― 103 ―


What an extraordinary event it was! The girl had often craved for such a contingency, and yet now that it had come she was at a loss how to grapple with it. Her most prominent thought was congratulatory that her mother had not noticed her excitement during the evening. To get to her room and throw herself without undressing on the bed was such a relief, for it enabled her mind to work unrestrained.

Feeling sure her mother was now asleep, she slipped from her bed and out of the bark humpy into the detached kitchen, whose door was always unlocked, since the dwellers of the “Caves” were above suspicion as regards each other's honesty. The banked-up fire's dull glow lighted up with dusky illumination the dresser, table, two chairs, the array of cooking utensils, and the big basket of miscellaneous garments: crimean shirts, pants, socks—the weekly washing of the labourers at the breakwater she would have to distribute among their humpies in the morning. Withdrawing the teapot from the oven into which she had placed it at tea-time behind her mother's back, she poured the tea into a billy, foraged in the cupboard, heaping up thick slices of bread and cold meat; her black eyes like stars flashing hither and thither; her long hair widly dishevelled on her shoulders; her tall, sinewy figure in homespun dress and apron, with bare limbs from the knees and naked feet catching a goblin light

  ― 104 ―
and shadow as she moved silently about the kitchen. Several times she paused, listening intently, as though she heard something other than the roar of the breakers on the rocks. Her eyes falling on a half-filled flask of rum on the mantelpiece, she snatched at it eagerly, then hesitated with a frown on her brow and replaced it, her teeth gritting, instead of thrusting it into the linen bag with the victuals. Taking up a hurricane lamp, but without lighting its candle, the billy of tea and bag of victuals, she drew open the door softly with her forefinger, shut it behind her, and crept away into the night.

In a moment she was swallowed up by a raw fog rolling in slow, sluggish banks from the sea, that bit her eyes till they watered and scathed her throat with salty crudeness. The sea boomed everywhere, so it seemed, and she knew by the peculiar cracking roar every now and again that it was up over the reef, and therefore the near cut by the sand spit was denied her. Though she could not see a foot ahead she moved quickly forward along a narrow sand track, with numerous branches crossing each other among stunted bushes. Without a moment's pause or hesitation she sped on, curving around a bark humpy here, silent and lightless, and dripping in the fog; jutting off from another there, with gleams of a kitchen fire through its cracks stabbing the white wet sand; gliding past

  ― 105 ―
groups of humpies huddled together like sheep, as though for protection from the harsh, clinging fog. Once a dog barked, straining on the chain, and she darted aside from a humpy she had nearly blundered against, and plunged into a wet undergrowth up to her shoulders, and listened anxiously. When the dog ceased she crawled back to the track and pushed on with greater haste. She was now wet to the skin with the fog, and her hair hung in matted masses. Her breath came thick and heavy, and with a shiver she stopped to swallow a mouthful of the hot tea; then almost ran, as though to make up for the wasted half-minute.

By-and-bye, she emerged upon the desolate blankness of fog and barriers of rock, with great thunders beyond, and a shrill hiss of flying spray from the concussion of heavy seas with the unfinished breakwater. She halted, and seemed to be calculating her bearings; hurriedly skirting the rampart of cliff, she paused a moment to sling the bag around her neck and seize the billy handle with her teeth, and entering a narrow vault of huge boulders, felt her way cautiously over its slippery floor till she reached a sort of dell of Morton Bay fig trees sheltered by circumambient ridges. Creeping among the dank boughs she gave a long, low coo-ee, and listened with straining ears. With a sigh of relief, she crawled on

  ― 106 ―
in the direction of a coo-ee that answered her from the thicket. Amid the cracking of dead twigs, she urged her way till the ambush deepened. Upon which she again coo-eed softly. A gruff voice almost at her feet, asking if she hadn't a lamp, gave her a start. She crawled forward with searching hands till they touched a recumbent figure. “Here's some hot tea, father.”

There was a grunt of satisfaction as a big hand seized the billy pushed against it. She now lighted the lamp, and placed it between them. The yellow gleam struggling through the thin skirts of upcrawling fog outlined a shaggy head and face nearly hidden by a mat of black whiskers withdrawing from the now empty billy, and a squat figure rolled up in a blanket and an old tent fly.

