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- While the Billy Boils - 30/51 -


Steelman kindly ignored the question. "I _did_ have a better opinion of the Scotch," he said, contemptuously.

Steelman got on at an hotel as billiard-marker and decoy, and in six months he managed that pub. Smith, who'd been away on his own account, turned up in the town one day clean broke, and in a deplorable state. He heard of Steelman's luck, and thought he was "all right," so went to his old friend.

Cold type--or any other kind of type--couldn't do justice to Steelman's disgust. To think that this was the reward of all the time and trouble he'd spent on Smith's education! However, when he cooled down, he said:

"Smith, you're a young man yet, and it's never too late to mend. There is still time for reformation. I can't help you now; it would only demoralize you altogether. To think, after the way I trained you, you can't battle round any better'n this! I always thought you were an irreclaimable mug, but I expected better things of you towards the end. I thought I'd make _something_ of you. It's enough to dishearten any man and disgust him with the world. Why! you ought to be a rich man now with the chances and training you had! To think--but I won't talk of that; it has made me ill. I suppose I'll have to give you something, if it's only to get rid of the sight of you. Here's a quid, and I'm a mug for giving it to you. It'll do you more harm than good; and it ain't a friendly thing nor the right thing for me--who always had your welfare at heart--to give it to you under the circumstances. Now, get away out of my sight, and don't come near me till you've reformed. If you do, I'll have to stoush you out of regard for my own health and feelings."

But Steelman came down in the world again and picked up Smith on the road, and they battled round together for another year or so; and at last they were in Wellington--Steelman "flush" and stopping at an hotel, and Smith stumped, as usual, and staying with a friend. One night they were drinking together at the hotel, at the expense of some mugs whom Steelman was "educating." It was raining hard. When Smith was going home, he said:

"Look here, Steely, old man. Listen to the rain! I'll get wringing wet going home. You might as well lend me your overcoat to-night. You won't want it, and I won't hurt it."

And, Steelman's heart being warmed by his successes, he lent the overcoat.

Smith went and pawned it, got glorious on the proceeds, and took the pawn-ticket to Steelman next day.

Smith had reformed.

AN UNFINISHED LOVE STORY

Brook let down the heavy, awkward sliprails, and the gaunt cattle stumbled through, with aggravating deliberation, and scattered slowly among the native apple-trees along the sidling. First there came an old easygoing red poley cow, then a dusty white cow; then two shaggy, half-grown calves--who seemed already to have lost all interest in existence--and after them a couple of "babies," sleek, glossy, and cheerful; then three more tired-looking cows, with ragged udders and hollow sides; then a lanky barren heifer--red, of course--with half-blind eyes and one crooked horn--she was noted for her great agility in jumping two-rail fences, and she was known to the selector as "Queen Elizabeth;" and behind her came a young cream-coloured milker--a mighty proud and contented young mother--painfully and patiently dragging her first calf, which was hanging obstinately to a teat, with its head beneath her hind legs. Last of all there came the inevitable red steer, who scratched the dust and let a stupid "bwoo-ur-r-rr" out of him as he snuffed at the rails.

Brook had shifted the rails there often before--fifteen years ago--perhaps the selfsame rails, for stringy-bark lasts long; and the action brought the past near to him--nearer than he wished. He did not like to think of that hungry, wretched selection existence; he felt more contempt than pity for the old-fashioned, unhappy boy, who used to let down the rails there, and drive the cattle through.

He had spent those fifteen years in cities, and had come here, prompted more by curiosity than anything else, to have a quiet holiday. His father was dead; his other relations had moved away, leaving a tenant on the old selection.

Brook rested his elbow on the top rail of an adjacent panel and watched the cattle pass, and thought until Lizzie--the tenant's niece--shoved the red steer through and stood gravely regarding him (Brook, and not the steer); then he shifted his back to the fence and looked at her. He had not much to look at: a short, plain, thin girl of nineteen, with rather vacant grey eyes, dark ringlets, and freckles; she had no complexion to speak of; she wore an ill-fitting print frock, and a pair of men's 'lastic-sides several sizes too large for her. She was "studying for a school-teacher;" that was the height of the ambition of local youth. Brook was studying her.

He turned away to put up the rails. The lower rail went into its place all right, but the top one had got jammed, and it stuck as though it was spiked. He worked the rail up and down and to and fro, took it under his arm and tugged it; but he might as well have pulled at one of the posts. Then he lifted the loose end as high as he could, and let it fall--jumping back out of the way at the same time; this loosened it, but when he lifted it again it slid so easily and far into its socket that the other end came out and fell, barking Brook's knee. He swore a little, then tackled the rail again; he had the same trouble as before with the other end, but succeeded at last. Then he turned away, rubbing his knee.

Lizzie hadn't smiled, not once; she watched him gravely all the while.

"Did you hurt your knee?" she asked, without emotion.

"No. The rail did."

She reflected solemnly for a while, and then asked him if it felt sore.

He replied rather briefly in the negative.

"They were always nasty, awkward rails to put up," she remarked, after some more reflection.

Brook agreed, and then they turned their faces towards the homestead. Half-way down the sidling was a clump of saplings, with a big log lying amongst them. Here Brook paused. "We'll sit down for a while and have a rest," said he. "Sit down, Lizzie."

She obeyed with the greatest of gravity. Nothing was said for awhile. She sat with her hands folded in her lap, gazing thoughtfully at the ridge, which was growing dim. It looked better when it was dim, and so did the rest of the scenery. There was no beauty lost when darkness hid the scenery altogether. Brook wondered what the girl was thinking about. The silence between them did not seem awkward, somehow; but it didn't suit him just then, and so presently he broke it.

"Well, I must go to-morrow."

"Must you?"

"Yes."

She thought awhile, and then she asked him if he was glad to go.

"Well, I don't know. Are you sorry, Lizzie?"

She thought a good long while, and then she said she was.

He moved closer to the girl, and suddenly slipped his arm round her waist. She did not seem agitated; she still gazed dreamily at the line of ridges, but her head inclined slightly towards him.

"Lizzie, did you ever love anyone?"--then anticipating the usual reply--"except, of course, your father and mother, and all that sort of thing." Then, abruptly: "I mean did you ever have a sweetheart?"

She reflected, so as to be sure; then she said she hadn't. Long pause, and he, the city man, breathed hard--not the girl. Suddenly he moved nervously, and said:

"Lizzie--Lizzie! Do you know what love means?"

She pondered over this for some minutes, as a result of which she said she thought that she did.

"Lizzie! Do you think you can love me?"

She didn't seem able to find an answer to that. So he caught her to him in both arms, and kissed her hard and long on the mouth. She was agitated now--he had some complexion now; she struggled to her feet, trembling.

"We must go now," she said quickly. "They will be waiting for tea."

He stood up before her, and held her there by both hands.

"There is plenty of time. Lizzie--"

"Mis-ter Br-o-o-k-er! Li-i-z-zee-e-e! Come ter yer tea-e-e!" yelled a boy from the house.

"We must really go now."

"Oh, they can wait a minute. Lizzie, don't be frightened"--bending his head--"Lizzie, put your arms round my neck and kiss me--now. Do as I tell you, Lizzie--they cannot see us," and he drew her behind a bush. "Now, Lizzie."

She obeyed just as a frightened child might.

"We must go now," she panted, breathless from such an embrace.

"Lizzie, you will come for a walk with me after tea?"


While the Billy Boils - 30/51

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