Thus it was that, on the holiday at Kuryong, the Bachelors’ Quarters—two large dormitory-like rooms that opened into one another—were full of athletic male figures sprawling on the beds, smoking black pipes all day, and yarning interminably. The main topic of conversation was Peggy’s claim against the estate. They had all heard the rumours that were going round; each had quietly been trying to find out what Peggy had to go on, and this pow-wow was utilised for the purpose of comparing notes. They had one advantage over Gavan Blake—they knew all about Considine, which Blake did not.
On one bed lay Pinnock, who had come up to make arrangements for carrying on the station till the will was proved. On another bed sprawled Carew, who, by virtue of his trip out back, was looked upon as a bit of an oracle by Poss and Binjie, who had never been further than the mountains. Poss and Binjie had dragged an old couch out of the next room and were stretched on that, listening to the talk, and occasionally throwing in a word of such wisdom as they had. Hugh sat in an armchair by the window, smoking and dreaming.
Poss’s voice cut knife-like through a cloud of tobacco smoke. He spoke as one on the defensive. “Well, I believe there’s something in it, anyhow. Briney Donohoe told me——”
Charlie Gordon’s cold drawl interrupted the youth. “It’s all rot,” he said. “Briney Donohoe told you—what does he know about it? You two boys and Hugh have been stuck at home here so long, you believe anything. I tell you, they’ll do nothing. It’s all talk, just to make themselves big people. They have nothing to do just now, so it comes in handy as an excuse to ride from one selection to another all day long and leave our gates open. We have Peggy’s measure, haven’t we, Carew? That long-lost relation of yours, old Considine!”
“I wish you did have him,” said the lawyer. “He might come in very handy. With a big property like this to go for, they are nearly sure to have a try at it.”
Poss took heart at finding himself supported by this new champion. “Yes,” he said. “Red Mick and Peggy are down at Gavan Blake’s today. I saw their horses hanging up outside as I came through. And Briney Donohoe told me——”
“What do you think, Carew?” said Charlie, cutting Briney Donohoe off again. “Don’t you think that old fellow was telling the truth when he said he married Peggy?”
“Sure he was,” said the Englishman. “Never saw a fellow in such a funk in my life.”
“What about Peggy?” said Pinnock. “How did she take it?”
“Bold as brass! I thought she was going to kiss Charlie there, when she found out who he was.”
Pinnock laughed. “Funny thing,” he said, “a woman like Peggy having the chance to choose between two fortunes. Pity we couldn’t induce her to take the old bushman and be done with it. How much money has he come into, Carew?”
“Oh, plenty of money. But of course there’s an old place to keep up, and the death duties are very heavy. Very expensive thing having money left you in England, you know.”
Charlie Grdon turned to Pinnock. “What you ought to do,” he said (the far-out man who has to shift for himself is always quite sure he can settle all difficulties better than those whose profession it is), “what you ought to do,” he repeated, “is to send someone to Peggy and tell her not to be such a fool. Tell her to stick to old Considine. That’s what you ought to do.”
“Well, suppose you go and do it. You know the lady better than anyone here, seemingly. But if she has been to see Blake, I expect the fat’s in the fire by this time.”
“I don’t think much of Blake takin’ up the case,” said Binjie, “after the old lady asked him here. It’s doing the black-snake act, I call it. I don’t suppose he’ll come here any more after this.”
Hugh still sat looking out of the window, smoking silently. “Here comes Blake now, anyhow,” he said. “He’s just coming up the flat.”
“Wants to see me, I expect,” said Pinnock. “We’ll know all about it now. Must have heard I was here, and is come to declare war or sue for peace. Someone had better go and meet him, I suppose.”
“Dashed if I’ll go,” said Boss. “I don’t care about a chap that doesn’t act white. I saw Red Mick’s and Peggy’s horses at his office today, and now he comes up here as bold as brass.”
“Let him go round to the front,” said Hugh, “and then he can ask the servants for whoever he wants. If we go out and meet him, we’ll have to ask him to stay.”
The approach to houses in the bush is generally by way of the yard where the horses arrive, and it is very unusual for anyone, except a stranger making a formal visit, to be allowed to find their way round to the front.
Blake rode up and gave his horse to the horse-boy. “Put him in the stable for a while,” he said. “I may want him again.” Then he went round to the front door and asked for Mrs Gordon.
“I have come to see Miss Grant on very important business,” he said when the old lady came in. “Would you ask her if she would see me?”
The old lady was in a quandary. She had heard all the rumours that were going about, but she knew that they had been kept from Mary Grant, and she thought that if Blake meant to talk business he might shock or startle the girl terribly.
“Mr Pinnock the lawyer is here,” she said. “Perhaps you had better see him. Miss Grant does not know —”
“I am come as a friend of Miss Grant’s, Mrs Gordon,” he said. “But, if Mr Pinnock is here, perhaps it would be better for me to see him first. Shall I wait for him here?”
“If you will go into the office I will send him in there,” and the old lady withdrew to talk of commonplace matters with Mary, all the time feeling that a great crisis was at hand.
Soon the two lawyers faced one another over the office table, and Blake got to business at once.
“Mr Pinnock,” he said, “I am asked to act for Margaret Donohoe, or Margaret Grant as she claims to be; and I want you to believe that I am seriously telling you what I believe to be the truth, when I say that Miss Grant had better settle this case.”
