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  ― 247 ―

Billy-Boy.

The wedding trip was over, and they were driving from the tiny siding at which the train had left them to his station.

She was a city girl, this young wife of his, and he wondered anxiously for the first time if she would adapt herself easily to the somewhat solitary life before her. He turned suddenly, a vague fear clutching at his heart.

“Hilda, do you think you'll be lonely, dear, away from all your people?”

She laughed deliciousy. “Not a bit. I love the country and the riding, and all the dear fat old sheep. Everything is on such a vast scale, Peter; that wide plain we have just crossed, stretching away for miles. And look at this bush—oh, Peter, it's heavenly!”

It had been a good year, and as far as the eye could see there was grass— dazzling green grass, through which an occasional rabbit fled in terror at their approach. Peter gazed round him contentedly. Yes, it was heavenly, and with all prospects of returning a heavenly profit.

Two miles more, and Hilda stood up in the buggy, eager for a glimpse of her future home, nestling like a mushroom among its surrounding trees. The garden was gay with flowers, chrysanthemums and vivid zinneas. Whilst high above them waved pale, feathery pepper-trees. Outside the closely-clipped saltbush hedge were slender-limbed myalls, their bushy, silvery foliage showing up well in contrast beside pale, bluey-green pines, stately and stiff in all their dignity.

As he lifted her down from the buggy, Hilda clung to her husband for a moment.

“Oh, Peter,” she whispered ecstatically, “fancy this being all yours.”

“Ours,” he corrected, smiling, and pride shone in his eyes that the old homestead he had loved so dearly should find favour in her eyes too.

Hilda's arm ached with turning the machine handle, and she wondered dully why men wore their shirts out so quickly. “I made him four only a few weeks ago,” she murmured resentfully to herself, and now they're rags —absolutely rags.”

“Mum,” came a shrill call. “Mum, quick.”

Hilda rose and went out on to the verandah.

“What is it, Billy-boy—a scratch?”

The child was struggling to hold an ancient fat terrier, endeavouring amiably to upset his youthful master, and thus free himself.

“Mum,” panted the babe, “lemme go out wif Stumpy and kill wabbits.”




  ― 248 ―

“No, Billy-boy, not by yourself. Suppose a big snake chased you, like that one Daddy killed near the dairy?”

His wee hands relaxed their grasp on the terrier, and, Stumpy fleeing, he stood up, a chubby, golden-haired cherub, blue eyes wide with excitement.

“I'd take a big, big stick, Mum, an' kill him dead.”

Hilda smiled at this valiant assertion. “Well, don't kill him to-day, Babe. Play in here like a good boy, and when Daddy comes home he might take you for a ride on the poison-cart.”

He turned away obediently, and wandered round the verandah.

Hilda looked out into the garden. It was absolutely bare. Three or four pepper-trees were dead, and stood up, dismal reminders of long years of neglect.

When Hilda had first come to live there the garden had been her chief joy. She and a hoary-headed old man tolled unceasingly among the flowers, and the results were most gratifying. Then there came a drought, withering everything she had tended so carefully. Her gardener was found unnecessary, also too much of an expense. Hilda wailed when he left. Peter assured her he could return in the autumn when rain came. But autumn went by three times, and still the stricken land groaned under pitiless suns, blinding duststorms, and raging, fiery winds.

Hilda found herself thrust to one side, forgotten almost, in the terrible fight to save stock. It only worried Peter when she tried to sympathise with him; so gradually she let him alone, she and her child living entirely a life of their own.

Rain did come at last—inches of it. Hilda's hopes rose. Surely Peter would become his happy, loveable self again. Perhaps they could go away for a trip, just the three of them. Eagerly she asked him one evening as he sat smoking on the verandah. The never-ceasing croak of myriads of frogs luxuriating in a cowl close beside the house was delightful because of its rarity. Plover shrilled to each other now and again, and once a belated wild duck quacked forlornly as he flew over the house in search of his mates.

Peter looked up as she spoke of her plan. “How can I leave now? My dear girl, there's enough work ahead to keep me busy for months,” he said irritably. “You can go, Hilda, with the boy. I think we can afford it. Heaven knows how we managed to pull through the drought, though. Confound that child!” angrily, as Billy's childish voice floated outside, uplifted in a weird melody of his own composing. “For goodness sake, make him be quiet.”

Hilda knelt down beside the chair, and put both arms around his neck. “Peter,” she said, entreatingly, “don't let us go alone. Can't Boy and I have you for one short month? I feel I've lost you somehow, Peter,” she ended with a sob.

A trifle disturbed, he patted her shoulder mechanically, thinking rapidly. Perhaps he might manage a few weeks before lamb-marking.

“There, there, don't cry, dear girl. I'll fix things, and we'll get away for awhile, probably in about five weeks. Jove! The rabbits are getting thick,” he said, once more absorbed. “I'm getting rather scared about them.”




