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Iris Lodge, during the first half of August, became for once gay, not to say festive—in a small way, as befitted a first experiment. Maurice managed to wrest his hard-earned annual holiday from the bank, and, on the very first day of the fourteen allotted him, back came Dick from abroad, bringing with him his friend Flint. After a remarkable display of obstinacy on this gentleman's part, Dick had at last prevailed upon him to leave his tenants to their own devices for one more week, and tarry by the Thames. But, though this was brought about by dint of hard persuading, in the end Mr. Flint somehow saw his way to doubling the week which at first he had grudgingly promised.
In his excuse it can only be urged that he enjoyed himself beyond expectation. The weather was very nearly faultless, the river at its best, formalities few, and the ladies—charming. The lawn-tennis court—though several inches short—was quite of the billiard-table order. The music in the evenings, though it did not run in a man's head, possessed a certain odd, mysterious, soothing, saddening, pleasing quality, that silenced one at the time, and left an impression that Miss Edmonstone could make her piano speak, if she tried. Perhaps it was classical music; very likely Chopin. Lastly—and last thing—the spirituous nightcap, though approached in a spirit of moderation, had a way of imparting the proper Eucalyptian flavour to all reminiscences of life among the gum-trees. Could there be better conditions for a pleasant visit? Flint asked himself. And if the house was the smallest he had ever stayed in, would not Castle Flint seem cheerless, vast, sepulchral, by comparison?
But indeed they were wonderfully bright and happy days: the ones on the river, when, in the bushmen's phrase, they all "camped," and Flint made tea in true bush fashion, and Dick a "damper" which no one but bushmen could eat; the afternoons at tennis, spent in wonderfully keen, if not deeply scientific, struggles; the morning at Hampton Court, when Flint owned himself completely "bushed" in the Maze, and when they were all photographed on the Green, bringing away with them the atrocious result in a gilt frame; and the day when Dick hired the four-in-hand (it created some sensation in the little road) and drove them all through Chertsey and Ascot, to Windsor, and back by Staines and Shepperton.
Certainly any outsider must have voted them a jovial, light-hearted party, without a serious care to divide among them; and even Flint, who had some power of observation, and also knew his friend thoroughly—even Flint told himself that old Dick had got back his good spirits, and was, in fact, "getting over it." But Flint did not know. Ever since their hurried interview on the 2nd of July, Dick had been as reticent as he had then been communicative of all that lay nearest his heart.
Yet never for one moment did Dick forget. He had no wish to forget. So long as he could keep his disappointment to himself, deep down within him, he would suffer and smile. For the sake of the others he could not rise in his place at the feast and declare himself the skeleton he felt. They must find it out sooner or later—then let it be later. Here his thoughts were all of his mother and Fanny; they would be heart-broken when he told them of his determination to go back to Australia. But a determination it was, growing more solid day by day, though as yet told only to Colonel Bristo, and that in the unguarded spontaneity of sudden emotion. But as for his people, better tell them just before he went—say the week before, or why not on the very day of sailing? Why make them unhappy before their time, when their happiness in having him back was still boundless?
After all, it would only be a temporary trouble; for Dick had evolved a great scheme for the future, which was this: He would go out and buy a small station in a first-rate district—at arm's length, indeed, from towns and railroads, but still just in touch with civilisation. Then he would send home for them all. Yes, all. For Maurice would make an ideal book-keeper. Fanny would revel in the life, and Mrs. Edmonstone would certainly prefer it to the small house at Teddington. This plan was conceived, matured, calculated out, and found feasible, during the many long summer nights wherein Dick never closed his eyes, when perhaps it was well that there was this object of focus for his mind.
As for his attitude towards Flint, Dick was well aware that his access of reserve, after the way in which he had unburdened his soul at their first meeting, must appear strangely inconsistent. He had rushed to join his friend on the Continent, travelled with him for nearly a month, and not told him another word of his affairs. It could not be helped; it would be impossible to tell Flint anything of what had followed their first talk at Teddington without making a clean breast of his discovery that Miles the Australian was no other than Sundown the bushranger, and this Dick would not tell a soul unless Miles broke faith with him. Least of all would he confide in Flint, for Flint would be the very first to turn round and call him madman.
Nevertheless the days seemed to chase each other pleasantly enough for one and all, actually doing so for all but one; and, as always happens in such cases, the fortnight drew far too quickly to its close.
"To-day is Thursday—the Twelfth, by-the-bye—and here we are within sight of Sunbury Lock; and on Monday, and ever afterwards, the bank; the blessed bank!"
