A Chance Encounter

The black boys went in with them to Pike’s store to take back supplies on the packhorse. They travelled over the same country that they had seen coming up; the men at the stations greeted them with the same hospitality. Nothing was said about Considine’s good fortune. It was thought wise to be silent, as he didn’t know how soon his wife might hear of it.

They left the gins at the blacks’ camp, which they chanced on by a riverside. The camp was a primitive affair, a few rude shelters made by bending bamboo sticks together and covering them with strips of paper bark. Here the sable wariors sat and smoked all day long, tobacco being their only civilised possession. Carew was very anxious to look at them, a development of curiosity that Considine could not understand.

“Most uninteresting devils, I call ’em,” he said. “They’re stark naked, and they have nothing. What is there to look at?”

Having parted with Maggie and Lucy, they pushed onwards, the old man beguiling the time with disquisitions on the horse-hunting capabilities of his gins, whom he seemed really sorry to leave. As they got near Pike’s, he became more restless than ever.

“See here, Mister,” he said at last, “my wife’s here, I expect, and if she gets wind of this, I’ll never get rid of her. The only thing to do is to slip away without her knowing, and she might never hear of it. I won’t go into the place at all. I’ll go on and camp down the creek, and get the coach there after it leaves the town, and she’ll never know.”

The town of “Pike’s” consisted of a hotel, a store, a post-office, a private residence, and coach-stables; these were all combined in one establishment, so the town couldn’t be said to be scattered. Pike himself was landlord of the “pub,” keeper of the store, officer in charge of the post-office, owner of the private residence, holder of the mail contract, and proprietor of the coach-stables. Behind him was only wilderness and “new” country.

Nobody ever saw him at home. Either he was on the road with a bullock-team, bringing up supplies for the hotel and store, or he was droving cattle down on a six months’ journey to market; or he was away looking at new country, or taking supplies out to men on the half-provisioned stations of the “outer-back;” or else he was off to some new mining camp or opal-field, to sell a dray-load of goods at famine prices.

When Charlie and Carew rode up to the store they did not see Pike, nor did they expect to see him. By some mysterious Providence they had arrived the very day the coach started on its monthly trip down to Barcoo; and in front of the hotel were congregated quite a number of people⁠—Pike’s wife and his half-wild children, a handful of bushmen, station hands, opal miners, and whatnot, and last, but not least, a fat lady of about forty summers, with flaring red hair.

She was a fine “lump” of a woman, with broad shoulders, and nearly the same breadth all the way down to her feet. She wore a rusty black dress, which fitted perilously tight to her arms and bust; on her head was a lopsided, dismantled black bonnet with a feather⁠—a bonnet that had evidently been put away in a drawer and forgotten for years. Any want of colour or style in her dress was amply made up for by the fact that she positively glowed with opals. Her huge, thick fingers twinkled with opal rings; from each of her ears there dangled an opal earring the size of a form; her old dress was secured round her thick, muscular neck by a brooch that looked like an opal quarry, and whenever she turned to the sun she flashed out rays like a lighthouse.

Her face was fat and red, full of a sort of good-humoured ferocity; she moved like a queen among the bystanders, and shook hands gravely with each and all of them. She was hot, but very dignified. Evidently she was preparing to start in the coach, for she packed into the vehicle with jealous care a large carpetbag of garish colouring that seemed to harmonise well with the opals. While she was packing this away, Charlie and Carew went into the store, and bought such supplies as were needed for the establishment at No Man’s Land. Gordon took the opportunity to ask the shock-headed old storekeeper, Pike’s deputy, some questions about the lady, who was still scintillating between the coach and the house, carrying various small articles each trip.

“Don’t yer know ’er?” said the man, in much the same tone that Bret Harte’s hero must have used when he was so taken aback to find that a stranger⁠—

“Didn’t know Flynn⁠—
“Flynn of Virginia.”

“Don’t yer know ’er?” he repeated, pausing in his task of scooping some black cockroachy sugar from the bottom of a bin. “That’s the Hopal Queen! She’s hoff South, she is. Yer’ll be going in the coach, will yer?”

“Yes,” said Charlie. “We’re going in the coach. There’s no extra fare for travelling with such a swell, is there? Where on earth did she get all those opals?”

