― 207 ―

The Stolen Colours

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AN exclusively male society, such as ours was on the Baroma River, is apt to get along very smoothly for years, provided that all of the individuals composing it are fairly companionable. There were five stations on the Baroma, all cattle-stations. Sheep had been tried on the country but without success, and now the only marks of their former presence were some roofless huts and the bare patches of ground where once stood sheep-yards; for it was before the days of fences and boundary-riders. Three of the stations were managed by their owners; the other two belonged to Sydney and Melbourne firms, and were in the charge of superintendents, of whom I was one.

Markwell, the other superintendent, was

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perhaps the only man who did not quite fit in to our little coterie. There was no gainsaying his smartness and ability, but he had a bad temper, and an evil habit of sneering.

Elliot, the owner of Bendalla, the largest station on the river, was a widower. He had one son, who lived on the station with him, and two daughters, who at the time of my story had just arrived on a protracted visit, and created quite an upset in the hitherto even tenor of our way.

Hayward, who owned Pixie, the next station to the one I was managing, was a professed woman-hater, and affected to look on the interest displayed in the newcomers with lofty scorn. Kelly, who had the station on the opposite side of the river, called after that stream, Baroma Plains, fell head over ears in love straight away with Mary Elliot, the elder girl, and having successfully persuaded that young lady that she was in as hopeless a condition, in less than three months their engagement was a proclaimed fact.

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Agnes Elliot was two years younger than her engaged sister, and of a very different character. Both were handsome girls, but Mary was easy-going and good-tempered to a fault, while Agnes was of a more active and passionate nature. A tale of wrong that would win from Mary a few compassionate remarks, would wring hot indignation from Agnes.

Jack Elliot, their brother, had always been my especial mate on the river, and naturally on the arrival of his sisters I was thrown a good deal into their society; nor was it long before I learned to love the bright and eager Agnes with a love that could never have been inspired in me by her placid sister. I kept my secret, as I thought, very well, for I had no more prospect of marrying on the extremely limited screw of a cattle-station super. than I had of being made Governor. I might even have got over the fit altogether and cured myself by enforced absence, but for the rivalry of Markwell.

He was my senior by some four or five years had travelled more, and had far more

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social qualities, when he chose to exert them, than I had; but no better worldly position to recommend him, and knowing the real nature of the man I felt that to suffer him to win such a girl as Agnes Elliot would be a downright wrong to her.

That, you may say, is always the way in which the jealous man argues. Men do not love women so deeply as they hate their rivals in the affections of those women. Marriage is more often the result of a man's determination to avoid injury to his own amour propre than of anything else.

Kelly and Mary Elliot were duly married, Baroma Plains rejoiced in a new house and other embellishments, and I was still uncertain as to whether the wayward heart of Agnes inclined to me or not. She had come over to stay with her sister for a while, and one evening I rode across the river ostensibly to see Kelly on some station-business. That was one of the evenings that has ever dwelt in my memory. Never had Agnes been so kind to me. Kelly and his bride, with whom I was first favourite, left

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us much to ourselves, and half a dozen times an avowal of my love was on my lips. How different things might have been had I spoken then!

She came on to the verandah to say “Good night!” to me when I left. For a moment I lingered with her warm hand in mine, and her bright eyes looking at me from the dusky shadow of the verandah; then, with sudden desperation, I pressed her hands to my lips and, with a broken “Good night!” hurried to my horse, mounted, and rode away. She was still standing in the doorway as I turned for a last look, and waved her hand in reply to my salute; and I rode home, the happiest man on the river. When I entered my small sitting-room I saw that, during my absence, the mail had arrived, for the station-bag was lying on the table. I opened it without much interest in the contents, for I was quite absorbed in a dream of Agnes, but was rather surprised to find among the ordinary correspondence a letter from my only brother in England, with whom I had

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not corresponded for years—not from any quarrel, but simply through the disinclination to write that grows on most men in the bush. The letter had been delayed through going to a former address. The contents were important, as they notified to me the death of an uncle, who had left his money to my brother and myself and two cousins.

