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- Harry Heathcote of Gangoil - 6/23 -
"Mr. Heathcote must have been very wet last night," he said, when they were on horse-back, addressing himself to Kate Daly rather than to her sister.
"Indeed he was--wet to the skin. Were you not?"
"I saw him at about eleven, before the rain began. I was close home, and just escaped. He must have been under it all. Does he often go about the run in that way at night?"
"Only when he's afraid of fires," said Kate.
"Is there much to be afraid of? I don't suppose that any body can be so wicked as to wish to burn the grass." Then the ladies took upon themselves to explain. "The fires might be caused from negligence or trifling accidents, or might possibly come from the unaided heat of the sun; or there might be enemies."
"My word! yes; enemies, rather!" said Jacko, who was riding close behind, and who had no idea of being kept out of the conversation merely because he was a servant. Medlicot, turning round, looked at the lad, and asked who were the enemies.
"Free-selectors," said Jacko.
"I'm a free-selector," said Medlicot.
"Did not jist mean you," said Jacko.
"Jacko, you'd better hold your tongue," said Mrs. Heathcote.
"Hold my tongue! My word! Well, you go on."
Medlicot came as far as the wool-shed, and then said that he would return. He had thoroughly enjoyed his ride. Kate Daly was bright and pretty and winning; and in the bush, when a man has not seen a lady perhaps for months, brightness and prettiness and winning ways have a double charm. To ride with fair women over turf, through a forest, with a woman who may perhaps some day be wooed, can be a matter of indifference only to a very lethargic man. Giles Medlicot was by no means lethargic. He owned to himself that though Heathcote was a pig- headed ass, the ladies were very nice, and he thought that the pig- headed ass in choosing one of them for himself had by no means taken the nicest.
"You'll never find your way back," said Kate, "if you've not been here before."
"I never was here before, and I suppose I must find my way back." Then he was urged to come on and dine at Gangoil, with a promise that Jacko should return with him in the evening. But this he would not do. Heathcote was a pig-headed ass, who possibly regarded him as an incendiary simply because he had bought some land. This boy of Heathcote's, whose services had been offered to him, had not scrupled to tell him to his face that he was to be regarded as an enemy. Much as he liked the company of Kate Daly, he could not go to the house of that stupid, arrogant, pig-headed young squatter. "I'm not such a bad bushman but what I can find my way to the river," he said.
"Find it blindful," said Jacko, who did not relish the idea of going back to Medlicot's Mill as guide to another man. There was a weakness in the idea that such aid could be necessary, which was revolting to Jacko's sense of bush independence.
They were standing on their horses at the entrance to the wool-shed as they discussed the point, when suddenly Harry himself appeared out of the building. He came up and shook hands with Medlicot, with sufficient courtesy, but hardly with cordiality, and then asked his wife as to her ride. "We have been very jolly, haven't we, Kate? Of course it has been hot, but every thing is not so frightfully parched as it was before the rain. As Mr. Medlicot has come back so far with us, we want him to come on and dine."
"Pray do, Mr. Medlicot," said Harry. But again the tone of his voice was not sufficiently hearty to satisfy the man who was invited.
"Thanks, no: I think I'll hardly do that.--Good-night, Mrs. Heathcote; good-night. Miss Daly;" and the two ladies immediately perceived that his voice, which had hitherto been pleasant in their ears, had ceased to be cordial.
"I am very glad he has gone back," said Heathcote.
"Why do you say so, Harry? You are not given to be inhospitable, and why should you grudge me and Kate the rare pleasure of seeing a strange face?"
"I'll tell you why. It's not about him at this moment; but I've been disturbed.--Jacko, go on to the station, and say we're coming. Do you hear me? Go on at once." Then Jacko, somewhat unwillingly, galloped off toward the house. "Get off your horses, and come in."
