Chapter XXXI

TWO days later, Stella had again ridden in the direction of No Man's Land; but this time she was alone, except for Dustiefoot and her horse, and she had an ‘adventure.’ Shearing was soon to begin, and all hands were busily occupied on the station. Under these circumstances, Stella insisted on her birthright, as an Australian born, to ride through her native woods without any companionship beyond a swift well-bred horse and her beloved dog. There was some talk of getting Maisie to practise riding on a not very young pony, whose wildest pace had long been a gentle canter, so that during the time there was a premium on all male workers she might accompany her mistress. But Stella rejected the proposal with comic horror. Maisie by herself, or Andy by himself, might be borne; but the united caution of the two would mar the most delectable ride that

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could be offered by spring and Duke. If they really objected to her riding alone—‘Look at the hypocritical Baby pretending to give in!’ cried Claude, ‘as if she ever failed to get her own way in anything!’ ‘I wish I could go,’ said Mrs. Claude, making a rueful little face; but her husband did not echo the wish. ‘I shall ask Dr. Langdale to come with me,’ thought Stella; but somehow she did not, which could hardly be deemed the action of unbiased friendship.

It was her second ride alone, one breezy sunshiny forenoon, when four miles from the head-station on the road that led to No Man's Land, Stella came upon the strangest spectacle she had ever seen. It was a very old-looking waggon, with a tilt-cover, drawn by two horses, followed by another, tied to the vehicle behind, and all three lean to the last degree of emaciation, while the pace at which they went was that of animals worn out with famine and fatigue; and everything else was in keeping with the worn, famished look of the horses. At each slow revolution of the wheels, the waggon creaked and groaned as though it would fall to pieces. The woodwork was warped and splintered, with here and there dim greenish streaks—faint reminiscences of having, at some remote period, been painted. The canvas cover was draggled and patched, saturated with reddish sand and long-accumulated dust, frayed into tatters at one side and flapping dismally in the wind. The harness was entirely composed of untanned lengths of kangaroo skin; the horses had no bits in their mouths, but there was a ragged remnant of a bridle on each, to which knotted ropes were attached, that hung loosely on the poor lean necks. Every rib might be counted at a distance. They crawled on with drooping heads, the sound of their worn unshod hoofs completely drowned by the perpetual rumbling and groaning of the disjointed waggon. No hand guided them; no voice urged them on.

It was all so unspeakably forlorn and dreary, that the sight filled Stella with dismay. Dustiefoot, who was trotting on gaily in front, paused as he drew near this battered vehicle, drawn by horses that looked only fit to be the food of carrion crows, and he, too, was plainly smitten with something akin to fear. Whether this was occasioned by the strange rumbling and groaning or the weird appearance of the whole, it would be hard to say. But he suddenly

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stopped short, and, with the hair round his neck bristling angrily, began to bark in a loud defiant way. ‘Quiet, good dog; quiet,’ said Stella coaxingly. She had reined in her horse, and it suddenly flashed across her mind that this extreme misery must be rooted in some catastrophe. At the sound of the dog's barking the horses came to a stand-still. It seemed as though they were glad of an excuse to give up even the snail's pace at which they crawled. Still no sign of life in the waggon. Women of well-descended natures, who have been protected from every form of harm all their lives, are usually not lacking in courage. Stella was certainly no coward. But she had a powerful imagination of an essentially picture-forming kind.

Was there anyone in this spectral - looking conveyance alive?—or was its occupant worn with fatigue and asleep? She had heard strange stories of people who had been overtaken by drought or illness, and had been imprisoned sometimes for months, sometimes for a year, in a far-away corner beside a permanent water-hole, unvisited by any human being. She advanced slowly to the side of the waggon, and using the well-known Bush salutation, she said ‘Good-day,’ in a loud, clear voice. But there was no reply. Her own words came back to her with mocking emphasis. She shrank from dismounting to look into the waggon, shrank still more from the sight that might meet her there. Should she return home and get Hector or Claude or one of the station-hands to come to the rescue? Whether there was a human being in distress or beyond it, the famished horses needed help sorely. To Stella, an animal in want or pain was very little, if at all, less important than a human being. The sight of these three poor creatures, with their bones almost projecting through the skin, with drooping heads and dim eyes, standing in their patient dumbness, went straight to her heart. No; she could not bear the thought of leaving them. She would start them on and take them home, where they would be fed and rested; and if there was anyone in there—‘Oh, I must not be such a coward,’ she said to herself impatiently; and then, with a fast-beating heart, she rode close to the side of the waggon, on which the cover was tattered and fluttering in the soft spring wind that blew from the west. She reined in Duke, the proud, graceful

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young horse she rode, who had come off victor in many well-contested local races, and who was gentle and tractable as only a well-bred horse can be when ridden by an affectionate well-trained rider.

