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- An Outback Marriage - 6/39 -


be the lady of Kuryong. However, she had never come back to prove it, and no one cared about asking her alleged husband any unpleasant questions.

So much for the history of its owners; now to describe the homestead itself. It had originally consisted of the two-roomed slab hut, which had been added to from time to time. Kitchen, outhouses, bachelors' quarters, saddle-rooms, and store-rooms had been built on in a kind of straggling quadrangle, with many corners and unexpected doorways and passages; and it is reported that a swagman once got his dole of rations at the kitchen, went away, and after turning two or three corners, got so tangled up that when Fate led him back to the kitchen he didn't recognise it, and asked for rations over again, in the firm belief that he was at a different part of the house.

The original building was still the principal living-room, but the house had grown till it contained about twenty rooms. The slab walls had been plastered and whitewashed, and a wide verandah ran all along the front. Round the house were acres of garden, with great clumps of willows and acacias, where the magpies sat in the heat of the day and sang to one another in their sweet, low warble.

The house stood on a spur running from the hills. Looking down the river from it, one saw level flats waving with long grasses, in which the solemn cattle waded knee-deep. Here and there clumps of willows and stately poplars waved in the breeze. In the clear, dry air all colours were startlingly vivid, and round the nearer foothills wonderful lights and shadows played and shifted, while sometimes a white fleece of mist would drift slowly across a distant hill, like a film of snowy lace on the face of a beautiful woman. Away behind the foothills were the grand old mountains, with their snow-clad tops gleaming in the sun.

The garden was almost as lacking in design as the house. There were acres of fruit trees, with prairie grass growing at their roots, trees whereon grew luscious peaches and juicy egg-plums; long vistas of grapevines, with little turnings and alleys, regular lovers' walks, where the scent of honeysuckle intoxicated the senses. At the foot of the garden was the river, a beautiful stream, fed by the mountain-snow, and rushing joyously over clear gravel beds, whose million-tinted pebbles dashed in the sunlight like so many opals.

In some parts of Australia it is difficult to tell summer from winter; but up in this mountain-country each season had its own attractions. In the spring the flats were green with lush grass, speckled with buttercups and bachelors' buttons, and the willows put out their new leaves, and all manner of shy dry-scented bush flowers bloomed on the ranges; and the air was full of the song of birds and the calling of animals. Then came summer, when never a cloud decked the arch of blue sky, and all animated nature drew into the shade of big trees until the evening breeze sprang up, bringing sweet scents of the dry grass and ripening grain. In autumn, the leaves of the English trees turned all tints of yellow and crimson, and the grass in the paddocks went brown; and the big bullock teams worked from dawn till dark, hauling in their loads of hay from the cultivation paddocks.

But most beautiful of all was winter, when logs blazed in the huge fireplaces, and frosts made the ground crisp, and the stock, long-haired and shaggy, came snuffling round the stables, picking up odds and ends of straw; when the grey, snow-clad mountains looked but a stone's throw away in the intensely clear air, and the wind brought a colour to the cheeks and a tingling to the blood that made life worth living.

Such was Kuryong homestead, where lived Charlie Gordon's mother and his brother Hugh, with a lot of children left by another brother who, like many others, had gone up to Queensland to make his fortune, and had left his bones there instead; and to look after these young folk there was a governess, Miss Harriott.

CHAPTER V.

THE COMING OF THE HEIRESS.

The spring--the glorious hill-country spring--was down on Kuryong. All the flats along Kiley's River were knee-deep in green grass. The wattle-trees were out in golden bloom, and the snow-water from the mountains set the river running white with foam, fighting its way over bars of granite into big pools where the platypus dived, and the wild ducks--busy with the cares of nesting--just settled occasionally to snatch a hasty meal and then hurried off, with a whistle of strong wings, back to their little ones. The breeze brought down from the hills a scent of grass and bush flowers. There was life and movement everywhere. The little foals raced and played all day in the sunshine round their big sleepy mothers; the cattle bellowed to each other from hill to hill; even those miserable brutes, the sheep, frisked in an ungainly way when anything startled them. At all the little mountain-farms and holdings young Doyles and Donohoes were catching their horses, lean after the winter's starvation, and loading the pack-saddles for their five-months' trip out to the borders of Queensland, from shearing-shed to shearing-shed, A couple of months before they started, they would write to the squatters for whom they had worked on previous shearings--such quaint, ill-spelled letters--asking that a pen might be kept for them. Great shearers they were, too, for the mountain air bred hardy men, and while they were at it they worked feverishly, bending themselves nearly double over the sheep, and making the shears fly till the sweat ran down their foreheads and dripped on the ground; and they peeled the yellow wool off sheep after sheep as an expert cook peels an apple. In the settled districts such as Kuryong, where the flocks were small, they were made to shear carefully; but away out on the Queensland side, on a station with two hundred thousand sheep to get through, they rushed the wool off savagely. He was a poor specimen of the clan who couldn't shear his hundred and twenty sheep between bell and bell; and the price was a pound a hundred, with plenty of stations wanting shearers, so they made good cheques in those days.

