When the Heart is Young
About a week or so after I first met Harold Beecham, aunt Helen allowed me to read a letter she had received from the elder of the two Misses Beecham. It ran as follows:
"My dearest Helen,
"This is a begging letter, and I am writing another to your mother at the same time. I am asking her to allow her grand-daughter to spend a few weeks with me, and I want you to use your influence in the matter. Sarah has not been well lately, and is going to Melbourne for a change, and as I will be lonely while she is away Harold insists upon me having someone to keep me company--you know how considerate the dear boy is. I hardly like to ask you to spare your little girl to me. It must be a great comfort to have her. I could have got Miss Benson to stay with me, but Harold will not hear of her. He says she is too slow, and would give us both the mopes. But he says your little niece will keep us all alive. Julius was telling me the other day that he could not part with her, as she makes 'the old barracks', as he always calls Caddagat, echo with fun and noise. I am so looking forward to seeing her, as she is dear Lucy's child. Give her my love, etc., etc."
and as a postscript the letter had--"Harold will go up for Sybylla on Wednesday afternoon. I do hope you will be able to spare her to me for a while."
"Oh, auntie, how lovely!" I exclaimed. "What are you laughing at?"
"For whom do you think Harry wants the companion? It is nice to have an old auntie, as a blind, is it not? Well, all is fair in love and war. You have permission to use me in any way you like."
I pretended to miss her meaning.
Grannie consented to Miss Beecham's proposal, and ere the day arrived I had a trunk packed with some lovely new dresses, and was looking forward with great glee to my visit to Five-Bob Downs.
One o'clock on Wednesday afternoon arrived; two o'clock struck, and I was beginning to fear no one was coming for me, when, turning to look out the window for the eighteenth time, I saw the straight blunt nose of Harold Beecham passing. Grannie was serving afternoon tea on the veranda. I did not want any, so got ready while my escort was having his.
It was rather late when we bowled away at a tremendous pace in a red sulky, my portmanteau strapped on at the back, and a thoroughbred American trotter, which had taken prizes at Sydney shows, harnessed to the front. We just whizzed! It was splendid! The stones and dust rose in a thick cloud from the whirling wheels and flying hoofs, and the posts of the wire fence on our left passed like magic as we went. Mr Beecham allowed me to drive after a time while he sat ready to take the reins should an emergency arise.
It was sunset--most majestic hour of the XX-four--when we drove up to the great white gates which opened into the avenue leading to the main homestead of Five-Bob Downs station--beautiful far-reaching Five-Bob Downs! Dreamy blue hills rose behind, and wide rich flats stretched before, through which the Yarrangung river, glazed with sunset, could be seen like a silver snake winding between shrubberied banks. The odour from the six-acred flower-garden was overpowering and delightful. A breeze gently swayed the crowd of trees amid the houses, and swept over the great orchard which sloped down from the south side of the houses. In the fading sunlight XXX iron roofs gleamed and glared, and seemed like a little town; and the yelp of many dogs went up at the sound of our wheels. Ah! beautiful, beautiful Five-Bob Downs!
It seemed as though a hundred dogs leapt forth to greet us when that gate flew open, but I subsequently discovered there were but XX-three.
Two female figures came out to meet us--one nearly six feet high, the other, a tiny creature, seemed about eighteen inches, though, of course, was more than that.
"I've brought her, aunt Gussie," said Harold, jumping out of the sulky, though not relinquishing the reins, while he kissed the taller figure, and the small one attached itself to his leg saying, "Dimme wide."
"Hullo! Possum, why wasn't old Spanker let go? I see he's not among the dogs," and my host picked the tiny individual up in his arms and got into the sulky to give her the desired ride, while after being embraced by Miss Beecham and lifted to the ground by her nephew, I went with the former over an asphalted tennis-court, through the wide garden, then across a broad veranda into the great, spreading, one-storeyed house from which gleamed many lights.
