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Chapter 4

 

DUNDAS woke late and care-free. It was ten o'clock before he had finished his leisurely breakfast, and captured and groomed Billy. Then he turned his attention to his toilet. To a man with a regard for the decencies of life, there was a deep sense of satisfaction in discarding his serviceable but unpleasantly rough working garb for more conventional clothing.

Truly clothes maketh the man. Few would have recognised in the the smart figure, clothed in spotless white from head to foot, the dungaree and flannel clad man of yesterday. As he stepped into his dogcart that morning, nineteen women out of twenty would have found Alan Dundas a man to look at more than once, although they might pretend they had never noticed him, as is their way.

Billy Blue Blazes made his own pace on the road to Glen Cairn, a privilege he was rarely granted, and made the most of it. Two miles out of the township Alan met Bryce in his car on his way to bring in the other visitor. The two exchanged hasty greetings as Billy clawed the air, and expressed his opinion on mechanical traction in unmistakable fashion. So, after stabling at the club, it was Doris alone who greeted Alan at the bank. And Doris, when she looked at him, said in her heart that her work would be good.

From her deck chair on the verandah she chaffed him for a hermit. "I suppose, Mistress Doris, that wretched man of yours has been telling tales of my menage. You know he had lunch with me last week."

"Of course, Alan, he told me that you were starving yourself, poor boy. I do hope that you have recovered your appetite."

"The traitor! He said he would do nothing to warn you of the impending catastrophe. Well, if he has to go without on my account, serve him right."

There came the hoot of a motor-horn from the street. "There's Hector now; he went out to bring us in another guest, Alan—guess?"

"I'm too lazy and contented for a mental effort." Then, after a pause, "MacArthur?"

Doris made a sound that approached a dainty sniff. "I'm not playing speaks with Mr. MacArthur," she said, a little stiffly.

"You might do worse, Mistress Doris. Give him a chance."

There came a sound of voices from the garden, and they both stood up. "Come on, Maid Marian. We'll find them on the verandah." Then the others turned the corner. Bryce greeted Alan heartily, and then turned to the girl beside him. "I've brought you a judge, jury, and executioner, Dundas. I hear you have been guilty of treason, desertion, and a few other trifling offences. It's currently reported that you were squared by the Ronga Club not to play yesterday."

Alan took the warm firm hand held out to him. "I've been executed already by Mistress Doris, Miss Seymour, you can't punish me twice for the same offence." The girl smiled as she took the chair he drew up for her. "Luckily we pulled through without you. What excuse have you?"

"Only Eve's legacy—work," he answered.

"Doris dear," said Marian, "is not the excuse as bad as the offence? A nasty slur on our sex by inference and a claim to the right to work when we want him to play."

Then, standing up: "Guilty on all counts, and remanded for sentence— until I can think of something sufficiently unpleasant to fit the crime."

"Then I can only throw myself on the mercy of the court. Make it a free pardon, Miss Seymour," said Dundas, laughing.

She regarded him with laughing eyes, and then turned to Doris. "I doubt if severity will have any lasting effect in this case. Perhaps if we extend the clemency of the court—" Then to Dundas: "Case dismissed. I hope you will not appear here again. Isn't that what father says on the bench?"

Bryce chuckled. "A disgraceful miscarriage of justice. That's what it amounts to. Coming in, Doris, nothing but his bleeding scalp would satisfy her. Now he is pardoned. It's too thick."

"Out of your own mouth, Bryce," said Alan, "a free pardon was the right course. The quality of mercy is not strained. Why? Because it's too thick."

Doris stood up. "Come and take off your hat, Marian. A constant diet of eggs has affected his mind. He's absolutely unworthy of notice."

Left to themselves Bryce and Alan settled down to a yarn that drifted from politics to town and district news, and thence to the absorbing topic of vines and crops. "How grows the waterhole?" asked Bryce after a while. Dundas was waiting for the question, and with elaborate carelessness answered briefly that he had struck rock and abandoned it. "I am building a fodder-house on the site as a monument to my displaced energy," he went on. "I was so busy with the building that I missed coming in to town yesterday."

Bryce shook his head. "You'll overdo it, Dun."

"Hector and Alan." It was Doris's voice. "If you want any dinner you had better come now."

It was afterwards when they were at peace with the world, the one with a pipe and the other with a cigar, that Alan put the question that he had been quietly manoeuvring for.

"Can you tell me, Hec, if at any time there has been any big building work done at 'Cootamundra', or even started?"

Bryce reflected for a few moments. "I've known 'Cootamundra' now for nearly forty years, and I'm certain that, beyond the present buildings, nothing of the kind has ever been done there. Why ask?"