“Ah! that's right, lass.” His black eyes were riveted on the bag she was dipping into. He seized the victuals hungrily, his eyes still on the bag: “Aught else?”

Her face darkened, and she glanced sullenly at him.

“I don't want lush. I ain't touched it fur years,” he burst out vehemently, interpreting her expression.

Her face cleared, and a joyous light came into her eyes, and she watched him devouring the food with child-like emotion. For a few minutes there was only the muffled roar of the sea beyond the cliff, and then: “You ain't told mother I've turned up?”

  ― 107 ―

She shook her head. He seemed half disappointed, but resumed as he tossed away a piece of gristle: “I reck'n she's all right. Her brother Bob's stuck to her since I cleared. I heard in Lismore all about it. But yer glad, ain't yer, Jennie, to see your old dad, eh?”

His voice betrayed his craving for someone to be pleased to see him.

“Yes, father,” she replied, simply, though her eyes dimmed.

“I've been a bad egg. But I've turned over a new leaf, Jennie. I've had me gruel… Oh! them plains,” and he shuddered under the blanket.

She tingled for information, yet forebore to ask affected by his voice of misery, and murmured, “Poor dad.”

“Yes,” he went on, fired by his memory and her expression of sympathy, “I've been starved and blistered and freezed and sat on, blast 'em. And she left me in t' lurch after blewing all I had. Ah! I've been a mutton-head, by God I have.”

“Who did, father?”

His eyes falling on her, he became all at once aware his Jennie was no longer the little lassie he dangled on his knees, and ashamed of something, he felt confused:

“Nobody—it's only me gabble… How old are you, Jennie?”

“Sixteen, father.”

  ― 108 ―

“And yer knowed me voice right away when I bailed yer up near'd breakwater. Wonderful! I was clean shaved when I cleared. Lord! how time flies.”

He tugged at his mat of whiskers as though they helped him to realise the years he had been away.

“Mother ever talk of me, Jen?”

She shook her head.

“And she's scratched along all right since your uncle Bob fetched yer both from Lismore”—and in a self-pitying tone: “And don't want me.”

The girl did not answer, but cast down her eyes.

“By gum! that's hard,” he commented, ignoring the facts in his memory that condemned him. “And she wouldn't see me, I reck'n… What yer think, Jen —if I just walked in and ses”—he had been gazing furtively at Jennie, but the picture he had conjured up suddenly awakened old feelings, and he broke off with a brush at his eye, “I'm off to Bourke to-morrow.”

Jennie looked up alarmed. “Oh, dad! yer mustn't go away again. I—I—”

She couldn't tell him how she had yearned for him all these years, how vivid he was in her memories, that every joy of her childhood she could recall was intimately connected with his presence—for she had been his pet who in his eyes never did anything amiss. She had grown to girlhood clinging to that radiant past, to her happy dream of her dada's return. And now he

  ― 109 ―
had come—though she had been chilled by his undemonstrative manner, her heart yearned to him, and a horror seized her that now he had come 'twas only to leave her again.

The cry in her appeal was as a whip on his arising emotion. He felt like one who had been toiling through a desert to an oasis in his memory, and when in sight of it sees it flicked away like a mirage. It seemed for the moment as though his soul, like the prodigal's, would rend itself, that his anguish would make him mere woman—he writhed, and with a dart of escape from self-trampling, from an emotional breakdown, he struck at the fog with his fist as at an enemy, and burst out into violent imprecations at his bad luck, at drink, at her—that other woman. With a deep groan, as these swung him back to the truth, his head dropped: “It's me own fault! me own fault!” Then with the consciousness of the futility of his incipient regeneration before adverse circumstances: “And I meant to be good to'd poor old woman. But a chap never has a chance. He might as well just chuck it, just chuck it!”

The girl's mind, strung to a keen pitch by this poignant display, snapped at an idea shooting through its chaotic impressions.

“Uncle Bob would put yer on't breakwater”—and to intercept his remonstrances, “he wouldn't know yer,

  ― 110 ―
father, and then—” She hesitated and chanced it, “I could tell mother.”