My first thought naturally was that now I was in a position to propose to Agnes, and I lay awake all night, determined that not many hours of daylight should elapse ere I was over at Baroma Plains.

The next morning the delays seemed never-ending. Horses had escaped from the paddock, a blackboy got bucked off and broke his collar-bone, which I had to set, and a messenger came over from Hayward with a letter requiring a reply. It was eleven o'clock ere I was once more in sight of the verandah where I had last seen Agnes.

Mrs. Kelly met me with her usual kind smile. Agnes had gone home nearly an hour ago. Jack Elliot had come up for her in a hurry, as his father was starting

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down to port and wanted Agnes to go down with him. I hesitated whether to go on to Bendalla on the chance of overtaking them, but my presence was absolutely necessary on the station: I could not leave without going back first.

“When will they be back?” I asked, blushing, as I thought that my fair hostess was doubtless reading me like a book.

“They will stop until the races. You know we are all going down, and you must come with us.”

The local races were coming off in about a week at the little shipping port; and most of us on the river had entered horses for the occasion. I thanked Mrs. Kelly for her invitation, which I gladly accepted, and, without telling my news, rode home.

Only a week! but it loomed before me like a year. I could not even write, for we had only a weekly mail, and I would be down myself by that time. To add to my annoyance, Markwell, whose place was at the head of the river, came over that night, on his way down to port. I managed to be civil to

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him, but when I saw him ride away in the morning to the township, where he would be within call of Agnes for the whole week during which I should be tied to the station, I felt inclined to try on him the range of my new rifle. Hayward came to see me next day, and to him I confided the news of my inheritance. He had been talking of going out west and taking up some country for which, at that time, there was a great rush, and he urged me to accompany him now that I had the means. He was a shrewd man, for whom I had a great liking, and I promised to weigh the matter carefully.

At last the time came when I could fling dull care aside, and, seated on the box beside Kelly, relieving him occasionally of the task of tooling four horses along an abominable road, I felt that every mile brought me nearer to the consummation of my hopes. Arrived in the little port which in those days had not assumed its present dimensions or importance, my first thought, after I had made myself presentable, was naturally to call upon Mr. Elliot. The family, including

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Kelly and his wife, were located in the house of a friend, a widower, with one little girl, whose habitation was far too big for him. Agnes was out—gone out for a ride with her brother and Markwell.

This was a check at the start.

While chatting with Elliot the party returned, and, with a very sore feeling in my heart, the meeting I had been so longing for came off.

How bright and handsome she looked in her close-fitting riding-habit as she came along the verandah and greeted me! Every jealous thought in my mind would have been exorcised but for the presence of Markwell, who gave me a supercilious nod and looked on with an air of insolent proprietorship—at least I thought so—while the ordinary commonplace words were exchanged. She noticed instinctively the change in my manner and her pride took fire. Ah! these wretched conceits of self, which do work we can never undo!

I stayed to dinner with the Elliots, but had no opportunity to speak to Agnes

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until some time afterwards, when by chance I saw her sitting apart from the others in the drawing-room with the little girl, the daughter of their host, at her knee. She was stitching industriously at some ribbon and I lost not a minute in reaching her side.

“What is the work, Miss Elliot?” I said rather awkwardly to break the ice.

“My colours for to-morrow's races,” she returned.

“And who is to wear them?” I asked, bending down and speaking earnestly.

“That depends,” she answered, glancing up at me with a smile that put every sore feeling to flight, for I knew they were meant for me.

“So we have to congratulate you, Murray,” said the hateful voice of Markwell close behind.

I turned sharply round, and Agnes flushed quickly, for his words seemed to have a double meaning.

“What do you mean?” I asked, rather rudely.

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“Why, they say you have come in to a pot of money. Is it true?”

So some gabbling idiot from the station had brought the yarn down and now it was blurted out like this when I had meant to tell Agnes just when I asked her to be my wife! I replied very shortly that an uncle of mine was dead from whom I inherited some money; but my chance was spoilt, and if it had been my rival's object to break up our chat, he succeeded admirably. I guessed that Agnes was hurt that I had not told her brother or father, who had so long been my friends, of my good fortune, not divining my reason for keeping silence.