  ― 249 ―

She rose with the nearest approach to excitement she had known for a long time, and going inside picked up Billy. He would clinging arms about her throat, and she kissed the soft baby cheek pressed so closely against her own.

“Oh, my baby-boy,” she said in a happy whisper. “We'll work hard, and bring back the old Daddy who used to love us so much.”

That Christmas season the land had a prosperous look about it. Rabbits accordingly throve and waxed fat. Peter, already wrestling with his new trouble, worried himself to a shadow. They seemed to come in “waves,” and at last he desperately realised he was being eaten out. Paddocks that should have been green with feed remained startlingly bare, grass having absolutely no chance of growing. He wire-netted the entire run at a great expense to check the invaders; then began frantically to kill them. Rabbits were the sole topic of conversation. Poison-carts, fumigators, and jam-distributors arrived daily, until Peter's rabbit-destroying plant assumed enormous dimensions. He gazed in blank astonishment at Hilda when she ventured to remind him of their intended holiday.

“My dear Hilda,” he had said with a curt laugh, “unless these rabbits are got under control we very soon will be going away for good.”

The gathering dusk recalled Hilda's straying thoughts. She hurried indoors, lit a lamp, and returned to the machine and the shirts. When it was quite dark she heard the rattle of a late poison-cart returning, and soon after Peter strode along the verandah.

“Where's Billy?” he asked, coming into the room.

Hilda looked up in surprise. “I haven't seen him for some time. He must still be outside.”

Peter pulled from his coat pocket a fluffy, fat ball of fur, with two black eyes, which blinked sleepily at the lamp.

“What is it? Oh, a puppy, Peter; how he will love it.”

“Morris gave it to me this evening. I thought it would be grand for Boy. Call him, Hilda.”

She went to the door. “Billy!” she cried. “Billy-boy, where are you?”

Getting no response, she moved along the verandah towards the kitchen. Both maids said he was playing at the foot of the garden when they had seen him last. Hilda ran there quickly, thoroughly nervous. Here and there she searched, but found no trace of him. At last she returned for Peter, terrifying thoughts flashing through her brain.

“I can't find him anywhere,” she cried. “Rose said he was away down at the garden-end. He may have opened the gate, and gone down to the creek. Oh, I feel so frightened something has happened him.”

Peter jumped up. “He'll be alright, Hilda. We'll go down and see if any of the men have seen him.”

They ran to the hut, but there disappointment awaited them. No one had noticed the child anywhere. Peter gave orders for the men to turn out


  ― 250 ―
and search. Meanwhile he and Hilda rode off on two quickly-saddled horses. Up and down the creek they went distractedly, a brilliant moon lighting their way.

Towards morning, when about eight miles from home, Peter turned his horse's head. “We'd better go back,” he said brokenly, “and wait for daylight. He'd never have come so far as this. Hilda, don't—don't cry, dear. He's a cute little chap, and is probably sleeping somewhere. Let us ride on to M'Gregor's; we may hear some word there.”

Another mile brought them to a wire-netting fence. Opening the gate he led the two horses through and up to a tiny two-roomed selector's cottage. The dogs barked furiously, and a man came out on to the verandah wrapped in a yellow oilskin coat.

“Helloa,” he cried, “are youse after a kid? Oh, it's you, Mr. Harding,” as both stepped up to him.

“He's fine,” in answer to their breathless question. “I picked him up this evenin', late, when comin' home. He was fair done up, and wouldn't tell where he'd camed from. I sort of wondered if he was yours, but thought I'd wait till mornin'.”

He was leading them into a tiny bedroom, opening off the kitchen, and they followed him, hand in hand, like two tired children. Seeing the dear little curly head peeping from out a voluminous blanket, Hilda ran to the stretcher, and gathered up the limp little body in her arms.

Peter turned to the man, explaining the situation volubly, to force back a lump rising in his throat. Hilda, clasping the child, came over to them, her eyes shining with joy.

At her almost hysterical gratitude the man reddened with embarrassment, and hauled the coat yet more closely round him, making it crackle loudly.

Then Peter hurried her off, and, mounting again, they rode homewards in the glow of a rosy dawn.

“Hilda,” said Peter at last, his eyes resting anxiously on hundreds of small grey forms hurrying away on every side into the sheltering scrub, “there's an awful struggle ahead of us to live. We've not been exactly hitting it of late years. Help me now, dear—I need you.”

He stretched his hand over to her, and she clasped it firmly in her slim fingers.

“I didn't think,” she said, hesitatingly, “that you wanted me, Peter.” In a whisper “Do—do you still love me?”

“Love you!” There was a husky tremor in his voice. “Dear, you are life to me. I've been such a surly brute. Really, Hilda, when these rabbits got so bad they worried me quite off my head.”

Hilda patted his arm sympathetically. “Dear me,” she said with a tremulous little laugh, “it's decidedly serious when they start coming between a man and his wife, isn't it, Peter?”

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