The Moving Finger (Mary Gaunt)/The Yanyilla Steeplechase
THE YANYILLA STEEPLECHASE
My dear, my dear, so you want to know why I am an old maid?
Well, nobody asked me to marry them, I suppose that must have been it.
No? What? You think I must have been pretty. Pretty, was I pretty?
They said I was then, dear, but you see there wasn't another lady within fifty miles, and that made the difference, just all the difference. You 're a pretty little girl, Hope—it wasn't fair to have called you Hope, it's such an unlucky name—but if you'd been young when I was they'd just have raved about you.
Had I lovers, dear?
Of course I had lovers. Every woman who isn't downright repulsive has, I think. Willie Maclean doesn't come here to see me, does he? Ah! I thought——
There, never mind, there's no harm done. It's thirty years since the men used to ride across the ranges just to stay the night at Yanyilla, and I don't think it was wholly for your grandfather's society they came. Of course I had lovers. It's so long ago I can tell you about them now; but mostly, dear, I don't think a woman should tell. She gets the credit of it, I know, but she ought not to, and I do think there are many things a nice woman, I mean a good woman, keeps to herself.
Oh yes! I had lovers, like every other girl, but there was only one I cared about—and I cared—I cared—I believe I care still, for all I lost him three and thirty years ago. I used to look forward to dying and meeting him in heaven, dear, but I was young then, and after I passed thirty, and began to go down hill, I got to know that he'd never recognize in an old woman the girl he loved on earth. It troubled me sorely, sorely, for he was only thirty when he died, but afterwards I thought we must have been put into this weary world for some good purpose, and surely if there is a great God he won't let me waste my life for nothing. I have tried to do my best, but somehow my life has been a failure all round; I'm not much use to anybody. They say love doesn't last, but I think they are wrong; I know it has lasted me all these years, and the thought of seeing him again—well, well, you will think an old woman foolish, dear, but it makes my heart beat like a young girl's. Suppose—suppose I should not be quite all he thought me; suppose he should have changed.
Why, Hope, you 're smiling at my foolishness, but isn't that the way every woman feels when she's in love; and I'm in love still, after three and thirty years, God help me, and a woman in the main is always the same, whether her hair is golden, or whether it's grey and she hides it under a cap.
But this isn't telling you my story, is it, child?
Not that there's much to tell. You know Yanyilla. You know what a station was like in the old days. They have been described over and over again. But Yanyilla was always a nice place. A hundred and eighty miles from Melbourne is a good way even now in these railway days, and it was much further when we had to do the whole journey by Cobb's coach. Oh, we were very much out of the world, and at first I used to feel lonely. My father—well you know pretty well what kind of a man your grandfather was, so it's no use my trying to gloss over his character—and your grandmother, ah, my poor mother, I was always fond of my mother, but she had a hard life, and it made her fretful and not much of a companion for a young girl. She thought the world was a hard place for a woman to live in, and the sooner I found it out and indulged in no vain hopes the better for me. I thought then, rather vaguely to be sure, that she was wrong, and I know it now. But she is dead long, long ago, and perhaps she too knows it. Then there was my brother Ben, your father, Hope, he was always a dear good boy, but he was so much younger than me, I don't suppose he ever thoroughly understood it all.
The homestead was just on the slope where the hills ran down into the plain country. Away to the west and north stretched the dull grey plains far as the eye could see, and behind us to the east and south were the ranges; dull and grey too, I used to think when first I went there, but I changed my mind afterwards. When the sun shone he transformed all things, and the sun shone very often in those days—he does so still maybe, if only I could see with the same eyes—and I loved those ranges. I liked to steal away on a hot day into the deep fern gullies, where the tall green tree-ferns were high over my head, and the dainty maidenhair grew among the rocks and stones at my feet. And someone else loved those gullies too—it's all part of the story, dear, the same old story which comes to every woman at least once in her life.
The boundary between Yanyilla and Telowie was among those ranges, and Paul Griffith was the overseer at Telowie. I met him once or twice at musters at our place, and then we met again once or twice by accident in the gullies, where he was looking for stray cattle and I was gathering ferns. It was only once or twice it was by accident, afterwards it was by design. I can't tell you now exactly how we made the appointments without putting it into so many words; but you are a girl, I dare say you will understand thoroughly. Ah! he was so good-looking, my Paul, so tall and fair and strong, and he had such kind blue eyes. Ah dear, ah dear, how different my life might have been!
Well it went on and on all through the months of August and September, and each time we parted the parting grew harder, and each time we met it was—I can't tell you—just heaven to me, I think. Then one day—shall I ever forget it?—he told me that he loved me, but he told me too how poor he was, far too poor to ask my father for me; for though we were very poor ourselves, my mother had a way of always saying that never should her daughter be as badly off as she had been, so he knew and I knew it was hopeless to think of our being engaged. He said he ought not to see me again, and he would go away; but I cried then, I could not help it, the world seemed such a dreary place without him. Then—it was my fault, I suppose it generally is the woman's fault—he took me in his arms and called me his little girl, and kissed me again and again. He ought not to have kissed me if we were to part, he ought not. You know the old couplet:
"Take hands and part with laughter,
Touch lips and part with tears."
And so it was with us, but it was not his fault I loved him, I loved him with all my heart, and I wanted to be kissed, and those kisses have cost me—no matter what they have cost me—I know now they were worth it.
But we could not make up our minds to part I was young and so was he, and first I made him tell me he loved me better than anything on earth, and then I laughed and said if it was only his poverty that stood between us, I would wait for him all my life. I wondered afterwards at my boldness—it did seem terribly bold, but there was nothing else to be done—it seemed the only thing, I believe it was the only thing, as I should have found it so utterly impossible to take my mother into my confidence, and so you see, my dear, we two embarked on that most foolish of all things, a secret engagement. But the fault was not his, it was mine entirely. He wanted to go and tell my father all about it; it would be better, he said, to be open and above board, and he didn't think my father would mind much; but I wouldn't let him.
I can excuse myself even now, for I was young, and I felt I could not stand my mother's perpetual moan. She would have spoiled my Eden with her prognostications of possible evil. We met in the nearest gully whenever we had the chance, and after all it was not so bad. Now I look back on those two months of spring as the very happiest of my life. If anything went wrong at home, and things did go wrong very often, for my father was sure to be drunk once a week, and my mother's misery made me unhappy, I always consoled myself with the reflection that Paul would understand, that Paul would pity and comfort me. And he never failed me, not once, my darling, not once.