“Ho, blokes gives ’em to ’er, passin’ back from the hopal fields. In the rough, yer know! Hopal in the rough, well, it’s ’ard to tell what it’ll turn out, and they’ll give ’er a ’unk as sometimes turns out a fair dazzler. She’s a hay-one judge of it in the rough, too. If she buys a bit of hopal, yer bet yer life it ain’t a bad bit when it’s cut. What about these ’ere stores? Goin’ to take ’em with yer?”

“No,” said Charlie. “The black boy is here for them. He’s going to take them back with him.”

“What, Keogh’s black boy! Well, I don’t know as Pike’ll stand old Paddy Keogh any longer. Paddy’s ’ad a dorg tied hup ’ere” (i.e., an account outstanding) “this two years, and last time Pike was ’ome ’e was reck’nin’ it was about hup to Keogh to pay something.”

“They’re not for Keogh,” said Charlie. “They’re for me. I’ve taken Keogh’s block over.”

The old man looked at him dubiously.

“Well, but y’aint goin’ to tie hup no dorg on us for ’em, are yer? I s’pose it’s all right, though?”

“Right, yes,” said Gordon. “It’s for Mr. Grant, Old Man Grant⁠—you’ve heard of Grant of Kuryong?”

“Never ’eard of him,” said the aged man, “but it makes no hodds. Pay when yer like. Yer’d better git on the coach, for I see the Hopal Queen’s ready for a start. Yer’ll know her all right before long, I bet. Some of the fellers from round about ’as come in to give her a send-off like. There’s the coach ready; yer’d better git aboard, and yer’ll hear the⁠—the send-off like. Young Stacy out there reckons ’e’s going to make a speech.”

Charlie and Carew climbed upon the coach. The fat lady kissed Pike’s wife and children with great solemnity. “Goodbye, Alice! Goodbye, Nora darlin’,” she said. Then she marched in a stately way towards the vehicle, with the children forming a bodyguard round her. A group of men hung about uneasily, looked sheepish, and waved large, helpless red hands, till a young fellow about seven feet high⁠—who looked more uneasy and had even larger hands than the rest⁠—was hustled forward, and began to mutter something that nobody could hear.

“Speak up, George,” said a friend. The young man raised his voice to a shout, and said⁠—

“And so I propose three cheers and long life to the Hopal Queen!”

As he spoke he ran two or three paces forward towards a stump, meaning, no doubt, to get on it and lead the cheering; but, just as he was going to jump, a wretched little mongrel that had been in and out among the people’s feet made a dash at him, fixed its teeth in the calf of his leg, and ran away howling at its own temerity. The young giant rushed after it, but the Opal Queen interposed.

“George,” she said, “don’t ye dare go for to kick my dog!”

“Well, what did he bite me for, then?” said the giant, speaking out now in a voice that could be heard half a mile off. “What did he bite me for?”

“Never mind, George! Don’t ye go for to kick him, that’s all.”

The Opal Queen, snorting like a grampus, climbed into the coach; the driver cracked his whip, and off they went, leaving the audience spellbound, and the gigantic young man rubbing his leg. Soon Pike’s faded away in the distance. As the coach jolted along, Carew and Charlie on the box seat occasionally peered in at the large swaying figure, half-hidden in the dust.

About two miles out of town Considine, with all his earthly belongings in a small valise, stopped the coach and got on board, sitting in front with them.

“Have a look inside,” said Charlie. “There’s a woman in there looks rather like⁠—the lady you were talking about.”

Considine looked in. Then he sank back in his seat, with a white face. “By Heavens!” he said, “it’s my wife.”

“This is funny,” said Charlie. “Wonder what she’s after. She must have heard, somehow. She’ll never lose sight of you, now, Considine.”

Here the driver struck into the conversation. “See her inside?” he said, indicating the inside passenger with a nod of his head. “She’s off to Sydney, full rip. She reckons her husband’s dead, and she’s came in for a fortune.”

“Oh, she reckons he’s dead, does she?” said Charlie carelessly. “Didn’t know she had a husband.”

“Ho yes,” said the driver. “She came up here passin’ by the name of Keogh, but it seems that ain’t her husband’s name at all.”