He helped the two ladies from their saddles, and they all went into the wool-shed, Harry leading the way. In one of the side pens, immediately under the roof, there was a large heap of leaves, the outside portion of which was at present damp, for the rain had beaten in upon it, but which had been as dry as tinder when collected; and there was a row or ridge of mixed brush-wood and leaves so constructed as to form a line from the grass outside on to the heap. "The fellow who did that was an ass," said Harry; "a greater ass than I should have taken him to be, not to have known that if he could have gotten the grass to burn outside, the wool-shed must have gone without all that preparation. But there isn't much difficulty now in seeing what the fellow has intended."
"Was it for a fire?" asked Kate.
"Of course it was. He wouldn't have been contented with the grass and fences, but wanted to make sure of the shed also. He'd have come to the house and burned us in our beds, only a fellow like that is too much of a coward to run the risk of being seen."
"But, Harry, why didn't he light it when he'd done it?" said Mrs. Heathcote.
"Because the Almighty sent the rain at the very moment," said Harry, striking the top rail of one of the pens with his fist. "I'm not much given to talk about Providence, but this looks like it, does it not?"
"He might have put a match in at the moment?"
"Rain or no rain? Yes, he might. But he was interrupted by more than the rain. I got into the shed myself just at the moment--I and Jacko. It was last night, when the rain was pouring. I heard the man, and dark as was the night, I saw his figure as he fled away."
"You didn't know him?" said Miss Daly.
"But that boy, who has the eyes of a cat, he knew him."
"Jacko knew him by his gait. I should have hardly wanted any one to tell me who it was. I could have named the man at once, but for the fear of doing an injustice."
"And who was it?"
"Our friend Medlicot's prime favorite and new factotum, Mr. William Nokes. Mr. William Stokes is the gentleman who intends to burn us all out of house and home, and Mr. Medlicot is the gentleman whose pleasure it is to keep Mr. Nokes in the neighborhood."
The two women stood awe-struck for a moment, but a sense of justice prevailed upon the wife to speak. "That may be all true," she said. "Perhaps it is as you say about that man. But you would not therefore think that Mr. Medlicot knows any thing about it?"
"It would be impossible," said Kate.
"I have not accused him," said Harry; "but he knows that the man was dismissed, and yet keeps him about the place. Of course he is responsible."
HARRY HEATHCOTE'S APPEAL.
For the first mile between the wool-shed and the house Heathcote and the two ladies rode without saying a word. There was something so terrible in the reality of the danger which encompassed them that they hardly felt inclined to discuss it. Harry's dislike to Medlicot was quite a thing apart. That some one had intended to burn down the wool-shed, and had made preparation for doing so, was as apparent to the women as to him. And the man who had been balked by a shower of rain in his first attempt might soon find an opportunity for a second. Harry was well aware that even Jacko's assertion could not be taken as evidence against the man whom he suspected. In all probability no further attempt would be made upon the wool-shed; but a fire on some distant part of the run would be much more injurious to him than the mere burning of a building. The fire that might ruin him would be one which should get ahead before it was seen, and scour across the ground, consuming the grass down to the very roots over thousands of acres, and destroying fencing over many miles. Such fires pass on, leaving the standing trees unscathed, avoiding even the scrub, which is too moist with the sap of life for consumption, but licking up with fearful rapidity every thing that the sun has dried. He could watch the wool-shed and house, but with no possible care could he so watch the whole run as to justify him in feeling security. There need be no preparation of leaves. A match thrown loosely on the ground would do it. And in regard to a match so thrown, it would be impossible to prove a guilty intention.
"Ought we not to have dispersed the heap?" said Mrs. Heathcote at last. The minds of all of them were full of the matter, but these were the first words spoken.
"I'll leave it as it is," said Harry, giving no reason for his decision. He was too full of thought, too heavily laden with anxiety, to speak much. "Come, let's get on; you'll want your dinner, and it's getting dark." So they cantered on, and got off their horses at the gate, without another word. And not another word was spoken on the subject that night. Harry was very silent, walking up and down the veranda with his pipe in his mouth--not lying on the ground in idle enjoyment--and there was no reading. The two sisters looked at him
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