George Storefield's place, for the old man was dead and all the place belonged to him and Gracey, quite stunned Jim and me. We'd been away more than a year, and he'd pulled down the old fences and put up new ones—first-rate work it was too; he was always a dead hand at splitting. Then there was a big hay-shed, chock-full of good sweet hay and wheat sheaves, and, last of all, the new stable, with six stalls and a loft above, and racks, all built of ironbark slabs, as solid and reg'lar as a church, Jim said.
They'd a good six-roomed cottage and a new garden fence ever so long. There were more fruit trees in the garden and a lot of good draught horses standing about, that looked well, but as if they'd come off a journey.
The stable door opens, and out comes old George as hearty as ever, but looking full of business.
`Glad to see you, boys,' he says; `what a time you've been away! Been away myself these three months with a lot of teams carrying. I've taken greatly to the business lately. I'm just settling up with my drivers, but put the horses in, there's chaff and corn in the mangers, and I'll be down in a few minutes. It's well on to dinner-time, I see.'
We took the bridles off and tied up the horses—there was any amount of feed for them—and strolled down to the cottage again.
`Wonder whether Gracey's as nice as she used to be,' says Jim. `Next to Aileen I used to think she wasn't to be beat. When I was a little chap I believed you and she must be married for certain. And old George and Aileen. I never laid out any one for myself, I remember.'
`The first two don't look like coming off,' I said. `You're the likeliest man to marry and settle if Jeanie sticks to you.'
`She'd better go down to the pier and drown herself comfortably,' said Jim. `If she knew what was before us all, perhaps she would. Poor little Jeanie! We'd no right to drag other people into our troubles. I believe we're getting worse and worse. The sooner we're shot or locked up the better.'
`You won't think so when it comes, old man,' I said. `Don't bother your head—it ain't the best part of you—about things that can't be helped. We're not the only horses that can't be kept on the course—with a good turn of speed too.'
`"They want shooting like the dingoes," as Aileen said. They're never no good, except to ruin those that back 'em and disgrace their owners and the stable they come out of. That's our sort, all to pieces. Well, we'd better come in. Gracey 'll think we're afraid to face her.'
When we went away last Grace Storefield was a little over seventeen, so now she was nineteen all out, and a fine girl she'd grown. Though I never used to think her a beauty, now I almost began to think she must be. She wasn't tall, and Aileen looked slight alongside of her; but she was wonderful fair and fresh coloured for an Australian girl, with a lot of soft brown hair and a pair of clear blue eyes that always looked kindly and honestly into everybody's face. Every look of her seemed to wish to do you good and make you think that nothing that wasn't square and right and honest and true could live in the same place with her.
She held out both hands to me and said—
`Well, Dick, so you're back again. You must have been to the end of the world, and Jim, too. I'm very glad to see you both.'
She looked into my face with that pleased look that put me in mind of her when she was a little child and used to come toddling up to me, staring and smiling all over her face the moment she saw me. Now she was a grown woman, and a sweet-looking one too. I couldn't lift her up and kiss her as I used to do, but I felt as if I should like to do it all the same. She was the only creature in the whole world, I think, that liked me better than Jim. I'd been trying to drive all thoughts of her out of my heart, seeing the tangle I'd got into in more ways than one; but now the old feeling which had been a part of me ever since I'd grown up came rushing back stronger than ever. I was surprised at myself, and looked queer I daresay.
Then Aileen laughed, and Jim comes to the rescue and says —
`Dick doesn't remember you, Gracey. You've grown such a swell, too. You can't be the little girl we used to carry on our backs.'
`Dick remembers very well,' she says, and her very voice was ever so much fuller and softer, `don't you, Dick?' and she looked into my face as innocent as a child. `I don't think he could pull me out of the water and carry me up to the cottage now.'
`You tumble in and we'll try,' says Jim; `first man to keep you for good—eh, Gracey? It's fine hot weather, and Aileen shall see fair play.'
`You're just as saucy as ever, Jim,' says she, blushing and smiling. `I see George coming, so I must go and fetch in dinner. Aileen's going to help me instead of mother. You must tell us all about your travels when we sit down.'
When George came in he began to talk to make up for lost time, and told us where he had been—a long way out in some new back country, just taken up with sheep. He had got a first-rate paying price for his carriage out, and had brought back and delivered a full load of wool.
`I intend to do it every year for a bit,' he said. `I can breed and feed a good stamp of draught horse here. I pay drivers for three waggons and drive the fourth myself. It pays first-rate so far, and we had very fair feed all the way there and back.'
`Suppose you get a dry season,' I said, `how will that be?'
`We shall have to carry forage, of course; but then carriage will be higher, and it will come to the same thing. I don't like being so long away from home; but it pays first-rate, and I think I see a way to its paying better still.'