She saw the idea had taken effect, and explained: men were wanted; none there knew him; he could work and wait till she had talked mother over; he could board with old mother Lawson, who had several boarders—

“But I ain't fit,” he stopped her. He was a bundle of rags. If he had only a decent rig out—a pair of working pants even—he might have a show. But no boss would look at him in that state. He might manage with his boots—for a week any way. And he kicked his feet from the blanket to scrutinise his boots, as though he hadn't cast an eye on them for some time, when every day, in fact, he had examined them with forebodings. “They ain't gone much on tops,” he mused with self-congratulation… “What's up, Jen?”

She was so overjoyed with what was in her mind, with a desire to put it into execution, that she wanted to be off. She was on her feet.

“I'll come at daybreak, dad. Y'aint cold?”

He wanted to know what she purposed doing. Her sudden silence, the gleam of bright anticipation in her eyes, the aptness with which she had conceived hopeful possibilities affected him. His Jen suddenly appeared in the guise of some wonderful guide on his desert of

  ― 111 ―
misery—he might reach his oasis after all. He was now all eager curiosity, but she was too practical to commit herself.

“Go to sleep, dad. Yer warm, ain't yer?” She was on her knees near his head, and groping under the blanket.

“But thou's cold, my Jen”—her hand was cold, icy cold. His arms were around her thin figure, and he groaned under her kisses.

“Ay! thou'll stick to s'd old dad.”

“All right, father!” as she arose.

“Right oh, Jen.”

The lamp was blown out, the fog swallowed her—he cried, “Good night, lass.” There was no response. She was stumbling along through the slippery vault.

She was pale and exhausted when she entered the kitchen, but her eyes glowed when her nimble fingers whipping out the garments from the basket stretched out a pair of khaki pants—just the size. She had no qualms. She might confide in Tom Carter her secret; he liked her. At the worst dad could pay him for the pants. She put them aside with a pair of scissors for her journey at daybreak.

For the first week everything turned out beautifully. Dad had got a job on the breakwater. Uncle Bob never guessed the man with the trimmed black whiskers was that reprobate brother-in-law of his, Tim Hogan. And as though Fate were striking on behalf of the little

  ― 112 ―
lass, Tom Carter had gone up the river, and never sent for his washing. Only her mother worried about his pants—where had they “got to?” They must have flown. Surely there ain't thieves about. That kitchen door lock would have to be mended. Jennie kept a discreet silence, and tugged away at the mangle.

Meanwhile she had been at work on her mother's memories. The unsophisticated life of the girl had made her as cute as a hawk; the innocence of her motives, the burning love for her dad increasing daily, gave her the docile subtlety of a cat. She sang praises of her dad in areas remote from her own personality. In numbers of little ways she plucked scenes from the past connected with him that displayed his best traits—unwittingly burnishing up some of the very incidents her mother secretly cherished to keep her heart from turning to stone. The woman would damp the girl's chatter in revenge for the wince at some reminiscence vivid with her husband's personality she invoked.

“He's not the man yer think him, Jennie. He's changed sadly I doubt sin'e yer saw him. Yer was only a kid.”

“No fear, mum. Dad was good as gold off the tank. He'll come back.”

“He'll get the door in his face then. I want no boosers here. The way I stuck to that man”—and she would pour out her grievances, and Jen would let

  ― 113 ―
the subject rip; for a time at least. It cannot be said the girl gained much on the surface, the woman's pride had been so deeply wounded by her husband, but she revived memories that broke down the wall between that which had been in her mother's life and that which was, between love's far off fruitful plot and her present monotonous sterility.

Every day the girl managed to meet her father, on the breakwater, among the humpies, in secluded places. They had interviews at night. Many and strange were the excuses her mother heard for her unexpected absences from home. But he grew restless; his desire to be at home, fed by the girl, clamoured. It taxed her invention to keep him away. She soothed, coaxed, chided. “Wait a bit longer, dad; mother's coming round.” He would grumble, but always in the end acquiesce to his guide's advice.

