Bryce brought his car to a stop in front of the deep verandah of the homestead, and, before getting out, let his eyes search the vivid green of the vines for the owner. The day was savagely hot, and the sun, striking down from the cloudless blue-white sky, seemed to have brought all life and motion to a standstill. There was no sign of Dundas amongst the green sea of foliage. Now and then a dust devil whirled up a handful of dried grass and leaves, but seemed too tired to do more.
Bryce strolled to the end of the verandah and peered through the leaves of the trellised vine that shaded it. Some 200 yards away, in a slight hollow, he noticed a large pile of dusty red clay that added a new note to the yellow colour scheme. Even as he watched he caught a momentary flash of steel above the clay, and at the same instant there was a fleeting glimpse of the crown of a Panama hat. “Great Scott!” he murmured. “Mad — mad as a hatter.” He turned rapidly off the verandah, and approached the spot unheard and unseen, and watched for a few moments without a word. The man in the trench had his back turned to Bryce. He was stripped to singlet and blue dungaree trousers, which clung to the figure dripping with perspiration.
“Alan, old chap, what is it? Gentle exercise on an empty stomach, eh?” The pick came down with an extra thump, and the worker turned with a smile. “Bryce! By the powers!” Then with a laugh: “I’ll own up to the empty stomach,” and, holding out a strong brown hand, he said: “You’ll stop to lunch, old man?” Bryce nodded. “Might take the cheek out of you if I say that was partly my reason for calling in.” Dundas only grinned; he knew just how much of the remark was in earnest. “I am very sorry, Hector, but I am ‘batching’ it again, so it’s only a scratch feed.”
“You unfortunate young beggar; what’s become of the last housekeeper? Thought she was a fixture. Not eloped, I hope?” They had turned towards the house. “Wish to glory she had,” was Alan’s heartfelt comment. “Upon my word, Bryce, I’m sick of women. I mean the housekeeping ones. When they are old enough to be suitable for young unattached bachelors, and have settled characters, those characters are devilish bad. The last beauty went on a gorgeous jamboree for four days. I don’t even know now where she got the joy-producer.”
“Well?” queried Bryce, with some interest, as Dundas paused.
“Oh, nothing much. I just waited until she was pretty sober. Loaded her and her outfit into the dogcart, and by Jove,” with a reminiscent chuckle, “she was properly sober when I got to the township and consigned her to Melbourne. Billy B.B. was in topping good form, and tried to climb trees on the way in.”
“But, Dun, this is all very well,” said Bryce, laughing. “You can’t go on ‘batching.’ You must get another.”
“No, I’m hanged if I do. The old ’uns are rotters, and, save me, Hector, what meat for the cats in the district if I took a young one.”
“I’m afraid it would take more than me to save you if you did,” said Bryce, laughing at the idea.
They had reached the house. Dundas ushered his friend in. “You make yourself comfy here while I straighten myself, and look after the tucker.”
Bryce stretched himself on the cane lounge, and glanced round the room. It was a room he knew well. The largest of four that had formed the homestead that had originally been built as an out-station, when the township of Glen Cairn had got its name from the original holding, long since cut up. It was essentially a man’s room, without a single feminine touch. Over the high wooden mantel were racked a fine double-barrelled breechloader and a light sporting rifle, and the care with which they were kept showed that they were not there as ornaments.
The walls held only three pictures. Over the cupboard that acted as a sideboard hung a fine photogravure of Delaroche’s “Napoleon,” meditating on his abdication, and the other two were landscapes that had come from Alan’s old home. From the same source, too, had come the curious array of Oriental knives that filled the space between the door and the window. What, however, attracted most attention was the collection of books that filled the greater part of two sides of the room, their shelves reaching almost to the low ceiling.
The furniture was simplicity itself. Besides the sideboard, there were a table and three chairs, with an armchair on each side of the fireplace. The cane lounge on which Bryce was seated completed the inventory. Above the lounge on a special shelf by itself was a violin in its case. To a woman, the uncurtained windows and bare floor would have been intolerable, but the housekeeping man had discovered that bare essentials meant the least work.
Presently a voice came from the kitchen. “Hector, old man, there’s a domestic calamity. Flies have established a protectorate over the mutton, so it’s got to be bacon and eggs, and fried potatoes. How many eggs can you manage?”
“Make it two, Dun; I’m hungry,” answered Bryce.
“Man, you don’t know the meaning of the word if two will be enough.” Five minutes later he appeared with a cloth over his shoulder and his arms full of crockery.
