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A South-Sea Siren

Chapter XI

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Chapter XI

Mr Percival Prowler had a small bachelor establishment at the foot of Mount Pleasance, where he usually spent a considerable portion of his time. It was not dignified by the title of Country Residence, for the thrifty owner disliked pretentious names, but he modestly called it his shooting box; for what reason nobody could tell, unless because it was nothing of the sort, for Prowler did not shoot, neither did his friends, nor was there any game in the locality to shoot at; there was not even a gun on the premises to shoot with.

Nevertheless, the ‘shooting box’ answered its purpose and was used as the head-station for a sheep run, comprising several ‘back blocks’, that skirted the base of the mountains, and extended for many miles over bleak and rugged country, which was singularly unprofitable for sheep pasturing.

‘The residence itself consisted in a square-shaped one-storied wooden building, encircled by a wide verandah, and standing in a bare and exposed situation on the brow of a hill. There was neither shade nor shelter about it, nor even an attempt at a garden.

For Mr Prowler was a man of an eminently practical turn of mind, he did not lavish money on useless embellishments of any kind, he had a stoical contempt for comfort and a conscientious horror of luxury; with him the only question was always: ‘Will it pay?’

The furnishing of this plain abode was in accordance with its outward appearance, rigidly simple, and in keeping with strict economy. In the front room, which served as a parlour and also for meals, there was a large deal table, well scrubbed, if not polished, half a dozen cane-bottomed chairs and a couch to match, covered with a black oppossum rug. A cedar sideboard, surmounted with a bookcase, containing some useful works of reference, occupied one end of the room; a large mantel-piece, carrying a Swiss clock and two candlesticks stood opposite; the walls were of varnished boards, quite bare, the windows had Venetian blinds; the floor was uncarpeted.

Mr Prowler discarded all hangings and drapery on principle and for sanitary reasons. He believed in unrestricted ventilation and the unsparing use of carbolic soap. Curtains harboured moth and microbes, carpets accumulated dust and dirt. He recognised but one page 124 rule, which he applied to all articles of domestic use and interior decoration—‘Will it wash?’

The kitchen was in a separate building, standing close by, and connected with the house by a covered passage. This was due to another of the proprietor's peculiar notions; he could not endure the close proximity of attendants; prying eyes and eavesdroppers' ears were his constant dread, and he would not believe that eyes might be employed for other purposes than prying, or ears for better uses than eavesdropping. He distrusted mankind generally, but his own intimates and domestics worst of all.

To this sequestered place, a few days after the events narrated at Dovecot, Mr Prowler, accompanied by his new friend and pupil, the Honourable Mr Platter, arrived on horseback towards the fall of evening. They alighted at the stables, which were situated at a short distance from the residence, and handed over their steeds to the charge of an uncouth individual, clad in a blue serge shirt, open at the breast, a pair of dirty moleskin trousers, tied up at the knees with strips of native flax, and a slouching ‘wide-awake’ hat, that half concealed his bristly countenance. No word of greeting passed between master and man; the riders silently unstrapped their saddle-bags, slung them over their arms, and strolled up to the house, while the uncouth individual, without waiting for instructions, disappeared with the horses in another direction.

Prowler led the way, unlocked the front door with a key he carried with him, and ushered his friend into the untenanted parlour. Then, much to the new chum's astonishment, he went straight to the fireplace, put his head up the chimney, and gave a loud ‘coo-ee’.

‘Is that a substitute for a bell?’ asked Mr Platter.

‘Yes,’ replied the master of the house unconcernedly, ‘there is a communication through this chimney to the kitchen one. It is my call to the housekeeper.’

‘Were you not expected home, then?’

‘I never announce my arrival beforehand,’ remarked Prowler, discreetly. ‘I make a point of coming here at all times, and when least expected. I find it is the best way to ensure constant attention to duty. The “hands” never know where I am, or what I am about; I often drop down upon them when they think me miles away.’

