When he drove up, the family had gathered round the fire in the quaint, old-fashioned, low-ceilinged sitting-room; for the evenings were still chilly. The children were gravely and quietly sharpening terrific-looking knives on small stones; the old lady had some needlework, while Mary and Ellen and Poss and Binjie talked about horses, that being practically the only subject open to the two boys.
After a time Mrs Gordon said, “Won’t you sing something?” and Mary sat down to the piano and sang to them. Such singing no one there had ever heard before. Her deep contralto voice was powerful, flexible, and obviously well-trained; besides which she had the great natural gift of putting “feeling” into her singing. The children sat spellbound. The station-hands and house-servants, who had been playing the concertina and yarning on the wood-heap at the back of the kitchen, stole down to the corner of the house to listen; in the stillness that wonderful voice floated out into the night. So it chanced that Gavan Blake, arriving, heard the singing, stole softly to the door, and looked in, listening for a while, before anyone saw him.
The picture he saw was for ever photographed on his mind. He saw the quiet comfort and luxury—for after Tarrong it was luxury to him—of the station drawing-room; caught the scent of the flowers and the glorious tones of that beautiful voice; and, as he watched the sweet face of the singer, and listened to the words of the song, a sudden fierce determination rose in his mind. He would devote all his energies to winning Mary Grant for his wife; combative and self-confident as he was by nature, he felt no dismay at the difficulties in his way. He had been on a borderline long enough. Here was his chance to rise at a bound, and he determined to succeed if success were humanly possible.
As the song came to an end, he walked into the drawing-room and shook hands all round, Mary being particularly warm in her welcome.
“You are very late,” said the old lady. “Was there much of a Court at Ballarook?”
“Only the usual troubles. You know what those courts are. By the way, Miss Grant, I came over the famous crossing place where we got turned out, and nearly had another swim for it. Martin Donohoe and his wife haven’t yet finished talking about how wet you looked.”
“I’m sure I haven’t finished thinking about it. I don’t suppose you had to swim with anyone on your back this time?”
“No such luck, I’m sorry to say.”
“It was very lucky, indeed—that you were there,” put in Miss Harriott. “You are really quite the district hero, Mr Blake. You will have to save somebody next, Hugh.”
“My word,” said Boss, “I’ve seen Hugh swim in to fetch a sheep, let alone a lady. You remember, Hugh, the time those old ewes got swept down and one of ’em was caught on the head of a tree, and you went in——”
“Oh, never mind about that,” said Hugh. “Did Pat Donohoe lose anything out of the coach?”
“Only a side of bacon and a bottle of whisky. The whisky was for old Ned the possum trapper, and they say that Ned walked fourteen miles down the river in hopes that it might have come ashore. Ned reckons he has never done any tracking, but if he could track anything it would be whisky.”
“What about going out after possums down the garden?” said Binjie. “Now, you youngsters, where are your possum dogs? I think they ought to get some in the garden.”
Everyone seemed to welcome the idea. There had been a sort of stiffness in the talk, and Gavan Blake felt that a walk in the moonlight might give him a chance to make himself a little more at home with Mary Grant, while Ellen Harriott had her own reasons for wanting to get him outside. With laughter and haste they all put on hats and coats, for it had turned bitterly cold; then with ear-piercing whistles the children summoned their possuming dogs, who were dreaming happy hours away in all sorts of odd nooks, in chimney-corners, under the table in the kitchen, under the bunks in the men’s huts, anywhere warm and undisturbed. But at the whistles each dog dashed out from his nook, tearing over everything in front of him in his haste not to be left behind; and in three seconds half a dozen of them were whining and jumping round the children, waiting for orders which way to go.
A majestic wave of the hand, and the order “Go and find him!” from the eldest of the children, sent a hurricane of dogs yapping with excitement off to the creek, and the hunters followed at a brisk run. Gavan Blake and Mary Grant trotted along together in the bright moonlight. Just in front were Ellen and Hugh, he laughing at the excitement of the dogs and children, she looking over her shoulder and hoping to hear what Blake was saying to the heiress. As a matter of fact, he was making the most of his chances, and before long they were getting on capitally. Mary found herself laying aside her slow English way, and laughing and joking with the rest. There is something intoxicating in moonlight at any time; and what with the moon and the climate, and the breeze whistling through the gum-bough, it was no wonder that even the staidly-reared English girl felt a thrill of excitement, a stirring of the primeval instincts that civilisation and cultivation had not quite been able to choke.
“When you go back to England, Miss Grant,” said Blake, “you will be able to tell them that you have hunted possums, anyhow. That will sound like the real bush, won’t it?”
“Yes. And I can say I have been upset in a river and nearly drowned, too. I’m becoming quite an experienced person. But what makes you think I shall go back to England?”
“I thought you would be sure to go back.”
“Oh, no. We have no friends in England at all. My mother’s people are nearly all living in India, and father wouldn’t live in England. He hates it.”
“And do you like Australia?”
“I’ve only seen about a week of it. Do you know, it seems to me a more serious life than in England. Look at Mrs Gordon, what a lot of people she has dependent on her. The station-hands and their wives, all come to her. In England she might visit them and give them tracts and blankets, but here what they want is advice and help in all sorts of things. You know what I mean?”
“Yes. She is a fine old lady, isn’t she? A real character. You will be sure to like her.”
