|Newspaper Title||The Australasian (Melbourne, Vic. : 1864 - 1946)|
|Trove Title||Autumn Leaves|
By ETHEL MILLS.
It was the rainy season, and the sky was leaden week after week, and the creek —a banker — tearing along among the topmost boughs of the low-growing willows made a monotonous roaring night and day. The soft continuous rain kept Baby Stella from her daily walks, and it was hard to find
amusement for the tiny "household ruler". For her father, who was also my widowed brother, was out on the run with all avail- able hands, moving sheep to higher ground, and Stella missed him. Sometimes I would wrap her up and send her over to the wool shed with her little Aunt Susie to play hide and seek in the pens and build houses with
the woolpacks, but at last the creek over- flowed the narrow strip of land between
the shed and the house, and it was then that I thought of the big loft over the kitchen, where from time immemorial the
odds and ends and rubbish pertaining to the Farrar family had been stored. Susie hailed the proposition with delight, and the kitchen boy — the only "male being" left to us — was sent for a ladder.
For a good hour I was left in peace, while
Susie and baby revelled in the dusty dim- ness of the loft. When at last the boy was called to help the two Miss Farrars to descend I was quite prepared to find them laden with treasure trove. Baby had a
bead necklace that had once belonged to mother, and was hugging in her tiny arms a stuffed kitten with glass eyes and moth- eaten coat, Susie carried an old workbox
of mine, which had disappeared for years, and a kerosene stove which had been the
joint property of Jack and myself, but which had blown up during its christening.
"Show me the workbox," I said. "I thought it was stolen or lost long ago," and I stretched my hand for it, but Susie's
strong young fingers had already wrenched
the rusty lock open. It was lined with
faded red satin, and contained a paper-
covered book setting forth the merits of sarsparilla. Susie picked up the book, although I made an effort to take it away. Between its covers were a few pressed strawberry leaves and a few of the English oak; at the foot of the page was a date in pencil and the initials L.W. I felt myself growing red under the keen gaze of my schoolgirl sister. Susie, the only clever one of the family, was decidedly scornful of human weakness, failings, and follies, and these leaves were connected with a folly, although a long-forgotten one. In spite of my nine years seniority I quailed before her grey eyes, and to her question as to where I got them I weakly prevari- cated, and said I didn't know.
"H'm!" said Susie. "That's a story, Francie — oak trees don't grow here, and '92 was the year you went to the Wycher- leys, at Waveny, and Waveny is in the hills,
and English trees grow there, and L.W. stands for Lance Wycherley. You might just as well have told me at first, and, any way, I did not think you were sentimental.
Shall I burn them?"
"No, indeed," I said, and I possessed myself of the book, while Susie went off in offended silence with baby.
Still I had the leaves, and I dropped my hands on my lap, and looking out of the window saw neither the dun creek swirl- ing among the tree tops nor the flat pad- docks and miserable stock standing in the back-water. The scene that rose to my inward sight was a range of low hills show- ing against a crimson western sky, with a little scattered township below them peep- ing out of lanes pink with hawthorn. It was there I stayed with the Wycherleys after they lost their Reedy Creek Sta- tion, which loss had broken old Wycherley's heart. He had been sleeping for over a year in the station graveyard, and his numerous family had been obliged to sup- port themselves.
Lance had been in a bank for some time, and had been moved to Waveny, and the family settled there to have the benefit of his board money; Gracie, the eldest girl, gave music lessons; placid Mrs. Wycherley did the housekeeping, and petted the younger fry, whom Barbara, the second girl, taught; Leonie grew bulbs in the rambling old garden and sent autumn leaves to the Sydney florists. Harry was on a station, and the other boys at a day school; in fact, it was a busy household that opened its arms to receive Francie Farrar. A
merry, happy-go-lucky family lived in the rambling Priory, which, like Waveny itself, was a "has been", now so out of repair in its wilderness of garden that the rent was only nominal, and suited to the Wycherley
Waveny had been built on the site of a gold rush — shallow surface gold that was soon worked out. Very soon its floating population left it, hotel after hotel shut up. Now it was more like a large English village than an Australian town, so cere- monious was its small society, so rigid its
Waveny was shaken to its foundations by the advent of so large and erratic a family as the Wycherleys. It was still shaking when I arrived there. The lawyer's wife, who ruled society, called, for Wycher- ley, of Reedy Creek, had been a well-known and respected name. In fact, Waveny received the Wycherleys into its creme de la creme. Still strange stories would get
about, and were whispered over afternoon tea in hushed accents.
