At the Homestead

Miss Grant’s arrival at Kuryong homestead caused great excitement among the inhabitants. Mrs. Gordon received her in a motherly way, trying hard not to feel that a new mistress had come into the house; she was anxious to see whether the girl exhibited any signs of her father’s fiery temper and imperious disposition. The two servant-girls at the homestead⁠—great herculean, good-natured bush-girls, daughters of a boundary-rider, whose highest ideal of style and refinement was Kuryong drawing-room⁠—breathed hard and stared round-eyed, like wild fillies, at the unconscious intruder. The station-hands⁠—Joe, the wood-and-water boy, old Alfred the groom, Bill the horse-team driver, and Harry Warden the married man, who helped with sheep, mended fences, and did station-work in general⁠—all watched for a sight of her. They exchanged opinions about her over their smoke at night by the huge open fireplace in the men’s hut, where they sat in a semicircle, toasting their shins at the blaze till their trousers smoked again, each man with a pipe of black tobacco going full swing from tea till bedtime. But the person who felt the most intense excitement over the arrival of the heiress was Miss Harriott.

For all her nurse’s experience, Ellen Harriott was not a woman of the world. Except for the period of her hospital training, she had passed all her life shut up among the mountains. Her dreamworld was mostly constructed out of high-class novels, and she united a shrewd wit and a clever brain to a dense ignorance of the real world, that left her like a ship without a rudder. She was, like most bush-reared girls, a great visionary⁠—many a castle-in-the-air had she built while taking her daily walk by the river under the drooping willows. The visions, curiously enough, always took the direction of magnificence. She pictured herself as a leader of society, covered with diamonds, standing at the head of a broad marble staircase and receiving Counts by the dozen (vide Ouida’s novels, read by stealth); or else as a rich man’s wife who dispensed hospitality regally, and was presented at Court, and set the fashion in dress and jewels. At the back of all her dreams there was always a man⁠—a girl’s picture is never complete without a man⁠—a strong, masterful man, whose will should crush down opposition, and whose abilities should make his name⁠—and incidentally her name⁠—famous all over the world. She herself, of course, was always the foremost figure, the handsomest woman, the best-dressed, the most admired; for Ellen Harriott, though only a girl, and a friendless governess at Kuryong, was not inclined to put herself second to anyone. Having learnt from her father’s papers that he was of an old family, she considered herself anybody’s equal. Her brain held a crazy enough jumble of ideas, no doubt; but given a strong imagination, no experience, and omnivorous reading, a young girl’s mind is exactly the place where fantastic ideas will breed and multiply. She went about with Mrs. Gordon to the small festivities of the district, and was welcomed everywhere, and deferred to by the local settlers; she had yet to know what a snub meant; so the world to her seemed a very easy sort of place to get along in. The coming of the heiress was as light over a trackless ocean. Here was someone who had seen, known, and done all the things which she herself wished to see, know, and do; someone who had travelled on the Continent, tobogganed in Switzerland, ridden in Rotten Row, voyaged in private yachts, hunted in the shires; here was the world at last come to her door⁠—the world of which she had read so much and knew so little.

On the second morning after Miss Grant’s arrival, that young lady turned up at breakfast in a tailor-made suit with short skirt and heavy boots, and announced her intention of “walking round the estate;” but as Kuryong⁠—though only a small station, as stations go⁠—was, roughly, ten miles square, this project had to be abandoned. Then she asked Hugh if he would have the servants mustered. He told her that the two servants were in the kitchen, but it turned out that she wanted to interview all the station hands, and it had to be explained that the horse-driver was six miles out on the run with his team, drawing in a load of bark to roof the hay shed, and that Harry Warden was down at the drafting yards, putting in a new trough to hold an arsenical solution, through which the sheep had to tramp to cure their feet; and that everybody else was away out on some business or other. But the young lady stuck to her point, and had the groom and the wood-and-water boy paraded, they being the only two available. The groom was an English importation, and earned her approval by standing in a rigid and deferential attitude, and saying “Yes, Miss,” and “No, Miss,” when spoken to; but the wood-and-water boy stood with his arms akimbo and his mouth open, and when she asked him how he liked being on the station he said, “Oh, it’s not too bad,” accompanying his remark with a sickly grin that nearly earned him summary dismissal.

The young lady returned to the house in rather a sharp temper, and found Hugh standing by a cart, which had just got back with her shipwrecked luggage.

