Chapter II.

THE station hands, in their own language, “gave Frenchy best.” No difference of nationality

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could account for some of his eccentricities. As an instance, with the setting in of the darkness he regularly disappeared. It was supposed that he camped up a tree with the birds. The wit of the wool-shed surmised that “Froggy” slept with his relatives, and it would be found that he had “croaked” with them one of these odd times. Again, there were shearers ready to swear that he had “blubbered” on finding some sportive ticks on his neck. He was given odd jobs of wool-sorting to do, and was found to have a mania for washing the grease off his hands whenever there was an instant's respite. Another peculiarity was his aversion to blood. By some strange coincidence, he could never be found whenever there was any slaughtering on hand. The most plausible reason was always advanced for necessitating his presence in some far-distant part of the run. Equally he could never be induced to learn how to box—a favourite Sunday morning and summer evening pastime among the men. It seemed almost to hurt him when damage was done to one of the assembled noses. He would have been put down as a “cur,” if it had not been for his pluck in the saddle, and for his gentle winning ways. His pluck, indeed, seemed all concentrated in his horsemanship. Employed as a boundary-rider, there was nothing he would not mount, and the station hands remarked, as a thing “that beat them once for all,” that the “surliest devils” on the place hardly ever played up with him. He

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employed no arts. His bridle hand was by no means strong. Yet it remained a matter of fact, that the least amenable of horses generally carried him as if they liked to bear his weight. No one being sufficiently learned to advance the hypothesis of magnetism, it was concluded that he carried a charm.

This power of touch extended to human beings. It was almost worth while spraining a joint, or chopping at a finger, to be bandaged by Monsieur Caloche's deft fingers. His horror of blood never stood in his way when there was a wound to be doctored. His supple hands, browned and strengthened by his outdoor work, had a tenderness and a delicacy in their way of going to work that made the sufferer feel soothed and half-healed by their contact. It was the same with his manipulation of things. There was a refinement in his disposition of the rough surroundings that made them look different after he had been among them.

And not understood, jeered at, petted, pitied alternately—with no confidant of more sympathetic comprehension than the horse he bestrode—was Monsieur Caloche absolutely miserable? Granting that it were so, there was no one to find it out. His brown eyes had such a habitually wistful expression, he might have been born with it. Very trifles brought a fleeting light into them—a reminiscence, perhaps, that, while it crowned him with “sorrow's crown of sorrow,” was yet a

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reflection of some past joy. He took refuge in his ignorance of the language directly he was questioned as to his bygone life. An embarrassed little shrug, half apologetic, but powerfully conclusive, was the only answer the most curious examiner could elicit.

It was perceived that he had a strong objection to looking in the glass, and invariably lowered his eyes on passing the cracked and uncompromising fragment of mirror, supported on two nails against the planking that walled the rough, attached kitchen. So decided was this aversion that it was only when Bill, the blacksmith, asked him chaffingly for a lock of his hair, that he perceived with confusion how wantonly his silken curls were rioting round his neck and temples. He cut them off on the spot, displaying the transparent skin beneath. Contrasted with the clear tan that had overspread his scarred cheeks and forehead, it was white as freshly drawn milk.

He was set down on the whole as given to moping; but, taking him all round, the general sentiment was favourable to him. Possibly it was with some pitiful prompting of the sort that the working manager sent him out of the way one still morning, when Sir Matthew's buggy, creaking under the unwelcome preponderance of Sir Matthew himself, was discerned on its slow approach to the homestead. A most peaceful morning for the initiation of Sir Matthew's blustering presence. The sparse gum-leaves

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hung as motionless on their branches as if they were waiting to be photographed. Their shadows on the yellowing grass seemed painted into the soil. The sky was as tranquil as the plain below. The smoke from the homestead reared itself aloft in a long thinly drawn column of grey. A morning of heat and repose, when even the sunlight does not frolic, and all nature toasts itself, quietly content. The dogs lay blinking at full length, their tails beating the earth with lazy measured thump. The sheep seemed rooted to the patches of shade, apathetic as though no one wore flannel vests or ate mutton-chops. Only the mingled voices of wild birds and multitudinous insects were upraised in a blended monotony of subdued sounds. Not a morning to be devoted to toil! Rather, perchance, to a glimmering perception of a golden age, when sensation meant bliss more than pain, and to be was to enjoy.