Thus for weeks, and then Fate frowned. Their meetings began to be noticed, and wrongly construed. That huddle of humpies christened “The Caves,” occupied by the labourers at the breakwater, was outside the world's channel. The nearest pub was on the other side of the river's mouth. Drunkenness was only an occasional occurrence. Men on pay-day certainly went on the spree at the pub. And liquor did find its way to the “Caves.” But generally speaking, the little community accommodated itself to exigent

  ― 114 ―
circumstances. Thrown in such close propinquity, the families developed a social instinct for that which was “of good report.” Hogan had given his name as Simpson, and he was a stranger. He was reticent, kept aloof. Suspicious glances had been repeatedly thrown at him of late. Men shunned him; women slammed their doors when he passed. Mischief was brewing somewhere. One day his boss, his brother-in-law, Bob Sanders, expressed the popular feeling: he told Hogan the precise date he wouldn't be wanted on the breakwater. As the poor fellow jumped off the embankment, smarting with the knowledge “he had got the sack,” a young man jumped after him. “Allow me, mate.” He lifted the back lappet of Hogan's coat, and with “I thought so,” stalked away with a pugilistic swing of his arms. Hogan screwed his head, and a triangular slip of darker cloth than the khaki let into the pants' central seam at the top met his glance. What did the fellow mean?

Hogan had a big wrestle with himself that night, and the regenerating side of his nature won, though the victory brought sweat to his brow. He would tramp back to the plains, to misery, rather than seek an interview with his wife. Without work, he would only be a loafer on her bit of earnings, even if they were reconciled. The community for some reason was against him—ah, well, such was his luck. He would

  ― 115 ―
say nothing to Jennie or anyone about his intentions, but just “clear out” when he got his few pounds that would suffice for his long journey. Simple enough was the decision, yet it fetched groans.

The day came when he was paid off. Climbing the cliff, he gazed towards his wife's humpy, just beyond the Caves, opposite a sand spit. The sun was setting behind it in a solemnity of lilac sky and purpling sea. Into the still air, slided from its squat chimney a thin streak of blue smoke. Presently, columns of smoke began to arise from the Caves huddled in the basin, and straggling up the sandy slopes came the voices of men and women and children—the tea-time humming of home life. He turned his eyes towards the river, and its gleaming curves among dairy farms and sugar plantations carried them to the distant mountains gathering the shadows about their waist, and he shuddered; beyond them was the track to the drought-stricken plains. A fierce hatred of their memory drove him from the cliff.

He had meant to steal away at daybreak, but his thoughts on the cliff had so unmanned him that through dread of his resolution breaking down he determined to leave as soon as the moon rose. Jennie would be waiting for him near the breakwater, and he miles away; his heart ached at the thought of it, but he dare not trust himself to wait and see her. As it

  ― 116 ―
was, his feelings were so assertive that no sooner had he swallowed his tea than he hastily rolled up his swag, and, watching his opportunity, stole out of the humpy in which he boarded, unobserved as he thought, and ensconced himself in one of the many nooks of the sand dunes. His heart was very heavy, and when the moon wandered up the face he turned towards it was pale and the cheeks wet. Hoisting up his swag, he suddenly remembered his path skirted the sand spit. A yearning to carry away in his memory his wife's face to comfort him when on those dreary, far-off plains, directed his feet towards her humpy. As he detached himself from the cliff shade and strode across the moonlit sand spit, a figure, that had been shadowing him, hastily clambered along the rocks and crouched, watching him.

Dropping his swag softly in the humpy shadow, Hogan with beating heart crept up to the little lighted window and peeped through. He nearly gave a cry—oh, how she had altered! Why, her hair was quite grey. His finger nails were driven into his palms under a rush of grief. He shut his eyes, breathing heavily, as his past life arose and smote him. He again looked, perusing with strained eyes line after line, every wrinkle of that once bonnie face. She was seated near the table knitting, her nimble fingers flashing the needles under the lamplight like a conjurer.

