One glorious spring morning, Hugh Gordon was sitting in his office—every squatter and stationmanager has an office—waiting with considerable impatience the coming of the weekly mail. The office looked like a blend of stationer’s shop, tobacconist’s store, and saddlery warehouse. A row of pigeon-holes along the walls was filled with letters and papers; the rafters were hung with saddles and harness; a tobacco-cutter and a jar of tobacco stood on the table, side by side with some formidable-looking knives, used for cutting the sheep’s feet when they became diseased; whips and guns stood in every corner; nails and saws filled up a lot of boxes on the table, and a few samples of wool hung from a rope that was stretched across the room. The mantelpiece was occupied by bottles of horse-medicine and boxes of cartridges; an elderly white cockatoo, chained by the leg to a galvanised-iron perch, sunned himself by the door, and at intervals gave an exhibition of his latest accomplishment, in which he imitated the yowl of a trodden-on cat much better than the cat could have done it himself.
The air was heavy with scent. All round the great quadrangle of the house acacia trees were in bloom, and the bees were working busily among the mignonette and roses in front of the office door.
Hugh Gordon was a lithe, wiry young Australian with intensely sunburnt face and hands, and a drooping black moustache; a man with a healthy, breezy outdoor appearance, but the face of an artist, a dreamer, and a thinker, rather than that of a practical man. His brother Charlie and he, though very much alike in face, were quite different types of manhood. Charlie, from his earliest school-days, had never read a book except under compulsion, had never stayed indoors when he could possibly get out, had never obeyed an unwelcome order when by force or fraud he could avoid doing so, and had never written a letter in his life when a telegram would do. He took the world as it came, having no particular amount of imagination, and never worried himself. Hugh, on the other hand, was inclined to meet trouble half-way, and to make troubles where none existed, which is the worst misfortune that a man can be afflicted with.
Hugh walked to the door and gazed out over the garden and homestead, down the long stretch of green paddocks where fat cattle were standing under the trees, too well fed to bother themselves with looking for grass. He looked beyond all this to the long drab-coloured stretch of road that led to Kiley’s, watching for the mailboy’s arrival. The mail was late, for the melting snow had flooded the mountain creeks, and Hugh knew it was quite likely that little Patsy Donohoe, the mailboy, had been blocked at Donohoe’s Hotel for two days, unable to cross Kiley’s River. This had happened often, and on various occasions when Patsy had crossed, he, pony and all, had been swept down quite a quarter of a mile in the ice-cold water before they could reach land. But that was an ordinary matter in the spring, and it was a point of honour with Patsy and all his breed not to let the elements beat them in carrying out the mail contract, which they tendered for every year, and in which no outsider would have dared to compete.
At last Hugh’s vigil was rewarded by the appearance of a small and wild-looking boy, mounted on a large and wild-looking horse. The boy was about twelve years of age, and had just ridden a half-broken horse a forty-mile journey—for of such is the youth of Australia. Patsy was wet and dirty, and the big leather mail-bag that he handed over had evidently been under water.
“We had to swim, Mr Hugh,” the boy said triumphantly, “and this great, clumsy cow ” (the child referred to his horse) “he reared over on me in the water, twyst, but I stuck to him. My oath!”
Hugh laughed. “I expect Kiley’s River will get you yet, Patsy,” he said. “Go in now to the kitchen and get dry by the fire. I’ll lend you a horse to get back on tomorrow. You can camp here till then, there’s no hurry back.”
The boy let his horse go loose, dismissing it with a parting whack on the rump with the bridle, and swaggered inside, carrying his saddle, to show his wet clothes and recount his deeds to the admiring cook. Patsy was not one to hide his light under a bushel.
Hugh carried the bag into the office, and shook out the letters and papers on the table. Everything was permeated with a smell of wet leather, and some of the newspapers were rather pulpy. After sending out everybody else’s mail he turned to examine his own. Out of the mass of letters, agents’ circulars, notices of sheep for sale, catalogues of city firms, and circulars from pastoral societies, he picked a letter addressed to himself in the scrawling fist of William Grant. He opened it, expecting to find in it the usual Commination Service on things in general, but as he read on, a vivid surprise spread over his face. Leaving the other letters and papers unopened, he walked to the door and looked out into the courtyard, where Stuffer, the youngest of his nephews, who was too small to be allowed to join in the field sports of the others, was playing at being a railway train. He had travelled in a train once, and now passed Hugh’s door under easy steam, working his arms and legs like piston-rods, and giving piercing imitations of a steam-whistle at intervals.
