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The Toll of The Bush

Chapter IV Sandy Milward Makes an Offer

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Chapter IV Sandy Milward Makes an Offer

'And how long will it all take?' asked Sandy.

'About a month, I suppose.'

'And after that?'

'Well, there's a good deal of fencing to be done, and then there's the hoeing—I don't know. It seems to go on. Geoffrey looked absently out across the landscape.

It was late in the afternoon. The brown parallel lines of the ploughing were drawing close together and but a strip of green divided them. Robert was digging on methodically, changing his foot as he arrived at each end of the ground. At times he whistled melodiously like a bird; this was when he stopped to clean his spade. Sandy sat on the step, his back against the doorpost, tapping his boot with his whip and looking up at his companion, who leant against the wall of the house.

'It will if you let it,' he said.

'You can't prevent it. How can you? Every stroke of work on a place like this accumulates further work at compound interest. It's a true bill that the curse of God is on the tiller of the soil'.

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'It's not your style, you know,' Sandy said after a pause. 'I wonder—but that's not the point. Shall we say this day month?'

Geoffrey gnawed his moustache, his face changing momentarily. 'Yes,' he said at last.

'Then that's settled.' Sandy rose to his feet, stretched himself and glanced at his horse, who was dozing comfortably, his head over the slip-rail. 'By the way,' he said—and Geoffrey knew intuitively that the real object of Sandy Milward's visit was about to be disclosed— 'Raymond is leaving us.'

'Oh,' said Geoffrey. 'Sudden?'

'Well, no. He and the old man never exactly hit it off together. It's been coming on for quite awhile, but Raymond, though he's a clever chap in his way, was too dense or too conceited to see it. You play chess, don't you?'

'A little.'

Sandy made a sound in his throat. 'Raymond plays more than a little, and he has no more tact than a bullock. The old man likes a game of chess of an evening, and he has been accustomed to win it. When he doesn't win it he likes two games, and if he wins the second all is well, but if not, then he wants three; also, he begins to get polite. Did you ever see the governor when he was polite?'

'He is always polite to me,' said Geoffrey.

'Of course, but that's not the sort. When he gets really polite the atmosphere kind of freezes. Most men when they are angry become coarse, but the old man takes on an Arctic refinement. But that ass Raymond has no sense of humour, and he's cold-blooded and unaffected by variations in the page 37temperature; and things being a bit uncomfortable generally, I am going to put him out.'

'You have not done so yet then?'

'Not yet, but I have quite made up my mind. You see, the old man ought to be in bed by ten o'clock, then he's up in the morning fresh as a lark, and the place runs on wheels; but they've taken to burning the midnight oil, and everything's upsides in consequence.'

'Why not take it over yourself?'

'The chess? I can't make a good enough defence—that's the trouble; the old man plays too well for nine out of ten, only it happens he's struck the tenth.'

Geoffrey smiled.

'I suppose you would consider storekeeping infra dig.?' Sandy said suddenly.

'Does that mean you are offering me the job?'

'Raymond's a university man, you know—so he says.'

Geoffrey shrugged his shoulders and looked at Sandy with a slow smile. 'I have never suited my employers yet,' he said, 'and I have had two or three; but I should not be above trying again if I thought, on consideration, I could do both of us justice.'

'I'll take the risk if you will,' Sandy replied. 'There's no bullocking attached to the job; all that'll be done for you. Raymond keeps the books of the station and superintends the store. He seems to have plenty of time over without neglecting anything. The old man's a bit of a martinet, perhaps, but I never knew a decent chap that couldn't rub along with him. You see,' Sandy page 38continued, lowering his voice confidentially, 'I've really got the reins in my own hands, but we practise a sort of innocent little formula up there. We consult him, and then he asks us what we think, and whatever it is he agrees to it. That's the system right through, and it acts like clockwork.'

'I see,' said Geoffrey; 'but you don't suppose that he doesn't see through your little artifice, I hope.'