One glorious spring morning, Hugh Gordon was sitting in his office--every squatter and station-manager has an office--waiting with considerable impatience the coming of the weekly mail. The office looked like a blend of stationer's shop, tobacconist's store, and saddlery warehouse. A row of pigeon-holes along the walls was filled with letters and papers; the rafters were hung with saddles and harness; a tobacco-cutter and a jar of tobacco stood on the table, side by side with some formidable-looking knives, used for cutting the sheep's feet when they became diseased; whips and guns stood in every corner; nails and saws filled up a lot of boxes on the table, and a few samples of wool hung from a rope that was stretched across the room. The mantelpiece was occupied by bottles of horse-medicine and boxes of cartridges; an elderly white cockatoo, chained by the leg to a galvanised iron perch, sunned himself by the door, and at intervals gave an exhibition of his latest accomplishment, in which he imitated the yowl of a trodden-on cat much better than the cat could have done it himself.

The air was heavy with scent. All round the great quadrangle of the house acacia trees were in bloom, and the bees were working busily among the mignonette and roses in front of the office door.

Hugh Gordon was a lithe, wiry young Australian with intensely sunburnt face and hands, and a drooping black moustache; a man with a healthy, breezy outdoor appearance, but the face of an artist, a dreamer, and a thinker, rather than that of a practical man. His brother Charlie and he, though very much alike in face, were quite different types of manhood. Charlie, from his earliest school-days, had never read a book except under compulsion, had never stayed indoors when he could possibly get out, had never obeyed an unwelcome order when by force or fraud he could avoid doing so, and had never written a letter in his life when a telegram would do. He took the world as it came, having no particular amount of imagination, and never worried himself. Hugh, on the other hand, was inclined to meet trouble half-way, and to make troubles where none existed, which is the worst misfortune that a man can be afflicted with.

Hugh walked to the door and gazed out over the garden and homestead, down the long stretch of green paddocks where fat cattle were standing under the trees, too well fed to bother themselves with looking for grass. He looked beyond all this to the long drab-coloured stretch of road that led to Kiley's, watching for the mailboy's arrival. The mail was late, for the melting snow had flooded the mountain creeks, and Hugh knew it was quite likely that little Patsy Donohoe, the mail-boy, had been blocked at Donohoe's Hotel for two days, unable to cross Kiley's River. This had happened often, and on various occasions when Patsy had crossed, he, pony and all, had been swept down quite a quarter of a mile in the ice-cold water before they could reach land. But that was an ordinary matter in the spring, and it was a point of honour with Patsy and all his breed not to let the elements beat them in carrying out the mail contract, which they tendered for every year, and in which no outsider would have dared to compete.

At last Hugh's vigil was rewarded by the appearance of a small and wild-looking boy, mounted on a large and wild-looking horse. The boy was about twelve years of age, and had just ridden a half-broken horse a forty-mile journey--for of such is the youth of Australia. Patsy was wet and dirty, and the big leather mail-bag that he handed over had evidently been under water.

"We had to swim, Mr. Hugh," the boy said triumphantly, "and this great, clumsy cow" (the child referred to his horse), "he reared over on me in the water, twyst, but I stuck to him. My oath!"

Hugh laughed. "I expect Kiley's River will get you yet, Patsy," he said. "Go in now to the kitchen and get dry by the fire. I'll lend you a horse to get back on to-morrow. You can camp here till then, there's no hurry back."

The boy let his horse go loose, dismissing it with a parting whack on the rump with the bridle, and swaggered inside, carrying his saddle, to show his wet clothes and recount his deeds to the admiring cook. Patsy was not one to hide his light under a bushel.

Hugh carried the bag into the office, and shook out the letters and papers on the table. Everything was permeated with a smell of wet leather, and some of the newspapers were rather pulpy. After sending out everybody else's mail he turned to examine his own. Out of the mass of letters, agents' circulars, notices of sheep for sale, catalogues of city firms, and circulars from pastoral societies, he picked a letter addressed to himself in the scrawling fist of William Grant. He opened it, expecting to find in it the usual Commination Service on things in general, but as he read on,


An Outback Marriage - 6/39

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