Then there came upon me a new and unexpected trouble, one I might have foreseen had I been a little older and known something more of the world's ways. Stanton of Telowie owned all the country for miles back, and consequently was a well-to-do man. I do not think he was a very reputable man, though he was my father's great friend and boon companion. My mother, usually so hard on men who drank ever so little, and, as she said, led my father astray, would never blame Dick Stanton. It was for my sake he did it, she said, and I don't know now whether she was right or not; he sold out and went to England thirty years ago, and I have never heard of him since. But I do know Paul Griffith, his overseer, hated him with a bitter hatred, and what Paul did I did. I was not a bad-looking little girl, and he may probably have meant to be kind, but it was not his kindness I wanted. Like many another man in those days, he wanted a wife, and this my mother dinned into my unwilling ears morning, noon, and night.
"But, mother," I said at last, driven to bay, "how do you know he wants me?"
"My dear," she answered, "do you think I have lived all these years in the world for nothing? What do you suppose the man comes here twice a week for?"
"To see father," I answered hotly, "and I hate him for it. Why can't he let us alone? He comes, and it's always 'Another bottle, Hope; open another bottle for Mr. Stanton.' I hate him, mother, I hate him."
"Oh, Hope," she went on unheeding, "it would be such a great thing for you. He's worth at least three thousand a year, and he's head over heels in love with you. Think what it'd be, child, never to be worried about money again," and she sighed; my poor mother, she had been worried about every conceivable thing, and more especially this weary money, all her life, and she never expected to be free from care again.
"Think what it'd be like to be tied to a brute like Dick Stanton all your life!" But she only shook her head and said again, "he was so much in love with me I could do what I liked with him;" and then she added, that if I did not know what was good for me, she, my mother, did, and she would take care my interests did not suffer. It was her duty to look after them as my mother, and she would. Oh! that little word "duty"! It seems to me all sorts of petty cruelties are committed in the name of "duty." And after that Dick Stanton never came to the house, but I, more unwilling than ever, was sent for to entertain him. Even now I don't know whether he really cared, or whether it was simply that he wanted a wife, and I was the only decent-looking girl within reach. And I hated him for it with all my heart, and at last, as things got worse, for my mother had told him that my coldness was all shyness on my part, I was so miserable and perplexed I cried my heart out in the gully, and Paul came and found me and got the whole truth out of me. How angry he was! I can see him now walking up and down talking to himself, and I dried my eyes and began to think things were not half so bad, since I had thrown all my cares on him.
"But Paul," I said, with an attempt at a smile, "you know after all it's very foolish of me to make such a fuss. They can't make me marry a man I don't want to. And I hate him, I hate him. You just don't know how I hate him."
"My darling," he said, sitting down on a log and drawing me towards him, "how am I to help you? I can't have my little sweetheart's life worried out of her in this way. Hope, I had better go to your father and tell him all about it."
"And that would end it all effectually," I sobbed. "Mother would say I was too young to know my own mind. She would say once you were away I would forget you, and she would get Dick Stanton to—to——"
"Give me the sack," said Paul bitterly. "Who knows; perhaps it might be best for you. I'm not bringing you much happiness, dear."
"Yes, yes, yes; what should I do without you, Paul? I wish I had not told you! You know—you must know—you're all the happiness I have in my life."
"I'm sure," he said, kissing me fondly, "you make all the brightness in mine. But what am I to do to help you?"
"Just nothing. As I said before, they must give me a say in the matter before they marry me right out."
"My colonial oath! Here's a nice deceitful piece of baggage! Upon my word, Miss Hope! So you 're the shy little girl who's quite overcome if a fellow so much as looks at her!"
He was standing on the rise of the hill close above us, and how he had come there without our seeing I'm sure I don't know, except that lovers always are caught sooner or later, and I suppose it was our fate. I'd rather almost anybody than Dick Stanton had caught us though; for he was a vindictive little wretch, I always felt, and whether he cared for me or not he would not like to find himself cut out by his own overseer. We two sprang apart guiltily, and I saw my lover's face grow red and angry, but not as dark and threatening as the one above me.
"So Mr. Griffith," said our unwelcome third party, "it's you who've been poaching on my manor. What the devil do you mean by it, sir?"
Paul, I saw, was too angry to trust himself to speak, only he waved his hand to me as if he would have sent me home; but I was too frightened to go. I was not twenty remember, and it seemed to me the two men were on the brink of a violent quarrel, and vaguely I hoped my presence might restrain them. I was wrong, I know now; I ought to have gone, and perhaps—who can tell? But there—all the misery of our lives is just summed up in thinking whether we might not have acted differently. And so I took no notice of Paul, though I saw he wanted me gone, and I stayed. Then Dick Stanton, seeing Paul did not speak, for the moment lost all control of himself, and raged and stormed and used such language as I had never heard in my life before, and I was well accustomed to bad language; for my father, when he had pretty well got to the bottom of the brandy bottle, didn't care much what he said, but he never spoke as Dick Stanton did; oh, never. He was a gentleman at least, my father. Paul stood it just for a minute; I think he was too dumb-founded to speak, and then he made one step forward and caught the other man by the neck—he was so tall and strong, my sweetheart—and shook him as if he had been a child. It was Dick Stanton's turn to look surprised then, and at first he swore harder than ever; then all at once he looked up in Paul's face and burst out laughing.
"What the devil are we quarrelling about, Griffith?" he said, and his voice sounded amiable, though I never would have trusted him.
Paul was still very angry, and only made some unintelligible reply, and Stanton went on with a smile which I thought rather forced.
"I say, Griffith, old chap, you needn't cut up so blessed rough. It's me who ought to cry out, I think. I go courting a girl; I 've made that plain enough in all conscience. All the country round knows it, and her father and mother go dinning it into me that she's awful fond of me, but she's young and she's shy—oh so shy!—and the first time I come across the ranges I find this—this——"
I really think he was too angry to think of a word to call me, for he skipped out my name altogether, and went on, "and there I find her cuddled up in your arms."
"She has a right to choose," said Paul, a little sullenly.
"And she has chosen. Just my blooming luck all over."
"And seeing she has chosen," said Paul, still angry, "suppose you leave me to see her safe home."
