"Book II, Chapter 1." by Rosa Praed (1851-1935)
It was the way of the O'Haras to do things first and to consider afterwards whether it were well or ill that they should be done. Many a ruined O'Hara might have fared differently in life's battle had he thought before he acted.
Lady Bridget was no exception to the rule of her family. She had accepted Colin McKeith in a blind impulse of escape from the old hedged-in existence of her order, of which she was quite tired and where-in she had proved herself a failure. She had been attracted by the idea that he represented, of wide spaces and primitive adventures. She had always longed to travel in untrodden ways, and had loved stories of romantic barbarism. And then, too, some queer glamour of the man had got hold of her. She was intensely susceptible to personal influence – his bigness, his simplicity, his strength and daring, and the feeling that he was quite capable of mastering her, not only by brute force – which always appeals to a certain type of woman – but by power of will, by a tenacity of passion which she recognised even through the shy reserve with which McKeith tried to cloak his adoration. For she was goddess to him, as well as lady-love – and that she realised plainly. A look from her would make him go white and his large hands tremble; an unexpected grace from her would fill him with reverent ecstasy.
The thing happened one soft moonlit evening after dinner at Government House, when she had strolled out alone to a secluded part of the terrace, and he had followed her after the men left the dining-room. She was in a mood of tempestuous raging against her ordained lot. Letters had come from England that day which had irritated her and made her wonder how she could endure any longer her galling state of dependence. Eliza Countess of Gaverick had sent her a meagre cheque, accompanied by a scathing rebuke of her extravagance. Some cutting little sarcasms of Molly Gaverick's had likewise annoyed her, and she fretted under the miserable sense of her inadequacy to the demands of a world she despised and yet hankered after. Then Sir Luke had been tiresomely pertinacious over some small dereliction on Bridget's part from the canons of Government House etiquette, which he had requested should not be repeated. Rosamond Tallant had been tiresome also and had made her feel that even here she was no more than a dependent who must conform to the wills of her official superiors. Joan Gildea might have served as a safety-valve, but Joan was away in or near the Jenolan Caves, and could not be got at unless Bridget chose to throw up other things and go to her, which Bridget was not inclined to do.
The whole thing was a tangle. If only it were possible to find a way out that would not prove still more painfully complicated.
At the moment the ting-tang of a steamer bell bound outward to the northern coast, borne to her on the river-breeze, intensified her desire for escape from conventional limitations. Oh! to find herself under totally new conditions! The heavy fragrance of magnolia and gardenia blossoms seemed freighted with exotic suggestion. The tropical odours blended with the perfume of autumn roses, which made a trellis over her head and overran the balustrades. The subtle mingling of perfumes that float in the clear air of an Australian garden, when the fierce heats of summer are gone, gave her a sense of almost intoxication.
In fact, Bridget was in the mood for any desperate leap into the Unknown. Such was her unconscious thought as she crunched a spray of verbena in her fingers and inhaled the scent which had always a faintly heady effect upon her imagination. She was leaning on the stone kerb of the balustrade, vague emotions stirring her, when she heard McKeith's step on the gravel. Presently he stood beside her, his tall form, in the well-cut evening suit which always became him best, towering head and shoulders above her small stature. It was always a satisfaction to Lady Bridget, fastidious in such masculine details, that he was particular about his tailoring, and tonight he exhaled the scent of one of Sir Luke Tallant's excellent cigars. There used to be a good deal of chaff between them about one of his personal predilections which jarred a little upon Bridget – his pipe and, particularly, the quality of his tobacco. But he did not change it in spite of her chaff. She was beginning to find a certain mule-like obstinacy about him in unimportant details.
'If you object to this, what would you say to the store tobacco smoke when I'm in the Bush?' he said. And then he had explained that, when camping out with the stockmen on their expeditions after cattle, he always smoked the same tobacco that he supplied to his hands. That was according to his rule of social equality by the camp fire, he said. . . . And where was all Lady Bridget's vaunted socialism if she jibbed at such a simple illustration of the first principles of socialism? Of course, Bridget had taken his banter in good part, and with a pretty grimace had told him she would get out a consignment of the stuff her Aunt Eliza gave at Christmas to the old men in their Irish village and present him with it.
He threw away the butt end of Sir Luke's cigar when he joined her. For several moments he stood watching her – the picturesque little figure in its dainty frock, the grace of the small head with its crop of untidy hair, the pale pointed face – chin resting in the cup of one flower-like hand, red lips – the upper one like Cupid's bow – slightly parted, strange deep eyes gazing across the dark expanse of river to the scattered lights on the high land opposite. Above, the Southern Cross, set diagonally, in the dark clear sky gemmed with its myriad stars.
There could be no doubt that Colin McKeith was in the grip of an infatuation such as he had never known before in his life. It staggered him. His breath caught in his throat and ended in an uncertain laugh. He stuttered in sheer awkwardness.
'I – I say . . . you seem to be up in the clouds. You've been awfully down in the mouth – all through dinner. Won't you tell me? Is anything the matter?'