  ― 117 ―
Once they stopped as she sighed wearily, pressing her hand to her bosom, and her wedding ring glinted. Again she aroused herself, and her fingers made the needles flick and quiver—whatever her pain, her sorrow, she would not yield to it. Work, work! The home had to be kept together, her Jennie fed and clad. He read her expression like an open book. Read her mind—yes! and his head dropped on his bosom stricken before the vision of those dead, empty years she had struggled through. If he had suffered, had not she? My God! Now came the wormwood. He had made his bed, and must lie on it. He must be no burden to her. The least he could now do was to take himself off. “God help me,” rattled in his throat, as with eyes blinded with tears he snatched a last look. And——it was done in a minute; pitched on his back, a man's knees on his chest, he felt the cold steel on his wrists as the handcuffs snapped, ere he knew what had happened.

“Get up!”

He obeyed, half-dazed. The man strode to the door, and knocked.

“For God's sake! Don't take me in there.”

So hoarse was the whisper that the man, suspicious, stepped back, and laid his hand on Hogan's shoulder with a warning grip.

The door opened, and Mrs. Hogan stood on the

  ― 118 ―
threshold with an expression of surprise that became one of alarm when the official coat and cap approached the light. Hogan suddenly stepped back, with his head bent. He was unceremoniously pushed forward into the light.

“What's wrong, sergeant?” her voice quavered.

“Only this man peeping about for another chance to steal something. Carter swears those pants he's got on are his—the ones you lost. Do you identify them?”

“They look like them. Who is he?”

“Just as well you don't keep your ears open, Mrs. Hogan. Where's your daughter?”

“Jennie—heaven help me! My poor lass—what's she to do with it?”

“Now, don't get upset, Mrs. Hogan. I only want to see her. Where is she?”

The woman threw up her arms despairingly——

“God help me to bear fresh trouble! She's out.”

“Then I'll stay till she comes back—inside!”

Hogan lurched forward into the room, his head still bent. There was a loud hissing in his ears, everything danced in a whirl of mad lights. With teeth set he held on to one purpose—to hide his identity.

He felt his wife's eyes on him.

“Hold up your head!”

Hogan daren't remonstrate; his voice would betray him.

  ― 119 ―

“He's a sulky dog.”

“But my Jennie, sergeant—don't keep anything back, sir. What has she done?”

Her voice was broken with the emotion she tried to control. The sergeant was touched by her piteous look, and his blood boiled.

“A scoundrel like you ought to be kicked from here to Sydney”—he glared at Hogan. “Where were you before you came here? Won't speak! Record too bad, eh?”

Hogan's heart jumped; he heard quick steps approaching.

“Please, sergeant, tell me——”

Jennie's cry of joy as she sprang across the room to her dad startled the other two. Her arms were around his neck—— “O, Mother! Mother! Come and kiss him,” she sobbed.

“Do you know him?” suddenly inquired the sergeant, recovering from his astonishment. But the mother never replied. She hardly breathed, her eyes were fixed like a wild woman's on Jennie and her father. Jennie unclasped her arms; she saw her father was weeping. No one moved. The hush frightened her. She glanced at her mother, at her father. Then, all at once, she seemed to realise the presence of the sergeant. She cried in a loud voice:

“Father, what is it?” and fell on his breast.

  ― 120 ―

In a moment all was confusion. But, little by little, the sergeant unravelled the tangle. The man was innocent, and Mrs. Hogan's husband. That put a different complexion on the case. He unlocked and withdrew the handcuffs from Hogan's wrists. Hogan immediately glanced at his wife, but her face was like stone. He strode to the door.

“Mother! mother!” Jennie flew to her. But the mother's face did not relax. She sprang to her father, gazing over his shoulder at his wife from the doorway.

“You mustn't go, father!” She almost shrieked the words.

“Your mother don't want me, Jen.” He clasped her in his arms, soothing her sobbing soul.

At his voice—it was the first time he had spoken—a tremor went through the mother, and the tears began to trickle down her cheeks.

The sergeant quietly left the house, and listened outside the door. Above a confusion of ejaculating voices and sobbing, he heard Jennie exclaiming, “Then I'll go with him, mother; I'll go with dad.”

“She's a little brick,” he muttered. “She'll bring them together, and I shouldn't wonder if she don't talk her uncle round, too.”

And she did.