At that moment the housekeeper appeared at the doorway. She looked an elderly sour-visaged person, with an impassive countenance, but neat and tidy in her attire. She vouchsafed a ‘good-evening, sir,’ to the master, who duly returned the salute, and then gave her a few short directions as to supper and the accommodation of his guest.

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She vanished as she had come, discreetly, noiselessly.

‘Will you take a glass of whisky and water after your ride? I can offer you some of the real article,’ remarked Prowler to his friend.

‘Certainly, but you will join me, won't you?’

‘I rarely take anything,’ he replied carelessly, then added, sotto voce, to himself, ‘never when I have business to transact.’

‘But I can recommend it to you,’ he continued while unlocking a cupboard and producing a black bottle. ‘It is said by connoisseurs to be the finest whisky ever imported into the colony. It can be taken as a liqueur, and yet I got it very cheap, because it had been smuggled.’

‘And you a J.P.!’ exclaimed the new chum, laughingly.

‘I did not smuggle it,’ replied Prowler, demurely; ‘nor did I see it smuggled. It is only a surmise, and a matter of common report, and I make it a rule never to rely on report or to inquire into things that don't concern me.’

‘Can one smoke here?’ inquired Mr Platter.

‘By all means, my dear fellow. Smoke wherever you please. This is “Liberty Hall”, and bachelor quarters, you know. I don't smoke myself, but I always keep a good cigar for a friend. These are superb; let me present you with one. I got them by a lucky opportunity, from a poor devil of a tobacconist, who was sold up. Salvage from a commercial wreck, so to speak. A real bargain—ten shillings a box, when the invoice price was two pounds. “It is throwing them away,” the poor beggar said, “but better that than handing them over to my creditors.”’

‘Have you many neighbours about here?’ asked the new arrival, as he lighted a cigar, and spread himself out on the couch.

‘Yes, there are a good few,’ replied Prowler, complacently, settling himself in a lounge chair by the side of his friend. ‘A good few—some people might think far too many. They are all “cockatoos”, as we call the small settlers here, and most squatters dread the sight of them, and struggle for very life against them. But strange to say, I have not suffered from the inroad, although they gave me some trouble at first; in fact, they have been rather a source of profit than otherwise. They came upon me like a flight of locusts, threatening devastation, but I was prepared for them, indeed, I fancy that I have proved to be rather more than their match.

‘I could not, of course, buy up all the good land on the run; that would not have paid, but I took “the eyes out of it”, as we say—spotted all the best patches, secured all the water-holes, the swamps, and the best of the river frontage. I hedged my homestead round with “pre-emptive rights”, taken up on every imaginable pretext; I page 126 assisted the Government surveyor in the laying out of the roads, and directed operations so well, that although they looked beautifully straight and regular on paper, you would get bogged or break your neck if you attempted to follow them on the ground. Thus protected against assault, I let the cockatoos come; I even bid them welcome. “The more the merrier,” said I, and it proved “a right merrie fit”, I assure you. For most of these miserable crawlers had no capital to farm properly with; not even to fence their allotments at the start. An impecunious lot; ignorant too, and venturesome. They would plough their land and sow it before ever it was protected, in accordance with the provisions of the Act. I would wait patiently until the young sprouts were well up, and then, somehow or other, a few hundred of my sheep one fine night would find their way into the crops, and—there would be nothing left! The outcry was heartrending, and vows of vengeance were levelled against my devoted head, but they have never come off. Then these poor devils all brought their horses and cows and working bullocks with them, evidently expecting to be allowed to let the cattle rove about my run. No, sir! They all found their way to the pound, quicksticks! In fact, I used to lay pretty little traps for them; have patches of open ground sown with oats. These proved a great attraction to the trespassers. I would give them free access for a while, and then make a sudden raid and carry the whole belongings of my neighbours off to “durance vile”. The pound is six miles off, so that the charges for poundage and mileage used to tot up. I kept a couple of station hands doing little else, and made quite “a good thing” out of it.