"I am so glad you have come, my dear. I must have a good look at you when we get into the light. I hope you are like your mother."
This prospect discomfited me. I knew she would find a very ugly girl with not the least resemblance to her pretty mother, and I cursed my appearance under my breath.
"Your name is Sybylla," Miss Beecham continued, "Sybylla Penelope. Your mother used to be very dear to me, but I don't know why she doesn't write to me now. I have never seen her since her marriage. It seems strange to think of her as the mother of eight-five boys and three girls, is it not?"
Miss Beecham had piloted me through a wide hall and along an extended passage out of which a row of bedrooms opened, into one of which we went.
"I hope you will he comfortable here, child. You need not dress for dinner while you are here; we never do, only on very special occasions."
"Neither do we at Caddagat," I replied.
"Now, child, let me have a good look at you without your hat."
"Oh, please don't!" I exclaimed, covering my face with my hands. I am so dreadfully ugly that I cannot bear to have anyone look at me."
"What a silly little girl! You are not like your mother, but you are not at all plain-looking. Harold says you are the best style of girl he has seen yet, and sing beautifully. He got a tuner up from Sydney last week, so we will expect you to entertain us every night."
I learnt that what Harold pronounced good no one dared gainsay at Five-Bob Downs.
We proceeded direct to the dining-room, and had not been there long when Mr Beecham entered with the little girl on his shoulder. Miss Beecham had told me she was Minnie Benson, daughter of Harold's married overseer on Wyambeet, his adjoining station. Miss Beecham considered it would have been more seemly for her nephew to have selected a little boy as a play-thing, but his sentiments regarding boys were that they were machines invented for the torment of adults.
"Well, O'Doolan, what sort of a day has it been?" Harold inquired, setting his human toy upon the floor.
"Fine wezzer for yim duts," she promptly replied.
"Harold, it is shameful to teach a little innocent child such abominable slang; and you might give her a decent nickname," said Miss Beecham.
"O'Doolan, this is Miss Melvyn, and you have to do the same to her as you do to me."
The little thing held out her arms to me. I took her up, and she hugged and kissed me, saying:
"I luz oo, I luz oo," and turning to Mr Beecham, "zat anuff?
"Yes, that will do," he said; and she struggled to be put down.
Three jackeroos, an overseer, and two other young men came in, were introduced to me, and then we began dinner.
O'Doolan sat on a high chair beside Mr Beecham, and he attended to all her wants. She did everything he did, even taking mustard, and was very brave at quelling the tears that rose to the doll-like blue eyes. When Mr Beecham wiped his moustache, it was amusing to see her also wipe an imaginary one.
After dinner the jackeroos and the three other men repaired to a sitting-room in the backyard, which was specially set apart for them, and where they amused themselves as they liked. My host and hostess, myself, and the child, spent the evening in a tiny sitting-room adjoining the dining-room. Miss Beecham entertained me with conversation and the family albums, and Harold amused himself entirely with the child.
Once when they were absent for a few minutes, Miss Beecham told me it was ridiculous the way he fussed with the child, and that he had her with him more than half his time. She also asked me what I thought of her nephew. I evaded the question by querying if he was always so quiet and good-tempered.
"Oh dear, no. He is considered a particularly bad-tempered man. Not one of the snarling nasty tempers, but--"
Here the re-entry of the owner of the temper put a stop to this conversation.
Harold gave O'Doolan rides on his back, going on all-fours. She shouted in childish glee, and wound up by curling her small proportions on his broad chest, and going to sleep there.
Mrs Benson had sent for little O'Doolan, and Harold took her home next day. He invited me to accompany him, so we set out in the sulky with O'Doolan on my lap. It was a pleasant drive of twelve miles to and from Wyambeet. O'Doolan was much distressed at parting from Mr Beecham, but he promised to come for her again shortly.
"One little girl at a time is enough for me to care for properly," he said to me in the winning manner with which, and his wealth, unintentionally and unconsciously made slaughter among the hearts of the fair sex.