A Lawyer in the Bush

Gavan Blake, attorney and solicitor, sat in his office at Tarrong, opening his morning’s letters. The office was in a small weatherboard cottage in the “main street” of Tarrong (at any rate it might fairly claim to be the main street, as it was the only street that had any houses in it). The front room, where he sat, was fitted up with a table and a set of pigeonholes full of dusty papers, a leather couch, a small fireproof safe, and a bookcase containing about equal proportions of law-books and novels. A few maps of Tarrong township and neighbouring stations hung on the walls. The wooden partition of the house only ran up to the rafters, and over it could plainly be heard his housekeeper scrubbing his bedroom. Across the little passage was his sitting-room, furnished in the style of most bachelors’ rooms, an important item of furniture being a cupboard where whisky was always to be found. At the back of the main cottage were servants’ quarters and kitchen. Behind the house, on a spare allotment, were two or three loose-boxes for racehorses, a saddle-room and a groom’s room. This was the whole establishment. A woman came in every day to do up his rooms from the hotel, where he had his meals. It was an inexpensive mode of life, but one that conduced to the drinking of a good many whiskies-and-sodas at the hotel with clients and casual callers, and to a good deal of card-playing and late hours. The racehorses, too, like most racehorses, ate up more money than they earned. So that Mr. Gavan Blake, though a clever man, with a good practice, always seemed to find himself hard up.

It was so on this particular morning. Every letter that he opened seemed to have some reference to money. One, from the local storekeeper, was a pretentious account embracing all sorts of items⁠—ammunition, stationery, saddlery and station supplies (the latter being on account of a small station that Blake had taken over for a bad debt, which seemed likely to turn out an equally bad asset). Station supplies, even for bad stations, run into a lot of money, and the store account was approaching a hundred pounds. Then there was a letter from a horse-trainer in Sydney to whom he had sent a racehorse, and though this animal had done such brilliant gallops that the trainer had three times telegraphed him that a race was a certainty⁠—once he went so far as to say that the horse could stop to throw a somersault and still win the race⁠—on each occasion it had always come in among the ruck; and every time forty or fifty pounds of Blake’s money had been lost in betting. For Blake was a confirmed gambler, a heavy card-player and backer of horses, and he had the contempt for other people’s skill and opinions which seems an inevitable ingredient in the character of brilliant men of a certain type.

He was a man of splendid presence, with strong features and clear blue-grey eyes⁠—the type of face that is seen on the Bench and among the Queen’s Counsel in the English Courts. He was quick-witted, eloquent, and logical of mind. Among the Doyles and Donohoes he was little short of a king. Wild, uneducated, and suspicious, they believed in him implicitly. They swore exactly the things that he told them to swear, spoke or were silent according as he ordered, and trusted him with secrets which they would not entrust to their own brothers. In that district he wielded a power greater than the law.

On this particular day, after opening the trainer’s letter asking for cheque to pay training expenses (£50), and one from a client, saying “I got your note, and will pay you when I get the wool money,” he came upon a letter that startled him. It was written in an old-fashioned, lady’s hand, angular and spidery. It ran⁠—

“Kuryong Station, Monday.

“Dear Mr. Blake,

“Miss Grant tells me that she owes her life to your bravery in saving her from the coach accident. It would give me great pleasure if you would come and stay here next Saturday, as I suppose you will be passing down this way to the Court at Ballarook. With best wishes,

“Yours truly,

“Annette Gordon.”

Blake put the letter down and walked about his office for a while in thought. “Invited to the old station?” he mused. “I must go, of course, Too good a chance to miss.”