She bent down and looked in. The first thing she saw was a woman's long, fair hair—unkempt and matted. The next was a dingy white cockatoo that had been fast asleep, and now woke up and began to mumble, ‘Confound your eyes, confound your eyes,’ in a faint, rapid way that was infinitely eerie. The woman's face was partly hidden by one hand, which covered her eyes and the upper part of her face —a brown, sunburnt, grimy hand, very lean and unwashed, and unwomanly-looking. No, she was not dead, as Stella at first feared. She moved and moaned, and as the bird went on mumbling, descending to a still lower depth of imprecation, the sound, and then Stella's sympathetic voice saying, ‘I am afraid you are very ill,’ seemed partly to rouse her. She half sat up, but her eyes remained glazed and unresponsive. ‘Gee up, Jerry; Jill, Jill!’ Her tones were shrill, though quavering, and at the words the horses pulled and strained, and once more resumed their weary, incredibly slow walk. They kept in the middle of the road, and Stella could but try to make Duke fall into the same pace. But this was impossible. He could stand stock still, or he could walk his slowest. But being neither lame on four legs, nor starved, nor born to drudgery, he could not absolutely crawl. It took this strange little procession the best part of two hours to get within sight of Lullaboolagana home-station. No words can express the air of mingled pride and responsibility with which Dustiefoot marshalled them all. He made circles round them, he trotted on in front, he walked behind, he panted; his scarlet young tongue hung out with joy and anxiety, his handsome bushy tail was arched upwards more airily than ever. He had the same insuperable difficulty that beset Duke of being unable to regulate his pace by that of animals so famished, so over-borne and jaded, that even their hides would have been worthless. As Stella examined them more closely she saw that they had sores all over them—under the jagged collars that were held together with half-untwisted strands of rope, on their shoulders, sides, and thighs. So utterly maimed and defeated did they look as they dragged one quivering,

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shrunken leg after another, the only wonder was that they had not long since lain down to die.

When Dustiefoot found himself getting too far ahead—and if a young dog walked at all, that was inevitable—he turned round and waited, gazing at his mistress, and then at the horses and their load, till he was forced to give expression to his feelings in one or two barks, which might be classified as of the glad-excitement order. Those who have the privilege of being intimate with dogs are aware that no living creature is so pleased all over at an unusual event as a collie in the second year of his age.

Before the strange little cavalcade had reached the house, it was seen and met first by some of the children, then the maids, and finally by Mrs. Courtland and Mrs. Claude. Dunstan was at once despatched for Dr. Morrison. But before he came the poor woman was refreshed with wine, washed, arrayed in fine linen, and comfortably in bed. It was a case of collapse through long privation and exposure. There was nothing to eat or drink in the waggon beyond the stony remains of a damper, and a little muddy water in a brown earthen jar. She partly recovered consciousness after she had been in bed for a couple of hours. Dr. Morrison, on seeing her, came to the conclusion that careful nursing and dieting would bring her round in a few days. There was some dispute as to who should be chief nurse, but finally Stella convinced her sisters-in-law that, as she had discovered the patient, she must be primarily held responsible.

‘You have a name for finding many ailing sorts of creatures, Miss Stella; but I think this is the biggest cargo of any,’ said the doctor, with an amused twinkle in his eyes. And then he gave his instructions with due emphasis. ‘I shall be away to-morrow, and perhaps the next day, but Dr. Langdale will look after her. By-the-way, how is your last patient, the crow? Langdale had grave fears as to his recovery at one time.’

Soon after the doctor left the patient fell into a deep sleep, and leaving Maisie in charge of the sick-room, Stella went to see after the horses. She found Dunstan giving them small measures of bran and oats, and looking at them with a mingled pity, amazement, and scorn that was irresistibly funny.

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‘You have unharnessed them, Dunstan? That is right. Oh, you poor, poor, dear things!’—and Stella stroked each in turn.

‘Unharnessed them, Miss Stelly? Well, yes, if you calls them bits o' broken rope and rawr hide harness. I'm jiggered, but it's the very rummiest turn-out ever I seed. And what can have come to her husband?’

‘Oh, she may not have one, Dunstan.’