Gracie had been seen to lift a kettle off the fire with a lace handkerchief, the car- pet had never been seen banging out for beating, the kitchen stove was never black leaded, and, worst of all, Lance had been known to stay at home and cook the dinner while the rest of the family went to
The girls heard the stories and laughed at them, and mended their ways not one
I soon found that I must fall into their ways, and indeed I did, and with the help of the contents of this same old workbox I did my share by sewing on hundreds of buttons and mending the awful rents in the boys' football jerseys. The beautiful cool climate to me, fresh from the hot sun-baked tablelands, seemed like eternal spring. The barrenness of the land kept the surrounding country uncultivated to any great extent.
and so no fences or warning notice boards kept us from the delights of the wattle-
Although the mail-train stopped at the township and brought glimpses of a larger world for a brief space every day, Waveny was a very "bushy" place. Flocks of ibis often fed in the Priory orchard, and at night the faint music (?) of the small "army band" had scarcely died away when the stone-curlews began shrieking and wailing to each other round the outlying houses.
The surrounding stations were chiefly owned by bachelors, wary men, who took long to make up their minds, forgetting that the "thirties" go quicker than the twenties, and that the first grey hair has many close followers.
After the Wycherleys came to the Priory, these much-sought-after men rode in very frequently. The lawyer's wife ordered new frocks for her two unstylish, bright- cheeked daughters, and gave a series of musical evenings on lovely moonlit summer nights, when all the elite of Waveny was stuffed into a small drawingroom, and played round games. She wondered not a little, that in spite of the rich suppers and really good whisky and cigars in the study afterwards the erratic squatters still seemed to prefer the Priory, with its weak coffee and bread and butter, and the depraved tastes of its inmates, which leaned to rambles and bright laughter in the freedom of the wilderness of moonlit garden.
I was a tall, well-grown girl of seventeen, with a lot of brown hair, brown eyes, and
a clear pale complexion, and my brother's liberal cheques enabled me to get as many pretty frocks as I liked. I certainly paid for dressing, as the saying goes, but those men never looked at me when Gracie was by, with her crown of golden hair and lovely complexion, or Barbara, the incarna- tion of grace, with her red lips and dusky eyes, and slender "thoroughbred" figure. They showed better in their plain, black woollens than the lawyer's daughters or myself in our Sydney frocks, although Lance assured me that I was growing prettier every day. That handsome young detrimental, the matron's horror and the maidens' joy, usually walked with me when we took afternoon-tea to the quarries, and I was always sure of the first and last waltzes with him at the carpet dances. I was romantic and sentimental, as most girls are at seventeen. Lance had been my particular friend years ago, at Reedy Creek, and according to my idea and his own, he was quite a man of the world now. He was just the sort of man to take a romantic girl's fancy. He was big, with the same dark hair and eyes as his sister Barbara, and he had very white teeth and a ready smile, a continual fund of good spirits, and was not in the least conceited, so that even the marked attentions of the Waveny girls could not turn his head. While I was there he suddenly took to attending church very regularly, and Gracie used to laugh slyly at this change, for, as a rule, he had preferred to spend the day doing odd jobs about the house in undress
How proud I felt when I stood beside him, with all the self-consciousness of seventeen. I blushed furiously when I caught Mrs. Shafto looking towards our pew, with what Barbara called her "sneaky" glance, flashing out from between her thick dark lashes. I used to straighten my hat always when she looked our way, although she was a lady with a mysterious past, and of no account in Waveny so ciety. No one had ever known Mrs. Shafto, and no one knew why she chose to live in Waveny. To economise, no doubt, for she kept her two big lads of 13 and 14 at board- ing school, and always dressed in cheap muslins and prints, and wore becoming veils, which hid the lines round her mouth which might have meant past suffering and lent additional charm to her glorious eyes, and which helped to give a singularly
youthful appearance, which her slim figure and low stature aided. She must at least have been 34, but she affected big sashes and picture hats, and in the distance looked like a miss-in-her-teens. In spite of her cheap frocks she had some lovely rings and jewellery. She sang in the choir, except when her two big black-browed sons were home for the holidays, and then she sat in a pew, looking like a doll between two over grown puppies. They always seemed a little afraid, if proud of her, and eyed Waveny defiantly, as if they resented its treatment of their mother.
The lawyer's wife never called on Mrs. Shafto, and one seldom saw her except at church or at the public balls, when she danced every dance — in spite of the fact that the room was lined with wallflowers. All the men from the country or town seemed to know her, but she had not even a bowing acquaintance with their women- kind. Nothing definite was known against her, but she was labelled "dangerous". She had a sweet low voice, and got all the newest papers and books by post, and she lived in a little cottage by the bridge, and that was about all we ever heard or knew of her.
Lance was introduced to her at one of the balls, and after that, always danced a good deal with her. He said that her step suited his exactly, and she seemed to think so too, until Paul Redworth came up to inspect his stations. He was a handsome but dissipated looking man, and bore a queer reputa- tion. Lance designated him a "beast", and forbade us girls to allow him to be intro- duced to us. I cannot say that Mr. Red- worth sought the society of any of the Waveny damsels. He only came in to see Mrs. Shafto. After his appearance on the
scene Lance found it best not to count on his favourite partner for many dances; much to the delight of all at the Priory. Egotis- tical seventeen is not, as a rule, jealous of thirty in the shade, and I was perfectly happy as I mended my hero's frayed coat- sleeves and cut his daily sandwiches; but for all that, I did not like his acquaintance with Mrs. Shafto. I had an idea that such women encouraged innocent young men in late hours and billiards! Mr. Redworth used to bring his horses in and take Mrs. Shafto for long rides — and they often passed the Priory — while we were playing tennis, and I noticed that Lance never even so much as glanced their way.
