expression—as if hope, love, terror, horror, remorse, hatred and ice-cold contempt for the world and all in it had all been there at one time, but years ago. I saw just such an expression once in the eyes of a girl-singer who was playing a harp and singing in a low pub in a sailors’ bar in Genoa. The woman in the hut had a weak face, or a face that had been weak, with a curved-down mouth, but looking as if it had been chiselled down with hard cuts in hard stone. She had belonged to a family of publicans on the old Pipe-clay goldfield; had run away to Sydney with some one as a girl, and come back in two or three years with a sewing machine and a baby girl; had gone with the rush to Gulgong and other fields, keeping grimly to herself, and working as a dressmaker. The vicious cackle of women’s tongues had died out with the years, other children had been allowed and encouraged to play with her little girl—now a sweet, gentle little thing of ten or twelve—and from being referred to viciously as “Mrs. Brent-as-she-calls-herself,” she came to be called Mrs. Brent by courtesy, then by custom, and now respectfully. The quiet influence of quiet, respectable men, who knew the world, had a lot to do in bringing this change about—they always treated her very respectfully. Mrs. Foster was her friend. They had been neighbours on Gulgong, too, where, one day, Mrs. Foster got a suspicion. Then she watched, and next day, after breakfast, and when Mrs. Brent’s little girl had gone to school, she dropped on her unexpectedly with a length of dress material. Mrs. Brent hastily threw a sheet of newspaper over half a loaf of bread, a saucer of dripping, and a cup of milkless, sugarless tea on the table; but she was too late. She was making moleskin trousers for the stores at that time. Mrs. Foster was a woman of hard, practical kindness, and little or no tact, and she offended Mrs. Brent at once.
“What do you mean,” she demanded, “to come here and talk to me like that? What is it to you whether I had any breakfast or not? I don’t know you! It’s a new thing for a strange woman to come into a woman’s house and insult her. Who are you, and what do you want?”
“I’m Mrs. Foster, and I was there when you were born, but you don’t remember that. All I know is that you’re starving yourself—you can’t work on an empty stomach; no woman can. You’ll break down. And there’s your little girl——”
“She had an egg for her breakfast,” broke in Mrs. Brent passionately. “There’s the shell in the fireplace if you don’t believe me. If you think I’m a pauper to be—to be—But why! To think of the brazen impudence of it!” she gasped. “Now you just get out of this house, whoever you are! There’s the door!”
And so it was, but so there was Mrs. Foster, who had managed men in the D.T.’s and had nursed a mad woman in her time; and so, in two minutes, the door was shut, and the girl who had gone wrong was sobbing on the flat breast of the woman who had never got the chance.
They often sewed together, mostly in silence, and had a cup of tea together—sometimes at Mrs. Brent’s hut and sometimes at Mrs. Foster’s. I don’t know whether Mrs. Brent told Mrs. Foster all about it, but most probably she did once, and was done with it. When they sat and worked together in silence the chances are that the younger woman brooded over the old wrong, and her relatives who were scattered, and from whom she had never heard “since it happened.” It would, I think, be impossible to puzzle out what women like Mrs. Foster think about over their work. She was past hoping or fretting, and past complaining. There was nothing in the future, and there could have been very little brightness in the past. Yet she knitted her forehead, and seemed to be thinking deeply at times; but perhaps she was only considering the advisability of buying another yard or two of that stuff she got at the store in town.
The Quiet Man lived in the hut near the road, with his little boy of five or six. The Quiet Man’s name was Tom Moore, and he had been a popular man on the goldfields. He married a girl at Gulgong about seven years before, and she died before they had their first serious quarrel. She died in child-birth. Mrs. Foster was a neighbour then; she nursed Mrs. Moore, took charge of the child, cooked Tom’s meals, and saw that he ate them. He had been a quiet man ever since. There had been talk of him and Mrs. Brent when she was a girl and he little more than a boy, on the old Pipeclay diggings years ago; but he very seldom spoke to, and never of, her, and he treated her with the greatest respect. It was noticed that while other diggers gave her clothes to make and mend, he never did; but he saw that her water cask was kept filled, in dry weather, from the spring on the flat, and that a load of cut firewood was dumped at the back of the hut occasionally.
Log Paddock was nearly done, and there were fewer diggers than selectors in the vicinity. The children went to a small “provisional” school, over the ridges—where, by the way, little else than geography was provided, the teacher being well up in that branch, and no other.