`So you've ridden over to show them the way, Aileen,' he said, as the girls came in; `very good of you it was. I was afraid you'd forgotten the way.'
`I never forget the way to a friend's place, George,' she said, `and you've been our best friend while these naughty boys have left mother and me so long by ourselves. But you've been away yourself.'
`Only four months,' he said; `and after a few more trips I shan't want to go away any more.'
`That will be a good day for all of us,' she said. `You know, Gracey, we can't do without George, can we? I felt quite deserted, I can tell you.'
`He wouldn't have gone away at all if you'd held up your little finger, you know that, you hard-hearted girl,' said Grace, trying to frown. `It's all your fault.'
`Oh! I couldn't interfere with Mr. Storefield's business,' said Aileen, looking very grave. `What kind of a country was it you were out in?'
`Not a bad place for sheep and cattle and blacks,' said poor George, looking rather glum; `and not a bad country to make money or do anything but live in, but that hot and dry and full of flies and mosquitoes that I'd sooner live on a pound a week down here than take a good station as a present there. That is, if I was contented,' he went on to say, with a sort of a groan.
There never was a greater mistake in the world, I believe, than for a man to let a woman know how much he cares for her. It's right enough if she's made up her mind to take him, no odds what happens. But if there's any half-and-half feeling in her mind about him, and she's uncertain and doubtful whether she likes him well enough, all this down-on-your-knees business works against you, more than your worst enemy could do. I didn't know so much about it then. I've found it out since, worse luck. And I really believe if George had had the savey to crack himself up a little, and say he'd met a nice girl or two in the back country and hid his hand, Aileen would have made it up with him that very Christmas, and been a happy woman all her life.
When old Mrs. Storefield came in she put us through our facings pretty brisk—where we'd been, what we'd done? What took us to Melbourne,—how we liked it? What kind of people they were? and so on. We had to tell her a good lot, part of it truth, of course, but pretty mixed. It made rather a good yarn, and I could see Grace was listening with her heart as well as her ears. Jim said generally we met some very nice people in Melbourne named Jackson, and they were very kind to us.
`Were there any daughters in the family, Jim?' asked Grace.
`Oh! yes, three.'
`Were they good-looking?'
`No, rather homely, particularly the youngest.'
`What did they do?'
`Oh! their mother kept a boarding-house. We stayed there.'
I don't think I ever knew Jim do so much lying before; but after he'd begun he had to stick to it. He told me afterwards he nearly broke down about the three daughters; but was rather proud of making the youngest the ugliest.
`I can see Gracey's as fond of you as ever she was, Dick,' says he; `that's why she made me tell all those crammers. It's an awful pity we can't all square it, and get spliced this Christmas. Aileen would take George if she wasn't a fool, as most women are. I'd like to bring Jeanie up here, and join George in the carrying business. It's going to be a big thing, I can see. You might marry Gracey, and look after both places while we were away.'
`And how about Kate?'
`The devil take her! and then he'd have a bargain. I wish you'd never dropped across her, and that she wasn't Jeanie's sister,' blurts out Jim. `She'll bring bad luck among us before she's done, I feel, as sure as we're standing here.'
`It's all a toss up—like our lives; married or lagged, bushwork or roadwork (in irons), free or bond. We can't tell how it will be with us this day year.'
`I've half a mind to shoot myself,' says Jim, `and end it all. I would, too, only for mother and Aileen. What's the use of life that isn't life, but fear and misery, from one day's end to another, and we only just grown up? It's d——d hard that a chap's brains don't grow along with his legs and arms.'
We didn't ride home till quite the evening. Grace would have us stay for tea; it was a pretty hot day, so there was no use riding in the sun. George saddled his horse, and he and Grace rode part of the way home with us. He'd got regular sunburnt like us, and, as he could ride a bit, like most natives, he looked better outside of a horse than on his own legs, being rather thick-set and shortish; but his heart was in the right place, like his sister's, and his head was screwed on right, too. I think more of old George now than I ever did before, and wish I'd had the sense to value his independent straight-ahead nature, and the track it led him, as he deserved.
Jim and I rode in front, with Gracey between us. She had on a neat habit and a better hat and gloves than Aileen, but nothing could ever give her the seat and hand and light, easy, graceful way with her in the saddle that our girl had. All the same she could ride and drive too, and as we rode side by side in the twilight, talking about the places I'd been to, and she wanting to know everything (Jim drew off a bit when the road got narrow), I felt what a fool I'd been to let things slide, and would have given my right hand to have been able to put them as they were three short years before.
At last we got to the Gap; it was the shortest halt from their home. George shook hands with Aileen, and turned back.
`We'll come and see you next——' he said.
`Christmas Eve!' said Aileen.
`Christmas Eve let it be,' says George.
`All right,' I said, holding Grace's hand for a bit. And so we parted—for how long, do you think?