“Oh, indeed! Do you happen to have heard what her husband’s name is? And when did he die?”

“I never heard the noo husband’s name,” replied the driver. “Keogh was her name. I dessay if I arst her she’d tell me. Shall I arst her?” “No,” said Considine firmly. “Don’t annoy her at all. Leave well alone, young feller. What odds is it to you how many husbands the poor woman has had?”

“No,” said the driver dispassionately. “It’s no odds to me, nor yet to you, I don’t suppose. She’s in for a real big thing, I believe. A telegram came to the telegraph station after I left last trip, and young Jack Sheehan, he brought it on after me⁠—rode a hundred miles pretty well, to ketch me up. He reckoned she was coming in for a hundred thousand pounds. I wouldn’t mind marryin’ her meself, if it’s true; plenty worse-looking sorts than her about. What do you think, eh, Mister?” addressing Considine.

“Marry her, and be blowed,” said that worthy, sociably; and the driver stiffened and refused to talk further on the subject.

Meanwhile the three discussed the matter in low tones. It was practically impossible that anyone could have heard of the identity of Keogh with the missing Considine. How then had the story got about that her husband was dead, and that she had come into money? She must have seen Considine get on the coach, but she had made no sign. Their astonishment was deeper than ever when the coach stopped for a midday halt. It was quite impossible for Considine to conceal himself. The house, where the coach changed horses, was a galvanised-iron, one-roomed edifice in the middle of a glaring expanse of treeless plain, in which a quail could scarcely have hidden successfully. It was clear that Considine and his wife would have to come face to face.

Carew and Charlie looked expectantly at each other, and clambered down quickly when the coach stopped. Considine descended more slowly; straightening his figure and looking fixedly before him, he marched up to the door of the change-house.

His wife got leisurely out of the coach, put on her bonnet, and walked straight over to him; then she looked him full in the face for at least three seconds, and passed by without a sign of recognition.

The three men looked at each other.

“Well, this bangs all,” said Considine. “She knew me all right. Why didn’t she speak? She’s afraid I’ll clear out, and she’s shammin’ not to know me, so’s she’ll have me arrested as soon as she sights a bobby. I know her. Perhaps I’d better offer her something to go back and leave me alone, hey?”

This was vetoed by a majority of two to one, and once more the coach started. They plodded away on the weary, dusty journey, until the iron roofs and walls of Barcoo gleamed like a mirage in the distance, and the coach rolled up to the hotel. A telegraph official came lounging forward.

“Anyone here the name of Charles Gordon?” he said.

“That’s me,” said Charlie.

“Telegram for you,” he said. “It’s been all over the country after you.”

Gordon tore it open, read it, and stood spellbound. Then he silently handed it to Carew. It was several weeks old, and was from Pinnock, the solicitor. It read as follows⁠—“William Grant died suddenly yesterday. Will made years ago leaves everything to his wife. Reported that he married Margaret Donohoe, and that she is still alive. Am making all inquiries. Wire me anything you know.”

Charlie’s face never changed a muscle.

“That’s lively!” he said. “He never married that woman; and, if he did, she died long ago.”

As he spoke, the lady passenger, having had some talk with the hotel people, came over to him with a beaming smile. “And ye’re Charlie Gordon,” she said with a mellifluous mixture of brogue and bush-drawl. “An’ ye don’t know me now, a little bit? Ye were a little felly when we last met. I’m Peggy Donohoe that was⁠—Peggy Grant now, since I married poor dear Grant that’s dead. And, sure, rest his sowl!”⁠—here she sniffed a little⁠—“though he treated me cruel bad, so he did! Ye’ll remember me brother Mick⁠—Mick with the red hair?”

“Yes,” said Charlie, slowly and deliberately, “I remember him well; and you too. And look here, Peggy Donohoe⁠—or Peggy Keogh, whichever you call yourself⁠—you and Red Mick will have the most uphill fight you ever fought before you get one sixpence of William Grant’s money. Why, your real husband is here on the coach with us!”

He turned and pulled Considine forward, and once more husband and wife stood face to face. Considine, alias Keogh, smiled in a sickly way, tried to meet his wife’s eyes, and failed altogether. She regarded him with a bold, unwinking stare.