“Why should she pay one penny? What proofs have you? It looks to me, with all respect to you, Mr Blake, like an ordinary case of blackmail.”
“If it were blackmail,” said Blake quietly, “do you think that I would be here, giving you particulars of the case? I tell you, man, I am ready now to give you all particulars, and you can soon see whether to advise a settlement or not.”
“Fire away, then,” said Pinnock. “it will take a lot to convince me, though, and so I tell you.”
Blake gave him the particulars gleaned from Peggy. “I have examined and cross-examined and recross-examined her, and I can’t shake her story.”
Pinnock listened with an immovable face, but his mind was working like lightning. As the name of the missionary and Pike’s Hotel were mentioned, he remembered that he had seen these very names on the butts of Grant’s cheque books. Getting Blake to excuse him for a moment, he hurried to his room and pulled out a bundle of cheque butts. The best diary of many a man is found in his cheque butts. There he saw on the very date mentioned by Blake, cheques drawn to “Self and P.”, also one drawn to “Pike accommodation”, and one simply to the name of Nettleship for five pounds. Of course it was quite possible that the latter was only a donation to charity, such as old Bully was occasionally very free with; but, taken together, the whole lot made Blake’s story look unpleasantly probable. Pinnock whistled to himself as he tied the bundle up again. “Case of settle or be sorry,” he said to himself. “I wonder how much will settle it?”
When he faced Blake again, he had pulled the mask of professional stolidity over his features; also he lied boldly.
“I can see nothing to corroborate this story,” he said; “but it may be that Miss Grant would rather pay a few pounds than have the unpleasantness of a trial. I will get her in and ask her if you like, but I don’t think it will lead to anything.”
They were holding their conference in the office. Outside, the station was dozing in the sun. The house dog slept in the yard, and a stray wild pigeon had come down into the quadrangle, and was picking at some grain that was spilt there. From the garden came the shouts of the children and the happy laughter of Mary Grant.
“There she is now,” said Pinnock. “Hadn’t I better get her to come in and get the thing over?”
He went out, and came back very soon. “Mrs Gordon and Miss Grant are coming,” he said. “She said she would like Mrs Gordon to be with her.”
Before long they came in and sat down. Mary Grant had no idea what she was wanted for. She greeted Blake with a glad smile, and waited to hear what Pinnock had to say. It did not take the lawyer long to put the story before her: but it was some time before she could understand it. Nothing so tragic had ever entered her life before, and she seemed almost stunned.
Mrs Gordon moved to her side and took her hand.
“It is very terrible for you—for us all, dear,” she said. “You must listen to what Mr Pinnock says, and make up your mind. He can advise you best what to do.”
Again Pinnock went through the case. As a full understanding broke in on her, she drew herself up; the look of distress and perplexity left her face, and her eyes were full of scorn and anger.
“Hello, what’s coming now?” thought Pinnock. “I hope she says nothing rash.”
She tried to speak once or twice, but the words seemed to choke her.
“What do you advise me to do, Mr Pinnock?” she said, turning to him suddenly.
“I advise you to give me power to act for you in the matter as I think best,” said Pinnock, who saw that matters were likely to slip beyond his control. “From what Mr Blake tells me, I daresay this woman can give you a lot of trouble and annoyance. Whatever you pay her, you won’t miss the money. You will save the family here from being turned out; you will avoid scandal; and if there should be any foundation for Mr Blake’s story, it may mean that if you don’t settle you lose everything.”
From him Mary Grant turned to the old lady.
“Mrs Gordon,” she said, “do you advise me to pay this money?”
“My dear, I don’t advise at all. Don’t consider us in the matter at all. It is for you to say.”
“Then I will pay nothing. It is a cruel, infamous, wicked slander. These poor, ignorant people don’t know what they are doing. Sooner than pay one penny in compromise, I will walk off this station a pauper. God will not let such villainy win. Mrs Gordon, surely you don’t think that I ought to blacken my father’s and mother’s name by paying money to keep this claim quiet?”
Here Pinnock broke in on her speech. “But if they should manage to produce evidence—”
“Let them produce it, and let the judge believe it if he likes. You and I and everybody know that it is a lie; even if they win the case, it is still a lie. I will pay nothing—not one halfpenny. My mother’s name is more than all the money in the world, and I will not blacken it by compromises. Mr Pinnock, the case is to be fought out, and if we lose we shall still know that justice is on our side; but if we pay money—”
Mrs Gordon took her hand, and lifted it to her lips.
“I think you are quite right, my dear. You put us all to shame for even thinking of it.”
“I am very sorry, Mr Blake,” the girl went on, “very sorry indeed that you should have come here on such an errand. You saved my life, and if I could pay you for that I would; but this offer is an insult, and I hope that you will never come here again. Whether I am turned out of the old station or not, I hope that you will never come here again.” And with that the two ladies walked out, leaving the lawyers looking at each other.
“I am afraid, Mr Blake,” said Pinnock at last, “that we have lost any hope we might ever have had of settling this case.”
But Blake, as he rode homewards, felt that he had lost for ever a much higher hope. He had played for a high stake on two chances. One of them had failed him. There remained only the chance of pulling Peggy’s case through; and he swore that if hard work, skill, and utter unscrupulousness could win that case, it should be won.