“Well, Miss Grant,” he said, “the things are pretty right. The water went down in an hour or so, and the luggage on the top only got a little wetting⁠—just a wave now and again. How have you been getting on?”

“Not at all well,” she laughed. “I don’t understand the people here. I will get you to take me round before I do another thing. It is so different from England. Are you sure my clothes are all right?”

“I can’t be sure, of course, but you can unpack them as soon as you like.”

It was not long before the various boxes were opened. Ellen Harriott was called in to assist, and the two girls had a real good afternoon, looking at and talking over clothes and jewellery. The things had come fairly well out of the coach disaster. When an English firm makes a watertight cover for a bag or box, it is watertight; even the waters of Kiley’s River had swept over the canvas of Miss Grant’s luggage in vain. And when the sacred boxes were opened, what a treasure-trove was unveiled!

The noblest study of mankind is man, but the most fascinating study of womankind is another woman’s wardrobe, and the Australian girl found something to marvel at in the quality of the visitor’s apparel. Dainty shoes, tailor-made jackets, fashionable short riding-habits, mannish-looking riding-boots, silk undergarments, beautiful jewellery, all were taken out of their packages and duly admired. As each successive treasure was produced, Ellen Harriott’s eyes grew rounder with astonishment; and when, out of a travelling bag, there appeared a complete dressing-table outfit of silverware⁠—silver-backed hairbrushes, silver manicure set, silver handglass, and so forth⁠—she drew a long breath of wonder and admiration.

It was her first sight of the vanities of the world, the things that she had only dreamed of. The outfit was not anything extraordinary from an English point of view, but to the bush-bred girl it was a revelation.

“What beautiful things!” she said. “Now, when you go visiting to a country-house in England, do you always take things like these, all these riding-boots and things?”

“Oh, yes. You wouldn’t ride without them.”

“And do you take a maid to look after them?”

“Well, you must have a maid.”

“And when you travel on the Continent, do you take a maid?”

“I always took one.”

“What is Paris like? Isn’t it just a dream? Did you go to the opera?⁠—Have you been on the Riviera?⁠—Oh, do tell me about those places⁠—is it like you read about in books?⁠—all beautiful, well-dressed women and men with nothing to do⁠—and did you go to Monte Carlo?”

This was all poured out in a rush of words; but in Mary’s experience the Continent was merely a place where the Continentals got the better of the English, and she said so.

“Travelling is so mixed up with discomfort, that it loses half its plumage,” she said. “I’ll tell you all I can about Paris some other time. Now you tell me,” she went on, folding carefully a silk blouse and putting it in a drawer, “are there any neighbours here? Will anyone come to call?”

“I’m afraid you’ll find it very dull here,” said Ellen. “There are no neighbours at all except Poss and Binjie, two young fellows on the next station. The people in town are just the publicans and the storekeeper, and all the selectors around us are a very wild lot. Very few strangers come that we can have in the house. They are nearly all cattle and sheep buyers, and they are either too nervous to say a word, or they talk horses. They always come just after mealtime, too, and we have to get everything laid on the table again⁠—sometimes we have ten meals a day in this house. And the swagmen come all day long, and Mrs. Gordon or I have to go and give them something to eat; there’s plenty to do, always. So you see, there are plenty of strangers, but no neighbours.”

“What about Mr. Blake?” said Miss Grant. “Isn’t he a neighbour?”

It would have needed a much quicker eye than Mary’s to catch the half-involuntary movement Ellen Harriott made when Blake’s name was mentioned. She flashed a look of enquiry at the heiress that seemed to say, “What interest do you take in Mr. Blake? What is he to you?”

Then the long eyelashes shut down over the dark eyes again, and with an air of indifference she said⁠—

“Oh Mr. Blake? Of course I know him. I dance with him sometimes at the show balls, and all that. I have been out for a ride with him, too. I think he’s nice, but Hugh and Mrs. Gordon won’t ask him here because he belongs to the selectors, and his mother was a Miss Donohoe. He takes up their cases⁠—and wins them, too. But he never comes here. He always stays down at the hotel when he comes out this way.”

“I intend to ask him here,” said Miss Grant. “He saved my life.”

Again the long eyelashes dropped so as to hide the sparkle of the eyes.

“Of course, if you like to ask him⁠—”

“Do you think he’d come?”

“Yes, I’m sure he would. If you like to write and ask him, Peter could ride down to Donohoe’s today with a note.”

From which it would seem that one, at any rate, of the Kuryong household was not wholly indifferent to Mr. Blake.