"And what 'll papa say, Miss Hope? He'd rather have the rich squatter for a son-in-law than a poor roustabout, I 'll bet."
"It's no business of my father's," I said hotly, and then he laughed sneeringly.
"By Jove! Dan Forde 'll have something to say to that, or I'm very much mistaken. Just you wait till to-night," and he turned away and ran up the hill to where, I suppose, he had left his horse. Some one must have told him to come and look for us, of course; he'd never have come to that lonely gully, and on foot, too, else; but to this day I don't know who it was.
Paul comforted me all he knew; but still I went home very frightened, though I wouldn't let him come with me. I did not quite believe Dick Stanton would be quite so mean as to carry out his threat and tell my father, and if he did not, I was glad, now that it was all over, that he should understand how unwelcome were his attentions to me.
That night he came round as usual, and as usual I was sent for to pour out their brandy for them, and to make myself pleasant to the guest. He did not say anything to make me feel uncomfortable, indeed he was almost kind and I had never liked him better, only I saw in his eyes he had not forgotten the meeting of the morning and did not mean that I should either. Presently they began to talk about the race meeting. We always had a race meeting at Yanyilla once a year, just about the beginning of November. I forget whether there was a cup in those days, but I know all the people about were quite as much excited about the Yanyilla meeting as you are now about the cup. The township was on our run, only three miles away, and took its name from the station, and the paddock we used as a race course was just within sight of the house. We always took great interest in the races, more especially those for the station horses, which were all supposed to be grass-fed, and therefore, when my father and his friend got on the subject of the entries, I felt quite safe and breathed quite freely for the first time that evening.
"I've entered Boatman for the Yanyilla Steeplechase," said my father, "but I'm blest if I know who I 'll get to ride him. The beggar's an awful powerful brute, and all the boys are afraid."
"And grass-fed! Surely not. He can't do much harm."
"Oh, he's a brute, I must confess," said my father, "and no mistake; but he's all there, and if I can get anybody to risk it, I 'll put the pot on him."
"You think he's good to win, then? Can he beat my Vixen?"
"Beat her! He 'll beat any horse this side of the Dividing Range, once he gets started with the right man on his back. But there's just the difficulty."
"Now, I 'll find you a man to ride. He thoroughly understands horses, I 'll say that for him, though I have no cause to love him. He 'll ride for you, but I don't believe Boatman is as good as Vixen."
"I 'll lay you anything you like he is, if only I get the right man up."
"Done with you, then. You shall have the right man, that I promise. Mind, you said anything I liked. You won't go back on your word?"
"Anything to within half my kingdom," laughed my father, who was getting a good way down his bottle, or I'm sure he never would have agreed to what Dick Stanton asked.
"That's settled, then, for I suppose you don't count your daughter near half your kingdom," said Stanton, and he looked at me as if he would have said, "See how I pay you out. Then if Vixen beats Boatman I marry your daughter out of hand; that's the arrangement, isn't it?"
To this day, in spite of after events, I don't believe he was in earnest, for no man could seriously want to marry a girl who had just shown him as plainly as possible she was in love with another man. I think he just wanted to torment and frighten me by showing me his power, as part punishment for my behaviour of the morning. But I didn't think so at the time. For the moment astonishment took my breath away, and then, when I found my voice, I vehemently protested.
"No! no!" I cried, "I will never marry you! Never! never! I hate you! If you only knew how I hate you!"
And the two men only laughed at me. My father was more than half through his bottle, or he would never have shamed me so, but the other man was sober enough, he knew what he was doing, and I think was pleased to move me, for usually I would not look at him. I think sometimes now it was the sight of my helpless anger made him carry the joke so far.
"Well, well, you shall have her if you 're first past the post," said my father, leaning back in his chair, and laughing heartily, "but I'm thinking there 'll be two Vixens over at Telowie then, and I know which I'd rather have the riding of."
"Oh! trust me. Gently does it. Ride her with the snaffle, with just a touch of the spur now and then, just to show her you mean business," and he looked me full in the face and laughed, as if he were taunting me with my helplessness.
If I shut my eyes I can see them now, for all it is so long ago. The long, low, poorly-furnished room, badly lighted by one colza oil lamp, the head of a dingo and two brushes crossed, over the mantelpiece, the only attempt at ornament, and the two men seated at the table, the decanter between them, gambling away my life and happiness. Maybe it was only in jest; I try to think so now, but the consequences were so fatal, there must have been just a spice of earnest in it even then, at least on Dick Stanton's part. But not on my father's. Even now I pray that my father was not in earnest.
The more I protested, the more determined they grew, till at last my mother came in to see what all the laughter was about, and promptly sent me to bed, and the last thing I heard as I made my escape through the door was Dick Stanton's mocking voice calling,
"Well, we needn't fear but there'll be plenty of entries for the Yanyilla Steeplechase, once the boys get to hear that Miss Hope Forde is to be the prize."
My mother followed me to my room. I think she, too, was a little angry, but she wouldn't allow it to me, she only scolded me for stopping in the parlour so long.
"You ought to know better at your age," she said. "It was wrong and foolish of you to stop when you saw they were getting excited." My mother always glossed a disagreeable truth over to herself in that way. She never said, "Your father has had too much to drink," though he had at least once a week, but it was always, "Your father is excited," or "over-tired." My poor mother; I have learned to pity her for those deceptions that deceived nobody, since I have grown older and wiser. Still, that night she was hard on me. Perhaps because she felt I had been hardly dealt with, and she had nobody else to vent her anger on. That is the way with some people.
"Don't be silly, now, and cry," she said, for I had flung myself down on my little bed, and was vainly trying to suppress the sobs that would come, "It's not the least good in the world to cry. You shouldn't have stopped so long. It's entirely your own fault. You have nobody to blame but yourself. There, there, for heaven's sake, child, don't cry like that, they 'll have forgotten all about it to-morrow morning, when their heads are clear. I don't know what was the matter with Dick Stanton, I never saw him so excited."
I could have told her, but I held my peace, and she went away, and I cried myself to sleep.
But the matter was not forgotten next day, for my father told us, as if it were a huge joke, that he had bet me against a hundred pounds that Boatman could win the grass-fed steeplechase.
"So you see," he said, laughing at the recollection, "it cuts both ways. If I lose I get my daughter comfortably settled in life, and if I win I'm at least £100 to the good."