‘Then I had poison placed all about the settlement, and soon there was not a strange dog left in it. The cockatoo was soon in a sorry plight; instead of preying upon me he had to pray for mercy—ha, ha! I didn't mean the pun. But it was really good fun. Many of the wretches could not find the cash to take their stray cattle out of the pound, and the poor brutes had to stop there until they were reduced to skeletons, and then be sold to pay fines and expenses. I used to wait my opportunity, and buy them at auction for a mere song, then fatten them up, and afterwards trot them about before the hungry eyes of their former owners. Such a lark! Sometimes the temptation proved too strong for the beggars. One fellow who had lost his horse that way thought to recover possession by making off with the animal; but he was watched and followed to the diggings—nabbed there. The horse was recovered and the thief got two years’ hard labour. That put the fear of God into the whole community.’

‘By the Lord!’ ejaculated Mr Platter, starting up from his couch, page 127 ‘if you had played that little game in my county in Ireland, it would have put an ounce of lead into you before long.’

‘We are a law-abiding people here,’ continued the other, phlegmatically. ‘The utmost harm these neighbours can do to me is to set fire to the run; but we are on the lookout for that. Besides, I was clearly within my right. I have now established a funk. I sally forth of a morning with these enormous binoculars—they are no good to see by, but I keep them on purpose to strike terror into my cockatoos. I take up my post of observation on yonder hillock, and glare around. To see the consternation that the sight of me causes among these people is really laughable. The women scuttle home like guilty things, in mortal fear for their cows and their pets. There is quite a commotion in the camp. The men slink about, and come to me, hat in hand. I have lent most of them money—not directly, but through an agent—and I have them all under my thumb. They know it.’

‘I suppose,’ said the new chum, ‘that you could buy them all out if you wanted to.’

‘Of course,’ continued the other, ‘many of the settlers would willingly dispose of their sections for half what they gave for them. They find themselves in a hornets’ nest. But I find it more to my advantage to keep them on the ground. They are improving my property. I buy their produce from them at my price; I sell them some of my stock and culls, also at my price; it pays me.

‘But the best stroke I ever did was with my late neighbour, McGeorge—a decent sort of fellow, too, and with a large family, but imprudent. He simply came and put his head into the lion's mouth. He took up a two hundred-acre section in the valley yonder—a good piece of land, but within my circle of pre-emptive rights. There was a good track to the allotment, but it ran through my property—I let him severely alone. He came up with all his belongings, fenced in the ground, commenced farming operations, and put up a tidy house. I waited my opportunity, and then I started a gang of men to enclose my freehold and to fence across the track. He could neither get in nor out. His drays were stuck outside the boundary and could not pass. It was an exciting scene. I watched it from my “coign of vantage”, through the binocular. The poor devil came running up to me, in great tribulation, wanting to know where the proper road was. I pointed it out to him.

“‘But, honoured sir,” he cried, in a blue funk, “that line is quite impassable, and it would cost a couple of thousand pounds to make it fit for traffic.”

‘I shrugged my shoulders. “These are representations, my good page 128 fellow,” I replied, “which you had better make to the Survey Department; they don't concern me.”

“‘But it goes over a cliff!” said he.

“‘I can't help it,” said I.

“‘And through a deadly bog!”

“‘That's a pity.”

“‘What on earth am I to do?”

“‘I really can't tell you—you should apply to the Government, but I positively cannot allow trespassing across my land.”’

‘And what was the upshot?’ inquired Mr Platter, eagerly.

‘The upshot was,’ answered Prowler, with a dark look, ‘that I allowed them access to their farm on my terms. It is said to have broken the old man's heart, for he died shortly afterwards, but the widow and family remain in charge of the premises—so long as I choose to tolerate them there. Of course I make my own terms.’

What those terms were Mr Prowler did not vouchsafe to explain. Scandal had, however, bruited them about, but with what amount of truth it would be hard to tell.

