|Newspaper Title||The Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld. : 1866 - 1939)|
A few changes had taken place since he had been ill. Across the street, where the old woman of 90 lived, who had seen the town grow from half-a-
dozen tents to its hundred houses and ten hotels, they were pulling down the old flood-marked fence, and putting up a new one. The wood showed red against the brown of the over-arching cedar trees and the fading lemon shrubs in the background, where the old shing- led roof, mended here and there with strips of kerosene tins and sheets of blue-gray galvanised iron, rose up, hardly picturesque for all its age. A boy was at work with a pick dig- ging up the old posts that had stood since "Granny" came there as a bride, and since her strong (brown pioneer hus- band was carried out to lie in the rough, ugly cemetery, half-a-mile along the red road that led eastward from the town. Here, too, her seven stalwart sons were born, and went out, " three to the large shearing sheds of the far West, two to the rocks and sands beyond the goldfields, and two to the farm lands 150 miles to the South. Now an only granddaughter lived with her and tended the old lady's last peaceful days. Drummond could see her pink sunbonnet beyond the grape vines as she hung out the week's washing; a long slip of an Australian girl, freckled and hardy, though she stooped slightly, and her long brown arms were neither muscular nor shapely. Further down the street was the tiny dark cottage—lying like a blot on the landscape, with tall gum trees in the back ground, and beyond them the river —where the lonely half-caste woman lived. At night she could be seen flitting to and fro in the shadow of the bark-roofed veranda, a slender, agile shape in white. Just now her little child, almost as fair as one of pure European blood, played alone on the doorstep, trying to push a great gray and white cat into the puddles that lay gleaming on the footpath since the late rain ; her red pinafore showing bright against the dingy house. Past that again was the brown coach road, whi- ther twice a week eager eyes turned to watch for the far-off moving speck that gradually increased into four foam- flecked horses and a red, dusty coach ; the handsome, yellow-bearded driver swinging his whip and shouting to his team, as with a " rattle-rattle" the al- most springless vehicle jolted over the stones, and drew up in front of the low roofed post office, and discharged its load of dust-streaked, cramped, com- mercial travellers, with an occasional little grey-robed governess coming back to work after the holidays, with her gossamer tied tightly over her little red nosed, tear-stained face, worn out with the two days jolting and the good-bye to the delicate widowed mother whom she might never see again. Sometimes a grumbling bank inspector, fly-veiled and armed with a large white cotton umbrella, bent on coming unannounced to pounce on the jolly manager and careless bank clerks (who, by the way, knew—by instinct perhaps, or perhaps by the ministrations of a friendly tele- graph operator at the coach's over- night stopping place—the exact date of their superior officer's unwelcome arri- val, and had their work balanced up to time, accordingly), descended, swearing audibly, from the best seat on the box, and proceeded stiffly up the street to demand " the keys" from the markedly astonished (?) bank manager. Then the great leather and canvas mailbags were thrown heavily out, making one tremble for anything breakable; the
"parcel post" was discharged, and the flaming-red bag that held the loose let- ters, picked up at lonely selections and stations on the route from the railway. And away the coach rattled to the prin- cipal hotel. Drummond would always remember the coach's arrival above all vivider scenes in his short acquaintance with this out-of-the-world bush town. For had not that winding road, those strong black horses, and that shabby unroman- tic rattle-trap brought him his message of doom just eight weeks before—before he was ill. She was a governess on a neighbour- ing station, a laughing slip of a girl. He was a strong, dark, "dare-devil" Englishman, brought down in the world, perhaps by his own fault, perhaps by his forefathers. No matter; he was head drover for the station and nothing more, but fit enough for her to amuse herself with in the warm summer evenings, and to forget when he was away on the long trips taking cattle to market. What did it matter if he thought of her overmuch by the red camp fire, out on the great plains in winter, too cold to sleep, with the keen westerly winds chapping his hands and face in the wintry days, and the burning sun scorching his dark head in summer? She only laughed. She laughed at any thing even when they told her that he was thrown in the horse paddock, rid- ing "a young 'un." and it was hours before he was conscious again. Certain- ly, when he was better she read to him the