But to the head of the firm of Bogg & Co., taking note of scattered thistles and straggling wire fencing, warmth and sunshine signified only dry weather. Dry weather clearly implied a fault somewhere, for which somebody must be called to account. Sir Matthew had the memory of a strategist. Underlying all considerations of shorthorns and merinos was the recollection of a timid foreign lad to be suspected for his shy, bewildered air; to be suspected again for his slim white hands; to be doubly suspected

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and utterly condemned for his graceful bearing, his appealing eyes, that even now Sir Matthew could see with their soft lashes drooping over them as he fronted them in his darkened office in Flinders Lane. A scapegoat for dry weather, for obtrusive thistles, for straggling fencing! A waif of foreign scum to be found out! Bogg had promised himself that he would “drop on to him unawares.” Physically Bogg was carried over the ground by a fast trotter; spiritually he was borne along on his hobby, ambling towards its promised gratification with airy speed.

The working manager, being probably of Bacon's way of thinking, that “dissimulation is but a faint kind of policy,” did not, in his own words, entirely “knuckle down” to Sir Matthew. His name was Blunt,—he was proud to say it,—and he would show you he could make his name good if you “crossed” him. Yet Blunt could bear a good deal of “crossing” when it came to the point. Within certain limits, he concluded that the side on which his bread was buttered was worth keeping uppermost, at the cost of some hard words from his employer.

And he kept it carefully uppermost on this especial morning, when the quietude of the balmy atmosphere was broken by Sir Matthew's growls. The head of the firm, capturing his manager at the door of the homestead, had required him to mount into the double-seated buggy with him. Blunt reckoned that these

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tours of inspection in the companionship of Bogg were more conducive to taking off flesh than a week's hard training. He listened with docility, nevertheless, to plaints and ratings—was it not a fact that his yearly salaries had already made a nest-egg of large proportions?—and might have listened to the end, if an evil chance had not filled him with a sudden foreboding. For, pricking his way over the plain, after the manner of Spenser's knight, Monsieur Caloche, on a fleet, newly-broken-in two-year-old, was riding towards them. Blunt could feel that Sir Matthew's eyes were sending out sparks of wrath. For the first time in his life he hazarded an uncalled-for opinion.

“He's a good-working chap that, sir!” indicating by a jerk of the head that the lad now galloping across the turf was the subject of his remark.

“Ah!” said Sir Matthew.

It was all he said, but it was more than enough.

Blunt fidgeted uneasily. What power possessed the boy to make him show off his riding at this juncture? If he could have stopped him, or turned him back, or waved him off!—but his will was impotent.

Monsieur Caloche, well back in the saddle, his brown eyes shining, his disfigured face flushed and glowing, with wide felt hat drawn closely over his smooth small head, with slender knees

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close pressed to his horse's flanks, came riding on, jumping small logs, bending with flexible joints under straggling branches, never pausing in his reckless course, until on a sudden he found himself almost in front of the buggy, and, reining up, was confronted in full by the savage gleam of Sir Matthew's eyes. It was with the old scared expression that he pulled off his wideawake, and bared his head, black and silky as a young retriever's. Sir Matthew knew how to respond to the boy's greeting. He stood up in the buggy and shook his fist at him; his voice, hoarse from the work he had given it that morning, coming out with rasping intensity.

“What the devil do you mean by riding my 'orses' tails off, eh?”

Monsieur Caloche, in his confusion, straining to catch the full meaning of the question, looked fearfully round at the hind quarters of the two-year-old, as if some hitherto unknown phenomenon peculiar to Australian horses might, in fact, have suddenly left them tailless.

But the tail was doing good service against the flies at the moment of his observation, so, reassured, he turned his wistful gaze upon Sir Matthew.

“Monsieur,” he began, apologetically, “permit that I explain it to you. I did ga-lopp.”

“You can ga-lopp to hell!” said Sir Matthew, with furious mimicry. “I'll teach you to ruin my 'orses' legs!”

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Blunt saw him lift his whip and strike Monsieur Caloche on the chest. The boy turned so unnaturally white that the manager looked to see him reel in his saddle. But he only swayed forward and slipped to the ground on his feet. Sir Matthew, sitting down again in the buggy with an uncomfortable sensation of some undue excess it might have been as well to recall, saw this white face for the flash of an instant's space, saw its desperation, its shame, its trembling lips; then he was aware that the two-year-old stood riderless in front of him, and away in the distance the figure of a lad was speeding through the timber, one hand held against his chest, his hat gone, and he unheeding, palpably sobbing and crying in his loneliness and defencelessness as he stumbled blindly on.