“Him!” she said. “Him me husban’! This old crockerdile? I never seen him before in me life.”

A look of hopeless perplexity settled on Considine’s features for a moment, and then a ray of intelligence seemed to break in on him. She repeated her statement.

“I never seen this man before in me life. Did I? Speak up, now, and say, did I?”

Considine hesitated for a moment in visible distress. Then, pulling himself together, and looking boldly from one to the other, he replied⁠—

“Now that you mention it, ma’am, I don’t think as ever you did. I must ha’ made some mistake.”

He walked rapidly away, leaving Gordon and Peggy face to face.

“There y’are,” she said, “what did I tell ye? Husban’? He’s no husban’ o’ mine. Ye’re makin’ a mistake, Charlie.”

Charlie looked after the retreating bushman, and back at the good lady who was beaming at him.

“Don’t call me Charlie,” he said. “That old man has come in for a whole lot of money in England. His name is Considine, and he pretends he isn’t your husband so that he can get the money and leave you out of it. Don’t you be a fool. It’s a lot better for you to stick to him than to try for William Grant’s money. Mr. Carew and I can prove he said you were his wife.”

“Och, look at that now! Said I was his wife! And his name was Considine, the lyin’ old vaggybond. His name’s not Considine, and I’m not his wife, nor never was. Grant was my husban’, and I’ll prove it in a coort of law, so I will!” Her voice began to rise like a southeasterly gale, and Charlie beat a retreat. He went to look for the old man, but could not find him anywhere.

Talking the matter over with Carew he got no satisfaction from the wisdom of that Solon. “Deuced awkward thing, don’t you know,” was his only comment.

Things were even more awkward when the coach drew up to start, and no sign of the old man could be found. He had strolled off to the back of the hotel, and vanished as absolutely as if the earth had swallowed him.

The Chinese cook was severely cross-questioned, but relapsed into idiotic smiles and plentiful “No savee’s.” A blackfellow, loafing about the back of the hotel, was asked if he had seen a tall, thin old man with a beard going down the street. He said, “Yowi, he bin go longa other pub;” but as, on further questioning, he modified his statement by asserting that the man he saw was young, short and very fat, no heed was paid to his evidence⁠—it being the habit of blacks to give any answer that they think will please the questioner.

“He’ll play us some dog’s trick, that old fellow,” said Charlie. “I can’t wait here looking for him, though. I’ll find him when I want him if he’s above ground. Now let’s go on. Can’t keep the coach waiting forever while we unearth him. Let’s get aboard.”

Just as the coach was about to start a drover came out of the bar of the hotel, wiping his lips with the back of his hand. He stared vacantly about him, first up the street and then down, looked hard at a post in front of the hotel, then stared up and down the street again. At last he walked over, and, addressing the passengers in a body, said, “Did any of you’s see e’er a horse anywheres? I left my prad here, and he’s gorn.”

A bystander, languidly cutting up a pipeful of tobacco, jerked his elbow down the road.

“That old bloke took ’im,” he said. “Old bloke that come in the coach. While yous was all talking in the pub, he sneaks out here and nabs that ’orse, and away like a rabbit. See that dust on the plain? That’s ’im.”

The drover looked helplessly out over the stretch of plain. He seemed quite incapable of grappling with the problem.

“Took my horse, did he? Well, I’m blowed! By Cripes!”

He had another good stare over the plain, and back at the party.

“My oath!” he added.

Then the natural stoicism of the bushman came to his aid, and he said, in a resigned tone,

“Oh, well, anyways, I s’pose⁠—s’pose he must have been in a hurry to go somewheres. I s’pose he’ll fetch him back some time or other.”

Gordon leant down from the box of the coach.

“You tell him,” he said, “when he does fetch him back, that if I’d had a rifle, and had seen him sneaking off like that he’d have wanted an ambulance before he got much farther. Tell him I’ll find him if I have to hunt him to death. Tell him that, will you?”

“All right, Mister!” said the drover, obligingly, “I’ll tell him!”

The horses plunged into their collars; off went the coach into long stretches of dusty road, with the fat red lady inside, and our two friends outside. And in course of time they found themselves once more in Sydney, where they took the earliest opportunity to call on Pinnock, and hold a council of war against Peggy.