― 46 ―

A Casual Star.

Sky joined plain in a hazy line, broken only by a few short belts of pine scrub. The plain was green, endlessly green and flat, save where an occasional depression was covered by sad grey stalks of lignum. Scenic effect mattered little to the passengers on the heavy coach which lumbered and laboured on its leathern springs as it sagged into crabholes and rose over clay banks. The freight was mostly a dramatic company of ten persons, travelling to a town in which it was billed for a three nights' “season.” The juvenile lead, the weary old stock-actors, the gloomy comedian, the faded pianist, the manager-proprietor, who played the gentleman-scoundrel, and kept his eye on the cash window and the ticket-taker.

The second scoundrel, with ponderous shoulders, large battered-looking face, and a dialect—a repulsive, blood-curling assassin on the stage, a too cheerful companion, with a marvellous capacity for beer, in private life. Three ladies. First the star, then the lady who played up to the star in the part of a country girl cruelly deceived by the manager-proprietor gentleman-villain, or struck out in a distinctive line as a clever, unscrupulous adventuress, according to the exigencies of the latest great Drury Lane success imported, according to the bills, with great extravagance of scenery and effects. Next the middle-aged actress, with a repertoire, who was sometimes the other half of the “comic relief,” and sometimes a pathetic street-arab, who refuses to allow the juvenile male lead to give way under the most distressing circumstances.

The star was a tall, slender blonde, whose skin and features had not yet been wrecked by reckless dabbing on of “make-up.” The mummers had begun the eighty-mile journey in listless mood.

Out on the wet plains they were roused to a very keen interest in their surroundings. Though the driver swung his team all over the wide stock route to keep in the soundest “going,” the coach had been bogged, and “dug out,” ten times before 10 o'clock. All the male passengers were cheerfully requested to get down and stretch their legs each time the vehicle came to a standstill.

“Might as well walk a bit, gents,” the driver invariably added. “Warm yer toes and give ther cuddies a charnst.”

So they walked in sodden boots, jarring their aching heads by jumping from clay-bank to clay-bank to miss the deepest pools in the crabholes and wheel-ruts.

“All aboard, gents,” cried the driver, when the coach overtook them. “There's a good bit of goin' ahead, and I'll let 'em sail.”

Letting them sail amounted to flogging, yelling, and reefing at the reins until the four weary horses broke into a dogged trot. Soon they slowed down, until a wheel, sinking behind a hard bank, brought them to a standstill.

  ― 47 ―

“Out again, gents, if you please. Good job it's such a gran' mornin' for exercise, ain't it? Anyway, it ain't fer to the One Tree, and we change there. There's the One Tree just a'ead there. Hardly worth yer while gittin' in agen,” said the Mark Tapleyan driver, for the twelfth time.

Away out on the horizon could be seen the One Tree making a note of exclamation in the level line of outlook.

Among the outside passengers was a lean, flat-figured, yet strongly-built Australian, with the outback writ large from his brown forehead and keen blue eyes to his short, light boots. Each time the horses stopped he twisted himself to the ground and seized one of the spades thoughtfully provided by the stage coach people for emergencies. Others helped, in very shame, but the outback man always had a level track cut through the clay in front of the worst bogged wheel before much was accomplished by them. Then he would call to the driver:

“Right away, Bill! Get them going altogether.” Sometimes Bill preferred a walk, and then the wiry Australian swung himself on to the box seat, and seizing the reins, shook the team together and took them out of a bog in masterly style.

The star on the box seat, wearily endeavouring to forget her surroundings in slumber, began to feel a slight interest in the active fellow with the quiet, set face. It dawned on her that but for him all the shoutings of Bill and the bad language and suggestions of everybody else would not avail the company to reach their next town in time to take up advertised dates.

Her show of interest, slight as it was, kindled responsive feeling in the mind of the bushman. Never before had he been in actual proximity to an actress. Though the horses filled most of his immediate comprehension, he was conscious that a being outside his ken was regarding him. He knew she was different to his sisters in the old home away south in Victoria, and he was sure he had never met anybody just like her at the dances in the country towns.

The strong perfume of the dressing-room and the professional wardrobe was foreign and almost confusing to his senses out here on the sixty-mile plain. The sinuous swaying of her figure and studied pose of her pretty head reminded him of no other creature in the world. When she said:

“You seem to be shifting the whole business around,” he could only stammer, “Oh, nothing much, nothing in particular.”