Next morning the whole township was on the race course. I rode out the two miles with Jack Elliot, for Kelly had his trap full. I wondered whether Agnes had entrusted the knot of ribbons to her brother, but apparently he was charged with no such mission; so I took the earliest opportunity of presenting myself before the party as soon as I saw them arrive I had promised to steer a horse of Kelly's in the hurdle

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race, for, as a newly married man, all such pleasures had been sternly denied him, and Markwell, who was a sporting man, had entered a horse of his own.

It was in vain that I lingered around the buggy. Agnes several times seemed on the point of speaking to me confidentially, but something always interfered, and I had at last to go away unsatisfied as the time for our race was approaching.

I had donned my jacket, or rather Kelly's, when the man himself came into the tent.

“Now, then, Davie,” he said, “just one word. I want to win this race, and you can do it if you race Markwell right away from the jump. The others have no show; his horse has more foot than Beeswax (Kelly's horse), but he can't fly his jumps like old Bee can, and if you make it hot from the start, he'll either come to grief or drive you home.”

I signified my comprehension, and was leaving the tent when he added: “By the way, Mary gave me a message for you from Agnes—something about having lost something;

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however, she can tell you herself after you've won the race;” and so we sallied forth, I much puzzled at the meaning of the half-forgotten message.

Markwell was already mounted and had taken his horse over a hurdle, and was walking him back when I passed him, and there, on the breast of his jacket, was the identical knot of black-and-orange ribbons I had seen Agnes putting together the night before.

The sight roused every jealous passion within me; I knew they must be the same, or else why had I not received them according to the half promise made?

“I'll win this race or break Markwell's neck,” I muttered to Kelly as he gave me a leg into the saddle. He squeezed my hand, and the next moment Beeswax was over the hurdle like a swallow.

There were six of us in the race, but Markwell's horse was the only one I dreaded. We had a good start although Beeswax, excited by his canter, was dancing to get off. I took the lead at once at a pace that

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few hurdle races are ever ridden, and for half a mlle kept it, without seeing a horse, Beeswax taking his jumps just as a matter of course. At the end of the half-mile I heard a rap and a clatter, and glancing round found Markwell just behind me.

His horse had twice the pace of Beeswax and he had bustled him over the jumps so far without coming to grief. On the flat he raced up to me without an effort and I knew that my only chance was to rush him at the hurdles. Twice his horse blundered dreadfully, and I was well ahead when we were two jumps from home. If he got over those two jumps safely I was beaten, for he would catch me on the straight run in.

I knew Markwell's horse was as excitable as he could be, so I pulled Beeswax a little and let him come up and get about half a length ahead, then I put Beeswax at the next jump “all I knew,” and he seemed to take the hurdle in his stride. Not so my rival's mount; maddened with the rush of the other horse alongside of him, he scarcely attempted to jump and went down headlong,

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but fortunately for his rider, sending him rolling ahead.

The others were all out of it, so I pulled Beeswax in; put him quietly over the last hurdle and cantered past the winning-post.

“He's all right,” said Kelly, as he came and took my bridle to lead me in to be weighed, “but he got a devil of a purler.”

Strange to say, Markwell had escaped almost without a bruise. He had been flung forward, a little to one side, just as the horse was in the act of turning over, and had rolled out of harm's way. The saddle was smashed, and the horse could never be got to face a jump again, but I was really glad that no worse accident had happened.

He came up pluckily, in spite of his shaking, and forced a jesting remark about the pace we had ridden. I changed my jacket, and after the usual noisy congratulations, found my way up to Mrs. Kelly and Agnes.

“Your colours were unlucky, Miss Elliot,” I said, regretting the words the next moment.

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“My colours, Mr. Murray! I did not know they were in the race.”

“Mr. Markwell wore them, at any rate,” I answered, rather surprised.

“You are joking,” she replied; “and I don't think it in good taste.”

I drew back, snubbed and offended. Mrs. Kelly put her hand on my shoulder as I stood beside the buggy, and, stooping down, whispered to me, quite energetically for her,

“Davie, don't be a fool.”