I looked at my mother appealingly, but she only shook her head. My father was not a man whose whims could be lightly crossed, and she would not let me even try. Ashamed! oh, child! I was never so ashamed in my life! I hung my head all day and was afraid even to look the servant maid in the face. I felt she must despise a girl whose own father held her so lightly. And Paul, there's where the hardest part of all came. How was I to tell my lover what my father had done? And how was I not to tell him, for I knew that Dick Stanton was not the man to keep such a wager to himself; he would bruit it abroad, if it were only for the sake of angering his rival. I was ashamed, ashamed, ashamed. It seemed to me I could never hold up my head again, and oh, how was I to meet Paul! I thought of nothing else for the next two days, and I had not a chance of seeing him or telling him, for posts were not in those days. And so, though he was only ten miles away, I had to wait two whole days before I saw him again. Then we met in the gully under the shade of the tree ferns. I remember now how the sunlight, coming through their great fronds, made a pattern as of dainty lace work on my white dress, and I studied that pattern carefully, and tried to make out what it reminded me of, though I heard quite plainly a man crushing through the bracken. That is just like a woman though, she longs and longs, and when at last the longed-for hour has come, she is frightened at her own temerity, and half wishes herself back again. I was not often afraid to meet Paul, but I was to-day, and I never looked up till I felt his arm around me and his dear voice in my ear.
"Why, my little girl, my little girl, what is the matter with my little girl?"
Then I told him, with my face hidden on his broad shoulder, I told him, and he was very angry. I knew he would be, but I had not realized how angry, and I was fairly frightened.
"Oh, Paul!" I could only gasp, "Oh, Paul!"
He swore an oath when he saw that I was trembling, and recovered himself a little. Just occasionally, I think, a woman likes the man she loves to be thoroughly angry, and if he does swear then she accepts it as a relief to her own feelings as well as his. So I did not mind Paul swearing, seeing that he was not given to that sort of thing. I felt he was entirely in sympathy with me, and was glad of it.
"What a fool I have been," he said, "what an utter fool. I might have known there was something up when Stanton came to me so confoundedly civil all at once. He made me a sort of apology for his rudeness to you the other day, congratulated me on my good luck in winning you, and then finally suggested that I should ingratiate myself with your father by offering to ride Boatman for him in the grass-fed steeplechase, and of course——"
"You said 'No!' Oh, Paul! you said 'No!'"
"No! darling, of course I said '.' What else could I say? And I wanted to please your father. How could I know—that—that—what the fellow was up to."
"But now, Paul, you won't ride him, now you do know, will you, my dearest?" And because I was afraid he would, I put my arms coaxingly round his neck and tried to draw his face down to mine. It did not want much trying, he was always ready enough to kiss me, my dear love, but he shook his head when I tried to dissuade him from riding Boatman.
"After all, sweetheart," he said, "I really think I'm the proper person to ride the grey. If you 're to be the prize, well it can't make any more talk, my riding, and, of course, it will give me a sort of right to you."
"But—but—you mustn't ride Boatman, you mustn't—you mustn't—you mustn't. He baulks, and he runs down his fences, and he pulls, and—and—oh, my darling! you mustn't ride Boatman!"
"What a list of crimes," he said, smiling at my vehemence. "Still, I have ridden a horse or two in my life, and I'm inclined to think I'm equal to this one. He can beat anything, your father tells me, this side of the Dividing Range. I had a trial this morning, and I'm inclined to think the old gentleman hasn't put too high a value on him. Boatman's an out-and-outer, once one gets on good terms with him. And there's the difficulty no one can manage him."
I knew then it was little good my speaking; dearly as he loved me, nay, for my sake even, he was determined to ride Boatman. And after all, looked at from his point of view, I think he was right.
Stanton's Vixen was the only horse in the running, the only one in the least likely to win, and if I was to be the prize, as my father insisted, not once but twenty times, then, indeed, it was very necessary that our horse should be well ridden, and I knew, and he knew, nobody could do that so well as Paul. Then I don't know what dark presentiments filled my mind, but something told me he should not ride in that race, something told me all was not fair and above board, and with all my strength, with all my powers of persuasion, I tried to stop him. I coaxed him, and he only stroked my hair fondly, told me I had nice dark eyes and pretty hair, and said if I made myself so sweet and dear, it only showed him all the more clearly I must be won by fair means or foul. Are you smiling, Hope? Ah, my dear, it is three-and-thirty years ago, and the remembrance of days like those is all I have. Then I stormed and raged, every unkind term I could think of I heaped on him, and that is like a woman too, I think—when all other means fail she tries anger.
Did he think, I asked, I was so slight a thing as to be bought and sold in that manner? Did he think that my father could give me away in that way, as if I were a horse or a bullock; and then, of course, just as I would have given anything to be dignified and grand, I spoiled it all, for my voice failed, and I burst into tears.
He was good to me! oh, he was good to me! He would not give up his point, but he comforted me, and he was good. Once I had fairly started I could not stop; all the pent-up misery of the last three days seemed bound up in those tears. Heaven knows never had woman greater cause for tears, though I only dimly felt it then, and never since have I cried as I cried that day. Paul was frightened at first, I think, for he said nothing but, "Poor little girl, poor little girl," and held me closer than ever, but he would not give in, and at last, tired out, I could only sob.
"Must you ride him, Paul, must you ride him?"
"I must, my darling. I really think it is the only thing to be done, both for your sake and my own. It was a brutal thing to do, but it was none of my doing, and when Boatman passes the winning post with Paul Griffith up, why that settles everything, doesn't it, my sweet?"
Ah, yes, that would have settled everything; and as he stood there beside me, so tall and straight and strong, I made up my mind my tears were idle tears, and it would all come right in the end. And before I went home we were both more than half convinced that there was likely to be more good in my father's foolish wager than at first sight appeared, and we two would turn it to our own advantage. Paul, indeed, was jubilant, once he had got over his anger. He had come to tell me he had got the offer of the managership of a station across the border in Riverina. He would take it at the end of the year; there was a house a lady could live in—and—well—would I go? After he had won—fairly won—the Yanyilla Steeplechase, should he go to my father and ask for the wife he had won?