By-and-bye he began wondering if she were regarding him while he was digging. Once, looking up quickly, he caught her large eyes gazing sleepily at him, and felt a strange, almost uncanny tumult. It was as though a character he had been reading of had suddenly stepped out of the book and accosted him.

The One Tree was reached five hours after time, but when the rest of the company sat down to the brutal mutton and coarse bread in the wooden hotel, the star went to a rickety couch.

“What! Off your feed, Venetia?” said the manager-proprietor. “That won't do, you know. You must eat something.”

“All that I require at present, thank you, is to be deprived of the distinguished honour of your conversation,” she returned in a tired, affected voice.

  ― 48 ―

Peter M'Leod, the outback man, wrestled with an overpowering shyness, until he finally conquered it. Then he sought the stout landlady and succeeded in having a pot brewed from the special tea she kept for her own tasting. A little goat's milk was also arranged for, but the landlady here reached the limit of her consideration, and declared she was “not going to wait on no hactress.” So he bore the tea into the dining-room.

“Thanks, awfully. How did you get it in this hole? And I have such a headache. What a place to be in!” added the star.

The coach should have proceeded on its up and down trip that night, but the passengers refused to undertake digging out in the darkness, and “All aboard!” was not called until daybreak early on the following morning.

At half-past 7 in the evening the six wretched quadrupeds staggered up to the post-office in the riverside town of Swandon. From all the hoardings and fence-posts glared the name of the star in large letters, but what most concerned that aching lady was the announcement beneath to the effect that the curtain would rise on “On the Roofs of London” at 8 o'clock sharp. All the passengers left the coach as hurriedly as stiff limbs and aching joints would permit, and repaired to the hotel, at which arrangements had been made at reduced rates for their accommodation.

Peter M'Leod, in the passage, clumslly offered refreshments as Venetia passed him, but she snapped out:

“Not for me; I am on in twenty minutes—orchestra's tuning up now.”

At 8 precisely he took a seat, two rows from the stage, and from the moment the curtain rose he followed every movement of the frantically impossible melodrama. As she appeared from time to time, the feeling that he was not of her world grew upon him, until he entirely ceased to remind himself that they had been fellow-travellers during two very complete days.

On her part, Venetia was far too tired and much too cross to give thought to anything or anybody. She repeated her lines in the glad opening scene in a most dismal key, and it was not until driven from home, and starving in the streets of London, with a dummy infant clasped to her breast, that she appealed to the audience as the promising and powerful young actress heralded by the local newspapers.

Eventually fatigue was temporarily conquered by the excitement of acting to an applauding crowd, and the star remarked to herself that she was really pulling herself together. The arrival from the wings of the faithful old servant who had never deserted her, carrying some “property” provisions, reminded her that she had eaten nothing save two biscuits since midday. Her attention was arrested by Peter M'Leod's tanned face and Sunday clothes style of dressing, and the pale cheeks and neat vests and broad ties of two young clerks. The outback man had bounded into his best suit. The vest was cut low, and from the centre of an uncomfortable turn-down collar was tightly drawn a narrow blue tie, the ends pinned to his hard starched shirt, being but partly concealed by his vest.

The star thought that, on the whole, he would be the most likely to provide her with a good supper.

Peter M'Leod resolved that he would not attempt to keep up his friendship with a being who was evidently oblivious of his existence, but when, as she passed him in the hotel passage, she smiled divinely and hoped he had enjoyed

  ― 49 ―
the theatre, he began stuttering his praises of her acting and uncouthly removing her wraps.

The company assembled in the dining-room, and when Peter asked Venetia if she would like some refreshments, she simply murmured:

“Wine, I think, thank you. Make it a large bottle, like a good fellow, and all the other poor things can have a sip.”

He was a little surprised when the waiter brought a large bottle of champagne, and at the direction of the star divided it among the ladies present.

Three days later he had learned to regard this proceeding as being simply part of a new, strange existence he had entered upon. The distance between them had decreased considerably, and he was not painfully shy, even when driving Venetia down the river in a hired buggy.

How had it all happened? Here he was, Peter M'Leod, a member of a church-going family, driving his newly-wedded wife from the nearest coach stop twenty-five miles from his homestead, and she was a retired actress.