children were out of school, but it may have been only to show him the beauty of her sweetly modulated voice or the length of her curving eye-lashes. Drummond fell in love. I dare say any young man would have done so under the circumstances. They were so much together, and chaperonage was lax. After a while she promised to marry him—though she laughed all the time, and she went away to Brisbane for the Christmas holidays, and he worked as no man worked before and dreamt of her. He saw her off one early morning, when the brooding clouds hung heavily about the rising sun, and she—the soli- tary box passenger—waited, fresher and rosier than the morning, for the down- ward coach. He stole one kiss in the shadow of the hotel veranda, he grasped her hand once, swung her on to her seat, beside the handsome driver, who had a fellow-feeling, and looked away, lifted her light box into the back of the coach, and crushed into her hand a great faded bunch of the station roses that her pupils had gathered for her ere they left the day before for the sweet moonlight drive of fifteen miles, to be in time to leave the township by the early coach. He choked back something like a sob in his throat. She had looked back once—through her veil she was laughing —and had waved her little brown-gloved hand, and with a tossing of horses' heads, a rattle of wheels, a cheery "So long" from the driver, they were off. He stood and watched them till her slight figure was only a blur, till the faint whip cracks were no more audible, even in the silence of the morning, till the last gleam of red from the coach, and the black forms of the horses van- ished over the "far horizon line." And he went back heavily to the greasy steak and cold toast of the hotel breakfast. That parting he remembered sadly enough, but that was not the bitterest part of it. Better than all he remem- bered how he had come in from the station some weeks later to get stores for another long trip to the town. He was to meet her in Brisbane after he had seen the cattle safely to the sale yards, and there they were to be mar- ried. So he had written it all to her. She was to have a little cottage here— he had looked at some new ones being put up beyond Granny's paddock. They would be poor, but they would have enough, and he was not without ex- pectations. If she liked, in her spare moments she might take music pupils, but just as she pleased, of course; she had often said she liked teaching, and every little would help, and perhaps some day—who could tell ?—he might be able to show her those English lanes and foreign towns she so longed to see. So he wrote, and finished with vows of love eternal. So he waited for her answer that sum- mer's day. The coach was late, of course, like all much-desired things. The sun was slanting low beneath a bank of snowy wind clouds when the first gray speck showed at the end of the long brown road. Then the faint whip cracks began ; then "rattle-rattle," and Jack's Jolly voice calling to his team. Then people began to crowd in front of the post office to quiz the new arrivals and wait for their mail. There was no one on the coach but a Chinaman, com- ing up to start a vegetable garden on the bank of the famous river, and he excited little comment as he sidled away with his blue bundle and apologetic air. Then Drummond was at the little window, saying his name mechanically to the kindly visage of the well-known post master. "Any letters ?" Several were pushed forward on the ledge. A tiny, wizened man, and a pale-faced girl in gaudy blouse and skimpy skirt claimed them. " No—none for Drummond. Stay ! A paper." And the " Queens- lander" was pushed towards him. It was directed in her handwriting, and that gave him a little comfort, though all around him people were devouring letters from absent loved ones. " Well, I never !" one stout, white-aproned dame exclaimed, " Sal's baby has two teeth! And it only five months ! Dear, dear !" And she went off delightedly to tell her nearest neighbour. "Jim's coming back in February," whispered one blush- ing girl to her younger sister, and both laughed happily. " I'm going to be mar- ried, old man!" joked the pale-faced bank clerk to his fellow officer, as he slipped a long, criss-crossed letter, written on the thinnest of foreign paper in violet