I guessed her meaning, and if I could have made my peace then, I would; but I was not afforded the opportunity. Agnes kept me at a distance for the rest of the day.

There was a race-ball that night, and I fondly hoped that I should have a chance of an explanation. Markwell, in spite of the heavy fall he had experienced, was there, and exerting all the agreeable qualities he possessed to the utmost.

Agnes gave me no excuse for trying to get a moment's private conversation, and in

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the course of the evening I was lounging in a sulky fit on the verandah, when I saw her and Markwell in deep conversation in a secluded part of it. She was speaking earnestly, although I could not see the expression of her face. I had seen enough, however, for my then temper; apparently she had afforded him the benefit of the confidential interview that she had avoided giving me. I left the ball, and a month afterwards Hayward and I were out west. I stayed out there two years. I heard from Kelly and Jack Elliot, but the name of Agnes seemed carefully tabooed in their letters.

One evening I received a visit from an old friend who had a station not very far from the little port where my love-dream had been shattered. He had taken up country beyond Hayward and me, and was on his road to port when he called.

“By the way,” he said, “you may remember Markwell who got such a spill at the races that time; but, of course, you do, as you rode against him.”

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I nodded assent, and he went on.

“I heard he had come out this way to take up country for his firm.”

“He didn't marry Miss Elliot then?” I said in as easy a voice as I could command.

“I should think not,” replied my friend, “she found him out in a most shabby trick. I'll tell you all about it. You remember the ball after the races? I was out on the verandah behind a screen of plants and flags doing a quiet flirtation, when Miss Elliot and Markwell came on the other side. We couldn't well get out and had to sit there and listen to what they were saying. It seems he had bribed the little girl at the house where the Elliots were staying to steal a knot of ribbon that Miss Elliot had made for somebody else and he had worn it openly at the races as though she had given it to him. That young lady could be very indignant when she liked, and I shouldn't have liked the sarcasm she lashed Markwell with.”

I was silent for some time, while Russel smoked vigorously, recalling the scene.

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“I'm tired of this place,” I suddenly said; “I'll go down to port with you.”

“That's famous,” he returned, “I wanted a mate down.” And he turned in while I commenced my preparations.

Half-way across what was known as “the dry stage” was a shanty, professedly an accommodation house; but, of course, a slygrog shop. The man who kept it met us outside the rude thatched verandah and said he was glad we had come, as there was a man inside who had “a touch of the sun” and he was afraid he was going to die.

We went in to see the poor fellow, and there, on the frowsy bunk, lay my old rival, Markwell. The man said he arrived the day before, on foot; his horse had fallen with him and got away, and he had walked on to borrow another to go after him. He was light-headed and had been so ever since.

Russel and I sat up all night doing what we could, but it was useless; the poor fellow died before morning. Once he recognised me and laughed wildly, “You didn't get

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Agnes after all, Murray,” he said, then he relapsed into mad talk about racing.

It was a lovely evening when, with my heart in my mouth, I rode up to Baroma Plains, for I preferred to see Mrs. Kelly first. She and her husband were standing on the verandah watching me curiously as I came up. Suddenly Kelly gave a wild whoop and sprang off the verandah. “It's Davie, by gum!” he exclaimed, and I was soon standing between them.

I looked hard at Mrs. Kelly, hoping she would take pity on me, but I had to ask the question after all.


Kelly pursed up his lips, “Don't you know?” he asked.

“Know what?” I demanded, swallowing a big lump in my throat.

“Why, Agnes was married a year ago—she lives—let's see—in Melbourne!”

I suppose I could not smile, nor even look cheerful, for kind Mrs. Kelly broke in with, “It's a shame. Nothing of the sort, Davie.

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Agnes Elliot is in there just now; and to tell you the truth, she must have recognised you before we did, for she slipped in without a word when you were a long way off. Go in and ask her.”

I did not ask her. I only said one word, and that was her Christian name; and when I took her in my arms for the first time we forgot all about mutual explanation until some time afterwards.