A thought of his wife’s horror at such simplicity flashed through Bryce’s mind. “You’re a luxurious animal, Alan, using a table cloth. Why, I don’t know any of the other fellows who indulge in such elegance. Or am I to feel specially honoured?”
“No, Bryce; the fact is that I know that a man is apt to become slack living bachelor fashion,” returned Dundas seriously, “so I make it a rule always to use a table cloth, and, moreover,” he went on, as if recounting the magnificent ceremonial of a regal menage, “I never sit down to a meal in my shirt sleeves. Oh, Lord! the potatoes!”
With two dishes nicely balanced, Dundas arrived back again, and after another journey for a mighty teapot, he called Bryce up to the table. To an epicure, bacon and eggs backed by fried potatoes, for a midday meal with the thermometer at 112 deg. in the shade, may sound a little startling, but then, epicures rarely work, and the matter is beyond their comprehension. Bryce stared at the large dish with upraised hands. “Man, what have you done? I asked for two.”
“Dinna fash yersel’, laddie,” answered Dundas mildly. “I’ve been heaving the pick in that hole since 7 o’clock this morning, and it makes one peckish. The other six are for my noble self. Does it occur to you, Bryce, that had I not scrapped an unpromising career at the bar, I might also have regarded this meal as a carefully studied attempt at suicide?”
“Humph! perhaps — I believe you did the best thing though, and I own up that I thought you demented then.”
“Lord! How the heathen did rage.”
“True. But don’t you ever regret or feel lonely?”
“Nary a regret, and as far as for the loneliness, I rather like it. That reminds me. I had George MacArthur out here for a week lately. He said he wanted the simple life, so I put him hoeing vines. More tea? No? Then, gentlemen, you may smoke.” Dundas reached for a pipe from beneath the mantel, and then swung himself into an armchair, while Bryce returned to the comfort of the creaking lounge.
“By the way, Alan,” said Bryce, pricking his cigar with scientific care, “you haven’t told me the object of your insane energy in that condemned clayhole.” Dundas was eyeing the cigar with disfavour. “I can’t understand a man smoking those things when he can get a good honest pipe. Oh, all right, I don’t want to start a wrangle. About the condemned clayhole. Well, the fool who built this mansion of mine built it half a mile from the river, and that means that in summer I must either take the water to the horses or the horses to the water, and both operations are a dashed nuisance. Now observe. That condemned clayhole is to be ultimately an excellent waterhole that will save me a deuce of a lot of trouble. Therefore, as Miss Carilona Wilhelmina Amelia Skeggs so elegantly puts it, you found me ‘all a muck of sweat.’”
“Yes, but my dear chap, you can afford to get it done for you.”
“In a way you are right, Hec, but then I can’t afford to pay a man to do work that I can do myself.”
“Don’t blame you, Alan.” Then, after a pause, and watching him keenly: “Why don’t you get married?”
Dundas jerked himself straight in his chair, the lighted match still in his fingers. “Great Scott, Bryce! What’s that got to do with waterholes?” The utter irrelevance of the question made Bryce laugh. “Nothing, old chap — nothing. Only it just came to my mind as I was lying here.” Lying was a good word, had Dundas only known. “You know,” he went on, “there are plenty of nice girls in the district.”
“You are not suggesting polygamy, by any chance?” countered Alan serenely from his chair, having recovered from the shock of the unexpected question.
“Don’t be an ass, Alan. I only suggested a good thing for yourself.”
“Can’t you see the force of your argument, Hector, that because there are plenty of nice girls in the district (I’ll admit that) I should marry one of them.”
“You might do a dashed sight worse.”
“You mean I mightn’t marry her?”
“You Rabelaisian young devil! I’ll shy something at you in a minute if you don’t talk sense.”
“Well, look. If you want reasons I’ll give you some. First, for the same reason that I cannot afford a pumping plant. Now do shut up and let me speak. I know the gag about what will keep one keeping two. It’s all tosh. Secondly, I wouldn’t ask any nice girl to live in this solitude, even if she were willing. Third — do you want any more? Well, if I got married I would have to extend and rebuild this place.” Then he quietened down, and said seriously, “I know what you mean, Hector; but those,” pointing to the books, “are all the wife I want just now.”
Bryce smiled. “By jove, Alan, who’s talking polygamy now? There are about six hundred of them.”
“Oh!” answered Alan serenely. “I’m only really married to about six of them. All the rest are merely ‘porcupines,’ as the Sunday school kid said.”
“Alan, my son, I’ll really have to consult the Reverend John Harvey Pook about your morals, and get him to come and discourse with you.”