“Stuffer,” said Hugh, “do you know where your grandmother is?”
“No,” said the Stuffer laconically. “I don’t. Choo, choo, choo, Whee-aw!”
“Well, look here,” said Hugh, “you just railway-train yourself round the house till you find her, and let me know where she is. I want to see her. Off you go now.”
The Stuffer steamed himself out with the action of an engine drawing a long train of cars, and disappeared round the corner of the house.
Before long he was back, drew himself up alongside an imaginary platform, intimated that his grandmother was on the verandah, and then proceeded to let the steam hiss out of his safety-valve.
Hugh walked across the quadrangle, under the acacia tree, heavy with blossoms, in which a myriad bees were droning at their work, and through the house on to the front verandah, which looked over the wide sweep of river-flat. Here he found his mother and Miss Harriott, the governess, peeling apples for dumplings—great rosy-cheeked, solid-fleshed apples, that the hill-country turns out in perfection. The old lady was slight in figure, with a refined face, and a carriage erect in spite of her years. Miss Harriott was of a languid Spanish type, with black eyes and strongly marked eyebrows. She had a petite, but well-rounded figure, with curiously small hands and feet. Though only about twenty-four years of age she had the sedate and unemotional look that one sees in doctors and nurses—people who have looked on death and birth, and sorrow and affliction. For Ellen Harriott had done her three years’ course as a nurse; she had a natural faculty for the business, and was in great request among the wild folk of the mountains, who looked upon her (and perhaps rightly) as quite equal to the Tarrong doctor in any emergency. She knew them all, for she had lived nearly all her life at Kuryong. When the family moved there from the back country a tutor was needed for the boys, and an old broken-down gentleman accepted the billet at low pay, on condition that he was allowed to bring his little daughter with him. When he died, the daughter still stayed on, and was made governess to the new generation of young folk. She was a queer, self-contained girl, saying little; and as Hugh walked in, she looked up at him, and wondered what new trouble was bringing him to his mother with the open letter in his hand.
“Mother,” said Hugh, “I have had a most extraordinary letter.”
“From Mr Grant?” said the old lady, “What does he say?”
She saw by her son’s face that there was something more than usual in the wind, but one who had lived her life, from fortune to poverty, through strife and trial, was prepared to take things much more easily than Hugh.
“Is it anything very serious?”
“His daughter’s coming out to live here.”
“Yes, here’s the letter. It only came this morning. Patsy was late, the river is up. I’ll read it to you.”
Seating himself at the table, Hugh spread out the letter, and read it:—
“The last lot of wethers, though they topped the market, only realised 10/-. I think you would show better judgment in keeping these sheep back a little. Don’t rely upon Sutton’s advice. He is generally wrong, and is always most wrong when he is most sure he is right.
“My daughter has arrived from England, and will at once go up to the station. I have written to your mother on the subject. My daughter will represent me in everything, so I wish her to learn a little about stations. Send to meet her at the train on Wednesday next.
“W. G. GRANT”
“Wednesday next!” said Hugh, “that letter is three days delayed. Patsy couldn’t cross the river. She’ll be there before we can possibly get down. If no one meets her I wonder if she’ll have pluck enough to get into the coach and come on to Donohoe’s.”
“I don’t envy her the trip, if she does,” said Miss Harriott. “The coach-drive over those roads will seem awful to an English girl.”
“I’ll have to go down at once, anyhow,” said Hugh, “and meet her on the road somewhere. If she is at the railway, I can get there in two days. Have you a letter, Mother?”
“Yes,” said the old lady, “but I won’t show it to you now. You shall see it some other time.”
“Well, I’ll set about making a start,” said Hugh. “What trap had I better take?”
“You’d better take the big waggonette,” said the old lady, in her soft voice. “A young girl just out from England is sure to have a great deal of luggage, you know. I wonder if she is anything like Mr Grant. I hope her temper is a little bit better.”
“You’d better come down with me, Miss Harriott, to meet her,” said Hugh. “I don’t suppose your luggage would be a load there and back, anyhow.”