Sandy winked solemnly. 'Of course he does,' he admitted, 'but that makes no difference. Bless you, he's as keen as a hawk, but he doesn't really want to be bothered with things; and so long as he has the semblance of authority, and everything goes forward smoothly, he is satisfied.'

Geoffrey stood lost in thought. The prospect was sufficiently attractive, but there were reasons why he should hesitate before accepting Sandy's offer. One of them was the section, though that was not the one that first occurred to him. It seemed hard to leave Robert to continue at a task which he himself found distasteful. But it was not distasteful to Robert. Then he would certainly save money, and thus be able to help with the fencing. That alone made it worth while—perhaps. But it was only three or four days since he had made up his mind to force an interest in the farm, and he had been working hard and was settling down a little more contentedly. It was a pity to go back now, and perhaps have to begin all over again by and by. He doubted if he could work up resolution to accept such a lot a second time. He caught a word in Sandy's remarks, and came out of his reverie with a start.

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'The room opens on the side verandah, and has no door leading into the house, so the old man thought he would fix a bell to ring inside in case it might be wanted. He likes little jobs like that, and gets dreadfully interested in them. Well, he'd about got it fixed, when the rope of the step-ladder broke, and he fell and barked his shin.'

'Not badly, I hope.'

'Pretty bad; but it's a painful thing anyway, and it has made him irritable, because he's an active man and can't stand laying up. But would you believe it, that thundering brute Raymond wins two games out of three all the same. It has come to this: that when the old man crawls out on top, Eve and I want to rush outside and shout "Victory!" and when he gets beat, as he mostly does, I feel like taking Raymond down the beach and kicking him.'

'And why don't you do it?'

'Well, Raymond has the reputation of being a champion full-back, and though he must be a good deal out of practice now, still it's surprising how a knack like that clings to a man.'

'Have you really no better reason for wanting to get rid of him than his chess-playing abilities?' Geoffrey asked curiously.

Sandy shifted uneasily. 'What's the matter with that for a reason?' he asked.

'You might so easily give him a hint that would solve the trouble.'

'If I did that, and it came to the old man's ears, he would never forgive me,' Sandy replied. 'Then also I want a man I can get on with, and he's not that. I don't like him.'

Geoffrey nodded absently.

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Sandy stood patiently by till the other came out of his reverie. 'Would a month hence be too late for you?' he was asked at length.

'No,' he replied, 'that would do.'

'Well, I will talk it over with Robert, and let you know as soon as we come to a decision.'

'Good,' said Sandy cheerfully. 'Well, I don't want to get caught in the dark. I'll just run over and shake hands with Robert, then I'm off. By the way, there's a note from Eve in the game bag, and help yourself to a couple of pigeons at the same time.'

Sandy crossed over to Robert, and stood talking earnestly for five or ten minutes, while Geoffrey went into the house, and turned the contents of the game bag out on to the table. The envelope was twisted at one end, and tied to the network, evidently that its delivery might not be overlooked. It was blood-stained, and a momentary anger at Sandy's carelessness stirred him as he cut the string. Suddenly, as he stood looking at his name with the blot of blood across it, there came on him one of those strange, fleeting aberrations which are said to be due to one hemisphere of the brain acting in advance of the other. Something of this had happened before. The impression was momentary, no more than a flash, but as a flash it was vivid. Geoffrey stood for awhile trying to reconstruct the experience, endeavouring to refer it to some parallel event in the past, but the more he concentrated his mind on its elucidation the more visionary it became. Finally he opened the letter. The blood had soaked through the envelope, and in accordance with the manner in which the paper was folded its effects page 41were visible at the top and bottom of the sheet. The words came to him at a glance, but they did not occupy his mind, which was fixed on the faint yellowish stain, embracing himself and Eve Milward in a common fate. It was perhaps due to the moment which had preceded this discovery that its effect on Geoffrey was so pronounced. Though we laugh easily at the superstitious, no man is entirely exempt from the feeling that his own destiny is of special concern. He will readily admit otherwise as a matter of argument, but the feeling will crop out in crucial moments, reason notwithstanding. Geoffrey did not ask himself if he should take this as a warning or a direction of Providence as to his future conduct; the effect went deeper than that. As his mind had momentarily slipped from the present into a vague, unrecallable past, so now it slipped forward into an equally vague future, when the coincidence was to establish itself among realities. A sort of mental powerlessness seemed gradually to creep upon him. The room darkened, and took on a mysterious, impenetrable vastness and gloom. Involuntarily he threw out his, arms, striving to thrust back a tangle as of network that threatened to enmesh him in its folds. The effect of the physical action was instantaneous—he was again back in the narrow room, with the afternoon sunlight streaming through the open doorway. This trick of the imagination was less real to Geoffrey than its relation in so many words might lead the reader to suppose. It was but as if he had closed his eyes and suffered a vivid fancy to play with the horror which the bloodstain had evoked. He smiled a little grimly as he again turned his eyes on the letter. The imagina-page 42tion he had sometimes tried to enslave in the cause of art remained unshackled and his master; that was all.