According to common report McGeorge's eldest girl—a comely and superior young person—had, shortly after her father's death, been induced to take a situation in Prowler's household, in the humble capacity of parlourmaid, and under the protecting care of the elderly housekeeper with the impassive countenance. The incident occasioned some comment at the time. Still, according to common report, the poor girl did not thrive in her new home; she grew pale and care-worn, and various circumstances gave rise to unfavourable suspicions which were hinted concerning her. After a while she appeared to seek absolute seclusion, and she was but rarely seen by any visitors to the house, although her presence there was well known. It transpired, also, that dissensions of a painful character had not unfrequently taken place between the master and his youthful dependant; harsh words, scoldings, and peremptory demands on the one side answered by tears and lamentations on the other. These differences in the household soon became the subject of outside comment.

One of the station boys had recounted with bated breath how, when passing by the residence one evening, he had heard sounds of a bitter altercation within; approaching on tiptoe, and peeping through the half-closed door, he had caught a glimpse of a distressing scene.

Mary (for so they called her), dressed in her usual black, for she was still in mourning for her father, was on her knees in an attitude of supplication and despair; her long hair dishevelled, her hands clasped over her face, and appealing in plaintive accents to a dark page 129 figure that stood aloof and turned from her with apparent contumely. The lad could not overhear the conversation which passed between the two; he dared not linger near the house, but crept fearfully away under the shadow of the wall, yet some words reached his ear—words of piercing anguish that rang sharply through murmured pleadings and broken sobs. ‘Oh! let me go,’ it cried, ‘only let me go far enough away, anywhere you like, only away from here; I could not bear it.’ And then in answer to some muttered reply, ‘No, never, never! not that! not a life of deception and shame…. I would sooner die.’

About this time the old mother, then in widow's weeds, might often be seen coming to the residence, and returning from thence with head bowed down, and signs of distress upon her face that even her thick veil could not conceal. Then shortly afterwards Mary left one day, never to return, nor did any one know whither she had gone, although strange stories were related by the neighbours about her, and contradictory explanations afforded by her relations. And it was noticed that a sad affliction had fallen on Mary's home, where her poor mother appeared silent and grief-stricken, and her brothers went about with moody and resentful looks, and avoided all intercourse with the inmates of the station where their sister had resided.

All this, and much more to the same effect, scandal, with many tongues, had whispered far and wide, but there was no proof forthcoming, nor was it any one's business to inquire; moreover, as Mr Prowler was reputed to be rich, and a personage whom it was not deemed prudent to offend, the world was conveniently deaf to matters of gossip concerning him, and the outward respectability of that estimable individual was in no way affected.

• • • • •

After the evening meal, which was served in plain style, and seasoned with excellent liquor, the two gentlemen proceeded to business, and Prowler eventually succeeded in persuading his friend to take over a portion of the sheep run—the worst portion, it may be taken for granted. Upon the merits and value of this country the owner descanted at great length, and although he confined himself strictly to facts and figures, and produced account books and vouchers in support of every statement, yet he was able to place the best side forward, and to slur over certain not unimportant drawbacks.

The aspect which he did not dwell upon was the one which with pardonable vanity he might have brought forward, for it related specially to the success of his personal management, and the shrewdness of his bargains. But Prowler, with laudable self-abnegation, gave page 130 all the credit to the land, although he candidly admitted that the exercise of care and foresight was necessary to turn it to good account.

‘The old plan,’ he said, ‘of resting on one's back while the wool grows will not answer here. One must exert oneself, watch the market closely, and take advantage of its fluctuations.’

The Honourable Mr Platter took it all in at a glance and was taken in himself in consequence. When the bargain was concluded and duly committed to paper, for the wily Prowler always acted on the principle ‘to strike the iron while it is hot’, nor would he recognise any agreement that was not in black and white—when the contract was signed and sealed, not before—mine host poured himself out an ample bumper and drank to the health of his guest.

Then he proposed that they should ‘turn in’; he was sleepy, and had nothing further to keep him awake.