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- Harry Heathcote of Gangoil - 4/23 -
Medlicot had placed himself on the fence during the interview, and he still kept his seat. Of course he was now thinking of the man who had just left him, whom he declared to himself to be an ignorant, prejudiced, ill-constituted cur. "I believe in his heart he thinks that I'm going to set fire to his run," he said, almost aloud. "And because he grows wool he thinks himself above every body in the colony. He occupies thousands of acres, and employs three or four men. I till about two hundred, and maintain thirty families. But he is such a pig that he can't understand all that; and he thinks that I must be something low because I've bought with my own money a bit of land which never belonged to him, and which he couldn't use." Such was the nature of Giles Medlicot's soliloquy as he sat swinging his legs, and still smoking his pipe, on the fence which divided his sugar-cane from the other young man's run.
And Harry Heathcote uttered his soliloquy also. "I wouldn't swear that he wouldn't do it himself, after all;" meaning that he almost suspected that Medlicot himself would be an incendiary. To him, in his way of thinking, a man who would take advantage of the law to buy a bit of another man's land--or become a free-selector, as the term goes--was a public enemy, and might be presumed capable of any iniquity. It was all very well for the girls--meaning his wife and sister-in-law--to tell him that Medlicot had the manners of a gentleman and had come of decent people. Women were always soft enough to be taken by soft hands, a good-looking face, and a decent coat. This Medlicot went about dressed like a man in the towns, exhibiting, as Harry thought, a contemptible, unmanly finery. Of what use was it to tell him that Medlicot was a gentleman? What Harry knew was that since Medlicot had come he had lost his sheep, that the heads of three or four had been found buried on Medlicot's side of his run, and that if he dismissed "a hand," Medlicot employed him--a proceeding which, in Harry Heathcote's aristocratic and patriarchal views of life, was altogether ungentleman-like. How were the "hands" to be kept in their place if one employer of labor did not back up another?
He had been warned to be on his guard against fire. The warnings had hardly been implicit, but yet had come in a shape which made him unable to ignore them. Old Bates, whom he trusted implicitly, and who was a man of very few words, had told him to be on his guard. The German, at whose hut he had been in the morning, Karl Bender by name, and a servant of his own, had told him that there would be fire about before long.
"Why should any one want to ruin me?" Harry had asked. "Did I ever wrong a man of a shilling?"
The German had learned to know his young master, had made his way through the crust of his master's character, and was prepared to be faithful at all points--though he too could have quarreled and have avenged himself had it not chanced that he had come to the point of loving instead of hating his employer.
"You like too much to be governor over all," said the German, as he stooped over the fire in his own hut in his anxiety to boil the water for Heathcote's tea.
"Somebody must be governor, or every thing would go to the devil," said Harry.
"Dat's true--only fellows don't like be made feel it," said the German, "Nokes, he was made feel it when you put him over de gate."
But neither would Bates nor the German express absolute suspicion of any man. That Medlicot's "hands" at the sugar-mill were stealing his sheep Harry thought that he knew; but that was comparatively a small affair, and he would not have pressed it, as he was without absolute evidence. And even he had a feeling that it would be unwise to increase the anger felt against himself--at any rate, during the present heats.
Jacko had his pipe still alight when Heathcote returned. "You young monkey," said he, "have you been using matches?"
"Why not, Mr. Harry? Don't the grass burn ready, Mr. Harry? My word!" Then Jacko stooped down, lit another match, and showed Heathcote the burned patch.
"Was it so when we came?" Harry asked, with emotion. Jacko, still kneeling on the ground, and holding the lighted match in his hand, shook his head and tapped his breast, indicating that he had burned the grass. "You dropped the match by accident?"
"My word! no. Did it o' purpose to see. It's all just one as gunpowder, Mr. Harry."