“Lord forbid!” said Dundas piously. “That reminds me. I told you I had George MacArthur here for a week, living the simple life. Well, he was never out of his pyjamas from the day he arrived till the day he left. However, one afternoon while I was taking the horses to water, who should arrive but the Reverend John Harvey and Mamma and Bella Pook, hunting for a subscription for a teafight of some sort. Anyhow when I got back the noble George was giving them afternoon tea on the verandah. Just apologised for being found in evening dress in the day time.”
“Humph!” commented Bryce, “did Pook get anything?”
“Well, I paid a guinea just to get rid of them. George was making the pace too hot,” replied Dundas. “Pook nearly fell over himself when George came to light with a tenner.”
Bryce smoked a few minutes, watching Alan through the cloud. “Why did you get MacArthur down here?” Dundas, who had been gazing off through the window, spoke without turning his head. “Oh, various reasons. You know I like him immensely in spite of his idiosyncrasies. He’s no end of a good sort. It’s not his fault that he has more thousands a year than most men have fifties. He lived a godly, upright, and sober life the week he was here. Pity he doesn’t take up a hobby of some sort — books or art collecting or something of the kind.”
“I’m afraid an old master is less in his line than a young mistress,” said Bryce sourly.
Dundas looked around, wide-eyed. “Jove, Hector, that remark sounds almost feminine.”
Bryce chuckled. “You must have a queer set of lady friends if that’s the way they talk.”
“Oh, you owl! I meant the spirit and not the letter. Anyhow, what’s MacArthur been doing to get on your nerves? You are not usually nasty for nothing.”
“You’ve not seen him since he left?”
“No, I’ve not been near Glen Cairn or the delights of the club. Been too busy. Anyhow, you don’t usually take notice of the district scandal either.”
Bryce stared thoughtfully at the ash of the cigar he turned in his fingers. “Well, if you will have it. Here are the facts, the alleged facts, club gossip, tennis-court gossip, also information collected by Doris. The night after he left you, George MacArthur filled himself with assorted liquors. Went down with a few friends to the Star and Garter (why the deuce he didn’t stay at the club I don’t know). He made a throne in one of the sitting-rooms, by placing a chair on the table. On the throne he seated a barmaid — I’m told it was the fat one (Perhaps you can recognise her from the description). Then he removed a leg from another chair and gave it to her as a sceptre. I believe, although statements differ, he made them hail her as the chaste goddess Diana. Rickardson tells me that, as a temporary revival of paganism, it was a huge success.”
Alan’s frown deepened as the recital went on. “Bryce, how much of the yarn is true? You know the value of the confounded gossip of the town.”
“I’ve given you the accepted version,” said Bryce slowly.
Alan, still staring through the window, said, a little bitterly, “I suppose the verdict is Guilty? No trial, as usual.”
“The evidence is fairly conclusive in this case,” answered Bryce. He was watching Dundas keenly. Then he went on, in a slow, even voice, “I saw Marian Seymour cut him dead yesterday.” Then only he turned his eyes away as Alan swung round. For a moment he made as if to speak, but thought better of it.
Bryce heaved himself out of his lounge. “Well, Alan, we won’t mend the morals of the community by talking about them. You’ll come over to dinner on Sunday, of course?”
Alan stood up. “Jove, Hector, that will be something to look forward to. Tell Mistress Doris I’ll bring along my best appetite.”
Bryce laughed. “If I tell of your performance on the eggs to-day I’d better forget that part of the message. You had better break the news of the calamity yourself. Phew! What a devil of a day! Surely you won’t go back to that infernal work?”
“You bet I do! I’ve taken twice my usual lunch time in your honour. Aren’t you afraid some of the gilded youths on your staff will do a bunk with the bank’s reserve cash if you are not there to sit on it?”
“Not one of ’em has as the bowels to do a bunk, as you so prettily put it, with a stale bun. You can thank your neighbour, Denis McCarthy, for this infliction. I had to pay him a visit.”
“Humph! It’s about the only thing I’ve ever had occasion to feel genuinely thankful to him for. You found him beastly sober, as usual?”
“Well,” said Bryce grimly, “I found him beastly and I left him sober. Yes, very sober. Thank goodness that finishes the last of my predecessor’s errors in judgment.” He stooped to crank up his car. “Goodbye, Alan; don’t overdo it.” He backed and turned in the narrow drive before the verandah, while Dundas stood and made caustic comments on the steering in particular and motor cars in general. The last he heard was a wild threat of “having the law agin’ him” if he broke so much as a single vine-cane.
Erle Cox, Out of the Silence, Melbourne: Robertson and Mullens, 1947 (first published 1925), pages 23-32