But Dunstan shook his head. ‘Ah, Miss Stelly, you don't never find a female get into such a hole without she's a married ‘oman. That's the way along o' some women. If they want to enjy themselves at all, and are proper-like, they gets married, and then mostly they has a very bad time. They're like these yaller little birds; you sticks 'em in a cage, and they buzz agin the wires; and yet, if you let them go out into the wilds, they get knocked about, and can't get proper tucker.’

Dunstan spoke in a leisurely, high-pitched voice, which had a very odd effect. He was given to moralizing, and had those quaint reaches of fancy that are often found with men whose lives are passed out-of-doors in gardening, or shepherding, or other undrudging avocations.

Stella with difficulty refrained from laughter at this summing-up of the disabilities of her sex.

‘I don't think you would like to be a woman, Dunstan?’

‘Well, no, Miss Stelly. If so be that such a thing could happen, and God A'mighty give me the pick to be a female or a worm, I'd say a worm, if you please; meaning no disrespect to the A'mighty or to you, Miss Stelly. A worm, to be sure, has a lowly life, and unless it's cut in two or swallered alive, not much happens in the span of its days. But what's that to having things allays happening, and each one worse than t'other? I ought to know. I'm married to my third wife, and not one of the three ever had six months proper health on end.’

Dunstan was portioning out further doles of oats and giving them to the horses as he spoke, so that Stella could enjoy these reflections without checking the flow of his thoughts. Dunstan himself seldom laughed, and when others did so at his serio-comic sayings, it disconcerted and, in the end, silenced him.

‘I b'lieve they have had enough; but the poor old

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karkisses look so starved,’ he said, as the horses set to once more.

‘And they are so galled. Dunstan, don't you think if I bathed their sores with a little warm water—oh yes, I am sure of it.’ Stella hastened away, and soon returned with a china bowl of tepid water and a soft sponge, with which she deftly bathed one sore after another.

‘They seem to enjoy it just as if they was Christians,’ said Dunstan, and then he went to the kitchen and brought out a pailful of warm water, as that in the basin soon got discoloured with the dust and sand. Then he stood by as Stella went from one poor skinny creature to another, caressing and speaking to them in a low, fond voice.

Both were so much absorbed that they did not notice the approach of Hector Courtland and Dr. Langdale, who stood at a little distance looking on at the scene with faces full of an amused interest, and some deeper feeling withal, as they watched the girl's tender ministration on the poor galled scarecrow horses.

‘Why, here's Dr. Langdale with the master,’ said Dunstan, suddenly perceiving them. ‘It must be serious for the poor female if she must have two doctors.’ Though Langdale was so frequent a visitor, Dunstan somehow connected his appearance at that juncture with the event of the day.

‘Well, Stella, this little performance of yours caps all your previous finds,’ said Hector, looking at the three horses with beaming eyes.

‘St. Charity, I would give much to have your picture painted as you stood here bathing the sores of these horses,’ said Langdale, and as she returned his greeting there was an expression in his face which made her look quickly away.

‘And this is only part of the caravan, sir,’ said Dunstan, addressing his master. ‘Besides these horses that the crows would hardly get a mouthful on, there's the waggon, fit only for firewood, a cockatoo that would set your hair on end with blasphemy, and a onfortinate female as can't say a word, good or bad.’

‘We cannot permit you to keep the cockatoo, St. Charity,’ said Langdale. ‘I understand he is worse than any of the orthodoxies, consigning people to eternal and entire perdition irrespective of their opinions.’

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‘Well, he does swear very badly,’ said Stella, smiling. ‘We fed him and put him in exile. He is on a perch in the stable.’

‘But who ever heard of a backslider being reformed in a stable? Look here, Courtland, cannot you suggest a better asylum for a foundling whose moral nature has been perverted?’

‘His native woods, I should think; unless you take him in hand yourself, Langdale, as well as the “onfortinate female” as Dunstan calls her.’

‘Are you going to look after my patient, Dr. Langdale?’ asked Stella, who stood sponging the roan horse's neck for the second time.

‘Yes—free, gratis, for nothing, unless you are a refractory nurse; in which case I shall charge you a guinea a visit. Now, if you let me put a little vaseline on these sore places, your new pets will recover all the sooner.’

Stella went immediately to beg a pot of vaseline from Louise.

‘There must be a semi-tragic story behind this curious little adventure,’ said Langdale, examining the waggon. And then Courtland recalled some curious stories that had come to his knowledge in past years of people who had attempted to make long journeys with horses or teams of bullocks through unknown country and came to signal grief. ‘But this is the first time I ever heard of a woman and a blaspheming cockatoo journeying through the Bush, evidently for months.’