Harry got on his horse without a word, and rode away through the forest, taking a direction different from that by which he had come, and the boy followed him. He was by no means certain that this young fellow might not turn against him; but it had been a part of his theory to make no difference to any man because of such fears. If he could make the men around him respect him, then they would treat him well; but they could never be brought to respect him by flattery. He was very nearly right in his views of men, and would have been right altogether could he have seen accurately what justice demanded for others as well as for himself. As far as the intention went, he was minded to be just to every man.
It seemed, as they were riding, that the heat grew fiercer and fiercer. Though there was still the same moaning sound, there was not a breath of air. They had now got upon a track very well known to Heathcote, which led up from the river to the wool-shed, and so on to the station, and they had turned homeward. When they were near the wool-shed, suddenly there fell a heavy drop or two of rain. Harry stopped and turned his face upward, when, in a moment, the whole heavens above them and the forest around were illumined by a flash of lightning so near them that it made each of them start in his saddle, and made the horses shudder in every limb. Then came the roll of thunder immediately over their heads, and with the thunder rain so thick and fast that Harry's "ten thousand buckets" seemed to be emptied directly over their heads.
"God A'mighty has put out the fires now," said Jacko.
Harry paused for a moment, feeling the rain through to his bones--for he had nothing on over his shirt--and rejoicing in it. "Yes," he said; "we may go to bed for a week, and let the grass grow, and the creeks fill, and the earth cool. Half an hour like this over the whole run, and there won't be a dry stick on it."
As they went on, the horses splashed through the water. It seemed as though a deluge were falling, and that already the ground beneath their feet were becoming a lake.
"We might have too much of this, Jacko."
"My word! yes."
"I don't want to have the Mary flooded again."
"My word! no."
But by the time they reached the wool-shed it was over. From the first drop to the last, there had hardly been a space of twenty minutes. But there was a noise of waters as the little streams washed hither and thither to their destined courses and still the horses splashed, and still there was the feeling of an incipient deluge. When they reached the wool-shed, Harry again got off his horse, and Jacko, dismounting also, hitched the two animals to the post and followed his master into the building. Harry struck a wax match, and holding it up, strove to look round the building by the feeble light which it shed. It was a remarkable edifice, built in the shape of a great T, open at the sides, with a sharp-pitched timber roof covered with felt, which came down within four feet of the ground. It was calculated to hold about four hundred sheep at a time, and was divided into pens of various sizes, partitioned off for various purposes. If Harry Heathcote was sure of any thing, he was sure that his wool-shed was the best that had ever been built in this district.
"By Jimini! what's that?" said Jacko.
"Did you hear any thing?"
Jacko pointed with his finger down the centre walk of the shed, and Harry, striking another match as he went, rushed forward. But the match was out as soon as ignited, and gave no glimmer of light. Nevertheless he saw, or thought that he saw, the figure of a man escaping out of the open end of the shed. The place itself was black as midnight, but the space beyond was clear of trees, and the darkness outside being a few shades lighter than within the building, allowed something of the outline of a figure to be visible. And as the man escaped, the sounds of his footsteps were audible enough. Harry called to him, but of course received no answer. Had he pursued him, he would have been obliged to cross sundry rails, which would have so delayed him as to give him no chance of success.
"I knew there was a fellow about," he said; "one of our own men would not have run like that."
Jacko shook his head, but did not speak.
"He has got in here for shelter out of the rain, but he was doing no good about the place."
Jacko again shook his head.
"I wonder who he was?"
Jacko came up and whispered in his ear, "Bill Nokes."
"You couldn't see him."
"Seed the drag of his leg." Now it was well known that the man Nokes had injured some of his muscles, and habitually dragged one foot after another.
"I don't think you could have been sure of him by such a glimpse as that."
"Maybe not," said the boy, "only I'm sure as sure."
Harry Heathcote said not another word, but getting again upon his horse, galloped home. It was past one when he reached the station, but the two girls were waiting up for him, and at once began to condole with him because he was wet. "Wet!" said Harry; "if you could only know how much I prefer things being wet to dry just at present! But give Jacko some supper. I must keep that young fellow in good humor if I can."
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