This cheerful reminder proceeded (one day up the river) from the lips and soul of the man in the stern, who was steering. There was a sympathetic groan from the man in the bows, who was smoking. The working half of the crew received the observation, which was thrown out gratuitously to all, in business-like silence, broken only by the flash of four sculls as one, and the swish of the feather blades through the air. The groan in the bows was followed by a reflection of kindred pathos, delivered in a high key:
"We will call next Monday Black Monday; for to me it means Holyhead, Dublin, Kerry, and tenants! blessed tenants! But not for always," added Flint suddenly; "I don't say 'ever afterwards;' why should you? Why should I be a slave to my Castle and you to your City? Why shouldn't we emigrate together?"
No one in the boat could see the speaker's face; it was impossible to tell whether he was jesting or serious.
"Oh, I'm game!" cried Maurice, very much in earnest at once.
"Well, then, just hold on till I give Castle Flint the sack."
"Or until it is sacked about your ears," suggested stroke jerkily. "But what nonsense you two are talking!"
"Not at all, Miss Edmonstone—if you will allow me. You can't expect a man to live out his life in troubled Ireland when there's a happy Australia to go to: there, you know, you may combine the blessings of liberty, equality, and Home Rule of the most advanced kind, with the peculiar satisfaction of calling yourself a staunch Tory, and believing it! But as for our friend here, station life would add a year to his life for every year the City is capable of shortening it. He'd make a first-rate jackeroo."
"What is that?"
"What's a jackeroo? Oh, a young gentleman—for choice, the newest new chum to be found—who goes to a station to get Colonial experience. He has to work like a nigger, and revels in it, for a bit. If he is a black sheep, and has the antique ideas of the Colonies held by those who sent him out to whiten him, his illusions may last a couple of days; if he has read up Australia on the voyage, they will probably hold out a little longer, while he keeps looking for what his book told him he would find; the fact being that the modern bush life hasn't yet been done into English. Meanwhile he runs up the horses, rides round boundaries, mends fences, drives sheep to water—if it is a drought—and skins the dead ones, weighs out flour and sugar, cleans harness, camps anywhere, and lives on mutton and damper, and tea."
"But what does he get for all that?" asked Maurice, with visions of money-bags.
"Rations and experience," replied Flint promptly. "When he's admitted to be worth his salt he will be asked to make other arrangements. Then some still newer new chum will be selected for the post, through the introductions he has brought to the stock and station agents, and in his turn will drive his teeth into the dirty work of the station, which the ordinary pound-a-week hands refuse, and so get his Colonial experience!"
"Thanks; I'll stop where I am," said Maurice.
"He isn't fair," said Dick, speaking for the first time. "You know you aren't fair, old chap, raking up your own case as typical, when it was exceptional. Jackeroos are treated all right, and paid too, so long as they're smart and willing—the two things needful. Come, I've been a squatter myself, and can't hear my class run down."
"You won't hear me defend the landlords on that ground," remarked Flint, who had contracted eccentric politics.
"Well," said Dick, experimentally, "if I go back to it, Maurice shall be my jackeroo, and judge for himself whether you haven't painted us too black."
He shipped his oars. Flint was standing up with the boat-hook to pilot them through the open lock-gates.
"Then I'll ride the boundaries!" cried Fanny, who sat a horse like a leech, but had had no mount for years.
"In that case," added Flint quietly, "I'll apply for overseer's billet, with the right of sacking slack hands."
For a moment Dick looked really pleased: this jesting about a station in Australia was, so far, feeling the way, and might make matters a trifle easier when the time came. But the smile quickly faded from his face. In truth, on no day during these last weeks had he been so troubled in spirit, so tossed between the cross-currents of conflicting feelings.
That morning he had received two letters, apparently of contrary character: for while the perusal of one gratified him so intensely that he could not help handing it round for them all to see, the mere sight of the other was sufficient to make him thrust the unopened envelope hurriedly into his pocket.
The first letter was indeed a matter for congratulation, for it was the most completely satisfactory, though not the first, of several similar communications which Dick had received since his return from Australia. It was a short note from the editor of the "Illustrated British Monthly," accepting (for immediate use: a great point) a set of sketches entitled "Home from Australia," which set forth the humours and trials of a long sea voyage, and were, in fact, simply a finished reproduction of those sketches that had delighted the passengers on board the Hesper. But it was more than a mere formal acceptance: besides enclosing a cheque (in itself a charming feature) to meet the present case, the note contained a complimentary allusion to the quality of the "work," and a distinct hint for the future. This in a postscript—observing that as Australian subjects were somewhat in demand since the opening of the Colonial Exhibition—he (the editor) would be glad to see anything thoroughly Australian that Mr. Edmonstone might chance to have ready.