“Yes. I think I shall be very happy here. Father is anxious I should like this place, as he may come up here to live, and I’m sure I shall like it. You see, there is work to do here. Miss Harriott and Mrs Gordon are at work from daylight till dark; what with the children, the house, the store and visitors, there really isn’t time to feel lonely. Don’t you think people are much happier when they have a lot to do? Do you live——”
“I live in two rooms and get my meals at an hotel, Miss Grant. I have never had any home life. I never knew what it meant till now.”
“You must come out again when you are down this way. The — what’s that?”
A dog barked furiously in the distance, and the others rushed to join him from all directions, yelping and squealing with excitement. The whole party set off at a run, amid cheers and laughter.
“What is it, what is it?” said Mary.
“One of the dogs has found a possum up a tree, and the children will try to get him down. Come on! Mind where you go. The black shadows are very hard to judge, and sometimes a log or a bush is hidden in them. There goes Boss over a log,” he added, in explanation of a terrific crash and a shout of laughter from the others. “What is it, Emily?” he asked as one of the children ran past.
“It’s Thomas Carlyle has found one,” she said, “and he never barks when the possums are up big trees. He knows we can’t get them then, so he only looks in the saplings. The other dogs find them in the big trees, but that’s no good.”
A sharp run brought the party to the foot of a small tree, surrounded by a circle of dogs, all sitting on their tails and staring with whimpers of anxiety up to the topmost branches, where a small furry animal was perched. Mary Grant, under Blake’s directions, got the animal silhouetted against the moon, and saw clearly enough the sharp nose, round ears, plump body, and prehensile tail of the unfortunate creature who, as Poss said, looked as if he were wishing for a pair of wings.
Blake turned to Mary. “Do you want to stop and see it killed?” he said. “It’s rather a murderous business. The possum has no chance. One of the boys will go up the tree and shake the branch till the possum falls off, and when it falls the dogs will kill it.”
“No, I don’t think I would like to see it. I have seen so many things killed since I came here. Let us walk back towards the house.”
“I’ll tell Gordon. Gordon,” he said, “Miss Grant doesn’t care to see the massacre. We will walk back towards the house.”
Ellen Harriott made a sudden step forward. “I will go back too,” she said.
“Why, Miss Harriott!” said Poss in astonishment, “You’ve seen lots of ’em killed. Native cats, too. Watch me knock him out of that with a stick.”
“No, no, I’ll go back, too. I don’t feel like killing anything tonight. You come back too, Hugh.”
So the four walked back together, and as Blake had monopolised Mary on the way out, she now put herself beside Hugh, and the others walked behind. Hugh and Mary soon began to talk, but the other pair walked in silence for a while. Then Ellen Harriott said in a low voice, “Go a little slower, Gavan. Let them get away.” As they passed under the dense shadows of a huge wild-apple tree, Ellen stopped and, turning to Blake, held up her face to be kissed.
“Gavan, Gavan!” she said. “I was wondering when I would ever get a chance to speak to you. To think of you being here in the same house with me! It’s too wonderful, isn’t it?”
Gavan Blake kissed her. It was almost an effort to him at first, as his mind and heart were on fire with the thoughts of the other girl.
“My darling, my darling!” she said. “All the while you were walking with that girl, I knew you were dying to come and kiss me!” For such is the faith of women.
They stopped for a little while, and then moved on after the others, pausing now and again in the shadows. The girl poured out all her artless tale—how she had been awake night after night, waiting for the day he should come. Then she told him how the heiress had praised his pluck and strength. “And oh! Gavan, I was so proud, I could have hugged her!”
Thus she rattled on, while he, because it was his nature, found it no trouble to reply in kind, with a good imitation of sincerity. On such a night, with such a girl clinging to him, it would have been a very poor specimen of a man who could not have trumped up a sort of enthusiasm. But in his heart he was cursing his luck that just as chance had thrown the heiress in his way, and put her under an obligation to him, he was held to his old bargain—the bargain that he had made for position’s sake, and which he would now have liked to break for the same reason.
It would be wearisome to record their talk, all the way up to the house. The girl—impetuous, hotblooded, excitable—poured out her love-talk like a bird singing. Happiness complete was hers for the time; but Gavan’s heart was not in the wooing, and he listened and was silent.
Hugh and Mary, walking on ahead, knew nothing of the love scenes just behind them. They talked of many things, of the moonlight and the river and the scent of the flowers, but all the time Hugh felt diffident and tongue-tied. He had not the glib tongue of Gavan Blake, and he felt little at ease talking common-places. Mary Grant thought he must be worried over something, and, with her usual directness, went to the point.
“You are worrying over something,” she said. “What is it?”
“Oh, no; nothing.”
“It is not because I asked Mr Blake here, is it?”
“Oh no! Goodness, no! Why he is fifty times better than most of the people that come here. It just happens we had never asked him before. I think he is a very nice fellow.”
“I’m glad of that. I have asked him to come out again. He seems to know Miss Harriott quite well, though he doesn’t know your mother.”
“Yes, he met Miss Harriott at some of the race-balls, I think. She is a queer girl, full of fancies.”
“She seems a very quiet sort of girl to me,” said Miss Grant. But if she could have known what was going on about two hundred yards behind her, she might have altered her opinion.