And he was so confident, so happy, so certain of success, how could I fail to be happy and confident too? I went home that night with a far lighter heart than I had carried for many a long day. My mother saw the traces of tears, and asked what I had been crying for, but I kept my own counsel, for where was the good of enlightening her till I could tell her everything was settled? There are many in the world who can rejoice with them that rejoice, many, quite as many, thank God for it, who will weep with them that weep; but to very few is it given, I think, to share another's anxiety sympathetically. Fear and hope, we hardly know which predominates, and the pain, which is of necessity the result, is best borne in silence and alone. And at first with me hope reigned supreme; but not for long though.
One morning, a few days after Paul and I had settled matters so very much to our own satisfaction, the boy who brought up the milkers fell sick, and Ben, who took his place, failed to find them. It was a thing of not infrequent occurrence, and I turned out as usual to help him. As usual, too, those wretched cows had turned up the creek and lost themselves in the gullies among the ranges to the south. As the grass grew dry-on the plains they would wander along the sheltered creek, where in patches it was still fresh and green. And this day they had wandered farther than usual. We rode on and on, our horses stumbling among the rough ground, till at last we heard the cracked old cow bell and knew they were found.
"Coming towards us too," said Ben. "I wonder what started 'em."
"They knew it was time to come home," I suggested; but Ben wouldn't agree with me, and he knew a good deal about cattle for a boy of his age. Then we turned a shoulder of the hill, and there were the four wanderers making straight for us. There was something else besides, a tent pitched on a nice green patch of grass, and a horse feeding out of a bucket close beside it. A man at the door snatched up the bucket as we appeared and carried it into the tent, but I saw it as clearly as I see you now, and if I could not trust my own eyes there was Ben, and he saw it too.
He was quicker than I too, for he had been about among the men and heard them talk about such things.
"O my!" he said. "Here's a go! That's Vixen, Stanton's mare. She's a regular take down, ain't she? She looks like an awful old stock horse, don't she? Look here, Sissy, I believe they 're feeding her on the sly. What was she drinking out of that bucket?"
We turned the cows homewards, and then went towards the little tent. It was Vixen sure enough, and Stanton's man, Dan O'Connor—Ticket-of-leave Dan, as they called him—was in charge. He bid us "Good morning" in the oily, slimy tones of the old convict, and said he was just going to bring back our stray cows.
"I seed the Yanyilla brand on 'em, and I guessed some one'd be around lookin' for 'em soon, as they was milkers," he said, and what could I say.
We and our cattle were the trespassers, for this bit of country belonged to Telowie, and Dick Stanton was only doing as others did when he sent out his horse to a picked bit of sweet grass in order to fit her for the coming race. She might have been drinking water out of the bucket. I had no possible means of knowing that she had not, and yet I felt sure, with Ben, that there had been oatmeal in the bucket, and that Vixen, who, until it had got about that Paul Griffith was to ride Boatman, had been first favourite for the Yanyilla Steeplechase, was being fed. I rode right up to the tent in order to be quite sure, and saw on the grass where the bucket had stood, a few white grains as of oatmeal, and Ben, whose eyes were keener for that sort of thing, saw them too. But what could we do? It was quite the thing for the horses that were going to run in the grass-fed steeplechase to be carefully fed by their owners or backers on some place where the grass seemed fresher, greener, and sweeter than anywhere else. About twenty horses were entered, and all along the banks of the Yanyilla and Telowie Creeks, just before the race meeting, you might come across camps such as Ben and I had struck this morning. Boatman himself was camped not a mile from the house by the big water-hole, and thither went my father and Paul every day to see that he was getting on all right. Even now I don't understand my father's conduct; you'd think no sensible man would have seriously considered the foolish wager he had made, and yet I had a feeling that he cared very little about his own horse's chances and a great deal about Vixen's. He used to laugh to Paul and say, "He's good enough; he's good enough." But in the evening, after a glass or two of Battle-axe brandy, my mother and I heard quite a different story. Boatman's chances grew very small, and Boatman's vices were so magnified that I could not sleep for fear. And when I told my sweetheart he only laughed, and said he knew the old horse now a good deal better than his master, and though he was a bad-tempered old brute there was not a horse in the colony could touch him, once you took him the right way. It was like a woman to be so full of fears and forebodings, and this morning, now that I seemed to have good ground for them, my fears redoubled, and Ben and I, in our excitement, fairly raced those milkers home, for which my mother very properly scolded me well. That troubled me little enough. I was all anxiety to see Paul, and waited down at the little camp watching Boatman crop the grass till he paid his daily visit, and then I poured into his ears all my fears. And Hope—he only laughed, turned up my face and kissed me, and laughed at my discovery and my fears.
"So that's his little game, is it?" he said. "Well, I always knew he was a pretty bad lot, but I hardly thought he'd descend to that. Let him feed her. The little corn they dare smuggle into the mare won't make any difference in the end. So cheer up, my little girl. Only a week more now and then we'll see."
That week, that week, my last week of happiness, and to think I wished it over! Oh! Hope, Hope! never wish the time gone child! you may be wishing away the last happy days of your life, as I did!
Every day now I saw Paul, every day we met at the camp where was Boatman, and after seeing he was all right wandered away into the gullies together. I could not help being anxious, very anxious, and as the time grew nearer it grew worse to bear; but still it was a happy time with Paul by my side, with his strong arm to lean on, with his kind face so near to my own. I wonder why one's happy days in this world are so brief. It has often seemed to me the arrangements of Providence are a little hard.
We always managed to have three days' racing at Yanyilla, and all the country side for miles round gave itself up to the delights of racing; and of course that meant a week's dissipation, just like "cup week" in Melbourne now. The last day was always an off-day—an afterthought—not arranged for in the original programme; I don't know exactly for what reason they held it, except that they thought it a pity not to make out the week. I fancy the races on the last day were very poor affairs, only got up because the men had got the racing fever on them, and wanted to bet on something; but I ought not to say much, for I really don't know. My interest in racing came to an end for ever that first day, and I have never seen a race run since, and never shall in this world. I don't suppose they ever have races in the next.