Bridget turned and looked at him. Her eyes were softly glistening, her lips trembled. He thought of her as of a child seeking sympathy in a strange land, where nobody understood her and somebody had been unkind. He was intensely stirred by her impulsive appeal.
'Oh! I'm worried. I'm so alone in the world. Nobody wants me – here or in England either. I was just wondering if I couldn't go off and join Joan Gildea. . . . But she wouldn't want me either, perhaps.'
He went closer, stooping over the balustrade. Magnetic threads seemed to be drawing them to each other. He wanted to say, 'I want you,' but dared not. He blurted forth instead?
'What is it? I'd cut off my right hand if that would be of any use to you. Good Lord! That does sound cheek! Only – you know – I'm big enough to bully the whole of Leichardt's Land from the Governor down – and I'd do it if you wanted me to. Just tell me what's worrying you?'
'It's everything – the whole set of conditions from the day I was born into them.'
'Conditions are easy enough things to break, if you're determined to do it. Look here – talk it out. . . . you can trust me.'
Then she recklessly set the flood gates open – laughed with tears in the laughter; drew a tragically amusing picture of her life – her anomalous position, her dependence, her hatred of the pretences, the shifts, the sordid bravado by means of which her impoverished Gaverick relatives clung on to their social birthright, the toadying of the Dowager, the worldly admonitions of Rosamond Tallant and her set – she used some of the phrases he had himself read in that letter. Had he been in any doubt as to its authorship that doubt must now be at rest. But he would never tell her of that episode. For one thing, his promise to Joan bound him. Like a stab came the remembrance of that man of whom Biddy had written – the man towards whom she had confessed a violent attraction – and who had behaved as a cad and a fortune-hunter would naturally behave. That he could have weighed money in the balance with this! She could not have cared for the fellow, or he must have thrown over everything else for her. Was it possible that she had cared – that she still cared?
'Tell me,' he asked hoarsely. 'Is it that you are fretting after somebody over there who – someone you can't marry? There must have been a lot of men in your life. Perhaps there was one who – whom you – loved.'
His voice dropped, as it had a way of doing when he touched the sacred subject.
'There have been a lot of men,' she admitted frankly. 'But there has never been one true Man among them. I've never really in my heart wanted to marry any of them, if that's what you mean – I don't like marriage – our system of marriage – a bargain in the sale shop. So much at such a price – birth, position, suitability, good looks – to be paid for at the market value. Or else it's just because the man happens to have taken a fancy to one, and while the fancy lasts doesn't think whether or not it's a fair bargain – on either side. I've seen people fall madly in love and marry like that. Then before very long the love turns to hate and it's a case for the Divorce Court.'
'Nothing of that is – love – not as I – and you – understand it.'
She gave him one of her inscrutable looks and then turned again to the stars. There was silence; Colin thought she must hear his heart thumping, but she seemed lost in her dreams. He put out his big hand and timidly, reverently, took hers, crushed verbena and all, as it lay on the balustrade. It rested like a prisoned bird within his; he could feel the nervous twitch of the little fingers.
'There's another system of marriage – a better one, I think – where the man doesn't ask for anything but the right to love until – until he has compelled the woman's love in return.'
'Compelled! I like that word. I could yield to my master. But he would have to prove himself my master.'
'Will you let me try?' McKeith said boldly. He grasped her hand tightly as he spoke; she gave a little cry, for he had hurt her. He was all compunction and gentleness in a moment.
'Oh, you are strong!' she said. 'I almost think you could make me do anything you chose.'
'No – that isn't what I meant.' He seemed trying to steady himself. 'I'm damned if I'd ever give up my free-will to anybody, and I wouldn't like even the woman who was my mate to do it either. But love – that's a different thing. . . . '
'Your mate!' she repeated.
'You don't know the Bush idea of a real mate – shoulder to shoulder, back to back – no getting behind one or the other – giving up your life for your mate, if it came to a pinch.'
'And that's your idea of – love?'
'Something like it, only closer, dearer – a thing you couldn't talk about even to your mate – unless your mate was your wife – a flower that blooms once in your life, and that would never – if it were cut off – come to bloom again. Look here,' he said fiercely, 'have you ever felt for any one of the lot of men you spoke about just like that?'
'N – no,' she answered slowly.
'If you told me you had, I'd walk away now down those steps –' he pointed to the flight of stone steps leading from the terrace to the drive – 'and you wouldn't see me any more. . . . But I'm not going to leave you now, I mean to stick on for all I'm worth, so long as I see the faintest chance of your giving me what I've set my heart on.'
'Yes – well?' She stared at him in a fascinated manner.
'Well – Bridget – I can't milady you. We're man and woman and nothing else to-night. . . . '
She interrupted. 'I like you to say that. I feel now that we, at least, are real – not social shams.'
'Bridget – you said you'd never found yet a Real Man to love you. Here's one.' He patted his broad chest with his open palm. 'I'm a rough Bushy and there's not a frill about me, but I'm bed-rock if you come to Reality. I'm a lode you've never struck in your life before. There's payable gold here, if you choose to work me,'
She laughed nervously, considering him.