ink, into the pocket of his well-worn coat. Drummond felt lonely somehow, and, as he walked across the street to the hotel, slowly tore the wrapping's from his " Queenslander." Nothing marked in it anywhere. Surely she had sent him some message through its medium. She knew he saw plenty of papers at the station, and this was a week or so old. " Births—marriages—deaths"—Ah! something marked here-her marriage. He pushed his hat back and laughed. A man on the hotel veranda started up and stared. He was a doctor, tra- velling with, an insurance agent, and when he was attached to Gladesville Asylum he had heard mad people laugh. But Drummond looked sane enough. He was only tearing a page out of a newspaper as he went round to the bar, and thinking. "While I was writing that letter she was getting married ! How she must have laughed !" He remem- bered how easily she laughed. Music pupils! And she married to a man well-known in Sydney for his lucky coup in Coolgardie shares. Drummond laughed again.............He remem- bered little in after life of what, hap- pened then. He could at times recall a dim vision of the gaudy bar and the coarse-faced barmaid; of the sickening smell of brandy and a fever in his veins; of being pressed to " Sing, old fellow," and of standing unsteadily on a table, with many faces around him, encourage- ing, jeering, and drunken, and the reek of the swinging kerosene lamp above his head ; of escaping into the cooler night air, of staggering blindly along the river bank, till he fell against a log and lay there interminable hours, at first in the moonless stillness of night, and then with a blazing morning sun beating on his uncovered head ; of many creeping things that crawled out of the long dry grass and passed over him, adding their iota to his misery in tiny venomous stings, and of a horrible consuming thirst ; then the eager, peering face of a little black gin, and later the broad, kindly one of the town policeman, and then uncon- sciousness. He had been very ill, they told him afterwards—brain fever, accelerated by the intense heat on his uncovered head, some mental shock, and—other things. They did not say "drink," but he re- membered the overpowering stench of brandy. Now he was well, enough again to lie on the hard horsehair sofa, which had been dragged on to the hotel veranda for his comfort. He still felt too weak to wonder how they managed to do with- out him at the station, whom they got to take the cattle to Homebush, and whether he had lost his place there for good and all ; for gaps are soon filled up, and work must go on, even if a man drop out of the rank and file for a few weeks. They had been in to inquire about him, while he tossed about from side to side of his narrow untidy bed, babbling strange things in the uncon- sciousness of fever, and had bound over the hotelkeeper and his good-natured slipshod wife to take good care of him. But they had been told things, and were angry with him for a little while. He could not think much, his brain grew numb if he tried to ; but, as often is the case with men after some crush- ing mental blow, his mind was alive to local impressions. He noticed how green the patches of grass were where the rain and dew from the iron roofs had dripped unheeded into the street. The street was brown and bare when he was taken ill, and he wondered what rainfall they had had. He could hear the postmaster's daughter playing the piano across the way—waltzes, polkas, galops, one after the other, as if she would never tire. A child was crying somewhere—a weary, lonely, little wail- ing. He did not mind that ; but when a young girl laughed merrily he winced. It was only " Granny's" granddaughter joking with the men who were putting up the new fence, but he hated her for laughing. It brought back things. The solitary baker's cart came tearing round a corner, after the manner of baker's carts, that surely never went slowly. A waggonette with the town undertaker on the box jogged past, fol- lowed by a string of buggies and spring carts and several young men with hats well set on the back of their heads and great length of spur, racing each other, and betting loudly as to who would be first at the cemetery. A hearty inter- est was taken in funerals here. Death had no majesty ; it was merely a plea- surable excitement, an occasion for gossip and much tea-drinking, and not unfrequent adjournings to the nearest " pub." Drummond wondered, if it had been his funeral, would any one have cared ? It might easily have been. He had had a narrow squeak of it, and his hands were very thin and white—whiter than they had been since he left home. Two girls strolled past. One was pretty and fairly bright-coloured for the summer. She looked coquettishly under her hat at Drummond ; he looked inter- esting with his big brown eyes, and she had heard all about his illness. But he scowled so that she said, " La !" and looked away. " I hate women," he thought. Crack ! Crack ! Shouts of encourage- ment ; clatter, clatter ! and up came the coach, the wheels thick with mud, and the jaded horses reeking with sweat. A little gray figure was on the box seat, a gossamer wound tightly round the sailor hat, and hands encased in brown gloves—a little, stooping figure. As she passed she lifted her veil and look- ed curiously round. She wore specta- cles, and looked 40, and her face was very sad. Drummond thanked God for that. It was the new governess going up to the station. Drummond turned his back to the street and dropped his face in his hands. He was very weak after his illness, and the tears trickled through his fingers.