The eventful day came at last, the first Tuesday in November, the day that would be "cup day" now-a-days. Monday was an exciting day for us. The stewards came out and saw to the preparing of the racecourse, which was ordinarily simply a piece of flat paddock close to Yanyilla homestead, and it seemed the entire population of the township accompanied them, to see that it was properly done, I suppose, and not only the entire population of the township, but of all the district round I think. My father was in his glory. He was a most hospitable man, and everyone he came across he asked up to the house, regardless of the fact that we were already as full as we could possibly be, and that long before mid-day my mother and I were weary washing and rewashing our very limited stock of glasses, for the visitors who came, if they did nothing else, partook very freely of our brandy. That is the way with many good-natured people, I think; my father was voted a jolly good fellow by his guests, and I don't suppose anybody ever thought that the hardest part of the work fell on us two women. I ought not to complain now, it is all over so long ago, but I have always felt it a terribly hard thing that the last happy day I had should have been so utterly spoilt. Paul and I had arranged to spend it together down in the gully where we first made each others acquaintance; he had come to the house for me; he had grown bolder now that he was to ride my father's horse, and there he sat on the verandah, waiting more than half the day, while I washed and wiped that seemingly endless array of glasses.
Do you wonder that I complain, Hope?
Even now, if I shut my eyes, I seem to see the glorious November sunshine beckoning me out, to hear the impatient shuffle of my lover's feet as he sat and waited, and yet there seemed no prospect of release for me. At last, I suppose my mother guessed something of my feelings, for when the kitchen clock was on the stroke of four she said—
"You can go now, Hope. If they want any more they 'll just have to drink it out of dirty glasses," and I went gladly, and selfishly too, for I knew whatever she might say, I had left her to bear the burden and heat of the day alone. Still I am glad—even now I am deeply thankful to my mother—for those hours of happiness she gave me, almost, I think, unconsciously.
Down in the gully Paul and I watched the shadows grow longer as the day crept on towards evening, and I tried once more to dissuade him from riding Boatman. I might just as well have spoken to the winds.
"My dear child," he said a little severely, "you must know you are asking an impossibility. All the district round has put its money on the horse because I'm riding, and they say I'm the only man in the district that can ride him. I never could play it so low down on your father as to desert him at the last moment. Don't you see, my darling?"
I didn't see. But what was I to do? I saw he was still a little weak from the effects of an attack of fever and ague he had had some time before, but when I urged that as a reason he only laughed, and said I was a very Job to worry myself about such trifles; as for the fever there was hardly a trace of it left, and it was tact, not strength, Boatman wanted to ride him. Then there was nothing more to be said. I could only put my arms round his neck and tell him it was only my love for him made me foolishly anxious, and he must not think badly of me for it. After all, it was only natural I should be anxious; he would have had more cause to grumble if I had not been.
I got little enough sleep that night. Early in the evening my father and the most of his guests went down to the principal public-house in the township to look at the general entries—why I'm sure I don't know, for they must have known well enough for weeks beforehand what horses were going to run—and then late at night they, or rather my father and one or two choice spirits, came home, and through the thin partition I could hear them talking and shouting, and drinking interminable healths, and when I heard them drink the health of "the Prize for the Yanyilla Steeplechase," I covered my face with the clothes and tried to hear no more, for I knew by the shout of laughter that accompanied the toast that they were thinking of my father's foolish wager. The summer dawn crept in through the windows before they reeled off to bed, and I, wearied and tired, realised that at last the day I dreaded so was here, and a few more hours would put me out of my misery.
That is what Paul said when he met me on the verandah soon after breakfast, for he had stayed the night in the township, so as to be close at hand, and the smile I gave him in return was very near to tears. I think he saw that, for he hastily directed my attention to the crowd of people already assembled, and laughed, and said there was no fear but Yanyilla Races would be a success this year.
They were content with very primitive arrangements in those days, my dear. How the secretary of the least flourishing turf club in Victoria nowadays would stare if he could see the humble shed where the riders weighed out, and the still more humble judge's box made of boughs, a bad imitation of a blackfellow's mia-mia. And more primitive even than the judge's box was the refreshment booth, where the landlord of the Bushman's Rest dispensed drinks to all who could afford to pay for them, or could get others to do so in their stead. The racehorses, I remember, were merely hitched up to a post and rail fence in the most ordinary fashion. But the people—there were all sorts and conditions of men there, and a small sprinkling of women folk, for women were scarce in those days.
As the sun rose higher the crowd grew thicker, till I think there must have been fully fifteen hundred or two thousand people there. Deadman's Creek, the goldfield nearest us, was in full swing, and it seemed to me the place must be deserted that day, for though it was thirty miles away as the crow flies, nobody had thought much of that distance in glorious weather like this. Some of the red-shirted diggers were fine-looking fellows enough; indeed, they ought to have been, for in those days the finest gentleman was not ashamed to try his luck with the pick and shovel like the labouring man who was his neighbour. If he got an honest labouring man he was lucky, for, my dear, the times were rough, and they did say there were a lot of old hands from Tasmania and the Sydney side on Deadman's in those days, and their room would have been better than their company. But those things didn't concern me much. All I thought of was Paul. He stayed with me all the morning, taking me round, showing me how fit and well Boatman looked, pointing out to me the bookmakers already at work, and the men with the three-card trick, and various other devices for passing away the time, and getting at the money of the unwary. Some unfortunate had already got himself into trouble, for what I know not, but I suspected it was too close an acquaintance with the wine when it is red, for over on the other side of the paddock from the house I saw an unfortunate chained to a tree with a stout bullock chain, yelling with all his might, a solemn warning to others not to go and do likewise. The police in the old days were often obliged to make use of such primitive methods of detaining their prisoners—there was no help for it, and nobody minded, not even the unlucky prisoner himself. I suppose he looked upon it as all in the day's work or pleasure, if you will. I tried to take an interest in everything for Paul's sake, but I couldn't.
What did it matter to me how the day went off? What if the howling bookmakers did win the district money? What if it was rumoured that Ben Shepherd's mare was a little off, and not in her usual form, and she was first favourite for the "Telowie Handicap?" It didn't matter to me, nothing mattered to me, if only Boatman was first past the post, and his rider safe and sound at my side again. No, no, what did I care whether he came in first or last? It would make no difference to me, in spite of my father's wager; I wanted the race over, and then, whether Boatman were first or last, Boatman's rider was my sweetheart in the face of all the world, no matter what my father or Dick Stanton should say. Dick Stanton was there, a regular bush dandy, for he was going to ride his own horse, but I would not look at him, though he came over and wished me "Good morning" as if we were the best of friends, and I hated him for it, and I know now my hatred was well founded, for if it had not been for him, I should have been a happy woman this day.