Little Harry Moore went there occasionally, and was taken in strict and motherly custody, from the time he left his father’s hut until he returned to it, by little Lily Brent. Mrs. Foster looked after little Harry’s stomach, and the seats of his breeches, while the father was at work; and little Harry usually slept at her place while Tom was on night shift. The child knew her as “Aunty Foster” all his life, and every male in the vicinity was “uncle” to him.
Now, along about this Christmas time, Aunty Foster got another suspicion. On one or two occasions Tom thanked her for certain repairs and additions to his son’s wardrobe, which she couldn’t remember—wasn’t responsible for, in fact; and it puzzled her vaguely, but she was past bothering over riddles. But one day he thanked her very kindly for a new shirt for Harry, and insisted on paying for the material, anyhow; and she knew she hadn’t made that shirt. And this, of course, puzzled her a bit. Then she said, “Oh, that’s all right!”
Some days later Mrs. Brent fell ill, and Mrs. Foster nursed her for a day and a night. Early next morning Tom saw her hurrying across from Mrs. Brent’s hut to her own, and stumbled hastily up the hill to cut her off—and seemed to have nothing to say to her when he stopped her. But Mrs. Foster understood him as he stood helplessly and purposelessly before her.
“She’s much better, Tom,” she said. “She’s had a good sleep, and she’ll be alright by to-morrow.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Foster,” said Tom, and retreated in confusion to his hut, where he let the chops burn, and started to put on his little boy’s trousers back to front.
“Father,” said Harry suddenly, “are you in love?”
“Wha’—what?” gasped Tom.
“Because,” said Harry, “Lily Brent says that when people are in love they forget and do things wrong.”
“Don’t talk nonsense, sonny,” said Tom, so the conversation closed.
Tom had always been extremely shy of his little boy, and avoided conversation, and they were strangers yet; but an incident was coming along that was to bring those two lonely hearts close together.
It was Christmas Eve, and Tom and his mate knocked off a few minutes before twelve at night. The hut and its shadow stood a dark patch in the bright moonlight. Tom went in softly and lit the candle. Little Harry was asleep—or seemed asleep. Tom changed his wet flannel and moleskins, and then opened the parcel he had brought with him. A woman’s stocking hung to a nail at the head of the boy’s bunk, and the sight of it gave Tom a pang; he thought at first that it was one of his wife’s stockings, which had remained all this time unnoticed amongst his belongings, and which the boy had found; but, on second thoughts, he concluded that it must have been borrowed for the purpose from Mrs. Foster. Moving softly, Tom put the lollies, ball, stem of a jumping-jack and tin whistle in the stocking, and laid a Chatterbox and a popgun on the table close handy. He turned to see if he had missed anything, when the boy spoke suddenly, and Tom started as if he had been shot. Little Harry was sitting up, his eyes wide open and bright, and his arms stretched out towards his father.
“Father! Father!” he cried. “Oh, I’m so glad you’re Santa Claus. I suspected it for such a long time.”
And the lonely man went down on his knees by the bunk, and the little arms went round his neck.
“Father,” said Harry presently, “why do you turn your face away? Why don’t you look at me?”
But the father couldn’t for a while. Presently he asked, in a strange voice—
“Where did you get the stocking, sonny?”
“From Mrs. Brent,” said Harry; “but I promised her not to tell.”
A thought struck Tom.
“Did Mrs. Brent make any clothes or things for you, Harry?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Harry. “And, father, she’s got an old portrait of you—same’s what we’ve got. I saw her looking at it one day—but I promised not to tell that either.”
Just then there was a step outside, and Tom opened the door, and there stood Mrs. Brent, who started, gasped, turned very white, and then flushed in the moonlight.
“Oh!” she gasped, “I—I—didn’t know you were home, and—and I just come to see if little Harry was alright.”
Tom suddenly stepped forward, took both her hands, and looked into her startled eyes. They stood so for a moment; then, as she felt, or fancied she felt, his hands loosen, she cried out, as though pleading for life.
“Tom—Tom! It happened so long ago, and I’d be a good wife to you; forgive me.” And Tom took her to him.
And, one morning in the New Year, after the wash-up (and the claim panned out very well), the four of them went away in the coach, and for a long time after the dust cloud disappeared down the road, Mrs. Foster sat staring blindly at the pages of the Australian Journal.