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Chapter VIII

BESSIE MACANDREW noticed the man at the gate as she passed through the bare echoing hall with an armful of things to be packed. There was something familiar about him but for the moment she could not quite place him so she paused, screened by the fly-proof door, and peered out at the figure outlined against the sunglare of the street. The man's hand hesitated on the latch of the white wooden gate; a wide-brimmed felt hat hid his face, then as she waited, the gate was pushed open and the man came slowly through.

As he turned his back to fasten the gate, she remembered … “Bill Muir!” Then as he faced her and walked on to the veranda, indecision and reluctance in each and every step, she backed away, her hand pressed to her lips. She had forgotten the accident.

He could not see her through the gauze screen and as he still hesitated, her eyes searched for a vestige of the features she had known. The left side of the face was much as it had been, but the broken nose ended and distorted the resemblance. The other side of the face did not belong to the Bill Muir of the past. The skin, though pale, was unscarred, but the chin was squarer, the corner of the mouth had a tight, cynical twist, and the eyelid had a permanent droop. She

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gasped faintly and backed into a darkened doorway. Poor Bill … He had been so good-looking!

There was a faint knock at the door but she dared not go. Another knock, then the sound of slow retreating footsteps and she forced herself out, almost colliding with Bob in the hall. “You go!” She pushed him forward and rushed to the kitchen.

Half-way back to the gate, the caller heard the scrape of the gauze door being pushed open and a friendly young voice called an interrogative “Good day?” As he turned, left side first, young Mac rushed to meet him. “Bill!” Then he stopped dead, and his voice was slow and hushed. “Cripes … Bill … it … it must have hurt!”

Bill held out his hand, a twisted smile on his face. “I didn't think you would recognize me. No one else has!”

“Come on in!” Young Mac dragged the door invitingly open but the visitor still hesitated. “Come on. We're just packing up. Dad got the selection and we're all going down to New South Wales.”

“I'm glad about that, Mac!” He entered slowly and removed his hat with apparent reluctance.

A woman appeared at the far end of the hall, wiping her hands on her apron. “Who is it, Bob?”

“It's Bill Muir, mum!”

The woman came forward with hands outstretched. “I'm glad to see you, Bill, even if the house is nearly bare. Bob, tell Bessie to make the tea.”

“I won't stay, Mrs MacAndrew. I only got back today and thought I would look in to see … to see if …”

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“I'm glad you did, and I wish Tom was here. What a terrible time you must have had! Dinny told us all about it. Have you heard from him lately?”

He nodded. “I'm on my way to join him now. He's got me a job on a cattle station out west—on the Georgina. He's there now.”

Bessie entered with the tea-cups on a tray and he greeted her with a smile. She held out her hand and smiled back. Somehow he looked different when he smiled. It wasn't the Bill Muir of the classic profile. It was someone else … someone she didn't know … but felt she wanted to know. And when he looked quietly at you like that and smiled … the drooping eyelid, the tucked in corner of the mouth, all combined to add a spice of mystery, a hint of sophistication that intrigued. …

She passed the plate of hastily-buttered biscuits and settled opposite him with an added softness in her glance.

When Bill left MacAndrew's he crossed the deep gutter and walked down the middle of the dusty road trying to sort out the conflicting thoughts that alternately pushed him forward and dragged him back. At the corner, his twisted smile with the puckish quality about it announced that a decision had been reached. He turned abruptly to the right, counting the houses as he went. If his memory still served him, the slim dark girl lived hereabouts. He examined the house with its long verandas behind the parkinsonias.

“I wonder what she'll say!”