How slowly the morning wore on. It seemed to me it must be somewhere about five o'clock, when there was a stir and a bustle, and the clock struck twelve, and they were preparing for the "Telowie Handicap." I know nothing whatever about that race, though I watched it from the best vantage point on the course, our own verandah. My eyes were too dim to see it, though I heard quite plainly the hoarse roar of the people as the favourite passed the post just a length ahead, and I knew that Paul by my side was shouting with the rest. I was thinking all the time that the next race I should be standing there alone, while my lover was riding the worst-tempered, most unmanageable brute in the colony.
Then, when the race was over, Paul turned to me with a smile, and I felt that the morning, instead of crawling, had taken to itself wings.
"I must go now, dear," he said, and I put my hand on his arm, and without a word drew him into the house, empty now, for everybody was too interested in the racing to stay inside.
"Oh, Paul! Paul! I do try to be brave, but do be careful. For my sake, do be careful."
Perhaps if I had begged of him then, he might have given up the thought of riding. I reproach myself sometimes with not having asked him, but after all, I don't think it would have been any good, only it is the bitterest thing in the world to think "it might have been."
He was so good to me, so good. No one has been so good to me since. He stroked my hair, and kissed me, and comforted me.
"I am a brute," he said, "to bring the tears into those pretty brown eyes."
And I brushed away the tears and tried to tell him again how dear he was to me. But what is the good of going over the old story once again, child. It is just the same old story for every man and woman, with variations so slight as hardly to be worth counting. And yet it is natural that every woman thinks her own love story the most interesting on the face of the earth. No one was ever like her lover, no one was ever loved like she was. I think it is well it should be so. If it is only a fancy, it is a pretty fancy, and the world, or rather the women in it, are much happier for it. I don't know whether it's the same with men. All the years I have lived I don't understand what a man thinks; I don't suppose any woman ever does.
"I shall see a bright face watching for me when I pass the post. Not half an hour now, sweetheart," he said, as he gave me a last kiss, and again he paused on the verandah to wave his hand and to tell me once more not to be afraid.
They were shouting for him as he ran across to the corner that did duty as saddling paddock, and I watched his bright red shirt anxiously. I could keep my eye on him though I found it impossible to see anybody else. My mother called me to attend to something—to lay the cloth for lunch, I think it was—but one glance at my face showed her I was useless.
"Go, child, go," she said, not unkindly, "I've been afraid of your making a fool of yourself over that man. He's not worth it, as you 'll have found out for yourself before the year is out. Now go and see the race; I 'll lay the table."
I went quietly back on to the verandah, and watched the riders being weighed, and the weights being adjusted to the saddles; very primitive were the weights in those days. I saw them wrap up an iron bar in a blanket and strap it on to Boatman's saddle, for though Paul was a fairly heavy man the horse was still more heavily weighted, and then I watched the fifteen horses as they came out and paraded before the assembled crowd. How plainly it seemed to me Paul Griffith stood out from the rest, with the big iron-grey horse. He waved his hand to me as he passed, as one who would say, "There now, you see, there's nothing to be afraid of," and almost for the moment I felt I had exaggerated my fears. I waved my hand in return and watched them as they passed on to the starting post. And then before they got there, there was trouble. The big grey horse, even though he was on the outside, apparently objected to the presence of his kind, and I saw him fallen behind and making desperate efforts to get his head between his forelegs. He kept them all waiting at the post, and the starter called several times; but it was all to no purpose, Boatman was determined to have his own way, and it was fully a quarter of an hour before, very sulkily—for a horse can be sulky—he condescended to walk slowly up to the others. It seemed to give me confidence, that brief respite. Paul was so much master of the situation, in spite of the contrariness of the beast he rode, that I was at once convinced of the foolishness of my fears, and for a moment I felt quite content and free from care as the horses got in line.
It was the race of the day, and there was a hush for an instant, then down went the starter's flag, there was a roar, and a shout from the crowd, "They're off," and I saw the line of horses stretch themselves out across the plain. The big grey was on the inside striding along about three quarters of a length clear of the others, and just behind came a front rank—so to speak—of half-a-dozen horses, and among them gleamed the dazzling black and yellow stripes of our chief opponent, Vixen. They raced for that first fence at a tremendous pace, and I would have shut my eyes had I not had so much at stake, for the fences were stiff as they are now, and the horses were only grass-fed. But I looked on with a sickening fear at my heart and I saw that Boatman had not forgotten his old trick—right across the line of horses he swerved, and for a moment they were all in confusion, for he collided with two just as they were taking off, and there was a cry of, "He's down, he's down."
"No, no," cried a man alongside me, who was half wild with excitement already, "well picked up, sir; that's the bully boy. Stick to it, old pard, stick to it," and I saw with a beating heart that almost suffocated me, Boatman clear of the ruck, safe on the other side of the fence, and as in a dream I heard the people shouting, "Billy Craig's pony's down, and the Coyote," and I saw two horses wildly careering across the plain,—Billy Craig—I knew him by his green and yellow shirt, made out of his wife's old curtains—pursuing one, while the Coyote's rider had only managed to struggle to his knees, and was slowly rocking himself backwards and forwards with his head in his hands.
How could I care for these things; love is so selfish! Only a little while now and the race would be over, and I had no power to think of another's possible pain. All I thought was that the first fence was safely over, and it gave me courage for those that were to come later. One more fence, and then came the jump right in front of the verandah which did duty as a stand, and I held my breath as the horses came up to it in a lump, except the big grey, which was leading by about a length. Quite plainly I saw him, and he was pulling double, but Paul sat like a rock, slightly leaning forward, true bushman as he was, and the old horse jumped beautifully, and got away with a clear lead of about six lengths ahead. I put my arm round the verandah post, for I felt I could hardly stand without support. Speak I could not; all sorts of hopes and fears were madly coursing through my brain, and I listened as a woman beside me put my thoughts into words.
"Oh," she said, with a long-drawn breath, "what an awful pace! And they 've got to go round again, too! That horse in front will be done before they've gone much farther."
"Not much," said the man on the other side, scornfully, "that big grey can keep it up for a week. He's all there as long as Griffith can keep him quietly in front. Oh, he's a beautiful jumper, he is, when he's properly ridden, but he's got the devil's own temper. Go it, old pard! go it!" he shouted again, and his enthusiasm gave me such comfort, I would have thanked him had I dared speak.