'Dear Mr. Hernshaw—Some time ago you offered to lend me Darwin's Origin of Species. I did not express any eagerness then, because our household has always accepted evolution, much as we accept gravitation and other things we know perhaps equally little about, and one does not require proof of what one never hears questioned. I have a reason, however, for desiring to see the book now, if you are still able and willing to let me do so.

'Your name is frequently on Major Milward's lips, and we are hoping that it is not indisposition which is to blame for the fact that we have not seen you for such a time.

'I have laid particular injunctions on my brother as to the safeguarding of your book in transit.

'With kind regards to yourself and Robert, believe me, yours sincerely, Eve Milward.'

Geoffrey found the book, wrapped it up, and fastened it to the game bag; then he took the latter outside and hung it on a post by the patiently waiting horse. He did this so that there should be no need for Sandy to re-enter the house, and having accomplished it, he went into his bedroom and shut the door. He had ceased to notice the stains on the paper now, and his mind was occupied in an endeavour to arrive at the reasons which had dictated the writing of the letter itself.

'Dear Mr. Hernshaw,'—the word was conventional, of course—of course. 'One does not require proof of what one never hears questioned. page 43I have a reason, however, for desiring to see the book now.' Then it has been questioned. By whom? She has a certain amount of belief in him, or she would not trouble to follow it up. The next paragraph is conventional again, put in to prevent the note appearing too one-sided; that's plain. Or is there something behind that too? No, we get back to the book—the book's the thing. 'Yours sincerely, Eve.' Suddenly he raised the letter passionately to his lips.

'What is the use of trying to deceive myself any longer? If I go it will be because of her, and for no other reason. I have let myself drift into this, fool that I am! There was but this folly left for me to commit, and now it also has come to pass. Of course they wonder at my absence; for months there was not a week but I blundered into the flame. If I went back to-morrow, not five minutes would pass before she would be more myself than I am. It is so now. I am her slave. There is no deceiving myself as to what going there means. It will be with my eyes open. It will be my last stake. Her father is a wealthy man; I have nothing. He is a successful man; I am a failure. Those are two business-like reasons why I should wish to marry her. Then if I go, it will be as her father's hired man—that will always be a pleasing reflection. I foresee that I shall have a good time chewing that. Do I mean to go? It seems that I have never wanted anything in my life till now. Certainly no other woman,'—his thoughts checked themselves, and he frowned,—'not wealth, not rank. This is the one thing I have asked of Destiny, or shall ask. Nothing seemed to matter till now, but now I see page 44how everything has mattered all the time. What chances I have had, and how I have fooled them away! Is this a chance, or what is it? And shall I fool it away, or what?'

His musing was interrupted by a sound without, and looking through the window he caught sight of Sandy disappearing down the road.

Putting on his hat and coat, Geoffrey left the house and crossed over to his brother. 'I shall not be long, Robert,' he said; 'I am going as far as Mrs. Gird's.'