With them Mary had numberless new experiences. She got accustomed to seeing the boys climb big trees by cutting steps in the bark with a tomahawk, going out on the most giddy heights after birds’ nests, or dragging the possum from his sleeping-place in a hollow limb. She learned to hold a frenzied fox terrier at the mouth of a hollow log, ready to pounce on the kangaroo rat which had taken refuge there, and which flashed out as if shot from a catapult on being poked from the other end with a long stick. She learned to mark the hiding-place of the young wild ducks that scuttled and dived, and hid themselves with such super-natural cunning in the reedy pools. She saw the native companions, those great, solemn, grey birds, go through their fantastic and intricate dances, forming squares, pirouetting, advancing, and retreating with the solemnity of professional dancing-masters. She lay on the riverbank with the children, gun in hand, breathless with excitement, waiting for the rising of the duck-billed platypus—that quaint combination of fish, flesh and fowl—as he dived in the quiet waters, a train of small bubbles marking his track. She fished in deep pools for the great, sleepy, hundred-pound cod-fish that sucked down bait and hook, holus-bolus, and then were hauled in with hardly any resistance, and lived for days contentedly, tethered to the bank by a line through their gills.
In these amusements time passed pleasantly enough, and by the time school-work was resumed Mary Grant had become one of the family.
Of Hugh she at first saw little. His work took him out on the run all day long, looking after sheep in the paddocks, or perhaps toiling day after day in the great, dusty drafting-yards. In the cool of the afternoon the two girls would often canter over the four miles or so of timbered country to the yards, and wait till Hugh had finished his day’s work. As a rule, Poss or Binjie, perhaps both, were in attendance to escort Miss Harriott, with the result that Hugh and Mary found themselves paired off to ride home together. Before long he found himself looking forward to these rides with more anxiety than he cared to acknowledge, and in a very short time he was head over ears in love with her.
Any man, being much alone with any woman in a country house, will fall in love with her; but a man such as Hugh Cordon, ardent, imaginative, and very young, meeting every day a woman as beautiful as Mary Grant, was bound to fall a victim. He soon became her absolute worshipper. All day long, in the lonely rides through the hush, in the hot and dusty hours at the sheep-yards, through the pleasant, lazy canter home in the cool of the evening, his fancies were full of her—her beauty and her charm. It was happiness enough for him to be near her, to feel the soft touch of her hand, to catch the faint scent that seemed to linger in her hair. After the day’s work they would stroll together about the wonderful old garden, and watch the sunlight die away on the western hills, and the long strings of wild fowl hurrying down the river to their nightly haunts. Sometimes he would manage to get home for lunch, and afterwards, on the pretext of showing her the run, would saddle a horse for her, and off they would go for a long ride through the mountains. Or there were sheep to inspect, or fences to look at—an excuse for an excursion was never lacking.
For the present he made no sign; he was quite contented to act as confidant and adviser, and many a long talk they had together over the various troubles that beset the manager of a station.
It would hardly be supposed that a girl could give much advice on such matters, and at first her total ignorance of the various difficulties amused him; but when she came to understand them better, her cool common-sense compelled his admiration. His temperament was nervous and excitable, and he let things fret him. She took everything in a cheery spirit, and laughed him out of his worries. One would not expect to find many troubles in rearing sheep and selling their wool; but the management of any big station is a heavy task, and Kuryong would have driven Job mad.
The sheep themselves, to begin with, seem always in league against their owners. Merinos, though apparently estimable animals, are in reality dangerous monomaniacs, whose sole desire is to ruin the man that owns them. Their object is to die, and to do so with as much trouble to their owners as they possibly can. They die in the droughts when the grass, roasted to a dull white by the sun, comes out by the roots and blows about the bare paddocks; they die in the wet, when the long grass in the sodden gullies breeds “fluke” and “bottle” and all sorts of hideous complaints. They get burnt in bush fires from sheer malice, refusing to run in any given direction, but charging round and round in a ring till they are calcined. They get drowned by refusing to leave flooded country, though hunted with frenzied earnestness. It was not the sheep so much as the neighbours whose depredations were drawing lines on Hugh Gordon’s face. “I wouldn’t care,” he confided to Miss Grant, “if they only took a beast or two. But the sheep are going by hundreds. We mustered five hundred short in one paddock this month. And there isn’t a Doyle or a Donohoe cow but has three calves at least, and two of each three belong to us.”
He dared not prosecute them. No local jury would convict in face of the hostility that would be aroused. They had made “alibis” a special study; the very judges were staggered by the calmness and plausibility with which they got themselves out of difficulties.
A big station with a lot of hostile neighbours is like a whale with the killers round it; it is open to attack on all sides, and cannot retaliate. A match dropped carelessly in a patch of grass sets miles of country in a blaze. Hugh, as he missed the stock, and saw fences cut and grass burnt, could only grind his teeth and hope that a lucky chance would put some of the enemy in his power. To Mary it seemed incredible that in the nineteenth century people should be able to steal sheep without suffering for it; and Hugh soon saw that she was a true daughter of William Grant, as far as fighting was concerned. She listened with set teeth to all stories of depredation and trespass, and they talked over many a plan together. But though they became quite friendly their intimacy seemed to make no progress. To her he was rather the employee than the friend. In fact he did not get on half so far as did Gavan Blake, who came up to Kuryong occasionally, and made himself so agreeable that already his name was being coupled with that of the heiress. Ellen Harriott always spoke to Blake when he came to the station, and gave no sign of jealousy at his attentions to Mary Grant; but she was waiting and watching, as one who has been a nurse learns to do. And things were in this state when an unexpected event put an altogether different complexion on affairs.