Runaway boys, I fear, call forth very little solicitude in any heart but a mother's. A cat may be nine-lived, but a boy's life is centuple. He seems only to think it worth keeping after the best part of it is gone. Boys run away from schools, from offices, from stations, without exciting more than an ominous prognostication that they will go to the bad. According to Sir Matthew's inference, Monsieur Caloche had “gone to the bad” long ago—ergo, it was well to be rid of him. This being so, what utterly inconsistent crank had laid hold of the head of the great firm of Bogg & Co., and tortured him

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through a lengthy afternoon and everlasting night with the vision of two despairing eyes and a scared white face? Even his hobby cried out against him complainingly. It was not for this that it had borne him prancing along. Not to confront him night and day with eyes so distressful that he could see nothing else. Would it be always so? Would they shine mournfully out of the dim recesses of his gloomy office in Flinders Lane, as they shone here in the wild bush on all sides of him—so relentlessly sad that it would have been a relief to see them change into the vindictive eyes of the Furies who gave chase to Orestes? There was clearly only one remedy against such a fate, and that was to change the nature of the expression which haunted him by calling up another in its place. But how, and when?

Sir Matthew prowled around the homestead the second morning after Monsieur Caloche's flight in a manner unaccountable to himself. That he should return “possessed” to his elaborate warehouse, where he would be alone all day, and his house of magnificent desolation, where he would be alone all night, was fast becoming a matter of impossibility. What sums out of all proportion would he not have forfeited to have seen the white-faced foreign lad, and to be able to pay him out for the discomfort he was causing him, instead of being bothered by the sight of his “cursed belongings” at every turn! He

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could not go into the stable without seeing some of his gimcracks; when he went into the kitchen, it was to stumble over a pair of miniature boots, and a short curl of hair, in silken rings, fell from the ledge at his feet. There was only one thing to be done! Consulting with Blunt, clumsily enough,—for nothing short of desperation would have induced Sir Matthew to approach the topic of Monsieur Caloche,—he learned that nothing had been seen or heard of the lad since the moment of his running away.

“And 'twasn't in the direction of the township, neither,” added Blunt, gravely. “I doubt the sun'll have made him stupid, and he'll have camped down some place on the run.”

Blunt's insinuations anent the sun were sheer artifice, for Blunt, in his private heart, did not endorse his own suggestions in the least degree. It was his belief that the lad had struck a shepherd's hut, and was keeping (with a show of common sense he had not credited him with) out of the way of his savage employer. But it was worth while making use of the artifice to see Sir Matthew's ill-concealed uneasiness. Hardly the same Sir Matthew, in any sense, as the bullying growler who had driven by his side not two days ago. For this morning the double-seated buggy was the scene of neither plaints nor abuse. Quietly over the bush track—where last Monsieur Caloche, with his hand to his breast, had run sobbing along—the two men drove, their wheels

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passing over a wideawake hat, lying neglected and dusty in the road. For more than an hour and a half they followed the track, the dusty soil that had been witness to the boy's flight still indicating at intervals traces of a small foot-print. The oppressive calm of the atmosphere seemed to have left even the ridges of dust undisturbed. Blunt reflected that it must have been “rough on a fellow” to run all that way in the burning sun. It perplexed him, however, to remember that the shepherd's hut would be now far in their rear. Perhaps it was with a newly born sense of uneasiness on his own account that he flicked his whip, and made the trotter “go,” for no comment could be expected from Sir Matthew, sitting in complete silence by his side.

To Blunt's discerning eyes the last of the foot-prints seemed to occur right in the middle of the track. On either side was the plain. Ostensibly Sir Matthew had come that way to look at the sheep. There was, accordingly, every reason for turning to the right, and driving towards a belt of timber some hundred yards away, and there were apparently more forcible reasons still for making for a particular tree, a straggling tree, with some pretensions to a meagre shade, the sight of which called forth an ejaculation, not entirely coherent, from Blunt.

Sir Matthew saw the cause of Blunt's ejaculation,—a recumbent figure that had probably reached “the quiet haven of us all,” it lay so still. But

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whether quiet or no, it would seem that to disturb its peace was a matter of life or death to Sir Matthew Bogg. Yet surely here was satiety of the fullest for his hobby! Had he not “dropped on to the ‘foreign adventurer’ unawares”? So unawares, in fact, that Monsieur Caloche never heeded his presence, or the presence of his working manager, but lay with a glaze on his half-closed eyes in stiff unconcern at their feet.