All around the course I watched them, and at every fence my heart gave a bound of thankfulness as I heard the man beside me shouting hurrahs at Boatman's success. Gladder and gladder I grew, and nothing else in the world mattered to me so long as the big grey was still sailing along, even that he was ahead gave me only a momentary joy, so thankful was I that he was still safe, and likely to be safe.
"He's the best rider that ever I seed, Jim, sure," said the woman beside me, and I could have kissed her for the praise.
"Best rider this side of the Murray," said the man laconically, and Hope, Hope, before me stretched my future, bright, and happy, and smiling, such happiness as I had never dared dream would come into my life. A horse fell, another refused; what was it to me? There was Paul still ahead. Then, at the other side of the course, he was joined by Mick Power's Bangle, and another that I did not recognize, and Vixen's yellow and black stripes went up to within a couple of lengths of the leaders, and a length behind her came the ruck.
"Ah! I told you so," sighed the woman, "they 've collared 'im. Boatman's beat."
"The race's a gift to him," reiterated the man, "if he can only stand up to these three fences. Why, that boy's riding Bangle to keep him in his place already."
A roar went up from the crowd.
"Boatman wins! Boatman! Boatman!"
"Vixen! Vixen!" cried a voice here and there, but they were drowned in a universal cry of, "The grey wins, hands down. Boatman! Boatman!"
I was a happy woman for those brief seconds, the happiest woman in all the wide earth; not a fear for the result troubled me. Already I seemed to feel the glad clasp of Paul's hand, to see the light in his eyes, that would say to me, even though others were present, that he had won his bride, and I watched them coming down to the last fence, the fence that led into the straight, without a tremor.
How could I? How could I? It makes me sick to think of it now, but then I was so certain of success, I put my hand to my throat and took off the little silk handkerchief that I wore there, that I might wave it in triumph, and all round me the people, wild with excitement, were shouting, "Boatman wins! Boatman wins!" It seemed as if they were all in sympathy with me, and in my heart I blessed them for it.
Then, then, oh, Hope! how can I tell you? I didn't understand it for many a long day, and though I saw it with my own eyes, I could not tell you how it happened. All of a sudden the glad shouts of "Boatman wins" changed to one of "They 're down, they 're both down," and then, before I had thoroughly grasped the situation, while I still held my little scarf ready to wave, the shout went up just as joyously, oh, just as joyously, "Vixen wins, Vixen! Vixen!"
Even then I did not understand the full extent of my misfortune; other men had fallen and been all right, why not Paul? On my left, the man who had put his money on the grey, swore an oath through his clenched teeth that made me wonder had he as much at stake as I.
What happened? Oh, it was simple enough. They told me afterwards, when it was nothing to me whether a race was ever run again in this world. The grey had the race easily, they said, and was going strong. Paul steadied him for the fence, but in the last couple of strides the Vixen came with a tremendous rush, at the risk of his own neck, they said, and the grey stood off his fence. Such a little thing, dear, such a little thing. Boatman stood off his fence, landed on top, and turned clean over on to his rider. Vixen hit all round, but by rattling good horsemanship—as good as Paul's own, they said—was kept on her legs, and came in winner of the Yanyilla Steeplechase.
I wanted to go to Paul, to rush across to where already a little crowd were collecting. Why should he be hurt—so many had fallen already, and not one was badly hurt—why should he be? No, I told myself, I need not fear, and yet I was afraid to move, and I stood there, and listened to the woman beside me counting the horses as they came in.
"Vixen first, Sandy second, the Dingo—no, Bones third. 'Ard luck on Mr. Griffith, ain't it, Jim? I don't believe the 'orse as got up. Couldn't have killed 'im, eh?"
The whole place was swimming before my eyes, but there came to me a feeling I must know the worst, and I put the little kerchief that was to have waved for my lover's triumph over my head, and started out into the brilliant sunshine towards the little crowd that was collecting round the last fence. The woman tried to stop me.
"Don't 'ee go, dearie, don't 'ee. Jim 'ere 'll go," but I pushed her away. Why should she try and stop me, what right had anyone to come between me and my love? Then the crowd parted, and I saw a little procession come towards me. What was that borne by four men? I just caught the gleam of a scarlet jacket, and then some man's voice said, not unkindly:
"It's his sweetheart. For God's sake take her away."
But some one else—the doctor I think—put in a word.
"It can't make any difference. She must know sooner or later, poor child. Lay him down here, under this tree. I doubt if we get him to the house alive."
They laid him under a big blackwood tree, and the doctor put his head on my lap. Such a still white face as it was, with the eyes closed and just a drop or two of blood round the corners of the mouth.
"Oh, doctor," I said, and it seemed to me my own voice was far, far away, farther even than those of the men who were standing around me, "he will get well, he will, he must! He can't be much hurt."
But the doctor said nothing, and the fear that was in my heart grew and grew as I stooped over my lover and, careless of onlookers, kissed him again and again.
"My darling, my darling, my darling, you must get well soon," for I would not see that there was much amiss; ten minutes ago he had been full of life; half an hour ago I had been in his arms.
Very wearily his eyes opened and I saw he knew me.
"My poor little girl," he said, "My poor little Hope," and his hand clasped mine as I had dreamed a moment ago it would, as if he would care for me and guard me all through life.
And then—and then—Hope, dear, there isn't any more to tell. He died there in my arms, and at first I could not believe it, but the doctor took me away to my mother, and she was kind to me—yes, she was very tender to me; but what can anyone do when all the happiness has gone out of one's life. Then I began to grow old, dear, though I was not twenty, and I have been growing old ever since.
Why, there 're tears in your eyes, child! Don't cry; I am old now and some of the bitterness has gone. One doesn't understand why the good Lord should let life be so bitter for some of us, but I suppose it is for some good reason, only—only, you see it was another man's wickedness spoiled my life. Yes, yes, I know there was foul play. Dick Stanton rushed his horse down on Boatman like that, just to spoil his chance of the race, and many there were who thought as I did; but who could prove it? No, I don't think even now he meant to kill him.
But there—there is my story, Hope. It is many a long day since I told it. You wanted to know why I am an old maid; you understand now, don't you, dear. I couldn't have married anybody else, how could I? But don't be an old maid, Hope, it is a dreary life—a lonely, hopeless life, and—
Yes, I thought so. Willie Maclean coming up the path. What, blushing, child, or is it my old eyes deceive me? Run away then and bring him in here. I knew his father in the old days, before the Yanyilla Steeplechase was lost and won.