Had I been older and more experienced in the ways of men, I might have well mis- trusted such studied indifference. As it was we were more than ever together, and, as the summer days lengthened into autumn, my dream seemed to take certainty and shape, and when Lance received promotion in the bank, and the chance of a removal, I was not surprised that he came first to me with his news, and then asked me if I could walk to Gold Rush Creek with him in the afternoon, as he had something to say to me. I said yes, of course, and bribed the twins with pennies to stay at home, for those imps did a thriving trade by levying blackmail on anyone who seemed to es- pecially wish to dispense with their com- pany. We started out early, and soon reached the creek, by whose swift ice-cold waters Lance Wycherly asked me to be his wife. He took the autumn leaves from his button-hole, and pinned them in the front of my holland blouse — and even now, though their colours are faded and their sap is dried, as I look at them I can feel again the shy rapture that rose in my heart. We had been so much together since our child- hood that if passion and fire were absent from his wooing I scarcely noticed it. Be- sides I had seen impressionable Lance fall in and out of love a dozen times, and the very difference and quietness of his love- making now impressed me. No doubt, this time it was the "real thing" — at any rate I was very happy, and quite willing to listen to his praises of my character and many virtues, although he seemed to be contrast- ing me with a "shadowy third", whose at- tributes were all fickleness, falsehood, and heartlessness. He lay at my feet in the long green grass, with a shaft of sunlight on his dark hair, until the shadow of the hills reached us, and we wended our way home again.
As we turned the corner of the cemetery, the sound of galloping hoofs broke the still- ness, and we both stopped. "A run-away," cried Lance. "My God, Francie — look!" And he ran from me towards the horse which was careering wildly down the road. There was a swaying woman's figure in the saddle, and as Lance caught the flying reins and forced the horse back for a moment, the woman fell. Luckily her foot slipped from the stirrup, as the animal wrenched itself away, and tore into the scrub. I ran quickly forward, to see Lance holding Mrs. Shafto's slight figure in his arms, and to hear his wild words of passionate pleading, "My darling—Maude —my heart's beloved— speak to me—only once —only once!" he murmured, and it flashed across my mind
that had I been lying white and still, that strange tone, those passionate words, would not have been used to call me back from the land of shadows.
"She is dead," he cried, lifting his
stricken face to mine.
"I don't think so, but look, her arm is broken—we must carry her to the cottage," I said, and my voice sounded unnatural and far away.
"Ah, here is Mr. Redworth, he must ride for the doctor," as Paul Redworth galloped
"She is dead, my God! what an end," he
"Not dead," I repeated; "ride quickly to the doctor. We will carry her to the cottage by the gate."
Not until after the doctor had been, and given his verdict that the patient would re- cover in time, was I alone with Lance. He folded my cloak around me, and we started for the Priory in silence. Suddenly he stopped, took my hands, and said abruptly, "Francie, you must believe this at least. I did not know—myself—until I saw her lying there. Can you forgive me—and forget it? Can things be as they were before?"
"I do believe you, Lance." I said: "and I do forgive you, but we have both made a mistake. Let us be friends, but not lovers," and Lance did not dispute my decision.
As for the history of the love of Lance Wycherley for Maude Shafto, that, as Kip- ling says, is quite another story. I need only say that he never married her, and when last I heard of him he had drifted to
West Australia. Poor Lance, who loved so passionately, so briefly, and so often.
After all, my heart wound could not have been so very deep, or else this little box had not lain so long forgotten in the lumber loft. Still, seeing the leaves again has brought it all very vividly before me, and as I was not under the influence of Susie's searching gaze, I could indulge myself in a little day dream, to the effect that, if I ever did fall in love again, the object of my affections would have to be someone very like the giver of those autumn leaves in Waveney. [THE END]
Mr. Selous, the hunter, was guest of the New Vagabond Club at their Jubilee dinner at the Holborn Restaurant. Responding to the toast of his health, Mr. Selous claimed to be the biggest vagabond in the room. For 25 years he had been a homeless
wanderer on the face of the earth. And for months at a time he had never slept twice in the same place, or walked less than 20 or 30 miles a day. Now that he was back in civilisation and white shirts, he felt the tire
someness of its restrictions. If he happened to be half an hour late for dinner, his wife met him with black looks. But what, asked Mr. Selous, with a vagabond's ser n was half an hour to a man who was once five days late for dinner, and then had to walk 25 miles to get it? He had a good word for the Boers. Often they had fed him when
the only return he could make was a tune on the zither. He played "The Blue Danube" waltz, and they said it was Sun day. "Oh, but," he said, "it is a French hymn"—and he was saved.