“Removed from the promise of a brilliant career in Australian cities, with London and New York in the immediate distance.” That was the way a bright young man had put it in the local paper.

Peter had told her he was sure she would find the life dull and lonely out there, in what had been his bachelor quarters. But she had said it would be just splendid to have a good rest in a quiet place after the awful time she had put through going about the country, and playing every night.

Even the stolid bush hands were surprised into animated exclamations and discussions when the glorious creature from stageland descended daintily from the buggy and walked on to the hot verandah.

Peter was more astounded than ever when he saw her seated in the meagre dining-room, and endeavouring to make the best of black tea, salt mutton, and soda damper. She was very evident to him, but the homestead and his holding, the woolshed and the sheep, everything that had seemed so intensely material two months before, was now in the background of insignificance. The was there, and being there, was so utterly out of touch and sympathy with all else that his comprehension could not ally the two, and so the surroundings faded till they were ungraspable.

Peter M'Leod had been a great reader, and his otherwise bare wooden home would, to a kindred soul, have been glorified into a palace of poetry and reason. Venetia was also a reader, but the place held no literature to her taste, save the theatrical notices in the belated weekly papers, and an occasional yellow-back which had strayed into the house from the men's quarters.

So it fell that, her conversation being all of the stage and his all of the bush, the poets, and history, some half-a-dozen evenings exhausted what they had to say that was of common interest. Then the retired actress began to dread the long days while he was out on the run, and again the long, silent evenings in the unattractive sitting-room.

A certain heaviness had settled on Peter's spirits, yet he knew when he entered the door on the fourteenth day after his return that something more depressing than usual had happened to the place.

She was gone.

  ― 50 ―

Just a friendly letter to say she was tired of the bush, and had accepted an offer from her old manager to tour New Zealand on a good salary. She hoped to see him some time in Melbourne or Sydney, and she thanked him for all his kindness.

As he raised his head from the table, whence it had sunk, the homestead, the fences, and the sheep, and all, returned to him again, and he was once more Peter M'Leod, a struggling outback squatter, but with a wonderful memory in his mind, and a heavy ache of loneliness in his heart.

Twenty years later the Hon. Peter M'Leod, M.L.C., sat in a box of a Melbourne theatre, regarding with a show of interest a drama of the slow-moving kind, a play with a moral above reproach. By his side sat his daughter Elsie, a bright, pretty girl of 18, who, released from a finishing school for that special evening, followed the play and enjoyed it, impulsively clasping her father's broad palm at every intense scene.

Mr. M'Leod was gazing at the stage without seeing it or the actors. Despite the brilliant scene his mind would most perversely insist on a review of his career. He had reached the current week, and could see his wife a well-preserved lady of society, standing on the steps of the magnificent house he had built on his Western district property, purchased with the money made in a few good seasons outback in New South Wales.

At that moment a tall, fair woman, very much made-up, walked to the footlights. He was first aware of her feet, which were large, and then her face came to him with startling clearness.

Strangely enough, the shock mercifully left him for a few moments, saying to himself that he had never previously noticed how very large were Venetia's feet.

Through a blur be saw the curtain descend on the first act, and almost immediately an attendant entered the box, and handed him a note. “Please meet me Treasury entrance to Fitzroy Gardens to-morrow, 10. Yours, V.”

Disgrace! Pentridge stockade! Peter M'Leod walked miles that night, knowing but vaguely where his steps took him, and caring nothing. His position in society! The Governor and his lady were coming to his station home next week. Elsie was to come out next year, and her first ball would be at Government House. He was leading the Upper House, and had stood out as an able, active member of that somnolent body, who had succeeded in crippling several socialistic measures. Next week a great debate and a crucial division were expected, and he would be—where?

At 10 o'clock next morning, haggard and now desperate with a determination to buy the woman off at any price, he appeared at the gate. Twenty minutes later she came.

“Sorry I'm late,” she said. “Well, how have you been getting on? I suppose I shouldn't have troubled you, but I said to my husband——”

“Your what?” gasped M'Leod.

“My husband! We are going to London, and I thought you might do something to get our boy into a place. He's 19, and he writes a good hand.”

“Certainly! Certainly!” shouted the M.L.C., in a high, unnatural voice. “I'll fix him up to-day.”

“You always were a kind old thing,” said the star, affectionately.