'Mr McKeith, I'm sure that you're a perfect Mount Morgan, and you certainly have a most original way of putting things. Do you happen to own a gold mine, by the way?'
He drew in his breath slowly, as if he were considering the check, then he took her cue.
'Oh, well! I have pegged out a good many claims in my time and never got much more than my tucker out of any of them – though there was a show I came on once up the Gulf way that I've always been a bit sorry I didn't stop and look into. But rations were short and the Blacks bad. . . . However, that's neither here nor there, now. Gold mine or not, I'm positive that I shall be a rich man before many years have passed – all the richer for a true mate to stand by me.'
'Yes, of course,' she said hastily – 'I wasn't thinking of that – whether you were rich or not, I mean.'
'I know you weren't. All the same, I suppose your grand relations would consider me a presumptuous boor for daring to lift my eyes to you. And yet, if I could make you love me, it wouldn't count for a blade of grass that your father was born in a castle and mine in a crofter's cabin. . . . Only – you know too –' he became timid and hesitant again – 'you know it isn't that I don't feel you as far above me, almost, as those stars in the sky. . . . '
'Oh don't, don't, Mr McKeith. It isn't true, you know. I've told you how I despise all that – all the life I've led.'
'Yes, I know. There's not such a difference between us when we stand as we are now, right on the bed rock. You're like me in having a strain of working-folk's blood in you. It's Nature you're hankering after – God's sweet air and the breath of the gum trees and freedom for your soul.'
'Freedom for my soul! How strange that you should understand.'
'I understand better than you might think. You want more than freedom to make you content. You want a kind of bondage that is the truest freedom – Love – a strong man's love, a strong man's worship. And that's what I'd give you, Bridget. Are you angry with me for saying it?'
'No.' She turned her face straight to him without any shadow of embarrassment. 'Mr McKeith, I'm too honest to pretend that I didn't half expect this. I felt you were beginning to care for me, and I was wondering whether I ought to let you go on.'
'Whether you ought to let me! As if you would be able to hinder it! Why, you couldn't stop me loving you. You might as well try to dam up the river Leichardt with this little hand I'm holding.'
She would have withdrawal it, but could not.
"No, no. It isn't strong enough – this tiny, trembling hand, which I could break to bits in mine if I wanted to. And could you prevent me from taking you in my arms – you wee great lady – and carrying you right away – away, out into the Bush where I'm on my own ground and where not one of your swell men folk would have a chance to find you.'
'I don't think any one of them would want to.' she laughed again tremulously. 'If it comes to that though, I fancy you'd have some trouble in disposing of me against my will.'
'Do you think I'd ever want you against your will! No. I'd sooner cut the whole show, and let you scorn me at a distance as much as you pleased.'
'I – scorn you! . . . I wouldn't scorn you.'
'And even your scorn wouldn't kill my love,' he said, in that moved voice that was so unlike his ordinary utterance – 'because there's nothing in the Universe, so far as I know it, that would be able to do that. Why, it seems to me that my feeling for you is as much a part of myself as the very blood in my heart. I knew you were the only woman in the world for me the moment I saw you – so slim and small and strange, the very contrary of what I'd always thought would be the kind of woman I'd be in love with – that day when you came walking along that gangway behind Lady Tallant. It was just a revelation, and then I bolted straight off to Alexandra City.'
'Which seems rather odd, doesn't it, in the circumstances?'
'No, it's this way. I had to take a few days for getting over the shock – for rubbing in the fact that what I wanted more than anything on God's earth, now I'd seen it, was utterly beyond my reach.'
'One might think I was an enchanted princess – a sort of Brunhilda guarded by a fiery dragon.'
'That's a good bit of how I looked on you – though I've never made much out of Wagner – he isn't human enough for me. . . . And how could I have dreamed then that you'd ever let me come as near you as I am this evening!'
'I must say, Mr McKeith, you haven't shown such extreme diffidence in approaching me.'
'Ah! Because you soon showed that Brunhilda's dragon was only pasteboard and blue fire after all – one of the shams you despise. I'm not afraid of him now. . . . Oh, it's wonderful. . . . It's beautiful. . . . '
He took her other hand and held the two covered over by his own as he said with an odd solemnity:
'Lady Bridget O'Hara will you come away with me to the Bush, leaving everything else behind you?'
She stood very slender and erect, her eyes shining in the moonlight out of her small pale face and fixed upon him thoughtfully as if she were weighing his proposition. After a few minutes, she answered deliberately.
'Yes, Mr Colin McKeith, I will go away with you into the Bush, leaving everything else behind me – the old "Lady Bridget O'Hara" included.'
He gave an indescribable ejaculation – joy, surprise, triumph – all were in the utterance. Dropping her hands, he stooped to her and his arm went round her.
'Oh! Biddy . . . darling.'
She knew he wanted to kiss her, and that he scarcely dared so greatly. .. . As his beard brushed her cheek, she shrank and moved a step from him. He, too, shrank, hurt by her rebuff.
'You mustn't be – ardent,' she said. 'You must give me time to get accustomed to – the fate I've chosen. You know the dragon isn't altogether a sham. He's got a few kicks in him – yet.'
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