"Oh, nothing much," answered Dundas, fibbing carefully. "Now and again I thought I noticed traces of foundations about the place near the house."

And so the talk drifted lazily off into other channels until they were rejoined by Doris and Marian.

It was the strange behaviour of his wife that occupied Bryce's attention for the rest of the day, to the exclusion of all else. As an onlooker he thought he should have seen most of the game, and knowing the rules, or thinking he did, it was, he found, a game that he did not understand. When Marian came on the scene he prepared cheerfully to give Dundas a clear field, but to his surprise he found that every attempt was neatly foiled by his erratic spouse.

Thereafter he watched her manoeuvres with amused astonishment. It was apparent to the densest understanding that both Alan and Marian would have welcomed each other's society undiluted, and Bryce enjoyed to the utmost Alan's diplomatic but persistent efforts to "shoo" off his too attentive hostess, and her apparently unconscious disregard for his efforts.

In the end it came as a relief to be able to announce a wholly fictitious trouble with the engine of his car that threw on Alan the responsibility of delivering Marian safely at her home. It was nearly ten o'clock when Dundas brought the snorting Billy B.B. to the door of Bryce's quarters at the bank, and Marian made her hasty farewells, for Billy was never in a mood on a homeward journey to stand on four legs for two consecutive seconds.

The two watched the receding lights of the dogcart for a few minutes, and then returned to the house. Doris began to straighten some music that was lying about, while Bryce, leaning back in an easy chair, watched her thoughtfully. Presently she appeared to be aware of his scrutiny. "What's on your mind, Hec?" she asked.

"It's not what's on my mind, best beloved; it's what's in yours that is making me thoughtful," answered her husband.

Doris returned the music to its place, and sank into a chair, while Bryce, after placing a cushion for her head, took his stand in front of her, feet apart, hands in pockets. "Now, my lady, I want explanations; lots of 'em."

Doris looked up at him with a slow reminiscent smile that ended in a little gurgle. "Aren't they lovely, Hec? The dears! I'm sure Alan would have liked to shake me. Don't you think so?"

"By Jove, Doris, I wonder at his self-control! Now, listen." Here he shook an admonitory finger. "If you don't immediately explain your scandalous conduct, I'll act as Alan's deputy, and shake you till you do."

"Violence is quite unnecessary, Hec," she laughed softly. "You know it struck me this morning, that if I left them together Alan would just take things easily, and let them drift. You know I'm not altogether sure of Alan." Here she paused thoughtfully.

"And so?" persisted Bryce.

"And so," she went on, "I just teased them by not giving them a chance, because, well, suppose you dangle something a child wants just out of its reach, and then suddenly rest for a moment, the probabilities are that the child will grab when it gets the chance." Another pause.

"And you mean?" asked Hector with dawning comprehension.

"Well, there is a tantalised nice man, and a specially nice girl, and a narrow-seated dogcart, and a wonderful moon, and if the man doesn't grab—well, I don't know anything. Oh, you monster!"

Bryce's arms had swept outwards and gathered her in with one heave of his shoulders. "Oh, Hec, do let me down." He backed to his armchair, still holding her firmly until her struggles ceased. "Will you be good?" he asked. "Good as gold," she answered, with her head on his shoulder.

"It's my opinion, Doris, that you are a scandalous little schemer. Great Scott! What chance has a man against that sort of thing?"

"Do you think it will work, Hec?" passing her hand round his neck.

"Maybe—it won't be your fault if it doesn't, you imp! The only thing against it is that you forgot Billy. He is a straight-forward little animal, whatever may be said against him, and I doubt if he will permit his owner to become a victim of your conspiracy."

"Hum—dear boy—it would take wilder horses than Billy to stop a man if he really meant business."

"Look here, Doris, I want to know, are we all treated like this? Are you and your kind really the destiny that shapes our matrimonial ends? You know it makes one nervous. I never dreamed of such depths of duplicity. What about me, for instance?"

She looked at him with shining eyes, and smiled softly. "Oh—you— well, Hec, special cases require special treatment. I've read somewhere that natives when they want to get certain very shy birds, just do something that will attract their attention and their curiosity. Then, when the bird comes to see what it is, they just put out their hands and take it. That is, if the bird is worth taking."

"So—I see—I see—I don't seem to recollect any tactics of that kind in our case, Doris, and I'm sure I would have remembered, because I have read somewhere, too, that the method adopted by the natives is to lie on their backs and twiddle their toes in the air. Now, if you had done that—" There was a brief struggle and a soft hand closed over his mouth, and the rest is of no interest to outsiders.