Grant’s reply was brief and to the point; he seldom wrote letters, always telegraphing when possible. On this occasion the telegram said, “Prosecute at once; offer reward informers” which, leaking out (as telegrams frequently did at the local office) put Red Mick considerably on the qui vive. The old man actually paid him the compliment of writing a letter about him later on, saying that it would be a good thing to prosecute—it would give Red Mick a good scare, even if it didn’t get him into gaol. Circumstances, no doubt, justified a prosecution, and it was hard to see how Mick could make a counter-move.
But that gentleman was not without resource; an anonymous letter arrived for Hugh by the mailboy, a dirty, scrawled epistle, unsigned and undated, running as follows:—
|“Mr Gordon i herd you was gone to summons Michael Donohoe for sheep stealing. You better bewar there is some seen you and that girl in the bush you will get a grate shown up and her two.”|
This precious epistle was signed “A Friend”, and on first reading it Hugh laughed heartily; but the more he thought it over the less he liked it. It was all very well to put Red Mick in the dock, but it was evident that part of the defence would be, “How came you to be under the boughs of a fallen tree with an attractive young woman when Red Mick’s dogs came up with the sheep?” At the very least they would look ridiculous; and the unknown correspondent who promised them a “grate shown up” would probably take care that the story was as highly coloured as possible. He shuddered to think what the Donohoes would say, and heartily wished he had let Red Mick alone.
He fretted for some hours, and then decided to talk it over with the girl herself. He did not care to let Red Mick think that the anonymous letter had stopped the prosecution; at the same time, he was determined to do nothing that would cause Miss Grant the least annoyance. He opened the discussion that evening while strolling about the garden.
“About this business of Red Mick’s,” he said. “I am rather worried.”
“Well, the trouble is this: I’ve got an anonymous letter from Red Mick or some of his people, saying that they are going to give you and me a great showing-up about being hidden in the tree together.”
“What can they say?” she asked uncomprehendingly.
“Well, of course, they will talk about our being in the tree together—and—all that kind of thing, you know. They will make things as unpleasant for us as they can. They may want you to give evidence, and all that sort of thing—and I thought, perhaps you mightn’t like it.”
She froze into dignity at once. “I certainly shouldn’t like it,” she said. “About being in the tree, that does not matter, of course, but I hope you will keep my name out of the affair altogether. I must ask you to do that for me.”
Then he rushed on his fate. Many a time he had pictured how he would wait till they were alone together in the garden on some glorious moonlit night, and he would take her hand, and tell her how much he loved her; and now, seeing the girl standing before him flushed with insulted dignity, he suddenly found himself gasping out, in what seemed somebody’s else’s voice, “Couldn’t we—look here, Miss Grant, won’t you be engaged to me? Then it won’t matter what they say.”
He tried to take her hand, but she drew back, white to the lips.
“No, no; let me go; let me go,” she said. Then the colour came back to her face, and she drew herself up, and spoke slowly and cuttingly:
“I thank you very much for what you have just said. But I really think that I shall be able to put up with anything these people may choose to say about me. It won’t hurt me, and I shouldn’t like you to sacrifice yourself to save me from the talk of such people. Let us go back to the house, please.”
He stared helplessly at her, and could not find his voice for a moment. At last he blurted out: “It’s not because of that. I don’t care about them any more than you do. Don’t think it’s that, Miss Grant. Why——”
“Let us go back to the house, please,” she said quietly, “and don’t say anything more about it. And whatever happens, I must ask you to keep my name out of the affair altogether. You’ll do that, won’t you? Let us go back now, if you don’t mind.”
They walked back in silence. He looked at her once or twice, but her face was stern and rigid, and she would not give him even one glance. At the door she gave him her hand, with a matter-of-fact “I will say good-night now,” and disappeared into her room, where she threw herself on the bed and sobbed bitterly; for the truth was that she was very, very fond of him. She, too, had built her little castles in the air as to what she would say and do when he put the momentous question. Girls do foresee these things, somehow; although they do pretend to be astonished when the time arrives.