Of course the precious note was read aloud, and greeted with cries of delight. Fancy an opening with the "Illustrated British" at this stage! What could be better? And it did look like a real opening. The hero of the moment alone sat silent; the unread letter in his pocket checked his speech; it was from Yorkshire.
"Why did you ever leave us, when you can do so splendidly here at home?" Mrs. Edmonstone asked him, half in regret for the past, half in joy for the future.
Flint saw his friend's preoccupation, and answered for him.
"He didn't know it was in him till he got out there, I fancy. I remember him sending his first things to the Melbourne and Sydney papers; and before a year was out, his famous buck-jumping picture was stuck up in every shanty in New South Wales and Victoria."
"Eh?" said Dick, looking up abruptly. "Oh, they coloured it vilely! What do you say, mother? No, I say, don't jump to conclusions. How do you know I can do any real good? I've been lucky so far, but I'm only at the very, very beginning. I may fail miserably after all. And then where should I be without my little pile?"
After breakfast Dick read the letter from Yorkshire in his own room.
"At the risk of being unduly persistent," wrote Colonel Bristo, "I must ask you to reconsider your decision." (Dick had refused a short but pressing invitation the week before.) "I know something of your reasons for refusing, and I believe them to be mistaken reasons. If you have really settled to return to Australia, that is all the more reason why you should come. If you like, I will undertake not to press you to stay beyond one day; only do come to bid us good-bye. Do not, however, fear to offend me by a second refusal. I shall be grievously disappointed, but nothing more. We really want you, for we shall be short of guns; two of the men only stay till Monday, so come on that day. But apart from all this, I am very sure that your coming will make the days a little less dull and dreary for one of us. Everything else has failed."
The letter ended abruptly. Dick read it through twice, and put it back in his pocket with a full heart.
But what was he to do? Here was the good Colonel honestly trying, in his own way, to set matters right between him and Alice; but it was a childlike, if not a childish way—a way that ignored causes and refused to realise effects.
Dick trusted he was no such fool as to be affected by the hope that breathed in the Colonel's letter. The Colonel was confessedly unversed in women's ways—then why did he meddle? Surely it would have been more natural, more dignified, to send him, Dick, to the deuce, or to the Colonies—they were much the same thing in the Old Country—than to waste another thought on the man whom his own daughter (who could surely judge for herself) had chosen to jilt? Dick savagely wished that the former had been his treatment; and, rowing down from Sunbury that afternoon, he was so far decided that the phrases of his refusal were in his head. Call it rude, churlish, obstinate; he was obstinate, and was willing to own it; he had refused the Colonel once, and that refusal should be final.
Nevertheless, he was absent and distrait all day, whereas the others were in rather higher spirits than usual, and the contrast was uncomfortable. Dick therefore invented an excuse for running up to town, promising himself a quiet corner of his club, in which to write to the Colonel and pull himself together. He needed pulling together: he was yearning to see Alice again—perhaps only to ask her forgiveness and bid her good-bye—yet vowing between his teeth to see her no more; he would not be entirely himself until his refusal was penned and posted.
He walked absently to the station, forgot his change at the ticket-office, and jumped into the nearest compartment of the first train that came in. A man and a woman got into the same compartment. Dick did not see them, for he was attempting to interest himself in an evening paper; but he could not help hearing their voices as they sat opposite him in close conversation. And, hearing, Dick was startled. His pulse beat violently; his fingers tightened upon the edges of the newspaper.
"His fine friends," the man was saying, "are gone into the country somewhere. We must find out where."
The tones were Jem Pound's.
"Why?" asked the same woman's voice that Dick had heard in Bushey Park.
"Because if Ned Ryan hasn't fled the country, that's where he is!"
"But he has gone back to Australia."
"Not he! He daren't go out there again. He'd be a fool to do it if he dared. No, no. He cleared out o' this because of you and me. He cracked he was going out there again, because he knew we'd come asking after him and they'd tell us that yarn. But he's no more gone than I have. Mark me, missis, we'll find him at this here Colonel's country place! But we must find the place first."
Dick did not lower his paper until the train reached Waterloo. Long before that his mind was filled with one absorbing idea. A swift but complete reaction had taken place within him; he was charged with nervous energy and primed with impatience. Some of the impatience he worked off in a rapid walk to his club, where he answered Colonel Bristo's note in a dozen words; but one idea continued in fierce possession of his mind, to the exclusion of all others.
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