The clerks and juniors in the outer office of the great firm of Bogg & Co. would have been at some loss to recognize their chief in the livid man who knelt by the dead lad's side. He wanted to feel his heart, it appeared; but his trembling fingers failed him. Blunt comprehended the gesture. Whatever of tenderness Monsieur Caloche had expended in his short lifetime was repaid by the gentleness with which the working manager passed his hand under the boy's rigid neck. It was with a shake of the head that seemed to Sir Matthew like the fiat of his doom, that Blunt unbuttoned Monsieur Caloche's vest and discovered the fair white throat beneath. Unbuttoning still—with tremulous fingers, and a strange apprehension creeping chillily over him—the manager saw the open vest fall loosely asunder, and then——Yes; then it was proven that Sir Matthew's hobby had gone its extreme length. Though it could hardly have been rapture at its great triumph that filled his eyes with such a strange

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expression of horror as he stood looking fearfully down on the corpse at his feet. For he had, in point of fact, “dropped on to it unawares;” but it was no longer Monsieur Caloche he had “dropped on to,” but a girl, with breast of marble, bared in its cold whiteness to the open daylight, and to his ardent gaze. Bared, without any protest from the half-closed eyes, unconcerned behind the filmy veil which glazed them. A virgin breast spotless in hue, save for a narrow purple streak marking it in a dark line from the collar-bone downwards. Sir Matthew knew, and the working manager knew, and the child they called Monsieur Caloche had known, by whose hand the mark had been imprinted. It seemed to Sir Matthew that a similar mark, red-hot like a brand, must now burn on his own forehead for ever. For what if the hungry Australian sun, and emotion, and exhaustion had been the actual cause of the girl's death? he acknowledged in the bitterness of his heart that the “cause of the cause” was his own bloodstained hand.

It must have been poor satisfaction to his hobby after this, to note that Blunt had found a tiny pocket-book on the person of the corpse, filled with minute foreign handwriting, of which nothing could be made! For, with one exception, it was filled with French quotations all of the same tenor—all pointing to the one conclusion—and clearly proving (if it has not been proved already) that a woman who loses her

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beauty, loses her all. The English quotation will be known to some readers of Shakespeare: “So beauty blemished once for ever's lost!” Affixed to it was the faintly traced signature of Henriette Caloche.

So here was a sort of insight into the mystery. The “foreign adventurer” might be exonerated after all. No baser designs need be laid at the door of dead “Monsieur Caloche” than the design of hiding the loss which had deprived her of all glory in her sex. If, indeed, the loss were a real one! For beauty is more than skin deep, although Monsieur Caloche had not known it. It is of the bone, and the fibre, and the nerves that thrill through the brain. It is of the form and the texture too, as any one would have allowed who scrutinized the body prone in the dust. Even the cruel scars seemed merciful now, and relaxed their hold on the chiselled features, as though “eloquent, just, and mightie death” would suffer no hand but his own to dally with his possession.

It is only in Christmas stories, I am afraid, where, in deference to so rollicking a season, everything is bound to come right in the end, that people's natures are revolutionized in a night, and from narrow-minded villains they become open-hearted seraphs of charity. Still it is on record of the first Henry that from the time of the sinking of the White Ship, “he never smiled again.” I cannot say that Sir Matthew was never known to smile, in his old sour way, or that

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he never growled or scolded, in his old bullying fashion, after the discovery of Monsieur Caloche's body. But he was none the less a changed man. The outside world might rightly conjecture that henceforth a slender, mournful-eyed shadow would walk by his side through life. But what can the outside world know of the refinement of mental anguish that may be endured by a mind awakened too late? In Sir Matthew's case—relatively as well as positively; for constant contemplation of a woman's pleading eyes and a dead statuesque form might give rise to imaginings that it would be maddening to dwell upon. What a wealth of caresses those stiff little hands had it in their power to bestow! What a power of lighting up the solemnest office, and—be sure—the greatest, dreariest house, was latent in those dejected eyes.

Brooding is proverbially bad for the liver. Sir Matthew died of the liver complaint, and his will was cited as an instance of the eccentricity of a wealthy Australian, who, never having been in France, left the bulk of his money for the purpose of constructing and maintaining a magnificent wing to a small-pox hospital in the south of France. It was stipulated that it should be called the “Henriette” wing, and is, I believe, greatly admired by visitors from all parts of the world.