“Might have written herself!” he muttered, as he turned the letter over to see if by chance Miss Grant had written a line anywhere; then, laying it on one side, he took up carelessly a square businesslike envelope, addressed to him in a scrawly, illiterate fist. The letter that he took out of it was a strange jewel to repose in so rude a casket. It also was from Kuryong⁠—from Ellen Harriott, who had taken the precaution of addressing it in a feigned hand so that the postmaster and postmistress at Kiley’s Crossing, who handled all station letters, would not know that she was corresponding with Blake. The letter was a great contrast to Mrs. Gordon’s. It was a girl’s love letter, a gushing, impulsive thing, full of vows and endearments; but the only part of it with which we are concerned ran in this way:⁠—

“And so the heiress has arrived at last⁠—and you saved her life! When you swam with her, didn’t you feel that you had the weight of a hundred thousand sovereigns on your back? For oh, Gavan dear, she is nice, but she is very stolid! And so you saved her⁠—what luck for you! But you always have luck, don’t you? And don’t you think that my love is the best bit of luck you have ever had! Everyone says you are making a fortune⁠—hurry up and make it, for I am so anxious to get away out of this place, and we can have our trip round the world together.

“And now I am waiting for next Saturday. Fancy having you in the house all day long and in the evening! We must slip away somewhere for just a little while, so that we can have each other all to ourselves. Hugh is still worrying about some sheep that he thinks are stolen. He is always worrying about something or other, and now that she has come I suppose he will be worse than ever. Now goodnight, dearest⁠ ⁠…”

Blake read the letter, and threw it down carelessly on the table; then, leaning back in his chair, cut up a pipeful of tobacco. He thought over his position with Ellen Harriott. There was a secret understanding between them, a sort of informal affair born of moonlight rides and country dances. He had never actually asked her to marry him, but he had kissed her as he had kissed scores of others, and the girl had at once taken it for granted that they were to be engaged. It had not seemed such a bad thing for him at the time. He was fond of her in a ballroom-and-moonlight-ride kind of way, but there it stopped. Still, it was not a bad match for him. The girl was a lady, with friends all over the district. He was rather near the borderline of respectability, and to marry her would have procured him a position that he had little chance of reaching otherwise. He had let things drift on, and the girl, with her fanciful ideas, was, of course, only too ready to fall in with the suggestion of secrecy; it seemed such a precious secret to her. So now he was engaged while still up to his neck in debt; but worse remained behind. In his business he had sums of money for investments and for settlements of cases passing through his hands; and from time to time he had, when hard pushed, used his clients’ money to pay his own debts. Beginning with small sums, he had muddled along, meaning to make all straight out of the first big case he had; and each time he had a big case the money seemed to be all spent before he earned it. He was not exactly bankrupt, for he was owed a great deal of money, enough perhaps to put him straight if he could get it in; but the mountain folk expected long credit and large reductions, and it was pretty certain that he would never get even half of what he was owed. Therefore, he went about his business with a sort of sword of Damocles hanging over his head⁠—and now the heiress had come, and he had saved her life!

His musings were cut short by a tap at the door; a long, gawky youth, with a budding moustache, entered and slouched over to a chair. He was young Isaacstein, son of the Tarrong storekeeper, a would-be sportsman, would-be gambler, would-be lady-killer, would-be everything, who only succeeded in making himself a cheap barroom loafer; but he was quite satisfied that he was the right thing.

“What’s doing, Gav?” he said. “Who’s the letter from?”

“Oh, business⁠—business” said Gavan Blake.

“What’s doing with you?”

“Doing! By Gad, I’m broke. The old man won’t give me a copper. What about Saturday? Are you going to the Court at Ballarook?”

“Yes. I’ve got a couple of cases there. And I’ve just got a letter from Mrs. Gordon, asking me to stay the night at Kuryong.”

“Ho! My oath! Stop at Kuryong, eh? That’s cause you saved the heiress? Well, go in and win. You won’t know us when you marry the owner of Kuryong. What’s she like, Gav? Pretty girl, ain’t she? Has she any sense?”

“Much as you have,” growled Blake.

“Oh, don’t get nasty. Only I thought you were a bit shook on the governess there⁠—what about that darnce at the Show ball, eh? I say, you couldn’t lend us a tenner till Saturday?”

“No, I could not⁠—” And this was the literal truth, for Gavan Blake had run himself right out of money, and was living on credit⁠—not an enviable position at any time, and one doubly insupportable to a man of his temperament. And again his thoughts went back to the girl he had saved, and he pondered how different things might have been⁠—might, perhaps, still be.