“What about crossing the river?” said the old lady.
“Oh, we’ll get across somehow,” said Hugh, “will you come?”
“I think I’ll wait,” said the young lady meditatively. “She’ll be tired from travelling and looking after her luggage, and she had better meet the family one at a time. You go and meet her, and your mother and I will get her room ready. Does the letter say any more about her?”
“No, that’s all,” said Hugh. “Well, I’ll send the boy to run in the horses. I’ll take four horses in the big waggonette; I expect she’ll be waiting at Donohoe’s—that is, if she left the railway station in the coach—if she is at Donohoe’s I’ll be back before dark.”
With this he went back to the office, and his mother and Miss Harriott went their separate ways to prepare for the comfort of the heiress. To Ellen Harriott the arrival was a new excitement, a change in the monotony of bush life; but to the old lady and Hugh it meant a great deal more. It meant that they would be no longer master and mistress of the big station on which they had lived so long, and which was now so much under their control that it seemed almost like their own.
Everything depended on what the girl was like. They had never even seen a photograph of her, and awaited her coming in a state of nervous expectancy. All over the district they had been practically considered owners of the big station; Hugh had taken on and dismissed employees at his will, had controlled the buying and selling of thousands of sheep and cattle, and now this strange girl was to come in with absolute power over them. They would be servants and dependants on the station, which had once belonged to them.
After Hugh had gone, the old lady sat back in her armchair and read over again her letter from Mr Grant; and, lest it should be thought that that gentleman had only one side to his character, it is as well for the reader to know what was in the letter. It ran as follows:—
“Dear Mrs Gordon,
“I am writing to you about a most important matter. Colonel Selwyn is dead, and my daughter has come out from England. I don’t know anyone to take charge of her except yourself. I am an old man now, and set in my ways, and this girl is really all I have to live for. Looking back on my life, I see where I have been a fool; and perhaps the good fortune that has followed me has been more luck than anything else. Your husband was a smarter man than I am, and he came to grief, though I will say that I always warned him against that western place.
“Do you remember the old days when we had the two little homesteads, and I used to ride down from the out-station of a Saturday and spend Sunday with you and Andrew, and talk over the fortunes we were going to make? If I had met a woman like you in those days I might have been a better man. As it was, I made a fool of myself. But that’s all past praying for.
“Now about my girl. If you will take her, and make her as good a woman as yourself, or as near it as you can, you will earn my undying thanks. As to money matters, when I die she will of course have a great deal of money, so that it is well she should begin now to learn how to use it; I have, therefore, given her full power to draw all money that may be required. I may tell you that I intend to leave your boys enough to start them in life, and they will have a first-class chance to get on. I am sending Charlie out to the west, to take over a block which those fools, Sutton and Co, got me to advance money on, and on which the man cannot pay his interest. He will be away for some time.
“Meanwhile, dear Mrs Gordon, for the sake of old times, do what you can for the girl. I expect she has been brought up with English ideas. I can’t get her to say much to me, which I daresay is my own fault. After she has been with you for a bit, I will come up and stay for a time at the station.
“Yours very truly,
“W. G. GRANT”
Reading this letter called back the whole panorama of the past—the old days when she and her husband were struggling in the rough, hard, pioneering life, and the blacks were thick round the station; the birth of her children, and the ups and downs of her husband’s fortunes; then the burial of her husband out on the sandhills, and her flight to this haven of rest at Kuryong. Though she had lost interest in things for herself, she felt keenly for her children, and was sick at heart when she thought what this girl, who was to wield such power over them, might turn out to be. But she hoped that Grant’s daughter, whatever else she might be, would at any rate be a genuine, straight-forward girl; and filled with this hope, she sat down to answer him:—
“Dear Mr Grant,” she wrote, “I have received your letter. Hugh has gone down to meet your daughter, but the mails were delayed owing to the river being up, and he may not get to the railway station as soon as she arrives. I will do what I can for her, and I thank you for what you say you will do for my boys. I will let you know the moment she arrives. I wish you would come up and live on the station for a time. It would be better for you than life in the club, without a friend to care for you. If ever you feel inclined to stay here for a time, I hope you will at once let me know. With thanks and best wishes,