She had pictured him saying all sorts of endearing things, and making all sorts of loving protestations; and now it had come to this—she had been asked as if it were merely a matter of avoiding scandal. It was too great a shock. She lay silently crying, while Hugh, his castles in the air having crumbled around him, was trying in a dazed way to frame a letter to Mr Grant.
His thoughts were anything but pleasant. What a fool he had been, talking to her like that! Making it look as if he had only proposed to her because he ought to protect her good name! Why hadn’t he spoken to her before—in the tree, on the ride home, any other time? Why hadn’t he spoken differently? To him the refusal seemed the end of all things. He thought of asking Mr Grant to give him the management of the most out-back place he had, so that he could go away and bury himself. He even thought or resigning his position altogether and going to the goldfields. Red Mick and his delinquencies seemed but small matters now; and, after what had passed, he must, of course, see that Miss Grant was not dragged into the business. So he sat down and began to write.
The letter took a great deal of thinking over. It had got about the station that Red Mick had at last been caught in flagrante delicto; the house-cook has told the cook at the men’s hut, and he had told the mailman, who stopped on the road to tell the teamsters ploughing along with their huge waggons to Kiley’s Crossing; they told the publican at Kiley’s, and he told everybody he saw. The children made a sort of play out of it, the eldest boy personating Red Mick, while two of the younger ones hid in a fallen tree, and were routed out by Thomas Carlyle. The station-hands were all excitement; the prospect of a big law-case was a real godsend to them. To drop the matter would be equivalent to a confession of defeat, but, after what had passed, Hugh had no option. So he told Mr Grant that, on thinking it over, he did not consider it advisable to go on with the case against Red Mick; Miss Grant would have to go into the box to give evidence, which would be very unpleasant for her.
Poor Hugh! He was too honourable to give any false reason, and too shy to tell the whole truth. If he had said that there was no hope of a conviction, it would have been all right. But consideration for the feelings of anyone, even his own daughter, was to Billy the Bully quite incomprehensible, and he wrote back, on a letter-card, “Go on with the prosecution.”
This put Hugh in a frightful dilemma. He had no trouble whatever in making up his mind to disobey the order, as he was bound to stand by his promise to Miss Grant. But what answer should he send to her father? He was in a reckless mood, but he knew well enough that Grant would order him off the place, neck and crop, if he dared to disobey; and he owed it to his mother and sister to avoid such a thing. The more he looked at the position of affairs, the less he liked it. He wrote a dozen letters, and tore them up again.
He thought of making Red Mick a sporting offer of, say, a couple of hundred pounds, to disappear altogether—Mick could have arranged that easily enough. Then he thought of going down to see Mr Grant to explain; but the more he thought of that the less he liked it. He worried and worried over it, and when he went to bed he lay awake thinking about it. He fell into dozes, and dreamt that Mr Grant had turned him off the place, and had made Red Mick manager, and that Miss Grant was going to marry Red Mick; then he woke with a start, and heard through the darkness the rapid hoof-beats of a horse ridden at speed up the road from Kiley’s, and the barking of dogs that announced the arrival of a stranger.
He went out and found in the yard one of the telegraph operators from Kiley’s, on a smoking horse. “Very important telegram, Mr Gordon,” he said. “I borrowed the horse, and brought it over as fast as I could.”
Hugh opened the envelope hurriedly. The operator struck a match and held it up while he read. The message was from the secretary of Grant’s club, and ran as follows:
|“William Grant died suddenly this morning. Pinnock taking charge of affairs; am making arrangements funeral. Better come down at once.”|
Her father dead! The question of Red Mick and his prosecution became at once a matter of no moment. How absurd his worry and vexation now seemed. On the other hand, what new complications might arise? All these years the Gordons had lived on the assumption that Mr Grant would provide for them, without having any promise or agreement from him; and, owing to the old man’s violent temper, they had been in daily risk of being ordered off the place. They had got used to this as people get used to living on the side of a volcano. But now—?
Her father dead! He could not bear to see her grief, and the thought of it made him determined to get away as quickly as possible. Quietly he awoke his mother, and told her what had happened, and by dawn was well on his way to Tarrong to catch the train to Sydney.